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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Flippin' Around

As the winter doldrums settle in, I’ll admit I’ve had some trouble finding things to write about. There were a few things I thought would be worthwhile that just didn’t do much for me. So, here’s a few quick thoughts on what I’ve found just flippin’ around the channels.

24: I’ve never gotten into this show as I figured missing one episode would mess me up for the rest of the season. But I was bored stiff and looking for something to get into when the two-night four-hour premier came on. It wasn’t too bad at all, though I’m not sure what the craze is all about. It certainly moves, but it doesn’t revolutionize television or anything. The show grabs on to the constant attention threats of terrorism receive these days, but isn’t a whole lot more than a high-grade cop show. I already missed an episode, so I’m guessing I’m out of luck.

American Idol: I tried watching this show two years ago, thought it was fairly stupid, and checking in on it again did nothing to change my mind. Maybe it gets better after the open auditions, but I just can’t stomach it long enough to find out. As a wannabee writer, I know what it’s like to have your best stuff shot down. But some of these people are insane, and putting them on the air just encourages these morons. Watching Simon, et al, get off on being the self-appointed experts doesn’t do much for me, either. I will continue to skip it.

According to Jim: I’ve caught this on re-runs lately, mostly because it comes on before Friends. In fact, that’s probably the only way I would watch it — by leaving it on before a show I want to watch is coming on. There’s nothing that bad about the show, the woman that plays Jim Belushi’s wife is ok to look at, and Belushi is ok. Overall, the show just isn’t that good, though.

Deal or No Deal: This is the only game show I would want to actually go on. My theory is that if you can’t walk away with $100k you’re very unlikely or kinda dumb. As a viewer, Howie Mandel is very good. He’s genuinely funny, and usually tries to keep the show going. The simplicity of it is why the show works — it’s watching people risk money to get more of it. For those of us who can only spell Wall Street, it seems like a fast-forwarded version of playing the stock market.

The Office: I hate this show, mostly because it’s too on the mark. I saw one episode where they celebrated a birthday, and it reminded me way too much of my last job. It’s a half-hour every week of the awkward moments I used to spend most of my week trying to avoid. I usually skip it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Blink — Book Review

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s follow-up to The Tipping Point, studies instinctual reaction. At times a fascinating look at what many call gut reactions, the book offers plenty of antidotal and scientific evidence suggesting that paying attention to our first impressions makes a lot of sense. Much like its predecessor, though, the text can get bogged down in minutiae.

Gladwell analyzes everything from speed-dating to war games to the failed attempt of the J. Paul Getty Museum to authenticate a kouros it ended up paying millions for to illustrate the value of the thoughts that come to us in the blink of an eye. The detailed examples are often compelling, and certainly on point, but for me Gladwell’s analysis almost always dragged on too long.

The best example for my criticism, and the only example Gladwell offered which really made me doubt his suggestions, was a marriage counselor that predicted to a high degree of accuracy (based on divorce rates) the compatibility of married couples after observing short, inconsequential conversations between them. There were plenty of interesting tidbits — how a positive remark can actually display negativity — but I didn’t buy the premise. Watching the conversation frame by frame on video or analyzing levels of palm sweat doesn’t seem like worthwhile analysis of a relationship, and reading about such analysis certainly wasn’t enjoyable.

Other examples started out as very compelling reading, though eventually wandered into eye-drooping analysis. Looking at why “New Coke” failed and the flaws of taste-test results offers plenty to get the reader thinking. But by the time the exact details are waded through, few readers are still going to be interested.

The shooting of Amadou Diallo offered plenty of insight into how we react to each other and in high-stress situations. Gladwell even examines the feeling that our mind actually slows down time for us to allow for things to be processed mentally. This was a rare example in which the author avoided over analyzing the situation.

Blink is definitely worth reading, but may be a challenge for some to get through.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Ellen Degeneres Show — TV Review

Last week Ellen Degeneres won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Talk-Show host. While I always thought there was something off about the stand-up comic’s sitcom, there’s nothing “off” about The Ellen Degeneres Show, which is one of the funniest, most enjoyable things on television.

While every other talk-show seems hell bent on ramming society’s shortcomings and most disturbing aspects down the throats of viewers, Degeneres sticks to her theme song’s advice of “have a little fun today.” Literally dancing in the isle at the beginning of each show, she couples a quick wit with a warmth that would be heartbreaking if it were ever revealed as phony.

From crank calling viewers to involving them in trivia games, Degeneres connects with her audience as well as anyone. She’s also never afraid to make fun of herself, just last week having her personal trainer (the guy from Biggest Loser) on and admitting she cried after working too hard in their last session. I can’t imagine another host arm-wrestling with a famous guest (I forget who it was) and jumping on Rob Lowe’s back as they “skied” in front of a fake slope backdrop on a blue-screen. Yet, for Degeneres it was just another week.

Degeneres seems to genuinely like her fans, even bringing two audience members to the People’s Choice Awards. She has plenty of giveaways, and while I’m sure she’s not footing the bill, she does things without the harp music (unless she’s mocking it) and the river of tears. Even when touching moments present themselves, she’ll find humor in the moment instead of focusing on the drama.

I’d probably get more done in a day if I didn’t make a point to catch Ellen. But her humor while frequently reading viewer e-mail or her Wunnerful World of Web Videos or almost anything else she does, is more than worth making a point to watch.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

We Are Marshall — Movie Review

Admittedly entering with low expectations — having gone to the movies to see Pursuit of Happyness (sold out) — I ended up enjoying We Are Marshall just fine. Despite the predictability inherent in any true story, coupled with being a true sports story, the film offered plenty even to viewers already familiar with the ending.

On November 14, 1970, the plane carrying the Marshall University football team and others home from a road game crashed while attempting to land during a storm. The were no survivors. The impact, of course, devastated the campus and surrounding small town that thrived on fall Saturdays filled with football. Despite strong resistance, Marshall University ultimately decided to continue the program, and the movie follows the first year of the rebuilding process.

Matthew McConaughey plays Jack Lengyel, who takes on the job of head coach after actually lobbying for the position and goes about the seemingly impossible task of building a football team almost from scratch. McConaughey was very good, never once coming out of character. At times you actually wanted the guy to be more polished, but the film never loses touch with the fact that this was a football coach spearheading an effort that involved so much more than a team.

In fact, the film’s biggest success may be never losing touch with the tragedy of the crash, which is given plenty of play in the beginning of the film. A decent secondary story follows a grieving father, Paul Griffin (Ian McShane), and girlfriend (Kata Mara) of one of the star players that died in the crash as they attempt to move on surrounded by constant reminders of football. The father actually plays a pivotal role in trying to stop the university from continuing the program.

Anthony Mackie gives an emotive performance as Nate Ruffin, an injured player who wasn’t on the plane and fights to keep the program. Injury ultimately ends his career, but a very touching scene between he and McConaughey in the locker room before a game as Ruffin begs to play is one of the best in the film.

Despite the emotional content, the movie manages not to get bogged down in it. The battle between the university president and the NCAA to allow freshmen to play was done in a fun way. A few practice scenes offer lighthearted moments, as does a scene with a young rival coach, Bobby Bowden. (The class Bowden showed should win the legendary coach a few more fans.)

A film like this almost always leaves a few holes. Possibly some will have wanted more on the kids or assistant coach, Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), that weren’t on the plane, but it’s impossible to cover everything. There’s also the question of reality versus fiction in this type of film that, at least for me, can take away from a film if there’s too much discrepancy; for instance, I read that the dramatic scene in which students gather outside of the meeting held to decide the football program’s future simply never occurred. The biggest flaw, which seems to befall most sports movies, is the big play ending. Nonetheless, We Are Marshall is worth watching.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Dirt May Not Last

In the premier of FX’s latest series Dirt, Courteney Cox a good job of shedding the character of Monica that she played for so many years on Friends, but the show may not have much staying power. Looking to capitalize on our star-crazed culture, the show may get as repetitive as some of the network’s other shows.

Cox plays Lucy Spiller, a ruthless editor-in-chief of two of the most popular celebrity magazines. The show looks to explore the ugly side of getting the “dirt” on Hollywood stars. A couple of promising characters on the magazine staff may help the show survive, but there was a lot of focus on the celebs in the pilot. Unless they’re going to have a high turnover rate as far as the celebrities go, plot angles might be hard to come by.

Ian Hart stole the premier as Don Konkey, as schizophrenic photographer that stops at nothing to get the picture. He battles imagined demons as well as real ones, including the impact his job has on the lives of those he shoots. Konkey is the only character I really cared about by the end.

Spiller fights her own battles with what she does despite a hard-core exterior. Paranoia causes her to use an electric shocker on a guy she goes home with after meeting him outside of a club. Her character will need more depth to make the series a hit.

As a wannabe writer who dabbled in the newspaper business, I enjoyed watching how Spiller and her staff developed and maintained sources. However, despite their more intriguing methods of covering their beat as opposed to traditional papers, I doubt it will be enough to keep viewers. The flash of celebrity life may allow it to gain a soap opera type of appeal for some, but that’s not going to last with FX’s short seasons. Dirt is ok, but it’s just not that good.