Tuesday, August 26, 2008
As the credits rolled on the series finale of season 5 of HBO's "The Wire" (just released on DVD this month) I felt as if a family member or two had just died. There was a definite disturbance in the force -- the "quality television" force that is.
Okay, I know I'm being melodramatic, but I haven't felt this maudlin since the M*A*S*H series finale almost 25 years ago. If ever I didn't want a series to end, this was the one.
Written and directed like a television novel, "The Wire" introduced audiences to a cavalcade of characters: from cops, crooks, judges, lawyers, and politicians to schoolchildren and newspaper writers. Each one was multidimensional, real, and endearing in their own way to fans of the critically acclaimed program. Not one of them was without flaws, and each were presented, warts and all, to the viewing public.
I have to admit that while the series was in its first run I never watched the show and was a little suspicious of the hype. I have to be when the phrase "best show ever on television" is bandied about so readily. But I eventually found myself with some free time and a few bucks to spend on Amazon, so I bought season one. Then in rapid succession I gobbled up season two, three, four, and finally season five; each time barely able to contain myself as I waited for the UPS truck to arrive.
For those who aren't familiar, the show explored the lives of several characters, but the most important one was Baltimore. Like the river in "Huck Finn," the city of Baltimore stood as the real main character of the show, with the myriad assortment of other flavorful players all orbiting around this colorful town and the themes of corruption, bureacracy run wild, urban blight, crime, an educational system in crisis, the abondonment of the working class, and the scourge of drugs in the inner city -- to name but a few.
Each season highlighted a set of these topics while still pulling along all of our favorite characters -- those who were still living that is -- and gave us multiple viewpoints which made good storytelling rise to the level of greatness. Created and penned by a former Baltimore City "Police" and inner city teacher, along with a former Baltimore Sun reporter, viewers were instantly aware that this was a no-holds barred, zero B.S. representation of the real goings on of a major metropolitan city with major problems -- the same problems shared by all large cities across the U.S.
Film, communications, and journalism students will be dissecting and writing about this show for decades to come, and discussions of "The Wire" will show up on college curriculums as an example of what quality telvision should aspire to. TV critics, similarly, will hold this as an example of writing at it's best and characterizations that haven't ever been seen on this scale in the television medium.
You might think that this praise for "The Wire" is far too high -- as I once did -- but I ask you to set aside your skepticism and run to the local rental store to obtain a copy of season one to see for yourself. It's obvious immediately that this is something different and special.
"The Wire" was a true treat every step of the way from start to finish, one which I will sorely miss. I can only hope that this amalgamation of writing, acting, and storytelling will once again come together in some future program.
Odds are that it won't, though.
I give the entire series of "The Wire" six wire-taps out of five, my highest rating ever. And deservedly so.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Informed by a recent health fair at work that I could stand to lose a few extra pounds, I immediately ran to a local gym and signed up. Little did I know that this would lead to the discovery (pun intended) of a new favorite television program on (you guessed it) the Discovery Channel.
It just so happens that the treadmills at the athletic club are fitted with schnazzy tv monitors to which I can plug my MP3 player's headphones, and the programming during the wee hours of the morning before I must arrive at work are filled with new and exciting adventures such as the one I will describe for you.
That program is "Cash Cab," a television game show shot right inside a working N.Y. taxicab piloted by host Ben Bailey. Unsuspecting riders hail the cash cab and once seated are informed that they have wandered onto the mobile game show set by flashing lights and music. Those who agree to be contestants will have until the end of their cab ride to answer general knowlege questions at $25 apiece and increasing in difficulty and value up to $100 apiece, with the total amount of money to be won determined only by the random length of the cab ride they have requested, making this a unique game show format to say the least.
In "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" fashion, riders are allowed two lifelines, called "shout outs," one via mobile phone and one to selected passers by on the street, adding an interesting facet to the program. Three wrong answers amount to three strikes, where host Bailey kicks the contestants out of the cab, sometimes into the rain blocks from their destination.
Added to the mix are special bonus questions when the cab encounters red lights, and video bonus questions at the end which give contestants the opportunity to double their money. Most New Yorkers, I have noticed, choose to keep their winnings rather than gamble it all at the end. Also of note is the fact that most of the everyday schmoes who stumble into the Cash Cab possess a fairly good knowledge of trivia.
In terms of originality and enjoyment, this game show rates five hack licenses out of five from this reviewer. Cash Cab makes my torturous time on the treadmill each morning a little more tolerable.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
If you're looking for one more relatively brainless summer thrill ride of a movie, look no further than "Death Race," out in theaters Friday, Aug. 22. This remake of a Roger Corman film has plenty of action along with a little sex appeal and a bit of gore thrown in for good measure.
Think "Running Man" meets "Mad Max" and you've got a pretty good idea of the story here, as "Transporter" star Jason Statham reprises his bad ass image to play a framed prison inmate who must race to the death in an armor plated Mustang to win his freedom and claim his infant daughter against unbelievable odds and a corrupt corporate prison warden played by Joan Allen. It's a Hollywood-style script filled with plenty of predictability and cliche, but fun nonetheless.
Paul W.S. Anderson directs, the man who also brought us the "Resident Evil" films. If you're a fan, you'll probably like "Death Race" as well. The direction plays out as part music video, part video game, and while the story doesn't have much depth, popcorn summer action movie fans will be pleased with the results.
I give "Death Race" three 50-caliber hood mounted machine gun turrets out of five. The rating is three rather than two strictly because of the presence of the ultra-hot Natalie Martinez, who Anderson showcases quite heavily in the film (see photo for clarification.)
Friday, August 15, 2008
Garnering a slew of Emmy nominations was this year's number one mini-series "John Adams" appearing on HBO. It's out on DVD now so I highly suggest you check it out. Paul Giamatti, who received rave reviews for his role as "Pig Virus" in Howard Stern's film "Private Parts," and in a more dramatic vein for his great work in the 2004 film "Sideways" with Thomas Hayden Church, along with a slew of other great underated performances, plays the series' namesake.
For history buffs this is a must see. For fans of good acting, the same can be said. The story, which skips over the revolutionary war and instead focuses on the political, social, and diplomatic woes of our early founding fathers, provides a great deal of insight into the thought processes and struggles faced at the birth of our nation. Bringing this historical material to life, the mini-series does high justice to the subject matter and sheds light on topics which anyone calling themselves a "real American" should become well versed in.
I give "John Adams" four and a half three cornered hats out of five.
I just finished the first person shooter "Turning Point," and found it to be pretty satisfying. The story is based on an alternate reality where Winston Churchill is struck by a New York cab and killed years before the onset of World War II. Without his leadership in Great Britain, Europe falls to the Nazis while America stays out of the war completely.
Unfortunately, the war comes to America when the Nazis air drop from zeppelins in New York with crack commando troops and new technologies like jets and of course the atom bomb, set sometime in the 1950s. You are Carson, a high-steel worker who turns underground freedom fighter, joining the brand new war against Nazi oppression.
This game is built on the Unreal engine, and they get it right for the most part, but the game's environments are sparse, the aiming engine a little too loose for my taste, and there's some noticeable glitches along the way which are too numerous to skip mention. Clipping issues occur often, with Nazi soldiers poking their head through doors (doors, not doorways), dead soldiers falling inside of walls, their weapons stuck inside other elements of the environment.
The AI is a little more "A" and far too little "I." Enemy soldiers take a few seconds to notice your presence, making them easy to pick off, and soldiers on your own team help little and move unpredicatably.
Overall, this was enjoyable, at times challenging, with an interesting premise. The story wasn't very deep, though. I give it two and a half zeppelins out of five.
If the headline of this entry angered you, allow me to explain. The reason I don't have much to say about the film "The Dark Knight" isn't because I didn't like it; it's just that the movie is so good and so well received that I can't add anything to the buzz that is already out there.
We expected it to be good. We heard Heath Ledger put in an Oscar-worthy performance. We were told it was going to be even better than the original.
True on all counts.
I'll make this simple: See it, then see it again. Rent it and watch it a third time. Tell your friends (if it's possible there's anyone left who hasn't seen it yet.)
I give this film five bat signals out of five. 'Nuf said.