Saturday, January 22, 2005

ART IMITATES ART: Finally got around to watching last week's "ER" on the TiVo. Was it just me, or was the portion of the episode in which Abby Lockhart gets kidnapped by gangbangers and tools around in their car a blatant rip off of "Collateral," right down to the blurry quasi-digital shots of the light-glazed Chicago skyline? At least they're ripping off something good.
"I'M DIFFERENT NOW. I SING." Given that he's hosting "SNL" tonight and is all-but-certain to get a Best Actor Oscar nomination Tuesday morning for "Sideways," it seems like today is a good day to look back at the career of Paul Giamatti. Though he's now one of the more critically acclaimed actors working today, courtesy of the rapturous reviews for "Sideways" and "American Splendor," I want to look at a couple of his earlier films that aren't really all that great, but that he alone makes worth watching.

The first is the Frankie Muniz vehicle "Big Fat Liar," which I saw solely because of Giamatti's involvement. Giamatti plays a weasely Hollywood studio executive who steals a young kid's story and turns it into an overhyped Hollywood blockbuster. The kid (Muniz) and his friend (Amanda Bynes, in her big screen debut) travel to Hollywood to take their revenge. Of course, the jokes are lame and Giamatti winds up spending most of the movie in Blue Man Group-style makeup with a cell phone literally glued into his ear, but he makes the most of it, elevating the juvenile shenanigans to another level. Bizarrely, the other high point of the film is Sandra Oh's (Giamatti's co-star in "Sideways") turn as a high school principal.

The second film is a better film, but a more notorious bomb. "Duets" grossed less than $5 million during its theatrical run, although it spawned a fairly successful soundtrack, particularly the Gwyneth Paltrow/Huey Lewis duet version of Smokey Robinson's soul classic "Cruisin'." The film tells the story of three disparate pairs of people journeying to a "Karaoke Showdown" in Omaha--the daughter of a Vegas showgirl (Paltrow) and her father, a karaoke hustler (Lewis), a cabbie looking for meaning (Scott Speedman) and a waitress (Maria Bello, who sings a mean "I Can't Make You Love Me"), and a man on a bender (Giamatti) and the escaped convict he picks up on the side of the road ("Homicide"s Andre Braugher). Giamatti and Braugher's story is the best of the three, even though Braugher's vocals are dubbed, unlike everyone else in the movie, and Giamatti's performance is an unheralded but great piece of work as a man so frustrated with life that he runs away from it, but who lights up when he discovers that he can sing. And sing he does--cover versions of "Try A Little Tenderness" and "Hello, It's Me." Especially on a snowy afternoon, well worth checking out.

(And speaking of Maria Bello, her presence is just one of the things that makes this weekend's remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" such a pleasant surprise.)
AND ANOTHER PROJECT FOR A SNOWY DAY: Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday morning. What would please you most to see happen?

(For me? Other than Sideways receiving its expected pile of joy, I would be thrilled to see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind receive a Best Picture nomination. The expected original screenplay nomination isn't enough for me.)
THERE'S NO RIGHT, THERE'S NO WRONG, THERE'S ONLY PUBLIC OPINION: On this snowy, snowy day, maybe you can help me out with something I don't quite get: Just why is Brad Pitt so popular, anyway?

I ask this in light of the fact that the Brad/Jen breakup issue was the biggest selling edition of People magazine since 9/11, and is causing uncontrollable trauma throughout the nation.

And I ask because, when you look at his film credits, it's just not that impressive. One Oscar nomination -- for 12 Monkeys, and other than that the only other movies I've liked him in were True Romance, in which he had a great stoner cameo, and Ocean's 11, just because I thought it was cute that he was eating a snack in every scene in which he appears.

But beyond that? Fight Club is all about script and art direction, not acting. (And, technically, he doesn't really exist in the movie, which has to count against him.) Se7en? Ditto. Her head! It's in the box! Oh no!

He is a very attractive man. Granted. But a great talent? I don't think so. Even among actors who focus on entertaining films rather than Oscar-seeking seriousness, he just don't have a lot of memorable choices in the resume. Among his contemporaries, people like George Clooney, Denzel Washington and Hugh Grant and are just much more likely to appear in movies that I'll want to see.

Here's one metric to use: 40, 50 years from now, towards the end of Pitt's life, will the Academy Awards want to devote a special segment to honor his career, or will a mention during the Necrology suffice?

So do this for me today: either explain the basis of Brad Pitt's fame, or tell me someone whose Fame : Talent ratio is even more askew. Then, just enjoy all the hot chocolate you want.

Friday, January 21, 2005

"YOU MAKE ME LOOK LIKE AN ANGEL:" At least allegedly, that's what Richard Hatch and Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth said to TAR's Jonathan Baker in phone calls, according to Jonathan in this article (registration required, BMN). Baker also claims he quit the race after the Berlin slapping incident, but was persuaded not to by the production staff. While Baker makes plenty of attempts to justify himself in the interview, he misses the central concern--they can't show something you didn't do.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

WICKEDLY FLAWED: CBS's new Who Wants To Be The Next Martha? is four-fifths of a great show: great concept, solid competitors, wonderful projects and judges who do a good job of explaining the criteria at stake. Up until about 8:45pm, it's terrific entertainment.

But then comes elimination time, and the show falls apart.

The way the show works is that the members of the team which does worse in that week's group competition are at risk for elimination. But the determination of which two team members are on the chopping block is based on which have produced the worst "individual projects", a minor part of the competition which takes up about a minute of the viewing time until that moment. It'd be the equivalent of making American Idol eliminations on the basis of who did the worst Ford Focus promo.

And then it gets worse: because the decision of who actually gets eliminated isn't up to the judges, but to the remaining members of that person's team. Unlike every single other Who Wants To Be The Next Pop Singer/Business Tycoon/Top Model/Fashionista, this isn't subject to the merits but to intrateam strategery. There's every incentive to eliminate the best member of your team as opposed to the worst, in order to eliminate future threats to individual supremacy.

This unnecessary Survior-esque scheme not only will make for worse projects later on during the show, but ensures that the winner will come out of the middle of the pack, and not the top -- which, considering that the winner gets six appearances on The Early Show, a book deal with Simon & Schuster and a development deal for a syndicated series with King World, has got to make all those synergistic entities upset that they won't be promoting the best the show had to offer, but rather a mediocrity who wasn't seen as a sufficient threat.

And tonight proved it, because the woman who was eliminated was undoubtedly the most talented that the show had to offer, both great at her craft and quite charismatic and comfortable in front of the camera. But by botching the structure of the show, they blew it.

And who's the they? LMNO Productions, who previously brought to you such quality programming as The Littlest Groom, Boot Camp and Man v. Beast, yes, the show where a sprinter raced a giraffe and a zebra followed by a group of midgets trying to tow a jet plane faster than an elephant. Go figure they'd screw this up too.

Anyone else watching?
GIRL - HEROIN + THE MOST CAKE = SCARY: Fresh out of rehab, Miss World 2005.
BIKINI BOTTOM IS APPARENTLY IN A BLUE STATE: Yes, America, we must all fight the real enemy. Not Osama bin Laden. Not Saddam Hussein. Not Kim Jong Il. We must instead fight the real enemy--SpongeBob SquarePants. Yes, he's "brainwashing kids" according to the fine folks over at Focus on the Family. And somehow, SpongeBob has become "insidious."
"THE INNOVATORS WHO HAVE THRILLED AND INSPIRED US:" Presenting Jon Stewart, Howard Stern, Prince, and the rest of this year's list of Wired Magazine Rave Awards nominees.
"THE COMEDIAN SAID HE WOULD PROBABLY TRY OUT SOME JOKES AT SENIOR CITIZEN HOMES. HE WAS NOT KIDDING." The Times arts section is an uncommon bounty for us today, with this profile of Oscar host Chris Rock, during which Rock proclaims his love for Jamie Foxx, his dislike for "The Aviator," and his plans for a post-ceremony "after-gig" untethered by the bonds of network television, being well worth your time.
NEXT UP, RONALD AND ANDREA DWORKIN ARE "TWO UNRELATED LEGAL PHILOSOPHERS WITH SAME LAST NAME" ON "CELEBRITY AMAZING RACE:" The New York Times chronicles the inexplicable story of how "Australian feminist, literary scholar and cultural critic" Germaine Greer wound up on the UK's "Celebrity Big Brother" alongside such luminaries as "model" Caprice and the scarily ubiquitious Brigitte Nielsen, and more importantly, how and why Greer quit the show just a few days in.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

MOVE YOUR ASS, YOU ASS: This week, The Amazing Race returned to its normal status as being the best hour you can spend in front of a television.

Whether it was learning about the difference between poverty and "refreshing poverty", the dangers of Ethiopian mud or simply revelling in the difference between one donkey and two, this episode had just about everything you could hope for -- except, I guess, for the sight of a competitor whose shirtlessness made you wish Gus was still in the race. But between the truly moving experience of a 12th-century Ethiopian church and the spiritual joy which followed, this was a darn satisfying episode.

Kudos to the producers for great site selection and a heck of a roadblock, plus a Yield placement that was outcome-influencing but, thankfully, not determinative. Shall we discuss?
SURVIVOR: FEDERAL PRISON: Often-nude "Survivor: Borneo" winner Richard Hatch has made a little boo-boo. Though CBS reported his income from winning the first installment of the series to the IRS, Hatch apparently "forgot" to do so, and a criminal complaint has been filed against him by the government. Interestingly, based on my personal experience, those giving prizes don't withhold taxes at all--you get a lump sum check and it's your job to figure out what's owed, regardless of how much you win. A tip--when you win a large sum of money on national TV, you're probably going to want to report that to the IRS and pay your taxes in a timely fashion.
BABY NEEDS BACK: While booty seems to be so 2004, that isn't stopping Bubbles, the first ever comfortable and sexy butt booster, from compiling its list of the Top Ten Tush-Challenged Celebrities, including Mischa Barton's bum, Penelope Cruz's can, and Uma Thurman's tuchas.
YOU DON'T NEED A RASTAMAN TO KNOW WHICH WAY THE WIND BLOWS: According to this New York Observer review of Curtis Sittenfeld's "big-buzz debut novel, Prep," the book's narrator, a 14-year-old "fresh from Nowhere Indiana, trying desperately to blend into the woodwork of her exclusive Massachusetts boarding school," is "inexperienced with taxis, can't pronounce Greenwich, doesn't know Bob Dylan from Bob Marley."

Now normally that kind of cheap, pop culture shorthand drives me nuts. C'mon, she doesn't know Dylan from Marley. You can play her "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Get Up, Stand Up" back-to-back and she just gives you a vacant look? And wouldn't it be more relevant, though less symmetrical, if, say, she didn't know the Strokes from the White Stripes? Or Dylan from Bright Eyes? Or even Bob Marley from Ziggy Marley, the latter whose infectious theme to "Arthur," no doubt invaded her childhood even in the hinterlands of rural Indiana.

But then I stumbled upon this Washington Post correction at Regret the Error, a newspaper correction blog that has picked up where Frank Sennett's late left off.
In the Jan. 9 Sunday Source entertainment listings for Prince George's County, the "Highlight" on guitarist Derek Trucks incorrectly said that he is 23 years old and has toured with Bob Marley. Trucks is 25 and has toured with Bob Dylan.

Monday, January 17, 2005

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, GOAT GIRL? Tuesday evening, American Idol returns for a fourth season.

Figure we've got a month of embarrassing auditions from those too clueless to realize what's in store for them, a month of occasionally interesting semifinals where much of the Whitney Houston repetoire is sung, a week or two of finals so we can all figure out who the final 2-3 singers will be, followed by two months of stalling punctuated only by obtrusive product placement and the annual unwarranted elimination of a talented African American in place of some mediocre white singer.

During the process, we will learn, once again, that Simon is blunt (and usually right), that Paula is flighty, and that singing Stevie Wonder is hard, yo. And it will all end with a show that's 2h 58m of filler and 2m of result.

Will you care? Can you get excited for another season of this? Or is the thrill gone, America?

P.S. Wonder what happened to the girl who sang that atrocious "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" in the AI2 semis? Well, her road to stardom is now paved with elephant poo.
SHED A LITTLE LIGHT: In happy news particularly suitable to this day, Wilbert Rideau has been freed. (Full disclosure: my clinical program in law school did work connected to the case.) For those who have doubts about a rehabilitative model of incarceration, Rideau, who went from an impulsive 19 year-old bank robber to an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and acclaimed journalist while in prison proves rehabilitation is possible.

And on the title--read the lyrics and buy the damn song. (And if anyone knows if Aimee Mann's version of the song is publicly available, that'd be great).

Sunday, January 16, 2005

IT'S FOLLOWING UP "S IS FOR SHOTGUN: A TEXAS ALPHABET:" My friends and family aren't currently at the point where I'm giving baby books as gifts, but maybe if I were, I'd be giving "G is for Garden State: A New Jersey Alphabet," or perhaps I would be if it were more accurate. Entries excluded that probably shouldn't have been?

"B" is for Bribery
"G" is for "Gay American"
"L" is for "Legitimate Businessman"
"T" is for Toxic Waste