Monday, April 07, 2008

What I Saw, Read, Listened To Last Week: Reviews for 3/31 to 4/6

TV My Name Is Earl NBC Thurdsay 8/7pm E/C:eight:bold;">My Name Is Earl NBC Thurdsay 8/7pm E/C:
The writers' strike was a cruel blow for fans of NBC's Thursday Night lineup. There's precious little on TV that doesn't entail sitting through confessionals, eliminations, or exposes and the long spate of reruns meant that a lot of us got caught up on our leisure reading. Okay, maybe it was was win-win situation for both the writers and the fans of scripted television. Never mind. Greg Garcia's My Name is Earl made it's hour-long return last week and the results were a mixed bag.

Let's get to the bad news first: The talking head at the first of the show making cheap slaps at the writers? Please, in the name of everything that is good in the universe, lose that bit. It wasn't funny. The idea that a network wonk would beg us to watch reruns before the "free period" runs out and they have to pay the writers makes me want to either rent the DVDs or just wait until Day 18 to do some online viewing.

Some people at Television Without Pity have posted that they felt the inclusion of the sitcom within a sitcom was lame. (Yeah, I'm a TWOPer. I've even written to Joy and gotten a response, so shoot me.) I have to disagree. A big part of the original premise of the series was based on Earl taking his cues from television. Let's face it, if Earl hadn't heard Carson Daly holding forth about karma, this show would have been about nearly everybody I went to high school with two undermotivated guys hanging out and my ex-sister-in-law the hairy, taller guy's scary ex-wife. I didn't exactly love the sitcom stuff, either, but I understand why they used it. This one time. Okay?

One other gripe. Please pick a character for Catalina and stick with it. One week she's the girl next door who Jumps for Joy, the next she's a stereotypical third-world fish out of water who wants to worship her dark, unnamed gods and rip out internal organs. The first two seasons, Catalina was interesting and fun. Now she seems like the repository for every South American primitive joke the writers can come up with

Now for the good news. Garcia and company are back with new episodes. Hooray for that! The cast is still pitch perfect. Alyssa Milano as Billie is a great addition. As a romantic interest for Earl, her Billie is believable and charming. She's a keeper! Kudos to her and Michael Moriarty for creating the back story that makes me want to keep watching to see what happens.

The regular suspects were also back in good form. Eddie Steeples as the enigmatic Crabman/Darnell/Harry wasn't given too much to do this episode, but he turned in a very good performance as a foil for Jamie Pressley's Joy. Pressley, as has been the case over the past two seasons, is often the heart of the show. However crude Joy and Darnell may be drawn by the writers, there is so much fine detail that Steeples and Pressley put into their performances that you can't help but feel the desire to emotionally invest in their stories. They were the standouts in a very strong ensemble.

The script was good, if uneven. The best cameo of the night was the reappearance of Josh, the truck driver as Earl's escort to the afterlife and and best laugh of the night came from an unnamed supporting player. Here's my approximation of it:

Joy: Can't we get a real doctor? You know. One of them Jew Doctors?

Doctor: Didn't you know? Indians are the new Jews.

Darnell: I thought it was the Koreans.

Doctor: They wish!

Overall, Earl shows a lot of promise. I'll be watching to see if they (and the other shows on NBC's lineup deliver.

Books The Clumsiest People In Europe: Or Mrs Mortimer's Bad Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Todd Pruzan 2005 Bloomsbury Press and Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre by John Lahr 1996 Dial Press:

Todd Pruzan's Favell Lee Mortimer is hardly the sort of person you'd want to have as a traveling companion. On the other hand, reading her impressions of the people she met while traveling abroad is an unadulterated, if evil delight. The Clumsiest People In Europe: Or Mrs Mortimer's Bad Tempered Guide to the Victorian World is one of those books that will make you alternately gasp then laugh, then call up your friends to read them passages. It is so tempting to share passages here, but I won't because it always takes away from the shock and pleasure just a bit to find a really good part that you've already read out of context.

The mock travelogue/clueless fish out of water thing is nothing new. What sets this book apart is the earnestness of Ms Mortimer's fact-free opinions regarding her travels coupled with the impression that she honestly sees her words and actions as an expression of noblesse oblige. Pruzan manages to make such crude ignorance funny mostly by making Ms Mortimer so horrible. It's like reading a Westview ethnographic monograph by someone who no longer gives a damn. Well worth a look.

John Lahr is one of those rare writers who can get to the heart of what makes performance work. In Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre, he manages to get under the skins of an amazing array of people who work on or write for the stage. This is indeed a mixed bag. You'll find interviews with Bill Hicks, Tony Kushner and Dame Edna (Barry Humphreys), thoughtful reviews of productions of works by Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee and meditations on the careers of Clifford Odets and Lillian Hellman among many others.

There are many reasons to like Lahr's work. He has a genuine love of what he's covering and is knowledgeable enough to do so in a manner that balances his enjoyment of what he's seeing with well-informed observations. He also manages to stay out of his own way. This is important because it makes him the perfect audience by proxy through which we can have a clear idea of what the work is really about. While theatre fans will get the most enjoyment out of this book, anyone with an interest in pop culture and arts and letters in the 90s' will get a lot out of it.

Music Putumayo Presents: World Hits 2007 Putumayo World Music:

Putumayo anthologies are the musical equivalent to Chia Pets and Sea Monkeys. Either you get it and enjoy them enough to own a few (well, in my case nearly all of them) or you don't and see them as cheap, tacky, sanitized versions of world music for suburbanites and stick to raw field recordings from Nonesuch and the dearly departed Ellipsis Arts label. The World Hits collection isn't going to change anyone's mind if they're predisposed to disliking Putumayo's CDs. To longtime fans, this one delivers exactly what the company motto promises: music "Guaranteed to make you feel good!"

The two quibbles I have with this CD are the title and the fact that entire continents are not included in what is implied to be a global sampling. South Africa is the easternmost country represented in this collection. "World Hits" manages to completely leave out any examples of J-Pop, Bollywood, and a number of other music movements and styles that have as much universal appeal and recognition as the tracks they chose to include. These are indeed hits that have roots all over the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Africa; but the newest track was first released in 1994 (Youssou N'Dour and Neneh Cherry's "7 Seconds) and the oldest track dropped in 1963 (Mongo Santamaria's "Watermelon Man"). To me, "Hits" indicates that the contents are going to be pretty current, maybe 5 years old at most. Putumayo stumbled on naming this one, missing out on the opportunity to use the qualifiers that would make room for a more current collection of hits later on. This release should should have been called something like "World Gold".

Aside from the those concerns this is a pretty good collection. If your musical interests are pretty eclectic, you may already have most of the tracks on this disc. For those who are building or rebuilding their libraries, this is a great way to get your hands on Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger's turn on "Don't Look Back", Jimmy Cliff's gorgeous "The Harder They Come", Miriam Makeba's dancable "Pata Pata" and Santana's lush guitar work on "Oye Como Va". Out of eleven tracks, there's only one real clunker: Kaoma's "Lambada". It seems anemic compared to the richness of the other ten songs.

I generally love Putumayo's collections and have found their themed discs as satisfying as the ones they've devoted to specific countries or regions. This one feels a bit like a training disc for someone who has listened to very little outside of what corporate radio has to offer. "World Hits" is fun and a keeper for lazy Saturdays in the back yard, but not nearly as challenging as some of their other titles. If this does whet your appetite for more, I suggest checking out their Lounge and Groove series.

DVD Haiku Tunnel 2001 Sony Pictures Classics:

If Mike Judge's "Office Space" could be considered Dilbert's laid back Texan college roommate on a beer buzz, "Haiku Tunnel" would have to be it's wound-too-tight New York cousin who lost his Prozac, the number to his new doctor and quite frankly most of his adult composure. Nine out of ten paralegals, former paralegals and legal secretaries who have seen this movie find it strangely cathartic.

What starts out to be a boilerplate piece where the underlings take on The Man, complete with the usual twittering about how lawyers are a pretty homogenous bunch, turns into something that eventually resembles a harrowingly buddy caperish "After Hours" as much as it does a workplace comedy. I almost hate to talk about the payoff because it will give away too much of the movie. Let me just say that the only person who needs and gets any sort of redemption is the lead and in showing that you see that no one else really needed a redemption arc because they were all pretty nice people to begin with.

Some people might find "Haiku Tunnel" to be a bit cloying because of the lack of venom. I liked the good-natured looniness and the human scale of the comedy. No buildings blew up, no one bilked anyone out of a million dollars and no one died or was committed. Heck no one even got fired. All that happened was people pitched in and handled a small crisis and then they got on with their lives. In the bizarro universe that is what we see onscreen, this is pretty uncommon. The fact that it's entertaining and -Dare I say it?- a bit of a feelgood film, makes this a rare movie you shouldn't miss.

Movie Street Kings 2008 Fox Searchlight Pictures:

Okay, here is a review of "Street Kings" for my friends Sylvia and Big Gay Kevin. You have them and the guy who writes Crazy Days And Nights to thank or blame. A few months ago, he posted a picture of Keanu Reeves, who was making a movie called "The Nightwatchman". The first thing I did was make two mental notes: 1.) Send Syl and Kev a link since they both think at some point they are going to be Mrs. Reeves. 2.) Be sure to have cholera the week "The Night Watchman" comes out so they will have to find another disinterested third party to take them to see it.

And then one day Sylvia called to tell me there were pictures from the premiere of "Street Kings" and "Ooh! Let's go see it! It has Forest Whittaker and Hugh Laurie!" That was so dirty. She knows I would pay to watch Forest Whittaker and Hugh Laurie read the phone book. Let me requalify that, I would pay to watch Forest Whittaker and Hugh Laurie make out, read the Nashville Yellow Pages, make out some more and then read volumes 19 through 27 of the Tennessee Code Annotated. Little did I know that I would be watching a big, loud testostofest while sitting between Big Gay Kevin and Sylvia, who would alternately gasp and then hoarsely whisper, "LOOK at those ARMS!" Let me just say at this point that if Mr. Reeves is into furry gay redneck dudes from Alabama or foxy 83-year-old women, he's money if he ever comes to Nashville.

Here's the thing. I don't really have anything against big loud testostofests. "Point Break" is one of two dozen discs I would take if I ever lost my mind and did field work in Papua New Guinea and they had a hut with electricity. It's the most adorably blockheaded movie ever made and deserves acclaim for being the adrenaline-addled bemulleted gem that makes people alternately want to read the densest book on semiotics they can find and bungee jump over the Cumberland River. I don't even have anything against Keanu Reeves. He's a decent actor who has picked some interesting scripts (Thumbsucker, Tune In Tomorrow, My Own Private Idaho, I Love You to Death). It might be the nutty Keanu love from my two best that makes me want to run the other way when I see his mug in a preview.

But enough of that. Let's talk about "Street Kings". It is big and loud and the script is a shade smarter than most cop thrillers. Everybody in the cast was good and right on pitch. BGK thinks Laurie was miscast. I disagree. As a sort-of antagonist, he hit the marks in every scene. I was also quite impressed with Cedric the Entertainer. Let's face it, I expected good performances from everyone else, but Cedric floored me. He's really good! Would I watch this this film again? Probably not. But I do want to see everyone in it again, possibly together and maybe with Sandra Bullock along for the ride.

My next movie? "The Forbidden Kingdom" which will hopefully have lots of airborne battle scenes and Jet Li and Jackie Chan flaring their nostrils at each other in Mandarin or reading from the Nashville Yellow Pages.


copyright 2008 Jas Faulkner

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