Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Necessary Roughness

Last week I was pretty tough on the new USA legal drama Suits, and the network's latest new drama Necessary Roughness gets back to what makes USA shows appealing: It's kind of forgettable and not exactly innovative, but it's likable enough to be able to watch on a casual basis, perfect laundry-folding or dish-washing TV. I doubt I'll deliberately tune in again, but I could watch it randomly a week or a month from now and have a perfectly good time.

It's also a slight change of pace for USA, since it features a psychotherapist rather than a lawyer or cop or doctor as its main character. Callie Thorne plays Dr. Dani, as she's known, who in the first episode is recruited as the therapist for a big-shot loose-cannon football star. She helps him out and is offered the chance to act as the team's go-to therapist, although press materials indicate she'll also start treating other high-profile clients (actors, politicians, etc.). I'm not entirely sure how that will work, since the regular supporting cast is focused around the football team, but since therapists tend to see clients regularly, presumably characters will stick around rather than being a "case of the week."

Thorne is appealing as the somewhat cliched character of the therapist who can't get a handle on her own problems, and the pilot does a good job of balancing the character development with the plot of the week (something that Suits failed to do). Therapy is less obviously results- and process-oriented than medical treatment or legal work, and the show has a tough time showing how exactly Dani helps her client address his problems. But Roughness breezes along amiably enough, and Dani's interactions with her teenage kids, her gambling-addicted mother, her asshole ex-husband (go-to asshole actor Craig Bierko) and her ditzy best friend (Amanda Detmer) are all enjoyable to watch and full of potential. I probably won't be watching Necessary Roughness again anytime soon, but for fans of the kind of show that USA puts out, this is a much safer bet than Suits.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Barney's Version

I haven't read the Mordecai Richler novel that Barney's Version is based on, but it's not hard to tell that the movie has been condensed from a much larger narrative. The sprawling character study is entertaining and often moving, with a great lead performance from Paul Giamatti, but its various elements often feel disjointed, like there's some connective tissue that got lost in the translation from page to screen. It's no surprise to learn that the novel relies on first-person perspective and a question of narrative reliability, as the aging Barney (suffering from Alzheimer's disease) tells his story (his "version"), while his son offers corrections.

That whole device is missing from the movie, although Barney (Giamatti) still suffers from Alzheimer's disease in the present-day framing sequences. Without the narrative uncertainty, it instead comes off as a little sappy, although the movie avoids overplaying the cliched memory-loss moments too much. The main draw of the story isn't that part, anyway, but the flashbacks to Barney's life as a younger man, first as a vagabond in Italy bumming around with his drug-addict aspiring novelist best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) and marrying a troubled free spirit (Rachelle Lefevre, underused). Barney then heads back to his native Montreal, where he becomes a TV producer on a trashy soap opera and marries a shrill Jewish stereotype (Minnie Driver). Driver's character (who's never named) is pretty one-dimensional, and Driver's inscrutable accent and hammy mannerisms don't help her develop further.

It takes almost half the movie to get to the heart of Barney's story, his romance with the lovely and compassionate Miriam (Rosamund Pike), the love of his life and mother of his children. The bits with Driver are sometimes funny, thanks mostly to Dustin Hoffman's goofy performance as Barney's uncouth dad, but Barney's relationship with Miriam has real depth and emotion, and the slow demise of their marriage is the movie's most effective and resonant plot point. Pike does a great job of conveying Miriam's allure as well as her intelligence, and she convincingly shows how Miriam could fall for this schlubby older guy. She then just as convincingly shows Miriam's heartbreak as their relationship falls apart. A good hour of the movie is a wonderfully affecting portrait of the arc of a relationship, but it's a little lost amid all the other stuff (including a tacked-on mystery about the possible murder of Boogie). A novel can easily encompass this kind of diversity in taking stock of one man's entire life; the movie struggles to do the same, although it comes out mostly ahead.

Available on DVD June 28.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


USA shows are not generally known for being edgy, but the first episode of new legal drama Suits deploys basic-cable swear words and a drug-dealing subplot like it's angling to be taken seriously, which only makes its formulaic set-up all the more unimpressive. The extra-long pilot also spends more than half an hour setting up the extremely basic premise, so that the boring case of the week comes off as an afterthought (not that it's really worth any more attention). I imagine that future episodes will focus more on the procedural stories, and there's no indication here that creator Aaron Korsh (who was a writer on the similarly unimpressive ABC legal drama The Deep End) has any innovative or original stories on tap.

The characters that will have to anchor this show around the cases of the week aren't really worth following, either. They're probably supposed to come off as cool and capable, but I just found the two leads to be irritating douchebags. The idea is that Mike (Patrick J. Adams) is some kind of slacker genius with a photographic memory, so he never went to law school but he knows everything about the law. He's been supporting himself by taking the bar exam for people, and has reluctantly agreed to help out his drug-dealer best friend. Then he conveniently (although it takes far too long for the events to fall into place) runs into hotshot corporate lawyer Harvey (Gabriel Macht), who is also conveniently looking for an unconventional maverick like himself to take on as his new associate. Harvey agrees to fabricate some fancy credentials for Mike, and finally we have a show. What should have taken at most 10 minutes takes three times that.

Harvey jerks Mike around and pretends not to care about Mike or their clients, but of course deep down he really does. Mike knows every aspect of the law but can't do practical things like fill out a subpoena form. They're collections of quirks rather than real people, and even welcome faces like Gina Torres and Rick Hoffman in the supporting cast can't make up for the void at the center of the show. USA shows are usually breezy and inoffensive, even if they don't exactly compel you to watch every week, but this one is just insufferable.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Combat Hospital

Summer on network TV is time for cheap reality shows and Canadian imports, and ABC's Combat Hospital is the latter, another standard-issue TV drama that feels just a tiny bit off thanks to being produced abroad. At least Combat Hospital doesn't try to hide its its foreign origins like another ABC show, Canadian cop drama Rookie Blue. The show takes place at an internationally staffed field hospital in Kandahar, so characters come from a variety of countries that make up the coalition fighting in Afghanistan, including the U.S., the U.K., Australia and, yes, Canada, where main character Dr. Rebecca Gordon (Michelle Borth) hails from.

There's some decent acting talent here, including Elias Koteas as the hospital's head doctor and Deborah Kara Unger as an Australian psychiatrist (although Unger barely shows up in the pilot). But despite the unique setting, most of what happens in the first episode is fairly basic medical-drama stuff, including a useless pregnancy scare (plus scene-setting relationship trauma) for the main character, some vague operating-room suspense, and a character who says "It's nothing" and then later (surprise!) collapses and convulses. The cast also seems strangely underpopulated for a show of this type, which would usually explore the scope of a large medical operation. Here you get the sense that the four main characters are the only doctors in the entire place (although for all I know, that's true of a place like this).

The show is set in 2006 and doesn't seem to be angling for any political commentary; the wartime milieu is mainly just an excuse for heightened urgency in the medical emergencies, and in practice isn't much different from the approach used in the short-lived and little-loved Off the Map. Medical-drama junkies who are desperate for something new to watch will probably find this show tolerable, and performers like Koteas and Unger could bring some depth to it eventually, but for now Combat Hospital is just a generic medical drama with superficially distinctive trappings.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: Payment on Demand (1951)

Despite how old-fashioned it seems now, Payment on Demand probably represented a pretty progressive attitude toward divorce in 1951, just in broaching the subject in a straightforward, non-sensationalistic manner. It seems horribly retrograde now, of course, with its harsh judgment of a woman's desire for even a modicum of independence and self-determination, but you can see the wheels of progress turning slowly but surely in the background, in the ways that some characters interact and respond to the news that wealthy businessman David Ramsey (Barry Sullivan) has decided to divorce his wife of many years, Joyce (Bette Davis). Yes, there's the sleazy married guy who hits on Joyce as soon as he learns she's divorced, and yes, there are the patronizing lawyers and private detectives who take advantage of her distress. But there's also a surprisingly sympathetic and nuanced reaction from Joyce's society friends, as well as from her young-adult daughters. You get the impression that by the time the younger Ramseys get around to potential divorces, things will be a whole lot easier for them.

Director and co-writer Curtis Bernhardt sort of stacks the deck against Joyce, though, showing her as a manipulative social climber who pushed her husband to become a high-powered rich executive when he would have preferred a simple rural life. It's an interesting performance from Davis, because Joyce isn't just a conniving villain that Davis can play with maniacal glee; she's a flawed woman who's a bit insensitive and calculating in her efforts to achieve what she believes is best for her and her family. Bernhardt sets up periodic flashbacks throughout the movie, showing the development of Joyce and David's relationship from early bliss to eventual resentment (it's sort of like the 1951 version of Blue Valentine), and Joyce is clearly the bad guy in many of them, but she doesn't do what she does out of malice. Davis plays her more as sad and misguided, and it's a shame that the movie essentially dismisses Joyce's interests and goals, because they are entirely legitimate.

Regardless of Joyce's shortcomings or genuine concerns, of course the movie has to head toward her and David patching things up, although at least it resists tying things up as neatly as, say, a movie made 10 years earlier might have. Bernhardt allows for ambiguity in the flashbacks (which use an interesting theater-style technique of constructing walls out of translucent material that gives everything a sort of artificial feel), and he even gives David's mistress probably the most progressive attitude in the whole film. When she and David are discovered by the P.I. Joyce has hired, he desperately offers to marry her so that she won't have to endure a toxic scandal. But she brushes the idea aside, asserting that her friends and associates won't care that she had an affair with a married (but separated) man. Throughout the scene, lush classical music plays like the swelling score of an old movie, and when the mistress tells David she's through with him, she shuts off the record player in her apartment and abruptly cuts the music. It's a stark and creative way to show the contrast between generational attitudes, and an indication of the sophistication that this movie has in spurts, even if it's a little dull and conservative on the whole.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: 13 Moons

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

In the early '90s, Alexandre Rockwell was an important part of the vanguard of new independent filmmakers, along with people like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. He collaborated with those two (as well as Allison Anders) on the 1995 omnibus film Four Rooms, and he won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his 1992 film In the Soup. It seemed like he had a promising future ahead of him.

But unlike Tarantino or Rodriguez or Kevin Smith, Rockwell was never able to translate his initial acclaim into a lasting career, and he's made films only sporadically since the '90s. By 2002, he still had enough goodwill to assemble a pretty impressive cast for 13 Moons, including Steve Buscemi, Peter Dinklage, Sam Rockwell and Peter Stormare, along with both the filmmaker's ex-wife (Jennifer Beals) and his future wife (Karyn Parsons). There isn't anything impressive about 13 Moons beyond the casting, though, and even the many capable actors in the ensemble turn in some pretty lackluster work. Rockwell shoots on ugly, cheap-looking video, and half the time it looks like the cameraman is running to catch up with actors who've wandered away from the set. The rest of the time the camera sits uncomfortably close to the actors' faces, not in a revealing, well-composed close-up but like an awkward, inept home movie.

The plot involves the tired device of disparate characters coming together over the course of one night, in this case all connected to a bail bondsman (David Proval) whose son is in desperate need of a kidney transplant. The unlikely crew works together to track down an unstable donor (Stormare) who's run off from the hospital, in the process coming to terms with their own personal issues, etc. None of the actors seem to have a handle on who their characters are, and most of them never evolve beyond their initial one-dimensional portrayals. The movie ends with one of the phoniest, most random "moment of clarity" bits I've ever seen, as a yellow hot air balloon flies over the city (via incredibly fake-looking special effects), somehow symbolizing rebirth (or something?) for these damaged people. It's a fittingly nonsensical ending for a movie that can never justify its own existence. I haven't seen any of Rockwell's earlier films, but whatever he had in the '90s, he'd clearly lost it by 2002.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: So Big! (1932)

This one is kind of a bust on two fronts: On the Bette Davis front, her presence in So Big! is pretty paltry, confined to the last 20 minutes of the movie and just a handful of scenes (I couldn't even find a decent picture of her in it). Plus, it's a pretty unremarkable movie overall, with Barbara Stanwyck giving a fairly colorless performance as a woman who goes from an artistic dreamer to a hardscrabble farmer while trying to give her son the creative life she never had. It rushes through a decades-spanning story in about 80 minutes, with Stanwyck's Selina going from young girl to old woman over the course of the movie. The rushed pacing means that the movie never really pauses long enough to give any of its plot elements enough time to develop. Just when we're getting used to Selina as a young schoolteacher in rural Illinois, she gets married to a taciturn farmer and pops out a kid. And just when we're getting used to Selina as a farmer's wife with a young son, her husband dies and the kid's all grown up.

The whole movie flies by in that way, until Selina's old and gray and her son is a heartless businessman who gave up his ambitions of being an architect. At that point the movie is three-quarters over anyway, and that's when we get a little bit of Bette Davis as a fabulously sassy artist who teases Selina's son Dirk with her sexy allure but pulls back because he's such a boring suit with no passion for anything. Davis, looking delightfully fetching and with a naughty twinkle in her eye, does wonders with the small part, and even our old friend George Brent the wet blanket (in the first of his many collaborations with Davis) shows up about five minutes before the movie ends and provides a bit of a spark.

None of that makes up for the hectic pacing of the rest of the movie, or the abrupt ending, or Stanwyck's listless performance. Edna Ferber's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was adapted for the screen two other times (once before this, and once after). For her sake, I hope those versions were more interesting.