Sunday, September 25, 2011

'Pan Am'

As I said when I wrote about The Playboy Club last week, Pan Am is easily the better of the two shows that attempt to capture the style and feel of the early 1960s via an iconic brand. While Playboy sometimes feels like an advertisement for its subject, Pan Am has the advantage of showcasing a brand that no longer exists, so the promotional needs are nonexistent. And while Playboy seems desperate to replicate the gravitas of Mad Men, whose success is clearly the inspiration for both shows, Pan Am takes the opposite route, creating a slick, sunny world that's less about the burdens of changing times and more about their exciting opportunities. It's refreshingly female-driven, too, and it portrays women who are grappling with changing gender roles without feeling the need to constantly congratulate itself for its own supposed progressive values.

Kelli Garner is winning as main character Kate, who's forging a new, independent path for herself while being stuck looking after her fragile little sister Laura (Margot Robbie), who's followed Kate into the business of being a Pan Am stewardess. The pilot's subplot about Kate being recruited as an undercover CIA operative is a bit of stumbling block, but it's integrated far better than the crime elements on Playboy, and never seems like it's going to overwhelm the storylines for the other characters. I was especially intrigued by Christina Ricci's Maggie, a free-spirited bohemian who switches gears for her role as a ladylike stewardess. That kind of dichotomy is what the era is all about, and Pan Am manages to illustrate it without needing to awkwardly proclaim its themes.

The same goes for the portrayal of the airline's treatment of women, although there is a bit of history in the pilot involving Cuba that comes off as a little clumsily shoehorned in. The male characters also get shorted on development in the first episode, but that mostly points to future potential rather than shortcomings. I liked Pan Am a whole lot more than I expected I would given its Mad Men-ripoff origins, and I hope it can continue to distinguish itself as its own kind of sexy, stylish show.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Like The CW's Ringer (whose second episode this week was a gloriously awful trainwreck of ridiculousness), Revenge is an unabashed soap opera loaded with nasty rich people and crazy plot twists, and it sets up a limited premise that seems unlikely to sustain a long-running series. Also like Ringer, it's frequently totally stupid, but generally in a fun, campy way. Emily VanCamp seems more confident as the lead of a show like this than Sarah Michelle Gellar is on Ringer; maybe it's all that time she spent on Brothers & Sisters falling in love with the dude she once thought was her long-lost brother.

Whatever it is, she successfully pulls off the vengeful woman who infiltrates an ultra-rich Hamptons community to right the wrongs that were done to her late father. She's so devious that she literally uses angry red marker to cross off each of her vanquished enemies in a group photo. That of course speaks to the limitations of the premise, but for now it's a lot of fun watching her pretend to be a naive young socialite while secretly plotting the downfalls of everyone around her. Madeleine Stowe is enjoyably evil as the queen bee of the rich-bitch social circle, and there are enough juicy side plots introduced to keep things going if the central storyline falters. Creator Mike Kelley was behind the enjoyably soapy Swingtown (which very few people watched), and while Revenge lacks that show's stabs at social relevance, it looks like it will contain at least as much bed-hopping and backstabbing.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I don't have a lot of patience for crime procedurals, especially the grim, plodding variety that dominates CBS' schedule, but adding some ridiculous gimmick doesn't make them more appealing. Unforgettable is the opposite of its title, a totally generic crime-solving show that only makes an impression via its ludicrous central plot idea, that former police detective Carrie Wells (Poppy Montgomery) has perfect memory of everything she's ever seen and experienced -- except the day that her sister was murdered (dum-DUM!).

Now, hyperthymesia is a real thing (made famous recently by actress Marilu Henner), but I'm pretty sure it doesn't work the way the show portrays it. People with the condition can recall every detail of events that they personally experienced in their own lives, but I don't think they can literally go back over events in their minds and spot objects and occurrences that they didn't even notice the first time. That's what Carrie does in this show, and it basically turns her into a superhero, so that all the other characters just stand around and gawk while she solves the case by remembering stuff really hard.

Also, the pilot features Carrie solving a crime to which she was a witness, so there's lots of stuff for her to remember. I'm not sure how the show is going to place her in a position to remember other future crimes, but the premise is likely to limit what kinds of stories can be told (either that or it'll just fade into the background). The little flashes of memory that Carrie gets about her sister's long-ago murder aren't enough to build an enticing long-term storyline, so all that we have to go on are the mediocre cases. That's just not enough, especially with so many other procedurals out there. Montgomery is charming and tries her best, but Unforgettable is best forgotten.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on CBS.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'The Playboy Club'

Pretty much everything written about The Playboy Club has focused on its similarities to ABC's Pan Am, and the comparison doesn't do the former show any favors. Both are clearly inspired by the success of AMC's Mad Men, working hard to capture that show's sense of the style and allure of the early 1960s. But while Pan Am ditches the somber, thoughtful tone of Mad Men in favor of something sleek, glossy and fun, Playboy tries hard to manufacture seriousness with an overwrought crime storyline and some clumsy stabs at social commentary. The show can't pull off either element, and the historical references are awkwardly grafted onto the soapy storylines.

The narration from Hugh Hefner (which isn't set to last beyond the pilot) makes the show seem like one long advertisement, and it goes way overboard in touting Playboy as a progressive, forward-thinking brand. Instead of projecting an air of effortless cool, the show comes off as desperate, from Eddie Cibrian's faux-Don Draper performance (he even mimics Jon Hamm's vocal cadences) to the obvious, pseudo-shocking twists of the murder/mob storyline.

The crime stuff dwarfs everything else so effectively that it seems like the show is a crime drama set around the Playboy Club, rather than a Playboy Club drama featuring a crime element. Every plot thread is misguided and mishandled, and even though star Amber Heard has plenty of charisma, she can't hold this mess together. If you want your snazzy early-'60s fix, wait for Mad Men to come back next year, or just wait a week and watch Pan Am instead. 

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

'The Secret Circle'

I wasn't particularly impressed with the first episode of The Vampire Diaries and never bothered watching beyond that, but I've read that it's become entertainingly nutso as time has gone on, and I'm kind of curious to give it another chance. Maybe the same thing will happen with The Secret Circle, which, like Diaries, is based on a book series by L.J. Smith and is executive-produced by Kevin Williamson. Also like Diaries, it starts off with a fairly ho-hum pilot that adds familiar supernatural elements to familiar teen-drama elements in a not very exciting way. The supernatural beings here are witches, not vampires, but otherwise the tone is very similar, including the small-town setting, the central love triangle and the ancient battle between good and evil.

I liked star Britt Robertson on the underrated Life Unexpected (which kind of fell apart in its second season), and I like her here as well, playing the outsider who's unaware of her magical heritage. The rest of the cast makes less of an impression, although Phoebe Tonkin's bitchy bad girl has the potential to become an entertaining adversary. The ominous reveals toward the end of the episode didn't really draw me in, and there's little here to suggest an original or clever take on your standard witchery (or teen angst). If Williamson and company take this show in a crazy, over-the-top direction, maybe it'll turn out to be a worthwhile companion for Diaries (which precedes it) and by next season I'll be feeling like I should catch up with it, but I'm not going to keep watching just on the chance of that happening. 

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Assassins'

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

Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific working directors, but I'd only seen one of his films (1999's Audition) before watching the recent 13 Assassins, a remake of the 1963 martial-arts movie of the same name. Although he's taken on a wide range of genres, Miike is still best known in the U.S. for his use of brutal, graphic violence in movies like Audition, and while Assassins isn't horrific, it is very nasty and violent during its climactic 45-minute battle sequence. Miike is less interested in intricately choreographed fight scenes than he is in the visceral, ugly clashing of bodies and weapons that happens in battle, and nothing here would be mistaken for the balletic beauty of the majority of modern martial-arts movies that garner attention in the U.S.

The story here is split up into two parts, with the first half of the movie a mostly measured if grim drama about a group of 13 samurai coming together to take down a sadistic and power-hungry lord who is poised to ascend to a position of power. Since he's related to the reigning shogun, the only way to ensure he won't rise to prominence is to assassinate him, so these 13 determined men take on a suicide mission in the name of protecting their countrymen. The building of the team is portrayed methodically and a little slowly, and many of the samurai were a little tough for me to tell apart (they do all have basically the same haircut and wardrobe). A few characters stand out, though, and Miike gives the ringleader Shinzaemon as well as Shinzaemon's nephew distinctive personalities. Villain Naritsugu also makes a notable impression, proving himself every bit the amoral sadist that his enemies claim him to be.

Although there's one particularly nasty scene featuring a woman whose arms and legs have been cut off by Naritsugu, the first half of the movie is relatively calm. But once the group comes together and entrenches itself in a small roadside town to wait for Naritsugu and his retinue, Miike switches gears, delivering a nonstop bloody battle that's worthy of any big-budget war movie. The assassins rely as much on explosives, traps and falling debris as they do on their hand-to-hand combat skills, and Miike does an impressive job of staging the large-scale assault that this small group prepares to deal with an entire battalion. Despite the efforts of the movie's first half, most of the samurai remain interchangeable cannon fodder, but Miike manages to wring some emotion out of their inevitable deaths, and by the time the movie is down to just the characters we recognize and care about, there is a palpable sense of weariness. This is a movie about a group of righteous warriors taking down an evil man, but when the final survivor stumbles through the wreckage, it's hard to imagine any of it as a victory. So many martial-arts movies these days are concerned with colorful robes and graceful movements; in 13 Assassins, Miike brings it all back to blood and guts.


I have a weakness for prime-time soaps, so I can forgive a lot of cheesiness and ridiculous plotting if a show hooks me with memorable characters, juicy twists and a pulpy sense of fun. I'm the guy who watched nearly the entire original run of Melrose Place, after all, and I'm still following and (mostly) enjoying Gossip Girl. Ringer is undoubtedly silly, and like this season's other unabashed soap opera, ABC's Revenge, it has a limited premise that seems like it will be difficult to stretch out over multiple seasons. But the pilot hits all the right notes, driven by Sarah Michelle Gellar's hammy lead performance as a pair of twin sisters who each harbor their own dark secrets. The scenes in which hardscrabble recovering addict/former stripper and prostitute (she's an overachiever!) Bridget and icy socialite Siobhan interact look seriously awkward, and I hope that the show's main hook (in which Bridget assumes Siobhan's identity after Siobhan appears to have committed suicide) will keep the two characters from having to interact onscreen too often.

Special-effects constraints aside, the rest of the episode is entertainingly trashy, with the confused Bridget trying to navigate the details of Siobhan's messy world, including a distant husband (Ioan Gruffudd), a secret lover, a bitchy teenage stepdaughter and a life of attending benefits and choosing interior-design elements. Oh, and someone seems to want Siobhan dead just about as bad as some other someone wants Bridget dead, which was the reason for the whole switcheroo in the first place. It put me in mind of Bette Davis' two movies in which she played her own twin, Dead Ringer and A Stolen Life, both of which involve one sister taking over the other sister's life (one even involves a similar boating incident as the one in this show). Gellar is no Bette Davis, but she has fun with her dual role and isn't afraid to play up the characters' nastiness. Ringer could easily fall apart under the weight of its own labored plotting (I didn't even get to Nestor Carbonell as an FBI agent hot on Bridget's trail), but for now it's worth watching if you, like me, have a fondness for soapy stories about catty, devious schemers and the people who love (and betray) them. 

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on The CW.

Monday, September 12, 2011

'Wishful Drinking'

Given how much Carrie Fisher has been through in her life, I guess I expected her one-woman stage show Wishful Drinking, recorded last year for an HBO special, to be more detailed and revealing, instead of the entertaining but disappointingly glib routine she delivers. It's not that Fisher is reluctant to share the details of her life -- on the contrary, she almost gleefully lays out the dysfunctional relationships of her parents, singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds, illustrating their various marriages and affairs with an amusing oversized chart she dubs "Hollywood Inbreeding 101." But Fisher's own feelings (other than bemusement) about these no doubt traumatic scandals and tragedies are obscured by her reliance on corny jokes and silly gimmicks.

Of course, the whole point of the show is for Fisher to find humor in her difficult life, and some of it is indeed quite funny. But the value of laughing at your misfortunes is in finding a new way to understand them, and so much of Wishful Drinking glides past understanding in favor of a few more easy laughs. Fisher frequently references dark, troubling episodes in her life, including her mother's multiple financial ruins and Fisher's own stints in rehab and mental-health facilities, but she then pulls back from illuminating how or why she ended up in those situations, or what enabled her to cope. This is especially true of Fisher's substance-abuse problems, which, despite the title, get little attention in comparison to her parents' romantic escapades.

Maybe it's because Fisher has already covered this ground fictionally in several of her novels, but the straight-up truth has a value that no fictionalized account, no matter how close to reality, can replicate. Given how self-aware Fisher is about her parents' psychological hang-ups, and even about her own romantic relationships, it's disappointing that she holds back on what for many could be the most fascinating and insightful part of the show. There's also a book version of the story, which may feature more and better detail (although it's still on the short side at under 200 pages), but audiences shouldn't have to look to other sources to get a full understanding of what Fisher is portraying here. There's a definite value in hearing it in Fisher's own voice, with the way she commands the stage and cleverly deploys visual aids. A lot of Wishful Drinking is hilarious and heartbreaking, which makes it even more frustrating when Fisher walks offstage after 75 minutes, having barely scratched the surface of what she has to offer.

Available on DVD September 13.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Big Shakedown' (1934)

As I get down to fewer and fewer Bette Davis movies that I have yet to see, more and more of them are concentrated in the early-to-mid-1930s, a period in which Davis was under contract to Warner Bros. and churning out a quick succession of B-movies while working to make a name for herself. That means that Davis' parts in these movies are often not very substantial, and the movies themselves are usually forgettable and sloppy. There are occasional pleasant surprises (like 1932's The Rich Are Always With Us), but The Big Shakedown is not one of them. It's a rather ludicrous melodrama about gangsters making counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and the devastating effect this has on the absurdly naive pharmacist (Charles Farrell) who helps create the products.

Davis plays the pharmacist's wife, a sunny and optimistic woman with very little personality and the reason that he risks breaking the law to make some extra money. Both of them value the simpler time of the friendly corner drugstore, but the mob has other ideas, and the ambitious gangster played by Ricardo Cortez wants to build an empire off of ersatz toothpaste. It's all fun and games until the pharmacist is charged with creating knock-off medications that are harder to concoct than toothpaste, and he's forced to turn out defective products to meet the demands of his overseers (who shockingly decline to let him leave his position when he asks politely). Of course these medications turn out to be the only thing that can save his unborn child, thus teaching him the consequences of his criminal ways, etc.

Although there is some fun pre-Code nastiness here (the gangster gets his comeuppance by being dumped into a vat of acid), The Big Shakedown is resolutely square and dull, with a bland lead performance from Farrell. Davis has a few cheeky moments with the drugstore's goofy customers, but mostly she just has to stand around and look either concerned or proud. Glenda Farrell has a much sassier, Davis-like role as the gangster's moll, although it's a pretty small part. The movie barrels through its moronic plot in a little over an hour, and the actors just stand around and try not to get run over.