Saturday, May 06, 2006

They did the mash!: Supernatural, season 1

So I had an elaborate post written up last night, and a computer error right before I hit submit caused the whole thing to get lost. You can see why I was reluctant to re-do this.

But here I am!

Before we get started, please remember to vote in the best-of-TV survey.

Anyway. Supernatural. Season 1.

This was quite a fun show. I saw 18 of its 22 episodes (most in connection with my writing project), and I was never exactly bored. It's not Shakespeare, of course, but as television to turn your brain off to, it's not bad.

That said, there's a lot here that could have been done better, to make the show even more of an enjoyable experience for viewers.

The show, which, in case you didn't know, is about two brothers tracking monsters around the U.S., adheres to the old X-Files format (which makes sense with all of the X-Files writers who work as producers on the show). Namely, it offers mostly standalone episodes, while giving you the occasional glimpse at an overriding plot. Sometimes, whole episodes are devoted to this plot (usually during sweeps months). Sometimes, references to it are slipped into the standalone episodes.

The show borrows from Buffy in that it looks as though it will have one Big Bad per season (while the brothers hadn't vanquished the Big Bad at the end of the first season finale, I don't really see a way for the writers to extend the story further). This season, the Big Bad was a demon responsible for the death of the boys' mother and one of their girlfriends. As a main villain, the demon offered up the right blend of menace and connection to our heroes to be truly effective (on Buffy, Big Bads worked best when they were characters that Buffy had some sort of relationship -- whether it was a romantic relationship gone sour or a relationship where the Big Bad mirrored her in some way; this is why no one talks with reverence for the days when Adam was the Big Bad).

The standalone episodes of the show varied greatly in quality. Some were excellent, mini scary movies. Others were simply preposterous, offering us monsters we'd seen a thousand times before in Saturday afternoon B-movies. I thought the episode Hell House, where the monster was one created by the frightened thoughts of thousands of Internet users, was a pretty novel twist on an old idea, but the episode with all of the Bugs was pretty weak.

The standalones also relied on urban legends a bit too much. Many urban legends, cool as they are, have lost their power to scare over the years. While the show offered some novel twists on a few (Bloody Mary in particular), too many were pretty pedestrian (how can you possibly screw up the Hookman as badly as this show did?). Still, the show seems to have hit most of the big ones, so season two should steer clear of these stories more (unless they decide to do that one where the girl bakes herself in a tanning bed, which seems like a terrible idea). Offhand mentions in numerous episodes of more obscure elements of paranormal esoterica promise stories for years to come (I can't wait to see what they do with Spring Heeled Jack).

All of this wouldn't have been so glaring if the central story had been a bit better constructed. And the central story fell apart in two ways: The demon the brothers were tracking was not well-established, and the device used to kill said demon arose as a deus ex machina.

The best thing about how Buffy constructed its season-long arcs was in how it created its villains. First, you met them. Then, you learned just how bad they were. Then, you learned what they planned to do. Then, Buffy and the gang began to devise a plot to take down the monsters. In Supernatural, we know the demon is a bad entity, bent on destruction, but we don't really know much beyond that. Attempts to take the battle from a personal vendetta to a "We have to save people from this demon" kind of battle came too late to matter (in the next-to-last episode specifically). We never got to know the demon as an entity in and of itself. We only got to know some of the people AROUND the demon, and when we learned their motivations, they seemed to be a bit of a stretch.

Furthermore, the plan to take out the demon was poorly constructed. The brothers must track down a gun that can kill anything. Since the gun is a Colt .45 and the show made a name for itself by taking American iconography and reworking it for its own milieu, this really could have worked well if the Colt had been introduced as a plot device early in the season. If we had found out in, say, episode four that the brothers planned to get this Colt from the vampire who held it so they could use it to kill the demon and it had taken them until episode 20 to do so, that would have been great. That would have been a shrewd and simple plan, arrived at by our heroes and carried out at great cost. Instead, the show introduced the idea of the gun in episode 20, the boys' father telling them about it. Even an attempt to imbue the gun with a great sense of history fell flat, simply because the gun felt like a deus ex machina. In short, the boys didn't have to come up with a plan to kill this demon. They just had to get the gun. And that felt like a cheat.

I don't mean to make it sound like I hate this show. Because I really sort of like it. Clearly, I stuck with it for a year, and I'm writing a script for it, so I don't think it's all bad. I just think there are some things in the internal structure of the show that could save the show from becoming too formulaic or too implausible.

I like the way the show is filmed. For something on a shoestring budget, it looks quite handsome (indeed, its directors often have a better eye than the directors of many bigtime horror films). I like the central performances too, and I think the idea of using ghosts and creepy critters to enforce the idea of a family bonding through a time of strife is a pretty good one. And the show's knowledge of its subject matter is really pretty impressive, even if creative liberties are taken so the boys can use super-cool shotguns in nearly every episode.

Supernatural is never going to be a show that aspires to be something beyond a weekly scary movie, but I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. It is what it is, and it's enjoyable enough on its own terms.


Friday, May 05, 2006

In which Felicity becomes an assassin

Hey! Vote in this best-of-TV survey!

You'll like Mission: Impossible III exactly as much as you like Tom Cruise. If you can ignore the new whackjob public persona and enjoy him as an action star, you might be okay. If you can't put those new, negative feelings away, you're going to be miserable.

Because even though the film is much more generous with its characters that aren't Ethan Hunt (Cruise), the media's relentless focus on Cruise over the last two years makes the film All About Him.

It's a shame too. Because first-time feature director J.J. Abrams has crafted a pretty fun little spy movie. I dare say that if anyone but Cruise were at the center of this film (say, Matt Damon), the film would be hailed as a masterful piece of popcorn entertainment. It has plenty of flaws and not enough Philip Seymour Hoffman (more on him in a moment), but it's a fun way to kick off a season of mindless entertainment.

Perhaps the film's biggest flaw is Abrams' inability to see the cinematic canvas as a unique one from the television canvas. Where fellow TV-geek auteur Joss Whedon expanded his vision (and pulled off some cinematic sweep) when he made his feature directing debut, Abrams sticks mostly to the bag of tricks he honed to perfection on Alias. It's not that that bag of tricks is a bad one, but it's one that's largely designed to obscure minimal budget and allow for maximum emotional impact on a minimal screen. And that means lots and lots of close-ups.

Close-ups in and of themselves are not such a big deal. They're just such a big part of Abrams' cinematic vocabulary that they start to obscure the larger picture (some of the action scenes become unnecessarily chaotic as a result). Where Whedon found some cinematic sweep on a MUCH smaller budget, Abrams falls back on his television grammar a bit too often.

But that's a minor complaint. The script is goofy fun (and doesn't take itself too seriously). The action sequences are all pretty well executed. And Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a WONDERFUL bad guy. He should seriously consider playing these parts more often.

And Keri Russell is gorgeous.

I've heard complaints that the relationship stuff is forced (and I'm not as enamored with Michelle Monaghan as Hollywood is, obviously). But I think it grounds the film in a larger reality, which is something the MI series has lacked. If the producers had cast Russell as the wife, things might have worked better, since she and Cruise have FAR more chemistry.

But, once again, this movie is all on Cruise's shoulders. Those close-ups? Of Cruise. Those action sequences? Focused on Cruise. The guy Philip Seymour Hoffman kicks the crap out of? Cruise.

So if you've got serious problems with the Cruiser, skip this one. All in all, though, Abrams and his crew have figured out a way to reinvigorate a franchise that never really knew what it was. It's a shame that it's all going to fall apart because an unstable man jumped on a couch.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Death, death, so much death

Apparently, at the start of the TV season, everyone decided it was time for some killin'. Maybe all of these sundry producers should have talked to each other. Because it's starting to seem like overkill.

Spoilers, obviously, follow.





So, anyway, tonight, both Alias and Lost killed two characters. In the case of Alias, both were former regulars. In the case of Lost, one was someone purported to be a MAJOR character, and the other was a main character we knew basically nothing about. Airing as the shows do, one after the other, it felt like some gruesome plan on the part of ABC to torment us.

On the one hand, so many shows killing so many characters (neither of these shows can compare to the bloodbath on 24 this year and in the season premiere of The Sopranos) raises the stakes. When Foreman got sick on House, you couldn't reasonably say he'd pull out of it, even though House is the sort of show that would NEVER kill a character (because, of course, NCIS killed a character last year, and it's also the sort of show that would NEVER kill a character). And, what's more, we've been told that many, many more shows are going to kill characters by the end of the year.

But at what point does it become too much?

I think it will become too much pretty soon. Any time your viewers expect you to do something, you should aim to not do that. If I were Lost, a show which has killed off four characters in two seasons (and some spoilers say one of the women shot tonight may survive), I would go OUT OF MY WAY to not kill any major characters in season three. Because such deaths would no longer be shocking, there needs to be a brief respite. Then, deaths in season four would become that much more shocking.

But what do I know?

I think that the rampant deaths on TV are a way of responding to the uncertainty of the world. In the old days, you didn't kill someone above the title unless they wanted to leave the show. But Sopranos killed Big Pussy, and then 24 killed Jack Bauer's wife. Before that, it was good enough to just kill a recurring character (like Buffy's mom or Mrs. Landingham on West Wing). After that, the stakes rose considerably.

But eventually, the stakes are going to raise TOO high. And where will you go after that, oh TV producers of the land?

Obviously, there's going to be a show that kills off its lead at some point, and that seems the logical ending point. Once that happens, killing main characters may very well join chirpy music and will they/won't they in the "things I hate about TV file.


Pilot script review: "Untitled Tina Fey Project"

Once again, don't ask how I came into possession of this. Just know that it came to me (assume it dropped from the sky).

Anyway. . .the SECOND of NBC's two behind-the-scenes-of-a-sketch-comedy-show pilots is capably done and has plenty of funny moments, but it's not up to the level of Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 7" (or whatever they're calling it nowadays). And that's a shame, because this is the sort of show that TV needs right now: a smart sitcom with strong characters.

Unfortunately, the laughs in this pilot are squeezed in awkwardly between bits of exposition. There's a long, long runner with bagels that just is never as funny as Fey (the script's author) thinks it is. And many of the other jokes that take place in the "real world" of the script are too crude for the milieu or just not funny. (The flashbacks, think Scrubs or Arrested Development, are pretty uniform in their amusement.)

But it gets funnier as it goes along. And you start to see how these characters (though there are too many of them, as though Fey wanted to transport EVERY type she met working on SNL into the show) might become fun over the long haul (I'm particularly fond of the central character who would be played by Fey and her head writing partner). What's more, you start to see how the central conflicts could play out over 100 episodes (which is deeply important in a pilot).

But I think the reason Studio 7 is going to beat this one is because Studio just drops you into the middle of the situation, while Fey's script starts at the very beginning. It's the difference between a premise pilot (which takes pains to show how everything in the show came to be -- think of Gilligan's Island, where the boat crashes) and a story pilot (which drops you in right in the middle of the story). More and more pilots are dropping you into an unfamiliar situation, so a premise pilot like this one (which, admittedly, is only about half a premise pilot) just feels. . .awkward. And kind of slowly paced.

In an ideal world, both backstage projects would be picked up, but I don't think this one will be. It's a shame. It could have turned into a great show, but it's probably going to be undone by an underwhelming pilot.

Too bad. We could have used a backstage Scrubs.

Coming soon: Why season two of Veronica Mars is much better than season one.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Summer Movie Preview, part 2

See here for Part 1.

And vote in the best-of-TV survey.

The race to predict who's going to be the big box-office champ is so incredibly AMERICAN in many ways. It's a bit crass and vulgar (predicated, as it is, on forcing works of art to face off against each other in a commercial venue), but it also seems a rousing argument for capitalism.

Now, I don't know much about box office numbers, but as I stated yesterday, I could see this summer being HUGE. And if it's not huge, it'll be horrible and continue talk of the "box office slump."

But let's take a look. Jon's numbers are almost certain to be better than mine, but I'll give it the old college try.

Jon's Big Box-Office Predictions

1.) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - $400M
My craziest Prediction of the summer, but unless the running time hurts the film (As Todd foolishly believes), I can see the audience that fell in love with the original in theaters and on DVD returning for a second go-round.

2.) Cars - $300M
Possibly a bit on the high side, but until POTC2, it has the family market pretty much to itself.

3.) The Da Vinci Code - $270M
I can see this going MUCH higher (As in $300M+), but for now, I'll lowball it.

4.) Superman Returns - $240M
This could go anywhere from $200M to $300M. Personally, I'll go for the low side of the middle.

5.) X-Men: The Last Stand - $235M
Being the final X-Men (supposedly) and opening on the biggest weekend of the year will cause massive frontloading, but it should still finish just above the second one.

6.) Mission: Impossible 3 - $195M
It should kick off the summer with an opening that could top last year's entire Top 12 ($78.5M), then fall like a rock from there.

7.) Over the Hedge - $165M
Another potential underprediction, but with the amount of competition this will have (Opening the same weekend as The Da Vinci Code, Cars in its 4th week), this would be a very good total.

8.) Click - $150M
I have a gut feeling this will go lower, but the idea of Adam Sandler Having a Life Remote Control is close enough to Jim Carrey Being God to work, I guess.

9.) Poseidon - $120M
Opening the week after M:I-3 and the week before The Da Vinci Code will chop its legs into sushi, but a big opening will cushion said Leg Sushi.

10.) The Break-Up - $105M
If Failure to Launch's surprise breakout success showed anything, it’s that audiences are craving Studio RomComs. AND Vince Vaughn is hot Post-Wedding Crashers.

Todd's Big Box-Office Predictions

1.) Superman Returns - $375M
Call me crazy, but I think all of the negative buzz in the world isn't going to matter. The first film with Christopher Reeve ALSO had rumors swirling around it, and it did pretty well. I think Singer's going to stay true enough to the myth that grandparents and grandchildren alike have enjoyed all of these years to ensure a big box office take. The only thing that could sink this would be a run time that's over two-and-a-half hours.

2.) The DaVinci Code - $325M
I go back and forth on this one. The studio is selling it poorly. But the book has sold so well. The tracking is surprisingly low. But the book's fans are almost cultish. Tom Hanks has a mullet. But even the people who DIDN'T like the book are going to go see it. Basically, the book has sold over 40 million copies. And its many fans are deeply loyal. So, what we have here, is Harry Potter for old people.

3.) Cars - $315M
This is almost certainly going to be too long, meaning it won't catch up to Finding Nemo (which, let's not forget, was pretty long itself, as was The Incredibles). And the "take the time to taste the Welch's" central theme of the film isn't going to resonate with kids as much as their parents, but this film has the kid market almost wholly to itself (well, not really. . .see below) for nearly a month.

4.) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - $305M
Obviously, I'm predicting the theoretical biggest summer ever. I think those gas prices are going to be TOO high to do much OTHER than go to the movies. But, honestly, I'm not buying the hype on the box office for this one. EVERYONE I know wants to see it, but everyone also forgets that the first film was a bit too long, and sequels aren't known for their brevity, generally. But if this has a running time of under two hours, watch out. It'll become a sensation.

5.) Mission: Impossible 3 - $240M
And now, the steep drop-off. Obviously, we don't know just HOW bad Tom Cruise's image has gotten. But the early tracking on this (and the poor tracking on Poseidon) along with the great reviews coming in from geek corners make me think this could be a film that makes a whole lot of money very quickly and then fades immediately.

6.) Over the Hedge - $215M
This is also not a popular opinion, but I think this is going to soak up more dollars than any of us are predicting. I could even see it making it to $250 million. Libby's second rule of the universe is "Kids will watch any old s***," and this looks to not be all that bad. (She's also predicting The DaVinci Code to be the summer's biggest film, and she works at a movie theater, so you'd best be listening to her.)

7.) Click - $195M
I dunno. This just seems like a winner to me. Clearly, I'm the only person who thinks that. But, hey, if I'm right, I'm right.

8.) X-Men: The Last Stand - $180M
Jon's right about how frontloaded this will be, but I don't see it crawling its way above $200 million. Not at all.

9.) The Break-Up - $140M
Another steep drop-off. Jon's right that romantic comedies are big business right now, and I think Vince Vaughn's fans will let themselves be dragged to this by their girlfriends. And, hey, naked Jennifer Anison. You could do a lot worse.

10.) Nacho Libre - $115M
Call me crazy (again), but I think this will do surprisingly well. The kids at Libby's theatre stand and look up at the standee like it descended from Heaven. And since there's little else in the way of comedies the whole family will want to see, those who can't see Cars will see this.

But what are your predictions? Comment away!


Monday, May 01, 2006

Coming in May to South Dakota Dark

May is going to be a busy month here.

Season finale season is upon us as of Wednesday (by my calculations), when One Tree Hill airs its finale. After that, scarcely a day will go by without a season finale, usually with a HUGE cliffhanger of some sort. What's even more entertaining is that half (or so) of these cliffhangers will never be resolved.

I'm going to try to watch as many of these things as I can (though I can't guarantee anything), so I can give you some sense of what's up. There are some shows that are ONLY worth watching for their "event" episodes (Smallville leaps to mind), and I look forward to seeing just how little the plot has progressed in the last nine months.

Additionally, I'll be updating the Super-TV Preview to reflect new realities, and I'll be covering the network upfronts, when we learn just what was canceled and just what was saved at the last minute. And I'm going to try to institute a system to get more TV and culture news in here, so you at least know what I'm talking about when I ramble on about things.

What's more, the best-of-TV survey will be wrapping up in just two short weeks. So that should be coming up some weekend here. (Don't forget to vote!)

And, of course, you can expect the usual season-ending reviews as the shows I watch regularly wrap up for the year (the first of these should be Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars, coming shortly). I'm also hoping to get some film commentary up, but I don't know how likely that will be until the summer.

Finally, this blog has put me in touch with a number of people who work in the television industry, so this summer, I'm going to talk to them about their jobs and their insights into the world of America's favorite medium. Look for interviews with writers, executives, critics. . .whomever I can persuade to step into my interview booth.

All this, plus the usual nonsense and (hopefully) reviews of pilot scripts and episodes (but don't hold your breath).

Happy times are here again!


And the Blogosphere roars!

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting Maggie from Bootstrap Productions. We sat in the park and ate delicious Apple Pan cheeseburgers (best burgers in L.A., yo) and watched little girls play softball. Then we talked about television and crazy roommates and sundry other things.

Anyway, when I moved out to SoCal in order to pursue my various dreams, I didn't even know how I would begin. But, somehow, this blog has made that possible. Which is really odd when you think about it.

When I was in high school and the Internet first became readily available, the big deal was that you didn't use it to make personal contacts. You didn't make friends there, because these weren't people you could know in REAL LIFE. Somehow, over the years, that thinking has changed.

But here's what I know: I wouldn't have been nearly as successful in meeting people (and people who know people) without you, Blogosphere.

So thanks for that.

(And vote in the best-of-TV survey.)


Sunday, April 30, 2006

Summer Movie Preview 2006, part 1

Despite the fact that I grow less and less interested with Hollywood's summer blockbusters with every passing year, I felt the need to touch on this. So here's part 1. Part 2 will deal with box-office predictions. Part 3 will deal with critical predictions.

Before we continue, you should really all vote in this best-of-TV survey. I hear the guy doing it is the best human being to have lived in the last three centuries.

So, anyway, I think this summer movie season is going to be one of the biggest on record for three reasons.

1.) It's supposed to be hot. Don't knock it. People like to get in to the air conditioning.

2.) Gas prices are going to be going up. When this happens, everyone likes to stay close to home. Some might even cancel vacations, but still take the time off. And when the kids get annoying, where are you going to go?

3.) The movies are ones people want to see. Sequels. Established franchises. Stars acting just like how we want the stars to act. And mostly light-hearted films. Very little doom 'n' gloom, which was last summer's undoing.

Once again, I've commissioned the help of my friend Jon (who also helped me do the super TV preview a month or so ago). He's got a better head for box office figures and stuff than I do, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

But first. . .our most anticipated blockbuster-y type films of summer 2006 AND the films we're looking forward to on a, y'know, artistic basis.

Jon's Blockbuster 10

1.) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

The first was one of the most rewatchable films of the last five years. Even if this is half as entertaining as the first, it'll be great.

2.) Cars

I STILL haven't seen The Incredibles (I am a terrible, terrible person), but the other 5 Pixar films fill me with hope that this'll be another entertaining, touching film, crappy trailers be damned. (Early reviews help me make that assumption.)

3.) Idlewild

I don't really listen to much OutKast, but the trailer was filled with so much energy and fun that I must see it.

4.) The Break-Up

As a proudly straight macho man (Ha! -- TV), Bring It On is a personal guilty pleasure of mine (SPIRIT FINGERS!), and the trailer was pretty funny. At best, it could be the rarest of things: A Non-Genre RomCom.

5.) The Da Vinci Code

I haven't read the book.

6.) Talladega Nights

Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver. What else could you want in a late-summer movie?

7.) X-Men: The Last Stand

Like any good hearted film lover, the Bryan Singer-Brett Ratner swap worries me, but the trailer convinced me to give Ratner the benefit of the doubt, though I still fear a Terminator-style Trilogy (two great films from a great director, a final "eh" film from a "eh" director).

8.) Over the Hedge

Early word says this is less Madagascar and more Shrek, so my interest is high.

9.) Lady in the Water

M. Night Shyamalan goes for something completely different here (A Bedtime Story, eh?), and with Paul Giamatti, I'm very intrigued.

10.) Snakes on a Plane's Opening Night

I won't see this movie any other way. At all.

Todd's Blockbuster 10

1.) Cars
Oddly enough, I'm mostly unstirred by this summer's blockbusters (see above), but Pixar has never led me wrong before, and I love the work of director John Lasseter. His gentle humanism 4 tykes worked so well in his other films.

2.) Superman Returns
Bad Internet buzz be damned. The world's most boring superhero looks to have gotten a film that nicely conflates his status as American myth into an easily-digestible chunk. And Superman remains the most kid-friendly superhero of them all, so it should be fun to watch the tots eyes light up, if nothing else.

3.) Mission: Impossible III
Tom Cruise is bats*** insane. We all know that. He's given to vague pronouncements on psychology and the like. But Philip Seymour Hoffman looks to be awesome. And I love the rest of the M:I team. And it's J.J. Abrams, creator of two of my most enjoyed television series: Alias and Lost. And I want to support the TV auteurs as they step over into geek films something fierce. And when David Poland dismisses the film as the Alias pilot: the movie, that sounds AWESOME to me.

4.) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
The first was WAY too long. And the weird cult that has sprung up around Johnny Depp (especially on the Internets) is just annoying. But, God help me, I love pirates, and I love Depp's performance. And Keira Knightley is ONLY attractive when strapped into a corset. So there you go.

5.) Snakes on a Plane
I'm not, like, ridiculously excited for this.
OK. I am.
And the sequel better be BEARS on a Plane.

6.) Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby
And I quote from my earlier thoughts on this film. Amy Adams.
Amy Adams.
Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams. Amy Adams.
She'd better be in this movie a WHOLE LOT.

7.) Over the Hedge
I love the comic strip, and the one guy I know who has seen it swears it's awesome. The trailer is stupid, but I have faith.

8.) The Break-Up
Peyton Reed is one of those great, underrated directors. And Vince Vaughn is always a good time. Will it suck? Almost certainly. But I'll still go see it.

9.) Click
I hate Adam Sandler movies. And I hate high concept movies. But this high concept is just too good to ignore.

10.) Poseidon
There's a big boat. Then the big boat is upside down. There's also a big wave. And a cavalcade of stars. It shows every sign of being terrible, but I'll swallow every last drop.

Bonus 11.) Romeo and Juliet: Sealed with a Kiss
I mean. . .Shakespeare performed by seals? Who HASN'T been waiting for that?

Jon's Artistic 5

1.) A Prairie Home Companion

Robert Altman with the year's biggest and best cast. Need I say more?

2.) The Science of Sleep

Michel Gondry's quirky follow-up to Eternal Sunshine promises many bizarre SFX-Free dream sequences, so count me in!

3.) Little Miss Sunshine

The trailer for this was promising, and early word from Sundance was positive. Just don't be another Napoleon Dynamite, please.

4. A Scanner Darkly

I haven't seen Waking Life yet (I am a terrible, terrible person), but again, hopefully this will provide some trippy but deep fun that makes me think.

5.) An Inconvenient Truth

The trailer was a wee bit on the ambitious side ("If you love you children, YOU MUST SEE THIS FILM"), but there's nothing quite like a summer doc at the theater.

Jon picked every movie I was going to list. I'll try to find some different ones, I guess.

Side note: Good lord are there a lot of War on Terror documentaries this summer. Honestly!

Todd's Artistic 5

1.) Prairie Home Companion
Even if my compatriot chose this as his number one as well, I think it stands to reason that it should be a film most film fans are getting excited about. Robert Altman takes on the subjects of radio, death and life passages. And with as old as Altman's getting, every new film we get from him (arguably America's greatest living director) is a treasure.

2.) The Descent
There's something to be said for intelligent horror and the effect it has on an audience. This one has gotten raves out of its native UK, and I can't wait to see just what's so scary about it.

3.) The Proposition
I've heard good things about this Aussie Western, and Emily Watson is always worth a trip to the arthouse.

4.) The Promise
A Chinese epic from the director of Farewell, My Concubine? I don't know what it's about, but I'll give it a shot.

5.) Wordplay
I love documentaries. I love puzzles. Here's a documentary about puzzles. What's not to love?

Bonus 6.) The Los Angeles International Film Festival
Some of my best film days last year revolved around taking in screenings at this big event. You can bet I'll be going back again this year.


Bruce Springsteen's olde-tyme hootenanny

I'm immensely thankful I got my laptop fixed (well, it still needs a little work done), but it won't let me load pictures, which is an annoyance. Ah, well.

Please send in your ballots for the best-of-TV survey. You've got a little over two weeks to go, and I'd like to double the 40 or so ballots I have in right now. So vote!

Anyway, continuing our non-television weekend, let's take a look at Bruce Springsteen's newest CD, "We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions." On paper, it's a horribly pretentious title, promising lots of dreadfully earnest ballads and political commentary. But that's because we're assuming Springsteen would put emphasis on the "Pete Seeger" part of the secondary title. Instead, he put the emphasis on the "Sessions" part. And that made all of the difference.

Now, I'm a Springsteen fan going way back. I love roughly every album he made between "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" and "Born in the USA." "Born to Run" and "Nebraska" are albums I write to all of the time. I even find stuff to love in his lesser albums (except for that "Human Touch"/"Lucky Town" combo). But, let's face it, the man has been a bit slowed, perhaps by expectations, in recent years. "The Rising," while it had some amazing songs, was too long by about six or seven tracks (I still think it managed to somehow be more than the sum of its parts). And "Devils and Dust" was problematic all around (though the title track was pretty good).

But on this new album, Springsteen sounds re-energized. He's finally found a way, I think, to make an album about America (which seems to be what he's been trying to do for so long now). I don't listen to a lot of music like many of my friends, and I don't fancy myself a music critic, but I haven't heard anything quite this wide-ranging from an established artist in a long time.

In 2004, Springsteen made headlines by campaigning for John Kerry (and taking part in that concert tour that I can't remember the name of for the life of me). When he came to Madison, Wis., on the day before the election, my newspaper at the time (the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) covered it. Now, as a good journalist (who never gives political donations or shows support for a candidate outside of the voting booth), I didn't go, but I read all of the coverage, and something Springsteen talked about has resonated with me since. He talked about the "America we carry in our hearts," and this album seems to be his best representation of that.

Sonically, this is a big album, an attempt to shove turn-of-the-20th-century folk tunes into the Phil Spector sound Springsteen is so fond of. And the songs sound nothing like you think they would. The ones you expect might be dreary and filled with self-importance end up being some of the jolliest numbers (give a listen to "My Oklahoma Home"), while numbers that have been turned into happy songs you sing around campfires have been stripped down to their dark vitals ("Erie Canal" fits this profile in particular).

This is music for a big country full of over-sized legends and people. It's music for a land with elbow room, and it manages to blend almost as many musical styles as there are states. Hurricane Katrina somehow maintains a presence on the album, as the songs take turns into Dixieland jazz and zydeco. The temptation to lapse into political commentary is only succumbed to once, but the songs, speaking as they do of poor people, fighting against unjust systems, don't NEED the commentary. The issues spoken of are still with us today.

Now, not everything on this album works, but the most important thing is that Springsteen feels alive here, the most alive he's sounded in years. He calls out chord changes and giggles as he counts off the opening of a song. And he never lets the songs lapse into self-parody or anything approaching over-familiarity. You might have sung these songs in grade school music class, but you never sang them like this.

When I first heard about this project, I was worried it might be music for your grandmother. And it still is. But you'd better hope you have a rowdy grandmother.