Friday, September 12, 2008

Camera Obscura: "Burn Notice"; "Fringe"; Those Coen Brothers

I took it on myself to watch some new/returning television shows, despite the risk of being exposed to The Awfulness.

The good news is a couple of shows which have gotten a small amount of critical praise, but which I have enjoyed immensely. Like the USA network show "Burn Notice." It's a very smart take on the con job and the private investigator riff with a great cast, including the supporting work of actor Bruce Campbell, a smarmy and world weary con artist. He's had shows all over the map on television (I was partial to "Adventures of Brisco County Jr.") so I'm glad to see his talents put to good use. Gabrielle Anwar looks most sexy, but her character usually has to be restrained from ripping into any problem with an AK-47. Sharon Gless is pure Mom-In-Miami, and has a perpetual cigarette dangling from her mouth as she needles her way into her son's life. Her son, played by Jeffrey Donovan, is the star of the show - a former CIA operative who got turned out of the agency for nefarious and mysterious reasons. He's trying to figure out the why of that, how to return to service and works as a fixer and a PI in the meantime with the help of Campbell and Anwar.

Shot with stylish flourishes, the show really plays like a 21st century version of "Maverick", a more intense "Rockford Files", with lots of humor and a steady tough-guy narration about how to play the con. The show does have sort of an over-arching theme of Donovan angling his way back into the CIA, but each episode stands alone as complex schemes involving the innocent and the guilty play out in the Miami sunshine. The show wraps up it's second season next week, and I hope it returns again next summer. It's great fun, has strong characters played at excellent levels and blends a lot of TV private detective shtick into a new brew.

I also made use of the online service of Hulu this week since I missed the premiere of the new J.J. Abrams series, "Fringe." Hulu was quick to post the episode and the sound and images were crisp, with just a few commercials, so I'll probably try them again. I just don't have the luxury of simply patterning my evenings around what is on prime-time TV so being able to pick both what and when I watch is a most welcome change.

As for the show -- well, Abrams is a savvy creator and storyteller. As with "Lost" and "Alias", he plays around with television conventions and expectations very well. And he can certainly create interesting characters. This pilot for "Fringe" ran 90 minutes, but might have been better served running at two hours ... perhaps. Maybe it was best to race through the set-up for the show rather than let the goofiness of it linger.

The basic set-up: super-secret government task force is tracking a worldwide series of bizarre beyond-science events, from teleportation to earthquake machines and a plucky FBI agent, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), gets drawn into the mysterious group. But what made the show work for me was the character of Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), formerly a cutting-edge scientist and researcher who has spent the last 17 years in a mental ward. He's babbling, potentially dangerous, and of course, a genius. Sort of like a cross between The Professor from Gilligan's Island, if he had been a secret Pentagon expert who went a little crazy.

It was a decent start for an X-Files wannabe, but as usual, it will take several more episodes to see if it's worthwhile or just a little too silly. If nothing else, it's a chance to explore Abrams' work while I wait for new episodes of "Lost" and his reboot of the "Star Trek" franchise.

One more show I'll mention, but I classify it as a pure guilty pleasure, so your enjoyment will vary. The show is "Eureka" on the Sci-Fi network. It's a town full of scientists and researchers in a secret bajillion dollar complex who seem to always be creating some apocalyptic devices each week and the local sheriff, a non-scientific dude, muddles into each mess with his intuitive crime-solving and common sense nature to resolve it all.

What I like best in the show is that it's collected all the bizarre and complex tales from old pulp fiction sci-fi into a single town, so there are plenty of astounding events and addled geniuses. They fling theories and jargon around faster than you can say Beam Me Up Scotty, and I just like that kind of thing.


While the Oscar crowd raved about "No Country For Old Men" by the Coen brothers, I've been in a sizable community of fans for all of their movies since their very first, "Blood Simple". This week, they offer up another black comedy "Burn After Reading", a satire on the spy movie genre and populated with some moronic characters played by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand. A lot of critics just don't - and never have - been able to process their movies while viewers laugh and enjoy their work.

A fine example of this split is in "The Big Lebowski", which got a deluxe DVD treatment this week in a double-disc collection which even comes packaged in a bowling ball. The movie, like all of their work, is layered with comedy and satire and unforgettable characters.

Here's the bottom-line - I have liked every single one of the Coens' movies and to hell with box office returns and critical acceptance. Their original screenplays always pop and sizzle with hilarious dialog and fascinating characters, the cinematography is flawless, the music always perfect, just like the acting. One of their lesser-appreciated movies was the black and white noir crime tale, "The Man Who Wasn't There." As with all their other movies, it looks fantastic and it's crammed with sly wit. A near-sociopathic barber (Billy Bob Thorton) and his wife (McDormand) get mired in the murder of a local retail store kingpin. The attorney they hire, played by Tony Shaloub, arrives and offers this take on "reasonable doubt" and physics and perception:

All of their films play within and around and mix film genres with incredible ease, able to be both aspects of the past and the modern. They make movies you like to watch many times, whether to grab bits of dialog, laugh, or simply marvel at their skills.


  1. Burn after Reading is one of the few recent movies I've actually wanted to go see at the theater.

  2. me too. a Coen brothers movie is an experience, not just a run of the mill comic book CGI.

  3. OXYMORON6:50 PM

    Me Three. I did notice that The Pickle panned it today as she did NCFOM. I guess that bout says it all for her depths of perception.

  4. let me say, for the billionth time, the Knoxville News Sentinel desperately needs a new movie critic. decades have gone past with her in the lead chair and their readers deserve much better. i know someone who would work harder, write better and at HALF THE PAY. his initials are Joe Powell.

  5. we discovered nurn notice last season & were pleased to find the second season even better to bad finale is next week