E! has been every TV fanatic’s source of all-day celeb, Hollywood, and lifestyle dish since 1990. Between E! News, E! True Hollywood Stories, Fashion Police, The Soup (and its predecessor Talk Soup), the unending branches of the Kardashian franchise, and specials like the 100 Sexiest Beach Bodies, the network has provided a hotbed of celeb-skewed entertainment for fans of the boob tube. Now, they’re looking to add another element: drama. The network just slated nine new scripted series for development, territory where no E! exec has boldly gone before. Of course the big question is: Will it work?
On one level, this decision to slate series ranging from Kevin Spacey’s 1990s Silicon Valley boom drama to an ABC reject series placing Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII in modern-day Hollywood signals a seeming desire to up the network’s level of discourse. We’ve already started to see that shift with focus on families like The Eastwoods (as in Clint Eastwood) and the E! Investigates series with journalist Laura Ling, but the scripted series push is an incongruent move for the network’s general reality-based mode of operation.
Granted, E! is not the first network to try and change its stripes. We’ve watched USA, TBS, and TNT work tirelessly to alter their reputations from “those cable channels that always play Speed and Beverly Hills: 90210 reruns” to viable cable networks with genuine original programming and distinct identities. And E! has been testing the scripted waters with reruns of the ever-classic Sex and the City, NBC’s new guilty pleasure Smash (merging with NBC Universal has its perks), as well as Brit Cult hit Absolutely Fabulous, but reality and newsy commentary has remained the priority. And for good reason.
We love E!. From the schmoozy, celeb-loving tone of E! News to the snark and complete disregard for any and all famous folks on The Soup and Fashion Police — and that tone isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it seems the network is amplifying it. Their new initiative, which the network calls “Pop of Culture,” features new series that toe the line of E! we know so well. Whitney Cummings will bring a weekly talk show to the network to pair her snarky quips alongside Joel McHale’s devil-may-care takedown of all things reality and celebrity on The Soup; Kevin Jonas will take us into his new life of wedded bliss on Married to Jonas; and Nigel Lythgoe brings a talent competition aimed at web-famous talent.
The difference between these endeavors and the new scripted slate is that these are expanding on an idea we’re all buying into. Throw in the scripted series – which span from historical dramas to glitzy guilty pleasures – and you’ve got a risky cocktail of new content that will either overwhelm us with intrigue or render us defenseless with confusion. In one corner we have intelligent-sounding series like King David, a “modern-day Mr. Smith [Goes to Washington]” tale written by a former D.C. lobbyist, and Upstarts, the Kevin Spacey/Michael De Luca produced series set in the Silicon Valley digital boom of the 1990s. And in the other, we have Amy Devlin Mysteries, a typical procedural that follows a twentysomething pop culture wiz detective (you would, E!), and Dorothy, a modern-day love story based not so loosely on The Wizard of Oz. Overnight, E! is attempting a rather tall order: It wants to go from special interest cable network to full-fledged programming in a single beat.
While the risk is large, if it pays off, E! could be sitting very, very pretty. But the big question is: Why the risk? As they say, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and E!’s not exactly broke. (Just look at the fifth season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ average audience of 3.11 viewers, which is nothing to scoff at for a cable reality series.) It does make sense, however, that E! is moving towards more high-minded content, attempting to skew its reputation for flashiness to a more intelligent plane. It’s just curious that the overhaul is so expansive and ambitious. Of course, they don’t have a colloquialism like "if ain’t broke, but you want to skew your reputation to be a little smarter, try baby steps." It doesn’t have quite the same ring.
Will you watch scripted series on E!?
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What do you call a bunch of Australians tossed down a hole? A good start. I kid of course – “a mediocre movie” is more like it. And that’s precisely what you get with Alister Grierson’s Sanctum a 3D thriller in which a crew of cave divers struggle to survive after a monsoon-driven flood pins them thousands of feet underground.
Sanctum is set in Papua New Guinea but was mostly shot in the sprawling caves of South Australia. The cast is dominated by local actors many of whom will prove unrecognizable to moviegoers residing above the equator – which frankly isn’t all that much of a hindrance since the lot of them will be killed off long before the closing credits roll.
The cast’s lone non-Aussie – and the film’s most familiar face – is Welshman Ioan Gruffudd who plays Carl a gratingly cocky American industrialist whose wealth funds the whole caving (the word “spelunking” is never used much to my chagrin) expedition and whose extreme-tourist bent compels him to come along for the ride. He also brings his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) whose strong-mindedness you just know is going to become a liability when the sh*t hits the fan.
The sh*t in the case of Sanctum is an apocalyptic storm that arrives days before it’s supposed to triggering an avalanche of boulders that effectively seals off all possible exits. With the water level rising and a near-zero chance of rescue the group’s hardened no-nonsense leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh) decrees that their best hope of survival lies in finding an alternate means of escape via an unexplored stretch of tunnels thought to lead to the ocean.
The situation grows gradually more desperate and characters succumb one by one to the hazards of the deep in fairly predictable disaster-flick order. (The aging female is first to go followed by the ethnic guy etc.) Sanctum cycles through a series of grisly fatalities – including one delightful bit in which a shock of hair caught in a climbing apparatus results in an impromptu scalping – until finally the last man standing is Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) a moody 17-year-old who has heretofore spent most of the film acting out with childish spite toward his neglectful dad. Out of supplies exhausted but with his exquisite surfer-dude haircut thankfully still intact Josh must complete the remainder of the harrowing journey alone.
Director Grierson packs Sanctum with some truly breathtaking visuals. The underwater cinematography shot with 3D cameras Grierson spent six-plus years developing is particularly stunning. But the film’s script clearly didn’t receive as much care and attention as its cameras. The action is occasionally gripping but the story lacks suspense and its tone largely fails to evoke the gnawing claustrophobia that presumably festers in such a dark musty subterranean labyrinth. Moreover it’s littered with truly execrable dialogue made worse by ADR that sounds as if it were recorded in a cozy basement studio.
Executive producer James Cameron is featured prominently in Sanctum’s advertising campaign but the film itself bears scant evidence of his involvement save perhaps for the splendid underwater scenes. I half-suspect he viewed the project as a tool to develop and test his 3D technology in preparation for his amphibious Avatar sequel. He certainly didn’t use it to brush up on his storytelling skills.
Based on British mystery writer P.D. James’ rather downbeat novel Men takes place in the not-too-distant future where the world is definitely not right. In fact society is facing extinction since the human race has lost the ability to reproduce; there hasn’t been a new child born in 18 years. But as the tagline reads “…all that can change in a heartbeat.” While the rest of England is unraveling as civil unrest runs rampant a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is found miraculously pregnant and Theo (Clive Owen) a disillusioned government agent agrees to help secretly transport her to a sanctuary at sea where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of mankind. So sets in motion a race against time fraught with many horrific obstacles. Children of Men collects a first-rate cast. Leading the pack is Owen as yet another reluctant antihero. It’s a good part for the somewhat depressive actor who seems at ease when everything is going to hell around him (see Inside Man Closer etc.). Theo is initially drawn into the Kee conflict because his ex-wife a terrorist/activist--played with brief but quiet determination by Julianne Moore—asks him to. See they share their own personal tragedy so saving Kee and the baby becomes even more important to them. Newcomer Ashitey shines as Kee who really doesn’t understand at all what is happening to her but has a fair amount of spunk anyway. Other standouts include Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots) as one of Moore’s compadres with his own nefarious agenda and Michael Caine as an old friend of Theo--a throwback to a more peaceful time. Representing both old and new school Ejiofor and Caine are actors you can simply put in any film and somehow they will make them that much better. But Children of Men’s true brilliance comes from its creator. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is simply one of the most exciting cinematic storytellers working today. No genre is out of his reach. He has done kiddie flicks (A Little Princess) sexy coming-of-age dramas (Y Tu Mama Tambien)—and even a splashy Harry Potter installment (Prisoner of Azkaban probably the best one so far). And now Men a futuristic thriller that he crafts with absolute bone-chilling effect. Cuaron’s world is not a very happy place with the skies consistently gray with pollution and violence injustice and human cruelty around every corner. When Theo and Kee are on the run you’re expecting the worst at any moment but that’s not really where Cuaron’s head is at. He wants us to have hope. As the director puts it in the film’s production notes “Humanity has an amazing talent for destruction. But also we can show solidarity and an ability to come through problems together. In the end Children of Men isn’t so much about humanity being destructive—its more about ideologies coming between people’s judgment and their actions that is at work in this story.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has a really bad rep and with good reason: Five years ago convicted killer Riddick escaped the galaxy's law enforcement during a botched interplanetary prison transfer and has been on the lam ever since. As The Chronicles of Riddick picks up our antagonist finds his relative freedom has been compromised when mercenaries out for the $1 million bounty on his head discover his location and hunt him down. Riddick escapes their clutches steals their ship and sets off for Planet Helion to find Imam (Keith David) the Muslim cleric he rescued in Pitch Black and the only person who could have squealed his location to authorities. But while Riddick's hunch about Imam are correct the cleric has a reason for luring the mammoth murderer out of hiding: Helion is falling to unholy armies of Necromongers--warriors who conquer by force in the vein of Star Trek's Borg. Of course Riddick doesn't give a damn about the Helions or their plight--until he gets wind that the Necromogers want to kill him because of an old prophecy that foresees their end at Riddick's hands. Like it or not Riddick is left with no other choice but to battle the Necromongers.
The character of Riddick is unquestionably what made Pitch Black one of the most sequel-worthy sci-fi films in years. And Riddick would not have been one of sci-fi's most intoxicating characters if it weren't for Diesel. Like his Dominic Toretto in the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious Riddick is a villain of few words but when he speaks his carefully chosen words have impact--even if the dialogue is at times overly theatrical. Riddick is the perfect antihero; a cold-blooded and indifferent being who somehow evokes more compassion than the film's so-called good guys. Joining Riddick are some recurring characters including David as Imam but Riddick benefits the most from the addition of some new characters particularly Colm Feore as Lord Marshal the Necromonger leader whose goal is to rid the universe of all human life. Feore channeling nuggets of Julius Caesar into his role makes for one of Riddick's most thrilling foes. Another prominent addition to the cast is Judi Dench who has a surprisingly small role as Aereon an Elemental captured by the Necromongers and used for her special powers including ESP.
Writer/director David Twohy took his horror pic Pitch Black which gained a cult following since it was released four years ago and managed to successfully turn it into an sci-fi actioner of epic proportions. Everything is grander here which is almost a given considering Twohy shot Pitch Black on a dime in Australia using colored filters. In Riddick the director distinguishes the film's different environments--the Necros' mothership Crematoria's cavernous prison and Helion--using warm to cool tones that are dazzling yet more subtle than its predecessor. The CGI effects get a little gamey at times but production designer Holger Gross' gargantuan sets are impressive and help craft Twohy's otherworldly vision into a plausible one. And although Twohy jumps genres from Pitch Black to its sequel his storyline evolves logically from the original premise. But while moviegoers unfamiliar with Pitch Black will be able to follow the story easily enough they may have a difficult time grasping what makes Riddick such a big deal; the film explains the legend but never fully captures its quintessence. This could hurt Riddick's chances to broaden its Pitch Black fan base.