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Tom Selleck still rock-stolid as wrong-righting Jesse Stone

Now and then: Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, Thomas Magnum.

It's been a while -- 29 TV seasons -- since Tom Selleck first cavorted in a red Ferrari and various Hawaiian shirts on CBS' Magnum, P.I..

Gradually transitioning from a roguish cut of prime beef to weightier parts, he even improbably played Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 2004's Ike: Countdown to D-Day. Damned if he didn't fit the part and pretty much play the hell out of it.

Selleck, now 64, has found a new TV franchise in his semi-autumn years. He'll be playing gruff, hard-drinking, dog-loving police chief Jesse Stone for the fifth time Sunday (March 1st), in CBS' Jesse Stone: Thin Ice (8 p.m. central). Just add a little graying chin hair to his always well-worn mustache.

Filmed in Halifax, Nova Scotia -- which stands in for Paradise, Mass. -- and drawn from the Robert B. Parker crime novels, this latest Stone movie is cut from the same sturdy cloth as the others. The dialogue is crisp, and often witty. And the crime-solving is conducted at a leisurely if not lumbering pace, with Stone still capable of decking or strong-arming a bad guy when necessary.

In this latest two-hour chapter, police chief Stone also is facing the long arm of the Paradise mayor and town council. They'd much rather see him increase revenues by writing parking tickets and masterminding speed traps. Instead Stone gets involved in an out-of-town scrape that might reflect badly on their little burg. This is after he's already run off a deputy whom one councilman lauds as "the Babe Ruth of parking tickets."

Stone of course doesn't care what any of 'em think. So he's determined to find out who critically wounded his longtime Boston pal, Captain Healy (Steven McHattie), while they were staking out something or other on a dark and decidedly stormy night.

The two-hour movie also features Camryn Manheim as Elizabeth Blue. She's convinced that her son is still alive after a 2000 kidnapping from the hospital where she delivered him. It was dubbed by the media as the "Little Boy Blue" case until the decayed remains of little Eric were found, complete with an identifying hospital wrist band.

But a distraught Elizabeth recently received a letter with a Paradise postmark that read, "Your child is loved." So she journeys to Stone's bailiwick to beg him for help. He initially plays hard to get. But the subplot thickens.

Thin Ice also re-gathers several veterans of the Stone movies, including Kathy Baker as deputy Rose Gammon, William Devane ( Stone's psychiatrist, Dr. Dix) and William Sadler (Boston mobster Gino Fish).

Leslie Hope, who played Jack Bauer's murdered wife, Teri, on the first season of 24, drops in for a few scenes as a taut-talking internal affairs investigator who of course is not immune to Stone's rough-hewn charms.

Also, let's not overlook our hero's trusty dog, Boomer, stoically played by a Golden Retriever/Setter mix named Joe. He's Stone's tried-and-true drinking buddy, even though he doesn't imbibe. Still, Boomer's steady gazes speak volumes, so much so that his master occasionally growls, "What're you lookin' at?" Squint and you might see Mickey Rourke.

All of these staple Stone ingredients make for another enjoyable whodunit, even if this film is only middling compared to some of the others.

Its ending seems to imply the end of the road for an enduring TV movie franchise in times when there aren't any others and haven't been for some time. No immediate worries, though. A sixth film in the series, Jesse Stone: No Remorse, is currently in production.

That's good news for those of us who still look forward to hearing Selleck deadpan, "Fighting crime," whenever his character is asked, "Where you been?"

Acting-wise, Selleck has never been better. So if you've never been Stoned . . .


March sadness: CBS is the only network on year-to-year upswing, but Fox will have usual finishing kick

Simon Baker of CBS' The Mentalist; Tim Roth of Fox's Lie to Me

The Big Four broadcast networks -- and li'l CW -- are heading into the final three months of the 2008-'09 TV season with only CBS having all arrows pointing upward.

In a lousy economy, though, year-to-year gains in total households, viewers and 18-to-49-year-olds aren't paying off the way they should at the slump-shouldered cash register. Most advertisers simply can't afford any higher costs of doing business.

Still, it's much better being CBS than ABC or NBC.

CBS' prime-time schedule is loaded with top 20 hits, including this season's only true breakout freshman series, The Mentalist. Through Feb. 22nd of the 2008-'09 season, it ranks eighth among all prime-time series. Equally impressive, Mentalist holds roughly 95 percent of its lead-in audience from NCIS while bettering that show's reach among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds.

All told, CBS has 11 of prime-time's top 20 shows in total viewers, led by No. 4 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. It also has an insurmountable lead in that measurement over Fox, which last year won the total viewers crown for the first time ever.

Fox will repeat as the season's No. 1 network among 18-to-49-year-olds, even though its average of 4.2 million per prime-time show is well off last year's 5.4 million at this time of the season. But Fox had the Super Bowl last year, plus a bigger-drawing World Series compared to the past fall's rain-delayed clunker between the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays.

Even with this year's Super Bowl -- the most-watched ever -- NBC's ratings again are down across the board compared to last season's. And ABC, also in bad shape of late, ran second to Fox during the week of Feb. 16-22 despite having the Oscars.

ABC used its Oscar-cast to heavily promote four new series coming next month -- Castle (March 9th); Better Off Ted (March 18th); In the Motherhood (March 26th) and Cupid (March 31st). Dancing with the Stars is returning as well, which will help.

In contrast, CBS and Fox won't be offering any new series in March. NBC planning a pair -- The Chopping Block (March 11th) and Kings (March 15th).

Fox has used Wednesday editions of American Idol as a midseason launch pad for its new Lie to Me, although the latter show will reverse positions with Idol on March 11th.

Lie to Me so far is Fox's biggest draw among scripted series, averaging 12.2 million viewers a week to rank just ahead of the network's House. Still, that's quite a plunge from the 26.9 million viewers for Wednesday's Idol, which ranks one-two in the season-to-date Nielsens with Tuesday's Idols (26.4 million viewers).

Another new Fox series, Fringe, has been fading of late despite super-heavy promotion and a post-Idol Tuesday slot. It's 44th in the total viewer ratings (8.6 million) and 28th among 18-to-49-year-olds (4.6 million).

Fox's Dollhouse, which premiered earlier this month, is dying on Fridays with an average of just 4.5 million total viewers for its first two episodes. Its 18-to-49-year-old numbers are only a bit better.

Other than fall's two editions of Dancing with the Stars, ABC has just two series in the top 20 among total viewers. But both Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy have faded this season. The network's Lost is still hanging in there, running 25th in total viewers and a still impressive sixth among 18-to-49-year-olds.

Then there's NBC, which had a potent Sunday Night Football in the season's first half but now is in free-fall.

In the total viewers measurement, the Peacock has just two shows besides football in the season-to-date top 40 -- No. 30 Biggest Loser 7 and No. 37 Law & Order: SVU. The picture's a bit brighter among 18-to-49-year-olds, where The Office, 30 Rock and a slumping Heroes join the aforementioned NBC shows in the top 40.

The CW's most-watched attraction, America's Next Top Model 5, ranked 133rd in total viewers during its run and nudged its way up to 90th with 18-to-49-year-olds. It's the only CW series that doesn't rank below one more more telenovelas on the Spanish language Univision network, which overall is averaging 3.9 million viewers to date compared to CW's 1.9 million.

Univision also is outdrawing CW among 18-to-34-year-olds, by a score of 1.1 million to 630,000.

Here are the frontrunning and runnerup networks as the season slogs into March:

Total Viewers
CBS -- 11.2 million (up 800,000 from a year ago)
Fox -- 8.8 million (down 2.2 million)

Fox -- 4.2 million (down 1.2 million)
CBS -- 3.9 million (up 100,000)

Fox --- 1.9 million (down 600,000)
NBC -- 1.6 million (down 10,000)

Oscar audience grows from last year's all-time low

C'mon, get happy: Oscar ratings up from last year's low. ABC photo

Sunday night's 81st Oscar ceremony on ABC kicked up a few notches in the national Nielsens, averaging 36.3 million viewers during its three-and-a-half-hour running time.

That's a nice boost from the all-time low 32 million viewers who watched last year's telecast, according to Nielsen Media Research. ABC says the Oscars, hosted by Hugh Jackman, also grew by 13 percent among advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds.

Although impressive in an increasingly diverse multi-channel/web-footed universe, Sunday's audience is still the third lowest since Nielsen began tabulating total viewer numbers in 1974. Besides 2008's, only the 2003 ceremony had fewer viewers (33 million). And that year's festivities occasionally were interrupted by war bulletins from Peter Jennings at the outset of the U.S. march toward Iraq.

Still, Sunday night's Oscars outdrew Fox's season-opener of American Idol, which wasn't the case last year.

The 1998 Oscar-cast remains the most-watched ever, according to Nielsen. That's when 55.3 million viewers tuned in to see Titanic sink the competition.

Gibson regroups with stunt stint on Kimmel Live

A goateed Mel Gibson, little seen or heard since his infamous drunken tirade in mid-summer 2006, dropped in on Jimmy Kimmel's post-Oscar show Sunday to announce his next film project.

It turned out to be a parody, and a pretty good one, too. Here's the clip, in which Gibson plays a Southern-fried colonel -- with blood on his hands, of course.
Ed Bark

Jackman-led Oscars end up long on ceremony

Host Hugh Jackman impresses early in the game. ABC photos

Sunday's largely suspense-less ABC Oscar-cast perhaps could have used a jokester host or at least Jerry Lewis acting up.

Neither materialized on a night when the 81st annual ceremony mostly took itself very seriously in an effort to be "classier" than previous affairs hosted by lowly TV types like David Letterman and, last year, Jon Stewart.

Hugh Jackman filled the bill at first, looking leading man dashing in a classic black tux and traditional matching bow tie. His opening musical number, adorned with recession-appropriate downscale props, deservedly was a big crowd-pleaser. Jackman also got off a decent one-liner or two, telling 15-time nominee Meryl Streep, "I hate to say it, but when someone puts up numbers like that, it's hard not to think -- steroids."

The jokes would have kept coming throughout the three-and-a-half-hour night had Jackman been a trained comedian. But he made little impact during the rest of the evening, save for a halfway-through-the-show song-and-dance extravaganza with Beyonce. "The musical is back!" Jackman declared, putting on his top hat. Yeah, so? It was all-too-easy to imagine millions of male viewers heading to the fridge, the restroom, etc.

Ben Stiller as Joaquin Phoenix, with Natalie Portman playing along.

The night's most memorable comedy instead came from Ben Stiller in the guise of Joaquin Phoenix. All it took was a pasted-on scruffy beard and a pair of shades to achieve instant comedy gold. Stiller/Phoenix and co-presenter Natalie Portman, who played her part reasonably well, then presented a cinematography Oscar to the night's anticipated big winner, Slumdog Millionaire.

Oscar's producers had another good idea -- gathering five previous recipients to present each of the night's four acting awards. It took a while to unfold, but added a little extra heft and sheen to the honor. The climactic lineup of earlier best actors was led by Robert De Niro, with Michael Douglas, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley and Adrien Brody also in tow.

"How, for so many years, did Sean Penn get all those straight roles?" De Niro joked of Penn's Oscar-winning portrayal of gay activist Harvey Milk in Milk.

Penn then delivered the acceptance speech line of the night -- "You Commie, homo-loving sons a guns."

ABC's cameramen as usual were on top of all the audience reaction shots, even finding best actress winner Kate Winslet's dad in the cheap seats after she asked him to whistle -- which he did -- to show her where he was seated.

The cameras also caught nominee Philip Seymour Hoffman's vigorous applause for Lewis, who received the annual Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from presenter Eddie Murphy. But vigilant viewers also could see nominee Frank Langella just as determinedly not applauding as Lewis left the stage after his uncommonly brief and decorous remarks. The age-old comic's use of a derogatory term for gays, most recently in 2007, made him a controversial choice, especially on a night when Penn's portrayal of a slain gay rights activist won Oscar gold.

The elongated evening otherwise held little drama -- or merriment. Instead there were lots of clips and ample solemnity as Oscar strove to take itself more seriously than most previous hosts would have. Jackman didn't necessarily do anything wrong. But this is a show that still cries out for more than an impeccably dressed, drop-dead handsome maitre d'.

Sexy women of substance populate BBC America's Mistresses

Sexual beings Jessica, Trudi, Katie, Siobhan in Mistresses

Premiering: Friday, Feb. 20th at 7 p.m. (central) on BBC America. Subsequent episodes air on Fridays at 8 p.m.
Starring: Sarah Parish, Sharon Small, Orla Brady, Shelley Conn
Produced by: Douglas Rae, Lucy Bedford, Matt Arlidge

Desperate Housewives has gotten Wisteria lame and the second Sex and the City movie won't hit big screens for another year or more.

So maybe it's time to invest in a new soapy yet seriously sexual drama about four thirtysomething gal pals whose lives are both intertwined and at loose ends.

BBC America's 12-episode Mistresses, premiering Friday, Feb. 20th (7 p.m. central), is graced by four of the UK's finest, sturdiest actresses. Only one of their characters is married, although fitfully. They meet regularly to discuss their various transgressions, beginning with Katie's (Sarah Parish) birthday get-together in the premiere episode's opening scene.

Square-shouldered Katie pretty much carries this first hour. She's a doctor who's been having an affair with a terminally ill married man. He begs her to help him "when it's time." And so she does, leading to a funeral and then persistent questioning from the deceased's son, Sam (Max Brown), who's also been Katie's patient. What if he finds out? She could be ruined, both professionally and emotionally.

Meanwhile, attorney Siobhan (Orla Brady) is almost desperately striving to have a baby with her husband, Hari (Raza Jaffrey). But all of this programmatic "shagging" can be quite a chore. So how about a little intrigue with workplace colleague Dominic (Adam Rayner), who's eager for a peek at her "knickers" -- and thensome.

Trudi (Sharon Small), outwardly the most straitlaced of the foursome, is a 9/11 widow struggling to accept the death of her husband, whose body was never found. She also has two daughters and a budding interest in a single dad named Richard (Patrick Baladi).

There's also Jessica (Shelley Conn), a sexually adventuresome single who sleeps with her boss, Simon (Adam Astill), but is open to other assignations. So expect the not so unexpected when she plans a wedding for a lesbian couple.

Mistresses of course will be deepening its plots and sub-plots. A look at the synopses of future episodes reveals much, much more, but spilling any of it would be a disservice. Friday's opener deftly baits the hook while also making it clear that these are four women of substance.

Reckless abandon is always in the cards, of course. Refreshingly, though, there's nary a cartoonish floozy in the bunch. Nor a compulsive shopper.


Drunk with power: unclebarky.com nails first three Idol finalists

Top 12 Idol finalists Michael Sarver, Alexis Grace, Danny Gokey

It's nice to hit a trifecta once in a while. Which unclebarky.com did by correctly picking the first three American Idol survivors among this week's 12 contestants.

Two of them, Alexis Grace and Danny Gokey, were relatively easy. But the third Top 12 finalist, Jasper, TX oil-rigger Michael Sarver, likely wasn't on everyone's dance card.

They'll do it all again next week, when 12 more hopefuls will vie for three more spots. We'll also try our luck anew, and quite possibly get all three predictions wrong. For now, though, the crystal ball's glowin'.

Play @%$!*#% Ball -- HBO's Eastbound & Down throws hard but misses the plate

Danny McBride strikes out as washed-up pitcher Kenny Powers.

Premiering: Sunday, Feb. 15th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Danny McBride, Katy Mixon, John Hawkes, Jennifer Irwin, Andrew Daly, Steve Little, Ben Best
Produced by: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Chris Henchy, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Ben Best

Just in time for spring training, here comes HBO's comedy series about a profane, loutish, sexist, homophobic, coke-sniffing ex-Big League relief pitcher who "looks like a big bag of mashed-up asshole" in the view of one cogent observer.

In these renewed troubled times for baseball, that might just make him a redneck role model. Eat your heart out, John Rocker. You were way before your time.

Eastbound & Out, which has just a six-episode order, is breaking into HBO's usually prestigious Sunday night lineup (beginning on Feb. 15th at 9:30 p.m. central). Perhaps it's striving to be even more unkempt and off-putting than Lucky Louie, which laid a big egg on HBO a few seasons back.

HBO bit, though, perhaps because Will Ferrell is a co-executive producer of Eastbound & Out. But Ferrell probably wouldn't be caught dead -- or alive -- playing balls-out Kenny Powers (Danny McBride). There's nothing sympathetic -- or very funny -- about him, whether he's browbeating middle school-aged kids or repeatedly proclaiming his prowess as both a pitcher and a cocksman.

After baseball bounces him, self-destructive Kenny returns home to North Carolina to mooch off his brother, Dustin (John Hawkes), who looks like a somewhat skinnier Jim Varney in his prime. Justin's God-fearing wife, Cassie (Jennifer Irwin), and their three young children likewise are subjected to Kenny's super-coarse proclivities and hard-core profanity at the dinner table.

Our hero is also intent on winning back his voluptuous high school sweetheart, April Buchanon (Katy Mixon), who's engaged to a standard issue, buffoonish middle school principal.

For some reason, the school eagerly hires Kenny as a substitute Phys Ed teacher.

"My dad says you ruined baseball," a kid tells him. Kenny then encourages the other kids to torment his pint-size accuser.

McBride plays the series' lead character in a manner that might wear down even Bluto Blutarsky. He's a full-bore a-hole all the way, whether berating one of Dustin's kids for sitting on his jet ski or stumbling in drunk and drugged to scare the kid all over again.

Amazingly, though, Kenny never loudly passes gas in the series' premiere. Maybe they're saving that for later, or even planning to build an entire episode around a bout with a bad burrito.

In one of TV's odder couplings to date, Eastbound & Down's Sunday night running mate will be HBO's incumbent Flight of the Conchords. That's akin to wearing an "I'm with Stupid" T-shirt to the opera. Which come to think of it makes a little more sense.


Fox's Dollhouse may not play very well

Eliza Dushku is Echo in Fox's new Dollhouse. Fox photo

Premiering: Friday, Feb. 13th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Eliza Dushku, Tahmoh Penikett, Olivia Williams, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj, Reed Diamond, Amy Acker, Miracle Laurie
Created by: Joss Whedon

Internet chat rooms will be bursting at the seams as the "mythology" of Fox's Dollhouse multiplies and divides its disciples.

That's because its creator, Joss Whedon, long ago was immersed in the holy oils of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and, to a lesser extent, Firefly, which got a second wind as the feature film Serenity.

There's also the matter of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which Whedon created on a shoestring for the Internet.

Starring Neil Patrick Harris in the title role, it's emblematic of Whedon's self-stated course correction from hired hand to hands-on auteur. He's already renounced conventional television as an impediment to his creative powers. So Dollhouse, which found Whedon at odds with Fox, will mark the last time he wages such battles. Or so he's proclaimed.

Dollhouse in effect has been sent to Fox's outhouse -- Friday nights. Nothing has worked there since The X-Files. And with a lead-in from Fox's faltering Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the long-term prospects for Dollhouse look sub-iffy, if that.

Fox has sent the first two episodes, and the March 6th hour for review. They're intriguing and complex, but at times laughable, too. And of course it almost goes without saying that "Nothing is what it appears to be," which mastermind Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) tells minion Echo (Eliza Dushku) in the opening seconds of Friday's premiere (8 p.m. central).

Echo is one of the programmed "Actives" of the Dollhouse, an illegal, underground operation dedicated to performing dangerous tasks for the "wealthy, powerful and connected."

It costs a pretty penny to hire the beauteous Echo or any of her fellow Dollhouse denizens. And after tasks are completed, a semi-creepy programmer named Topher Brink (Fran Kranz) wipes their memories clean until they're next called upon. It's basically a mesh of Mission: Impossible and The Prisoner, with some Wonder Woman cheesecake thrown in. In other words, Echo spends her down time in a Danskin or a bright orange towel after showering communally.

Oddly enough, the Dollhouse seems to be very easily accessible to clients while at the same time being laughed off as a figment of FBI agent Paul Ballard's (Tahmoh Penikett) over-active imagination. He can't even convince them of the Dollhouse's existence, but of course is determined to sniff it out.

Meanwhile, Echo tries to piece together who she really is while a vicious Dollhouse escapee known as Alpha begins running amuck in next Friday's Episode 2. We don't get to see his face, but he's left behind a number of bloody corpses and some battered survivors as well, including the facially scarred Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker).

It's a lot to swallow, let alone keep straight. But amid all these extracurricular activities, Echo has a somewhat self-contained assignment of the week, whether it's acting as a go-between in a kidnapping or serving as human prey next week for a maniacal bow hunter.

Trying to keep a close watch on Echo is her "handler," Boyd Langston (Harry Lennix), who also questions some of the means to the Dollhouse's ends. A little humor occasionally creeps in, as when Langston asks Echo if she knows how to use a pistol.

"Four brothers. None of 'em Democrats," she replies.

Dushku, who played the recurring character of Faith Lehane in Buffy, is called on to be dreamily vacuous within the Dollhouse, but pro-active when on assignment. She's OK in these various guises, but probably not to the point of wowing anyone.

In the end -- which might not be that long in coming -- Dollhouse seems doomed to be a fairly intriguing ratings failure. At which point Whedon can blame the network if he likes while a cult following remains in play. That would provide a fertile climate for a cathartic Dollhouse movie. All in good time.

GRADE: B-minus

CNBC's House of Cards shows how greed hit home and left the economy humbled

House of Cards players: Alan Greenspan, David Faber, Kyle Bass

It's a fine mess we're in, and CNBC's latest new documentary, House of Cards, is better than most at explaining how "the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression" came to roost.

Reporter David Faber, a contributor to CNBC's daily Squawk on the Street, is a telegenic guy who also happens to really know his stuff. He meticulously shows how the bubble burst without being a bubblehead about it in a compelling two-hour film that premieres on Thursday, Feb. 12th at 7 p.m. (central), repeats at 11 p.m. on the same night and also will air on Sunday (8 p.m.) and Monday (7 p.m.).

Naked greed is at the heart of Faber's story. And there's plenty of it to go around among homebuyers, mortgage lenders, banks and, of course, Wall Street.

Faber begins in a neighborhood pockmarked with home foreclosures before rewinding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the blow they also struck to the U.S. economy.

"What the country needed was for Americans to start spending," Faber says. And to that end, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan started cutting interest rates at a time when home prices also were rising faster than incomes.

The magic pill, or so it seemed, was to grant home loans to recipients who couldn't afford a down payment but wanted in on the American dream. Credit requirements were lowballed to the point where seemingly just about anyone qualified. But refinancing to handle increasing "adjustable rate mortgage payments" was fun and easy as long as home values kept rising.

In 2005, an "epidemic of euphoria" on the part of buyers, lenders and loan guaranteers was dubbed "affluenza," Faber notes. But everything began to crash when home prices first hit a ceiling and then started dropping.

Faber lays this out in reasonably understandable terms, although Greenspan among many remains puzzled over the intricacies of Wall Street's driving engine of those times -- the CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations). Even Narvik, Norway got in on the action, and Faber travels to this small budget-strapped community to interview mayor Karen Kuvaas about the aftershock.

The town never knew what it was buying by investing in CDOs. But it all seemed fool-proof. Kuvaas now says, "I have learned not to trust nice men in Armani suits."

Faber also interviews Dallas-based investor Kyle Bass, one of the few to see the bust coming. He made a huge financial killing by buying credit protection insurance as a hedge against the "mortgage-backed security fever." And no, he doesn't feel guilty about it.

A "Darwinian flush" is needed before affordable housing can again be available to qualified buyers, Bass says.

Greenspan gets the last words after agreeing with Faber's assertion that "greed runs through this."

But a free-market system is prone to such lapses, and they'll happen again, Greenspan says. "The flaws in human nature are such that we cannot change that" (with government regulation). It doesn't work."

House of Cards works very well in explaining a difficult subject. Faber and writer/producer James Jacoby have put together a first-rate look at how easy credit, escalating interest rates and indifference to the long-term consequences served to cave our collective roof in.

GRADE: A-minus

Oddly unaffecting Two Lovers nonetheless has intriguing big-star cast and free admission on HDNet Movies

Elias Koteas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers

Could it be that Mark Cuban is co-executive producer and HDNet Movies the first exhibitioner of Joaquin Phoenix's last feature film?

Two out of three wouldn't be bad. But is Two Lovers really the final time Phoenix will go before a camera? Can we believe him for more than an instant when he pledges allegiance to a newfound rap career?

Probably not. But just in case, here he is in a somber yet semi-uplifting film about a depressed would-be photographer who somehow manages to click with two disparate, attractive women. Opening in limited release Friday, Two Lovers gets a one-night "Sneak Preview" Wednesday (Feb. 11th) at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. (central) on HDNet Movies.

Cuban and his business partner, Todd Wagner, have gone this route before with a wide variety of generally offbeat or seriously flawed movies. But Two Lovers packs more star power and intrinsic curiosity than those that have gone before. Besides the peripatetic Phoenix, it stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini and the invariably interesting Vinessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma).

Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, who's first seen jumping off a bridge before belatedly coming up for air. He's been pretty blue ever since his fiancee broke up with him. Now Leonard is living at home with his somewhat persnickety parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Monoshov), who own a drycleaning company in Brighton Beach. Leonard's currently making deliveries for the old man.

Marlon Brando might have played this role a couple of generations ago, although he'd probably demand a few more "Stella!!!" moments than the zero given to Phoenix. Leonard nonetheless is quite an odd character, creepy but perhaps just slightly charismatic, with two very pretty women for some reason vying for his affection and attention.

Michelle Rausch (Paltrow), mistress of a wealthy lawyer, meets Leonard by chance in an apartment hallway. Sandra Cohen (Shaw) is the soft-spoken daughter of a family friend who wants to buy out the Kraditors' business. The idea is also to merge Leonard and Sandra in marriage. And she's immediately all for it despite Leonard's very obvious instability.

Directed and written by James Gray (We Own the Night), Two Lovers ends up being watchable without ever being very plausible. It's very hard to believe that Paltrow's character would so quickly embrace Leonard as a friend, confidant and potential boyfriend. And when Sandra asks him to a party just moments after they make love for the first time, it's even harder to buy into Leonard saying, "I'll check to see if I'm free."

What's he have to check? The party's just a few days away, and this guy's social calendar isn't exactly off the charts. But Sandra simply says "OK," and leaves without any further discussion or rancor.

Leonard eventually is torn between these two women, one of whom he wants while the other wants him. Phoenix's center-ring performance is interesting in a method actor-y sort of way, but his character just isn't that compelling. Nor is Paltrow's.

The film's ending is no big surprise. Nor is it an abject downer. But Two Lovers could have gone either way without earning much of an emotional response. If Phoenix ever takes a good hard look at it, he'll decide he doesn't really want to go out this way.


Important Things with Demetri Martin needs more pop but shows some promise

Demetri Martin inaction -- and in action. Comedy Central photos

Premiering: Wednesday, Feb. 11th at 9:30 p.m. (central) on Comedy Central
Starring: Demetri Martin
Produced by: Demetri Martin, Jon Stewart

It'd be nice if Demetri Martin were a little/lot funnier. Because he really seems to have the goods -- just not an armload of 'em yet.

Wednesday's premiere of Comedy Central's Important Things with Demetri Martin (9:30 p.m. central) brings forth a mop-headed, nimble-brained 35-year-old who looks quite a bit younger than he is.

But in fact he's a combat vet of both Late Night with Conan O'Brien, for which he wrote, and The Daily Show, on which he performed in periodic "Trendspotting with Demetri Martin" segments.

Daily Show host Jon Stewart further champions Martin's career with this half-hour-hour weekly series from his Busboy Productions, Inc. Tonight's launch is built around the word "Timing." And so it begins on film with Martin in an orange jumpsuit with a water balloon in hand. His timing is impeccable as he splatters a bypassing bicyclist.

What follows is strictly hit-and-miss. Roughly one-third of the show is done before a studio audience, with filmed sketches otherwise in play. Martin's onstage props include a guitar he plays and charts he's drawn. Maybe you'll at least grin -- as I did -- when he shows a picture of a conventional four-holed shirt button -- and then that same picture as a "disappointing pepperoni pizza."

A sketch featuring Martin as an inept actor also has its moments. But he's later less effective as both a rookie cop and then a time-traveling janitor.

Next Wednesday's show, which trades on the word "Power," has appreciably better filmed sketches built around a battle for a parking space and a super hero named the Revenger" who later learns that his father died of Lyme Disease rather than at the hands of violent crooks.

Martin is a low-key comic onstage, dispensing his observational riffs in the manner of Steven Wright in his now long-ago prime. But he's much cuter than Wright and also far less of a sad sack. There's nothing off-putting or cringe-worthy about Martin. You want his jokes to work, and it's more of a letdown than a bomb-drop when they don't.

One of tonight's filmed sketches finds Martin playing a ridiculously garbed character who's "Way too Early for a Rave."

A rave review of Important Things likewise would be premature. But I hope he's working his way up to that.

GRADE: B-minus

Chuck tries 3D as last resort; House comfortably at home on Fox for Episode 100

NBC's Chuck gets passed around; Fox's House celebrates 100th.

Fox's House hits the not so easily attainable 100th episode mark Monday night. And there are plenty more where that came from.

NBC's Chuck, highly unlikely to make it even half that far, resorts to a 3D stunt Monday in hopes of upping its anemic ratings. Going against Chuck is the fact that it now has to go against House, which recently relocated from its usual Tuesday perch. Show times are 7 p.m. (central), where the competitive field also includes two increasingly potent CBS comedies -- The Big Bang Theory/How I Met Your Mother -- and ABC's 13th edition of The Bachelor.

I've taken NBC's official intel 3D glasses for a spin in watching a review copy of tonight's Chuck on both a widescreen TV and my office computer. In both cases, the overall effect is a mild headache.

"Chuck Versus The Third Dimension" is very short on poke-through imagery, with a spinning knife providing the biggest sensory sensation. There's also an opening scene featuring lush superspy Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) in a short black nightie. She can be seen crawling toward dweeby Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) in his bedroom. But the 3D glasses fail to bring her into America's living rooms. Talk about performance issues.

Chuck otherwise is cute and amusing in spots, but also increasingly dopey. Its basic premise -- nebbish as reluctant espionage agent -- already seems threadbare. And a subplot involving three of Chuck's Buy More buddies (including guest star Jerome Bettis) ends up being super lame from start to finish.

The 3D outing also includes a guest appearance by Dominic Monaghan, who played Charlie on Lost until the character's presumed death intervened. Monaghan isn't required to stretch unduly as hard-partying rock star Tyler Martin. Lost cut him from basically the same cloth.

Over on Fox, sourball Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is being bedeviled by hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) after he's compromised her decision to spend more time with her newly adopted child. At one point House is stripped of his famed wooden cane, requiring him to briefly get around with help from a mop in a rolling bucket.

"I don't remember demoting you," Cuddy cracks upon first seeing him. That's the kind of writing that makes House a critically praised hit in the midst of all its critically ill patients.

Tonight's 100th, subtitled "The Greater Good," spotlights a fallen-away doctor who collapses at a cooking class from a spontaneous hemothorax. Her eventual diagnosis won't be spilled here, but as usual it takes most of the episode for House to deduce it after his usual verbal abusing of anyone and everyone.

According to companion Fox press materials, the series' first diagnosis was neurocysticercosis on the Nov. 16, 2004 premiere episode. Whazzat? It's a "parasite infestation of the nervous system." Hey, I'm not a doctor. I don't even play one on TV.

No. 100 otherwise delves deeper into the now non-platonic relationship between neurologist Eric Foreman (Omar Epps) and internist Remy "Thirteen" Hadley (Olivia Wilde), who has life-threatening Huntington's Disease. Let's just say that serious complications arise on both fronts.

House, which had initially shaky ratings, was kept alive in its first season by a very healthy mid-season injection of American Idol as its lead-in. In its fifth season it's perfectly capable of fending for itself as Fox's Monday night lead-off hitter.

Chuck on the other hand is stuck as that night's table-setter on downtrodden NBC, which also will be relaunching Heroes and Medium on post-Super Bowl Monday. A long-term future for Chuck can be envisioned only through rose-colored glasses. Watching it in cardboard 3D spectacles doesn't improve the picture at all.

Super Bowl XLIII: great game, decent commercials, Bruce cuttin' loose

Happy together: Bruce & Stevie, Big Ben & game ball. Reuters photos

A second straight great Super Bowl interrupted NBC's record $206 million in advertising revenue Sunday.

Pittsburgh's comeback 27-23 win over Arizona, which itself had rallied from a 13-point deficit, made for a much better game than many expected. The commercials had their moments, too, although some of the better ones were NBC Universal house ads promoting Jay Leno's impending switch to prime-time, Conan O'Brien's longevity in late night and hulu.com, where you can re-watch all of Super Bowl XLIII's ads all day and into the night.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band also gave it a very game go in a 12-minute halftime show that seemed a little too self-consciously over-caffeinated from the very start.

"Is there anybody alive out there?!" he demanded -- twice -- before slamming through "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Born to Run, Working on a Dream" and "Glory Days." Included were a knee-slide into a camera, some Pete Townsend-esque windmill action and a series of climactic, behind-the-back guitar wraparounds.

"The Boss" clearly came to play after finally succumbing to a venue that already has claimed most of rock's still ambulatory arena-fillers, including the Stones, U2, Prince and Paul McCartney. But for me, Jennifer Hudson packed the most musical power with a soaring rendition of the National Anthem. It was Hudson's first public performance since the October murders of her mother, brother and nephew.

On the advertising front, Jack in the Box deftly handed the ball off to hangintherejack.com after leaving its mascot very much the worse for wear after being hit by a bus. Below you'll hear directly from "Mr Box's surgeon."

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On another not-so-fast food front, Denny's scored with an ad in which mobsters got caught in the clutches of a candy ass breakfast before viewers of all ages and professions were promised a free Grand Slam repast between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. this Tuesday, Feb. 3rd.

All the World Series could come up with last fall was a free Taco Bell taco in honor of the first stolen base. The gaping gap between the two sports' showcase championships has never been more apparent. You are what you offer to eat.

Big-time celebrity presenters were in short supply during Super Bowl XLIII. But cash4gold.com traded on the pathetic spectacle of Ed McMahon and MC Hammer selling off their possessions.

NBC's O'Brien pitched Bud Light via a commercial within a commercial that his manager said would be shown only in Sweden. NBC used him to better effect in a spot touting his late night prowess. Said Tina Fey: "If your Conan lasts more than three hours, call a doctor."

After hours of due deliberation, here are my three favorite Super Bowl XLIII spots: