Dead terrorists are scary

The first thing I have to do is adjust my travel plans.

On Wednesday, I head to Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association sessions, a 10-day flurry of interviews. I had planned to go by plane, as usual; then I saw an advance copy of this season's first four hours of "24" (Jan. 11-12 on Fox). Now I think I'll switch to a train. Or a bus. Or maybe I'll just walk there.

The episode has Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) leading a batch of terrorists who sieze control of passenger-flight patterns, threatening to create collisions. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) finds this hard to believe, because Tony is:

a) A good guy; and

b) A dead guy.

Hey, things happen sometimes, especially on "24." Jack has been dead a time or two, himself.

I'll at least make a note not to watch "24" before any future trips. I can tell you this, though: Despite occasional gaps -- HUGE ones -- in believability and logic , these first four hours are terrific.

No, the show doesn't fit a world in which dead guys stay dead, good guys stay good, it's impossible to escape an FBI fortress and a loud-blue van would be instantly identified on the streets of Washington, D.C.

For "24," we have to be less rigid about our thinking. Then settle back for a thrill ride. There are surprises, twists and crises, all of them crafted with great skill. We're hugely glad to see Tony back, along with two other "24" regulars who show up in the second hour. We're also glad to see a show with guts, passion and kinetic energy. Scares and all, this is a terrific show.


It's cute as a Button

Time does funny things in the movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." By the time it was done, Brad Pitt's character seemed 80 years younger and I was three hours older.

The result -- flaws and all -- is terrific.

In some ways, this is your standard, give-me-an-Oscar epic. It's long (two hours, 50 minutes), richly capturing a variety of eras and places. Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), the master of the mega-fable, adapted it with Robin Swicord.

In others, this is bizarre. Pitt shares the lead role with at least six other actors, including two kids and a dwarf. And when was the last time you saw a fantasy plot based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story?

Fitzgerald is known for his five novels, but he wrote 160 short stories, often getting quick cash from magazines. "Benjamin Button" ran in Colliers in 1921; it gave its heroine the same name (Daisy) as in the Fitzgerald novel ("The Great Gatsby") that arrived four years later.

Beyond that, this isn't typical Fitzgerald. It's based on the notion that a baby is born old and keeps getting younger. (What, you missed the time-travel sequences in "Tender is the Night"?)

It's also not typical of director David Fincher. This is a hugely romantic story -- hints of "The Notebook," even -- from the director of such tough films as "Fight Club," "Panic Room" and "Se7en."

Still, it works -- most of the time. Pitt and his fellow Benjamins give wonderfully restrained performances. Like George Clooney, Pitt refuses to coast on his looks; he creates solid, serious art.

The flaw comes in the final half-hour, when Benjamin makes a decision that seems forced and out of character. Even counting that, however, "Benjamin Button" is an involving and entertaining way to spend many, many hours. 





New Year's eve madness

There's something about New Year's Eve and New Year's Day that make us want to blow it all. It's the perfect time to lose money, relationships, sobriety and sanity. Or to just break bones.

That's the way the Knievels do it. On Jan. 1, 1968, Evel jumped his motorcycle over a Las Vegas fountain; he promptly broke a lot of bones. Just after midnight on Wednesday, his son Robbie Knievel will celebrate the moment by leaping over a Las Vegas volcano.

Hey, family traditions are important.

That's part of the expanding nature of TV's New Year's Eve. Each year, things have to be a little bigger, a little less taped-in-advance.

In fact, two networks -- Fox and ESPN -- will have live motorcycle jumps. It's all part of the holiday spirit, explains Fox producer Jeff Androsky.  "You go: 'It's midnight, here's a kiss, let's see if the guy kills himself.'"

Well, not all holidays are equally sentimental.

Anyway, if you flip over to the "TV columns" part, you can catch an overview of New Year's Eve on TV. Here's another version, chronolgically by starting time. All of this is Wednesday, ET:

Starts at 8 p.m.:
-- "A Miley-Sized Surprise," to 9:30 p.m., then 10:30 to midnight, MTV. Miley Cyrus gives a surprise concert in a fan's home; also, Metro Station, All Time Low, Kevin Rudolf and The Academy Is ...

Start at 10 p.m.:
-- "New Year's Eve With Carson Daly," to 11 p.m.; then 11:30 p.m. to 12:35 a.m., NBC. Includes Ludacris, Katy Perry, the Ting Tings, T.I. and Elton John.
-- "New Year's Rockin' Eve," to 11 p.m., then 11:30 p.m. to 1:08 a.m. and 1:08-2:17 a.m., ABC. Natasha Bedingfield, Ne-Yo, Jesse McCartney, Fall Out Boy, Pussycat Dolls, Solange and Robin Thicke, plus the Jonases, Swift, Richie and Clark and Ryan Seacrest host at Times Square, Fergie at the party.
-- "U Party 2009," to 1 a.m., Fox News  Includes Chuck Wicks and LoCash Cowboys.

Start at 11 p.m.:
-- "New Year's Eve Live," to 12:30 a.m., Fox, Includes Daughtry, Cook, Weiland, Knievel and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
-- "New Year, No Limits," to 12:30 a.m., ESPN. Includes stunts by Robbie Maddison and Rhys Millen.
-- "New Year's Eve Live With Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin," to 1 a.m., CNN. Lil Wayne, Coolio, My Morning Jacket, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 3 Doors Down and Hinder.

That's just silly

Sometimes, a TV show can simply try too hard.

That came to mind last night, as I watched an upcoming "Bones." It doesn't air until Jan. 15, but let me grumble for a minute.

The case involves two circus performers who were killed. Everyone quickly rejected the forthright approach -- walk in, flash an FBI badge and ask questions. Instead ... well, the FBI painted up an old RV and Booth and Brennan developed a death-defying knife act; they also rode around in a motorcycle with a sidecar.

I'm really not well-informed on FBI technique, but I'm pretty sure flash-the-badge-and-ask-questions is preferred over develop-a-knife-act. The whole thing just seems too silly.

Shortly after watching this, I saw "Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood," a superb documentary coming to PBS on Jan. 1. In one burst, my faith in TV was restored. 

Dreaming of a what?

We've seen this in way too many movies:

People mope around, because they don't have any snow for Christmas. Then, at the last moment, the flakes descend. Faces light up, as if pure magic is emerging from the heavens.

Try to remember this: None of the people who make those movies were in Michigan this weekend, shoveling snow amid zillion-mile-an-hour winds that kept re-depositing everything right where it had been.

The words "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" were written in Florida and first performed in Southern California. I'm just saying.