Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Trey Parker/Matt Stone Musical Trilogy: Cannibal, South Park, and Team America

The inventive duo of Matt Stone and Trey Parker are now infamous for raucous and raunchy potty humor on Comedy Central's South Park and their other productions (haven't you seen Orgasmo?) So when thinking of this creative team's output for film or TV, you might be tempted to conjure up images of swearing, animated children like Eric Cartman, or puppets having sexual intercourse (Team America); or perhaps even celebrity-baiting statements in South Park episodes about Tom Cruise, Rob Reiner, Ben Affleck and the like.

But let's face it, Parker and Stone are amazing producers for another entirely unheralded reason, one besides their boundary-bashing, taboo-smackdowns on TV and in theaters. The obvious (but often unreported...) fact is that these guys are genre scholars, movie musical lovers extraordinaire....not to mention talented composers and singers. How else to account for the fact that three of their feature films simultaneously parody and exploit the movie musical conventions established in the early decades of the twentieth century?

Let's start with 1994's memorable Cannibal: the Musical. We learn from the movie's informative opening card that the film was originally released in 1954 but was rapidly upstaged by the much more popular Oklahoma! and then promptly forgotten...until the original negative was excavated and "painstakingly" restored to its present condition.

Of course, none of that's true. Cannibal is an independently produced, low-budget flick made in 1993, while Parker was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. It's based on the "true" story of Alferd Packer (Parker), a pioneer who sets out with his beloved steed, Le Ann, and a team of prospectors to reach Colorado Territory. But the team takes a few wrong turns, winter falls, and well, before long, the specter of cannibalism appears. Oopsy.

Shot on location in Colorado, this bizarre (and bloody...) movie musical is packed with grand vistas, flowing rivers, monolithic mountains and the like, yet it does more than mimic the great outdoor look of Zinnemann's open-sky epic Oklahoma!

Rather pointedly, the film's first song finds Packer on his horse in pure Curly-style singing not "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin', but rather, the somewhat less-well known (but no less catchy) "Shpadoinkle." This tune - like its Rodgers and Hammerstein predecessor - describes a beautiful day, only in very basic terms. It is one wherein "the sky is blue and all the leaves are green." Alferd also descriptively sings that the sun is "as warm as a baked potato." Yep, it's a spot-on, drop-dead parody of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. It could only have been conceived by someone who knew the style well; and then, how to subvert it for comedic ends.

Another catchy tune in Cannibal, "Let's Build a Snowman," proves so annoyingly upbeat that the lost prospectors kill one of their own party rather than listen to another verse of the blasted thing. Finally, the movie climaxes in stellar fashion with the rousing, climactic tune, "Hang the Bastard," which not includes the requisite cowbell solo, but reveals scores of happy (though bloodthirsty...) townies dancing around their gallows and cheerily singing to send the doomed prospector 'straight to hell.' There's also the film's "yearning ballad" (in which a character expresses his or her dreams), here entitled "That's All I'm Asking For."

By the time of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut in 1999, Parker and Stone had the budget and production chops to match their audacity and knowledge of musicals. They created a film that - for my money - is one of the finest movie musicals of the 1990s: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.

Indeed, the charms of South Park arise not just from a witty story that involves parental censorship and the politics of war, but rather from the film's deliberate lampooning of long-cherished movie musical standards. "Anyone who's seen Beauty and the Beast's Belle describing her provincial life will recognize the roots of 'Mountain Town,' and even Satan gets a yearning ballad wondering about life 'Up There' a la Little Mermaid's 'Part of Your World,' wrote Entertainment Weekly's Chris Willman in 1999.

That was only part of the fun. "Cartman's perky 'Kyle's Mom's a Bitch' echoes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with choruses in fake Chinese, Dutch and French' observed Time Magazine's Richard Corliss. He added: "Saddam [Hussein] could be an Arabic fiddler on the roof as he struts his seedy charm in 'I Can Change.'...There's a dexterous quartet of musical themes, a la Les Mis. And though a song whose refrain is more or less 'Shut your flicking face, Uncle Flicka' would seem to have little room for musical wit, ace arranger Marc Shaiman turns it into an Oklahoma! hoedown with kids chirping like obscene Chipmunks."

Parker and Stone also parody hip-hop, BET style with their reprise of "Uncle Fucka" as a music video tie-in to "Asses of Fire," which features the Canadian duo Terrence and Phillip decked out in sunglasses, donning silver body suits, proffering piles of cash, wearing bling-bling, and surrounding themselves with nubile African-American female dancers in tight outfights.

"Kenny's Space Odyssey," in which the recently deceased boy floats about in outer space between Heaven and Hell, serves as a trippy reflection of 1970s head musicals like Ken Russell's Tommy, dreamy and serene one moment, hard-driving and pulse-pounding the next.

Basically, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut is great because it co-opts the traditions of the musical format to reveal hidden character traits. Satan dreams of a better life on Earth ("Up There,") Saddam promises he can keep his promises to the World and the UN in "I Can Change," and, of course, "Blame Canada" was nominated for an Academy Award. It's a perfect anthem for the crusading parent. Busby Berkeley's unique staging-style also gets riffed in Big Gay Al's number, "I'm Super" and again, the feeling is that these creators understand the movie musical format and know how exactly to tweak it for laughs.

In 2004, Team America: World Police arrived in theaters, completing the Stone/Parker musical troika. Although this effort stars marionettes (a la Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds), the film is also perfect satire of the 1980s era action film, and so it deploys music (and musical tropes) to make thematic points (often ironic).

Here, the villain is not Saddam, but North Korea's Kim Jong Il, and he gets a sensitive ballad that describes his feelings of isolation, "I'm so Ronery." There's also a Broadway musical depicted in the film, a note-for-note parody of Rent, here entitled "Lease" and featuring the the politically-incorrect and unuly cheerful refrain "Everybody's Got AIDS!"

The brain trust behind South Park also resurrects a number from the popular TV series, "Montage," which - in remarkably specific detail - explains precisely how movies employ video-like "montages" to create the impression that time has passed, and a new skill has been learned. Originally, on South Park, Stan learned to ski to the strains of this song; in Team America, actor Gary becomes an action hero.

One of my favorite tunes in Team America accompanies the notorious puppet sex scene. It sounds like it came straight out of the hit soundtrack for Con Air, or some other Nicholas Cage movie circa 1997, but whatever its origin, "Only a Woman" remains a riot. Among the lyrics: "All I Ask is That You're a Woman." It's nice to have simple standards, isn't it?

I also get a tremendous kick out of the patriotic faux Toby Keith song "Freedom isn't Free," which in Team America is played over a stirring, inspirational visit to the national monuments in Washington D.C. by a contemplative...puppet. I think I actually spit up my soda watching the tiny marionette ponder the Lincoln Memorial and other "patriotic" sites.

If you ask me, way too much attention has been heaped upon the raw language and vulgar situations in the Parker/Stone canons. People have written books about South Park Republicans and the like, and the press has made hay about the show's attacks on Scientology and Global Warming. Yet, what clever film critics really need to do (besides obsessing on how many four letter words show up in these ventures...) is analyze how these creative filmmakers have marshaled music in their films to reflect on movies as a form.

The carefully composed and brilliantly performed music in Cannibal, South Park and Team America functions on a variety of thematic levels. The songs reveal character (as is the tradition of musicals), push the action forward (just look at the boys of South Park contemplating a strategy in 'What Would Brian Boitano Do'), and simultaneously comment on and lampoon movie conventions and cliches. In recent years, the musical form has made a real comeback in theaters (Moulin Rouge, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Chicago, Phantom of the Opera, Rent, etc.), and yet there is nothing more rewarding than a funny musical, one that simultaneously loves and skewers the form.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Classic Musicals: From Busby to Bollywood

Hey everybody, this post is directed at my film loving readers in North Carolina, and in the Charlotte area, in particular.

My good friend Sam Shapiro, a frequent guest columnist for The Charlotte Observer, a film professor at UNCC and a contributor on my upcoming book Horror Films of the 1980s, has prepared with his usual dedication this year's annual summer film festival for the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County.

This is from the press flyer on Classic Musicals: From Busby to Bollywood -- "The Public Library's 2006 Summer Film Series promises to be one of the best since it began in 1975. Not only are the movies great, but the series moves to ImaginOn: the Joe & Joan Martin Center - specifically to the center's 250-seat Wachovia Playhouse, complete with stadium-style seating and a state-of-the-art projection and sound system."

The festival begins on June 4th with Footlight Parade (1933). On June 11th, the festival shows Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat. June 18th is Stormy Weather (1943) with Cab Calloway and Lena Horne. Don't miss the June 25th movie, the Judy Garland classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1945).

Other shows include On the Town (1949) on July 9, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) on July 16, Oklahoma! (1955) on July 23, and the 1979 version of Hair starring Treat Williams on July 30th. The festival culminates with Devdas (2002), a Bollywood extravaganza.

This annual summer film series is free to all (and the selections are family friendly). Seeing these films again is a perfect way to spend your summer Sundays, especially if you love movie history and movie musicals. To learn more about the program, visit www.plcmc.org/programs/films.asp

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Space:1999 Pinball


Here's a fun sci-fi collectible I picked up twelve years ago (in 1994) in Charlotte, at a store on Albemarle Road that's long out of business.

Forget Elton John or Roger Daltrey, the real pinball wizard is Commander John Koenig of Moonbase Alpha...

I bought this Space:1999 wall pinball game for $25.00 back in the day, and it has hung proudly on my wall ever since.

I remember some reviews of Space:1999 back in the disco decade actually compared the series' traveling, intergalactic moon to a pinball bouncing around the cosmos...and well, now I can make that metaphor literal.

I especially enjoy this 1999 toy because very few toys from the original Space:1999 run (1975 - 1977) were made following Year Two and included Maya.

As you can see, Catherine Schell's beautiful creation is included here (on the middle left). Although the rest of the imagery is clearly Year One (including Christopher Lee as Zantor from "Earthbound" and Dione's battleship from "The Last Enemy") Helena is Year Two friendly, wearing one of those colorful Freiberger jackets with the big collars...

I've seen a Land of the Lost pinball unit just like this on sale for E-Bay occasionally. I've really got to get my hands on that one.

CATNAP # 37: Ezri Needs Her Pills...




Well, because of Ezri's heart condition (a progressive disease that thickens one of her valves, and makes it harder for her heart to relax), we're having to give her three pills a day...every eight hours.

It's not always easy...and it's kind of like feeding a baby. Ezri likes being held, but she doesn't like taking the pill. At all. Lately, she's been holding it under her tongue, and then when we put her down, she walks away and spits it out. On the weekends when we vacuum, we find her pills everywhere...in every room.

Monday, May 29, 2006

CULT MADE-FOR-TV BLOGGING: Someone's Watching Me! (1978)

One of John Carpenter's "missing" films (not currently available on commercial DVD) is the 1978 telefilm originally titled High Rise, but broadcast (on TV) as Someone's Watching Me! Despite the film's relative obscurity, it remains a fascinating production. It's the "flip side" in some senses, of Halloween. Because here, the killer doesn't need a knife. The telephone will do just fine...

The made-for-TV movie stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a headstrong, single, career woman who moves into Los Angeles' impressive Arkham Towers, a state-of-the-art (for 1978) apartment building replete with computer-controlled air-conditioning, high-tech elevators, "eighty miles of wiring and cables" and boasting a restaurant in the foyer, a gift shop, even a wedding chapel in the lobby.

Despite such "modern" conveniences, TV-director Leigh finds herself targeted and pursued by a dedicated and obsessive technological stalker, one who operates from a safe distance with the very latest tools of the trade: electronic surveillance devices, telescopes, tape recorders, walkie-talkies and the like.

The film's central notion, well-captured by the young Carpenter (who also wrote the teleplay), is that - as Hutton's Philosophy Professor boyfriend (David Birney) says -"we insulate our lives" and "guard our spaces" but technology can bring terror home; to our very hearths. The invisible stalker, Birney suggests, is "trying to hurt" Leigh "without touching" her. Or, as Leigh's lesbian friend, Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) aptly describes the situation: "rape is when a man consciously keeps a woman in fear."

That's the thematic playground of the Someone's Watching Me! As a filmmaker, Carpenter is a neo-classicist, an old-fashioned visually-skilled auteur who here - instead of evoking Howard Hawks (as in Assault on Precinct [1976]) - suggests the canon of that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. To wit, the film opens with a Saul-Bass style opening credits scene that could have been ripped right from Psycho (1960). The credits are accompanied by Harry Sukman's Herrmann-esque score, which squawks like Psycho too.

Also, the film involves the pursuit of a woman by an unseen killer, and there are plenty of Hitchcockesque red herrings among the characters, including a "slick man" who accosts Leigh at night, an obnoxious co-worker named Steve who doesn't take "no" for an answer, and the odd horticulturist who lives across from Leigh, in the parallel building called Blake Towers. Each one of these men could be the long-distance stalker, and Carpenter wrangles maximum (for TV...) suspense out of his identity. In one telling shot evoking the best tenets of film grammar, the killer tells Leigh he can see her through her open window, and she retreats whimpering to the sheltered bathroom, to a tight, confined space between toilet and bathtub, Carpenter's camera adopts an overhead angle. It's as though we're gazing down at Leigh in a fishbowl, which is precisely what the comfortable apartment has become for this woman. Her privacy has been stolen.

Carpenter's telefilm also cogently suggests the anonymous, disconnected and isolating manner of modern metropolitan life. An early shot at street-level reveals a group of cars traveling in one direction endlessly, not unlike lemmings. Who's in them? Where are they going? Could one of the drivers be the stalker? These are the questions the uncomfortable shot suggests. The film also pauses during scene transitions to include views of gleaming skyscrapers, ones with mirrored windows. In other words, you can't see in; can't see what's behind the panes....all we see is ourselvess, looking in; reflected The identities of others (like the stalker...) are protected.

Two things tend to date Someone's Watching Me! (which would be ideal remake material). The first is the film's technology. The surveillance devices, tape recorders and telephones all appear antique today, in the world of microtechnology, e-mail, wi-fi and the like. It's up to the minute for the late 1970s, yet watching the film, you can't help but realize how far we've come. And yet - simultaneously - that's a reckoning that supports the film's thesis too. Via the Internet (and faxes before it), and cell phones and beepers and the like, technology has infiltrated our homes in ways deeper than Carpenter - or anyone - would have imagined in the disco decade. Today, it's even easier for a stalker to "get in" while remaining "far away."

The second aspect of Someone's Watching Me that's aged, but which - personally - I enjoyed, is the idea of having a character, in this case Hutton's Leigh, voice her fears as a running, external monologue. This device recurs in Halloween: we are often privy there to Laurie Strode's (Curtis's) thoughts. Today, we might decry this running soliloquy as stilted or dated, but again - it's right from the Marion Crane/Psycho playbook. It's a nice window into Leigh's thoughts, but today we'd consider the device "hokey."

It's interesting to consider Leigh Michaels, as played by Lauren Hutton, because she represents the late-1970s ideal of the liberated American woman. She's depicted as "kooky" but extremely smart; professional but with an off-kilter sense of humor. She reserves the right to say "no" but is also sexually aggressive when it suits her. Because she is a single, career woman in a "man's business," Leigh is also disbelieved by the authorities when she reports the nature of her stalking (which includes phone calls, and unauthorized visits to her apartment while she's at work...).

This allows for a "don't cry wolf" kind of subtext to the telefilm, but the point is exactly what Leigh says: "Whenever I get around to telling the truth, no one believes me." Someone's Watching Me! suggests that's because, in part, Leigh has stepped out of the "traditional" role of women in society. She can't be believed or trusted because she's sexually aggressive and unmarried, a heterosexual woman "making it on her own." Society has already dismissed her before the killer first sets his telescopic sights on her. Leigh's only friend, noticeably, is a gay woman, another female "outsider." Sophie believes Leigh where the men - the police - don't.

The notion of voyeurism, the terrain of fellow Hitchcock heir Brian De Palma (see 1984's Body Double...), is also vetted carefully in Someone's Watching Me!, making it a sort of latter-day Rear Window (1954). There are plenty of telling shots adopting the perspective of the telescope lens as it peers in at other apartments, at women going about their business...unaware that they are being visually stalked. Carpenter alternates between this "remote" view of invaded personal lives with a series of stunning, desperate, faster-than-usual P.O.V. subjective shots symbolizing Leigh's "eyes." These occur as she finds her personal space (her apartment) violated by an unwanted visitor.

Had Someone's Watching Me! been made for the cinema, it would likely have been scarier than it is; but it's still one of the very best TV-movies of the era, in part because Carpenter's screenplay is filled with ideas about "modern" life in the disco decade; the change in women's roles in our society; the easy availability of technology, the isolating nature of city life, and the like. These ideas make the perfect background for a solid thriller in the Hitchcockian vein, even if - occasionally - you'll marvel at how much things have changed since the era of Jimmy Carter and the ERA. Technology continues to invade our homes, unabated, and the question becomes: is it still victimizing us today? It's not so much Someone's Watching Me! in 2006 but rather The NSA's Watching Me! Big Brother's Watching me! Phishers are Watching Me! Sexual Predators are Watching Me! Corporations are Watching Me! And on and on. At least Leigh Michaels knew she was being stalked - didn't like it and chose to fight back...

Note: The avid Carpenter fan will find plenty of the director's trademark touches here, but also some direct references to his next project, 1980's The Fog. To wit: The building across from Arkham is called Blake Towers. Blake, as you will recall, is the name of the Leper Leader in The Fog. Also, the first victim of the stalker in Someone's Watching Me! is named Elizabeth Solley. That's also the name of Jamie Lee Curtis's character in The Fog.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

My Office Now...Beam Me Up.




Hey everybody. Occasionally, here and at my web site (www.johnkennethmuir.com) I share photos of my crazy toy collections in the home office where I blog and write my various and sundry film books.

I did a re-vamp of my home office recently (the second time in a year) and added some new stuff, so I thought I'd put up a few pictures today. In particular, I hauled out a few more cardboard Star Trek stand-up cut-outs from mothballs. They literally came out of mothballs. I found that bugs had started to chew up my Captain Kirk display...

Paging Dr. Beverly Crusher...

Saturday, May 27, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "The Paku Who Came to Dinner"

The tenth episode of Land of the Lost's first season (by Barry Blitzer and directed by Bob Lally) is a bit of a time-waster, really. It begins with Holly and Rick "bird watching" dinosaurs as Emily the Brontosaurus eats some plants in the swamp and Grumpy, in turn, tries to get to her. Holly then reminisces about the first time she met baby brontosaurus Dopey and we transition into a flashback. I soon feared that this was either a.) an episode of Lost, or b.)the dreaded clips show.

After that, the episode settles down. And I mean settles down. The Marshalls invite Cha-Ka over for dinner and Holly adorns lipstick and perfume for the little missing link. And who can blame her? Let's face it, if she's trapped in the LOTL long enough, Cha-Ka's the only marriage material around, besides Enik. Yes, it's an interspecies "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Anyway, everyone breaks bread together and Will quibbles over Cha-Ka's table manners....which aren't exactly Emily Post. Dad puts judgmental Will in his place. "Don't be intolerant, Will," says Rick. "The Paku have their own standards..."

After dinner, Cha-Ka's Paku friends Tah and Sah kidnap Holly (because they like her perfume...) and Will and Marshall must rescue her. They do so in the nick of time, since Grumpy attacks and eats Holly's jacket (in a scene that carefully and nicely blends live-action with miniature sets...though I don't understand how the primitive Paku could build the enclosure we see them living in...)

Nothing much else happens in this episode, but the moment when Holly puts on make-up for Cha-Ka and Dad says "Our little girl is growing up to be a lady," has a high "ick" factor....something this splendid 1970s show usually avoids. That instant is followed immediately by an even more uncomfortable moment. Will sizes up his younger sister and says "You know, you don't look half bad." Whoa!

Someone better rescue these kids, quick!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Season Finale: Lost

What a difference a year makes. Last year I felt (perhaps unhealthily...) obsessed with Lost, and believed it was set on a multi-season path to becoming a new classic; a Star Trek, X-Files, or Buffy for our new 21st century decade.

After the second season, I'm not so certain. Like John Locke, my faith has been shaken. When people ask me to explain why I've "lost" my enthusiasm, I point primarily to the series' increasingly frustrating story structure. I liken Lost to a really good novel you read at the beach. In the first few chapters (the first season of the series), we meet all the characters and learn of the tantalizing, fun plot (a plane crash on a deserted island...). As we met these well-forged, dynamically performed dramatis personae, we learned - via flashbacks - of their sordid histories. Kate was a criminal, kinda. Jack had issues with his drunk father. Locke had been duped by his own Dad. Etcetera. Again, this mirrors a fine mainstream novel; we expect when reading a really-good thriller to learn about character backgrounds...who these men and women are.

But then there comes a time in every good novel when the reader sufficiently understands the characters; knows who they are and what they represent in the larger story. At this point, the novel must turn focus and address the plot. We want to see the characters address their situation directly (stranded on a mysterious island), not learn in detail everything they did before boarding a plane. Where they stopped at a bar to have a drink, and so on. In the case of Lost, the plot should be: how do these diverse people survive (or not survive) in their new environs? What kind of community do they build? What do they find on the island? Who do they meet: friends or foes?

This is where I believe the second season of Lost has ultimately proven disappointing. Up to and including last night's season finale, we're still getting the flashbacks and background material. And let's be honest: who amongst has been jonesing for a background story on...Desmond? In fact, the writers have so forgotten about the central plot and location of Lost (a weird island...) that none of the characters - not a bloomin' one - evidence the slightest bit of worry, concern or fear about the invisible monster that roams the forests and rattles tree-tops. Nope, our stalwart islanders routinely and blissfully walk back and forth without protection, without concern. All alone. Even the pregnant women and the one with an infant. Remember, they've only been there sixty days, their time. You tell me: if you survived an airplane crash and on your first night on an island, heard a roaring monster - and saw it shaking tree tops - would you be constantly going back and forth in the jungle alone? Would there be a perimeter set up? Guards? Would people be scared, refuse to travel alone? Would people at least be talking about that thing they saw? There's just no verisimilitude here anymore.

This is just one example where Lost has severely lost its sense of internal reality. This season we were introduced to the hatch and the labyrinth below, but like so much of this season, that plot ends with a wash. On the season finale, the computer and the complex (along with the countdown ticker...) were destroyed...so this season was essentially a dead end. Furthermore, this season spent time (and several episodes...) introducing very interesting new characters (the "Tailies"). By the end of the second season, two of the three are dead and buried. Again...what's the point? We're back to the end of the first season! To my dismay and disappointment, this season of Lost feels like a very long detour down the wrong rabbit hole.

We didn't get to see the grounded pirate ship this season, either. (If you were on the island, wouldn't you want to explore that?) We saw flashes of "the Others" (now called "The Hostiles,") and they appear interesting (though I'm baffled by the fact that one of their number feels he has to wear a fake beard while none of the others bear such affectations...). Yet the overall impression I now have of the series is of one that is...stalling.

Imagine - if you will - reading that great book on the beach. You're maybe five chapters in now. You've met all the characters. You've been terrified by the predicament on the island. Now you're ready to find out more...to address the plot of people bracing for life on the dangerous island. And what happens? You get a flashback of Michael losing his son (again!), or of Rose and Bernard trying to cure her cancer, or of Desmond. If it were me reading those passages...I'd start skimming, in order to get to the good stuff. Like what the novel is supposed to be about.

The finale on Wednesday night had some interesting elements, but again, there was the feeling that Lost doesn't quite know where it wants to take us. Characters behaved...oddly. En route to the hostile camp, Jack - for no good reason - reveals his plans with Sayid...right in front of the turncoat, Michael. Why? Go back and watch the scene again and ask yourself why on Earth Jack would possibly reveal this important information at this time, with this group? Yes, there had just been a shooting involving The Others, but what difference does that make? Jack and the others never even searched the corpse for anything useful. On an island with limited resources, you have to scavenge...but the writers don't treat these characters like they're desperate and stranded on island. The island has become...comfortable.

And where did our stalwart Iraqi, Sayid go? He had a great plan to back-up the attack on the Hostile Camp, but after he set the signal fire...what? We never even got a clip of Sayid saying something like: "Something's wrong. They should be here by now." I hope he's enjoying his cruise...

Again, my contention is that Lost keeps changing its premises on us, sometimes from week-to-week. Because of that, the writers are blind to what the characters should be experiencing (like, duh - fear...). Didn't Jack threaten to build an army in one episode (with Ana Lucia?) Did we EVER see any progress made? No, but it made a hell of an episode-ender, didn't it? And what about The Others being able to miraculously swoop in and steal people up out of thin air? (Remember that? On the trek from the other side of the island?) And what about The Others being total savages (barefoot and all?) Is that a third group? I guess so, since Henry said in the finale "We're the good guys," but come on, Lost...throw us a bone now and again.

Don't misinterpret my remarks. I'm not saying that Lost need answer all of its mysteries. I love a good mystery as much as the next guy. I believe we live in a world where we never get "all the answers" (why are we here? why do some people die in plane crashes? what is fate?), but a mystery is only fun if you have confidence that the writer remembers why you're watching, and furthermore, that he or she is keeping track of all the clues that have been doled out to you. You can't introduce an invisible monster in the first act and then never have the characters react with fear that it is out there (or only rarely). You can't say "we're gonna build an army" and then never do ANYTHING in that regard. You can't spend all season pressing a damn button, then just shove a computer out of the way and reveal a hole in the floor that conveniently leads to a failsafe button that saves the day. You can't introduce the idea of a teleporting Walt with possible super powers, and then send him off on a boat with his dad, presumably never to return (though the door is still open on that last bit).

That's...sucky writing. If it were a novel, I'd put it down and start another one. And there's no joy in writing any of this for me. I really enjoyed several episodes of Lost this season (and like I said, I loved the first season...) but the writers and producers really need to stand back and re-assess. They need to look at where these characters are now; and what they would really and truly "feel" in this situation; and whether or not continued time-wasting flashbacks are necessary.

Some folks have suggested that the islanders are inserting themselves into each other's flashbacks, so that these moments are actually intrinsic to the plot. I'm willing to play that out, but I'll tell you what I truly think. I believe that the writers of Lost are embarrassed by the fact that their show is "science fiction." They know if they address monsters on the island and pirate ships, it is definitively and inarguably so. But...if they keep having quasi-meaningful and "deep" character flashbacks where the actors get to strut their stuff, they can make the claim that this is a serious character "drama." Really. Imagine if Buffy didn't have the balls to admit that it was a superhero/horror show, or Star Trek didn't want to countenance the fact that it was a space adventure. What you'd be left with is...pretension.

Lost needs to get over itself. It's science fiction. If it isn't, there shouldn't have been a tree-rattling invisible monster in the first place...and now it's too late to pretend like it wasn't there...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Movie Review: The Da Vinci Code (2006)

I went yesterday afternoon to see Ron Howard's blockbuster adaptation of The Da Vinci Code. I hadn't read the best-seller by Dan Brown, so I went in "fresh," so-to-speak. I also didn't let the discouraging reviews by mainstream critics daunt my enthusiasm. News flash: I don't always (or even often...) agree with mainstream critics. So basically, I wanted to give the movie a fair hearing.

After viewing the film (adapted by Akiva Goldsman) by main question is simply this: was the book this dumb, vapid and ham-handed? If so, all I can say is "so dark the con" of Dan Brown.

My criticisms of The Da Vinci Code fall into nine general categories. Let's not dawdle with pre-text or "symbology," and just get into them:

1. Dialogue. I don't know if the dialogue came mostly from the novel intact or was re-purposed for the movie, but the screenplay contains some of the worst howlers I've heard in a mainstream movie in years. And yes, I saw Basic Instinct 2. It's not just that the dialogue is delivered ponderously and with hushed, self-important tones, it's that these words doesn't tend to arise naturally or believably from the characters. At one point, our protagonist, Robert Langdon (drearily portrayed by Tom Hanks...), is trapped in a bathroom amidst a murder investigation, and an escape attempt is suggested. He actually says a line that only Data, Spock, or other aliens should ever say with a straight face. "What do you propose?" he asks, blank-faced. How about, "what do you have in mind?" "what are you suggesting?" or "what are we going to do?" or "You have a plan?" Any of those would have sounded more like a real human being than the stodgy, "What do you propose?" I guess it's supposed to make him sound smart but it sounds like Screenwriter 101. The script is positively filled with anonymous-sounding dialogue that no real person (even a professor) would speak.

2. Silly Character Contrivances. Tom Hanks' Langdon suffers from a pat character "background trauma," one that's the most laughable and over-the-top such impediment since Elvis Presley went catatonic at the sight of a diving board in Fun in Acapulco back in the 1960s. Hint, if you've seen The Ring (2002), you won't be surprised. Why is it even necessary to burden this character with such a "trauma?" Again, it may have been in the novel, but it plays like Screenwriter 101.

3. Contrived Action and Plotting. At one point in The Da Vinci Code, a bird happens to fly by overheard (in a cathedral, no less...) at the very moment necessary to befuddle an expert (and armed...) assassin. This well-timed happenstance permits the protagonists just the opportunity they need to escape again. Divine intervention, you say? Screenwriter laziness, I counter.

4. A seriously-wrong headed finale. The bulk of this over two-hour "treasure" hunt of a film uses expansive dialogue, historical research, even Power-Point-style visual presentations to convince us, the viewers, that Mary Magdalene is indeed the Holy Grail. That Christ was human, married and boasts a sacred bloodline that continues to this very day. On the surface, that's an incredibly cool plot. The only problem is, Howard and Goldsman undercut the story (and the film's entire argument) with a pat little "summation" by the Hanks character at the end...which tries to say the opposite. This conclusion (which righteously panders to Christian audiences...we want their bucks, after all...) says - Nope, maybe Jesus really WAS divine after all. The Da Vinci Code thus lacks the courage of its convictions. It makes one case for over two hours, then tries to weasel out of that case in the last ten minutes. Let's please everybody! Pass the popcorn...

5. A general lack of believability. One of the main characters in the film is an albino assassin who walks freely and boldly around major metropolitan centers (like London...) dressed as a monk (in robes and a hood)...just like Friar Tuck...in broad daylight. This may have played as acceptable on the page, but on-screen it is unintentionally hilarious as poor Paul Bettany skulks around in his robe and sandals. Yikes!

6. Performances. Hey, I love Tom Hanks too. So I'm not even going to criticize him for his lousy haircut. But he is given not a single memorable line (though he gets a few laughable ones)...and worse, doesn't offer a single memorable delivery. Instead, Hanks walks-through-this role like a zombie...something I never thought I'd witness from the usually-terrific performer. But then again, how do you play a character who serves simply as a mouthpiece to deliver lots of expositional dialogue? Again, I think of Spock or Data on Star Trek...they were often tasked with just such unforgiving dialogue...but Nimoy and Spiner made it work. They engaged the material full-on, and with an individual perspective or world view (either through the rubric of "logic," or someone who desired to be more than a machine.) Often, they also seemed to sense the irony and humor of their thankless roles, and somehow transcended the exposition. Hanks doesn't get such a perspective, alas. He's supposed to love history and be professorial. End of character. So yeah, this movie is a little bit like watching your college English professor go on a globe-trotting adventure...for three-hours. Bring a number two pencil.

7. Unsurprising twists. The identity of the secret villain called 'The Teacher' will come as an absolute surprise...if you've never seen or heard of these things called "movies" before.

8. Generally derivative plotting. For good measure (and to ramp up tension in what - let's face it - need not be a chase film...), The Da Vinci Code is peppered with a tinge of The Fugitive (1993), particularly in the character of a dogged police pursuer, and a taste of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) too...specifically in all the Church vandalism. Also - and this is directed at you - Dan Brown -- I've seen this plot before. Back in 1998...well before The Da Vinci Code was a sensation in print, too. On April 17 of that year, the TV series Millennium aired on Fox TV an episode called "Anamnesis." It concerned...the cult of Mary Magdalene! That episode was written by Erin Maher and Kay Reindel, and they must have used some of the same research as Brown did later. All through The Da Vinci Code, as anagrams were breathlessly revealed, I thought more than once of Frank Black (Lance Henriksen). He would have figured the code out long before Langdon...

9. Obvious Economy of Characters. Roger Ebert created a movie rule involving "economy of characters," which means that every character in a movie exists to serve an explicit purpose. Since The Da Vinci Code concerns the "last" heir to Christ (who carries Jesus's blood line...), you can - and will - guess, that one of the main characters is indeed that heir. Personally, I believe in my heart of heart It would have been better had that not been the case . The story would have been much more fun (and more clever; and more realistic;) if Tom Hanks and Amelie's Audrey Tautou doggedly traced the heir of Christ...to a small town in England, maybe Liverpool, knocked on the door of a little house, and met an overweight, divorced mother of four and delivered the Earth-shattering news. "You're the last living heir to the blood line of Jesus Christ." Instead, of course, one of the film's main characters is both the guardian of the Priori of Scion AND the last heir. And yes, in case you didn't know by now, there are classes that teach screenwriting...and The Da Vinci Code whips out that playbook and follows it to the letter.

Okay - I just spent a lot of space criticizing the movie. Yet I would still give it a C+ or B minus despite all these various and sundry flaws. The Da Vinci Code is entertaining in spots, and the central idea is certainly a revolutionary one. In fact, the notion that a Church conspiracy is hiding the truth of Christ's nature is explosive. Now I fully understand why so many Church elders have been on CNN trying to reinforce the notion that the film is fictional (like they don't have anything better to do...in Darfur, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, etc.). Personally, I never met a conspiracy I didn't like, so I do score The Da Vinci Code some points for asking true believers to open their minds and think just a little differently for two-and-a-half hours. Not to "destroy faith," but to "renew it," as the movie cloyingly suggests. I believe everybody should occasionally examine their faith (or lack thereof), and ask themselves why they believe (or don't believe) and The Da Vinci Code will no doubt continue to spark healthy debate.

Basically, I'm saying that there's a tiny bit of "red meat" with the popcorn presentation of The Da Vinci Code, and I do appreciate that the movie made at least a token attempt to present a progressive, revolutionary idea in a homogenized summer entertainment. I just wish it had all been vetted with more subtlety and skill than what's on hand here. But maybe Ron Howard was trapped by the source material....which based on the movie's flaws...I assume is lousy. In the past, when I've seen movies like Hunt for Red October (1990) or Jurassic Park (1993), they fascinated me so much I went back and read the source material (or re-read it...). In this case, after viewing the film, I have no desire to read Dan Brown's book...the movie wasn't nearly interesting enough for me to invest more time in the story.

Yet I would be lying if I said that - at times - I didn't enjoy the movie, and get wrapped up in the Grail Quest. There's a great scene set in Ian McKellan's study, where McKellan (who is excellent, as usual...) and Hanks debate these glorious and fascinating ideas of faith and our human interpretation of divinity and the like. This scene is giddy, and alive with ideas. It ends too quickly, and seems piped in from another movie entirely. But while it lasts, it's great.

The critical response to The Da Vinci Code has been savage, but for all the wrong reasons. I believe that the critics who caustically attacked it did so because they perceive the movie attacks Christianity and want to be "in" on the bashing. Mainstream critics are pack animals, for the most part. They love to heap it on (especially if a movie features somebody who is "down" at the moment, like Ben Affleck or Kevin Costner).

In truth, they should be attacking The Da Vinci Code because it takes a revolutionary notion and blanderizes it until only the most lunatic religious fringe could possibly find it offensive. It takes fascinating ideas and couches them in long-sacred but tiresome movie cliches, instead of depending a smart, cleverly crafted screenplay. It relies on ciphers instead of real characters, and uses dialogue like a hammer of exposition, bludgeoning audiences with history, but at the same time whizzing by the truly neat stuff.

Again, it's probably a C+ or a B-. As summer entertainment, it's fine, I guess. Here's my personal bias: I actively enjoyed that the movie wasn't populated solely by twenty-year olds. Sometimes I get tired of dealing with our pervasive "youth culture" in movies. Middle-aged people -- even English professors - can have an adventure too. Ian McKellen is getting up there in age, but man, he really carries this movie. It was a (small) joy to see him bring his experience, humor and wisdom to the screen again.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

WEIRD COLLECTIBLE # 1 : Sci-Fi...Stamps?


So what's with this? Little stamping toys based on popular science fiction TV series? Okay. Sure.

When I was a kid, I wanted toy guns (yes, I'm EXTREMELY violent...can't you tell?), action-figures and spaceship models and toys.

When I was even smaller, I did enjoy coloring books, viewmasters and colorforms too. Heck, on occasion I even played with Buck Rogers shrinky dinks. (Uh, that sounds dirty, doesn't it...?)

But I never really had a hankering to play with...stamping toys. Like the (left) pictured Space:1999 "Alpha Flicks and Stamping Set." by the Larami Corp. Not that there's anything wrong with it or anything (and I collect anything and everything with Space:1999 on it). I guess I just have visions of going around stamping images (of Commander Koenig, Dr. Russell, Moonbuggies, Eagles, etc.) on walls or something. Let's face it: what parent (no matter how big a fan...) is really going to enjoy that?

I thought Space:1999 was unique in featuring this odd-type of collectible, and then last year at a flea market in Salisbury, N.C., I found Star Trek: The Next Generation character "stamps" too. Because I've always wanted to stamp Commander Riker's face on the sofa, or the floor...or my wife's belly-button...

So... I guess you're just supposed to go around and "stamp" these on pieces of paper or something? Anyone ever play with these?

Give me phasers any day! (Set to stun, of course).

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Season Finale: 24.

I love Fox TV's high-stake CTU tension-game, 24. I've watched Howard Gordon's program religiously since it began airing in 2001, and I feel that the just-completed fifth season is probably a series high-point (at least so far). Just about every installment this year was pitch-perfect, suspenseful as a "stand alone" and simultaneously valuable in the overall "arc." In some previous seasons, I didn't necessarily find that to be the case...I still recall with dread the first season wherein Jack Bauer's doomed wife, Terri, suddenly became overcome with temporary amnesia. Or the now-legendary moment in the second season when Jack's daughter, Kim, was suddenly accosted by a mountain lion.

On the one hand, such contrivances are certainly true to 24's format. I mean, this is a show that has (skillfully) updated the old-fashioned movie cliffhanger with the latest technology and twists. It's probably not wrong for the series to occasionally feature these Perils of Pauline-type moments, yet - on the other hand - they also tend to undercut the believability factor.

That was not a problem this season, which saw Jack battle three interesting and powerful villains: a Russian terrorist, Bierko (played by Julian Sands), his own mentor at CTU, Christopher Henderson (Peter Weller), and the President of the United States himself, Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin). There wasn't much time for ridiculous melodrama or silliness, and the series opened with a bang (the death of Michelle Dessler and President Palmer), continued with a bang (the death of Tony Almeida; Edgar), and went out with fire works. The earlier episode with nerve gas released in CTU practically gave me a heart attack. Seriously. I thought it was stress, but I think it's actually 24's fault.

Last night's two-hour finale was a true humdinger. Pulse-pounding is a good descriptor. And I won't spoil it for anyone who TiVoed it and hasn't watched it yet. Let's just say, it wasn't a let-down.

I guess what I'm gettin' round to writing here is that 24 is one of those shows that simply gets better and more creative the longer it airs. I think this tends to be true of the really good dramas. The creators get jazzed and giddy and go for broke as they have more confidence that the audience is there. It happened on The X-Files (the fourth season was probably the best...), it happened on Buffy (Season Two and Three were extraordinary), and it's probably true of every modern variation of Star Trek too. A notable exception would be the very best show on television, Veronica Mars, which boasted a flawless, pristine first season and - amazingly - a second season that was just as strong. Most series just don't evidence that kind of confidence and success right off. It takes a while to get the right people behind-the-scenes, and the right mix of people in front of the cameras.

Back to 24. The thing I loved about last night's riveting season finale was the idea of seeing Americans of different stripe band together to stop a President who was out of control and abusing his power. They did so not as partisans, but as patriots. The characters in the series all worked in the Administration of Charles Logan. Audrey is the daughter of the Secretary of Defense; Mike Novick is his Chief of Staff, Aaron Pierce, part of the President's secret service detachment, Martha - the President's wife. When they learned what Logan had done, they didn't defend him by outing Jack Bauer as a covert agent (Valerie Plame, anybody?) They didn't remain a loyal to a "man" at the expense of the country. They didn't attempt to protect the Office of the Executive by shredding the Constitution. They knew precisely what their duty was -- to bring down a corrupt man -- and they did it without regard to Party Affiliation. Why, even the Attorney General had objectivity and obeyed the law. Who could possibly imagine Bush shill Alberto Gonzales taking a position against his lord and master?

Indeed. Would people in power (in either political party) take this stance in real life? If so, where the hell are they? Democrats gathered 'round Clinton when he perjured himself under oath. And Republicans - well, they're guilty of much worse, if you ask me, given the privacy-crushing actions of our current Prez. But neither side passes the test that Jack, Audrey, Bill Buchanon, Mike, Aaron and the others passed on 24 last night.

I guess that's how we know it's just TV. Right? Still, for a while (two hours anyway), it was great to live in a world where a bad president finally got his accountability moment.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "The Hole"

This first season Land of the Lost episode boasts a familiar scent (or is it stench?), especially if you're a long time sci-fi fan. "The Hole" (by Wina Sturgeon and directed by Dennis Steinmetz) is that old, oft-revived chestnut about a hero and a villain (or enemy...) trapped together in a remote location and forced to put differences aside to escape a deadly situation.

You may remember this familiar tale as the feature film Enemy Mine (1986) with Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett, or, if you're a Trekker, as the Next Generation tale involving Geordi and a Romulan trapped on Galorndon Core, the third season entry called "The Enemy." At least "The Hole" arrives earlier in genre hitory than either of those two entries (though it comes after the Planet of the Apes story with Burke and Urko trapped in underground San Francisco...).

The idea here is that Rick Marshall - while exploring the Lost City - is pushed into the smoky Pit where the hungry Sleestak God resides. As he falls, we see the actor actually hit the matt beneath a bed of fog...oopsy! Anyway, Marshall teams up in the dark pit with another prisoner, a very verbal and intellectual Sleestak named S'Latch, who was born "with the genetic heritage" of his ancestors, and thus possesses "all the knowledge of the universe." Quick - take this guy to Las Vegas!

Anyway, Rick and S'Latch overcome their differences and escape the pit, and Rick also teaches S'Latch a lesson or two about life. "We call helping each other brotherhood," he suggests. Then Marshall goes further, suggesting that only Mirror Spock can change the future by questioning the Evil Empire. Oh wait, wrong show!!! Marshall tells S'Latch, "You must teach your people peace and understanding."

Yes, there's a little snark here, but as always, I love Land of the Lost. How can you not? It's a morally valuable program for kids, and honestly - it's just the thing I want to nurture my future child on. We might take these trite messages as hackneyed in our cynical, sarcastic world of the twenty-first century, but it's been a long, long time since TV had the courage to actually boast a moral point. I relish this facet of the program, to tell you the truth. Land of the Lost evidences a point of view about how people should get along, and it isn't afraid that it will be read as biased; as liberal or conservative, and that simply rocks. It isn't just corporate sponsored nonsense that walks the middle of the road.

"Everything has some good in it," Rick tells Will at episode's end. "You just have to look for it." That's a valuable point, and well-taken. We can all stand to remember that next time we want to hate someone who is different - gay, an immigrant, of color, or different religious affiliation.

Of course, "The Hole" ain't perfect. As the story opens, Will and Marshall are exploring the Lost City and evading the allosaur named Big Alice, but Holly is left at home at High Bluff to "clean the cave." Damn! Why can't Will stay behind and do the housekeeping? It's amazing how a show can understand and explore some stereotypes, and then turn around and reinforce others, isn't it?

Keeping track of Land of the Lost story developments, we learn this week that the Sleestak call Big Alice "Selema," and that her job at the Lost City is to protect the Sleestak eggs before they hatch. "The Hole" also reveals that Sleestak are hostile because of fear and ignorance. The city is "all" they have "left" after centuries of war and barbarism and thus their security depends on protecting it, so they are violent and dangerous. Hmmm...that's pretty interesting, especially in these times.

Basically, you've seen "The Hole" before if you've ever watched science fiction TV, but heck, there is no such thing as an original story, I guess, and the fun is in the way it is told. "The Hole" is indeed fun because it grants the audience a new view of the Sleestak threat, and because it isn't afraid to be about something that today we consider hokey (brotherhood). Sure, the points could be made in less preachy fashion, but didactic drama like this has a good, honorable history in literature, and remember, this is a show for kids. A good show.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sci Fi Wisdom of the Week

"I'm an old fashioned gal. I was raised to believe that men dig up the corpses and women have the babies."
-Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Some Assembly Required")

Movie Review: United 93 (2006)

Well, I just couldn't stomach the idea of watching Tom Cruise dive out-of-the-way of CGI green-screen explosions and other far-fetched obstacles for two hours in M:I:3, so my wife and I opted - with some sense of caution - to see instead United 93, the new film written and directed by Paul Greengrass that concerns that terrible Tuesday in September, 2001.

Going in, I had two very different feelings about the project. On one hand, I was desperately afraid the movie was going to be "disaster porn," just a big fat, cheesy emotional catharsis filled with trite Hollywood platitudes. I was afraid the movie would serve no purpose other than to incite further hatred and transform the real men and women of that horrid day into flawless superheroes rather than what they were: ordinary Americans who struggled valiantly and purposefully to stay alive in a desperate, horrible situation. I just couldn't bear to hear "Let's Roll" transformed into a cheesy tag-line, a silly one-liner like one Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone or Ahnold would have spouted in their 1980s action flicks.

Yet on the other hand, I also had the distinct impression that it was nothing less than my patriotic - and sacred - duty as an American to see this film. To attempt to understand, at least on some level, what it was like for the few Americans who faced terrorism up close and directly...and fought back tooth-and-nail (and as the film makes clear, with not much but their sense of courage...and desperation...)

To my relief, the film is anything but cheesy or manipulative. I've written on these pages before how I decry the new Hollywood ethos that passes for "style." Simply put, this new "style" means landing a herky-jerky camera in front of actors and instead of relying on film grammar or carefully constructed scripts with genuine character-building, simply shaking the camera to make the events feel "immediate." It passes for style on 24 (a show I love...) and which nicely reflects the "real time" You-Are-There aesthetic the series creators aim for. It's used on Battlestar Galactica too (which appropriated the visual conceit from Firefly.) Basically, the shaky cam can serve as a short-cut for untalented directors vetting weak material. But the technique is so visually powerful, it nonetheless makes us "feel" close to the events on screen. Even if such closeness isn't really merited.

This is precisely the style of United 93, but yet here it works in spades. The film evidences no other agenda than to deposit the audience into seats aboard that doomed plane; and also into the various (and wretched) levels of bureaucracy (the FAA, NORAD, flight towers, ATC centers) that utterly failed to protect our citizens. By doing so, we thereby experience the disarray, horror, chaos, confusion and pain of September 11th.

The film often consists primarily of extreme-close-ups, which literally make viewers feel like we're sitting next to an air traffic controller or a passenger on the flight. And these actors aren't beautiful and pristine, either. We see their stubble and blotches and bad teeth up-close. They feel like "real" people. Again, the sense of reality is heightened in admirable, merciless fashion. United 93 is beautifully constructed as an immersive experience and I dare say it's actually the best film of the year thus far.

There's no movie B.S. on hand, and traditional film grammar (like high angles representing "doom") would have pulled audiences out of the experience and merely reminded them that this is carefully erected artifice. Old fashioned film style would have simply distanced viewers from the passengers on Flight 93, and so it's appropriate that Greengrass instead relies on the old herky jerky and extreme close-ups to foster immediacy. The style works, it doesn't feel pretentious, and it isn't forced.

In fact, at times there's a direct cinema, or cinema verite atmosphere about the film. When Greengrass isn't marshaling the unsteadicam, he's willfully focusing on little details that help us understand the experience of that day. We watch as people go through metal detectors, and as maintenance men fuel a plane. At take off, there's no thunderous music or CGI effects; in fact, the camera "corrects" itself (in extreme telephoto mode) to capture a glimpse of the plane's nose as it ascends in mid air. The feeling - absolutely indicative of cinema verite - is life unfolding before us; not a drama already mapped, scripted, edited and made "artistic."

By using unfamiliar actors (and in the case of the control rooms, some of the real participants...), by utilizing cinema verite techniques, but also keeping the tension high with the deployment of the herky-jerky camera, Greengrass admirably drains all Hollywood bullshit out of his movie. Or at least most of it. What his steadfast, blunt approach grants audience is an honest view of the men and women in the control rooms; and on the doomed flight. This is meant as no disrespect to any family members of the dead, but they are all depicted here as -- surprise -- very human, down to flaws and foibles. They are tearful and scared, but also determined and clinging to hope. When push comes to shove in the film, and the passengers have to make a choice, they make the only choice they can. It's not the choice to "defeat the terrorists" as some propagandists would have us believe. These people aren't soldiers; they weren't (knowingly) fighting an ideological war. They choose to strike back because they simply want to survive. Yes, they no doubt saved the Capitol Building in the process of striking back. But United 93 makes clear that a political victory was not the foremost thought in the minds of those who fought. Like each and every one of us...they just wanted to live; to beat death. To see their families and loved ones again. To continue existing on this mortal coil.

In the end, that's what makes United 93 such a powerful and emotional drama. There's a point in the film when it's clear to the passengers that they are not going to survive this if they don't do something, and fast. Sure, there's one appeasing European (a Frenchman or Swede), who thinks they should just listen to the terrorists...a right-wing jibe at Old Europe, I guess. But for the most part, the passengers on United 93 get it together and - in a heart-breaking sequence - communicate for the last time (by phone) with the ones they love.

Let me tell you, no trained screenwriter in his or her right mind would ever write a scene this precise manner for your average fictional Hollywood film. It's a sequence in which teary men and women (and we don't know their names, even...) simply say "I love you" (or variations thereof) again and again. It's repetitive and it's just not the stuff of your typical drama. (It doesn't move the story along, some know-it-all script doctor would tell us!)

But it's a beautiful and honestly crafted moment nonetheless. And again, one devoid of formulaic crap. Because at this juncture, the passengers on board Flight 93 have realized that their chances are not good. The simple and most essential thing they can tell their families is - I love you. By repeating that mantra again and again, and with different characters (of vastly different ages and stripe), Greengrass lets us experience the universal humanity of these men and women that all the the government myth-making in the universe just doesn't. The passengers were scared to death, and making their peace. And the only thing that mattered to them as they undertook the seemingly impossible task of taking back a jet liner in flight...was their connection to other human beings; it was their love. It was communicating that love.

I will never diminish the fact that these people struck back against terrorists in a terrible situation and prevented the destruction of Congress, but I truly honor these mortals more as human beings who were forced to understand and synthesize unpleasant, grotesque truths in a woefully short amount of time. They responded to that new "reality" with surprisingly little denial and enough grace and guts to do something. To fight for their lives. When the terrorists claim that Americans are weak...they're wrong. The Sleeping Giant metaphor, for me at least, always seems to hold.

Greengrass does get in one very dramatic and artistic point via the auspices of traditional "film grammar," and in particular, it involves the art of cross-cutting. As the situation quickly goes from bad to worse on Flight 93, the Americans pray to their (presumably...) Christian God in the passenger rows, while in the cockpit, the Terrorist pilot simultaneously prays to his Muslim God. These prayers are balanced directly against one another by the technique of the cross-cut - which binds and connects the two images. Two sides of the same coin, and all that.

Both sides are praying to God...and both sides - eventually - lose. God doesn't intervene. The Americans don't survive, and the Islamic Terrorists don't succeed in their destructive plans. In this case, what the film says, I suspect, is that it's well past time for humans to stop relying on prayer when crises occur. It's wrong for Terrorists to invoke the name of their God when they fly planes into buildings and kill hundreds of innocent people. It's equally wrong to invoke the name of God when justifying the invasion of a foreign country, and killing thousands of innocent civilians. It's dangerous, on either side, to believe that our purpose coincides with God's purpose. I've written this before on these pages, but if there is a God, humans can never know his/her purpose, and it is downright dangerous to follow those who believe they have the Almighty's Ear. It's time for a new morality in this country and in the world at large, one where soldiers and leaders don't judge themselves morally "superior" because they think they know what God wants. To me, that doesn't make them righteous...it makes them insane. If that's the way we're going to choose our leaders from here on out, then we are no better than the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th.

Another controversial point here - and I'm ready for the inevitable brickbats from readers who can't detect shades of gray but wish only to box the world into stark black-and-white -but Greengrass depicts the terrorists in United 93 as human beings too. They're scared, fragile creatures...like the rest of us. Doing what they believe is their God's will. They sweat, they bleed...they make mistakes. But this is the important thing, they are not monsters or aliens. They are not Cylons, Romulans, Daleks or Zombies. They are us, to steal a handy phrase from George A. Romero. They are the same breed, living on the same planet, breathing the same air, only twisted by religious fanaticism to "hate" those they deem enemies. I despise and curse the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001. But I also hate those who have used it for political gain and to wage war on the innocent. "Terrorist" is not a synonym for "alien" or "inhuman." If we assume it is, we've already lost.

The simple, undeniable fact is that the men and women on Flight 93 were Democrats and Republicans. They were liberals and conservatives. They were black and white, straight and gay. They were Americans, and they knew - probably before the vast majority of Americans did - that the world had suddenly changed on September 11. But could they have known...and what would they think today ...about everything that's happened to America since that time? After their hard-fought battle, what would they think of their fellow Americans now? Of wire-taps without court approval? Of secret prisons? Of prisoner abuse? Of differing viewpoints squelched out of misguided "patriotism? Of truth-tellers punished as "leakers?" Is that "why they fought?" on that sunny day in September? So that America would struggle forever in an unending war on "Terror?" The innate heroism of those passengers, I believe, illuminates the moral cowardice of this country, today. Forsaking liberty for security. Bargaining away freedom for fear of being labeled unpatriotic.

United 93 brings up so many emotions, but it is not an overtly political film, despite my last paragraph. That was simply my reaction to it. I would also be lying if I failed to tell you something else. I felt a deep-seated bloodlust when the passengers fought back and killed the terrorists. I wanted to see those hijackers suffer and die. The hijackers deserve a million Hells for a million eternities...but I sometimes fear Americans are facing the same fate. I don't want that to be our destiny too. Because then the pitched clash on United 93 wasn't the first battle over American ideals in this war, it was the last.

This may be the bottom line: You'll walk out of United 93 and get to return to your daily life. You'll go shopping, eat at a restaurant, or go home and hug your loved ones, your spouse or kids. These are the simple but essential pleasures of human life that have been forever denied the men and women who unsuspectingly boarded Flight 93. These passengers struggled and fought and cried and shook and wondered why...and we must certainly honor every minute of their struggle. If not for political reasons, then for human ones. They have been denied what we cherish. And if we become "them" in another skirmish, if we find ourselves in a similar situation...we must all hope we can respond with such grace. Even amidst the tears.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sci-Fi TV Fails...Again

Well, the 2005-2006 TV season's great experiment with science fiction drama is officially over; widely deemed a failure. In the wake of Lost's dazzling first season, as you'll recall, Threshold (CBS), Surface (NBC) and Invasion (ABC) all arrived on schedules last fall.

Brannon Braga's Threshold fell first (and rightly so -- it was one of the most wretched things to air on TV in some time) - after just six episodes. But there was hope for both the highly-entertaining Surface and Invasion. Both lasted full seasons and featured some dramatic story-telling. The latter series - Invasion - I believe actually eclipsed Lost in quality of storytelling by the end of the season.

I'm sad to report that Surface is dead in the water, and Invasion is also axed. All three "invasion" shows have now fallen, and so the new network schedules are shying away from any venture remotely resembling science fiction. Game shows like Deal or No Deal are obviously cheaper to produce. I've learned not to be too upset, however, about such losses. These things go in cycles, and I know that somewhere - waiting in the wings - there's a new Joss Whedon or Chris Carter or J.J. Abrams waiting to thrill audiences with a bold and daring vision.

At least some science fiction fans can satisfy themselves with the fact that niche shows like Battlestar Galactica (yawn!) and the various Stargates (double yawn!) shall return to the schedule next season. It is ironic, however...neither effort reels in the rating numbers that Invasion or Surface did on a regular basis. So I suppose life and death all depends on where a show gets aired. Numbers that pass muster on a smaller network just don't make it in the big leagues.

Personally, I'm enjoying the new Doctor Who more than either of those other Sci-Fi Channel franchises, and hope Sci-Fi will continue to air it for years to come. I think Billie Piper is amazing as Rose, and after watching just a handful of episodes, I feel she's truly become one of the Time Lord's most well-rounded and fascinating companions.

Yet the happiest news, as least far as I'm concerned, is that the very best show airing on television (although, alas, not genre...), has been renewed for a twenty-two episode commitment. Yep, I'm talking Veronica Mars. I know that some genre enthusiasts have a block against the show because they consider it a "teen" show or somehow the unholy offspring of the late, lamented Buffy the Vampire Slayer but it's really an entirely different animal than either of those misconceptions indicates.

Veronica Mars is actually a modern film-noir, one which wickedly updates the private detective genre to include the latest popular technologies, including wi-fi, cell phones, etc. It's also about class warfare (a fascinating topic given the divide today between the rich and the middle class), and the show is ably bolstered by one of TV's legitimately great performances; the winsome Bell in the title role. So I'm very enthusiastic the series is back (and the season two DVD is now up for pre-order at Amazon.com...).

I'm also happy to report that Lost, 24, Medium and Prison Break are all returning too. Each is entertaining in its own way (if only as a sustained adrenaline rush, in the case of 24 and Prison Break). But - yuck - Ghost Whisperer is also back. So Ghost Whisperer survives, and Invasion doesn't...just get your head around THAT one.

Regarding Lost, a cause celebre, I felt that it faltered badly in the last half of its second season, and because of creative stagnation may not last beyond the next season or two. Which means...the producers should cut out the flashbacks and get down to the business of telling the story of the island. Creatively, the series is essentially back to Square One with the deaths of the two most interesting new characters, so this whole sophomore sortie is something of a wash.

Also - and sadly - we also now move into a second year of "post-Star Trek" televised sci-fi, meaning no Klingons, Romulans or Vulcans on the tube (except in reruns). I miss Star Trek desperately, but this respite is good for one and only one reason: it gives the franchise the opportunity to ditch Rick Berman, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga, the three men who - more than anyone else - ran the franchise not just into the ground, but six feet under. J.J. Abrams is involved with Star Trek now (most likely for a movie...) and love him or hate him (and love Lost and Alias or hate it), he provides exactly what Star Trek needs: fresh blood. Hopefully, the starship Enterprise will eventually return to small screens, looking more gorgeous than ever. It does sadden me, however, that with the fortieth anniversary of the franchise coming in just a few short months, there's no new movie or TV show to celebrate it. I can't believe Paramount is so stupid to let that opportunity pass...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dangerous Presidents: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction on Monday's Prime Time

Et tu, Fox TV?

Last night was a triple-header for Fox in prime-time. Rupert Murdoch's network scheduled Mr. Bush's presidential address about Immigration Policy right before the season finale of Prison Break and the lead-up to the two-hour conclusion of 24 (known in some circles as the Jack Bauer Power Hour).

Thus TV viewers were invited to enjoy two hours-and-twenty minutes of Presidents conducting Machiavellian machinations. Was it live? Or was it Memorex? (Maybe we should ask CNN that question, since the network inadvertently aired footage of the President rehearsing his speech...)

Now, I don't want to get political on this blog, because it's about entertainment not politics, but sometimes entertainment legitimately concerns politics, and I find it ironic that the main plot line or "story arc" on both Prison Break and 24 involves run-amok Presidents, the newly-sworn-in President Steadman on the former; President Charles Logan on the latter.

One has committed high-treason to gain her office; and one has abused his power to target an agent who is on the job stopping a terror threat (and no, I'm not talking about Valerie Plame...) President Steadman believes in the "free market" and doesn't want to punish Oil Companies for being successful...and boy does that rhetoric sound uncomfortably familiar! And Logan, replete with a glazed-looking wife, regularly puts himself above the law. Again, these characteristics are a little too close for comfort...

The point, I suppose, is that poor President Bush unknowingly joined this line-up of scoundrels. Watching his ridiculous address last night, it was darn tough to know where fiction ended and fact began.


I mean, whose brilliant idea was it to send out our President into the chaotic terrain of prime time with a plan to send 6,000 National Guard to secure the border...with Mexico? That's nearly as lame as Logan's plan to foster terrorism so he can secure foreign oil fields, isn't it? And then the 'real" President did a flip flop before our very eyes (remember that jibe?) and offered a kind of quasi-amnesty for illegals (I mean, path to citizenship). So why not be honest and just call a spade a spade and say that this is - for all intents and purposes - Amnesty? Maybe Bush should have called it a "Clear Borders Initiative..."

Basically, President Bush on this occasion found himself victim of writers who would simply never pass muster on either Prison Break or 24. He had to accomplish an impossible rhetorical mission, and - come on - doesn't he realize that Mission: Impossible is sooo last week? Mr. Bush had to pander to his law-and-order, conservative friends who want the border sealed, and also appease his Latino base, which the Republican party will require to win future elections.

Meanwhile, Bush's temporary worker program - if passed - will be the biggest new bureaucracy since the last one he foisted on America (the Homeland Security Department) and Bush (still playing a conservative president for the cameras...) will be the biggest spender in the Oval Office since LBJ. Frankly, that plotline is simply too outrageous for Prison Break or 24, isn't it? Forget liberals hating the guy - they never were going to approve of him, anyway - how can conservatives live with such nonsense from their leader?


And what was Fox TV thinking, slotting Bush as the first of three Presidents on the air last night, when the other two were so desperately and irrevocably shady (yet infinitely more poised, eloquent and Presidential than the Real Thing)? Karl Rove might not realize this (uh, he's got other concerns right now...), but art always reflects life, and if even the right-wing Fox Network TV programs are portraying the President as an out-of-control, craven abuser of power then Bush is really, really in trouble. Because Hollywood is usually about a year or two behind the trend...and that means Americans are mightily pissed at Bush. And have been for some time.

Bush better get his buddies in Big Oil and Big Business to dust off those Diebold machines in a hurry. Or maybe he can send huge numbers of the National Guard to "secure" the polling stations in November.

Oh wait, I forgot, the National Guard isn't here. It's nation-building in Iraq (and wasn't Bush against that too? Could it be another - gasp - flip-flop?). Please - somebody - get Bush some new writers, quick! But you better hurry, because the TV season ends in a few weeks...and if this guy isn't careful, his party's not going to get renewed for next year.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "Skylons"

Now we're getting to the part of Land of the Lost that I've admired for years; the environmental message beneath all the prehistoric action.

In this episode, "Skylons," Will and Holly disrupt the "perfect balance" of the Land of the Lost pocket universe by (unwisely) tinkering with the crystal matrix table inside a pylon which controls the weather. Three pyramidal "skylons" float about the sky during various atmospheric anomalies (including thunder, lightning and freezing hail...) to warn the denizens of the land that something vital has been disrupted.

Call me crazy (or Mr. Ozone...) but I believe our Earth works in a roughly analogous fashion. When something's wrong, the planet lets us know about it. Not with a mechanism as obvious as the skylons, unfortunately, but with signs that are there -- if only we're willing to acknowledge them. Like Katrina-sized hurricanes...

Of course, in Land of the Lost, it's a matter of re-arranging the crystals in the matrix table to set things right (at the color-coded urging of the skylons...) and here on Earth the solutions are rarely so easy. But the principle is the same. Recently, I read a comment that we're not going to be able to have both capitalism and a livable environment on this planet for long, so I wonder which we'll ultimately choose? If it's not too late already...

Anyway, that's a soapbox I don't need to climb on this early on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday morning, but heck, soap boxes are fun. I love the characters and world of Land of the Lost for the deep-seated environmental message underpinning both. Marshall is a ranger (how perfect is that?) so he's used to his role as shepherd for the environment, and now - in this strange universe - he must also tend to things and keep things in balance.

Though you've got to laugh at the cheesy forced evacuation of the dinosaurs presented in "Skylons" (three dinosaurs from different breeds run together side-by-side in close quarters to escape a gathering storm...) but the message inherent in that visual is still valuable. Man, animal - sleestak - we all benefit from a healthy world.

Also, there's an instant in "Skylons" that surprised me with its honesty and bluntness. In one moment, Grumpy (the T-Rex) catches the friendly little carnivore named Spot and chews him up in his mouth, killing him. Holly and Marshall witness this act, and with some chagrin but realize "that's the way it is around here." Meaning that nature and animals can be cruel. That's a good lesson, but also a fairly strong one for a kid's TV show.

But that's why the entertainment of the 1970s rocked. And Land of the Lost in particular. This was the age when we were still confronting problems; not trying to "spin" them away through public relations. This is the time when facts were presented clearly and believed based on science, not presented through the filter of either red or blue. Because -- can we finally acknowledge this? -- those colored filters from the far left and the far right only succeed in only doing one thinig; blurring each issue, and causing confusion and inertia.

Maybe if we didn't see everything today in terms of either black or white, conservative or liberal, we'd stop and actually fix the problems in the most clever, efficient way...no matter which side of the political spectrum they emerge from. The Land of the Lost may be simplistic and designed for kids, but you know what they say. Out of the mouths of babes...

Friday, May 12, 2006

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"There is a corridor...and that corridor is time. It surrounds all things and it passes through all things. You can't see it. Only sometimes. When it's dangerous...You can't enter into time, but sometimes time can try to enter into the present; break in; burst through and take things - take people. The corridor is very strong - it has to be - but sometimes, in some places, it becomes weakened like fabric, like worn fabric..."

-Sapphire explains the "enemy" in P.J. Hammond's Sapphire & Steel (first serial; first episode)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mission: Untenable

By now you've heard all the buzz about how Mission: Impossible 3 (otherwise known as M:I:3) "self-destructed" at the box office this weekend (to the tune of almost 48 million dollars...) It opened in over four thousand theaters, but studios expected a higher return. Like on the order of 64 million, I guess.

So the 64 million dollar question is this: Has Tom Cruise's bizarre behavior caused the audience's lack of interest in this project? Or, do the numbers simply reflect the fact that Hollywood produced a two-hundred million dollar film as a second sequel to a movie that wasn't all that good in the first place?

Let me say by way of prologue, that I haven't seen M:I:3. Probably will go this weekend (though I might go to United 93 instead...). So I can't comment on the general quality of this third installment, though I understand that the buzz about it has been quite positive from many sources.

I'm sure that Tom Cruise's bizarre personal antics (getting a personal ultrasound to monitor his baby's development, sofa jumping on Oprah...) cost the film a few bucks, but I tend to believe that the two-hundred million dollar budget is a particularly steep mountain to climb. Especially for a film with the designator "3" after the title. Traditionally in movie history, a second sequel is scrimped on budget-wise (because of the law of diminishing returns...), and must get by on ingenuity or other qualities (on example is Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1970), which boasted virtually no budget, but which brilliantly turned around the franchise's core concepts and relaunched the movies in a new direction).

What do y'all think? Is Mission:Impossible:3 the kind of movie you make a "date" for and run out to see on opening weekend? Or are you satisfied to catch it on DVD? It's not quite an "event" franchise for me (like Star Wars, Star Trek, Bond or The Matrix) simply because the two previous films didn't really stir me. I'm a huge De Palma fan, but I hated how the 1996 film destroyed the "team" concept of the TV show.


Now, before someone accuses me of being a cranky old fan (again...), I have to say that I don't mind a re-imagining of Mission:Impossible, but I just thought it would be nice to have (just one...) movie franchise about a team of agents working in tandem to accomplish a goal. After all, we already have the 007/Bond pictures, which focus on one man acting alone to save the world. And now we also have the superior Bourne pictures -- also about one pseudo-spy acting alone. Then there's also XXX. On TV, there's Alias (at least for a while longer).

The Mission Impossible films, now that they're just about one guy (and not a team...) don't hold that much appeal for me. I mean, what really distinguishes them as "special" now that the concept has been corrupted to be "The Tom Cruise Show?" This is where I think Hollywood is stupid. Back in the mid-1990s, Tom Cruise was probably the biggest star in the world, and the movie-makers and studios gambled that it would be better to take a brand name (Mission:Impossible) and shape it around him, rather then to keep the core conceits of the very popular TV show. Now that Cruise has gone off the deep end, the whole franchise - re-designed just for him - is in danger. Had the studio left Mission:Impossible intact as an ensemble piece, it wouldn't be facing this self-destruction today. Cruise's role could be minimized and the franchise wouldn't be endangered.

A perpetual joy of the old TV show was that it was very smart. You had to really pay attention to the plot, and what was happening, or you could easily get lost. The MI team exploited the foibles of the bad guys and got the job done oftentimes even without their presence being known. There was something very sweet and bad-ass about the way that the team got in, unemotionally did their work, and left undercover in a plain-looking van...mission accomplished. This idea is something that heretofore (and again, I haven't seen M:I:3) has been absent from the movie franchise.

So what do you think? Is M:I:3 a failure cuz of Cruise, excessive cost, or simply because this film franchise doesn't result in a must-see movie? I'm curious to know what folks think about it, especially since it has started off the summer sweepstakes and is considered one of the season's "big" attractions."

20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of  Mars Attacks!  (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in...