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."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Movie Review: Basic Instinct 2(2006)

Well, after a hairy few weeks here in Muirville, I decided to kick back with my wife yesterday and go see a movie. I thought it would be fun to be one of the ten people in the civilized world who had seen Basic Instinct 2 in a theater.

This was probably a mistake, because there was a loud psychopath in the seat behind my wife who kept cackling through the previews and speaking very loudly. He was particularly roiled by the V for Vendetta trailer, for some reason. This is what we get, perhaps, for going to a second run theater. We moved quietly to the other side of the room after one of the patron's gleeful and disturbing howls.

Just...don't...make...eye contact...

Anyway, having moved from one end of the auditorium to the other, I was able to ponder briefly that this nut-job is just one of the reasons why DVD is becoming a preferred venue to theaters...

But onto the movie.

I'd read all the reviews and knew that Basic Instinct 2 had been widely and venomously panned. What bothered me about so many of these reviews is that they were penned by male critics who focused basically on one point: that 48-year old Sharon Stone is just too old to play a sexy seductress. The critics offered snarky jibes about "Botox," about "grandmothers," about the actress being "past" her "prime." Basically - it seemed to me - that mainstream critics were using the opportunity of a sequel to trash an aging actress and air their own dirty laundry/biases about age. Nice, huh?

There are many grounds to dislike Basic Instinct 2 (and I'll enumerate my quibbles with the film momentarily...) but it truly says something about how mean our popular culture has become (and how illiterate the critics have become...) that the vast majority of these writers decided to heap all their scorn on Ms. Stone's age and appearance.

Since that's the battleground they chose, let's start there. They're liars. Sharon Stone looks terrific. She's gorgeous and in great physical shape. Anyone who claims differently has an agenda (or is so poor a movie critic he or she picked the easiest target rather than looking in-depth at the movie.). Does Sharon Stone look 18-years old? No. Of course not. Does she look thirty years old? Uhm, no. She's a mature forty-eight. But she's a damn fine forty-eight. I guess people over forty aren't allowed to be sexy? Is that the point? Everyone over thirty should report to Carousel immediately for Renewal!

For me, the "sexiness" equation is based on a whole lot more than merely looks. It involves the manner in which a person carries herself (or, I guess, himself...); it involves intelligence too, or wit, even. Looks are vital, but I'm baffled by the critics who think Stone isn't beautiful or sexy or completely in control here. She is all three. And she uses her body - literally - as a lethal weapon in this film.

My point, I suppose, is that I saw no mainstream critic complain at the time of either Hannibal (2000) or Red Dragon (2001) that Anthony Hopkins had simply grown too old (and too corpulent) to reprise the role of the vital, dangerous serial killer, Hannibal Lector. In fact, Hopkins was playing Hannibal in a prequel (Red Dragon) to Silence of the Lambs even! Why is he off the hook? Sharon Stone plays a very similar character in these Basic Instinct films, a "popular" serial killer (we suspect...). Yet there's a double-standard evident in the media. I guess Hopkins can play the lightning-fast, super-strong, virile Hopkins (matched with younger actresses such as Julianne Moore) until he's well into his seventies. But Stone is out as "sexy" before she's fifty. Interesting.

Personally - if you ask me - Sharon Stone rocks in this film. She's the absolute best thing about it. She doesn't play Catherine Trammell for laughs; she doesn't act like not a day has passed since 1992; she purely and simply (and honestly) resurrects - with a kind of go-for-the-throat gusto - the sinister, manipulative character who jump-started her career all those years ago. What's great about the performance is that Stone doesn't try to make more out of it than what was there to begin with. She doesn't make a grab for relevance or emotional significance. Trammell is a mind-fucker pure and simple, and this is a trashy movie - as the original was a trashy movie - and Stone runs with it. She's campy only in the sense that the whole enterprise (which includes orgies, bi-sexuality, and masturbation) is campy.

Why would you go to a theater to see Basic Instinct 2? I mean, seriously? What would you expect? I went in expecting a trashy good time - not Shakespeare or Pinter - and that's exactly what Stone and director Michael Caton-Jones served up. Critics who went in expecting something more are - seriously - fools of the highest order.

My main beef with the movie doesn't involve Sharon Stone. It involves the disappointing way movies have changed since 1992 and since the first picture in the franchise. Go back and watch Paul Verhoeven's original. I did so before seeing the sequel. It boasts an amazing, Hitchcockian score by the late Jerry Goldsmith (which is resurrected for spells in the sequel), but also a classicism in terms of how it was shot. The camera angles and motions revealed as much about the characters as the dialogue did. Go back and watch Basic Instinct and experience the hair raising sea-side cliff car chase (shot with helicopter at points...) or watch that famous "interrogation" sequence to detect how the director alternates between long-takes and intense close-ups (and then starts moving the camera faster as the scene becomes more intense...). The film established its characters and situations with more than a modicum of flair. A great film? Perhaps not, but it looks great, thanks to Verhoeven's skill with mise-en-scene and the like. It has aged well simply because there's a classic, cinematic sense about it.

But Basic Instinct appears to be an absolute high-watermark of formalism compared to Basic Instinct 2. Today, audiences apparently require no cinematic skill in our movies (the pervasive impact of television, I believe...) and the result is a movie that feels like a TV show. Basic Instinct 2 is choppy (just perfect for commercial breaks...), the film spends too much time with close-ups and two-shots (the bread-and-butter of TV), and not nearly enough time establishing location, mood or suspense.. It's like filmmaker's today can't be bothered to create an "experience" for movie-goers anymore. Everythng has to be delivered quickly, in the most rudimentary fashio possible. All style is filtered out (it might confuse people!!), leaving movies - like reality shows - to feel nothing more than "immediate." On too many TV programs today a "shaky" cam substitutes for real film style; engendering immediacy...but absolutely nothing else. A hand-held shaky camera is what filmmakers use when writers can't create characters we identify with. It's a substitute that makes us "feel" close without the hard-work of believable dialogue.

If critics want to rag on Basic Instinct 2; that's the reason to go after it. The director is unable to effectively build or sustain a mood or transport the audience back visually into Catherine's ambiguous world. CGI effects just don't manage the trick. This failure leaves Sharon Stone to do much of the heavy-lifting by sheer force of will and the miracle of Basic Instinct 2 is that she nearly accomplishes that task. There are times when Stone takes the screen and - with diabolical intensity and focus -unleashes long, devious monologues that are really kind of stunning. These moments further establish the essence of the Trammell character: we never know if she's a murderer or just a champion mind-fucker. Stone plays Trammell like a puppet master, an Iago - whispering seductive things in hero Hugh Dancy's ears - in the process so baffling and confusing him that the audience is left with absolutely no idea if what she's saying is true or false.

I also give Basic Instinct 2 some serious credit for not becoming "The Catherine Trammell Show," which would have surely been a temptation. Put Sharon Stone on screen in various stages of undress and let's see her killing people! Whammo, you've got a movie! But that isn't what happens here. In the film, Trammell never kills anybody on screen. There's an accident in which she's involved, but that doesn't count. Instead, the film maintains the original's sense of ambiguity and never reveals its cards. There's even a scene (in a hot tub, no less), in which Trammell confesses to every crime committed in both films. But - of course - she's playing. By this point in the film, it pays for her to confess and so she does. It's still a game, and the audience doesn't believe what she says. Everything can be interpreted two ways here, and astoundingly - on many occasions - three ways. How many trashy thrillers can make that claim?

Look, I'm not claiming that Basic Instinct 2 is a great movie. It's a trashy movie that is wholly enjoyable, but the critics didn't play fair with it. They couldn't let themselves "like" a movie called Basic Instinct 2 (yet they fawn all over self-important films such as Crash...) because it has no aspirations to greatness or meaning beyond its own sleazy, film noir agenda. Critics also couldn't handle it because they apparently would have preferred one of the Olsen Twins or Lindsay Lohan in a starring role, rather than Sharon Stone. Shame on them, on both counts.

Basic Instinct 2 has it share of problems. It's filmed like a TV program, and Hugh Dancy is never able to transmit the internal battle raging within him, and thus makes for only a moderately successful foil for Trammell. And yet, this movie is not a betrayal of Basic Instinct's thematic aesthetic (only its visual one). Given how badly movies are made today (and again, I'm talking about visuals), it's a legitimate continuation that's worth seeing if you liked the original and understand that you're seeing a sequel to Basic Instinct, not "An Enemy of the People" or some such thing.

I'm not just being a contrarian. I expected this to be one of the worst movies ever made based on the criticism I read (and it will no doubt "win" a gaggle of Razzies) but I also expected the movie to be trashy and over-the-top. Indeed, that's precisely why I plunked down my $1.50. I wanted to see a little gratuitous sex and violence, and I wanted to see Sharon Stone resume the role that I had enjoyed her in years ago.

Again, critics who went in expecting high-art are idiots. Sorry, but it's true. A responsible reviewer must take a movie on its own terms and judge it successful or failed based on the tenets the movie establises. To expect Basic Instinct 2 to be a meaningful art film is patently absurd. The critics who wanted that never gave this movie a fair hearing.