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.