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 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 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 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 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 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.