Thursday, May 26, 2005

TV: Season ends with some bangs, some whimpers

I've been so busy watching season finales that I haven't had time to do much writing the past week or so. Here's a précis. Beware: Might be a spoiler or two.

CSI, "Grave Danger": The show's needlessly gory, humorless fourth season ended in a gratuitously gruesome two-hour episode written by people who apparently have no direct, personal experience with fire ants. This episode easily could've been done in 90 minutes, rather than two hours, if celebrity director Quentin Tarantino had been willing to do without the myriad reaction stares that went on forever and served no purpose. Grade: C

Cold Case, "The Woods": The season-ender was a sequel to a chilling episode about a serial killer who selects his victims from females he knows will fight back, then hunts them relentlessly through a forest. Secrets about what motivates both Lily and the killer are revealed, but when they are, the ending becomes predictable and ultimately lacks suspense. George was much creepier the first time around, before decoding his past slightly humanized him. Grade: B

24, "5-7 am": After a season primarily characterized by rehashing old ideas, the adrenaline level finally got ramped up at the end. There's more excitement in these two hours than the 22 previous, and it ends in a real shocker of a plot twist. It'll be fascinating to see what world-in-peril situation will pull Jack Bauer back out of hiding. If I were writing this series, it'd involve a public revelation of exactly how much a lying weasel President Logan is. Grade: A

Without a Trace, "Endgame": Moral ambiguities about oppression and dirty wars in Africa drive this tense episode that ends in a heart-stopping cliffhanger. This series doesn't get enough respect. On the other hand, I'd vote to outlaw forever "Endgame" as a title for television episodes. Grade: A

Alias, "Before the Flood": Up until the last 10 seconds, which actually made me gasp out loud, this episode was pretty standard stuff. The Bristow family and various hangers-on save the world while escaping from a bunch of people who have essentially been turned into crazed zombies. Well, it's standard for Alias, right? The writers need to stop leaning on the crutch Rambaldi devices have become and come up with a new idea. Grade: B-

Lost, "Exodus, Part II": Unfortunately the only review I can write about this one goes like this: "Dear Time Warner Cable: Because your service went dead at about 7:30 pm last night, I was only able to see the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes of one of the most important episodes on television this year. You suck, and I am looking up the number for DirecTV."

I knew there was a reason I used to boycott all AOL Time Warner products. Perhaps it's time to renew that vow…

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Books: I Want my Harry Potter!

July 16 can't come soon enough for me -- it's the date of the release of the next installment in the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

For a long time, I was one of those die-hard snobs who refused to believe this series of children's novels would be interesting enough for adult readers to devote my time to it. Everybody said it was, but then, people said that about Finding Nemo, too, and it turned out to be singularly juvenile and irritating. The Harry Potter series, however, may consist of stories about children, but they're more than stories for children.

I got hooked about a year ago, when I tripped over the movie version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Even though I came in on the middle of the movie (and the series), I was instantly charmed. I've now seen the first three movies, am waiting with toe-tapping impatience for the fourth film (due in November 2005) and have read all five of the novels. Breathless as a sixth-grader, I've pre-ordered book six.

I really admire the way author J.K. Rowling has built each successive novel on the structure of the previous books, so that the layers of each plot have become ever-more delightfully rich and complex, but without getting so cumbersome that readers can't keep up. On the other hand, I really sympathize with the filmmakers trying to find ways of making movies of reasonable length out of novels that get longer every time, and do it before the child actors get too old to be believable in the roles. Rumor has it the director of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mike Newell, considered breaking it up into two films -- the book runs more than 700 pages. (And the next novel in the series is even longer.)

I also admire the way Rowling has gracefully aged her characters into adolescence, complete with typical teenage neuroses. In the most recent novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry comes right up to the edge of being genuinely annoying in a series of angry outbursts sprinkled through the book, but he never quite crosses the line (well, show me a teenager who isn't occasionally annoying, and I'll show you a teenager on Thorazine). And besides, Harry's under so much pressure all the time, it'd be inhuman not to cut him some slack. He's got Lord Voldemort on his tail all the time, his foster family keeps trying to starve him to death, one of his teachers is out to exact revenge on him for something his father did, and God only knows what kind of creature is going to leap out at him at any moment -- it could be anything from a house elf to a giant spider to Mr. Filch's cat. A lot of children in books and films these days are just too cute to be endured -- remember the irksome kids in Jurassic Park? Harry's likeable, all right, but never cutesy.

If Harry's something of a grumpy hero, he's certainly a courageous and determined one, risking his life repeatedly to save his schoolmates and others. In fairness, he might not get far without his best friends, Ron and Hermione, and he rarely saves the day all by himself. But when it comes down to it, if you need a guy to stave off a werewolf or a dragon or even a horde of dementors, Harry's your man.

The occasional touches of whimsical humor don't hurt anything, either. I may not be 14 anymore, but I still find the idea of a magical incantation that goes, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good," delightfully amusing. And part of the reason the books work well on an adult level is that they don't end with the sort of sunshine-and-jellybeans resolutions you expect from children's stories. The characters don't go off with a song in their hearts, especially in the most recent books, over which archvillain Lord Voldemort's shadow looms large.

I think it may boil down to the fact that Rowling has high expectations for her young readers' ability to understand and appreciate the complicated and sometimes intense material she's creating, and of course, with sales through the roof, there should be no doubt readers have risen to the occasion. That, more than anything, elevates these books to a level where they really are enjoyable to adults.

If you haven't experienced the Harry Potter films or books, you really owe it to yourself to give them a try, especially if you've been avoiding them because they sound like "kid stuff." Start at the begining, with Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, but do start. You're likely to find yourself marking July 16 as a red-letter day.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

TV: Happy Memories of Duct Tape and Home-made Hang Gliders

Toward the end of its run, MacGyver got goofy, preachy and derivative, and I lost interest. So when I picked up the DVD boxed set of the first season, it'd been a long time since I'd seen any of it, and I wasn't expecting a lot. I bought the set out of loyalty to something I'd once enjoyed very much, as a final gesture of affection.

Maybe it's that low expectations can help a TV show tremendously, but what a happy rediscovery these discs were. I'd forgotten how irresistibly likeable the MacGyver character was, how hunky Richard Dean Anderson was back then (not that he's not still easy on the eyes), and how much fun creative kitchen chemistry became when it was used to blow up bad guys or escape from corrupt (and not especially competent) Bulgarian officials or greedy (and not especially competent) South American drug dealers.

The missions against minions of the now-defunct Evil Soviet Empire are almost the only thing about this series that feels dated -- repeated references to East Berlin are slightly jarring these days. OK, there also are those shirts with the standup collars, and the hooky pop-rock soundtrack is almost too perky to be endured, but most of the story lines were serviceable enough at the time to retain a viewer's interest even now. It's still possible to wait with pleasant anticipation to find out what mundane set of objects MacGyver will slap together to create a bomb or a rocket or a hang glider...or God only knows what else.

And of course, that was the main point. I say the plots were serviceable, but they weren't so inventive or original that they would've stood up well without the improvized gadgets. The story lines went like this: Bad guys do something bad or plan to do something bad; Mac is called in to stop them; bad guys try to thwart Mac's efforts and almost succeed; Mac invents something out of junk and thin air that swats the bad guys down like drunken gnats. That general plot scenario pretty much sums up every action/adventure TV show that's ever aired; it's the cleverness of the home-made, low-tech gear that distinguished this series.

Perhaps more importantly, the series made science look cool and fun, so much so that the producers sometimes left an ingredient or two out of the recipes for explosives, for fear little kids would blow themselves up while emulating the hero. (Those of us who've always thought science was cool and fun felt vindicated.) And MacGyver made resourceful genius look easy. Anybody with half a lick of common sense and a roll of duct tape could do a lot of what MacGyver did -- we'd just never thought of doing it until Mac pointed the way. We believed that MacGyver could build a bomb out of a stick of chewing gum, and if we paid attention, we could figure out how, too. And the scripts managed to explain how it all worked without huge amounts of exposition, in language the average viewer easily could understand.

The show demonstrated that it was possible to be scientific without being geeky. You could even be a girl scientist, which was tougher to swallow back then than it is today. Then again, MacGyver had moments of sublime geekiness, like an attempt to cook breakfast for his landlord with a robot he obviously hadn't tested beforehand. Thus, another part of the show's message was that it's OK to be a geek, as long as your motives are pure (and you keep plenty of paper towels on hand to wipe up the broken eggs).

I suppose the series' age is part of the reason why there aren't any special features with these discs. Probably back then nobody was thinking there'd be a need for a "making-of" featurette or for keeping any deleted scenes or bloopers. But a fair number of people involved, including Anderson and recurring guest star Bruce McGill, are still around, and a few of their reminiscences would've made this set a real gem. We couldn't have had an interview or two? Nevertheless, for those who loved the series before it went all mystical and started doing things like a cheesy parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this set's a must-have.

And now I'm eagerly awaiting the May 24 release of another old favorite -- Airwolf. Hit the turbos, Dom.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Film: Just When You Thought Remakes Were the Worst

I had a few days off work recently, so I ordered a couple of movies from Netflix that I had missed when they were in theaters. Netflix is great for checking out a movie to see if it's worth the investment of actually buying the disc, and with these two, I'm really glad I checked before cracking loose my hard-earned cash.

The movies were the recent remake of Flight of the Phoenix and a pseudo-science fiction movie, The Day After Tomorrow. (That Dennis Quaid stars in both signifies nothing.)

The original Flight of the Phoenix, starring Jimmy Stewart, is one of my all-time favorite films, and I guess I should've known the modern-day remake would pale next to the classic. The good news is, the special effects are great. But it's almost as if making this film in color sucked all the drama out of it.

Basically, a group of oil workers flying away from a rig in the desert get caught in a sandstorm that brings down their plane. They have very little food or water, their radio's out, and because they were off course when they crashed, nobody knows where to search for them. Hostile nomads in the desert will kill them if they can, and if the desert doesn't do it first. But one of the passengers turns out to be an aircraft designer who realizes there are enough useable parts in the wreckage to create a new plane and possibly fly it out.

I was braced for the pointless inclusion of a token female character. You can tell she's a token by the fact that her presence serves no purpose and contributes nothing to the story. Nothing against Miranda Otto -- it's just that she's got nothing to work with. She looks great, and that's all she's there for. In fact, this pretty solid cast is largely wasted, especially Hugh Laurie, who has been doing some impressive work in television lately, in the British series MI-5 and the medical drama House, M.D.

But where the film really falls down is when it shifts much of the focus from the doubts about Frank Towns' competence as a pilot. It's mentioned in passing a couple of times, but the film is so busy painting him as the minion of a corporate empire bent on wrongly laying off a handful of hapless oil workers that the force of it is dulled. The self-doubt and self-loathing that practically dripped off Jimmy Stewart just isn't there. Even Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi) doesn't complain much when Towns makes the decision to use one of the last cartridges in an effort to start the engine, in a scene that was marvelously intense in the original version. And the lack of that tension makes the climactic effort to fly out of the desert, well, anti-climactic. There's no real doubt that the makeshift aircraft will fly. It's not Quaid's fault, either -- like Otto, he hasn't got the words on the page to pull it off.

Instead, the film focuses on a strange antipathy between the two pilots, Towns and A.J., and the oil workers. And yet, it never quite manages to get to a point where the group comes together and resolves this issue, either. Basically, they crash in the desert, build an airplane from the wreckage, and escape. Nothing changes.

So there really is no point to this film except to create some spectacular special effects. Unless you're easily impressed by CGI, rent a copy of the original movie, which is much, much better.

Then again, the 2004 version of Flight of the Phoenix didn't actively try to insult my intelligence, which can't be said of The Day After Tomorrow.

I passed on this one when it was in theaters because it was released during a time when I was so pissed off at both the Democrats and the Republicans that I wanted nothing to do with any film that smacked of political overtones, and the media were playing up the idea that the film was taking shots at the Bush administration. In doing so, they missed the real story: that this movie is a dopey piece of tripe undeserving of anything like the attention it got. If it hadn't been for the trumped-up assertion that it was somehow insulting to Bush/Cheney, The Day After Tomorrow wouldn't have rated 30 seconds on CNN.

The film revolves around and is consumed by the notion that an abrupt climate change could plunge the northern hemisphere into a new ice age essentially overnight. There's a drastic melting of the polar ice sheets that yields up huge floods and causes gigantic superstorms that last for a week, sucking super-cold air from the upper atmosphere that freezes solid pretty much everything north of Kansas. There's a sub-plot about a climatologist trying to reach his sullen teenage son, who's stuck in New York City, but don't be fooled into thinking there's a story here -- it's all about the pseudo-science premise being displayed in every possible fashion writer/director Roland Emmerich could figure out how to render in CGI.

OK, slow climate change wouldn't make a compelling disaster film; I concede that. But if you buy that we could experience a change from a temperate climate to a new ice age in a couple of days, you need to be returned to seventh-grade science class until you gain a grasp of basic thermodynamics. I don't care how many hydrocarbons humans burn, the temperature of Atlantic Ocean currents isn't going to drop dramatically in a week.

Now, I've come away happy from lots of movies that started from stupid premises -- after all, it's possible to use a stupid premise in a way that leaves the viewer satisfied. Hey, I liked The Poseidon Adventure. The problem with The Day After Tomorrow is that the stupid premise is shouted at the audience over and over again -- like we didn't get the point the first 20 times it was made -- and there's really nothing else to pull this film above the level of goofy knockoff disaster flicks like Volcano or Dante's Peak. People get drowned, they fall to their deaths, they freeze to death, they're trapped in intense survival situations. The only inventive bit here is that a few people get attacked by wolves.

Unless (again) you're really impressed by CGI effects and/or you flunked every science class after seventh grade and you just don't know any better, there's nothing here worth spending your money on. If you've got a jones that won't be eased by anything but a disaster flick, rent The Towering Inferno...quick, before they remake it.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

TV: Galactica for Grownups

I'm not the first person to say this, but it's worth saying again: Battlestar Galactica is not only the best science-fiction show on television but the best science-fiction show in years.

Now, I'm not one of those people who enjoy mocking the original series. I quite liked it. It was never possible to take it seriously, but it was possible to consume it like a handful of popcorn...and then move on to more substantive sources of entertainment. If the remake of Battlestar Galactica had been, well, a remake of Battlestar Galactica, I would've watched it and been content. There's nothing wrong with indulging in a little fluff, now and then.

That said, the original series is not a show I'd recommend for adults (who were not its intended audience anyway). It glossed over the disaster in the pilot episode, focusing instead on the plucky band of Colonial Warriors setting out on a journey toward Earth. An enormous amount of time was spent on kid-friendly plot diversions like games of Pyramid and teaching a robot dog tricks. The Cylons were never scary--in comparison to Star Trek: The Next Generation's Borg, the Cylons were as threatening as baby goats. In fact, we used to root for the Cylon underdogs because they were so bloody stupid. A reference in the new series to the first Cylons as "walking toasters" made me laugh out loud.

So imagine my surprise and delight to find that Sci-Fi Channel had unexpectedly broken its recent pattern, in which paranomal reality shows and dopey monster movies had become the stock-in-trade. The new Galactica is as dark, sexy and topical as its predecessor was light, sexless and indifferent to current events. The old Galactica was a live-action cartoon; the new one is a genuine drama, scary, tense and at times heart-wrenching. If it weren't for the character names and the shape of the Vipers, it would be hardly recognizable as a remake.

The reason this works, despite gimmicks like making Starbuck a woman, is that Battlestar Galactica is very much a post-9/11 drama, infused throughout with the sense of what it's like to have your civilization utterly changed in the course of a few hours. The characters are literally running for their lives, their existence reduced to a long, drawn-out forage for food, fuel and water occasionally punctuated by savage conflicts with a determined, dangerous enemy. (Let's face it, there never was anything light about how the colonists came to be out there looking for Earth.) The losses these people suffered and the struggle they face are palpable in every episode, sometimes implicitly stated and sometimes shown in a brush-stroke detail. We see survivors crowd into the Galactica's communications shack, desperately seeking lost loved-ones, tacking hundreds of photos of their friends and relatives all along a corridor; the president wonders how long it'll be before she grows tired of the only three outfits she has left to wear. The Galactica itself is old, on the verge of decommissioning at the time of the attack, stripped of some vital equipment and short on personnel; when it comes to maintenance, improvisation has become the order of the day.

Meanwhile, the characters are loaded down with the baggage they had before the Cylons attacked: President Roslin has breast cancer; Apollo hasn't suddenly lost his myriad self-doubts and disillusionments about his father; Adama still grieves the loss of his other son; and Starbuck's guilt over Zak Adama's death continues to fuel her recklessness. Gaius Baltar's many neuroses grow more painful every day, now that he can't salve them with multiple sex partners and heavy doses of publicity as he used to do back on Caprica.

And the Cylons have been imbued with some real menace. Their end-game is as yet unclear, they're sneaky, and much like our own real terrorists, they're embedded and mostly invisible among the general population. It's possible to fall in love with them and even to breed children with them, and at least some of them appear to be religious fanatics.

How can you not love this?

I'm thrilled at the differences, but there's one aspect of the old series that I was glad to see return: Richard Hatch. It's a near certainty that, without Hatch's efforts to keep the concept alive, the new series never would've happened. And his new character, Tom Zarek, possesses a moral ambiguity that's given Hatch an opportunity to do something he never was allowed to do in the original series: demonstrate that he can act.

I have only two minor complaints: That nobody seems to have noticed how astonishingly weird Baltar is and the similarity of the wardobe to 21st-century western fashions. Why Baltar wasn't the first person to be suspected of being a Cylon is simply inexplicable, just because his behavior is so off-the-wall, yet it never seems to have entered anyone's mind to question his human-ness. If nothing else, you'd think someone would wonder why he so often appears to be having sex with the air. And second, I get that there's a need to establish parallels between the colonists and earthly humans, but wouldn't you think that a human civilization that grew up on another planet a galaxy or two away might have invented something to wear other than business suits? I mean, come on, neckties?

But those are quibbles. This is one of the few television series I've ever seen in which characters' injuries, no matter how serious, aren't magically healed in the next week's episode. The series has raised questions about how to deal with betrayal and terrorism. It's delved into the treatment of detainees and privacy issues that subtly force one to think about the "Patriot Act." Politics hasn't been pushed aside in favor of survival, and as the characters lay groundwork for a new presidential campaign, the vultures are swooping around, struggling for a bite off what's left of colonial civilization. Bring on the swift-boat veterans.

This is Galactica for grown-ups, and that's a very good thing, because most of us who watched the original series now are quite grown up. I haven't felt this heady about a television show since Star Trek took on the Cold War and racial prejudice.