Saturday, November 21, 2009

A sign that maybe I've been watching too many police procedurals

During a walk by the Bay, I spot something on the ground: It's the skeletal remains of a human hand coming out of the mud!

Or -- it's a bundle of bleached-out twigs. Oh. You know, whichever.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why is Luke Wilson trying to sell me on AT&T?

And why is he doing it while disheveled, slightly bloated, and wincing in pain?

I'm going to go watch Bottle Rocket now and pretend this never happened.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Can we please talk about "V" and "Fringe"?

The rebooted "Battlestar Galactica" ruined me for new scifi in two ways: it started out so freakin' good, and it ended up so freakin' bad.

Since BSG, I inevitably end up comparing the first part of any new scifi series to that feeling of amazement and excitement I felt over the quality of BSG's beginnings -- and thanks to the horror that was its finale, I get to fear committing to any series that seems as if it might be good, because what if it takes me down the same path of heartbreak, where I have to pretend that an entire season didn't happen just to get by?

Which is why I've been late to start watching "Fringe" -- hello! season 2 -- and why I waited a couple of weeks to finally catch up on "V". (It might not hurt that the news that "Dollhouse" is cancelled came down last week -- I now have a slot open for disappointing scifi in my schedule.)

Oh, "V", "V", "V". You were my favorite in your original incarnation. I made my whole family watch you when you had been reduced to a series mostly about Robert Englund's mad affair with a lizard woman in a cave. (Why a cave? I can't remember.) It didn't hurt that you had the Beastmaster as your lead, though I would have recommended partnering him with some ferrets to really capitalize on his talents. And your cutting-edge 80s makeup effects! Lizard-eye contacts and plasticine skin suits, does anyone ever get tired of you? I do not.

And now "V" the reboot. At least you have the guts to be mostly dull and deeply cliche right off the bat. You're giving me lame terrorist cells now, not making me wait four seasons to listen to some nonsense about Mitochondrial Eve. You're stealing a page from the BSG book using some fabulous actors -- clearly, network folks have been reading my petition to have Alan Tudyk in every broadcast show -- and hey, how about that sly casting of a Cylon as a possible V? Nice. It's nice to see the guy from "The 4400" getting work -- even as a priest who is so clearly throwing over his religion for a chick. And Morris Chestnut, shirtless lizard? More please.

The casting directors are the smartest people on this show. All the cleverness seems to be confined there. It is only one step above your average ScyFy offering, because the actors are better than your average ScyFy thespians (yes, even Scott Wolf) and the special effects were clearly not created as cheap computer animation on the director's third cousin's computer (the shuttles are, admittedly, a little too "Welcome to Disneyland!" at this point, but maybe that was on purpose).

But even with the cleverness of the casting, even with players from a handful of other more successful scifi series, the scripts are not giving them a hell of a lot to do. There's not a scene that's more than three exchanges of dialogue long. And they're all the same scene. Get yourself a bingo card for each time the priest distrusts and then believes the other priest or the FBI agent tells her son not to get involved with the Vs, which causes him to moon over the photo of his V love interest in his camera phone. Variation? Nay. Emotional range? No opportunities allowed. (Chestnut does pull off some good conflicted longing, but I have a soft spot for him -- dude, he was totally gunned down in "Boyz 'N the Hood"! how can you not have a soft spot?)

Also, there are accusations that the show's being all hatey on Obama -- equating him with the invading reptiles providing horreur! horreur! universal healthcare. Having watched it, I can now tell you that I don't think it represents some concerted conservative viewpoint -- it represents a bunch of bad writers in a room pulling buzz words out of a hat and randomly applying them to a script. They might have thought they were being current and relevant -- and no, it's just sloppy.

So my point is, "V", you're clearly trying to BSG this one. You're not trying to embrace the cheese that was the original. The original was terrible, but it was GOOD terrible. It was quality terrible. It was terrible in an earnest way. My read is that you, "V" the reboot, are terrible in a bland, cynical way. You were sprung from the sentiment, What else are they going to watch? "Lost"? "Fastforward"? Please.

I say, watch "Fringe". And as I say that, I'd like you to adjust your expectations slightly. It is not the most robust scifi series out there. It owes a lot to -- let's call them "influences". But it's an entertaining weak, like "X-Files" weak. (Yes, I just called "X-Files" weak. It got by, ultimately, on a lot of not answering questions and then when it started answering questions, those answers were, in my subjective opinion, stupid.) It is certainly not as anemic as "V".

Fox has judiciously placed "Fringe" after my true addiction "Bones", so I've started watching a half-hour of it before my other true love, "30 Rock", is on. The test of a series's watchability is certainly whether, having watched part of an episode, I will make the effort to watch the rest. And "Fringe" two weeks ago began passing this test. Apparently, I only require that you come up with cool shadows from outerspace that turn folks into powder or scarrrry, red-headed, mind-controlling triplets in order for me to type your name into Hulu's search engine.

What else does "Fringe" have going for it? Emotion. Actual emotion. And in particular a father, who having screwed up raising his child, is now doing his best (his wacky, schizophrenic, genius best) to forge an adult relationship with him. I mean, where else have I seen a father being so vulnerable about his son on TV lately? (Also, the son is Joshua Jackson, and if you think that doesn't help, you're not paying attention.) Plus, the show has a strong female lead in Anna Torv, as competent and compelling as Scully, but she smiles a lot more.

I'm saying, "weak" has the potential to grow strong -- and "Fringe" is showing that. "Terrible" has the potential to make you take up hobbies that do not involve television.

And as Movieline so rightly put it, "never take your favorite sci-fi Fox program for granted."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

THAT is the moral of the story?

I'm of the opinion that there should be far better websites that turn up in Google when you type in the words "feminist movie reviews" than currently do. So, I'm mad about that, for starters. In my ideal world, there would be a feminist review site of great depth and at the top of the list would be an analysis of the creepy misogyny of Junebug, which no mainstream movie reviewers happened to mention. I'd write that myself, right now, but I'm not particularly in the mood to expound on the deeper meanings of blow jobs in independent cinema, and I'm more immediately mad about something ELSE.

I just caught a matinee of An Education. The moral of which movie is: Ladies, stay in school. Even though school is hard and dull and will make you hard and dull like the poor, benighted spinsters around you.

Why, you ask, should you settle for such a gruesome fate? Why should a young, pretty, lively girl like yourself go to useless, antiquated college? Well, because the smooth, thieving con artist you've found your lovely teenage self engaged to might turn out to be a serial adulterer with a wife and child living a block away from you, that's why. Men are scum, so you should get a degree. Not because you as a very smart woman might enjoy that education. No, no, beautiful women don't really enjoy education -- that's the consolation prize for the spotty, pasty virgins. No, the beautiful women, it's all jazz clubs and new frocks and poor vocabularies for them; that's all they need, bless 'em.

(I think I'm just as mad at the movie for dissing female academics as anything else. Yes, we spend all our time thinking and reading because it's not remotely rewarding.)

I don't know what I expected when I went to see this movie, but certainly not a simplistic morality play. Certainly, not THIS morality play asking, Why should women get educations at all?

What the movie lacks is the second part of that question -- the historical part of that question. In 1961, when the movie is set, why should women get an education when even your academic stage parents prefer marriage to an unsuitable suitor over Oxford for you in the end? When there are no jobs open for you except teaching inattentive teenagers literature -- or the ominous-sounding "civil service"? When there's plenty of talk about the stature of male academics (in this case C.S. Lewis) but not a single mention of a female academic who might serve as your model, who might give you hope?

The film doesn't spend enough time on how claustrophobic, how regimented the class and gender roles were in that era -- aw, hell, still ARE -- to explain why the question was even a valid one. Nor does it acknowledge that in the several millennia of people asking that very question -- should we educate women? -- the answer has predominantly, oppressively been "No." There's no acknowledgment that Jenny's most rebellious act very well could be that decision to go to Oxford. No -- joyless, muted, she goes off to study, her act of "rebellion" over. (What "rebellion" was there really in her following a normative narrative path of getting married?) And the film never explains how it is that her conservative parents conceived of her education in the first place. They sure put a hell of a lot of effort into something that they'd then lightly toss aside on essentially a whim.

There's a strange dissonance between the dialogue in the film -- which sounds as if someone behind the film knows what it's like to be a smart perceptive woman in the contradictory world -- and the narrative focus of the film, which glamorizes and romanticizes what I think of as the path of least resistance (become a woman, ladies, by attaching yourself to a man). The movie asks Jenny to choose between being Rosamund Pike, a dumb but sweet and happy fashion plate, and Olivia Williams, grim, isolated in her incidentally chic apartment, and burdened with very severe hair. (Which is an extremely false dichotomy anyway, because we know that both Pike and Williams in real life are smart and sexy and talented.)

The film proposes to favor one outcome (yay! school and self-reliance for girls!), while clearly being in lust with the other outcome (oolala, attaching yourself to sexy boys who lie to you). And even if it weren't ambivalently presented, the takeaway on this one would still be: Girls, put yourself, put your schooling, before the exciting boys. And maybe you can be at an age where that's a new thing to hear. If I were twelve, I might have needed to hear this; granted, when I was twelve, I was growing up in an enclave of reactionary Victorianism. More importantly, though, I'm not twelve now. This movie wasn't made as a PSA for twelve-year-olds who are daily having their senses-of-self assaulted. This movie was made for and by grown-ups whom you hope would have a more sophisticated -- dare I say, educated? -- take on the world.

And I am cranky because they clearly do not.

(P.S. I'll be the first to admit that the actors and actresses themselves make the movie so much better than this simple-minded moral. The performances of Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, and Rosamund Pike -- among others, but not including Alfred Molina, who you won't be able to understand because of all the chewed scenery in his mouth -- are smart and subtle and deft. But encouraging you to see this movie for the performances is like encouraging you to vote for a candidate because she's a woman. So, no.)