|Pop Culture Gadabout|
Saturday, October 01, 2005 |
( 10/01/2005 10:48:00 AM ) Bill S.
"HERE'S US . . . ON THE RAGGEDY EDGE" – Took us months to make it to the theater for the final Star Wars – and we won't be seeing any of the year's big comic book flicks 'til they show on television. But both my wife and I had to be at the first public showing of Serenity, the movie follow-up to Joss Whedon's short-lived teleseries Firefly. We'd fallen for the sci-fi western when it first ran on Fox and were in the midst of revisiting it for the second time (along with those four unaired episodes) on the Firefly boxed set. So we definitely wanted to see how Whedon resolved one of the show's biggest hanging plotlines.
Well, now we've seen it, and we're both agreeing that the Big Story – the abduction and neurological transformation of River Tam (Summer Glau), the seventeen-year-old psychically gifted/half psychotic girl who is pursued by the story’s evil Alliance – has been handled well indeed. An additional cherry on the sundae: the way River's story ties into another running Firefly plotline, the presence of an army of face-peeling cannibalistic space-dwellers called the Reavers.
To those unfamiliar with the original series, Firefly concerned the flights of a ragtag crew of futuristic felons, living on the edge of colonized space in the 26th Century. The leader of the ship, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillian), is one of two survivors on the losing side of the last great battle against the Alliance, the political force overriding the planets. (His second-in-command, Gina Torres' Zoe, is the other one to've come out intact from the fight.) Using a rattletrap ship which Mal's named after that fateful battle, Mal and his crew work as criminal free-lancers (first time we see 'em in the movie, they're robbing the payroll of an Alliance-connected security company), while also periodically taking on passengers like the regal professional companion Inara (Morena Baccarin) and mysterious man of the cloth, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). But the real complication comes from young Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who has smuggled his sister River on board (a moment not shown in the movie, though it's alluded to).
Serenity opens with a holographic flashback to Simon's rescue of his sister from the Alliance biomedical compound, as it's being witnessed by The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an elegantly menacing figure who's been assigned to retrieve River. It's a nice way of pulling newcomers into the basic story, and for those familiar with the series, we also learn that Simon has long been hiding some significant info from Mal and company. We're eight months after the girl's escape, so not too far along from events in the show, though two of the series regulars – Inara and Shepherd Book – are not on the ship when the story begins. Whedon brings both characters into the story, though aside from a lengthy sequence where Mal meets the Operative for the first time in Inara's quarters, neither one gets to do much. Me, I was hoping that we'd also learn a little about Book's mysterious past, but from the way things play, it looks like we won't even be getting that in a sequel either.
Inara's role on the ship is perhaps the most sketchily retold in the movie: where most of the characters' back-stories and interrelationships are quickly and succinctly limned for newcomers, hers feels the most sketchy – perhaps because we don't really meet the woman until after we've already watched the rest of Mal's crew in action. (Book has always been at root unknowable, Inara not.) The rest of the cast and crew are given their moments – ship's engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite, who for my money out-sexes both Torres and Baccarin, even with grease on her face); goofball pilot and "leaf-on-the-wind" Wash (Alan Tudyk), who bedecks his flight panel with plastic dinosaurs; and comically surly mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), who'd rather dump River in a shuttle and send her off the ship than unnecessarily place 'em under too much Alliance scrutiny. The cast, honed from fourteen episodes of series television, play off each other beautifully, and you can particularly see it in the scenes where crew and passengers gather in the ship's mess to worry and grouse about what's gonna happen next.
As writer and director of the film, Whedon ratchets up the action a smidgeon from the teleseries, which by and large works, though there were times I found myself yearning for the more deliberate pace that series television demands. Whedon makes fine use of the larger canvas the movie screen affords him – the ratchety nature of Serenity is felt more strongly on the big screen, where even the wooden handrails look like a cat's been using 'em as a scratching post – but I could've done with a few more intimate moments, too. Married couple Zoe & Wash really only get one good scene to establish their enjoyably passionate relationship, while a line where Mal notes that he knows a two-way communiqué from Inara is a trap because they didn't get into an argument falls flat unless you know the duo's volatile ups-&-downs from the show.
Still, as a sci-fi adventure, Serenity has more emotional heft than anything else that's come out this year – and will likely kick the ass of anything released next year, too. The concept of a sci-fi western is nuthin' new (lest we forget, Star Trek was first sold to network execs as "Wagon Train in space," while the teleseries Planet of the Apes had more than its share of western elements), but to date no one has made this concept as tonally consistent as Whedon and his company (it's no accident that Whedon enlisted one of Sam Peckinpah's cameramen to lense this baby): listening to Fillian deliver his simultaneously arcane and futuristic dialog is as much a delight as the film's tough and sacrificial action scenes. (If the shot of River holding two dripping weapons and standing in Frazetta-esque pose encircled by a pile of dead Reavers doesn't make it onto a poster within the next six months, then someone is missing an opportunity.) Now, both Becky and I are looking forward to the DVD – and a hopefully longer Director's Cut, if only so we can get a good scene of Wash playing with his dinosaurs . . .
Thursday, September 29, 2005
( 9/29/2005 12:26:00 PM ) Bill S.
"NOT THE TIME FOR SOCIAL ADVANCES FOR THE SAKE OF SOCIAL ADVANCES . . ." – Wanna really talk dark & creepy? Delve too deeply into the concentrated ideologically inspired lambasting of the new Geena Davis vehicle, Commander in Chief, and you'd think the Republic was on the verge of collapsing just from the simple existence of this mild poli-drama. Rarely has so much froth been spewed over such a lightweight target.
The show's implausible premise (which a single flashback did not, alas, make any less contrived) is that a Republican presidential candidate, eager to win more of the electorate, selects political independent Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) to be his running mate. It's meant as an act of "pure theatre," but when an aneurysm knocks down president Teddy Roosevelt Bridges, all political chaos breaks loose: the Repubs want Davis' character to step down and make way for reactionary Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland, delivering his lines as stentoriously as he did when he was a Watcher in the movie version of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) to take over, but since we know the premise of the series from the get-go, we know that ain't gonna happen.
With that bit of drama leeched from the debut, we primarily focus on the rest of the cast's reactions to the prospect of a (gasp!) Woman Presidency: Bridges loyalist Jim Gardner (Harry Lennix), the first to encourage Mackenzie to resign for the Good of the Party; hubby Rob (Kyle Secor, no longer lookin' suspicious on Veronica Mars), who dreams of being Chief of Staff but will have to settle for First
Though the show indulges in some pretty predictable Women Get Periods and Men Don't Ask for Directions jokes and gives us a scene where Mackenzie's youngest daughter spills some juice on Ma's blouse, on the whole writer Rod Lurie gets more mileage out of the fact that his heroine is an Independent (gasp!) than from her womanhood. In this, the show isn't much different from the short-lived Josh Brolin series, Mister Sterling, in which he portrayed an appointed U.S. Senator who takes over a Democratic seat without first telling anyone that he's an Independent. On that show, our protagonist had to convince hard-bitten Liberal Democrats that he was the best man for the job; in this, President Allen will have to work a similar magic with partisan Conservative Republicans.
Only in TVLand . . .
( 9/29/2005 08:07:00 AM ) Bill S.
SHARKS & ALLIGATORS – Spent more than six hours in the car yesterday, so I took along John Grisham's legal thriller, The Testament, as a book-on-tape. Grisham is one of those writers who works best in that format, I've found: behind the wheel, you don't have to focus too much on his utilitarian prose, just follow the action. In this case, the legal rigmarole revolves around a heatedly contested family will. When an s.o.b. billionaire named Toby Phelan stiffs his acquisitive offspring in favor of a hitherto unknown illegitimate daughter working as a missionary in the jungles of Brazil, the Phelan progeny gather an army of shysters to contest his will. As we watch the case evolve and a growing cast of equally greedy litigators enters the picture, Grisham satirically follows the schemes and shifting allegiances concocted within this family of over-privileged sponges, and you can see him trying for a Dickensian Bleak House take on the legal world of wills & testaments. He even gives one character – a weaselly factotum who feels cheated because he's been left out of the will after thirty years of service – the Victorian novel name of Sneed.
In the meantime, Phelan's confidante and attorney sends a disgraced colleague, Nate O'Riley, to South America to find the missionary daughter. O'Riley is a serious alcoholic who has been in four expensive recovery programs, though – as Grisham very quickly establishes – he hasn't really been working the programs. It isn't 'til he takes the arduous trek into the jungle, discovering the adamantly religious Rachel Proctor, that he finally takes the path to recovery.
Turns out, when you take away the satiric legal elements (which, frankly, weren't sufficiently vicious for my tastes), that Grisham's novel is a Twelve-Step story. Touched by his contact with the selfless Rachel, near death with fever, O'Riley hits a deeper rock bottom than he'd ever known before, then has personal revelation of a Higher Power in a small Brazilian church. We see him follow the other steps of the AA program: fully acknowledging his own helplessness in regard to his addictions, visiting his family to make amends for his past wrongs, indulging in prayer/contemplation and ultimately giving himself to a life of service – which in turn takes us back to the Phelan will & testament plotline.
Grisham tackles this material with such overweening earnestness that I kept expecting him to turn the tables on me – to transform the friendly guide who takes Nate into the jungles into a greedy Sierra Madré-esque bastard, for instance. But it never happens. Instead, the primary focus remains on our alcoholic lawyer's personal redemption: a path delineated with minimal subtlety but much conviction. Not a bad entertainment for a hard day of rainy highway driving, I decided, even if I kept thinkin' that at least one small murder would really perk things up. Somehow I suspect, if fans and author were to place The Testament in a hierarchy of Grisham works produced to date, that the writer would rank it higher than his readers . . .
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
( 9/28/2005 04:56:00 AM ) Bill S.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN – Headin' out on the road today: a three-hour
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
( 9/27/2005 11:49:00 AM ) Bill S.
RE-SURFACING – Caught the second ep of NBC's Surface last night, and I'm obliged to note that one of my objections raised in the premiere outing (to wit: the unexplainably blasé reaction by Ma Bennett on seeing that big aquarium spill gallons of water all over her house) was answered. Last night's entry opened on the immediate aftermath of the big drenching, and we got to see Miles' mom genuinely upset over the damage done. Okay, I withdraw my grouse.
In fact, after making it through the second outing, I'm definitely feeling more kindly toward this show. The characterization has – in Lake Bell's case, at least – grown beyond one note: a scene where her single mom/oceanographer gets the news that she's been canned for sneakin' around areas that are Off Limits was particularly well played, the actress effectively modulating her righteous anger over the facts that the government is interfering with real scientific discovery and screwing her financially. I also enjoyed the developing subplot featuring young Miles Bennett and his newly hatched "iguana," a blatant bit of E.T./Gremlins swipery that works, in part, because the special FX creature looks so cool. But the moment that totally hooked me was Ep Two's final sequence: where an arrogant boatload of sporty Aussies is swallowed whole by the gaping jaws of something huuuuge rising up from the ocean depths. Gimme one good Giant Movie Monster Moment, and I'm yer puppet . . .
( 9/27/2005 08:11:00 AM ) Bill S.
GADGET GONE GONE – Though I'm definitely of the age to've embraced Get Smart when it was first aired – and, indeed, was enthralled with the show during most of is first season, only to find my fannishness fading as the series dragged on – my primary connection to the late Don Adams was through his cartoon voices. Tennessee Tuxedo paled in comparison to the work being doing in the same time by the Jay Ward crew, but I very much liked his Inspector Gadget. Fred Hembeck may've had trouble accepting the voice after years of knowing him as Agent 86, but it worked for me. Helped that the cartoon Gadget looked rather like a Gallic Maxwell Smart, but the character also had a smidgeon more heart than his living breathing forbearer, which made him more endurable over the long haul. (And, no, I did not accept Matthew Broderick as Inspector G!)
During the cartoon's syndicated heyday, I was working in a child and adolescent group home, and we had several kids who loved the Inspector (and Penny and Brain). Got to watch more than a few episodes with the kids as a result. It was one of the only children's 'toons of its day I could sit through without feeling my mind melt.
Last time I remember seeing Adams as a live actor was in the 1987 pastiche, Back to the Beach (which also, now that I think of it, featured Bob Denver doing a riff on his most famous character). Wasn't much of a role – more a comic bit that relied on the audience going, "Hey, look who that is!" for its biggest joke – but it was nice at the time to see he was still hanging in there, seventeen years after his big hit had gone off the air. (Never managed to catch the short-lived mid-nineties revival starring Andy Dick as the Smart son, but from what I've read, I didn't miss much.) Sad to know that we won't get to see another surprise cameo from the man with the ultra-identifiable voice . . .
Monday, September 26, 2005
( 9/26/2005 01:46:00 PM ) Bill S.
"HOW OFTEN DOES A TREE OFFER YOU A HOT DOG?" – That notorious exploitation filmmaker Herschell (Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs) Gordon Lewis would attempt to make two kiddy flicks is not, on the face of it, all that surprising. Judging from the defiantly slapdash way in which our man approached the moviemaking process, it was probably inevitable that he'd be attracted to so theoretically uncritical an audience as the kiddy matinee crowd.
Made three years after his first gore film, Jimmy, the Boy Wonder (1966) is a no-budget children's fantasy that appears to've been initiated by the husband and wife team of Hal & Nancy Jo Berg: the latter was reportedly a children's show hostess in the sixties, but I've been unable to track down any additional information about her. (Per Aaron Neathery, she also had a small role in 1964's Fail Safe, where she was billed as Nancy Berg, but it's been so long since I've sat through that flick, the only details I can remember about it are Dom DeLuise and that freeze-frame finale.) Hubby Hal wrote and produced the movie, which makes one wonder if he had a hand in writing his spouse's teevee series, while the redoubtable Miss Nancy is credited with co-writing the flick's unbelievable tunes. Unlike his gore or earlier nudey films, Lewis does not appear to have had much of a role in the film's script, but the presence of his guiding hand is palpable.
The movie concerns 8-1/2-year-old Jimmy Jaye (moribund non-actor Dennis Jones), a young Floridian who accidentally stops time by making a careless wish on the first day of school. "Once in every thousand years," we're informed by an echo-ey narrator, "the Great Clock of Time opens to admit the rays of the sun, and that is when it most vulnerable." Armed with the power of just one wish from li'l Jimmy, a cackling figure named Mister Fig (David Blight Jr.), bedecked in a garish checked jacket, red pants and heavily grease-painted eyebrows, seizes the moment and destroys the Great Clock's pendulum. As a result, the whole world is frozen in time – which Lewis suggests via a montage of Floridians stopped in their tracks. In one vignette, a suburbanite freezes as he's mowing the lawn, and though the time has supposedly halted, we can clearly see the bushes behind him blowin' in the breeze.
Somehow outside of this inaction, an elderly Astronomer (Lewis regular Karl Stoeber, sounding here like Sid Dithers on thorazine) is observing events and realizes that if the Great Clock isn't repaired, then time'll remain frozen for a full thousand years – though how that's supposed to work is never really explained. (Kids, they'll swallow anything!) He calls upon his daughter Aurora (Berg), a zaftig fairy dressed in an overly snug drum majorette's top and a gauzy skirt, and gives her a silver globe with which to replace the Great Clock's busted parts. To help carry out her mission, Aurora unfreezes and drafts little Jimmy into coming with her, at one point vaguely explaining that because she has positive power and her nemesis Mr. Fig (a.k.a. the "Time Killer") has negative power, that the two of 'em can't be in the same place at the same time. Jimmy takes her at her word and reluctantly tags along on their trek to World's End, a trip that primarily consists of the two walking and walking and walking through the Monkey Jungle park, which is made more otherworldly by the insertion of occasional oversized flowers.
On their journey, the duo are hampered by the broadly overacting Mr. Fig, who has a penchant for delivering nonsensical one-liners into the camera ("Time isn't money . . .today!"), jumping on and off frame to a poorly synced sproingy sound effect, prancing about and otherwise generally hamming it up for the kiddies. As a villain, he's worst than ineffectual – in one of his first schemes, he switches signs to send our wayfaring heroes into Slow Motion Land (which Lewis suggests by giving us the images of children slowwwwly tossing a ball and riding down a slide with their hands on the rail), but all they have to do, once they realize where they are, is turn around and go the other way. He impersonates a tree and tries to get Jimmy to eat a hot dog hanging from his branches, but we're not quite sure why (all we know for certain: the image is Really Disturbing!) Later, Fig dumps a bottle of Laughing Syrup into a pond, which causes the twosome to begin spontaneously laughing after they sip some of the water but otherwise doesn't deter them from their journey.
When he finally confronts Jimmy at World's End (Florida's Coral Castle), the prancing fool is unable to catch the boy and prevent him from replacing the pendulum even when we see Jimmy slowly walking up the hill to the tower housing the Great Clock. Watching Fig visibly hold himself back from our hero during this ho-hum chase sequence, I'm thinkin' even the most uncritical kid in the audience couldn't help wondering if this so-called bad guy didn't have some deep-rooted Fear of Success. Clearly, between this and the slug-speed chase scene in Blood Feast, "Speed" was not Herschell Lewis' middle name . . .
Of the three main characters, Blight's Fig is the only one with a sense of rhythm (poor Nancy Berg has difficulty walking Jimmy in time to the music), though, so he's given two show-stoppin' song-&-dance pieces, one of 'em frolicking around a palm tree with a surprising lasciviousness. Most of the movie's music is imminently forgettable, but the lyrics can be choice. In one particularly jaw-dropping sequence, Aurora and Jimmy come upon the Tick-A-Tock-A-Tawny-Indians (a decidedly Anglo lookin' crew) in the middle of a rain dance. Aurora agrees to make it rain in exchange for directions to the World's End. But when she casts her spell, it rains beans instead of water. Which leads to a sprightly Miz Aurora song about "Beans, beans, wonderful beans" that wouldn't be out of place ("I like kidney beans, lava beans . . .") on The Brak Show.
As with Barry Mahon's Santa Claus And the Ice Cream Bunny, Berg & Lewis interrupt the main story to sandwich in a whole other movie: in this case, an Italian(?) animated cartoon that appears to have been edited down from a full feature and sparsely dubbed by Nancy Berg and the director with scant regard for explaining what we're seeing on-screen. (The cumulative effect is rather like being exceedingly drunk at a crowded party.) Aurora theoretically is telling this incomprehensible story to Jimmy as a means of strengthening his resolve, but it comes close to eroding whatever audience involvement remains – at least 'til Mr. Fig reappears to once more mug before the camera.
It all works out, of course: the pendulum is replaced; time is restored and Jimmy returns to his bedroom once more prepping for the first day of school. This time, of course, he's learned his lesson: no more careless wishing for him! (Me, I wonderin' when the Great Lottery Machine opens to admit its rays to the sun . . .) So he dashes off to school, only to learn that his teacher this year is Miz . . . Oh, never mind!
Lewis would return to the kid-flick market a year later (lensing three gore films and two more "mainstream" drive-in features within the same year) with The Magic Land of Mother Goose. But it's Jimmy that kiddy matinee lovers look to when they want to consider the incongruous pairing of the Wizard of Gore w./ the Marvelous World of Childhood Imagination. The movie's so stuffed with unabashedly wrong-headed moments, so energetically half-assed, that it's irresistible for a certain breed of movie buff. What can I say? Aside from that garbled cartoon insert, I definitely enjoyed it more than 2000 Maniacs.
(Thanx, as per usual, to Aaron for sending me a copy of this puppy. And if you're not tired of reading about the movie yet, he has an even more detailed look at Jimmy and Mother Goose over at his place.)
( 9/26/2005 06:17:00 AM ) Bill S.
OH, DANNY BOY . . . – So C.J. Cregg is gonna marry Danny Concannon within the next three years? As much as I like both characters, doesn't that strike you as excessively tidy?
Sunday, September 25, 2005
( 9/25/2005 05:37:00 AM ) Bill S.
THE BANALITY OF BANALITY – A few scattered thoughts engendered from the premiere of ABS's new profiler procedural, Criminal Minds: