Thursday, September 25, 2008

Monster Quest: Here Be (No) Dragons!

Back in college, when I was slightly younger and considerably more impressionable, I looked forward to one thing more than anything else. After slogging through my morning classes, I would sit down with a nice cup of afternoon coffee and turn on History Channel reruns of In Search Of, Leonard Nimoy's 1970s pseudo-scientific look at all things alien, cryptozoological, monstrous, and downright bizarre. Leonard, immaculate in his blue serge blazer and wooly turtleneck, held forth in each episode with lectures on the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot, the undersea Bimini Road , the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, alleged alien architects of the pyramids, and a whole Are 51 hanger-ful of other weird and wonderful stories and half-legends. It didn't hurt that he was Spock--after all, he was a scientist in the 23rd century, and his methods were always forthright and honest. His calm, measured voice, coupled with the show's eerie soundtrack, made for an enjoyable half-hour trip into the surreal.

Fast forward a few years to Monster Quest, The History Channel's recent iteration of the venerable "the truth is out there" genre. During the show's opening montage of scary beasts, a deep voice-over informs us that "witnesses around the world have reported seeing monsters." Pausing a moment to consider whether these monsters might be real or imaginary, the voice-over continues, assuring viewers that the Monster Quest team will use science to find out the truth. At this point, I always feel as if I am the butt of some cryptozoological joke, that somehow Monster Quest has peeked inside my mind and glimpsed the seething conflict there between an earnest belief in cold analytical scientific inquiry and a penchant for wild speculation and thrill-seeking. To be perfectly fair, there's nothing at all about the show that suggests hoax or put-on--the investigations are always done by well-respected scientists and researchers who submit their findings to colleagues for testing and verification--but some part of me always imagines Leonard Nimoy, waxing speculative about the Lake Champlain monster on a poorly-constructed sound stage some time in the late 1970s. Why? I have no clue.

A recent episode of MQ focused on the yeren, the "wildman" of central China. Dr. Jeff Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and paleontology at Idaho State University, traveled to a nature reserve in China with a team of experienced trackers to search for evidence of the elusive creature. Dr. Meldrum and his team examined plaster casts of supposed yeren footprints, set motion-capture cameras to attempt to photograph the creature, interviewed experts and eyewitnesses, undertaking a difficult and often dangerous task with unbiased scientific objectivity (This is the standard drill for every episode). Despite the team's hard work, they returned with no clear evidence to support the yeren's existence, though Dr. Meldrum expressed satisfaction that the investigation had yielded new ideas that pointed in exciting new directions. The episode ended with a shot of Dr. Meldrum and the team sauntering off (despondently?) into the woods, eyes still peeled for any sign of the Chinese wildman.

And, herein, at least for me, lies the rub: Monster Quest never finds anything, yet people like me tune in every week in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a chupacabra in the woods or giant squid lurking in some dark underwater place. I have thought and thought about why a show, dedicated to rational scientific inquiry into creatures that it never finds, would have any appeal at all to me (or to anyone for that matter). Perhaps part of the fascination is due to my interest in mythology and folklore--all cultures have fabricated monsters to explain terrifying aspects of their worlds and life experiences--and my continuing hope to discover connections between the real and the imagined. Perhaps part is my long-standing interest in science, though I really understand very little of its methods or practical applications. Another part is perhaps a secret inner desire to have cryptids (undiscovered animals) proven to be fakes or hoaxes, and to be there in order to say "I told you so!" Whatever it is, every time I watch MQ, I remember Nimoy narrating In Search Of, attempting in a half hour to discover and explain all the secrets of Vlad Dracula, the Loch Ness Monster, or the supposedly alien-construced earth lines in Nazca, Peru. Maybe Monster Quest should go in search of Leonard...

Monster Quest airs on the History Channel on Wednesdays at 9pm Eastern

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cereal: it's not just for breakfast anymore

Back in the 90s, during one of the many strange interludes of empty free time I enjoyed in those heady days, I decided to undertake a most unusual experiment. I wanted to determine, somewhat scientifically, the best breakfast cereals in terms of taste, texture, and overall healthiness in order to get the full benefit from my bowl. Now, mind you, this was before Seinfeld was a household name, before we knew that his kitchen cupboards were crammed with little nuggets of fruity/oaty/grainy goodness. I was sure that nothing like this had ever been tried--I mean, why would Consumer Reports waste their time on something as insignificant as cereal? So, I sat down each morning for about one week with a new cereal in my bowl, testing each flake, puff, and O for the ideal combination of wholesome goodness and dynamite taste. Now, I can't remember with any accuracy just exactly what cereals I pitted against others, but I can say that after a period of intense taste-testing, I concluded that Apple Jacks was the winner. Yes, Apple Jacks. It beat out all the other competitors in pure taste and palatal enjoyment, but also beat out bran and oat cereals in terms of vitamin and mineral content. What would John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of Corn Flakes, say if he knew that I rated Apple Jacks higher than his precious creation in every category? Would he spew milk through his nose? Apple Jacks was/is a Kellogg's product, so I think that old John Harvey might be somewhat proud, but also maybe a little shocked that his 19th century program of health, exercise, laughter therapy, colonic irrigation and Corn Flakes (See the great book The Road to Wellville by T. Coraghesian Boyle and the BAD film version starring Matthew Broderick) had evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry with a circular sugar-coated apple-flavored O as the apex of its labors. Well, John Harvey, I grew up on Apple Jacks and other Kellogg's sugar bombs, and I am happy to say I am still alive and in fairly decent health.

Now, I am not about to say that cereal is any healthier than, say, waffles or eggs and bacon--I am as doubtful about the motives of cereal producers as I am about any corporate product. Nevertheless, I've never heard of anyone falling face first into his bowl of cereal and breathing his last, along with a healthy amount of milky syrup. Besides, there's something a bit nostalgic about pouring cereal into a bowl, hearing that unmistakable clatter, immersing the nuggets of joy in cow juice, and sitting down--well, anywhere-- to consume the nearly instant repast. It reminds me of a thousand Saturday mornings back in the 70s, watching the Bugs Bunny Road Runner Show, Sigmund and the Seamonsters, The Groovy Ghoulies, and Land of the Lost while chowing down on heaping spoonfuls of cereal. And, it wasn't just Saturday mornings--it was any morning that my mom had no time to cook, and afternoon snacks, and midnight snacks, and...well, all the time, really.

Back then, my favorites were what you might expect--Cap'n Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops (before the "corn" was added), Lucky Charms, Boo and Franken Berries, and Cookie Crisp (when Cookie Jarvis was the mascot). Nowadays...well, nowadays I still love those brands, but my tastes have matured a bit. And, I still love eating cereal at all hours. In the interest of all those who might be wondering, "Is it OK for me to have cereal for every meal? Will people think I'm a kook? Will they assume I can't cook just because I prefer the quick fix of the cereal bowl?" I offer the following suggestions.

Best Cereals for Breakfast: I've found that, personally, I am partial to fruit-flavored and peculiarly sugary cereals in the morning--Fruit Loops, Apple Jacks, Frosted Flakes and the like. Contrary to popular belief, most of these cereals contain moderate amounts of sugar, generous servings of fiber, and healthy doses of vitamins and minerals. Besides, there's nothing like breaking your fast with a blast of sweetness.

Best Lunch/Snack Cereals: For lunch or a snack, I like a hearty cereal, such as Cheerios, Corn Flakes or Bran Flakes. These are lower in fats and sugars, and don't produce the kinds of afternoon sugar comas that sweeter cereals can undoubtedly cause. If you have teeth of steel, Grape Nuts are also good in the afternoon.

Best Dinner Cereals: For dinner, you want something with a variety of ingredients that might pair well with toast or some other side dish. Raisin Bran, Honey Bunches of Oats, Just Bunches, or granola-based cereals are excellent choices. Even the haughtiest gourmand will find that these cereals provide satisfaction for the belly as well as the palate.

Obviously, this list is not comprehensive, and I invite you to develop your own cereal menu. When time is an issue, when you want something that will stick to your ribs, something that won't break your budget, something that is better for you than most everything else on the shelf, why not try cereal? You could institute a cereal night in your household, offer your kids wholesome cereal snacks in lieu of unhealthy candies and sticky sweets, start a whole cereal revolution. Cereal--it's grrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat!!!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Entourage returns to HBO, hilarious as ever.

I'm tired of hearing that HBO's Entourage is Sex and the City for guys.  It's not, I repeat NOT, just for guys.  It narrates very convincingly and humanly the rollercoaster ride that is stardom and life in LA. You can lose a couple million dollar movie deal in a day, have to sell your house just as your 80 inch TV is arriving, but no matter what, you'll always have your friends. Sure, the decadent and carefree life that the four bachelor protagonists lead is something of a male fantasy, with supermodels draped over ever sofa and luxury cars around every corner, but Entourage merely uses that as a backdrop for buildling substantive relationships between characters who we genuinely care for and love hanging out with.  

Granted, I joined this poker game a little late, but boy have my chips gone to good use.  Watching seasons one through four of the livin' large antics of Vince, E, Drama, and Turtle in fairly quick succession this past fall, I came to the end with a screeching halt and bewilderment, remorseful that I'd gone through the episodes so hastily and nearly devastated that I had to wait indefinitely for more.  (The air date for the next season was uncertain at that point.)

But the gang's all back, and as hilarious as ever.  This past week Entourage returned for its fifth season, and all my happy memories came flooding back to me.  Banter, banter, and more banter! If you have a small group of friends with whom you spend every waking moment, revel in being politically incorrect (or perhaps just immature), and constantly give them a hard time, you'll feel right at home here.

The cliffhanger from the previous season, where the film our friends have been pouring their hearts and souls into completely flops at the Cannes Film Festival, was a bold move, as many shows would have chosen to play it safe and end the season with an uplifting success or at least the red herring that everything would work out at the end of the day.  Similarly, in beginning its newest season, Entourage does not do, again, what so many shows would - it does not open with business as usual.  

We find Eric still struggling to start his own agency, Ari more irascible than we've ever seen trying to handle bad press, and Vince left with no choice but to go into hiding on a remote beach in Mexico.  Granted, he's hanging out with a hoard of bikini-clad professional sun bathers and riding around on jet skis all day, but we still get the sense that this indulgence is a sign of desperation, a sign that his career is in a world of trouble.

The only problem I had with this episode was its pacing.  It builds, it builds, it builds, and then it stops abruptly.  When all was said and done we didn't really get very far in the new storyline.  Maybe I'm just spoiled and my first fix in such a long time leaves me unfulfilled.   Also, there was not nearly enough Ari Gold.  Jeremy Piven, in performing his role as the ruthless  (he's a complete jerk, but we can't help but cheer him on somehow) always commandeers the spotlight as a supposedly minor character on this show.  He may even be the primary reason I watch it.

I eagerly await next week's episode.  Bango out.

Clone Wars More Fun Than a Barrel of Huttlets

First, everyone needs to CALM DOWN. This movie is neither an affront to nature nor to Star Wars lore. It is not the disaster that all the critics say it is. It is, in fact, very fun to watch.

It is also not, however, to be equated in any way with any of the star wars sagas already in existence. The fact that this is a precursor or a primer to the new animated television series coming to Cartoon Network next month (October 3rd) sets a whole new tone for Star Wars - nowhere to be found, for instance, is the classic stoicism and pontificating that fans have come to love. Instead, we get the adventuresome, playful, and roguish side of the franchise. Think of the rakish charm of Han Solo, the banter of a rag tag gang under fire, and expand it out from the occasional moment of comic relief to an entire film. It's "I've got a bad feeling about this" times 100, and it's great.

This new slice of Star Wars suits Anakin Skywalker particularly well, as it allows him to branch out beyond naive little boy wonder and angsty teen sith. I'd even go so far as to say that this phase of Anakin was missing from the episode 1-3 arc, and could have made him a character to whom we got more attached. Or... maybe Hayden Christensen should have just stuck to Canadian soap operas.

Anakin's apprentice, Ahsoka, vacillates between a perky teeniebopper who's trying too hard and a fiesty young woman deserving of a Skywalker's attention. Overall, her character adds more than it subtracts. Kids will relate to her, and Star Wars fans will welcome her into the fold.

The biggest treat for fans will be a closer look at the Hutts. Jabba the Hutt became such an iconic figure after Return of the Jedi, and now we come to find that he can have....children? I'm sorry, huttlets. Let's just say part of me wants to keep one as a pet. The appearance of Jabba's uncle, Ziro the Hutt, also plays an important role in establishing the Hutts as a mafia family, expanding the universe in, again, a FUN way.

I was determined to not let my deep appreciation and loyalty for Star Wars blind my better judgement. I was ready to accept this film as a failure (although still hopeful that I wouldn't have to, of course!). I mean, who can argue with a 20% freshness (or rottenness, rather) rating on But Clone Wars has been grossly misunderstood, methinks. Extremely episodic in its tone and structure, Clone Wars, in many ways, should have simply been a long pilot for the televisions series, only airing on TV. Perhaps then, in its proper context, it would have been better understood and better received.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Let's Get Digital: A Clone Wars Review

It’s hard to review this movie without at least responding most briefly to the criticism out there:

What Clone Wars is not: The next Star Wars episode, photo-realistic cg (a la Beowulf), a franchise reboot, a stand alone story or intended to be someone’s first exposure to the Star Wars mythology.

What Clone Wars is: A remix of classic Star Wars action in a sleek stylized animation that, while honoring the original Star Wars saga, brings the mythology and fun into a new form of story-telling that will continue this fall in the animated series on Cartoon Network (or TNT for HD).

Make no mistake, Clone Wars is not and was never intended to be, of the same scope and style as the other theatrical Star Wars releases. From the different opening logos (Warner Bros!) to the absent opening crawl, this movie is a different beast all together. A more apt comparison is to the classic stories of war movies. The audience, joining en medias res, is thrown onto the battlefield and experiences the action on a personal level surrounded by the cocky general (a pitch-perfect Obi-Wan), the fiery rogue with unconventional methods (Anakin), the battle-hardened by-the-book soldiers (Commander Cody, Captain Rex and the other clones), and most importantly the fresh-faced just-off-the-boat rookie, wide-eyed and way over his (or her) head (Ahsoka). These archetypes are mainstays of the war movie genre, and though these characters are mostly not new to Star Wars, the roles may have shifted slightly during travel.

Visually, every single frame of this film is impressively eye-catching and even beautiful at times. The teals of Cristophsis melt away nicely to the purples of Teth and the familiar browns and tans of Tatooine. The scenery is clearly of Star Wars pedigree (some even developed from previously unused Ralph McQuarrie concept pieces) and yet pops with a vibrancy that befits the war. The characters, wearing the war garb familiar to fans of the Tartakovsky Cartoon Series are expanded and adjusted to give each character (and especially the clones) a unique and customized look that fits their personality and battle-style. Anakin, Ahsoka and Obi Wan are defined with rounded Jedi appearances while the separatist leaders Dooku and Asajj Ventress have much more angular forms, showing how incompatible these forces are, and hardening the conflict visually (interestingly the starships of each side show a similar, though reversed, visual divide).

At no time do the animators attempt photo-realism in the characters or environments. The hair and beards of the characters doesn’t move, nor does the cloth flow ripple or billow. Instead, the characters take on an almost stop-motion look…the realization of every action figure battle you held in your backyard growing up. Though purportedly anime-inspired, the look is much closer to the other source of inspiration, the marionette show Thunderbirds. This influence is especially clear when looking at the design of Anakin, but also in the movement and physicality of the characters in their environments. The hits in this film are hard, and the audience feels many of the clones cut down in ways never even approached by the prequels.

Like the Prequel trilogy, the Clone Wars presents a tangled political web that is being worked and manipulated from two ends by the soon-to-be Emperor Palpatine. While considerable mental energy would be necessary to understand the full motivations behind the machinations surrounding the kidnapping of Jabba’s son, the movie doesn’t really ask for that level of investment. Instead it gives you a MacGuffin in the shape of a smelly wriggling huttlet and lets you enjoy the chase and action of the characters fighting over it. Like that other Lucasfilm franchise, the heroes and villains fight over the MacGuffin from Act II onward, and in the end it doesn’t matter what that object is or does, but rather what the characters do to control it. What unfolds is a roller coaster ride of action and thrills as the characters duel, chase and backstab each other to be the first to deliver young “Stinky” to his father.

However, gone from the prequels-era Star Wars is the clunky dialog that grates upon every fan (“I hate sand…”) and the sulky love story of Padme and Anakin (their brief encounter is snappy and double-edged subterfuge…like Alias at its finest). Perhaps most importantly though, Padme is much closer to her Episode I-II personality, that is, she doesn’t just sit around a cry, but is pro-active in her attempts to rescue Anakin, and resembles, in both her dialog and acts, the verve that we know will come in the next generation of Skywalker women (and the one after that, Jaina).

In its essence, this film is a love letter to fans...the casual theater-going fan but more importantly the action figure buying, novel reading, card game playing, Forcecast listening fans who have stuck by this franchise since its inception, or like me, its renaissance in the early 90s. The film features Easter egg “shout outs” to those fans (Admiral Yuhlaran, R2-KT, the Max Rebo Band logo) and in doing so welcomes the older fans to the new, perhaps a bit more kid-friendly Star Wars. As one of those fans, I adored the gift they gave us by releasing this film theatrically, and letting us experience it initially on the theatrical scale.

The absolute best part of this movie is that, at its core, it is simply the Pilot episode for the new series. Like all Pilots, it will display the first shapes of the great series that I’m sure is to come, but not represent the level to which the series can progress. This is the starting line for this series and it can only improve from here. If rumors are to believed (and I sincerely hope they are), the series will have a strong emphasis on character development, taking aim at fleshing out Jedi, Troopers and Seperatists that, while existing only in the periphery of the Skywalker story, can take center stage here. Kit Fisto hunting down Seperatists with a Mon Calamari padawan? The origins and evolution of General Grievous’s robotics? Prototype Y-wings? The fate of Ahsoka? I’m in.

Clone Wars continues this fall with the same level of quality and perhaps a greater level of plot. I honestly believe that fans who have skipped this movie are going to regret not getting in on the ground floor of this endeavor. Director and show-runner Dave Filoni is, above all else, a fan, and we could not ask for a better guide to take us through this new series. Anecdotes from cast and crew suggest that even while working on Clone Wars, Filoni spent his lunch breaks making a peg check at the local Toys R Us.While admittedly I am feeling a bit of Star Wars fatigue (Clone Wars, Force Unleashed plus all the tie-ins give me wallet-ache!), this is the most excited I have been in my history of Star Wars fandom (including pre-Episode I). The cynics will continually deride George Lucas and point to the whole endeavor as being nothing more than a means to sell more toys (animated-style action figures=awesome, btw) however, true fans know that this is a movie for them, and that, as always, the force is forever.

Your Servant, Bongo

P.S.- Obi Wan Kenobi is still the man.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bingo's Quick Review: Esther Leslie's Hollywood Flatlands and Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise

Okay, so I know that one of these books is actually six years old, but since I read them in close succession and both have great importance to the understanding of modernism and post-modernism in film and music, I feel they should be paired in this review. I'll begin with Professor Esther Leslie's 2002 study Hollywood Flatlands, a deeply thoughtful and intelligent appraisal of the importance of animation in the understanding of broader social and cultural developments in the early 20th century. Professor Leslie assumes a Marxist perspective, analyzing the filmic developments of early Walt Disney and Charlie Chaplin through the lens of intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. She insists, with Benjamin and Adorno, that Disney turned his back on the progressive animation style he championed in the 20s and 30s to arrive at a photo-realistic style that reached its pinnacle in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. For Benjamin and Adorno, this was a symptom of reactionary movements throughout all of the arts, culminating in the monumental styles of Leni Riefenstahl and other "artists" associated with totalitarian thought. Disney had left behind true invention, Leslie maintains, to present a realistic picture of the world. Although this work is dense with literary critical jargon and arcane references, Professor Leslie provides a wonderful insight into the excitement that surrounded the earliest days of animation in Europe and America.
Alex Ross' 2007 history of 20th century music attempts a similar understanding of competing views of modernism. Decidedly less academic than Leslie, Ross aims at a comprehensive analysis of the ongoing wars between Arnold Shoenberg and his atonal revolution and Igor Stravinsky and the High Modernists of classical music. Particularly interesting is Ross' look at music in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s. Often, however, Ross forsakes analysis for strict accounting of the historical facts. The reader often desires to know a little more about the motivations and reasons behind the radically new styles of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Alban Berg, Mahler, Strauss, and Aaron Copland. In any case, The Rest is Noise is a fantastic primer for the musically uninitiated.

Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory, and the Avant-Garde, Esther Leslie, Verso 2002. (4.5 stars out of five on the Bingo scale)
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007 (4 stars out of 5)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

John Adams: Founding (and Faltering) Father

One of the overemphasized and yet somehow still underappreciated aspects of being a student in the Boston area is the fact that the neighborhoods and streets of this city are packed with history. Case in point, from my apartment in Cambridge I can easily walk to the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the fabled ground of Harvard Yard, or stride the thinning grass of Cambridge Common and stand beneath the very tree under which George Washington first took command of the rag-tag rebels and mutinous minutemen that would go on to defeat the greatest empire of the period. And yet somehow, though I regularly sample from New England’s cultural treasures, no single site, artifact or fading placard has ever inspired in me a sense of historical wonder as much as the recent HBO miniseries adaptation of David McCullough’s John Adams.

Now for a few disclaimers: yes I realize how superfluous this review of another Emmy wunderkind seems, but like Bingo before me I must profess adoration of this series prior to the Emmy nominations (though I anticipate this series sweeping all miniseries categories).

Beyond this, I must confess that I eagerly anticipated this series’ premiere and subsequent DVD release (who can afford HBO on a stipend?) having voraciously consumed the book during my freshman year of college (I was the kid who finished the book the first week of the month long study of the text much to the adoration of the instructor and the loathing of my classmates). This series draws masterfully from the John Adams text and also liberally from the companion piece 1776.

While the praises of this series have already been sung by more accredited personages, I’ll gloss over a few of the reasons I enjoyed the series and hopefully demonstrate that members of my generation do have a sense of civic pride and a nuanced appreciation of the American experiment in democracy (doesn’t it always seem to oscillate wildly between complete skepticism and blind patriotism?).

I credit the director of this series with his unwavering commitment to show the founding fathers as the heroes, and perhaps for the first time, the humans that they were. Through the use of long steady-cam shots and slanted “man on the street” angles, I felt completely transported off my couch and onto the dark streets of Boston, the hallowed halls of Philadelphia and the dismal swamp that will become Washington D.C. The historical figures appear most frequently in the colonial garb we survivors of eighth grade history expect, but most inspiringly, they step out of their roles in private settings and demonstrate their emotions through angrily shoveling manure or exhaustively removing their wig and wiping the sweat from their brows. These figures have awful teeth, cantankerous dispositions and vulnerabilities that alternatively endear and alienate the audience (Anyone ever seen a founding father vomit elsewhere?). Had the meetings of the Continental Congress been presented with such life, strife, conflict and danger in textbooks, they would do much more than break the backs of middle schoolers.

Beyond the fantastic direction and production design (and make-up and music, and sound), the acting of this series is unbelievable. Paul Giamatti, having shaken away all vestiges of his Sideways humor, enlivens the role of Adams through his subtle love of his wife and his fiery conflicts with his sons and political rivals. Giamatti isn’t afraid to make Adams unlikeable and by willingly embracing the darker parts of the character, makes the historical figure all the more inspiring. Yet, Laura Linney’s turn as Abigail Adams is the performance that will linger in the minds of all viewers. By turns plotting political partner, proto-feminist and saddened neglected wife, Linney lights up every scene and buoys Giamatti up to a higher plane when they share scenes. The highlights being Abigail’s daring decision to vaccinate the children from smallpox (Thank God for modern medicine!) in which she shows her passion and courage, and the multiple quiet walks she and John take about the farm, in which Abigail’s vulnerability and adoration shine clearly through. As this is running long, I won’t cover the many fine supporting roles, but certainly the work of Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, David Morse as George Washington and Sarah Polley (of Avonlea!) as the Adams’ daughter are all inspired.

This series is not without faults, as many episodes drag on a bit too long for my preference, but the first two and the seventh (final) episode don’t suffer at all from this problem as they kept me wishing for more (No please, the revolution can’t be over yet, I want more!). Additionally, the need to revise the well-known period art to include the actors instead of the actual figures seems a bit silly and unnecessary.

Patriotism has always been something that I’ve greeted with skepticism and fear. My recent disapproval of America’s course has tainted me and made me question it all. Yet, I have to say that the closing moments in which the series turns what cynics would call a bit preachy, deeply touched me and reminded me, and hopefully others of just what a responsibility we have to the men who built this country. Thus I will close with Adams’s own words on this great democratic experiment:

“Oh Posterity, you will never know how much it cost us to preserve your freedom. I hope that you will make a good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”

Your servant, Bongo

P.S. - Like Mad Men, John Adams benefits from an excellent score that helps draw you into the period as the credits roll and the classic “Don’t Tread on Me!” flag billows in a tempestuous breeze.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tropic Thunder More Satire Than Silliness (Surprise!)

During my visit to Pixar Animation Studios this past weekend, I was hoping to see Star Wars: The Clone Wars in a screening room surrounded by the best of the best in computer animation. To my initial disappointment (initial being the keyword there; I shall soon explain why), however, the weekly screening at Pixar was slated to be Ben Stiller's newest comedy, Tropic Thunder. And, with a smidgen of chagrin, I have to say that this film was one of the more pleasant surprises I've had in a long while.

But only because my expectations were lower than low. The key to understanding my point of view on this is to know that I have never been overly fond of Stiller's comic orbit. Films like Zoolander (2001), Anchorman (2004), Dodgeball (2004), and There's Something About Mary (1998) have always made me chuckle a little but never laugh out loud. Even Will Ferrel's related work, while prompting me to crack a smile and giggle, would never be counted as one of a few of my favorite things. Leaving me more uncomfortable and queasy than hungry for more, crude slapstick mixed with general absurdity just never does it for me.

Okay, this is me ceasing to beat around the bush: I generally associate Ben Stiller and his comedy cohorts with "dumb humor." It has its time, its place, but never rises to the top of my list. Call me a snob. Go ahead. Do it. I feed off your judging.

Naturally, upon seeing the trailer for Tropic Thunder, I sighed and said to myself, "Man, that is going to be yet another ridiculous and stupid movie." But I'm still in shock as to how far my snap judgment was off the mark. In the way that Swing Vote (which I would never recommend) desperately wanted to but couldn't possibly, Tropic Thunder achieves a level of satire I never would have thought possible given its premise. I mean, a group of actors playing soldiers in the Vietnam War unwittingly find themselves under real fire in an Asian jungle? Please.

But this film is not just about such a humorously contrived situation. It's a jab at the entire film industry - from egotistical actors to petty agents to overbearing producers to product placement to the "based on a true story" film genre. The film's opening scenes - a montage of trailers and advertisements featuring its main characters - runs the risk of causing the film to peak too early, so make sure you don't miss it getting popcorn.

A more critical version of myself would say that Stiller doesn't quite take the satire as far as it can or should go. The last 30 minutes of the film in particular - I suspect in a need to bring the show to an explosive, slam-bank finish - begin to blur the line between self-aware send-up and a self-fulfilling prophecy: actually becoming the thing you are trying to satirize.

Robert Downey Jr., who I am happy to say is back with a vengeance this summer, indubitably steals the show, with his caricature of the method actor - specifically Russell Crowe. See the image at the top of this post? Yea, he's the black guy. I'll leave the pleasure of discovering the circumstances of that hilarity to you. Downey's only rival in this film is Tom Cruise (yes, you heard me correctly), whose extended cameo will blindside you, have a tickle fight with you, kick you down, and then give you a big ole bear hug.

So if you're already a fan of the usual Ben Stiller fare, you'll obviously love this movie. But for the rest of you, the ones who are like me (and I know you're out there, she says, pointing), take the plunge and find something more.

Bango out.

p.s. Don't worry, I vow to see Clone Wars soon. And when I do, a review you shall see.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Clone Wars: It Sure Takes Me Back

In March 1977, I turned eight years old. One night that May I went to see Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope with my dad and little brother. My life hasn't been the same since. That summer, I spent all of my time pretending to be Luke Skywalker, wearing a brown belt over a long t-shirt in an attempt to replicate his Tatooine tunic and chasing my friends around the neighborhood with a stick (these were the days before Force FX lightsabers and the like) . My first SW action figure was R2-D2--a simple doo dad by today's standards--but I was transported by that piece of plastic and the meanings it represented into a world of imagination that previously did not exist for me. My enthusiasm did not die down when I turned nine, or ten, or eleven, or twenty-five, or thirty. Though I now consider The Empire Strikes Back to be a superior film to ANH in nearly every respect, nothing has ever replaced the sense of absolute wonder and enchantment I experienced in the summer of '77.
It is now the summer of '08. George Lucas has presented the latest addition to his universe with The Clone Wars, an animated adventure set between the events of SW episodes II and III, focusing on the battles of Jedi Knights Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker against the evil Count Dooku and his Separatist armies. Obi Wan and Anakin, with the help of Anakin's young padawan Ahsoka Tano, attempt to rescue the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hutt in an effort to secure Jabba's cooperation with the Republic in the Outer Rim territories. One of the first things I noticed about this film was its obvious insistence on unreality--the animation, rather than following the (sometimes) unfortunate pattern of verisimilitude attempted in animated features from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Wall-E, celebrates its difference. The artists and animators have created heavily stylized versions of well-known SW heroes and have refused to be faithful to accepted norms of representation, from the long hatchet-face of Dooku to Obi Wan's unmovingly perfect coif to Padme's impossibly slender figure. These unorthodox representations may act as outward manifestations of each character's personality, but they also look $%^&* good--I hesitate to use the word "art," but if the shoe fits...
Even for a SW movie, all laws of physics and mechanics fail to apply--Republic tanks scale a sheer mountain cliff and Anakin leaps hundreds of feet through the air to shred Separatist battle droids into junk. This is a film that knows it is telling an unlikely and fantastic story, and tells it with gusto and nearly relentless momentum. It doesn't matter that scientific laws are broken in a universe of infinite possibilities. Naturally, there are numerous battle scenes in the film, and they don't disappoint. The battles scene on Christophsis recalls similar scenes in WWII movies such as The Longest Day, and the partnership between Anakin and Ahsoka parallels that of Han and Luke nicely. Obi Wan's light saber battle with the foul Asajj Ventress is also particularly well-done.
Some critics have complained that there is too little character development to make the film completely successful. Bongo and I agreed that war movies, and TCW is a war movie, are not vehicles for character analysis; they are not elaborate costume dramas that allow for long interludes of soul searching and emotional exploration. Here, the old characters are re-introduced, the new characters meet up with them, and together they undergo a series of adventures. If this sounds familiar, it should--the same thing happened in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. TCW is simply following in a long Lucas tradition of continuing adventures in which the characters are swept up in an epic story of triumph, failure, and redemption.
There must be a few kids who will turn eight this summer-- The Clone Wars was made for them. Forget about all the aging fans who insist that the original trilogy should have been left alone, the haters who say that Jar-Jar Binks should be killed off, and the legions of rapacious collectors who are only interested in the market value of their collections. This is not their movie. It belongs to the eight year old kid who genuinely believes, as I did in '77, that SW can change the world. If the film generates for them a fraction of the excitement that the original Star Wars did for me, then it will have been successful.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Billie Piper: a Girl Next Door No More.

Bango here. Now, it's not my usual practice to provide career commentary; I always think that films and television series should speak for themselves and that everyone should stop looking askance in the grocery store checkout line to see the latest on Angelina Jolie's reproductive life. But alas, we are a culture consumed by image, and such biographical and professional contexts inevitably color the viewing experiences of most. Stardom and celebrity will always plague acting; this is not a new idea.

Which brings us to British starlet Billie Piper, whose career choices continually puzzle me. I originally fell in love with her during her three year stint as Rose, companion to the Doctor on BBC's "Doctor Who." She was smart, sassy, strong, and sensitive - the girl next door with a tinge of attitude and just the right dose of humanity the Doctor ordered. One day, surfing the internet, as I am wont to do, I learn that she once was a teen pop idol, not unlike Britney Spears in her early years. This confuses me, and immediately makes me think, "Wow, Billie Piper. Look how far you've come. Good for you." And after flying around in the TARDIS, Piper played Fanny Price in an adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Not too shabby for a teeny bopper. Very respectable, in fact.

Piper's latest project "The Secret Diary of a Call Girl," however, has her performing sexual acts every five minutes (and that's barely an exaggeration) as a high class hooker named Belle. In the first episode alone, she plays along with a man's horse fetish, resorts to a dildo, and....well, let's just say she's on her knees a lot.

So this review should be about "The Secret Diary of a Call Girl," but it's really about me trying to reconcile wholesome Billie Piper with vampy Billie Piper.

"Call Girl" began airing for the first time in the U.S. this summer on Showtime, and may very well be Piper's first mainstream appearance on American boob tubes (pun, considering the show, possibly intended). Some Yanks may have been mystified by syndicated episodes of "Doctor Who" airing on the SciFi Channel, but, let's be honest, geeks and nerds aren't exactly reflective of broader demographics. The fact that this side of the pond will only see Piper as a call girl, high class or otherwise, considerably diminishes her acting esteem. She'll just be that hot chick who's in that show about prostitutes.

Or will she? What will determine Piper's fate transatlantic-ally is the legitimacy and weight of this show. Is it just a salacious entertainment? Or is it actually doing something more substantive? In trying to figure out how to satisfy her customers, Belle does explore on behalf of her viewers how fetishism and sexual fantasy works [cue Freud], not unlike her namesake from Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967). She also poses as a feminist figure - the woman men fear and other women scorn because she enjoys sex. The heart buried deep beneath this show could be very political and provocative - can prostitutes be empowered or will they always be destitute, no matter how big the pay-off?

Cinematically, at least, the show is very slick, and demonstrates some thought. The occasional use of handheld camera shakes very nicely contrasts with more fantastical, over-the-top 180 degree turns. Confrontation is the name of the game - not only is the camera always up close and personal with Belle and her clients, but Piper's character actually turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience. Bridget Jones' Diary (2001) meets "Sex and the City," perhaps? The fact that I don't care for either does not bode well for "Call Girl." To not give this show the benefit of the doubt would be to say that it's not trying to be meta, just cute. A much better use of the diary-esque voiceover narration is USA's "Burn Notice," where protagonist Michael divulges the ins and outs of spyhood in a wry manner, unlike the giggly Belle sharing the tricks of her trade.

"Call girl" is certainly playful and situationally comedic, but is it necessarily smart? I'll give it a couple more episodes and report back. Perhaps by then I will have gotten over Billie Piper's new found (or recently rediscovered) licentiousness. Bango out.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mad Men: Gloss and Understatement on AMC

Bingo here. I've just finished watching episode 3 of the second season of Mad Men, AMC's brilliant take on the advertising industry in the 1960s, and I must say that I'm certifiably hooked. Actually, I have been since the show's first airing last summer. No program has captured my imagination to such a degree since the early days of The Simpsons--in a television environment rife with overwrought superheroes and bloated with bland approximations of reality, MM reasserts the primacy of writers and actors, ideas that made TV a viable entertainment medium in the beginning. Matthew Weiner's scripts crackle with intelligence and the dialogues and situations he creates for his characters refuse to be boiled down to mere sound bytes. Perhaps the most impressive element of MM for me is the way that the show manages to blend high-gloss visual prettiness with a distinctively understated, ironic, slightly skewed understanding of the full range of human emotions.

Case in point: Season 2 episode 2. We see Pete Campbell in his parents' sitting room after his father's passing. Everyone, Pete, his mother, his wife Trudy, his brother, and his sister-in-law, is dressed immaculately, and the room looks as if it has never been visited. While Pete and his brother connive over their father's estate and their inheritance, Pete's mother begins to give away random items in the room to Trudy. The overall tenor of the conversation is stilted and awkward, much as one would expect following the loss of a loved one, but the secretive asides reveal the duplicity marking many of the show's characters. The hydra-headed dialogues, combined with slightly odd behaviors and the polished and pressed look of the characters, create a scene of almost Chekovian complexity. MM's set designers also succeed brilliantly here (and everywhere), with somber, almost sepia-toned lighting effects and props that bristle with so much surrealist weirdness that they could almost be refugees from a Bunuel movie. The viewer can almost hear the starch in Pete's collar, but the conversation is anything but stiff--MM achieves depth as much by what the scripts leave out as what they include, and the crispness of each character's movements create a strange dissonance with the ideas they put forth.

There will be much more to say about this show in the future, but for now, suffice it to say that Mad Men has shown that TV can rise above the lowest common denominator. Now, if we only knew how Joan Holloway manages to stand up straight...