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.