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September 7, 2007

Filed under: movies»television

The Harsh Realities of the Marketplace

And now, A Bit of Fry and Laurie:

August 29, 2007

Filed under: movies»television

Television Week: Well, More Like A Day

When we first moved into our apartment, Belle and I thought carefully about television. With Netflix, we didn't really need movie channels, but I'd gotten used to having an onscreen guide from digital cable. You get that with TiVo, and Belle really wanted one. So we went with regular ol' analog cable and spent the extra money on the TiVo subscription, and everyone was happy. Well, except for Comcast, but I'm not really shedding any tears over that.

There are lots of nice things about TiVo, little advantages that you don't get with the generic DVRs. Like the way that the fast-forward takes your reflexes into account, and rewinds a little bit so you don't overshoot the end of the commercial break. That's very thoughtful. It's also nice that the box will record recommendations if there's space left on the hard drive--most of the time it's stuff we'll never watch, but sometimes there are jewels, or programs that we meant to record but forgot to add to the list.

Turns out there's some really good stuff on basic cable nowadays. Even besides Galactica. I remember a few years ago, the general consensus seemed to be that if you wanted quality TV, you probably needed HBO. That was back when the reality show craze was in full swing, and all the news outlets screamed that we'd be watching nothing but reality TV in just a few years. So much for that.

  • Psych: At some point, USA apparently decided that they were going to be the quirky mystery network, only to be informed that audiences no longer respond overwhelmingly to Murder, She Wrote and Matlock. Not to be deterred, they made their own, starting with Monk, which I never watched but I'm assured is very clever. Psych has a similar gimmick (superobservant, smart-alec investigator who couldn't cut it as a cop starts a fake psychic detective agency with his friend), but suffers no illusions about being fluffy, formulaic fare. The result is an amusing (if not shocking) show that usually has at least one great line per episode.
  • The Closer: TNT is a weird bird. I always thought of them as the network that ran the same movie twice a night, three nights in a row--on-demand for cheapskates. Then they always advertised their home-grown movies, stuff like The Librarian or innumerable westerns starring people like Tom Selleck. But I guess that's really been working out for them. The Closer was one of the TiVo's recommendations, and it turns out that it's actually very, very good--and this coming from someone who normally hates police drama. The cast is talented, the writing is good, and it's usually light on legal wrangling and authoritarian nonsense (the worst part of the Law and Order franchise). They have episodes up on tnt.tv that you can watch for free, which is always a nice bonus for people who don't have DVRs (or cable, for that matter).
  • Doctor Who: Never watched the original show, but this is not bad. A little cheesy at times, but all in all it's clever, progressive entertainment, aimed primarily at younger viewers without talking down to them. Great theme music. I don't think I really have to write much about this one.
  • Top Chef: You know what cracks me up about reality shows? They're only three seasons in, and people are making comments like "well, the most anticipated episode is always such-and-such," or "I always enjoy this challenge." I'm sorry, but when you've only got two finished seasons in your sample, it's a little bit hard to buy any talk about the show's traditions or recurring events. It's not an institution yet, is what I'm saying. Anyway, Top Chef is good, and the cheftestants are less annoying this season.
  • Eureka: Oh, Sci Fi Channel. Talk about a roller coaster ride. Some of the network's original shows have been critical successes, but more often (Flash Gordon, Painkiller Jane, etc.) they're low-budget disasters with bad scripting and worse set dressing. Eureka is one of the few exceptions. It's based on a premise that I'm surprised no-one had yet exploited: a rural city is populated almost entirely by genius scientists working on secret government projects, like a Mayberry Manhattan Project. If Eureka doesn't always reach brilliance, it still nicely twists small-town drama around 1950's-style pulp science.

August 21, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»drama

Scoop

In 2005, Woody Allen made Match Point. It surprised a lot of people, because it was A) not a screwball comedy, B) did not put Allen on screen, and C) was actually quite good (perhaps because of A and B).

I haven't watched a lot of Woody Allen movies, but I enjoyed Match Point. So I was looking forward to Scoop, his next film. Like its predecessor, it stars Scarlet Johansson, it is set in England, and it concerns itself with murderous aristocrats--but this time, it is a screwball comedy, it does include Woody Allen, and unfortunately it's not very good at all.

Scoop sets up Johansson as a college reporter on vacation in London who attends a magic show hosted by The Great Splendini (Allen), only to be visited by the ghost of an investigative journalist (Deadwood's Ian McShane) who says that a rich playboy (Hugh Jackman) is actually the Tarot Card Killer. Johansson teams up with Allen to uncover the story, while trying not to fall for the killer. If that sounds like a stretch, it's because it is.

At around 90 minutes, you wouldn't expect the movie to move slowly, but it does. I'd say that it's due to Allen's dawdling performance as Splendini, but the pace remains slack even when he's not on screen. When you've got a premise as offbeat as this, you really need it to be snappy to distract from the plot holes and the awkward story constraints, and Scoop is anything but.

It doesn't help that there's no chemistry at all between any of the three leads, making their actions seem disjointed. Allen and Johansson bicker amiably enough, but there's no real affection there, and I could never quite figure out why they were working together. Likewise, why Jackman and Johansson become involved is a mystery--and making Scarlet Johansson seem unappealing is an impressive feat. It's particularly odd, considering that in Match Point she was such a sexually-charged figure. Clearly, it wouldn't match the tone of the rest of the film for her to be a full-on seductress, but a little romantic tension is desparately needed. She and Jackman are boring together, if not a little creepy.

Hints of a better, funnier movie peek out from time to time in Scoop, which makes it all the more disappointing. There are some good lines here for both Johansson and Allen, even if they're lethargically delivered--she doesn't quite seem to get what makes them funny, and he's moving too slow for the one-liners to catch viewers unaware.

Sondra Pransky: I wouldn't be surprised if he asked me to marry him someday.

Sid Waterman: You come from an orthodox family, would they accept a serial killer?

It's a crime against casting that these aren't delivered well (they cry out for someone capable of a Thin Man-styled banter), not to mention the waste of McShane in a tossed-off role that's not much more than a cameo. Surely, there must have been actors better suited to play the roles of cub reporter, aristocrat, and vaudeville entertainer. The material's all there. It's just self-indulgently performed and shot. All of which is what I would have expected, not knowing any better, from a Woody Allen movie. That's the problem with making a Match Point and raising expectations. It becomes more disappointing when they're not met.

July 31, 2007

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

Soon We Will Be Invincible

If you bring up superheroes outside of comics, sooner or later someone will mention The Incredibles. It happened to me lately. And much like Harry Potter, you're not supposed to dislike The Incredibles. It's a Pixar film, after all. What are you, some sort of hateful hater, filled to the brim with more hate, and living on 101 Hate Lane? How could you feel that way about The Incredibles?

The answer "because it's fascist propaganda" is probably not the most tactful response, in case you wondered.

In order to understand this, you have to separate the story of the movie, which is crafted with Pixar's typical care and humor, from its message, which is abhorrent. Ignore the villain's desire to conquer the world, and ignore his ruthless demeanor. Pay no attention to the charming way that the Parr family reacts to each other, and actually listen to what each character is saying:

Mr. Incredible: You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could *pretend* to be one?
Syndrome: Oh, I'm real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be Super! And when everyone's Super...
[chuckles evilly]
Syndrome: No one will be.
That's not an isolated line, either. The theme of "if everyone's special, no-one is special" gets parroted by several characters, although the emphasis changes--family brat Dash clearly stands in for the audience when he despises this philosophy, since it's the rationale his parents use to keep him from using his superspeed, while Syndrome just as clearly thinks it's a great e-e-e-evil plan.

One is forced to wonder, frankly, why this is supposed to be such an evil plan. We don't wonder why Syndrome is a villain, naturally--he makes that perfectly clear by using heroes as guinea pigs for his doom machines, and planning to manipulate the populace for his own benefit. But these don't follow directly from the "special" sentiment. They're standard bad-guy plots, which have been applied to a strawman philosophy in order to demonize it. The same thing happens with the Parr family: they're undercover to keep from being sued, which may be a shame but doesn't have anything to do with some mythical "everyone's special" point of view.

And of course, we have no reason to believe that if everyone were special in some way, that everyone would be devalued, apart from the way that The Incredibles stacks the deck. Surely everyone can have their own special gifts in their own way. It's ridiculous to think that if Syndrome could sell everyone a pair of jet boots, all of a sudden we would be plunged into a world of mediocrity. Why should it be a bad thing that everyone could reap the benefits of superpowers? Wouldn't you like to have a pair of jetboots? I would. The only possible way that you could see this in a negative light would be if your worldview is divided into two groups: those who have inborn powers (the Supers), and those who don't (and are therefore inferior mediocrities). There's something of this viewpoint evident in the contempt shown by the "natural" heroes and villains for Syndrome, who dares to work hard and build his own super powers, thus artificially crossing over from unter- to ubermensch.

I am not, by the way, the only person to have noticed this. Search Google for "the incredibles and ayn rand" and you will find many critics who have noticed its... unusual subtext.

In the film's defense, as with so many other lovingly-rendered details (the montage of cape-related disasters, the references to "monologuing,") this philosophy is true to the comic source. As a friend of mine has pointed out when we were discussing this problem, superheroes are the ultimate fantasy of agency by the powerless. They ask, "what would you do if you had amazing powers and no-one could stop you?" Dramatically, I agree that it's a fun thought experiment, and it's made for some great pop cultural moments. But it's a terrible basis for a moral or ethical message, because it by definition puts the wants and needs of other people secondary. It always assumes that the majority of people are only either A) targets to be protected, B) collateral damage, or C) barriers to the hero's progress. In almost all cases, the hero must work from outside (or even against) the system put into place by and for normal people--a point of view that's often held by fanatics and radicals, both conservative and liberal.

Both in terms of comics and their adaptation, this radical perspective is jarring when extracted from its customary position because it's so far from the usual message of American feel-good entertainment. We're used to Saturday morning fare and kids' movies (or many times, even films targeted at adults) that remind us that everyone has something of which they can be proud, or that hard work can take a person far. At times, especially for cynics, the clumsy moralizing of these plotlines may seem cloying or heavy-handed, but consider the alternative. It's hard to imagine a cartoon subtly arguing that "some people have gifts, and they are better people, who should not be restricted by society," but that's exactly what The Incredibles does. Viewers may dilute this message on their own by believing that they, too, are part of the special group, but it doesn't change the caricature of the masses oppressing their betters--shades of John Galt!

The reason that many reviews of The Incredibles mention its agenda but forgive it anyway is that the movie is honestly an amazing work of art. It's filled with clever homage, underhanded references, and witty dialogue. It's funny, and fun to watch. I admit that, but I also believe that good art and bad reasoning are not mutually exclusive. There are good reasons that Triumph of the Will is still shown to film and media criticism classes to this day--which is not to say that Pixar is on the same level as Riefenstahl. I only wish that its ideology--one shared with several genres of popular fiction--saw a little more critical awareness. We may not always want to admit it, but superheroes are a significant influence on American culture, from Spiderman to Batman, Captain America to the Tick. It would be nice if there were a little more discussion on what that ethically implies.

July 5, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

Sicko

What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with a Michael Moore movie?

Sicko (I will not bow to anyone's ridiculous capitalization schemes) has less Moore, pardon the pun, than previous documentaries, but probably provokes more thought. It is, as the director himself states in the film and several pundits have noticed, as much a movie about who we as Americans want to be as it is about health care. Do we want to be a nation that forces people to choose which finger they can afford to have reattached? Should we be a country that quibbles over health care for 9/11 volunteers, now suffering from pulmonary problems due to the hazardous dust?

It's easy to see this movie from my perspective and say no, we shouldn't be that kind of country. And I think it's remarkably persuasive at making that point, both in showing the advantages of other health care systems and by noting the other areas where America has implemented "socialized" government (education, transit, libraries, etc.)

It's persuasive to me, but I'm practically a socialist already. I don't know how it plays to the kind of people that think the government should be devoted only to invading countries and funding churches. I have a feeling that a lot of people will not be able to see beyond the idea of corporations and economies as the root level of the American system. Many people tend to forget that those corporations and economies are in fact composed of people just like us--or they choose to believe that the people are less important than the economic machines they constitute.

As for Sicko, if there's one weak point, it's probably Moore's trip to Cuba. He's not a subtle man, but you can see admirable restraint in the rest of the film: in fact, he often frames himself as the ridiculous American, unable to believe that the English, French, and Canadian systems provide such caring service. Moore's awkward bulk becomes a kind of sight gag, as well as a symbol of American prejudices on the issue. Sadly, he abandons that light touch for his jabs at Guantanamo, and the last third of the film suffers a little for it--not enough to falter completely, but enough that you wish he'd just get on with it.

June 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

The Dark of the Matinee

Although he is a ridiculous figure, there is something about Uwe Boll's movies that's a cut above the average B-movie. I think it's the star power, actually. He's not much of a director for the A-list actors that his tax loophole payoff attracts, but even on a bad day many of his leads outshine the typical horror-movie fodder. It's especially apparent when his movies show up on Sci Fi, where a big pitch is apparently professional sibling Stephen Baldwin in "Stan Lee's Harpies."

Speaking of which, I wonder how that goes over in the evangelical community after Baldwin's much-publicized conversion. I know he's supposed to be the cool face of Christianity for the home-schooled crowd, but I have a hard time imagining that Army of Darkness ripoffs are really what they consider "godly" entertainment. Then again, I enjoyed Bubba Ho-Tep, so I'm really in no condition to judge anyone.

So today's Tivo'd diversion is Boll's Alone in the Dark, which corrals Tara Reid and Christian Slater together for an on-set disaster nearly as horrifying as the idea of Tara Reid and Christian Slater together off-set. The guide gives it 1 1/2 stars. I can hardly wait.

0:00 Already, we're looking at a long chunk of on-screen text and narration, explaining something about a lost civilization and experiments that "merge man with creature." Sounds like a Mercer Mayer book gone horribly awry. A flashback establishes that the experiments were performed on orphans (except for one--I smell foreshadowing!) with the assistance of a weak-willed nun. Isn't that always the way?
0:05 Christian Slater wakes up from the flashback, unshaven and unkempt, on an airplane. Some kid tells him that there's nothing to be afraid of in the dark. Slater tells him that being afraid of the dark keeps most of us alive. I don't even know what that means. During a taxi montage, he voiceovers that he wasn't just scaring that kid for nothing, but that what you don't see can kill you. He's Edward Carnby: cliche hunter and child abuser. John Stossel in a trenchcoat.
0:09 The taxi montage leads directly to a car chase, the best moment of which is when Slater tells his cabbie to duck into a farmer's market and they immediately crash into a truck. The pursuing cabbie rams them, then gets out of the car and runs away--so he can jump down on Slater from a bridge. Why he needed the altitude is not entirely clear. The resulting fistfight ends in an ice factory, which I think exists only so that Boll can do a bullet time shot through a block of ice. There's also a lot of shoving going on, which is the mark of lazy action movie direction--if the bad guy shoves random people around to establish his evilness, he's clearing a pretty low bar. He could at least shoot an innocent bystander before Slater impales him on a convenient metal spike.
0:12 Tara Reid as a museum curator. I sense a great disturbance, as if thousands of casting directors cried out, and then were suddenly silenced. The last time I saw cheesecake this unaccountable was Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist for that James Bond movie.
0:20 On a boat, Reid's archaeologist boss has extracted some kind of evil basement refridgerator from the ocean. It's made of gold, which sets the boat's captain off in a capitalist lust. The archaeologist muses that nowadays "we don't even remember why gold is valuable in the first place." Perhaps to point out the stupidity of the statement, the captain slugs the archaeologist and cracks open the vault to get at the sweet, sweet precious metals inside. Sadly, the only thing in the case is an unseen evil force that slaughters the crew. Around the world, said force also activates some people that I guess are "man merged with creature." One of them shoves someone around on the way out of the house. Clearly, the height of malignancy.
0:26 Christian Slater has a flashback to establish that his orphanage was the center of these experiments, but he was somehow immune. After making some calls, he heads back to the orphanage, where he's greeted by the same nun. Long-lived, these sisters. Slater's driving an SUV in these sequences, by the way, so I guess being a crusty psychic detective pays pretty well.
0:33 As if to make sure that even the dimmest viewer gets the plot, Slater's contact at the paranormal Bureau 713 has a thirty second lunch with him, just long enough to establish that yes, all the disappearances are from his old orphanage. Alone in the Dark is actually filled, so far, with scenes that only last 30 seconds or so, just long enough to deliver their one line of exposition. Normally, I'd say that this kind of choppy, incoherent storytelling was the fault of the network's chopping it up to fit into two hours with commercials, but this is a Uwe Boll movie. Again, here's where he differs from most low-talent filmmakers, because most of them don't have the budget for so many location shots. It costs a lot to make a movie this badly.
0:36 Tara Reid and Christian Slater meet up at the museum. They hug, and then she punches him in the face. Score one for Tara Reid! Slater obtains forgiveness by handing over a paranormal artifact that he's been lugging around for the last 20 minutes. Jewelry makes things all better. Reid adds unintentional hilarity to her impression of a brilliant art expert by mispronouncing "Newfoundland" in her description of its history.
0:38 Remember that old horror movie where the creepy wooden tribal doll runs around a museum with a butcher knife? That's about ten times more disturbing than the giant bug that attacks the museum now. Especially when the SWAT team from Bureau 713 drops in, led by Stephen Dorff, and the bug just runs away. Another thirty-second conflict: done. This movie even makes The Relic's museum monster look terrifying.
0:54 Having returned from his disastrous boat trip, the archeologist injects himself with blood extracted from another giant bug, which he's keeping in the broom closet. Dude, there are easier ways to get high. Meanwhile, Slater's bureau friend explains that the monsters disrupt electricity (hence the darkness of the title and the flickering lights whenever they show up), but not flashlights, because "the shorter the path for the electricity, the less disruption." That's convenient, and also completely incoherent. He also passes on some bullets filled with light-producing resin, because they're allergic to sunlight. The producers of Underworld contemplate suing, but settle for watching Kate Beckinsdale in tight leather again.
0:59 Tara Reid shows up at Slater's loft apartment for no discernable reason, where he is passed out on a filthy mattress, and has sex with him, again for no discernable reason. I'm confused, and slightly unnerved. One or both of them should probably go get tested.
1:05 From sex directly to dubious archaeology--just like real life! The costume designers have obviously decided that putting little indie-girl glasses on Tara Reid will make her look smarter. Shockingly--and I say this as a guy who's totally got the hots for the indie glasses--it doesn't work at all. With thirty seconds elapsed from the last plot point, evil orphans and another bug now attack. The SWAT team drops in again. Why don't these guys ever use the door? Who's going to pay for all those windows? The resulting shootout resembles the first scene from Equilibrium, with lots of strobe-light gunflare in pitch darkness, although it goes on for about twice as long and includes a truly terrible nu-metal soundtrack. I have to admit, it does bear a strong resemblance to a video game.
1:18 Obligatory scene in which the characters prepare for the big finale, which looks like it will take place in a mine. While we wait for something interesting to happen, I'd like to say that I never actually played the Alone in the Dark games. I had a demo once, back in the late 80s, of the first one, but it only gave you one room, an attic, and had one monster, who burst in through the window a la a hellhound from Resident Evil. This movie seems to be based on the rebooted fourth game in the series, which ditched the offbeat adventure genre for forgettable survival horror. I think they would have been better off sticking to the setting from the earlier games, because monsters are almost always cooler in the 1930's.
1:34 Standing in a room wallpapered in human skulls, Christian Slater mutters, "I don't think we're supposed to be here." Subtle. Meanwhile, giant computer-animated bugs tear the marines outside the mine into little bits. For a movie that was previously edited like a tribute to ADD, Boll now finds the patience to linger for a long, long time on these shots. All the marines die. It's all very expensive and tasteless. Most of it is a ripoff of Aliens, except for the parts that are a ripoff of Starship Troopers.
1:47 Double cross! Triple cross! No-one cares! Tara Reid's boss reveals that he's one behind the experiments, and proceeds to open a door into a giant cave of darkness using the artifact from an hour and fifteen minutes ago. Now that it's assembled, it looks like a candleholder from Pier 1. Stephen Dorff tosses a knife into the archeologist's chest and then he stays to set off a bomb while the others run for the surface. I don't know why they're so desparate to get outside, since there's just a bunch of monsters and dead marines out there.
1:54 Wait, what? Slater and Reid climb out of the mine and end up just outside the orphanage which is in broad daylight. So I'm confused, because all of the previous scenes took place at midnight. Maybe they've been climbing for 12 hours. When they leave the orphanage, the city is evacuated according to the onscreen titles. Again, I'm not really sure when that happened. Slater voiceovers that the people have been wiped off the face of the earth, just like the ancient civilization. This word "evacuation," I do not think it means what you think it means.

Final verdict: if we were ranking Uwe Boll movies, this is much better than House of the Dead. It's also better than Bloodrayne, but it only manages that by stealing virtually every moment from much better movies. Neither, of course, is anything to be proud of. There's also no real charisma on exhibit here, so you can't even feel sorry for its stars. The thing is, every month Sci Fi broadcasts monster of the week movies that are three times as good as this, with a fraction of the budget. If anyone should be profiting from illicit tax money, it's those guys. If that means supporting Stephen Baldwin's career, I think we should take that risk.

June 6, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»heroes

Who watches...

I'm late to the Heroes party because I didn't particularly care for the first episode. Not that it was bad, it just didn't grab me. Because I wasn't hooked from the start, I didn't add it to our TiVo list. Because I didn't add it to our TiVo list, we got halfway through the season before everyone started talking about how great the show was. And because Heroes is serial television, Belle and I didn't want to jump in halfway, so we didn't watch it. We figured we'd just Netflix the DVDs or (as it turns out) record the episodes when SciFi ran a marathon.

I like the show. I think it's got weak points, mainly in the characterization and plotting--people do things sometimes just because if they didn't, there wouldn't be much of a story left over. I'm willing to put up with that because the cast is very good, the writing is often funny, and the overarching story is enjoyably sinister.

Some people have compared Heroes to Alan Moore's Watchmen in its plotline, even to the point of saying that the former "borrows" heavily from the latter. In both cases, a cabal/evil genius plots to unite the world in a utopia of fear by destroying New York City with a superhuman bomb/genetically-created monster. It's not implausible that the writers could have picked up the plotline from Moore's work, which is one of the most well-known works in the genre. Maybe they did. I haven't read any interviews, I don't know.

On the other hand, the big elephant in the room for Heroes is September 11, even though the event itself goes conspicuously absent. There's talk of terrorism in New York, but nobody discusses the obvious connection. And the Bush administration may not exist in Heroes, but there's something familiar about the plan to exploit an easily-prevented tragedy for goodwill, only to squander it by turning the country into a terrified fascist state (as the jumps to five years "in the future" demonstrate).

It's obvious that Tim Kring and the other writers tiptoed around the issue a bit. I almost get the feeling that they were unsure whether or not to take the comparison to a more obvious level, or if they're backing away from it. I doubt NBC would be terribly happy if they came outright to say that the show's about Bush's failed war on terror.

But here's the thing: it's almost painful--like, actually cringe-inducing--to watch the writers of Heroes contort and twist to try to avoid 9/11. They're not fooling anyone, except maybe the network, into thinking that this isn't political. The sad thing is that it would be a better show if it just came out and said what it wants to say. Or, even better, if they were really willing to use their fictional platform to explore the issue in a slightly different light.

Superheroes are a fine place to start looking at political issues. That's part of Watchmen's legacy--it was one of the first attempts to critically examine what those caped vigilantes really represent. A superhero isn't a cop, honestly. They're an army. They "fight crime." A policeman "keeps the peace." And there's a very serious difference there, not the least of which is the outlook: a superhero basically exists on the assumption that there are bad people out there that must be stopped, preferably with mind-bullets.

I don't think that Heroes really aspires to explore the issue, but it is worthy of more ambiguity than it credits to itself. It demonstrates sympathy toward some of its villains, and puts its protagonists in awkward situations. It plays with the idea that New York might actually be demolished by its most empathic and good-hearted character.

But the writers don't go quite far enough in either direction. They clearly want us to understand that using the bomb as motivation for the public will lead to disaster. We never believe that the Linderman conspiracy might actually work, or that the world might actually need it. The conspirators are monsters--well-meaning monsters, but still unambiguously so. Between that and the show's touchy relationship with real-life terrorism, it has to walk a middle ground: not playful enough with its premise to be really thought-provoking, but not bold enough with its plotlines to go for the gut. I guess that leaves it at about the lungs, a little conspicuously airy as the first season wraps up.

May 14, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»top_chef

Better Cooking through Chemistry

Fans of molecular gastronomy geek Marcel from season two of Top Chef may enjoy looking through this slideshow of his recipes, including the coffee faux-caviar from the finale. Sadly, they don't actually give any details on the recipe, although you may be able to find those at Bravo's site. I'm still not entirely what's up with the "cyber egg" recipe, though. Is it a shot at Wired's logo? Or did "bullseye egg" just seem too simple?

April 30, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

The Descent

The shorter version of The Descent goes something like this:

Six women have a really bad trip in a cave, and then the C.H.U.D.s show up.

Indeed, there are lots of places where the movie shines: it's well-acted, solidly directed, and written intelligently with a set of strong and interesting female characters--a rarity in horror. But its real strength is that it maintains a constant level of tension and dread for practically the entire film, yet doesn't overstay its welcome. It does this by layering and gradually introducing new stresses, starting with a vague but definite unease between the main characters. Once in the cave, that unease is magnified by the claustrophobic confines and some clever tricks of the light--at times the characters are lit as normal for a film, however unrealistic, but in other cases the frame is almost entirely black, with only a few outlines and bobbing headlamps visible. It's only when the audience gets adjusted to the dangers of spelunking that The Descent introduces deformed cave monsters to the mix. With a running time of less than 100 minutes, there's just enough time to develop the scares, but not enough for "villain fatigue."

All in all, The Descent is one of the best horror movies I've seen in a very long time. It's not particularly original, but it displays a mastery of the genre and pacing that similar niche horror films (including the ridiculous Hills Have Eyes remakes) would do well to study.

April 16, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

The first thing that you take away from This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a genuine distaste for Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America from 1966 to 2004. The documentary's subject is the troubling mechanics and implications of the MPAA's film rating system, particularly the NC-17 rating when applied to sex and violence. Since he created and strongly advocated for the rating system, Valenti--whose swollen visage at times resembles a grandfatherly pumpkin--is featured prominently in archive footage, bookended by examples that directly undercut his words.

The second thing, oddly, is sympathy for the ratings board. The MPAA insists that its raters (all of whom, it says, are parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17) must remain anonymous to do their jobs well, a fact that galls a number of the interviewed filmmakers like Matt Stone and Kevin Smith. In response, director Kirby Dick hires a private detective to track down the raters and manages to find 11 out of twelve. These parts of the film evoke the most mixed feelings, and seem to have been the most controversial. On the one hand, it's genuinely enjoyable to watch the investigator (a middle-aged lesbian named Becky) as she tracks down the raters using a mix of surveillance and social engineering. On the other hand, it does seem like an invasion of privacy. In the end, for me at least, I think the investigative stunt proves worthwhile, because if these raters are supposed to represent "the public" we should be able to see the sample. Unlike other reviewers, I don't think Dick mocks the subjects--he simply uses them to show that they're not who the MPAA says they are: they're older, mostly White, and probably wealthy, with kids that probably long ago left home.

Not Yet Rated is on more solid ground when it discusses the inconsistencies of the ratings board, particularly when it comes to the differences between sex and violence. Put simply, the board is much more tolerant of violence than sex, and it's far more tolerant of heterosexual sex than homosexual pairings or group sex. Dick illustrates the latter by putting scenes with nearly-identical framing and action next to each other, one gay (NC-17) and one straight (R). It's not convincing on its own, but collectively the evidence shows an agency that's increasingly puritanical about the bedroom, but also increasingly permissive when it comes to violence.

The occassional stunts and gimmicks used throughout Not Yet Rated, as have become traditional in pop-culture documentaries, can be hit or miss. But one of the big hits, and the dramatic climax of the film, comes when Dick submits the documentary itself--including its reveal of rater identities--to the MPAA for a rating, receiving an NC-17 (most likely for the clips shown of sex and violence from other, similarly-rated films). Upon appeal, the draconian nature of the entire process is highlighted (and supported by testimony from other filmmakers). Dick is not allowed to refer to other films that have received ratings by way of comparison, nor is he allowed to know the identities of the members of the appeals board (which, we discover, includes two members of clergy). Repeating her performance from the first ratings board, Becky the detective hunts down the appeals board members despite the best efforts of the MPAA. The result is a checklist of distributors, cinema chain VIPs, and studio executives, confirming the industry's control of its own rating system. Needless to say, the appeal is denied, and the current version of the film is unrated.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated provides few solutions for the problem, other than to advocate for a government-run board, which could be appealed through a standard legal suit and would keep public documentation on its process. I feel that it also draws uncomfortable conclusions about the influence of the media on the populace, a debate that has raged practically since Birth of a Nation. Perhaps it's also cynical to wonder if a government board, particularly given this government, would be any better. But the questions raised by the film are nonetheless thought-provoking, and (especially given how movie ratings are often cited as an example by the gaming and other artistic industries) need to be asked.

And for that matter, as with any movie that revels in the backstage intrigues at the edges of family-friendly entertainment, it's a lot of fun to watch.

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