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March 26, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Too Much Confusion

Bear McCreary, the composer for Battlestar Galactica (as well as a number of other shows and movies), has a blog where he explains how he adapted Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" for the season three finale (when it goes into the archive, that entry will be located here). Putting the song into the show was a bizarre--but fascinating--step. Too bad we'll have to wait until January 2008 before we can find out what it means.

McCreary's blog actually features a few other interesting previous entries, especially the ones on the instrumentation he uses, and where he actually breaks apart the small musical themes that are used to score behind each character. Did you know? That irregular, single-note beat that opens the prologue to the show ("The cylons were created by man...") is actually in 9/8 time, and is played on the Javanese gamelan. Now you know.

February 19, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

Jesus Camp

My thoughts on Jesus Camp were definitely influenced by reading Bob Altemeyer's work on authoritarianism this weekend. If you haven't taken the time to flip through Altemyer's work, here's a basic summary: Altemeyer's research shows that a healthy portion of people fit into a psychological category he calls "Right-Wing Authoritarians," and these people display tendencies for submission to authority, compartmentalized thinking, heightened prejudice and clannishness, and a greater feeling of fearfulness. These people tend to be conservative, but it is not impossible to have Left-Wing Authoritarians, as Stalinism showed. Authoritarians also tend to be very religious, which makes sense, seeing as how organized religion often stresses submission to a supernatural authority.

Jesus Camp, in many ways, showcases these behaviors. It's actually the story of a camp in the Midwest called "Kids on Fire" that trains evangelical Christian children in zealotry and preparation for the end times. It may sound biased to say that they're being trained as zealots, but the organizer (who apparently fully endorsed the film) directly compares it to Islamic training camps and suicide warriors. There's a fair amount of martial metaphors on display here, and a lot of talk about culture warfare that sometimes becomes alarmingly literal. They are the "Army of God."

The directors have focused on three individuals: the pastor Becky Fischer and camp participants Levi and Rachael. Fischer comes across as surprisingly charming and humble, which can be disarming considering that she spends a fair amount of time making the kids cry and leading them in glossolalia. Levi is about ten, with a long rat-tail haircut, and he hopes to be a youth pastor, while Rachael is a little younger and almost desparately earnest about her faith. Both children, however, give off the vibe that they're robotically repeating the lines they were given in church, prompting my diversion into authoritarianism. And perhaps what the film does best is show how insular their lives really are: they're homeschooled from creationist textbooks, watch only Christian movies and television (Becky berates them about the witchcraft of Harry Potter), and seem to talk about little other than Jesus. Their parents even come with them to the camp (Belle: "Worst summer camp ever."). The evangelicals wear this isolation from the rest of society as a badge of pride, even the children--in one heartbreaking interview, Rachael admits that the other kids at school have teased her, but protests that it's only God whose judgement really matters to her, and (here I paraphrase but only slightly) it won't matter when her schoolmates are in hell.

Where Jesus Camp misses the mark is when it fails to emphasize the influence and extent of the evangelical population. When reading books about the movement (and Belle likes to give me a hard time about the number that I own), it's made clear that the religious far-right is a real threat to the country. Jesus Camp tries to make this point in guest-segments from an Air America radio host, but he's really pretty limp and unconvincing. Belle wasn't even sure whose side he was on until half an hour into the movie. It's only toward the end, when Fischer calls into his radio show and admits that democracy is really something she'd prefer to replace with Jesus, that the film feels really substantial.

There are a few moments of sardonic amusement to be had with the evangelicals, especially former pastor Ted Haggard, who appears momentarily when Levi visits his Colorado Springs mega-church. Even though Levi may be a little brainwashed, he still shows enough signs of being a normal, likeable ten-year-old that Haggard's dismissal of his pastoral ambitions hits a little close to home. I might not empathize with Levi's dreams of preaching, but we've all be talked down to by an authority or role model. Of course, neither Levi nor the filmmakers knew what we know now: that Pastor Ted was secretly visiting a gay prostitute for sex and meth sessions, a fact that would lead to his fall from power when it was exposed to the world, and which lends some extra frisson to Haggard's jibes. Randall Terry Lou Engel, the fanatic who protested outside of Terry Schiavo's hospital room with "LIFE" taped across the lips of his companions, also makes a cameo appearance to teach the kids about the evils of abortion. Then there's the horrified looks of the other children when one admits to having watched the Harry Potter movies at his father's house. Rebellion, for these kids, is a low bar to clear.

For viewers who are unfamiliar with the evangelical Christian movement, Jesus Camp may be an eye-opener. But perhaps due to the movie and its buzz a few months back, as well as the increased power and profile of religious leaders within the Republican party, I think it's harder to be blissfully unaware of its subjects, even among urban liberals and heathens. I guess I'm trying to say that I was underwhelmed, but less-obsessed audiences might not be. Regardless of your exposure, it can still be fascinating for outsiders to listen to these believers, who clearly desire nothing more than to be puppets driven by the will of God, without individualism or personal choices.

February 14, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»24

Tick

In a more sober tone, he said, "We've had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, 'You don't realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.' They say torture doesn't work. But I don't believe that. I don't think it's honest to say that if someone you love was being held, and you had five minutes to save them, you wouldn't do it. Tell me, what would you do? If someone had one of my children, or my wife, I would hope I'd do it. There is nothing--nothing--I wouldn't do." He went on, "Young interrogators don't need our show. What the human mind can imagine is so much greater than what we show on TV. No one needs us to tell them what to do. It's not like somebody goes, 'Oh, look what they're doing, I'll do that.' Is it?"

That's the creator of 24, Joel Surnow, speaking to the New Yorker. He's responding to criticisms by civil rights lawyers (including the dean of West Point) that 24 has made it harder for the Army to discourage abusive behaviors among recruits, for whom the show provides a compelling "time bomb" scenario of the kind largely dismissed by intelligence experts. Note that Surnow does not technically refute whether or not the experts are right and torture doesn't work. He's more interested in whether or not someone would torture, regardless of efficacy, when placed in a crisis situation. I thought I had a grim outlook on humanity, but combined with Surnow's statement that "young interrogators don't need our show," this is a quote from someone who lives in a pretty harsh internal life.

Before I get into the issue of this, can I mention how writing about these kinds of issues makes a mockery of my home-grown categorization system? Is this in "movies," where I've decided to put the television posts for the flimsiest of reasons? Or is it "politics," due to the outrageously wingnutty content of the show? These are the reasons that my "random" folder has become increasingly cluttered.

But excuse the digression. The point is not that 24 is a bloody show that flaunts its circumvention of the Geneva Convention at every possible opportunity. It's that the program has contributed to a public dialogue where torture has become an actual valid option for policy. That these goalposts have been moved (or, perhaps more accurately, had their fingernails pulled until they revealed the location of the real goalposts) is dismaying. I'm still sometimes shocked by the surrealism of seeing references to "the President's interrogation policy" in newspaper headlines, not to mention Surnow's other comment in the article that he'd like to rehabilitate the image of Joe McCarthy--"an American hero, or maybe someone with a good cause who went too far." Yeah, if anyone could be the ironic spokesman for wrongful accusations, surely Tailgunner Joe tops the list.

But then, to some extent that's already occurred. Anyone covering the extreme political right in this country already knows that the redemption of McCarthyism (as well as the revival of detention camps and other WWII-era outrages) has been a priority--and for their constituency, not unsuccessfully so. To sophisticates and elites--and I mean that in the very nicest sense of the word--Ann Coulter and her book Treason may be a joke, but those books sell. People agree with them. I know several who do. You may as well.

Here's another fun digression: guess who's Surnow's partner in creating a "conservative network" (Bravo with guns instead of gays) that became a right-wing Daily Show pilot, soon to appear on Fox News? None other than Manny Coto, the same writer who apparently rescued Star Trek: Enterprise from mediocrity shortly before it was cancelled. The tiny, dark cloud spotted hovering over NewsCorp's headquarters right now would be the ashes of Gene Roddenberry, attempting to spin in their orbital grave.

I don't really have a solution to 24's torture problem. I'm not sure we can. If you're going to be in favor of free speech, you can't limit it just because the speech isn't something you'd want to say yourself, or because you think it's a bad influence. I can't condemn 24 outright without taking part in the same demonization campaign of groups like Brent Bozell's Media Research Center (Motto: "Counting penis jokes and semi-exposed breasts since 1987"). But I think it's unfortunate. I'd like for people to talk about how torture, even fictionalized torture, makes them feel, and whether they think that's healthy. But my most considered impulse is largely pity for the writers: to sit in a small room, week after week, being paid to create new and fresh ways to inflict physical pain on hero and villain alike, does not sound particularly fun or sustainable to me. It sounds worse than watching it, frankly. I wonder if Surnow would have made such a grim statement as the quote above in 2001, before producing 24 for six years.

February 7, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

Cronicas

Ultimately a disturbing film, Cronicas wavers between unsettling ambiguity combined with blatant and unsubtle plot points. It's a story about tabloid journalism set in Latin America, although that shouldn't limit its impact only to Telemundo. John Leguizamo plays a TV reporter, accompanied by a producer and a cameraman, tracking a serial killer and pedophile in the village of Babahoyo. The reporter zeroes in on an imprisoned man that he suspects may be the killer, but a confession is slow to come. Meanwhile, the team sends footage back to their program that triumphs the suspect as wrongfully imprisoned for hitting a child with his truck--footage that obviously conflicts with the other narrative that they're simultaneously developing.

Cronicas eventually lets us know which story is the truth, and a great amount of its suspense comes from figuring out which will actually air. The director, Sebastian Cordero, wants us to understand that these two factors, truthfulness and exposure, are not inextricably linked in the minds of these journalists, although they may posture to the contrary. I'm not saying that this isn't a good point, or that Cordero doesn't leave the audience uncomfortable. I think the confusion comes from the suspected killer, played with a damp madness by Damien Alcazar, whose performance is genuinely creepy but who doesn't leave the audience with much doubt as to his innocence or guilt. This may be a weakness in the writing, which sets up this question as the primary dilemma of the film, and as a result the crisis of journalistic ethics basically sneaks up on viewers. For some reviewers, this has been interpreted as the movie falling apart, but for me it's really the moment where it congealed from a Latin Primal Fear into something more interesting.

As a side note, it's surprising (to me at least) to see Leguizamo carry off a leading role. Previously, I'd mainly thought of him as a character actor or comic relief (his unfortunate turn in Spawn, for example). It's not accurate to say that here he boasts "star power," but he's certainly believable as a reporter who's chasing the spotlight as much as the truth. It's an understated performance, which is not something I thought I'd ever say about this actor.

January 30, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»galactica

Galactica Season Three Gag Reel

First Draft included this in Athenae's weekly Galactica post. Since it has spoilers in it, I can't watch it for another couple months, so I'm saving it here.

January 22, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

Rayne O'er Me

In which I liveblog Bloodrayne. It's Uwe Boll: how bad can it be?

Elapsed TimeNotes
0:00 The movie opens with a series of faux-Renaissance frescoes, depicting the characters in the movie. I would love to have been the guy who got to photoshop Ben Kingsley into a fresco.
0:01 Hey, it says that Meat Loaf's in this! But his last name's credited as "Aday." Is that really his real name? Or is it a joke, like "A meat loaf aday keeps something at bay?" These are deep thoughts.
0:06 Kristanna Lokken as the half-vampire is being used as a freakshow attraction. They make her drink lamb's blood. It gives her a blood mustache, like a very morbid "Got Milk?" commercial.
0:08 I was hoping that Ben Kingsley being in this movie was just a sick joke, but there he is in white pancake makeup and a get-me-out-of-here-please lack of emotion. He's the only person in this movie with an actual accent, even though it's set in Europe during the 1600's. If I pretend not to know that fact, it's like I'm watching the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
0:12 I'll say this: Boll must have hired a decent DP for this. It's much more competently shot than House of the Dead. But he still can't direct actors, and he's emphasized that fact by hiring the least expressive actors he could find. Putting Michael Madsen and Michelle Rodriguez together in a scene is like watching the animatronic Presidents at Disneyland perform standup, except the robots are more charismatic.
0:22 Boll keeps doing these low establishing shots. I guess they're supposed to look very slick, but it's more like he's hired midgets to do his steadycam work.
0:31 There are movies based on videogames, and then there's this movie, which follows gaming logic to its disastrous end. Rayne sneaks into the basement of a monastary to steal something for some ridiculous reason, sees a sleeping guard wearing a cross, and then spies a cross-shaped hole in the wall. A normal person would think that maybe those both have to do with the monestary decorating motif, what with it being a religious institution and all. But Rayne knows that it's actually a lock for a secret passage. It's embarrassing that she leaps to this conclusion, and even stupider when she turns out to be right.
0:34 At some point my TiVo is going to catch up with realtime, and I'm going to have to watch those terrible Galactica promos with the emo rock. The exec who okay'd that must have been the same guy who decided to run Bloodrayne as a Saturday night movie. On the other hand, I'm actually watching it. Touche, tasteless NBC producers. Touche.
0:46 Meatloaf's not phoning it in. I respect that.
0:54 If I were a vampire, I don't think I'd put stained glass windows in my bloodsucking orgy lair. I also wouldn't let Michael Madsen and some generic minion just walk right in, swords drawn. But that's just me. Still, the movie does seem to prove my instincts correct.
1:08 Oh, look! Michelle Rodriguez is angry! That's different. And now for a training montage. I love a good training montage. Remember in Army of Darkness, when Ash trains the townspeople to fight with spears, all in unison? And then later on, when they face the skeleton warriors, they do the exact same moves, like it's a synchronized dance routine? That was awesome. I wish I was watching that movie instead.
1:24 All of the swords in this movie look like they were just cut from sheets of aluminum. They don't have any edge at all. It looks really silly, like they're fighting with large butter knives. I'm reminded of this because the characters have gone to some blacksmith to get weapons. He's also got holy water just sitting around on the shelves. I wonder if holy water has a sell-by date. I'd hate to use it on the undead, only to find out that it'd gone bad.
1:30 Rayne gives her cross medallion to Madsen's generic assistant as protection. Did anyone ever explain if other holy artifacts also work on vampires, or is it just the cross? In Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the protagonist figures that the aversion to crosses is some sort of bizarre superstitious reflex left over from life, caused by self-loathing. The Jewish vampire is repelled by the Torah. Does that mean that atheist vampires are repelled by science textbooks and biohazard symbols? So much for Cobb County.
1:40 Every time someone gets on horseback in this movie, suddenly we get lots of helicopter shots. It's like Boll watched Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and thought "Hey, I could do that."
1:43 Why doesn't anyone in this script use contractions? Is that supposed to make them seem like thespians? I'm going to have to try that sometime. "I think I will walk the dog," I'll say. I feel more dramatic already.

Also: thespian? I don't remember dating within my gender.

1:51 Last fight scene between Kristanna Lokken and Ben Kingsley. I can't believe I just wrote that. Why did he agree to this? He was Ghandi! Ghandi! I'm at a loss for words, frankly.
1:58 It's over! It didn't make any sense, but it's over. Looking back, it could have been worse. I mean, yes, the dialog, plot, special effects, acting, and set design were all terrible. But some of the camerawork wasn't too bad. If Boll is set on the subject matter, maybe he could just direct video game commercials instead of movies. But then, there's probably no tax loophole in that.

January 18, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»star_trek

The Wrath of Retcon

When Enterprise started syndication on the Sci Fi channel, I figured I'd give it a shot. The idea of a prequel to the original Star Trek is interesting, even if I have reservations about anything starring Scott Bakula.

I doubt it'll stay on my TiVo watchlist for long, and I don't really want to discuss that at length here. What really struck me are the production elements and the scenery. When Star Trek moved from the original show to the Next Generation, it signalled a shift in the "future" as seen from the 1970's to a sleeker, information-age future. The blocky consoles and blinking light bulbs were replaced with smooth curves of plastic and touch-displays. The show's underlying premise underwent a similar revision, covering the original swashbuckling with a thick coat of liberal humanism (although regressive elements still lurked under the surface). While those changes make TNG superficially easier to watch for an audience that's used to slick special effects, I think it's going to age more poorly than it's first incarnation.

Enterprise casts itself in the mold of TNG in a lot of ways. The design of the ship, the sets, and the writing largely evoke the same polish, ergonomics, and mindset, respectively. I don't really care about what that does to continuity, since I shed any pretense of being a fan around the time when DS9 hit its peak. But I think it would have been more fun to watch a show that took its inspiration from Kirk instead of Picard. This doesn't just include the big, bulky technology that somehow has slimmed down and networked itself in Enterprise, although I think it would have been cool to see the old flip-top, satchel-shaped tricorders and square bridge panels again (Matt Jeffries, the original set and prop designer, reportedly said that subsequent entries to the franchise turned his bridge into "the lobby of a Hilton." He wasn't all wrong, either).

But more than that, there's a kind of sexiness to the first Star Trek that was neutered when Roddenberry revived his show in the 90's. Subsequent shows flirted with the idea, pardon the pun, but they were never allowed to be as blatant as the original. Catch a rerun sometime, and you can see why a million disturbing fan-fics have been written about it. Flared pants and calf-high leather boots, with tight-fitting tunics and gold trim? Starfleet had style, man--a markedly 1966-69 kind of style, sure, but it was there. Not to mention the ridiculous miniskirt uniforms, and Kirk's habit of either bedding any lifeform that moves, having his tunic ripped to shreds, or both. Whether you think it was great cinema or not (it wasn't), Star Trek was fun to watch.

Maybe the solution would have been to give Enterprise a much lower budget. After all, it's comforting to know that the technology for creating "ice or rocky planet #364" has remained relatively stable for the last twenty years. When push comes to shove, apparently nothing satisfies like styrofoam rocks and speckle-painted canvas wrapped around irregular shapes.

January 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»commentary»classic

La Jetee

Warren Ellis found the classic French film, La Jetee, on Google Video. If you've seen 12 Monkeys, you'll recognize parts of the plot and some design elements, since Gilliam's film was basically a remake. I'd never seen the original before. Ironically, the use of relatively banal still images juxtaposed with matter-of-factly surreal narration makes the film seem older than it actually is (1962), but also makes it ideally-suited for low bandwidth online video.

January 16, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»star_trek

To Boldly Go

"The Future was Funky." Exactly.

December 22, 2006

Filed under: movies»television»firefly

Since I Found Serenity

Shorter Firefly:

Remember Cowboy Bebop? That was pretty awesome.

I'm only three episodes in again, and I certainly do plan on watching the rest, but look: we've seen these characters and plots before. The dialog's clever, I'll give it that, when they're not dropping badly-accented Mandarin into the conversation and killing my suspension of disbelief. But between said Mandarin, the forced western setting, and the echoes of Confederate sympathy, I just don't get the appeal here.

I guess I'm spoiled by Galactica, I never watched Buffy, and there was a dearth of good sci-fi on TV at the time. Those three would explain a lot. If this were on TV now, I might watch it. I'm just confused by the enthusiasm people have shown.

Future - Present - Past