February 03, 2006
Must see TV
I don't watch much TV. (Correction: I watch a lot of CNBC (usually with the sound off) and generally try to catch Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume while at the gym, but that is pretty much it.) I also don't have Tivo or Time Warner Cable's version of it, so no time shifting and commercial skipping for me. However, I recently discovered the joys of watching TV shows on DVD, and surprisingly (at least to me) found some interesting original stuff to watch. (Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds, who can usually be relied upon to point to interesting things to read and watch.)
Wonderfalls is a deliciously quirky comedy series about a Gen Y slacker with an Ivy League degree who lives in a trailer park in Niagara Falls and works in tourist gift shop, confounding and embarrassing her conventional upper middle class family. This premise doesn't seem very interesting until Jaye (played by Caroline Dhavernas) begins to hear animal figurines talking to her. Not just idle chatter, either; these critters give Jaye insistent -- but maddeningly cryptic -- advice or commands. When Jaye acts on these instructions, well, curious things happen. Here is what Amazon's Mark Englehart had to say about it:
Wonderfalls is probably the most hilarious show you've never seen. An hour-long "dramedy" about a young woman who hears the voices of inanimate objects--which instruct her to help out total strangers--the show aired on Fox in early 2004 to critical acclaim and dismal ratings. After airing four times in terrible time slots, the show was quickly canceled, but not before a hue and cry from a small but fervently devoted cadre of fans went up, begging for all 13 episodes to be released on DVD. Thus, the highest-profile DVD release of a canceled show was born, and the nine unaired episodes of Wonderfalls are finally seeing the light of day.
In spite of its made-for-TV pedigree, the show is both un-stupid and funny. Even the kids liked it, though some episodes do feature "adult themes." Check it out.
Another very watchable, Fox Network reject is Firefly. This 2002 show follows life aboard the interstellar equivalent of a tramp freighter, roaming the galaxy in search of ways to make a quick buck. The recent film Serenity (also worth watching) was based upon this television series, and includes most of the original cast.
Firefly was made by Josh Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and features surprisingly good production values and special effects for such a low-budget production. Like Wonderfalls, this series was also cancelled before all the eposides made were aired. Only eleven of the shows were broadcast, in spite of decent reviews. The show's theme is a mix between the original Harrison Ford loveable smuggler/outlaw from Star Wars and a libertarian take on an American Western. (In spite of having the technology for faster-than-lightspeed travel, the characters appear to use modern day firearm technology and wear cowboy-style six shooters on their hips. Maybe the budget didn't extend to ray guns.)
It's interesting to watch these shows on DVD, where the TV segment pacing (with suspenseful scene endings before each commercial break) is glaringly obvious. These segues pleasantly remind you that there are no commercials to skip over. The cast is excellent, and even includes Jewel Staite, the actress who played the ex-wife of Jaye's love interest in Wonderfalls.
There is a limit to how many of these you want to watch over a short period of time, but the series is well worth the price.
July 18, 2005
A Lesson From LondonThe BBC, stepping up to the challenge of finding new ways of using the internet to enhance its coverage, ran an excellent personal journal by "Rachel", a survivor of the London tube bombings. Below is an excerpt from her final journal entry, which I found quite inspiring:
So, the diary ends as it begins, crowded shoulder to shoulder next to other Londoners.
I am at the vigil in Trafalgar Square. This time, sun beats down and we stand in the open air, listening to speeches and poems from the Mayor, clerics and religious leaders, union representatives, TV personalities and news-casters, and most movingly, the train driver of Edgware Road.
We are told how we are united, how we are unbeatable, how we will rise. We are urged to be strong, to show tolerance, and to love and respect each other. Tears fall.
The diary began in a crowded carriage, crammed with people, with an act of murderous barbarity.
With a bang, smoke, shock and fear.
Yet almost immediately, even in the choking darkness, in the almost-animal panic, we remembered our humanity, that we were human beings. We stood up, we comforted each other, we held hands, and if we could, we led and carried each other to safety.
The selfish need to claw and fight for survival, to stampede, to free ourselves at all cost did not win; instead, the learned behaviour of city dwellers, who must live in close proximity with strangers took over.
And that has been the message of the week. We are a civilised society; we live closely and socially in crowded cities. We do not always agree, often we do not talk to each other or look at each other in the face.
Londoners are often accused of haughtiness and coolness. But this week we felt what it is like to come together as a city.
Here is a link to her entries in chronological order.
Rachel's dignified humanity in the face of fear reminded me of why I found Spielberg's War of the Worlds so offensive. Rather than using his talent and the scores of millions of dollars spent making his film to teach people how to act in extremity, he chose to glorify every-man-for-themselves nihilism. Sadly, after his work on films like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (or as Executive Producer of the HBO series Band of Brothers), I had expected better of him.
July 09, 2005
What if they had a War of the Worlds and nobody came?
Hating horse shows, I took refuge in a local movie theater this afternoon and saw War of the Worlds. It was a terrible movie, in spite of the incredible special effects and the many opportunities for it have been an uplifting experience. The humans in the film are stupid, selfish, and unlikeable. They behave badly enough that you are almost tempted to root for the aliens, but they are sufficiently ugly and evil to make this unsatisfying. In the end, I found myself just wishing that the movie was over so that I could leave.
Tim Robbins (whom I loathe) actually gave a decent performance. Cruise was his usual utterly insane self, and no more believable in this film than he was on Oprah protesting his undying love for Katie.
Do yourself a favor and stay home.
June 17, 2005
Earlier this week, I received my free copy of The Last Best Chance, the nuclear terrorism docudrama made by the group Nuclear Threat Initiative. The film is quite well made and realistic. It stars former Senator Fred Thompson as the President, and he gives a credible performance in the role. The story follows several redundant Al Queda plots to obtain nuclear materials and bomb-making know-how from under-paid former Soviet nuclear engineers and a rogue South African scientist. In spite of the best efforts of Russian and US intelligence services, the terrorists succeed in building two crude, Hiroshima-type nuclear weapons and smuggling them into the US. While the movie ends before either bomb detonates, it is clear that scores of thousands of Americans would die if either weapon were set off in a major city.
Unfortunately, the plot is all too believable. The point the film's makers want to drive home is that we are moving way too slowly to fully secure the world's hundreds of nuclear sites where terrorists can seek to obtain bomb making materials. While border security and port inspection is all well and good, it is simply unrealistic to rely on these efforts to adequately protect us from terrorist attack.
The film is definitely worth watching, and you can request that a free copy of the DVD be mailed to you at the NTI's web site.
One point the film (understandably) does not address is the impact the war on terror is having on Al Queda and their ability to quietly plot mass murder. While Al Queda and its allies are still dangerous, it seems likely that the war in Iraq and the continued worldwide push to find and eliminate these murderous fanatics have seriously attrited their operational capabilities. In addition, the diversion of volunteers, leadership and financial resources to supporting the insurgency in Iraq has probably reduced the resources available to support complex, long lead time operations against the US. This is fortunate, because without our military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere bringing the fight to Al Queda and its Islamist allies, odds are that we would have heard from these bastards again by now.
June 15, 2005
Cineaste sans license
I've seen a couple of interesting films recently that are worth noting:
Hells Angels: Howard Hughes' 1930 epic, the most expensive film ever made at the time. If you've seen the recent blockbuster, The Aviator, you know the story of how the film was made. It is actually pretty good, even by contemporary entertainment standards. In addition, Jean Harlow is pretty hot as the love interest. It's worth watching, if only as an interesting historical artifact. Plus it's cheap: you can buy the DVD from Walmart.com for only $10.13.
Back to the Future: the Ivan Vasilievich 1973 USSR relic. This bizarre, Soviet era film is a comedy about a Russian scientist nerd who develops a time machine in his Moscow apartment. Firmly rooted in the 1970s, the film reflects the "wild and crazy guy" esthetic epitomized by late 1960s American sitcom "Love, American Style." Eventually, a charming, roguish, striving burgler and the officious, obnoxious, block political leader are sent back in time to the era of Ivan the Terrible. Of course, hilarious hijinks ensue. It's a very odd, very period, and somewhat amusing. You won't want to watch it twice, but it's worth renting.