Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jericho Season 2

Jericho Season 2
Tuesday, 10:00 p.m. EST
starring: Skeet Ulrich, Ashley Scott, Kenneth
Mitchell, Brad Beyer, Alicia Coppola, Michael Gaston, Sprague Grayden, Esai Morales

You know, I’m always behind a fan-led rebellion against the corporate America that cancels a TV show. And when that campaign actually works? Awesome. Fans saved Jericho by sending tons and tons of nuts to CBS corporate offices, leading them to renew the show for seven episodes to, at least, wrap up the story. Go fans! However, sometimes when this happens, the show you’ve saved is Jericho. And that’s not always a good thing.

Jericho started off weakly last season. I mean, for a show about a nuclear attack that destroys the U.S., leaving a small Kansas town to fend for itself against enemies internal and external, it was astonishingly meh. The set up was fantastic. I loves me a good apocalypse story, and by focusing on the little people just trying to survive and make their way in a brand new world … what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, they cast Skeet Ulrich as the lead character. Now, it's not that he’s spectacularly bad, he’s just … kind of there. No personality. Charisma-free, if you will. But not so charisma free that, Keanu-like, it actually goes out the other side and becomes actual charisma. Then, they saddled this prodigal-son character type with a ridiculous back-story involving the middle-east, an obvious Blackwater stand-in, and a sad-sack partner he helped get killed. Yawn. And let’s not even get into Lennie James as Robert “I was a cop in St. Louis” Hawkins.

The single worst move they made, however, was framing the main character’s romantic prospects around so-charisma-free-she-comes-keanu-like-out-the-other-side-and-then-dives-back-in-to-sucking again Ashley Scott character. Instant hate by almost everyone. It was so bad that when Ulrich had more obvious chemistry with Sprague Grayden’s Heather they made a ridiculous move to take her off-screen as if we would be so desparate for romance we would accept Ulrich and Scott together at the end of the season. It’s basically Smallville’s Lana problem.

But anyway, toward the end of the season actual plot developed, and the show allowed some characters with actual personality to assume center stage (Hi, Stanley and Mimi) and killed off some of the more annoying (you are not missed, April). Unfortunately, Ashley Scott’s Emily is still alive. They all but redeemed themselves when, as one of the final images of Season One, they showed us Heather looking at a new flag of the Country, promising intrigue to come.

So, Season Two is finally here, and I still have a burning question: shouldn’t the apocalypse be more exciting than this?

What works: There are nuggets here of the potential the series has always shown. The plot is moving along as we’re getting more information about the new nation forming out of the west. The series seems to be taking on more of an epic feel. This could be both good and bad.

The addition of Esai Morales as the military leader is promising, as is the attention paid to Stanley and Mimi. And the first episode feature Heather in a prominent role which seems like it will be important later. There are a lot of pieces here that could really work.

What doesn’t: We still have Emily around. And Ulrich is still our lead. Heather is absent from the second episode, which is not promising at all. I can’t even be intrigued anymore when Hawkins talks about the bomb he has in his basement. We’re supposed to take as fact that this new government is eeeevil when we’re shown no eamples of them being, actually, evil. Misguided and heavy-handed? Sure? Shifty? You bet? They have apparently commisioned some evile tetbooks, and they are getting ready to re-write the constitution. These things are defenitely not good, but if they’re the big bad, they’re not there yet. So, once again… the apocalypse = boring. That shit is not right.

Bottom line: I’ll watch this season, and post here if it gets better, but for now … yes, the apocalypse really should be more exciting than this.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Paramount Pictures, PG

written by: Holly Black, Tony Diterlizzi, Karey Kirkpatrick
directed by: Mark Waters

When you’re the parent of a third-grader with ADHD you come to appreciate books like The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black. Because of the attention issues, she has to read a lot just to maintain herself at grade level. And at the third grade level (especially when you have to read book that have special “AR tests,” the selection can be a little disappointing. And since we end up reading a lot of them together, I love it when we find a series of books that doesn’t bore me as well as her. She’s not ready for Harry Potter yet, so The Spiderwick Chronicles was a godsend (Thanks, Mrs. Evans for suggesting them!). They’re well-written, the characters are interesting and conflicted, and the adults, while clueless for part of the plot, do NOT act like idiots just so the kids heroes can be … well, kid heroes. Plus, as the father of a daughter, I appreciate it when we run across girl heroes that exhibit brains and brawn, and you’d have a hard time finding a better girl hero than Mallory Grace (but more on that later). Actually, you’d have a hard time finding a better hero than Mallory Grace, regardless of gender. That’s refreshing.

My son, also, fell in love with story. He can’t read yet, but he loved the pictures, and would sit while we read aloud. When he first started seeing commercials for this movies, he was probably the most excited of all of us. I was a little afraid, actually. Most of the time movies get these things wrong. I know things need to change. For a five-book series, plot must be compressed to fit into a two-hour movie. The Bridge to Terabithia and the Harry Potter movies mostly got these things right. The Seeker (from the Dark is Rising Books) pissed all over the concept and made a lot of fans really mad. Where would Spiderwick fall on this line?

What works: Nearly everything. This is a great film, not just a great kids movie. If you like kids adventure films (by that I mean adventure films with kids as the main characters. Think Goonies) you’ll love this movie. It’s genuinely scary in places, the danger is real, and the kids come to life almost directly from the pages of the book. I was a little worried when I saw that Freddy Highmore had been cast as the Grace twins. The kid is very British and these kids are very American and, frankly, Highmore seems almost like a lazy casting choice since he’s played a lot of major kid roles lately. What I forgot was that he gets these parts because he’s good. With one exception, his performance was flawless. The two characters he plays seem like two separate people. I found myself believing they’d discovered a heretofore unknown Highmore twin. The best performance, though, was by Irish actress Sarah Bolger as Mallory. She was perfect. Sarcastic, smart, and gutsy. The greatest moment in the movie was when she was whacking at invisible (to her, anyway) goblins and her brother throws her the stone ring that will allow her to see. The cinematography there was gorgeous, the moment perfect. I would even say that I liked Bolger’s Mallory even more than Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger. Yes, I said it. It’s probably the sword.

The CGI is pretty good. There are just a very few moments when you are really aware of the fact that it is, indeed CGI. Most of there involve the Griffin. What is does well is make what is essentially a collection of dandelion fluff seem actually scary. The characters that are mostly CGI, like the villain, Mulgarath, and Hogsqueal, interact well with the human players.

This was a series of books with a lot of heart, about a family in crisis trying to find a way to stick together as they put together a new life for themselves. That remains the core of this movie.

What doesn’t: I am someone who appreciates movies who have great, iconic scores. This could have been one of them, but the score, by the usually excellent James Horner, just seems kind of bland. It provides atmosphere, but there is no real memorable moment here. And my one complaint about Highmore … he does affect an American accent pretty well, but there are times that it seems like just that. An affected accent. I got used to it. Bolger has no such problems.

Bottom line: This is a wonderful film I’m sure we’ll be getting on DVD the day it comes out. Much, much better than recent films like The Golden Compass and The Seeker. Plus, it’s got the trailer for the new Indiana Jones movie at the beginning, so you really can’t lose.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

newuniversal: Everything went White

newuniversal: Everything went White

by Warren Ellis and Salvador Larocca

Marvel Comics $19.99

I was thirteen years old in 1986, when Marvel Comics decided to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary by creating an entire new Universe. Seriously, that’s what they called it, The New Universe, and it was designed to be the world outside you window. But a world that suddenly, had people developing super-powers (not necessarily outside your window, but you get the point). Sound like a familiar concept? It’s almost the exact concept of the tv series heroes, done twenty years (and, some would say, more creatively successfully) earlier. The New Universe was not destined for long-termed success. The first batch of titles was cancelled a year in. The rest made it another year and a half, but most people agreed there were some damn good stories in their, told by creators at the top of their game. And it was a world, refreshingly, with no reset button. When the most actual “super-heroic” of the characters accidentally blew up his home town of Pittsburg (not to mention himself), no one came along and fixed it. Instead, the event propelled the New Univers into a war between governments using civilian, super-powered, pawns. It really did see the situation to a believable (if not a very satisfying) conclusion.
So, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this event, in 2006 Marvel assigned brilliant, gonzo writer of conceptual and super-heroic science fiction, Warren Ellis, to reboot the property. To assist, they gave him the services of fan favorite artist Salvador LaRocca. Instead of an entire line of inter-related titles, the New Universe was reborn as one book, newuniversal, and the entire story will be told in one title. The first story arc has been collected as the hardcover Everything Went White.

Story: As he usually does, Warren Ellis has delivered in rethinking the concept of the New Universe. In the original version, there was an explosion in the sky of white light, which gave a couple of hundred people world-wide super-powers. In this new version, Ellis has re-thought what that “white event” was and come up with an explanation that has real implications for the future of the planet, tying it in with quantum mechanics and multiple-worlds theories. Ellis loves his gonzo science (as do I) and this provides a layer to the story that was absent in the original. He also culls the cast down a bit too. There are four super-humans the white event has awakened, and each has his or her own specific purpose.

As usual, Ellis creates interesting, believable characters and writes dialogue that accomplishes expositional tasks but also sounds like something that people would actually say, peppered with humor and pathos throughout. He avoids using some of his stock characters (no chain-smoking, sarcastic, bitter Brit investigator here. yet.) This first volume doesn’t delve as deeply into character as some would like, but this is clearly a story working off of the EVENT structure, and that takes precedence. There are some nice bits, though.

This is but the first volume, and as such, the ending is a little weak. It does not so much end as it does stop. This would not be so alarming except that Ellis and Marvel been coy about when and where the story will continue. It has been announced that the series will return early in 2008, but so far it has not yet appeared. I am invested enough in the story at this point that I almost want to seek out the actual issues as they come out. (Don’t worry honey, I know that’s how it all starts …)

Art: Salvador Larroca’s work is gorgeous here. In some places it is almost photo-realistic. It succeeds in being both a fantastic place and “the world outside your window.” His character work is particularly strong. But there is one thing about the piece that some people will find distracting, at that’s his obvious modeling of certain characters on famous people, at least in their appearance. Basically, we have Josh Hollaway (Sawyer from Lost) as Oklahoma football player Ken Connell; A red-haired, green-eyed Angelina Jolie as robotics expert Jenny Swann; Johnyy Depp (circa his Ninth Gate days) as historian Len Carson; James Cromwell as government agent Phillip Voight; and, bizarrely, some weird hybrid of Hillary Clinton and Dr. Laura as the president. This practice of “spot the reference” can distract a little from the story. Some people like it, others don’t. I’m on the fence.

Bottom line: A promising start to a great story. I just hope it continues. It certainly does more with the concept than Heroes ever thought of doing.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Torchwood Season 2

BBC America Saturdays 9:00 e.s.t.
starring: John Barrowman, Eve Miles, Burn Gorman, Naoko Mori, Gareth David-Lloyd
Whenever I saw the name Torchwood on my DVR’s now playing list last fall, it would be an immediate watch now. You know how it is, there are some shows you are excited about, but might save until a few episodes pile up to enjoy in one sitting. Lost is like that for me. Others, you give a little “ugh” and watch because you’ve already gotten involved in a series, but at a certain point it becomes a chore before you man up and just delete the damn thing for your season pass list. Others, you sit and watch immediately because you just can’t wait. Sometimes, these are the very shows you’re embarrassed to admit you watch. Such was the case with me and Torchwood.

Let me be clear, I loved this show. It’s basically a british version of the X-files, centering around a team assembled and led by a Doctor Who supporting character, the immortal time agent Captain Jack Harkness. They investigate the weird and the secret, the occult and the just plain wrong, and they think they do it with panache and style (your mileage may vary). In its first season, Torchwood worked better as an idea of a tv show that it did as an actual tv show. The episodes were wildly uneven in quality with some of them, like Small Worlds, which reimagined a fairly malevolent fairy mythology and They Keep killing Suzie, which played with the unfortunate consequences of a resurrection on the higher end of the quality spectrum and others, like Cyberwoman and Combat taking genre tropes and stringing them in Christmas lights. The season ended on a mixed note, with the team fighting a breakdown of the time/space vortex in Cardiff and a abysmally literal interpretation of the devil coming to town to make trouble.

The main problem the show had was that it thought it was groundbreaking, and kept reminding of us how groundbreaking it was, especially in the area of sexuality. It’s creators nonchalantly threw out comments like “Oh, everyone’s bi on Torchwood” and every single character had a same-sex encounter, even if it was only hinted at. All this is fine, and it would be a progressive approach to the issue is some of it didn’t come across so gimmicky, so “oh, look what we’re getting away with now,” that it actually cheapened the issue.

Still, I loved every minute of it. What can I say, some shows just push the right buttons.

Season two just started on BBC America. The first two episodes added Buffy alum James Marsters to the supporting cast as a rogue time agent who once had a relationship with Captain Jack. The second started what looked to be a season-long arc about a secret alien invasion, which could have ended up like the worst of the obtuse X-Files mysteries but actually developed the plot while leaving it open for more.

What works: These first two episodes are on par with the strongest episodes of Season one. Of the two, I preferred the second, in its paranoia-inducing concept of finding out that you are not who you think you are. The first, with Marsters, would have been a disaster if not for Marsters’ performace, as it’s basically a macguffin hunt that turns out, predictably, to have been an exercise in misdirection. The actors seem to have settled in, the writing is more assured. The show seems to have found its tone, combining camp and suspense, in a way that it rarely did in season one. The characters seem more natural too. When Captain Jack and Captain Jon hart make out while busting apart a Cardiff bar, it actually seems character driven, and not just a stunt.

What doesn’t: I’m still not a great fan of Burn Gorman’s Dr. Owen Harper, and Eve Miles’ Gwen grates at times, as does her boyfriend, who I’d really hoped was dead during the finale. The villains are stronger as well, but this is still Torchwod’s weakest aspect.

Bottom line: Better than it was, but still by no means perfect. Still, I probably love it more because of its imperfections.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Big Boned by Meg Cabot

Big Boned by Meg Cabot
Avooks. $13.95

I don’t know how to put this, really, but I sort of accidentally fell in love with a chick-lit book series. Seriously, I didn’t mean for it to happen. I picked up the first book Size 12 is not Fat for my wife for Christmas last year (we have a longstanding habit of making books a significant part of our Christmas purchases for each other. What?) because she loves mysteries, had just come off a Patricia Cornwell binge and was looking for something a little lighter to read. I saw this, read the back cover description, which entailed a plus size former teen pop star solving mysteries at a dorm in New York and thought “hey, this might work for her.” I didn’t even mention her Spice Girls obsession.
So, she read it a loved it and couldn’t stop cackling while she read it. It was intrigued. She said I’d probably enjoy it but understood if I wasn’t secure enough to be seen reading it. That was a challenge, so I read it too. And fell in love.

The premise is this: Heather Wells was a teen pop sensation who lost her recording contract because she insisted she be allowed to write her own songs. She also gained a bit of weight after her stage days, and her fiancĂ©e, another teen pop sensation and son of the record company’s owner, broke up with her. She entered a spiral of depression but got her life back together, decided to go back to school, took a job as an assistant residence director of a dorm, and moved in with her former fiancee’s hunky private eye brother, purely as his roommate. Yes, of course, she’s secretly in love with him.

Along the way, she starts solving mysteries, because the dorm she works at is nicknamed “death dorm” because of the number of people who tend to die in unfortunate ways. Big Boned is the third, and for now final, book in the series. In it, Heather has to solve the murder of her boss (the position of Heather’s boss is a little like this series version of Harry Potter’s defense against the dark arts teacher), a man no one liked, finds herself on the list of suspects, and has to navigate her way through a student labor strike. Also, decide how she wants to respond to the question her new boyfriend, a vegan, fitness-obsessed math processor, wants to ask her.

What works: As in the other book in the series, its strongest aspect is character and dialogue. That’s what makes these books so enjoyable. Heather is snarky, funny, and very relatable, even to someone like me who could only be more outside the target audience if I was a marine or a lumberjack (I’m neither, by the way). And anyone who’s ever worked in an organization that’s gone over to a management fad will find a lot to laugh at here. Some earlier characters come back here and become more important, and several relationships change and/or are deepened in some way. The ending is a great payoff for some of the “shippers” in the audience, but I don’t want to be any less cryptic than that.

What doesn’t: Well, it’s not the kind of book that either elevates or transcends it genre. It’s a light chick-lit mystery and it’s not trying to be anything but. The mystery plots of these books also tend to be sort of afterthoughts, so hard-core mystery lovers are not going to be satisfied.

Bottom line: Like I said, it’s a lot of fun, especially if you need a break between heavier books. And if you can dislike Heather Wells as a character, I probably don’t want to know you (see also: Ugly Betty).