Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Star Trek: Insurrection"

-directed by jonathan frakes
ANIJ: I wonder if you're aware of the trust you engender, Jean-Luc Picard. In my experience it's rare-
PICARD: For an off-worlder.
ANIJ: For one so young.
The most overlooked film in the STAR TREK canon...and the only one which makes me cry. Well-received by fans, but generally considered "too much like a TV episode". I find this criticism suspect. Is a fine television show inherently less entertaining than a fine film? No. INSURRECTION will age much better than your basic blockbuster-of-the-moment (i'm looking at you, abrams). It's adventurous, thought-provoking, and the only film that rivals STAR TREK IV for humor. You could argue that it's less accessible to non-fans...but at what point is a franchise allowed to stop catering to the uninitiated? Should the biggest TV/movie franchise ever, be afraid of giving fans what they want? If your goal is to break the box office bank each time, you've perhaps lost sight of the bigger "picture". And in what universe is a $58,000,000 film that "only" grosses $119,000,000 cause for dumping a director? The helmer in question was franchise star jonathan frakes. I defy you to name any other TREK director who has a higher percentage of four-star success. Okay, nick meyer. But the gap between frakes and #3 is a chasm.
Enterprise uncovers a Federation-complicit plot to remove an alien culture from their home world. Picard and crew disobey orders, to step in and fight a genocidal maniac (the sublime f. murray abraham - AMADEUS, THE NAME OF THE ROSE). Equally exquisite is Broadway star donna murphy (WHAT ABOUT JOAN, THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR) as anij, a ba'ku who falls into romance with picard. Their scenes are breathtaking. Her line about trust always reminds me of the only essential quality to which i've ever aspired.
It's the most successful TREK treatment of the notion of living in the moment. The ba'ku have renounced violence and technology and warp drive, turning their explorations inward, onto the world of immediate experience. They've achieved a stunning level of perception, coordination, and ability to affect the world around them. Also, in a way so subtle that most viewers won't be consciously aware of it, the film makes the point that cosmetic surgery is at best mildly horrific. Daniel hugh kelly (HARDCASTLE AND McCORMICK, GROWING UP BRADY) and gregg henry (GILMORE GIRLS, THE RICHES) give nuanced supporting roles. When picard is asked to lay aside his weapon, as the ba'ku community is a sanctuary of life...that's where the tears start, if they haven't already. The regulars all have wonderful moments. Levar burton's soulful eyes, freed of the visor...riker and troi finally returning to the intimacy of silly teenagers...another indelible pinocchio performance from spiner...wonderful. Not just wonderful, but the TREK film most true to the classic vision.
"You stop reviewing what happened yesterday. Stop planning for tomorrow...nothing more complicated than perception. (Your ships) explore the universe. We've discovered that a single moment in time can be a universe in itself, full of powerful forces. Most people aren't aware enough of the 'now' to even notice."

Stargate SG1, season 2

And...the series drops off a cliff (okay, it was down there already, but any hope that the weaknesses of season 1 were just "workin' the bugs out" are dashed by continued residence in the land of couldashouldabeen). The show asks us to take these characters for granted, without showing us why...why their bonds (or conflicts) are strong, why they are interesting people we should care about. The writers often write Dean Anderson's lines as though Kurt Russell is still playing the part. The portrayal of contemporary military life is so unrealistic as to be laughable. Christopher Judge's Teal'c is a fascinating performance written with all the depth of a puddle. Amanda Tapping's Sam isn't charismatic enough to overcome the material. Teryl Rothery, the SGC doc, is fine. If only THE LIFE OF BRIAN's Pilate could have met her - "WHY do you giggew when i mention my fwiend Tewyl Wothewy?" Poor Don Davis's unidimensionality is almost painful. And the less said about Michael Shanks' Daniel, the better - there's enough blame to cover both the stiff acting and tepid writing. The directors aren't blameless, either. There are many moments of acting over-indulgence, when the characters should have been more responsive to a tense situation instead of focusing on a good line delivery spoken into camera 3.
FOUR-STAR - none
-The Gamekeeper **
Come on down, Dwight Shulz (THE A-TEAM, STAR TREK)! Here's a crappy script for ya'!
-Secrets ***
Worthy of a marathon with the movie and series pilot, albeit not with a bullet. Daniel returns to Abydos, to tell Sha'uri's father Kasuf (the charming Eric Avari, from the movie) that they've failed to find his daughter. But she is there (played again by the luminous Vaitiare Bandiere), her goa'uld parasite dormant because she's been impregnated by Apophis. Back on Earth, Jack faces a reporter ready to expose the Stargate program.
-The Tok'ra ***
It took this long for the sci fi universe to come up with a race that rhymes with "okra"?? If all SG1 were as acceptable as this, we'd have a ten-season pleasant diversion on our hands. Strong DS9 resonances here, with a race of human/worm symbionts. It's fascinating how a different context provokes an entirely different attitude.
-Spirits ***
Earth's mining needs on a planet populated by native american descendants cause trouble with aliens posing as spirit benefactors. Jumpin' jehosaphat, somebody pinch me. An exceptionally-acted, exceptionally-written performance on SG1! Rodney A. Grant (DANCES WITH WOLVES) plays the native Tonane with sublimely innocent cheekiness, and a wisdom that avoids the condescension that even the most well-intended native american portrayals almost always fall prey to.
-Touchstone ***
Brisk, compelling. A stolen stargate is used for nefarious means. It's occasional episodes like this that prompt the masochist in me to think about season 3. Look for the charming, disarming performance of Tiffany Lyndall-Knight (the hybrid - BSG 03'). Who knew that there was a hottie under that goo?
-1969 ***
A concept that has disaster written all over it...accidentally send SG1 back in time thirty years. But instead of a cheesy groanfest, it's sincere and heart-warming. Aaron Pearl plays a young "lieutenant" Hammond. Amber Rothwell and Alex Zahara play helpful hippies on their way to Woodstock. Under interrogation, O'Neill confesses to being James T. Kirk. And Luke Skywalker.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

ron's M.O.

A curious dream...i was visiting my mother, who was living in a mobile home in Florida. It was newer and more metallic inside than her current home, but blue-grey and pretty. I was standing watching a Dateline show, and a segment came up on Ron S. (an older acquaintance from high school), who had been arrested. He was one of the authorities' most wanted con men. His modus operandi was being a massage therapist for teenage girls, and once gaining their confidence, fleecing them out of millions. Mom was doing something in the kitchen, and i called to her to come see. She shouted back that she was busy. I said, "I really really REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY think you want to see this!" Amateur psychoanalysts (and is there any other kind?), get your clipboards and...go!

Monday, March 12, 2012

hallucination bugs

I've been having visions for several years.
I've never told anyone, because it never occurred to me to do so. But it occurs to me now that this might fall under the category of things-of-which-the-doctor/scientist-shouts, "In the name of sanity, why didn't you TELL ANYONE???"
I mean "vision" in the literal, non-esoteric sense. Then again, since i'm at a loss to explain these visions, i probably shouldn't opine on their objective nature. It may turn out that my experience has been shared by many. The fact that i've never heard talk of such things, means nothing.
"Hallucination" might be a better word. Or "waking dream", or "dreaming wake". They occur every few months or so, originating in the window between sleep and consciousness. My theory has been that they are a dream manifestation...yet i've never experienced anything like them in a lifetime of dreaming.
The first time it happened, it felt like i had half-awoken to become aware of a bug. But no ordinary bug. It was the outline of a bug drawn in a thick black line, resembling a cartoon creation with no innards. It was floating near the ceiling, but seemed to be located in no fixed point in space. I thought i was still dreaming. Then i felt sure that i wasn't, yet could still see it clearly. I made a conscious effort to shake whatever reality i was in, and within a few moments, the bug was gone. The act of shaking myself into my normal senses felt harder than it should have, as though i were fighting off some sort of drugged state. Sometimes i'll wake up aware that my eyes are already open.
The next time, the apparition was similar, but seemed to float closer to me. I reached out, and when i should have touched it, my hand passed through. The bug again didn't disappear right away, although i knew i had woken up.
The most recent vision placed an apparition walking along the edge of my sheet toward my head. This time it was in the shape and size of a bedbug (no surprise, as my sleep has been disturbed by real bedbugs for two months). I assumed i had awakened, it felt like i had...i reached out to pin the bug with my finger, only to realize that it didn't exist in the same reality as the sheet and finger.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Stargate: Atlantis, season 1

SGA (moreso than its parent, SG1) feels like the kind of sci fi fans are accustomed to, because it takes place in a futuristic alien city, with adventures in space. This and BUCK ROGERS are the only sci fi shows to ever portray modern humans in fish-out-of-water contexts making self-referential pop-culture comments that don't feel forced. And for one stretch this season, the episodes become little yummies that you want to gobble like candy. But even in the midst of their best episodes, the dialogue occasionally descends into obviousness, missed opportunities, and a lack of understanding of basic human character. Torri Higginson (Dr. Weir) plays the civilian commander of the first stargate team sent to another galaxy. Can we officially, happily call it a new sci fi tradition (BSG, EARTH 2, VOYAGER...) to have a not-necessarily-young woman in charge? The affable Joe Flanigan (Maj. Sheppard) is forced to assume command of military operations when the ranking officer (Robert Patrick) is killed. David Hewlitt (Rodney McKay) is the resident grating scientific genius. Paul McGillion (Beckett) is the doctor with the funny accent. Rachel Luttrell is the local kick-ass hottie (Teyla) who becomes part of the team. Rainbow Francks is the grunt with a heart of gold. They discover a galaxy under the thrall of the wraiths, who use humans as a food source.
FOUR-STAR - none
-Home ***
An away team is sent into a delusional reality by an alien race protecting themselves. They all dream they're home...until the delusion falls apart. It's well-trod sci fi ground, but well done, especially the comedic touches in sheppard and teyla's shared delusion. SG1's don davis makes a fine guest appearance.
-The Storm ***
Nine episodes in, things come together. Atlantis is menaced by a super-hurricane, necessitating an off-world evacuation for all but a skeleton crew. The genii learn of their plight, and send a team to steal explosives and technology. Colm Meaney (DS9, THE SNAPPER) makes a return appearance as the genii leader, Robert Davi (LICENSE TO KILL, THE GOONIES) plays a genii commander, and one of those nutty kids from GLEE (Cory Monteith) plays a brutal private. A wonderful episode for Sheppard, who is the sole atlantean not neutralized. The fact that he kills instead of "humanely wounds" is a welcome touch of realism.
-The Eye ***
The eye of the storm passes over the city, allowing a stranded team of atlanteans to return to help Sheppard. Erin Chambers returns as a sympathetic Genii who loses a vengeance battle with Teyla. It hurts me when any humans fight, but once in a while it's okay if hot chicks do so, because you know if they just get past their issues they might, well, kiss (and even if they don't, you've got sweaty, heaving women). In all seriousness, something in this episode crystallizes why the series falls short of first-rate, though it comes sooo close. In the Teyla/Sora antagonism, the show never acknowledges what was obvious - that Teyla mightn't have left Sora's father to die if she weren't angry at him. It would have made the Sora/Teyla animosity richer and more human. Too many SGA character moments like that are short-shrifted.
-The Defiant One ***
A team investigates a wraith ship that crashed 10,000 years ago. A cannibalistic survivor is thrown into one-on-one combat with Sheppard, with a last-second save by McKay. Gripping and tight.
-Sanctuary ***
A planet is discovered which is protected by an anti-wraith weapon. The bronze-age locals resist the idea of allowing others to share their haven. Their high priestess (Leonor Varela - CLEOPATRA, BLADE 2) agrees to visit Atlantis, where she and Sheppard have a romance. It is revealed that she is an ancient atlantean who has been denied ascendancy as punishment for a crime, and is forbidden from interfering in off-world affairs. Gaping plot holes and preposterously unbelievable away mission verbal protocols...but it works because of Varela's performance and McKay's quips about pulling a Kirk.
-The Brotherhood ***
Another example of how the show falls short of greatness, with writing that too-often needed one more level of intelligence or finesse. Facing death, soldier Sheppard figures out a mathematical puzzle that eludes super-scientist Rodney. Sheppard reveals that he passed Mensa's test, but didn't join. This is a fine twist, but the writers missed the full opportunity. The tenuous point could have been successfully made that Sheppard outthought Rodney because his military training has taught him how to not lose focus in life/death situations.

Monday, March 5, 2012

"The War Against Women"

-by Marilyn French
Heb: whore - She who goes out of the house.
No matter your gender, if you've never understood what feminists are so upset about, this is the place to start. If you feel you live in a world of equality, i applaud the fact that you've been raised in a relatively progressive (or hopelessly sheltered) environment. But if you have any kind of human empathy, this book will enrage and mortify you. A small handful of points might not stand up to total scrutiny, and statistical updates would be illuminating, but the overpowering flip side is that the comprehensive numbers needed for a study of this scope are still mostly unavailable, covered up under the culturally-enforced silence of the subjugated, raped, battered, and dead. But french's insights are sharp, and her statistics scathing. One such? On tests of fearfulness, the least fearful subgroup of women (the young) scored the same as the most fearful group of men (the old). The fact that something unspeakably, systematically horrific is happening before our eyes, and that we are still generations away (at best) from making things right, i invite anyone to read this book and deny. A staggering achievement.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

M*A*S*H, season 7

(The worst season of M*A*S*H, and second-worst isn't even on the radar [ahem]. Why? In a word [or two] - Larry Balmagia. After a couple season 6 writing credits, he was promoted to story editor. Again and again, the plotlines feel embarrassingly average.)
Just as some flawless episodes don't achieve four stars, flawed ones occasionally do. Iconic memorableness will do that. A visiting Swedish surgeon (Mariette Hartley - the James Garner Polaroid commercials) unabashedly shows greater skill than all the surgeons in camp, and Hawkeye must face his chauvinism (on top of striking out with her romantically). This episode needed to be, to inject into the zeitgeist the awareness that horrific chauvinism is ingrained in our society...but this too shall pass. For purists who hold that M*A*S*H should have started and ended with the movie, this episode is exhibit A in why they're dead wrong. The fact that they pulled off the most albatross-laden "message" show they ever attempted, with such grace, is little short of stunning. Mariette is at once delicate and iron. Alan nails it, as always.
-Peace on Us ***
The camp is in foul spirits as peace talks go nowhere, and when Hawkeye finds that the number of points leading to discharge has been upped, he steals a jeep and bluffs his way into the peace conference, where he rants and pleads for the war to end. At camp, they greet him with a party where everything is red instead of green (including the hair of the major sent to scold him, Kevin Hagen of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE).
-Our Finest Hour ***
I cannot tell you how hard it is to not give this four stars (but the kneejerk reaction to any clip show is just barrrrrely too strong). With new footage, courtesy of bona fide Korean correspondent Clete Roberts returning for another B&W newsreel interview episode. Intercut are scenes from the first six seasons. The selection they trot out is so absolutely perfect, you'll never be able to mock clip shows again. Well, okay, you will.
-The Billfold Syndrome ***
Charles declares he'll never talk to anyone in camp again, and Sydney visits to try to help a medic who can't remember who he is. With BJ and Hawkeye providing sound effects, Sydney hypnotizes the boy. Allan Arbus, the man can do no wrong.
-They Call the Wind Korea ***
Seamless. A Manchurian wind batters the camp, while Charles and Klinger get stuck tending wounded Greeks in an overturned truck all night. M*A*S*H's good is better than just about anyone else's great.
-Point of View ***
A thoroughly excellent, essential episode in the history of television's greatest half hour. Seen entirely through the perspective of a soldier who's been wounded in the throat. A brilliant idea brilliantly executed, it gives us an entirely different perspective on characters we know like the back of our hand.
-An Eye for a Tooth **
Crystallizes everything that made season 7 so bad. A tale of practical joke one-upmanship, with Winchester playing both sides against each other, until he finally gets his comeuppance. Fine, joke ends with Hawkeye and BJ having to get from the showers to the Swamp naked. We can perhaps buy that BJ might cover himself frantically, but Hawkeye? We're past failing to live up to the movie, we're now failing to live up to ourselves. Season 1 had Hawkeye strolling across the compound naked to make a point. Also, witness the ascendancy of Margaret's Tammi Faye Baker look.
-Hot Lips is Back in Town ***
The A plot, with Margaret's divorce being finalized, comes off a little obligatory. But the B story, wherein Radar falls for a new nurse (the heart-warming Peggy Lee Brennan), and tries to win her. One of Radar's finest moments.
-Ain't Love Grand ***
Oh so close to sweet greatness. Max and Charles fall in love with women who are all wrong for them. Very realistic stuff for a while, and for both of them worthy of a place on any "best-of" list. Max is ultimately more tragic, leaving dresses behind and wanting to create a life with a woman he's known for three days. Winchester poignantly tries to play Henry Higgins with a prostitute (Sylvia Chang) who wants no part of it. Four-starness is foiled by a poorly-resolved C plot in which BJ's concern for a patient who has moved on is just too unrealistically excitable, given the meat-grinder life they lead.
-The Party ***
What a flawless M*A*S*H moment in time. A depressed BJ tries to arrange a stateside party for everyone's relatives. It looks like it won't happen, but finally does. Superlative character work all round, probably the most perfectly balanced seven-character effort of the series. I went with three stars because there was no X factor to make this one unforgettable.