Thoughts, notes, observations on the everyday nonsense of American Pop Culture from one of the most not-hip people on the face of the planet...

Sunday, July 31, 2005

FX gets real

Who needs reality TV? If you want real, the explosive premiere of “Over There” on FX was about as real as it gets short of being in Iraq. Never before has television featured a program about a current military operation…and seeing this spectacular program makes one wonder why. Though it certainly has a lot more gory detail than your average TV news, it feels a bit more true to life as well.

There are no heroes in “Over There” – and there doesn’t have to be. There’s no giving chocolate bars to kids. No John Wayne adopting orphans. No self-righteous monologues about honor and duty. There are only American kids trying to follow orders and stay alive.

Episode one introduces the squad in their deployment and first days at war. If you know anyone who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan and have heard their stories, it feels almost surreal to see it played out on a screen. One scene, where the new soldiers stand over their first kills in disbelief, particularly struck me as being someone’s true story.

In watching the exposition scenes, I personally felt as if I could know these young people. They seem so real because each and every one of them is flawed is some way that makes him or her seem that much more human: Angel is bitter about joining, Dim seems to have serious marital issues, Bo is overeager and Mrs. B is a hazard to her entire squad.

Producer Steven Bochco has set these characters into a landscape that draws viewers in both visually and emotionally. In the fast-paced and occasionally hazy camera work , he creates the feeling of “being there”…and in the juxtaposition of frenetic pacing and unexpected lulls, he has created a very real sense of dread in the viewer. Not since “Band of Brothers” has anyone truly captured icy cold worry in a weekly installment (I only hope it continues as such).

From the end of the first episode (Spoilers!), I can already tell this show will get a hard look from pro-war PC hounds. Young football player Bo looks to have lost a leg in his first week thanks to a roadside IED. I can hear the complaints now, “They depict the worst case scenario just to prove war is wrong. Blah blah blah.”

And I already disagree. How many boys are injured or killed their first week? How many promising athletes lose their dreams at war? How many young fathers and husbands haven’t come home? Is there such a thing as a worst-case scenario at war?

From the first episode alone, I give kudos not only to Bochco for taking on such a huge and controversial topic…but to FX for having the cojones to give it to us straight (complete with cursing, sex and bloody stumps of legs). Keep it coming.

Friday, July 22, 2005

GTA might actually be bad for kids!

Am I the only one amused by this entire scenario?

Yes, because parents apparently cannot be trusted to raise their own children, Grand Theft Auto must be sold to adults only...for real this time. Seriously.

It’s amazing that all of a sudden, parents have a problem with Grand Theft Auto. I mean, the name alone should sound off alarm bells. But no. Parents apparently don’t care about violence in video games. They’ll happily buy their 8-year-old a game where he can shoot up aliens/monsters/bad guys (or in the case of GTA - cops) if it means it’ll keep him quiet for an afternoon...but by God, if it has sex in it, action must be taken!

It’s no secret that all of the GTA games have been rated MA and feature (right on the box, even!) all manner of deliciously fun crime. Only in GTA can you shoot a cop, steal a car, buy a hooker and then beat her to death - and get rewarded for it. Yet somehow, this has escaped the notice of American parents who have thoughtlessly bought their kids these games for the past few years.

But now, someone told them there’s sex in it. NOW they notice.

Not that this is any big surprise. In an age where people seriously believe abstinence-only education actually keeps kids from having sex, it’s only natural that parents flip out over a boob or two in a game full of gangland crime.

Not that this blinder vision is anything new - it’s been common in the MPAA rating system for years. Movies with any amount of nudity or sex are rated R (or worse), but guns, killings, kidnappings and such are usually given more leeway. My own family would happily watch a violent film together (even when my brother and I were very young), but it a movie even hints at sex, my mom will turn it off.

The lesson? Killing a hooker is all right, just as long as you didn’t have sex with her first.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Pop culture's future looks pretty damn bright

So I’m back from the most pop culture-laden five days I’ve ever had. From July 13 to July 17, I was in California for my first-ever San Diego Comic-Con, a literal haven for all things geek in pop culture (as reported by CNN). In short: It was heaven. Throughout the course of the convention, Warner Brothers, Disney and DreamWorks (among others) held panels and extended, exclusive previews for the most anticipated films of the coming year, not to mention previews of upcoming TV shows, comics and video games. I’m here not to gloat, but to report that the future looks bright. Here’s the lowdown on the buzz I picked up at the Con:

-V for Vendetta: The film based on what might possibly be the best graphic novel ever looks pretty f-ing sweet. The story focuses on a future London under the control of a totalitarian government and the masked vigilante known only as V who single-handedly fights Big Brother and brings the populace a revolution. True to Alan Moore’s vision (you non-comic fans may know him as the guy behind “From Hell” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) the film seemed to keep the mood appropriately 1984-esque. The insurgent themes and scenes of bombings likely will set off a bunch of PC alarms, but it honestly looks too cool to be taken literally as a pro-terrorism film. The Wachowski brothers (The Matrix guys) seem to be a perfect fit for a movie that deals with themes of revolution, oppression and mass hysteria on a literary scale. (Oh, and as a side note, the V mask I got as a freebie is freakin’ sweet)

-Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Even if you aren’t a fan of Harry’s, this is the movie that officially tips into more mature themes. Staying true to J.K. Rowling’s book, new director Mike Newell has set the darker tone and taken on the more complicated monsters and events of the fourth segment of the series. This movie follows Harry into both his teen years and a dangerous multinational tournament featuring no less than dragons, sea monsters, a killer maze and (finally) a face-to-face encounter with Lord Voldemort himself. Yes, they look to have kept all of the wizarding trials (and the deaths). And once again, casting looks to be dead-on with Ralph Fiennes as You Know Who and Miranda Richardson as the vile reporter Rita Skeeter. (And yes, I about hyperventilated by the end of this mini-screening)

-The Fountain: From the viewpoint of a film geek alone, this movie has everything a fantasy fan could want: Multiple timelines, the fountain of youth, knights in armor, futuristic landscapes, Hugh Jackman and Darren Aronofsky. I don’t even know how to describe it, but then showed a full 10 minutes of the film and I was hooked.

-Superman Returns: Though it is still in the early stages of production, I daresay this was the best of the sneak peeks I saw (and it got the only standing ovation and encore viewing). Though I was skeptical early on about the new Superman outfit and the choice of such young actors, I was thoroughly won over by the end of Brian Singer’s discussion and the film clips. The movie has a classic hero plot (Superman returns from a long absence to find the world no longer needs him) and an Action comics-esque appearance made possible by the same technology as seen in Sky Captain. And the final scene of the clip made the entire screening room go ballistic with fanboy froth: Lex Luthor smirking over a piece of kryptonite. That is, Lex Luthor as played by batshit crazy Kevin Spacey (who is the most brilliant casting choice I could have ever imagined).

King Kong: Really, all you needed to know was that Peter Jackson was directing a King Kong film. And all I have to do is tell you is that: Yes, it takes place in the past, yes the ape looks real, yes it takes place in both the jungle and the city and yes…Kong fights a goddamn dinosaur. All this, and Jack Black. You know you want it, baby

-A Scanner Darkly: I’ll admit my geeknorance by saying right off that I have never actually read Philip K. Dick’s novel, but I knew enough of it to go to this panel. From a purely movie nerd standpoint, it will be a tough one to market but a definite must-see. Brought to us by the creative team behind Waking Life, the film has rough, spectral animation laid over actual filmed performances, creating a dreamlike state. Featuring the same familiar Dick themes of existentialism, paranoia and free will, the movie, at the very least looks very sweet even if it may be hard to unravel. The animation is quite a bit better this time around, with stars Keanu Reeves (who was mercilessly ripped on by the panel audience), Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr. looking quite real.

-Boondocks: Set to debut in October on Adult Swim, Boondocks may be the comic strip best designed for television. Though I am a fan of the strip itself, the animated show looks to be an even better fit for writer Aaron McGruder’s biting humor. Each show will be self-contained bits featuring the usual staple of characters and the usual racially observant humor. McGruder’s brought on a slew of great voices for his characters, including Regina King (Ray, Jerry Maguire) as Huey and Riley and Charlie Murphy, Mos Def and Ed Asner stepping is as guest stars. The first episode preview, about none other than R. Kelly, was absolutely hilarious and instantly quotable.

-Adult Swim’s new shows: Though the producers previewed a number of 15-minute programs, a few in particular stand out. “Lucy: Daughter of the Devil” has, as you’d guess, the teenage daughter of the devil living on Earth as her worried dad keeps watch from below. “Morel Orel” is about an uber-Christian whose blind faith is going to be a constant source of jeering (and likely protests from the Religious Right). But my personal favorite was “The Minoriteam” which is a group of superheroes whose names and powers are based around stereotypes of their ethnicities (i.e. a smart Asian guy, an athletic black guy, etc.). Let the racial epithets flow this fall.

-Family Guy animated feature: No, not to be shown at the movies. What I saw previewed was “Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story”, a DVD that will likely also be shown (toned down) as a three-part episode arc on Fox. In it, Stewie finds out/believes another man is his father and seeks to find him. From the looks of the short preview, it’s going to be, predictably, hilarious. (Hint: I was practically crying by the end of the preview from laughter)

-Marvel Comics: OK, only like two people that read this care, but I was excited to see a few new titles popping up on Marvel’s radar, including a second series of 1602 (with which I was obsessed), a blaxploitation-looking book about Misty Knight and Colleen Wing (Daughters of the Dragon), FF: The End, a Ghost Rider relaunch and…….the announcement that Stephen King will be writing for Marvel. Holy Jesus, I thought I was gonna melt right there. What a fantasy combination for King fans! (Here’s hoping it doesn’t suck)

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Summer's bringing out the best of TV

Do you remember the days when summer meant only re-runs on TV? These days, we’re fortunate enough for May season finales to lead right into a whole other season of television. Of course, that summer season is usually reserved for craptastic realty shows and HBO viewers – but not anymore.

This summer, even mere mortals with basic cable can get a summer of superb television. In fact, I’d daresay the summer cable lineup looks to be a lot more credible than the pap we get the rest of the year on network TV.

TBS is bringing us Steven Spielberg’s series “Into the West”, which brings big stars and great production quality to the small screen. And at FX, quickly becoming a TV powerhouse on basic cable, debuts a new season of the smart series “Rescue Me” and two new shows that are – get this – unique programming.

Steven Bochco, creator of every good TV show ever made, debuts the ambitious “Over There” in mid-July. Following the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and their families back home, Bochco will likely walk a controversial line. Never before has a primetime television show been made about a current military conflict – and for good reason. No one wants to be labeled unpatriotic. But “Over There” looks to be the real deal, bringing the death, struggle and loss of a sometimes-overlooked war into homes like the news never has. I know I have that set and ready to go on my Tivo.

Another new FX series, “30 Days”, created by Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock, has already become a summer addiction for this girl. Going along with the model of his award-winning documentary, Spurlock dares ordinary people to live 30 days in someone else’s shoes –showing them exactly how the other half lives. In last week’s episode, for instance, an evangelical Christian from West Virginia lived as a Muslim in Michigan. His own fears and misconceptions about the religion were plainly presented, showing all viewers the sort of biases we all hold.

The debut episode of “30 Days” may be the finest hour of television I’ve seen in years. Spurlock and his girlfriend lived for a month on minimum wage in Columbus, Ohio – near where I grew up. Seeing the two of them fight over food spending, forgo medical treatment (they had no insurance), weep over unpaid bills and begrudgingly accept charity…it made the most real ‘reality’ TV I’d ever seen. By the end, I was in tears.

If only summer could last forever. It’ll be tough to go back to network TV come fall if the summers keep staying this good. Maybe, eventually, network TV will wake up and see that not everyone wants six re-runs of “Everyone Loves Raymond” every week. There really is an audience out there for new, risky programming – but only TBS and FX seem to know it yet.