Teen Girl Squad

Just once I’d like to get in on something from the beginning, instead of a year and a half after everyone else. I’d also like it to be aimed roughly around my age range. Until then, here is my book report on “Veronica Mars.”

“Veronica Mars” is a show about a high school student in her mid 20s who solves crimes for her dad’s detective agency while investigating her best friend’s death and the disappearance of her mom. She used to be popular but now she is not after her dad accused her ex-boyfriend’s father of killing his daughter, who was her best friend and her ex-boyfriend’s sister. She has a pet pit bull and a friend who is black and another friend who is Latino. The biggest mystery is how the UPN managed to land a series this good.

Seriously, it’s just solid. It’s got a lot of buzz around it on the internets and in Entertainment Weekly, and you can kind of see how solid it is by the trouble its supporters have in describing it. I’ve seen it compared to Nancy Drew, Twin Peaks, Peyton Place, The Outsiders, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Philip Marlowe, the OC, Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, Colombo, and Star Trek. I made up the last one, just because it seems like it needs more of a “hook,” when it really should just be able to stand on being a very well-written and well-acted show. With a lead actress who’s really just perfect with the part and is also pretty hot. Which I don’t feel any guilt pointing out, because I’m just not buying her as a 17 year old for one second. And I’m the guy who didn’t believe that the kids on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” were around my age.

Like every other series these days, it does the self-contained episodes thing with a bigger storyline going on in the background. Unlike other series, it actually handles both well. And the thing that really surprises me is that it almost never panders. The dialogue isn’t affected, the mysteries are neither too convoluted nor too obvious, the plots aren’t predictable, and both the humor and the drama genuinely work 99% of the time. I thought I had a major series plot point telegraphed, and when they revealed that I was right, they pointed out how everyone was foolish for not realizing it before and put an interesting spin on it in the next episode.

I’m genuinely impressed. Not blown away by it, but you don’t really need to be. It just does its thing and does it very well. And now I’m intrigued to know how the first season ends.

The Dharma Initiative

Thanks to Steve Jobs and Robert Iger, I was able to see the first three episodes of “Lost” this season. Picture quality is lousy blown up to full-screen size, but it was detailed enough to see the Dharma Initiative logo tattooed on the shark that was threatening to attack Sawyer.

I’m not going to post any more spoilers here — I know what it feels like because my mom and brother keep trying to spoil what’s gone on in Season 2 so far. I’ve managed to resist the temptation to download the other episodes so far. I don’t understand how TV is going to work in the New Age, when everything is timeshifted; as it is I’m afraid to go on the internets until I get caught up with anything remotely popular.

I’m still looking for something to fill the time until I get back and get caught up. The wireless internet connection here is way too slow to waste as much time web-browsing as I do at home. I guess I should technically be embarrassed that all my leisure activity involves a net connection more than things like oxygen and sunlight. But in my defense, it is Georgia. And we keep seeing reports on the news that the world’s largest aquarium is sold out for tickets.

Skip got season one of “Veronica Mars” on DVD for Christmas, and I’m going to borrow those and see if that’s worth watching. In case it gets cancelled, I can’t be blamed because it’s on UPN and that’s pretty much equivalent to being perpetually on the brink of cancellation.

You All Everybody

I finished the first season of “Lost” sometime over the past week. I like it a lot; I can’t say that I’m wetting myself to see what happens next, but I do have to admit to downloading the first few episodes from iTunes so I can watch them on the flight back home. (TiVo has been recording a few, but not all of them from season 2. According to the episode guides, I’m missing episodes 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42).

Favorite moment so far is when Hurley is running through the airport and there’s the soccer team with the numbers on their shirts. Next favorite would be Arzt’s final scene, and I got more about that to say in a minute. Most annoying characters are now Walt and Michael. Yeah, they’ve had a tough time and yeah, you’ve got to feel sorry for them, but come on. All they do is pick fights with people and fail to connect and conjure polar bears. The annoying people you feel sorry for are the worst kind of annoying people, because you can’t just come right out and be mean to them and tell them to go away.

I admit that Sun and Jin’s story gets me every time they have an episode with them. Also, Sun is hot. And I also got a little weepy at Jack’s story where his dad told him he wasn’t able to let go. That was like a double-whammy of sad, in the flashback and the present day.

I’m thinking that this is one of the rare shows that’s better in weekly episodes instead of watching them all in one go. It’s still good, but I get the impression that the reason it caught on with so many people is because they had time to ponder all the cliff-hangers and mysteries and build up the speculation around them. When you watch the whole thing in two weeks, it’s hard to have a reaction more profound than, “Well, that happened.”

One thing that concerns me, though, is that I watched a couple of the documentaries on the last disc and I’m worried that I might already be too much invested in what’s going to end up being a disappointment. Obviously, there’s a lot that they’re just making up as they go along, but that’s not that bad as long as the stuff they come up with has payoff and isn’t just filler. (They’ve proven they can come up with stuff on the spot and make it work; according the documentary, they invented the characters Sun and Jin at the last minute just because they knew they wanted to cast Yunjin Kim).

What bugged me was how they were talking about the pilot and how it originally had Jack be killed by the monster when they find the cockpit. Kate was originally supposed to be the hero of the show. It was that way pretty late, too, apparently; they have footage of both Yunjin Kim and Evangeline Lilly auditioning for Kate’s part using her dialogue after Jack’s death. The reason that annoys me is because it’s such a cheesy gimmick. It’s the kind of stuff high schoolers write when they’re trying to be daring and bust up cliches. You get attached to the hero, and bang! He dies! Sure, Hitchcock did it, but he kind of ruined it for everyone else.

Now, you could say that the bit with Arzt was the same thing, but it’s not. The reason I liked it was because it was such an obvious gimmick, that everyone could see coming from a mile away, and there was never any doubt whatsoever how that was going to play out. So it played with the gimmick by making it all about timing. Your suspense doesn’t come from wondering what’s going to happen, but when. And the timing of the punchline was just about perfect.

So I’m still hoping that what’s down the hatch is cool, and the monster is cooler than just black smoke, and whoever The Others are is cool, and the story behind the numbers, and Claire’s baby, and Walt’s “being different,” and the whispering, and the island itself all turn out to be worth the investment. I’m actually highly skeptical that the revelations themselves will be all that great, but I still have faith that they can make the lead-up to the revelations great. Like in “Twin Peaks.” Finding out who killed Laura Palmer wasn’t all that impressive on its own, but leading up to it were some of the most downright horrifying moments in television ever.

And unlike “Twin Peaks,” and “The X-Files,” and “Buffy,” I’m hoping that they know when to quit.

Kong

King Kong is frickin’ awesome. I think from now on, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens should make every movie. Except for the ones by Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers.

Sure, it’s three hours long, and I could tell it was three hours. Not that I was wanting it to be over, just that I was aware of how long it was taking. That’s the closest I can get to a criticism of it — there was nothing in the movie that was bad or completely superfluous, but it still felt like a lot of stuff. I wish they’d spent more time on the island and less with acts 1 and 2. Just about everything that happens on the island is just spectacular, the Tyrannosaurus fight in particular, so I wish there’d been more of that.

I don’t have much to say other than that it’s a damn fine movie, the best I’ve seen this year. I’d heard reports that it was very moving, so I was expecting to get all caught up in that. I didn’t, really; I cared what was happening, but wasn’t particularly moved by it except for the action sequences.

One of the things that impressed me about the Lord of the Rings movies was how Jackson made them as movies, that is, combining elments of horror B-movies, science fiction, fantasy, genuine horror movies, melodrama, pirate movies, battle scenes, etc. to tell what could be a pretty dry fantasy story. King Kong isn’t quite as epic, but it’s definitely a movie made by someone who loves movies and hates pretension. Of course there are all the B-movie elements, but there’s also a sense throughout that it’s all charming and funny. The T. Rex scene isn’t just spectacular, but it’s genuinely funny in how it just keeps building. All the bug scenes are intended for the schock value gross-out, and they’re just fun. And Ann and Kong’s scenes are designed around vaudeville slapstick and a child’s tantrum, and it just works, and it’s just charming. Never too corny to work, and never too absorbed in irony or self-reference. It’s just designed to be enjoyed.

I knew going in that I was going to like Naomi Watts, because I think she’s just great in everything I’ve seen her do. I was surprised that I liked Adrian Brody — he’s pretty much useless to the movie, in retrospect, but while it’s going on you always get the sense that he’s just supposed to be there. What really surprised me was Jack Black; his character is supposed to be smarmy and unethical, but genuinely passionate about what he’s doing, and undeniably charismatic. So it turned out to be perfect casting, and he did a good job with it. He’s actually got more of a character arc than anyone else, including Ann.

And the more I think about it, I guess I have to change my story about not being moved. The best scenes are still the action sequences, but the one that really got me on an emotional level is when they’re back in New York and do the Kong show at the theater. The combination of the ape chained up, and the dancers in black-face, all just hit me as “this is the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen.” Even more than the ending. (Which I won’t ruin here.)

The Moth

Speaking of cancellation: I don’t want to scare any of the “Lost” fans, but I started watching the series on DVD. And I like it. There’s a good chance I won’t jinx it and get it cancelled though, because I’m not crazy in love with it; I’m merely enjoying it. I’m actually two discs into it already, and I hadn’t realized how many episodes I’ve already seen. Without context, I didn’t like them as much, and so I just remembered all the initial spoilers.

The pilot is still phenomenal, two of the best hours of television ever made. Seriously. The others I’m liking but I’m not blown away yet. I noticed that Paul Dini is a story editor and wrote a couple of the episodes; whether it’s his influence, or just because I know who he is and am making connections that don’t exist, the episodes remind me a lot of the Batman animated series. Tightly written stories with a clear message and interesting symbolism, but a little too “neat.” I don’t want to sound overly critical, because I think they’re very, very good, but there’s just something keeping it just short of great. The symbolism is a little too blatant (Charlie digging out of the cave is just like that moth digging out of a cocoon and look! there’s a moth right there!) and the message is a little bit too clear. But I’ll say again that that’s me being over-critical because the show is so well done otherwise.

And the music is perfect. Unless I’m reading it wrong, it’s by the same guy who does the music for “Alias.” The score doesn’t draw attention to itself, but just works perfectly for setting the mood. And even their song choices work — in “Alias,” whenever they would start playing a song and show a montage of people thinking, it just seemed sappy and obvious, but the couple of times they’ve done it so far on “Lost,” I didn’t even notice it was happening.

Also, I’m going to have to add a couple of things to my “Llorando” post below, apparently: the end of Locke’s story (in “Walkabout”) and the end of Sun’s story (in “House of the Rising Sun”).

Crap, I was just looking on imdb and saw another spoiler in the cast list. Dammit. I’m going to have to hurry and get caught up.

And I’ve got a question for those who’ve already seen season 1: The first few episodes have a lot of flashbacks to the plane crash. Do those go on throughout the season, or are they kept mostly to the beginning of the series? I don’t want to be watching an episode during a plane flight and then all of a sudden have another one of those flashbacks pop up and freak my shit out.

The Horizon

I didn’t even remember that “Alias” moved to Wednesdays until I saw it on the TiVo last night; I’d pretty much written it off since I heard about the cancellation and since the season seemed to be starting off on shaky ground. But last night’s was really pretty good! They’re back with the action scenes and the intrigue and the secret conspiracies and double-crosses, and of course the guest stars. I’ve always liked the drug-induced-dream-sequence-flashback episodes (they’ve done at least three that I can remember) for some reason; I guess the people behind the show realize that and are tapping into that market.

If they can keep it up at this level, and the signs suggest they can, then I’ll be mighty pleased. They’ve got a good villain in Amy Acker and decent support cast with the two new guys and French lady with overbite. (And it’s kind of funny that cutting off somebody’s ear was horrifying and brutal in Reservoir Dogs, but now they show it not only on network TV, but on a network TV series that my mom watches).

The show’s already repeating itself, so it’s good that they can go out on a high note. They’ve always had kick-ass season finales, even before the big cliffhanger, so I can only imagine that a series finale that they’ve had this long to prepare for is going to be huge. I could do without the “somebody’s going to die” stuff in the teaser commercial, since they’ve already blown their wad, cast-member-death-wise, for this season. But still, should be interesting.

God Speed, Screw-On Head

My favorite comic book of all time in the history of the world ever is The Amazing Screw-On Head by Mike Mignola. It’s just brilliant; the art is Mignola’s usual Hellboy style, which is to say awesome, and then the concept and the writing is dead-on perfect absurd humor.

It’s all old news at this point, but to keep up the hype and because I’m excited: An animated series based on the comic for the Sci Fi channel is in production and scheduled to air in 2006. Mignola was described as “art director” in one of the previews for the series.

The show’s going to be directed by Bryan Fuller of “Wonderfalls,” which I haven’t seen but is another one of the series that geeks are yelling at Fox for cancelling. This old article from SciFi.com has an interview with Fuller where he describes the concept:

“We took [the] concept of the comic book — which is a robot head that screws into a variety of robot bodies and fights crime with President Lincoln in the late 1800s — and decided to tell the ‘real’ story of the history that we read in books, like what would be between the pages of the history books.”

Fuller, who discussed Amazing Screw-On Head while promoting the DVD release of his acclaimed but short-lived Fox TV series Wonderfalls, added: “That gives you the opportunity to tell these outlandish stories that are grounded in historical fact. For instance, President Harrison died of pneumonia after 30 days in office. But you discover it wasn’t pneumonia, and it wasn’t fluid in his lungs, but some sort of agent that he was using to get everlasting life because he wanted to be the president of the United States forever. But what it did was turn him into a frog-man, and now he lives at the bottom of the Mississippi, and he’s about to launch an attack on the Capitol. So it’s those kinds of stories.”

I hadn’t heard about the casting, so that was a nice surprise. Paul Giamatti as Screw-On Head, David Hyde-Pierce as Emperor Zombie, Molly Shannon as Patience the Vampire, and Patton Oswalt as Mr. Groin. The only way it could be any better would be to cast Patrick Warburton and Gary Cole.

So far, it sounds like everybody involved gets it and understands what makes it cool. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. One of the things that was neat about the comic was that it was a total one-shot: it came out of nowhere (for me, anyway), and stood on its own as just 20 pages of concentrated genius. I’m wondering if it’ll work as well extended into a full series, but I remain cautiously optimistic.

And in other somewhat belated news: the trailer for the third X-Men movie is up on Apple’s trailers site. Looks great. Fans are bitching (no, really — comic book fans are actually complaining about something on the internet) that it’s directed by Brett Ratner instead of Bryan Singer, but I remain optimistic. The series is in full-on franchise mode at this point, so you’d have to be colossally incompetent to break the momentum now. And I actually kind of liked Rush Hour, which considering it had Chris Tucker in it, is saying a lot.

I’m not sure what gut level these X-Men movies are working on, though. I never a fan of the comics, and my exposure to it was limited to reading (and not liking) one or two issues, and seeing the old animated series and the more recent “X-Men Generations” series. But I loved the first two movies, and even just watching that trailer I kept having moments like, “Is that Kitty Pride?” and “Whoa, that’s Angel!” and “Beast looks bad-ass” and then wondering where the hell that all came from.

Llorando

Speaking of being a p—y: I was talking tonight to my friend Matt who’d come out to SF for a business trip, and we got on the subject of being subjected to weepy movies in public places. There is a short list of movies that it’s okay for guys to cry during: Brian’s Song, Old Yeller, and possibly Rudy. I don’t have the final ruling, but I believe Schindler’s List is acceptable, too.

(One thing I forgot to mention tonight: in the “Justice League” animated series, one of the recurring jokes is that the tough ex-marine Green Lantern John Stewart cries at the movie Old Yeller. See, because it’s his one weakness. Which is genius.)

The problem is watching one of these movies in public, like a theater or even worse, an airplane, and having to find a way to cover up the fact that it’s made you cry. For me, sometimes I go for the “I’m just wiping my glasses” maneuver, but these days I usually don’t even bother trying to cover it up. I’m way too over-sentimental and easily manipulated, and for me to deny it would be ridiculous so I’m not even going to try.

I can’t even say that it’s a case of me being all girly, because there have been more than a couple times where I’ve been mocked for crying at a movie by the woman I’d seen the movie with. For example, “Is everything okay? It was just Forrest Gump for crying out loud.”

So I figure: why not embrace it? I’m a big weepy baby. The following is a list of the things that make me cry. (I’m going to limit it to movies and books and the like, not obvious things like bullies, hot sauce, bouts of seasonal depression, nose-hair trimming gone awry, or the current administration. I’m also going to limit it to stuff that works on me consistently, not cheap-shot manipulative things like the aforementioned Forrest Gump, which I admit depressed the hell out of me the first time I saw it, but I’ve seen since then and was able to correctly identify it as Touched By An Angel-level crap.)

  • “The greatest honor of all is having you for a daughter” from Mulan
  • “My friends, you bow to no one” from The Return of the King
  • “I wonder if it remembers me” from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
  • “It’s been a tough year, Dad” from The Royal Tennenbaums
  • Completely random and unpredictable moments in Be Sweet by Roy Blount, Jr.
  • The end of an episode of “Cowboy Bebop” called “Speak Like a Child” where Faye sees a tape of herself as a child cheering her future self to greatness, and she says, “I can’t remember”
  • Finding Nemo in the bit where Marlin leaves Dory and she gets lost
  • The end of The Catcher in the Rye (but in my defense, I was in 7th grade)
  • The beginning of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius where he matter-of-factly talks about his mother’s cancer
  • The last chapter of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  • The last scene of Pom Poko, when the man sheds his human disguise to run into a clearing and join a party of tanuki

There are most likely others that aren’t occuring to me now, but it’s good to get that out of my system and onto the internets. Passers-by can feel free to use the comments section to add their own, or mock me.

Update: Ones that got me but I didn’t list, and I’m not trying to cover up:

  • Grave of the Fireflies, because come on. That movie is designed to make you cry.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, because I was having a very painful infected gall bladder attack
  • The bit in Microserfs where the mom types “MY DOTTR” on the screen, because that’s such a blatantly manipulative moment in a shallow, self-conscious and manipulative book that I can’t believe I ever liked it

Update 2: Because I just realized this looks suspiciously like your typical livejournal post, I suppose I should add: Mood: procrastinating.

That’s a Little Cornball

It’s probably just because I’m a big p—y, but I think the best way for a TV series, movie, or any other piece of art to show that it’s got merit is in how it handles sentimentality.

And that’s yet another way that “Arrested Development” gets it exactly right. If you were cynical, you could say that tonight’s episode (“The Ocean Walker”) had all the in-jokes, continuity, and references to previous episodes that helped doom the series from the start — the “every episode I’ve seen is funny, but I’m coming into it too late to get caught up” syndrome. It’s got all the self-referential jokes required for post-modernist humor (including the still shot from Monster) (which was just genius). And it’s got everything you need to make it edgy, since it’s basically about a guy trying to have sex with a retarded woman and his family’s attempts to hide that fact so that they can steal her money.

But then the ending was just sweet, and done so well. To paraphrase Ron Howard, it was “such a nice moment” and a perfect ending to that storyline.

It reminds me of a movie I haven’t seen yet: Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic. From what I’ve seen of Silverman’s stand-up routine in the past, I can tell that her whole schtick is taking the anti-PC shock-value routine and putting a little bit of a spin on it. And based on the reviews, it sounds as if the spin is there enough to be detected, but not enough to save the movie. One gag that keeps getting repeated in reviews is the line:

Recognizing the political incorrectness of using the term “retarded,” she facetiously corrects herself with “And by ‘retard,’ I mean ‘They can do anything.”

Again, I haven’t seen the movie, but it sounds like she just leaves the joke there — funny, but nothing more than a shock-value joke until you take it in the context of the rest of her show. The bigger joke is that her on-stage persona is so wide-eyed and self-involved and naive that she says something like that and really believes it.

I think that “Arrested Development” started with basically the same gag, but managed to work it into the episode for a real pay-off that’s genuinely sweet and romantic. (And then, of course, only lingered on it for a second before going back to an in-joke, because you don’t want to get too corny.)

The easiest comedy in the world is just doing a reverse on PC speak and patting yourself on the back for being “edgy.” Harder is dodging sensitive material altogether and still making it funny. Harder than that is doing the anti-PC thing for laughs and then layering a bigger message on top of it, like “South Park” and Silverman’s act. And then the hardest of all is to take that and add a genuine layer of sentimentality to it, without coming across as overly earnest and undermining your credibility as someone who’s able to see through the schmaltz.

That’s where “Arrested Development” is too good to be a sitcom, and why it turns out Fox really does suck, after all.

SD-86ed

Word on the street is that “Alias” has been cancelled and will stop airing next May. Now, my show-cancelling and band-breaking-up powers may be legendary, but I’m not taking the blame for this one. I’m 99.9% sure I didn’t get Jennifer Garner pregnant. And I didn’t force Vaughn to leave the show, and I didn’t make J.J. Abrams get all distracted with “Lost.” But just to be safe, I’ll avoid watching “Lost” until it’s had a little bit more time and the first big backlash starts.

I can’t see getting all that upset about the show’s getting cancelled. I just got into it recently, but I could still tell that it was starting to wear out its welcome. And giving it until the end(-ish) of the season instead of yanking it immediately, gives them the chance to make a real close to it. According to the article, they’ve got something big planned.

In other news, here’s a fun fact: there are several cities called “Atlanta” in the US. The one in Idaho is apparently the one that’s having 30-degree highs all this week. Here in Georgia, it’s been around 60. Still chilly though! Or at least, I imagine it would be if I’d ever left my parents’ house. Skip wants me to go out with him for all the day-after-Thanksgiving sales, but I’m resistant. We’ve done that before, and the traffic is nuts and the crowds are unreasonable. And we never end up buying anything, somehow, even if we stay out the entire day. I think I’m doing my Christmas shopping online this year.