Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Rest of the Week

I blogged a bit about Monday night TV. What else am I watching?

A lot of reality TV, it seems. Still doing Survivor on Thursdays, of course, mainly just because it's a family thing. I had lost all interest in Survivor at one point, but the last couple of seasons have been really good. Interestingly, because they're in China this season and not on a tropical island overgrown with coconuts, they've regressed a bit and given the contestants a big bag of rice to start out with.

Beauty and the Geek is in its third season, and I'm quite enjoying that. This year they decided to play with the formula, though. They've reversed the sexes on one team, with a male 'Beauty' and a female 'Geek.' When the host introduced them at the end of episode one, the guy, obviously a male model, struts up and casually tosses off a Blue Steel.

I really like the show, because although it starts out reinforcing stereotypes, as the weeks progress you begin to see the humanity behind the poses. It's very hard to both make fun of someone and let you feel empathy for them, but this show manages it.

My favorite new reality show is Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. I wasn't initially interested in this, because I'd never seen Hell's Kitchen, and Gordon Ramsay just seemed to be a dick. But in Kitchen Nightmares, he goes to failing restaurants and tries to help them figure out what they're doing wrong and how to fix it. It's a fascinating show. In fact, I like it so much, I've also started watching the original BBC version on BBC America.

I think I like the British version better. The American version, obviously influenced by shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, has a bigger budget and lets Ramsay come in and give the restaurateurs a bunch of free stuff. Need a new kitchen? Here. Need some remodeling done? Here you go. In the British version, Ramsay has to be more creative in th ways he helps the folks out of their jams, because he can't just buy solutions to their problems.

I also watched the pilots of Reaper and Bionic Woman. Reaper was more entertaining, but seemed like it would have worked better as a movie; I don't see where this show could go to get more interesting. Bionic Woman was not as good as I'd hoped it would be. Obviously, the 70's version wouldn't fly now--in a country where a sizable percentage of the population questions the official version of 9/11, and a smaller but still sizable percentage actually thinks the government was behind it, a show with a character who works for a heroic government agency probably wouldn't fly. So we get Bionic Woman and Chuck, shows where ordinary people are trapped into working for shadowy, perhaps evil, agencies against their will.

I have completely blown off Prison Break, and totally forgot about Smallville, a show I was also getting a little tired of. I'll see if they have the season opener online, though, and give it a shot. It might be worth one more season.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Monday Night TV Returns

Prison Break actually came back last week, but I found I didn't care anymore. I mean, at all. I decided I would rather watch a football game between two teams I don't care about than watch another exhausting season of ridiculous plot twists, no matter how much I liked Wentworth Miller's character.

Last night, though, was the good stuff on NBC. Debuts of Chuck and Journeyman, and the season premiere of Heroes.

Chuck is a McG show, so it's stylish and funny, but you can't expect everything to make sense. It's about a guy named Dave... kidding, it's about a guy named Chuck who works as a computer repairman at a store that is an obvious take-off on Best Buy. An old college buddy sends Chuck a mysterious email full of scary images that flicker across his screen at incredibly high speed. Turns out, the email attachment contains the entire contents of a top-secret database meant for sharing information between CIA and NSA (that's one hell of an attachment, let me tell you).

After that, things start getting weird for Chuck. He strikes up a flirtatious relationship with a gorgeous blond customer, getting his first date in years. A mysterious black-suited figure breaks into his apartment and tries to steal his computer, destroying it in the process. Then he recognizes a terrorist in Large-Mart (guess what it's supposed to be) without knowing how he knows. Then guys in black suits show up during his date, apparently trying to kill him. But that's okay, because his date turns out to be a CIA agent trying to retrieve the information on the email he received (she was the black-suited ninja, you see).

By the end of the episode, Chuck has managed to survive both the spies and a terrorist bomb plot, and it is revealed that the information sent to him is now permanently stored inside his head. So the only way the NSA and CIA can use all that information is if they work together to keep Chuck safe. He refuses to join either agency, so he continues to work at Buy More, while his beautiful CIA love interest and a bulldog NSA assassin (played by Adam Baldwin of Firefly) keep watch over him.

The show is a lot of fun with appealing characters. It doesn't make a damn bit of sense, though. I'm not a guy who furiously thinks through all the implications of every plot point, trying to find holes. Normally, I let myself go with the flow and only drop out of the trance if something egregiously stupid happens. Like somebody sending an email attachment from a handheld PDA that contains the entire contents of a room-size supercomputer. Or the contents of a hard drive being irretrievably wiped out when a computer falls off a shelf. Or nobody at the NSA thinking to retrieve the contents of the email attachment from the ISP, rather than from Chuck himself. But of course, once again, NSA is presented as the secret government agency in charge of assassination, not computer security-Hollywood is full of idiots.

So I'll watch the show as long as it's on, just for the fun and the relationship between Chuck and the gorgeous CIA babe. But I don't expect it to last even a full season unless they can fix the stupidity.

Journeyman was pretty good, too, almost a modern remake of Quantum Leap. This newspaper reporter begins inexplicably making brief trips back in time, in order to fix problems in the timestream or something. He's making the world a better place, but destroying his marriage in the process. I liked the show, but wasn't mesmerized by it, the way I was by Daybreak.

And I'm so happy that Heroes is back. Once again, though, the Wheel of Heroes turns exceedingly slowly. Once again, the premiere episode does not manage to fit in every character. We see nothing of StripperHulk's dysfunctional family, nor of the resurrected Sylar. And some actors apparently got signed to other shows--Matt "TelepathiCop" Parkman has quietly divorced, as has Nathan "The Flying Pol" Petrelli. Maybe the Heroes folks decided to fear the Rena Sofer Curse.

One thing that jumped out at me on this ep, other than the complete lack of plot progress, was the wonky time-shifting. We intercut between Hiro in the past and characters in the present. That's fine. But we also intercut between, say, Indestructible Cheerleader Claire in gym class, then Molly Walker having a bad dream in the middle of the night, then back to Claire, still in gym class. The characters are supposedly on opposite ends of the continent (I think), but even a three-hour time difference can't account for that. The commentaries in the Season One set mentioned that they sometimes break up scenes in editing to get a better flow, but this one just didn't work.

Still, I'm excited by the possibilities. Let's get this Wheel rolling.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

That Taser Guy

I know this is old news now, but am I the only guy in the U.S. who, upon watching this video and hearing the guy cry "Ow! Ow! Ow!", suddenly channeled my inner Hans Gruber and began saying, "Hit him again"?

I know, I know, it's sooooo awful that the jackbooted thugs of Bushitler's AmeriKKKa are trampling on human rights and suppressing free speech, but weren't you, in your heart of hearts, hoping the same thing?

I've been suffering loudmouth jerks like that all my life, people who abuse the manners and goodwill of others to make themselves the center of attention. I'm the quiet guy that people like him trample on. And he has apparently been trampling for a while. That applause and laughter you hear as the cops are trying to lead him away is, according to at least one witness, from people who've seen this douche do the same crap at other meetings and functions.

The guy is an attention whore. He knew what was going to happen going in. He goaded it into happening. He wanted it. None of the videos show it, but I'm sure he had a tiny little stiffy right before they hit him with the juice.

As to the use of the taser itself, perfectly justified. I've watched other videos that show the action from all angles, and it appears that, even with seven cops holding him down and multiple instructions to roll over and let himself be handcuffed, he was still struggling so hard they hadn't managed to cuff his second wrist. They could have brute-forced him, possibly injuring him, or they could shock him to take the fight out of him long enough to get him cuffed safely and out of the room, which they did.

Okay, Fraze, you made your point. Now let it go!

Thank you, Cowboy, I'll take it under advisement. Now hit him AGAIN...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Britney and Judy

If you didn't see it live, I'm sure you've heard about the debacle of Britney Spears's opening act at the VMA's. If not, here's the video. It's an awful performance: she's clumsy and unfocused, stumbling through minimal choreography while wearing an outfit that's much more revealing than her untoned body can justify. I couldn't watch the entire number. It was too painful.

But what little I did watch reminded me of another musical number by another troubled performer.

My first year at USC, I took a class called "The Films of Charles Walters," which was one of the easiest classes ever. You would watch a different film directed by Charles Walters every week, then Walters himself would talk about how it was made. Since Walters himself was giving the class, it was an easy 'A' as long as your final paper was full of sufficient praise.

Charles Walters was an MGM director back in the studio's heyday. He started as a choreographer, then later directed films featuring some of the studio's biggest stars: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and most importantly for this comparison, Judy Garland.

"Summer Stock" was one of Walters's films for the studio. Starring Judy Garland (alongside Gene Kelly), it was her last big musical. She was not in good shape when the film was made; she was overweight and overmedicated, and the studio was worried about her, with good reason. She had suffered a breakdown on a previous film ("The Pirate" in 1947, also starring Kelly and directed by her husband, Vincente Minelli). And watching "Summer Stock," you can tell that this is not the sparkling Judy of old.

Until the final showstopping number, "Get Happy." Judy wears a man's hat and a suit coat as a minidress and performs the hell out of an intricately choreographed number.

But here's the thing. It was all a trick. According to Walters, Garland had suffered another breakdown during production and filming had to adjust around her absence, then shut down while she went through rehab. When she returned, slimmed down and cleaned up but still fragile, they only had one number left to do. Walters and his choreographer put together a number that would require little physically from Garland, camouflaging her inactivity with swirling movements from a chorus of male dancers. All she had to do was a few steps right and left and sell the song. And it works really well, although the song itself is horribly repetitive (video here).

Watching Britney the other night, I was seeing the same thing. Britney doing a few simple steps while the dancers around her provided the real physical energy. The problem is, Britney's no Judy. Plus, Britney was live. She didn't have a second take or third take to fall back on. She was on live TV before a live audience, and never managed to connect with them. She just doesn't have the same charisma.

I understand that there were several possible factors contributing to the poor performance. But ultimately, she did her reputation no good with this comeback. I doubt her career can ever fully recover.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Season Opener 2007

Please indulge me in a quick football note:

Dallas played its season opener last night. They won handily, 45-35. But it was not a good omen for the season.

Coach Wade Phillips came to the team from a job as defensive coordinator of the Chargers, who had the best regular season record in the league last year, so it was thought that he would bring a new dynamic to the defense. That dynamic right now is "giving up big plays." They're missing their best cornerback and their senior linebacker to injury, and last night, they lost their starting nose tackle.

They are not going to get very far this season if they can't stop an average offense like the Giants' from putting up 35 points. About the only thing that saved the Cowboys was the fact that the Giants opted not to use the high-tech cooling system that Dallas used, so Dallas's players stayed fresher. But that won't be true every game.

Unless they can shore up the holes on defense, Dallas is looking at an 8-8 season, or maybe a 9-7 at best, barely good enough to sneak into the playoffs (maybe), but no more.

BTW, I thought it was amusing that all the postgame stats on quarterback Tony Romo kept saying he was 15-24, 345 yds, 4 touchdowns. Romo threw for four, but he also ran for one. But statisticians don't like counting running TD's in a QB's stats, apparently.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rude Software

Pardon me while I don my rant cap for a moment. Strong language follows, so beware.

I mentioned a while back that I had stopped going to KFC. As I was passing by one today on my way to lunch, I decided to stop in and give them another try. I previously mentioned my annoyance at their new menu scheme; well, it's no longer new, really, but it still sucks.

The menu board is a big Colorforms toy, with big magnetic pictures stuck haphazardly with no obvious organization. Worse, they've taken away my previous favorite default choice: the two piece chicken and biscuit. Popeye's did the same thing, but KFC is worse. At Popeye's at least, you can get a combo with just one side item. KFC forces you to have two side items if you just want a couple fucking pieces of fried chicken.

Here's how bad the menu is: I ordered the boneless wings combo for $5.49--5 wings, fries and a drink. They had to cook the fries, which meant I was waiting on the food for a long time. When I finally got my order, I also had an apple pie. I was confused, but the lady confirmed my order--5 piece wings combo--so I assumed the pie was a bonus for having had to wait so long for my food. When I was leaving, I noticed they had a special going for exactly what thought I had ordered for $.50 less. Why did I pay extra? Because the pie is part of the normal combo. I ordered something without knowing I was ordering it, because the combo is only described by a picture in the far upper corner of the menu. That's bad menu design.

But that's not why I'm ranting. What really annoys me (and this happens at other fast-food places, not just KFC) is when I have this conversation.

SMILING EMPLOYEE DOOFUS: Hello, welcome to ????, may I take your order?

ME: Yes, I'd like...

SMILING EMPLOYEE DOOFUS: Will this be dine-in or carry-out?

I understand that the register software wants you to enter that field first. But don't fucking ask me for my order, then interrupt me when I start to give it. It's just rude, and it annoys the hell out of me every time it happens. And it's just one more reason for me to go to your competitor next time I get hungry.

I seriously want to find the software designer who came up with that design and kick him in the balls. For all of us. For the children.

Dumb fuck.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

At Long Freakin' Last!

Last week, I received the page proofs for "Out of His League," the first Digger story I wrote. It was an odd experience to reread that story, which they've been holding for (I think) close to three years now. It was written in 24 hours and submitted under the wire for their first Daikaiju! anthology. It didn't make the cut, but they asked to hold onto it for future publication in an e-anthology, which later got changed to a print anthology through Prime Books.

Today was even cooler. When I got home from work, this was waiting in my email-- the cover art to Daikaiju!3: Giant Monsters vs. the World! It's by an artist named Nick Stathopolous. Seriously cool!

Reading the story now is odd, because I've sold two Digger tales since then (both to Jim Baen's Universe), and both were written in First Person Present. "Out of His League" is written in First Person Past, which feels wrong to me now. Plus, there are so many things I would do differently if I were writing it nowadays.

And of course, since Agog! is an Australian publisher, they Britishized (or is that Britishised) all my spellings, which really makes the story feel almost like someone else wrote it. And they clipped my final line. It makes Digger's next plan less clear, but it has better rhythm, so I'll let it stand without fuss. The book is supposed to be released at Conflux 4 in Australia by the end of the month. Not sure when it'll be available in the states.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

More Heroes DVD Stuff, Six Degrees of Frazier's Brain, and a Tiny Touch of Reviewing Nostalgia

When I was reviewing movies for the Daily Oklahoman, waaaaay back in 1986-87, two of the movies I reviewed were "Teen Wolf" and "Burglar," both written by the team of Matthew Weisman and Joseph Loeb III. While watching "Teen Wolf," I figured that the writers must be comic book fans, both because they treated Michael J. Fox's lycanthropy more like a superpower than a curse and because they used the term "wolf out" to refer to his transformation (which was a shout-out to the old Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk TV series; the series's crew used the term "Hulk-out" when talking about Bixby's transformation scenes).

Imagine my surprise when I learned recently that Joseph Loeb III had changed his professional moniker to Jeph Loeb, comic-book writer extraordinaire who has also achieved great success in TV, as a producer/writer on Smallville, Lost, and Heroes.

Speaking of guys who change their professional monikers, Loeb and Weisman also received story credit on the sequel to "Teen Wolf," "Teen Wolf Too," but they did not write the screenplay. The screenplay is credited to R. Timothy Kring, known these days as Tim Kring, creator of Heroes.

I've now listened to all the commentary tracks (except one which was so inane that I couldn't finish it). One of the things I've been newly reminded of: Actors often don't read entire scripts. Depending on the actor's philosophy of acting and/or devotion to craft, they may only read the scenes in which they appear. This reminds me of a Shatner anecdote I'm going to try to find and post about later.

And here's my own little version of "Six Degrees of Separation," connecting me to Heroes. I went to high school with a guy named Steve Spencer, whose dad went to school with a guy named Hunt Lowry. Hunt Lowry produced (among other things) a movie called "Get Crazy," starring Malcolm McDowell and directed by Allan Arkush. McDowell played Linderman on Heroes, and Arkush is an exec producer and has directed five episodes.

So Steve Spencer to his dad to Hunt Lowry to Arkush/McDowell. That's four steps. Can I do better?

Hmmm. Another of my high school classmates was Suzy Amis, who starred in a movie called "Firestorm" with Howie Long. "Firestorm" was co-produced by Joseph Loeb III, aka Jeph Loeb, writer and co-executive producer on Heroes. That's two steps.

Can I do any more? Let's fish around on IMDB...

One of my classmates at USC was a guy named Ken Tsumura. His most recent credit was as an exec producer on "Curious George." The first time I saw Ken's name in credits was on The Simpsons as production manager. George Takei, who played Hiro's father on Heroes, has done voices on three episodes of The Simpsons. That's two again (I could cheat and say it's only one, because I met George Takei at my first sci-fi convention, but getting autographs doesn't count, I don't think).

You know, it's a fun game to play with Kevin Bacon, but it gets a little depressing when I start playing it with my own name.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Heroes on DVD

Happy Labor Day.

I bought the Heroes Season One DVD set on Friday. Watched them all weekend. I haven't watched all the commentaries yet, but TV episode commentaries aren't always that interesting. Usually, I'm looking for further insight into story decisions and lots of times, the commentaries are more along the lines of "We shot this in downtown L.A. at three A.M. I think it really looks like New York."

Anyway, a few observations:

  • The deleted scenes are mostly useless, but in at least one instance, they illuminate something that didn't make sense from the final aired episode. In the early parts of season one, there was a scene where StripperHulk drives a long way (after burying a couple of bodies in the desert) to visit D.L.'s mother. In the scene, we learn what crime D.L. has been accused of (and begin to suspect that it was really StripperHulk who committed it). But the scene seems to be pointless. Niki walks in the door, has a three-minute conversation, then says, "I want you out of Micah's life." What was the point of visiting, then? The deleted scenes give the answer; a deleted subplot about the grandmother calling Child Protective Services, trying to have Niki declared unfit, which was what prompted the visit. The scene couldn't be cut entirely, because it had too much necessary exposition about D.L. and Niki, but they probably had too little time or money to write and shoot a new scene which did the same thing, so we ended up with this weird pointless little episode.
  • I still don't like the "Hiro's father" sub-plot. It really seems tacked on and made up as they went. They refer to the "Takezo Kensei" stories as early as episode one (I think), but the idea that Hiro's dad is super-rich just sticks in my craw. It undercuts the everyman appeal that Hiro had at the beginning, and George Takei, beloved as he is by fans, just doesn't have the acting chops of the rest of the cast. I wonder about his powers, too. From the training montage with Hiro, it appears to be a super-teaching ability, or else some sort of time-dilation effect (like Hiro's space-time warping abilities) that allows him to compress a lot of action into a relatively short span of real time. Or else Hiro really did learn to be a sword master in a few hours. I don't know; the writing on that storyline seemed to veer wildly toward the end. For instance, the scene where Hiro reverses time to make a bullet fly back into a gun, only the momentum of the bullet flying backwards knocks the gun out of the girl's hand. What the hell?
  • Peter has a lot of abilities that he doesn't know about. We know that his mother and father had powers, and Mister Deveaux (Simone's father) as well, but he hasn't exhibited them (although I wonder if Peter's prophetic dreams don't come from Deveaux, since two of the dreams are the only scenes where Deveaux plays a major role). He also met Eden early in the season, but has never used her "command voice" ability. And he's only exhibited Sylar's TK, not any of Sylar's other abilities, like freezing or melting stuff or (especially) super-hearing. That last one should really have manifested in the final episodes.
  • I know some folks were upset that they did that hokey last shot in "Volume One" of Heroes, showing the bloody trail where a survived Sylar has crawled into the sewers after being killed. It seemed like a crass attempt to keep Sylar alive for the ratings next season; the earlier scene of his death made it seem definitive, after all, and they had already teased next season's Big Bad (the man Molly is scared of). But watching the season over again, and knowing that we only saw Sylar exhibit a fraction of the powers he had stolen, I wonder if resurrection is one of them. I say this because Sylar's death at the end of the season is not the only time we saw him die. He also died while in custody at Primatech Paper, then revived and killed the doctor preparing his body for shipping. So that ending shot was actually justified by events earlier in the season. Having said that, I'm disappointed; I've got Sylar-fatigue.
  • Wow, did they pimp the hell out of that Nissan Versa or what? They mention it by name in several episodes, and every graphic novel chapter on the website still bears a blue Nissan Versa ad on the first page.
  • I'm disappointed by the slim bundle of extras in the boxed set, although I guess I should be grateful they provided anything.
I'm really looking forward to the start of season two on September 24. And in the weeks before the season starts, I'll be watching the online "documentaries" about Takezo Kensei, the samurai that Hiro idolizes and whose sword he stole. That just happens to be the lone samurai Hiro runs into at the very end of season one, so Kensei will obviously play a major role in season two. The artwork of Kensei on the Yamagato Fellowship site shows him with a soul patch much like the one Future Hiro sported, so this may be where Hiro transforms totally into the badass we know he will be (although he'll obviously not be so much the dark badass, since Ando didn't die).