Sunday, January 20, 2008

TV Review: Terminator - The Sarah Connor Chronicles

I consider myself an unabashed Terminator junkie. I’ve seen the three movies more times than anyone ever should. For a while my wife had an image of a gun-toting, teeth-clenching Linda Hamilton as our PC desktop background, which I fully endorsed. I became envious when my brother-in-law moved to California, not because of the beautiful weather and, uh, scenery, but because he would be residing in the state of Governor T-101 himself.

So it would be gross understatement that I eagerly anticipated the two-night series premier of Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Set after Connor and her preteen son John have made Cyberdyne go cablooey, the series certainly has a tough act to follow. All three of the original movies are solid, quotable in everyday life, and even carry a message about the possible destruction of humanity without being heavy-handed.
Unfortunately, the first two episodes failed to live up to this legacy. It was just a little too slick and glossy to make it stand out from the many other cookie-cutter action/suspense shows on network television.

Although the results were decidedly mixed, there are some positives that make the show worth watching:

There is plenty of suspense, action, and shoot-em-up sequences to keep viewers interested in what will happen next.

There are tie-ins and similarities to the three original movies that Terminator fans will notice and enjoy. The first episode featured movie staples such as the standard cyborg glare-and-walk, the line “come with me if you want to live,” and John Connor sulking about his future as leader of the worldwide resistance.

The acting is good; Lena Headey as Sarah, Thomas Dekker as John, and Summer Glau as femme terminator Cameron all do a nice job. The characters will have room to develop; John of course will transform from the mopey teenager he is now into the less-mopey young man of T3, and eventually into the badass leader of the resistance.

In a ploy long used in television but mastered by Fox in many of its programs, there is plenty of eye candy for hormonal teenage dudes out there. The Terminator-themed Maxim photo shoot starring Headey and Glau is probably inevitable.

Despite this, the series has a long way to go to equal any of the three movies. It’s doubtful that fans of the movie franchise will enjoy the television series as much, and it’s even possible that some fans will view the show as a waste of time.

The first two episodes lacked the grittiness and dark undertones of the movies, especially those of T1. That movie featured a dirty and grimy Los Angeles of bums, chain-smoking cops, and naïve 20-somethings looking for disco kicks, and had an accompanying running soundtrack that sounded like a techno cross between the video game Tron and the band Suicide. It all combined to increase suspense and add to the apocalyptic themes of the movie.

Each of the three movies raised interesting notions about the fate of humanity and how people, through increasingly complex technology designed to advance and protect human existence, could actually unknowingly cause their demise. This major theme was lacking in the first two episodes, probably lost somewhere in a hail of gunfire and the Family Connor running like hell. I’m not asking for the show to turn into a Sartre-like discourse on the meaning of life, but right now the biggest philosophical question raised is the inevitable sexual confusion John will experience as he debates whether he should try to nail his underage femme protector.

Assuming the television series follows the storylines of T2 and T3, some of the show’s mystery is already gone, since anyone familiar with those movies already knows the eventual outcome. In T3, we learn that a new T-101 with a muted understanding of the English language comes back again to protect John, though for some reason this model’s face is far more wrinkled than the T-101 model of T1. We also learn that John’s living off the grid, chugging Budweiser for maximum product placement, and popping pills from various animal hospitals. We learn that the cyborg creators value beauty, since the female Terminator sent back to kill John is damn gorgeous. Finally, we learn that John marries the red-haired chick from My So-Called Life.

The first two episodes were littered with close calls and narrow escapes, a motif Fox has shamelessly used in shows such as Prison Break and 24. Add to that the premiere episode’s introduction of John, Sarah, and Cameron time-traveling from 1999 to 2007, and there’s a potential disastrous recipe for ridiculous storyline twists and abandoned plotlines.

At this point it’s a toss-up as to whether The Sarah Connor Chronicles will succeed or fail. With a nice time slot following Prison Break and frequent promos during the NFL playoffs, the show will likely attract a decent audience. Whether the show can actually match the quality of three Terminator movies remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book Review: 33 1/3 If You're Feeling Sinister by Scott Plagenhoef

Continuum’s 33 1/3 series is an interesting concept: take an author with a sometimes shaky level of qualifications and turn said author loose for about 100 pages to explore the influences, origins, inspirations, and critical and commercial responses of a classic album. At its best, this approach leads to a better understanding and appreciation of an album and its creators (Kim Cooper’s excellent take on Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea). At its worst, the end result is little more than a mind-numbing exercise in recycled minutia, wild speculations, or overblown lyrical analysis (Dai Griffiths’ dismal book on Radiohead’s OK Computer).

Scott Plagenhoef’s study of Belle and Sebastian’s 1996 album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, falls somewhere in between. Plagenhoef, associate editor-in-chief for much loved/hated online music website Pitchfork Media, does an excellent job in exploring general music themes and trends against the backdrop of the album. He expertly shows how listeners now learn about and discover indie music in the Internet and mp3 age, whether it’s even possible for a band to remain “mysterious,” and how a band’s image is often shaped by online media before a listener has an opportunity to form an independent opinion of an artist and its music.

However, the book is severely flawed in that there is little discussion about the album itself. The book is more a treatise as to how music dissemination and consumption have changed in recent years than a study of the actual album.

Plagenhoef persuasively shows how Belle and Sebastian might be one of the last groups to initially maintain an air of mystery about both themselves and their music. Whether it was deliberate or purely accidental, the band’s limited pressing of debut album Tigermilk, eventual refusal to engage the music press, and sporadic, scattershot touring all contributed to a certain myth about the band. It was essentially left to curious indie music fans to discover the band through their own efforts and small circles of like-minded fans.

Plagenhoef argues that this will likely never happen again in indie music. Now a band’s biography and recorded output can all be accessed via a good Internet search engine. In addition, listeners can no longer hear artists without preconceived notions of what that band is supposed to represent, and in the worst cases, how listeners are expected to react to the music. Plagenhoef also discusses how the simple act of listening to an album as a single activity, instead of as part of background noise to another activity, even seems antiquated.

If Plagenhoef’s argument sounds a little reactionary, a close review of the examples he gives shows that it’s hard to disagree with him. If the author can be criticized for anything in this argument, it’s that he glosses over some of the benefits artists now experience from this changing landscape, including easier ways to get their music heard by a wider audience than even a decade ago.

However, this book is advertised as being “about” Sinister. Although Plagenhoef gives a nice history of both the band and of indie rock trends in the 1990s, and addresses the major themes that emerge in the lyrics of primary songwriter Stuart Murdoch, the album is not discussed in any depth until around page 90. This is a shame really; Plagenhoef does a nice job analyzing the album’s themes, especially those centered around childhood, generational gaps, and the role of religion and sex in shaping people, but it’s almost an afterthought in the book. Other areas that are not addressed in any real depth include the album’s possible cultural, literary, and musical inspirations, the album’s place in indie music history, and how the album influenced other artists.

As an analysis of shifting trends in how new music is discovered and how perception of a band is shaped Plagenhoef’s book is an insightful read. However, it’s a stretch to call it a study of Sinister. Belle and Sebastian fans looking for an in-depth analysis of the album might be underwhelmed after reading this book.

Book Review: My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, by Chelsea Handler

Chelsea Handler certainly can’t be accused of being shy or subtle. Her brand of humor is often snarky, sarcastic, and a little (ok, a lot) vicious. Her current show on the E! Network, besides being one of the few shows on that channel worth watching, is often a vehicle for her sometimes crude, sometimes mean, and often funny comedic approach.

This sense of humor also makes My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands an engaging, funny read. Published in 2005, before Handler become a quasi-household name, the book is raw and honest; the Victorians and Puritans among us would be best served to avoid reading it. Some of the language would make a drunken sailor blush. The first chapter, which recounts how Handler as a young girl discovered her parents doing the Big Nasty, might also scare some people off right away, even though it is laugh-out-loud funny. Each remaining chapter chronicles one of Handler’s one-night stand experiences, including hookups with a cruise ship performer who bears a small resemblance to Party of Five actor Scott Wolf, a midget, and a stone-dumb male stripper.

Although there are plenty of one-night stands described in this book, along with its kissing cousins of vodka and Ecstasy, the book’s funniest moments come from Handler’s descriptions of her family life, especially her car “dealer” father and Mormon sister, her various friends and roommates, including the clueless and naïve “Dumb Dumb,” and her misadventures. In a truly hilarious story, she finds herself breaking into her own apartment the morning after a non-hookup, still wearing her M&M’s costume from the previous night’s party. Handler also uses plenty of self-deprecating humor; she stumbles through some of her experiences and is clearly learning as she goes.

Women might find this book more humorous than men. Written from the point of view of a brutally honest female, it does reveal something of the mentality of what at least one woman searching for a one-night stand looks for in a guy. For the guys out there, it’s a little disheartening: one potential hookup is scuttled because he’s too well endowed, where on another occasion, Handler makes a quick exit because her potential suitor has a “shrinky dink.” I’m sure you can figure it out.

This begs the question as to whether a dude can read this book without feeling like a total, grade A pervert. To determine that, there are simple guidelines to follow:

• If you’re a married or otherwise non-single male and your special lady friend asks you to read it, you’re covered. Pervert Rating 0.
• If you’re a married or otherwise non-single male and you’re sneaking peeks at this book out of curiosity, you’re partially covered. It’s not quite as bad as swiping your woman’s Cosmo for bathroom reading material, but it’s close. Pervert Rating 5.
• If you’re a single male and you claim to be reading the book to understand women, you’re full of it. Pervert Rating 10.

My Horizontal Life ends with the author realizing that a life of one-night stands is exausting; it’s the closest the book comes to having a theme or message. This isn’t a bad thing; Handler never takes herself or her subject matter too seriously. Instead, the book delivers enough witty one-liners, observations about dating and life, interesting characters, and funny bedroom (or cruise ship) stories to make it a humorous book worth reading. Unless you’re a single male.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Book Review - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments in Denver Broncos History by Adrian Dater

The typical sports book reads like a printed version of a pep rally or victory parade. Page after page is filled with tales of how the team’s mighty warriors overcame adversity, several plucky opponents, and their asshole coach to win the big game. Sprinkle in personal stories about a few players who dealt with tragedy in their private lives, were dumped by their previous team, or went undrafted, and you’ve got yourself a heartwarming book that the team’s fans will gobble up in droves in the days and weeks after the big championship win.

Despite its absurdly long title, the general lack of these clichés is what separates Adrian Dater’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments in Denver Broncos History from the typical sports book. Dater, a journalist for The Denver Post since 1991, takes an unconventional approach in presenting the highlights and low points of the Broncos’ history. Instead of focusing only on the warm fuzzies, Dater also presents the crushing defeats, lousy players, and off the field (read: criminal, drunken, or just downright stupid) antics.

To be sure, Dater’s book does have some pep rally qualities to it. Quarterback John Elway is of course glorified and spoken of in religious tones. Other fan favorites, including Terrell Davis and his bionic knees, Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, Tom Jackson, and Randy Gradishar, are similarly given such treatment. The Broncos’ greatest moments, particularly the Super Bowl wins in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, are described in near-epic terms. The team’s fans will no doubt like this approach; football fans who are more interested in an objective history of the team’s big victories may want to look elsewhere.

One of the book’s greatest strengths, perversely enough, is that it presents the lowlights of the team’s history, an approach that makes it more than just another book of Broncos propaganda. Horrible losses, such as the 55-10 Super Bowl collapse to San Francisco and the 1996 playoff failure to Jacksonville, are presented objectively, and no excuses are given. Other low points are similarly described, including the fugly uniforms worn by the team in 1960 and 1961, bonehead injuries involving the immortal Brian Griese, and, tragically, the still-unsolved murder of Darrent Williams on New Year’s Eve 2006.

The book is rounded out by a series of articles about a variety of Broncos-related topics, including the talented/obnoxious Shannon Sharpe, the tragic story of Lyle Alzado, and the pharmaceutical life of Bill Romanowski. Some of the major power players in the Broncos’ story are also presented, including owner Pat Bowlen, 1980s coach and Elway nemesis Dan Reeves, and current coach Mike Shanahan. Although Dater gives a nice, sometimes critical, overview of these figures, Shanahan for whatever reason is given the kids gloves treatment. There are some gaps in Dater’s book; major players and fan favorites like Simon Fletcher, Dennis Smith, Karl Mecklenburg, and Steve Atwater are either mentioned only briefly or not at all. In addition, a write-up of Kenny Walker, who played in the NFL despite being deaf, would have also been welcome.

Despite these shortcomings, Dater’s book does an admirable job in giving a concise overview of the massive highs and crushing lows in the Broncos’ story, with enough anecdotes, interesting facts, and bits of trivia to make it a worthwhile read for both fans of the Broncos and fans of NFL history.