Sunday, February 19, 2006

TV on DVD: Battlestar Galactica Season One

Genre: Sci-fi, drama
Director: Michael Rymer
DVD released: Sept. 20, 2005
Verdict: &&&&& (instant classic)

Like my old Battlestar Galactica lunchbox forgotten somewhere in my parents' attic, memories of the 1978 show were lost in the fog of time when a new version of the show emerged on Sci-Fi. The new Battlestar Galactica throws the tricorders, lizard-like aliens and hokey space drama out the window as it reinvents the sci-fi genre, raising the bar in the way that Star Trek: The Next Generation did in the 1980s.

Character-driven and complex, this show has rattled my chain unlike anything since the prime years of The X-Files and is so far superior to any drama on the major broadcast networks that they should be shamed out of business. With a ragtag fleet of human survivors on the run from their own creations run amok, the basic premise mirrors that of the 1978 series. Now, however, the Cylons have evolved to mimic human form, and there are many copies of certain individuals who are carrying out a grand plan. While the human imitators initially riled fans of the old show, it is one of the driving creative elements of the new series and has fueled an atmosphere of paranoia onboard Galactica as everyone becomes suspect. I was hooked from the opening scenes in which the ambassador for the 12 colonies of man journeys to the annual truce meeting with the Cylons, who haven't bothered to send a representative in years. This time, in strolls Number Six (played with smoldering sultriness by Tricia Helfer), who sidles over to the emissary and says, "Are you alive?" "Prove it," she says when he answers in the affirmative. Her idea of proof? Making out.

Make no mistake, this is not just about lasers and shiny toasters (as our heroes often call the robotic Cylons): Galactica is as much about human drama as it is about space duels. The cast is impeccable in nailing the character's foibles, from Edward James Olmos' steely Commander Adama to Mary McDonnell's vulnerable but determined President Roslyn, whose role as secretary of education is elevated to head of government when everyone else is wiped out in the Cylon attack. Then there's James Callis' brilliant take on Gaius Baltar, the "mad" doctor who appears to be a pawn of the Cylons and literally can't get Number Six out of his head or his pants. Does she appear only to him or is she on a chip inside his head? Or is he just nuts? With Number Six we also see another of the show's fascinating themes, religion. "God has a plan for you," she tells Baltar. Why would machines profess to believe in god? This theme expands and teases as the series progresses. The humans are clinging to belief in gods, as well, and the prophecy of a mythical planet called … Earth.

Space battles are beautifully executed, and the look of the show is more organic and believable than, say, any of the modern Star Trek series. The only thing I don't find true to the spirit of the show is use of the euphemism "frack" for cursing, but that's a small price to pay to have such a wonderful show on television. Late in the season is a killer episode, "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down," that hints at a whole new level of fun that can be had here, as the writers give us humorous scenes somewhat reminiscent of The X-Files' self-mocking episodes. The Golden Globes and Emmys should laud this series with dozens of trophies. By the time I reached the final episode, whose opening juggles pivotal moments for several ongoing threads in a symphony of drama, I felt a level of faith for this show bordering on the religious – enough to make Number Six proud.

// DVD notes // The picture quality and sound are impeccable, as you would expect from this first-class DVD set. It includes the miniseries, so there's no need to buy it separately. The 45 minutes of deleted scenes are often interesting, and the behind-the-scenes material is entertaining and enlightening. I would ask that the deleted scenes be made available with the appropriate episode rather than only on the bonus disc.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

DVD: The Ring Two (Unrated Edition)

Genres: Horror, J-Horror
Released: March 18, 2005
Director: Hideo Nakata
Cast: Naomi Watts, David Dorfman, Simon Baker, Sissy Spacek
Verdict: &&&

I was perfectly bewildered by the overwhelmingly negative vibes that greeted The Ring Two, sequel to one of the most successful (and deservedly so) modern horror films, The Ring, based on Japan's hugely successful Ringu. It was as if critics and moviegoers faulted the movie for failing to recreate the singular experience that was The Ring, and that's just an impossible demand for this sequel. It's an enjoyable horror film, although I will agree that it suffers for not having a hook like that transfixing videotape, whose contents were at once beautiful, repulsive and fascinating. Director Hideo Nakata (of the original Ringu, no less) attempts to compensate with ample plot, including troubled ghost Samara trying to inhabit Rachel Keller's (Naomi Watts) son, Aidan (David Dorfman, whose presence is at least as strong as that of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense), and Rachel again trying to uncover the past. She seeks out the institutionalized mother of Samara, played with chilling effect by veteran actress Sissy Spacek. It's all done with the stylized visuals you expect, but a second viewing on the small screen reinforces the sense that this effort lacks the creative spark of its predecessor and fails to match the sustained edge-of-your-seat dread achieved in The Ring. The Ring Two comes closest to that mood with the deer attack scene, which genuinely shocks in the way the horse scene did in The Ring. This unrated version seems to have been undergone considerable tinkering; you'll notice new footage and even things that have been taken away. Curiously removed is a nice sequence at the flea market before the deer scene in which Aidan locks eyes with one of the creatures in the nearby woods.

Watching the short film Rings in the bonus features, one marvels that this dynamic footage didn't make it to the final cut. Basically setting up the movie's first scene, it shows the young male student (Ryan Merriman) from that scene being coaxed into watching the videotape and keeping a video diary of what happens to him. "Nobody has made it to day seven," says one of the friends. The horrors and visuals that follow drip with the kind of kinetic energy that made The Ring such a pleasantly unpleasant ride. I found myself thinking: Why didn't they make this movie instead?

Buzz after The Ring Two's premiere indicated there will be a third film, possibly delving into the still murky back story involving Samara's adoptive parents. Despite the mixed results of this one, here's hoping they go back to the well one more time.

// Linkage // For all things Ring, including the American and Japanese movies and the Japanese novels by Koji Suzuki, The Ring World is the most impressive fan site I've seen in any genre.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Books: Darkly Dreaming Dexter • Jeff Lindsay

Genres: Mystery, serial killer, suspense, thriller
Published: July 20, 2004, by Doubleday
Verdict: &&&1/2

I hadn't read a serial killer novel since growing tired of John Sandford years ago, and here's what it took to lure me back: A novel about a serial killer who kills other serial killers. But it slices even deeper than that clever twist. Lindsay's prose is most penetrating when protagonist Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, wrestles with the evil urges (his Dark Passenger, as he puts it) within and struggles to appear "human" in his interactions with others. The novel has impressed others, too: A Showtime drama is being developed from the Dexter stories (there's a second novel, Dearly Devoted Dexter), which are a natural fit for the CSI era. Morgan's foster father noticed his evil tendencies at a young age and, knowing his son could not resist the urge to kill, encouraged him to channel his energy into doing away with bad people. A horrible experience at an early age triggered his obsession with slicing his victims bloodlessly, and his chain gets seriously rattled when a new killer in town begins slicing up bodies in the same fashion and teasing Morgan with clues. At the same time, he's caught up in departmental politics, tugged in one direction by his sister, who's on the case and asking for his help while growing suspicious of him, and tugged in the other by a detective who hates his sister and has the hots for him. Even worse, his Dark Passenger wants to come out and play. The conclusion isn't quite as satisfying as the journey there, but the prose is consistently as sharp as Morgan's instruments of destruction, making this a pleasant dance with a devil.

// Currently reading // Cell • Stephen King

Friday, February 03, 2006

TV: Survivor Panama - Exile Island

Genre: Queen of "reality" games
Logistics: CBS, 7 p.m. Thursday
Premiere verdict: &&&

Twelve seasons in, what's left for the jaded Survivor fan who has been there every step of the way? Even Jeff Probst seems to be growing weary of it; stories circulated that he might not return after Guatemala. Sure, the tropical vistas are still stunning and the production still aces, but I can't sit through the 90 billionth immunity or reward challenge in which contestants crawl through mud and then slide pieces of a puzzle around. For some time, I've been ignoring the challenges until much later in the game. In fact, it's become a chore to sit through the first few episodes until the personalities gel and the conflicts emerge. But the sweet payoff in the form of paranoia, backstabbing, deceit and confrontation is almost always worth the tedium of the first few episodes, when you have the small consolation that most or all of the good eye candy hasn't been voted out yet. Just when I'm asking myself why I'm watching this again, along come the reminders: Shane, whose demise should be quick and entertaining, confesses to the camera that he smokes three packs a day and hasn't had a puff in 31 hours. Cirie allows that she's never slept outside before and is bothered by leaves. Then we have the quasi-celebrity, Dan Barry, a former astronaut who would rather everyone not know of his career. So what does he do? Within 10 minutes he says to one of his tribe mates, "Can I trust you? Wanna know my big secret?" Ah, human nature. Nothing is more entertaining.

// Linkage // Survivor 12 at CBS