Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dexter in Decline?
Watching the season opener of Dexter, I couldn’t escape the feeling the series has settled into a state of complacency. In the first season of the series, we had a dark antihero dispensing unholy retribution to those who had escaped justice by slipping through cracks in the justice system. Dexter was almost a merry prankster of mayhem in those days, slicing and dicing evildoers with elfin abandon by night, and dispensing doughnuts to his coworkers at the Miami police department by day. We liked the guy, and it was all so deliciously silly, we didn’t mind a bit that he was a serial killer, albeit a serial killer who only preyed on other killers.

The second season of Dexter was a little more complex, as Dex realized that he wasn’t as emotionless as he thought he was, and he discovered that he liked girls after all. The fact that the pieces of his victims were inadvertently discovered by treasure seeking divers off the Miami coast complicated his dreamy world, of course, but only in the smallest way. Dexter was still operating under Harry’s Code, even after he realized that most of it was based on a lie his adopted father had perpetuated. Dexter emerged unscathed, though, as we knew he would all along. Sure, it cost some lives, most notably his nemesis Doakes, and it caused him to reexamine the Code. But what mattered was that Dexter had affirmed himself as no longer a student, but a master of dealing out death to the deserving.

“Our Father.” the season premiere of Dexter, is essentially Dexter telling his dentist how he spent his summer vacation. It’s darkly comic, of course—he went to the carnival, which was a secret killing ground for a child predator. His relationship with Rita has blossomed apparently, with sex being an overriding factor. In fact, most of the time we see Dexter and Rita together, they’re doing the nasty. He’s also settled into the role of surrogate father with Rita’s kids. It’s almost a Leave It to Beaver lifestyle they have, sans the June Cleever pearl necklace. (Come to think of it, nobody ever knew exactly what it was that Ward did when he left their cozy suburban home.)

We do know what happens when Dexter leaves the house. When he goes to delete a drug dealer who got away with murder years before, things go horribly wrong. The dealer gets away, and Dexter ends up in a struggle with a person who wasn’t supposed to be there. It’s a battle involving a knife, with predictable results. Dexter, in his very personal view of ethics, grapples with the fact he’s killed somebody without knowing if they met the criteria of Harry’s Code.
And in his twisted logic, he begins investigating his latest victim, mostly to justify his killing.

Complicating matters is the fact that his victim appeared to be a community activist, who also happened to be the brother of renowned prosecutor Cuban immigrant and ambitious Assistant District Attorney Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits). who also happens to be an old flame of Lt. LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) Thus is the cat and mouse game established for the season.

Admittedly, I’ve only seen the first episode of the new season, and I’ve been watching Dexter from the beginning. Maybe that’s part of the reason I can’t escape the feeling I’ve seen this before. Deb is vying for a promotion, and she’s involved with wrong guy once again (this time a fellow cop being investigated by IA), oh—and she got a haircut. Angel has been promoted to Detective Sergeant, filling the void left by Doaks’s death. The ghost of Harry is still influencing Dexter’s actions, regardless of how he proclaims himself the new master. And Dexter is still adhering to the first rule of Harry’s Code: don’t get caughet.

Dexter’s producers have said the first season represented Dexter’s birth, the second season his adolescence and the current season his adulthood, Umm, okay. My question is, does adulthood also represent a realization of mortality? All good things come to an end, and while I want to believe that Dexter has a lot of surprises in store, my gut feeling is that this will be its last season. And I’m hoping it goes out in a blaze of glory.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Almost Forgotten, A Film that's a Privilege to View

You can’t be a prophet in your own village. At least, that’s the way the Hungarian proverb goes. But what if your village is the world stage and your words are more pronouncements on contemporary society than dire warnings for a future that may or may not happen? You might want to ask Peter Watkins about that.

When his film Privilege was released in 1967, it was almost universally savaged by British critics. They called it “hysterical,” “flailing”, “juvenile,” “a hopscotch of film and television”—and those were some of the more reserved comments. Critics in America, by and large were a bit kinder in their assessments of the film, hailing it as “uncompromising,” “crisp,” and even “brilliant.” Looking back at it over forty years later, critics on both sides of the Atlantic all were right. And they all were wrong.

What makes Privilege fascinating after all this time is how eerily close its scenario has become to the everyday workings of media manipulation in our contemporary culture. Released in 1967, and postulating a near future of 1970, Privilege was more a symbolic representation of what Watkins saw as the current state of society than anything resembling social science fiction. At its most simplistic, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Steven Shorter, the most successful pop star in Britain’s history. Shorter (Paul Jones, former lead singer of Manfred Mann), caught up in his own PR, is more puppet to the combined forces of the media, government and church, than he is an actual personality. He’s devoid of any independent thought, shifting his persona according to the whims of his handlers, transforming from cathartic victim of society to pitchman for the benefits of apple consumption to an advocate of utter conformity. It’s only when his government-hired portraitist Vanessa Richie (Jean Shrimpton) gradually becomes his lover that he begins to question his complicity in media manipulation.

Privilege was one of the earliest “mockumentaries,” and its distributor, Universal, as well as the press, both in the UK and the US, really didn’t know what to make of it. Watkins’ previous work, The War Game, had already been banned by the BBC, and on this, his feature film debut, the British press of the time marched in lockstep with the conservative government, ridiculing the film in the most minute detail. American marketing, not surprisingly, capitalized on its youth appeal, and sensationalized the film’s more subtle commentary.

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In actuality, Privilege was neither sensationalistic or na├»ve. Nor was it Orwellian, as some have claimed. It’s really about sacrificing one’s individuality at any cost for that proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, and the consequences of such a choice. In the process, it turned out to be prophetic. In our contemporary society, fame is fleeting, manufactured largely by gossip and scandal. That’s our cathartic release. We live vociferously through the travails and transformations of our Star of the Moment. In that regard, Privilege emerges as profoundly prophetic. With Privilege, Watkins foresaw the self-mutilation of acts like Iggy and the Stooges, and the anarchic posturings of the Sex Pistols. Shorter’s handlers can easily be viewed as a prototype for Malcolm McClaren, or for that matter, any number of contemporary political campaign managers.

Perhaps because it was so spot on in its observations about the collusion of media and government, Privilege languished for decades as a cult oddity, turning up here and there on late night TV movies, with not a pristine print available anywhere, even to Watkins himself. Finally, with New Yorker Films digitally restored DVD release of the film, Privilege is available to a new, more savvy audience. It’s not a splashy package, presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio an delivererd in mono sound. Besides a bio of Watkins, the only bonus feature on the disc is the 1961 CBC documentary short “Lonely Boy,” about then 19-year old pop sensation Paul Anka. Besides being an award-winning film in its own right, “Lonely Boy” served as something of a blueprint in the making of Privilege, and illustrates how even in 1961, stars were molded, not born. The real bonus feature of the Privilege DVD is the accompanying booklet that offers commentary from Watkins and others about the controversy and the significance of the film.

Granted, Privilege is far from a perfect film. Watkins’ cinema verite approach sometimes overshadows his storytelling. But its significance lies in the fact that it puts all the ballyhoo surrounding stardom in its proper place, and forces the viewer the viewer to realize we’re all co-conspirators in media manipulation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Fiery Tears of 9/11--As They Happened

I remember that Tuesday morning in 2001 as if it happened seconds ago. In my case, I was scurrying around my apartment getting ready for work. The Today Show playing in the background. It was almost time for the local traffic and weather update. Today had broken for commercial, something about hygiene products or the best lending deals around—I don’t know. I never really paid attention to those commercials. But what did catch my eye was when the commercial interrupted in mid-way, and a voice-over said a plane, size unknown, had crashed into the World Trade Center.

My first reaction was that they’d gotten their tapes mixed, and that this was a glitch advertising some upcoming disaster movie. In the scant moments that followed, I realized how horribly wrong I was.

I didn’t go to work that day.

I think a lot of us didn’t.

When everything we had ever thought had been turned inside-out in a matter of minutes, nothing seemed to matter that much. We were numb in disbelief. I was in Dallas, You were wherever you live. But it didn’t matter. We were all as one, a singular voice screaming “Why?!” Imagine what it was like in New York City.

As the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded in New York City, some witnesses were frozen with shock, some helped others, and many ran as fast as they could from the growing disaster. Then there were those who grabbed their video cameras. Despite the chaos and danger, many people kept their cameras rolling throughout the catastrophe. The special 102 MINUTES THAT CHANGED AMERICA premieres Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 9 p.m. ET/ PT on The History Channel without commercial interruption. With footage from more than 100 individual sources, carefully pieced together in chronological order, the special is a permanent historical archive for future generations to see.

102 Minutes That Changed America presents amateur and professional footage, woven together without narration or commentary, to provide the viewer with an immersive and emotional experience. This documentary faithfully records and captures that historical morning as it happened and the way it was experienced from people’s initial bewilderment that a plane could slam into these iconic skyscrapers on such a clear, sunny, day to the sudden, awful recognition that America was under attack.

Over the 24 months it took to research 102 Minutes That Changed America, the production team screened more than 500 hours worth of professional and amateur videotape, as well as more than 30 hours of audio recordings from New York City Fire Department and New York City Police Department radio transmissions and 911 calls.

Among the videographers are two New York University seniors filming from a high-rise dormitory just blocks from the World Trade Center. Immediately after the first plane’s impact, these young women pick up their camera and begin recording the smoking North Tower. Their confusion turns into panic when they observe objects plummeting from the tower windows. Then, in their viewfinder, the second plane impacts the South Tower. Terrified, the girls must decide whether to stay on the 32nd floor or flee with their friends to the ground floor. ?
Meanwhile, six blocks south, another camera follows firefighters trudging toward the flaming towers, as radio communications from the 72nd floor call for reinforcements to help put out the inferno above. Civilians on the street, many of whom are just emerging from their subway commute, wonder at first why the building is on fire. Bystanders who suspect terrorism wonder if another attack is imminent, and whether it will strike them next.

From other points around the city-- in Times Square, on Staten Island and in New Jersey as well-- onlookers stare in disbelief at the sight of the burning towers. They express concern for the well-being of the workers potentially trapped inside the Trade Center, and for friends who may live or work nearby. A woman filming out the open window of her lower Manhattan studio is blown off her feet by the force of the North Tower’s collapse, and then enveloped in the its suffocating cloud of debris.

This is powerful stuff, made all the more so by the fact that it was all recorded as it happened, by the people who witnessed it. There are no editorial comments, no commercials to give one pause. It’s a gripping piece of history, recorded by hundreds at the exact moment it happened from their particular points of view. In those individual viewpoints, we find a commonality, a singular voice that unites us all. 102 Minutes That Changed America is an historical document not to be missed, particularly in these times where politics eclipse that tragic day.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Heavenly Intervention in the Courtroom

One of the best things about last year’s Writers’ Strike is it forced the networks to take a few chances with programming, thus giving offbeat series like Eli Stone a shot they might not have gotten in a more traditional TV season. A show about a corporate lawyer who, due to a brain aneurism that gives him hallucinations, andmay or may not be a prophet as a consequence, most likely would have disappeared after a few episodes in an ordinary season. That’s assuming it would have even been aired in the first place.

Eli Stone did air, though as a “mid-season replacement” in the heat of the Writer’s Strike, premiering Thursday 31 January 2008 at 10P EST, and maintaining that slot through a 13 episode run that ended 17 April 2008. It wasn’t a ratings juggernaut in that run (then again, what was?) but it attracted a following substantial enough to secure it a second season on the new ABC fall schedule. (Premieres 14 October, 9p EST.)

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Watching the DVD release of Eli Stone: The Complete First Season, it’s easy to understand why ABC picked the series up for a second season. Imagine all those Frank Capra movies you grew up with placed into a 21st century context, where good guys don’t always win in the end, put in the requisite romance, add a few musical numbers and ratch it up a bit with some cool CGI effects, and you have a reasonable backdrop for the series. What really makes it compelling, though, is that beneath all that razzmatazz, Eli Stone touches a universal core of the human heart.

Rather than produce yet another courtroom procedural, creators Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim opted to utilize the setting as a larger stage in the quest for self-realization. When we first meet Eli Stone (Jonny Lee Miller), he’s a cutthroat trial lawyer on the fast track, devoid of any semblance of conscience. That’s before he sees George Michael performing in his kitchen at a most inopportune time. It’s a hallucination, of course, brought on by an undiagnosed brain aneurism. It could be something more, according to his acupuncturist—he could be receiving these visions as divine inspiration, and may, in fact, be a prophet.

Prophetic visions or not, Stone’s hallucinations usually have a bearing on this current case, and often his personal life. That they happen to usually include Broadway-class musical numbers is merely incidental. And that his concept of God bears an uncanny resemblance to George Michael shows that the series never takes itself gravely seriously. Unlike antecedents such as Aly McBeal or Cop Rock, intertwines Stone’s musical hallucinations in such a way they actually enhance what might be an otherwise dry plot. Since we share his hallucinations (or are they prophetic visions?), we relate to his plights, whether it’s taking on unlikely cases, sacrificing his true love for the greater good or dealing with the pesky tumor that may kill him at any given moment.

Eli Stone: The Complete First Season is a rarity among TV series DVDs. Largely because the season plays out as a series of mini-movies minimally linked by ongoing plot threads, each of the thirteen episodes stand on their own as stories unto themselves. They’re dramatic without being preachy, comedic without falling back on pratfalls and touches on mortality without being morose. The acting and direction are superb, especially for a show that was a mid-season replacement in the heat of the Writer’s Strike. Think of it as a courtroom procedural if directed by Terry Gilliam, where fantasy and reality play out on the same canvas.

Unlike a lot of TV boxed sets, Eli Stone has the aura of a labor of love. It’s presented in 1.78:1 aspect and Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound, and the reproduction is crystalline. Of course, there are bonus features, including the obligatory bloopers and deleted scenes. Thankfully, this set also has features that actually enhance the viewing experience, including pieces on how and why the show was created in the first place, an explanation of the Eli Stone-George Michael connection, a shot on how the CGI effects figured into the story and a look at the economy of the sets, hosted by co-star Natasha Henestridge. There’s an extended pilot episode with audio commentary by the show’s creators.

Season Two promises to open a new chapter in the ongoing story of Eli Stone. Regardless of how that goes, Eli Stone: The Complete First Season stand on its own as a hallmark in the evolution of television. It manages to be a quiet spiritual journey of one man without slipping into the abyss of religiosity. As such, it opens new avenues of conversation. And it does so with a smile and a wink.