Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Crash Is Only a Fender Bender
Nothing is random in the universe. Molecules collide and interact constantly, shaping events in a dance that’s anything but haphazard in retrospect. The film Crash personified that motif as it detailed how seemingly unrelated lives intersect in utterly unexpected ways. In the process, it examined the prejudices that quietly shape us as individuals. It was a quiet film, unsettling in its pedestrian pacing. It went on to win the 2005 Best Picture Oscar. While a case could be made that Crash won by default, cancelling out the achievements of its competition, which included Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck and Capote, the fact remains that Crash took a fresh, if sometimes heavy-handed look at the subtleties of the prejudices that divide us.

With its ensemble cast and intersecting storylines, Crash often played like a TV episode. In fact, it was originally envisioned as a TV series before it became a movie. As cable network Starz’s first foray into original programming, Crash has come full circle.


Starz touts Crash the TV series as a groundbreaking entry exploring similar themes as the original movie, but nothing in the first two episodes quite connects. In fact, there’s little that compels the viewer to care overmuch as to how the various plotlines might eventually connect. The characters here, by and large, are unsympathetic, propelled by cliché devices that hardly lend any credence to the notion we’re all connected. Dennis Hopper, as wacked out, over the hill and over the top record producer Ben Cendars, appears to be the centerpiece character of this hodgepodge. The first episode opens with him exposing himself to his female driver, while muttering Greecian-inspired, albeit incoherent, poetry. It then cuts to a soft focus sex scene—you know, the kind that shows nothing, but places the curves where the imagination fills in the blanks—which introduces us to the obligatory tainted cops in the series. From there, we cut to the Brentwood home of a real estate developer for whom things are not going well. His wife is going through a midlife crisis, while still trying to maintain their lifestyle. To top it all, her father has a choking problem in the middle of dinner. The EMT in the ambulance happens to be a Korean who has a Korean gang past.

It’s not so much that these characters don’t have the potential to be compelling. But they’re drawn so broadly, and their situations so irrelevant to Reality As We Know it, it’s hard to sympathize with any of the principals. Admittedly, Crash the movie had only about two hours to make its point. As a TV series committed to thirteen episode, it can move at a more leisurely pace. That being said, the fact remains that it’s essential to grab the viewer within the first ten minutes of the pilot. With the first ten minutes of Crash, we got bad poetry and masturbation. By the end of the second episode, we got requisite bad cops and A Streetcar Named Desire pleas to illicit lovers. If Starz wants to be a player in premium cable original programming, it’s going to have to pick up the pace.

You can see the first two episodes of Crash here. It’s also playing throughout the month on both Starz and its sister network, Encore.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Last Enemy: A Future That Feels like the Present
If you think you’re being watched, you’re not paranoid. If you know you’re being watched, you’re a realist. In our digital world, every move you make is being tracked by somebody who laughs at the notion that crosscut paper shredders enhance out personal security. In a universe of 1’s and 0’s, paper trails are replaced by bits and bytes colliding in cyberspace. You’re being watched all the time, from red light cameras to surveillance systems that rival Vegas planted in your neighborhood grocery to instantly accessible street view pictures of your domicile to every yahoo with a cell phone.

The Last Enemy, the debut entry of Masterpiece Contemporary (premiering on PBS Sunday 5 October, 9P EST) is a chilling, all too real cautionary tale about our devotion to security at the cost of personal identity. Originally broadcast earlier this year on BBC, the five-part miniseries is theoretically set in a near future, but its theme of a society underscored by personal surveillance strikes unnervingly close to home.

Stephen Ezard (Benedict Cumberbatch, Atonement) returns to Britain from a four year stint in China, where he was researching the mathematical structure of the Universe, to attend his brother Michael’s (Max Beesley) funeral. Michael was apparently killed in a roadside bomb n Afghanistan, and to Stephen’s surprise, he’s mourned by numerous acquaintances due to his relief work in the region. Even more surprising to Stephen is that he finds himself in an affair with his brother’s widow, Yasim (Anamaria Marinca) the same night. He was late for the funeral—she didn’t attend it.

If all that sounds a bit convoluted and more than a little murky, it’s because it is. It’s also the foundation around which most of the events in The Last Enemy revolve. Stephen is a stranger in his own land, which has instituted more stringent surveillance on its citizenry after a terrorist attack on London. He barely recognizes the England he left years ago, rife as it is with biometric ID cards, security cameras virtually everywhere, and the implementation of the “Total Information Awareness” program, which gives the government unfettered access to personal data of every citizen. It isn’t long , however, that Stephen finds himself the media spokesman for TIA.

In the first episode, the viewer may come away feeling as confused as Stephen Ezard. He’s reintroduced to an old college flame, Elinor Brooke (Eva Birthistle, The State Within), who is now the minister responsible for pushing through Parliament. He’s also kidnapped and terrorized by a rogue government agent played by David Carlyle (The Full Monty), determined that the bewildered Ezard knows all about a conspiracy.

The Last Enemy looks at the side effects of a society trading personal freedoms in favor of heightened security, and the corruption that inevitably ensues when bureaucrats are imbued with power owing as much to corporate interests as it does to national security. In the end, it asks if the individual must be trampled, revealed as “the last enemy” of a secure state.

Throughout the miniseries, The Last Enemy holds that proposition close to its sleeve, and forces us to look at our willingness to sacrifice personal liberties in the name of the State’s greater good. That it does so as a taut, action-mystery only enhances its message. It's to writer Peter Berry's (Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness) that it's a tale that is so in tune with reality that it never comes off as obvious. In fact, nothing is as it seems at first glance. It’s not a series to watch casually, requiring the viewer pay attention to the clues it drops haphazardly along the way. But for the viewer willing to invest five and a half hours to unravel its mystery, it’s ultimately a satisfying, if often unsettling, experience.