Battlestar Galactica "Fragged"

Cool: Colonel Tigh makes it official with his “I’m declaring martial law” speech to reporters, dissolving the Quorum of Twelve and taking the storyline where we all knew it would eventually lead what with all those civil-yet-frosty “debates” between Adama and Roslin over how to lead the fleet. This is a particularly dark turn for Tigh, who earlier in the episode assured another character that Adama would never allow martial law. His decision here suggests Tigh is no longer as worried about doing things the way Adama would have done. Tigh even calls Galactica “my ship” at one point.
Cooler: That tense Tarantino-style standoff on Kobol between Crashdown and Tyrol over how to handle the insubordination of Cally (who only enlisted to pay for dental school) was maybe the show’s most suspenseful moment yet. Bonus points for Baltar’s unconventional solution, though it would have been a much bigger surprise had the episode not been named, uh, you know, “Fragged.”
Best Line: “Leading the charge.” – Baltar’s answer to Apollo’s question about how Crashdown died. Just why Baltar did this (to cover his ass or to protect Crashdown’s honor?) is unclear, but it certainly could make for some interesting possibilities in future episodes. Cover-ups like this rarely end well, especially in TV shows.
Falling: Six continues to try our patience. She’s the show’s worst offender in spouting all of that religion exposition double-talk about the Greater Purpose for all of this. Hopefully, the writers will explain this annoying discrepancy between the Cylon Centurions who want to kill all humans and the Cylon-humans like Six who seem to love humans on some weird level.
Rising (tie): In the hero corner we have Chief Tyrol, whose level-headed leadership on Kobol under extreme duress (in contrast to Crashdown’s adrenaline-fueled sloppy irrationality) has gone a long way to redeeming his inexplicable denial last season of Boomer’s role in a couple of instances of Cylon-style sabatoge. In the villain corner we have Tigh’s slimy wife Ellen, who’s more and more taking on a Lady MacBeth persona as she starts to nudge Tigh into taking control. Keep in mind Ellen’s strange return last season. Everyone thought she was dead and then she pops up on one of the fleet’s other ships having emerged from a coma or something. Odds that she’s a Cylon spy: 4:1.

Geek website: Battlestar Wiki

Battlestar Galactica "Valley of Darkness"

Cool: Colonel Tigh quickly susses out the Cylons’ attack strategy, having “seen this before,” and correctly surmises that they intend on venting the human crew into space. Which would be bad.
Cooler: It’s been a while since we’ve seen Cylon Centurions up close like this. They’re a scary and formidable adversary, especially when they kick on their Gatlin-gun claws and fire off an seemingly inexhaustible spray of bullets.
Huh? After Helo spent weeks on “Cylon-occupied Caprica” laying low, quietly ducking and dodging Cylons like John Rambo in ninja-guerilla mode suddenly there seems to be no worry about being discreet. Starbuck takes Helo back to her old place, cranks up some music, then - just in case any lurking Cylons didn't hear them - they tear out of town in Starbuck’s souped-up Colonial Hummer. Where’d all the Cylons go? Runner up: This new Baltar-Six baby subplot is further muddled with a protracted dream sequence in which Adama drowns Baltar’s baby. It’s all so Symbolic and Meaningful. Whatever.


Battlestar Galactica "Scattered"

Cool: The Galactica using “FTL” – this is a show that loves acronyms – to safely zap away from a Cylon attack... only to realize that a absent-minded procedural error has separated them from the rest of the fleet, which zapped to some other unknown location. Uh oh.
Cooler: The apparent crash of aCylon ship into the Galactica that wasn’t an accidental crash (or a Colonial victory) at all, but rather a clevert tactic to put on board an invasion force of Cylon Centurions. After weeks of interaction with the human-copy Cylons, it’s good to finally see a return of the robot Cylons.
Huh?: Enough already with the tedious nonsense between Baltar and Six, taken here to a new low with this weirdo baby dream sequence. It's clearly meant to be Very Important, but all it does it make you go for the "Fast Forward" button on the TiVo. And what was at first a cool piano plink-plink soundtrack that accompanied Six’s scenes is now just plain irritating.
Best Line: “The bitch took my ride.” – Starbuck, upon seeing that Boomer has flown off in the Cylon Raider, just moments after she was preventing from killing Boomer by a lovestruck Helo.
Falling: Boomer – She’s annoying in both “copies.” Yeah, yeah, it’s supposed to be poignant the way she’s grappling with her human side and her Cylon side, carrying out missions of violence at the same time feeling the twinge of human emotions. But she’s mostly just pathetic, like her inability to kill herself with a space-age blaster gun pointed right under her chin.
Rising: Tigh – This was a showcase episode for actor Michael Hogan, tracing Tigh’s tortured efforts to overcome a self-stated fear of command and step out of Adama’s shadow (taking a risk perhaps that “the old man” Adama may have never considered) to save the fleet. Tigh may be the show’s most complex character, equal parts grouchy loser and loyal soldier.


Vince + Owen = Comedy Gold

It’s been so long since there’s been a movie as exuberantly hilarious as Wedding Crashers that it catches you almost totally by surprise. Too many comedies settle for just putting a smile on your face or a warm buzz in your belly. But this movie – directed by David Dobkin and written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher – aspires to more than that. This is Something About Mary funny, Meet the Parents funny, American Pie funny. It will do just about anything to make you laugh, including one memorably bawdy sexual encounter at a dinner table. This is a film unafraid to embrace its R-rating. And sometimes that eagerness crosses the line, such as with a fairly uncomfortable side plot involving a creepy, vaguely predatory gay man that feels like it belongs in a movie from 1985. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn – wisely sticking to their firmly-established personas as a rumpled romantic and a wise-ass scoundrel, respectively – are bachelors who spend their free time crashing weddings to take single women to bed. Their routine hits a speed bump when Wilson’s character John starts to fall for one of his marks – the luminous Claire Cleary, played by the twinkle-eyed Rachel McAdams. This leads Wilson and Vaughn to spend a weekend with Claire’s weirdo upper-crust family, headed by Christopher Walken. (It should tell you something to know that Walken’s playing one of more normal and level-headed people in the movie.) Naturally, over the course of the story, Wilson and Vaughn’s characters learn to Change Their Ways. The end result is a foregone conclusion. How we get there is where the fun lies. But while the movie has a amusingly zippy energy when it’s stuck in WASPy blue-blood world of khaki and cocktails, once the wedding-crasher ruse is exposed – as ruses always must in these kinds of movies – and Claire rejects John for being a liar, the story languishes in a plodding third act that goes on and on and on for at least half an hour too long. The film’s hurt further by an increasingly silly tone (a last-minute cameo by a well-known comedy star is more irritating than inspired) that undercuts what meager sense of realism it had initially created. Which is a shame because although the climax is funny, it’s also the kind of thing that never, ever happens anywhere but in movie like this. Then again, maybe “funny” is sometimes more important than “realistic.”


Oompa Loompa Miscellany Part 2

From WonkaFacts comes lyrics for the Oompa Loompa songs (from 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) to which everyone knows the melody:

Augustus Gloop: Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo/I've got a perfect puzzle for you/Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dee/If you are wise you'll listen to me. What do you get when you guzzle down sweets?/Eating as much as an elephant eats/Where are you at getting terribly fat/What do you think will come of that? (I don't like the look of it) Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dah/If you're not greedy you will go far/You will live in happiness too/Like the Oompa Loompa Doompadee Do.

Violet Beauregarde: Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo/I've got another puzzle for you/Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dee/If you are wise you'll listen to me. Gum chewing's fine when it's once in a while/It stops you from smoking and brightens your smile. But it's repulsive, revolting, and wrong/Chewing and chewing all day long (the way that a cow does). Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dah/Given good manners you will go far/You will live in happiness too/Like the Oompa Loompa Doompadee Do.
Veruca Salt: Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo/I've got another puzzle for you/Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dee/If you are wise you'll listen to me. Who do you blame when your kid is a brat?/Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat/Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame/You know exactly who's to blame (the mother and the father). Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dah/If you're not spoiled then you will go far/You will live in happiness too/Like the Oompa Loompa Doompadee Do.

Mike Teevee: Oompa Loompa Doompadee Doo/I've got another puzzle for you/Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dee/If you are wise you'll listen to me. What do you get from a glut of TV?/A pain in the neck and an IQ of three/Why don't you try simply reading a book/Or could you just not bear to look (you'll get no commercials). Oompa Loompa Doompadee Dah/If you're not greedy you will go far/You will live in happiness too/Like the Oompa Loompa Doompadee Do.

Oompa-Loompa Miscellany part 1

From now-defunct humor magazine Me Head is an old posting on Oompa-Loompa labor trouble:

"Oompa-Loompas Push for Change" by Kabob Stevens

It's been six years since Wonka was forced to renegotiate wages for his staff of Oompa-Loompas; now they're threatening to strike if work conditions don't improve.

Union clerk Sandy Oompa-Meyers predicts that Wonka Corp. can't ignore complaints much longer.

"We've registered our complaints, all the way up to Bucket (Charlie Bucket, CEO of Wonka). He's no vernicious knid - we think he'll listen," explains Oompa-Meyers.

After its original owner, William Wonka, handed the company reigns over to Bucket in the mid-70s, Wonka Corp. experienced a series of hard hits: The company reached a settlement with various child plaintiffs; Grampa Bucket, VP of Operations; resigned over a scandal involving a Loompa intern; and the Everlasting Gobstopper failed to meet public expectations, driving sales further down.

Among the requests Loompas are proposing:

-Clearly marked exit signs.

-On-site career counseling.

-Stature-friendly bathroom facilities.

"If we don't hear from Bucket soon, then oompa-loompa-oompadee-dim, we'll have a secret waiting for him," says Oompa-Meyers.

Bucket's office had no comment on the proposals. Oompa Loompas are renowned for their confection-handling skills and musical work philosophy.


Is America losing the "War on Terror"?

From the July 14 L.A. City Beat, columnist Andrew Gumbel's "This is London" explores what the London bombings say about American efforts to battle terrorism...

One might have been forgiven, before the abrupt horror of last week’s bombings on the London transport system, for thinking the Bush administration had all but forgotten about its war on terror. The White House has been so distracted in recent months – by Social Security, by the growing morass in Iraq, by Terri Schiavo, by John Bolton and Priscilla Owen and the looming battle over the Supreme Court – that a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that only half the electorate still considered President Bush an effective fighter against terrorism.

That’s an astonishing sea-change for an administration which won a second term largely on the basis that the voting public felt safer in its hands. Whatever happened to those color-coded alerts, which used to be flashed along the bottom of our television screens with such drumbeat regularity? Where are the cabinet officers who used to warn us in grave tones every few weeks that they had received word of a threat of a maddeningly non-specific nature?

Could it be that Al Qaeda has simply given up its ambitions to attack Americans on their own soil after last November’s presidential election? Hardly. Or is it rather that the Bush administration has given up – that, having exploited all those warnings and orange alerts to win reelection, it has no further use for them?

There is nothing pleasant about ascribing such chillingly cynical motives to a government on a subject as elemental and important as the safety of its citizens. But it is also impossible to get around, especially when – as the bloodshed in London so graphically illustrates – the threat of attacks on civilians in just about any high-profile location remains as vivid as ever.

Like many people, I took the London bombings very personally. London is my city. I’ve been on all the underground trains that were hit. I know how asphyxiatingly crowded they can get at rush hour, can imagine the abject panic that must have set in amid the helplessly mashed walls of human bodies as soon as the bombs exploded. When I heard about the bus in Tavistock Square, I could conjure up in my mind the square’s understated brick buildings, the tree-filled park, the squat little statue in the middle celebrating Mahatma Gandhi and his espousal of nonviolence.

People on this side of the Atlantic understand very well, I think, that this was more than just an attack on London, in the same way that many people around the world instinctively felt that the destruction of the Twin Towers was more than just an attack on New York. Such undirected brutality, such killing for the sake of killing, is an affront to human civilization as a whole, and needs to be resisted with all the solidarity and sense of common purpose we can muster.

The Bush administration, of course, has chosen another path. Not only has it divided the world and its own electorate. Not only has it been deceptive and exploited people’s fears for political gain. It has also been singularly lousy at doing the one thing one might reasonably have expected, which is to do everything in its power to minimize the risk of another attack within the United States.

Aside from pumping up airport security and reorganizing the bureaucracy in Washington, the administration’s record is largely one of failure – failure to institute an effective container inspection system at Long Beach and the country’s other major ports, failure to speed up the process of securing loose nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, failure to provide state, county, and city authorities the funds they need to institute their own local counterterrorism programs.

Perhaps most insanely, the USA Patriot Act distributes federal counterterrorism money according to the logic of the electoral college, not on the basis of need. So Wyoming is swimming in federal money – more per capita than any other state – while Manhattan and L.A., where an attack is several orders of magnitude more likely, are gasping for it.

The Bush administration has spent way more money on tax cuts and the war in Iraq than it has on counterterrorism. (Of course it argues that the war in Iraq is counterterrorism, but if the White House’s fight-them-there-so-we-don’t-have-to-fight-them-here line looked dubious before the London bombings, it looks downright absurd now.) Until this week, in fact, when the Senate decided to reexamine the question, the administration was proposing spending just $600 million on safeguarding the nation’s ports, mass transit systems, bridges, railways, and energy facilities in 2006. That’s roughly what the country spends every two to three days in Iraq.

Law enforcement, meanwhile, shows no indication of having any more of a clue than it did in the fateful summer of 2001. Six of the seven members of the alleged sleeper cell in Lackawanna, outside Buffalo, were pressured into guilty pleas and lengthy sentences before the weakness of the case against them could be exposed. It appears to be a similar story in Lodi, where the FBI’s initial wolf-crying about a plot to attack hospitals and supermarkets has not translated into a single indictment on a terrorism-related charge. There are serious grounds for doubting whether the Pakistani terrorist training camp mentioned in an FBI affidavit even exists.

Ice cream salesman Umer Hayat and his son Hamid are being held on the distinctly unspectacular grounds that they lied to investigators, while three other suspects, including two local Muslim clerics, are being held on relatively minor visa violations.

Expert after expert has come forward to characterize those caught up in the FBI’s net as a bunch of amateurs – people with distasteful views who keep bad company, perhaps, but hardly guerrilla fighters so fearsome they need to be apprehended rather than kept under surveillance even before any specific plot has actually been hatched.

The Lodi arrests, in fact, smack of politicization. The FBI acknowledged it had been watching the suspects for a long time and has yet to give a convincing reason why it made the arrests when it did. Can it be a coincidence that the story erupted just as Congress was debating whether or not to renew the Patriot Act, as the FBI and the Bush administration have been urging?

I recently spoke to Tim Naftali, a national security expert and consultant on the 9/11 Commission whose recent book, Blind Spot, recounts the patchy history of U.S. counterterrorism since World War II. He didn’t think it remotely implausible that the FBI, looking for an eye-catching counter-terrorism case to bring to public attention, simply looked through its surveillance files and pulled out the most promising one.

Naftali also argued that the sleeper cell problem is a particularly tricky one. The evidence of 9/11 – Al Qaeda members risking exposure by coming in and out of the country and traveling all over it – suggests that in 2001, anyway, Al Qaeda didn’t have a sleeper cell in the United States worth a damn. Has that state of affairs changed? Given the absence of attacks here since 9/11, perhaps not. Then again, the considerably better prepared law enforcement authorities in London and Madrid were caught out by groups whose existence they had not even clocked.

The point is that the United States urgently needs to take proper stock of the real risks, which indubitably exist, and discard all the deceptive political flummery that serves only to confuse and divide people. 9/11 could not have been a louder wake-up call, but President Bush chose to expend the bulk of his office’s resources on defeating Saddam Hussein and John Kerry instead of Osama bin Laden, and the country fell back to sleep. The London bombings should jolt us awake all over again. Some of the administration’s actions in the immediate wake of last Thursday have actually seemed quite reasonable. Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security director, explained in admirably cogent fashion that he had no intelligence concerning any particular threat but was raising the alert level for mass transit systems anyway. It was the first official pronouncement that I remember since the onset of the war on terror that was free of the whiff of political bad faith. Will the White House be able to keep this up? Like a drunkard going on the wagon, we need to hope and pray and embrace our new sobriety one day at a time.


When aliens attack

The new version of War of the Worlds (brought to you by the Spielberg and Cruise global movie brands) is unmistakably steeped in America’s post-9/11 fear and uncertainty about “foreign” threat, just as the 1950s version was steeped in Cold War communist paranoia. And if you didn’t notice the connection between al Queda and alien invaders, there’s a borderline tasteless shot in the movie of a wall plastered with “missing” posters searching for lost loved ones, shamelessly trading on a real world horror to add a cinematic flourish. That said, the film, all washed out colors and handheld camerawork, has an urgent grubbiness to it that works well. And director Steven Spielberg shows he’s still got what it takes to build suspense. Using lessons he learned well in Jaws, Spielberg creates a great deal of terror from scary sounds, usually noises outside a window. What you can’t see can be far scarier than what you can’t see. As a result, the first hour or so of War of the Worlds is pretty scary – it’s a real misstep, in fact, when Spielberg lets us see the aliens, who look pretty much like every other alien you’ve ever seen. Told from the eyes of working stiff Tom Cruise and his two children, the movie is stuck on the sidelines of the alien invasion, seeing only what Cruise’s character sees. That unique everyman point-of-view perhaps works best in a harrowing sequence involving a seething mob of people desperate to escape the aliens, where common decency is left behind in favor of every-man-for-himself rage. But it soon becomes clear that it can be hard to tell a satisfying alien invasion story from the point-of-view of a man who’s standing on the sidelines, worried more about running for his life than saving the world. As cheesy as some may find 1996’s Independence Day, there was a great deal of satisfaction to be had in following the exploits of a jet pilot, a scientist, and the U.S. president (all heroes at the top of the hero food chain) if only because doing so meant audiences got to cheer when the world repelled an alien attack. War of the Worlds lacks that kind of rah-rah climax, choosing instead to honor H.G. Wells’ original, abrupt, let-down of an ending. Yes, it makes an interesting point about nature and the state of the universe, but it’s not exactly a thrilling ending, nor it is particularly plausible given the otherwise advanced nature of these aliens. Then again, the aliens are presented as so formidable that there may not have been a plausible way to end the movie outside of showing the complete extermination of humanity. But the film doesn’t do a good job at all explaining what the aliens want or why they want it. First they’re zapping humans willy-nilly and then they’re exploiting them for food or fertilizer or something. It doesn’t make a lot of sense (why kill the thing you’re trying to use?). In the end, War of the Worlds starts off strong but doesn’t really know where to go and so it just sort of fizzles out, leaving one with a vague sense of pointlessness.