Sunday, February 15, 2009

TV: Blustering Boys

Blustering boys pop up a great deal on TV these days.


Take XIII which concludes tonight on NBC. The two-part mini-series came to our attention Tuesday when friends at NBC began attempting to interest us in writing about it. We'd missed it. We were busy. Thanks but no thanks. Wednesday one NBC suit took it upon himself to fax reviews or 'reviews' to our DC hotel. He noted in the cover letter, "At least read the garbage The Idiot Belafonte wrote." The Idiot Belafonte? We do so love when our catch phrases are used. Okay, we'll read it.

Gina Belafonte is no doubt really proud of her garbage but we're wondering where the editor was? A lot of bad jokes that have not a damn thing to do with the mini-series. It's really past time that The Idiot Belfonte was forced to make an honest living.

We didn't know if we'd like it or not but we knew that if GB couldn't be bothered with actually reviewing it, we'd have to tackle it. "Send us the disc," we said, feeling a little like Angela Bennett.

The mini-series concludes tonight and our first goal is to get you up to speed. XIII is the tatoo Stephen Dorff has on his chest near his neck (not on his neck as some have insisted). The president has been assassinated while giving a speech announcing US troops were being pulled from Iraq and Afghanistan. Her vice president is now president, running for the office and being opposed by the dead president's brother.

Stephen Dorff appears to be the assassin. He is found in a tree (hanging from his parachute), shot and out cold. An elderly couple takes him in (the wife used to be a doctor) and nurses him back to health. He has no memories of what happened before being in the couple's house which quickly becomes the scene as a shoot-out as unnamed thugs and Val Kilmer show up. Both the man and the woman are killed and Dorff escapes determined to find out who he really is.

What unfolds is Val Kilmer thinks Dorff is 13 but he's actually a government agent who volunteered for reconstructive surgery to look like 13. 13 died after killing the president and Dorff's character is the governmental good guys (as opposed to the government bad guys also on display in the miniseries) only chance to flush out the killers.

Those are the basics and, with just the three paragraphs above, you can tune in tonight and follow the conclusion. But should you?

The reviews faxed to us (there were four) slaughtered the mini-series (three slaughtered it with critical comments, Belafonte just said it was awful and tried to work in some bad one-liners that had nothing to do with the mini-series). We're really not understanding the venom.

The cast is not wooden at all. One reviewer rightly praised Caterina Murino (who is wonderful as Sam) and most had good words for Val Kilmer but the rest of the cast was savaged and we were expecting to see some sort of extreme camp, Planet Nine type show. Instead, we saw a strongly acted, action popcorn feature.

Jessalyn Gilsig, for example, was believable in one of those only-in-action-movie scenes. Having just shown up as Kim, she has to explain that she's XIII's wife. She then has to explain that, while serving in Iraq, he fell in with a diabolical crowd, returned to the US with a bad conduct discharge that she discovered was a cover to get him out of Iraq and to the US so he could murder someone. He was not her husband anymore, as far as she was concerned, her husband had died in Iraq.

A bit over the top for one scene? She was just getting started. Alarmed at this unknown plot, she contacted her military father and they decided they had to get to the bottom of it. She begins sleeping with her husband (guess all of him didn't die in Iraq) to win his trust. She then gets him to tell the other conspirators that she wants in and her father provides her with some documents that look like state secrets so they'll trust her. They tattoo her and she's in but they do that, she says, just to humor XIII. She doesn't find out what's going on in time to stop it. He shoots and kills the president. He is shot after and, though Val Kilmer and others think he is alive, he died. At that point, Gilsig is finally allowed to take a breath and the others explain to Dorff how he's a government agent who volunteered to pose as Kim's husband Steve to catch the 'evil doers.'

It's data overload and really requires that Christina Pickles show up and declare, "That's a lot of information to get in in thirty seconds. Alright Joey, if you wanna leave, just leave. Rachel, no you weren't supposed to put beef in the trifle. It did not taste good. Phoebe, I'm sorry, but I think Jacques Cousteau is dead. Monica, why you felt you had to hide the fact that you were in an important relationship is beyond me. . . . Ross, drugs? Divorced? Again?"

Instead, Val Kilmer shows up and shoots Gilsig who quickly expires -- apparently already in a weakened state from lugging around all that exposition.

But while the writing of that scene was forced, Gilsig's acting wasn't. No one really gives a bad performance. Not even Stephen Dorff who creeps us out.

Not the character, The Dorff. Back when The Dorff was trying to make a name for himself as something other than a guy who used to play Becky's boyfriend on Roseanne, he was forever flashing pit and chest hair and forever doing so in outlandish poses. No, Stephen, no one ever needed to see you photographed on a toilet, not even when you were wearing women's shoes. So it's a bit creepy to see The Dorff turn up in a shirtless scene and grasp that someone's been waxing.

The Dorff and Michael Stipe used to pal around. They really palled around. And they didn't care who was around. And when Details did back-to-back covers on the two pals, the first angered Dorff (who could have tried not letting it all hang out in front of a reporter) but the second really pissed him and Michael off. Boys, if you don't want reporters writing about how you pull back the other's pants and look down them, don't do it in front of reporters. If you do it in front of them and they write about it, don't throw little fits and don't try to get people fired. Details ended up having a complete shake up over the tantrums of The Dorff and Stipe. One more reason no one should feel too torn up that R.E.M. fell on hard times long, long ago.

As a result, we have long enjoyed the 'tales from the road' of The Dorff and we'll note that he looks very convincing in a trucker hat early in the mini-series but looks even more convincing in tonight's conclusion wearing a collar with a chain. It may be The Dorff's most realistic onscreen moment and we strongly suggest that any who have ever been turned on by him (at one point in the fading days of the grunge era, he turned on a lot of men and women) check out tonight's conclusion for only that reason.

Dorff may be an actor. We feel he's at least ready for his St. Elsewhere second lead. The Dorff's playing a cypher action figure -- no memory but instinctively remembers training -- and his stunted, interior quality may actually work here. Val Kilmer really relishes the role he's playing and has a great deal of fun with it. It's a blustering boy, a scene chewing character. Kilmer has so much fun with it that you end up enjoying it as well. There's not much of a character to play -- which goes to the writing -- so the mini-series is lucky to have Val in a co-lead.

One reviewer complained about the use of different film stock when the story goes into flashback of the assassination but the alternative is what? As we remember it, the trick used to be that the flashbacks would be shot the same way but, when shown on your screen, be a little blurry and slowed down. We'll gladly take the step up to different kinds of film stock.

The mini-series moves quickly and it's an action one. Maybe as a result, we're not expecting Roots, Murder In Texas or even Master Of The Game? An action mini-series, we feel, should be judged by whether it moves quickly and whether it surprises you (even only momentarily). We think it does. We think it was a smart move for NBC to program it because any attention it gets right now prepares viewers for Kings. If you're around the TV tonight and have the time, give it ten minutes to hook you. We think most people who sample will end up watching in full.

We watched Monday in full as Barack uh-uh-uhed and spoke in that robotic manner that allows him to find more unnatural pauses than Estelle Parsons and Kim Stanley combined. "He's our Method president!" we quickly gasped while wishing we could have one president this decade capable of normal speech. If he gets any worse, he'll be Sandy Dennis.

And that's just his speaking style.

When you start examining what he's actually saying, it gets much, much worse.

Sadly, you learn quickly that you can't always trust the transcripts. For example this scare tactic stood out for many things including his stumbles:

My administration inherited a deficit of over $1 trillion, but because we also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression, doing little or nothing at all will result in ever -- even greater deficits, even greater job loss, even greater loss of income and even greater loss of confidence.

When he made that comment, we called Elaine and asked her to note "will result in ever greater -- even greater deficits," (which she did, thank you, Lainie) because we were curious to see how the transcript services would handle it. We'd noted they tended to leave out his repeated uhs . . . repeatedly. He said "will result in ever greater -- even greater" -- it matters because? It matters because what he said is what he said and if we can't trust the transcripts to be accurate -- well that's a movie we sat through for the last eight years.

Listening to Barack is not something we recommend. Listening to him leaves us feeling like Vivian in the passenger seat while Edward attempts to drive a stick shift. But we made it through and will share a little for those who weren't able.

In 2003, Colin Powell disregarded that he worked for the people and, as he would make clear in his actions as well as in endless interviews, thought he worked for George W. Bush. We the people employ the White House occupant and all that work on the public dime. So, for example, Hillary Clinton is our Secretary of State.

It's a concept that escapes Barack, "And so tomorrow my Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, will be announcing some very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again. . . . Before I even think about what else I've got to do, my first task is to make sure that my secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner, working with Larry Summers, my national economic adviser, and others, are . . . I don't want to preempt my secretary of the Treasury; he's going to be laying out these principles in great detail tomorrow. . . . Again, Helene, I -- I -- and I'm trying to avoid preempting my secretary of the Treasury; I want all of you to show up at his press conference as well."

It damn well matters. If Powell had realized he worked for the American people, that he was supposed to serve them, maybe he would have at least been tempted not to lie for the White House to the United Nations. Barack, Timothy Geithner is not your anything. He is the Secretary of the Treasury. Just as the American people employ (and pay) you, so they do Geithner. When you try to make him your possession, you confuse where his loyalties should lie.

When not confusing who the actual employers were, Barack was confused over what his college major was. "I think that what I've said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum," he declared. Barack, you're not an economist. You majored in Constitutional Law.

Responding to NBC's Chip Reid, Barack declared of the health care systems:

The same applies when it comes to information technologies and health care. We know that health care is crippling businesses and making us less competitive, as well as breaking the banks of families all across America. And part of the reason is we've got the most inefficient health care system imaginable. We're still using paper. We're -- we're still filing things in triplicate. Nurses can't read the prescriptions that doctors -- that doctors have written out. Why wouldn't we want to put that on an -- put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term cost of health care, and create jobs right now?

If you're thinking, "Wait, Hillary's 2007 stump speech," it actually goes back further. Those points -- almost word for word -- were part of her stump speech when selling The President's Health Security Plan in 1993. All he can offer are sixteen-year-old observations that Hillary has outlined many times already to the American people?

Then there was the most disgraceful moment of all. Going to the transcript:

MR. OBAMA: (Laughs.) You know, I don't remember exactly what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly. (Laughter.) But let me try this out.

No, we're not aware of any president that has turned their vice president into a joke in public before. Certainly not in the last one hundred years of this nation. But Barack did just that. Used Joe Biden to get a few cheap laughs. He may have thought it was a nice way to suck up to the press but the reality is that there was fallout.

Fallout was felt immediately when, the next day, Nouri al-Maliki trashed Joe Biden in public remarks. That's right, the US puppet in Iraq thought he could rip apart Biden, mock him, make fun of him. He never thought he could do that with Bush or Cheney. But Barack waived it through.

The longterm fallout is that Americans now have a memory that will resurface. This memory is of Barack stabbing even his own vice president in the back. When things get tough for Barack, as they do for all presidents as the term progresses, it will most likely be commong to hear people say, "Well that's not surprising. Remember, he stabbed Joe Biden in the back. And did it during his first press conference!"

And there will be rough times galore for Barack. He's already lied in a press conference. Ed Henry of CNN asked him a question about coffins, "And related to that, there's a Pentagon policy that bans media coverage of the flag-draped coffins from coming into Dover Air Force Base. And back in 2004, then-Senator Joe Biden said that it was shameful for dead soldiers to be, quote, snuck back into the country under the cover of night.You've promised unprecedented transparency, openness in your government. Will you overturn that policy, so the American people can see the full human cost of war?"

Barack's response included, "Now with respect to the policy of opening up media to loved ones being brought back home, we are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense. So I don't want to give you an answer now, before I've evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved."

He told the American people that a review was taking place. That he was reviewing it, that the Defense Dept was reviewing it. That's what he told the American people on Monday night. Late Tuesday, Katharine Q. Seelye's "Gates Orders Review of Policy on Soldiers' Coffins" (New York Times) reported that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had decided to order a review. Order a review? But the day before Barack said a review was already underway? Barack lied.

And largely got away with it. By a press largely uninterested in Iraq as evidenced by the fact that not one person at the press conference asked one question about the Iraq War.

Thomas E. Ricks new book The Gamble is about Iraq and Friday he appeared on CBS News' online program Washington Unplugged (click here for just the Ricks' segment) where he was interviewed by John Dickerson.

John Dickerson: Where are we now in Iraq? There's this feeling -- there's been this recent election, 'Oh, things are getting better in Iraq.' What's your view?

Thomas E. Ricks: My view is that there are two fundamental misunderstandings that Americans have about this war. First was how tough the surge was. It was not just a matter of putting a few more troops out into Iraq. It was a very tough six months -- probably the hardest phase of the war so far. The second theme of this book is this war is far from over. Yeah, the war has changed several times. It was an invasion, it morphed into an occupation, into an insurgency, then into a civil war then into an American counter-offensive. It's changing again. Just because it's changing, doesn't mean it's ended. The elections the other day? Yeah. Remember the elections a couple of years ago, purple fingers, people coming out? Followed by a civil war. So I think there are a lot of reasons that Iraq '09 is going to be very tough and in fact harder than the last year of Bush's war. And I think there's a good chance that Obama's war in Iraq will last longer than Bush's war.

John Dickerson: So who gets this? Does the president get this? You know, he talked about sixteen months removing troops. What are the commanders tell him? Is there a clash coming here in terms of the ground truth versus what the president may think.

Thomas E. Ricks: I think there well indeed might be a clash by the end of the year. Obama's campaign promise to get American troops out of Iraq in sixteen months was a fatuous promise. When Americans heard it, what they heard was I will have no American troops dying in 16 months. But it was a false phraseology: "combat troops." Well, newsflash for Obama, there is no such thing as non-combat troops. There's no pacifistic branch of the US Army. Anytime you have American troops out there, there are going to be some of them fighting and dying -- in counter-terror missions against al Qaeda, if you have American advisers with Iraqi troops, they're going to be getting into fights, some Americans will be dying. So I think we're there for a long time and as long as we're there -- unlike, say, the occupations of Korea, Japan and Germany, American troops will be engaged in combat. General Odierno says in the book he'd like to see 35,000 troops there as late as 2015. Well into . . . it will be Obama's second term. So I think that at the end of this year, you're going to see a conflict. Obama's going to want to see troop numbers coming down. Odierno, the other big O, as they call him in Iraq, is going to say, "Wait a minute, you're holding general elections here in December, in Iraq. That's exactly the wrong time to take troops out."

CBS' Washington Unplugged is a program created each Friday by CBS News for the web only. Exclusive web content. You can stream it live on Friday afternoons or catch the archived broadcasts by visiting Washington Unplugged. Last Friday, Dickerson filled in for Bob Schieffer who is the regular anchor and the interview with Ricks (the above is not the full interview) may have been one of the few times when the media treated Iraq seriously last week.

Otherwise we got blustering boys like Barack that were shocking in their immaturity. Or blustering boys like the character Val Kilmer plays in XIII (amusing because it is a character). We got very little that actually mattered or made much of a difference from either but a mini-series is supposed to be entertainment -- it's excuse is that it never promised it would change the world.
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