Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Far From Heaven

Green is the dominant color of Todd Haynes' revisionist melodrama. Green, the color of envy, nature, money and hope, all of which bubble under the surface of a quiet Connecticut suburb. through the director's carefully chosen color palettes. Said palettes perfectly evoke the look of Douglas Sirk's vivid Technicolor melodramas, with period sets to boot. Yes, just as Martin Scorsese strove to make New York, New York not only work as a musical set in the '40s and '50s but to look like it was made in classic Hollywood, Far From Heaven might very well have worked as a completely straight-faced depiction of the irony and banality of the suburban nightmare that became the American ideal. But Haynes takes it one step further by openly addressing issues that seem contemporary yet were every bit as present then, only buried beneath hardened exteriors both physical (makeup and clothes, consumerism) and emotional (denial).

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) has such barriers; she lives in a lush manor tended by the family maid (Viola Davis), giving her all the free time needed to becoming the perfect trophy wife. She speaks the sort of ridiculous, pretentious dialogue that was present in all those old classics, that Sirk only had to spin slightly to place its absurdity on full display. Even her children speak with in such haughty tones, telling "mother" how "delightful" their school day was. She stands slightly outside the town gossip circle, yet they co-opt her perfection to share the glory and victory of her photo-ops in the local newspaper.

It's as good as life can conceivably be in postwar America, though she never sees her poor, hard-working husband (Dennis Quaid) because of his heavy workload. At least that's the reason he gives her; one night Cathy checks up on her husband just to say hello, only to find him in the arms of another man. Now, finding out your husband is gay and you're simply his beard is hard on even the most open-minded person today, so Cathy's utter shock is understandable. She handles herself with surprising calm, however, pledging to stand by her husband, who volunteers to see a therapist to determine what's "wrong" with him. "I'm gonna beat this," he assures his shrink, who lists his client some figures on the successful conversion rates back to heterosexuality.

As the revelation puts strain on the relationship, Cathy only compounds the issue by striking up a friendship with the son of the family's dead gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Raymond is soft-spoken and well-read: when Cathy spots him at the art gallery, he's the only one who can talk about the artists with any convincing sense of authority. Cathy's notions of her own open-mindedness reveal themselves as inflated when she awkwardly tries to assure him, "I'm not prejudiced. My husband and I have always believed in equal rights for the Negro and support the N.A.A.C.P." Raymond overlooks her nervousness, and soon they become the only genuine friends in a town where everything is planned for social perception.

Soon, everyone is town is wagging their tongues over the matter, especially after Cathy goes to the black part of town to eat lunch with Raymond. Frank, who spends most of the film in an alcoholic stupor over his inner torment, lashes out at his wife when news gets back to him; in a deliciously ironic rant, he accuses her of threatening to ruin his reputation and tear the family apart, even as he's contemplating divorce to run off with a man.

The relationship issues of the leads slowly tear them apart as the town around them loses itself to speculation and rumor. Cathy assures her closest friend that nothing illicit has happened between her and Raymond, but Mona simply responds that she is acting as if something did. Eventually, the town turns on Cathy and Raymond outright, and a happy ending quickly becomes nothing more than a pipe dream.

Far From Heaven is clearly crafted to appeal to the most discerning film geeks with its flawless reconstruction of '50s drama, from the stylized dialogue to the set and costume design and even the score from classic film composer Elmer Bernstein. Yet those attributes also make it palatable to anyone. The actors are uniformly excellent, with Moore giving the best performance of her career, and they make the characters work beyond the dark satire of the script. For my money, Far From Heaven is one of the finest films of the decade, and a career highlight for everyone involved.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Burn Notice — Season 1

The first thing that grabs your attention in Burn Notice is its disturbingly incessant glamor shots of Miami, that fetid den of gauche architecture designed to make the entire city look like an ostentatious playground for the wealthy. Cityscape shots always suggest that a show will simply gloss over the real innards of the locale in favor of the grand Hollywood look. It's not the sort of thing that inspires confidence in a show, particularly one about a private investigator who must deal with the seedy aspects of city life.

About halfway through the pilot, however, the establishing shots will be the last thing on your mind. Burn Notice takes the familiar idea of the private eye and gives it a unique twist, but its greatest strength lies in its pitch-perfect main cast and their effortless rapport with one another. Whether the main plots hold your interest -- which they sadly fail to do in several of the season's 11 episodes -- the show is buoyed by the interactions of these off-beat but believable characters.

Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a freelance international spy, receives the titular burn notice while operating in Nigeria. As he explains in narration, you can't just fire a spy; you have to completely remove them from the grid. Suddenly, Michael's passport is flagged, his bank account frozen and his contacts unresponsive, leaving him to fend for himself with his cover blown. He shoots his way to an airport and wakes up in Miami, where he must reluctantly reconnect with his estranged mother while looking for a job to fit his particular skill set. Before long, he finds himself helping out needy people that allows him to use his intelligence background to investigate not terrorists, but small-time criminals (for a fee, of course).

There's something tantalizing about watching Westen trying to apply his sophisticated training on a shoestring budget, especially considering the people he must now spy on. In his previous line of work, he was someone working with unlimited resources, infiltrating poorly funded terrorist cells. Oh sure, such organizations make money through oil, drug, weapons trading and the like, but Michael just needed to keep his cover. Now he not only has to keep his cool; he has to take on criminals who are often well-connected in the richest parts of the city. Yes, he takes on his fair share of thugs, but the real villains are the higher-ups in drug cartels, the human traffickers, the gunrunners. It's a subtle inversion that makes Westen's quick thinking all the more impressive.

We get an insight into his thought process via his excellent voiceovers. Normally the downside of noir/detective stories, Burn Notice's narrations are reminiscent of Veronica Mars' in their wit and originality. Michael isn't telling us stuff we already know (or, worse, spoiling potential character development through easy exposition) but rather explains in quick, amusing bursts how people hiding in houses are always too busy worrying about shots coming through the door that they never worry about someone shooting through the weak plaster of the walls, or how to convince a suspicious mark to buy a cover I.D. These narrations add to both the comedy of the show as well as the technical details of the spy game.

But it wouldn't work nearly as well, if at all, without Donovan selling it. When it comes to television, most actors take a bit of time to find their characters. It's only natural, as the writers themselves take a bit of time to flesh them out: consider how much a Buffy or Fred Burkle or Jimmy McNulty changed in a single season, to say nothing of longer arcs. Yet Donovan is secure in his role from the start: his comic timing is as deadly as the weapons he's always brandishing, and he can sell any cover with a fearsome stone face.

Aiding Westen are two equally interesting characters, played by equally imbibing actors. Michael's ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), formerly a member of the IRA, helps him get to Miami and provides the pretty face needed to distract the hired hands of the big players. Plus, she more than knows how to hold her own in a fight, to say nothing of her propensity to rig explosives on anything and everything. The only downside to her character is that she's defined mostly by her sexual tension and relationship with Michael even though she's clearly got enough personality and backstory to work as her own character. She also provides a nice foil for the other woman in Michael's life, his mother, Madeline (Sharon Gless). Michael ran away from home when he was 17 because of his abusive father, and his comical dealings with her and her mundane issues carry an undercurrent of mutual feelings of regret and betrayal that occasionally rise to the surface.

But it's Bruce Campbell, of course, who steals the show as schlubby, retired Navy SEAL Sam Axe. A mojito-loving lout with connections ranging from the Pentagon to the sports bar on the corner, Sam is the one who generally points Michael to his next assignment, always assuring his friend that it will be an "easy job" no matter how many times it turns out to be the opposite. Yet his relationship with Fi is even more rewarding, as the two detest each other, and their incessant insults provide much of the season's comedy. Campbell has a few moments of completely serious drama which he plays superbly, but the real treat is his absurd demeanor, which Campbell plays up like the B-movie master that he is. His shtick is fairly subdued here, either to make it to TV or because the writers haven't fully tapped into his gold mine of a persona, but he still stands out in this marvelous, small cast.

All three of the main players play off one another as if they've been doing it for years, and frankly they eclipse a great deal of the writing of this season. It's not that the scripts are bad, per se; they just bleed together after a time. Michael is hunting for the people who burned him, but that only substantially enters the story in isolated spots, though he's usually ducking cars filled with Feds or CIA agents. The finale, however, suggests the start of a solid arc to take the pressure off the slight same-y nature of the weekly criminals, which will hopefully give the actors something meaty to do aside from dazzling with their timing and interplay.

So, the writing weighs the season down, as does the direction, which is too stylized for its own good. Like Chuck's first season, these 11 episodes blur together in the middle and are clearly looking for a concrete direction. Chuck brings up a number of similarities, as both are spy shows with neat twists with characters that are more concretely defined than their surroundings; I find myself sticking with these shows because I loved these characters from the moment I saw them, and I'm willing to see more even if they do the same thing every week. Nevertheless, Burn Notice doesn't hit many blatantly sour notes, and some tighter scripts and toned-down camera editing are all this show really needs to take off in a big way.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lost — Season 4

[Warning -- Contains spoilers]

At last. After enjoying the first season and suffering through chunks of the subsequent two, I couldn't see what any of the fuss was about over this show. Oh, it was ambitious and mad, all right, more so than any other series ever made. But hype and cliffhangers do not a show make, and with only a few exceptions the show could not compete with even the weakest of Sorkin-era West Wing, Whedonverse TV and certainly The Wire or The Sopranos. The third season in particular wasted so much of my time that when I stumbled across a good episode, I felt it was just the writers' attempt to keep ratings afloat over a quality shift. Nevertheless, the final four or five episodes kicked things into a higher gear than ever before, and the absolutely perfect season finale for once earned a nail-biting frenzy instead of just forcing one on the audience.

But that's nothing compared to the fourth season. When my friends and seemingly the entire Internet stressed the show's brilliance to me, I can only assume the fourth season is what they had in mind. I haven't seen such a turn-around in a series since Angel made up for its dead-end of a fourth season with its transcendent final season, and this may top that as a mea culpa (I'd still pick Angel S5 for quality). The establishment of a concrete end following "Through the Looking Glass" split the proposed final 48 episodes into three seasons of 16 episodes each, though the writer's strike cut this season down to 14. In my review of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, I cited the web miniseries as the greatest thing to come out of the 2007-08 WGA Writer's Strike. That proclamation may have been somewhat premature, as this is the only true television series that actually benefited from its truncated length, as each episode sprints forward with great new twists, characters and situations that add more story per episode than the entire second season and most of S3.

The last season ended on an uneasy note, with the promise of rescue from a boat that Charlie -- right before his tragic demise -- discovered had ulterior motives and the knowledge that at least a few characters indeed made it off the island and that the strange little patch of land still exerted a pull on them. It was heady stuff that needed to be tackled as soon as possible, so I was nervous that the writers would do their usual shtick and answer a few questions while raising too many too quickly, only to pull it together in the final stretch.

Not so, as "The Beginning of the End" rivals the preceding finale for rich storytelling and emotionally involving character drama. Chief among the changes it brings are the four characters from the freighter Kahana sent to the island to retrieve their fallen comrade, Naomi, and ostensibly to rescue the survivors. They are physicist Daniel Farady (Jeremy Davies), psychic Miles Straume (Ken Leung), archaeologist Charlotte Lewis (Rebecca Mader) and Frank Lapidus (Jeff Fahey), a pilot who was supposed to be the one flying Oceanic 815 the day of the crash. It's a strange crew to be sure, but they acclimate in no time.

Ben's desperation to keep people on the island last season seemed more borne out of megalomania than concern for the island, but the Kahana crew slowly divulge that their freighter is not here for rescue: they're paid by Charles Widmore, father to Penny (Desmond's on-again off-again girlfriend), and they're on the island to find and capture Benamin Linus. The four who interact with Jack and Locke's branches of the survivors are not there for destruction but research, their reasons for coming to the island explained in the excellent "Confirmed Dead," easily the best flashback episode since "Walkabout."

Not only are these new character given compelling stories, however; for once, the old characters don't fall into their usual tricks while we wait to see more of the new guys. Linus in particular grows from his calmly sadistic self into a sort of tragic figure; he knows the real fight is with Widmore, so he devotes all of his attention to convincing the Oceanic survivors of the impending danger and starts scheming for the inevitable fight.

So, it's wartime yet again for our poor characters, this time against a team of mercenaries led by the ruthless Keamy (Kevin Durand), who actually manages to surprise and even hurt Ben through his disregard for any sense of morality. Jack just wants to get off the island, but now Locke sees that, underneath Ben's selfishness and egoism, he's right to fear the arrival of this freighter (and not just because they're after him). Widmore built a mock-up of Oceanic 815 to place at the bottom of the ocean to make the world believe that all hands were lost, so why would he want any of the actual survivors to make it off the island in his efforts to purge the Others.

Ben could destroy people with mind games, but Keamy prefers a more direct approach.

This gripping new conflict splits old factions and joins new ones, and it's juxtaposed wonderfully with the new flashforwards, which make episodes like "The Economist" and "Ji Yeon" all the more interesting. The writers know how confusing it can all get, and that's why they made their trippiest (and greatest) episode yet, "The Constant." The island is still the great mystery of the show, with no explorations of what is is, only what it can do. One of those things is apparently bending the time-space continuum, as Frank must be very careful to follow an exact bearing as he pilots his helicopter to and from the island. When he goes slightly off-course, Desmond, already the victim of some temporal displacement, becomes "unstuck in time." Upon reaching the freighter with Frank and Sayid, he alternates between the 2004 present and his '96 past in the Royal Scots Regiment.

The result is some truly inspired storytelling that makes the best sense of time travel as any other show or film you're likely to see: he vacillates bewildered from a freighter full of potential hostiles to basic training where he inadvertently earns the ire of the drill sergeant, much to the chagrin of his buddy Billy -- and if that isn't a reference to Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five, I'll eat my hat. For a show that spent much of the last season adrift in terms of internal logic, seemingly at the mercy of the writers' imaginations, it's impressive how this episode can leap into that death trap that is time travel and emerge unscathed. I didn't think "Through the Looking Glass" could ever be topped, and certainly not by an innocuously placed episode in the early section of the season.

For the first time, I really have to struggle to come up with anything solid to critique on the show, and anything I can pinpoint generally only applies to one episode and is not some thematic or character flaw that runs through the season. The flashforward of Kate's trial in "Eggtown" and her subsequent relationship with Jack in that episode and "Something Nice Back Home" only show the worst aspects of those characters -- Kate's uselessness as a character, Jack's need to be in control -- that we've seen time and again. Still, the latter episode is worth watching for the subplot involving Jack's appendicitis and makeshift operation, giving the show its first real survival scenario since the first season.

The only episode that stands out as truly weak is "Meet Kevin Johnson," which brings back Michael at the expense of all continuity. In an episode comprised mostly of flashbacks, we see Michael and Walt get off the island after the events of S2, only for Michael to go mad with guilt and try to kill himself. The island won't allow him, however, so he begins taking orders from Ben via off-island communications by a then-alive Tom. Ben assigns him to the Kahana, where he plays mind games because, well, I guess it's the old story about the frog and the scorpion, innit? The problem with this episode is that it crams all of Michael's inner turmoil into about slightly more than a week, and it sullies a once-interesting character. Michael's guilt could (and should) have been a fascinating arc, but it's instead relegated to this episode that shows, not tells -- and not well, at that.

Lindelof responded to the criticisms of this episode by mocking "nitpicking" fanboys and defending the script thusly: "it's television." That is everything that was wrong about Lost at its worst moments in the second and third seasons: a total lack of effort in making the show obey its own logic in favor of simply doing things the writers think are cool. It's that mindset that kept me from fully investing in the series for so long, and to see an episode obeying this half-assed notion of screenwriting in the middle of such brilliance is grating.

Hey, the insanity is actually cool for once!

Happily, that's the one episode that falters in an otherwise outstanding season of television. The three-part finale, "No Place Like Home," does not reach the same heights as the previous season ender in terms of future plot implications and character moments, but it makes up for it in pure craziness that, in contrast to some of the stranger elements of the previous season, works. I mean, you can move the damn island? For such a revelation not to mean jumping the shark in a lead-lined fridge that survived a nuclear detonation takes finesse, and the writers pull it off with style.

Of the 14 episodes, (or 8, depending on how you count multi-part episodes) -- the first three episodes, "The Constant," "The Shape of Things to Come" (which will likely land Michael Emerson an Emmy) and the finale -- are on the short list of the series' finest moments. With the exception of "Meet Kevin Johnson," the rest are all high-quality.

Apart from Cuse and Lindelof, who are on fire this season, the best writers are mainstay Drew Goddard and comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan, author of several of the best comic series of the decade. Vaughan came aboard last season as a story editor and wrote the solid "Catch-22," but his scripts with Goddard demonstrate the best character exploration the show has to offer. With Vaughan producing, the lines seem sharper, the characters more defined outside of their ubiquitous father issues and the plots don't get ahead of themselves, even as they take some of the boldest steps yet seen. Showing us who got off the island might have robbed a lesser series of the intrigue of the increasingly apparent evil of the Kahana, yet the show is structured in a way that makes it obvious that the "Oceanic Six" aren't the only people who lived through the ordeal, and that those people must return to the island to save the ones left behind.

As much as I'm a fan of Vaughan, though, it would be a disservice to pin the upswing in quality entirely or even mostly on him: the deadline might have been a stunt to convince wavering viewers that the writers had a plan, but Cuse, Lindelof and their team of writers clearly display a set goal with these episodes, and the show excels because of it. Lost's fourth season, quite frankly, belongs on any sensible list of the greatest seasons of television of the last 20 years and, given the proliferation of ambitious, cinematic TV in that time, in the medium's entire history.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Lost — Season 3

[Warning – contains spoilers]

Every pre-conceived notion I had of JJ Abrams' and Damon Lindelof's Lost -- that it was rambling, unfocused and so (forgive me) lost in its own mythology that it simply made up the rules as it went along -- was dispelled with the solid first season. While the dialogue was somewhat stilted and the writers relied too much on distracting flashbacks to give insight to the characters instead of mixing development with action like the best of them, it was a compelling paranormal mystery with great twists that worked.

The second season was a noticeable step down, as the sudden imbalance between narrative and character only exposed the weaknesses in writing. It expanded the scope of the series, but too often we were subjected to long stretches of inactivity with flashbacks that mostly served as filler. Nevertheless, when it hit the second half it started tying together all the new threads of the tail section survivors and really showed how big a threat the Others posed, and the result was gripping even if its foundation was built on sand.

But as soon as I got into the third season, all those initial reservations were at last proved correct: where the second season sacrificed narrative for the sake of character development (most of which was redundant anyway), this season cranked the madness up to 11. Character development now takes a backseat to an incessant barrage of new mysteries and answers to old mysteries that are often more bewildering than satisfying.

The Others have been a force on the island since the first season, but we got our first glimpse of them in S2: we didn't learn how they came to live on the island, but they looked like survivors of some other catastrophe who'd simply gone mad -- understandable, given the strange horror of the island. Apart from a rusty old boat that they ended up giving to Michael for betraying his friends, they seemed to have nothing but the clothes on their backs even though they knew practically everything about the Flight 815 survivors. Well, just go ahead and kick those notions to the curb, because the very first reveal of the season changes everything you think you know about this strange, psychotic group.

The revelations of the Others and their living conditions pose a slew of interesting questions, all of which are immediately buried under even more questions with each passing episode. The season ran for six episodes before going on hiatus, and these six episodes make the wheel-spinning of the middle of S2 look like visceral and masterful storytelling in comparison. For one thing, the flashbacks are at an all-time low: Sun and Jin's is utterly useless, Locke's simply shows that even people who aren't related to him betrayed him and Kate's, well, it's a flashback for Kate. They're all the damn same. Even worse, everyone who didn't already have father issues -- Hurley, Claire, even Ben -- now have them. God, is that the only thing they could think of to give these characters "depth"?

Lost has always raised a lot of questions, but many this season are of the sort the writers don't want people to ask: why would Linus do his best to antagonize the survivors if he was trying to get Jack, a noble doctor through and through, to operate on him? How many times are they going to give us the same flashback and expect us to care? Why are the scenes of Kate, Sawyer and Jack in captivity so boring instead of tense?

Hey look! They actually killed off a character people liked! (But only because he asked to be let go.)

Worst of all is the addition of two characters named Nikki and Paulo. A common complaint of the show is that we only see the actions of 15 or so survivors while the other 40 only show up when a few people need to die, but whatever the proper way to address this flaw was, Nikki and Paulo are pretty much the polar opposite. They act as though they've been a part of the action since the first episode, and their backgrounds as con-artists only stress the redundancy of character writing on Lost. The writers were at least cogent enough to understand how terrible these two were and killed them off, though even the episode that dumps them is incredibly weak because of their increased presence.

Things pick up with the post-hiatus episode "Not in Portland," as we see Juliet's flashbacks, which begin to answer questions about the Others and puts to rest the lingering questions over why they're so obsessed with taking children. Juliet's arc is one of the finest of the series so far, as it not only fleshes out her character and the Others' connection to the outside world but that there are factions of Others that don't necessarily like Ben's leadership.

Nestor Carbonell's never-aging Richard Alpert is one of the more interesting of the Others.

There's also an interesting subplot involving Desmond, who survived the hatch explosion sans clothes and can now see visions of the future. "Flashes Before Your Eyes" sustains the momentum of "Not in Portland" as Desmond learns that Charlie will die and tries desperately to prolong the inevitable. Charlie fell victim to some truly shoddy writing in the second season, going from a noble addict who had no real reason to stay alive but was charming and interesting enough to stay to an annoying, stagnant brat whose attempts to use humor as a coping device made him seem callous and flippant. But with the knowledge of his impending death hanging over him for over half the season, we see his paranoid side as well as the kindness that won me over in the first season. His attempts to maintain a relationship with Claire just long enough to say goodbye are touching and, inverse to the previous season, some of the best character writing the show has ever offered.

Even as a kid, Ben was kind of creepy.

Sadly, the show dips south again, with a particularly bright exception being "The Man From Tennessee," in which Locke -- having bought Ben's rhetoric since he himself has tried to stay on the island since the start -- slowly ingratiates himself with the Others and must prove himself to them. It's an instant classic that demonstrates Ben's ability to manipulate others on multiple levels so he's still pulling the strings even when they think they've figured him out, as well as Locke's growing alienation from the survivors as the prospect of rescue becomes less a pipe dream and more a solid possibility. Finally, it shows just how powerful the Others are, on or off the island, as they deliver a special surprise to Locke as a last test of loyalty.

The season does not kick into a consistently high gear, sadly, until the survivors brace for open conflict with the Others. Last season, Jack secretly asked Ana Lucia what it would take to mobilize the survivors into an army to to fight the Others, and he starts laying out plans for a war the second he returns from the Barracks. While he cannot outsmart Ben, he realized what a monster Ben really was, something that Locke hasn't yet. Indeed, as redundant as several of his flashbacks are this season, they are effective in establishing Locke as someone so desperate for love after being denied it all his life that he's one of the most gullible men on the planet. The island offers him the only spiritual connection he's ever felt in his life that's actually reciprocated, so he's more than willing to believe Ben's rants about protecting the island even as his actions solidify his own power over allying the Others and the survivors against those who might do them harm.

Jack's preparations play out in the (literally) explosive finale, "Through the Looking Glass," the best episode of the series since its pilot, if it is not the pinnacle of the first three seasons period. After a season of big questions, bigger plot holes, possible time travel and a lack of big character moments outside the flashbacks of Ben and Juliet, nothing less than a masterpiece would offer a satisfying conclusion, and that's exactly what this is. The booby-trapped beach offers some thrilling action scenes, while Charlie's dive to meet his doom is one of the most tragic moments of any show I can think, and when his efforts to break the jamming signals reveals the horrible truth of the newly arrived boat that promises rescue, Charlie must spend his final moments essentially telling Desmond that he died in vain.

This season showed the Others on the verge of splintering under Ben's leadership, and what Charlie and Desmond uncover in the Looking Glass sets up a schism between the survivors. Everything about the episode, from Charlie's death to the mini-war with the Others to the revelation that casts the imminent rescue in uncertain light to the introduction of mysteries that are genuinely intriguing, shows a level of sophistication in the writing that was all too rare this season. But the greatest aspect of the episode was the abandonment of the flashbacks in favor of flash-forwards, which show that some people indeed made it off the island, and that Jack now wants desperately to return.

Oh sure, now you want to go back.

Regardless of the patchy writing of the rest of the season, the acting is still top-notch from the people you'd expect: Matthew Fox maintains his ability to match Jack's firm leadership with his insecurity and his need to fix things, while O'Quinn continues to make Locke fascinating no matter how many times the writers back him into a corner. But it is Michael Emerson who completely walks away with the third season and will keep you watching even when you're tempted to stop giving the writers chances: a bug-eyed, unassuming sort of chap, his psychological warfare makes the Joker's seem like child's play. What initially seems like the odd moment of honesty and empathy is soon revealed to be yet another facet of his mind games with the survivors. Emerson makes Linus one of the most terrifying villains in TV history, and he rarely lays a hand on anyone.

All in all, the third season of Lost took all the flaws of the first two seasons and magnified them to the point that they now drowned out the positive aspects of the show. The usual unwillingness to kill major characters while Others drop by the handfuls has gotten ridiculous, and at this point there's hardly a survival element to the series at all. And the writers seem to know about these flaws, because characters will often make light of them. But Nikki and Paulo, the never-dwindling survivor count, the inanity of the love triangle, these are major issues that should be addressed instead of just accepted like nothing can be done about them.

The writers set a definite end-date for the series before the season finale, which might explain why it so effectively propelled the story forward for the first time in ages. The final few episodes -- among them "One of Us," which showed that Juliet could be as fearsome as her boss, the moving "Greatest Hits" and the Ben-centric "The Man Behind the Curtain" -- surpassed just about anything in S2 short of "Man of Science, Man of Faith" and "The 23rd Psalm." After nearly tuning out, I suddenly found myself more eager to keep going than ever. Let's hope the fourth season delivers.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Waltz With Bashir

Waltz With Bashir is one of the most intriguing and original documentaries you could ever hope to see, made only more impressive by its avoidance of gimmickry. The harshest animated film since Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, it chronicles the 1982 Lebanon War through the eyes of a man who served in the IDF but cannot remember anything that happened. Through his interviews with other survivors and witnesses, he attempts to piece together not only what happened, but how and why.

The famous outcome of the war was the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, in which a Lebanese Christian militia slaughtered the inhabitants of Palestinian refugee camps following the assassination of their recently elected leader, Bashir Gemayel, who ran on a campaign of expelling the refugees and forging peace with Israel. What made the massacre even more sinister was the perceived support of the slaughter by the Israelis, who by that time controlled Beirut as well as the militia group.

Did Israel indeed tacitly support the killings? Did they wash their hands of it? Were they simply uninformed? These questions are secondary in Ari Forlman's mind as he travels around Israel interviewing old friends and compatriots for answers. Using animation allows the director to pay up the nightmares that trigger his and others' remembrances; the very first segment is the depiction of a nightmare of Forlman's friend, who dreams of Lebanese dogs running through the streets coming to kill him.

The talk unlocks some of Forlman's repressed memories, hence his sudden zeal to speak with others. The more people he interviews, the denser it all becomes and the murkier the question of responsibility. Structured like Kurosawa's great Rashomon, Bashir comes to no easy conclusions in Forlman's conversations with soldiers, a reporter who documented the massacre and this therapist. If anything, his attempts to piece together the truth only reveal the mind's capacity for self-deception and repression; while these other men can access their memories more readily, they slip so often between memory and dreams that animation, in retrospect, was the only way to film this.

Forlman had never worked with animation before this, but he spent two years with a team of drawers who used traditional animation combined with Adobe Flash cut-outs and 3-D animation in a manner similar to The Kid Stays in the Picture. The result is a look both completely real and dark and vividly surrealistic, complete with an unsettling minimalist score interspersed with more active music including classical and songs from artists like Public Image Ltd.

At the end of the film, the animation abruptly cuts out to newsreel footage of mourners and the dead, a reminder of the event's reality that is actually unnecessary. Waltz With Bashir paints such stark, affecting portraits through its interviews and style that it feels all too real even at its most fantastical. Some might fear that Forlman would do his best to soften Israel's image in this event, but he's not afraid to take them – and himself – to task: when he at last figures out what he did in the war, his psychologist pinpoints the revolting truth of it all. "Unwillingly, you took on the tole of the Nazi," he says with clinical precision, "You were there firing flares, but you didn't carry out the massacre."

And that's the tragedy of this any and other genocide: as much as we blame those doing the killing and those who allow it to happen, anyone who could step in but doesn't is as complicit as anyone else. Waltz With Bashir may seem like a cute trick at a first glance, but if there's any justice it will go down as one of the most devastating war films of all time.


Year One left such a bad taste in my mouth that when I got back to my apartment I gathered what few Ramis DVDs I had and popped them in the ol' player to have a sort of unofficial wake. Most of my stuff was at my house and not college, but I at least had Stripes and the Ghostbusters films, so I made do. Before now, I'd only seen Stripes once (well, technically twice, as I watched both versions), so I figured not only might I fight back the memory of Ramis' latest dud but I might also spot some new stuff.

I watched the original theatrical version of Stripes, and thank God I did, because even this truncated edition is overlong and unfocused. Don't get me wrong: Stripes is an excellent comedy and the first film that allowed Bill Murray to really start honing that dryly cynical character that would become his staple. It just needed a better editor.

Murray plays John Winger, a taxi driver who gets a pink slip after terrorizing a rude upper-class woman by mishandling her bags and driving like a madman. Before the day is over, his car is repossessed and his girlfriend dump him. His friend, Russell Ziskey (Ramis), isn't doing much better: he tries to teach ESL classes but doesn't know the first thing about teaching immigrants. Winger decides he needs to turn his life around, but he can't do it without help, so he convinces Ziskey to enlist in the Army with him.

What follows is, in its own devilish way, the comedic version of Full Metal Jacket, made a good six years before that film. Winger and Ziskey head off to basic training where they meet a cast of characters played by such scene-stealers as John Candy and Judge Reinhold. Sgt. 1st Class Hulka (Warren Oates) does all the usual spirit-breaking and head-shaving, but where Pvt. Joker in Kubrick's opus quickly fell into line, Winger proves a deadpan thorn in the sergeant's side.

Murray owns these boot camp scenes; he sports an innocent but conniving smirk as he gently yet incessantly challenges the sergeant's command. Backed by Ramis' writing, his Winger gets laughs for the simple fact that he manages to remain just one step ahead of the authorities in a vocation that doesn't allow for much slacking, to say the least. There's an uneasy admiration between the two warring factions, as Winger at last has a worthy foe and can take any punishment the sarge can dish out.

Ramis, Candy, John Laroquette and the others are no slouches themselves; Candy is his usual affable dope, while Laroquette plays the officious prig with relish (clearly serving as a military transplant of Niedermeyer from Animal House). Ramis plays a marvelous straight man to Murray's Winger, looking ever exhausted by his friend's antics even as he continuously acts as an enabler just to see what his bud will do next.

As with Full Metal Jacket, the film takes an abrupt turn when the soldiers leave basic and receive their first missions. Where Full Metal Jacket suddenly switched from dark comedy to its thematic arc, however, Stripes goes from broad comedy to, well, I'm not quite sure. The men are transferred to Europe where they are placed in charge of the "Urban Assault Vehicle," a sort of tank disguised as an RV. Winger and Ziskey snag their MP girlfriends (P.J. Soles and Sean Young) and head into Soviet territory. And it all dovetails from there.

In part, the complete devolution into chaos was to be expected. It's certainly a hallmark of Ramis' early scripts, and they proved to be wildly hysterical in such gems as Animal House and Caddyshack. But the problem here is that they're actually squaring off against Soviets, not the authority that keeps them down. Stripes is meant to be a continuation of Animal House and its light-hearted post-Nixon rebellion against the stagnant and corrupt American institutions, a mockery of the absurdity of authority having the audacity to tell us what's right when they are so wrong. But there's nothing funny in the film's climax; it's simply action. And it ends with Winger and Ziskey accepted as heroes and welcomed into the machine instead of breaking free of it.

For that reason, Stripes is perhaps most remembered as the bridge between Ramis' early, brilliant but ill-focused sense of chaotic misanthropy and the more restrained, heartfelt writer-director who would eventually come up with something as refined as Groundhog Day. He wouldn't find the right balance between action and comedy until his subsequent film, Ghostbusters, which also put his drier side on full display. Nevertheless, Stripes is a great film for its first 2/3, and it belongs on the shelves of any comedy fan, particularly someone who likes Bill Murray.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Remember that old gag in the movies where the hero dropped a huge bell on the villain and then struck it to deafen the foe inside? As a child, I always wondered if that really worked, especially since the bell was on the ground and therefore wouldn’t really be given to reverberation. Sadly, I didn’t grow up near a cathedral, so I never got to satiate my curiosity. Well, now I know, because I’ve seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a a loud, stupid and even louder disasterpiece as dizzyingly frantic as it is devastatingly boring.

You can tell from the get-go that continuity doesn’t play a large role in the Transformers universe: Bumblebee fixed his voice in the last film, but it’s not working here; the robots are hiding, even though they tore apart Los Angeles. Now the Autobots work with the U.S. government and answer to the President. Apparently no other country can ask anything of the aliens, except for a few British soldiers, because at least they speak English. That's God's language! It's what Bible is written in and everything. And the aliens continue hide in bright neon cars, which is extremely helpful in their covert ops to flush out remaining Decepticons.

Plot-wise, you better buckle up. The first “Transformers” suffered from a needlessly convoluted story, but this takes the cake: apparently the robots have been on Earth since the dawn of man and they built the pyramids to hide their weaponry. This is all explained in turgid patches of exposition. Why are the pyramids seemingly the one thing in the Bible that everyone's always willing to change? You know, the one thing with actual physical proof; clearly it was made by aliens, not Jewish slaves. Oh, and the Decepticons want to kill our sun. Not our sun, Decepticons! That’s where we get our light and heatness! Who will the moon talk to?

Obviously, this film is for children, but it’s simply insulting. Furthermore, I wouldn’t recommend taking a child to this film, because it’s filled with swearing and endless non-veiled innuendo. This is a film about toys, for Pete’s sake. Now, I am of the generation that grew up with Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, so I know a thing or two about innuendo in children’s programming. But at least that was buried; Transformers 2 is a barrage of leg humping, pot brownies and – I’m not kidding – robot testicles.

Worst of all are the racist caricatures of two Autobots named Mudflap and Skids. The last film featured a jive-talking Autobot (they even called him “Jazz”) who existed to be not only the first Autobot to die but the only one to die. This is worse: the pair not only speak like stereotypical ill-educated black people but are illiterate and actually have a simian appearance. One of them sports a gold tooth. There are Asian and Arab stereotypes here and there but these two are downright appalling, yet they got the biggest laughs of the film. Apparently, space racism (spacism?) is hilarious.

Not that the women fare any better. In Michael Bay's world, the women don't get to be funny, unless they're having a nervous breakdown concerning their children leaving home or stuffed with pot (at which point they act nothing like a stoned person). No, they just have to stand there and look pretty, or at least what Bay thinks is pretty. Megan Fox's dialogue consists of a few atrocious sentences of flirting subsequently replaced by shrieking "SAM!!" in a terrified voice. Bay just plays her up for eye candy, but he does everything in his power to make her look plastic and creepy. In a film where one human is revealed to be a Transformer, I kept waiting for Fox's character to be thus exposed, though I suppose it would lack an iota of surprise.

LaBeouf himself is unmemorable; I think that Spielberg could turn him into the next Tom Hanks yet (at least in terms of an everyman quality; he certainly doesn't have Hanks' range and charisma), but the kid needs to pick his roles more carefully. He gives an admirable go of trying to play this nonsense with a straight face as everyone around him plays the fool. Speaking of which, let's just not even mention how much scenery John Turturro is chewing. Nor is it any use, I imagine, to point out that the same man who was in Do the Right Thing, the greatest commentary on race of the last 20 years, here works in a deli run by his Jewish harpy of a mother. I think he just might be the titular Fallen.

Now, I know what the fanboys are about thinking right about now: “Hey, man, I just like to shut off my brain to see a move. Sorry it’s not La Dolce Vita.” Such nonsense says more about that person than it ever does about a film. Second, Transformers 2 is the first film that will shut your brain down for you: its four (!) editors cannot keep a single moment of action from being disorienting, and every fight is nothing more than a mesh of unidentifiable fluorescent metal as the humans run from explosions in slow-motion. These action scenes are big and flashy, but they’re so damn confusing you have to wait until it’s all over to figure out what happened. And why do the just punch each other when they all sport missile launchers and heavy cannons? The only time you have any sense of clarity is when each side is firing at the other with some distance between them.

A more levelheaded person might suggest that I not expect so much from a film based on toys, which is an apt observation. But this film is nothing more than a string of advertisements and product placements for all the companies who bankrolled it. I fear that I incur the snide eye-rolling of the Internet by calling this the worst film I've ever seen, but which would you rather watch: a movie with such abysmal production values that it becomes bizarrely hilarious, or a morally bankrupt, artistically corrupt celebration of the very worst ideals that America has embodied over the last eight years, of fascism, isolationism and flag-wavering superiority? With a second act that drags like molasses and an utter lack of thematic exploration, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an 80-minute movie crammed into two and a half hours. Michael Bay didn’t bring the Transformers to life; he made a $200 million adaptation of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Let's go back to fall of 2007 for a moment: the new Golden Age of Television is about to end. Why? Because the WGA is set to go on strike in November. When it hit, the writer's strike effectively ruined the 2007/08 T.V. schedule, all because writers had the temerity to ask fair recompense from companies that made billions off of them without having to make a damn thing other than phone calls to advertisers. Actors and directors showed solidarity with the writers, and showrunners even halted production of pre-written episodes to join them on the picket lines. While all this happened, Joss Whedon, whose initial deal for Dollhouse was naturally postponed, needed something to sink his creative teeth into now that he finally decided to get back to writing. So what did he do? Oh, not much, other than try to change the entire model of television.

Now, let's get something straight: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is not the first legitimate web series; hell, it's not even the first legitimate web series made by one of its participants. Felicia Day's ongoing series The Guild has been a notable hit for its two seasons, and Day even inked a groundbreaking deal with Microsoft that actually earned her a profit for her work. Whedon was clearly taken by The Guild, so he brought Day, who had a minor role as one of two Potentials that were actually fun in the final season of Buffy, on-board just as soon as he figured out what he wanted to make.

As you might ascertain from the title, Joss, with the help of Maurissa Tancharoen and his brothers Zack and Jed, wrote a musical. One's mind naturally turns to the great and timeless Buffy episode "Once More, With Feeling," and those instincts would be fairly accurate: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is, for all of its too-brief 43 minutes, a hysterical, acerbic, subversive and, in true Whedon fashion, brutally tragic ride that was easily the best thing to come out of the writer's strike.

And who better to play the titular Dr. Horrible, blogger-cum-supervillain wannabe, than Neil Patrick Harris who, in his words, helped invent the blog with his Doogie Howser character? Harris is wonderful as the cynical, ever-bemused Horrible; his recent roles, from his perverted self-parody in the Harold & Kumar films to his essentially cleaned-up-for-primetime Harold & Kumar part for the excellent sitcom How I Met Your Mother, generally see him as a cocksure lothario who's either desperate for a friend or a borderline psycho. But Whedon loves to challenge people, so Horrible is lovesick, awkward and insecure; he seeks to enter the Evil League of Evil, but because he wants to better mankind who to him don't understand how their ignorance hurts them.

In between his schemings, he pines for Penny (Day), the bookish activist who he sees at the laundromat three times a week. Horrible spends as much time trying to muster up the courage to ask her out as he does pleasing the nefarious Bad Horse, leader of the ELE, into gaining acceptance. He has a chance when she surprises him on the street and asks him to sign a petition to raise money for a homeless shelter, but he's busy stealing "wonderflonium" to power his new freeze ray. Things only get worse for our villain when the heroic Captain Hammer swoops in and foils Horrible's plans and, even worse, Penny falls for his arch-nemesis.

And that's just the first act! The rest is even funnier and more heartbreaking. The songs are all humorous, but they work outside of novelty; these are genuine show tunes, as ready-made to be sung by fans as anything you'd expect to hear on Broadway. There is also Whedonesque humor a-plenty, with a sizable majority of the lines being instant quotables. And the climax ends in the way you might expect from Joss, but he plays it perfectly. The phrase "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry" is so overused that it's meaningless these days, but the ending of Dr. Horrible may be the only time where I found that statement completely true. It's a transcendent moment that'll leave you wondering if Joss snuck in the tragedy under the laughs or vice versa.

But that's all just stuff on the surface, waiting to be enjoyed by anyone, Whedonite or neophyte. No, it's when you really start to dig into Dr. Horrible that you see its true genius. Joss' shows are all about subverting expectations, whether it be the hot blonde horror victim suddenly rising up and attacking those who would do her harm or a western in space. Horrible wants to be a feared supervillain, yet his motivations have that oddly benevolent bent to them, like a robot programmed to protect humanity that ends up attacking people to save them from themselves. In his normal life he is clearly shown to be a gentle, caring individual whose cynicism and misanthropy is born more of loneliness than insanity.

Captain Hammer, on the other hand, is narcissistic and churlish; the only reason he does not beat Dr. Horrible senseless in the first act is that an attractive woman clearly exhibits a crush on him, which he focuses all of his attention on exploiting. When he gives a speech in the third act about how "we're all heroes," it only displays his delusion and selfishness. There's also a delicious bit in his reaction to experiencing pain for the first time. That last part is a possible reference to the novelization of Serenity, in which, Fillion says (no, I didn't read it), author Keith DeCandido portrayed The Operative as a man so good at fighting that he never learned how to take a punch. I heard this little nugget on the Serenity cast commentary.

OK, that's probably not a solid link and the only thing I did was prove how sad I am. But this is so full of Whedon callbacks that anything's possible. He's not only subverting heroes and villains, he's subverting his own previous subversion of heroes and villains. And NPH isn't the only person he plays against type; Day plays a gaming shut-in on The Guild and in real life describes herself as a "misanthrope," yet Penny is optimistic and open, and she's doing her best to help other people. Fillion, naturally, thoroughly deconstructs Malcolm Reynolds by using Hammer as the perfect mirror image: where Reynolds was gruff but fiercely loyal and a capable leader, Hammer is vainglorious and irresponsible – he seems to be a hero solely for the fame and the women. He even makes a passing reference (in song, of course), that Penny might become the first woman he's ever had sex with twice.

If this perfectly constructed miniseries doesn't give you enough Whedon to fill you up – which is understandable considering that, combined, Dr. Horrible is barely as long as a single episode of one of his shows – then you should pay the paltry fee for the DVD, which boasts the magnificent Commentary! The Musical. Though it almost never references the actual series, Commentary! is a creation every bit as masterful as Dr. Horrible, even if they songs don't invite as much singing along. A tune about the writer's strike betrays Joss' bitterness over the whole thing and its outcome, while Maurisa's "Nobody's Asian" has a sting of truth behind her lines about how roles for Asians in Hollywood are few and far between. But don't let this convince you that the commentary is dour and cynical; it's brimming with in-jokes (including something about Fillion's delicious seven-bean dip) and tongue-in-cheek humor, but that level of darkness just makes it better.

As great as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is on a surface and subtextual level, it's possibly even more exciting when you consider what it could mean for web shows. Shortly after the first act hit the web, the servers of drhorrible.com crashed for days and the initial DVD-R offered exclusively through Amazon was the #3 highest-selling DVD shortly after release and even at the time of this writing remains in the top 50.

While its financial success certainly doesn't prove that the future is here when it comes to independent production: Whedon himself recently mentioned that we still need studios for more epic works. But if an established auteur like Whedon can make something this brilliant with no budget and total creative freedom, who's to say that the notion of at least small-scale productions isn't possible within the next 10-15 years? Even if it isn't, even if we never get the rumored sequel or some other Web project from Joss, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a near-perfect little slice of heaven whose deceptively simple structure entertains with every viewing.

Lost — Season 2

[Warning - contains major spoilers]

The first season of Lost exceeded my expectations, mixing suspense with character development without getting too loopy nor too dense. While the flashbacks started to get repetitive near the end, and the decision to keep ever major character but one alive through the entire season not only prevented some characters from getting the development they needed but was just ridiculous, period: how, on an island full of polar bears, mysterious and hostile inhabitants and some sort of monster, could they all survive? Nevertheless, it maintained a high quality throughout the season, warts 'n' all.

The first season finale ended in disaster, with the raft expedition running into a boat full of Others, who shot Sawyer, took Walt, then blew up the impossibly well-crafted vessel, leaving the men to die. Meanwhile, Locke secured some dynamite from an old shipwreck to blow up the hatch, at the expense of poor Dr. Arzt (played by Daniel Roebuck, which made me wistfully imagine Jay Leno when he exploded). Despite the mishap, Locke got the TNT back to the hatch and successfully blew it up, leading to what I would learn be the first of many major teases as the episode ended with the gang looking down into opened hatch to see only darkness.

Before I move into the second season, I have to warn you: as much as I tried to avoid the more major spoilers (save a few) of the first season, the second is such a dense web of interconnecting plots and endless cliffhangers and reveals, so I'm just going to discuss everything that pops into my head.

After ending on such a cheap cliffhanger, the season premiere needed to prove to fans that the wait was worth it as well as moving the characters forward. Fortunately, that's exactly what it does: Locke makes his way down the vast access tube of the hatch and finds a man inside named Desmond whom, we learn in a flashback, once met Jack back in the "real world." Desmond guards a dilapidated computer, on which he must enter the ubiquitous "numbers" that keep popping up everywhere every 108 minutes (the sum of the numbers) or else. Or else what? The world ends, Desmond claims. Okey-dokey. Obviously, the stress of having to be awake every 108 minutes to input a code to prevent the world from caving in on itself or some such has taken its toll on the man, and he sticks around just long enough to foist responsibility for the situation onto Locke before high-tailing it for his schooner. Aside from the computer, the survivors find an orientation film made by something called the "DHARMA Initiative" – who apparently funded the hatch for the purposes of research free of restrictive laws – as well as a trove of food.

But the most interesting aspect of the first part of the season is surprisingly not the reveal of the insides of the hatch but of the discovery of other Oceanic 815 survivors on the far side of the island. We meet them when Michael, Sawyer and Jin wash up on shore and we assume that they're the Others, but recall a radio communication Boone made right before his death last season, where he told an unidentified voice, "We are the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815," only to hear in response, "No, we are the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815." These survivors were located in the tail section and, we learn, have had a much more difficult time than the group we spent a whole season with already.

The Tailies' story feels more believable than the other survivors', and they've got a hatch too.

Sadly, the introduction of these survivors is handled somewhat haphazardly. The first five episodes tease us at first with the idea that these people might be Others, as they are notably hardened and their leader, Ana Lucia Cortez (Michelle Rodriguez) is downright violent and cruel. When we do find out, they don't tell us anything about the "Tailies" for another few episodes. Back with the main survivors, we get the same old flashbacks that really just flesh out other flashbacks and not the characters themselves. They also start setting up strands that loosely tie characters into others' arcs for seemingly no other purpose than to make the audience say, "Wow! Would ya look at that?"

Things come together when the two factions meet, and tragedy immediately ensues. Shannon was always a terrible character who was useful in the pilot and only grated from then on, so I confess I was overjoyed to see her go. However, when my emotions cooled and I approached the situation with a slightly more level head, I must say I think it's weak writing: Boone's death naturally shook her up, and, even though most of her subsequent scenes simply featured her stone-faced and mourning, she had the potential to become a better person and a more interesting character.

But rather than flesh out her character and make her someone you might care about, the writers kill her off after a pathetic attempt to get us to sympathize with her: not only is she finding comfort in Sayid but her flashbacks reveal that she had an evil stepmother who ruined her dreams and left her with nothing after daddy died. That's just lazy, people. For the writers to have only killed off two major characters in a cast in the dozens and a lead cast of 14 – and for them to have been the only two that were widely disliked – shows how deep a hole they're digging for themselves.

Shannon dies when Ana Lucia mistakes her for an Other and shoots her, cementing that character as someone we're meant to hate even though it makes perfect sense that she would shoot first and ask questions later, especially when we finally get to see the Tailies side of the story. Oh, but they only get one episode to cram in their experiences over the last 48 days, even though they've clearly had a more interesting time. Whereas the fuselage survivors spent 48 days worrying about the unknowns of the island, the Tailies faced them head-on. They immediately fall under attack from the Others, who eventually seize several adults as well as all the children of the group and kill all those who try and stop them.

"The Other 48 Days" does an excellent job of showing how good the fuselage passengers have it, as well as introducing some interesting characters, presumably because the writers were afraid that the loss of a whopping two leads in such a large cast needed to be filled; nay, it needed even more people. What I liked about the episode is, frankly, that we see the Tailies' numbers significantly thinned after the crash. Nevertheless, if they're not going to start killing off main characters for reasons other than being useless (sometimes you just have to break our hearts, Lindelof), at least adding more characters gives us the chance to see some new flashbacks instead of retreading the other characters'.

For example, we finally see what crime Kate committed in the episode called, wait for it, "What Kate Did," but the writers do everything to soften a crime that you'd be willing to forgive anyway – Kate killing her abusive father to protect her submissive mother – that I just didn't care. It didn't shock me, it didn't give me pause; I just sat there bored stiff waiting to get to the next episode.

Eko and Ana, on the other hand, have some of the most intriguing backstories of the series so far, even if Ana's is so transparently meant to win some sympathy. A cop for the LAPD, Ana was shot on duty while pregnant and lost her baby. This helps explain her harshness towards Michael, Jin and Sawyer and her hatred of the Others, as she lost not only her own child before the crash but failed to protect those surrogates on the island. Lost really starts to get too on-the-nose with the character stuff this season, but this is a wonderfully understated development that actually makes a character more engaging without begging us to care. As for Mr. Eko, well, the more you learn about him, the more he becomes the most fascinating character since Locke wiggled his toes on the beach.

The first season was all about the fear of the unknown, and that's true to an extent this season as well; yet the introduction of these new, toughened, paranoid characters as well as the emergence of the Others narrows the scope of that fear. It's still not, thankfully, a post-9/11 commentary, and the more we learn about the hatches and the DHARMA Initiative the more the vastness of the actual island and its machinations increase, but now mistrust is at a fever pitch.

The show bogs down in the middle, seemingly going out of its way to make Claire, who should be given some leeway as a mother to a newborn she never even wanted, and Charlie two-dimensional and annoying (Boone and Shannon's shoes must be filled, people!). Charlie takes some Virgin Mary statues from a crashed plane full of heroin –which also has the corpse Eko's brother; yeah, it's like that during this stretch – leading to what is meant to an agonizing self-conflict but instead plays out like the most unintentionally hilarious "will they won't they?" relationship on television. And Claire just whines and gets easily outraged, and when she finds out about the heroin she stops associating with Charlie even though he's the only one who ever speaks to her – though Locke steps in for this, because someone has to humor her.

Things pick up in the end run, however, when Henry Gale arrives on the scene. Danielle finds him in the jungle and alerts the survivors, who take him back to the hatch for interrogation. Gale claims to be a wealthy balloonist who crashed several months ago, but Sayid sees the holes in the story immediately. Michael Emerson is wonderful as the increasingly unsettling Gale, mixing a certain doe-eyed innocence with the sort of look in his eye that suggests sociopathy. His best moment is his not-so-subtle confession to Jack and Locke when he hypothesizes that an Other might use Sayid's expedition to confirm his story to lead survivors to capture in order for a prisoner exchange, all before asking if they have any milk to go with his cereal.

Gale is indeed an Other, and he mainly tries to get under Locke's skin by claiming not to have entered the numbers into the computer when Locke was trapped by a blast door that came out of nowhere; this causes Locke to doubt his faith in the island for the first time. When Locke and Eko discover another hatch that was built to monitor the other hatches on the island, he doubts the importance of the button even more, and Locke angrily pledges to let the timer run out to see if his belief was manipulated.

There are many loose threads in the season, and I must say that the finale does an excellent job of consolidating them and addressing many of the more glaring questions. We see in a brilliant, gut-twisting moment that it is the monitor hatch that's the ringer, not the Swan. Desmond, who initially agrees to help Locke with his plan to run down the clock, discovers with horror that the logs Locke holds as proof of the hatch's lies actually prove that there is a massive patch of electromagnetic energy and that, the one time Desmond didn't press the button, the release of energy is what forced Oceanic Flight 815 to crash. We also see Michael further betray his friends after killing Ana Lucia and Libby, who was forming a relationship with Hurley, to free Gale. His treachery earns him back his son as well as a boat off the island, but you can see in his eyes that Michael will never really be saved for what he's done.

Yeah, I have no clue what all of this is supposed to mean.

Yet for every thread tied up, the finale asks us several more, deeply intriguing questions: if there really is that level of energy on the island, what do the other hatches contain? If the DHARMA Initiative isn't receiving the logs from the Pearl, are the monitoring these things at all? If so, how? Either way, their purpose remains a mystery. And what's up with Desmond's love appearing in the final shot being informed of the energy discharge. is she monitoring the island because she heads the initiative? Is this her way of tracking down Desmond? Who knows, but I'm eager to find out.

The second season of Lost is, unfortunately, a step down from the first: the flashbacks, already a cheap tool for character insight, become little more than an excuse to try and surprise us and to hammer home the idea that these people were destined to end up here. There are also some big plot holes, notably: if Desmond knew that not pressing the button resulted in some terrible stuff happening (even if he doesn't find out about the plane until the 11th hour), why would he go along with Locke's plan? Why didn't he tell Locke about it earlier? It also thins the Tailies to manageable numbers, only to focus on about 4 of them for any appreciable length of time while we still have to put up with a cast the writers already can't keep track of.

Nevertheless, it is a captivating season, if for no other reason than the producers and writers are shamelessly manipulating us into caring more than we should. Eko and Ana Lucia are great characters for entirely different reasons, and Locke and Hurley benefit from their flashbacks. Ana Lucia's death shows the writers are willing to be a bit bolder with the characters, even if most people would be glad to see her go, and Libby's death was the only genuinely emotional one of the show so far. Gale is a great villain already despite doing very little that could be described as "villainous." And when the show deigns to reward your patience with an explanation (usually found in a hatch), it feels satisfactory, unlike that damn smoke thing that's supposed to be the island's monster.

In the end, it may not live up to the first season, but it's almost as good in its own way. It can't find the right balance between character and mystery, which makes some episodes feel plodding and others full of empty thrills. It's also getting ahead of itself with some of its loose ends, several of which need to be addressed quickly in the next season. But, hey, I still liked it, so what can I say?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Silence

If it achieves nothing else, The Silence, the final installment of Bergman's faith trilogy, is still impressive for making such a simple title work on so many levels. The lack of open communication, be it with God or our fellow man, has informed much of Bergman's oeuvre, from The Seventh Seal to Cries and Whispers, but here each of the layers of silence – permit me this cliché – is deafening.

Even the setup is stark: Ester (Ingrid Thulin), sickly and dying, is on a train with her younger, more attractive sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and Anna's young son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). They stop in a hotel in an unidentified country on the brink of war, where Ester begins to deteriorate. The rest of The Silence is a chronicle of the interactions of these three, or lack thereof.

On one level, there is a literal silence that pervades the film: the first thing we hear is the pounding tick-tock of a clock, which only gets louder when one character cannot catch her breath. The ticking watch is a constant in the film, clearly a symbol for our limited time on this Earth but also of an inability many of us have to think about anything but that mortality. Dialogue is rare and sparse when used.

But even those tiny moments of speech reveal a great deal about these characters in a manner that highlights the importance of communication without being over-expositional. With only a few lines, backed by some of Sven Nykvist's finest photography, we begin to understand the three leads of the film: as tanks roll by in the night and shatter the quiet, we see the threat of war looming ever closer. Anna, the hedonistic one, buries her concerns in sins of the flesh, looking for carnal pleasures to at least distract from reality. Ester, intelligent and frail, looks to words as her last hope; she reads and writes and masturbates with cold, passionless automation.

Neither can find real comfort, as they cannot communicate. Anna has sex with a stranger whom she can't understand due to a language barrier, and whatever connection they have is purely physical and evaporates the moment they pause long enough to say something. Ester, long jealous of her sister's looks and promiscuity, often lurks in the background of the shots in Anna's room. She works as a translator, yet even she cannot understand the native tongue of this tumultuous land. The porter (Jörgen Lindström) brings her food and wine, though he does not understand a word she says.

In between these embittered sisters is Johan, whose equal affection for both his mother and aunt supports the notion that, as with the actress and nurse in Bergman's subsequent Persona, the two are merely reflections of the same person and not really sisters at all. In Freudian lingo, Anna is the Body, or Id, while Ester is the Mind, more specifically the Superego.

But Johan is not concerned about such things, for he is young. The other characters, building from Thomas' rejection of God in Winter Light, have abandoned Him, which accounts for their inability to connect with anyone else: if God is real and we are all connected through a higher power, then a rejection of that power isolates us from one another. In His absence, even a translator cannot understand the language of what appears to be a major European country, and why that country is on the brink of collapsing into insurrection.

In the previous installments of the trilogy, the characters prayed to God and asked to know He was there. In Winter Light, Thomas does not like the answer He gave, and so he rejects Him. In The Silence, we have angered God into leaving us, and now people can only pray for their own self-interest, empty pleas asked with full knowledge of their futility. Ester prays not for communication, nor strength, but merely to make it home to die to give her some antiquated notion of dignity.

Johan does not know that God no longer answers us, is too young to possibly comprehend this, and therefore he keeps his faith. As a result, he is the only character who can freely speak with anyone. Not only the bridge between his relatives, he befriends the porter and even stumbles across a traveling troupe of dwarfs who welcome him and dress him in their costumes. It is Johan who ends this nightmarish trip through Bergman's idea of Hell with an element of hope: he and his mother leave Ester to die – though Johan thinks they'll be back – and take another train out of the country. Ester gives him a letter that contains a message of spiritual hope. It inspires Anna to open the window to let it rain on her face (a baptism), and it gives the boy something to treasure, and hopefully something that will keep his faith alive through adulthood.

What makes The Silence so interesting to me, other than its metaphorical weight and flawless direction of course, is that it is truly the link between the theological Bergman of old and the psychological Bergman who had his greatest successes ahead of him. Perhaps this is nerdy of me, but I got genuine goosebumps watching the religious worries of the previous two films melt into the personal quandaries that would inform masterpieces like Cries and Whispers and Scenes From a Marriage. Even the idea of two characters playing contrasting foils of the same person would be fleshed out to an even greater degree with his next film and magnum opus, Persona.

For all its frightening implications, The Silence is not the most daring nor bleak of the trilogy, as the entire thing is merely the fallout from the themes of Winter Light. But it also, in a much subtler way than in Through a Glass Darkly, reaffirms the existence of God. Though Bergman identified as an atheist due to his strict upbringing under his Lutheran father, he recognizes the need for mankind to have something to answer to, even if we conjure that something from our imaginations. Bergman certainly doesn't believe in the canonical definition of God, but few directors have ever made as many films that so thoroughly (and believably) stress the importance of faith in the secular world. The fact that they're so well-acted and shot almost seems like mere icing on the cake.

Year One

Year One, Harold Ramis’ new, inaccurately titled comedy, suggests the pairing of the neurotic, sensitive straight man and the fat, loud-mouthed schlub is as old as history itself. Perhaps that’s why Jack Black and Michael Cera are playing to types so rigid they might as well be cast in stone.

If you’ve watched the trailer for the film – and you doubtlessly have, as it was everywhere – then you already know the plot: Black’s Zed and Cera’s Oh (get it?) live in a village in what is certainly not the first year of human existence, a village apparently in the Garden of Eden even though it’s clearly not, and they pine for Maya (Olivia Wilde) and Eema (Juno Temple), respectively.

One day, Zed eats the forbidden fruit, and soon the two friends set out to explore the world as they pledge to return as heroes to win their loves. Along the way they stumble from one Bible story to another: they meet Cain (David Cross) as he slays his brother (Paul Rudd) before stumbling across Abraham (Hank Azaria) just before he sacrifices his son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Eventually they make their way to Sodom, where the people all inexplicably speak with British accents.

After suffering through the lame hunter-gatherer jokes and the lazy Biblical references for 40 minutes, I confess I had high hopes for Sodom, which is a sad reflection of mindset at the time. Maybe in that den of unadulterated sin Ramis could at last unleash and really go for the blasphemous jugular, I thought. But no, it biggest payoff is a line like "You know what the best part of Sodom is? The sodomy," which might have been funny the hands of an anti-comic like Norm MacDonald. Delivered the uncomfortable David Cross – who has a look on his face the entire film that suggests he agreed to be in it as a fan of Ramis without reading the script – however, only accentuates its laziness.

Anyone going into this film expecting even a hint of the Ramis of old is in for a rude awakening, which is all the more bewildering given the wealth of comic talent both in front of and behind the camera. Ramis wrote the script with two Office scribes, and he collected a cast chock-full of comic heavyweights to back him up. Even if the leads are stuck in a rut, they're bankable comedy players, and David Cross is one of the finest comics of this generation.

With all that talent, how could he come up with this? Keep in mind: Harold Ramis is the person most responsible for the rise of chaos and revelry in comedy. He introduced raunch to the mainstream with his script for Animal House and his partnerships with Bill Murray represent, for many, the standard of cynical, skewed comedy. Judd Apatow in particular owes his career to Ramis, which might explain why he would finance such a terrible script. Then again, maybe it exerted the same strange influence over him as it apparently did the others.

It doesn’t help that Cera and Black are playing their old shtick: Cera is ironically detached, while Black doesn’t read his lines so much as boisterously proclaim them like a drunken William Shatner. Occasionally, he simply devolves into noises and funny faces. Why not just jangle keys for us, too? I miss the days when Jack Black had a handle on his manic energy, when he funneled it into an unassuming man who could suddenly burst into a rage over the most trivial of subjects. That character was funny in High Fidelity, even the over-the-top School of Rock. Now, he's just as sad self-parody, shouting these terrible lines in the hops that he'll make them amusing (he received his master's degree at the Dane Cook School of Comedy).

And as shoddy as the script is, Ramis’ direction fares no better: for some reason, he devotes most of the shots of this epically scaled comedy to close-ups, as if he was desperate to get a reaction, any reaction, out of the bored actors. He's never been the greatest director in the world, but he knew a thing or two about placement and how to set up for a joke. I saw short films made by high-schoolers at a school festival that had a better sense of direction that a man with 30 years of experience.

I take notes when I go to the theater, obviously so I don't have to remember every little thing when I get back home to write. But after about the halfway mark of this film, my scribbles devolved into such chaos as and entire page with the word "Why?" pasted all over it. I offered theories as to why and how Ramis could have fallen so far; the sanest of the bunch simply reads, "Have aliens killed Harold Ramis and worn his flesh to undermine the comedic bedrock of America to weaken us for eventual invasion? (possible)." Several pages I tore up on the way out, for fear that their content might be incriminating in some states. At no point did I manage to convince myself that a single moment was funny.

Year One is clearly shooting to be a piece of satirical blasphemy à la Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but it can’t even hit the simpler parody of History of the World Part I: it’s filled to the ceiling of its PG-13 rating with sodomy, circumcision and gay jokes – Olvier Platt’s turn as a high priest makes Ken Jeong’s mincing mobster from The Hangover look like a character from The Wire – yet Ramis is just wary enough of incurring any protests that he plays it frustratingly safe. You can't half-ass blasphemy: if you're going to mock the Bible's inconsistencies and absurdities, you better be ready to go all-out, not to turn them into sad, repetitive gags.

Yes, for all its gross-out gags, the only bold aspect of the entire film was the decision to include a blooper reel, as the thought of watching the crew having a good time with this after torturing us for 97 minutes is just insulting. At least the cast has the decency to look as bored in these candid moments as they do in the final product. It is truly the Paris Hilton sex tape of blooper reels.

In his now-legendary review for North, Roger Ebert listed director Rob Reiner's previous achievements as "incantations" against that infamous turkey. If that offered even a moment's consolation, I strongly suggest that anyone unfortunate enough to spend $10 on this piece of trash repeat "Ghostbusters, Stripes, Animal House, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack" ad nauseam. Better yet, lock arms with your miserable brethren, in the hopes that, collectively, your tribal chanting can drown out the primitive nonsense of this tripe. Make no mistake: Year One is an abominable failure, and the nadir of Ramis’ career. He should be grateful that McG ruined the Terminator franchise just a few weeks ago, as that's the only thing keeping him from having the worst film of the year.