Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lost Re-view: Tabula Rasa

Time for the next episode of Lost in my grand re-viewing of the entire series.

The second episode of a network TV series is often a rocky one. Pilot episodes are usually made months ahead of time, in order to sell the concept to the network. When the first "real" episode comes along, everyone involved is just getting back into the swing of things months later. For Lost, it must have been an even greater challenge, since the story was an ongoing one, and picked up mere hours (or maybe even minutes) after the conclusion of the previous episode.

When this episode (written by co-creator Damon Lindelof) begins, Kate, Charlie, Sayid, Boone, and Shannon still haven't made it back from their attempt to send out a distress signal from higher ground. This showcased another important element of Lost: episodes wouldn't really be self-contained. Sure, in an hour of Lost, you could get a tale about a character, an emotional arc, with a beginning, middle, and end. But the saga of the Island would often just pause as it was and pick up again next episode. (As a footnote, I think you can credit 24 for paving the road here, making it acceptable for a network show to be written this way as "standard operating procedure.")

It's interesting that Lost's first regular episode focuses on Kate, the character who I noted in the pilot seemed most "off" from how she'd come to be portrayed on the show. Did the writers gravitate to her because they saw the need to adjust the character a bit? Did they go to her simply because of the story reality that the marshal who captured her was dying of a shrapnel wound, and that they'd have to tell Kate's story immediately because he logically would die quickly (and with him, the easy way to segue into the story)? Was it a real-world necessity that they could only get guest actor Fredric Lehne for one episode, so they rushed to kill off his character? Hard to say for sure.

In any case, I probably thought this episode was more interesting the first time around. Knowing the full truth about Kate's history removes a little of the interest, of course. Even if at the time you had somehow just known that Lost was going to be successful and last six years -- without actually knowing Kate's real story -- it would have been less interesting. The central questions of "will anyone learn that Kate is a fugitive?", "what will they do if they learn?", and "what did she do?" were inevitably going to be answered.

Nevertheless, the episode still has a lot to offer even if the suspense is gone. The Kate storyline has a lot of heart to it. We see her on the run in Australia, staying with a farmer named Ray. What we know now that we didn't know at the time was that Kate killed her abusive father (the man who she'd thought was her stepfather for her whole life). That offers a whole new context to her relationship with farmer Ray. This was probably the first person who was anything like a father figure that Kate had opened up to and trusted -- at all -- since she first went on the run. She lives with him for three months.

And then he betrays her, turning her in for the reward money. ($23,000. Heheh, 23. Those damn numbers.) In the full context of Lost, we now know what a real disappointment Ray's betrayal must have been for Kate. And she ends up looking like a better person as a result, because of her reaction to it all. She pulls the unconscious Ray from the flipped-over truck, not leaving him to die even after what he did. And she still says to the marshal that she wants to make sure Ray gets the reward money for turning her in. On some level, this farmer probably reminded Kate of the man she thought was her biological father. In short, this whole plot thread offers a brand new emotional resonance when you come to it with full knowledge of the series, which is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping and looking for in going back to watch it all again.

Just as interesting as the Kate storyline are things going on with the other characters on the Island. There are great little moments, like Sawyer calling Kate "Freckles" for the first time, and also beginning to scavenge and horde things. Locke's wheelchair makes its first appearance. (The writers say they didn't know Locke had been in a wheelchair when they made the pilot, but they obviously knew it by the time they were making this episode.) Charlie's back to what he did in the pilot, writing profound-to-a-drug-addict messages on the bandages wrapped around his fingers. (He changes the message F-A-T-E from the pilot episode into L-A-T-E here.) And there's the moment where Michael stumbles upon Sun topless, cleaning herself up at Jin's command -- a precursor of the conflict between Michael and Jin.

And there are still other character moments that are more than quick fun, carrying more resonance. Claire and Charlie begin to bond in this episode -- and we know what an important relationship those characters would have.

There's also the small but compelling storyline of Locke finding Vincent. He carves the little whistle to bring Vincent out of hiding. And then, showing keen insight, he doesn't bring the dog straight to Walt, but goes to Michael so that he can be the one to save the day.

The most illuminating on-the-Island storyline is Jack's. He's really showing his "fixer" complex in this episode, determine to save the marshal's life and spend as many of the group's limited resources as are needed to do it. What's more, when Sawyer steps in and shoots the marshal to "put him out of his misery" -- and botches the job! -- Jack has to kill the man with his bare hands to save him hours of choking in agony. Major stuff for Jack, even though he is not the focus of the episode. (By the way, how could Sawyer miss like that? Maybe because of the vision problems we'd learn about much later?)

More staples of the Lost format began to appear in this episode. For the first time, we got the "whooshing" sound effect leading into a flashback -- though it wasn't used in every instance, and was never used to get back out from a flashback. Also, this episode ends with the first of Lost's many montages -- only it's not set to a sweet piece by composer Michael Giacchino. Instead, it's a quiet pop song played on a Walkman Hurley finds, in a style very reminiscent of what J.J. Abrams did on Felicity.

We get the answer to a question from the pilot. The "secret" that Locke told Walt was simply that "a miracle" had happened on the Island. He was indeed alluding to regaining the use of his legs, but did not specifically tell Walt the whole truth.

Speaking of truths, the whole episode deals a lot with characters holding information out on one another. Sayid convinces the people who know about the French distress signal to conceal the information, knowing that widespread knowledge of it will crush people's hopes of rescue. Jack finds out the Kate is a criminal, but then conceals that truth from Kate to see if she'll come clean on her own.

Some very interesting things happen right at the end of this episode. Kate comes to Jack and wants to tell him what she did. But Jack shuts her down, delivering the message behind the episode's title, Tabula Rasa. (Fun fact: the philosophical concept of "tabula rasa," being born as a blank slate, was first posited by the real John Locke.) Jack says that every one of the survivors is now a blank slate and that their pasts don't matter.

First of all, this opinion is basically the antithesis of what Lost would stand for in its first season. The first season was all about learning the pasts of these characters, who they were before the crash. And it all mattered very much.

Secondly, I have to wonder just what Kate would have told Jack if he had let her confess. Considering where Kate was as a person at that point in time, would she have told the truth? It doesn't seem likely. Would she have made excuses, telling Jack the whole story about her stepfather? She didn't really know him that well yet. Would she have proclaimed her innocence? If she had, I think it would have made trusting her a lot tougher later, both for the other characters and for the audience.

The episode does end on a bit of a weird note. Literally, in fact. As the montage I mentioned earlier comes to an end, the camera does a slow pan around Locke, moving into a close-up on his face. He watches Walt and Michael with a look that might mean a lot of things, except that it is scored by an incredibly creepy and ominous string accent that leaves you wondering the worst about Locke. Could he be a creepy pedophile or something? I'm not sure what this moment is all about. Is it just artificially trying to create some tension on which to end the episode? At this point in time, did the writers think that the end of every episode should have some sort of "hand off" indicating who next week's episode would be about? Strange stuff.

In any case, the episode overall isn't brilliant like the pilot. But I think that would have been incredibly hard to pull off. There's still good material here in any case, and I'd rate this episode a B+.

But this review needs a post-script, because another one of those 13 "Missing Pieces" mobisodes is tied to this episode. This time, it's a scene called "Jack, Meet Ethan. Ethan? Jack." It's exactly what you'd think from the title, a scene in which Jack meets the undercover Other Ethan for the first time.

Obviously, Ethan wouldn't really appear on the show for a few more episodes. But just as obviously, he's supposed to have been there from the beginning, so there's nothing wrong with the idea of retroactively creating a moment like this. There are even a few interesting things to ponder out of this scene.

Ethan's "in" is that he brings Jack a suitcase full of medicine that he claims to have found in the crash. The audience can have a little fun speculating whether that's true, or if the medications were provided by the Others just so that Ethan could build trust.

The scene has Ethan bringing up the possibility that Jack will have to deliver Claire's baby there on the Island. He then confides that his wife died in childbirth, and that the baby was lost too. Given the fertility problems the Others were having, I think you can take this story at face value -- it's not just an angle in Ethan's masquerade as a crash survivor. And when you take that detail as true, it humanizes Ethan's character a great deal.

So I'd say this mobisode actually does add to and flesh out the narrative of Lost in a small but useful way. Of course, even though it falls chronologically at this point in the series, and you could even watch it for the first time right here (it doesn't spoil anything), it only really resonates with a viewer who has seen the next few seasons. I guess that's the point of these mobisodes. (The good ones, anyway.)

Next up, one of the famously great episodes of the series, Walkabout.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Calling Orville Redenbacher

My last game night with my friends somehow got a bit sidetracked at one point when this talk of a net video came up, in which people ring popcorn kernels with a few cell phones, call the phones, and pop the kernels:

Fake, by the way. And yet, we kind of felt obligated to try it... or at least were really pushed into trying it by one or two people present.

I wasn't really that reluctant a participant, but I think I was drawn to the experiment for an entirely different reason. When you stop and think about the amount of technology you're bringing to bear in one room to try this, it's kind of preposterous. Basically, you need six phones -- three to put on the table, and three to call the phones on the table. Plus, if you want to document your experiment, you might want a seventh phone to record video with.

The thing is, we had all this easily right there in the room. And it's not like there was an epic crowd playing games that night. Ten or fifteen years ago, you couldn't dream of even attempting something like this.

I guess what I'm saying is that we may not have flying cars yet, but we pretty much are living in The Future. A future where I bitch about my phone -- a computer I carry around in my pocket -- sometimes being slow at web surfing when it's still several times faster than by home computer was (by dial-up!) little more than a decade ago.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Turn On the Heat

Another classic movie recently bubbled its way up to the top of my queue, Billy Wilder's famous comedy Some Like It Hot. It stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as a pair of struggling musicians in prohibition-era Chicago who, through happenstance, become wanted by the mob. Their solution to go into hiding? Disguise themselves as women and join an all-women band (featuring Marilyn Monroe) that's traveling down to Florida on tour. Naturally.

I joke, because obviously the level of artificiality here is ridiculously high. But when you think about it, it's no more fake and constructed than most other movies of the period (and, you could argue, many movies made today). Still, there is a bit of a hurdle to get over in the opening of this movie, accepting the crazy premise. And then it's really thrown back in your face with regularity, as you have to overlook the fact that somehow, everyone believes that Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon could really pass for women.

Skipping past all that, the movie is fairly entertaining at times. There's a good "buddy movie" rapport between the two leads, and Marilyn Monroe makes a fine love interest to spice things up. But the movie is also relentlessly predictable and hits all the beats you expect it to. There are a lot of reasons for that.

First, it's a lightweight comedy, and rightfully aspires only to be that. You don't generally thwart audience expectations in a light-hearted comedy.

Secondly, it's a decades-old movie. Screen writing has become more sophisticated over time, and manages to surprise more often than most classic movies could.

But lastly, and most importantly, tons of later movies went back to, cribbed from, paid homage to, or outright stole from this one. Some Like It Hot defines every major convention of a "cross-dressing comedy" that has appeared in every such movie that's been made since then -- even critically acclaimed ones like Tootsie. To some extent, you could call that a lack of creativity on the part of the new writers; but it's also probably true (at least somewhat) that this really is the best formula for telling such a story, and Billy Wilder found it first.

Still, I found myself appreciating the movie more as a pillar of film history than as a movie unto itself. It made me smile a few times, but never really made me laugh. Much less of comedy than tragedy remains timeless. Delivery changes, pacing changes. Societal standards of what's okay to joke about change. (Some of what's in this movie comes across a little close-minded and cheap; though in its day, it was really an amazingly subversive achievement to get some of this stuff into a major film.)

My personal take on Some Like It Hot is that it's a C+. But if you are a lover of movies and haven't seen it, I'd probably give it my recommendation anyway. It really is a "know your roots" kind of thing for a movie fan, a film that really is "Important," even if I didn't find it as entertaining as I'd have hoped.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fall Off

Besides me loving my new drum kit, there's something else my friend FKL was right about lately. He suspected that while he loved the movie The Fall, I probably wouldn't. I would have trusted that "recommendation," but I'd already dropped the movie into my Netflix queue after his enthusiastic response, and I didn't see him try to steer me clear until it was already on the way to my door.

Anyway, The Fall is a movie made four years ago (but only actually released two years ago) about a 1920s era stuntman who injures himself on a film. Convalescing in a hospital and desperate for morphine to dull his pain, he befriends a young foreign girl also in the hospital, and starts telling her an elaborate made up story to win her trust (which he'll then parlay into having her steal his drugs from the hospital supply).

But what it's really about is the outrageous story he weaves for this little girl. We see it all unfold on screen in what FKL fairly described as a Terry Gilliam sort of way. And the story gets modified as we go, based on suggestions from the little girl, or inconsistencies introduced by the stuntman storyteller. The events we're watching sometimes shift mid-scene.

The first thing you see when the credits roll is that the film was directed by Tarsem (Singh). Had I known this, I never would have watched it at all. This is the director who defined "style over substance" in his very beautiful, very self-indulgent film, The Cell. This movie is at least the equal of The Cell in spectacle and in decadence. It's a series of paintings brought to life. And though I can't claim it has no narrative, it wasn't one that really engaged me. After all, a fraction of the effort that was put into visuals was put into story.

But besides those luscious visuals, there are a couple more good aspects to the film -- the performances of the two main actors. The stuntman is played by Lee Pace, star of the brilliant-but-canceled Pushing Daisies. He manipulates while being sympathetic, conveys sorrow and pain, and even plays one of the characters in the story he's telling too. Then there's the young girl, an unknown named Catinca Untaru. In the last half hour in particular, she just breaks your heart with a very real, very wrenching performance.

Still, I lost patience for the "style over substance" long before it got to the meat in that final act. Overall, I'd rank the film a D+. But this is a film where your mileage could definitely vary. If you're one to be drawn into the spectacle of a film, this movie has it in spades.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Measured Response

Tonight was my third trip up to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, following King Lear and The Fantasticks. This time it was for Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, officially classified a comedy, but considered by some to be a "problem play." It's certainly a strange one, and my lack of familiarity with it before tonight made the experience a surprise.

It starts off hewing close to many conventions that appear in other Shakespearean plays. The Duke of Vienna announces his plans to leave the city for a time, leaving his duties to his stern deputy, Angelo. In truth, the Duke plans to adopt a secret identity as a friar so that he might see what happens in his absence. Angelo begins a crusade of sorts in the cause of moral rectitude, ordering the death of a man (Claudio) who has impregnated the woman he's engaged to (Juliet). Out of wedlock! Gasp! The man's sister, Isabella, leaves the convent where she is in training to become a nun and beseeches Angelo to commute the sentence. Lustful for her, Angelo proposes a bargain: if she will submit to his advances, he will spare her brother's life.

The "problem play" classification comes from this intrusion of decidedly dark subject matter into what is ostensibly a comedy. But there are jokes, particularly spawned from a subplot in which a braggart character, Lucio, repeatedly badmouths the departed Duke to the friar who is actually the Duke in disguise. But for me, the "problem" nature of this play stems from the increasingly bizarre behavior of the Duke as the play rolls on from there.

First, the Duke could simply come out of hiding and stay the execution. Instead, he concocts an elaborate ruse based around a woman he knows who was once engaged to Angelo. Isabella is to tell Angelo she agrees to sleep with him, under the conditions that it be in total darkness, and that there be no talking. Then this cast-off fiancee will show up to do the deed in Isabella's stead.

Makes perfect sense, right?

Then, when Angelo orders the beheading of Claudio anyway, the Duke could again come out of hiding to set things right, but this time decides to shave the head of another executed prisoner and send it to Angelo, claiming it to be Claudio's head. And then he tells Isabella that Claudio has already been executed, so that she'll be good and angry to lay into Angelo later.

Wait. What?

Then the Duke "returns" to Vienna, whereupon he orders Isabella's arrest when she confronts Angelo. Hearing that "a friar" might bear witness on the matter, he then ducks away to come back in disguised once more. He generally screws with everyone for his own amusement for the entire fifth act before revealing himself and going about setting things right. He then reveals Claudio, whom he kept in hiding, and not executed after all. And since Isabella will naturally be so relieved to see her brother after thinking him dead, and not at all be pissed that the Duke just completely messed with her for no good reason, the Duke naturally proposes that Isabella marry him.

Have we left the planet?

Of this absolutely insane conclusion, I can only remark that at least Shakespeare doesn't actually have Isabella respond verbally to the proposal before the "curtain closes" on the play. Thus, it is a matter of interpretation for the production whether she accepts or not. I gather most productions stay true to what was surely the intent at the time -- that she accepts, and that everyone lives happily ever after. This production has her stride past the Duke and exit the stage. Damn straight, woman!

There were plenty of other things this production got right too. The actors playing the Duke (Robert Sicular) and Isabella (Lenne Klingaman) were both very strong. I can't claim that either of them were able to make complete sense of two roles that have a lot of internal inconsistencies on the page, two characters that the passing centuries have not been kind to. I don't think any actor could make complete sense of them. But the former definitely found the funny moments for the Duke, while the latter skillfully played the profound emotion of poor Isabella in her plight.

There were two other major talents in the cast, both in comic relief roles. Timothy Orr played Lucio, the braggart character I mentioned earlier; Stephen Weltz played another comical character, Pompey. Both managed to get many hearty laughs from the audience. While the moral sensibilities of the play may have seemed really bizarre with the passage of time, these two actors made their jokes as fresh as anything from a modern movie. Very good work indeed.

I suppose that as for play itself, I started off liking it, but my confusion at the course of the plot won out over time, leaving me of two minds about it all. But I think there were enough strong actors in the cast to make it worthwhile. So overall, another good night at the theater.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Primary Woes

I've been a sporadic voter throughout my life. I didn't vote in the first election for which I was old enough, definitely in the throes of teen angsty crap. I voted in some non-presidential elections, but then didn't in the presidential election of 2000, because living in Virginia at the time, it seemed abundantly clear my vote "didn't matter." (But if you lived in Florida that year? Hoo boy!)

But since then I've started to come into a sense of civic-mindedness, that I should vote always anyway "because it does matter," "because you give up the right to complain if you don't vote," whatever, blah-blah. The point is, these days, I try to vote.

Why bring all this up? Well, because a primary election is coming up here. There are really only two compelling reasons I can think of to register officially with a specific political party when you register to vote. One is to cut down on junk mail, because candidates and causes of the other party generally won't waste their time mailing you anything. The other reason is exactly this case: so you can vote in the primary. So that you can say something like "I don't want to vote for 'the other guy,' but I certainly don't like what 'my guy' has been doing either, so let me try and get a new 'my guy.'" Okay, that's a general theory, because when I vote, I do research the issues and candidates to the best of my ability, and I don't blindly vote down the party line. But you get the point.

So here's the problem. I got my mail-in ballot for this primary election. It features around 10 government seats to cast a vote for, at both state and federal levels. And in every instance but one, there is only a single candidate to vote for. There really is no point in voting for any of these people, since they'll move on from this primary whether I affix my 61 cents in postage to this ballot or not.

Now there's pressure being applied to the pleasant little bubble that I'm a civic-minded person. Do I mail in this ballot to cast a vote for this one thing? Does it even matter? Do I lose any and all credibility complaining about people who don't vote if I don't vote in this?


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lost Re-view: Pilot

I've decided to watch all of Lost from the beginning, something I explain in greater detail here. Again, a reminder that if you haven't finished the series, I'm going to be spoiling things in these reviews! And the journey begins with the original pilot episode.

...except it doesn't! I mentioned the 13 "mobisodes," each a self-contained scene that slips somewhere into Lost's first three seasons. Well, the last one of those 13 episodes was called "So It Begins," and it takes place chronologically just minutes before the opening frame of the first episode.

I can't be harsh enough about this mobisode. It should be blotted out of existence. If the writers could somehow go back in time with full knowledge of where their own show would end up, able to change only one thing about the journey? I'm confident their change would be to never have made this mobisode.

It's a simple enough scene. Jack's father Christian comes across Vincent the dog into the bamboo forest on the Island. He greets the dog and tells him "my son is just over that way. I need you to go wake him up. He has important work to do." Cut to the first scene of the show, the close-up on Jack's eye as he awakens after the crash.

First of all, this scene is a blatant lie. (Though of course, the truth wasn't known to the writers at the time they made it.) We would would later (much later) learn that "Christian" is really an incarnation of the Man in Black. And while his powers may include turning into black smoke, they do not include any Dr. Doolittle-like power to talk to animals. And even if they did, there's no need for Smokey to lie to the dog and claim that Jack is "his son." And there's no "important work" for Jack to do -- not from Smokey's perspective, anyway. Basically, this scene was written under the assumption that Christian really was some kind of incarnation (or reincarnation) of Jack's actual father, and he behaves accordingly in this scene. Knowing now that's not the case, the scene makes no sense.

Worse, in cheapens the entire narrative structure of the show to include it. We now know the final frame of the final episode of Lost: a close-up on Jack's eye, closing as he dies in the same spot he first awakened on the Island. A perfect bookend to the story. Unless, of course, you drop the other bookend and shatter it!

If you didn't know about this particular mobisode until just now, I'm actually sorry I told you about it. It simply should not exist. Lost begins with the pilot episode, and that's that.

So, on with that!

I would have testified about my happy memory of sitting down to watch the two-hour Lost pilot for the first time back in September of 2004. I'd have bet money on it. And I'd have lost that bet, because every reference I can find says that it aired originally as two separate hours, during two different weeks. It's even two separate episodes on the DVD. Nevertheless, I chose to watch it all in one sitting this time around.

It's remarkable just how much about what Lost would become, what its defining characteristics would be, were present right there in the first two hours. The flashback structure was in place (albeit without the familiar whooshing sound effect to bridge in and out of them), used here to show Jack, Kate, and Charlie's perspective on the plane crash itself. Composer Michael Giacchino began his brilliant work right out of the gate, establishing at least four major musical motifs that would endure for the entire run of the show. "The monster" menaced from the forest, though was not yet revealed as black smoke.

Character was clearly demonstrated to be the major focus, even amidst all the Island weirdness (and there was plenty of that too). For every polar bear in the jungle, every mysterious distress signal on a loop for 16 years, there was a character mystery to keep equal count. What's written on the paper that Sawyer's reading? What did Kate do that had her in a U.S. marshal's custody?

In fact, character was so solid from the outset that many of the characters were already displaying traits that would define them for the bulk of the show. Hurley was already a caretaker looking after others (particularly Claire, in this episode). Michael was already spending almost every moment running around looking for Walt. (His first line of the first episode? "Walt! Walt!!") Sawyer is already calling people names (though he would do a lot better than "Lard-O," given time.)

But one character really stands out as being quite inconsistent with how we would later know her: Kate. The Kate of the pilot is a much weaker woman than the one we would come to know over six years, or for that matter, even by the end of the first year. She's nervous about stitching up Jack's wound. She seems far more terrified of the monster than Jack or Charlie. She's uncertain how to unload a gun (though you could claim that this was just an act, trying to maintain a "cover" at this point in time). Make no mistake, she doesn't come off as a helpless damsel in distress. (No, we had Shannon around for that!) But she's rather mousy compared to the character she would become. Perhaps that just says that no matter how hard killing a man and going on the run is, how much that would change you, being on the Island is harder and will change you more. (And I believe that.)

Some people expressed frustration with Lost over the years at the way that characters would often hold back information. (Well, the frustration I think was more with the other characters, who wouldn't demand the full truth from the info-holders.) This "secret agenda" element was baked right there in the pilot too. When Jack, Kate, and Charlie all head off into the jungle to look for the cockpit, they're all doing it for different reasons. Only Jack is operating at face value, actually looking for a radio to send a distress signal that will help the whole group. Kate's really just wanting to keep close tabs on any potential rescue, to keep her secret safe and make sure no one knows or learns that she's a fugitive. And Charlie's just in it to retrieve his drugs from the lavatory.

Behind the scenes, there were some things set from day one too. Damon Lindelof, one of the two show runners that saw Lost through all the way to the end, co-wrote the pilot episode. But in a key difference between how things began and how they ended, the other head writer, Carlton Cuse, didn't even start on the show until later in the first season.

And then there was J.J. Abrams. This was years before he directed Star Trek, or even Mission: Impossible 3, but he was still a known name from Alias and Felicity. And he got a lot of the credit for Lost for years, long past the point where he was involved with the show on any regular basis. (He was pulling away almost immediately, for the most part.)

Yet Abrams definitely was key in starting Lost on the course it would sail. The writing in the pilot bears a lot of his signatures (as one who watched those other Abrams shows can readily identify), and the entire writing staff would continue to mimic these sensibilities after he was gone. Plus, he directed the pilot episode. It not only established a look and feel that would remain basically consistent for the entire run, but was an awesome achievement just in and of itself. It was the most expensive pilot ever made by ABC, costing upwards of $10 million, and you really see it all on the screen. Sweeping shots of the beautiful Hawaii locations, clever use of visual effects...

...and that opening sequence! It feels like most of that multi-million dollar budget is right there on the screen in the extended opening, the immediate aftermath of the plane crash as Jack rushes around helping different people in the midst of complete pandemonium. What an attention grabbing start to the series!

The two hours contained strong character moments for nearly every major character. Among the highlights that would come back again later in the show: Jack tells Kate the story of his botched spinal surgery, and "counting to five" as a way to accept, but then compartmentalize, fear. Sun submits to the domineering Jin, but defiantly unbuttons the top button of her blouse when he isn't looking. Rose's thread of separation from her husband Bernard is introduced.

Random factoid that wasn't ever important later: did you know that Jack took a few flying lessons?

And yes, the first questions that would never be answered were here in the pilot as well. One is but a trifle. Why was Rousseau's repeating distress signal left running for 16 years? It seems to me like the Others would have wanted to turn that off at some point. Well, like I said, not a terribly important question to consider.

But perhaps more worth consideration: why did the smoke monster kill the Oceanic pilot? Obviously, as a writer's device at the time, it was to make the monster a credible threat to our heroes. But in the full spectrum of the series, we know that the monster was really the Man in Black, and he never acted without a reason. You have to imagine a reason here. Personally, I don't think I have one that I feel holds a lot of water, but maybe something will occur to me as I watch more episodes.

I've saved for last my pick for the coolest scene in the pilot. With the benefit of knowing the full course of the show, I believe that honor goes to the scene in which Locke explains the game of backgammon to Walt. Two opposing forces, Locke says. Five thousand years old. One light, one dark. That is the conflict between Jacob and the Man in Black, expressed in metaphor right there in the very first episode.

Now, I don't believe this was specifically planned. Even if you give the writers credit for thinking in the back of their minds that maybe the Monster might be a He and not an It, I think there's no way they knew who the hell Jacob was at this point in the game, or that the fundamental struggle on the Island was between these two brothers, several millennia old. But I think they did know that good vs. evil, light vs. dark, was going to be a major recurring theme on the show. A character's own past contrasting with his present. Maybe even the idea of "Others" on the Island in conflict with Our Heroes. They lucked out with the "thousands of years old" reference, but I think they did know the scope of the tale they hoped to one day tell, and laid a beautiful groundwork for it here in episode one.

And the scene was capped with the first of many brilliant line deliveries by Terry O'Quinn as Locke: "Do you want to know a secret?" (The miraculous recovery of his ability to walk, perhaps?)

So, wow, that was a lot. But I think it appropriate, since it was clear from the first episode that Lost was going to be a lot, offer a lot, provoke a lot of thought. The pilot episode kicked this off in perfect fashion. I rate it an unqualified A.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Lost Re-Found

It's been about two months now since Lost finished its six year run. Almost as soon as it was over, I started to think about watching the entire series again, from the beginning. I wasn't interested in doing it to see where the various "loose threads" had been left hanging out, or to look for signs of careful planning ahead by the writers. Not mainly, anyway. Really, I wanted to start watching it again as a loving fan, not to pick nits, to experience it all again. After all, Lost would most definitely be the kind of storytelling in which one could find all new layers of depth and meaning on a second viewing.

As I'd been pondering this, and waiting for just a little more "distance" from the finale, I actually had a couple different people mention to me that they actually missed my weekly Lost episode comments and analysis here on the blog. That surprised me a little, I think, since I really wasn't sure anybody actually liked me droning on too much about TV shows. But then, Lost is kind of special that way.

In any case, I decided that when I did start watching the show again, I'd follow along on the blog. So this is the introduction, leading into what I suppose will eventually total to another 100-plus posts about the episodes of Lost. I have no schedule here; it's not going to be a weekly thing, or twice-weekly thing, or any other particular thing. When I watch a new episode, and have nothing else particularly pressing I want to post about, I'll talk about the old Lost episode I watched recently.

I would hope it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. The whole point in doing this is to reconsider every episode of Lost with full knowledge of what the whole is. Translation: there will be SPOILERS. So if you haven't yet watched the entire series, you'll want to skip out until you can catch up.

Lost had all sorts of ancillary story bits attached to it. There was the tie-in novel supposedly written by one of the crash survivors. (Well, he survived long enough to get sucked through the engine in the pilot episode.) There was the alternate reality game run between two of the seasons. There was the video game. Plenty of other things too. I'm going to ignore all of that, as I mostly ignored it the first time around...

With one exception. Between seasons three and four, a series of 13 weekly mobile phone mobisodes, Lost: Missing Pieces, was released in a lead-up to the premiere of season four. Each episode was a single scene in a non-continuing narrative, just a little something extra that fit somewhere in the three years of Lost up to that point in time -- almost like a deleted scene. They were included on the season four DVD set, and somehow seem more "official" to me than some of this other side content. I mean, they even feature a lot of the main actors (and recurring guest actors). They're also "dated" online by helpful Lost fans, placed in their chronologically correct places during the show. So I figure I'll watch those at the appropriate times, and comment on them as part of the episode they belong "in" or "near." I mention all this right off the bat, because one of those mobisodes is connected to the pilot itself.

I'd actually planned on just jumping right in with my first review, but of course the pilot episode is worthy of more commentary than most, and I've already rambled on quite a bit just setting this whole thing up. So in the hopes of avoiding the internet pitfall of "too long; didn't read," (too late) I'll pick this thread up soon. (Tomorrow? Next week? Like I said, I don't intend to set a schedule for this.)

And if you aren't a fan of Lost? Well, you can start ignoring a fair chunk of my blog posts all over again.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Minor League

I'm a fan of Jay Baruchel's from the Judd Apatow show Undeclared, but not enough of one that I wanted to see She's Out of My League when it was out in theaters earlier this year. It looked like it could be good for a few laughs, but probably wasn't anything great. So into the Netflix queue it went.

As it turns out, my expectations of the film were a bit off. The film actually wasn't good for a few laughs. I don't know if I was looking for American Pie/There's Something About Mary hijinks and/or gross-outs, or just standard romantic comedy chuckles, but I found the movie to be almost steadfastly unfunny. It wasn't tedious or anything, but it never really rose above a sort of robotic "ah yes, I see how that would be considered funny" kind of humor.

That said, the movie actually tells a pretty decent story regardless. It's standard rom-com fare, but it's very well put together. The guy is likable, the girl is likable. The friends are entertaining. The families are perfectly crafted obstacles. The story covers all the expected, necessary beats for this kind of film. You get exactly what you expect from one of these movies, and no stone is left unturned.

If you've seen any of the series Undeclared, then you know exactly the sort of work Jay Baruchel is doing here. He's perfectly cast for this part, and does a fine job. So's the female lead, Alice Eve, who has the unenviable job of having to believably portray the "perfect girl." Along the way, there are some other faces you might recognize, including Mike Vogel (The Deaths of Ian Stone and Cloverfield), Nate Torrence (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and Debra Jo Rupp (That 70s Show). No one's winning awards here, but everyone does well with their roles.

So, totaling it all up -- a sweetly made romantic comedy that does exactly what it should with the romance and falls short on the comedy. "Nice personality, average looks." Or maybe that's "nice looks, bad personality?" In any case, I'd call it a C+. You'll probably think it's alright if you watch it, but it's nothing to clear your schedule for.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Light Fantasticks

Tonight, I was back at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, this time to see one of two productions my friend is stage managing this season. This one actually isn't work by Shakespeare, but is quite famous in its own way: The Fantasticks. This musical holds the distinction of being the longest running piece of theater in American history, and the longest-running musical anywhere in the world; it first appeared off-Broadway in 1960, and closed 42 years later, after over 17,000 performances. By comparison, the currently longest running musical on Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera, (which I believe was running when I visited New York for the first time back in junior high!) is only right around half that number.

Why perform it at a Shakespeare Festival? Well, for one, it's stuffed to bursting with references to Shakespeare. There's a traveling player very much in the style of the Player from Hamlet. The character quotes (and mis-quotes) lines from several of Shakespeare's plays. And the plot is an adaptation of a play, Les Romanesques, that is itself a bit of a parody of Romeo and Juliet. In a nutshell, two fathers who want their two children to fall in love and marry pretend to feud with one other as rivals so that their children will stubbornly pursue a love that is "forbidden."

So first, my take on the play itself. I won't sugar coat it. It's plastic, naugahyde... fake, fake, fake. The characters are shallow, their actions broad. The emotions are trite. The songs seem packaged and processed. The characters even speak right to the audience and tell you their enacting a play for your enjoyment. And the whole thing creaks like it's far older than even the half-century it is. It's a simple little confection that goes down like candy and is just as short-lived in offering any satisfaction. This out-classic-musicals any classic musical I've ever seen or heard of.

But -- and I don't say this only because a friend of mine was involved -- this was really a perfect presentation of such a show. The whole theater, walls and ceiling, was coated in odd structures of "found art," strange conglomerations of what you could imagine they just found in prop storage. Some members of the audience were seated on stage, facing back out toward the bulk of the house. A ramp was built from the back of the house to go over seats and lead right up to center stage. The instrumental accompaniment (two instruments only, as is traditional for this show) was seated right on stage too. In short, this production approached the material in such a way that embraced the theatricality of the musical and forced it right into your face. It didn't apologize for anything it was, it celebrated it.

The cast was pretty good overall. In particular, the parents of the young couple (played by Tammy Meneghini and Timothy Orr) were excellent, great singers who had a great rapport on stage with each other. (Note that, as is common in repertory company theater, one of these parents was a male role re-cast as a female, which worked just fine here.) The cast had to work extra-hard to perform a musical essentially in the round, but did well with it.

As for my friend's work on it? Well, to the outside world, stage managing is an unsung role. The director and cast can't get by without a good one. And when a show has a good one, nothing goes wrong -- not that the audience ever notices, anyway. So in running what seemed to be an effortless show, hats off to my friend!

So in summary, a fine production... but of a show I probably wouldn't recommend. A theatrical equivalent of a well-made movie that you nevertheless don't care for much. But in a way, still an entertaining night at the theater.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Hit Single

In last year's Oscar shuffle, many critics were praising Colin Firth's performance in a movie called A Single Man. They'd say in the same breath that Jeff Bridges was a shoo-in to win the Best Actor Oscar anyway (and he did), but it seemed to be in a sort of "sorry, you just got nominated in the wrong year, Colin," sort of way. It got me a bit curious about the movie.

Set in the early 1960s, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, A Single Man is the story of a gay man, a college professor, whose partner of 16 years was recently killed in an accident. The movie deals with his grieving process.

You'd think that the movie would have a lot to say on the rights of a gay couple, and the even greater challenges that would be placed on that couple living fifty years ago. And of course, that does play heavily into things. But what really struck me about the film is how very secondary all of that seemed. More than anything, the film is just a powerful look at dealing with the loss of a spouse -- that core more than any of the particulars.

Colin Firth is indeed excellent. It's a very layered, very subtle performance. There are emotions we see on the surface. There are thoughts the character is having that he's hiding from the audience. There are thoughts and emotions that we see, but that the character is having to hide from the world around him. And myriad combinations of all that. It requires tremendous specificity of an actor to be able to nail any of that. That Colin Firth does it all in one film is extraordinary.

That said, the pace of the movie is still rather slow at times. The direction of the film is rather workmanlike, so much so that the handful of moments that break the mold scream "artistic statement!" in a way that doesn't complement the rest of the proceedings.

But regardless of any shortcomings, it's worth seeing if you're a fan of good acting. This really was a fantastic performance by Colin Firth (and Julianne Moore is pretty good too), and it's the major factor in my rating the film a B-.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

King for a Day

A friend of mine is stage managing two of the five shows in this summer's Colorado Shakespeare Festival up in Boulder. I'll be going to see her two productions over the next week. But before that, both of us had an interest in one of the other three productions running in rep right now, and with her busy schedule, tonight was basically the one chance for both of us to go and see it -- King Lear.

We both read King Lear for the first time back in high school with the rather flighty and slightly nutty, but smart and totally awesome teacher that got us both turned on to Shakespeare in the first place. I'm not sure I'd call it one of my "favorite" of Shakespeare's plays, but it is certainly one of the plays I know best. And starring in the title role of this production was a Denver local actor, John Hutton, who we've seen in various shows dating back all the way to when we first read the play. We were both eager to see his take on the role.

Lear is a tough play to analyze in terms of its entertainment value. The logic of it all is... well, let's be polite and say it's "strained," to say the least. Never mind the trappings of many Shakespeare plots, like disguised identities. (A father somehow unable to recognize the adult son he's seen constantly all his life; a king unable to recognize the years-loyal servant he just dismissed from his service the day before.) There is some true insanity in this play, and I'm not talking about one character actually going mad and another feigning madness. I mean characters acting against character, without reason.

The play opens with Lear disowning the daughter who is said to have been his "favorite" all his life. (Well... okay, you could call that a symptom of his coming madness.) We soon follow up with a father taking one son's word that his other son intends to murder him, with only the slimmest evidence and no other corroboration. The same lying son is then able to convince his brother to flee into hiding from his father without the father ever actually doing or saying anything threatening. And then this same crafty villain spontaneously recants his wickedness at the end of the play! What's more, important story points at the climax of the play happen off-stage, including major arrests and two suicides. King Lear just doesn't flow as smoothly as many of Shakespeare's other works.

But if you can somehow gloss over that and just take each scene for what it is, the emotional content of it is among the most powerful in Shakespeare. The emotions are weighty. The lows for the characters are low indeed, and the fall quite long from where then fallen begin.

And the language is some of the Bard's very best. I suspect that even someone who has no idea what iambic pentameter is will feel the difference in speaking patterns between different characters in the show. That ambitious villain I mentioned, Edmund, has some of the most bile-filled, hateful poetry you'll see outside of Iago (in Othello), and his punchy, caustic meter stands in stark contrast to everything else going on in the play. He makes the audience take notice of him.

Which bridges me to the actors in this particular performance. This Edmund (Geoffrey Kent) made the most of a delicious role, and his brother Edgar (Josh Robinson) also performed admirably in a part that demands some pretty wild fluctuations in energy and tone. Lear's wicked daughters Goneril (Karyn Casl) and Regan (Karen Slack) were perfect heels, and also managed to find several great moments of wit too.

And then, of course, the man we came to see, John Hutton as Lear. I think I'd forgotten what "heavy lifting" this role is. The character of Lear is out of his mind (even before he actually goes out of his mind), and yet must appear irrational and harsh without just stomping around in a one-tone rage for the entire play. Hutton modulated this admirably, and even managed to make the man sympathetic when a) it kind of feels to me like he gets what's coming to him; and b) it's a Shakespeare tragedy, so you know from word one that he's going to get what's coming to him.

So in all, it was a great night at the theater. And I'm eagerly looking forward to the next two shows, which my friend actually has a hand in.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Upgrading the Apparatus

After nearly three years of Rock Band fake drumming, and a friendly push from FKL, I decided to spring for an actual drum kit and start playing for real. Of course, being in a condo situation, an acoustic kit wasn't really an option, but they make some pretty damn impressive electronic drums these days.

Enter the Roland TD9S, with 50 different built-in "kits" (sound sets), songs to play along with, a metronome and tempo tracker to tell you if you're on the beat, and all sorts of other widgets. After just a few days, I'm already smitten. I've also found myself taking to it a lot faster than my efforts to play guitar... just don't expect me out "gigging" any time soon.

But hey, if you're starting a band...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Dreams May Come

This afternoon, I went to see the latest from writer-director Christopher Nolan, Inception. After a long string of movies by him that I have loved (though none as much as the first of his I saw, Memento), I would show up for basically anything he made. Knowing I'd be going, I avoided any contact I could with any promotion of the film -- even ambiguous and teasing as I understand it was. Going into the film with little knowledge of its real content was a lot of the fun for me, and if it would be for you too, skip the next paragraph.

Inception is the story of a thief who invades people's dreams to steal their secrets straight from their minds. He's gone down this road because of a dark secret in his own past that he keeps buried from the people he works with. Now he's agreed to pull off one last job of great difficulty so he can buy a clear name and reconnect with his former life.

As you would expect from the man who brought us Memento and The Prestige, this is a twisty, labyrinthine movie of many layers. But while I've seen a fair number of critics talk about how "it begs to be watched again," I'm not sure I felt that immediate pull. The intricate construction of Inception just requires you to pay close attention to what's going on; I didn't really feel the movie was trying to deceive or conceal like those earlier Nolan films, nor did I feel that any grand revelation at the end of the film would lead to a different interpretation of it, were you to watch it again. It's just as complex a film as those others (maybe even more so), but it isn't as deep.

What it is is stuffed full of action-packed, whiz-bang theatrics, of the sort that viewers more familiar with Nolan's work on the Batman films would expect. It's built better than the fullest James Bond film, with car chases, ski chases, fist fights, gun fights, heist planning, impersonations, double-deceptions, and more. It takes perhaps an uncomfortably long time to get to that, what with a slow but necessary first act that lays out all the "rules" for the impossible craziness we'll witness later. But when all hell does start to break loose, it's pretty damn entertaining.

Though the ride is fun, I'm also not sure how I feel about the ending. I'm going to try to be vague here, but if you want to see the movie completely unspoiled, you should probably skip the rest of this paragraph too. I felt the ending was exactly what I was expecting, and was somehow simultaneously "correct" and a bit of a cop-out. I also felt it was basically the most directly stated thing in the film. And yet afterward, I find that a lot of people are debating interpretations of the ending, which I found to be completely unambiguous. Perhaps it's a better ending than I gave it credit for? Did I sour to it just because I "saw it coming?"

The cast is very good. It's a mixture of Christopher Nolan veterans (Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine) and Nolan newbies (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Marion Cotillard), all strong and well cast. If anything, lead Leonardo DiCaprio is the weakest among them; I feel a sort of sameness (minus the Boston accent) to the roles he's played in other recent films, such as Shutter Island. I think it would have bumped the movie up another notch to bring in one more Nolan regular and have Christian Bale in the lead part, though DiCaprio doesn't really "hurt" the movie either.

All told, I'd call Inception a good, but not great movie. It might actually be Nolan's weakest, but that's more a testament to his skill than a flaw in this one. I rate it a B.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Bad Dream

The recent remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street met with generally unfavorable reviews, so it slipped under my radar. But it did spark my interest in the original, which I'd somehow managed not to see before. Writer-director Wes Craven was known before this, with his films The Hills Have Eyes and Last House on the Left (which have also received the remake treatment in the last few years), but it was Nightmare that he became best known for.

At first glance, it's easy to see why. The idea of A Nightmare on Elm Street is simply brilliant, and perfectly terrifying: a "monster" that gets you in your dreams while you sleep. This isn't a situation like Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Psycho, where one can simply not go in the water, not enter the rundown house uninvited, or not stay at the creepy motel, and thus escape a grisly horror movie fate. Everyone has to sleep. And if you do? Now you're screwed. Great premise.

Unfortunately, the execution of the concept does it a great disservice. You can see why Freddy quickly transformed through several sequels into a wise-cracking jokester, because even here in the original, he's more funny than menacing. Whether he's teasing you with 20 foot long inflatable arms (held up by wires you can actually see), ripping away cheesy makeup to expose silly-looking green goo, or not actually doing anything to you when he easily could, he doesn't come off as much of a threat.

Some of that is the limitations of film-making in 1984, but a fair amount of it is the acting. And not just from actor Robert Englund, who actually gives one of the better performances in the movie. The entire cast (including Johnny Depp, appearing in his first movie ever here) feels like they come from another time. Each line of dialogue is delivered either as though "this is the only line I have in this movie, dammit!" or "this is the first time I've ever actually seen this line, and English isn't my first language." Hammy one moment, stilted the next.

So in the end, credit Wes Craven with a phenomenal idea, and a few moments of inspired imagery (such as a couple fun and effective uses of an upside-down camera). Beyond that, this horror classic is kind of a bust. I rate it a D.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Lines of Communication

From Apple's presentation today on the faulty antenna on the iPhone 4:

Of course people haven't called you about their reception problems. They can't call you because they have reception problems.

Don't even get me started about internet service providers who have online troubleshooting systems.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tri Hard

Time for another Netflix recommendation. This time it was a horror-thriller movie made just last year called Triangle. I'd never heard of it, and it turns out that's not too surprising, given the film's background. Financed in part by money from the UK Lottery, filmed in Australia, and shown only at film festivals before slipping out in the US on DVD, there really weren't any opportunities to see it until recently.

The "triangle" of the title is a loose reference to the Bermuda Triangle, though that's actually never mentioned by name in the film. Instead, there's a supernatural tale being told here, and the Triangle just happened to be a convenient place to set it. The audience would bring their knowledge of the stories about that area, fleshing out things that weren't actually important to the plot.

The plot? Well, here's as much as I'll say. A small group of people sail out from South Florida on a small yacht, and get caught in a freak storm that capsizes their vessel. They're hoping for rescue, when along comes a decades old ocean liner that they manage to board, only to find it completely abandoned... Except it may not be abandoned. Actually, there may or may not be a faceless stalker on board trying to kill them.

And the weird thing is, that only covers about the first 30 minutes. I'd love to say more, because that's where it starts to get really unusual. And really interesting. But I think part of the fun for me in watching the film was not actually knowing what the film was really going to be about, and I don't want to deprive anyone of that thrill. Honestly, the film might not even be worth seeing after that.

While the movie is very clever and intriguing, it's far from airtight in its plotting. Even as you're watching it, you'll catch yourself thinking, "now, wait a minute, that doesn't quite make sense." And the moment the credits roll, still more holes in the plot will keep occurring to you. Well, they did to me. But I also found that these realizations didn't really detract from the things I did like about the movie. There are definitely some creepy moments, and fun revelations. There are times when you're ahead of the movie and guess what will happen next, and that's fun; there are other times the movie surprises you, and that's fun too.

But I do wish there had been a stronger actress in the lead role. The main character of this film is played by Melissa George, whose (unfortunate) big claim to fame is that she came on to the third season of Alias, just as that awesome show began a freefall in terms of quality. Mind you, not all of it (or even most of it) was her fault; the writing took a nosedive after season two. But she also seemed like a stiff and limited actress on that show. She has improved some here. She isn't bad in this movie. But the story also requires her to really present multiple different aspects of her character, and I didn't find sufficient differentiation -- or credibility.

I wish I could speak more to what I did enjoy in the movie and focus less on the negatives, but I really think that giving out those details would spoil the fun. So I'll just sum up by saying that despite some shortcomings, I found it an enjoyable movie. I rate it a B-, and I'd recommend that people who like stories with a supernatural/sci-fi touch should check it out. (If only for the selfish reason that then, I could have someone to discuss the movie with in more detail!)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Low Altitude

Just before Martin Scorsese "finally won his Oscar" for The Departed (and that was a fine movie indeed), critics were speculating if he'd score with The Aviator, his biopic about Howard Hughes. Having now watched the film for myself, my opinion is that he never had a chance.

But I do find it an odd thing to try and evaluate this movie. The thing is, the film does a pretty great job of capturing all aspects of Howard Hughes. It shows parts of his life spread over nearly 20 years, covering his passion for building airplanes, his thirst to set aviation records in the cockpit himself, his risky business ventures, his irrational film-making as a writer and director, his dating of Hollywood starlets, and his collapse into an eccentric recluse due to obsessive–compulsive disorder. That's more than a feast, hitting almost everything but the point in his life where he shut himself in the penthouse of a Las Vegas hotel.

See, it's accurate to say that Howard Hughes was a man of myriad facets, meandering and impossible to pin down. Unfortunately, in faithfully portraying that, the result is a movie that isn't about any one thing, that meanders and never settles down into a single coherent narrative. I mean, the title itself shows up this flaw; it's called "The Aviator," but I'd estimate that almost half of the nearly three-hour movie has nothing to do with aviation.

So, while I can appreciate the storytelling technique here and say "yep, that's the way you ought to tell Howard Hughes' story," the fact remains that I found the movie boring and aimless. It's a collection of "episodes" with no real narrative. And I guess I want even a biography movie to make a point, a point deeper than "look at this crazy guy!"

It doesn't help that I felt Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't really up to playing the part. He's never really struck me as an actor with a great range, and throw his relatively unchanging looks into the mix, and he can't credibly embody Hughes over such a wide period of time. Early scenes work well, but as Hughes ages and gets crazier over literally decades, DiCaprio look and acts almost exactly the same.

Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, is a powerhouse as Katharine Hepburn. Not only does she give a wonderful impersonation of the famous actress' voice and mannerisms, but she portrays a believable, nuanced person at the same time. It's a shame there isn't more of her in the movie, because she's delightful whenever she's on screen.

I'm glad Scorsese kept trying, because this film just didn't do it for me. I give it a D+.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Barenaked on the Rocks

Last night, I went to see one of my favorite bands, Barenaked Ladies, perform live at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Though I had seen them in concert twice before, this was a significant occasion for a couple of reasons.

First, despite having lived a combine total of over 20 years in the Denver area, I'd never attended a concert at the famous Red Rocks. I'd taken many visiting friends there to see it as a tourist attraction, but had never gone for an actual show. (And it's a great venue! Great sights, including a sprawling view of the city at night; great acoustics; great history.)

Second, this is the band's first tour since one of their founding members, Steven Page, left the group. I don't suppose I ever much considered my favorite member of Barenaked Ladies, but if I did, I'd have probably said Steven. He's a powerhouse vocalist that sings with great emotion and expressiveness. He's the voice of "Call and Answer," "Brian Wilson," "What a Good Boy," ... nearly all the best BNL ballads, and some of the more up-tempo radio hits too, like "It's All Been Done" and "The Old Apartment."

On the one hand, I was concerned that many of my favorite BNL songs wouldn't be the same without him (if they played them at all). On the other, after hearing the songs tons and tons of times, here was a chance to hear them for the first time, in a way, as other members of the band (mostly the other lead vocalist, Ed Robertson) took over for those songs.

I think of the three times I've seen the band live, this might actually have been my favorite performance. They had a great energy (as they always do for live shows), played a strong set list (though it was, expectedly, missing the ballads I mentioned above), and there was just some undefinable something that was a cut above the other shows I've seen.

Things worked really well around the absence of Steven Page. A few harmonies shifted around some in the arrangements, but fit in nicely with the new voices singing them. The leads were great, honoring the way the songs have always been song without being strict imitations. They played all my favorite songs off the new album, without spending much time delving into the clunkers among the back tracks. I was impressed and entertained.

...and slightly disappointed. At the last BNL concert I attended (and all throughout their last tour), they were doing this awesome thing where you could buy MP3s of the very concert you'd just watched on USB sticks just 15 minutes after the show. I had my plan and money in place, and every intention of making that purchase this time. I wanted it all the more after actually hearing the show. But for some reason, they weren't doing it at this show. I checked their web site, and it seems they haven't been doing it on this tour at all. It was one of only two black spots on the entire night (the other being a preposterously long 30 minute wait after the last opening act, before BNL took to the stage).

Still, a great night. And now I've been to the place where "the Rocks.... are red... Sincerely... Ed." (You literally had to be there.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

An Old Soul

An odd movie recommendation came my way recently over lunch with friends from work. Actually, "recommendation" isn't the right word, as the person who brought the film up hadn't even seen it himself. He'd simply heard about it and asked if I had seen it, but the description got me curious enough to decide I wanted to.

The movie is called The Man from Earth. It was made under an incredibly small budget in 2007. I couldn't even find confirmation that it ever actually released in theaters... but neither was it a made for TV effort. The story surrounds a goodbye party being thrown for a professor who has decided to pick up and leave town. He spontaneously reveals to his friends that he has actually lived from over 14,000 years, and moves on regularly as he's doing now to hide the fact he doesn't age. His friends, being fellow professors, command a wide knowledge in all sorts of other fields -- anthropology, biology, and more -- but are unable to refute the claim, and are all drawn into a deeply philosophical discussion about the ramifications of this revelation.

There aren't any well-known actors in this movie, but there's a good sprinkling of faces many would recognize from other places. There's John Billingsley (who played Phlox on Star Trek: Enterprise, and now appears intermittently on True Blood), Tony Todd (the Candyman himself, and a recurring guest star on different Star Treks as Worf's brother), William Katt (the Greatest American Hero), and Richard Riehle (the "jump to conclusions mat" inventor of Office Space), among others. All of them do the fine work you'd expect from them; not flashy or showy, but very credible and compelling.

The script is a bit of a mixed bag. It was the last work completed by Jerome Bixby, the man behind several episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek (including "Mirror, Mirror") -- so it certainly has a pedigree. But there's something about the situation that isn't quite credible, and I don't mean the notion of a 14,000 year old man. To hear these characters -- however educated they are -- speak so frankly and critically about such a wide range of subjects from existence to religion to evolution; well, the dialogue doesn't always sound credible as a conversation might actually go. And yet, the topics discussed, and the manner in which they're discussed, are central to the very idea of this story. You couldn't do it any other way and not lose the entire point.

Frankly, I just don't think film was the right medium for this tale. This sort of dialogue-driven story, with a glossing over of the artificiality of it, is what the theater is tailor-made for; I could easily imagine this as a stage play. Or as a novella, where it wouldn't be at all out of place for headier matters to be explored.

Then again, maybe it's just the low production values of the film that contribute to the feeling that it's not believable. I mean, despite the quality of the acting, the film itself has the feeling of a made for TV, with low production values, grainy film, and a clearly shoestring budget. Not surprising; I can't imagine any big Hollywood studio touching this story with a 10 foot pole.

But in any case, this is what the best science fiction really does. It presents a simple and unusual idea, then explores every facet of what that idea could mean, and forces the audience to really engage with the material and think. So despite whatever flaws this movie may have, I would definitely recommend it. I rate it a B-.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

You're Despicable

I suppose my inner child is still alive and kicking, because in this weekend's movie showdown between the decidedly kid-oriented Despicable Me and the decidedly not Predators, I chose to see the former.

Despicable Me tells the story of a super-villain who begins to find his inner heart of gold when his latest scheme requires the assistance of a trio of little girls he takes into his care. It features a long list of good comedians, including Jason Segel (from How I Met Your Mother), Russell Brand (from Get Him to the Greek), Will Arnett (from Arrested Development), Kristen Wiig (from Saturday Night Live -- it's not her fault the writing there stinks), and Jack McBrayer (from 30 Rock). And of course, it's all headlined by Steve Carell.

In a refreshing change of pace for an animated movie, nearly all of these actors are affecting a character voice or accent of some kind. Even Pixar often falls into the convention of having top talent show up to just read into a microphone as themselves, so it's nice to see someone taking advantage of the animation format and having the cast ham it up a little.

But outside of that one aspect, Pixar overshadows this film in every way. It's kind of a shame for this movie that it was released in such close proximity to Toy Story 3, because it makes the inevitable comparison between Pixar and the new animation studio behind this film all the more easy to make. But the shame is that this really isn't a bad movie. It's actually a rather good movie that's just coming on the heels of a great one.

One thing that the makers of this movie grasp that the Pixar folks understand (and most other animated movie-makers still seem not to) is that there can be more to this style of movie than getting laughs. Despicable Me has heart to it in both story and execution. It does tap some deeper emotions (though yes, in between a few cheap jokes). If the funny parts aren't quite as funny, the more emotional moments not quite as emotional? Well, that's just the difference between a grade A movie like Toy Story 3 and this, which I'd call a B+ and still well worth considering.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Shutter Down

So, if I had known that a few days later, I'd be watching Lake Mungo, or known what Lake Mungo was even about, I probably wouldn't have watched another movie about ghost photography first. Especially one not as good. But what can you do? I'd already watched Shutter, an American remake of an Asian horror film made in 2008. (Ooo, the twist! The original was made in Thailand, not Japan!)

Joshua Jackson was paving the road for the regular role he'd have in Fringe in a matter of months, playing a fashion photographer on a working honeymoon in Japan with his new wife. The two seem to hit a young woman with their car late at night, but when they recover, she seems to have vanished. Instead, her image starts manifesting in photographs the two take, apparently stalking the couple for some unknown reason.

There are a handful of well-produced, creepy scenes in the movie. As in The Ring, the casting of "the ghost" is just perfectly unsettling. The camera work in the scenes involving her is effective in a "make you want to shrink back in your seat" sort of way. In fact, across the board, the film is fairly well put together when it comes to visuals (save for one laughably bad image -- but blame that on the writer for concocting something that simply could not work).

The problem is, the dialogue is really cumbersome, and the characters are shallow. It actually ends up coming off quite a lot like Fringe, a show I abandoned a long time ago. The movie felt like an average episode of that show (which, even at its best, I found to be a sub-par X-Files knock off). A sort of "highlights reel" from the film would have merit, and Joshua Jackson certainly gives it all the heft and seriousness he can, but it still comes out a C+ at best. I say, refer to Lake Mungo for any ghost photo needs.

Friday, July 09, 2010

What Is Fascinating?

A friend of mine Facebooked a link to a fascinating article today, about a team of computer geniuses at I.B.M. who have been trying to program a computer that can play Jeopardy. I recommend reading the whole article, because it touches on a lot of interesting points that weren't immediately obvious to me.

For example, this has more practical real-world applications than Deep Blue, the famous chess-playing computer, because the ability to parse questions (well, "answers," in the case of Jeopardy) and return a relevant response is a good deal more sophisticated than an internet search engine, and could be useful in other fields.

Also, for a variety of reasons that the article explains, it's not a given that the computer will kick your ass at trivia just because it commands a greater pool of knowledge than an individual has.

Anyway, it seems the producers of Jeopardy have agreed to allow the machine, Watson, to compete on the actual show this fall, against specially selected past Jeopardy champions. (I'm just guessing here, but: "Who is Ken Jennings?") I know I'll be there to watch.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Follett, Part Two

A few weeks back, I wrote about the board game based on The Pillars of the Earth, giving it my thumbs up. But it's not the only game to be based on a Ken Follett novel. The same game designers have tackled one of his more recent novels, World Without End. I'd also heard good things about this game, including a very enthusiastic recommendation from FKL. It had enough accumulated praise that when I happened to pick up a gift certificate to a place that sells board games, I knew exactly which game I was going to buy.

At its most basic level, World Without End is another resource gathering/management game. The game takes place over four "chapters," and at the end of each, you're required to have certain specific resources to avoid nasty penalties. In addition, other resources along the way can be spent to earn you victory points in a variety of ways. The thing that makes World Without End stand apart from the mass of resource games is a pair of central mechanics that governs how you gather these resources.

First, the starting player of each round turns over a small, diamond-shaped card with a resource of some kind printed on each corner. It's up to that player to orient the card on the game board as he chooses, and each player will wind up with one corner pointed to him. Whichever resource is aimed at you is the one you get for the round. And the game does an excellent job of throwing multiple factors at the "chooser" that might influence the best way of pointing the card.

Second, players have a hand of 12 cards, each representing a different action he can take. In the course of a chapter, a player will play 6 of these cards, and discard the other 6. But the tricky twist is that in each round, after choosing one to play, you must also choose one to discard. So you have to look a little ahead and try to guess which actions you probably won't want to do at all for the chapter; you must narrow your options as you go through the chapter.

Together, these two clever mechanics give the game a lot of meat and interest. I've quite enjoyed it every time that I've played. There are two minor points of concern for me, though neither so severe that I'd call them "flaws."

First, there's a "house building" mechanic that allows players to draw down specific income with one of their actions cards. While there is a variety of things one can choose to receive as this income, there is a particular combination of points and money (as opposed to other resources) that seems especially potent. We're still exploring strategies at this point, but thus far, the player to obtain this combo early has won every game I've played but one. (But I was encouraged by the one. Furthermore, players can get wise to this approach and block it.)

Second, there's another mechanic about gathering medical knowledge to cure plague throughout the land, earning victory points in the process. Compared to other ways of scoring in the game, this approach feels like it requires more effort than other paths, for what seems like less reward. (And a particular event that can randomly occur in just over 50% of the games can prematurely close off the plague-curing strategy entirely.) I'm not yet prepared to dismiss this as a viable strategy, but I've yet to see anyone do well with it.

Still, these two points are minor to me, and there are plenty of other things going on in the game that I like, and so I remain fully enthusiastic about playing it. It was a solid recommendation, one I'll pass on to any game lovers reading this.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


After five years of my blog looking exactly the same, I decided to try sprucing up the place. Still a work in progress, but here it is. Comments welcome. (Easier/harder to read? Better/worse? Whatever.)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Vuvuzela Hero

World Cup humor isn't going to be funny for much longer. Indeed, it might not be funny even now. So I'd better post this before it's too late:

Score-wise, it's quite a bummer if you miss that first note.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?

In another case of curiosity getting the better of me, I recently decided to watch the 1978 calamity, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This movie is notoriously bad, but I kinda felt the need to check it out on a sort of "just how bad?" Mystery Science Theater 3000-ish sort of level.

On the off chance you haven't heard of this film, it's a strange attempt to create a musical using the songs of the Beatles... but 25 years before someone decided to try it again in Across the Universe. And with vastly more camp potential, given the cast. Peter Frampton stars as Billy Shears, and his Lonely Hearts Club Band is the Bee Gees. Add in appearances from musical acts and artists like Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, and Earth Wind & Fire, and actors with varied musical talent like George Burns, Donald Pleasance, and Steve Martin, and the result is an "am I really seeing this?" concoction of insanity.

Believe it, this movie is absolutely as terrible as you've heard, and worse than you'd imagine. Rating it solely on the merits of the film, there's no way to not call it an F. Terrible plot, terrible acting, terrible production values, and mostly terrible renditions of Beatles songs. (I say mostly, because even the ones that "aren't that bad," such as most of the material performed by the Bee Gees, just leave you thinking, "okay, that didn't suck, but wouldn't you just rather listen to the Beatles version instead?")

But the thing is, the movie does indeed reach that campy nirvana where it pushes through the other side of being awful and starts to be mildly entertaining again. Watching George Burns perform Fixing a Hole with two kids under age 10 as his backup dancers, I just couldn't help but laugh. Watching Alice Cooper do a William Shatner-esque spoken version of Because, with visuals that were almost certainly the inspiration for the Mugato brainwashing video in Zoolander, I was dumbstruck, wondering what possibly could have possessed anyone involved to become involved.

And then there's the number that I think probably everyone should see, even if you don't watch anything else from the movie: Steve Martin's version of Maxwell's Silver Hammer. It's un-frakkin'-believable. On one level, you're sort of getting an 8-year sneak peek on the brilliant work he'd do as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. That's assuming you're not distracted by the dancers (female and male) convulsing around in summer UPS uniforms that look about two sizes too small. Or assuming you can even remember anything else when Steve Martin starts having an electrical sword fight with Peter Frampton. (You can almost hear the producers off-camera shouting, "that Star Wars movie was huge last year; we gotta get us some of that!") I've seen it, and I still don't believe it.

So I think I'd actually call the movie a D-, just starting to pull through to the other side of "so bad, it's good." That said, if you're ever inclined to watch it, do not waste your time by doing it alone. Gather a bunch of your quick witted friends together (I can't decide whether liking Beatles music is a plus or a minus here), and watch/mock it together. Or if you don't have enough clever friends willing to be suckered into it, maybe check out the RiffTrax take on it. (Well, not officially by the RiffTrax guys, but it might be good. I wish I'd known about that beforehand, though -- I'm not going to watch the movie again any time soon!)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Foreign Humor

I'm basically taking the holiday off, so here's a very funny German commercial for you to watch. Ahoy, matey! There be profanity here! (So don't watch at work without headphones, or don't watch at all if this may offend your delicate sensibilities.)

Yes, there is an irony to me laughing at this commercial when I myself don't speak a second language (at least, not fluently). What could be a more appropriate celebration of American Independence Day than that?

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Back Up on the Wire

Just a quick follow-up... I mentioned a few weeks ago that I'd been watching The Wire, and had only one season left to go. Well, I've now finished that season. Overall, I'd say my opinion of the show is about the same: I did enjoy it, but didn't see the superlative awesomeness that most of the critics lavish on the show.

Interestingly, while DavĂ­d chimed in to say that he thought the final season was the weakest, I actually ended up liking it the best of all five. Perhaps this is a predictable result, since you can assume that whatever else made a major Wire fan like it less might be just the sort of change of pace that would make someone like me -- less of an enthusiast -- like it more.

There was a shift in the plot in the final season, with the introduction of a major running storyline set at the Baltimore Sun newspaper. Actually, it wasn't really this element that made me like it more. It was different, but also somewhat "the same," in that it felt like it cribbed from other sources. It was mainly a story about a reporter fabricating his stories to further his reputation, along the lines of the real life events portrayed in Shattered Glass. In fact, they even name-checked the infamous reporter in the final episode.

No, what improved for me was the pacing. I mentioned how in earlier seasons, I felt like the first half of the episodes coasted along a bit, taking me to the edge of wanting to abandon the series, only to bounce back and have a really strong back half of the season. This final season was shorter, 10 episodes only instead of 12, and I think as a result, the story was tightened up. Without two extra hours to fill, things started moving almost immediately. By the end of the first disc in the season set, the stakes had been set, and things were moving.

But as I said, my opinion remains about the same overall. The series is worth the time, but I also expect that whatever opinion you form about it after one season's worth is the opinion you'll carry through all the way to the end, should you hang with it.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Candygram for Mungo?

A while back, I wrote about one of the films screened in the annual After Dark Horrorfest. Last year, somewhat inexplicably, Denver didn't host any screenings. This was much to the chagrin of my two most horror-loving friends, who thus didn't get to continue their yearly tradition. But it wasn't going to stop them from seeing the films for long. Now that they're coming available on DVD, they've been checking them out whenever they can. One in particular, they decided to recommend to me.

It's called Lake Mungo. It's an Australian film, presented as a documentary about a family whose 16-year old daughter is killed in accident just days before Christmas. In the months that follow, the family begins to capture ghostly apparitions of the girl on film and video, which in turn leads them to shocking realizations about the final months of her life.

I found myself of a really divided opinion on the film. On the one hand, the documentary presentation of this movie is extraordinarily well realized. I didn't really know what I was going to watch as I began the movie -- I had only the "it's good; see it" recommendation, with no further information on the content of the movie.

I was at first sure this was a fake documentary, but I must confess that after a little while, I suddenly wasn't sure. The acting was incredibly real, the way in which everything was shot was perfect for the style. It's far better done than the recent sensation, Paranormal Activity. It took me back a decade to when I first heard about The Blair Witch Project, months before it was actually released, when it was being marketed as actual found footage, and when you'd watch the couple of scenes that were available online... well, I found myself wondering. I was over a half hour into Lake Mungo before I finally made it back over the fence and knew I was watching something staged. But still, it remained thoroughly credible.

But then, the problem with the documentary style is that it controls how the story can be told. The conceits of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity made it so that we could actually see the moments of most critical suspense and dramatic importance. Here in Lake Mungo, while some contrivances allow for a few moments like that, many moments are simply talked about after the fact. Oh, they're dressed up with great still photos and creepy music, just like a real documentary would do... but there's still a certain remove that keeps anything from ever being deeply scary.

But then again... I can't deny that there are some truly unsettling, creepy moments in this movie. There were moments that definitely made my skin crawl, and as I think about them now as I type this, I'm getting goosebumps just a bit. There's a simplicity that makes things more effective here.

But then again... er, again... the film has a rather unsatisfying conclusion in my mind. I'm not sure what exactly I thought things were building toward, but some of the "interviewees" in the first act were setting up "just how horrible things were gonna get," or what "those poor people were going through." And that's the thing about The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Maybe they get to you, maybe they don't, but both movies do if nothing else have punchy, dramatic endings. With Lake Mungo, one moment I felt like we were still accelerating toward some big reveal at the end...

...and then it just was the end. It wasn't that the movie didn't have a good conclusion -- it felt like it didn't have any conclusion. It's as though the writer, not knowing what to do with the next page, just decided not to have a next page.

So I really wasn't sure how to rank this one. Very moody, very well directed, very effective at times, very credibly acted... but also very limited by the documentary style it apes so well, and very incomplete. I took a glance at some other suspense movies I've liked and played the "well, I liked it better than that I guess" game for a while, and where I finally stopped, I ended up at a B-. But it's the sort of B- that might be a B+ an hour from now, and a C- an hour after that. If that makes any sense.

What it probably means is that if you like horror/suspense movies, particularly the two I've referenced repeatedly here, then you probably will want to check this out for yourself and draw your own conclusion.