Thursday, September 30, 2010

Date Night

I recently watched an unusual documentary movie, My Date With Drew. It's built around a struggling man in Hollywood that decides to take the $1100 prize he won from a game show appearance and put it toward an effort to land a date with Drew Barrymore. So... shades of Being John Malkovich (in terms of its oddly specific weirdness), if it were a documentary.

But then, it's sort of hard to actually call this a documentary. It's more some guy's home movies with some moderately skilled editing work. It's filmed on a camcorder "borrowed" from Circuit City (where it will be returned after 30 days, in accordance with the store's return policy). It's not trying to make a point. It's "see how many corn kernels I can shove up my nostril" on a grander scale.

However, there's something oddly likable about the guy. And his friends are true friends to go along with it (whether "it" be a legitimate effort to land a date, or simply an aspiration to make a documentary). I mean, we're basically talking about stalker-type behavior here, so the protagonist is digging his way out of a hole from square one. The fact that you actually start rooting for him in the course of the film, cheering at his breakthroughs and frowning at his setbacks, is kind of amazing.

I have to spoil the ending of the movie to talk about the other thing I really liked about the movie, so if you suddenly have to the urge to watch this, skip the next paragraph.

As for the real winner in this movie? Why, it's Drew Barrymore herself. She finds out about this guy's efforts, and actually agrees to the date. And she's both charmed and charming. She's either an incredibly warm person who sees the good in people... or she's a truly fabulous actor who's able to muster an effortless performance for the duration of the date at the end of the movie. Either way, my praise to her.

So My Date With Drew actually turns out to be a bit of a ride that you get caught up in. Still, at the same time, it's barely a movie -- made so incidentally and on-the-cheap that you can't pretend it's more than it is. I'd rate it a B overall. One of the odder Netflix recommendations I've yet received.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lost Re-view: Hearts and Minds

The next episode of Lost was a fairly momentous one, as it marked the first writing credit for Carlton Cuse. The story is that co-creator Damon Lindelof had been left alone running the series when J.J. Abrams went off to make Mission: Impossible III, and the pressure was affecting him so much that he was considering leaving the show. But his friend Carlton Cuse, who'd worked with him before on the series Nash Bridges, convinced him to stay, and agreed to come on to share show-running duties with him. This was the beginning of the pairing that would see Lost all the way through to the end.

Officially, Cuse started as part of the writing staff during the episode Solitary. And also officially, he shares writing credit here with Javier Grillo-Marxuach (who'd already contributed two episodes). Nevertheless, this episode marks a pretty big milestone for Lost. (On the directing side, it was less noteworthy. Director Rod Holcomb only worked on one other episode besides this, much later during season five.)

In front of the camera, this episode also marked the end of the short two-episode run of "second flashbacks." The focal character of this installment is Boone, and his flashbacks cover him flying to Australia to save his sister from an abusive boyfriend. They also include several big revelations.

First, there's the reveal that the entire situation is a con by Shannon, working in tandem with her boyfriend. The only "trouble" she's in is financial -- not that she's in a dire state. After her own father's death, Boone's mother kept all the family money, and she thinks she's entitled to it. If she can extort some of it from Boone, fine with her.

Second, there's a cute moment in a police station. Boone is there trying to file a report on the "abusive boyfriend," and Sawyer is also there, ranting and raving. (We'll learn why a few episodes down the road.) This is really the first time that we see the crash survivors connected in their pre-Island life. Sure we saw Jack and Sun in the same flashback scene a few episodes back, but that was hardly unusual, as both were at the Sydney airport checking in for the fateful flight. This Boone-Sawyer connection, though fleeting, is the first time we see any connection between the characters prior to the flight, and paved the way for more meaningful connections between characters down the road.

But the main thing we learn in Boone's flashbacks is that Shannon is not actually Boone's sister by blood. She's his stepsister. And in a drunken moment near the end of the episode, she asserts that he's in love with her and always has been. The two sleep together, though before the morning even comes, she wants things to go back to the way they were. This re-frames everything we've seen of these two so far a very different way. What the viewers assumed was just typical sibling rivalry and banter was actually the relationship between a young man and his unrequited-but-then-requited-oops-no-completely-shut-down-after-all love. It informs why Boone has thrown in so enthusiastically with Locke in an effort to redefine himself. He hasn't been able to leave his pre-Island past behind after the crash; it's right there on the Island with him.

..and really tormenting him in this episode. Things kick off with the expected close-up on Boone's eye, as he watches Sayid bringing a gift to Shannon and flirting with her. That's more than Boone can stand, so he's quickly off to challenge Sayid. Stay away or else. It seems to be all Sayid can do not to laugh in Boone's face; he does noticeably smile as he basically tells Boone, "bring it, kid."

But fortunately, Locke is there to defuse any trouble, pulling Boone off into the jungle for another excursion to the now partially exposed Hatch. They've apparently just been going to stare at it for a few days, Locke waiting for inspiration on how they might get it open. He tells the story of Michelangelo, forbidden to "work with his hands" by his father, who simply spent months staring at the block of stone that would one day become the famous statue of David. The fact that this is the metaphor Locke thinks of tells you how spiritual a mission this is for him, and how important he thinks it is. Locke may well be on his way to believing that finding the Hatch and getting inside is the true reason he was brought to the Island.

Then things take a dark turn. Boone wants to tell Shannon about the Hatch, and Locke won't have it. He knocks Boone out and trusses him up with a series of arm-breaking knots. Leaving Boone tied up with a knife just out of reach, Locke abandons him in the jungle, saying that he'll be able to get free once he has "the proper motivation."

But not before some cryptic dialogue and actions that only make sense by the end of the episode -- or, of course, upon a second viewing. Locke mixes up a hallucinatory paste and smears it on Boone's wound, in order to give him a form of "vision quest." He's taken it upon himself to rehabilitate Boone, saying: "I'm doing this because it's time for you to let go of some things. Because it's what's best for you. And I promise, you're gonna thank me for this later."

Boone does get free after a bit of intriguing camera work with a fish-eye lens, and responds to a call for help from Shannon. Make that "Shannon." What follows is all in Boone's mind, as he finds his stepsister tied up as well, and then both take off fleeing through the jungle, pursued by the Monster. Of course, Boone doesn't know what the Monster is or what it looks like anymore than first time viewers do at this point in time, so all any of us sees in this episode is a shadow falling on the trees.

Boone's imaginary Monster catches Shannon. After the attack, Boone finds her chewed-up body dead in a stream. And the first time around, this is what really brought down my opinion of the episode. I mentioned a few episodes back that outside of the show itself, the creators had gotten into an ill-advised sort of game of "chicken" with the audience about their willingness to kill a main character.

First, they'd faked Charlie's death. Now in this episode, they fake Shannon's. And even though I believed this death more at the time than I ever believed they'd kill Charlie, this fake-out ends up being far cheaper than the other. Charlie's near-death really happened and had emotional heft for multiple characters. Shannon's death here is just Bobby-Ewing-in-the-shower cheating of the audience. I think it tweaks the viewer so much that after this second fake death, you're almost angry at the writers. You'd better not trick me again, you cowards!

Even on a repeat viewing, Shannon's fake death here simply doesn't carry any weight. The only character this matters for is Boone. And it's actually a liberating experience for him. He confides to Locke at the end of the episode that at the thought of Shannon being dead, he "felt relieved." It's just much harder to relate to a character who would feel joy at a death than it was two episodes ago to relate to two characters filled with sorrow and guilt at a death. Plus, of course, there's the shadow hanging over all of this in the second viewing -- the knowledge that Boone himself will be dead before the season is out. It's hard to get too invested in what he feels, be it relief, guilt, or anything else.

Boone's on-Island story might be a bit of a misfire, but it's not the only story going on in this episode. Hurley and Jin are paired up in a fun subplot. Hurley's not getting enough protein (what with Locke now doing things other than catching boar), so he needs to get some fish. Jin's the man to talk to about that. The trouble is that Hurley is convinced Jin has it in for him after a brush-off in an earlier episode. "That guy holds a serious grudge."

Still, Hurley sucks it up, and manages to explain in charades to Jin that he just wants to be pointed to where the fish are. Hurley will catch his own. Jin gives a "sure you will" smile in reply, very much like Sayid's "sure you will" smile earlier in the episode when Boone threatens to kick his ass. Even more hilarious charading follows when Hurley steps on a sea urchin and he tries to get Jin to pee on it. But in the end, the two do bond. In the final act, Jin brings Hurley a fully cleaned fish to eat. It's not just fun, but is the most kind and fun-spirited we've ever seen Jin (outside of Sun's flashbacks on their early relationship).

Jin's "other half" is involved in a subplot too. Kate is helping Sun with the garden she's planting, going around looking for seeds in the jungle. (An activity that Jack rather creepily spies on. After being oddly cold to Kate in the previous episode, he's suddenly warm again this time. Maybe it's because the only Sawyer appearance this episode is in that flashback.)

Kate discovers that Sun can speak English in the episode, but promises to keep the secret. Sun exacts this promise by asking Kate, "have you never lied to a man you've loved?" This very clearly hits Kate close to home, though the full details are in flashbacks yet to be seen.

Locke and Sayid have an interesting scene together as well. Sayid's still working on Rousseau's map, and trying to make an improvised compass. It leads to an interesting character anecdote where Locke reveals he was in Webelos (which Sayid of course doesn't know), and that he was not "the most popular kid" growing up. He then gives Sayid his own compass, not needing it anymore since he's already found what he's looking for.

And also not needing it because it doesn't really work on the Island. In a subsequent scene between Sayid and Jack, the strange electromagnetic properties of the Island are first hinted at, when Sayid explains that the compass doesn't point where it should. Sayid simply believes it's a defective compass, but we the full-educated viewers know otherwise.

Another interesting scene occurs between Jack and Charlie. After Kate suggests that Locke has stopped catching boar on purpose for some perhaps nefarious reason, Jack goes looking for other opinions on Locke. Charlie's got nothing but praise for him. Locke saved his life, Charlie says. Yes, he thought Locke was crazy at first, but now he's the one man on the Island that Charlie would put his faith in more completely than any other. In short, we're slowly starting to set up the mighty Locke for a fall in the back half of the season.

Finally, in a sort of replay of Sawyer tearfully looking at his letter on the beach several episodes before we'd learn what it said, we briefly see Michael this week looking into a wooden box. He's found his own luggage, it turns out, and this item is important. Though like Sawyer's letter, we don't get to see inside yet.

As you can see, it's a bit of a winding episode. Many of these simple stand-alone scenes do work. The Boone flashbacks aren't bad either, and better the more you can empathize with his "loving the wrong girl" situation. But the main Island plot isn't very strong, and is undermined farther with the second faked death in just a few episodes. Overall, I rate this episode a B-.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tuesday's New Lineup, Part 2

Not quite all the new TV shows premiered last week. ABC decided to wait until tonight to roll out their new show, No Ordinary Family.

Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz star as parents with a waning marriage who, along with their two children, are in an accident that gifts them all with superpowers. Think The Incredibles, by way of something like Spider-man's origin story.

Why would someone like me, who generally doesn't like comic book-like tales, have any interest in this show? Well, think of all the above, by way of Brothers & Sisters. In fact, it's co-created by a TV man with his hands in that very show, Greg Berlanti. The other co-creator is Jon Harmon Feldman, a force behind Tru Calling, which may not have started out great, but ultimately did find its way into something fairly cool.

Anyway, the gloss of this current series might be the superhero angle, but the backbone is a family drama. And the first episode did an excellent job of showing how the series could be both in good measure. I was pulled into the relationships between characters, and could imagine taking interest in not just their unusual problems, but their ordinary ones.

The show was humorously aware of the real world in which it exists, making references to other superheroes, and thwarting a few conventions (such as having them not keep their secret from their friends).

I was definitely entertained, and will be hanging in to see where it goes from here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Some Magic for the Kids

A friend of mine has been on the prowl recently for games will one day be good to play with his young son when he's older. But for the sake of both of them, he wants them to be good games. No Candy Land, no Game of Life. Good EuroGames a kid could grasp but that an adult won't find torturous to play. He's decided that winners of the "Kinderspiel des Jahres" are probably a good place to start, so he picked up the 2009 winner, The Magic Labyrinth. And indeed, it was a good selection.

The idea is simple. You assemble a maze, using bits of wood for the walls that fit into a tray. Then you cover the maze with a "ceiling" that is the actual play board, a grid of spaces with symbols on them. Each player places a pawn on top of the board, starting in a corner, and under the board he places a marble held in position by a magnet on the bottom of the pawn.

On your turn, you move through the unseen maze, trying to reach various symbols on each of the spaces. But if you move into a wall, the marble you don't see will be knocked free from your pawn, and you have to start again from the corner. Trial and error on your own turns -- and careful observation of your opponent's turns -- will eventually reveal the shape of the maze beneath the board. The player who accumulates the most chips (for reaching the most symbols -- along the lines of Ricochet Robot) is the winner.

It's simple but fun. It plays very quickly. It's easily scalable in difficulty, just by building a more or less complex labyrinth to hide beneath the game board. Luck does play a role, mainly in terms of whether a player's pawn is already near the next "target symbol" drawn for the players to reach. And certainly, in the absence of much true strategy, it might be more accurate to call this a "puzzle" or something rather than a game. But whatever is, it's definitely enjoyable. A perfect way to pass 10 or 15 minutes while waiting for more players to arrive on a game night.

Or a perfect game to play with a young child.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Outside -- Looking In

Director Francis Ford Coppola may be best known for The Godfather films, but I've heard some speak of him with even more reverence for his adaptation of the S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders. It's considered by some to be the first "Brat Pack" film, and is stuffed to bursting with recognizable actors, including C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, and Diane Lane.

What struck me as odd about it was how unfocused it seemed to be. At a slim 90 minutes, I expected a simple and direct narrative. But instead, the movie's three acts are all strikingly different. They don't feel very related save for sharing common characters, and they don't have related emotional content either.

The first act is a "life in a 1960s greaser gang" tale. At times, it's so silly that it almost plays like Grease (or West Side Story) without the songs, like a movie playing purely for nostalgia and without much else to say. It brushes up against a few serious issues like the death of one's parents and child abuse, but pulls up long before landing a serious emotional punch.

But then the act is capped when a young boy is forced to murder another boy in defense of a friend. The two then take off on the run together, going into hiding to escape the police. Suddenly it's a buddies-on-the-road movie. Things do get more serious at this point, yet the film still steers clear of portraying any real psychological impact these events have had on either kid.

The emotion is all stored for the last act, after the kids have saved some school children from a fire -- leaving one of them crippled. Had these elements been the focus, the film might have managed in the end to be more profound and make more of an impact. But instead, the bulk of the last act is given over to a inter-gang rumble between the greasers and their rivals. Characters who've barely had a speaking line in the first hour of the movie suddenly come center stage.

This sort of meandering slice of life narrative probably played much better in novel form than I think it does on the screen. There are some moments of good acting, but the movie seems to try so hard to say something about so many things that it ends up not saying much of anything. I rate it a D+. As a platform to launch half a dozen great acting careers, it's a commendable movie. That's about all I think it has to offer.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Friday's New Lineup

The CW network has seen fit to ship Supernatural off to Fridays, so now I know how Smallville fans have been feeling for a while now -- it's just not a good night to watch a show. And Supernatural is a show that really shouldn't be watched during the day (for maximum effect), so that's going to be an awkward one to keep up with. But I did decide to give one new Friday show a shot.

Blue Bloods. This is part family drama, in the vein of Brother and Sisters or some such, part cop show. Three generations of one family with people in (or retired from) the New York Police Department fight crime... and each other. Or some cliché like that. That really was problem with the first episode -- it felt like an extreme cliché. Three siblings: one's a fresh on-the-beat cop, one's a jaded and hotheaded veteran, the third is a prosecuting attorney for the city. You really could get this kind of stuff from some kind of script-manufacturing computer program. (And in an early scene, I think maybe they actually did. The exposition was so thick you could spread it on your toast.)

But the thing that made it greater than the sum of its parts, both reading about it on paper and seeing it in execution, is a solid cast. Tom Selleck is the father of the family. Donnie Wahlberg (excellent in the short-lived series Boomtown) and Bridget Moynahan are two of his kids. His other kid and his father are played respectively by Will Estes and Len Cariou, two actors not recognizable by name, but who have both showed up over the years as leads in series that didn't fly, or guest stars on plenty of other series that have.

In short, it seems to me like if Blue Bloods can tip the balance more toward family drama in the future, this cast will carry it well and then the show will be something good. But this pilot tipped the balance very much toward police procedural, and a show like that would have to be very excellent indeed to hold my interest amid the dozens of others on TV. Hell, against the half-dozen others just on CBS alone!

So I suspect I'll give the show another episode or two. But how long I hang with it will very much depend on it improving before I get tired of playing "TV catchup" with it on the weekend.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lost Re-view: Whatever the Case May Be

No dancing around it: halfway into Lost's first season, and this episode is the clear front runner for the worst of the entire year. It starts with the same strike against it that I mentioned about the previous Jack-centric episode, that it seemed off-putting at this point in the show to get a second episode focused on a character we'd already seen -- Kate, in this case -- when there were still characters whose back story was yet to be filled in. But where the Jack episode made up for that in other ways, this episode trips up.

The A-list behind-the-scenes talent was responsible here. The main recurring director, Jack Bender, was calling the shots, and the script came from creator Damon Lindelof and Jennifer Johnson. (For the latter, this was her final script credit, but she did also contribute to the excellent episode The Moth.) But they all still turned in a subpar effort.

The problem is that this is the first episode of Lost that truly goes nowhere and provides little. Coming off the last hour, Claire was missing, abducted by Ethan. Boone and Locke had found "something metal" buried in the jungle. And this episode furthers none of those previous plots. In fact, it's almost as though we've just moved on or something; it's four days later, Shannon tells us in a bit of snarky dialogue, marking the longest off-screen passage of time the show has had yet.

This episode kicks off with a manufactured event completely unrelated to anything that has come before -- Kate and Sawyer are off in the jungle together and come across a beautiful lagoon with a scenic waterfall. When they go for a sexy dip together, they discover dead plane crash victims at the bottom of the water, sitting on top of a MacGuffin -- a locked metal case that has something inside Kate wants very badly, though she doesn't want to say what it is. So Sawyer, being Sawyer, decides to keep it from her simply because she wants it.

Some retroactive storytelling occurs to grease this storyline. The case belonged to the dead marshal that was escorting Kate. The key's in his wallet, on his body that Jack turns out not to have burned with the fuselage, but rather buried for vague reasons out in the jungle.

And speaking of behavior that doesn't quite make sense, Jack is oddly snippy with Kate now. When she approaches him saying "we have a problem," he immediately and out of nowhere throws it back in her face with: "we have a problem, or you have a problem?" He does agree to help her, even blackmailing Sawyer by threatening to deprive him of the medication for his stab wound, but he's pretty pissy about it the entire time.

What's even worse than having this whole episode be built around the previously unknown "what's in the case?" device is the reveal of what's actually in the case, and the tedious flashbacks getting to this information. It's nearly 11 minutes into the episode before we even get to the first flashback, and it's Kate pulling a bank heist with a bunch of thugs we don't know and who wind up dead by the end of the hour. It's all just to get into a safety deposit box. (Box 815, by the way. While this isn't the first time that one of "the numbers" shows up just casually, this is the first time they seem to be planted deliberately to match the Oceanic flight number.)

And what's in the box? A little toy airplane, whose significance we don't even actually learn anything about this episode. "It belonged to the man I loved... it belonged to the man I killed!" declares Kate as she breaks down at the end of the hour. But coming at the climax of an episode in which she lied repeatedly to Jack and Sawyer on the Island, and ran an elaborate con in the flashbacks, I don't see how we have any reason to believe her when she makes this admission. In fact, while it is eventually revealed to be the truth, it's still a bit of a lie. I think the writers want us to believe that "the man I killed" is a reference to why Kate is a wanted fugitive, when in fact we learn later that this particular death was collateral damage long after the crime that put Kate on the run.

But the episode isn't a total loss. It also marks the return of Rose for the first time in a while, just the person to help Charlie through his current depression. Charlie's withdrawn after losing Claire, but in a series of nice scenes, Rose gets him to open up, and assures him that nobody blames him for Claire's abduction. He did everything he could, including almost dying himself.

They also share a nice scene about her missing husband, who she still maintains is alive. "It's a fine line between denial and faith," she says. "It's much better on my side." This culminates in Lost's first overtly religious moment, as Rose says a prayer as Charlie breaks down.

Sayid and Shannon are also brought closer together this episode. Sayid has backed down off his crazy claims about "whispers" and "Others," but he is interested in having the notes he swiped from Rousseau translated. This means going to the only French speaker among the survivors, Shannon.

You get a taste of their eventual relationship, as Sayid mostly remains patient and encouraging (and even a little flirtatious) with Shannon, even as she almost constantly whines about how she can't actually speak French. Boone does berate her for being "useless" in this episode, so there's at least maybe a little room to feel sympathy for her. And yet, in the sort of "go nowhere" spirit of this episode's plot, the translated notes end up being nothing more than the lyrics of a song with no apparent meaning. (Other than very obliquely hinting that Rousseau has a child.)

The only significant takeaway from this episode is that the beach dwellers have to move their camp because the tide is coming in suddenly and strongly, threatening to wash the fuselage out to see, and all the survivors as well if they don't relocate. This was purely a bit of real-world necessity, since the actual filming location that was being used until this point was now experiencing higher tides after several months of shooting. In the world of the show, Sayid does remark that these sudden tides are abnormal for the roughly three weeks that have passed so far, which is maybe, if you really stretch it, the first oblique reference to the weird time/space properties of the Island.

Aside from that, the only other fun things in the episode are getting to see flashback Kate repeat the "I don't know how to use a gun" lie she used in the pilot, and just to see her generally being bad. (A necessary thing for her character, since she didn't really come off like much a criminal in her previous flashback episode.)

But overall, it's basically Lost's first stand-alone episode, and that's just not the kind of story this series was built to tell. I rate it a C-.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wednesday/Thursday's New Lineup

Tonight, I got caught up on the one new show from last night that I wanted to check out, Undercovers. This is the newest show co-created by J.J. Abrams, who also directed the pilot. The other co-creator is Josh Reims, who worked on Brothers and Sisters and (with Abrams) Felicity, among other shows.

Undercovers is about a married couple who retired from separate jobs at the C.I.A. to run a catering service, only to now be reactivated by Gerald McRaney to work as a team together. Basically, Alias with a married couple, but without the double-agent theme. Or, based on the first episode at least, anything like the sometimes interesting, often infuriating "Rambaldi" MacGuffin.

Comparing to Alias is a tricky proposition. I absolutely loved the pilot episode of that show. And Alias totally kicked ass for the first two seasons. But there wasn't even a slow decline after that. Beginning with season three, Alias was just terrible, watchable only on the strength of its exceptionally talented cast.

Undercovers didn't match the incredible thrill of that first episode of Alias. But it was miles ahead of those latter Alias years. There is some potential here. The leading couple has some very good chemistry together. The side characters seem like they could be an interesting spice in the mix (except for the obnoxious sister). But the story wasn't really that compelling, and crammed an awful lot of globe-hopping in 42 minutes. It didn't seem exciting so much as "designed for short attention spans."

But maybe this was just not a "good episode" of the show. The building blocks were apparent. Airing on a struggling network like NBC, this show may well get the time it needs to work out the kinks over the next few episodes. And I think I'm willing to sample a few more to see if it does that.

I had time tonight to catch up on yesterday because the new Thursday material this year was widely reviewed as awful. From the treacly My Generation to the stale (if not offensive) Outsourced, I couldn't find any positive reviews about anything new debuting tonight. And yet, there was one show I decided I just had to try for myself anyway...

$#*! My Dad Says. Despite the warnings, despite the obviously stupid premise of a TV show based on a Twitter feed, I had to tune in for William Shatner. That's what the creators were counting on, of course. I enjoyed Shatner for years in his comedic role on Boston Legal. The man has been on one multi-season show nearly every decade since the 1960s. I was willing to give the man 22 minutes.

Or so I thought. I think I made it 10, maybe. Having not cracked a smile, and under assault by the cloying laugh track, I was grateful to receive a phone call from a friend. I turned the show off and never turned it back on. It was like watching an imitation of a sitcom rather than an actual sitcom, a script written by an emotionless alien robot trying to understand our strange Earth sense of humor. Just dreadful.

I'm only planning to sample one more new show this week, the Tom Selleck-fronted cop drama Blue Bloods, that debuts tomorrow. (Though I probably won't actually get to it until some time on the weekend.) But unless it's exceptional, it looks like this year's new crop is overall a very average one.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dream Like

I did have one new Wednesday show planned to sample, the spy drama Undercovers. But since I also had plans tonight to play board games with friends, I won't be watching (or reviewing) that show until tomorrow.

So instead, a write-up of a movie I just watched -- the recent film musical Dreamgirls. It's about a fictionalized version of a group like Diana Ross and the Supremes breaking big while dealing with internal conflict and hardship. I had been aware that it was basically a musical, or like a musical, but not aware that it was actually an adaptation of a Broadway musical.

I actually found this to be one of the bigger strikes against the movie. I most certainly have nothing against musicals. (One -- Moulin Rouge -- is in my top 10 favorite movies.) But I find it a bit of an odd challenge to tell a story about music performance that is also a musical. This is the challenge that the TV series Glee has to surmount every week, and the fact that it's so successful most of the time is a real testament to the quality of that show.

For me, there's just a clash with the underlying conceit of the musical format. People burst into song unrealistically, and articulate their innermost emotion through songs. That's how it works. But when the story is about people who actually perform music, then the "bursting into song" might be entirely motivated by a realistic situation -- they're rehearsing, they're giving a concert, whatever. And the song they're singing might not get as truly at the heart of their character when it's motivated by some "real" reason and not part of the musical convention.

Put in a less roundabout way -- Dreamgirls is just over a two hour movie. And it isn't until a half hour into it that a character first sings a song in the musical style. Oh, there are three or four tunes before that, but they're part of entering a singing competition, learning how to sing backup for a new headline act, taking that act out on the road... all situations where characters would logically sing even if the movie was technically not a musical.

I hear some people talk of musicals and say they just can't get over people bursting into song for "no reason." And I've never understood the complaint until right now. Because after 30 minutes of "motivated singing," when that first true musical number comes along, I definitely had a moment of "wait, why is this guy singing right now?"

It also didn't help that it was around that time the plot began to fragment a bit too much. What starts as a unified tale of one group of young singers ends up split into three mostly separate plots: the leader of that group realizing how unhappy she is; the woman who was kicked out of the group suffering to make it on her own; and the washed-up James Brown ringer they all used to sing backup for trying to re-start his career. There's certainly a thematic connection in all this, but the plots never really intersect again after the moment they diverge.

But the movie also has a great strength on its side that overcomes a lot of these flaws: its cast. The acting in this movie is pretty phenomenal, both in song and not. The emotion is powerful and raw, and really moving. Jennifer Hudson proves worthy of the Oscar she won for the role. Her "big number" in the film, And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going, would be nearly as effective even without the context of the movie around it to set it up. Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, and Eddie Murphy are all excellent, as are the less well-known Anika Noni Rose and Sharon Leal. There are even a few cameos from members of the original Broadway musical cast.

Director Bill Condon sets up a good style for the movie, at times dipping his toe in the sort of theatricality used by Chicago (and, less effectively, by Nine), but also striking out and doing something different. He also adapted the screenplay, but not knowing the original play, I'm not sure I can offer any comment on that -- other than to repeat my wish that the movie had not waited to boldly declare itself an actual musical until 30 minutes in.

Overall, I'd give Dreamgirls a B-. There are better movie musicals, but this isn't a bad one.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tuesday's New Lineup

I decided to only give two new Tuesday shows a shot, both half hour sitcoms.

Running Wilde. This show is about an activist who moves into a rich man's house with her young daughter. Man, does that sound cheesy. But it wasn't the story that drew me in; in this case, I was going with pedigree. This new show comes from some of the people who made the hysterical and brilliant Arrested Development. It even stars Will Arnett (and had a cameo from David Cross in the first episode), furthering the connection to that awesome show. Plus, Keri Russell has some decent comedy chops of her own. Sounds like a pretty good recipe.

But I think it's a recipe that's going to need to simmer a little longer. There were definitely moments in this episode that made me smile, but nothing laugh out loud funny. Comedy sometimes takes time to find its legs -- last season's Cougar Town being a prime example. Of course, this being on FOX, it's not likely to get that chance if it doesn't pull down decent ratings in its cushy "in the hour after Glee" time slot. We'll see.

Raising Hope. But immediately after Glee was another new sitcom, this time from some of the people behind My Name Is Earl -- which I actually didn't like very much. It's the story of a teenage boy who (through circumstances you'd best see for yourself in the pilot) comes to be raising a six-month-old baby girl with his goofy family. This show wasn't even on my radar until several places named it one of the top new shows of the season. So what the hell, give it a half an hour and see.

So far, so good -- I'd say the reviews were accurate. This show actually did make me laugh out loud. More than once. And while it maybe dipped its toe once or twice into the sort of dumb country hick humor that turned me off of My Name Is Earl, it mostly steered clear. Plus, the cast includes Cloris Leachman, and two solid working actors both more than due a shot at a starring role on a series, Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt.

So anyway you slice it, I think this was better entertainment "bang for the buck." More enjoyment, and in far less time, than in anything I sample last night.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday's New Lineup

We're on the back stretch of September, which means the TV networks are rolling out their new shows. I had a "veg out on the couch" night and sampled a handful of them. So a few snap comments:

Lone Star. This was billed as sort of "the new Dallas," a show in which a con man leads a double life both as a "simple man with a loving girlfriend," and an "up and coming presence in a big oil company." Most of the cast seemed likable enough, including Jon Voight as the owner of said oil company. But the pilot really left me wondering, "so what's the series here?"

This seems an inherently limited premise, with a very finite amount of stories that can be told before it's no longer plausible that the con man protagonist's house of cards won't crumble. Indeed, it's already crumbling a bit in the pilot episode. If the subject and setting in Texas didn't seem so inescapably American, I'd say this could only be a British TV series. It seems like the sort of thing you'd get one or two six-episode seasons out of, and then call it done. I'll probably be "calling it done" myself.

Hawaii Five-0. I probably wouldn't have bothered checking this show out at all, but the write-up in Entertainment Weekly suggested it was actually pretty good. I'd say that's maybe going a little far, but it wasn't half bad. There's a solid cast here (Alex O'Loughlin, Scott Caan, Lost's Daniel Dae Kim, and Battlestar Galactica's Grace Park). They seem to have a good rapport with each other.

And yet, it felt good in the same way "your USA network summer show of choice" is good. If you watch Psych, or Burn Notice, or Royal Pains, or Covert Affairs, you know what I mean. Those are the shows that are good enough to watch during the summer when there's nothing on. If they were competing at a time when any other big show was actually running new episodes, they wouldn't make the cut, you know? So it seemed to me with this Hawaii Five-0. By the end of the hour, there wasn't anything about this particular "they fight crime!" show to make me choose it over any of the dozens of other such shows on TV.

The Event. This show was simultaneously compelling and frustrating, exciting and tedious. This is the new "we want to be mysterious" show of the year, and boy, did they achieve that. The pilot episode jumps around in time (though at times, this comes off less like a narrative necessity than a way to shoot only 35 minutes of footage and replay it enough times to get 42 minutes of show time), all leading up to the end of the episode, where... well, I'm not sure. Was that "the event?"

There were some good action sequences, and some hints of interesting character relationships. And yet, there was a whole lot of meaningless dialogue that reminded me too much of the worst "conspiracy" episodes of The X-Files. You know, actors trying to lend ominous weight to dialogue they don't quite understand themselves. Characters being vague not because they would be in a situation, but because being vague is supposed to intrigue the audience. And yet... I sort of do feel like I might give it another episode or two to see if it actually might go somewhere.

So in all, no clear winner for me tonight. No "this is my new addiction for the season." Which I think might suit me fine, actually. I probably have more than enough appointment shows already.

But the week is just getting started, with more new shows ahead...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lost Re-view: All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues

More than any Lost episode I've re-watched so far, my opinion of this episode has changed dramatically since seeing it the first time around. There were a lot of factors muscling in on this hour the first time around that didn't weigh in all these years later.

This was the first episode to "repeat" a character in the flashbacks. Jack had already had an episode, and now just six episodes later, here he was getting another one. At the time, this really disappointed me. There were still characters who hadn't been delved into at all -- Michael and Walt, Shannon and Boone, and most importantly/annoyingly of all, Hurley. Why "waste" more time on Jack?

Of course, when you've seen all of Lost, you have all the answers about those other characters. You also have an understanding of how important Jack is to the narrative of Lost. If you had to argue that Lost was somehow one person's story (not that I would), that one person would be Jack. There could be no one more deserving of the "first second flashback."

The other albatross around the neck of this episode, the first time around, was the climactic scene where Charlie is found hanged in the jungle by Ethan, ostensibly dead. Well, actually dead, I suppose; Jack manages to revive him. I'll get back around to discussing the scene itself a bit later. Right now, I want to just focus on the context in which this scene -- and episode -- originally aired.

Lost had been running for around three months at this point. My recollection is that there was a lot of talk in entertainment media about the level of actual danger on the show. Sure, there were polar bears, monsters, a crazy jungle lady, and more... but the argument was that none of the characters were ever really in danger, because you knew as a TV viewer that none of them were actually going to die.

Foolishly, in my opinion, the show's creators decided to engage on this point. "We mean business," they'd say in interviews. "There is danger. We could kill a character at any time. In fact, I think we're going to before the end of the season." And thus began an unfortunate sort of "shell game" that existed outside the actual narrative of Lost, not actually helping the storytelling itself, in my opinion.

So along comes this episode, where we find dead Charlie hanging from a tree. And with Dominic Monaghan and Matthew Fox as the only two actors on the show who were widely known at this point in time, my reaction to this scene had nothing to do with the actual drama or emotion of it. I simply thought, "yeah right, as if they would ever kill Charlie on this show." (Yes, I see the irony.) Even as the scene played out uncomfortably long and it seemed like maybe Charlie really was dead, I think I just wouldn't let the emotion in. I didn't want to be "taken" by the writers trying to pull a fast one on me. Which they were here, though I think that's beside the point. The point is that when you actually know the whole tale of Lost, and you're not trying to be "more clever than the writers" as you watch this episode, you can relax and simply enjoy it for what it is.

So what is it?

Well, it's the fastest-starting episode of Lost since the pilot, for one thing. No quiet introspection. No close-ups of eyes. Things start in full panic in the wake of the last episode. Where's Claire?! Where's Charlie?! Where's Ethan?! Jack wants to charge off to the rescue, and is soon clashing with Locke. Locke blames himself for hunting with Ethan but not seeing him for who he truly was, yet he still wants wants to return to the caves first. He wants to recruit more help for the search, and he wants Jack to stay behind so that the group's doctor is kept out of harm's way. "Be the doctor, let me be the hunter," he says. Not that Jack is about to give up.

The two do find more help from Kate and Boone. For Boone, this is the beginning of his forging a strong bond with Locke. (I suppose you could say it's the beginning of the end for him.) Locke admires Boone's determination in this episode, even as he dazzles with his tracking skills and his ability to predict the beginning of a rain storm. (And revel in it.)

Boone reveals his work for a subsidiary of his mother's business. Locke tells Boone the truth about his job at a box company before coming to the Island -- though Boone doesn't believe it. The two trade banter, including a humorous exchange about the fates of red-shirt crewmen on Star Trek. (To Locke, Kirk "sounds like a piss-poor captain.")

And of course, the episode culminates in the two of them first discovering The Hatch. I use capitalization because this was capital-Important, the only thing about Lost anyone seemed to be talking about from this episode's December air date all the way until next September's season two premiere in which we finally got to see inside. (Nine months? Holy crap!)

Locke gets more offers to help, from Walt (who wants to use Vincent to track) and Michael, but gives them the "oh, that's nice dear" treatment. This sends Michael on another one of his pissy rage fits, though I really don't understand why. The last thing I remember between Locke and Michael, Locke had brought Vincent back, but was happy to let Michael take the credit for doing it. What's up with Michael that that's suddenly all gone sour? In any case, this irrational anger makes us like Michael still less. But it does prompt Walt to defend Locke to his father, making us like him a little more.

Also a mark in Walt's plus column is a fun scene where he plays backgammon with Hurley, and displays an uncanny ability to call he dice rolls he needs. Hurley says that no one is that lucky, making me wonder briefly if the writers hadn't decided yet that his back story was that he'd won the lottery. But then as Hurley walks off and Walt complains "you owe me $20,000," the tossed off "you'll get it" makes me certain that they actually did.

Walt's kind of a busy little bee this episode, because he also has a great scene with Sawyer. In discussing Ethan's absence from the flight manifest, Sawyer suggests "maybe he lied about his name." Walt zings him without realizing: "It's stupid to lie about your name." He then talks of the possibility of others (or Others) on the Island, which Sawyer shoots down as the product an active imagination, ironically laying out the real facts of the entire scenario: that someone from a group of natives snuck into camp to kidnap a pregnant lady.

But the real meat of the episode is the Jack storyline. He's beating himself up over not believing Claire when she said someone was trying to get her. It's a bit of a stretch, but he's equating this "failure to do the right thing" to the flashback we see, in which he also failed to do the right thing. We see firsthand in this hour how powerful a motivator guilt is for Jack.

Jack's first flashback episode had a casually tossed away line about the falling out between father and son, that Jack had somehow done something to his father. Here we get to see exactly what that was. His father had performed a surgery while under the influence of alcohol. (And not for the first time.) An avoidable mistake had cost the patient her life, even though Jack showed up to make a futile effort to save her.

The "right thing" would have been to reveal his father's condition immediately, but it takes the full episode, and a series of very emotional flashbacks before that happens. We see Christian try all sorts of tactics from bargaining to intimidation to apologies, even trotting out "I was only hard on you so you'd be great," before Jack finally sees what he must do. The straw that breaks the camel's back is when he hears the woman who died in surgery was pregnant. Jack tells the hospital what his father did, and we've already basically seen how that ends up for Christian a short while later. I do have to ask though, was Jack really doing this because it was the "right thing?" Or was the larger part of him doing it just to get back at his Dad? You might want to think the former of the noble protagonist, but the title of the episode makes me suspect more the latter.

Ultimately, the big moment of the episode happens on the Island, and it's the scene I talked of earlier: finding Charlie hanging dead in the trees, strung up by Ethan. Jack fights to revive him, and it's a powerful scene. It's set up by the opening flashback in which Jack failed to save a life. It's brutal and violent, with Jack pounding away at Charlie's chest time after time. It's photographed perfectly, punctuated with a brilliant wide shot in which Jack, Kate, and the lifeless Charlie are all insect-tiny in the frame. Michael Giacchino plays the emotion for everything it's worth in his score. Kate walks away in tears, giving up, and even knowing the outcome, I believe her.

In short, without all that "will they kill someone" crap from the real world intruding on the drama, this might be the most emotional scene yet in Lost. I completely failed to appreciate this the first time around, but applaud it this time. It's a triumph for the actors, a triumph for writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach (whose previous effort was House of the Rising Sun), and a triumph for first time Lost director Stephen Williams (who would go on to be a regular director for the show through the fifth season).

Still, despite wonderful scenes, the episode is held back a bit for being essentially incomplete. The on-Island story doesn't resolve, with Charlie rescued but Claire still missing at the end of the episode. And though we maybe didn't know it the first time around, the flashback story is somewhat incomplete as well, between the further information we'd get on Jack and his father and the later revelations about how and why Christian got from this moment of disgrace to his final fate in Australia.

But overall, this is really just a solid episode of Lost. I rate it an A-.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Going to Town

I was a fan of Ben Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. (In fact, since first seeing it in theaters, I've watched it again on DVD and decided it probably will be a "top 100" contender by the time I've finished remaking the list.) So I was curious to see what he'd done with his latest film, The Town. It's another story set in Boston, about bank robbers being pursued by a federal agent.

This time out, Affleck chose to wear other hats as well, working with other writers on the screenplay, and taking the lead role. This kind of multitasking didn't detract from the best things he proved about his directing in his previous film. He's very clearly good with actors.

The cast of this movie is very strong. Jeremy Renner is effectively menacing as the most violent hothead in the group, while Jon Hamm makes for a good adversary (though technically, he's the "good guy") as the agent trying to catch the team. And Ben Affleck the director doesn't let Ben Affleck the actor get away with giving less than the rest of the cast.

But the story just isn't as solid as Gone Baby Gone. Like that movie, this one wants to play around in moral gray areas, but isn't at all thought provoking, or even that ambiguous. The main character is supposed to find himself pulled between wanting to stay true to his friends, but also wanting to quit and start a new life. The pull of the latter is clearly outlined in the film. But the old friends don't seem to exert much of a pull at all. We're told about much more than shown the relationship between them, and the case to stand by them just doesn't seem very strong.

There's also an odd romantic plot in the film. I can't decide if it's a subplot or if it's supposed to be the main plot, and all the robbery incidental. In either case, the two don't blend together so well most of the time. Each of the separate "movies" plays well on its own, but doesn't interplay with the whole so smoothly.

But I think the weaknesses are really just in the script. I'd still be there opening weekend to see the next film Ben Affleck directs. This one I'd call a B-, which still isn't bad.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Great Use of Space

In rebuilding my top 100 movie list, Office Space was another movie I knew I didn't really need to watch again -- I knew that movie would make it on there somewhere. But I recently just felt the pull to watch it again anyway. You know, because I just really like it!

You might see it as a rather unlikely selection. Writer-director Mike Judge is sort of hit-and-miss with me. Mostly miss. I never really liked Beavis and Butthead. Extract was good, but not great. King of the Hill was a damn abomination. But anyone can capture lightning in the bottle once, and so it was with Office Space.

Much of the humor of Office Space comes from just how real it is, how only slightly it pushes beyond reality. The portrayal of the daily annoyances of working in a cubicle farm, or as a server in a resturant, are just spot on. The behaviors of people with grandiose delusions about the little power they wield. Even minor moments like the tyranny of static electricity, or living in an apartment with thin walls. This movie is hysterically, sometimes painfully authentic.

The rest of the humor comes from the pitch perfect performances of the brilliant cast. Ron Livingston does some his best work ever, surpassed only by Bands of Brothers -- an apple and oranges comparison that really should demonstrate just how good (and underused and underappreciated) he is. Jennifer Aniston scores good laughs in one of her last roles before she became locked down in bringing her A-list name to C-grade romantic comedies. Stephen Root so hilariously plays his character of Milton that despite mountains of other appearances all over the place, he's still best known for this. Gary Cole as boss Bill Lumbergh? He's a cultural icon now.

Even the less prominent characters land their own great moments. There's Diedrich Bader (of The Drey Carry Show), John C. McGinley (Scrubs), and Michael McShane (the original U.K. version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?), plus a bunch of other solid working actors bringing the funny in one of the tightest 90 minutes ever put on film.

My only complaint about the film -- and it would be a very minor one -- is that the plot is rather flimsy, secondary (at best) to the wonderful array of characters and jokes. But then again, the movie doesn't pretend otherwise. It even tells you what other movie it's stealing its most significant plot point from -- Superman III -- and then proceeds to mine still more comedy out of that.

I rate Office Space an A-. I can't imagine many people who wouldn't find at least something in it to like.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Step Up?

A new trend in board games this year seems to be that everyone wants to release their own game that's "like Dominion." This is hardly surprising, as the "like a trading card game, but all in one box" concept has pushed Dominion to big sales and multiple expansions.

But since writing that initial review of Dominion a while back, I've soured on the game considerably. It was not immediately obvious, but repeated plays exposed the poor balance at the core of the game. In my experience, it simply isn't worth it to take much interest in buying cards with game text. Three, maybe four, will help your deck out, but more than that seems to be self-defeating; you'd best just stick with acquiring more money cards (when you can't afford the big points). At the end of every Dominion game I've played (and thought to check), the winner is always the player with the fewest "text" cards in his deck. And since game text is what trading card games are all about (even not-a-trading-card-game-games), that makes the game rather boring, in my opinion.

Enter one of the new Dominion clones, Ascension. It has a more Dungeons and Dragons kind of feel to it (though not as much, I gather, as the other recent Dominion clone, Thunderstone), where you pick up items and heroes and slay monsters. It admirably addresses the "text equals bad" problem by simply lifting Dominion's restriction of only playing one "action card" during a turn. In Ascension, you can play all your special cards on every turn, and they're definitely "special" enough that you'll want to pick them up when you can afford them.

The pace also seems to be improved over Dominion. I've played four-player Dominion games where it feels like an eternity passes between your turns, yet all but the most involved Ascension turns seem to move at a good clip.

But after a few plays, my opinion is that these improvements in Ascension came with an unfortunate loss as well -- there simply isn't much strategy to it. (Though I suppose my argument is there isn't much strategy to Dominion either -- just the one that works.) Rather than set piles of cards to purchase, as Dominion has, Ascension has a row of six single cards, dealt off a single, shuffled super-deck. When one card is bought, the next card off the deck replaces it. There's no ability to plan ahead; what you want may well be gone -- for good -- before your next turn arrives. And if an awesome card comes available when it's someone else's turn? Well, that luck of the draw may well decide the game in his favor, not yours. All you can really do is wait for your turn, play all your cards (no decisions to make there), then acquire the most expensive card(s) you can each turn (hardly any decisions to make there either).

In short... well, I don't want to say it's like Fluxx. But the game does smell an awful lot like Fluxx in its "you don't really play the game so much as it plays you" vibe. Its brief 30-minute run time, even with four players, might make me think that's okay, save for the fact that there are plenty of other 30-minute games I find more enjoyable.

Still, I think I'd be willing to play Ascension if that's what the group was playing. Dominion, I think I'd just sit out on.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Scarred for Life

I recently watched another classic film -- or at least one that quite a few contend is a more recent "classic," Scarface. Made in 1983, the film is now over 25 years old. But it feels older and more dated to me than half the movies that really are considered classics.

That age starts with the "period" setting in 1980, in the waning months of Jimmy Carter's presidency. The movie is steeped in high hair and shoulder pads, neon colors, and all the trappings of 80s. But there are tons of 80s films like that that don't feel so stranded in time to me.

The real problem is the casting. This movie is supposed to be about an influx of crime in Miami brought on by a mass of immigrants from the slums of Cuba. And starring as the "Cubans," you have a series of actors each less logical than the last. Al Pacino. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. F. Murray Abraham? Robert Loggia?! You would never make this kind of movie today and not cast people of at least a reasonably close ethnicity appropriate to the story. This is not a reflection on the actual performances of any of these actors. I've loved them in other films. But here they're simply too distracting to ever take the story seriously.

And it's a plodding and slow-paced story at that. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film practically wants to tell you the life story of the title character. We don't get his life from birth, thankfully, but we do get every single detail of his rise from street rat to kingpin. And we get it -- lots and lots of drugs.

Really, the only thing I could find to like about the movie is some occasionally clever camera work and staging from director Brian De Palma. At least, in the moments where he's not to taken with showing off how long he can hold a shot without an edit. I certainly saw none of the glamor I feel that many have attached to the movie. I rate it a D-.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Time for a Review

Netflix recently kicked an unusual recommendation my way, a movie from Spain called Timecrimes. (Well, called Los Cronocrímenes. Like I said, it's from Spain.) It's sort of a mystery thriller, sort of a sci-fi movie. It's all the way a low-budget movie, made by people with determination and an idea. That idea is the story of a man who, through a series of unusual events, finds himself transported back in time just a few hours, only to participate in an even more unusual series of events.

Plot-wise, it's a very meticulously crafted movie. There aren't any extraneous bits; every moment of every scene is there to serve some specific purpose, to be paid off later in the movie. It walks a balance beam between being labyrinthine in complexity, but straightforward in sequencing.

But there are two problems with this careful approach. First, it results in a very predictable movie. You learn very early on what the game is, and with every dot in the picture so ready to be connected, your mental pen is well ahead of the writer's. Once or twice along the way, the movie manages to throw a surprise in there -- including an interesting turn to set up the final act -- but immediately your mind fills in all that must follow, given how precise a movie it is.

The other problem is that the demands of the plot are so rigid that any motivations of the characters are tossed aside. We never really learn too much about these people, but it's hard to imagine anyone who would behave as people do in this film. A man bandaged up Invisible Man-style asks a young woman to lead him out into the woods alone, and she does? A man is running from a crazed killer whose identity is a mystery, and decides to trust a strange voice on a walkie-talkie that he's never heard before? A science lab that's testing a time machine on the premises doesn't post any security there on the weekends?

In short, the film perfectly answers every question that it brings up itself. And it blithely ignores a host of questions you can't help but ask for yourself. I think this movie aspired to be a science fiction version of Memento or something. While it is somewhat entertaining, it fell well short of the mark. I rate it a C+.

Monday, September 13, 2010

John Williams is the Man

My cousin linked to this geekily awesome video on YouTube today honoring the fact that John Williams is, in fact, the man:

To clarify, it's the a cappella group Moosebutter that's actually doing the singing here, not this random YouTube guy. But he does a pretty good job lip-syncing and putting the video together.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lost Re-view: Raised by Another

The Claire-centric episode from the first season of Lost was one I remember really liking the first time around. I loved the whole spoooooooky vibe of the psychic who foresaw the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, and deliberately put Claire on it so she'd be forced to raised her unborn son herself. Kind of X-Filesy. Good stand-alone X-Files, not lame mythology-superplot X-Files.

But I have to say that the episode, while still fun, doesn't hold up that well on a second viewing. With so many of the episodes to this point grounded in a strong, emotional back story for a character, this story's emphasis on a Twilight Zone-ish twist rather than emotion makes it feel less evolved. (Though I confess, anyone whose life experience includes pregnancy or single parenthood might challenge me on just how emotional this hour really is.)

Perhaps ominiously, this episode was both written and directed by two people who would never work on Lost again. Writer (and consulting producer) Lynne E. Litt left the show halfway through the season. And the stories I've read about director Marita Grabiak, who had worked for J.J. Abrams before on Alias, basically say she was a stubborn force who clashed with executive producer Jack Bender, arguing endlessly to get her way in one particular scene. (She didn't.)

The scene in question is actually the very first one of the episode. It brings back the "eye close-up" motif, on Claire. But it's a misdirect; we're really inside a nightmare she's having about someone coming after her unborn baby. The director wanted to shoot this in black and white, for reasons I can't begin to understand. Maybe she was taking a cue from the moment in which Dream Locke looks up at Claire with one solid white eyeball and one solid black eyeball (a cool moment -- a callback to the stones found on the skeletons, and the backgammon metaphor of the pilot). Who knows?

There are other cool moments in the dream, though. Locke draws a card off a tarot deck, and it makes the sound of a knife being drawn from a sheath. He alludes to how "everyone pays the price now," for Claire shirking her responsibility. And then Claire wakes up with the most killer death shriek I've ever heard on television. This must have been filmed in one take; I can't imagine Emilie de Ravin had a voice afterwards.

On the Island, the story is primarily about Jack's concern that Claire will trigger an early labor due to anxiety, played against Claire's efforts to convince anyone that someone really is after her. A little time is spent on addressing why a woman in her third trimester was allowed to board a plane, as well as continuing the "at the caves vs. on the beach" argument (Shannon glibly and grimly refers to the former as "the rape caves").

Mainly though, it's a chance for Charlie and Claire to become closer. Not that she goes for it right away. Nervous because of her dreams, Claire pulls away at first. She recoils even more when Charlie lets slip during a moment of crisis: "If I can kick drugs, I can deliver a baby." But by the end of the episode, they really have forged a solid friendship.

In the wake of the possible attack on Claire, Hurley goes two-for-two in consecutive good ideas (following the golf course), deciding to take a census of who's who among the survivors. He asks a lot of the questions that we the viewers are asking: what do we really know about these people? Where are they from? Why were they on the plane? Not everyone may be who they say they are. His name isn't even really Hurley, he tells us -- it's Hugo Reyes. (Though he declines to explain the nickname. In fact, I believe he never does in the entire six seasons of Lost.)

Boone even gets a good idea in this episode too, suggesting that Hurley can save time by checking names to the flight manifest. Which, of course, packrat Sawyer has. This leads to another good moment for Hurley, who manages to sweet-talk Sawyer into giving it up without getting anything in return. "You sure know how to butter a man up, Stay-Puft." (Though I have to pause for half a second and wonder why Sawyer would give it up when his name isn't on the manifest. Well, it is, but it's "James Ford," right?)

In any case, all this investigation is leading up to the punchy reveal at the end of the hour -- that one of the "survivors" wasn't actually on the plane! So, in back to back episodes, we learn of other people already on the Island before our heroes. Unfortunately, in the case of "the first Other," Ethan, his reveal is hardly shocking. He was barely in the last episode, and comes off completely arch in this one. He's also the only non-regular character we see on the Island this hour. Gee... I wonder who might be out to get Claire?

I suppose it played out fine as it was. This story about the Others, Claire, and her baby was all far more elaborate than a quick reveal in this one episode. Still, I sort of wish that a few more episodes had been spent setting up Ethan before having him turn "traitor." (I suppose the mobisode helps in that regard -- assuming anyone anywhere actually watched it for the first time in chronological order.)

But really, the on-Island tale here is just kicking off a new story arc, introducing a plot that would spread over a few episodes. (Seasons, even.) What then can be mined from Claire's flashbacks?

Well first, there's the one and only look we get at baby Aaron's biological father, the indecisive starving artist Thomas. I confess, I had completely forgotten about this guy after six years. Not that he's memorable. First he tells Claire he wants to have the baby with her, and then he bails.

But not before having a big argument with Claire in which a bunch of quick tidbits about Claire's parents are dropped. We learn about Claire's "Daddy abandonment crap," of a father that used to sing "Catch a Falling Star" to her (before apparently walking out). That later turns out to be Jack's father. (Though I'd be truly shocked if the writers actually knew that at the time.)

Also mentioned is Claire's mother, who Claire thinks would "disown" her if she knew about her having a baby on her own. Thomas says that's basically already happened. Later on, when Claire's back story was fleshed out more in a future episode, we'd learn that her mother is in a coma and not expected to recover (though she does). So I suppose Claire worries about being disowned because she still harbors belief her mother will recover. Thomas says Claire has already been abandoned, because mother is gone and probably not coming back. I can just imagine discussion between the writers later on, trying to justify all this with the story they decided to tell later. I give them credit, I think -- if you massage the dialogue here a bit, it does fit.

But what doesn't fit so easily, even with stretching, is the strange tale of psychic Richard Malkin. When I was just watching this episode the first time around, I thought he was an interesting character in a compelling plot -- the psychic who foresaw the plane crash. But then he appeared in one of Eko's flashbacks in season two, and proclaimed himself a phony, a fraud.

I think this latter explanation is the one that show-runners Damon Lindelof and Carton Cuse would have us take as the gospel truth. Because after all the talk about how "special" Aaron (and Walt, for that matter) are, in the end they backpedaled from all of that. Malkin's assertion that he saw blurriness surrounding the baby, that he could not be "parented by anyone else, anyone other than you," that Claire's "goodness must be an influence in the development of this child..."

Yeah, maybe not so much. Because Kate ends up raising Aaron in the long run, right? Or are we talking about Aaron's upbringing after the events of Lost? Not that we'll ever know. Easier if you're Damon/Carlton -- aka "Darlton" -- to wave your hands and say "Malkin was full of crap. Aaron isn't special. End of that plot line."

The only trouble with that is that I find it impossible to explain Malkin's behavior in this episode if he is a fake. The first and second time he meets Claire, he gives her money back to her, taking nothing for the reading. In the third flashback, he gives her money. I suppose this behavior is consistent with some kind of "long con" like we saw Sawyer running. But what's the payoff? Claire has no money. Is Malkin running some elaborate baby-selling ring?

Plus, at the end of the episode, Malkin is insistent: not only does Claire have to go to Los Angeles, it has to be on this flight. I just don't see how else to read it. He's psychic. He knew what would happen. And I'd rather not just wash away that cool element of this episode anyway. So, I see only two options in explaining away Richard Malkin in the broader tapestry of Lost:

Option 1: He is a fraud... except that for whatever reason, with Claire, he had a real psychic episode. It scared the crap out of him so badly that he was willing to do whatever he thought he had to do to satisfy his unwanted vision.

Option 2: He is for real. The lie was when he told Eko he was a fraud. (Why would he do that? How about we table that question until later, when that episode comes along?) Maybe he's a little off, psychically speaking, about the overall importance of Aaron. Maybe when he was saying that the child can't be "raised by another," he meant can't be "raised by an Other." (Get it?!) Maybe he saw that adult Aaron would grow up to be Hitler or something without the influence of Claire -- influence which he did end up getting from age four or so on, at least. Whatever. Work it out for yourself. Or don't, if this issue doesn't matter to you.

In any case, the possible "demystification" of the spookiness of this episode detracted a bit from my opinion of it, watching it the second time around. I still rate it a B, which is pretty good -- but I think it dropped from one of my favorites of season one to an episode that may well end up near the bottom of the season one pack (just because the overall quality that first year was so high). Damn you, Richard Malkin!

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Hard Night's Viewing

A few weeks back, Rotten Tomatoes ran a feature about the 50 Best-Reviewed Movies of All Time. I was puzzled at the #1 film on the list, The Beatles film A Hard Day's Night. I couldn't quite imagine how a movie I don't recall ever seeing on a top movie list anywhere managed to be the best-reviewed movie ever on Rotten Tomatoes. But I decided to see the film for myself to find out if there was some ineffable charm there.

I feel like I've been Punked.

Have you ever watched an episode of Saturday Night Live where the host of the week isn't an actor, but comes from some other field -- maybe s/he is a politician, or a musician? There's just a certain approach to the writing style in those episodes those weeks that screams "we're pitching you softballs, because we know acting isn't your thing." And of course, add to that the fact that Saturday Night Live has sucked more years than it's been good.

That's A Hard Day's Night. Only instead of unfunny and awkward sketches that last four minutes each, it's one unfunny and awkward sketch that lasts an hour and a half, occasionally punctuated by completely unrelated musical performances.

It's an odd thing to watch, because I don't always get the impression that John, Paul, George, and Ringo needed to have softballs pitched at them. I mean no, they're not actors -- but the only times they really come off unnatural are the times they're trying to sell ludicrously wooden dialogue. (That's most of the time.) I feel like maybe you could have put them in an actual movie of some kind.

Instead, they play "themselves," moving plotlessly through a "life as a Beatle" series of events that has them getting into unrealistic, manufactured hijinks and being chased by screaming fans -- in between stilted and overt jokes of the sort you'd expect to hear from the animal-furniture on an episode of The Flintstones.

This steaming pile is directed by Richard Lester, the man who -- according to Richard Donner -- ruined Superman II. (He definitely made it campy.) Probably should have seen the results coming.

But honestly, the only good thing about the movie is the music. And even then, more than half the songs are "deep cuts" that are far from the first songs you'd think of when you think of The Beatles. And none of them are connected to what little plot there is. And all of them are edited badly, with pictures not always syncing to sound. You'd be better off just listening to the "soundtrack album" -- that is, the album "A Hard Day's Night" itself. The film? I'd rate it a D-.

Is every critic basking in the glow of Beatlemania?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

We're Boatin'

My recent review of U-571 prompted a co-worker to tell me that I haven't seen a truly great submarine film until I'd seen Das Boot. He's not the only one to think so; the film has a truly epic reputation. Director Wolfgang Petersen's famous film is in the top 250 movies at (it's 66th, in fact), is pulling 100% over at Rotten Tomatoes, and is on a fleet of critics' top lists.

To a point, I'll agree with all the praise. No film I've seen does a better job of conveying what it must truly have been like to serve about a submarine in World War II. No matter how big the living room (or theater) in which you watch this movie, I'd bet you'd feel a strong sense of claustrophobia. It's cramped, uncomfortable, and hard.

The film is also wonderfully tense throughout the first half. Even though a fair chunk of the time, objectively speaking, "nothing" is happening, there is inherent tension in the way you and the characters are waiting for something to happen. It's an excellent testament to the actors and especially the director.

But, that's "first half" I spoke of is as long as many other movies are in their entirety. Das Boot, now most commonly available in a "director's cut," runs a staggering 3 hours and 29 minutes. And in my opinion, it just can't sustain for that long.

Part of the problem is the "lack of mission." Say what you will about the slightly-distorted reality of U-571, or the completely fabricated The Hunt for Red October, but those are naval movies where there's a clear focus to the plot. The protagonists are out there to do a particular job. The crew of Das Boot, by contrast, is simply "out on patrol" for the bulk of the movie. Of course, the film is making a point that this is the day to day life of a submarine crew, but I didn't find that it made for the best narrative. Their objective is general, their adventures rather episodic, and in my view those stops and starts ultimately make the film feel every bit as long as it is.

The other problem for me is that because we're watching events on a German submarine, the movie is essentially asking us to cheer for the "bad guys." Now, it does expressly make the point that very few people on the sub are strong supporters of the Nazi party -- they're just men called into service by their country, doing what they're ordered to do. But the movie is about the boat more than the crew. (Hell, that's the title.) And the boat is doing things on behalf of the enemy. Plus, for me, "I was just following orders" only goes so far as justification. I may not be able to define exactly where the line is, but I know that hoping this crew will escape after successfully sinking an Allied ship is well on the other side of it.

So ultimately, I'll readily acknowledge that there are many excellent elements of this movie that are rightly praised, and have been stolen from liberally in the making of later films. Nevertheless, I personally would only rank it a B-. That's still good enough that I'd recommend it to many people, but falls well short of making my own top movie list.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Lost Re-view: Solitary

The next episode of Lost's first season was centered on Sayid. It was the second episode from writer David Fury, following Walkabout. It's not the triumph that that first episode was, but is a pretty good hour.

A lot of the strength comes from the power of the Sayid back story revealed here. Like Sawyer's flashbacks in the previous episode, Sayid's story doesn't cover how he came to be on Oceanic Flight 815. The more important story to tell here is of his history with Nadia.

The episode begins with an artistic, wide shot of Sayid sitting alone on the beach, looking at her photo. His flashbacks go on to reveal his work as a torturer for the Republican Guard, and how his conviction is shaken when a woman he knew in grade school is set up to be the subject of his next interrogation. Unlike the flashbacks of the Sun episode, which were all in Korean, this episode uses the "Hunt for Red October trick" of having the characters begin in their native language, before transitioning to English for the rest of the episode. This is likely for practical reasons, as actor Naveen Andrews does not actually speak Arabic as Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim speak Korean.

The Nadia-Sayid relationship shown in the flashbacks is quite powerful, taken just as presented in this one episode. She seems to see the true man he is, sees him "pretending to be something I know you're not." She bears the scars of past tortures -- burns, drill marks, and more -- but is unafraid that he will inflict any more harm on her. And in the end, he shoots himself in the leg to ensure her escape. Wow. That's love. The last thing she does is write on the back of his photo of her: "You'll find me in the next life, if not in this one." And in fact, that's exactly what happens in the afterlife of the sixth season -- Sayid tries to connect with Nadia.

But unsuccessfully. And there's the rub: it's just hard to know what to make of the Nadia relationship in the full context of Lost. Ultimately, the show tells us that Nadia was not Sayid's soul mate. That's Shannon. And while I suppose I'll have to get to re-watching those early second season episodes that really establish this, I must confess my memory is that that relationship never really clicked for me. So to sort of bolster the narrative and boost up Sayid-Shannon in my mind, I find myself compelled to "push down" Sayid-Nadia.

Suddenly, I wonder if there's a second way to read what we see in this episode. Does Nadia actually feel any connection to Sayid at all? Or is she really the ruthless terrorist that those who captured her believe her to be? Does she merely remember Sayid from years ago, and start flirting with him to save her own skin? When she says "Do your work; I'm not going to tell you anything," is it bravery, or does she really think she's put the whammy on Sayid and he's not going to hurt her? Hmmm.

Sayid's adventures on the Island in this episode are just as momentous as those in his flashbacks. In fact, this episode marks the first appearance of a rather large number of Island mysteries that would fuel fan imagination for a long time to come.

It begins with Sayid's discovery of a cable on the beach, which he follows inland. Little did he know that the more interesting direction to follow it would have been into the water and down to the ocean floor -- that's where we'd find the Looking Glass station at the end of season three.

Then he spots a trip wire in the jungle, which he carefully steps over... only to be snagged in the real trap, laid by someone even more clever than he. And that someone turns out to be Danielle Rousseau, the "French woman" in the distress call. If you thought she must have been long dead, you're in for a mammoth revelation, Lost fans! There is someone still alive on the Island other than our crash survivors! And just for all the sci-fi fans out there, we cast Mira Furlan from Babylon 5 to play her!

Rousseau is quite the character. She apparently speaks five languages, asking Sayid "where is Alex" in English, German, Italian, Spanish, and French in an early scene. She tortures him with electricity one moment, but tenderly strokes his face and feels genuine sympathy for him just a scene or two later.

She also brings the first hints of a host of Island mysteries. She speaks of "the sickness" that claimed her science team (and which would much later claim the focal character of this episode, Sayid). She mentions the Black Rock. She talks about the "Others" on the Island. She tells us about the "whispers" that speak to you in the jungle (which Sayid encounters himself in the very last scene). And she speaks of "Alex" throughout the episode, only revealing her to be "my child" at the end -- actually not ever specifying that Alex was a daughter and not a son (as Sayid mistakenly assumes).

In fact, writer David Fury once revealed in an interview that another tidbit was meant to be teased in this episode: Rousseau was to have mentioned that the thing her expedition was researching? "Time." Fury claims that ABC asked that most of the blatantly sci-fi elements like this be removed or downplayed in the first season, so the line was cut.

But the problem with such a large downloading of mystery in this one episode is that a fair chunk of it turns out to be irreconcilable with what we would later learn. We'd even see some of it, thanks to all the time-traveling in season 5. Some of the inconsistencies you can chalk up to Rousseau's general craziness after years of isolation; hell, she even contradicts herself in this episode. She tells Sayid she's never seen another person on the Island, yet clearly has seen an "Other" before, because she thinks he is one. (And indeed, as we'll later learn, the Others took her child.)

Some of Rousseau's special brand of crazy in this episode becomes explainable when you compare her to "wild jungle Claire" of season 6. The two were played very similarly. Claire got to the point of split ends and raising a dead squirrel skeleton baby because she lived for three years alone, with the Man in Black poisoning her mind and turning her "evil." Indeed, the "sickness" that Rousseau claims took her expedition was likely this same touch of Man in Black corruption. (Though I question whether any of Rousseau's team was actually infected as she claims... or if it was really just her).

In any case, you can stretch all of this to explain why Rousseau says "there's no such thing as monsters" in this episode, though we know she saw the Smoke Monster soon after arriving on the Island, and she even implies worse things on the Island than the polar bears in this very episode. If ol' Smokey came to Rousseau in some human form, as he does to Claire in the final season, then Rousseau knows a little of his true nature... or at least would think of "it" as a "person," just as Claire later would.

Rousseau thinks the "sickness" comes from the Others (which she just claimed never to have seen), not from the Smoke Monster's corruption. More head scrambling from a Claire-Smokey type brainwashing? General ramblings of someone cracked from 16 years on the Island? Or just stuff that doesn't connect because the writers didn't actually planned ahead? You decide.

But here's something that crazy can't explain. Once the full timeline unfolds over six seasons, it puts Rousseau's arrival on the Island a few years ahead of Ben's "Purge" of the Dharma Initiative, in which he released a toxic gas all over the Island, killing everyone. So how did Rousseau survive that?

Stuff like that is why I'm happy to focus on character. As Sayid says of Rousseau's broken music box, "some things can be fixed." Let's extend his metaphor to details like this, acknowledge that maybe this is an area that can't "be fixed," and get back to other character stuff in this episode.

As all this serious stuff is happening to Sayid, the rest of our heroes are enjoying a quite different, light-hearted time. The principal subplot of this episode involves Hurley building a golf course. While Jack has been trying to "make people feel safe" by seeing to basic survival needs, Hurley recognizes that fun is a basic survival need too. Hurley finds the equipment in various luggage, notes that "rich idiots" go to tropical islands all the time to play golf, and it's off to the green. (Say, would Hurley himself be one of the "rich idiots" he's referring to? A few episodes later, we'd learn of his lottery winnings.)

The golf course subplot is a vehicle for comedy in this episode -- arguably the most humor any episode of Lost has had so far. The golf course draws quite a crowd, and eventually betting for or against Jack. ("Action" that Sawyer gets in on, offering up some of his stash, to finally begins integrating with the rest of the group.) There are a few great lines, like Kate to Jack: "I almost didn't recognize you. You're smiling." Or Sawyer's: "A doctor playing golf. Now I've heard everything." Or Charlie to Michael: "You didn't hear about the polar bear?" (Okay, so that last one isn't about the golf course, but still funny.)

Two characters make their very first appearance here. The first is Ethan (not counting the mobisode that was made years later), showing up for just one scene. He's obviously ingratiated himself to Locke, who says Ethan has "had some hunting experience." And while that's no doubt true, the bigger truth is that Locke -- like everyone else -- has been fooled into thinking Ethan was a crash survivor.

The other character making his first appearance is Sullivan, a hypochondriac with a rash that Jack is forced to deal with. "The rash guy" (I had to look up his actual name, because I'm not sure they say it on screen) is really built up as though he's going to be a recurring presence. I think he gets as much camera time as Arzt does in his first episode, for example. He certainly gets more time here than Ethan. And yet Sullivan is never seen again after this episode. Kinda weird. Was he really just a one-off device for this episode? Did the actor they cast not work out?

There are a handful of other small character arcs playing out in this episode. There's still friction between Jack, Kate, and Sawyer over the last episode's torture. As Kate bluntly puts it: "Accidents happen when you torture people, Jack." So Jack is tending to Sawyer's knife wound. The latter says its out of guilt, but Jack maintains: "I'm here because no one else wants anything to do with you." To which Sawyer challenges: "She does." The love triangle is fully under construction at this point.

Walt tries to get closer to Locke this episode. Walt wants to go hunting, which Michael shuts down immediately. But then, when Michael is too busy playing golf to watch his kid, Walt slips away for some knife-throwing lessons with Locke. And thus, any goodwill the Michael character earned by designing a shower this episode is undone by showing him as a neglectful parent. Nice.

And Claire... well, actually, this is I believe the third episode in which Claire doesn't appear. And we're only nine episodes in. I don't think I realized the first time around just how much Emilie de Ravin was "sitting on the bench." Perhaps the writers were struggling with finding ways to use a character who's eight months pregnant in any kind of active role in a story? I suppose omitting her from episodes was probably a better thing that watching her play the same "I'm pregnant" beats every week. (At least she's the focus of the next episode.)

There's a lot of good stuff in this episode. The Sayid story brings both emotion and tantalizing hints of the future. But I have to say that the golf course subplot, fun though it is, doesn't really mesh well. It doesn't quite come off as a series of light moments to relieve the tension -- it feels more like parts of an entirely different episode that, while fine on their own, just don't blend well. I rate the episode a B+ overall.