Monday, February 28, 2011

The Hits Keep Coming

It turns out I wasn't the only one to think that last night's Academy Awards ceremony was a giant dud. A great article this morning over at Movieline offered up the 9 Most Scathing Reviews of the ceremony.

I especially like #9, for being a more succinct and biting commentary on James Franco's cardboard delivery than I could manage. And also #8, for someone having the courage to say what I couldn't bring myself to last night: Kirk Douglas was creepy and awkward. I didn't want to disparage a survivor of a stroke, but there were many facets of the discomfort in watching him besides just that one.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

And the Oscar Snark Goes To...

Another year, another award show, another round of snark!

If you watch 127 Hours backwards, it's actually a very uplifting tale of a man who finds an arm in the desert.

The Ambien in a Capri Sun pouch is a great touch.

The costuming department has a crazy idea, and Franco's in for it.

Um, I love Back to the Future more than the next guy, but bringing that into the montage seemed more than a little random.

Is Franco taking pictures with his camera phone?

I want to like Anne Hathaway and James Franco as hosts, but I feel like I can actually see time slowing down as I watch them.

Now Tom Hanks is putting me to sleep too. What the hell with the pacing this year? These awards already feel as long as Gone With the Wind, Schindler's List, and Ben Hur.

Don't they start with Supporting Actor or Actress every year? They really decided to lead off with Art Direction this year?

Yes, Kirk Douglas is a living legend. And I don't want to seem like I'd disrespecting an older person. But he's been on this stage forever. And even after Melissa Leo wins, he still won't leave.

Seriously, if you're speechless, then GET OFF THE STAGE! Or at least start thanking people who are actually in the room!

I think she may have thanked everyone except Mark Wahlberg. But dear God, I don't want to rewind it to check.

Anne Hathaway seems peppy and genuinely excited to be there. James Franco looks bored.

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis attempt to banter. Seriously, all these people on stage tonight are actors, right?

They hired Anne Hathaway and James Franco to try and appeal more to a younger crowd and boost the ratings. So why are they spending so much time on this show talking about 80 year old movies?

Enunciation, Josh Brolin: I think the writers "made us think," not "made a stink."

They let Melissa Leo stand there stone silent for a half a minute, and they're playing Aaron Sorkin off?

I see the Franco costume humor is going to be a running gag.

Apparently, the memo went around this year, and necklaces are out.

Now that he's won the award, can Christian Bale shave that hockey playoff beard?

Christian Bale has been rambling forever, but they know if they try to play him off, he might snap and kill them all.

I'm surprised the Oscar voters are "unconventional" enough to vote for The Social Network score.

Actually, that probably means that Trent Reznor is now so mainstream he might have to kill himself.

If your time is nearly out, don't waste what you have left to tell us your time is nearly out.

Matthew McConaughey is wearing three times as much tanner as should be acceptable, and Scarlett Johansson looks like she may have been having a twirl just before she came out on stage.

Is this more of the "youthful appeal" thing? They could have picked any three seconds of Tron Legacy to show in the Sound Editing montage -- they picked the three seconds of shirtlessness.

Cate Blanchett seems to be wearing an oven mitt made in a first grade art class. Or maybe it's a baby's bib that grandma saved for posterity -- with the cream corn stains still on it. Or an old vanity with the mirror taken out of it.

You know, I actually didn't know that Zachary Levi did his own singing in Tangled. It's just Disney norm to cast different people for the dialogue and the singing. I think I'm a bit impressed now.

Don't hold for applause for George Lucas. Could be a long wait these days.

We wanted to cut away from Oprah Winfrey to show some guy picking his ear.

Some many people who make movies, who don't know that you don't have to lean into the microphones.

Billy Crystal gets a standing ovation and a bunch of laughs. Why didn't they just get him to host?

Randy Newman wrote the same song 20 times. Is it any wonder he only won one other time before now? (At least the weird yodeling-set-to-Philip-Glass-chords song from 127 Hours didn't win.)

Death montage time. They seem to have made the interesting decision not to mic the applause, eliminating the morbid "who gets the most applause" contest.

The mistake of giving out the Directing award with so much time left to go in the show is that by giving it to Tom Hooper, we now all know beyond a shadow of a doubt what will win Best Picture.

Jeff rushed to insert the words "awe-inspiring," before he accidentally said that Nicole Kidman's performance in Rabbit Hole was painful.

Michelle Williams is going for "beautiful and unique snowflake."

Natalie Portman's earlobes are graduating from college.

The camera operator filming Jesse Eisenberg seems to be more focused on Justin Timberlake behind him.

I think I have even more appreciation for James Franco as an actor tonight, now that I know how much work it takes for him to seem natural on camera.

Colin Firth, by all means, DO break into dance. It would be the most interesting thing to have happened tonight.

Never bet against the Academy picking a period drama for Best Picture.

So wow. I tend to enjoy these Award shows, but I thought this was about the most boring Oscars ceremony I have ever seen.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


I just finished watching Let Me In, the American remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In.

On the one hand, I found it to be a bit of a disappointment in that it is so similar to the original film, you almost have to question why it was even worth the trouble and expense of remaking it. From what I could tell, absolutely nothing was added in terms of plot. And it seemed as though only one or two pieces (completely extranesous, if not outright confusing) from the original were removed. If you've seen the Swedish version, there isn't a single surprise in store for you here from a plot perspective.

But, perhaps justifying the remake after all, is that while this version is essentially the same script, it's realized much better on film. Sure, part of that is that an American director has made this movie with American sensibilities, and that makes it almost inevitably more accessible to an American audience. But it goes deeper than that -- everything is just a little "more," a little "better" in this incarnation.

The acting from the two young leads is much stronger, from Kodi Smit-McPhee (known mainly for The Road), and Chloe Grace Moretz (known from a few places, but most notably as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass). Skilled veteran Richard Jenkins also shines in an important role.

The use of the camera is more dynamic, and visual effects are more cleverly deployed to lend an aura of otherworldliness to the creepy young vampire. The scenes of violence are a bit more intense, the scares a bit more visceral, the moments of suspense more taut. The soundtrack, a solid effort from Michael Giacchino, does wonders to up the ante.

So in all, where I recommended a general "pass" on the Swedish take, this version probably gets the seal of approval. For a horror fan, anyway. I rate it a B-.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lost Re-view: The Greater Good

The second Sayid episode of Lost's first season marked a minor milestone. It was the first time I ever talked about an episode of Lost here on my blog. But to call it a review would be glorifying it, and it's really not even worth offering up a link. Basically, a spent a few sentences going "duh, I kinda thought that was cool" before griping about Alias (which aired on the same night at the time).

So let's do this proper.

"The Greater Good" was directed by David Grossman in his one and only time behind the camera for Lost. (Soon after, he'd wind up on Desperate Housewives as one of their go-to directors.) It was written by Leonard Dick, a staff writer for the first two seasons -- though interestingly, this was his only episode where he didn't share credit with another writer.

Where the first Sayid episode was concerned with giving us the backstory about Nadia, this episode filled in for us the reason why he was in Sydney for that fateful flight. But as it turns out, the episode had quite a lot to say about his character, with the full benefit of hindsight in considering it.

Sayid's flashbacks in this episode start with him being rounded up by a CIA agent and a member of British Intelligence. A one-time friend of his at university, Essam, is part of a terrorist cell. They want Sayid to infiltrate the cell, and in return, they'll tell Sayid where Nadia is now.

Whoosh... he's off to Sydney, where he arranges a "chance encounter" in a mosque with his old friend. And it's worth a note that we see a group of Muslims in prayer on a U.S. network TV show. It seems as though three-and-a-half years after the 9/11 attacks, it was thought that an audience could handle the important distinction between practicing Muslims and extremist terrorists, though some progress appears to have been lost since then.

Essam takes Sayid back to the apartment he's sharing with his two terrorist, Half-Life playing buds. (Wow, they aren't just Muslim -- they play video games! Evil!) Sayid worms his way into their good graces by discovering a bug hidden in their smoke detector, and soon they bring up that recurring theme of the series: fate. It's "fate" that Essam and Sayid met at the mosque.

As the two spend more time together, Essam confides that he is planning to martyr himself soon in an "operation," though he's unsure if he can go through with it. Sayid shares this information with his CIA handler, suggesting that Essam be brought in. But she disdainfully dismisses the notion. Essam doesn't really know anything; his only value is if he can be caught red-handed with the missing C4 so the good guys can reclaim it. Sayid's mission is made clear: he is actually going to convince Essam to go through with the bombing. And if he doesn't, then the CIA will arrest Nadia, who is living illegally in the United States.

You might suppose Sayid would feel conflicted about this situation, but here is the first way in which this episode is really revealing of his character -- he doesn't bat an eye. He pulls every string with Essam, telling him that any innocent deaths in a bombing will be sacrifices for "the greater good." Sayid himself makes no such considerations. There's what he wants, and he's going to justify anything to get it.

In short, I feel this is one more thread in the tapestry that shows us that Sayid was never really such a nice character, when you get down to it. Sure, there were times he did heroic things. There were even more times where he was very likable. But "being dark" was his alcohol, and he fell off the wagon on a very regular basis. From his background as a torturer, through these particular events in his past, and particularly during seasons four and six, Sayid could never stay good for long. And for reasons that this episode also demonstrates, as we'll get to momentarily.

The day comes, and Sayid and Essam are in a van wired with explosives, about to leave for their target. That's when Sayid confesses his link with the CIA, giving Essam 10 minutes to make an escape. He also explains his reasons for this deception, but it only enrages Essam: "You used me to find a woman?!" Essam threatens Sayid with a gun for a few moments before suddenly turning the weapon on himself and taking his own life.

The mission complete, the CIA honors its promise and tells Sayid that Nadia is living in L.A. They've even set up a direct flight out of Sydney for him to go see her. But finally feeling pangs of conscience and guilt, Sayid is more concerned about what will become of Essam's body. It's to be cremated, in defiance of Muslim custom, as there is no one to claim the body. So Sayid requests that his flight to L.A. be delayed for one day so he can claim the body and give his old friend proper rites.

And here is the other key piece of Sayid in this episode, and to my mind, the most significant one. Every time he tries to do something good, something selfless, the universe slaps him down. He tries to do right by a friend, and winds up in the plane crash that strands him on The Island. It's a pattern that repeats on the show again and again, right up to his very final moments, in fact, where he pays a very steep price indeed for saving the rest of the group on the sub.

So it leaves little room to question why Sayid always slips back into being the "bad guy." Or why he spends all of season six just automatically accepting the assertion that "he has come back wrong." Giving in to the dark side just comes so much more naturally. And with the universe serving up a gut punch every time he tries to walk the other path, who could blame him for giving up on it?

Mirroring the way the flashbacks in this episode have big resonance that would play well into Lost's future, the on-Island storyline had a big revelation to make about Lost's past, brief though it was at this point in time. It begins still very much in the aftermath of Boone's death in the previous hour. Shannon still sits a vigil over her brother's body, and won't answer when Sayid asks if he can do anything for her.

Jack's "I'm gonna go get Locke" determination that closed the last episode hasn't yielded much. He's stomped around the jungle in circles, and only gives it a break when Kate comes to find him for Boone's funeral.

Boone is buried on a small hill near the beach, and Sayid offers up a somewhat awkward but oddly poignant eulogy praising his courage. But then the moment gets truly strained when Locke shows up, shirt covered in blood. He tells everyone the truth about the plane, and confesses that Boone's death was his fault. There's a wonderful wide camera angle that puts Locke alone and tiny on the right side of the plane, while all the rest of the survivors seem like a mob on the left.

Then Jack hauls off and attacks Locke before Charlie and Sawyer pull him off. He still doesn't believe Locke is telling the truth, remembering Boone's murmurs about a "hatch." (Sayid is there to overhear this important detail.)

Later, Locke tries to console Shannon, bringing her Boone's bag, and saying he knows what it's like to lose family. Well, we know that his personal story of losing family -- his father -- is quite different indeed, but it's true that yes, he does. This attempt at conciliation only enrages Shannon, who goes straight to Sayid: "You asked if you could do anything for me. John Locke killed my brother. Will you do something about that?"

So Sayid goes to find Locke at the cave. (He shows up just moments after Walt leaves, shunning the man who so recently was like a hero -- or father -- to him.) The lies start in immediately; Locke is washing his bloody shirt, and when Sayid remarks about the scar from his kidney surgery, he passes it off as a "war wound." He wants Locke to take him to this crashed plane, where parts from the radio might be salvageable for the transmitter he plans to make for the raft. They head off into the woods, Sayid interrogating, Locke knowing he's being interrogated.

They reach the plane, still playing cat and mouse. Sayid notices Locke's secret gun Locke (taken off the Nigerian smuggler's corpse). Locke hands it over, asking if that earns him any trust. Sayid notes that since he was caught with it, it only earns him "adaptability." So Locke decides to reveal something Sayid doesn't know, the big dip into Lost's past this episode -- that when Sayid was trying to triangulate the French distress signal and wound up knocked out with his receiver smashed... that was Locke's doing.

So at last, we get to Locke's motives for doing such a thing. Or at least, we get his argument for doing so now. But given that seconds later, he'll lie when Sayid asks him about the Hatch, it's hard to give it a lot of weight. Locke says that tracking the source of a transmission that said repeatedly "they're dead; it killed them" was certainly not in everyone's best interest. A fair point, but was that really the best way to handle it?

I have to say that I'm disappointed about this little chapter, overall. I'm pretty sure this is it for this entire subplot. Why Sayid should let Locke off with such a feeble justification strikes me as lazy writing. That there are absolutely no further repercussions for this rather major betrayal on Locke's part strikes me as even lazier writing.

I'd even go so far as to say that it's a moment of inconsistency for Locke's character. Sure, he wants to bring as many people into the fold, on the side of "faith," as possible. But in every other case, he always presented it to someone as their choice. Here, in this one instance, he chose for everybody that staying on the Island (or staying away from the French radio transmission, if you accept his excuse) was best for everyone. If someone wants to go for the "no prize" and offer up an explanation for this, I'm all ears. Personally, I'm coming up blank.

In any case, back to the action. Sayid returns from his excursion with Locke to talk to Shannon. He believes Locke, in as much that Boone's death was indeed an accident, and that Locke didn't mean for it to happen. Shannon is furious at this. "That's it?"

And next thing you know, Jack (just waking up from a nap forced on him by Kate, who crushed sleeping pills in his juice) realizes that the key to the marshal's case of guns has gone missing. He's all set to stomp off accusing Locke, but Sayid intercedes, knowing the truth.

Rain always knows an opportunity for drama on Lost, and when Sayid comes upon Shannon, threatening Locke at gunpoint in the jungle, it's coming down in buckets. Sayid knows how much killing a man can change you. (Though perhaps, given a complete picture of his true nature, he doesn't quite understand it.) He tells Shannon that she doesn't want to go through with this, but can see that she does, so he tackles her impulsively. The gun goes off, and a bullet grazes Locke's forehead. Sayid is already apologizing, but Shannon stomps off, wanting nothing to do with him.

At night, back on the beach, Kate tries to reassure Sayid that Shannon "just needs time," but Sayid feels certain that "time won't make a difference." She tries a different approach, arguing that he couldn't have just let her kill Locke, that he had no choice, but Sayid argues, "there's always a choice." This is juxtaposed with the flashbacks involving Essam here in this episode, of course, but it does reflect on the larger issue of Sayid's character, the constant battle of choosing to do good, to be good.

Sayid then goes to Locke, the latter thankful, knowing what it cost to spare his life. Sayid coldly says he did it because he sensed Locke was the best hope of surviving the Island, but that he does not forgive. And this we know to be true.

Speaking of which, time for more truth: "Take me to the Hatch," Sayid demands. No more lies.

To offer relief from these two very dark storylines, the episode's other running plot is all comedy. Claire isn't getting any rest at all, so Charlie finally convinces her to let him watch little baby "Turniphead" for a while. Neither endless pacing nor Hurley's rousing rendition of James Brown will stop the baby's crying. What does the trick in the end is the soothing sound of Sawyer's voice -- whether it be complaining about how the baby won't shut up, or reading a car advertisement from a magazine.

Oh, and one other very brief runner -- keeping the "building the raft" plot alive, in anticipation of the upcoming season finale. It wouldn't even be worth mentioning in this episode, except that Walt is full of questions about the danger of a journey on the raft, following Boone's untimely death. Specifically, Walt imagines, "what if we get attacked by a shark?" And indeed, a Dharma-branded shark will accost the raft crew in just a few episodes.

It's interesting, but while the episode really works as a character study of Sayid, it somehow still manages to be less gripping than similarly deep character studies of Jack, Charlie, Sawyer, Locke -- well, frankly, a lot of the other characters -- from earlier in the season. I grade it a B overall, so it's not like I'm saying it falls flat by any stretch. Still, amidst a mostly stellar first season, I'd say this episode actually falls near the back of the pack.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Soap Duds

No. No, no, no, no, no! Bad Hollywood! Bad! Someone has gotten in into their damaged head that it would be a good idea to remake the movie Soapdish.

I've probably espoused my theory on remakes here before: they're okay, so long as you're remaking a movie that was average the first time around. Truly bad movies should not be remade, my thinking being that there wasn't anything worthwhile there to be salvaging. And natually, great movies should not be remade, because they were great movies. What's to improve?

Soapdish falls squarely in the "great movie" category. Alright, so maybe it hit me a bit more squarely than it might hit some, since I'm into the "behind the scenes" of making entertainment, and I was addicted to a soap opera for a period of time. (Well, a prime time, weekly soap anyway: Dallas.) But really, it's just such a damn funny movie, with a near endless list of quotable lines. It even has a great soundtrack from Alan Silvestri.

But perhaps most importantly, it has a killer cast. Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Shue, Robert Downey Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Cathy Moriarty, Teri Hatcher, Carrie Fisher... and each of them is perfect for their role. You might... might capture lightning in a bottle a second time and find a current big name to bring the funny to some soap opera insanity. Could you find two? Five? Eight? I say there's simply no way.

I'll confess, some extra salt in the wound here comes from the realization that Soapdish is now a 20 year old movie -- old enough to come under the remake cross hairs. And yes, that makes me feel quite a bit older. But still, the main point is: you can't improve upon perfection.

As a footnote, I think it's fairly obvious here that I'm saying if you actually haven't seen Soapdish, you should do so with all haste. It's awesome.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taking Back the Black

You have to be very careful what you say when you have devoted fans. Or when you're Nathan Fillion. Doubly so if both. (But this is a problem most of us won't have to wrestle with.)

In a brief interview with Entertainment Weekly last week, Nathan Fillion was speaking of his passion for Firefly. Speaking non-literally, I would assume, he said that if he won $300 million in the lottery, he'd use it to buy up the rights to Firefly, and proceed to make it again on his own dime.

Many fans, of course, chose to take this literally, starting up a campaign pledging money for him to do just that.

Now don't get me wrong. I love Firefly more than the next guy. But our beloved Captain Tightpants was speaking poetically about the show I think of on a weekly basis when I think, "Castle is okay and all, but really, this show is a hit and no one would give the brilliance of Firefly a chance?!" Actually, this article explains rather neatly why this doesn't actually have any chance of working.

Though the same article also mentions a former producer and writer of Firefly, who instantly offered up their own "I'll be there"s if Serenity should ever take flight again. It also mentions how the ratings Firefly pulled when it was canceled would be more than respectable for a network show today.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Blame It on the Alcohol

The premise of tonight's Glee -- portraying the dangers of underage drinking -- could have come perilously close to being "A Very Special Episode of Glee." Instead, I just thought it was special in a non-pejorative sense, as in the best episode since Glee returned from the winter break.

Music was sparse this week, but mostly used for great effect. Rachel's ode to her headband was a perfectly horrible piece of song writing. Blaine and Rachel's duet of "Don't You Want Me" was full of energy (and rocked even though for the first time, Blaine wasn't backed by the Warblers). "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" was just plain fun, and also offered the nice surprise of hearing Coach Beiste sing (a little bit). And of course, the culmination in "Tik Tok" was just great. Not only was the actual performance on fire, but the sudden comedic end to it was the perfect comic high point to the hour.

But yes, I skipped one song, "Blame It." Put simply, I hate auto-tuning. Hate. It. Frankly, that almost ruined the grand finale for me too, but I suppose the vomit saved that. (Those words have surely never been strung together in that order before.)

The plot unfolding between the music was Glee's strongest in quite some time. The "perils of drinking," for the most part, had just the right touch -- including a drunken Coach Beiste laughing off her own profound moment when she stopped for five seconds to espouse the "moral of the episode."

Better still was the momentarily love triangle between Blaine, Rachel, and Kurt. I actually like it when Glee takes the characters we want to cheer for one week and takes them down a peg or two the next week. Kurt really let his "diva bitch" fly with his insults to Rachel, and Blaine really put him in his place with some spot on words during the coffee shop scene.

And a great accent to that storyline were the scenes between Kurt and his dad. Frankly, such scenes are usually the highlight of any episode in which Burt appears, and tonight didn't disappoint. The scene in the kitchen was especially well written, with each being well in the right while still being a bit in the wrong.

But two bits of writing stood out as possibly even better than that. First was the wise decision to not end the episode with a song, as per usual; there really was no way of topping the vomit performance. Not musically. In terms of pure cringe, though, the writers did exactly that, serving up Will's accidental drunk dial to Sue. That was a watch-through-your-fingers, horror movie kind of moment right there.

So basically, I'd call it a top episode, with a deduction from the Russian judge for the excessive use of auto-tune. An A-.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Silver and Gold

I read a story on a gaming web site today that informed me today was the 25th (silver) anniversary of the release of the original The Legend of Zelda. (Its original Japanese release, anyway; it wasn't brought to the States until a bit later.)

Holy crap, did I love this game. I played constantly. I bombed every last rock in Hyrule looking for possible hidden entrances. I got a subscription to the "Nintendo Fun Club Magazine" (back when it was free, before it became Nintendo Power) because it was publishing guides on how to find all the game's secrets.

And then, after you beat it -- a second quest?! A chance to enjoy it all over again, with everything all scrambled up in a different way? How great an idea was that!

Even the little details about the game were cool: the fact that it came in a gold cartridge and a gold box, the fact that you could finally save your console game without having to copy down 32 random characters of gibberish onto a piece of scratch paper.

Yes, there have been plenty of Zelda games since to stoke the fires of my memory, but I'm convinced that even without the sequels (some of which were just as worthy, or even better than the original!), I'd still be able to hum the different musical themes from the game: the melodies for "exploring Hyrule," the "dungeon crawl," the "fairy at the lake," and of course, the indelible four-note "you just picked up something cool" anthem that's as synonymous with winning to me as those Price Is Right horns are with losing.

Happy 25th anniversary to Zelda, Link, and even Ganon.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Unknown, But Familiar

After being pleasantly surprised by the movie Taken, I was game to take a chance on this week's new Liam Neeson film, Unknown. It again casts the star as an action hero (though it seems a less "unlikely" choice now), a man whose identity is stolen from him while he's overseas in Germany.

I'll say first off that I did get what I was looking for out of this movie. Liam Neeson was once again a charismatic protagonist, and a believable butt-kicker. The film had several good action sequences, and a very intriguing premise.

There were some flaws with the movie too, however, and unfortunately, I don't think I can say too much more than "it seemed derivative" without being forced to give away big chunks of the plot. So if you don't want to be spoiled, please skip the next paragraph and head on to my conclusion.

Only us still here? Okay then. Essentially, this movie is The Bourne Identity. It does work on a lot of levels, and may still be worth seeing, but there are a lot of similarities -- the European setting, the intriguing and strong woman who befriends the hero along the way, and (I did warn you I was spoiling things here, people) the true nature of that hero. I was willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, as it's all based on a French novel, while my understanding is that The Bourne Identity film actually bears little similarity to the novel on which it's based. But nope, a little research reveals the French novel was published in 2003, while The Bourne Identity film was released one year earlier in 2002. Copied from the beginning, it seems?

Yet it's not like the film wasn't exciting, wasn't adventurous, wasn't everything you ask such a movie to deliver. So I think I'm going to rate it a B-. (That puts it just a touch below Taken, for those keeping track. But seriously, you're keeping track?) If you're an action junkie, it's probably one to catch in the theater. The rest of you might opt to wait for Netflix.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fair Chance

I recently watched a short made-for-HBO movie from a few years back called Taking Chance. It stars Kevin Bacon as a desk-posted marine who, upon seeing someone from his hometown show up on an Iraq casualty list, volunteers for a one-time mission to be the fallen marine's "escort." From plane to plane to hearse to funeral home, he must follow the remains and perform honors at every leg of the journey. The film is about the responses he receives from civilians as he crosses the United States on his journey.

It was a bit of an odd choice for me. While I'm very appreciative of those in the armed services, I'm indifferent at best to the pomp and ceremony of the both the military and, at times, funerals in general. This film puts all that front and center. And yet, it all managed to come off more affecting than affected.

A lot of that has to do with the performance of Kevin Bacon, who really does carry the movie alone. A number of other actors come and go, serving up good moments, but no one else has more than a few minutes of screen time. Without a solid actor in the main role here, you'd have no movie at all.

The movie is said to be based on a true story, adapted from the journal of an actual marine who lived the experience of the main character. Still, I found that to be incidental; you can imagine all sorts of stories just like this having happened all too many times in war, whether or not this particular version of it ever took place.

I'd give it a B, all told. It's all business, doing what it sets out to do in under 80 minutes, and doing a rather good job of it too.

Friday, February 18, 2011

C Is for Cookie!

I have never watched an episode of Top Chef before. I suppose technically, I still haven't. But I got a lot of laughs from this video. And I thought I didn't like Elmo all that much!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Bohn to Pick

Bohnanza is a fairly quick card game I've played many times over the years, but I've neglected to talk about it here. Time to remedy that. It's a fairly simple "collection" game where you're trying to gather as many beans of the same type as you can before harvesting them for points. Each time you take a turn, you have free reign to make trades with other players, trying to get cards that match the bean fields you have currently planted.

Two unusual twists make the game memorable. First, you are forced to reveal two cards from the top of the deck every turn. If you can't trade them away somehow, then you must plant them yourself. And with a limited number of bean fields (each field taking only one type at a time), you might be forced to harvest early to make room for beans you couldn't offload.

The second twist is the most unusual. The game is played with an ordered hand. You do not sort your cards; you must play them from in the order you drew them, one or two cards per turn. It's so alien a concept to card games that the game -- though otherwise rather simple -- becomes a bit difficult to teach to more casual gamers. But it is the diabolical grease that makes the whole machine go. See, you can trade any card out of your hand that another player is willing to accept. So knowing what "trouble cards" you have coming up, and in exactly what order, you can try to plan ahead accordingly.

It's a fairly enjoyable game, certainly for the short amount of time it takes to play. But at the same time, it can run a bit hot and cold. It can be easy for one or two players to fall behind. It's also quite easy for players to act the "kingmaker" by making trades to help one player in particular. It's a classic "try to stay in second place right until the very end" kind of game. In short, while there is some interesting innovation here, there are also a few very familiar problems that have plagued many other games before.

In all, I'd call it a decent "once in a while" game. It's particularly good to keep handy if the size of your group varies wildly -- by adding or removing certain cards to the deck, it can accommodate anywhere from three to seven players. Probably also a good "bridging" game to coax someone into the world of crazy-complicated German board games.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dead Wrong

On paper, it seemed like such a good idea. A "shooter" where you fight zombies... using a guitar controller. Rock of the Dead was released within a week of Rock Band 3, however, so there was absolutely no chance of me actually playing it at the time. Still, the appeal was undeniable. And they even sweetened the pot for geeks like me by having the lead character voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, and his girlfriend by Felicia Day -- a Dr. Horrible reunion!

Sadly, the "A" for concept scores far worse in execution. The graphics are fairly chinsy, the dialogue sub-Syfy Saturday Night Movie, and the soundtrack frustratingly repetitive. And yet I could probably still overlook most of that and somehow love the game at least a little...

Except that they messed up the interface too. Whenever "notes" are displayed on screen for you to play, instead of coming at you in a vertical arrangement, as in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, they appear horizontally. And it's not even like an actual staff of music either, as the lower notes are actually higher on the staff. Was this decision made to try and steer clear of some imagined potential lawsuit from the makers of Guitar Hero or Rock Band? I can think of no other reason to make such a change, other than major league stupidity.

This one unfortunate decision renders the game nearly unplayable. If you've played as much Rock Band as I have, then your brain simply can. Not. Read. This. Correctly. And if you haven't played enough Rock Band to be bothered by this? Well, this game pretty obviously has no appeal to you.

I played through about four levels of the game, fighting brain scramble every step of the way. (And bad audio/video sync too -- the calibration system for this game also sucks.) I felt like I had to justify the money I'd spent on the game by playing it for at least a little while. But after that one session, I put the disc back in its case, and I haven't brought myself to pull it back out since.

What a horrible waste of such a great idea! I'm not sure I can put a letter grade on this one, as I can't decide whether that concept should earn brownie points, or whether the crap game should be rated even more harshly for ruining it. So suffice it to say: do not buy this game. Not even used.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Tonight's installment of Glee did entertain me as usual, though it did feel to me like a weaker story where the actors had to do some extra heavy lifting to "get it there." It was definitely a made-to-describe-in-a-commercial premise: Sue joins the Glee club! But it turned out not to be nearly so sensational; she really just provided wordless reaction shots to songs like the rest of the gang, and then joined in a group finale that didn't actually showcase Jane Lynch singing.

Then of course, there was Bieber to contend with. I've now heard exactly two Justin Bieber songs, thanks to Glee. I don't resent the choices on principle; I just thought that both seemed like rather lackluster selections. The quartet in particular was really a perfect example of what I meant about the actors having to put some extra oomph into it.

I'm of a very mixed mind about the next song selection, "I Know What Boys Like" from one-hit wonders, The Waitresses. I've always hated that song because of the nasally, off-key vocals. And yet, as a character choice for Lauren, I have to admit, it worked. I'm definitely still enjoying the Puck-Lauren storyline.

On the opposite end of the song choice spectrum was "Take Me or Leave Me" from Rent, which completely failed as a selection to reflect on character or plot. A break-up song they should be singing to each other somehow appropriated for a diva-off? I didn't buy it, though I did think the performances were strong from Lea Michele and Amber Riley (as usual).

It was a pretty strong sprint to the finish from there, though. Santana delivered a monologue stuffed with more fantastic turns of phrase than most characters get in a whole season, and with it inserted herself into what I suppose is now a "love hexagon?" Ah, high school. And then there was the My Chemical Romance finale, which showcased the powerful group harmonies that have been key to some of the best Glee tunes. Not to mention the tantalizing notion that the Glee gang might actually sing an original song for Regionals? (Take that, Community!)

Overall, I'd say it averages out to a B-. Not Glee in its finest form, but still, Glee I'm happy to enjoy.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Dead Set -- For It

I hesitate to review a TV series that will be difficult for many of you to see. I hesitate even more because I'm giving it an endorsement. But hey... maybe you've got a connection in the UK or something.

The series I'm talking about is the six-episode mini called "The Dead Set." Unavailable on DVD in the States, it aired a while back on IFC in one glorious microburst. It has rather a lot in common with The Walking Dead, in that it's a zombie apocalypse tale told without sugar-coating any of the gross realities such a situation would bring, and taking advantage of the longer running length of several hours to build up some interesting characters.

It also has a wickedly funny and clever premise. The story revolves around the actual reality show Big Brother, in which contestants are forced to live together around the clock in a house wired with cameras. When the zombie infestation comes, these quarreling drama whores in their hermetically sealed environment are in an ideal situation to survive. But if they're primed to fight over nothing, how are they likely to do when there actually is "something" going on?

The Dead Set doesn't punch you in the gut as effectively as The Walking Dead, but that's not surprising, given the much more comedic premise. While this series isn't actually a comedy as such, it makes sure to collect every joke along the road, whereas the laughs on The Walking Dead are few and far between. I recognized none of the actors in the series, though each does a fine job of depicting their designated reality show archetype thrust into this supernatural situation.

I rate the mini-series a B, and certainly instruct horror enthusiasts to seek out any means they can to get hold of a copy. Perhaps that will take waiting around until next Halloween or something and keeping the DVR scouring IFC or BBC America. Perhaps you can find it online somewhere. In any case, it's an enjoyable zombie story.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hamlet Re-Redux

I've just spent the afternoon watching Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version of Hamlet. My entire afternoon. The film is just over four hours long, as Shakespeare's original text is presented completely uncut.

I suppose I understand the instinct to treat the text as sacred, but I feel that this is indulging that instinct too much. No one does Hamlet uncut. Not even the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's simply overwrought. On top of the lengthy, uncertain waffling over Hamlet's duties that forms the backbone of the drama (and which is left intact in most productions), the play is stuffed with odd flights of fancy, entire scenes where Hamlet trades verbal barbs with character after character, some appearing for only a single scene, and provided only enough personality to be skewered.

Branagh does assemble quite the cast to breathe life into the play, though. There are names you'd expect to see attached to a Shakespearean production, like Richard Attenborough, Julie Christie, Gérard Depardieu, Derek Jacobi, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, and Kate Winslet. There are actors I for one was a bit surprised to see, such as Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, and Robin Williams. There are, in fact, so many big actors lining up to be in the production that Judi Dench and John Gielgud appear without actually speaking a word.

Making a particularly strong impact are Brian Blessed as the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger. The former is a chilling and ominous force, the latter a truly funny bearer of wit and comic relief. Branagh, of course, takes the title role himself. There are moments where his performance is laser precise, but also moments where he chews up the scenery without anchoring his behavior in reality.

That scenery is exceptional, though. Brought forward to the 19th century and set in an actual palace, the film looks lavish and gorgeous. It is photographed in a way that showcases it well too, though at times the camera overindulges the desire to rotate quickly around the actors to convey a sense of urgency.

While you could take, say, nearly any 10 minute stretch of the film and praise it, the whole simply can't sustain itself when the audience must sit through that 24 times over. I'd rate it a B- overall. It's for the true Shakespeare fan that knows the story and has patience. I'd point the "uninitiated" to some other incarnation. (That BBC version I linked earlier, perhaps?)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Big Baby

I've been sick all week. And for a variety of reasons, I haven't able to look for sympathy in very many places.

First of all, it's the season for it. Lots of people I know have been getting sick. Some of them, seriously sick. A friend of mine is now recovering from actual pneumonia, that put him in the hospital last week for two nights. So can't really complain there.

Then there's my rather substantial number of friends with young children. You can never complain about a lack of quality sleep with that crowd. You just can't do it. Doubly so when most of the kids have been sick themselves lately.

Maybe more than anything, it's the fact that I'm pretty sure I'm being a wuss about it. I really don't get sick very often. Maybe once a year or even less, I think? So naturally, when I do, it feels like Death himself paying a visit. It's a stupid head cold with a mildly annoying cough, not consumption or typhoid or whatever. Can't even really give myself sympathy, see?

I'm going to go knock myself out with Nyquil and sleep until dusk tomorrow.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Day the Music Died

Two days ago, gaming mega-company Activision announced that they are discontinuing the Guitar Hero franchise. It's not really a surprise, given the insane way they milked the series with game after overlapping game, none ever capturing the magic of the first installments designed by the original developers, Harmonix. (Now makers of Rock Band.)

I personally haven't bought a Guitar Hero game since World Tour, more than two years (and half a dozen versions) ago. Still, it's the brand that started it all, and the one more people seem to recognize by name, despite the superior design of Rock Band. And given that games are my industry, it's never good news to hear about massive layoffs at a company.

I know how much fun I had playing those early games. I still remember my first Guitar Hero experience, followed by an insane scavenger hunt to find a store in town that actually had a copy in stock.

Here's hoping that the reduced competition, as well as the recent release of Harmonix back to being an independent company, means things will pick up for Rock Band, my game of choice.

Keep rockin'!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Doctor is In

A couple of years before putting together the brilliant BBC series Sherlock, co-creator Steven Moffat worked alone to write a modern take on another classic story by creating the mini-series Jekyll. And though it doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of the later work, it's still an incredibly strong, character driven piece of writing with an outstanding cast.

A key difference in the approach to Jekyll is that it is internally self-aware of its source material. Robert Louis Stevenson did write the classic novel in this world, and the characters are very much aware of its contents. The series also doesn't pander to the audience, knowing they too will have full knowledge of at least the rough concept of the original story; it wastes no time on explaining the relationship between the main character and his alter ego.

The cast includes a few people that sci-fi geeks will know from elsewhere. The doctor's assistant, Michelle Ryan, starred in the ill-fated redo of The Bionic Woman. Only two or three of the six episodes really give her a chance to shine, but it's enough to make clear that the failure of that other series had nothing to do with her. Appearing as a long time friend of the doctor is Denis Lawson, the reliable Rebel pilot Wedge from the classic Star Wars trilogy. Here he takes on a much darker role, and is quite entertaining.

But the entire series, naturally, depends on the skill of the actor playing the Jekyll and Hyde roles. James Nesbitt is simply amazing. He undergoes not only a radical behavioral transformation switching between parts, he even adopts a starkly different physicality. If you were to see any still frame of him from the series, you'd never question which role he was playing. Though he has appeared in a rather large number of British TV series, he's done no other work that I've seen come to the States -- a rather criminal overlooking of a really talented actor.

The first three episodes are a rock solid run through a tense story; the next two episodes weave in tantalizing backstory that deepens your appreciation for the writing. Unfortunately, the finale, while still good, doesn't quite pay off the entire series in top fashion. I'd still rate Jekyll an A- and give it my enthusiastic recommendation, but I'd also give a slight word of caution to anyone whose expectation might be justifiably high after watching Sherlock.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Trying Patient

I recently decided to check out 1996's Oscar-winning Best Picture, The English Patient.

There was a very funny episode of Seinfeld (ah, but weren't they all?) in which Elaine expressed her deep loathing for this movie. She broke up with her boyfriend over it. She found herself in constant conflict with people over her opinion. Trying to avoid an awkward situation with her boss, she claimed not to have seen it... only to have him immediately take her, forcing her to again endure its 162 tedious minutes.

I quite identify with her now.

Oscar voters often seem to have a way of reading scope as quality. If a movie is filled with sufficiently sweeping vistas, or has parallel echoing subplots, or is told out of chronological order, or is just plain long... this grandeur seems to be like catnip to Oscar voters. The English Patient has all of these things. So it's not altogether surprising that a movie like this would win the top prize.

The mystery to me is why anyone else would like it. It plods on for an eternity. The characters are all so stuffy and stilted, enchanted with words over deeds, that the film neither conveys or evokes any significant emotion. No film since Lawrence of Arabia has been so infatuated with depicting the desert that it comes off as more of a character than any of the actual people.

I can't even praise the acting in the film, though the cast boasts a number of fine people including Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Kristin Scott Thomas, Naveen Andrews, and Colin Firth. The writing and directing force an acting style so muted and repressed than none of the actors is given much opportunity to shine.

I have long held that the most undeserving Best Picture winner I'd ever seen was Gladiator -- a movie I despised, and an opinion that set me at odds with more than a few people. But I now crown a new "champion," and I suspect I'll find far fewer people who disagree with me on this film. This waste of time -- a great deal of time -- is an unmitigated F.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Silly Love Songs

I thought tonight's new episode of Glee was a touch better than the post-Super Bowl episode of two days ago. Both started off similarly light on music, but where Sunday crafted a stand-alone plot just for the duration of one episode, tonight spent the time pushing along some existing threads.

It's strange, because I'm not normally a "shipper" kind of fan of the shows I watch; I don't care much about "will they, won't they" relationships between characters. But the friction within what Mr. Recap called the pentagon of Finn-Rachel-Puck-Quinn-Sam did make for some interesting moments.

But most interesting were the moments outside those characters. The glimpse of Santana's softer side provided some nice rounding out of her character, while watching her go into full-on revenge mode later in the hour was a satisfying display of what we've come to expect from her.

The watching-a-train-wreck-in-slow-motion of Kurt's misconceptions about a relationship with Blaine seemed like it might travel a route too cliché. Wisely, the writing put the reveal of the truth rather early on in the episode, rather than setting up Kurt for the obvious disappointment at the last moment. Another strong moment of writing for his character actually had him lay it all out to Blaine near the end of the hour, when the easier thing to do would have been to keep his feelings to himself.

I didn't miss Sue this episode, in large part I think because the double (triple?) dose of her in the previous episode really demanded a breather afterward.

As for the songs, the performances seemed especially strong. Even though most weren't elaborately staged numbers, the lead vocals were solid, and well matched to the actors' voices. Puck and the boys gave a good version of "Fat-Bottomed Girls." Artie nailed his second Michael Jackson tune in one week. The Warblers served up their most elaborate song yet with "When I Get You Alone." (Their "Silly Love Songs" was also good, though probably their least dynamic vocal arrangement to date.) Rachel did her diva thing with "Firework."

But I almost want to say the best performance of the episode was Tina's "My Funny Valentine." Obviously, iTunes won't be selling the single. But her breakdown while singing the song was hilariously funny.

I rate this installment of Glee a B+.

Monday, February 07, 2011

That's Not True! That's Impossible!

It seems that the real MVP of the Super Bowl was the little six-year-old boy dressed as Darth Vader in the Volkswagen commercial that had everyone talking:

Personally, I don't see the big deal. Maybe it's because I'm so jaded about Star Wars at this point that it extends even to something like this. Maybe it's because I've haven't raised a six-year-old boy. I thought this commercial was basically a "whatever," and not a big one at that.

Then things went to the next level this morning, when the child actor, Max Page, was "unmasked" on The Today Show. This would have been another "whatever," until a writer at Entertainment Weekly magazine pointed out the kid's uncanny resemblance to Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself.

"No... I am your grandson."

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The Sue Sylvester Shuffle

It has occurred to me that all the television shows I used to gab about weekly here on the blog aren't around anymore. Something needs to step up and fill the void. And tonight's post-Super Bowl Glee episode made me realize what that show ought to be. I've been watching the series all along, and having watercooler-esque discussions about it with friends for most of that time. Why not make it "official?" So let's kick this off with Glee's most expensive episode ever, The Sue Sylvester Shuffle.

I'm of a mixed mind about this episode. After a two month wait since the last new episode of the show, I was really feeling Glee deprivation. And when this new episode kicked off, it didn't quite feel like authentic Glee to me. The writers found themselves in a tough position here: they had to make the most of their choice airing after the Super Bowl to try and attract even more viewers. But I felt like rather than their "best foot forward," they warped their formula to match what they imagined the sensibilities of drunken football fans might be.

At least, that's why I imagine the hour kicked off with an outrageously boobtastic rendition of "California Gurls." And why the first five minutes featured a Jackass-like stunt of shooting somebody out of a giant cannon. And why there was no true musical performance to speak of until 10 minutes in. And why, when the first song finally was performed, it was a country song. (Oh, I'm sure it's big, if you listen to that genre.) Aside from the Sue Sylvester quips -- which seemed a bit too over the top -- where's my Glee?

But then, slowly, the Glee I love started to poke its way through. The plot about the rivalry between glee club and the football team has been a long running thread. The solution to make them work together was a stretch, but the sort of "buy" that Glee typically asks its viewers to make in the name of getting where it's gotta go -- to a message of putting aside differences and working together.

Then came "She's Not There." Yeah, it was a non-plot driving choice inserted only because the name of the original band was The Zombies... but at least the performance of it was pretty strong. Now the momentum was starting to pick up.

Then came the Warblers' (in reality, the Tufts University Beelzebubs') a cappella take on "Bills, Bills, Bills." Again, no real connection to the plot, but as always, a song from the Warblers is the best thing about any Glee episode in which one appears. Frankly, I'm in no hurry to see Kurt come back to McKinley High School, so more of these gems can keep coming.

Finally, the climactic football game. More outrageous "buys" asked of the audience, but still very much in keeping with Glee. (And I'm willing to forgive a lot in exchange for them giving a big hero moment to the almost-never-featured Tina.)

At last, the moment hyped above all else: Thriller. Mashed up with some crappy Yeah Yeah Yeahs song. (As if there were another kind of Yeah Yeah Yeahs song.) I'd say on the Glee mash-up fluidity scale, this one ranked somewhere in the middle of the scale -- no natural "Don't Stand So Close To Me/Young Girl" but neither the you're-just-singing-a-couples-words-from-one-song-while-you-sing-another of "Start Me Up/Livin' on a Prayer." In their respective vocals, Artie and Santana both nailed their pieces of the mash-up well. The zombie makeup was awesome.

From there, it was a mostly feel good sprint to the finish, save for the odd Katie Couric cameo (but in turn saved by the great "Diane Sawyer" line). And a nice wrinkle for the longtime Glee fans to tease Quinn and Finn getting back together as we head into the Valentine's Day installment in two days.

I rate this installment a B. I might have wished for more personally, but then I do recognize that this particular installment of Glee was not aimed first and foremost at an existing fan like myself. If it gets more people inside the (already considerably large) tent, I have no argument.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Case of the Blues

As a fan of Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken, it seemed unavoidable that I should watch Biloxi Blues, the film adaptation of Neil Simon's play of the same name. It's the middle play of a trilogy centered on a semi-autobiographical character, and chronicles a young man's time in basic training to be shipped off to fight in World War II. This film version is directed by the acclaimed Mike Nichols, the script adapted by Neil Simon itself.

It comes off as a film with almost nothing to say, but which says it very well.

The movie doesn't feel like it has much in the way of a plot. It has a duration, contained in the weeks of army basic training, and it has many "episodes" along the way. But there's no one throughline to all the pieces, no grand culmination to which it all builds. The lead character keeps a diary, and the script often feels like unconnected pages read at random from that diary.

That said, any given piece of the film is quite entertaining. There are scenes to make you laugh, scenes to evoke sadness, awkward scenes, romantic scenes, scenes laced with tension. Matthew Broderick is as endearing a protagonist as ever. Christopher Walken serves up a nicely different take on an army boot camp officer, menacing and demoralizing without shouting at the top of his lungs. The supporting cast (some reprising roles they played in the original Broadway production) breathe convincing life into their characters.

If you don't mind a movie where the parts are somehow greater than the sum of those parts, then Biloxi Blues is well worth a look. I find I can look past the flaws enough to give it a B, though I feel like the movie could have been and done better.

Friday, February 04, 2011


My new job is on the other side of the interstate from downtown Denver "proper," although there's a handy little pedestrian bridge you can take to get over the highway. But this being Denver, it's not just a bridge. No, somebody had to offer up their entry in the "statue freakier than that demonic airport horse" contest. This 20-foot tall Lovecraftian ode sits at the far side of the bridge:

According to the plaque on the pedestal, it's called "National Velvet," but I think "Giant Pile of Intestines" would be more accurate. I suppose if you haven't recently watched a horror film, you might instead interpret as "Huge Stack of Water Balloons," though I'm not sure why you'd put up a sculpture of that either.

And just to up the ante, I'm told that at night, the statue glows from within with a pale light. So "Giant Pile of Radioactive Intestines," then.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A Stupid Concept

I recently decided to take a chance on the probably-not-going-to-be-very-good movie Idiocracy. My love of Office Space continues to earn writer-director Mike Judge a little goodwill every now and then, and this movie was the latest beneficiary.

As you'd expect, the movie is no Office Space (though it does include several of the same actors in its cast). And honestly, you spend too much of its slim 85 minutes not laughing. But when the laughs do come? Well, I have to confess, I found it fairly funny.

Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph star as modern day schmoes left abandoned in a government "deep freeze" project that sees them thawed out over 500 years in the future. And the future's so not bright, the two are easily the most intelligent people on the planet. Hilarity sometimes ensues.

There's a strange "meta" level to some of the humor. The movie is stuffed with quite a few truly juvenile jokes, but is winking at you while presenting them, thanks to the conceit of the movie. "See? Look how dumb this stuff is?" I don't claim this makes the movie profound, but it is humorously subversive about the sorts of things that tend to become popular in pop culture.

Perhaps that short run time is really as it should be. The movie gets in, delivers a few laughs, and then gets back out before it can wear out either its welcome or the fairly thin premise. I'd rate it a B-, which puts it about on par with another Mike Judge effort, Extract. If you like one, I'd wager you'll like the other.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Lost Re-view: Do No Harm

At last, we come to the moment teased by the Lost writers throughout the first season: the death of a main character. Promised by the show's writers... and yet this pivotal episode was written by Janet Tamaro, who never again worked on the show. Not sure what happened there. Calling the shots was regular director Stephen Williams. Interestingly, both this and his earlier episode were Jack-centric.

And speaking of Jack-centrism, it drove me more than a little nuts back in 2005 to be getting the third Jack episode in a season. In retrospect, Lost is Jack's story (if indeed it is any one person's story), so that's easier to understand. But more than that, it just makes sense for Lost's first major tale of life and death be centered around the doctor.

But before looking at the flashbacks, let me start with the on-Island story. The episode jumps right into the action, with Jack making a promise to Boone: "You are not gonna die. I'm gonna fix this. I am gonna save you." (There's a great callback to the pilot, with Hurley almost fainting -- but this time Jack snaps him out of it.)

Kate is sent on an errand to the beach, to fetch all the remaining alcohol from Sawyer's stash. It's worth noting that with a life on the line, Sawyer doesn't even consider playing games; he gives Kate everything she asks for without argument.

Back at the cave, Sun comes into her own, acting as an attending nurse. She not only assists Jack, but looks out for him. When Boone is at last somewhat stabilized, she forces Jack to step out for a moment for a break. She's then right there in the thick of it when Jack re-sets Boone's leg. (Here again, a great Hurley moment. His discomfort at hearing Boone's agony makes us all feel it more.)

Kate is rushing back to the cave, but comes upon Claire, alone in the jungle. Claire has gone into labor, but is steadfastly denying the fact. Fortunately, Jin also hears Claire's cries, and shows up on the scene. Kate dispatches him to the cave for Jack's help.

But things aren't going well for Jack. He can't find a way to fashion a needle fine enough to give Boone a blood transfusion, nor a donor with the needed A-negative blood. Sun comes to the rescue with a solution for the first problem: a sea urchin with spines fine enough for the task. Jack is forced to solve the second problem literally himself: his O-negative blood makes him a "universal donor."

He's still pouring his blood into Boone when Jin arrives with the news about Claire. Jin and Sun are forced to table their conflict long enough for her to act as interpreter. Jack cannot and will not leave Boone's side, so he tells Charlie all the information to relay to Kate so she can deliver the baby.

As all this drama unfolds, Shannon is oblivious to what has happened to her brother. She's enjoying a romantic picnic with Sayid. Setting herself up for a massive guilt trip less than 12 hours later, she tells Sayid that Boone's presence on the Island is going to make their relationship difficult.

Meanwhile, the transfusion has not worked. The blood is simply pooling in Boone's crushed leg, so Jack is ready to try a more desperate measure: amputation. Sun is horrified at the thought, and thinks Jack just won't face facts. She tells him he can't save Boone, and Jack shouts back: "Don't tell me what I can't do!" I'm sure this was a deliberate choice to have Jack echo Locke's signature line, but personally I just don't think it works. It cheapens both Jack and Locke just a bit to have them share dialogue like this without it actually meaning something specific.

Fortunately, some much better writing is going on with the Claire storyline. Her water breaks, and she panics. She won't have the baby here, and she starts to fight the delivery, much to Kate's horror. Claire is afraid the Others might have done something to the baby; she's still more afraid that it'll know somehow that she was going to give it away, that she didn't want it. Kate is just as scared simply at the prospect of having to perform the delivery under these conditions, but the two use their mutual fears to bond with one another.

Which gets us to the real meat of the episode. Yes, it's about a death. But it's also about life -- a birth. And it's the birth of Claire's child that plays a far more profound role in the overall narrative of Lost. This moment is revisited twice later in the series: first, when a time-hopping Sawyer witnesses it from just off in the jungle; later in the series finale as the "moment of awakening" for Kate and Claire.

It's a moment well worth revisiting, too. Evangeline Lilly and Emilie de Ravin both give outstanding, emotional performances. The only thing that tarnishes it for me -- slightly -- is that the later revisitings of this moment made me misremember that this scene was only about the two women. In fact, Jin and Charlie are present too, a bit off to the side. Charlie wants to charge in and do something, but Jin sagely holds him off. Their presence is a fun comic beat, but I prefer the slightly revisionist take that ignores their presence and has Kate and Claire alone for the arrival of the child they would both end up mothering.

Juxtaposed with the birth is Boone's death. Jack is about to go through with the amputation, when Boone regains consciousness and stops him. He knows he has no chance, and he releases Jack from his promise. He dies with an unfinished message for Shannon on his lips.

From there, composer Michael Giacchino takes over with a powerful piece of score for a wordless montage. Claire brings her baby to meet a happy throng on the beach, as Sayid and Shannon return from their date and Jack reveals the tragic news.

The final scene brings back dialogue as Kate approaches Jack to talk about Boone's death. But Jack isn't ready to talk, he's ready to track down John Locke and make him answer for what Jack sees as Boone's murder.

And if that were all, even despite a tiny misstep or two, this would be a grade A episode of Lost. One of the season's -- if not series' -- best. Unfortunately, it's not all. There are those Jack flashbacks to contend with.

As I said, I no longer resent focusing extra episodes on Jack as I did when this hour originally aired. And I completely see the logic of centering this flashback on Jack. The problem is, the resonance between the Island and the flashbacks simply does not work. The Island storyline is about Jack's inability to "let go." He fights against reason to save Boone, and is ultimately forced to confront a situation he can't fix.

The flashbacks, however, are about Jack's wedding. We see him trying on his tux with his best man. We hear Sarah, his wife-to-be (played sweetly by Julie Bowen, now star of Modern Family), tell a beautiful story about the car accident that threatened to leave her paralyzed, until Jack promised to "fix her," and did. We see Jack's father, Christian, come to him the night before to advise him about the writing of his vows.

It's that last scene that ham-fistedly attempts to make the flashbacks "fit." Counseling his son about his fears for the wedding, Christian tells him, "Commitment is what makes you tick, Jack. The problem is, you're just not good at letting go." Jack then takes that and crafts vows about learning to "let go," without it ever being clear what "letting go" has to do with getting married. The two concepts sound pretty antithetical to me. Even if you do buy into that notion, then the juxtaposition of the flashbacks and the Island story still fails -- Jack should have failed to learn the lesson in his past that he now is forced to confront on the Island. In other words, he probably should have left Sarah at the altar because he was unable to "let go," right?

Muddling the message even farther is an installment of the Lost "Missing Pieces" mobisodes that actually slides in during this episode. It's an extra flashback of the day before Jack's wedding, where his father gives him a watch that was given to him by his father. Matthew Fox and John Terry play the scene well, but it doesn't build on the relationship any better than the material already in this episode -- nor does it quite track with the "Jack's worried his Dad might not make it" timeline that's established here.

And come to think of it, muddled flashbacks might not be the only element bringing down this episode. It may also have been an insurmountable problem that the character they were killing off was Boone. We never really learned enough about him as a character to feel his loss ourselves, as we would later in the series for other, more powerful character deaths. We can see that the death matters to the characters, but the emotion is at a bit of a remove for the audience.

But on the strength of the Claire/Kate delivery, I'll call this episode a B+ overall. Still, I do feel like it could have been so much more.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A Bad Penny

I live in a largely "cash free society." I use credit cards for everything, and basically only need money for poker nights. But I didn't realize how successful I'd been in this cashless endeavor until a piece of junk mail arrived this past week.

The letter had a penny glued inside, visible through a little window. I was going to just toss the letter in the recycling, but figured I should fish the penny out. So I opened it up, pulled the penny off the paper...

And then thought I had a fake penny. The front looked right, but in place of the Lincoln Memorial on the back was this cartoonish looking shield. I was completely perplexed. Then I considered the fact that it was well after the whole "state quarter" program had been continued to territories that I actually saw quarters for places like Guam and American Samoa. Was it possible I'd missed a penny redesign?

Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. This new obverse design appeared on all 2010 pennies, but living in my cash free society, I'd made it all the way through the year without ever seeing one.

Pretty ugly, if you ask me.