Friday, May 29, 2009

Nobody's Going to Sell My Kid!

DVD via Redbox

For a proud and unapologetic representative of that genre of action movies whose entire casts, plots, complications, and resolutions can be easily extrapolated from their 30-second TV spots, Taken is about twice as good as it has any business being. A lot of its charm is in how it doesn't have any higher ambitions -- compared to say, Vantage Point it has absolutely no new ideas, but it's way more effective a film because it doesn't repeat itself or run any scenes longer than they have to go. It also has the distinction of being a nearly two-hour movie that feels like it whips by faster than a twenty-minute "American Dad" episode.

Most of the credit for that belongs to Liam Neeson, who's on camera or heard in a voiceover for almost every single second. Maggie Grace also deserves a mention, for being almost totally unrecognizable from her "Lost" role and for being lovable enough in her few minutes of setup screen time to make you understand why daddy Neeson goes completely berserk when sketchy Albanians nab her off the streets of Paris. Director Pierre Morel adopts the perspective of Neeson's Bryan Mills from the first -- there are no ethical dilemmas whatsoever in Taken. That's the appeal of Neeson's performance as he becomes the scourge of the French underworld. You see movie parents plead that they will do anything to protect their children, but few have ever walked the walk like Bryan Mills. Essentially living in a world with two people in it, exactly one of whose life he values, the concept of collateral damage doesn't trouble this guy for even a second.

This whole film reminded me in plot of Tony Scott's underrated Man on Fire, with Neeson in the Denzel Washington role and Grace as Dakota Fanning. Only Taken utterly removes the self-doubt and haunted memories with which Denzel invested his action antihero. Neeson's pulse rate never raises as he electrocutes lowlifes, hotwires cars, performs field surgery on drug-addled Euro-prostitutes, and stalks into rooms full of murderous gangbangers unarmed. He's force personified, Jack Bauer without even a president to whom he answers. Very few actors could do this sort of thing anywhere near this believably. Neeson knows that the trick is not to never show emotion, but rather only to show emotion during the brief times his superagent can afford to do so without getting himself killed. He's so professional he even schedules in little grief interludes, I bet, in between hiring Albanian translators and exacting revenge on the predictably duplicitous French Kevin Spacey. (Not the actual Spacey affecting an accent but the actually French Olivier Rabourdin channeling.)

I doubt you'll remember much if anything about it two days after but if you like one-man army action movies (and have already seen Man on Fire, which will stay with you much longer) you could do worse.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Lost" Flashbacks #1

DVD from the collection

Doc Jensen's ongoing insider coverage/highly speculative philosophy section on "Lost" at Entertainment Weekly's website is something you absolutely have to have bookmarked, if you watch the show at all. Jensen is if anything a little too good; no one as accredited is attempting anything similar. The amateur, hobbyist "Lost" stuff on the web is a rabbit hole I've barely even poked with a stick. Most of that stuff tends to make my eyes roll back in my head. But Jensen is a lucid writer who's getting paid to research this stuff thoroughly, and the cell phone numbers of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. If there was going to be an authorized guide like they have for "Buffy" and "TNG," he would be the only guy to write it.

The most exciting thing I've read in a Jensen column of late is that Cuse and Lindelof, having self-consciously structured the fifth season to parallel the second, are going to follow through and have the sixth and final year of "Lost" act as spiritual companion to the first. That's all very Moebius and Kerberos, and very "Lost." But it also means that the sixth season will focus anew on character after two very densely plotted years, and it means that during the long wait for new episodes there's a fine excuse for revisiting the first season. I think it's been topped since (by the gung-ho, shock-a-minute fourth season and the utterly fascinating fifth season, which rewrote the rules and possibilities for the show on a commercial break-to-commercial break basis) but the first season remains the sentimental favorite for most fans. The bulk of those fans got to experience the first season on DVD, racing through in as close to real time as their sleep and work schedules would allow. That made it the most visceral experience, and it wasn't for a long time that the show managed to get that feel back, as I've written during the fifth season.

So I'm watching season one episodes again, both in linear fashion with some friends who are new to the world, and randomly and out of context by myself. Here's a fascinating illustration of how the richness of the "Lost" universe builds upon itself and makes the old episodes resonate differently with the added experience and information of the new ones. In "Whatever the Case May Be," the B-plot concerns Sayid enlisting Shannon's help to translate some French documents he stole from Rousseau. Shannon is more interested in tanning, but Sayid persuades her: "You're the only person on this island who speaks French."

Well, this is obviously wrong on the face of it. Even Sayid knows that: Rousseau at this point is still quite alive. He doesn't mean it literally, he's just trying to appeal to the dense Shannon's sense of survivor camaraderie. Probably not the right tack for her character, by the by. And ultimately the only good that comes of the project is getting to hear Maggie Grace's lovely singing voice. But I've seen the episode already, so after that line I spent the whole of it thinking about what the literal answer to Sayid's implied question is. Day and date (it would be October 13, 2004), how many people on the island were present and alive who were at least high school-level French speakers?

We know two for sure: Shannon and Rousseau. We also know that a certain number cannot be determined from the information we have from all of the episodes aired in the five seasons to date. Sayid knows that Shannon speaks a little French because they were together in the group that went to take the radio transmitter to higher ground, in the second part of the pilot. So the only people Sayid knows for sure aren't Francophones are the rest of the group with whom he and Shannon made that expedition: Charlie, Boone, Sawyer, and Kate. I think it is fairly safe to assume that Sayid made his rounds before approaching Shannon, asking everyone he could find around the camp that wasn't on the radio expedition. That eliminates some of the more educated types who might be likely suspects: Jack, Rose, maybe Michael. Let's just assume that among the main body of the Oceanic 815 survivors, the group on the beach and Jack's group at the caves, Sayid checked with everybody and indeed Shannon was the only French speaker.

That does leave one living exception however: Claire. At this point she had been kidnapped by the Others (curious about her pregnancy, later episodes revealed she was having medical tests performed by Juliet, Ethan, and others). Another, later episode still revealed definitively that the station where these experiments were performed was indeed the same island (and not the Hydra Island of Season 3). As an Australian, Claire was slightly more likely than the average American to have taken French in high school as opposed to Spanish. So she's a possibility, although not a very strong one. So are her captors -- Juliet might speak French, for all we know. Ethan claimed at one point to be a Canadian, which could be in a sense true. We know now he was born on the island, but he would have to have left before Ben's purge and returned later, not all that uncommon a phenomenon. Maybe he and his parents lived in Canada after leaving Dharma. If so, he would be a likely candidate to have taken some French classes.

Then there's the main body of Others, as of this time living in the Dharma barracks. I think the most obvious third person on the island past Shannon and Rousseau would be Ben, who has a genius intellect and a drawer full of fake international passports. Then you've got Mr. Friendly, Karl, Ms. Klugh, Alex (wouldn't it be just like Ben to kidnap Rousseau's daughter and then teach her her mother's language), the wife of the guy Juliet was having the affair with, and at least a dozen others. No way of knowing really if some of those Others killed by Eko, or Sayid's trap at the end of season three, were French speakers or even native Frenchmen. The indestructible Russian guy (Bakunin) would have been at his post near the sonic fence -- that's a possibility. Another Other was infiltrating Bernard and Ana Lucia's group, the Tailies. That's the biggest group of unknowns for our purposes. A whole bunch of Tailies were wiped out without us ever having gotten to know a thing about them, but at this point, 22 days after the crash, their numbers were stronger than they would later be.

Mr. Eko would be another possibility -- if he were a Catholic priest. However, English is the colonial language of Nigeria, and some research reveals that among the Yoruba (the tribe of both Eko and the actor who portrayed him, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) most Christian converts are Anglicans. This would scan with Eko's serving as a priest in both England and Australia. So it's pretty unlikely. Probably not Ana Lucia, either. Maybe Bernard -- he was a dentist, so he went to college. A stronger candidate possibly is Goodwin, the Other who was embedded with the tail section survivors (and Juliet's onetime lover). We don't know very much about him, but in his two appearances he's seemed like a cultured guy.

So we've gone through the three major groups on the island, even if all we've really learned is how much still we don't know. Any individuals we are forgetting? Well, there's Desmond, pressing the button in the hatch still at this point. A Scot, he may well have taken French lessons in high school or in the service. That leaves Jacob. Was he technically alive? Well, he can be killed, so he must have been. But is he entirely beyond concepts like language? It hurts my head to think about. Oh, and musn't forget Dr. Pierre Chang. No doubt he speaks French! But was he alive on the island in 2004? We don't know 100% for certain that he wasn't, and we've seen him on film so many times in the "present" timeline that he sure seems alive then.

So I don't how useful an exercise that was really, vis a vis improving our understanding of "Lost." But look at all the browser windows I have open now. Episode summaries and cast lists for episodes from the first, second, and fourth seasons. IMDb credits summaries for Maggie Grace, AAA, and "Goodwin." Wikipedia pages about Nigerian language and religion. And the stuff I learned! The lyrics from "Le Mer" are different from the lyrics to "Beyond the Sea," not just a translation. And this bit, from the Lostpedia Goodwin Stanhope page, simply needs to be replicated in full, just to give a little bit of the insane, Kafka-like depths of the "Lost" obsession:
In 1969, a woman named Mrs. Goodwin called famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack's radio program. As he had her on the line, Wolfman Jack jokingly accused Mrs. Goodwin of making strange noises. She blamed the television, saying it was the program "The New People", a short-lived ABC series about a group of young people who crash-land on a mysterious, uninhabited Pacific island.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How Adam Went Down

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

I hardly think I'm alone in feeling all of the excitement leak right out of this just-concluded "American Idol" season with the ejection of Allison Iraheta. Nothing really stood out in the last two episodes other than how terrible Kara's song for the finals was and how utterly immaterial to the end result all of the performances in those last two shows were. Like plenty of others, I got caught up in bottom three finishes and forgot about the practical mechanics of the voting. How could we all have overlooked the obvious? The bloc that had been voting for Danny Gokey loyally since the semifinals, literally tens of millions strong, wasn't going to go over to Adam Lambert en masse. Lambert would have had to be more than twice as popular as Kris Allen to survive the bulk of Gokey's support going to the family values-friendly Allen.

But anyway, for completion's sake, here's my comments on the performances from the last two shows of the worst season since I jumped on board the bandwagon.

Final 3

Danny Gokey #1 It's not fair how they pick a different judge to pick a song for each contestant every year in or around the second-to-last episode. It would be more fun if each judge got their own whole show. The Paula Abdul episode would be completely psychedelic and bizarre, the Simon episode would have everybody second-guessing his underlying motives, and the Randy episode could just be like a big ol' Journey reunion party. Kara didn't get a pick this year and won't have to worry about getting her own whole show next season; I'm almost completely certain she won't be back next year since she sucks and everybody hates her (and she has absolutely no credibility as a judge given her artless, mercenary outlook on music). Danny was hamstrung by the fact that he drew the short straw and had pill-popping Paula picking for him. "Dance Little Sister" was a poor choice for Gokey, although it's hard to see given his limitations what exactly he could have done that would have made us see him in a new light. Danny gave his best effort every time out, which is more than you can say for many others. He was always positive and enthusiastic and seemingly a supportive friend to the other contestants. But his song here sounded like the bulk of his others, strained rather than soulful, utterly commercially irrelevant. Even though he was shouting until he was blue in the face the backing singers still blew him away with volume and sustain. I'm genuinely angry that we were denied the opportunity to hear Allison sing twice more for this snoozefest. 6

Kris Allen #1 Randy, whose entire bank of knowledge about current music seems to come from listening to American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest, picked a dreary sort of no-balls white boy piano plinking song for Kris. Way to really go out on a limb there, Mr. Jackson. In a weird way, it ended up working out for the best for Kris. Because his second number of the show was one of the more original things Allen did all season, it burst even more out of the speakers after the dead weight he was saddled with first time out. Even though it was a dud of a song Kris did sing it expressively and he erred more towards his raw side than the low-wattage slickness he can affect at times. And it had been a while since we'd see him play the piano, which he does competently -- he was the most versatile musician of the season, which seems to matter a lot. David Cook and his average lefty guitar is now the template for the modern "Idol" champ. Allen was pretty clearly a level higher than Danny this round, although that's hardly news. 7

Adam Lambert #1 Adam was the producers' and the judges' favorite, for all the good it did him. With Paula picking something totally nonsensically for Danny and Randy exerting precisely no effort or imagination in his assignment for Kris, Adam was winner by TKO before he even sang a note. Simon picked "One," the best song from the best U2 album, and it was a pretty genius choice. Awesome, indestructible song no matter who's singing it, but Adam really put his stamp on it. He adroitly arranged the song so that it got right to the part most in his comfort zone, the gospel "Love is a temple/love a higher law" section, and that one bit was wonderfully goosebump-inducing. As a whole though, it wasn't Adam at his triple-A best. The verse was less perfectly sung than he's capable of and the lighting and style needlessly tried to echo his "Mad World" triumph (which he repeated yet again in the finale). Average Adam but the winner of the round by a length or two I believe. 8

Danny Gokey #2 Danny never seemed quite to get the need to package himself as a specific kind of artist, one that fits into an established current radio format and can easily be compared to two or three universally known others. Rather he picked songs he liked when he had the freedom to do so, ranging from Mariah Carey tunes to in this instance the wizened old chestnut "You Are So Beautiful to Me." One from the heart for sure, Danny, and the first time he'd risked an outright dedication to his still dead wife in ages. But Danny has a big weakness that he did a remarkable job of minimizing throughout the season. When he's not shouting, he sounds really crummy. His ability to hold some semblance of pitch while wailing away with his head voice by itself is impressive, but more of a lucky gift than a developed musical skill. He didn't shout the first half of "So Beautiful," by necessity, and it was quite forgettable. When he inevitably arrived at the yelling section matters improved, but overall it wasn't a winner. He blew the final note, too. 7

Kris Allen #2 In the final estimation, this was probably the performance that clinched Allen the crown, the water-cooler moment of this show, the one that likely got swing voters over to his side rather than Danny's, and the one that gave him the momentum to win. It wasn't as good as all that, but by the standards of this show -- this season anyway -- Allen's catchy, rhythmically aware solo guitar approach to Kanye West's "Heartless" was a breakthrough. If as a consequence there are scads of dippy Jason Mraz frat-folk-rap tracks on his debut album, I think it wasn't worth the cost. Pecking-order wise I felt at the time he was obviously better than Danny and just as clearly inferior to Adam. 8

Adam Lambert #2 I don't even like the 90's, outside songwriter-dependent, Armageddon soundtrack, Alicia Silverstone video version of Aerosmith, but I was hooting and hollering during Adam's "Cryin'." It was a brilliant choice for his style, a song meant to be crooned in a powerful and flamboyant fashion but with an original sufficiently removed in style from Adam's. Bombastic and indeed campy in the best sense of both worlds. Perhaps Adam felt a little bit too much as if he had already won going into these final two shows, as he didn't as much raise the ante as continue to maintain a high level while dialing up his swagger even further. He should have brought more steak and less sizzle, in retrospect. Still, I felt like he was coasting towards a deserved win at this point. 9

It was totally obvious to me that Danny was the loser of this night, and evidently the voters felt so as well. We didn't see eye to eye the next time out, and that will be the subject of our next post.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Set the Thermostat to "Evil"

Showtime via DVR

I feel almost embarrassed to still be a hopeless horror movie addict in 2009; the genre has been in a precipitous decline since the early 80's. Many factors, related and unrelated, have dragged the scare flick down -- CGI, those accursed Avid machines, video games, Paul W.S. Anderson, Nine Inch Nails, the MPAA, The Blair Witch Project -- but I think what's really done horror films in is the slight drop in the median age to which they are nowadays targeted. Even so recently as when I was in high school, the "R" rating still meant something. The local video store wouldn't rent them to kids, the theaters checked ID, and my parents quite carefully set up our cable lineup so we didn't get the really juicy channels. So for the sake of appearances at least, the horror movies of the 80's and (especially) the 70's were given adult (meaning grown-up, not pornographic) themes and satirical twists. I mean, say what you will about the meandering narratives and lo-fi effects of Dawn of the Dead or Scanners or Re-Animator, all of those movies had points to make, about commercialism, paranoia, the nature of death and loss, so on and so forth. I mean, mostly they were about guts being ripped out and heads exploding, but there was a little depth involved.

Nowadays thanks to automatic movie rental kiosks, the Internet, digital cable, satellite and everything else, there's no use in trying to keep your 14-year-old from seeing My Bloody Valentine 3D if he sets his mind to it. In trying to make their films appeal centrally to teenagers instead of twentysomethings, horror moviemakers have sucked the marrow out of the genre. Gore movies -- "horror" hardly enters into it, and perhaps significantly (in this godless modern age) the supernatural has become a far less common plot element -- are more mechanical than scary. If you're a rich American, to whom would you go if you wanted to torture some co-eds to death? What's the best way to remove the top part of someone's face from the bottom using only remaindered dental equipment? How will Elisha Cuthbert react if you lock her in a cage for two hours? These aren't really deep questions. What anyone's motivation might be for doing these repulsive things, no one considers.

Thank heavens for Stephen King. Not because it's always a good idea to make movies from his stories, even though Hollywood sure thinks it is. The range of filmed adaptations of his work stretches from stone-cold pantheon classics (Shining, Carrie, obviously Shawshank though it's not horror) to disasters that are so bad and so detached from the source material that they're kind of hilarious (the dreadful TV "Stand" miniseries, the film of Maximum Overdrive that King himself directed). But King absolutely never starts rolling a page into his typewriter until he has some kind of relevant hook, some kind of real-world comment that he can make by blowing something we can all relate to into massively overblown proportions. In fact, King's worst potboilers usually occur when he comes up with a great premise and then kind of gets lazy. Dreamcatcher was a terrible book and a worse movie, but buried in the novel's narrative was some of the author's most incisive, personal writing (his lead character in that book suffered the precise sort of car accident that King himself did famously several years ago). And he's written a bunch like Cellular or Thinner where the premise is so perfect that the actual reading of the book is kind of anticlimactic -- Stephen King is the best hardcover inner-sleeve note writer in the history of literature.

1408 is a terrific King adaptation, the best in years, in no small part because the plot is for King pretty trite and unoriginal. John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a professional haunted-hotel debunker who finally catches a live one. There's nothing technical about the storytelling that you haven't seen a zillion times before. There's Vertigo double-pan shots where hallways get way longer than they were originally; Ringu-like ghosts that look like bad TV reception; even a good old-fashioned blood fountain or two. But these proven devices are scary in 1408 while they would just be interesting or momentarily kinda neat in a less intelligently made film. That's because the movie takes an unusually long time with its setup. By the time the door slams shut and Cusack is alone in Room 1408 of New York City's Dolphin Hotel, we've seen a series of unhurried scenes that establish his character's psychological state. We think we know what his weaknesses are, and that makes the anticipation while we're waiting to see what awful thing the room is going to subject him to next suspenseful. "Suspense" and "horror" used to be two sides of the same coin, before George A. Romero, before "suspense" movies meant somebody like Jeremy Irons furrowing his brow a lot and "horror" meant entrails, entrails, entrails.

King is working with themes he knows and loves here: the nature and process of writers, the effect of a child's death on the surviving family, the terrible burden of potential. This last is particularly interesting because in Cusack, 1408 director Mikael Håfström has picked an actor who's on exactly the same wavelength as King's character. Cusack loves playing guys whose charm and natural ease are their worst enemies, passive types who get much of what they want without trying and consequently never learn to try. Rob in High Fidelity, Martin in Grosse Pointe Blank, even Buck Weaver in Eight Men Out -- guys who grew old, miserable, and bitter without ever taking any responsibility for their own happiness. Cusack is a master at projecting his characters' flaws onto those he interacts with through his peevishness, condescension, and sarcasm. What's fascinating about 1408 is that except for a few brief scenes with Sam Jackson, for the most part his foil in this film isn't a person but a set.

And what a set it is! Room 1408 at the Dolphin has the most personality of any horror set I've seen since the first (and best) half-hour of Evil Dead 2. Cleverly, it communicates through universally recognizable hotel room inconveniences -- unfamiliar radio stations, robotically uncaring disembodied front desk voices on the phone, annoying unspecified noises from the next room over, inconsistent wireless Internet signals. The next time I get a hotel room, I'm covering all the tacky art nailed to the walls with towels before going to sleep.

It's a one-man show to a rare degree for a mid-budget studio picture, which is a good thing -- Cusack can get lazy sometimes, and you've rarely seen him this physical or ambiguously shaded. The bit players are well-chosen for what it's worth. Jackson obviously cashes checks and snaps necks in his five minutes of screen time. Mary McCormack and Jasmine Jessica Anthony are effective in their tricky, underexposed roles as Enslin's estranged wife and deceased daughter. Tony Shalhoub has a cameo as the opposite of his "Monk" character, the levelheaded superior who has to keep the high-strung Enslin functional and happy. Keep your eyes peeled for Senator Gray Davis from "The Wire" as the hotel handyman who won't cross the threshold of Enslin's room. "Sheeeeeee-itttt, Lloyd Dobler, you can fix the heat your damn self."

Like most ghost stories, 1408 has some plot holes bigger than the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Some of this stuff I guess you can chalk up to the tricky task of making a short story into a feature-length film. Lke why does Enslin go for his cell phone and his laptop only after climbing out on a ledge 13 stories high in an attempt to escape? The director recycles a couple of apparitions enough times that we think there's some kind of logic to their appearance, but then as the film goes on (particularly after the obligatory False Dawn) the rules start to get distractingly blurry. There's one random monster Enslin encounters in the heating duct that seems imported from a totally different movie, partly because we actually get to see it full-on for a moment -- what you can't see clearly is always way scarier, and this movie studiously avoids full-blown protracted gore. Also, Håfström occasionally cuts out of Enslin's perspective during hallucinations -- one minute he'll imagine himself with his hands around Jackson's throat, and the next he'll be beating the stuffing out of the hotel minibar. I don't think this is the right choice. For us to feel the fear, pressure, and panic Enslin is feeling, we shouldn't be released from his reality at all. Also, nearly everything else that happens suggests that whatever is happening in the room is, in fact, happening -- Enslin may have been transported physically to another dimension, but although the rules of physics and death don't work the same there, at least it's pretty safe to assume from what we're shown that if there was another person in the room at the same time, they would see/experience exactly the same things. Thus, the perspective the camera is showing during these few misguided shots is invalid. Go, film theory!

Not so much a plot hole as a deliberate stylistic choice, no explanation is given for what makes the evil hotel room evil. Jackson doesn't have a speech about the hotel's founder being Aleister Crowley's lover or the Illuminati instilling the bathroom fixtures with the essence of Cthulu. This is the right decision though, because 1408's conclusion is about the restoration of Mike Enslin's faith. If you've read your Oolon Colluphid, you know proof denies faith.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Those Bitches Tried to Cheat Me

Fox via DVR

What the hell, Fox? What the hell! First, Kris Allen over Adam Lambert -- well, more about that later. But for now, let me say simply that I disagree. But also this thing with not one but two of your top-rated dramas teasing long-awaited consummations in or around their season finales and then BOTH of them revealing that the sex acts in questions were really lame "Newhart"-like fakeouts. Shenanigans!

First, "House." It was a weird season that spun around like a top from one group of supporting characters to another. Wilson left for a bit and they brought Michael Weston in as a private eye who was House's replacement sidekick, sort of. They should bring Weston back. While this was going on Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) was getting way more screen time than Taub (Peter Jacobsen) and Kutner (Kal Penn). Much of this involved the development of a relationship between Thirteen and Foreman, which seemed distracting and sensationalistic at the first. As the season went on Wilson came back (in an uproarious road episode) and Taub began to emerge as a worthy foil for House. Thirteen and Foreman backed off a bit, and the new major concern became Cuddy's burning desire for motherhood. Wandering around in the abyss, grabbing a scene apiece an episode, Cameron and Chase consoled themselves with the knowledge that they were far and away the two best-looking people at the hospital.

Before ever having much of a chance to make an impression as a living character, Kal Penn's Kutner left the show suddenly, in the first act of an episode discovered as a suicide. This followed fake-outs for both Taub (might take a better job) and Thirteen (could die at any moment). This definitely helped the series regain some of the momentum it had lost doodling around with the new supporting cast dynamic. "House" hardly neglects its title character; Hugh Laurie gets to pillage, burn, and salt scenery like five times an hour. But it did seem as if he was in a bit of a holding pattern -- having not processed, despite Wilson's prompting, his role in the Season 4 death of Amber (Anne Dudek). Amber's ghost randomly showed up to haunt House as this season began to race to the finish; Dudek's return had some nice visual punchlines but wasn't entirely necessary. (They did manage to shoot one insert for the big reveal in the finale before Kal Penn left, hooray!)

So... all of this bricklaying for serious dramatic movement forward feels wasted now, because for all of its narrative sleight-of-hand (see: one where he got shot, bus crash one, one where he tells the med school class the story of his leg and two others) "House" had never before stooped to the "it was all a dream," whoopee cushion mislead to this degree. In this case it wasn't a dream precisely but rather a drug-induced hallucination. Still, not fair, and the writers will have a lot of work to do next season to pay back this decision. Spoiler alert: For one whole week, we were allowed to believe House and Cuddy had relations carnal. One whole week and 9/10 of an episode! But no, drug-induced hallucination. Super lame. And one stupid pre-wedding jitters subplot and a short wedding montage aren't nearly enough Cameron and Chase, still. Next season better be, like, all patients who die unless enough hot people are around.

I'm not quite as mad at "Bones," even though they used a way lamer cliché still -- the coma fantasy! At least Hart Hanson, the procedural's creator and writer of the Season 4 finale, didn't let his audience believe for a whole week that his hero and heroine had finally worked their interpersonal issues out to their logical conclusion. (Well, sort of. The teaser for this episode shown at the end of the one the week before suggested than Booth and Brennan were going to sleep together, for reals. But it wasn't for reals, it was a coma fantasy.) Instead, he had fun using his whole expanded cast (with all the different recurring lab assistants) in radically different roles as Booth dreamt about a reality where he and Brennan were married club owners. As a mystery, it was subpar for the show's standards, because the characters had to solve it from nonexpert roles. And the sets and some of the acting suggested a "Saved by the Bell" dream sequence. That's OK, it's a light, fun show. I maybe wouldn't have done it as a finale, and I wouldn't have pumped it up (heh heh) as The One Where They Do It.

What both finales had in common, besides being massively disappointing, is that they both upped the ante despite not coming through all the way (heh heh heh). On "House," House's delusion and his public disclosure of it have forced him into rehab -- which won't be complete until he and Cuddy have maturely addressed the tensions that led to this conflagration in the first place. As for "Bones," Booth and Brennan have been inching ever forward towards couplehood for some time now, with the episode just a week before addressing the possibility of their becoming parents together. And Booth's brush with death is the likely sort of precipitating event that will lead him to explore further the feelings he discussed in that one with Stewie Griffin. Yes, exactly.

"Bones" has always been -- or nearly almost always -- a light, vaguely goofy show, where the grotesque nature of the crimes investigated contrasts with the good humor of the two leads and the evolving supporting cast (strengthened this season with a full year of John Francis Daley and those interns). "House" is more serious, more grown-up. It's also funnier, but that's probably in no small part because it's more serious and grown-up. But I forgive "Bones" for a silly cheat, particularly since they made it clear it wasn't real right out at the front of the episode and they went on to feature both Mötley Crüe and Daley's precious indie rock band. I'm genuinely mad at the "House" writers, who owed us a better device for such a major event in their fascinating subject's life. Too bad Kal Penn was too busy saving the world.

Sort of Like How the Map Is Not the Territory

DVD via DVDPlay

Oliver Stone: I've seen nearly all of his movies and I've enjoyed almost none of them. Natural Born Killers is overrated and outshined by a number of similar films from the same time period; Platoon has exactly the same problems. JFK was boring and The Doors was tone-deaf. Alexander was a travesty, a meandering pointless movie with no memorable roles about one of the most interesting people in history. Wall Street is the one film of his I'd rank as a classic. Nixon was OK.

I'm not exactly sure what Stone was up to with W. Other Bush-hating filmmakers got to the party much earlier and with far sharper knives. The idea of an instant biopic is sort of intriguing, but ultimately there isn't enough historical distance to take anything like an accurate inquiry into the character of the real Bush. Will Ferrell's Bush is more convincing than Josh Brolin's, but that's not really the reason W. doesn't work. I think on purpose Stone avoids using anyone who looks even remotely like their character -- James Cromwell is so massively qualitatively different from George H.W. Bush in voice, appearance, and presence that the mind simply refuses to accept that's who he's playing, and Elizabeth Banks is a fair bit too sexy for Laura Bush -- because the director wishes to make you think about Bush the man rather than Bush the punchline, the soundbite. I get that, and I get how the noticeable usage of snippets of real Bushspeak (and his infamous nicknames for all of his inner circle members) are punched into the script to tie the revisualized cast to their real-world figures.

It doesn't work, though. Because it's going to be many years until all of the involved (guilty?) parties all finish their speaking tours and publish their memoirs, merely skimming from speeches and interview clips doesn't get the real measure of the man. W. takes George W. Bush's status as a born-again Christian seriously, but it also notes how his faith made him a more attractive political candidate in a sophisticated and even-handed way. It has a more nuanced approach to what some might call his birthright -- the film's Bush isn't handed everything he ever gets, exactly. It's more that he was raised from birth to hone a very particular skillset, one that makes it easy for him to repeatedly convince rich white people to give him money. In an early scene as a frat pledge at Yale, he already knows the name of every blueblood upperclassman who's hazing him. It's his business to know this stuff -- the business of those having the means to power handing the reins in an aboveground democratic way to their offspring.

Stone is good at showing events, as he always has been, but has difficulty rounding out his characters. Here there isn't an appropriate cinema ending for his hero/villain, so he and his screenwriter graft on a rather tired and false-sounding running thread involving W.'s deeply insecure relationship with his father. Here, they might as well be doing Trey Parker and Matt Stone's mercifully short-lived "That's My Bush!". That conceptually fascinating (but also truly unfunny) comedy took actors and actresses who looked like White House main players (more so than the ensemble in Stone's film) and grafted their likenesses, names, and props to a deliberately formulaic bad-neighbors sitcom. A strange idea, but in effect no different than what Stone has here, which is a film about characters who have the same names as the Bushes but have little to relation to the living humans themselves. I don't think the real George W. Bush is wracked with self-doubt about his decisions as president -- and that's way more interesting to me psychologically than some half-baked Joss Whedon plot about daddy issues.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Most Movies Boil Down to a Boy, a Girl, and a Planet-Destroying Romulan Space Drill

Star Trek
In the theater

The Research Department and I are going to do a much wider-ranger "Trek" think piece some time this week, since the franchise evidently has new life. But before we did that, I wanted to get my own thoughts about the new "reboot" across. It's a genuinely weird feeling. I'm glad that people are excited about "Star Trek" again. But I was baffled by the new film, which barely seemed acquainted with "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine." What does it say that among my people, the high point of Star Trek was the throwaway reference to Admiral Archer's beagle?

Much of the new movie is prevented from taking off because of what Ebert cunningly calls the weight of "narrative housekeeping," explaining why it is that we have a slightly different-looking Enterprise with a more assertive Uhura, cuter Chekov, and now both New Spock and Spock Classic. And I accept this -- the box office numbers seem to bear out that I was totally wrong and people really do want to see these same old characters again. That's what most folks apparently want out of "Star Trek," as wrong as it feels to me. The most effective part of J.J. Abrams' film is the very end where they finally get everybody into the right uniforms and in the right places on the bridge. When Kirk's wearing yellow and Spock's wearing blue and they're running around in a matte painting, it feels like 1967 for a second, and that's exciting if hardly progress. If they do a whole movie in that style it might be really good -- if they find some way to give the plot modern-day relevance.

"Star Trek" as it first was on TV had mostly cardboard characters; it was about ethical dilemmas. 23rd-century ethical dilemmas with surprising application to 1960's ones. The best of the film series with the original cast merged nostalgic affection for the characters with new issues stories: II, III (sorta), IV, VI (sorta again). All the "Next Gen" features knew that they needed to pay lip service to the idea of addressing modern morality through sci-fi storytelling.

This new one doesn't try, at all. It's about a big drill in space, an angry bald Romulan guy who's going to kill a bunch of Vulcans and humans because he bears them an intense family grudge. That's the precise same plot of the 2002 flop Star Trek: Nemesis. Even down to the bald Romulans. With tattoos. The fact that Abrams doesn't think anyone will notice or care that he replicated the plot and one of the MacGuffins of the last movie, an embarrassing failure, is telling. This movie isn't about remaking "Star Trek" creatively, it's all about bringing it into line with modern movie franchises in terms of cross-promotions, product placements, and "multi-platform leveragability." As a boy Kirk had a Nokia cell phone in his parent's car? Well okay then.

In a way the same problems the original motion picture Star Trek had repeat on this one. That one, an unforeseen comeback story for a beloved cult hit that had been dormant for just the right amount of time, burned way too much of its running time on long slow tracking shots of the Enterprise, fetishizing the ship fans had dreamed about seeing again for so long. But at least it had a story that tried to tie in with present-day issues and presented its characters with universal human moral debates. The new Star Trek has no character development, merely plot points. The heroes run through CGI travails like avatars in a video game; the short, hypercut scenes where they discuss what they've learned might as well be those bits you would press the "A" button to skip were you really playing a game.

Then again, the cast except for Karl Urban is really good and the dynamic between Chris Pine's Shatner and Zachary Quinto's Nimoy has the potential to be something special, particularly with the way the altered timeline of the new movie has changed and will change Spock's character. (#1 positive change: More macking with Uhura in this reality.) I will have to withhold ultimate judgement until we see what the macroscopic effect on the franchise will be. If they make a new TV series in a few years' time with the special effects expertise and slick look of this film, but with at least a little bit of Shakespearean scenery-chewing and ethical quandaries we of the old school have come to expect, that would be a positive thing.

Wash Back Backwash

Fox via DVR

A ton of season finales have been stacking up on the recorder the past few weeks, as I've been spending most of my TV time watching the NBA playoffs. A few of these season finales may be series finales: "The Unusuals" seems unlikely to survive and probably doesn't deserve to; "How I Met Your Mother" flirts with cancellation every year; "Life" and "Life on Mars," despite their titles, are both quite dead. It'll be interesting to see if "Parks and Recreation," a spiritual sequel to "The Office" (and a much better fit in NBC's Thursday night Actually Funny Comedy lineup than the turgid "Kath and Kim") can coast to a full second season on the back of its parent show's creative revival recently. I hope to talk about all of these shows in turn, along with "House" and "Bones" (similar themes there, hallucinations and long-delayed consummations) and "Big Bang Theory" and "Gossip Girl" and everything else.

First of all, the show which has the fate that's most up in the air. "Dollhouse" is somewhat undermined by Fox having already axed its lead-in, "Sarah Connor Chronicles," but unlike that show, "Dollhouse" has improved since its pilot. The last few episodes of the season, it became worth watching on its own merits rather than hanging on for dear life due to loyalty to its creator. After a string of really dumb episodes that seemed written by volunteers from among the show's empty-vessel Active population, Joss Whedon's team of former "Angel" and "Firefly" writers (and family members) managed to land a few that engaged themselves with thoughtful, complex real-world issues. Rather than the relentlessly bleak, Orwell-like absolutist vision of the first few shows, a recent arc featuring the demented Alpha mussed up the simplicity of the show's assumed scientific rules and rose lingering questions related to an age-old, sophisticated debate. Nature or nurture? Can you take a person's essential qualities out of them like Twinkie filling, or do we all have a layer that can't be removed?

"Dollhouse" argues that we do, or at least a few exceptional heroic Nietzschean types do. Eliza Dushku's Echo character, recent events suggest strongly, has her own persistent identity -- separate and distinct from the one that belonged to Caroline, the girl Echo was before she consented to become a programmable Active. Where this personality comes from is a bit murky. Echo and Alpha, the only independently conscious Actives we've yet encountered, are composites of all the different programs they've had run on their brains. But also not. There seems to be an essential quality in each -- Alpha is a knife-slashing psycho, and Echo is an instinctual protector of the helpless and exploited -- that emerges. I sort of think of it like taking a rubbing of a gravestone or monument -- you rub the coloring over the hidden message, and all but the important parts get blackened out.

Although the arrival of adult philosophy into the "Dollhouse" project is a welcome one, old problems persist, and the new developments are not all entirely welcome. Whedon is a whiz at shaking out casts quickly, and by getting rid of the extraneous security chief character and expanding the roles for the talented actors who play Victor and Sierra, he's risen the scene-to-scene quality of the show significantly. It was also nice to see the unfortunate actress who had the thankless role of the Active assigned to seduce/occupy Agent Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) sacrificed in a way that redeemed her character and made Ballard's way more interesting going forward. But there's still glaring holes in the cast -- Dushku really isn't going to be up to the change if the show is going to be about big questions all of a sudden instead of chicks fighting in tight clothes, Fran Kranz's Topher gets less and less likable with every scene he's in, Olivia Williams seems a tiny bit too young and way too lacking in confident authority to have the power her Adelle seems to. Promoting Harry Lennix's Boyd to chief of security got rid of the deadweight Reed Diamond, but Boyd is a far less interesting character as a company man as a possible sympathetic/ally for the emerging independent Echo consciousness.

The biggest problem with the last few episodes of the "Dollhouse" season, which were indeed the best the series had yet presented even with their glitches, was the casting of Alpha. Whedon has now managed to use more than half the cast of "Firefly" as special guest villains on his other shows. You can see why actors would be willing to work for him on spec. Alan Tudyk is a terrific actor, but his use on "Dollhouse" was all wrong. First of all, they threw him into a flashback with the Dollhouse leadership from a few years back, wearing a suit, conservative haircut, looking professional. This was a dead giveaway. Nobody who knows Whedon's work wouldn't immediately recognize Alan Tudyk, and anyone with that same knowledge would recognize that Joss never uses his pet performers as throwaways. Nathan Fillion got a juicy part when he went to "Buffy," and likewise for Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin on "Angel."

So, that ruined all the surprise of the penultimate episode, which was supposed to be Alpha's big reveal. By laying their clues too thick, the producers let on before the episode even started 1) Tudyk was Alpha 2) Alpha likes to cut up people's faces 3) Dr. Saunders (Amy Acker) has a scarred face. Then Ballard, Alpha, and Saunders appear in a scene in the Dollhouse blatantly staged so that Tudyk's back is to Acker. So, yeah, we get it. No bombshell there. I was half-right about Acker's character, who isn't the former active I thought she was but another one, named Whiskey. What a great name!

The double whammy with the casting of the former Hoban Washburne was that I don't think Tudyk works for Alpha: no one would cast him as a face-slashing serial killer, and that's what the man Alpha used to be (and is again) was, before trading his prison sentence to become a medical experiment. I don't know if I really buy Tudyk as a killer born. If he was playing this broken doll with many superimposed personalties, one of which (or, intriguingly, the combination of which) was causing him to kill, Alpha would be sympathetic and interesting and Tudyk would be totally the guy. I don't think the story Whedon is going with is any more or less dramatically valid, but I don't think he got the right actor. Danny Trejo would have been good.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Slash Fiction

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

I'm late getting to the "Idol" party this week, and I hope you'll forgive me. I was as excited for this episode, featuring surprisingly radical guest mentor Slash, as any this season. But that's not saying that much, and on Tuesday night itself the NBA playoffs proved a more appealing live programming option. That reminds me, wouldn't it be radical if the Lakers made an early playoff exit one of these years and "Idol" brought Kobe in as a guest mentor? They had Quentin Tarantino, so it's hardly like musical talent is expected or required. And who knows more about throwing your weight around, refusing to share the spotlight, and making everything all about you in L.A. than Kobe Bryant?

Slash is kind of a mellow guy, for a legend of hard rock and charter member of the hardest-partying band of the extremely party-hearty late 1980's. While Axl Rose has spent the last 15 years working on a followup GnR album that people stopped anticipating a decade ago, Slash has been touring, playing, doing his thing, mostly in bands that are less dangerous, less ambitious versions of the original article. But what came across most in his low-key "Idol" stint was his essential good nature, his lack of bitterness or a chip on his shoulder. Axl is defined by his inferiority complex, Slash has nothing in particular to prove. He had nice things to say about all the "Idol" finalists, if little helpful advice. I loved the idea of each of the musicians jamming out in front of Slash's band, but so as to not undermine the live performances, the producers didn't share any of this footage. I'm sure it's online somewhere.

The big news on the conspiracy-theory front this week is the random new device of duets. Instead of having each singer go twice this week (that's what they did last year when they were down to four) they had one individual appearance each and then each sang a duet with a partner apparently selected by the producers. Evidently the producers have finally realized that Allison Iraheta would be a much better finale foil for Adam Lambert than the genial but limited Danny Gokey. So Allison and Adam got to close the night with a "Slow Ride" dripping in star power while Danny and Kris Allen were mismatched for a talent-show level "Mama." The duet thing was unbelievably weird, in addition to being unfair. Kris had to find a song he could reasonably sing with Danny, while both Adam and Allison hardly seem to have any limitations left at this point. What's interesting is that the arrangements couldn't have been more different. Kris and Danny actually harmonized for large sections of their piece, and they sounded really good -- Kris's natural pocket is just about exactly a third higher than Danny's.

Adam and Allison, on the other hand, just took turns in a "you fire and then I'll fire" kind of arrangement. That's less impressive than learning a tough harmony under huge pressure, in less than a week, and with an entire other solo performance about which to worry. But frankly, Adam and Allison got a much better song and are much better singers than Danny and Kris. Even though they had less work to put in, they sounded vastly better. So I don't think the duets really proved anything, and if they did, they had the opposite effect from what they should have. I'm not going to give them their own paragraphs.

Adam Lambert Adam has veered back and forth between unlistenably self-indulgent and pretty damn swell. "Whole Lotta Love" could have been a mess for him, but he showed admirable restraint. Basically, he sung the song as people remember it rather than overloading it with runs, wails, and that peculiar modal raga scale he uses sometimes. As it was it was nervy and thrilling, a cross between Zep and Queen with an in-key authority nobody else in the field could deliver. One of Adam's signature outings, and all because he played it relatively safe by his standards. 9

Allison Iraheta I didn't think "Cry Baby" was a very good choice for Allison. Janis Joplin is an icon of an entirely different sort, an instinctive vocalist who wasn't in key most of the time but became a legend due to her intensity, passion, and mystique. Allison is a masterful technical singer, and I would have liked to hear her sing a rocker with less bluesy simplicity and more challenging melodic passages. She seemed a little unsure what to do with all the space her song choice left her, and she wobbled away from pitch at times in a way she hardly ever does. While the vocal wasn't her best technically it was nice to see her feel the song a little bit and move around on stage in a convincing way. She was also swaggering nicely during the duet, feeding off of Adam's energy. While the increase in confidence is nice to see she still has yet to make a number really pop in that YouTube, water-cooler sensation way. With such a broad theme ("rock") it would have cool to see her do something harder-edged and further from her comfort zone. (It'll never happen in a million years on "Idol," but couldn't you totally hear Allison singing a Tool song?) People are paying closer attention now. 8

Kris Allen When they did Beatles songs for the first time last year, it was presented as a special occasion -- two weeks of nothing but, as if to separate these timeless classics from the dreck that fills that "Idol" air most weeks. Kris slipping "Come Together" into Slash night marked the first time that a Beatles song was part of a "regular" broadcast, and it felt a little weird. Among other things, it's not really a song that flatters its singer -- the verses mostly ride a single note and the chorus hook is deliberately universal. Apparently Kris decided at the last moment against "Revolution," which would have been prettier but has the same problem with disconnect to the relentlessly maintained apolitical character of "Idol." Kris's performance didn't hit the level he needed it to to remake himself as a serious contender. He's certainly the most musically innovative of the field this year, and he's benefited from it, but he doesn't rank at the same level as quirky alternatives from years past (Blake, Jason, Brooke). It was interesting to hear Kris's more laid-back vocal style set against what passes as a hard-rocking performance from the band, but it also floated over into frat-party cover band territory at points. He didn't need his guitar at all on this one. We're all still waiting to be blown away and Kris has but a handful of chances remaining. This night would have been way better if they'd all gotten to do two songs instead of the silly duets, right? Then Kris could have done "Come Together" and something a little more ambitious, and Allison could have added a screamer, and Adam would have gotten another winner in there, and Danny... would have done the same exact thing he does every time. Only twice. 7

Danny Gokey It seems to me as if Danny has lasted something like 10 weeks longer than is justified by his musical talent alone. So, you got to hand that to him. He was given an advantage at the outset and he's never failed to press it, always staying close to his comfort zone and continuing to send out vibes of modesty and decentness. Now with only four people left, Danny realized he had to raise his game somewhat in order to goose his vote totals and stay alive for another week. So he picked "Dream On," a classic rock screamer's song, and it seems as if he bit off slightly more than he could chew. He made a total hash of the first verse, staying flat the entire time before transitioning directly to yelling. But the yelling part? Not bad! He managed to reflect the harsh quality of Steven Tyler's vocal from the original while staying in key and putting his own stamp on it. He did elect to throw in a "doot doot doo" at one point during the big chorus, which was hugely stupid. But then he got to the big free scream crescendo and gave it his everything, which was questionably musical but pretty damn entertaining. If he goes out this way -- and he should, because the other three are better -- he's going out with gusto. 7

My prediction, if I'd written this thing in a timely fashion, would have been Danny. But it ended up being Allison, which is a load of crap. This stupid show.