Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lost: "The End"

The following review contains spoilers for the final episode of Lost in case you haven't seen it yet.

If there's one thing to take out of Lost's two and a half hour series finale it's that sometimes you get so busy worrying about how the pieces of the puzzle fit together and getting answers to every little question that you lose sight of the big picture. Everyone got so caught up in trying in trying to look for clues to guess how this would end that we missed what was staring us in the face the entire time. The show always had a running undercurrent of spiritualism to it but I don't think anyone could have guessed that it would have played as big a role as it did in the series' conclusion, especially after all the trippy sci-fi excursions the show took over the past two seasons. But it all came full circle in this episode and no one can accuse Cuse and Lindelof of not firmly putting their foot down and delivering an ending that provided definitive closure for its characters.

Whether you loved or hated the decision, the commitment made to conclusively resolving all these characters' fates was unwavering. From day one, this series was always about these flawed people being chosen and given an opportunity to test themselves on the island in a way they never could in their everyday lives. The big question was "WHY?" This episode answered that question while smaller, more nagging queries relating to the mythology will remain unanswered or open for interpretation. That's fine by me as I wrote before watching this that my biggest wish was not necessarily to get all the answers but have an ending that does justice to these characters we've invested six years into. Individual reactions to the finale will boil down to whether you're in this more for answers or the characters. For me it was never close. Some answers are nice, but I found what was delivered for these characters in this episode more rewarding than knowing every little detail about the island, which would have wasted time and pointlessly dragged down the finale. I should still be able to sleep at night not knowing more about the polar bears or why Walt's special. In the broad scheme of things, it just doesn't matter. True to form, the end result was polarizing and will probably be argued about for years to come, mainly because of a final mind-blowing twist involving the controversial flash-sideways universe.

Top to bottom, the episode was as perfect as I could have envisioned the finale to be and unbearably suspenseful to the point where the two and a half hours just flew by. Much of that excitement could be attributed to the fact that all bets were taken off the table and any character could go at any time. At the last half hour I thought to myself how surprising it was that so many of the main characters were still alive and also seriously questioned whether someone other than Christian Shephard could be in that casket. Little did I know what was coming. While I thought the episode would cause a split reaction, it's still hard to comprehend how anyone could complain about a finale that included:

-Richard Alpert alive (and aging!)

-Vincent the dog

-The return of Rose and Bernard

-The return of Shannon and Boone


-Survivors: Miles, Richard, Sawyer, Claire, Desmond, Kate and...Frank (!)

-Frank "Chesty" Lapidus fixing the plane and heroically flying the plane off the island (insert wild applause).

-Hugo and Ben: New "protectors" of the island.

And that still doesn't even begin to cover it. We knew the Sideways world would play a major role, though it was unclear exactly how. As it turns out, over-analyzing caused me (and probably many others) to miss that this season's events were occurring in one timeline, not two. In hindsight, it seems simple that the flash sideways was actually a flash forward afterlife the characters needed to discover in order to move on, but few could have predicted it because we were too caught up imagining crazier scenarios. Those claiming this was manipulative, attempting to draw comparisons The Sixth Sense or arguing the show "wasted six years of their lives" don't have a case. The characters weren't "dead the entire time" nor did the ending negate anything that happened on the island or in their lives. Oceanic 815 still crashed. Juliet's detonation of Jughead didn't create an alternate reality, as we had ASSUMED it did based on the evidence. Everyone was so focused on the Sideways being there for the viewer that the possibility that it could have just been there for the characters never entered our minds.

Playing completely fair, Cuse and Lindelof really did deliver their promised "game-changer" and I'm betting Season 4 and beyond (especially 6) would now play differently on a second viewing. Rather than negating anything, it brings a finality to previous events not present before. You can now officially say Ben did murder Locke in Season 4 and that he was never coming back. And that Faraday should have listened to his own advice because "what happened, happened." It couldn't be changed. This also gives Juliet's message from the grave that "IT WORKED" a more poignant, cryptic meaning. It didn't work, at least in the way everyone expected it to. Yet it also did, if you think about the direct implication of that statement.

A death that was already unbearable to watch twice before takes on an even deeper meaning the third time when you contemplate the fact that Faraday's plan failed and Juliet essentially lost her life for nothing. Her end is now even more final and tragic, and as a result her relationship with Sawyer means even more than it did before. While everyone will have their own picks of which character "awakenings" carried the most emotional weight, their mutual moment of recognition at the vending machine and subsequent flash was the highlight of the episode for me. Unlike some other characters they were always better together than apart and it's a testament to the acting talents of Elizabeth Mitchell and Josh Holloway that they turned what could have easily been an odd throwaway Season 5 sub-plot into the heart and soul of the show.

Ben was always a character whose motivations were in question throughout the course of the series. And even when he took steps to redeem himself he could never truly gain anyone's trust and always seemed destined to be on the outside looking in. It wouldn't have seemed right seeing him join everyone else when you consider all the evil deeds he committed as the leader of the Others, the worst of which caused the death of his own daughter. That's why the image of him sitting outside the church, deeming himself unworthy of joining everyone else inside, despite finally receiving the forgiveness and redemption he sought, is great writing. He completed his full-fledged turn to the good side fans were clamoring for (even if I'm still wondering how how he got out from under that tree) and found an unlikely ally in Hugo, a character whose series-long arc of gaining confidence reached its rewarding conclusion.

Previously, I've been very critical of the writing of Sun, Jin, Claire and Charlie, dismissing nearly everything the characters have been a part of as a waste. But bigger than my complaints that they're merely unimportant was my resentment at the writers for presenting them in a way that implied they were actually important to the show's mythology. They were always only cogs in the machine, which forced me to compare them to all the other characters and try to decipher how they fit into the bigger picture, if at all. But this episode was first time they didn't fill those roles and come off as unnecessary pawns in a game I couldn't figure out. We now know their purpose was the same as everyone else's: Come to the realization that the time they spent on the island was the most important in their lives and re-connect with the people who were a part of it. For once, all four of them were treated as being on the same level as the other characters and not just plot filler.

Ironically, in finally surrendering to the idea that Sun and Jin and Claire and Charlie had no purpose that extended beyond each other they took on a purpose they never had before. It's as if a weight was lifted from the characters and it finally wasn't painful watching an episode heavily focused on them, as the sonogram scene with Sun and Jin demonstrated. Their underwater deaths were well handled in "The Candidate" but now we had a reason to care about it. Similarly, it was a smart move to focus on Sideways Claire while leaving her crazy alternate island counterpart on the sidelines while Jack and the Man in Black battle it out, since her goal the entire time should have been to get home to Aaron. None of this undoes what I felt was the presentation of four very uninteresting characters throughout the show's run, but I am curious to go back to the beginning of the series to see if I'll now hold that opinion as strongly.

Christian Shephard's statement to Jack that "everyone dies sometime" is at the crux of the episode. It makes sense that the notoriously stubborn and resentful Jack would be the last to let go and come to terms with his death and that his father would be the person to help him do it. This also explains the strange presence of a son in the Sideways world as Jack had to continue working through his "daddy issues." Supposedly, Matthew Fox was the only actor let in on the secret that the ending scene would be his eye closing as he dies in the bamboo field but didn't have a clue how the producers would arrive at it. As it turns out, neither did we. The symmetry between the opening image in the pilot and the closing one in the series finale is perfect, officially bringing the show full circle. The idea of the island representing spiritual redemption for the characters has been touched on throughout the series and Lindelof and Cuse used the show's final minutes to put the focus on what the series was really about the entire time: These characters and their journey. And no, I didn't think it was too sappy when you consider six seasons were spent establishing the connections that came to a head in the finale. It felt earned.

It remains to be seen where this ranks among the pantheon of television series finales, but after a few days to process what happened (and believe me it was necessary), it still boggles my mind that so many are dissatisfied with it, though it's more than likely they would have been unhappy with anything. This is one of those shows where nitpicking about little pointless details doesn't pay off and only deprives you of enjoying everything it has going for it, which is an awful lot. Lost got a send-off few series' are able to attain because its producers were smart enough to set an end date and work out a plan to make sure it arrived there on top. They also achieved the nearly impossible goal of creating a completely original sci-fi saga over the course of six years in a genre not exactly known for its originality. And to think at one point we thought the biggest question was whether they'd ever leave the island.

Count on rumors of potential spin-offs and movies but don't count on them ever happening or being necessary. Like most of TV's greatest shows, not nearly enough people watched this. The best news is that the commitment required to follow it makes for ideal DVD viewing. I could easily see its fanbase growing and hardcore fans continuing to re-watch it, still searching for more answers. I'm guilty of taking the show for granted as it took me a while to realize just how smart it was and the respect it had for its viewers to actually think for themselves. It'll definitely take some getting used to not having Lost around anymore.

Series Finale Grade: A+

Season 6 Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lost: Final Season Report Card (Part II)

As we inch closer and closer to the super-sized, two and a half hour series finale on May 23rd, I'm discovering things about Lost that didn't really occur to me before. For one, I'm realizing I like the show a lot more than I thought I did and even though now is unquestionably the right time to close this out, I kind of don't want it to end. I never would have thought that when the show premiered in 2004 it would have lasted six seasons, or if it did, that I'd still be watching. I seriously considered bailing at the start of the third season and didn't think it would see a fourth, much less a fifth or sixth. But here we are and I can now honestly say that the quality of the show is as good if not better now, than when it initially aired. Six years in, that itself is a major accomplishment, regardless of what happens on Sunday. The two and a half hours allotted to the final episode are not only earned, but likely necessary to provide the closure fans are looking for.

Lost has spoiled us and I'd love nothing more than to just sit back, enjoy the ride and pretend creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse haven't backed themselves into a corner where they almost have to deliver one of the greatest television episodes of the decade. I'd love to pretend that a disappointing finale wouldn't taint much of what's been done over the past six years and tarnish the show's legacy. But I can't. They've stated that after it airs they'll be going into seclusion and I don't blame them one bit, especially considering the unprecedented availability and access they've given to fans up to this point. Unlike some, I'm okay with certain questions being left unanswered. It's inevitable there's going to be mysteries still remaining from the finale just because it would be completely impossible to wrap everything up nicely in tight bow that satisfies everyone. What I am looking for is the saga to reach a satisfying resolution for its most important characters and what happens allows us to go back and view each episode and season in a completely different light. This would cement the longevity of the show and open doors for its continued appreciation for years to come. No pressure, right?

For me, this season's been the most uneven since the third so I'm hoping the issues I've had-- such as the overexposure of a seemingly purposeless Claire and Ben Linus being treated as an afterthought-- are at least addressed in the finale. This close to the end you don't expect any clunker episodes and there weren't, but there were some trouble spots and filler, as well as signs that they could deliver big. Whenever you write a series so dependent on answers there's always that risk of a huge let-down and that risk has never loomed larger than with Lost. In assigning episode grades to the season's second half I'm trying to zero in as much as I can on the creative decisions made because-- let's face it-- at this point, every little one counts. I'll be posting a detailed review of the finale after it airs, assessing how well it delivered and what it means for the series as a whole. And even then I still may not be done. Then again, will we ever really be done with this show?

"The Package" (Episode 113)

Well-executed, entertaining filler, but filler nonetheless. At least it wasn't as painful as "What Kate Does" from the fist half of the season. But I'd like to ask anyone who feel Sun and Jin were ever pivotal characters to explain how the series would have been any different without them. And I'm not sure devoting an entire episode to finding out why Jin was locked in a freezer was the best use of time or the flash sideways structure and it doesn't benefit from being sandwiched in between two of the strongest episode's in the history of the series ("Ab Aeterno" and "Happily Ever After.") That said, this was better than expected considering the focus and it's worth noting this featured the first of the timelines overlapping in some way. As per the the norm this season, it seemed the most interesting action took place on the island with the confrontation between MIB and Widmore. That's the real draw here...and of course the kidnapped Desmond's return to the island.

Grade: B-

"Happily Ever After" (Episode 114)

Without a doubt stands alongside "Ab Aeterno" as representing the best of the season. All the elements I've most enjoyed about this show for the past two seasons (specifically the time travel and alternate realities) came together. Like Richard, Desmond was a character bound to deliver in a stand-alone episode because he's so intrinsically tied to everyone else and the key themes on the show. It's safe we now have confirmation that Juliet's detonation of jughead "worked" as the timelines officially collided for the first time. I love that the actual universe is appearing as kind of a deja vu to everyone and the fact that Desmond and Faraday's memories of the women in their lives was strong enough to cross over. And how great a touch was it having Desmond see "NOT PENNY'S BOAT" scribbled on Charlie's hand? You know an episode's good when even Charlie and Claire seemed to have an actual purpose. The show is at its best when dealing with individual responsibility and destiny for its characters so the idea of Desmond obtaining the manifest and attempting to show everyone else what he sees is perfect. The island scenes with Widmore's Watchmen-like electromagnetic test were just as absorbing...and crazy. A flawless episode all-around, giving me confidence that there's a big payoff looming for the flash-sideways.

Grade: A+

"Everybody Loves Hugo" (Episode 115)

I'm tempted to give this episode an "A" just for the closing scene of Desmond shockingly hitting Locke with a car and the hilarious fact that Dr. Linus and Mr. Locke aren't even on a first name basis in the alt-verse. This juxtaposed nicely with Flocke (MIB) throwing Desmond down the well in the '07 island timeline. But what's with Pierre Chang showing up...and not aging? It's funny how Hugo really isn't all that important a character and doesn't play a key role in the mythology of the show, yet the episodes focusing on him still tend to work really well. I guess that's a credit to how entertaining and likable the character is. His reunion with Libbey, while expected and certainly not Earth-shattering, was one of those little dangling loose ends that needed to be addressed and it was done well. Plus it ties into Desmond's mission.

Grade: B+

"The Last Recruit" (Episode 116)

A lot of plot jammed into this episode with the characters' lives intersecting like crazy (and maybe a little too much at once) in the flash-sideways. Jack's reaction to Claire being his sister (in both realities) was about as enthusiastic as mine. He couldn't have cared less, which probably means it was just something the writers threw in that doesn't hold any significance at all, as could be said for nearly every storyline involving Claire for the past six years. The '07 on island action with the MIB/Widmore feud and Sawyer's double dealing remains the most interesting element, but even that was bogged down slightly by too much Claire. Will they ever give us a reason to care about her? I like the transformation Jack's undergone throughout the series from doubting, faithless cynic to embracing his destiny on the island. Him refusing to leave now is fittingly in complete contrast with his alt-verse counterpart.

Grade: B

"The Candidate" (Episode 117)

In case you didn't get the memo, Flocke is EVIL. That the issue is even up for debate at all is a testament to how strong the writing is and how well Terry O' Quinn has settled into the role. Hopefully he got a raise just given the amount of screen time he's had this season. I did get one wish checked off my list already with the return of Locke's dad, Anthony Cooper, in the flash sideways, (albeit in a vegetative state). Why do I have the feeling Locke letting go and agreeing to let Jack fix him will become very important later on? Some interesting reverse psychology going on in this episode in how Flocke tricked the gang onto the sub and telegraphed Sawyer's hotheaded stupidity, which lead to the deaths of Sun, Jin, Sayid and Frank.

Can't really understand how anyone can be upset over the deaths of Sun and Jin given it's a miracle those two lasted as long as they did and their final moment was handled so well. Like Charlie, it was probably the only time in the entire series' run that I actually cared about them. They weren't given much to do this season, or at any other, so it's hard to argue they should be kept around ahead of Jack, Kate, Sawyer or Hurley. Sayid's slightly more important but he's been a walking zombie lately so his demise isn't a huge loss. But poor Frank "Chesty" Lapidus....killed by a door! And no one even cared. But how funny is it that he made it this far into the show? I can't stand Kate but even I'll admit she deserves to be there for the end game and killing her before then would have been anti-climactic. I don't think any of these deaths were as "major" as everyone seems to think but they were overdue and handled perfectly. The focus is on exactly who it should be heading into the final stretch.

Grade: A

"Across the Sea"
(Episode 118)

Oh boy. Here we go. This episode has caused a passionate, divisive reaction amongst fans and for good reason. The truth is that it isn't nearly as bad as its detractors claim, nor as great as diehard Lost loyalists think it is. It's somewhere in between but the more I think back on it the more things I like and a second viewing helped. But I do seriously question whether this was the most productive use of time and storytelling at this late point and whether it's wise to keep all the main characters on the sidelines (with the exception of a clever flashback) for a week to dispense island mythology that could have easily been distributed earlier. It's double-edged giving away so much back story because you risk some of those revelations being anti-climactic or not fully living up to expectations, which some of these didn't. So while important questions concerning smoke monster, the donkey wheel and basically everything you want to know about the Man in Black and Jacob were answered (none too surprisingly), more questions arise as to how this relates to the current situation on the island.

Taking a break from all the momentum built up in "The Candidate" at this crucial juncture to focus on two characters who up to this point have only been presented as shadowy mythological figures was extremely risky. They're just not going to have the same interest level as a Richard or a Desmond, who each had much stronger stand-alone eps this season. As a result, an episode that had its moments also dragged at times, nearly rescued by the outstanding performances of guest stars Titus Welliver, Mark Pellegrino and Alison Janey. The whole "island has secrets" mythology aspect of the series has always been my least favorite unless it's presented in a way directly relating to the characters we care about NOW. I'm being wishy-washy in my grade, hoping that the finale ties that together.

For me, the crux of this series is how the main characters' lives have been affected and changed by the crash and their experiences on the island so hopefully the focus returns to that soon. In any event, it's no "Ab Aeterno" and only the most hopelessly devoted diehards would try to convince themselves that the episode didn't have issues. It's faint praise but Lindelof and Cuse delivered a better Star Wars prequel here than George Lucas, showing how to conceive and present a compelling backstory for a multi-dimensional villain. Yet it's still emblematic of how gripping, but immensely frustrating this show can be. Its placement before the penultimate episode of the series is unfortunate because airing it at any other time would have insured it a better reception. That I'm (generously) giving out a barely respectable "B" this late in the game is alarming to say the least. Whether the finale comes through will go a long way in determining whether this hour will be looked on with greater respect than it is now.

Grade: B

"What They Died For" (Episode 119)

Welcome back Benjamin Linus. That alone is reason enough to feel optimistic heading into the finale, even if I don't believe for a second that he's aligned himself with the MIB and will kill the remaining "four candidates." Nor do I believe he has much of a chance of making it through the finale. But I really hope I'm wrong there. With Widmore dead we can cross Ben settling his feud with him off the "to do" list. But is Richard Alpert dead? Can he die? After what seemed like a really lengthy break Ben (and his alt-verse counterpart) was all over this episode as Desmond completes his plan to reunite the passengers of Oceanic 815. But once he does, then what? Something tells me whatever it is it'll heavily involve Daniel Faraday. And congrats to the writers for having the patience to hold off on the big Juliet return until the final episode. The nature of her involvement at the end is what I've been looking forward to most the entire season.

It's of little surprise that Jack is the candidate replacing Jacob, chosen to kill MIB and protect the "heart" of the island but is that really all there is to it? And if it is, is that enough? All these characters just being pawns in a game between disgruntled twin brothers seems too easy, not to mention disappointing. Everything's in place for a big payoff, it's just a question of whether the writing can get there, or the extent to which it can. At least Jacob finally stated his purpose to everyone and they can take it from there but I think it's a safe bet that Jack Shephard is NEVER leaving that island...EVER. And that he'll be in the series' last scene. And like many, I have my theories as to exactly what that final scene will be.

Grade: A

Season and Series Grade: To Be Determined After Finale

Sunday, May 16, 2010

TV on DVD: Californication (The Complete Second Season)

Creator: Tom Kapinos
Starring: David Duchovny, Natascha McElhone, Madeleine Martin, Evan Handler, Pamela Adlon, Madeline Zima, Callum Keith Rennie

Original Airdate: 2008

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Second seasons are tough. Just run down the list of television's most acclaimed shows and try naming any that had a sophomore season better than its first. The freshness of the premiere season can't be equaled and there's almost always a drop-off in quality, often very steep. The more second seasons of enjoyable shows I view the more appreciation I have for the writers burdened with such a thankless task, as I picture their weekdays spent locked in a conference room screaming at each another and banging their heads against the wall. Californication's second season isn't necessarily an exception to this rule, but watching it gave me a greater understanding why writing a worthy follow-up to a creatively strong debut season can be so difficult. There's the pressure to stay true to all the characters' established traits, yet at the same time have them progress so you're merely not just repeating the same situations. This becomes even more challenging with a protagonist like Hank Moody, whose very likability rests on the fact that he can never grow or mature as a character. If he does, the essence of what makes this show so compulsively watchable is lost.

Cleverly (but not without a shaky, unfocused start), showrunner Tom Kapinos found a way out of this dilemma by lessening the focus on Hank and expanding the setting he inhabits by introducing a fresh character. It allows him to move in a new direction without us feeling like he has. So while the second season of Californication isn't as strong as the first, I enjoyed it more, and did so because of one performance. And David Duchovny isn't the actor who gives it. It's the only thing really worth talking about in the entire season, not because there isn't anything else worthwhile, but because this relatively unknown actor blows everything and everyone he comes in contact with right off the screen with the one of the best recent guest starring performances on a series. Despite having just a brief stay, the show won't be the same again without the character.

The very early start of this season is rough and slow going, calling attention to a familiar long-running problem that's faced any show with a pair of romantic leads: Viewers are rooting for them to get together even though it isn't in the best interest of the series. When season 1 ended we were teased with the reconciliation of self-absorbed, womanizing writer Hank (Duchovny) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Karen (Natasha McElhone) after she leaves her new husband at the altar to run away with him and their teenage daughter Becca (Madeliene Martin). The opening episodes of this season follow through on that tease, perhaps to give us a fleeting glimpse of how bad the show would be if they did reconcile. It's comparable to your favorite losing team finally winning the Super Bowl or World Series. At first you're elated, but then what? That next season can never be as fun because the thrill of the chase is gone, as is the pride you felt sticking by a terrible team no one thought stood a chance. Being the defending champions just isn't as exciting.

Hank is that losing team who can never deliver when he needs to and him reuniting with Karen essentially defeats the purpose of the entire show. There's nothing to root for. Thankfully, it didn't last and the writers instead cleverly used it as a creative launching pad for Hank to screw up royally again, reverting to his mischievous, hedonistic ways. But this season he meets the one person in California living harder than he is. With either drugs, groupies or hookers in every other room of his palatial Laurel Canyon mansion, famous Gatsby-like music producer Lew Ashby (Callum Keith Rennie) befriends Hank at a party and chooses him as the writer of his biography. Rennie's performance is the best kind of great one because it sneaks up on you. At first it doesn't seem like it's going to be much or the character will even be that important but slowly you realize that this entire show is his and everyone else is just tagging along for the wild ride. It's with his arrival and the unusual bond he develops with Hank where this season starts to turn the corner.

While a party animal like Hank, Ashby is also secretly drowning in a sea of regret over "the one that got away," a mystery woman who provides the hidden key to Ashby's life and Hank's research into the biography. Her name is Janie and she's played by Twin Peaks vet Madchen Amick who in no small feat manages to meet expectations of the one woman capable of weakening him. Even when indulging in his worst impulses, like slyly attempting to steal Karen from him, he remains the best friend Hank could possibly have and his perfect counterpart. But what's most remarkable about Rennie's performance is how much much it'll remind viewers of friends they've had or people they've met. So much so the character seems like he almost has to be based on a real person, or maybe a combination of different people. Ashby is that kind of guy who just keeps screwing up over and over again, but is so cool and likable that you just go along with it. You know you should tell them to change their ways, but how can you (at least with a straight face) when they're this much fun? He rips through the characters' lives like a tornado and goes out the only way he can--in a self-destructive blaze of glory. And credit the writers for being smart enough to realize the most interesting people we encounter in life tend to be the ones who rarely stick around for long.

Rennie, a Canadian actor with credits including The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, 24 and FlashForward is supposedly good friends with Duchovny so that helped lead to him to being cast. As executive producer you'd figure Duchovny had to know this guy would completely steal the season, but unselfishly realized it was in the show's best interest for him to do just that. It's a writing achievement but Rennie deserves accolades for bringing what's on the page to life in a way another performer wouldn't have been able to. The character also sheds a new light on Hank, making him confront his mistakes in a way that couldn't have been achieved if this season's focus was just on him again. In retrospect, Showtime probably missed a golden opportunity to spin Ashby off into his own series since I could easily envision a show focusing on his previous exploits (maybe an adaptation of that "biography?") being even more entertaining than this one.

There were other notable guest starring turns this season like the return of Judy Greer (with a slightly expanded role this time around) as prostitute Trixie, Meredith Monroe as an annoying Rachael Ray-like celebrity chef, Justine Bateman as Becca's teacher and Hank conquest, Sheri Moon Zombie as a nurse and Undeclared's Carla Gallo as a porn actress Hank's bumbling agent Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) takes on as a client. Unfortunately, Charlie's the weak link of the season and again drags it down a few notches, which is a shame because everything else on the show works so well and Handler always delivers in the sometimes thankless role. There's some nonsense with he and his wife Marcy's (Pamela Adlon) coke addiction and his plunge into the porn industry, some of it tired and little of it as funny as the show seems to think it is. If I had to choose though I'd at least say I enjoyed this Charlie storyline better than the S & M craziness he was involved in with his assistant (Rachel Miner) last season, mainly because Gallo is a more likable actress and Hal Ozsan puts in a good turn as a sleazy filmmaker. All this has its moments but something better has to be done with Charlie so we care about the character outside of his connection to Hank, rather than all the shows most vulgar elements being thrown on him for no reason other than to provide cheap, gross-out laughs.

With a character like Ashby front and center for nearly every episode something had to give somewhere. That something ends up being Mia (Madeline Zima) who's pretty much entirely pushed to the sidelines with the exception of a fling with Ashby that does more to further enhance the legend of "The Great Ashby" than anything else. But that's fine. What the writers never forget is how Hank's actions and his dysfunctional relationship with Karen affects Becca, played by Madeleine Martin in her typically awesome deadpan style. It's really the heart of the entire show and becomes even more important this season when she gets a boyfriend and the suddenly overprotective Hank finds himself in the role of one of "those dads" because if anyone should know what guys are after it's him. He realizes it's not so funny when it's happening to his own daughter.

A season that starts with Hank settling down with Karen and getting a vasectomy had me worried the writers really were going to castrate and wussify the character, but thankfully they were in on the joke. That the most important influence on the series was a music producer is fitting on a show that names episodes after Harry Chapin albums and plays choice tracks from Warren Zevon's catalog. This season feels like a great sophomore album requiring a few listens to fully appreciate but is endlessly listenable. Rennie's performance as Ashby makes it worth returning to and given the choice I'd more quickly revisit this season, flaws and all, than the first one. Second seasons can't be first seasons but they can hope to broaden the scope, allowing the story and characters to move forward in a way that doesn't offend loyal viewers too much. In doing that, the second season of Californication succeeds where many other shows haven't.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Rose McIver, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Reese Ritchie

Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)


Sometimes you flip through the channels and stumble upon one of those true crime shows re-enacting murders that took place decades ago. If you notice, usually the questions concerning the actual event are addressed in agonizing detail but it's the other more important ones that leave you with a sinking feeling in the bottom of your gut. What were her final thoughts before it happened? Did she have a boyfriend? Was she popular at school? What did she want to be when she grew up? What would she look like now? What would she say to her killer? How did her parents deal with it? What would she say to them? Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones is 135 minutes of that sinking feeling, the first 40 of which qualify as a flat-out masterpiece. The rest of it is just...INSANE. So insane Jackson should probably be asked to undergo mandatory drug testing for the decisions he made, some of which are among the strangest I've seen in a prestige project supposedly aimed at mainstream audiences.

Reaction to this much-maligned adaptation of Alice Sebold's 2002 bestseller was almost destined to split viewers into two camps: Those who read the novel and hate what he's done to it and those who never read the novel and are impressed. I fall into the latter category, but wouldn't plead ignorance to any of the film's perceived or actual flaws, remaining completely cognizant of why it's attracted so much animosity. But the one complaint against it I won't accept is that it in any way "wussed out." Especially when it so thoroughly denies the characters and audience closure, or at least closure as it's traditionally expected in American movies. Or not a single story beat going down as it normally would in this genre. Are these problems? Or did Jackson actually find a way to capture the sloppiness of everyday life?

Sometimes you know a movie has its issues but you're too wrapped up in what works to care, especially when what works represents some of the boldest filmmaking of the year. It achieves too much in terms of visuals, storytelling, sound and especially acting to be written off just because things don't match certain preconceived notions. Maybe a safe alternative slavishly true to the source material would have technically been "better" and sent fans of the novel home happy, but the film wouldn't have been as compelling. So I just went with it, which is necessary to fully appreciate Jackson's trippy head-scratcher of an adaptation that refuses to play by the rules.

In the quiet Pennsylvania suburbs in 1973, 14-year-old murder victim Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) narrates her story from beyond the grave. An aspiring photographer, she dreams of the future while harboring a hopeful schoolgirl crush on Ray (Reece Ritchie). And it's actually kind of brave how unabashedly sentimental the film is in presenting it, as this guy of her dreams speaks with an English accent and quotes Shakespeare in front of her locker. Ronan (best known for her Oscar nominated turn as the junior tattle-tale in Atonement a few years ago) takes center stage in the film's opening hour capturing in her expressive face and gigantic blue eyes all the optimism, pessimism, fear and excitement of being a young high school girl with her whole life ahead of her. That life is cut short by neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), cryptically referred to throughout the story by Susie as "My Murderer," a live, in the flesh composite sketch of the creepiest neighborhood pedophile imaginable. Every parent's worst nightmare. With thinning hair and a goofy mustache he'd resemble a cast-off from a 70's variety show if Tucci wasn't so frightening playing him, in the process inviting us to speculate how this vicious monster could have emerged from a seemingly low-key, mild-mannered nerd. When he's not building miniature dollhouses in his solitary residence he leads a double life as a serial rapist and murderer with sights set on his next target. On the way home through a cornfield on a late December afternoon, the distracted Suzie is cornered in his underground lair.

Jackson's decision not to show Susie's rape has resulted in huge controversy. This begs a question: Why would anyone clamor to see the rape and murder of young girl depicted on screen when it's perfectly clear what happened anyway? For the sake of staying true to the novel? Not only would such an approach be irresponsible and ineffective, her encounter with him is so terrifying and tension-filled that showing it would probably be going overboard. Of course, had Jackson chosen to unnecessarily dramatize it in all its grisly detail, fans of the book would still be up in arms unless it matched their vision of the words Sebold put on the page. He definitely came close enough to showing it for me because I found the pivotal scene between the two almost unbearable to watch as is. You can just sense what's coming and Ronan's portrayal of Susie up to that fateful moment makes you so attached to the girl that you want to reach through the screen and save her from what's coming. Had the rape been shown, a different, more uncomfortable feeling would have replaced it.

It's unfortunate the opening 45 minutes had to eventually end because there was no chance the rest of the picture could live up to it. And it doesn't. But it does completely fly off the deep end in genre-bending ways that strangely make the film more absorbing and complex. From the ads I was expecting a light Ghost Whisperer-type second act where Susie helps supply her family with clues from beyond the grave to bring the killer to justice. But nothing like that occurs. She's stuck in what's referred to as the "In-Between" and looking at the CGI used you wouldn't be wrong in assuming that means somewhere in-between an allergy medication commercial and a screen saver. Yes, Jackson probably overdoes it with the effects and it doesn't always mesh with the more serious Earthbound scenes concerning the fallout from the crime, but this is still supposed to be a 14 year-old-girl's vision of the afterlife so that makes sense. Rather than being an active participant in the "investigation" into her murder, she's instead attempting to spiritually come to terms with what happened and watching as her parents, Abigail (Rachel Weisz) and Jack (Mark Wahlberg) deal with the loss in radically different ways. She also must observe in pain as her younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver) jumps ahead of her and experiences the adolescent joys she'll never know.

At least on paper, Wahlberg is miscast and seems entirely too young for the role, though the original choice of Ryan Gosling is even more perplexing (how could anyone have considered that?) Wahlberg had to know he was miscast because there's no other way to explain how he would could so completely throw himself into this with an intensity that manages to cover up for it. He's never played a part like this before and it's likely he won't again anytime soon just because it's so far out of his comfort zone, but I was really impressed how believable he was as an obsessed father looking for vengeance. Weisz is underutilized, disappearing mid-way through the story for reasons unclear, but I can't pretend to care when her excised sub-plot was supposedly a ridiculous affair with the investigating detective (played by Michael Imperioli). Taking Weisz out of the equation so Wahlberg and his shaggy hair can act up a storm opposite Tucci was actually a brilliant move, taking the film into thriller territory. We know from the beginning who the killer is but the characters still kept in the dark as Mr. Harvey, lurking in the shadows, senses the walls slowly closing in on him and clumsily tries to cover his tracks.

The creative choices made following Susie's death represent how far the screenwriting strays from conventional expectations. More shockingly, I've heard the haywire events Jackson puts on screen are relatively faithful to Sebold's narrative. Whether the weirdness that unfolds was intentional or not is up for debate but what isn't is how off-the-wall and hilariously inappropriate a musical montage featuring Susan Sarandon as the boozy, disaster-prone grandmother is. Put in for comic relief and tonally inconsistent with just about everything else in the picture, it shouldn't work, but does precisely because it's so entertainingly wild, temporarily lightening the dark proceedings. But that's just the start of it.

An eccentric former classmate of Susie's APPEARS to be some kind of vessel through which Susie can communicate from the grave with her loved ones and guide them, but the girl ignores the signals and alerts no one of what's been happening. And despite hiding in plain sight and being just about the creepiest looking neighbor anyone could have, Harvey isn't initially considered a suspect. The brutal slaying isn't uncovered via actual evidence gathered by the inept detective or the family, but how it actually would be in real life--due to the killer's carelessness and stupidity. That's best represented in his laughably ineffective approach to disposing of the most important physical evidence there is. He makes the mistakes a real murderer would and in turn his potential accusers make even dumber mistakes that would prevent his apprehension.

When Harvey's found out, he does EXACTLY what all murderers do in that situation when they know their number's up. His actions are so realistic and true to life it's no wonder many viewers were turned off and probably found it anti-climactic. The script is observant enough to know that victims and their families don't always get closure and the bigger the atrocity, the less chance there is of it. You always these stories on the news where the victim's body never turns up, the perpetrator isn't found, then years later he's discovered lying in the bottom of a ditch somewhere. Karma can work in silly, almost cruelly comical ways and it doesn't get much sillier than the fate that befalls George Harvey at the end of this film. Jackson deserves credit for having the guts to go through with it.

Even though the 1960's still seem to be more creatively fertile ground in movies, it's the 70's that always tend to lend itself to more interesting cinematic treatment and the production and costume design on display here is unmatched by any recent picture set in that decade. It's like a time-travel trip full of unforgettable images and colors supplied by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and backed by Brian Eno ethereal, electric guitar score. While the CGI scenes of Suzie's "In-Between" (featuring floating gazebos and glass bottle ships) are arresting it's the sinister shots in the cornfield and of Harvey through his miniature dollhouses that pack the biggest punch. The moment Suzie realizes exactly what's happened to her and watches his actions directly following the crime would be enough to keep anyone up at night, as is her "tour" of his previous victims.

There's the tendency to assume because the film is rated PG-13 and adapted from a widely praised bestseller that corners must have been cut and darker elements watered down to attract a bigger audience. Having not read the novel, I can't comment on how true that is but watching this I could still tell that this story must have been very, very difficult to adapt. What's interesting is that when bad word-of-mouth started spreading, the studio re-focused their marketing from older moviegoers to teen girls, who were apparently responding more favorably to the film and its message. That's a curious fact considering how this more closely plays as a dark descent into hell, embodied by Tucci's terrifying performance. Unlike most screen villains, he's scary because  he's a real, recognizable threat. And his victim represents an adolescence lost forever, an idea never forgotten amidst the film's envelope-pushing craziness. Part thriller, part metaphysical drama, The Lovely Bones is the best Unsolved Mysteries episode that never aired. Just as long as you don't read the book first.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi
Running Time: 162 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

How do I praise a film I think the movie industry would have been better off without? That I couldn't care less that I've gotten to Avatar this late reveals a lot about my interest level. Despite being presented with many opportunities to check it out in the theater over the past few months I passed on every one. I just had no desire to see it, which isn't unusual. There are a lot of movies released in a given year that don't interest me, it's just that none of them have been the most popular, highest grossing movie of all-time until now. I'm a huge sci-fi fan, but also sometimes a picky one who prefers character driven stories to fantasy, so this didn't look like it was in my wheelhouse at all.

I also disagree with those who believe a movie has to be "experienced" in a theater for maximum impact. If it does, chances are it probably has little else going for it other than special effects. That was probably my biggest beef with the film's success and why I stayed away from it. That and I hate the fact that every movie (whether warranted or not) is now being released in 3-D and they can jack up the ticket prices as long as everyone's eating it up. It's fair to blame James Cameron for all of this, yet it isn't. He tried to make the best movie he could and can't be held completely responsible for studios trying to capitalize on its success. When Star Wars was released in 1977 the same charges were leveled against George Lucas, and though that film negatively impacted movies in a similar way and ushered in the era of big effects driven blockbusters, the story and characters were the primary focus.

From my perspective the fallout from Avatar has been disastrous, but I promised myself if I ever saw the film (and there was legitimate doubt whether I would) I'd be objective in judging what's on screen, not the numerous problems it's release caused. So no, it isn't the most amazing thing I've ever seen but I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and as much as it pains me to admit, it's an undeniably great piece of entertainment that still plays very well on DVD. While mind-blowing visuals rule the day, the narrative is never sacrificed because of it and the few small issues I did have were the opposite of what I expected. Of course, the effects are unlike anything we've seen but given the amount of time and effort Cameron poured into the project and the hype it got, anything less would almost be considered unacceptable. Still, they're astounding, even on a flat-screen LCD.

What really threw me for a loop were the performances and how how caught up in the drama I became. What I didn't care for was all the spiritual and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that fought for dominance over the actual story, especially in the film's action-packed final hour. It seemed someone (I'm guessing Cameron) had an inexplicable desire to make an obvious eco-friendly message movie that would best be appreciated by Al Gore. To an extent, every film is a message movie in that it has a point of view but in this case beating us over the head with it isn't necessary because everything else works so well. It's a minor complaint, but a worthy one especially when the lesson is so trite and fails in telling us anything we didn't already know. But that the picture only suffers slightly from this is a real credit to Cameron's skills as a storyteller and action director.

The plot is practically common knowledge by now. It's the year 2154 on the planet Pandora and paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is selected to replace his deceased twin brother in a corporate-run program in which humans are remotely immersed in the indigenous population of the gigantic, blue-skinned Na'vi via "avatars." As the new chosen one, Jake's allegiances are torn between Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who have opposing philosophies regarding the goals for the operation and how interaction with the Na'vi should be handled. Whereas Quaritch wants Jake to gain their trust in order to procure valuable intelligence so he can violently displace them, Augustine is interested in opening the lines of communication with the species and protecting their culture. Jake is taken under the wing of a Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who teaches him the ways of her people and he becomes emotionally attached, questioning his allegiances. This sets him and the Na'vi people on a violent collision course with Quaritch.

Despite claims to the contrary, this is a strong story with performances to match it. There's no mistaking that the CG and visuals take precedence but none of it would have mattered if not narratively presented in a way that do them justice and makes sense. Cameron, like George Lucas, will never be be accused of being a master scribe or having a great ear for dialogue but he's an effective storyteller who knows how to craft a compelling sci-fi tale around action scenes and write strong characters. There are very few surprises in the story and there's never any real doubt how he's going to get there but he really knows how to get there better than most.

Summing up the well-told but not completely original plot as Ferngully meets Pocahantas might be a little harsh and overly reductive, but there's some truth to it. That didn't bother me though since it is presented in a visually fresh and interesting way. There are so few original stories out there and everything seems taken from something else, or at least incorporating elements from something else, that I'll just settle for the story not being told stupidly or coming off as a total knock-off. This didn't even come close to doing either, but when the focus was on the action the film flowed much better for me than when it was attempting to make viewers feel an emotional or spiritual connection to the story. In that regard the inter-species romance in the story surprisingly fared better than anything else.

I was absorbed and impressed throughout, but never really moved and part of the problem is that it's message of being at one with nature is being told to us rather than being shown or felt, as it was in superior films like Into The Wild or The New World. Both of those carried similar themes, but it needed to be extrapolated and discovered by the viewer along with the characters. I didn't get that impression here. We were clearly being told what to feel through the dialogue, which is fine to an extent since everything else is perfect, but less would have been more in delivering that message. This is partially representative of the current state of movies and entertainment in general today with studios primarily aiming to reach a demographic between the ages of 5 and 15, which isn't a problem unless you're not in it. The evidence of that is everywhere these days and could help explain the juvenile delivery of its message. It's admirable to make a movie the whole family can see but the more interesting action and sci-fi elements took a backseat when the movie probably would have been slightly better off grittier.

Ironically, as much as the scenes on Pandora break new cinematic ground, I preferred the human scenes at the station and the political tug-of-war taking place between the military and scientific factions, mainly because of Sigourney Weaver's performance. Cameron's always been a pro at writing strong female characters and Weaver is so determined in conveying Dr. Augustine's purpose that she brings a credibility to the story it probably wouldn't have otherwise. It contrasts well with Stephen Lang's no-nonsense, bad ass Colonel who's as entertaining as a villain can be in an action film while Giovanni Ribisi is the least irritating he's ever been as the greedy corporate head behind the program. The whole idea of avatars, how they work, what they mean and their consequences were more interesting to me than Jake's immersion into the Na'vi culture. As I watched I kept thinking that the big payoff should be the humans connecting with the Na'vi not as avatars, but themselves, and Cameron was smart enough to know that it was and build to that moment in the final hour so it really means something.

Worthington deserves more credit than he's gotten as the lead and in a way he acts as our avatar into this world as we see everything through his eyes, experiencing this world for the first time just as he is. He doesn't doing anything special, but doesn't need to and is smart enough to know that. He has a quiet charisma that works well for this and while another actor conceivably could have played the role and done equally well he's great nonetheless. It was also a smart detail on Cameron's part to make Jake a paraplegic so his journey ends up meaning more to him than it would your average Joe action hero. It's a small thing, but I'm not sure many other screenwriters would have thought to include it and the decision made the early scenes play that much better. You could argue the most overlooked performance comes from Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. Or does it? With this motion capture technology it's difficult to gauge just how much she really did and what was contributed via CG in post-production. That's why Cameron's claims that this new technology represents a new approach to acting and the future of moviemaking seem ridiculous. I sincerely hope he's wrong on all counts and can completely understand why actors are pissed about it.

Uttering the phrase, "You don't go into a movie like Avatar for it's story" is a total cop-out and really shouldn't be said in regard to any film, much less this one. Luckily, this does have an involving story but we may not be able to say the same for future projects abusing this technology so studios can make a quick buck. Cameron took a big risk and it paid off. Do I think the film would have been more exciting if seen on the big screen in 3D? Probably. But a film's quality shouldn't be entirely dependent on the format or circumstances in which it's viewed. Either way, Avatar holds up and there's nothing the slightest bit average about it. While each aren't without their issues, I'd slightly favor Avatar over its Best Picture rival The Hurt Locker just because this gave us something we've never seen before. But that doesn't mean I want to see anything like it again.