Thursday, January 28, 2010

Let's Go to Tahiti

Lost - Seasons 2 through 5 (2005-2009)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

When the first season of Lost was released on DVD, I watched it. I didn’t like it. Everything interesting about the island was regularly interrupted by soppy exposition. Who are the Others? Watch Jack cry instead! In Season 1, no one could be bad completely; everyone had good reasons for the crimes they’d committed. The crimes weren’t even so terrible.

But Lost is a Show People Watch. Steve watches it, for one. I like science fiction, so I held my breath, took the plunge, and caught up with four seasons in time to catch the last one live. I don’t read Lostpedia, but I assume that a lot of fans were relieved by the whiff of a unified story arc about the time Y: The Last Man creator Brian K. Vaughan became involved as a writer with the show. I don’t necessarily credit him with fulfilling the promise of Lost’s premise, but someone clearly decided that Hurley’s trips to the insane asylum did not constitute greatness.

The introduction of Benjamin Linus saved the series. Ben is the show’s best character (although Sawyer is my favorite), and by letting Ben do some truly awful things for largely selfish reasons, the writers had a chance to really write. If the Others began as Lost’s antagonists, they certainly don’t end that way. Once the creators abandoned the reflexive need to have characters’ mistakes be well-intentioned, I began to not want half the cast to perish in a storm.

At the periphery of that new narrative clarity, Lost is full of buried ruins and a true patriot’s affection for conspiracies about officially commemorated past events. What really happened in those South Seas islands where the US Army tested nuclear bombs? The same islands that were part of whaling routes, slaving routes, drug trafficking routes, and explorers’ expeditions? More than we know. But Sawyer is my favorite because actor Josh Holloway, as the hammy soap opera type par excellence, never lets anyone – neither Kate nor us - take it too seriously.

"Sawyer broke your heart. How else were you supposed to fix it?"

Monday, January 18, 2010

Yule Laugh, Yule Cry, Yule Hurl

A Christmas Tale (2008)
directed by Arnaud Desplechin
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I’m unprepared for the day I re-watch the Antoine Doinel films and find them something less than I remember, and I say that because those movies meant a lot to me, and the modern sentimental French love story seems silly in light of A Christmas Tale. Melodrama existed before Truffaut, of course, but he didn’t jettison the genre as completely as his contemporaries, and presumably Desplechin aspires to a similar kind-hearted cynicism about the entanglements and complications of family and romance. But it’s such a parody here, what with men nobly sharing their wives with old friends and children wandering from one adult situation to the next with nothing on their minds but the knowing precociousness that French kids are famous for.

The profoundest observation is not on life or death, but rather a small insight into the lucky few who skate past the worst of so much day-to-day malaise with the luck of the charmed and charming. “Don’t act beyond your capacity to repair,” Mathieu Amalric tells his sister, knowing that he himself is a man (and a face) with a limitless reserve of goodwill. His sister is not, and she hates him for it, and it’s the one reconciliation the season can’t inspire.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Too Much McG

Chuck - Season 1 (2007)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Chuck the show isn’t as good as it could be because Chuck the character can’t be the hero I want him to. The central premise, essentially, is that nothing bad that has happened to Chuck is ever Chuck’s fault. His best friend gets him kicked out of college for cheating, but Chuck didn’t cheat. That same best friend stole Chuck’s girl, but Chuck doesn’t know why. Chuck misses the one day a year he and his sister always spend together because Chuck had to help solve a national emergency. Or thought he did, although someone could have solved it without him. Chuck doesn’t get promoted at work because he can’t show up for the interview. Chuck’s father left him; Chuck’s mother died.

On paper, the good things that happen to Chuck – Chuck, after all, is a comedy – happen because he deserves to be happy. Chuck’s a nice guy who is loyal to the people he loves and helpful to everyone. He likes Star Wars and video games. His best friend is a socially impossible dork, but he means well. And that’s the problem: Chuck is oblivious to the point of arrogance: a geek daydream in which the choices you make have no bearing on the person you are. After all, wouldn’t the world reward you if only someone realized how much you deserve the woman, the riches, and the lifestyle? Wouldn’t every day be a girl-on-girl martial arts spectacular, staged not for your entertainment, but your very survival?

It’s a world without real regret, and it isn’t true. Burn Notice is just as stupid but twice as fun because Michael broke the heroine’s heart, and every time he and Fiona go out on a mission together, the heartbreak is a part of the scene. Sure, we want Chuck to get the blonde – they’re a cute couple - but whether he does or doesn’t, the stakes aren’t particularly high.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

That San Dimas Glow

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
directed by Stephen Herek
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD in Tempe

I appreciate movies that sympathize with the kids who hated high school. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show Joss Whedon conceived because he felt like an outsider in grades 9 through 12. But popular kids need their days in the sun, and if you’re going to be fair about it, a good day in the life of a much-loved senior is just about as good as a day can get. Bill and Ted famously incorporates logically consistent time travel – people are always amazed by that, as if Bill and Ted wrote the screenplay, too - but what makes it a great movie is the goodwill that everyone from Bill and Ted’s teachers to an adoring auditorium full of classmates extends to their innocent heroes. As in Easy Living or Let it Ride, it isn’t always necessary to see the protagonists fail in order to cheer them on from start to finish. Home life might be tricky for Bill and Ted, but high school in suburban Phoenix isn’t, and I love their movie as much today as I did when I watched it on VHS with my medium popular pals.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Stranger and Friend

Avatar (2009)
directed by James Cameron
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen in 3D on the screen at AMC Waterfront 22

For everyone who still insists that The New World isn't as bad as Dances with Wolves (now back in the public eye, thanks to Avatar), actor Wes Studi played "Toughest Pawnee" in Costner's liberal apology to Native Americans, Opechancanough in Malick's, and Eytukan in Cameron's. "A work of art that can’t be imagined better" begins with better casting, at least. My favorite Studi, as you know, will always be Magua, eater of delicious human hearts in Last of the Mohicans, which, unlike Avatar, is a great movie because director Michael Mann isn't afraid to kill off his Noble Savages with violent, kinetic, un-Costner-like glee. Cameron, of course, loves the Na'vi's swaying, wailing, one-with-the-earth mourning process because it's the epic ceremonial send-off he expects for himself one day, surrounded by the US Army in Avatar mechs, covered in the first cherry blossoms of spring. And he can have it, as far as I'm concerned. His movie gave me a headache, and I wished I was watching Princess Mononoke in that giant, crowded theater instead.