May 29, 2010

We Lost

---here there be spoilers---

Summer of 2005, I was so sick I couldn't see straight, but one thing I did notice was comic books had come to television. Through a haze of sleep-deprived delirium, it seemed to me the season finales of two J.J. Abrams joints were sequential art turned to moving pictures, working their respective genre cliffhangers the way funny books had done so well for generations. Alias, I recalled from healthier times, was winding down, but this Lost thing was just getting started. And though I hadn't seen a single other episode, I decided I should get better and do just that, 'cause I really, really wanted to know why Walt was kidnapped, and what was at the bottom of the Hatch. As someone whose fail-safe life support has always been story, the question 'what happens next?' took on personal importance. I needed answers, first from myself, and then, after I'd found a way to heal, from this intriguing show. Cue credits.

For five seasons, Lost inspired and moved me. I enjoyed Season One's soapy setup, and unlike many, dug the heck outta Season Two's focus on Locke and the iconic fable of brothers Eko and Yemi. As Season Three's character backstories ran out of steam to power the show's engine and narrative shifted gears to uncover the island's secrets instead, I was on board for the ride, and rewarded, I believe, by Season Four's luminous "The Constant", and Season Five's admirable, internally consistent handling of time travel (so much smarter than the Star Trek reboot kludge). This was the closest we'd come so far, I cheered, to nerdvana breaching the mainstream without compromising its pocket-protector principles. But come Six, my Season of Discontent, as each week I traded tears and goosebumps for groans and winces, I wondered if my chosen Geek Emperors were naked all along, and half a decade of compelling mytho-mystery was mere misdirection to kill time.

I'll say this for the finale: it gave the actors some emotion to play in a season starved for it, where characters who once carried the show (Sayid, rendered expressionless by a poisoned fountain of eternal life; Sun, separated from her love/hate hubby for 30 episodes until a throwaway beach reunion and hasty kill-off; Big Bad Ben become bit player with only a smidge more dialogue than pilot Frank Lapidus) sat idly on their squares of the chessboard asking Smocke where to go and what to do next. Thank God for Terry O'Quinn's wonderful, nuanced line readings, saving even a 'flash-sideways' gimmick that unspooled like wish-fulfillment fanfic (and not from the internet this time, but the writers room)! Therein, perhaps, lies Lost's most interesting payoff: a role-reversal that revealed a viewership more willing and able to backfill story gaps than the show's creators. It was Hurley, audience surrogate, after all, who inherited the island, and Scott Brown in Wired had it right: this fiction was fulfilled by the cloud. Without fan theories, what was found in Lost besides:

I've made it so you can't hurt each other.

I see. (kills Titus Welliver) Now I'm all you've got.

Watch over this glowing log flume tunnel, okay?


Because. Life. Death. Everything. Drink this.


Lotsa other Losties have weighed in, definitively, about all the threads left dangling from Jacob's loom (here's a fine example, courtesy FFC Chief Chambers: College Humor). I share their frustration, but for me, whether 'Darlton' had the show mapped out from the beginning isn't the issue. Even obsessive long-form planners like Joe Straczynski understand an outline is just a guide; signposts are there to keep you on track, but without room to adapt and invent along the way, your story can't surprise or surpass its initial conditions. That is to say, making it up as you go along is part of the magic, and certainly a matter of course in serialized storytelling for TV, where actors can opt out, networks might decide not to renew, and writing duties change hands. To elegantly walk the tightrope, adjusting on the fly and honoring what's come before while retrofitting new elements onto existing mythology, is the job, and if I may come full-circle, comic book creators have done said job since the medium's inception. In funny books it's called retroactive continuity (retcon), and it's a skillset I wish the Lost team, avowed comics dorks, had brought to bear for their conclusion.

It's not outside their capability, see. They retconned beautifully, I feel, all the way from Seasons Two through Five, each year widening the perspective to show a bigger picture, a deeper drama, than the one we'd so far assumed was underway. Ben Linus and the Others and Dharma in Season Two. Jacob and the Smoke Monster in Seasons Three and Four. And Season Five's coup de grace, when our castaways were smoothly shoehorned into their own histories as catalysts of fate via an entertaining, emotionally satisfying, and airtight time-travel execution. Still, though I appreciate the thematic sense of 'turtles all the way down', discovering this year that twins Jacob and Nameless didn't know anything more about the island than anyone else we'd come to view as a secret-keeping authority, and neither did their crazy ma, became too painful a metaphor for the Lost team's own relationship with their audience: stop asking, we won't answer, every middleman's a fraud, and even the people at the top follow rules without question. I think we deserved better. Don't you?

May 26, 2010


This ...

... is not this ...

... although either one can result in this:

This guy ...

... is not this guy ...

... but when they get together it is AWESOME:

This is Japan:

This is distinctly not:

Therefore, this ...

... cannot be this ...

... although it has the potential to become this:

And this guy ...... who used to get his ass kicked on film by this guy ...

... should really know the difference.

May 23, 2010


So a brief topic for the hours between now and the next thing…

Having just watched Exorcist 3 again for the first time in a bit, I was stricken by its craft and the quality of its dread. Sure it’s edited by a trio of real idiots, jumping around like a fucking rat on a griddle – but Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer is fantastic, ditto Scott Wilson’s zoned-out Dr. Wilson – not to mention a nice little cameo by Jason Miller that’s never failed to freak me out. George C. Scott looks like he’s about to die at any moment from some kind of congestive, stress-related event, and in his defense I have to say that the film is one of the few that earns its jump-scares. The ending is compromised, but the build-up is exceptional and honorable, and having just logged a review of the genuinely awful Legion, it’s nice to see a thinking-person’s horror film done well.

So the brief topic… on the eve of the third Toy Story: best second sequels.

I’ll start us off with this film, the third Children of the Corn flick with f/x by Screaming Mad George, and the just awesome Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Speak of the Devil

Lovely piece of fan mail following the Shrek Forever After review:

Subject: just some more unsolicited email from a reader

Having read a considerable number of the reviews on this website I am
puzzled by the amount of apparent energy given to such self-selected and
self-serving projects as explaining why the Michael Bays and the Shrek 4s
etc etc are crap.


I would think (and we all have our opinions don’t we) a reviewer – that is,
a cinephile – would wash out the terrible aftertaste of a Michael Bay
production with at least a sense of humour (one reason being that we all
knew what the reviewer was getting himself into when at the ticket kiosk,
even if, as it apparently turns out, said reviewer somehow didn’t).

But you seem to take some perverse sense of delight in explaining, quite
seriously it would seem(?), why a Shrek 4 is bad.

What would spur someone to do that with their time? Seriously, the reviewer
comes across in the “review” as depressed, distracted.

You folks seem educated in the worst text-book way - in that you do not know
how to apply it usefully. So you pick on movies as pretext to platform how
much you “know” (Prime case in point: the review of the latest Disney
animated feature (forget the name) in which the “reviewer” bases part of his
critique on the opinion that Disney is “evil”… ya-awn!... I mean - oh
really. Yes yes and Sony is what – “good”?).

You see, you become a cliché. You do the intellectual equivalent of taking
candy from a baby and then seem to take pride in it. What you pass off as
wit is really sophomoric bitching, and is at least partly so because you do
not have sufficient insight into the broader scope of genre to make your
slicing and dicing interesting. So you attach a Disney animation to social
evil and injustice. Give me a break. In this sense you provide humour but
it appears unintentional.

I s’pose I could hang around and wait for your scintillating and searing
reviews of Shreks 5 and 6, but I think I have already read them, at least a
few times.

Say, why not fill up the viewing roster with some interesting cinema. Since
you do the dvd thing why not open up a section of movie classics. Show me
what you know about cinema and what makes you interesting as

Until then, I remain,

- A reader that doesn’t come around much anymore

Of course, I really wish I knew which Disney review ARTDCAMA was talking about, since it seems to be his prime case in point. Maybe The Princess and the Frog? I don't refer to Disney as "evil" in that review; I do, however, refer to it as an institution that knowingly projects a specific image.
What baby are we taking candy from, exactly? The broader insight into the genre that Shrek 4 provides is this ridiculous opinion that you somehow shouldn't talk about children's movies (or action movies, or romantic movies, or horror movies...) seriously. It's not just that they're made for children, but this idea that they're made by children--and, golly gee, they tried their very best and weren't aiming very high anyway. The simple fact is that they're made by adults with their own motives; furthermore, the brains behind Shrek and Disney represent an ineluctable part of American culture that has a voice several million times louder than the average artist/human being.

Shrek the Third had a pretty piss-poor moral (kill anyone who doesn't go along with the program) and it made a mint, as was its primary goal. Shouldn't that be reason enough for concern when the next one comes rolling around?
The same thing applies to those Michael Bay pictures. It's difficult to argue with Criterion's decision to put Bay's films into their Collection because, like it or not, they're cultural touchstones--and I would say the same thing if they decided to bring the
Transformers movies into that fold. (Although I think The Rock is a pretty great picture.) It's important that we talk about these films--and rail against them, should the need arise.

We love movies enough to want to understand them from any number of vantage points. There's no shortage of movie love in what we write, and you'll find that love in our negative reviews just as easily as you'll find it in our positive reviews.
But what ARTDCAMA is suggesting is that we're double-plus-bad eggheads because we watch films that might be terrible, and give them negative reviews if they do turn out to be terrible. That's just not the way it works. "Sophomoric bitching" would entail snarking all over something for the sake of being a snarky asshole, and that's not what we're about. Hell, I'm the guy who gave 2012 three stars--and I meant it.

You need to recognize patterns. You can't understand "good" if you don't understand "bad," and you can't understand artistic context if you don't understand social context.

May 06, 2010


Geoff Johns is younger than you'd expect, for a guy in charge of steering DC Comics' superheroes into new incarnations on the movie screen. Back in March I sat at his feet, almost literally — the "chief creative officer" of DC Comics was up on a conference-room dais at Seattle's Emerald City ComiCon, and I was in the front row.

Naturally, the 2011 Green Lantern movie with Ryan Reynolds came up. Johns, who by now had turned the galactic policeman into just one color on a spectrum of highly marketable power rings, assured the crowd that he'd be hands-on with that project, just as he'd been with recent arcs on "Smallville." "You'll see the stuff start to represent the comics a lot more than it has been in the past," Johns promised, to general applause.

It's what we all want, of course, if we've geeked out over four-color champions and dreamed of seeing them filmed. Just make the comic book, we pray. The comic book is perfect. Why mess with perfection? Like the consumers who demanded a Starbucks or Starbucks-like coffee at every corner, we're getting our wish. And what a monkey's-paw wish it's turning out to be.

The media companies that own these characters are finally getting their acts together, decades after Richard Donner's Superman showed them how much the public would shell out for superheroes in the cinema. They're consolidating and streamlining, building pipes that run direct from Editorial through Marketing to Merchandising to the film studio. Marvel has its own studio, of course, and now its riches can be bankrolled and harvested by Disney. DC has its own entertainment division, which Johns also heads -- Johns, who got his start as an assistant to Richard Donner. In their film adaptations, both companies promise faithfulness to the original vision of the comics, to their characters and continuity (whatever that last term means). They're inviting us into their "universes," where, we're told, Batman will protect Gotham under Christopher Nolan at least once more, Spider-Man will be a teenager again, and Iron Man will soon take his seat in Avengers Mansion.

It would be naive to think that film franchise possibilities, with literally hundreds of millions of dollars to be earned, have no effect on the creative end of this pipeline. Both Marvel and DC have tightened control over their stables of characters, always focused on the next crossover and its potential to spotlight saleable heroes. Spider-Man had too much romantic angst for either print or film versions, so now he'll be unattached in both. Johns was personally in charge of resurrecting Hal Jordan, dead since 1994, as Green Lantern, and Barry Allen, 1956-1986, as the Flash. They're just being populist, giving the readers what they want: the fantastic married to the familiar. It just so happens that that's how you write a successful movie script too.

They're giving us what we want, more's the pity, and we will never fail to be unfulfilled by it. We wanted to know everything about how Wolverine became Wolverine, so they gave us that ... first as a comic, then as a shitty, shitty shitball of a movie. We wanted Rachel Dawes, the only character in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight who had no basis in the comics, to go kablooie. We wanted to see Galactus try to eat the planet, so ... oh God, the tears burn. And we wanted the Black Widow to work her curvy leather-clad magic on Tony Stark's joystick, and we wanted War Machine to bust shit up, and we wanted Samuel L. Jackson -- who was the artist's model for Ultimate Nick Fury long before he was actually cast as Nick Fury -- to be motherfucking Nick Fury. This is pop, eating itself.

So ... what impressions of this latest stab toward an onscreen Marvel Universe? Does Iron Man 2 measure up to Iron Man? Surpass it? Merit Walter's review? Give your thoughts.