J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for February, 2008

Lost: Seasons 1 and 2

Posted by J on February 29, 2008

The most clever form of art-entertainment was the serial novel of the nineteenth century.250px-lost_title_card.jpg Either published in magazines or stand-alone pamphlets, the best of those novels (Dickens’ among them) were immense social worlds of characters and caricatures, whose relationships shifted in complex ways in long books that were published over the course of several months. What made serial novels clever was the “hook.” Since the novels came out in pieces–perhaps three new chapters at a time, issued once each month–writers developed ways of ending those three-chapter segments so that you would want to buy the next one, if only to see how the problem they left you with in one installment was going to be resolved in the next. We don’t experience those novels that way now–we may read Great Expectations in a two-day period instead of needing to wait for fourteen months for its conclusion–but they still have great appeal in part because they have these internal “hooks.”

Lost is the first serial television show we’ve ever seen. There could’ve been others before it, but our ignorance of TV makes us unaware of any other examples. Serial TV shows are extremely risky commercial ventures anyway, since they do not really invite new viewers and new viewers means more revenue, so there’s great reason that they are so rare. But with Lost the great risk in cost and production time has paid off. This is really not saying much, but it is the best TV show we’ve ever seen.

For reasons that will become clear, we’re splitting this post up in two halves. The first is an introduction for those who have not seen Lost, while in the second half we’ll offer observations on the first two seasons. Right now, in its fourth season, Lost has built a complicated story–80-some shows times 40 minutes per episode–and we couldn’t imagine someone jumping in at any other point than the beginning.

Introducing You to Lost

Lost‘s premise is a writer’s fertile playground for exploring whatever psychological or sociological issues the writer wants to. Desert islands allow for this playground. Whoever wrecks onto an island has to confront a new, different existence while coping with the loss and memory of a prior, civilized existence. In the case of shipwrecked individuals (Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away), the stranded person usually radically transforms. Crusoe becomes a proto-capitalist and a repentant son, while Tom Hanks becomes a quiet melancholic after leaving behind his hectic FedEx job and losing his Wilson volleyball pal. In the case of a shipwrecked group (Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies, and to a degree the reality gameshow Survivor), whatever is imagined to be human nature is demonstrated in the way the group forms and adapts to primitive survival. Desert island scenarios are about fundamentals. Crusoe’s existence is a commonly used economic hypothetical that demonstrates the fundamentals of scarcity, supply and demand, and exchange value. Lord of the Flies shows what upper-class British boys really are at heart (i.e., tribal beasts). Given this, it’s easy to see why Lost‘s producers chose to name one of the show’s best characters John Locke, after the English philosopher who thought that all humans entered the world a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which our sense experience is to be written. (Not coincidentally, Tabula Rasa is the name of the first episode after the pilot.)

In Lost, 48 people survive a plane crash on a large Pacific jungle island. Immediately they have one major problem: how do they get off the island? We quickly find out that their plane had lost radio contact for two hours and had altered its flight plan, which means that no rescue crew could know where their plane crashed. Then other problems crop up: where do they get food? who is going to do certain tasks? who is going to lead and who is going to be led? These problems might suffice as central problems for a decent series, but Lost adds a twist. The island contains a number of mysteries. Why is there a polar bear here? Why does it seem like there’s a large monster in the woods? Is there somebody else here? What do these things that we are finding mean?

Pretty quickly Lost engrosses us in a complicated story. The characters move from clue to clue in an attempt to better understand where they are living, all the while struggling to deal with each other and trying to survive. The island mystery is resolved slowly. If you do not have much patience, you will be a poor viewer of this show. Its producers are content to take years to pull back the proverbial curtain inch-by-inch. This is Lost‘s “hook”; at the end of almost every episode, a new development takes place.

If the “hooks” were all Lost had, it could still be inane. But the writers and producers are well versed in Western literary traditions, and we’re convinced that they understand Shakespeare in the depths of their souls. Lost pursues the origins and effects of inscrutable human motivations and actions as far as it can. This pursuit is embedded in each show’s narrative structure. The story unfolds with the clever intertwining of flashbacks with the main story that takes place on the island. Each episode, then, features moments from one character’s past and compares that past with what the character is doing on the island. This narrative structure allows Lost to create several complex characters in ways that other TV shows cannot; what begin as annoying types (an Arab, a Southerner, an Asian marriage) become individuals characters (Sayid, Sawyer, the Kwons). Its flashbacks are the equivalent of what first-person and omniscient narrators do in books: they pick spots to reveal key information or detail that enrichens the entire story. For formal reasons, most cinema is incapable of incorporating that narrative device, which is probably why we all believe that the book is better than the movie.

This is all we can say without giving more away. But there are caveats. This is a show with several women on a desert island, and it airs at 9 p.m. Once in a while, maybe every other episode, there is either a shirtless male or bikinis for the sake of bikinis. Also, two characters have extravagant crime backgrounds, one of which–a muscular 120-pound girl who looks like a prom queen on steroids–is absurd and unbelievable. But then believability is a secondary concern, far behind the question of what the writers are trying to tell us about individuals, society, and ultimate questions (such as one of the show’s favorites, should we trust in a providence that directs all things, believe in an inevitable but vague destiny, or shrug our shoulders and let chance bring what it may?). That’s one of the many reasons that Lost has fascinated us.

Observations on Seasons 1 and 2

Let’s now ask what Lost is telling us. The group of 48 is an attempt to be globally representative, but it’s not especially multicultural. There’s an Iraqi male, a Korean husband and wife, an Australian girl, and a French woman, but there’s little voicing of approval for alternative perspectives. Sayid (the Iraqi) is Western in almost everything but accent, and while the Koreans seem to have a more traditional Asian marriage (authoritative male/submissive female) over time they acculturate to Western film norms, which is to say that they learn to love each other in a feel-good Hollywood way where the husband becomes emotive and the wife is liberated.

The show is decidedly American. It has characters named Rousseau, John Locke, Boone, and Sawyer, and while the first two aren’t American names per se, they’ve long been appropriated to the American frontier. Its inclusion of an Iraqi has, we think, something to do with dealing with and humanizing for Americans a 17 year war in Iraq (1991-2008). Sayid is a technowizard who goes after a rich young California blond, and there’s nothing more American than that. Almost everyone else in the show is what we would call a loose individual, with faint if non-existent ties to family, tradition, and religion.

If there’s one overarching theme, it is father-hunger. This has never been overtly stated in the show, but each character’s island situation has been shaped–so we are told by the flashbacks–by past problems with their fathers. Dr. Jack Shepherd’s had the best father relationship, but a drunken incident during surgery compromised and then severed it. Sawyer’s dad killed himself and his wife. Kate’s was divorced, and she murdered her abusive stepfather. John Locke’s dad pretended to love him in order to steal his kidney. The Kwons are oppressed by Sun’s father. Claire’s lover abandoned his child. Michael never knew Walt and he remains completely and irrationally obsessed with being a father throughout the show.

Consequently the islanders lack firm leadership. That role goes to the reluctant Shepherd, whose only qualification is that he can fix injuries (sort of like an civilized and effective tribal witch doctor). Locke, Sayid, and Michael become rogue figures in their own way, and Kate and Sawyer always were. Both Shepherd and Locke are well developed characters who could easily be co-heroes, but the writers have wisely chosen to make their relationship gnarled and contested, one where crucial information isn’t shared because of pride and personal obsessions.

Locke’s search for the hatch is a metaphor for a search for greater meaning. The final result of that search (so far, at the end of the second season) is the crushing disappointment of finding the control room. There Locke realizes that his beliefs and dreams are meaningless. The island and the task of pushing Execute every 108 minutes are obviously mere psychological experiments. The empty control room is spiritual vacancy. He has forgotten the miracle of his cured paralysis, and the great effect he had on the other islander’s devastating personal problems (especially Charlie, the drug addict). This is contrasted nicely by Mr. Eko, whose faith is renewed by the empty control room. He has seen exactly what Locke has, but he has a far different reaction. He believes in the hatch tasks in faith. For Eko, even what is likely the Dharma Institute’s foolish psychological experiment in which humans act as gerbils is a providentially ordained task, while for Locke it is a soul-crushing sign of an irrational belief. (We are sure that Locke’s quest will be renewed; he was too powerful a character when he was on a mission, up until he entered the hatch.)

Eko is a refreshment. Usually Hollywood producers throw bones at Christians who ache for them (as when the black woman prays with Charlie at the end of a Season 1 episode). Eko, a Catholic Nigerian priest, adds doctrinal mystery and spiritual questions in a show that is screaming for them.

The show at times appears to privilege certain viewpoints, but we all should be aware the the writers and producers do this only to add layers of ambiguity on top of layers of ambiguity. Consider one of the show’s great themes: chance vs. fate vs. providence. In the episode where we learn Claire’s back story, the narration emphasizes the powers of the psychic, who apparently envisioned the planewreck and thus made sure that Claire did what he told her to (i.e., raise the child alone). Then in Hugo’s episode, numerology is considered. The numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42 are cursed, or they at least hold some greater power and significance (an idea countered by the rational doctor). How else could Hugo have heard the numbers, win the lottery, then end up on an island where they are prominently involved? But both psychic powers and numerology are downplayed later, however, when we learn that the psychic is a phony and that there is a possible connection between the island and the psych ward where Hugo learned the numbers. These views are thus deliberately made ambiguous. The same is true of Eko’s faith. Wasn’t he directed by God to the very island where his brother was killed? But why does he keep pushing the buttons when he knows that they are only a part of a psychological experiment? (A possible answer, if we take Locke’s position: he has abandoned the search for truth by believing in something irrational.)

What we expect from Lost is that there is more truth to be discovered–that the island’s existence is not meaningless or the product of a psychotic’s imagination (as the clever but ultimately unrewarding episode “Dave” suggests). The show is leading to that moment of truth, and in making us wait patiently for it to be revealed we are sort of in the position of Old Testament saints, who waited centuries for the mystery of the ages to be revealed in Christ. In this new Christian age we are part of the already/not yet–Christ’s kingdom has come, but it has not come in full, a moment we all await eagerly for. Lost incorporates a structure that’s long been a part of Western narratives; there is a mystery to be unfolded and a greater revelation to come. This is not to suggest that the show is “Christian,” if such a label can be applied, but that it could not be gripping and potent without its Christian elements. We shall see, however, if the next four seasons live up to what the first two have promised.

A List of Great Episodes

  • The Pilot
  • Walkabout (John Locke’s paralysis)
  • The Moth (Charlie’s drug addiction)
  • In Translation (Jin’s backstory)
  • Numbers (Hugo’s story)
  • Man of Science, Man of Faith / Adrift / Orientation (Locke and Shepherd square off in the hatch)
  • The 23rd Psalm (Eko’s backstory)
  • Dave (is it all a dream?)
  • ? (Eko and Locke find the control room)
  • Almost any other episode that features Shepherd’s, Locke’s, or the Kwon’s backstory

Addendum: We wrote this before watching the final episode of Season 2, “Live Together, Die Alone.”  It further confirmed that every moment involved with that hatch was magnificently written and visually constructed.  Even better, Lost‘s writers and producers affirmed Eko’s belief in his mission in the hatch.   Enjoy this as much as you can: it’s rare for a faithful Christian to be so positively portrayed.

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Posted in Great, TV Series | 3 Comments »

I, Robot

Posted by J on February 20, 2008

“I am the dumbest dumb person in the world.” — Will Smith200px-movie_poster_i_robot.jpg

Never before has a movie so accurately described the feeling it leaves its viewers with.

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

Helvetica

Posted by J on February 14, 2008

250px-helveticaspecimenchsvg.pngHelvetica is a fundamental part of your everyday life, a hidden but ever-present communicator. It appears on almost all street signs, in advertisements, and in the vast majority of corporate logos. There’s a great reason for its popularity: it’s sleek, clean, and neutral. Helvetica is easy to read and easy to see from a distance, which is perfect for advertising. As the world’s font, it’s a beneficial font for communication and civil order.

Or is that all really true? Helvetica the documentary explores this question, letting professional type designers do the answering. What is revealed in those answers is a key point that we all ignore everyday: type is a designed artform. Someone has to make letters, and someone has to make them look a particular way for a particular purpose.

This leads us to more interesting questions about Helvetica. If type is an artform, and a particular typeface emerged out of a particular culture and era, what messages might that typeface convey? What does our use and acceptance of Helvetica tell us about us? Answers vary radically. The interviewees in Helvetica claim that it’s capitalistic, socialistic, fascistic, utilitarian, wonderful, boring, and the one type that might not be improved upon. One jokingly mentions the irony of Helvetica’s rise to dominance in the Vietnam-war era and its persistance through the Iraq war. Is Helvetica–in its design–the great, signifying type of the era of global superpowers and multinational corporations?

As it turns out, different generations of type designers think differently about it. The structure of Helvetica is in three parts, according to the generation of designers interviewed: the oldest are in the first-third of the movie, the rebels second, and the up-and-comers last. Those older designers, who started in the 1950s and ’60s, the era of Helvetica’s initial design and rise to ubiquity, are still amazed at Helvetica’s “modernist” look and utility. But the next generation of designers do not appreciate it at all. They cannot stand its dominance, and part of their reaction to it (at least in the ’80s and ’90s) was to create “postmodernist” and “grunge” typefaces, which are best found today on album covers and European and West-Coast magazines from that era. The latest generation of designers, however, have made their peace with Helvetica, but use it in weird instead of sleek ways. We should note, Helvetica‘s structure here is not entirely successful; the opening half-hour (the best part of the movie) lays out the issue and several questions, but then repeats them throughout the rest of the movie.

Now the movie misses a point or two. Helvetica is not as universal as it could be. As children of the P.C. age, we know Arial and Times New Roman just as well as Helvetica. Linotype (the company that owns Helvetica) made a crucial mistake by not partnering with Microsoft. The default font for Windows since version 3.1 has been Arial, which is much uglier than Helvetica. Nor will Helvetica probably last in an age where anyone–for $1500 bucks–can become a type designer. Not only might someone improve upon Helvetica’s appearance and utility, but with the possibility of so many designers, a variety of types might begin to be used for particular places and functions.

Still, though the movie is a little long, it got us thinking. Even better, it got us noticing, which for us is one of the roads to learning.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 8
Morality: — (fine, just a couple of choice words)

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

One Reason Why We Shouldn’t Esteem Actors

Posted by J on February 12, 2008

Because editors can make anybody look good, with enough takes. Surgeons, personal trainers, P.R. consultants, and make-up artists help too.

“How can Actor X be so good in one picture and so bad in another?” — Any performance is created from many random bits and pieces of film, carefully chosen and assembled from among hundreds of choices and many thousands of possible combinations. Actors may give several very different readings of the same scene, adjusting nuances and emotions or improvising something spontaneous that the director and the editor must put together from what would otherwise be incoherent scraps.

Any time an actor looks good, it’s in large part because the director and editor have made wise decisions about what to use and how to use it. Likewise, if the actor looks bad, it’s probably as much the fault of the director and editor as it is the performer. It could be that what you’re seeing is exactly the performance the director wanted to elicit from the actor — even if you don’t like it. Then again, the director may have failed to capture the footage needed for a cohesive performance during production — either because he/she didn’t realize everything needed was not yet “in the can,” or because of some kind failure of communication, or because, for whatever reason, the actor and director didn’t see eye to eye on what the performance should be. The full performance is recorded, somewhere, when an actor leaves the set. After that, it’s up to the director and the editor to choose and assemble the right takes, and to augment the performance with music, sound and visual effects. The actor can be made to look ridiculous — or much better than anticipated — at any point.

Posted in Brief Commentary | Leave a Comment »

Rescue Dawn / Touching the Void

Posted by J on February 8, 2008

Incredible but true stories tend to make good movies. They are hard to screw up. If we took the barebones material of Rescue Dawn, for example–a German-born, Vietnam-era pilot shot down in Laos, captured by Vietcong, held prisoner with several others in a dense jungle, all planning to escape while starving and suffering from temporary dementia–we could only fail by adding too much to it. Like making it a hokey morality tale that prominently involves a swelling John Williams score.

As it is, Rescue Dawn doesn’t have enough added to it, though. Up until its conclusion, we waited for a push that it never quite gave us. The story of Dieter Dengler is almost solely about Dieter’s survival and unfailingly upbeat attitude during his trial. This attitude keeps him alive–in contrast to his other fellow prisoners–but what does Dieter learn? There are no character transformations or internal revelations that provide us, as attentive watchers, with meaning that can transform us.

This is not to disparage a good movie, but to say how a good movie just barely missed being far better. We’re tempted to argue that Rescue Dawn needlessly keeps us focused on the material world. The movie foregrounds the harsh reality of POW life and jungle escape–hunger, scum, bowel movements, vines, maggots, leeches. These are unsettling, but they’re all trumped when Dieter catches and attempts to eat a live snake. Dieter’s escape is providential and transcendent–fulfilling Dieter’s earlier request to God to save him–but the final scene concludes with a puzzling koan from Dieter to his Navy buddies: “Fill what is empty, and empty what is full.” This has no relevance unless Dieter means his stomach.

Touching the Void goes one step beyond Rescue Dawn in this regard, which makes it as moving as it is gripping. Sadly, while it’s a story of a kind of captivity and survival, it’s central turn is a moment of denial of God. In this way it is an anti-conversion narrative, though this is not necessarily due to the filmmakers’ prejudice and does not detract from the great lessons the movie has to offer.

Touching the Void is fundamentally a documentary, with reenacted scenes from the original story. This story is of mountain-climbing: two young Brits in the early 1980s (Joe Simpson and Simon Yates) decide to scale a previously unclimbed mountain in Peru, Siula Grande. The strength of Touching the Void is the two climbers’ ability to relate their stories, which they tell on-camera as they look directly at the viewer. What happens is best left untold here–you will thank us later for saving it. We can say that one of the climbers faces one of those ethical hypotheticals–like what would you do if you and another person were stranded on a raft in the Pacific without food–that never occur in day-to-day life. The other climber faces the consequence of his friend’s choice.

Dieter, Joe, and Simon are all admirable, but only Joe and Simon leaves us with afterthoughts long after the closing credits (indeed we’ve seen Touching the Void twice and the last time well over a year ago). Dieter smiles his way through Laos, but the other two–especially Joe–help us see others with pity and thankfulness. Most importantly of all, they remind us of grace given to us.

Rescue Dawn
Entertainment: 8
Intelligence: 5
Morality: 6 (some language)

Touching the Void
Entertainment: 10
Intelligence: 7
Morality — (one brief scene of language)

Posted in Documentary, Great, Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »

Surf’s Up

Posted by J on February 5, 2008

For some reason, around 2003 movie studio executives thought penguins would sell. What’s the cultural significance of that? We have no idea, but we do know that after watching March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, and now this movie, we hope moviemakers stay far away from our featherless friends. Of course, now that we’re sick of them, we wouldn’t be surprised if VeggieTales’ next feature prominently involved birds from Antarctica.

Surf’s Up has lots going for it. Mostly, it isn’t terrible like Happy Feet is. But it doesn’t have personality, the jokes aren’t really jokes, and it’s about surfing. Along with the surfing is the stereotypical surfer, “live and let live” attitude, embodied in the movie’s two main characters, Cody Maverick and “Big Z.” Cody is a wannabe hotshot in a somewhat dysfunctional family, and he wants to compete in the world penguin surfing tournament. He idolizes “Big Z,” a famous surfer who supposedly disappeared in a surfing accident. The plot wouldn’t have anywhere to go if Big Z were really dead, though, so you can guess what probably happens when Cody and Big Z get together. The student learns something, the teacher learns something, and the world penguin surfing tournament is the climax of all this learning.

Since the characters lack any sympathetic trait and the plot is pretty lame, we would’ve turned this movie off fairly quickly. What kept us involved was the style and direction. Surf’s Up is filmed as a documentary, with character interviews and hand-held camera motions. It cheats on this style a bit, but overall the documentary aspect frees Surf’s Up to present unique camera angles previously unseen (or unimagined) in digital animation films. We appreciated that and the animation, which is the reason we can say this one sets the standard for mediocre kids’ movies featuring penguins.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 2
Morality: 5 (a few jokes inappropriate for children)

Posted in Animated, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Leave a Comment »