Friday, February 29, 2008

Head Trip

On Lost the Desmond episodes are always among the most freewheeling and enjoyable, and last night's "The Constant" was no exception. It's not just because the writers have given themselves greater flexibility with what is now definitively a time-traveling character, but that Henry Ian Cusick's range as an actor is apparently boundless. Back in season two, it took guts to revolve the show's two-hour finale around a character we had barely met, but Cusick made his character a center of gravity that he has continued to supply even when confined to the sidelines.

In "The Constant," Desmond returned to the stage, helicoptering with Sayid (the also underused Naveen Andrews) and pilot Frank (Jeff Fahey) to the boat parked offshore, but not before undergoing the first of a series of flashbacks to his stint in British boot camp eight years earlier. We have had an inkling of the uniqueness of Desmond's flashes before -- that on account of the meltdown of the hatch, he is able to anticipate random events in the future and have some kind of lucid experience of the past. The twist this time is that the "present" Desmond loses his memory of the events on the island and is put in mortal danger, unless the "past" Desmond is able to help him save himself.

Something this convoluted would be hopeless in the hands of another actor. Credit Cusick, then, with making Desmond's temporary amnesia as plausible as his enduring love for Penny (the touching Sonya Walger). "The Constant" also featured a terrific showcase for Jeremy Davies -- who finally got to cut loose as Faraday in the flashback scenes at Oxford -- and gave us a respite from Ben's grinding machinations and the Who Will Kate Choose? suitor sweepstakes between Bachelor Number One ("He's a hot-headed doctor whose dream date is a cuppa coffee!") and Bachelor Number Two ("He's an inveterate con artist who can offer a romantic honeymoon on the lam!"). As last week's dud episode made amply clear, Kate, for all her good qualities, inevitably chooses herself. (It also made clear, in his closeups during the flashforward scenes, that Matthew Fox's sadly botoxed face is giving him even less expressiveness; bring back the beard fast.) Desmond is a much more intriguing and involving character -- one whose future still feels uncertain.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"I Don't Go to Movies to Think!"

I'd been festering all day to write a rebuttal against the carping criticisms about the Oscars, mainly by news pundits and sportscasters (one of whom is quoted in my post heading and pictured above) and other wanks who know nothing about movies. And I still might, but Nathaniel R. over at The Film Experience has already pretty thoroughly covered the bases (excerpts below, edited grammatically in a few spots -- sorry, can't help myself):

On audiences:
"There will be more articles....about the Oscars' low ratings this year, the lowest ever, and more misleading attacks on how they've lost touch. And sure, Oscar could use some lightening up. But Jesus, the public's taste lacks for variety. The public is even more narrow-minded in their favoritism than Oscar is in theirs....And why does no one stop to consider that Oscar mostly honors movies made for adults and box office mostly honors movies made for kids?"

On media complicity:
"But again... this whole 'I've never heard of that!' complaint is silliness and it's part of the widening problem of a press that wants to constantly butter up and infantilize the masses, feeding them the line that they're always right. Information is so easy to get now. Everything is literally a mouse click away. You haven't heard of that movie? Look it up, you damn lazy fool."

On nominated movies:
"So why do so many articles try to widen the gap and reinforce the perception that people don't see/aren't seeing the Best Picture nominees? Wouldn't the media at large benefit from a public that was more interested in exploring the arts and not just sitting there like lumps being force fed whichever movies had the highest ad budgets? Compounding the problem is that the media is so selective and hypocritical about how they bitch about this public/Oscar disconnect....This year Juno is a smash and No Country For Old Men has done very solid business....If you ask me There Will Be Blood has done terrific business for what it is. It's a truly challenging, almost alien movie."

On the Oscars themselves:
"Somewhere and probably thousands of somewheres in the world, young kids and even some sheltered adults are hearing about great movies that they might never have heard about otherwise if it weren't for this popularity contest that looks beyond superheroes and anthropomorphic animals."

Read the whole thing; it's worth your while. Meantime, I'll be fretting like Claude Rains in Casablanca over this year's acting winners: "I am shocked -- shocked! -- to find that foreigners have taken home gold statues...."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Periscopes & Binoculars

Guessed correctly 13 out of the 21 Oscar categories I bothered to predict....not bad, though I should have done better. Proudest of upset picks Tilda Swinton for Supporting Actress (to paraphrase Wesley Snipes, always bet on the Brit) and Robert Elswit for Cinematography (poor Roger Deakins cancelled himself out). Should have kept my original Atonement pick for musical score, and botched a couple more of the techie categories. As for Marion Cotillard, in retrospect, we all should have seen it coming, if any of us had seen the movie.

Nevertheless, happy for No Country, happy for Daniel Day. Good to see Jon Stewart more relaxed this time, roaming freely around the stage rather than clinging to a podium, playing more to the crowd than the TV audience. A very montage-heavy show, redeemed by "A Salute to Periscopes and Binoculars" -- for me the comic high point. (Low point? The awful, awful Enchanted numbers.) And whether by Stewart's doing or someone else's, letting Markéta Irglová return to give her acceptance speech for Best Song after being cut off by the orchestra was genuine class amid an atmosphere always reeking with phoniness. I certainly agree that we don't want to go back to interminable acceptance speeches along the lines of Dustin Hoffman's rambling bore-a-thons of yore, but when there's more than one winner on stage, cut them a little slack on the time limit. Especially the likes of Irglova, a charming presence who may never be there again.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar is Here!

I'll admit it: I'm halfway interested in the Academy Awards this year. Not the actual water-torture ceremony, the reassuring presence of Jon Stewart notwithstanding. (It'll be interesting to see if the lack of preparation this year, due to the just-resolved writers' strike, produces more or fewer interminable montages.) For the first time in memory, many of the nominees are actually worthy, with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men towering over the field. Regardless if one or the other wins (and I'd be perfectly happy with either), it seems likely they will be remembered in tandem. Both were developed by the same production company; both were shot in Marfa, Texas; both were made by highly-regarded-yet-controversial auteurs; both feature similar themes and visuals (down to an image of a thundercloud rolling overhead); both have been recipients of an intensifying backlash as the awards have neared, with tiresome reminders that these them movies t'ain't as good as they used to be. Time will be the final arbiter, of course, but I'd bet one of Anton Chigurh's coin tosses that when future cinephiles look back at the filmmakers most reflective of our era, the names Joel and Ethan Coen and Paul Thomas Anderson will be near the top of the list.

The predictions below are my usual mix of cold rational logic and wild hunches. A couple of rules I do hold steadfast: 1) It's important to consider the final number of awards that a movie might bring home (for example, is the Academy's love for No Country worthy of a sweep of eight Oscars, or will it be closer to three or four?); and 2) Actors and actresses in best-picture-nominated films generally have a better chance of winning their categories than performers whose films have not been nominated for the top prize. Thus I foresee the top five films will finish pretty close in the number of Oscars won -- it's a share-the-wealth kind of year -- and I will eat my hat if Ruby Dee wins Supporting Actress, the SAGs bedamned.

BEST PICTURE: No Country for Old Men
BEST ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
BEST ACTRESS: Ellen Page, Juno
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
BEST DIRECTOR: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood
BEST EDITING: The Bourne Ultimatum
BEST SOUND: The Bourne Ultimatum
BEST SOUND EDITING: No Country for Old Men
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: the Pirates' flick

No Country for Old Men = 4 Oscars
There Will Be Blood = 3
Juno = 2
Michael Clayton = 2
Bourne Ultimatum = 2
Atonement = 1
And one for each of the other winners.

Come back tomorrow to make fun!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Missions Impossible

Extravagantly praised for not being a Michael Moore movie, No End in Sight, Charles Ferguson's Oscar-nominated documentary about the botching of the Iraq War, is disingenuous in more subtle ways. Not that I disagree with the basic premise: WMD evidence was fudged; the inner circle of power, namely Rumsfeld and Bremer, made dubious decisions for the occupation (allowing the looting, banning the Ba'athists, dissolving the Iraqi military) with catastrophic consequences; people who knew what they were doing and could have made a difference were marginalized or ignored and all wrote books to prove it. Ferguson, in his first film, does a decent job with the bullet points, at capturing sobering images of the chaos on the ground and conducting candid interviews with now-disillusioned pro-interventionists. (Though I'm unclear exactly why New Yorker writer George Packer is being questioned on a stairwell -- was an underground parking garage unavailable?) What's missing is the larger why: the social context for the lack of troops, the fears following 9/11, the deep religious and cultural complexities of the Iraqi people, who are once again given short shrift in a tragic story that is every bit as much their own.

Still, perhaps one should be grateful that they are depicted at all. In The Kingdom, Peter Berg's Dirty Dozen/Black Rain mash-up about a team of p.o.'d American federal agents who barge their way into Saudi Arabia to investigate a terrorist bombing and rough up a Hezbollah neighborhood real good, the Arab inhabitants are window dressing at best, or obstacles in the way of our heroes' bullets hitting the appropriate targets -- not that they ever miss. (Who needs a few more hundred thousand troops, The Kingdom suggests, when four can do the job?) The investigation is uninvolving, the performances (by ordinarily compelling actors like Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper) dull, the employment in the final act of a Daniel Pearl-type subplot featuring Jason Bateman's character reprehensible to the extreme. A good movie could be made of this scenario, but dipshit director Berg isn't up to it. On the DVD commentary, he glosses over the couldn't-be-timelier subject matter, opting instead to brag about how he was the first guest-star on Alias to kiss Jennifer Garner. Way to focus, Pete.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Palpable Mess*

Out of the madness of the Roger Clemens' congressional hearing come a pair of terrific articles. In the first -- at Slate, of all places -- Josh Levin astutely and sardonically takes us through the testimony involving (to paraphrase the caption) a barbecue, a bikini, and a bloody butt. Then, if like many Americans you're wondering why politicians would occupy themselves with relatively trifling sports issues in the big scheme of things, Joshua Green's perceptive, funny piece over at The Atlantic Monthly Online provides the reason why.

On the tube, the most interesting televised coverage of the saga has come from ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning. For the uninitiated, Mike and Mike is the sports-show version of Siskel & Ebert, starring Mike Greenberg (skinny, erudite) and Mike Golic (chubby, blowhardish), who engage in discussions and debates pertaining to your favorite water-cooler sports' topics of choice. Several cuts above the crotch-scratchers on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, Greenberg, a non-jock, and Golic, an ex-pro football player, have been working together for over eight years (originally as a radio show) and mesh their "Odd Couple" shtick very well. Like Siskel and Ebert, the big secret about Greenberg and Golic is they actually agree more often than not; and the trajectory of their views regarding McNamee's allegations -- moving from this-is-bullshit to a grudging acknowledgment that hey, maybe there's something here -- has been reflective of the cable-sports party line in general.

With a considerable number of ESPN and FOX Sports' analysts and commentators former athletes and coaches, the Notre Dame grad Golic, better-spoken than most (and open about his past steroids use in the NFL), has offered perhaps the most compelling criticism of the actions by Congress against the steroid-era athletes by asking, "What good does this do" for baseball and sports in general. While I certainly agree that our politicians have better ways to spend their time, I can't say I'm sorry to see Clemens, McGwire, Marion Jones and the rest punished in a public arena. It's no coincidence that baseball and the Olympics stopped being fun for me right around the time the steroid era began. Maybe it's going to take the kind of "ritual humiliation" of which Joshua Green speaks to find their way back.

(*Or "Palpable Ass," whichever you prefer.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Man from Baghdad

Arguably the most underutilized character on Lost, Sayid (Naveen Andrews) has always ranked among my favorites anyway, and last night's episode, "The Economist," was a vivid reminder why. On the island, we see the Iraqi War veteran deftly negotiate a prisoner exchange with the normally non-negotiable Locke. In the flashforwards, we learned that the Iraqi War veteran will become one of the "Oceanic Six" -- the catchy moniker given the evidently half-dozen escapees of their current environs -- as well as a globe-trotting assassin under the employ of Ben. As played by Andrews, Sayid has always been the person most capable of surviving under the circumstances; yet unlike Jack, he's not a natural leader. There's something quiet and recessive about him that causes him to linger more in the background than he should. And as Ben implies, Sayid's empathy has a way of getting him into trouble.

"The Economist" was another beautifully economical episode, where every line and gesture seem to count. I liked how Jack is for the moment slightly humbled, reined in from behaving too rashly and showing confidence in his cohorts (especially Sayid and Kate) to think and act independently. I liked the emotional texture of many scenes, namely Sayid and Desmond's helicopter ride off the island and how silence was used to convey the magnitude of that moment. And like everyone else, I'm liking how the flashforwards are adding a layer of mystery to the show while continuing its examination of the role of fate. From character to character, Lost always asks: Are we sentenced to a certain destiny, or can we escape from it, outwit it, outrun it? The answer to that question -- like Sayid himself -- is ambiguous and ever-changing.

Monday, February 11, 2008

An Effortless Everyman: Roy Scheider (1932-2008)

One of the first "real" movies (i.e., for grownups) that I saw as a kid was The French Connection -- which edited for television though it was, perhaps speaks volumes about my present state of mind. Yet while I found Gene Hackman's performance riveting, it was Roy Scheider's Detective Buddy Russo that even an 11-year-old could identify with, insofar that he was the most human character onscreen. Check out Scheider's credits -- worth a revisit, now that he has sadly passed -- and you can apply that statement to many of them.

Jaws, of course, will always be his best known film; and Scheider himself is a big reason why. While Robert Shaw got the most baroque character, and Richard Dreyfus got the bulk of the laugh lines (with one or two notable exceptions), it is Scheider's Chief Brody who holds the picture together, a center of gravity who never drags things down. Part of the reason lies in his smartass wit: "You're gonna need a bigger boat" will forever be in the pantheon of classic screen dialogue. But my favorite is the zinger Scheider rattles off right before that, and just before the shark appears: "Why don't you come down and chum some of this shit?" Imagine how Schwarzenneger or Stallone would have uttered that line -- or the climactic salvo, "Smile, you sonofabitch!" -- and you start to see the secret to Scheider's appeal was his light touch. He could inhabit blue-collar characters without straining at the leash.

He could play villains, or the morally ambiguous, just as naturally. The first time I saw Marathon Man, I remember feeling stunned at the revelations regarding his character -- Hoffman's brother, whom he plays beautifully. And in William Friedkin's Sorcerer, Scheider played Jackie Scanlon, a variation on Yves Montand's antihero from The Wages of Fear, as a Bogartesque American abroad -- not quite "Ugly," but certainly desperate and compromised enough to drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. Sorcerer was, in a way, Scheider's (and Friedkin's) Apocalypse Now, a much-maligned production then that holds up better today.

Following his career peak with Bob Fosse's All That Jazz -- a film I can't comment on because I'm embarrassed to say I haven't (yet) seen it -- the 70s came to a close, and with that decade went much of the quality of Scheider's parts. He was in fine form in Blue Thunder (though the helicopter was the real star) and again in 2010, an ambitious if doomed-to-fail follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of his last lead performances was unfortunately in John Frankenheimer's 52 Pick-Up, an unbelievably sleazy adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel and a textbook example of how Hollywood initially had no clue how to do Leonard right.

In the right supporting role, Scheider would continue to be effective. He was terrific as Russell, the CIA honcho in The Russia House, brilliantly distilling from John LeCarre's novel a particular brand of asshole. (He would have blown the Bourne baddies off the screen.) And while I almost never watch any of the Law & Orders, I made an exception just last year to see Scheider on an episode of Criminal Intent. There he played a serial killer on death row, indirectly confessing to several former murders and providing hints as to where the bodies might be. Another actor would have hammed it up (and overplayed the implausible Oedipal ramifications with Vincent D'Onofrio's detective), but Scheider toned down the mind games, making them all the more chilling.

About ten or fifteen years ago, when Larry King wrote a semi-coherent, ellipses-filled, stream-of-consciousness column for USA Today (or does he still?), one of King's cryptic sentence fragments promised that Scheider was on the verge of a major comeback role that would win him an Oscar. It's a shame that never came around, because I loved the guy. But unlike the tragically unfulfilled promise of Heath Ledger, Scheider led a full career, one that blossomed in arguably the greatest decade of American cinema. While he never reached the heights of Nicholson, Hoffman, Pacino or DeNiro, I would go so far as to argue that Scheider, more than any of them, defined the naturalism of 70s cinema. So many actors break a sweat straining to keep it real. Scheider, an effortless everyman, always made it look easy.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Outside Looking In

Arguably one of the few saving graces of the writers' strike (evidently now settled) may have been forcing the creators of Lost to no longer dally in showing their cards. This season's second episode chose to lay four big ones on the table -- the would-be rescuers of our castaways: Daniel (Jeremy Davies), Miles (Ken Leung), Frank (Jeff Fahey), and Charlotte (Rebecca Mader), each one with a economically-conveyed backstory and personalities distinctive from each other as well as the established characters. (Leung, in particular, registered the strongest in his debut; I remember him as an intrepid scene-stealer as far back as the Ed Norton/Ben Stiller comedy Keeping the Faith.)

As for the storyline itself, it seems a bit of a letdown that they're on the island to come after Ben. (Michael Emerson continues to do creepily effective work, but he's about to outlive his purpose on the show.) On the plus side, it's great to see the show's expansiveness with this new corps of characters, pulling us off the hermetically-sealed events on the island to something resembling terra firma. It's also fun to see just how far the protagonists have come since their hellish experiences with "the Others." When Sayid and Juliet -- aided by Jack -- get the drop on Miles and Daniel, they show a resourcefulness that has been lacking in too many contrived idiot plots. I don't know where Lost is going or what all the clues mean (though, as usual, some seem to be overthinking it), but for the first time in a long while I'm happy being in the dark.

Poofed Up

One of the great things about having a blog is the chance to catch up on films that came and went in the blink of an eye -- or, in the case of Hairspray, to reevaluate a big hit that I had the opportunity to see in theaters last summer. ("Wow, that was....energetic," was my initial, dizzied response.) If anything, the movie's joyfulness won me over even more the second time, with John Travolta's polarizing performance even more weirdly touching. Anchored by big-haired Nikki Blonsky's tone-setting, infectious work in the lead, Hairspray may have the best cast for a musical in years: Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah, Zac Efron, James Marsden and Elijah Kelley all have their moments. (Kelley, in particular, has the potential to become a big star.) About the only actor I didn't care for was the beloved-by-everyone-else Allison Janney, who lays it on as thick here -- a liberal's cartoon idea of an evangelical -- as she does with her "nail technician" in Juno. I'm also not sure how we're supposed to take Tracy fleeing the scene of a racial protest march while the cops start arresting everyone else. Still, Hairspray moves at such a fast clip, and is so open and accepting, that its more messagey elements never weigh it down. The director, Adam Shankman, has been quoted as saying something to the effect that he loved the Broadway musical so much that he prayed he wouldn't screw the movie version up; other than a few glitches with the climax (the camera being so far away it's hard to see the integration between the black and white dancers), he succeeds in making the viewer what Pauline Kael would have called "crazy with happiness."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mild Mild West

James Mangold moves inexorably closer towards his destiny as a future Oscar-winning director with 3:10 to Yuma -- which is my way of saying that the movie is okay. Competent. The kind of film that makes you go, "Mmmm, strong production values." I don't mean that entirely derisively. As I opined to Dan Fienberg in an interesting discussion following 3:10 to Yuma's initial release (scroll down to the comments section): "What (Mangold) is becoming is an increasingly accomplished craftsman who can work efficiently in almost any genre: police procedural (Copland), chick flick (Girl, Interrupted), thriller (Identity), biopic (Walk the Line), Western (this film). His movies are well-made and well-acted, and for me these days I guess that's enough."

It's definitely not horse-feathers. Having seen 3:10 again on DVD, I once again appreciated the obvious thought and care that Mangold puts into his films. His ability to stage a decent action scene is apparent from the beginning, and sometimes he even surprises with an arresting image (like, say, a horse exploding). Lately the best thing in a Mangold movie is the editing by the unsung Michael McCusker, whose exhilarating sense of rhythm is entering Anne V. Coates territory. (McCusker put together the opening credits sequence to Walk the Line, arguably the best thing Mangold has ever done.), And for those legions of moviegoers who go "Mmmm" at the sight of Russell Crowe, suffice to say that he's only coasting in this one, and rediscovers the charm he once had before straining for gold statues and pummeling bellboys with telephones.

I admire Mangold's refusal (so far) to bloat up his films a la Ron Howard, his willingness to make different kinds of movies. That they all end up more or less the same -- mildly entertaining, a little bland -- I'm often willing to overlook. Still, when I said what I'd said to Fienberg, the 2007 movie year hadn't reached its crescendo: it was before Paul Thomas Anderson, before the Coen brothers. Before being reminded of the possibilities of what movies can be. 3:10 to Yuma is still okay, but I'm no longer sure it's enough.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

As She Likes It

A pair of young lovers. The young man departs for war, leaving the young woman alone and afraid and free to wander. Another character, an older gentleman, is left by his wife for his brother, and is reluctant to enter a courtship with another woman close to his age. The younger woman washes ashore on the old man's homestead, where they battle and finally establish a father-daughter bond. The older woman discovers and gets the wrong idea about their relationship, as does the soldier boy when he unexpectedly returns. Misunderstandings and many hijinks ensue, followed by a coupling between one pair, a marriage between the other, and a happy (if hard-earned) ending.

If I have neglected to mention a few other pertinent elements of Black Snake Moan -- for starters: the young woman, Rae (Christina Ricci), is a sexual compulsive who is beaten by a would-be suitor and left for dead on the farm of the older man Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson); and Laz, incidentally an embittered alcoholic and failed musician, deals with the situation by chaining Rae to a radiator -- that is because these have been already analyzed to death. And Black Snake Moan is a film that throbs with life. Writer-director Craig Brewer captures the shadings of the Deep South, the conflicts and kinships that blur across racial, gender and age boundaries. Ricci is good at showing how Rae's acting out is like a demonic possession, a seed planted through childhood abuse. At first, Jackson appears obligated to fulfill his usual contractual stipulation to overuse the word "motherfucker," but he comes to fully embody Laz's hard-edged decency and delivers his best work in years.

I don't want to make too big a deal of Black Snake Moan, which is a likable if uneven affair at best; but it's worth pointing out that beneath its kinky, pulpy surface and self-aware absurdity lies the structure of a Shakespearean comedy -- merging the couples who belong together (as Rae and Laz's respective romantic interests, Justin Timberlake and S. Epatha Merkerson come through with empathic performances) and touching on the transformative power of art. In the movie's best scene, Laz picks up his guitar again and plays an R&B show at a local bar. As he sings, Rae dances with the integrated crowd, and Brewer's camera plunges into the thick of it, unleashing an erotic current through a sea of black and white.

Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia is also a comedy, albeit the unintentional kind. Based on the novel by James Ellroy, the film means to chronicle the tragic true-life story of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring Hollywood actress who was found brutally murdered in post-World War II Los Angeles. But as usual De Palma gets easily distracted, turning the entire opening act into a boxing movie between a pair of young cops, the confusingly named Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) -- who also go by the more elemental nicknames "Mr. Ice" and "Mr. Fire" -- and then dithers into lame screwball comedy and romantic tension as Bleichert is brought into a triangle with Blanchard and the latter's squeeze, Kay (Scarlett Johansson). When DePalma finally gets to dealing with Short's death, the scene is one of the few that is well-staged: a long-distance shot of a woman pushing a baby carriage who stumbles on the body and runs screaming down a street corner, while Bleichert and Blanchard are on a stakeout for another crime. As a shoot-out transpires, we're still left thinking about that woman's disturbing screams -- as yet unexplained -- emanating from the corner of the frame.

For a little while longer, The Black Dahlia gets by on recapturing (however palely) the atmosphere and themes of Curtis Hanson's magnificent adaptation of that other Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential. Hanson -- whom I will dub "Mr. Fire" -- kept his story stoked all the way to its climactic inferno of violence. But De Palma, at once lurid yet chilly, pumps up the sordid elements of The Black Dahlia, falls back on his old-hat Hitchcock/Vertigo visual motifs, and is so tone-deaf to the nature of key scenes that he renders them laughable. The performances by Hartnett and Johansson are also a joke, especially when asked to deal with another character's demise by shagging on a table (another classic scene for a potential documentary about Hollywood's ideas of eroticism: Sex in Uncomfortable Places). Hilary Swank has also been the target of brickbats for her turn as Madeleine Linscott, a high-society femme fatale, but I actually thought she had good game. But the only actor who appears to truly sense the awfulness of the whole endeavor is Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia from the Harry Potter oeuvre), who plays Linscott's deranged mother and camps it up mightily.

As The Black Dahlia came out over a year ago, I realize I'm late to the pile-on party; it's also likely unfair of me to put all the blame for this mess at De Palma's feet. (The incoherent screenplay by Josh Friedman does him no favors; and one wag at the movie's IMDb message board suggested that the editor had cut every third scene as a sick joke.) Still, after Mission to Mars and now this, I have to wonder how much further De Palma's current run of work has to bottom out before even his most ardent apologists face up to the stench. (The few raves for The Black Dahlia remind me of the desperate line of argument trotted out by defenders of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's wretched sixth season: "At first I didn't think it was brilliant, but then I realized it's so brilliant that I didn't initially realize it is.") The scene where Bleichert claims to Kay that he couldn't stop a murder because he froze, when in fact we had just seen him running up a flight of stairs and waving his arms like a maniac, isn't the case of a cunning director playing with notions of memory -- it's just sloppy filmmaking. The Black Dahlia -- Ellroy's most personal work -- and Elizabeth Short deserve better than sloppiness. They deserve better than cold technique. Yet even when De Palma's fans tacitly acknowledge this, they still take pains to let him off the hook. They're like the movie's police captain, in another howler of a scene, when he points an admonishing finger at Bleichert and growls, "Boy, if you weren't Mr. Ice...."

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Rescue Doom

"I get the feeling they're jerking me around," my mother once said, "but for some reason I don't mind as much." She was talking about Lost, having just started its fourth season on Thursday night as everyone's favorite current jerk-around show; and while she didn't complete the thought, it's a safe bet that she was comparing it favorably to Twin Peaks and The X-Files, both of which set the gold standard for yanking their fans' chains.

Viewer patience, of course, has worn thin on occasion with Lost as well, reaching its nadir in the first half of last season: keeping popular characters offscreen for long stretches; devoting too much time to characters nobody cared about; and narratively chasing its own tail. But J. J. Abrams isn't an auteur like David Lynch or a dick like Chris Carter; he's an eager-to-please populist whose creative team responded to criticisms and regrouped down the homestretch, culminating in a season finale that was at once a deeply satisfying payoff for the first three years and (in the last scene) a mindblowing set-up for things to come.

As far as openers go, the fourth season's was decent, making good on the promise of last year's climax that flash-forwards would now be employed more than flashbacks. In addition to Jack (Matthew Fox) and Kate (Evangeline Lilly), we learned that Hurley (Jorge Garcia) is one of the "Oceanic Six" -- a half-dozen of the plane crash survivors who evidently get off the island. (How and why are as yet unclear, but as we've already seen Jack turn into a drunk and Hurley returning to the loony bin, it is obvious that this is not a good thing.) As others have mentioned, the flash-forwards are an effective device because they've reinvigorated the sense of mystery that the flashbacks can no longer provide. The episode was also good at bringing the ensemble together quickly and not delaying the reunions like in previous seasons. Even if it divided them again at the end, it was into two clear-cut groups: those who allied themselves with Jack in waiting for the rescue to arrive; and those who joined Locke (Terry O'Quinn) in retreating from the threat they perceive is coming.

If my words sound less ecstatic about the premiere than Alan Sepinwall's prose orgasm, it's because I don't invest that much in the "secrets" -- what's the four-toed statue? who is Jacob?? what's the bird that uttered Hurley's name??? -- that are doled out like Pez candies: that way madness (and disappointment) lies. I watch Lost for the unique story structure and for the characters. I had predicted that Kate would be the first episode's focal character, so I was surprised and delighted that Hurley was employed instead. As played by the underrated Garcia, Hurley has always been the most human of all the castaways, and humanity is a good place to start.