Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Lost Season 3

Disc Three
Episode 9: Stranger In A Strange Land- This episode is devastatingly slow with regards to plot development. In flashbacks, we learn how Jack received his tattoos and what they mean. While in island time, Kate and Sawyer arrive back on the main island and bicker incessantly, while Jack is moved to one of the cages due to the fact that Juliet is in hot water over the killing of Pickett. In order to prevent her from being executed, Jack makes a deal with Ben that spares Juliet’s life. This marks the beginning of a secret alliance between Jack and Juliet.
Episode 10: Tricia Tanaka Is Dead- This is a fun, light-hearted episode that is a consistent smile inducer. Hurley finds a decrepit old Dharma Initiative VW bus with a decayed corpse inside of it in the jungle and decides it would be a good thing from a morale point of view to get the vehicle running. The only person he can get to help him is Jin, simply because he can’t understand what he’s being asked. But that soon changes as the returning Sawyer learns that beer is inside the van for the taking if he helps as well. Hurley finally gets Charlie on board in an effort to snap him out of the funk he had been in lately. The result is some good male bonding and genuine laughs for the audience. This episode would seem to do nothing to advance the plot, but details from here resonate a lot bigger further on down the road. Plus, Cheech shows up to play Hurley’s dad in flashbacks. Ironically, his character’s name is Dave. If you get that reference, kudos for your useless trivia knowledge.
Episode 11: Enter 77- While trekking across the island in an effort to rescue Jack from the Others, Kate, Sayid, and Locke come across a building in the jungle. It is the Flame, or communications station. This leads to a confrontation with Mikhail, (AKA Patchy) who at first seems like a good guy but is quickly revealed to be an Other. After subduing Mikhail, Kate and Sayid search the place and find it to be wired up with C4, while Locke obsessively plays chess against the station’s computer. When he beats the game he is given a “manual override” message from Dr. Marvin Candle, telling him to press “77” if the station is being attacked by “hostiles”. In flashback, Sayid is violently and emotionally confronted by a former torture victim. Good, solid episode, with just enough forward momentum along with some new information imparted.

Episode 12: Par Avion- As the rescue party deals with Mikhail and gets closer to the Other’s barracks, Claire hatches a plan to use water fowl to carry a message to the outside world that the passengers of flight 815 are still alive. However, it seems like at every turn Desmond is there to foil her plans. This episode deftly keeps several irons in the fire at once, without giving short shrift to any of them. The security pylons are revealed, Mikhail gets “killed”, (which causes Sayid to rightfully doubt Locke’s motivations) and the rescue party comes within eyesight of Jack but don’t like what they see. In flashback, Claire proves to be just like any other survivor on the island, as her guilt and tragedy ridden past comes further into focus, plus it is revealed just how and why she is secretly related to another main survivor on the island.
Disc Four
Episode 13: The Man From Tallahassee- This is a terrific episode for many different reasons. First and foremost has to be the fact that in flashback we are finally given the backstory that leads John Locke to board Oceanic flight 815 in a wheelchair. On the island, the rescue party gets captured by the Others as they attempt to emancipate Jack, but it turns out that Locke has his own power play in mind. This leads to some great one on one scenes between himself and Ben before the shocking end of the episode that proves for once and for all that John Locke lives by only his own agenda. But of course, there is even still one more delicious twist to be had, and trust me when I say that it’s a real doozy.
Episode 14: Expose’- This serves as a stand alone episode in many regards. The Nikki and Paulo characters never sat right with the fanbase and were extremely unpopular as a result. In an effort to not only bow down to the fan’s will, but to also convey and complete a fresh storyline quickly, this episode is the result. We learn their unscrupulous backstory, see them interact with many now-deceased individuals on the island in flashback, and watch as guilt, mutual mistrust and greed becomes their eventual undoing. This could have been quite obviously filler content for the most part, but there are enough nods towards other storylines and situations that make it more than just that. On top of everything else, a great Hitchcock-ian twist at the end elevates it. Not bad, but also the most unimportant episode in the season, seeing as nothing much really happens with regards to the long term.
Episode 15: Left Behind- In flashback, Kate plays “Thelma and Louise” with Cassidy, one of Sawyer’s main past con victims. In this sequence of events, they come off as sisters in and of fate, which I’m quite sure was completely intended. Back on the island, Locke confuses our confined main heroine even further when he drops by to say “See ya. I’m hanging with The Others now”. (I’m paraphrasing) Kate gets gassed out by the Others only to find herself handcuffed to Juliet, which causes them to co-exist as they struggle to survive in the open jungle with the Smoke Monster stalking them both. In a great sub-plot, Hurley manages to out-con Sawyer into being a better individual for the betterment of everyone, if only temporarily.
Episode 16: One Of Us- How the sublime Elizabeth Mitchell didn’t receive an Emmy nomination for her work in this episode is unfathomable to me. This is a Juliet flashback eppy that shows us her early days with “Mittelos Bioscience” leading into her extreme discontent with Ben. Back on the island, as she, Jack, Kate, and Sayid make their way to the beach, Sayid wants to interrogate her but Jack will not allow it, which plants the seeds for suspicion towards him. Once they arrive at the beach, there is a joyous heartfelt reunion, but once everyone spots Juliet, all bets are off. Matters are compounded when Claire falls deathly ill and Juliet claims to be the only one that can save her. This is masterful in how it plays like Juliet is someone that can be trusted (hence the name of the episode) but at the same time gives us just as much reason not to do so, leaving the answer to the question posed completely ambiguous. Of course, this is the bread and butter of how Lost operates.
Bonus Feature: “Expose’” with commentary by co-executive producers/writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz- Kitsis and Horowitz co-wrote this particular episode. They reveal that the origins of Nikki and her fictional TV show “Expose” go all the back to season one. They also talk about how they constructed the episode with the idea that they wanted to have the Nikki and Paulo characters fully integrated into stuff we’ve already seen, such as the crash of 815 and Jack’s “live together, die alone” speech from season one. They also talk up how excited they were to be able to bring Arzt back and have him play a pivotal role in this story. They point out all the foreshadowing that they planned storywise as well as the intentional shout outs to previous episodes. It’s also interesting to hear them speak about how they wanted to center the island part of the story on the characters we know and love, as they try to unravel the mystery surrounding what happened to Nikki and Paulo, with Hurley and Sawyer playing protagonist and antagonist. This is a very good commentary track, a whole lot better than I was expecting it to be.

Zodiac (2-Disc Director’s Cut)

Returning from a five year absence, filmmaker David Fincher bestowed upon the world a great gift in the form of his police procedural mystery thriller Zodiac. Fincher and his crew assembled an all-star cast that plunged deep into their roles, and managed to simultaneously grasp the essence of the time period, the exhaustiveness of the case, and the terrifying ramifications of the killer's actions. It is based on two books by Robert Graysmith (Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked), but Fincher, along with writer James Vanderbilt, traipsed through years and years of complicated paperwork, interviews, and dead ends to shape one of the 2007's most gripping films.

The story opens with a frighteningly merciless murder on a lovers' lane where the female dies, and the male survives. Soon enough, a letter is sent to the San Francisco Chronicle demanding that the newspaper print it and a cipher by specific date. The developments gain the attention of cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose interest in the case gradually builds. He works closely with newspaper writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who fills his articles with conjectures and facts. Meanwhile the police leading the investigation are Detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). As the serial killer continues to pick off various people, they search every crime scene and follow every clue in hopes of apprehending the culprit. When time passes and he is not caught, Graysmith and Toschi become insanely obsessed with the case. As Graysmith compiles data for a book, he obtains information for what seems to be a definite suspect. His name is Arthur Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but the evidence against him is not strong enough.

As a person who was educated in criminal justice for more than six years, one facet of Zodiac stood out as exemplary. No film in recent memory so accurately captures the painstaking efforts needed, the aggravating processes, and the endless rules and regulations of law enforcement. This can be seen on the face of the central characters as they make pointless phone calls or question bogus tipsters. For instance, at one point Detective Bill Armstrong realizes just how difficult it will be to coordinate with all the police departments associated with the slayings. Jurisdictional guidelines are extremely tiring, but that is how legitimate cases unfold. It is long and strenuous. Zodiac steers away from all the typical clichés commonly found within this genre. It remains disciplined, impassive, and consistent.

Fincher also employs a technique which can be, and has been, abused in other films. At the bottom of the screen, small typewritten letters display dates, times, and places of the events. This was inserted for a reason. Fincher was making a statement about the length of this case, and how evidence and figures are collected over days, weeks, months, and years. Though these are irritatingly small, I suppose they were presented that way to avoid being a distraction, but more of a mental note on what the people were dealing with at the time. As if this was not satisfactory, viewers will notice the city of San Francisco changing steadily with the Transamerica building being erected, as well as the characters' families increasing in size.

Each member of this consummately accumulated cast appears to be born for their respective parts. Jake Gyllenhaal is a versatile actor, but his boyish charm is so naturally exposed as the dedicated Boy Scout (sorry, Eagle Scout) Robert Graysmith. Gyllenhaal is humorous and riveting, whether it is in the newspaper offices or at his home. Graysmith is a divorced father of one at the start of the film, and what is gratifying is that he is shown as not just an intrigued cartoonist, but also a concerned father and citizen. He is not merely a highlight of the motion picture experience; he is slice of this universe. Sometimes the focus is on him, but in other situations, he is just a subtle part of the background.

Robert Downey Jr. is turning in some of the best and most fascinating performances of his career lately. As Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery, Downey Jr. is magnetically charged with his beard and black glasses as an alcoholic chain-smoking rebel writer. No, this is not a new persona for Downey Jr. to portray, but this is not a paper thin replication of any previous contribution either. Avery is a depressed individual, who was devoted and excelled at his job, but his flamboyance masks his inner demons. He sinks into a low seclusion, and Downey Jr. is spot on during every stage of his arc.

Detective Dave Toschi is played by Mark Ruffalo with startling pragmatism and genuine emotion. The real Toschi served as an advisor on this movie, and as it is stated, the distinctive style in which he wears his guns upside down was copied by Steve McQueen in Bullitt. He was also the role model of the fictional Dirty Harry character. Graysmith and Toschi attend the same showing of that movie in one scene. Ruffalo is a mixed bag in terms of what to expect from his abilities, but he proves under the tutelage of David Fincher, and Terry George in Reservation Road that he is capable of lifting even the heaviest weight of a depiction. He is the lead investigator and center of attention so everything falls on his lap. Ruffalo shares adroit chemistry with Anthony Edwards as Toschi's inconspicuous partner Bill Armstrong. Edwards, who really has not completed much since ER, is a terrific collaborator for Toschi.

The minor supporting team is comprised of an eclectic assortment of actors. Brian Cox never hesitates to choose the juicy small roles, and he is in prime form as Melvin Belli, the showy attorney. Chloe Sevigny has little to do, but is nonetheless outstanding where it counts as Melanie, Graysmith's wife who takes only so much as her husband makes Zodiac his priority in life. Donal Logue and Elias Koteas have marvelous parts as the Captains of the surrounding districts, Napa and Vallejo. Finally there is John Carroll Lynch, who is always fun to watch, and is simply eerie as Arthur Leigh Allen. Maybe he did it, and maybe not, but Lynch is smart in tackling this fragile part.

The case itself has just been reopened (according to Wikipedia), yet remains unsolved for the San Francisco Police Department. No conclusive evidence ever pinned down any suspect. Although this is cited as being adapted from Graysmith's books, Fincher and company no doubt shuffled through piles of research elsewhere to attain a neutral perspective. It has been said that Zodiac drifts to make us think a particular person was responsible for the killings. If one accuses Fincher and Vanderbilt of veering off the tracks to a certain theory, it is probably deliberate. Otherwise, this would be a documentary. I am sure you can locate plenty of those on the Zodiac murders.

Many have described Zodiac as a departure for David Fincher, but I would disagree. Perhaps in some ways it is, but if I had seen this without knowing the director, I would still guess Fincher. His customary effects trimmings are not punctuated as potently. However, that same inimitable tension has not diminished, nor has his gritty and dark camera style. No one films the night time better...period. Aside from Alien 3, I cannot think of one Fincher offering that disappointed. The Game and Se7en are my favorites. He is a master general who should be given more credit. With luck, the Academy will not forget Zodiac because despite the release date, this is as worthy a contender as any this year. Fincher's cat-and-mouse game is not a standard by-the-numbers thriller. This was constructed to be both accurate and cinematic, and Fincher knew full well what he was getting into by concentrating on the facts instead of bogus action.

This is a David Fincher who wanted to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, while faithfully recreating the case from the ground up. The structure is indeed jumpy, but again, isn't that the point? Cases are not cut and dry, and if you have little patience for this tactic then that is a shame. The organization utilized augments the ambiance, and heightened the level that the performers had to achieve. A few sequences stand out. One has Robert Graysmith following a lead to a mysterious man's home. As he stands in the basement waiting for a sole piece of information, the boards creek above him, and the hearts of each viewer begin pounding solidly. Another is the encounter one couple has with the Zodiac at a lake. The incomparable suspense swallows you as the hooded psycho stabs his victims.

Three people deserve applause for the coarse, restrained, and controlled recreation of the late 1960's and 1970's atmosphere. Production Designer Donald Graham Burt, Art Director Keith P. Cunningham, and Set Decorator Victor J. Zolfo have manufactured some of the most stunningly authentic sets of this decade from the common houses to the newspaper room and the police station. Worth singling out as well is the editing of Angus Wall, who magnificently gathered all the footage without making it patchy. Casey Storm's suave and exact costume design amplified the care put forth for the picture. The cinematography of Harris Savides evokes the beauty and terror enveloping San Francisco as the scenario slowly unravels. His shots contain an agile determination. Any similarities to All the President's Men or The Conversation are not coincidental thanks to the superb scoring of David Shire, who also did those films. In addition, Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy man" and Vanilla Fudge's "Bang Bang" are imposingly integrated.

Zodiac is not a whodunit mystery with a twist at its core. Director David Fincher stripped the routine aspects of this genre bare, and refrained from exploiting or exaggerating the substance. Upon viewing this for a second time, my admiration for its genius increased. This is a "Director's Cut" version, but the difference in running time is all of five minutes. Whatever changes were made are hard to spot. Screenwriter James Vanderbilt should be commended for incorporating the the whole nine yards in his script. He handed Fincher a sophisticated and breathtaking account of a media manipulating killer with no pattern. This is an immobilizing spellbinder about men driven to the brim that transcends all expectations. It is certain to be found of countless top 10 lists for 2007.

The Tudors

Like HBO’s Rome, Showtime’s The Tudors looks to spice up some well-known history with large doses of sex and melodrama. While the end result will probably never be used in any actual history courses out there, The Tudors is still a highly effective and engrossing period piece – further cementing Showtime’s recent emergence as a true creative force in the world of quality television.
Eschewing the typical image that most of us have of England’s infamous Henry VIII, The Tudors instead takes the less-usual route of focusing on the man’s earlier years – when, according to this series, he looked a lot like Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Obviously, this is not the fat, bearded, arrogant Henry we are accustomed to. Well, OK, he’s still pretty arrogant, but he’s also a strapping, athletic young specimen with a true lust for life and power.
Still, as great as his early reign as King is proving to be, he has a number of pressing concerns. For one, he is already concerned with the legacy he will leave, and if looking for a way to make himself a legend is perhaps a bit too eager to either start a war, or bring all of Europe together in peace…or both (whichever one suits his purposes more at the moment). Meanwhile, his marriage to his first wife (and brother’s widow) Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy, in a commanding performance), while giving him a daughter, has failed to produce any male heirs – a fact the young king finds particularly bothersome.
This situation is complicated – and I mean that in the most severe way possible – when Henry takes a liking to Katherine’s young, sassy lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn (the amazingly beautiful Natalie Dormer). The two begin a flirtatious relationship that soon grows into something far more serious, with Anne promising that she could give him the son he so desperately wants…if only they could be married and make it official. That sounds all well and good, except for that whole pesky marriage to Katherine thing. And, as anyone familiar enough with Henry’s history is already aware, the idea if simply divorcing the Queen was not exactly the easiest one back then. And so the season’s last half focuses on Henry’s attempt to convince the Catholic Church that his marriage to Katherine was never official, therefore allowing him to walk away from it and be with Anne – a feat he attempts to accomplish with the aid of the faithful (and crooked) Cardinal Wolsey (a very good Sam Neill), who is every bit Henry’s match in sheer ambition and hunger for power.
Obviously, most of the audience will know how this story ends, but that doesn’t mean the series doesn’t mine great drama out of the time spent getting there. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the show also takes it sweet time moving things along – by the end of the first season, Henry and Katherine are still married, he and Anne have still not consummated their relationship, and we still are not into the Reformation period. How then does the show fill the rest of its time? Well, it is an ensemble show, after all, and so we get the requisite side-stories concerning Henry’s friends and families. Some of these are interesting – like the forbidden love affair between Henry’s sister Margaret (Gabrielle Anwar) and his good friend Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill) – while some of them are, well, not so much. A subplot regarding the secret homosexuality of William Compton (Kristen Holden-Reid), another of Henry’s close friends, feels tacked on – as if the producers felt like they needed to make sure people understood that homosexuality was an issue back then, too.
Still, overall, this is a show where the supporting characters (and actors) add to the final product, rather than distract from the main bits. The numerous story threads paint a fascinating picture of the corruption and decadence so rampant during that time period, and it gives a number of fine actors their chance to shine. In particular, Nick Dunning is excellent as Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas, who essentially pimps his own daughters out to the King in order to pull off a play for influence. And Jeremy Northam nearly steals the show as Sir Thomas More, the renowned humanist Henry eventually places in the Lord Chancellor position. Although playing much of the season’s early episodes as sort of the more pious, decent counterpoint to the corrupt Wolsey, Northam’s More eventually reveals his own little…quirks, making the character far more intriguing than has been the case in some other productions and works based on the times.

Of course, as good as the rest of the cast is, the show mostly belongs to Rhys Meyers, and if there’s any justice it will end up being a star-making performance. Just by the approach the show takes, the character of Henry is infinitely more compelling than is often the case. It’s not often we get to see a Henry just as apt to engage in numerous athletic competitions as he is sexual liaisons (don’t get me wrong, he indulges in both…frequently). With his steely gaze, and devilish glint in his eye, Rhys Meyers more than makes up for his questionable physical resemblance to Henry. As his plan to leave Katherine and take Anne for his own continues to allude him, Henry grows more and more agitated and begins to unravel, and the intensity Rhys Meyers brings to these moments is enough to make us believe that this is the man who will grow into the legend we know of today.

Sure, there are moments when the show’s desire to be titillating gets in the way of things (the final episode begins with a bizarre and unnecessary masturbation scene, while the last scene of the same episode – a strange “coitus interruptus” moment, seems like a strange way to end an entire season). Overall, though, this is a very well-done and fascinating look at the early reign of Henry VIII, even if it probably will appeal more to fans of drama than History majors.