Talking Movies

May 27, 2010

I once was LOST, but now am found

So, predictably enough, ‘The End’ of LOST didn’t answer any questions (it probably raised more) and wasn’t really interested in providing any sort of actual coherent conclusion to the rambling nonsense that had preceded it.

Interestingly it seemed a mea culpa by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse as the reunion of all the most beloved cast members in Ultimate Los Angeles (which it was really – like Marvel’s Ultimate universe all the same characters appeared, slightly different, but still connected) was dependent for its emotional impact on flashbacks from the days when LOST was concerned with characters not plot mechanics and quantum mechanics. The moment when Ultimate Juliet and Sawyer remembered their life together and its horrific end had me in tears, but this season of LOST had little of that character development. The death of my favourite character Juliet was almost a summary of everything that went wrong. Characters were sacrificed to a material, (time-travel, Jakob, Desmond) that was never as interesting as Lindelof & Cuse found it, and evermore characters were introduced and killed rather than grappling with the show’s enduring and original problem of having too many characters.

When we talk abstractedly of ‘the writers’ it’s worth noting that no show could have sustained continuity over 6 seasons given the shocking revolving door of writers that the escalating absurdity of the show’s mythology just seemed to burn through – and this is a brain-drain of very talented writers like Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini, David Fury, Drew Goddard and Brian K Vaughan. The last season of LOST introduced new and uninteresting characters and then killed them off within weeks and got lost in creating at the last minute a ‘mythology’ that was meant to have been central to the show… The sure sign that a show is losing its way (24) is when the writing room starts to resemble this:

DIGGORY: I’m not sure this episode is working, it seems a bit boring.

LINDELOF: How many characters have you killed off?

DIGGORY: Just the one.

LINDELOF: Well no wonder it’s boring! Kill off at least three people! It’s not like we’re short of characters, and we can always bring the actors back in flashback, or in parallel universes, or as ghosts.

CUSE: Or as ghosts in flashback within a parallel universe.

LINDELOF: Would you stop being silly?

CUSE: Sorry. I, uh, noticed that your script is a bit short on dramatic conflict too.

DIGGORY: Yeah, sorry. No conflict seemed to grow organically from the characters-

LINDELOF: Grow organically?! What are we? A communist eco-friendly farming co-op? Just get Sayid to torture someone for God’s sake! Instant dramatic conflict!

DIGGORY: We don’t have Naveen around for this episode, he’s shooting a film in-

LINDELOF: Then just get someone else to torture someone for some reason! Sheesh, do I have to write every little thing around here?!

The ‘resolution’ of the mythology on the island was merely a means to an end – the fearful symmetry of a dying Jack lying down in the exact place where he first woke up, so that the show’s first image, Jack’s eye opening, was mirrored in its final image, Jack’s eye closing. It was a clever-clever ending but what preceded it on the island answered few questions. As for the Ultimate ending… I wrote in a 2005 piece on the first season that one of the most popular theories was “All the survivors are dead and The Island is Purgatory”, which was strenuously denied by Lindelof & Cuse, and rightly so. The Island it turns out was a complete irrelevance, which led the characters to Ultimate LA, which was Purgatory… Before the finale aired I listened to Coldplay’s Parachutes, especially ‘Everything’s Not Lost’, which I bought around the time LOST premiered in 2005. Thinking back I realised how I experienced LOST was by increasingly making fun of various absurdities as the show progressed and discussing the season finales, especially the third season’s which seemed to dominate conversation at a friend’s 21st. All those conversations were pointless it now transpires as apparently the point of the show was the moment when Christian Shepherd revealed to Jack that all the Ultimate characters were dead. This reunion of beloved characters was the spur for them to move on to heaven as he opened the church doors to an enveloping white light. As moments go it was quite beautiful, if not as powerful as Charlie blessing himself before dying peacefully, and the situating of this event in a Unitarian church with a stained-glass window depicting symbols from all the major world religions showed Lindelof & Cuse trying to make this a warm group-hug.

As a philosophical thought it was a nice interpretation of Purgatory – learning to take all that was best from your life and leaving behind all that was worst – but it had nothing to do with the violent mayhem it ‘resolved’. In the final analysis LOST occasionally hit sustained patches of greatness in spite of the mythology rather than because of it, and the mythology will sink its long-term reputation.

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May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s incredibly loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s portentous piece of provocation becomes his first dramatic feature in years to equal the heyday of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski.

Stepping into the shoes of Kinski is the unlikely figure of Knowing star Nicolas Cage, who remembers that he too used to do ‘wild and crazy’ authentically once, and so rediscovers his inner Kinski… The dangerous rescue of a man during Hurricane Katrina leads Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero’ cop, to the titular promotion but also chronic back-pain. The hunch this causes makes him increasingly resemble Kinski’s Aguirre as the film proceeds but McDonagh goes mad on drugs not power, as (like House MD) he soon finds his anaemic painkillers insufficient but instead of trading up to vicodin he trades up to cocaine, heroin and, well, whatever else he can lift from the evidence lock-up room.

There’s actually a surprisingly logical police procedural underpinning all Herzog’s madness. The investigation into a Senegalese family of five murdered by the local drug-lord (Xzibit) is complicated though by McDonagh trying to sort out the escalating problems of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), which involves the greatest cameo involving nonsense repetition of one word you will ever see by any actor. McDonagh is also persecuted by Internal Affairs for, um, torturing a frail woman in a nursing home for witness-tampering, the witness being her devoted nurse’s grandson. Cage’s entrance in that scene is startling, shaving while he waves a gun wild-eyed, and the whole scene is jaw-droppingly outrageous but utterly hilarious – as if Sacha Baron Cohen was re-writing a thriller.

Cage’s matter of fact delivery of “I snorted some cocaine but it turned out to be heroin and I have to be in work in an hour” is almost the starting point for the film to go enjoyably and totally off the rails. Herzog lingers on the soul of an alligator observing a traffic accident, plays out an entire scene with iguanas sitting on a coffee table, and shows unnecessary violence being authorised to stop non-corporeal jiving. McDonagh tries to get incriminating evidence on Xzibit’s drug-lord by working for him, and the deadpanning of all concerned as Xzibit’s Big Fate explains his plan for going straight by building condos three years before it’s fashionable, while a dead body is disposed of in the background, is priceless. To gripe, Val Kilmer is under-used as McDonagh’s partner, but the ensemble, including Vondie Curtis Hall’s Captain and Brad Dourif’s long-suffering bookie, are uniformly solid and wisely under-stated opposite Cage’s rampaging.

Cage gives notice that he should be taken seriously again with his best performance in many years, while the ecstatic madness of Werner Herzog which has found full rein in his recent documentaries The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World finally returns to his dramatic movies. Essential viewing.

4/5

May 9, 2010

Saving Superman – Some Suggestions

Christopher Nolan has been formally entrusted with ‘mentoring’ a new Superman film for Warner Bros (before 2012 in order to avoid nightmarish legal complications). This means he’ll be inundated with inane ‘The Dark Man of Steel’ scripts, witless nonsense featuring a fight with a giant spider in the third act (yes, Jon Peters, we’ve all seen Kevin Smith’s routine about your idée fixe), and disastrous attempts to follow on faithfully from Superman fighting a giant island in the third act… So, here are some suggestions for angles that might help make the original superhero soar again.

Clark Kent is the base of reality on top of which you build the fantasy of Superman, creating what Richard Donner carefully described as verisimilitude rather than realism. Why not really go to town with world of the Daily Planet so that it comes off as a bustling amalgam of His Girl Friday and All the President’s Men? Clark’s ability as a journalist has propelled him into the world’s leading newspaper – he doesn’t have to bring down the President but have you ever seen him do anything at that office besides fall over the furniture? It would be nice to see Clark file some copy… It would also be refreshing to see Lois Lane engaged in investigative journalism rather than just being in peril – how typical that she won her Pulitzer in Singer’s film for an Op-Ed piece. Jeph Loeb and Darywn Cooke write Lois terrifically because in their stories it’s her overpowering hunger for nailing a scoop that always gets into her danger: Lois is a ‘newspaperman’, she lives for breaking news and will do anything to get it first – she’s not a particularly nice person but she’s charismatic, tough as nails and you’d always want her on your team rather than playing against you.

Writing Lois as nastier than recent anodyne versions of her also helps solve the ‘problem’ of Superman’s uncomplicated morality about which essays of unsympathetic comparisons to Batman and Wolverine have been written. Lois sneered at Superman’s motto ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ in 1978 but he reclaimed the phrase for righteousness – it didn’t have to mean Watergate in that film, and it doesn’t have to mean the War on Terror now. The meaner you make Lois, the harder it becomes for Superman to melt her cynicism, and the better the film will be as a result in selling audiences on his Boy Scout ethics. Superman was released after the disaster of the Nixon years, surely any new film would tap into a similar shift in the zeitgeist of American self-perception?

As for the other side of the Supercoin enough with the shady land deals of Lex Luthor already! We don’t need a new rendering of Superman’s origin myth but it would be nice to re-imagine his first encounter with Lex Luthor to cinematically introduce Lex not as a dodgy estate agent but as a billionaire bent on world domination. What makes Lex the best nemesis for Superman is his challenge to Superman’s code. Superman could snap this puny human’s neck in a fraction of a second except he would never do that. Equally Lex would never be sloppy enough to leave any incriminating evidence of his wrongdoing. It would be nice to see Superman’s immense and growing frustration from being unable to expose or punish a white-collar criminal who he knows to be corrupt and depraved while the world only sees and sympathises with a noted philanthropist being unjustly victimised by an alien with the powers of a god. This is to say nothing of the potential for dramatic conflict if Lex Luthor was to run for President testing Superman’s code to the limit as the greater good would be imperilled by his moral insistence on bringing Lex to legal justice. As for sequel villains, Singer was unwilling to stray from the Donner template of General Zod, but if the preposterous Smallville was able to pull off a fine Brainiac when Steven S DeKnight wrote the part for James Marsters in T-1000 mode as the Kryptonian A.I., surely a similarly styled Brainiac can work as a filmic villain too?

All anyone talks about when it comes to re-launching Superman are the problems – from the blandness of Superman, to the weakness of Lois, to the dramatic inertia of invulnerability, and the scarcity of traditional super-villains with universal name recognition compared to Batman’s extensive Rogues’ Gallery. Would it not then make sense to hire comics writers who deal with these problems on a monthly basis? Mark Millar alleged two years ago that he had an outline for a re-booting trilogy. Ask him for that outline! Hire Jeph Loeb to do a draft of a script. Beg Darwyn Cooke to write a treatment. Contact Paul Dini, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid. Round up all these guys and stick them in a writers’ room in the Warner back-lot. Hell, even see if Alan Moore could stop filing law-suits for long enough to contribute some ideas.

Superman is tricky to pull off cinematically but if the thought of writing

INT. DAILY PLANET-DAY Clark moves towards the window and opens his shirt.

doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of the necks of some of these writers then and only then will the possibilities of re-launching Superman have been dwarfed by the difficulties.

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