Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I Got 24 Problems

Nice to see that 24 is straightening itself out. Like the Cincinnati Bengals, season 8 has a lot of bad character issues, but unlike Team Ochocinco, Team Bauer is beginning to smooth out a lot of the problems. President Hassan, lovingly referred to as Fantastic Sam by Entertainment Weekly's Lynnette Rice, started off as a reformer in the Gandhi/Mandela mold who has a thing for white girls, then becomes part-time despot when he's betrayed, then becomes paranoid and emasculated. Dana goes from tough-minded tech to jittery girlfriend of Freddie Prinze Jr. to chick who somehow hid her background from CTU (the same organization that can tell the shade of skid marks in your underwear from outer space), to crazy thief-helping lady who needs Freddie Prinze Jr. to clean up her mess. The scenes with Hassan and Dana/Jenny, up until two weeks ago, were nigh unwatchable. Then the writers remembered the most important key to making a great episode of 24: it's all about Jack.

Jack not only solves all of the problems on the show, he fixes all of the problems of the show. The show is structured such that we couldn't possibly care about Hassan and his marital problems. How did they fix that? Give him a gun, running next to Jack. Dana/Jenny nearly singlehandedly derailed the season. How did they make her interesting and useful? Now she's a traitor, an opponent for Jack. More Jack is always the solution to a flagging episode. If Jack hasn't kicked some ass or at least barked at a terrorist/traitor in the past 20 minutes, it's time to add that scene. Supporting characters come and go - Tony, Michelle, Kim, the 58 presidents they've had on the series - but Jack is forever.

24 is truly at its best when combining Jack's badassery with debate over tough and relevant ethical questions. Season five, the show's best season, asked us, what do you do when the president is the terrorist? Season seven reminded us of genuine questions about the efficacy and morality of coercive interrogation if it means stopping greater evil. This last episode, the top bureaucrats around the President have a vehement debate about whether they should accede to the demands of the terrorists and hand over Hassan or risk the consequences of a giant dirty bomb attack on Manhattan. It's a stirring exchange and sets up one of the great scenes in the show's history: President Taylor's ballsy speech about courage and morality. Actress Cherry Jones once again convinces us to vote Taylor, somehow being even more awesome than President Palmer.

For the series' final ten episodes, let's hope the show sticks to the formula that has made it great: more Jack.

Friday, March 26, 2010

LOST: Why Punk is Dead, but Richard Isn't

In discussing this week's episode of Lost, "Ab Aeterno", my wife and I compared what we thought about how they chose to tell Richard's story versus the expectations we had for it. We had both anticipated that it would be more of Richard's story across the various eras of the island we had seen, starting with him coming to the island up to the time of Ben and Locke. Our vision of his episode was much like the time travel story device in season five, jumping around to different times to see glimpses of Rousseau's story, Widmore's history, other groups who had spent time on the island, etc.

I hadn't yet recognized that choosing to do a more tradition flashback for Richard was a deeper way of telling his story and truer to what the show does. Lost is the anti-24: the writers never take the exposition bat to your head; they give you the critical details and let you fill in the blanks and come to your own conclusions. In the context of a well-crafted mini-biopic, we learn how Richard comes to the island and what he thinks of it (at varying times, it's Hell or the thing preventing Hell from being unleashed), why Richard doesn't age, how the statue of Taweret broke, how Jacob interacts with The Others, the methodologies both Jacob and the Man in Black use to forward their philosophies, and most importantly, what the island is. Instead of telling us the stuff that happened in Richard's life, they gave us the principal narrative which tells us what motivates him and shapes his character; via his story we get big pieces about the mythology of the series.

Kudos to the creative team of the show for not using Richard's episode as the blunt instrument I was expecting, which would have told me little about the character himself. By going to the character-centric storytelling formula which made previous seasons so excellent, we got all the information about the grander scheme of the series we needed as well as the reason we should care about that.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I've Taken Your Vantage Point

Is it just me or is it impossible to tell if Dennis Quaid is phoning it in or just plain can't act? His decades-long Harrison Ford impersonation inspires just barely enough confidence to keep watching his bland handsomeness. He's like a wide receiver who runs a 4.3 40 yard dash, but can't catch the ball consistently or run routes accurately - we keep cheering because of his likability, but keep needing to look away because of the actual performance.

This description of Dennis Quaid also applies to his movie Vantage Point. We want to like the movie - interesting concept, likable cast (Matthew Fox, Forrest Whitaker, etc.), potential for cool political intrigue - but the film is thinner than Mischa Barton on a coke bender. We see the same stretch of time from different points of view, each angle revealing new information and dimensions to our story. It's cool in concept, but the problem with that is twofold: 1) it's repetitive seeing some of the same footage several times and 2) we really only end up with about 20 minutes of story. The run time is 90 minutes, but it feels shorter than that.

With this approach, there is little in the way of character development, so we don't care about the good guys or understand/fear the bad guys. The movie isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is, sort of the film version of Kanye West. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the DVD is hearing Sigourney Weaver (who has what amounts to a cameo role) in the extras sing the praises of director Pete Travis again and again.*

Taken is a similarly short movie, but is less complicated, has fewer characters, and has few special effects. Why is it so much more effective? First, Liam Neeson is awesome. Somewhere around the Bourne movies, many in Hollywood figured out "Why not have our lead actor in our action movies be somebody who can actually act rather than someone who just looks the part?" This tradition is carried on in the recent Batman movies, James Bond movies, etc. Neeson first showed us his action chops in Batman Begins (since we all agree the Star Wars prequels didn't happen) and not only is credible, but makes us feel his plight. The movie takes the time to establish his relationship with his daughter and even his ex-wife as well as laying out what in his professional background would enable him to be such a world-savvy badass. They're simple scenes with little drama, but they help create the emotional resonance for the rest of the story. When we see Liam fly off to Europe and bash faces in, we understand who he is, what his daughter means to him, what the bad guys want, and why we should care about any of it.

That is not to say that Taken doesn't have some weak components to it, but those elements center around the daughter. Kim is played by Maggie Grace who is supposed to be 17, but considering she was playing 20 on Lost six years ago, it's a big stretch. Add to that she and her friend were covering up the fact that the band they were going to chase around Europe was U2, a band for fogies and behind-the-times Soviet Bloc countries, is fairly dumb. The subplot of Kim's aspirations to be a famous singer is completely forgettable and actually a waste of time in a movie which doesn't waste time.

To summarize, while both movies are short and action-packed, Vantage Point is more in love with its concept than it is telling a story with characters we care about is while Taken uses nearly every minute to its maximum economy and doesn't pretend to be more of a story than it actually is. Lessons to be learned: actually take the time to let us form an opinion about the characters so the story has some meaning; it's better to hire people who can actually act and leave the pretty but dumb prom dates at home.

*Fake Sigourney quote: "Pete Travis is at the apex of all artists. Spielberg, Scorcese and the rest buckle in his presence because of their unworthiness."