Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Double Feature Review: Boondock Saints II and Inception

Here begins yet another recurring segment, which should remain feasible as long as my "to see" list of movies includes dozens of titles, Netflix keeps getting my money, and rural Maine continues to be boring. I tend to chat with a college friend while watching movies online, and quite a few Friday nights have been spent that way. I guess I could go out and hit the scene, but you know...rural Maine. This segment is quite simple: a two for the price of one movie review where I'll give a quick reaction to some movies I've seen in quick succession, either back to back or within the span of a few days.

The inaugural duo: The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, 2009 sequel to cult hit The Boondock Saints, and Inception, the current mind-bending adventure from Christopher Nolan. We'll start with Saturday's entertainment.

The Boondock Saints II

Teaser: The movie came out a decade after the first Boondock Saints, but only eight years have passed when the story begins. The Saints and their father have moved to Ireland to pursue a quiet farming life, but return to Boston when they are framed for the murder of a priest. They pick up a Mexican fighter along the way, as some of our favorite finest from the Boston Police team up with an FBI agent to figure out how to respond to their return.

The bad news first: It takes a solid half-hour for the story to really start. The Boondock Saints ended with the brothers and their father vowing to exterminate crime syndicates in the city and the BPD giving them a little bit of help in their mission. It turns out they can't keep a promise. The final scene marked their final murder, at least until the action starts to pick up. So rather than keeping the Saints in Boston, where a frame-up may well have had more serious consequences, it has to grind its way along with everyone fretting about what will happen when they get to Boston. By comparison, at the half-hour mark of The Boondock Saints we've already gotten quite a bit of character development, a couple of dead Russian mobsters, and the Saints' realization of their cause.

Most of the surviving characters return, but the absence of Willem Dafoe's Paul Smecker is obviously the most noticeable one. Julie Benz plays a protege of his, ie the same character but better-looking in a dress. For some reason, Benz also puts on a Southern accent for the role. I'm sure there are men out there who immediately consider a Southern accent to immediately amplify a woman's sexiness, but it just doesn't seem to fit. Clifton Collins Jr. does a reasonable job with Conner, who the Saints take on as a third member, but the character doesn't seem all that necessary. The first movie made it kind of clear that Daddy Saint was taking the place of the slain Rocco, but due to the stuttering transit issues in the first quarter of the movie the Saints are left with a not-really-necessary vacancy to fill.

Troy Duffy, writer and director of the original movie, returns for the sequel. Unfortunately, he tries to transfer quite a few of the favorite elements from the first film. References to past parts of a series are perfectly OK when done in moderation, but the best sequels take the characters and give them a new situation, resulting in an entirely new story for the audience to love. Boondock Saints II ends up transferring way too many things over, to the point where characters are dredged up from the dead.

The good stuff: After that half-hour plod to get the Saints to Boston and they finally do what they do best, the movie suddenly feels a lot more like the original. A clumsy assassination attempt involving a forklift and a piddling little gun is immediately followed by a hilarious attempt by Detective Greenly (Bob Marley) to do a Smecker-esque forensic investigation with some wholly inadequate music on his iPod. I know I complained about the transfer of too many elements, but the return of the rope in one scene results in a scene which nicely shows the progress the boys are making in vigilantism since their lucky break in a luxurious hotel room.

It's nice to see the relationship between the authorities and the Saints explored a little more. The backstory of the Saints' father is done very well. And I rather enjoyed the ending, and not in a "thank God it's over" kind of way. It pretty much requires a third movie in the series, though. That could easily be a good thing, but it could turn out to be pretty awful as well.

Verdict: It was really flawed, but you can still enjoy it.

And on to Sunday.


Synopsis: A new technology allows a group of thieves to sneak into the subconscious of people who have been knocked out by roofies or other means in order to steal their ideas. When a client wants to use the technology for "inception" (the planting of an idea) to break up a rival empire, one thief is willing to do it in order to win a return to the United States to see his children. But the memories of his wife and other obstacles threaten not only this goal, but the safety of his fellow mind hackers.

The bad news first: The soundtrack at times competes with the dialogue. Much of the first half of the movie is discussion, and the score seems to be constant even in scenes where it would have been much better for it to quiet down and let the characters talk.

One dream seems just a tad cliche. No, the dreamer doesn't wake up in a high school hallway in his underwear, but the environment is just a little unoriginal. When I saw the trailers for this movie, I thought it gave an excellent sense of anything being possible in a dream through unconventional images like the train barreling down the city street and zero-gravity fights in a hotel hallway. When one trailer informed us that there would be scenes of battles at a remote fortress in the snow, it made me wonder if the dreamer had recently seen The World Is Not Enough or something.

The good: So very much. There's a reason this movie has earned a 9.2 out of 10 average vote out of some 84,000 votes on the Internet Movie Database, ranking it as number three on their list of the top 250 user-rated films.

The trailers have already revealed virtually every action scene in Inception, but they also promised that it would deliver a story with the visuals only serving to complement it. And it does. Christopher Nolan, fresh off the success of The Dark Knight, has written an excellent screenplay with a very original premise. The story is highly complex; the opening scenes immediately start whipping the audience around, revealing a few flashbacks and multi-layered dreams within the opening scene alone, and this structure continues until the end. Yet even when you're in the midst of a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream, you can still trace your way back to reality and know the motivations and reasons for what's going on.

I've seen some mixed reviews about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance, which I'm hoping isn't just continued residual resentment over the Titanic hype 12 years ago. DiCaprio's performance probably won't net him an Oscar nomination, but it kept you caring for the character and his overall situation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page did quite well in their roles of trying to keep things tethered in some degree of sanity. Michael Caine seems to be quite a big name for a role which comprises some 20 minutes at best, but perhaps that just goes to show that they weren't going to water anything down when it came to the actors.

The visuals are very striking on the big screen and, as I've mentioned, they don't overwhelm you. In fact, I was focused so much on the story that when the train finally did come blasting down the street, it caught me completely by surprise. Even though it was one of the more iconic images in the trailer, I hadn't been waiting impatiently for it to show up.

And finally, there's the last scene. Not to give anything away, but it couldn't have been better.

Verdict: Go see it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Spoilerific Top 10 Lost Characters

On September 22, 2004, Oceanic Flight 815 ostensibly broke apart and crashed on a mysterious island in the South Pacific after an unsuccessful attempt to divert to Fiji. That was also when Lost premiered on ABC, following the adventures of the survivors of said Flight 815. The series concluded on May 23, following six seasons of smoke monsters, polar bears, abandoned scientific research outposts, exploding freighters, time travel, and quite a few back stories. I belatedly got into the series after the first season, fully caught up between the second and third seasons, and was a devotee for the remainder of the series.

"This plane apparently had the most beautiful people in the world on board..."

I browsed the various commentaries after the finale screen and it basically distilled to the idea that the writers and producers et. al. could end the series in one of two ways: wrapping up the various unanswered questions in a nice package or going out on a heartwarming note to let us know what became of all of the characters we've invested in for six years. Almost all of the characters were memorable, and I can think of only three truly hated by fans: Ana-Lucia Cortez, reviled for general cattiness (though well-drawn overall and just a tad sympathetic) and Nikki and Paulo, universally hated for their slipshod insertion into the hated, in fact, that an entire episode was dedicated to their gruesome demise. The Lost team chose the latter option in ending the season. And while it's a little disappointing that so many of the unanswered questions are going to remain that way, the show was heavily character-based and it was nice to see them give a nice send-off to some of the fan favorites.

So here is my personal Top 10 list for Lost characters, posted a bit late as I've been slowly constructing it for awhile now. It has an impressive 40 percent survival rate!

10. Charlie Pace

Dominic Monaghan, hot off three successes in the more minor role of Merry in the three Lord of the Rings movies, provided one of the more recognizable faces in a cast of actors who generally hadn't carved out a major niche in the TV and film industry. His character, Charlie Pace, had something of a sine curve of popularity. He was likable, if a little narcissistic (letting as many people on the island as possible know that he was the bass player for a dissipated Brit-rock band) and overprotective at times with the general flaw of having a heroin addiction. His lowest point came in "Fire and Water," one of the more unpopular episodes, where he started a brush fire and briefly kidnapped a baby in a misguided effort to protect it.

Charlie roared right back into everyone's hearts in the third season, though. He'd solidly overcome his addiction, become good friends with Hurley, and patched things up with Claire. Charlie's death was forecast from the mid-point of the third season, when Desmond warned him that he was going to die on the island one way or the other. The second-to-last episode of the third season is one of the strongest offerings of the show, as Charlie creates a list of the top moments of his life. It's all very sweet, and it's immediately followed by the episode where Charlie dies saving Desmond from harm and conveying the message that the people trying to communicate with the survivors weren't who the survivors thought they were. Of course, it's made all the more painful by the fact that you think he's going to avoid his prophecy right up until the very end.

9. Daniel Faraday

OK, here's a guy who wears a shirt and tie to an island no one understands. One of the unquestionably lovable four-man band who appears on the island after getting transported in by the helicopter, Daniel provides at least a little bit of insight into the space-time quandaries of the island and the question of the island's relationship to the rest of the world. Jeremy Davies does a terrific job playing the polite, eccentric, disgraced Oxford professor. He also has some recognizable roles under his belt, including films like Twister and Saving Private Ryan.

And then he gets shot by his mother while she's pregnant with him. We really, really didn't want that to happen.

8. Hugo "Hurley" Reyes

So there's an episode entitled "Everybody Hates Hugo" and an episode entitled "Everybody Loves Hugo." Granted, the latter is in an alternate universe created as a gateway in the afterlife, but still. It's the former where another character declares, "You're about the only one on this island that everybody loves." Hugo is a friendly, awkward, slightly dim guy who occasionally goes out on some pretty big limbs to try to achieve some nebulous goal to do what's right. One of his subtly heroic moments is buying up every free seat on Ajira Flight 316 to ensure that no more people have to go to the island than necessary; the action pays off when nearly all of the survivors get butchered in some unseen calamity. It's painful to see the how emotionally wracked Hurley gets at the end of the series, but when he's named supreme protector of the island it definitely seems to fit. Kind of a breakthrough role for Jorge Garcia, probably best known before this show for a role as a drug dealer on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Note: This space was initially supposed to go to Richard Alpert, the non-aging pseudo-leader of the Others. Then I started writing up Charlie's entry and realized that Hurley needed an entry. Sorry, Nestor Carbonell.

7. John Locke

Terry O'Quinn, who played quite a few semi-background characters prior to his role on the show, acts the hell out of John Locke. That said, pre-crash Locke is your regular everyday guy whose life has gone from reasonably happy to rather gloomy. He screws up a relationship, hasn't found his way in life (having settled on a soul-sucking job in the box manufacturing business), arguably has worse daddy issues than chief protagonist Jack Shephard, and suffers from depression before getting a much worse disability when he's shoved out of an apartment window and shatters his spine.

Then you put him on the island and you get this:

A fully mobile, knife-handy badass. Locke quickly came to represent the man of faith who believed that all of the survivors were on the island for a reason. And he was ready to keep them there to fulfill that destiny, using a lot of explosives in the process, even if most of the population would have preferred a rescue boat home. It's a tad selfish, but the faith way kind of won out in the end. Dead is dead on Lost, so it's a testament to O'Quinn's performance that following Locke's death he was kept on in a new role, as the human embodiment of the smoke monster.

6. Frank Lapidus

Frank, played by Jeff Fahey, undergoes a bit of a transition between the fourth and fifth seasons. When we first meet him, he's a scruffy guy with an alcohol problem who flies island-hoppers in the Bahamas. Like the people he ferries aboard his helicopter, he becomes fairly protective of the Oceanic survivors and plays a huge part in their safety. When he returns in the fifth season, he's clean-shaven and plenty reluctant to get involved in the affairs of the island, but still resourceful and willing to lend a helping hand.

So Frank essentially operates as an extension of the transportation, with a better fate than the briefly surviving Oceanic 815 pilot who he was supposed to be. But to recap: he repeatedly flies a chopper through some weird sort of space-time disturbance, successfully lands the whirlybird in the middle of a storm and ditches it with no casualties later on, manages to recover from another temporal event and land Ajira Flight 316 on Hydra Island, and actually gets that plane in the sky again with little more than duct tape and a bit of luck. Sully Sullenberger's got nothing on this guy.

5. Sun-Hwa Kwon

Sun, played by Yunjin Kim, has one of the best character evolutions on the show. Most of her backstory shows that she was rather fearfully subservient to her husband, albeit with a couple of major acts of hidden rebellion like learning English and planning to flee to a new life in the United States. She comes into her own on the island, gaining quite a bit of independence and showing skill with gardening and medicine.

Putting Sun on the list essentially puts on only one half of the love story, with Jin-Soo Kwon making up the other part of the relationship. The fact that she had an affair pre-crash is pretty much set up to show how much she loves Jin, as her on-island pregnancy by him rather than her lover seems to doom her to death yet also makes her happy that the child is Jin's. When she thinks he's died, it spurs her to become a rather scary cutthroat business shark; when she finds he's alive, she wants nothing more than to return to him. They are separated but never forget each other for almost the entirety of the last two seasons, reuniting at last...only to drown together aboard a sinking submarine and leave an orphan back on the mainland. This show doesn't pull any punches, does it?

4. Eko

Eko has what is probably the best backstory in the entire series. After killing a man in his youth to spare his brother the deed, he becomes a ruthless drug lord in Nigeria. His life takes quite a turn when his brother, a priest, is spirited off on a Beechcraft in the middle of a firefight. Eko embraces his new role, taking numerous steps to atone for his sins, but maintains his old manner when needed. Charlie put it best when he said he was disconcerted with the fact that Eko's carved stick containing scripture references had blood on it. Eko's clearly not someone you want to mess with...unless you're a giant smoke monster, in which case you can smash him against trees to your heart's delight.

Some of the Lost character backgrounds were criticized as treading over familiar ground, but Eko's was extremely unique. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje makes him a card-carrying badass, but humanizes him very well in regards to his family and other ways. The Eko-centric episode "The 23rd Psalm," which has Eko discover the remains of his brother in the Beechcraft crashed on his island, might well be the best of the second season.

3. Desmond Hume

Desmond, played by Henry Ian Cusick, first shows up as the caretaker of the hatch, and promptly takes off in an effort to get the hell off the island. He returns in the second season finale with a flashback, at which point we knew he was going to stick around for awhile. He went from being a half-crazed Scot to a member of the island elite, basically saving everyone's life by activating a fail safe when the hatch starts to go to pieces. Desmond is also the character who is the most personally involved with the craziness of the island; among other things, he has an episode-length flashback where he finds himself back in London, transports his consciousness to a past body on a couple of other occasions, and becomes immune to electromagnetism.

And of course there's a love story as well. Desmond's girlfriend Penny Widmore is the daughter of Charles Widmore, a key antagonist, and he wants nothing to do with Des. It's not like that stops the romance, though it does lead to a separation even worse than what Sun and Jin go through. The scene where Desmond calls Penny on cue after several years in silence is the more iconic one, but the YouTube videos of that have disabled embedding. So I'll give you this:

2. Sayid Jarrah

Your archetypal badass with a heart. Sayid's love life was slightly aggravating, as he seemed to fall in love at the drop of a hat, but in terms of kicking ass he was pretty much unrivaled on the show. His impetus for doing so was sometimes just an order from a higher up, but more often as a matter of conscience, especially if it meant protecting his friends. Sayid has to get credit for managing to kill someone with an improperly loaded dishwasher, but his real shining moment comes at the end of the third season:

Naveen Andrews does a great job taking Sayid through not only a couple of pivotal points in his life, but also through a strange process in the last season in which Sayid is drowned, revived, and may or may not be a soulless minion of the smoke monster. He gets a hero's departure, minimizing the worst of an explosive detonation aboard a submarine (as much as something like that can be minimized) by running the bomb to a more remote location of the vessel.

1. Ben Linus

It would pretty much be blasphemy to not name Ben Linus as the top Lost character, and Michael Emerson has the Emmy to prove it. By the time he appears, halfway through the second season, the story has already established that there are "Others" on the island, people who were on the island before the plane crash who have generally hostile intent toward the Oceanic survivors. So when Ben is introduced, we have no idea whether he's one of those guys or simply the hapless member of a failed round-the-world balloon trip like he claims. For several episodes, he's doing such a good job acting the part that we think the Oceanic guys are being a little bit overenthusiastic. Then this happens:

Even after that, it takes a few more episodes to really pin down that Ben isn't who he's claiming to be. A good portion of Ben's life was spent following in his father's footsteps as a janitor for the Dharma Initiative, but he gives his two weeks' notice by committing mass murder with poisonous gas. He sics the smoke monster on mercenaries. He teleports to the middle of the Sahara Desert. Ben's motivations are so shadowy and his actions so horrifying that it's really never possible to trust him, though from the fourth season on the Oceanic characters are basically forced to accept his help and try to make sense of their current situation. It's nice to see his character wrap up on a positive note, establishing that he was all about protecting the island and its non-evil guardian even if his actions weren't always pure. He not only has the cajones to be a mole in the smoke monster's camp, but he stays on as an Alpert-like assistant to Hurley's career as island guardian. Ben's story is so rich and convoluted that it would probably take a complete re-watching of the series to take it all in, not that that would be a bad thing.

So maybe a Top 10 isn't inclusive enough. Jack could probably get some credit for, you know, saving the world and all...Juliet has an excellent backstory and turns out to be a well-layered character...Sawyer was always fun, even when he was something of a bastard...and so on. But those are my choices for the top tier.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Some brief thoughts on patriotism

Today's the day quite a few Americans, myself included, get to observe the Independence Day holiday and get paid to do nothing all day even though the Declaration of Independence was signed 244 years ago yesterday. I spent the first part of the day in the arguably un-American pursuit of research of a minor scandal involving a Nixon aide for The Downfall Dictionary, then stopped in for a quick visit at the neighborhood bookstore. This was one of the volumes on display:

The one I saw had an endorsement from Glenn Beck. It gives you pause either way.

I'm not sure how accurate the book is, though hopefully they at least know that while Columbus opened the wave of European exploration of the American continents, the origins of the United States as a country lie more in Roanoke Island, Jamestown, and Plymouth. The book alleges that American history has focused on the more negative aspects of the nation, such as racism and slavery and labor disputes and all the rest. The reader reviews run the usual political line with several five-star raves and a good deal of one-star rants, with those in the middle probably making up the more level-headed folks who take in the good and bad parts of the book. And those reviews at least suggest that the book isn't ignoring the bad aspects of American history, and gives something of a comprehensive if right-leaning perspective.

The patriotism people tout today seems to take on the annoying habit of screaming about why The Other Side is unpatriotic rather than saying what they like about the country. The rhetoric can be attributed to the fringe elements on both sides. Conservatives generally characterize liberals as a group of welfare queens, potheads, and weak-kneed pacifists and tree huggers. Liberals can play too, and denounce conservatives as a clan of idiotic rabblerousers, white trash, narcissistic plutocrats, and violent jerks.

The element of truth in both of them is that there are those people on both sides, and they're probably the ones doing the loudest shouting about what patriotism is. For example, Sarah Vowell is a well-versed essayist with a leftist bent which usually goes along well with her more scholarly work, but not all the time. It kind of rankles in The Wordy Shipmates when she makes a jab about how the Puritan vision of America as a "shining beacon on a hill" has been realized through the bright lights of sleep-deprivation methods used against enemy detainees. Which isn't to say most people playing with a full deck shouldn't be irritated when Fox News pundit Sean Hannity gushes about how the United States is the "greatest, best country God has given man on the face of the earth." It's like listening to a closeted man assure himself that tits are just the bee's knees.

Not to give tits a bad name, of course.

Taking the whole "My country right or wrong/love it or leave it" attitude is completely irresponsible, as it basically makes such purveyors live in a happy little bubble of eagles and apple pie. Shrilly shrieking about everything wrong with the country also isn't a very productive way to reach a consensus.

So what's left? I'd like to think we like the country because it's home, because while the ideologues and DMV lines and hundreds of other things can get on our nerves, there's always the friends and family and getaway spots that make it all worthwhile. Love is healthy, and love for country can be a very good thing. As long as it's not trying to equate country with one's own political mindset, because demanding a populace to conform to a single view as a requirement for patriotism is one of those things that truly goes against the American ideal.

The Google Images results for Happy Fifth of July are surprisingly bikini-heavy. So maybe there's more of a patriotism-breasts connection than I anticipated.