Monday, May 31, 2010

Kicking Back in The Puffy Chair

by Jason Pyles

I love it when movies aren’t really about what we think they’re about. The Duplass brothers’ film, “The Puffy Chair,” is one such example. There is indeed a puffy chair in the film, but it’s merely a macguffin, which is a term often attributed to Hitchcock that he used to describe an object that serves as a plot device to move the story along but has no other purpose.

In “The Puffy Chair,” Josh’s father’s birthday is approaching, so he buys a recliner on eBay like one his dad used to own. He decides to take a long road trip to pick up the chair and deliver it to his father in Atlanta. Naturally, Josh acquires some unintended travel companions and many set-backs, because after all, “drama is conflict.”

This is an independent film, obviously made on a shoestring budget, but this is one of those special occasions where those facts end up enhancing the film. The likable characters and their actors’ naturalistic performances make this all seem familiar to us, like an odd adventure we’ve heard from our friends.

Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass (who stars as Josh — a not-too-distant cousin to John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert) co-wrote the film together, and they both directed, though the latter is uncredited. I am impressed with their work and look forward to checking out some of their other films, such as “Baghead” (2008). I should also mention that I found Katie Aselton’s Emily and Rhett Wilkins’ Rhett characters especially engaging. Each member of the traveling trio complements the onscreen misadventures and one another.

I liked “The Puffy Chair” most because of how funny it is! I laughed out loud several times from the very first scene. The tone shifts quite a bit, but I think that lends to its humorous powers.

Ultimately, “The Puffy Chair” is a tale about acquisition and loss and how one is just as easy as the other. Some of the developments seem unlikely and are a little disappointing, but I have to appreciate how unexpected they are.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jumping the Island: LOST Critique Part 2

by Jason Pyles

This post is in response to Bill Barnes's comments found at the bottom of the post below this one. (More spoilers are probably found herein.)

Jumping the Shark

Natalie asked about jumping the shark, so for those who don’t know: In “Happy Days” Fonzie was portrayed as the coolest guy on the planet. He could hit the juke box in just the right place and it would play — sans coinage. He could get in a rumble and barely mess up his hair (except in my favorite episode when — spoiler alert — he fought Tom Hanks). But in one fateful episode he was waterskiing and he successfully jumped a shark. (Bill said he jumped it on a motorcycle, which is unlikely since motorcycles typically don’t travel in the ocean ... but then again, on “L O S T” there are no parameters, so anything could happen.) Anyway, I guess that dumb shark thing was the last straw with Fonzie’s coolness. (See for yourself.) It was just too far, and from then on, anytime a show derails and crosses over into stupid territory, they say it “jumps the shark.” You know, like “L O S T” did on just about every episode after Season 3?

[Note: If you watch the shark clip, it’s really not all that far-fetched. Perhaps the new “jump the shark” term could be adapted to “jump the island”!]

Bill— I loved the ending to your comment on the post below this one … so much, in fact, that I almost surrendered on the merits of your cleverness alone. Alas, instead I must rebut.

I was reluctant to list any specifics — especially concerning my interpretations — in my initial post, because I knew such a theory-laden show could yield countless counter arguments. So, for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say I’ll concede that I have wrongly understood the underlying premise, and I will defer to your well-studied theories, which, I might underscore, are interpretations themselves — yours and your fellow Lostie fanboys and girls online.

Nevertheless, Sir, you should know that my personal take on the meaning of it all was one of the few things that I was fond of concerning the series. So, if you tell me that my take was altogether wrong, then I am impressed with “L O S T” even less.

And it must be said, obviously, there are lots of theories. Surely you aren’t claiming that all of the other Losties have reached the same conclusion you have. Again, and more to the point, how can you be sure that your interpretation isn’t way off? And if it is such a brilliant show, then why can’t a reasonably intelligent person, such as myself (or hundreds of other disoriented yet intelligent viewers) successfully follow along and arrive at the writers’ intended vision? … That is, if what you’ve described is, in fact, their vision. I’m not so sure. How can we be sure?

And if you should claim that the brilliance of the show lies in its depths wherein multiple interpretations are possible, then shouldn’t I be afforded my own stake in that brilliance with my own little theories?

Really, my problem wasn’t as much what “L O S T” was about; it was, as Roger Ebert says, “how it was about it.” My original post, though lengthy, just addressed my general, overall feelings about how the series was poorly executed and delivered to us, the audience. You took a small portion of what I wrote and refuted it. That’s fine, but don’t miss my overarching point. Your response doesn’t speak to the heart of my problem, which is how 70 percent of the show’s lunacy need not have happened at all and is ultimately unrelated and irrelevant to the grand scheme, even as you have described it.

Effective storytelling is progressive and driven forth by cause-and-effect events and relationships that build upon one another. “L O S T” portends that its mysteries will come back around, but most of them dangle limply. Loose ends from loose storytelling. More on this below.

Some questions about what you wrote: I understood the flashbacks and the flash-forwards, but when you say “sideways flashes,” are you referring to the alternate/parallel universe flashes? This reminded me of the film “Sliding Doors” (1998). Is that accurate? That’s how I understood it — as an alternate reality. Or, as Little Texas would say, what might have been.

How would the purgatory theory render the entire show’s point moot, exactly?

I whole-heartedly agree with you about Sayid’s true love, but they needed to incorporate Shannon somehow, since nobody else liked her — not even her brother.

And no, I don’t need every question answered. To answer every single question is poor form for a storyteller. But the major questions should have been addressed. You call this mystery, I call it biting off more than they could chew. They couldn’t deliver the goods. Did you not watch that hilarious video about all the unanswered questions? Was that not brilliant?

You know, you’re right. Not all of those questions needed to be answered in the end. Why? Because many of the questions raised were absolutely pointless. They were tangential indulgences — mere shark-jumping — in the name of entertainment value. Listen to the list of questions again in this video, and you’ll notice that most of them have nothing to do with the overall design. That’s my complaint. Why drag us through all that intrigue if it’s not going to be addressed — or even matter in the end!

I know you love “L O S T” like a fourth child, but can you not admit that some of my gripes have merit? I can admit that there are things to admire about “L O S T.” To add on to my initial list, the casting was great and the performances are almost always excellent.

I’m not so sure anymore that my viewpoint is a small minority. On Monday, I think it was Charlie Anders of io9 who wrote this on Twitter:

All along LOST seemed 2 be a story. Until the end when it wasn’t. In the end it was just a bunch o/stuff that happened"

Or how about what happened just today at work. I sit in a room with several people. I’m new there, so I don’t know some of their names. Two guys (smart I.T. guys) began talking about “L O S T.” I immediately started dictating, word for word, because I’m a fast typist, and their conversation validates these posts:

1st Guy: So, I quit watching “L O S T” around Season 3 or 4. What ended up happening?

2nd Guy: The island is a mystical place. Down in a cave is the heart of the island and it glows. There’s a smoke monster, and they have to try to kill the smoke monster, but the keeper of the island gets killed. So they need a new keeper. The new keeper is chosen from survivors of the plane crash. The first keeper guy was in charge for hundreds or thousands of years — probably hundreds. The smoke monster’s goal is to get off the island; the keeper wants to keep him on the island. (Pause)...

1st Guy: Well, I stopped watching during the whole time-warp thing. ... So, how was the finale?

2nd Guy: It was good except for all the unanswered questions.

1st Guy: Yeah, that’s the problem I had with it. Every episode created more questions and more mysteries and more dead-ends. ... What was the whole point of the Dharma Initiative?

2nd Guy: I’m not sure.

We should note that the 2nd Guy never even mentioned what happened at the end when everybody “moved on.”

Bill, you think we’re like Jack and Locke; I think we’re like Jacob and Johnny Cash (The Man in Black, aka The Smoke Monster). You try to “protect” the island, and I just want to leave.

My cousin, Kellie, is another “L O S T” apologist who said today, “Why do people have to pick it apart? Why can’t they just leave a good thing alone and let us enjoy it?”

Well, I didn’t have the heart to tell her my position. But that’s just the way the world is: Some people call dandelions flowers and others rightly call them weeds. But regardless of whether you call a dandelion a flower, it’s still just a colorful weed. And so it is with “L O S T.” When the color fades and it dries up and blows away, its weedy identity will be revealed. When all the fantastical and melodramatic, soap opera fluff is peeled away, “L O S T” is a flawed and brittle story.

You may have the last word, Bill Barnes. I'm finished ranting about "L O S T."

Monday, May 24, 2010

A LOST Cause ...Or... 120-Some Hours LOST

by Jason Pyles

[Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers for “L O S T.”]

True, this site is almost strictly dedicated to discussing unusual films, but with the recent season finale of “L O S T,” I figured I should give it some attention, especially considering my minority opinion of it.

I didn’t start watching “L O S T” when its pilot first aired in September 2004. Nevertheless, sometime in the middle, I started watching the DVDs from the beginning and got caught up, watching — and waiting — ’til the bitter end last night.

While watching Season One I said, “This is a masterpiece!” “‘L O S T’ is the greatest show ever made,” I said. I felt the same way all you Losties feel. I was sold and helplessly hooked.

Then something terrible happened. “L O S T” quickly grew asinine and utterly ridiculous. Yeah, yeah, I was convinced that the island’s supernatural mysteries would eventually be revealed to some grand design. I kept reassuring the naysayers and Doubting Thomases, too, just like the fans are still doing. “Don’t worry,” I’d say. “We are in the hands of not only capable but genius writers. When the answers to these questions are revealed,” I asserted,” “we’ll all be blown away, and you’ll be silenced.” But the naysayers weren’t silenced. I was.

My eyes were first opened when I noticed that many more questions were being raised than were being answered. Like anybody who’s ever had a piggy bank understands, if you take more money out than you put in, you’ll soon be left with an empty piggy bank. And that’s what “L O S T” did to me: It would answer one little question and pose 10 bigger ones. Suspense and mystery are wonderfully entertaining, but there comes a point when the audience’s faithful patience starts being abused.

Not only were loads of more and more questions piling up, the show started having 9-month breaks. 9 months! That’s nearly a year! With such a complicated and intricate show, those long breaks made it impossible to remember what was going on — not that we ever really knew what was going on in the first place.

Some things that bothered me most, described broadly: Very lucky plane crash “survivors” find themselves on a deserted island somewhere in the South Pacific. The island is only so large; they explore it thoroughly. Yet, with each season, more and more characters and noticeable landmarks and places and objects are introduced! People die, but the cast of characters somehow grows larger.

Season Two, the one with the hatch and the numbers and the alarm, is so monotonous. The introduction of Benjamin Linus (as Henry Gale, marooned hot air balloon pilot from Minnesota) is the highlight of the season. Oh, and by the way, there’s a man living down there in that hatch. His name is Desmond. How ’bout that!

Season 3 becomes dark and malicious. “The Others” initially are almost ninja-like phantoms who whisper and spy and kidnap. But no, they actually have book clubs and care about babies being successfully carried to term.

An ill-written episode “Happy Days” is where we get the phrase “jumping the shark.” Well, “L O S T” jumps up on top of the shark and then surfs on it — repeatedly. Sure, sure, I’m OK with supernatural fiction. I can dig it. I like make-believe, and conversely, I’m a man of faith. But “L O S T” has no parameters whatsoever.

No parameters: Films and TV programs portray various universes different from our own. We’ve seen spaceships, aliens, giant apes, zombies, vampires, flying kids and dogs and everything else. But typically, the universe is established early on; we acknowledge this as an audience, and suspend our disbelief that we might allow ourselves to accept this newfound world.

But “L O S T” doesn’t play fairly. It breaks its own rules and cheats. And cheats. And cheats. Ironically, one of the episodes is titled “Deus Ex Machina,” which, in Latin means “God From a Machine,” and refers to a contrived and completely incredible (as in unbelievable) plot device used to bail the writer(s) and the character(s) out of a seemingly impossible situation — such as last night, when mortally wounded Jack magically appears up out of that "cork" pit and in the forest again. “L O S T” wanders and meanders anywhere and everywhere it wants or needs to go. Indeed, “L O S T” asked too much of its viewers; so many events were just too much to swallow.

And speaking of jumping the shark and no parameters, once the time traveling and island-moving and smoke-monstering and sky-lighting and dead-people-reappearing and interconnected coincidences and relationships all started becoming commonplace, the show devolved into nothing more than a fantastical soap opera. Poignant moments of melodrama were interspersed with extraordinary events ... now that’s entertainment, is it not?

Who else got sick of this scenario: “OK. Shag, Scoob, you go here, and I’ll take the girls and go here.” Or “Let’s run to this part of the island,” and then, moments later, “Now, let’s race to this part of the island.” It seemed like every episode the characters were off on a hike somewhere — somewhere new that we’ve never seen before on this relatively small island.

Or what about all the “idiot plotting”: As in, “I know something, but I’m not going to tell these people. They’ll ask me what it is, and I’ll just say, follow me.” Yeah, that makes sense, since there are so many other things to talk about while waltzing through the jungle. Surely there musn’t be any time for discussing revelations about this crazy island we’re stuck on. It drove me nuts how nobody ever told anybody anything. The characters treated one another as the writers treat us: Leave ‘em in the dark, and then kick ‘em in the head once in a while; it's good for 'em.

And supposedly, the writers had the beginning and the ending in mind, but the middle was much more flexible. Well, that’s fine, but most of the insane developments throughout the series ended up being absolutely pointless and inapplicable to the show’s grand scheme. The word “nebulous” comes to mind.

Yes, it's neat that the series began with Jack opening his eyes, and ended with him closing them. Neat. But that kind of book-ending is not new, let’s not forget. I don’t wish to take anything away from this very cool element, but symmetrical introductions and conclusions are an age-old writing technique, so let's not be too impressed with this big pay-off.

And let’s talk more about the final episode. Somebody must have had a brilliant idea that went something like this: “Hey, know what we should do? Let’s just replay all the touching moments between the characters so people will feel whisked away by the emotion of their mental reunions!” It was so manipulative and hollow. Come on, did anyone else think that Juliet's handing Sawyer a candy bar was a little thin for conjuring up those wonderful feelings? Give me a break. Break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar.

And wasn’t it convenient that the broken-down airliner was able to be repaired within one hour (instead of five) and then was able to take off on a sandy coast, obtaining enough speed for lift-off. And they surely had enough fuel to get wherever they surely knew where to go. I thought it was a Roland Emmerich movie for a minute.

But I quibble.

I loved Season One. I loved the Season One musical montages at the end of the episodes. I loved the Smoke Monster (before we knew it was a Smoke Monster). I loved what a bad-#$@ Sayid was. I loved Sawyer's nicknames. Some of the flashback subplots were very affecting, such as Locke’s heartbreaking history with his father. And of course, I’m basically IN LOVE with Richard Alpert, the man, the character and his story line. Indeed, his episode was my favorite, but I could have sworn his eyes were blue at some point.

And I guess I can dig what I understood it to be (who knows if this is right): The characters were dead, as Alpert tells them. The Island was a kind of purgatory for these suffering souls who just couldn’t let go of their demons and “move on.” And then, when they were ready to move on, they all did together. When Jack saw his dad again, and everything was good, and his dad explained that they were “dead,” I imagined that heaven is probably something like that. Those we love who preceded us are there to welcome us. I guess that was beautiful.

People say “L O S T” changed television, but I’d suggest that with a little bit of time, those wool-pulled Losties will see that it wasn’t as great as they thought. To be fair, it was built up so much with its mysteries and intrigue, there’s no way the series could have ended profoundly enough to truly satisfy its fans and critiques.

I guess if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t. ... Or I would have stopped after Season One. But if I had to watch it over again — and waste another 120-some hours of my life — I would watch it all in a row, without the 9-month breaks, one episode per night, every night, and then maybe I’d appreciate it more. But I won't.

Why? To me “L O S T” is a lost cause and a real loss.

P.S. Why does the island statue only have four toes? That's probably what I wanted to know the most.

Addendum: Here is the hilarious reward for reading my comments: I found this video — thanks to David Chen of The /Filmcast. He posted this link of "Unanswered 'L O S T' Questions" on Twitter, and it captures EXACTLY how I feel and, you'll agree, illustrates what I was saying about most of the show's mysteries being nebulous, pointless and ultimately unrelated: Again, hilarious! Please watch. Thanks, Dave!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Myriad Ugly Faces of Vigilantism

by Jason Pyles

Author’s note: I intentionally waited to pair my comments on “The Star Chamber” and “Kick-Ass” due to their common themes of vigilantism. Sorry so lengthy.

Andy, I knew you would either enjoy or hate the “The Star Chamber,” thanks to your professional experience, and I had a feeling it would be the latter. It’s not uncommon for a real-deal industry professional like yourself to balk at Hollywood’s attempted portrayal of his craft ... understandably so.

To me “The Star Chamber” is a tricky little film, meaning it had to do some hoop-jumping not to alienate its audience. Naturally, I defer to Andy’s expertise on all the finer points of the law and inner-workings of the legal system, but I will make my layman’s attempt at discussing this film.

As Andy notes below, we see the abridged version of a few cases where the defendants — who are accused of hideous crimes — are apparently caught red-handed. But due to various instances of logistical mismanagement of said cases, each defendant’s defense attorney is able to spring him. Everyone is outraged and horrified by the absence of justice, especially the judge (Michael Douglas), whose hands are tied, ironically, by the law. (Yet, as Andy points out, the Constitution is simply being upheld.)

Now, I consider this a tricky little film because I am impressed at the relatable way the film conveys the legal points of each case in a comprehensible manner that doesn’t exclude guys like me who have no law school degree. It would have been more impressive still if their legal scenarios had held water, but alas, Andy informs us that they don’t.

And yet, despite all that, “The Star Chamber” takes us on a bit of a moral-dilemma ride, whereby it deviously enlightens us on the problematic nature of vigilantism, as well as our current legal system. I love when a film appears to have one stance, then it appears to have another, and then in the end we realize it just tricked us into considering (or at least listening to) multiple perspectives.

Andy (or anybody), do you know why it’s called “The Star Chamber”? Did I miss something obvious, or is it obscure legal term? Perhaps it’s Kafka’s.

As for “Kick-Ass,” I love this film — who doesn’t? What a great premise: What would happen if a regular, nerdy guy tried to be a superhero? Hasn’t someone thought of that before? Yes, even in reality. A few years ago I saw a news report on a guy in Oregon who walks around in a Spandex get-up doing good deeds. As I recall, the police were insistent that he stick to helping old ladies across the street and recovering cats from trees. And then there’s The Guardian Angels, who are a type of superhero to me.

Aside from its entertaining premise, two aspects of “Kick-Ass” make it brilliant:

1. The film takes an unflinching look at just how dangerous such an ambition could be. (Unfortunately, there will be some, no doubt, who try to emulate viral, YouTube crime-fighting, and that’s probably not a good thing.) Kick-Ass’s first attempt at crime fighting quickly goes from humorous to disturbing to upsetting.

2. And the true genius behind this film is the slick way it begins as a comic-book movie parody — seeming to ridicule the genre — while seamlessly becoming that very object we thought it was mocking. Indeed, “Kick-Ass” ends up following the same formula as most other comic book movies but in a refreshingly clever way. Brilliance.

And yes, I loved Hit Girl, too, just as much as everyone else. However, I have some qualms with her dialogue. (The stylized action violence doesn’t bother me.) Call me a censor, but I don’t think anybody should say that word she says — you know the one — especially not a 13-year-old girl. Also, it’s probably irresponsible of the writers and filmmakers to outfit her in such fetishistic, dominatrix attire, because if we guys are honest with ourselves, there is something “intriguing” about Hit Girl, despite her age — perhaps it’s the purple wig. (I’m not a sicko, by any means, and I’m not the only grown male who has said this. It’s even joked about in the film itself.) Indeed, I’ve heard that Hit Girl’s also a hit with the pedophiles, which is very disturbing.

Here we have two films whose underlying concept is vigilante justice. We Americans love these kinds of films: “Dirty Harry,” “Death Wish,” “The Punisher,” “A Time to Kill” — and pretty much any western or martial arts flick, etc. I guess we find something extremely appealing about taking the law into our own hands, exacting justice as we see fit.

Vigilante films allow us to indulge in the proverbial “ideological safety valve,” in which we get to experience violent fantasies vicariously by visualizing them onscreen, thus relieving our own desires to execute such violence ourselves in the real world. (Road rage murders are a simple demonstration of the folly of vigilantism, by the way; it’s easy to take it too far or to get killed yourself.)

But superheroes are a horse of a colorful color. We seem to deem them worthy of the wisdom to be judges, juries and executioners, though they often don’t kill their perps. But I guess the difference between the two films’ takes on vigilantism is the point at which the justice is administered: In “Kick-Ass,” justice is often delivered on the spot, while the crime is in progress, and “The Star Chamber” still follows some semblance of judicial consideration.

I don’t believe vigilante films (and real-world vigilantism) will ever go out of style. Victims who consider themselves robbed of justice will always find it in vogue to deputize themselves into retaliation. Yeah, in every one of us, there’s probably a Damon “Big Daddy” Macready lying dormant — but capable of eruption, if the circumstances were ever sufficiently provocative.

Addendum: According to the usual 20-year remake rule and the Internet Movie Database, a presumable remake of “The Star Chamber” is currently in development for a 2011 release.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Star Chamber" as reviewed by Andy

I don't care for movies like "Star Chamber." I suppose it's true for any person whose profession is depicted in film, but as a criminal defense attorney, I can't stand "Star Chamber." In fairness to my friend Karl, he did not recommend the movie as a good movie, rather, it it came up in a discussion that we had.

The jist of the movie is that one judge in California (played by Michael Douglas) is feeling overwhelmed by decisions he had to make that led to the dismissal of a couple of murder cases. The evidence that was supressed (which resulted in the dismissals) were based on illegal searches (one scenario would not now be an illegal search). He feels frustrated because he doesn't believe "justice" is being done. Apparently, in this alternate reality, several judges in California are having this same problem. All kinds of murderers are getting off scott-free.

Another judge who was his mentor invites him to join a group of judges called the Star Chamber. The chamber passes judgment against those defendants who "get off" on technicalities (i.e. the constitution), and if they judge someone to die, they send out an assassin to get the guy.

I guess what bothers me is this idea that a constitutional violation of the law is a "technicality." The fourth amendment is alive and well and protects us all from an encroaching government because illegal searches result in suppressed evidence. The fact of the matter is that good defense attorneys make sure the game is played fairly. As long as cops and prosecutors do their jobs, the bad guys go to jail. And fortunately for all of us, most cops and prosecutors are honest, and very good at what they do, and as a result, our country is a nice place in which to live.

Anyway, my soap box speech could go on and on, but that's the sum of it. And really, I'll bet nobody can think of a single murderer who escaped punishment because of a constitutional violation or a judge's ruling on the admissibility of evidence. And I do appreciate that the film has the decency to show some of the inherent problems with the chamber.

My favorite quote from the film: While watching a LA Dodgers ballgame, Emily says to Adrian, "Was that a homerun?" Adrian replies, "No, that was a single."

"Kick Ass" comments by Andy

For some reason I thought "Kick Ass" was an indy film. I was dead wrong. I was as wrong as many of the bad guys in the film, in fact.

I also thought the film was simply a comedy. Again, I was wrong. It was hilarious for a large portion of the film, but it was surprisingly dark for parts too.

Chloe Moretz steals the show as "Hit-Girl." Ms. Moretz , andI hope you google your name every-so-often to find this: You are fabulous. Keep doing what you are doing.

I will say, though, that I don't hold much hope for having a good sequel. I think there probably will be one if someone can write a passable script, but I have real doubts that it will be good. Here's why - what made "Kick Ass" so great was that it chronicled a tale of a young man, Dave Lizewski, who decided to be a superhero, and he was horrible at it. He got his hat handed to him in every single situation. He did manage to get a girl, which was what the impetus was for being a superhero, but it was really only through the help of other people.

His tale was interspersed and entwined with another arc of the revenge of the Macready, who were, in fact, superheros. They had the training, the weaponry, the know-how, and the targets to be actual vigilantes. They were really good - in fact Hit Girl was probably the most brutal of them all. And as the story unfolded, Dave quickly realizes that he's not cut out to be a superhero, and that he certainly doesn't have the acumen to fight crime. The problem is he becomes inexorably caught up in the Macready's revenge plot.

The point is, I don't know how anyone would write a sequel that would in any way be true to this movie's characters. Dave never actually becomes a superhero, and even if you say that he has become one, you've left the original premise of the movie. That's just my opinion.

But, wow, what a fun film. Ms. Moretz - you are terrific. Keep making movies.