SQOG - the Sasquatch Blog

****All the posts below are bigtime SPOILERS if you haven't seen, read, or heard the entertainment I am talking about. Look at the post heading for the day and decide if you want to be spoiled on that topic or not.****

September 2011

 

-Monday, October 31st, 2011: THE DESCENT - Girl Power Horror

Crazy Salvador Dali-esque posterThe hype is starting to ramp up for Sundance 2012 with the schedule of films to be announced soon. I’m excited, I love trekking up to that festival every January to check out what crazy new independent films are out there and get a preview for films competing for Oscars next year. Having been going to Sundance for the last 5 years, a lot of the films blend together into an indistinct viewing haze. What I really remember about past screenings at Sundance are the ones that inspire a communal audience reaction. I’ve been in films that are so bad that the audience actively boos and attacks the filmmakers as they stumble through a Q&A. I’ve seen films so transcendent and beautiful that big men sitting next to me have turned into blubbering messes. But one of my favorite audience experiences at Sundance was back in 2009 I think, when I went to a midnight screening of THE DESCENT, a British survivalist horror film by Neil Marshall. Marshall is best known for directing DOG SOLDIERS, a horror film about the army and werewolves that I still haven’t seen yet. Since Hollywood started paying him attention, Marshall has wound up doing sub-par genre action films like DOOMSDAY and CENTURION. But I love THE DESCENT. To me, it is a perfect combination of horror, gore, female empowerment, and elemental fear; a movie that I make sure to revisit every Halloween. The movie is about 6 girlfriends who go spelunking together in an unexplored Appalachian cave system and end up fighting for their lives against blood-thirsty creatures that live down below. Not the most promising setup, but damn does it work. The creatures are blind slippery Nosferatu-looking buggers that attack by sound. They aren’t the most original creations, but they are certainly effective boogeymen. Each of the girls gets reasonably fleshed out, even if they do fit genre stereotypes. You have the wounded lead with a past, a gung-ho adventurist and her protégé, an older wiser woman, the young pretty doctor and her stern older sister. The key thing is that each woman is capable. Once things start going wrong in the cave, they each have different reactions and it is fun to see who thrives under life-and-death situations and who fails. And these girls get to kick some ass. I really liked the spunky Juno, but the lead girl, Sarah, has one the most brutal Ripley-esque hardcore awakenings I’ve seen. The sequence with Sarah fighting the crawler den mother in the food pit is gross, creepy, and ball-bustlingly cool. Since Sarah has been recovering from a recent tragedy where she lost her husband and child, her transformation is seen as a fascinating enlightenment. There is more at play in this film than jumps and blood. I mean look at how much creativity they put into that poster, based off of a Salvador Dali painting. There is also whole unspoken subplot about how Juno had an affair with Sarah’s husband before he died. There is literally no dialogue that states this out and in fact, I missed the whole subplot the first time I saw the movie. I love that you have to pay attention to pick that up, because it adds so much more to the final Sarah/Juno confrontation.

As fun as the characters are, the way Marshall shot the cave system is brilliant. I used to go spelunking quit often and always had to battle back that sense of claustrophobia. There are sequences in THE DESCENT that make you feel like you are in that cave, wriggling through small spaces and praying the rocks don’t shift and squash you at that exact moment. My throat tightens every time I watch those girls squeeze through those passageways. Marshall always tries to light the scenes just with the flashlights, torches, and video cameras that the characters have and that helps sell the suffocating blackness that these girls are stuck in. There are certain parts where you can feel Marshall giggling as he subverts the clichés of horror. First off, there is never a prurient moment with these girls, they never lose their clothing and are never seen with anything less than respect. They are complicated real women. But I am thinking more of one of my favorite sequences, when Marshall strings the audience so tight, that the eventual jump scare is almost a relief. Two of the girls are terrified and creeping through caves. At one sharp turn in the rock, the girls jump around the corner, prepared to do battle with a crawler, but there is no one there. The camera is tight on their faces as they feel relieved and look back behind them. Attuned to horror movie cliché, the audience sees them relax and thinks, okay, now the crawler will jump out at them. But it doesn’t. The girls retreat back a bit, then one by one they go around the sharp corner. When the first girl goes around, you think, okay, now the crawler will scare them. But it doesn’t. The first girl hears something and looks back, you think, okay, now the crawler will jump out. But it doesn’t. The first girl walks forward again and the way the camera is focused on her face and not the left side of the screen, you think, okay, NOW the crawler will jump out. But it doesn’t! It isn’t until the second girl goes around the corner that the inevitable crawler finally jumps down and attacks. The tension here is unbearable and you can imagine Marshall rubbing his hands together in demented glee when watching audience members react to this bit.

THE DESCENT has one of those troubled finales; where the brutal dark original British ending was replaced by a slightly happier version for US audiences. Honestly, I’m not sure which works better. You can see both endings here (sorry, the sound is a bit off). Basically, Terminator Sarah, the only survivor, takes one last fall and when she wakes up, she sees the light of the cave exit. She scrambles up a pile of bones (love that long shot at :35), escapes the cave and drives away as fast as she can. When she stops to catch her breath, she sits back and we get one last jump scare as we see dead Juno sitting in the passenger seat. Now this is where the US version, the one I saw at Sundance, ends. And I don’t think this is a bad ending. Yes, Sarah escaped the caves, but she is clearly a mental mess and this experience will haunt her for the rest of her life. The original British version continues. After the Juno scare, we go back to the cave and see Sarah waking up from her fall. She never actually escaped, she just dreamed that she got out. As the clicks and howls of the crawlers grow closer, Sarah hallucinates that she is blowing out a birthday cake with her dead daughter. Dark and sad and a definite downer of an ending. You know what, I DO prefer the US version. The audience had so much fun that it was good to know that someone made it out alive. The dark ending kind of betrays the fun craziness of the rest of the film, if that makes any sense.

At THE DESCENT screening Sundance, I was sitting next to an old woman in the Library Theatre for the midnight viewing. The audience was totally into this movie, screaming in fright and giggling nervously at how scared we were. The old woman eventually gave up any pretense at control and spent the second half of the movie clutched to my arm. These are the best screenings, when the audience feels engaged and together, complicit in the movie experience. It was an awesome screening and I’ll never forget how much I enjoyed the movie and how the movie reminded me how enjoyable it can be to see a movie in a theatre full of people. Nowadays, I far prefer to see a movie at home on my HD set where I know I can watch in crystal clear quality, pause anytime I want, and not be bothered by other people in the audience. But THE DESCENT experience reminds me that there are some things offered to an audience in a theatre that you just can’t recreate at home. And that’s an important reminder to a film dork like myself. Without a doubt, THE DESCENT is my favorite straight horror film, a film that sidesteps gender clichés and uses its location to heighten the suspense and fear, and will most likey keep me out of caves for the rest of my life. A perfect Halloween film!

 

 

 

-Friday, October 28th, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #10: War Stories

Poor Wash breaks downContinuing our exploration of FIREFLY episodes, we get to another classic of the series, War Stories. This one is tied for my 3rd favorite FIREFLY episode with Our Mrs. Reynolds, mostly because it is just so tonally opposite from OMR, that they needed to be tied. This is episode is very dark and intense, and is sometimes hard to watch, but the core sense of family among the crew of Serenity comes shinging through. Looking back on it, I’m actually surprised that this level of violence was allowed on network television. In this episode, Mal and Wash are tortured to near-death, Mal has his ear sliced off, and one bad guy is cut in half. This is not for everyone! However, the way the crew bonds together in the face of disaster is fantastic and there are some stunning developments on the River front that are awesome and chilling. Whedon loves to hurt Nathan Fillion. Really, I can come to no other conclusion here. But I like the neat subversion of philosophy that goes on here with Mal. There is a quote that is repeated a few times in this episode, said by a fictional historical sadist named Shan Yu, and it goes something like “Know a man his entire life, then one day, hang him over the volcano’s edge and you will finally meet the real man.” I like how Simon dismisses the quote as ‘sadistic crap legitimized by florid prose,’ but I also like how the show pokes a hole in its own pompous quotation. Mal gets tortured here, pushed to the very brink of human endurance, hung over the edge of his own volcano. And instead of meeting the ‘real’ Mal, we just get . . . a really pissed off Mal! Maybe it’s just me, but I loved that little bait-and-switch narrative technique. Plus, there are some wonderful subversions of hostage clichés here that Joss Whedon does so well. Let’s jump in!

Ah, character layering. What happened to simple character development in network television these days? Sure, the opening scenes on Serenity get the plot moving along, but it’s also just fun to get more acquainted with the characters. In a few minutes, we see Simon trying to fix River, River’s growing relationship with Kaylee, a small business moment with Mal and Inara, a knowing wink to Ariel with Jayne’s guilty apple purchase, a terrifying war story from Mal and Zoe’s days in the war, a silly Jayne-turned-on-by-lesbians bit, and a great logical married argument between Wash and Zoe. I love this fight because neither one is right and neither one is wrong, which most shows forget is how realistic arguments most often go. And Wash does have a real point here about Zoe’s deference towards Mal. The fight continues into the shuttle, where Wash is now definitely in the wrong. I like how Zoe can’t figure out the flight controls when Wash pipes in with, “I can!” She doesn’t turn around in confusion or start yelling, she just slumps against the controls as she realizes Wash’s stupid ploy. Small moment, but it speaks a lot for the unspoken communication/understanding in their marriage. In fact, Zoe has a bunch of subtle physical moments in this episode that work wonderfully well. Look at the way she shows that Book can accompany the search group, at 3:13, with a frustrated little eye roll. This is trust between a director and an actor, that these unspoken moments can still communicate character. And of course, I love Mal’s frustrated, threatening “I’m lost. I’m angry. And I’m armed.” Its delivered with perfect comic timing. And of course, things go downhill from there as Mal’s old nemesis Niska, still ticked off that Mal put his henchman through an engine, decides to ambush Mal and Wash.

First there comes a small scene, funny and scary, between Mal and Wash blindfolded in a cell, where Wash gets off one of my favorite lines when Mal tells him to shut up:

WASH(tense): Zoe is terse. I can be terse. Once in flight school I was laconic.

Then comes one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen in a television episode. You really have to check out the entire electrocution torture scene, in the above clip at 7:30, because it is probably the purest and most extreme example of Whedon’s fondness of blending tones. On one level, the torture scene is horrifying; these men are being continuously electrocuted in a very painful and visceral manner. It’s not easy for me to watch these beloved characters in this much pain. Ugh, especially poor sweet Wash with that bloody eyeball. On another level, the bared-soul conversation between Mal and Wash about Zoe is funny and revealing. But it’s mean too, Mal is saying some awful things to Wash, goading him about the sexy past that Mal and Zoe share. This scene could work as a simple conversation scene without the torture, and that is part of what makes it so weird. I’m sure Mal and Wash are keeping up this conversational charade so that they won’t give Niska the pleasure of acknowledging the torture, but I have never seen a scene that makes me equally cringe and laugh at the same time. The balance between funny and sadistic continues until it reaches a stunning revelation near the end, when Wash starts to break. Suddenly, it becomes clear what Mal is doing. He starts screaming at Wash that he is going to sleep with Zoe as soon as they get back to Serenity, and Wash starts to drag himself back awake. Mal knows that Wash doesn’t share his psychotic survival instinct and so Mal has to get Wash angry enough to endure. What an amazing moment and one hell of a revelation about Mal. He is still protecting his family and in the depths of hell, one has to do hellacious things to ensure survival. Even as Mal says the worst things, it suddenly sounds sweet and heroic. What a crazy scene.

Zoe comes to bail out Mal and Wash and it leads to an awesome cliché subversion. Niska wants to make Zoe stew, so he says that she can only have one of them. With no hesitation at all, Zoe points to Wash and says, ‘Him.’ I still don’t quite get what is going on with her in this scene. Did Zoe choose Wash because she knew Mal could withstand more torture? Or is it more than that; when it comes down to choosing in a life and death situation, will Zoe always choose to save her husband over her captain? And if the second statement is true, then it doesn’t surprise me at all that Mal was against the idea of Zoe getting married.  Mal knew that he would become second in Zoe’s eyes. Mal’s ear removal is awful and so disturbing, but what really sells that moment is Wash’s little pleas to Zoe to ‘Run’ and the fact that Wash can’t even watch as they slice off Mal’s ear. And Zoe, the ultimate warrior, places Mal’s ear in her pocket and walks away with Wash, Mal’s horrific screams chasing her down the hall. Damn, this is tough shit here. I like it that Wash immediately realizes what Mal was doing for him in the torture room, and is so so thankful. My favorite Wash moment here is right at the top of this clip, when Zoe tells him that Niska is going to torture Mal for days. Wash whips around then struggles to his feet. He snarls down at Zoe, full of blood, spittle and fire, “Bastards’s not going to get days.” That’s a stand-up and cheer moment. Wash is only a pilot, but he’ll use every ounce of his talent to save the man who made sure Wash would see his wife again. And I love seeing the crew rally to get the captain, especially Book, with his remark that the Bible is pretty specific about killing, but fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps. Then smash cut to Mal actually dead on Niska’s torture table. Now there is a commercial break for ya!

The crew storms Niska’s space station and damn I forgot how badass Book is! Calmly dispatching bad guys’ knee caps, dodging bullets, this is one preacher to keep around! The corridor fight isn’t great, a lot of stand-and-shoot, but I understand this is a television budget. I love the feral snarl Mal gives as he is staggering over Niska, grunting out, “You want to meet the real me now!” Terrifying. And then that incredible River scene. The others advance down the hallway, leaving poor sweet Kaylee defending the ship. She hides in the cargo hold as three bad guys advance. River suddenly comes up to Kaylee, takes the gun, and steals a split-second peek at the bad guys in the bay. River takes a second to do the math, closes her eyes, and fires three times, shooting each bad guy dead. I love that shot of her standing in Serenity, the gun glinting bright, another powerful Whedon heroine. River echoes Kaylee’s earlier comment, “No power in the verse can stop me,” and we are very afraid. Finally, we get another great instance of Whedon and co turning another cliché on its head. Mal is fighting with Niska’s henchman when Zoe, Jayne, and Wash enter the room, guns drawn. Spotting the captain and thinking he needs to enact his revenge for the torture, Zoe says, “This is something the captain has to do for himself.” Mal’s off-screen strangled response, “No! No its not!!” and Zoe’s startled “Oh!” before they shoot the henchman is just comedic gold. In a brutal painful moment, there is still a surprising note of humor in there, and that is not something you see much anymore in television writing.

Love the ending, some great humor with Book easing Simon’s fear of having shot someone and then that hilarious final scene that shows us and Wash once and for all just how little sexual charge there is between Mal and Zoe.

MAL: You and I . . . have to get it on.
ZOE(deadpan): Take me, sir. Take me hard.

Jayne’s disgust really sells the wrongness of that pairing as Wash dashes Zoe off to their bunk. Ahhhh, another fulfilling meal of an episode. Tough, brutal, but still funny, War Stories goes down as one of the greats. It furthers a lot of the plots, digs deeper into Zoe/Wash marriage and out of nowhere, gives the River storyline a nice big kick in the ass. The consequences of River’s actions here play out for the rest of the season and into the movie. I’m sorry to leave this episode behind. Next week brings us Trash, the worst episode of FIREFLY in my opinion. Whatever, it’s still better than most television I watch these days. 

COOLEST ACTION/WESTERN MOMENT: Book. Oh Dear God yes, it’s Book at 6:50. Book calmly stops his conversation, levels his gun out the door and blows off the kneecap of some poor henchman. The henchman falls face-first into the metal seat on the 4-wheeler and wow does that look like a painful stunt! I’m sure that metal clank was added in postproduction, but how did that stunt guy get his neck to rebound like that without snapping his spinal column?? That is one damn fine piece of action fall stunt work!

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: I like a couple from this show, like Serenity silently slamming into the side of the space station. But the best is probably that opening space shot, a slow pullback from Serenity, then a quick zip around the planet to reveal Niska’s space station. What really sells this shot as a cool ZOIC FX shot is that the zip stops halfway around the planet, meandering around some asteroids, before continuing on to the station. It’s like the camera POV is a leapfrog. Why does the camera stop at the asteroids? No idea, but it does look damn cool.

 

 

 

-Thursday, October 27th, 2011: THINGS THAT FREAK ME OUT!: Penguins

Penguin with a Gun? Wha?!?With Halloween bearing down on me like a freight train of fear, I feel that I need to reveal the Number 1 thing that really freaks me out: Penguins. Just terrifying. I’m not sure what it is about those flightless birds from the South Pole that freak me out so much, but these guys just haunt my dreams. Because they are evil. Part of it might be the fact that they travel in packs, so in a similar way to flying birds, it is possible for penguins to swarm a human being and take them down. It doesn’t take much for me to substitute penguins for birds in Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS and imagine how much scarier the movie would have been. Maybe it’s how little of their faces we can see, that their eyes seemed hooded and they seem to always be discussing things with each other, like their future plans for world domination! For goodness, sakes, there are a few species of penguins that have red eyes! How can you trust an animal that has devil eyes?! They also have beaks that can be surprisingly sharp and dangerous. To go with these fearsome physical attributes, they also seem to have rage problems, I mean just take a look at this penguin attack. I think it’s a similar thing to my fear of clowns and black balloons. I feel that there might be a touch of the supernatural with these animals, that they may actually be far smarter than they look. Of course, it doesn’t help when certain family members feed that delusion. Growing up in Minnesota, we would mark the boundaries of our driveways with enormous neon poles so that snowplows wouldn’t run over our lawn when plowing our driveway. Our next door neighbor thought it would be cute to decorate the tops of his boundary poles with large plastic penguins. The neighbor even bought plastic penguins with red eyes. Knowing that I wasn’t particularly fond of penguins, my brother and sister would steal some of these plastic penguins and place them around the house in order to scare me. One time, they snuck one of those red eyed bastards into my bed so that I woke up staring into those evil eyes. Another time, they put a penguin in the backseat of my car so that when I looked in my rearview mirror to back out of the garage, I would see a freakin’ penguin in the mirror. Truly loving siblings.

Penguins seem to run the entertainment world, because for the most part, Hollywood depicts penguins as these cute little fluffy animals that talk and often rap in sweet voices. But a few more devious depictions have slipped through over the years. I actually think I can tie my entire phobia back to those damn Bud Ice commercials in the early 90s. At this point in my life, I was pretty much terrified by everything and these commercials used penguins to play off of popular urban horror myths. The fake phone call, the murderer-in-the-backseat-of-your-car, and worst of all, the harassing phone call late at night that the police traced back to . . . your upstairs bedroom! I’m not sure who they hired to be the voice of the penguin, but that smooth psychopathic tone and that freaky ‘Doo-Be---Doo-Be-Doo’ tagline really freaked me out. I know the whole series of commercials was supposed to be funny and goofy, but to a highly impressionable tween scaredy-cat, it gave me nightmares. Then there was the evil penguin, Feathers McGraw, from the Wallace & Gromit cartoons. Completely silent and somehow able to fire a gun with flippers, this was disturbing for me. I mean, look at the clip. That damn penguin isn’t fooling around, he fires at least three head kill shots on the dog that are just luckily deflected by a bowl. Yikes. Or that gargantuan penguin in BILLY MADISON that only he can see. Not only will this thing tease you with its presence, but it will also steal your girlfriend! And the less said about having Chris Farley make out with a penguin’s beak and then get jerked off by the penguin, the better. That shot nearly made me sick. And even though I despise those spoof movies, MEET THE SPARTANS does at least acknowledge that penguins with red eyes are ridiculous. Though that movie completely misses the point, they should have hired the Bud Ice guy to voice that penguin instead of going with some lame ghetto gag. And don't get me started on the grotesquery of Danny DeVito's 'Penguin' in BATMAN. Hell, I even made a goofy short film called HELL'S PENGUIN about a homicidal penguin that attempts to ruin Christmas by stealing the Angel on the top of the tree. Finally, I kind of like this nature clip about a penguin stealing a nest from another penguin. But I think it is strange that we are supposed to see this robber behavior as cute, just because the perpetrator is fluffy. With the other two ‘freak me out’ posts, I wrote about a real life scene that would send me tumbling over the edge of sanity. With penguins, I’m imagining a late night working at the office. No one else is there, and most of the lights are off. Every now and then, I hear a rustling sound, maybe the pad of little leathered feet on linoleum, but it’s never loud enough to stir me from my desk. Then I get up to leave my cubicle and I find myself surrounded by hundreds of silent still penguins. Breathing quietly in the dark, hundreds of burning red eyes staring into mine. Oh yeah, instant madness right there. That’s enough, no more of these things that freak me the f#@* out!!

 

 

 

-Wednesday, October 26th, 2011: LOTR: The Two Towers

Frodo/Nazgul showdownThe second film of Peter Jackson’s epic LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE TWO TOWERS, is my least favorite of the three. Though I should quantify that. Saying that TT is my least favorite is like saying that the NY strip is my least favorite type of steak. TWO TOWERS is still far better than most films I have ever seen and I would gladly watch it again over almost anything else. There are moments of glory and beauty in this film that rival any other moment from the trilogy. I find it very uneven, especially with the very long scenes of Treebeard and the Hobbits in Fanghorn. I understand that Peter Jackson uses these scenes as breaks to provide the audience some relief from the exciting battle prep happening in Rohan, but I don’t want a break from those thrilling Rohan scenes! Granted, I think this is exactly what Jackson wants us to feel, but the transitions are so jarring, it knocks me out of the film a bit. In addition, I think this film has the only example of bad special effects in the entire trilogy. While the mo-cap work done here on Gollum is absolutely ground-breaking, the fx on the Warg attack scene is, at best, adequate, and at worst, damn near laughable. I applaud WETA for trying, but the challenge of adequately rendering shaggy-haired beasts in broad daylight was just asking too much in 2002. Another thing I don’t like is that long nighttime exposition dump scene between Gandalf and Aragorn after Fanghorn. It feels like a very blatant catch-up for the audience and needed to be handled in a less obvious and clunky fashion. The only moment that really sells in that scene is at the end with the small measure of hope that Gandalf allows himself once he learns that Sam is still with Frodo. And I was confused how easily the orcs are dispatched by the angry trees at the end. How did those trees know to come to Rohan? Were they part of Fanghorn? Geographically, I was confused by that. But again, I am talking about minor faults that don’t take away from the assured direction and story majesty on display.

I owe one of the greatest nights of my life to LOTR:TT. The movie premiered in NY, back in 2002. At the time I was working as an assistant for an agency that just so happened to represent Peter Jackson. My boss was unable to attend the premiere gala, so he gave me two tickets to go. With a good friend in tow, I went to the world premiere of LOTR:TT, sitting in the audience with actors, directors, a veritable who’s-who of the NY entertainment scene. The after-party was at the NY Public Library, a venue decked out in LOTR paraphernalia. With the help of my fearless partner, I was able to snap pictures with Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Bernard Hill, and Peter Jackson. I felt bad bothering everyone, but it is just so cool to have these photographic mementos to look back on. My favorite moment was when I asked to take a picture with Peter Jackson. He gamely posed with me, but just as my friend was about to snap a picture, someone walked right in front of us and blocked the shot. Figuring that you only get one shot at bugging these busy celebrities, I wrote the picture off and thanked Jackson for his time. He grabbed my arm, looked at me strangely, and said something to the effect of, “No way, get back here, we are doing this right!” I felt like crying, it was so sweet. And thanks to Jackson’s magnanimous nature, I still have that picture to look back on. I know I shouldn’t be star struck by celebrities, especially after a decade in the business, when I know there isn’t anything really all that special about these people, but damn if I still don’t get nervous and sweaty whenever I meet someone famous. Maybe that’s just part of the magic of that business, the allure of the silver screen. There are times that I feel a more intimate knowledge of made-up characters than I do the people in my own life, and while that may sound strange to some, I think it justifies the fact that I am still in awe of these people. Oh well, we’ll leave my own neuroses aside for the moment and move on with LOTR:TT.

What a bold way to throw us right back into the mix, taking the most emotionally devastating moment from the first film and following the different thread of Gandalf’s fall, at 4:07. And wow that is one hell of a kinetic fight scene between Gandalf and the Balrog; a scene that throws us right back into the world of Middle-Earth. It wouldn’t have worked as well to start slowly with Sam and Frodo trekking towards Mordor, we need that adrenaline punch before we can settle back in with our beloved but splintered Fellowship. I particularly love the long shot of Gandalf and the Balrog falling towards the underground lake. It gives us a break from the relentless intimacy of the struggle and allows us to appreciate the scope of the visuals and the lushness of Howard Shore’s score. I forget sometimes how big a deal Gollum was back then. The idea that he was a completely CGI mo-cap character that we needed to empathize with was one hell of a challenge for any visual effects house. One of the best things that WETA did to sell the idea of Gollum was to make his introduction so physical. Seeing Gollum wrestle and fight with Frodo and Sam sells his presence better than any dialogue could. And even though the mo-cap work that Andy Serkis does as Gollum is still vastly underappreciated, he does a tremendous job selling his alien character’s bipolar nature in a sympathetic manner. Sure Gollum is crazy, but is he evil? He exhibits humor, grace, and heroism, and I find it fascinating how long Jackson and Serkis ride that fine line between villain and victim. I like that metaphor of the Ring as cancer, that good or bad, it eventually eats its way through everyone who holds it. I’ve always really loved the scene where Gollum argues with himself. One part of the scene’s greatness is Serkis’s faceted, yet extreme depiction of Gollum’s personalities, but another part is of how simply Peter Jackson uses camera placement to depict Gollum’s argument. Jackson just cuts back and forth between two opposite views of Gollum as if they were two different people. It works because the technique plays off of audience experience. Every normal dialogue scene between two people in the movies is shot in the same way, with opposing viewpoint edits. So by using the same simple edits, Jackson uses our expectations to help us accept the heady idea that Gollum is actually having a two-way dialogue with himself. It is a stunning bit of cinematic psychology, pulled off in an effortlessly elegant manner.

Continuing with Jackson’s use of basic film techniques coupled with the latest in CGI advancement, we get the first great scene of THE TWO TOWERS, Theoden’s transformation. It goes back to my belief that the most powerful moments that entertainment can show us have to do with redemption/awakening. Like with the finale of LOST, how it his the emotional sweet spot, just by stringing together scenes of character redemption, the power of Theoden’s awakening lies in all our collective desires. Watching that king shake off the shackles of insidious rot and rise to claim his righteous authority, hand on sword, is exhilarating. Howard Shore’s stunning and evocative Rohan theme kicks in and we are truly behind this new character whom we just met.  We want to be that king someday, overcoming the crap of our dull lives to brightly stand as heroes if only for a moment. There are so many great pieces of this scene, from the first demonstration of Gandalf the White’s new powers to Gimli’s hold on Wormtongue, Gilmli clearly thinking it important that Wormtongue sees this king’s transformation so that he might, for just a second, tremble at the power of the good. But I really love the magic of the how Theoden’s face changes at 2:20. There is nothing very complicated here at all, the effects are achieved through elementary-level simple fades and basic morphs. Yet the old-school effects really work here, especially the way his eyes slowly clear. Instead of CGI-ing up the king’s face, the physical fades feel very real and I remember more than one audience member releasing a satisfied sigh at the end of that shot, feeling that Jackson had effectively sold that scene by honoring simple special effects that were old in the 1930s.

Can I point out an awesome shout-out by the way? I am convinced that the scene where Sarumon is making gunpowder and moves the candle away is a direct lift from Bruce Campbell in ARMY OF DARKNESS. That would just be so cool if that were true! I’m going to zip ahead, past all the walking scenes, though they are important to let us know that Aragorn is still in with love with Arwen, no matter how cool Eowyn is. And I like the building of Faramir’s character, especially with the flashes to Sean Bean. The Battle of Helm’s Deep feels like the most important battle ever and it really does shame to most epics that try to mount a siege scene of similar import. The clear sense of geography, the emotion put into the characters and the extras, this battle is amazing in all respects. Love the Elves coming to help, no matter how decimated they get. Of course, right in the middle of all of this, we go back to the damn Ents. I’ve already talked about that, but I do love that sweeping shot of the Ents march, at 2:00. With that single voice on the soundtrack, it is strange and creepy and awesome all at the same time.

The finale is full of a couple of amazing moments. Gandalf’s last-minute save with the Riders of Rohan still gets my spine tingling. After all the exhaustive death of Helm’s Deep, that sweeping descent of the Rohirrim is so heroic and stirring. The musical themes resolve at that moment, with the dawning sun blinding the Orcs and Gandalf’s desperate echoing cry. It is the most emotional and cinematic moment of the film and I love how Jackson depicts it with bold rays of light, alternately intimate and crashing music, and unabashed relief. It’s hard to describe, my heart swells and I get misty watching these men thunder to the rescue, it’s awesome and epic and damn heroic. I could watch this all day. And over to Frodo and Sam, I really love that iconic, nearly silent moment between Frodo and the Nazgul, where everything comes so close to breaking apart. Sam’s speech that plays beautifully over all our characters may be too much, for some, but I think it’s stunning. It is so heartfelt and honest, and shows just how important Sean Astin is to this series. I’m normally one of those people who hates it when others make 9/11 allegories out of every film, but I know that everyone in that NY theatre was feeling the hell out of these words. The tragedy was just over a year behind us and Sam’s words opened up a lot of hearts. Asking how we can ever be the same. About how evil must be confronted, and that there is good in this world worth fighting for. The editing here is beautiful and again Howard Shore provides the perfect musical accompaniment to strengthen and deepen Sam’s words. Man I love that end, and the demonstration of how Faramir is a better man than his brother, even if we are the only ones who know it.

Ugh, so much more I could talk about, but I have to wrap this up. Like how Ian McKellan plays Gandalf the White as subtly different from Gandalf the Grey. The White is more emotional, less battered down by the world’s troubles. He is not the same man, changed for the better by his acid trip to the stars. McKellan finds the poetry in Tolkien’s words better than anyone else in the films. Or about that scene where Sarumon stares out at his terrifying loud army before him and it’s not the special effects that sell the awesome power of this army, but the tear that rolls down Wormtongue’s cheek. Stopping now!

BEST SHOT: I so so love that first reveal of Gandalf the White in Fanghorn. When he steps from the light, staff passing in front of his face, to reveal himself to the Fellowship. It is a stand-up-and-cheer moment and it makes us realize how lost we felt without Gandalf’s calming presence in the movie. His clear face and the exultant reactions of the Fellowship really sell the emotion, but that slow shot is so good, there is a reason it was used in every trailer. Although, I also really love that extreme Sam POV shot near the end when Frodo is angrily pointing his sword directly into the camera. It's intimate, visceral, and just a very cool angle on a furious Frodo.

BEST ACTION: Already talked about this, but easily the best action is Gandalf and the Rohirrim thundering down the cliff and with the harsh beams of a new day, slaughtering the heathen orcs below. What a stunning marriage of action, visuals, and music to create the most effective version of this scene possible. This is an example of Peter Jackson’s vision and directing prowess, an artist at his peak.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, October 25th, 2011: THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES: Indrid Cold

What do you see?I wish this movie got more appreciation; THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES manages to be an unsettling and disturbing viewing experience just by using creative camerawork and unique sound. I remember catching this flick on late night a few years ago and being amazed by what the filmmakers were able to do with the campy concept of The Mothman. I was expecting something fun and light, like a Scyfy movie, but the director, Mark Pellington, expanded the original Mothman legends to create terrifyingly mysterious beings that aren’t just goofy flying men with red eyes. The Mothman portrayed here is named Indrid Cold, a truly awesome name, and it is a creepy prophetic figure that is never clearly seen. It speaks in this metallic tone that is scary enough by itself. Listen to the playful way he plays with Richard Gere’s character over the phone, it’s almost like a kid playfully burning an ant with a magnifying glass. The beings portrayed here can see the future and are dark figures who appear before major catastrophes occur. What is most terrifying to me is that it is never made clear what Cold’s intentions are. We are told that it looks down on humanity like we might look down upon a cockroach. By the end of the film, very little is actually explained about Indrid Cold, and it left me wanting to learn so much more about these freaky-ass powerful Mothmen. The film creates a very unsettling soundscape, with strange noises always flitting through normal scene and a dark dread-inducing score that can make even a daytime town scene strange and eerie. The camera jumps around, often cutting between extreme closeups and swooping wide shots, adding to the unsettling tone already created by the sound design. All this adds up to a sense of claustrophobic paranoia in the viewer that lends much more power to the psychological terror explored in this film.

The characters aren’t very well drawn. I have never been an enormous Richard Gere fan, and this film doesn’t change my mind. He is just so damn bland in every film he is in. Here, he is supposed to play a grieving widow and I just never got that sense from him. I saw an actor going through the motions of grief by dramatically closing his eyes in pain every few seconds. Laura Linney plays the town sheriff who is drawn into the plot and despite the slim nature of her character, she has no trouble blowing Gere off the screen. Here is a small scene where Linney describes a prophetic dream about death and letting go. Linney invests the story with so much emotion and nuance. Just from the manner in which she speaks, I could imagine an entire painful backstory for her character that was never fleshed out in the screenplay. It is excellent work in a thankless role. And I could never figure out if Gere and Linney’s characters were supposed to be starting a relationship or becoming good friends. In certain scenes, it looks like the actors were told to act as friends, in others it looks like they were told to act like new lovers. It’s a thread that could have added some healing power to Gere’s character, but the thread between characters is badly handled.

As I said before, we never see the Indrid Cold, the Mothman. But there are flashes and blurry depictions of this dark figure. The most successful flashes of Cold are the ones that involve no CGI. The first sighting, which causes the death of Gere’s wife is very quick CGI, but still pretty cheesy. Much more effective is when Will Patton’s character meets Cold in a cement plat parking lot in the middle of the night. Just through the use of blur, threshold filters, and some creative camera angles, Indrid Cold is depicted as a mysterious and sinister figure in black. At certain points, Cold takes on the guise of Gere’s dead wife, always to shocking effect, such as her sudden reveal in a town crowd. But there is one scene in particular that still scares the crap out of me with its use of subtle horror effects. I wish I had a clip of it, but I couldn’t find this scene on the web. Gere is back in his dark hotel apartment, yelling angrily on the phone, stalking back and forth in front of the bathroom mirror. The music and tone of the scene doesn’t lead the viewer to expect anything creepy, it seems like a stock ‘hero gets angry and yells’ scene. But as Gere walks around in front of the mirror, you begin to realize that Gere’s gestures and his reflection’s gestures don’t match up! It’s a very subtle trick that I missed the first time, but once I saw it, it terrified me. Even though I knew this was a planned effect by the production team, the misleading music and action of the scene makes me feel like I was the only one seeing this creepy aberration. And somehow, that feeling, that there are scary things happening that only I can see, makes things that much more frightening. Gere gets mad and hits the door, so the mirror swings back into the bathroom. For just a split-second in the mirror reflection, we see that Indrid Cold, in Mothman form, is in the freaking bathroom! Whew, what an awesomely effective reveal. Horror audiences are so used to being ‘told’ when a scary scene is going to occur, either through sound ‘jump’ cues or camera work that never reveals what is right behind the protagonist. I have always found it infinitely more terrifying when horror happens in a ‘normal’ scene. The viewer isn’t being directed to be frightened, so the unsettled feeling increases because we feel like we aren’t supposed to be frightened. If that makes any sense.

The ending of the film, with its rather predictable twist, is decent and clearly most of the film’s budget went into creating the effective and brutal bridge collapse sequence. But I like it that there is no finished conclusion. Now that the tragedy has occurred, the Mothmen are never seen again in the area. Have the Mothmen been manipulating Gere’s character, through the death of his wife and prophetic dreams, to be on the bridge so he can save lives? Can’t Gere and the well-played expositional scientist team up and hunt down international Mothmen in a sequel? Will Gere and Linney ever get together? I can see why this film didn’t get a lot of attention from thriller/horror aficionados. It has no gore for the hard-core fans and it’s a little unfocused, with a stiff leading man and a pedestrian script, to truly work as a building masterpiece of psychological horror. But attention should be paid to the passion of the production team and the ingenuity of the style. With the camera tricks and sounds, the team does a whole lot with very little, creating a few individual scenes of subtle terror. And the fact that anyone was able to do that much with the freakin’ Mothman is a stunning achievement in of itself. Treat yourself to some moody spookiness this Halloween and check out THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES on Netflix Streaming.

 

 

 

-Monday, October 24th, 2011: LOTR: Fellowship - The Concert

Frodo and the MaestroOver the weekend, I was able to attend an odd event. My family and I went to the Oracle Sports Arena in Oakland to watch LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING on a big projection screen while the Munich Orchestra, seated below the screen, played the entire score. I’m not sure I’d do it again, but it was an interesting experience. Sometimes the screen dialogue was drowned out by the live instruments, so the subtitles were turned on. I actually found this useful as I was able to understand some of the things said in the movie that weren’t so clear in the past. Like, apparently Sauron actually threatens Frodo with legible words after Frodo puts on the Ring in the Prancing Pony. Who knew? But I came out of the arena with a much stronger respect for sound mixing. FOTR is my favorite of the LOTR movies, mostly because I find it to be the most stand-alone film of the series with the most complete plot, and also because I find the big emotional moments extremely affecting. But with the music blaring, I lost my connection with the narrative. I could remember feeling devastated when Gandalf fell or feeling uplifted when Sam gets on the boat from previous viewings, but I didn’t actually feel those emotions this time. I think I was turned off by the insistence of the music, how it was forcing me into feeling emotions. I didn’t realize how epic and large the score is so I felt battered by it. When I react strongly to a scene it’s mostly because of the acting and plot, but I also like to have the music score softly tease the emotions from me. So often for me, a subtle music cue can be the difference between a sniffle and outright bawling.

That is the sound mixers job, to make sure that every audible detail plays at the right level to impart the most potent audio movie experience. From the score to the dialogue to the background voices to all the small sounds of the set. Mixers have to account for distance, because we would be distracted if a horse’s hoof beats from 100 feet away sounded louder than a person speaking into our ear. But mixing also allows for subjective audio, like when we are hearing something from someone’s POV. Imagine how difficult a balancing act that must be. Mixers have to be aware that some sounds, though realistic, somehow ‘sound’ fake. For instance, a real life punch in the face sounds nothing like a punch in the movies. If we were watching an action movie and the hero hit the villain and all we heard was an ordinary thud, our ears would tell us that something was wrong, even though that thud is more realistic. What strange creatures we are that we could find audio artifice more realistic than an actual real sound. Subjective sound can totally make a scene. One of my favorite uses of subjective sound to heighten the epicness of a scene is in the final LOTR film, RETURN OF THE KING. In the scene, Eowyn has just killed the head Nazgul, the Witch King of Angmar’s, flying beast. The Nazgul stands and Peter Jackson wants to make this bad guy as intimidating and imposing as possible. Look at this clip at 1:02, as the camera pushes in on the standing Nazgul. As his giant-ass blade passes in front of the camera, we hear a creaking sound, like the massive cracking metal of a cargo ship. There is no way this sound should exist in the actual scene, but this large sound of cranking metal makes this bad guy sound indomitable. This is clearly some geeky sound mixer who wants to crank up the power of a scene and has found a perfect subjective sound that not only works to sell the scope of the scene, but also is accepted by our ears as a ‘realistic’ sound. I love that kind of daring cinematic innovation.

 

 

 

-Friday, October 21st, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #9: Ariel

Dear God, they stripped her amygdala!!

Back again with my further exploration of the brilliant short-lived TV series FIREFLY, determined not to write another novel, with the 9th episode, Ariel. On the surface, this seems like a simple heist episode, but as usual in a Whedon production, there is a whole lot more going on here, with shifting tones of light comedy, true horror, and deep sentiment. The plot basically goes; Simon, intent on getting medical scans for an increasingly disturbed and violent River, proposes a hospital robbery for the crew that will get them some much-needed income and allow Simon to sneak into the hospital and get River some help. Jayne, greedy and pissed off the Simon and River are still aboard the ship, decides to betray the two and give them to the Alliance for a reward. Jayne is double-crossed by the feds, but manages to escape with Simon and River, also avoiding the creepy reptilian-like Men in Blue who will murder any and all to apprehend River Tam. Simon and River think Jayne saved them and hail him as their hero, but Mal knows better and has a stern face-off with Jayne. What really surprised me in this viewing of the episode was how much parallelism and communication is going on between River and Jayne, two truly messed-up individuals. And even though we got a lot of the relationship between Simon and River in Safe, I love their relationship and the incredible sacrifices that Simon has made to care for his sister. The scenes between the two in their bunk on Serenity are so tender and lovely, honestly it’s some of the best acting both do in the entire series.  This is a standard episode of FIREFLY, not Out of Gas spectacular, but solid. It makes me so angry that this episode is considered to be a ‘middle-of-the-road’ episode of the show, because it is head and shoulders above most ‘regular’ episodes of any other series in terms of ideas, excitement, and emotion. Oh well, beat a dead horse, let’s jump in.

I love the ease of that first scene, just people shooting the shit and subtly moving through needed exposition, completely in character. These scenes play so easily, even though they are notoriously difficult to write. There is something so creepy about River’s nonchalant taking of the butcher knife and subsequent actions in such a warm-toned scene. I’m not sure what the impetus of her actions are here. It could just be crazy girl over-reacting to very rude Jayne, but it also could be a demonstration of her ability to discern minds, maybe River is anticipating Jayne’s betrayal and punishing Jayne accordingly. Just great commanding techniques by Mal here. Come down hard on Jayne and Simon, but separately so that neither character feels they have the upper hand with the Captain.

Very nice maneuvering to get the voices of moral reasoning (Book and Inara) off the ship to allow for crime. We are always told that Simon is smart, but he is often used for fish-out-of-water humor, and it is nice to see, with the tremendous plan he concocts, just how brilliant he is. The editing of the heist is great, cutting between explanation and execution in the finest Ocean’s 11 tradition, entertaining without ever being confusing. I love the hilarious training, at 9:35, that Simon gives Mal, Zoe, and Jayne to act like paramedics and their complete ineptitude in being able to convincingly utter medical jargon. “The patients were cynical and non-responsive, and . . . they kicked it.” And it gives Gina Torres a chance to be funny, which I always love. Plus, it’s funny on a different, meta, level, because the actors on FIREFLY notoriously had a tough time with their Chinese dialogue, so it’s extra humorous that their characters can string off ‘effortless’ Chinese cusses, but can’t get through a line of medical jargon. This is part of what I mean by the genius of this writing staff. They play up the bumbling rehearsal of these three characters, and we can see it coming a mile away that after all this work, the hospital won’t even require them to repeat it. But the extra twist is that Jayne blurts out his rehearsed line anyways, at 1:10, and still gets it wrong! It’s a small little note, but it shows how the writing staff pays such close attention to detail, that even a clichéd heist trope like that can be made funny and new again with a small little twist.

When River wakes up from her ‘death’, I love how the look of happiness she haves quickly drain away as she realizes that Jayne has nefarious intentions for her. The scene where Simon saves the patient is another stock undercover scene, played out a million times in movies and shows before it. But it’s done so well! Simon is in his element and his display of professionalism and authority is a joy to see. At the same time, it increases our empathy for Simon that he is stuck as a fugitive instead of performing the duties he loves and was born to do. The look of guilt and pride on River’s face is tremendous. In a way, her reactions here, yearning for her own sanity, remind me of Jayne wanting so much to be a hero in Jaynestown. Both Jayne and River want things, but they just can’t have them no matter how hard they struggle. I love that line, River’s condemnation and warning to Jayne as he is about to betray them, “You’re toes are in the sand.” I have heard a bunch of interpretations of River’s ramblings about Christmas in the interrogation. I still think that she is talking about Jayne’s past, digging into some painful childhood trauma that Jayne has. Though the more I see that interrogation scene, the more I love Jayne’s absolute exasperation with River. He is just so adorably flummoxed with her strange nonsense that kind of makes sense to him. You can see him thinking that if he understands River, what does that mean for Jayne’s sanity?

I forgot how brutal this section gets, the whole episode switches from playful cheekery to plain horrifying. Jayne’s silent life-and-death struggle with the prison guard is bloody and visceral; we can start to see why Jayne is needed on this crew and why Simon thinks so highly of Jayne by episode’s end. Jayne wins, but wow, he is hurt, and River looks like she is going to throw up after that kind of violence. And the Two by Two, Hands of Blue guys don’t even seem human. I’m actually pretty surprised that blood seeping scene made it onto network television in the first place.

Score one for old-fashioned guns, that’s just about as perfect a demonstration of the scrappy low-tech appeal and message of this show, when the high-tech gun Jayne steals fails to blow open a door. There are a couple bits I really love when the crew returns to Serenity. Kaylee’s blasé explanation of the plan to a shocked Inara at first seems like a humorous little bit, but listen to the nervous tremor in Kaylee’s voice right at the end, at 7:30. This is one high-strung worried girl here, seemingly barely keeping it together while the others risk their lives for their friends. Great blink-and-you-miss-it moment by Jewel Staite. I also love how Mal impulsively wraps up Kaylee in a hug, exuberant at the successful heist. Now, apparently, this move was improvised, Fillion was just goofing around. But look at River’s reaction, in the clip above, at 8:17, that sweet composed smile. That’s not troubled River smiling, that’s Summer Glau beaming through, probably because she thought that Fillion’s improve had stopped the shot. And even though it breaks the 4th wall between actor and audience a bit, I love getting that little peak behind the screen. It feels so genuine precisely because it is.

Great scene between Baldwin and Fillion when Mal confronts Jayne about his betrayal. I love how Jayne flinches back when Mal loses his cool, insisting that any betrayal of his crew is a betrayal of him. Thing is, I think Mal was ready to kill Jayne here. Jayne betrayed the family, something that Mal takes extremely seriously. It was that one moment of humanity that saves Jayne. Despite all his bluster, all his dickishness, he still wants to be thought of well by his shipmates. This is his hero yearning coming through, and he is communicating to Mal that no matter how it looks, Jayne wants to be better. Mal has no use for a proudly immoral man, but he can easily find room on this crazy ship for another damaged soul searching for a way to be more than he is. No matter how funny he is, that’s the Jayne journey, and that is why Mal closed the hatch door. “Next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face.” And finally, my favorite bit of the episode, the closing scene between Simon and River, in the clip above at 12:34. Simon brings new medicine for River, but she is scared:

RIVER(resigned): Time to go to sleep again.
SIMON: No, mei-mei. It’s time to wake up.

I adore the passion and tenderness that Simon puts into that answer. He wants to open the world to River, make her whole again. We’ve spent most of the episode realizing how much Simon has sacrificed for River and here it is made perfectly clear why. Simon has found his calling, the purpose of his knowledge, and that is to heal his sister. The clear love shining through his words is palpable here, and a wonderfully performed line by Sean Maher. And with that look back at Simon, River is in awe of how much love he offers her. Just wonderful. Next week is a tough but brilliant episode that is my tie for #3 of my all-time favorite FIREFLY episodes.

COOLEST ACTION/WESTERN MOMENT: I’ve got to go with that brutal fight between Jayne and the security guard. Jayne is trying to keep quiet so that he doesn’t alert the prison security, so he can’t even yell out in pain, even though he clearly wants to. From the bloody hand as the guard chomps down on it to the repeated face punching to the final exhausted neck slap, this is DEADWOOD-style fighting here and each blow hurts like hell.

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: There are some fantastic effects in this episode and while I love the seamlessness of how the stolen med shuttle re-enters the Serenity bay at the end of the episode, nothing beats the beautiful visualization of the neural imager, at 8:26. ZOIC does a subtle and seamless job here. Look at how it starts, the body image being slowly stripped away over River as the camera slowly tracks backwards. I love how Simon manipulates the brain image, but then as soon as he lets go, the hologram settles back into the default position. That is fantastic work and I am confident that this kind of scan is exactly where our medical technology is headed. It’s like how prescient all that STAR TREK tech is turning out to be, from flip-up cell phones to Ipads. This is how we will do scans one day and that takes a lot of thought and care to be able to forecast the future of technology.

 

 

 

-Thursday, October 20th, 2011: THINGS THAT FREAK ME OUT!: #2 - Clowns

Freaky-ass PennywiseWith Halloween just a short week away, we are moving on to one of the other things that really freak me out: Clowns. Obviously, this is a pretty normal fear, I feel like I knew a dozen other kids that weren’t so kosher with clowns. Like with black balloons, what really creeps me out about clowns is the potential for the supernatural. For instance, I don’t think a movie thug in a clown mask isn’t scary, but an unknown man moving strangely in a clown mask makes me think he may not be quite human. And it’s that possibility, that slim chance that freaks me out. And of course, when there is an outright supernaturally evil clown in a movie, well that’s just damn terrifying. We can start with the ultimate frightening clown, Pennywise from the TV movie IT, played by Tim Curry. I’ve covered Pennywise before, but he is just so damn terrifying, in the way that only a demon clown can be. Ugh, this clip just makes me feel dirty; knowing that an evil clown can invade your world anywhere, even somehow squeezing up a drainpipe to terrify you. I guess it’s something about the artifice for a clown, how he has a painted smile on, but it’s not the clown’s real face. And the more antiquated that kind of childhood entertainment feels, clowns disappearing into our past like carousels and ancient arcade games, the more scary they become. As our society moves away from having clowns at circuses and at birthday parties, they have to take up a different place in our culture. And to corrupt a child’s form of entertainment into evil capitalizes on our memories of silly childhood phobias. It might be kind of a cheap fright for writers, but damn does it work. I couldn’t find a good clip of the infamous clown scene from POLTERGEIST, but you can see some bits of it here. This scene is especially creepy because it combines the fear of clowns with the common phobia of suddenly live dolls. When the poor kid looks up and realizes that the chair is empty, it confirms that there is magic in this world, and I’m amazed that kid didn’t just lose his mind right there. Of course, if you want take away the fear communicated from this scene, check out this very very NSFW clown clip from SCARY MOVIE 2. It continues to amaze me how insidious our imaginations can be. I’m not particularly a big fan of dolls or mannequins either. I remember being in theaters and watching this scene from I AM LEGEND in between my fingers because I was convinced that the girl was going to move or speak or blink or something. Or later in that movie, Will Smith sees ‘Fred’, a mannequin from the video store, now standing out in the street. In a very quick shot, you can see Fred’s head move slightly. The filmmakers are trying to show how Will Smith’s character is starting to go insane, hallucinating mannequin movement. And Smith’s over-the-top anger is a believable reaction to the realization of his deteriorating mental state. But again, I remember seeing Fred’s head move in the movie theater and it scared the crap out of me. That infinitesimally small head movement kept me from sleeping that night. What if I ever saw something like that? That would mean that I was either going crazy or that the supernatural does exist in our world and I think either option is a terrifying prospect.

And to clumsily tie my tangent back to clowns, maybe that’s the ultimate fear of a supernatural clown. That if you see something like that it’s already too late; insanity or confirmation of the paranormal are just not good options. In BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, Xander once dreams of a homicidal clown chasing him through corridors with a knife and his horrified scream at meeting his dream seems to come from the depths of his soul. I sometimes imagine a situation that would be so bad and scary that I think I might lose my mind. What if it was nighttime and I was home alone late, just reading a book in pajamas. The doorbell rings. I open the door and find a clown in full makeup, standing completely still, a cleaver clasped in his hand. He wouldn’t even need to move, I would lose my shit. I remember the FRASIER clown scene did something similar in their run. I think Frasier was trying to get back at Martin for some prank, so he dressed like a clown to scare his father. Listen to the studio audience when Frasier picks up the knife. They make this interesting gasp and then a sympathetic mewling sound, like they are afraid on Martin’s behalf, compassionate to the scare he is about to receive. I think it goes to show that I’m not the only one who finds the strange juxtaposition between innocence and violence embodied in the painted face of a clown to be downright terrifying. Nothing particularly enlightening in this post, though I have looked through enough scary clown Youtube videos to make sure I never get to sleep tonight! Next week we delve into the last of my childhood fears, a weird one that makes very little sense.

 

 

 

-Wednesday, October 19th, 2011: PARENTHOOD - Joel the Man

Husband HeroI know I posted a lot about PARENTHOOD last season and it’s probably very annoying that I continue to do so for those out there who enjoy the links or my more genre-leaning posts. But the show just continues to surprise and really emotionally connect with me every single week. We are a few episodes into the 3rd season now and the showrunner, Jason Katims from FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, continues to deepen these characters and reward longtime viewers for sticking with this show for so long. PARENTHOOD still has a few awful storylines, the thread about Julia trying to adopt her coffee-girl’s baby is truly cringe-worthy, but the good moments far outweigh the bad ones. What amazes me is how entertaining the show remains while just telling stories about regular people and their lives. There are no car chases or aliens or death, yet I still tune in every week to see what normal-life quandary will beset the Braverman clan. We have all seen these kinds of storylines in network series a bajillion times over, but Katims and his team are so good at telling clichés truthfully that they transcend them. A few weeks ago, Michael B. Jordan’s character broke up with Haddie. As he says goodbye Haddie’s mom, Kristina, a woman who has treated him with more love than his own mother, Jordan starts to lose it. He talks about how much he respects her through tears and grief and regret. Kristina doesn’t know how to respond, and it is wrenching for us to watch Jordan go through this moment. A moment seen on a dozen different shows, but never brought to such painful and realistic heights by such talented acting and writing. Last week, Kristina had her baby, her water breaking while arguing with brother-in-law Crosby. Meanwhile, her husband Adam was out shopping for hip-hop clothes to impress a music client. This should all come off awfully, but somehow it all works. It’s funny, sad, cathartic, and moving, and some of the very best television I’ve seen.

I had to write about this week because it showcased one of my favorite fringe characters, Joel, played by Sam Jaeger. I’ll try to explain the background here, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll try and only describe the main characters this week. The whole series is about the extended Braverman family. The patriarch and matriarch of this family are Craig T. Nelson as ‘Zeke’ and Bonnie Bedilia as ‘Camille’. They have 4 children: Adam, Sarah, Crosby, and Julia. Julia is a lawyer, married to Joel and they have a cute little daughter named Sydney. Over the years, the Joel/Julia storylines tend to be the silliest, which is kind of unfair to the quality actors in this family. But they have still had some wonderful moments, and it is quietly becoming clear that Joel is the best husband in the world. Seriously, this guy is just amazing, but not in an showy dramatic way, he is just a good decent man who wants the best for his wife and his baby girl. He used to be a stay-at-home father, but last year he attempted to get back into his carpentry trade, a balance that Joel and Julia still argue about. When they started trying to have another child at the end of last year, they discovered that Julia is infertile. It was wonderful to see how hurt Joel was, but how also how confidently he supported his wife. There was some wonderful acting on behalf of both Jaegar and Erika Christensen. Unfortunately, this led into the silly coffee-girl adoption storyline this year, which just doesn’t vibe with the naturalistic tone set by the rest of the show. Early in the episode, Zeke is unhappy that Julia is following through with this strange adoption.

Anyways, Sarah is the black sheep of the family. She has an alcoholic ex-husband, Seth, who shows up at her home and claims that he finally wants to go into rehab. Zeke, having been burned by this asshole often enough and looking out for Sarah, refuses to lend Sarah money to help Seth with his rehab. In a touching scene, Sarah goes to Julia to ask for the money and Julia and Joel agree to lend the money. At a family dinner later, it is accidentally revealed that Joel and Julia loaned Sarah the money that Zeke refused to lend. Zeke starts berating his daughters, Sarah and Julia, appalled that they would throw their money away on proven loser Seth. Joel, being the in-law here, holds his tongue for a bit, then quietly and eloquently stands up for his wife,

Zeke, that’s enough. I respect that you are trying to protect your family, I understand that, I do. But you have to respect the decision that my sister-in-law made here. You raised two smart and wonderful girls and this one, well, she’s opened her heart here. And any time you do that, it’s the right choice. And you know what? Even if you’re not comfortable with it, we’re going to give money to whoever we want. And we’re going to adopt from whomever we want, however we want. And you’re going to have to be okay with it.

What an amazing speech and more proof that Joel is the. Best. Husband. Ever! I wish I could find a clip of the beginning of that speech. Jaeger says the line quietly, but with an emphatic finality that brooks no argument. He is never degrading or confrontational, but very clear and respectful of Zeke even while he finally tells him that he has gone too far. It’s a tough line to walk, especially with a family as close as the Bravermans, how much right does an in-law have to butt into family affairs? It was just so nice to see Joel really shine through in front of Zeke, especially at the end of the scene, when Zeke is looking shamed and Julia hides a small little smile, realizing that she is so lucky to be married to this wonderful man. Shit, I want to be this guy someday, what a role model for any young husband out there! I just loved this scene, and its just one of a dozen scenes every year that keeps me coming back to PARENTHOOD. The heart and warmth and realism of the show really touches a chord in me and I’m sure I’ll be back later in the season to ramble about another small scene that so effectively struck my heart. Amazingly, I didn’t even touch on many of the other wonderful plots going on in this episode, from Kristina’s struggles with the new baby, and Adam and Crosby’s heart-warming Cee-Lo Green-inspired success with their risky music business co-venture. Watch this show, it’s on Hulu, just please go and watch this tender tragic lovely show.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, October 18th, 2011: SHERLOCK HOLMES - Alley Explosion

Quirky RDJThe most recent trailer for SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 is out and it looks like a lot more of the same fun. The first one was a lark, especially notable for the wonderful chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. as ‘Holmes’ and Jude Law as ‘Watson’. The action set-pieces got a little long; I would have been fine just watching those two trade barbs for the film’s entire running length. Sure, there was a little too much ‘this ain’t your Daddy’s Sherlock’ modernization of the character, making Holmes a two-fisted action hero, but I was still able to go along with it. If you hire Guy Ritchie and put that much money into the production, you are going to get an abundance of action. But the first film was a good showcase to prove that Guy Ritchie could expand past his stylized British gangster films. I was never a huge fan of his breakthrough hit, LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, though it sure as hell introduced the world to a new stylistic action director. But I loved SNATCH, Ritchie’s second film. It was another convoluted gangster film, but the action was finessed and the tone alternately fun and brutal. The music was exceptional and the million-odd characters all memorable. Brad Pitt’s indecipherable gypsy Mickey is still probably my favorite performance of Pitt’s. He’s just so loose and grungy, he looks like he is having a ball. Guy Ritchie’s hyper stylized fight sequences are excellent; I especially love the brutal quick cuts and the ramping of slow to fast speed film in the final boxing match to really sell the brutality of the punches being traded by these bruisers. That image of Brad Pitt floating through the air and then landing in the metaphorical pool is just a very cool touch.

But let’s get back to SHERLOCK HOLMES. The long slow-motion explosion sequence is a bit of filmmaking that I found particularly beautiful and a big step forwards for Guy Ritchie. Sure, he still has his fast/slow fight edits, but I like the length of the explosion shot. Even though it is still a ridiculously over-the-top sequence, it shows real patience to hold with the characters as they scramble to escape this hellacious inferno. From Watson’s frantic yell, the sound starts to dim, as if the deafening cacophony overwhelmed Holmes’s senses. For a second, the sound almost completely disappears, except for the low thud of the bombs and the sharp whistle and ping of incoming shrapnel. The impact of the explosions on Holmes is handled fantastically, with particular care lavished on the CGI for the million splinters of wood and brick and the flaming debris that lands on his coat. I’m not sure how they filmed this long take, I assume that there were smallish air explosions and wires to push/pull Downey Jr. the right way, but that most of this is good green screen work. I love that mournful violin that kicks in as Holmes frantically attempts to survive. It lends pathos to his scrambling and makes us appreciate his quick wit in using a shield to weather the blasts. And it says a lot about Holmes that he isn’t running away from the blasts, but moving to save Irene. In the heat of the moment, Holmes is attempting to save his woman and I think that says more about his feelings than any of their coy verbal fencing. Of course, Ritchie couldn’t resist making one small cut to the side to show Holmes picking up Irene before returning to the long shot and the final explosion. Totally unnecessary, I think the sequence would have held more power and awe for the audience if it had been one unbroken long take. Oh well, I was still smiling at the screen in the theater, impressed with Ritchie’s talent and desire to show me something new. Looking at the trailer for the sequel, it looks like Ritchie is going to try a similar kind of sequence with Holmes running away from rifle and cannon fire through a copse of easily explodable trees. I do like that shot of the cannonball speeding through the slow-motion shot at 1:24, a very cool image. Let’s hope Ritchie doesn’t overdo the flourishes and uses the camera tricks to give us better insights into the characters. Noomi Rapace, ‘Lisbeth’ from the Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, takes the lead female role here, but I was glad to see glimpses of Rachel McAdams’s ‘Irene Adler’. She didn’t leave a huge impression on me in the first film, but I thought it was the writers that let the character down and not McAdams’s feisty performance. It’s good to see her back. The first film did a tremendous job of introducing the brilliance and mystery of Holmes’s most famous nemesis, Moriarty. Casting Jared Harris in the role is an excellent start, and I hope that Ritchie has made Moriarty an equally brilliant foil for Holmes to square off against. December is still a bit away, but I am looking forward to catching this sequel in theaters.

 

 

 

-Monday, October 17th, 2011: THE AVENGERS - First Trailer

The big ass cast Whedon needs to wrangleWell, we finally have a trailer for the risky game-changing superheroes movie. THE AVENGERS. And you know what, I think this is thing is looking damn good. I am amazed at the sheer chutzpah on display here with Marvel Studios. The mere idea of an AVENGERS movie is audacious world-building on an epic scale that hasn’t been done in cinema before. The studio expects to merge the storylines of 4 franchise films, all with different creative teams, into one 2 ½ hour singular vision. To be clear, THE AVENGERS needs to somehow make room for the individual characteristics of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk, while also making room for Black Widow and introducing Hawkeye, while also providing room for the villain, Loki, without seeming to be rushed or overstuffed. Good luck. It is just so easy to imagine this going wrong, but the studio says that they trust one man to pull off this herculean task: Joss Whedon. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am an enormous Whedon fan and think that he brought a singular vision to his best creations BUFFY, ANGEL, FIREFLY, his run on XMEN, and DR HORRIBLE. He specializes in handling large casts, just look at how he balanced the 9 characters in SERENITY. The sheer scope of THE AVENGERS project scares me a bit, since his only previous work has been in television except for the awesome box office bomb SERENITY. But I also feel that Whedon is the best pick to really pull out the humor and tension from this motley crew of superheroes. Sure, you could get Michael Bay to direct the crap out of the actions scenes, but Marvel wants more than that, they want the interpersonal relationships between the characters to really crackle. I can’t wait.

But let’s get into this trailer a bit. I’ll warn you that I have never read an AVENGERS comic, so this viewpoint is coming from a complete newbie here. I loved the first IRON MAN, probably because I once ran into that crew in the Alabama Hills, and especially loved the intenseness of the Whiplash car fight in IRON MAN 2. THOR was just sheer giddy fun with a star-making turn by Chris Hemsworth. I haven’t really liked any of the HULK films so far, but I think that’s because I just don’t much like Bruce Banner when he is not big, green, and demolishing something. And I still haven’t seen CAPTAIN AMERICA, not for lack of interest; I just haven’t gotten around to it yet and am really excited to finally see it. But back to the trailer. First off, I like that Loki is the villain. A film with 4 superheroes in it deserves an epic villain and its hard to aim higher than a god. This film needs scope and throwing one of Tony Stark’s enemies or the Nazis again would lower the stakes significantly. I’d never say that action is Whedon’s strong suit. He has admitted in many interviews that he often gets bored shooting his own action sequences. It’s not something that interests him and I can respect that. But if that is going to be your opinion going into a hardcore action film, you just need to hire one hell of a 2nd unit director to direct the crap out of the explosive stuff. And from that long shot of cars blowing up in Cleveland, it looks like Whedon has done just that. Being a director is such a balancing act. You can’t be too egotistical that you don’t listen to the professionals you have hired, but you can’t be too much of a pushover lest you lose your primary inspiration and the project becomes a product of too many cooks. Actors and crew always talk about the perfect balance Whedon encompasses on his sets. He has a very firm vision for his films, but he isn’t afraid to accept others input and encourage last minute dialogue changes and improve. I’m sure this was especially good news for Robert Downey Jr, a large-egoed actor who has often bulldozed directors on his films. The following vignette of these characters really gets the 9-year old in me revved up. It just makes me giddy to see these mammoth heroes on screen together. It would be like the geek high one would feel if we ever saw Superman and Batman square off against each other someday in a big summer movie. And damn, I want to see them spar with each other. I want to see the playboy Tony Stark getting up in the boyscout’s grille while Thor chuckles dismissively in the background.

I’m not sure about the crappy metal music playing over the end of the trailer, geez, it reminds me of a Jason Statham movie from the mid-90s. I like trailers that try and including this tired old metal song almost undercuts the awesomeness of what’s occurring on-screen. Now, if the case can be made that the creative team is working so hard on the actual movie that they didn’t have time to really put some juice into trailer music, than that’s fine by me. I guess it just surprised me how tired the last half of of this trailer feels, at least aurally. Though I do love that line of Stark’s, “If we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.” Boom big line there!! And they say the title, yay! I have heard of a different trailer that circulated through some festivals recently and apparently they had a great one-up exchange between Loki and Stark:

LOKI: I have an army, what do you have?
TONY: Well, I have a Hulk.

Love it, and I think that would have been a far better end tagline than the current one between Stark and Banner. Oh well. But it’s good to finally see some pieces of this movie other than some set pics. And if you want a really good bit by bit dissection of this trailer, check out the write-up on Entertainment Weekly. I feel so torn about Whedon doing these big film projects. While I am happy that he is clearly rising to the upper echelon of film directors and making the money to prove it, I still think his talents are best suited for television. Whedon is capable of humor, pathos, massive plot twists, and stunning revelations that play out over a 22 hour season. With AVENGERS, we fans are forced to wait years for Whedon’s writing, and even then, we will only have a 2 ½ hour movie to show for all that time. I miss having Whedon’s wit on my TV screen on a weekly basis. I hope one day he comes back to episodic television. Suffering through this fall’s offerings of new network series, I can tell you that television needs him. But in the meantime, I can’t wait to see what Whedon has cooked up for us with this huge bombastic franchise that hopefully can find room for some incisive and hilarious character work.

Oh, and you totally have to check out this hilarious parody trailer. That looks like a damn lot of work, but the shot composition is actually spot on!

 

 

 

-Friday, October 14th, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #8: Out of Gas

Our poor pained CaptainOur journey through the vaults continues as we reach the 8th episode of the brilliant but canceled FOX television show, FIREFLY. Out of Gas is widely considered to be the best episode that FIREFLY ever produced and possibly the finest hour of television produced in 2002. It is thrilling, tragic, and unapologetically emotional. The episode jumps between 3 separate timeframes, yet there is never any confusion about where we are at any given moment. The writer for this episode, Tim Minear, has done good work on BUFFY and ANGEL, and is currently trying to bring sense to the AMERICAN HORROR STORY madhouse, but Out of Gas is far beyond anything I have seen him do. I wrote a couple weeks back about how Our Mrs. Reynolds is a perfectly constructed comedic episode. Well, Out of Gas is simply perfectly constructed. Watching this in my little basement bedroom, recovering from surgery, and high as a kite off of the pain meds, the feeling of family and love that shines so brightly from this episode was like a warm blanket. Strangely enough, despite all I am saying here, this is still not my favorite episode, though it is a very close #2. The episode makes it perfectly clear that Captain Mal Reynolds is his ship and that it is the last remaining remnant of his war-torn idealism. As a desperate man so hollowed out by the horrors of the war, he threw his soul into Serenity, and that is why the quiet epilogue is one of my favorite endings ever in entertainment. In FOX’s wisdom, they aired this episode out of order in the 5th position. I still think that hurt the show so much, because even though this episode stands on its own brilliance, you get so much more out of it by having seen the earlier character-building episodes like Safe and Shindig. Plus, the episode really jumps ahead on the Kaylee/Simon flirting, so if you haven’t had those warmup episodes, I think it would be distracting. The story is pretty simple when you get down to it. The crew is flying somewhere or another and something irreplaceable breaks in the engine. The crew is stranded in Serenity with the oxygen draining out of the ship. It is up to the captain to fix the ship. During his trials, he flashes back to the events that lead to this crisis and even further back, to when he bought Serenity and formed her crew. It’s hard to imagine that such a simple concept could be so moving, but that’s one of the happy surprises of filmed entertainement. So let’s stop futzing around and get into this fantastic episode of television.

What a tragic start to the episode. It’s hard to see Serenity so cold and deserted, empty of laughter and humanity. It’s a shell and it needs people to fill it in order to run. The score by Greg Edmonssen is mournful and beautiful, a perfect accompaniment to these static images of a dying ship. The first flashback shows Mal introducing Zoe to Serenity for the first time. I like how they color the visuals in the flashbacks. Everything is grainy and a bit blown out. It’s not as extreme as making the flashbacks black-and-white or something like the TRAFFIC location tints, but it’s just enough of a visual palette difference to inform the viewer’s eye that we are in a different time. Mal’s summary of what Serenity could be is lovely; an expression of his desires and dreams. And I love how even though there is so much emotion in Mal’s words, they still bring the funny with Zoe’s line, “So she’s not running now?” “Not so much.” Then we are right back with dying Mal on the ship. We are 2:30 into the episode and we have already had some major tonal shifts, from tragedy to whimsy to hope to humor back to tragedy. Yet it is never too much, never confusing, and that balance of tone is a big part of what makes this episode resonate. Mal bleeding into the ship is a damn obvious metaphor, but it still works. At this point, Mal’s life is intertwined with Serenity and neither can survive without the other. I think that broad a metaphor works because of the nakedly fearful look on Mal’s face. He is dying and he is afraid. And dear God, there is no actor I know who can sell pain like Nathan Fillion. You feel that bullet wound. The way he drags himself to his feet and staggers off feels so awful, sold by his sounds, the body language, and especially the far-off look in his eye. Because he knows that if he fails in concentrating on the goal, then he will ponder the present, and that means he will never stand again.

Love that calm before the storm, the laughing loving dinner with the crew just enjoying each other’s company and celebrating Simon’s birthday. It’s not out of character for anyone, for example, Jayne is still a dick, but it’s a wonderful heart-warming scene that the audience wishes we could stay with. Don’t go back to dying Mal, please, let’s stay here! Another little hint of River’s precognition with her quietly uttered “fire.” God, it gets serious so quickly, just a terrible reminder of how badly things can go wrong in an instant. That fire racing through the ship is stunning, especially when the fire roar is juxtaposed against the quiet of the fire dispersing into space. FIREFLY is still sticking to the fact that there is no sound in space and it continues to stun me whenever they demonstrate that. The shots of the fire alternate between horrifying and then, without sound, kind of beautiful. I guess that is a small commentary on how much we rely on sound, alarms and the such, to tell us that something is wrong. God, I love the dynamic between Mal and Wash in this episode, Mal knows exactly how to manipulate his crew. Look at how gentle and tender he is with Kaylee when telling her to check on the engines instead of worrying about injured Zoe. Mal is the captain and he has to make the decisions to keep the crew alive and that is why he has to be so harsh and cold with Wash to get him to leave Zoe’s side and save the ship. Look at 10:40, when Mal slams Wash against the wall to get his attention. It’s tough and mean, but absolutely necessary. I like how they show Jayne drawing back, as if even he is shocked by Mal’s cold-bloodedness. If Jayne is shocked, you know its bad!

2nd flashback is of Wash’s introduction to Serenity (see how they even line up the flashbacks with the characters big scenes in the near-present storyline? So impressive!). It’s hard not to laugh at Wash with that ridiculous moustache, and I can’t stop thinking of that funny moment in the FIREFLY gag reel, at 1:20, when Nathan and Gina wear fake moustaches to make Alan laugh. It is also the second flashback in a row to show how little an imagination Zoe has when she immediately takes a dislike to Wash, her eventual future husband. If the show had continued, I hope the thaw of Zoe would have been a big part of future plots. Back to the near-present, god it moves so fast. Suddenly Zoe’s heart has stopped and they quickly inject adrenaline in her heart. That terrified gasp by Inara as the needle plunges let’s us feel the horror of this situation. And Mal’s mirror injection is just so hard, he’s in so much pain. 2 adrenalin heart injections in 1 minute, Tarantino, eat your heart out! I’m not a doctor, but I find it hard to believe that someone conscious could operate with an adrenalin shot to the heart, I don’t think that’s how it works. But everything is speeding along so quickly, you accept it and move on. Mal is the man, after all. I always really liked the resigned attitude that Jewel Staite gives ‘Kaylee’ when she figures out what’s wrong with the ship. Mal is still fiery, convinced that they can fix the problem, but Kaylee is the pro and she knows better. Sometimes there is nothing you can do. The tone of her voice reveals the hopelessness of their plight better than words ever could. The Simons and Inara scene is interesting because we never really see those together, even though on a class level, they are the closest to equals among anyone else on the ship. This friendship would have been fun to explore over more seasons. I love Inara’s passionate “I love this ship!” despite the knowledge she has that she will likely die on it. Poor Book, he looks so terrified. Absolutely love the argument between Mal and Wash at 2:10. Humans argue in such a wide range of fashions, yet I feel like we rarely get to see that variety explored in film and television. There is some legitimate beef between these two, both are right and both are wrong. But I love how the argument turns funny at the end, both of them furious with Wash unwilling to say that Mal is right. That silent realization and then Wash’s line, “Well maybe I should do that then!!” is perfectly delivered. It’s not easy to get down from an angry high horse.

3rd flashback is the absolutely charming and inappropriate way that Kaylee gets on the ship. It was established in the previous flashback that Bester, some Brad Pitt-like himbo, was the first engineer, but it’s a nice reminder that while Kaylee often comes across as childlike and innocent, she is certainly not pure. The big story with Kaylee is that the network wanted to replace Jewel Staite with a skinnier hotter actress, but Joss Whedon fought for Staite because he specifically wanted someone earth instead of sexy, someone natural instead of starved. Kaylee is mostly used in this series to bring innocence into the ship, to humanize Mal, but I feel there is so much more to explore with her, and I regret that we never get to see that. I love her cute frustrated sarcasm, “I’m pointing riiiight at it!” It’s a delightful scene, and it demonstrates how Mal loves to go with his gut and make quick decisions. He’s sees what he likes and has no problem changing the current situation to fit his desires. That is part of the freedom he is talking about that Serenity gives him. And his bemused response to Bester’s question about why Mal needs two engineers, “I really don’t,” is a lovely kicker to the flashback. And that sweet scene leads to the near-present one with Kaylee, dejected, resigned, and terrified. The scene shows us how thin a line the crew walks out in space. If one little part malfunctions, that can mean all their deaths. It cements Serenity as a character in this show, she needs as much love and care as any other in order to insure everyone’s survival. Dammit Mal, how could you drop that part!? It’s so frustrating to us because we see how injured Mal is, we are suffering right there with him. And Mal’s speech to the crew, Inara tries to argue with him to get in the shuttle because she loves him, but I like how no one else argues with Mal. They understand that Mal can’t leave Serenity. And Wash’s setup of the beacon, his enduring optimism, is his own way of apologizing for the earlier outburst.

4th flashback is of Inara’s introduction to the crew. It’s not as fun as some of the others, but it lays out so much of the conflict between the two and shows just how far Inara has come. She supported the Alliance! Wow, no wonder her and Mal have so much strife! She is so cool and distant here, I would love to have had more episodes to explore how Mal and Inara became close. It is so interesting to see how Mal used to operate in his rougher days. As soon as Inara reveals she supported the Alliance, Mal takes it as an attack and immediately attacks back, calling her a whore. He is so vulnerable here, moved and manipulated, its nice to see that he has changed as well.

Love Jayne’s lack of goodbye to Mal, even though Jaynestown established that there is a bit of depth to Jayne, there sure as hell ain’t much.  Start watching the Mal walk at 1:35. I love that shot of him alone on the ship. He is starting to realize that it isn’t about the ship anymore. When he was more desperate and lonely, he needed Serenity to help him survive. But now that Mal has formed something of a life and a family again, he is finding that he needs more. He still needs Serenity, but he also needs the people aboard her to survive. I love the slow walk through his ship with that slowly beautifully building score. It’s sad and lovely, a monument to the man walking around his death ship. That’s another thing I love about this script. It is fast and busy, juggling three different timelines, yet it still takes time to construct beautiful sequences like this one. This is all character, not plot, but the length of it gives us a palpable sense of Mal and his dedication.

I wouldn’t call that evil crew a mirror-image of Mal’s ship family. They represent a version of Mal’s family that deviated slightly from the ethical morality that Mal espouses. It would be too easy to see them as evil, they are just opportunistic and unethical. It’s scarier to see how much of Serenity’s crew we see in these paranoid people. Love that double-sense as the doors open to the other ship. Mal’s reaction to life-affirming air entering his ship, immediately followed by guns and the promise of death. And I find it interesting that it is only when we meet the mercenary crew that we flash back to Jayne’s introduction to the crew. Sure, it might just be because there is a similar stand-off situation, but I think this might be a subtle hint as to what kind of man Jayne would be without Mal as his leader.

5th flashback, oh this is just all kinds of gold. It’s funny and inevitable and just so perfect. I can’t help but laugh at Zoe’s deadpan description of Jayne’s clumsy insult, “Had a kind of poetry to it, sir.” I love that dawning comprehension in Mal’s face when he realizes how he is going to work the situation. The tone had gotten pretty dark for a while, it’s nice to have this flashback of levity as a break before we head back into the trials of the present. As Mal gets into his pitch for Jayne to switch sides, there is a delightful sleight-of-hand used in the directing and editing. The third man in the hold-up is never seen until Jayne indicates that he shares his stinky bunk . . . with him. It’s a cute little editing trick meant to exaggerate a punch line, but man does it work. Once again, Adam Baldwin does a fantastic job with Jayne, especially his confused opportunistic line, “Yeah, I ain’t laughing.” Back to the ever near-present, damn, Mal is hardy. You shoot him and he bounces back up, and wow is he pissed at that crew. But even with a perfect reason to do some damage to these jackasses, he maintains the high ground, shutting down any comparison to their crew by demonstrating his conscious decision to be better. Now that we are caught up to the present, we flash around the dead ship, and see Mal’s blood all over it, his desperate fight to keep Serenity, his soul, alive. But it’s a long walk to the bridge and even Mal can only do so much with a bullet in his gut.

The ending should feel like a cheat, but it doesn’t because you honestly believe that these characters would come back, unbidden, to die with their captain. Mal has succeeded in forming a family and with the obvious metaphor complete, Wash donating blood so Mal can live, the point is made that these people, in addition to his ship, are what Mal needs to survive. And of course that is what Zoe would do, I’m surprised I never thought of it earlier. That’s why they had to knock her out, because Mal trusted lieutenant in the war would never abandon Mal alone in Serenity. Look at Mal’s face in that scene, at 12:30 in the last clip above. Under the drugs, this is the most emotionally naked the crew has ever seen him. Mal wakes up a bit, worry and fear naked across his face as he breathes out heavily and reaches out to his crew and says, “You all gonna be here when I wake up?” He is so revealed in that moment, he knows now that he is complete, he has his family, and he can’t live without them. It’s so wonderfully emotional and such a capstone to Mal’s journey since his defeat at the Battle of Serenity. I love Book’s great big smile as he steps into the light, takes Mal’s hand and says warmly, “We’ll be here.” But there are a couple other crew reactions here that are of note too. I think it’s hitting them all hard that they really are a family now. Look at Kaylee vigorously nodding her head in the background. Look at Wash’s face, in awe of his captain, realizing that he has found a wife and a purpose on Serenity because of this man that he is keeping alive. I can’t tell you how moving this all is, this acknowledgement of journey and of forged family.

And finally the very end of the episode, flashback #6. As Mal goes back to sleep, the drugs whisking him away, Mal goes back to the very first moment when the first puzzle piece in his reconstruction of himself fell into place. A huckster is attempting to sell Mal a gigantic transport ship, and Mal isn’t even looking. He stands slumped, disillusioned off on the side. But then something catches his eye, he sees something that he wants, a desire that he hasn’t had in a long long time. His face fills with hope as his mind races through wistful dreams of the family and freedom he might have. He smiles and we think that his troubled soul may have found its first inch of peace. And then we finally see what he is looking at. Serenity, on the barren outskirts of the lot, lonely but proud, a battered vessel waiting to be made a home. It’s a quiet ending, Mal doesn’t speak a word, but he doesn’t need to. The episode ends, but like all great endings, it’s actually the beginning of everything else yet to come. Oh man, I’ve got to stop, I’m getting emotional enough writing about this. If I’m this emotional now, you should have seen me in that basement bed, my feelings all over the map due to the bountiful painkillers. As I was touched by the message of the story, my filmmaker mind was in awe of the episode structure and of how effortless the entire script felt. The story must have taken months to crack, but everything flowed smoothly as if the form of the script were preordained and the writer just dropped scenes in. These are the kind of stories that Whedon is capable of shepherding to the screen. In a way, this reminds me of a famous episode from BUFFY called The Body. It is a harsh and brutal hour of television that I often consider to be the finest hour of television ever produced. It is artistic and wise and beautiful and through the words of Tim Minear, Whedon again touches greatness with this Out of Gas script. OK, I’m done now, I’ve already written a novel here. Hard to believe I actually like another episode more, huh? Next week brings us a fun heist episode that is a delightful ensemble affair with some serious consequences for a certain crewmember merc.

COOLEST ACTION/WESTERN MOMENT: This episode obviously doesn’t deal a lot with Western stereotypes, but there are a couple action moments that are cool as hell and still feel like the actions of a Western gunslinger. First up is Jayne’s no-look gun cock and aim at his stinky partner in his flashback at 7:34. It’s a spli-second, but I love his little eyebrow raise as he does it, as if he were thinking how cool he was even as he was doing it. Second moment is in the same clip at 8:10. I love that one shot focus rack from the lead bad guy to Mal as Mal rises up behind him like an avenging angel, his gun painfully rising like a righteous instrument. It is a well-directed badass shot that embodies the mighty fortitude that Mal possesses.

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: You got to go with the CGI fire racing out of the engine room. To starve a fire, you need to deprive it of oxygen, so Mal and crew vent the air out into space. The fire chases the air like a raging beast tearing through the corridors of the ship, howling in anger. I love how it bursts through into the cargo area and looks like a lion’s mane before dispersing into space. The effect looks a bit fake, but I’ll forgive them that. It’s a television budget and the sound and space-lack-of-sound of the fire more than sells the effect. And the fire effect is still better even than this shot, even though FIREFLY preceded TERRA NOVA by 9 years.

 

 

 

-Thursday, October 13th, 2011: THINGS THAT FREAK ME OUT!: #1 - Black Balloons

Creepy, huh??Slouching ever closer towards Halloween, I thought I would let the SQOG know about some of my deepest fears.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was kind of a weird little kid, afraid of most things around me. I’m not sure whether it was because I had a vivid imagination or because I used to have many nightmares, I was just scared by many normal-seeming things that others would find banal or amusing. But of all my childhood fears, there are 3 that still follow me around. Okay, ‘fear’ is a strong word for a 31-year old to use when talking about childhood phobia, but there are three things that still make me . . . unsettled. One thing that still sends a slight chill down my spine is black balloons. Yeah, that’s right, a bit of helium-inflated mylar is enough to make my skin crawl. But in my defense, I know exactly how this little phobia came about. I was 15, living in Minnesota, and I was sick with the flu or the cold, or some other illness very easy to catch on the frozen tundra. My family was going to the movies to see A LITTLE PRINCESS. It’s fair to say that back then I wasn’t yet the awe-inspiring specimen of testosteroney manliness that I am today, and for some reason, I dragged myself out of bed to go see this girly movie. If I remember correctly, the movie was directed by a young Alfonso Cuaron, and it was actually pretty good.

But there was one scene in the movie that really freaked me out, I mean, scared the ever-living beejesus out of me. It’s here in this clip, at about 9:00, the aftermath of Sara’s birthday party. The party has finished and the main dining room is a mess, with streamers hanging down and deflating balloons lying down on the floor. The evil headmistress calls Sara into her office to tell her that Sara’s father has died. While Sara is being told this horrible news, in the background, a single black balloon slowly rises up from the floor. Sara slowly turns to look at the balloon as it slowly bobs towards her. I don’t like the way it moves, it kind of bounces towards her as if the black balloon itself were laughing, mocking and stalking Sara somehow. As it draws closer, the balloon suddenly pops. In the movie theater, I jumped in my seat and may have let out a little scream. I’m not sure if it was the medication or what, but I was petrified throughout the rest of the movie. Looking back now, the popping black balloon is a very surreal moment in that sequence. I’m sure Cuaron was going for some kind of visual metaphor for death, having the black balloon stalk Sara, just like the specter of death fell over her father. In a weird way, that damn black balloon reminds me of that infamous character, ‘Death’ in THE SEVENTH SEAL. Like the Grim Reaper, all are sheathed in black, and I thought it was interesting and really creepy to see what form death takes in the eyes of 10-year old Sara. If you look at the PRINCESS scene a little closer, a case could be made that the headmistress can’t see the balloon. It could be that the gravity-defying black balloon is a message from Death, only visible to Sara. The headmistress asks what Sara is looking at, which could either mean that the balloon is out of sight around the corner or that this dark supernatural specter is only meant for Sara. Maybe that’s what freaked me out so much, the tiny crack in reality that the black balloon could represent in this movie.

I also think I may have combined that image of the black balloon with the exploding blood balloons from the library scene in IT. I’ve talked about IT before in this blog, and most likely will again, but that freaky performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise is just iconic terror in my mind. And the weird idea of balloons that explode blood onto people’s faces without them noticing is something that my mind may have latched on to. Or look at this environmental ad that uses black balloons to symbolize pollution. I hate the way they mass into the rooms, fighting and bouncing, that squeaky mylar screech as they struggle to invade. And that last shot of the fleet of black balloons infesting the air makes me very uncomfortable; this is the beginning of a freakin’ horror story! Any way you want to put it, I still don’t particularly like black balloons. Fortunately, black balloons don’t really work for many holidays. Anyone ordering black balloons for Christmas or Valentine’s Day is one seriously disturbed individual that you should probably avoid. Watch my imagination go: I can picture cleaning up an empty house after a birthday party, shuffling through deflated balloons on the floor, my arms full of cake and paper plates. The sun is shining lazy beams through the windows and even though there are faint sounds of kids playing outside, the silence of the house hangs like a blanket. I feel some kind of presence behind me, so I stop and stand still. I look around and dozens of deflated black balloons slowly rise up from the floor. People, I would seriously lose my shit. You read about people who lose their grip on sanity, they talk about something snapping in their heads. If black balloons rose up around me like that, I think I’d snap. Call up the loony bin and have them reserve a padded cell, seriously, the hairs on my arm are standing up as I type this! Okay, enough for now, I think I have thoroughly explored the evil of black balloons. Soon I’ll get to the other two things that still freak me out a bit, one is a common fear, but the other is quite strange.

 

 

 

-Wednesday, October 12th, 2011: SIMPSONS - Gobs of Money

Evil as a FOXThis summer has brought on a slew of intense behind-the-scenes money-grabbing negotiations for some of our favorite television shows. I think sometimes audiences can forget that each and every television show created is not a labor of love by the studio, but a calculated business decision to make money. With creator interviews and good acting, it’s easy to romanticize how shows are made, but the reality is that it all comes down to the Scrooges at the top of their studio towers, rubbing their hands over a pot of gold. DEXTER was almost cancelled last week due to money negotiations between the actors and Showtime. Read any article about AMC and its woes with all its main shows, firing Frank Darabont from WALKING DEAD, nearly shutting down BREAKING BAD, paying Matthew Wiener the world to come back to MAD MEN, and you will see how running a successful show is like balancing a tall deck of cards. The slightest breeze can cause the whole enterprise to collapse. Probably the most publicized debate this past week has been about the future of the SIMPSONS.

It’s hard to believe, but the SIMPSONS is currently in its 23rd season. That’s over 500 episodes! Granted, the show has been on cruise control for the last 13 seasons, but it is still quite an accomplishment. FOX has now reached the point where making new episodes is not nearly as profitable as moving the existing episodes into syndication. They stand to make billions when they are able to sell the show to cable channels and numerous local broadcast affiliates. So they have demanded that the producers and voice talent take a 45% pay cut if they want the show to continue. Now, this is a tough issue, because we are talking about the difference between astronomic amounts. Currently, I think the main voice cast members make around 440K/episode, so about 9.7m for a season. That is a freakin’ enormous amount of money for people that come in to a recording studio twice a week and record some voices. But considering how iconic those voices have become, 9.7m/year is a teeny tiny fraction of the SIMPSONS empire. The cast fired back, saying they would accept a 30% pay decrease in return for a ‘tiny percentage’ of the back-end profits. FOX wouldn’t even consider the proposition.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to sympathize with anyone in this situation. Sure, we are meant to side with the creative talent against the heartless and greedy corporation that is hoarding the money. Of course, the original contracts with the actors specified that they would get no back-end participation, so the law is behind the corporation. It’s not like the actors didn’t know what kind of fiscal agreement they were getting into 23 years ago. But it is also damn hard for me to get behind voice actors who already make almost 10m a year for a job they could do in their sweatpants. And honestly, if the voice actors were replaced by lower-payed sound-alikes, would we really notice or care at this point? I see the CLONE WARS cartoon series which has different voice actors to read for Yoda, Anakin, Mace Windu, and others so they won’t have to pay the high prices of the original actors, and I can’t tell the difference. But then, what about the actor’s rights? If there compensation ends with the show in two years, but then FOX can use their voices until the end of time, isn’t that a major breach of artistic rights and license? If FOX will continue making money from the SIMPSONS for say, the next 100 years, it is extremely unfair that the voice actors and producers will get no payment for all that time. Maybe that’s a better way to look at the issue, without the pricetag, but as a rights licensing argument. The only actor to break the silence and speak openly about this issue is Harry Shearer, who voices Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Rev. Lovejoy, and countless others. He published a frank statement that does a lot to get me behind the voice actors. Its humble and simple, really a wonderfully phrased letter that addresses the ludicrousness of the money, but still makes points about fairness and representation. You should really go read it. Well done, Mr. Shearer for handling a delicate situation with some class and perspective. It was eventually decided last week that the cast would accept a ‘significant’ pay decrease and the show would continue to run for two more seasons, reaching a grand total of 25 seasons of episodes. FOX did not budge and refused to open up negotiations on back-end points for the voice cast. The studio doesn’t care, nor should it; they are in the right here. The only thing that FOX is really guilty of is lack of mercy and fairness. In a move worth of Mr. Burns, FOX just made damn sure that we never again imagine that creativity and entertainment run this industry.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, October 11th, 2011: AMERICAN HORROR STORY - Wha?!?

Huh?!WTF was that?! Wow, I had read a bunch of reviews before sitting down to watch the premiere of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, and I was still unprepared for the frenzied and disturbing batshit absurdity of this new series. This show was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the showrunners for GLEE and NIP/TUCK. I never watched NIP/TUCK because of my distaste for surgery scene, but AHS shares a good deal of the same problems as GLEE. Both series are overstuffed, random, teetering creations that sometimes seem to exist with one single mandate: Don’t be boring! In AHS, there is just so much that is hurtled at you. From all the family members, to ghosts, to infidelity, to masturbation, to school bullying, to strange little girls, to creepy Southern neighbors, to school murder, to maids, to rubber suits, to pregnancy, etc. And that was all just right off the top of my head. This is pulpy, operatic, silly stuff here, edited together at such a frantic pace, that you are never able to catch your breath or consider a scene for a second before another scene assaults you. It’s kind of a fascinating way to make a television show. But the ADD editing has to go. Look at the opening credits of this show and imagine that the entire rest of the 45 minutes is edited nearly as franticly. It’s exhausting. Someone online put it well, that this show is basically TRUE BLOOD Opening Credits: The Series. In the last 5 minutes of the premiere alone, I think the father almost slept with a woman who, at various times in the premiere, appears as an old woman and as a sexy young girl, then masturbated while crying in front of a window. Then Mrs. Coach was ?raped? by some man/ghost/demon in a rubber bondage suit and, I think, impregnated. And somewhere in between, Jessica Lange was spewing offensive filth about her ‘Mongoloid’ daughter and talking about she gave up films because of nudity, saying she “wasn’t about to have my green pasture flashed 70 feet high for every man, woman and child to see.” Yuck. I really think that Murphy and Falchuck sit in the writing room and throw hundreds of half-baked ideas at a board. When they find 50 that stick, instead of spreading all those ideas over a season of television, they cram them all into one episode! There were a couple hilarious examples of this randomness in the premiere. In the opening tease, two evil little boys enter the titular haunted house with baseball bats, intent on destruction. On the way up the steps, one of the boys swings his bat out and hits a tree, screaming, “I hate trees!” Was this some sort of enlightening character moment? No. Was this action foreshadowing the violent rise of the murdering mass of haunted foliage? No. This was just a completely random moment probably thrown in because the scene wasn’t exciting enough. Later, while two younger kids are hanging out in a room of a house, the boy writes the word ‘TAINT’ on the wall. It’s never remarked upon by any of the characters, it just happens. Huh??

So far, the show seems to have wildly miscast some roles. This is campy material and the only one who seems to understand that is Jessica Lange. Her performance is so deliciously hammy that it fits this ludicrous little world. Dylan McDermott continues to disappoint, proving he only has two acting modes: silent brooding and apoplectic shouting. Connie Britton, like with her performance in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, brings a wonderful sense of balance and practiced reality to her lines, but no matter how good she is, that kind of realism does not belong here. She has a wonderful scene with McDermott where they argue her marriage, but while she is real and bruised and tough, he becomes shrieky and hammy and those two styles just don’t work together. Other than the main family, I’m not sure any other character is even real. Why does creepy-ass Tate pop up behind McDermott in one scene, his face sheathed in blood? What the hell is up with that old/young maid? Is the burned-face man real and how unintentionally silly was that scene where he chased McDermott through a sunny LA park?

I was definitely intrigued by this premiere, but this mess seems like a massive misfire to me. By trying to ape so many different styles in such a blunt manner, I don’t know if AHS can ever become anything other than a hyper hodgepodge of horror clichés. There really is no storytelling done here, no connective tissue between scenes, just a whole lot of moments calculated to shock and titillate. But there is so much that wants to shock you that it just becomes numbing. I’d say this show suffers from excess, but excess is just a small dot in this show’s rearview mirror. But wild extravagance can garner ratings, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if this show lasted a few seasons. I’ll stick with this show for a bit, I’m curious to see if it can slow down and maybe take a sober look at these characters and the building mythology behind this creepy house. And I love Connie Britton, so even if she is acting in a realistic void, I really want to see how she can logically convince herself and her family to stay in this freak house.

 

 

 

-Monday, October 10th, 2011: BREAKING BAD - 4th Season Finale

Walter finally lives up to the badassness of this picture!Whew, once again, one hell of a tense and satisfying finale for BREAKING BAD. One of the strengths of this show is that whenever you expect it to zig, it zags, I never know what is coming next. I expected the title of this finale, ‘Face-Off’, to reference the showdown between Walt and Gus, but I never expected that title to double as a sick joke. I’ll start right off with THAT SCENE, which, if you haven’t seen this episode, STOP READING NOW. Here is finally a Walter White plan that works. That scene with Gus in the parking lot of the nursing home was amazing. The Western influences of this show have always been apparent, but the music, the long take of Gus’s face, the tracking camera behind his head, this is full-on GOOD, BAD, AND THE UGLY territory here. What a tremendous sequence, a fitting ‘final walk’ for this mythic character of Gus Fring, the Chicken Man meth king. Walt was right to use Hector, the crippled man who once killed Gus’s business partner, as the Achilles heel to draw out Gus. Look at when Tyrus suggests that maybe he should kill Hector and Gus snarls back, “I do it.

We know that Walt is planning something here, but I kept expecting this plan to fall apart like so many of his previous schemes. As Gus sits down opposite Hector, I thought that Walt was going to spring out of the bathroom and start firing his .38 snub at Gus and Tyrus. But no, Walt’s plan is worthy of his ‘Heisenberg’ alter-ego, he rigged his car bomb to go off when Hector starts ringing his little bell. There are so many levels of coolness to the explosion scene, it’s hard to know where to start. I love it that Hector’s little bell, such a compelling recurring character point in all 4 seasons of this show, was the trigger for the explosion. And Mark Margolis’ performance as the mute and crippled Hector deserves some kind of Emmy. Look back at his scene with Gus and you can see all his emotions run across his face. He refuses to meet Gus’s eyes, getting Gus to sit in front of him. This is all time that Hector needs to gather his courage to blow himself up. Gus looks down to say something, then looks back up to find Hector staring him hard in the eyes. Gus knows something is wrong here. Hector’s eyes screw up, almost in sadness as he feels his goodbyes to the world, then they are sharp and angry as he starts ringing that bell. As it dawns on the audience that Walt and Hector placed the bomb right there, Gus comes to the same realization and starts to react, but it’s too late, the explosion is brutal and hard. After a few seconds, we watch Gus walk out of the room and straighten his tie. The nurses react in horror to Gus as the camera slowly moves around him and, in a gory reveal, show us that Gus is missing half of his face. The Chicken Man falls dead to the ground. Some people online are already taking issue with the depiction of Gus’s death. Could a man really walk and remain so calm while missing half of his face? Sure, maybe the details are a little cartoonish and exaggerated. But Gus has always been depicted as something more than human and such a mythic character deserved an epic, iconic, Terminator-like death. I loved it, it was truly wonderfully shocking. This whole sequence from Gus arriving in the parking lot to his demise is compelling and artistic television that would make Hitchcock envious.

Of course, there is another huge reveal about Walt; that it was him, not Gus, who poisoned the kid, Brock, in a convoluted plan to get Jesse back on his side. Wow, this is really dark, Walt is now willing to potentially kill an innocent child in order to protect his life and family. I love how if you go back a couple episodes, you can see exactly where Walt gets the idea to use that plant. The creators of this show have always said that the storyline here is about how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. With Gus gone and Walt’s ethics gone as well, he has become that kind of immoral kingpin. And it all makes perfect sense, this is just another step down into Walt’s dark depths. He has murdered before, at the beginning of this episode he brings the car bomb into a hospital, this guy is full-on breaking bad. There are some people this morning who are questioning the exact details as to how Walt managed to feed Brock the poison and steal the Ricin cigarette from Jesse, but these details don’t bother me, it all makes sense on a character motivation level. And Walt’s smug declaration to Skylar over the phone, “I won,” is terrifying, because there are no limits to how dark he may go. Earlier in the season when he growled out to Skylar, “I’m the one who knocks,” it was easier to dismiss. Even though he had killed at that point, Walt was often pathetic and sad this season, often the punching bag for many of the other characters. But by the last shot of the finale, we know that Walt is the king, one damn dark bad-ass.

There was so much expectation for BREAKING BAD after the universally acclaimed third season. Could they keep up that kind of storytelling momentum and still deliver a different and creative season? There aren’t any doubts now, the fourth season, while far different from the third, is just as satisfying and thrilling a ride. Think of Gus’s chillingly silent murder of his henchman, Victor, in the season opener. Or that beautiful long hold on Jesse’s face as he watches Victor bleed out, the complicated emotions in his face causing Gus to reconsider Jesse’s role in the business. Or Jesse’s revealing plea to his support group in ‘Problem Dog’. Or Hank’s satisfying presentation about his Gus Fring theory to the DEA. Or the clouds moving across the long shot of Gus and Walt in the desert. Or Walt losing his shit in the crawl space. Or Walt and Jesse burning the meth lab in such a groovy way in the finale. Or any of a dozen other fantastic scenes this season. The majestic sequences in the finale are the culmination of a season of tense storylines and Vince Gilligan deserves every Emmy that he gets next year for crafting such a fantastic season of television. We have two more 8-episode seasons of BREAKING BAD to look forward to and I can’t wait to see what Walt’s next step will be. Will he take control of the Albuquerque drug trade? Will Jesse find out the truth about Brock’s poisoning? Is Ted dead? I love it when shows get a set end date; it tends to focus the writers, knowing they have a certain amount of episodes to close their narratives. I don’t know how BREAKING BAD can get any better and I can’t wait to see what Gilligan has in store for us next season. By the way, I would highly suggest this 4-part Hitfix interview with Vince Gilligan about the entire 4th season, so very interesting!

 

 

 

-Friday, October 7th, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #7: Jaynestown

What losing your mind feels like...Continuing our retro-reviews of the lamentably cancelled FIREFLY series, we come to another great one that dives into the testosteroned psyche of our favorite dirty merc with big guns, Jayne. I love Jaynestown, mostly because it is able to juggle so many tones, like the best episodes of Whedon TV. There is a hell of a lot of comedy, but also some sharp insights into Jayne’s character. I like that by the end, the writers haven’t made Jayne that sympathetic or that insightful, the lesson he learns is a simple one, benefitting such a blockhead of a man, but it really affects him. And I like how the episode explores the nature of heroism. This episode was aired 4th in Fox’s mistaken order, and like the previous episode, I think it is just too early to jump into a lengthy backstory for a main character, we need those introductory episodes like Safe and Shindig so that we are more familiar with the crew and the backstory can mean more to us. I think Inara’s character suffers especially. The idea of the Companion, basically a future geisha, is still a difficult concept to comprehend in this world, from a 2000s point of view. Shindig confronts Inara’s status head-on and gives us a lot more understanding about her purpose and power. But without that understanding first, in this episode, Inara just seems like a high-class whore. Yikes.

Love how angry Simon is that Jayne has torn through his infirmary, letting off hilarious little snipes to a completely indifferent Jayne. He really isn’t much more than a trained ape, but you have to love his little whimper at 1:40, when Mal makes him tear the tape off his stomach. Adam Baldwin, we miss you! We start to really play with Simon’s pompousness here, how his upper class snobbery can best be deflated. I like how the crew simultaneously belittles his stature, but then also find a way to make use of it. And isn’t that the fundamental family dynamic, teasing someone about their annoying but useful qualities? I love how Mal describes how fancy Simon is in honest but disparaging terms until Simon finally exclaims in exasperation, All right! Fine, I’ll go with you, just stop . . . describing me. And you have to love the fact that after trying to get Simon to swear throughout the whole early teaser, he only cusses when faced with the unlikely statue of Jayne Cobb standing in the middle of Canton. I love how completely befuddled Simon is, his brain simply can’t comprehend that anyone, no matter how poor or deluded, could think that Jayne was a hero. This episode clearly has an agenda to poke a hole in all the pompous types. The magistrate is a particularly abhorrent fellow, but his sense of entitlement is particularly funny because his fortune is made from his slaves, the ‘mudders,’ producing and selling mud.

The Bible stuff between River and Book is a little bit on the nose, preaching about faith in a surprisingly open manner. I like his speech about how the Bible can’t be taken literally, but on faith, but what denomination is this guy?! But I like how that storyline turns silly, with River’s uninhibited scream at Book’s Einstein-type mass of hair. It results in some great comedy with Zoe’s bemusement and River’s terror, His brains are in terrible danger! I also liked how they ended up. River had been trying to ‘fix’ the Bible, to make scientific sense out of its inconsistencies. At the end, Book walks up to River, probably to impart a final note about faith, but River mutters, “Just keep walking preacher man,” and that is the end of that. Nice reversal of expectations. Back to Canton, come on, sing it if you know it, every self-respecting Browncoat must know the words to ‘The Hero of Canton’ at 12:50 in the above clip.

He robbed from the rich, and gave to the poor,
Stood up to the man, and gave him what for.
Our love for him now, ain’t hard to explain,
The Hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne!!

The crew’s reactions to the song memorializing their trained man-ape of a crew member are hilarious, best exemplified by Wash’s exuberant exclamation, We’ve got to go to the crappy town where I’m a hero! I also like another sweet pairing, Mal and his little sister relationship with Kaylee at 5:40 here, sure it takes a while for Mal to get the hint, but then he helps her out and its just very sweet. And even though Zoe and Wash are a strange pair, I love the continuing exploration of the facets of their marriage. Drunk Wash and sober Zoe at 6:55 are side-splitting, and I love her exasperated but loving reaction.

I said before that Inara suffers due to this episode being aired out of order, but still, my favorite moment of the entire episode happens with Inara here at 1:45. She clearly expected to be told that Mal was the Hero of Canton, as it would fit with his Robin Hood-esque type personality. But when she finds out that Jayne Cobb is the hero, Inara is caught in a rare moment of speechlessness. Inara is never caught speechless. I love her confused “I-who-wha-,” it’s like her brain simply shuts down at the idea of Jayne being a hero. So damn funny! But I had forgotten how touching Jayne’s revelation is. It turns out that the reason he gave the mudders money was accidental, he dumped the money out of his ship to escape the magistrate and it accidentally fell on the mudders. He’s such a simple man, but the Canton mudders have given him a touch of greatness, of heroism, and he likes it.  But that confrontation with Stitch, the man he betrayed, reveals how undeserving Jayne is of worship. And he knows it and regrets it. He calls himself a ‘mean, dumb sumbitch,” to his followers and tears down his own statue, trying to deconstruct his own myth, but the mudders just don’t get it. Later on, I love the talk, in the above clip at at 12:15, between Mal and Jayne back on the ship. Jayne can’t figure out why that mudder sacrificed himself, jumping in front of a shotgun blast, so that Jayne could live. Jayne has one moment of insight, saying that despite the events of the day, the mudders are probably rebuilding his statue as they speak. And Mal intelligently replies, Ain’t about you Jayne, it’s about what they need. And Jayne sits there, confused, trying to piece together why being a hero is so hard. This episode is probably the funniest of the entire FIREFLY run, but I love how many issues it also covers over the course of the plot. And I love Jayne so much, every second that man-ape is on screen is just gold. Next week brings us an episode that is widely considered to be the best FIREFLY episode of all. I can’t wait!

COOLEST ACTION/WESTERN MOMENT: There aren't a lot of Western visuals going on in this episode, thought the mudder world reminds me of a lot of crappy places to work that you might have found in the Old West. I'd have to say the best Western stuff is how much fun Stitch has with his shotgun. Standing off Mal, then firing and hitting that poor kid who jumps in front of Jayne. He takes an impact from that shotgun, it really looks like it hurts him, well done on the shotgun hit wirework!

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: Not a great deal of CGI effect shots here, this was mostly a practical on-location day for the crew. Can I just cheat and say the best effect was the statue of Jayne? Seriously, the prop crew must have been cracking up while making a heroic contenance of Adam Baldwin. I love the carving and also the little rough nameplate at the bottom, really well done work by the statue-making crew!

 

 

 

-Thursday, October 6th, 2011: RIP - Steve Jobs

Game ChangerObviously pretty big news, Steve Jobs of Apple, one of the biggest tech auteur visionaries out there has passed away. Kinda scary, I had thought he was recovering or at least feeling better with his pancreatic cancer treatments. It reminds me of Andy Whitfield’s sudden passing a few weeks ago due to cancer. I guess it just kind of scares me that even with all of Jobs’s fortune and Whitfield’s celebrity, they were powerless against the insidiousness of cancer. If these guys couldn’t figure out a way to get rid of or temper their cancer, what are the chances of survival for any normal person? Any way you shake it, Jobs changed the world, and not just once. Reading all these in memoriam articles today, I am so struck by the breadth of his vision. I mean, this is the dude who created the computer mouse, a device so perfect upon release that it has barely changed in almost 20 years. I remember computer class back in kindergarten, playing Oregon Trail, always so frustrated that I was only able to carry 100 lbs. of buffalo meat back to my wagon. I remember how excited I was when my dad purchased an Apple II GS, and I got to discover the 16-bit wonders of Lode Runner. I played that damn game for hours. Jobs always had a strong interest in entertainment and an almost prescient view of the industry. Who else would have spent millions to buy a small part of Lucasfilms and create the PIXAR company? At that point, no one was clamoring for CGI cartoons, so when TOY STORY came out, it was something completely new to our senses. He staffed PIXAR, then trusted his creators enough to give the free reign to create souls out of pixels. If PIXAR were Jobs’s only legacy, that would be plenty to immortalize him in history. But of course, there are all his hardware innovations, from the iMac to the IPod to the IPhone to the IPad. Each of these changed the industry, but I am more amazed with how Jobs shepherded Itunes in at the height of the Napster/free music scandals. The idea of buying individual songs for 99c and downloading them to a small computer barely bigger than a wallet seems so bland now, but at the time was revolutionary. In one stroke, Jobs decimated the music industry, not to mention the CD industry. He made the record companies look like the old dinosaurs they are, unable or unwilling to change their goals and products to match the times. And just in terms of my world, Apple’s pioneering of the Final Cut Pro editing system changed the game for independent filmmakers. FCP allows anyone to have access to professional editing software for an extremely low price, a true democratic leveling of the playing field in Hollywood. I remember my senior year class in college where we first started editing our short film projects with FCP. I’m still studying the program 10 years later, but the joy I get from being able to edit film sequences exactly as I see them in my head is all due to Jobs and his team.

Can you imagine your life without a touchpad cell phone? I know I can’t. Last week, I forgot my phone at home, and even with my work computer right in front of me, I felt like I was missing something the whole day. I particularly love the creation of the ‘app’, a way to make a humongously mass-marketed product feel personal and populist. The idea that anyone could create an app worthy of professional use on an Iphone is heady. And even though Apple has long since become the establishment, the conglomerate, the personalized touches of Apple allow the company to still feel like an underdog revolutionary. And it really shouldn’t feel that way, at this point, Apple is far more of a tech monopoly than IBM ever was. Jobs was always a polarizing character himself, growing up in the Bay Area, I remember reading a lot of local newspapers that would try to blow the lid of his maniacal work policies and his gargantuan ego. And it’s probably all true, but whatever behind-the-scenes gossip is true, it doesn’t matter, because the man was right. He was right a billion times over. Our kids will live in an age of wonders that we couldn’t have dreamed of only 20 years ago. When I went to college, I didn’t have a cell phone, and I had just started using the internet. When I try and tell that to kids, even those who are ages 15 to 20, I get this glazed look of incomprehension. It’s just too much to imagine. With all his innovation, all his charity work, Jobs seemed to also love to inspire. In 2005, he gave a commencement speech at Stanford and had a touching moment talking about death in terms of his own inventions:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Much like another of his famous quotes, Stay hungry, stay foolish, Jobs the innovator has always spoken about breaking through expectation, of going new places where others fear to tread. Failing spectacularly, but not being afraid to. One of our true innovators is gone, but we can hope that somewhere out there, the next Steve Jobs is scrolling through his IPhone, reading about Jobs and feeling like he might just go ahead and try something foolish.

 

 

 

-Wednesday, October 5th, 2011: STAR WARS - Kids react to 'The Moment'

Luke, I'm your WHA?!?I came across this really interesting article the other day about a father introducing his kids to STAR WARS. First off, you’ve got to check out the embedded video halfway down the page that shows a little kid reacting to ‘The Moment’ in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK when it is revealed that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. It’s pretty damn hilarious. I can’t remember the first time I saw the STAR WARS trilogy when I was younger, but I clearly remember the effect that EMPIRE had on me. This sequel to the relative ‘fun’ of STAR WARS terrified me. The screams of pain from Han Solo as he is tortured always really bothered me (ugh, I still don’t like hearing that!). And when his carbonite-frozen body falls on the deck, Han’s pained face shows that the freezing process was actually pretty painful. This was far more grown-up than I expected as a kid. Then we get to the final fight. Like in the above article, I remember gasping out loud when Luke’s hand was chopped off. I don’t remember ‘the Moment’ being that big for me; I think that somehow I had already been spoiled about that revelation so it wasn’t a shocker. I remember being tremendously disturbed by the intensity of Mark Hamill’s acting. Look at 1:50. His face literally starts shifting into some kind of creepy monkey face. Than that tortured screechy screaming thing he does. I think it really bothered me as a child to see our hero so decimated. I kind of think that Hamill’s acting is a bit too much here, it almost looks like Luke is being driven insane by the news that Vader is his father. That level of extreme acting doesn’t really belong in STAR WARS. It sure scared the stuffing out of me, STAR WARS was now a grown-up movie, and at least EMPIRE prepared me for the violence in RETURN OF THE JEDI (like really, people are digested alive for years in the belly of that sand slug?? Sooo terrifying to my young mind!).

But keep reading that article. The most fascinating thing about it was how the author’s kids reacted to ‘the Moment’. In order not to spoil ‘the Moment’ for his kids, who had already seen Anakin Skywalker in the prequel-ish cartoon series, the father lied when asked if Anakin was in EMPIRE. So as soon as the moment happened, his kids looked at him with distrust, amazed that their father had lied to them. What an interesting moment that must have been. Yes, children need to eventually realize that their parents are infallible, but when and how should that moment occur? I don’t think it’s a particularly bad for a movie to kick off a family discussion about honesty and trust, as long as the time is taken to have that conversation. Look at this section about the kids’ inability to digest the idea that a father would try and kill his son:

We watched the rest of the movie and they(the kids) loved it, but the conversations afterward kept coming back to The Moment and what it meant.  They really can't imagine the idea of a good guy who turns into a bad guy, and they kept trying to reconcile the hero from the "Clone Wars" shows with this ominous bad guy who attacked his own son and tried to kill him. It was Toshi who asked the question that stung the most as I was helping him put his shoes on a little later.  "Daddy, you wouldn't ever be mad at us and kill us, would you?"  How do you answer a question like that for a child?  How do you try to explain to them that there are people in this world who hurt their kids, but that they should rest easy because you would never do that.  The mere possibility is enough to create anxiety for them, and once they started to consider it, they didn't seem able to shake it.  They've asked me about Han Solo's fate once or twice, but they are still really hung up on the idea of a father who fell so far that he was barely the same person, able to kill his own son if need be.

I don’t remember ever wrestling with these kinds of issues when I was a kid, but maybe we aren’t supposed to. I would hope that those kinds of moments, when a child’s mind is struggling to expand and encompass a new and not particularly pleasant worldview, aren’t remembered in vivid detail. I hope the author’s kids don’t think back to the EMPIRE day and remember that their father lied to them for the first time. But I think this unintended consequence of watching EMPIRE with kids is a great argument for what movies and entertainment should be used for. STAR WARS, like it or not, is the Greek mythology, the parables, for our generation. As kids, we all came across these moments in the SW series at key developmental times and were forced to struggle with new ideas and heroes. Hopefully, most of us were able to have conversations with our parents about these issues. SW shows how evil can be so insidious that it can turn a father against his son. But it also shows that love and family can overcome evil to save the day. These are big grand soap opera gestures, but their simplistic broadness allows the morality to be understood and digested by children. How mind-boggling it must have been for the author’s children to see Darth Vader, one of the most strikingly visual depictions of evil ever created, become a good guy by the end of JEDI. Maybe it’s the first hint that life isn’t black and white like it is in cartoons, but fully lived in areas of grey. I just found this article an interesting exploration of how movies can still be used as the inception for ethical discussion and the catalyst for maturation.

And definitely read the follow-up article here, when the kids finally see REVENGE OF THE SITH. Try and get through the last exchange between the writer and his son without getting a little emotional. I failed miserably.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, October 4th, 2011: MONEYBALL - Beane's 2nd mistake

Pitt as BeaneI am a sucker for smart films about intelligent people. You know what I mean, I love it when a film digs into the details on regular people who are pros in their chosen field. The only thing coming to mind for me right now is the nerdy NASA guys in APOLLO 13. They don’t have movie star looks and their personable skills are questionable, but they are simply the best at what they do. MONEYBALL has some of that. For those who don’t know, MONEYBALL is a movie with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill about Billy Beane, the General Manger of the Oakland A’s baseball team who, in 2001, threw out long-held baseball scouting strategies in favor of a new philosophy of finding undervalued players through statistical analysis. As is true for any Aaron Sorkin script, the best parts are the dialogue scenes. I loved it when the camera would just run on Brad Pitt arguing with his associates about who to pick from the draft or when Pitt and Hill show us how quickly trades can happen over the phone. These scenes give us a peek into a world we don’t know and it’s fascinating that all this jargon and language actually makes sense to these guys. Professionals, unglamorous working stiffs, and their interaction and professionalism is exhilarating. Love that. The movie also uses silence very well, especially in the baseball scenes. It was strange to see some big moments play so thoughtfully. Like when the movie started, I loved seeing the A’s lose that playoff game in three very distinct ways. First, we saw the game with swelling orchestra and pounding music. Then we saw the game on a small tv set, without the music. Finally, we saw Brad Pitt listening to the game in an empty stadium. It was an effective example of what kind of reality this film wants to deal with. We expect the big emotional sports-cliché movie, but we don’t get that. Okay then, we expect that we’ll get a bit behind the scenes view of the game, but still see some thrilling baseball moments. No? Finally, with Pitt in that empty stadium, we realize that this won’t be a story about baseball, but about the complexity of the system and of the man in the dark, switching his radio on and off. What a beautiful use of editing, music, and wordless montage to set up the tone of this film. And wow, Jonah Hill actually played a normal character, he should really do that more often! I also really liked the scene between Pitt and Chris Pratt, where Pitt says that he wants to hire him, not as a catcher, but as a first baseman, a position that Pratt’s character has never played. Pitt is very honest with him, saying that he’ll never throw again. At first Pratt accepts this judgment, but I love his little hesitation, the little doubting head shake and the half-hopeful “Well…” It’s never easy to hear that you are unable to do something. And I really like that even though Pratt knows Pitt is right, his pride can’t allow him to fully accept defeat. It’s a perfect little human moment all about stubbornness, defensiveness, and illogical hope, about the lies we tell ourselves to get through the days. It’s also a very emotional scene, when Pratt goes to hug his wife, the relief that rolls of him knowing that he now has a job and can provide for his family.

That scene leads me into a couple problems I had with this film. That scene with Pratt was so warm and honest, but I find the rest of the film a bit cold, and that mostly has to do with the Pitt character, Billy Beane. I just don’t understand him. Pitt gives him a lot of ticks and mannerisms, but like most of Brad Pitt’s acting, I don’t feel like I am getting inside this character. At the end, when Beane’s system improbably got the A’s to the playoffs, and he is offered $12.5 million to be the GM for the Boston Red Sox, he still sees the season as a failure. This attitude kinda made me hate Beane. Get over it man! As Jonah Hill’s character notes, through a touching use of tape metaphor, Beane won. He is being given the world, but he still can’t be satisfied because the A’s didn’t win. This smacks of an inability to see reality. I think the point the movie is making is that the moneyball system works, but only up to a point. A team that uses the moneyball system and has a huge payroll will be unstoppable, like the Red Sox a couple years later. The movie tries to explain Beane’s decision to stay in Oakland and not accept the Red Sox offer by saying that he is staying in Oakland for his daughter. But his daughter had to fly in to see him anyways, I think she was living in Seattle, it’s not like she was living in Oakland! With $12.5 million, Beane could buy a private jet to ferry his daughter out to Boston. The use of his daughter as a motivator didn’t make sense to me and therefore I saw Beane’s refusal to be happy and accept the job as a stubborn and arrogant move that lost all my sympathy. For me, this was a huge error in the script that cut the knees out from the supposedly uplifting ending. Billy made a mistake in his youth by taking the money to play pro baseball too early, but now I think he is making another mistake by not accepting the money in the Red Sox job. That being said, this movie is getting very high grades from most critics. I think this has to do with the elegance and wittiness of the dialogue scenes and less with the actual plotting. It was thrilling to see those dialogue scenes, don’t get me wrong, but the inability to make sense of Billy Beane’s character left me cold and confused.

 

 

 

-Monday, October 3rd, 2011: FRINGE - S4E2: 'One Night in October'

Olivia & John 1 or 2, I'm not sureWhew, now that was better! After a thrilling but controversial ending last year and a fairly lackluster season premiere, I was starting to get worried that FRINGE had lost its mojo, suffocating creativity under a heavy load of mythology. But this second episode really brought back a personal touch to the cold mysteries of the show. FRINGE is at its best when it uses crazy sci-fi situations to illuminate an aspect of humanity that could not otherwise be explored. This week was a perfect example of this. In the current FRINGE world, Peter Bishop has just been erased from the universe and from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. There are two nearly identical universes that are connected through a gateway on Liberty Island. The Other universe is a bit more bleak, but it offers a fascinating glimpse into how people might turn out if their choices had been different. In this episode, entitled, One Night in October, the Other Fringe team (we’ll call all Other people #2 from now on) asks our Fringe team to help them with a serial murder case. See, in our universe, the serial killer is a professor of psychology who profiles serial killers. Fringe team 2 wants John 1 to profile John 2. Eventually, John 1 finds out about the Other universe and that there is a version of himself that is a serial killer. In a beautiful scene, John admits that there has always been a darkness inside of him that he has fought with his entire life. The big turning point for John 1, which allowed him to manage his darkness and not become a murderer, was one night in October when he met a woman named Marjorie. Marjorie loved him for who he was and handled his dark tendencies with love and forgiveness. John 2 never met a Marjorie. It horrifies John 1 to know how close he came to losing control, but he knows that the memories of warmth and kindness have kept him sane. He has a wonderfully perceptive line here, saying I don’t think we can underestimate the role that empathy plays in the structuring of the self.

This is a very cool idea, but what makes this a wonderful hour of television is that FRINGE pushes this further. John 2 eventually captures John 1 and through a very tech-y procedure, he removes the memory of Marjorie from John 1. Back in our world, John 1 recovers from the invasive procedure. Olivia and Broyles talk about what this means for John 1. Without the memory of Marjorie, is his control gone? Is John 1 now doomed to wallow in darkness and become a killer? At first, John 1 seems cold and distant, but then he repeats a line Marjorie once said, You know what they say. That even when it’s the darkest, you can step into the light. Then he lets out a small smile and you can tell that even though his memory of Marjorie is gone, the empathy she imparted is still with John 1. As Broyles says later, I’ve always thought there were people who leave an indelible mark on your soul. An imprint that can never be erased. And this statement dovetails perfectly into the larger mythology arc regarding Peter. Even though he has been erased from existence and memory, Olivia and Walter can still feel the mark he made in their lives. I love that a show can be so dark and grisly can also be so stunningly optimistic and romantic about the human soul. Sure, we are watching a sci-fi show here, but what a stunning statement about spirituality and human empathy. Wow, seriously, someone try and convince me that we aren’t in the golden age of television. And extra credit really goes to the acting of John Pyper-Ferguson, the actor who plays both Johns. This guy has been a guest actor on every show in existence, but I only really remember him as the broad and weird evil sidekick Pete Hutter in BRISCO COUNTY JR. I had no idea he was capable of the subtle shades of intelligence and emotion he has brought to this FRINGE character. The show had me scared, but it’s good to know that FRINGE still knows that its strengths lie in the exploration of the heart and spirit.