Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lost 1-4

It has been almost seven months since the last new episode of Lost aired but it seems less. The show has been syndicated since the Fall and ABC showed the last three hours of the last season a week ago (for good measure Sci-Fi showed the same episodes Monday). That gives a good overview of the series in general and gives me a chance to look over the entire series to this point.

No question about it, the first season was the best. The novelty of the flashbacks hadn't worn off and we were still meeting the characters. the structure of the show was different, also. More characters were featured in each episode and the episode wasn't totally centered on the character getting the flashbacks. At least 2/3s of an episode was taking place on the island instead of in flashback.

Also, the show's options were still open. It was still about a large group of castaways, most of them anonymous, stranded on an island where strange things happened. They acted like you would expect - they set up housekeeping, they argued, they formed romances, and they tried to get rescued.

The second season got off to a good start. We knew that other people lived on the island and they gave us some hints about them. The mysterious hatch was interesting. And at least a couple of the tail-enders were interesting (until they were killed off). On the other hand, the flashbacks got longer and repetitive.

The third season was divided in two with three of the cast being held by the Others. This was a low point for the series. The episodes blur together. The show was on the decline until a couple of episodes into the second half of season three (3.5?). Once Locke made contact with Ben things started happening. The feel of the show changed. It gained a new urgency that carried into season four.

Having the episodes in syndication, you can pick and choose which one you want to see again and which ones you want to skip. This is different from watching on DVD where you already decided to watch the show and it is a good measure of how good an episode is.

I noticed that I am much more likely to watch anything from season one and I am likely to turn off episodes from season two and three where Jack gets the flashbacks.

All of season four is worth watching except possibly the Desmond episode (too much flashback, and it feels like a filler episode). Some of the episodes are flashbacks. Some are flash forwards. We find out what happens to the Oceanic Six after they leave the island Ben predicted this at the end of season three when he pointed out that none of them were happy in the outside world. Sure enough, Kate is the only one whose life isn't a total disaster. Back in island time, something happens every episode. They are no longer trying to keep the show going as long as possible. Now they have a goal in sight.

Going into season five we will find out what happened after the six left and watch them going back to fix things.

I do have a couple of complaints about season four. The body count was too high. With both Alex and her mother dead, will we ever find out their backstory? I assume that the Others are from the Black Rock so at some point we will get their backstory. Do they stay on the island in order to keep their immortality? How did some of them get off after the island moved?

The producers have promised that they will have a satisfying wrap-up. We will see.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Art or Illustration?

It seemed like every obituary of the late Andrew Wyeth included a mention that some critics dismissed his works as being illustration rather than art. Here's an example. Maybe it is because I grew up with comic books but I think that this is an insult to both Wyeth and some of the great artists of all time.

The argument goes that photography freed the artist from having to slavishly follow reality. Since cameras can produce a much more realistic picture than an artist, true artists should forsake realism and immerse themselves in abstract art.

This is a load of crap (which some modern artists have been known to dry, varnish, and sell as art). Several generations of artist-wannabees with no technical talent convinced themselves and the world that they are the real artists. The critics are pleased to go along with this. It elevates the critics. Since it takes special training to tell good art from random blotches of paint thrown on a wall, abstract art keeps the critics in business.

My personal view is that anyone should be able to tell if an artist is good. If it isn't obvious to an untrained eye then it isn't fine art.

Also, simply because an artist uses a realistic style does not mean that he has slavishly copied reality.

The Dutch artist Vermeer is a great example. Some of his paintings were based on a device known as a camera obscura. This was a set of lenses that would project a view onto a flat surface. Vermeer used this to reproduce buildings. But the cityscapes he painted did not exist. He moved buildings around. He changed or added details.

An art class could spend an entire day studying how Vermeer painted pearls (this changed during his career). Then they could spend another week studying the meaning of the different symbols he put in his paintings. There is a lot more there than you see at first glance.

Try that with Brushstrokes in Flight by Roy Lichtenstein. Everything that this sculpture has to say can be covered in five minutes.

Back to Wyeth, his art speaks to people and his technical ability shamed the other artists and critics who could not match him so the degraded him, instead.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Empire Strikes Back

It is generally acknowledged that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the six Star Wars movies. I was watching it over the weekend and examining why it is better.

The cheap shot answer is that George Lucas let someone else write and direct it. That isn't fair to Lucas since he was co-writer and was looking over the shoulder of director Irvin Kershner.

One thing that really stands out every time I see this movie - it is gorgeous. set design, lighting, and cinematography combined to make a really good looking movie. All of the Star Wars movies use different pallets for different worlds but this goes a step further. Several of the rooms of the floating city have their own feel - the diffuse sunset-like lighting outside, the red lighting in the freezing chamber.

A big factor in the movie's success is the simplicity of the climax. The first two movies, this one and the original Star Wars (later renamed A New Hope) have very simple climaxes. Star Wars has the space fight to destroy the Death Star. Two groups of fighter pilots are making passes at a small target while being fired on. They go one at a time, each failing until Luke Skywalker (with cover from Han Solo) succeeds.

In The Empire Strikes Back, the climax is the lightsaber fight between Luke and Darth Vader. It is divided into three parts, each with its own feel. The first part in the freezing chamber establishes that Luke can hold his own. In the second part he finds that he is outclassed after all and in the third part he is disarmed (literally) and defeated.

Compare this with the other four movies. Starting with Return of the Jedi, Lucas decided to top a space fight and a lightsaber fight by doing both at once along with a third fight involving Ewoks. More is not always better and having three fights going on at once keeps the viewer from getting as involved with any single fight. This works against the movies. The other three movies follow this format instead of that from the earlier movies.

Similarly, Lucas no longer had to worry much about budget constraints so he could throw anything on the screen that he could imagine. Often this was too much. Attack of the Clones featured a fight between Count Dooku and Yoda. While impressive, the two moved so fast that it was difficult to see what was happening. The slower fight between Vader and Luke was more engaging even if it was technically inferior.

Finally, Empire featured Vader as the classic villain he is. He was one of the most memorable characters in Star Wars but in the original movie was was subordinate to Admiral Tarkin. In Jedi he was subordinate to the Emperor. Empire was the only movie where Vader acted alone.

This was also Vader at his most merciless. He strangles anyone who fails him. He tortures Han. He cuts Luke's hand off. He deflects blaster fire with his hand. The first movie left audiences wanting to see more of Vader and this movie delivered.

In the Return of the Jedi, Lucas was setting up for Vader's eventual reformation so Vader was much more subdued. He didn't kill anyone. The Emperor filled in as lead villain but was not as compelling as Vader had been.

In the second set of movies, Senator (later Emperor) Palpatine was a presence but he could never replace Vader. The mostly silent Darth Maul was more energetic than threatening. Count Dooku, Count Grievous, and the Trade Federation never approached Vader's level of villainy.

Monday, January 05, 2009


We managed to see Frost/Nixon over the weekend. The movie is still in limited release.

This is a great movie. It deserves a best picture nomination and possibly some best actor nominations.

In 1977, talk show host David Frost did a no-holds-bared, three-part interview of Richard Nixon. The movie is the back-story about how the interview came about. As portrayed in the movie, the interviews became a contest between Frost and Nixon. Frost needed to get Nixon to make some new admissions in order to sell the interviews. Nixon on the other hand was trying to salvage his reputation. There was no way that both could succeed.

In addition, Frost's two researchers wanted the interviews to be a substitute for the trial that Nixon never had.

 I was expecting the movie to concentrate on the interviews. Instead director Ron Howard only has bits and pieces of them - just enough to give a taste for how Nixon was handling Frost.

Frank Langella gives the performance of his life. Previously his most memorable role was as Dracula, 30 years ago. In Frost/Nixon, he avoids an outright impersonation of Nixon, but uses just enough of Nixon's voice and mannerisms to be believable. He manages to make Nixon both interesting and convincing.

I'm not as familiar with Michael Sheen. Like Langella, he made his mark previously playing a vampire - Lucian in the Underworld series. I don't remember much about David Frost but Sheen's version is spot on with my memories.

The movie takes a few liberties with history. The movie shows Frost as being a light-weight personality who slowly realizes that he is in over his head. The real Frost was more highly regarded. On his short-lived talk show, he had the reputation for being too smart for the American audience.

A few lines were changed between the real interview and the movie. The movie has Nixon making an admission that did not happen in real life. In the real interviews Frost tried to get Nixon to admit that he had approved the original break in at the Watergate but he refused.

Regardless, it is a riveting movie and sheds much more light on Nixon than Oliver Stone ever did.