Tuesday, September 29, 2009

NBC's Heroes

Sylar, the telekinetic villain / occasional anti-hero on NBC's Heroes, represents one of the most frustrating paradoxes on television.

On the one hand, he must die. The producers' inability to tell any story without it being inevitably hijacked by Sylar is the cancer killing the show, and the fact that his storylines either feel completely disconnected from or mesh uncomfortably with everyone else's, his constant stream of obvious fake deaths and exhaustingly predictable revivings, his haphazard, illogical lurching from evil to semi-good and back again, him losing and regaining his powers over and over, and the stagnant boredom of having one main villain for four seasons now make it clear: he's the worst character on the show, and he's gotta go.

On the other hand, he must never die. Zachary Quinto is the most entertaining actor on the show by a country mile, often the only one who seems alive onscreen, and Sylar is pretty much the only character who gets to cut loose and have some fun with his powers rather than being pickled in nonstop wall-to-wall angst. That, along with the fact that his scenes are without fail the most entertaining (if not only entertaining) scenes in any given episode, and every episode he's not in suffers for the loss, make it clear: he's the best character on the show, and he's gotta stay.

What's a showrunner to do? Well, other than bite the bullet and put Heroes out of its misery, I mean.


The Cove

One thing missing from my extensive left-wing credentials is "animal rights activist." I love the cute domestic critters we keep as pets as much as the next guy, but when push comes to lunch, cows and chickens are way too delicious for me to dwell on the unpleasantness that goes into getting their cooked and basted flanks onto my dinner plate.

I would, however, be extremely uncomfortable eating dolphin. They can count and speak and think abstractly; mentally, they're about on par with slightly dim preschoolers. If you're cool with eating slaughtered dolphin, you should be required to eat a slaughtered dim preschooler first to prove your commitment. But there are many who do eat dolphin (and many more who eat it unknowingly, mixed in with other meat), and Louie Psihoyos' new documentary The Cove does an impressive job shedding light on the formerly secret annual slaughter of 23,000 dolphins in Taiji, Japan that facilitates these morally dubious meals.

It's not exactly a fun movie to watch, but it does have a certain cinematic flair, with a traditional hero figure by the name of Ric O'Barry, a reformed evildoer (by which I mean dolphin catcher and dolphin trainer) who means to free the captive dolphins and stop dolphin slaughter whether legally or illegally (Chaotic Good, we nerds call it), a real-life shadowy organization of dolphin hunters with evil henchmen, espionage missions, and a bona fide car chase. It even has special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, albeit not in the usual manner, as ILM helps the team build authentic-looking rocks that hide cameras which are set up to capture the dolphin slaughter.

And capture they do! The film "climaxes," as it were, with a profoundly sickening five-minute sequence of real-life dolphin slaughter shot from numerous angles by the spy cameras; dolphins screaming and dying en masse as they are unceremoniously speared and sliced open, the ocean literally running red in the aftermath, on a day like many others. Barring a dolphin having killed your family, it's like to be one of the most unpleasant things you've ever seen onscreen, but structurally essential to end the film with, and seeing as this very footage has helped bring light to and damage the dolphin hunting industry financially as well as getting dolphin meat out of Japanese schools, it's pretty goddamn important.

The documentary has a three-act structure, with the first act made up mostly of interviews and facts and statistics about the dolphin industry (including that dolphin meat has five times the safe level of mercury and is often secretly slipped into other sea food in Japan), the second being the planning and building and infiltration to set up the cameras, and finally the slaughter and aftermath. It's fairly tightly constructed, but if the film has a problem it's that even at ninety minutes it feels a little overextended. A few bits, especially one where some American celebrities fly over to protest dolphin hunting, had me sitting with one eyebrow raised thinking "this is not pertinent," and I almost wonder if the material would have been better served by a sixty-minute TV special rather than a feature film.

Nonetheless, it's a fairly important documentary about what is frankly a minor genocide, and I'd recommend it, as long as you think you can stomach the final bit. Or fast forward through it, or whatever.

3 Stars out of 5

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

My hardcore fans (all three of you) may remember my favorite movie villains list from last year. Indeed, one of my foremost loves in all fiction remains a great antagonist, and although it's a little unwieldy and has some minor flaws, Inglourious Basterds succeeds as one of the year's best films and a fine entry into Tarantino's canon almost entirely on the back of its big bad Nazi. Not Hitler, who appears in the form of a cartoonish, histrionic parody, but Christopher Waltz's Colonel Hans Landa, called "The Jew Hunter."

Infuriatingly slimy and suave, sadistic, opportunistic, prone to sudden violence but gifted with a keen detective's sense that would impress Sherlock himself, Landa is the best movie villain of 2009 and one of the best of the decade (I would say the best in years, but on the heels of Anton Chigurh and the Joker, that wouldn't quite be true). He's this movie's ace in the hole, lending every moment of his screentime equal parts entertainment and dread. But don't take my uncouth word for it. From the mouth of Quentin Tarantino himself: "Hans Landa is one of the greatest characters I have ever written, and one of the greatest characters that I will ever write."

With that quote, Tarantino shows why he remains an infuriating conundrum; he's such a smug and arrogant and superior little shit, his own biggest fan (as usual, The Onion perfects it), and I would love to hate his work. Being able to rightfully lambast the pointy chin's Death Proof a couple years back as the overwritten, plodding bore it was was downright cathartic. But what can I say? Tarantino is irritatingly 100% correct. Hans Landa is one of his greatest characters, behind only Pulp Fiction's Jules Winnfield and maaayyybe Kill Bill's Beatrix 'The Bride' Kiddo, and he and Tarantino's sharp dialogue make this a great film.

Of course, even the best villain will lose his edge if overextended, and Landa is balanced out by two protagonists who share the load in stories that hover on the edge of one another without ever truly meshing. One is Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the Nazi-scalping guerilla unit the Inglourious Basterds. Unlike Waltz, Pitt never truly disappears into the role. You'll never look at him and think "Raine" before you think "Pitt." But it's a hugely entertaining (if wildly over-the-top) performance nevertheless, right down to his brilliantly bad accent. Pitt is a strange paradox; always so flat and bland and dull whenever he attempts to play the kind-hearted hero (to the point of being a cure for insomnia in Benjamin Button), but always hilarious as off-kilter villains and anti-heroes.

The other protagonist is Mélanie Laurent's Shosanna, a young Jewish woman escaped from Hans Landa's mass butchery and hungry for revenge. The trailers entirely ignored her in favor of trying to misrepresent the movie as Kill Bill in World War II, but she's in no way a side character — she has as much if not a hair more screentime than Pitt and the Basterds. Ironically, as a blonde chick seeking vengeance, she isn't entirely unlike Beatrix Kiddo herself.

Beyond our three archetypal leads, a couple of side characters — namely the baseball-bat wielding "Bear Jew" and a sexy German double agent — are also extremely memorable. But if the film has a flaw it's that all the rest of the Basterds are window dressing, despite the two and a half-hour runtime giving plenty of room to remedy that. Some are elaborately set up only for no payoff, and others (including Freaks and Geeks's Samm Levine, who I was excited to see in this kind of film) unceremoniously disappear between scenes, never to be seen again. I was, however, happy to see The Office's B.J. Novak playing a visible role in the third act, sharing a scene with Hans Landa and even getting a few funny lines in.

Despite the previously mentioned deceptive trailer's insistence, this isn't really an action movie. There's bullets and knives and gore, sure, but the ratio of talk to violence is far more Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction than Kill Bill. It's not really a war movie either, despite being set in WWII. This is a tension movie; somewhere between drama and thriller. Scenes tend to stretch long, thick with bubbling dread and black humor, and frequently end with one or more characters reduced to corpses on either or both sides.

This is usually done well, especially in the movie's first sequence where we're introduced to Landa and learn over the course of one lengthy and eventually bloody conversation why he's called "The Jew Hunter." It's one of the year's best scenes and one of cinema's great villain establishments. On the other hand, a scene in a tavern devolves into rambling discussion of King Kong and wears out its welcome, the only scene where Tarantino loses control and easily the movie's dullest stretch. But even that one ends excitingly. The scenes and conversations in this movie run very, very long by contemporary standards, and I bet it has less scenes than virtually any movie this year, let alone films of its length, and it's a bold and interesting structure.

Much talk has also been made of the, shall we say, historically inaccurate ending. A big surprise to be sure, and one I could discuss at length, but in the end it came down to one question: is the movie more entertaining with it than it would have been without? Most definitely. 'Nuff said.

I think this film will stand the test of time, perhaps not to the same degree as the singular Pulp Fiction, but probably on par with Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. I doubt it will be much imitated, but Waltz is already being courted to play villains in other, bigger-budget Hollywood action flicks, and his instant stardom may be its greatest immediate contribution to the cinematic landscape. A Best Original Screenplay Oscar win and Best Picture nomination (but not win) aren't out of the question, but what I would really like to see is Waltz winning Best Supporting Actor. That would be three years running the year's best onscreen villain picked up that particular trophy, and as a lover of the villain, that's a new tradition I can happily get behind.

4 Stars out of 5