Monday, May 24, 2010

Top 15 Lost episodes of all time

Oh well.

The Lost series finale has come and gone, and reactions to the show's deeply spiritual conclusion have ranged from rapturous bliss to virulent rage. For my money, the finale was entertaining, but marred by the same shoddy dialogue and rushed storytelling we've sadly come to expect throughout this entire uneven sixth season. And the last fifteen minutes in particular (they're in purgatory!) was a bald-faced cop-out, and not a very interesting one at that. At least the "everything-took-place-in-the-imagination-of-an-autistic-child" ending of St. Elsewhere was original. Lost's final twist was a surprise, but only because we expected so much more from the writers.

But however you feel about "The End," at the end of the day, it's just one episode out of over a hundred variously funny, thrilling, enlightening, frustrating, and cathartic episodes of one of the most challenging and rewarding shows of all time. Here are fifteen of my favorites:

15. LaFleur (Season 5, Episode 8)

When Lost embraced time travel as its latest storytelling conceit, many viewers thought the show had "jumped the shark" (by the way, in the history of television, has there ever been a show accused of "jumping the shark" at more points in time than Lost?) Granted, time travel can be a slippery slope, especially when its used as a crutch for lazy narratives. But in the case of Lost, it allowed for the realization of one of the most tantalizing fan fantasies out there: what if the Oceanic 815 survivors joined the Dharma Initiative?

For the last half of season 5, some of our favorite castaways were bonafide members of the scientific commune's Class of '77. Taking place three years before the Oceanic 6 return to the island, "LaFleur" is a funny and poignant flight-of-fancy that remains one of the best mythology-light episodes of the series. After proving his mettle in some Hostile negotiations, Sawyer is appointed Dharma security chief. Miles and Jin become his right-hand men, and Juliet, in a left-field twist that somehow feels perfectly natural, falls in love with Sawyer and creates a happy home for him.

Of course, everything is roses and Apollo Bars until the Oceanic 6 inevitably return to the island three years later, teaching Sawyer a hard lesson we all learn eventually: you can't avoid responsibility by hiding out in the 70's and still expect to achieve contentment. As long as there are smoke monsters to slay and atomic bombs to detonate, happiness is little more than a pipe dream for the castaways.

14. Live Together, Die Alone (Season 2, Episode 23-24)

Lost has showcased some great love affairs over the years, from Sawyer and Juliet to Sayid and Nadia to pretty much any hook-up that doesn't involve Kate. But the romantic union that resonates loudest for most fans is the one between Desmond and Penny. "Live Together, Die Alone" recounts their star-crossed courtship and the boat-race Desmond foolishly enters when he's made to feel unworthy by Penny's father. The decision inevitably leads him to the island and a life of lonely, tedious button-pushing. It's the oldest theme in the Lost handbook: people are always letting their insecurities get in the way of being with the ones they love.

As the episode winds down, it feels like it's hurtling toward a huge downer of an ending: Michael escapes the island with his murderous deeds unpunished. Kate, Jack, and Sawyer are kidnapped by the Others. And the fates of Desmond, Locke, and Eko are left hanging in the balance after a cataclysmic electromagnetic reaction. But then the show cuts to a group of unfamiliar scientists stationed at an Antarctic base. They detect an "electromagnetic abnormality" on an island somewhere in the Pacific and, after some vague calculations, they manage to pinpoint its location. Finally, they frantically contact their employer who just so happens to be... you guessed it: Penny.

13. The Candidate (Season 6, Episode 14)

When "The Candidate" first aired a few weeks back, I thought, "Here we go: Lost is finally picking up the pace heading into its final episodes." Sadly, I was wrong, and "The Candidate" turned out to be the last truly great Lost episode. But what a thrilling piece of entertainment! With the kind of swashbuckling panache that the shows does so well, the A-Team consisting of Jack, Sawyer, et al overtakes Widmore's submarine only to discover that Evil Locke has rigged Jin's bag with a time-bomb. Jack plays the man of faith and tells Sawyer that they should let the timer run out because Evil Locke is barred from directly killing a candidate (the less said about the non-sensical "rules" invented for season 6 the better). Sawyer ignores him and, in his attempt to disarm the bomb, ends up accelerating the timer, dooming the castaways to a watery grave.

But not so fast! Zombie Sayid stops being a zombie (Lost's zombie rules make about as much sense as its island demi-god rules), grabs the bomb, and runs to the opposite end of the submarine, sacrificing himself to save many of his friends. Unfortunately, Sun is not one of the lucky ones. Immobilized by a metal cabinet, she is unable to escape the sinking sub. And Jin, whose entire on-island arc has been defined by his relationship to Sun, chooses to die alongside her instead of escaping with the others. It's a beautifully staged scene that leaves you emotionally drained and in awe of the kind of poignancy Lost is able to conjure at its best.

12. The Man Behind the Curtain (Season 3, Episode 20)

The Lost writers are masters of the cold opening: "The Man Behind the Curtain" begins with an unfamiliar man helping his wife give labor in the woods. A baby boy is born, but the woman is in great pain and losing a lot of blood. Her last request before expiring? "Call him Benjamin." And with that chilling invocation begins the backstory of Lost's uber-manipulator, villain extrordinaire Benjamin Linus.

Growing up, Ben had a cold alcoholic father who blamed his son for his wife's death, so we can cut the kid some slack for being a tad maladjusted. The thing is, not every maladjusted child of an alcoholic parent GASSES A VILLAGE AND MURDERS HIS FATHER. This reveal adds a chilling dimension to Ben's character; we always knew he was a manipulative prick who would do just about anything to get what he wanted. But what we didn't know was that "anything" included mass murder.

Meanwhile, the on-island subplot is just as scintillating as the flashback. Ben leads Locke to Jacob's supposed abode, a creepy-looking cabin surrounded by a rim of ash to keep intruders out (or deadly spirits in?) Inside the cabin, the scene is like something out of The Exorcist: levitating objects, shaking picture frames, and spontaneous combustion, until it all culminates in a split-second vision of a man who pleads, "Help me." Is it Jacob? the Man in Black? Some other spirit trapped on the island? Just one of many unanswered questions we're left with at the end of the series. Still, the cabin clusterfuck stands as one of the show's scariest and most stylish sequences.

11. The Incident (Season 5, Episode 16)

In some ways, "The Incident" represents Lost at its worst: characters suffer wild mood swings, they commit deeds spawned by unclear motivations, and the whole conceit that detonating an atomic bomb magically re-boots the universe made little sense then and even less sense now that we've seen how the series ends. And yet, the episode does so much right that I find myself easily forgiving these flaws. The cold opening where we meet Jacob and the Man in Black was as irresistibly cryptic as the best Lost mysteries. The compelling role reversal that takes place when Locke starts manipulating Ben puts a new spin on the characters' wonderful sense of chemistry. And the chaotic climax that occurs when the Dharma team drills into a pocket of electromagnetic energy is as thriling and eye-popping as any action sequence you're likely to see on network TV.

10. Confidence Man (Season 1, Episode 8)

Sawyer's series-long transformation from cantankerous, racist prick to courageous, selfless hero is one of Lost's greatest achievements, and you can credit Josh Holloway's phenomenal acting for keeping his character's arc believable through all its twists and turns. It all started here with "Confidence Man," a classic 1st season origin story where we learn the shocking parental tragedy behind Sawyer's con-man persona. We also learned that murder-suicide subplots were totally game for Lost, upping the ante for how far a primetime show about beautiful people on a tropical island was willing to go to a tell a good story.

On the island, Sawyer is as intractable as ever: beating Boone to a pulp, hoarding supplies, and endangering Shannon's life by leading people to believe he stole her inhaler when in fact he had nothing to do with the missing medication. Even when Sayid tortures him, Sawyer feigns guilt without actually providing any helpful information. This self-destructive, anti-social behavior is proof that Sawyer is more deeply fucked-up than we could possibly imagine. And yet, it's impossible not to feel sympathy for the guy after learning his horrific back-story. On this island, even the worst individuals are eligible for redemption, even if it takes five or six seasons to get there.

Oh and Charlie feeds Claire imaginary peanut butter.

9. Orientation (Season 2, Episode 2)

"We're gonna have to watch that again." No kidding, Locke. The amount of island mythology disseminated by the unforgettable Orientation tape in just over a couple minutes is staggering: we learn of the existence of the DHARMA Initiative, a private foundation that uses the island to conduct research on meteorology, psychology, and zoology (polar bear mystery solved!) We learn that the island possesses unique electromagnetic properties and that a vaguely ominous "incident" occurred. And finally, we learn that Hurley's numbers possess far more significance than we ever thought before, and might just hold the key to saving the world.

Jack, the man of science, is unfazed by this information and tells Locke that entering the numbers and pushing the button every 108 minutes is little more than an elaborate social experiment. This sets up an unbearably tense climax when Locke puts Jack's cynicism to the test by refusing to allow the button to be pushed unless Jack does it himself. In the end, the man of science relents, and we see Jack's resentment toward Locke deepen as Locke's increasingly dangerous obsession over island mysticism intensifies.

8. Exodus (Season 1, Episode 23-24)

Eight words that shook Lost viewers to their core: "We're going to have to take the boy." Mr. Friendly's casual delivery of these lines to Michael makes it all the more chilling and bewildering. Just when you think that the castaways have made contact with the outside world, tragedy hits and the best-laid plans are put to waste (another common theme of Lost: never have a plan).

And yet, more than anything, we remember the humor of this episode. We see Hurley bombarded by bad omens, including an entire youth soccer team sporting the numbers "42, 23, 16...," as he rushes to catch his flight. There's the episode's self-aware recognition of redshirts. And of course, there's Hurley dictating our response to the shockingly explosive death of the hapless Leslie Arzt by telling Jack, "You've got some Arzt on you."

7. Greatest Hits (Season 3, Episode 21)

The concept of this episode had corniness written all over it. But thanks to brilliant writing and Dominic Monaghan's nuanced, naturalistic performance, the show pulled it off without a hitch. Charlie, having resigned himself to the deadly fate portended by Desmond's visions, creates a list of the five best moments of his life, including the first time he heard his band on the radio, and the day his dad taught him to swim.

The number one moment? What else but the day of the plane crash when he first met Claire. Sure the reveal is predictable, but it doesn't matter. "Greatest Hits" is a genuinely heartbreaking journey through the psyche of one of the show's most beloved characters. Charlie would only live to see one more week, but this episode endures as a testament to bravery and acceptance in the face of certain death.

6. Flashes Before Your Eyes (Season 3, Episode 8)

Up until this point in the series, the show's science fiction elements were largely muted, taking a backseat to the human drama stories that played out on and off the island. But with "Flashes Before Your Eyes," the show began to realize its loftiest ambitions, combining the dynamics of great TV drama with mind-melting sci-fi that's one part Vonnegut and one part Alan Moore. After the electromagnetic event of the Season 2 finale, Desmond became literally "unstuck in time," quantum leaping from moment to another. And although he's conscious of the time warp, he is unable to deviate from the path he's already travelled through life. Paradox-free time travel or, to quote the good doctor Jack, "Whatever happened, happened."

Along his temporal journey, he runs into the villainous Charles Widmore, the steely Eloise Hawking, and other key figures in Lost's labyrinthine mythology. But most importantly, he sees Penny again, and it reminds him that a reunion with her is still possible. There's more than one way to leave the island, even if it means untethering yourself from the space-time continuum.

5. All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues (Season 1, Episode 11)

Remember Ethan the Creepy Bad-Ass? Smoke monsters and polar bears be damned, Ethan was the scariest force of evil in the first season. In "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues," the unhinged Other kidnaps Claire, hangs Charlie, and beats the shit out of Jack in a gripping thunderstorm fistfight. Jack's dramatic on-island resuscitation of the legally dead Charlie mirrors his flashback attempts to save a woman who dies due to his father's drunken negligence. Jack testifies at a hearing that his father, also a hot shot doctor prone to taking risks, was not impaired. But when Jack discovers that the dead woman was pregnant, he can't keep silent about his father's alcoholism any longer. After revising his testimony, his father is stripped of his medical license and his relationship with his son is permanently severed.

On the island, as Jack is about to give up hope on Charlie, leaving the young man motionless in the pouring rain, it dawns on us how much we care about these individuals who exist only in our collective imaginations. And when Charlie does wake up and start gasping for air, it's a cause for euphoric celebration. It's kind of silly, I know, but it's also what defines great television.

4. Deus Ex Machina (Season 1, Episode 18)

Sometimes I feel like the Lost writers are downright sadistic when it comes to its tragic hero, John Locke. Throughout the five seasons in which he was properly alive, the man is shot, thrown out of an eight-story window, and hanged, not to mention the countless humiliations, betrayals and failures he suffered in between. "Deus Ex Machina" recounts the first in a long line of gross indignities. In the episode's flashback, the slightly loserish Locke finally meets his long-lost father, only to discover that their short-lived relationship was nothing more than a long con intended to get hold of one of Locke's kidneys. As soon as the operation is over, the father disappears, leaving Locke a broken shell of a man once again.

But hey that's all in the past right? Now Locke's a boar-killing bad-ass who's taken Boone under his wing in hopes of giving the young man the father-figure that Locke never had. But sadly, he fails even at that. On a trek through the jungle, Locke and Boone come upon a small plane suspended high in the trees. Stricken by a mysterious paralyzation relapse, Locke asks Boone to climb up to the plane to check if the radio still works. Boone reaches the radio, but after hearing a chilling transmission, the plane falls to the ground and Boone suffers fatal injuries.

Devastated, Locke hunches over the Hatch door and pleads to God or the island or to whoever's listening for some direction. Nothing happens at first, but then, in a spine-tingling scene, a bright light shines out of the hatch window. Of course we would later discover that Desmond merely switched on the light because someone was banging on his door. But at that moment, hope in the eternal is restored for the doomed pilgrim Locke.

3. Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)

When Jack wakes up on a pile of bamboo following the crash of Oceanic 815, what ensues is one of the most brilliantly staged scenes of chaos and terror ever portrayed on screen, television or elsewhere. People are running in fear, or else standing in a daze, too shocked to process what just happened. And in what is still the most unforgettable scene of the entire series, a man is fiercely plucked from the ground and sucked into an exploding plane engine.

But just as everything finally settles down, that's when things start to get weird: polar bears, a monster, 16-year old radio signals in French... and then there are the characters: a heroin-addicted rock star, a dangerous femme fatale, a boy with magical powers... oops, scratch that last one. Like the mutant spawn of Survivor, the X-Files, and Jurassic Park, it's no wonder people were hooked.

2. Through the Looking Glass (Season 3, Episodes 22-23)

Best. Twist. Ever.

Not that this episode didn't already have it all: the absurdly hot Other mercenaries in the Looking Glass station, Sayid snapping necks with his legs, and of course the valiant death of Charlie Pace who left an indelible image in our mind with three simple words: NOT PENNY'S BOAT.

And yet something felt off about that flashback. It was difficult to fit this bearded, pill-popping, In Utero-listening junkie into the timeline of Jack Shepherd. Could he have suffered a nervous breakdown at some point before going into exile in the Far East? And if so, where are the usual parallels between his flashback and his on-island exploits? But then we saw Kate get out of that car at the end of the episode and after a brief "wtf" moment it all became clear. This is a flash-forward. Not only did Jack, Kate, and who knows who else get off the island, but Jack's life is so unbelievably messed-up that he wishes he could go back. It was a game-changer for the ages. And after a season that often found itself hamstrung by its own storytelling constructs (putting the main characters in cages for 6 episodes?), Lost had suddenly blown open the doors of narrative possibility.

1. The Constant (Season 4, Episode 5)

"The Constant" is the perfect combination of mystery, science fiction, and romance. It's also the ultimate Desmond episode which pretty much qualifies it as the ultimate Lost episode. Once again unstuck in time, Desmond begins to suffer the side-effects of being disconnected from the linear flow of time (apparently nose-bleeds, headaches, and eventually death are par for the course). The arc of the episode is a frantic race against the clock to find a "constant" for the travelling Scotsman to realign himself in the here and now.

In the final flashback, Desmond is at Penny's flat shortly after a painful break-up. She is upset with him, the wounds from their split still fresh, but he begs her to give him her telephone number and to keep that same number for eight years. Bewildered, but trusting of her old flame, she gives him the digits, leading to an emotionally-charged phone call that lifts Desmond from the brink of death. To be honest, I can't really do justice to the intensity of the episode's conclusion by merely describing it. You just have to see it for yourself.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


I've been meaning to wipe the dust off this old thing for a while now, and what better excuse to over-analyze pop culture than a new season of Lost? Lost is the one show I've been with since its first season debuted and I've followed it religiously ever since. I'm not much of a TV guy to begin with, and all my other favorite shows (The Wire, Mad Men, Arrested Development) I discovered late in the game and on DVD, allowing me to cram entire seasons into two-day weekend binges. On the contrary, it will have taken me six years to finally complete the Lost saga. Although I've switched jobs three times, moved twice, and graduated from college during this period, Lost, has been one of the few constants in my life. It's the Penny to my Desmond. And so it's with a mix of excitement, nostalgia, and even a bit of sadness that I approach the final chapter of the Oceanic 815 survivors.

I remember back in Season 3, around the time of the infamous "Nikki and Paolo" episode, when Lost was losing viewers by the couchful each week, and even the most devoted fans (myself included) began to question the direction of the show. People said there were too many mysteries and not enough answers; that the writers had pinned themselves in a cage, not unlike the ones that housed the show's three major characters for a large chunk of that uneven season. Even after the mindblowing revelation that not only had some of the survivors escaped the island, but that those same people were so unhappy on the mainland that they wanted to return, I still felt like there was no way the writers could end the show in a way that was even remotely satisfying to the majority of their fans.

And then, as the first hour of last night's epic two-hour premiere came to a close, I found myself thinking: Holy shit, they're actually pulling this off.

Every season premiere of Lost has featured some game-changing twist, whether it's the revelation of how the Other half lives in Season 3 or the controversial time travel tricks of season 5. But what I loved most about the Season 6 premiere is that its twist was more than merely clever or shocking; it actually brought the audience's understanding of the show's characters and themes into closer focus than ever before. We've seen flashbacks, we've seen flashforwards, now it's time for flash-sideways (flash-sidewayses?)

By throwing parallel universes into the mix, the writers can show us what would have happened if the plane had never crashed on the island, without sacrificing any of the excitement and mythology of the past five seasons. As the show toggles between the relative mundanity of an island-less reality and a separate reality where the survivors are still entrenched in an epic battle between opposing forces on a grand scale, the show is able to ask some fairly deep questions about the art of storytelling itself. Why do people tell stories? What use are they to ordinary people? And how does one find ways to be heroic when you're not being chased by giant polar bears and smoke monsters on a semi-weekly basis?

Take Charlie for instance: on the island, he was a veritable martyr, the walking image of redemption who sacrificed himself to save the closest friends he ever had. But in this new "corrected" reality, he's nothing more than a junkie with no friends. Sure at least he's alive, but just barely; the guy almost chokes to death on a bag of heroin in the airplane bathroom and has to be resuscitated by Jack (ironically, Jack has the opposite problem; he's perfectly comfortable playing the hero in the altered reality, but back on the island he is unable to revive Sayid and is also indirectly responsible for the death of Juliet.)

One of the last scenes of the episode may \shed some light on what Lost has been getting at for the past five seasons: it's not the island that can save these people, it's each other. It ultimately doesn't matter whether the plane crashed or not. What matters are exchanges like the one we saw between Jack and Locke as they bonded over lost luggage. Locke, always the man of faith, consoles Jack by saying, "The airline didn't lose your father. They only lost his body." Conversely, Jack, the hotshot spinal surgeon gives the once-again paralyzed Locke his card and utters the unbelievably loaded lines, "Nothing is irreversible."

The writers have always said that the show was more about the characters than the mythology. It wasn't until last night's episode that I finally believed them.

Theory of the week: the springwater in the temple is clouded by the spirit of the recently-deceased Jacob... and that spirit now inhabits Sayid.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Go Galactic!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's been months since the last time I posted here. I started this blog as an outlet for writing, but ever since I started contributing to Agit Reader (a really cool music site edited by ex-Columbus Alive writers Stephen Slaybaugh and Kevin Elliott) I've kind of neglected Crosseyed and Painless.

As the decade crawls toward its demise and the inevitable mushroom cloud of "best of the 00's" lists begins to take shape, it's as good a time as any to start this pop culture-obsessed trainwreck back up again. Inspired by one of my favorite blogs, Intensities in Ten Suburbs, I'm going to start posting silly retrospectives on the best movies, songs, and albums of the decade, according to one six-billionth of the population.

And why would I ever waste the time to do this? Because I'm addicted to list-making and list-reading like others are addicted to online poker or ludes.

(by the way, are ludes even addictive? They seem to be coming up a lot lately but I know nothing about them except for that Penny Lane ODs on them in Almost Famous and you could sell them in that awesome drug dealer game for the TI-83)

Anyway if you're a fellow listophile, check out the site over the next few months. I think I'll start with movies.

Oh and Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader Agit Reader

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Speaking of Horror Movies, a Few Words on Torture

The right-wing talk radio psychotics and smegma-molds over at Fox News have added another offense to Obama's long laundry list of crimes against rich white America: he hates torture! My god, how will the children be safe with a president who doesn't condone state-sponsored torment of any turban-wearing "radical" who's caught jaywalking in Baghdad? How can good honest Americans go to bed at night with the knowledge that future detainees will be pampered and spoiled with luxuries like clothes and habeas corpus? And what about all the terrorist attacks that our government could have thwarted had they only waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 200-300 more times for good measure?

Before getting too deep into the pernicious idiocy of these claims, here's a brief timeline of the events leading up to the Right's most recent collective temper tantrum:

April 16 - Obama releases four "torture memos" drafted by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel back in 2002 and 2005 that provided legal justification for the harsh CIA interrogation techniques used on detainees under the Bush administration. The president states that the CIA officials who carried out the harsh interrogations will not prosecuted.

April 19 - In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says that Obama believes that the individuals who devised the torture policy itself should not be prosecuted either.

April 21 - After getting a lot of heat from Human Rights organizations, Muslims from around the world, and Senate democrats like Russ Feingold and Dianne Feinstein, Obama says that he is open to prosecution of the individuals who formulated those legal decisions but that it would be up to Congress and the Attorney General to conduct the investigation. Conservative America proceeds to blow up in a vile and embarassing display of bloated outrage.

Conservatives are angry because they think Obama has "given in" to the demands of ultra-radical Left-Wingers with a political vendetta against the Bush administration. Moreover, they claim that the individuals now in danger of prosecution were the very same individuals doing God's work to protect America from terrorism. This disingenuous "no good deed goes unpunished" defense is based on two untenable fallacies:

1. These "harsh interrogation techniques" made the country safer

2. The techniques themselves do not constitute torture

Regarding the first argument, the interrogation techniques have actually had the opposite effect on our safety. For example, say you live in a politically volatile country and your leader has just been ousted by an occupying nation with ostensibly good intentions. Although you might not be crazy about your occupiers, you figure it can't get any worse than the last regime. Then one day, a casual acquaintance or rival who is struggling financially like yourself tells the local authorities that you are a part of a radical terrorist cell so he can receive a modest cash reward for the tip. Suddenly you're taken from your home in the middle of the night and locked away in a prison where you are subjected to unbearable pain and humiliation for information you do not have by the people who are supposed to "liberate" you. When (or I should say "if") you ever make it out, you might start to think those anti-American insurgents have a point. Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo? These are essentially recruitment facilities for future terrorists.

(Oh, and I almost forgot: even when a prisoner has potentially valuable information, torture doesn't produce reliable intelligence anyway so pretty much everybody loses.)

But even if we're to believe Michael Mukasey and Jack Bauer when they list the myriad benefits of "aggressive interrogation tactics" it's important to note just how euphemistic the phrase "aggressive interrogation tactics" really is. This brings us to the second flawed piece of rationale used to justify the crimes of the Bush administration which is that these techniques aren't really torture in the first place. When defending the rough treatment of detainees, torture-proponents downplay the cumulative effect of these techniques by listing only one or two of the tactics at a time. For example, it's debatable whether or not we'd call it torture to put someone's hand in a box containing a daddy long-legs while telling the detainee that the box contains a black widow. But employing the box trick on someone who has been standing for over 100 hours naked in a cold, pitch-black room with guards incessantly threatening death, slapping the person in the face, and throwing them against walls is a different story. Any kind of "interrogation" for 100 hours straight would be torturous, but it's especially inhumane when the ordeal involves sick and ridiculous rituals like these.

Going back to the release of the "torture memos" and the prospect of prosecution, I think Obama is right to avoid bringing criminal charges against the individual interrogators. These men were following orders. I'm sure many of them are already traumatized enough by their war-time experiences and the last thing they need is for their country to throw them in prison as gratitude for their service. And as easy as it is to direct our ire at the insidious Justice Department lawyers who snaked their way around the Geneva Convention to draft the memos, we shouldn't forget the people at the heart of the clusterfuck, Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzalez, who requested the reports in the first place. After all, when a person is convicted of murder, the judge doesn't throw the defense attorney in jail and let the killer go free. And if Obama does not create an environment that allows Congress and the Justice Department to conduct a fair and thorough investigation of potential war crimes under the Bush administration, he may quickly lose the precarious sense of faith and trust he's instilled in our fellow free nations.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It Came From the Stacks of North Campus: Searching For the Ultimate Horror Movie

Any Columbus horror fan will tell you that North Campus Video is the only place to go for movies about slashers, monsters, zombies, and cannibals. Many of the local Blockbusters have gone so far as to eradicate the horror section altogether, peppering the Drama and Action sections with whatever lonely vestiges remain from the erstwhile genre (it's always strange to see a stately snoozer like House of Sand and Fog buttressing a glorious atrocity like House of 1000 Corpses). Lucky for us, North Campus is here to supply the goods to horror aficionados across central Ohio.

But despite the store's fine collection of mainstream, cult, and foreign horror movies, it's always a challenge to find a winning film beyond the universally-appreciated Horror 101 classics (The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead et al). Critical hivemind sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes can be helpful when selecting a good documentary or independent film, but since critics are usually woefully off-the-mark when it comes to horror, trial and error is the only way to separate the wheat from the chaff. To make matters even worse, an alarmingly high percentage of horror movies are terrible and only a small number of those are so terrible that they're actually good.

So every time I rent a semi-obscure horror movie from North Campus, bad or good, I'm going to write a quick review of it in hopes of building a solid catalog of the scariest/funniest/weirdest horror movies. We'll start with a French repulser called Frontier(s) that came to me via my friend John Liberatore, a veritable guru of disgusting shit. Sadly the movie was not very good. And your guess is as good as mine in regards to the parentheses.

Director: Xavier Gens

Sub-genre: Torture/Slasher

Pedigree: Selected as one of 8 Films to Die For at Horrorfest 2007 but removed from the slate due to its NC-17 rating.

Synopsis: Four young Parisian robbers exploit the confusion of a political protest gone awry to pull off a heist. They retreat to the countryside to hide out for a night at a secluded hostel run by people who I can only assume are France's equivalent to American white trash (I'm not sure if "French hicks" actually exist, or if the filmmakers just wanted to make sure their film bore as many misguided similarities as possible to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie the vast majority of their intended audience has already seen). The backcountry hostel owners (who are later revealed to be neo-Nazis) attempt to torture, kill, and eat the photogenic urban protagonists with varying degrees of success until, after 108 minutes and 20 gallons of blood and entrails, the film mercifully ends.

The Good: Fans of pure gore won't be disappointed as Frontier(s) is the kind of movie that wears its NC-17 rating as a badge of honor. Also, the opening Parisian riot sequence is an interesting attempt by Gens to address the civil unrest beneath the surface of France's faux-idyllic baguette-noshing culture.

The Bad: Both the concept and the plotting owe way too much to Texas Chainsaw. The only major difference is in setting and let's face it: a European hostel isn't exactly the most original venue for a horror movie these days. Even the gore itself is little more than an extension of Eli Roth's Hostel (the most cringe-worthy scene involves a couple severed Achilles tendons). And as for the director's stabs at social commentary, what arch message is Gens trying to impart? That you can complain all you want about police brutality and urban strife, but count yourself lucky that you don't have to deal with all those farmboy psychos in the countryside? If we're to believe that Gens really aspires to address legitimate socio-political concerns, then the film is practically an endorsement of fascist cops as the lesser of two evils.

Verdict: Even horror fans who judge their movies largely on how many buckets of blood are spilled can probably avoid this one. There's nothing here in terms of gore, narrative, or theme that hasn't already been covered by Hostel, High Tension, The Descent, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

D -

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Another entry from the FilmSlash Stash: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

If history remembers Kevin Smith’s new movie (note: I wrote this review months ago) Zack and Miri Make a Porno, it probably won’t be as a chronicle of the U.S.’s current financial crisis, although the film’s snowy Pennsylvania setting, which is framed as an economically depressed wasteland where strip malls go to die, does provide a timely and empathetic backdrop for the film’s financially strapped characters. Instead, Zack and Miri’s claim to cinematic immortality is that it’s probably the raunchiest movie ever shown in a multiplex alongside fare like High School Musical 3 and Madagascar 5. Without the support of box office king Seth Rogen, I can’t see how the movie could have squeaked by with an R-rating, with its graphic scenes of thrust and awe that are just a shade bluer than your average late-night Cinemax offering. Taking a love interest to see it is just about tantamount to Travis Bickle’s idea of a first date.

In Smith’s latest foray into the dirty minds of romantics, Rogen and Elizabeth Banks play lifelong friends and roommates who share a rapport that, in movie terms at least, can be immediately recognized as platonic (I can’t image Spencer Tracy’s first lines to Katherine Hepburn in a movie being, “I told you to close the door when you’re taking a shit!” but that is exactly how the audience is introduced to the chummy friendship between Zack and Miri) After a high school reunion that brings their monetary woes into sharp focus, Miri wistfully observes that “These are the type of circumstances that drive people to do pornography,” a prospect that, to Zack, seems less like a death knell than a lofty achievement to work toward. Before long, Zack and Miri are holding auditions, rounding up props, and brainstorming titles for their home-made porno that include “Fuckback Mountain” and “Star Whores.”

Despite the blunt puerility of their porn title ideas, the scenes where the characters prepare for or perform sexual acts on camera are in fact a breeding ground for the film’s funniest moments, as Smith celebrates the same exuberant do-it-yourself spirit seen in last year’s excellent Be Kind Rewind, particularly during a “Star Whores” costume montage that is as hilariously nerdy as it is salacious. It’s unfortunate then that Smith continues to lose his edge as both a writer of characters and a purveyor of jokes that reach beyond the realm of hand-jobs and Han Solo for inspiration. For example, Craig Robinson is wasted in a role that’s memorable only because the actor dead-pans his way through lines that sound as if they were written for a “token black guy” in a Michael Bay movie (perhaps Robinson attempted to bring some irony to a character that offered little more than painfully simplistic racial humor).

Even worse is Robinson’s wife, a role that works under the conceit that shrill black women screaming at their husbands are an inherently hilarious stereotype worth wasting a ten minute stretch of terrible jokes on. And despite the indomitable charms and effortless chemistry effused by Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, Zack and Miri’s relationship arc rings predictable and stale, as Smith once again fails to approach the romantic elements of his films with the same vibrancy and originality he brings to his sex jokes. The most striking revelation here is actually Jason Mewes who effectively shatters the “Jay” identity he cultivated in earlier Smith flicks to play a reserved amateur porn-star whose mid-coital musings elicit the movie's biggest laughs.

The film loses much of its steam near the 90-minute mark when the principals abandon their pornographic endeavors due to the inevitable awkwardness that ensues when Zack and Miri finally share their big moment on camera. At this point, the movie hits a deeply saccharine note that is both incongruous to the flighty tone of the rest of the film and unjustified by Smith’s simplistic treatment of his lead characters. Although the director raises some interesting questions about the strange brew formed when sex and friendship are mixed, he rushes Zack and Miri through a third act plot-line involving faux betrayals and misunderstandings that would be better suited for shallow romantic comedy archetypes, not the real, relatable characters his protagonists potentially could have become at the mercy of a smarter script.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to root for Rogen and Banks, who elevate the material with their winsome comic personas. And while Zack and Miri isn’t quite deep enough to warrant the gravitas Smith forces upon his characters, the film showcases the talents of not only trusted performers like Rogen and Banks, but also old Kevin Smith mainstays like Mewes and Jeff Anderson. And besides, what better antidote is there to a case of wintry economic blues than a hearty dose of good clean porn?


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Film Review: Gomorrah

Most mob movies can't help but glamorize the gangster condition. Even films that tend to highlight the more grotesque elements of life in the mob (the decapitated horse from Godfather immediately comes to mind) make it difficult for the viewer to resist the alluring sense of danger and excitement embodied by stories of organized crime. Heck, even the gritty and disturbing Brazilian crime epic City of God indulged in exhilarating worldbeat-infused action sequences that made sprinting through the slums of Rio with a handgun look like every kid's dream (Slumdog Millionaire suffered from similar excesses that threatened to undercut that film's attempts at social commentary). Although these films are almost always cautionary tales espousing "crime doesn't pay" messages, gangster movies generally keep the viewer at a safe distance from the carnage by emphasizing style over realism.

Now don't me wrong: movies like The Godfather, GoodFellas, and City of God aren't required to be realistic. They more than make up for a lack of naturalism in ways that have been well-documented elsewhere. But it's refreshing and even startling to see a film like Gomorrah approach a potentionally sensational subject (the Naples-based Camorra, one of the world's most deadly crime organizations) with stark realism and a pointed lack of romance. Through the use of digetic music, understated hand-held camerawork and naturalistic dialogue, director Matteo Garrone does more than merely immerse the viewer into a world of fake tans, tacky euro-thug couture, and horrific bloodshed. His primary concern, true to Robert Saviano's groundbreaking book of the same name, is to expose the personal and global ramifications of the Camorra's relentless evisceration of poor communities in Naples. As a result, the crime syndicate comes off as a monstrous and chaotic network of destruction that feeds on anything and everyone it can, including its own members. Like television's The Wire, Gomorrah documents organized crime's easy infestation into poverty-stricken corners of the world effectively forsaken by more legitimate agents of change.