Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Last Selfless Act of George Bailey

It seems I've written several times about It's a Wonderful Life. The last time I watched it, I realized something that I'd glossed over before, a point that puts the whole movie in a different perspective.

Most people are familiar with the story, or at least the third act. George's life is a mess, so he jumps off a bridge. But an angel saves his life, and then shows him how the world would be if he were never born. George realizes his life has meant something, and we get a happy ending. This is often framed in the collective unconscious and in parody retellings within the concept of Christmas suicides. But this reading is wrong.

There's this fanciful statistic floating out there that there are more suicides on Christmas Eve than on any other night. I don't know if that's true, but I'm inclined to say it's not. Anway, many people think that's where George Bailey was at the start of the movie. That he was so depressed at the situation he was in that he just wanted to kill himself and give up. When Rugrats retold the story (in perhaps the best parody of the story I've ever seen), Chuckie ran away from home because nobody cared about him. But this is not it at all.

Yes, George was angry. He was frustrated that the only thing he ever wanted in life he was never able to do. He tired of being the one guy who had to save everybody all by himself. And at that point most of all he was at the end of his rope, out of ideas on how to save them this time, knowing that old man Potter might finally win. But it isn't despair that sends him off that bridge; it's love. Inside George's coat is his life insurance policy. George is a desperate man so desperate as to give up his own life so that the money in his policy would save his family. Now, that's still a foolish prospect, but it's not the act of a despondent man. He was not a miserable guy who just wanted to end it all and jumped off a bridge. He stood on that bridge pondering whether it was worth drowning to save others; one final selfless miracle from George Bailey.

He doesn't jump in the water as I recall; he falls in. Either way, the whole thing about "life would be better if I were never born" comes out of an argument with Clarence the angel. George does NOT jump off a bridge because he wishes he were never born. It might seem a minor point, but to me it paints the whole film and George's character in a different light.

I don't think of George Bailey as a broken man who wanted something stupid. I see him as a hero; a tower of plain everyman courage and selfless kindness. In the real world of course there would be no happy ending. I wanna know where my sudden basket of neighborhood money is right about now. In many respects it is NOT a wonderful life. "Life is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something" (Princess Bride). The world as it is now is awful and will basically not get better. But that's no reason to deny George Bailey his nobility. His pondering suicide may have been misguided, but it was for a good cause. Think about that.

GLEE: "Britney/Brittany"

Sorry, this is a bit late getting posted. Well, the Britney Spears episode came and went and actually wasn't too bad. I definitely expected worse. There was much more of an early first season feel to the episode than I expected.

I may be the only person watching the show last night to have gone "Oh! Christopher Cross!" at the start of the episode. I understand that most of his music is not hip or relevant. But Mr. Shue had a good point about how not every great song has to be a big rock song or a power ballad. I was hoping that his assignment would lead into performances of smaller, insightful numbers. They could still navigate away from most "adult contemporary" which is just an umbrella term for disposable music that you can't really categorize. But something small like a Don McLean song ("Crossroads" or "Empty Chairs") that isn't bombastic but can be just as effective is something I'd love to see the show take on. I'm a bit dissapointed we never got to hear them do "Arthur's Theme". I may not think much of Christopher Cross on the whole (I think "Sailing" is lame), but "Arthur's Theme" is a great song! They didn't even try! That's an Academy Award-winning song that's still catchy. I say this as somebody who has the 45 of the song from the '80s. I think I was most surprised at Kurt's immediate dismissal of the song.

If you read my previous post, you know how much I was dreading the Britney Spears idea. Thankfully, they handled it differently from the Madonna one. In that episode everyone couldn't shut up about how great Madonna was. Here, Mr. Shue is dead against the group doing Spears, which I liked. He cites that she's a poor role model, which is an interesting side to take. Kurt and some of the others counter that she's culturally relevant and the students want them to do it. Okay, that's fair. But most of her music is crap. Some of the early stuff is okay (none great), but if the people want it, I can see begrudgingly doing one number. Kurt says it was a Facebook campaign. I wonder if this was an actual behind-the-scenes push from the fanbase.

Finally Brittany gets a little bit more to do than just be the dumb sidekick. She still gets some great naive one-liners (including referring to being probed by aliens), but she's a bit more the focus here. She says she doesn't want to do Britney Spears because (get this) her name is Brittany Susan Pierce, thus Brittany S. Pierce. She's always lived in Britney's shadow and likes glee club because it allows her anonymity.

There are several winking nods to YouTube culture in this episode. The first comes in that first glee scene, when somebody says to "Leave Brittany alone." This was a fiercely clever nod to the clip of Chris Crocker telling the media to leave Britney Spears alone that hit big a few years ago. You can see the original video here (language NSFW).

We thankfully got back to the Emma storylines from last season, and meet her dentist boyfriend. Surprise, it's John Stamos! And he makes Mr. Shue jealous. Shue agrees to let him come speak to glee club about oral hygiene as a way of showing Emma how flexible he can be (part of what she likes about Carl the dentist is he's so spontaneous). The spontaneity issue is also an interesting extension of the first season, where you could see glimpses of that from Will that may have sparked Emma's initial interest as well.

Never mind the fact that Stamos looks nothing like a "Carl". He visits glee and promotes good tooth care. Santana comes onto him with a suggestive reference to letting him drill her. I was glad to see a popular show taking a serious issue like oral hygiene to the teenage populace. It's actually a very underrated health concern that gets overshadowed by all the cancer and STD info out there. Anyway, we learn that Brittany's teeth are atrocious because she doesn't brush; she rinses her mouth out with soda because she thought Dr. Pepper was a dentist.

In Carl's office, Brittany is given nitric oxide to knock her out while he attempts to fill most of her 60 or so cavities. While under the gas, Brittany has a Britney Spears fantasy, where she is Britney and performs "I'm a Slave 4 U". Several things to say about this piece. First, I hate this song. Of all the Britney canon it is one of the worst songs which isn't appealing to the ears in almost any way. The fact that it was the first Britney number also was a bummer. Out of all possible songs it was this one you start with? Brittany's vocals were all right, but honestly, vocals barely matter in this song as they are just breathy; it's more about hip gyration. Even Spears' original vocal wasn't that great. On the positive side however, I was happy to see a return to the fantasy song performance on this show. Some of the most creative stuff from the early part of last year was when songs were done as fantasy sequences. Somehow they started to get away from it. Most of the performances in this episode were dream sequences. I also liked that this particular dream wasn't a carbon copy of a video; it had elements from multiple Britney videos. I noticed "Toxic", "Oops... I Did It Again", "Slave 4 U", and a few others. I like this because it's more the sort of thing the unconscious would do.

After waking from this fantasy, Brittany has changed her tune and now wants to be Britney Spears, and demands she get to sing all the solos. No one really takes this seriously. Next, it's Santana's turn in the dental chair, and she brings Brittany along with her -- or maybe it was the other way around. I don't remember. Anyway, Carl gasses them both, and they do the Spears/Madonna duet "Me and the Music". This one is more closely a parody or homage to the video, though perhaps more by necessity. Santana wears that white suit better than Madonna did. This sequence is better than the previous one, for what it is. The vocals are decent, the choreography pretty good for this sort of thing.

Throughout the episode the real Britney Spears makes a couple of appearances in the dream sequences. I'm not sure whether this was a good idea or not. Spears CAN make a delightful appearance on TV; she did get her start on MMC (I refuse to call it Mickey Mouse Club because at that point in the show's run it was called MMC). Her appearances on How I Met Your Mother were good, but I'm not sure what can be gained by her appearances here.

The aftermath of the "Me and the Music" number results in a humourous exchange where Santana mentions sharing Brittany's fantasy, even though that doesn't make any sense. "How did our fantasies combine?"

Meanwhile, Finn is being harassed by his former football team members. He is no longer cool and they call him gay (perhaps in the aftermath of last year's "Theatricality"?). Artie steps in to defend him. Coach Bieste secretly witnesses this. Rachel is also teased for her clothing style. When she goes in for dental work, she has a Britney fantasy too, and it's "...Baby One More Time." At least this one is decent. It's almost a shot for shot remake of the original video. This makes a certain amount of sense too, since Rachel's fantasy world is more structured, I can see her replaying it with her in the starring role. Still, at this point I'm starting to tire of the video-remakes. Can't they do a fantasy that's more original? I also sincerely did not like that they raised the key for Rachel to sing it in. The original was weirdly low, but this one was too high.

Rachel's hallucination also gives us the second viral video shout-out of the night. As she comes out of her dental anesthesia, she says, "Is this real life?" This is a nod to a popular video with a kid having received dental anesthesia saying this very thing.

Jessalyn Gilsig makes a return appearance in this episode! She played Shue's wife last season, and Shue's wife is back! I like her and miss her as part of the show. Shue has bought a convertible he can't afford (just like Carl's) to impress Emma. Then his ex shows up and tells him what an idiot he's being. I was just really happy to see her again.

There's a scene in this episode where Kurt is wearing this weird gray suit and a bow tie. I thought the gay community was trendy. I thought Kurt was all about style. Why did he come to school dressed like some guy's Uncle Mortie?

While on the Kurt subject, I do want to point out something very good about his character development. With this episode, they've started to take him away from being the stereotypical queer poster boy who can do no wrong. First, he disses Christopher Cross. Then later, he mouths off to Mr. Shue for not letting them do Britney Spears. This results in detention for Kurt. It's about time the writers made a point of how he's a normal kid who still does stupid things and still gets in trouble; he's not always the innocent victim. I appreciated this moment a lot. Being gay doesn't give Kurt free license to mouth off whenever he wants, just like Mercedes had no excuse for her racist comment last season.

Fresh from her fantasy, Rachel comes to school dressed as Spears in the "Baby One More Time" video. Finn is embarrassed by this. Jacob is turned on by this. So much so that Sue catches him naked and masturbating in the library. It's a bit of a Chocolate War moment. She blames Spears for this. Knowing it will upset her (and also make him seem spontaneous), Shuster changes his mind and agrees to do a Britney Spears number for homecoming. He's even going to perform with them.

Coach Bieste decides to let both Finn and Artie on the football team. This leads Artie to his nitric-induced Spears song, "Stronger". We watch as he pumps iron, and dreams of getting buff to impress Tina. I think this was the best Spears song of the night. It's a reasonably good pop song that's not all about gettin' busy on the dance floor, and is the most character-related piece.

At the homecoming assembly, Will is all decked out in a vest and hat for the Spears number. In my favorite random shout out of the night, Emma says he looks like one of the Kids Incorporated. For those of you who are not children of the '80s, Kids Incorporated was a TV show that used to run on Disney Channel (though I don't think it was original to them. Probably Canadian). It was like a cross between Glee and The Partridge Family. Fergie (from Black Eyed Peas) was a cast member as a kid. I was never a huge fan of the show, but I watched it here and there. I was more of a Mickey Mouse Club guy though (but the early good ones with Damon, Chase, and Keri Russell -- not the awful couple years with Timberlake, Spears and Aguilera).

The group performs "Toxic" for the assembly with choreography that feels like Fosse channeled through Skinemax. The students love it, culminating in almost orgiastic glee. One girl swoons for Mr. Shue. The scene reminded me a lot of the "Push It" scene from last year. They served similar functions; the group did a number to be popular with the kids, it was sexually suggestive, and the kids loved it. Sue however does not, and she pulls a fire alarm at the end of the number, forcing a mob evacuation that results in Jacob getting trampled.

Rachel fights with Finn because she feels like they can't be together if they aren't both losers. She issues him an ultimatum: football or me. He chooses football. She then sends Quinn as a secret agent to flirt with him and see if they can be together. Finn says he's with Rachel. Bolstered by this, Rachel (having gone back to her old look) decides to stay with Finn. In the final scene, she sings an adult contemporary song "for my boyfriend Finn." That's a sweet gesture on her part. But the song isn't anything to write home about. At least it brings the episode out of Spears for awhile. Brittany says she thought she was getting to do all the solos, and suggests that next week she'll be doing Ke$ha. I wonder if that's true (dear God, no).

On the whole, I was surprised by this episode. I thought it felt much more like an episode rather than an event (sorry Madonna episode), and was better than the Lady Gaga one. It was good to see a return of fantasy song sequences and Jessalyn Gilsig. Bits of the show were welcome reminders of last season. Though it didn't all work for me, the episode actually came off far better than I expected. I am a bit dissapointed that no mash-up got worked in though. I would have liked to have seen them mash up "Baby One More Time" and "Oops" to prove to America that they are the exact same song with the exact same structure (you unfortunately can't play them together though because "Oops" has a slightly faster tempo). I also would have liked to see an attempted mash up of some Spears song with "Arthur's Theme". I'm sure it's possible. Any of you out there in computer land wanna try one, please do and send me a link! And preferably, mention that it was my idea!

Best line of the night: Sue comments on Will's many vests: "You wear more vests than the cast of Blossom!"

Songs in tonight's episode:
I'm a Slave 4 U
Me and the Music
...Baby One More Time
The Only Exception

Next Week: Apparently this will be a religiously themed-episode with Kurt's dad in the hospital! Unfortunately the musical choices don't seem particularly inspired, including Joan Osborne's "One of Us". It's a decent song, but there are a lot of others to choose from. Considering the substantial contemporary Christian market out there, I hope they get broader in their selections next week, and don't just end up doing "Spirit in the Sky" or "I Can Only Imagine".

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

GLEE: "Audition"

Now that the new season of Glee is here (and Lost is gone forever), I'll be posting weekly thoughts on the latest episode.

Tonight's season premiere of Glee was very good, though not quite excellent. It doesn't quite approach the joyous bundle of satire that the original pilot was, nor completely embrace the rich tapestry of character that some of last year's episodes had. But it was by no means a bad episode. "Audition" was a strong re-introduction to the world of Glee, establishing where some of our characters are falling to this year, introducing new faces, and avoiding some of the awful over-indulgences of last year's "theme" episodes (though there are more on the way this year). With a lot of ground to cover in one episode, it came off reasonably well.

It began with a brilliant teaser focusing on Jacob Ben Israel's video show, as he interviews various characters. The first shot was of camera readjusting to his title card after staring at a cheerleader's behind; classic. Jacob is a good foil character when not milked too hard, and this episode used him perfectly. I love his little hebraic microphone. The interview style was a clever way to present us with some quick exposition, but also take some jabs at the series itself and its vocal online viewership. We learn that Puck has had a vasectomy since the Quinn baby fiasco of last season. And Tina has started dating Mike Chang (if you're asking yourself "who?", Mike Chang is the "other Asian")! Poor Artie! Apparently the two really hit it off at "Asian camp". Some of the best bits here though were the self-aware kind of meta look at the show that Arrested Development started to run with, and some of the rapid-fire humor. Take for example Mr. Shue being stunned at the revelation that "kids don't like it when I rap?" I wonder how much web buzz there was when he's rapped previously, because this reads exactly like an acknowledgement to fans (but the white boy rapping continues as Artie busts several rhymes in this episode). Jacob calls out the Glee club (and in a sense the show) for being so gay, saying the songs they sing sound like a drag queen's iPod. Kurt fires back at the end that losers who sit on their couches typing out criticisms on their blogs don't have the courage to get up and sing. That takes guts. Rebuttal: I for one, Kurt, have no problem singing in public. Oh, and Rachel basically got called a hobbit, which I found hilarious.

There's a bit of a shake-up on the series. The old football coach is gone, and in his place is a beast of a woman named Coach Bieste (pronounced Beast). Funding for both Cheerios and Glee has been cut, much to Sue and Shue's outrage, because football is more important to bringing in big alumni bucks. Glee club needs new recruits, especially since "Matt is gone". Don't know which one is Matt, so I'm guessing he's that non-descript darker-skinned football guy who filled out the background. Mr Shue is desperate for new recruits, but refuses to audition them, telling Sue that anyone who wants to can join Glee. But nobody wants to.

This leads the gang to try a recruitment performance at what I assume was lunch or some sort of break outside. Competition this year will be held in New York, and so they chose to perform Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind". I gotta say, I'm a little bothered by this at first. I don't like that the first song we get this season is a current hip-hoppy song that's already over-saturating our culture right now. I'm not that into this song, though it's better than most. Part of it too is that I don't think I get the mad love that New York gets in this country. Because you know and I know that when people say New York they mean a city, not a state. Still, my reservations aside, the song serves its function well here. Glee has a habit of taking current songs I hate and making them work for me ("My Life Would Suck Without You"). I didn't fall in love with the song here, but it was a solid performance. And frankly, if you want to make Glee look cool to your peers, this is exactly the sort of song you would do; one they all know (the new Filipino character even mouths along). And I gotta say, I always wanted to bust out a performance at lunch in high school; I would have been all over that. ...On the other hand, if I had to sit through some junky current pop song at lunch, I'd get terribly annoyed. The performance does not garner the group the instant notoriety in the school that "Push It" did last year, but it does get a few new characters interested. Oh, and on a totally unrelated note, I don't think I can ever hear the song again anyway without thinking of this video. All other versions pale in comparison.

Coach Bieste brings out the angry dog in Sue Sylvester, and thus is forged an unholy alliance between Mr. Shuster and Sue to bring her down. This amounts to a lot of childish pranks designed to make Bieste feel bad about herself and leave the school, thus restoring funding for Glee and Cheerios. In the end, Will can't take being the bully and makes nice with the Bieste. The relationship between Sue and Shue is a tricky thing, and I like that they were walking a delicate tightrope here of them being pals and enemies, building on what happened last year, but not losing the spirit of conflict that makes the show work.

Finn hears a kid singing in the shower (much like he was discovered in the pilot) and thinks he'd be great for Glee. He encourages the new boy, who has a big mouth and a Justin Bieber haircut, to audition. Meanwhile, Artie wants Tina back. He thinks he'd have a shot if he could get on the football team. Finn tries to help him out, but when he suggests it to Coach Bieste, she's not in a good place from all the bullying and thinks Finn is mocking her. She kicks him off the team. The new guy is made captain, and therefore backs out of auditioning for glee because he has a reputation to build.

I like that Tina is getting a little more to do. It's tough because she's a character that they've had a hard time figuring out how to write, but I like her. One of the best jokes of the night came when we saw a bit of Tina and Artie's relationship. Apparently, he was a terrible boyfriend because he didn't talk to her for weeks (he was playing a marathon game of Halo), and when they did hang out, all he wanted to do was watch Coming Home over and over. I thought that was hilarious.

Before he decides not to audition, the new guy (sorry, I don't remember his name. Did they say his name?) gives an informal audition to the guys in glee. He performs "Billionaire" by Travis McCoy (yet another current song), and the guys all join in. While I don't like the song, there was a certain exuberance in the performance, and it was great to see Finn on the drums again. One of the problems with using a song like this is that they had to bowdlerize the opening lyric to "I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad." I'm sure you probably know that McCoy doesn't want anything "freaking bad". I think that's maybe what's wrong with the song, too; its opening tag is poor grammar and curse words. It just makes the idea seem a lot lamer than it should. Compare "Billionaire" with Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had $1,000,000" and see what I mean. The latter is stronger.

Another thing that struck me during the "Billionaire" sequence is that everyone in these episodes always knows the words. It's a tricky thing with a show like this because in many ways it follows movie musical rules, where the logic of the song and dance isn't often there. To a point I like that traditionalism. Yet there are times when I feel it gets one step too far into artifice. Just once, I would love to see an episode where somebody doesn't quite know the words. This kind of thing happens all the time in real life. You're singing a song you all know with your friends, then you get to the part you kind of don't know and drop out for a moment. I think that's the kind of dopey reality that Glee could get away with once or twice in a scene like this. Not in all musical numbers mind you, but in an impromptu jam session on a popular song? Yes.

Meanwhile, Rachel is showing off her commitment to glee club (and her xenophobia) by suggesting to the Filipino exchange student from earlier, Sunshine, that she should join. Rachel treats her like a shy little girl who doesn't speak English well, but quickly learns that this little girl (shorter than Rachel!) has got some PIPES. She sings a little song while listening to her iPod that Rachel joins in on. It was yet another annoying pop song (talking about texting and all) that shows what's wrong with current music. At this point, we had had no older tunes save a snatch of Guns n' Roses and I was getting a little annoyed. The song grew adversarial between the girls, on Rachel's part anyway, until Sue Sylvester did us all a favor and told them to shut up. Thank you, Sue!

A lot of what's wrong with the series too was in that scene. I understand there's a suspension of disbelief that comes from characters breaking into song. I know that they've been pre-recorded and all and are designed to sell records. But it is just so hard to take the scene seriously when their vocals are run through vocoders. I can forgive some of it on the big group numbers, especially when they are "performances", just like I forgive the fact that the musicians always know the songs immediately. When Mercedes sounded like she had some reverb or double-tracking on her during "Empire State" I took it in stride. But in this scene it's an intimate fight between two girls in a bathroom; an impromptu explosion of song. The overprocessed Britney-Spears-esque vocoder sound is antithetical to that sort of feeling. Perhaps they were afraid that without it we would know what a crappy song it was? Considering the bizarre but logically stripped down version of "Poker Face" last season, I think this is inexcusable. They can do better.

There was a moment of real observational humor when Puck tells a Helen Keller joke at football practice. Helen Keller jokes are a definite part of the high school culture; hang around a high school long enough you'll hear a few. I thought that lent an authenticity to the episode as it moved into some good stuff in the second half.

I thought that the show really nicely handled Coach Bieste. She could easily have remained just a masculine gym teacher stereotype; a one-note joke. But as she is teased, and Sue makes a point of referencing how she must have been harassed in high school, we are allowed to see her in her emotional state. It was very real. As she tearfully reapplied her makeup before football, I felt like I was witnessing a real human action. High school doesn't end in high school; certain things do hurt. People do have feelings. And it led to that well-written scene where she kicks Finn out. You know her actions are totally irrational, but you completely understand them. I like when the show allows itself moments to get real like this and not just play the joke.

Santana has had a breast augmentation over the summer. This causes Sue Sylvester some chagrin, who makes a rather impassioned statement that high school girls should not be altering their bodies in this way. It's a nice message. And she caps it with a great breast euphamism, calling them "vine-ripened chest fruits" or something like that. Quinn tries out for Cheerios this year. Though Sue tries to keep her out, Quinn counters that it will only be good press for the team and the school that they take back a wayward teen mom who will be preaching abstinence in a Cheerio uniform. Quinn gets to be captain of the squad again, and Santana is demoted to the bottom of the pyramid. There's a great catfight in the hallway between the two of them. And seeing Quinn put that uniform back on was cool. She's a pretty girl, and she looked good with her hair down, but I really missed that ponytail, Quinn! I have a weakness for ponytails, and seeing her finally put her hair up again really made my night. (Yeah, I kinda have a thing about hair.)

And one more surprise: also auditioning for cheer? Finn. Seriously. Becky was there at the table with Sue during tryouts (you remember Becky; the girl with Down Syndrome). And watching Finn's audition was just... sad. Seriously, Becky's was better. It was especially funny that Becky kept a running commentary of it's epic failure ("Is this really happening?").

Rachel does something despicable, knowing that Sunshine will steal her sunshine, I mean spotlight. She gives her an address for auditions -- but it's a crackhouse. Tina and Mike Chang learn this because "the Asian community is very tight." In fact, the Asian community really IS that tight. There's a large Asian population, many as exchange students at my local high school and I've seen it. Anyway, everyone tells Rachel what a horrible thing that was and Sunshine auditions for them with "Listen" from Dreamgirls. It's one of the songs that was written for the movie to showcase Beyonce, and it serves Sunshine pretty well here. I also like that it has some story significance, in that the lyric has a bit of a bite-back at Rachel. Everyone is blown away by her audition, but she will not end up joining New Directions after all. Why? Well, the crackhouse incident soured her on Rachel, and she's been recruited by Vocal Adrenaline. Gasp!

I'm not sure how I like this development. We know that Sunshine is going to be a regular, which unfortunately means we'll probably get a lot more Vocal Adrenaline in this season. I'm not sure that's wise. The arc with Rachel and Jesse St. James last year was problematic for me (seeming to exist solely to showcase guest stars and reunite Lea Michele with her Spring Awakening costar). All this tells me that the Vocal Adrenaline wrinkle will be a minor arc, and Sunshine will join New Directions within 5 episodes. That's my prediction: five episodes.

After all the good and bad of the premiere, the episode closed with what I think was the most brilliant of witty musical bits. After slogging through contemporary blah music, we got to a modern Broadway standard, "What I Did For Love". But there's a wicked dark humor about its use here. Rachel has just admitted to Finn how wrong and despicable her actions were, and that they really weren't for the team but for her own ego. She suggests he should dump her, but he counters that he's not popular anymore and she should dump him. Neither of them can dump the other, and Rachel walks off to be alone and sing. And what does she sing? An anthem to no regrets. That's right, has Rachel really learned anything? I love this because "What I Did For Love" is EXACTLY the kind of inner monologue a self-righteous theater geek would use to justify her actions. You did it for love, Rachel? Really? I found it brilliantly comic, and darkly pointed. And it was a nice performance.

All in all, a strong episode tonight, and I hope a sign of good things to come. I hope that Sunshine becomes a character more than a voice, and that the new guy whats-his-name doesn't just become a Finn clone. We shall see. I at least was glad to see some human drama here.

Songs in tonight's episode:
Empire State of Mind
Every Rose Has Its Thorn
Getting to Know You
What I Did For Love

Next Week: Britney freakin' Spears. Seriously? I'm sorry guys, this just strikes me as a terrible idea, especially for the second episode. I know the Madonna one was big, but even that one had a certain artificial feel to it. Big theme episodes like this don't work (see the Lady Gaga episode), and it's going to feature Spears herself too. The costume reproductions and just make it look silly, and unlike the Madonna one, it's going to have a lot of awful music. Not even her good stuff (which is understandably a relative term). "Toxic"? Really? That song is AWFUL. Recreating the videos is not a good idea. The optimist in me hopes that at least someone will point out that "...Baby One More Time" and "Oops... I Did It Again" are exactly the same song.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Primary Objection

Last week there was a primary election for Governor here in Massachusetts. I did not vote in this primary. In fact, I don't vote in any primaries. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, I mentioned to someone that I wouldn't be voting in the primary and was looked at like a complete nut who doesn't understand his civic duty. This person is an active member in civic organizations and works polling places and such. I can understand the push to get folks involved, but I think if I had mentioned I don't vote for President either she'd have blown a gasket (that's a topic for another day). But I am not some nut, and I do understand my civic duty. I understand it better than most, I think. And because I do, I do not vote in primary elections.

Here's the first issue. I don't vote in primaries because I have no party affiliation. I'm "unenrolled" (which is what we call independents, since there's an "Independent" party). I know that everywhere in the country independents vote in primary elections. They are encouraged to do so. What's wrong with that, you may ask? What's wrong with it is that's not what a primary election is for. We act as if the voting process is like some big bracket scheme, and that we have to go through early rounds of voting before we get to the Final Four. This is not it at all. If that were the case I would vote (...and have serious reservations about our democracy).

The purpose of a primary election is so that the party can choose its candidate. That's why there are two ballots; a Democratic and Republican ballot. Now, I could also get tangential on the insanity of a "two-party" system, but that too should be reserved for another day. And to be fair, I believe there was actually a Libertarian ballot as well this time around. Suffice to say though that really these elections are for party members to decide on their candidate. Why then are we allowing outsiders to vote in those elections? I don't understand why they would WANT independents to vote in their elections! If you want a candidate who best represents YOU, why allow an opinion from Joe down the block? For independents to vote, they have to choose a ballot to vote on; they can't vote on both. Effectively, they are encouraged to disguise themselves as members of one party. It would be as if the vote were between the Red-Head party and the Moustache party and there was a guy outside the polls passing out moustaches and wigs! That's like letting the Big Bad Wolf throw on a curly tail and be a Pig for the day. At least if independents were required to vote on both ballots that would, though still ridiculous, have the virtue of "canceling out" errant ideas in fairness. That way conservative independents can't just vote Democrat in hopes of a lesser opponent winning, or vice versa.

So my primary reason for not voting in primaries is that I do not belong to either party and it is therefore not my vote. The notion that I should be voting in such elections strikes me as un-American, undemocratic, and terribly suspicious. How can any thinking person support such an idea? Imagine if the election hinged on one deciding vote. Can you really say you're okay with that vote coming from a random independent who likely doesn't espouse your ideals? That's equivalent to holding a school board meeting but having some random Canadian janitor from another state show up and cast a vote regarding budget reform. THAT's how absurd it is.

Beyond this point though, I question the good sense of even having these primaries. Why limit the Party's exposure by narrowing down to one candidate? Invariably every year one Party ends up deciding they backed the wrong horse. Our government was established with the concept that anyone able could run for office. It isn't limited to "major Party players". As long as you're on the ballot, that's enough. And why limited the Democratic presence or the Republican presence to one candidate? There's some belief floating around that to do offer more than one candidate would split the vote, ensuring a loss for your Party. But I ask, why should that be so? If such a thing occurs, that's generally what Third-Party candidates are blamed for doing. But given more choices, I think many voters might be more inclined to vote towards a different party if there were more candidates to choose from. Ideally there should not even be parties. But couldn't we just once try offering a few more candidates all up for the vote and see where it gets us? I mean, we can pick Best Picture of the Year from a list of 10, but have to pick our leadership from 2 to 5 people? This sort of thinking leads more towards the "lesser of two evils" kind of voting than real support, and an official who doesn't hold public support can never be as effective as he should be. The logical step, then, is not to encourage more voters to vote in primaries; it's to eliminate primaries altogether. Or if you feel your party must whittle things down, let's see a little more fairness in the representation of all the other third-party candidates that will crowd the ballot. I'd like to see 10 names on a ballot someday, even if half of them are crazy or think exactly the same way.

If we're for choice in this country, then let's be for choice! Stop polluting the Party decisions with independent votes. What sets the Democrats or Republicans apart if their decisions are made in part by outsiders? Is it simply a name and a perceived ideology, or is it a true group of like-minded individuals working to effect change by way of their organization? Allowing independent voting on primary election day isn't helping you, your candidate, or your democracy; it's actually diluting your party. In the end, if everyone can play the game, why distinguish yourself as a party? For example then, it's less the "Republican Party", and more the "Democrats Not Allowed" party. That's just boys' treehouse politics; childish and stupid. Parties, if you don't want to be a laughing stock, close your doors to independents. Independents, if you want to be respected as free-thinkers, let the Parties have their elections and keep your opinions for the real election day. And to everyone else, don't think of me as some uninformed rube. I understand the system all too well. I'm not an idiot. I'm a conscientious objector.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Predator 2

I didn't know what to expect from Predator 2, other than there being a Predator in it and no Arnold. When it was over, I didn't know what to think of it.

This sequel is set in 1997, even though it was released in 1990. But wisely for a movie like this the future setting doesn't date the movie at all. Because there's really no indication of it being "the future" except that the L.A. gangs are Jamaicans and Colombians and that it's apparently a lot hotter (global warming, perhaps?). Here's a movie that was smart enough to say that we wouldn't all suddenly have flying cars and ninja powers in the span of seven years. James Cameron pulled a similar jump to the future in Terminator 2, though that was only three years forward. It must have something to do with that magical "ten years have passed" between sequels. Strange, because there's really very little reason for this to be set in the future. Besides maybe giving the government a bit more time to develop strategy against the Predators after Dutch's report on the events of the first movie, the future setting has little or no bearing on this movie at all.

We open with a jungle shot, reminding us of the first movie, but the camera pans until revealing that we are in fact in Los Angeles: the urban jungle. Herein lies what may be a serious misstep on the part of this movie. A lot of what was wrong with the original Predator was forgivable in the remote jungle setting. It was a unique locale for an action picture, and it made for some good visuals. It might have made sense to open the film in L.A., then move somewhere else, but no; Predator 2 wants a Predator in the city or else! This story is reminiscent of another monster sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park which decided to unleash a T-Rex on an urban populace. Why? Because some filmmaker thinks its cool. And even Jurassic Park was smart enough to set most of its story on a remote island (The Lost World has almost nothing to do with Crichton and is really a thinly-veiled remake of King Kong. No seriously, go watch them back to back). The urban setting on one hand might seem like a logical next step for these creatures. Why not hunt big game where they are densely populated? But there are so many illogical elements the movie needs to make this work that it does more harm than good. Also, in the movie's second act, the city feels very "been there, done that" and the movie drags.

Before the movie begins dragging though, it gets a lot of things right. Our lead in this movie is Danny Glover, in full "I'm getting to old for this" mode. He's no Schwarzeneggar, but he has a good vibe for the early part of the picture. I liked him pretty early in the movie. I criticized the previous movie for introducing us to the alien, then ignoring it for some stupid action story that then led back into the Predator story. Well, the writers must have read my mind because they decided with this movie to open the film with the big irrelevant action sequence instead of plopping it into the first act for no reason. This is infinitely more effective. We are dropped into a gang war as rivals shoot at each other with the police trying to keep order. But then somewhere in the middle of it all, there's a Predator. When this invisible fiend gets a drug lord killed, it starts an investigation. What seemed like simple gang violence has started to become a bit more involved; someone attacked a bunch of them and did things to them no human could possibly do. This is such a more effective use of the action set-up. The mostly irrelevant action LEADS to the Predator story.

I was also very interested in the way they went with that story. Again, in the first movie we had been introduced to the alien ship, then the strangely mutilated corpses, but then got sidetracked with the attack on the rebels; the mystery was ignored for awhile. Here, the movie is ABOUT the mystery. The film plays out like a police procedural and for the most part it's pretty good. The film seems yet another source lovingly ripped off by Chris Carter for The X-Files. All the classic elements of that show are in place. We have a monster loose in the city and feds investigating these murders as evidence slowly begins pointing to something otherworldly. I really enjoyed these pieces of it, and it seemed that Predator 2 was shaping up to be better than its predecessor. They were rehashing the first movie in some ways, but fixing the elements that didn't work. Unfortunately, that good faith was squandered.

Why is the rival gang Jamaican? Isn't Jamaica really far from Los Angeles? I cannot conceive of a reason for there to be such a strong Jamaican presence on the other side of the country. The movie is terribly stereotypical about them. Like they were only chosen because it's a drug war and Jamaicans represent drugs. I can just imagine the writers pitching ideas. "We need some drug gangs. What kinda people sell drugs?" "Canadians?" "No, that's prescription drugs. I mean illegal drugs." "Jamaicans maybe?" "Yeah, that's a good idea! Jamaicans!"

The one area I thought using the Jamaicans was clever was the dreadlocks. All the Jamaicans have dreadlocks (again, a bit of stereotyping there?), but remember so do the Predators! I thought this was an interesting way to implicate the Jamaicans in the film, or make the Predator able to blend in (oh wait why does he need to? He's invisible). But this connection is never exploited in the film.

And did I forget to mention? All the Jamaicans have voodoo powers. That's right, voodoo powers. They work for a boss named King Voodoo or something like that. When they attack some corporate dude and his lady friend, they start performing a voodoo ritual. Why? So that the police will get thrown off and think that the Predator's hunting behavior is really just gang voodoo violence. It feels really silly.

I should really turn my attention now to the Predator himself in this movie. It's a different one from the first film (no duh, since the first one nuked himself). For a skilled hunter, his actions make no sense. There's a point early in the film where he shoots at one of the guys with something that gets stuck in the wall. And then he leaves it there. He leaves evidence behind! This is great for the police, who take it and find out that it contains no known elements, which means it's from space. But really? You're killing these humans and leaving evidence behind that they can trace? There also seems to be no rhyme or reason to those he kills. And as the movie goes on, it seems to revel more in the fact that he is killing than anything else. In the first movie you almost got a territorial sense about the Predator. Here, he kills clumsily and indiscriminately. All that was interesting about a character is put on hold and he becomes little more than a standard serial killer for the middle of the movie. The creators have said that maybe he was a younger, undisciplined Predator, thus explaining his actions. Well, we the audience have no reference for that. We've only ever met one of these things. We have no idea what their normal behavior is! The movie seems to enjoy the violence more than in the first movie. The Predator decapitates King Voodoo and carries his head away, and then we are treated to the careful cleaning and buffing process he goes through to make the skull into a nice trophy. This feels a LOT like a serial killer movie. But even in crazy slasher movies we are given some explanation for the actions. "Hunting for trophies" just isn't enough. Why hasn't he got buffed skulls from everyone he slew?

On the human side, the movie goes all kinds of wrong by trying to imitate other films. If the first Predator bore shades of Alien, this one bears shades of Aliens and even more directly. They cast Bill Paxton as a new cop in charge, who's really just there to make snarky comments. Oh, and the police also have a feisty latina who doesn't get along with him. Does this sound like a pale imitation of Aliens to anyone else? These characters are not really relevant and take something away from Danny Glover's character and his partner who soon dies and must be avenged. On a more interesting level is Gary Busey(!) who plays a guy keeping Glover in the dark about the goings-on. Turns out he has an elite team who've been aware of the Predator and are trying to track and trap him to gain access to his superior technology. This serves to show that the government took action after the events of the first film. I liked that. I also really enjoyed the dynamic between Busey and Glover. It seems like the guy knows more than he's letting on because he does! That's the sort of thing the first movie needed. Carl Weathers should have had information about the Predator, not some other random nonsense about a CIA coup. This will likely be the last praise I give this film.

I liked that the Predator's make-up is slightly different in this movie. It's a bit more sophisticated, and it makes clear that not all aliens look exactly alike. It lends an authenticity to their world. But after the 2nd act's boring street cop drama/serial killer slasher film, the movie had no idea where to go. Thus begins a third act which leaves all logic behind. Ultimately, it's Danny Glover versus the Predator in scenes and situations that grow increasingly ridiculous. At various times in this movie I started wondering if anyone even LIVED in this L.A. So much noisy action goes on in the streets below and on the rooftops above and no one else in the entire city reacts. The Predator comes crashing through an apartment wall right into some old lady's bathroom and nobody does anything at all! He's been wounded, you see, so he's mixing up some stuff to clot his wounds, screaming all the while. But it takes like ten minutes of this before the woman stumbles down the hall to say "I think somebody's in the bathroom." Really lady? What tipped you off, the deafening crash of brick and mortar imploding? So then the Predator busts down the door and takes off through her apartment with Danny Glover in hot pursuit. And there's barely a reaction. And nobody else in the building does anything or even opens a door. I guess when you've got constant gang warfare, you learn to sleep soundly.

Somehow the fight leads to the basement of a building, but I don't remember if its the apartment building or the slaughterhouse the Predator was hiding at. Anyway, then there's a hole that Danny Glover falls into which leads to... the interior of the Predator's ship. That's right, this whole time there's been a spaceship under the streets of L.A. And not that far down, considering the tracks it makes when it takes off at the end. The fights in this movie are annoying. The first movie had some really interesting interply between high-tech and low-tech combat. In this movie, it seems you can only take down a Predator with his own weapons. So Danny Glover takes the Predator's razor frisbee thing and continually attacks him with it until finally winning. It just doesn't seem as big a victory to me. Once he's won, a bunch more Predators decloak inside the ship and surround him. Now that's the ultimate joke on the character! But is anything made of this situation? No. They let the guy go. WHAT?? They take the body of their comrade into the recesses of the ship (whether he still lives we don't know). Then they apparently just respect Danny Glover as a fellow hunter and let him go. Now that's just dumb, but how else were we going to get a "happy ending"? But that's not the worst of it: this old Predator hands Glover a trophy from his belt for him to keep; it's an old pistol from 1715. Get it? The Predators have been here for hundreds of years! I'm sorry, that is just so lame. It already strained credibility for me that they'd return to that jungle over and over, but now they've been around and attacking Europeans for hundreds of years. And nobody knew anything about it? And if this Predator in this movie really was a rogue, why is there a ship full of them here landed in the city?? How long has it been here that no one has ever seen it?? It's not even cloaked! At least Captain Kirk had an invisible ship when he was tooling around San Francisco! Any idiot who strolls into the subway can see their giant spacecraft (though I guess those guys probably don't live to tell the tale). I don't understand what they were there for.

Oh, and remember that bit about the ship taking off at the end? Yeah, the Predators leave Earth. Why? What were they doing there in the first place? What suddenly made them leave? And the ship leaves very clear evidence of having been there. Yet again, nobody reacts to it's presence in any way. The ending is just so shockingly bad.

I wanted to like this movie, and for about 40 minutes I did. I liked the X-Files-type nature of it. But it ignored what made X-Files work. So many of those cases took place in suburban or small town areas where you could believe that something paranormal could go on under people's noses. I do not buy that these events could take place in such an urban setting for so long and nobody would have noticed. It just plays us for fools. But then, the movie really didn't know what to do with its setting. Rather than being like the X-Files series, it devolved into something similar to the X-Files movie with a climax in a spacecraft that takes off at the end leaving all kinds of logic behind on the way. Also, the filmmakers seemed to go out of their way to get an R-rating, as if they weren't going to already. I already mentioned some of the lingering gore of the skull polishing. There's also what feels like a lot more cursing (like every other word in some cases), and a sex scene thrown in why? Just to have a naked girl running around for awhile? Oh, and Morton Downey Jr.'s in this movie. He plays a sleazy TV journalist trying to get a scoop on what the investigation's REALLY about. But as bad as that is, it goes nowhere. He disappears halfway through the movie and never recurs. So what was the point of his being there?

I'm really conflicted about this movie. On one hand, it managed to correct things that really bothered me about the first one. And yet, even though by the end we've seen a spacecraft, we are no closer to understanding who these beings are or what makes them tick. The world created became laughable as it got more and more unrealistic. It's a shame, but the movie really ends up being terribly unfocused, caring more about killing humanity than fighting with or for it.

As a bonus, the wall of trophies in the Predator ship includes a lot of interesting creature skulls... including one of the alien xenomorphs from Alien. Though they mostly cut around it, the head is visible, both as an in-joke to some fans of the comic, and as precursor of the eventual things to come.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Predator: "Get to the choppa!"

I've recently decided to watch all the Alien and Predator movies. I've seen the 4 Alien movies, but not the AVP films or the Predator movies, so this seemed like the time to finally do that. I've also not seen some of the other longer cuts. As I watch each, I will post about it. Here's my take on Predator.

Predator is very much a product of the '80s action movie machine. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, some big guns, and drop them all into a jungle with a killer alien and you have what could be a pretty formulaic movie. At times, it does feel formulaic. The movie's basic structure mirrors both Alien and Aliens. And yet, there are elements that make it worthwhile.

It was difficult watching a movie like this twenty-three years after its original release because I now already had a sense of what the movie was about; an invisible alien killer and some army guys. But even knowing that much, I found the film mostly engaging.

The weakest part of the movie for me is the initial set-up. Arnold plays Dutch, an elite search-and-rescue military man who is called in by his old friend Dillon (Carl Weathers) to help rescue a cabinet minister from some guerilla rebels in a Latin American jungle. Why is it that the lead is always "the best of the best" in these kinds of stories? So they take a team into the jungle by helicopter and attack the rebel compound. It is later revealed that there was no cabinet minister (the man was actually CIA) and the story was a ruse to get Dutch to help them destroy the compound. I have to say, this is my least favorite part of the movie. The deception and set-up are confusing at times, and the action scenes with the camp under siege are standard fare out of a Rambo movie. I was bored by them. Particularly, because at this point in the film we've already been teased with evidence of the Predator. This side story feels less like an excuse to get the men stuck in a jungle, and more like a total deviation. It pits Dutch against Dillon, but for no real reason. At least in Alien and Aliens when there was a secret coverup it was ABOUT the alien! Here none of the military men know about the Predator.

The sequence in the helicopter where we get to meet the members of the team is pretty good, if standard for this sort of story. I like the dorky guy who keeps trying to tell dirty jokes and failing. The scene is scored with Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally", which I liked initially. But as the chopper ride went on, it got annoying. The song is only a couple minutes long, so to drag it out the editors kept repeating certain chunks of it, so after hearing the same few verses over and over, I was ready for it to stop. The song does lead to another small but good moment when a character goes to his doom later in the film singing it.

Our first evidence of the Predator in the jungle is the discovery of the hanging skinned corpses of some of Dillon's men. The effects there are very good, presumably from Stan Winston's makeup team. You believe these really are skinned bodies, and yet the movie doesn't grotesquely linger on them. There is gore in this film, sometimes in your face, but in a way is still tasteful, at least compared to some of today's films. My favorite moment is when Dillon is shot by the Predator and it blows his arm off while he's shooting. The severed arm on the ground keeps shooting due to the nervous contractions still in the hand. I thought that was a good realistic moment.

Let's talk about the Predator himself. The story is basically that he is an alien life form who comes to this jungle hunting humans for sport and taking trophies. What trophies? Well, he rips their spines and skulls out of them! The basic culture of the Predator from what we can gather was completely ripped off by Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager's Hirogen species are really just Predator-lite. They even have face masks similar to the ones in this film. We are told by Anna, a local girl rescued from the rebel compound, that during the "hot season" the Predator comes to the jungle. He is known in her village as a demon. The most interesting feature of him as a character is that he is invisible.

I loved the slow reveal of the Predator throughout the film. First, we only see the evidence left behind. Then, we see things from his point of view, which is a kind of thermal vision. When he finally attacks the heroes, he is invisible. Now, they could have just written the movie about an entirely invisible enemy, but they didn't. His suit has a kind of camouflage ability that can be seen when he attacks. So it looks like the jungle "comes to life" in a way. I thought the camouflage effect was very strong and well handled, especially for the late 1980s. The look really holds up still. Midway through the movie the Predator is wounded, leaving fluorescent blood behind. Later, he turns off his camouflage, revealing the full look of the creature. And then just when you think that's all, in his final fight with Arnold he removes a mask to reveal his alien face, with strange toothed mouth. The design of this make-up is really fantastic. One can question the logic of the Predator removing his mask, but it's a great look. The different flaps and features of the mouth move very convincingly when the creature laughs and speaks.

The story is pretty standard beyond these elements. The creature begins attacking and picking off men one by one for no other motivation than that "he's a hunter". There are some interesting themes here on display about the nature of man as hunter when he becomes the hunted. They try to trap the creature, but he escapes them. Finally, Arnold tells the survivors to "get to the choppa!" which has been called to rescue them, and fights the beast mano a mano. The other interesting dynamic is the contrast between primitive and modern technology. The Predator attacks those who are armed. He has fancy camouflage and a kind of plasma cannon mounted on his shoulder. It's only through low-tech guerilla tactics that Arnold is able to successfully fight him. He covers himself in mud to shield himself from the Predator's heat vision. He puts together traps and spears, shedding his guns and knives. When he finally captures the alien, it mocks him and activates a kind of self-destruct that Dutch narrowly escapes.

The jungle stuff was all shot on location and looks really good. I enjoyed that most of the film played out in broad daylight. This was a stark contrast to the dark claustrophobia of Alien, even though the story was similar. The sounds of jungle creatures added an ominous atmosphere, and I found the score to be passable in most places. I liked some of the tribal drum elements to the score that accompanied the Predator. In some ways, the movie reminded me of Jurassic Park, especially the elements of the humans becoming the hunted.

And yet part of the problem for me about the movie is there's no real sense of context. This alien just is here and is hunting because it does. The movie opens with a shot of an alien vessel in space, so we know that the creature is extra-terrestrial. I feel like in a way this may have been a major mistake. I might have been less bored in the first half of the movie if there were no indication of something being in the jungle. Why not let that slowly be revealed? The technology of the thing clearly indicates it as alien; we don't need to see a ship. In fact, the very presence of the ship leads to more questions. If this Predator has been in the jungle before, is he always here? Or does he just attack when it's hot? Is this the same Predator, or do they come and go? I wonder if maybe certain Predators are sent to earth periodically for training, then picked up later? This one didn't seem to have immediate access to a ship. Are they beamed down, or are do they take shuttles? If the latter, why has no evidence of an alien craft been found? At film's end, is the ship still in orbit or has it gone? Because I would think the Predator could have just beamed up instead of nuking himself. But then maybe he was just hoping to take out his prey and not run off as a coward. More than anything else, I think the opening ship shot was a mistake. Without it, we wouldn't get a sense of what the movie was really about until after the attack on the rebels. As the film stands now, we tolerate that sequence going "when are we going to get back to the real point of the movie?"

I also want to point out that I just think profanity sounds really funny coming out of Arnold's mouth. It's not convincing in any way. That worked in Terminator because he was mimicking others, but here it just isn't natural in any way.

I found Predator to be a better movie than I expected it to be. The cat and mouse game of Dutch vs. the Predator was engaging. Even though cliched elements populate the film, many are handled in a reasonably believable manner. There are certain lingering questions left over (which may be why it so easily spawned sequels), but a pretty good action picture that isn't just a dumb exercise in people shooting things. It doesn't have the depth of the first two Alien films, but it does have something to say buried somewhere in it about the nature of warfare and concept of hunting purely for sport.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

LOST: The New Man in Charge reflections

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the final installment in this first round of reflections on Lost. This post covers the special 12-minute epilogue included on the DVD. If you have not seen it and do not want to be spoiled, then do not read! If you have not seen it and do want to be spoiled, then by all means keep reading.

This little epilogue to the series involves some of the things that Hurley and Ben were doing as the new leaders of the island. It ends up that it answers more questions in 12 minutes than the entire finale did in 2 and a half hours.

It opens with two Dharma guys in a packing facility in Guam. They are preparing another food drop. We learn that the food drops were still going on because the system was automated. The guys in Guam would receive a message over the teletype and they would fulfill it. The messages were being coordinated and sent from the Lamp Post station. This makes sense since it was there that the islands new coordinates were being discovered.

Ben comes in saying that he was sent from management, and tells the guys their services are no longer required. He gives them generous severance packages (read, envelopes full of cash) from "the new man in charge". He says that he was sent because the new man in charge is tying up a few loose ends. He then tells them that there hasn't been a Dharma Initiative in 20 years. The guys are stunned, so he allows them each one question. One guy asks where the food has been going, and Ben says to an island. The location is different each time because the island moves. The second guy notices that they have sent polar bear fish biscuits and wants to know what polar bears are doing on a tropical island. Ben answers this by showing them a DVD. This scene seemed tailor-made for fans. The two guys are meant to represent the audience. Ben's dialogue is said with a wink and a nod to us: "It's all over now, but I'll answer a couple questions for you." It's also fun that Ben provides answers on DVD for the guys, just like this piece has been provided for us on DVD.

The DVD contains the orientation video for the Hydra Station (it was put on DVD from an old Betamax tape). Dr. Change introduces himself as Dr. Chang. He says that "for security reasons" they shouldn't spread this fact around or he'll have to start using an alias. That's about all the answer we get, but it at least finally references the fact that he's been using aliases. We still do not know if the security is to protect him from the Hostiles, from other Dharma members, or from someone else.

We learn that the "Hurley bird" was a genetic experiment in mutating bird species. The birds were bred on Hydra Island and then released.

Chang explains about the polar bears being brought and kept in the cages, and also about the fish biscuit mechanism. He says that when a bear is found to be sufficiently trained (the fish biscuit thing was a sort of test), a bear was to be sent to the main island and to the Orchid Station for further experimentation. These bears were marked with Hydra Station collars. This explains the bear that Charlotte found in Tunisia.

Chang also says to be sure not to send female bears who might be pregnant, as the electromagnetic radiation at the Orchid station is known to disrupt the gestation period. Finally we learn why the Others can't have babies! It's all the fault of the electromagnetism! One wonders if this problem came only after the Dharma Initiative, or at least after the Man in Black dug the wells, or if it was always that way. If it wasn't, why was the Tawaret statue built? We still don't know. I was glad that this fact was at least finally addressed though, since it was a MAJOR plot point of season 3, and then completely ignored.

Chang explains the reasons for Room 23; it was an interrogation room for captured Hostiles. He says that they were using it to learn more about the Hostiles' mysterious "worship of a deity known as Jacob". That explains the "God loves you as he loved Jacob" thing on the screen. The Dharma guys didn't know much about Jacob, they were just trying to mess with the Hostiles' heads. He also says that it triggers a kind of amnesia effect so that they would have no memory of being in the room. That's a problem, since Walt clearly remembered being in the room. Maybe that's just because Walt's special?

Anyway, after this Ben leaves the two guys (one of them says "We need to see that again!"). Ben then goes to Santa Rosa where he wishes to visit "Keith Johnson". As you'd suspect, this person turns out to be Walt. There are a number of questions this raises. Why is Walt in Los Angeles, and why is he in Santa Rosa? Does he think he's crazy? Did he do something "special" again that put him there? He also knows that Michael is dead. How did he find out? Who told him? Or could he just sense it with his magic Walt powers?

Ben tell Walt that "a friend" sent him, and that he should come with Ben back to the island so he can help his father. When Walt protests that his father is dead, Ben says "that doesn't mean you can't help him." This is nice because not only do we actually get a bit of closure for Walt, but we are also given hope for Michael. The way the series ended, he was just a miserable ghost, which was a bummer. Here, we are led to believe that he and Walt will finally reunite, and maybe things will get better. Maybe a trip to the magical light in the other-worldly church is not far off for them.

Ben takes Walt outside and Hurley is waiting for them in the car. Ben apologizes to Walt for kidnapping him all those years ago and what not. Hurley says they will take Walt back to the island. "It's where you belong, dude." and then they all go home to the island.

At first blush, I'm grateful for this piece and wish there had been a way to fit this stuff into the finale. Maybe then we wouldn't have felt as cheated. I'm grateful for some of the answers, even if they were a little glibly given. Fact is, it proves that it's NOT hard to give answers on the show if you have the will to do it. "Why can't the Others have babies??" "The island's radiation kills them." ...oh. Okay, cool. I mean, how hard was that to say? I was really glad to see Walt again. Ben brings up about how Walt is "special". Again, this is never really defined, but at least he's going back to the island where that seems to be useful. Hurley even says that Walt "has a job" there, implying perhaps that Walt will take over protecting the island when Hurley is done. I like too that Walt gets to go back, not just because he has no one back home, but because way back in season one he burned the raft because he didn't want to leave. I'm glad Ben regrets the kidnapping, even though we still don't find out what the purpose for it was.

I started wondering too about Ben being second in command and all. In the finale, he blamed Jacob for the fact people couldn't leave the island and whatnot. But he was just as responsible! Maybe not for the magical bubble that kept you from leaving, but he didn't let Juliet leave for example. It's funny now he's sort of in exactly the same position he was before, but now he's a different sort of guy. Maybe it's different for him to be able to see his superior and know that he is not in charge. While we know Hurley and Ben can leave the island, and Ben goes back to the island, and the "loose ends" are being tied up. Maybe they were limited for time, but I was really hoping to get a little more of a sense of what Ben and Hurley were doing ON island. I suppose they were watching after the remaining Others. And I was very bummed not to learn about the fate of Zach and Emma. This seemed the perfect opportunity to put a little bow on that story. Like, they could have dropped them off with their mom on the way to see Walt. I still hope that Hurley brought them home and they aren't just stuck on the island forever. As much as I really wanted that to be answered, I'm grateful for the answers we did get. I'm so glad that at LEAST Walt's story was given a little conclusion, even if we don't learn much more of the whys. At this point, just to know he wasn't totally neglected is something.

After Battlestar Galactica ended, a movie came out called "The Plan" purporting to give answers to questions from the show. I found it disjointed and most of the "answers" were either nonsense or things I'd already figured out. "The New Man in Charge" serves a similar function. It is far shorter, which in some ways is a shame, but it gives far more useful answers. It does make me feel better about the end of the series than before. While I would have liked a few answers to the things still hanging out there (who broadcast the numbers??), this bit was a welcome addition to Lost canon. Not quite an episode, but far more than one of the webisodes, it's a cryptic but concrete expression of what Lost was and could be, boiled down to a few minutes for the fans. I appreciated it.