Mission: Impossible III

Mission Impossible 3Now that JJ Abrams is knee-deep in the production of Star Wars Episode VII, I thought it would be a nice time to step back and look at some of the films he has directed in order to get a better sense of what he might bring to the table with his take on George Lucas’ beloved franchise.  After cutting his teeth in a several episodes of Felicity and Alias, he brought his signature style of kinetic hyper-realism to the pilot episode of Lost, which is still one of the most harrowing two hours of television I can recall seeing.  With the third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise on the verge of being lost forever in development hell, producer and star Tom Cruise called Abrams in to save the day and get the film back on track.  And what a track it turned out to be.

Abrams essentially approaches the movie from the standpoint of a 13-year-old boy who wants to see big-screen heroes pull off big-time action.  With rarely a dull moment in its two-hour runtime, the movie focuses on a now-retired Ethan Hunt (Cruise) who is eager to leave the life of a super-spy behind and focus on new pursuits.  Chief among his new responsibilities is his soon-to-be wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who hasn’t the first clue that her hunky, ripped-to-shreds fiancee is not, in fact, a lowly transportation data analyst.  How the women in these movies are so utterly clueless is beyond me, and in many ways the rest of the film could basically pass for a True Lies sequel.  Or reboot.  Either one works.

Believe it or not, Hunt soon manages to find himself knee-deep in the throes of his former life after his former trainee Lindsey (Keri Russel, taking a cue from Samuel Jackson in Deep Blue Sea by unexpectedly recusing herself from most of the movie) is abducted by a really bad guy named Owen Davian who wants to do really bad things.  To the whole world.  For some reason.  But few people can pull off a barely unhinged psychopath better than Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his turn as the villain almost steals the show from Cruise and company.

Group Photo Time!What ensues is a breathless globetrotting adventure involving all the typical Mission: Impossible tropes we have all come to know and love: car chases, double-crosses, clever masks, insane stunts, nail-biting infiltrations, and wisecracking computer nerd sidekicks.  Abrams runs the gamut here, from the ol’ “loop the security camera footage” trick to having Tom Cruise himself jump off skyscrapers for kicks, all while keeping the action flowing at a brisk pace that walks a fine line between engaging and overpowering.  And that’s the memo that John Woo somehow missed when he made Mission: Impossible II.  People don’t show up to these movies for long, slow buildups and mano-a-mano slow-motion standoffs.  They just want a hero to accomplish amazing things in the face of (wait for it…) impossible odds.  Abrams knows this, and keeps the action building from one setpiece to the next while also crafting believable, if somewhat thin, relationships between all parties involved.  The final showdown between Hunt and Davian is a bit anticlimactic, but the movie as a whole is a thoroughly engaging action romp with just enough lens flares so as to not leave the audience blinded.

Rating:[rating:4/5]

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Lost: Season 2

Lost: Season 2After the whirlwind ride of Season 1, the second season of the hugely popular ABC drama/sci fi series goes a long way in answering many questions from the first outing, while raising entirely new ones that hint at a much larger plot and much deeper rabbit hole than ever seemed possible.  (Spoiler Alert: Having only seen through the first two seasons, I can’t give anything away about the rest of the show. But be forewarned–if you have not watched the show through the end of Season 2, you might be hit with some information you might not want.)

As any high school English student knows, the first part of any story is the exposition:  the introduction of characters, conflicts, setting, and plot.  And while the first season of Lost was engaging and entertaining in its own right, all the events set up in those original 25 episodes were really just about laying the groundwork for the rest of the show.  Season two expands on much of the original framework while giving fans all sorts of new twists and turns to speculate about around water coolers nationwide.  The survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 begin to segregate into a few distinct groups, each discovering clues that served to unravel many strands of the larger mystery of the island.  In what at first seems like an unnecessary subplot, Michael, Sawyer, and Jin find themselves washed ashore with the survivors from the tail section of the plane.  But as the show’s tagline says, everything happens for a reason, and it’s not long before we realize how interconnected these people are with the rest of the survivors.  Meanwhile Jack and Locke, while spending much of their time in the hatch, spend a good deal of time figuring out their own answers while also dealing with a man Rousseau caught in one of her traps who may or may not be one of the Others.  Topside most of the regulars from Season 1 are back to form new relationships, embark on journeys to different parts of the island, and search for answers to some of the long-burning questions about the island.

Lost: Season 2, Jack and Mr. Eko

Jack and Mr. Eko, looking for answers and a clean pair of shorts.

It’s a fantastic testament to the brilliance of the writers that various events which seemed trivial and innocuous throughout the first season turn out to be of the utmost importance during the second season.  Rather than throw distracting red herrings at the audience, there is hardly a single character, event, or object that is not steeped in meaning.  Perhaps more than any other serial drama I have ever seen, Lost treats its audience and subject matter with the utmost respect and care, rarely resorting to cheap tricks such as killing off characters to solve a case of writer’s block or inventing contrivances to link current events to past plot points.  There are much deeper themes at work here too, and every person on the island must deal with skeletons in his or her closet, confront personal demons such as drug addictions or marital conflicts, or rise to challenges of leadership and personal sacrifice.  For instance Locke, who used to operate on blind faith alone, begins to question everything he once knew while virtually trading places with newcomer Mr. Eko, a priest who is sure of what he hopes for and certain of what he cannot see.  It’s this multidimensional characterization, along with a seamless blending of science fiction, religion, and traditional drama that separates Lost from other dramas, and these ideas continue throughout Season 2 in masterful form.

Lost: Season 2, Ana Lucia

Michelle Rodriguez stretches her acting ability by playing a tough-as-nails ex-cop with an attitude.

There are a couple of low points of the season, though–particularly some strange choices made by Sawyer and Charlie in “The Long Con” that seem uncharacteristic and are never met with much follow-through.  A few episodes seem like outtakes from Days of our Lives, and the he-said-she-said dramatic tension that surfaces a few times feels forced and out of place.  The pacing is a bit slower this time as well, since much of the action takes place on the beachfront camp or inside the hatch, and the exploration is more of a personal than environmental nature.  I am also a tad disappointed that Shannon and Boone were jettisoned so early on, to be halfheartedly replaced with the altogether uninteresting Rose and Bernard.  But nitpicking these missteps is like dismissing the grandeur of Yellowstone National Park because of the mosquitoes.  The hallmark of Lost is the way each answered question (Where did the other plane come from? Who is Rousseau? What’s the deal with Henry?) leads to a host of new questions, and while the character drama isn’t as interesting this time around, partly because the backstories of many of the survivors have already been explored, the new questions raised are as compelling as ever.

By the end of Season 2, which takes place over roughly three weeks on the island, the survivors aren’t in much better shape than they were at the end of Season 1.  They are still stuck on the island, still scared of The Others, and Jin still can’t speak a lick of English.  But they have far more food thanks to the hatch, and their attitude has shifted from trying to find a way off the island to finding a way to dig in for the long haul.  And in a sense, so are we.  At this point it’s clear there are far greater forces at work, with stakes that are infinitely higher, than what we knew when the show began.  I’m not frantically wondering what will happen next like I was during the middle of the first season, though Season 2 does have its share of nail-biters to be sure, but I am simply awed at the spectacle that is beginning to unfold and eagerly awaiting the next season to see another chapter in how it will all play out.

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Lost: Season 1

Lost Season 1Lost is first and foremost a show of mystery.  More than any other show I can recall seeing, it sets up fantastic yet somehow not entirely far-fetched scenarios with a host of compelling and more or less interesting characters.  The basic premise is one we have seen played out many times before:  a group of individuals, separated from the rest of the world, must work together to survive.  But while Lost owes incalculable debts to sources from Lord of the Flies to Gilligan’s Island, it presents an absolutely gripping storyline shrouded in mystery while dropping enough breadcrumbs to keep viewers riveted, eager to know just what is going to happen next and trying their best to make sense of everything.  And just so I’m covered…this review may contain possible Season 1 spoilers.  :)

Platitudes aside, and without revealing too much (though as of the writing of this review I have only seen the first season and a handful of episodes from Season 2), Lost does a good job of sticking first and foremost to the basics of storytelling:  presenting conflicts that the characters must overcome.  In the very first episode we witness the immediate aftermath of a horrific plane crash on a tropical island:  amidst mass confusion, exploding engines, and corpses littering the scarred shoreline, several individuals begin bringing order to the chaos and establishing a sense of control and uneasy sort of self-governing democracy among the crash survivors.  There’s the chiseled young doctor named Jack (where is the rule that says TV heroes need monosyllabic names that sound like garage tools?) who becomes the de facto leader, a young pregnant woman named Claire, a young druggie named Charlie, a young (see a pattern here? I guess they gotta appeal to the TV-watching demographic somehow) easygoing dude named Hurley, and several others like the cocky Sawyer, the standoffish Kate, and the mysterious John Locke. From the very first episode, viewers are left with myriad questions:  Who are all these people? Why did their plane crash? Why does it seem like there are monsters on the island?  Will they ever be rescued?

Lost Sawyer

Sawyer, the con-man who looks like he belongs on Days of our Lives.

The genius of the show lies in how it cleverly answers questions while raising intriguing new ones, and throwing just enough breadcrumbs at the viewers to satisfy our curiosity while enticing us to keep watching.  And though the group of individuals hovers around 40, there is a core set of characters central to most episodes whom we get to know very well over time.  They struggle to overcome mundane obstacles such as building shelter, finding food, and working together to provide medical care for wounded individuals or building rafts in order to sail away and seek help, but rarely do the survivors form a cohesive group.  Some do not trust others, and some are simply not trustworthy.  Others keep secrets, form relationships, and even set out on their own to seek help or simply answers to questions about what is happening on the island.  Each episode also contains several flashbacks that reveal backstories of various characters and give us an idea of who these people are, or at least who they were before the plane crash.  Often it’s the threads woven by these vignettes throughout each episode that are the most compelling part of the show, as we discover that, like the island, each of the plane crash survivors are far more than what they appear on the surface.

Lost Kate

Just like an Autobot, there's more to Kate than meets the eye.

Through it all there is a sense, woefully missing from other episodic shows like Heroes, that there really is a plan to everything that’s going on.  From the perplexing smoke monster, to “The Others,” a group of people who may or may not be sharing the island with the survivors, to the miraculous healing of Locke, to the mysterious hatch, there seems to be a design for how everything fits together–even if it will be several years down the line.  Whether or not that is in fact the case remains to be seen, but like 24, Lost is a show that demands the viewers watch every episode lest they miss a crucial plot point.  But unlike 24, Lost doesn’t jerk its viewers around:  characters are not killed off at will whenever the writers need to add a jolt of excitement into the show.

Lost is as impressive as it is ambitious, and I am eager to see how things play out for the rest of the show.  But sometimes I wish these people were just a little more normal and relatable.  Seriously, on a plane heading from Sydney to Los Angeles, wouldn’t there be just one regular guy with a 9-5 job and no secrets or skeletons in his closet?  I can understand a bit of dramatic tension and whatnot to keep viewers interested, but everyone in the show has so many secrets, often with backstories of life back in the real world that tend to push the limits of believability, that it gets kind of silly sometimes.  It is a TV show, though, and I guess outlandish characters can be part of the fun.  After all, the entire premise of Lost is pretty outrageous, so what’s wrong with a few exaggerated characters?  In fact, the worst complaint that could honestly be leveled against the show at this point is that Season 1 is so good I’m worried the creators simply won’t be able to top it.  But I’m sure anxious to see if they will try…

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