Friday, July 03, 2015

Links to all my work at Hidden Remote

Since May, I have been writing for Hidden Remote as a TV reviewer.

I have not been able to blog here as much but I will use this space to highlight the work I've been doing there.

First off, here is my author page.

I started out with an essay on breakout stars from the Spring of 2015 that follows off my annual Top 25 Characters posts. I included probable Emmy nominee Ben Mendelsohn from Bloodline, breakout scenery chewers Constance Wu and Taraji P Henson of Fresh off the Boat and Empire respectively, Anna Faris of Mom, Carol Kane of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Charlie Cox of Daredevil, Emily Hampshire of Schitt's Creek and Charlie Day of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Will Forte for Last Man on Earth and recurring star Adam Devine for Modern Family.

I then did a critical reassessment of the 2003 Daredevil in light of the successful Netflix series. 

From there I reviewed 2 Broke Girls in the last two episodes of the season and had a lot of fun reviewing a show I feel has some redeeming qualities but is ultimately very crude and sloppy. In the second review, I had a lot of fun dissecting some of the bad jokes line-for-line.

After that, I looked at some of the Guest Stars You Didn't Know Were On It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

I also did a Season 1 review of Sense8 which I found a highly ambitious and unconventional superhero show that had a very impressive commitment to being a global show.

Currently, I am reviewing the first season of The Brink on HBO and the second season of Halt and Catch Fire on AMC. The Brink is a show that I have fallen in love with after five episodes but it's been particularly jarring to see other critics in disagreement with me. One of the most exciting things about reviewing TV is that you form opinions in a vacuum and I had no idea that other critics wouldn't respond the same way as I did when I reviewed the show. Halt and Catch Fire is a show I pretty much gave up on first season but because of the convenience of the premiere date (and a connection to one of the show's executive producers), I decided to give it a second try and while the show isn't among my favorites this year, it has markedly improved.



Sunday, June 14, 2015

Episodic Highlights from 2015

Cory Barker's blog TVSurveillance.com has a year-end roundtable where they ask panelists to name their favorite episodes. While I love the critical format of looking at a TV series on an episodic basis, it wasn't until I participated in Cory's roundtable last year that I ever thought of defining a year of TV by its best episodes. Although I don't plan to amass some big or definitive episodes of the year list, it seems worthwhile to put some thought into episodes that resonated with me as we near the midpoint of the year:

While I eventually got bored of the show and hobbled to the finish line of the show's first season, there's a lot to be said for how strong 12 Monkeys came out of the gate.  The show's first three episodes built up high stakes and set up the ground work for loopy sci-fi scenarios with promising speed and efficiency. The series' two main characters were also strongly established from the start and their chemistry intrigued me enough that I was still invested after the way-too-soon death of Leland Goines in the pilot episode.

Though Modern Family is seen by many as a show that has gone stagnant, I continue to consistently enjoy it and maintain my faith that the writers are able to bring it when the occasion calls. "Connection Lost," in which the entire story is told from a half-hour screenshot of Claire's laptop, is the kind of ambitious episode premise that's dynamite if executed well. Some might call the idea of using various apps to tell a narrative might ring to some of shameless product placement, but it's unquestionably innovative and has a high degree of difficulty. This episode reminds me of those art class assignments involving found art.

Fresh off the Boat's 5th episode, "Persistent Romeo". was one of those episodes with a comic hook-- the boys mistake one of those sexual harassment videos they show during orientation as a how-to guide for picking up women -- that was executed perfectly just as the series was finding its groove. The show harkens back to 90's sitcoms in both a meta way and as a stylistic preference. The innocent idea of a kid badly wanting to fit in with his friends and the suspense around whether he'll be able to pull it off with a halfway decent sleepover was also an idea executed well here. My review at TV Fanatic is here.



I've always been weary of praising bottle episodes. Are we celebrating your lack of a locations budget or your homage to some era in TV history few people care about when locations budgets were a big deal? Of course, that was before I saw Archer's bottle episode "Vision Quest" which plays off the character beats so masterfully and establishes new gags (Cheryl's claustrophobia, Cyril's masturbation habit, the uselessness of 911) that escalate enormously over the course of a half hour. My review at TV Fanatic is here. I also gave high marks to the episode "Pocket Listing" for dealing with the sexual chemistry between Lana and Archer so well, for letting Cheryl unleash her crazy, and for giving everyone someone to do in a grandiose comedy of errors.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had another season that blew its competition out of the water. "The Gang Spies Like US" demonstrated the show's ability to mine tremendous comic depth out of a single comic misunderstanding with Dee causing such unparalleled destruction that it reminded me of some of the more well-executed set pieces in the Pink Panther series. "Charlie Work" was another one of those episodes that pushed the boundaries of a comedy and had the kind of innovative camera work that just won a film a Best Picture Oscar.

The inclusion to this list of Wayward Pines' second episode, "Do Not Discuss Your Life Before", is a testament to the potential it squandered by tipping its hand too early. The show is a mystery with an all-star cast and a solid premise, reminiscent of the best Twilight Zone episodes, about a sheriff trapped in a town where people have a habit of getting lost and staying in place for years. The show started out with promise and the second episode really heightened the tension by teasing out answers that seemed attainable but out of reach. The relationship between Juliette Lewis's Beverly and Matt Dillon's Ethan was also starting to give the protagonist a much needed sounding board. Unfortunately, the episode's end solved what I considered the most intriguing mystery (whether the town was in cahootz) and ended the storyline of the much-needed confidante. As a season finale it worked wonders, but the problem was it was the second episode.

I'm a fan of Silicon Valley but I'm generally enjoying it for the strong character work and sense of place and would disagree with an assessment that the site is consistently a laugh-out-loud comedy. The show's humor is generally long-form which can occasionally yield a home run like last year's season finale (which I cited on last year's list of favorite episodes). This year's "Homicide" was another such episode with a hilarious plot (Richard dealing with a client who secretly hates Ehrlich) and an even more hilarious side trip for Dinesh and Gilfoyle (although it's always a given those two will have the funnier plot) enhanced by another visual gag for the ages. On top of that, it was also a meaningful development moment for Richard as he first shows some backbone here. 

Inside Amy Schumer's "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer" is an incredibly ambitious long-form sketch that pays off in droves. The key to the humor is the extreme attention to detail combined with the way accomplished actors Paul Giamatti and John Hawkes tackle the inanity of the subject with utmost seriousness.


My favorite episode of the year, to date, would be "The Gang Beats Boggs" from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  The show's black comedy elements-Frank practically murders a kid, airplane security is jeopardized- were next level uproarious, the confined space of the airplane lent to a great comic intensity, and the running gag (of keeping score) held up throughout. This was the gang at their unruliest and the show at its most hilarious.







Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

This is part of a series I worked on at one point combining my geography major with my film writing. 

The Quintessential Minnesota Film: The Mighty Ducks

The films of Joel and Ethan Coen have a strong sense of place as evidenced by their portrayals of Mississippi (my last entry, O Brother Where Art Thou), Hollywood (Intolerable Cruelty), a quasi-modern day Louisiana (Ladykillers), Texas (No Country for Old Men) and Washington DC (Burn After Reading). They are perhaps best known for their portrayal of their home state of Minnesota in 1996's Fargo.


I spent a summer studying in Minneapolis and visited my sister multiple times around the year when she lived in St Louis Park for 6 years. This is the same Minneapolis suburb that the Coen brothers are from and the shooting location of A Serious Man. Bonus points for A Serious Man for mentioning Red Owl store.

In Fargo, I appreciate the spot-on accents and the portrayal of the bitter cold of Winter. It truly is a kind of cold that demoralizes the population. You get the sense that these people are committing murders because they have nothing better to do but I feel like the portrayal of Minnesota as a bleak and dull winter land is inaccurate.

Courtesy: Sheryl Wallace
Minnesotans are among the healthiest, happiest and most civically active people (they actually rank #1 in voter turnout) in the nation. They also have great state pride.

In light of these virtues, what could better representative Minnesota than a sports film about Minnesota's most beloved sport? The protagonist, Emilio Estevez's Gordon Bombay, is a disgraced ex-hockey player ordered by the court (see the civic pride tie-in) to coach a youth hockey team.

This is a state in which nearly every Minneapolis suburb (that I saw) has its own community center with a hockey rink. It's also worth noting that in the land of 10,000 lakes, ice skating isn't just done in the ice skating rinks but on frozen lakes as well. Minneapolis has hosted the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships annually since 2007.

It's also a film which features St. Paul's famous ice carnival in the background.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Favorite Songs for their Lyrics Part VI

This is another edition of "Favorite Songs for their Lyrics" where I pick a number of songs whose lyrics resonate with me and whittle away at them to my heart's content.  I focus only on the song's lyrics because I feel like quantitatively judging music along some scale of good to bad is mostly pointless. Music just hits us certain ways. Also, worth noting: My musical tastes are embarrassingly mainstream and I've never been particularly adventurous at seeking out things other than what's on the radio, but isn't that more fun for everyone since you'll know the songs I'm writing about?

Bottle it Up, Sara Bairelles - I once heard Bairelles say on Chelsea Handler's show that she's in a healthy and stable relationship so she just channels her sister's problems for her love songs.  Perhaps that's why her two most famous tracks from her first album seem like love songs on the surface but are really expressions of frustration about the pervasiveness of the love song genre. Both this and "Love Song" are extremely direct manifestations of her feelings. "I know it's just your soul but could you bottle it up" could be a direct plea to Sara's sister to use her as a muse because "girls across the nation will eat this up." Yet as the song moves along and the word "love" is repeated over and over and pigeonholed into various sentences,  there seems to be a sense of the singer getting lost in the emotion herself. Even the ability to view "love" with ironic detachment doesn't prevent one from being overtaken with the emotion.

Ain't it Fun, Paramore - The song's first line shows the narrator stating with a hint of casual apathy: "I don't mind letting you down easy" which could mean she's personally rejecting the subject or that she has no problem softening the news that the adult world is going to be tough on the subject.  Or maybe being romantically rejected by the narrator is the subject's "welcome to adulthood" moment? The next line turns contradictory as she advises the subject to "give it time" so that he or she can truly experience the pain ("If it don't hurt now, just wait a while"). But then you realize that the pain of being taken down a notch is part of the process of growing up. Ain't that fun?

Annie Waits, Ben Folds-Folds is one of the few consistently interesting lyricists because he uses the medium to tell stories and he realizes that the best stories aren't necessarily about himself. On its surface,  "Annie Waits" is another of Ben's folksy yarns and the catchy piano riff is misleading as well. A girl named Annie is being stood up by a friend but this slightly unfortunate afternoon is indicative of a larger pattern of disappointment and loneliness. The song juxtaposes the ticking of Annie's biological clock ("She's getting old") with the fact that it's getting late on this particular afternoon. The tragic undertones are evident in everything from Annie's worst-case-scenario daydreams ("Friday bingo, pigeons in the park) to the way the headlights cast shadows that "pass her by and out of sight." A second layer of the song is that whether she's really lonely or not is based on the pount of view of the narrator who happens to want her and therefore thinks that it is the end of the world for Annie that she's being stood up. The twist is that maybe the narrator's the lonely one.

Blank Space, Taylor Swift-If you've been living in a nuclear facility underneath a cave on the moon for the past five years, let me catch you up: Taylor Swift is an extremely popular singer-songwriter who’s known for writing her own songs, being a serial dater, and using her break-ups with famous people as fuel for her songs. Although most singer-songwriters in the 18-25 range write about break-ups a lot (in addition to those under 18 and over 25), Swift gets a disproportional amount of flak for wearing her feelings on her sleeve but that’s because she’s extremely direct in her songs. At times, her directness can be almost sophomoric as with “Shake it Off” where she basically says nanny-nanny-boo-boo to her haters and makes a song out of it.


Taylor Swift tries to split the difference in a far more fascinating way with “Blank Space” in which she realistically explores what a relationship with “Taylor Swift: tabloid fixture” would be like. Like “Shake it Off,” Swift insists on being foolish with her romantic decisions using the “we’re young and we’re wreckless” defense. To review: She wants to immediately show the object of her affection “incredible things” right after being introduced to him, she treats love as a game, and she is already referring to her as “his next mistake.” Did we mention she also gets drunk on jealousy? The song’s most interesting line is “I can make the bad guys good for a while” which strikes me as a reversal. I know Taylor’s commenting on her wrong decision, but isn’t getting someone involved in wreckless behavior (AKA romance) turning someone bad?



Adia, Sarah McLachlan- Sarah McLachlan sings to a friend who she let down in what seems to be a major way.  As I listened to it a couple more times,  it became unclear who committed the transgression as evidenced by the hints of uncertainty (Clues here are "Adia, I do believe I've failed you" and the last line of the chorus "Does it matter?"). So instead of singing out an apology,  Sarah pleads with Adia to not lose her innocence. It's possible that innocence could be used in a "not guilty" way but a "not bitter" interpretation is more likely here.

This is interesting if Sarah was the transgressor that she would plead for her victim to not feel pain but that also makes a lot of sense for admittedly selfish reasons.  If you hit someone with a car,  wouldn't you be relieved to know for the sake of your conscience that the other person was OK?  Another possible interpretation is that the narrator let her down by simply not preventing Adia from harm or simply letting her grow older to the point where she'd have to face the dangers of adulthood (hence the reminder that "we are young").

Broadway is Dark Tonight, Goo Goo Dolls- It's a bit of a downer as a song but the song paints such a rich scene. The setting here is an "old man's bar" where a young man is drinking something off his mind.  In the second verse the narrator addresses the subject in second person and says (possibly in the form of a command or a condensed form  of description) "forget your only son" so that might have something to do with it. And then there's the rich description like "You pray to statutes when you sober up for fun" whatever that means. Perhaps, the young man drinking at the old man's bar laments a generational shift as noted by the fact that "The cowboy killed the rockstar." Johnny Rzeznik likely grew up idolizing the quintessential image of a rockstar because that's what he became (also because he looks like someone who could have scored an invite to stand in with the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith), so you can imagine what the murder of the rockstar at the hands of the cowboy means to him. The song has a strong sense of place that I knew it wasn't based on the Broadway district of New York before looking it up to confirm that.
  
Your Armor, Charlotte Martin-Whether you find love or don’t as you get older, we all tend to get jaded towards love songs. Heck, even Adam Levine proclaimed “One more stupid love song and I’ll be sick” even though approximately 100% of his songs are about relationships. But a song like “Your Armor” is wistful and enchanted enough to do the trick. The narrator is fascinated with a special someone who, at first glance, seems to be timid and shy as described by the word “Armor.” She asks him in the chorus “Is your armor thin again? Do I want to wear it down?” By painting him in this way, she admits that his reserved nature is intriguing. I always have been attracted to the reserved librarian type, but I realized listening to this song that being attracted to what you don’t know about a person is pretty universal.
Martin then asks two more questions that rephrase the previous line but these questions are a little bolder: “Am I worthy to come in?” expresses self-doubt and “Do you want to be found?” cuts deeper than asking about the subject’s personality. She wants him to make a voluntary decision to shed it.  Again, this is pretty bold for a narrator who admits that these are “words that she could never say.” She and her subject both run around pretending the sun is all they need and that “chasing you around the room is tempting.” Lastly, the song makes use of a great time metaphor for the passage of time, which is always something I love: “Making deals with minutes that will slip away.”
Learn to Fly, The Foo Fighters-You can’t go wrong introducing the devil and angels in the first verse and playing off each other: “Run and tell all of the angels, this could take all night. Think I need a devil to help me get things right.“ The narrator oscillating between using both the devil and all of the angels for guidance is indicative of this sense of panic he’s feeling that’s prevalent through much of the song.  In the next verse, he wants a new revolution to be cooked up and it’s almost as if he’s having a manic episode or some party drug is starting to kick into his blood stream. The other interesting thing about this song is that the narrator seems clear-headed in terms of knowing what he needs to get him out of this sticky situation (i.e. to fly, all of the angels, for the subject to fly along with him) but he’s also “looking for a complication” before admitting “I’m looking cause I’m tired of trying.” Is the “complication” a sort of hail mary pass because he knows he’s failing? The theme of an airplane here is key here because then the concept of a nose dive  fits the premise perfectly.
Thrift Shop, McElmore and Lewis-There’s not much to say here because the songwriter’s satirical spin on the rap song is pretty clear to anyone who listens to this song and that’s a pretty beautiful thing in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with obvious symbolism. There’s also nothing wrong with being hilarious: “I’m gonna take your grandpa’s style, I’m gonna take your grandpa’s style. No for real, can I have your grandpa’s hand-me-downs?”
Team, Lorde-This is one of those songs where I’m going to have to wrack my brain on each line because Lorde isn’t making it easier on me. If “Royals” is any indication, Lorde’s main shtick seems to be “I’m an outsider, I’m not decked in bling, take me seriously anyway.”  Of course, one has to ask why she feels so insecure about her lack of bling. I don’t ask myself “Is the artist visibly rich enough” when shopping for albums, but maybe preteen girls do?
Perhaps, Lorde feels like an outsider because she’s from New Zealand and, if “Flight of the Conchords” is any indication, Kiwis seem to have that chip on their shoulder.  What’s interesting is Lorde uses “Cities you’ll never see on screen” as the metaphor of choice for her outsider status. New Zealand has three sizeable urban areas but the first thing people think of when they picture New Zealand are pastoral countrysides filled with sheep. Maybe Lorde is working in conjunction with the New Zealand Chamber of Tourism to highlight New Zealand’s great cities (she was born and raised in an urban area), but it’s more likely that she’s reflecting back against the images of the U.S. she’s inundated with (most foreigners are now subjected to more American TV and movies than art produced in their own country). It’s worth noting that Lorde’s portrayal of what she does see on screen is negative. There are “a hundred jewels between teeth” and “between throats” which reflects a sort of excess. In contrast, her boys have “skin like craters of the moon”  but they love that moon like brothers.
Clarity, Zedd-Who is Zedd (other than the evil lord from the Power Rangers) and will we ever hear from her again? I hope so because she certainly has some pretty enlightened views on love and heart break. She sees the subject as "the piece of me I wish I didn't need" which is a pretty smart way to view someone you can't get over: At a certain point, they stop becoming a person and turn into your image of that person. To cement this idea that Zedd is getting over someone, she uses the metaphor of "Frozen Waves" as keeping her in a state of heartbreak, and considers the subject the past (that, for better or worse, is coming back to life). The narrator is woefully lost in these feelings and portrays them well: "It walks deep through our ground and makes us forget all common sense." The real reason that Zedd can't forget the person in question is indicated in the chorus because he brings her moments of clarity. [Editorial update: I have since discovered Zedd is a guy and the singer of the song is female]
Clarity, John Mayer-Since, we're sticking to songs with the name "Clarity." I agree that John Mayer is obnoxious these days, but in his first two albums, he really had a lot to say. I know it sounds corny but in my formative years, “No Such Thing” was my guide for how to approach adulthood, “Bigger than my Body” was an anthem for how to outlive expectations, and “Why Georgia” captured my desire to move during my quarter-life crisis. “Clarity” captures John Mayer in a brief moment of happiness. The narrator is kind of OCD (no surprise there) but he wakes up one morning with a "calm he can't explain." He was surprised that "it somehow lingered on." The interesting line here (placed appropriately in the chorus) is that he resolved to "Wait to find if this will last forever." Um...how do you wait to find if something lasts forever? Will he send a report back to the subject on his deathbed. The pessimistic way to read this is that the narrator is still OCD and can't be comfortable with this new feeling. The more optimistic view is that if you are OCD, waiting to see how long a good feeling lasts is the best one can hope for.


Be sure to click on the tab that says lyrics for past editions of this series.
Other songs I've done include: Green and Gray, Nickel Creek; Collide, Howie Day; Hard Candy, Rain King,  She Don’t Want Nobody Near, Counting Crows; 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than my Body, Why Georgia, John Mayer; For the First Time, Script; Fairytales, Sara Bairelles; End of the Innocence, Don Henley; Hey Soul Sister, Train; Over my Head, You Found Me, Fray; Let’s See How Far We’ve Come, Mad Season, Downfall, All I Need, Black and White People; Matchbox 20; Jack and Dianne, John Cougar Melloncamp; Here is Gone, Better Days, Goo Goo Dolls; Breathe, Anna Nalick; First Cut is the Deepest, Cat Stephens; Grace is Gone, Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, DMB; Time, Hootie and the Blowfish; Gone, Landed, Ben Folds; Stars, Switchfoot; Your Winter, Sister Hazel; South of Nowhere, Gin Blossoms; On Love in Sadness, Jason Mraz; In Too Deep, Sum 41; I’m With You, Avril Lavigne; Barrytown, Dan Steely; Game of Love, Michelle Branch; Testing 123, Barenaked Ladies; Wake Me Up When September Ends, Greenday


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Discussing TV vs. Movies with Adam Spector Part III

This is Part III of a series where my friend Adam  Spector and I debate the merits of movies verses television. Adam keeps a column on film here and leads a film discussion group in DC every month and has a highly impressive knowledge of films. Our discussion began here with my confession that I watch way more TV than films these days because TV has so many built-in advantages. In Part II, we discussed how TV had threatened films before but movies responded with innovation and considered the possibility that movies might not have as much in their bag of tricks.
 
Orrin -- Well, we've certainly had strong powers of persuasion over one another. Your first response made me reconsider strongly whether it was foolish to proclaim films in decline, and now you've changed your tune (I suppose Mark Harris' article also had something to do with it).

First off, I wouldn't entirely say that I'm averse to franchise films. I enjoyed Star Trek into Darkness and X-Men Days of Future Past as well as Iron Man 2 and, hey, I even spent $12.50 watching Horrible Bosses II last week. What all those films have in common is that I saw Part I. It wouldn't make sense to watch Captain America II or Kick Ass II or Wrath of the Titans when I didn't see Part I of those films and there are only so many Part Is I'm willing to see in a given year. In other words, the sequels and movies meant to launch sequels are overloading me at this point. Similarly, something like Guardians of the Galaxy which seems intended solely to have sequels is also a turn-off. My feeling of alienation when I check out what's playing at the movie theater and  see mostly Part IIs and Part IIIs to films I didn't see in the first place. 

I theorize that as long as there's a best picture race (and I wonder if expanding it from 5 to up to 10 pictures was Hollywood's saving grace) studios will care enough to try and get their products into those 5-10 slots. This year there are not just going to be 9-10 pictures but it seems like there's another 7 or 8 knocking on the door of a best picture nomination: Foxcatcher, Boyhood, Birdman, Gone Girl, Whiplash, Grand Budapest Hotel, Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, Unbroken, and Selma might be the ten if it gets filled out to maximum capacity with American Sniper, Wild, Mr Turner, A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, and Nightcrawler all having the potential to play spoiler. All of those films were clearly made with the intent of getting some awards attention and the result allowed art verse commerce to win. That's not even counting ambitious films that came out to mixed reviews like Homesman or Interstellar and films that could result in acting nominations like Still Alice, St Vincent, Snowpiercer, The Judge or Big Eyes.

In all, I just listed 25 films all somehow tied to the Oscar race in some way or another and I'm likely forgetting a few. I think the larger question is how these people are getting films made. It might be that the end of Hollywood as we know it hasn't arrived just yet, but we could be getting to the cusp. I could see someone like Tim Burton staying in the film game as some of his films like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland" have shown he can make money. Obviously Christopher Nolan isn't going anywhere. But what about Alejandro Inarritu, the promising J.C. Chandor (who directed Margin Call and All is Lost)  or Jean-Marc Vallee?

There's likely always good films out there that are falling below the radar as well of the independent variety. I used to hang out in a movie group (circa 2008-2009) that would see films I never even knew existed before I went to see them like Brideshead Revisited, Bottleshock, Towelhead, Gonzo, The Brothers Bloom, and "In the Loop" (this one ended up getting a lot of awards attention later on). Similar examples of recent films in that below the radar category might be "Bernie" "Safety Not Guaranteed" "Robot and Frank" or "No." It's hard to say whether these films were better or worse than (surely a few are) but they generally aren't part of the national conversation on movies and are generally not accessible. In some cases, it's a little less fun to view films that aren't in the national conversation. I couldn't really check my opinion on "Brideshead Revisited" against friends or people on IMDB because so few people had seen or heard of that film. If the film is good, one hopes for several reasons that it's part of the national conversation. There's also a question of whether those below-the-radar films are under threat.

But the bottom line is what would have to happen to affect change? The article suggests that this is simply the result of executives who are no longer interested in art. If I'm not mistaken, the Weinstein Brothers at Miramax were champions of ambition and funded many Oscar-calliber films and passion projects. Would it simply take a couple more executives like the Weinsteins to turn things around?

Adam – I’d like to think that I have not “changed my tune.”  There are very troubling signs about the future of movies but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up or that we can start giving cinema its last rites. 

That said, the numbers are not good.  Box office for 2014 dropped five percent from 2013 and the total number of tickets sold is the lowest since 1993 (http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/the-box-office-winners-losers-of-2014/).   The major theater chains’ panicky retreat with The Interview opened the door wider for simultaneous theater and VOD releases, which the those same theater chains have fought bitterly.    

If Hollywood studios are scared, and they probably should be, then they are even more likely to play conservative and rely heavily on franchise films.  For every one person like yourself, who may not see a Part II because he hasn’t seen Part I, the studios are betting on many more people who have seen Part I feeling compelled to see Parts II, III and IV.

As I noted, I have no problem with franchise films, provided they are made intelligently.  Luckily many of them have been lately.  But one problem with having so many of them is that you lose the element of surprise.  Even if they are made well, to some degree you know what you are going to get.  Of course this predictability is what studios are banking on. 

For me though, one of cinema’s joys is discovery.  A few years ago I got off work early and had time to kill.  I walked to the Landmark E Street Theater and picked a film called Timecrimes purely on the basis of it starting soon and having not seen it before.   I walked into the theater not knowing anything about  Timecrimes  other than that it was a Spanish thriller.  I walked out exhilarated.   Timecrimes brilliantly deconstructed the idea of time travel by playing the same story through different angles.  It trusted the audience to follow the complex story and filling in the details as they are slowly revealed.  Films such as Timecrimes, or Boyhood more recently, give us that unique opportunity to see something on film that we have not seen before. 

With the franchise films, it’s not surprise or discovery but anticipation.  The studios want your overwhelming feeling upon leaving the theater to be not so much “What a great film!” but rather ‘I can’t wait until the next one!”  For us that feeling can be a little deflating.  First, the endless hype before a film can build up expectation so much that disappointment is almost inevitable.  Second, it can be more challenging to get into a film if you know it’s only getting you from point B to point C in a five part storyline. 

You made a good point about the Oscar race.  For as much as we may criticize the Oscars, the prestige of winning them may be the one remaining factor that gets more adult-oriented non-franchise films made.  I don’t believe that the filmmakers themselves set out to win an Oscar.  But the studios decision to make or even distribute these kinds of films could largely be awards driven.    

It may take more people like the Weinsteins to stem the tide we are in.  Thankfully the Weinsteins are still active and are distributing films such as The Imitation Game.  Some of the others helping are not distributors, but people with wealth and clout who have their own production companies.    Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Pictures helped finance Precious, The Butler, and most recently Selma.  Brad Pitt’s Plan B also supported Selma and last year supported 12 Years a Slave.  Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures financed Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Her, American Hustle and Foxcatcher.

It's people like Winfrey, Pitt and Ellison who still give me hope.  It’s also the fact that in the past year, I saw original and daring films from Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, Steve James, and Michael Winterbottom.  This week I am going to see films by Clint Eastwood, Paul Thomas Anderson and Mike Leigh.  Angelina Jolie has proven that she’s a talented director.  So have emerging new voices Ava DuVernay, Damien Chazelle and Morten Tyldum.  

Closer to home, the Arclight just opened in Bethesda as has Ipic.  Between those, the Landmark theaters, the Angelika, and the AFI Silver, we in the DC area have plenty of choices that offer more than the traditional multiplex.  We have access to film festivals, independent cinema and documentaries here.   How much can I really complain?

We and others with similar access must take advantage of our opportunities.   We must also do our part to shape the conversation.  The franchise films will always have a disproportionately large share of the spotlight.  But those of us that love all kinds of films should use the Internet, social media, and even old-fashioned conversation to let people know about the smaller films, the ones that take chances.  I’m trying to do that in my own small way with the Cinema Lounge and my Adam’s Rib column.  You’ve been doing that in your many venues and through your blogs such as this one.  It’s been a privilege to be a part of your world.  Thank you, and I hope we can do it again.       


   

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Spring Review Part IV: Better Call Saul, Big Time in Hollywood FL, Fresh off the Boat

Better Call Saul (AMC) "Breaking Bad" was obviously a great show in later seasons, but it started out as an undiscovered gem and in its later seasons, the show was such a Goliath (as evidenced by the most boring Emmy Awards ceremony in history) that proclaiming its greatness was a joyless exercise. For this reason, I'm generally a huge fan of sophomore series (Off the top of my head: Angel, Treme, Raising Hope, Futurama, American Dad) because they allow the creator to rework his magic with a different concept. Most importantly, the creator can win the critics over again on the show's own merits while simultaneously enjoying the breathing room that his last success granted him.


Like Gilligan's last show, the joy of "Better Call Saul" is watching a protagonist do amazing things with his fight-or-flight instinct when he's in a tight spot. Jimmy McGill is a man of many talents: He can work a crowd of senior citizens like River City's Harold Hill ("The Music Man") he can talk a drug kingpin down from a death sentence, he can MacGuyver his way to locating a family of white collar runaways and he can outlawyer a bunch of snooty guys in suits and ties.

The show began with an implicit tease that McGill would descend into amorality like Walter White, but McGill's relationship with his conscience is one that is seeming to take a more interesting route so far. McGill was never a do-gooder but we also learn during a date interrupted by sudden bouts of vomiting that he has a conscience he simply can't ignore even if he tries. The reluctance of Jimmy's morals and his attempts to split the difference is what make him a fascinating character.

The show also benefits from a strong ensemble cast that includes Michael "Lenny Kosnowski" McKean as Jimmy's older brother Chuck (another curious casting choice with a primarily comic actor) and Rhea Seehorn as Jimmy's ex (although theories have floated around that the two were always platonic) who has an enduringly sweet bond with him in the present. On top of that, the city of Albuquerque is a vivid character in the show as well. It's good to be back in the ABQ.

Big Time in Hollywood Florida (Comedy Central)- This black comedy is marginally a show about struggling film makers (a genre I hate outside of "Be Kind Rewind") and it was advertised as such but the characters' filmmaking background is mostly used as a framing device which is something I can live with.

What we have instead is mostly a show two young adult brothers desperate to remain in arrested development. Standing in their way are a set of parents who want them to move out of the house and get real jobs.

The brothers decide to fake a drug addiction which becomes the first in a series of bad decisions that gets them into hotter and hotter water. The show can best be described as "Dumb and Dumber" meets the Coen Brothers.

Some noted scientist or philosopher or historian (or possibly a TV weatherman, I have no clue) said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting different results. This can also be said for comedy if one considers that insane people can be pretty funny. In the case of this show, these are certainly two characters who never consider doing the "right thing" which could be described as pathological and there's certainly a humor in that although it's on a very base level.

Needless to say these guys certainly aren't rootable characters. The prime example of this is how casually disrespectful they are of their father. This is partially understandable considering their dad is perennial punching bag Stephen Toblowsky, but it's indicative of the cartoonish broadness here that extends to the way manslaughter is treated with gravity of Zach Morris getting in trouble with Principal Belding.

At times, the casual moral decay of the world around these characters works tonally and has the makings of a deliciously twisted dark comedy. At the same time, the broad cartoonishness wore thin over the course of ten episodes (in my experience, at least). This goes back to that famous TV weatherman/scientist/philosopher's definition of insanity with a slight caveat: Characters doing the same thing over and over again can certainly be comedic but they are very often not rich characters.

This is particularly true in the case of the brothers' mentally challenged sidekick Del whose presence on the show is so misguided, it's not just a comedic concern but one of sensitivity.  

"Big Time in Hollywood Florida" can best be described as an acquired taste with diminishing returns.


Fresh off the Boat (ABC)-The show is simultaneously a throwback to TGIF family-style sitcoms of the '90s with a modern edginess to it in the vein of "Everybody Hates Chris" or "Malcolm in the Middle." More than those two shows, however, the show approaches 90's sitcoms with an ironic self-consciousness without omitting that genuine sweetness that those sitcoms were known for. More often than not, 11-year-old protagonist Eddie Huang learns a lesson in a round about way.

Oh, and did I mention this show centers around a family of Taiwanese immigrants? That was pretty much the main selling point of the show and it's the first thing anyone knows about the show.  Considering it's been 20 years since an Asian-American family has been on TV ("All-American Girl" with Margaret Cho),  the novelty factor of being transported to an Asian-American household for a half-hour is exotic enough to give this show a reason to exist.

Fortunately, however, the show is more than that. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan infuses the plots with labyrinthine storylines that are reminiscent of the looniness she brought to the sitcom with "Don't Trust the B----." Randall Park and Constance Wu are both ridiculously fun to watch and the show serves as a great crash course on what living in 1995 was like: Shaq, 90's rap, lunchables, Melrose Place and the OJ Simpson trial all make appearances here.

Constance Wu certainly qualifies as a breakout character as she gets some of the show's best lines and delivers them with a certain wry ferocity. At the same time, Randall Park (who I knew as Asian Jim on "The Office") is underlooked (by nearly every other review I've read) with his endearing doggedness to turn his restaurant into a success. Papa Huang has the classic immigrant-trying-to-make-something-of-himself arc and although it's laced with great comedic potential, the joke is never on him so much as it is on the incongruity of his understanding and circumstance.  It also helps that much of the humor in the Golden Saddle subplots revolves around the odd couple chemistry between Park and Paul Scheer as quite a bit of their MOs are lost in translation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spring Round-Up Part III: Garfunkel and Oates, Comedians, 12 Monkeys, Bates Motel

Twelve Monkeys (SyFy)-Based on the Terry Gilliam film of the same name, this loopy time travel series got my attention out of the gate. It had a premise that kept me eagerly awaiting the next plot turn despite the fact that it's based on a story I'm already familiar with.

Aaron Stratford (Pyro from the X-Men) plays Bruce Willis' role of Cole and gets the dazed and confused stature of the action hero down (which isn't particularly far off from the war-weary and jaded thing he's going for). The chemistry between him and Dr. Railly (Amanda Schull) and Stratford has a certain electricity to it despite the fact that they aren't romantically intertwined (as of Episode 10, at least). They do a lot with wayward glances which makes a scene like Cole's attempts to dance at a cocktail party a lot less cringeworthy than originally written.

Credit: Cnet.com
Slowing down this romance is Railly's off-and-on-again boyfriend/fiancée who goes from disbeliever to uneasy ally. Part of this might have to do with the sort of trippy quasi-love triangle they're in wherein one side might have some extra special motivation to ensure that the other side gets erased from time although this isn't acknowledged (which is kind of weird).  Emily Hampshire (the MVP of Schitt's Creek, pictured right) plays the Brad Pitt character with a wild manic energy that's worthy of more of my adoration.


Unfortunately, the series gets bogged down in the middle episodes with plot lines set in the future outside of Cole that don't resonate. Dr. "Not Indiana" Jones gets into a power struggle with a faction that wants to cure the virus rather than do the whole time travel assassination thing. This virus cure strategy aligns more with the plot of the original movie but it's nowhere near as exciting as assassination via time travel, so what's the point? Even more questionable is the choice to add a subplot about Ramse's ex-lover and newly discovered child. This is way too much screen time to give to a character who exists primarily as a side character and confidante to Cole. This would be like if "It's a Wonderful Life" interrupted the main plot to bother us with story lines about Clarence and his domestic squabbles in Heaven.


The primary purpose of setting scenes in the future in the film was to provide the backstory and showcase Terry Gilliam's aesthetic which this show can't compete with. The scenes set in the present from Dr. Railly's point of view where she has highly imperfect information over what/where/when will happen next is when the series is at its best so let's hope we see more of the show set there. The show is still very enjoyable despite its complex plot and unpleasant deviations and I'm only at Episode 10, so let's hope things right themselves by the end of the season.


Garfunkel and Oates (IFC)-The brainchild of two actors that met each other performing at the UCB theater, Garfunkel and Oates originated from a song and dance act of two girls singing plain and dirty truths set to sweet harmonies and ukuleles. The musical numbers are undeniably catchy but there's nothing beyond that that isn't already being done by better acts that came along first. The first comparison that will come to mind is "Flight of the Concords" which is pretty unflattering considering that G & O does such a poor job of shoehorning their songs into plots.

Other than that, we have unflattering comparisons to "Broad City" in that the leads are two dense ladies with questionable abilities to navigate adulthood in a codependent relationship with each other. If not for "Broad City," there's also the "Live Prude Girls" web series (starring the AT&T girl) and Grace Helbig doing the dense girl shtick solo.

I'm not suggesting that these two actresses are falling short of the admirable goal of finding their voice and translating it into sitcom form. It's just that they have the awful luck of having a voice that's eerily similar to a number is shows already out there and what little there is that differentiates Garfunkel and Oates from Broad City or Live Prude Girls is a very small slice of demographic pie.

[Update: I watched a couple more episodes. The one with Ari Graynor is pretty solidly written]

The Comedians (FX)-Even if we admire the execution of shows like Louie, Episodes, Comeback,  Curb Your Enthusiasm, Life is Short  or The Michael J Fox Show we need to stop celebrating the same tired concept of a comedian or actor playing a thinly veiled version of his or herself. It comes off as vain and is becoming ad overused a genre as vampires are for teens.  At least Michael Judge or Jon Favreau had the creative decency to channel their creative frustrations into metaphors like tech start ups or cooking. To make matters worse: Billy Crystal already mined this territory in Mr. Saturday Night. For someone who's primarily known as a last minute resort for Oscar hosting with the same shtick he's been doing since the 90s, you would think he would use an opportunity like this to do something more inventive. On the plus side,  underrated character actress Stephanie Weir is now employed for a while. 

[Update: I only watched the first episode]

Bates Motel (A and E)-I was incredibly pleased with this show over the first two seasons. Who would've thought that Hitchcock's most action-oriented film could be adapted into one of the best mood pieces on TV. This is like Dawson's Creek or another small town teenage drama except with a lot more rape,  arson,  manslaughter, corruption,  schizophrenia, and outright murder. But it's still a mood piece with a strong sense of place,  deep characters and great performances.

The problem if that the show might have run out of mileage by now. The reveal that Norman has a habit of losing his marbles has already happened, we already know Mama Bates is creepy, the town's dirty,  and we've already seen Norman fall in love and murder someone twice (On the subject of his murdering: Shouldn't he be put in a mental institution by now?) What's there left for the show to do?  

From what I've seen of this season,  they're now pairing him off with a new love interest in Emma and more shady people are rolling into town. Neither of these things are new. I'm not suggesting the show needs to shift it's identity but rather reconsider whether the show will have diminishing returns from here on out. I'm not saying "Let's cancel the show!" but there are some obstacles in place that need to be worked out if the show is going to tread in the same direction.

For other editions of my Spring 2015 review:
Part I: Glee, Togetherness, Last Man on Earth, Archer
Part II: Schitt's Creek, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Librarians 
Still to come: Daredevil, Better Call Saul, Fresh off the Boat, Empire, and possibly Modern Family, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Empire, and Silicon Valley