Monday, December 27, 2010

Movie Trailers: 2011's Movies to Be Excited About Part 2

Here’s a guide to some of the most intriguing trailers out there right now. This is part one of however many installments it takes to cover the good stuff.  I’m going to try and be chronological, but no promises.  These may not intrigue everybody, but I think they all have something promising in them that merits at least a look when the films arrive, though what that “something” is varies wildly from one film to the next.  If you’re scrolling through here looking for the Transformers 3 trailer, don’t waste your time.  And also, stop being excited about Michael Bay movies.

KEY to Anticipation Factor:
1=Looks good, but probably a rental
2=One more good trailer will put me in the theater
3=Definitely a trip to the theater
4=I visited the official site and marked my calendar
5=Working on my costume to wear to the midnight premiere

Movie:  Barney’s Version (January 14th)
Trailer Type:  The old “let the actors sell the movie while we just outline a little story with some typewriter-font cue cards every once in a while” routine.
Persons of Interest:  Paul Giamatti as an irascible, grouchy, unlikable lout is what we call “perfect casting”.  Giamatti always owns in these odd, quirky roles that allow him to quietly run away with his line delivery and facial expressions.  The trailer seems to suggest he does so in this movie.
Moments of Intrigue:  All the moments where Giamatti is on screen, basically.  Dustin Hoffman looks pleasantly ridiculous as well; hopefully he doesn’t just go with the lazy stereotype it looks like he’s flirting with in the trailer.
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  Nothing major, although the old “hey that baby you thought was yours is actually black” gag which leads to the angry white guy chasing/hitting/yelling at his black friend is just the worst.
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  3

Movie:  Company Men (January 21st)
Trailer Type:  The old “play inspiring music as characters realize life has other plans for them” routine.  Seriously, the trailer actually has a shot of the words “life has other plans” floating across a building. 
Persons of Interest:  Tommy Lee Jones doing something respectable is always something to treasure, and Chris Cooper must be tracked down in these small roles until more directors realize he deserves some leads.  Ben Affleck should also have your respect by now—he’s put out a series of films on both sides of the camera which should wash away any bad taste from his choices of 10 years ago.
Moments of Intrigue:  This film has a nice look to it, and it seems like all the leads play well off of each other here; the brief moment between Tommy Lee Jones and Craig T. Nelson discussing the lives of people they’ve just fired looked particularly good.
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  I’m sorry, this is unfair, but every time I see Kevin Costner I just see it as another pathetic comeback attempt.  And seeing him doing a poor New England accent makes it even worse.  And I OWN “Open Range”!
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  3

Movie:  The Way Back (January 21st)
Trailer Type:  The old “you’re not going to believe what these people go through to escape evil” routine with special guest  the old “lets break the tension with inserts of characters saying blackly humorous things every once in a while” routine.
Persons of Interest: Director Peter Weir should be a name you recognize and look forward to; every shot in this trailer seems to prove that fact hasn’t changed.  Ed Harris and Colin Farrell also look great as usual here.
Moments of Intrigue:  The abstract for this movie describes the main players as being trapped in a “hellish gulag”.  Movies set in gulags, let alone hellish ones, deserve your attention.
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  Very few. 
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  4

Movie:  The Mechanic (January 28th)
Trailer Type:  The fairly new “Let’s pretend this is a NEW Jason Statham movie concept and ignore completely the fact that it’s clearly just “The Transporter” with a different title” routine.
Persons of Interest:  Jason Statham is a solid action star who fits into the slick, ultra-frenetic world of modern action films incredibly well.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing to say about an actor depends on what sorts of movies you’re into.  The more haggard and gritty Donald Sutherland gets, the greater his screen presence becomes.  He will swallow movie screens whole if he lives another ten years.
Moments of Intrigue:  Statham shooting people, blowing things up, telling people ahead of time that he’s going to shoot them or blow them up, slow motion explosions, slow motion gun cartridges ejecting from high powered weapons, etc.
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  Action movies are stupid.  They’re fun.  But they’re stupid.
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  2

Movie:  Paul (February 14th)
Trailer Type:  The Old “let’s use the dramatic opening music cue from “2001:  A Space Odyssey” to lead up to something totally anti-climactic and totally, hilariously ironic” routine.
Persons of Interest:  Simon Pegg and Nick Frost should have more than earned your interest with “Shaun of the Dead” and the equally phenomenal “Hot Fuzz”.  And the trailer is worth rewatching to catch all of the big comedy names filling in the small roles in this one—Jason Bateman is always great, and Bill Hader is just one of the other faces here that should at least get you somewhat interested in this one.
Moments of Intrigue:  There are some nice little touches in the trailer—an “E.T.” moment, some mildly funny moments between alien-butt-and-wiener jokes, and a great piece at the end with a dead bird which was just clever enough to leave me grinning.
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  Seth Rogen is wearing thin, and I say that as someone who liked him a lot.  But he just stands out here—you can’t separate that gravelly voice from the person behind it, which doesn’t work so well for this sort of concept.  Another problem, there are a LOT of potty jokes in this trailer.  Also, Simon Pegg was heavily involved in “Run, Fatboy, Run” which, you know, what the hell was THAT supposed to be?
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  3, based on the assumption that this trailer is playing to the “dumb crowd” and the movie will prove much more clever.
Watch it here  (you'll have to select it from the list)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Movie Trailers: 2011’s Movies to Be Excited About—Part One

Here’s a guide to some of the most intriguing trailers out there right now. This is part one of however many installments it takes to cover the good stuff.  I’m going to try and be chronological, but no promises.  These may not intrigue everybody, but I think they all have something promising in them that merits at least a look when the films arrive, though what that “something” is varies wildly from one film to the next.  If you’re scrolling through here looking for the Transformers 3 trailer, don’t waste your time.  And also, stop being excited about Michael Bay movies.

KEY to Anticipation Factor:
1=Looks good, but probably a rental
2=One more good trailer will put me in the theater
3=Definitely a trip to the theater
4=I visited the official site and marked my calendar
5=Working on my costume to wear to the midnight premiere

Movie:  Somewhere (December 24) 
Trailer Type: The old “sad indie music over dramatic and heartwarming images” routine
Persons of Interest:  Sophia Coppola as writer-director should guarantee your interest in this one.  Stephen Dorff couldn’t get his own mother into the theater as a dramatic lead, but Coppola has more than earned the right to make unusual choices for her characters, so maybe she knows something about him that we don’t.  Hopefully she knows that the real challenge is making me forget that the last time I was interested in this guy he was being blown up in a geyser of blood by The Daywalker.  So, yeah, tall order…
Moments of Intrigue:  No particular moment stands out, and the premise is older than Larry King, but it seems like the right sort of material for Coppola to bend into something fresh and intriguing. 
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  There are MORE Fannings out there?  I was just getting excited that maybe Dakota was disappearing from the film landscape and now there’s another one?  If this is going to be a case of Girl Culkins for the next ten years, I may organize a formal boycott.  In fairness, Ella Fanning looks like she does fine based on the trailer.  A possible bigger sign of trouble:  underwater tea party.
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  3
Watch it here

Movie:  The Illusionist (December 24th—limited)
Trailer Type:  The old “hey look at all the film festivals we were selected for” and “here’s some meaningful words and reviews floating towards you in slow motion” routines
Persons of Interest:  The director of “The Triplets of Belleville” certainly should grab the attention of any French film lovers or animation enthusiasts out there.
Moments of Intrigue:  The trailer has a lot of rich and detailed animated imagery, though some of it looks pretty dark and dingy (as part of the story, not the quality of the work itself). 
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  Dull looking characters and a lack of any particular sense of the film itself in the trailer isn’t a great sign, but it seems more interested in the visuals of the film than anything else.  
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  1

Movie:  Blue Valentine (December 31st)
Trailer Type:  The old “shots of people staring dramatically out of windows or off into space” routine…repeatedly
Persons of Interest:  Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams both look great in this, and the scene framing the trailer feels natural and charming in the way all meetings of total strangers must be if the movies are to be taken seriously.
Moments of Intrigue:  Gosling singing and playing ukulele while Williams shuffle-tap dances on the sidewalk has a sort of detached charm to it, and now, of course, I have to know what all those people are staring at so dramatically off camera.
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  None, really.  It doesn’t look mind-boggling, but the gritty quality of the camera work makes it seem like it could be a well made human drama.  Or, you know, a dippy movie where Gosling sings and plays ukulele in the street…
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  2

Movie:  Biutiful (sic) (December 29th limited)
Trailer Type:  The old “let the narrator say stuff that doesn’t quite make sense but certainly suggests this movie is going to say important theme-type things that you really aren’t going to want to miss” routine
Persons of Interest:  Javier Bardem (best only known as Anton Chigur from “No Country for Old Men” demands attention when he shows up in a lead role now).  He looks excellent in this and no one can doubt he can carry a dramatic film. 
Moments of Intrigue:  A lot of beautiful (the real word) shots of barren, filthy cityscapes and wintry tundras makes the trailer feel cold and grimy with a sense of place (which is a compliment).  Also, there’s a dead owl in there and some dancing strippers and I kind of want to know what this whole storm is that the narrator promises will “cut through flesh like a thousand razorblades” because you really don’t see that level of storm very often.
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  Considering the director’s previous work merits a 24-hour suicide watch for anyone who views it, this has me thinking that director Alejandro Gonzalez is getting hung up on repeated themes, which is usually not a good thing artistically (we’d have a lot more great films in the world if Tim Burton could work out his daddy issues, for example)
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  3

Movie:  Season of the Witch (January 7th)
Trailer Type:  The old “start off slow and then increase the pace and music until you have one of those songs where the singers are just going aaaa---oooo---aaaa really dramatically and you pretty much show the viewer the whole climax” routine
Persons of Interest:  Nic Cage as a 14th century crusader demands your $11 at the box office.  Ron Perlman as his sidekick demands that you buy popcorn and Twizzlers too.  This combination should ALWAYS bring you to the theater.
Moments of Intrigue:  Monster wolves, flying creatures, some fairly expensive looking locations shots and battle scenes, a grody looking leper (or otherwise maimed old man—either way, you HAVE to find out what’s up with his face)
Possible Signs o’ Trouble:  You never want to reach the end of a trailer for a Nic Cage movie and think to yourself “he seemed kind of subdued there…almost like he was bored”.  Also, that scene where the “witch” makes his torch turn off and on just isn’t doing it for me.
Anticipation Factor (out of 5):  4

More to come soon...Post your thoughts on these in the comment section.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TV: The Nine Best TV Series Seasons of 2010

I’m going to leave rating the best new shows to someone who gets to watch all of them for a living—I feel like I missed some potentially good new television shows simply by having to make choices between one show and another on any given night (or given DVR capabilities, choosing four shows to record out of the best possible dozen on a given night).  So instead, some thoughts on the nine best seasons of television of the year—whether a show is in season 1 or 12, it could make this list if it gave viewers a season to remember or relish this year.

Justified (returns to FX in February)
 If you didn’t catch the first season of Justified, you missed some of the most surprisingly good television of the year.  I was going to say the show quietly revealed itself as the best law-enforcement show you’ve never heard of, but a little bit of internet research reveals that the show’s pilot actually drew in an FX-record audience of 4.9 million viewers.  So I guess it revealed itself fairly publicly. 

Timothy Olyphant is captivating here as Federal Marshall Raylan Givens, a “peace keeper” with old-west sheriff sensibilities (he IS in many ways Seth Bullock from the excellent Deadwood but the character here has his own nuances and more of a sense of humor about the world he’s trying to threaten into submission at gunpoint).  The show is sharply written and sports an excellent supporting cast, but the best choice on the part of the writers was to center the season’s story arcs around Givens’ struggles with a long time friend and nemesis, Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins so perfectly that you root for him to escape the law’s clutches just so he won’t be written out of the show (which doesn’t look likely based on the clever twists lying in wait for you at the end of the first season). 

Almost every episode of this show sports a fun gunfight, and even the handful that don’t offer such sharp dialogue that it feels like you’ve witnessed an exchange of gunfire anyway.  The show also deftly balances independent episodes with compelling master storylines; the first season had outstanding episodes which focused on both (the chase to hunt down a violent philanthropist dentist [yeah, you read it right] is a fantastic self-contained hour of television while the final three episodes are a compelling ongoing storyline revolving around the ways in which characters change and yet remain the same and the prices to be paid for both.  If season 2 continues the trend, this could become the best underwatched show on television. 

Fringe (returns January 21st on Fox—moving to the Friday time slot)
 It’s still surprising to me that this show is struggling with the ratings—it’s a J.J. Abrams creation, it has cinema-quality special effects and some of the best characters on television (including THE best character currently on TV in the form of Walter Bishop, thanks mainly to the personality nuances and ticks that John Noble lends brilliantly to the character), and even when its freakish plotlines stumble in execution, they represent some of the most unusual storylines and offbeat concepts since The Twilight Zone (go sit on an alien probe, Outer Limits).  But struggle it has, and now many are speculating that the move to a Friday time slot is the doctor shaking his head at the nurse just before calling the time of death.

However, as pointed out in The AV Club’s most recent review, the show probably snags pretty big ratings when DVR numbers are factored in, and perhaps Fox is willing to let the show fill that Friday time slot long-term (if no one is watching then anyway, whatever DVR viewers are along for the ride will continue to watch, and they have to run SOMEthing there anyway).  If it is cancelled, it will be one of the great tragedies not only for science fiction television, but for television drama in general.

The show follows a team of “Fringe Division” government investigators who are in charge of finding answers when something inexplicable, paranormal or supernatural occurs.  If that sounds too X-Files to you, then rent season 1 and see where the similarities end.  For one thing, the X-Files was mostly cold and humorless where Fringe often wears its heart on its sleeve, and offered genuine laugh-out-loud moments to cut the tension of even its darkest episodes.  Consider also the pleasure of the x-factor of Noble’s Walter Bishop, a man who spent 12 years in the looney bin, prior to which he was a modern-day mad scientist who developed (mostly successful) methods for everything from interrogating dead bodies to transporting people between two universes.  He’s the loose cannon centerpiece which allows Fringe Division to get anywhere with any case, but he also sets in motion the phenomenal multiple-episode cat-and-mouse game between the two universes which has highlighted this season. 

Without revealing endless master story points, it’s hard to convincingly sell the latest season of this show (which technically spills over into 2011).  Instead I’ll make you a promise about this show:  I promise it’s the only place where you’ll find a mad scientist who keeps a cow in his lab just because he loves a fresh glass of milk now and then, a love triangle that spans two universes, a gruesome dance-of-the-dead performed by a soon-to-be-reanimated corpse, an alternate universe where zeppelins roam the skies and unstable regions lead to the implosion of entire city blocks, a savant who can cause complex catastrophes using a mind manipulated to become a supercomputer, and a secret radio broadcast which occasionally blasts a frequency causing amnesia in any listener.  Keep in mind that all of that is happening beyond the harrowing main plotline this season.

The League—(FX)
Before you accuse me of shilling for FX on this list, let me come right out and say that the show preceding The League, the inexplicably popular It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was terrible for the 3-4 episodes I watched it.  It featured leads who clearly found themselves much funnier and more likeable than they actually are and really didn’t do much for me that other “oh my God, they just said that!?” shows in the past had already done—it’s a concept that’s past its prime.  But I suppose I owe it a debt of gratitude because I have no doubt that its strong viewer numbers leading into The League have everything to do with its success. 

The League is also a somewhat raunchy comedy; much of the humor comes at the expense of one character or another and the best exchanges of dialogue are splatter-painted with savagery and every nickname you can think of for genitals and the things you can use them for (including a few things you probably never thought of).  It also truly is a show about a fantasy football league—this isn’t just a backdrop.  Their discussions of teams and players are accurate and lend a very specific brand of humor to a lot of the show’s best sequences (possibly the best being in the season premiere when Ruxin “rosterbates” while smack-talking the draft board about how smart each of his draft picks was and in the process refers to Eli Manning as a “God damn mouth breathing idiot” which, again, I told you this show knows football).   

The show is full of talented comedians and from week to week it’s hard to say who will steal the best moments.  Nick Kroll as Ruxin has the most consistently funny moments, but Paul Scheer as Andre gets a ton of mileage out of his sad sack character.  Mark Duplass and Stephen Ranazzissi carry their share of the load as well, and the interactions (some seemingly only semi-scripted) between them from week to week often have to be rewound after the first round of laughter subsides.  Taco, played by Jonathan LaJoie, of internet song fame, is a nice off-kilter touch who lets the show roam away from football and into more surreal places.

This season saw improvements in almost every area, and any given episode would probably sell you on the show (or at least convince you to watch a couple more episodes), but if you only get one chance, check out the second episode where Ruxin interrupts a bondage session with his wife to try and complete a draft trade that would make his fantasy season.  To stop the unethical trade, Pete and Andre break into his bedroom and steal his computer and the three of them argue silently and vehemently while his wife lies blindfolded on the bed asking Ruxin what’s taking so long.  The silent comedy here is phenomenal and the scene escalates to a climactic moment that had me as close to tears as anything I’ve seen in a comedy all year.  It’s a great moment that puts on display the strength of the show’s devoted balance of realism and utter ridiculousness and the multitude of talent on display from the entire cast.

Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirectTV—it’s complicated)
 The complex network dealings that allowed FNL to survive past its first couple seasons are a testament to its quality.  There have been many critically acclaimed shows with highly devoted fan bases which major networks have canceled without flinching.  FNL continues to suffer from poor ratings and a fan base which is microscopic in the TV landscape.  Unlike many great-but-doomed shows though, FNL found some of its strongest fans inside of the studio—NBC seemed hesitant to cut short such an outstanding human drama, especially knowing that anyone who gave it a chance would A. realize it’s not really a drama about football at all, even though the sport matters to the characters and B. continue to tune in religiously because the show is too good to turn away from once you meet the characters (ANY of them—and the show has featured a couple dozen in its first few seasons).  The result was an unprecedented compromise (that will hopefully become the precedent for saving future series which fail to find an immediate audience):  DirectTV bought the rights to air each season first, presumably to draw the biggest fans into changing cable servers, and NBC would air the “reruns” in their normal Friday time slot for the show the summer after it completed its “original” run.  Though its days are now numbered (in a literal sense—the show runners know their end date and are planning down to a proper resolution accordingly), the plan has allowed for the show to build one fantastic season on top of another, each following, loosely, the football seasons at East Dillon High School.

This season is not a standout from the show’s other excellent season runs, but as usual it builds upon strong character relationships (there has never been a more realistic married couple than Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami in the history of television—I’m more certain of this with every episode) and long-view storylines.  This past season (not the currently airing one if you’re a DirectTV viewer) saw the gorgeously tragic end of several compelling relationships and friendships, as well as the redrawing of boundaries between friends and rivals (Coach Taylor running the new football team at a rival school being chief among them).  On top of that, it continued to exemplify what FNL’s writers are best at:  creating new and compelling teenage characters with real lives and problems and embedding them in a town that feels so lived in that you might drive through it the next time you take a road trip (I’d never leave if I could find this place, but that’s partially because I have a huge crush on the coach’s wife).  Among this season’s standouts was the addition of the excellent Michael B. Jordan (you should know him as Wallace from The Wire) as Vince.  The season doesn’t flinch at several difficult controversies and devastating moments and balances them with some of the show’s best emotional highs to date (which I won’t spoil here, but Buddy is involved in one of my favorite moments EVER this year).  If the show can maintain this pace and degree of excellence through the finality of its run, it will be the most tragically under-seen drama in network television history. 

Mad Men (AMC)
 The return of Mad Men this season was the most anticipated return of any show for me—the core characters had left us reeling last season with the decision to break ties with their agency and start up their own upstart ad agency.  Despite the fact that they brought Pete along (pause while I grumble under my breath about that sonuva…), the move was a phenomenal cliffhanger and a logical maneuver based on the crossroads these characters found themselves at.  For me, this show’s best moments have always revolved around the goings-on inside the world of advertising during these golden years.  This season more than delivered on that front, mixing sharp tongues, clever humor, and absolutely nasty in-office scuffles to create a cocktail of tension, careening momentum and levity that left you hung over through most of the week leading up to the next episode (which made it hard to get through any of Roger Sterling’s vapid biography during the week…). 

The unexpected and exquisitely handled secondary storyline this season followed Don Draper’s sense of self-discovery, or re-discovery, or other-self-discovery or something to that effect.  Jon Hamm has always played Don with a firm tone and a singularity of purpose, but this season his hints at more nuance beneath the surface lent a lot of credibility to the moments where we witness not only chinks in his armor but genuine vulnerabilities we might have guessed at but never got to see.  In perhaps the season’s best episode, Don and Peggy discover much about one another’s modi operandi while locked in Don’s office working on a deadline (and to the show’s credit there’s a constant edge of sexual tension to the episode  which is never acted upon but soaks every frame anyway—most shows can’t accomplish that when they’re TRYING to do romance).

The season was full of surprises and unexpected turns, which, for better or worse, were part of what made the season so successful.  Many viewers vented frustration about one issue or another, but ultimately that, too, is a measure of a show’s quality.  We can debate and diverge in opinion on Don’s romantic choices, Peggy and Joan’s (poor Joan this season!) methods of survival in the office and Betty Draper’s ongoing sophomoric shenaniganery, but that’s because this season saw change, growth, setback and triumph for a full cast of characters so fleshed out as real people that their decisions and actions took on weight and consequence that was hard to shake off, especially on a Sunday night.

Community (8:00 Thursday nights on NBC—returns in the new year)
 For outright success, I’d actually argue that the first season of Community was slightly more impressive.  After three or four shaky episodes, the show took off and showed a confidence in its characters that other comedies might never establish.  The crispness of dialogue and surprisingly successful warmth and sincerity of character moments contributed to the overall success of a very young and ratings-challenged show.  Whether all of that played a role in its renewal (for a full 24-episode season, no less) is difficult to say, since NBC certainly doesn’t have a very deep bag of tricks to pull from.  If Outsourced came out of that bag, then I think they need to burn the bag and give up magic entirely. 

So why is this season of the show making this list?  One word:  Ambition.  There have been a couple episodes of this season which have only been marginally successful (the space-simulator-KFC-winnebago gambit was mostly a stumble, for example), but the fact that the show has aimed so high is impressive.  In one season they’ve parodied zombie and horror films, pulled off a “bottle episode” where the five main characters spend an entire episode in a single room, dropped a dead-ringer of a Rankin & Bass holiday episode on us, and found ways to develop character relationships more deeply on top of it.  And oh yeah, Betty White talking about urine.  If you type “ambition” into Google, I wouldn’t be surprised if it asked “Did you mean Betty White + urine?” 

The show has polarized NBC Thursday comedy viewers to some extent; many just don’t seem to “get it” and find the show annoying.  With its amped up pop-culture sensibilities and constant meta-humor at the expense of all things sitcom, it clearly isn’t for everyone.  But in its attempt to be and do so many things, it has also grown to embody that cliché of having “something for everyone”.  If you’ve only seen the show once, you probably haven’t seen enough episodes to get a feel for it, and if you’ve watched it more than once, you’re probably already hooked.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
 Steve Buscemi has deserved this role for a long time.  He has lent the color and personality to films which would have otherwise fallen flat and been the spark of unnerving oddness in otherwise mundane stories.  At his best, he represents the perfect marriage of well wrought character and nuanced, unique acting.  But for all of the pleasures of watching him comfortably inhabit the outcast, marginalized figure (Ghost World, Fargo, pretty much everything else he’s in), it has been wonderful to watch him inhabit a confident, empowered, central figure in this series.  To his credit (and no one’s surprise) he has inhabited the role gracefully and effortlessly.  Scorcese’s casting of the lead here is the entire key to the show’s success (in fact, it covers for a mixed bag in terms of supporting cast—while seeing Omar of The Wire inhabiting a likeable if not-to-be-screwed-with role again is a joy, some of the younger cast members are trying too hard and their baby-faced glowering gets old).

Besides Buscemi, this show’s real draw is the richness and depth of Scorcese’s locations and underworlds.  The street scenes in Chicago and elsewhere are worth rewatching:  The details of authentic shop fronts and vistas are a marvel to behold (and shot with an expert eye for aesthetic appeal) and the dark, lush richness of speakeasies and excessive décor of the rich and powerful drench every frame.  It lends weight to the world of the storyline and if it over-glamorizes the 1920s and the life of bootleggers and gangsters, it does it in a way that seems easily forgivable.  In fact, the first few episodes of the show were burdened with heavy exposition and the introduction of minor characters whose faces we’d need to recognize later.  While some of this was compelling, it’s fair to say that what kept the intrigue alive for the first few episodes was not the goings on of seedy underworlders or the innocents caught up with riff raff, but rather the beautiful world they inhabited; a backdrop which was quickly (and properly) put in its place by compelling story and a wealth of interesting characters as the season wore on.

Parks and Recreation (NBC)
 Parks and Recreation was a marvel in its second season.  Though not the best comedy on television, it became appointment DVRing (who shows up at scheduled time anymore?) for those Thursday night NBC fans who stuck out the first season.  Unfortunately, that demographic represented a miniscule portion of the viewership the show might have had if it hadn’t stumbled so immensely in its first season.  What the show’s writers should’ve known from the starting gate (especially with the once-stellar The Office as a simple model and lead-in) is that for a show like this to function and be consistently funny (which is to say, a show about a group of people confined to an office space and therefore joined together by circumstance as opposed to choice) it requires the main characters to like and respect each other at some level.  Instead, the show inexplicably portrayed an office setting where the likeable-if-annoying Leslie Knope was constantly hassled by her libertarian boss and openly derided by her underlings (none of whom demonstrated much in the way of appealing personality in season 1).  The show faltered and the standout character became the goofball boyfriend of a minor character (that’s right, a minor character’s infrequently featured boyfriend). 

To the show’s credit, EVERYTHING reversed course in the second season.  Knope continued to be a plucky do-gooder, but her boss suddenly had a soft spot for her idealistic development projects and general eccentricity (and in a master stroke we got an ingenious peek at why:  He himself has a few eccentricities of his own, most hilariously his octogenarian-melting alter-ego moonlighting gig as saxophonist “Duke Silver”).  Of equal importance, Knope’s underlings and the office in general suddenly seemed to develop the ability to care about something besides their individual interests.  As it turns out, a cheesy sitcom trope was the key to resurrecting the show’s off kilter humor and oddball characters.  April, Andy, Jerry and the rest of the office each got moments to shine in every episode of the season, highlighted by a hunting trip that stands alone as an exemplary episode of what this show is capable of doing on a consistent basis now that it’s found its legs.  The question is whether it can recover from the poor ratings it has slumped into—and it probably isn’t a great sign that NBC relegated its new season to January, replacing it in the lineup with the despicable and truly horrific Outsourced.  Consider this if you’re on the fence:  The show brought on Rob Lowe as a cast member this season and despite his charms (which I’m told he has, apparently) the show would do best to jettison the recognizable face in order to allow more screentime for the new faces who have improved upon their characters so completely that the camera seems to search for them any time Lowe or other non-essential characters take up the frame. 

Treme (HBO)
 Despite the naysayers who found David Simon’s new project rudderless in the early going, Treme represents another impressive success for the creator of The Wire.  I’m tempted to say the two shows share a formula, but there’s really nothing formulaic about Simon’s work.  He simply has an uncanny ability to cram cameras into every crevice of a subculture and locale and make it all crackle and hum with energy and authenticity.  On The Wire the result was thought provoking and devastating to watch.  Here there are equally devastating moments (the imagery of post-Katrina New Orleans speaks for itself, but Simon’s choice of shooting locations certainly lends a hand).  But where The Wire betrayed a sense of hopelessness in the face of social oppression, Treme is a show about hope, resiliency and a culture that refuses to drown even after its only home is bathed in a filth that destroys many of its most beloved haunts.

Simon wisely brings aboard the best of The Wire cast to play the most notable roles on the show—Wendell Pierce (Bunk on The Wire) is a natural here as a trombone player/philanderer who seems especially displaced by the “new” New Orleans and Clarke Peters (the inimitable Lester on The Wire) fully embodies the old soul of a New Orleans native here.  The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, with John Goodman and Steve Zahn stopping just shy of sinking their teeth into the scenery.

The show’s imagery and music are so constantly the centerpiece that the character arcs seem like a bonus (which is why complaints of a “rudderless” beginning seem frivolous—who needs a rudder when your boat is floating through such an astonishing lagoon?  Enjoy the damned view!).  There are beautiful moments sprinkled throughout, most of them tied deeply to the music of the city.  The soundtrack is carefully chosen and simultaneously presents an accurate cross section of the musical flavors of the region while highlighting songs with enough mainstream appeal (you won’t recognize most of it if you aren’t a jazz aficionado, but you’ll be checking for the song titles and artists in the closing credits).  For an hour of television highlighting a region devastated in a manner unparalleled in modern US history, it’s incredible that all of my memories of the first season are of warm hues, up-tempo music and vibrant characters.  It’s an achievement worth witnessing.

Friday, December 10, 2010

TV Episode Review: Community “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

Tonight’s episode of Community is going to be a divisive episode for rabid and casual fans alike (I’m foaming at the mouth, in case you were wondering).  I talked a friend into giving the show another shot with this episode (he walked away early in season 1), and while he didn’t dislike it, he felt the need to email me at the 12 minute mark and point out that he hadn’t cracked a smile since the five minute mark.  While I question his sense of humor given that statistic, I understand where this episode wouldn’t work for everyone.  For one thing, the more familiar you are with the stop-motion work of Rankin and Bass and all of the odd trappings (stiff motion, taffy mouths, surprisingly charming results) the more you would appreciate how well the team working on this episode nailed the ever-loving yuletide cheer out of this thing.  With the exception of the counselor wizard (who has never worked for me in the real world either—do people really find this guy to be funny?), all of the characters in Abed’s Wonderland were fun little creations: Jeff in the Box, Troy Soldier (who sadly gets a drum instead of guns—at first), Teddy Pierce, Ballerannie, Babydoll Shirley and Brita-bot all fit into the Rankin/Bass style universe and allowed for funny little character riffs on top of it. 

The episode’s only weakness derived from an issue that hadn’t occurred to me but now seems obvious.  So much humor is drawn from the actual physical and facial interaction of the acting talent on this show that some of the dialogue tonight was diminished by the absence of their physical selves (by comparison, consider last week’s exchanges in the car on the way to the bar—reactions shots of Brita, Jeff and Abed were funnier than some of the lines themselves).  It also seemed like the energy which usually crackles in the dialogue was just a touch flatter for being the voice over to animation—especially early in the episode it seemed like some of the deliveries were falling flat.  Maybe this was my imagination, but there are a lot of great acting talents who don’t do well with animation (Tina Fey disappointed me with her work in Ponyo, to name one example), and that seemed to dampen the spirit here just a touch. 

But with so much going right throughout the episode, even such a potential snag ends up being nothing but a minor glitch.  The world here (complete with Pterodactyls!) was wonderfully imagined (by Abed apparently) and brought to life in pretty convincing ways (which is to say, convincing as an entry in the stop-motion-animationverse).  The scene atop the train as it raced along the mountainside was particularly well rendered—it had a sense of motion and suspense and looked exactly like the fun action scenes from Rudolph and the other work Rankin/Bass vomited out that no one remembers the name of.  Same goes for the final, um, shootout where all of the characters sing Abed free from the ice and pummel the evil wizard with awesome stop-motion guns. 

While not all of the singing or lyrics really stuck out as great moments or particularly memorable lines, there was just enough of the musical stuff to lend the episode a heightened sense of the cartoonish.  Given what a risk they were taking with such an odd episode to begin with, it seems like they deserve some slack for mediocre Willy Wonka knockoff songs and heartfelt numbers explaining Abed’s emotional states.  At least they’re conceptually funny, and I think that counts for something, especially considering this was a high-concept episode.

Ultimately the episode was hardly “Christmas-y” at all, which is not a complaint.  They even had some fun taking some warm-hearted jabs at the traditional meaning(s) of Christmas in the end, while coming to a conclusion about its true meaning that certainly wouldn’t offend anyone but certainly wouldn’t mesh with most of the meanings any practitioner of the holiday would traditionally give.  A less gutsy show would’ve found all of the characters exchanging gifts under a tree, or worse, eschewing gifts after the revelation that Christmas isn’t about giving or getting.  Like everything else Community takes a run at, their take on Christmas came to a close that felt genuine while falling squarely outside the margins of traditional holiday fare.  Which makes it the best Christmas gift television is likely to give you this year.

Overall:  8.8/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

  •  “I never understand anything you guys are saying.”  What a great line from Pierce, a season and a half in the making.
  • “How many fingers am I holding up, and are they still made of clay?”
  • Abed’s Christmas planet has an atmosphere made from 7% cinnamon.
  • Two great lines from Chang in his brief snowman cameo:
    • “Yeah,you made me need to cry in the shower tonight.” And
    • “How about 10 more seconds on that bottom button?”  Nothing like a snowman shouting inappropriate sexual remarks to get you in the Christmas spirit.
  •  “…and for the love of God stay between the gumdrops!”
  • The Humbugs were clever, Jeff remarking that “Somewhere out there Tim Burton just got a boner” was a master stroke.  On a related note, Jeff being reduced to that funny J-in-the-B skeleton was clever.
  • Loved Troy’s quiet reflection on the train:  “Damn it got real up in that memory cave.”
  • “Who taught you therapy?  Michael Jackson’s dad?”
  • As an incredibly frustrated Lost viewer this season, I much appreciated the “lack of payoff” dig. 
  • Great touch that their reflections in the TV were the real characters at the end. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

TV Episode Review: Fringe “Marionette”

I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about a return to “freak of the week” mode this week after such a string of harrowing episodes with much higher stakes (not to mention fascinating glances at what the other reality looks like—I never thought I would mourn the loss of the zeppelin).  But tonight’s  transition back to the old team you know and love and the chasing down of a super-creep did a nice job of stringing out the master storyline a bit while providing some clever (if incredibly dark) thematic parallels betwixt the two stories.  I’m bringing back “betwixt”.  I don’t know where it was, but it’s back.  Deal with it and tell your friends.

Tonight’s cold open was a fairly memorable one.  At first it seemed overly familiar—one unknown stranger stalking another unknown stranger for unknown purposes, but by the time the camera put us at the cliff’s edge of a spread open rib cage, I was hooked.  The fact that the victim reawakened long enough to wave off the EMS guys was an added bonus of unsettling imagery (though it didn’t turn out to be part of the master story, it felt at the moment like he knew something we didn’t).

I was really intrigued to see that tonight’s episode quickly shone a light into some of the darkest corners of Fringe’s reality.  In particular, the marionette scene from which the episode takes its title was easily the darkest, most unsettling thing the show has ever done.  The sequence is excellently shot—the room is filled with the antiquated, overly-simple looking machinery that Fringe always makes us believe is what near-magical levels of science would like, though in this case it’s all just gears, strings and levers to allow a “dance of the dead” that would make Richard Matheson vomit on his typewriter.  If you don’t get that joke, you bought the wrong edition of I Am Legend.  The sequence is not really all that moving; Barrett’s tears certainly left me unmoved (perhaps because I don’t believe we even knew his relation to her at this point?), but the creepiness of the obsession he has with her is brought to horrifying fruition here.  The practical purpose seems to be the exercise of the body parts, but her ballerina costume, which clearly seems to be holding her body together and in loosely human postures, and the care with which he seems to have actually choreographed her dance were enough to force me to glance away from the screen more than once.  And what a wonderful, artfully disgusting end to the “routine” as the camera follows her final dance step, her slipper tracing a line limply across the dirt floor of the basement.  I shuddered; an awesomely effective scene start-to-finish.

Overall, though, the main storyline of the night was a bit too predictable—once we discovered the heart was a donor, it only took a remembrance of the preview for this week’s episode to make the connection that the girl we saw waking up Frankenstein’s-monster style was the organ donor who had once owned the heart.  That’s a minor strike against an otherwise solid episode, but I like this show best when I’m guessing for at least the first few segments, and I love it when I end up being wrong anyway. 

Of course, the real purpose of the main story tonight was all metaphoric, and in that sense I thought it worked wonderfully on multiple levels.  Peter and Olivia’s ongoing attempt to come to terms with his relationship with the alternate Olivia (have we decided what we’re calling her yet, internet?) is nicely exploded by Barrett’s comment that he didn’t see Amanda in the eyes of whatever it was he brought to life.  While I’m not sure Olivia and Peter’s situation is even a near-parallel to a support-group lurker reanimating a beautiful young girl to fulfill a ballerina fetish, the statement itself stands up:  When we truly care for someone, we know them more deeply than any imposter could really hope to overcome.  Peter’s whispered apology to Olivia’s empty chair in the park is a sad moment for a character who has already suffered enough emotional devastation this season.  Sadly, it doesn’t look like things are going to be looking up for Peter anytime soon.  But on the bright side, he had alternate universe sex.  That has to be SOME consolation.

The more subtle metaphor of “Marionette” is one that the show has really built its whole foundation upon, but I thought tonight was a particularly strong entry.  The idea that human bodies are simply machines made of modifiable, removable, controllable parts was on gruesome display in the marionette scene as well as the various outcomes of the victims—both of them received the parts from a different machine and were able to go on functioning, but only with a cocktail of drugs to help the body run properly with replacement parts.   The actual physical control of Amanda’s body by another human being is perhaps the most explicit image we’ve seen of this idea though.  I was reminded of the occasional overhead shots the show has used of characters running through mazes, labyrinths, tunnels, etc (reaching all the way back to the pilot), all suggesting that perhaps some higher power (or what the show used to suggest was a Pattern) was pulling all of our strings at its leisure.  It continues to be an intriguing thematic exploration for this show and I’m glad they reanimate the idea every once in a while.

So overall, there wasn’t much to complain about in this episode.  It was filled with nice small touches and used its main story to nicely compliment and expand on its master stories and themes in more than one way.  It definitely wasn’t one for the squeamish, and it was a bit of a letdown in terms of adrenaline after a season that has been heavy on near-misses, double crosses, daring escapes, and other intensifying-adjective-plus-action-show-type-noun sorts of things.  It also reminded us nicely of one new addition to Olivia’s character that I’m really looking forward to as the show moves forward:  she has made a promise to someone from the alternate universe who entrusted her to save his world at the expense of his life (and his family’s life if she breaks the promise or fails).  For me, the alternate Broyles was as likeable as the one we know and love, so the quiet reminder here of who he was and what his death and her promise meant had a lot of impact.  I think it will be a key to her character by season’s end—an end I’m very excited for based on where things have taken us so far.  See you in the new year.

Overall:  8.3/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:
  • Looks like our last episode until January 21st—and when Fringe returns, the Watchers return with it! 
  • Fringe moves to Fridays—this is a death slot for Fox, so don’t you DARE miss an episode and ruin this show’s ratings chances completely (I know that’s not how ratings work, but the more who watch the more voices talking about it on the web)
  • Walter’s shout/squeal of joy when he discovered his briefcase in the bathroom is exactly the kind of tiny moment of personality that John Noble lends to Walter that makes him my favorite character on television.
  • Walter:  “And by ‘intimate’ I mean sexual.”
Peter:  “Yeah, I got that.” 
Jackson plays off of Noble so well in these exchanges.  See also:
  • Walter: “I could use a…strawberry milkshake.”
Peter: “I can handle tha—“
Walter:  “With whipped cream.”
Peter:  “Don’t push it.”
  • I have heard of the Viking “blood eagle” as something different:  incisions are made in the back and the lungs were pulled out through the incisions (sometimes with the victim still drawing breath) to look like wings.  Either version:  Blerg.
  • When Walter hears about the final moments of the (literally) heartless first victim he exclaims “Lady Fortune has smiled upon us!”  Only Walter.  And that’s why I love this show.
  • The timeline of Olivia’s absence is blurry to me:  Broyles says two months have been rough for her, she responds that “the last few months” had taken a toll.  Do you think she’s been BACK for two months in tonight’s episode, or did she recover quickly and the whole affair w/the alternate universe was a couple months?
  • This episode was brought to you by Sprint, which apparently demanded that their sponsorship be made explicit within the episode.  “Hey, nice video phones.”
  • Do you think Walter’s story about grave robbery inspiring Frankenstein holds water?  I thought Mary Shelley just invented the tale to entertain some friends who were also into scary stories?  Either my AP Lit teacher or Walter is a liar.  I would prefer to learn that Walter is an honest man.
  • Josh Jackson does a great job of selling the idea that Peter “tells” Olivia what happened with her alternate without actually having to say it aloud.  He’s come a long way since being Pacey.  His work on this show is overshadowed by Walter’s overwhelming personality, but he’s really gotten stronger as the show has gone on.
  • Walter tasting the remains was not surprising given who he is, but the fact that he was able to identify flavors of concrete and two different types of wood (cherry and mahogany) was a hilarious touch.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

TV Episode Review: The Walking Dead “TS-19” (Season Finale)

For viewers of this show so far, there is, I’d imagine, a divergence of opinion about how things are progressing.  There have been moments to keep the gore faction coming back for more, and occasional sharp moments of character development to keep the themesters and those who just crave deeply wrought characters sticking around to see how things turn out.  In between such elements has been a lot of uneven storytelling, and some very thin characterization.  “TS-19” didn’t do much to put concerns about the show’s weaknesses to rest.
The pilot was a fantastic, tightly paced introduction into the apocalypse of the show’s world, complete with disturbing imagery, gore galore, and likeable survivor-types who learned the ropes fast enough to get by and snatch the occasional dazed hospital patient from the clutches of rotting hands.  It was, in short, an incredibly high bar for the rest of the show to measure up to.  That first episode was nothing if not ambitious (and visually stunning; let’s remember how visually stunning Darabont made every frame of that hour of television), and offered no fewer than two stark, emotional, and memorable television scenes.  The first was the image of a legless zombie torso dragging itself through a lush green park hand over hand; an image stomach churning in its gruesomeness (a huge kudos to whatever special effects team created the effects here) and heart wrenching in its humanity (“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Rick mutters into the eyes of the living corpse before putting it back to rest).  The second scene was composed of much simpler stuff, but perhaps more powerful for it.  A man stares down the scope of a hunting rifle at the zombified version of his wife (who has already come calling at his door at least once) as she wanders the streets outside their home.  His inability to pull the trigger is a moment drawn into stark relief by Darabont.  He re-sights the scope multiple times but each time finds himself unable to complete the task.  Is it because he can’t bring himself to shoot the thing that clearly still resembles the woman he loved not so long ago?  Or is it because that thing still seems to claw at the air and gaze confusedly at its surroundings in a manner peculiarly human, deceiving him into seeing his wife living on in some small way?  Regardless the scene is devastating to sit through.
I think most viewers who returned for week two (which, given the ratings, is roughly ALL of them) hoped to get at least occasional moments like this from the show moving forward, even those fans who were mostly in it for the gore.  Regrettably those moments mostly evaporated as the show ploughed through character introductions, reunions and plot expositions, all crammed into the four episodes leading up to the finale.  But with the table set last week as the heavenly light poured through the rising door of the CDC, it seemed like this week might provide the feast of drama and blood soaked action that had been scattered a bit too thinly over the season’s midsection.
Unfortunately “TS-19” offers little in the way of unforgettable moments, relying instead the CDC to create a “race the clock” gimmick to close out the season with the gas pedal jammed firmly to the floor.  Having said that, the opening of this episode had a couple of excellent moments.  Shane’s final moments with Rick in the hospital are particularly well done.  He attempts to extract Rick from the machinery keeping him going while in absolute terror not of zombies so much as military figures gunning down patients in the hallways (although this seems arbitrary—they look in on Rick in a coma and leave him).  
The use of sound in this sequence is stellar, as has been the case throughout the show.  Inside Rick’s hospital room we can hear the terror in the hallways punctuated by automatic weapons fire, but layered behind that is a sound from outside the window suggesting an air strike may be taking place as well.  But we’re left to wonder about the details of the external carnage as Shane comes to terms with the fact that Rick is not waking up, and in the sequence’s most important moment, we learn that Shane DID think Rick was dead and left him reluctantly as time ran out for him to get away himself.  This seems set to reframe everything, which makes it doubly disappointing that instead of adding more depth to the defunct love triangle with Rick and his wife, the knowledge is mostly shrugged off in favor of bringing Shane’s more predictable story arc to fruition when he attempts to rape her in the rec room at the CDC. 
These are the missteps on the part of this show that leave me frustrated.  What a great reset for the character; a man who we thought had been dishonest with a woman in the most horrible of situations to hasten his own relations with her gets a clean slate with the revelation for viewers that he had been telling her the truth (in so far as he could tell) when he told her her husband was dead.  And with this the writers do exactly zilch.  It lends interesting perspective to the recent news that Darabont is removing ALL of the show’s writers for next season.  And by “interesting perspective” I mean “a round of applause from most thoughtful viewers”.  The writers’ decision making has been suspect all season:
“Okay, so now they’ll see that Shane was telling the truth.”
“Yeah, yeah.   That’s good stuff.  So what do we do with it?”
“Well, we could have him admit the relationship to Rick and try to explain what happened in the hospit—“
“Let’s have him try to rape her.”
“Well, that sort of gets rid of the nuance we just created with the opening scene here.  It’s probably more interesting to explore him now that the viewers know—“
“We’re gonna go with rape.”

The disappointing writing doesn’t improve much as the episode unfolds.  Doctor Edwin Jenner is little more than a tool of exposition to fill us in on the back story of the outbreak, and the *yawn* “surprise” reveal that his living/dying/undying test subject was none other than his own wife is as predictable as season finale twists can get.  Of course it was someone he loved.  And for the record, if she was committed to the cure and he made her the promise, by what incredible lack of devotion to the scientific method does he blow a hole in her head within moments of her becoming the single most important tool the world has in curing the disease?  Walter Bishop would have KILLED someone for making that kind of mistake at Massive Dynamic…but we’ll stick to the show we’re on.  These foolish lapses in character motives on the part of the writers is lazy at best.  Often it’s worse than lazy—in this case played for dramatic effect that falls flat on its boring face.
Though Jenner is excellently played (his confused, startled, troubled attitude towards the sudden guests is pitch perfect) the dialogue he’s saddled with is a burden almost from start to finish:  “What do you people want?” he asks when they arrive.  Rick gets the dud line “A chance” to which Jenner has to shoot back “That’s asking an awful lot these days.”  Really?  How about “Hey everyone, it’s really great to see living human beings still wandering around in the world.  Come in; don’t forget to wipe your shoes on the mat.”
Once inside the facility, the episode is a mix of well played, well earned moments and missed opportunities.  The scene around the dinner table was massively disappointing for me—where are the shots of these guys shoving their faces full of real food?  We’ve watched them grow skinny and desperate, the emotional relief of witnessing their feast would’ve been a wonderful moment, instead we watch them swirl red wine in glasses and offer it to a kid who predictably hates the taste and doubly-predictably continues to stink up every scene he’s called upon to actually act in.
You need look no further than the excellent film “The Road” to see how much you can make such “feast following the famine” scenes ring with emotion when they’re well played.  The moments in that film where the father and son share the last Coke in the world from a vending machine and then “fresh” fruit and meat from cans in a fallout shelter are some of the most tear-inducing of the film:  The feast could well be their last, and it’s heart wrenching to know that, for the child, it will never be the “normal” experience the viewer takes for granted.  A missed opportunity for this finale.
The shower sequence somewhat makes up for it with the welcome warmth of actual yellow lighting in place of the icy blue of everything else, but the camera doesn’t linger long enough (not for the sake of nudity, but to let the experience of these people enjoying a pleasure they thought gone for good really bleed out from the screen) to really hit home.
The episode finally gains back some momentum in the final ten minutes from a pleasantly entertaining escape sequence involving the grenade we’d all forgotten about and the thorough removal of a zombie’s head from its shoulders.  Cross-cut with this is the only genuinely dramatic moment of the episode, where Dale tries (and seemingly fails) to talk Andrea out of letting it all end in the CDC control room.  Given this show’s ensemble cast, I wasn’t entirely convinced they wouldn’t dare take out a “regular” or two to give the finale a gut-punch for us to reel from until season 2.  But the result here was much preferred—Dale is likeable and Andrea is one of the few supporting characters with interesting depth and real humanity behind her.  Dale’s choice to die with her is touching and feels earned.  The sadness of the moment is driven home wonderfully by Jenner’s distant, resigned-yet-amazed reaction to the escape: “They got out.” 
Maybe a fitting description of the writers of this season—they mostly get out looking good for creating an often-compelling drama fraught with peril and splashed with gore, but they also barely dodged a lot of missteps that could, if they continue into next  season’s expanding story, destroy the show’s best elements.

See you next season—I’ll try to cover this show weekly, and in fewer words than I wanted to devote to this final episode of the first season.

Overall Score:  7.1/10

Great lines, moments, and what not, and occasionally what-have-you:

  • Jenner seems to have whispered the secret to season 2 in Rick’s ear—I didn’t say much about it because speculation is for the comments section below—let’s hear it…
  • The destruction of the CDC sounds thorough and thoroughly awesome:  “It sets the air on fire” Jenner says of the HITs which will bring the temp in the room to a balmy 6000 degrees instantaneously. 
  • The hot-headed reaction of the resident redneck to, um, EVERYTHING that happens is more than tiresome.  Get it together writers.  Reedus is capable of handling a lot more than what you’re giving his character to do.
  • That was a great explosion.  I thought the budget was well used in this episode.
  • Anyone catch that phenomenal Quizno’s ad with the cat pirates and singing sea lions?  Hilarious stuff.  Check it out and sing along:
  • My favorite understated (the only understated?) line of the night came during the MRI of TS-19:
“What are those lights?”
“It’s a person’s life.”
  • Seeing an MRI of the bullet going through TS-19’s brain like one of those slow-mo bullets-through-a-block-of-Jello videos was not half as cool as the episode seemed to think it was.
  • Can we please not result to calling the doctor among a group of survivors “Doc” by default on EVERY TV show?
  • If you missed this season, here’s a spot to catch up (they aren’t paying me for that, I just figure it’s a reliable source:

Friday, December 3, 2010

TV Episode Review: Community “Mixology Certification”

There’s so much to like about this show—especially the various directions it can go in terms of humor—that when it’s firing on all cylinders I think such episodes become something quite remarkable.  Tonight was such an episode.  The setup to the night of reverie was brisk, machine-gun quick with jokes, and rolled out the episode’s premise without wasting a breath.  The familiar structure of an opening placing us in the midst of a celebration is a common time-saver for sitcom writers, and Pierce’s pointed question about why they only sang the last two words to “Happy Birthday” was a phenomenal little meta-joke about the structure of 22-minute television.  By the time Troy was done extorting Pierce for money for a birthday cake he never received (for a birthday celebration he never experienced), I had a good feeling we were in for a solid episode.

I thought taking the gang off campus for a night was a nice shakeup for the show, even though they’ve already been outside the boundaries of the campus this season on multiple occasions (to mixed effect at best, in my opinion).  The difference tonight is that the episode maintained many of the facets of great on-campus episodes.  Most notably, it found two different ways to maintain the “round table” moments the gang engages in, which are arguably the funniest moments on the show.  The near-perfection of the recent episode that found them entirely trapped at the table (or at least in the lounge) underscores the writers’ ability to extract great comedy from simple dialogue with these characters.  So tonight benefitted from the car scenes (to and from the bar—putting nice bookends on the bar scenes) as well as the snappy dialogue between Britta and Jeff at the bar (to Troy’s general confusion). 

The physical comedy was also hard at work in this episode.  Britta’s expression when Jeff shushes her on the phone was rivaled only by Abed’s reaction at the end of the phone call to Jeff’s parting remarks about the bar—both testaments to the stellar acting on this show.  A few minutes later, though, both were trumped by the phenomenally simple joke of Pierce getting trapped in his straw-controlled wheelchair in the entryway to the bar.  The brief overhead shot of his awkward maneuvers to free himself was worth a rewind once I finished the first round of laughter. 

The only real complaints about this episode would be regarding the disjointedness of some of the storylines.  Annie and Abed were pretty lonesome and isolated this episode (Abed especially, given his unfortunate seating arrangement on the drive home); which is not to say their storylines weren’t funny.  But the show generally excels at tying everything together and it felt a little unfamiliar to have the characters still splintered as the episode wound down (though Troy’s moment in the hallway with a drunk and emotional Annie was nicely handled).  As for Abed’s solitude at the bar, I think in the long run I’d take it again if the payoff is as rich in comedy—Abed’s encounter at the bar (and the reveal that he wasn’t oblivious after all, just enjoying a good Farscape chat) was excellent.

Thematically the episode played loosely with ideals of the privilege and punishment of entering adulthood.  Troy’s “coming of age” is used cleverly (and humorously) multiple times during the episode, but perhaps the best moments had more to do with how the existing “adults” revert to childishness as soon as alcohol is placed in front of them:  Abed is drawn to a video game from his childhood while Britta and Jeff argue—childishly—about who has better taste in alcohol (and end up making out in the backseat of a car like sophomores after homecoming).  The only ones who seem enlightened to the lessons of maturity offered by the night are the youths:  a newly-adult Troy realizes the hazards of alcohol and other reckless choices and a disheartened Annie gets a lesson in self assureance (but only after she “played pretend” with an adult role at the bar—clever twist, Community!).  All very well handled and, in the true tradition of Community, comfortably light-hearted and well earned.  I wonder if the show had 2-3 more minutes whether Shirley’s history at the bar would’ve been more tightly wrapped into the theme as well (it certainly stands as a visual metaphor for adult regret). 

A great episode all around—easily one of my top 3 this season.  Thoughts?

Overall:  9.4/10

Great lines and moments:
  • “Hey why did we only sing the last two words?”
  • Best use of birthday cake writing ever:  “A date whose numbers coincide with the day you were expelled from a uterus”
  • Shirley:  “Let’s go to Friday’s.  They have great virgin mudslides!”
Britta:  “Those are milkshakes.”
  • “You’re ruining Fuddrucker’s for everyone.”
  • “Don’t repeat that you goon!” (Britta’s facial reaction to this is what really sells the moment for me)
  • “Speaking of wormholes…” might be the grossest come-on in the history of TV comedies—well done!
  • “Why would you do that in front of me?  I’m not a coat rack.”
  • “Stargate’s better.”  An angry, rejected gay man has never gotten in a final dig that hit home harder—Abed looked utterly dejected.
  • “Alcohol makes people sad.  It’s the Lifetime movies of beverages.”
  • “I can’t wait to understand these arguments!”
  • “Plans fall off me like chicken crap off an armadilla’.”  I love Annie’s perception of what a southerner would say (and how hot she sounds saying it).
  • Others?  I can’t remember them all, but there were many more.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Movie Review: “The Kids Are All Right” (currently on DVD)

“The Kids Are All Right” opens with the image of a teenage kid on a bike, who we will come to like, and another kid on a skateboard, who we pretty much want to see punched in the face from the moment he tips over the recycle bin into the street 15 seconds into the film.  But it’s this first boy who matters to the film—his name is Laser, but we aren’t supposed to hold that against him, and to actor Josh Hutcherson’s credit, we don’t.  He is mostly all right, as is his older sister, Joni (Mia Wasikowska, looking more alive and quietly pretty here than in “Alice in Wonderland” where the ghostly makeup Tim Burton seems to require for all actresses appearing in his films disguised the innocent and warm qualities of her features).  They are both fine and likeable, as are their lesbian parents, Jules and Nic, played to casual and convincing effect by Julianne Moore and Annette Benning, respectively.

The only thing not all right with the kids is that they are nearly grown (Joni is headed to college come fall) and do not know who their biological father is.  They were both conceived—one to each mother (the “Moms” as they are affectionately referred to collectively by Joni and Laser)—with sperm from the same anonymous donor.  Through a quick and simple process, Paul (Mark Ruffalo, playing the role of an impossibly cool self-made hipster effortlessly—can we even count this as acting?) is brought into the picture, though Moms may not be so all right with this.

The Kids:  Clearly Alright

But Paul’s presence is handled with intelligent nuance—Joni and Laser’s reactions are starkly different and don’t reconcile even by the film’s end.  It’s a pleasant change of pace to see teenagers written with emotional complexity in a film.  Paul himself is a difficult character to read even in his final moments in the film—his motivations seem both genuine and thoughtless, hopeful and naïve.  It’s a compliment to director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko that the movie is so comfortable with ambiguity.  It’s ultimately a drama about family relationships, but it is rare to find such a film so comfortable with painting every family member in shades of gray.

She handles the modern-day nuclear family expertly as well—Jules and Nic struggle with the same issues heterosexual parents and couples do, and they fail as often as they succeed at making parenting decisions.  Their relationship involves daily swims through the choppy waters of everyday life together.  In short, exactly what a real-life functional relationship looks like, gay or straight.  Cholodenko’s strongest achievement in the film centers around the fact that the lesbian relationship is NOT its centerpiece.  “Brokeback Mountain” was considered groundbreaking (and politically, male homosexuality tends to cause more conservative bristling than lesbianism), but here is a film that is of a different sort of importance to film history:  it’s a story where two central characters happen to be homosexual without the plot of the film being about their sexual relationship.  It is simply a part of the emotional setting of a story about two kids and their relationships with the adults in their world (the new arrival AND the ones they’ve trusted all their lives). 

Joni is at the center of this, and Wasikowska plays the role well, seeming at times to betray an innocent crush on her “father” who runs an organic farm and a restaurant serving only fresh cuisine, and who seems simply to be too good to be true for a girl of her disposition (the script smartly includes a hyper-sexed friend of Joni’s at key moments to juxtapose Joni’s innocent adoration of Paul with the more raw and promiscuous attraction of the average teenage crush).  His perfection as a male version of the (to steal the AV Club’s wonderfully accurate term) “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” character (see also Kirsten Dunst’s role in “Elizabethtown” or Zooey Daschanel in “500 Days of Summer”) is one of the script’s few weaknesses.  His lifestyle doesn’t entirely make sense.  He is all of the things an independent hipster of an 18-year-old would wish for in a boyfriend, or father in this case, and in combination elements of his career and background don’t seem to mesh logically (how many local organic farmers are independently wealthy in their 40s?).  It’s a minor flaw, but in conjunction with Cholodenko’s insistence on wearing her indie credibility on the movie’s sleeves (quite literally—try to keep count of all the t-shirts in the film screaming at the viewer that every character present has been to Bonnaroo festival and listens to the latest indie bands.  I’m a huge fan of both the fest and indie bands, but within the film it’s laid on so thick you find yourself rolling your eyes—we get it, this is a hip crowd).  It doesn’t diminish the film’s emotional core in any way, but with a landscape increasingly entangled with the growth of indie scrub brush, it would’ve been nice to see such a capable director eschew such blatant appeals to an audience that would’ve happily sat through this one without the bells and whistles to draw them in.

Near the end of the film Joni makes a comment to Paul that is so simple and adolescent and (I only realized this after letting the film digest for a few days) emotionally devastating that it seems to tear the entire contents of their relationship from their moorings, but wonderfully, what becomes of those contents is left to the ethereal place characters disappear to when the credits blot them from our view.

Overall Score:  7.7/10