Saturday, January 29, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe "Reciprocity"

It’s amazing how many things Fringe can morph into from week to week without missing a step.  Last week was a phenomenal return from a long break that featured more than a touch of light-hearted humor and several warm character moments, as well as some pretty enjoyable pseudoscience and a bit of a foray into the show’s master plot, just for good measure.  This week, in sharp contrast, we were treated to a deadly-serious episode which went quickly to much darker places in almost all facets of the show (including thematically, with an examination of how closely people and machines can become intertwined), and really changed our fundamental view of Peter.  It also gave us our first ominous peeks at The Machine which is definitely linked to Peter in a fundamental, possibly biological way.  It certainly seems prepared for him, humming to life and clanking and groaning itself to readiness as soon as it detects his presence (leading to several observations in the episode that “when you touch something, it touches you,” creating a reciprocal relationship).  So the burning question this episode touches viewers with is What exactly has Peter’s connection with the machine done to him?

As much as that question represents a shift in focus (at least temporarily) for viewer interests in coming episodes, “Reciprocity” had plenty of issues of its own to deal with leading up to its unsettling final moments.  Before we understand Peter’s reciprocal connection to the machine, we begin to see the impacts of the reciprocal relationships he has with the people in his life.  He’s lying to Walter about where he’s going at night, and Walter is clearly disturbed by what he recognizes as dishonesty.  Meanwhile Olivia continues to struggle with her feelings about Peter’s relationship with Fauxlivia (kudos to Fringe’s writers who seem to have adopted the nickname from the internet—it’s a nice nod to the loyal fan base the show has built) and about how to feel about him now.  Here she finally finds an outlet for her struggle when she thinks of the other side of the situation (the reciprocal of her own emotions, if you will):  It occurs to her that for Peter there is also a complex and difficult set of feelings that comes along with having been fooled into loving a woman who was not the woman he actually cares about.  It was handled nicely; while we clearly see Olivia’s sense of relief when she recognizes that she really isn’t alone in struggling with their relationship, it is also clearly not a resolution to their relationship woes.  

The concept of reciprocity between machines and people (who the show has already gone to a lot of pains to establish are really just living machines, in a sense) is handled in a lot of nifty ways throughout.  Peter’s connection to the mysterious doomsday machine is paralleled when Dr. James Falcon feeds him into a scanner to learn more about his body’s functions (its machinery and electrical charges, for example), and several others are subjected to a lie detector of William Bell’s design which uses computers to detect tiny changes in facial movement which would indicate dishonesty (a glitch in the human machine’s systems that gives it away—how interesting).  And who can forget Walter slowly becoming a chimp thanks to accidentally changing his body’s “programming” by drinking a retroviral serum to try and regrow the missing parts of his brain?  It’s the only comic twist in the proceedings tonight, but it also cleverly speaks to the episode’s motif.  All of this culminates in the theory that somewhere along the line, The Machine “weaponized” Peter which leads to him tracking down and killing shape shifters according to some (and someone’s) master plan.  This obviously opens up more questions than I care to list here, but one of the major ones has to be at what point this occurred—did it happen when his presence turned the machine on, or was it when his hand activated the smaller part of the device many episodes back?  I can’t say for certain that it matters, but if Peter’s actions are being compromised by the device “reprogramming” him, it will be important to know how long it has been going on for (and what else has it/will it command him to do, besides killing shape shifters to get at information?).  

There are several great moments in this episode involving Walter’s relationship with Peter and how far he will go to protect his son.  The issue is cleverly set up early in the episode when Dr. Falcon wishes to test Peter for various abnormalities through a standard battery of tests and Walter resists him angrily and seems ready to fire him before Nina steps in to calm him down.  The message is clear:  Though Walter spent much of his life treating all of humanity as potential test-subjects, including very young children, he refuses to stand by while his own son is put at risk as a test subject, however benign the tests clearly seem to be.  His reaction is intensely human and heartbreaking, but the irony of his attitude towards Falcon given his own very dark past (and even recent past—Walter has often done some pretty dangerous things to his fellow man while working for Fringe Division as well) can’t go unnoticed.  

The fresh reminder of how fiercely Walter loves Peter lends a lot of weight to the final moments of the episode when Walter walks in in time to witness Peter attacking another shape shifter.  Walter is beside himself with grief and fear—he is appalled by witnessing the ease with which Peter takes the man’s life and then cuts the chip out of his back.  As a viewer, I wasn’t far behind Walter in how deeply the scene changed everything I feel about Peter—when he finishes the shape shifter off with an execution-style shot to the forehead, I flinched a bit in my seat.  It is an act both vicious and heartless, but also forces us as viewers to rethink something besides who Peter is:  It forces us to face our feelings about characters from the alternate universe.  While we’ve considered the issue before to some extent, these moments, I would argue, demand something more from us as viewers.  While it was easy to deal emotionally with the duality of the alternate universe when there was no direct violence between the main characters, we’ve now seen the beginnings of direct confrontation, and it promises to be a paradigm shift.  I really liked a lot of the alternate world’s versions of the people we know on our side:  Broyles certainly proved to be a great man no matter what universe he’s inhabiting, and while Walternate certainly didn’t turn out so well, Olivia and Astrid both seem like they’re just good people doing what they believe is best based on the info they have.  For that matter, the other members of the Fringe team who only exist in the alternate universe were also quite likeable and lent a lot of dramatic suspense to the struggle between the two sides (the idea of their destruction to save “our side” seemed unacceptable from the moment we got to know them).  

But consider our conundrum now:  To accept Peter as a heroic figure and someone we feel good pulling for on the show, we must now accept that he has killed several shape shifters.  Perhaps it’s not the same as taking human lives, but it certainly seems morally reprehensible based on the harsh way his violence is portrayed.  And consider what we’ve seen of shape shifters:  Plenty of evil deeds, but also at least one shifter who is so hesitant to leave the human family and life he has created on our side that he’s killed for his insubordination—it’s hard to argue that killing something capable of that type of devotion is a thing to be taken lightly.  But what is the alternative?  It would have to be looking at Peter now as, at best, a morally ambigious anti-hero and, at worst, a villainous character who has killed lives which, though not human, could be argued to have value and a right to exist.  It’s easy to watch heroic characters on a show like this killing “bad guys” as they exchange gunfire or otherwise threaten the well being of the innocent, but it’s entirely another thing to witness Peter executing beings and desecrating their bodies to retrieve information. 
To be clear, all of this is to be praised.  It’s a phenomenally brave move on the part of Fringe to have Peter suddenly become a dark and uncertain figure.  I recognize that they’ve given themselves an out with the simple fact that The Machine may be causing him to act this way, but until that’s proven or otherwise plays out, the show has shifted the reality of its characters and central struggle in a fascinating and captivating way.  Next week looks promising; we’ll see if they surprise us again with a tonal shift or if the darkness we were left with tonight will hang around for a few more episodes.

Overall Rating:  9.1/10

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

The idea of the "First People" who are somehow connected to the machine is a great concept--listening to our favorite Massive Dynamic lab technician explain the possibility of advanced civilizations existing and crumbling before the dinosaurs was a highlight of the night.

Walter prefers grape chewing gum.

I liked the opening shot of the top secret area where The Machine is housed, and I really loved what little we got to see of The Machine itself tonight--it looks very ominous.

Walter becoming a chimp was well played--he dismisses it as temporary and minor so we don't roll our eyes at the silliness of the concept, but the silly places they take it were a welcome break from the heaviness that surrounded it in this episode.

Speaking of which, Walter shooting himself in the face with whipped cream while making a banana split was great.

Peter's look at himself in the mirror is not at all reassuring--he appears dark, angry and driven, not remorseful or even torn, as we would at the very least hope to see him after all that transpired. 

TV Episode Review: Community "Celebrity Pharmacology 212"

Community may not always hit home runs with their big ideas, but I respect the writers for going big with so many episodes and throwing caution to the wind in favor of plot lines and over-the-top set pieces that are what the kids today call “batshit crazy”.  Tonight’s oversized setup involves a play to benefit a local middle school filled with innocent young minds being tempted by drugs (and in the case of Britta’s nephew, being tempted by Britta as well).  The episode opens with a lot of promise—in fact, when it comes to Commuity, opening to two characters dressed as bumble bees, two more dressed as, uh, biker cats (?) and Pierce dressed up as an anthropomorphic marijuana leaf, suggests you’re in for a great episode.  Troy and Abed, as Bumbleton and Buzzbee, are particularly funny in the opening moments, especially Troy, who isn’t so sure his stinger shouldn’t be in front (you know, like the Dean’s clearly is when HE comes in dressed as a bumblebee for wholly stranger reasons). 

Unfortunately, the episode fumbles a bit with everything it tries to deal with tonight.  It’s a bit disappointing since we’ve certainly seen proof that the show can run in several directions at once and still see everything neatly wrapped up (often with immaculately clever criss-crossing of separate sub plots) in a single episode.  Tonight though, the show struggles a bit with tone issues—Shirley’s cold shoulder to Chang seems mean if understandable, and Britta’s subplot with her nephew (which I guess, technically, is actually Jeff’s subplot) is much more unsettling than funny.  Yeah it’s just light hearted comedy, but even Jeff’s initial move to set up sex for Britta with what he thought was a consenting adult is a bit odd and off the mark, so the fact that it’s her nephew was like trying to cram another bullet into the barrel of a gun that already misfired once.  It doesn’t quite blow the show’s hand off, but it certainly doesn’t hit the mark.  For a minute there I wasn’t sure where I was going with that metaphor, but it worked out okay. 

Pierce’s storyline isn’t much better, but at least it’s fitting of his character in that he utilizes what few advantages he has (money) to leverage what he wants (the starring comedic role in Annie’s production).  Discovering that Annie lives in a craphole of an apartment (a craphole which is “a monument to self reliance” according to Pierce) and collects cans to keep up on the rent seems like a bit of a stretch though, especially given that she could be living in the dorms much more cheaply or could be sharing space with someone.  I know, it’s just a comedy, but it seemed like a poor setup just to weasel in a storyline for Chevy Chase to go bonkers on stage.  When I describe it that way I actually don’t mind it so much—Chase does a great job hamming it up on stage (I was reminded of the show’s pilot where he and Jeff act out his ridiculous Spanish sketch for the class, complete with explorer costumes).  At the end of the day though, Community can do better with finding ways to create these sorts of conundrums and power struggles. 

The slow stretch leading up to the group’s big show is somewhat made up for by the show itself, which, thanks to Pierce’s rewrites and Golden-Globe worthy performance, is an exercise in hilarity and excess.  Pierce of course makes “Drugs” (I love that the character doesn’t have any other name) the star of the show and more or less inadvertently teaches the kids that drugs are the life of the party.  And by “inadvertently” I mean “advertently” since he declares “Ain’t no party without drugs!” as he’s embraced by the crowd of impressionable youngsters (one of whom declares “I love you Drugs!” to Pierce’s delight).  It’s a funny sequence, and it’s punctuated by a fairly funny wrap up to Jeff’s inappropriate sexting problem with Britta’s nephew.  He’s rightfully disgusted by what’s actually transpired and especially by the “emotipenis” and inappropriate picture Marcus sends to (he thinks) Britta.  Overall it’s still a sloppy B-story, but it could’ve been worse, and Jeff’s lawyerish dealings with Marcus to put the whole thing to rest is befitting his selfish nature and reluctant concern for his friends.

Ultimately, though, it’s Chang who saves the day (and the episode, to some extent) when he takes the stage for Act II, stealing Pierce’s role in the process.  Chevy Chase playing the role of “Drugs” is a riot and well worth rewatching if you DVR, but Chang’s manic, insane turn as the scary version of “Drugs” is a highlight of this season so far.  He’s intent on terror, motivated by a need to get Shirley to talk to him, and fueled by his naturally unhinged nature.  The results (a.k.a. the new “Drugs”) speak for themselves: “I’m gonna deep fry your dog and eat your motha’s face!  I’m gonna wear your little brother’s skin like pajamas!”  Ken Jeong given two to three minutes of screen time to ad lib is one of the surest bets this show has (and that’s saying a lot considering the cast’s uniform excellence), and it puts him great use here.

From there on, things wrap up roughly as you’d expect—Pierce is apologetic, Annie is sympathetic, Jeff is off the hook, and the Dean is fully erect after catching a glimpse of Winger in a coffin, confirming his suspicions that Jeff would, in fact, look hot even in a coffin.  Most importantly though, at least to those of us who enjoy the show’s master plots, is that Shirley eventually speaks to Chang kindly and apologizes for her cruel behavior.  It’s a nice twist that Chang is so banged up that he isn’t really there to hear it, but that’s about what we’d expect for the finale to such a goofy episode.  It’s pretty harmless start to finish in terms of altering any major stories, and it tells a nice little story of its own without ever quite getting all the cylinders to fire at the same time.  Having said that, even when spewing oil from its engine and with flames licking out from under the hood, Community is capable of delivering some laughs, and tonight wasn’t even close to being that kind of a clunker.   
 Overall Rating:  8.7/10

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

The Dean is "Off to the airport Ramada" dressed as a bumblebee--I love that the Dean being into cosplay is one of the show's running gags.

Chang's mix tape is mostly Johnny Gill--love it.

Pierce:  There's a rapist in the hallway.
Annie:  That's my landlord.  If he wanted to rape you, you'd be raped. 
Considering she lives above a store called "Dildopolis", I'm not sure she's completely kidding.

Annie used to get visits from "The Period Fairy" and Pierce asks if she still comes.  Gross and funny.

Pierce was once the "Gerber baby of moist towelettes".  The flashback scene is a bit dark for a backstory though--especially with no real resolution.

Chang:  Do you ignore me because I'm Chinese?
Shirley:  You're Korean.
Chang:  Like there's a difference.

I think it's quietly clever that Pierce finally finds an audience who appreciate his humor in a bunch of middle schoolers--those dummies really WILL laugh at anything.

Troy's reaction to taking a baseball in the face is hilarious--Donald Glover's facial expressions remain a great source of funny moments on this show.

"I feel much better now thanks to NOT drugs."

Pierce's excitement after Act I is great; he's so pumped that the audience is loving him--"And I haven't even used my penis material yet!"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TV Episode Review: V "Laid Bare"

Let’s start this week by examining the inaccurate title of this episode in which no one, including Malick who is scheduled to be skinned alive, is laid bare in any way, shape, or form.  Nor are any plans laid bare in any particularly interesting way.  This week’s title represents a puzzler at both the plot and thematic levels, so there’s that.  I’d say that the shortcomings of this show as a sci-fi genre actioner were laid bare, but that really happened a long time ago, did it not?  So tonight we’re left with a lot of silliness and more disappointing failure to cash in on potential.

First, the potential:  Last week’s teaser promised something you’d be a fool to believe the show would follow through on satisfyingly when Erica announced that Malick was to be skinned as a form of torture to get answers from her.  Since the show clearly has no aspirations to be a political commentary, I guess we should just take it at face value that unusual and vicious torture methods are acceptable when the detainee is not human (still sounds icky to write it, though).  I was also prepared to forgive the scene based on the premise that even if the network shied away from a visual feast of flesh being ripped from lizard sub-dermis it would still provide us with our first full view of a V in its bare form (hence the title, I thought in my bottomless ignorance).  But alas, all it takes to get Malick to spill the top secret beans is peeling back a bit of her back and slicing off her tail.  Some operatives the Vs are putting into the field. 

Even more disappointing (just kidding, I have no emotional investment anymore) is that all she provides the Fifth Column with is the location of the next kidnapping victim of the Vs, which makes no sense given that, according to their own research, all of the kidnappings happened a long time ago, but given the back of the kidnapper’s van, he’s been rounding up human guinea pigs (and maybe some regular guinea pigs for lunch—am I right?) all day.  But for some reason one girl’s name pops up and the team tracks her down and rescues her, but the truth is they just save one body while countless others lift off in a V shuttle to become test subjects in the Everything-but-the-Soul Sucker (patent pending).

Back aboard Anna’s ship, poor Lisa is starting to get all green and shimmery, which Anna explains is the first step of becoming a V mommy and a great and powerful leader, just like her.  Later we learn, to no one’s surprise, Anna imprisoned her mother in a twig hut on Dagobah when she began this transformation process, so just in case you missed the parallel structure, her mother warns Anna that Lisa will probably attempt to do the same thing.  Lisa has to be cheered on if you care about this show at all, but it’s hard to have faith in a woman or lizard who falls head over tail for an idiot like Tyler, who happily films a video framing Father Jack as a violent vigilante and then smiles like a trained monkey while Anna tells him she thinks of him as her own child.  Little does Anna know that her real, flesh-and-blerg daughter is in the arms of (irony!) Tyler’s mom who’s saying pretty much the same thing to her.  If this show had to wrap things up tomorrow, it would be phenomenal if Anna called a retreat but kept her beloved Tyler aboard ship and rocketed off into space while Lisa stayed home with Erica and everyone else could just shrug it off as a wash. 

At least someone besides the viewer is tortured with this episode.

Instead, Anna is pushing forward with her soul-reaping plans of, well, soul-reaping.  The contraption is complete which will isolate the human soul, and it’s a doozie.  It looks like every other V piece of medical equipment—horribly metallic and pointy, sterile and dysfunctional.  But then, who am I to attempt to understand a machine that will extract “water, muscle, bone and tissue—taking the subject to the brink of death” leaving only the soul when everything else has been slurped up through metal talons (which bulge like cartoon straws as they slurp out person goo).  I’m not sure how a person continues to live after having all of their moisture and muscles and bones removed, but I’m curious to see whatever floating orb is left at the end of it all.  I’ve never seen a soul before.  Obviously we’re more likely to witness the machine’s failure and Anna’s corresponding murderous rage, but po-tay-to po-tah-to, I guess.  The machine in action is more laughable than terrifying; my wife’s reaction when it was explained what it would do was to remark “rubbing his nipples does all that?”  I talked in week one’s review about the fact that this show might benefit mightily from recognizing its throbbing B-movie heart and embracing it, but every time it attempts to do so it just falls flat.  Is anyone really enjoying the benign and unimaginative alien technology on this show which makes no sense AND offers nothing in the way of gross-out effects? 

I think I’ve reached a tipping point with this show, at least in terms of the blog.  Does anyone really care if I continue reviewing this show or not?  Right now it comes as part of a front loaded week of television and it means that Southland doesn’t get reviewed in a timely manner and I’ve given up on reviewing The Cape.  However, one or both of those shows could take the place of this one; I just can’t keep up on all three in any timely way.  So, comment below if you’d prefer I review this over those.  If not, I may be changing horses in mid-stream in the next week or so.  I’ve kept reviewing V mainly because it seems to have a lot of readers (thanks blogger stat tracker!) and I don’t want to discontinue something that’s popular—having people read and share their thoughts is obviously the point of a blog in the first place.  But if my time is better spent reviewing better shows, I’d rather do that.  If you prefer the snark and anger of V reviews, I’m certainly overflowing with enough of it to coast through the rest of this season. 

Overall Score:  4.5/10

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

Nothing stuck out to me this week…

Monday, January 24, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “The Firefly”

I’m sure fans of Joss Whedon had to change into sweatpants or unbutton their jeans when they heard the title of the latest Fringe episode, but thankfully (you heard me), Fringe’s return from a long break on a new night had nothing to do with Whedon’s universe.  But it had plenty to do with the alternate universe and the Observers from who-knows-what universe.  It’s pleasantly ironic that this episode was all about memory, since it has been so long since Fringe was last on that I found myself struggling to recall the finer details of important plot points as they became important to “The Firefly”.  Most notably, this episode began to help us make sense of the purposes behind The Observers interfering in the two universes since Walter’s theft of Peter from the other world.  We are given more insight into their roundabout ways of interfering in the course of events (as well as their limitations) and we learn that for whatever quirky reasons bald, emotionless humanoid aliens might have, they are possibly hinging the fate of the world on the premise that Walter Bishop is a changed man after all these years.
Perhaps the best element of tonight’s episode, which was uniformly strong throughout, is the tightly knit thematic centerpiece of the elusiveness of memory and its role in our lives.  To this end, the episode begins with a charming opening scene which finds Walter experimenting in the kitchen with his pants around his ankles.  There are very few scenes in all of television with characters with pants around their ankles which are charming, so just appreciate that for its own sake for a moment.  Walter is designing an elixir to try and restore the memories from his past that he had Bell remove.  In a touching moment, Peter says he doesn’t want Walter to hurt himself (and he’s also a bit worried that Walter is high—which he is).  Walter’s struggle to recall what he purposely lost from his mind years ago is the first in a series of attempts by several characters to recover memories long gone—or missed entirely.  It’s a clever conceit and it’s used to great effect here.  It speaks to the show’s interesting exploration of the powers of the human mind in general, and I really enjoyed the mostly technology-free exploration of how powerful the mind can be.
Walter’s struggles are paralleled (in many ways) by tonight’s sad and wonderful Rosco Joyce, a man in a nursing home who seems to have had a visit from his long-dead son.  He has no memory of what his son Bobby said to him during his visit (“It’s a curse not remembering a miracle” he says dejectedly), nor does he remember much of his experiences with his son while he was alive.  I won’t insult you by going into detail about the obvious father/son, lost time/forgetfulness parallels between Joyce (who Walter idolizes as a rock keyboardist from his youth) and Walter, but they made for some beautiful scenes between the two characters before night’s end.  Christopher Lloyd is pitch-perfect as the aged rock star here, his mannerisms are just odd enough to give John Noble a run for his money, and it’s incredible fun to see them banter back and forth with one another.  The comfort they find in each other as Walter helps Joyce remember his son’s message and past (he puts a device on his head, but all it really takes is a piano and some pleasant conversation—I love that this show is confident enough in its characters to throw out the gadget-of-the-week concept once in a while) is a pleasure to behold and leads to some tearful moments as Walter eventually realizes that the gaining back of his son, Peter, was the cause of Joyce’s loss of his son, Bobby.  You see, Peter snatched a firefly from the air which would have otherwise ended up in the closed palms of a girl a few miles away, but when it didn’t, she wandered off and when her father hopped in the car to search for her in the rain, he took Bobby’s life as he ran a red light.  It’s a tragically convoluted tale of loss, completely befitting the complexities of the Fringe universe, and equally befitting The Observer’s motives (it’s not insignificant that an Observer is the one who relates this story to Walter.  It offers us a model of cause and effect that explains why The Observers seem to work in very mysterious ways themselves—because that’s just the way reality works). 
But even with the richness of Walter and Joyce’s interconnected memories of loss, Fringe goes above and beyond in parallelism to find Olivia struggling with her own (somewhat metaphoric) lost memories.  A brand new copy of If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him arrives at her apartment with a note from Peter stating “Because you asked.”  She realizes very quickly that this is for Fauxlivia and involves a memory Peter shares with her, without her knowledge of it.  It ends up working effectively to allow for a nice bit of growth to Olivia and Peter’s complex relationship as Peter explains that whatever Fauxlivia said to prompt him to give it to her, it’s the real Olivia, the one he cares about, who he wanted to open himself up to.  But it works even more effectively as another examination of the pesky nature of memories.  They are often taken for granted when present (Peter clearly forgot the book had even been sent) but are frustrating and painful when they are absent (Olivia is clearly devastated that Peter finally opened himself up a bit to the other version of herself). 
For those who only tune in to Fringe for the frenetic action and other-wordly weirdness, tonight’s episode didn’t disappoint, despite putting forth its strongest moments during quiet scenes of dialogue.   The enigmatic discussion between Observers early in the episode about whether or not “he” has changed is brought quickly into sharp focus by their own master plan:  The Observers are testing Walter to see if he will give up Peter for the greater good now.  Walter’s pain at the moment where he releases Peter to his potential death in order to save a young woman and let Peter chase down the Observer is palpable, and the results of his choice will clearly ripple and echo through the remainder of the season.  Though Peter emerges seemingly unscathed, he was shot with a very strange weapon by The Observer which seems to have given him a concussion.  This leads to him drinking brain milk Walter had kept in the fridge and going into seizures.  Though Olivia saves the day and Walter suddenly sees the master plan of The Observers, it’s hard not to have their final words to Walter ringing in our ears—when Walter asks what the future will hold, The Observer explains that he cannot see all possible futures because every event causes ripples.  We can only assume that would include the ripples of a convoluted Observer Experiment, which may come back to haunt the Fringe team—or perhaps The Observers and their plans—before the season ends.
Fringe has had more than its share of explosively fast paced episodes and eye-popping technological wonders and grotesqueries this season, so it was nice to see the writers having the confidence to return from a six week break with an episode that was longer on character development than CGI wonder.  It was a nice reminder that this show is ultimately all about the humanity of its characters, regardless of the foreignness of the world they inhabit.  Like so many of Fringe’s strongest master-story episodes, it wisely found a plot anchor in Walter and let everything else, from aging keyboardists to Observer meddling, orbit around the firm center of his essential humanity.  I’ve wondered on occasion why it is that Fringe seems so undeniably better than even its best peers in the science fiction genre, and I think tonight’s episode provides the answer to that question more clearly than I could articulate it. 
Overall Rating:  9.3/10
Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:
“Manamana” is Walter’s ideal soundtrack.
These writers have learned to use Walter to wonderful comedic  effect.  When Peter asks him what he’s doing in the kitchen at 2 AM he replies casually “I’m making myself smarter” as he shuffles around with his pants around his ankles.
 Peter:  Who is that at 2 AM?
Walter:  My pizza.
Peter:  So you are high.
Walter:  Maybe just a bit.

Christopher Lloyd’s facial expressions are a course in non-verbal acting skills.  His pained look as he begins to play the piano while thinking of his son is heartbreaking.

How great is the Twin Peaks reference here?  Walter’s red and blue glasses, and the Dr. Jacobi who gave them to him, are both nods to the nutjob psychiatrist from Twin Peaks. 

Brain Mapping does sound like an album title, Rosco, but not one that a band with a talented keyboardist would use.

The Observers are so inhuman in their mannerisms, but it was a wonderful moment of detached observation when he says to Peter “It must be very difficult being a father.”  Who knows what hidden meanings lay beneath that remark.

“If I Only Had a Brain” is a nice little send off to the episode’s memory-centric story and themes—quiet and subtle and playful, just like Fringe can be when it wants to be.

Peter’s book’s message:  Look inside of yourself to find answers instead of relying on other people.  Doesn’t it seem like Peter is slowly moving away from such a philosophy?

TV Episode Review: Community "Asian Population Studies"

Community made a strong return this week after a loooong hiatus for the holidays.  The strength of this season’s past few episodes may prove important in the long run given that NBC has clearly decided to toss all of their Thursday comedies into a Yahtzee shaker with a couple total pieces of trash (Perfect Couples and Outsourced—double shudder) and just let things sort themselves out.  This continues to mean a tough go of it for Community which is stuck with the earliest time slot with no lead-in.  It’s a difficult position for the show to be in, but I can’t help but think the continuing strength of the show’s writing and the charm of its ensemble of leads will keep it somewhere in this bloated lineup going into next year—the question is where.  The Office may go down the tubes rapidly once Steve Carrell makes his exit, and the rest of the Thursday night lineup is a far cry from the ratings draw of that show.  Outsourced and Perfect Couples won’t replace any of our favorites, but their presence suggests that NBC isn’t completely in love with anything currently in existence on Thursday nights.

The episode opens with a strong entry into the growing string of great dialogue exchanges around the study table.  Annie is busily attempting to spread gossip about her own exploits over break (did they say it was spring break they were returning from?) with a seemingly-too-perfect fellow named Rich or Rick (apparently I wasn’t any more interested in him than the rest of the study group).  The group’s speculation about who it might be is hilarious—all of their guesses are campus mash-ups of celebrities, including the brilliant categorization of Abed as “brown Jamie Lee Curtis” (a title he approves of enthusiastically).

“Asian Population Studies” brought a couple of pleasant surprises with it, and even made something charming out of an unpleasant surprise.  The least pleasant surprise is that Shirley is pregnant…at the, uh, hands, of Change, potentially.  On a slightly brighter note, her old husband is back in the picture, and in the most pleasant surprise of all, her husband is played by the buttery-smooth voiced Theo Huxtable (known in some circles as Malcolm-Jamal Warner).  He comes off well, if a bit uncertain of the strange brand of crazy (even for crazy these guys are a bit off-center) the group practices in, but he’s kind and seems genuinely committed to Shirley.  It’s a bit of a dark twist for a goofy comedy that she may therefore be carrying an illegitimate child which would threaten their relationship all over again (not to mention creating a messy situation for the baby), so it’s not surprising that by episode’s end Theo (it’s how I know him) pledges to Jeff and then Shirley that he’s in it for the long haul regardless of who the father is.  It’s a simple and effective (if a bit sugary) solution to a single-episode problem that works just fine.  Whether Warner is remaining on board as a supporting cast member is a different question, but he’d certainly be welcome and provides a strong straight-man to contrast with the unusual world Shirley spends her days immersed in. 

So Chang may or may not have fathered a child, but that doesn’t seem to faze him for long.  Least of all when the study group (who actually think of themselves as “that study group”, we learn) is holding open auditions for one new member and all Chang has to do to win the contest is beat out the perfect Rich/Rick who is heavily promoted by Annie and even more heavily opposed by Jeff, who may have jealous motives.  There are mixed feelings among fans about Jeff and Annie’s odd, sexually tense interactions since their kiss, but I kind of like it and it has provided more than one interesting little side story this season to bolster otherwise thin plot lines.  Tonight it isn’t of great interest, but does lead to a head-scratcher of an ending as Jeff visits Rich/Rick at his house (it seems like Jeff already knows this guy—am I wrong in noticing that?) and begs him to make Jeff perfect as well so he can use it for selfish reasons.  The whole scene played very strangely, and not just because there’s a misdirect to make us think Jeff is headed to Annie’s.  I think they’ve done a nice job with Jeff’s character, but the idea of his continuing vanity and inability to put the feelings and needs of others before his own is wearing a little thin.  Isn’t he pretty clearly emotionally connected with these people, and wouldn’t it be okay if we allowed that maybe he’s grown a little for having been around them?  We’ll see where this little development takes him the rest of the season, but I’m not a fan of it at this point.

On the whole though, the episode reminded us what we’ve been missing since mid-December, and it managed to introduce several potential new storylines to follow eagerly through season’s end .

Overall Rating:  9.0/10

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

  • “That sounded so sexy…laser disc.”
  • “Why are you using your ‘I love butterflies’ voice?”

  • “Someone’s finding river fingers with a cute boy!”

  • Among the guesses about who Rich is:  black Michael Chiklis or white George Foreman

  • “Who has Chang’s pile of nothing?”

  • Apparently Jeff was okay with Chang “Before he started using his name as a pun.  It makes me so Changry!  Now I’m doing it!”

  • Professor Duncan, in explaining his sobriety’s effects, seems to be writing “penis” on the board to emphasize his improved function just as Rich walks in the door—love these little touches.

  • Rich “has a land line and uses the word ‘album’.”

  • Pierce’s metaphor for Shirley’s situation is priceless.  It’s like having parsley caught in your teeth except “imagine your teeth are a uterus and the parsley is a half-Chinese baby.”
  • Jeff’s friend Kendra spells her name AND “kettle corn” with a Qu-.  And her attempts to charm the group are great: 
         Quendra:  “I love Star Wars.”
         Jeff:  “That’s Troy.”
         Quendra:  “I love footballs.”

  • Rich spent his summer “fixing children’s cleft palates and teaching them to play acoustic guitar”—what a jerk!

  • Chang on using his name to create bad puns:  “Guilty as Changed”

  • I love the gross revelation that Chang smells like band aids.

  • Britta is very upset she only gets mezzanine seats for showing off her breasts to some slob—going in blind, I’d guess they probably are worth main floor with backstage passes, but that’s an educated guess.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Movie Review: "Black Swan"

Darren Aronofsky once directed a gorgeous film called “The Fountain” which featured, in one of its three parallel storylines, a man floating through space in a bubble and eating the bark from a tree of life which contained his wife’s soul, which he believed would be set free when the bubble reached the center of the universe and entered a supernova.  “Black Swan” makes that film seem like “Howard’s End” by comparison.  Aronofsky has really only gotten the attention deserving of his directorial prowess with “The Wrestler”, which needs no explanation here, but it’s worth noting that it’s the only one of his films that toned down the fantastical and horror elements which are a signature of the rest of his work.  “Black Swan” represents an artistic crescendo of those elements for the visionary director, and perhaps something of an autobiographical explanation of why he has made the choices he has in his given medium.  “Black Swan” is about the pursuit of artistic perfection, and more importantly about the nature of art in general and what its creators must go through to create something of power and beauty.  The resulting film is a nightmarishly beautiful study of art set in tones of black, gray, white, and the pink bedroom of a young woman trapped in artistic childhood.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a girl with control issues; namely that she demands of herself complete control of her body while dancing and suffers unknowingly under the oppressive control of her mother, a washed up ballet dancer smothering her daughter with her own lost dreams of perfection.  Nina lands the lead, to her great surprise, in the ballet’s new production of Swan LakeThis is the moment Nina’s entire life has led up to—we understand this for having seen her ruined feet and tired body and heard the tired sounds the bones inside of both make when she prepares to perform.  Her mother buys a cake to celebrate.  When Nina is reluctant to eat it, her mother makes a huge scene of being disgusted and taking it to the trash bin.  Her control over Nina’s psyche is evident as Nina stops her, apologizes, and reluctantly takes a bite of frosting from the tip of her mother’s finger.  Later her mother will tuck her into bed in a pink room filled with early childhood’s comforts, from stuffed animals to a tinkling music box with a porcelain ballet dancer twirling obediently at its center.  It is a place of safety where everything is controlled by external forces and from which true art will never emerge—hence the stiffly spinning porcelain ballerina.  Nina is passively accepting of all of this.

Unfortunately for Nina, the play’s director, Leroy (the outstanding Vincent Cassel), has very little use for control without the key ingredient of passion, which he believes must accompany and even overtake control if a dancer is to truly reach the audience emotionally.  To prove his point, he kisses her, verbally challenges her, and eventually seduces and sexually assaults her through dance simply to prove this point.  But Nina is a slow learner.  Prodding her along, however, is the new girl, Lily (Mila Kunis, who plays her real-life persona here, but to good effect), who may or may not realize she represents a constant threat to Nina’s security as the lead.  Complicating the situation, Aronofsky often doesn’t even allow us to be certain when Lily is or is not real—the visions and hallucinations that begin to overwhelm Nina overlap reality for her completely, and Aronofsky’s choice to blind the viewer to the thin border between reality and nightmare as well is a fascinating one.  As the performance and preparation begin to spiral out of control for Nina (and how crucial to her success that they do), we are lost along with her in a limbo of horror and wonder.  Certainly some of her experiences are merely imagination, but others gob smack both Nina and the viewer in the face twice—once in the experiencing of them and again in the later realization that they never occurred.  But always they are about the same thing—the struggle between passion and control. 

Beginning with Leroy’s sexual aggression towards Nina (which to some extent does seem to be for the sake of her performance), Aronofsky explores the parallels of sexual release and the artistic expression of passion—both acts which at their height become almost entirely devoid of control.  Artistic expression might, in fact, involve a complete opening of the self to the audience in order for passion to pass from artist to audience—a concept explored richly and graphically through much of the film’s phantasmagoric imagery.  Think carefully about what you witness in Nina’s ultimate performance and the metaphors the films speaks with as readily as it does with its dialogue.  The film ultimately defies review (it’s phenomenal—you need to see it in a theater where it can overwhelm you with the theaters outsized screen and sound system).  What it demands is careful attention and exploration, which I bite my tongue against here since it would be impossible without spoilers. 

The film’s thematic elements and visual metaphors are inextricable from its fundamental story.  Filmgoers are often fond of saying that a film “works on multiple levels,” often as a way of excusing the fact that they liked a movie while recognizing that they really didn’t understand what the hell was going on in a few places.  This film refuses to allow such casual appreciation—if you aren’t in it for the art you aren’t going to be into it at all.  It’s a bold move (a passionate move, to put it in the film’s terms) by Aronofsky to risk alienating viewers through such a graphic, horrific and overwhelmingly visceral journey without much sense of relief.  The film mounts in tension rapidly through the second act, and by the third act it has become at least a third part horror film and charges with such energy and excess towards its climactic moments that the post-viewing experience involved a sense of emotional exhaustion for me as a viewer.  I remarked going into the film that I was almost scared of the movie—I know what Aronofsky is capable of doing to viewers (I shudder still at “Requiem for a Dream”) and the previews and buzz for “Black Swan” suggested a similarly demanding experience.  It exceeds those expectations on all levels.  Aronofsky manages to make devastation seem uplifting at moments and understands within his own art what the impact of raw passion will be on an audience.  In that sense, the film does work on multiple levels, but at least a few of those are in the viewer’s psyche. 

The film is also lavishly and expertly shot—there are more memorable visuals here than what even the most spoilerish trailers have let on (the image of Nina in black feathers is a beautiful one, but barely scratches the surface—pun intended, you’ll see—of what visions await you during that performance).  Aronofsky’s camera becomes a part of the choreography and struggles to be still as it witnesses Nina’s similar instability as an artist transforming.  Indeed, the camera refuses to steady itself through any dance sequences until Nina finds her own steadiness and then, suddenly, it becomes motionless, as if finally comfortable becoming an audience member itself, prepared to witness a perfect work of art, perhaps only dimly aware (as I hope Aronofsky is having stood behind it) that it has in fact created one. 

Overall Rating:  10/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you: 
(Spoilers present throughout!)

  • Much has been made of the sex scene between Nina and Lily, but I would recommend people troubled by it look back to my thoughts above—it exists only metaphorically within the film (it never happened) and represents the release of passion and the surrender of control over one’s body to that passion.  The fact that Aronofsky chose to film it in some surprisingly graphic detail speaks, I think, to his devotion to this thematic idea.  The sexuality of passion is a motif that recurs constantly throughout the film and is key to appreciating Nina’s ultimate end (she opens a hole in herself that lets passion out and the audience in).  One might also argue that the scene is really only shocking because it’s something no one would have expected these two popular and talented actresses to agree to.  Applaud them for taking the risk.
  • The stage lights casting black-swan shadows on the walls as Nina stands in human form at center stage was a gorgeous touch foreshadowing her final transformation with a nice bit of visual imagery.
  • I couldn’t say exactly why, but I found the dance scene at the night club Lily takes Nina to to be a great moment.  The sudden addition of strobing red and green light to the color palate of the film is shocking in its own right, but the freeze-frame moments it reveals (Nina suddenly in her stage makeup among them) are of equal shock value.  Again, passion sneaks out and art begins to form.  The film demands repeat viewing—I feel like I’m barely catching a tenth of what’s there.
  • I wish Vincent Cassel would get more big roles—he was similarly outstanding in “Brotherhood of the Wolf” but few people saw that, either because they never heard of it or they just don’t realize how much great French cinema is out there.
  • I really am impressed by how far the film went down the path to traditional horror—Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan is a genuine nightmare to behold.  Horripilation leading to feathers poking through the skin is one thing (and sadly spoiled by more recent TV spots), but when her legs broke backwards into the inverted avian shape I think every head in the theater snapped away from the screen in unison.  Awesome.  

  • The use of sound in this film is beyond stunning—the music needed no help from Aronofsky to provide emotional impact (I appreciate the beauty of ballet much more than I did before, which was, basically, not at all) but his use of sound in other facets of the film is outstanding.  Everything but human voices seems slightly too loud and too present, if that makes any sense.  The crunching bones in Nina’s feet (and in her legs when they break), the pounding of doors and shattering of mirrors, it’s all ratcheted up to 11, and to great effect. 
The comments section will be devoted to spoiler-filled movie discussion for this review, so share your thoughts and I’ll happily share back.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Movie Review: “True Grit”

The western genre has become something of a ghost town in modern years.  It has evolved into an oddly nifty artistic genre as the general public has turned away from it, given to breathtaking landscapes (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), archetypal, grizzled portraits of masculinity (“Tombstone”, “Open Range”) and to some extent outright oddness (“Sukiyaki Western Django”).  At its very best the genre is capable of redefining itself and our own paradigm of “The Old West”, if that phrase even carries meaning anymore.  “True Grit”, as a remake of the John Wayne classic of the same name, therefore represents an odd trail marker in the western’s long and storied history—it’s a film that brings not only the history of The West with it, but also the history of The Western and goes to great lengths to honor, celebrate and perhaps recalibrate both.  The Coen brothers have done more than enough to carve out their acreage in the cinematic frontier, but with this film they’ve managed to do something that feels like homage and humble, dedicated respect to the greats of the past while still creating a film that feels unique to their slightly off-kilter brand of, well, everything.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me explain my own relationship with the western genre.  My father loved John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when I was growing up, but I didn’t sit and watch a lot of westerns with him.  The names, however, were familiar to my ears before the idea of cinema as a serious artistic medium ever drew my attention (the first movie my parents took me to see in theaters was “Prancer” which one could argue is grounds to have this whole blog shut down).  In college my only film course put before me a 35mm print of Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” and the dialogue-free opening of one of the greatest spaghetti westerns of all time drew me into the world of film in a way I’d never experienced before.  I went to the movies a lot, but I didn’t really think about movies.  And yet here was a western playing with near-silence for more than 10 minutes and then exploding with violence before becoming still again…it was masterful manipulation of the viewer and I was hooked.  But with other genres to distract my attention, I didn’t delve as deeply into westerns as I might have.  Much of John Wayne’s greatest work remains unseen by me (including—but not for long—the original “True Grit”), and with the exception of “High Noon” I’m less familiar with John Ford’s work than I know I should be.  But I know the genre enough to recognize its thematic thrusts, wide-open landscapes and strong, silent protagonists.  On one level this is unnecessary to appreciating the power of the Coens’ take on this material, but on another level it’s entirely essential to appreciating just what they have created here—a “modern” western which not only conforms to the mold of the dustiest classics but practically demands a viewer brush away that dust and give them another look.

“True Grit” opens quietly to snow falling on a body as we listen to the voice of Mattie, the eldest daughter of the corpse, as she explains to us in unwavering tones who killed her father (Tom Chaney) and why (to steal some horses and two gold pieces) and what she plans to do to rectify the situation (have him tracked down and see him hanged).  Hailee Steinfeld is outstanding in her role as a resolute and stubbornly feisty 14-year-old girl who views herself (probably correctly) as the only person with the tenacity and interest to see her father’s killer brought to justice (of one sort or another).  The calm detachment with which she explains her intentions as we watch snow collect quietly on her father’s body, which lies tragically at the steps of their own home, suggest a girl driven and disconnected from the emotions which would cost her whatever little credibility she might earn in the masculine, malevolent world she’s about to enter into. 

Her introduction to that world is handled deftly with Mattie observing twice more the face of death as three men are hanged and she’s given a place to stay in the embalming room where their bodies will be kept.  These sequences are treated with a dose of black humor, including the funniest gallows humor (in the most literal sense) you might see in a movie this year.  It made me laugh aloud in the theater, but my sense of humor makes my mom ashamed of me, so perhaps I’m making too much of it.  I don’t think so though; the Coens seem to want us to stare the idea of death and the act of taking life square in the face alongside the resolute Mattie very early in the film.  She sleeps alongside dead bodies for a night, and the mortician helpfully suggests (repeatedly) that “it would be all right” if she kissed her dead father, as if such a gesture will relieve her of her troubles.  Later he will assure her that if she wants to sleep in one of the coffins, that would also “be all right”.  She observes the hangings fairly stoically and, in fact, seems encouraged by the snapping of necks that this is indeed what she must seek for her father’s killer.  Indeed, when she seeks out a Marshall to track down Chaney, she is determined to go with the meanest of the bunch to assure that she gets what she wants.

Rooster Cogburn requires little time to convince her that he is, indeed, the man she needs for this job, and he does it without even having to speak to her directly.  She first observes him giving testimony for a shooting he was involved in (or instigated), snarling and growling answers disdainfully in regards to how the roll of men he’s sent to the great beyond has grown so long (23 by the prosecution’s count).  Jeff Bridges brings more than a trifling of ambiguity to the character from these very first moments of the film.  He borders on being incomprehensible, not only in speech but in action and character.  His gravelly voice and murmurings require full attention and at times leave you wishing you hadn’t understood him after all.  He’s a fully legitimate U.S. Marshall, but he may have run with criminal gangs in the past.  He is devoted to the law in many senses of the term, but seems to take a certain pleasure out of operating in the deepest shadows of its gray areas and possibly abusing his position to commit acts of violence better left to the judicial system (dispensing bullets where a noose is more proper).  His interests before the court seem more about entertaining himself than defending his badge (or honor). 

It’s with Cogburn’s entrance into the story that the film begins a gracious bow in reverence to the westerns of old.  Cogburn is the apotheosis of the tough, ambiguous and uncompromising men who inhabited the dusty streets and sun drenched plains of the old west, if Hollywood history is to be believed.  Where we wish him to be honorable and righteous he is disinterested and amoral, where we wish him to be sympathetic he is amused and indifferent, and where we expect him to be heroic he sometimes delivers and sometimes passes out in a drunken stupor.  His counterpart in these proceedings is a reluctant Texas Ranger, played with a subtle grin by Matt Damon, who serves as a semi-comic foil for Cogburn’s cowboy toughness.  When we first meet him, LaBeouf is waiting in Mattie’s room for her to awaken.  Though startled, she recovers quickly enough to observe that he looks out of place since “we don’t have rodeo clowns in Dell County.”  LaBeouf has been chasing Chaney for months and laments firing wide the one time he got “within 300 yards of him”, which doesn’t say much for his rangering.  But in the true spirit of the Ol’ West, LaBeouf is given an opportunity to prove his grit and mettle alongside the grizzled lawman who he butts heads with so fiercely at first.  Again the Coens nicely play on western tropes as experience breeds calmness, patience, and slow self destruction while the young and brash must prove themselves and earn the right to be torn apart by the same forces that leave Cogburn living (or at least drinking and sleeping) in back of a Chinese grocery. 

The ambiguity of morality, civility, and loyalty are played like pocket aces by the Coens throughout the film, but their true talent is best displayed by the fact that despite ambiguities everywhere, in the end there is little doubt of the rightness of certain actions and the code of ethics by which those who take action come by their decisions.  Third acts such as this one are the bread and butter of the best western films, and here is no exception.  Cogburn’s actions are inevitable if you have listened to (and translated) everything he’s told Mattie of his past in the film, and yet his crowning moment remains a moving one in the film for reasons I wouldn’t spoil for you here.  I bring it up vaguely in order to point out that this, too, speaks to the depths of study the Coens have done of the western genre—Cogburn is a true western protagonist in the sense that his actions, at long last, will match the philosophies of a life he has lived and survived. 

Taken as a whole, the film is funny, tragic, and violent in roughly equal measures—a balancing act which would almost certainly have toppled in less capable hands.  It’s also filled with the touches we’ve come to expect from a Coen brothers creation, rife with oddities and unexpected developments which lend the film moments of mild surrealism which never last long enough to distract but offer enough impact to make their own take on the west unique and perhaps more accurate in its own strange way to an era which seems to have no entirely honest representation, hence its unending charm.

Overall Rating:  9.5/10

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

  • The Coens continue to render shocking changes of tone in their films with masterful touches of isolated violence.  Here, as in films like “Burn After Reading”, the shock of violence exploding without warning is there and gone before you can draw in your breath, and the impact of it lingers even after Cogburn is back to remarking with amusement about the dead.
  • I found Cogburn’s long horseback ride at the end of the film (vagaries to spare you spoilers) to be fascinating in its aesthetics:  The Coens seem to have forgone more modern approaches to shooting the scene in favor of very old fashioned film techniques which look artificial yet gorgeous (close-ups of his and Mattie’s faces against a starry background particularly stand out).  Several shots were clearly done on a sound stage. Without having a particular film in mind, the whole sequence felt to me like an attempt to recreate similar dramatic rides/moments from the old black and white era of westerns.  
  • Cogburn has more clever one-liners than I can list from memory (I’ve decided I’m not taking notes in theaters for the purposes of reviewing—it seems distracting to people around me), but I enjoyed the fact that regardless of the line, they always seemed designed to amuse only himself.  What anyone else might think of him or his sense of humor never even enters his mind.  “Just don’t go looking for Quincy there” he tells a dying man who says he’ll meet a brother of his in heaven, and he declares flatly “I do not know this man” to Mattie after making her climb a tree to cut down a hung man based on the presumption that he might have known him.  
*Spoilers here to bottom*
  • The presence of the bear-clad doctor and the man who speaks only farm-animal struck me as charming oddities of the Coens, but they always have so much working within the clockwork of their films that I wonder whether a repeat viewing might render the two characters more meaningful in some context.  Thoughts?
  • The epilogue of Mattie as an adult felt somewhat unnecessary to me.  I appreciate seeing that there was, in fact, a price to be paid for the justice she sought, but beyond that sad revelation I didn’t find the coda to be particularly enriching to the film.  Mostly because seeing Mattie as an adult tore me from the attachment I had to her 14-year-old self.  It’s a safe guess based on her stoicism that she would grow to be a reserved old maid not to be trifled with, but to see it play out only takes away from the courageous child that she was while adding nothing to the unspoken results of her relationship with Cogburn.  The trajectory of his remaining time is similarly predictable and better left to our imaginations. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TV Episode Review: Southland “Punching Water”

Blogger’s note (how pretentious am I?):  I know this review is extremely belated, but I want to try and keep up with this show throughout the season, so I’m posting this one late for what it’s worth and promise to try and do better from now on.  Because I know thousands of my three dozen readers were losing sleep over not having my thoughts on a niche cop drama within a couple days of its airing.  All apologies.

This episode draws its quirky title from a melodramatic little speech by Detective Salinger about how when the murder victim is a kid, it reminds an officer what it felt like the first time he looked at himself in the mirror wearing the blue police uniform.  It’s nearly a cool moment, but the stilted sentimentality of it rings just a bit too artificial for a show that hangs its hat on an almost documentary tone (it felt like the kind of speech David Caruso would give on CSI: Miami, but I couldn’t say for sure because my brain would kick my skull open and climb out of my head if I ever sat down to watch something that looks so stupid). 

Luckily, it was a small moment in an episode that had somewhat bigger ambitions than last week’s premiere and seemed to breathe a little energy back into the show’s character interactions and pacing.  The biggest development this week within the department is the self-celebrating return of Officer Dewey from AA; he’s reformed, resolved and absolutely insufferable.  The episode opens strongly with his callous remarks about the dead toddler of a gangbanger the crew is investigating.  It was a nice touch to have him reintroduced to the dynamics of the show without any update to explain to viewers how he’s been reinstated to active duty—his disgusting verbal ejaculations that the boy’s death just saves the department time because they would’ve been back for him when he turned into a gangbanger in 10 years isn’t inaccurate, but it’s a reminder of what these officers can easily become once cynicism outweighs their belief that what they’re doing makes a difference.  It’s a pretty dark worldview for Dewey, given that he’s all about “trusting the Man up above” now that he’s been through the program.  But it’s also fitting that it come from him, a man who has certainly seen how dark things get and probably has little reason left to pull any punches when talking about the way the world really is.  Regardless of his mindset, his harsh words make for a double shot of chin music for viewers right out of the gate—his observations are hard to stomach, and it’s a compliment to his character’s impact that I got a sinking feeling when I saw Dewey back in a police uniform. 

When he’s assigned to ride with Cooper, pushing Sherman in with Chickie (which is probably for the best, given the ribbing he’s taking for hooking up with a notorious badge-chaser who’s already “made the rounds” with everyone else), it’s only a matter of time before Cooper snaps.  The fact that his reaction within the episode is to simply pull “the old switcheroo” on Chickie when Dewey stops for a coffee is a bit disappointing, but the potential for the two to butt heads further down the line makes me believe Dewey’s return will eventually end badly for one or both of them. 

Meanwhile, Moretta and Bryant’s B-story didn’t pick up much this week.  It’s an unfair standard of judgment, but seeing them working over locals for info on gang activity only makes me long for Vic Mackey and the special unit to come in and get things done the right way (also know in legal circles as “the wrong way”).  They haven’t been given much to do, nor has it mattered in any interesting way so far, but I still have to think that will pick up.  I refuse to believe that the biggest story these two talented actors are going to be thrown this season is the cliffhanger revelation this week that Bryant’s wife cheated on him and might be having some other guy’s baby.  Good, kick her out, she’s been an anchor weighing down the show throughout its entire run.  Her character doesn’t mesh well with Bryant.  I know they’re written as an incompatible couple.  My point is that their relationship doesn’t ring true on many levels—he has no interest in her life, she’s not the type who would appreciate a detective’s devotion to his job, and neither seem like the type of person who would rededicate themselves to a struggling relationship.  Bryant especially is a dismissive personality and would have cut a girl like this loose long ago.  The big surprise that jumps out of the bushes at him (almost literally) at the end of this episode is not unexpected and doesn’t really carry much emotional investment (I doubt many viewers were elated to hear she was pregnant in the first place).

As for Adams, her partner remains smug and utterly unbearable this week, so it’s unfortunate that the one good shot she gets in on a fellow body in blue is wasted on Dewey.  He deserves it, but Adams needs to put her foot down about getting another partner who just isn’t cutting it.  More to the point, the show has driven the ongoing dramatic arc of who could possibly replace Adams’s original beloved partner right into the ground, and if this is their permanent solution then I’d like to lodge a formal complaint.  Despite her value and potential “street cred” and experience, she’s built up a lot of animosity with Adams and viewers alike, and I think it’s going to play pretty poorly if in the coming weeks we’re asked to change our opinions of her based on some golden gesture meant to tug forgiveness from our shriveled hearts. 

For all of the continued fumbling about for character relationships and stability, this week’s episode did deliver some solid police drama in the form of that great cold open and something of a step forward in terms of last week’s thematic concept.  The cops don’t exactly work through loopholes in the system this week, but the episode seemed to provide some setup for the idea of frustrated police working the angles to get the right outcome as tensions rose steadily between partners and in the emotional response to the baby-sized cowboy boots lying in the street at the scene of the drive-by.  It’s not a lot of momentum, but I continue to recommend the show readily to anyone who hasn’t seen it, and there have been enough sparks of raw, energetic television bursting here and there in these first two weeks for me to remain confident in the remainder of the season.

Overall Score:  7.4/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:
  • The sub plot in the car garage seemed like wheel spinning to keep two characters busy for an episode.  I want Moretta and Bryant to get something useful to do, and soon.
  • I like the lunch sessions we've gotten to sit in on at the outdoor cafe this season--the dialogue there is casual and natural.  It's an old trick but an effective on to ingratiate characters to viewers through these types of scenes, and this show has done it partiucularly well.
  • I want to know if girls like the badge-chaser really exist.  I'm not looking to change professions or anything but the episode struck me as slipping into pure fiction with this little sub-plot.  Any agents of the law out there want to comment?  You can post anonymously...