Monday, March 28, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “Bloodline”

Fringe tonight offered much more in the way of interesting developments than exciting or memorable moments.  You already know my feelings about the Earth 2 characters—they’re well developed and fairly likable (with the exception of the Astrid-9000 Statbot) but they just don’t carry any emotional weight for me.  As a result, the episode for me knocked the emotional gearshift into neutral for a week while we watched with detached interest as the child who could change everything (maybe that whole phrase should be capitalized?) was brought into the world post haste, despite the fact that Fauxlivia is a carrier of something called VPE which is often fatal for both mother and child.  Whether she and Peter Jr. survived because of the rapid-development treatment given to her by Walternate’s creepy medical crew or just because Fauxlivia is a strong enough heroine to will death away from herself and her uterus through childbirth (all 45 seconds of it) is not really explained clearly.  What is made fairly clear is that the child itself is less important to Walternate than his blood sample, which I assume will prove useful in creating another version of the baby, which I further assume can be raised (grown?) to fulfill the fate in the doomsday machine that we thought was unique to Peter himself.  That’s speculative, but it’s the only role for the baby that at present seems uniquely fit for the offspring of Peter and Fauxlivia.

Friday, March 25, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Critical Film Studies”

Though I didn't really enjoy tonight’s episode very much, it will forever be the night of television which gave us Chevy Chase dressed in the bondage gear of The Gimp from “Pulp Fiction” which, really, is a greater gift than any of us has any right to ask for from a TV show.  All of the characters in costume tonight were a joy to behold, most especially Britta who—I defy you to disagree—is much hotter than Uma Thurman in the same costume.  The final slo-mo scenes of the birthday party are lovingly crafted and actually made me really, really jealous that I’m not a part of the study group.  And there are other gems hidden amidst the odd little meta-commentary about Abed’s obsession with pop culture, but (and I admit that this might have to do with the fact that I haven’t seen “My Dinner with Andre”) overall the episode came off as fairly flat and lifeless, and didn’t really offer much of interest in the way of being meta in the first place. 

TV Episode Review: Justified “Save My Love”

I still don’t like this whole money theft sub plot with Wynona.  It made for quite a bit of harrowing drama tonight, which culminated in a really sad moment where Art is clearly suspicious of Raylan’s business in the evidence room when they “bump into each other” down there just as Wynona finishes putting the money back in a new hiding spot.  Art’s over-the-shoulder look of concern as Raylan departs was painful to watch; their love-hate relationship feels as deep and firm as any of the relations on the show, so it’s kind of devastating to think that something like this could put a crack in its foundation.  It also suggests this whole mess isn’t quite over yet, which makes it even worse considering it never should have started.  I said it before I’ll say it again:  Wynona isn’t a thief.  Given this week’s developments I guess I need to add “she’s also not an idiot,” since we discovered tonight that she actually just decided to stuff the entire contents of the evidence locker into her bag.  It’s a really flawed premise to ask us to buy into, but since we have no choice I guess it’s nice that it at least results in some enjoyable moments this evening.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “Black Hand and the Shotgun Man”

Tonight’s incident involving a drug lord’s kidnapped son played out fairly decently, especially with a brief little shootout scene which managed to make itself quite interesting without really involving a whole lot of gun play.  The show continues to excel at handling action sequences very well with camera movement and editing, giving even brief episodes a nice intensity and sense of fluidity.  The cleverness of Teresa and Jarek to outplay Romero’s hand of cards and “beat” the FBI without really undermining or cheating them was well played, especially since the show seems to be learning that too much cleverness on the part of these two characters is going to make them “larger than life” and spoil the show’s sense of realism.  Jarek playing little games with them by switching prisoners as a stall tactic played quite nicely, but I was worried that when he told Caleb that “we haven’t played our last card yet” we were in for an unrealistic “local hero cops outsmart the bumbling G-Men” type of outcome, which mostly play as silly and unbelievable.  So good for the writers to put a much smarter spin on it:  Teresa makes a reasonable offer which makes things a touch more difficult for the FBI, but also makes sense given that as enforcers of the law they certainly aren’t fighting to keep Romero out of prison—they just need him to play his role in taking down bigger fish. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe "Stowaways"

So given that I’m coming out with this review so late as to be almost pointless for religious Friday night “live” viewers of the show, I’ll try to be succinct with this write-up and not drift too far off onto tangents or stray observations.  I thought this episode was among the worst in memory; the story wasn’t all that intriguing (nor did it make sense on several levels) and its wrap-up failed in almost every sense of the word.  To make matters worse, Anna Torv was forced to continue doing her embarrassingly awkward Leonard Nimoy impression the entire episode which went beyond being painful within, say, the first sentence she spoke.  It’s a noble (but not quite a John Noble) effort on her part, but it just comes off as someone doing a mediocre impression and it takes so much of her effort to accomplish it that she forgets to act from time to time.  I didn’t mind the “soul magnet” concept last week since it’s not really any more or less within the realm of the conceivable than anything else this show tosses at us, just a bit less scientific in its fictional trappings.  It’s not working as a storyline though—it’s taking a great actress out of her rhythm and keeping us from what I presumed would be the real outcome of all this shenaniganery—the return of Bell himself in the phenomenal and hideous form of an aged Leonard Nimoy.  Just get to it already, Fringe.  And don’t have characters say things like “There is hope in raindrops”.  Geez, is there a writers’ strike I didn’t hear about?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Something Special (Installment 3): Girl Talk's new album "All Day" for Free

If you've never heard of Girl Talk, that just means you're a perfectly normal person.  But once you sample his music, itself an incredible collection of musical sampling, you'll wonder how you ever cruised on a summer day or partied without him.  You'll recognize most of the tracks he mashes (fuses?  mixes?  crochets?  there's no word for what he's doing here, but it's sublime) together, but there are also plenty of samples you've never heard, most likely by artists you've never heard of.  It makes for a fun listen, and given that even The pop-culture filing cabinet that is The AV Club admits in their review that they can't name everything sampled on Girl Talk's albums, it's practically a pre-packaged trivia and drinking game of an album for music lovers and snobs (trust me, I'm both).  That's really only half the fun, however--the real fun is hearing Jay-Z lace the track over top of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and then three minutes later listen in slack-jawed awe as it all melts seamlessly into a medley of 80's tracks with vocals provided by the Beatles.  Those are all fictional examples, but every track of this album is so intricate that each of them probably occurs somewhere on the album.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

TV Episode Review: Community “Custody Law and Eastern Diplomacy”

So here’s the thing with Community lately:  It’s become so rapid-fire with its one-liners and gags (and I’m not saying it wasn’t already machine-gun quick before) that it’s easy to get swept up by the river of laughter spilling out of your jabberhole and not notice that the show has taken the characters and storylines in some odd directions that aren’t entirely in keeping with who they are (or were, at least) as people.  Prior to tonight there was no better example of this than the ongoing, excessive cruelties of Pierce towards everyone he could drag within earshot.  It didn’t fit his character unless you believed he was never anything more than a self-centered, grouchy old man, which I don’t believe is the impression of him we were given throughout the show’s run.  Tonight expands on these strange character transgressions by adding another act of insensitivity to Jeff and Shirley’s files.  If I were rating tonight simply on pure laughs, I would give it a firm A (just look at the list of “great lines” below), but for me the show has been the best comedy on television for the past year or so mainly because it avoided traditional sitcom riffs, played with the structure of television in general, rewarded pop-culture savvy viewers, and—most importantly—developed characters with much more dimension and depth than most sitcoms bother with in a half dozen seasons. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified "Blaze of Glory"

“Blaze of Glory” made me wish Justified had some sort of companion show (like a Southland type drama) to compliment it on Wednesday evenings.  Tonight was such a fun, inviting episode of television centered on the likability of its characters (old and new) that I really wished at the end of it that there was something equally appealing lined up on the DVR when I was done with it.  Though truthfully it would be hard to follow up an hour like this, which featured lovely off-kilter romantic moments (in federal evidence cages), threats of violence carried out via medical oxygen tanks, and a low speed chase between old men where, for at least a few moments, you aren’t really sure who you’re pulling for (or who Art is really pulling for, for that matter).  Justified brought its one-timer A-game tonight, making this the type of episode we haven’t really been treated to this season but got plenty of last season with classics like the vigilante dentist, the hostage situation inside the station and that one crazy fun episode with the rich woman who had her husband murdered.  These episodes are so strong that it never even occurs to you that fairly suspenseful through-lines have been placed entirely on the back burner to cool for a week. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “The Gold Coin Kid”

With tonight’s (mostly) really likeable episode of The Chicago Code, I think, ironically, that I have to admit that it’s time to lower my expectations about what The Chicago Code is going to be.  Apparently, and I blame the networks for this, and by extension the mouth-breathing American television viewer who can’t make inferences or detect subtlety because he forgets to exhale if you don’t poke him with a stick every twenty minutes…Anyway, apparently we should not expect network television to provide anything in the way of nuanced or subtly-written television to viewers, even when the creator and show runners have an impressive track record of producing critically acclaimed, arresting television which hung its hat on exactly those qualities.  And that’s a shame, because tonight’s episode employed some effective slight-of-hand in its resolution to a potentially ruinous situation for Colvin and Wysocki.  Unfortunately, in the aftermath of some clever trickery and craftiness off screen on the parts of our favorite protagonists, the show feels the need to have said protagonists vomit explanations of what just happened all over each other for five minutes to make sure none of TV Land’s village idiots (is the entire village of TV watchers just idiots now with those of us who appreciate intellectually stimulating programming wandering the wastelands?) lost track of the story. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

TV Episode Review: Fringe “Os”

Did Fox buy up all of the expired contracts from the entire cast of Lost or something? Monday’s Chicago Code brought us the familiar face of Dharma instructional videos, and this week brings us the pleasantly familiar face of Hurley, passing the bong with Walter and eagerly telling him he’s the best boss he’s ever had (and with good reason: Walter appears to be finishing a story about waking up in bed with Yoko Ono and he’s apparently used Massive Dynamic’s resources to invent the tasty new frosting flavor of “bacon berry”). It’s one of the more fun openings of the season; with the possible exception of Walter cooking breakfast in his underwear it might be my favorite, actually. It’s especially effective because it plays nicely into the master story (Walter discovers Bell’s office, which had escaped his attention until now and provides a huge key to the conflict with Earth 2) and it manages a nice bit of commentary regarding one of the show’s oldest themes as well (that men are just sophisticated machines, programmable, predictable and controllable) when Walter observes the monitors and says, “Look at them, moving through the halls, there’s a rhythm to it. Each monitor is its own movement, blending together like a symphony.” Ever are you clever, Fringe. But the best mystery of the week is set up by the end of scene one: Is Hurley going to become a regular guest? Fingers crossed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified "Cottonmouth"

Well, I suppose “ask and ye shall receive” is a fitting epitaph for my reaction in the aftermath tonight’s episode.  I’ve been grumbling good naturedly about wanting more Bennett-centric episodes for a few weeks now, and I was even fool enough to justify (no pun intended) my desires by pointing out how fascinating the dynamics of the Bennett Clan are both as an extension of the show’s motif of blood ties and just for their plain old peculiarity.  So I guess I deserve the sudden and unexpected darkness of the show’s final moments this evening, which showed us more about the true nature of the Bennetts—especially Coover and Mags—than anything preceding it, and at the same time robbed them of much of their southern, easygoing charm and likability.  Which, in a way, is too bad, because I thought they played really well as characters whose few redeeming values lay in their close-knit devotion to family, however inept some of the members might be.  However, after tonight’s metamorphosis of Mags into Kathy Bates in “Misery” and Coover into a grown up, semi-obese version of the simple minded banjo kid from “Deliverance”, it’s awful hard to find anything humorous in the goings on under the Bennett roof from here on out.  I wonder, honestly, whether the serpentine reference of tonight’s title doesn’t refer darkly to the suddenness with which the show runners decided to strike at the audience with such a disturbingly dark scene.

Setting aside those gruesome final moments for a few paragraphs, the rest of “Cottonmouth” was probably one of the most satisfying episodes of the season even though it offers very little in the way of closure to any of the storylines it introduces or expands.  In place of closure, it offered something nearly as appealing:  Wonderfully hard earned character moments and some truly inspired comeuppance for evildoers throughout Harlan County (I don’t count Coover amongst their numbers though; his mother’s retribution is something too grotesque and his punishment is mostly uncalled for in any form).  Raylan’s no-nonsense confrontation with Winston, whose dual enterprise known as “The Church of The Two-Stroke Jesus” (“Praise God and Ride Hard”) is funded mainly by him taking care of dirty paper, most recently by turning the deceased Walt McCready’s draw checks into cold hard cash for the Bennetts, is one of the season’s best Raylan moments, which is saying something considering that he has to finish the visit after shaking off a good firm tasing.  Meanwhile, Boyd, even as his brief stint as a clean living individual seems to draw to a reluctant close, manages to blow the boots off of some rather weasely scuzzballs before the police come for him (or perhaps in at least Kyle’s case, it’s more accurate to say the man was blown off of the boots—the image of a smoking boot with a tree stump of a leg sticking out of it was a fun return from commercial tonight).

In both cases, survival depended on Boyd and Raylan resorting to their natural talents—Boyd’s being his natural cunning and ability to out-criminal the best of criminals, and Raylan’s being, um, that he’s really really hard to kill.  I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite moment out of all that goes on, but since Raylan is the first to have his life put in jeopardy, let’s start there.  Acting on a tip from poor Dewey, he goes to see a man named Winston.  His visit is yet another foray into the oddities of small town, backwoods life where things like a bit of illegal check cashing seem like they could go unnoticed forever.  If it weren’t for that meddling Marshal, anyway.  As always, Raylan is civil but cool with Winston, but when he shows his cards—he has checks with Winston’s handwriting on a signature line not intended for him—he gets a bit too relaxed about things and Winston goes for his “reading glasses” which he seems to have mixed up with his police grade taser.  It’s not often that anyone gets a jump on Raylan, which makes the scene vaguely satisfying in some sense.  The constant danger of a central figure like Raylan is that he can very quietly become a narrowly drawn comic book hero if he’s made to seem too untouchable or so far ahead of the criminal element that his wisdom borders on omniscience.  Scenes like this help to diminish that sense of his character just enough to keep him grounded in reality—in this case twitching helplessly on the ground of reality. 

The ensuing struggle leads to him firing a round that barely misses Winston’s foot and then getting hold of the taser buried in his stomach (bulletproof vest playing a role here?  Does he usually wear one?) and stuffing it into Winston’s crotch.  Raylan recovers first and his interrogation is somewhat funny, though a bit uncomfortably on the wrong side of torture laws, if we still respect those at all in this country.  He observes calmly that the taser is recovered to about 50% power and then gives Winston a quick shot with it when he isn’t cooperative (“Now it’s down to about 30,” he says).  His next statement is clearly one he has no intention of following through on; he asks Winston if he’s ever been tased in the mouth, which, the less you picture it the better you’ll sleep tonight.  Winston either calls Raylan’s bluff, or he actually fears the wrath of the Bennett family much more than he fears finding out what lightning tastes like (maybe he’s seen how Mags disciplines her kids).  In any case, it’s not exactly a victory for Raylan, but it’s certainly an invigorating few moments of TV—the kind this show has become uniquely good at providing week-to-week without falling into any of the clichés of police/procedural dramas.

Boyd’s punishment of thievery is more of an inside job, as he finds himself caught up in a plot to knock off the mine he works at, which he seemed up for last week when Kyle sold it with the promise of him “looking like a hero”, which it turns out really involves pulling his dead bossy, Shelby, from the rubble they bury him under.  Boyd, it’s nice to see, has no intentions of taking human life again, which leads to him hatching one of the best schemes in the show’s history in order to avoid his own death and save Shelby in the process.  At first he thinks he can just back out, but he knows better than to take that on assumption, so he calls Ava’s phone from his cell and uses the cell phone to spy on their conversation from the kitchen (I’ve seen the fake call trick on plenty of shows before, but this would be the first time I can think of where the open receiver of the calling phone is used as the improvised equivalent of bugging a room—sharp writing).  He doesn’t overhear anything we didn’t figure he would, but it puts his wonderful brain in motion to save his and Shelby’s skin without necessarily losing the take (which he apparently wants for Ava’s sake—though the favor he asks in return is left for next week’s episode). 

The true extent of Boyd’s cunning though is in his ability to rethink Kyle’s fairly foolproof heist and tweak it in just enough places to give him the upper hand.  It leaves a lot to chance, but that’s beside the point.  What makes the proceedings so intriguing is what we learn about Boyd:  he’s come to trust Ava enough to believe that she’ll unquestioningly (and unknowingly) carry out the key to the whole thing by calling an unrecognized number with the explicit and suspicious instructions “don’t tell anyone”.  The rest is all about improvisation and trust in his own wits—he counts on inept and inexperienced criminals to make the mistakes he knows not to make, and when they do he exploits them and predicts their next play perfectly.  The other sad, key element in his success is his disinterest in his own person.  We’ve listened to his hollow, empty voice for the entire season, and I doubt I’m alone in having wondered whether this represented depression or resignation or something else.  As it turns out, Boyd has simply given up on being a good person, an admission which is tragically painful to him and to viewers.  As he explains to Ava while handing her the spoils of his successful heist of a heist, “because that’s what I do.  It’s who I am Ava, as much as I’ve tried to pretend otherwise.  It seems everyone else knows that but me.”  It’s the most painful moment of the season by far, and even though he asks Ava for a favor, it seems doubtful that he even possesses the mental will anymore to attempt to correct his life path or change who he believes he is somewhere very deep inside.

Besides wondering whether Boyd has a final bit of vitality left behind his husk of a spirit, the show sets the table for a few other interesting developments in its final quarter.  Raylan pays Coover a visit and slyly tells him he’s looking for Walt regarding some loose ends, knowing quite well that Walt is most likely dead at this point.  Coover has no idea how to take it, especially since Raylan throws in the bit about the pederast who Walt had working for him.  Just to cover his bases, he goes to visit Loretta as she’s casually dealing pot to the local youngsters, and her near-complete dismissal of him as a law enforcement official is more sad than funny; after the first episode I wrote that she seemed wise beyond her years in a way that didn’t quite play right.  It seems that now they’ve found the right measure of premature adulthood in her, and there’s certainly more believable reason for it now that she seems to realize daddy ain’t coming back, and the new fam is nothing to offer the Good Lord too much thanks over.  Raylan grins ruefully at her brazen attitude, but doesn’t have to say much to put cracks in her tough-girl façade.  Mostly he just hands her a spare cell phone and tells her quite tonelessly that he will drop anything he’s doing if she should need him—all she has to do is call.  It’s equal parts warning of the danger she’s in and promise to help pull her out of it. 

Despite so much going for it, I can’t help feeling the episode suffered a major setback in the disturbing scene I mentioned up top—Mags’ punishment of Coover (and Dickie, though he doesn’t have to face any bodily harm since he’s already a cripple) with the use of a rather large hammer is both disgusting and disturbing, which I fully understand it’s meant to be.  However, I think they may have overplayed the disturbing angle of the family dynamics here in a way that may be tough to recover from.  For me, ultimately, it’s not the act of violence meted out by a mother who is simultaneously defending her family and an enormous criminal operation (presumably justifying her actions in the belief that he could have put her whole family’s freedom in jeopardy through his foolishness), but the very disturbing manner in which Coover accepts the punishment.  Up to this point I have presumed his character to be the family equivalent of the village idiot, but his reaction to his mother’s anger borders on a portrayal of a mentally impaired individual, which makes the moment in question even less stomachable than it already is, and generally speaking it makes me wonder what Raylan is really dealing with in Coover.  If he’s meant to be a truly mentally impaired character, it feels rather icky to have laughed at him all these past weeks as he’s bumbled his way from one mess to the next, trying at every step of the way to show himself deserving of a role in the family business (not to mention how pathetic his observation to Loretta becomes early in the episode—that he’s hurt that she gets to watch the store and he was never allowed to).  The whole thing just didn’t sit right with me and cast a rather discomforting pall over what, up to those final moments, was shaping up to be my favorite episode out of the last four.  Hopefully something in the coming weeks reframes what we witnessed tonight, but I’d be lying if I told you I could think of any possible circumstance that could offer an alternative explanation for what we witnessed tonight from Coover (perhaps it’s merely a misstep by the actor, but ultimately we have to treat the resulting portrayal as the story we know, so it remains a disturbing element that taints whatever comes next).

Overall Rating:  8.7/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot, and Occasionally What-have-you:

Poor Dewey gets snowed with the TB quarantine joke, "All the masks and shit I thought it was some kind of monkey virus like in that movie.”  It's also great that he gets the "little man playing the violin" routine from Raylan in terms of sympathy.

Raylan to Dewey:  “Give yourself a shave I’ll bet you could pass for 16.”  

Arlo doesn’t want to let Raylan go and says the Bennett stuff is “beyond the purview of what I like to call your job.

Pruitt tells raylan to mind his own business and he says “Well that wouldn’t be like me."

Raylan referring to the Bennett's dogs as "hillbilly doorbells" might be my favorite colloquialism yet.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code "O'Leary's Cow"

“O’Leary’s Cow” is a curiously named episode.  I was about to call it a misnamed episode, but then it occurred to me that the allusion is to the cow that—according to myth—started the Chicago fire.  That would make the title a reference to Liam and his arson, except Liam continues to be a dull character with no real development (he delivers more obvious dialogue this week, in addition to seeming hopelessly naïve for an undercover agent, simply so Jarek can give him a timely speech about what his job is going to be.  Sloppy.).  But here’s the thing:  despite all that boring expository dialogue and a few other missteps tonight, I remain confident that head writer Shawn Ryan has intelligent ideas about where this show’s master plot is headed (God and Nielsen Ratings willing), and I’m guessing that tonight’s events collectively stand in for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow as the ignition points for whatever firestorm is going to consume our main players for the rest of the season. 

If you think about it, that makes tonight’s episode rather ominous:  Teresa now has a crooked brother-in-law who has gotten her fingers just dirty enough in extortion and other illegal acts to have her kicked out of office if it goes public (and she’s given him reason to implicate her by forcing him to confess), Jarek has pushed Liam deeper into mob commitment, which leads to the death of an as-yet-unnamed person, and Jarek himself has made a couple of interesting enemies in Chairman Lao of Chinatown and his lackey, Mr. Chow.  Lao seemed to go down much too easily tonight, suggesting that maybe his reach will prove a bit longer than expected.  Meanwhile, Chow is scooped up by Gibbons before his old boss has been in lockup for an hour and explains to him that Lao didn’t understand who the boss was, but that if Chow can learn the lesson to be had here, he might be a suitable replacement.  Taken collectively, it’s a good sized list of problems that could burn the whole city to the ground, figuratively speaking, if it’s all allowed to get out of hand.

The best story tonight for me was Jarek and Caleb’s pursuit of the killers of a young black teenager in Chinatown.  Chinese citizens refusing to cooperate with police (and banks) is not an original concept, but it gives Jarek another interesting bit of history:  he’s holding a grudge against Chinatown’s unofficial mayor, “Chairman Lao”, who he’s convinced helped a murderer in an investigation years ago to flee the country.  Lao quietly, and with a restrained dignity that Lost’s Francois Chau pulls off effortlessly, explains that it is in keeping with his people’s culture to handle things internally and without the city police.  As it turns out, what Jarek takes to be aiding a fugitive actually more involves killing and dismembering said fugitive before depositing him in the local lake (since Lao tells Jarek they can find the body there, I assume that would be some smaller lake than Lake Michigan).  Lao is caught after a phone call is intercepted where he tells henchmen to “help them disappear”, which Jarek presumes to mean getting the fugitives out of the country.  Turns out it refers to the same fate as the killer of poor Daniel’s wife and son:  kill them and get rid of the bodies. 

I liked the subtle mislead tonight—Lao seemed closed and distant towards the police, but his motives turn out to be quite different than what we’re led to think—he’s just trying to protect and preserve a type of old world justice that the police certainly won’t stand for (least of all when it’s meted out on a poor kid distributing church fliers).  Ironically, it turns out Lao’s brand of justice is much meaner than CPD’s.  Judging from Daniel’s reaction when Jarek starts pushing too hard about the murders, it seems like Chinatown residents are well aware of what Lao will do if you get on his bad side, which begs the question of whether the good Alderman is also aware of what he’s empowering when he put Lao (and now Chow) into power. 

Lao’s deal with the cops left me with some questions though; most pressing among those being “Why wouldn’t he be charged with a new crime once he admits that he actually had someone killed and dismembered?”  Jarek agreed to reduce his sentence if he helped them find a killer, not a body.  It seems like the new revelation is ignored and only exists as a “gotcha!” punctuation mark to end the storyline.  I could be wrong or missing some nuance about how deals like this are worked out, but given that they now have another murder on their hands it seems odd that they’re still content to give the Chairman the slap on the wrist sentence that he seems almost amused at (which again makes me wonder whether there won’t be more repercussions to this week’s proceedings as the season unfolds). 

Colvin’s side story has the potential to stoke much bigger and more dangerous flames in coming episodes, but it didn’t play nearly as well as the Chinatown story.  For starters, the audacity of her brother-in-law Robert in taking it upon himself to extort $50,000 out of his “buddy” who runs a parking lot based on the blind promise that he can get his Police Superintendent sister-in-law to make a competitor disappear based on some vague notion that he’s running money laundering is vaguely ridiculous.  I’m sure there are certainly people this reckless and foolish in the world, but I would think that he or his wife would know Teresa well enough to realize that she hangs her career hat upon the notion of being upstanding and ethical and demanding the same of others (especially if he feels close enough to her to ask this favor), so the idea that he would collect that much money on the assumption of her assistance just doesn’t play very well as a plot starter.  His aggressiveness with her when she doesn’t move fast enough is even sillier; a grown man with a career police officer in his family doesn’t understand the law well enough to realize that Teresa isn’t going to look at the case before noon of the same day he asks her about it?  Not to mention that it seems pretty obvious that she’ll have to build a case against the guy which could take quite some time before actually “shutting him down”.  And don’t even get me started about how self-centered and painfully one-dimensional her sister is in attacking Teresa for having the nerve to not risk a career’s worth of success and achievement because she married the biggest nitwit this side of Lake Michigan.  The whole thing played poorly and I’d say it weakens the season’s overall trajectory if they do what I’m afraid they’re going to do and make it lead to charges of corruption or something similarly unfortunate for Teresa.  You will hear me complain quite loudly in future blogs (I might even switch to ALL CAPS) if that’s the case.

Finally, Gibbons gets some interesting moments tonight, though he continues to mostly function as a gap-filler between “good guy” plots.  I’d love to see them squeeze a Gibbons-centric episode in here somewhere before season’s end (I know Cabrini-Green had a lot of him, but he still wasn’t central).  Tonight’s peek into the extent of his reach was rather tantalizing; while the scene of him recruiting Chow as another loyal underling on his payroll played as a dull rerun of events from a few weeks ago, the knowledge that he runs one of the most integrated (as opposed to racially segregated) wards in an otherwise highly segregated city was an interesting revelation that lends more dimensionality to his character.  It seems a foregone conclusion that the good friends and neighbors sentiment of his ward is due at least in part to some underhanded workings on his part, not the least of which is the fact that he turns the other way while his appointed community leaders carry out murders of criminal suspects.  While we’re on that subject, if his ward is so integrated, why is it that Chinatown (which I understand only part of his ward overlaps?  How are these boundary lines drawn?) remains so resistant to trusting the police and are so quick to turn violent when a few troublemaking black youths infiltrate their part of town (and for that matter, why don’t they know that he’ll take care of the problem if he’s as popular as he would have everyone believe?)?  That’s a lot of question marks for one plot point.  It’s a lot of question marks for one sentence too though, so who am I to judge? 

At any rate, he has some fine moments tonight where he shows how little muscle he actually needs to flex in order to get what he wants.  When Lao tries to resist his influence in helping Teresa, he barely gets out “You understand—“ before Gibbons cuts him off and says “Nothing.”  As in, I don’t need to understand anything; I’m the guy who put you here.  Lao tries to play one more defensive angle by suggesting he’ll “try” to find the people who killed the boy, to which Gibbons firmly warns, “Please don’t insult me, Mr. Lao.”  He’s a force to be reckoned with in all things political—this much becomes even clearer during tonight’s proceedings.  Further evidenced when Teresa tries to play the political angle to elicit Gibbons’ help in the first place and he dismisses her coercion tactics by pointing out that all she had to do was ask nicely.  After their sit down with Lao he dismissively (though respectfully—he has yet to betray his attitude towards her directly) says “It’s in your court now.”

Ultimately tonight was another mishmash of successes and failures from scene to scene.  Liam continues to be nigh unwatchable, not so much because of the shortcomings of the actor but because he’s given the show’s worst dialogue, mainly in the form of expository conversations where he’s used shamelessly to advance our knowledge of what the mafia is up to with barely a lick of effort to disguise the information passing.  Jarek, Teresa and Gibbons continue to be compelling characters and Caleb is becoming a likeable character both as comic relief and as a strong enough personality to volley some energy back at Jarek—an important dynamic for the show in the long run.  As with every episode, the episode is a mixed bag from scene to scene as well—sad moments with Liam after he realizes he killed someone fall flat because he’s a useless character, and Jarek casually brow beating him about his failures seem silly given that Liam couldn’t have been a naïve greenhorn when they inserted him into an organized crime ring.  The thinly written bit players (like Teresa’s bro-in-law, Robert) make for very little for the stronger central characters to play off of, which unfortunately is putting a ceiling on how much this show can elevate its game.  Hopefully the next few weeks do something to crash through that ceiling—the ratings need to see the light of day.

Overall Rating:  8.4/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Playing softball with no gloves just seems like chest bashing male behavior for its own sake.  That being said, I sort of want to try it now.

Interesting that cops now get texts about murders on their days off.

Jarek says the murdered kid was “on a mission from God.”  I like how well this show knows its Chicago references (this one from “The Blues Brothers”).

So I know the real problem is the arsonists and their dirty renovation company, but I thought Isaac’s handling of the situation was its own brand of unethical:  he’s quick to flash his gun and police credentials to run competitors off the block—are we to assume he’s only taken this job to crack part of the Irish mob case?  Nothing really tips us off to that.

Jarek’s to Lao:  “Do me a favor and get in my way again.”  A somewhat funny remark, but more fun for how much it tells us about Jarek’s character—this guy will pick a fight with anybody and put his detective skills to the test no matter how big and well protected the target.  It’s the thing I like most about him.

Teresa knows her scotch.

Nurse Natalie is cute and feisty, despite being an annoying cop show cliché at this point.  Good luck Caleb, I’m pulling for you.  Loved when she said “You’re naughty aren’t you?” when Caleb asked for the Chinese woman’s personal belongings.

Nice exchange:
Jarek:  Better cops than you have tried with her and failed.
Caleb:  Did better cops have this smile?
Jarek: (amused at his partner—Caleb’s breaking him down) No, they didn’t.

Line of the night goes to Caleb in trying to woo Natalie:  “Is it my dedication to a wide range of children’s charities?  Because you give the word and I will cut those little bastards off.”  

Monday, March 7, 2011

Movie Trailers: 2011's Movies to be Excited About Part 4

The big push towards blockbuster summer season (the three months of the year where teens and preteens use their parents money to guide movie studios into making more brainless garbage) is growing near, so I feel like this ongoing-if-irregular column is more important to me than it was back when I started it--there's a lot of interesting stuff coming down the pipeline, but a lot of it will be limited to art house theaters or limited release (some if it is even hitting DVD within a couple months of limited releases, so keep your eyes peeled).  At any rate, if it's on this list, I think it's worth pursuing.  Enjoy and feel free to recommend other trailers for future installments in the comments section.

Friday, March 4, 2011

TV Episode Review: Justified "For Blood or Money"

A couple weeks ago I made an off-hand remark about the deeply rooted relationships between characters on this show.  I’m too lazy to look it up, but I believe the observation was regarding how old friendships and family ties run somewhat deeper than whatever current events might threaten to come between them (I believe the specifics involved Ava opening her home to Boyd despite all they had been through).  I don’t bring it up to claim clairvoyance or brag about seeing the long view of the season or anything that silly—it was just an offhand remark about something I think the show has done well.  Tonight though, I enjoyed seeing the thematic concept of close familial and friendship ties underlining and undermining everything going on.  It made for some really cool revelations and some very interesting moments of character development while advancing a couple of master plots in interesting directions.  Tonight was another great entry in the season overall, but I was especially impressed with how well it teased out all of the complicated friendships and family pasts which make quite the ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle when you try to put them together.

In keeping with the family motif, the episode opened on that most jovial of all family events, the Backyard BBQ; the Bennett Backyard BBQ to B exact.  A BBBBQ comes complete with banjos and moonshine and all the seedy family in attendance.  Mags is in such a good mood that she’s even welcoming to a presumably unwelcome (and admittedly uninvited) guest in Raylan Givens.  He asks for a word with her, but the whole crew sits down instead, possibly because he makes casual mention of a “task force” which never rests, a remark he makes knowing it will be news to the Bennett crew.  Just to warm up the proceedings, he’s brought along an apple pie, but he doesn’t even get half the joke when Mags warmly tells him that she’s saving a jar of her “apple pie” cider with his name on it.  Their ensuing picnic table palaver is yet another phenomenal display of the sharp southern-tinged dialogue that makes this show something special to listen to, which isn’t really something you’d say about most any other law-type show currently running (or in recent memory, The Wire aside).  They start off casually enough, with Raylan discussing the oxy bus hijacking quite casually, right up to his revelation that the organizer of that little heist made quite a few phone calls to Dickie’s cell phone in the week prior, and that the “Dixie Mafia” (which would be the “boys in Frankfort” Doyle was worried about last week) will be storming into town to get even for that little number.  His tone doesn’t even stray too far from convivial when he tells Dickie that “We may never be able to prove otherwise, but I want you to know that I know what’s goin’ on, out of respsect.” 
It’s one of those wonderful Raylan moments where he puts a bad guy on notice that he has officially made it onto Raylan’s radar, to which he doesn’t need to add, is not a place you really want to be.  Dickie takes it in stride, but Mags has had enough of civility (here’s where the southern touches of dialogue really lend some sparks to the proceedings) and gives Raylan quite an earful: “Come on, child, you’re gonna sit here on my lumber and tell me this isn’t about our family history?  Why my boy hasn’t walked right for 21 years?”  He calmly reminds her that the “Frankfort mob gonna come over that hill and bring hell with them.  And they won’t stop ‘til they bleed this county white.  Family history or not, that’s why I care.”  In the course of her tongue lashing, she admits to Raylan that yeah, the family is involved with weed, but she despises “the other stuff”, which is an interesting moment of trust between old friends/rivals in itself.  However, what’s most interesting here is that apparently the Givens-Bennett relationship is not just a complex one but a very bitter one, with apparently a bit of violence somewhere in its past (or at least some grievous accident, given the severity of Dickie’s limp).  The show continues to slow play the backstory of the Bennetts, and this is one more tantalizing mystery without answers, especially since Raylan seems quite dismissive of whatever it is that put the families at odds (remember how uneasy his dad and aunt seemed when they realized he was investigating the Bennetts?). 
The family ties continue to be tested after Raylan takes his leave:  Mags is furious with Doyle for killing the two men and threatening the family’s “bigger plans”.  She doesn’t want Raylan anywhere near what they’re doing, which Dickie and Coover interpret to mean she wants him killed.  Doyle gives THEM an earful about that bit of thinking, and the entire picnic ends on  something of a bitter note (which was clearly Raylan’s intention in kicking the hornets’ nest in the first place).  The strenuous relations between the Bennetts will certainly play some role in their undoing, though I doubt it will be as simple as Dickie and Coover doing something foolish. 
Speaking of foolish, it looks as though Boyd’s explosion of pent up frustration last week has resulted in a couple of changes in him (though it’s done nothing for that down-trodden voice he’s adopted).  First, he’s starting reading Of Human Bondage, and second, he seems to be wearing down in his ability to resist the criminal temptations Kyle is offering to him.  Continuing to pull him against the surging tide of criminal temptation are Ava, who seems to have taken him in like a blood relative and certainly seems to care about him, however reluctantly.  Their relationship is turning into an interesting simulacrum of an old married couple’s relationship.  He’s quite concerned about her well being and safety, as she is of his, but the truth is they just don’t get along in very fundamental ways.  Yet again, the depth of their relationship, thus far, has trumped any misgivings either one has about their living situation.  Boyd certainly puts that to a test though when he doesn’t turn down Kyle’s offer (which is interestingly kept from Ava and the viewer’s earshot) outright, though he promises Ava he plans to say no.  By episodes end, to my deep, deep disappointment, it looks as though Kyle has made Boyd an offer to reenter the criminal underworld which he cannot refuse, as it comes with a guarantee not only of safety from punishment, but a twist that will “make you a hero”, which of course sounds way too good to be true.  The way Boyd’s eyes sparkle with life for the first time all season at those final words was really a chilling and sad moment—the fact that he may go back to his old ways in an effort to gain some heroic credibility in the eyes of, I’m not really sure who, to be honest, is a devastating revelation. 
All of those relationships amount to little, though, compared to poor Marshal Brooks, who is tasked with tracking down her brother-in-law who has made a violent exit from his drug recovery program in order to see his son for his birthday.  Clinton killed Brooks’ sister, which leads everyone from Arlo to Rachel’s own mother to believe that she wants to kill him.  Arlo sends Raylan to make sure she doesn’t, which seems hilariously ironic and gives him no one but himself to blame at the end of the episode when he laments, “Why do I have the office where all the deputies shoot people?”  It leads to one of Arlo and Raylan’s best exchanges to date regarding Raylan’s trigger finger; the show has really done a great job of making their relationship into something wonderful.  They’re often challenging each other on one thing or another, but it amounts to the roughhouse play of puppies nipping and biting with no intention of causing harm (and having a hell of a good time doing it). 
With regards to Rachel’s sister and brother-in-law, Justified does a nice job of making things more complex than they first seem, so we slowly get clued in to the real details:  She was a drug addict, even before Clinton started enabling her habit, and in a horrible twist of fate, he was trying to get her to the hospital for an overdose when he wrapped the car around a telephone pole, ejecting her to her death in the process.  It’s a nice twist on an otherwise dull “will she take revenge on her sister’s killer” plot; it’s another nice entry into the catalog of messy family histories that plague every character on the show (even Tim gets in a little line late in the episode to the effect that Raylan is “lucky” that he at least got to shoot his dad).  Rachel’s eventual choices speak to her coming to some difficult conclusions about her own family (her sister was an addict and Clinton really did love her, whatever other weaknesses and excesses he’s guilty of) and about what it means to find ways to maintain those ties, even when it feels like they’ve betrayed you.  Hence, she pulls the trigger not on Clinton (who is holding a hostage just like Jess Timmons did a couple weeks ago, which he paid for with his life) but on his would-be killer, Flex “I was gonna be a magician, you dick!” Beaman in order to keep Clinton alive to arrest him AND let him see her nephew for his birthday.  It ends with an oddly touching scene (odd because he decides to still give Nick the bloodied Furbot, plus it’s hard to sympathize with a guy who has shot one man, and beaten another half to death with a phone receiver all in a single day) of Clinton seeing his son, possibly for the last time.  It’s an ending (or at least indefinite hiatus) to a family relationship which we may see repeated more than once this season, as one family member tries to make penance before departing for prison, thus bringing sudden and painful ends to relationships (note how suddenly the scene is over after Clinton points out to his 12-year-old son that the stain on the Furbot is blood—and remember Nick isn’t the only young child caught up with an imperfect family this season). 
Raylan has his own relationship issues continuing to brew, this time in the form of Gary making an odd little move in Wynona’s direction; namely to request a divorce so that they can get out from under their “upside down” mortgage payments.  She comes immediately to Raylan with the news, and it’s funny to see him react to her sour face by apologizing for “whatever it is I did or didn’t do.”   Wynona doesn’t really like that he assumes he’s the problem immediately, but that’s sort of the whole point—as much as they both want to make this work, they know that they tend to have something of an oil-and-water way of mixing together, and it hangs over everything in their relationship.  But in this case something deeper than just “getting along” (and I’m prepared to defend the position that that “something” is not just raw sexual attraction) is driving them to stay together despite whatever difficulties they may face.  And given that Gary is dishonest (his little scheme using vanilla to make a house smell good to sell it is an all too obvious clue about how he plans to go about getting what he wants in this love triangle) about everything, you can bet that the strength of Wynona and Raylan’s connection will be tested ere the season comes to a close.

With so many character relationships grinding and clattering against each other all night, the great storyline was almost lost in the shuffle.  Luckily, a truly outstanding final showdown between the Marshals, Flex, Clinton, and Clinton’s drug recovery program manager, Orlando (who is a true-to-life character—even after taking a beating from him, he still wants to help Clinton because he knows what it is to be addicted to something, though he might be a little off about what it is Clinton can’t give up just yet).  The escalation of the situation from Orlando speaking calmly with Clinton to Flex brandishing a gun, to the Marshals entering the scene and setting off some serious fireworks is handled so smoothly that it feels like a blur of events in the moment.  Taken moment by moment however, it’s a wonderful dissection of every character’s core motivations:  Clinton refuses to give up seeing his son, though he knows this will be the last time.  Orlando is sympathetic to loss, having had to give up everything as a drug addict in order to recover.  Flex comes in ready to take Clinton’s life because his dream of becoming a magician has been forever taken from him by Clinton, who shot him right through the hand, which is a key appendage in the art of prestidigitation.  Finally, Brooks enters the scene with a gun drawn in the general direction of the very man who was, at least indirectly, responsible for taking her sister from her.  It seems unfair that Orlando has to lose a couple fingers and Flex his life in the ensuing skirmish, but it speaks to the idea of loss that the whole episode plays with in terms of relationships. 
It looks to me like a corner was turned this week.  The show is in high gear now with the Bennetts on high alert, Boyd poised on the edge of a cliff and looking like he’s flexing his legs for a jump, and on top of that we learn that the Frankfort boys mentioned last week by Doyle are actually not boys at all but the “Dixie Mafia”.  This is an intriguing addition to the cast of villains indeed, especially given that Raylan goes straight to one of their “best wheeler dealers”, Mr. Emmett Arnett, who does not wear pants at his desk, and informs him that he is to tell Wynn Duffy, head of the DM, that if they pursue vengeance for the oxy bus, he will personally take them down.  I, personally, am very much looking forward to that inevitability.
Overall Score:  9.6/10
Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

Poor Dickie is a second class citizen in his own family, though he seems sufficiently bright (at least compared to Coover).  I loved when Mags barked "I don't give a shit what you think" when he tried to interject into the conversation about the oxy bus.

Anybody catch what Boyd had on the radio when Ava came in?  It sounded a bit like Drive-by Truckers, but I doubted myself for thinking that since I couldn't peg the tune.

Boyd's like is both sad and a bit confusing when Kyle comes to speak to him about their proposal:  "I get confused in my head whenever I think about such painful things."

Raylan's hierarchy of bad guys includes the categories "heads in a duffel bag" and "just an asshole".

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Something Special (Installment 2): "Movie Bar Code" Artwork

Thanks to for pointing this site out; I'm just passing it along to everyone else because I think it's pretty cool (and I think they need to get prints up for sale so I can buy some).  This "something special" is especially for cinephiles.  The site's creators (It's technically a blog, I guess) have found a way to somehow visually compress every frame of a film into a single strip of an ongoing image.  When taken together, they create a rather striking composite image that gives a picture of the overall color palate of a film, as well as a visual representation of the film's chronological/linear structure in some cases (note for example how "The Wizard of Oz" starts off in off-browns due to the deteriorated quality of the black and white imagery before turning to other muted colors).  In any case, many of them are framably beautiful, like the moviebarcode version of the already gorgeous "Pan's Labyrinth":

The site is espeically fun for those (like me) who are huge fans of visually striking or inventive films and directors.  For those who have seen the breathtaking film "Hero" and recall its excessively loud and brilliant use of color, the moviebarcode result is a color coded road map to the entire plot (and a gorgeous result to boot):

Check it out for yourself; the movies covered so far range from "Raging Bull" to "The Matrix" to several of this year's best picture nominees and independent films.  It's a fun diversion and will be worth checking back on as they add to their collection.  I highly recommend checking out "Tron", "The Proposition", "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford", "Apocalypse Now", and "Moon".

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code "Cabrini-Green

Tonight’s episode forces me to back pedal just a touch on my assertion last week that the show was going to be outstanding in the area of staging great action sequences each week.  This week’s opening was something of a letdown in quality, especially given the “explosive” nature of the premise.  The streets are cleared of civilians, we get a couple somewhat intriguing peeks at the video footage of the bomb robot (bombot?) taking a look at the “device” and then Jarek (I’ve decided I like this better than typing “Wysocki”, plus it evens things out since I’m on a first name basis with his partner, Caleb) screams for the building to clear and manages to tackle an errant civilian just so viewers are definitely clear on who the hero is on this show.  It was all part of a pretty mediocre A-story tonight that didn’t quite deserve the “ripped from the headlines” categorization, but certainly seemed comfortable borrowing amply from the real-life storyline of similar domestic terrorists The Weathermen, who had a similarly now-seemingly-above-board public persona in William Ayers (who you may recall President Obama took heat for associating with).  Let’s be clear.  I have no problem with a story borrowed from real life, even if it seems a bit late to be fictionalizing this particular headline, but if it’s going to be done, I do expect a show I respect to produce much more interesting results than this.