Sunday, April 26, 2009
I hope Sci-Fi doesn’t greenlight Caprica. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ronald D. Moore, David Eick, and Remi Aubuchon set out to create a soap opera, and they have succeeded. The trappings are there: two families coping with tragedy, one father a corporate sleaze, the other a lawyer for the mob, children getting into advanced mischief, a police investigation, and secrets galore. There’s even a sci-fi incarnation of the old soap staple, a girl locked in a room.
The problem with soap operas, though, is that they are so overwrought that they risk draining all the life out of the experience. They need comedy or action or mystery or something other than theatrics to pull us through. My primary suggestion for Caprica is that it needs a heavy dose of laughs.
The story concerns the creation of cylon centurions (and possibly attempts to create more lifelike models down the line) by businessman Daniel Graystone, who strikes up a friendship with Joseph Adams (né Adama) after both their daughters and Adams’ wife were killed in a suicide bombing. Lucky for Graystone, his daughter Zoe has created a near-perfect avatar in a virtual world frequented by teenagers, and Daniel becomes interested in using this avatar in order to circumvent death. Responsible for the terrorist attack is a growing monotheistic sect that promises to build in importance.
True to form, the Caprica pilot introduces a wealth of plot and thematic possibilities, from an arms race analogue to the decadence of a society in decline. There’s a gripping moral defense of terrorism as a means of combating evil. There’s obsession, casual classism, the immigration experience, balancing security and democracy, corporate espionage, and above all, questions about the creation of life and cheating of death. Also, the writers have promised homosexuality which has yet to enter the fray (outside of the virtual world extras). Much as I admire the breadth of subjects introduced in Caprica, I wish I had a better handle on where the series would go from here. On the other hand, the pilot had a healthy predictability, so I am open to a more uncertain future.
Director Jeffrey Reiner is responsible for some breathtaking shots. Just after the suicide bombing, dust and ash float through the streets toward a crowd of bystanders in an echo of the World Trade Center attack. I appreciate how willing Reiner is to obscure his subjects with foreground noise; tragedy is like that. Meanwhile, Bear McCreary reprises his Battlestar role with some nice music, though the poundy drums only rear their heads during cylon test scenes. Speaking of which, visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel continues his reign of wonder with gorgeous early cylon models in action.
The cast is spotty, but mostly solid. I hope Eric Stoltz as Daniel is allowed by the writing to tone down the obsessive derangement—if only for his increasingly frazzled hair. The most layered work comes from HBO veterans Paula Malcomson as Dr. Amanda Graystone, Daniel’s wife, who naturally inhabits an exhausted, grieving mother and Polly Walker as Sister Clarice, the intriguing teacher at the Athenian Academy where the murdered daughters went to school. Oh, and Sina Najafi, the kid they found to play young Bill Adama, is the most authentic of the child actors on the show—and we know he eventually grows out of that Canadian lilt.
Unfortunately, there is a lot to recommend about Caprica, and once you’ve muddled through all this exposition, the series’ future is exciting. I hope Sci-Fi can broadcast the nudity. It’s hard to play decadence on a PG-rating. I look forward to the religious threads that Battlestar always rocked. A conversation between Sister Clarice and the counterterrorism investigator Agent Durham is promising:
“It doesn’t concern you, Sister, that kind of absolutist view of the universe? Right and wrong determined solely by a single, all-knowing, all-powerful being whose judgment cannot be questioned and in whose name the most horrendous acts can be sanctioned without appeal?”
I read Cat’s Cradle yesterday, and it has quite a bit of overlap with Caprica. For instance, in Cat’s Cradle, everyone on San Lorenzo is a Bokononist even though the official religion is (non-Catholic, non-Protestant) Christianity, just like the surprising number of monotheists at play in Caprica. The crux of Cat’s Cradle lies in the idea that science should be a quest for truth for truth’s sake, but instead all science becomes a weapon. Here, Daniel briefly seems poised to invest his talents in resurrecting his daughter, but ultimately he slides all the way down and ends up with a killing machine called a cylon. Vonnegut ties it all together better, but then he wasn’t making a pilot.
Permit me to engage with some of the show’s mythology. I can buy Daniel naming his creation a cylon, which comes from the phrase “cybernetic lifeform node,” but we know he didn’t coin the term. Cylons have been called cylons since Kobol, right? I can’t help but wonder if Daniel Graystone is a version of Daniel the Number 7 model. This time, if Ronald D. Moore tells me I’m reading too much into his show’s clues, I may nuke a planet.
The pilot for Caprica has so much potential that I’m eager to see where the series would lead. That’s exactly why I don’t want Sci-Fi to greenlight it. Unless there’s a major overhaul, I’m going to have to sit through at least a season’s worth of humorless but otherwise fascinating soap stories, and the untested performers are going to surprise me like Katee Sackhoff and Michael Hogan did, and I’m going to become obsessed with parsing the show’s theses. As it is, Caprica is intriguing, which is a fine start, but not absorbing.
I'm off to watch the New Caprica arc instead.
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Friday, April 17, 2009
Again, I'm oscillating between suicidal congestion and drug-induced loopiness, so the deepest you're going to get from me is an analysis of the dynamics of the Real Housewives. But in lieu of coming posts on pastoralism and death in television, here's another list you should participate in. It's my 10 favorite books.
After quizzing my roommates on their television favorites from the decade, we expanded to books next, and to plays, and to local-area restaurants, and, as always, to everyone's favorite polygon (regular pentagon for the win). But my list of books consists mostly of tomes I've only read once, some of which not since high school. Which is all my way of saying I'm not especially confident in this list. But what I am is extremely curious about your favorite books, so please comment with your own suggestions.
To be clear, we limited the category to fiction and to some literary equivalent of feature-length. Ergo no plays, comics, graphic novels, poetry, or cuneiform tablets. Unless you absolutely must. Also, you're allowed to cheat and include a whole series (within reason--say, 10 books?) in one slot.
My Current 10 Favorite Books, based on a generally limited experience and in alphabetical order:
1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
2. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
3. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
6. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
8. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien
9. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
10. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Though only three of them were assigned reading in high school, my list nevertheless resembles a (particularly awesome) high school syllabus. My list also tilts toward classics, because I zoomed through The Road and have been meaning to read it again, and I'd like to return to Kavalier and Clay as well before giving it a spot. I imagine the choices I haven't read since high school (Brave New World, Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies) may be replaced by future ventures (of which I'm looking forward to more Kafka and Joyce).
The top tier of my list are going to be difficult to dislodge. The happy-go-lucky denizens of seaside Cannery Row make that novel a heavenly experience. The acutely evoked pain and refreshing experimental style of Slaughterhouse-Five cement its place in the hall of fame. Frankenstein is so vibrant with Gothic shadings that it reveals more hidden wonders every time. I've only read bits at a time since first reading Wuthering Heights, but that's likely to earn a spot in the top tier as well. His Dark Materials isn't likely to budge either--I adore its message of independence. Lastly, we have The Lord of the Rings, so atmospheric and digressive as to be transportive.
Since you asked, my favorite Dr. Seuss book is Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? thanks to its exotic locales. And my favorite play is Hamlet, a cliche which I feel is earned by the number of times I've read it and the number of papers (and according personal discoveries) I've written about it. But I distinguish myself with my second favorite play: Titus Andronicus.
Now is the time on Sprockets where you comment with your 10 favorites, which is my way of eliciting book recommendations. I realize it's a difficult process. Take your time. But leave your list.
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Thursday, April 16, 2009
After much deliberation and scouring of nearly forgotten shows, I have assembled my 6 favorite dramas, comedies, and performances of the 2000s. This in response to a prompt by Alan Sepinwall, already preparing for the Best of the 2000s lists along with James Poniewozik, among others.
The rules stipulate that all series that aired any first-run episodes in the 2000s are fair game. My rules stipulate that if I haven't seen it, it probably isn't worthy anyway. But if there were holes in my viewing, they're probably shaped like In Treatment, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Thick of It.
It was harder to narrow down my favorite comedies, what with the headline animated series, the trove of valuable British imports, and the growing number of hourlong dramedies. On the other hand, it was much more difficult gleaning my favorite performances from dramas than comedies.
Were I immune to the charms of list-making, I'd try to be professional and wait till the year is at least half over (when the final season of year-long television of the decade is complete in May). But I'm human, and I'm sick and unable to focus and kind of loopy, so here we are.
Favorite Comedies of the Decade:
4. The Office (US)
3. Freaks and Geeks
2. 30 Rock
1. Arrested Development
Notable also-rans: Extras, Flight of the Conchords, Futurama, How I Met Your Mother, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Middleman, The Office (UK), Pushing Daisies, Weeds
It goes without saying that Arrested Development is the pinnacle of human achievement. I hope the movie poster quotes me. What may be surprising, though, is that, in under three seasons, 30 Rock has overtaken every other comedy from this decade. Tina Fey's AD-influenced Emmy titan speaks to my soul, reflects my comedic sensibilities so completely that it's becoming a problem. Settle down, Brits. I think The British Office is the more coherent series, but to say I like it more than the American version is disingenuous. I'll go further and say that the longer The American Office continues, the more muddled its worldview becomes, but its comedy batting average is impressively solid. As for Scrubs, I've given this more thought than anyone should, so I'll share: I'd rank Season 8 in the top half, along with Seasons 1, 3, and 5. 4 is pretty good, 2 is mostly decent, and 6 and 7 are thoroughly mediocre. On the macro level, the hospital comedy-drama remains a top 6 comedy.
Favorite Lead Comedy Actors:
6. Jemaine Clement - Flight of the Conchords
5. Simon Pegg - Spaced
4. Steve Carell - The Office (US)
3. Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock
2. Ricky Gervais - The Office (UK)
1. Jason Bateman - Arrested Development
Notable also-rans: Zach Braff (Scrubs), Ricky Gervais (Extras), Matt Keeslar (The Middleman), Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies), Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), Andy Richter (Andy Richter Controls the Universe)
There's only one thing to say here. It's time to stop overlooking Jason Bateman, who expertly scores laughs playing off of anyone. "Ann-Hog's coming?"
Favorite Lead Comedy Actresses:
6. Ashley Jensen - Extras
5. Jessica Hynes - Spaced
4. Mary-Louise Parker - Weeds
3. Linda Cardellini - Freaks and Geeks
2. Lisa Kudrow - The Comeback
1. Tina Fey - 30 Rock
Notable also-rans: Toni Collette (United States of Tara), Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies), Natalie Morales (The Middleman), Sarah Silverman (The Sarah Silverman Program)
Sorry, Alec Baldwin. Tina Fey has been the prime draw of 30 Rock for the past two years, as exhibited by her drunken break-up with the co-op board, her business-drunk ramblings, her Leia persona, her dancing for Dr. Spaceman, her dancing for the Six Sigma conference, and of course, her spectacular turn as Bijou. Meanwhile, Toni Collette and Amy Poehler, stars of freshman comedies, may move up on the list depending on the futures of their series. By the same token, Mary-Louise Parker is also in flux, though she's more likely to move down.
Favorite Supporting Comedy Actors:
6. Jack McBrayer - 30 Rock
5. Neil Patrick Harris - How I Met Your Mother
4. Donald Faison - Scrubs
3. John Krasinski - The Office (US)
2. Martin Freeman - The Office (UK)
1. David Cross - Arrested Development
Notable also-rans: Michael Cera (Arrested Development), Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords), James Franco (Freaks and Geeks), Tony Hale (Arrested Development), Ken Jenkins (Scrubs), Chi McBride (Pushing Daisies), Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother), Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development)
I should have filled every slot with the cast of Arrested Development, but I held back because I didn't know how to rank them. It's a crowded category.
Favorite Supporting Comedy Actresses:
6. Cobie Smulders - How I Met Your Mother
5. Kristen Schaal - Flight of the Conchords
4. Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock
3. Sarah Chalke - Scrubs
2. Jenna Fischer - The Office (US)
1. Jessica Walter - Arrested Development
Notable also-rans: Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies), Portia de Rossi (Arrested Development), Rachel Dratch (30 Rock), Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother), Kaitlin Olsson (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Elizabeth Perkins (Weeds), Judy Reyes (Scrubs), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development)
It hurts a little not to include Kaitlin Olsson, but her series still has a few seasons left, so we'll see. Do you think Supporting Comedy Actor or Actress is more crowded? Judy Reyes is another underrated talent I'd have liked to find room for--Kristin Chenoweth too.
Favorite Dramas of the Decade:
6. Veronica Mars
4. Battlestar Galactica
3. Mad Men
1. The Wire
Notable also-rans: Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, Rescue Me, The Shield, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos
These are my picks for the top 6 representatives of the hallowed Golden Age of Television Drama. I can't imagine any of my picks are surprising, although Mad Men may be ranked higher than you'd expect. Just you wait until Season 3 blows my mind-hole and I move it up again. Also of note, the six runners up are quite a collection.
Favorite Lead Drama Actors:
6. Kyle Chandler - Friday Night Lights
5. Nathan Fillion - Firefly
4. Michael Chiklis - The Shield
3. Jon Hamm - Mad Men
2. James Gandolfini - The Sopranos
1. Ian McShane - Deadwood
Notable also-rans: Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Peter Krause (Six Feet Under), Hugh Laurie (House), Denis Leary (Rescue Me), Edward James Olmos (Battlestar Galactica), Dominic West (The Wire)
Considering the ever-building strength of Breaking Bad, I wouldn't be surprised to see Bryan Cranston on the top 6 in the future. Also, like Jason Bateman, Dominic West is a lead that flies under the radar because of the richness of his ensemble, and I may find room for him on the list in the future.
Favorite Lead Drama Actresses:
6. January Jones - Mad Men
5. Lauren Ambrose - Six Feet Under
4. Molly Parker - Deadwood
3. Kristen Bell - Veronica Mars
2. Edie Falco - The Sopranos
1. Mary McDonnell - Battlestar Galactica
Notable also-rans: Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Ellen Muth (Dead Like Me)
Like Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton would have been much higher if Friday Night Lights were cancelled early. I had trouble picking between January Jones and Elisabeth Moss, but Season 2 puts Jones ahead. I'm interested to see where Season 3 takes the Mad women.
Favorite Supporting Drama Actors:
6. Garret Dillahunt - Deadwood
5. Clarke Peters - The Wire
4. Brad Dourif - Deadwood
3. William Sanderson - Deadwood
2. Andre Royo - The Wire
1. Idris Elba - The Wire
Notable also-rans: Chris Bauer (The Wire), Jim Beaver (Deadwood), James Callis (Battlestar Galactica), Aidan Gillen (The Wire), Walton Goggins (The Shield), Michael Hogan (Battlestar Galactica), Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos), John Slattery (Mad Men)
I made no effort to diversify in order to honor the deepest, most uniformly strong ensembles of the decade. It hurts to leave off the supporting stars of Battlestar, The Shield, and Mad Men, but I could have made top 10 lists for both Deadwood and The Wire.
Favorite Supporting Drama Actresses:
6. Christina Hendricks - Mad Men
5. Paula Malcomson - Deadwood
4. CCH Pounder - The Shield
3. Sonja Sohn - The Wire
2. Tricia Helfer - Battlestar Galactica
1. Drea de Matteo - The Sopranos
Notable also-rans: Melinda Clarke (The OC), Summer Glau (Firefly), Deirdre Lovejoy (The Wire), Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Jewel Staite (Firefly), Gina Torres (Firefly)
My enthusiasm for Mad Men tells me Christina Hendricks will rise higher as the series goes on, but it's a shame I couldn't find room for any of the Firefly women.
My favorite comedy of the decade is Arrested Development, and my favorite comedy actors are Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, David Cross, and Jessica Walter.
My favorite drama of the decade is The Wire, and my favorite drama actors are Ian McShane, Mary McDonnell, Idris Elba, and Drea de Matteo.
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Saturday, April 11, 2009
I wanted to move that yellow of the Dali painting down a bit while I remodel--that unsettling shade complements nothing, which I suppose is the point. I've been working on a couple posts, but they're eluding me, so in the mean time, here's a new painting, this one by Stanley Meltzoff.
I wish I knew about this a week ago, because it depicts the founding of the National Geographic Society in 1888. The guy in the middle is John Wesley Powell, the only founder I knew. I discovered the painting in a book in my dentist office waiting room.
My dentist office waiting room also has biscotti now, which made for quite the post-checkup reward.
Also of note? The hardcore Texan ladies that man the office fell into convulsions upon hearing my career interests, offering the old chestnut that LA is the land of fruits and nuts. Someday I'll have the balls to pull out dripping flamboyance when I need it. When my mom mentioned that I like to cook--for some reason--they winked that "girls like that." Excellent. Girls like that.
Which leads me to this: I love it here, but I want to leave Texas. No hard feelings?
Travel--that's National Geographicy, right? Full circle! Enjoy the new painting, which I hope complements the new format. It can't be worse than the Dali.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 11:07 PM
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Monday, April 6, 2009
I'll say this for the Bush years: corralling rural America's fear of neglect into a powerful political force shamed Hollywood liberals into finally appealing to those of us residing between the two coasts. Now, more than ever, television is abandoning America's three largest cities for the heartland. I have to say, the regional diversity on display is a refreshing supplement to the wealth of southern Californian or New York cosmopolitan series.
This isn’t exactly new. Roseanne, set in Lanford, Illinois, springs to mind, as does Designing Women, a series about hilarious accents. Northern Exposure brought exposure to Alaska, Twin Peaks took a detour to Washington, and The Simpsons ventured inland to a wacky parallel Springfield. Even more recently, The Wire took to the streets of Baltimore, and though it’s historical, Deadwood brought television to the fabled land of South Dakota.
More and more, television series are settling inland, like a reverse manifest destiny. This exurban exodus is underscored by established series migrating: 24 transplanted Jack Bauer and team from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., a slightly less major metropolitan region but one not overrun by television history. Weeds, meanwhile, just moved from LA suburb Agrestic to a small border town.
Part of this panspermia includes populating major cities that aren’t Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago. Seattle is home to Grey’s Anatomy and Reaper, Miami hosts Dexter and Burn Notice, and Philadelphia perhaps begrudgingly houses the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s a start, and some of these towns are still pretty fresh to viewers, but what about cities outside the top 40 metropolitan areas?
Number 75 Albuquerque’s in the midst of a resurgence since High School Musical brought it into the new millennium. Critical hit Breaking Bad makes terrific use of Albuquerque’s adobe architecture and natural landscapes. The characters maintain a healthy glow thanks to the heat; you feel like you’re getting a look at real Albuquerque life. USA followed suit, basing its latest police procedural In Plain Sight in the New Mexican town.
Next door in Dillon, Texas, a fictional doppelganger for Odessa, Friday Night Lights depicts the charm and frustration of living in small-town Texas. Their penchant for capturing the nuances of Texas life has earned the filmmakers critical raves. With the same fervor they’ve conveyed the majestic Austin skyline and towering Kyle Field. Maybe next year they’ll visit Houston, which despite its enormous population (double entendre) and distinct industries (space and oil), is not often seen on film.
The series closest to the geographic heart of the country is United States of Tara, set in Overland Park, just outside of Kansas City. The very title of the show reminds us that suburbs are the same all over. How different would Weeds be if it were set in, say, Highland Park in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex? Okay, more mustaches, but the fruit of the show would remain intact.
Ennui is the watchword in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Geography-obsessed as I am, the little-big city choices for Dunder-Mifflin’s outfits fascinate me—already we’ve visited Stamford, Connecticut, Utica, New York, and Nashua, New Hampshire with the documentary crew of The Office. Three more states and our New England tour will be complete. While we’re in the area, snaps to House for showing that New Jersey is not just the land of toolbox guidos, beehive broads, and mob heavies, and snaps to Brotherhood for showing that Rhode Island is just that.
The creators of The Office are pushing further inland with Parks & Recreation, set in a fictional Indiana town called Pawnee. According to the Pawnee website, it's 90 miles from Indianapolis, and the street pictured in the banner is exactly how I pictured "Pawnee," with a row of wintry trees lining quaint, red-bricked storefronts.
Sibling comedies Scrubs and My Name is Earl are conspicuously not set in major cities either, but that’s because they’re deliberately undefined. Earl, for instance, features an overnight drive to Vegas, a number of Maryland references, and a distinctly Southwestern feel. In fact, Earl may be the forerunner of the migration, the quintessential red state show. When it premiered, its appeal to lower class rural families was all the rage, and come to think of it, there was a long wait between Roseanne and Earl. The cosmic karmic spirituality of the show is part of its middle American charm. Rounding out the religious trifecta, Big Love takes Mormonism back a few decades in a suburb of Salt Lake City, and Saving Grace features actual angels in Oklahoma City. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the conservatism at work on these shows, but at least they depict areas of the nation—geographically and culturally—not often seen on television.
Nowadays, sea to shining sea is riddled with fictional characters: the cops of Reno 911, the naughty children of South Park, the Lawrence, Kansas demon-hunters of Supernatural, and the musicians from David Simon’s upcoming New Orleans drama Treme. Only the upper Plains states remain unsettled in televisionland.
Like politicians in an election year—and with broadcast numbers falling, every household counts—Hollywood is spreading out. The godless sodomites are reaching out to the mindless Palinites. Niche netlets not only brave uncharted territory but faithfully present our ways of life. There will always be plenty of series set in LA and New York--Mad Men and 30 Rock are two of my current favorites--but I like the growing variety. Paraphrasing Tina Fey and/or Sarah Palin, Real America deserves a defender.
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The season finale of Showtime freshman United States of Tara aired last night, marking the end of a warm, unsettling, and deeply funny first season. Like Tara, the series has many faces--repressed trauma mystery, suburban satire, dysfunctional family drama, coming-of-age story--all of which synthesize to form a winning whole.
United States of Tara had a fairly conventional first season, which is not to say it wasn’t original or fresh. Just that it featured all the hallmarks of a smart series aiming for renewal: season arcs for each of the five main characters, recurring roles that tie in neatly, the occasional standalone sitcom story with a twist, and a mystery resolution that only invites more questions.
Is there any doubt that Keir Gilchrist is the breakout talent? The writers expanded his presence ever so slightly until Marshall was second only to Tara by the final arc. The way the subplots intertwine suggests much of the first season was preplanned, but regardless, Gilchrist dominated everything from the emotional outbursts to the bitter wit—like last night's “He looks like a retarded Mark Harmon."
I’m somewhat perplexed about the fan reaction to Brie Larson. I found her completely relatable as Kate; even her brattiness and irresponsibility have limits, as when she urges T not to get a tattoo. Nate Corddry’s role also elicited mixed reviews—perhaps due to that storyline’s murkiness—but again, I thought Gene was incredibly consistent as the dorky square whose perceptions of himself (big man on campus) don’t line up with reality (big fish in a small seafood franchise named Barnabee’s). Incidentally, how perfectly are the characters named? I’m not sure he’ll be around full time next year, which I'm of two minds about (pun so intended): Corddry’s hilarious, but Kate’s best scenes were with Marshall, as when the siblings try to top each other’s insults (skank-strumpet being a special delight).
But at the end of the day, this is a show about a woman with DID. Toni Collette plays Tara and the four alters with utter believability. At first her transitions were fun—who’s coming out this time?—but by the end, they were dramatically affecting. Collette simply excels at conveying Tara’s helplessness. Could Alice be scarier talking about keeping Tara locked inside? This is the second time she’s given me goosebumps. Another mark of the series—credit goes to Diablo Cody and the writers—is how we transition from excitement about seeing the alters in the pilot to frustration by the finale, mirroring the people in Tara’s life. In one of the first scenes, Kate couldn’t be more pleased to see T instead of Tara, but by the end, all four of Tara’s relatives have declared that they wish the alters would leave permanently. When she transitions now, I shudder to see what fresh hell the alters will wreak on Tara and her life.
I don’t mean to dismiss the fantastic work by John Corbett, but nobody’s questioning his talents. As the manager of the Gregson household, he constantly evokes overworked exhaustion, but he always has time to lend some supporting words to the family, as when he echoes Tara’s response to being dropped by her psychiatrist. Then there’s the charismatic Rosemarie DeWitt, who slowly reveals the many facets of selfish Charmaine: low self-esteem, surprising dependability, and a deep envy of the Gregsons, chaotic though their lives may be.
Next year, I hope to see more united plots. Marshall's burgeoning romance with Jason notwithstanding, Tara's family members were often stranded in isolated stories. Granted, many of them met up with the central plot eventually--Charmaine's plastic surgery, for instance, leads to a tender connection between Charmaine and Buck--but I'd like to see more interaction among the main characters, preferably with new pairings. Have Kate and Max shared any notable scenes? And as always, with Tara boasting the most authentic gay youth on television, next season I anticipate the same dedication to the trials and joys of adolescence.
I came into Tara in the wake of mixed reviews and no special interest in behavioral disorders, but it wasn't long before I was invested in the Gregsons. In light of Weeds' humorless transformation, Tara became my favorite show on Showtime. With a first season this good, I look forward to many more.
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Sunday, April 5, 2009
Not since The View has inane conversation among catty middle-aged women feigning politeness been so noteworthy. After just fifteen minutes, I was hooked, which is apt given my love for The Hills. The only real suprise is that it took me this long to find this show.
Like The Hills, the appeal of Real Housewives is part self-affirming and part anthropological. It's a peek into a life of extreme privilege where the gravest concern is the latest faux pas. The characters float from charity event to publicity gala on a cloud of white gold aloofness, but the charm is in their peel-offs, the one-on-ones where the garrulous gals dish the latest gossip. Since this is the Upper East Side, etiquette is paramount, and these propriety mavens are incapable of letting the slightest offense pass without rebuke. In short, it's begging for our judgment.
Let's go in order:
Bethenny is obviously my favorite, with her droll wit and casual dismissal of social pretensions. She's about as close to real as fantasy-world New York City socialites get, or so I gather from Gossip Girl.
I don't have a great read on Bethenny's gal-pal Jill yet, so I'll give her the benefit of a doubt, but her tennis tantrum is not helping her stock. For the record, I've only seen a couple episodes from Season 1 and the most recent three from Season 2, so yes, I'm a Real Housewives dilettante.
Here's a shocking tie: Ramona and The Countess. Narcissistic freak-outs aside (and yes, I did see the girls' night out debacle), Ramona's unfiltered nature lends an authenticity this show is sorely lacking. Only Bethenny is as open about her feelings. In the other corner, The Countess began as my favorite only to steadily plummet. The kicker? Her declaration that women are "too equal" to men. I suppose that explains the philandering Count. Still, The Countess (who assures us that, despite her impending divorce, she will always, thankfully, be the Countess) usually tries to play diplomat among the women so as not to upset her delicate social structure, an admirable if misguided goal.
Next we have my former least favorite, Alex. I'm heartened to discover that she's the outcast housewife, because I cannot stomach her pseudointellectual pretensions. Is Simon worse? Perhaps ("Is class etiquette, or is etiquette class?" Scintillating). But Simon's "deep homosexual panic" aside (Bethenny's words), Alex is the housewife here, and her feigned nonchalance regarding her social status tests the limits of my gag reflex.
Bringing up the rear is apparent Season 2 villain and wordsmith extraordinaire Kelly. Not just because Bethenny's my favorite, either. Have you seen the latest episode? Girl can barely form sentences, and when she succeeds with the basics (a subject and predicate), she still manages to be incoherent. If you diagrammed one of her sentences, eventually the word tree would awkwardly shift the blame to you, declare that it's too busy to parse sentences, and storm out so it can whine about you to all its friends.
Naturally I love the feud between Bethenny and Kelly, not least for how good my girl's looking in the afterglow (I was this close to writing "afterbirth," which I contend is also fitting). When Kelly rants to her date and later to Ramona about their blow-up, she conveniently mischaracterizes everything. When she tells The Countess, she's oblivious to the fact that showing up half an hour late to a meeting she arranged reflects poorly. Meanwhile, Bethenny quotes practically verbatim their conversation to Ramona. Speaking of whom, Kelly's integrity lapses are compounded by the self-serving article Ramona took issue with, but narcissism is Kelly's strong suit. When Ramona let her off the hook after a direct challenge, my opinion of Ramona grew. I'm eagerly soaking up the delicious waves Kelly makes, but I wonder if we'll see any of her redeeming qualities someday. Nobody's that thoroughly shameless.
Isn't it strange how little actually happens on Real Housewives? One of the episodes I caught devoted a full half hour to two social transgressions and ensuing confrontations. First, when Bethenny told The Countess that she would be on the cover of a magazine, The Countess failed to muster the appropriate level of enthusiasm and went on to recommend retouching. Minutes later, Ramona mistakenly announced that The Countess' husband is twice her age--horrors!--which set The apparently insecure Countess off. She handled the situation by sulking loudly as she walked away, threatening to oust Ramona from the event, ridiculing Ramona's appearance, and harping on the matter even after Ramona sincerely expressed regret. Taking notes, Bethenny decided to save her confrontation for another date, to which The Countess was even less amenable than she was regarding the initial perceived insult. Lo, the fastidious balance of the Real Housewives ecosystem is wondrous to behold.
Admittedly I'm new to all this, but how can The Real Housewives of New Jersey not be the best incarnation of the franchise? The hair nests alone will garner ratings. The rumor mill suggests--fabulously--that The Real Housewives of Dubai may be in the works. Can you imagine? "Did you hear, Nadia? I'm thinking of buying another country." "Sweetie, that's so new money. And please address me by my proper title." "Sorry, Sultaness, I didn't realize you were taking bitch pills again."
What else is there to say? Breaking Bad's stronger than ever, United States of Tara concludes a solid inaugural season tonight, and The Hills returns Monday. But the real housewives are redecorating my heart.
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Saturday, April 4, 2009
As a function of the calendar, we're about to experience a deluge of anniversary, retrospective, and best-of articles for the first (and if you're Mayan, last) decade of the new millennium. The 50th anniversary of the French New Wave (or one of its first hits, The 400 Blows, anyway) is just around the corner, and I've already read two astute pieces on its consequences. But I just realized a more personal milestone. This weekend, I received my April 2009 issue of National Geographic, which marks the 10th anniversary of my collection.
I have more than 120 issues lined up on my bookshelf, and that's only because I dumped the first couple years or so of my subscription when we moved to Texas. Now that I think about it, the first issue in my second and current anthology was a gift at the Texas State Geography Bee in March. I subscribed from the postcard inside a little late, so I'm missing April 1999, and my collection proper began that May (making the April '09 issue the last issue of my first decade, the first issue of my second, or the second of my second). Needless to say, National Geographic has been a regular part of my life from prepubescence to postgraduatehood.
I fear I'm coming off like a character in Garden State. I assure you, a collection of magazines is not the only constant in my life.
But I value my National Geographics. Snail mail is always a delight, but National Geographics are second only to surprise packages from people that aren't terrorists. For one, they're monthly, so they're steady but just rare enough that you forget about them by the time they arrive. They're thick, too, the most recent issue amounting to a cool, slick 160 pages. And that smell--it's a subtle, but comforting aroma. The feeling of prying apart the static-clung leafs for the first time is almost as good as popping bubble wrap. That's a lot of pleasure. The writers have a magical ability to entrance you regarding almost any subject. Even if you're not especially interested in any of the six cover topics, I dare you to get through an issue without wanting to know more. The photography alone is worth the price of admission. Moreover, there's always a page or two in the beginning that will whet your appetite, whether it's a cross-section of Dubai's up-and-coming architecture or a map of the clutter orbiting our planet. I always enjoy the Visions of Earth, massive two-page spreads about any of the various topics covered by the magazine, and the relatively new Your Shot features. I'm hoping to enter some of my own photos when I visit Europe this year. Every now and then, you'll find a supplemental map inside your magazine, a surprise that fills this card-carrying cartophile with bliss at the mere mention. On top of everything, the last page is reserved for one of my favorite features over the years, the Flashback, a snap from the periodical's seasoned history with a brief description.
I haven't read even half the articles in my collection. But looking back, I realize I have lapped up a lot more than I thought. Of the past year's output, the look at Bolivia's female wrestlers is a treasure. These are people that have only had a stable government for a couple years, on the heels of tremendous social unrest and resource crises, and they have the time and determination to engage in colorful, carnivalesque wrestling matches. I think we'll weather this recession just fine.
The magazine has changed quite a bit over the years, from a slight lightening of the trademark yellow, which is actually a return to the yellow that originated the collection, to the introduction of new features. In the time I've subscribed, National Geographic have begun and concluded their ZipUSA series. It premiered with a Texan town--Mentone, which has no stoplights, one cafe, 15 people, and 674 oil wells to its name. Six years later, the series unfortunately came to a close. In that time, Texas was visited only once more, just before the end, with a look at Houston. What I would give to see Friendswood scooped by National Geographic. They could dedicate one page to Quakers, another to figs, and a final one to the FHS musical. We're very cosmopolitan.
Possibly the pride of my collection are the two German issues I snagged while I was in Berlin. Whoa, make that my German issue from June 2001 and apparently my Benelux issue from July. That jibes with my historical whereabouts, but I could have sworn they were both in German. Since I also have their English counterparts, comparing the two was a fun diversion back in the day. Among other things, the European issues discarded the ZipUSA feature (and they call us myopic...kidding), but my German issue includes a substantial inserted mini-zine about Pearl Harbor, for the sole reason that it was around the time the Ben Affleck film opened in German theaters.
Which brings me to one of my favorite articles from the past decade of National Geographics: the Megatransect, which followed a team's attempt to make their way across Africa on foot, a meandering hike from north Congo to the Atlantic that took over a year to complete. It was a three-part series, and every month, the riveting prose of a punishing adventure and impossible shots of magical wildlife fueled my anticipation for the next installment. The articles spare no one in their exacting look at the dangerous and compromising expedition, but the conservationist values, the spellbinding love of nature transcends any petty problems among the crew. I can't describe how exhilarating it was just to read about the moment they reached the beach. The trek sounds arduous to say the least, but it's so inspirational that someday, I'd like to complete my own megatransect. I hope to come across a mere tenth of the beautiful vistas they snapped.
Another favorite is the issue that asks on its cover, "Was Darwin wrong?" When you flip to the article, you will read in large print, "No." The audacity of a science periodical to suggest there's no actual evolution controversy, among rational thinkers, that is, still makes me chuckle. They're right, as anyone can see, but that doesn't detract from the boldness.
A few years ago, I was obsessed with the possibilities of stem cell research, reading everything I could find. When National Geographic did a story on it, I was in heaven. I encouraged my parents to check it out and left it for them--an act that was not politically motivated or necessary--and for years there was a hole in my collection that I couldn't explain. Last month I found the issue under a pile of books and returned it to its rightful place in the stack.
Yes, National Geographic has had some great hits over the past decade. The turn of the millennium was a fruitful time for the National Geographic team, who produced a number of valuable features on the state of globalization. Somewhat unexpectedly, a story on the origins of hip-hop captivated me for a whole summer. And remember when they caught up with that haunting Afghan girl from the '80s and confirmed her identity with retinal comparisons? In 120 issues, National Geographic has produced countless eye-opening, utterly absorbing stories and photos, too many to keep reminiscing about here.
Already, ten years have gone by. I've gained more knowledge, wonder, and simple pleasure from reading National Geographic than I can describe here, on every topic from space to forgotten civilizations, obscure animals to national parks, cultural transformations to historical events. I anticipate with great ardor the next ten years. There's plenty of room left on my shelf.
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I'm not going to write about Party Down every week, unless, say, next week they host a Neptune society event where Veronica Mars happens to be investigating a lead. But after three episodes, I'm hooked on the characters.
This week's venture, written by John Enbom, sees the Party Down people cater a senior singles seminar, so naturally Ed Begley, Jr. shows up to get drunk and tell jokes. He's joined by the Hearst College football coach whose name is apparently Todd Christian Hunter. You'd think I'd be accustomed to all the Veronica Mars guest stars by now (IMDb claims many more are in store, including James Jordan and Paula Marshall), but Begley, Jr. is especially kismet because he has now co-starred with Jane Lynch in approximately seventeen projects, including Christopher Guest films and Arrested Development. Meanwhile, Begley, Jr. has a few significant scenes with Ryan Hansen, and I still can't help but think of this as some alternate universe where Dean O'Dell is mentoring Dick Casablancas. In related news, I forgot that Jane Lynch is also a Veronica Mars alumnus, making a full two-thirds of the main cast of Party Down ex-Neptune residents.
I rave about the guest stars because the most reliable aspect of Party Down is the casting. More often than not, watching the characters' reactions to each other is as funny as anything else. Not all the jokes work--as on The Office, some of the broader comedy threatens the credibility of the kitchen-sink depression moments--but the performers are committed and believable, particularly Jane Lynch as a dumb, oblivious, aging former actress. After seeing the pilot, I was afraid Ken Marino's overbearing square would suffocate the show, but his role has steadily diminished in both screentime (he's the only character without any long-term arc) and zeal. I have a feeling this has more to do with the ebb and flow of the spotlight characters than with a gradual toning down of Marino's Ron, but we'll see. As for the rest, I have nothing but praise. Adam Scott's depression may grow irritating, but for now he balances the humor and isolation well. I'm most enjoying the work of Lizzy Caplan and Martin Starr, both of whom surprise with each passing episode.
I look forward to seeing how the cast and crew handle the overall story, because at this point, it could support as much depth as the writers dare. The seeds are planted for a dark, cynical, hysterical story of dashed ambitions. On a show like this, investment in the characters (in their career dreams, their budding romances, and their prevalent awkward social encounters) enhances the comedy, since it largely depends on making fun of the main cast. On the other hand, if they happen to slowly transform Party Down into a Veronica Mars spinoff, even better.
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Friday, April 3, 2009
The best movie I saw last month is a gem that came out of nowhere, enrapturing me with its natural performances, dreamy atmosphere, and refreshing stylistic originality. I'm speaking of a somewhat rare 1964 Czech film called Diamonds of the Night, a movie with direct European arthouse influences, but one that is ultimately unlike anything else I've seen.
March 2009 was, with respect to my continuing film education, a targeted expansion of my foreign awareness. I made a map representing my experience with European film in the beginning of the month, and I responded by annexing more of the continent. Preparing for my vacation to Prague, I saw my first Czech films last month, a trio of Czech New Wave stunners that has me eager to experience more. I also saw my first Bulgarian film, The Peach Thief, an intimate wartime drama about a romance between a prisoner and his guard's wife. Director Vulo Radev's camera grows steadily more desperate, yielding a flurry of evocative compositions as the characters race toward their inexorable fates. I also saw my first Finnish film, Ariel by Aki Kaurismäki, a film impossible to classify. Let's just say it's not like any prison film you've ever seen.
My reaction to Japanese cinema to this point has been lukewarm, but finally I fell into three classics: Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru was an enjoyable alternative to his samurai films, elliptical, digressive and surprising. Even better, one day I took in a double feature of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story and Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, both of which knocked me out. Tokyo Story boasts an engrossing cast and an identifiable story (along with Ozu's patient style), while Ugetsu hooked me from the score, a haunting, percussive ghost chant. Its fantastic elements delighted me, but the cinematography is the highlight, from murky, silhouetted boat encounters to tattooed calligraphy framed by windowed sunlight.
But the movie I enjoyed most is Diamonds of the Night (Démanty noci) by Jan Nemec. I've only recently scratched the surface of the Czech New Wave, but from what I've read, it's a movement united by contemporaneity and nationalism more than anything else. Unlike the auteurs of the French New Wave, the Czech directors of the mid-'60s weren't consciously collaborating against artistic norms. Instead, Jirí Menzel and Milos Forman and Jan Nemec essentially happened to arrive on the cinematic scene at the same time. They are connected in their rebellion against a communist society, but are otherwise stylistically distinct.
Late August at the Hotel Ozone, for instance, is a postapocalyptic, feminist fable about a band of roving jungle women. On the other hand, Closely Watched Trains is a tonally hormonal coming-of-age tale about a boy becoming a train operator during World War II. Late August is earnest and melodramatic but adventurous and eerie, director Jan Schmidt intent on exploring the depths of humanity at its extremes. Schmidt opens with a soundtrack of countdowns, presumably nuclear, spoken in various languages, and the rest of the film is textured with poetic natural passages--a girl ponders a snake, a dog freezes with anxiety, the girls scramble like animals through the brush. Trains couldn't be less cynical. Director Jirí Menzel recounts the hilarious ancestry of our protagonist Milos--his forefathers include a magician who tried to hypnotize invading troops and a train conductor who retired in order to spend his days on the couch. The ensuing tale reflects Milos' adolescent mood, oscillating between glee at his infatuation and depression at his state, a virgin with no path in life, that demonstrates the ostensible central plot of his romantic quest is a distraction from his self-discovery. Where Late August is atmospheric and ugly, Trains is narrative and personal.
Diamonds of the Night is an ambitious venture, a gripping, lyrical, and hypnotic journey of survival. That it arrived on the heels of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Ivan's Childhood, and Last Year at Marienbad vaults the film perhaps unintentionally into a wider dialogue, because Diamonds confidently challenges cinematic convention in a similar manner as its influences. Its ambitions range from telling a narrative (or two, but we'll get to that) with almost no dialogue, an overflow of flashbacks, hypothetical interludes, and dreams, and a finale that could mean any number of possible ends for our characters.
The first thing we hear is the peal of church bells as the credits read on a black screen. The soundtrack fades to a train slowly picking up steam, and suddenly the film opens in media res: as the train departs, two young boys are racing for their lives across open terrain amidst frequent gunshots. It's a gripping opening, and Nemec keeps the camera tight on the individual boys. We never see a wide view of the chase, so we're never sure how close the boys are to the treeline, or how fast their pursuers are moving. The boys stumble their way up the hill and into the forest after a little over two minutes, and the film changes pace. Darkness overwhelms us and the boys fall to the forest floor with exhaustion. When we see one boy's hand covered in ants, we wonder if it's a hallucination. At last, the boys pick themselves up, and wander into the wood to find water, shelter, and more lasting freedom.
The ostensible story is a simple one: two young Czech brothers escape from a train bound for a Nazi concentration camp. But Nemec doesn't tell a standard narrative about war, adolescence, or survival; he uses the screenplay to reflect the psychological states of its protagonist, turning a traditional plot into a multi-layered, reflexive labyrinth. When one boy is cornered, he is forced to commit a grisly act--which turns out to be all in his head. The narrative has a habit of looping back on itself, or investigating hypothetical forks, or compounding the boys' plight with a rich dose of overexposed flashbacks that charge the film with an ambiguous sense of mystery, worried suspense, and even horror elements. It takes 14 minutes for spoken words to reassure us, and it's a moment of touching fraternity. As the boys, non-actors Ladislav Jánsky and Antonín Kumbera are expressive and natural. One boy--I'm not sure which is which, and they are credited as 1st Boy and 2nd Boy--has such a wearied look you just want to reach out and comfort him.
Diamonds of the Night is not predicated on surprise, but it's such a unique work I'd hate to ruin the effect of Nemec's spell. Without any substantial dialogue, Nemec relies on a displaced soundtrack--like the church bells travelling through time to warn the boys--and a number of chilling camera techniques--splicing energetic chase sequences together, tight framing that inhibits total understanding, poetic interludes that make us wonder what's real--to deliver his psychological puzzle to a daring end that is the culmination of the film's narrative experimentation. In just over an hour, Jan Nemec crafts a suspenseful, surreal, naturalist gem glittering with ambition, one of the landmark achievements of Czech cinema and my current favorite film from 1964.
Though it's incredibly myopic to judge a movement on such a small sample, I'm currently fascinated by the Czech New Wave. If I hadn't seen Diamonds of the Night, Closely Watched Trains would have been an easy pick for my favorite movie last month. I have Marketa Lazarová in the pipeline, and after that, I suppose I should get to Daisies and the works of Milos Forman. It baffles and saddens me that Diamonds of the Night is so underseen, and it's nigh impossible to find anything about it on the internet. I hope wayward cinephiles find their way to this recommendation, because if nothing else, Diamonds of the Night is an exhilarating experiment that could benefit from exposure.
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The House Next Door has a feature called 5 for the Day, where a House contributor picks five performances by an actor or five films by a director worth discussing. Tonight, Craig Simpson picked 5 of his favorite ensembles, which looked like so much fun I had to join in.
I tried to stay away from the ensembles that immediately come to mind. Everyone already knows the legendary ensembles of Robert Altman: MASH, Nashville, Short Cuts, etc. Simpson picked Gosford Park's ensemble, and I would too if I weren't more interested in spreading the love around. Altman's heirs Dazed and Confused and Magnolia also feature ensembles already praised to death. So-called hyperlink films depend on a troupe of actors working in harmony, each group telling only a piece of the larger story; another superb example is The Thin Red Line. Glengarry Glen Ross features one of the strongest lead casts of the '90s, and classics like The Rules of the Game or All About Eve with headline leads also boast powerful ensembles. In Network, Paddy Chayefsky gave nearly everyone a great moment or two.
However, these classics are well-known for their deserving ensembles, and I wanted to shine the light on some less obvious choices. I ended up with a modern collection of ensembles, but at the end I'll reveal which films almost made my list.
In chronological order, here are 5 ensembles of note:
1. Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee (1989)
Now that I've established my goal to pick ensembles that don't immediately spring to mind, I pick one of the most beloved films of the '80s. Nevertheless, the cast of Do the Right Thing exemplify the idea of ensembles as a single organism. There are famous faces, from Ruby Dee to Samuel L. Jackson to John Turturro to Spike Lee himself, but none that overwhelm. Characters of all colors fuel each other and the story, everyone from Radio Raheem and Mookie to the Greek chorus trio of old, black men contributing to the overall give-and-take of Lee's heated film. Appropriately, the climax is brought about not by a single villain or a clash between main characters. This film about a community builds to a point where the community itself is torn asunder, every character participating (or not) in the disintegration.
2. Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch (1995)
Even before the film, the roster of actors is a cohesive troupe, united by a tendency toward the dark, weird, and grotesque: Johnny Depp, Crispin Glover, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Lance Henriksen. Supplemented by John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina, and particularly Gary Farmer, among others, this is one talented cast. Jarmusch's twisted tale sees everyone in the same bizarre light, and the characters' words sound like the spawn of a single brain. Here's an example of an ensemble built around a lead performance that nevertheless moves like a single organism, the characters cooperating to transport Depp's William Blake to his final destination. Each person feels like the latest representative of a malevolent force stalking Blake, together conveying a nightmarish vision of the Old West.
3. The Big Lebowski by Joel & Ethan Coen (1998)
I couldn't compile this list without including a Coen Brothers joint, since they have such a talent for assembling harmonious ensembles. Here, the cast consists of Coen stock players John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Jon Polito, and Peter Stormare as well as new initiates Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston, Sam Elliott, David Thewlis, Tara Reid, and Ben Gazzara. The plot is so complicated that everyone contributes a small piece of the puzzle, which effectually ties everyone into the same web. They still have their own separate agendas, but they each have a larger part to play, coming together to tell the story of America in the early '90s, a nation of the cowboy, the millionaire, the sycophant, the pederast, the porn star, the nihilists, the feminist, the veteran, and, of course, the dude.
4. Almost Famous by Cameron Crowe (2000)
Because of the formulaic story, a conventional coming-of-age in the midst of a rock band's rise and fall, Almost Famous wouldn't work without an ensemble that knows exactly what it's doing. And despite lead Patrick Fugit, the star turns by Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup and the comedy relief of Frances McDormand and Jason Lee, this film is on the shoulders of the bit parts. Anna Paquin and Fairuza Balk as the band-aids, Jay Baruchel as the Zeppelin fan, Nick Swardson as the Bowie fan. When I think about Almost Famous, I think of the girl who saunters into a scene and shouts, "Your aura is purple!" before continuing on her way. Or the hotel concierge who tells William his mother's a handful. And of course, the small-town kid who asks Russell, "Wanna see me feed a mouse to my snake?" These people give a texture to the world surrounding Stillwater, and not just the music scene, but the opening during William's childhood and the snippets of McDormand's classroom (the girl who takes notes about William being abducted by rock stars, for instance). And because I can't leave them off, don't forget about Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, Jason Lee and the other band members, Noah Taylor, and Zooey Deschanel. Besides, any movie that manages to keep Jimmy Fallon in character for the entire time he's onscreen must be doing something right.
5. George Washington by David Gordon Green (2000)
Like Do the Right Thing (and both films' progenitor, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep), George Washington is the story of a single community, and when the biggest star is Paul Schneider and the most central characters are children, nobody overpowers the film. Also like Do the Right Thing, George Washington reminds me most of a short story cycle or a tapestry novel like Cannery Row, with a cohesive tone and worldview told through a variety of the story's inhabitants. Here we have narrator Nasia, taciturn hero George, and the young, working class adult that aspires to a grander life, Rico Rice. Through them, several stories are told revolving around the fantasy and reality of the American dream. The film encompasses a diversity of experience, ranging from mortal sins to elevating triumphs, from isolation to community, from dreams of escape to finding happiness within. That's a lot to charge an ensemble with, but in fulfilling their own small roles with natural authenticity, they enhance each other, turning what could be a discordant medley into a symphony of the American spirit.
I intentionally stuck to modern ensembles that have had less time to become indelible in the annals of cinema, so I had to leave off the ensembles from La Dolce Vita, Contempt, and The Right Stuff. Conversely, I would have included A Christmas Tale and Synecdoche, New York, two stunning examples from last year, but I feel like I just finished praising my 2008 favorites. I'd have liked to include Bubble, a nonprofessional cast with extraordinary naturalistic cohesion--talk about a single organism--but eventually chose George Washington. Finally, I'm sure you're aware how much it pained me to cut Inland Empire or Mulholland Dr., both films not often thought of in terms of their unified ensembles.
What do you think?
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Thursday, April 2, 2009
Now I know what The Shield's fans must have felt. I loved that series but rarely felt it had much to say--until that commentary-laden final season. But as pulp, you can't do much better. The writers took Vic Mackey deeper and deeper into holes he couldn't possibly get out of, always complicating his situation and surprising us once again with Mackey's survival instinct. The heir to The Shield's comic book style is unquestionably Breaking Bad.
Last year, Breaking Bad was AMC's junior series, a visceral but overshadowed character drama that had the misfortune of following breakout Mad Men. While I enjoyed this new series' western influences and devotion to FX-style grittiness--and Breaking Bad was positively horny to see how far Walt could stretch his ethics--nothing could live up to the textual richness of period drama Mad Men. Bryan Cranston delivered an affecting portrayal of a suburban dad trying to provide for his family before cancer consumes him, but he wasn't quite Don Draper, was he? Well, Emmy disagreed, honoring Cranston over Jon Hamm, and Breaking Bad cemented its worth in the public consciousness.
I hope that translates into new viewers, because the four episodes of the new season have betrayed a maturity and grace hinted at occasionally in Season 1. Breaking Bad is more focused and cohesive now, with nary a snippet of dialogue that doesn't revolve around the primary story of Walt's meth business, cancer, and family problems. What's more, Cranston's is no longer the only performance worth discussing.
Remember the invigorating opening montage of "Crazy Handful of Nothin'," a set of glimpses into where the episode will somehow lead? That break from the standard operating procedure made me sit up and take notice. It was time to stop taking this well-executed character study for granted.
Season 2 opens in a similar way, with a glimpse into what I presume is the season finale. "Down," the fourth episode, expounds on that glimpse in a moment that took the wind out of my sails. In fact, the entire episode is a lengthy exercise in emotional torture porn, the show reveling in pitting Walt against vague and ambiguous obstacles in his family life. Meanwhile, Jesse is also pushed to his breaking point in some kind of homage to Falling Down, and the two main characters collide at their lowest. In a word, it was devastating.
Much as I enjoyed Season 1, it couldn't affect me like this. Part of its newfound vigor lies in the performance of Aaron Paul as Jesse. During the first season, I found Paul mostly believable but occasionally overcooked, due in part to Jesse's role being overwritten. It must be tough to handle such an obnoxious but integral character. This year, it feels like the writers have a firmer grasp on everything--the overall story, the connections between all the loose ends in Walt's life, and especially Jesse himself. He's still the same slacker druggie with dreams of impressing his nearest and dearest, but he's more grounded now, more believable as a case of arrested development. Like Walt, Jesse suffers from isolation and pride, but he's growing. In his relationships with his shady friend Badger and later with Wendy the hooker, Jesse assumes the Walt role, walking them through procedures he would normally have improvised.
I'm also enjoying the performance of Anna Gunn as Walt's pregnant wife Skyler this year. She's put through the wringer like Walt and Jesse, and we feel her pain as acutely. In "Down," Skyler launches an undefined and undeclared war against her husband. As in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, the marital strife is especially frustrating for the characters because it has no defined cause, nothing Walt can scientifically assess and repair.
The final primary character is the ostensible antagonist, Dean Norris as Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law. Ever the overgrown, blustery man-child, Hank is nevertheless endearing. He's sincere in his relationships with the Whites, and he's somewhat surprisingly good at his job. Good enough to inject suspense into his every scene. It can't be much longer until he connects all the dots; the only question is how he'll respond. Tertiary characters like Marie are almost entirely absent in this intensely focused season, and even Walter, Jr. is only onscreen when he comes into contact with one of his parents.
I'm thrilled that subplots like Marie stealing the tiara--apparently she has a history and is seeing a psychiatrist--are taking a backseat to the freight train of Walt's deteriorating life, because with shows like this and The Shield, it all comes down to the pulp. There's a well-worn comic book formula where a writer alternates chamber drama and action by issue. Breaking Bad succeeds with the formula: The premiere balances both but tilts dramatic, while the second episode is almost entirely an action adventure. The third episode balances the two almost equally, and the fourth, as stated, is a gut-wrenching chamber drama.
Due to their serialized form, comics traditionally depend on cliffhangers, and plots are too desperate to focus on anything but the present. Vic Mackey sees his career as a sequence of stopgaps--he'd find himself in a new quagmire, devote all his energies to temporarily staving off the end, and in doing so, wind up in the next quagmire. Breaking Bad has a similar approach, each episode throwing Walt into the next inevitable hole. Episodes break down into a succession of cliffhangers building to a lucky resolution followed by an even greater cliffhanger. It's audacious storytelling, and you wonder if the writers can keep it up, but every episode of Season 2 has been breathtaking.
Breaking Bad isn't perfect, and I anticipate a deeper look into questions of morality and legality hinted at in the Season 1 finale. But for now, The Shield's heir is more than the best pulp series (I only wish Lost were this consistent). Until big brother Mad Men returns, Breaking Bad is the best drama on television. Tune in next week to see how Walt gets out of this one!
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009
On April Fool's Day, the Peabody committee announced last year's winners in television excellence. The joke's on us.
I have long considered the Peabody Awards one of the best barometers of quality television. They began as a journalism industry award, so when they expanded to include fictional television programs, the implication was that honored shows had something to say about the world. In recent years, Peabodys have been bestowed upon Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, The Colbert Report, Battlestar Galactica, and The Shield. Stretching back, they've honored The Sopranos, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, and Twin Peaks.
There have always been a few surprise lightweights: Ugly Betty, Boston Legal, Mad About You. This year's slate is only different in that the the deserving nominees don't wipe out all the bad taste. Here are the 2009 Peabody Awards for fiction:
1) Entourage - I should probably have abandoned my high-minded conception of the Peabodys around the time Ally McBeal scored one. But I ask without exaggeration, is there a less qualified Peabody-winner than Entourage?
2) SNL's political satire - Fall 2008 would have been a lot less joyful without Tina Fey's Sarah Palin. In six sketches (as well as, one assumes, the three presidential debate sketches, among others), SNL conquered pop culture once more. And the Peabody write-up is correct: SNL did influence the political conversation. "I can see Russia from my house."
3) John Adams - Fine, fine, but no Generation Kill? What does the best miniseries in years have to do to get some respect?
4) Breaking Bad - I'll have more soon, but Breaking Bad's inaugural season is certainly deserving. Season 2 is even better.
5) Avatar: The Last Airbender - I've heard good things about this anime-influenced Nickelodeon show, but I've never seen a single frame.
6) Lost - Here's an honoree that leaves me conflicted. Lost is enjoyable, a pleasant diversion, but it has absolutely nothing to say about anything. It's sci-fi pulp, which is fine, but I would think Peabody award-winning pulp ought to have better dialogue and believable characters. And good pulp should stick to the cool stuff, instead of getting bogged down in uninteresting romantic melodrama. Now, if the award had just gone to selected Season 4 episodes ("The Constant" for one), I'd keep my mouth shut. But according to Peabody, Lost has "rewritten the rules of television fiction." The world is safe for occasionally audacious time-jumping!
Other awards went to The Onion News Network, Youtube, the New York Times homepage, CNN's presidential primary coverage, and Turner Classic Movies! Below is an ONN report that I can't get enough of.
Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport
In all, the 2008 Peabody slate is fine. I think it's the worst collection in the past few years made worse by the fact that the committee overlooked prime contenders like Generation Kill or The Middleman (which is a more consistent pulpy series than Lost). But it only suffers relative to other Peabody line-ups. It's remarkable they've gone this long without a significant misstep.
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