A belated Happy New Years to you, dear reader. Lots to catch up on, what with this being the first update in nearly two months. Probably for the best though, as it’s been a slow start to 2014 on my end, so at least I’ve got a healthy backlog to bring to your reading attention. First, a quick rundown of a few theatrical releases I reviewed, before the big TV list promised so long ago:
Philomena: A nice little movie about a nice little old lady, featuring a nice little supporting performance from Steve Coogan. That I remember almost nothing else from this probably means I should be the one reading the review, if anyone.
Saving Mr. Banks: Ditto for this one, which I’ve only soured on more after reading about the real relationship between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers. Read Genevieve Koski’s review and analysis of “brand deposits” over on The Dissolve to understand the full ickiness I feel about this movie.
Out of the Furnace: I’d be lying if I said review scores don’t matter to me, simply because being well outside the mean distribution of critical math-ery increases your likelihood of being yelled at by people. Writing a downer review for this a full month before its release left me a little nervous to see whether I’d be an outlier, which turned out not to be the case. Part of the fun of seeing movies way before the hype machine kicks in is getting to watch them in a vacuum of buzz, which this one (rightfully) didn’t end up generating. Still love me some Christian Bale though.
American Hustle: Which is also probably a good reason why I continue to like this one a lot more than other critics. Well, reading Rottentomatoes and Metacritic scores would tell you a whole lot of critics liked this one a bunch, but since we now live in a world of Criticism 2.0, the press lifecycle of this film has accelerated faster than I reasonably would have thought.
With major awards season kicking off tonight with the Golden Globes, the widely agreed upon greatness of films in 2013 will now be boiled down to a couple of DVD box tag lines and historical footnotes, so it’s understandable why a lot of critics are upset that American Hustle is going in as a presumed favorite against the likes of 12 Years a Slave, and Inside Llewyn Davis. And yeah, I’d be disappointed if American Hustle won any of the major awards (save for any acting award they want to throw at Amy Adams, who’s totally deserving, though that’s not to say most deserving), but more so because of the historical backlash it would cause that turns an unworthy, but still very enjoyable film into the worst thing to happen to movies since Crash won Best Picture.
The acceleration of the awards season cycle has caused a dogpile onto American Hustle recently, perhaps in an attempt to sway academy votes. That’s a fair enough goal, but misses the larger issue that awards fever causes the film industry. Why is it that a light, empty, but wickedly fun movie like American Hustle can so easily take gold off the table of more important, timeless pictures? My thinking is that it’s because voters are human, and like to be entertained. I’ve likened the film elsewhere to being The Fast & Furious of prestige dramas, in that it’s just a bunch of likeable people having a good time for no real end or purpose. And if you do that well enough, as David O. Russell has, of course voters are going to glom onto it, because there simply aren’t enough films like that, which target adult, film-loving audiences that like to have a good time at the movies.
We need there to be more films like American Hustle, not less. Its success speaks to how badly adult audiences are looking for well-acted, well-crafted entertainment that doesn’t involved superheroes or mass destruction. If there were more movies out there balancing American Hustle‘s same mix of mature filmmaking and immature, “let’s just have some fun” attitude, then critics wouldn’t glom onto it like a life raft. Yes, 12 Years A Slave is a more important, powerful film, just as Her is a more emotionally affecting one, but if you starve awards voters of purely enjoyable film experiences, then they’re going to be absolutely over the moon when one like American Hustle comes along, and gives them the easy satisfaction wider audiences get week after week in the summer blockbuster season.
I think American Hustle is a great good movie, while the other nominees it’ll be facing off against range from good great, to simply great great films. In every case, the great film will be the one remembered by history, but there’s still room for just good, enjoyable prestige films to exist, so long as they don’t make it easier for awards voters to screw up the one thing they have to do: pick the film that best represents the year, either on a qualitative, or idealogical level.
Now, the danger of getting more films like American Hustle is that instead of proving their disposability by satiating the baser urges of voters, the nominee lists will instead be overrun by films that spectacularly clear an insanely low bar. This would be a fine result too, in my opinion, because it would offer us the last hair fiber of proof to show that, for fuck’s sake guys, awards are almost never right. To quote the immortal words of The Wire‘s Snoop Pearson (or Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, if you wanna be anal about it): deserve got nothing to do with it. As far as I’m concerned, the year’s best films were decided last month, when critics I love and respect made their cases for what they thought were the best movies. Look no further than Film Crit Hulk’s amazing take on the Top 10 list to see how completely arbitrary picking “bests” is, especially coming off a year as amazing as 2013.
By the way, here’s my Top 10 list of TV shows for 2013! So as to save myself from a very severe case of hypocrite-lash, let me be upfront by saying I would have chosen to not even rank these if I had my druthers. I was wishy-washy about all the numbering from conception to posting, and don’t considered myself held to the ordering in any way. You can check out my big 10 on the link, but I also just want to take a minute to highlight another 10 series from the year that didn’t make the cut, roughly in ascending order of my enjoyment of them:
Homeland: Oh, Homeland. I’d say you broke my heart, but you never really had it to begin with. You had my attention all through season one, as Carrie Matheson elbowed her way into the anti-hero pantheon, and Damien Lewis put on an acting clinic every week. And for the first half of season two, you had me by the shorthairs, what with your inspired and insane willingness to barrel the plot forward at an alarming pace.
But then the rest of season 2 happened, and like a lot of other viewers, I got nervous about what would emerge from the rubble of the show’s late 2012 implosion. What we got in 2013 wasn’t an embarrassment, but it does prove the sneaking suspicion early critics had about Homeland’s success being intrinsically tied to momentum. It still looks great, and the performances are strong, but I’m not sure I’m getting much else out of it each week.
Broadchurch: Check my mega-blog from a few months back for the full scoop, but I found a lot to like in this morbid little seaside murder mystery. Here’s to hoping the American remake, and another series of the original don’t completely throw this show’s legacy off a cliff.
New Girl: I was late to the New Girl party on both ends, as I wasn’t in time to praise the strong back end of its second season we got in 2013, and have only now caught up, when the show is seriously struggling to maintain its momentum. Jake Johnson is practically carrying the show on his shoulders at this point, so this might be the only time New Girl makes a best of list for me. But, hey, at least they’ve cut down on a lot of the ironic racism humour that plagued the first couple seasons! That’s something, right?
Archer: The fuel gauge is visibly starting to dip on one of my favorite animated comedies, though word is the quickly approaching fifth season makes for a revitalizing gamechanger. This is a show I usually like watching more the second or third time than the first, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Season 4 is a whole lot better than I give it credit for. If for nothing else though, the show gets points for collapsing the H. Jon Benjamin voiceover universe into a singularity during its Bob’s Burgers crossover in the premiere, which was just fantastic.
Parks & Recreation: My love of Parks still runs deep, but it’s deep enough to know that I’m about ready to say goodbye. I still love the characters and world of P&R, but as with all comedies, what made them identifiable and relatable continues to get stretched by the increasingly cartoonish lengths needed to land a joke. I’m a Legacy-ist in a lot of ways: it’s better for a show to live fast and die young than to risk overstaying its welcome. Parks isn’t nearly at that point yet (I laughed my ass off at the touching 100th episode they just had), but the show’s 3 season golden age might be forgotten by history the longer it’s followed by diminishing returns.
Scandal: Jumping off of Parks, the best way I can describe Scandal is to say that if Leslie Knope is TV’s Superman, Olivia Pope is its Batman. Scandal is a cynical soap opera thrill ride that’s only recently shown signs of flagging. It’s a show I love for a number of reasons, chief among them being how aggressively, at times embarrassingly, progressive it is. It’s almost certainly run out of juice at this point, but considering the levels it was operating at through all of 2012 and most of 2013, can you blame it? Not since Spartacus has a surface layer of trash hidden some of the most effective and thought-provoking writing on TV.
Game of Thrones: I think I ruined Game of Thrones for myself right after episode 9 of the first season (yeah, that episode), when I decided I couldn’t wait a whole week for the finale, like some sort of impulse-control-having sucker. I burned through the first book before the first season’s finale, but felt much less excitement and enjoyment when watching HBO recreating something I had already read. The same muted feeling has persisted since reading all the books, and seeing the show adapt them. It’s still so incredibly well made, and so well acted that it’s almost impossible to comprehend that something like Game of Thrones not only exists, but is one of the biggest things in TV. Still, I can’t help but feel like I love Game of Thrones more in book form, and simply appreciate and respect the TV version more than feverishly devour it like a lot of other people do.
Hannibal: God bless Bryan Fuller for not only proving that serial killer television doesn’t have to be bad, but for also showing that a remake of a known property doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever. Coupled with the best cliffhanger ending of 2013, Hannibal’s first season will give you ample reason to be unbearably excited for the quickly approaching second.
Orphan Black: I’m running out of word fuel so I’ll keep it brief: watch this show. Maureen Ryan sums up best why little shows like this are some of the most important out there, but even as pure entertainment, Orphan Black is a smashing success. If Tatiana Maslany wins the Best Actress Golden Globe, it will be deserved, and make up for any and all future snubs by the HFPA.
The Returned: The third of Sundance Channel’s trio of esoteric shows to premiere in 2013, this late 2012 French series was even more frightening than Hannibal, despite very rarely giving in to horror/thriller cliché and tropes. It’s a disturbing little show in a lot of ways, capable of making very simple images incredibly unnerving, but it’s all in service of a thoughtful, emotionally balanced look at loss and grief. Don’t let subtitles be a barrier to entry, or you’ll be missing out on one of the most haunting and beautiful shows 2013 had to offer.
That’s all for now, I’ll be back with more updates, once I’ve got some stuff to update you with! Play me off into 2014, mysterious and ethereal Mogwai soundtrack!
Theater waters are being thoroughly chummed with Oscar bait, and there doesn’t seem to be much anything good on TV anymore, so you know what that means: time for year-end awards! Yes it’s the most, liscticle tiiiiiiiiime of the yeeeeeeeeeeear. It’s been a slow month for me in terms of actually producing new content, as prep for click-mongering Top 10s and Best Ofs has had me busy catching up on a lot of programming I failed to get around to earlier. So let’s call this month’s post a practice round as I present Woolf On Film’s: Top 5 Pieces of Content from November!!!!!! (Feel free to flick your light switches a bunch and make some wooshing noises between each entry for added dramatic effect)
5) Interview with Gavin Hood On Ender’s Game: So this was pretty fucking crazy, seeing as A) I’ve never interviewed anyone in my life, let alone an Oscar-winning director, and B) it was held at a Trump Hotel, and I’ve never stepped foot in anything much nicer than a Marriot. I expected to get bounced the second I walked in, which would have been something of a relief. Yeah, I was nervous as all hell about spending 15 minutes talking with a guy I’ve never met, seeing as who exactly the fuck am I? I can barely make it through watching interviews hosted by actual professionals, so the prospect of doing one myself was more than a little terrifying. The artificiality of it always just weirds me out: actors and creatives giving the same canned answers to the same questions they’re going to get 20 times from a revolving door of press correspondents sounds just horribly awkward no matter how you cut it.
So my primary goal going in was to at no point stoop to something like “SO WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH HARRISON FORD?!?! YOUR MOVIE IS SET IN SPACE, AND HE WAS THAT GUY IN THAT MOVIE SET IN SPACE!!!” But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that it seems preeeetty unlikely I’ll be able to just walk into this thing and totally reinvent the rules of movie publicity. At the end of the day, this sort of thing is just a transaction: we get content, they get to pimp out their project. It’s all part of the marketing game –and it’s a game that lets me meet an Oscar-winner in person, and maybe snag a couple Trump coasters while I’m at it. Not bad, all told.
It was no small relief then that when I actually sat down with Mr. Hood, he answered my questions with an energy and verbosity that not only made my job easier, but also actually gave me first hand evidence of what an interview can be useful for. Gavin’s passion and excitement when speaking about the film was really quite inspiring, and I hope it translates into the written version. The guy has a background in acting originally, so yeah, part of me is still suspicious as to how much of that enthusiasm is legitimate. Again, the whole point of the press tour is to get people hyped for his movie, and you’re not going to do that unless you can look them in the eye and say without hesitation their next big project it’s is better than sliced bread.
But dammit, I wanted to believe him by the end of it –not so much his confidence in the finished product, which even he was modest about, but in the idea that people are making these giant, $150 million movies because they want to share something they feel passionately about with the world, and not just because the studio thinks they’ve got a shot at cashing in on a known property. After all, this is the adaptation of a 30 year-old sci-fi novel by an author who’s spent the last 30 years proving he’s a complete fucking wacko, so it’s not like this thing was gonna be a calk walk.
4) Ender’s Game Review: Did I mention Orson Scott Card is a piece of shit? Sorry, let me rephrase: Orson Scott Card is a colossally homophobic, ginormously bigoted, 12-piece bucket-sized piece of shit. But I still liked the movie they made out his book. Despite how positively my interview with Gavin Hood shaped my opinion of Ender’s Game’s director, it didn’t make me feel more confident that the movie itself was going to be anything but a massive flop. How big a bomb it’ll be once all is said and done is still up in the air, but its soft launch was hardly surprising.
Part of the reason: the book’s reputation was poisoned, then stabbed, then beaten to an inch of its life and left bleeding at the side of the road by its author, Orson Scott Card, every time he opened his mouth, and discussed his views on religion, sexuality, government –pretty much anything that doesn’t have to do with the book he wrote. This was a huge problem for the film adaptation to get from screenplay to screen, seeing as people understandably might not want to have their money going into the pocket of a giant asshole. Granted, if we aired all of Hollywood’s dirty laundry, I doubt you’d ever be able to see a movie and have a clean conscience about where your money’s going. But Card’s been open about his opinions, and in a way, I respect him for not hiding them, no matter how hateful. At least this way, I knew I wouldn’t want to pay to see a movie that has an asshole scoring points on the backend.
Or so it seemed. Despite Summit Entertainment spending more time distancing the project from Card than actually promoting it, the last minute announcement upon its release that Card wouldn’t be getting residuals off of ticket sales hinted at the toxic word of mouth the film was premiering to. I was happy about this, as having seen the film a week earlier, and having generally enjoyed it, I felt more comfortable in being able to recommend people purchasing tickets for the film, instead of just recommending the film itself.
That all bears out in the review, in which I caught some flack for overly emphasizing my dislike for Card. In my defence, all the extratextual discussion is presented up front, and meant to establish my conflicted position: my opinion of the film wasn’t influenced by my opinion of who came up with it, but considering the large population of viewers who probably wouldn’t want to give money to this guy, I figured it was important to address the controversy directly. Whether or not that was effective I’ll leave up to you, and in the future, I’ll try to use a defter hand the next time a complete dickbag has me feeling conflicted about whether or not I can recommend a movie to someone. But hey, I got a positive review on Existimatum, the site that reviews reviews. So that’s something.
3) Dallas Buyers Club Review: Here’s a movie I saw that I gave the same rating as Ender’s Game, and caused far less grief. It’s quite good. You should see it. Matthew McConaughey has a really great mustache in it, and I really should be reviewing more of his movies, if for no other reason than because I should probably have figured out how to spell his name properly at this point.
2) Thor: The Dark World Review: Oh shit, more ratings kerfuffles! I really, really wish we as a culture, as a people, and as a species could just do away with review scores. I totally get why they exist, seeing as our need to codify and categorize entertainment for convenience sake only gets more pressing the more entertainment there is to be labeled and listed, but seriously, if your viewing habits are dictated solely by IMDB star ratings and a rotten tomatoes score, you’re doing it wrong.
So yeah, when I gave Thor: The Dark World a 3 out of 5, and an ever so slightly rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I knew I was going to get in some shit from Marvel die hards. Sure enough, haters did hate, as is their wont, though when it comes to criticizing my criticism, I generally don’t respond to comments that are attacking me, or the existence of my review, as opposed to what I’m trying to say about the movie. Which can be hard! It’s incredibly tempting to jump down in the comment section muck and articulate as politely as possible why it is someone is a fucking idiot. But getting involved only fans the flames of outrage sparked by those insecure enough to take a star-rating on a movie they haven’t seen as an attack on their being, so I do what I can to stay out. Still, when you don’t get a ton of feedback on your work, it always sucks to go through the thought process of “oh hey, someone left a comment! Lemme just take a look and –oh god, what did I do to these people to offend them so personally?!”
So when I did come back to that Thor review a whiles later, and saw two -heroes? Yeah, I’ll call them heroes- basically saying exactly what I would have said myself…well goshdarnit if that didn’t just set my cockles to max heat. I actually almost wish the comments sections were full of nothing but the non-stop hate, so that that way I could always just ignore them. Instead though, people who might themselves disagree with my opinions on a movie, but acknowledge the right for them to exist, are out there fighting the good fight on my behalf. And I thank them for that.
1) Under the Dome Boxset Review: And coming in at number one with a Price is Right fail trombone is my final word on Under the Dome. Why did I take this assignment after spending the better part of 3 months complaining about this show? Good question, shitty answer. See, the special addition comes packaged with its own dome. Way I saw it, it’d be an excuse to try a boxset review, which I’d never done, and I’d get a trophy out of it. Also it was free, so that was a big motivator. Buuuuuuuut then they didn’t send me the special edition, just the regular one, which doesn’t come in its own tiny plastic dome so why in God’s name would anyone ever want to own it? Needless to say, I was heartbroken. Hard as it was to believe, Under the Dome found a way to disappoint me one last time. It’s almost poetic.
That’s all for now. Got a couple movie reviews slated for later in the month, but it’s mostly gonna be a whole lotta TV writing for the rest of 2013. I’ll be doing an official top 10 list elsewhere, but might do something a bit more extensive and free flow here later down the road.
Happy Thanksgiving/Columbus Day long weekend everybody! Yes, it may be Tuesday, but thanks to a failed rideshare, my terrific weekend in Montreal has seen itself extended by a day. As I write this, with recirculated Megabus air blowing in my face, weary from running around town looking for 11th hour transportation home, hands raw from totting a leather-handled, broken-zippered duffle bag for hours on end, two thoughts have been running through my mind:
1) Now’s as good a time as any to do a little blog update.
2) If you ever get a rideshare from Montreal to Toronto driven by a guy named Adam in a silver van, punch him square in the mouth, and tell him Sam and his roommate say hello.
The Grandmaster: I actually forgot to mention this one during my last post, so this review is a little overripe and out of date. Seeing as this was my first Wong Kar-Wai film, I was more than a little out of my element. Considering how butchered the North American cut is rumored to have gotten in coming over from China, I’m willing to call this one a mulligan.
Machete Kills: At least I had done my homework for this one, although I suppose one needn’t really watch the original Machete at all before seeing the sequel. I caught an advance screening of Machete Kills well before some of the more vitriolic reviews for this one published, so I’m wondering if perhaps I should have been more incensed by it. Honestly, this one played almost identically to the original for me: as I stared at all the mayhem and aggressive attempts at titillation, I felt like Superman having bullets comically pinging off him like bouncy balls, not so much unamused as completely unfazed. Machete Exists might have been a more accurate title.
Captain Phillips: The completely opposite of that reaction came from seeing Captain Phillips, which, holy shit, is just about the most exhausting film experience I’ve ever had. If Gravity inspires the mind-expanding rush of a heroine high, Captain Phillips is the long, strung-out withdrawal. This was something of a challenge to review because it’s a movie I recommend to people specifically for how effectively it punishes them. Granted, different viewers will find enjoyment in different types of prodding from a film: I really loved the excessive tension of Phillips and constant cringing the new Evil Dead remake inspired. All the same, it may take more than just insanely effusive word-of-mouth to get me to see 12 Years a Slave anytime soon; I can barely get through reading some of the reviews without wanting to curl up in a ball and not awaken until after Oscar-season.
Under the Dome: And segueing off those bad vibes, here’s a link to the last few reviews of Under the Dome I left out of the last post, due to there being bigger TIFF fish to fry. Also: who gives a shit about Under the Dome? Well, apparently at least 10 million viewers every week did, which is why I wound up covering it through its 13-episode first season. I’ve only been in the TV recapping game for a year now, but this show already feels a bit like it was meant to be my Waterloo. I’ve covered middling shows that eventually grew on me, shows I love and wanted to talk about, and shows I love but didn’t think I could talk about without sounding like an idiot. This was my first truly bad show though, and while there was some fun to be had in riding my initial, accurately reserved optimism into the dross that followed, covering this week to week became something of a chore.
Rereading my finale write-up, I honestly regret entire portions of it, simply because it’s everything I didn’t want my reviews to devolve into: a game of bitter point scoring where the objective was to shame everyone involved in the project for having the temerity to not be good. It’s perfectly fine to express your displeasure with a program, and I still get tons of enjoyment out of watching crappy shows, and ripping on them with my friends (how we’ve missed you for that, The Walking Dead), but committing yourself to then writing about something you don’t legitimately like in a professional context requires something else entirely (ie: money).
The reason anyone starts a blog like this is because they love something, not because they hate it. There’s already way too much snarky negativity on the internet, and while there’s room for that in your relationship with what you watch, when it’s the only thing you have to offer the rest of the world, you might as well just keep it to yourself. I’ll be reviewing the Blu-Ray boxset later this month (Why? Well A), I’m getting it for free, and B) IT COMES IN A MINI-DOME!!!!), but I’ll be taking a step back from weekly TV reviews for at least a little while, and coming to it later with a more selective approach. There’s absolutely room for coverage of television that comes down to just slagging on it week after week, but if I’m not being paid to do so, I’d rather be propping something up with my free time, instead of kicking it while it’s down.
Before Midnight: And just to end things on a much more positive note, here’s a little bite-sized review for this film, which I wrote months back, but failed to publish for a deadline. I really loved it, and think you might too.
“18 years after first letting us eavesdrop on a fateful meeting between two strangers, director Richard Linklater is still treating his magnum opus as one big excuse to break the most important rule in filmmaking: show don’t tell. Before Midnight, the third in an audacious, globetrotting series of old school two-handers, is all talk, all the time. But as with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset before it, “Midnight’s” talk is the kind of charming, romantic, wistful, and brutally honest conversation that turns a seemingly insufferable premise into something special. That all the talk is set against a gorgeous Greek backdrop, and spoken by leads that have only gotten better with each film, is just icing on the cake.
Nine years into what others would call a successful relationship, Celene and Jesse have grown to be strangers to the people they once were, as well as one another. Worn down by the inertial weight of parenthood, work, and commitment, a night away from the kids filled with long takes of long talks reignites the playful thrill of discovery that comes from two people sharing themselves openly and completely, even if just for a night. But as the evening progresses, a flood of relationship detritus, the kind that builds and festers the longer you know someone, threatens to overwhelm all. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy leave nothing off the camera, as the years’ worth of stray looks, offhand comments, and things left unsaid between Jesse and Celeste provide all the ammo needed to rewrite the entire story of the “Before” saga.
The films have made for a subversive and self-aware rebuke to institutionalized images of Hollywood romance, yet their intoxicating brio has changed with age, becoming equal parts bitter and bittersweet. Before Midnight is too experienced for the youthful optimism of Sunrise and too tired to try and be as sexy as Sunset, but makes for a natural, and heart-wrenching continuation of Linklater’s experimental look at what it means to love another person for the long haul. Ending once more on a moment of intimate ambiguity, it seems the only certainty for the future of Celene and Jesse is that they will have one, shared or otherwise. It’s just a shame we’ll have to wait until 2022 to find out what that future holds.”
Hey, TIFF happened! And I was there! Well, the festival covers almost all of downtown Toronto, and since I work in the financial district, it was kinda hard not to be there. But thanks to some writing connections, I actually wound up at some press screenings, a couple premieres, and even a press conference. Considering I’ve never been to TIFF, or a proper film festival, the last two weeks have been very exciting. And tiring. Tiring and exciting in equal measure. So lemme just quickly list-off the hot ‘n steamy industry awards-bait I lucked my way into seeing, lest this wind up running overlong like that last post (hyperlinked titles lead to actual review).
Rating: 3 out of 5
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, and Daniel Brühl
Alternate title: The Anti-social Network
The Wikileaks Cablegate scandal represents a major flashpoint in the early 21st century’s defining civil rights debate, privacy vs. security. Seeing as the site’s founder, Julian Assange, only rose to public notoriety in the last few years, you might think it’s too early for a biopic to be made properly. You would be right. The Fifth Estate is perhaps the most lavishly produced, best acted made-for-TV movie ever made. It’s good for some soapy fun, but those looking for either a history lesson, or a look at the Wikileaks message instead of the man who started it, will have to wait.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Starring: Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal
Alternate Title: Les Miserablists
I really enjoyed, or rather, appreciated Denis Villeneuve’s 2010 drama Incendies, despite the grimness of its subject matter. Understandably, some critics accused Villeneuve of hackish exploitation of war crimes, rape and incest for dramatic effect, and also understandably, those same people are not happy about the child-kidnapping drama Prisoners. I can sympathize with calling out the film for using low-hanging alarmist fruit for a premise, but the exploration of that premise makes for a well-paced, and gorgeous looking police procedural.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Starring: Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet
Alternate Title: Love in the Time of Cobbler
Two things that automatically predisposed me to liking this one: 1) director Jason Reitman makes really, really good movies, and 2) I’m a sap. Labor Day is a rural weepie through and through, but it’s a really well-acted, warmly shot and heartfelt rural weepie. To really get swept up in all the melodrama, go in with open arms, and stomach empty (not since Waitress has pie been filmed so lovingly…or frequently). I’ll add an addendum later once the press conference I covered for the film is posted, which includes a couple neat little tidbits from Reitman and 2/3rds of the cast.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Starring: Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo
Alternate Title: White People and Guitar – A Love Story
Photogenic movie stars playing musically talented dreamers looking for a shot at stardom/redemption? Love letters to the enduring vibrancy of New York City? Guest appearances by Cee-Lo Green and the guy from Maroon 5? Yup, this thing is pure, uncut, Bolivian-grade catnip for white people. So sure enough, me and the rest of the near-monochromatic audience I saw it with were pretty thoroughly won over by this one. The review is basically me writing an 800-word caveat, before ending with, “buuuuut, if you can ignore the core phoniness at the heart of it all, it’s pretty great.” I’m also one of those guys who unironically likes a bunch of Taylor Swift songs, and as we’ve already established, I’m a sucker for schmaltz, especially when it sounds this good.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
Alternate Title: Fuck You, Space
So basically, Alfonso Cuarón decided it would be really funny if he based his next film on my biggest nightmare. Yeah, Gravity is the closest i’ll ever get to becoming an astronaut, both for adding another compelling and discouraging example of the many, many ways space is a never-ending deathtrap, and for being one of the most immersive and visceral film experiences I’ve had in ages. Somehow, 2013 has turned out to be the year of me becoming an IMAX pitchman, because just like Pacific Rim, this one needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can sit yourself in front of. The script is nothing to write home about, but it’s not insulting or problematic in the way most effects-driven epics tend to be. This was the definite highlight of the festival for me, and I’m strongly anticipating/dreading getting the chance to see it again.
Author’s Note: This was originally just going to be a regular update of recent articles I’ve written, along with a couple blurb reviews on some shows I’ve seen recently. It’s still that, just longer…and ramblier…and extra digressive. Enjoy?
I am the Harold Camping of being sick. Not a week goes by without me, at some point, warning my friends that the light tickle in my throat, or mild headache I have is undeniable proof of my quickly approaching incapacitation. I don’t consider myself a hypochondriac: I just really hate being sick. Seeing as I only ever do fall ill two or three times a year, my record for actually predicting when I’ll next be laid out is pretty atrocious. The habit serves two purposes, I think. First: I like to think that being constantly paranoid about my immune system failing causes it to always be on full alert, eliminating stray germs on 5 Second Rule-violating food items with extreme prejudice. The other benefit is that, like an animate broken clock lording its correctness over all the other stupid clocks twice a day, whenever I actually do get sick, shouts of “I CALLED IT” in my roommate’s general direction help to clear out the sinuses.
Seeing as I just spent most of the last week wrapped up in blankets with a pair of toilet paper squares shoved up my nostrils (Kleenex is for classy people), I figured I should probably make time to give the ol’ blog an update. As usual, it’s mostly TV stuff I’m talking about today, but maybe the most exciting thing I’ve seen in the last month was a movie, so we’ll start there.
Pacific Rim: This has been a pretty crappy summer for Movies. Not film, and cinema in general, mind you: arthouses and smaller screens are packed to the gills right now with indies and original pictures worth your time and money. Unfortunately, due to rarely having anyone to go to the theater with to see these quieter releases, I’ve seen far too few of them in actual theaters. The real fun comes from getting to discuss the movie with people afterwards, so going through the rigmarole of an actual theatre trip usually depends on if I have people to see the movie with. Ain’t nothing wrong with going a movie theatre alone, but from a financial point of view, it just makes more sense to wait for the home releases if seeing a movie right away also means seeing it alone. Plus, I like to have a posse with me for a show so that we can cluck our tongues at chronic text-ers in unison, and shush in force those helpless innocents talking on their phone during the movie, like the stuffy prigs we are*.
*Sidebar: that a minor Twitter uproar got kicked up last week over proper movie-going etiquette is absurd, but important. There’s an element of dog-piling to how outspoken so many critics have been to Anil Dash’s original call for shushing of the shushers (and he’s been nothing but graceful in handling the criticism), but it speaks to how fed-up people are getting with entitlement culture when common fucking decency is suddenly up for debate. However you watch your movies at home, hey, that’s up to you: be as loud, distracting and generally disgusting as you want within the confines of your own living space. But a theater, like all public spaces, demands a certain degree of respect and consideration for those around you. I can’t believe I’m actually having to write a sentence as unnecessary as that last one in talking about this –I might as well be telling you the proper sequencing of breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On the bright side, maybe this most redundant of “debates” can work as a springboard for a broader conversation about social mores. After all, how does one know where to draw the line passed which pursuit of personal pleasure will create a negative sum value for those around you trying to do the same thing? Lucky for you, I’ve developed a simple, one-step guide to navigating the landmine-riddled landscape of public social interaction. Just ask yourself: “Am I being an asshole?” It’s a useful trick in many situations. If, for instance, you’re about to unleash a torrent of righteous hate at a Baskin Robins employee with the audacity to eyeroll your request for a seventh free sample, stop, and reflect on how exploiting a generous, and customer-friendly policy affects the employee’s day, and the day’s of those waiting behind you in line. Do the emotional arithmetic, and figure out how the numbers affect your own personal rating as an asshole.
The same goes for when you’re enjoying the precious seconds of your no doubt very important life that were saved when you decided not to hold the elevator for a helpless person shouting from across the hall, one who was polite enough to request your assistance, despite it seeming ridiculous that one human being would even have to ask another for something so effortless. And just as the few seconds you lose helping another can save them minutes, a quick, piercing “shhh,” will often result in literal hours of collective audience time not being spoiled by one asshole inconsiderate enough to not take their glowing distractions and conversation outside.
Granted, I’m never the one doing the shushing myself; I’m too much of a pacifist (read: coward) to put finger to mouth, and dispense vocal vigilante justice, but lord knows I appreciate the efforts of those who do. /Endrant
As for Movies -with a capital “M”, two gallon soda, and border collie’s weight in popcorn-, things have been pretty dire this summer. Like a lot of people, I’m feeling pretty fatigued by Hollywood lately, which even the industry itself is recognizing about as promptly as when it figures out what new trend or genre needs to be capitalized on next. I used to absolutely devour every new movie trailer I could get my hands on, but now only rarely seek them out. An optimistic spin on that would be to say I’ve come to agree with many others in believing that the less you know about a movie, the better. The cynical, more accurate reason is that even these carefully constructed three-minute sizzle reels -things specifically designed to sell me on a movie- have become overwhelmingly tired and familiar.
The feeling of exhaustion has been confirmed all throughout the summer, with letdown, after underperformer, after train wreck. Waning public faith in the Hollywood magic factory is getting noticeable, even for the biggest properties. How have we gotten to a point where the announcement of three sequels to the highest grossing movie of all time barely elicits a shrug, and that a Batman/Superman crossover is being met with suspicion instead of celebration? I can only blame myself for roaming from disappointing tentpole another, but there’s been a depressing inversion in how I now approach each new blockbuster season. Instead of being on guard for the occasional stinker, I’m now looking desperately for something to cure the near complete apathy I feel looking at the slate of big budget remakes, sequels, and franchise whales that’ll be churned out for at least another decade.
Things have gotten pretty sad when the $190 million dollar homage to an entire genre is being called the most original blockbuster of the summer… and it also turns out to be the best by a country mile. I’m not particularly fanboyish about the works of Guillermo del Toro (his only movie I’ve seen in full is Pan’s Labryinth, which I liked, but not enough to revisit in the five or six years since seeing it), and my soft spot for giant monster movies is mostly based on having watched the ‘98 Godzilla as a kid more times than it rightly deserved. Point being, there was nothing in particular that set me up to go into Pacific Rim with huge expectations.
And that’s probably a big part of why it blew me away so completely. I was literally lightheaded when geeking out about the whole thing with a friend after the first viewing, the physical explanation for which being that the only thing I had eaten in the preceding twelve hours was popcorn and Mr. Pib. But the emotional reason for the response was, “HOLY SHIT, DID YOU SEE THAT ROBOT DO THAT THING WITH THE SWORD AND THE MONSTER AND THE AGHHGHGHGHG OH MY GOD!”
Having had time to calm down (and see it two more times), I can say with confidence that Pacific Rim is my favorite blockbuster movie to come out since The Dark Knight. Not only that, it’s all but restored my faith in big budget movie entertainment, and I’ve really been struggling to figure out why. It is, after all, a 2-hour sensory assault of giant robots and monsters duking it out, which doesn’t make it sound at all different from your average Transformers, or superhero joint. Its story is as cheesy as it is predictable, the dialogue is (enjoyably) silly, and you’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of subtext or meaningful depth.
But struggling to figure out what separates Pacific Rim from the rest of its eye candy-peddling colleagues only further fuelled my mini-obsession with it (enough to break my “The Internet Doesn’t Need Anymore Lists” rule, and shamelessly spitball sequel ideas). The article lays out a number of my reasons for thinking the film is something special, but more than anything, Pacific Rim’s simplicity, and surprisingly modest ambitions make it stand out from the crowd. The thing is, hidden behind the movie’s top-notch production values, and B-movie charm, Pacific Rim is ultimately about people. Its conflict boils down to the same world-ending stakes that every other blockbuster needs in order to appeal to a global market, but as is becoming rarer and rarer, solving that conflict depends on teamwork, instead of exceptionalism. The day is saved not by a chosen one or a superhero, but a wide array of people from across the world united in common cause. That lack of emphasis on the individual makes for simplistic characters, but a really memorable message about people being able to work together towards a goal that’s for the good of all mankind. I know, it sounds dopey as hell, but it makes a real breath a fresh air, given how much stock most blockbusters put into the importance of the person, rather than people as a whole.
Pacific Rim still has its fair share of flaws, mind you. While it’s great that the female lead (Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori; the dialogue might be hokey, but the character names are just incredible) has a lot more to do in the movie than just stand around and look pretty, she’s the only female character in the entire movie with more than 5 lines of dialogue. Similarly, the global spirit of the film gets undermined when the characters from Russia and China barely register as anything other than vaguely stereotypical archetypes. On those grounds, I can’t help but dock it a few points, meaning Pacific Rim is a four stars out of five type movie…but it’s the most enthusiastic four out of five I’ve given out in years. See it on the biggest screen you can find, and watch it with friends. If it has to exist, than Pacific Rim is the epitome of what summer blockbuster filmmaking should be: fun, inventive, and uplifting. Yes, the message is overly simplistic, but escapist entertainment isn’t about imagining yourself in a world where giant robots fight huge monsters –it’s about imagining yourself in a world where giant robots fighting huge monsters is the only thing threatening humanity’s continued existence.
Broadchurch and The Fall: I caught a couple of much-talked about short-run series recently that I’d like to pair up in discussion, not just because they’re both imports from the BBC, but because if you described either of them to someone, they might assume that the show had already came out earlier in the year. Describing them sounds like the wind up to a bad punchline: have you heard the one about the sleepy coastal town that has its dark underbelly exposed after an unthinkable murder draws the attention of a transplanted cop with something to prove? Anyone listening to your synopsis might then predict that the show will probably involve the brilliant, but socially inept new detective fighting a life-threatening condition, and dealing with distrusting locals, and a muckraking press in their pursuit of the truth (and they’d be totally right).
No, it’s not Top of the Lake, or The Bridge, or The Killing, one of which is a among the best shows of the year, one of which is a promising newbie, and the other of which that same status into the ground so fast* as to make “Fuck you, The Killing” a minor internet meme. The show I’m referring to is Broadchurch, an eight-chapter look at how tragedy rocks a small town populated with suspicious and prickly characters to spare. Geographically-specific whodunits are the modern day mansion murder mystery, and the best invite the audience to participate in the narrative’s parlor game of suspect elimination, un-elimination, and skeletons jumping out of closets until, I don’t know, maybe the dog did it? But it is a game played off the dead body of an 11 year-old boy, with dead bodies of all shapes and sizes having formed the creative launchpad for many of the season’s new and quality dramas.
* The Killing was put out of its misery with a cancellation order from AMC after the second season, but in a twist of fate, a third was commissioned at the 11th hour. Some would argue there has been a phoenix-life rebirth of the show since, leaving its bad reputation now in question
The Fall, similarly, would seem not unlike NBC’s frightfully enjoyable Hannibal, or Fox’s dreadful (in the bad way) The Following, given its similar interest in the dichotomy between cops and killers. All three shows are defined by more modern sensibilities, the most prominent being how they present an investigation into the dark recesses of an obsessive sociopath’s mind as being more disturbing than any dank attic or foggy graveyard. Part in parcel with those new sensibilities is the belief that evil can no longer just be faceless – it has to be TV pretty too. In casting the dapper Mads Mikkelson in the part, Hannibal’s reinvention of Dr. Lecter as a refined creature of taste lead to a man-meat cottage industry online, with GIFs of homicidal hunks to be cooed over filling Tumblrs, and probably plenty of Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter slash fiction finding an audience in the internet’s more lewd corners.
An obsession with sex is the psychological corner stone for a great deal of violence fiction lately, and The Fall follows suit, exploring both how it flavors and inspires crimes, and the ways sexuality influences the lives of those that get drawn into a killer’s orbit. The framework is your average two-hander of cop chasing after criminal across parallel narratives. In one corner is a dangerously unbalanced man wearing the skin of your average schmuck, and in the other is a brilliant, but socially inept detective (déjà vu?) brought in from out of town to halt a spat of seemingly unrelated murders. Set in Belfast, the kind of city where some of Broadchurch’s tourist would spend the rest of their year, The Fall’s familiarity is somewhat masked by the flavoring of its setting, and approach to going through the usual manhunt motions. Modern technology and social mores get bandied around to keep the police grunt work both in the office, and at a crime scene interesting, but it’s all just buildup to the killer’s next deadly setpiece.
In comparing both series, each of which has garnered strong reviews and a sizeable viewership, there’s a noticeable difference between how each show’s first season functions as a discrete piece of storytelling. Upon finishing both, your reaction to finding out that they’ve been renewed for a second series would be starkly different. Where The Fall leaves off, a continuation is just assumed. At only five hours in length, it barely makes for a novella, and demands a second series to wrap up all the loose threads of the first. Meanwhile, a closing title card reading “Broadchurch will return,” which appeared for that show’s first series finale, reads almost like a threat, a snipping of the perfectly fine bow Broadchurch ties everything up in by the end of its gamely and lean eight hours.
If I’m sounding more dismissive of one, it’s because The Fall doesn’t make the same case for itself as Required Viewing the way Broadchurch does. Pulpy to a fault, The Fall does do a couple of things exceptionally well. For one, casting Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, who’s tasked with bringing in the killer played by Jamie Dornan, opens up the opportunity for not just a strong performance, but an interesting look at sexual politics in law enforcement. There’s a terrific gender distribution amongst the cast, one that feels organic, and not forced. A scene set at a morgue late in the series features three professional women battling over whether to interview a near-comatose survivor of the killer’s latest attack. It does this all without commenting on what a strange, and foreign image this is for TV, where a scene of pure plot driving comes down to three characters all trying to assert their authority in a life-and-death situation, and all three happen to be female. Think about the last time you saw something like that on a show, or in a movie, and tell me that’s not a fucking rarity.
Similarly, the show doesn’t take for granted that Gibson’s career success comes at the expense of a social life, and whenever the latter does become of interest, it’s usually because it’s causing problems for the former. Almost as soon as she touches down in Belfast, she picks up a thick cut of local beefcake to blow off some steam. The sex scene is all framed around Gibson’s control, and Gibson’s enjoyment (again, another rarity), but her impulsive decision bites her in the ass in the long run, the way such flings come to haunt many gumshoes that can’t keep their pants on. On other occasions though, The Fall doesn’t underline and bold its more subversive elements, so much as announce their presence with spotlights and prison alarms. A scene of Gibson using grammar to verbally eviscerate a sexist colleague is played to the hilt by Anderson, but by drawing attention to itself, isn’t as subtly effective at showing a progressive narrative the way other scenes are. When Gibson reacts to her assistant coming out as though she were stating what she had ordered for dinner last night, it makes for a much quieter, more normalizing way of saying “you have genitals, I have genitals, and we all like to share our genitals with others; can we get on with finding the serial killer now?”
Where The Fall really stumbles, though, is with the other half of its dual narrative, as the phantom Gibson is chasing isn’t all that special. Dornan gives a chilly performance, one that allows for some interesting beats as his character’s increasingly uncontrollable impulses arc and ricochet off his day job as the head of a family of four. It’s a more conflicted psycho to play, lacking in the cold-blooded self-awareness and narcissism that made Dexter and Patrick Bateman popular, but the motives and mechanics of his attacks lack originality. The police investigation of the wreckage left in the killer’s wake is intimately detailed and choreographed (there’s a great little scene that presents a body being discovered from the perspective of a 9-1-1 phone operator), but watching the acts themselves pushes the boundaries of needless exploitation, as the show has nothing new to add to the trope of unstable men targeting women. Near the end of the last hour, a tête-à-tête between the two leads crams more clichés about the symmetrical nature of cops and killers into one scene than a bad Se7en knockoff, and like those two characters, The Fall is a darkly alluring, but disappointingly hollow beast.
Perhaps the more staid nature of Broadchurch is what helped it find a much larger audience, and even higher critical praise from critics, despite a similar grimness of subject matter. Like The Fall, Broadchurch charts some very deep waters of the human soul, but goes all the way with it, exploring how the real damage caused by violence doesn’t stop with a heartbeat. Glorifying the many creative ways people can kill one another is a popular form of this kind of drama, a fact that network juggernaut CBS can attest to. With rare exception (Hannibal comes to mind) does a show that uses corpses as a plot starting point each week have much to bring to the discussion of why that corpse wound up on a mortuary slab in the first place. Creatively mutilated bodies are the delicious sausage fuelling huge ratings across entire franchises of CSI and NCSI, as unlike real sausage, audiences love to see how a dead body gets made. It’s an incredibly lazy, somewhat depressing narrative conceit: put a person through the meatgrinder of human moral failing, and no matter their personality, age, race, whatever, they’ll become instantly more interesting on account of their deadness.
What’s you see less often is a show attempt to present how that meatgrinder comes to exist, or really acknowledge that the potential to do unspeakable things to other people isn’t reserved for the whack jobs and social malcontents. Broadchurch, with its lived-in setting, and well-rounded cast, stands out for being not nearly so flippant as its colleagues about murder, and the mayhem it causes. It explores the diverse ways bad blood can infect a tightly knit group of people, and expose their darker multitudes. The knotty histories and secret connections of the town of Broadchurch are drawn into a rapidly tightening net soon after the body of young Danny Latimer in discovered on a local beach, a crime as unexpected as it is unexplainable. Former Doctor Who David Tennant gives another sturdy, range-expanding performance as DI Alec Hardy, a disgraced detective desperately in need of the peace and quiet assignment to the country promises (he’d have to battle Hannibal’s Will Graham for title of “Least Sheveled TV Sleuth”), but still looking over his shoulder at the bungled case that got him exiled to Broadchurch.
Making the authorities in charge of cracking the case seem potentially as shady as their suspects is another of many well-worn genre trope the show employs, like the eventual tug of war that breakouts between police and the media over the victim’s family. If they weren’t played with such a straight face, the abundance of cop and mystery clichés would be all you need to make the show a work of parody, or tribute. The first episode featured two scenes that made me strongly recall the filmmaking of Edgar Wright, the ultimate coverband filmmaker whose Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz doubled as cheeky genre recreations, and inventive love letters. In the first episode, a tricky long take follows Andrew Buchan as Latimar patriarch Mark, introducing us to much of the principal cast through a trip down Broadchurch’s main street. It’s not unlike a more intentionally showy shot Wright used to present suburban boredom in Shaun of the Dead, only to revisit the shot later with added zombies. Similarly, a later scene featuring Olivia Colman isn’t just connected to Hot Fuzz by Colman herself. Her character, DS Ellie Miller, is introduced finding an assumed promotion within the local police department not going quite as planned, much like how Nicholas Angel is screwed over by police bureaucracy when we first meet him in Hot Fuzz.
I bring it up because both Miller and Colman add a sensibility to Broadchurch’s moody alchemy that’s inconsistent with the rest of the mixture, but is precisely what helps separate it from all the other Dark And Serious Murder Dramas out there. Treating the death of a child with the solemnity it ought to entail requires a firm hand on tone, meaning a bitter chuckle at gallows humor is the closest reprieve the audience is like to find (Hannibal’s use of peppy wordplay during lighter scenes would often feel like it belonged in another universe entirely). But courting such a tone over even eight hours runs the risk of clouding the intrigue and suspense of the mystery with overwhelming bleakness, a risk averted by Colman’s sometimes charming, sometimes gut-wrenching, yet always humane performance. She effortlessly adapts Miller to whatever’s required of the scene, whether ineffectively, hilariously trying to build a rapport with Hardy, or reeling from the emotional toll taken when seeing the true faces of people she’s known her whole life. It’s arguably a more exceptional, and more important performance than Tennant’s, as without it, Broadchurch would be almost unbearably grim.
Miller forms the show’s ossifying heart, and Hardy its cynical head, but like any good mystery, Broadchurch avoids making its frequent fake outs about who did what, with whom feel like pure red herrings. There are strongly developed backstories for most of the characters, ones often as fleshed out, as they are messy. Hardy’s investigation exposes grime long simmering beneath the town’s quaint idyll, letting it all bleach under an unrelenting seaside sun. In doing so, Broadchurch, particularly in its final hours, comes away as being a show with something to actually say about its premise, where programs like The Fall only come up with a handful of sand. In filling its world with so much anger, and tragedy, most of which is only tangentially related to the actual case that anchors it all, Broadchurch appears just as misanthropic about people as any serial killer tale, but in presenting morality across a spectrum, its humanist undercurrent pulls through. Positioning ultimate evil (killer) and ultimate good (cop) opposite one another, as so many manhunt dramas do, makes for a facile deconstruction of the human spirit. And really, wondering if an emotionless killing machine is stalking your neighborhood isn’t half so terrifying as the exhaustion any person can face when trying to live ethically, only partly aware of the damage that can occur, should they slip up even once.
Because message is increasingly what separates the many similar offerings of the television medium, I can go this long into talking about Broadchurch without saying much about how the show actually plays. What’s to say? The performers are all excellent, and the story wraps itself up beautifully (though how they’ll do a second series might be the biggest mystery of all). Any complaints will likely come down to matters of taste, so I’d best voice mine then, I suppose. The writing has gotten a great deal of credit for presenting grief as an evolving process, not just relying on images of weeping mothers and heaven-cursing fathers that form the only emotional gear on other shows (a dead kid is a sad thing, ergo the characters must be sad always). A scene in episode two, where Mark identifies his son at the morgue, is so slowplayed by Buchan, I honestly couldn’t tell if A) the character was processing the death of his son B) we were supposed to be suspicious of him, or C) Buchan’s range was just really limited. Option C was quickly eliminated, and it’s by acknowledging the many ways one deals with tragedy that Broadchurch manages to keep the viewer second-guessing their reading of characters and their actions.
That being said, the histrionics are still present, they’re just saved for the editing and directing. If finding my booze-bloated corpse next to a Broadchurch DVD ever presents a mystery, just know the cause of death was me playing the drinking game where you take a shot every time a scene takes place in a sun-facing room, ends with a slow-motion shot of people looking apprehensive at middle-distance, or features characters aimlessly walking their emotions off to maudlin piano and strings. You wouldn’t last more than an episode playing by those rules, and while not all will even be conscious of the house style, with fewer still actually being bothered by it, it proved an unfortunate distraction during my initial viewing. But at the risk of this whole thing becoming less of a review, and more of a thesis analysis, I figured I ought to include some cons to go with the pros. Actually, we left Review Town 1000 words ago, so let me just reiterate: The Fall = reserved recommendation, Broadchurch = emphatic thumbs up. The latter alone is worth watching just to hear Tennant’s Scottish brogue used to voice complaints about social media.
Orange is the New Black and Breaking Bad: In what’s becoming the running theme of a blog post that’s running far too long, I’d rather talk around OITNB than dissect it, though not necessarily by choice this time. Based on the book of the same title, and adapted for television by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, Orange is the New Black has been a cumbersome title on many tongues lately, providing 2013 its biggest sleeper hit. For all the chatter Netflix generated by stepping into the original content business with a prestige drama in one hand (House of Cards), and a loveable charity case in the other (Arrested Development), seemingly little attention was paid to OITNB in the runup to its release. Some, including myself, only first heard about the show when Netflix announced a second season* had been commissioned only weeks before the entirety of the first came tumbling out all at once.
*The point of such a public show of confidence before a single minute of the show has seen the light of day is just that. The hope is to have people assume that if the show is good enough for the suits, it’s good enough for me. While the tactic may have helped OITNB’s ratings, it wouldn’t be the first show to get the lone, premature renewal notice.
To get this out of the way, let me just add my voice to others joined in the hosanna signing, and say Orange is the New Black is unquestionably one of the best new shows in a year that’s delivered about as many great freshman programs, as returning favorites. The more I look at the nominees for my Top 20 list of the year, the more happy I am to see an increasing percentage of which include “Ladies Getting Shit Done” as a core element of the storytelling. Orange probably features the most Ladies getting the most Shit Done, without necessarily being all that plot-driven. There’s no real A-plot beyond the basic premise of a quietly obnoxious yuppie New Yorker finding herself incarcerated, having been convicted at the 11th hour of the statute of limitations on her party girl/drug mule phase of youth. Relative newbie Taylor Schilling stars as Piper Chapman (a loose version of the book’s ex-con author, Piper Kerman), but the show quickly, and wisely moves away from its fixation on her as a Netflix-using audience surrogate, and shifts focus to many of the other inhabitants of Litchfield Prison.
Piper’s job is to introduce the viewer to the inner workings and population of an environment most won’t be familiar with, and then let those new characters and dynamics tell the real stories. Nearly all of them turn out to be richly compelling and empathetic. It’s tempting to simply throw praise at the show’s feet for having a gender, racial, and sexual balance of characters that’s refreshingly skewed compared to the mean and mode of the television medium. But that diversity would be meaningless if OITNB didn’t go about integrating the unique perspectives that diversity enables into its greater narrative, which it does. And even more so than Broadchurch, by moving the viewer out of a singular headspace, and conflict, Orange is the New Black develops a resonant harmony out of its varied characters, their relationships, and individual histories. The show never loses touch with the basic humanity of its players, who self-identify, and are subsequently identified by others, across wide-ranging, sometimes conflicting conceptions of strength, weakness, limits, and worth.
All of which is a loosey-goosey, emotionally based way of giving my recommendation for the show, something I prefer not to lean on, in favor of direct examples. And sure, select stories and beats stuck with me in particular*, but the more I think about Orange is the New Black, the more the generalities stick out, rather than the specifics. The feel of the show is still etched into my head, but trying to break the broadstrokes memories down into their component parts has proven an unexpected challenge. I mean, I watched the whole thing only a month ago; how can something you’ve enjoyed so much, and so recently, be so damned hard to remember not long after? I feel like a freshman describing his first epic college party weeks after the fact, with hazy memories drifting away due to the passage of time –and because the only thing he can be certain of is that the good time began with copious binge drinking.
*The fifth episode centers around Piper chasing a 10-pound, clucking and flapping metaphor for adjustment to prison life. It speaks to the show’s charms that it can make such an obvious device unexpectedly endearing.
If one word wormed its way into the popular TV lexicon this year, it was definitely that, “binge,” an encapsulation of new viewing methods that’s been so overused of late, exposure to it makes you feel a bit like horking. Yet, the word’s usual partner, purge, isn’t found in the conversation nearly as often, despite it crudely describing the aftereffects I felt after blowing through both House of Cards and Orange is the New Black in a weekend each. Looking beyond Netflix, the ease of access to quality television has never been so trifling, just as the volume of great television has never been so overwhelming. Streaming, DVDs, and pirating now leave no excuse for you not to watch the next episode of a show, wanting to do so immediately quickly becoming the telltale sign of a worthwhile program. Watching a show is coming more to resemble the pace of competitive eating, as we desperately try to shovel down as much content as we can, as quickly as we can, all while ignoring how our haste doesn’t allow for proper digestion.
Confession time: I suck at reading books. Not in terms of literacy, understanding, or speed (although all three could be far better), but more so in terms of coming away from a book with a well-founded opinion on its artistic quality, the way I do for a movie, or an episode of television. The reason for this is two-fold, I think, one being related to how the medium functions. Unlike the audio-visual immersion offered by TV and film, a book puts more onus on the audience to construct the narrative for themselves. The fact that I work in the evaluation, and not creation side of pop culture, should be a hint as to how well wired my brain is to filling in the author’s blanks. The other reason relates to how I actually read, which is based on finishing a novel in as few sessions as possible. This has the effect of broadening the amount of material to be analyzed between reading breaks, which may in fact be how some authors prefer their works be enjoyed, but leaves me often missing the artistic trees of the prose for the mechanical forest of plot.
I’ve made my peace with being out of my depth when approaching the literary world with critical intentions, but find that feeling of haziness that comes with finishing a novel as more and more analogous to how I feel after wrapping up an entire 13-episode TV season over a short time frame. It’s a feeling that’s becoming more common, and problematic as the best television out there moves further away from the importance of the individual episode, and focuses more on the whole of the season. This is exactly what guys like David Simon and Matthew Weiner want. As prestige dramas push passed simply being serialized, and start adopting the storytelling structure and mechanics of novels, any given plot thread on Treme, character in Mad Men, or entire episode of either show can end up seeming like a disparate element at first glance. Once you’ve finished the season though, and see the greater whole all those plots, characters and episodes are meant to contribute to, it can be a revelation; indeed, my favorite TV drama ever built a motto out of reassuring its audience that, yes, all the pieces matter.
And like a novel, the first few entries in most series can sometimes feel like a chore, so Netflix’s distribution model is immensely helpful for giving viewers the ability to power through the table setting leading up to the main course. But for the vast majority of series, including the novelistic ones, giving the viewer absolute control over when, and how quickly they watch a show has crippled the social elements that have helped define television’s existence up until now. By eliminating the need to watch TV on a set schedule, conversation about the show gets cutoff at the knees. Maybe it’s because it seems like we’re becoming more indulgent as a culture (the theatre debate can attest to that), but it’s getting harder to tell the difference between Hollywood, and the junk food industry, tweaking and perfecting its formula for finding the individual consumer’s bliss point.
Where Netflix exploits gluttony, cinema is becoming more and more a dessert factory, shoving one nutritionless confectioner after another right in front of you. To take this all back a few thousand words, the answer to why there’s no enthusiasm for properties like Batman Vs Superman, and Avatars two through four, is that their abundance is proof of their disposability. The development speed and marketability required to keep the factory running at peak capacity doesn’t leave room for texturing a product into something thought provoking. Memorable characters and unique narrative are never as important as the general feeling of satisfaction the product is meant to induce.
A film like Elysium, which tries to cram a brain into its futuristic sci-fi robot exoskeleton, causes most of the debate to focus on how trying to say something makes the film better or worse, rather than the things the film wants to say about the wealth gap and health care. That’s because the message itself is as one note and monotonous as the mindless spectacle surrounding it; it’s an episode of G.I. Joe, heavyhanded moralizing and all, instead of a readable text made up of individual scenes, directorial choices, and editing choices that can be parsed and interpreted. With no trees to focus on, the forest is all that matters, which leads to passionate discourse about the aesthetic and artistic merits of a film devolving into fanboy rants and complaints about plot holes. In critiquing a recent list from Total Film that wanted to perform liposuction on 50 films too long for their attention span, Matt Singer pointed out a belief that enjoyment of a film isn’t total unless it has the chance to be discussed, something I believe applies equally to television, but is also disappearing.
To wrap things up, I want to talk about Breaking Bad, which might turn out to be the biggest show of the year in terms of volume of discussion and cultural impact. Its sixth* season premiere drew 6 million viewers last Sunday. Even repeats on a Friday night can do better than that on a broadcast network, but for a cable network like AMC, 6 million sets of eyeballs makes for a hit. Not a Walking Dead-sized hit, mind you, which is AMC’s champion horse that does ratings even the networks would envy, but compared to how it first started, the numbers Breaking Bad is pulling in now better fit its place in the current cultural zeitgeist. It represents the death rattle of the current television Golden era of the White Male Anti-Hero, fittingly being the most popular of such programs since the granddaddy of the whole genre, The Sopranos.
*Technically, it’s the beginning of the second half of Season 5, but the more than year’s wait since the final “oh shit” moment of 2012 has made the transition feel less like an unpausing and more like the beginning of the final arc.
Breaking Bad will be the heart-stopping climax of the third television golden age, but Mad Men will be its more sanctified denouement, even though it will likely end its run next year with less than half of the ratings Breaking Bad will pull in. But what Mad Men does share with Breaking Bad, besides a common interest in Star Trek fan fiction, is that both have seen their ratings grow remarkably since premiering in 2007, and 2008, respectively. As noted by Vulture contributor Josef Adalian, the “slow-mo explosion” of ratings both shows have experienced over their runs has been a result of AMC allowing each to cultivate and maintain the specific brand of quality programming that made their channel matter in the first place. While The Walking Dead proved to be an out-of-the-box hit, with ratings that climbed in inverse proportion to how good the show actually was, Breaking Bad, and to a lesser extent Mad Men, have proven that if the show really is good enough, it will attract a wider audience over its life span.
It’s impossible not to attribute at least some of those insane jumps in ratings between seasons to Netflix-like services, as getting new viewers caught up has always been a barrier keeping serialized programming from growing. And while many of those new fans will complain about the unbearable wait between episodes, they may not realize that the waiting can make for the most fun. Even if you end up watching the show alone, or have no one to chat with about it at the water cooler, the internet has made it easier than ever to share your thoughts, and see others. While the art of “recapping” seems to be going the way of the dodo, some of the best writing about television out there comes from passionate viewers and critics expressing how each week’s installment played for them.
One such critic, Myles McNutt, has been waging a one-man war against the image of recapping as just an outlet for fanboys to write episode summaries padded out with the snark they couldn’t share with anyone in real life (on a completely unrelated note, here are reviews for the last few episodes of Under the Dome). It’s one I whole-heartedly agree with, not just because of how good the write-ups from the likes of McNutt, Maureen Ryan, and Alan Sepinwall* usually are, but because of how they offer an outlet for viewers to share their own opinions, and have the opinions of others expand their own. I’d wager a big part of Breaking Bad’s continuing success has been the result of its willingness to still make each individual hour a discrete work of its own, but one that still fits as a piece of the show’s greater puzzle. Encouraging discussion and analysis on both a micro and macro level is what makes for great art, and that’s exactly why Breaking Bad will be going out as one of the all-time great TV dramas, no which way it rides off into the sunset.
*That’s naming just a paltry few writers doing exceptional work analyzing art mere hours after viewing it, including Linda Holmes, Matt Zoller Seitz, Donna Bowman, and Todd VavDerWerff. If anything, the problem is that there are too many such pieces being released after every episode of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and the like, making for a hell of a reading list come Monday morning.
So how was the premiere anyway? Well, it was Breaking Bad, which is to say it was never anything less than completely captivating and excellent. And at the same time, you can tell it’s time to close the book on this story, and kind of storytelling general. In the last thought piece I wrote that ran wildly beyond the proposed wordcount, which was about the video game The Last of Us, critic Leigh Alexander succinctly summed up the same experience much more gracefully, and in far fewer words, as “the last story of the strong man at the end of the world that I need to play.” I can’t help but feel the same about the position Breaking Bad holds in the current television landscape. Hidden behind the colloquialism, the show’s title is deceptively blunt; this is the story of what happens when someone embraces illegality, immorality, and even pure evil. It is the purest dramatic distillation of the 21st century crisis of masculinity, and economy, one that no one should attempt to try again. We already have Breaking Bad, and now it’s time for something new.
It’s July. It’s hot. TV stuff continues to happen, despite my protestation months ago. Maybe it’s about time this whole Golden Age of TV thing silvered up a bit; we’re only halfway through the year, and I’m already starting to get a kid-in-a-candy-store-that’s-closing-in-five-minutes panic over the sheer volume of television that’s come out this year that I hear is amazing, and I haven’t seen a single frame of. The dumbest thing I’ll ever write (an award that changes ownership with exciting frequency) might turn out to be that doom ‘n gloom forecasting for 2013 in did in my Best of 2012 list. I’ve done a rough draft of this year’s version, and it’s already got more than 25 nominees. It’s not even fall pilot season yet, people!
The best evidence showing the critical mass of quality small screen entertainment being dumped on us is the Emmy nominations that came out today. Most of the major categories could have doubled their nominee list, and still realistically had people moaning on twitter about snubs and/or flubs. I love me some Oscars, but the Emmys have never held huge appeal to me, what with a voting record that makes the HFPA look like Deep Thought, and much larger commitment there is to fully viewing the possible contenders. Besides, in the words of a still Emmy-less performance that proves their inadequacy, awards are stupid…
…but they’d be less stupid if they went to the right people. Like Tatiana Maslany, for example. Any one of the roles she plays on Orphan Black wouldn’t be enough to make much hay out of, but when four or five of those performances form up in the Voltron-like acting decathlon that the show is for Maslany, her exclusion becomes a real shame. As does the near dearth of nods for Justified and The Americans, though acknowledging how great the opening titles and Margo Martindale were on the latter helps make the lack of dues given to Keri Russell and Timothy Olyphant more tolerable. And while I’m complaining, hey Emmy voters: where’s the love for Key & Peele? Variety or otherwise, this was a strong contender for funniest show of the year, no ifs, ands, or buts (give or take an ampersand in the title).
Whatever, there were still plenty of smart choices, and a couple of surprise nominations worth celebrating (Yay Top of the Lake! Yay Enlightened!). And who am I kidding, if Jonathan Banks wins for Best Supporting Actor, all will be forgiven.
But their will be plenty more time for bitching about the Emmys once they’ve actually happened, so let’s focus on some more(ish) immediate distractions.
Under the Dome: This is the closest thing to a screener-review I’ve ever gotten to do, as most critics get to watch a couple episodes of a new show before giving their early verdict. Now four episodes in, here is a rough approximation of how my thoughts on the Stephen King-adapted miniseries have developed thus far:
Week 1: Hey, this is pretty good! The effects are alright, the premise is interesting, and Dean Norris is getting paid. Let’s see where this goes!
Week 2: Well…that was unfortunate. But hey, sophomore slumps are commonplace in TV. They’ll learn valuable lessons from the mistakes this week.
Week 3: Nope, school’s out, there has been no learning. Oh god, and the ratings are still holding, so they’ll probably pick this up from miniseries to a full series! Abort, ABORT!
Week 4: Has the plane finally levelled out, or was there just nowhere left to go but up? I guess you can feel pretty okay about a bland, tolerable cup of coffee as a palette cleanser when it followed a three course meal that cratered in quality from appetizers onward.
I’ll be reviewing the remaining 9 episodes over the next couple months, but really hope this thing makes up its mind about how good it’s going to be. Writing about TV that’s exceptional, or exceptionally awful is easy; it’s everything in between that gets difficult.
The Last of Us: As expected, I spent the better part of a week writing about how this one video game is, like, really good you guys. No really it, is! It’s got a great story, well-realized characters, an incredible atmosph- and everyone’s gone.
I don’t have a ton of time for games anymore, but I like it when one like this comes along, and gives me an excuse to release more of the “Video Game Storytelling Sucks, and Here’s Why” manifesto that’s been rattling around in my brain for awhile now. The Last of Us is definitely the sort of game I feel no regrets in spending more time writing about than actually playing; that’s probably as good an indicator as any that it’s doing something right. Seriously, if you have a PS3, this is probably the best game you’ll have the chance to play all year.
White House Kegger: Sadly, this is neither a show, nor a game (though has probably been the theme to numerous college parties). With the roommate out of town all week, I dedicated myself to beating the heat in three-pronged fashion: wearing as little clothing as possible, staying refreshed with minikeg of awful Canadian pale ale, and plowing through a pair of Washington-based series that will be up for “Best of” Consideration later in the year.
The first of which, House of Cards, definitely saw its “It” status confirmed by the Emmy nominations, welcoming Netflix to the big kids table with representation in Best Drama, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Direction categories (yet none for best effects, despite convincingly CG-ing Foghorn Leghorn to look like Kevin Spacey). While it’s nice to see a new challenger to the old guard throwing their hat into the ring, I wish it was because of a better series than HoC. While it looks the part of a top-tier drama (David Fincher’s “everything and everyone looks slightly sick” style does marvels in a political setting), it’s a series in search of a reason for existing, beyond theoretically drawing in Netflix subscribers. It goes down easy, but is often lacking in urgency or purpose, bringing in and dropping plot threads hither and thither, while never finding a solid throughline to latch onto. For every component that worked exceptionally well, another would be altogether lacking (Kate Mara’s reporter turned blogger rock star arc is best enjoyed by those who thought David Simon’s lecturing about the death of journalism in Season 5 of The Wire was too subtle).
Similarly good, but not great, was Season 2 of Veep. Again, all the right elements are there. The talent in front of, and behind the camera is all-star material, and the executive branch is a comedic goldmine. But that just left me further confused as to why Veep would be consistently enjoyable, but never transcendent. Perhaps The Thick of It, with its more fanciful four-letter language, and less familiar setting, over-clocked my expectations for how Armando Iannucci’s vicious wit would play on the other side of the Atlantic (I don’t think I even finished Season 1, come to think of it).
Both shows have a good shot at squeaking into the back half of my Top 20 this year, but given the number of interesting freshman shows 2013 has had already given us, that’s no guarantee. This weekend’s likely going to be spent seeing if all the fuss about Netflix’s newest series, Orange is the New Black, is justified. Here’s hoping it is, because a Best of 2013 list dominated by newbies is something I’d really be happy to see (especially given how many buck the “White Male Anti-Hero” trend that’s defined the Golden Age thus far. Check out Brett Martin’s awesome new reflection on the WMA phenomenon, Difficult Men, if you get the chance).
That’s all for now. Play me out, gag reel from New Girl-and-wait-I-forget-to-mention-I-finally-watched-New-Girl-which-is-thoroughly-enjoyable-and-I-liked-more-than-the-three-shows-I-just-talked-about-so-whoops-I-guess-I-buried-the-lede-on-this-one
Well, I guess it’s been a little while, hasn’t it? I should really consider just live-updating this thing with links instead of getting into a big rigamarole over doing a whole write-up just to say, yes, Mad Men happened this week, here are some thoughts. Then again, it’s been a pretty busy month, one spent sampling, digesting, and then regurgitating thoughts on a whole host of things not strictly related to TV. Let’s start with old business first:
-Mad Men: The season finale is tonight, so if you’ve been using my reviews as a guide to the season, then my humblest apologies for dumping not one, not two, my God, not even three, but four recaps mere hours before Don Draper and company take their bow for 2013. Then again, that’s a pretty odd way to be involved in one of TV’s best shows, so don’t judge me for working up a review backlog.
-Hannibal: I had the pleasure of reviewing a third episode of this year’s biggest surprise, as well as share some thoughts on the season as a whole with the finale that aired a few days ago. The short version is that Hannibal will likely show up on my Top 20 for the year, based on its haunting aesthetic, terrific performances, and total commitment to being the most twisted and Goddamn insane network TV show since Twin Peaks. I have been legitimately more creeped out and frightened by Hannibal‘s 13-episode first season than any other piece of media I’ve viewed in the last 5 years, and the fact that it’s often a really compelling drama doesn’t hurt either. NBC left the show to die during the spring burnoff season, but they at least had the decency to pick it up for a second season, the time until which will hopefully involve many people discover this bloody little gem on streaming and DVD.
That’s all from the world of TV recapping, and you can expect a Mad Men finale review in the evening hours tonight, as well as a review for CBS’s Under the Dome pilot tomorrow. For now though, let’s move on to a few odds and sods.
-Orphan Black: Got 10-hours to spare watching one of the most gleefully insane, and best acted TV sci-fi series in ages? Well you’re in luck, because I caught up with the cult BBC series a couple weeks back and can now say I see what all the fuss is about. I won’t get much into spoiler territory, but the basic premise allows for Canadian-born actress Tatiana Maslany to give five of the best performances on TV, and with that in mind, you can probably guess that Orphan Black isn’t your average cup of tea. It’s a complete tonal fruit salad, shifting from sci-fi, to thriller, to mystery, to comedy and back between and within scenes, and is a BBC production shot in a Toronto masquerading as New York. Needless to say, those expecting the production values and laser focus of an HBO drama should look elsewhere. Those, however, looking for an exceptionally fun, thought-provoking, and blisteringly-paced little series should go out of their way to seek this out.
-At the Movies: Haven’t spent much time in the local theatres lately, though when I tell you that the TIFF screening of “R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet Sing-Along” was the best thing I’ve seen in cinemas the last month, it’s confirmation that this summer has been pretty awful for movies. This is the End, a surprising critical high-water mark for the season, was packed when an attempt to see it was made this week, so a viewing of Now You See Me was had instead. Seeing as the trailers made it look one of the year’s most obnoxious and irritating offerings, it was unlikely this would ever be my jam, and sure enough, it wasn’t. I can’t remember the last time a film so completely fucked up the idea of identifying someone to root for, as in this case, my options were the asshole magician thieves, the asshole Interpol detective, or the asshole millionaires and shysters funding them. It’s reductive, and more than a little mean to call it Ocean’s Eleven for stupids, but that’s the movie they made. At least I wasn’t disappointed by it, unlike…
Man of Steel. Oh man, this one hurt. That’s not to say that it’s abhorrently awful, but, after resisting it for so long, I got swept up in the zeitgeist (read: marketing) for the film in the last weeks before its release. Based on what had been shown it really, really looked like Snyder and Nolan might have cracked the Superman nut. This was the movie that was supposed to save the summer, which is an unfair expectation on my part (I can really only blame myself for going to tentpole blockbuster films lately). Turns out, what we got was a movie more dour and joyless than even Nolan’s Batman pictures, which could afford to be so. Superman, on the other hand, can fucking fly and lift mountains over his head: he’s the last character that should be weighed down with a script so leaden with ponderous dialogue, pacing so manacled by the obligatory origin story, and a structure that weights all the action toward a numbing and concerning third act. Again, it’s not reprehensible, or utterly awful, but Man of Steel is perhaps the biggest misfire in a summer season that’s all but been dedicated to them.
Finally, just thought I’d mention I managed to finish The Last of Us yesterday, and I’m already planning another big ol’ essay/bout of thought-diarrhoea about it like I did for Bioshock: Infinite, and what Sony’s latest tentpole release says about how storytelling works within the framework of a videogame. Bottom-line: while it shares many of Infinite‘s faults, The Last of Us attempts (and often succeeds at) the kind of bold gameplay design, and narrative focus I was begging for in my last video game diatribe, and for at least trying to do so, I’m kinda in love with it. Even bottom-er line: I have never cried because of a video game, but within 15 minutes, The Last of Us nearly had me bawling like an big dumb baby over a bunch of pixels. That’s some straight up Pixar shit right there, and I can’t wait to dig deeper into what’s made this game something special.
That’s all for now. Play me out, wistful, and depressing video game soundtrack!
Forget Pain & Gain: Fast & Furious 6 is this year’s true meathead American dream movie. Both are crudely written love letters to self-determination, getting ahead, and good ol’ fashioned bootstrap-pulling, adding a touch of blue collar to a summer blockbuster season dominated by superheroes, and space cadets. Their heroes are plucky, lower-middle class survivors who don’t wait for a shot at success, but brute force one into existence through rejection of society, and its laws. The films luxuriate in orgiastic lifestyle porn, riding high on wealth cultivated from a separate outlaw fantasy of Robin Hood-esque adventure, stealing, shooting, and violently elbowing a place into the ranks of the 1%. These are the champions of a 9-to-5er’s daydreams, getting rich quick, while valiantly flying a middle finger to the corporate power abusers, and corrupt bureaucracy that creates the real world’s millionaires.
Fast one-ups Pain though, as the now sextet of wildly successful automotive-focused action movies are themselves proof of free market economics leading to better consumer products. The first three entries are, in retrospect, experimental prototypes, following different hypothesis of what 21st century audiences want from four wheel action flicks, with the surprise success of Fast and Furious (the fourth instalment) being the first of many eureka moments. With each film in the now decade-spanning franchise, the tone and cast have been honed to a finer blade, one that continues to slice through demographic barriers, and financial milestones. Fast Five was another major turning point for the series, reorienting the action away from neon-lit underground street race culture, and toward a more accessible genre of heist films -all to the tune of $600 million worldwide, and newfound critical praise.
A great deal of that success came from cherry-picking cast members and content from the original trilogy, with The Fast and Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift serving as try-outs for what/who would become the real stars for the series. The franchise now operates at a level where Vin Diesel being the one to growl out tough guy talk is as important to opening day as Robert Downey Jr. being in the Iron Man suit (as if aware, Fast 6 has three separate instances wherein the same character is compared to one of Marvel’s Avengers). Showing Stallone’s dinosaur herd how it’s really done, the Fast films have sucked up more and more A-list-of-the-B-list talent with each instalment, and benefited greatly for it. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a smashing addition last time, and MMA-fighter/surprisingly-capabale-actress Gina Carrano joins the ranks in 6, an intimidating warm-up act for the already announced headliner joining the also already announced part seven.
The Fast films continue to grow in popularity, as what little esoteric flavor there was in the first few films has been flattened and smoothed out so thoroughly, that it’s not just a stereotypical frat boy audience that’s getting excited for each new lap around the familiar track. The expanding list of players has brute-forced personal, high-stakes drama into a roster of characters previously defined the by just the label of cop or crook. Viewers are now coming to these movies for the characters behind the wheels, not just the wheels themselves, and with every entry, the franchise has become even more of a creatine-infused bro-out with values like loyalty, and friendship -not just cars, beer, and firearms. The once struggling enterprise has course corrected itself toward achievements greater than ever, but even as its star rises to increasing box office heights, its heart still remains firmly at home. After all the testosterone-fuelled pyrotechnics, 6 ends in hand-clasped prayer amongst a family, all giving thanks for the comfort of home, financial security, and, of course, fast cars. It ain’t Capra, but if that’s not the American dream of the modern era, what is? It’s a question that might fill your head when watching a blockbuster action movie as mind-numbingly boring as Fast 6 can be at times.
Here’s where I stand with the franchise: I’ve seen enough clips, and channel-surfed through enough of the first four films to make up maybe a movie and a half, but like many others, Fast Five was my introduction proper to Dom, Han, and whatever Paul Walker’s character’s name is. And it blew my socks off. Fast Five is a two-hour clinic of propulsive action, and efficient storytelling that’s nigh impossible to not fall in love with. It straddled the line of “so bad its good,” and “legitimately great” so deftly, moments appealing to my Neanderthal, lizard hindbrain, and the rest of my mind that appreciates good movies, were nearly inseparable. Even if the film’s closing tease of a returning character meant nothing to me, I was in for Fast and Furious 6 already, because, holy shit, I just watched a bank vault get slingshot around downtown Rio de Janeiro like an oversized can dangling behind a car reading “Just Married To This Franchise.”
And sure enough, I vowed to see the next entry back in those halcyon days of 2011, but now stand before you a man sadly underwhelmed. Sure, I guess for pure spectacle, 6 has a lot going for it. It’s no vault heist, but a vehicular fight to the death between a bunch of cars and a cargo plane can’t be ignored. Going further over the top than even Fast Five, 6 isn’t just divorced from reality, but sets out to burn every photo album and mixtape it still had as evidence it was ever in a relationship with things like restraint, subtlety, and physics. The characters are now able to withstand Looney Toons levels of physical punishment, and the finale takes place on a never-ending runway that might as well be a looping cartoon background. It’s gonzo spectacle of a high-calibre; hell, its climax might be the most expensive piece of innuendo in movie history. Look at this gif, and tell me there isn’t something INCREDIBLY Freudian going on here:
But while 6 still brings plenty of crazy to the table, the slower bits holding all the destruction together are a far more sluggish affair this time out. The balance of snarky enjoyment to authentic, rapt awe I experienced with Five was near perfect, while 6 pushes things far more in the direction of the former. The dialogue has lost much of its cheesy charm, and just become dull, overdoing it on the self-satisfied, “look how cool we are” non-sequiturs, and platitudes about what in means to be in “the life” of an underground racer/illicit millionaire/alpha-bro. Meanwhile, the more the film tried to earnestly lean into the familial relationships, the more I found myself tuning out, seeing as the only distinguishing feature among each character is which kind of car they like, and what stock role they fill.
Playing completely into Universal’s hands, I’m more interested in the actors than the character’s they’re playing, especially as someone with no reverence for the Fast “mythology.” Paul Walker is every fiber the bland, affectless pretty boy you would expect of a Paul Walker character, barely registering in just about every scene he’s in. Vin Diesel does his usual “muffler caught in the windpipe” tough guy shtick, and really looks like he could use a nap more than anything. The supporting cast gets it done though, chief among them being Dwayne Johnson, who remains America’s most unexpectedly charismatic leading man. His stare-downs with Diesel work on so many levels, at once pushing the undercurrent in “homoerotic undercurrent” to its breaking point, while also providing an interesting directorial challenge, as cutting between the two requires each to look more bulked-up and threatening than the other. And it’s also just really funny to see the nape of each chrome dome’s neck bunch up like an accordion, as though their head’s might spring up at any moment like a jack-in-the-box.
Again though, the problem is that there’s too much ironic enjoyment being had, not honest fun. The humor continues to be almost entirely miss, relying on more of the usual thunderously stupid innuendo and frat house ball-busting. The slobs vs. snobs subtext doesn’t have any juice anymore, seeing as all the characters are now multi-millionaires, so when one of them spends a good two minutes of screentime humiliating a snooty English car dealer, it’s kinda cruel, in addition to being completely unnecessary. The funniest thing about the films continues to be how the third entry, which takes place after all the others -despite being set in 2006-, continues to be an albatross around the franchise’s neck. I’m certain someone will write a brilliant film school thesis on how the continued foreshadowing of Han’s approaching death in Tokyo Drift is secretly the great action movie existential drama of the 21st century.
But really, all would be forgiven if the setpieces were firing on all cylinders, but Fast Five once more proves to be the superior experience. Justin Lin is a really talented director of fight scenes (the brawls in the London underground are pretty stellar), but even by his fourth Fast, still hasn’t figured out how to make the driving sequences work consistently. By providence, I saw a bit of #4 last night, and marvelled at how awful and intrusive a GPS computer providing logistical commentary on a race was, something Fast Five didn’t bother with by having open, brightly lit, and clearly established racetracks. Spatial context is still all but impossible to establish at 100 miles an hour, but it’s a problem 6 exacerbates with constant quick-cutting to gears being shifted, and speedometer needles spiking, instead of establishing shots. The real shame is that three of the four big driving sequences are set at night, resulting in blurry messes that feel like “follow the light” eye exams, rather than well-photographed showstoppers.
Most disappointing though, are the hints that the series will be returning to its roots for Fastest & Furiousest 7: The Fastening, or whatever the hell Universal decides to call it (the actual title card for this one reads Furious 6). The best gag in Five sets up an epic street race, but cuts to its inevitable conclusion immediately, because there is not one person in the audience who doesn’t already know that Vin and company are going to win. Six brings the racing back, but unless you’re really invested in Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez’s relationship, it’s just another banal as fuck car chase with no stakes or flair, which we can probably expect more of with Seven’s return to L.A., and the departure of Lin.
Where Fast Five looked the start of a beautiful friendship, the new in-film metaphor of choice comes from seeing that cargo plane tethered down by a half-dozen cars, trying to lift off, but weighed down by old baggage. I won’t call this an official review, but I’ll just say that Fast 6 is already my frontrunner for most disappointing film of summer 2013. It’s still enjoyable in spots (the tank sequence is just unhealthy levels of stupid, human-life-disregarding fun), but Fast & Furious 6 just can’t keep pace with the finely tuned bliss of Fast Five.
Oh wait, they’re bringing him into the franchise next time? Sigh. Fuck you Universal, you’ve got me for at least one more movie. Please make it count.
You hear that faint, dying buzz coming from your TV, the one that’s getting fainter and fainter the nicer the weather outside gets? Yes, it’s the sound of reruns, because TV is now officially over for the year. There’s no more, it’s all gone; it’s time to unplug the cable box and start being a productive member of society again. Reruns are all that’s left, which is actually worse than blizzard static, because at least randomly bouncing white and black pixels are bound to make something new appear every now and then. Might as well take the batteries out of the remote, because it’s not like you’ll need to turn on the TV for another four months.
And THANK GOD. I might not get summer vacations anymore, but Jesus Christ, I need a vacation from TV, or rather, new TV. There are a few stragglers hanging about (I’ll keep reviewing Mad Men, of which the last two recaps can be found here, and here, and will follow up my 2nd Hannibal recap with a few more this season), and some summer series that will definitely be worth checking out, but any sort of halt to the rising tide of great TV is a godsend to someone already so far behind shows they’d normally be up to date on (I’m 5 episodes behind on Parks and Rec for crying out loud). So with so much more time these next few months available for getting caught up on what’s been on and off my radar (it’s time to finally see if the fuss about New Girl is justified, and the new Arrested Development season is mandatory), now’s the time to do a bit of house cleaning, and wrap up a few series and season I’ve finished in the last few weeks. We’re going have to lightning-round things this week, so let’s not waste another minute.
-Arrow: This is a mini-milestone for me, as Arrow wrapping up its first season these last two weeks makes it the first show I’ve ever covered from pilot to finale. While I never thought my first consistent TV reviewing gig would involve writing more than 30,000 words on a show I originally had no interest in watching, you gotta start somewhere, and I’m glad Arrow was such a starting point for me. It’s really, really tempting when you do freelance writing to only concern yourself with shows that align with your tastes, and tunnel-vision can develop as a side effect. Biasing your viewing habits only towards programs that are critically well-regarded will make you lose perspective on the wide range of stories available on any given night of TV. I would never argue in favour of someone watching Arrow instead of The Wire, or Louie, but it’s important to give a change to shows that aren’t inherently your type of jam, and to be able to recognize their strengths just as readily as their faults. Speaking of which…
-…Spartacus!!!!!!!! If ever a truly excessive number of exclamation points were warranted on this blog, this would be the case, because Spartacus, on its surface, ignores all the classically accepted hallmarks of great television. It’s violent, libidinous, grimy, gory, unabashedly sex-crazed, and honest to God Great Television. There is so, so much worth celebrating about Spartacus, the most important thing being how it defies expectations at every turn; over its first season, a 300-knockoff looking like it was shot on a shoestring budget, morphed into one TV’s best dramas, at once lean and spectacular. The show never looked back after that meteoric rise in quality, even after the untimely death of its star Andy Whitfield; Stephen S. DeKnight, his writing staff, the incredible production team, and a host a talented actors made every single minute of this series count, bowing out after their fourth season last month, and going out on their own terms. I’ve never watched another show that could dazzle the action-living, lizard part of my skull, while keeping the rest of my brain so engaged by the momentous plotting and unforgettable cast of characters. Oh, and it also happens to be one of the most sexually progressive shows of recent memory, just to round out why it is I’m so in awe of everything Spartacus has accomplished. Make no mistake; this brawny jock has more brain and heart than many of TV’s most praised series.
-The Shield: Where Spartacus is bloody opera, The Shield is Shakespearean tragedy. I was sadly unable to follow up my digestion of the first two seasons with complimenting thoughts on the rest of the series, so i’ll have to give the 10 cent review instead. Long story short, while I don’t think I would argue The Shield is essential viewing for your average audience, for fellow TV writers, I’d consider it a must. With each season, The Shield added another act to its tragedy in six-parts (with the scattered Season 1 acting as a prologue), and the further you step back from the show, the more you have to applaud how Shawn Ryan and company managed to tell a complete story that had almost no fat to it. Rock solid consistency across 70+ episodes is a nigh impossible feat, but really, it’s the finale that gave the show its legacy, as that final hour gave weight and meaning to all those that came before it. Take note, showrunners: a bad ending won’t necessarily ruin your show, but a great one can change the narrative completely.
-Top of the Lake: A nice little Jane Campion mini-series breaking up all the macho stuff, Top of the Lake is not the sort of show you will devour like candy, and leave you hungry for more. It’s a slow, winding, but intensely intriguing and ultimately rewarding bit of mystery fiction set in the New Zealand countryside. Elizabeth Moss is terrific in the lead role as detective Robin Griffin, kiwi accent and all, as her investigation into the seedy side of a lake-bound small town uncovers numerous oddballs and dark secrets across the seven episode series. The off-beat pacing will be off-putting to many, and there’s a noticeable wonkiness to how the show’s original six episode length was split into seven for Sundance Channel. I can’t say I’m terribly well-versed in Campion’s work other than The Piano, but her talent for spoiling gorgeous landscapes with disturbing sexual undercurrents is on full display here, making for a hypnotic, and unsettling little series that will likely find a place in my year end list of best series. I’m looking to taper off of the show’s uniquely low-key high with a similarly contemplative series from Sundance, Rectify, the pilot of which I watched last night and see plenty of promise in.
You know it’s been a while since you added an update to your blog when actually making one gets delayed further by forgetting your WordPress login info. Here’s what I’ve had time for writing up in the last couple weeks, in between stuffing myself on the smorgasbord of hockey that is the first round of NHL playoffs:
-Two Arrows, no waiting. With the season wrapping up a week tomorrow, the recap load each week is about to get a lot lighter. The rest of May is barren for new show premieres, but June should pick things up, so their might be something worth covering weekly around that time. In the meantime, I might have to start popping in for check-in reviews, like the one I did for…
-…Hannibal, which, surprisingly, is turning out to be one of the best new shows of the year. You wouldn’t think a series based off a successful novel and film franchise would be an underdog, but considering it’s the umpteenth serial killer drama in recent memory (and on NBC no less), Hannibal entered the scene with bomb bunker-low expectations. Leave it to wunderkind showrunner Bryan Fuller, a strong cast, and the show’s capacity to be legitimately creepy, to make this 2013’s most pleasant surprise. My review catches up with the show midway through its first season, and I’d recommend you do the same. Seriously though, despite being on network TV, this is not one for the squeamish. The jury’s still out for me on whether the show is making a commentary on senseless and gratuitous violence that you’ll find in drek like The Following, or if Hannibal is just better at making said violence entertaining, but check it out for yourself, and see how it settles your stomach.
-Mad Men manages memorable moments mourning Mr. MLK, and major movements are made, as magnificently manic merger melts away morbid motifs. I’m now realizing almost no one on this show has a name that starts with “M”, and I think that’s to prevent sentences like the last one from being even more tempting to write.
This goes against my proven policy of improving productivity (okay, fine, I’ll stop the alliteration) by not making any promises, but expect a big ol’ hashout post about a number of series I just happened to finish within spitting distance of one another. Nothing super in-depth or all that analytical, mostly just a little baggage unpacking. The shows? I’ll leave it a surprise, but the article’s working title at this moment is Snakes, Lakes, and White-Male-Antiheroes. Now if you’ll excuse, I need to get back to watching the Canucks lose.