Saturday, May 16, 2015

Favorite Songs for their Lyrics Part VI

This is another edition of "Favorite Songs for their Lyrics" where I pick a number of songs whose lyrics resonate with me and whittle away at them to my heart's content.  I focus only on the song's lyrics because I feel like quantitatively judging music along some scale of good to bad is mostly pointless. Music just hits us certain ways. Also, worth noting: My musical tastes are embarrassingly mainstream and I've never been particularly adventurous at seeking out things other than what's on the radio, but isn't that more fun for everyone since you'll know the songs I'm writing about?

Bottle it Up, Sara Bairelles - I once heard Bairelles say on Chelsea Handler's show that she's in a healthy and stable relationship so she just channels her sister's problems for her love songs.  Perhaps that's why her two most famous tracks from her first album seem like love songs on the surface but are really expressions of frustration about the pervasiveness of the love song genre. Both this and "Love Song" are extremely direct manifestations of her feelings. "I know it's just your soul but could you bottle it up" could be a direct plea to Sara's sister to use her as a muse because "girls across the nation will eat this up." Yet as the song moves along and the word "love" is repeated over and over and pigeonholed into various sentences,  there seems to be a sense of the singer getting lost in the emotion herself. Even the ability to view "love" with ironic detachment doesn't prevent one from being overtaken with the emotion.

Ain't it Fun, Paramore - The song's first line shows the narrator stating with a hint of casual apathy: "I don't mind letting you down easy" which could mean she's personally rejecting the subject or that she has no problem softening the news that the adult world is going to be tough on the subject.  Or maybe being romantically rejected by the narrator is the subject's "welcome to adulthood" moment? The next line turns contradictory as she advises the subject to "give it time" so that he or she can truly experience the pain ("If it don't hurt now, just wait a while"). But then you realize that the pain of being taken down a notch is part of the process of growing up. Ain't that fun?

Annie Waits, Ben Folds-Folds is one of the few consistently interesting lyricists because he uses the medium to tell stories and he realizes that the best stories aren't necessarily about himself. On its surface,  "Annie Waits" is another of Ben's folksy yarns and the catchy piano riff is misleading as well. A girl named Annie is being stood up by a friend but this slightly unfortunate afternoon is indicative of a larger pattern of disappointment and loneliness. The song juxtaposes the ticking of Annie's biological clock ("She's getting old") with the fact that it's getting late on this particular afternoon. The tragic undertones are evident in everything from Annie's worst-case-scenario daydreams ("Friday bingo, pigeons in the park) to the way the headlights cast shadows that "pass her by and out of sight." A second layer of the song is that whether she's really lonely or not is based on the pount of view of the narrator who happens to want her and therefore thinks that it is the end of the world for Annie that she's being stood up. The twist is that maybe the narrator's the lonely one.

Blank Space, Taylor Swift-If you've been living in a nuclear facility underneath a cave on the moon for the past five years, let me catch you up: Taylor Swift is an extremely popular singer-songwriter who’s known for writing her own songs, being a serial dater, and using her break-ups with famous people as fuel for her songs. Although most singer-songwriters in the 18-25 range write about break-ups a lot (in addition to those under 18 and over 25), Swift gets a disproportional amount of flak for wearing her feelings on her sleeve but that’s because she’s extremely direct in her songs. At times, her directness can be almost sophomoric as with “Shake it Off” where she basically says nanny-nanny-boo-boo to her haters and makes a song out of it.
 
Taylor Swift tries to split the difference in a far more fascinating way with “Blank Space” in which she realistically explores what a relationship with “Taylor Swift: tabloid fixture” would be like. Like “Shake it Off,” Swift insists on being foolish with her romantic decisions using the “we’re young and we’re wreckless” defense. To review: She wants to immediately show the object of her affection “incredible things” right after being introduced to him, she treats love as a game, and she is already referring to her as “his next mistake.” Did we mention she also gets drunk on jealousy? The song’s most interesting line is “I can make the bad guys good for a while” which strikes me as a reversal. I know Taylor’s commenting on her wrong decision, but isn’t getting someone involved in wreckless behavior (AKA romance) turning someone bad?


Adia, Sarah McLachlan- Sarah McLachlan sings to a friend who she let down in what seems to be a major way.  As I listened to it a couple more times,  it became unclear who committed the transgression as evidenced by the hints of uncertainty (Clues here are "Adia, I do believe I've failed you" and the last line of the chorus "Does it matter?"). So instead of singing out an apology,  Sarah pleads with Adia to not lose her innocence. It's possible that innocence could be used in a "not guilty" way but a "not bitter" interpretation is more likely here.

This is interesting if Sarah was the transgressor that she would plead for her victim to not feel pain but that also makes a lot of sense for admittedly selfish reasons.  If you hit someone with a car,  wouldn't you be relieved to know for the sake of your conscience that the other person was OK?  Another possible interpretation is that the narrator let her down by simply not preventing Adia from harm or simply letting her grow older to the point where she'd have to face the dangers of adulthood (hence the reminder that "we are young").

Broadway is Dark Tonight, Goo Goo Dolls- It's a bit of a downer as a song but the song paints such a rich scene. The setting here is an "old man's bar" where a young man is drinking something off his mind.  In the second verse the narrator addresses the subject in second person and says (possibly in the form of a command or a condensed from  of description) "forget your only son" so that might have something to do with it. And then there's the rich description like "You pray to statutes when you sober up for fun" whatever that means. Perhaps, the young man drinking at the old man's bar laments a generational shift as noted by the fact that "The cowboy killed the rockstar." Johnny Rzeznik likely grew up idolizing the quintessential image of a rockstar because that's what he became (also because he looks like someone who could have scored an invite to stand in with the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith), so you can imagine what the murder of the rockstar at the hands of the cowboy means to him. The song has a strong sense of place that I knew it wasn't based on the Broadway district of New York before looking it up to confirm that.
  
Your Armor, Charlotte Martin-Whether you find love or don’t as you get older, we all tend to get jaded towards love songs. Heck, even Adam Levine proclaimed “One more stupid love song and I’ll be sick” even though approximately 100% of his songs are about relationships. But a song like “Your Armor” is wistful and enchanted enough to do the trick. The narrator is fascinated with a special someone who, at first glance, seems to be timid and shy as described by the word “Armor.” She asks him in the chorus “Is your armor thin again? Do I want to wear it down?” By painting him in this way, she admits that his reserved nature is intriguing. I always have been attracted to the reserved librarian type, but I realized listening to this song that being attracted to what you don’t know about a person is pretty universal.
Martin then asks two more questions that rephrase the previous line but these questions are a little bolder: “Am I worthy to come in?” expresses self-doubt and “Do you want to be found?” cuts deeper than asking about the subject’s personality. She wants him to make a voluntary decision to shed it.  Again, this is pretty bold for a narrator who admits that these are “words that she could never say.” She and her subject both run around pretending the sun is all they need and that “chasing you around the room is tempting.” Lastly, the song makes use of a great time metaphor for the passage of time, which is always something I love: “Making deals with minutes that will slip away.”
Learn to Fly, The Foo Fighters-You can’t go wrong introducing the devil and angels in the first verse and playing off each other: “Run and tell all of the angels, this could take all night. Think I need a devil to help me get things right.“ The narrator oscillating between using both the devil and all of the angels for guidance is indicative of this sense of panic he’s feeling that’s prevalent through much of the song.  In the next verse, he wants a new revolution to be cooked up and it’s almost as if he’s having a manic episode or some party drug is starting to kick into his blood stream. The other interesting thing about this song is that the narrator seems clear-headed in terms of knowing what he needs to get him out of this sticky situation (i.e. to fly, all of the angels, for the subject to fly along with him) but he’s also “looking for a complication” before admitting “I’m looking cause I’m tired of trying.” Is the “complication” a sort of hail mary pass because he knows he’s failing? The theme of an airplane here is key here because then the concept of a nose dive  fits the premise perfectly.
Thrift Shop, McElmore and Lewis-There’s not much to say here because the songwriter’s satirical spin on the rap song is pretty clear to anyone who listens to this song and that’s a pretty beautiful thing in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with obvious symbolism. There’s also nothing wrong with being hilarious: “I’m gonna take your grandpa’s style, I’m gonna take your grandpa’s style. No for real, can I have your grandpa’s hand-me-downs?”
Team, Lorde-This is one of those songs where I’m going to have to wrack my brain on each line because Lorde isn’t making it easier on me. If “Royals” is any indication, Lorde’s main shtick seems to be “I’m an outsider, I’m not decked in bling, take me seriously anyway.”  Of course, one has to ask why she feels so insecure about her lack of bling. I don’t ask myself “Is the artist visibly rich enough” when shopping for albums, but maybe preteen girls do?
Perhaps, Lorde feels like an outsider because she’s from New Zealand and, if “Flight of the Conchords” is any indication, Kiwis seem to have that chip on their shoulder.  What’s interesting is Lorde uses “Cities you’ll never see on screen” as the metaphor of choice for her outsider status. New Zealand has three sizeable urban areas but the first thing people think of when they picture New Zealand are pastoral countrysides filled with sheep. Maybe Lorde is working in conjunction with the New Zealand Chamber of Tourism to highlight New Zealand’s great cities (she was born and raised in an urban area), but it’s more likely that she’s reflecting back against the images of the U.S. she’s inundated with (most foreigners are now subjected to more American TV and movies than art produced in their own country). It’s worth noting that Lorde’s portrayal of what she does see on screen is negative. There are “a hundred jewels between teeth” and “between throats” which reflects a sort of excess. In contrast, her boys have “skin like craters of the moon”  but they love that moon like brothers.
Clarity, Zedd-Who is Zedd (other than the evil lord from the Power Rangers) and will we ever hear from her again? I hope so because she certainly has some pretty enlightened views on love and heart break. She sees the subject as "the piece of me I wish I didn't need" which is a pretty smart way to view someone you can't get over: At a certain point, they stop becoming a person and turn into your image of that person. To cement this idea that Zedd is getting over someone, she uses the metaphor of "Frozen Waves" as keeping her in a state of heartbreak, and considers the subject the past (that, for better or worse, is coming back to life). The narrator is woefully lost in these feelings an portrays them well: "It walks deep through our ground and makes us forget all common sense." The real reason that Zedd can't forget the person in question is indicated in the chorus because he brings her moments of clarity.
Clarity, John Mayer-Since, we're sticking to songs with the name "Clarity." I agree that John Mayer is obnoxious these days, but in his first two albums, he really had a lot to say. I know it sounds corny but in my formative years, “No Such Thing” was my guide for how to approach adulthood, “Bigger than my Body” was an anthem for how to outlive expectations, and “Why Georgia” captured my desire to move during my quarter-life crisis. “Clarity” captures John Mayer in a brief moment of happiness. The narrator is kind of OCD (no surprise there) but he wakes up one morning with a "calm he can't explain." He was surprised that "it somehow lingered on." The interesting line here (placed appropriately in the chorus) is that he resolved to "Wait to find if this will last forever." Um...how do you wait to find if something lasts forever? Will he send a report back to the subject on his deathbed. The pessimistic way to read this is that the narrator is still OCD and can't be comfortable with this new feeling. The more optimistic view is that if you are OCD, waiting to see how long a good feeling lasts is the best one can hope for.

 
Be sure to click on the tab that says lyrics for past editions of this series.
Other songs I've done include: Green and Gray, Nickel Creek; Collide, Howie Day; Hard Candy, Rain King,  She Don’t Want Nobody Near, Counting Crows; 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than my Body, Why Georgia, John Mayer; For the First Time, Script; Fairytales, Sara Bairelles; End of the Innocence, Don Henley; Hey Soul Sister, Train; Over my Head, You Found Me, Fray; Let’s See How Far We’ve Come, Mad Season, Downfall, All I Need, Black and White People; Matchbox 20; Jack and Dianne, John Cougar Melloncamp; Here is Gone, Better Days, Goo Goo Dolls; Breathe, Anna Nalick; First Cut is the Deepest, Cat Stephens; Grace is Gone, Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, DMB; Time, Hootie and the Blowfish; Gone, Landed, Ben Folds; Stars, Switchfoot; Your Winter, Sister Hazel; South of Nowhere, Gin Blossoms; On Love in Sadness, Jason Mraz; In Too Deep, Sum 41; I’m With You, Avril Lavigne; Barrytown, Dan Steely; Game of Love, Michelle Branch; Testing 123, Barenaked Ladies; Wake Me Up When September Ends, Greenday


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Discussing TV vs. Movies with Adam Spector Part III

This is Part III of a series where my friend Adam  Spector and I debate the merits of movies verses television. Adam keeps a column on film here and leads a film discussion group in DC every month and has a highly impressive knowledge of films. Our discussion began here with my confession that I watch way more TV than films these days because TV has so many built-in advantages. In Part II, we discussed how TV had threatened films before but movies responded with innovation and considered the possibility that movies might not have as much in their bag of tricks.
 
Orrin -- Well, we've certainly had strong powers of persuasion over one another. Your first response made me reconsider strongly whether it was foolish to proclaim films in decline, and now you've changed your tune (I suppose Mark Harris' article also had something to do with it).

First off, I wouldn't entirely say that I'm averse to franchise films. I enjoyed Star Trek into Darkness and X-Men Days of Future Past as well as Iron Man 2 and, hey, I even spent $12.50 watching Horrible Bosses II last week. What all those films have in common is that I saw Part I. It wouldn't make sense to watch Captain America II or Kick Ass II or Wrath of the Titans when I didn't see Part I of those films and there are only so many Part Is I'm willing to see in a given year. In other words, the sequels and movies meant to launch sequels are overloading me at this point. Similarly, something like Guardians of the Galaxy which seems intended solely to have sequels is also a turn-off. My feeling of alienation when I check out what's playing at the movie theater and  see mostly Part IIs and Part IIIs to films they didn't see in the first place. 

I theorize that as long as there's a best picture race (and I wonder if expanding it from 5 to up to 10 pictures was Hollywood's saving grace) studios will care enough to try and get their products into those 5-10 slots. This year there are not just going to be 9-10 pictures but it seems like there's another 7 or 8 knocking on the door of a best picture nomination: Foxcatcher, Boyhood, Birdman, Gone Girl, Whiplash, Grand Budapest Hotel, Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, Unbroken, and Selma might be the ten if it gets filled out to maximum capacity with American Sniper, Wild, Mr Turner, A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, and Nightcrawler all having the potential to play spoiler. All of those films were clearly made with the intent of getting some awards attention and the result allowed art verse commerce to win. That's not even counting ambitious films that came out to mixed reviews like Homesman, Into the Wild or Interstellar and films that could result in acting nominations like Still Alice, St Vincent, Snowpiercer, The Judge or Big Eyes.

In all, I just listed 25 films all somehow tied to the Oscar race in some way or another and I'm likely forgetting a few. I think the larger question is how these people are getting films made. It might be that the end of Hollywood as we know it hasn't arrived just yet, but we could be getting to the cusp. I could see someone like Tim Burton staying in the film game as some of his films like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland" have shown he can make money. Obviously Christopher Nolan isn't going anywhere. But what about Alejandro Inarritu, the promising J.C. Chandor (who directed Margin Call and All is Lost)  or Jean-Marc Vallee?

There's likely always good films out there that are falling below the radar as well of the independent variety. I used to hang out in a movie group (circa 2008-2009) that would see films I never even knew existed before I went to see them like Brideshead Revisited, Bottleshock, Towelhead, Gonzo, The Brothers Bloom, and "In the Loop" (this one ended up getting a lot of awards attention later on. Similar examples of recent films in that below the radar category might be "Bernie" "Safety Not Guaranteed" "Robot and Frank" or "No." It's hard to say whether these films were better or worse than (surely a few are) but they generally aren't part of the national conversation on movies and are generally not accessible. In some cases, it's a little less fun to view films that aren't in the national conversation. I couldn't really check my opinion on "Brideshead Revisited" against friends or people on IMDB because so few people had seen or heard of that film. If the film is good, one hopes for several reasons that it's part of the national conversation. There's also a question of whether those below-the-radar films are under threat.

But the bottom line is what would have to happen to affect change? The article suggests that this is simply the result of executives who are no longer interested in art. If I'm not mistaken, the Weinstein Brothers at Miramax were champions of ambition and funded many Oscar-calliber films and passion projects. Would it simply take a couple more executives like the Weinsteins to turn things around?

Adam – I’d like to think that I have not “changed my tune.”  There are very troubling signs about the future of movies but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up or that we can start giving cinema its last rites. 

That said, the numbers are not good.  Box office for 2014 dropped five percent from 2013 and the total number of tickets sold is the lowest since 1993 (http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/the-box-office-winners-losers-of-2014/).   The major theater chains’ panicky retreat with The Interview opened the door wider for simultaneous theater and VOD releases, which the those same theater chains have fought bitterly.    

If Hollywood studios are scared, and they probably should be, then they are even more likely to play conservative and rely heavily on franchise films.  For every one person like yourself, who may not see a Part II because he hasn’t seen Part I, the studios are betting on many more people who have seen Part I feeling compelled to see Parts II, III and IV.

As I noted, I have no problem with franchise films, provided they are made intelligently.  Luckily many of them have been lately.  But one problem with having so many of them is that you lose the element of surprise.  Even if they are made well, to some degree you know what you are going to get.  Of course this predictability is what studios are banking on. 

For me though, one of cinema’s joys is discovery.  A few years ago I got off work early and had time to kill.  I walked to the Landmark E Street Theater and picked a film called Timecrimes purely on the basis of it starting soon and having not seen it before.   I walked into the theater not knowing anything about  Timecrimes  other than that it was a Spanish thriller.  I walked out exhilarated.   Timecrimes brilliantly deconstructed the idea of time travel by playing the same story through different angles.  It trusted the audience to follow the complex story and filling in the details as they are slowly revealed.  Films such as Timecrimes, or Boyhood more recently, give us that unique opportunity to see something on film that we have not seen before. 

With the franchise films, it’s not surprise or discovery but anticipation.  The studios want your overwhelming feeling upon leaving the theater to be not so much “What a great film!” but rather ‘I can’t wait until the next one!”  For us that feeling can be a little deflating.  First, the endless hype before a film can build up expectation so much that disappointment is almost inevitable.  Second, it can be more challenging to get into a film if you know it’s only getting you from point B to point C in a five part storyline. 

You made a good point about the Oscar race.  For as much as we may criticize the Oscars, the prestige of winning them may be the one remaining factor that gets more adult-oriented non-franchise films made.  I don’t believe that the filmmakers themselves set out to win an Oscar.  But the studios decision to make or even distribute these kinds of films could largely be awards driven.    

It may take more people like the Weinsteins to stem the tide we are in.  Thankfully the Weinsteins are still active and are distributing films such as The Imitation Game.  Some of the others helping are not distributors, but people with wealth and clout who have their own production companies.    Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Pictures helped finance Precious, The Butler, and most recently Selma.  Brad Pitt’s Plan B also supported Selma and last year supported 12 Years a Slave.  Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures financed Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Her, American Hustle and Foxcatcher.

It's people like Winfrey, Pitt and Ellison who still give me hope.  It’s also the fact that in the past year, I saw original and daring films from Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, Steve James, and Michael Winterbottom.  This week I am going to see films by Clint Eastwood, Paul Thomas Anderson and Mike Leigh.  Angelina Jolie has proven that she’s a talented director.  So have emerging new voices Ava DuVernay, Damien Chazelle and Morten Tyldum.  

Closer to home, the Arclight just opened in Bethesda as has Ipic.  Between those, the Landmark theaters, the Angelika, and the AFI Silver, we in the DC area have plenty of choices that offer more than the traditional multiplex.  We have access to film festivals, independent cinema and documentaries here.   How much can I really complain?

We and others with similar access must take advantage of our opportunities.   We must also do our part to shape the conversation.  The franchise films will always have a disproportionately large share of the spotlight.  But those of us that love all kinds of films should use the Internet, social media, and even old-fashioned conversation to let people know about the smaller films, the ones that take chances.  I’m trying to do that in my own small way with the Cinema Lounge and my Adam’s Rib column.  You’ve been doing that in your many venues and through your blogs such as this one.  It’s been a privilege to be a part of your world.  Thank you, and I hope we can do it again.       


   

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Spring Review Part IV: Better Call Saul, Big Time in Hollywood FL, Fresh off the Boat

Better Call Saul (AMC) "Breaking Bad" was obviously a great show in later seasons, but it started out as an undiscovered gem and in its later seasons, the show was such a Goliath (as evidenced by the most boring Emmy Awards ceremony in history) that proclaiming its greatness was a joyless exercise. For this reason, I'm generally a huge fan of sophomore series (Off the top of my head: Angel, Treme, Raising Hope, Futurama, American Dad) because they allow the creator to rework his magic with a different concept. Most importantly, the creator can win the critics over again on the show's own merits while simultaneously enjoying the breathing room that his last success granted him.


Like Gilligan's last show, the joy of "Better Call Saul" is watching a protagonist do amazing things with his fight-or-flight instinct when he's in a tight spot. Jimmy McGill is a man of many talents: He can work a crowd of senior citizens like River City's Harold Hill ("The Music Man") he can talk a drug kingpin down from a death sentence, he can MacGuyver his way to locating a family of white collar runaways and he can outlawyer a bunch of snooty guys in suits and ties.




The show began with an implicit tease that McGill would descend into amorality like Walter White, but McGill's relationship with his conscience is one that is seeming to take a more interesting route so far. McGill was never a do-gooder but we also learn during a date interrupted by sudden bouts of vomiting that he has a conscience he simply can't ignore even if he tries. The reluctance of Jimmy's morals and his attempts to split the difference is what make him a fascinating character.




The show also benefits from a strong ensemble cast that includes Michael "Lenny Kosnowski" McKean as Jimmy's older brother Chuck (another curious casting choice with a primarily comic actor) and Rhea Seehorn as Jimmy's ex (although theories have floated around that the two were always platonic) who has an enduringly sweet bond with him in the present. On top of that, the city of Albuquerque is a vivid character in the show as well. It's good to be back in the ABQ.




Big Time in Hollywood Florida (Comedy Central)- This black comedy is marginally a show about struggling film makers (a genre I hate outside of "Be Kind Rewind") and it was advertised as such but the characters' filmmaker background is mostly used as a framing device which is pretty tolerable.  Instead, this is mostly a show about tracks two young adult brothers in arrested development trying to outwit their parents' plans to kick them out of home and make them get jobs.





These guys certainly aren't rootable characters. For example, they don't treat their father with a whole lot of respect. This is partially understandable considering their dad is perennial punching bag Stephen Toblowsky, but it's indicative of the cartoonish broadness of these characters. This is a show that treats manslaughter with the gravity of Zach Morris getting in trouble with Principal Belding.


This show is essentially "Dumb and Dumber" meets the Coen Brothers with a mentally challenged sidekick to complement the stupidy of the main characters.




On the whole, it's watchable but tonally can feel a little sloppy. It can best be described as an acquired taste.




Fresh off the Boat (ABC)-The show is simultaneously a throwback to TGIF family-style sitcoms of the '90s with a modern edginess to it in the vein of "Everybody Hates Chris" or "Malcolm in the Middle." More than those two shows, however, the show approaches 90's sitcoms with an ironic self-consciousness without omitting that genuine sweetness that those sitcoms were known for. More often than not, 11-year-old protagonist Eddie Huang learns a lesson in a round about way.


Oh, and did I mention this show centers around a family of Taiwanese immigrants? That was pretty much the main selling point of the show and it's the first thing anyone knows about the show.  Considering it's been 20 years since an Asian-American family has been on TV ("All-American Girl" with Margaret Cho),  the novelty factor of being transported to an Asian-American household for a half-hour is exotic enough to give this show a reason to exist.


Fortunately, however, the show is more than that. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan infuses the plots with labyrinthine storylines that are reminiscent of the looniness she brought to the sitcom with "Don't Trust the B----." Randall Park and Constance Wu are both ridiculously fun to watch and the show serves as a great crash course on what living in 1995 was like: Shaq, 90's rap, lunchables, and the OJ Simpson trial all make appearances here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spring Round-Up Part III: Garfunkel and Oates, Comedians, 12 Monkeys, Bates Motel

Twelve Monkeys (SyFy)-Based on the Terry Gilliam film of the same name, this loopy time travel series got my attention out of the gate. It had a premise that kept me eagerly awaiting the next plot turn despite the fact that it's based on a story I'm already familiar with.

Aaron Stratford (Pyro from the X-Men) plays Bruce Willis' role of Cole and gets the dazed and confused stature of the action hero down (which isn't particularly far off from the war-weary and jaded thing he's going for). The chemistry between him and Dr. Railly (Amanda Schull) and Stratford has a certain electricity to it despite the fact that they aren't romantically intertwined (as of Episode 10, at least). They do a lot with wayward glances which makes a scene like Cole's attempts to dance at a cocktail party a lot less cringeworthy than originally written.

Credit: Cnet.com
Slowing down this romance is Railly's off-and-on-again boyfriend/fiancée who goes from disbeliever to uneasy ally. Part of this might have to do with the sort of trippy quasi-love triangle they're in wherein one side might have some extra special motivation to ensure that the other side gets erased from time although this isn't acknowledged (which is kind of weird).  Emily Hampshire (the MVP of Schitt's Creek, pictured right) plays the Brad Pitt character with a wild manic energy that's worthy of more of my adoration.


Unfortunately, the series gets bogged down in the middle episodes with plot lines set in the future outside of Cole that don't resonate. Dr. "Not Indiana" Jones gets into a power struggle with a faction that wants to cure the virus rather than do the whole time travel assassination thing. This virus cure strategy aligns more with the plot of the original movie but it's nowhere near as exciting as assassination via time travel, so what's the point? Even more questionable is the choice to add a subplot about Ramse's ex-lover and newly discovered child. This is way too much screen time to give to a character who exists primarily as a side character and confidante to Cole. This would be like if "It's a Wonderful Life" interrupted the main plot to bother us with story lines about Clarence and his domestic squabbles in Heaven.


The primary purpose of setting scenes in the future in the film was to provide the backstory and showcase Terry Gilliam's aesthetic which this show can't compete with. The scenes set in the present from Dr. Railly's point of view where she has highly imperfect information over what/where/when will happen next is when the series is at its best so let's hope we see more of the show set there. The show is still very enjoyable despite its complex plot and unpleasant deviations and I'm only at Episode 10, so let's hope things right themselves by the end of the season.


Garfunkel and Oates (IFC)-The brainchild of two actors that met each other performing at the UCB theater, Garfunkel and Oates originated from a song and dance act of two girls singing plain and dirty truths set to sweet harmonies and ukuleles. The musical numbers are undeniably catchy but there's nothing beyond that that isn't already being done by better acts that came along first. The first comparison that will come to mind is "Flight of the Concords" which is pretty unflattering considering that G & O does such a poor job of shoehorning their songs into plots.

Other than that, we have unflattering comparisons to "Broad City" in that the leads are two dense ladies with questionable abilities to navigate adulthood in a codependent relationship with each other. If not for "Broad City," there's also the "Live Prude Girls" web series (starring the AT&T girl) and Grace Helbig doing the dense girl shtick solo.

I'm not suggesting that these two actresses are falling short of the admirable goal of finding their voice and translating it into sitcom form. It's just that they have the awful luck of having a voice that's eerily similar to a number is shows already out there and what little there is that differentiates Garfunkel and Oates from Broad City or Live Prude Girls is a very small slice of demographic pie.

[Update: I watched a couple more episodes. The one with Ari Graynor is pretty solidly written]

The Comedians (FX)-Even if we admire the execution of shows like Louie, Episodes, Comeback,  Curb Your Enthusiasm, Life is Short  or The Michael J Fox Show we need to stop celebrating the same tired concept of a comedian or actor playing a thinly veiled version of his or herself. It comes off as vain and is becoming ad overused a genre as vampires are for teens.  At least Michael Judge or Jon Favreau had the creative decency to channel their creative frustrations into metaphors like tech start ups or cooking. To make matters worse: Billy Crystal already mined this territory in Mr. Saturday Night. For someone who's primarily known as a last minute resort for Oscar hosting with the same shtick he's been doing since the 90s, you would think he would use an opportunity like this to do something more inventive. On the plus side,  underrated character actress Stephanie Weir is now employed for a while. 

[Update: I only watched the first episode]

Bates Motel (A & E)-I was incredibly pleased with this show over the first two seasons. Who would've thought that Hitchcock's most action-oriented film could be adapted into one of the best mood pieces on TV. This is like Dawson's Creek or another small town teenage drama except with a lot more rape,  arson,  manslaughter, corruption,  schizophrenia, and outright murder. But it's still a mood piece with a strong sense of place,  deep characters and great performances.

The problem if that the show might have run out of mileage by now. The reveal that Norman has a habit of losing his marbles has already happened, we already know Mama Bates is creepy, the town's dirty,  and we've already seen Norman fall in love and murder someone twice (On the subject of his murdering: Shouldn't he be put in a mental institution by now?) What's there left for the show to do?  

From what I've seen of this season,  they're now pairing him off with a new love interest in Emma and more shady people are rolling into town. Neither of these things are new. I'm not suggesting the show needs to shift it's identity but rather reconsider whether the show will have diminishing returns from here on out. I'm not saying "Let's cancel the show!" but there are some obstacles in place that need to be worked out if the show is going to tread in the same direction.

For other editions of my Spring 2015 review:
Part I: Glee, Togetherness, Last Man on Earth, Archer
Part II: Schitt's Creek, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Librarians 
Still to come: Daredevil, Better Call Saul, Fresh off the Boat, Empire, and possibly Modern Family, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Empire, and Silicon Valley

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Spring 2015 Roundup Part II-Schitt's Creek, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Librarians

The Librarians (TNT)-This show is reminiscent of the syndicated series I grew up with like "Sinbad: The Seven Seas" and "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" but times have changed and the show's attempts at building some grand mythology pale in comparison to the kinds of fantasy and historical fiction that TV is producing these days. 

The plot of "The Librarians" is so vague, it almost seems as if it was was created by a pair of hyperactive 9 year olds who were stuck in the library one day with nothing to do but let their imaginations run wild.  "Oooh, and let's pretend the librarian has a magical sword that flies!" "Oooh Oooh  and they have a secret portal to the minotaur castle!" 

Even the level of character development seems like it was written by kids. The thief character has absolutely no development beyond being a thief who lives thieving. He also has a cockney accent which is as lazy a characterization as you can get (Rattling off awful action films that use this trope: "Mortal Kombat", "Fast and Furious", "LXG" and "Tomb Raider"). We also have an exotic looking bad girl with a British accent and an inexplicable willingness to hurl herself at the good guys expecting different results along with henchmen that come straight from the "Mighty Morphing Power Rangers" school of attack. It similarly takes a special lack of competence to put Rebecca Romaijn alongside someone like Noah Wyle and produce so little sexual chemistry. 

If there's any fun to be had,  it's watching pros like Jane Curtin and John Larroquette dive into such inanity as if it's Shakespeare. To the show's credit, it has some self-awareness of its cheeky nature, but there's no harm in actually making the show good on its own merits.



Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)-There’s an old saying that comedy is tragedy from distance. Distance, however, can refer not just to the passing of time but the closeness of the viewer to the bad event in question. Wile E Coyote falling off a cliff, for example, would be a lot less funny if there were realistic close-ups of his blood splattering across the desert floor. 

Likewise, one has to wonder why Tina Fey and Robert Carlock made the odd choice to give the central character in this “Naïve Midwesterner Strikes out in the Big City” tale such a traumatic backstory. To recap, the titular Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) is a woman who was kidnapped as a young teenager by a psychotic pastor and trapped in an underground bunker for 15 years and subjected to “weird sex stuff.” This isn’t too much of a problem considering the talents of the writers to sidestep the whole probable PTSD issue and keep the tone comic. As the story arced toward the trial at season’s end, one just has to wonder why the season chose such a bleak starting point as the baseline.



Other than that and a highly irritating theme song (which I realize was deliberately annoying, but still), there’s little else to complain about here. Casting Ellie Kemper (the only actress who seemed like she was trying in the latter seasons of “The Office”) as the spunky and naïve lead is a no-brainer but the selection of Carol “Mrs. Latka Gravas” Kane and Tituss Burgess are both strokes of inspiration. Burgess previously appeared in “30 Rock” as the one-notiest of oharacters in flamboyant fame seeker D’Fwan on the show-within-a-show “Queen of Jordan.” Although the D’Fwan character’s flatness was part of the joke, it’s still surprising to see Tituss’s new character follow the same outlines as the old character and be expanded so richly.  Similarly, Carol Kane has never been on 30 Rock, but her comic gifts have always seemed like the perfect fit for the Tina Fey world as a batty old woman with clear Ashkenazi Jewish leanings whose paranoia and shady past are optimized for some of the show’s best quotes.
Credit: GeekBinge

Similarly, Fey and Carlock continue to mine humor out of the absurdly rich with Jane Krakowski as the polar opposite of financially normal.

If anyone’s given short shrift on this show, it’s the love interests (oh, and also the teenage daughter).  Love was never taken seriously on “30 Rock” beyond a superficial plot device that was always acknowledged with a playful wink. Jack Donaghy cycled through love interests in a way that rendered nothing beyond his courtship relevant, and I’ve never been convinced that Liz ended up with Kris for any reason other than that was who he happened to be with when the show ended its run. Similarly, Kimmy cycles through approximately three boyfriends with the first one getting shipped on a bus and the third one (one of the few interracial Asian/American pairings on screen) lacking in chemistry although they did get a lot of mileage out of the dong jokes.

The first season had a number of endearing plot lines as Kimmy found a place, a best friend, and a job in fairly short order.  
 
Schitts Creek (POP TV)– A fish out of water story between an absurdly rich family stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Co-created by Christopher Guest staple Eugene Levy and son Dan Levy, the series is highly watchable and gets a lot of mileage out of a winning premise.

What’s odd, however, is how little of the world is fleshed out. Part of this is intentional (like Springfield with “The Simpsons” or Camden with “My Name is Earl”, Schitt’s Creek could be a stand-in for anywhere) but specificity couldn’t hurt in a small-town comedy like this.
Similarly, the Rose family has a lot of blanks that no one seems to care about filling in. 

Credit: Variety
They’re not just wealthy but wealthy to the point of absurdity. The unrealistic arrested development of their kids is reminiscent of “Step Brothers” where there are expectations that you’ll suspend your disbelief about how people can get that old and know so little about the world. When Dave needs to get a job, he asks if there are any openings in this small town for art curating. 

An effeminate brat who’s likely gay but is restricted to asexuality at the moment (possibly because sex would get in the way of his daily sulking rituals), Dave is the weakest character on the show in that we know only what he doesn’t like (being around his sister, the town, daylight) and not what drives him. He would be more at home in the bratty teen comedies of the late 90s than he would in Doc Hollywood. The only thing that interests him is the equally sarcastic hotel worker (Emily Hampshire, MVP of the show) who bonds with him through their mutual love of being jaded adolescents (which, again, seems awkward considering he’s over 30).
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Alexis makes out a little better as she transitions from a rich boyfriend to a local love interest gives her some reluctant interest in blending into the town [Ed.note: She now has a second local love interest which indicates that she might just be capricious and easily attachable].

Chris Elliott finds his footing here as the kind of oddball sitcom character that would only exist in a quirky world like this. Maybe it's just me because I saw more Chris Elliott in the '90s than any other decade, but I would have trouble seeing Elliott in a comedy without that old-school quirkiness as opposed to something set in the present day. On the whole, it's still an entertaining show and I'd be on board for a second season.



Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Me and Adam Spector Discuss TV vs Movies Part II

My friend Adam Spector keeps a column on film here and leads a film discussion group in DC every month. I've attended the group but I recently confessed to Adam that I like television a lot more these days which sparked the idea that we should settle the argument once and for all on my blog. This is part two of our no-holds-barred (True fact: I've never typed those words before on a screen, they look much funnier in this format) battle of wits between two intellectual giants with a lot of free time on their hands.

Part I was here and before presenting Part II, I will post the last few lines of Adam's post:
"But there’s still nothing like sitting in a movie theater, having the light go down, and being totally immersed in a film.  No cell phones and no distractions.  Just you and the movie. 

Orrin, you and I have both noted the talent that has worked in TV.  But many of them, including Scorsese, Fincher, McConaughey and Spacey also work in film.  They haven’t focused on one at the expense of the other, and neither should we. "

Round II
Orrin-- That's true that TV in the 1950's was a significant threat to the movies as box office receipts dropped. It's also a fitting parallel that just like JJ Abrams and Joss Wheedon ascending to the elite as movie directors rather quickly, so did John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and Sidney Lumet after cutting their teeth in television.

But I think there's a key difference. TV didn't threaten the movies by being a superior art form. They threatened movies simply by existing and being novel. TV was actually behind the times in terms of quality. While films were getting risque with "The Seven Year Itch" and "Pillow Talk" (and well over a decade after "Gilda" "The Big Sleep" and "Double Indemnity"), TV's most progressive show at the time, "I Love Lucy" shied away from even suggesting that a husband and wife could sleep in the same bed. In the interim "Leave it to Beaver" and "Andy Griffith Show" (which debuted in 1960) reinforced conservative American family values while Douglas Sirk was tearing the image of the American family apart in films like "Imitation of Life" and "Written on the Wind." And that's not to mention other 50's films like "Splendor in the Grass," "Searchers," "Three Faces of Eve," "Salt of the Earth," "Defiant Ones," and "Night of the Hunter" that deal with murder, racism, mental illness, the red scare and economic depression. As the code was being broken in the movies, it was being reinforced on TV.

Movies evolved by innovating. They tried some nutty ideas like smell-a-scope and 3-D but more to the point, cinema also evolved through delivering what TV couldn't: Epics. "Ben-Hur", "Ten Commandments" and "Lawrence of Arabia" were all highly successful films that came about in the decade after TV started to hit homes and couldn't be replicated on the small screen particularly easily. It also seems that talent always had something to do with the equation. I mentioned last time we met that I thought Blake Edwards defined the '60s as a director and was responsible for my favorite films of that decade. If we had one less Blake Edwards, film would have been changed.

While you mention that many talents navigate both film and television, I can't help but feel TV talent might be exerting a toll on film. If you check Kathy Bates' filmography, she's pretty exclusively in TV and Jane Fonda, who hasn't been very prolific as an actress since the '80s, has devoted her time to "The Newsroom" and her upcoming Netflix project. Similarly, another talented actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has nothing on her slate after acting in "The Honourable Woman." Actors have the freedom to navigate both mediums nowadays but they might choose TV over film when making a decision and become known as a TV actor like Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer or Julia Louis-Dreyfus and that makes TV more glamorous.

You're right that moviedom isn't dead and I'm not suggesting good movies aren't out there. I think a smaller percentage of movies that are released are worth watching as opposed to a decade ago, but I'm not suggesting that movies as a medium are dead. I'm wondering though what's left in filmdom's bag of tricks. What's their 3-D/cinemascope grand plan? (I'm just remembering as I typed that last sentence that 3-D movies are back in style these days). In that sense, television might be a greater threat to movies today because TV is innovating faster than movies in everything from economics (With ITunes and TV on Demand, the pay models are evolving whereas movies are forced to ride demand out with increasing ticket prices and ridiculously priced concessions) to the actual content itself.

Adam – You have caught me at a bad time Orrin.  It’s growing more difficult to defend cinema in the face of articles such as “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA” (http://flavorwire.com/492985/how-the-death-of-mid-budget-cinema-left-a-generation-of-iconic-filmmakers-mia) and “The Birdcage: How Hollywood’s Toxic (and Worsening) Addiction to Franchises Changed Movies Forever in 2014” (http://grantland.com/features/2014-hollywood-blockbusters-franchises-box-office).  In the latter article, Mark Harris writes that “In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.”  It’s probably not a coincidence that the late Mike Nichols did not direct a movie for the last seven years of his life.  It’s growing more and more difficult for filmmakers to make non-franchise character driven films unless they are able to do so with a very small budget.  Younger filmmakers just starting out can do this, but for older, more established, filmmakers sometimes it’s just not worth it.  That’s why, as you have noted and the Flavorwire article describes, more of the established filmmakers are turning to TV.    

We differ in that I often enjoy franchise films.  As I noted before, the last Captain America film was a smart thriller and Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun ride.  I can’t wait for the next Bond movie and eagerly gobbled up the trailer for the new Star Wars film.  But it’s frightening to realize that Hollywood’s reliance on these films can crowd out everything else. 

I have recently been studying some of the greatest film years in the '70s.  The first Star Wars film debuted in 1977 as did the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, but so did Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar.  Two years later brought the start of the Alien and Mad Max franchises, but also Being There, Norma Rae, and The China Syndrome.   Let’s look at the best of the '90s.  In 1997 Titanic, the biggest blockbuster of all, came out along with Men in Black.  But so did L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights and Eve’s BayouThe Matrix franchise launched in 1999, but it was joined by American Beauty, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Insider.  At Hollywood’s best, there was room for all.  Are those days gone?

You described the studios’ response to the TV threat in the 1950s.  It’s eerie how similar the response is today.  Back then, films eagerly embraced 3-D technology.   Today, most blockbusters are done in 3-D.  In the 50s it was Cinemascope, today it’s IMAX.   Plenty of biblical films then, and this year we had Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.  The other major response comes from the theaters, which are increasingly offering plush accommodations, a wider variety of concessions, and the ability to pick your seat.  

Innovation flourishes more easily on TV, with its greater array of platforms, than it does on TV.  But, even there, we need to specify matters a bit.  There’s no doubting that cable networks, Netflix and Amazon offer much greater freedom then Hollywood studios.  However, on network TV, sports events dominate the ratings leaders.  Mindless reality shows still abound.  Networks have also tried to go back to their past, with live specials such as “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.”

Of course most TV networks and Hollywood studios are owned by the same huge multinational corporations.  They can spread franchises, such as the Avengers and Star Wars over both TV and movies.   You and I both talk about movies vs. TV, but every day there is less difference between the two mediums. 

With all of that, I try to remain hopeful.  Maybe it’s my lifelong love of cinema, or maybe it’s just naiveté, but I can still find reasons to go to the movies.  While TV takes more chances than most movies do, I already cited the exciting, groundbreaking work of Richard Linklater and the Alejandro González Iñárritu this year.  Another example is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which used 3-D not as a gimmick, but a method for a new kind of immersive storytelling.   Unfortunately, actresses “of a certain age” have always had problems getting good film roles.  But I’m encouraged that Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore, and Susan Sarandon still appear on the silver screen regularly.


In the end though, it’s up to us: The viewers.  Hollywood always follows the money.  If we only go to the big franchise films, studios will have every reason to continue down their current path.  If we want filmmakers to take chances, if we want thought-provoking films made for adults, then we need to support those films with our ticket-buying dollars.  So see Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, Wild and Foxcatcher and do not just wait for those films to come out on DVD or appear on TV.  If we do not support the films we say we want to see, then we can only blame ourselves if those films disappear from our theaters.