Monday, August 13, 2018

8 More of my Favorite Journalism Stories

Pedestrian Bridge Anniversary-Falls Church News Press

Over the years, editors have sent my stories that I’ve found superfluous but a job’s a job. If anything, I like churning out stories I personally am not invested in, because it allows me to make the case that I’m not an avant-garde Bohemian just following my own personal whims. It’s also worth taking stories you aren’t interested because you often can be surprised by how interesting a story can be when you dig into it.

In this case, the story was about a pedestrian bridge that was completed 25 years ago. The story was submitted to the editor by one of the people instrumental in creating the bridge (which reeks of self-promotion) and didn’t even bother to peg it to a current angle. I met the guy and was impressed that he, like so many people in Falls Church, was passionate about civic participation. He made the process of getting the rights-of-way and coordinating with different agencies about the bridge sound interesting. In terms of the news peg, he told me that he was going to put up a balloon to commemorate the 25th anniversary which didn’t seem like an actual thing as far as news is concerned: A person can’t just say I’m throwing a party for the express purpose of having the newspaper capture it. We at least want to believe it’s an actual party that has a reason for existence other than press coverage. But I did believe that this person did genuinely think that putting up the balloon was an act in its own right.

In fact, I decided, even after I turned in this story, to go to the bridge for the celebration and see if more people would show up and about three of the other people instrumental  to the original project were there too. I was flabbergasted. I did not actually think that there would be one person who was passionate about this bridge when, in fact, there were four people!

Possible Termination of DACA Amnesty Program Causes Community to Rally-Falls Church News Press

This is one of the most comprehensive and most significant social-impact stories I’ve done and it definitely involved interviewing a lot of people. I was most proud of weaving together a number of elements to present a localized tapestry of this important issue. My story also was helped by having a guy feed me great quotes: Lawyer Simon Sandoval-Mosheberg who was passionate, forceful and articulate. Sometimes good articles get great assists.

CITI Open-Current Newspapers

A friend of mine from a course I took at GMU got appointed to be the editor of Current Newspapers and he was looking for articles (Lesson: Keep in touch with your fellow journalism students).

I had been a spectator at the CITI open for years. Not a humongous tennis aficionado but it’s fun to watch live tennis and it’s a good event. This past year, I was there on the first day of the main draw when there was a torrential downpour that delayed festivities for six hours. People were forced to wait around because refunds couldn’t be issued until the game was officially declared. Seeing the people around me in various states of frustration and knowing that the weather forecast was rain, rain, rain and more rain, I decided to pitch it.

The very next day, I was fortunate to get media credentials. As someone who had been a spectator for years, I felt like I was getting a VIP treatment. In addition to being able to sit wherever I wanted (within reason), having extra printouts and access to the press rooms, I could also see the athletes lounges, attend press conferences with athletes (press conferences are where the most newspaper-y stuff goes down in a juicy way), and was treated to free meals while I was on the site. Considering the pay we get in journalism is rarely a living wage, I personally think these perks are not just something we can accept free of guilt but something that’s somewhat necessary to make the wage sustainable. It enables a newspaper to attract a better quality of freelance reporter if they knew they’re going to get on-site catering and free tickets to the events. And we earn our pay through the articles we write and strict vetting procedures.

In any case, my story was nearly pulled at the end of the event due to feelings by people on site that I was writing too negative of a story and my editor almost pulled the article. However, I immediately dropped what I was doing when I heard the news and went on site to assuage all parties on site over whatever concerns they had and smoothed things out but it was scary in the middle. A lesson here is it’s always possible to smooth things over though you cannot allow access to your story. It also helps if an editor backs you. What I loved most about the final copy of this story (although the editing still needs touching up) is that it captures such a wide tapestry and paints a scene of this sense of frustration at something that’s not easily fixable. Tournaments generally can’t change course that quickly and their directors only have so many resources to fix things on the fly.  But more importantly, rain just happens. (this article wasn't edited the way I suggested it should be written and hopefully it will be fixed at some point)

Is Being in a Symphony Orchestra Anything Like Mozart in the Jungle-DCist/Gothamist

One of those experiences where you start to get butterflies (from excitement) in your stomach for weeks before the interview. I've long had a distant fascination with what it must be like to be a classical musician, working tirelessly to improve your musicality by 0.002% to be able to edge out another similar sounding oboist in an audition to get that job security. The extremely exciting TV show "Mozart in the Jungle" and subsequent book awakened that interest and gave me an immediate idea. Fortunately, the editor was also a fan of the show which helped get it greenlit immediately.

Unlike a couple of other interviews of high-profile people that were administered directly by PR people with time constraints, the natural rapport between me and the two NSO musicians became so well-established that any sense of constraint quickly evaporated. We soon became three people engaged in a casual but deeply informative conversation and when the time limit was up, no one really minded continuing.

This would have all been a great experience EXCEPT for one awful stroke of luck. My new recorder did not work. I generally take notes and record but I don't always have the capacity to write word-for-word when the recorder is on to preserve the flow of the conversation. I ended up having a couple back and forths with the PR officer of the NSO and some of the lines got cut. On the bright side, I got positive comments and actually gained a fan in Blair Tindall herself who wrote the freaking book that "Mozart in the Jungle" is based on, as well as the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra (a line in my interview references whether I would tell the difference between the NSO and Pensacola).

Arlington’s Other Cemetery-Northern Virginia Magazine

Some articles take a long time to materialize and you put them on your back burner. This is one example. I originally got the idea for the article from a guidance counselor who had a strong interest in local affairs. He thought I should write a story about a guy named Ned Thomas who runs a local cemetery. He didn’t know it but Ned was my next-door neighbor. The Thomas family moved in towards the end of my college education and I never got to know them too well, but I stopped by the cemetery and found some fascinating facts. Columbia Gardens Cemetery was initially founded in 1917 to receive the overfill of Arlington Cemetery, but that plan never came to fruition. Instead, the cemetery remained in private hands with one family continuously serving as the caretaker for four generations. This particularly family goes back nine generations in Arlington County and has a history that is even intertwined with Robert E Lee.

The article was originally researched in 2013 and pulled because the original subject of the article was nearing retirement and didn't want the status of the cemetery publicized. When I called a couple years later, the new cemetery caretaker (Ned’s sister) was actually welcoming of publicity as she was planning for the 100 year anniversary. I also got an assist from a local cemetery historian who gave me a tour.

Blind Hockey Team-Falls Church News Press
Underwater Hockey Team-Northern Virginia Magazine

Another article that took a couple years to materialize was the GMU underwater hockey team and their sister club that comprises of adult players. Rather than explain this awesome and rare sport, why not show you a picture?
I read an article about how this obscure sport was being played at George Mason several years ago. When I took a journalism course in the Fall Semester of 2016 at GMU, I thought I'd check it out. The people offered me a lesson and the closest I got was watching the sport through a snorkel while people played in the next lane. But then tragedy struck! When I had most of my article complete, the members of the GMU team seemed to flake on me. I was thinking of making the 16-mile trip over to the campus to personally try to talk them back into cooperating for the finish of the article but let it go after a while. In a later stretch when I really needed an article and remembered how nice the offering pay was on this particular piece, I inquired again with the activities office and found out they had been suspended and wouldn't even be at the pool if I showed up there. Additionally, neither the sister club or GMU team had any web presence to speak of.

A couple months after that a lightbulb went off in my head. The Georgia Tech team was referenced in my article so why not contact Georgia Tech and find out what happened to GMU's team. I ended up on some national umbrella page with a link to a club that sounded similar to the old one. I ended up finding out that the old team (Beltway Bottom Feeders) rebranded as Capital Region Underwater Hockey and contacted them. The new president of the group was very amenable to continuing my story. I just turned it in three hours ago. 

In an unusual turn of events, this was my second story this year that focused on an unusual variation of hockey. I experienced something equally incredible in the wide world of sports this past Spring when I saw a group of blind people playing hockey. This particular story was assigned to me by the trusty FCNP.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Capsule Reviews of first 15 Films I saw in 2018

1. The Death of Stalin-This comic retelling of the aftermath of Stalin's death is at least five times better than anything else Armando Iannucci has ever done. To do crack-pace dialogue with Julia Louis Dreyfus in the present day sort of writes itself: Just take two parts Aaron Sorkin and add one part dysfunctional workplace comedy. To take your style of screenwriting and work it into one of the most historically villainous regimes in history while staying true to the real-life tics of historic characters and maintaining overall lightness required for a comedy is downright operatic.

2. Disobedience-Rachel Weisz stars as a Rabbi’s daughter returning to an Orthodox Jewish community that has shunned her because she has chosen not to adopt their austere lifestyle. The film has a brilliant pseudo-horror vibe with the voyeuristic looks that others gaze upon her with, as she sits with them at dinner or walks through the streets alongside them. The film is advertised as a film about a lesbian relationship, but it's really a film about free will because being in a pre-marital sexual relationship, dating a secular jew, even having secular Jews in your friend circle or getting an education all lead to the same end result of shunning anyways. Perhaps it’s my experience in this type of community, but the film is beautiful, spot-on, tense, sexy (spoiler: the two Rachels get it on) , and treats each of the three leads (Rachel McAdams and Allesandro Nivola) with the respect to round out their character arcs..

3. Tag-Nope, it’s not a drama on any level, but it’s ok to have popcorn comedies high on your lists. This is funny on every level. The timing of the jokes, the rounding out of character tics, the multiple layers of the jokes and the call backs all work. Like “It’s Always Sunny”, there’s a lot of humor where we get joy in watching adults act childish in front of baffled adults who just don’t know how to react to what they’re seeing. Only complaint in the humor department: The attempt to Sherlockize Jeremy Renner’s character wore out its welcome as a repeating joke. The film is also sentimental at just the right level and speaks to how growing old doesn’t mean you need to stop having fun. A good lesson to any critics who didn’t appreciate this film. 

4. Ocean’s 8-To the people who think it’s too much of a feminist statement or not enough of a feminist statement: Shut up, both of you! It’s just a good movie with a legitimate sense of tension and flow, and a good cast that it utilizes well (also, there isn’t really a wrong way to utilize Rihanna or Helena Bohnam Carter for that matter). Sandra Bullock isn’t someone I would think of as a self-assured cat burglar type but I liked the sentimentality she bought to the role. When she toasted to her brother’s grave, it was a more meaningful moment than anything in the original Ocean’s series which was really just an overt self-congratulations of smug rich actors and Soderbergh’s “look at how good of a director I am” flashy stuff. James Corden is perfect as a bumbling foil. I had a couple minor problems with how things unraveled, even after suspending my disbelief and going with the absurdity of it all.

5. Leave No Trace-Best described as a less pretentious “Captain Fantastic”. Ben Foster, an underrated actor, plays a guy ill-at-ease with mainstream life so he lives off the grid with his daughter. The movie twists and turns in a few unexpected places and each of those defines the enigmatic protagonist better without revealing too much about him.

6. Ant Man-For someone who never cared about "The Avengers" or "Captain America", there was a distasteful amount of catch-up involved but nothing detrimental for me enjoying this film that largely remembers it's about summer fun and not extended mythology. Paul Rudd is so solid at playing a "cool dad" type that I wouldn't be surprised if a whole generation of young viewers viewing him as the new archetype. The film works in humor at an extremely organic level and for that alone, I'd be extremely comfortable recommending this film to anyone who has been searching in vain for that comic action film that captures the feeling of the original "Indiana Jones" or "Star Wars" franchise. This is especially true for the micro-microscopic universe which had the feeling of a 1950's B-movie. Credit has to also go for TI, David Dastmalchian (ironically, TI is named David while Dastmalchian is named Kurt, how confusing), and Michael Pena which have graduated from background noise in this movie to a genuinely entertaining band of side kicks. 

7. Tomb Raider-Alicia Vikander and Anjelina Jolie both have the same number of Oscars, but as far as I can tell, Anjelina Jolie was mostly sold to audiences in the 2000s like waitresses at Hooters are sold to potential diners. I’m a sucker for archeological jungle adventures and while the McGuffin was ridiculously weak, the Alicia Vikander character was progressive without being obnoxious, compelling, and was a unique style of action star (mainly crashing into objects with minimal impact). The races and set pieces were pretty solid.

8. Black Panther-The hype and much of the cheering from the left was pretty annoying considering it was a pretty nuanced film about the dangers of not being militaristic in your civil rights movement. In other words, the film was more nuanced than what people were taking from the films. There were good and bad white and black guys, after all. I thought the plot stretched a bit thin, but the narrative flowed smoothly from point to point so not a lot of wasted space while still doing a lot of world-building. The Afro-futurism angle is just a cool hook simply from the perspective of reimagining a world that’s so different but kind of plausible. Congo, for example, has natural resources found nowhere else in the world; the natural healing powers of African shaman medicine has been better than Western medicine in some points in history.

9. Set It Up-Up until the last 20 minutes, this much-praised romantic comedy is formulaic but watchable. In the last 20 minutes it finds a way to upend itself without being cheap or forced and that’s when it sticks with you much longer. Zooey Deutsch is a bit cutesy but she checks the boxes of a progressive feminist cheerleader so the critics are on board. Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs play strong villains and Pete Davidson (currently getting a lot of attention for being in the most high-profile relationship in SNL history) is surprisingly decent.

10. Ibiza-Every plot point here abides by the formula of “group of guys/women go wild and lose themselves for a night” and it’s getting slightly old. Despite a complete lack of anything original, it’s a good showcase for the three actresses.

11. Ready Player One-Like the “Transformers” franchise, it’s about shiny manly toys for the most part and doesn’t really sketch out this vision of the future as much as I would have liked but it’s a fairly compelling story. It’s definitely of a go-big-or-go-home style of Spielbergian artistry without it being awful. I have a feeling I’ll look back on this a while and find it even less memorable.

12. Red Sparrow-A bit gruesome and repetitive but a largely coherent plot and less nihilistic than the female spy thriller I saw last year “Atomic Blonde.” Spy thrillers like these often have too many twists and turns and that can lose viewers at light speed, so that this was a coherent story is a major accomplishment. I also imagine a master’s level sociology thesis can be written about everything this movie has to say about sexuality and society. 

13. Racer and the Jailbird-I thought this was a sexy action film. Instead it’s a dark film about a couple who both go through extended periods of chronic illness and incarceration. Just a sad, sad story. This might be unfair to judge the film based on the package of information available to the viewer before the film, but if I was prepared for a sad story, my assessment might be different. At the same time, I do believe the film was legitimately depressing without having more of profound approach.

14. Game Night-I hardly see a reason to justify this film’s existence. A couple (Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman) like playing games? That’s the hook? The violent take on comedy has been done a million times and it just feels tacked on here. The “when is this real, when isn’t this real” tension is stripped of its meeting when we know the plot is “thing that they think isn’t real becomes real.”

15. A Whisper in Time-This children’s film doesn’t treat its mythology as something worth caring about yet asks us to endure excruciatingly boring technobabble about said non-interesting mythology. The film is too tonally bizarre and its character dynamics too uninteresting to care about anything at all that’s happening on screen. Maybe we should just admit that Ava DuVerney (despite being a woman of color, yay!) is just not that good of a film maker.
Selma" was "important" but not particularly captivating.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Non-current Films I've Seen: Flash Reviews of Maps to the Stars, Gifted, Perks of Being a Wall Flower

Maps to the Stars (2014)-I watched this because I remember it coming out the year that Julianne Moore won her Oscar for the other film she was in (Still Alice). I also distinctly remember this being in the comedy/musical category of the Golden Globes, but wait, this film is directed by David Cronenberg?! Did he decide to mix things up and direct a light-hearted comedy? Nope, this is a macabre, twisted story and the Hollywood Foreign Press got it wrong as usual.

This film is extremely similar tonally to both Robert Altman's The Player and David Lynch's Mullholland Drive in deriving not just satire but genuine horror at the shallowness that pervades Hollywood life. Julianne Moore plays a has-been actress who isn't necessarily malicious but she's pretty soulless in her desperate quest for relevance. She's paralleled by a self-help guru, played by John Cusack, who's son (Evan Bird) is an extremely bratty child actor. There's also an opportunistic burn victim who represents the ingeneue looking to make her mark on Hollywood (think Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street if she chanted Wiccan prayers whenever she passed along the Hollywood Walk of Fame). The only halfway decent character might be the limo driver played by Robert Pattinson although he comes off as a little devoid. There's also a Hollywood director who will trade parts for sex, an entire clique of vapid child stars who enable Evan Bird's character, and a rival for a part that displays the kind of shallow flattery that lets us know in an instant just how fake this town is.

Like "The Player" which shifts gears midway from its broad ensemble satire to the perfect crime; or "Mullholland Drive" which segues to a Lesbian love story than a mobius strip; this film's satirical elements get overwhelmed midway for a more gruesome tragedy which makes the ending feel like something that's been tacked on to cover a superfluous detour from what was originally a better film.

Gifted (2017)-What a wonderful gem of a film. McKenna Grace (who was also in I Tonya AND How to be a Latin Lover in the same year, what a busybody of an 11 year old) plays a math prodigy who's mother committed suicide due to trying too hard to being a math genius. Her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan, the nasty critic in Birdman) was also a math genius and tries to get her granddaughter's custody so she can put her in "service to humanity" solving big math problems. On the other side of this custody hearing is McKenna's uncle who is an incredibly handsome and free-spirited Chris Evans. When he talks about how he went to go get laid the night that his sister committed suicide, it comes off as an odd humble brag.

No worries, Chris Evans isn't just a piece of meat. He's very solid here and his relationship to his niece carries a whollop of sentiment. This is also the first time I've really liked Jenny Slate, and the two are so cute together. I couldn't imagine Jenny Slate being a teacher somewhere and not having half the dads on parent-teacher night not massively crushing on her.

This is a film that is about the kinds of issues with genius, parenting, and growing up in an untraditional environment that you don't see often enough and the film has done its homework on these issues. It's also rare to see a film portrayed so richly from a child's point of view.

Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)-If your favorite off-the-grid indie rock band that you like to gloat about at parties because only you know about them were anthropomorphized into a film about the teenage experience, you'd get this film about a teenage outcast who's magically rescued from having to sit alone in lunch (the horror!) by a manic pixie dream set of siblings (MPDG played by Emma Watson and MPD Gay Best Friend played by Ezra Miller) who don't seem to have any basis in reality. That they would bond with him so instantaneously and unconditionally is a bit off as is the fact that they are step-siblings who voluntarily spend that much time with each other. Were they best friends first who parent-trapped their respective mom and dad?

Logan Lerman, who one year prior played Renaissance France's greatest heartthrob, D'artagnan in the Three Musketeers remake, plays the ugly duckling but he's not particularly convincing. He's obviously good looking so he comes off as a broody James Dean type instead. Perhaps if his part were switched with Ezra Miller, then we'd be getting somewhere.

Lerman's character, Charlie, plays into every stereotype for an indie hero: Wanna be writer, self-realization through indie music, crushing hard on an unattainable girl, etc. While the film has enough verisimilitude to the teenage experience to make it engaging, that doesn't mean that Charlie is by any means original.

Attempting to parse out a dense novel into a two-hour film shouldn't be this hard considering the writer of the novel is the screenwriter and director, but there seem to be a lot of threads that are massively under-resolved. Charlie deals with schizophrenia and black-outs and a molestation story line that all gets so little screen time that since it comes off as an afterthought that was thrown into the script, it takes away from the gravity of any of these serious issues the film is trying to pull us through.

He also has a sister (Vampire Diaries' Nina Dobrev) who's interesting but she has so little screentime, she might as well have been cut to tighten the narrative, and there's a brother too but uh,, what? I don't even remember that character anymore.

In terms of tangent, the film is best served by realizing that Charlie isn't the most interesting character in the story. Patrick's (the manic pixie gay best friend) love affair with a closeted jock or the reveal that Emma Watson's character, Sam, is trying to overcome a past of sexual abuse and promiscuity, are both lines that do get a mention here or there.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

My World Cup History, a quiz, and two articles of mine

The World Cup is here! I am not a year-round soccer watcher (sidenote: Does the AP style guide have any advice on soccer vs football if writing for an audience that is predominantly American?) but I have such a humongous history with this sporting event.

When I was in elementary school in 1994, my Nicaraguan housekeeper (a mother figure that I still keep in touch with to this day) first lived in our house when she came over because we sponsored her Visa. I used to go to her room to use her TV because I never had one and we would watch the World Cup on her bed. One of the first things I learned in Spanish was the names of the 24 countries that were playing that year as well as terms like "tierra de esquina" (corner kick). And of course, Andreas Cantor's famous "Gooooooooolll!."

In 1998, as I was approaching high school, my parents sent me down to live with my grandparents for the summer in the Florida Keys and we would watch the World Cup every day. There was a language barrier between us because my grandparents were born in Iran which was ironic because the US and Iran played that year. My grandparents also lived in Germany for several years and Germany was in the US-Iran group. I still remember nearly every score and group drawing of that year twenty years later.

In 2002 when the World Cup was in South Korea and Japan, I studied abroad in Mexico which took sports spectatorship to a new level. I would be awakened on days that Mexico played at either 2 or 5 AM with pots and pans clanking and bells ringing as well as people running down the street. The results of every game from the second round on went the exact opposite of the way I wanted them to go. When US upset Mexico to make the quarterfinals, what might have been nice if I was in the US at the time suddenly became tragic. I also hated South Korea, Turkey, England and Brazil and those were the teams that won everything.
In 2010, I was inspired by the World Cup to start playing pickup soccer which became a hobby of sorts for at least a couple years.

I recently wrote two articles previewing the World Cup for the Weekly Standard and have been invited to pitch at Slate and probably can pitch again for the Weekly Standard so let's see if I can write some more.

In the interim, enjoy this quiz I made of players who have scored four or more goals since 1998. It's a good way to catch up on recent World Cup history

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Crashing Seaon Finale Review: Roast Battle

Oh, my arodably na├»ve Pete Holmes. You thought that stand-up comedy was all hearts and bunnies and you’d never face the fact that your potential success would often equate to someone else’s failure, didn’t you? And even worse, you were gullible enough to believe you’d never have to face those consequences with your girlfriend in the same field?

If Crashing is a late-in-life coming-of-age story, this week’s lesson is that for all its wonderful camaraderie, there’s an inescapable dog-eat-dog element of comedy. All of capitalism for that matter. And hey, if you want to minimize that kind of stuff, sure, but don’t go into a roast battle expecting to keep that blissful ignorance intact.
But while it’s bad for Pete’s romantic life and moral compass, it plays to one of the show’s main strengths which is give us a rose-tinted inside look into the world of comedy. The roast battle (where people insult one another for comic points) can seems like a mean-spirited exercise to outsiders, and it can seem like lazy comedy (if you see the same jokes being used regardless of the opponent). There is a faction, mostly led by Jeff Ross (who cameos in this episode as one of the judges), who sees it as a unique art and niche format within stand-up that’s worthy of expansion.

To give us the full roast experience, the show features snippets of people we don't know (I'm suspecting d-list friends of Holmes who enjoyed the free exposure here) doing their thing alongside Pete and Ally. Pete's first match first comes off as a pleasant-looking man who we soon learn is playing for blood. As soon as Leif and Jess show up, he barges into their conversation in an effort to get ammuunition to use against Pete. It's a funny moment that provides a world-building detail in a flash.

One can understand the roast’s appeal for an episode of this show. The nastiness of the process contrasts so well to Pete’s self-image as a nice guy with a firm set of principles. Or at least that’s the Pete we used to know. His willingness to sell out in the last episode and the increasing proliferation  of cursing in his language have suggested a slight erosion.


One of the weaknesses of this episode is that we desperately needed to see the aftermath of Pete selling out. Is he now starting all his routines with “Gas it Up”? Granted, those leftover plot threads didn’t fit in the framework of a “rap battle” but this is the second show this Spring season (the other being Silicon Valley) that made the mistake of placing its most pivotal development marker in the season’s penultimate episode.

Instead, the season finale offers another major plot development, because, well, that's the law governing season finales. In this case, we have the break-up of Pete and Ally which, while sufficiently big news, is entirely unfulfilling. For one, what's not to like about Ally (both in terms of being a great character and what her relationship does to Pete)? For another, it seems inorganic and shoehorned in to give the finale oomph. More importantly, it's thematically muddled. If Pete's evolution is toward becoming less of a goody two-shoes, how is dumping Ally because she was a meany head in an entirely appropriate setting consistent with that? If Pete's attempting to take control of his life and independence had to do with being on his own, why not state that rather than dump someone for reasons that made no sense?
I can understand Pete being wrong and the show acknowleding that, but season finales in which the character makes a crucial decision in the closing minutes have a way of portraying a character avoiding reflection for the foolishness of their decision. The end result is making him more dislikeable. Sure, maybe he'll redeem himself months from now when this show returns but it's a sour note to go out on.
In the face of such a wonderful season, one sour note is a minor quibble, because Pete is one of the sweetest characters on TV. Here's hoping there's more of him


Thursday, May 03, 2018

Jessica Jones Review: First Three Episodes of Season 2

When I was a kid, my dad’s family lived on Long Island and our trips to visit his older sister and mother also included detours to visit my mom’s cousins in the Oriental rug business in Manhattan. Whereas other people think of New York as a glamorous concrete jungle, I always intuited a sense of urban excess. It could have been the that the rug warehouse district of New York didn’t have the most glamorous facades, or that in the 90s so Times Square looked a lot smuttier, or that the city and the people I most often visited in it (my rapidly aging aunt, my extremely old grandmother) were old. Maybe, it was that construction never ceased. I always was hearing the unpleasant noises of construction drills and jack hammers and not in a “this is inspiring me to write Rhapsody in Blue” kind of way.

Jessica Jones takes place in that version of New York with grimy buildings and a constant state of hazards. The skylines are framed not to show the gorgeous views but the teetering ledges.
Like many noir detectives, Jones is guided by reaction to her dark past and when you’re not thinking of the future, you fall under the definition of a pessimistic outlook.

I have a pet theory that noir makes for great viewing because people can experience the dark side of human nature from a safe distance since viewers embrace the stylized conventions. The show (full disclosure: I’m starting from Season 2 with the aid of a couple cheat sheets to bring me up to speed) features cleverly laden contrasts between grungy detective Jessica Jones and her more pro-active foster sister Trish (Rachel Taylor). Trish seeks recompense with her family in a healthy way, she goes after leads, and she is in a relationship that even downer Jessica begrudgingly admits is with a respectable guy.

Jessica Jones exists in an expanded world with various baddies with shades of between good and bad, and Jones herself commits a bit of assault and a tad of breaking and entering in the first three episodes. While this show is being championed by feminists as their new jam, it’s admirable that the show has an even-handed portrayal of her character’s bad deeds in terms of consequences.

So where does that leave us? The show features a well-rounded portrayal of an ass-kicking female hero. to bring in the feminist critics. Check. The show has well-rounded characters and potential for an expanding world. Check. The show doesn’t go overboard with celebrating the person as a woman and explores her flaws. Check. [Edit: Since writing this review, I have seen the fourth episode and I'm no longer entirely sure of this]

So what’s missing? Jessica Jones is defined by inaction and it starts to wear. She turns down most cases and barely seems committed to doing the things she commits to. It’s perhaps a case of the most slothful superhero on the planet.  Granted, I’m only three episodes in so this either amounts to a slow burn of a second season or a show that’s overly focused on mood without plot. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Barry Episode 5 Review: Do Your Job

My first thought when I heard Bill Hader was doing a tragicomic take on the gangster genre was “seen it a thousand times.” Off the top of my head: There’s "The Whole Nine Yards" "The Mexican", the first season of "Breaking Bad", "Analyze This", "Mickey Blue Eyes", "Big Time in Hollywood, Florida", "Lilihammer"---it would be easier at this point to just think of TV shows and movies that involve illegality WITHOUT veering into mob humor.

But that just means this is a high bar to clear. To stick out in a saturated genre, “Barry” has to show me something I haven’t seen before. I don’t know about anyone else, but “Do Your Job” did the trick for me. One of the stalwart conventions of the genre is the numbing of the protagonist to murder after murders.  The act of a gangster’s crisis of conscience leading him to decide “so what happens if I don’t kill him?” Now that’s something new. The ramifications of letting a marked man live? Now that’s intereresting.

A lot of great TV at the moment ("Good Place" and "Last Man on Earth" are prime examples in the half-hour comedy space) leaves you with no idea what’s coming next and Barry has this in spades. Taylor's survival is (at least for me) the show's saving grace but it's not an isolated incident. 

The Sally-Barry relationship is another great example. Sally’s somewhat of a fast mover for Barry in every sense. She pushes him into Gene’s class, into a friendship, into a sexual relationship, and now she pushes him away with equal style. Her “toxic masculinity” label of Barry might have been appropriate if Sally had actually taken time away from her own needs to actually see Barry for who he was and treat him with the necessary gentleness (in this case: kid gloves at every stage of their relationship). In this sense, it’s somewhat refreshing to see Sally get called out by her classmates.  D'Arcy Carden's character (I want to call her Janet?) came into their after-rehearsal chill sessions with fighting words that nicely ratchets up some of the in-group dynamics which reminds of how much more development these guys could use. 

The fact that this universe is acknowledging Sally has some growing up to do also leads for a possibility of Sally-Barry ship to recur considering they both have roughly an equal amount of work to do. Besides, they’re scene partners which seems like a cruel exercise for both of them.
For now, “toxic masculinity” isn’t a particularly appropriate description for Barry considering how well he’s handling his line of work. Nonetheless, Barry’s a pretty troubled guy and “Do Your Job” is the first time Barry starts to express this out loud. The channeling of his anger about his classmates’ ignorance of killing is a good start for Barry, both as an actor and a man dealing with his demons. In a sense, one serves the other which is why Barry was likely drawn to acting in the first place. 

In other plot lines, Gene's and the lady detective finally consummate their relationship. To call this unexpected is an understatement particularly with the incongruity of how Gene sees himself verses how smooth he actually is. Gene is the comedic high point of the episode which is a much-needed introspection of Barry.

The show's fluidity between action, comedy, and serious self-introspection is striking the right notes at this point in the season.

Rise Episode 3 Review: What Flowers May Bloom

Credit: Vulture

In the melodramatic version of high school presented by Rise, there are two polar archetypes of “Manhood” with a capital “M”: football and theater. 

Theater guys tend to talk about their feelings whereas football players tend to bury it away because it supposedly gets in the way of glorious character-building manly labor.  Theater guys are comfortable with all manners of non-straightness and might even be somewhere on the LGBQT spectrum, whereas football guys are too busy dealing with their magnetic allure to the opposite sex to notice such things.

Granted, "Rise" didn’t invent these stereotypes, but the show seems too lazy at times to portray its world any other way. This thematic axis guides the development of nearly everything in the world. The show’s alpha male characters, Mr. Mazzou and Robbie discover their self-actualization in the world of theater which refines their more masculine edges. It’s here that they both get in touch with their feminine sides (primarily being empathetic) needed to navigate all the challenges in their lives that require feelings and all that gooey stuff.

Mr. Mazzou needs to recognize Mrs. Wolfe as an asset and find the words needed to communicate with Simon's about why their son should stay in Staunton. One might call his two encounters with Mr. and Mrs. Saunders an arc of sorts: In the first encounter, he tries to us his masculinity to stake out his territory and puts his foot in the door when Simon’s mom tries to close it. But he lacks the words to follow through. Later, he’s miraculously granted the words (supposedly by being humbled by Mrs. Wolfe). Similarly, Robbie doesn’t yet have the words to put his crush at ease that he would be faithful to her but he’s getting there.

For the show’s reductive dichotomy of manhood, it at least gets credit for not villainizing the school of Strickland completely. Gordy, who’s been overly feminized in the world of theater, finds the lack of conversation with Strickland therapeutic in dealing with his punishment. Of course, there’s a separate conversation to be had over whether the punishment fits the crime in terms of drug offenses, but we’ll save that for another day. Interestingly enough, Strickland lacks the words to express what he needs to say to Vanessa so he has the same problems as Robbie and Mr. Mazzou. But Strickland has presumably gotten as far as he has in connecting with Vanessa because he’s capable of showing what he means through gestures. A cell phone cover doesn’t really fall under the category of Valentine’s gifts, but whatever floats your boat, Vanessa.

Beyond the character arcs themselves, there’s a lot to appreciate about the way Rise as a whole shows without words. Consider how well the interactions between Robbie and Lilliean encapsulate the sweetness of being out with your crush and the visceral awkwardness of feeling out your potential partner.  This is also a week where (as far as we know), Simon might be saying goodbye to the theater program that has given him so much. The sadness behind Simon’s eyes as he announces his departure to the group and that tear-swelling hug with Mrs. Wolfe are both well-deserved moments. True, the music’s a little sappy but it’s hard to understate the emotional impact of these moments. One might call it a masculine touch on a traditionally feminime genre, but if you throw the dichotomy away, it’s a visually poetic and effective way of storytelling.