Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Haters Back Off Season One Review: A YouTube Celebrity Tries to Make it Episodically

Colleen Ballinger created a unique YouTube persona with legs in Miranda Sings. She's also a likable personality. Sincerity works in the favor of most YouTubers as they create vlogs and tweet to authentically connect with fans and Miranda has succeeded in connecting to her fans outside of her character.

Most of them know she's a very talented singer in her own right. In sketch-sized bits, the Miranda Sings character is quite brilliant as Jimmy Fallon's audience has gotten the chance to see a couple times.  .

Still, this only buys a small amount of of goodwill when you have to transfer an unlikable character into a narrative format. In this version, Miranda Sings, a horrible singer whose flirtations with YouTube gives her delusions of grandeur, tries to achieve fame with her deluded uncle (Steve Little).

The show's inherent weirdness also has a whiff of Tim Burtonesque suburbia (the framing of the house recalls "Edward Scissorhands") and the uncle's circuitously empty get-rich schemes recall Mike Judge.

Part of the origin of Colleen Ballinger's idea was her perception as a classically-trained musician that YouTube was giving rise to a coddled generation of singers who thought they were stars simply because they are getting internet views. That commentary is definitely apparent here: Miranda Sings is bratty to sociopath levels here, but she has an army of enablers. Her mother (Angela Kinsey) is afraid to say no to her, her (possibly intellectually challenged) uncle (Steve Little) fosters the worst parts of her self-esteem by a misguided belief that she'll be a star, and the boy next door inexplicably pines for her as if she's remotely worth the trouble.

The net effect of all these characters' combined idiocy is that you have to suspend your disbelief quite a bit. When you realize how terrible of a person Miranda Sings is, there's no reason to really want to try either. While many worthwhile TV shows have featured irredeemable characters, it's generally a tricky line to pull off.

It generally helps if there's an awareness in the TV show's universe that the person is, in fact, terrible (off the top of my head: "Legit", "The League", "It's Always Sunny", and "Curb Your Enthusiasm") and the show has the level-headed sister Emily but it's hard to explain away all the other people in Miranda's immediate sphere (the pastor who wants to date Miranda's mom) who aren't just yelling for poor Emily to be transferred to child protective services ASAP.

The show has a small smattering of moments of warmth in the first few episodes but for the most part, it's a tiring retread of the same problem-ridden characters continuing to do harm to themselves/ In the medium of TV that can be less tolerable to the viewer.

If you can hang on to the end of the first season,   SPOILERS AHEAD the show starts to turn things upside down in the penultimate episode with a game-changing season finale in which most of the characters wake up to the reality of their experiences. I'm not sure I'd recommend one should watch every episode until you get to the juicy stuff and I would have to fault the show for lacking an movement in the first six episodes.

Still, the season finale takes on an added level of depth that was lacking through much of the season. The ending has the haunting aura of a  Stephen King novel or a Twilight Zone Show episode. Miranda achieves fame but sells her soul and family in the process. I'm not sure if I'd recommend viewers stick it out to the en

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"Documentary Now!" Review through Season 2 Episode 5

Documentaries are generally a pretty esoteric cinematic experience and co-creator Fred Armisen's comedy is also pretty esoteric. As a result putting those together is going to lead to something that's not easy to appreciate or particularly funny every time out of the gate.

While the premise's novelty-- re-imagining popular documentaries with a comic bent -- was enough to get it through the first season, the show usually sinks or swims based on how funny the episode is.

With the exception of Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Morgan Spurlock, or Werner Herzog, very few documentaries have ever surfaced to the national consciousness. As a result, many viewers (including myself) are not going to go to know of the original source either, so the comedy often has to stand on its own in a way that most direct parodies don't. I'm not sure if this airs on the IFC TV channel, but the website has a featurette airing the two versions side-by-side which is certainly helpful.

"The Town, A Gangster, a Festival" approaches the brilliance of Christopher Guest's films (what I'm sure is an influence on these guys) in terms of attention to detail. A whole world is colored in by oodles and oodles of funny characters. This should cater to the wheelhouse of a writing staff-- all SNL alumni (if I'm not mistaken) where creating characters who can display a memorable quirk within a minute or two of screen time is a prerequisite.

Without the advantage of the large ensemble format, the show faces a harder challenge with generally only two people front and center. The show can sometimes work brilliance here but some episodes have also fallen flat. Among the most brilliant entries are "Kunuk Now" and "Globesman" as both are hilarious based on stand-alone comic characters and broad reference(the primitive Eskimo in the former, the 1950s image of masculinity and the corporate salesman in the latter) rather than a specific cinematic style. "Kunuk Now" tells the story of a kooky producer who jumps production in Alaska and an intellectually-challenged Eskimo who single-handedly creates all our modern ideas of cinematography. "Globesman" takes the squeaky clean image of the 1950's and turns it into a portrait of sheer obnoxiousness.

Among the other episodes that work somewhat well, "The Blue Jean Committee" is an exaggerated character portrait of two men whose lives have gone in opposite directions since fame. It distinguishes itself by being perhaps the only episode in the series with sentimental value (the final hug between the two tugged at my heart strings). Armisen is a music obsessive and his effort falls flat in the similarly themed second season episode "Test Pattern" which feels derivative: It mines similar nuances of "Blue Jean Committee" in mining similar nuances of concert culture without giving us a reason to care.

"Dronez" also roughly works without any source material as it provides a never-ending supply of dumb people and juxtaposes them with an incredibly dangerous situation.

Others like "Juan Likes Rice and Beans" and "The War Room" are middling: They work based on the hyper-specific which will vary. In the case of the former, I saw "Jiro Likes Sushi" which helped me enjoy it at a fuller level.

The rest of the episodes, including the series premiere, fall painfully flat based on hyper-specificity. But that's the risk one takes when they follow their passion. Still, consistency would be nice

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Top 25 TV Characters of 2015

It's a bit late for my Top 25 Characters of TV List but better late than never. Here's last year's edition

1. Julianna Marguiles as Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife

Florrick is the epitome of professionalism under pressure. As her principal law partner is alternating between prison and parole, a shady drug lord threatens to pollute her agency's reputation, and the construction of her new office keeps hitting snags, Florrick navigates a political campaign and high-level clients who don't tolerate slip-ups with inspiring levels of grace. And she even has time to go out for an occasional drink with the district attorney who's using every trick at his disposal to keep that aforementioned law partner behind bars.

2. Nick Sandow as Caputo, Orange is the New Black-For many readers of Piper Kerman’s memoir and viewers of the resulting TV adaptation, "Orange is the New Black" is an eye-opening wake-up call on prison reform. It’s impossible to get engrossed in the series and not put yourself in the shoes of those running the joint and going through a million “what if”s before stopping with the realization that the people in charge just don’t care. He might not be a great role model (his weird relationship with Fig hasn't endeared him to certain corners of the internet) but at the end of the day, he’s someone who cares about improving conditions for the inmates and has some semblance of a pragmatic plan to do so. In Litchfield that’s a rarity. Watching him hold onto that glimmer idealism was a fascinating ride in OitNB’s 3rd season.
3. Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Fresh off the Boat-As this is a show told from a child’s point of view, Jessica is everything an alpha mom should be: Terrifying, authoritative, unable to be outsmarted and full of charisma. Jessica’s brash indifference to tact and her steadfast belief that no penny should be wasted has led to an endless supply of great quotes. I have an immigrant mother like Jessica and there's an almost frightening degree of verisimilitude between the two.
4. Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyons, Empire-Since breaking out a decade ago in "Hustle and Flow", Terrence Howard has always had a big presence and the role of Lucious Lyon is one ambitious to accommodate that presence. He is a complicated guy who can navigate street culture and business culture adeptly (note to self: consult with a black friend to phrase that in the best way). More importantly, he has the pretense of a good heart but a bottomless reserve of capacity to do bad and because he can turn on a dime with utmost slyness, that made him a lot of fun to watch long after the show got overly soapish to hold my interest.
5. Will Forte as Phil Miller, Last Man on Earth-Phil Miller is the type of slacker who chooses to spend the apocalypse shooting pool with volleyballs and making margarita pools rather than worry about running water. When his prayers of finding another surviving human are answered, he discovers that post-apocalyptic social interaction isn’t all it’s made out to be. Watching Forte’s Phil Miller weasel his way out of situations he put himself in is cringe-worthy comedy on par with The Office. It’s been nearly five years since Will Forte left Saturday Night Live and as Flavorwire points out, he is “the rare Saturday Night Live alumnus who actually deserves a sitcom and has taken far too long to get one.”
6. Taraji P Henson as Cookie, Empire-An actress who's been steadily rising in popularity over the last decade, Cookie is an apt breakout role for someone who can deliver sharp dialogue with oomph. Like Constance Wu's Jessica, she's an alpha mom of epic proportions, but she varies in that she can simultaneously stay exlusively focused on herself and herself alone. As Cookie, she gets the best lines on the show and owns them with her trademarkable (yes, that's a word!) style.
7. Charlie Day as Charlie Kelly, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia-Charlie as an idiot savant really took Sunny to great heights this season. We got the idiot Charlie who blindly followed "The Master" when Dennis, Dee, and Frank alternated to create a cult but we got the savant in full force when he masterfully duped the new health inspector AND made the chicken scheme run to perfection in "Charlie Work." And in Charlie's drinking contest, it was a mix of Charlie's idiocy, his fortitude and an extraordinary liver that allowed him to beat Wade Boggs record in the season opener. Oh and did we mention he slept with Dee and promptly relegated her to "let's never talk about this again" territory. To be fair, the decision to forget their one-night stand was mutual but that's a major step-up for Charlie.

8. Gael Garcia Bernal as Rodrigo, Mozart in the Jungle-"Mozart in the Jungle" is a love letter between an artistic genius and his hundred-member orchestra. The tortured artist trope has been played quite a bit but Bernal plays the part with enough tempered battyness to really sell it. The charisma of Rodrigo is especially important to the majority of viewers who have no idea how to discern a good rendition of Mahler from a great one or why exactly it's important for a conductor to wave his hands in the right way.

9. Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Better Call Saul-One of the beautiful things of a sophomore effort like "Better Call Saul" is it allowed Vince Gilligan to continue exploring Albuquerque without the weighted expectations and praises of making the greatest show on TV. And no one represents the grimy sunbaked adobe underbelly of Albuquerque than Jimmy McGill. Watching him work a room and dealing with averse situations is simply magical. The first season didn't have as much of McGill adeptly wiggling his way out of holes as I'd hoped but it set up the character pretty well.
10 Miranda Otto as Allison, Homeland-An upper level State Department
bureaucrat who became an attention-getter first by trying to go against the system and retain her position. I've often imagined (in both real-life and fiction) that government bureaucrats had a big red "emergency resign" button on their desk in case of a disaster. It's a rarity to see someone stand up and say: "No, I'm not going to resign, damnit!" But then she pulled the wool over our eyes (or at least mine) by working both sides while maneuvering well under pressure. And bonus points for convincing us that she was enjoying sleeping with Saul.
11. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as Grace and Frankie, Grace and Frankie-It's hard to pick just one here. This show works so well because it focuses on the trials and tribulations of a different older generation without feeling outdated in its comedic style. A wide range of entries in film and TV fall into this trap: Hot in Cleveland, Golden Girls, Mr. Saturday Night, The Sunshine Boys, etc. It also helps that Fonda and Tomlin have such great chemistries, the characters are pretty perfectly positioned as foils to one another, and it's pretty apparent neither actress is phoning it in.

12. Tim Robbins as Walter Larson, The Brink-Larson first appeared as an apathetic cabinet-level secretary knee-deep in whores, but it was the other way around. He was the only person in the government who knew what he was doing and no one else would get off his back about it when he tries to save the world. There's plenty to appreciate Robbins physical comedy with the way he descends Larson into an urgent monotone and keeps his gaze fixated straight ahead when he's in serious world-saving mode.
13. Kimiko Glen as Brooke Soso, Orange is the New Black-Brooke's otherness has always been an acceptable sort even as unjust consequences were going on around her. She's a blabbermouth who doesn't know her place, so she gets a bile from Piper and the like that we as an audience we as an audience were complicit in looking past through our relative apathy in comparison to the problems of some of the other prisoners. In Season 3, Brooke succumbed to a mental breakdown and suicide attempt, and facing our own previous apathy to her struggles proved an eye-opening experience. Her loneliness was a great contrast to all the storylines revolving around inmates bonding: It reminded us that prison is often a lonely place.

14. Deborah Ann Woll as Paige-Murdoch's secretary is a relatively thankless part (Case in point: try to remember who played her in the 2003 movie) but she was a memorably fierce character who was unwilling to let any of her past experiences or being a woman in a dangerous part of town intimidate her. Woll plays the part with a good mix of edginess and down-to-Earth and perfectly conveys the level of exhaustion that being constantly vigilant must exert on Paige.

15. Carol Kane as Lily, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt-Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s newest creation, "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", is the kind of show where everyone has a different favorite character but I couldn’t get enough of Carol Kane’s quirky landlord with a shady past (she has a friend named “eight ball” and sanded off her fingerprints). Her anarchic leanings would likely have given her an in with the Occupy Wall Street crowd if the show was set a couple of years earlier which made the last couple episodes, in which she was paired with 1% Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline on a road trip, all the more sweet.
16. Zach Woods as Jared, Silicon Valley-It's all making sense now: Gabe from "The Office" was just an opportunity for Woods to workshop the prototype for his masterpiece of aloofness. Jared has the perfect bland of naïvette, eagerness, and tone-deaf responsiveness that fits in well with the kind of bureaucratic idiots Mike Judge specializes in.
17. Megan Stevenson as AJ Gibbs, Review-Aside from her nice legs and envy-inducing wardrobe, Gibbs does so much with facial expressions and small  snippets of conversation with Forrest that it's hard to imagine any other character getting so much bang for the buck. She's a little bit of an enabler, a little bit of a critic, a little of an airhead, and possibly a little sadistic. It's hard to pin her down, but it's exciting to try.

18. Sam Waterson as Saul in Grace and Frankie-Saul's his place on the spectrum of flamboyance that defines gay characters on TV is entirely unique as someone who's newly arriving to gay culture in his later years. While it's easy to pigeonhole Saul in relationship to his more masculine (read: curmudgeonly) partner, the primary trait that comes through for him is that he's an unabashed softie. He is earnest, sincere, and thoughtful enough about his ex-wife that he deserves to be on the textbook cover for "How to Interact with Your Exes 101."
Where Saul is more assertive, it's in how he defines himself: He doesn't want to be gay in any way except for his love for his partner. He's just a Robertsexual and we're happy for him.
19. Cory Michael Smith as The Riddler, Gotham-As an unapolagetic Penguin fan, I spent the 2014 gushing over The Penguin but (see my top 25 characters of last year) but I tired of the fact towards the end of the season that his primary way of getting ahead was begging for his life and being in the right place and the right time. So I'm now on board the Riddler bandwagon. After all, it's the best sign of the show's writing that we had an entire season of the Riddler being a law-abiding citizen with just a few clues here and there of an abnormal personality. For a show that likes to burn through villains and plot lines at a self-defeating rate, the slow burn of The Riddler's arc is pretty compelling.

20. Emily Hampshire as Stevie, Schitt's Creek-In a town plagued by chronic boredom, no one can feign ironic disinterest as well as Hampshire’s hotel clerk Stevie. For Stevie’s best deadpanned look search no further than the scene in which spoiled man-child David (Daniel Levy) wants a job and she has to explain to him that a bagger at the grocery store is a more likely option than a “taste maker.”
21. Michael Ian Black as Mitch "Peepers" Spiritwalker, Another
Period-Let's be honest: "Another Period" was tonally jarring at first. The show's overblown absurdity needed some time to gel in the first few episodes but fortunately Peepers arrived as a ready-made creation from the get-go. Think of the most rigid school teacher you've ever had, give him the classist speech affectations of Margaret Dumont and the aloofness of a cartoon villain and that's Peepers in a nutshell.

22. Elden Henson as Foggy, Daredevil-Daredevil was one of the most gripping comic book adaptations to hit TV in the past few years and that's due to the strong character work. The part of Foggy isn't one that's easy to shine in. No superhero power, no superheroic good looks, and he's completely overshadowed by Matt Murdoch/Daredevil in everything he does. His law partnership also operates with a strange veto power in which nearly everything Henson suggests gets vetoed. Somehow Elden Henson makes the idea of playing second-fiddle endearing. With Foggy as a rootable character, it makes his more dramatic stand against Murdoch's vigilantism towards the end of the first season that much more effective.

23. Kerry Bishe as Donna, Halt and Catch Fire-Too often people are concerned about fair portrayals on media of sex and race, but I think ageism is an interesting undercurrent to explore and Donna's character is definitely a victim of that as she sort of struggles in a young person's world (doubly so). The plots of The Internship (as well as Robert DeNiro's similarly-titled film) and In Good Company deal are two of the few examples of issues of obsolescence among the older generation with working for a younger boss and Donna got some interesting moments. I like where the direction of her marriage went.

24. Christina Hendricks as Celine AKA Chair, Another Period-In a manor that's overrun with terrible people who are all sorts of psychopathic, very few characters gave me as much pleasure as Chair deviously plotting her way to the top. And that's not even mentioning how exciting and unexpected it was to see Christina Hendricks tackle a comic role with such finesse.

25 (tie). Adam DeVine as Andy, Modern Family-Other than popping out new babies (i.e. Joe), Modern Family has done little to shake up their cast which makes the addition of Adam DeVine as the Prichett family’s manny (male nanny) such a welcoming surprise. Andy sells corny eagerness like no other. On a scale of zero to Phil Dumphy, he registers a 9 in cheesiness, and yet he’s convincingly won the heart and affection of Hailey.

25 (tie). Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky, Orange is the New Black-Her odd couple friendship with Boo is was one of the most hope-inspiring relationships at Litchfield and her rape storyline was eye-opening and heavy. It left no easy answers but somehow it found a way from Point A to Point B narrative-wise that felt true to Pennsatucky's character and cathartic for the viewer.

Honorable Mention:
Aaron Paul voicing Todd Chavez, BoJack Horseman; Alan Cumming as Eli Gould, The Good Wife; Allison Janney as Bonnie, Mom; Amanda Crews as Dr. Cassandra Railley, 12 Monkeys; Anna Faris as Christy, Mom; Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tasciano, The Good Wife; Charlie Cox as Matt Murdorch, Daredevil; Claire Danes as Carrie Matthieson, Homeland; Donal Logue as Bullock, Gotham; Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter, Agent Carter; Judy Greer voicing Cheryl, Archer; Maribeth Monroe as Kendall, Brink; Mary Steenburgen as Delia Powell, OitNB, Mary Steenburgen as Linda, Togetherness; Matthew Goode as Finn Palomar, The Good Wife; Max Gall as Mr. McNeil, Review; Michael McKean as Chuck, Better Call Saul; Tara Lynn Barr as Laura Meyers, Casual, Vella Lovell as Heather Davis Crazy Ex-girlfriend; Vincent Rodriguez III as Josh Chan, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Friday, May 27, 2016

Lady Dynamite, Masters of None, and Comedians Playing Themselves in Peak TV

"Lady Dynamite" is so zany and out there that it was a little difficult to get a grasp on it when I first watched it. Ironically, my difficulty with the material wasn't because there's nothing like it on TV but because I saw traces of nearly everything else on TV: The cutaways of "30 Rock", the awkward attempts at social justice statements from "Master of None", the use of a comedic veneer to mask trauma that's shown on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", the 4th wall randomness of "Man Seeking Woman" or "Family Guy", and the feminist celebration of woman as proudly dysfunctional adult from "Broad City". 
Welcome to Peak TV: Where the overabundance of innovative voices on TV makes it harder to stick out and a comic voice as original as Maria Bamford is penalized for not coming out on the airwives five years ago.
Besides the myriad of recognizable influences there's the obstacle that Bamford's show can loosely be classified into the most overused genre on television: Comic actors playing thinly veiled versions of themselves trying to make it in showbiz inevitably providing a satirical take on Hollywood along the way. It started with "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and the idea has gotten so saturated that it seems like the go-to template for anyone wanting to stretch their act into a TV show if they don't want to put much energy into the pitching session. The genre is starting to rapidly sour with unique acts like subversively sexually explicit music duo Garfunkel and Oates and hyperobsessive pop culture freak Billy Eichner getting shows that add zero value whatsoever to what started out as great acts.  
The good news here is that any initial complaints about the show are a lot less valid after a scattershot pilot that's loaded with every gimmick imaginable. The show gradually starts to even out and make more purposeful decisions over when to break the 4th wall. By the fifth or sixth episode, Bamford starts to deploy these gimmicks with a mastery that makes "Lady Dynamite" one of the most wall-to-wall enjoyable shows on TV.

It helps to separate the show from other entries in the "comedians playing themselves" genre in that Bamford isn't trying to advance her show business career at all. At times, she seems blissfully ignorant of exactly how well she's doing (her faux sister Susan is alarmed at how much she makes at a studio session as if she heard it for the first time). In another episode, she turns down Judd Apatow because in that particular episode, her new focus on life is about doing as little as possible in life. After a few episodes, one can better make the argument that this even if it's a clichéd genre, Bamford's work is the ultimate personal statement: Maria Bamford is simply figuring out her life and way of expressing it on screen as she goes along.

It also helps that so many of the plots are loopy enough to match Maria Bamford's personality: Her uncertainty is matched by characters that either swing towards an extreme opposite (Mo Collins as pushy childhood friend Susan, Ana Gasteyer as Karen Gillam, Annie Mumulo as a highly aggressive dog trainer) or similar aimlessness (Fred Melamed is highly enjoyable as an agent who reeks of casual desperation, in the second episode she dates a bisexual recovering meth addict who can't distinguish the difference between bisexuality and polygamy).

Masters of None

In the era of Peak TV, shows are being given out like cars to the Oprah studio audience and one consequence is that while there are a lot of great comic voices out there, not everyone is exactly qualified to sustain an audience as the lead of a television show. Whereas Maria Bamford can will her way through a hackneyed premise on sheer personality, Aziz Ansari (assuming he doesn't have the acting abilities of Peter Sellers up his sleeve) would be questionable as a lead for a high-concept series.
It's not that Ansari isn't a deservedly successful comedian. He was an excellent addition to the mix on "Parks and Recreation," he is a successful author, and has a worthwhile stand-up show worth watching. There's just very little variation from Tom Haverford to "Master of None" lead Dev and that character was originally created as a foil to the altruism of Leslie Knope.
What also doesn't help is that it seems like Aziz Ansari's vision for his show is as bizarrely uneventful as the in-universe pitch for "Seinfeld." Yes, technically things happen, but it seems as if the show's goal is to drain as much dramatic tension as possible so that the show is as close to nothing as possible. In other words, Aziz/Dev just wants to be chill but there's a such thing as overdoing it. The show also doesn't seem to have any game plan for making you laugh: The long-term setups lack comic complexity and the short-term jokes are more at a dramedy-level than an actual comedy.  
Oddly enough, the show did get great reception but I suspect that has more to do with the increasing prevalence of the social justice movement among TV critics. Ansari is a minority that's not often seen on TV and his episodes tackle such hot button issues as tokenism in casting, sexism, and the issues that come with being the children of immigrants. In some of these cases, the show comes off as overly preachy because Aziz's take on those issues is the only memorable thing about the episode.
For contrast, "Fresh Off the Boat" is a show I immediately latched onto because of the unique cultural perspective of a minority family. I could see people being attached to Dev for the same reasons, but that doesn't excuse such a show from phoning it in everywhere else.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tweeny-Bopper Fare: Lost and Found Studios Review

I have great regrets that of all the TV that I've watched lately, this is the only one I had time to review. Hopefully, more stuff to come.
“Lost and Found Studios” is about a group of teenagers in an “elite music program” of people of indiscriminate age in an indiscriminate mid-sized city, with an indiscriminate means of paying for it all.

It’s one of those shows where it seems like I'm putting more thought into it then the people who created  it. Does Mr. T's exclusive program consist of letting kids just hang around his studio all day and what's in it for him when studio time is at such a premium? Does the program offer instruction other than Mr. T sternly crossing his arms and playing referee in disputes? Why do the parents (especially those of introverted Eva) trust Mr. T?

But that’s ok because to try to answer these questions would involve icky things for this tweeny-bop genre like involving parents and as the kid with the red headphones learned when his mom crashed his audition, parents are not allowed! The creators of this show know that it’s a cash cow for tweeny-boppers so long as they populate it with an array of diverse vanilla personalities and produce a queue full of songs on iTunes where they can get a juicy second stream of revenue. On this note, it’s curious who the combined song writing talents of a group of some two dozen kids produces songs in the exact same genre.

The characters are all filled out by uniformly mediocre actors (they’re likely teenagers so I’m not expecting big things) but it’s also curious that the adults on screen (John and Luke’s piano teacher’s widower) exhibit that same lack of ability.

Which begs the question (One I’m still trying to figure out as I write this): Why did I gobble up all fourteen episodes  if I was able to see through it so immediately?

My initial answer was that I thought it might give some insight into modern-day songwriting and working in a studio and there’s a certain amount of that there. On the whole, though, the show is just plain hooky like the songs themselves. The story is both written and acted broadly for a teen audience, but it wasn’t enough to detract me from wanting to know what happened next.

If I had to pinpoint one factor that kept the first season from getting drab, it’s that the show had some edgier plotlines than one might have expected. One of the main characters, John, is dealing with the death of his mother which puts a dark twist on what  is the season’s only major romantic pairing (which is pretty curious in its own right since this show is playing to a demographic that thrives on hookups in fiction). Another, Clara, gets outright depressed and nasty despite the fact that it seemed like the show bible was “keep all the characters uniformly bubbly and cheerful.” Eva, a noticeable introvert, seems to hide some insecurities that begs one to want to know more. Leah (who perhaps has more screentime than anyone else), starts out as a ditzy girl blind to an unrequieted crush, but she’s gradually revealed to be a villainess of high proportions.

Whether, these plotlines might have been stuff that slipped through the cracks or were part of the grand scheme of things, it takes the show above standard teeny-bop fare.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

2015: Year-End Top 30 Actress Power Ranking

This is my Power Rankings series where I rank actors and actresses on a mix of commercial and critical bankability. The measure is on the odds that casting this actress in your film will make it a critical or commercial success. It's based on December 31, 2015 as I originally wrote it then and haven't gotten around to posting it. Check out the last power rankings I did three years ago for reference.

Fair warning: A proper noun or two might be spelled wrong. 

The top four:

1. Charlize Theron

2. Cate Blanchett
3. Jennifer Lawrence
4. Kate Winslet

There were four clear contenders for the top spot. The two K/Cates (Blanchett and Kate Winslet) are the go-to actresses for auteurs and they have both displayed a seemingly endless range for Oscar-caliber acting in the last twenty years. Blanchett is penalized a little because she’s so chameleon-like  that she doesn’t have any star persona. Winslet is penalized a little because she wasn’t on any particular hot streak before Steve Jobs (which got her an Oscar nomination but it was a film which no one really saw) as evidenced by the disaster that was Jason Reitman’s Labor Day.

Lawrence is on fire (as Alicia Keys can attest) with two franchises she’s successfully helmed and more Oscar nominations than any 25-year-old really needs. However, she could be in danger of being ghettoized if she chooses to do all her non-tentpole films with David O Russell. For non-DOR fans, she is in danger of falling off their radar as the lack of success Joy had in finding an audience showed. There’s also some debate about whether she can master an older woman but that’s based on whether you think she pulled Joy (I'm in the camp that she did).

That leaves Charlize Theron who has been recognized as a high-caliber actress for a dozen years now, has the hardware to show for it, and has a certain edge to her screen persona that sells. By sheer talent and appeal, I am comfortable calling her the biggest star in moviedom today.

5.      Meryl Streep-Universally considered the best actress of her generation, Streep continues to take risks and interesting choices while also doing broad appeal films like Mamma Mia, Lemony Snicket, It’s Complicated, Prime, and some might say Ricki and the Flash (in theory, this film should have had broad appeal). She’s aging gracefully and is a threat to get an Oscar nomination pretty much every year.

 6.      Scarlett Johansson-Although she’s never been Oscar-nominated, she’s come close enough a few times that she’s considered high-caliber. She also has several Golden Globe and BAFTA nominees and has been an established actress for a dozen years. She’s a certifiable action star and has made boundary-pushing choices through films such as Lucy, Her or Don John’s Addiction. And yes, the plot of Lucy was pretty ridiculous, but it was an edgy choice on her part.

7.      Julianne Moore-She’s hot because she just won an Oscar, but even so, she consistently brings the goods. She’s been in romantic comedies, art house films, and adaptations BUT she goes down a couple pegs from Top 5 because her best performances are often for obscure films. She won an Oscar for Still Alice but did anyone see Still Alice? Free Held, Maps to the Stars and, in the past, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio didn’t even get wide-scale distribution.

8.      Amy Adams-The female answer to Leonardo DiCaprio. She has the make and temperament of a character actress but she has shown the ability to hold her own as a lead (she out-acted Jennifer Lawrence  in American Hustle) and her filmography is so full of good films, she can rival John C Rilley or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as contemporaries.  Man of Steel brings tent pole credentials and so did Enchanted (although that was back in 2007). She also has done comedy like Talladega Nights or The Muppet Movie and was pretty game to get her hands dirty .

9.      Naomi Watts-How often she appears in film is relative but her talent alone groups her in the top tier. Like Nicole Kidman, she’s chameleon-like in accents and although this is three years ago, The Impossible was very DiCaprio-like in terms of the rigor of the shoot.

 10.  Rooney Mara-Although her filmography is relatively short (not as short as Hailee Steinfeld or Saiosre Ronan), she has made strong marks in everything she’s in. Even small supporting roles in Social Network or Her garnered attention. She has about a 50% chance of winning an Oscar for Carol but even if she doesn’t, she will likely be back.

11.  Keira Knightley-Authentic English actors and actresses always get a boost in bankability because so many period pieces (even things not explicitly set in England like Troy or Merchant of Venice) require an English thespian. On top of that, Knightley is hip and cool and has a modern sensibility. She could easily fit into a Diablo Cody or Noah Bombauch work (Begin Again or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World might not have been written explicitly by those two but they were in that mold). Plus, she can swashbuckle AND sing. 

12.  Anne Hathaway-An Oscar winner at the right age to play a wide range of parts, her public persona is a bit polarizing. She did action in Get Smart and sang in Les Miserables. Even though she’s been on SNL, her comic chops are not particularly strong in my opinion.

13.  Rachel McAdams-Introduced to Hollywood in a villainess role in Mean Girls, she’s tackled a wide range of parts working with Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Thomas McCarthy and kicked ass in Sherlock Holmes and a Most Wanted Man. Turned a best supporting actress nomination in a competitive field this past year and is a very strong romantic lead.
14.  Sandra Bullock-The female counterpart to Matthew McConaughey in that she was seen mostly as a romcom type of actress with a bubbly personality but her 2009 Oscar gave her a makeover and the follow-up Oscar nod in Gravity gave her a lot more leverage in being taken seriously. 

15.  Emma Stone-This might just be me  but I have trouble not seeing her as a teeny-bopper sor tof star even though we’re apparently 5 years removed from her high school roles in Easy A and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She’s had a respectable turn in the Help, starred in two of Woody Allen’s most invisible films and her big Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman (which I’m pretty sure would not have materialized if she wasn’t acting in the eventual BP winner) was still that of a teenager. I think it might still be a while until she’s taken seriously as an actress who can play 30+. 

16.  Judi Dench-If you need a senior citizen, she’ll work in nearly every film, but it's worth noting, she’s getting to the age where her acting days are limited due to failing eye sight.

17.  Jessica Chastain-Two Oscar noms in the past five years and a very close call last year for a nominaion as well. Not to mention she’s been in four Best Picture nominees-The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, Help, and Tree of Life- in that time period as well. She’s also won a Golden Globe and two NBR awards. With Interstellar, The Martian, Zero Dark Thirty, and a Most Violent Year, she has a very good track record of interesting film choices

18.  Helen Mirren-Very versatile actress who not as old as she looks (she’s 70), although she gets relegated to senior citizen parts (though she is considered a cougar of sorts). She still gets awards buzz here and there (Woman in Gold and Trumbo in this year alone). Also worth noting: Woman in Gold got $33 million domestically at the box office. Extremely impressive for a film no one’s ever heard of. 

19.  Alicia Vikander-It’s hard to properly rate someone who’s been in the public spotlight for exactly one year. Man from Uncle, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl ere all great performances and she could even win an Oscar and just won a SAG award, but it’s just one year. The longer you’re in the public eye the better chances you have of working up a fan base.

20.  Nicole Kidman-The first time I wrote a list like this in 2009, she was #1 and she’s still just as good but a lot of her films are not wide-release. Her best role in the last half-decade, Paperboy, was mostly enjoyed ironically by people. The Oscar campaign for that role was something along the lines of  “Let’s give an Oscar nom to someone in a bad movie for once!” 

21.  Saoirse Ronan-I tend to group her, Haile Steinfeld and Carey Mulligan together in the same boat. Women who got Oscar noms at young ages and subsequently got set up with expectations as the next big thing. Of the trio, Ronan has had the biggest cult. She carried Brooklyn to a Best Picture Nomination this past year.

22.  Kristen Wiig-Some might disagree but I would maintain she wasn’t as well-known on SNL as Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Those three were known as Hollywood royalty. Wiig had the most screentime of anyone on SNL in her later years, but there was a good chance if you didn’t watch SNL during those years, you wouldn’t have known she was on. Since leaving, she’s had a game-changing megahit in Bridesmaids, has taken value-added supporting roles in nearly every comedy to come out. She has also won critical acclaim in a wide variety of indie films.

23.  Emily Blunt-This is more wishful thinking because somehow I don’t think Blunt is quite A-list yet, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t. I don’t even understand why she wasn’t nominated for Sicario. She can play a brooding, introspective star, she can do dramedy (Sunshine Cleaning, Devil Wears Prada), she did period (Young Victoria), and she has edge. 

24.  Reese Witherspoon-Wild was one of the best performances of any actor last year IMO and she deserved an  Oscar, but she’s so ingrained as the ingénue that it’s sometimes hard to see her outside of that typecast. Even Walk the Line had her playing a version of that Southern Ingenue. It’s also been well over a decade since she became a tentpole star with Legally Blonde.

25.  Claire Danes-Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, James Gandolfini and Kyle Chandler have enjoyed extremely successful movie careers since their star-making TV roles have ended. I predict when Homeland ends, Danes will be an A-lister in the movies.  As far as I can gather, she’s only been in one film in the 2010s (a Sundance entry) but that should change when Homeland ends. Anna Faris and Kerry Washington are two others I believe will explode in film when their TV shows end. 

26.  Carey Mulligan-Her casting in the Great Gatsby when it was hyped up in the pre-production phase says a lot about how prized she is among casting directors. She’s the right age to be cast in young women roles. Garnered some Oscar buzz this past year for Suffragette.

27.  Marion Cotillard-Being from England is a big plus. Being from nearly every other country is an impediment, but Cotillard has done extremely well for herself acting in such high profile films as Public Enemies, Midnight in Paris, and Inception and shone in MacBeth this year. 

28.  Kerry Washington-She had a long career as a character actress (Ray, Mr and Mrs Smith, Last King of Scotland) before being cast in a highly visible TV show which should give her a big boost when Scandal ends. She’s even done great work in the movies while on Scandal (Exhibit A: Django Unchained) 

29.  Rosario Dawson-Dawson amasses a lot of longevity points: She’s been in consistently good roles for the last 13 or 14 years throughout multiple genres. With a supporting role in Daredevil, she's dipped her toe into prestige TV, but she still has plenty of time on her schedule to be in the next big thing on screen.

30.  Ellen Page-Has a hip and cool edge (Whip It, Juno) but could use a better agent. Her latest film, Freeheld, did not get great distribution but she's visible enough that a comeback isn't out of the question.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Favorite Songs for their Lyrics Part VII

This is a series where I look at songs I like for their lyrical value and use my fancy degree (in overthinking song lyrics) to analyze the hell out of them. Why is it not called "best songs"? Because I don't believe music itself can be subjectively analyzed as good or bad. Different melodies hit people in different ways. I also apologize that I don't have very sophisticated tastes in music to choose songs from. I don't really listen to anything that's not directly in front of me and on the Top 40 radio station.

I Want to Dance With Somebody, Whitney Houston (1987)-The classic ballad hides a lot underneath the surface. It seems as though the narrator just “wants to dance with somebody,” but the verses expose just how much aching she’s feeling over not having met that somebody yet: “I’ve been all right up to now, it’s the light of day that shows me how, but when the night falls, my loneliness calls.” In other words, the narrator is feeling starved for love on a nightly basis when the workday ends. It paints a vivid picture of a desperate person but it’s also startlingly true of all of us: Being lovesick rarely comes up when we’re swamped at work or engaged in a string of errands.

Speed of Sound (2005), Viva la Vida (2008), Coldplay-Sure, a sampling of Coldplay’s singles (I’ll openly admit that I’m only familiar with Coldplay songs that have played at least 40 times on the radio ) show their share of fluff (“Yellow”) and when it comes down to it, Chris Martin consciously trying to be the best band of all time is off-putting. However, there’s a feeling in some of Coldplay’s songs that these guys are at least two or three rungs higher on Manslow’s hierarchy of needs than your average teeny bopper singing about a girl’s beautiful soul. “Viva la Vida” is a song that mixes a hodgepodge of biblical references (the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the “Keys to the Kingdom” allegory, St. Peter at the gates of Heaven) with mythology from various wars and revolutions (the Greek legend of Damocles, the beheading of Louis XVI in the French Revolution, etc) to fashion an epic tale of monarchical power and faith. “Speed of Sound” is a more meditative number about seeing the grandness of the universe and wondering whether he can achieve his potential. He also talks about the limits of understanding or learning everything he can. A sign in Japanese, for example, is a barrier of sorts.

California Dreaming, Mamas and the Papas (1965), Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles (1987) (orig. Simon and Garfunkel (1966)-Both of these songs talk about how the change in seasons of a picturesque setting becomes a reminder for the narrator of how life is slow to move on. In “California Dreaming,” the narrator goes for a walk on a winter’s day and the brown leaves and gray skies are a catalyst for wanting to leave. In a meandering story style, he meets up with a preacher who seems to know better than the narrator himself that his efforts to escape this purgatory of sorts are fruitless (“he knows I’m gonna stay"). He also mentions that “if I didn’t tell her, I could leave today”). Although this isn’t a very fleshed-out part of the song (which only has 126 words including repetitions), there’s something oddly relatable there: It’s usually one or two small commitments that keep us from making a big move (at least that’s how it often plays out with me).

Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles/Simon and Garfunkel- Clocking in at 200 words, Hazy Shade of Winter is a bit more descriptive although it covers eerily similar territory. The sky is “hazy” instead of gray but the leaves are still brown and both these seasonal changes seem to depress the hell out of the narrator. In a very subtle way, “Hazy Shade of Winter” broaches the irony of how the joys of Christmas can invoke depression. The narrator instructs you (the subject of the song as it is in the second person) to listen to the Salvation Army Band and think about how what they’re doing is better than what you’ve got planned. Still, while winter is winter and gloomy, it’s the narrator who is in the springtime of his or her life (I’m not sure how that makes the subject feel better). There’s also a suggestion that the gloomy winter is part of a larger tapestry in a sort of ying-yang manner.

Better in Time, Leona Lewis (2008)-Leona Lewis was a big deal around 2008 with her ubiquitous song “Bleeding Love” which is a pretty depressing anecdote on how she keeps bleeding, keeps, keeps bleeding love. Whatever that means, no thanks. Her lesser-remembered second single of that year, “Better in Time” is definitely a more complete sentiment. The narrator is getting over someone and uncovers some pretty deep stuff about the process along the way: That pain and healing occur simultaneously (“It’s going to hurt when it heals too”), that the media makes love sickness harder (“How could I turn on the TV without something that would remind me”) and that things do get better with time. The most affecting sentiment from the song to me is “I’m gonna smile because I deserve to” as if she has to remember to give herself permission. It’s also a song with an interesting call-and-response pattern that symbolizes an internal dialogue.

The A-Team, Ed Sheeran (2013)-A valuable lesson to all you teeny boppers out there: Release a song that’s not about yourself as your first single and then you can spend the rest of your music career whining about your sex life and still have artistic credibility. “The A-Team” tells the story about a drug addict who doesn’t appear to be leaving bad decision land any time soon (prostitution is among the measures she’s resorting to). The song starts out with descriptive half-sentences (“White lips, pale face, breathing in snow flakes, burnt lungs, sour taste) which hint at a very sad character but the description brings an curiously undeniable sense of beauty to it. When he talks about how “she flies to the motherland,” it’s in keeping with the fantasy element. Sheeran Sheeran is very soft-spoken even as he sings the line “and they scream.”    My favorite line of the song is: “The worst things in life come free to us.”

Dare You to Move, Switchfoot (2004)- If music genres were determined by the content of a song’s lyrics, then “Dare You to Move” would be in the “You’re awesome, go out into the world and be awesome” genre along with  Kelly Clarkson’s “Break Away” or Katy Perry’s “Firework” but Switchfoot’s entry into the genre seems so enchantingly grandiose lyrically speaking.

The narrator talks to the subject as if he’s being born (or being reborn) as he welcomes him/her/you to the planet and to existence. Very little in the song can be taken literally. If you go the literal route with it, you’re bound to hit upon unanswered questions: What is “the fall out” exactly? Why is everyone watching you? Is this being addressed to an alien? Switchfoot is composed of Christian members who aren’t clear about whether their band identifies as Christian rock but that might be part of it. Look closer and you see that Switchfoot is even expressing doubt about the lyrics they write as they’re singing them: “Redemption has stories to tell” and “Forgiveness is right where you fell” are both prefaced by the magical word “Maybe.” The grandiosity of the imagery is contrasted by a mandate (or rather a “dare”) that’s pretty simple: To move. Action is better than inaction is the message and within the context of the song, there’s a drastic difference.

Dance, Dance, Fall out Boy (2005)-Despite being in his late 20’s when he wrote most of Fall Out Boy’s most well-known songs, Fall Out Boy lyricist Pete Wentz has a knack for capturing the adolescent experience with a playful and genre-savvy vibe.  “Dance Dance” tells the story of a hormone-addled teenager going through a date with the girl of his dreams to a school dance which happens to be a pretty horrifying experience because of the pressure he puts on himself. The great thing about the song is that it unfolds in real-time as he blows the opening line of his date in the first verse and admits to being weighed down with “words too overdramatic.” He then starts to alternate between being obsessed and invested like a kid in line at a video game arcade who is already “two quarters and a heart down.” He finally capitulates into admitting “I only want sympathy in the form of you crawling into bed with me.” In between this tale, the chorus treats dancing as a stress-inducing routine that collectively leads everyone to fall apart but there’s little doubt that the narrator is likely dancing and undergoing the misery needed to attain his goal. 

Hold My Heart, Sara Bareilles (2010)-I’ve noticed as I’ve done this that some songs feature a narrator evolving as the song goes on (Barenaked Ladies "One Week", The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends”, and  Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" are three random examples that comes to mind).

In this song, narrator has a habit of guarding her heart in relationships. She sees herself as bad news of sorts. She doesn’t know how to “see anybody by me getting hurt.” But in the relationship that’s the subject of the song, the narrator issues a distress signal of sorts to have insurance for her heart (“can anybody here to hold her heart”) because she doesn’t want to let go too soon of a good situation. However, the narrator gradually admits to herself that she doesn’t want to let go of the guy she’s with. The struggle in her is not about her specific habits but one specific guy who means a lot to her.

1979, Smashing Pumpkins (1996)-A song drenched with nostalgia about being young on the precipice of adulthood. The narrator is inviting the audience (“You and I should meet”) to join him in a vividly detailed point in time where he and his friends were care free. Words like “live wire,” “junebug” and “zipper blues” give the song a sense of (possibly regional or historical) specificity to the narrator’s experience. The narrator notes that while they “feel the pull” of the impending future and the adult responsibilities it will bring (he equates this future to “the land of a thousand guilts” and “poured cements”), the greatest thing about the moment is that they don’t care about what’s next in store. There’s a very strong duality about this moment that makes it memorable enough to sing about: The accrued experience of having conquered childhood while knowing that adulthood is about to kick in.

A historical footnote:   Although the song is titled “1979,” it doesn’t really sync with lead singer and songwriter Billy Corgan’s experiences in 1979. He was born in 1967. He later revealed that he chose to name the song “1979” because It was easiest to rhyme with.


All Songs I've Analyzed at this point:
Anna Nalick: Breathe
Avril Lavigne: I'm With You
The Bangles: Hazy Shade of Winter
Ben Folds: Landed, Annie Waits
Barenaked Ladies: Testing 1 2 3
Cat Stevens: First Cut is the Deepest
Charlotte Martin: Your Armor
Coldplay: Speed of Sound, Viva la Vida
Counting Crows: She Don't Want Nobody Near, Hard Candy, Rain King
Dave Matthews Band: Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, Grace is Gone
Ed Sheeran: The A-Team
Fall out Boy: Dance Dance
The Fray: You Found Me
Foo Fighters: Learn to Fly
Gin Blossoms: South of Nowhere
Goo Goo Dolls: Broadway is Dark Tonight, Better Days, Here is Gone
Green Day: Wake Me Up When September Ends
Jason Mraz: On Love in Sadness
John Cougar Mellencamp: Jack and Diane
John Mayer: Clarity, 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than My Body, Why Georgia
Howie Day: Collide
Hootie and the Blowfish: Time
Leona Lewis: Better in Time
Lorde: Team
Macklemore and Lewis: Thrift Shop
Mamas and the Papas: Dance Dance
Matchbox Twenty: Downfall, All I Need, Let's See How Far We've Come, Black and White People
Michelle Branch: Game of Love
Nickel Creek: Green and Gray
Paramore: Ain't It Fun
Sara Bareilles: Bottle It Up, Fairytales, Hold my Heart
Sarah McLachlan: Adia
Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
Script: For the First Time
Sister Hazel: Your Winter
Steely Dan: Barrytown
Switchfoot: Stars, Dare You To Move
Sum 41: In Too Deep
Taylor Swift: Blank Space
Whitney Houston: I Want To Dance with Somebody
Zedd: Clarity

Be sure to click on the lyrics tab below for past editions of this series.