Sunday, July 21, 2013

Orange is the New Black (through episode 8)

Two of my more fully realized blog entries (a review of "The Great Gatsby" was the other) were mysteriously reverted to an earlier incomplete draft form by the Blogger software. This matter is under investigation by the Google team, but in the interim, I will attempt to piece together a blog entry out of this although I doubt it will be as good as the original.

Orange is the New Black's portrayal of prison as a hellish place that brings out the worst in people is more a reiteration of pop culture's depiction of the prison system than something shockingly new.

Still, even if you've seen films like Sleepers or Shawshank Redemption, the show can sometimes  still upsetting to watch at some points and arouses a societal anger in me watching these girls have their hope strangled.

Prison guard Mendez stops short of physically violating the inmates but he doesn't have a good bone in his body and soon becomes the most hatable character on the show. The fact that none of his superiors care about him is troublesome if this story supposedly has bearing in real life.

Even the relatively benevolent warden Healey is part of a system in which the inmates truly have no one they can trust. Whether he actually cares about the well-being of the inmates is difficult to tell. He's frequently overwhelmed and tries to lessen the drama but an inmate like Piper still has to play the game of survival with him. She can't truly tell her his problems even when they're life threatening. He's unwilling to improve the lives of the prisoners and he only builds a council to give the illusion of power.

The show treats prison as an ultimate survival challenge in which there's a certain upside-down culture you need to assimilate to very quickly  and, more than anything else, you need highly advanced people skills.

One of the show's greatest strengths is the ease with which an expanding roster of supporting characters are introduced and deepened. Piper's fellow inmates are an eccentric bunch that run the full gamut of personality. Whether they're flawed individuals (Watson or Red), victims of circumstance (Yoga Jones and Sister Ingallis are the most extreme cases of this but Piper would also arguably fall in here), honorable outlaws (Miss Claudette or Daya) or knowingly bad people, there is no prisoner I don't have some sort of empathy for. 

That's not to say that many of the prisoners don't do horrible things to each other and make things worse but it's largely the people on the outside who make things worse through lack of understanding.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ten Best Websites of 2010

Here's a blast from the past article I wrote for Helium back in the day in a year-end review of 2010
1. Twitter-Sure, Mark Zuckerberg is the man of the year for Time Magazine but Facebook has largely been the same over the past few years. To the unfamiliar, twitter seems like a trimmed-down version of facebook with just status messages. However, twitter is in some ways a greater tool for the user to connect with other people. Facebook’s interactions are largely limited to people you know in real life. An exception is the newly added fan feature which allows you to hear news from famous people. Twitter, on the other hand, is far more efficient on this count: Information is streamlined better and it allows you to be a fan of anyone. What’s more, it allows other people to be a fan of you. Twitter is the place for important figures and celebrities to connect with people and for people to connect with each other. It’s also a terrific tool for gaining and receiving real-time.
The rest of the top ten in no particular order:
2. could potentially be characterized as a forward evolution from and It fuses the advantages and rewards of blogging with social media. People can do the equivalent of retweeting content and blogs that they like. As an added benefit, tumbler’s system provides a solution to intellectual property issues that arise when one blog wants to quote the content of another, since reposting someone else’s blog directs the traffic to the original source in a way that is entirely beneficial.
3. Foursquare-Foursquare has been a most welcome remedy to one of the main problems of the internet. The internet has constrained us all indoors and taken away the importance of place to some degree. Foursquare has once again reminded us of the benefits of leaving the house and circulating to different spaces to our own personal health, the economy, and society in general. With foursquare, visits to mundane places like the pet store or Starbuck’s now have value in and of themselves because Foursquare has turned circulation and movement into competition. 
4.’s Video Section-The website is devoted to content that’s humorous and skewed towards college students. Some parts of their site are stronger than others. The humor writing isn’t as strong as other brands (,, etc.) and it can be unrelatable if you’re not currently undergoing college yourself (recurring topics for articles include hook-ups, distance boyfriends, video games, RA’s, dorm life, and beer). The original video department, however is at the forefront of internet comedy. This group of twenty-somethings with very few TV or film credits on (except the short-lived College Humor show that MTV pullled after six episodes) produces comic videos and sketches that are more prolific and often more inventive than Saturday Night Live. The folks at college humor have been marketed very well, are user-friendly and have created a distinct brand of several different series: There’s a web series satirical of office politics called Hardly Working and a very popular odd couple series called “Jake and Amir,” in addition to parodies of the internet (look up “Internet Commenter Funeral” “Web Site Story” or “Professor Wikipedia” on youtube).
5. The AV release of at least three popular books this year, “AV Club’s Inventory” “My Year of Flops” and “The Big Rewind,” two of  which are based on features from this website, solidifies the AV Club as one of the best sources for informative and witty writing about movies, tv, books and pop culture in general. The AV Club began some 20 years ago as a companion piece to the print edition of the onion and it has taken a brand of its own, particularly online. One of my favorite features is “Random Roles” where an actor is asked to riff on a random selection of items in his filmography. Since actors are usually on the press circuit to plus their current projects, it can be a very interesting look. The website reviews TV shows episode-by-episode within hours of the show’s release and sparks lively discussions. The site averages 75,000 comments per year.
6. Daily Beast-An online newspaper of sorts that aggregates some of the best writers in print and on the internet.  Notable political names such as Condolezza Rice, Tony Blair and Meghan McCain have also written for the site. The models created by the Daily Beast and Huffington Post have been copied many times over by other content-based sites on the internet (Both’s fanhouse and’s TV squad use this model) and has even influenced newspapers in their online presence. The website pays top quality writers and because the writing is consistently good and informative, it pays to visit the website frequently when looking for content. The site merged with Newsweek Magazine this past year
7. Deadspin-Sports reporting has long been a stale institution. Quotes from athletes are usually cliché and uninformative and beat writers are usually stuck with stale conventions. Deadspin has been very successful at unearthing the darker and edgier stuff in the world of sports. They are often the first to break and cover scandals and devote time to negative publicity about athletes stories that are often too small and insignificant for larger papers to cover (i.e. a Chicago Bull being rude to some waiters in a restaurant).  They had a contest recently in which they wanted whatever evidence they could get that NCAA football and basketball players were highly unintelligent and wasting dollars of tuition money.
8. jobs are all about networking, than is the place to go for that. It allows you to post your resume and make connections with people you’ve worked with. A few employers use the linkedin page to aide with the job application process and I hope to see this trend consider substantially in the future.
9. to the website’s own description: “FlowingData explores how designers, statisticians, and computer scientists are using data to understand ourselves better – mainly through data visualization.” In other words, the web site is a display of how information can be presented creatively. It rarely disappoints at being uninteresting and spans a wide variety of tidbits on geography, consumer spending, internet trends and more.
10. it me or has recreational running exploded among adults as of recently? I think it’s because our jobs are more automated and, by and large, we are getting a lot less exercise at work. Running stores and running magazines have become very profitable and so has this site which calculates running routes and connects you to other runners who are running along that same route. Another excellent site about the running community (we can call this 10b) is which has interviews and videos of world-class races.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Key Largo, Identity Thief, and Jack-of-all-Genres Movies

Key Largo (1948):
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, directed by John Huston, based on a play by Maxwell Anderson

Identity Thief (2013):
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman, John Cho, Amanda Peet, T.I., Genesis Rodriguez, Eric Stonestreet, Robert Patrick

I've always had a fondness for this John Huston semi-classic due to the fact that it features my favorite place on Earth. My grandparents retired to a spot in the upper Florida Keys (approximately three miles below the southern tip of Key Largo) and being in the Keys has always been a calming happiness-inducing experience for me so it's fitting that the film is thematically centered around the redemptive powers of Key Largo. If you think about it, there's no overt romance between Bacall and Bogart's characters, and his resolution comes through finding peace with his new place.

The story follows a World War II veteran Frank McCloud (Bogart) as he travels to a hotel in Key Largo to meet the father, Mr. Temple (a wheelchair-bound Barrymore), and widow, Nora (Bacall), of a fallen comrade in the Italian theater. Warm feelings are shared between the three and it's established that Mr. Temple is a beloved community advocate of the Indians.

Since the film can't be entirely about three people reminiscing, drama eventually happens when it's revealed that all of the hotel guests hanging around the lobby are employed by notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and in a sudden flash, the jovial atmosphere turns into a hostage situation. If you're watching the film blind (having no knowledge of  the plot), as is often the case when you're watching TCM, that split second where everything turns topsy-turvy is a very effective moment.

The film is adapted from a play so it's fitting that it takes on a meditative tone. As various characters point guns at and try to outmaneuver each other, there's a lot of philosophical discussion. At the core, the film is about Frank and his lost sense of idealism. Does he believe only in self-preservation or heroism? There's also a parallel sentiment among the gangsters who mourn the glory days of the prohibition. A number of these thematic undercurrents, however, are left dangling. One gets the sense that the remiss gangster who keeps muttering to himself that prohibition will be back again, or the relationship between Temple and the Indians are remnants of the stage version that dealt more fully with these issues.

In the third act, the film goes back to full-on action mode as McCloud becomes a man of action on the high seas. Many of Huston's films have an adventurous tone, and this is no exception. Although, Key Largo isn't as acclaimed as Huston's films African Queen or Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it has a lot of strengths relative to those films. It's more tightly scripted, succeeds better at creating suspense, and the final set piece tops any scene  from either of those two films. The film also won an Oscar for Claire Trevor

Ironically, anyone who's spent any time on Key Largo knows that the island's most famous classic movie landmark comes from another John Huston film: At the Holiday Isle resort, the boat from the African Queen is on display and visitors can even take a tour on it.  While most of the film was shot in Los Angles, the exterior shots of Key Largo were shot at the Caribbean Club and while the property still exists today, much of the old exterior was destroyed in a pair of fires.

In thinking about how Key Largo combines action, staged drama, meditative dialogue, quasi-romance and the gangster genre, I was thinking about a recent article I read that said that Hollywood is pressing movies to include as many genres as possible.

This is why the latest buddy films (i.e. Hangover, Horrible Bosses) and romcoms (i.e. Date Night) often have a few action scenes added in and why the super hero genre is being infused with massive amounts of buddy action (Green Hornet), humor (Iron Man), or light-hearted romance (Spiderman).

The latest example of this is The Identity Thief starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy which would be a perfectly substantial film if the characters' lives were never in danger. Rain Man; Planes Trains and Automobiles; Trial and Error, Every Which Way But Loose, and the very recent Due Date all work as road trip buddy films without needing to double as double as action films.

Nonetheless, Identity Thief works and it's hard to argue that the action scenes detract from it. The film is paced well, genuinely sentimental at times, and features surprisingly good chemistry between Bateman and McCarthy. I didn't jump on board the McCarthy bandwagon when she was unexpectedly nominated for an Oscar for Bridesmaids, but she won me over here. As great of a script as Bridesmaids was script, the humor serves McCarthy even better in this one (read: far fewer fat jokes).

It's also interesting in the wake of his slightly darker turn in Arrested Development's Season 4,  Bateman plays a guy who's unapologetically an asshole if he needs to be. It would be even more interesting if I saw Arrested Development and this film in the order they came out, but still.

FAQ: Who is the best director today

This is a response to a message board question that asked who the best director was today. It's by no means the best sample of my work but I thought it was interesting enough to post here:

The original question:
"Who is the best director today in commercial terms?

Spielberg and Cameron obviously. Then probably Nolan. It's hard to tell exactly how big he will be without Batman but if Inception is any indicator he is pretty huge. Tarantino has had two big hits in a row. I think he might be top 5."

Who else?"

My response:

Tarantino is by no means Top 5. He had two critical hits, and I might even go so far as to say they created a lot of water cooler buzz and that they both rocked the cultural ether but that doesn't mean he was high in the box office. Django Unchained grossed $161 million which is comparable to a high-performing sports film (Remember the Titans and both versions of The Longest Yard were roughly comparable), an Adam Sandler film (which have consistently been between $110-$170 million dating from the Waterboy) or an animated film that isn't made by Pixar (Kung Fu Panda, Over the Hedge and the Ice Age series are all between $150 and $200 million).

Nonetheless, for someone like Tarantino, whose films don't have wide appeal to the kinds of people who don't frequent this message board, $161 million is pretty impressive.

Films with nuanced dialogue dont do well over seas, but then again the world is a little smaller since then, and I'm convinced that if anyone has a chance of selling their films to a distant market like Southeast Asia or Europe, Tarantino might be able to do it. But, a straight-up action director like Roland Emmerich, Wolfgang Petersen, or Michael Bay doesn't have the disadvantage of being overly steeped in film history and therefore already has a head start.

The top commercial directors isn't something that's as debatable as one might think because numbers don't lie. The ones who draw the biggest are, off the top of my head, Spielberg, Michael Bay, McG, Roland Emmerich, Ron Howard, Gore Verbinski, Jon Favreau, Wolfgang Petersen (although some of his films like Troy and Poseidon did fall short of $200 million which is what I would define as a bonafide hit). Some of the names on this list like Michael Bay and McG aren't particularly well-liked by the masses but they continue to be successful which just indicates that being successful on a commercial spectrum isn't something to brag about.

On the other end of the spectrum, Spielberg is critically acclaimed and successful and is pretty much the Michael Jordan of dominance in the box office. Don't forget that Lincoln grossed $155 million and it's not full of actions or explosions, but rather a thinky piece about whether to ask congress to back the 13th Amendment. It's essentially a 19th Century version of C-Span with the world's greatest method actor that would be

If I'm not mistaken, I think the two people who stand behind him on the all-time list last I checked were Ron Howard and Rob Zemeckis. Zemeckis is a protege of Spielberg and has aimed some films like the Polar Express or Christmas Carroll directly to the children's demographic while two of his most famous films Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future are films that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike which is a great recipe for success. No one is going to say that Howard is one of the greatest auteurs but he balances quality with commercial success very well.

I would agree that Nolan is doing very well for himself. I think the biggest measure of his success is when venturing outside of the Batman franchise because it's relatively easy to make a Batman film gross high. Inception had $292 million which is pretty solid. It's somewhat a marvel that it got that high because it's such a confusing film. I think he's riding the coattails off his batman reputation and when that wears off, I think he'll still be a genius, but not sure if he'll have populist appeal.

I think that if you're going to go with the most prominent and bankable director who's name isn't Spielberg, it might be J.J. Abrams. He made Star Trek a success, Super 8 did pretty well and was well-received and I think Star Trek 2 is gonna gross a lot. He also just took over Star Wars. Similarly, Joss Weedon has followed a similar path and Avengers had a spectacularly high gross but it's hard to say whether that's the film or him. He wasn't able to get eyeballs on his TV shows.

James Cameron is a crap shoot because he goes long breaks without making a film. For all we know, in ten years, the public appetite might have changed completely. If you don't make films frequently, it's hard to keep the public appetite up for your next film.

To some degree, it's the properties and not the directors that make big hits. Verbinski lucked out by getting the reigns to Pirates of the Caribbean which increases his average significantly. On the other hand, Favreau grossed $300 million plus with Iron Man but considering he was able to make money off films as disparate as Elf and Cowboys and Aliens, I have some confidence in him.

Lastly, Ben Stiller (a sometimes director of his own material) also has some good commercial instincts. Series of his such as Night at the Museum and Meet the Fockers are seemingly ordinary but they both had incredibly high grosses.