Saturday, August 12, 2017

My Response to 6 AV Club Q & A Prompts

The pop-culture website AV Club has a fun Friday feature where they ask their writers a broad question and have them riff on pop culture with differing answers and writing styles. I noticed that I have some pretty detailed answers from the comments section, so I thought I'd elaborate a little and paste some of them over here. 

What Pop Culture Screams 1997 to You?

The summer of 1997 reflects a time when the Summer blockbuster was trying to transition into the tentpole (so called because they hold up the profit line from all the riskier projects) industry we know today. Natural disaster films like “Volcano” and “Anaconda” and the annual film starring Harrison Ford as a gruff hero of sorts (i.e. "Clear and Present Danger", "The Fugitive", "Patriot Games"), “Air Force One” took up their spaces on the calendar. Efforts to sequalize big hits were burning into the ground with epic failures like “Lost World” and “Batman and Robin.”

It was at this time when the formula was more of a prototype than a sure thing that Barry Sonnenfeld released "Men in Black" from a comic book that was not a well-known existing property. Carrying the biggest budget of the year on a movie this (for lack of a better word) weird might not make sense in retrospect, but it was on the heels of a time when visually idiosyncratic film makers Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton had their biggest commercial successes ("12 Monkeys" for the former;  Batman series and "Edward Scissorhands" for the latter). It was as good a time an effort in the vacuum of a working formula to try a blockbuster that was visually weird and stylistically unique. It also had Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones who always seem to epitomize the 90s for me. 

I like to think of myself as a reluctant extrovert, although I am likely not the only person with a duality between getting energy from personal interactions and being exhausted by all the complications therein. As a human-interest journalist, I love the opportunity to dive into unique subcultures what's the luxury of not having to declare myself a part of any of them. That's why being a caterer on the "Party Down" crew seems like a perfect fit. Every gig I take will, at the very least, be eventful for starters. I will be at liberty to partake in the event (the show's in-universe rules will find a way to stretch my fifteen-minute break into full-on party mode) should I desire, but if I'm feeling reticent, my uniform will allow me to stay in wallflower/observer mode without fully committing to being part of the scene. I would also get a lot of enjoyment out of watching my slightly depressed coworkers alternate between flirting with each other and destroying one another's egos.


Romantic comedies are a viable genre when handled with care, but there is no narrative trope that is more sorely in need of reexamination than the penchant to romantically pair off any two characters who make googly eyes at each other as the standard happy ending. Aside from how it bears little  resemblance to real life and encourages unhealthy expectations, it really dilutes the magic of a romantic ever after if it’s already a foregone conclusion. Nowhere does this seem more of an egregious mistake than the 2012 indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Aubrey Plaza plays emotionally detached young adult Darius (in other words, Aubrey Plaza in full snark mode), on a quest with two other journalists to uncover the truth behind a strange man (Mark Duplass as Kenneth) who thinks he can time travel. Darius’s casual cynicism gets put through the blender, as she makes her way into Kenneth's circle of trust only through empathizing with him. In and of itself, this should be enough to make a great story. Furthermore, because it’s an indie film, it would have been a great opportunity to buck the oldest trend in the book and not pair the characters up. After all, they have no chemistry, the age difference between the two characters borders on gross, and it’s quite possible that Kenneth is mentally ill. Instead, the predictable end result takes down the movie a couple pegs to forgettable.

The easiest way to answer this question is to scroll down my all-time list of favorite films, cross-reference with the proper time period, and voila! But watching a brilliant movie I know will be brilliant and that I also know (with a few exceptions) my fellow movie watchers will also appreciate, will be a foregone conclusion.
Therefore, my criteria has to be brilliant yet baffling: Trying to predict audiences’ conflicting reactions to something as full of raw anger and as adeptly staged as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff” would be a hoot. Films like “Five Easy Pieces” or “The Graduate” are great films I have trouble fully grasping the thematic context of because of my distance from the counter-culture movement and experiencing these films during their times could be enlightening.

The one that keeps sticking in my head is “Brazil." Terry Gilliam’s dedication to visual purity often overshadows his extremely inventive storylines and this is one where the balance between the two really shine. Opinions will vary, but this is his first film which could be considered a classic and I would enjoy seeing people discover the idiosyncratic storyteller ascending to a new level of coherence, appeal and complexity in his work. It’s also a film that takes a while to get so the post-film discussion would consist of a lot of “huh”s but it would be a lot of fun piecing the puzzles and symbolism of the film together.

I get confronted with this question every time I desire some comfort TV and tune in to find “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” (who the Gods of syndication have been eternally kind to) are pretty much always on. While this wouldn’t be an unpleasant use of a half-hour,  I have some strange resistance to revisiting either of the series that came to culturally define the decade in which I came of age. Maybe, it’s an act of rebellion against the perceived quality of these shows: While I tend to rail against hipsterish attitudes of consciously defining your tastes against the mainstream, I can’t help admitting that the high placement of both these shows on best-of-all-time lists drives me to want to define my tastes from this decade differently.

Beyond that, there’s plenty of pedestrian reasons to resent these shows. How can I not resent The Simpsons like a privileged child for being cancellation-free when every other show (including superior sister show “Futurama”) has to contend with the axe? How can I not blame the show’s success for Jerry Seinfeld’s leverage to get away with passive-aggressive behavior or Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s frustrating lockhold on lead actress awards in the present day? There’s a myriad web of reasons not to like these shows and while I find it difficult to put my finger on exactly what keeps me from turning to channel five, I know that I’ve been able to resist the urge for a decade.

What Pop Culture Becomes More Meaningful as You Get Older?


I've gradually gone from liking "Dead Poets Society” but not understanding the ending, to thinking it is a perfectly realized film. As a child, Robin Williams’ character of John Keating was so right and the stuffy administration so wrong that I found the film’s “Oh Captain, My Captain” scene to not make up for all the tragedy that had been happening in the third act. How could Williams As I’ve grown into adulthood and learned firsthand the myriad of ways in which an employer can screw you over (including some not particularly well-received stints in the education sector), I’ve come to appreciate the “Oh Captain My Captain” scene as a pretty solid outcome for an anti-establishment type in an employment landscape that discourages such free thinking and isn’t necessarily fair. Besides, what is the job of a teacher other than to impart a lesson onto his students? He might not have stayed until the end of the school year, but he can rightfully say "Mission Accomplished".

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A professional review of my writings and stuff for 2017 so far

-I've judged the 2017 Arlington Film Festival in an expanded role.

-I wrote two articles on the Titanic for How Do You Know and Top Tenz for the 105th anniversary of the sinking, a long-time interest of mine

-I've been writing long-form essays on television and film culture for the American Conesrvatives involving a lot of synthesis and research that has enabled me to get a voice in the cultural conversation that is occurring now
-I've started working for the Falls Church News Press and wrote five stories for them in the human interest vein. A particularly challenging one was to weave together the three stories of the three moms on City Council into one coherent thread. Another one was the delicate topic of a play about Alzheimer's featuring a speaker who had just lost her husband for Alzheimer's. The third story was about a restaurant that's evolved into a hub for veterans on Memorial and Veteran's day, and is possibly the oldest restaurant in Fairfax County as it has stood there for seven decades

-I'm reporting for the Skagit Valley Herald for the 3rd year in a row on the Scripps National Spelling Bee. This is one of the most fun events on my calendar. Reporters get the royal treatment (there's even a spread in the media room!) and it's so much fun watching these kids and their families be treated to a luxury weekend
-I've been writing for a real estate firm in Tyson's Corner Virginia, and have contributed press releases and artists profiles to Agora Art Gallery in New York.

-I got an article into the Washington Post for their street scene

-I authored two articles for Cracked including one in which I wrote all of the entries. One of them was my first solo article.  I'm also working on two other articles at the moment that are making their way through the editorial rounds.

-Lastly I interviewed the world's greatest Olympic historian for RunBlogRun in advance of the 2017 World Track and Field Championships and in response to the 2016 Olympics for The written interview was actually composited from two oral interviews.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Some Informally Scribbled Notes on Netflix's First Season of Glow

This is going to be in bullet form due to time constraints.

Credit: Netflix

-Allison Brie is proving an adept actress in so many projects lately but I can’t decide whether the show wants us to think that her character of Ruth is a good actress or not. It’s true that GLOW encourages over-the-top acting but Ruth generally comes across as among the over-the-toppiest in the bunch.

-It personally took a while to be sold on Ruth (Allison Brie) surviving some of the early bumps in the story. She got cut in the first week (not necessarily deservedly but by in-show logic), got beat up in the second week (I suppose she gets points for introducing him to Debbie?), and hasn't really shown herself to be a great fighter and lacks a working character. Did Sam forget he has the power to cut people? If her specialty is acting (even though she does it inappropriate moments and comes off in-universe as a bit hammy), why doesn't he use her as an acting coach of sorts if this is sort of a performance thing?

-Why are there so many outdoors car-hop-like eateries in the 1980s? Not really an expert on the decade but the other times I've seen such dining arrangements was in "The Founder" "Guess Who's coming to Dinner" and "American Graffiti" and those were all well before the 1980s

-I'm not sure if it's a commentary on sexism or just plain sloppy that Ruth’s getting the blunt of the homewrecker label when Debbie's husband sought out Ruth, snuck into her room and seduced her. It's also implied that he was the instigator the first time too, so this is at least a two-way street. Also, I'm not clear on what the Debbie-Ruth situation was before she was there. Did I also mention that I can't figure out if we're supposed to think that Ruth has discernable talent or if she's just scrappy and persistent? (edit: Yes, I did)

Credit: Popsugar
-Like Jenji Kohan’s other main work of the Netflix era, “Orange is the New Black,” there is much to appreciate in the diversity of characters on the show including the Indian and Cambodian women. They’re not just differences in ethnicity, but differences in personality (i.e. we have two different kinds of goth girls) and body type. Similarly this is a great ensemble work in that many of the figures in the background have the potential to be great characters and many are indeed given moments to carry the storyline. Justine, a goth girl that could easily fit into a John Hughes film, was a character that I was eying as someone with potential, and lo and behold, she really takes control of the story towards the end.

-The primary reason I didn't jump on board this show at first was that I have near-zero exposure to professional men's or women's wrestling, but I think I mostly like it as a time capsule of the 80s and the sort of team component of it. The way the women are bonding or fighting or otherwise figuring themselves out as a unit and going on escapades in a ramshackle motel as they try to approach a form of entertainment that sounds pretty unlike anything anyone else is trying seem to be the show's main attraction from my point of view

-While I’m weary of shows that are overly preachy on social-justice issue, there’s much to appreciate about how the show breaks out of a male gaze (scenes of female bonding, for example seems much more natural in the hands of female directors and writers). I don't think the show really works as any sort of major statement against sexism, because it's a period piece and “men back in the day were more sexist than men now” can be easily filed under “duh.” Still, the show encourages a healthy degree of self-reflection
-I can’t think of a character on television remotely like Bash. Sure, there are rich playboys who are so awash with privilege that their disconnect from reality makes them affable comic fodder. While Bash’s lack of experience in the real world means he’s never had to work in any traditional labor-inducing sense, he’s an anomaly because he has such die-hard persistence to make his idea work within his limited understanding of how to implement such ideas. A lot of credit goes to the show for making him such a rootable character.

-The final episode is pure cathartic smiles. Ruth comes through! Sam comes through (as a dad)! Then Sam comes through as an artist! Bash's mom comes through! Mark's head doesn't get bashed in, but at least Debbie breaks free of his clutches. Sam's usurpation of Ruth in the name of showmanship is the perfect blend of sentiment and tempered practicality and it even works as a meta-commentary on not giving the audience the happy ending they think they want.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Review

If you make a list of the most memorable biopics in history, very few of them come from before 1970 (The year of "Patton"). Films like "Life of Emile Zola" "Sergeant York" "Day for Night" and even Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata" feel rather dry despite the efforts of their actors. Perhaps it's the Hollywood code that prevents the juicy dark parts of these characters' lives from coming to the forefront in these narratives. Or perhaps Hollywood felt more comfortable with fictional characters whose lifespans they can depict like the title characters of "Johnny Belinda" or "Goodbye Mr. Chips".

"Birdman of Alcatraz" is a rare exception. It follows the entire adult lifespan of a man and remains faithful to much of his life story so that the emotional effect really feels authentic and packs punch.

The film's subject, Robert Stroud (played by the never disappointing Burt Lancaster), is a lifer at Leavenworth Penitentiary (and later Alcatraz) who transforms from an anti-social rebel to an elder statesman (within the confines of his prison walls) when three birds enter to his cell and his senses of empathy and curiosity are awakened. In caring for his birds, he begins to care and form friendships with those around him and finds a purpose to devote his time. When his birds get sick and the local veterinarian tells him it's a routine epidemic and doesn't offer a solution, he exhaustively researches and finds his own and in publishing his results, he becomes one of the leading ornithologists in the country.

The degree to which Stroud was a spiteful man or simply misunderstood (many inmates described him as psychopathic even in his "reformed" stage) is debatable, but both Burt Lancaster and the author of the film's source material, Tom Gaddis (played by Edmond O'Brien in a somewhat odd fourth-wall-breaking narration), have an affection and admiration for the man and that shines through.

Because the character of Stroud is in every frame of the film and in many of these moments, it's just him and the birds. Similar to films like "Cast Away", "All is Lost", or "Wild" the challenges on the part of Lancaster and director John Frankenheimer to make these quiet passages work are met extraordinarily.

Similarly, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Thelma Ritter, and Betty Field do great work in supporting parts. In particular, Karl Malden makes the case for being one of the most consistently great actors of his generation with this understated role as a straight-laced prison warden is what Robert Stroud's anti-hero persona is defined against. The two share a begrudging respect for each other after spending over half their lives on opposite sides and it's a relationship with a lot of depth.

This is a film that one should see not just because Robert Stroud was a fascinating character but because Frankenheimer and Lancaster bring his story to life so well.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sporcle Quiz I Made: Most Nominated Actresses for Golden Globe (for movies)

This is another Sporcle quiz I made updated from an old quiz that didn't account for the last five years. When playing, keep in mind: -This quiz only covers movie nominations -The Golden Globes were created in 1943 but were highly irregular in terms of categories and the number of nominees in their first couple of decades. Some years, they didn't include any alternative nominees at all. -Comedy (and in some years musical) is included here, so actresses with great comedic performances to their name might pop up higher. -Have fun!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Three Edgar Wright Films: Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Baby Driver

To the degree that the separation between comedy and drama remains relevant (or honest as far as award showology is concerned), Edgar Wright’s films generally gets placed in the comedy category which might be giving them short shrift. His genre parodies have a certain lightness to them when compared to the real thing but to call them laughter-inducing isn’t an accurate word (unless, of course, you are finding it ha-ha funny on first viewing). The only problem with shortchanging him is that there are so many other words to describe the unique appeal of Wright’s unique works:  kinetic, visually inventive, comfortable to genre watchers, and affectionate. And yes, there’s a decent amount of pure dramatic sediment that drives his stories first.  

The two films I’ve seen prior to Baby Driver- Hot Fuzz (2007) and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) - are cacophonies of sound and action. The former is a buddy cop parody on overdrive. Like a Terry Gilliam film, the biggest draw is its visual invention. Like a kid playing with the rewind and forward buttons on a tape recorder (only a thousand times better), Wright’s affection for his subject is matched, perhaps overshadowed, by his love for telling a story. Simon Pegg’s arc - a determinator cop who needs to loosen up a little – hits its emotional notes but it’s more of a soft landing.

Scott Pilgrim is a hybrid adaptation of a comic and a cross-medium exploration merging conventions of films and video games. Michael Cera plays the titular character. He’s a bassist in a band and a hopeless romantic and despite looking and sounding like Michael Cera, he finds relatively good-looking women willing to date him and is considered hip amongst his small circle of friends in his small town (did I mention that the film is set in Toronto, the fourth largest city on the continent!?). Pilgrim finds an appropriate emo girl of his dreams but things start getting surreal when her seven exes show up and he must defeat them in videogame combat which is where the majority of the cool visual trickery comes in.

For some odd reason, everyone in the film is a manic pixie dream something (whether roommate, bandmate, sibling, standard Aubrey Plaza character or ex-girlfriend): Everyone in his life is incessantly interested in the news of his love life without ever having a need to share news of their own with him. Perhaps if the film is a meta-commentary on how video games are an exercise in egocentric empowerment, it’s fitting that Scott Pilgrim is at the center of his own universe. The mythology of this filmic universe is rich with parallels to video games that add a layer of depth and richness to the story. There’s also a thru-line of symbolism here about how romantic courtship with a damaged partner involves a metaphorical fight against their baggage. In short, there’s a lot of depth here. On top of that, it’s a movie about a guy asking a girl to love him (or whatever that line from “Notting Hill” is).

Like Wes Anderson and “Grand Budapest Hotel” or Richard Linklater and “Boyhood”, “Baby Driver” is the kind of film that has the potential to make Edgar Wright a player in the awards season and cement his place as an acclaimed director (again, as far as awards matter). Like the band OK Go’s YouTube career, Edgar Wright’s technical expertise is used for an entirely different magic trick: In this case, it’s attempting to stage the most ambitious car chases ever seen without use of green screen. At the same time, the film is rich with character work: Miles AKA Baby is an original creation with deep back story and the work by John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey and Lily James builds up the support significantly. More importantly, there’s a deep emotional component at play with Baby’s newfound love, his good will towards innocent civilians in dangerous situations, the hole in his life from his late mom, his care for his foster dad, and his emotional coming-of-age as a man of moral character. Baby's final surrender isn't just a nice combination of sound and music but something of an emotional meaning. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Last Minute Emmy Wish List in the Comedy Categories

Here are some last minute predictions for the Oscars in the comedy categories using only shows I've seen. Seven shows get nominated in the comedy category and in the writing and directing categories the shows generally go to specific episodes. In this case, I listed overall writing and directing and then picked twelve episodes I really liked in hopes of picking them up. On the drama side, I don't really have many hopes except hoping that Bates Motel gets honored and that Aubrey Plaza gets a supporting nod in Legion.

Best Comedy
Good Place
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Trial and Error
The Real O’Neals
Lady Dynamite
Schitt’s Creek
Those Who Can’t
BoJack Horseman

The Good Place
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Trial and Error
Dirk Gentley’s Whollistic Detective Agency
I Love Dick

Dirk Gentley’s Whollistic Detective Agency
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The Good Place
BoJack Horseman
Trial and Error

Lead Actor:
Hank Azaria, Brockmire
Randall Park, Fresh off the Boat
Pete Holmes, Crashing
Eugene Levy, Schitt’s Creek
John Lithgow, Trial and Error
Andy Daly, Review

Lead Actress:
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie
Maria Bamford, Lady Dynamite
Kathryn Hahn, I Love Dick
Constance Wu, Fresh off the Boat
Kristen Bell, The Good Place
Amanda Peete, Brockmire
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Supporting Actor:
Danny DeVito, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Fred Melamed, Lady Dynamite
Sam Waterson, Grace and Frankie
Kevin Bacon, I Love Dick
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Ted Danson, The Good Place

Supporting Actress:
Martha Plimpton, Real O’Neals
June Diane Raphael, Grace and Frankie
Lauren Lapkus, Crashing
Mary Steenburgen, Last Man on Earth
Jayma Mays, Trial and Error
Catherine O’Hara, Schitt’s Creek

Guest Actor:
Adam Scott as Trevor, The Good Place
Daveed Diggs as Perry, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Ray Liotta as Paulie Fiuccillo, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Stephen Tobolowsky as Jack Barker, Silicon Valley
Aasif Mandvi as Parshwall, Another Period
John Gemberling as John Hancock, Making History

Guest Actress:
Cheri Oteri as Cattie Goodman, Those Who Can’t
Annie Mumulo as Jill Kwatne-Adelman nee Kwatne, Lady Dynamite
Christine Rose as Josie Davis, Trial and Error
Ramona Young as Allison, The Real O’Neals
June Dianne Raphael as Eleanor Roosevelt, Another Period
Sandy Martin as Mac's mom, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Twelve Best Episodes
"Juan Likes Rice and Chicken" Documentary Now-An absurdist take down of high-end dining involving a Colombian restaurant in the middle of nowhere and the half banana, rice, and chicken dish that drives people wild
"Chadwick’s Angels" Making History-"Time travel with idiots" was the basic gist of this under-rewarded series and few plots were as superfluous as a guy traveling back to the 1980's just to complete an ice cream challenge he failed as a middle schooler. The episode ends with some impressively heavy time travel conundrums.
"Kimmy Goes to College" Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt-The episode features Kimmy Schmidt reuniting with her one true frenemy Xan and surreptitiously finding herself in college while Titus and Mikey end their relationship on the sweetest of terms. 
"Real Secrets" Real O’Neals-The season finale is a high stakes episode with a possible marraige proposal and pregnancy scare. More importantly it ends with Eileen using all her collected wisdom as a recovering homophobe to win over Allison's disapproving parents. Like many of the show's episodes, it ends with the appropriate "aw" moment
"Always an Oscar Bridesmaid" Documentary Now-Fred Armisen's love of quirk combined with the show's love of milking out little details of derivation from the original story result in a a great season finale about a man who Forrest Gumps his way through the last 50 years of Hollywood Awards history.
"The Gang Tends Bar" It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia-Of all the adventures the gang has tried, they've never done one where the gang simply does their jobs.
"Jason Mendoza" Good Place-The cliffhanger for the last episode is that the buddhist monk is, in fact, Jason Mendoza but we had no idea he was this stupid and fun. One of the season's big shockers.
"Eight Mile High"Those Who Can’t-Abby joins a gang and Loren enters the world of freestyle rapping. It's about as hard-core (and oblivious) as these characters. Also earns points for being so politically incorrect it comes back to satire (either that or dumb fun)
"Prince and the Pauper" Another Period-A prince comes to Bellacourt manner seeking a bride. The episode's an excuse for Lillian and Beartice to unleash their most awful traits and for Peepers to get schooled in the art of butlership. And poor, poor Blanche.
"Michael’s Gambit" The Good Place-AKA The episode with the big twist
"That’s Too Much Man" BoJack Horseman-BoJack's demons become completely unhinged in this time-skipping episode that pairs BoJack with old costar (and on-again off-again) friend Sarah Lynn. It's an episode where BoJack reaches some odd level of self-discovery with a person who has always been important to his life in an odd way that appropriately ends tragically. Happiness is fleeting indeed.

"Fish Out of Water" BoJack Horseman-The visually splended underwater episode that was talked about everywhere on the blogosphere.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orphan Black Season 1 Notes: My Introduction to Clone Club

Credit: BBC America

I recently started watching Orphan Black and have been racing against time to watch the series in the present by the Season finale. In less than three weeks, I have seen three entire seasons of the show and have taken some notes as I've progressed. I took the liberty here in these notes of annotating based on what I know at the end of the third season. 

-Similar to “Terminator” or one of those fish-out-of-water Hitchcock films (“North by Northwest” and “39 Steps” are the most famous examples), the pilot cleverly layers itself with other genres over the hard science-fiction. There’s a stolen identity charade, a underground crime angle, and a buddy cop dynamic.
-The pilot doesn’t have a lot of up-front exposition either but that’s because it has a lot of action. The show gets a lot of mileage out of one hour. Sarah’s status as an orphan, ward of Mrs. S and mother to a little girl named Kira are not things that we know automatically and a lot of things are pieced out as we go along. True, there are some sloppy exposition bombs being dropped, but it’s preferable to slowing down the pace.
-As for the exposition on Paul and Art’s storylines, there’s even less time to establish anything but it’s mostly from the POV of Sarah. Virtually the only character trait we really know about Sarah is that she’s far less disoriented than she should be under this situation
-When watching this on Amazon Prime, you can use the x-ray feature to see when Tatiana Maslany is playing Beth or Sarah and that’s helpful. It’s almost a cheat sheet

Second Episode:
-I’m kind of tired of artistic people like Felix living in swanky lofts that are clearly designated as storage space and not living space (see “New Girl” or “Friends”)

-If Sarah was this intelligent, studious, and amazing at improvising social interaction, you think she would have been employed somewhere with a high paying job already? I have yet to see a TV character that fits in the overlapping space in the venn diagram of drifter and stoner

-Allison is kind of a jerk, yes, but she also sticks out because she doesn’t want to volunteer exposition to Sarah like everyone else.

-The actor who plays Art is emoting so much, it borders on parody. The science-fiction here is layered over other genres but very little effort is expended to make Art’s dialogue not sound like the standardest of standard cop speak.

-I’m also not particularly cool with Art’s confiscation of Beth’s money. Sure, it moves the plot along (or rather, keeps it in an amenable holding point) but it’s wrong on so many levels. If Art is trying to make sure his partner is getting her life back together, how is s—t not going to hit the fan when Paul finds out that $70,000 has been stolen from her account.

-It’s taking a while to get into my head that this show is supposed to be Canadian (the Ontario license plate is tipping me off). Because of Felix and Sarah’s heavy accents and the British punk aesthetic, I was confused for a while as to where this was set. This still leaves questions of how two young adults have not sufficiently been acculturated enough to the Ontario landscape to adopt the accent.

Third Episode:
-Sweet catharsis: Things are finally explained! Here’s what I’m most wondering. I’m more or less watching this in a vacuum, for others guys how much of the clone plot did you know in advance of this reveal?
-Finally, things get a little easier for Sarah! This is a show like “Americans” “Prison Break” or “Breaking Bad” were all kinds of disparate people and organizations are conspiring against one person in entirely different directions to make their life near impossible. It’s in Episode three, that the impossible starts to feel possible. (Ed. Note: Apparently, there’s A LOT more to learn, I was so young and foolish back then to think I was close to learning the truth here)
-Where did Allison come from? She moved her family to Toronto or she was already there?

-I wonder if it alludes to Sarah’s past life that she is adept at flirting to get what she wants with men

-With all her secrets and her mission, why did Beth acquire a live-in boyfriend like Paul?

-Allison strikes me as one of those annoying uber-moms. “I have kids, I’m important!” is her mantra (Ed. Note: This later gets majorly dropped. Allison also clearly has the ability to enjoy and do things for herself. I dub her in later seasons)
Fourth Episode:
-Sarah: Paul is dead weight. Dump him ASAP. I would even recommend killing him and disposing his body for all that is at stake

-Why doesn’t Sarah just get “Beth” relegated to the desk as fast as possible? Thee less “work” she has to do the better.

-Helena reminds me of Paul Bettany in the Da Vinci code (Ed. Note: apparently, with her religious upbringing there’s a reason for this)

-As someone who did a semester at the University of Minnesota, the campus does not look like that, but it’s kind of nice to see my sort-of alma mater referenced in television. Much of the show’s hard-core science comes through Cosima and there’s something to be appreciated about the prevalence of a TV character whose dialogue could legitimately be believed as real science as opposed to technobabble

The Rest of Season 1:
On the whole, I think this show and is up there with the best dramas on TV. It's a situation where the protagonist is dealing with pressures from 8 or 9 disparate parties that are trying to kill, extort, expose or use them in some other bad way and they have to keep them all at bay with different sets of lies. “Prison Break”, “The Americans”, some of the serialized storylines in “Burn Notice”, and “Breaking Bad” are examples of this, but there’s a lot to be said of how the protagonists are flexible enough to alter their game plan rather than stick to a mantra of “no, we're never telling anyone anything" and a lot of the show's turns are about revealing truths to different parties as they go on and playing some of these parties who are now in-the-know off each other in strategic ways
In short, it’s a show that differs in that it’s not about characters trying to define themselves through deception of society. Rather, the show builds positively among its characters through openness (sharing of “the big secret”) as time moves on. C

Other Notes: 
-I still think Art isn't played by the best actor, and I’m glad he’s a bit more out of the picture. At least Angie is more outwardly a jerk to others (and Sarah's line "bite me" was one of the best moments of the season)
-I like the budding Allison/Felix relationship. Allison is an adequate character, so far, but not great. I didn't really buy her fall from grace and while she talks about her family a lot in the beginning, bucan't even remember offhand the names of her adopted children.
-Aynsley's death was horrible to witness and hard to excuse. It's really just not human natural instinct if you're not a murderer to let someone die like that. Aynsley never got dealt a good hand in the events of this show. She kind of reminds me of those shallow nosy rich suburban housewife archetypes TV generally likes to diminish to some form of evil but I'd like to think shows like “Desperate Housewives” tried to play with those misconceptions. In any case, it’s interesting to note that unlike shows that feel the need to kill off characters just to keep the suspense going, there’s no such pressure with “Orphan Black”
-My crush on Delphine knows no bounds
-Badly needed: Cosima's origin story. Who are her parents? At what point did she find out she was a clone?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

My Top Ten (Plus Five HM) for 2009

      In an effort to stretch my critical muscles, I thought I'd pick a random year and write up my top ten. Check here for my top 25 performances of 2009

       Film of the Year: Up in the Air-The opening montage of borrowed aerial shots lets us know that this is going to be an apologetically modern story for our modern times. Jason Reitman’s third film is a spiritual successor of sorts to his debut, “Thank You For Smoking”, in looking at grandiose themes with cutting satire. This time Reitman looks at the glitzy but ultimately unfulfilling life of corporate travel. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels around the country firing people with dignity. His social needs are taken care of by the occasional rendezvous and the familiar faces of gate attendants and corporate logos are the closest thing he has to a home. Through Bingham, Reitman looks at modern detachment from the inherent contradictions of the firing people with dignity, and looking at the loneliness such a job would entail. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick both compliment in roles that deservedly won accolades.

2. Inglourious Basterds-Quentin Tarantino’s gleeful take on the World War II film is less beholden to history than having a good time. The film is marked by Mexican shoot-outs, explosions, and memorable characters of both the good and evil variety. From the polyglot colonel played with theatricality by Christophe Waltz to the egotistical sniper with a voyeuristic streak played by Daniel Bruehl to the larger-than-life German actress played by Dianne Kruger, this is a movie where the action isn’t second to performances.

3. The Soloist-This film, about the relationship between a human interest reporter and a homeless cellist with Julliard training, came and went without making much of a dent but there’s a lot to recommend about this film. Being a human interest reporter for seven years and having a fascination with what makes classical musicians tick certainly helps enjoy this film, yes, but it’s also a more universal story of two people symbiotically rediscovering themselves with Robert Downey Jr’s stoical performance keeping the film from dripping out any excess sap. Lisa Gay Hamilton, Catherine Keener and Tom Hollander all provide great supporting roles.

4. Star Trek-My cynical attitude towards franchise reboots quickly dissipated from “why?” to “why not” within a few scenes. J.J. Abrams’s sleek visuals and fully-realized action scenes are complimented by one of the most perfectly-selected casts I’ve ever seen. Sure they all look unrealistically pretty compared to their predecessors but I’m willing to let that slide.

5. In the Loop-Armando Ianucci’s political satire is populated with fast-talking characters straining to be taken seriously who ultimately have little clue what they’re talking about. If you’ve seen “Veep”, the pace of dialogue and humor won’t surprise you (and I can’t say I’m qualified in any comparative analysis having only seen a couple episodes of "Veep") but it’s a joy to see this type of energy in cinematic terms. It might even be said that the one-off nature of the plot makes a sharper point about the directionless bureaucracy that guides politics considering that serialized television has to take a direction sooner or later.

6. Up-While not Pixar’s most ambitious movie concept, there’s a lot to be said for the execution. Ed Asner gives, for my money, the best voice over performance in history, the film rightfully gains recognition for its emotional punch of an opening montage, and a balloon trip to South America lends itself to visuals that dazzle in a whole new light. More than that, it’s a story with a sense of non-stop adventure backed by a pair of characters one gets easily invested in.

7. Sin Nombre-Cary Fukunaga explores the bleak life choices of people in the middle triangle of Central America whether they decide to risk their lives emigrating northward or live under a lawless void that’s pervaded by the lure of gang life. The story finds its heart in a gang member who makes a decision to do something decent (stop a brutal rape) and follows his impending doom.

8. 500 Days of Summer-Tonally, this love story is wispy fairy tale but it’s also an unflinching look at unhealthy romantic expectations. Wide-eyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt (matched in charm and cuddliness by a flighty Zooey Deschanel) is a man with a wide-open heart but is doomed by his unwillingness to face the reality of what his partner wants.

9. The Blind Side-The true story about a homeless teenager who gets adopted by an affluent white family in Tennessee is a classic sports film with unusually quiet and somber notes and a focus that takes place mostly off the field. It’s not the post-racial declaration of coexistence people might be looking for but it’s told with nuance and anchored by strong performances.

10. District 9-Neil Blokamp’s regionally specific version of dystopia is so gritty and visceral, one can feel its otherworldly landscape. The film plays with P.O.V. and format to maximum effect. Set in a future version  of South Africa, the film parallels the struggles of apartheid without turning it into pure allegory.

Stephen Soderbergh’s  The Informant isn’t particularly coherent on a first viewing but it’s a very clever playing out of the “unreliable narrator” trope and has some curious casting.

The Invention of Lying is a classic man-environment mismatch comedy: In this case it’s lying man vs. honest society, an inversion of 1997’s Liar Liar. It doesn’t deliver on Ricky Gervais’s trademark cringe humor but it gets maximum comic mileage out of its premise and has a surprising amount of heart.

Extract is an underappreciated Mike Judge film that once again takes on his familiar themes of working class frustration but delivers its “the right workplace for you is waiting out there somewhere” parable with a bit more conviction and heart than his previous films. The film deftly juggles a pair of intersecting hair-brained schemes while leaving room to fill out the quirks of its auxiliary characters with a strong sense of place.

Funny People is the only Judd Apatow (or Judd-Apatow-by-association) film I’ve seen that seems like a genuine attempt to move people with humor than a quest to inject moviedom with as many dick jokes as possible.

The Hangover created a sizeable dent in the pop culture sphere due to its lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between and the gut punch value of its reveals as three friends try to piece together what happened the night before. With a naked Ken Joeng popping out of a car and Mike Tyson’s (with pet tiger in tow) extremely random cameo, the film kept audiences in an anything-can-happen trance that still holds up today.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The 50 Best Film Ensembles with Adam Spector: Part I of IV

What makes a great ensemble? A small slice of awards season is focused on a best ensemble award (which is gravely misunderstood) but there’s not a lot of actual discussion on ensembles which is why after mulling over a few ideas to explore this topic (there’s a poll I’ve been running as well), and settling on a cross-blogging project with my friend Adam Spector of Adam’s Rib. We each independently listed our fifty favorite film ensembles and will have four rounds of discussion as we reveal our lists from bottom to top. Over the course of the series, the hope is to point out surreptitious strokes in casting; explore the way films are enhanced by actors on the bench; appreciate how certain groups of actors bounce off each other in a way to be more than the sum of their parts; and remember how certain actors in the background enhance our favorite films. In other words, we'll discover what a great ensemble is as we go along:

Adam's list 31-50
31.   Juno 32.   Day for Night 33.   Citizen Kane 34.   Grand Hotel 35.   Hannah and Her Sisters 36.   Murder on the Orient Express 37.   Bonnie and Clyde 38.   Love Actually 39.   Prairie Home Companion 40.   Slacker 41.   Breaking Away 42.   Stand by Me 43.   The Princess Bride 44.   City of God 45.   LA Confidential 46.   Big Lebowski 47.   Office Space 48.   Crimes and Misdemeanors 49.   One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 50. Saving Private Ryan

Orrin's Reaction:

I know Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, but I feel like Magneficient Ambersons is the better ensemble. While Citizen Kane pretty much highlights a  single great performance, Magnificent Ambersons is a much more even-keeled piece and brings stars such as Anne Baxter and Tim Holt on board. It also allows Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten more screen time and those guys are both kind of wasted in Citizen Kane. For me, Cotten (a native Virginian! 804 represent!) is the man who symbolized his era more than Welles as an actor. 

If I had to choose a Coen Brothers film, I would probably choose Fargo which a lot of film critics thought was their best film before sun-dried West Coast pot aficionados (and wannabes alike) made this film not just a cult classic but a cult in its own right. In terms of the ensemble, the oddball criminal roles of Jerry Lundegaard and Carl Showalter feel like roles that Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy (neither conventionally good looking guys) are born to play and Frances McDormand is simply enormous in this Oscar-winning role (deservedly so). It's nice to see Philip Seymour Hoffman pop up during that period in his filmography where he could do no wrong with his script choices and if you like seeing John Goodman go over the top, it will never get better than this. I concede that these performances all work and if the comedy is as sweet for you as it is for the Lebowski heads, then this film works based on the performances, but I wonder if you're not being too caught up in the cult status of the film when comparing this to other Coen brothers films.

It's been too long since I've seen The Princess Bride (age 11) but I agree it's a good comic choice: There are a lot of different textures of comic actors with different stylings and the way they cast for size (If I'm not mistaken, there's a giant character in there as well as some very scrawny characters) is pretty effective in contrast. That Cary Elwes didn't have much of a career after this sort of makes his performances here more iconic as he's so well cast as an Errol Flynn type. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one that I have on my list as well. How can you not? The leads both won well-deserved Oscars so it's hard to argue against them, and the supporting class includes Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in roles that really seem very un-DeVito and un-Christopher-Lloyd which takes on more meaning because I don't think audiences in 1975 had a way of knowing that DeVito and Lloyd would both establish strong screen personas: the former as a seedy (sometimes curmudgeonly) lowlife, and the latter as a wide-eyed crazy guy. And then Brad Dourif is really something else here.

Juno might be there if I expanded the list. I have trouble getting behind Michael Cera personally despite the rest of the cast. Did you view him as a handicap or a plus?

Vanity Fair

LA Confidential is one I blanked out on but it's certainly worthy of inclusion. Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey play the three leads which is a pretty solid get (on two of those three fronts). Russell Crowe was on the verge of becoming the next big thing and Kevin Spacey was already at that stage. Character actor James Cromwell really is an extremely unlikely villain. And DeVito again! Ironically, I can barely remember what Oscar winner Kim Basinger did in this movie.

I never really thought abut Office Space until you bought it up but it certainly does have a multi-faceted and diverse  (if you count the Indian guy) ensemble and David Hermann, who was a pretty solid sketch actor on the oft-maligned sketch series MadTV has one of his few visible roles as "Michael Bolton" there. Do you think Ron Liviginston deserves much of the credit? His history  since has shown he's not exactly star material.I was also not particularly impressed with Jen Aniston. Sure she's a great actress, but considering she showed even more depth and really could act in The Good Girl three years later. Retroactively, it makes her performance here look like Jen Aniston in her period of untapped potential. 
City of God is a good choice because casting child actors and unknowns is always impressive (although I can't speak to how well-known these actors were to the Brazilian film industry when director Fernando Meirelles cast them). It's similar to Mel Gibson's commendable way of assembling the cast of Apocalypto,

Orrin's List 31-50:
31. American Graffiti 32. Almost Famous 33. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 34. The Wild Bunch 35. Little Miss Sunshine 36. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 37. Django Unchained 38. The Player 39. Five Easy Pieces 40. Road to Perdition 41. Ball of Fire 42. Manchurian Candidate 43. 12 Years a Slave 44. Anchorman 45. The Station Agent 46. 12 Angry Men 47. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf 48. The Birdcage 49. Salt of the Earth 50. Dreamgirls
Adam's Response:
First I had to define what a great ensemble was.  For me it’s a group of actors where many of them make an impression, from the leads, to the supporting players to the ones that you might only have for one scene. 

Comparing our lists, it’s clear that Robert Altman immediately jumps to mind.  I had Prairie Home Companion and you had The Player.  I have a couple of his other films higher on my list, and could have had more if we expanded. That’s fitting for a man known for his ensemble casting.  In the 70s, that’s because he cultivated a cast stock company of actors he discovered.   In the 90s it was also because stars would take well below their usual salary to work with him.   I highly recommend Robert Altman: The Oral Biography by Mitchell Zuckoff.  The book quotes actors describing why they were drawn to Altman and his projects.  It also describes how Altman created a collaborative environment on the set where everyone felt valued.  It’s fitting that the Independent Spirit Awards named their cast award (that includes the cast, director, and casting director) after Altman. 

If you blanked on LA Confidential I did the same with 12 Angry Men.  It was Sidney Lumet’s first film and the only one Henry Fonda produced.  Going in Lee J. Cobb was the only other known star in the film besides Fonda.  But Lumet had worked in live television, and surrounded Fonda with talent.  Some of them were veteran character actors like Martin Balsam and Ed Begley, who later won an Oscar for Sweet Bird of Youth.  Others were up-and-coming younger actors, who went on to have impressive careers, such as Jack Warden and Jack Klugman.   The actors gelled together, and with Lumet’s increasingly claustrophobic shooting, made the film just as riveting now as it was 60 years ago.  The Wild Bunch is another I should have included.  Holden and Borgnine were the stars, but it also helped propel supporting players Warren Oates and Ben Johnson to starring roles in the 70s. 

Ball of Fire is too often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be with Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, a young Dana Andrews and a fine supporting cast.  Road to Perdition is a bit uneven as a film, but it does have Paul Newman in his last great film role along with Tom Hanks, Jude Law, the always dependable Stanley Tucci, and of course Daniel Craig, showing his range four years before he became Bond.   

We both included comedies in our picks, and you’ll continue to see them in my selections.  As we have discussed in the Cinema Lounge, comedy skill often isn’t considered “serious acting” but actors themselves will tell you how hard it is.  Anchorman is an excellent choice.  Will Ferrell is always good at picking projects he doesn’t have to get all of the laughs.  The fight scene alone makes this one deserving, with Tim Robbins as the PBS anchor (“No commercials,no mercy.”) Luke Wilson, and Ben Stiller.   

Fargo, No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou? or countless other Coen Brothers films are also terrific choices, but that does not take away from the stellar ensemble work in Lebowski.  Jeff Bridges and John Goodman are the standouts, but the film gives so many other fun performances for them to play off of, from Peter Stomare and his nihilists, Julianne Moore in her Viking outfit, David Huddleston as the other Lebowski, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the slimy yes man, and of course John Turturro as “The Jesus.”  The more you go back to rewatch the films the more these other actors stand out.  Speaking of the late, great Hoffman kudos for including Almost Famous.  You’ll see that on my list later, 

Regarding Juno, I view Cera as a plus for this particular type of role, just as he was for Superbad.  Plus Juno, besides Page in the lead role, had Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner and the two of my favorites, Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons. 
Citizen Kane is much more than Orson Welles, cast-wise.  See it again, and watch how many of the other players stand out, even those that have limited screen time.   Everett Sloane, playing Bernstein, has a poignant scene as he describes a woman he never saw again but whose image is burned in his memory.  Cotten did not have as large a part as he did in Ambersons but he effectively serves as an audience surrogate as his character gradually grows disillusioned with Kane.  Dorothy Comingore is heartbreaking as the tragically untalented opera singer, while George Coulouris is hilarious as the textbook definition of an uptight banker. 

I never saw Salt of the Earth, but will look for it now. The only one on your list that I question is Five Easy Pieces. Nicholson had one of his iconic turns, but no one else really stood out.

Getty Images

Aside from its groundbreaking role in film history, Bonnie and Clyde boasts an abundance of talent.  Beatty and Dunaway (now also linked due to the Oscars mishap 50 year later) both give you the charisma and depth you expect from your stars.  Estelle Parsons deservedly won an Oscar for her turn as Clyde’s sister-in-law.  The film put Gene Hackman on the map and brought notice to a then little-known stage actor named Gene Wilder.   Michael J. Pollard also garnered an Oscar nomination as CW Moss, another member of the Barrow gang, and Dub Taylor is equally good as Moss’s father.   This brings me back to how I define an ensemble in the first place, where many actors play their part in making a great movie.  It’s the big names we notice at first, but one of the joys in going back and seeing these films again is experiencing the smaller, but no less crucial performances. 

Orrin: How to define a great ensemble is coming to me as I mill through this exercise.

There's a film with a deep bench supporting its stars like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or films by the Coen Brothers or Frank Capra which tend to surround stars with great talent. Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodward and Benedict Cumberbatch are all so memorable in 12 Years a Slave you forget Brad Pitt is there. The flipside of that is a film like Road to Perdition where Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci and Jude Law blend so seamlessly with such great performances that you hardly notice they're there. I only discovered the cast had such great actors in it retroactively, and of course this is (with the exception of Captain Phillips) the only time in the past 15 years or so that Tom Hanks has done something exciting.  

There are films which tend to deflect star power into something where a lot of people have a chance to shine like a Robert Altman film (The Player wouldn't fall into this as Tim Robbins gives such an enormous performances, but the rest of his films do), Grand Hotel  or Little Miss Sunshine. 12 Angry Men technically has Fonda as a lead but it's really everyone's film in a way. It's also a film in which one could argue that Ed Begley gives the most commanding performance.  

There's also great chemistry and the way certain stars bounce off each other.  Juno has a lot of great ways in which people bounce off each other. The uber-hip Ellen Page character contrasts extremely well against the famously gruff J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney (and by the way, thank you for spelling out that name so I don't have to look it up) fits perfectly as a pragmatic middle ground in an understated role. Similarly, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are roughly the same age and have generally played hippish yuppie types but there's a tension between them and their ultimate mismatch grows evident.They are a parallel to the Janney-Simmons pairing on the surface but a relationship isn't just about a surface-level match.

It's in this spirit that I selected Five Easy Pieces: To me the most striking contrast is between Susan Anspach and Karen Black, two beautiful women of different classes who represent entirely different things to Bobby and his struggle over which class he belongs in. I also like that many of the characters outside the two female leads seem to effortlessly fall into lower class or upper crust.

I also tried to highlight casting choices that are innovative or bold.  My pick Dreamgirls featured three big gambles among its five main principles: Beyoncee, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy and they were all extraordinarily successful. I agree that the three leads of Ball of Fire are great but I particularly like how they managed to cast seven actors of the older generation that meshed so well as the seven professors (which Hawks intended to be an allegory of the Seven Dwarves).

As for Salt of the Earth, the film was directed by blacklisted director Herbert Beiberman and a blacklisted screenwriter in 1953 which naturally meant it had no chance of getting distributed or funded by the studios it only played in 13 theaters despite great reviews. The film, about a mining strike, was co-produced with the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers and had only two union actors, Will Geer and Mexican Rusaura Revueltas who was deported mid-production. The rest of the cast was miners and locals (all of whom are surprisingly competent) and some of them were invited to review the dailies for accuracy and help out with production in other ways.

To close out this round, let me ask you one last question about a film I've never even heard of before: Slackers. I see muiltiple titles on it for IMDB and have never heard of such a film, so please fill me in.

Adam: I will need to find Salt of the Earth That had to have taken courage to make that film during the height of McCarthyism.   Since you enjoyed that, please see Matewan which I could have easily included on my list.  Directed by indie stalwart John Sayles, it’s also about a mining strike, this one in 1920s West Virginia.  

You asked about Slacker It’s the film that put writer-director Richard Linklater (whose work you will see again on my list) on the map.  He follows a series of strange people in Austin, going from one person to another.  It’s different from an Altman type of piece because there’s no larger story, and the film, for the most part, does not go back to characters it leaves.   These include an anarchist, a conspiracy theorist and a young woman trying to sell what she claims is Madonna’s pap smear.  The actors were unknown then and remain so 26 years later.  But each one of them present a vivid, fleshed out person who you enjoy spending a few minutes with.  You get a brief glimpse into their world and then move on to the next one.