Thursday, September 29, 2011

Taking "Meek's Cutoff"

A small group of pioneers are heading westward to settle in a distant valley, and have become lost in the harsh Northwestern terrain near Oregon. Their guide, a garrulous old trapper named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), refuses to admit that he's led the party astray, and the others have no choice but to keep following him. Supplies run short and the need to find water becomes urgent. Tensions among the pioneers begin to mount, especially when they capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who surely has the knowledge to save them, but who they have no means of communicating with.

"Meek's Cutoff" can be characterized as a minimalist Western, or perhaps a feminist subversion of the genre, since it is largely told from the point of view of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), one of the three women in the party. However, such labels strike me as too constricting. The film has some elements of a western, but is more accurately described as a pioneer story. It is loosely based on an especially harsh incident in American history - the arduous blazing of a new wagon road by a party early settlers who were hopelessly lost for weeks. Director Kelly Reichardt reduces the hundreds who originally traveled Meek's Cutoff to only seven settlers traveling with three covered wagons and a collection of animals. In addition to Emily and her husband Soloman, (Will Patton), they are Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan), and William and Glory White (Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson) with their young son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). Their struggles become an epic in miniature, each misfortune a microcosm for larger and weightier events.

Reichardt is known for exploring difficult themes and ideas by stripping them down to bare essentials and very personal, immediate dilemmas. Looking at "Meek's Cutoff" on a surface level, the bulk of the running time is taken up by a series of simple events, some that play out very slowly. Striking long shots watch the characters moving over the desert landscapes or in periods of rest. Dialogue is initially sparse, and it takes a little while to place familiar actors garbed in period clothing and quietly stoic personas. I totally failed to recognize Bruce Greenwood, hidden behind a matted beard and thick accent. However, the picture is roiling with drama, and quickly embroils the audience in the plight of its characters. They're lost. They're low on water. The women silently watch the men discuss their options, and as the situation worsens they begin to speak up themselves. Power shifts and entrenched attitudes begin to change.

Because the narrative is so unconventional, some viewers are likely to be confused by its intentions. Aside from a tense confrontation in the final reel, the story appears to be short on action and without resolution. Characterization often only comes across in small details and brief interactions. These can be easily missed or misinterpreted. Moreover, the pace is often achingly slow and it's quite possible that the group is literally traveling in circles. However, "Meek's Cutoff" is extremely involving once it starts raising the stakes and certain characters realize their own agency. The slow burn may not build up to the kind of ending that the audience expects, but it's a shrewd and effective one. Meek and Emily Tetherow are the vital principals to pay attention to here, and the performances of Greenwood and Williams are stellar.

The filmmakers also deserve some major kudos for presenting an unromanticized version of the pioneer experience, fraught with uncertainty and constant danger. Never has the vast openness of the American West been more oppressive and unfriendly. The characters too, though they speak with dated language, do not conform to the mindset or behaviors that we associate with common portrayals of frontier settlers. The comforting aspirational talk spouted by Meek is roundly ignored, and no one is positioned as a classic heroic figure. Instead of forward-looking trailblazers, most of the settlers come across as terribly young and foolhardy, and clearly not prepared for the ordeals they face.

"Meek's Cutoff" can be easily viewed as a parable for many different ongoing conflicts. I wouldn't be surprised if Reichardt's intention was for the film to be subtle social commentary on a variety of issues. However, I think the most valuable contribution it makes is simply taking on the historical material from a different point of view, and not even a particularly cynical or subversive one. I can't remember the last time I saw a pioneer story without some kind of patriotic or sentimental bent, and it's gratifying to see Reichardt cut through those notions so efficiently.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Trouble in "Terra Nova"

I knew "Terra Nova" had major problems the minute I saw that the Shannon family, who are our protagonists, had two attractive teenage children. You have a high concept science-fiction show about colonists from a post-apocalyptic future time traveling to the past to create a new society in the Cretaceous era, and half of your primary cast members are teenagers? Oh, hell no.

But as a genre fan, I had to give "Terra Nova" a watch. From the outset I wasn't expecting much. The pilot went through a lot of delays and production troubles, which suggests that all the special-effects on display in the opening two hours will mostly vanish for the rest of the season. Interviews with the creators have all emphasized that viewers should tune in for the characters and their relationships. Not the action scenes, the gorgeous tropical scenery, or the CGI dinosaurs, but the Shannon family, consisting of father Jim (Jason O'Mara), mother Elizabeth (Shelley Conn), son Josh (Landon Liboiron), older daughter Maddy (Naomi Scott), and little five-year-old Zoe (Alana Mansour). Please also note that all the female members of the family have ethnic features while the father and son look totally Caucasian, because that's just how TV genetics work.

The show doesn't start off too badly. We first find the Shannons living in the hellscape of 2149, where the environment has degraded to the point where everyone has to wear filtration masks to step outside and there are strict population controls. Zoe is a forbidden third child, and in trying to protect her, Jim is sent off to prison for two years. Elizabeth, being a doctor of sterling credentials, gets recruited into the Terra Nova program, which sends people back to the time of the dinosaurs (an alternate universe technically, to get around some time travel fallacies) to build a new human civilization. After she and the older children are slated to leave, Jim has to escape from prison and follow them, with Zoe in tow. This takes up the first twenty minutes of the pilot, which are dramatic and exciting. And then we get to the prehistoric paradise of Terra Nova, and start hitting road bumps.

The settlement at Terra Nova is run by Commander Nathaniel Taylor (Stephen Lang), who is a softened-up version of the bad guy he played in "Avatar." Jim joins his security force, fighting dinosaurs and the "Sixers," a splinter group of settlers who came through on the sixth expedition. The Sixers are led by Mira (Christine Adams), who hints with all the subtlety of a carnotaurus that Taylor is hiding something, and the real reason for settling Terra Nova remains unknown. Meanwhile, Josh decides he hates his father for being locked up in prison for two years, and wastes no time getting into trouble with a friendly girl named Skye (Allison Miller) and roughly a half dozen other multicultural teenagers. They sneak out of the settlement, jump off waterfalls, brew moonshine, and generally act like they're not on a show where a rampaging dinosaur could come out of the foliage and eat them up at any moment.

Of course the kids get caught out after dark and have a run-in with the Sixers, so Jim and Commander Taylor have to go out with tanks and guns blazing to save them. The last third of the premiere is a series of escalating action scenes, most of them in the dark, and hard to see. Earlier, there are a few good scenes of characters interacting with dinosaurs and other creatures in broad daylight, and a few people even get eaten by the big scaly carnivores in very satisfying fashion. The special effects team should be commended for pulling off CGI creations that look just as good as the ones in "Jurassic Park," but that doesn't mean that the action is staged as well or the story knows how to use them to proper effect. Some of the early advertising was also trying to evoke memories of "Avatar," but in spite of the lush scenery, "Terra Nova" isn't nearly as visually interesting.

The characters aren't terrible for a special effects extravaganza, but they don't display much potential to improve either. We have a cop father with authority issues, a busy doctor mother, a rebel adolescent son, a smart but socially awkward daughter, and a cute kid. Not much room for interesting transformations or developments there, unless it's through romantic entanglements or ideological splits. I don't see that happening anytime soon in a show this family-friendly. Also, if the pilot is any indication, we're going to be spending the bulk of our time with the father fighting Sixes or the son and his posse of new friends. I might tune in for the former, but the latter, with its promise of CW-style teenage drama, holds no interest for me whatsoever. If I were running the show, I'd send more morally ambiguous secondary characters into the picture to counteract the blandness of the Shannon family, or give them more interesting problems. Stephen Lang is great, but not enough. And a little comic relief wouldn't hurt.

FOX should be praised for putting its resources behind such a daring series, but in many important respects it's just not daring enough. Instead of seeing "Jurassic Park" or "Avatar" in "Terra Nova," I find myself drawing more comparisons to the minor charms of "Earth 2" and "Lost in Space." No matter how shiny the new effects are, they're no substitute for compelling characters and stories. So far "Terra Nova" is impressive, but it's only intermittently entertaining, and its future doesn't look so bright.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am"

Two of the networks have launched new drama series set in the 60s, each starring a bevy of bright-eyed young women in sexy uniforms, and promising to chronicle the emergence of of the modern working woman from the age when airline stewardesses and Playboy Bunnies had real cultural cachet. Both series' pilots, which aired over the last week, feature loving shots of a blonde lead actress gazing upward with the stars in her eyes and the future at her feet. Nobody points out that both sets of women are doing basic service jobs, but being paid a premium for their superficial beauty and being able to wear iconic outfits particularly well. The Pan Am flight attendants look more dignified than the Playboy Club's bunnies, but when you see them grouped together, it's apparent that they're also being made to conform to a particular, rigid beauty standard, right down to the off-the-shoulder haircuts.

Historically, these jobs may have opened doors, but dramatically, the whole spiel about the empowerment narrative doesn't hold up. "The Playboy Club" is especially bad at trying to convince the audience that the show is all about women coming into their own. With a little narration from Hugh Hefner to set the scene, the series opens in the early 1960s at the Chicago Playboy Club. New girl, Bunny Maureen (Amber Heard) gets herself in trouble immediately when an amorous patron assaults her in the storage room, and she accidentally kills him. Fortunately a white knight in the form of Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), an attorney with mob ties, comes to her rescue and helps her dispose of the body. This puts them both in hot water with Carol Lynne (Laura Benanti), the senior bunny of the club, who thinks Nick cheated on her with Maureen. By the end of the episode, Carol Lynne is promoted to Bunny Mother, the immediate supervisor to all the club's girls, further raising tensions.

How is Bunny Maureen a progressive female character in any sense? She's in the victim role for the whole hour, suffering groping, an assault, and being painted as incompetent for leaving her post as Cigarette Bunny. Her finest moment comes when she makes a pass at a mobster to avoid an interrogation. Oh, and her big dream? To perform onstage as a singer. Her fellow Bunnies don't fare much better. African American Bunny Brenda (Naturi Naughton) vocally proclaims she intends to be the first "chocolate Bunny" centerfold. Bunny Janie (Jenna Dewan) refuses to marry her bartender boyfriend Max (Wes Ramsey) for reasons she won't explain. Bunny Alice (Leah Renee) is the only one with a compelling background so far, secretly a lesbian in a sham marriage with a gay man named Sean (Sean Maher). David Krumholtz is also in the mix as the club manager, Billy. The pilot spends as little time as possible actually observing the lead characters doing their jobs and instead distracts us with recreated musical performances from period musicians, a developing mob story centered around Nick Dalton, and the usual prime time soap opera intrigues.

The parents' groups boycotting the show have little to worry about. There's no skin and little sin that you wouldn't find on any other network drama in the 10PM hour. In fact, the show makes several very odd concessions toward wholesomeness, including taking pains to point out it's against policy for Bunnies to date patrons. We barely even see any glamor shots of the girls in costume. There's very little in that comes off as fun or sexy as a result, which defeats the whole purpose of making a series about the Playboy Club. In convincing us it's not sleazy, the show confirms it's a bore. The biggest problem is that the characters are uniformly flat and badly defined. At one point I thought Alice and Janie were the same person. Eddie Cibrian as the male lead is totally inert. I don't see this show surviving for very long, because it has too many conflicting agendas, the visuals tend toward the murky, and the level of the writing and the performances just isn't up to par.

"Pan Am" manages to avoid the bulk of the problems of "The Playboy Club" by spending more time fleshing out its characters, and being much lighter in tone. And though I find some of the messages problematic, the writers do a better job of convincing us that the Pan Am stewardesses lead exciting lives that are actually worth watching. Also set in the 60s, when the Pan Am airline was flourishing, the biggest difference is a matter of branding. The female characters are portrayed as active, well-educated go-getters who take pride in their work, and they're accorded far more respect and admiration from everyone around them. The fantasy isn't perfect, especially to the cynical modern eye, but it holds together a lot better than you'd think. The most exciting thread of the plot is the recruitment of Kate Cameron (Kelli Garner) as an operative by MI6 agent Roger Anderson (David Harbour). She has the perfect cover, after all, having a rare job that lets a young woman travel all over the globe.

Other characters on the show's featured airliner crew include Kate's sister Laura (Margot Robbie), a recent runaway bride, pilot Deal Lowrey (Mike Vogel), First Officer Ted Vanderway (Michael Mosley), a French flight attendant, Colette (Karine Vanasse), and the bohemian New Yorker Maggie Ryan (Christina Ricci). Led by Garner and Ricci, the cast boasts a lot of good talent, and if the show survives it'll be due in large part to their efforts. What I think is also a big draw is the nostalgic sense of wonder and optimism the show manages to summon up. The show's palette is full of bright, saturated colors, rendering a few scenes in picture postcard perfection. It's not so blatant that you'd notice right away, but the art direction is subtly stylized to the extent that the whole series feels a little unreal and a little fantastic. And it works.

However, in spite of all the lip service, the idea of stewardesses being such progressive trailblazers is pretty hard to swallow, which is why I think the pilot doesn't really say much about the job itself beyond some basic aspirational platitudes. Fortunately it nails all of its major characters immediately, and they're likable, sympathetic, and engaging right off the bat. Kelli Garner gets to show gumption. Christina Ricci gets to be sassy and adorable. The character of Laura shares a lot of similarities with Bunny Maureen, but "Pan Am" wisely keeps her part of the larger ensemble. The pilot played by Mike Vogel is a weak link so far, but he'll be getting more interesting material soon, so we'll see how he handles that. I also like the whole conceit of the show being structured around flights and airports, which is a world most people are familiar with, but from only one vantage point.

So I think "Pan Am" has a lot of promise. Its brand of female empowerment is clearly going to be a lot broader and less explicit than what "The Playboy Club" is going for, and as a result it has a lot more room for different kinds of stories and ideas. Also, it has a much better attitude toward its material, and ironically does a better job of selling Pan Am as a company, which went out of business decades ago, than "The Playboy Club" does with its nightclubs, which actually still exist. But as I said at the end of my "Sucker Punch" review, the big point is the marketing is totally off base. Neither show is all that strongly focused on women's lib from the outset, and there's really no reason that the marketers should feel the need to keep using the female empowerment narrative to sell these shows. They're nostalgia-based soap operas. One's lousy and the other might not be. That's all there is to it.
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Monday, September 26, 2011

The Tape

My younger brother and I spent a lot of time learning the value of VCRs when we were kids. My dad would record hours and hours of Chinese language programming from our local foreign language station and watch them after we went to bed. My relatives traded tapes of various Chinese miniseries and home videos for years. My aunt, who had the coveted Disney Channel back in the days when it was a premium cable offering, sent us several cardboard boxes of old Disney movies like "Lady and the Tramp" and "Sword in the Stone," which we watched constantly. I remember the VHS tapes everywhere in the house, lined up on shelves, tucked away in cabinets, and many labelled in Chinese. Among the first Chinese characters I learned to recognize were "ka" and "tung," which phonetically come together as the English loanword, "cartoon."

At some point in the early nineties, my brother and I figured out how to use the VCR ourselves to record things. This was also roughly when we realized that our dad was reusing the old VHS tapes from our aunt, and systematically taping over much of our childhood collection. After we raised a fuss, Dad promised to keep his mitts off the remaining tapes, which were moved to a more secure shelf in the cabinet. Then my brother and I started adding our own to the pile. An "Animaniacs" tape that collected the segments featuring the Warner siblings. A chunk of the fourth season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Edited versions of the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies, from when they were shown on network television.

Quite a few of these old tapes are still sitting around in my parents' house, taking up closet space. I should sell or donate the retail cassettes, but I have no idea what to do with the ones my brother and I filled with all manner of 90s television detritus that I'm never going to watch again. There is one of these VHS tapes, however, that I still keep under the TV with my DVDs and CDs and the home movies my mother converted to digital format over the last few years. It's traveled all over the country with me and survived half a dozen moves. The label on the spine reads "Please do not tape over this" in faded purple Pentel marker. The contents are as follows:

- "The World of Jim Henson" documentary, produced for PBS's "Great Performances." It originally aired in 1994, but the version I have was from a repeat shown around 1996. I saw the program on the original broadcast date and enjoyed it so much, I spent months scouring the TV listings every week, trying to find it again. This was before the Internet, when it was much harder to access and keep track of TV programming. I think there's a copy of the documentary on Youtube out there, but it's never been released on DVD.

- The first three "Wallace and Gromit" shorts from when they were shown on PBS, probably also from around 1996, after "A Close Shave" won an Oscar. They're in the wrong order, with "The Wrong Trousers" followed by a making-of featurette, titled "Inside the Wrong Trousers," and then "A Grand Day Out" and "A Close Shave." I also own a DVD release of the shorts that includes "A Matter of Loaf and Death," but I still think of "Wallace and Gromit" as a trilogy.

- The final episodes of "Pinky and the Brain" and "Animaniacs," aired together on November 14, 1998. It's essentially a long "Star Wars" spoof stuck to a clip show special, but the final segment features a wonderful orchestral arrangement of all the show's major musical themes. There are also goodbye in-jokes in abundance, including a tease for a nonexistent 100th episode in the credits. The fourth "Animaniacs" boxset was never released, so the last episode has never been made available for purchase.

- The first "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" trailer, shown on various FOX affiliates on November 19th, 1998, the day before it was released in theaters. I'm not sure where I heard it was being shown, whether it was from an online source somewhere or possibly from a newspaper announcement. However, my brother and I had the VCR ready at the right time, and we got the trailer on tape. It was ours. We could watch it over and over again as many times as we wanted, which we did. Words cannot describe the excitement.

I used to watch the tape, especially "The World of Jim Henson," whenever I was in a particularly bad mood or stayed home sick, to help me feel better. I still enjoy the content, but it's really the memories of how I got all these programs on the same tape that makes me happiest. It's silly, isn't it? So much adolescent nostalgia and nerdiness on that one VHS cassette. I watch the "Star Wars" trailer and I forget about the actual "Phantom Menace" movie, and remember the joyous frenzy of the year-long lead-up to its release. Thanks to the Henson documentary, I went and searched out his obscure titles like "Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," and "The Storyteller," fueling my artsy-chick reputation in high school. My brother and I bonded over "Animaniacs" episodes, and at one point had my dad convinced the show was educational. Which it was. Sort of.

And I remember my brother playing "Return of the Jedi" over and over and over again on that cranky VCR until he could recite the whole Battle of Endor. And the sad day we taped over one of our favorite episodes of "The Wonderful World of Disney" ("Disneyland: The Adventures of Chip 'n' Dale") by accident. And Dad scolding us for screwing up the timer for his evening shows by leaving the VCR on after we were finished with it.

I really ought to go and digitize the tape before it hits the end of its shelf life. It might be too late already - it's been sitting unwatched on the shelf for years. I don't really mind if it's gone though. The important stuff it held was never on the tape itself.
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Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Prime Suspect" and "Person of Interest"

Here are some quick thoughts on the two new Thursday crime dramas. No, "Charlie's Angels" doesn't count.

"Prime Suspect" stars Maria Bello as newly transferred New York detective Jane Timoney, facing a hostile work environment both for her gender and the persistent rumors that she got the job because she slept with a higher-up. Aidan Quinn plays her immediate superior, Lt. Kevin Sweeney, who offers his sympathies but has to be prodded to act on her behalf. Among her co-workers, Detective Duffy (Brían F. O'Byrne) is the most openly hostile, but Detective Calderon (Kirk Acevedo) appears to be coming over to her side by the end of the episode. Kenny Johnson plays Timoney's non-law enforcement boyfriend, and Peter Gerety makes a welcome appearance as her father.

With so many other crime dramas on the air, "Prime Suspect" does a decent job of distinguishing itself quickly. In the pilot, Bello's Timoney is a credible hardass, but a sympathetic one. We understand why she keeps getting on everyone else's nerves without getting on the nerves of the audience. And not once does Maria Bello look like she just spent two hours in a make-up chair, even in her scenes off duty, which I appreciate so much. Timoney does have one major gimmick, though. She likes wearing wearing a hat, which some critics and fashionistas have taken offense to. I swear that half the chatter online about the show so far has been about the hat. You know what? It's just a hat. Bello wears it fine, it helps her character stand out, and it doesn't take away from her performance. I'm pro-hat. Let's move on.

The sexism Timoney faces is a little too open and obvious, but it's tied into other personal resentments well enough that we can be assured this isn't going to turn into a "message" show. What I did like was the way that the writing subverted the dramatic tricks of other police dramas like "Law & Order," and showed Timoney taking pains to follow procedural rules in conducting interviews and collecting evidence. Timoney is tripped up at one point by a small detail - someone gave her a wrong address - and her perp chase doesn't go the way the audience has been trained to expect. This appeal to realism is sometimes a little too pointed, like when she remarks at one point that lab results take a while, unlike "on TV," but the creators' hearts and heads are in the right place, so I'm more forgiving.

We'll see how the show holds up after a few more episodes, but I'm definitely happy to jump the "Law & Order" ship for "Prime Suspect" this season. Wednesday's "Law & Order: SVU" season premiere has put me off that franchise for a while.

On to "Person of Interest." This is the JJ Abrams produced, Jonathan Nolan created series about a one-man-army, Mr. Reese (Jim Caviezel), who stops future crimes using information provided by Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson), who has created a program that analyzes surveillance data to look for impending criminal acts. If "Prime Suspect" is all about looking at crime dramas with a more cynical eye, "Person of Interest" is pure escapism. The hero is a broken-hearted mystery man who once worked for the government in some kind of ass-kicking capacity. We first see him as a homeless drifter bundled in overcoats, his movie star face obscured by a thick, graying beard. However, his efficient takedown of a gang of young toughs on the subway reveals his hidden talents.

After Reese is arrested and briefly questioned by Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson), who gets only two short scenes this week, but should be expected to have a bigger role in the weeks to come, Mr. Finch enters the picture. He runs his own mini-"Minority Report" operations in secret, and offers to give Reese some much needed purpose in life. The program Finch created only gives up social security numbers of people who are headed in the direction of trouble, and doesn't indicate if they're victims or perpetrators. So Finch needs Reese to help him do investigative legwork and kick the offending asses of those who turn out to be the baddies.

There are so many holes and contrivances in this premise, I don't know where to start. First, the action appears to be arbitrarily limited to Manhattan. The "persons of interest" being investigated must have social security numbers, which rules out foreign visitors and undocumented aliens. Finch, in spite of his wealth, chooses a single man to help him with crime prevention. Maybe Reese is the first of many? Or Finch has set up more operatives in other cities? It all feels off, especially the way these two super-secretive, super-skilled men just take each other at face value immediately. And there are a lot of awkward moments, like Reese's boring flashbacks to cuddling with his expired ex, and a misplaced 9/11 reference.

But in the end it doesn't matter, because the primary reason for watching the series is to see Jim Caviezel play vigilante and go around shooting people with assault rifles and blowing up cars. Caviezel is a strangely blank presence throughout most of the hour, but whenever he starts roughing up antagonists, suddenly his monotone voice gets a little more Batman, and his physicality demands attention. I don't know if they can keep this up over multiple episodes though, especially as the budget shrinks and we may have to spend more time watching Caviezel try to emote. Not an appealing prospect right now.

However, Michael Emerson is a lot of fun, and Taraji P. Henson should help once they give her more to do. "Person of Interest" has plenty of promise, but it's starting out with a really flimsy gimmick that's not going to hold up by itself for very long. Also, I'm not sure whether Caviezel is playing Reese as this total nonentity or if his acting's really gotten this stiff. It's been a while since I've seen Caviezel in anything, so I honestly can't tell. In any case, this show could be a winner, but it's going to need a lot of work.
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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Too Much to Watch

Sometimes being a media junkie can get a little overwhelming. I know I'm lucky to have the free time to indulge in watching movies and television at all, and that I have access to so much content, but lately my "To Watch" list has been getting out of hand. Here's a sampling:

- I'm currently about two weeks behind on "The Daily Show." I usually watch the shows online the next morning before I go to work, or I catch up on multiple episodes over the weekend. However, lately the morbid hijinks of the would-be Republican presidential candidates has been depressing, so I put them off for a couple of days, and the backlog built up, and now I'm seriously considering just skipping all the ones I missed and moving on.

- A few months ago I saw ads announcing that a new season of "Project Runway" had started on Lifetime, and I made the mental note to seek it out. And then I turn around and find news articles popping up about the upcoming finale. Already?! It turns out that season nine is currently about two thirds of the way through, so I still have time to catch up if I want to. It used to be that I never missed a season of "Project Runway" or "Top Chef," and now I have no idea how long it's been since I watched either. What year was Mondo on "Runway"?

- The new fall season just started, which means I should be out there gobbling up pilots and reporting back on what's good and what isn't and what may need a few more episodes to render a verdict. I haven't watched a single premiere so far. Not one. Fortunately most of the shows that have made their debuts so far haven't been getting very good reviews, which assuages some of the guilt. However, I need a replacement for "Law & Order: SVU," and I need to figure out if it's going to be "Prime Suspect," "Person of Interest," or something else. After those two, "Pan Am," and "Terra Nova," I think I'm in the clear until the fairy tale stuff lands in late October.

- And of course, all my regular shows are coming back. "Big Bang Theory" and "Community" are both on at the same time tonight, as usual. I just realized I missed the season premiere of "Criminal Minds," which reversed course and brought back AJ Cook and Paget Brewster after the spinoff crashed and burned. And "Nikita" starts again tomorrow. And "Mythbusters" is back next week. And Charlyne Yi is on "House" this year! I love her! And the season premiere has House incarcerated, which feels a little too much like that premiere they did with him in the mental hospital, but whatever. I have to see how they're going to write off Cuddy. I guess I should at least watch the premiere of "Law & Order: SVU" too, to see what happens to Stabler.

- Meanwhile, I'm still trying to keep up with a few summer series like "Breaking Bad" and "Doctor Who." They've both been really strong this year. Writeups are forthcoming.

- Gee that new "Thundercats" reboot looks good. And "Young Justice" is back. And I really need to check out that new "Batman" cartoon, "The Brave and the Bold." Wait, what do you mean it just ended after three seasons on Cartoon Network?! This may be the year I finally stop watching cartoons since they keep getting pushed farther and farther back in the mental queue. Don't even get me started on the anime. Five years ago I was among the most hardcore otaku you ever met, and now I have no idea what's popular anymore. What's "Tiger & Bunny" about? And when did I last watch "South Park"? I used to love that show.

- Oh boy. "60 Minutes" is coming back soon too. And I'm so far behind on "Frontline," I don't even - gah.

- September is traditionally a slow month for movies. The blockbuster season is over but the awards contenders haven't started campaigning to the masses yet. However, there are more than a few films still in theaters that I'm debating over whether I want to see now or if I can wait for DVD. I might sneak off to a matinee of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" in the near future. And my Netflix queue is still full of titles from earlier in the year and I'm picking through the last few stragglers from last year. I think once I get through this batch of September releases, that'll be it for 2010 and I can finally put that Top 10 list out. This is about the same time that I did it last year, so I guess I'm still on schedule?

Okay, so what's my game plan? Usually I watch a movie a day, but with the influx of new TV programming I think I might take a break after this month of Netflix expires and I get the Top 10 list out, and I'll just play catch-up on the TV side for a week or two. There are going to be a couple of series I don't see myself keeping up with regularly anymore, like "Hawaii Five-0," and as much as I like my news and information shows, I'll probably end up picking and choosing among episodes based on what they're covering. Consequently, you'll probably be seeing a lot of blogging about TV shows for a little while until I regain my media equilibrium.

Whew.
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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ride on the "Mystery Train"

A pair of Japanese teenagers come to Memphis to visit Sun Records and Graceland. A stranded traveler shares a room with a woman on her way out of town. A trio of men have a wild night that involves a liquor store hold-up. Everybody talks about Elvis Presley, whether they like him or not. Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train," an anthology of stories that all take place during one long night in Memphis, works a lot like the music that features so prominently in it - the more events repeat and become familiar, the more you begin to anticipate certain elements, and the more enjoyable it becomes. I don't want to say too much more about the plot, because learning how it unfolds and seeing how all the pieces connect together is a lot of fun.

Of the three stories, the most memorable is the first, titled "Far From Yokohama." Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) speak very little English, and they carry a single suitcase between them, overstuffed with knick-knacks. Jarmusch likes looking at the American experience through the eyes of foreigners, and all three segments in "Mystery Train" feature them. However, the adventures of the two Japanese kids kick up the most culture clash. When they check into the run-down Arcade Hotel, there is initial miscommunication with the night clerk (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) and they present the bellboy (Cinqué Lee) with a plum for a tip. However, the duo is instantly sympathetic, playfully bickering like so many other young couples on a long trip, and through their eyes it's Memphis that looks foreign and exotic.

Each segment is fairly plotless and made up of small incidents. The pacing and the characters meander along, not having anywhere in particular to be, but eventually arriving where they need to. This is especially true in the case of Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi), a waylaid Italian who has to spend the night in Memphis, and keeps being taken advantage of by the locals that she meets. She wanders around town, losing money at an alarming rate, but this creates the opportunity to include vignettes like her encounter with a man played by Tom Noonan, who relays a ghost story about Elvis. By the time Luisa is sharing a room with Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco), a sad-sack motormouth who obviously won't be paying her half of the hotel fee, it's clear the money isn't nearly as important as the experience. Braschi's performance, which keeps the audience guessing about her motives and level of understanding, is a highlight of the film.

Finally the last act features three local Memphis residents who get drunk and get in trouble. However Johnny (Joe Strummer), Will Robinson (Rick Aviles), and Charlie (Steve Buscemi), two white men and one black, spend most of their evening having casual conversations about everything from family troubles to race relations. Johnny, nicknamed "Elvis," hates that he bears a resemblance to the dead crooner. Will Robinson, naturally, does not care for "Lost in Space." Charlie, played by the ever put-upon Steve Buscemi, didn't want to go out in the first place. Being more dialogue heavy, this story loses some of the atmosphere of the first two, but has the most energy and momentum. Jarmusch's writing is great here, subtly injecting a lot of humor into the interactions, building on small grudges, old resentments, and mild annoyances.

I haven't seen many Jim Jarmusch films. The ones I have seen kept me interested, but not particularly engaged. His heroes always felt a little too off-kilter, a little too cool to be approached. His structural experiments could get distracting and we did not share many points of reference. Here, Jarmusch plays with multiple storylines and musical references abound, but he almost seems to parody the notion of hipster cool, with every character that tries to keep up a front, like Jun or Johnny, all inevitably revealing themselves to be a hopeless poseur. More than any of his other films, "Mystery Train" has a liveliness to it and a broader strain of absurdity that makes it feel okay to laugh and just enjoy the performances. Some others I want to single out are Youki Kudoh as the bubbly Mistuko, and Cinqué Lee, who fails to make a bellhop uniform work in the best way.

"Mystery Train" was Jarmusch's first film in color, and while his choices are sometimes a little obvious - red objects draw the eye too often - he displays the same visual stylishness as he does with his work in black and white. His penchant for the blues also remains throughout, with Tom Waits on the radio, Elvis Presley on everyone's mind, and the soundtrack full of many more whose names I don't know. Clearly, Jarmusch wants to pay tribute to these musicians and the place where their paths converged. However, I wonder what real Memphis residents think of the film, which doesn't portray their hometown in the best light. Jarmusch keeps the camera in seedy hotels, train yards, and dive bars, and shows streets full of closed-down storefronts.

But for these characters and these stories, where else would you be?
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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mopping Up "Miracle Day"

Spoilers for the end of the latest series of "Torchwood" below.

"Torchwood: Miracle Day" ended up being such a disappointment. It kept waving around cool ideas and tempting hooks to keep us intrigued, but never stayed with anything long enough to earn any decent dramatic dividends. After nine episodes of portentous doomsaying, and hints of planetwide conspiracies, it turns out that the whole scheme was just a couple of super-secretive, megalomaniacal, but ordinary human beings exploiting a big fat McGuffin to try and take over the world. Prehaps the most disappointing part was that the source of the "miracle," The Blessing, was simply an arbitrary bit of supernatural phenomena being manipulated by the villains, and we got only very brief, very sloppy explanations as to the mechanics. It's easier to say that it granted immortality because the plot needed it to, and that was that.

I knew that the secret of this season's central mystery was bound to be something silly like this - "Torchwood" has always been a very silly show, no matter how adult its content is, but it felt like there was such a lack of effort on the part of the writers this time. The Blessing turns out to be a big, spooky chasm running through the center of the Earth (last seen in Season 5 of "Angel") with some poorly defined life-regulating powers. Pains are taken to impart warnings about people going mad by looking at it and remark how carefully it's guarded. Of course all four of the Torchwood team plus Oswald Danes blunder their way into the two sites where The Blessing could be accessed, and proceed to be almost entirely unaffected by its power. Oswald amusingly defeats it by chanting happy thoughts.

We meet a few members of the Three Families who were working behind the scenes the whole time. They are happy to say more ominous things, but come up with few answers to the questions that the series has been asking all season long. I got the part about throwing society into chaos to create a chance for the Three Families to seize power, but what was the genesis of the idea? Who figured out that Jack's blood, which isn't supposed to have anything to do with Jack's immortality, would make The Blessing react the way it did? Why doesn't everyone stop aging the way Jack does, or have the ability to resurrect themselves? Why is it only human beings that are affected instead of every living thing? And what safeguards do the Three Families have in place to avoid falling victim to the "miracle" themselves? There are simply too many holes in the story, and way too much information conveyed in hurried torrents of exposition. Show, don't tell, dammit.

And it's not like they didn't have the time to answer these questions or get us better acquainted with the key players. Torchwood spent too much time chasing dead ends, ping-ponging between one red herring and the next, and ever-so-slowly building up to a final confrontation that just wasn't ever very interesting. As much as I appreciate Frances Fisher, why would you have her nameless character, who is introduced at the tail end of the ninth episode, as the final baddie instead of Nana Visitor or John DeLancie or Teddy Sears, or one of the other great guest stars who showed up earlier? Why not upgrade Oswald Danes or Jilly Kitzinger to the role, the only two antagonists who actually managed to hang in there since the beginning? Or the turncoat Charlotte Willis, played by the stony Marina Benedict? If she'd only gotten more time and more to do, I think she could have been a much better character.

Looking back over this series, I'm amazed at how poorly planned and developed the storylines were and how badly major elements were tied together. There was simultaneously too much going on and too little. So many characters kept getting hurriedly killed off and interesting concepts cast aside so Torchwood could shove on to something totally different every few episodes. Where did those people in the creepy masks go? What was the point of using Oswald Danes as a Phicorp spokesperson? Couldn't we have gotten a little more wrap-up for the Angelo Colasanto or the Dr. Vera Juarez or the Ellis Hartley Monroe's subplots? Is anyone going to be held accountable for any of the deaths perpetrated by the Three Families? Is Dichen Lachman's head still on backwards? So much happened in this series, and yet so little of it was allowed to have any kind of impact.

The most interesting parts of "Miracle Day" all involved watching society try to deal with the implications of the "miracle," from the creation of camps for the infirm to redefining crime and punishment. This series lost me when it shifted focus away from charting the social turmoil and toward the far more predictable business of chasing down the mysterious bad guys responsible. By the time the world's financial systems began to collapse, we were only hearing about it through incidental news reports. Speaking of which, shouldn't the police have been out dealing with riots and general end-of-the-world violence instead of hounding Gwen's family about a single missing person? Aside from Gwen playing Robin Hood, when was there any other indication of a global depression going on anyway?

Again, I know "Torchwood" is campy sci-fi action at its core, but it's already proved it can be genuinely involving and intelligent entertainment in spite of that. There were a few moments that I liked here and there in this series, but they were pretty scarce next to the countless misssteps. The longer I watched, and the more guest stars kept getting blown up, the more I figured that the show's creators just let their ambitions get away from them. They weren't ready for a story this size and a budget this big. They couldn't figure out how to orchestrate something that would have really taken advantage of the resources they were given. I mean, for all the talk about increasing the scope and upping the production values of the show, the big showdown just involved a couple of actors yelling at each other on two crude sets with a few wind machines and green screens going.

I kind of wish they'd stuck with that from the start.
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Monday, September 19, 2011

2011 Emmy Wrap-Up

So how did this year's telecast measure up? As awards ceremonies go, this was a pretty good one, though with some big caveats.

Jane Lynch was a perfectly serviceable Emmy host. The years that FOX gets the ceremony are always crapshoots, since they don't have any late night talent or daytime fall backs. They were responsible for the awful "Emmy in the Round" experiment, and made the grave mistake of letting Ryan Seacrest host the last time. I was hoping they might ask Conan O'Brien this year, who was always very good when he hosted for NBC, but Lynch was fine. She sang, she snarked, and losing her category didn't faze her. If anything, she got funnier as the night went on.

I thought the opening sequence was over-produced and got the show off to a pretty tedious start, but the rest of the pre-taped segments were decent. The "Office" sketch was far more tolerable than any other potential tribute to mark the ending of Steve Carell's run on the show. "The Jersey Shore" bit was totally unnecessary, but at least it was executed well, and got better the longer they kept it going. Ricky Gervais was there exactly as long as he needed to be. I wish these segments hadn't been so front-loaded, but since most of them were only relevant to the comedy categories, it was inevitable.

The live bits were even better than the taped ones. The Lonely Island medley was a lot of fun. I initially rolled my eyes at the Emmytones, which consisted of a collection of random stars, Kate Flannery, Taraji P. Henson, Zachari Levi, Cobie Smulders, Wilmer Vaderrama, and Joel McHale, presenting each of the category montages as an a capella group, but then the whole thing paid off when LL Cool J showed up. And of course, the Amy Poehler masterminded beauty pageant is going to go down in Emmy history, and probably boost her chances in next year's race. If you can shake up an interminable awards ceremony, the industry will love you forever for it. I was hoping for another Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert bit, but they weren't on the presenter list this year. Aside from the In Memoriam, there were no other tribute pieces either. Alas, no cheesy Stephen J. Cannell montage to assuage our pain.

As for the actual awards, there was a lot of excitement and drama, but only if you were fairly knowledgeable about the Emmy race. On the surface it looked like business as usual, with "Modern Family" cleaning up in the comedy categories, and "The Daily Show," "The Amazing Race," and "Mad Men" adding more trophies to their existing heaps. However, there were major upsets left and right in categories for less popular programming. HBO's "Mildred Pierce" was heavily favored in the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie categories, but lost all but two acting awards to "Downton Abbey." "Mad Men" may have gone home with the Outstanding Drama Series statuette, but won no other major categories. Instead, the eternal underdog, "Friday Night Lights" nabbed Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Lead Actor for its last eligible year, "Boardwalk Empire" got Outstanding Direction," and "Justified" and "Game of Thrones" picked up an acting trophy apiece.

Even in the otherwise predictable comedy categories, the Lead Actor and Actress races had major surprises. Laura Linney and Amy Poehler were the frontrunners for Best Actress, and Steve Carrell was favored for Best Actor, as he had never won for "The Office," and the expectation was that voters would reward him for his work in aggregate. Instead, Melissa McCarthy of "Mike & Molly" was literally crowned Miss Emmy Lead Comedy Actress 2011, and Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory" is officially having a streak. It wasn't a good year for NBC comedy in general, with previous Emmy darling "30 Rock" going home empty handed, and lots of chatter about how deserving "Parks and Recreation" and "Community" stars were snubbed in favor of the "Modern Family" juggernaut.

There were dull and mock-worthy moments, as always: the awful Canadian Tenors singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujiah" during the In Memoriam, Julianna Margulies' attempts to do comedy, and a pandemic of bad microphones all night. Shilling for new shows wasn't too obnoxious this year, but the "Charlie's Angels" apperance was an embarrassment, especially as they were handing out one of the major acting awards and announced the winner's name in incomprehensible squeals. I'm not sure why the announcers were still doing John Hodgman's schtick without John Hodgman. Oh, and Charlie Sheen showed up and behaved himself, which was exactly as exciting as it sounds.

But all in all, this was among the better awards shows that I've seen recently. There was a consistent feeling of effort in the writing and production, and even if all the jokes and ideas didn't work, at least few of them were outright stinkers. The Oscars might want to poach a few of the writers for February. And this was one of the most unpredictable and interesting Emmy races I've seen in a while, once you got past "Modern Family." It's getting my hopes up for next year.

Until then, happy watching.
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Sunday, September 18, 2011

2011 Emmy Liveblog Part II

Continued from previous post.

6:39PM - Hmmm. EW says that Alec Baldwin walked out of the Emmys after a Rupert Murdoch joke got quashed. Ah, he was supposed to play the President of TV in the intro, and Nimoy was substituted at the last moment.

6:40PM - Loretta Devine and Paul McCrane, the Outstanding Guest Star winners, present Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series. Neil Jordan and Martin Scorsese are in this category. Scorsese wins! I would've voted for him, just to get this upcoming speech.

6:43PM - Nothing very interesting from Scorsese, but still good to see him.

6:44PM - Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. With no Aaron Paul, who's going to take it? Peter Dinklage for "Game of Thrones"! Eeeeeee! And the fanboys rejoice!

6:51PM - Hi Anderson Cooper. This may be the best thing anyone has ever done with the cast of "The Jersey Score."

6:53PM - Bryan Cranston and Katie Holmes (wha? Oh, the Kennedys miniseries) present Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Emmy goes to Julianna Margulies. Wait, her dress isn't bedazzled. Upon closer inspection, it appears to be spawning.

6:56PM - The leads of the new TV "Charlie's Angels" reboot and Drew Barrymore from the movie "Charlie's Angels" reboot appear. Passing the torch? Oh come on. Some of the original Angels are still around.

Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy goes to Kyle Chandler. Chances of a Best Drama upset are looking more likely.

7:05PM - Oooh, LL Cool J joins the Emmytones. They needed that. Onwards to the Miniseries/Made for TV Movies Montage! Hey, "Luther"! And "Carlos"! And "Sherlock"!

7:07PM - Okay, Jane Lynch just had the best line of the night. I can't wait to forget "Entourage" ever existed. Best Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special Emmy goes to Julian Fellowes for "Downton Abbey." Have to remember to watch that one. Used the word "grandiloquent" in his speech, which pretty much assures that it is grandiloquent.

7:10PM - Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie Emmy goes to Maggie Smith for "Downton Abbey." She's not here. Oh well.

7:17PM - Wow, Paul Abdul is tiny, and the mikes are so off. The accountants get their moment. Melissa McCarthy and Amy Poehler are making everyone so wonderfully uncomfortable. Outstanding Actor in a Miniseries or Movie goes to Barry Pepper. He's not here.

7:20PM - Outstanding Directing in a Miniseries or Movie nominees include Todd Haynes, Olivier Assayas, and Curtis Hanson. None or them win, because "Downton Abbey" is on a roll. Brian Percival, here's your moment. Enjoy it.

7:22PM - Here comes the In Memoriam. I hate that they've been turning these into stealth musical numbers lately. Bye Columbo, and Mr. Cunningham, and "Touched by an Angel" guy.

7:32PM - Here come David Boreanz and Anna Torv to present Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie. Emmy goes to Guy Pearce, who actually is here. And he's making raunchy jokes and being awesome.

7:35PM - Hugh Laurie and Claire Danes and Hugh Laurie's accent come out to present the Helen Mirren memorial Emmy (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie) to Kate Winslet. Yeah, who saw that coming?

And now she proceeds to demonstrate exactly why she won, by injecting some much needed energy into the final stretch. Thanks Kate.

7:44PM - Jane Lynch's material is getting better. The voice of Don Cheadle presents the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie to "Downton Abbey." "Mildred Pierce" and HBO are denied. Mr. Grandiloquent is back! I like him.

7:46PM - Maria Bello and William H. Macey have terrible presenter lines, but everyone's paying attention because they're presenting Outstanding Drama Series. Emmy goes to "Mad Men"! No writing award, no Hamm victory, but they still walk away with the big one.

7:48PM - I wish they had a live orchestra to play the shows' theme music as they're going up on stage like they do at the Oscars. I found myself straining to hear the "Mad Men" theme, but no such luck.

7:54PM - Jane Lynch is a trooper. Last award is being presented by Gwyneth Paltrow. Outstanding Comedy Series goes to "Modern Family." How could it not? Nice going on the heartfelt speech Mr. Levitan.

8:00PM - There were some nice surprises, but the overwhelming love for "Modern Family" was getting a little nuts, and I don't understand how Steve Carrell lost to Sheldon again. With this crowd, though, I get why shows like "Community" and "Louie" got overlooked, and probably will be again in the future.

Oh well. There's always next year. Congratulations to all the winners and should-a-wonners. Good night!
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2011 Emmy Liveblog Part I

Heaven help me. I'm doing this again. Twelve minutes to the madness!

5:00PM - Bye bye Nancy O'Dell. Good riddance.

Opening sequence features Leonard Nimoy as the "President of TV." I'd have gotten Henry Winkler. Good use of Kevin Nealon and Jeremy Piven, but the longer bits with "Big Bang" and "Man Men" couldn't have been over fast enough.

5:07PM - Jane Lynch sounds better live than in the taped segment.

5:10PM - Oh, poor Joel McHale. Don't get nominated for an Emmy, end up in the "Emmytones," announcing pool. Looks like they're also going with category specific montages this year. The guys who did the "Comedy" one (and it earned those quotation marks) should seriously reconsider their profession.

5:14PM - Jimmies Fallon and Kimmel have a good bit with mild homoeroticism and roughhousing. Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series goes to Julie Bowen from "Modern Family."

5:17PM - Julianna Marguiles is wearing a bedazzled toothpaste tube and appears to be heavily medicated. Ty Burrell from "Modern Family" gets the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series award.

5:26PM - Jane Lynch gets to make a concession speech. Ricky Gervais! The gag with the censored pre-taped speech went on for exactly as long as it should have. You laugh, but I'm getting flashbacks to what FOX Kids did to "One Piece." Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series goes to Michael Allen Spiller for "Modern Family."

5:30PM - Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series is being presented by Will Arnettt and Zooey Deschanel. Good luck with the new sitcoms guys. Steven Levitan and Jeffrey Richman win for "Modern Family." This evening is getting terribly predictable. Are the drama categories up soon? Variety shows? Miniseries? Something "Modern Family" isn't nominated for?

5:34PM - "You won't believe who's on the Emmy stage next!" Maybe you shouldn't have shown us that shot of Charlie Sheen adjusting his tie right before cutting to commercial.

5:39PM - "Welcome back to the 'Modern Family' awards!" Jane Lynch can't seem to decide between abrasive and charming, so she's going for obvious.

5:41PM - Uh oh. Charlie Sheen's having a moment.

5:42PM - Oh good. It didn't last. Onward!

5:42PM - Jim Parsons wins Outstanding Lead Actor again for "The Big Bang Theory."

5:43PM - Sofia Vergara and Rob Lowe present for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Amy Poehler doesn't wait for the winner to be called, and heads for the stage. Ooh, she may have started something. There goes Melissa McCarthy. And Martha Plimpton.

Please tell me this wasn't planned. That would make it even more awesome.

Melissa McCarthy wins! Group hug! And a tiara and roses materialize. Yup, it was planned. Still pretty awesome.

5:50PM - I am fixing typos.

5:54PM - I'm not sure what this "Office" sketch is about, but it was nice to see Aaron Paul and John Slattery. Okay, and Cee-Lo and his chair from "The Voice" was cute. Ashton Kutcher gag was obvious, but well done.

5:57PM - Reality/Variety montage time. Wonder why the Kennedy Center Honors and the Oscars didn't warrant identification.

6:01PM - Why a David Spade and Kelly Cuoco pairing for Best Reality Program presenters? Oh well. "Amazing Race" wins, after "Top Chef" ended its last streak last year. How long will they hang on to the title this time?

6:04PM - I always love the Outstanding Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Special nominees. "Daily Show" writers on Newsweek covers! Jimmy Fallon writers as puppies! A peek into the writers' rooms of "Colbert" and "Conan"! "Daily Show" wins. Speech amusing and also brief. Best kind of Emmy victory.

6:12PM - Lonely Island and Michale Bolton take the stage to start off an "SNL" nominated song medley. Why are they wiggling their genitalia at William H. Macey? Forget it. I don't want to know.

6:16PM - Had to Google Ian Somerhalder, which confirms I'm old. He and Lea Michele present Best Directing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Special to Don Hall for "SNL." Guy is dripping with class. Wow.

6:18PM - Either Anna Paquin is very tall or Scott Caan is very short. Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Special goes to "The Daily Show" for the ninth time. Fallon's mugging, and it's adorable.

6:26PM - Yay! Drama montage! I'm starting to appreciate these just for the clips of shows that wouldn't get nominated in a million years otherwise.

6:29PM - John Cryer and Ashton Kutcher present Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. Emmy goes to - "Friday Night Light"?! Is this the beginning of an upset, or just a fluke? And will this be the only time we'll every here someone thank DirecTV in an Emmy speech this evening?

6:31PM - Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series goes to Margo Martindale for "Justified." Someone help that woman up the stairs! I love it when normally under-the-radar character actors get these moments. I have heard very good things.

We're at the halfway point. Continuing in second post.
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Friday, September 16, 2011

All "Simpsons," All the Time

According to the LA Times, FOX is considering an entire digital cable channel devoted to "The Simpsons." Wow. My first reaction is to wonder if there's really the demand for that much "Simpsons" out there. Then again, the show airs in syndication practically around the clock in some places, and having a single channel devoted to the show probably beats having to hunt for it every time you want to catch a different airing. And I do remember my brother and I sitting though an awful lot of "Simpsons" reruns when we were younger, and it probably accounted for a good chunk of the total programming we regularly watched during the late 90s.

But still, an entire channel? Could you really program a whole cable channel with a single show? Well, "The Simpsons" has been running for twenty-two seasons and amassed at least two hundred and fifty hours of content. Math tells me that you would have to watch for ten days straight with no breaks to see them all. Assuming a staggered schedule and that most viewers consistently watch at certain times of the day, a subscriber could easily go months without seeing a repeat. And a real "Simpsons" obsessive would probably love to have so much access to so much "Simpsons" all at once - oh wait.

Most "Simpsons" fans have already bought the DVD sets (I have joint custody of the first four seasons with my brother), which means that they probably already have constant access to all their favorite episodes. Subscribing to a "Simpsons" channel to access the same content would mean that they would still have to look through schedules to see when their favorites were airing and sit through commercials - yes, almost all the channels on the upper cable tiers still have commercials. And of course there's the old argument that "The Simpsons" isn't worth watching past its first seven or eight seasons. I still watch the "Treehouse of Horror" specials every year, but that's about it. And that means that the discerning subscriber wouldn't be watching at least two thirds of the content he or she would be paying for.

On the other hand, most viewers aren't nearly so picky. Some people like the experience of watching shows live with commercials between the act breaks. Getting randomized episodes instead of picking and choosing yourself could be seen as a plus. And there's a good chunk of the viewing audience that just wants something familiar on the tube to veg out to, and "The Simpsons" is always a good standby. But you have to wonder if these are the kind of viewers who would seek out a cable channel specifically devoted to "The Simpsons," especially at the rates FOX is charging these days. You could buy a whole season of the show with the extra fees it would cost to get the "Simpsons" channel for a month or two through the usual cable providers.

I can see the novelty of the idea, but I don't think that a "Simpsons" exclusive channel makes any sense. The only content you could have are the reruns, a single movie, a couple of specials, and whatever "Simpsons" themed original programming FOX can think up ("Simpsons" game shows? "Simpsons" reality TV? A "MST3K" revival with "Simpsons" characters sitting in for Joel and the Bots?). Most people love "The Simpsons," but would probably balk at subscribing to a channel that is only "Simpsons" and nothing else. The only circumstances where you might get enough real interest is if the channel were the only place to see the older episodes being broadcast, and that's just not going to happen. Syndication is too lucrative, and removing the reruns from wider circulation would hurt the show in the long run.

What I would do if I were FOX would be to launch a FOX animation channel, and add "Family Guy," "King of the Hill," and "American Dad" to the mix, which is what I suspect would end up happening anyway. Or, if the rights to those shows are tied up for a while, air out the archives and get some use out of those moldering episodes of "The PJs" and "The Critic." Figure out where the hell the Saturday morning guys stashed "Toonsylvania" and "The Tick." Even if the primary reason for the channel's existence is "The Simpsons," there's no reason for FOX to paint themselves into a corner by limiting themselves to a single show - even if it is "The Simpsons."
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Exploring "The Music Room"

I wish I knew more about Indian musical tradition, so as better to enjoy "The Music Room," an early film by the the great Bengali director Satyajit Ray. Music infuses every moment, from the opening shot of a beautiful chandelier, laden with glowing candles, to the final climax, which takes place on the empty expanse of a ruined estate. It is also central to the story itself, which follows the decline of Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an elderly zamindar, a titled landowner, who is obsessed with giving extravagant concerts in the jalsaghar, the music room of his fading palace.

I was worried that this would be a difficult watch, as the director himself famously remarked that he thought the subject matter was too obscure for the film to travel abroad easily. Fortunately "The Music Room" deals in universal themes and Ray's depiction of the story is vivid and easily comprehensible. Though the cultural details may be unfamiliar, the audience is sure to recognize such figures as the indulgent wife Mahamaya (Padma Devi), beloved son Khoka (Pinaki Sen Gupta), and loyal old retainer Ananta (Kali Sarkar). And they will surely understand the significance of Biswambhar Roy's neighbor, the "self-made man" Ganguly (Gangapada Bose), who flourishes in business but craves the respect denied him as one of the nouveau riche. Ganguly's attempts to draw admiration through flashy concerts and celebrations drive an indignant Biswambhar to use his dwindling funds to stage competing events. Though his lands have been rendered nearly useless by the river and his influence and power are waning, he is fiercely protective of the remaining respect afforded him by his position.

In the grand cinema tradition of elderly gentlemen facing hardship in their twilight years, Biswambhar Roy is not one of the more sympathetic figures. We first see him lazing indolently on his roof, only roused by the sound of music in the distance. Multiple times it is pointed out to him that his management skills are poor and his lands could have been saved with better diligence, but he ignores all warnings. Instead, his only real passion is music, which he devotes so much of his attention to, he neglects nearly everything else. Chhabi Biswas's performance initially left me a little cold, because he so perfectly embodies entitled privilege, imperiously looking down at the upstart Ganguly and often remaining impassive during the musical performances in spite of his enjoyment. Sometimes he doesn't even seem aware that he's inviting disaster until it is suddenly upon him. And then Biswas's broad face comes alive with horror and regret, and it is impossible not to feel for his loss.

In the hands of another, "The Music Room" could have been a far darker, more dramatic film, perhaps tying the downfall of Biswambar more closely with the larger decline of the zamindars in the early part of the 20th century. However, thanks in part to the fascinating musical performances that are featured throughout, the film comes across as more of a meditative, introspective character piece. The director establishes wonderful rhythm to Biswambhar's life, marked by gently swaying chandeliers, servants fanning the humid air, and the camera slowly traveling through empty corridors and abandoned rooms. The black and white visuals are lovely, capturing the dilapidation of Biswambhar's family home and surrounding lands, and heightening the effect of the music and dance sequences. The most memorable of these is the final concert, which features a long solo by the dancer Roshan Kumari. It's here that I wish I had more knowledge regarding the styles and history of Indian music. The performance felt distinctly more modern than all the others, and perhaps was meant to be yet another sign of encroaching, inevitable change.

I also appreciated the smaller, subtler moments of humor and humanity in the film. What we see of Mahamaya is brief, but her gentle chidings to her husband carry the weight of years of familiarity. Ananta's affection for his master is palpable, and he develops his own hostilities toward Ganguly, made clear in one of the best comic moments. Though it was shot on location in a real palace, the scope of "The Music Room" is small, with no more than a dozen major characters and all the action taking place in and around a single building. Thus it retains a very intimate feel and personal character. Yet for a film that is so simple, its pleasures are endless.

I suspect that "The Music Room" will yield more enjoyment with additional viewings and better knowledge of the musical traditions being portrayed. However, after only a single viewing, it was clear to me that this film is a masterpiece. I wasn't sure about Satyajit Ray after "Pather Panchali," his most famous film, but now I can't wait to go and explore the rest of his work.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

8 Happy Movie Endings (That Replaced Better Unhappy Ones)

Imagine a movie landscape where the bad guy was never allowed to get away with it, where all crimes had to be punished and all moral lapses had to be corrected by the time the credits rolled. Thanks to the Hays Code, from 1934 until the mid 50s, that was the rule in the American film industry. On top of that the studios often worried about sad or pessimistic films scaring away theater patrons, and sometimes went so far as to demand that darker endings be rewritten as happy ones. To this day, nervous executives can do a lot of damage to a good ending, now using poor test audience reactions as the common excuse to make cuts and edits. In short, not all happy endings are necessarily the best ones, and I've singled out some of the most egregious substitutions below, excluding those that the directors themselves were directly responsible for ("AI", "Source Code," etc). Spoilers, spoilers everywhere, so be careful.

"The Bad Seed" - When you think of evil children in cinema, Damien of "The Omen" gets a lot of press, but my money was always on sweet little Rhoda from "The Bad Seed." The novel and play the film was based on both ended with the murderous little girl killing her mother and getting away with it. However, under the Hays Code, crime was never allowed to pay, so Rhoda was struck by lightning in the final reel, and her mother miraculously revived. I can't be too unhappy with this one, because even though it would have been far more sinister fun to have the original ending for the film, some part of me cheers every time that pigtailed little monster gets it.

"And Then There Were None" - Agatha Christie's mystery novel, also known as "Ten Little Indians," or by its less savory original title that I'm not going to print here, killed off ten characters on a remote island one at a time, leaving a perfect closed-room mystery for those who would later find them: which one killed the others and why? The film's lighter ending leaves two survivors and the murderer's plans to commit a perfect crime are foiled. It's not a bad ending, but it's not nearly as psychologically interesting as the original. Nearly all later adaptations followed the film's example, and even Agatha Christie herself wrote a stage adaptation where the leads survive.

"Infernal Affairs" - The Hong Kong thriller that "The Departed" was based on ends with the gangsters' mole, played by Andy Lau, getting away with his policeman cover intact and resolving to use his position to become a real good guy. For mainland China, whose censors still seem to be stuck in the 50s, an alternate ending was created where Lau's character confesses his crimes and gives himself up to the police. In light of that, I wonder how they explained the sequel which features Lau still undercover as a cop - though that one does feature a final fate for the character that the censors would certainly approve of.

"Brazil" - One of the most famous battles ever waged between a filmmaker and a studio executive occurred in 1985, when Terry Gilliam went to war with Universal's Sid Sheinberg over getting "Brazil" released with its gut-puncher "1984" inspired ending intact. Sheinberg insisted on the creation of an alternate version referred to as the "Love Conquers All" cut, which pretty well sums up the problem right there. Gilliam had to make edits, but his version was the one that made it to theaters. Sheinberg's was aired on television a few times, but today mostly exists as a curiosity item on collectors' discs. Thank goodness.

"First Blood" - The movie originally ended with John Rambo committing suicide, just as he did in the David Morrell novel. It was depressing, sure, but it was perfectly appropriate for the story of a Vietnam veteran who was driven to wage a guerrilla war against some small-town cops as a result of his battle traumas. Similar films like "Falling Down" made it work cinematically, so I don't see why "Rambo" couldn't have. And frankly, the character going out by his own hand would have been a far more dignified end than getting transmogrified into the ridiculous supersoldier action-hero that Rambo became in the sequels.

"Little Shop of Horrors" - Possibly the most notorious scrapped ending of all time belongs to "Little Shop," which would have seen the sentient alien plant Audrey II swallow the main characters whole and then go off to conquer the planet. Over twenty minutes of film, whole song numbers, and a massive special effects sequence were cut, all to change the comedically dark and apocalyptic finale into a typical happy ending. Part of what makes this ending so famous is how inaccessible it has been to curious fans. In 1998, Warner brothers actually recalled DVDs of the film that included the ending as a special feature, because of squabbles over the rights to the deleted material.

"I Am Legend" - This one isn't the substitution of a happy ending per se, but it's certainly a more Hollywood one. Will Smith's character is supposed to have the epiphany that his experiments on the infected humans has made him into a monster figure to them, thus explaining the title "I Am Legend." It turns out the mindless creatures he's been fighting with for the whole film aren't so mindless after all. He subsequently abandons his work and leaves Manhattan. In the theatrical version, no enlightenment is to be had. Smith blows himself and his lab up with a grenade to ensure the escape of some other survivors, ending the film with a bang and some generic platitudes.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" - This should have been one of the most deliciously pulpy, campy horror movie endings of all time. The hero, having witnessed the invading pod people conquer his town, runs out into the local highway, screaming warnings to passing cars, "Can't you see?! They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They're here already! You're next!" And then he looks straight into the camera, wild-eyed. "You're next!" The studio took one look and made the filmmakers go back and shoot wraparound scenes so the whole film is told in flashback, and the movie ends with the authorities being alerted to go save the day. What utter spoilsports.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Echoes in the "Shock Corridor"

Samuel Fuller's "Shock Corridor" is a prime piece of 60s pulp with some interesting moments of social commentary, following journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) as he goes undercover into a mental hospital to investigate the murder of one of the patients. Barrett is driven by ambition and ego to get the story and win a Pulitzer Prize, even if he has to forfeit his own sanity in the process. His girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) thinks he's taking too many risks, but can't do much more than wring her hands and bear witness to his deterioration, as Barrett gets closer and closer to the truth.

"Shock Corridor" is not an exploitation film, but neither is it in any way a serious examination of life in psychiatric treatment. Fuller milks the scenario for all it's worth, presenting the full gamut of madman clichés. The hospital is initially portrayed with at least some measure of restraint. Rules and regulations are given nods, the head doctor is not especially malicious, and there are always bow-tied attendants nearby the break up any physical altercations. Nevertheless, like so many other movie madhouses, fights happen constantly, the system is rife with abuses, and the tactics used to treat poor Barrett gradually shift from therapy and medication to straitjackets and electroshock therapy.

There are also some salacious, sexually-charged elements included in the film that it would have been hard for Fuller to get away with just a few years earlier when the Hayes Code was still being enforced. Cathy works as an exotic dancer and keeps company with prostitutes, though pains are taken to emphasize that she isn't one. Barrett's ruse involves pretending that Cathy is his sister, who he harbors incestuous feelings for. Visions of her dancing, costumed figure taunt and tease him after he is committed. And in one memorably campy sequence, Barrett unwittingly stumbles into the women's ward, and nearly falls victim to a leering throng of nymphomaniacs.

In keeping with the genre conventions, the performance by Peter Breck is completely over-the-top, overselling Barrett's shift from aping made-up mental deficiencies to a full mental breakdown. He flails and he screams and he tries to hold on to the furniture when the attendants come to drag him away from a fight. It's all very enjoyable to watch. There are scenes where the audience is supposed to wonder whether Barnett is playacting of really starting to lose his mind, but the story beats are so predictable and the characterization is so simplistic, there's little ambiguity or suspense in the material. The execution, however, is another matter entirely.

Samuel Fuller does so much with the visual storytelling, which is what makes the film worth watching. The film is predominantly in stark, simple black and white, shot on limited sets. However, there are surreal touches around every corner, like Barrett's fantasy visions of Cathy and other brief dream sequences composed of documentary style footage, shot in color. As Barnett's mental state worsens, the lighting becomes more extreme and the camera work gets wilder. Some scenes turn out to be entirely a product of Barrett's imagination. The performances may be melodramatic, but Fuller keeps finding ways to summon up visuals that match them in intensity.

"Shock Corridor" also has social criticisms and counter-culture messages embedded at its core. These emerge in the three witnesses who Barrett seeks out and interrogates one by one. Stuart (James Best) is a former soldier who defected to the Soviets upon his capture, and now lives out various Civil War campaigns. Trent (Hari Rhodes) was one of the first African-Americans at an all-white college, and cracked under the pressure of trying to help the desegregation movement. Finally Boden (Gene Evans), a top nuclear scientist, reverted to the age of a six-year-old rather than work on more bombs.

The most exciting and no doubt the most controversial moments of the film involve Trent, who spouts white supremacist rhetoric while donning a makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood, intent on starting race riots in the ward. The hatred and hypocrisy he faced as a student drove him to madness, just as other social evils doomed his fellow patients. The language that Trent uses and the extremity of his delusions are potent social satire and remain jarringly effective even to this day. When you remember that "Shock Corridor" was released in 1963, Fuller's willingness to present these ideas is even more admirable.

It's fascinating to see how Samuel Fuller takes familiar genre tropes and manages to make them bigger than they are, encompassing larger themes and messages to the point where they almost become parable. He'll indulge in moments of kitsch and silliness, but "Shock Corridor" manages to be a film of great substance as well as style, and a memorable one at that.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

The Fall TV Season Cometh

I haven't been paying as much attention as I should to the new television season that's set to kick off in a couple of days now. There are lots of new shows that are going to be premiering on network television this fall, so I figured it was a good time to take stock of some of the more interesting contenders. Who knows which are going to last a month and which will outlast "Entourage"?

"Prime Suspect" - Based on the long-running British crime serials starring Helen Mirren, the new version will follow an American policewoman played by Maria Bello. With so many other crime dramas out there right now, "Prime Suspect" needs to distinguish itself from the pack. However, with NBC's "Law & Order" empire in its decline, and the "CSI" format wearing out its welcome, this is as good a time as any to try.

"The X Factor" - The dominance of "American Idol" will be challenged by another British talent show import, "The X Factor," created by Simon Cowell. He'll also be appearing as a judge in the first season, along with fellow "Idol" alum Paula Abdul. The shows won't be in direct competition, though, since both will be on FOX, which will be running "Factor" in the fall and "Idol" in the spring. I wonder if that much reality will prove to be too much for the American public. Or if the two shows will just join forces to crush "The Voice."

"Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm" - The fairy tale bug has bitten this season hard. We have two shows that will use fairy tale elements and characters in modern settings to try and become a new genre hit. "Grimm," which uses the cop drama model, is starting out in a Friday night slot, so it already has its work cut out for it. I'm more interested in the mystery series "Once Upon a Time," which has a few "Lost" creators involved and Jennifer Morrison starring. And it'll be fun to watch the "Fables" fanboys flip out over any inevitable similarities.

"2 Broke Girls" and "Whitney" - I admit I'm not one to get too excited about sitcoms, but it looks like Whitney Cummings may be on the brink of becoming a TV superstar. She has somehow managed to come out of this year's pilot scrum with creator credits on two different comedies on two different networks. Moreover, "2 Broke Girls" will be on CBS's Monday Night comedy block, while "Whitney," where Cummings will be playing the title character, writing, and producing, will be on Thursdays on NBC after "The Office." You couldn't ask for better starting positions.

"Person of Interest" - What would a new fall season be without JJ Abrams? Add another high concept Bad Robot crime drama to the pile, one using science-fiction crime-predicting technology to stop major crimes before they happen, "Minority Report" style. "Persons" will star Jim Caviezel, Michael Emerson, and Taraji P. Henson, so I was already interested. Add some great buzz on top of that, and this is shaping up to be my most anticipated new series of the fall season.

"Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club" - Two 10PM dramas chasing the retro cool of "Mad Men." Both are trying to pull a "Sucker Punch" with their marketing, trumpeting women's empowerment storylines while plastering sexy visuals of its stars all over the ads. 60s stewardesses and Playboy bunnies? Oh yeah, that just screams women's lib doesn't it? I'll give the edge to "Pan Am" for now, since it features more reliable talent and Christina Ricci as the lead. However, controversy is sure to give "Playboy" a boost. One NBC affiliate has already refused to air it.

"Last Man Standing" and "Suburgatory" - There are lots of female-led new series this year, but ABC is pushing several sitcoms starring men, including "Last Man Standing," with Tim Allen as a last bastion of masculinity under siege, and "Suburgatory" where Jeremy Sisto will do battle with the horrors of suburbia and a few former SNL cast members. I'd say "Suburgatory" has a better shot, enjoying a nice Wednesday berth between "The Middle" and "Modern Family," while ABC hasn't had much luck lately with the Tuesday 8PM slot, where "Last Man" is standing.

"Terra Nova" - FOX's time-tripping adventure series has been in the works for ages and suffered multiple delays, because they keep tweaking those special effects that are supposed to blow all our minds. Having been bombarded by the extended trailers for this thing for months, I'm more worried about the cast of characters, who will have to sustain the series when the fancy CGI dinosaurs aren't onscreen.

There are also some more interesting titles coming up for the midseason, but that's a post for another time.

Happy watching!
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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Wait, What About Pre-Theatrical VOD?

So, it's been determined that the early video-on-demand (VOD) demand scheme where the studios would charge $30 to watch a new theatrical release sixty days after its premiere date isn't going to work out. The market for this kind of service doesn't exist at this price point. Theater owners who worried about VOD cutting into theatrical runs and their profits can breathe a sigh of relief. Lionsgate seems to have found a better tactic: it will be putting its new action film "Abduction" on VOD before its Blu-ray and DVD release, but only ten days early. Exhibitors seem fine with that.

But wait a minute. If they were worried about films being on VOD less than 90 days after they premiered in theaters, what about the increasing number of films that are being made available through various VOD and online platforms before their theatrical release dates? Right now on iTunes and Amazon, you can rent "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" or Kevin Smith's "Red State" for $10 apiece, even though both are supposed to have theatrical runs beginning later in the fall. According to this great Cinematical article (a thousand curses on the Huffington Post!), Magnet Releasing and Magnolia Pictures, who are distributing "Tucker & Dale," have been doing this for a while. They've released a variety of titles early through their "Ultra VOD" program, including the alien invasion film "Monsters," documentary "Freakonomics," and indie drama "Two Lovers." Other distributors who have tried this include IFC, Oscilloscope and Tribeca Films. Lionsgate, which is handling "Red State," still seems to be testing the waters with multiple approaches.

Clearly there's a difference in the kinds of films that are being offered through pre-theatrical VOD and the titles that theater owners were worried about. "Tucker & Dale" and "Red State" will only be getting limited releases, possibly only playing a few dozen screens for a week or two, and won't be available to great swaths of the moviegoing public. There seems to be less impact on the theatrical performance because it's so small to begin with, and works on a very different model than the big mainstream releases like "Abduction" will be getting. However, I think it's important to note that these early VOD experiments have been very limited so far. It's hard to tell if art house patrons are seeing these films in theaters because they prefer the theatrical experience or if they simply aren't aware that the films are available for rental, and might choose differently if they did. Films that are billed as being simultaneously released on multiple formats don't tend to do as well in theaters, for instance.

If early VOD becomes more widespread and popularized, I think we might see more push back from theaters. With a flood of prestige pictures just around the corner, I wonder if you could incorporate VOD into their usual release pattern, which start out with very limited releases that slowly expand into more and more theaters as the season progresses. Would larger theaters want to book a film that's already widely available on the VOD platform? One issue I'm curious about is how early VOD releases affect awards eligibility. The draconian requirements for the Academy Awards, for instance, are all tied to theatrical distribution dates, and being shown on television first would result in disqualification. Would an early VOD release mean that "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" would be automatically out of contention, putting aside the fact that it is a horror comedy about two bumbling rednecks mistaken for psycho killers? Is this why "Freakonomics" didn't get a nod last year? Since Kevin Smith went on tour with "Red State" back in March maybe it's played enough dates to qualify. I'm not sure.

Anyway, there still seem to be a lot of these kinds of unforeseen risks associated with early-VOD, which is why you're only seeing those very few, very exceptional titles being offered so far. "Tucker & Dale" was only finally acquired for distribution in June after over two years stuck in limbo. And there's absolutely nothing normal about anything that Kevin Smith has been doing with "Red State." Where do I stand on this? I don't want to see any of these films disappear from movie theaters, and I don't think VOD is any kind of suitable replacement. On the other hand, the access to some of these smaller films just isn't there in so many cases. As the Cinematical article noted, many viewers who watch these early releases on VOD didn't even know they existed beforehand because of the lack of marketing resources. More people getting to see more films sounds good to me.

So where am I going to see these films? Well, since I'm saving up my money for a lot of other movies this season, probably in five to seven months via Netflix or Redbox rental.
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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Twitterpation

So after a week of technical difficulties, my laptop has been resurrected, and Twitter updates are back. However, that week of Twitter-less existence it made me realize how much of my time that one little app has been eating up. I really need to step back and figure out how I can use Twitter more efficiently.

I think a big part of the problem is that I actually read my Twitter feed and all the messages generated by the accounts I'm following, which I understand that most people don't do. Right now I'm following about a dozen accounts being posted to by comedians, writers, a few movie reviewers, and maintainers doing website updates. All together, they generate over a hundred tweets a day, some accounts considerably more than others. I'll read about thirty in the morning, fifty to seventy when I get home, and maybe another thirty before I go to bed. If John Hodgman is playing Scrabble, that number goes up considerably.

Scanning through all those tweets individually to glean the interesting content is time consuming, but there's really no other way I can think of doing it. You can't exactly set up filters for "interesting" and "not interesting," especially since I don't know which tweets are going to attract my attention from day to day. The people I follow are those I genuinely enjoy reading, and I like having such direct access to. While I skip over a good portion of their tweets without a second thought, like the travel updates, the birthday greetings, and the endless charity appeals that get passed along, I still get enough out of reading the good stuff to keep checking my Twitter feeds every day. Right now I don't do the reciprocal friending thing, where I'll just add anyone and everyone to my friends list (though that would probably help in the self-marketing department), but if I did, the dozen accounts that I have friended now are the ones that I'd keep on my main reading list.

However, sometimes I wonder if I'm using Twitter the way it was meant to be used. I don't get directly tweeted to very often or participate in many ongoing conversations. I'll get about one message a month, usually in response to something I've written. Conversely, my attempts at reaching out to other Twitterers and haven't been too successful. Part of the problem is that I access Twitter through Tweetdeck, and I don't leave the progam open continuously. I prefer to read tweets (and e-mails and blog posts) in aggregate, so I can get through a lot of them quickly. Reading them in real time as they come in just doesn't work for me. It's too distracting, having to stop what I'm doing every few minutes to read a sentence or two, which might just end up being an update about someone's adorable cat, and then try to pick up again where I left off. But getting any kind of back and forth going with other Twitterers just isn't going to happen if you're only checking in two or three times a day.

I wonder how other people manage it, staying plugged into multiple Twitter conversations and simultaneously doing what ever it is that they do in real life. How do they keep the information overload at bay? If I'm gone for more than a day or two, my eyes will boggle when I open up my Tweetdeck and see all the tweets waiting to be read. This time, after a whole week's absence, I didn't even try. I just posted my updates and got out while I still could. Honestly, even accessing Twitter two or three times a day can get to be a bit much. Sometimes I've resorted to reading my friends feed during the boring parts of movies or podcasts.

I like keeping an eye on the Twitter universe though. I'll often see reactions to major news stories before I read or hear about them through regular channels. I'll get linked to all kinds of interesting content I never would have stumbled across myself, and I get good movie and TV show recommendations from the reviewers I follow all the time. It's also a quick and easy way for me to raise my visibility as a blogger, even though sometimes I wonder if my updates are only for the benefit of the link spammers. I'm not about to give up Twitter, but there must be some way I can make the experience easier on myself. Maybe I should get a reader with bigger font sizes, or split up the accounts I'm following into separate lists.

I'll take any suggestions if you've got 'em. Thanks all.
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Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Favorite Stanley Kubrick Film

The one and only time I was ever carded going to a movie was in 1999, upon the release of "Eyes Wide Shut." I went with a group of friends who were curious about all the controversy over the adult content, and none of us were really sure what we were in for. Coming out of the theater, after two and a half hours of obtuse erotic imagery, and very little of the actual nudity or graphic sexuality many were hoping for, I remember one friend vocally expressing his displeasure with the film. I countered that "I kinda liked it."

He responded, wearily, "You would." And thus, on that day a pretentious cinema geek became self-aware.

This is not the only thing I have to thank Stanley Kubrick for, not by a long shot. I didn't see many of his films until I got to college. In fact, I specifically warned my freshman roommate that I was determined to find copies of "A Clockwork Orange," "Lolita," and all the other controversial Kubrick films, since I was finally out of my parents' house. If she didn't want to be there when I watched them, I'd be happy to give her plenty of forewarning. She ended up watching "Clockwork Orange" with me, having heard plenty about the film herself.

It's difficult to pinpoint the origins of my high regard for Stanley Kubrick. From a very young age, I recognized Kubrick as a director who had this rare aura of power and menace around him. He made films that were considered classics, but some were very controversial, perhaps even dangerous. Multiple viewings of "The Shining," really the only Kubrick film I had regular access to as a kid, confirmed his reputation for me. It's still my favorite of his films, and the one most directly responsible for my seeking out his other work when I was older. Oh, I know "Dr. Strangelove" was better written, "2001: A Space Odyssey" was more visually iconic, and as far as I'm concerned, the first half "Full Metal Jacket" is the most perfect piece of film Kubrick was ever responsible for, and still "The Shining" is my favorite.

I wasn't a brave kid, and not much of a horror fan until much later, but "The Shining" fascinated me. I didn't find it scary, but it impacted me deeply. There was such a deliberateness about the filmmaking, such a distinct style and attitude that came across so clearly to me onscreen. "The Shining" was one of the first films where I could recognize many of the tactics that the director was employing to provoke the viewer - crashing piano cues, the hypnotic long shots, the sound design - and yet that didn't spoil their effectiveness in the least. I was so caught up in what was happening to the characters, and at the same time so aware that the film was being presented to me in such a ruthlessly efficient and artful way, somehow it never occurred to me to be scared. I was too intent on seeing what happened next - and more importantly how it would happen.

The most compelling character in the film is the Overlook Hotel, thanks to Kubrick. Many cinema locales have their own distinct personalities, but the Overlook is one of the few that seems to exert its own will, without ever being too obviously anthropomorphized. I love how deceptive the visuals are in this regard. At first the Overlook appears to be an empty hotel that has nothing but space, but when the snow comes down and the monsters emerge, you realize the pattern on the rug just keeps repeating, and repeating, and there's no way out. There is plenty of room to run, and many places to hide, but you never know when you're going to stumble across a madwoman in a bathtub or a pair of twins who just want to play with you.

It's hard to think of another horror film staged on such a grandiose, almost operatic level. Most of the others I remember from my childhood were low budget slashers or spent their money on eye-popping special effects. Kubrick, on the other hand, built enormous, stately sets and used the new Steadicam technology to create elaborate moving shots. Ever a perfectionist, a seventeen week shoot ballooned to nearly a year, and his leading lady collapsed at one point from stress and exhaustion. You can feel the weight of the experience while watching the film itself, that feeling of creeping, endless tension. All the images of repetition, of labyrinths, of quiet mundanity, coupled with the slow pacing, become an itch in the brain until the viewer is more than ready to go a little crazy.

And "The Shining" has such an absurdly simple premise - it's a haunted house film! But the twist is that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) face the most danger from the specters of madness and domestic abuse, which the paranormal may have had little or nothing to do with. Most horror films are so concerned with getting a rise out of their audience on an emotional and visceral level, few go as deep as Kubrick do into the realms of the psychological. And no surprise that there turned out to be so much fertile ground for Kubrick to explore while digging up the roots of common funhouse scares, and turning over those deeper hidden fears that still keep us up at night. Then again, who else would have gone looking for human insight in the horror genre, of all places?

I've read the Stephen King novel and enjoyed it, but I always appreciated the film a little more for its ambiguity. Perhaps the visions of the dead experienced by Jack and Danny are only delusions. Perhaps only Danny's ESP was real, and his projected fears were responsible for what happened to his parents and poor Scatman Crothers. I never did trust that Tony, even as a little kid up way past her bedtime to see if Jack was going to make it out of the hedge maze or not. The smash cut reveal that answered my question, coupled with the crashing pianos, got me every damn time.

I guess even Stanley Kubrick wasn't above a jump scare.
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What I've Seen - Stanley Kubrick

Killer's Kiss (1955)
The Killing (1956)
Paths of Glory (1957)
Spartacus (1960)
Lolita (1962)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Shining (1980)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
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