Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In a Pinch, "Archer"

We are now well into the second year of the latest "The Venture Brothers." hiatus. Fortunately, in that time, I've managed to find another hyperviolent animated action spoof to keep me occupied - FX's "Archer."

"Archer" is definitely one of the spawn of the Adult Swim late night animated programming block, and shares a creative team with the "Sealab 2021" and "Frisky Dingo." It doesn't indulge in nearly the amount of creative anarchy as those shows do, sticking to a much more traditional workplace comedy template. It's just that the workplace is the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS). And the main character, Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin), is the world's most dangerous secret agent, with the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old. And he has some serious issues with his overbearing mother, Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), who happens to be the head of ISIS. And his ex-girlfriend, Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler), is also a deadly fellow ISIS who he has to work with frequently.

Back at ISIS headquarters, there's Cyril (Chris Parnell), the company's bookish, bespectacled comptroller who Lana is now dating, Human Resources Director and gossip facilitator Pam (Amber Nash), Ray (Adam Reed) the openly gay intelligence analyst, Doctor Krieger (Lucky Yates) the openly depraved Head of Research, and finally Malory's secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer), who isn't too bright, and has some alarming personal habits. Most of the employees of ISIS are incompetent and a few are downright nuts, but for the most part they behave like real human beings. We've all met the ditzy secretary and the gossip from HR, but maybe not a pair like Cheryl and Pam who quite so easily give in to their worst impulses at every available opportunity. And of course there's also their access to an armory full of machine guns and a global surveillance network.

There's a lot of gunplay, a lot of explosions, and a lot of car chases, as you might expect from a spy show. And thanks to the magic of animation, they can be a lot bigger, bloodier, and more visceral than what you see in live action, and still be played for laughs. However, "Archer" is not a big budget production, and most of the animation is very limited. Though very nicely designed, the characters are frequently in static poses, with stiff and clunky movements. The worst is when the show tries to integrate CGI elements, which stick out like a sore thumb and make "Archer" look like a much older program than it is. Still, the animation is good enough to regularly pull off big visual gags and some complicated set pieces, so it doesn't detract all that much.

Where "Archer" really shines is in creating memorable characters, and putting them together in extreme, ridiculous situations together. It's the "South Park" approach of pairing rudimentary visuals with outrageously inappropriate, cheerfully profane material. The typical plot either involves spy activities derailed by petty office politics and personal grievances, or an office sitcom dilemma taken to ridiculous extremes by the characters' childishness and the presence of heavy artillery. In both cases, madness and mayhem ensue, and some combination of sexual shenanigans, mindless violence, and namecalling are required to resolve the situation. Most episodes are rated TV-MA, and thoroughly deserve it. Yet the show is well grounded enough that it doesn't feel like it's trying to be shocking. It goes for the laughs first and foremost.

I've been catching up on "Archer" episodes online, and I've found that it's one of those shows that you can't watch too many episodes of in one sitting. So much of the fun comes from the heightened reality and the over-the-top behavior of the characters. I love the unbridled petulance of Archer, who throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way, shamelessly abuses his faithful valet Woodhouse (George Coe), and is as subtle with women as a brick, but can still pull off the whole super spy gig in his sleep. Malory is essentially Lucille from "Arrested Development" cranked up to eleven, with more steely-eyed authority, more booze and and a much more colorful sexual history. Watch too much of them in one sitting, and you'll feel your whole worldview start to warp.

"Archer" is currently on its third season on FX, with more on the way. It's nice to see another emphatically adult-oriented cartoon doing well, though I don't think it matches up to the sublime absurdity of some of the similar shows on Adult Swim. In embracing a more realistic style and the familiar genre of the spy spoof, it feels a little watered down from the more potent anarchy of something like "Frisky Dingo." But for what it is, it works, and I've been enjoying it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Where Are the Female Directors? In Television!

Reading up on the Oscar aftermath, I came across a couple of pieces about the "Bigelow Effect," the idea that Katherine Bigelow winning the Best Director Oscar for "The Hurt Locker" back in 2010 would open doors to more female directors. Salon had a good one, and so did The Washington Post. The problem with the whole idea of a Bigelow Effect is that if there is any impact, it's far, far too early to make any assessments. Gender disparity in mainstream commercial filmmaking is a systemic issue, and two years is far too short a time for anything to effect the kind of positive changes that would yield more female Best Director nominees and winners.

And yet, in the past couple of years I have been seeing more female directors emerging, in smaller indie films, in documentaries, and especially directing television. In fact, one of the most under reported entertainment stories of the past few years is probably the inroads that female directors have been making at the Emmys. The Primetime Emmy Award directing categories have gone through a lot of permutations over the years, ranging from two to six awards depending on how the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was feeling that year. However, to keep things simple, let's compare the categories that are the most analogous to directing award for the Oscars - Directing for a Comedy Series, Directing for a Drama Series, and Directing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special.

Including Bigelow, there have only been four female nominees for the Best Director Oscar in total. The others were Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1993, and Sofia Coppola in 2003. The Emmys also had their first female nominee for a directing award in 1976, Joan Darling for the classic "Chuckles" episode of "Mary Tyler Moore." She was nominated again the next year for "M*A*S*H." The first female winner of a directing award came in 1985, Karen Arthur for an episode of the police drama "Cagney & Lacey." For the rest of the 80s and 90s, across those three Emmy directing categories, there were one or two female nominees in the mix, more often than not. 1992 was a banner year, with one female director nominated in the Comedy category and two in Drama. Betty Thomas won in 1993 for the HBO comedy "Dream On," and Mimi Leder won in 1995 for "ER." Leder has been nominated for five directing Emmys to date, and went on to direct several feature films, including "Deep Impact," "The Peacemaker," and "Pay it Forward."

In the 2000s, however, the nominations dried up. From 2002 to 2005 women directors went totally missing in the categories for any dramatized material, though they were maintaining a good foothold in the Directing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Series/Special and Directing for a Informational/Nonfiction Program categories. If you'll permit me a quick digression, in 2005, four of the five nominees in Nonfiction, including winner Kate Brown, were women. Other notables here include Eleanor Coppola, who won for her "Hearts of Darkness" documentary in 1992. Patricia Birch, won in the Variety, Music, or Comedy category twice for "Great Performances" in 1988 and 1992. Ellen Brown has been nominated six times for directing "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," and Beth McCarthy-Miller, one of the only four directors of "Saturday Night Live" since its inception, has picked up four nominations for her efforts on that show, plus another for the 9/11 telethon. A long story short, there are a lot of good female directors working in areas people tend to overlook.

And in recent years, they're become more and more prominent in the bigger categories. From 2006 to 2008, the Emmys were back to consistently having one or two female directors nominated per year in the Comedy, Drama, and Movies and Miniseries categories. Then things took a turn. In 2009, Millicent Shelton and Beth McCarthy-Miller were both nominated in the Comedy category for two different episodes of "30 Rock," while Susanna White with "Generation Kill" and Dearbhla Walsh with "Little Dorrit" were up for Movies and Miniseries, a category that Walsh won. In 2010, there were three female nominees up for the Directing for a Drama Series Emmy, probably the closest thing to the television equivalent of the Best Directing Oscar. They were Michelle MacLaren for "Breaking Bad," Lesli Linka Glatter for "Mad Men," and Agnieszka Holland for "Treme." This whole post came about because I've been catching up on "Mad Men," and noticed multiple credits for female directors. And Oscar watchers should note that Agnieszka Holland's recent feature, "In Darkness," was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film this year, representing Poland.

2011 was the best turnout for female directors at the Emmys yet. In Comedy, we had Pamela Fryman for "How I Met Your Mother," Gail Mancuso for "Modern Family," and Beth McCarthy-Miller for "30 Rock." This puts Beth McCarthy-Miller at seven directing Emmy nominations, the most of any female director. In drama, Patty Jenkins was nominated for directing the pilot episode of "The Killing." She's probably best known for directing Charlize Theron to an Oscar win with "Monster," back in 2003. Finally, the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were nominated for directing the HBO made-for-television film, "Cinema Verite." They've done several documentaries and features together, including "American Splendor." That adds up to five nominations out of the fifteen for these categories. It's not parity, but the numbers are starting to look pretty significant.

Now what bearing does all this have on the mainstream movie world? Television and film have traditionally been very separate universes, but lately that's becoming less and less the case. Patty Jenkins was up against Martin Scorsese and Neil Jordan in the Drama category, while Berman and Pulcini's fellow nominees in Movies and Miniseries included Olivier Assayas, Todd Haynes, and Curtis Hanson. The track record of women at the Emmys also puts to rest the claims that there are no female directors out there worthy of note, or that women aren't interested in directing, or that the subject matter of their work has to be radically different from the men are doing, or that there's no audience for the media that they create. Show of hands - how many readers out there didn't realize that women were responsible for directing so many episodes of "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men"? Or "Mary Tyler Moore," for that matter?

Now, there are some differences in how a television director and a film director are positioned. On a television series, the showrunners tend to have more control, and it's the writing that tends to drive the shows. But when you get down to basics, the directing jobs are the same. Telelvision directors may be less visible and wield less clout, but they do just about everything that a feature film director does. And more than a few great film directors got their start in television. The rise in female directors in television is a very good sign that we may see a similar trend in films - not immediately, since the film world has a lot more hurdles to overcome and the culture is far behind the times in many ways - but in the not-too-distant future. Clearly something has happened in the past few years that have allowed female directors to gain some momentum.

I don't think it was the Bigelow Effect, but that sure didn't hurt anything.

Finally, for your perusal, a list of every woman nominated for a directing Emmy - compiled from IMDB:


Mary Tyler Moore - Joan Darling (CBS)


M*A*S*H - Joan Darling (CBS)


Archie Bunker's Place - Linda Day (CBS)


Buffalo Bill - Ellen Falcon (NBC)

Something About Amelia - Randa Haines


Cagney & Lacey: "Heat" – Karen Arthur (CBS) - WINNER


Hill Street Blues: "Two Easy Pieces" – Gabrielle Beaumont (NBC)


Cagney & Lacey: "Turn, Turn, Turn, Part II" – Sharron Miller (CBS)


L.A. Law: "Handroll Express" – Kim Friedman (NBC)

Great Performances: Patricia Birch (co-director) (PBS) - WINNER


The Debbie Allen Special - Debbie Allen (ABC)

Destined to Live - Linda Otto (NBC)


China Beach: "You, Babe" – Mimi Leder (ABC)


Murphy Brown: "Send in the Clowns" - Lee Shallat-Chemel (CBS)

China Beach: "Rewind" – Mimi Leder (ABC)
The Trials of Rosie O'Neill: "Heartbreak Hotel" – Nancy Malone (CBS)

Great Performances - Patricia Birch (PBS) - WINNER

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse - Eleanor Coppola (co-director) (Showtime) - WINNER


Dream On: "For Peter's Sake" - Betty Thomas (HBO) - WINNER

Sisters: "Crash and Born" – Nancy Malone (NBC)


Mad About You: "Paul Is Dead" - Lee Shallat-Chemel (NBC)

My Breast - Betty Thomas

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Ellen Brown (NBC)


The Nanny: "Canasta Master" - Lee Shallat-Chemel (CBS)

ER: "Love's Labor Lost" – Mimi Leder (NBC) - WINNER

Barbra: The Concert - Barbra Streisand (director for stage) (HBO)
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Ellen Brown (NBC)


ER: "The Healers" – Mimi Leder (NBC)

The Late Shift - Betty Thomas

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Ellen Brown (NBC)


Bastard Out of Carolina - Anjelica Huston

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Ellen Brown (NBC)


Ally McBeal: "Those Lips, That Hand" - Arlene Sanford (FOX)

The Baby Dance - Jane Anderson
Dash and Lilly - Kathy Bates

Saturday Night Live - Beth McCarthy-Miller (NBC)
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Ellen Brown (NBC)


Introducing Dorothy Dandridge - Martha Coolidge

Saturday Night Live 25 - Beth McCarthy-Miller (NBC)
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Ellen Brown (NBC)


The West Wing: "Shibboleth" – Laura Innes (NBC)


Journeys with George - Alexandra Pelosi (co-director) (HBO)

Saturday Night Live - Beth McCarthy-Miller (NBC)


Elaine Stritch: At Liberty - Chris Hegedus (co-director) (HBO)

Jockey - Kate Davis (HBO) - WINNER
Queer Eye - Becky Smith (BRAVO)
American Masters - Susan Lacy (PBS)
The American Experience - Laurie Kahn-Leavitt (PBS)


The West Wing: "Election Day, Part 1" – Mimi Leder (NBC)

Mrs. Harris - Phyllis Nagy

Saturday Night Live - Beth McCarthy-Miller (NBC)

Children of Beslan - Ewa Ewart, Leslie Woodhead (HBO)
All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise - Shari Cookson


Jane Eyre - Susanna White

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib - Rory Kennedy (HBO)
Thin - Lauren Greenfield (HBO)


Boston Legal: "The Mighty Rogues" – Arlene Sanford (ABC)

The War - Lynn Novick (co-director)(PBS)
Autism: The Musical - Tricia Regan (HBO)


30 Rock: "Apollo, Apollo" - Millicent Shelton (NBC)
30 Rock: "Reunion" - Beth McCarthy-Miller (NBC)

Little Dorrit (Part 1) - Dearbhla Walsh – WINNER
Generation Kill - Susanna White

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired - Marina Zenovich (HBO) - WINNER


Breaking Bad: "One Minute" – Michelle MacLaren (AMC)
Mad Men: "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" – Lesli Linka Glatter (AMC)
Treme: "Do You Know What It Means" – Agnieszka Holland (HBO)

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama - Amy Rice, Alicia Sams (HBO)


30 Rock: "Live Show" - Beth McCarthy-Miller (NBC)
How I Met Your Mother: "Subway Wars" - Pamela Fryman (CBS)
Modern Family: "Slow Down Your Neighbors" - Gail Mancuso (ABC)

The Killing: "Pilot" – Patty Jenkins (AMC)

Cinema Verite - Shari Springer Berman (co-director)

Lady Gaga Presents: The Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square Garden - Laurieann Gibson

Sunday, February 26, 2012

2012 Oscar Wrap-Up

Well, you know who won all the awards by now, but how was the big Oscar show this year? Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

Billy Crystal returned for his ninth appearance as the host of the Academy Awards, and did his usual intro, where he's worked into clips from the Best Picture nominees, and a few of the year's other big films. Then he came out and sang his usual medley, and told some very old jokes, and no small number of them fell flat. And I don't know if it was the nostalgia on my part or the pretty bad ceremonies that we've had these past few years, but I was very glad to have Crystal back. Even if his material wasn't great, he was such an old hand at being emcee, rolling with every awkward moment and owning every good one. It made all the difference to have a comic there who knew how to work the crowd. I started smiling the moment he started singing "It's a Wonderful Night For Oscar."

The rest of the show was mostly following the format of last year's. There were more presenters handing out multiple awards each, the Governor's Awards and technical awards had separate ceremonies that we saw brief highlights for, and instead of clips from all the Best Picture nominees being presented during the course of the show, there was one big montage at the end before the winner was announced. There was still the odd segment here and there, like the inclusion of a "why we love the movies" clip package early in the first hour, that had clips of "Twilight" alongside "Titanic," but didn't see fit to include anything older than "Midnight Cowboy." Even if Crystal made fun of the notion in the intro with Justin Bieber, the Oscar telecast is still after younger eyeballs.

However, I liked that most of the subsequent clip packages were of actors and directors talking about why they loved movies, and talking up their personal favorites. Who would have thought that Reese Witherspoon was such a fan of the Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn comedy "Overboard"? And Robert Downey Jr.'s unwitting intro to Werner Herzog was great. All in all, the talent was much better used this year. The comedy bits, like Melissa McCarthy cornering Billy Crystal in a dressing room was obvious, but it worked. And then there was the totally unexpected "rare footage" of an old test screening of "The Wizard of Oz," where the audience was populated by Christopher Guest and some of his regular cohorts, who proceeded to nitpick the Munchkins and sing the praises of the flying monkeys.

The presenters were also livelier. Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez set the tone, posing and giggling for the Best Makeup category. Robert Downey Jr. spent most of his appearance annoying co-presenter Gwyneth Paltrow before handing out the Best Documentary honors. Emma Stone nearly stole the show during Best Visual Effects. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis brought a pair of cymbals apiece for the Best Music categories. And then the cast of "Bridesmaids" took the stage, booze in hand. I was disappointed that the Muppets were only there to introduce the Cirque du Soleil act, but to their credit the Cirque folks put on quite a show, providing a good boost of energy as the ceremony moved into its second half. I sure didn't miss the song numbers. The show moved quick, there was very little drag, and it was consistently entertaining.

There were still the weak spots, as there always are. The In Memoriam segment seems to get more perfunctory every year (Where was Michael Gough?!) The presenters for the Best Actor and Best Actress gave personalized intros for each nominee's clip again, which doesn't work so well when the intros are longer than the clips. I'd have much rather seen more of the actual performances, especially in the case of Glenn Close, Michelle Williams, and Demian Birchir, who appeared in movies most viewers probably haven't seen yet. The winners themselves were pretty good about their speeches, even with so many of "The Artist" winners struggling with English. One nice thing about the extended awards season gauntlet is that by this point, all the winners have their speeches down pat. The only one who seemed genuinely surprised was Octavia Spencer, though she's been collecting statuettes for months.

One thing I also learned was that it's much more fun to watch an Oscar ceremony if you haven't been subjected to all the hype and blather leading up to the ceremony. After the nominees were announced, I pretty much went cold turkey on all related media. I didn't see any of the usual Oscar specials or the other award shows like the SAG or AFI awards, so I wasn't watching the same clips and the same speeches being delivered over and over again. From some of the commentary I was following during the show, apparently many of the same anecdotes and turns of phrase kept coming up during the season – which is perfectly understandable, but I get why it could diminish the experience. Instead, I had a pretty good time watching one of the better Oscars of recent years. I think there could still be some tweaks, but the format and the talent were both just about right this time.

And that gives me hope for future Oscar ceremonies to come.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

And the Oscar Shouldn't Have Gone to...

With the Academy Awards on the horizon, and entertainment writers trotting out their old grudges over Oscar ceremonies past, the inevitable topic of the most undeserving Best Picture winner has come up, as it always does. I'm about ten films shy of having seen all the Best Picture winners, and I doubt I've seen half of all the nominees over the years, but I'm well aware of the most notorious bad calls: "How Green Was My Valley" over "Citizen Kane," "Going My Way" over "Double Indemnity,""The Greatest Show on Earth" over "High Noon," "Rocky" over "Network" and "Taxi Driver," "Ordinary People" over "Raging Bull," "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan," and "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain." Most, I agree were bad choices, but not all of them. And one of the most egregious cases hasn't gotten much press, though I think it's only a matter of time: "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," winning the 2003 Best Picture award, over "Lost in Translation," "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," and "Mystic River." For the record, the fifth nominee that year was "Seabiscuit," which I never saw.

Now I'm as much of a "Lord of the Rings" fan as anyone. I loved the first two movies and wouldn't have voiced any complaints if either of them had taken home Best Picture in 2001 or 2002. "Return of the King" is a different matter. It was clearly the worst film of the trilogy, overlong yet badly rushed. There were more than a few grumbles from critics and audiences alike about the multiple codas and uneven pacing. Personally, I was not happy that so much of the film's emphasis was on the spectacle of the battle scenes at Minas Tirith instead of in Mordor with Sam and Frodo, undercutting a lot of the dramatic tension from the books - "Return of the King" was always my favorite of J.R.R. Tolkein's novels. Now there were plenty of things in the film that I enjoyed, enough that I can declare Peter Jackson's adaptation a satisfactory ending to the film trilogy, but certainly not everything that it could have been. Subsequent rewatches over the years have cemented my opinion that "Return of the King" is often painfully mediocre. And yet, this was the "Lord of the Rings" installment that the Academy decided to heap eleven Oscars upon - including Best Picture.

The common assumption was that the awards were really being awarded for the whole trilogy in aggregate. The Academy often takes past consistency into account, and will try to make up for notable snubs by awarding lesser work down the line. It's also notoriously wary of anointing newcomers too quickly, lest they only turn out to be a passing fad. It makes sense that voters would wait for the final film to stick the landing before elevating the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but it's still "Return of the King" that appears on all the winners' lists, and that the footage for retrospectives and clip montages will be taken from. Imagine if the Academy voters had used the same approach with "The Godfather" trilogy. Imagine "The Godfather, Part III" being awarded Best Picture with the understanding that it was really making up for the Academy overlooking the first two, the undisputed classics. It doesn't make up for the initial snubs and only results in more snubs that will have to be made up for later on down the line.

There's also the little matter of the competition. The 2001 race was pretty decent, with Todd Fields' "In the Bedroom" and Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" in the mix, but I thought "Fellowship of the Ring" was a pretty strong contender, and was aghast when all three pictures lost to the saccharine "A Beautiful Mind." I don't think "The Two Towers" matched up to "The Pianist," but it certainly had more going for it than "The Hours," "Gangs of New York," and the eventual winner, "Chicago." But in 2003, the unseen "Seabiscuit" aside, there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that "Return of the King" should have been on the bottom of the heap. "Lost in Translation" remains Sofia Coppola's best film, and Bill Murray was robbed of that Best Actor statuette. I say this even though I liked Sean Penn in "Mystic River," one of Clint Eastwood's best films to date. And if the Academy was in the mood for epic filmmaking, Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," delivered on every front.

Oh well. Hope springs eternal. Maybe they'll get it right this time. But why do I even care? Well, everyone likes to pretend that they don't pay attention to who wins on Oscar night, but any serious film fan does. It's inevitable. Like it or not the Academy Awards have cred with the public, and remain a constant point of cultural reference. I expect that some of the most heated arguments about the 2011 Best Picture race won't take place until the winner is announced, at which point the rest of us can pen our reactions and responses, putting our own spin on what it all means. I want "The Tree of Life" to win Best Picture, but I know it's not going to. Yet, the small possibility that it might is currently holding my invective in check. But when they hand the Oscar to "The Artist" or "Hugo" or "The Help," I'll have something solid and definite to rail against.

'Til then. Happy watching.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Top 10 Episodes of "Community"

New episodes return three weeks from tonight! To celebrate, I'm rolling out my top ten favorite episodes that have aired so far.

10. "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" (The Dean Makes a Commercial Episode) - The spotlight turns at last to Dean Pelton, a minor character for much of the first two seasons of "Community" who was upgraded to a regular in the third. And how could I not love this episode? It's a direct homage to "Hearts of Darkness," the documentary about the troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Instead of directorial hubris running amok, it's the Dean's own insecurity and desire to help his school that is the culprit, turning the filming of the new Greendale Community College television commercial into a black hole of madness and despair. It also throws in some Charlie Kaufman, with Jeff getting a little too into his role playing the dean, and Chang further confusing matters as he tries to hijack the part. And then there's the Dean ruining hugging for Troy and Britta. And, of course, the Luis Guzman cameo we've been promised for so long.

9. "Contemporary American Poultry" (The Chicken Fingers Episode) - The first really high concept parody episode the show did, where Abed and Jeff clash over the control of a black market chicken fingers scam, being run out of the Greendale cafeteria. The sight gags, the great use of the extended cast, and the way that the episode really takes on the themes of power and corruption at the heart of this kind of story instead of just playing with the window dressing, would all become hallmarks of their future jaunts into wilder genre territory. Best of all, we get some great insight into Abed's character, revealing that he's probably the most decent guy in the whole study group. This also marked, not the beginning, but one of the first significant events in the strange Jeff and Abed friendship that I'll have more to say about in a few entries.

8. "Physical Education" (The Billiards Episode) - The strip billiards showdown between Jeff and Coach Bogner in the Greendale gym is one of the most hysterical events in the show's run, a ludicrous display of the male ego and the male physique in all their glory. I may never be able to watch "The Color of Money" with a straight face again. And if that weren't enough, this episode also features Abed's first forays into romance, which let him show off his uncanny ability as a pop culture savant to adopt the personas of different characters: "Mad Men's" Don Draper, Jeff, and a vampire. And this is the first instance of Britta's mispronunciation of "bagel," which is still one of my favorite running gags. If you want a starter episode to get other people interested in this show, especially the ladies, this is the best one to sit them down with.

7. "Communication Studies" (The Drunk Dial Episode) - Much of the first season revolved around Jeff and Britta's will-they-won't-they romantic tension, and this is high point of that storyline, and the Professor Slater storyline too, come to think of it. This is my favorite of the "normal" "Community episodes, where the characters live out their lives as regular people instead of playing out the parody scenario or crazy concept of the week. Of course, there are a few references that still slip in there, like the "Breakfast Club" dance homage during Jeff and Abed's night of binge drinking. This is also a good Chang episode, who is always at his best as an antagonizing force and instigator of madness. Here he gives Annie and Shirley a chance to pair up, and Pierce and Troy a chance to share their humiliation, shaking up the usual group dynamics.

6. "Paradigms of Human Memory" (The Fake Clip Show Episode) - The amount of work that went into this episode is staggering. Not only is this a clip show that uses entirely new material for all the clips, but clips from what would have been some of the biggest, most conceptually crazy episodes in the show's run - if they actually existed. A St. Patrick's Day rafting trip? An Old West themed town? A haunted house? An insane asylum? And in true "Community" fashion, they turn the device against itself, with the characters using the fake flashbacks as ammunition in a present day argument instead of fondly reminiscing over the good times. And this all builds up to a crescendo of Troy screaming scenes and Jeff delivering motivational speeches that prove the show can meta itself as well as it can meta any other piece of media.

5. "Critical Film Studies" (The My Dinner With Andre/Pulp Fiction/Cougar Town Episode) - I've heard claims that this is the episode where "Community" jumped the shark, where it became too obtuse and too concerned with all the meta for the average television viewer to follow. I see the point, but for me this is the bravest thing "Community" ever did, where it decided to leap the bounds of conventional sitcom television and see how far it could push the idea of a character trying to live out his life through pre-existing media. Here, Abed has a birthday dinner with Jeff, which turns out to be on false pretenses. But those false pretenses are the only thing that allow Abed access to emotions he doesn't otherwise know how to express. It's heady stuff, and the episode actually works better, I think, if you don't realize what's going on at first.

4. "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" (The LeVar Burton Episode) - I have some trouble with the character sometimes, but Pierce is an integral member of the study group, and this is his best episode by far. Well, that is when he's not being upstaged by Troy, whose bouts of hysteria have become one of the show's trademarks. But back to Pierce, who decides to fake a major illness that brings the whole gang to the hospital, and then tries his best to manipulate and meddle with their lives. In some cases he succeeds too well, in others, his efforts backfire, but he sure manages to elicit some big reactions. Abed chronicling the fallout documentary-style is great, playing with common reality television tropes, but it's really the rock solid character interactions and the giddy character-based humor that make this one such a great watch.

3. "Modern Warfare" (The First Paintball Episode) - A lot of other shows have done paintball epiosdes, "The Big Bang Theory" and "Ugly Betty" among them. However, "Community" is the only one that has gone for an all-out paintball war. The joy of watching this episode unfold is the way it keeps unleashing surprises on us, one after another. Suddenly the campus is a post-apocalyptic battlefield, and the various campus clubs are enemy combatants. Suddenly familiar characters like Abed and Annie are revealing secret badass skills, and Chang is channeling Chow Yun-Fat. A lot of the credit has to go to Justin Lin, who directed several of the "Fast and the Furious," movies, and gave the episode the kinetic cinematography of a big budget action film. The second season paintball episodes just couldn't quite match up without it.

2. "Remedial Chaos Theory" (The Seven Different Timelines Episode) - This is one of the densest episodes by far, exploring the concept of parallel universe theory by seeing what would happen during a visit to Abed and Troy's new apartment, depending on which member of the study group goes downstairs to get the pizza. Some of the timelines are almost identical, differentiated by subtle things that only long time viewers would appreciate. Some are more extreme, particularly the "darkest" timeline where everything goes wrong. And even more wrong in the episode's coda. But if you look closer, past the metaphysics, "Remedial Chaos Theory" does a great job of examining and testing the group's dynamics. And It makes the interesting point that one particular member may be what's holding everyone else back.

1. "Cooperative Calligraphy" (The Bottle Episode) - The big, expensive episodes are a lot of fun, but sometimes all you need is seven people in a room with their baggage, talking to each other for twenty minutes. And so it is with the show's first self-proclaimed "bottle episode," that spends almost the whole running time on a single set - the familiar study room. Annie's pen is stolen and she's sure one of the others took it, so she refuses to let anyone leave until the thief fesses up. Soon accusations and recriminations are flying back and forth, and everyone takes the opportunity to air some grievances. The situation may be contrived, but the catharsis feels real, and that's the secret of so many episodes of "Community." No matter ambitious, how self-referential, how meta, and how mad it gets, it always comes back to the relationships of seven very different people who have somehow become friends.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Take a Close Look at "Take Shelter"

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a loving a husband and father who leads a modest but happy life in small town Ohio. He has a good construction job, and his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) sews linens and pillowcases for extra money. Their young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) is deaf, but Curtis's health insurance can pay for a cochlear implant that would allow her to hear. However, Curtis begins to have nightmares of a coming apocalypse and other horrors that bring on increasing paranoia and instability. He becomes obsessed with protecting his loved ones from harm, and begins sinking time and money into readying his backyard storm shelter for the worst, a decision that will have disastrous consequences for his family.

Cinematic descents into madness are always a lot of fun to watch, but few are as satisfying as "Take Shelter." Instead of a Jack Nicholson or a Nicholas Cage type, who often telegraph long in advance that they're going to transform into a raving lunatic and chew the scenery with gusto, Curtis is a very quiet, ordinary man. After the first few nightmares, he not only recognizes that he's losing control of himself, but takes every rational step to try and mitigate the damage. Curtis has a history of mental illness in the family, so he tries to consult a psychiatrist, but his resources are few and his means are limited. Everyone he knows is in a similar position, unable to offer much help. He tries to remove the sources of his anxiety, and redirect his energies to what he believes will be a positive, productive venture - the storm shelter. Unfortunately, he just ends up reinforcing his fears. So he remains a deeply sympathetic figure, even when his behavior starts to escalate, and his actions become more and more extreme.

Michael Shannon's excellent performance is key to this, much of it non-verbal, and much of it dealing with a morass of uneasy, shifting emotions just beneath his stoic exterior. In the first half of the film Curtis is very soft-spoken, but you can see the capacity for the big emotional moments in him, long before they erupt. It's his smaller reactions, his moments of doubt and confusion and disbelief, that are some of his best. However, when he finally does get to play those big cathartic scenes, they're pretty damn breathtaking. I'm not familiar with Shannon's other work, but after this role, I'd happily watch him in anything. Jessica Chastain also shines in another good supporting turn as his wife. She gets some nice scenes here, but I wanted to see more of her, which is true of pretty much every performance Chastain has given in every movie she's appeared in to date. Get this woman a leading role, Hollywood.

"Take Shelter" was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who takes a potentially schlocky genre premise and keeps the execution so simple and so well grounded, that it hits much closer to home than you might anticipate. I've heard the film called a thriller, but it doesn't really fit any of the usual genre categories. There's little action or violence, but there's always the possibility of it, as the tension steadily builds and builds. The familial and psychological drama is consistently engaging and it's easy to get invested in Curtis's woes. And while the scope of the story may be small, the storytelling sure isn't. The natural world is a constant presence here, especially the wide expanse of the midwestern sky, beautifully captured in Adam Stone's cinematography. When thunder sounds and the storm clouds gather over Curtis's head, they seem inescapable.

I did have a few issues with the direction that the story took, specifically the coda, but the film's ending may actually be the most interesting part of it, depending on your reading of thee events. I've already run across a couple of very thought-provoking interpretations. I don't want to get into spoilers here, but what initially bothered me was that the filmmakers seemed to be handing us a very obvious answer to the puzzle of Curtis's dreams. Except, maybe it's not. "Take Shelter" hints at a lot of different themes and ideas that allow the film to be interpreted in any number of ways - as religious parable, as family drama, or even as science-fiction.

So don't let the descriptions about apocalypses and disaster scenarios fool you. This isn't your average Hollywood action film, but rather something a little deeper, a little stranger, and much, much more rewarding one.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Zombies! Zombies!

"The Walking Dead" is breaking cable viewing records and bringing renewed interest in all things zombie. There are a slew of new zombie themed movies on the horizons, and a few television projects in development too. And why not? Supernatural creatures have been all the rage lately, and the zombie makes for a perfect antagonist. It's already dead, and a mindless lump of shambling putridity, so there's absolutely no guilt in watching all manner of over-the-top violence inflicted on them. They're also extremely versatile, good for horror, comedy, survival dramas, and even the occasional romance. So I thought I'd spotlight some of the upcoming zombie projects on the horizon, for all you zombie fans out there.

- "World War Z," is a post-apocalyptic picture starring Brad Pitt, based on the novel by Max Brooks. The book is a follow-up to Brooks' popular "The Zombie Survival Guide," one with a much more cohesive narrative and bigger ambitions, as you might guess from the subtitle: "An Oral History of the Zombie War." I expect there will still be plenty of social commentary in the mix, but the film and novel will probably be quite different. For one thing, while the protagonist of the novel was writing up his oral history and navigating a ravaged society ten years after the zombie apocalypse began, by all indications the film is going to be following the initial outbreak. "World War Z" is due to be released on December 21, 2012 - Mayan apocalypse day!

- There has been no shortage of zombie-themed television pilots recently, like "Babylon Fields," and "Awakening," but one I think stands a better chance of reaching our TV sets is the new "Zombieland" series in development at FOX. You remember "Zombieland," the 2009 action comedy with Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg and the list of survival rules? Initially everyone was very gung-ho for a sequel, but with so many of the original actors like Eisenberg and Emma Stone seeing their stars on the rise, scheduling and salaries may make a "Zombieland 2" a long shot. So, understandably, the filmmakers have been eyeing the small screen. Also keep an lookout for a pilot over at the Disney Channel called "Zombies and Cheerleaders." It's a musical. No, I'm not making this up.

- "R.I.P.D." stands, of course, for "Rest In Peace Department." It's a comic book turned action film about the adventures of a squad of undead cops. Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges star, with Kevin Bacon on villain duty. I'm not sure to what extent that zombies are actually involved in this one, but since the heroes are undead, they're policing the undead, and there have been reports of zombie mobs on set, I'm comfortable calling this a zombie movie. "R.I.P.D." suffered a lot of delays and casting changes, but the film has finished shooting and is safely in post production. Universal has will release it in June of 2013.

- Early last year, a three minute trailer for the video game "Dead Island" was released, and instantly attracted a storm of buzz. The contents of the trailer have little to do with what was actually in the game. It's essentially a stand-alone short where a little girl and her family fall prey to a zombie attack, but the haunting, non-linear storytelling turned some heads. Lionsgate acquired the rights to develop a film based on the trailer back in September. Whether they can expand a three minute short into a full length feature film remains to be seen, but then again a lot of horror films these days start out with a lot less.

- For those of you who like your supernatural monsters with a little more teen angst and romance, Summit Entertainment, the company that unleashed the "Twilight" films upon the world, is set to premiere "Warm Bodies" in February, 2013. Nicholas Hoult and Theresa Palmer will star as our zombie hero and the living girl he saves from harm and, of course, falls in love with. No word yet on whether we'll be getting sparkles with the leading man's pallor. Also on the horizon, if they can hang on to a director, is the big screen adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

- Finally, the miscellanea. We have "Resident Evil 5," "[REC] 3," "28 Months Later," a new "Evil Dead," and potentially two more George Romero "Living Dead" installments in the pipeline. And Michael Bay has optioned something called "Zombies Vs. Robots."

It's a good time to be a zombie fan, kids. Enjoy it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

"I Saw the Devil" and Regretted It

I was doing so well with Korean revenge thrillers. After "the Vengeance Trilogy," "Mother," Poetry," and other titles that showcased the new breed of violent, morally complicated crime dramas, I've stumbled upon a real stinker. "I Saw the Devil" is the latest from director Kim Ji-woon, best known for the excellent horror film "A Tale of Two Sisters." It stars Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik, two of the most well-known contemporary Korean leading men. In spite of this, "I Saw the Devil" is one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences I've ever had to endure. I made myself sit through the whole movie, but I sorely wanted to turn this one off before the halfway point.

It starts, as so many revenge films do, with a murder. A pretty young woman, Joo-yun (Oh San-ha), gets a flat tire in a remote area, and falls prey to a serial killer, one antisocial degenerate named Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik). Joo-yun's fiancé, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), is an undercover cop who immediately sets out to find the culprit and exact his revenge. Soo-hyun identifies Kyung-chul as the responsible party relatively quickly, but his revenge isn't as simple as killing the man. Instead, the two become caught up in a morbid game of escalating violent acts and reprisals. By the bloody final act, it's difficult to tell which is the more disturbed character: the vigilante or the serial killer.

"I Saw the Devil" is full of relentless, explicit violence. This by itself doesn't bother me. Many films are full of violence and gore, and I've seen some of the most extreme ones. The trouble here is the shallowness of the character and story, and the way that the film spends so much time wallowing in its own unpleasantness. Kyung-chul is one of the most repulsive villains I've ever seen, a rapist and murderer with a god complex. He bullies and denigrates his victims, mostly women, and the script seems to revel in his horribleness, coddling him shamelessly. None of his targets ever fight back, there are no witnesses to call the police, and the filmmakers lovingly glorify every abominable act he commits for two and a half excruciating hours.

Watching Kyung-chul indulge his twisted desires over and over, and watching Soo-hyun toying with him in a totally contrived and senseless matter, is akin to watching a little boy gleefully smashing insects and marveling over the grossness of the flying guts. I understand why some viewers responded well to this film, but there isn't enough substance under all the slick visuals and visceral intensity to justify its worst excesses. And boy, are there excesses. Some interesting themes are introduced, especially the unintended consequences of Soo-hyun's vengeance, but the film only handles them in the most superficial way, and becomes totally overwhelmed by the sheer meanness and nihilism of the characters.

One of the biggest problems here is that stony-faced Soo-hyun gets less screen time and dramatic emphasis than Kyung-chul. And when he is onscreen, Soo-hyun isn't exactly forthcoming about his unorthodox approach to punishing his fiancée's killer. We barely get any insight into his actions. Kyung-chul at least has the excuse of being a raving psychopath, but Soo-hyun is supposed to be our good guy, at least at first, but stops behaving like a rational human being almost immediately. He can't exactly have a descent into madness if he's already acting like a psychopath himself within the first half hour of the film.

"I Saw the Devil" reminds me a lot of "Taken," in that it takes a pretty standard revenge premise and turns it into an orgy of sleaze and violence that doesn't operate by any kind of real world logic. "I Saw the Devil" is the more egregious offender because it has much higher ambitions. It clearly wants to impart some kind of meaningful commentary on the standard Hollywood revenge fantasy narrative, but does so in such a blunt and clumsy way, it only ends up reinforcing the worst parts of the formula.

Was there anything I liked about the film? The violence, though stomach-churning, is beautifully shot and edited. Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik do about as good a job with these two cardboard characters as anyone could have. There are a couple of humorous moments that work, mostly involving Tae-joo (Choi Moo-sung), a cannibal friend of Kyung-chul's.

Other than that, it's two hours of guts and gore and groping that would make any decent human being squirm. And it's not worth it. If you removed an hour of the most gratuitous content, maybe you'd have something approaching the right proportions between the substance and shock value. As it is, "I Saw the Devil" is just a particularly nasty genre exercise, and I regret watching it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The First Five of "Mad Men"

A few months ago, ABC and NBC both rolled out new prime time dramas set during the 1960s, a move that many in Hollywood observed was probably an attempt to cash in on the fascination with the time period brought about by the AMC drama "Mad Men." Having been unfamiliar with the show when I reviewed "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," I wasn't in a position to make many comparisons, but now I've consumed a good chunk of "Mad Men's" first season, and can draw the following conclusion: the networks totally missed the point of "Mad Men." Their shows romanticize the era, relying heavily on nostalgia and warm feelings toward the bygone past. "Mad Men," on the other hand, seems intent on demystifying the 60s, and proving that the good old days were only good for a select few, and only at a high cost.

"Mad Men" provides a look into the world of Don Draper (John Hamm), an advertising executive at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency in New York City. The year is 1960, and Draper battles to stay on top of a highly competitive industry, where threats come not just from other firms, but within his own. An ambitious young account executive, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), wants his job. His mentor, senior partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), can usually be counted on to take Draper's side, but has his limits. Draper gets most of the screen time and most of the press attention when people talk about "Mad Men," but the show has two other lead characters who are just as important. One is Peggy Olson, who arrives at Sterling Cooper as Draper's new secretary in the pilot, and has to learn the rules of a male-dominated workplace with a little help from bombshell office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). The other is Don's wife, Betty (January Jones), a perfect vision of domesticism and motherhood, except that she's suffering a mysterious psychological ailment straight out of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique."

Watching "Mad Men" is a constant exercise in re-evaluating the status quo, comparing how Americans lived fifty years ago to the way we do now. It's one thing to read about the prevalence of sexism and racism and quite another to watch how Draper and his colleagues react to a client who is a Jewish woman, or to hear the kind of comments Peggy has to endure from her doctor in order to obtain a prescription for birth control. Every mother must have winced at the sight of Betty Draper ignoring the fact that her daughter was playing astronauts while wearing a plastic dry cleaning bag over her head. More importantly, it's fascinating to watch how the men and women interact together, conforming to social mores that are now outdated, but still linger in the present day. The catcalls of the junior executives might seem extreme and inappropriate, but it'll take a minute or two to remember that this kind of behavior is still depressingly prevalent in certain places.

Throughout the early episodes, there's this feeling of impending destruction, the knowledge that Don Draper's world will soon come tumbling down around his ears, and he'll suffer a fall like the silhouette figure in the opening credits. And it's not just Don who's on the brink, but perhaps everything around him too. The lifestyle Don enjoys, which includes endless drinks at work, wining and dining clients, visiting a beautiful mistress (Rosemarie DeWitt) in the afternoons, and being able to go home to his loving wife and children in the evenings, presents a very seductive image of American masculinity, one he does a great job of selling. Of course, it's too good to be true, which is clearly going to be a major theme of the series. Already, after five episodes, the cracks are beginning to emerge, and the tumultuous Civil Rights movement is just around the corner.

Good grief, I've spent an entire post talking about the social issues and historical context of "Mad Men," and haven't said a word about the writing or the performances or the set design, or just the overall production values, which are absolutely remarkable for a cable television show. I can hardly get my head around the logistics for some of what we see onscreen, including period fashions, décor, locations, and more. Then again, I think I'll have plenty of time for that in future posts. The show has me pretty hooked already, and I suspect I'll be with it for the long haul.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I Welcome "Transformers 4"

Well, we all knew it was going to happen. Michael Bay has signed on officially to direct the fourth installment of "Transformers." All the signs were there for continuing this terrible series, from the sky-high box office totals of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," to the dwindling supply of viable motion picture franchises, to the industry's increasing willingness to let film series go on for as long as it likes, as long as it can still make a profit. Yet I'm not unhappy with this decision, and depending on how things play out, "Transformers 4" might be a "Transformers" film that's actually worth getting excited about.

The most interesting news is that the new "Transformers" is going to be a reboot, and leading man Shia LaBeouf is not expected to return as Sam Witwicky. Now if the film comes out when it's supposed to in 2014, that would mean a three year gap between the end of the "Transformers" trilogy and the reboot, which easily beats the five year gap between the Sam Raimis "Spider-Man" trilogy and the reboot coming out this summer. That's setting a scary precedent for other franchises, but on the other hand, I'm curious as to what Bay wants to do with the series. I really dislike the films as they are now, a bad mix of big action, juvenile humor, and crass pandering to the male id that makes me worry about the current generation of little kids who are growing up watching them. Still, I've always thought that "Transformers" had a lot of potential to be better.

There have been rumors floating around for a few months now that future "Transformers" films were ready to strike out in a new direction. Jason Statham's name was in the mix as a possible replacement for Shia LaBoeuf a few months ago, raising the possibility of the new films becoming more action-oriented. Currently, the "Transformers" movies feature plenty of special-effects spectacle, but most of the fighting is done by the Transformers themselves, and Sam Witwicky spends most of his screen time running away from the action or babysitting tepid subplots. I don't see a character played by Jason Statham doing either for very long. Ironically, an older hero would also probably be more kid friendly, because any romantic element would be much more straightforward than Sam Witwicky's brand of adolescent male horndogging. Or the series could stop trying to appeal to kids entirely and just be a standard Michael Bay action film, dropping the stupid robot jokes and the comic relief characters, who have been the bane of every single "Transformers" movie to date.

On the other hand, the reboot is being helmed by Michael Bay, the same director responsible for making such an awful mess of the "Transformers" in the first place. As George Lucas and others have repeatedly proven, those with too much creative control can often be tone deaf to criticism and incapable of seeing their own flaws. Though Bay may be perfectly sincere in wanting to overhaul the franchise, he could just end up remixing the same bad elements form the first films into something even dumber, sleazier, meaner, and more incoherent. And though Shia LaBeouf has insisted that he's not coming back to the series, there are no guarantees. For some of the younger audience, LaBeouf is a draw, and the whole reboot idea could be a lot more cosmetic than Bay and Paramount are currently making it out to be. It could even be meant to help prod LaBeouf to come back and accept another paycheck. We've seen similar tactics before in contentious contract negotiations.

However, there's already one very positive result to "Transformers 4" being made: it's part of a two-picture deal between Michael Bay and Paramount. Before Bay goes back to wrangling alien mechanoids, he's going to direct a much smaller action film, "Pain & Gain," with Mark Wahlberg and The Rock, due to begin shooting in the spring. It's based on the real life antics of a group of steroid-abusing body builders in Miami, who became part of an extortion ring. The proposed budget is only $25 million, which would make it the cheapest Bay film since "Bad Boys." Bay had intended to do a smaller project like this between the second and third "Transformers," films, but was derailed by scheduling problems. The important thing is that Paramount is footing the bill, and "Pain & Gain" almost certainly would not be moving forward without their support.

So it's thanks to "Transformers 4" that we're getting a new Michael Bay action movie that has nothing to do with the "Transformers" franchise. It already sounds like a much more interesting project than anything he's made since "The Island," which, for the record, I liked. I rag on Michael Bay, but he's made a few good movies, and with any luck he'll go on to make more. Maybe one of them will be "Transformers 4," and maybe not. We'll see in 2014.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hollywood and the Jeremy Lin Show

Now don't get too excited, sports fans. I'm not here to talk about basketball. Despite being a Lakers fangirl from an early age, sports were never really my thing, and I rarely spend much time in that sphere, the occasional Sharks hockey game and the yearly Superbowl telecast not withstanding. But sometimes, something happens in the sports world that transcends those boundaries, that becomes a truly universal cultural moment. We've got one right here, right now. Jeremy Lin, a twenty-three year old Chinese American from Palo Alto playing for the New York Knicks has become the NBA's newest star, after an incredible run of wins that includes a smackdown of my beloved Lakers on Friday, where Lin scored an eye-popping 38 points. With an irresistible underdog story, the player's fun personality, and the unmistakable sheen of novelty in the mix, "Linsanity" has erupted practically overnight.

I want to talk about Jeremy Lin. Hell, everyone wants to talk about Jeremy Lin. The media coverage has been downright dizzying to behold. Sports commentators and business analysts have been falling over themselves to try and predict the course of Lin's career and the economic boon he might bring to his team, the league, retailers, and even the struggling MSG Channel that broadcasts the Knicks' home games. There have been dozens of heartwarming print pieces about Asian Americans welcoming the emergence of one of their own as a sports hero on the national stage. A book deal is reportedly already in the works. It might be a little early for Hollywood to be getting involved in all this, especially as we don't whow whether Lin is going to become a consistent performer or just a flash in the pan, but there are already a lot of murmurs. Wouldn't Lin's unlikely story work great as a feature film? What other sports star out there right now has a narrative half as compelling?

This is all very nice to think about, but from where I'm sitting, Hollywood is not ready for Jeremy Lin. I don't mean that he wouldn't be welcomed as a product spokesman, or that the gossip industry wouldn't love him, or that he wouldn't be great at doing all the media-related things that basketball stars normally do. The trouble is that right now, Hollywood doesn't have the talent in place to really be able to respond to or capitalize on Lin's breakthrough. There were some mild grumbles over the weekend that the new episode of "Saturday Night Live" made no mention of Jeremy Lin, though his meteoric rise was a major topic of conversation in New York for much of the preceding week. This wasn't a big deal, as the story was new and still very much in progress by the time the episode went to air, but then you realize "Saturday Night Live" couldn't really do a Jeremy Lin sketch - nobody in the cast is East-Asian or looks close enough to pass. They'd have to fly in John Cho or Harry Shum Jr. or Bobby Lee for a guest spot.

Dramatizing the Jeremy Lin story would be just as problematic. Do you see very many Asian American kids in movies or on television? Anybody who looks cool and athletic enough to play a young Jeremy Lin? Hollywood would have to go out looking for an actor to fit the part. Of course, they often do that anyway, when an atypical role or character comes along. But Justin Lin isn't all that atypical looking - he's just a skinny Chinese-American guy. Sure, he's taller than average, but that's easy to fudge on film. This begs the question why Hollywood has so few actors who fit the simple criteria of being young, good-looking, East-Asian, and not speaking with a funny foreign accent. The answer, of course, is because Hollywood doesn't generate much media where Asian-Americans get leading roles. Their parts are too often comic relief, exotic love interests, supportive friends, nerds, doctors, and tech support. But whatever you want to call Jeremy Lin, he's definitely a main character, and his ethnicity is non-negotiable.

I've observed before that Hollywood has a poor record in its representation of certain groups of minorities, including East-Asians, which is going to catch up with them sooner or later as the ethnic mix of the United States keeps shifting toward the multicultural. Jeremy Lin very well could be the first real Asian-American sports superstar, Tiger Woods aside, but he's far from the first Asian-American to break into the mainstream consciousness and he's not going to be the last. Hollywood, however, has consistently refused to change with the times, and still whitewashes roles, imports foreign actors instead of nurturing American-born talent, and ignores the fact that ethnic minorities are part of their audience. If they keep this up, they may find themselves falling behind the cultural curve and out of touch with the mainstream public.

For one thing, the usual claim that American audiences have no interest in watching Asian-Americans on their television screens has just been proven completely untrue.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I Hated "The Nutty Professor"

"The Nutty Professor," a 1963 comedy starring Jerry Lewis, has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. It's on the AFI list of best comedies, and was a new entry on this year's They Shoot Pictures Don't They list. And it's also available on Netflix's Instant Streaming, so I thought I'd take a look at it, figuring that if I was striking out with modern comedies, a classic with such high credentials might be more to my tastes. No such luck. I hated it.

Professor Julius Kelp, played by Lewis, is nerdiest nerd who ever graced the silver screen, a klutz who speaks in an asthmatic whine and is, of course, terribly unlucky in love. Bullied by his own students and humiliated in front of the charming co-ed, Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), who is the object of his affections, Kelp decides to improve himself. After rigorous physical exercise leads nowhere, he uses his superior intellect to create a formula for a special serum. This changes him into the uber-cool "swinger," Buddy Love, a charismatic musician with confidence to spare. Unfortunately, the serum tends to wear off at the most inopportune times, and Stella is not as easily won over by Buddy's charms as the professor hopes.

Now I was already somewhat familiar with the character of the Nutty Professor, since he's thoroughly seeped into the American pop culture. Professor Frink from "The Simpsons" and all the Jerry Lewis caricatures from "Animaniacs" are based on this guy. However, I wasn't prepared for how much of an extreme dork the professor really was. Kelp is the most unflattering parody of a nerd that I've ever seen, a paragon of spasmodic geekery that I suspect may have contributed heavily to the enduring stereotype of the "Revenge of the Nerds" style dweeb that I always hated. It's such an awful, negative image, one that equates high intellect with social impairment, low athletic ability, unattractiveness, and a variety of physical ailments.

The worst part is that underneath the surface exterior Professor Julius Kelp isn't a very likeable man, and he's downright unpleasant as Buddy Love. In the Eddie Murphy "Nutty Professor" remake from the 90s, at least the plus-sized Herman Klump was shown to be a sweet, decent guy, worthy of our sympathies and the woman he was pursuing. In the Lewis movie, even if you overlook the fact that Kelp is making eyes at one of his own students, he doesn't come across nearly as well. His affection for Miss Purdy, a cute blonde in a tight sweater, seems awfully superficial. Most of their meaningful interactions happen when Kelp is Buddy Love, the raging jerk, and it's never quite clear if Buddy is inherently a part of Julius Kelp's own psyche or maybe an inversion of it. In any case, I never felt like rooting for him and Stella to get together.

And speaking of Buddy, the character was downright repellent. He wasn't funny, he wasn't the least bit interesting to watch, and his casual chauvinism grated every time he opened his mouth. The traits that were supposed to make him so irresistible to women were totally lost on me. Buddy seemed more like a teenage boy's misguided conception of what a ladies' man should be than anything resembling reality. I wonder if It might be a generational thing, but the film has such a rudimentary, schoolyard conception of gender relations, I think it might have played better if all the characters were high school aged. It already feels like a kids' film, based in a zany comedy universe full of visual gags straight from Looney Tunes.

Does "The Nutty Professor" have it's good points? Sure. Some of the sight gags based on cartoon physics got me to chuckle a few times. You can see the influence of the animator-turned-director Frank Tashlin, who Lewis worked with earlier in his career. I also thought that Lewis's final transformation from Buddy Love into Julius Kelp was very well done, really the only genuine emotional moment in the film that worked. But good grief, if you want to talk about a comedy that has not aged well, this is it. When I saw the Eddie Murphy take on the story, I thought it was pretty mediocre. I liked the messages about not judging a book by its cover, but I figured those must have originated with the Jerry Lewis movie. I mean, surely the 1963 version must have been better, since it was so well regarded, right?

Oh, I was wrong.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

If I Picked the Oscar Winners, Part II

The acting races are always the most fun because they can be such contests of personality, and sometimes it's not so much about the single role, but about that role with in the context of people's careers, and who has the best narrative, and all sorts of other intangibles that have nothing to do with the actual performances. I admit that I'm also susceptible to the hype and the drama, and frankly I don't think I'm as good a judge of acting as I am with other filmmaking disciplines, so I always find it a challenge to form my own opinions about these categories. Let's get down to business.

The 2011 Best Actor nominees are Demián Bichir for "A Better Life," George Clooney for "The Descendants," Jean Dujardin for "The Artist," Gary Oldman for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," and Brad Pitt for "Moneyball." I've already gotten into a few arguments about Brad Pitt's performance, which I find too close to his regular screen persona for comfort. At no point did he convince me that he was playing Billy Beane rather than just another variation of good guy Brad Pitt. Surely playing someone closer to your real self is harder than playing a more obvious, distinct character, like George Valentin or George Smiley, but in those cases it means the performance just has to be that much better to come across well. I don't think Pitt measured up, certainly not in comparison to George Clooney, who also wasn't stretching that hard to play a father in crisis, but had to handle some really difficult emotional moments and some delightfully absurd ones, all in the same movie.

But when it comes down to it, the performances I'm really going to remember came from Demián Bichir, Gary Oldman, and Jean Dujardin. Birchir's quiet Latino father has such a great presence, the troubles he suffers are immediately more relatable. He also delivers a final monologue that is just a killer, one that plays a huge part in making the end of "A Better Life" work. "The Artist" wouldn't have been the same with anyone but Dujardin as George Valentin. He's not just adopting the silent era acting style, but embodying it. As for Gary Oldman, his George Smiley is a coolly minimalist wonder, practically radiating unblinking paranoia in every frame. I'd be happy if any of the three of them won, but the one who stands up to the most scrutiny, and I mean that literally, is Gary Oldman. I have never seen a performance that intensely cerebral, where so much of a film hinges on watching a man simply observe other people, and think and reason his way to the truth. Gary Oldman for Best Actor.

The Best Actress contenders are Glenn Close for "Albert Nobbs," Viola Davis for "The Help," Rooney Mara for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady," and Michelle Williams for "My Week with Marilyn." This category isn't nearly so tough, because I haven't seen "My Week With Marilyn" yet, and didn't like "Albert Nobbs" or Glenn Close's performance in it. Rooney Mara made a good impression as Lisbeth Salander, but her work was not what I'd think of as awards worthy. That leaves Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Viola Davis as Abilene. The roles are so different that it's akin to comparing apples to piccolos. Streep had more of a technical challenge playing a widely recognized historical figure and dealing with old age make-up in many scenes. Her performance is showier, more complicated, and more iconic. It reeks of importance, which is why I think I like Viola Davis's work a bit better. Abilene is in her own way, a great woman, and Davis makes her small, but vital moments of self-realization far more moving and genuine than any of Thatcher's speeches. Viola Davis for Best Actress.

I'm afraid I'm not in a good position to say much about Best Supporting Actor, because I haven't seen either Kenneth Branagh in "My Week with Marilyn" or Max von Sydow in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." But based on the other three performances, this appears to be a remarkably weak year for the category. Jonah Hill didn't get on my nerves in "Moneyball" the way he usually does, but what about his performance landed him here? There was barely anything to the character of Peter Brand beyond serving as a banter buddy for Billy Beane. I also fail to see anything all that interesting about Nick Nolte in "Warrior," where he plays the deeply troubled father of a pair of MMA fighters, trying to make good. Who's left? Christopher Plummer gets a few moments in the spotlight as Hal, a gay man who comes out of the closet in his golden years, shortly before becoming terminally ill. It was a nice performance, but again, not an especially impressive one. Of the three, however, Plummer comes out ahead. Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor.

And last, but surely not least, is the Best Supporting Actress category. I've seen all the nominated performances for this one. Janet McTeer makes a more convincing man in "Albert Nobbs" than Glenn Close does, but that's not saying much. I still think that Bérénice Bejo was miscast in "The Artist." She's a little too old and much too modern-looking to pass for a 1920s ingenue. She tries her darnedest to make up for it though, so I don't begrudge her the nomination. It's good to see Jessica Chastain from "The Help," though of all the roles she's played this year, I'm not sure this is the one most deserving of being singled out for praise. Octavia Spencer would seem to be the obvious choice here, as the sharp-minded maid who gets sweet revenge on a bad employer in "The Help." Then again, I also liked Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids," more than I think I should. She is such a bright spot in that film, and plays such a positive, funny character, without becoming a stereotype. Comedy is always harder than it looks, and the Academy never gives comedians enough credit. Oh, what the hell. Melissa McCarthy for Best Supporting Actress.

Monday, February 13, 2012

If I Picked the Oscar Winners, Part I

Usually I haven't seen enough of the Oscar nominees to be able to do one of these posts in the past, but this year I've had the unusual good luck of being able to view almost all of the contenders in the six major categories for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay. I think that should be enough to give an informed opinion, or at least to say something substantive about each race. I'll cover the writing, directing, and Best Picture categories in this post, and the acting categories separately in the next one.

Let's start with the big one first: Best Picture. I haven't seen "War Horse" or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" yet, but among the rest there are four titles currently sitting on my in-progress list of my favorite films of 2011. That's always a good sign. I thought it was a perfectly fine year for contenders, though I don't agree with some of the titles that are up here. I don't understand the critical support behind "Moneyball" or the popularity of "The Help." I'm happy for Martin Scorsese, but the more I've had a chance to mull over "Hugo," the more problematic it becomes. The dialogue is especially grating - maybe Scorsese would have been better off making "Hugo" as a silent film like "The Artist," the current frontrunner. But then, I'm not too keen on "The Artist" winning either. It's a significant filmmaking achievement no matter how you slice it, but it's hard to get around the fact that so much of its effectiveness is about breaking down the audience's resistance to the fact that it's a black and white silent movie. It expends so much effort recreating something old, but aside from a few interesting uses of sound in the narrative, does little to add anything new. I have the same complaint with "Midnight in Paris," which I adore, but I can't shake the fact that Woody Allen has made this kind of film so many times before, and it feels like he's backsliding a bit, relying heavily on nostalgia to carry him through.

That leaves me with "The Descendants" and "The Tree of Life." Alexander Payne makes the kind of small-scale, awkward comedies that are too often overlooked by the Academy, and he's due for some recognition. And after subjecting myself to an endless stream of indie films this year about dysfunctional families, I know all too well how hard it is to get a story like "The Descendants" to come off right. I'd be very happy to see it win. However, there's "The Tree of Life," which some Oscar prognosticators thought might be too artsy and inaccessible to be a nominee. I have some issues with the film, particularly the bookend sequences with Sean Penn and the silly dinosaurs, but that middle section is without question, the most stunning piece of cinema I saw in 2011. The level of filmmaking and the scope of director Terrence Malick's vision just dwarf everything else in the field. "The Tree of Life" is really the only one of the nominees I believe will survive the test of time and still be well regarded in another decade or two, that manages to transcend the modern-day sensibilities that color the other nominees' takes on the past. I know it won't win, simply because there are too many members of the Academy who will be unable to get past its difficult nature, but as far as I'm concerned this is an easy pick. "The Tree of Life" for Best Picture.

In years past, the Best Director nominations would usually mirror the Best Picture nominations, because the director is considered the creative mind most responsible for the finished film. With an expanded Best Picture nominee list, the Best Director nods can help to determine who the actual frontrunners are. In this case, we have Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris," Michel Hazanavicius for "The Artist," Terrence Malick for "The Tree of Life," Alexander Payne for "The Descendants" and Martin Scorsese for "Hugo." And it was this list that convinced me that it was okay to skip "War Horse" for the time being, because Steven Spielberg is noticeably missing. Pretty much all of my arguments for the Best Picture nominees can be applied to their respective directors, though I'd give the edge to Woody Allen over nearly everyone else here, because of the wonderful, delicate mood he manages to conjure up for his fantastic bygone dreamscapes of Paris, which have so much more magic in them than Scorsese's. "The Descendants" depends more on its writing and "The Artist" depends more on its performances, but without Woody Allen's touch, you simply couldn't have "Midnight in Paris." But again, I'd hand the statuette to Malick in a second. Terrence Malick for Best Director.

The writing awards are always fun because you often get a few good titles in the mix that don't appear in any of the other categories. In Best Original Screenplay, we have "The Artist" and "Midnight in Paris," but also "Bridesmaids," "Margin Call," and the Iranian film "A Separation," which is a dead giveaway that "A Separation" will take home the Best Foreign Language Film award this year. I think this is a pretty weak roster, as I'm middling on "Margin Call," and found much of "Bridesmaids" uneven. "The Artist" is up here for the way it wrote around the limitations of having so little dialogue, which I can appreciate, but it's not enough for a win. Meanwhile, "Midnight in Paris" had absolutely fantastic dialogue in about half its scenes, those dealing with a spoiler I'm not going to give up here, but too much involving Owen Wilson's interactions with Rachel McAdams' character was lackluster. "A Separation," which I have not seen, but have read enough about to understand that it's a particularly complex and nuanced social drama, kind of takes this by default, because I don't think any of the other nominees deserve it. "A Separation" for Best Original Screenplay.

In the Best Adapted Screenplay category are Best Picture nominees "The Descendants," "Hugo," and "Moneyball," along with "The Ides of March" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Now this is a much more interesting race. I think I've made my opinion of "Hugo" pretty clear. It's not that it's a bad film, but I found the script was surprisingly weak in some important spots. The writing was the best part of "Moneyball," but it never succeeded in getting me invested in the character of Billy Beane, which may be more Brad Pitt's fault than the writers,' but I'm going to assign equal responsibility. "The Ides of March" was an interesting peice of work, a nice, mean little political thriller than gave George Clooney and Ryan Gosling a lot of choice banter to chew through. I'm more impressed with "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," though, for taking such a radically different approach to its complicated spy story than most would dare. However, I have to go with "The Descendants" for handling some really tough subject matter about as well as it could possibly be handled, and still being an enjoyable watch. "The Descendants" for Best Adapted Screenplay.

More to come.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Still Watching: "Grimm" and "Persons of Interest"

Of all the freshman series I started watching back in the fall, I'm still keeping up with two of them pretty regularly: crime procedurals "Grimm" and "Persons of Interest." As we're well into the midseason, I thought it was time for a quick update.

"Grimm" has had an interesting ride so far. It honestly hasn't gotten much better than the original pilot, which I found pretty lackluster, but it has shown that the silly premise of a supernatural cop, called a Grimm, policing the descendants of fairy-tale creatures in the Portland area has some pretty strong legs. Instead of slavishly modeling each case after a specific fairy tale, it has quickly taken the "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" approach of having the fairy-tale creatures mirror specific social ills or embody the factors that sometimes lead to crime, and slapping on a made-up German name like "blutbaden" for Big Bad Wolf creatures. So a timid man might be secretly a mouse creature, while a slimy lawyer is really a snake in disguise. The monsters-of-the-week that the writers have come up are often much more interesting than the lead characters.

On that note, I still don't think much of David Giuntoli, who plays the main character, Nick Burkhardt, or Bitsie Tulloch as his girlfriend Juliette. There has been almost no progress made regarding Nick's development as a Grimm or how that might affect his relationship with Juliette, obvious plot hooks that were set up in the pilot. Instead, the most interesting character is still Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), the reformed blutbad who reluctantly lends his help on Nick's cases. The bumpy developing friendship between Nick and Monroe, where Monroe always seems to be getting the short end of the stick, is a lot of fun. It works a heluvah lot better that Nick's partnership with his actual partner, Hank Griffin (Russell Honsby). I hope the writers find some way to give Juliette and Hank more to do on a weekly basis, maybe letting one or both of them in on Nick's secrets, so they'll be able to interact on a more regular basis, instead of all being stuck in their own separate little corners of the "Grimm" universe. Still, even as it is now, "Grimm" is a lot of fun. It's an easy watch, it's inventive, it's schlocky as hell, and I still think it has a lot of potential to be better.

"Persons of Interest" has settled into a pretty good case-of-the-week procedural, heavier on the action scenes than most. Since the pilot, it hasn't maintained the same level of expensive car chases and explosions, but neither have they entirely disappeared. We get about one good feature-quality action sequence a week, which is plenty to keep up the momentum of the plots. The production values are still very high for a prime time network show. The writing's quickly become formulaic, but it's also remained above average. So far, "Persons of Interest" has hinted that it's going to get into some labyrinthine back story about the creation of crime-predicting machine, but for the first part of the season the writers were more concerned with slowly moving Taraji P. Henson's character, Detective Carter, into an uneasy alliance with our hero, John Reese (Jim Caviezel). And happily, his dead girlfriend and all the angst that went with her, have largely dropped out of sight.

I'd complained that in the pilot, Caviezel's performance was too low-key and too blank, making it difficult to empathize with him. This has changed considerably. He still speaks softly and carries a big stick, but those bursts of personality that only came out during his badass moments have stopped being bursts, and now he's just a badass full time – and a bit of a deadpan snarker. His associate, Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson), has remained exactly the same, the incredibly intelligent, eccentric, and nebbish man behind the machine. He's clearly got a few skeletons in the closet that are going to come out eventually, but he's not the sinister mastermind I thought he might become. Quite the contrary. Some of his best moments are when he's used for comic relief. Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Chapman, who plays her partner, Detective Fusco, have also been holding their own. Henson especially, has become much more fun to watch now that her character is in the same morally gray area as the rest of the ensemble.

And now that I've firmly latched on to these two, I've happily let "Law & Order: SVU" slip out of my rotation for good. I was a fan of the show for years, but enough is enough. If I want to watch a crime show that has given itself over to so much sensationalism, I might as well watch one with fairy-tale monsters or one-man-army vigilantes.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Is Traditional Feature Animation Doomed?

Disney animation fans should be happy to hear that the long in-development animated feature film adaptation of "The Snow Queen," based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, is finally back on track. It even has a release date staked out: Thanksgiving, 2013. On the other hand, those who love Disney's hand-drawn, traditionally animated films, myself included, will be less happy to learn that the new movie, though initially conceived to be traditionally animated, will be done in 3D CGI, like Disney's last fairy-tale film, "Tangled." And it's also getting a name change, going from "The Snow Queen" to "Frozen."

When John Lasseter assumed leadership of the struggling Disney animation unit, he vocally announced his support for the resurrection of traditionally animated films at the studio, and he got a lot of people's hopes up. But then "The Princess and the Frog" did only middling business, while "Tangled" unexpectedly became a monster hit. Now, I don't have anything against "Tangled." I thought it was a great film, and I'm glad it got such a strong response and convinced Disney that there is still an audience out there for its fairy-tale musicals. However, when you compare the performance of "Tangled" to "The Princess and the Frog," the easy conclusion to draw is that "Tangled" did better because it was a CGI feature. I'm not convinced that this is true.

However, the final nail in the coffin of was the new "Winnie the Pooh" film, which despite receiving a lot of critical support, was a total disaster at the box office last summer, opening against the final installment of "Harry Potter." It's an incredibly charming piece of work and I enjoyed it, but it's hard to summon much enthusiasm for a feature that only runs 63 minutes. It didn't even pick up an Academy Award nomination in the Best Animated Film category this year, losing out to a pair of foreign contenders, "Chico & Rita" and "A Cat in Paris." Ironically, both are also hand-drawn features.

And there's the strangest part of it. Traditional feature animation is doing just fine everywhere else in the world. CGI hasn't made many inroads in Japan's flourishing anime universe, and the beloved Studio Ghibli is still turning out blockbuster hand-drawn films. "The Secret World of Arrietty," one of their latest, is finally reaching American theater screens next week. France and Russia, countries with long, animation traditions, have turned out their share of CGI features, but they haven't dominated the scene to nearly the same extent that they have in the US.

When you look at the American animated films being produced by the big studios, the ones that get played on thousands of screens across the country, they are overwhelmingly CGI animation. "Winnie the Pooh" was the only new traditionally animated film to receive a wide release in the United States last year, and "Arrietty" will be the only one this year. Compare this to seven new CGI films, and three stop-motion ones coming out in 2012. This is not counting, of course, the rereleases of "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" which were converted for 3D viewing.

Meanwhile, new technology has allowed more traditional animated films to be made in the last few years than at any time in history. We're seeing animated features, both traditional and CGI, coming from places as diverse as South Africa, Israel, and Singapore. A small but vibrant independent scene in the US still produces a few hand drawn features every year, like "Idiots and Angels" and "My Dog Tulip," both aimed at an adult audiences. Even animated documentaries are becoming in vogue, after the success of "Waltz With Bashir."

I'm glad to see so much diversity and innovation in these animated films, but at the same time it's sad to that the most talented, most commercially successful studios are stuck working in the confines of such a limited range of stories and styles. It's bad enough that Americans still can't get out of the mindset that animated films are for children, but now those films are all increasingly conforming to a standard visual aesthetic. Everybody wants to look like PIXAR, essentially.

Not that there's anything wrong with PIXAR. But when the majority of American animation looks like all PIXAR, all the time, then we have a problem. So many studios are doing so well these days, I can't believe we don't have room for a few traditionally animated features in the mix. They don't have to be the polished, perfect Disney extravaganzas of old, but the medium still has so much promise and potential, and others around the world have done such great things with it lately – and I can't help feeling that we're missing out on all the fun.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Encounters With the "Arrested"

So how do I describe "Arrested Development"? After declaring my intentions to watch the series, I dove right in and marathoned a bunch of episodes from the first season. I was expecting it to be unconventional, but I wasn't ready for how biting the satire was or how nicely it turned the usual sitcom tropes against themselves. At its core, the show is farce. Larger than life characters are forced to deal with unlikely and improbable situations that cause them to clash in entertaining ways. But while the usual family or workplace sitcom exaggerates eccentricities for laughs, it's generally understood that the characters that appear are meant to represent mostly normal, average, functional people. This is not true of the Bluth family.

Michael Bluth (Jason Schwartzman) is one of the four adult children of George O. Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), a wealthy real estate developer who has just been tossed into prison by the SEC. His mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) is an extravagant snob with a penchant for furs. Older brother George O. Bluth II, known as Gob (Will Arnett), pronounced like the biblical Job, is a second-rate magician. Younger brother Buster (Tony Hall) is an extremely well educated introvert, who has never left home and is reliant on his mother. Finally there's Michael's twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), a spoiled shopaholic who likes taking on various social causes she knows nothing about. Her husband, Dr. Tobias Fünke (David Cross), has given up a successful psychiatry practice to pursue an acting career. They have a teenage daughter, Maebe (Alia Shawkat), pronounced "maybe," who only has rebellion on her mind. Michael is the only one who has his head on straight and any sense of duty and moral uprightness. With George Senior's company in peril and the money funding everyone's extravagant lifestyles gone, it's up to him to take charge and save his family from themselves. Oh, and he also has to be a good single father to his own teenage son, Geroge Michael (Michael Cera), who is nursing an awful crush on cousin Maebe.

"Arrested Development" is shot in a documentary style and set in Orange County, California – the real one that has Latinos and Asians living there, not the bizarro one from "The OC" that was the bane of my adolescent existence. Well no, that's not right either. The "Arrested Development" version of Orange County is a place where wildly improbable things happen on a weekly basis, but where the nutty characters suffer real world consequences like prison time and foreclosures and unemployment. It strives for a certain degree of realism, which serves to make the characters, who might otherwise seem like merely exaggerated stock types on a regular sitcom, come across as exactly what they would be in real life – a pack of glorious looneys. And it also serves to heighten the deadpan visual gags like Michael driving around town in the "stair-car" that was used for boarding the family's private jet. I can't even think of another American comedy prior to this one that had deadpan visual gags.

I love all the subtle digs that the show gets in at sitcom formulas, and how it plays with the standard components of a television show. "Arrested Development" employs a narrator, an uncredited Ron Howard, who gamely delivers all the necessary exposition to catch an unfamiliar viewer up on the story so far at the beginning of each episode, and also presents the occasional flashback or historical tidbit. Eventually nearly all of the Bluths end up bunking together in the model house for a new housing development, a totally contrived arrangement that only reinforces how dysfunctional the family is. Most episodes end with a fake preview of a fake next episode, reallt the ending gag that would normally play with the credit roll repackaged in a clever way.

It's easy to see why the show is so beloved and is so influential. The mockcumentary is practically its own genre on television right now, with more recent entries like the American version of "The Office" and "Modern Family" all owing "Arrested Development" a big debt. The show also tackles the theme of prolonged immaturity that has been so prevalent in comedy over the past ten years, and puts it into context, deals with it in every single episode as Michael struggles to help his parents and siblings to adjust to a world where they can't use money to cover up for their own inadequacies anymore, and have to face reality. They're funny and entertaining to watch, but it's acknowledged from the very beginning of the very first episode that nearly every member of the Bluth family is also a terrible mess of a human being. Michael is the hero by default, and even he isn't immune to the self-delusion and denial that his relatives cling to so desperately.

And I guess that's why the more heartfelt and sincere family bonding part of "Arrested Development" works too. And that has been the biggest, most welcome surprise of the show so far.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Help" is Hardly Helpful

Watching "The Help" was a little like watching a good friend make a very well-intentioned, but embarrassing wedding speech, or getting a birthday present from them that is clearly more to their tastes than yours. You don't want to say anything, because they clearly meant well, and made a real effort. It could have been a lot worse – and you've seen a lot worse – and you want to accentuate the positive and encourage them in this new direction.

And oh, I really wanted "The Help" to be better than it was. I figured if the black maids in the film were the title characters, surely than meant they wouldn't get shunted off into supporting roles or turned into saintly caricatures like they have been in so many other films. And here, I have to give the filmmakers credit. Abilene (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) are full, wonderful characters who get as much time and attention as anyone else onscreen. Nobody swoops in to save them from the injustices they suffer. They take their own risks and fight their own fights. Davis and Spencer get to deliver a pair of great, enjoyable performances.

Unfortunately, "The Help" is also just as much about Skeeter (Emma Stone), the young writer who has just graduated from university, and is trying to break out of the domestic conformity of her social circle. And it's about Celia (Jessica Chastain), who is new in town, and has unwittingly crossed the local queen bee, Hilly Holbrook (a deliciously nasty Bryce Dallas Howard) by marrying her former beau. These two young white women, portrayed as lovable misfits for not fitting in and treating the black women as their equals, are utter fantasy creations. Stone and Chastain are both excellent, but their characters ring incredibly false. Are we really expected to buy a pair of white women from this time period having such enlightened, modern attitudes toward the maids, with none of the institutional biases or prejudices that we might expect?

I want to emphasize at this point that "The Help" is based on a fictional book, perhaps inspired by a few real life stories, but the entire device of Skeeter getting a group of black maids to spill their secrets about their employers and them publish them is a total invention. It sets itself up quite nicely with a lot of choice historical details to be mistaken for something closer to reality than it actually is. Frankly, I think that only a white writer would have come up with a plot like this. The whole thing has a sort of "Mean Girls" immaturity to it, having the progressive white women and the unappreciated black women band together to take down Miss Hilly Holbrook and her passel of racist sycophants. And they do it through the common language of all women: gossip. That way everyone, no matter their background, can feel good about seeing a blow struck against the establishment, right?

The problem with this is that the stakes are so much higher for the black characters than the white ones. Abilene and Minny risk their livelihoods and their lives in speaking out, a fact that is thankfully acknowledged in "The Help," but not emphasized nearly strongly enough. What do Skeeter and Celia risk? Social disapproval, mostly. Skeeter wanting a career instead of marriage may be a major break from the norm in the 1960s, but she's protected by her race and status from any really terrible consequences. Abilene and Minny are not. So despite the film's attempts to find parallels, there's no way to make Skeeter's struggle anywhere near equivalent to what the black characters go through.

"The Help" ends up feeling like a very sanitized, bowdlerized piece of historical fiction. The black maids still end up coming across as idealized and pigeonholed. In "The Help," they are natural housekeepers and nannies who reciprocate the sentimental, loving feelings that their charges are shown to develop toward them. Perhaps the oddest thing about "The Help" is the way that it tries to romanticize these relationships between the white children and their black caregivers. It's what drives Skeeter to write her book, and it's an influence on Abilene's actions as well.

Fighting together against a common enemy as the basis of friendships between black and white women is something I can understand. At the very least, it's still relevant. But the outdated nanny and child relationship, born out of privilege and inherent inequality? Really? Oh Hollywood, I know you're trying, but you have to do better than this.