Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad: "Felina"

Spoilers, spoilers, and more spoilers, ahead.

So let's briefly recap here. The ricin was for Lydia. The M60 was for Jack's gang. The lottery ticket was for Skyler. The money was for Flynn and Holly, by way of Gretchen and Elliot and a couple of laser pointers. Everything went according to plan for Walt, in a season where nothing went according to plan. And boy was it satisfying to watch Heisenberg engineer his last impossible string of stunts. He went out on a high note, finally accepting the consequences of being a bad guy, and able to end his story on his own terms.

Did the finale make Walt seem too heroic, as some reviews have suggested? I don't think that's the message here. Jesse would have been perfectly justified in shooting Walt down, as he was justified in strangling Todd. Skyler was cold and distant, offering little sympathy, and none was expected. Walt didn't even try to have a last moment with his son. No, this was about Walt acknowledging his own faults at last, and putting them to use to try and fix some of his most egregious mistakes. The most significant moments of the night were Walt admitting to Skyler that he started cooking meth for himself, not for the family, and finally being direct with Jesse. No more lies or pretenses. He's just a bad man willing to do horrible things to get what he wants. The whole bit with Gretchen and Elliot made that explicit.

As finales go, this one was certainly eventful, but not nearly as eventful as some of the other episodes of "Breaking Bad" in this final half season. There were no unexpected deaths or major twists. The big showdown was telegraphed far in advance, and the camera lingered on the Stevia packet and Lydia's tea. We checked in with all the remaining characters, but it's far from certain what will happen to them in the fallout from Walt's death. Does Walt's scheme with the money actually work? Will the police find Jesse? Does Lydia have a chance of surviving the ricin if she gets to the hospital in time? I can still see a worst case scenario where Jesse and Skyler both end up in prison, and a vengeful, crippled Lydia hires more hit men. And there are still plenty of unanswered questions. What happened at Gray Matter? Who spray-painted HEISENBERG on the living room wall?

Emotionally, though, I got all the closure I wanted for Walt's story. When Walt returns to town, it feels like it's been eons. He was essentially a dead man in "Granite State," and "Felina" marks a brief resurrection. Chance and luck, and from the opening segment, perhaps God are on his side, allowing him the opportunity to make some amends and settle some scores. Walt knows he has no time left, and there's no self-delusion that he can tell the truth later, or explain himself later. There's a finality to every conversation, except those with Todd, Lydia, and Jack, who still require a little manipulation. From his feigned desperation, though, you can tell that's not who Walt is anymore. This Walt has accepted his existence is finite, and only wants enough time to take care of a few last pieces of business. Jack tries to bargain with a Walt who no longer exists.

Is the ending a little too neat, though? Would we have been better served by more moments of ambiguity, or a few more reminders of Walt's failures? Should the writers have spent more time on thematic resonance instead of making sure that every last little thread of the plot was nicely wrapped up for us? I don't see people dissecting "Felina" the way that they dissected the famous ending of "The Sopranos" or even "The Shield" for years to come. However, "Breaking Bad" is not nearly as deep or weighty or as ultimately tragic as either of those shows. It's always been a very slick piece of entertainment, that puts the audience's enjoyment first. And I can't think of an ending that could have imparted more enjoyment to the audience than Walt using SCIENCE! one last time to dispatch his enemies, and Jesse getting away.

I've barely left myself any room to talk about the production, but I loved that we got a final alt-POV cam shot, gorgeous southwestern vistas, and lots of other fancy visuals - the slow reveal of Walt in Skyler's sad apartment, the Hitchcock shots of Walt's keys, Walt exploring the Schwartzes' new house, the police car lights through a snow-covered windshield, and finally that last, overhead shot of Walt in the meth lab. Vince Gilligan directed this one, and he gave it his all. I especially liked that Walt died surrounded by scientific equipment, in a lab similar to the one where he found the most happiness in the last two years of his life.

I'll have a wrap-up post for the whole series in a few days, possibly a Top Ten. Then it's on to "Better Call Saul."
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Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams Sitcoms

Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams returned to television on Thursday night in new sitcoms. The hopes of their respective networks are heavy on their shoulders. I’ve seen the premiers of both now, so I thought I’d put down some brief thoughts on each.

Up first, “The Crazy Ones,” on ABC, where Robin Williams plays an advertising executive, Simon Roberts, and Sarah Michelle Gellar plays his daughter Sydney, both named partners in their firm Lewis, Roberts & Roberts. The pilot sees them in crisis mode, trying to hang on to their largest client, McDonalds, by coming up with a new campaign, and convincing a weirdly sexed up Kelly Clarkson to sing the song for their commercial. Robin Williams mostly plays himself in Don Draper clothing, ad libbing and going off on entertaining tangents in typical Williams fashion. It’s fun and he’s enjoyable to watch.

However, where I think this show has a lot of potential is the rest of the ensemble. Sarah Michelle Gellar is put in the straight woman role for most of the episode, the harried but loving daughter trying to keep her scatterbrained genius father on track. However, she can handle her comedic moments perfectly well, and makes me appreciate her time on “Buffy: the Vampire Slayer” all the more. James Wolk shows up as staffer Zach Cropper, who not only shows off his comedic timing but he sings! Amanda Setton and Hamish Linklater play other firm underlings and haven’t had much to do yet, but make good impressions.

The pilot is pretty schticky, but it’s schtick that works because the cast is talented and the premise is sound. Setting the show in an advertising agency and using real brands as clients is a fairly craven product placement gimmick, but there’s some good drama and tension generated by the pitching and Gellar and Williams show some appealing chemistry. I bought into their father-daughter act almost immediately. It reminds me, oddly, of Keith and Veronica Mars. I also liked that Simon Roberts is positioned as a legendary ad man who is trying to turn around a difficult career decline, and has to compete with his own past image - a wink to Robin Williams’ own career, perhaps.

“The Michael J. Fox” show also works the actor’s life into the story, but to a far greater degree. You couldn’t have done this show without acknowledging that Fox suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and the creators have decided that Fox’s character, a New York NBC news anchor named Mike Henry, should be similarly afflicted. The show centers around Mike and family, including wife Annie (Betsy Brandt), older son Ian (Conor Romero) who dropped out of Cornell, precocious teenage daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia), young son Graham (Jack Gore), and Mike’ s underachiever sister Leigh (Katie Finneran). At work, the newsroom is run by Harris Green (Wendell Pierce), and Mike has a newbie assistant, Kay Costa (Ana Nogueira).

The pilot focuses too heavily on Mike Henry’s struggle with Parkinson’s, which is completely understandable and necessary. Still, I was very glad that NBC chose to air a second episode, this one about Mike briefly becoming infatuated with an upstairs neighbor and giving him an opportunity to behave like an ass. Fox is still terribly charming, but the Parkinson's hasn’t stopped being a distraction yet, and the series is still in the process of getting the other characters fleshed out. The second lead on the show isn’t Betsy Brandt, but Juliette Goglia, who plays Eve as intelligent but lacking in self-reflection. She’s the best part of the cast so far, and I have to wonder if the show wouldn’t have benefited from being about her instead of Mike Henry.

I can see “The Michael J. Fox” show settling into a nice, sweet little family comedy eventually. The cast is strong, the writing is pretty decent so far, and Fox playing a thinly veiled version of himself works fine, though it is a little jarring to see him in a half-hour sitcom without a laugh track. However, the show feels like it’s on the wrong network. NBC’s Thursday nights are full of workplace comedies and more diverse ensembles. This feels like it should be following “Modern Family” over on ABC. Then again, Sean Hayes’s new show is going to share a somewhat similar warm-and-fuzzy premise.

I give “The Crazy Ones” the edge right now simply because I’m not the target audience for family sitcoms, and Robin Williams continues to amuse me more consistently than Michael J. Fox. Williams’ riff on ejaculating ketchup packets had me on the floor. Also, I can see Sarah Michelle Gellar stepping up and carrying the show in a pinch, something I’m not sure anyone on “The Michael J. Fox” show is capable of doing yet. That, and I’m delighted that Bob Benson from “Mad Men” can do comedy.
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Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The Blacklist" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

I briefly had some hopes for "The Blacklist." James Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, on the FBI's Most Wanted list for being the "concierge of crime," who facilitates the misdeeds of others. When he surrenders himself at FBI headquarters, offering information on an upcoming crime, FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) and his team are understandably wary of their old foe, but Red is convincing. Spader chews the scenery with everything he's got, and the pilot's biggest problem is that there's not enough of him in it.

You see, Red insists that the only person he'll talk to directly is brand new FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), who turns out to be our real main character. Boone is about to adopt a child with her husband Tom (Ryan Eggold), and displays a personality entirely too open and cuddly to take very seriously. When she describes herself as a "bitch" with a tendency to be remote, I wondered if the role had been recast at the last minute. It was as though someone had hired Jewel Staite to play warrior woman Zoe on "Firefly" instead of sunny sweetheart Kaylee. Boone herself appears to be a pretty competent actress, but the mass of contradictions about her character was too distracting to take.

Otherwise, "The Blacklist" is a fairly typical crime drama. It's big distinguishing characteristic is a of those hammy mastermind characters who would be utterly insufferable if the actor playing him weren't so charismatic. There's slightly more intense violence than the norm. The good guys run around trying to solve the mystery and avert a major crime, relying on a lot of convenient contrivances and well-timed reveals. There's a lot of series mythology set up, and it's all to easy to conclude that Red's interest in Agent Keen points to him being her father. On a better show, I'd assume this is a red herring, but "Blacklist" isn't good enough yet to earn that much benefit of the doubt from me. It's too slapdash, spending way too much time on action set-pieces and sinister hints of a big backstory, and not enough on characters. Poor Diego Klattenhoff plays an agent whose job seems to be to run around playing the gullible patsy to everyone else in the show.

I can certainly see "The Blacklist" improving with time, but there are too many similar shows out there already for me to stick around to see how things pan out.

Now on to Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," one of the most anticipated shows of this season because it shares continuity with the Marvel cinematic universe. And indeed, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) from "The Avengers" stars as the leader of a new global response team set up to deal with incidents involving superhumans, and there are references to Iron Man and the Hulk tossed out left and right. Joss Whedon directed the pilot, and wrote it in collaboration with showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. And as with all Whedon shows, the best parts are in the dialogue - the little quips, the self-aware moments of superhero meta, and the characters' banter. This is in spite of Marvel and Disney clearly spending quite a chunk of change, paying for lots of fancy special effects, fight sequences, crazy vehicles, and a big finale sequence at the crowded Union Station in Los Angeles.

I wasn't expecting much more than the razzle dazzle and some character introductions, but the pilot does set up some interesting themes. Along with Agent Coulson, the ensemble includes black ops hard-case Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the bruiser with the past, Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), nerdy techies Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) who are regularly lumped together as "Fitzsimmons," and the newest recruit to the team, Skye (Chloe Bennet), an anarchic super-hacker who spends much of the hour actively working against "S.H.I.E.L.D." The secret government agents are the good guys, but viewed with great suspicion by people who often have good reasons to be wary of them. The complications of working for Big Brother could yield some good things, and the best bits of the hour involve Coulson and Ward trying to convince civilian characters why they're worthy of their trust. One could draw parallels to Whedon's employment by the Disney empire.

But that's beside the point. The show is light and fun to watch. It's family friendly and cheesetastic, but the humor is sharp when it needs to be. The characters are not yet fully formed, but they have loads of potential. Whedonverse regular J. August Richards shows up here as a guest star, playing a sympathetic sad-sack whose superpowers lead to a lot of trouble. He makes such a great impression, I think it's a shame that he's not going to be a regular. Still, I'll be sticking with "S.H.I.E.L.D." for at least a few more weeks to see if they can keep the quality up.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Batman" without Batman?

For years Warner Bros. has been trying to capitalize on the success of Batman through a television spinoff, they way they did with the long-running Superman series "Smallville." There was the "Batman: Year One" prequel project that would have explored Bruce Wayne's early days as the Bat, a project that eventually became "Batman Begins." There was the "Graysons," about the pre-Robin youth of the Boy Wonder. And there was the very, very short-lived "Birds of Prey," about a trio DC universe superwomen with ties to Batman. Now here's the latest - FOX has committed to a pilot for "Gotham," that looks at Gotham City before Batman showed up on the scene, focusing on a younger Commissioner Gordon. It's "Batman: Year One" without Batman.

The impetus for this development is obvious. The premiere of Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" won high ratings last night for ABC (review forthcoming). It marks the first major entry of the Marvel universe into live-action television in some time, and there has been talks of other shows in the works, like the rumored Agent Peggy Carter spinoff. DC has had plenty of successful shows over the years, but we could certainly stand to see a few more, especially if they want to explore some of their non-superhero titles. "Gotham" is clearly an attempt at putting some of their lower-profile Batman characters to work the way Marvel is opting to use some of its lesser-known characters in "S.H.I.E.L.D"

And sure, why not? This isn't a new idea. There was a forty-issue "Gotham Central" comic book series that ran from 2003-2006 based around the daily travails of the Gotham City Police Department, and there was some talk of a TV adaptation. "Gotham" sounds very similar since it centers around the Commissioner. The Batman universe also has several other memorable law enforcement characters, including detectives Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya, who have long histories in the comics. Removing Batman from the picture doesn't mean that his rogue's gallery of villains is off limits, and there are some good ones who are never going to be considered heavyweight enough to show up in the films. Plus, we might finally also see some development for minor, but important characters like Thomas and Martha Wayne, the parents of Bruce Wayne.

I might have been more wary of this news a few years ago, but we're been seeing a good number of successful prequel series lately, including "Hannibal," "Bates Motel," and AMC just ordered up the "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul." Prequels don't have to be a narrative dead end, especially when they're working with a universe as colorful and well-populated as Gotham City. My hope is that "Gotham" will take the plunge and really commit to the idea of showing the downfall of a great city. Maybe it could be a period piece, taking advantage of the '30s detective serial and noir origins of Batman. These were always the elements that the movies tended to overlook or downplay, opting instead for the more fancy action sequences and funny costumes.

I also take heart that the series will be headed to FOX and not the CW, which is currently airing the DC series "Arrow." Though there are exceptions, CW's has a younger target audience and they tend to go for slicker, broader material. I gave up on "Arrow" pretty quickly when it became apparent that they were doing everything they could to hide its comic book origins under a mountain of generic teen drama cliches. There's no guarantee that FOX will want to aim "Gotham" at grown-ups, but if they do, at least they have more experience fostering good genre shows like "The X-Files" and "Fringe." I'd rather we got a series that could be paired up with the happily campy "Sleepy Hollow" than one that could be paired up with "Arrow."

There are plenty of reasons to be wary, of course. The later seasons of "Smallville" turned into a showcase for minor DC superheroes and dragged out its origin story past the point of absurdity. "Arrow" looks like it's about to go down the same path, dragging the Flash into this season's storylines. I wouldn't be too keen on watching a version of "Gotham" where we're hammered over the head with allusions to future characters and events week after week. However a solid crime procedural with some flamboyant criminals could be a lot of fun.

What interests me most is which version of Batman "Gotham" is intended as a prequel for. The Nolanverse films? The backstory for the Ben Affleck Bat? Or something entirely different? And for those of you who would rather have a Batman series with Batman, there's already a perfectly good on airing on CBS - "Person of Interest."
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Breaking Bad: "The Granite State"

Spoilers, yo.

So after all that talk about family, what draws Walter White out of hiding isn't that he's worried about his kids or that he wants to rescue Jesse. No, it's plain old pride. It's a Charlie Rose interview with his former business partners, Gretchen and Elliott, who they paint an unflattering picture of how he's likely to be remembered. This finally puts Walt on the road to back to New Mexico and the teasing flash-forwards from earlier in the season.

But first, an hour of watching the further fallout from the events of last week's "Ozymandias." Walt dwindles into illness and self-doubt in the isolation of the New Hampshire wilderness, with only intermittent visits from Saul's fixer, Ed, played by a perfectly cast Robert Forster. Most of the other major characters only get a scene or two apiece, each highlighting more nasty surprises. Marie discovers her home ransacked. Skyler and Holly are threatened by a masked Todd, who orders Skyler to clam up about Lydia's involvement. Flynn (emphatically not Junior anymore) gets an upsetting phone call during chemistry class. Saul, also fleeing Albuquerque, has one last unpleasant encounter with Walt. Jesse discovers that Jack and his gang don't make idle threats.

However it's not Jesse but Todd who is our counterpoint to Walt in this episode. He's everywhere, still trying to pursue Lydia's affections through 92% pure blue meth, being alternately nice and cruel to Jesse, threatening Skyler, and hinting at the complexities of his relationship with Uncle Jack. Jack is still among the most underdeveloped villains on the show, but he and Todd are giving Gus Fring a run for the title of most horrifying. They have no limits, no moral code, and are not the kind to be reasoned with. The only thing Jack seems to respect is family, which makes him a dark mirror of Walt. Note that it's not the money that sways Jack, but the realization that his nephew is sweet on Lydia. Todd, however, is the reverse of Jesse, never emotional, and unthinking in his loyalty and devotion. I'm sure he sleeps very well at night after murdering innocent people.

A great deal of time passes during this episode, as evidenced by Walt's deteriorating mental and physical condition, but it's not clear how long exactly, so it's hard to say when all these different events are taking place. Cranston's performance helps to sell the most important moments, particularly the final Forster scene where Walt offers him ten grand to just delay leaving for an hour. This is Walt at his absolute lowest point, having failed to manipulate Saul or Ed, and even his own son won't play along with his desperate scheme to get money to his family. It was widely discussed how the show could have ended with "Ozymandias" last week, but it also could have ended here, with Walt's spiritual defeat.

For those who wanted to see Walt end up in prison, his miserable life in hiding is a good approximation. He starts out full of plans, full of determination to smite his enemies and gain the upper hand once again. However, he finds himself powerless and without recourse, fuming while the world moves on without him, but too afraid of bringing worse consequences on his head to "leave the reservation." The snows of New Hampshire provide a great contrast to the New Mexico desert, an alien landscape Walter White is wary of traversing alone. So his plans fall apart. The cancer eats at his strength. The loneliness gets him. Heisenberg goes dormant. And after Flynn rejects him, you can understand why Walt would think the only way out is turning himself in.

But the rest of the episode sets up far too many unanswered questions and unresolved plot threads that still need to be paid off, and we've already seen that "Breaking Bad" is very good at making things pay off. So Lydia's bloodthirst and Skyler's endangerment will have to be addressed. And Jesse's situation and the threat hanging over Brock will have to be addressed. And the fact that Walt is barreling back into town apparently having no idea about either situation is not an outcome I was expecting. I believe next week's extra long finale is going to go quickly, because though "Granite State" also ran an extra ten minutes, it didn't feel any longer than usual.

I have no idea what's going to happen next, and at this stage I'm doing my best to keep from speculating or trying to set any expectations. "Breaking Bad" has already given us two potential endings that have addressed most of the things I wanted to see before the series ended, and now it's going for a third. Hopefully there's a final Jesse and Walt confrontation ahead, but I don't want to even guess at how it's going to play out.
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Monday, September 23, 2013

Emmy Wrap-Up 2013

The latest "Breaking Bad" post is coming up tomorrow. But first, some thoughts on last night's Emmy-cast.

First, let me put forth the caveat that I didn't watch the show in ideal circumstances. My reception was crummy, so the sound kept cutting out, particularly in the last half of the show. Also, there were various other distractions that I won't detail here, except to say that I was rooting for the show to be over as quickly as possible.

As telecasts go, this one was certainly exciting, though things got off to a slow start. There was no opening dance number, no monologue, and no clever segment with host Neil Patrick Harris inserting himself into the nominated shows like we've seen in years past. Instead, we got an assortment of existing clips edited to make it look like various TV characters were conversing with Harris and each other. It didn't really work. Then Harris had some brief interactions with former hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Jane Lynch, and Conan O'Brien, where everyone pretended thy didn't know that the Emmy's rotate among the four big networks, so they always pick Emmy hosts from their roster of available talent. Fortunately, Kevin Spacey saved the bit with a "House of Cards" aside, and then Tina Fey and Amy Poehler started catcalling Harris from the front row.

Things went more smoothly as the awards started being handed out. Harris kept his head and did a commendable job. A pre-taped segment with the cast of "How I Met Your Mother" landed better. Dance numbers did appear, but much later in the show - one at the midpoint, which seemed hurried and perfunctory, and one around the two-and-a-half hour mark, showcasing the cinematography nominees, who got their award elevated to the main ceremony for the evening. That one was more fun, giving us interpretive dance segments for some of the major nominees, including nuns and gimps for "American Horror Story" and haz-mat suits for "Breaking Bad." It provided a much needed energy boost when the show started slowing down during the Movies and Miniseries categories.

However, what really quashed a lot of the momentum this year was the decision to pay special tribute to Gary David Goldberg, Cory Monteith, James Gandolfini, Jean Stapleton, and Jonathan Winters in individual memorial segments. Who got singled out for the honor seemed to be a matter of whether they could get a major star to come up on stage and deliver a heartfelt remembrance. Will anyone remember Cory Monteith in twenty years the way people remember Larry Hagman and Jack Klugman? The big In Memoriam segment itself felt really slapdash this year, with a cellist grinding out Bach while a string of increasingly unflattering black and white headshots of the deceased paraded by.

And then there was the 50th anniversary bit for the Kennedy assassination and the appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show - which came across as an excuse to let Carrie Underwood murder a Beatles song onstage. The Elton John appearance was better, but it also felt a little out of place. I'm sure it was a major coup to land his appearance, but the tenuous ties to Liberace weren't enough to make the performance feel like anything more than a quick plug for his latest work. The show ran ten minutes long this year, and if they could have scaled back the memorials and the musical numbers, it would have made a big difference.

Because when you take a look at the actual awards this year, they were great. Lots of surprises and upsets. Lots of good winners and moments of suspense. Sure, "Modern Family" and Jim Parsons and Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Claire Danes won again, and "Beyond the Candelabra" cleaned up in most of the categories it was nominated for, but Tony Hale! And Merritt Weaver! And Bobby Cannavale! And Anna Gunn! And "The Colbert Report"! And "The Colbert Report" again! It was a big changing of the guard with "Colbert" breaking the ten streak of "The Daily Show" and "Breaking Bad" winning Outstanding Drama Series at last.

Many of the evening's best moments came from the winners themselves. Tony Hale and Julia Louis-Dreyfus accepting the Outstanding Comedy Actress trophy in character was great. Henry Bromell's widow accepting his award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series was touching. Michael Douglas, Ellen Burstyn, and James Cromwell lent some good star power. Abi Mogan was adorable. And after its absence last year, I was so glad to have the Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series nominee reel back.

There were some winners that felt out of the blue. "The Voice"? And Jeff Daniels for "The Newsroom"? Doesn't everyone hate that show? It did make the races exciting though. The drama categories felt like voters were purposefully trying to avoid past winners and spread the wealth around. I was disappointed that David Fincher didn't show up to collect his Outstanding Director for a Drama Series award, as it was the only chance for any winner to say anything about Netflix, the big elephant in the room.

No matter. "Orange is the New Black" becomes eligible next year, and it's going to make some of the comedy races really interesting. Let's hope the ceremony picks up the slack.

'Til next time.
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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Hating Media For Teenage Girls

Have you heard about the spectacular misogynist piece that a GQ writer recently lobbed at the young fans of One Direction? Boy oh boy, do I have something to say about this.

Media primarily aimed at teenage girls has always had it rough. Though Hollywood is ready and willing to provide all the "Twilight" and "One Direction" films they want, in order to make a few bucks, these titles are frequently the targets of derision and abuse. Their inferiority is assumed until proven otherwise. I've seen fans bemoan the fact that director David Slade would stoop to helming "The Twilight Series: Eclipse." I've seen disbelief that celebrated documentarian Morgan Spurlock would sign on to direct the recent "One Direction" movie. Justin Bieber is no different from most young pop idols that have come and gone over the years, but the utter loathing I've seen for him online has been borderline disturbing.

Just about anything that appeals to young girls can be suspect. Most young actors who go through the teen idol phase take measures to distance themselves from the label as quickly as possible, because they aren't taken seriously. Sure, the critics are willing to give them their due, but the mainstream forms grudges quickly. Ryan Gosling's first big hit was "The Notebook," and resulted in many male viewers eyeing him with suspicion for years, until "Drive" came around. Leonardo DiCarpio went through a similar spell during his pretty boy "Romeo + Juliet" and "Titanic" days. Zack Efron and Robert Pattinson are still trying to dig themselves out from the fallout of "High School Musical" and "Twilight." What appeals to young women and teenage girls seems to automatically repel a good chunk of male viewers.

But compare this to the media aimed at teenaged boys. Think of the "Transformers" movies and the superhero movies that are squarely aimed at the testosterone-fueled sensibilities of young men of a comparable age. These are the PG-13 blockbusters that break records and drive profits. These are the properties treated as friendly for all audiences, but they really aren't. Ladies get some token romances and shirtless heroes, but most of these movies are built for boys. You might argue that these are generally better quality films, and that's true. However, I suspect that's largely in part because the better talent is attracted to the projects where they'll see greater rewards. Everyone loves superheroes.

Even the terrible fanboy-flicks often get a lot of love. Look at the "Transformers" series, which has been critically reviled roughly on par with the "Twilight" series. They've both been box office smashes despite this. However, you don't see wide-scale bashing of the "Transformers" franchise or its fans. Nobody but the critics wonder if Michael Bay's career is in jeopardy after churning out three awful, shamelessly pandering CGI slug-fests. And the stars who appear in these films? Their involvement is seen as a plus. Megan Fox was a hot commodity for a while because she'd played the sexy Michaela in "Transformers." She had some real prospects until she started badmouthing Michael Bay.

But why should I care what the male half of the population thinks? Why should the Directioners and the Beliebers? Well, imagine an alternate universe where the supernatural romantic melodramas are the big summer blockbusters, where there are a dozen different varieties of them, the biggest featuring A-list stars, headed up by critically respected directors. Imagine that the feminine sensibilities are the mainstream default. They'll throwing in an action scene or cheesecake shot here and there for the teenage boys, but the focus remains on the romance. And imagine if the action films were considered the niche movies, the counterprogramming, given miniscule budgets and directed by second-stringers. Imagine people regularly dismissing the whole genre as formulaic fodder for immature minds, not to be taken seriously.

Why do we devalue media for teenage girls? Because we still devalue teenage girls themselves. We don't take them or their preferences as seriously. We ignore them and forget them. The insistent ones are called annoying and shrill. And when a lot of girls are particularly demonstrative of their fandom, crowding out fanboys at Comic-Con or shattering eardrums at boy-band concerts, spooked males label them as hysterical and abnormal. They feel threatened, confronted with this wave of emotions they don't share and can't ignore. A similar reaction from a mixed crowd at a rock concert or Hall H prompts no such adverse reactions.

How do we fix this? More media for teenage girls and women. Better media. More recognition for the good stuff, like the nicely gender-balanced "Hunger Games," and don't take the double standards lying down. Normalize movies and shows and music and games made for women. Maybe stop pigeonholing it as being for women only. Maybe find a happy medium. Maybe get Michael Bay to direct a romantic comedy.

Unlikely? Yes. But it could happen.
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Friday, September 20, 2013

When to Get Excited For a Film

The announcement of a film version of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" being scripted by J.K. Rowling a few days ago will almost certainly result in a big budget feature film reaching theaters in a few years. However, most of the time when a Hollywood studio announces that they've picked a writer to work on a script, it's far from certain that the film in question will actually move forward. So the question is, when does a film become a sure thing that you can start getting excited about? Let's look at the life cycle of the studio film.

When you first hear about a film, it's usually the announcement that a project is in development. A producer has optioned the rights to a book or television show or board game. Sometimes a director or actor will attach themselves during this stage, especially when they're the driving force behind a project, but usually it's the writer who gets onboard first, to turn the idea into a saleable script. The script is then used to secure financing for a film, often through pitches to the studio executives to convince them to pay to make the movie. This is called getting a greenlight, and then the film moves into pre-production.

Should you start getting excited when your favorite property makes it to this stage? Yes, and no. A greenlight means that the producer can start putting all the elements of a film together, hiring the cast and crew, and working on all the pre-production materials that plan out how the movie is going to be made. This is the stage where scheduling is hammered out, and the big decisions about budgeting and talent are made. This is all exciting stuff, so this is usually when the hype starts up. Fans start hunting around for rumors and often some of the talent involved will talk up the project to get more people interested.

However, this is also the stage where things can still change, and change drastically. Scripts get rewritten, often multiple times. Directors and actors are hired, but they can also drop out of projects "due to creative differences" or simply if pre-production is taking too long and they're committed to another films. For the blockbusters, a release date is often announced during this phase, a good sign that everything is on track and a studio is committed to getting the film done. However, things can still go off the rails. Disney pulled the plug on "The Lone Ranger" temporarily over budgeting concerns, a decision that delayed the start of production by several months. The film ultimately still got made, but because of the change in scheduling, it killed another project - a remake of "The Thin Man" at Warner Bros that Johnny Depp became unavailable for.

Once production actually starts, it can usually be treated as a point of no return. The money is being spent on sets and costumes and salaries. Scenes are actually being filmed. It takes something really drastic to halt a film at this point, such as an accident or an illness taking the talent out of commission, or financiers withdrawing funds, which happens with smaller independent films occasionally. "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" is a good example, a Terry Gilliam production beset by endless difficulties which was finally shelved when the actor playing Don Quixote was injured. Because the film wasn't completed, it triggered a multimillion dollar insurance claim, Gilliam lost the rights to the film, and it remains in limbo to this day.

Studio films that get through production and post-production face few barriers to reaching their audiences. Even awful films will usually be released, though they often dumped in quiet weekends without much advertising, or in the worst case scenario will go straight to DVD. Independent films have to secure distribution, though. These are the titles that that play festivals looking for a buyer, that get snapped up by the Weinsteins or Sundance Selects or Fox Searchlight to play the art house theaters. Once a film is owned by a distributor, they decide when it gets released. And sometimes they hold on to them for a while.

A 2007 horror film, "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," had a warm reception at festivals but was stuck in limbo for over six years because the company that ended up with the rights to distribute the film went out of business. Occasionally this happens to studio films too, though much more rarely because there are different deals and obligations involved. Still, when MGM went bankrupt, it stranded finished films like "Cabin in the Woods" and "Red Dawn." Some enterprising filmmakers, like Shane Carruth of "Upstream Color," have started handling distribution duties themselves to avoid these delays.

So when should you start getting excited about seeing a new film in theaters? Usually once it rolls into production, but if you want to be absolutely safe, wait until they start marketing it, because then it's clear that the film will get a release soon. You can make very good predictions about the fates of films in pre-production, but except for a very few high profile blockbuster franchise films, it may not happen the way you think it will. A movie I was looking forward to, "Jane Got a Gun," went from a Lynne Ramsay directed feature with Jude Law to a Gavin O'Connor directed feature with Ewan McGregor. And now I'm not anticipating it so much anymore.
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Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Dads" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"

I tried to work up some heated rancor for the new FOX sitcom "Dads." I really did. There's been a lot of outrage going around about its tawdry ethnic stereotyping, including putting Brenda Song in a skimpy Japanese schoolgirl outfit and pigtails in order to sway a group of Chinese investors, jokes about small penis size, and Martin Mull remarking that there's a reason why "Shanghai is a verb." Instead, I just came out of it feeling like I was trying to pick on a mentally deficient child. The show is so atrocious on its own merits, the racially insensitive humor was really the only interesting thing about it.

Created by the two writers of "Ted" who aren't Seth McFarlane, "Dads" is about a pair of friends, Warner (Giovanni Ribisi) and Eli (Seth Green), who run a gaming company with their assistant Veronica (Brenda Song). Warner, who is married to Camilla (Vanessa Lachey), bemoans the fact that his oblivious father, Crawford (Martin Mull), has moved in with them. Eli's father David (Peter Riegert) also ends up moving in with Eli by the end of the episode, despite the fact that he is a terrible person and Eli hates him. Both of the older men are horrible, cheap, tactless, selfish caricatures of failed fatherhood, and they make their embarrassed offspring miserable. There's barely any delineation between the characters except in the most superficial ways - Warner is the one who's married, employs a stereotypical Latina maid, Edna (Tonita Castro), and has trouble confronting his father's awful behavior. Eli's the bachelor who insults his father to his face.

I typically like Martin Mull and Seth Green and Brenda Song, and watching them have to go through the motions with this material was painful. The jokes weren't funny, coming across as tepid and whiny. None of the characters were remotely likeable, with the exception of the long-suffering Camilla. The racial jokes only came off as so jarring because they were so lazy and juvenile and thoughtless. The maid only understands English when she feels like it. The Chinese translator is a pervert who sends Veronica a selfie of his underwhelming package. Without the "oooohs" from the studio audience (paid off, I'm assuming), the schoolgirl get-up just looks desperate and sad. The show is so deadly dull, I'm surprised the "Dads" managed to offend anyone before it put them to sleep.

And that's all the digital ink I'm planning to waste on it.

Now "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which follows "Dads" in the 8:30 PM slot is a lot more palatable. It's a workplace comedy that looks into the lives of the detectives at a fictional Brooklyn precinct who have just been assigned a new, stricter Captain, Ray Holt (Andre Braugher), who immediately rubs the precinct's star detective, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), the wrong way. Peralta's partner and love interest is ambitious fellow detective Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), and co-workers include the intense, intimidating Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), milquetoast Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), and sensitive squad leader Jeffords (Terry Crews).

This is a single camera show, so we get more dynamic cinematography and realistic environments, a la "Scrubs." The pilot features a big chase scene in the last act, and it could be mistaken at times for a dramatic procedural, especially with the presence of Andre Braugher. The comedy is nicely low-key and situational, staying away from anything too jokey. Peralta's immature, but he's treated as immature, and has plenty of good qualities to offset his frat boy mannerisms. Andy Samberg makes him very likeable, a brash guy with big ego, but one who ultimately responds well to Captain Holt's tough love tactics. He and Braugher establish some nice chemistry, and I can see the show building on it long-term. Samberg's scenes with Stephanie Beatriz are less encouraging, but it's early yet.

As workplace comedies go, this is a good start. The ensemble is solid, the writing's good, and it's an easy watch. The show's creators are veterans of "The Office" and "Parks and Rec," which makes me wonder why "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" isn't airing on NBC. Anyway, my biggest complaint is that the cast feels a little thin at the moment, but that's likely because actors like Terry Crews haven't been given much to do yet. I'm curious about how Andre Braugher's going to be utilized going forward, especially in light of the little revelation at the end of the episode. I'm also a little worried about relationship drama taking over the show, as at least three different love connections are teased over the course of twenty-two minutes.

So there are your additions to the FOX Tuesday night comedy block, one godawful show leading into a potentially good one. And I look forward to abandoning both of them for Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." over on ABC starting next week.
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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The B-Movie Charms of "Sleepy Hollow"

I'm still working up to that "Dads" rant, so let's tackle the new FOX supernatural show "Sleepy Hollow" first. A few spoilers for the pilot ahead.

Following on the unlikely success of high-concept shows like "Grimm," FOX has put together its own fantasy procedural with familiar genre names Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Len Wiseman. They've "reimagined" "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," so now Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) is a Revolutionary spy and soldier for George Washington, and his lovely wife Katrina (Katia Winter) is a nurse. After falling in battle, Crane is awoken from the grave after 250 years, to modern-day upstate New York to continue his fight with the also resurrected Headless Horseman, who Crane previously beheaded. Joining him is a black female police lieutenant, Abbie Mills (Nicole Behari), trying to solve a series of recent murders.

Torrents of exposition are shoehorned into the pilot to explain the increasingly silly scenario that the Headless Horseman is really one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelations, and the little town of Sleepy Hollow is the epicenter of a centuries-long battle for the fate of humanity between the forces of light and dark. Opposing covens of witches are quickly mentioned, who I'm sure we'll be spending more time getting to know in the weeks to come. Mills also had an encounter with a dark spirit when she was a child, giving her a personal connection to these events. However, the bulk of the pilot focuses on maneuvering Crane and Mills into their unlikely long-term partnership against the things that go bump in the night.

The first half of the hour is a lot of fun, introducing Mison's charming fish-out-of-water Crane, who everyone thinks must be crazy. However, he's so lucid and intelligent, and self-possessed, it's easy to be won over by him. So it's believable that Mills would eventually come around and start taking his ridiculous explanations seriously. Mison has all the fun stuff with Ichabod Crane, mistaking Mills for an emancipated slave and making observations about Starbucks, but Behari's performance is the vital one. She's provides a strong grounding element amidst all the fantastic silliness, a real person we can are about. Without her, the show wouldn't work. Katia Winter doesn't get to do much but look winsome in a low cut dress, and the only other regular so far is Orlando Jones as Mills' superior, Captain Frank Irving, a typical hard case.

There's a lot of action in the pilot, mostly in the second half, but it's so cartoonish and low-stakes that it's not much fun to watch. The Horseman bloodlessly chops guest stars' heads off, gravity-defying magic makes objects whiz through the air, and there are some pretty tame horrorshow jump scares. What's the point of broadswords and Biblical references if the violence isn't allowed to get properly medieval? We get a lot of the usual B-movie horror elements, but "Sleepy Hollow" is no "Hannibal," and isn't really interested in being frightening or pushing at network content limits. The show's attitude is far too slick for that, clearly more interested in coolness than creeps. In other words, it's exactly what you would expect from the man who made the "Underworld" movies.

Fortunately the writing's not bad, despite the ludicrous plotting. The main characters are established well, the banter's cute, Crane's commentary on the modern world is fun, and the humor is all-around more effective than any of the action or the thrills. The quips are just clever enough to pass muster, though Ichabod Crane handles the culture shock a little too well. I found the treatment of the existing "Sleepy Hollow" characters pretty terrible - wasn't Ichabod Crane supposed to be a coward? And they couldn't have worked in Brom Bones somehow? The series seems to be based on the 1999 Tim Burton "Sleepy Hollow" movie more than the original Washington Irving story, and many period details have clearly been fudged. Then again, I doubt Revolutionary War Era America is going to play much of a role in future episodes anyway.

I'm curious as to what a regular episode of the show is going to look like - the "Sleepy Hollow" pilot was full of expensive stunts they're surely not going to be able to pull off every week, and that Headless Horseman is going to stop being effective pretty quick if overused. The pilot was entertaining enough for what it was, but it's not sustainable. I wouldn't be surprised if this metamorphoses into a much smaller scale light mystery show, sort of a super campy "X-Files" lite. Considering all the talk about witches, we'll probably see "Sleepy Hollow" treading some of the same thematic ground as FX's upcoming "American Horror Story: Coven" this year. That could be fun week to week, but we'll have to see how it develops.

Happy watching.
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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A TV Tomatometer

Big things are afoot in the world of television criticism. Rotten Tomatoes, the now ubiquitous movie review aggregator site, just announced that they would be creating a Tomatometer for television reviews. Seasons rather than individual episodes will be rated, and only scripted series will be covered. Reality shows need not apply for now. Over at the AV Club, they've announced a new TV Reviews section, specifically to provide reviews that match this criteria, instead of their usual episode-by-episode analyses.

The logistics are going to be more complicated than with film reviews. In the Variety story announcing the expansion into television, the site's editor-in-chief acknowledged that ratings would be more fluid and subject to change, especially in the case of series that are currently airing. Because standard network television seasons run for eight months and roughly two dozen episodes, a show has plenty of time to go from being great to ghastly, or vice versa. The TV Tomatometer's launch coincides with the start of the new fall season, and the reviews for new shows will be based on the handful given to critics early. Many of those initial grades could be completely different by midseason in December.

On the other hand, many of us don't consume television the traditional way anymore. Thanks to streaming services, many viewers discover shows online after several seasons are already completed. I started watching "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" through Netflix. Television series, not films, have become the major engine behind the success of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Hulu, with all three now producing their own original series to keep feeding their content pipelines. In a week, we're about to witness the first Emmys where web-exclusive shows like "House of Cards" are in contention for major awards.

A TV Tomatometer makes sense now where it hadn't in the past, because now we have ready access to so many seasons of so many shows, and have the ability to pick and choose between them. Many of us already do - watching "The X-files" up to season six only, for instance, or skipping over year four of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," where she was dating a non-vampire. I expect that it'll also be helpful with the new fall premieres, helping to give a boost to the critical favorites, or even the mostly trashed shows - FOX's "Dads" has been marketing itself on the basis of its most unfavorable reviews lately.

Of course the biggest winners here will be the television critics themselves. A TV Tomatometer gives them a new kind of clout, putting them on equal footing with their movie reviewing counterparts. And this is yet another sign that television and movies are now just about on the same level of relevance in the popular culture. There aren't many television critics who are household names, though there are certainly some worthy of discussion, and this might provide the impetus for people to start paying more attention to their oft-overlooked species, if only to start complaining about them.

And more importantly, serious television criticism itself is getting more attention. Because of all the challenges with variable review formats (Are they reviewing by episode? Season? The whole enchilada?) and the time commitment necessary to fully review a show, it's always been more difficult to provide reader-friendly analysis of a television series. However, some of the most interesting media conversations in recent years have been about television, about Tony Soprano and Hannah Horvath and Stringer Bell, who loom larger than any movie counterparts in recent years you could name.

I, for one, welcome our new tomato overlords, though I'm well aware this experiment could turn out to be a bust. Tomatometer scores have always been reductive and problematic, but they've had their impact. The Tomatometer is more accessible than any of the individual columns or publications that the best TV critics write for. Rotten Tomatoes alternative, Metacritic, has been offering television reviews for years, but never got much traction with them. Maybe it's because Metacritic is a smaller and less trafficked site. Maybe it's because TV criticism hasn't quite caught on yet.

The only real negative that I'm worried about here is that because Rotten Tomatoes has chosen to focus on season reviews, it might incentivize some critics to spend less time on individual episode reviews, which are by far my favorites. I read the Alan Sepinwall, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Todd VanDerWerff recaps after I've finished off my own write-up of the new "Breaking Bad" episodes every week. Then again, the AV Club is choosing to keep their episodic coverage and expand into season-long reviews, and there's no reason to think that won't be the case with most outlets.

Mostly, though, I'm excited that the Tomatometer will provide a good conversation starter for future discussions of TV, just as it has for the movies.
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Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Bad: "Ozymandias"

Spoilers ahead.

All I could think as I finished this episode was that people were going to be debating the meaning of the dog in the last shot for ages. That's because "Breaking Bad" has cemented itself in these past few episodes as one of the television greats. It was no mystery what was going to happen – there have been commentators making very accurate predictions all week, about who was going to die, what would happen to Jesse, and so forth. The crux is the execution. It's in the little turns and character moments, the performances, and the show's now-familiar idiosyncrasies. It's not that fact that the big developments happened, but so many and so fast, and it was terrifying to watch each domino fall.

The cold open was a flashback to the beginning of the series, a blunt reminder of how far the characters have come, but all too soon we were back in the firefight. I can already hear the complaints about how it was unrealistic that Hank wouldn't be blown to smithereens in an assault like that, but I appreciate that it allows for Walt's doomed last ditch attempt to bargain for Hank's life, which of course only results in Walt giving up one of his last bargaining chips, and Hank ("My name is ASAC Schrader") being shot in the head anyway. I love that Hank knows and accepts what's going to happen, while Walt still thinks he can control the situation if he can just come up with the right thing to say. But the decision's already made.

Walt's barrels of money falling into the hands of Jack's gang (I refer to them as such to avoid the Nazi v. White Supremacist debate), but Jack leaving Walt with a single barrel of money was unexpected. It's a reminder that the villains in "Breaking Bad" tend to be complicated souls, and if we had more time to spend with Jack, we'd surely get to know those complications better. All we have here are some hints, not entirely satisfying ones, but still indicative of the character having the potential to be more interesting. Todd, however, we've gotten to know, and he just keeps getting creepier. Ever polite, ever softspoken, ever helpful, heaven help us if her ever decides he doesn't want to be somebody's stooge anymore, and strikes out on his own.

And poor Jesse. Poor, poor Jesse. Walt blames him for everything going sour, and orders his death to his face this time. And to twist the knife, we finally get the Jane reveal. Of course, Uncle Jack still needs a meth cook, so Walt only ends up damning him to the hell of a new meth lab. The scene where Todd takes him to cook has very little dialogue, but so much is conveyed through the images – Jesse's bloody face, the grated pit, the handcuffs and leash, and finally the photograph of Andrea and Brock. Throw in Todd's completely unperturbed demeanor, and it's gut-wrenching. In a different episode, this would be the most shocking moment of the night, but then we go catch up with how Walt's family has been handling the news of his reported arrest.

Nobody predicted what was going to happen at the White household, and I wonder if the cliffhanger might have been designed to deflect some of the speculation. Everyone was so concerned with what would happen to Hank and Jesse, the developments with Skyler and Junior were unexpected. Junior had to find out sometime, and it was a probable outcome of Walt's arrest, but who guessed Marie would be such a key player in the decision? And since Skyler' alignment with Walt against Marie and Hank, I thought she's passed the point of no return. But no, she still has limits. "What's one more?" was okay when it was Jesse, but not Hank.

Whatever happens in the finale, the White household confrontation scene was the one I'd been waiting for. Walt trying to bully and cajole his loved ones into following orders, Skyler calling him out and having her horrific epiphany – Go Anna Gunn! – and then the misdirection with the cel-phone, the ultimatum, the knife fight (I was dreading/anticipating a fatality right there on the newly replaced rug), and finally Walt confronted with the sight of Skyler and Junior treating him as the threat, the bad guy, the unwanted intruder. And his first instinct, in the face of this rejection, is to ensure the one member of his family he hasn't alienated remains on his side.

The baby grabbing struck me as repetitive at first, but it does show Walt hitting rock bottom. Then it gives him a chance to show that he isn't a complete monster, and still has his family's best interests at heart. The phone call to Skyler suggests that he may be able to find redemption in the next two episodes. His snarling, played-up confession provides her with an alibi, and serves as a goodbye and apology too. It's one of the show's very best scenes, and Bryan Cranston is just fantastic. By the time Holly was found in the firetruck, I was on his side again.

And while there wasn't much to laugh about this week, I love that the creators still got in that whimisical bit with Walt rolling his barrel of money through the desert, plus a bonus ironic song choice.

And Rian Johnson. Just, Rian Johnson.
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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Miss Pepper Panic Junkie

I count myself as a gamer, though one on the very bottom rung. Not the kind that bemoans the practices of EA, or whose ears prick up at the mention of Steam sales, mind you. I only know titles like "Assassin's Creed," "Word of Warcraft," "Uncharted," and "Red Dead Redemption" by reputation. I've watched my SO play through the "Portal" and "Mass Effect" games the way I watched by brother play through Mario installments when I was a kid. I appreciate the artistry and evolution of video games as a medium, but personally I stick to the very basic puzzle games. All I was ever interested in playing as a kid was Tetris.

So as an adult, my favorite time-wasters are casual games like Bejeweled and Candy Crush Saga. And then there's the current one I'm obsessed with, Pepper Panic. The game mechanics for all of them are very similar. You match the gems or candies or peppers into rows of three or more to clear them from the screen. Some combinations give you boosters or result in neat-looking effects. Pepper Panic's gimmick is that you can set off big chain reactions to rack up points more quickly. By itself, it's no more satisfying to play than the later versions of Bejeweled or Candy Crush Saga, but there's the little matter of how I'm playing Pepper Panic.

Europe-based gaming company King specializes in these time-wasters, and is the producer of Candy Crush Saga, Pepper Panic, and dozens of other games. They're the biggest game producer for Facebook, and also have their own site, King.com. Once you sign up, you can access virtual pinball machines, bowling, pool, card games, and several other variations on the puzzle matching game. Like many of these sites, they offer free versions of many games, and incentivize the user to pay for access to premium content. I first went to King.com trying to find an alternative way to play Candy Crush Saga, which is only available through Facebook or mobile apps. No luck. King.com only offers the older version of the game, Candy Crush, which has the same basic mechanics but none of the carefully designed and progressively more difficult levels to play through.

Still, the bare bones version was better than nothing. I stuck around on King.com to play Candy Crush. And eventually I noticed the progress meter at the top of the page, telling me how many jewels I'd earned. It turns out that you can unlock features on the site by playing the King games to earn the site's form of currency, jewels. Play a game once, earn a jewel. Beat someone in a tournament game, earn two to five jewels. Play in a progressive tournament game, and earn up to 64 jewels if you beat opposing players six times in a row. Achieve a certain score threshold in a game, and earn more jewels - five, ten, twenty, thirty, and fifty depending on how high the score. Paying for a membership not only unlocked features, but sped up the rate of jewel collection.

And to my chagrin, it was the damn progress bar that got me. The accomplishments are meaningless, but I found myself working to hit each new jewel threshold. I get inexplicable psychological pleasure out of collecting achievements and leveling up, so I kept looking at the jewel count and trying to figure out ways to make my totals increase faster. I played through most of the other games on the site to collect the easiest achievements for them. Some games were easier than others, or had more opportunities for jewel collection. The most popular games offer Jackpot options. It's a tournament you can enter multiple times, and those with the highest top scores in the end walk away with a piece of a large jackpot of jewels, determined by how many people are playing for them. I wasn't good enough at Candy Crush to get much out of the Jackpots, but I was pretty good at Pepper Panic. With a little luck, I could come out of the Jackpot tournaments with 100-200 jewels at a time.

And this is why I've been playing Pepper Panic while watching "The Daily Show" for the past week. And while watching "Orange is the New Black." And while I'm waiting for the dryer cycle. And right before bed. I've gotten obsessed with similar games before so I know that this isn't going to last. I'll get bored enough with the game eventually that the progress bar will stop being such an incentive. I've nearly hit the jewel threshold that gives you the same features that a paying user would have, and they're really not much to talk about - fancier avatars, digital bling, and access to a few more games that look an awful lot like the free ones.

I should mention that you can play some of the games on King.com for actual money, including Candy Crush and Pepper Panic. There are versions of the Jackpot that would award a few dollars as well as jewels to the winners, but you have to pay to play. So not all of my fellow Pepper Panic addicts are playing for solely psychological rewards. I however, am hooked on the totally intangible gratification.
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Friday, September 13, 2013

"Orange is the New Black" Ain't Wack

There is so much to talk about with Netflix dramedy "Orange is the New Black." I could discuss how it features such a diverse cast of female characters - lots of black and Latino actresses, old and young, straight and lesbian and bisexual, and even a transgender male-to-female inmate. It puts the spotlight on the women who you rarely see on television in any meaningful roles. I could talk about how in examining the ins and outs of the prison experience, it tells the stories of those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, those most affected by drug use, mental health issues, alcoholism, neglect, and abuse. Or I could talk about the depiction of prison life itself, unglamorous and unpleasant, where the system is rife with dysfunction, and the guards and administrators often seem as trapped as the prisoners.

But where I want to start is with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the default Caucasian, educated, middle-class woman who is our entry point into this universe. Chapman is sentenced to eighteen months in a federal penitentiary, Litchfield, for transporting drug money for a former girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon), a decade prior. In the first episode Piper and her supportive fiance, Larry (Jason Biggs) arrive at the prison, trying to face their long separation bravely, and Piper having prepared by reading all the right books. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Piper is not prepared at all, for the infuriating bureaucracy, for the dehumanizing loss of basic privacy and trust, for the apathetic and abusive authorities, for the loss of the amenities she's taken for granted, and for a prison culture that is defined by a set of hard rules that Piper keeps running afoul of.

Very quickly it's apparent that Piper is the one who is in the minority, the odd one out, who has to confront the fact that she's had all the advantages and is far, far luckier than the majority of the women in Litchfied. And though the series keeps her at the center of the show, and follows her difficulties with prison life, the scope grows to examine the lives of other characters. There's Red (Kate Mulgrew), the Russian who runs the kitchen with an iron fist, but also looks out for her some of the younger inmates she has adopted as her "daughters." There's the hostile Latina mother and daughter pair of Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Daya (Dascha Polanco). There's Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), who is a little unhinged and wants Piper to become her prison wife. There's religious fanatic Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning). Their's Lorna (Yael Stone) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), girls who Chapman eats her meals with. There are best friends Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks), two highly opinionated and exuberant black women. There's Sophia (Laverne Cox), who funded her sex-change with stolen credits cards. It's easy to confuse allies and enemies, those who are truly mean and hurtful with the damaged, the misunderstood, and those just trying to survive.

Makeup is in short supply and all the inmates are in orange or tan prison garb, so the women look more like real, genuine women than they so often do on television, and their personalities are more distinct. The close quarters of the prison force them all to interact with each other, and the interactions are often hostile, full of posturing and threats to maintain the pecking order. They curse frequently, make bawdy jokes, and small offenses can trigger big reprisals. They stringently delineate lines between races, cultures, and classes where they can, but ultimately everyone is in the same boat, and everyone hates Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber), the slimebag guard with grabby hands. So there are also the friendships and the romances and the little moments of shared hilarity. We get to know these women intimately, a motley collection of people on the lowest rung, trying to recover from one mistake too many. Flashbacks are a big part of many episodes, filling in character details, and providing vital context. Sometimes we learn what crimes they committed and sometimes we don't, and it doesn't matter.

Piper unravels further in prison, confronted with her own demons as she learns to survive in Litchfield. A big chunk of the narrative is devoted to her, and to Larry trying to cope with her absence on the outside. Larry's scenes often feel tedious, because his problems often come across as so insignificant and petty next to what's going on the prison, and Piper's do too, to a lesser extent. However, they are necessary to ground us, to remind us of the accepted, mainstream conception of prison life, and how that contrasts with the actual reality of it. "Orange is the New Black" is surely not and entirely accurate picture of what goes on in a federal women's prison, though it's based on the memoir of a real former inmate, but it does such a good job of highlighting so many parts of the experience we never think about. It's closer than anyone else has ever gotten. We get the POV of the guards, the strained family and friends waiting on the outside, and so many different inmates who have so many different experiences. And they're all fantastic.

What I really appreciate is how jarring, how blunt, and how direct the writing is. This is an issue-based show that embraces the fact, and has plenty to say about its subject matter. Underneath the laughs and the melodrama and occasional poor music choices, there is pointed commentary about the state of prisons and the treatment of prisoners that has an unusual amount of impact. It helps that this is a stellar production, top to bottom, stuffed with great characters, strong performances, and twisty storylines that help to humanize each offender. The show was created by Jenji Kohan, most recently of "Weeds," who has a little experience with finding the lighter side of criminal activity.

I keep coming back to the word "different" to describe "Orange in the New Black," because I have never seen anything else like it, nothing with a POV that comes anywhere close. The networks and most cable channels would never have shown this. It might have found a home on HBO and Showtime, maybe, but its premiere on Netflix signals that the streaming service has truly arrived as a producer of quality programming. "Orange in the New Black" is a breakthrough, instantly up there with the all time greats. And I can't wait to see more.
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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Two New Spinoffs

Today I'm writing about two completely different spinoffs that have just been announced, and two makes a trend, so there's my excuse to lump them together. The first, which has been all over the news, is that the "Breaking Bad" spinoff about shady lawyer Saul Goodman is officially a go at AMC. "Better Call Saul" is reportedly going to be a prequel series, though the extent of the involvement of the core creative talent of "Breaking Bad" is not yet clear. The second is potentially bigger. Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling are returning to the "Harry Potter" universe with an adaptation of Rowling's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them."

Spinoffs are tricky things. They're not inherently problematic, but there have been lots of bad ones over the years. It's hard to say at this point if either of these new spinoffs will be successful, though I think both have a relatively good shot. Television shows that spin off a minor character tend to do better than direct sequel series. The most successful spinoff in recent years has been "Frasier," which followed the erudite bar patron we first met on "Cheers." There has to be a significant degree of separation between one show and the next, and "Frasier" worked so because it put the main character in an entirely new context that stood on its own. There were a few crossovers over the years, but none of them making much impact on the show. Compare this to "Angel," which had a lot of difficulty establishing itself separate from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" until the later seasons. Many of the most interesting bits of these early years were crossover stories.

"Better Call Saul" looks promising because it has the potential to expand the little world of Saul's law office in some different directions. Walter White is only one of his many clients, as the show has alluded to, and Saul didn't become a shady lawyer overnight. "Better Call Saul" will likely be another dramedy, but there's enough flexibility with the premise that it could conceivably be a straight comedy. I'm a little wary of them going the prequel route, because Bob Odenkirk isn't getting any younger and it creates a limitation on where the series can go, but then it also significantly reduces the ties to "Breaking Bad." Walt and Jesse wouldn't be able to make appearances in any significant way, though others like Mike and Gus might. We'd also be able to get into Saul's personal life - all those ex-wives and secretaries would finally get names. I expect we'll be getting a better picture once "Breaking Bad" ends and we find out if Saul survives the series or not.

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" will almost certainly attract a lot of attention because J.K. Rowling is involved, and the original book is part of the canon "Harry Potter" universe. However, this project strikes me as a little riskier. The "Fantastic Beasts" book is only 42 pages long, intended to be a recreation of a textbook on magical creatures commonly used by the students at Hogwarts. The film will follow the adventures of its author, Newt Scamander, as he travels the world having encounters with the fantastic beasts. It'll be set about seventy years prior to the events of "Harry Potter." I imagine the first film would do very well, as Rowling herself has agreed to write the script and it would benefit from the Potter series' sterling reputation. However, Warner Bros. very clearly wants another franchise, and that's where things get tricky.

One of the elements that made "Harry Potter" so successful was that it was finite. It built up to a big finale and then stopped. Warners, who made so much money from the eight-film franchise, has been trying to figure out a way to keep capitalizing on its success ever since. "Fantastic Beasts" is their answer. Getting Rowling to script the first movie cements their credibility, and then they can take subsequent installments wherever they want. However, there's a lot of risk here. There's not much by way of a pre-existing story since the book was really just ancillary material for the Potter series. This will be Rowling's first stab at screenwriting, and there's no guarantee that she's suited to it. We've seen a lot of "Potter" clones come and go over the years. Also, an open-ended franchise will lose momentum a lot quicker.

The idea of these two spinoffs holds a lot of promise, but we'll have to wait and see what the execution looks like. I can easily imagine a worst case scenario where "Better Call Saul" comes out too wacky or "Fantastic Beasts" turns out to be another generic CGI action-fest. But with the right people involved, maybe Saul Goodman could be the next Frasier Crane and Newt Scamander could be the next Harry Potter.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Late Summer Doldrums

It's September. It's a few degrees too warm, the kids are back in school, and the biggest movie opening this weekend is another installment of a low-budget horror franchise, this time "Insidious: Chapter 2." Welcome to the summer doldrums. August and September are not the worst time of year for films, but it usually feels that way. January and February are a dumping ground for disappointing studio pictures that they don't know what to do with, but at least it's Oscar season, so smaller prestige releases pick up the slack. Late August and early September, on the other hand, offer such slim pickings that this is when many film critics ignore the theatrical slates and hit the festival circuit.

Speaking of festivals, right now some of the hotly anticipated fall releases like "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" are having their premieres at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, building up the hype for Oscar season. However, the bulk of these films aren't going to start hitting theaters until October. The only September releases with any real buzz behind them are Ron Howard's "Rush," about a pair of rival Formula One racers, and the Denis Villeneuve thriller "Prisoners." They both open September 20th. Both are reportedly very solid, mature dramas, but don't have quite the push behind them that something like "Captain Phillips" will. If you're a major contender, the accepted wisdom is that you want to open later in the year, so that you won't fade from the public's consciousness before Oscar night. September is still a little early for the heavy hitters.

So of you want to see something today, you're looking at theaters mostly full of the tired, worn out remainders of a summer season that didn't make anybody happy. August releases tend to be second string summer crowd-pleasers, the more niche pictures and the ones that the studios didn't think would be as big a draw as the pictures released in June and July. So it's here that we find bottom of the barrel stuff like "Getaway," "Mortal Instruments," and "Paranoia." It's here that films like "The Butler" top the charts for three consecutive weeks. Grown-ups have more free time with the kids in school, so you see a shift toward movies that appeal to them in September. Box office oddities are more prevalent here, like Spanish language film, "Instructions Not Included," coming out of nowhere to land in the top five.

Late summer is also the time of year you hear the most complaints about the state of the movies. It's when the whiners and grousers point to all the weightless summer action flicks, and insist that the medium is in danger of being destroyed by Hollywood's incompetence. This year has been particularly doom and gloom because of a string of expensive, high profile bombs. We also didn't have any big, critically-acclaimed, must-see pictures that won the near-universal love of mainstream audiences, as there have been in the past. The closest thing we had to an "Avengers" this year was maybe "Iron Man 3" or "Despicable Me 2," fun films that lots of people saw and enjoyed, but few really loved.

There are a few bright spots like "The Butler" and "The World's End," movies that would have had no chance in the furious scrum of the overprogrammed June and July months. "Elysium" and "Wolverine" are still lingering at the end of their runs, and "Riddick" made it to the top of the pack by opening last week. Depending on where you are, there are plenty of art house offerings like "Blue Caprice," "Blue Jasmine" and "The Spectacular Now" in circulation. The second run theaters are full of summer films that you might have missed over the previous weeks. Or many like "The Great Gatsby" and "Now You See Me" are on home media already. There's a deficit of hype for anything at the moment, so it's a good time to go play catch up.

However, there's no denying that things have slowed down, and personally I don't think that's a bad thing. We're about to go into another competitive Oscar season, and the holiday slate is positively stuffed with big films. Nobody is going to be complaining about a lack of good options to watch in October or November. It helps to think of late summer as a palate cleanser, a chance to regroup and switch gears from explosions to awards banter. I don't think that it's a coincidence that September is the start of the fall television season, and all the entertainment reporting is focused on the small screen for a few weeks. If you're missing the superhero movies, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." may help tide you over until November.

Or you can do what I'm doing, which is to catch up on Netflix shows and be secretly glad I'm going to have a lot to binge on soon.
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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

One Big Universe

A few weeks ago I followed a link to Jon Negroni's PIXAR Theory, which theorizes that all the PIXAR animated films share the same universe. With some convoluted reasoning, he created a timeline that spans centuries and several different civilizations in order to encompass movies as diverse as "Brave" and "Cars 2." Frankly, you could get any two movies to exist in the same universe this way, and I wasn't surprised to find copycats popping up soon after, trying to link all the animated Disney films in a similar fashion, for instance.

This is only the latest example of single universe theory enthusiasts. These are the guys who love treating certain beloved movies and other media as treasure hunts, using little details to show connections between often wildly disparate pieces of media. TV Tropes calls it Canon Welding. One of the most popular is the Quentin Tarantino universe, where all of his films share common elements like the Red Apple cigarette brand, and characters in one film are often related to characters in others. For instance, Vincent Vega in "Pulp Fiction" and Mr. Blonde from "Reservoir Dogs" are brothers. Tarantino used to talk about making a Vega brothers prequel movie with the two characters that never came to pass. Or there's Donnie "The Bear Jew" Donowitz from "Inglorious Basterds," who is the father of a film producer named Lee Donowitz in "True Romance."

Then there's Dwayne McDuffie's article on the Grand Unification Theory, also known as the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, that links over two hundred different television shows together through similar logic. At the core of that one is the fact that certain characters like Detective John Munch from "Homicide: Life on the Street" and the "Law & Order" series showed up in other shows like "The X-Files." Two doctors crossed over from hospital show "St. Elsewhere" to "Homicide: Life on the Street" once, linking that show too. "St. Elsewhere" is the important one, because that series ended with the bizarre twist that the whole show had taken place in the mind of an autistic boy named Tommy Westphall. If you count things like shared fake brands and appearances on "The Simpsons" and "South Park," just about everything can be linked. For instance, the most recent episode of "Breaking Bad" revealed Walt rented his van from a company called Lariat Rent-a-Car, where Mulder and Scully would always get their vehicles. Little Tommy Westphall's imagination sure has gotten more violent over the years.

This is all a lot of fun, but ultimately it doesn't amount to much. The point of McDuffie's article was that keeping track of so much continuity beyond a certain point was absurd. It's silly to treat a hard-edged crime drama like "Homicide: Life on the Street" like it exists in the same world as "The X-Files" with its alien conspiracies and supernatural forces. McDuffie was gently poking fun at militant comic book continuity nitpickers, particularly the ones who are up in arms every time a fun crossover decides to toss logic out the window for a few issues so that an unlikely team-up can take place. Putting all the PIXAR movies into a single timeline is pointless, because it doesn't matter whether most of them are connected or not. It's not like Merida from "Brave" and Lightning McQueen from "Cars" are ever going to meet face to face except at one of the Disney theme parks, for the sake of brand synergy.

So why do people keep coming up with these theories? Well, because it's fun. It's a chance to play detective and geek out over your favorite media. It's a way to use all the trivia and minutia collected over the years and put it towards something creative. Creators sometimes encourage this with Easter eggs and hidden messages - spotting the Pizza Planet truck in the latest PIXAR film is something of a tradition now. Also, the concept of single, shared universes hold a lot of appeal. It's nice to think about all your favorite characters from various pieces of media being able to interact in some way. Disney has built two different films around the concept - "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for Golden Age cartoon shorts, and "Wreck-it-Ralph" for video games.

Keeping in mind that they shouldn't be taken too seriously, I enjoy these theories. They do a lot to illuminate the worldbuilding of various media and can spark lots of interesting meta discussions. Looking at all the connections in the Grand Unification Theory, you notice that crossovers between major network shows used to be a much more common ratings stunt, and nobody could turn down a visit from Steve Urkel. And maybe Tarantino's penchant for little connections between his films says something about him as a filmmaker. The man loves his homages, so self-referential touches shouldn't be a surprise.

Not every piece of beloved media needs to be part of a complicated, sprawling universe like "Star Trek" or "Avengers," but it's fun to pretend that they are.
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Monday, September 9, 2013

Breaking Bad: "To'hajiilee"

Spoilers for all episodes that have aired so far.

I was a little worried for the first half of this episode, which seemed to be taking its sweet time deciding where it wanted to go. After some table-setting exposition scenes with Lydia and the Aryan Brotherhood, Hank and Gomez pumping Huell for information was a bright spot, but then Walt pays an awkward visit to Andrea and Brock. This encounter is especially problematic because it only serves to underscore how awfully underwritten Andrea has been. She's a little too obliging when Walt comes to visit - surely she's not that naive considering her history. So much time was spent on these little set-up and establishing moments, even though I knew that "Breaking Bad" didn't have many episodes left, I expected this one would end uneventfully, having maneuvered all the characters a little closer to the positions they would need to be in for the big showdown we all knew was coming.

And then Jesse makes a phone call.

There are apparent dead ends all over this hour, but they aren't dead ends at all. Huell doesn't know where the barrels are, but he does provide enough information for Hank and Jesse to fake out Walt and get him to lead them to the money. Walt decides to call off the hit on Jesse, but Uncle Jack shows up anyway because he needs Walt to cook for him. The only move that was really foiled was Walt's visit to Andrea, because Hank intercepted the call, but I'm not sure if that one might come back next week in some form or another. This was a really smartly plotted episode, where it looks like we're only getting smaller developments at first: Walt agreeing to cook meth again, Hank taking Huell out of the picture, and the money barrels becoming important. But like so many previous episodes, suddenly the situation changes in an instant and we're in the desert with Walt getting arrested. And then the Aryan brotherhood shows up armed to the teeth.

Hank has apparently learned his lesson after getting outplayed by Walt so badly in the last few episodes. Here he and Gomez and Jesse pull off two elaborate fake-outs, the first to fool Huell into thinking he's on Walt's hit list, and the second to find Walt's stash. And it goes so beautifully that I knew something had to be up. Being able to handcuff and Mirandize Walt was a moment of glory that was hard won, but also comes much too early in the season to have any finality. When Hank called Marie to tell her the news, I had the sinking feeling that he was already dead, his arc played out and his usefulness to the story ended. Of course we won't know for sure until next week, thanks to the boldest cliffhanger the show has probably ever done. I've seen a few TV shows end mid-gunfight like this, but never so abruptly.

Walt's actions were the most fascinating this week though. He knows he's defeated in the desert, and gives up without a fight, with hardly a word of protest. Did he call off the hit when he saw that it was Hank driving up with Jesse? Or did seeing Jesse face to face make Walt realize that he didn't want to be responsible for his death? Earlier, he spells out for Jack that he considers Jesse family and wants him taken out painlessly, but fumbles as he tries to explain why he's ordering the hit. Should he have realized that the barrel photo was a fake? Possibly, but Walt in panic mode has always been prone to making mistakes, and he's still berating Jesse on the phone for being stupid, underestimating him again. It was a nice irony that Jesse's acting skills and Walt's emotionally manipulative appeals, surely caught on tape Hank and Gomez, will likely be what puts Walt away in the end.

And then there's Todd, creepily crushing on Lydia and making "marginally" better meth than Declan that still fails to live up the the Heisenberg brand. (Branding also comes up with Skyler and Walt Jr., working at the car wash.) Todd's utter nonchalance when he gets the call from Walt is chilling. And when he learns that it's Jesse who's the next target, someone he's worked with in the Vamanos scheme, still nothing. In fact, he's right there at the end, behind one of the cars, blasting away at Hank and Gomez.

So the question remains, who survives next week? Walt, definitely, because Jack and Todd still need him to cook. Jesse still has a lot of unfinished business with Walt, so he'll get away too. We got a taste of their inevitable final confrontation tonight - Walt calls Jesse a coward, Jesse spits on Walt, and passions are running high. Hank - I give him a 50/50 chance. You could still do a lot with Hank, but that phone call felt an awful lot like a goodbye. That leaves Gomez as the most likely casualty.

Next week Rian Johnson's back in the directing chair. Boy, oh boy.
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Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Favorite Howard Hawks Film

Howard Hawks was famously championed in the 1950s by the emerging group of critics who subscribed to the auteur theory - that even though a studio might control a production, the quality of the resulting film was due to the talent of the director. So steady workhorse directors like Hawks, whose personal stamp on their films wasn't immediately apparent in the same way as directors like John Ford or Orson Welles, deserved to be treated with equal reverence. Hawks was responsible for classics in several different genres, like screwball comedy "His Girl Friday," gangster picture "Scarface," science fiction thriller "The Thing From Another World," and most famously his westerns: "Red River," "Rio Bravo," and "El Dorado."

And then there's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," his crowd-pleasing musical comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as "two little girls from Little Rock" looking for love and fortune. It's one of the most startlingly original films of its time for several reasons, but the most important is that it is unequivocally told from a female point of view, and contains several instances of a distinctly female gaze. Oh sure, the iconic "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number with Monroe in the pink dress does a tremendous job of showing off her considerable charms. But then there's Russell's big number, "Anyone Here For Love?" where she's surrounded by and constantly eyeing a troupe of scantily clad male Olympic athletes during their workout routine. The male leads are so nondescript, you tend to forget they appeared in the picture at all.

And this was a rarity because this was 1953, remember, and men and women weren't on equal footing in the love game. Our heroines play a pair of showgirls who are perfectly aware of this, and consider the pursuit of rich husbands a matter of practicality. This is reflected in their personalities, but in different ways. Russell's Dorothy Shaw is sharp and knowing, a bit of a cynic and a quick wit. Monroe as Lorelei Lee, however, is a bubbly blonde innocent who lights up at the mention of diamonds. She doesn't seem too smart at first, making several short-sighted decisions that cause a lot of trouble, but gradually it's revealed that in her own way, she's as shrewd as Dorothy. The plot is typical comedic farce. Lorelei's engagement to a wealthy fiance is put in jeopardy during a sea voyage, and there are some bits of business with a stolen diamond tiara. However the frankness of the girls' sexuality, their refusal to apologize for being gold-diggers, and their unwavering loyalty to each other gives it some real kick.

"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" had a big part in making Marilyn Monroe a star. Hawks put her front and center, and to wonderful effect. The Marilyn Monroe persona that we think of - the unselfconscious sexiness, the cooing sweet-talk, and the playful girlish demeanor are all established here. This helps to counteract the Lorelei character's voraciousness for wealth - "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" is all about choosing the money over the man, remember. But the first image you think of is Monroe in that pink dress, carefree and radiant. "Gentlemen" was a perfect vehicle for her and Russell, a big, full-throated musical extravaganza designed to razzle-dazzle the audience at every turn. Hawks had staged musical numbers in several of his previous films, but nothing nearly as elaborate or as bombastic as the ones we see here, which offer so much ever-so-slightly-naughty fun. The visuals are over-the-top, colorful to the point of cartoonishness at times. Nothing else in Hawks' filmmography looks like it.

"Gentlemen" is regarded as Howard Hawks' only major musical, and treated as something of an anomaly from the rest of his work. However, it becomes less so when you realize that it's also a screwball comedy and a buddy picture, only with two showgirls instead of two cowboys. There's lots of sex and innuendo, but sentimental romance is in very short supply. Thus "Gentlemen" still feels remarkably modern and fresh, its subversive kick still effective. Lorelei sweetly equating a man's pocketbook with a woman's beauty still gets me every time.

I can't help thinking that it's a shame that Hawks didn't make more films in this vein, since he had such a keen eye for visuals, and did so much with the material. He'd make mostly westerns and adventures movies for the rest of his career. Clearly musicals didn't interest him, and maybe that's why "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" worked so well. It was made by a director who knew how to make a good musical, as he knew how to make every other kind of film, but with an emphasis on gender politics and character interactions more typical of a well-structured comedy. In the hands of another director, I imagine it would have been an entirely different movie.

Not that you couldn't have made a very good version of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" without Howard Hawks, but my, didn't it help?
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What I've Seen - Howard Hawks

Scarface (1932)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
His Girl Friday (1940)
Sergeant York (1941)
Ball of Fire (1941)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Red River (1948)
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Monkey Business (1952)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Hatari! (1962)
El Dorado (1966)
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Friday, September 6, 2013

Goodbye, "Futurama"

I went back and forth about whether I should write up a reaction post to the finale of "Futurama," as I've spent so many posts cheerleading the series before. However, it's been over a year since the last time I wrote about it on this blog, there are a lot of other episodes to talk about, and this finale feels like the real deal in a way that the other finales haven't, so I think I can justify this one. Some minor spoilers for the most recent seasons ahead.

Season seven of "Futurama," aired in two batches over the last two years. There's been a lot of debate over whether the quality of the show has dropped since it came back from its long hiatus, and whether season seven was as good as season six. My position is that "Futurama" has always had weaker episodes, and while the Comedy Central episodes were more inconsistent and had different sensibilities than the FOX episodes, they were still well worth watching weekly. Some of my favorite episodes, including body-switching episode "Prisoner of Benda" and time travel episode "The Late Philip J. Fry," came after the hiatus. I'm going to need a few rewatches to cement how I feel about the most recent season, but there have been some strong contenders, including "Murder on the Planet Express," a spoof on "Alien" and "The Thing," and the finale episode, "Meanwhile."

There's no denying that the show changed fundamentally. Fry and Leela became an official couple, and "Futurama" stopped doing episodes about how Fry was a fish out of water in the future. The sentimentality became more overt, spreading to some of the other characters. There was more attention paid to continuity. Characters like Zapp Branigan, Kif, and Cubert didn't show up as often. References to more current pop-culture started appearing. Some of this didn't work, such as the Susan Boyle episode and the one where we learn about how Zoidberg and the Professor first met. It often seemed like the writers were trying too hard or running short on ideas. Plots started coming off as more contrived and formulaic, or so off-the-wall that they didn't feel like "Futurama." There were two anthology episodes, "Naturama" and "Saturday Morning Fun Pit," satirizing nature documentaries and terrible Saturday morning cartoons respectively, that stick out as especially bizarre.

Still, there were plenty of good episodes and the writers came up with some great things to do with the characters. Zoidberg finally got the girl in "Stench and Stenchability," the weirdest remake of Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" ever. "Lethal Inspection" gave us a reason to like Hermes and "Calculon 2.0" gave us a reason to like Calculon, briefly. We met the Professor's parents in "Near-Death Wish" and Scruffy's trainee janitor, Jackie Jr., in "Murder on the Planet Express." And the nerd in me loved that we'd occasionally still get references to older science-fiction stories like "Flatworld," "E.T.," "Twilight Zone," and "The Time Machine." Even the crummiest episodes had their good points. Whatever you want to say about "Attack of the Killer App," the social-media episode, it spawned the now ubiquitous "Shut up and take my money!" meme.

"Meanwhile," the last episode is a good example of all of the things I've always liked "Futurama." It takes a nerdy science-fiction plot device, time travel, and uses it to create absurd situations. In this case we have the Professor's time button, which only allows for time travel ten seconds into the past, and is abused by Fry and the rest of the gang immediately. The show isn't afraid of being weird and morbid and silly just for the sake of being silly. It uses the fact that the series is animated to show us something impossible, a quality I think many viewers take for granted. The show also deals with Fry and Leela's relationship in a way that is emotionally serious, even if very little else in the episode is. The last ten minutes of "Meanwhile" are likely meant to be a take on "I Am Legend" and other "last man on Earth" stories. However, "Futurama" takes the concept and uses it for goofy gags - and to show us just how strong Fry and Leela's commitment has become.

It was hard to escape the specter of the show hitting a plateau of mediocrity the way that "The Simpsons" did around its sixth season. So, it came as something of a relief to learn that "Futurama" has been cancelled. There are other avenues for its potential resurrection, including Netflix, and I certainly wouldn't say no to another movie or two, but this feels like a natural place to stop. The story gave us a happy ending for Fry and Leela (though a calculatedly open-ended one) and it was enough.

Time to bid a fond farewell to the world of tomorrow.
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