Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2013

Are you sick of hearing about whether or not we're in the golden age of television?  There has been alot of hand-wringing about that lately, spurred on by the fact that 2013 was an unequivocally great year for TV, the best that I've seen since I started following the medium closely.  Not only was the year remarkable for its depth of quality, but also for its breadth.  Good television has been popping up from every corner, with networks like Sundance making their debut in original programming and online sources like Hulu and Netflix expanding their market.  One of the shows in end of the year discussion, Borgen, released episodes on LinkTV -- whatever that is!  It's interesting to think that a little over a decade ago, most of the talked about TV shows came from the big four networks (CBS, Fox, NBC, and ABC) and HBO.  Now I literally get anxiety thinking about all of the great television coming from so many different places that I'll never get around to watching.  (For how much TV I already watch, see the full list linked to at the bottom of this post.)

Television lists are harder than music and film lists to do, because the main television season is spread out over two calendar years, with many shows starting their seasons in September and not ending until April or May.  This is becoming less of an issue, as summer is seen as a television ghetto less and less every year, and cable shows tend to air their entire seasons in a single calendar year.  Nevertheless, for each television show, the only episodes eligible for ranking purposes are the ones that aired in 2013.  That seems like an obvious thing, but it always throws some people.  This can sometimes work to a show's advantage.  For example, Parenthood was very high on my list last year because it aired all of its best material (the end of season 3 at the beginning of year, the beginning of season 4 in the fall) in 2012.  On the other hand, New Girl was never going to land in my top 20 this year, but it ended up being way further down on my full list because its third season has been so terrible, it's tarnished the quality of the back half of season 2 that aired at the beginning of the year.  Is all of that clear?  Okay, good.

For all of my talk about the breadth of the television landscape, my top 20 consists of a small cluster of networks, but there are still some unexpected ones.  The list heavily favors cable to network, with 16 belonging to the former and 2 belonging to the latter (and 2 coming from internet-only sources).  My top 20 is also low on straight comedies, consisting of mostly dramas and shows that are listed as "comedy" but are mostly dramatic.  This is mainly because of how good this year was for drama, but it also was a very weak year for comedy, particular network comedies.  So enough analysis of the list, let's move on to the actual thing...

Monday, December 30, 2013

My 20 Favorite Films of 2013

This year, I got a car, so I was able to see more movies in 2013 than I did in any other year.  I won't try to come up with some unifying theme for the year in film, other than "umm...there were some good movies, huh"?  Many films this year were tales of survival under brutal circumstances (Captain Phillips, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, All is Lost), while others were concentrated character studies that watched their protagonists sink or swim (Blue Jasmine, Frances Ha, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis).  Usually we think of summer popcorn films as the low point of the year in cinema and arthouse films as the beacon of quality, but this year there were some great blockbusters (Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim) and some pretty awful indie movies (Upstream Color, Only God Forgives).  2013 saw new films from beloved directors like Alfonso Cuaron and Terrence Malick, and allowed newer directors like J.C. Chandor to make more of a mark in the film world.

As always, many of the year's most acclaimed films get released for a week in New York and Los Angeles, to meet eligibility for the Oscars, while the rest of the country has to wait until January of the next year to see them.  So I like to think of my film list at the end of the year as an unofficial version.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to see some films that I was really looking forward to -- Her, Nebraska, The Past -- because they haven't come out in theaters near me yet.  On the other hand, the fact that you won't see Enough Said on this list is all my fault, because I didn't see it when it was in theaters, but I'm sure I would've loved it.  Finally, I had the opportunity to watch Prisoners and Blue is the Warmest Color in my usual end of the year crunch, but I just got too exhausted.  Even still, I'm satisfied with my list, which features a great balance of big and small films.

One last thing to note is that eligibility for this list is based on when the film came out in theaters in America.  Some of the smaller and foreign films tend to premiere at festivals in the year before, but if it didn't get a theatrical release until 2013 then it's allowed to be counted.  So without further ado, the list...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2013

Earlier this year, I wrote about how 2013 was the year of the event album, in that we saw the return of many artists who had been inactive for a long time (My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, Justin Timberlake, Boards of Canada, Daft Punk) and new releases from blockbuster artists (Kanye West, Vampire Weekend).  Elsewhere, music critics wondered whether we were seeing the end of guitar rock in an increasingly synth-based world.  Additionally, I saw many thinkpieces this year about the "Emo Revival," a resurgence of bands making quality emo music (I'll just have to take their word for it).  2013 wasn't a year where you could pin down one overarching narrative; instead, there were many narratives happening at once.  It was the year that indie went pop (Haim, Chvrches), pop went indie (Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX), rap continued to make its steps into a new golden age, etc.

I've often said that I don't consider any year to be a "bad" year for music, but 2013 seemed to be a particularly good one.  Expand my list to a top 30 instead of 20 and every album would still be something I consider great.  I don't know whether it's about a true uptick in quality or an expansion of my tastes, but this was the year where it finally felt like there was too music.  Almost every week had a release I wanted to listen to, and there were some albums that could've been top 20 contenders (Janelle Monae, Blood Orange, Sky Ferreira, Beyonce) but I didn't have the time to give them more than a few listens.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with my list.  I had a tough time figuring out the order -- my #1 and 2 were pretty locked in for most of the year, but after that it's much more of a grab bag -- and these last few weeks have been time for me to relisten to albums and manically switch placements around.  One thing I would've liked is for a little more diversity.  There are more pop and rap releases than there were in previous years (perhaps indie rock IS dying!!!), but these are all albums that you'll see on basically any other Best of the Year list.  Looking for an interesting list?  Well look elsewhere, because this isn't it!  Okay, now on to the actual list (with links included for the highlight songs if there's a Youtube video for it)...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

We need to talk about that amazing season finale of Awkward

Though they may seem quite different when you first think about them, I often group Awkward and Suburgatory together in my head.  Neither are shows that have ever made it anywhere close to my top 20 list at the end of the year, even though I would recommend them to people.  They both may be listed as comedies, but I often find their comedy too broad and vastly prefer the dramatic/emotional beats they hit.  Both have a number of characters I'd completely cut out of the show, starting with Noah on Suburgatory and Valerie on Awkward.  At the end of the day, they're pleasant watches -- if they weren't, I'd stop tuning in -- but they both are mostly just content with being "pleasant" and nothing more.  Basically, they each do alot of things -- and I mean alot -- that I don't enjoy, but when they decide to take things up a notch (think "The Wishbone" for Suburgatory and the final scene in "Pick Me, Choose Me, Love Me" for Awkward), it makes for some truly transcendent television.

After two 12-episode seasons, MTV decided to up the episode order for season 3, thus making it 20 episodes and split into two halves over the year.  I was a little skeptical at first.  While I often like the way that longer seasons (especially for high school shows) allow for "filler" episodes that give us a better feel for the characters, I generally find the 10-13 episode format better suited for dramatic arcs.  But you couldn't really tell much of a difference once the season started -- Awkward was just the same old Awkward.  Except in a small but crucial way, it wasn't and hadn't been for a long time.  One of the things that initially hooked me into the show in season one was that it was Jenna's journey of recovery from an incident that left her a social outcast.  Over the course of its 12 episodes, Jenna's path intersected with the various corners that existed in her school as she navigated through this difficult time.  What was initially just another feature of the show in season 1 -- the love triangle between her, Matty, and Jake -- became the dominating force in season 2.

By the time season 3 rolled around, the show had moved past the "Will Jenna end up with Matty or Jake?" question, but straight into another romantic entanglement, as Jenna developed feelings for the underwritten, poorly acted Collin.  It makes sense that a teenage girl would be fickle when it comes to boys, and the first half of season 3 was still filled with some delightful moments, but there were times where I wondered whether the obsession with Jenna's tumultuous love life would topple the show.  It wasn't until it returned from its midseason break in October that I realized what Lauren Iungerich and the rest of the writers were trying to do.  All of the foolish decisions Jenna was making were more than deliberate; the show was attempting to turn Jenna into the villain of her own show, and were doing a brilliant job of it.  Her eventual realization that she's hit rock bottom might have felt a little forced, but it brought about a refreshing return to the regular rhythms of the show, following Jenna on her road to redemption.

So after making up with her parents in "The Campaign Fail," her friends in "Old Jenna," and Valerie in "Karmic Relief;" "Who I Want to Be" felt like it was going to be a quiet hour, where things were finally back to normal.  After largely being adrift for most of the season, Sadie was still kind of isolated from the core of the story, but she at least had some funny scenes with her mother.  One of my favorite things about these last few episodes was the introduction of Bailey, because it's rare that a show just introduces a new friend for the protagonist to have outside of their main group of friends.  And even though I feared that the writers might be using her as the thing that tragically ruins the chances of Matty and Jenna reconciling, I found her to be a warm and pleasant person on a show where the characters often don't feel grounded.  Plus, my fears were assuaged in the finale, when it zigged instead of zagging, with Jenna helping Matty and Bailey get together instead of deciding that their coupling was a friendship-ruiner for her and Bailey.  The first three-fourths of the finale were filled with solid moments like these.

But in the last 15 minutes, the episode transformed from a fun farewell to an eventful season to pure, unfiltered amazingness.  It started with that scene between Jenna and her mom, where Jenna is trying to write her "Who I Want to Be" paper and looking at the infamous letter that caused a rift between the two of them back in the show's early days.  Jenna's relationship with her mom has been one of the best things about Awkward for a long time, and it might be the most exciting and nuanced mother-daughter relationship currently on television.  Their scenes together are usually the highlight of any episode, so this scene in the finale brought their entire relationship full circle, and the show finally reached the seemingly impossible heights that it did in that scene between the two of them way back in season 2's "Pick Me, Choose Me, Love Me."  If that was the only excellent scene, it'd be enough, but then there was the moment where Matty and Jenna share a dance while a Jessie Ware song is playing in the background.  It was wonderful and reflective, but most of all, it was content with having these characters exist in the moment, not concerned with aggressively pushing the intense relationship drama that the show had been mired in for the past two seasons.

Yet still, that's not even the end of the glorious joys that "Who I Want to Be" had to offer.  It closes on Mr. Hart reading Jenna's paper, where she sums up three seasons of self-actualization in a few beautiful sentences.  Maybe I'm just a sucker for the "wrapping things up with a letter" technique (my favorite book, Looking For Alaska, does this in devastating fashion), but it felt so cathartic.  For months, Lauren Iungerich had been asking us to be patient, because she was building to something with Jenna's arc this season, and I dismissively thought "Oh, I'm sure the finale will be good, but will it really all be worth it"?  It was totally worth it.  Jenna's realization that she doesn't need a boy to define her life and determine her happiness was something I'd been we'd all been waiting for her to have for ages.  It's up there with Breaking Bad's "I did it for me" moment in terms of pure satisfaction.  The image that the finale leaves us with, of Jenna dancing contentedly by herself, is the one of the most joyous moments of television I've seen since the iconic Girls scene where Hannah and Marnie dance to a Robyn song at the end of a hard day.

"Who I Want to Be" is even more satisfying given how up in the air the show's future is.  It's getting a fourth season, but one without Lauren Iungerich and most of the creative staff.  And despite the fact that I liked her and looked forward to where the show would take her character, Bailey won't be returning in season 4.  So if this finale was Iungerich's championship game, she left everything on the field, because you couldn't have asked for a better episode.  Her reign told a complete 3-season story, and even though I will most likely tune into the next season out of curiosity, it's hard to imagine the new staff ever living up to this send-off.

Sometimes a finale is so good that it makes you want to reassess everything before it.  I found this most recent season of Boardwalk Empire to be frustrating in its lack of direction, but it ended with a finale that was so spectacular that the whole season rose several orders of magnitude in my estimation.  Earlier this year, I also wrote about Mad Men's 6th season, which I found to be good but formless for most of its run, only to have things snap together in the season finale.  Awkward's just another example of this.  My top 20 shows of the year list has no room for anything as frustrating as this third season often was, but "Who I Want to Be" is, without a doubt, one of my favorite episodes of 2013.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Midseason Report: The Walking Dead's promising start to season 4 takes a frustrating, baffling turn

"See, I would've been a better Katniss than Jennifer Lawrence!"

Various stages of The Walking Dead's life as a show can be defined by its ever-changing showrunner position.  In the beginning, it was under the helm of Frank Darabont, and when it comes to adapting a beloved comic book series, you couldn't have asked for a better pedigree than a three-time Academy Award nominee.  Unfortunately, his gifts didn't seem particularly suited for television, because his reign was riddled with problems.  I've been a long-time Walking Dead skeptic, and part of it is because of the foundation Darabont laid -- a show where uninteresting characters made poor decisions while spouting leaden dialogue.  I wasn't that wowed by Glen Mazzara's stint as showrunner either, despite his also considerable resume (training under the likes of television greats like Shawn Ryan).  Perhaps he was given a raw deal by having to clean up Darabont's mess, but even though the work that was unarguably his in season 3 was better, it was still messy and frustrating.  So, because AMC didn't respond to my letters requesting that they hire Amy Sherman-Palladino to run the show (where, of course, the zombies would now spout pop culture references and do ballet), we've got Scott Gimple.  You may know him as the guy who wrote "18 Miles Out" and "Clear" -- two of the show's best episodes -- but more importantly, he created Fillmore!, the greatest cartoon about a black safety patrol ever.

Right from the start, you could notice the difference in the show, now that it was being led by Gimple.  One of the reasons why those two episodes mentioned above are such standouts is because they have a different tone from the rest of the show, one that's somber and thoughtful in ways that The Walking Dead often wasn't under the reigns of Darabont and Mazzara.  In the first 5 episodes, Gimple managed to nail that tone consistently and the result was a surprisingly gripping start to season 4.  After being unable to come up with a truly compelling human threat, this season smartly chose to have a plague that's spreading through the prison be the major source of tension.  Finally, instead of characters openly monologuing about how grim and hopeless the world is, we get to actually see and feel these people's frayed nerves.  Showing instead of telling is basically Screenwriting 101, and it's kind of insane that the writers only just learned the concept after 3 seasons, but now that it was here it was a welcome change that made all the difference.

As I mentioned above, another frustration I had with the show in the early going was that I didn't care about any of the characters, and found a handful of them to be downright terribly written.  I grew mildly fond of the usual people that everyone has grown to like -- Daryl, Glenn, Maggie -- but during the prison plague, I actually cared about the fates of the characters (even if it did seem like a device to lower the budget on recurring cast members).  Some of this came from little changes -- Michonne actually smiled a few times! -- but much of the improvement came from putting the characters in tough situations and having them deal with it in interesting ways.  The biggest example of this came in "Indifference," with the reveal that Carol burnt those two unimportant characters whose names I'm too lazy to look up (listen, the character work still isn't perfect).  It's a conflict with two perspectives that are well-mapped out, with Carol doing what she felt was right for the good of the prison, Rick feeling like he can't let her return to the prison for fear of what would happen next, and both realizing that there's no way to mitigate this divide.  Their separation is one built around two people who've been in many terrifying, life-threatening situations together but have reached a point where their worldviews have diverged, and it's one of the best things the show has ever done.  You wouldn't see something like this under any of the other showrunners' watch.

In a way though, The Walking Dead has always stealthily been about course correction, particularly through killing off characters.  Dale is doing too much speechifying and making maddening, idiotic decisions?  Just kill him!  Shane serves no purpose other than to be an uninteresting obstacle?  Kill him!  The whole "search for Sophia" storyline is repetitive and aimless?  She was dead the whole time!  Lori is the stock "wife who is a drag" character type?  Kill her mid-birth!  T-Dog mostly only says "AW HELL NAW!"?  Okay, kill him!  Andrea is the indisputably the worst?  Kill her after she does what she did best -- refusing to make the most logical decision!  So a part of me feels like the writers have always been broadly aware of their problems, but the first 5 episodes of this season felt like the show was truly leaving all of its troubles behind.

Then The Governor came back.  I was not a huge fan of The Governor's arc back in season 3 -- the extended looks into life at Woodbury made the season feel oddly misshapen, his motivations were flat at best, and I've generally never been a fan of the "pure embodiment of evil" type of character.  Even though I knew he was eventually going to come back, the wishful, optimistic side of me hoped that we would never see or hear from him again.  Surprisingly, though, I was quite a big fan of "Live Bait," the episode that focused solely on what The Governor had been doing since his showdown with Rick and the prison gang at the end of season 3.  I've seen complaints of it being boring and slow and desultory, but I thought it was a genuinely compelling hour of television.  Sure, it seemed like they were trying to retcon the character, turning him into a mournful, broken man, but I was willing to roll with it because it was far more interesting than the soulless tyrant we saw in season 3.

"Live Bait" worked as a nice little short story that could be lifted out of the overall arc of season 4, but the problem is that they followed it up with another episode completely devoted to The Governor.  And this one was...not so good.  Remember all of that "changed man" stuff that just happened one episode ago?  Well, all of that was reversed!  Now, you could be thinking, "Stop being silly.  Of course The Governor was going to turn evil once more.  He has to take on Rick again.  That's how stories work!"  That's true, but the writers could have done it in a more elegant way.  Instead, they just kind of punted the whole thing.  It all felt like something that would've sat comfortably in the middle of the previous seasons, filled with the kind of dumb plotting that it seemed like the show had gotten away from (Where was everybody when The Governor killed members of their densely packed camp?  Why wasn't anybody the least bit skeptical of the fact that people were dying as soon as this mysterious new guy joined the group?).  The herky-jerk arc of The Governor's actions would've been tolerable if there was some actual ambiguity to him, but it's almost as if the writers themselves didn't really know what drives him.

And so the midseason finale, as "exciting" as it was on a surface level, could never really be satisfying when it was standing on top of such a weak foundation.  I'm okay with the somber, simmering beginning and the action-packed ending of this half of season 4, but the bridge between the two was so broken that the connection ultimately doesn't work.  And really, how much can we praise this ending for being action-packed when it was pretty stupid?  Listen, I get it.  The Governor is a monster whose rage blinds him.  But I would hope that he'd have a plan that was better than basically destroying the very same place he wanted to have.  It's a nice development to have our protagonists be uprooted from the prison, but it's diminished by the fact that it's all for the sake of concluding The Governor's erratic, confusing arc.  It may sound like I'm overly disappointed, but I'm only bummed because the show was hinting at becoming high drama for a while, before reverting back to the empty schlock it had been peddling for the better part of three seasons.  For the biggest offender, look no further than its choice to kill two (TWO!) kids in one episode.  At least the zombie rising up out of the red clay to bite Meghan was a striking visual, but the perceived death of baby Judith was grossly manipulative ("but she dies in the comics!" --says the annoying person who always says something like this.  Yeah, I read them too).

Who knows, maybe Scott Gimple hated The Governor as much as I did and he just wanted to wash his hands of him in the most messy, scorched-earth way possible.  Perhaps now that the prison gang has been scattered to the winds and forced to find a new place to stay, the show can return to the grim grittiness that it was for the first 6 episodes of this season.  Anything will be better than what we got these last two weeks.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On "No Blues," Los Campesinos! find light in the darkest corners

Despite getting relatively positive reviews upon initial release, Hello Sadness, the previous album from Los Campesinos!, has taken a beating from some fans in the two years since it was released.  Some cite the record's overwhelming gloominess as a turn off, stating that it was the point where soul-bearing frontman Gareth went from cheeky self-deprecation to morose self-seriousness.  Personally, it's my favorite Los Campesinos! album (landing at #2 on my Best of 2011 list), and part of it is because of the way it matched grim lyrics with indelible songwriting.  Nevertheless, perhaps Gareth himself found that record a little too dark as well, because he made it clear in pre-release interviews that No Blues, the band's fifth album, would be much happier.

Listening to the album itself, I'm amused by his idea of happiness.  Perhaps the name No Blues is meant to be ironic, since the album seems to serve as a 69 Love Songs type of record, except 59 songs shorter and all about death.  Despite the energetic and frenzied nature of their early songs, the band has always been obsessed with the macabre, and it's no different here.  What's particularly fascinating is how Gareth's lyrics almost reach a Cronenberg level of body horror, treating bodies as nothing more than vessels housing emotions.  Over and over, internal anguish translates to external wounds and extreme passion blends with extreme pain (ex: "Darling, if I had the choice, I'd excavate his throat of voice / and corrugate his vocal chords to play a tune").  But here, he seems to have found a new shade to his writing.  Sure the album is soaked in death, but it's rarely in a depressing way, almost as if there's a resignation to the inevitability of it all.  On the chorus of "As Lucerne/The Low," he even sings "(But the low) is what I came for / (and to bask) in a darkness I do adore."  Clearly, Gareth and the rest of the band have made peace with whatever was plaguing them the last time around.

Even romance, which has long been the deepest well for Gareth to mine misery and self-deprecation, takes on life and death stakes.  On the amusingly melodramatic "The Time Before the Last," he reminisces about the death of a relationship, describing "one last meal as one last gesture."  Elsewhere, he cheekily states "There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine."  It's lines like these that are his greatest gift as a lyricist.  You can tell there's a part of him that feels so deeply that he does see himself as the only person who's gone through this level of heartache, but his ability to poke fun at himself about it keeps the eye-rolling in check.  It's not a 100% necessary part of the formula (see: my enjoyment of Hello Sadness), but it's a welcome addition.  Just when he comes close to the edge of self-seriousness, he throws out a line like "Two words upon my headstone, please / don't need date or name, just 'Sad Story'" to reel himself back in again.  And for all of the large-scale, death-obsessed rhapsodizing that dominates the first 9 songs, the album closes with the comparatively subdued "Selling Rope."  It's a sharp right turn from the rest of No Blues' ethos -- a small, unnoticed demise -- but it's beautiful, moving stuff.

Not so much a 90-degree turn as a natural pivot is their sound, which continues its maturation from the glockenspiel-heavy days of yore.  Things are a bit scaled back on No Blues, but that doesn't stop it from also being the band's most sonically varied record.  Look back at their first four albums and you won't find anything like "The Time Before the Last," which starts off with a haunting chant before transforming into a driving, ornate song.  Even songs that closer fit the Los Campesinos! formula, like "Cemetery Gaits," are sprinkled with new elements (in this case, a lovely new wave keyboard riff).  Some of their most stripped-down songs make an appearance here, like "A Portrait of a Trequartista As a Young Man" or the measured pace of "Glue Me."  They haven't completely left behind guitars -- on the aforementioned "Glue Me," they're starry and languid; on "As Lucerne" they're piercing and direct -- but they've added some new tricks to the established rotation.  More refined compositions still can't dull their ear for melody though -- No Blues is, if nothing else, an incredibly catchy album.  "What Death Leaves Behind" and "Avocado Baby," the two songs released before the album dropped, are earworms up there with the band's best singles.

When Los Campesinos! first came onto the scene in 2007, many critics tossed around the word "twee" to describe their music.  While they've always had more bite than the other bands who were attached to that signifier, it still wasn't a stretch to lump the high-fructose Hold On Now, Youngster... in that category.  The term has become as dead as every other music blog buzzword (floating in genre heaven alongside chillwave, dance punk, and freak folk), with all of its bands either fizzling out (The Boy Least Likely To) or attempting to change their style and failing miserably (Architecture in Helsinki).  Los Campesinos! were one of the few to break free of that tag and find a sound that worked for them, but even though their albums still get good reviews, the larger music community doesn't seem to care about them in the same way that they used to.  Maybe album closer "Selling Rope," is reflective of the band itself, and they're more comfortable being unnoticed.  Whatever the case may be, No Blues is another incredible album from what is turning out to be one of the world's most consistent and consistently underrated bands.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Midseason Report: Parenthood closes out 2013 with a killer run

*Note*: This post was written after "Election Day," under the assumption that it was the midseason finale.  There was another episode two weeks after this and it was also pretty good!

I recently wrote a post about Parenthood right before the 5th season started, where I explained what makes it one of the best dramas on TV, even though it's not as "flashy" as some of the other great dramas that are currently on.  Personally, I was pretty proud of it -- I consider it one of my best pieces of writing -- and it was enough to convince two people who hadn't previously watched the show to check it out.  So naturally, I was very worried, both as a fan of the show and a recommender, that season 5 didn't get off to the strongest start.

With the exception of "Nipple Confusion," which is probably one of my top 5 favorite episodes of television this year, the first four episodes were pretty scattered, and the main stories that were being established for the season didn't leave me enthusiastic.  The one that I was the biggest skeptic of was the decision for Kristina to run for mayor of Berkeley (god, even typing that sentence made me cringe).  It makes sense that after her intense battle with cancer last season, Kristina would be reinvigorated and want to do something with her new lease on life.  The problem is that Jason Katims and crew bit off more than they could chew thinking that Kristina, a woman whom the city has no knowledge of or investment in, would have any chance of winning against a well-established politician like Bob Little.  A part of me thinks that Katims is just really obsessed with politics, much like how J.J. Abrams came up with the idea for Alias while working on Felicity and wishing he could just turn the protagonist into a spy, because Parenthood has had some sort of election storyline for 3 seasons in a row now.

Usually, I'm great at suspending my disbelief when it comes to fiction, but the Kristina election arc was a step too far for me.  In my post about the first 4 seasons of the show, I mentioned how Kristina's storyline was so significant that every other storyline was made better by being caught in its orbit.  If that's the case, then her plotline this year was like a photo negative of her cancer scare.  At some point, every Braverman got caught in the vortex of the election arc, and it threatened to bring the entire season down.

One storyline that was great from the start was Zeek and Camille's, which is surprising, given that the two haven't really had a meaty plot together since the adultery storyline in season 1.  Season 5 found them disagreeing on whether they should sell their house, which is slowly decaying from all the years of housing various Bravermans.  It's the kind of conflict that Katims does better than any other creator, the kind that's driven by the gap that occurs when two people who care deeply about each other have differing perspectives, and neither is wholly right or wrong.  It's easy to see why Zeek would want to keep the house.  After all, he and Camille watched their kids grow up there -- it's basically all he knows.  But Camille knows that they're entering the third act of their lives, and understandably wants to see more of the world while she still has the chance to.  We don't often get to see stories on television that really get into the internal lives of the elderly, but the Zeek and Camille arc was handled with a Sarah Polley-esque level of grace and beauty.  At a time where we were mired in Kristina's ludicrous mayoral campaign, repetitive Crosby stories, and whatever it is that Sarah does, this one was what kept the early episodes from completely falling apart.

Luckily, things got much more stable around the middle of the season, starting with "Let's Be Mad Together."  The other big storyline of season 5 that I was deeply concerned about was Joel and Julia's.  Ever since it was announced at the TCAs over the summer that the two of them were going to go through a "rough year," I was worried that they'd do some cheating story that would break the two of them up.  Infidelity isn't inherently an idea that Parenthood shouldn't touch, but the contrived way in which they introduced the possibility didn't do much to mollify my anxiety.  Ed and particularly Peet (or Penny from Lost or British Julia or Sonya Walger -- take your pick) felt more like devices than characters, and watching them interact with Joel and Julia was like watching a game of "Who Will Cheat on Whom First?"  

But once again, it was "Let's Be Mad Together" where I had a real turnaround on the story.  It made me realize that I was so busy fretting over where things would end up that I was misjudging what was going on in the present tense.  This is something fans and critics do often, judging the journey based on our expectations of the destination.  Sure, the idea of either Joel or Julia cheating on one another seemed like a misstep, but on a moment-to-moment basis, their storyline was gripping.  In isolation, the idea of Julia, a woman who has always been career-driven and ambitious, finding herself lost when she no longer has that career to pour her energy into and bonding with a friend facing similar frustrations, is a strong foundation for story.  Parenthood has always been fascinated with the idea of emotional transference, the way that drama from one corner of the Braverman clan can bleed into another corner, but this season has really shone a light on that theme, and the Joel and Julia conflict came into even stronger focus when the writers made the parallels between the two of them and Zeek and Camille clearer.  Both pairs of couples are facing a tough decision -- for Zeek and Camille it's whether to sell their house, for Joel and Julia it's whether Victor should be held back in the 4th grade -- and on top of that, the women in the relationship are feeling unfulfilled.  And like Zeek and Camille's storyline, what made the Joel and Julia conflict so compelling is that it couldn't be divided into simple black and white terms.

Things just got stronger and stronger as everything began to snap into place, to the point where even the god awful election storyline concluded in terrific fashion.  Part of the reason why it was so frustrating to sit through this election was because it seemed pretty obvious that Kristina was going to win.  Over and over, the show kept bumping up against opportunities where they could bail out on it, in the way that some shows do when the writers realized they've made a huge mistake with a certain plotline.  Yet it never took those openings, choosing to trudge forward with starry-eyed optimism instead.  Friday Night Lights, Jason Katims' previous drama, wasn't afraid to have the Panthers and the Lions lose, and tragically at that.  But Parenthood has always been a softer, brighter version of its spiritual predecessor, so the idea of Kristina losing seemed out of the question.  Consequently, her loss in "Election Day," the midseason finale, was truly a surprise and delight (as much as saying the latter part may make me seem like an awful person).  Granted, the way her loss played out -- the election is lost, but is still seen as a personal victory -- was predictable in its own right, but it worked because it was in tune with the core of the show.  Kristina becoming mayor of Berkeley would've been a bad idea because it's a big (and ridiculous) victory on a show that's all about small ones.  At the end of the day, Kristina learned a lesson that the show has been putting forth all along: you can never truly lose if you're surrounded by the ones you love.

Parenthood ended the year with its two biggest stories going out on a high note, but things are still up in the air for the rest of the plots.  For every storyline that's going well, like the aforementioned Zeek and Camille material or the delightful Max and Hank stuff, there are an equal amount of sketchy ones.  The show has rarely ever told strong Jasmine and Crosby stories, but the new baby plotline still feels like a weird afterthought, even though it seems like a deeper well from which to extract good drama than this bizarre "Adam and Crosby start their own record label" thing.  The biggest problem, however, lies within the Amber and Ryan storyline.  After being a fan of their arc in season 4, I've found it to be a relative non-starter so far in season 5.  It all feels so preordained, particularly since we know that Matt Lauria isn't a series regular.  Maybe that's a cynical way to look at things, but I'd have an easier time swallowing this story if it didn't just hit the same beats again and again.  Yet these quibbles aren't enough to have me down on the first half of the season as a whole, and I'm very optimistic about the second half of season 5.  In a way, this season reminds me alot of season 3, which also started out shakily but just kept building and building until the incredible catharsis of "Remember Me, I'm the One Who Loves You" (still the show's best episode).  I wouldn't be surprised if this season has also been constructing an intricate set of dominoes that we won't become aware of until it all topples over in 2014.

Friday, November 22, 2013

All is Lost and Gravity: Two tales of survival under dire circumstances

In a recent Dissolve article about Oscar prognostication, Jen Chaney made an interesting point that many of the films that are in the discussion for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards focus on the theme of survival.  12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, All is Lost -- they all feature characters fighting tooth and nail to overcome great peril.  The appeal of films like the former two is easy to see, as they're about their protagonists overcoming a group of people or a system.  When given something tangible, it's easy to think about real world implications, drawing parallels to the isolation we feel in this competitive economic climate.  But what makes the latter two films so interesting is that the characters find themselves battling against something more abstract.

In a way, Gravity and All is Lost are both just takes on the age-old "man vs. nature" theme, but they also tackle a very acute sense of loneliness.  Both Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity and the unnamed man in All is Lost (Robert Redford) are fighting for their lives while floating around in a void.  In the former, that void is literally endless, and the film generates much of its terror from the unending blackness of space.  Although Dr. Stone has two other astronauts accompanying her, she's quickly left on her own when a massive onslaught of space debris complicates the mission they're on.  The sea isn't endless, but it might as well be for Redford's character in All is Lost.  We're introduced to him as he's waking up from a nap, only to find that his boat has crashed into an errant shipping container and is now taking in water.  With nothing but ocean spanning in all directions, Redford is left to his own devices.  There is no crew, there are no other boats, it's just him and the sea.  Both films strip their protagonists of any kind of comfort or company, and the point being made is clear: if you're going to survive in this world, you're going to have to do it on your own.

On surface alone, these films are tense, gripping survival tales, but their stories of perseverance also carry metaphorical implications as well.  In the case of Gravity, the story is pretty clearly a metaphor for depression and the grieving process.  Early into the film, we learn that Dr. Stone had a daughter who died at a very young age, and that she carries a great deal of guilt over it.  It's never made clear just how long ago this happened, but it's something that weighs pretty heavily on her mind, especially when her life is in danger.  Gravity's not just about one woman's tale of survival, it's about her finding the will to live, finally overcoming all of the pain and anguish she'd been filled with.  Although the metaphor is less obvious than in Gravity, All is Lost can be taken as a film that's directly about old age.  Some reviews seem to refute that notion, but to me, all of the pieces are there.  Part of the reason why Redford's situation is so grim is that he's all by himself, much like how many elderly people have nobody around them to take care of them.  While he's out at sea, an ominous storm awaits him in the distance, looming and steadily approaching like his own mortality.  He's slowly stripped of everything he has, eventually abandoning his sinking ship on a life raft.  He escapes, but not before taking a longing and somber look at his boat as it slowly submerges.  The ship is named Virginia Jean, which sounds like an elderly woman's name, and the loss of this boat is treated like the loss of a loved one.

Although both are metaphor-laden stories of survival, these two films deviate when it comes to their execution.  Gravity heavily relies on dialogue (especially from George Clooney's chatty Matt Kowalski), and we're given a substantial amount of backstory on Dr. Stone.  In fact, one of my biggest problems with the film is that much of the conclusion is dependent on how much you're invested in her backstory, which I found to be poorly established through the script's clunky dialogue.  All is Lost, on the other hand, has very little dialogue.  Aside from a distress call and a few frustrated expletives, Redford's character doesn't speak at all.  Writer-director J.C. Chandor keeps things very minimal, and we never learn anything about the protagonist, including his initial reason for being out at sea.  That's not to say that one approach is inherently better than the other, as each film employs what is necessary to their story.  After all, Dr. Stone is panicked and grieving during her ordeal, while Redford mostly uses his knowledge and expertise to keep his wits about him, so it's natural that one would be more garrulous than the other.  Personally, I just found All is Lost's lack of details more effective than Gravity's info-dump.

Despite that, I thought that both films were very effective at conveying the danger and stakes of their protagonists' ordeal.  By offering up two different methods of execution, they give us perspective on why these kinds of stories are gripping to us, particularly in these times.  In tandem, Gravity and All is Lost prove that it may not be the specific details that matter, but the will to survive that makes them so compelling.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Frances Ha and Blue Jasmine are photo-negatives of each other

Even if Noah Baumbach hadn't stated his admiration for Woody Allen, critics probably still would've drawn comparisons to Allen's Manhattan when Frances Ha was released earlier this year.  After all, they're both black & white films about upper-crust, literate New Yorkers who find themselves as restless as the city they inhabit.  And while those comparisons are the most prominent, the Woody Allen film that I couldn't get out of my head when I watched Frances Ha last weekend was his latest, Blue Jasmine.  It may not be immediately apparent how the story of a listless 27-year-old dancer is similar to the story of a woman in her mid 40s moving back in with her sister, but the ways in which they handle the same broad ideas differently is worth digging into.  They're two of my favorite films of 2013, currently sitting side-by-side at #3 and #4 on my list, and they end up revealing themselves to be photo negatives of one another.

The most obvious, literal way to draw this delineation is through their respective uses of color.  They say that many people have a tough time dealing with the early stages of adulthood and the dulling of emotions that result from no longer being a slave to the hormonal ups-and-downs of adolescence.  If that's the case, then the black & white cinematography in Frances Ha is a fitting choice, given its lead character's (Greta Gerwig) floundering throughout the film.  In a way, she's stuck trying to live her life in a younger state -- still rooming with her best friend from college, trapped in her own solipsism, and approaching life with a general insouciance -- as if true adulthood isn't on the menu.  Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the lead character in Blue Jasmine, is well into adulthood, but is only forced to truly experience it where we're introduced to her in the film.  Cushioned by the life of luxury provided by her husband's (Alec Baldwin) wealth for most of her life, she basically has no real responsibilities to deal with, until his imprisonment and eventual death leaves her penniless and crawling back to live with her semi-estranged adopted sister.  Jasmine wishes to return to the fantasy life that wealth granted her, but she's trapped in the bitter truth of her situation.  Woody Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe shoot San Francisco with lush, vibrant colors, which only emphasizes the harshness of the reality that Jasmine finds herself in.  As much as her delusions and reminisces of the past try to layer over it, her situation comes bleeding in at every crack.  In a film that's all about keeping up veneers, the vivid colors are the glossy surface covering up a much darker soul.

There are a number of small similarities that link the two films, including the way they both explore a world of upper class and privilege.  Although we see Frances living from paycheck to paycheck, it's clear from the swank apartments that she crashes at, she still lives in an environment where there's some level of comfort.  There's even a scene where a character tells her, "Calling yourself poor is an insult to actual poor people."  Class and privilege come to the forefront even more in Blue Jasmine.  Jasmine inherits a life of luxury by marrying a rich man, and becomes so accustomed to it that she's left without any skills to help her pull herself together once that opulence escapes her.  Woody Allen may paint her less sophisticated sister (Sally Hawkins) and her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) in broad, salt-of-the-earth strokes, but their relative contentment with their lives stands in direct contrast with Jasmine's desperate attempts to reclaim her status.  While both films deal with complex female relationships (friendship in Frances Ha, sisterhood in Blue Jasmine), they remain locked in on their unmoored protagonists.  There's a gap between the way Frances and Jasmine perceive their lives and the reality of it, but the latter's delusions are filtered through a much darker lens.   In a different light, you could easily see Frances growing up to be Jasmine down the road.

But this is where the two films really deviate and end up representing opposite poles of the character study narrative.  Blue Jasmine's trajectory is straight downward; it's clear from very early into the film that things won't end well for its titular character.  We see her slowly unravel, becoming less able to mask her mental illness, until her lies and transgressions catch up with her, leaving her with no job and no place to stay.  Mirroring the opening scene of the film, the final moments show Jasmine nattering on to another complete stranger, lost in her own hazy-eyed recollections.  She's wearing the same outfit -- this time it's a little less tidy, her face a little more weathered -- but now the stranger won't even pretend to listen to this stark raving madwoman.  It's a brutally grim ending, leaving us with Jasmine on the bench alone, jazz music playing only in her head, but it's one of my favorites of the year.

The ending of Frances Ha is also quite remarkable, but for completely different reasons.  Unlike Blue Jasmine, its trajectory is one that's harder to pin down, filled with all kinds of curlicues that keep the narrative interesting.  For a long time, it seems as if things aren't going to end well for Frances.  We see her quit dancing, alienate her friends, and resort back to working as an RA at her old university (the film's most obvious, but wrenching symbolism).  Yet at the end, she pulls it together and puts on a dance show that she choreographed, with all of her friends in attendance.  It's a beautiful scene -- the dancers repeatedly converging to embrace before moving apart, interspersed with shots of Frances's friends, these twenty-somethings whose lives bump up against each other and overlap like tectonic plates.  After seeing Jasmine attempting to regain her lavish lifestyle and crumbling when she can't in Blue Jasmine, Frances finding peace in a life less "important" than she initially hoped for becomes doubly moving.

Blue Jasmine's ending is one of the most depressing of the year and Frances Ha's is one of the most uplifting, but they both work because they come from a place that's honest to the stories that they have to tell.  The two protagonists share many similarities (and are brought to the screen by two of the best performances of the year), and their respective films show how the results of those character traits can change depending on what life stage you're in.  Jasmine is stuck in a dire position, due to both unfortunate circumstances and choices of her own making, and the film concludes that she's at a point beyond repair.  Perhaps, on the other hand, Frances Ha is a wonderful statement about being in your 20s, and how it's not too late to decide who you want to be.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Almost Human

Fringe, the previous show from creator J.H. Wyman, was all about how the body was the ultimate subject of scientific experimentation, so it makes sense that his next show would take that idea a step further.  Fox's Almost Human, which had a special premiere last night and will air another episode tonight at 8, is set in the near future, where technology has advanced to the point where there are androids who are paired with human cops in the Los Angeles Police Department.  The show makes great effort to explain why this is beneficial, and it doesn't really make much sense, given that the system causes nothing but problems in the premiere.  It's a faulty premise that would be easy to look past were this pilot anything more than serviceable.

At its core, Almost Human is basically a police procedural (filled with expository cop dialogue and simple A-to-B plotting) with a futuristic veneer.  If its ever going to get better, the show is going to need to get much weirder, because despite the interesting sci-fi details that exist around the corners, the pilot is so concerned with the very standard subsection that exists in the middle of this world.  To be fair, Fringe got significantly better once it started being less of a warmed over version of The X-Files, but that show had some distinct characters right from the start.  Despite Karl Urban's nice leading man gruffness and Michael Ealy being as charming as always, the characters themselves are pretty stock types, and the mismatched buddy cop nature of their dynamic is terrain that's been mapped and explored endlessly.

That's not to say that there aren't any positives at all.  The pilot sports the Fox house style, so it's very slick and expensive-looking.  Most of the action scenes are well-shot and full of great special effects work.  Even though the emotional material is also pretty derivative and bland, it's nice that the writers are at least trying to flesh out Urban's character, as opposed to making him the get-things-done, blank slate protagonist.  Things are rough right now, but I've got enough goodwill towards the people involved to continue watching.

Grade: C+

Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and being black in 2013

Two summers ago, I was walking home from a jog that had become my Friday routine.  Right as I was nearing my house, I crossed the street at an intersection where a police car was at the stop sign.  All of a sudden, as I'm passing the car, a cop gets out it and starts questioning me about what I'm doing.  I told him that I was heading home from a jog and pointed to my house, which was literally around the corner.  At this point, I'm trying to be as friendly as possible because that's my natural tendency, but I can't help feeling nervous and wondering why I'm being stopped.  Just as I thought he was done with his line of questioning, the cop starts walking towards me and tells me to put my hands on my head.  Now I'm even more nervous, but I try to remember that there's no reason for him to arrest me.  He asks me if I have anything in my pockets, and I tell him about the house key in my right pocket and the headphones in my left pocket.  "Are you sure there's nothing else on you?," he asks before reaching in my pockets and seeing that I was telling the truth.

Keep in mind that this is occurring in the middle of the street in a suburb of South Florida, and his search and questioning has lasted long enough that there's another car waiting behind his car.  The officer now directs me to stand against his car so that the other car can pass, and I'd later dwell on the fact that the driver of that car probably thought I was actually guilty of something.  Wouldn't you think the same thing if you drove up to a stop sign and saw a sweaty black kid being frisked by a cop?  In that moment, I just wanted to tell the driver of the car and the cop himself that this was a mistake.  I'm on summer vacation from a university where I make straight A's!  I don't drink or smoke!  I've never committed a crime!  There was no reason for this!  Once the cop started to get the feeling that there was nothing he could bust me for, he took down my name and asked me a few more useless questions.  Then he just said "sorry, you matched the description of somebody," got in his car, and drove off.

I matched the description of somebody.  "Somebody."  "Somebody," who?  I just have a hard time believing that somebody called in a crime committed by a heavily sweating black male who's clearly wearing jogging clothes.  What's more likely is that this cop saw a young black guy and thought stopping him and searching him in the middle of the street was a safe enough bet.  Unlike alot of people my age, I generally don't have a problem with cops.  Before this event, I never dealt with them much, so I always thought of cops as people with the dangerous and stressful job of trying to make the world a safer place.  So for a little while, I got lost in a spiral of victim-blaming, wondering what I did to make that police officer want to stop me.  Maybe if I hadn't looked both ways before crossing the street, I wouldn't have looked so suspicious.  Maybe if I didn't have overactive sweat glands, he wouldn't have even noticed me without my drenched shirt.  It was such a small, but humiliating and demoralizing experience that it's almost like I didn't want to accept the idea of it not being my fault.  But the truth is that it wasn't my fault.  I didn't do anything wrong.  That moment left such an impression on me, to the point where people who've already heard the story probably wish that I would shut up about it already, but I just can't shake it.  My mind comes back to it again and again.

It came back to that moment just last week, when I was driving home from seeing Short Term 12.  I was stopped at a red light, when I heard some raised voices a few lanes over.  I figured it was just two people who knew each other, talking from the windows of their cars.  But when I looked over, I saw that there was a white man riding a bike on the sidewalk having an altercation with a black woman in a car.  They seemed to be arguing over something that happened at a previous intersection, and given his shouting about "right-of-way," I imagine he thought she cut him off.  I didn't see the event in question, so who knows who was right and who was wrong in that situation a mile or two back, but in the argument that followed, something undeniably wrong occurred.  I heard the man say to the woman, "...because I'm not a filthy fucking nigger like you!"  The woman, probably as shocked as I was, asked him to repeat what he said, and he -- even more defiantly -- said "A FILTHY FUCKING NIGGER" just as the light turned green and I had to drive away.

It seems like the natural thing to do would be to get angry about something like this, or the run-in that I had with that cop two years ago, but mostly it just makes me kind of sad.  We still live in a society where we can be categorically written off on race alone.  For me, my skin color and youth was enough to be considered suspicious or a threat.  For the woman in the car the other day, all that was needed was a disagreement about driving to confirm one man's vile assumptions.  And maybe you're tired of hearing black people -- or anybody who feels oppressed -- complain about injustice, but we complain because it sucks.  It sucks to know that no matter how smart I am, or how many words I know, or how nice and nonthreatening I try to be, my very existence is a problem for some people.  It's bad enough to feel like "the other," but it's even worse to feel like "the lesser."

12 Years a Slave, the latest film from visual-artist-turned-director Steve McQueen, takes things further, depicting a time where African Americans were seen as "the nothings."  It tells the true story of Solomon Northup (played by the perennially underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free man of the North who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s.  McQueen only gives you a brief glimpse of his life before the tragic event, enough to show you that he's an accomplished violinist, one who's loved by his family and many distinguished individuals of society.  After that he's yanked away pretty quickly, tricked and drugged by two men claiming to offer him an auspicious touring gig, and waking in chains.  There's some forceful filmmaking in these early parts, swiftly cutting from scene to scene, making the experience as disorienting for the audience as it is for Solomon.  In an economical sequence, we see the entire process of him being taken, beaten, and shipped off to the South like a product on the conveyor belt of some grand machine.  Like McQueen's other two films, 12 Years a Slave is free of any kind of hesitation, brutally depicting the grim reality of slavery.  Gone is the Hollywood filter through which these kinds of films are run -- much like what Solomon and the other slaves have to do, this film is grueling, harrowing work.

12 Years a Slave focuses on the reduction of human beings, the ways that slavery's machine-like efficiency rendered thousands of African Americans as nothing more than property.  There are many references to the value of blacks, as they are constantly referred to as "chattel" or "dogs."  These white men who are in charge of overseeing their work are so determined to never let the slaves ascend to any level approaching humanity in their minds, and Solomon quickly learns not to admit that he knows how to read and write, lest he be marked a dead man.  Any limitation we put on understanding something allows us to hold on to preconceived notions, and you can see that in the way the slave owners convince themselves that these slaves are animals, making it so much easier to force them to do back-breaking labor.

Where 12 Years a Slave depicts a period where many black people were dehumanized, Fruitvale Station aims to humanize a single black man.  This feature-length debut by director Ryan Coogler is also based on a true story; the film's subject is Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), a black man who was shot in the back by a white cop at a BART station in Oakland on New Year's Day.  I saw this in theaters a few months ago and it's a film experience that's stuck with me, one that I found myself recalling while watching 12 Years a Slave.  Fruitvale may take place in 2009, centuries after the events of 12 Years, but it also fundamentally asks audiences to look closer at a horror that was somewhat overlooked by many people.  Nobody will ever be able to definitively say whether Oscar Grant was deliberately murdered by a white cop while posing no immediate threat or whether it was genuinely an accident, but the fact that there's even a shred of doubt indicates that we still haven't made complete progress.  The days of practices as overt as slavery are over, but there's still work to be done on the more insidious aspects of race relations in America.

There's a scene in the middle of Fruitvale Station where Oscar witnesses a dog being run over and left for dead in the street, and he runs over to cradle it.  It's a bit of symbolism that people who dislike the film often misinterpret as drawing direct parallels between the dog and Oscar, who died in a similarly deplorable way.  But the goal of the entire film itself is to show that Oscar is more than just a dog.  He was somebody with a full life, and his death is something that mattered.  Some complain about the accuracy of the way that he was portrayed, but I'd say that the larger point was not to show who the real Oscar Grant was as a person, but that he was a person.  Plus, the film doesn't shy away from shining a light on his flaws.  He wasn't shown as some kind of tragic hero; instead there's subtle pointing to the anger issues that cause him to get into the trouble that he does.

Before a few years ago, I didn't think about race issues very much, and it's something that's easy to overlook when you're in a situation like mine growing up.  I'm from a liberal area of a swing state, I went to the most racially diverse high school in my county, and the color of my skin was only ever brought up via gentle ribbing.  But the beauty of both 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station is that they don't they let you look away, forcing you to examine the ugliness that has existed throughout history.  The former accomplishes this through its use of long takes.  There's one of a slave beating that lasts about 3 minutes before cutting that's jaw-dropping --  both for its grisly, unflinching violence and bravura filmmaking.  The latter film, on the other hand, shows you a day in the life of Oscar Grant, warts and all, and demands that you value his existence regardless.  Both films have gotten exposure in the wider world -- Fruitvale Station premiered at Sundance to much acclaim, 12 Years a Slave is generating significant Academy Award buzz -- and I'm glad that it's giving people the opportunity to have a better understanding of what being black feels like.  Every time something as rich and powerful as these two films comes out, the gap between who we are and who we are perceived to be gets just a bit narrower.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Week 6 of Fall's TV Pilots

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next biggest hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Dracula (NBC, Fridays at 10:00 PM)
For a show called Dracula, this one spends much of its first half being light on, well, vampires.  Although there's a bit more of what you'd expect in the second half, this show seems like it's much more concerned with being a period drama, which would be completely fine if that period drama wasn't so dull.  Of all the spins to put on Dracula, making it about petroleum is an odd choice.  Looking at the pilot, you can't help but think the show doesn't really know what it wants to be.  It's caught between being a refined historical tale and tapping into its trashier impulses.  When it indulges in the latter is where Dracula truly shines, and there some sequences in the middle of the episode that are creepy, confident, and backed by a surprisingly excellent score.  Unfortunately, there are far too few of these kinds of scenes, and the rest is just rather bland.  Apparently, Dracula was awoken from his eternal slumber to put us in one.
Grade: C+

Well folks, that's the end of Pilot Talk 2013.  There's still Almost Human, but Fox decided to start that one so late that I might not even review it at all.  Overall, this has been an experience that was educational (in that it taught me a bit more about what I like and don't like in my television shows) and excruciating (because there were some real stinkers).  I'd like to say I'm going to do this again next fall, but this might've been my last opportunity to do something like this, seeing as next year I'll be out of college and probably won't have as much time on my hands.  At the very least, I'll be reviewing the midseason pilots, so that's something.  Until then, let's take a look at the breakdown of grades that I gave:

A's: 1
B's: 9
C's: 8
D's: 3
F's: 2

Saturday, October 26, 2013

No surprise here: Before Midnight is basically perfect

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine's (Julie Delpy) relationship has always been driven by a sense of urgency.  In Before Sunrise, the first installment in Richard Linklater's decades-spanning trilogy, the two of them randomly meet on a train and try to make the most of their one night together before parting ways.  Nine years later, they meet back up in Before Sunset, and have an even more condensed window -- about 90 minutes -- to fill in the gaps and pick up the pieces that formed on that one night in Vienna.  What makes Before Midnight so interesting is that it explores their lives after that urgency has gone away.  No longer under some sort of ticking clock after Jesse decided to miss the flight he was supposed to catch at the end of Sunset, the two of them are deep into their relationship, now with twin daughters and all the time in the world together.

The passage of time has always been deeply ingrained in the series -- there's 9 years between each of the three, both in terms of real-world release dates and within the film.  The transition from Sunrise to Sunset was about showing the little changes that happened to Jesse and Celine in the years that they'd been apart, but in the one from Sunset to Midnight, the two of them remain more or less the same people; only the lens through which they see each other has slightly altered.  Where the Jesse and Celine that met on that train to Vienna 18 years before saw their differences as pieces that fit together to form a better whole, the push and pull of their ideologies causes much more friction in their relationship now.  Smartly, the script (co-written by Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke) plays on elements that were in the DNA of these characters from day one, and shows how easily time can change the perception of the way we see each other.

In my piece about Before Sunset and Before Sunrise, I brought up a point about how they are a reflection upon the current ages of the protagonist at the time of each film.  Midnight continues that trend, offering up a thoughtful meditation on confronting your 40s.  For Jesse and Celine, life is less in front of them and more side-by-side, and they fret about all the anxieties that come with age.  There's a lengthy scene, near the beginning of the film where they're having a meal with the various couples that they're on vacation in Greece with, that's the key to the theme of the story.  In it, they have a conversation about the inevitability of every relationship's demise, revealing the fatalism that runs through all of them.  The circumstances of Jesse and Celine's initial connection was so fortuitous that it seems like their entire relationship has been a highwire act to keep things going.  There was a danger to the end of Sunset that was at once exhilarating and frightening, but everything beforehand was so hypnotizing that you forgot about the doubt and hoped that things would end happily ever after for the two of them.  Midnight asks you to sit down and really think about how their relationship would logically play out.

There's always been a heavy emphasis on talking in these films.  In Sunrise, conversation is what initially attracted Jesse and Celine to each other and in Sunset, it was enough to bring them back together.  But in Midnight, it's the main root of trouble for the two of them.  As was the case with the first two installments in the series, the dialogue in this film is incredible, and every conversation between Hawke and Delpy is well-acted, warm, and funny.  Or at least it starts that way in the case of the latter two qualities, before things quickly turn sour.  During the feeling-out phase of their relationship, disagreement just added to the fire that sparked between them, but 10 years into their relationship, it's more like real bickering.  That's because the stakes have been raised in the time between films -- the excitement of true undying love has faded, and has made space for resentment and disappointment.  Celine feels like her role as a mother has dulled her feminist-tinged hopes and dreams, while Jesse feels like his role as a husband has caused a strain on the relationship with the son from his previous marriage, and their dissatisfaction clashes together all at once in a hotel room where they're supposed to be having a romantic evening.  It's one of the most tense and wrenching sequences I've seen all year.

There's no doubt that this series is a shining achievement in filmmaking.  It's brilliant in that quietly unflashy way, letting these characters age as we do, and checking their pulse every 9 years.  Somehow, Before Midnight manages to be the best of the three films, which is no small feat, given that the other two are some of the best of their respective decades.  But like Jesse says about his third book, which serves as a meta-commentary on this series, this film is much more ambitious and wider in scope.  The first two films were looking in on this specific relationship that formed under extraordinary circumstances, and are lovely because of it, but Before Midnight is about the ups and downs of marriage as a whole, and how falling in love is not the end of any story.

Short Term 12 transcends past the level of cliche indie drama

There's a specific type of independent film that seems to flood Sundance every year.  You know the traits: low-key, low-budget, handheld camerawork, dour characters, miserablist tone.  Far too many filmmakers go this route, and it's easy for those films to get lost in the mix when they all seem to blend together after a while.  In order to stand out from the pack, this type of indie drama has to really bring something extra to the table.  Apparently Short Term 12, the feature-length debut of director Destin Daniel Cretton, succeeded on that front.  When it premiered at Sundance back in January, it was met with glowing reviews, and became a film I was hotly anticipating.  Now that it's finally come to theaters here, I can attest that Short Term 12 is much better than its film festival baiting premise would imply.

The film opens on a scene of a man named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) regaling his coworkers with an amusing anecdote, only to be interrupted by the blaring sounds of a siren and a kid running towards a fence.  This is just another day at Short Term 12, the foster care facility for at-risk youths who are in between homes.  They all suffer from a litany of problems -- depression, anger issues, bouts of self-abuse -- and the film focuses on a select few of these kids.  There's Marcus (Keith Stanfield), whose 18th birthday is quickly approaching, signifying the point where he has to be released from the facility and sent out into a world he's not ready for.  Then there's Sammy, who copes with the loss of his sister with fits of rage and frequent attempts to escape the facility.  And early into the film there's the introduction of Jayden (the terrific Kaitlyn Dever), the newest resident at Short Term 12, whose father shipped her off to stay there on weekdays after she became too much of a hassle to deal with.  The film neatly structures itself around the arcs of these characters, telling their stories in a clear and complete fashion without ever feeling cluttered.

But Short Term 12 is really about Grace (Brie Larson), one of the twenty-somethings who supervises the facility.  Her job description, as she tells one of the new workers, is not to be a parent or a therapist, but to make these kids' lives as comfortable as possible in this transition stage of indefinite length.  Although she's helping them with their rough lives, things aren't going so well for her either.  Early in the film we see her go to a clinic to get the results for a pregnancy test, and she seems anything but pleased when they come back positive.  The film is pretty upfront about the backstories and psychologies of the kids at the facility, but it's more interested in playing the long game when it comes to Grace.  She's presented to us as someone who is very guarded, but the "why" of it all is meted out slowly.  Larson is incredible here -- her performance is up there with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine as one of the best of the year.  Grace pours all her energy into her work as a way of running away from her own personal troubles, and Larson is heartbreaking throughout every moment of Grace running on fumes.

The film doesn't pull punches about its subject matter either.  Cretton films the scenes of characters breaking down and lashing out with a raw intensity that's at once frightening and sad.  These are teens with deep problems, and Grace's own issues are there to show that that damage doesn't just go away easily.  Her past informs the deep anxiety she feels towards her impending motherhood.  In fact, parentage plays a large role in almost every one of the threads in the film.  There's an underlying point being made about how the actions of parents can have a harmful effect on children.  In the midst of dealing with all of these children who come from abusive homes, it's no wonder why Grace is so hesitant to become a parent and bring a child of her own into the world.  Yet the film shies away from the usual indie drama bleakness by providing a little bit of hope and beauty.  By showing Mason, a former product of the foster care system, now as an adult who has his life together, you can tell the film has a real belief in what Grace and the others are doing to help these kids.  There are ills in the world that will always exist on a macro level, but sometimes you have to find small victories under dire circumstances.  Short Term 12 does just that, and the result is one of the most heart-rending and powerful films of the year.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Making a case for Dana Brody

No previously acclaimed show on air receives as much vitriol as Showtime's Homeland does.  It premiered in the fall of 2011 to rapturous critical acclaim, with some even positing that it was ushering in the new Silver Age of drama.  Yet even then, there were some jitters that came along with the praise.  After all, the show was from former 24 writers, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, so people were always wondering how long Homeland could sustain itself before flying wildly off the rails, as they believed the former did.  Whether it's due to actual quality or self-fulfilling prophecy, almost everyone has been having an increasing amount of problems with Homeland as it closes out the first act of its third season.  And a large subset of those people who have soured on the show use Dana Brody, the teenage daughter Nicholas Brody, as a conduit to channel their frustrations with the show as a whole.  It's not hard to do this because she's the furthest away from what the show feels like it's about -- the CIA, terrorism, and identity in the age of constant surveillance.

But what's the real root behind these complaints?  I don't want to make any assumptions, but the internet largely has a problem with women and teenagers, and Dana happens to be both.  That's not to say that people wouldn't still hate Dana if she was a guy, but there's an uncomfortable "who cares about this dumb teenage girl and her dumb teenage girl problems?" vibe to a great deal of the criticism of her storylines.  Even if it isn't driven by closeted sexism, Dana is such a realistic depiction of a teen -- moody, mumbly, singularly-focused -- that it's easy for people (particularly those far removed from their teen years) to find her infuriating.  The one exception to this "everybody hates teens" theory would be Mad Men's Sally Draper.  As a whole, the internet generally loves her and wants to see more plots surrounding her, but I'd argue that it's because she didn't start out the show as a teen and we only get around 3 episodes per season that really focus on her at all.  People may say they want more, but if she got as much screen time as Dana did, I'd imagine more people would grow to dislike her too.  Either way, I'm staking my claim on this terrain and launching a defense: Dana Brody is the best character on Homeland.

That might be blasphemy to say about a show where Carrie Mathison exists, but for as much as Carrie was once one of the most original and complex characters on television, it's gotten to a point where it feels like we're just getting a greatest hits collection (both in terms of the writing and Claire Danes' performance).  What beat in Carrie's story this year hasn't been hit three or four times before?  Dana, on the other hand, continues to impress on both fronts.  She never feels inessential to the show, despite what some fans might say.  Homeland has always been about the mixture of foreign and domestic drama, and Dana is such an important piece to the latter that the show would feel less complete (not to mention less interesting) without her.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Morgan Saylor is a terrific actress, who just gets better every year.  There's alot of pouting and stammering involved in her performance, but she sells the reality of it.

Back in season 1, when she was the emotional center of the Brody storyline, playing a crucial role in Nick deciding not to set off his explosive vest in the bunker housing the vice president, there weren't too many Dana haters.  It's only in season 2 where people really started to hurl invective in her direction.  The "Dana and Finn hit somebody with a car" development really rankled viewers, who felt that it was a ridiculous story turn.  And sure, it was kind of bizarre and unnecessary, but it all tied into the idea of moral relativism that the show was exploring, particularly in that middle chunk of season 2.  Season 2 focused on projecting the flaws and crimes of the larger world onto Dana.  She realizes just how unfair things are and is the only one to speak up about it, because her and Finn's parents are too wrapped up in privilege to bother doing the right thing.  It's a risk to go through with a storyline that's idiotic on a pure plot level in hopes that it'll land thematically, but it's one that season 2 mostly nails because of how high-stakes the emotions are.

We picked up this year where things left off, as Nicholas Brody has been accused of being behind the Langley bombing at the end of season 2, and this season shows the twin sides of the fallout -- bureaucratic and emotional.  Everyone is trying to put the pieces back together, but the problem is that not all the pieces are there anymore.  For the CIA, it's that pile of rubble where the edifice of their headquarters once stood, a haunting reminder of the attack.  But for Dana, it's more personal -- the giant hole in her life exists in the form of her father, the presumed terrorist.  She's just been let out of a mental health clinic in the season 3 premiere, and we quickly learn that it's because she tried to commit suicide in the months between seasons.  Where Homeland usually tries to draw parallels between Carrie and Brody or Dana and her parents, this year we've gotten a few between Carrie and Dana.  Dana's circumstantial mental illness is contrasted with Carrie's biological mental illness, and the latter is committed just as the former is released.  Dana's stories wouldn't work if they weren't so resolutely intent on being in her head space.  These first few episodes have featured so many intimate closeups of her just thinking, with either nothing in the background or the rest of the world blurred out of focus.

Her arc this year also fits in with the themes of confinement that the writers are playing with this year.  These themes are the clearest in "Tower of David," which alternates between Brody and Carrie in their own prisons (Caracas and the psych ward, respectively).  But with Dana, her confinement is more abstract.  She may be free from the care center, but she finds herself suffocated in the suburban world, where her whole family is associated with a national traitor.  "Game On" continues this idea even further.  Take a look at the scene where her and Leo visit the military location where her father was first shipped off to Afghanistan.  The two of them are looking in on this enclosed space, but the camera rarely shows it.  Instead, the scene is framed so that it looks like they're the ones who are behind a fence.  It's no coincidence that this occurs in the very same episode where Carrie discovers just how much the CIA could ruin her life if they wanted to.  Both women are trapped by forces far greater than them.

As I mentioned above, there's been alot of grumbling about how this Dana storyline is a completely unrelated diversion, and I just can't agree.  Listen, I'm not a huge fan of how Leo intersects with it all (even if it is realistic for a teenager to base their life around a romantic prospect), but it's totally in line with the themes of the season, and serves as a quiet emotional reflection of the higher-stakes storylines happening elsewhere on the show.  With the Carrie's development occurring more like a circle than an arc, and the CIA material taking a while to really rev up, the Dana stuff was the most compelling plot of the season until the twist at the end of Sunday's episode (a topic best saved for another blog post).

That's not to say that season 3 of Homeland isn't a strange one -- it is.  It's messy and lumpy and bizarre, but in the most fascinating ways.  Between Carrie spending most of these episodes in the psych ward, Brody stuck doing heroin in Caracas, and the latest reveal of Saul playing a long game with his opponents and the audience alike; this is the kind of devil-may-care storytelling that led to some thrilling moments early in season 2.  It's also the same type of writing that set up what would eventually cause the second half of that season to haphazardly spiral out of control.  Everything is still up in the air for season 3, and it has equal chance of landing either way.  All I'm saying is that on a show that strains credulity at every turn, the Dana material is the only thing that consistently feels real and grounded.