Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2014

"Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes."  That's become my motto over the course of this year, and something I want people to remember when they find themselves pre-judging a show based on some arbitrary standard.  We're increasingly moving away from the idea that every good drama has to be an antihero show in the vein of The Sopranos and every comedy has to be something fast-paced and single-camera like Arrested Development.  Now, we're living in an age where the best new series of the fall is a CW show based on a telenovela (watch Jane the Virgin, people!) and one of the best comedies of the year is a charming little Australian show that airs on a network called Pivot (watch Please Like Me, people!).  Say it with me now: Great TV comes in all shapes and sizes!

2014 was not quite as good of a year for television as 2013, which I consider the best year of TV since I started following the medium closely.  Last year featured a breadth of terrific new shows, but some of them faltered a little bit in 2014 (Masters of Sex, Orphan Black).  Even still, there are so many great shows popping up out of new places.  For example, this year saw Amazon solidify themselves as serious content creators with Transparent, Jill Soloway's shaggy, intimate tale about family and identity.  As a result of this continued expansion of the medium, I watched more television than ever this year -- the number of shows I followed completely in 2014 was a whopping 104.

There was quite a bit of turnover between my list last year and the one this year, with 14 of the shows that appeared on 2013's list being absent on this one.  Even what I consider to be some of my favorite shows are missing.  Game of Thrones had a fourth season that had some astonishing individual moments, but the show as a whole feels like it's increasingly spinning off its axis.  For every time Girls was brilliant in season three, it was just as maddening a scene or two later.  Orphan Black was fun and exciting while it was airing, but a bit of a mess when viewed in hindsight.  Justified had a chance to go down as one of my favorite dramas of this generation -- and it still does, if it sticks the landing -- but it's hard to see this year as anything other than a misstep for the show.  And I've thoroughly enjoyed the final season of Parenthood, but NBC chose not to air the entire run in 2014, so the material that would've likely pushed it in to the top 20 won't appear until next year.

Another trend I noticed is that this year was a better year for comedy than last year, if my lists are anything to go by.  Last year only featured two pure comedies, while this year has triple the amount at six.  So don't let anybody tell you that TV isn't cyclical.

The rules: Shows are considered for this list based on the episodes that they aired in 2014.  This is a pretty plain and simple rule for cable dramas, where full seasons usually air within a single calendar year.  However, it gets slightly messy when considering network shows, which usually air the first half of their season in the fall and the second half starting January of the next year.  So something like, say, Brooklyn Nine-Nine would be judged based on the second half of its first season (which aired at the beginning of the year) and the first half of its second season (which started in the fall of this year).  As for what constitutes a TV show, anything that airs on, you know, a TV station counts.  But shows that air exclusively on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon count too.  Unfortunately, "web series" don't qualify (but watch Jules and Monty anyway, because it's great), even though that distinction is becoming harder and harder to make.  Okay, everything clear now?  Good, let's get this list started...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My 20 Favorite Films of 2014

My end of the year list for films is always my most incomplete list, because so many films come out at the end of the year in New York and Los Angeles and nowhere else, simply to qualify for the Academy Awards.  So as always, here is a list of films that could have made my top 20 if not for the fact that I have no ability to see them yet: Mr. Turner, Inherent Vice, Selma, Two Days One Night, Song of the Sea.  This pisses me off.  And until I quit making this list, die, or move to New York or LA, I will keep complaining about this.  I mean, I can't see Inherent Vice and Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite director.  It's an outrage, I tell you!

Looking back at my top 20 list from last year, I noticed that there were more heavy-hitter directors that popped up.  Paul Greengrass, Edgar Wright, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, Richard Linklater -- they all appeared on my list last year.  While 2014 doesn't have the pedigree to match that, I'd say that it was still a pretty great year for film, and I'm very satisfied with my top 20.

The rules: As long as a film got an official release in 2014, it was eligible for placement on this list.  This is an important thing to remember, since many of the films that appear in my top 20 premiered at film festivals in 2013, but didn't get released in theaters until this year.  And in the case where a film got no theatrical release, then a VOD debut in 2014 will make it eligible.  Now that all of that has been cleared up, on to the actual list...

Monday, December 29, 2014

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2014

Last year, I wrote about how many different narratives there were for music in 2013.  On the other hand, 2014 was a year that seemed to have no narrative at all (which maybe was a narrative in and of itself?).  Coincidentally, this was not a great year for music.  It was one full of good albums, because every year has good albums, but much less great ones than previous years in this decade.  There were also no real event albums like there were last year, which gave us Yeezus, Modern Vampires of the City, and Random Access Memories, among others.  And even the ones that got many people talking this year -- like Benji or Lost in a Dream -- I wasn't crazy about.

It was, however, a good year for women, at least judging by my list.  12 of the picks on my list are either by women or bands fronted by women.  So shout out to the ladies, I guess!  (Anti-shout out to rap music, which didn't fare as well.  Only one of the albums in my top 20 is a rap release.)

The rules: Due to the constant changing of the way music gets released, anything can be an album for the sake of this list.  You especially have to play fast and loose given the fact that many rap mixtapes function as albums anyway.  So LPs, mixtapes, 40-minute songs, EPs if they're good enough -- they're all albums to me!  If something got released in another country in a previous year, but got an American release this year, it works on a case-by-case basis (we'll see an example of that later).  Otherwise, the eligibility window is that the album has to have been released between January 1, 2014 and today.  That means Beyonce's self-titled album, which came out during the last week of 2013 but will probably appear on one or two 2014 lists, is not eligible for this one.  (Spoiler: it wouldn't have made it anyway.)  So now with that bit of business out of the way, on to the actual list...

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Great 2014 songs from albums that won't make my top 20 list

On December 29th, my "20 Favorite Albums of 2014" list drops, but there's so much good music out there that one list couldn't fully represent what the year had to offer.  It's hard to make an album that's consistently great from start to finish, especially in an age where individual songs are given more and more importance.  So this list is intended to pay lip service to some great standalone songs.  All of these come from albums that won't be on my top 20 list, either because it's a great song on a mediocre album, or one on an album that's good but not quite good enough to crack the top tier.  So, without further ado, here's a list of thirty standalone songs, listed in alphabetical order:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Episode of the Week: Black Mirror - "White Christmas"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

2014 Christmas Special

Thanks mostly to Ryan Murphy (I never thought I'd say that), who at the end of American Horror Story's first season announced that the second would tell a completely different story, anthologies have had something of a resurgence lately.  Now we've got True Detective, Fargo, and the upcoming American Crime Story too.  But those aren't anthologies in the truest sense, since they tell one story in a full season, before moving on to another one.  The UK's brilliant, subversive Black Mirror is a classic anthology, recalling the days of Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, telling single-episode short stories with completely different actors, characters, and tones.  Over the course of seven episodes, this series has reminded us how satisfying that model could be.

The basic logline for Black Mirror is that it's "the sci-fi version of The Twilight Zone," and that's mostly pretty accurate.  The "black mirror" in question is every blank screen -- phones, laptops, tablets, televisions -- that people of today are slaves to, and each episode aims to tell a story about the power of technology in some way.  In creator Charlie Brooker's mind, technology is an amazing advancement that has improved our lives in many ways, but the overreaching power that it has can also be horrifying and suffocating.  What's smart about these stories is that he takes aspects that are already prevalent in our culture and stretches them to extremes, presenting a world that could plausibly exist as a result of unchecked progress.

A few weeks ago, the show finally arrived on Netflix, allowing those in America who didn't already acquire it illegally to watch and see what all the hype is about.  Without a doubt, the buzz about the show has never been higher, as publications that had already seen the show have been posting articles about why you should watch and newcomers have been fervently tweeting about their experience.  So whether it was deliberately planned this way or a matter of pure serendipity, the Christmas special that aired this past week in the UK (and will be shown in America on December 25th) couldn't have come at a better time.

"White Christmas" is wickedly structured, functioning like a mini-season, broken down into three segments that serve as mini-episodes.  Brooker is a great ideas man, and each of these segments feel like they could sustain an entire episode, but the fact that he condenses them doesn't make them any less satisfying.

But before it reveals its true nature, the episode plays it coy at first.  It starts off like it's going to be some post-apocalyptic story, as we meet Joe (Rafe Spall) and Matt (Jon Hamm), two men who have apparently been in a cabin in the middle of some snowy landscape for five years.  That half decade has been marked with very little chatter between them, but on this particular day -- which is Christmas, to be exact -- Matt tries to make Joe open up by telling him a story of how he came to take this "job" that they're on.

In this world, every human has been given something called a Z-Eye, which allows their eyes to serve as camera, among other things.  Matt uses this feature to start up a service where he helps awkward guys get dates by using watching them through the Z-Eye and giving them tips through an earpiece.  With Matt at an offsite location, he's free to look up information on women to give the men an extra advantage.  He helps Harry (Rasmus Hardiker) who infiltrates a random office Christmas party and hits it off with Jennifer (Natalia Tena).  "White Christmas" deftly lays out its reveals, even the smallest ones, like the one where we find out that not only Matt, but a whole group of men, are watching Harry.  And perhaps if Harry wasn't trying to tick boxes on a mental checklist he's been given, he'd be able to tell that Jennifer is suicidal before she takes him to her home and forces him to drink a mysterious liquid that kills him while Matt and the others are watching.

As it turns out, that love guru business is not even Matt's job, which we learn when he launches into another story.  This segment passes it over to Greta (Oona Chaplin), a woman who is undergoing a procedure to take out a chip that has been in her brain for a week collecting data about the way she thinks, and putting it in a "cookie" that will be able to virtually do household tasks that Greta herself is too lazy to do.  By all accounts, this copy is just like Greta.  She thinks like Greta, she feels like Greta, she has the same preferences as Greta; and it's Matt's job to train this copy.  Here's where the genius of Jon Hamm truly comes in.  We're so used to seeing him on Mad Men playing Don Draper, who even at his worst, always has a cool restraint to him.  As Matt, he's an oozing jerk, and it's wonderful to watch.  The way he tortures this "cookie" Greta into realizing her purpose is absolutely horrifying.  "It'll be much easier if you just comply" is enough to send chills down spines.

After having heard two of Matt's stories, Joe is ready to open up about he came to take this job at the cabin.  Once again, it's important to note how masterfully constructed "White Christmas" is.  Though these three segments are separate stories, their ideas and themes are all swirling around the same drain, and concepts that get introduced in one segment carry over into a later segment.  In Matt's first story, we learn about "blocking," a legally binding process that makes it so that anybody you block appears as a muffled white blob, and vice versa.  It's another example of Brooker pushing an existing part of our culture to its extreme, since blocking is something we already do on Facebook and Twitter all of the time.  But this is much more frightening and powerful.

As Joe tells it, once he found out that his girlfriend Bethany (Janet Montgomery) was pregnant, they got into a fight because she didn't want to keep it, and in a fit of rage she blocks him.  They remain apart until he sees a silhouetted blob walking down the street one day, pregnant.  Because the blocking extends to offspring, he can't see his child either -- the only hope he has is to watch the two of them from afar every Christmas when they visit Beth's father's house.  One year, however, Joe is watching the news when discovers that Beth died in a tragic train crash, thus lifting the block and allowing him to see his child.

The nesting doll of twists just keep unraveling, as Joe does his yearly Christmas visit, only to discover the little girl he can now see is Asian, and actually the child of somebody Beth had an affair with.  Confused, he confronts Beth's father about this and Joe is so enraged that he accidentally kills him.  You start to see where the next twist is going before he does, which just makes the whole thing more agonizing.  It turns out that Matt is interrogating a cookie of Joe because the real version is in jail and won't speak.  Once Matt gets the confession out of Joe, he thinks he'll be absolved of the crimes he committed in the stories he told Joe, but the police decide to put him on "The Register" (the parallels with a registered sex offenders list are clear), which blocks him from everybody in the world.

This episode isn't without its flaws.  Matt's punishment seems a tiny bit too cruel, when all is said and done.  (Though could it be an intentional callback to the themes of the show's best episode, "White Bear"?)  And if you think about the Z-Eye and the concept of blocking for too long, plotholes begin to appear.  Blocking seems more impractical than helpful, but that and Matt's punishment work on an emotional level.  The whole episode is structured like a two-hander between Joe and Matt, and in the end they're both imprisoned and isolated, the former in his own head and the latter in the real world.  "White Christmas" also holds up to multiple viewings, providing different pleasures each time, like the best Black Mirror episodes.  The first time around you're left guessing where the story is going, but the journey is so compelling that the twist doesn't feel like the ultimate goal.  On second viewing, all the ways in which Joe and Matt's conversation is clearly an interrogation enrich the experience.  ("It's a job, not a jail," Joe says at one point.  "Often the same thing," responds Matt.)

Those three mini-stories connect the episode with some pretty powerful themes, chiefly the idea of people using technology as a shortcut to real emotions.  Randy uses the Z-Eye to hit on girls instead of trying to forge a genuine, honest connection with them.  Greta gets a cookie to do everything for her.  Beth blocks Joe so she doesn't have to tell him the truth about her pregnancy.  It's also all about people not knowing the full implications of their actions.  The Z-Eye, the psychological torture of the cookie, the totality of blocking -- they're all things that these people have easy access to, so they don't really put much thought into the grand effect.  And when you think about it, are we any different?

If this all feels a little familiar, that's because it's supposed to.  "White Christmas," is clearly and cleverly riffing on ideas presented in previous episodes of the show.  The Z-Eye functions in a similar way to The Grain in "The Entire History of You," the idea of having a not completely real but close enough copy of a person was explored in "Be Right Back," and using illusions to make criminals come to terms with their crimes was presented in "White Bear."  In that way, this episode does what Christmas is supposed to do: provide comfort and remind you of the things you love.  It turns out I love Black Mirror very much.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: State of Affairs

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

Mondays at 10:00 PM on NBC

State of Affairs desperately wants to be Homeland.  It opens on Katherine Heigl's CIA analyst character Charleston Tucker (yes, you read that correctly) at a session with her therapist, intercut with scenes of her in Afghanistan, witnessing her fiancee dying in a chaotic firefight.  Spy with mental scars as a result of war?  Check.  Later in the episode, she receives intel that convinces her that her fiancee may actually be alive after all these years.  Nick Brody stand-in?  Check.  The pilot even slips in a mournful jazz song near the end.  Even when it's not trying to, it shares DNA with Homeland, seeing as the hostage trade scenario that dominates the first episode is exactly the same as a plotline in this most recent episode of Homeland.  The problem is that it takes that series and puts it through a network strainer, leaving behind a dry noodle of a show and none of the juice that would make it interesting.

Not even direction from Joe Carnahan (and a script co-written by him) can liven things up.  There's a nicely edited sequence near the middle of the episode that zips and pops, but otherwise the show is a hollow machine, making lots of motions but not producing much.  This pilot is just so busy.  Nothing exciting happens, despite the overbearing score and caffeinated editing insisting upon the contrary.  State of Affairs doesn't commit any outrageous sins, but it also doesn't do anything worthwhile either.  It's the very definition of a C show.

Grade: C

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) vs. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009)

I missed out on Fullmetal Alchemist during the peak of its popularity for reasons both practical and superficial.  On the former side of the equation, I wasn't yet into anime to a large extent and I could never catch it at the start of its run on Adult Swim.  On the latter, I was kind of turned off by it because most of the people who loved it were the type of people I hated in middle school.  So my impression of the show was solely based off the snippets I'd seen in promos and bits of buzz that wandered into my ears.  From that, I had assumed it was just a simple shounen show where the main characters fought a series of escalating baddies.  And instead of magic or super powers, these people fought with alchemy, or "science magic," if you will.

To my surprise, it's actually quite a morally, emotionally complex show.  In many ways, it reminds me of Avatar: the Last Airbender, not least of which is the fact that you can look at both from a distance and dismiss them as shows for children, but upon further inspection reveal themselves to be mature in their themes and storytelling.  Fullmetal Alchemist, especially in its introductory episodes, is steeped in loss.  Following the untimely death of their mother, Edward and Alphonse Elric take up alchemy and ravenously devour ancient texts in an effort to use its powers to resurrect her.  However, their attempt at playing God backfires and they pay a hefty price, the loss of Ed's right arm and left leg and Al's entire body.

The beginning of the show milks the tragedy of the Elric brothers for all it's worth, but that's what makes their journey so compelling.  Along their quest to find the Philosopher's Stone, a device that will help them get the pieces of themselves that they've lost back, Ed and Al are constantly reminded of the choices they've made, not just from the parts of them that are literally missing, but from the various people they come across.  Using alchemy as a way of trying and failing to deal with loss is a theme that comes up over and over; the show is almost a Fringe-level examination of the physical cost of pushing science to its limits.

One area where Fullmetal Alchemist does skew younger is in its sense of humor.  The comedy is absolutely dire, relying on simple jokes that repeat incessantly over the course of the series.  You'll understand that Ed is insecure about being short, that Hughes loves his kid, or that people initially assume Al is the Fullmetal Alchemist pretty early on.  That doesn't stop the writers from continuing to tell variations of those jokes, the already low response from it diminishing each time.  Occasionally, the comedy is used as a shorthand way of effectively fleshing out characters.  Part of the reason why a certain character's death about a fourth of the way through the show has so much impact is because the running joke about the character is what establishes the stakes of their story.

But whenever the show threatens to fall off its axis, it always has Ed and Al's dynamic to fall back on.  Their brotherly relationship is the rock that holds everything together.  They've lost their mother, and their father abandoned them when they were younger, so now they're the only family each other has.  The fierce devotion they have to one another is what drives their quest to return their bodies to a normal state.  Ed and Al's relationship is so strong that the story stumbles a little bit when it tries to bring conflict into the mix.  Al's suspicion, and subsequent anger, about the possibly that Ed manufactured his memories just doesn't feel true to the character.  Luckily, it's a storyline that comes and goes rather quickly.

Fullmetal Alchemist is also about the surrogate families that build up throughout the series.  Though Ed and Al are orphans, they've got their childhood friend Winry and her grandmother, who are there to provide physical aid (Winry uses her skills as a mechanic to fix Ed's mechanical arm) and emotional support.  Then there's Colonel Mustang's squadron, the gang of misfits who are united by their faith and loyalty to their leader.  Even the homunculi, the artificially created humans who make up the villains of the series, are bounded by their burden, their desire to be human.  It's not just the families we're given that matters, but the families we make as well.

Like many of the longer running anime that are based on manga, the show began putting out episodes at a faster pace than the source material, and had to deviate the story from its original path.  This led to an emphasis on the conflict between the state and Ishbala, which recalls the real life Middle East.  In fact, lots of the second half of the series feels like an Iraq War allegory.  Between the excessive military occupation, the idea of a government invading land to serve their own means (finding/testing out the Philosopher's Stone), and keeping information and motives from the general public, the real-world implications just pile on.  The city of Liore also has some Middle East parallels, in that a corrupt leader gets overthrown, but that only causes more chaos and mayhem.  "Dog of the military" is a phrase that comes up over and over again throughout the show.  It's a series that explores what it means to serve a country, to follow orders even when you don't fully understand or agree with them.  Moral gray areas abound, effectively portraying the atrocities of war that are committed on both sides.

Much like Avatar: the Last Airbender, one of the best things about Fullmetal Alchemist is the deep well of empathy that it contains.  Throughout its run, there are a few characters who remain purely evil, because most of the villains stick around long enough that we're given reasons to sympathize with them.  Most of the show's most tragic arcs come from those who don't start off on the side of good.  For example, Scar is introduced as a fearsome villain, an alchemist killer with a no-mercy attitude.  But when you actually learn why he has a grudge against state alchemists, your perspective on him completely changes.  Likewise with homunculus Lust, who causes destruction in search of the Philosopher's Stone because she wants to use it to become human again.

The ways in which we strive toward humanity is at the forefront of the series.  It tackles this idea literally with the homunculi's quest for the Philosopher's Stone, and in a roundabout way with Ed's desire to get his and Al's full bodies back.  But it's also all about the ways in which we try to do the right thing, to not compromise on our morals, but occasionally fall short.  Many of the characters are struggling under the weight of past sins or present predicaments.  Nobody comes out unscathed or uncompromised.

The overflow of themes and ideas Fullmetal Alchemist has is matched by the vast array of characters, an ensemble it has an excellent handle on.  There are so many varied and distinct characters in the bunch, and the show has a way of bringing back people who seem minor and then making them vital to the overarching plot.  It speaks to a larger point, which is that it's much better paced than most anime with 50 episodes.  That's probably because the show keeps its "filler" episodes clustered in the beginning, which helps you get a better sense of the characters, so you'll be fully invested once the plotting intensifies.  But even in the later stages of the show, it's able to incorporate some experimental episodes, such as the one that focuses on what Mustang's squadron does in their downtime (Avatar parallel #457: "Tales of Ba Sing Se").  All throughout its run, Fullmetal Alchemist mixes tones -- it could do light or funny or dark or somber -- but the narrative stays cohesive.

The conclusion of the series, which brings all of the ongoing storylines to a head, stumbles in a few crucial ways.  It's not an unqualified failure, but the final couple of episodes are by far the weakest of the series.  They are just way too overstuffed and, without giving away any specific details, they introduce some over-the-top, idiotic ideas.  Plus, for a show that's so grim and uncompromising, the ending feels very cheap and unsatisfying.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was created, in part, to make up for that ending and the fact that the original 2003 series went off in its own direction in the second half.  Now, with the manga complete, Brotherhood would be able to follow its source material to the letter.  So this 2009 sister series benefited those manga purists who were infuriated by the original, and if fans of the previous version found something to like in it too, then it'd be icing on the cake.

The biggest problem with Brotherhood is that it assumes that viewers have already seen Fullmetal Alchemist '03.  Of course, almost everybody had seen the latter, but the choice to simply barrel through the story in the first 13 episodes doesn't make for an enjoyable viewing experience.  In that early stretch of episodes, it feels like a soulless imitation of an anime I liked quite a bit and didn't need another version of.  There's so much emotional shorthand that not only make the beats work less in the present tense, but hurt future moments that lean on the foundation laid in the beginning.  The origin of the Elric brothers doesn't have one-fourth the power that it does in the original series, there are crucial scenes and episodes centered on Maes Hughes that are cut out, and Colonel Mustang isn't given enough scenes with the Elrics to establish their relationship.  Most of the humor in Fullmetal Alchemist was already execrable, but Brotherhood injects even more lazy and sometimes egregious (Izumi vomiting blood gets played for laughs!) comedy.  Most of all, the first arc is just plain boring.

Many of the characters end up feeling poorly handled.  Where Scar was an intimidating, but soulful character in the original Fullmetal, he comes off like the generic "badass anime villain" throughout most of Brotherhood.  A character like the first Brigadier General gets killed off before we even get to know him.  The 2003 Fullmetal had the intelligence to devote an episode to Barry the Chopper in his murderous human form, so that his reappearance at the 5th Laboratory as a hollow suit of armor has more impact.  Brotherhood just introduces him at the 5th Laboratory and fills in his backstory with a crudely animated sequence.  However, the show's biggest transgression comes from the writing of the homunculi.  Here, they are far less complex and thematically resonant than in the original series, where they were given backstories and motivations beyond an evil plot.  Brotherhood seems content with having them be manifestations of Father's sins.  So when Lust dies in the 2003 version, it's tragic because we've seen her origin and desires; in the 2009 version, it's simply a triumphant defeat of the bad guy.  And the less said about the Greed 2.0 storyline, the better.

Thankfully, there are a few saving graces that make it easier to get through the first half of Brotherhood.  It boasts much higher production values than its predecessor, across the board.  Even when the story drags, episodes immediately light up when an action sequence rolls around.  They're excellently paced, choreographed, and directed; a marked improvement on the already great action from the original series.  It takes a while to get used to the art -- thinner lines, rounder faces, manga-styled designs in the comedic moments -- but the characters designs are so unique and interesting that they can translate well to any style.  Many of the voice actors from the original reprise their roles, and like Fullmetal Alchemist, Brotherhood has a superb English dub.

At 64 episodes, 13 more than the 2003 version, Brotherhood has more room to expand, and it does so with great success.  In Fullmetal Alchemist, it was almost as if "the state" was the only real piece of land that existed other than Ishbal, whose location was unclear, but felt like it was somewhere nearby.  Brotherhood actually gives "the state" a name -- Amestris -- and gives it bordering nations with names and actual people who inhabit it.  Sometimes that leads to the inclusion of characters like Prince Lin and Princess May from Xing, a fictional nation heavily based on China, who are completely annoying and uninteresting.  But more often than not, learning more about the world of Brotherhood improves the show.  It's no surprise that the series actually starts to become good around the time that Ed and Al travel to the North.  Those episodes feel like we've had our eyes opened to a whole new world, complete with its own mythology and way of doing things.  It reminded me of The North in Game of Thrones: frighteningly cold, gigantic wall that stands as a barrier from dangerous enemies, misfits and sinners charged with protecting it.

The second half of the series improves leaps and bounds upon the first half, starting from that portion in the North and leading into the action-packed finale arc.  Its biggest strength is to be found in Roy Mustang's progression as a character, which is so satisfying that it's hard to imagine why the original didn't go in that direction.  (The likely answer is that this part of the manga wasn't finished yet, but his arc in Brotherhood feels so logical that all roads would seem to lead to it.)  He becomes the show's richest, most complex character, a man who wants power but also has a desire to remain good while doing it, and slowly realizing that that may be untenable.  His actions also factor into the finale's political intrigue-filled coup, which amps up the tension tenfold.  Great action sequences occur across multiple fronts, with deft cross-cutting between them all.  It's gripping, exciting stuff.

Brotherhood pulls out every happy ending imaginable for its conclusion: Mustang gets his eyesight back, Ed and Winry basically end up together, Al gets his body back, Havoc gains the ability to walk again, there's a new Selim.  All of it is a little too pat, but it's an otherwise sweeping, grandiose, and very moving closer.  While it ends up being more successful than the ending of Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), it's hard to deny that both finales are thematically fitting for their respective series.  FMA '03 was more about loss, so the ending was a bittersweet one, forever reminding us that sacrifices are necessary.  For Brotherhood, which was always a more traditional story, the ending is more hopeful.  The latter is very much about the cycle of violence that humans inflict on one another, which is what the homunculi capitalize on.  So the ending is humanity finally breaking that cycle and making steps toward peace.

Ultimately, I preferred the original Fullmetal Alchemist as a complete experience.  It's more consistent, darker, and more nuanced than Brotherhood.  The latter has its own unique pleasures, they just take longer to appear.  If you want a faithful adaptation of the manga, go with Brotherhood; if you like liberal adaptations, FMA 03 is the one to go with.  Of course, you can always just kiss 50 hours of your life goodbye and watch both like I did.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Run the Jewels 2 proves that sequels don't have to be disappointing

"The jewel runners, top tag team for two summers," Killer Mike says about Run The Jewels, the duo he formed with Def Jux founder El-P, on the opening track of their latest album.  He's not lying either.  The two first began collaborating in 2012, when El-P produced all of Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music and Mike delivered a blistering guest verse on El's Cancer 4 Cure.  Those were two of the best rap albums released that year, but apparently that wasn't enough for them.  They liked working with each other so much that they decided to start a group, releasing a short, but astounding album the next year (which landed at the number three on my best of 2013 list).  If they had just decided to make that one-off record and part ways, it would've been enough, yet here they are again with a fast and unlikely return a year later.

What makes them great as a pairing is that they're such different rappers.  El-P's got that idiosyncratic flow that he's evolved over the last 15 years into something serpentine and formidable.  It goes in, out, through, and above the beat, and he can shift gears to double time mid-verse with ease.  His lyrics are so dense, you need a fine-tooth comb to sort through them.  And he chooses his words with such precision that they come out of his mouth mellifluously.  Killer Mike, on the other hand, doesn't ride the beat so much as he stomps all over it.  His lyrics don't pack as many internal rhymes or as much assonance as El-P's, but he makes up for it through the sheer force with which he delivers them.  When he says "bunches and bunches, punches are thrown until you're frontless," you believe that he'll really do it.

What makes the two of them an even better pairing is that they're able to meld together so well, despite those differences.  In fact, some of the most thrilling moments of Run the Jewels 2 occur when the two of them are trading off little mini-verses back and forth ("All Due Respect," "Oh My Darling Don't Cry," "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)"), picking up on the other's last line and taking it in their own direction.  Their relationship is mutualistic -- they feed off of one another, elevating themselves in the process.  On "Blockbuster Night, Part 1" El-P does a highly alliterative verse, so Killer Mike follows suit.  Then on "Early," Killer Mike drops an introspective 16 about police corruption and El-P picks up the baton and delivers something just as thoughtful.

Their level of chemistry could easily make their music feel insular, but the guests on the album fit in quite nicely, even when they don't seem like they would.  It's unlikely that anybody read the Run the Jewels 2 tracklist a few months ago and reacted with anything other than a groan when they saw "feat. Zack de la Rocha."  But not only is "Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)" the best song on the record, de la Rocha's verse is excellent.  After three minutes of Mike and El breathing fire over a sludgy beat, he comes up and delivers some of the most entertaining bars on the entire album, gleefully sputtering lines like "I'm miles ahead of you, you can sip my bitches brew" or "Philip AK Dickin' you."  "Love Again (Akinyele Back)" seems like it's just going to be the album's obligatory "let's talk about sex" song, but then Gangsta Boo -- that's right, Gangsta Boo! -- hops on the track and delivers an eye-popping, delightfully vulgar verse that brings some much-needed perspective.  Even the less front-and-center guest appearances work.  Boots shows up for the chorus of "Early" and gives it vocals that fit the mournful, introspective tone of Killer Mike and El-P's verses.  Elsewhere, Travis Barker appears on the wild, pummeling "All Due Respect," drumming like an eight-armed madman.

But not only does this feature some of the best rapping you're going to hear all year, it's also got the best production of 2014.  The first Run the Jewels album opted for a retro style, full of boom-bap beats that were pretty fun and lively.  That production bumped in its own right, but for the sequel, El-P gets a little bit darker, less minimalistic.  It's much closer to the twitchy, paranoid sound of his solo work.  In El's hands, the beats aren't just a structured loop to be rapped over, they're sonic petri dishes, teeming with all kinds of sounds and instruments.  They're a force to be tamed, lumbering about like a behemoth, rising and falling and shifting.  "Oh My Darling Don't Cry" might be the greatest example of that.  It's a dizzying, furious series of movements -- at one point it sounds like a paranoid baby babbling, at another it's like a dial-up machine that's possessed by a demon.  Scraggly guitars; saxophone squeals; low, buzzy synths -- everything under sun can be heard on this record.

If you still prefer the first album, nobody's going to fault you for having that opinion.  Run the Jewels 2 is so cerebral that it will probably end up being less relistenable than its predecessor.  There's also nothing as exhilarating as El-P's verse on "Sea Legs" and there's no tough talk as fearsome as, "Me and Mike will go twin hype and do a dance on your windpipe / Put those jazz hands back in your pants or get them shits sliced" here, though it comes close in both respects.  But this album is more dense, more versatile, and just more impressive.  Run the Jewels is a gift that keeps on giving; let's hope they'll be the top tag team for many summers to come.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Taylor Swift goes "full pop" on 1989

In many interviews leading up to the release of 1989, Taylor Swift made it a point to emphasize that her latest album would be her "first documented, official pop album."  Though award nomination categorizations and radio station airplay may disagree, her self-titled debut is the only album that can truly be considered a country record (and even that might be a stretch).  Since then, each of her albums have come at pop music from a slightly different angle, from the country-pop of Fearless to the pop-rock of Speak Now to the singer-songwriter pop of Red.  Taylor Swift is an inveterate pop musician, there's no doubt about it.  But if she wants to call this her first documented, official pop album, then let's just roll with it.

1989 finds Swift free from shackles, not just from the ties of hyphenated pop, but also from her worries.  It's fitting that she chose "Shake It Off" as the lead single, because it serves as her mission statement for the album.  The song is big and dumb and goofy, featuring a strange grab bag of sounds that aren't usually in her wheelhouse: a horn blast here, a not-entirely-successful hip hop breakdown there, that insistent bassline throughout.  But it's so charming and infectious that it just works, and serves as the height of 1989's "so what?" attitude.  When the song was first released, some people criticized her, saying that she's creating a straw man by writing off genuine critics with a simple "haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate" kiss-off.  The real point of the song, however, is the "I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off" that comes after it.  It's a song about loving yourself no matter what, and that's so important for a young woman to say to herself, and for other young women to hear.  This is a lighter, more carefree Taylor, and it's an empowering look for her.

Another noted change in this album is Swift's more direct confrontation with her own fame.  She did a little bit of that on Red with "The Lucky One," but its structure made it easier to think of it as an abstract collection of short stories about life in the limelight.  "I Know Places," on the other hand, feels much more raw and real, depicting her relationship with a guy through the lens of paparazzi cameras, hunting Swift and her beau like foxes.  1989 also features her taking on her reputation as a serial dater on the album's most daring song, "Blank Space."  It's not hard to imagine her as Amy Dunne from Gone Girl as she says lines like "I could make the bad guys good for a weekend" or "darling I'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream."  Yeah, she's got a long list of ex-lovers, but she's got a blank space and she's not afraid to write your name either.

It has always been fascinating to track Swift's relationship with sex via her music.  On her first three albums, that relationship was almost nonexistent.  The one exception is "Fifteen" on Fearless, but that song is more about sex as a cautionary tale than as a pleasurable activity and it's, most importantly, about a friend and not herself.  An argument can be made that lines on Red like "took me to places I've never been" and "I'll do anything you say, if you say it with your hands" are about sex, but those are still pretty coy and sweet.  Compare that to 1989, where the references to carnal knowings are downright sexy.  On "Style," she sings "takes me home, lights are off, he's taking off his coat" in a way that oozes sensuality.  And though she may not go as far as overt tunnel-and-train metaphors, lines like "his hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room" ("Wildest Dreams") are even more evocative.  It's a bold, refreshing move from someone whose image can be so squeaky clean that it comes off as fake to her biggest detractors.

The album is full of sonic risks too.  1989 is a kaleidoscope of sounds and styles.  "Out of the Woods," with its airy background vocals and snares that dissolve into dust when they hit, sounds like the lovechild of M83 and Chvrches.  The noirish "Style" features a slick guitar line that would be perfectly at home on the soundtrack of Drive.  Both "How You Get the Girl" and "All You Had To Do Was Stay" have the sugary, bubblegum sound hinted at on Red's "22."  And "I Wish You Would" is the song that fully makes good on Swift's promise of an 80s sound for this album, complete with choppy guitars and keyboards that glimmer like starbursts, making it sound like something from a deleted scene of a John Hughes film.

This move to "full pop" dulls the edges of her style a little bit, however.  There's no doubt that this is a collection of great pop songs, but it's hard to feel anything when listening to them.  Such a shame, too, given the emotional heights she reached on Red, with songs like "Sad Beautiful Tragic" and "The Last Time."  That's why "Wildest Dreams" is the best song on this one -- it's the lone track that truly stirs my emotions in the same way her previous albums do.  People say it's heavily indebted to Lana Del Rey, and you can see that in the vocal phrasings and the song's ornamentation, but there are so many other things about it that are vintage Taylor Swift.  It's got her terrific attention to detail, a deep sense of yearning at its core, and one of those killer bridges that she seems to be able to concoct in her sleep.

People don't give her enough credit for how good of a lyricist she is either.  Make lazy jokes about how she only writes about boys all you want, but you'd be doing so at the risk of overlooking the pure technique involved in her lyrics.  She's a master of meter, skillfully crafting lines that swirl around beautifully in your mouth when you say them out loud.  (Don't believe me?  Just whisper "careless man's careful daughter" to yourself.  Or the opening passage of "Enchanted."  Or just about any of her lines.)  She's poetic yet precise, able to convey so much in a frightfully small amount of words.  Most of all, she understands the importance of lyrical specificity.  The lyrics are less sharp on 1989, but even still, it's loaded with little gems of detail.  On "Style," it's not just that the boy in question can't keep his eyes on the road.  He can't keep his wild eyes on the road.  It's late at night in her room on "I Wish You Would," but specifically, it's 2 A.M.  The chorus of "Wildest Dreams" takes the time to set the scene of a lover remembering her, "standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset, babe / red lips and rosy cheeks."  She's a painter, a painter of pictures, and there's no stroke that she won't double back on, just to make it pop a little bit more.

But speaking of Swift talking about boys, she adds a new wrinkle to that too this time around.  Usually, her albums come off like they're about a pastiche of exes, but this one feels like it's about a single tumultuous relationship, one that seems stuck in an endless breakup-makeup cycle.  Let's spot the motif: "We were built to fall apart and fall back together" ("Out of the Woods"), the entire conceit of "Style," "But you'll come back each time you leave" ("Blank Space"), "Makes you wanna run and hide, but it made us turn right back around" ("I Wish You Would"), and so on.  Even "All You Had To Do Was Stay" and "How You Get the Girl" form a neat little pair -- the former features her admonishing his newly contrite demeanor after the latest breakup, while the latter could be seen as her coming around and instructing him on how to get her back.  Previous albums would make this seem sweet; here, it feels sad and destructive.

That's why "Clean" is such an important note to close on, because it's all about breaking that cycle.  Swift usually likes to end her albums on an optimistic note, and this one's no different.  It's all about purging your pain, just finally letting it all out instead of trying to manage it, and coming away better, freer.  I used to have this theory about her first four albums which posited that if you listened to them back-to-back, they chronicle her slow disillusionment with the idea of love.  If that's the case, then this fifth album is about her rising up again with more wisdom, realizing that relationships are a big deal, but they're not the end of the world.  So yes, 1989 is the beginning of the second act of Taylor Swift's career, not because it's her "first documented, official pop album," but because it's her finally realizing that breakups only leave a temporary stain, not a permanent scar.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Late to the Party #11: HBO's War Trilogy

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

The miniseries is a slowly dying format.  They were first introduced to North American television around 1974 with the CBC's National Dream, and reached prominence with the format's first blockbuster hit in ABC's Roots.  For those first few years, the miniseries was primarily a way to adapt popular novels to the small screen, and they resulted in astronomical ratings success for the networks that aired them.  Through the 1990s, the format remained popular, especially during sweeps period, but around the 2000s they gradually started to wane as the television landscape changed.  Nowadays, you can still find a handful of them every year -- and some, like History Channel's Hatfields & McCoys, still produce high numbers -- but they've mostly been corralled to a very tiny number of networks.

One of those networks that still has the luxury of producing miniseries is HBO, whose latest foray into the form, Olive Kitteridge, premieres in a few days.  And when the words "HBO" and "miniseries" are mentioned in close proximity to one another, Band of Brothers is probably the first that comes to mind.  The Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg-produced series was a big deal at the time -- its budget of about $125 million made it the most expensive miniseries production at the time it was created -- and it was met with a popularity to match that hype.  In fact, its DVD box set is still one of the best selling of all time, having made approximately $250 million worth in sales.

True to its name, Band of Brothers is about brotherhood.  It tells the true story of Easy Company, a crew of paratroopers in World War II, following their journey from training in Curahee to victory in Europe.  Throughout its 10-episode run, we're constantly shown that the safety of the whole matters more than the safety of the individual.  These are men who will do anything to protect the guys they're fighting with, and no matter how dire any situation becomes, it's always slightly leavened by the fact that these people are in it together.  Though the cast is huge, and they initially seem like an amorphous mass of faces, the writers do a great job of giving each of them tiny flashes of characterization that are easy to identify with and latch on to.  (It certainly doesn't hurt that they're played by actors, such as Damien Lewis and Michael Fassbender, who would later go on to greater fame.)  These are high-stakes situations that Band of Brothers depicts, and seeing funny, likable characters thrown into them make them even more gripping.

There's an episodic quality to the series, passing from major military event to major military event with little interludes of downtime tucked between them.  It's in those action sequences where the Band of Brothers' blockbuster budget really starts to show.  There isn't much time wasted in getting to the fireworks factory either.  "Day of Days," the second episode of the series, depicts the events that occurred when Easy Company landed in Normandy, and it's a brutal, propulsive hour that features nonstop action.  All of it is excellently staged and edited too, as a flurry of bullets fly, dirt kicks up everywhere, and soldiers dash through trenches while dodging the carnage.  It hardly lets up from there either -- from the two big setpieces in "Carentan" to the botched operation in "Replacements," the first half of Band of Brothers is characterized by high-adrenaline, action movie running and gunning.

While the second half still contains some breathtaking action, it slows down and starts to really dig into single-character focus episodes.  Though every episode technically has one or two main characters, it's not until sixth episode, "Bastogne," that the format becomes sharper and more experimental.  The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most famous battles of World War II, so the choice to show it from the perspective of Easy Company medic Eugene "Doc" Roe was a risky, but ultimately successful one.  "Bastogne" gives an excellent insight into the difficulty of being a military medic.  Roe may not be a soldier, but he's right there running through the frontlines along with them, putting himself in harm's way to try and keep everyone alive.  But throughout the hour, the losses build (visually displayed by the pile of bodies that gets higher every time Roe returns to a nearby post), and it's clear how futile the effort to save everyone is.  It's an unrelentingly bleak job that gets a spotlight in this unrelentingly bleak episode.

"Bastogne" may be a grim affair, but most of Band of Brothers is rimmed with a golden glow, despite the body count.  That's where Spielberg's influence really shines through, in its depiction of World War II as the Great War we're always told that it is.  You can see it in the reverent introductory segments at the beginning of each episode, which feature interviews with the real life versions of the members of Easy Company who were still alive at the time.  Characters are given brief moments of unlikability, but the series ultimately underlines how heroic they were for fighting in the first place.  The war may have been perilous and terrifying, but it was also just and necessary.

If Band of Brothers was about why we fight, then 2010's The Pacific -- Hanks and Spielberg's spiritual successor to Band of Brothers, depicting the Pacific Theater of World War II -- is about why we shouldn't fight.  Fitting with the real history of the battles in the East, the depiction of war in The Pacific is far more brutal than in Band of Brothers.  At times, it feels more like a horror show than a war drama.  The malicious jungle, the endless rain, the torrents of blood, the piles of mutilated corpses, the small prospect of a victory -- every episode feels like 60 minutes of pure nightmare fuel.  It's so unrelenting and pummeling that it's hard to even believe that these events took place around the same time frame as the those portrayed in Brothers.

Narratively speaking, the series takes a different approach as well.  Where Band of Brothers told a story about a massive ensemble, The Pacific focuses on three main characters: Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and John Basilone (Jon Seda).  The former may contain the more endearing characters, but the latter was able to tap into the psychology of its leads with far greater success.  Over the course of 10 episodes, the series digs into the poetic tortured soul of Leckie, the green timidity of Sledge, and the action hero valor of Basilone.  And they all have wholly satisfying arcs, particularly Sledge, who becomes the closest thing the miniseries has to a true protagonist, as he transforms from a fearful rookie to a hardened Marine who has seen too much.

The rhythm of the story is much wavier than the relatively straightforward Band of Brothers too.  Since Leckie, Sledge, and Basilone were all in different regiments in the 1st Marine Division, even entering the war at different times, they're rarely ever in the same location.  Episodes ebb and flow, shifting the proportion of time each character gets, or sometimes devoting an entire hour to just one character and his regiment.  While it may take time to get accustomed to The Pacific's bobbing cadence, it builds nicely, concluding with one of the most powerful episodes of television I've even seen.  It's a post-war denouement, showing how the weight of the previous nine episodes has affected these characters, and it's quietly moving in a way that television rarely is.

Different in intensity and trajectory though they may be, The Pacific still feels like it's of a piece with Band of Brothers.  It's got the same high production values (another record breaking budget of $250 million), the same talking head segments that lead in to each episode, the same sense of Spielbergian prestige.  The Pacific is like Band of Brothers' darker, more soulful brother.

On the other hand, 2008's Generation Kill feels like an entirely different entity than Brothers and The Pacific, partially because it's not a production from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.  This miniseries comes from David Simon, hot off the end of his towering masterpiece The Wire, and he brings his journalistic sense of hyper-realism to the story of the U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the first phase of the Iraq War.  He even uses a Rolling Stone writer, Evan Wright (whose real-life counterpart wrote the book on which the miniseries is based), as his POV character.

Simon bring his worldview along as well.  If The Pacific questioned whether what the Marines were doing was worth it, Generation Kill is an interrogation looking to know if what these Marines had to do was even right.  Unlike World War II, the war in Iraq wasn't a just war, and David Simon uses that to his advantage, burying the series in the moral grayness he's so comfortable with exploring.  The enemy isn't just men in uniforms -- now there's the prospect of civilians pointing guns at the Marines as well.  Danger is at a higher level, which only widens the capacity for these men to do amoral or foolish things to score a "win."

With Generation Kill, David Simon took his pet themes about institutions and power structures and translated them to the Iraq War.  This is a world where there's a huge disparity between the people who make decisions and those who are ultimately effected by those decisions.  Leaders only care about numbers that will make them "look good," subordinates care about lives and making the smart move.  "Can you believe that retard is in charge of people?," one character says about his higher-up after a poor decision, and it's a major question that implicitly pops up throughout the miniseries.  Most of the people in a position of power in the 1st Battalion are hypocritical, clueless, and blind to the point where it seems impossible that they got anywhere in life.  But really, that could be extrapolated to be about the American government at-large at the time.  Simon's hatred of the Bush Administration is palpable in Generation Kill.  As a writer, he has a habit of becoming a little didactic, but here he smartly puts his opinions in the mouth of Ray (brilliantly played by James Ransone), the doofus to whom nobody lends much of an ear.  It's an effective, entertaining way for Simon to get his point across without being preachy.

Instead of the brave, affable heroes we meet in Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Generation Kill presents many of the Marines as a bunch of meathead jocks.  They joke about shooting dogs for no reason, spout racist invective, and have very few qualms about the idea of killing innocent Iraqi citizens.  In another context, these would not be good people.  With a big gun and an American flag stitched on their uniforms, they're the protectors of our nation.

But the series is also notable for the subtle things it has to say about warfare.  Where The Pacific throws the war in Europe in stark relief by showing the nightmare of the Pacific Theater, Generation Kill draws constant comparisons between the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some of the characters even served in Afghanistan, and their time there never comes up without there also being a mention of how much smoother things ran there.  By comparison, the Iraq War is an absolute trainwreck.   When viewed in close proximity to the twin Hanks and Spielberg WWII series, it's easy to see how much war has changed over the decades.  The technology has advanced and the weapons have become so powerful that it's easy to kill an enemy without even knowing what they look like.  (It's ironic, then, that there aren't any deaths of any main or secondary characters in Generation Kill.  Lots of Iraqis sure do die though.)

With these three miniseries, HBO was able to make their own approximation of blockbuster action films, complete with expansive casts and expensive action sequences.  We've seen all of the themes they explore before, but Band of Brothers ("war is fought by heroes!"), The Pacific ("war is hell..."), and Generation Kill ("why are we even here?") had the liberty of being seven to 10 episodes, allowing them to stretch out and dig in to those themes.  You just can't get that on the big screen.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Constantine

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

Thursdays at 10:00 PM on NBC

No, not that Constantine.  NBC's Constantine is the latest in the line of new network dramas this fall that are based on comic books, but unlike Gotham or The Flash, its source material doesn't have anything to do with superheroes.  That source material is Hellblazer, the long-running series that follows occult detective John Constantine.  I've never read the comic, nor have I seen the 2005 Keanu Reeves film, so I don't have much of the built-in affection for the character that NBC was surely hoping for.  But while I'm not outraged about the fact that he can't smoke cigarettes or won't be bisexual the way that diehards are, it's not hard not to feel like this is Diet John Constantine.  Matt Ryan plays him with a suitably gruff roguishness, but the writing never really takes him any further.  Constantine just isn't much of a character at this point, and any attempt to deepen him in the pilot comes off as clumsy or ineffective.

Many flaws at the script level are made up for with the show's production values.  Neil Marshall, best known these days for his excellent work on the big battle episodes of Game of Thrones, directs the pilot and imbues it with a slick and cinematic style.  There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout the episode, mostly thanks to the way Marshall stages sequences and builds momentum.  The majority of the visual effects are solid for a TV budget, but even when the quality does flag a little bit, the handsome direction saves it.

It's very difficult to give a grade to Constantine, because many elements in the pilot -- both good and bad -- won't appear in the second episode.  The bulk of the plot in this first episode revolves around Liv Aberdeen (Lucy Griffiths), a character who was meant to be a regular until David Goyer and Daniel Cerone decided to go in a different direction with the show.  All of that backstory and exposition for her character goes down the drain as soon as the awkward re-shot scene that explains why she won't be joining Constantine's mission comes along at the end.  And of course, future episodes won't have the benefit of Neil Marshall behind the camera.  So who knows if the new character introduced in episode two will improve the show, or if the production values can maintain a high quality with other directors, but for now Constantine isn't the worst way to spend a Friday night.

Grade: B-

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Antonio's Anime Roundup #2

Though I originally planned to have this post up much sooner than now, I'm finally back with another roundup of anime.  I started this recurring feature as a way of getting back into anime, an art form I was never too much of an expert on in the first place, but one that I had especially abandoned in recent years.  At this point, I'd consider myself a full-fledged anime fan.  Admittedly, there's much more chaff than wheat, but when you stumble across a series that's really good, watching it can be a uniquely rewarding experience.  This time around, I've once again watched and reviewed five different anime.  It's an interesting mix of shows from the most recent summer season, acclaimed shows from the last few years, and a series from over a decade ago.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 5 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

The Affair (Showtime, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
There's no way to describe The Affair without it sounding prosaic, so I'm just going to skip the premise.  In fact, can I skip talking about plot altogether?  Just take my word for it when I say that this is by far the best pilot of the fall (to me, the gap between an A- and a B+ is wider than other gaps).  The show comes from Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, both of whom had a hand in HBO's In Treatment.  We don't talk about this enough, but In Treatment might be the most structurally daring shows of the past decade, and you'll be happy to know that The Affair has ambitions of its own. I didn't know much beyond a simple logline going into the pilot, so the series of upheavals that occur near the middle of the episode left me absolutely giddy.  The show is deeply invested in the nitty-gritty of truth, memory, and perception; and the process of unpacking the motivations of its characters is fascinating.  In doing so, it also implicates the viewer, causing them to question their own worldview as well.  I'm holding back on giving this a full A only because the pilot hints at the show possibly going in a direction that I'm not crazy about, but if it can avoid that pitfall, this is going to end up being something special.
Grade: A-

Jane the Virgin (CW, Mondays at 9:00 PM)
In order to enjoy Jane the Virgin, it's necessary to get past its silly premise.  Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is, well, a religious virgin who gets pregnant when she's accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of Rafeal (Justin Baldoni), a wealthy man who also happens to be her boss.  Not only is that setup horribly convoluted, but the moment of the insemination is even more goofy and illogical.  However, the show has a playful enough tone that it's easy to just roll with it.  Once that's out of the way, there's more than enough to enjoy about this pilot.  Above all else, there's Gina Rodriguez, who is spectacular and incredibly likable as Jane.  She's part of the reason why the show works as well as it does, able to play the comedic and heartfelt moments with equal aplomb.  It's also refreshing to have a show that depicts faith and virginity in a non-judgmental way.  Where lesser shows would be satisfied with a sex-negative worldview, Jane the Virgin chooses to have more nuance.  Jane isn't against sex -- one of the most interesting scenes implies that she and her boyfriend have had phone sex before -- she just has a different set of values that inform her decision to not engage in it until marriage.  So instead of the show's central question being "how long will Jane remain a virgin?," it asks bigger and better ones like, "how will Jane deal with this freak occurrence that happened to her"?  There may be one or two too many complications added to the mix, like Jane's fiancee having some sort of secret that his brother is threatening to uncover, or Rafael's wife being evil and scheming.  But otherwise, Jane the Virgin is a sweet, earnest, and funny little show.
Grade: B

Marry Me (NBC, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Marry Me is about Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino), a long-term couple who are stumbling through their engagement period after a series of botched proposal attempts.  But here's the thing about Marry Me: It will not be about that for very long.  That's just one of the symptoms of a show from creator David Caspe.  After all, remember when Happy Endings started off as a show about how Alex left Dave at the altar on the day of their wedding, and then it moved away from that as quickly as possible?  As it stands now, the show is torn between its limiting premise and the hangout show it so clearly wants to be.  From a comedy standpoint, the softer NBC romcom style in the vein of A to Z is wrestling with the "fusillade of jokes" style that Caspe is known for.  There is some vintage Happy Endings gold in the pilot ("Ugh, I'm sweating like Shaq!"), but overall it's much more low-key.  That's a recurring theme of the episode, the feeling that the show is holding itself back.  For example, Ken Marino is one of the funniest comedic actors out there, but he's mostly relegated to playing the beleaguered straight man.  Still, this pilot is solid and charming, if a little flabby and shapeless.  Marry Me will almost certainly be one of the funniest network sitcoms on television if it lasts long enough, but it's just not there yet.
Grade: B-

Well, that concludes the fall round of Pilot Talk!  There are still some new shows slated to premiere (Constantine, The McCarthys, State of Affairs, Ascension), and I'll cover some of them, but they're spread out enough that there won't be any roundups of a week's worth of pilots until midseason.  Let's see the total tally of grades from the last five weeks.

A's: 1
B's: 9
C's: 8
D's: 4
F's: 1

Just for kicks, I looked at the tally from last year,'s nearly identical.  (Fall 2013's tally: A's = 1, B's = 9, C's = 8, D's = 3, F's = 2.)  Though I felt like I had become a much harsher grader this year, apparently that's not the case.  Overall, I'd call this a pretty solid fall.  There are a few shows that I've decided to keep watching based on the quality of their pilots, and a few shows whose pilots I didn't like as much that have greatly improved (be on the lookout for my "Selfie is the Greatest Show of All Time" thinkpiece).  I wouldn't be able to tell you whether or not something as torturous as The Mysteries of Laura was has gotten any better though.

Like last year, I'm incredibly burnt out from watching and reviewing all these pilots and I never want to do this again.  Somehow, though, I know I'm going to talk myself into it all over again in 2015.  Either way, I'm glad I can get back to writing about other things in the meantime.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 4 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

Cristela (ABC, Fridays at 8:30 PM)
Cristela bears a few superficial similarities to a couple of other comedies premiering this fall.  Like Mulaney, it's a multi-camera sitcom based around the personality of a popular stand-up comedian.  Though I'm not familiar as familiar with Cristela Alonzo as I am with John Mulaney, her big, infectious personality makes a strong impression in this pilot.  And like Black-ish, the show has a distinct cultural identity, which proves to be its greatest asset.  Many of the show's best jokes are centered around Cristela and her family's status as Mexican-Americans, the joys and difficulties that come with it.  It's too bad, then, that the comedy falls flat in so many other respects.  Many of the jokes are too easy, too similar.  There just aren't many surprises when it comes to the comedy, with every other joke falling back on the same structure of somebody saying, "[statement]" and another character, usually Cristela, responding with, "No actually, [exact opposite statement]."  The multi-camera format lends itself well to the theatricality of the show, but also contributes to those problems with its obviousness.  Cristela is a flawed show, for sure, but it's easy to see it falling into a solid, comfortable rhythm just as its lead-in Last Man Standing did.
Grade: C+

The Flash (CW, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
The CW's latest effort in superhero programming, The Flash, has the benefit of built-in goodwill from its sister series, Arrow.  In the latter's second season, we were introduced to Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a bright-eyed forensics analyst from Central City, but better known as the guy who would eventually become The Flash.  There are even a few moments in the pilot of The Flash that we already saw in Arrow, depicting the catastrophic event that led to Barry getting his gift of super speed.  The first 10 to 15 minutes of this episode blaze through the origin story, often clumsily.  It's saddled with not-so-great voice-over, forced exposition that sets up his relationship with best friend Iris (Candice Patton), and an overall sense of familiarity.  Thankfully, things get much better after they're able to move past that, cutting to nine months later when Barry wakes up from his coma.  So much joy and wonder is infused in the scenes of Barry's discovery of his powers -- something that many superhero shows are lacking.  All of this is very goofy, no doubt, but deliberately so.  It certainly embraces its inherent comic book sensibility with greater success than Gotham, that's for sure.
Grade: B

Mulaney (Fox, Sundays at 9:30 PM)
I feel like now is as good of a time as ever to introduce a concept that I like to call "negative laughter."  It's the idea that bad jokes actually take away laughter, so that when a good joke comes around, you're not even in the mood to respond accordingly because you still have a bad taste in your mouth.  Mulaney's pilot has good jokes -- albeit very few -- but the episode builds up so much negative laughter that you'd be hard pressed to find the energy to enjoy the funny moments.  At this stage, the show is just way too broad, with hacky jokes and characters who amount to nothing more than vaguely offensive stereotypes.  Sitcoms are always more of a work in progress than dramas, so the show will most likely become funnier, but Mulaney has a bigger problem: its titular star.  John Mulaney simply can't act.  Multi-cam comedy requires a bit more of a heightened delivery, but Mulaney's style is just stilted and uncomfortable.  He's a funny guy, and I like his stand-up, but even those portions of the pilot don't work.  They're mostly just setups for more thin plotlines.  Surely, this is the most disappointing new show of the fall so far.
Grade: D+

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Unpacking the wild and brilliant Gone Girl

I have a weird love-hate relationship with the David Fincher films I've seen.  The Social Network and Seven are both excellent, Zodiac is pretty good, Panic Room is fine, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is mediocre.  But Fight Club?  Fight Club is a piece of garbage, and I hate it so much that it brings down my overall opinion of his oeuvre.  (It certainly doesn't help that many people my age consider Fight Club one of their favorite films of all time, which just baffles me.)  There's something about his cold, precise style that makes his work hard for me to fully embrace.  Even his best material, I respect it more than I love it.

To me, his films work best when he's paired with a screenwriter whose dialogue can liven up his sometimes suffocatingly clinical technique.  It's no surprise, then, that the high point of his career so far is the Aaron Sorkin-penned The Social Network.  Sorkin is another auteur whose trademarks aren't always for me, but his union with Fincher managed to cancel out each other's worst impulses.  The former's crackling, volleying dialogue is exactly what was needed to make the latter's directing less sterile.

Gillian Flynn seems to be another perfect fit for Fincher, if Gone Girl is any indication.  Adapting from her own 2012 novel, Flynn's script may not be Sorkin-level, but it's clever in its own right.  It finds a lively way to tell the dark story of the crumbling marriage between Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliot-Dunne (Rosamund Pike).  On the morning of their five anniversary, Nick goes to the bar he owns and comes back home to find a glass table shattered on the floor and his wife missing.  When the police begin to investigate her disappearance, they find an envelope in her underwear drawer with "Clue One" scrawled on it, the first stop on a complicated and mysterious paper trail.

Assigned Narratives
In the process of showing us this investigation of Amy Dunne's disappearance, Gone Girl examines how events like these cause the media to assign narratives onto others.  As soon as Amy's case becomes public, Nick's neighbors are quick to treat him like a minor hero, the doting husband.  But the media is willing to villainize him just as quickly.  Everybody over-analyzes and projects their own issues onto Nick's actions, criticizing him for not reacting in the way that they want him to.  The ease with which the consensus sways from one opinion to the other is telling of the hivemind mentality that the 24-hour news cycle fosters.

But the movie also plays well to our own readiness to jump to conclusions.  The moment we find out Nick has been cheating on Amy with a former student (Emily Ratajkowski, of "Blurred Lines" fame), we're supposed to react with a, "yes, of course"!  That's how eager we are to think of men as the wrongdoers in these scenarios.  (And, to our credit, most of the time that's the correct assumption.)  Likewise, when the tables are turned and it's revealed that this is all a part of Amy's effort to frame Nick for her murder, it taps into our competing desire to think of women as vindictive harridans.  Society, Gone Girl posits, is so determined to find types in our stories -- the loving husband, the lying husband, the cheating husband, the perfect wife, the crazy wife, the creepy rapist -- that we'll settle for an approximation and fill in the blanks on our own.

Not even Amy and Nick are above this obsession with narratives, which is fitting, since they both are writers.  In the flashbacks we see of their relationship, they're constantly talking wanting or not wanting to be "the kind of couple that..."  in their fights.  "You're making me be the kind of nagging wife I hate," Amy says at one point, desperate to not fit a type she's seen over and over.  And who can blame her?  One the most important pieces of backstory we get in the film is that her parents became famous from their Amazing Amy collection, a popular series of books inspired by events in their own daughter's life.  Amazing Amy grows up as real Amy does, Amazing Amy gets a dog when real Amy requests one, Amazing Amy even gets married before real Amy does.  All of Amy's life has been foregrounded by a narrative trajectory she can never quite match.

Dark Comedy In a Thriller's Clothing
Though they may be divided into separate subgenres, Seven, Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can all be considered thrillers.  Clearly, Fincher has a penchant for that mode of storytelling.  It's not out of left field to assume that Gone Girl would be a thriller as well, and there's certainly a great deal of that in there, all of which is done exquisitely.  New twists and turns are unlocked with the elegance and panache of a master, and there are sequences where several moving pieces come together with dizzying results.

But if you view the film as solely being a mystery thriller, you run the risk of being disappointed with its absolutely dotty third act.  Amy's plan shifts and wrinkles in ways that come off as goofy if you come at them with a straight face.  If you're looking for a conventional resolution to the story, then what we actually get may be a step or two too far.

However, Gone Girl is actually a pitch black comedy.  The first humorous line or character might strike as comedic relief in a mystery thriller.  But then you realize that almost every element of the film is a co-conspirator in this hilarious, insane work of art.  The detectives working the case becoming popcorn-munching audience surrogates, Flynn's floral dialogue, Casey Wilson's over-the-top pregnant character, the way Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor's score swells during the flashbacks of Amy and Nick, the cheeky nature of Amy's diary -- individually, they're amusing; together, they're a riot.

The outsized comedy's purpose is in service of Gone Girl's ultimate metaphor, which is that it's...

...An Honest Examination of Marriage
It's crucial that even when we learn that Amy's diary was all a part of her plan to frame Nick, it's emphasized that the early entries are truthful.  Those confirm that Nick and Amy were once a real, genuine couple.  There was a fire to their relationship, and they seemed truly convinced that they weren't like the other marriages they knew.  But then they crack and tear in the same ways lots of people do: he loses his job, she loses her job, he spends a little too much money, she's forced to move away from her parents.  And on and on and on.

People always talk about how marriage takes work and that it's full of compromises, but usually in a way that emphasizes how it makes you a better, fuller person at the end of the day.  Gone Girl examines the flipside of that viewpoint.  It's about how much of yourself you can lose in meeting the other person halfway.  You're tweaking yourself to be the person your mate wants until you're somebody else entirely, somebody you may not even like anymore.

It's easy to get caught up in the cat-and-mouse plotting and the surrounding media blitz in the film and lose what's at the center of it all.  The straw that broke the camel's back is that Nick cheated on Amy and it hurt her.  Yeah, she may be a psycho, but he messed up too.  That's what makes Gone Girl so brilliant: Nick is not just the victim in this situation.  He contributed to the downfall of their marriage.  It's no coincidence that Nick going on national television to admit that he's a bad guy is the moment that Amy has her turnaround and decides to go back to him.  (Nick is doing it mostly for show, but a part of him is also coming to terms with the fact that some of this ordeal is his fault too.)  So Amy has to improvise and come up with a new outgrowth of her plan, deciding to kill Desi (Neil Patrick Harris), the ex-boyfriend with whom she's hiding, and return to North Carthage as if she has escaped a kidnapping.  Nick can't even leave, because the media is convinced of Amy's story, and abandoning his wife after she's been through so much supposed strife would turn him into a villain all over again.

Though the two of them getting back together and putting on a show for the cameras is played for laughs, it's also a devastating metaphor.  Not all couples who are unhappy decide to make a run for it.  They stick it out for no other reason than that they feel trapped and without other options (in this case, Nick actually is kind of trapped).  You've done wrong and the other person has done wrong and you've warped each other so much that you're not even sure anybody else would want you.  You stay for the kids (fittingly, Amy reveals that she's pregnant), and you put on a brave, happy face for the public.  Inertia is the only thing keeping you together.

Gone Girl understands that sometimes marriage can be a prison, but hey, at least it's a familiar one.