Friday, February 28, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Mind Games

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.

Tuesdays at 10:00 PM on ABC

Maybe this could be the one for Kyle Killen.  His star launched just four years ago, when his pilot for Lone Star premiered on Fox to rave reviews.  It was indeed an excellent show, but one with a premise that viewers just couldn't latch onto, and was cancelled after airing only two episodes.  Two years later he returned with NBC's Awake, which had an even better pilot, but was similarly high-concept in a way that wasn't conducive to high network viewership, and got axed after one 13-episode season.  Following that trajectory, Mind Games might have a shot of seeing a second season.

It certainly is more network-friendly than Killen's other two shows, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's dumbed down.  As far as pilots go, it's not nearly as good as Awake or Lone Star, but it's still a step above the common network procedural.  It helps that Killen is such a great writer, imbuing the script with a sense of life and energy you don't see in these kinds of shows.  But the cast is also game too, ably bouncing off of each at a brisk pace.  If you were one of those people who found Steve Zahn annoying on Treme -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- then you're likely to find him grating here too.  But I think he and Christian Slater are very interesting and believable as brothers and business partners.  There's a surprising amount of depth in the dynamic between the two of them and Wynn Everett, who plays Slater's ex-wife, but also has a close relationship with Zahn.

Of course, this being a Killen show, I have no idea how this premise can sustain itself.  Basically Zahn and Slater play characters who run a business firm that helps people get their way by subtly manipulating others?  It's like Inception without spinning tops and layers of dreams.  The way they do this in the pilot is snappy and fun, but I can't imagine how they're going to come up with new ways to play out this idea over the course of the series.  However, I'll leave that kind of worrying to the writers.  For now, Mind Games is a zippy show with a great cast and a bonkers premise.  What more can you ask for?

Grade: B

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Mixology

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.

Wednesdays at 9:30 PM on ABC

Here are 11 quotes from the pilot of Mixology:

1. "Girls in flats never want to have sex.  It's like I always say: the higher the heels, the looser she feels."
2. "You are a Viking.  You rape and you pillage...okay, maybe don't rape."
3. "They smashed it out about 5 times a week."
4. "Why do you think I have so much Kleenex?  I pop off into one every night."
5. A character, speaking about women with big butts: "Black guys were right all along.  We should've listened to them."
6. "Maya learned that acting like a fucking cunt..."  But don't worry, the cursing was completely bleeped out so it's okay!
7. "If I talked like that to Don Draper, he would smack me in the mouth.  THAT is a man."
8. "Every girl wants a nice guy, okay?  But we also need a man who isn't afraid to say, 'I'm not going jean shopping with you, alright?  I'm a man.  Respect my balls, woman!'"
9. "You picked yourself up by the penis and you played like a champion."
10. Two guys are sitting next to each other, and one feels the need to announce to the world: "We're not into that.  No swordfights for us!"  Because sitting next to a dude makes you gay!
11. "Look at that chick over there throwing up.  I'm going to bang her out."

Grade: F

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Late to the Party #8: The films of Nicole Holofcener

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

One of my pop culture resolutions for 2014 was to be able to say I've seen the entire filmography of more directors.  There are so many Martin Scorsese movies and films by the Coen brothers that I still haven't seen (cut me some slack, I'm only 22), so I figured that those would be too daunting to begin with.  Instead, I opted to start small with Nicole Holofcener, partially spurred on by the fact that Enough Said was coming out on DVD soon and I was planning on watching it anyway.  When the year started, I'd never seen a Holofcener film.  In only a few weeks time, I devoured all five of them, and she's quickly shot up the ranks to become one of my favorite writer-directors.

All of her films have received general acclaim, but it's not hard to understand why she doesn't tend to come up in conversations about the best filmmakers working right now.  There's nothing showy about her movies -- the comedy isn't laugh-out-loud funny, the drama eschews any sort of histrionics -- but that smallness is part of their low-key charm.  Holofcener is a great translator of life onto screen, and there are few who have a better eye for the quotidian insights and occurrences of everyday life.  She's able to craft so many scenes that you would never think to put in a movie, yet they make perfect sense when you see them.  Her films are full of dialogue that feels natural, but very sharp, really getting at the rhythms of normal conversation.  Aside from Enough Said, her work is also refreshingly light on plot.  The true joy of her films exist between the plot points, where many scenes serve only to fill out her complex and lively characters.

Yet despite her films having a relaxed feel to them, the people who inhabit them are anything but.  Holofcener populates her stories with the restless and uncomfortable, people who can't quite get a handle on the tiny little things nibbling away at them.  A few of her detractors lobby the criticism that her work is based around people whose cozy lives are filled with "first-world problems."  To say nothing of the particular grossness of that phrase, making such a judgment ignores how much she's able to probe past the surface elements of her subjects' lives.  It's the illusion of comfort that runs through most of her movies -- her characters may be upper-middle class people, but their status is often the very source of the troubles they rub up against.  There seems to be a listlessness that comes with reaching a comfortable place in your life, as if there are no more goalposts to aim for, and Holofcener explores that complicated ground beautifully.  As Frances McDormand's character says in Friends with Money, "there's no more wondering what my life is going to be like."  Petty as their troubles may seem, every character is sketched with such fine detail that there's something universal about the malaise that they feel.

An even bigger source of unrest in Holofcener's characters is image.  Her films frequently feature women who are wrestling with uncertainty about how they appear.  Lovely & Amazing centers this concern around a family of four women, each of the them insecure about a different aspect of themselves.  Matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) wants to get liposuction because she's not happy with her weight; while her adult daughters (Catherine Keener and Emily Mortimer) fret over their career and level of sexiness, respectively; and even her adoptive African American preteen (Raven Goodwin, in her debut role) is self-conscious about her hair not being straight.  The film bumps against -- while never explicitly stating -- the idea that Jane has passed down these deep insecurities to her daughters, even though one isn't related by blood.  In a way, all of these women seek the approval of others, most notably in the pivotal scene where Emily Mortimer's Elizabeth stands naked and asks Kevin (Dermot Mulroney) to critique her body.

These themes of beauty, womanhood, and fulfillment come up time and time again in Holofcener's filmography.  One of the central things driving her characters is that they're so concerned that others see them through the lens that they see themselves.  Their anxieties are so well-drawn that when you look at them, you realize that there's nothing superficial about being image-obsessed -- it's actually a deeply human feeling.  Age goes hand-in-hand with her concerns about self-image too.  These coming of middle age films examine life in one's 30s and 40s, when people have to reconcile with the fact that time has started to weather them away a bit.

Another one of Holofcener's recurring elements is her inspection of the way people communicate with one another.  Her films may be heavily conversational, but the people in them rarely ever communicate in a healthy way.  When Laura (Anne Heche) gets engaged to her boyfriend in Walking and Talking, their relationship quickly devolves into constant arguments and bickering.  She focuses her ire on the birthmark he refuses to get checked out by a doctor, but the real problem is that she's unsure about the entire engagement in the first place.  When pressed about whether there are any deeper complaints that she has, Laura lies and says, "It's just about the birthmark."  But it's never just about the birthmark in Holofcener's films, where characters say things to avoid saying what they really mean.  Notice how when characters psychoanalyze others in Lovely & Amazing, it's often an expression of their own qualities.  Or in Friends With Money, where every get-together is punctuated by car rides that show each of the ladies talking about one another to their spouses. In both cases, the characters are so busy assessing the people around them that they haven't really taken the time to look within and get to the root of what's eating at them.

The few lukewarm reviews of Enough Said complained about its "Idiot Plot," and how annoying it was that the entire premise of the film centered around something completely avoidable.  But that's the entire point of the film, that things would be so much easier if Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) would just talk to Marianne (Catherine Keener) or Albert (James Gandolfini) about what's going on.  That's the thing about Holofcener's films: when a character has something to say, they almost never actually say it.  On the rare occasion that they do, it's not toward the intended target.  It's no surprise, then, that the most powerful parts of Please Give come from little moments of unspoken connection: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) providing a shoulder to lean on for a sister (Amanda Peet) she doesn't always get along with, or sharing an understanding glance with Kate (Keener) near the end of the film.

Nicole Holofcener movies are relationship films, but they encompass all kinds of relationships, including friendship and family.  Romantic entanglements do occur, but they're almost always secondary to the former two.  This ethos has been in her work since day one, starting with Walking and Talking, which features one of the richest female friendships I've ever seen onscreen.  We're shown that Amelia and Laura are lifelong best friends, spending all of their time together as kids and even calling each other multiple times per day as adults.  But when Laura's life slowly becomes more independent from Amelia's, she doesn't need Amelia in the same way that Amelia needs her, and their process of slowly drifting apart is small, but painful nonetheless.

In a way, Big Jeans, the cancer-ridden cat whose story takes up the film's C-plot, is like a symbol for Laura and Amelia's friendship.  They're both technically her owner, but Amelia is the one who keeps and takes care of her, while Laura rarely ever sees her anymore.  Neither of the two are seen as the bad guy in this scenario, it's just that adulthood has caused them to have different expectations of their friendship.  Films for and about women often put the status of one's love life at the forefront, but the way Holofcener focuses on the multitude of relationships in her protagonists' lives just makes them feel like fuller human beings.  It's very deliberate that both Amelia and Laura are only able to straighten their respective romantic lives out once they mend the thing that really matters -- the friendship between the two of them.

The one film where romance does get a spotlight is Enough Said, and even then it still isn't played like a traditional romantic comedy.  One of the things that sets Albert and Eva apart is just how tired they seem, as if they're sick of going through the motions of relationships.  There's something particularly moving about the way Albert says, "You broke my heart...and I'm too old for that shit" when he finds out that Eva has been keeping the fact that she knows his ex-wife from him.  And still, the film implies that these two characters looking for romantic fulfillment are unconsciously doing so in an attempt to fill the void that will soon exist when their daughters both go to college in a few months.  Even when tackling romantic relationships directly, Holofcener finds a way to hearken it back to her recurring themes of family and in particular, motherhood.  The film's subplot centers around Eva's relationship with her daughter's friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson).  The accidental way that Eva ends up spending more time with Chloe -- and her inability to see how much it's bothering her own daughter -- is a development that bubbles so slowly it's almost imperceptible.  In a film that's full of big lies and misunderstandings, this subtle conflict is the one that cuts the deepest.

Much credit is deserved for the way Holofcener sketches her characters and constructs conflicts, but some praise is owed to the acting as well.  In just five films, she's been able to work with great actors like Rebecca Hall, Emily Mortimer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini; who all perfectly transfer the depth of their characters from script to screen.  She's even gotten a career-best performance from some, including Jennifer Aniston in Friends With Money.  All the while, she barely ever reuses actors across multiple films like you see many other directors do, somehow managing to always find ways to get new actors to fit her naturalistic style.

Of course, the one major exception to this rule is Catherine Keener, who has appeared in every one of her films so far.  Together, Holofcener and Keener are like a distaff Scorsese and De Niro, bringing out the best of each other in their collaborations.  There isn't a major variation between the characters Holofcener writes for Keener --  they're all women who are a bit prickly, yet hiding some deeper anxiety -- but it's less a sign of limitation for either two than it is evidence that they know the perfect use of each other's talents.  The time may come when Keener doesn't appear in one of Holofcener's film, but it's not one I'd like to imagine any time soon.

So attuned are they to each other that Keener's best work is in 2010's Please Give, which I'd also pick as my favorite Holofcener film.  All of her stories follow the same pattern of being somewhat light and minor (though always funny) before sneaking up on you and delivering an emotional wallop, but Please Give might be the most successful at it.  It's just such a structurally sound film, setting up these tiny little threads that run alongside each other like the two adjacent apartments the story is centered around, and letting them topple over one by one like dominoes.  It's got all of the concerns we've come to expect from her work -- age, self-image, self-doubt -- but it's also a lovely little story about people stopping and realizing there's all this life that's occurring outside of themselves.

If there's one out of the bunch that's deserving of a critical reappraisal, it's definitely Friends With Money, Holofcener's third film.  It's not like it got panned by critics when it came out in 2006, but it's her lowest scoring film on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, and is usually placed last when fans rank her work in comment threads or on message boards.  Those who were skeptics already tend to see it as Holofcener indulging her worst instincts, and even some fans feel like it's a misstep with nothing new to say.  But it's actually a keen look into how caustic a tight-knit group of friends can be sometimes.  The four protagonists have been buddies for years, but everyone's so critical of one another, particularly of the aimless Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), who can't quite attain the level of financial success that everyone else has.  At one point in the film, somebody wonders whether they'd even be friends with each other if they had met at this current point in their lives.  But they've been friends for so long that they don't really have anybody else.  As difficult as the relationships may have become, there's a comfort to them as well.  Friends With Money perfectly understands the way inertia factors into these long-term bonds.  Despite its reputation, it might be one of Nicole Holofcener's best films.

But really, everything she's done so far is worth watching.  It's hard to think of many other directors who've been this consistently excellent over the course of five films.  Her work isn't the kind that announces its greatness, but there's something to admire about the quiet profundity of the revelations in them.  She can find loveliness and joy in even the smallest moments, like two parents watching their daughter with low self-esteem finally finding jeans that make her feel good about herself.  I look forward to seeing her stretch her boundaries in the future, as she seems to be doing with the upcoming Every Secret Thing.  It's new territory for her in more ways than one: not only is it the first film that she's not directing, but the screenplay is adapted from a novel by Laura Lippman.  Whether or not it will be worthy of praise is unknown, but based on her track record, she's got a lifelong fan in me.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: About a Boy

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.

Tuesdays at 9:00 PM on NBC

If, by some small chance, I ever become a TV writer, the person whose writing I'd most try to emulate would be Jason Katims.  Friday Night Lights and Parenthood are two of my favorite shows; they're some of the most humanistic dramas I've ever seen.  He's not placed in the pantheon of genius creators like David Simon, Joss Whedon, Vince Gilligan, or David Milch; but the way he's able to instill his shows with a sense of nuance and warmth isn't often seen elsewhere on television.  With those two shows, he was able to adapt well-known properties and quiet the skeptics by allowing them to take on a whole new life of their own.

With his latest, About a Boy, Katims attempts to do the same.  Not only is the show based on a well-known and highly regarded film from 2002, but the film itself was adapted from a bestselling Nick Hornby novel of the same name.  As always, there's a skepticism going into the pilot based on whether it will be able to do right by its source material, but this time around there's another reason to be wary: this is Katims' first half-hour comedy.  Friday Night Lights and Parenthood could often be very funny -- I'm sure Roswell was too, unintentionally or not -- but they're unambiguously dramas in terms of both structure and content.

There are definitely kinks that need to be worked out in terms of Katims getting used to the format.  Comedy wise, the pilot isn't particularly funny.  But that isn't much of a problem so far -- what it lacks in laugh-out-loud moments, it makes up for in sweet, smiling-inducing ones.  The bigger problems come from the structure.  It attempts to condense much of the film's story into just the pilot, yet the episode still feels far too loose.  Most of all, it's just hard to tell what the rest of show will be about, given its thin premise.  Granted, the best moments of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood existed between the plot points, but both of those two had pilots that clearly defined what the long-term arcs were going to be.  Nevertheless, the pilot is still charming.  King of the Cancelled Comedy David Walton is great as the lead, but so is Benjamin Stockman, who manages to be cute and precocious in a way that isn't nauseating (at least not yet).  About a Boy is far from the best that I could've hoped for, but it's Katims, so I'm in it for the long haul.

Grade: B-

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Star-Crossed

Every CW show in a nutshell.

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 8:00 PM on The CW

Since Friday Night Lights ended in 2011, most of its terrific cast have been unable to find work that allows them to match the heights they reached on that series.  Adrianne Palicki has been mostly reduced to "nondescript hottie" in films like GI Joe: Retaliation.  Zach Gilford has been in all kinds of bizarre projects (Off the Map, anyone?), but lately settling into the low-rent horror film rut.  These days, Taylor Kitsch is the instrument that Peter Berg uses to get the job done in his rah-rah military films.  While Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler have gotten projects with major cachet, the former's naturalistic acting style feels woefully out of place on the gonzo American Horror Story and the sudsy Nashville, and the latter continually gets typecast as a stern federal agent.  The lone exception is Michael B. Jordan, whose star continues to rise, with terrific performances in indie films like Fruitvale Station and landing blockbusters like the upcoming Fantastic Four film.  Unfortunately, Aimee Teegarden won't be joining those ranks, given that Star-Crossed isn't exactly the best use of whatever talents she may have displayed on Friday Night Lights.

Things start out well, at least.  The pilot opens on a quick bit of exposition and a flashback that establishes the world -- an alien race called the Atrians had to flee their planet and come to Earth, only to be greeted with hostility.  It ends on a darker-than-expected note that effectively lets you know the stakes.  Years later, the Atrians that remain are forced to live in segregated ghettos and follow a harsh set of rules.  The segregation stuff lacks a bit of subtlety and nuance, but the show gets credit for at least trying to draw parallels between humanity's treatment of the Atrians and similar periods of our own global history.  Really though, the show's biggest problem is that it's on The CW, and has to meet the requirements of the network by having tons of glowering and a steamy romance at the center of it all.  Shows can work well under these confines, as The Vampire Diaries -- and to a lesser extent, Reign -- has proven, but the pilot of Star-Crossed threatens to collapse under the weight of its literal star-crossed lovers story. Again, I give them credit for even trying to tell a story with this level of thematic ambition.  When it gets lost in the lovey-dovey BS or general teen soapery, it always has those species tensions to fall back on.  It's just not enough as of right now.

Grade: C+

Monday, February 17, 2014

Angel Olsen goes electric on "Burn Your Fire For No Witness"

If you've seen Angel Olsen's recent appearance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, or any live performance of hers, you know how stoic and intense her demeanor can be while she's singing.  Her eyes rarely break contact with the floor, and her quiet concentration gives off the impression that she's performing in a bubble, only occasionally aware that there's an audience around her.  It's a presence that was fitting for the material on her debut album, Half Way Home, whose stark beauty seemed specifically crafted for solitary reflection.  Olsen does that kind of delicate, moody folk so well that you could easily imagine an alternate universe where she just keeps doing that on album after album.  But there's also another side to her that comes out in between the songs in that Tiny Desk Concert video, one that indicates a much less dour person hiding behind her tortured persona.  With that in mind, it's not nearly as surprising that she's recharted her course for her sophomore effort, delivering Burn Your Fire For No Witness, an album that's coursing with a vibrant, livewire energy.

Okay, this isn't the "Dylan goes electric" of the 21st century -- Half Way Home wasn't exactly a wholly acoustic album, but Burn Your Fire busts Olsen's sound wide open in a way that feels like a completely new terrain for her.  The album is packed with jagged guitars and a full rhythm section, usually doled out in three minute bursts.  It's not completely devoid of her old sound -- the moody, simmering "White Fire" is one of the best songs on the record and feels like it'd be just as at home on her previous one -- but this time around, the traces of her roots are swaddled by songs with cutting riffs.  This doesn't just feel like an artist trying on a new style and seeing how it fits either; a song like "High & Wild" gets downright boozy, and does so with aplomb.  Her classic rock stylings can be traced back to the chorus of Half Way Home's "The Waiting," but they're only fully realized here on "Hi-Five."  And this bigger sound does nothing to drown out her distinctive voice, which is still terrific.  Her quavering vibrato can have a delicate vulnerabilty to it, but also be commanding and powerful.

The sound may be livelier, but Burn Your Fire's lyrical content plumbs the soul just as Half Way Home did.  "High & Wild" is a swaggering bar rock song, but with Olsen lamenting "I feel so lonesome I could cry" in the very first line.  In fact, loneliness is a recurring theme throughout the entire album.  "I am the only one now," she sings repeatedly on "Unfucktheworld," and she recommends dancing "even if you're the only one" on "Dance Slow Decades."  Even the title Burn Your Fire For No Witness evokes a sense of isolation.  Emotionally, the album exists at the poles, feeling lonesome one second and feeling so much all at once that she could scream the next.

But those lyrics about loneliness belie the fact that this is ultimately a positive album.  There's a willful independence that's galvanizing in lines like "If you've still got light in you, then go before it's gone / Burn your fire for no witness, it's the only way it's done."  It's a record that's secretly all about hopes and dreams and desires.  There's no better evidence of that than "Iota," where Olsen speaks in "if only"s that could turn things around.  "If only we could stay the same," she wishes at one point, but the rest of the album embraces change, exploring how stasis can be ruinous.  Album ender "Windows" clinches that idea, imploring somebody else (a lover? a friend? us?) to try having a brighter disposition.  It's a song about avoiding the darkness and putting the past behind you on an album about just trying to make it through the day, a relationship, or life.  When you think about it, the electrified sound of Burn Your Fire For No Witness just serves to reflect those ideas.  After all, as she says, "what's so wrong with a little light"?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Space Dandy has renewed my boyish enthusiasm for anime

My history with anime began in the same way that it did for the majority of the people in my generation: watching episodes of shows like Sailor Moon and Pokemon as a kid.  Back then, I was too little to know what anime was, and those shows were grouped in with The Rugrats and Doug as just cartoons in mind.  It wasn't until I was around 9 or 10, when my love of anime reached its peak with the popularity of Dragon Ball Z, that I really started to understand what it was.  DBZ was like event television at that time.  Every boy in my 4th grade class was obsessed with it, and I remember hoping that my mom would pick me up from after school care in time to watch the latest episode on Toonami, lest I be unable to participate in the elementary watercooler conversation that occurred the next day.  (I'm sure there were some girls who watched Dragon Ball Z too, but if they did they were too busy pretending they didn't, in the same way that we were lying about not watching The Powerpuff Girls.)  I still loved many American cartoons, but I knew there was something different and exciting about Japanese cartoons like this one and Yu Yu Hakusho.

As I got older, Toonami changed its airing schedule from weekdays between 4 and 6 PM to Saturday nights, where it aired shows like Naruto and One Piece.  Despite more modern animation, those shows still shared the maddening decompressed storytelling of Dragon Ball Z, but the block led into Adult Swim's late night anime programming.  Here was where I was introduced to the work of Shinichiro Watanabe, whose Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo continued the growth and sophistication of my taste in anime, redefining my expectations of the medium.  I loved Cowboy Bebop's maturity, its jazzy soundtrack matching the laid back pace at which the episodes progressed.  Many people regard Bebop as the best anime of all time, so while my love of it isn't a bold opinion, the fact that I prefer Samurai Champloo is.  There's just something about the blending of samurai action and hip hop brashness in the latter that really hit me back in high school, and its brand of melancholy registered more than Bebop's did.  Regardless, the two of them are basically my favorite anime ever.

Since then, my anime viewing has slowed down, to the point where I had given up on it for the last two years or so.  Even still, I consider myself such a Watanabe fan that I vowed I'd watch anything he worked on, no matter what my relationship with anime was at the time.  Well now, just that has happened, as his interstellar romp Space Dandy premiered on Adult Swim a few weeks ago.  (Aside from its notability for being Watanabe's first non-adaptation anime since Champloo, Space Dandy is also monumental because it airs in America before our friends in Japan get to see it.)  Initially, I was very wary, because Space Dandy was pitched as more of a straight comedy.  Even back when I was a more frequent anime viewer, I tended to stay away from comedy, because I generally don't have a Japanese sense of humor.  Bebop and Champloo certainly had comedic moments, but they weren't given the space to become tiresome in the way that the gags do in comedic anime.  The first half of Space Dandy's pilot certainly suffered from this problem, and the humor didn't really work for me.  I admired the old school charm of the show, but its tired meta humor and boob-obsessed protagonist weren't a good introduction.

Luckily there's a bit more to the show than that.  Things turned around in the second half of the episode, when the jokes fell away in favor of the show's artistic prowess.  The pure visual splendor on display, awash with vivid colors and psychedelic designs, was much more in line with the boldness of Watanabe's previous work.  That's where the true core of Space Dandy lies, in its ability to irreverently treat its world like a sandbox for its playful "anything goes" mentality.  The next few episodes still featured some of the hammy elements that nearly brought down the pilot, but it was always saved by just how wild the show was willing to get, offering up a new flavor with every new episode, and sometimes switching things up in the middle of one.  This extreme tonal variation is a Watanabe staple, but his previous shows never reached the pure comedic lunacy that Dandy does.

No episode exemplifies that sense of insanity more than "Sometimes You Can't Live Without Dying, Baby," the show's 4th episode.  In it, Meow gets bitten by an alien that turns him into a zombie.  The genius of the rest of the episode is in just how far it takes this standard concept.  Soon the zombie outbreak spreads -- even robot QT becomes zombified, her growl sounding like an autotuned R&B song -- to the point where Dandy himself becomes a zombie.  And that's just the first half of the episode.  It just keeps going and going with the idea, hilariously examining how life insurance changes in the wake of the zombie apocalypse.  The true star of the episode is the show's narrator, who languidly describes the progression of events, from the assassins in charge of killing the zombies so they no longer cash in on their insurance to the zombies' inexplicable love of malls.  But eventually even he can't escape the outbreak, as the episode ends with him somehow becoming a zombie as well.  It's a brilliant, bizarre, and ballsy episode that will be remembered as the show's first true sign of greatness if it ends up being one of the great anime of our time.

It'd be hard to match the ridiculous heights that the zombie episode did, so the show rightfully pared things down for its 5th episode, where Dandy bonds with an alien girl who's on the run.  It's the most Bebop-esque episode the show has had so far, matching that show's somber tone and showing a more mature side to the often juvenile Dandy.  Even still, at times it also seemed like a bizarre parody of those stories where an adult takes a troubled kid under their wing.  Further proof that the show can't be nailed down comes from its most recent episode, in which Meow and Dandy become embroiled in a war between the two species inhabiting a planet they land on.  The cause of the war: one side only wears vests and the other only wears pants.  At the point we find them, both species have been whittled down to only one member each, and Meow and Dandy get roped into things, choosing sides in this tiny and petty battle.  The severe incompetence displayed by both sides makes for a funny episode that only somebody with a truly warped mind could think of.

In just 6 weeks, Space Dandy has emerged as something truly special.  It's in rarefied air, belonging with shows like Community and Black Mirror when it comes to not knowing what to expect from it on any given week.  The show may have some rough edges and lapses into immaturity, but it's ultimately a fun way to spend 30 minutes.  If you're looking for the sophistication of Cowboy Bebop or Samurai Champloo, you're going to have to throw those expectations out of the door, because this is not either of those.  So just sit back and enjoy the ride, baby!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Canon #9: Taxi Driver (1976)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

The first time I watched Martin Scorsese's 70s classic, Taxi Driver, was when I was 16 or 17.  Once a year, usually during the summer, DirectTV would have a special deal where they gave customers a free weekend of all the premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax.  I always used these opportunities to catch up on as many films as possible, taking full advantage of the variety that this deal provided.  On the particular night that I watched Taxi Driver, I had already watched about 3 or 4 movies that day, so I was very tired when it started airing at 11:30 PM.  So naturally, I watched most of the film in only a half conscious state, letting it wash over me instead of fully engaging with it.

Usually, being half asleep is a far from ideal state to be watching a movie, but under this circumstance, it was actually fitting, given the film's dreamy/nightmarish qualities.  From the rain-smeared windshield of Travis Bickle's cab, to the rapid succession of stoplight after stoplight, to the way that red lights echo far past their source to bleed all over the screen; Scorsese is able to capture that rarely depicted mixture of the vivid sensory feelings and foggy interpretations that come with a dreamlike haze.  Neon lights reflect the garbage filled streets.  Nights are a breeding ground for the seediest of crooks and deviants.  Days are claustrophobic with the bustle of the city.  They bleed together like a Mobius strip, on and on and on.  Bernard Herrmann's score repeats its motifs, nagging away, gnawing at your soul.  This is New York for Travis Bickle, a disorienting purgatory he's found himself in after serving in the Vietnam War.

The second time I watched Taxi Driver was just last week in my Cinema Survey class.  It's my last semester of college, and it's a surprisingly lonely time in my life.  I'm graduating soon without ever having left much of a mark on this place.  I don't have much of a social life, didn't make many friends here, and the few I did make in the early stages have long since moved on with their lives.  I'm a Computer Science major, but I'm basically done with the requirements for my degree, and the majority of the classes I'm taking this semester are to finish out my Cinema Studies minor.  So I don't even have the few people in my major with whom I've had many classes over the years around to provide a sense of familiarity.  It's even worse that this Cinema Survey class is a general education class, usually for freshman to take to get their cultural credit out of the way, so it's filled with large groups of friends who sit together while I'm all by my lonesome.  Sometimes I find myself wondering how I can be in such a densely populated place yet feel so isolated.

As much as this makes my life miserable, it's the perfect condition to watch Taxi Driver in, because it's perhaps the ultimate film about loneliness.  We're introduced to Travis Bickle through his plaintive narration, where he describes his job in not so chipper terms: "Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat.  Some nights, I clean off the blood."  New York may be teeming with life, but it's a barren wasteland to Travis, who finds companionship only in his increasingly deranged thoughts.  The most famous bit of narration sums his fatalistic views up perfectly:

Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere.  In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere.  There's no escape.  I'm God's lonely man.

The one scene that really gets to me occurs in the middle of the film, just as Bickle's loneliness really starts to eat away at him.  He confides in Wizard (Peter Boyle) about how he's been "feeling down" -- the street outside bathed in red light, as most of the important scenes in the film are -- but he doesn't quite know how to articulate it.  The advice he gets from Wizard, to just take it easy and find a girl to sleep with, doesn't do much to assuage his feelings.  It's a scene that's interesting enough due to the striking visuals and De Niro's raw, vulnerable performance, but for anybody who's ever been in a bad place and has tried to reach out to someone, only to get a response that doesn't help much, it's a moment that takes on much more power.

Most of all, Taxi Driver captures just how angry being lonely can make you.  Travis has a distinct sense of justice, however misplaced, and his need to "do something" about the depravity around him leads him to buy guns and start an intense physical regimen.  The infamous "you talkin' to me?" scene is a perfect distillation of the rage he feels, directed at nobody and everybody all at once.  Part of the reason why the movie is so troubling is because it feels so real.  I've never been driven to violence, but lots of his insanity is understandable because it's not so far removed from the frustrations that any isolated person develops.  The combination of desperately longing for human connection while also being repulsed by the actual process of forming those bonds is certainly something I've felt before.

New York has been a frequent subject of study in Martin Scorsese's work, and Taxi Driver's representation, warped though it may be, might be the ultimate depiction.  It's almost an extension of Travis Bickle's mind -- just look at the way somebody is always getting rough up at the edge of the frame, or how crooks and prostitutes fill the background of many scenes.  Travis is obviously a mentally disturbed person, possibly because of his time in Vietnam, but it's clear that the city is a catalyst for his psychotic break.  In a way, Taxi Driver makes you realize that New York must be filled with these kinds of damaged, broken people we'll never know about.  Travis Bickle is only one of them.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Wrestling with my feelings about season 3 of Girls

"Who is Hannah Horvath"?  That's the question a book publisher asks Hannah in "Only Child," the latest Girls episode to air.  But increasingly in its third season, it seems like the show itself is having an identity crisis.  It used to feel like it had such a firm grasp on its characters, criticizing them while giving you ample reason to understand them, but now I don't know if it has a clear vision of what it's trying to say about them anymore.  I'm one of the few people who loved how dark season 2 got -- it was willing to put these four women through the ringer, but also had a great amount of sympathy for them.  In season 3 though, Girls has gone back to having a lighter, more comedic feel reminiscent of season 1.

Now don't get me wrong, I loved season 1.  The problem is that season 2 was such a "you can't go home again" season, that trying to go back to the tone of season 1 just doesn't feel right.  It's what I like to call The Buffy Season 6 problem.  That's another season of television that I love, but one that put the show in a difficult position.  After the unrelenting darkness of that year, it'd be easy to make up for it with lighter fare in the next season.  But being a Joss Whedon show, it decided to only step off the gas a little bit when it came to the misery, and the final season is often derided for how dreary it is.  (To be fair, there are many other problems to lob at it that don't have to do with the tone.)  Likewise, if Girls continued following the slope established by its second season, it would be in danger of becoming a depressing slog.  So I definitely understand the tonal choices made by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, but that doesn't forgive the many problems that still exist within this season.

The biggest of those problems is that the characters are approaching the point where they're starting to feel like cartoons, instead of the living, breathing people that they were written to be in the show's first two seasons.  Now the main characters feel so aggressively self-involved, way past the point of seeming real.  Take the end of "Dead Inside," where Hannah pretends to finally have some reaction to her editor's death by retelling a story that Caroline told her earlier, for instance.  The moment is extremely dark on paper, but it's treated like a cute punchline to end the episode on.  It's the biggest example of the gap between what the show was ("These people are awful.  Let's figure out why.") to what it often is now ("Look at how awful these people are!").  I'm just not interested in the show if it wants to point and laugh at the characters.  I know that may not be Dunham and Konner's intention, but it sure does feel that way.  Just look at Marnie's storyline so far this year, where we're supposed to find her constant floundering funny.  When did the show become so cynical?

The introduction of Adam's sister Caroline, doesn't help matters much either.  Gaby Hoffmann is perfectly cast in the role, but the writing has yet to elevate her past the level of being a zany cartoon.  She's just the random force there to disrupt Adam and Hannah's life.  Adam might be a strange guy, but he had depth from almost the very beginning.  You can see how Lena Dunham is trying to say something about the mirrors between her and Hannah, but it feels so half-baked because the show is so distracted by her oddness.  It's surely leading somewhere, but the road to get there could be a little more interesting.

Weirdly, the strongest and most sympathetic season 3 material comes from Jessa.  For the most part, she was everybody's least favorite character, a matter not helped by the relatively shallow storylines she got in the first two seasons.  But this year, her character has been fertile ground for compelling stories.  When watching her scenes in rehab early in the season, it'd be easy to think that it's just another example of the cartoonish awfulness I complained about, but there's something much deeper going on with her.  She's still an awful human being, but the show depicts her maliciousness in a way that exposes an inner pain, not just using it as a setup for sitcom laughs.

Yet despite some of my fears and misgivings, I think this season is strangely engrossing nonetheless.  Every week, I find myself hating the first 15 minutes of a given episode, only for the second half to really grow on me.  By the time the end credits roll, I'm eager to see the next episode.  Even when it's frustrating, Girls feels as if it's an experience unlike anything else on television.  I throw my hands up in annoyance, but I also find it so daring.  Regardless of the actual intent, the inherent darkness of the final scene of "Dead Inside" is ballsy stuff.  And look at the jarring way that "Only Child" just ends.  In my blurb about it on my year-end list last year, I mentioned how Girls is a insane highwire act.  It hasn't quite fallen yet, but watching it struggle to maintain balance is both frightening and fascinating at the same time.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The prolific Kool A.D. continues his loopy brilliance on "Not O.K."

I've never been much of a Guided By Voices fan, but I'm well aware of what it's like to be one, and having to struggle to sort through Robert Pollard's massive output.  Rapper Kool A.D. (real name Victor Vasquez) isn't quite on that level, but the former Das Racist member sure seems to have alot of material as of late.  (For those keeping score at home: he's put out 4 mixtapes in less than 2 years, and they all have 15 songs or more on them.)  He's a weird guy, and his style is such that he just tosses out whatever is going on in his head.  The result is often strange, indulgent, and scattered; but captivating nonetheless. So what if you have to sift through a few misfires when the moments that connect are so incredible?

Not O.K., the latest addition to his recent prolific streak, isn't any different in that regard.  In Das Racist, he and Heems were always those slacker geniuses of the rap world, the kind that never seemed like they were trying too hard, but still aced every test.  Now that he's on his own, Kool A.D. has fallen deeper into that well.  Here's the thing: Not O.K. is very dumb.  But it's also kind of brilliant.  That's the dichotomy he explores on his solo material, constantly blurring the lines between bewildering foofaraw and idiosyncratic genius.  In his hands, songs are an opportunity to ingest a bunch of rap tropes and spit out something uniquely his own.  Take a look at "Tiger Style," where he out-Lil B's Lil B; or the way he employs the "oops, I meant..." tick that Lil Wayne made popular in the mid-to-late 2000s.  He manages to be a scholar of rap, but never takes it too seriously.

But of course, there are those missteps that come with his freewheeling style.  On this mixtape he tries his hand behind the boards, producing the three instrumentals that appear, and they're easily the weak points, especially sitting next to production from Toro y Moi and Oh No.  They're short enough to be harmless -- the longest one clocks in at 1 minute and 24 seconds -- but two are placed close together near the end and are big momentum killers.  What's more deleterious are some of the truly awful guest verses that pop up.  If you want to know how difficult it is to pull off Kool A.D.'s style, take a look at the people who try to imitate it and fail.  Despite his great beat work, Amaze 88 just doesn't have the insouciant charm to nail A.D.'s smoked out ramblings, and Milo's cringeworthy awkwardness threatens to capsize "Pass the Milk."  On the other hand, there's no explanation for Alim, whose clumsy in a style all his own on "Insane Computer Raps."

Not all of the guest spots are bad though -- in fact, the two best songs have prominent feature verses.  The first one is "CNN," where Del the Funkee Homosapien and Lady Mecca meld with Kool A.D. like they were born to rap together; the other is "PLVYVHVT3," where Jaybee quietly kills it.  And for as much as he goofs off, when Vasquez does straighten up it's quite dazzling.  "Cuidado" sees him showing off his limber flow, adroitly switching between English and Spanish.  You'd think it'd be frustrating to only get glimpses of his full potential, but the best moments feel incredibly rewarding.

With 15 tracks totaling a slim 43 minutes, Not O.K. is a more streamlined affair when compared to his previous 20+ song releases.  But it's not just the length that evidences progress, this one also feels more singular in its vision, not just a grab bag of styles and tones.  I mourn the loss of Das Racist, who single-handedly renewed my enthusiasm for rap music back in 2010, but if we keep getting mixtapes like this -- and at the frequency with which he's been putting them out -- then I can't complain.  Not O.K. is a clear sign of growth from this eccentric, hard to nail down rapper.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Late to the Party #7: Memories of Murder (2003)

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

Korean director Bong Joon-ho just might be the master of tone.  Bucking the bleak trends of his revenge-obsessed compatriots, his films feature wild tonal shifts, veering from mood to mood at the drop of a hat.  His 2006 monster movie The Host warranted that mismash of tones, given its Spielbergian nature.  But his 2009 followup, Mother, was even more impressive for taking the story of one mother's quest to exonerate her mentally disabled son from a crime he's accused of, and infusing it with wonderful bits of slapstick comedy, without ever making it feel out of place.  In going back and watching Memories of Murder, it's clear that his handle on the shifting moods of his films was steady right from the beginning.

Though it might feature his most serious story, a Zodiac-esque look into the real-life serial murders that occurred in Korea during the 70s and 80s, it also contains some of the funniest moments in his filmography.  Watch Joon-ho's films and you can easily imagine him being raised on Keaton, Chaplin, and other silent slapstick comedy, because there's a broad go-for-broke sensibility to much of the comic relief in his work.  He loves scenes that slowly get blown out of proportion, like when two of the main characters in Memories meet because one beats the other up, thinking him to be a rapist.  Physical scenes like that -- and the many dropkicks that occur in his films -- are Joon-ho staples, but he also gets alot of mileage out of simple visual gags.  Characters frequently pop in and out of frame at just the right time, and his level of spacial reasoning makes everything feel both perfectly in place and out of place.

But his knack for comedy only serves to make the pieces of suspense in Memories of Murder even more frightening.  After all, it's no coincidence that the first attack we see from the killer is after a funny moment.  We're out of breath because of the laughter, but then for another reason in this suspenseful, predatory act.  The switch from being a comedy with splashes of drama to being a drama with splashes of comedy is a masterful one, as the police case drags, with tensions and the body count rising in equal measure.

What makes the case so interesting is the moral complexity of it all -- it's not content with delivering a standard black-and-white, "cops chase the bad guys" tale.  Here, Joon-ho makes the police squad a little rougher, undermanned, and under-skilled.  They're no strangers to resorting to dirty tactics to get their way, which leads to many of the case's dead ends, after their aggressive methods cause a handful of false confessions.  "Even the kids know you torture suspects," one of the town's denizens says at one point.  Yet the ultimate conclusion to be drawn from the investigation is that you can never truly know anything, that there's no room for certainty in every case.  Like the patterns of this uncaught serial killer, these three cops go through the endless day-to-day cycle of police work.  Eventually, an everyday grind wears you out, and all three of these men have their certitude tested -- along with their sanity -- in service of this grind.  With Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho crafted a procedural crime thriller and wrapped it up in a complex exploration of the elusiveness of certainty, the mundanity of evil, and the toll that cases like these take on those trying to solve them.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Carrie Diaries - "Run to You" Review

Season 2, Episode 13

Season 2 of The Carrie Diaries has been an up and down one, that's for sure.  At times, it seemed like the show was actively trying to bend and ruin everything that made it special in the first season.  Carrie became a little unlikable (particularly in her dealings with superstar playwright Adam Weaver), the show rarely ever knew what to do with Samantha, and there were so many different threads occurring in isolation that it felt like we were watching 6 shows at once.  But at its best -- like last week's penultimate episode -- it reminded you of its simple charm and the writers' ability to really nail the emotional moments that count.

This finale had alot riding on it, since it could be the show's final episode, after producing stable but low numbers all season.  But inside of its universe, the stakes were high as well, as all the characters find themselves at a precipice of some sort.  Really though, this episode is focused on the girl at the center of it all, confronting each section of her life one by one.  The first of those is her education, as we see Carrie and the rest of the gang graduating from Castlebury High School at the beginning of the episode.  It's a miracle that Carrie managed to get a diploma at all, seeing as she was rarely ever there, but nevertheless, she's ready to approach the next stage of her life, working at Interview full time in the city.

Misfortune strikes, however, when Larissa gets fired after being in a spotlight article where she doesn't give any credit to her vain boss.  Because Carrie under the auspices of Larissa, this essentially means that she has to get the boot as well.  It'd take an eternity to try to figure out the logic of how all of this works, but only a second to see how contrived this plot element is, nakedly serving to ratchet up drama.  Yet while I wouldn't say it entirely works, it's effective because the drama it causes is compelling.  Carrie's life has always been structured and driven, so this development puts her in a position that's new to her, one where there's no safety net.  That's only reinforced by her attempts to fall back on her acceptance to NYU, only to find out that she missed the deadline by 3 days, and wouldn't be able to start school until the next fall semester.

What's bad news for Carrie is a window of opportunity for Sebastian, who takes this series of unfortunate events and uses it to finally tell her that he's planning on going back to California, and asks her to come with him.  While Carrie's deliberating a possible move to the west coast, Tom finds out from Larissa that Carrie got fired from Interview, thus making her decision to forgo college all the more foolish.  This leads to the knockout scene in the middle of the episode where he goes to confront Carrie, dissolving one of the strongest and most subtle relationships of the show.  It still isn't enough for Carrie to up and move to California, after Larissa's vows during her and Harlan's wedding causes Carrie to realize that New York is her true home.  The scene where she shares this revelation with Sebastian is heartbreaking in its own right, but it's even more powerful because of the symbolic meaning it has for Carrie.  Since the beginning, it seemed like the show was treating Sebastian as Big Jr., the satellite that's always in Carrie's orbit.  But we know how her life turns out -- Sebastian isn't even a blip on adult Carrie's radar.  The show's done such a good job of feigning Carrie and Sebastian's epic romance that their parting still feels like a gutpunch, even though I was convinced that I had no vested interest in their relationship just a few episodes ago.  It truly is one of the "putting away of childish things" moments that this episode is all about.

"How do we know if we're moving forward or just moving?," Carrie asks herself in a rare example of beautiful narration.  In fact, the entire episode is about her orienting herself on the road to the second act of her life.  There may have been side stories with the various other characters -- Maggie gets a marriage proposal from Pete the Army Guy, Mouse is marooned on Mouse Storyline Island with West, Larissa gets married to Harlan, Dorrit and Tom eat waffles together, Bennet wears funny clothes, and Samantha does...something -- but "Run to You" is about Carrie becoming the woman we know her to be in Sex and the City.  And I must say, for somebody who wasn't wild about that show, and especially its interpretation of Carrie, I found this episode to be beautiful and moving.  It's the kind of illuminating finale that reconstructs everything that came before it.  The many narrative stumbles may still be there when you look back on this year, but those are just extra pieces in a larger story about one girl learning that her wide-eyed ambition is not the only ingredient to success, that hard work and personal growth are necessary as well.  The Carrie Diaries might have largely abandoned being a high school drama somewhere in season 1, but at the end of tonight's episode, I couldn't help but feel like I saw a wonderful two-season encapsulation of adolescence.  I'd love to see the show come back, but if it doesn't, this episode feels like a conclusive chapter to this portion of Carrie Bradshaw's life.

Random Asides:

-This week in AnnaSophia Robb being delightful: She did not disappoint in this finale.  That goofy smile that she gives to Walt when Harlan talks about having sex with Larissa on a plane might be her most delightful moment on the show.

-But seriously, there aren't enough words to describe how great of a performance AnnaSophia Robb is giving on this show.  Carrie's breakup scene with Sebastian and subsequent reconciliation with her father was just outstanding stuff.

-Mouse Sweater Watch: Mouse also went out strong with her sweater game, wearing a nice yellow and black striped sweater that made her look like a bumblebee.

-"Am I dating another gay guy without knowing it?  Is that my thing?"  The show didn't always know what to do with Maggie this year, but at least she gets this funny line.

-Well that wraps up season 2 of The Carrie Diaries!  I started doing this because I wanted to try my hand at writing weekly reviews, and in the process I've discovered that I'm probably not cut out for it.  This is hard to do, guys!  But if you've been reading and enjoying them, thank you so much.  Call me crazy, but I think the show is going to get picked up for a third season.  (Then again, I thought Bunheads had a good shot at getting renewed for a second season.  And we all know what happened there.)  If it does come back, I might make a return to weekly reviewing, if only to be able to have a "This week in AnnaSophia being delightful" section that documents the moment when she finally grows little wings and sprinkles fairy dust over everybody else.