Thursday, September 30, 2010

My 21st Time Around the Sun

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, its my birthday today. So while I'm out celebrating (read: taking two midterm exams), here's a few others who are celebrating as well:
Monica Bellucci (1964), The Matrix Reloaded
Eric Stoltz (1961), Pulp Fiction
Fran Drescher (1957), The Nanny
Kieran Culkin (1982), Igby Goes Down
Tony Hale (1970), Arrested Development
Deborah Kerr (RIP 1921-2007), From Here to Eternity
The Flintstones (1960)
And, a personal favorite of mine....
Marion Cotillard (1975), La Vie en Rose
I'll be back tomorrow with new stuff. Until then, have a wonderful day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Glee Returns: "Audition" & "Britney/Brittany"

I've been thinking about doing this for a while: doing recaps for an entire season of a show. And if not now, then when? And what better show to cover than Glee: its a wonderfully unique show that's very enjoyable, if not entirely perfect. Of course, my schedule has slowed me down a bit in regards to finally getting around to seeing the first two episodes of the season, but here they are. Let me know what you think: your encouragement and comments mean more things like this.
Glee's first season was something of a miracle. Musical television had been tried many times before, mostly ending in spectacular burnouts; the last show that tried, Viva Laughlin, only lasted two episodes before it was cancelled. And many expected Glee to be met with a similar fate. But the show not only made it through one terrific (if uneven) season, but managed to get picked up for not only a second but also a third season, a show of faith that seems to be very, very rare at Fox. Coming into season two, though, was the fear of backlash and the dreaded sophomore slump. Would Glee end up being a once-great series that fell into a decline it could never get out of, a la Heroes, or would it continue to the defy the odds?
I'm glad to report that, by my viewing, its the latter for now. "Audition" is a great start to the season, not only in bringing everyone back but also in introducing new characters. The episode sets up the new guys as rivals for the leads: Sam (Chord Overstreet) serves as the replacement quarterback for Finn, Sunshine (Charice) proves to be a surprisingly strong vocalist that frightens golden-narcassist Rachel, and Coach Bieste (Dot-Maire Jones) is siphoning money away from the Cheerios and New Directions for the football team. Not to mention Santana is demoted from head cheerleader in favor of Quinn, who's back from having her baby. Its a setup that will hopefully raise the stakes throughout the season. I was also intrigued by the partnership between Will and Sue: this is a relationship that I hope will be further explored this year.
Sunshine (Charice)
Musically, the episode offered up a collection of current pop hits and show tunes. Charice, who is actually having a very successful pop career at the moment at only 18, steals the show with her pair of songs, a half-creepy bathroom duet with Lea Michele with "Telephone" and her showstopping audition song, "Listen." Vocally, she's the breakout star of the new season. Otherwise, the songs were pretty standard; this may be a personal thing, but now matter how hard the show tries, the rap songs are still incredibly awkward. And Mr. Schu's promise that the club will be "25% hip-hop" does not make me feel better.
Speaking of which, one of the things I love about Glee is how self-reflexive it can be. During the first segment of the episode, in which Jacob Ben Israel is documenting the kids on their first day back, he asks Will to respond to the question, "How do you feel about people asking you to stop rapping?" One of the complaints about the show so far has concerned this topic (I myself am not a fan), and its nice to see that the creators are aware of the problems with the show. So far, it seems that they have spent the summer correcting those issues. Here's hoping that this holds true throughout the season.
- By the way, is it just me, or is Mike Chang really good for nothing other than randomly breakdancing at various points? Has he really done anything else?
- I'm so glad to see Cheyenne Jackson here. Maybe this show won't just dump him the way 30 Rock did.
- "All you do is '80s songs and musicals." Well, stick to your strengths, Glee. These are the things that you do best.
- Wit 'n' Wisdom of Sue Sylvester: "Now get your fresh, vine-ripened chest fruits the hell out of my office."
Here it is: the Britney Spears episode that's been buzzed about since it was announced this summer. Its also a pretty bold experiment for Glee, opting to feature Heather Morris' Brittany for the entire episode and relegating everyone else to subplots. Morris has always been dependably hilarious, spitting out ridiculous non sequiturs that never fail to get a huge laugh. But that's what's so risky: we know she's great with one-liners, but can she (and her character) carry an entire episode unproven?
Well, yes and no. Morris proves to be a remarkably great dancer, deftly handling some of the show's most difficult choreography to date. And she gets plenty of one-liners ("This looks like the spaceship where they probed me."). However, she's only prominent for the first 15 minutes of the episode, after which the regulars take over the remaining half-hour. And she doesn't do much besides say absurd things and sing and dance to Britney Spears songs. Its not much of a showcase, and we definitely never get the feeling that the creators have no idea of who Brittany is as a character, or if she even is a character instead of a caricature. There may be such a thing as too much Brittany, and this episode tiptoed dangerously on that line.
Last season, Glee had two "theme" episodes: Madonna and Lady Gaga. The Gaga episode was hardly that; there were a few songs by her and some inspired costumes, but beyond that it was a normal episode. For Madonna, however, the show went all out: all of the songs were Madonna, and the show paid tribute to her power as a pop star. The episode said something about her: she changed pop music, and in the process embodied female empowerment of the late '80s onward. And in the process, it introduced Madonna to an audience that may not have been as familiar with the works of the Material Girl. It was exactly what a "theme" episode should be.
Morris and Spears
"Britney/Brittany" aspires to do the same for Britney Spears. Love her or hate her, she's certainly made a major impact on the pop landscape, essentially shaping it throughout the 2000s. And the episode is packed with Spears' music, mostly her biggest hits (though nothing beyond her early-'90s heyday; no "Womanizer" or "Gimme More" here). Yet the episode doesn't have anything to say about her music. Well, nothing positive at least. The kids assert that Britney is a major influence in their lives, and are therefore empowered by her music; Mr. Schu's opposition to her just means he's an uptight square. But in the end, all it really has to say about Spears' music is that its too hypersexualized to be a positive influence on anyone; in fact, the episode more or less paints Spears as a woman who ruined many a teenager through her music. And all of this happens with Spears guest-starring as herself. Some tribute.
The episode is also too silly for its own good. Most of the musical numbers are from anesthesia-induced hallucinations brought on by the kids going to see Emma's dentist boyfriend (an irresistible John Stamos), and are mostly just recreations of Spears' videos and performances over the years. In fact, the only truly original sequence, Artie performing "Stronger" with dancing football players, is too ridiculous to make the impact its striving for. And of course, the fact that they are all having Britney Spears fantasies is too contrived (a point that Puck addresses in the show, which would have worked wonderfully without Artie's lame explanation).
So what did work? Well, relationship issues have yet to be completely resolved, so well-paced continuity seems to be legit this year. Stamos hams it up as Carl; I'm looking forward to seeing a lot more of his character in the coming weeks. It wasn't that this was a necessarily bad episode, but it was far from Glee's best. There's obviously still some serious kinks to work out in the show; here's hoping next week's episode is more impressive.
- "Wow, there's a hair down there!" I love the pamphlet's in Emma's office.
- I get the feeling we're going to be seeing a lot more of Becky this year.
- Will's shrew of an ex-wife is back. Terrific.
- Where'd all of the new kids go?
- Apparently there are more "theme" episodes to come. Will they have learned from this one?
- Wit 'n' Wisdom of Sue Sylvester: "I mean, seriously, you wear more vests than the cast of Blossom." This is for those of you who don't get that reference.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Gimme Five: Movies About Movies

1. Singin' in the Rain
This 1952 film, which stars Gene Kelly as a silent film actor forced to adapt to a Hollywood that's moving into sound, may be a musical based on a hit song, but its also a glorious celebration of classic Hollywood filmmaking, a time when studios wanted bigger and better films, stars had major creative and authoritative control and names meant everything (not too much has changed, eh? Except maybe that last part.). Kelly (who co-directed with Stanley Doden) makes the whole process seem like a wonderfully wild and enjoyable ride, with fantastic musical numbers and great "stock" characters. This is cinema as entertainment at its finest.
2. Inglourious Basterds
Tarantino's 2009 WWII epic was an exciting, anarchic revenge fantasy that presented a revisionist history. The movie covered a lot of different things, but one of its most pertinent themes can easily be seen in the last half of the film, when Shoshanna arrives in Paris. Its here that Tarantino turns the film into a portrait of the power of cinema in culture, in history, and in ourselves. As the Basterds use a Parisian theater as the scene of their big showdown with the Nazis, Tarantino asserts that movies can, indeed, change the world. Its a cinephile's dream of a film.
PS RIP Sally Menke, Tarantino's longtime editor. She was the editor for all of his films, including his segment of Four Rooms, and her untimely death means she will be sorely missed.
3. 8 1/2
Federico Fellini was a terrific director, and his masterpiece is 8 1/2, a film about a director (Marcello Mastroianni) who's struggling to make his ninth film. Its a intriguing, delirious fantasy about the creative process and how one's personal life can influence his creative output. Its an idea that's been repeated numerous times, but nothing compares to his original.
4. Tropic Thunder
Ben Stiller's wicked-sharp 2008 satire captured narcissistic Hollywood at its funniest, all staged around the making of a big-budget war movie that had all of the elements: a script based on a book, a rookie director, a past-his-prime action star, an award winner, a comedian looking to be taken seriously, a rapper-turned-actor, a bit player, and a Weinstein-esque studio head with a proficiency in profanity. Stiller manages to find big laughs in taking down these characters, lovingly mocking the ridiculous lives of modern actors.
5. Burden of Dreams
Apart from Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote or, now perhaps, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, there are few films in the history of cinema that were as troubled as Werner Herzog's Fritzcarraldo. Burden of Dreams documents the production, from one delay to the next as complications cause roles to be recast, scenes to be reshot, and entire parts of the film to be scrapped. Its a look at the dark side of filmmaking, as well as a story of obsession that cannot be fulfilled.