Thursday, April 28, 2011

Glee: "Born This Way"

***I've been really bad about frequent posting lately, and I do realize and apologize for this. I've been living transiently lately, plus the end of the semester has brought about its usual madness as research papers had to be written and exams have to be studied for. I promise soon the regular programming schedule will return, with reviews, opinion posts, and all that. Plus, the LAMMYs are coming up, and if I find the time I'll make an FYC poster for The Entertainment Junkie. Anyway. That's the story. -Jason***

Being a fan of Glee is simultaneously one of the easiest and one of the hardest things I've ever done. That's not to say that I haven't had other trials and tribulations in my life (conquering the high dive at the YMCA when I was eight comes to mind), but in terms of pop culture nothing proves to be more difficult than Glee. Lost, a show with which I was obsessed, had a convoluted mythology and struggled with the occasional plot-hole and wheel-spinning, but the overall narrative and characters were engaging enough to keep me satisfied all the way up to it's brilliant, emotional (and emotionally rewarding) finale. House, another long-time favorite of mine which I have already written about, continues to be a show I want to love but has lost much of its luster to aging and lazy writing. Glee has been a combination of these two: there's so much here that's easy to love and interesting to watch, yet in equal measure there's terrible writing and appalling choices in narrative and character. It's a show that is at once magnificent and infuriating, fluctuating wildly from one extreme to the other, testing my patience while rewarding it at the same time. On one level, it would be easy to gloss over these problems and just go along for the ride, but that's impossible when the show WANTS to be taken seriously and become deeply invested in its characters. I never know what to say when people ask me if I like Glee: I can't just say "yes" or "no," but have to go through this long-winded explanation that is much more than they really asked for.

All of that is to say that while "Born This Way" was an improvement over last week's debacle, it still didn't go the distance for me, and at 90 minutes (57 without commercials, bless Hulu) that's a lot of distance to not go. After hearing the kids talk frankly about how much they'd change about themselves, mostly involving Rachel's desire to get a nose job, Will decides to have the kids sing about acceptance of themselves with a week-ending performance of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" while wearing custom t-shirts proudly proclaiming what they don't like about themselves. Kurt makes his triumphant return from Tolerance Narnia Dalton Academy, Quinn and Lauren compete for prom queen, and Santana launches her own prom queen scheme to win Brittany back. And Emma realizes her OCD is a problem.

At this point, its foolish to fault Glee for the way it handles IMPORTANT ISSUES! with the subtlety of a hammer on a brass bell; that's just the way this show is. There are some heavy-handed conversations about why bullying is wrong and why you should accept yourself for who you are, but ultimately these plotlines resulted in some sweet resolutions, such as Finn's gesture of keeping Quinn's middle-school picture in his wallet (though, for the record: accepting that Quinn used to be chubby, acne-ridden and brunette is one of the biggest stretches this show has ever done, and remember, they tried to fire Brittany out of a cannon). And the message is definitely one worth hearing, especially considering the show's main audience of teenagers, conservatives be damned.

The performances this week were all-around better too, especially in the variety. The covers included everything from West Side Story to TLC to Keane to Sammy Davis Jr. to Lady Gaga, who was the hook for this episode despite barely being present except for a few mentions and the final number. The strongest (and longest) performance of the night was Kurt's beautiful rendition of "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Blvd, a terrific showcase for his voice and a wonderful return to the show's showtunes roots. I'd be lying if I didn't say I had a soft spot for Blaine and the Warblers' "Somewhere Only We Know," partly because it was terrific and emotional and partly because it brings back some wonderful memories of high school. However, the highlight of the night was the incorporation of Duck Sauce's "Barbara Streisand," a song I could not be more excited to see introduced to the masses. Thank you, Glee, for that wonderful service.

But let's take a moment to talk about "Born This Way." I'm probably going to take some flack from this, especially since we seem to be in the midst of a Gaga backlash at the moment where Internet critics like myself are supposed to viciously hate her for some reason, but "Born This Way" is the best song Gaga has ever recorded. She's brazenly tried to go against the pop flow since the beginning, crafting dense hits that played well in the clubs as well as egregious songs that no one could have salvaged. She's been pop's enfant terrible but never seemed comfortable with the role, despite her insistence in interviews. On "Born This Way" (and, to an extent, "Judas") she's found a perfect role: long-lost disco queen. Though many have compared the song to Madonna's "Express Yourself" (thankfully Glee didn't choose to do that song this week too) and used as evidence that Gaga is just a Madonna rip-off, this song channels Gloria Gaynor more, at least to me. Needless to say I love the song, and Glee's treatment of it was worrisome to me. But they pulled it off well, and though it wasn't a classic Glee performance, it was worthwhile.

This episode made some positive changes, and the show seems to be gearing up to go somewhere interesting. We'll see how this pans out, particularly since the New York episodes are fast approaching. A strong finish is what the show needs.

- Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon really brought some interesting ideas to the episode, both in the way he shot various dialogue and choreography. I particularly liked the locker setpiece, where the camera was behind the lockers as we watched Finn and Quinn from the inside. Its good to see the show getting creative visually like this.

- I'm not necessarily sure that I believe in Karofsky's transformation, but I really want to believe.

- My favorites among the printed t's: "Lebanese" (Santana), "^ I'm with stoopid" (Brittany), "I'm with stupid (down arrow)" (Puck), "Can't sing" (Mike Chang - points for honesty).

- An episode with Mike O'Malley's Burt and without the new Wile E. Coyote, Sue Sylvester? Win-win.

- And Kathleen Quinlan got to stop by for about two minutes! Does anyone know if we'll see more of her in the future?

- Wit 'n' Wisdom of Sue Sylvester Santana: "The only straight I am is straight-up bitch."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Glee: "A Night of Neglect"

I've written extensively before in my previous Glee recaps (Gleecaps?) about my difficult, often conflicting feelings about the show. I've griped about holes in both plot and logic, and the way that characters' personalities will change from one episode to the next while celebrating the show's darker themes and praising some of its finest musical performances and choices. Last night's episode, "A Night of Neglect," was essentially everything that I can't stand about Glee wrapped up into a single hour, with a few moments that reminded me of everything I love about the show as well.

Coming off of their victory at Regionals, the New Directions are faced with the problem of raising the funds for their trip to New York. Will wants to sell saltwalter taffy, but new flame Holly convinces him to hold a benefit night instead, "A Night of Neglect" for all of the neglected kids in the club. Mercedes decides to become an uncontrollable diva when Rachel decides she's doing the closing number of the night. Will and Holly try to figure out their relationship now that Emma is newly single again, and Sue unites Terri, Sandy, and Dustin Goolsby to form the League of Doom in order to take down the glee club once and for all.

The plot description alone tells you that this is an episode stacked to the brim with silliness, which is something that the show can do very well sometimes, including tonight, such as the way the saltwater taffy came back into play in the third act. But for the most part the silliness tonight was flat-out ridiculous. Sue's Legion of Doom was a prime example of how far she's fallen as a character, going from terrific comic creation to cartoony supervillain with no attachment to the reality of the show (which, considering this is a musical, really says something). It wasn't funny, nor was it even entertainingly bad. It was just stupid, the work of lazy writing and a huge disservice to Jane Lynch's talents.

If there is one thing that drives me crazy about Glee, especially this season, its the way that characters are introduced, disappear, and then randomly show up again as if they were never gone. This happened A LOT in this episode, as Dustin, Sandy, Terri, Sunshine Corazon (whose absence I've pondered several times), Emma, and Carl (indirectly). Honestly, I had completely forgotten about Dustin and Sandy, two characters that have only made brief appearances in the past (and played by two terrific actors, Cheyenne Jackson and Stephen Tobolosky, respectively). In the case of Carl, the writers either got bored with the character or lost touch with John Stamos (or got bored with John Stamos), and simply bid him adieu in passing by mentioning his divorce with Emma. Terri, meanwhile, is the most vile creation this show has ever presented, a character that needs to be written out completely and forever. Sunshine, though, is the most egregious of this problem tonight. She made a brief appearance in the season premiere, before Rachel sent her to a crackhouse after dueting "Telephone" with her. She's back here looking to perform at the benefit and bring all 600 of her Twitter followers, supposedly as a gesture of goodwill but obviously not, as she and her followers abandon them at the last second. She does get a chance to perform, though, with a rendition of "All By Myself" that reminds us she has a powerful voice. But her preceding scene proves that Charice is the worst actor to come on the show yet, reciting her dialouge so woodenly she must have been reading off of cue cards. One can only hope this is the last we've seen of Sunshine.

Emma's return is also problematic, but for two very big reasons. One, the writers have never found anything interesting for the character to be other than an OCD love interest for Will. Which is the second problem: the show is still trying very hard to make us care about Will's love life, and they still haven't made it remotely interesting (namely because Will himself has very little depth as a character). In fact, its usually a momentum-killer, which is made worse here in that most of the episode is built around Will's relationships with both Emma and Holly. Glee has always worked better when it's focused on the kids rather than the adults, and this week there was just precious little of them.

Even the musical performances were less than stellar for me. Sunshine's "All By Myself" was a great reminder of her vocal chops, but that's all it was: a reminder that this character exists, and she can sing. I really wanted Tina to finish her version of Lykke Li's "I Follow Rivers," but it never happened. Holly's "Turning Tables" was lovely, though, and I personally loved Mercedes' rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Ain't No Way" (I have a soft spot for Franklin and full gospel choirs) and Mike Chang's dance to Jack Johnson's "Bubble Toes" (if Rachel is this show's Barbara Streisand and Mercedes is Aretha, then Mike Chang is Fred Astaire). But otherwise there wasn't enough music this time around.

Honestly, this episode was way too heavy on everything I don't like about the show and too light on everything I love. Sometimes I think the show does this just to make me appreciate the great episodes, but then I realize how selfish that sounds. It's just an episode that tried to make things work that haven't worked in a long time, if at all. Give it up, guys, and keep the kids in the picture.

- The quality of this episode does not have me stoked for next week's, titled "Born This Way." I have a very strong opinion about that gem of a song, so expect a lot of Gaga talk in that recap.

- Also really annoying: Jacob Ben Israel. We get it: he's Jewish and he has an Afro. That joke got old a very, very long time ago.

- Carol Banker is credited as the director of this episode, and I couldn't help but notice how many close-ups of faces were used in this episode. It was an interesting motif.

- Wit 'n' Wisdom of Sue Sylvester: "Sandy, how do you manage to enter a building without setting off all of the fire alarms?"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beauty and the Beast: A Trip Back in Time

When I was a little kid, there were two movies that had a profound effect on me and contributed to my love of cinema. These were movies that I would watch over and over and over and over, staples of my viewing diet (and since I didn't watch too much TV at that age, this was all I watched). One of those movies was Toy Story. The other, more significantly, was Beauty and the Beast. Around the time I was four or five, I would watch it every single day. I knew the songs by heart. Did I completely understand the film at such a young age? Certainly not the more sophisticated stuff, but I was definitely drawn into this magical world where clocks and candelabras  can talk, enchanted spells can be broken and true love can be found regardless of outside appearances. As I grew up, I still found myself coming back to this film, and the older I get the more and more I appreciate the film as cinema. Nowadays I'm amazed by the classic, excellent storytelling here, where story is driven by deeply complex characters and there's nary a pop culture reference in sight. I'm impressed by the sophistication of the humor, such as the visual gag of Gaston in the mud, his body visible but a pig's head where his should be just after he borderline-rapes Belle in an attempt to marry him. And, of course, there's the gorgeous visuals that film provides for us, the finest to ever be done by Disney Animation Studios and, in my opinion, the best of any animated film ever.

Beauty and the Beast is a visual feast, inviting us to be their guest and marvel at the animation wonders the Disney team has pulled off.  Which makes it difficult to pick out a single shot as my favorite, there are just so many to choose from!

I could choose this shot, as Maurice (Belle's father) comes face-to-face with the Beast for the first time. There's a great menace to this shot, as the Beast's shadow looks downright Satanic, as if Maurice were about to meet the devil himself...

Or maybe this one, that captures the gloom of the castle while nonetheless looking like a painting, a shot that can stand alone as a work of art...

But there's always this one, taken from the exuberant "Be Our Guest" number. This whole number is a complete delight, a rollicking dance piece that features some incredible choreography and cinematography, animated or not. And the big finale, well, you just can't beat that. But then...

There's the famous ballroom scene. The CGI may not be as crisp as it is in today's films, but I guarantee you there is no use of it more awe-inspiring than this. The sweeping cameras, the gorgeous detail, the tender melody of "Beauty and the Beast" playing as these two fall in love under the's a sequence that deserves to live on in infamy.

But if there's one shot that I had to pick out as my favorite, it's this one:

Here we see the portrait of the Beast as a man, a young prince with a sour inside before he was placed under a spell for his misdeeds. As the Beast, he's shredded this portrait, and yet the eyes remain. And those eyes...even though he would have never known what would become of him in this portrait, those eyes are hollow and unfeeling, a reminder of the soulless animal he was before he became a literal animal. After this shot comes this one of Belle:

She's scrutinizing the portrait, trying to discern who it depicts, and yet you can see the warm humanity in her eyes, feeling the shudder of coldness the portrait emits. Its not just the rips in the portrait that prevent her from recognizing it; the Beast, interestingly enough, has been humanized by becoming inhuman, as throughout the film we see the hurt and sorrow he feels, wounded from knowing that he may very well never know true love and be trapped in his current state forever.

The Beast really is a magnificent character, when you think about it, because there's such a delicate balancing act in his creation. For Robby Benson, who provided the Beast's voice, he had to convey the deep-rooted anger, hurt, and desperation that drives the him, as well as the longing for human connection. The animators had the trickiest task, having to make the Beast's appearance scary enough to seem terrifying, but cuddly enough so that the audience can sympathize with him. Not only do they nail this, but they give him expressions that say volumes more than any words ever could. With the exception of a handful of Pixar creations (Wall-E comes to mind), this has rarely been seen in animation before or since.

Maybe this is why the Beast has always been my favorite character. He's ugly outside but beautiful inside, driven by a need to love and be love but frustrated by the barriers preventing him from doing so. He's the inverse of a man like Gaston, beautiful on the outside, but with little need for emotion or tenderness (or intelligence, for that matter). And in the end, it's impossible to not be like Belle: totally, completely smitten with him.

Other great shots that I loved:

This is a part of The Film Experience's Hit Me with Your Best Shot.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Movie List: Babel (2006)

Film: Babel
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu
Oscar nominations: 7 (Supporting Actress, Adriana Barraza; Supporting Actress, Rinko Kikuchi; Director, Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu; Editing; Original Score*; Picture; Original Screenplay, Guillermo Arriaga)
*denotes win

I've never really understood the people who believe that they don't need anybody. Granted, there's nothing wrong with a little alone time, when you can clear your thoughts and just enjoy the moment. But I believe that we all need other people in our lives, people we can talk to or be with that can make us laugh or provide support during a difficult time. In other words, I believe that communication is very important and an essential part of humanity. Babel has this same notion; it's a film that explores the various hindrances to communication in our daily lives, whether they be language barriers, deafness, or guilt.

The plot of Babel stretches across three continents with four interconnected stories. In Morocco, Richard and Susan Jones (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, respectively) are on a vacation to try to fix their marital problems when Susan is hit by a bullet on a bus in the middle of nowhere. That bullet was fired by two boys, Yussef and Ahmed (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchani), who were given a rifle by their sheepherder father to shoot at jackals, but boys being boys, they play with it instead, aiming at passing cars and, unfortunately, buses. Meanwhile, the Jones' kids (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) are under the care of their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), who takes them with her to her son's wedding in Mexico, along with her ne'er-do-well nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal). In Japan, Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a deaf-mute girl lost in the world who's father (Koji Yakusho) may be involved in the shooting.

That's a lot of story, and the film weaves in and out of these narratives over it's almost two-and-a-half-hour running time. Luckily, the stories are coherent enough that keeping up is easy, and the payoff for each story individually and in the grand scheme of things is definitely satisfying. Writer Guillermo Arriaga's script is a probing  glimpse at how we communicate with each other when language fails, but its Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu's terrific direction that holds it all together, juggling the stories with a deftness. He also pulls out some terrific performances from his ensemble. Pitt brings an intensity to his role, and Bernal is delightfully flinty. However, the two Oscar nominated performances rise above the rest: Barraza makes Amelia a well-meaning woman who gets in way over her head, and then desperately tries to rectify her mistakes. The true star in the making, though, is Kikuchi. By playing a deaf-mute, she perfectly illustrates the theme of communication by saying so much without saying anything at all; every stare, every frown, and every movement speaks volumes about her. Though she is physically nude for much of her arc, she's emotionally so the whole time, and when she reaches her emotional climax its nothing short of devastating. Its a phenomenal performance, and she deserves more great roles in the future.

There are some problems here, of course. The Moroccan stories sometimes lean too heavily on convention, and neither one packs as much of an emotional wallop as they should, especially Richard and Susan's. If the film had spent a little more time building the trouble in their marriage, it would have improved significantly. However, these problems are spare.

I know there are plenty of detractors for this film, but its one of my personal favorites from 2006. It works as a terrific ensemble drama as well as a reminder that we all need to communicate somehow, even if no one will listen.