Monday, September 30, 2013

Bon Voyage, Crystal Ship: An Addendum


Writing about Breaking Bad for my previous essay didn't allow me the space to explain what the show meant to me. As with most shows that become my all-time favorites, I came into it late. March 2012, to be exact, when the show was recommended to me by my brother. I spent the entire spring break of my senior year at Carolina holed up in my room, watching the first three seasons on Netflix (I know, I live a very exciting life). I patiently waited for season four to appear, and then season five was appointment viewing...on my DVR (I picked up a busier life). Last night's finale was the first episode I watched live.

But I loved this show unlike any other drama on television. It was my new Lost - the show that constantly occupied my thoughts, that I found great beauty and truth in, that I admired the writing for. While that former show was certainly not without issues (I'll still defend it as one of television's finest), Breaking Bad opened up the possibilities of telling a story that was, at its heart, about a bad man who embraced evil, and the good people who were hurt by him. I never wanted to see Walter win; I wanted him to be punished. My ideal ending for the show - one that I realized could never be at the beginning of these final eight episodes - was that Walter would die alone in a hospital bed, succumbing to cancer, with no one ever finding out he was Heisenberg. The name would live, but the legend would be separated from the man.

Did I think the finale redeemed him? I think it found Walter making a final stab at righting the numerous wrongs he committed, but he was far from redemption. His family, Jesse, the public that saw him on the news; these people are never going to forgive him. He left whatever money he managed to bring back to New Mexico for his son. He saved Jesse's life. He confessed to Skylar, "I liked it. I was good at it." But these gestures don't mean anything to them; they're too little, too late. He chose to live his life as the monster that always lurked beneath the surface, and he died that same monster.

As with Lost, I am genuinely sad to see it leave the television landscape. It was a show that changed the way I thought about television, and it was a show that I truly loved and eagerly looked forward to seeing. Of course I'm glad this story has come to a close, on its own terms, with a satisfying finale. And again, as with Lost, there will be something new that comes along that I love just as much. If they play their cards right, Game of Thrones may become that show. Or it could be something else, something that's still in the nascent stages of development.

But for Breaking Bad, this is the end. And I say to the writers, the crew, and the cast: thank you.

Bon Voyage, Crystal Ship: A Farewell to Breaking Bad


You know what the most amazing thing about "Felina," the series finale of Breaking Bad, was?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Prisoners (2013)

***WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers for the film.***

It begins in a quiet suburban neighborhood that could be anywhere in America. The Dovers - Keller (Hugh Jackman), Grace (Maria Bello), older son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) - spend Thanksgiving down the street at the home of the Birches - Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis), eldest daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul), and younger daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). They enjoy a delicious dinner, listen as Franklin drunkenly tries to play the trumpet, laugh. Anna and Joy want to go back to the Dover house. "Wear a hat," Grace intones. Nancy tells Joy to do the same.

Neither know about the RV that is parked down the street, gospel music drifting out the windows. Ralph and Eliza, who had seen it earlier, think nothing of it.

Until Anna and Joy don't come back.

Prisoners starts with this unnerving hook, every parent's worse nightmare. But the film, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's English-language debut, is a delectable puzzle waiting to be solved. It's the kind of adult, serious-minded film that major studios - in this case, Warner Brothers - just don't seem to be interested in making anymore. The film quietly takes its time to unveil the evil that's lurking in this small Pennsylvania town, as well as the moral corruption that good men can unleash when pushed to the limit.

The film's script, by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), is a fine example of how to build a terrific labyrinthine thriller without sacrificing character or making it completely obvious where this is all going (though some viewers may be able to figure it out after the first hour). Thankfully, it sticks to a linear narrative, without the trendy flashbacks/flashforwards that have become the norm in our post-Memento world. Villeneuve - who's perhaps best known for Incendies, Canada's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee in 2011 - miraculously keeps a contemplative pace that only rarely lags, and builds the tension until it becomes almost unbearable. Working with longtime Coen Brothers cinematographer/living legend Roger Deakins, he crafts a visually striking film that nonetheless feels completely real and lived-in. Everyone probably recognizes something about the Keller and Birch homes - they feel like your neighbors' living rooms and backyards.

Of course, the film's greatest asset is it's remarkable cast. Jackman, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with: his Keller is a man who's always believed himself to be his family's protecter, and is willing to go to extreme lengths - of legality and morality - to find his daughter, and Jackman nails that desperate intensity and foggy logic. Jake Gyllenhaal, as the investigating Detective Loki, delivers a finely subtle performance; he's truly one of the most gifted actors working in Hollywood today, but only occasionally seems to get the opportunity to showcase his talent anymore. It's also great to see Howard finally get another role he can sink his teeth into, bringing great nuance to the conflicted Franklin, and Davis is reliably terrific in her handful of scenes. Paul Dano and a nearly-unrecognizable Melissa Leo appear as the RV's driver, mentally-underdeveloped Alex Jones, and his aunt, respectively. But it's David Dastmalchian - most memorably seen as a cop on the receiving end of Harvey Dent's wrath in The Dark Knight - who nearly steals the film as an incredibly creepy person-of-interest who's ties to the case are deeper than they appear.

The most interesting aspect of Prisoners, though, is how the film sneaks in an allegory for our post-9/11 world. Well, there's actually two allegories: the aforementioned one, and one about religious meaning in understanding the events that happen to us. The latter proves to be more surface than anything, as many of the film's religious imagery disappears without a trace after the first half. But the former it sticks to: Keller is absolutely convinced that Alex is responsible for the abductions, and in turn keeps Alex prisoner in an abandoned apartment building, torturing him for information that, it turns out, he doesn't possess the capabilities to express. As Keller becomes more and more sadistic in his methods, Franklin is complicit but conflicted (which Howard magnificently conveys just through his facial expressions), as is Nancy. The film asks: what happens to us when we look for boogeymen in the wrong place, as actual threats continue to exist?

For a film that could have been just a decent potboiler, Prisoners has higher-minded aspirations. As a result, it's one of the finest mysteries in years, and a welcome break from the nonstop barrage of franchises and fanboy-pleasers from the summer. It's a film that deserves to be seen. A

New Series Announcement: 24 @ 24

Tomorrow, I'm turning 24. Normal people would look forward to this as a party, a time to celebrate another year on Earth and enjoy all the possibilities that the next year holds for them. I look at it this way too.

But I'm also a film and television blogger. So of course, years ago, I decided that my 24th year would be the year that I caught up on FOX's famous Kiefer Sutherland-starring counterterrorism action series, 24. It's an obvious idea, I know, and I'm probably not the only 24-year-old who's come up with this idea. But I've intentionally held off on watching the show's eight seasons (and one TV movie) so that I could say I watched 24 at the age of 24.

And you, dear readers, can join me. I'll be blogging about the eight worst days of Jack Bauer's life in a new series, 24 @ 24. I'll be watching roughly four episodes per week, with posts coming either Friday or Saturday covering what's been watched. I'll be going deeper than "was this a good episode?" reviews; I'm asking you to join me in thinking critically about the show and it's place in television history, what marked it as a show for (and of) its time, and whether it still holds that power today.

The first post should be expected at the end of this week. If you want to watch along, the entire series - except for 24: Redemption - is streaming on Netflix, the entire series plus Redemption is streaming on Amazon Prime, and DVD collections - individual seasons and complete series - are available for purchase.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Short Takes: Stoker, Side Effects, and More

Stoker (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013)

Though he made a number of films in several different genres, Alfred Hitchcock will always be known for his thrillers, which are continually ranked not just among his best films, but also the best films of all time. The celebration of these films and desire to emulate them have resulted in the development of a sub-genre, "Hitchcockian thrillers," that ape the director's trademarks. Stoker, Park's (Oldboy, Thirst) English-language debut, can be added to the list. When India Stoker's (Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to live with her and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Of course, good old Uncle Charlie is much more sinister than he appears - anyone who's seen Shadow of a Doubt, which this film borrows heavily from, would know that. Park's dark idiosyncrasies liven up the film, especially in moments that seem to enter India's mind, such as a brief scene where she's surrounded by the shoes she's received over the year. Wasikowska is the film's MVP, fully committing to India's oddness, and Kidman makes the most of what's essentially a thankless role. But none of these elements can make up for Wentworth Miller's uneven script, which fails to capitalize on its terrific setup, and ends on a coda that feels dropped in from another film. It's a film that aspires for Hitchcock, but lands closer to airport-bookstore pulp. B-

War Witch (dir. Kim Nguyen, 2013)

The subject of this film is gut-wrenching: Komona (non-professional actress Rachel Mwanza) is a twelve-year-old girl in an unnamed African country when she's abducted and trained to become a child soldier. Nguyen smartly crafts an inventive, powerful film that doesn't become overwhelming in its misery, instead presenting Komona as a young girl who must mature beyond her years in order to survive, while adding a magical-realist element that makes the abstract more tangible. Mwanza is a revelation; she capably handles the film's most despairing elements, and never overacts, displaying that same maturity beyond her years as Komona. The film was Canada's nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film last year; obviously, Amour won, but hopefully voters faced a difficult selection between that film and this one. A-

Side Effects (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2013)

If Soderbergh is to be believed (and we'll wait and see), this film was supposedly the final theatrically-released production of his career. If that's true, it's an odd note to go out on. Emily (Rooney Mara) has been struggling since her husband (Channing Tatum) went to prison for financial crimes; he's now out, and the two are trying to pick up their lives where they left off. Only Emily now struggles with depression, and takes medications prescribed to her by Dr. Banks (Jude Law) and her old psychiatrist, Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Not to spoil what happens, but what starts with pretensions of being an exposé of the pharmaceutical industry instead evolves into the type of sexual thriller that Adrian Lyne has built his career on. The film is all over the place, mostly the result of Scott Z. Burns' script, and Soderbergh doesn't seem particularly invested as a director. For a director with a career as illustrious as Soderbergh's, it seems odd that he'd leave filmmaking behind with such a disposable film. B

The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2013)

Coppola's films have often focused on the lives of the privileged, but The Bling Ring finds her turning a critical eye to her characters for the first time. Based on a true story, the film follows a group of bored, rich SoCal kids who decide to burglarize celebrity homes. Why? Basically, because they can. Spearheading the group is Rebecca (Katie Chang), who uses new kid Marc (Israel Broussard, the film's great discovery) to assist her on their first robberies, then recruiting Chloe (Claire Julian), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Nicki (Emma Watson) to join them. Broussard truly delivers the film's best performance, as he's just self-absorbed enough to get caught up in this situation but also self-aware enough to realize that it's stupid. Watson is no doubt the most high-profile, and though she nail's Nicki's vapidity, she doesn't quite resonate throughout the film. The film's biggest problem, though, is that's Coppola's critical lens lacks bite; it almost seems like she can't bring herself to fully paint these girls and their new-age lifestyle as human beings without somewhat admiring them. However, as with all of Coppola's films, it is beautifully shot. B

Monday, September 23, 2013

Emmys 2013: That's a Wrap

Another year, another Emmy ceremony, only this year's was a curiously somber event, with the "in memorandum" segment stretched throughout the ceremony. Below, we'll take a look at the good, the bad, and the weird at the 65th annual Primetime Emmy awards.


  • Surprise winners all around! Tony Hale and Merritt Wever broke up the Modern Family monopoly on the Supporting categories in comedy, and Jeff Daniels came out of nowhere to claim Best Actor in a Drama Series over Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Damian Lewis (last year's winner), and Hugh Bonneville. These are the things that make Emmywatching fun.
  • Winning streaks broken! In particular, The Voice took home Best Reality Competition Series, becoming only the third program to win and interrupting The Amazing Race's continued dominance. And The Colbert Report (deservedly) won Best Variety Series, bringing an end to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's 10-year reign at the top.
  • The network formally known as American Movie Classics - that's AMC - became the first cable network to have two individual programs win Best Drama Series, with Breaking Bad joining Mad Men in that winner's circle this year. Yes, that even includes HBO, which, despite multiple nominations, only ever won this category for The Sopranos.
  • 30 Rock says goodbye with one last win for Writing for a Comedy Series, going to Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield. Plus, Gail Mancuso won Directing for a Comedy Series, so it was a great night for women behind-the-scenes in comedy.
  • Though the opening bit with previous hosts was kind of a drag, it was worth it for the cutaway to Kevin Spacey, in character as House of Cards' Frank Underwood, explaining to the camera that all was going according to his plan.

  • Merritt Wever's acceptance speech: "Thanks so much! Thank you so much. Um, I gotta go, bye."
  • Tony Hale accompanying Julia Louis-Dreyfus to the stage for her Best Actress in a Comedy win, whispering in her ear just as his character does on Veep.
  • Edie Falco's tribute to James Gandolfini and Rob Reiner's to Jean Stapleton: completely justifying the decision to do such tributes throughout the show.
  • Bob Newhart's standing ovation.
The bad and the ugly after the jump.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #16

French director Robert Bresson's mid-1960s films Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette (1967) are often heralded as his finest works. Previously, Bresson - a crucial player in the development of the French New Wave - had made a series of films in which he deployed his philosophy of "pure cinematography." This premise of this theory was that cinema needed to be liberated from the constructs of theatre, in which dialogue drives the action, and focus instead on the strengths of this inherently visual medium. It's a variation of an idea that dozens of filmmakers had worked with previously, particularly Soviets such as Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera, which will be covered later in this feature). What makes Bresson's unique was twofold: he arrived just as the French New Wave was in full-swing, which helped him rise to the top as an essential voice, and his approach wasn't completely avant-garde, which made his films somewhat more accessible.

With Au Hasard Balthazar, however, "pure cinematography" is not the focal point of the film, which is incredibly dense to approach. A large part of this is because the film's protagonist is a donkey named Balthazar, who comes into possession of a number of owners, all of them terrible and abusive. There is no voiceover to explain the donkey's thoughts, no anthropomorphism; instead, Bresson relies solely on images, a challenge in and of itself (donkey's aren't exactly the most expressive animals). There's a twin narrative going on too, following Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), who suffers just about as much as her beloved Balthazar does at the hands of many of the same people.

The film's elliptical structure gives credence to Jean-Luc Godard's famous quote that its "the world in an hour and a half." Bresson himself never indicated that he intended the film to be allegorical, but it's hard not to read that into it, especially given Godard's reaction and Bresson's noted Catholic faith. Though some, as James Quandt notes in his essay about the film, read the donkey's trail of suffering as symbolic of the procession that Jesus Christ took to his crucifixion, it's notable that the film functions more as a vision of a hostile world that no longer takes pity on its inhabitants' pain.

Balthazar, later in the film, is described as "a saint," and it's a fitting description: he may be the only character in the film that comes close to innocence. Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) seems to have a cycle: he drinks himself half to death, promises God that he'll never drink again, then (in a clever cut) starts downing glass after glass of alcohol. Gerard (Francois Lafarge) and his posse leave oil slicks on the road to make cars crash, steal, and eventually strip and beat Marie, and remains wholly unrepentant throughout, under the protection of the baker's wife. Even Marie exchanges sex with the Merchant (Pierre Klossowski) for money to keep her family's farm afloat.

Even by Bresson's admission, the film is a bleak interpretation of life. This is where the film's final act delivers on its spiritual overtones. Balthazar is led by Gerard to the border, bearing the burden of contraband. In a firefight, he's wounded, limping off to a hillside where his life comes to an end, surrounded by white sheep. Many have interpreted this as a metaphor for Christ, with Balthazar dying bearing the burden of the world's sins while being surrounded by innocence and mercy. With the inclusion of Shubert's concerto in the score, the film seems to end on a somewhat-hopeful note, assuring the viewer that Balthazar has found peace after a merciless existence.

The film doesn't offer much in the way of explanation of everything that's going on; the audience drops in on the characters' lives with Balthazar, which leaves some mystery to what exactly is going on. It also makes the film that much more dense; Gerard repeatedly refers to Arnold as a murderer, but its never really clear how this murder transpired (or when, or how). The characters do weave in and out of each others' lives, and the power dynamics shift every time the film revisits them. The one thing that is certain, though, is that their malice is not limited only toward Balthazar. Bresson presents a portrait of humanity that's rotten to the core; there are good people, but even they have a darkness in them that could rear its head at any moment. Only through the lens of a donkey, a symbol of pure innocence, does this become evident.

Next time on Sight & Sound Sunday: The Searchers (1956)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The (Completely Arbitrary, Constantly Changing) Top 10 on Television Right Now

The Emmys are tomorrow night, so here it is: my list of the top 10 shows on television.

Before we get to the good stuff, a few notes: this is only based on the shows that I regularly watch, obviously, so it doesn't cover the entire spectrum of television available. This is also for regularly-airing primetime scripted shows: therefore, no reality series, nor miniseries, nor daytime television such as talk shows or soap operas. Finally, this is only for shows that are still airing/in production; since 30 Rock ended in January, it doesn't make this list (would it have? Maybe. But that's another debate). The caveat to that last point: this doesn't include shows that are premiering this fall, though it does include this past spring and summer premieres.

Anyway, all this is saying that this list will likely be irrelevant in a week. So enjoy it now!


Honorable Mentions: Homeland (Showtime), The Bridge (FX), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX), Archer (FX)

10. The Middle (ABC)

The Hecks are a modern family: lower-middle class, doing their best to juggle bills, their three kids, and making ends meet. If this weren't an ABC sitcom, it would be the most depressing show on television. But thankfully, this is the best comedy in the network's stable, making hilarious jokes that come from an all-too-relevant place. The cast is universally strong: Neil Flynn and Patricia Heaton are sitcom vets, and make their Mike and Frankie, respectively, the weary parents in this insane household. Charlie McDermott takes oldest-child Axl to the extreme of boorish teenage boy behavior, Eden Sher - who is incredibly gifted in physical comedy - perfectly embodies middle-child Sue's indefatigable optimism, and Atticus Shaffer plays up youngest child Brick's bizarre tics without ever hamming it up. Amazingly, the show has only racked up one Emmy nomination - for hairstyling - in it's entire run. Hopefully voters - and the viewing public - will discover this delightful gem.

9. Hannibal (NBC)

He's pop culture's most notorious cannibal: Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He's the focus of Thomas Harris' novels, and Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for portraying him in Silence of the Lambs, one of five films about the character. So what could a television show bring to the table that we haven't already seen? Hannibal pulls off a neat trick by mostly regulating its titular character to the sidelines, instead focusing on FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who himself is mentally unstable and, in Harris' books, eventually be the one to put Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, in a brilliantly restrained performance) behind bars. The first season of the show - which aired this past spring - was unexpectedly complex, with a frightening portrayal of mental illness, along with a delectable game of cat-and-mouse between Graham and Lecter, the latter assisting the FBI in catching killers through his psychological profiles. That's to say nothing of the gorgeously macabre cinematography. It's beautifully terrifying.

8. Veep (HBO)

There are, essentially, two kinds of ensemble comedies on the air right now: ones with people you would love to hang out with, and ones with people you're glad aren't a part of your actual life, but don't mind watching for a half-hour each week. Yes, every character on Veep is a terrible, selfish person who wouldn't do anything unless it furthered their own interest. And that's the grand joke of this show: the people running this country don't care about anyone but themselves, and allies become enemies depending on what's necessary at the moment. It helps that the writing is punchy (and profane), with a cast that's nowhere near as incompetent as the characters they're playing, especially Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Vice President Selina Meyers. Ask any political science professor and they'll tell you that the vice presidency is the worst position to have in American government. Luckily for us, that makes it a gold mine for this satire.

7. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, is a "hangout comedy," one where every character is just so fun and sweet and funny that you could just spend all day with them (and yes, that does include Nick Offerman's prickly Ron Swanson). That's actually what sets this show apart from most of television at the moment: it's about good people trying to do good things. Of course, trying is the operative word, as it wouldn't be a sitcom without conflict that results in hilarity. And with a stellar comic cast that includes Offerman, Adam Scott, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Retta, and the incredible Amy Poehler, laughs are not in short supply. Watching the machinations of local government has never been so entertaining.

6. Mad Men (AMC)

You probably already know all the praise that Mad Men has been given over the years: four Best Drama Series Emmys, Jon Hamm's skyrocketing career, innumerable exclamations that it's "the best show on television ever." Well, a lot of that is well-deserved. The show takes on the advertising world of the 1960s, focusing mostly on Don Draper (Hamm), who has a mysterious past and plenty of spur-of-the-moment ideas. But what makes the show so fascinating is how it presents the era: America is in a period of tumultuous upheaval, and the Don Drapers of the world - as well as the Dick Whitmans - struggle to change with it (if they even try at all). This past season was divisive, as it took a closer look at duality and was more elliptical in structure, but it was also the show's best. It's going to be coming to an end pretty soon - start catching up now.

5. New Girl (FOX)

It had one of the most inauspicious beginnings of the past few seasons: Zooey Deschanel, the unofficial poster girl for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, appeared on every ad, with FOX plastering the portmanteau/abomination "adorkable" everywhere it could. And in those early episodes, it really was just 30 minutes of Deschanel being as whimsical as possible. But then something happened: character depth was added, and the relationships between Jess (Deschanel), Nick (Jake Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and Winston (Lamorne Morris). Viewership went down, but suddenly New Girl evolved into the best ensemble comedy on network television. Creator/showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether and her terrific writers' room have crafted an indelible series, with many of the jokes improvised by the actors. And their chemistry is the lifeblood of the series, especially in the relationship between Nick and Jess. We'll see what season three brings, but right now, this series is on fire (and was unfairly snubbed in Best Comedy Series in this year's Emmy nominations).

4. Girls (HBO)

I've already discussed how this show feels relevant to my life, and make no mistake, that's a major factor in why I love this show. But it extends beyond that: the entire cast is absolutely fearless in their portrayals of these characters, and more often than not, they're being terrible to everyone around them. Especially writer/creator/director/star Lena Dunham, who seems to enjoy calling her Hannah on all of her hypocrisies. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, from Alison Williams' self-centered Marnie to Jemima Kirke's flighty Jessa to Zosia Mamet's petty Shoshanna. And let's give a hand to the boys of Girls: Adam Driver, Alex Kaprovsky, and Christopher Abbott all do great work as the men who are just as capable of being terrible and equally lacking that "have-it-together" quality. What's most impressive, though, is how the humor doesn't come from jokes (though it does have some great lines), but rather from the recognition of one's self in their humiliations. It's not afraid to take chances, with entire episodes breaking away from current subplots, which gives them the feel of short stories (Dunham majored in Creative Writing at Oberlin). All of this makes Girls one of the most fascinating and enjoyable shows on television.

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)

No show on television has taken the "no one is safe" attitude to the extreme that Game of Thrones has. It set this precedent early, killing off Sean Bean's Ned Stark nine episodes into the show's run, and yet, three seasons in, it continues to shock (the "Red Wedding," for example). But the high death toll, obviously, isn't what makes this show so great. The scope is epic, with multitudes of characters that are visited in any given episode, and the setting expands across the entire fantasy world of Westeros - believe it or not, there are number of characters who still haven't come face-to-face after thirty episodes. But the show's greatest strength is portraying the way its various characters are caught in a epically-complex power struggle, all of them pieces in a game that even those who've thought that mastered it don't completely understand. It may be hard to follow, but it's worth get lost in the tangled web these characters weave.

2. Breaking Bad (AMC)

"Mr. Chips becomes Scarface." This is the infamous pitch that creator Vince Gilligan used for Breaking Bad, and it couldn't be farther from the truth. What makes this show the best drama on television (for now...the series finale airs on 9/29) is how, over the course of five seasons, we've seen the real Walter White (Bryan Cranston): he's not "a good man who cooks meth to earn enough money to leave behind for his family after his cancer diagnosis." He's always been a monster, hiding in plain sight, who's finally letting himself be seen. Of course, the main focus of the show is about Walter's rise - and inevitable fall - in the meth business, but those he leaves in his wake are no less memorable, from Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his former student/business partner/target of his manipulations, to his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, in what may be the show's greatest and most underrated performance), to his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). That's to say nothing of the show's breakneck pace and fantastic team of writers and directors. It's one hell of a ride.

1. Louie (FX)

It was a tougher call than you might think between Louie and Breaking Bad for this spot, but I always kept coming back to Louie. It's not a laugh-out-loud funny show, but it is the funniest show on television, relying on absurdist humor as much as - like Girls - seeing ourselves in the various situations Louis C.K. (playing himself, basically) finds himself in. It's a very experimental show, with each episode either telling one half-hour story or being broken into two vignettes. C.K. writes, directs, edits, and stars in every episode (well, edits almost all of them), making this the closest thing to an "auteur project" on television. But what's most exceptional about this show - and what makes C.K. one of the greatest comedians and, I'll dare to say it, filmmakers of our time - is that C.K. has found a way to make stand-up comedy routines cinematic, and mining that same observational truth in this show. It's funny, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and evocative television. There's nothing else like it on television right now. And it's everything great television should be.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Resurrection of the Miniseries: An Analysis

*With the Emmys airing next Sunday night (9/22), we're going to take a look at a handful of the nominees this week.*

Not even five years ago, the state of the television miniseries was in dire straits. The primetime networks - ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, The CW if you want to be generous - had all but given up on them, leaving them to be made by cable networks like HBO. Actually, for a while it seemed like HBO and PBS were the only networks in the miniseries game. PBS aired a number of classic-literature adaptations imported from Britain as limited-run events, and HBO made enough money off of subscriptions to afford the pricy format. The last time the Outstanding Miniseries category at the Emmys fielded a full five nominees was 2004; in 2009 and 2010, the last years the category existed on its own before being merged with made-for-TV movies, there were only two nominees (one from PBS and one from HBO each year).

Flash-foward to 2013. In the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category, four of the six nominees are miniseries. Last year there were three. The previous year saw four as well; so far, in the category's three-year history, miniseries have outnumbered TV movies almost two-to-one. They've appeared on a number of channels, including A&E, History, FX, and BBC America. This fall, the miniseries will return to primetime, as CBS prepares for the October premiere of Hostages, a "15-episode event," with more on the way. And they've been popular successes: The Bible broke ratings records for History Channel, records set the previous year by...Hatfields & McCoys, another miniseries.

So what exactly happened?

The short version is the rise of cable's dominance in "quality television." The rise of the cable drama in both awards and ratings has had networks reeling to find that same success. A common aspect of cable dramas is their episode order length, usually around 13 episodes per season. However, on the alphabet networks, such a short order for their programs is economically unfeasible; therefore, get people excited with miniseries interspersed between the regular continuous programming. It's not a bad idea.

Another likely factor: Lost. That particular series was heavy on mythology and serialized storytelling, and with an open-ended time frame, many viewers lost patience with the show while it meandered with fish biscuits and statues of four-toed feet. The lesson gleaned from this was to provide closure quickly rather than stretching things out beyond their sell-by dates (another CBS show, Under the Dome, could stand to learn this lesson; curiously, it was originally proposed as a miniseries for Showtime before CBS bought it). Miniseries, with their limited run, promise definitive closure; apart from, say, Downton Abbey, most don't move on to become series.

In this year's Miniseries or Movie category, the four miniseries are as follows: Political Animals (USA), which follows a Hillary Clinton-type Secretary of State looking to make a presidential run; Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel), Jane Campion's New Zealand murder mystery; The Bible (History), which retells stories from the, you know, Bible; American Horror Story: Asylum, which is too bugnuts insane to accurately describe with words, but centers around an asylum in 1960s Massachusetts. 

That lattermost series is the most interesting of the bunch, given that it was also nominated last year. American Horror Story positions itself as a season-long anthology series, with each new "season" telling a different story with recurring actors in new roles. It's the open-ended miniseries: one that provides closure at the end of the run, only to reboot itself the next year with a new premise. And it's becoming a more attractive format: HBO will be trotting out True Detective - in which a new case with new detectives are introduced every year, with the first go-round featuring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson - in January, and I can see a situation where Hostages takes off, and CBS figures out a way to replicate that success (they'd likely just have the same characters end up in a different hostage situation, because this is CBS, but I can dream).

So here we are: 2013, and the miniseries is thriving again. We'll see what the future holds for the format.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Girls: How I am Hannah Horvath (and How I'm Not)

*With the Emmys airing next Sunday night (9/22), we're going to take a look at a handful of the nominees this week.*

Ever since Girls debuted on HBO in early 2012 (honestly, even before then), the show was a source of controversy. Its creator, Lena Dunham, was young, came from a wealthy family, and mostly filled the cast with her friends, who were all daughters of famous faces. There were charges of nepotism, charges of racism, charges of obscenity. And the show isn't without its problems: yes, this version of New York - a very multicultural city - is very, very white. But some of the complaints about the show are terrible: some argue that Dunham is "too fat" or "too ugly" to be a romantic interest to men on the show, or that her "voice of a generation" idealism is insulting and conceited.

But here's the thing that Girls - and Dunham - do so well: she knows that Hannah Horvath, the main character (played by Dunham), is privileged, conceited, and often terrible. That's part of the joke of the series, and Dunham and her writers have shown a propensity for calling all of the characters on their shit. They read the criticisms, and they respond to them in a realistic way.

Defending Girls, though, isn't the point of this post. As the title says, I see a lot of myself in Hannah. There are, of course, the surface comparisons. We're both twentysomethings and aspiring writers, and belong to a generation that's obsessed with social media. When it comes to writing, we have the same struggle: meeting deadlines, actually starting to write (as an aside: the closest thing I've seen to my writing process is in the 2011 film Young Adult, where Charlize Theron wakes up with the television on, drinks Diet Coke straight from the bottle, opens a new document on her laptop, then immediately begins checking her email). Of course, I'm based in North Carolina, not New York, and I can safely say that my life isn't nearly as social as hers (I can also attest that I have never done cocaine while wearing a mesh tank top).

Where I really see myself in her - and what the show does so well at capturing - is in her personality and experiences. Hannah is self-absorbed and selfish but not so completely that she can't be there when her friends need her. She makes bad choices. She can be really shitty to her friends sometimes. And, oh man, is that me at times. I'm self-aware enough to know that I'm far from a perfect person (I feel I share this trait with Dunham more than Hannah). I've been really shitty to my friends before, and it's always been over something petty or idiotic. I've made more than my fair share of bad choices, and being selfish has landed me in some pretty terrible relationships.

I hate for this to sound like I'm a terrible person; I do try to be the best person I can every day, though of course that takes time. And that's what I think makes Girls so relevant to me: it's a reflection of where I am right now in life, fully aware that I'm young, and that there are plenty of life-shaping experiences ahead of me. Hannah and I will likely keep getting scrapes and bruises from life - many will probably be self-inflicted - but they'll help us grow, if we're willing to look beyond ourselves.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jonathan Banks on Breaking Bad: The Professional

*With the Emmys airing next Sunday night (9/22), we're going to take a look at a handful of the nominees this week.*

**SPOILERS AHEAD. This post discusses events through season four of Breaking Bad.**

Let us take a moment to praise Jonathan Banks.

With Breaking Bad wrapping up it's run at a breakneck pace (the series finale airs 9/29), it's amazing to look back and see how many of the characters impressively stand out. Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut is one of those characters. When we first met him, he was drug-lord-slash-restauranteur Gus Fring's (Giancarlo Esposito) "fixer," the right-hand man who kept Fring's meth operation running smoothly. In Walter (Bryan Cranston), he forms an uneasy alliance, particularly after Walter has Fring blown up.

In essence, Mike is the man that Walter could have been, if not for his monumental ego. Mike's the old pro, the man with the plan, and he's been saving up most of his money from the operation for his granddaughter. That's essential to Banks' performance: he can alternate between prickly old man and gentle grandfather within seconds, and he can convey so much on his face without saying a single word. He wears Mike's world-weariness well.

Banks submitted "Say My Name" as his FYC episode; for those who have seen it, they know what happens in the end. It may be Banks' finest moment: Mike's underestimated Walter's propensity for violence when his pride is wounded, and he finds a tranquility in those final moments. His last words could be the mantra of everyone who's crossed Walter:

"Shut the fuck up Walter. Let me die in peace."

He found peace. And on Sunday, Banks could find himself with an Emmy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Modern Family: Reign of an Emmy Juggernaut

*With the Emmys airing next Sunday night (9/22), we're going to take a look at a handful of the nominees this week.*

When Modern Family first debuted in 2009, it was, at first, seemingly just another single-camera sitcom. The mockumentary-style that The Office made popular was hitting its saturation point, and it had been quite some time since a family sitcom had really taken off on any network. At first glance, Modern Family wasn't particularly revolutionary: three inter-related clans interact with one another, hilarity ensues. There was the "traditional" family of Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen), and their three kids (Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould); Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) - Claire's brother - and Cam (Eric Stonestreet), his partner; Jay (Ed O'Neill) - Claire and Mitch's father - and his young Colombian wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her son (Rico Rodriguez).

Certainly the set-up lived up to the show's moniker, but there was much more to it than that. In those early days, the writers seemed to make it their mission to subvert as many sitcom tropes as possible. The experience was certainly there: creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan were sitcom veterans, having previously worked on Frasier and Wings together (Lloyd had also worked on The Golden Girls, while Levitan wrote for The Larry Sanders Show). It certainly helped, too, that the cast was uniformly strong, making the comedy hit that much harder.

And when the 2010 Emmys rolled around, Modern Family was a big winner: scoring nominations for most of the adult cast (Stonestreet won Supporting Actor in a Comedy) and winning Best Comedy Series. The next year, the show repeated the series win and acting nominations. And then they did it again last year.

Has the show held up, creatively speaking? Not necessarily. The past two seasons have been weaker, and a lot of that has to do with age. Every comedy on television eventually settles into a groove after a few seasons; it's not always a bad thing, it's just the writers and actors becoming comfortable with the characters and giving audiences what they expect. However, in Modern Family's case, this resulted in the characters becoming the very tropes they were originally subverting. That's not say the show isn't good; it's just not as fresh and interesting as it once was.

Obviously, this hasn't really hurt its success at the Emmys. Sunday night, the show will be going for its fourth consecutive win in Best Comedy Series. Should it win, it would join Frasier, All in the Family, Cheers, and The Dick Van Dyke Show as the only programs with four or more wins in the category (Frasier is the all-time series champ - comedy or drama - with five wins). And there's a very good chance that it will win (I'd bet money on it). It's the "safest" choice: a critical and popular hit that's not risque or controversial, and it's a reliable joke-telling machine in a classic sitcom mode. That's to say nothing of the fact that it has more acting nominees than any other comedy.

But if not Modern Family again, then who? A quick breakdown of the other contenders:

- Louie is perhaps too experimental and not laugh-out-loud funny (at least in the standard one-liner joke machine way) enough for the honor. It's by far the critical favorite, but I don't know if its fanbase extends past critics and comedy nerds. It would be the worthiest choice, in my opinion.

- Girls is simply too divisive and controversial among critics and audiences. Voters won't want to bring that kind of heated debate upon themselves.

- Veep is probably not well-known enough to grab the win; to me, it was a surprise nominee both this year and last. It's more likely to be a winning vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfuss again than in this category.

- 30 Rock could potentially win if they want to send the beloved series off with a win, but the Emmys rarely do that. Only a few have ever accomplished the feat, the most recent being Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005.

- The Big Bang Theory is the most likely contender to spoil Modern Family's party. It's a hugely-popular multi-camera sitcom - the only one amongst this years nominees - which puts it squarely in the Emmy voters' wheelhouse. It's deep into its run at this point, this most recent season being its sixth, but this was also its most-watched year, in terms of average viewers. Plus, a win this late in the game isn't unprecedented: Friends didn't win its first Comedy Series Emmy until 2002, the show's eighth season.

Monday, September 16, 2013

House of Cards, Season 1: Since Pride Must Have a Fall...

*With the Emmys airing next Sunday night (9/22), we're going to take a look at a handful of the nominees this week.*

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," the old saying goes. It's a principle that's formed the foundation of many great television shows from this latest "Golden Age," as a number of anti-heroes have gone forward in their thirst for power and left a wake of destruction behind them. House of Cards, Netflix's original series which is nominated for nine Emmys, including Best Drama Series, takes a Shakespearean approach to the idea with a Washington D.C. setting.

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a senator from South Carolina and is well-connected in Washington. When he's passed over for Secretary of State under the new president, Frank goes straight to work at setting up a chain of ruses and deceptions involving his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), a cub reporter, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a new congressman, Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), and many others.

Developed by Beau Willimon (The Ides of March), and with the first two episodes directed by David Fincher, the show functions as a modern Shakespearean tragedy. Written in a mannered, dramatically-heightened, overly-formal style, the show features Frank routinely breaking the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience to either explain his motivations or the events that just occurred and why they do or do not matter to him (on any other show, this would be detrimental; however, this expository narration is so completely tethered to Frank's point-of-view that it works). He is a Richard III in modern Washington, his unquenchable thirst for power consuming all those around him.

In keeping with the Shakespeare analogy, the first season - which is streaming in its entirety on Netflix - feels like the first half of the play. Frank is carefully building his house of cards (hey, that's the name of the show!), each piece falling into place. But this is all set-up. Next season, I suspect, it'll all fall down. Shakespeare's kings have a short reign. Frank would be wise to take note.

Emmy chances?
- Best Actor in a Drama Series (Kevin Spacey) and Best Directing of a Drama Series (David Fincher, for "Chapter One") are its best bets for a major win. It does have a good shot at playing spoiler in Best Drama Series or Best Actress in a Drama Series, too. Either way, Netflix should be proud of breaking into the Emmy game.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Housekeeping: New Page and New Series

I've resolved to try to update this site more often than I have been, and in doing so, I've added some new stuff. My hope is that I can provide content that you, dear readers, will find both enjoyable and informative, and maybe even feel compelled to have some reasonable discussions about. So here's what's new at The Entertainment Junkie:

- The Academy Awards Page: instead of writing a new post every month with my updated Oscar predictions, I've made a separate page for them, which you can reach using the tab just below the header or just click here. This allows me to expand my thoughts on the various predictees, and once the nominations are actually announced, I'll include them on the page and share my thoughts there. Hopefully this will make my Oscar coverage more comprehensible, and save some space on the main page for other posts.

- New series! I've tried my hand at ongoing series in the past, to admittedly mixed results. But working with other bloggers in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot series has me eager to try one of my own. So, unlike the more-spontaneous Oscars of the Aughts (if I ever get my hands on Wonder Boys and You Can Count on Me, the year 2000 will go up), I'm announcing a new regularly-scheduled series: Sight & Sound Sunday.

Sight & Sound Sunday will run every other Sunday, and each week we'll examine one of the 52 films from Sight & Sound Magazine's 2012 critics poll of the best films of all time (52 because there was a three-way tie for #50). This series will start next Sunday, September 22, with Robert Bresson's classic allegory Au Hasard Balthazar.

If Sight & Sound Sunday is a success, I'll look into starting more series in the future. So be sure to comment and let me know your thoughts!

- Also this week: in the lead-up to next Sunday's Emmy Awards, we'll be profiling some of the nominated shows, culminating in my personal list of the 10 best shows currently on the air (look for it either Friday or Saturday). And next Monday, check back for a full list of winners in the major categories, with analysis and thoughts.

On a related note, I've contemplated doing episodic recaps/reviews for a show, as I did with Glee's second season a few years ago. For the fall, I've been considering American Horror Story: Coven, but I am open to other suggestions. This is a big "if" at the moment; unfortunately, blogging is not my full-time job, so if time limitations get in the way, I probably won't jump into this just yet. But if you have any ideas for a show you'd like to see reviewed, or anything else you'd like to see on the blog, share your ideas in the comments below.

Thanks for your continued readership over these less-productive years. Hopefully I'll be able to get The Entertainment Junkie back in full force now, and your experience here will be fun and rewarding.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Short Takes: Blue Jasmine, To the Wonder, and more

Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013)

Director Woody Allen has always had fantastic skill with writing great female characters. But he's never really written anyone like Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), the widow of a wealthy investment banker (Alec Baldwin) who lost everything when the stock market crashed and his financial crimes were revealed. Jasmine has not handled this well: she's increasingly in debt and forced to move to San Fransisco with her sister (Sally Hawkins), though she tries to maintain her very expensive lifestyle. She's delusional about her situation, butting heads with both Ginger and her boyfriend Chili (Bobby Cannavale) while spiraling further and further out of control. Blanchett latches on to this character with vigor, relishing the opportunity to play a post-meltdown Blanche DuBois in Allen's riff on A Streetcar Named Desire. Though Cannavale and Hawkins deliver good work, this is the Blanchett show, and her performance covers up some of the weaknesses in Allen's script, such as the way the episodic nature of the narrative makes certain tangents feel unnecessary. However, even if this doesn't stand up against Allen's greatest works, it's one of his better films from the past 20 years, which, given his recent output, is definitely worth celebrating. B+

To the Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick, 2013)

It's hard to believe that Terrence Malick even made another movie so soon - it's only been two years since the release of The Tree of Life, his magnum opus, and there's usually at least a five year wait between his projects. That it was released to very little fanfare is even more surprising, though that could be because of reports that it was met with boos at both Venice and Toronto last year. The film concerns itself with a couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) struggling to hold onto their love in present-day Oklahoma, particularly when a former crush (Rachel McAdams) shows up, and a priest (Javier Bardem) wonders about God's existence. The most important thing to understand about Malick's films is that his narratives are only a loose framework; his actors aren't portraying flesh-and-blood human beings but ideas and concepts. Malick doesn't make films so much as he makes cinematic philosophical treatises about nature and humanity's relationship to it. Though the film is beautifully shot (there's no shortage of fantastic images; genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and Malick find extraordinary beauty in everything from the Oklahoma plains to a Sonic Drive-In), his thesis is more muddled than it has been in his previous features. He seems to want to comment on how our personal relationships fail because of our modern disconnect from the natural world, but it never really becomes clear. It feels less like a professor unveiling his new treatise and more like a masters' candidate rambling after he's had a few beers. But what beautiful ramble it is. B

Monsieur Lazhar (dir. Philippe Falardeau, 2012)

A teacher in a Montreal school commits suicide, being discovered by one of her young students, Simon (Émilien Néron), hanging from the ceiling of her classroom. In the midst of this, Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag), an Algerian immigrant, volunteers to step in as a temporary replacement from the rest of the school year. Falardeau's film - an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 - could have been yet another "teachers change the world!" cliché, but instead, it morphs into a powerful film about dealing with loss. As Lazhar's true status in Canada are revealed, his involvement with helping the children - especially Simon - overcome their grief and continue to grow into adults becomes more meaningful. It's a true gem of a film. A-

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (dir. Shane Black, 2005)

This is the film you can thank for seeing Robert Downey Jr. in everything from summer tentpole films to HTC commercials, since his comeback wouldn't have been possible without his lead performance as a criminal-turned-actor pretending to be a private eye in Shane Black's stylish neo-noir. Assisting Downey Jr.'s Harry is Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a detective who agrees to let Harry tag along in investigating a pair of mysterious murders that seem to be tied to Harmony (Michelle Monagan), a struggling actress and former crush of Harry's. At times, Black's screenplay and direction are too pleased with their cleverness, making it a sort of difficult to really enjoy the pleasures to be found. But when the film's various components come together, there's no denying that this is a legitimately fun action flick. Much of that is thanks to Downey Jr. and Kilmer's odd-couple pairing; they have great chemistry together, and both deliver excellent performances (this is especially impressive given that both - and Black too, for that matter - where considered washed-up circa 2005). It's an enjoyable ride. B+

Bullhead (dir. Michaël R. Roskam, 2012)

Bullhead is the kind of film that would play best to its domestic audience (in this case, Belgian), but requires an international audience to hit Wikipedia first. The film details Jacky Vanmarsenille's (Matthias Schoenaerts) involvement in the Belgium hormone mafia, which itself involves injecting cattle with growth hormones and controlling the meat packing industry. There's also a terrible event from Jacky's childhood that affects his current situation, as well as tensions between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) and Walloon (French-speaking) regions of Belgium. That's a lot to take in, and Roskam does a fine job at making the film work in it's own right as a crime thriller. Schoenaerts' performance, too, is terrific, allowing us into Jacky's world while still keeping parts of him sheltered. However, the film - also an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011 - just doesn't pull together in a very effective way. Its specificity is its ultimate undoing. B-

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

The history of the United States is a tumultuous one. The stark truth is that from the very outset of this country's independence (and, actually, before that), America has been perched on the verge of complete social upheaval, even though those in power would like you to believe otherwise. We are a nation founded on the principles of equality (though obviously that term is interpreted in many ways) and independence, and forces of change are constantly resisting forces of conservatism. Eventually, something breaks: a movement is born, it's momentum becomes undeniable, resistance to the movement pushes back, violence erupts, and then it's quelled, with the status quo altered, if only marginally. And then the cycle repeats itself.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that Lee Daniels' The Butler takes up a herculean task: portraying one of the most tumultuous periods in American history - the post-WWII era through today - through the eyes of one man who was never directly involved with any of it. These kinds of "greatest hits" films are difficult to pull off, as many biopics over the years can attest to. The most obvious point of comparison for The Butler is Forrest Gump, that evergreen staple of TNT reruns. That latter film mostly succeeds on the strength of it's cast and a full commitment to it's premise, as well as more of a focus on Forrest's personal struggle rather than his involvement in the events he haphazardly wanders into.

The Butler, however, tries to put it's protagonist, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), into the context of the sea change that was sweeping the country. Or, at the very least, give him a tangible connection to those events outside of his race. Inspired by a true story, the film begins by showing young Cecil working alongside is family as sharecroppers in the American South, before beginning a journey that eventually takes him to being a butler in the White House. As he serves under a number of presidents, his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey, in a rare acting gig) struggles with addiction and loneliness, his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes increasingly involved in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, while youngest son Isaac just wants to goof off (minor spoiler: he'll eventually serve in Vietnam).

The cardinal sin that Danny Strong's (yes, Jonathan from Buffy!) script makes is that it breezes us through over 70 years of American history without giving us much sense of what it means. As stated above, the narrative only briefly touches on any given event before scuttling off to the next one, never really allowing it to make an impact on the audience. The film trusts audiences to have a basic knowledge of 20th century American history, but it never goes beyond that very surface knowledge. Only when it directly brushes up against Louis - the only one of the Gaines' who throws himself into the chaos that's unfolding - does history seem to actually matter in the film.

Of course, this is a problem that the film was doomed to have, given that Cecil is, both by nature and occupation, a passive individual. His job requires him to be invisible, for "the room to feel empty" when he's in it. It's not a particularly glorious role to play, but Whitaker plays it masterfully, grasping the subtext fully and making Cecil a beautifully realized character. Cecil's struggle is deeply internalized: he's apolitical and unable to discuss what he witnesses on the job, and therefore not able to outwardly express himself. But Whitaker does a fantastic job of letting every silent glance or stoic pose speak volumes about what's going on inside without specifying what that exactly is. It's a truly brilliant performance.

This isn't necessarily surprising, though, considering that Lee Daniels is behind the camera. Daniels has built a reputation for himself as a director who draws out fantastic performances from his actors ever since his 2009 breakthrough Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. Though The Butler isn't as gonzo as his previous features, there's still no denying that this is a Daniels film. He gives everything that's happening on screen an electric energy, keeping the attention on his players without too many distractions. As such, there are a number of great performances here apart from Whitaker's. For one, Winfrey is absolutely deserving of her Oscar talk: even though Gloria is woefully underwritten and underutilized, Winfrey is never less than riveting, making the most of her role and finding unexpected depth in her minimal screentime. Similarly, Cuba Gooding Jr. has a modest role as Carter, a randy fellow butler in the White House who becomes a close friend of the Gaines, but shows off a warmth and subtlety that has been missing from much of his career. Then there's Oyelowo, who's been the standout in a number of recent films (Red Tails, Middle of Nowhere), deliver yet another fine performance, capturing Louis' idealistic evolution while reconciling his relationship with his father.

Unfortunately, the cast isn't uniformly strong. Namely, the other cardinal sin that the film commits is that it fills the roles of the presidents with an increasing number of distracting celebrity cameos: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Liev Schriber as LBJ, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and, perhaps worst of all, John Cusack as Nixon. It goes beyond Cusack's lack of resemblance of jowly Tricky Dick; there's never a moment when he's on screen when it doesn't feel like "here's John Cusack trying his best Nixon impression." The only one of these cameos that really succeeds is James Marsden as Kennedy; he believably embodies the doomed president, even if his accent is shaky at times.

It's pointless to speculate upon how The Butler could have been better; a version where we only see Cecil's relationship with a single president at a single event is never going to exist, after all. However, the film as is is a worthwhile endeavor. The kerfuffle over the title turned out to be indicative of the final product: this is Lee Daniels' The Butler, a film that, like most of his oeuvre, is messy, maddening, brilliant in places, and wholly enjoyable. B

Sunday, September 8, 2013

General Hospital at 50: Thinking about Soap Operas

I'll be the first to admit: I never thought I would find myself watching a daytime soap opera on a semi-regular basis. Or any basis, for that matter.

And which one did I find myself getting sucked into? None other than the longest-running American scripted program still in production, General Hospital, which is celebrating it's 50th anniversary this year (it was actually on April 1). As soap operas continue to leave the airwaves over the past decade, GH has managed to remain a relative success, if not just by maintaining its spot in ABC weekday afternoon lineup (right after The Chew on Asheville's affiliate), but by surviving cast shakeups and time-slot shifts. It's a survivor of a dying format.

Well, "dying" is too harsh a term (as it always is). No medium or form of art ever really "dies" so much as loses its prominence or status. For example, though neither enjoys the kind of praise and popularity that they did in previous centuries, opera and ballet continue to thrive, just on a much smaller cultural scale.

The soap opera, too, is witnessing a sea change, mostly because television as a whole is in the midst of a crucial turning point. As the way we watch television has diversified, soap operas became some of the first victims of network hand-wringing: though they don't cost much to produce per episode, they do churn out a new episode five days a week for most of the year. The Big Three - CBS, ABC, NBC - cut a number of soap operas from the air in order to run even cheaper programs, such as syndicated talk shows or re-runs. Some of these soap operas, such as Guiding Light, faded away for good. Others, like One Life to Live and All My Children, have become online exclusives through Hulu, with abbreviated episode lengths and production orders. The way they're presented may change, but the genre still has plenty of life in it.

Besides, as any fan knows, death is not always permanent in the world of soaps. However, that doesn't make it any less of an event. When a major character died in a recent episode of GH, it was treated as a major turning point, bringing a number of characters together (or tearing them apart) in unexpected and emotionally satisfying ways, as well as further twisting the plots and motivations of the various other arcs that were in motion.

A soap as long-running as GH, though, has by now become a well-oiled machine. Impressively, despite the plethora of characters and intersecting plots, it's very easy to jump into the show through just about any episode. This is to the credit of the show's writers, who have done an excellent job keeping up with character histories and the complicated plots. Of course, there's a lot of expository dialogue - characters reiterate things that other characters already know - but this is necessary for the show, as it allows viewers to keep up with what's happening as well as helping newcomers - like myself - dive in without having to scour the Internet for details. Even over the course of writing this article (it's been in drafts for nearly a month now...*sigh*), I've only caught pieces of certain episodes, while seeing only one or two in full. But there's still solid entertainment to be found in the heightened world of Port Charles, where everyone's scheming against everyone else. 

Oh yeah, Richard Simmons showed up this year on GH. It was as weird as it sounds.

If I don't seem to have too much to say on this topic, it's because I'm just not exceptionally well-versed in this particular genre. I have, though, been thoroughly enjoying my foray into these strange daytime hours of television. In this "golden age of television," when we celebrate the anti-hero, it's refreshing to find programs where the characters have always been anti-heroes, schemers and dreamers; where children grow up to become entangled in the webs their parents wove, and those parents must bear the consequences of what they've wrought. It's campy and over-the-top, but no less entertaining.

Watching more General Hospital - which produces five episodes per week for most of the year - has me thinking more about primetime soaps as well. There have been a number of these over the years that have found success: Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, Revenge, and Scandal, to name a few (though some would argue that Grey's and Scandal are not, but, come on). In particular, though, I thought of Nashville, ABC's country-music soap starring Connie Britton (who scored a surprising Emmy nomination - but also a worthy one) and Hayden Panettiere. The show's major issue in it's first season - apart from not really investing us in any characters outside of country legend Rayna James (Britton) and up-and-coming Taylor Swift-type Juliet Barnes (Panettiere) - is that the show tried to play the soapy storylines as if it were a "Major Prestige Drama." In fact, for most of the show's first season, Juliet seemed to be the only character who realized she was in a soap opera, and that made Panettiere's performance easily the most enjoyable on the show. Of course, a show like Nashville can only produce 24 episodes over the course of several months, and structure it's narratives the same way that GH can, but there certainly are some lessons that the primetime soaps can learn from their daytime companions: embrace the camp, and leave the pretension at the door.

In short, soap operas may never become major television hits again, or provide "oh no they didn't!" moments that become pop culture touchstones a la "who shot J.R.?" But they're far from extinct, and still just as much the guilty pleasure they've always been - and there's no reason for guilt. As for General Hospital: here's to another 50 years.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Spring Breakers (2013)

*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Season Finale!*

**WARNING: There are spoilers for the film within this post. So, read at your own risk.**

I honestly have no idea where to even start with this movie.

Writer/director Harmony Korine is one of American cinema's most famous provocateurs (probably second only to John Waters). He wrote the infamous Kids, then directed such features as Gummo, Trash Humpers, and Mister Lonely. Before Spring Breakers, I didn't have very much familiarity with his works, outside of their reputations. And this one has a doozy of a hook: four girls - two of them played by former Disney stars - go on spring break after raising the money through robbing a local fast food restaurant, party, land in jail, and are bailed out by a rapper/drug dealer/gangster named Alien, who's played by a chameleonic James Franco. Things only get wilder from there.

Despite it's trashy logline, there's a lot to unpack here. In my brief review of the film, I compared it to FX's American Horror Story: like that television show, the film works better as a whole in the moment, and any further consideration of the mechanics involved show foundational flaws that cause the whole thing to fall apart. 

For example: none of the four girls get much in the way of characterization. Faith (Selena Gomez) is the goody-two-shoes Christian girl (in case her name was too subtle) who gets frequent voice-over phone calls to her grandmother explaining how wonderful "this place" is and how she finally feels like she can find herself here. Brit and Candy (Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens, respectively) are evil - one girl even says as much in warning Faith - and planned the entire robbery, and quickly take to Alien and his illicit ways. Cotty (Rachel Korine) is there to round out the numbers, as far as I can tell. Of these four, Faith gets the most shading: the way Gomez plays her (and Korine writes her), she comes off as a typical early-twentysomething with a (presumably) sheltered life, rhapsodizing about how magical being in a new location is, marveling at being bad without ever really indulging her dark side, and being kind-of racist (I can't be the only one who noticed how hypocritical she is in her post-prision scene at the predominantly-black party; she "doesn't feel comfortable" with strangers talking to her and touching her there, but she seemed more than okay with it amongst the much whiter crowds at the beach). 

To put all of that another way, the things that go right with this film go so absurdly right that they cover up anything that's not working. And those things that do go right do so through Korine's sheer audacity of putting these things onscreen, crafting an Electric Daisy-inspired portrait of Day-Glo nihilism and bugfuck bacchanalia.

Of course, that audacity wouldn't be nearly as effective if it weren't for two key elements that are the movie's strongest: Franco's deeply bizarre performance and Benoît Debie's gorgeous cinematography.

Let's talk about Franco first. There's been no shortage of publicity about everything that Franco has been up to these past few years, acting, writing, directing, getting degrees from a number of colleges, and basically turning himself into a living art thesis. But the way that he completely disappears into this strange character is nothing short of stunning. Alien is, if you will, alien in several ways: he's "not from this planet, y'all," in that he's truly unlike anything else that's been put on the screen this year. He's a leering, self-aggrandizing, vaguely-threatening, secretly-insecure weirdo who's managed to become wealthy completely through being himself. When he yells to the girls, "look at my shit!," it's more than just started-from-the-bottom braggadocio - Franco sells it as a man who's truly proud of what he's done,  with no self-awareness for how ridiculous it all is, a true believer in his gangster code. And Franco is a true believer in Alien, and plays him with drawling conviction that's unexpectedly astonishing (and, though the Academy will never bite, at least worthy of a Supporting Actor nomination).

"Look at my shit!"

For evidence of this, just look at the scene in which Candy and Brit, the only girls left, try to emasculate Alien. The two girls have made it no secret that they have a complete disregard for responsibility and consequence, and have likely always been willing to do whatever they have to in their thirst for power. As Alien's accomplices/lovers, they decide to show him who's boss, pointing his own (loaded) guns at him and forcing him to get down on his bed. There's a brief flash of fear on his face...

...before he then begins to, ahem, perform fellatio on the silencers. It's a patently ridiculous move, the sort of thing that would only happen in some terrible Z-grade movie. And yet, in keeping with the character, Franco plays it as something completely organic. Of course Alien would blow the barrel of a loaded gun. What else would expect?

However, I've now gone on for over 800 words about this film without even discussing the cinematography, and, after all, this is a Best Shot post. And like many films from this series so far, there's no shortage of options; however, this may be the most unlikely film to earn that praise. Debie certainly deserves Oscar consideration for his work here (again, the Academy wouldn't deign to), filling the screen with neon colors that, combined with Cliff Martinez and Skrillex's (yes, really) score, give the film the feeling of being on MDMA, a woozy hyper-reality of straight-from-the-brain-stem visual pleasure. A simple walk down the pier looks like the entrance to a glowstick-waving rave...

...and the restaurant robbery is bathed in late-night-debauchery hues of flickering neon and cold blues. 

The above was almost my choice for Best Shot, for the framing and depth of the image, but what really makes it work is how the magnificent mise en scene mixes with Korine's inspired use of pop music. This sequence is scored - diagetically, apparently - with the use of Nicki Minaj's hit "Moment 4 Life," the song's chorus - "I wish I could have this moment for life, in this moment I just feel so alive" - is exactly how Brit, Candy, and Cotty are feeling as they tear off in the stolen El Camino. Is it too on-the-nose? Probably. But it also feels believable - of course this is what a twentysomething girl would put on the radio of the car she stole from her professor (I doubt he would listen to Nicki, but then again, what do I know?). Korine seems to make a point, throughout the film, of calling out the immaturity of these characters as they revel in their "badassery."

However, for my Best Shot, I turn to what may be the most incredible moment of cinema I have seen all year - certainly the most audacious. Sitting at a white outdoor piano, overlooking an oceanside sunset, Alien indulges Brit, Candy, and Cotty in a display of his sensitive side by playing Britney Spears' stripped-down ballad "Everytime." The sequence becomes a montage alternating between the girls - donning pink ski masks (with unicorns on them!) - dancing with assault weapons and the whole gang robbing various places/events, including an arcade and a wedding. It's simultaneously absurd, jarring, and strangely moving, a piece of pure gaga art that only someone as outlandishly daring as Korine could construct:

My choice for Best Shot: there's something oddly hypnotic about it, and I love the warm evening colors.

I don't know where to end with this movie, either. There's no succinct way to conclude my scattered thoughts. All I've got to say is, this is a film that only works if you're willing to buy what Korine is selling. Spring Breakers defies conventional criticism. Spring break forever, bitches.