Sunday, April 20, 2014

Cameron Crowe's Modern Capraesque Vision

This article first appeared at my writing outlet at as part of the review of "We Built a Zoo"
"We Built a Zoo" is the latest installment of Cameron Crowe who is best known for "Say Anything", "Jerry MaGuire", and "Almost Famous."
A former rolling stone journalist, Cameron Crowe is a product of equal parts Capraesque optimism and rock and roll as seen through some nostalgic lens.
Through these viewpoints, Crowe aims to present his own version of the American spirit, akin to Norman Rockwell, channelled through sensitive men who wear their hearts on their sleeves. This is a class of men who impulsively disregard real world responsibilities to follow their heart. Jerry MaGuire quits his job and the young journalist in "Almost Famous" quits school (temporarily, at least) for a school assignment. Furthermore, if the characters aren't quitting their responsibilities, it's a big given that work is a drag that's tearing them down. In Elizabethtown, for example, Orlando Bloom's job pressures nearly lead him to suicide.
Because Crowe's movie worlds exist to provide moral fables where characters follow their heart, there needs to be a strong dichotomy between good-bad and wrong-right. Right is following your heart and wrong is being influenced by "the man" (some of that rock mentality*) and doing what he wants you to do. Thus, you have painfully flat villains who exist solely for the hero to rebel against: The impersonal sports management company in Jerry MaGuire, the three-minute cameo by Alec Baldwin in "Elizabethtown," and the company that Tom Cruise inhereted from his dad (the ultimate "Man") that he detests for some insignificant reason that isn't given.
The only poignant interpersonal conflict in a Cameron Crowe film in all five films I've seen is between the protagonist and his mom (played by Frances McDormand in a brilliant Oscar-nominated performance) in "Almost Famous." Crowe's inflexible structure dictates that the protagonist is supposed to rebel against some out-of-touch square, but then again, this character is based on his mom who Crowe obviously has a soft spot for.

It's  also a natural choice that  Cameron Crowe's greatest muse is Tom Cruise who is a passionate romantic (in 2005, his career was momentarily damaged by being a little too passionate and a little too romantic for Katie Holmes).  Crowe's idealistic worlds are a little abnormal and it takes a larger-than-life, but also slightly abnormal guy like Cruise to fill that in. In "We Bought a Zoo," Matt Damon doesn't know how to get loose and silly (why he'd never fit that well in a romantic comedy)

*It also might be part of Crowe's rock star influence that he's into highlighting certain phrases and repeating them. Catch phrases have included "Show me the money", "Help Me Help You", "Every passing minute is a chance to turn it all around" and "all it takes is twenty seconds of courage."

Friday, April 18, 2014

State of My March III: Archer, Portlandia, Broad City

I reviewed my Spring watching this year and called the series State of My March despite the fact that it's now April. Roll with it, folks

Archer- An attempt to quantifying just how much fun I’m having watching Archer would just be a gushing spew of hyperbole at this point. Suffice it to say, it’s the best  show on television right now.

The show has made some waves among TV critics this season for changing the form of the show from a spy agency to a group of illegal drug smugglers.  The truth was that things haven’t changed that much.  It’s still a ragtag group engaging in dangerous activity in exotic settings.  The only thing that’s changed is the moral alignment of the group and, come on guys, it’s not like if Captain America started devoting his efforts to Ponzi schemes. These guys were never paragons of good to begin with.

What makes the show so great is the same as what defines most TV comedies as great in the Golden Age of TV (in the old days, comedy was more punchline based): Well-developed comic characters and great interplay between those characters. Also, lots of running gags which have taken on more of a through-line this season in the form of Pam’s crack addiction and the dwindling stockpile of crack (spoiler: those two factors are interrelated).

Everything from the small stuff to the larger developments are making me happy. Among the larger developments that are pleasing me are seeing Cyrill finally develop some backbone and stick it to Archer. He even becomes a Central American dictator at one point. There’s also an overt declaration of friendship from Archer to Pam that’s the kind of character growth that this show greatly needs in small doses.  
What’s also worth noting is that there’s a more realistic scale of death in this season. In the past, Archer was like an 80’s action hero in the way he would be impervious to bullets and effortlessly kill nameless goons. In Archer’s first two missions of this season, the death toll was zero and the ISIS gang barely escaped with their lives and lost considerable amounts of money. The only major villain deaths to occur this season happened at the hands of a tiger and alligators rather than the ISIS gang.

Speaking of villain deaths, I’ve always lamented the fact that the rogues gallery of Archer consisted of just Katja and Barry. In this light, it’s been a highly pleasant surprise that some of the villains previously thought dead have survived (handwaved relatively easily) and are back on the show including the gay hitmen in Miami and George Takei's Yakuza character. 

Broad City-Abby and Ilana narrowly win my vote for two most depraved characters on television and that’s saying something with "Legit", "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia", "South Park", and "The League" still on the air. These ladies make Sara Silverman look like a Victorian era lady-in-waiting. And it’s to their credit that the show doesn’t feel like it’s being gross just for the sake of being gross. My take on the show's grossness is that the duo is playing around with gender stereotypes . In a recent episode where the pair is checking out guys on a basketball court and being told that the players are made uncomfortable by their ogling, we're being challenged to reimagine sleazy male behavior if it were exhibited by women. 

The show has a distinct voice culled from a visibly apparent improv background that I suspect is long-form based on the fact that the laughs-per-minute is relatively low and it doesn’t seem to match any sort of sitcomey perspective. The season finale, involving the duo lavishly dining out in an expensive seafood restaurant despite allergies to sea food, was my favorite of the season so far. It's winning premise was marginally enough to overcome the odd comic style and general grossness, but it's usually a close call whether an episode will be worthwhile. 

If I was a 1st grade teacher (in my school district before 2nd grade, you'd get need improvement, improving, or check mark rather than the standard letter grade), I would grade this show "needs improvement" and send it back to the drawing board but since I don't have the power to change the creative decisions made by this show, I'll likely tune out.

Portlandia- His latest turn as Seth Meyers' band leader is confirmation Fred Armisen is positively weird when unleashed to do his own thing and what's impressive is that his idiosyncratic brand of comedy doesn’t show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season.

One thing I’m now learning is that nearly every time we see Fred and Carrie on-screen, they are playing recurring characters. I’m familiar with feminist book store owners Toni and Candice (whom I love) and the gender switch of Lance and Nina (whom I loathe) but beyond those two pairs, I can rarely tell one from the other. Peter and Nance strike me as the baseline Potlandia characters. Self-conscious, politically correct, highly particular in their tastes, and many people seem like a variation on those two (my last blog post was an effort to beak down what exactly the ideal Portlandia character was). The Lance half of Lance/Nina and Skype seem to be the exceptions on this rule. In this sense, it's disappointing that they haven't thinned out Lance and Skype's screen time. I still haven't gotten the joke to Lance and Nina other than the initial revelation of the gender switch.

I’m not sure if I’m in the minority in the respect of not knowing who's who but it’s not lessening my enjoyment. It's jut worth noting that the show’s “characters” aren’t particularly succeeding at being distinct from one another.

Still, a lot is working this season. Toni and Candice are being unleashed this season in mindblowingly awesome ways. As a basketball fan and a Toni/Candice fan, the Trailblazers episode was like a Christmas-comes-early present for me. The show is great at stuff that's only slightly comical in tone and "Celery" was a wonderful mixture of styles to create something vaguely comic (which sort of hammers the funniness in its own way) but wonderfully unique. The show is also sticking with guest stars that blend in whether Kumail Nanjani or Steve Buscemi. Is Aubrey Plaza gonna return? I'm hoping so.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Grand Unified Theory on Portlandia's Comedy

What's most impressive about "Portlandia" in its fourth season is that the off-kilter sketch show has a fairly narrow focus and doesn't show any signs of wearing thin in its fourth season. Instead, the show has developed a very unique voice. Answering the question "What exactly is that voice and how does it make the show funny?" is the million dollar question.

Courtesy: Modern
The show can sometimes be striking in the way its sketches don't always seem like they're aiming for a punchline or even being comic. Take a couple sketches of the recent episode "Bahama Knights": One sketch involves a group of women talking about how much they rock while their significant others start embellishing their praises of each other in more flowery language. The opening sketch of the episode involves a couple getting listless at a rock concert and feeling increasingly out of place. Each sketch has a punchline-- In the former, the central couple don't know any of the guests; in the latter, the couple wants to go to a concert again -- but neither of them has anything joke-like in any conventional sense before the punch line. In a way, these sketches play like found art of amusing people. While a lot of the sketches are more overtly joke-like, these two sketches are a testament to the comedic style of the show: "Portlandia" is indisputably comic but the sketches don't necessarily feel a need to start out (or even end up) in a comedic place. Often, the musical score will veer to a darker place to add ambiguity to whether what you're watching is a comedic place or not. 

If there’s something that can be called a grand unified theory as to the nature of Portlandia’s comedy, I would say it is characters that are detrimentally self-conscious about being hip. 

This makes sense as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein both started out as musicians in a fringe music and likely lived in a world with constant pressure to be seen as cool. In interviews about his rock star days, Armisen often describes the period in his life in which he was a drummer for Trenchmouth as a failure, and it was his frustration with the punk rock scene that directly led to his start in comedy 

The main storyline of the first season episode "Aimee" involves Fred and Carrie coming home to find that they have singer/songwriter Aimee Mann as a maid. They become jubilant fan boys in her presence, but they also have a back-handed way of showing their appreciation. Carrie confesses to downloading all of her records rather than buying it legally (presumably, Mann has to work as a maid because the music industry suffers). To make matters worse, they're condescending to her as employers and even suggest that she stole their necklace. One can imagine Armisen and Brownstein are drawing from a lot of experience interacting
with music fans and satirizing their weird habits.

The characters in Portlandia range from people who are overly politically correct to people who are downright aggressive. In his first appearance, the character Skype (Fred Armisen going the extra mile to get his ears mutilated for the role) is downright aggressive towards a guy enroaching on his scene.

On the opposite end of spectrum, there are characters like Peter and Nance who are overtly polite but so absorbed into the little details that they drive characters around them to equal points of insanity. In the pilot episode, Peter and Nance are incredibly polite in their tone of voice when grilling a waitress about every detail about the organic and free-range nature of the chicken they're ordering. They likely drive her mad (some characters react with frustration to the offbeat characters of this universe, some are accomodating, it's a nice mix) as they keep her waiting for what appears to be several months before deciding they’re not interested in ordering. In the middle of this process, Peter and Nance get themselves indoctrinated into a cult (run by Jason Sudeikis) while investigating the organicness of their meat. Here Peter and Nance show they can be equally dangerous to themselves through sheer timidness.

The general theme is that people who are overly concerned about their own image are either making lives for others more difficult or just plain foolish. In the former category, think of the couple who go to the outdoor film festival and loudly set up an entire gazebo in "Baseball" ruining everyone else's experience. In the latter category, think of the Kumail Nanjiani character in "Celery" who decides that he wants to abandon his blue collar job and go to begging. In a Portlandian twist, the punchline is that the two street beggars are really white collar people like him as Nanjiani and one of the beggars bonds over shared experiences on rival high school tennis. Again, being cool is revealed as a facade and trying to be cool is shown to be counterproductive.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The value of journalism and film writing

Prominent film critic Matt Zoller Seitz just wrote a blog post in reaction to the firing of long-standing Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gilberman that is a must read for anyone trying to understand how the age of new media is detrimental to our society.

I've long written and advocated for greater awareness among consumers about that state of journalism and magazine writing today, and it's a highly welcome addition to have someone like Matt Zoller Seitz taking up the fight.

I often ask myself why I do what I do (freelance as a journalist and writer) when it doesn't pay as much as a standard 9-5 job in the government or some non-profit or government contractor.

I live in Washington D.C., a town where people seem to all work in labyrinthine series of organization each designed to compete against each other for defense contracts and lobbying influence. I've dabbled in that world and for simple tasks like building spreadsheets, performing quality control, and keeping track of donor lists one could make a lot more money than I'm making now. 

I'm not suggesting that holding titles and fighting for your next GS grade couldn't be meaningful under the right circumstances. But at the end of the day, I think what I do is important. Journalism and even culture writing has been an essential part of American society since it was founded. Thomas Jefferson once said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." 

I do see the industry changing and getting worse, but I don't believe that's the fault of journalism itself. 

That is the popular mantra these days: That the media is not doing their jobs correctly. One of our most popular comedians, Jon Stewart, is regarded as the "voice of our generation" and he spends every day "exposing" the media as an incompetent circus of clowns through clever editing. It's a comedy gag, but no one seems to question Stewart or ask whether he would do a better job running CNN. I've heard more people saying "I don't read the Washington Post anymore because it's awful"  than I've heard people who can legitimately tell me where the paper is at fault.

Even worse, people don't seem to take into account that the paper has less resources than it used to. We didn't complain some years ago when airplanes started charging us for meals because we knew that profit margins are thin. 

Andrew Keen, someone who has profoundly influenced my way of thinking on this topic, wrote the Cult of the Amateur approximately 8 years ago in which he argued that Web 2.0 was eroding civilization. He argues that our economies have simultaneously been reconstructed to value knowledge-based industries while driving a wedge between the makers of knowledge and their work through web 2.0 which encourages anonymity and discouraging people to pay for knowledge. 

Keen argues that the only way this current state of chaos will finally end when society as a whole recognizes the value of knowledge again. I agree and think that we have to preach to the consumers of art and encourage them to pay for what they consume. After all, it's not out of our realm of thinking to recognize the value of someone else's work and voluntarily compensate them for it. We are in the practice of tipping waitresses. We do this because we recognize the value of their work and feel they deserve money for it. If we can recognize the value of someone whose job consists of picking up a plate of food and dropping it off somewhere else, why can't we recognize the value of people who tirelessly work to collect stories to keep us apprised of news or write things we enjoy reading. 

Seitz is starting to come to this conclusion as well that my generation has been spoiled to expect that writing should be free. I couldn't agree more. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

State of my March II: Glee, Suburgatory, About a Boy

Part II of my update on what shows I'm watching this Fall

Glee-Glee was a show that felt the need to speed through situations, premises and plots. Characters become goths, quit the Glee club, rejoin it, make major life decisions and switch up romantic relationships every episode. It seems like half the episodes have Will and Emma are either getting married or cancelling aforementioned wedding plans. Ditto Rachel and Finn with their on-again off-again relationship.

Courtesy: The State
The problem with this is that it can kind of get tiring in the long-term. The partial reboot of the New Directions membership seemed to be doing the exact same thing with expies of the old characters. Jake going from a bad boy to a team player and Kitty acting as a kind of moral wild card make them Puck 2.0 and Quinn 2.0.

That was when I tuned out but the show has started to rehook me as of late. What I'm finding most refreshing about the show in Season 5 is the slower pace. The producers primarily accomplished this by splitting up the senior year of Blaine, Artie, Tina and Sam into two seasons. As a result, it feels like the story finally has a chance to breathe. The show that could previously be accused of being melodramatic is now just dramatic and that's a good thing. Characters have a chance to develop, relationships have a chance to form, there's less of a revolving door in terms of casting.

The show still seems to have a little bit of relationship roulette. There's little sense that the writers  asked themselves "why are we doing this?" when deciding to pair up people like Artie and Kitty. Also, When Sam was complaining about being unlucky in love in the season's second episode, was I the only viewer who noticed that Sam has been with every girl he's ever had a crush on?


About A Boy-I reviewed this show a month ago and am pleased to know it's coming around nicely.  David Walton's take on the protagonist of Will is a much less interesting version than Hugh Grant's version or his source material. It remains to be seen whether the shallowness of David Walton's Will will wear the show thin, but so far, there have been enough interesting storylines to keep my momentum going. The premise is a genuinely sweet and interesting one and some of the changes from the source material have been benificial to the show. For one, Fiona (Minnie Driver takes over the role from Toni Collette) is a much stronger and well-defined character. Additionally, the inclusion of Dakota (Talladega Nights' Leslie Bibb) as Will's object of desire and Fiona's confidante is a smart one.

I originally stated that I enjoyed Will's lack of definition for his own life before Marcus came along. The TV show has shifted to a more definable problem for Will. With his friends settling down, he feels left behind and detached from his own peer group. This is a relatable problem and one that gives more impetus for his relationship with Marcus. I'm behind this!

Lastly, it's worth noting that Marcus doesn't sound like much of an 11-year old. He's supposed to be written as a kid burdened by having forced to have grown up too fast. Still, he's a bit too self-aware and his dialogue seems kind of stilted. Cracked columnist Robert Brockway once wrote that Hollywood needs to hire children to hang around writers rooms so writers can listen to what children actually sound like. This show seems like a good use for that idea.

Suburgatory-I'm still loyal to this show but it's with some definite hesitation that I continue to watch it.

Suburgatory was a revelation in its first year for it's wicked satirical bent. Unfortunately, the show's greatest strength has also limited its shelf-life. For its satire to hit the sharpest, the show was reliant on its two protagonists being fish out of water.

Unfortunately, this didn't last long. In the second season,  Tessa and George got more acclimated to Chatswain and entered into romantic relationships with the locals which took away their status as outsiders. Tessa couldn't snidely comment on the inanity of Chatswainians if she was dating one of them. Similarly, George had much less ground to be befuddled by Dallas if he actually committed to her as a life partner.

Now in the third season, we find Tessa and George out on the other end of those relationships but it's not the same. Most of the plots have been soapy. The biggest conflict surrounding Tessa is whether she gets over Ryan or not. When Tessa does start to get hypercritical of the environment around her again, it seems a little disjointed.

The issue of culture clash was brought up in the third season episode "About a Boy-Yoi-Yoing" wherein George and Fred decide to take a trip to the city to get out of the country club lifestyle. Unfortunately, this was relegated to a B-plot and much of the story line didn't take place in Chatswain.

Still, there have been a few highlights. The engagement between Lisa and Malik was a sweet moment and it was wise for George and Nora (the wonderful Natasha Leggero) not to pursue a relationship. The show also had a very strong outing in the episode where Tessa joined a cult.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

If the AFI 100 Greatest Films series added 18 new entries

In 1997, the American Film Institute released a landmark list of the 100 greatest English-language films in the history of cinema. This was what single-handedly turned me on to classic films. Before that point, I had no idea how any of the few older films I had seen were considered against the greats. If you had asked me to guess the top 100 before seeing the list, I might have guessed films like the Vincente Minnelli film Kismet (which is, in fact, considered one of his worst but I liked it plenty), The Pink Panther, Lion King, Back to the Future (which DOES deserve to be on the list), An American Tail, or Cool Runnings.

My own personal experiences aside, the AFI's list deserves acclaim for being balanced, comprehensive, and very much in line with popular opinion, cultural impact and critical standing. In 2007, the AFI rereleased their list with members revoting. Although ten years and a whole batch of new films had passed between lists, only four films released since 1997 made the new cut: Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Sixth Sense, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Instead of adding new entries, the AFI spent most of their energy amending the catalogue of films from the original time period, 1996-1996, to correct oversights such as the General, Do the Right Thing, Cabaret, Shawshank Redemption, 12 Angry Men, Blade Runner and 12 others.

So the scenario I'm exploring today is what if the AFI voted to add 18 new films to the original 122 that have been included in either of the lists. This way, no classic films have to be bumped out. I'm only interested in films that overlap with the most recent film to be featured so far which was Lord of the Rings, so no films after 2001 will be considered and since 18 films were added from the existing time period, I'm picking that number.

Here would be my predictions in order of likelihood.

1. The Conversation (1974) dir. Frances Ford Copolla-Starring Gene Hackman as a secretive surveillance official with a crisis of conscience, the film is timeless and especially thematically relevant. It was a Best Picture nominee (competing against Copolla's other masterpiece Godfather II) and widely considered to be on par with Copolla's other films that have landed on the AFI list.

2. Back to the Future (1985) dir. Rob Zemeckis- It's a favorite of mine, but it's very clearly a favorite of a generation and a venerable time capsule of film making in the 80's. The AV Club's Inventory named it the film that defined the 80's in their list of twelve films that defined their decades. Beyond that, it combines the best of several 80's genres (teen movie, scifi, comedy of misadventures) and hits that sweet spot between audience favorite and respectable classic. It's one of the first blockbusters to expand into a trilogy and simultaneously enjoys the status of a cult film today: Something that's endlessly rewatched, celebrated, and dissected.

3. Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles-After making Citizen Kane at the ripe age of 26, widely considered to be the best film of all-time, Welles saw his career get severely roadblocked by Hollywood and the bitter vendetta of the Hearst empire and as such, must of his talent as a director was severely dampened by studio influence. Towards the end of his career he made one of his best works: A riff on Othello that was adapted from the short story "Badge of Courage." The film was heavily tampered with by the studio (Universal) and buried in the back half of a double feature with no promotion. In the last few years of the 20th Century as the best of the century lists rolled out Touch of Evil gained popularity just as the director's cut was released. It made lists by Entertainment Weekly, Guinness book of Films, the National Society of Film Critic's A-List and Tim Dirks' website Beyond that, its a stunning film that I'd count as two or three of my favorites.

4. Alien (1979) dir. Ridley Scott- Like Back to the Future, Alien hits the sweet spot between audience favorite and critical darling and transcends the genre trap of sci-fi. That Sigourney Weaver earned an Oscar nomination for a genre part is a testament of how iconic that character became. It's also fair to say Alien was boundary-pushing. It also ranks #36 on the greatest films of all-time by Time Out Magazine.

5. His Girl Friday (1940) dir. Howard Hawks- Cited by both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper as one of the ten most glaring omissions of the 1997 list, His Girl Friday is the quintessential screwball comedy that many other romcoms consciously or unconsciously borrowed from. Although another of Hawk's screwball comedies, "Bringing Up Baby", made the list, "His Girl Friday" is a sharper work that showcases Cary Grant as a strong character who can match wits with the best of them which is how he deserves to be remembered. The film might owe its effectiveness to the fact that it was adapted from a film ("The Front Page") in which both leads were men. How's that for gender equality.

6. Big Sleep (1946) dir. Howard Hawks- If I'm not mistaken, Hawks only has one film in the AFI top 122 and if that's the case, that's downright baffling when one considers the sheer contribution of landmark films he made in nearly every genre. Big Sleep, for example, is one of the earliest trailblazers of film noir in its American form which is even more impressive when considered that few other films pushed the form's boundaries as far in terms of a labryrinthine story, an unapolagetically raw hero and risque dialogue.

7. Badlands (1973) dir. Terrence Malick- Malick made two films in the 1970's that grew his legend as he went into reclusion for 20 years before he made another pair of films that were both hailed as masterpieces. Malick is a director who has a unique style with incomparable cinematography that would make any comprehensive list of American films incomplete without his name on it. Badlands was the film which introduced his style to the world and its antiheroes- a pair of lovebirds on a killing spree- helped define the counterculture of the 70's.

8. The Awful Truth (1937) dir. Leo McCarey- A screwball comedy and melodrama that that won Best Director for Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth is an unconventional love story in that its about divorce. Time Magazine said it was "possibly the greatest love story ever made."

9. LA Confidential (1997) dir. Curtis Hanson -The star-studded modern-day noir stands the test of time as a relatively pure recreation of a genre that's near-dead. It was ranked among the top-rated films of the 90's when I conducted a poll of over 100 people and it seems to be reserved with classic status.

10. How the West was Won (1963) dir. John Ford-The film was the last of John Ford's Best Picture nominees and it could be argued that, in terms of scope, it was his ultimate masterpiece. The film was a grandiose spectacle on the level of David Lean and Cecille B. DeMille, and it borrowed a page from D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" in the way it intertwined stories from different time periods.  It had the appeal of Best Picture winners "Around the World in 80 Days" or "Greatest Show on Earth" but unlike those two, it could actually be considered a work of art.

8 more
11. Being There  (1979), directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers, starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melyn Douglas, Jack Warden
12. The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin, starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J Cobb, Linda Blair, Jason Miller
13. Almost Famous (2000), directed by Cameron Crowe, starring Patrick Fugit, Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Philip Seymour Hoffman
14. Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, James Gleason
15. The Matrix (1999), directed by Andrew and Lana Wachowski, starring Keanu Reeves, Hugo Weaving, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Gloria Foster
16. Terms of Endearment (1983) directed by James L Brooks, starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Danny DeVito
17. East of Eden (1955), directed by Elia Kazan, starring James Dean, Raymond Massey, Julie Harris, Burl Ives, Jo Van Fleet
18. Blue Velvet (1986)-directed by David Lynch, starring Isabella Rossellini, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Hope Lange

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The State of my TV watching March part I: New Girl

I'm starting a series where I update you on what I've been watching lately:

The Nick-Jess romance on "New Girl" turned me off the show last season but I was pleasantly surprised when I recently tuned into the show.

The Nick-Jess romance appeared to have derailed the show at first, but Liz Meriwether and her staff have navigated this potentially shark jumping storyline into a comfortable groove. The Nick and Jess pairing is heavily downplayed, it doesn't make the characters any less lovably imperfect, and there's still plenty of unresolved sexual tension to go around.

What's seeming to drive the show these days is the group dynamic. The show morphed from its original premise of a highly quirky girl being grounded by three roommates, to an ensemble comedy in the first season. A couple seasons later, the ensemble has gelled so well (both the characters and the actors), that there's a familiar shorthand to all their interactions.

The danger of this is that in shows like "The Cosby Show", "Everybody Loves Raymond", or "Community" that unique style of dialogue starts to feel insiderish. It's difficult to tune into a fourth season episode of any of those shows cold turkey and laugh at the distinct cadences of the show when you're unfamiliar with the joke.

I don't believe "New Girl" has entered this dangerous territory. In fact, the show reminds me of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" for the way in which the characters seem to exist in a subculture of their own that's slightly off-center of the world. In the case of "New Girl" there are plenty of people outside the realm of this Jess-Cece-Schmitt-Winston-Nick quintet that ground us in reality by reacting to these people and their idiosyncrasies.

And speaking of that quintet, the show has now reintegrated Coach into the cast after the cancellation of "Happy Endings" meant that Damon Wayans Jr. now needed a gig. I'm happy to see the gang expand and I am especially happy to see anyone in the Wayans family get a job, but it's somewhat problematic. Damon Wayans Jr. had the token black guy part in the pilot as Coach. I only say that because he was the least developed character. When he was cast in "Happy Endings", the part was recast with Lamorne Morris as a new character, Winston. The in-universe explanation that Coach moved out somewhere and Winston who is returning from a failed basketball career in Lithuania is taking over his fourth of the rent. From what I've seen so far (about five 3rd season episodes), it seems both characters occupy the same niche so I'm hoping for some more differentiation.