Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #2: SITCOMS: UNDERSTANDING, ADAPTING, and RECOGNIZING HOW THE METHODS OF THE OLD APPLY TO THE NEW



Hey, hey, hey! How's everybody doing today, good? Everybody ready for class? Was that "Hey, hey, hey", from "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" or was it from "What's Happening?" What do you think? Think it'd be easier if you actually heard it, instead of seeing it written down? Yeah, it would be.

Alright, sitcoms, I hope you all did you homework, folks. Oh yeah, I wasn't kidding. Three, four, five of you, out of 150 people, minimum will read these a day? I hope you at least watched television at least. Especially a sitcom, at least once? Well, I didn't get too many personal responses. One involved, somewhat of an interesting show regarding this topic of 3-camera vs. single camera, and that's "How I Met Your Mother". Great show, and it was an interesting choice, because they're a 3-camera sitcom, but they actually don't have a studio audience. They use a laugh track, and actually they're a little more free-form with the form, they can have flashback and other ways of playing with the timeline and dream sequences, aberrations, musical numbers, they're a show that can rather easily, I would say, switch to a single camera show. It would lose, the romantic perspective and look of the 3-camera sitcom has, you know, the Woody Allen-esque New York look the show went for, although you can do that in single camera also, but that classic 3-camera look is the television equivalent of that. 

Oh, and when I talk about a 3-camera show, btw, somebody also thought that, "How I Met Your Mother" was a 5-camera show, I could not confirm that, but I'm almost certain it's 3. It's not, how many people are on the show, that you put a camera on them, what happens is that sitcoms are rehearse, and then, there's a way in which a TV director, figures out the camera positions, which are moving much of the time, and they're, when done well, really-organized, and it's very hard to do btw; other than James Burrows, and since it has become such a lost art, the 3-camera directing, that's another reason why a lot of shows, are choosing the single-camera format instead. That said, there are variations of the multiple-camera sitcoms, where they do use more than one camera when needed. Garry Marshall for instance, invented the 4-camera sitcom. It wasn't really that big of an invention actually, it was just that it was impossible to make sure Robin Williams stayed still and hit his mark every time, and it took about five minutes to realize you didn't want to do that anyway, so for "Mork & Mindy", there was a fourth camera who's job was just to follow Robin Williams around, and record whatever he does, 'cause it was usually funnier than most of everything else they could come up with. So, yeah, I know bad timing to bring him up, but it's not the first time Robin Williams has been the exception to the rules. 

Well, that was the only response, good job folks, on your homework. (Thumbs up, sarcastically) Well, the Emmys are next week, so let's just use them for this. Think of how those shows would be different, first with-eh, "The Big Bang Theory" could that work in single-camera? It could I think. You can see them more at work, instead of mostly around the two apartments and the hallway. They are scientists and professors remember? You think you'd see more of Sheldon's classrooms don't you? But you lose the quirks a bit, and a part of what makes Sheldon's behavior so palatable is that, it is in front of an audience, so the outlandishness he does is benefited from having an audience react to his eccentricities. Plus it helps us feel more insular to the world of these characters having a 3-camera format. If it was single camera, the world would be opened up, but you wouldn't feel as close to them and within their own environment, especially since it's a bit of a rule-of-the-universe show, where you kinda have to get used to the show to begin with, so the closer we are to the to the characters, the more used to them we get and the more we relate and understand them, in their own world. 

Although, let's look at "Veep", a show that's single-camera, but would it be that weird if it was three-camera? Might be a bit like "Spin City", but based on the Vice President and not the aid, and you can create the show often takes place just in the office, a lot of it. You could have a lot of the disasters occur elsewhere on set and offstage, I think it could work, but would it work as well, maybe not. She's not exactly a likeable character Selina Mayer, so maybe it wouldn't work to be too intimate with an unlikable character. Although that worked for "All in the Family", not so much for "Buffalo Bill" though, which is a better example 'cause that was a workplace show that also dealt with media relations and perception. I know you haven't heard of it. Look it up, it got two Emmy nods for Best Series, and got canceled after two years. 

Now, "Modern Family"'s an interesting one. In many ways, this show is the ultimate throwback. The family sticom. This goes back to Ida Goldberg. It's broad, it's over-the-top, there are misunderstandings, and the whole series is based around the struggles and dramas of a family household. You'd think actually that, a show like that would be 3-camera, and not borrow the new mockumentary format of the single-camera, which started in film with people like Woody Allen, Rob Reiner, Fellini a bit, and then used in television starting with Ricky Gervais's "The Office", the British version, but actually when you go back and think of those more classic family sitcoms, the "Leave It to Beaver", "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", "The Brady Bunch", they weren't necessarily traditional 3-cameras either. They had sets, but similar to the freedom of "How I Met Your Mother", they didn't have audiences, they had laugh tracks, they often went outside the stage to shoot- 'cause A., since there's so many more people in a family cast, you can't have them all in the same space all the time. It's not realistic or believable, plus, you can do a lot more with the dynamics of the family sitcom, if they're separated most of the time, and out doing other things. So, actually, "Modern Family" is more of a throwback than it first seems, especially considering the family sitcom dynamic. Would it work, with 3-camera, probably not as well, but there's plenty of examples of it working there too. Not as much with children though, but it becomes more of a domestic tale than it does an overall look at a family. But really, other than the fact that it's a different kind of family, it's not that different from other shows of the past. Humor is about the same combination of wit and slapstick and farce. It's done well, there's ways to reinvent the wheel, and then there's reasons not to, 'cause it's a wheel, it's already pretty perfect as it. 

That's half the battle, recognizing what a show is doing, frankly, and then making sure it does it well. It's the simplicity of it, where's the conflict, why do we care about these characters, what do they want, are they trying to find it, are they succeeding at it, what's the situation, "situation" being a key word, it's a situation-comedy, remember, that they're stuck in and half to deal with. If you don't have answers to those questions then you really don't have a sitcom, and it's not about, being the most hip or new, or groundbreaking, or controversial, if a show is just about those things, then it's not gonna be good. I don't remember who it was that said it, probably Norman Lear, but as groundbreaking as "All in the Family" was (And it still is, btw.) if you replace all the talk about politics and philosophy and modern culture and whatnot with Archie yelling at Meathead "I can't believe you married my daughter without being able to take care of her!!!!" then the show stays the same. It's those things that make a sitcom. 

"What about "Louie"?! I'm waiting for someone to scream. Yes, why not, what about "Louie", could it work in 3-camera? I think it could. He tried a 3-camera show once, with HBO's "Lucky Louie", it wasn't that successful, but it absolutely could work. What, it's about a comedian, as he struggles he endures and adventures he has to get through his day-to-day life, that can be 3-camera. Worked for "Seinfeld". Now he's doing other things with the show, being more irreverent, sometimes he's going on aberrations, sometimes, he's sticking close to and advancing continuing story line and plot, sometimes it's very inward and intimate, other times, it's very relatable. Sometimes, he's barely doing what we'd consider a sitcom, you know?  Sometimes, you can go week-to-week-to-week and see three entirely different episodes of his show, and have almost nothing in common, other than Louis C.K. That's not new either btw, Jack Benny did that all the time on "The Jack Benny Program". One week, variety show, next week, sitcom, next week, dream sequence, next week, behind the scenes of his variety show, the next week, and little of the variety, a little sitcom, a little something else..... He had that same kind of freedom back then, that Louis C.K. that Tina Fey, that Lena Dunham have now, where they basically were given a half-hour to do whatever they wanted. Is it still a sitcom? Well, yeah. The situation changes week-to-week, but it's still a sitcom. He could go in front of a studio audience and with the 3-camera format if he wanted, and it would work.

Situations can change on a show all the time too. 1st season, "Will & Grace", they were roommates, then they weren't the 2nd, then they were again. "Cheers", started the "Will they or won't they" thing, with Sam & Diane, and then they had to completely change the show when Shelley Long left. The core situation was the same, people in a bar. That's key too, what can change in a situation comedy and what can't? If the core of the sitcom, is the location, then the location can't change. If the core is the characters then they can go anywhere they want and they'll stay the same while everything around them is different. (Look at how many times "Weeds" changed their whole series over the years) Even "I Love Lucy" changed all the time. First they were in the New York apartment, then they traveled to California and Europe and Florida, and then they moved to Connecticut, not to mention they had a kid. So the whole series, constantly was in shift. Lucy wanted to be a star and she and Ethel would get into some ridiculous situation, because of Lucy's pursuit of stardom usually, or to make a point to their husbands or something like that. Knowing the situation, and knowing what the core of the show is. That's what's key to most everything. "Louie", himself doesn't change too much generally. That's not a bad thing, but he explores that in many ways, and he takes advantage of the things you can’t really do with the 3-camera structure, but it’s that no matter he does, the situation is him, and that's what the core of the show is, and that's what he's really doing. No matter what Jack Benny was doing that week, he was always Jack Benny, same with Louis C.K., whatever he's doing that week, he's Louis C.K. And Louie is an aging, overweight, stand-up comic. Divorced, couple kids he watches on the weekends, he has a few friends, he sleeps around occasionally. He wants to be in a relationship, etc. etc. Whatever he does, it sticks within that, Louis C.K. persona and perspective Sometimes life’s good, sometimes it’s not, the situation of him doesn’t change, while the situations around him, often does.

We can do the same for “Silicon Valley” and “Orange is the New Black” too, and figure out what the cores of those shows are and any other good ones. Even bad sitcom have good core ideas like this. “2 Broke Girl$” it a great situational comedy base. It really is, I’d rewrite it to make it good in a heartbeat. 2 girls, in New York City, struggling to survive, one used to be rich, the other’s used to it, living together, working together. It’s “Laverne & Shirley” meets “The Odd Couple”, but they take the wrong approach to the material. They think if you create outlandish, over-the-top characters with a quirk and can be used as a punchline then that’s a sitcom? Nope. Can’t just say vagina and make it a sitcom you know? (Although I might watch that, admittedly.) That why the show goes wrong, if could still be funny, but if they went to find the comedy more in the situation, it’s be a stronger show; the situation itself is filled with great interesting comedic material, you got to approach it correctly. This is where the skill comes in, in really figuring out, not just what’s good or not from a situation standpoint, it’s how will they manage to find comedic value in that situation.

This is where you ask those questions, of “What’s the objective of the show,” and “How well does the show achieve that objective?”, Etc. etc. The, “Within the realm of the show, does this work?” type of things, etc. etc. How good is stuff like that? Uh, it’s fairly useful if you know what you’re looking for. This is why, you have to study the old sitcoms, which these new ones have to compete against, in order to understand how successful they are or aren’t and whether they actually are doing things new or different, or are simply doing things that have done before, or if they’re doing those things better or different in some way.

How do you tell those things? That’s the $64,000 Dollar Question, other than to say that the more TV you watch, the easier it’ll be to catch, but also the rarer it actually happens. In terms of recent sitcoms, I guess a good example for me that comes to mind, would be an early episode of “Parks and Recreation”, where Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope character was sick in bed. Now, the whole show up until then, had been, practically a joke on her, about how she’s the one lone person into a local government with strive and ambition and also a firm belief in the power of government being able to solve problems, and how she was out-of-place with this position and all the doors and red tape slammed in her face for being such a way, but this was the episode where that changed because everybody else in the “Parks and Recreation” department, none of whom had that same drive and desire had to do her jobs for the day, and they realize she had about forty or fifty things planned, that doing two or three of those things for most people would take up most days or weeks. That’s not only the moment when, we as the audience started cheering for her, but also the moment when her fellow co-workers, even the ones who thought government was useless, started respecting her and getting her back whenever it was threatened. That was unexpected, and I haven’t seen that trick, done before in that way, where the whole series found itself and its groove and perspective. And that happens sometimes, where the whole arc and structure of a TV show would indeed be changed or discovered many episodes or even seasons into a show, but we’ll cover more on the structure and arc long and short-term of a TV sitcom, next time. How shows begin, how they end, how the arc of a series is developed and planned (Or not) and when and if a show “jumps the shark” supposedly, and what do pop terms like that really mean. Stuff like that, but with “Parks and Recreation” example, that’s when we got the first real insight into that series, that really made it connect to the audience, the piece that we, as the audience, hadn’t really had before. We knew it was good, up until then, and first episodes, you usually try to dismiss a bit to begin with (Although networks don’t always think that way [in many cases they’re correct to do so, ‘cause they’re dead in the water from the opening bell but still….]) but again, there’s this perception nowadays about a sitcom being a half-hour and then you move on, when a drama supposedly is a soap opera and long-running story arc where you have to catch, and frankly that’s just as true about sitcoms.


So, that’s for next week, we learn more about exactly how they make a sitcom, from the beginning and then inevitably to the end, and the art involved in that, and sometimes just, the absolute struggle of doing that, and how exactly shows like that work. Homework, we’re gonna keep it simple, just, watch the Emmys on Monday night, the 25th on NBC. It’s part of the industry, just deal with it, and enjoy it; they’re not going away, so really, I don’t get people who fight those things; and I can do a whole lesson on Awards shows if you want. I don’t want to, but they’re there, they’re apart of television in more ways than one, so you might as well enjoy them. If you want something else, think about a few of your favorite TV shows; I won’t limit it to sitcoms this time, but try o have it be sitcoms, and try to pinpoint, a moment like that “Parks and Recreation” moment, if you can, where suddenly, a sitcom, suddenly clicked, and got it’s perspective and really became special and exceptional from just a regular sitcom or even a good sitcom. It can be a lot of things btw, adding or losing a character sometimes, it could be learning something new about a character in a different way, or a slight personality shift from the beginnings of the show; it’ll usually be an early episode, usually it won’t be the first one, sometimes it might though. The moment that a show truly finds itself. Not the moment you necessarily started liking it, but what that moment was for the show, and why exactly did it work that well? That’s big too, the why. Too many people don’t ask “Why does that work?” enough when watching a TV show, and that’s why we are doing this class, ‘cause if not, we’d actually be the mindless lazy couch potatoes that people perceive us to be, and that’s because they are aimlessly watching a screen, for no reason. We watch with a reason. Remember that.


Try to do that, although mostly just watch the Emmys, ‘cause they’re the Emmys, just watch them. We may talk for five minutes about them next time, which may just be me complaining that “The Newsroom” wasn’t nominated but who knows there might be some interesting things. And if you have a chance, look up some of the winners at the Creative Arts Emmys, btw. They’re not as exciting, but there are a lot of good people who’ve worked on some amazing stuff and you really get a sense of just how much of television there really is by looking those up. Sometimes your best and most favorite shows, they get awarded at those awards and not the main stage, and that’s a shame, but that just shows you just how much television there really is. Alright, folks, everyone Dy-no-mite! Good. This TV Viewing 101 Class was brought to you by the letter T, and the letter V, and the number 66.

For those of you new you can catch up on the previous class here:
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/08/tv-viewing-101-class-1-syllabus-intro.html

Friday, August 15, 2014

MOVIE REVIEWS #93: "ABOUT TIME", "THE BEST OFFER", "BLUE CAPRICE", "THANKS FOR SHARING", "YOU'RE NEXT", "AFTER TILLER", "THE PATIENCE STONE", and MORE!

Well, this has been a tough week for, pretty much everybody right now. I talked about Robin Williams's sudden death a little bit on my Canon of Film blog on "Good Morning, Vietnam", and you know, the more information that comes out about his suicide and the place he was in his life at the time, and we think how great a talent and just how marvelous it was to watch Robin Williams all the time- I mean, if you knew he was on a Late Night show that night, you were watching it, you know, and there's so much with him- strangely, I don't even think about him as one of the great actors of all-time, because it's really like, he was in a different category completely than everybody else, and that's exactly what the case with him, so that makes what's happened, just, put even mourning. We been in so much mourning over Williams's passing, that, we barely notice Lauren Bacall passing away. One of the last great legends of the golden era- She out-lived Humphrey Bogart by 57 years, can you imagine that; one of the screen couple of all-time, and she was still doing occasional acting gigs. "To Have and Have Not" has the "You know how to whistle..." scene, but I love "The Big Sleep" and I love something like "Written in the Wind".... (Mournful sigh)

Anyway, we're fighting through it, and we're slowly getting back into the thick of things; we're still looking up old Robin Williams clips on Youtube.com and places like that, but it's time to move on. The Emmys are coming up, very quickly, and I've already started writing my Predictions for that. I've got another TV Viewing 101 blog coming up, before then. Obviously, I didn't watch as many movies as I had wished I had normally, nor was I able to watch more of the movies I wanted to watch or wish I had up 'til this point, for these Random Weekly Movie Reviews, partly 'cause of everything, so, we're still grieving, but it's time to move on, and we're gonna do so the best we can at just doing what we love to do right now.

BTW, I've mentioned this on the blog's FB site, but I'm participating in a few Google Hangouts now, apparently this computer capable of letting me do that, and I'll be participating in more of those in the future, I have fun with those, so look out for those, I'll be publicizing them, and you'll get a rare look at me, and finally understand all the jokes I tell about my long hair.

So, let's get to it, this week's edition of our RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS!


ABOUT TIME (2014) Director: Richard Curtis

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Screenplay rule #387: If you can describe your screenplay or screenplay idea with the phrase, "It's kinda like "Groundhog Day" except...", then it's exactly like "Groundhog Day".

Okay, it's not "exactly" exactly, like "Groundhog Day", but essentially it is however. And that's the problem with "About Time", one of the problems anyway. The latest from Richard Curtis, the movie's focus is on Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) a typical Curtis befuddled and bemused protagonist, the part Hugh Grant's played most of his career. When he turns 21, he finds out from his Dad (Bill Nighy) that all Lake men can travel through time. Why exactly? Never answered, and luckily, there's never been any real problematic butterfly effect changes of history. Basically, you go into a quiet space like a closet or an attic and he's able to simply go back in time and essentially correct mistakes and cock-ups he makes until he gets them right. This is great for Curtis's character, 'cause they can bumble and make right fools of themselves, like confusing an ex-girlfriend for a lesbian, or have sex with their current girlfriend on their first date multiple times to make sure he gets it right. His main girlfriend and then wife is Mary (Rachel McAdams) which is also his mother's name (Lindsay Duncan) and he falls in love with her, and then makes sure, through the time travel she falls in love with him, even if that means, having met her, technically before he met her, and before she met a different sudden boyfriend, who kinda gets screwed over in this world actually. In fact, that was the disturbing part of this, "Only the Lake Men" thing, 'cause the women never know, except for a brief time his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) until that has to be reversed back and he finds out that a major flux in the space-time continuum involves people's births, but yeah, certain people in certain situations when you think back on it.... Well, I think the point of it was that you weren't supposed to think back upon it, and that Curtis has resulted to gimmicks essentially, which is unfortunate not only 'cause this is the guy who's written and directed some of the greatest romantic-comedies of the last 25 years, in an era when good romantic-comedies are impossible to come by, but strangely the best parts of the movie were in fact the parts that weren't about the time travel and when they dived into the relationships between the characters, and it really was a romantic-comedy, or at least a romance and an ethereal look in the role loves plays over our lifespan, and the decisions we make and how and why they effect us the way they do. I'm not necessarily sure, we needed the time traveling aspect for him to tell that though. I know Curtis isn't through, he won an Emmy for the TV movie "The Girl in the Cafe", which took his approach and made a more serious commentary, but still kept his classic charm and his more soft-handed and somewhat cliche and empathetic approach. Bottom line, I think he's too talented to resort to a bad gimmick like these, and the best moments were when he didn't. There's still a lot to like here in "About Time", and despite everything, I'm still actually tempted to recommend it anyway, but it's hard to when you can see a talented filmmaker at work, and yet you can still see how easily the film could've been so much better.


THE BEST OFFER  (2014) Director: Guiseppe Tornatore

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Once in a while I use a hyperbolic phrase like "The last person I ever would've thought do this...", and I hate using that, but I cannot imagine the scenario where I would've even come close to guessing the director of "The Best Offer" if I went into it blind. That director is Guiseppe Tornatore, the great Italian director most famous for his Oscar-winning debut masterpiece "Cinema Paradiso" and most of his films, have a romantic and nostalgic touch, taking place in flashback and in the past, often from a youth's perspective and his films, even at their darkest, there's a lightness and jovial quality to them, even in something like "Malena", but "The Best Offer" a very rare English language film of his, I was almost stunned at how I so rarely recognized any of signature touches, and it was incredibly refreshing. Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush, and boy is that a great symbolic name) is an auctioneer and appraiser of high-end pieces, for like a Sotheby's-type auction house, one of the best. He's beloved by his patrons, and part of that is that he dabbles occasionally in manipulating the prices for some of his closest confidants like Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland). On his birthday, which he spends alone, he takes a phone call from a mysterious potential client who seems to keep managing to avoid meetings with Virgil. However, there's a mansion with workers that she lives in, that's filled with decaying furniture, trinkets and paintings, all of which need appraisals and inevitably auction value, and one particularly rare item, that's in pieces, a turn-of-the-century automaton, is of particular interest to him, and he begins secretly hiring Robert (Jim Sturgess) to try and slowly reconstruct and rebuild it.  Meanwhile, the girl on the phone, Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hooks) is an extreme agoraphobic, who hides in her mansion, and even when there's rare moments when people are actually in the building, she hides in a secret hidden room behind the walls. This, along with the automaton, makes Virgil curious, and he begins to befriend her, first with conversations through the walls, and then, finding ways to sneak into the house to see her eventually. I won't reveal anything else, other than to say, I did figure it out, and I figured it out quickly, but that might just be familiarity. And frankly I didn't care that I could see where it was going, it was a really intriguing journey. Rush in particular, you know, you don't always think about him, for a lead role sometimes, despite his Oscar for "Shine" years ago, but we really should and he's really one of our most underrated actors, and this is a movie, where he's in every scene, and he has be interesting enough to follow him along on this unusual journey of his, and it's a really strong performance, and you know, it isn't a great film, but it's a really good erotic mystery, essentially. Appraisal is often about, the history of an item and getting to the bottom of what exactly it's worth anything or not, and this is him, getting to the bottom of an item, a patron, a house, a potential relationship, etc. It's a really a very pleasant surprise, especially from Tornatore; I never would've imagined he had this in him, and it's quite- some directors can do anything, others can but only like to do their own thing, and others can only do their own thing, and I thought Tornatore, really wasn't capable of something like this; he wrote and directed it, and there's a few things that you can sorta piece together how they fit on a second or third thought in his milieu, but this feels and looks, nothing like anything he's done before, and in this case, that's a very good and exciting thing from Tornatore.


BLUE CAPRICE (2013) Director: Alexander Moors

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The debut feature from Alexander Moors, "Blue Caprice" takes it's title from the name of the car that inevitably the Beltway Snipers were found in, after terrorizing and murdering people in the greater D.C. area for weeks on end in the Fall of 2002. While, a lot of names got made from that case, it's become somewhat forgotten in recent history. It took a while to find them partly because the two African-American men didn't fit the profile of the traditional snipers killers in the past. They killed ten victims in the D.C. area, injured 3 more, and previously to that, traveled across the country from the other Washington and killed and murdered people sporadically. "Blue Caprice" is more of a fictional account of the John Allen Mohammad (Isaiah Washingtion) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond). Lee is a Jamaican-American who's mother was with John, and he's essentially adopted Lee, who as his own. John, was being kept away from his wife through a court order, and his obsession with her went overboard and begins his almost philosophical, strategic planning to- I don't know, some reasoning he convinces himself and his pseudo-adopted son that the country was problematic and going after them. They get some help from their gun-nut friend Ray (Tim Blake-Nelson) and his wife Jamie (Joey Lauren Adams, boy it's great to see her in a movie again), who teach Lee how to shoot. They're unknowing participants in their rage disguised as a revolution or whatever was going through their mind. That's part of the frustration I have with "Blue Caprice" is tries to dive in, but it only gets so far, and the rest of it feels like an observer's perspective. We see, but we don't really feel and that's troubling. I think that's the point, but it only underlines how little we really know and how we can only get so deep really into the story, if you can call it that. It's still interesting enough to recommend, especially for the performances, but their often undermined by the director's technique. "Blue Caprice" is an interesting and ambitious first feature, maybe too ambitious but still worth recommending, although I doubt it's gonna become the official document on the Beltway Snipers.


THANKS FOR SHARING (2013) Director: Stuart Blumberg

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The struggle for overcoming, or living with addiction, seems to have mostly taken on the same properties over the years, even those stigmatized, supposedly new-fangled ones like sex addiction. There's meetings, very much like AA, and there's chips and token for days, months, years, there's people who are mentoring others, there's people who go to the meeting but are blatantly lying about it. There's been a few films about sex addiction recently, the best of which was Steve McQueen's "Shame", but "Thanks for Sharing", definitely not as graphic, although there's a few sex scenes, is about the people who struggle with their addictions and the slow daily grind involved in their recovery process. Adam (Mark Ruffalo) has been sober for five years, which means, he hasn't had sex, outside of a relationship (or within a relationship much since he's mostly kept out of those) for five years. He's mentoring a doctor, Neil (Josh Gad) who isn't really as interested at first in getting better, until his sex addiction finally costs him his job. He befriends Dede (Alecia "Pink" Moore) another fellow addict, who's newly attending meetings and still struggles to not go see an abusive ex-boyfriend when he calls. Meanwhile, Adam starts a relationship with an athletic cancer survivor, Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) and he's reluctant to both start a sexual relationship with her, and despite his better inclinations, he doesn't tell her immediately about his addiction. Adam's sponsor Mike (Tim Robbins), has many addictions, sex just being one of them, and he's closer to Adam than his own son Danny (Patrick Fugit) who's also a struggling addict, and is such a mess that nobody believes him when he says he's been clean for six months. Joely Richardson plays Mike's wife and while he's good to his mentees, he's still struggling on the homefront dealing with the effects of his addictions. First things first, the acting in this movies is incredibly strong, all the way around, and actually Pink, I thought was really impressive in, what's essentially her first really meaty character as an actress; I wasn't expecting a lot from her offhand, and her and Josh Gad I found, had the interesting dynamic and plotline in the film, and it was really smart in the ways it strayed from being predictable and I was very impressed with those two. The other stories are a little more conventional in terms of the narrative, but I didn't particularly mind that so much. It's the first feature film from writer/director Stuart Blumberg who had written on other's projects up until now, although he got an Oscar nomination for Lisa Cholodenko's latest film "The Kids Are All Right", and here, while his script runs into a few areas of predictability, but it was also realistic. Very realistic actually, people might be surprised by that, because of the more light-hearted touch he put on the material, but actually, I was okay with it. Sometimes life is a farce and it isn't a dark recess of addiction, it's the afterwards that's more interesting, and I thought it through and it felt like real people struggling with real addictions and when it got dark it went dark, and when it was cheery, it was still off-kilter and it was a light that shaded the dark underneath. I was surprised and very much impressed with "Thanks for Sharing"; it's a film that's a lot deeper and thoughtful about it's characters and addiction than it probably needed to be, and it was very nice to see a film go above and beyond like that.


YOU'RE NEXT (2013) Director: Adam Wingard

ZERO STARS



What's wrong with this movie?! No, not like, the begin of a thesis argument of as a question that I'm supposed to answer like a stubborn pretentious film professor, I mean, "What's wrong, with this movie?!", like when somebody is unusually rude and off-kilter, weird, or otherwise unable to read social contexts and clues as to how to behave, and they leave, and you turn to your best gal pal, and go "What's wrong, with that guy?!" That's what I felt like yelling at the screen when watching "You're Next", one of the stupidest titled horror movies I've ever heard of, and it's one of the worst I've ever seen as well. The movie begins with a couple having sex, and then they end up getting killed. What that had to do with the rest of the movie, I couldn't begin to tell, although granted the DVD copy I had would scratch and skip occasionally so maybe I missed that point. (Normally I would try to fix the DVD, but that the skipping, jumping and stopping of the film was the best part of the experience.) Then, a bunch of siblings and their significant others head over to their parents house. The nearest I could tell is that Drake (Joe Swanberg) is introducing his new Australian girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson) to them for the first time. Soon, a fight breaks out at the table, and then the house starts getting bombarded with perfectly aimed arrows, killing one person after another, before finally the perpetrators, some of whom wear giant rabbits masks, for, some reason. It's a bloody feast for everybody, and enough stupid to go around, until around the 40-45 minute mark when suddenly turns into Jack Bauer and begins killing off the rabbits one by one as corpses pile up and one girl, Zee (Wendy Glenn) complains to her boyfriend Felix (Nicholas Tucci) that he's no fun, because she won't have sex with him, in a house under attack, filling with bodies and on a bed, with a corpse on it. Now, I know some women who are into some freaky shit, but they usually aren't that stupid. (Seriously, they usually straight from our local MENSA meeting and then right to getting tied up for their gang-bang. [Okay, maybe not, but that's way more believable than anything in this movie]) "You're Next" is really utter garbage. There's barely any characters, explanation, tension, the tone doesn't know what it wants to be, none of the characters are worth caring about, huge parts of what I will laughably call a "story" seem to be barely told, and the few things that are told are practically red herring. Or white rabbits I guess. It's sorta knows what a horror movie is supposed to have, but it has no real idea how to make it into anything coherent. The next time somebody tells me "You're Next", it better be Goldberg spearing me through me through a steel cage onto a concrete floor, at least that'll be more enjoyable than this film, and hopefully a lot shorter too.


AFTER TILLER
(2013) Directors: Martha Shane and Lana Wilson

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The typical joke I make about my support for late-term abortions is that, if it takes you over seven months to figure out that you're not capable of taking care of the child that's growing inside of you that whole time, then, you're probably right. Is it the best option, no, but there are no good options at that point. "After Tiller" begins with the assassination of George Tiller, the most high-profile of the then-five doctors that performed late-turn abortions. It's actually legal in most states, but few people are willing to house them because of the backlash from the religious zealot community, among others. Actually, even the most stringent women's rights activist tend to be against late-term abortions, and after Tiller's murder, the public seemed more against them then ever oddly enough. Kansas banned late-term abortions (Only for doctors), so some relocated inevitably to New Mexico, where they found the laws to be too loose, oddly enough, and too many women who were coming in, without a sob story or a nightmare scenario like their embryo having a fatal illness, or being in denial because the child was a product of a rape they were still too ashamed of to even report to the police, and you get those more heartless people who are frankly the inspiration for that joking retort of my first sentence. They struggle with it, not-to-mention worrying about they're lives being cut short by a maniac with a long-distance rifle. "After Tiller" is a look at a profession with too few practitioners at the people who do practice, and what makes them continue to do so, despite great pressure not to. The abortion issue constantly continues and remains ongoing in certain parts of the country even though, as one person who worked with Tiller said, "They were happy when they needed him," about the Omaha people who would protest and preach for his destruction. It also reminds us of just how much apart of the fabric of society abortion is, and it makes those anti-abortions activists look even more ridiculous and out-of-touch with reality then they really are. The doctor that got thrown out of Kansas, inevitably opened a clinic in Maryland, but even there, picketers protest at the middle school of the daughter of the guy who let him rent out the space. Thankfully, he wouldn't relent to that kind of intrusive behavior and his clinic is still open.


THE PATIENCE STONE (2013) Director: Atiq Rahimi

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It does require patience to watch "The Patience Stone", that's the first observation. The movie was adapted to the screen by it's novelist Atiq Rahimi, and the film which takes place in an unnamed war-torn country- actually there's a lot of unnamed things in the film. The characters, are never named. The Woman (Golshifteh Farahani) is the wife of a rebel fighter, The Man (Hamidreza Javdan)  that's been shot in the neck and is currently hiding in their house, but in currently in some form of a comatose state where he's immovable but still alive, and she cares for him in this state. Then she talks, and she talks. Like Scheherazade, talking and telling stories, occasionally hiding and protecting her children as the fighting and bombing continues in the town. Two soldiers  come and she has to hide the body from them, while she's at first, berated by one angry one, after claiming to be a prostitute and not following the Qu'ran, and the other soldier (Massi Mrowat) is a stutterer, who finds tenderness in her. First he goes for sex, which is aggressive, but she relents, and then only conversation and help. The story is paper thin, but in a good way, as the war, her husband, the fighting, the town, helps her digest and discuss her life, both now, and earlier and all that led up to it. It's also a slice of life, about living in a world surrounded by terror. This isn't the correct medium for this material; this probably would've worked better on the stage, where the acting and the characters would be stronger, but it's still fairly good, but it could've been more perhaps with a more skillful director, and somebody who could really take the material and adapt it more properly to the film form, but there's- eh,- it's not my most enthusiastic endorsement, but the strong parts of the film, I think are enough to recommend the movie, but again, like a comatose body, it takes some patience to get to them.


STRAW DOGS (2011) Director: Rod Lurie

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I never particularly liked the original "Straw Dogs" the Sam Peckinpah film from '71, so I wasn't exactly expecting much from this relatively faithful remake. The original film symbolically started with kids playing, because in the original novel, it was the kids that would inevitably head and lead up the town against newcomer David Sumner (James Marsden) and his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth). Amy left years ago for Hollywood from this rural Mississippi town that's obsessed with the local High School football team, and David is somewhat- it's hard to say, but essentially, his natural instincts are constantly driving the locals the wrong way. One of Amy's old boyfriends, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) owns the construction company that inevitably David hires to help fix part of the cabin they bought, which need some roof work after the latest hurricane. David's not exactly at home in this environment, and the locals, vice-versa with David, but he's looking forward to the piece and quiet needed to write his latest screenplay on the Russian Revolution. David's a strange character, and I think what always bothered me about the film is his lack of a consistent point of view. He tries to adapt to the situation and befriend his workers and the locals, but he constantly absent-minded about the situation, even regarding his own wife, when he mentions how she's sick of the construction crew ogling her breasts, and he tells her to wear a bra. Then, she does something really stupid, that unlike in the original movie, we got to see in its entirety, we only get a close-up here. One of the more interesting changes from the original involves a drunken old high school football coach, Tom Heddon (James Woods) who is already somewhat on edge normally, but is particularly disturbed about his rather rambunctious daughter, Janice (Willa Holland) as she seems more than willing to put herself into vicarious situations with people she probably shouldn't. He's shown as an overriding influence, the person who taught the town to behave. I think my issue with the film, similar to the first one is that, not only do too many people act unreasonably, and seem to betray their character's basic instinct, but the actions themselves, never seem enough to really seem like the violence at the end is deserved, and while there's a below the surface story going on, it's really subliminal and dependent on a lot of melodramatic reactions to events and behaviors and that's particularly off-putting to me. I guess there's some point to be made about how easily a society can devolve to violence, and how people are more willing than they may believe possible to fail to their own barbaric murderous instincts, but I guess I never was that impressed with the transformation. I'm not which I prefer offhand, they're about equal to me, but I guess Peckinpah's was more artistic, but I guess they're both worth watching as a comparison of auteur theory, but that's about it, and that's not enough for me to recommend either.


KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) Director: Ridley Scott

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It's hard to not on some level compare "Kingdom of Heaven" with Ridley Scott's other, more-famous historical epic "Gladiator", especially if you're someone like me who found "Gladiator" to be a dreadful embarrassment of a film. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by "Kingdom of Heaven". It's not a great historical epic, and I doubt it's exactly too accurate either, (Was Italian, a language yet in the 11th Century?) it's more interesting and unusually well-paced for a Scott slow-moving epic. It takes place in and around Jerusalem right as a religious war between the Christians and the Muslims begins progressing, not over religion so much as power and control, and on both sides, that truth seems to overwhelm and overbear the leaders on both sides, but the battle continues, with a non-believing blacksmith, Ballan (Orlando Bloom) caught in the middle. He's advised early on to go Jerusalem, not because of the religious symbolism, so much as for the moneymaking opportunities, like finding out he's the illegitimate son of Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson) who then knights him and gets him a job working for Tiberius (Jeremy Irons) the King's right-hand man, and that lead him to have an affair with the King's sister, Sibylla (Eva Green). The King of the Christians in Jerusalem, is King Baldwin (Edward Norton), a wise and tentative king dying of leprosy who's fought most of his life in battle with the Muslims, and now hides his face, behind a mask, never showing his face. The leader of the Muslims in the battle is Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). He's a more prepared strategist, but he also realizes the real reasons behind the battle with the Christians, all this while Richard the Lionheart (Iain Glen) is spearheading the Crusades through Europe and making his way towards Jerusalem. "Kingdom of Heaven" takes a more sobering, and perhaps a more honest look at this obscure part of history right at the beginnings of the Middle Ages, and yet, foresees how the conflicts continue to escalate and how it can be prevented. It's a surprisingly mature epic, that's not based on a traditionally-structured plot, but is instead more focused on tone and seriousness; it wasn't simply an epic to make an epic, it was a historical drama that had points to make, it made them well, and then told a good story, one where even those typical ebbs and flows that too-often slows his movies down for no reason, but this is one of those times, where they're used correctly and to advance the story tangibly. Not a perfect film, but definitely a movie that was better than it really to be.



Monday, August 11, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM"

GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM (1987)

Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Mitch Markowitz



Well obviously this wasn’t my planned “Canon of Film” post for today, but obviously recent events…. I was listening to Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album, at the time the news starting hitting the wire about Robin Williams apparent suicide, right on “Madame George” strangely enough, so that “So Goodbye to Madame George…” chorus kept getting repeated as I read the reports. “Dry your eyes for Madame George, Wonder why for Madame George,…”. Anyway, that’s my story, that and when I wrote my first TV Viewing 101 blogpost last week, while I peppered the articled with a few TV references, I actually ended it with “Nanu-nanu” (And I had already prepared a little piece aside on Williams for the next one of those blogs) This Canon of Film blogpost on “Good Morning, Vietnam”, like most of these was written years ago, so there’s a few older references in it, but I also partially wrote it to explain that the success of the film is in part a metaphor for the ways a comedian’s mind works, particularly Williams. It’s not a new approach to the film, but I think it’s ultimately the correct one, but I look at it today, and most of what I wrote feels eerie today, and that’s unfortunate. I wasn’t aiming for it to be prophetic in any way, and while today is tough, in the future, let's hope his tragic end is overshadowed by his incredible talent and in particular, the numerous laughs he left us with. Everything after this paragraph was written years earlier. 



There’s a throwaway line in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” that I never really noticed in previous viewings, where after Cronauer (Robin Williams) says something on the radio that he shouldn’t, one the sergeant fears that he might disclose troop movements. I immediately thought of Geraldo Riviera a few years ago and that now infamous Fox News Report that got him temporarily suspended. It puts a little more light into what exactly would be going through the military’s mind at this time.

I never bothered to look up the accuracy of the film to the actual Adrian Cronauer, but I figured if he was one-tenth as funny as Robin Williams is, I would’ve heard of him outside of the film, but that doesn’t really matter, as the film is really about Robin Williams getting allowed to do his stand-up act on the radio during Vietnam. That’s an oversimplification, but that’s what most people remember about it first. Even the war is almost pushed aside. Williams earned his first Oscar nomination for the role and it’s because it’s about a guy who is forced to look past his humor, and actually make a choice based on emotions. Humor, as all stand-ups will tell you, is a way of concealing emotions, because stand-ups are essentially insecure and need laughter to know that they’re accepted. Williams’s stand-up is particularly guarded because his work lacks the autobiographical undertones of a Richard Pryor, Geroge Carlin, Chris Rock, or a Roseanne Barr, so we don’t get much insight into him personally. (Or into Cronauer in the film, notice the almost complete lack of backstory into him) We know him from what he does and he can walk into any situation and start turning one-liners. At one point in the film, he starts to pull one-liners on the trees in the jungle that surrounds him, in an effort to show that the war is just material. This movie, forces him to confront the realities of the world that surrounds him, and that’s a comic’s worst fear, because it brings down the wall that separates them from the audience. By the film’s end, he can still spew off a series of one-liners, be he doesn't do it all the time, and we can somewhat glimpse at the man behind the facade. Similar to Bill Murray’s character in “Lost in Translation,” who can be funny, be doesn't want to be at that moment, Williams confronts the 4th wall head-on, and eventually becomes the guy who can and wants to be funny, but realizes that maybe he can’t be all the time. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

MIXED BAG BLOG #9: JAMES CORDEN NAMED FERGUSON'S REPLACEMENT, GOLDEN GLOBES RULE CHANGES, STUDIO GHIBLI'S POTENTIAL CLOSING?

I hope you're all doing your homework for your TV Viewing 101 Class. We're gonna do more of those in a while, and I hope you all embrace them. I have high hopes for that series of blogs, and it might be one of the most ambitious things I do on this blog. That said, ambition, goes along a way, and it also takes a little time, and we can't just overload a blog with nothing but that, so we need to mix. That said, when there isn't anything going on in the entertainment industry that I think is worth devoting and entire blogpost about, once in a while here, we do a little Mixed Bag blog, where instead of a more in-depth analysis on a single topic, we simply touch lightly on a few different subjects perpetuation the modern entertainment world and news, and we're doing one of those today. I hope you enjoy it.

JAMES CORDEN TAKES OVER FOR CRAIG FERGUSON, AND THE LATE NIGHT MERRY-GO-ROUND IS OVER, (For now) AND AMERICA SAYS "WHO?"

I would won this bet. In my last "Mixed Bag Blog", written back in May, I talked about the under-reported story of Craig Ferguson leaving "The Late Late Show" and how his departure was gonna be possibly harder and more troubling for CBS to replace. That blogpost is below:

http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/05/mixed-bag-blog-8-bryan-singer-craig.html

I also said that, if I was placing a bet on who they'd eventually get to replace Ferguson, despite every name and rumor being thrown around, I'm taking the field when it comes to who they'll eventually find for this slot, 'cause of the lack of Ferguson acolytes as well as the trouble with the spot starting before Colbert takes over Letterman, leaving it third fiddle in a two-fiddle late night lineup. And finally, after a long search they went, as I predicted, way outside the field and named James Corden to be Ferguson's replacement. Who's James Corden you ask? Well, honestly the only real thing I've seen of James Corden's work was this two-minute segment he had at the Tonys a few years ago.



He won a Tony for that btw. Well, for the play that that bit was from, and that was a crowded that included, James Earl Jones, John Lithgow and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Willie Lohman performance in "Death of a Salesman". So the guy's got some talent. He's also created or co-created and/or starred in the British series, "The Wrong Man", "Gavin and Stacey", "Horne & Corden", and he's also a writer/producer on "Us and Them", among others. He's definitely more well-known and recognizable overseas than he is here, although like Ferguson, he's basically a relative unknown in America, and he's gonna be pushed aside for awhile. Good. An unknown quantity, at a time slot where he'll be ignored enough to develop his skill and slowly bring America towards, whatever style of comedy he decides, and not be as pressured to adapt. Unfortunately he's stuck in the middle of the Letterman-Colbert exchange, but that might be a good thing. I hope he'll succeed; I don't know for sure, and frankly, CBS has no choice but to take a crapshoot anyway, so they went with one. So, Fallon's replaced Leno, Meyers replaced Fallon, Colbert replaced Letterman, Ferguson's hosting a game show next year, and Corden's replacing him, and soon, and Wilmore's replacing Colbert. And Netflix gobbled up Chelsea Handler (That came out wrong.) Whew! I think the musical chairs is complete, and this is the end, of one of the longest and most elaborate changing of the guards, ever. Does it have the same impact that Late Night once had? Probably not, but then again, there has rarely been so many unsecured late night spots before either. Basically Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel of all people, are officially the kings of Late Night, and have the most coveted, untouchable permanent spots on the Late Night scene, and so far, a bunch of wannabes, trying to force their way into their territory. By this time next year, we'll know for sure who's going just be a pretender and an also-ran, and who's gonna really solidify their spot in the most competitive part of the television landscape. If I was betting, I'd say Fallon, Colbert and Wilmore will earn their crowns, or at least, a permanent spot in the King's Court of Jesters, and just to remind everyone, I've been betting pretty well on this, so far.


GOLDEN GLOBES CATEGORY CHANGE FROM "MINISERIES" TO "LIMITED SERIES"

You it's a weird fucking day when it's August, and we're talking about the Golden Globes of all fucking, but they actually did, unbelievably as that sounds, do something interesting and somewhat relevant, and it doesn't even involve Tina Fey, Amy Poehler or Ricky Gervais. As the Emmy continue to quickly approach, the Globes decided to step out in front of the Emmys for once, and make a determination on the recent controversies regarding whether a series is a miniseries or a regular series. I've written about this a few times, most recently specifically writing a letter to the Academy's Executive Committee and Board of Directors; that post is below:

http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/03/dear-television-academy-tell-us-what.html

Well, I didn't write to the Hollywood Foreign Press, 'cause I didn't really give a damn what they did, but they did exactly what I told the Academy to do, and not let shows simply decide what categories they can compete in, and instead they've changed the definitions. The Miniseries category, will now be called "Limited Series", instead, so as to make it more clear which shows belong in which category. They've given a specific definition as well: To quote Deadline.com:

"Limited Series is defined as a program with two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 program minutes, that tells “a complete, non-recurring story.” A Drama Series, on the other hand, is defined as a series with an “on-going theme, storyline or main characters,” with continuity of those features, as well as of title and production supervision “from year to year.”"


http://www.deadline.com/2014/08/golden-globe-awards-category-controversy-emmys/

Basically, they've become the ones that have officially declared "True Detective" as well as several other shows like "American Horror Story" and other anthology dramas as a "Limited Series", and not as a drama series. They did be clarifying the rules, and also by bringing back the term "Limited Series", which by the way, they didn't invent. In fact, the Emmys used the term "Limited Series", instead of miniseries, a practice they stopped back in '85. (TV movies were also generally called "Specials" for awhile too.) Of course, the term "miniseries was around before then, but this was a way to distinguish between "Columbo" and "McCloud" from "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds". (Shows like that, were essentially one-offs, like a TV movie today, but the networks actually aired them in something you don't see much today in the original form called a rotating schedule, where, one week it'd be "Columbo", the next week, "McCloud", the next week, "McMillan and Wife", etc. etc. and they wanted to place them into miniseries, as opposed to a drama series, 'cause the number of episodes per year, and the length of an episode more closely approximated a miniseries. Not quite, considered their own separate TV movies, but they didn't exactly have enough to form a complete category for them yet either) This was also back when the traditional-style "Anthology" series like "The Twilight Zone", "The Outer Limits" or "Love, American Style", more naturally fit into drama or comedy series category than the ones we have today. It's the name-changed however that's the story, (And frankly, I actually hate the term "Limited Series"; I don't think that's as accurate a representation of these shows as "miniseries" are) but they've done what the Emmys have really failed to do, and that's determine what categories the televisions show are as opposed to letting the producers of the show, submit the show into whatever category they strategically feel is most beneficial to them. Yeah, there's obvious subjectivity to some of these decisions, but that should still be in the hands of the Academy, or in this case, the Foreign Press. That's the key, taking this out of the hands of the shows, especially since there are so many subjective and debatable ones now, and possibly more on the way, take it out of their hands. So, I guess, kudos to, the Hollywood Foreign Press, for, uh-, being the ones to, I don't know, force them to- I don't know, just kudos to them for-eh, deciding to do that, and hopefully inspire the Academy to do the same.

(NOTE: Oh, also-eh, they determine that animated films that originate in a foreign language are eligible in the-eh, animation category. I think, is that right? Ah, who cares. Something about animation and foreign languages and something.)


STUDIO GHIBLI'S UNCERTAIN FUTURE

It's not particularly unusual to hear about a studio, possibly closing it's doors, that's usually a rumor that's associated with pretty much every studio at one point or another, but when Studio Ghibli seemed to be making the announcement, this one felt different. Lucky, while the alarm is certainly sounding off, it might not be so bad, as Ghibli's official stance is that they're simply taking a break from producing films in order to focus on a restructure, in light of Hayao Miyazaki's latest retirement. Well, the "closure announcement" of the stupid, seems to be a bit premature and Toshio Suzuki has promised they'll reopen and even that "maybe", being the keyword, Miyazaki will come back and possibly work on a couple short films for Ghibli's museum and possibly work on other projects. True, Miyazaki has retired more often than Brett Favre and he continues to keep coming back, but that said, he's seemed more serious this time, and frankly, I gotta be honest, I'm not feeling it. I think the nail's coming in, and you know, hopefully I'm wrong, 'cause Studio Ghibli has just produced some of the most amazing films of the last thirty years. Even Disney regards the work of Studio Ghibli to be the premiere animation studio in the world, and more than anybody else,- there aren't too many studios out there, that really represent quality and have such a distinctive look and feel about their work. It's mostly animation studios frankly, Pixar, and Studio Ghibli, and Disney to a certain extent where you know you're gonna get a certain kind of product, a certain level of quality and in this a continuously high level of quality- Once upon a time, I think you could distinctly tell the difference between a Paramount film and a United Artist or a Columbia film, etc. Studio Ghibli you knew their product the second you saw it, and you also knew they were only gonna give us films of the highest quality. It's a sad day if they don't survive through this. I'll be watching "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Princess Mononoke", and "Spirited Away" and "The Secret World of Arrietty", and "Pom Poko", all these great films for a long long time, as will most all of us. I think somebody will take the mantle, hopefully, if Ghibli doesn't make it through this, and they're legacy will continue on, but if the worst case happens, thankfully, they've produced a nearly 30-year legacy of some of the greatest films of all-time, and have probably more than anybody are responsible for the growth and popularity of Japanese anime spreading out worldwide. I mean, it wasn't that long ago that most people when asked about Japanese animation probably thought about "Speed Racer" and "Hello, Kitty", Studio Ghibli played the biggest role of anybody for changing that perspective. Well, something to keep an eye on.

Monday, August 4, 2014

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #1: SYLLABUS & INTRO TO SITCOMS



Okay everyone, Horshack, Barbarino, Epstein, Washington, shut the hell up! Class is in session, and if you don't know who any of those four names are, you probably need this class. Welcome to TV Viewing 101, and we are gonna teach you how to watch and read television correctly. Over the next few months, we're gonna go through a lot of the proper ways to analyze many different kinds of television, that will hopefully make you a smarter and more educated viewer. I know some of think, that television is a lower form in the medium, but we are going to correct that.

Part of this is gonna be history, but more importantly than a simple history it's understanding how that history plays into television today, as well as how it's evolved, and how the past of television if frankly still apart of modern television. It's just like film, there's a way they did it, and then "Citizen Kane" came along, rewrote the rule book, then "Star Wars" rewrote it again and every other film, did something new, and the same with television. And you gotta realize even younger, then we're really making it up as they went along. Now, the big difference between film and television is that, films are essentially a vacuum, that is that, one movie isn't related or connected to another. You see a movie, separately from everything else in the world. Television however, A. you have a choice what to watch. So you can change the channel anytime you damn well please, and B. all that history of television, is a choice, and it's constantly repeating itself, and other channels have to compete with it. What do you watch, a new show that might good, or a "Seinfeld" you know is good? (Shrugs) Reruns folks, how do you compete when you have everything that's ever been good and created in your field as easily accessible as it is, continuously on rotation in the other channel. I mean, imagine, if in every art gallery, there was the Mona Lisa. And every time you come up with a great new painting, the Mona Lisa is still right there next to you, while everything else is constantly changing and is the never best of the day, and it's all good, but you still got to get the patrons to stop looking at the Mona Lisa to go look at your painting. That's television folks, get them to stop staring at the Mona Lisa, and stare at The Scream or The Persistence of Memory, or Dogs Playing Poker, whatever it is, that gets you away from the Mona Lisa, that's what television. You don't watch "Casablanca" while "Citizen Kane" is playing next door, TV does that. Even with the internet television, it's still the same concept, get them away from the Mona Lisa, make sure they see you instead. Hard enough when there was three choices, now there's 3,000.

So, when the first televisions, and when I say television, mean "television sets," first came into regular being in the late '40s early '50s, it's not like movies, where you had to physically go to the theater, pay and then be entertained. With television, you had 24 hours and you have to be entertaining someone the entire time. Something has to be on the air. Even if it's the Star-Spangled Banner and a signoff color bar, or a station logo, or a burning log. People watch those things, seriously, they did, and they do. Cause it was a huge, strange thing to suddenly have a little box with lights and wires, suddenly sitting in your house, it was strange. The blank screen was entertaining on it. And you all wonder why "The Real Housewives..." are watched by people, 'cause people were used to staring at a blank screen; that's the level of entertainment. You wonder why reality shows play in marathons most mornings, 'cause there's a lot more channels now, and just like in the old days, they struggled desperately just to come up with stuff to put on. Game shows, there were dozen, hundreds. Kids shows, they produced dozens of those things, many of them locally, and usually these things aired live btw in the early going, it was a lot tougher. That's how the "Today" show started, time to kill, tell them the news. More time to kill, put on pro wrestling. I'm serious, pro wrestling, roller derby, things like that, received some of the highest ratings of early days of television. Television's no joke, and as strange as all of it is, it's all essentially circular and related to each other. Reality shows now, game shows back then. Variety shows then, are talk shows now. Etc. etc. It all was simply a way to put something on this new medium, so that the audience would watch. A search for content, and all channels go through this, in one way or another, and every channel, all three of them, in the beginning did too. (4 if you count the DuMont Network, but most of their archives were destroyed unfortunately)

That's the mindset of television, put it on first, and then, when they figured out how to do that, then they started finding the artistry in it, and finding out, exactly what television can and can't do. But we're not there yet, first have to find content. So, where do you look? Late '40s, early '50s, you're looking, movies, true, although most movie people look down at television people, and that's still true today btw. But, radio was the first place people looked, and much of early television ideas and concepts, really originated with radio. Even just watching television, started with people sitting around and staring at the radio. Seriously, that's what people did. It's all storytelling, it dates way back to Homer if you really want to go that far, but anyway....

Sitcoms, they actually started with radio originally. Ida Goldberg, who later did television, she's someone who's credited with inventing the situation comedy, and btw, it's been a little blurred nowadays, but a situation comedy, unlike say sketch or stand-up comedy, is a long-form narrative comedy. So that means, we're following the same characters in the same situation over a long period of time. That's the first basis of a sitcom, we are following people, in a situation, and it's for comedic purposes. We tend to think of it, as something new, every week, same characters doing something different stupid every week, and that they're really connected, but they actually are in a narrative, it's just not the same narrative that we think of as soap operas (Another success of early television and radio) or with dramas. We'll talk about them another time, but sitcoms on television, started shortly after. Wikipedia list the British series "Pinwright's Progress" as the first official TV situation comedy, but early ones, essentially stuff like "Amos & Andy", and "The Jack Benny Program" (Which was only a sitcom actually but...) other stuff that essentially came from radio, those were the very first things, and most of the time, it wasn't a hard transfer.

But we're gonna start by talking about one of those shows, and that show is "I Love Lucy". You knew, we were gonna talk about it folks, but this is where essentially, we start to veer into, what we think of as, the modern sitcom. And it wasn't Lucy actually, this was her husband Desi Arnaz that created this. and it was done, because he was trying to figure out the best way to showcase, Lucy's talents. The problem is, TV is a very limiting medium. It's very small, at that time, most of it was shot live, and even then, set and props are expensive and time-consuming to build so you have to be creative. You can't just go to a chocolate factory and shoot, a scene of comedy, in fact, the cameras at that time, probably wouldn't fit through the door if they tried. Now, when they first were pitching a TV show, first of all, Lucy was somewhat known as a movie actress, but she wasn't really a big star, she kinda worked with a few people but, mostly bounced around from studio to studio without too many huge hits, she was actually more of a dramatic actress than a natural comedienne, but her and Desi had a successful tour, where he performed his music, and in between they would performed some sketches and comedic bits, and that's a bit how they got the TV show, by that tour being such a hit. Now, he realized two things, one, you kinda need an audience to bounce of, especially for comedy. For drama, you don't really need that instantaneous reaction, but for comedy, it's actually really essential. For instance, when you're doing a comedy you don't know if it's gonna be funny, until you screen for an audience, but say in theater or stand-up, the audience is right there. So, television, Arnaz figured out, that you need a studio audience. Now, if you have a studio audience, you got to be able to record everything that's going on, similar to a play, so not only did he bring in the studio audience, he brought in the 3-Camera Format.

The 3-Camera Sitcom, and it's still used today, you have, one or two set, maybe three but you're main and your secondary are the big ones, and that's where most of the action takes place, so, you use three cameras to record everything, and cut in between them when recording. So, you get both, the audience reaction, and that helps especially with a comedienne like Lucille Ball, who was a physical comedienne, so half of what made her shows stand out was that an audience was watching and reacting to her, when she actually doing all this stuff, and that's really the core language of sitcom comes from. One or two main sets, the novelty of both, doing stuff on camera, as well as in front of in audience, and the audience reacting. And still, the most popular sitcoms, "Two and a Half Men", "The Big Bang Theory", they're still following this classic format, and yeah, a few people are shying away from it, but A. They're not shy that far, 'cause single-camera sitcoms have been around forever too, but I think the other general complaints, are A. that those shows are too broad, which,  you gotta realize they are doing theater. This isn't a movie, where it's a big screen, well it's a big screen now, but it's still the small screen, so you need something, big to explode and pop off of it, and B. they're still playing to a studio audience, and you know, nuance is great, if the back row can't see it, who gives a shit? I mean, that's- it's supposed to be broad and broad, is still very good.

The other complaint I hear about is the laugh track, and this gets into the other kind of sitcoms, and they're not new either, their single-camera sitcoms. Sitcoms, that are shot and edited just like a movie. You can debate where these started, but I tend to think of "The Andy Griffith Show" as the first big and still the most successful one. That show's also the one I point to because of the reasoning behind why they did single camera, 'cause certainly three done a three camera sitcom, but they decided to let that show take place in a small town, Mayberry, and they really used the whole town, in fact they built the town as a whole set in fact, and you can't do that with a studio audience. So, they used a laugh track, not to make the material funnier; that's not the main reason you use a laugh track, you use it because it's apart of the language of a sitcom. Sometimes you can get the reaction without it, other times, even the best shows, for whatever reason, get help from it, but it really begins with the real key to the show being that a studio audience is watching the performers, and it's theater. This is the other thing that makes sitcoms so distinctive, other than being the big true art form of television, it's that they're very distinctive. It's part theatrical performance, part television program, very unusual structure. There is no other equal and there's also no other medium that's better suited for it than television, but back to a laugh track, it's not going make something funnier that wasn't already funny. All that does is replicate the studio audience effect, it's apart of the language of television. And many sitcoms do decide to go without them. I know modern ones like "Arrested Development" or "30 Rock" are the ones others will point to, but shows like"M*A*S*H" and "Room 222", were experimenting with more or less laugh tracks or a lack thereof of them from the beginning. Shows often make jokes for the laugh, for the specific kind of laughs they get, sometimes they get it in the show, other times they might not, so they switch a laugh from earlier, or fabricate one completely, it's not always the writing, sometimes the acting is being covered up, sometimes it's a poor director, sometimes it's a bad show and no amount of real or fake laughter is gonna help it. A laugh track, the best it can do, is help emulate the live audience reaction. That's all. It helped "Bewitched", it helped "The Muppet Show," it helped "Seinfeld", it helped "Friends", it kinda helped "M*A*S*H", a little, it didn't help "Sports Night", "Murphy Brown", never needed it. It always got the audience reaction it needed; it's just how that works. It's one tool, of many in helping tell a story.

The tools elements of a good sitcom, are still the same, and we'll talk about those elements of what separates a good and bad sitcom next time, and dive more into the language and structure, next class. I wanted to end our first class a little early, before we forget, here's our Syllabus pass it around, reminder dates and times are not in any way set in stone, and the subjects may vary also.

1st SET OF CLASSES: Sitcoms
2nd SET ''    ''               : Primetime Dramas
3rd SET ''    ''                : Variety/Sketch
4th Set ''        ''              : Reality
5th Set ''         ''             : Talk Shows
6th Set ''        ''              : Game Shows
7th Set ''       ''               : Soap operas
8th Set ''      ''                : Miniseries/TV Movies
9th set ''       ''                : News/Informational

And this will take, a few classroom sessions obviously, I recognize that, and you know, there's numerous parts of television and television viewing to discuss and analyze. Some of it's history, and a lot of it's again, taking that history and transplanting it, into modern television today, but if you guys want to discuss something that's not mentioned, let me know. I'm not dedicated to this rigid structure; I might add it or replace one segments with something else, you want me to talk about Bill Cosby more, or Carol Burnett more or something like that, let me know, 'cause there's so much of television. Sports coverage for instance, cable vs. network, animation, HBO, MTV, how they or others influenced and changed television..., there's so many ideas and theories out there and many things that we can discuss and people and so many innovations and things that influence TV today, that-, just let me know, and I will try and discuss certain specifics or generalities more if you want. If you have a question, please ask. We can focus the material in a lot of different ways.

HOMEWORK: Yes you all have homework. 1st, tell me who the four names are that I yelled at in the beginning of this post. A little trivia. Second, the big one. Pick a sitcom, preferably your favorite one, preferably one from today, doesn't matter what it is, if you really don't like sitcoms, then just pick one you hate passionately, and reconsider how that sitcom would be different, if it switched from 3-camera to single camera, or vice-versa. How would "The Big Bang Theory" be different if it was a single-camera show, or how would, eh, "Veep" be different if it was three-camera format. Pick any sitcom and switch the camera structure, and consider how it would change, how it would be better, how would it be worst, what could they do that they can't, why can't they do that they have already, etc. Really consider your favorite show, and think if it's really the best format for that show. And some shows have switched camera-formats btw, most famously "Happy Days" probably, the most successful anyway, so this is something that people think about and consider. If it's an animated sitcom you're picking, btw, switch it 3-camera, live action, 'cause essentially, while you can do certain things in animation that you can't in live action, it's still similar enough essentially, so... we may talk about animation later.

So, that's your homework folks. Think it over, and we're gonna use that to bounce into more on how to read a sitcom, next class. Nanu-nanu. We're letting you out early today. Remember, re-imagine you're favorite sitcom with a different camera format.

Friday, August 1, 2014

MOVIE REVIEWS #92: "THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE", "THE SPECTACULAR NOW", "OUT OF THE FURNACE", "BLACK ROCK", "OUR CHILDREN", "I USED TO BE DARKER", "BETTIE PAGE REVEALS ALL", "KOCH", and MORE!

Well, I'm not gonna lie folks, we're struggling a bit here, just to even attempt to keep up with the Jones's or anybody frankly, especially film wise. We're cutting every corner we can think of just to do so, and that's the one big positive. We're gonna be pushing and pushing hard further along down the road, and while, I hate to say it, but we're gonna be/remain considerably behind on movie reviews, we're gonna be pushing forward on other stuff on this blog hard, including what will hopefully be a continuing series on proper television viewing. Some of you are probably familiar with how that's been a stick-point for me for awhile, and you know, while the Emmys are coming up (Oh, we haven't forgotten about them, don't you worry) are our focus has bent sharply towards TV recently, we're gonna try and, I know, I hate this word too, but, educate, the public on the proper ways of analyzing and watching all sorts of television in the near future. It's been building for awhile, and frankly, too many people, don't know how to read television correctly, and it's not just a lack of knowledge and history, but we'll discuss how that plays into too. Anyway, I'm exciting about it, I hope some of you guys are too, so look out for that in the future as well as some other things.

Well, it's time for this week's RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS! If you have a question or comment about my review of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire", or any of my reviews btw- (Well, mainly "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" this week; you'll see.) you can comment either on the bottom of this blogpost, or on our Twitter and/or Facebook pages, links of which are on the Top right side of the webpage. Try to post on the Blog's Facebook page more than my personal webpage if you can. Thank you. And, onto the Reviews!


THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE  (2013) Director: Francis Lawrence

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JIM ROSS
Over 75,000 on hand here in the Capital and millions watching worldwide on pay-per-view, as we await, the notorious electrified, triple steel cage, wrapped in razor-wire, to descend onto the ring, know simply as "The Hunger Games". And folks, while we await for the massive structure to descend we're gonna take a look back at exactly how we got to this point, starting with the unbelievable, unprecedented double-win conclusion to last year's "The Hunger Games".

(Foreboding ominous music plays, as haunting flashbacks and continues to build as images and sounds, often faded and muted, images flash on screen, along with video, and words)

LAST YEAR

ANNOUNCER #1
And we're down to two. It's "Girl on Fire" Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her District-mate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Face-to-face. "What's going on?" They're refusing to fight. There has to be a winner. The Referees and officials and trying to make sure they get this on their way, but they're simply refusing to continue. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has finally come out! He is ordering them to fight, personally. There has to be a winner.

ANNOUNCER #2
Wait a minute what are they doing, they're walking out of the ring!

ANNOUNCER #1
If both their feet go out at the same, then there's no winner! The President if furious, but they're not backing down!

PRESIDENT SNOW
(Heard but not seen, yelling)
"RING THE BELL!" "RING THE BELL!"

(Bell rings three times)

RING ANNOUNCER
"By Order of President Snow "The Hunger Games" has been stopped, and there are two winners!"

CROWD ERUPTS IN GIGANTIC CHEERS
KATNISS and PEETA embrace and celebrate.

ANNOUNCER
"This is the first time, anybody has successfully defied the Capital. And President Snow is not happy."

(Shots of random and aggressive violence 'cause by a raging President Snow and his Capital Cronies)

ANNOUNCER #1
"President Snow"'s reign of terror has just gotten more and more violent, with each passing day.

PRESIDENT SNOW
The new head Peacekeeper of District 12, Commander Romulus Thread! (Patrick St. Esbrit)

(Shots of Commander Thread brutalizing people)

ANNOUNCER #1
Commander Thread's idea of "Peacekeeping" is just profane.

ANNOUNCER #2
"Wait a minute, Katniss is coming out!

ANNOUNCER #1
What the hell is she doing; here wedding's tomorrow!?"

THREAD HITS KATNISS
(Audience gasps!)

ANNOUNCER #1
(Fatalistic)
"Thread has just struck The Girl on Fire."

ANNOUNCER #2
"And now' Peets's out here!" "And that's- that's Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) they're trainer, and he's getting involved now.

ANNOUNCER #1
(Excited)
Katniss is back up! And now they're all getting involved! It's pandemonium!"

ANNOUNCER #2
If President Snow's plan was to stop some kind of revolution from happening, this is not going as planned!

Images of cheers and applause for Katniss, including her mockingjay costume, as she becomes more idolized.

PRESIDENT SNOW
Now, they're calling her the "Mockingjay"!

PLUTARCH HEAVENSBEE (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
Don't worry Mr. President, I have an idea.

THE NEXT WEEK

PRESIDENT SNOW
For the 75th Annual Hunger Games, I'm enacting the Quarter Quell and announcing that the pool of participants, will come from all the former champions from each district!

ANNOUCER #2
"Oh my God!"

ANNOUNCER #1
No President, has ever enacted a Quarter Quell before, and now he's making the former winners compete!"

CASHMERE (Stephanie Leigh Schlund)
"I was told, we we're never gonna compete again! This is (BLEEP)ing bull(BLEEP)!"

CEASER FLICKERMAN (Stanley Tucci)
"Okay, hold on, hold on!"

PEETA
"We did get married in private, it's just ashame about the baby!"

CEASER FLICKERMAN
(Audience in shock)
"What!"

AUDIENCE
"Stop the games!" "Stop the games!"...

ANNOUNCER #1
"Alliances are being formed, but make no mistake, there can only be one winner!"

ANNOUNCER #2
"There wasn't last year, though!"

ANNOUNCER #1
"And the President's not gonna let that happen again."

ANNOUNCER #2
"They might not give him a choice."

(Foreboding music climaxes and the chaotic collision of images stops.)

Audience cheers as the cage has finally been lowered.

RING ANNOUNCER
Ladies and gentleman, it's time for the 75th Annual Hunger Games!

(Audience cheers)
(Bret Hart WWE theme music plays, Audience cheers even louder)

JIM ROSS
And here we go, what you've all been waiting for, the start of the most controversial "Hunger Games" to date, and here comes the Girl on Fire, the Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen!

Katniss Everdeen, reluctantly comes through the curtain and heads toward the caged ring as fireworks go off in unison....


THE SPECTACULAR NOW  (2013) Director: James Ponsoldt

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I have found myself struggling over "The Spectacular Now" more than most highly-acclaimed films. It's getting listed among the great teenage romances and stories of all-time, like a "Say Anything", and there's good qualities to it, but I found myself very detached from this material. In fact, I'm kinda reluctant to even recommend it, frankly, and I find myself going back over the film, thinking, "Does this movie work as well, if the characters were say, five years older? Ten years older? Fifteen; twenty?" Why, the story wouldn't change? Think about it, depressed guy, this one's called Sutter (Miles Teller) is a bit of a bullheaded cocky asshole, who gets drunk after breaking up with his beautiful girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson) who simply outgrew him and his antics. He gets drunk, and wakes up the next morning in someone else's yard, where he meet cute's Aimee (Shailene Woodley) a smart girl his own age, and it's when he starts dating her does he begin to be transformed, and a more caring and observant person. Even the ending, which I won't reveal, but let's it involves Sutter, finally confronting his past and in a sense, going through a downward spiral that makes him learn more about himself. Seriously, does that story change if they're 40-year-olds? I don't think it does. Yeah, I guess, technically it makes more sense at this age- No, let me take back, 'cause I think a coming-of-age story can happen at any age, and frankly, the more I thought about Sutter, the less I gave a shit. Teller is a very good actor and it's a well-played character, but I didn't find him particularly likable and even after that's somewhat explained at the end when the Kyle Chandler character enters the movie- And btw, that ending, path, comes out of nowhere, and not in a good way. There is no foreshadowing that, and everything up until, suddenly he has to find this out, is about the romance, and I think it undercuts the romance actually, and the Shailene Woodley character, who I thought was a more interesting character, basically goes from being a real character, to essentially, becoming nothing more than an angel. Her job is to fall out of the sky, and be the person that makes Sutter get to this point, that again, we don't even know, or hint that there's a point worth getting to until it's brought up. The device of the college application paper btw, has been done to death; that should just, not even be in a writer's repertoire, unless he's satirizing it. Yeah, the more I dwell on this story, the more confused I get by it. And when I think of even recent films like "Adventureland' or "The Perks of Being a Wallflower", or a film that this movie could've really benefited from taking some notes David Gordon Green's "All the Real Girls", that really do dive into the mindsets and dreams of character at around this age and mental capacity, and get the perspectives and the world correct, I just find "The Spectacular Now" kinda flailing in comparison. I guess there's enough to recommend "The Spectacular Now" for what it is and how well it was done, but I still think this was ultimately a missed opportunity, and a fairly shallow and somewhat egotistical perspective, and worst yet, the ego wasn't somebody I really related to. I guess I like him better at the end of the movie than at the beginning, but just because Brie Larson and Shailene Woodley find him nice around to be around, that doesn't mean there's actually something deep inside of him that's worth caring about. Actually all it really means is that you're wondering what makes these two seemingly smart pretty girls so damaged that they would be intrigue with Sutter enough to date him at all.

You know what, I'm changing my review. I had 4 STARS written, and as I was writing I had changed it to 3, but now, I'm dropping it to 2 1/2 STARS, and I'm not gonna recommend it at all, and you know why, 'cause it's half a movie. It's a movie about a romance, and yet, we only really get to know about one of the people in the romance, and there's two characters we're interested in; it's a missed opportunity and frankly, it's shallow in that it really doesn't know how to give us a real glimpse into both characters and see them as anything other plot devices, and you know the more I think about it, the more I hate it. This is gonna be controversial to some, but this could've been the richer, deeper film that those other great teenage/early 20's romances and rom-coms are, but if you really look at the film, it's half of those movies, 'cause it only tells us half the story, instead of the full one, so it's getting half the credit and acclaim.


OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013) Director: Scott Cooper

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You know, I-am, starting to get tired of these revenge films, where everything so overly-emotional and people are constantly telling the main character not to go after the bad guy who, did something unforgivable, let me guess, a relative? And it's always, just let's kill the asshole. Eye for an eye, there's no subtlety, there's no other way possible to get back at him, to really get at him in a way that he or the audience can't see coming. You know just because the characters came out of the same Pennsylvania part of the Appalachians, it doesn't mean the film couldn't have been a little more interesting and nuanced.  That's the first impression I really got out of "Out of the Furnace", and while Scott Cooper's second feature after "Crazy Heart", although the other recent overrated film it reminds me of is "Prisoners" which was also betting characters wanting to do anything at any cost for their own sense of justice or vengeance, to the point where it confused the two. Russell Raze (Christian Bale) is a former ex-convict who's seemingly started to reform his life, working at the local Mill that, like the Harlan County coal mines, is the only industry in the county, and he's taking care of his sick father (Bingo O'Malley). Just as Russell's gotten out of the penitentiary, his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has come back from the military and has just gone down a darker and darker hole. Gambling himself into debt, when he's not fighting in underground boxing matches in between, he's insistent on his promoter John Petty (Willem Dafoe) to send him up to an erratic and ruthless drug-addict bad guy of bad guys, Harlan DeGoat (Woody Harrelson) to fight for him. The movie actually begins with Harlan interesting enough, borrowing slightly from the most famous scene from "Killer Joe", he violently beats up a guy and a girl and seems particularly, uncontrollable and rabid. The reason the scene is first, (Or the reason the scene exists at all) is to give us a sense of just how terrorizing a figure he is. Without it, the movie would still technically work, but it gives us a greater sense of, blah, blah, blah. It's one of those things where the structure is obvious on the screen, and the reason you feel that is because there isn't any other layer there, and that's what's troubling about "Out of the Furnace", it striving to be more than it actually is, and because of that, it trips itself up. There's literally 4, maybe 5 scenes in a row, where somebody comes and tells Russel not to go do, what, we all know, he's about to go do. This isn't "High Noon" where's there another subtext to it, it's literally just,you need the cop (Forest Whitaker) and the other cop, and the Zoe Saldana character who I could almost swear did nothing else but show up for that scene, and there's the typical Tom Bower character and Sam Shepherd showed up at some point. "Out of the Furnace," and I am recommending it, but it's frustrating because this is a film that could've been better, if there's was any kind of depth or, even just imagination, and really reintegrate more layers and levels to the film, and there's room, but essentially this is, an old-time western set somewhere and if the bad guy isn't bad enough, this movie falls flat completely. Thank god, this is movie is so well-cast. Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, especially at the top of their game here. A frustrating but marginal recommendation here.


BLACK ROCK (2013) Director: Katie Aselton

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Sometimes I struggle telling the difference with horror movies whether they're just being cliche or aiming for parody with some of their stories and set-ups. I still wonder that a bit, with "Black Rock", but with the great Mumblecore filmmaker Katie Aselton, I mostly felt like I was in good hands, thankfully. "Black Rock" is the name of a deserted island off the Maine coast where as kids, the three main girls Abby (Aselton), Lou (Lake Bell) and Sarah (Kate Bosworth) used to go and camp, and now they're reluctantly going back in order to reconnect with their childhood roots and their strained friendship. Does any movie that starts out with a bunch of girls going into a cabin or the wilderness ever end up blissful for them? Eh, probably not, but they so rarely feel like real smart girls that frankly, I didn't mind it entirely, even when three hunters, not named Larry, Darryl and Darryl, (Although they should've been) happen to run into them. Henry (Will Bouvier), Alex (Anslem Richardson) and Derek (Jay Paulson) are just recently returned from the military, and they speak highly of it, including Henry saving the other two's lives, however they were all dishonorably discharged. Throw in Spaghettio's, an open fire, and liquor, and fairly predictably, one of the girls ends up killing Henry after he attacks her, and soon, the night searching for their missing time capsule, instead turns into a night of being hunted from deranged homicidal killers. Don't you just hate when that happens? I'm sure there's numerous things we can interpret from the film. The fear and fragility of women all alone, the after-effects of the war, how we immediately return to our more tribal behaviors and tendencies when out in the wilderness, or when we're getting shot at and there's nowhere to go, and you're running around naked, hiding in the dark woods. Whatever the reasoning is for making the film, "Black Rock" is a nice, little, better-than-it-need-to-be horror film. and that's mostly what you're looking for in these kinds of films, and it doesn't hurt that it's well-done. There's good actors, good dialogue, especially in the beginning; these kind of films, if don't have a good setup nothing else matters, and they set it up well, and that's the talent Aselton's husband, Mark Duplass, who wrote the script. Good writing, good directing, solid little indy horror film.


OUR CHILDREN (2013) Director: Joachim Lafosse

˜˜˜˜1/2 



The more I watch "Our Children", and yes, I am continuing to watch it more and more, and I know how that sounds, but the deeper and deeper we get into the mind of Murielle (Emilie Dequenne) and the way her mindset slowly but surely turns over a number of years. "Our Children" is not an easy film to watch, The film was Belgium's submission for last year Foreign Language film Oscar, and it's director, Joachim Lafosse, is fascinated with examining the claustrophobic and uneasy perils of family ties when they get too close. Based loosely on a specific event (Although I can think of five or six other times) the movie gives us the benefit, if you can call it that, of at least hinting at the outcome in the beginning. The movie follows young Murielle as she's fallen for Mounir (Tahir Rahim). They're still young enough to fumble around the car about a makeout session, but they're mature enough to know they're in love. He's of Moroccan descent, but grew up living with an adoptive parent Dr. Andre Pignet (Niels Arestrup). His presence is somewhat strange to explain, but it's a domineering one, sometimes paternal, sometimes condescending, other times, just flat-out controlling. Her husband adores him, and they continue to live with him,  even after they're married, and even after they start having kids. He doesn't particularly care much for Murielle, until after she has a kid, but with her husband constantly out and working, and not paying attention to the kids the way she does, Murielle soon goes from working mom, a teacher no less, to a stay-at-home mother, shuffling through a Wal-Mart in what could easily be confused for pajamas. The way she's crying and blaming herself because one of her kids fell down the stairs after she forgot to put the gate up before heading off to work, but she told her husband to watch over her, and he didn't move or from his coffee and paper and didn't notice until the gate crashed. At least Dr. Andre actually talks and plays with the kids. His influence spreads outside the home too, able to help with passports for Mounir's relatives, and seems genuinely altruistic, which makes his passive-aggressive critiques to Murielle that much more critical, even under the best of intentions. "Our Children" is terrifying to watch, as we see just how easy it is for people's lives to devolve when they're suddenly taken over by forces beyond their control, or forces they're unaware of or couldn't prepare for emotionally. That's a nice way of saying, things happen when you get married, and things happen when you have children, and as much as one can plan or prepare or not, you don't know what those are or how you'll respond in those situations until you do, or your partner. Or their family. This is the second film I've seen from Joachim Lafosse, after "Private Property", also a film about a family that's not necessarily close in the traditional, but they become too insular to their own world that it can only end in some form of catastrophe. That was a good film, "Our Children", is better, but it's also a bigger catastrophe, and I can't stress that enough, btw, this is for the most emotionally open-minded film viewers, and I'll be frank here, it struck me at moments, both because of the events and on a personal level, so I'm stressing that, but, again, I'm still watching it even with it being that hard to watch; this is a very strong film.


I USED TO BE DARKER (2013) Director: Matthew Porterfield

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I'm looking back over my review of Matthew Porterfield's last film, the great "Putty Hill", which really was a unique film viewing experience. That was, mostly improvised but it's amateur actors and created a mosaic of a downtrodden Baltimore neighborhood in light of a death of a junkie that people were grieving over, and the way he is able to dive into a world, that essentially is empty is really quite impressive. It's definitely not for everybody, but I think there's also a time and a place for this somewhat detached and cynical approached to slice of life filmmaking, um, I don't quite think it worked entirely here in "I Used to Be Darker". Well- Alright, I'm gonna pull the curtain a bit here, on of my notes immediately after watching this film, I wrote, "Movie could use rape scene." I have never written that note before, and it's not meant in any derogatory or sexual manner, is it just that, there was so little, really happening in the film, the main plot, if we can call it that, is about an Irish runaway, Taryn (Deragh Campbell) has left the French Riviera, shortly after finding out that she's pregnant and shown up at the doorstop of her American friend, Abby (Hannah Gross). She moves in, at a very bad timing, right as Abby's parents, Bill & Kim (Ned Oldham and Kim Taylor) are about to go through a separation, which in essence, is already somewhat delayed with Taryn's presence, but then gets complicated as Taryn seems to be inserting herself more and more into the fabric of the household ecosystem, and this makes her sudden presence all the more confusing to everyone. The movie is essentially a Picaroesque structure and the film is about the reactions or lack thereof of everybody to the situations at hand, and weren't not waiting for those boiled-up frustrations to inevitably come to the surface, in fact, if anything, "I Used to Be Darker" is about how the characters keep those frustrations bottled up. It should be more uninteresting than it actually is. That said, this isn't a mosaic of a neighborhood, and there's only, so much you can really do with these limiting amount of characters before you really needs to start moving something along. With a mosaic like "Putty Hill", there's always a new interesting character to move towards, and here, you move from character to character, but then, back to the same character, and it's gets a little frustration after awhile. It's around here that I thought, a rape scene would've been helpful, and I don't mean that literally, but something compelling to really drive the characters forward and towards something, something between these groups of characters that would give them something, anything to force them to play off of. That's not Porterfield's style necessarily, and I respect that. "I Used to Be Darker" is definitely not the best use of his technique, but it's still interesting and compelling enough to keep to intrigued to see what happens. Just enough, not much more.


BETTIE PAGE REVEALS ALL (2013) Director: Mark Mori

˜˜˜1/2



It is strange to think about how Bettie Page has become, really almost an accidental pop culture icon. There's been lots of fascination with her over time, much of it based on the fact that she suddenly went from being the biggest pinup of the time, to, literally falling off the face of the Earth for decades, only coming back into the public eye, reluctantly after being found by a reporter. In that time, the images of her, taken by Irving and Paula Klaw, most of which was illegally saved from government destruction when pornography, in particular, the fetish underworld market was attacked by the government. The Bunny Yeager photos led to her Playboy cover, but then, she quit the modeling in '57, and her whereabouts became a mystery. "Bettie Page Reveals All" doesn't go over too much particularly new information, in terms of her timeline and fame, but it does tell it to us from her point of view. Shortly before she passed away, she recorded her last interview for the film. She's never shown onscreen, as late in life she preferred to not be photographed, and in her old age, she comes off as funny, vibrant, witty about her life, which was definitely a lot of travails. Multiple bad husbands and quick marriages, a sexually abusive father, not to mention ten years is a psychiatric facility for schizophrenia. She also became very religious, handing out bibles for Billy Graham, was the only rumor of her whereabouts that was actually she notes. It's hard to really elevate Bettie Page's person story to the status of our cultural icon status, even in the best of circumstances, but "Bettie Page Reveals All" probably does it the best and the most thoroughly. The last really memorable one from a few years back was biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page", which Bettie was not involved in making, and while I personally enjoyed that film quite a bit, apparently Bettie purportedly screamed "Lies! All Lies!" at a screening before walking out. "Bettie Page Reveals All" is probably more important for the documentation of Page than much else, but it's definitely entertaining and worth watching. Is it much more than that, no, but neither is Bettie Page more than really nude and fetish model, and frankly that was more than enough, and so is this film.


KOCH (2013) Director: Neil Barsky

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The first time I ever heard the name Ed Koch, was in '97, when they brought back "The People's Court" and, he was the man they picked to be the successor to Judge Wapner, and did that job for three years, before being replace by Jerry Sheinlin (Judge Judy's husband) and inevitably now, Marilyn Milian, but I learned later that he was a former New York City mayor. And he certainly is, quite an unlikely and interesting one. (Although, with Koch, Dinkins, Guiliani and Bloomberg, it's a little hard for me to imagine a "likely" New York mayor now that I think about it.) He was beloved enough for parody and reviled enough to be despised, and egotistical enough to have the Queensborough Bridge renamed after him, years after he was mayor. The documentary "Koch", I think is probably more of a puff piece about them than a really in-depth look, but then again, Koch did a lot of good for New York. The houses he built for the homeless, brought down crime, his promoting and building of Times Square has turned it into the tourist mecca of today. He also promised to keep open a hospital that he closed in a predominantly African-American neighborhood to get their votes, but then he closed it anyway. He would antagonize the African-Americans, the Jews and probably most famously, the homosexual community during the beginning of the AIDS crises. It's been long-rumored long-known that Koch is gay, although he refuses to discuss or explain his sexuality, and like all his positions, he defends that choice well. He's always been articulate and sharp about all issues, and he still is here. It's definitely clear that Ed Koch's importance to modern-day New York City is hard to quantify entirely, particularly since he did so much and so much happened during his reign, but "Koch" gives us a decent, overall attempt to do it. I think it was a little too one-sided and it only kinda, brushes aside some of the more critical aspects of Koch's political and personal life. Still, it's more of a personality piece than anything, which is really I think what most of us look for in a mayor anyway. (My hometown took the eccentric mob-lawyer with his own brand of gin for 12 years, then took his wife to replace him, and we were fine with that.) So, I guess I'm recommending "Koch"; it's not much of a recommendation but for the bio-documentary it tries to be, it succeeds.


STRAIGHT TIME (1978) Director: Ulu Grosbard

˜˜˜˜1/2 


A pet project of Dustin Hoffman's at the time, "Straight Time" was more of a critical hit than it was at the box office, but it's become a modern-day classic since. Based on the autobiographical Edward Bunker novel, Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a career convict, who's released from prison after six years. He's got a little money, and decides to check into a motel instead of checking into his halfway house, upsetting, before he's even met him, his new parole officer, Earl (M. Emmett Walsh) is possessive and obnoxious towards him, but he strikes a deal to not go to the halfway house for a week, if he can get a job and find housing. He finds a cheap weekly apartment, and then finds work and a date with his employment officer, Jenny (Theresa Russell) but then, he's sent back to jail, after Earl finds burnt matches. They were his friend Willy's (Gary Busey) who's married with a kid, and is the reason Max was imprisoned, this time. His wife, Selma (Kathy Bates) thinks he's clean and worries about Max's influence on Willy. At that time, it's hard to tell if he intends to go straight or not, but once he makes his choice, he makes it big, and soon, he's back scheming with his long-time friend Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton) for the next big busts, and eventually, he's basically a fugitive, on the run, partially wanting to be a criminal, partially wanting to inevitably get caught, to go back to the prison world that he's used to and is now, much more adept at surviving in that the regular world. Max is a criminal, a professional one, and that's the only job he's good at and society has deemed for him, whether that's in prison or not. I think if there's a flaw in the film, is that it stays a little too closely to plot, as oppose to diving into the thinking patterns and mindset of Max; especially after the 40, 45 minute mark, the movie almost turns cliche, but that's minor. "Straight Time" is a powerful film, that really shines a light on a not-so-new unfortunately phenomenon of how convicts struggle and are often unable to adapt to the outside world after prison. It shows us just how, difficult and claustrophobic it is for them to try and survive, and how simple it is for them to fall back into a way of life. How natural it really is, to lie, to scheme, to con. The title comes from the time convicts spend on the outside, being legitimate member of society, or trying to. It isn't much is Max's case. 


ALEXANDER (2004) Director: Oliver Stone

ZERO STARS


(Note: I only viewed the Director's Cut of the film) 

(Breathy sigh-ish yawn, flubs lips) Um, yeah. "Alexander". I really can't re-view this the way I review other films. Not through simple words, this should be done more through facial and body expressions I think. Yawns, eye rolls, look-aways, look arounds, stretches, odd contortion, stuff like that is a more appropriate response to the film than anything written. There isn't really anything to say about "Alexander", it is what it is. It's a great director being over-ambitious with a project that's out of his depth and realm and he made nearly every possible bad decision a director can make. Only a great director can make a movie this remarkably bad, so bad it's almost admirable. Well, that's a strong word, almost. It jumps in time too much, it covers and over-arcs his entire life, (Oh, Alexander's played by Colin Farrell, but that barely matters; it's such a mess of great actors in ridiculous parts and line readings that you really just, give everybody a free pass at this point.) as he conquers over people or-eh, whatever. It's such a mess that even if know the history.... It's overblown, exaggerated and only watchable to watch and see how truly bad it is. There's a moment where you can clearly see, Angelina Jolie's speaking, and instead, they use a shot where her lips are moving, so it goes from conversation to- just-, bad editing frankly. (Her character here oddly, seems very similar to the one she played in "Beowulf" btw.) What Oliver Stone, should've done-, well, first of all he shouldn't have done a period piece; that's not in his milieu per se, and it's clearly not a strong suit, but if he was really interested and determined beyond doubt to do "Alexander", then, he probably should've focused on, maybe one story about him, or one battle, or his quest for one achievement, like Spielberg did with "Lincoln" for instance, the synecdoche of a part representing the whole usually works a lot better on film anyway. But, you know, everything's better in hindsight and 20/20. There's not much else to say about, other than to put it on, and then, shake your head and roll your eyes in numerous variations of those contortions. That's basically what it's like to watch "Alexander". 


DAYS OF THUNDER (1990) Director: Tony Scott

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(Sigh) For a while in "Days of Thunder" I thought my notorious Tony Scott streak might end and i'd actually like one of his films, but alas... he could not stop himself. I seem to be talking a lot about structure and formula in this blogpost, but Tony Scott, one of his biggest problems is that he's simply incapable not following the structure, to the letter. He has to not only follow every single cliched plotpoint imaginable, but then, he has to browbeat them into us. Like an announcer mentioning, "This guy's number one," "He the perennial contender", so-and-so is so-and-so...- there's better ways to tell the story, not that the story is that original to tell. It's fair to say that NASCAR has become more popular since the movie, but that's probably a coincidence, although for awhile the movie seems like an in-depth look at the behind-the-scenes of NASCAR, at that point in time than others, but then it goes right into cliche. First the Tom Cruise character, this one called Cole Trickle, is a cocky and arrogant California driver who lost his Formula-1 ride and now needs a car and a sponsor. He's got the sponsor, Tim Deland (Randy Quaid) and now he needs to convince an old croggity retired stock car builder, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to build one more car for this speedy new driver, and then heading his pit crew to teach him how to drive in NASCAR. Problem is, he's a flake who doesn't even know the simplest facts about cars other than to step on the gas and explode. Plus, he's already got a rival in Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker). Eventually Cole embraces the methods and trainings of Harry, and they start winning, but then there's an accident. This brings in Claire (Nicole Kidman) his doctor, who helps rehabilitate him and Rowdy, who's head injuries are particularly bad and while he wants nothing more than to drive, he's clearly not in the right mind, and has probably lost most of the capabilities he used to have. (To watch a great movie about an athlete going through a traumatic brain injury, watch the documentary "The Crash Reel") Meanwhile, a new young driver, Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) has taken Tom's Cole's spot and has begun to win a ridiculous amount of these races, and Cole needs a ride after fighting and getting frustrated after one of his return races with his new "teammate". "Days of Thunder" knows, very little about NASCAR. It actually has more in common with "42nd Street" actually than NASCAR. The old dog, letting the new kid come in, etc. etc. After the 40 minutes or so mark, there's not a single new plot idea or an unpredictable outcome or scenario, device-, just cliche after cliche, and worst than that, it's all done with that godawful '80s soundtrack, ugh.


KITCHEN STORIES (2004) Director: Bent Hamer

˜˜1/2



I've appreciated Norwegian Director's Bent Hamer's films so far. He's got a distinctively wry sense of humor and approach to his films. He's got a wry and sardonic humor that gives off this impression that's very distinctive, but here with "Kitchen Stories", he seems to be trying too hard to force it. Like with "Factotum", and his very best film, "O'Horten", we got slice-of-life glimpses into his characters and the sardonic tendencies of the world around them was the great appeal and made the comedy both equally tragic and funny. With "Kitchen Stories", we get that, but we also, essentially get, a more author-like character, who's overseeing the world, and when those two things collide, they don't really seem to match, and I guess that was supposed to be funny, but it isn't as funny as it could've or should've been. The overseer, literally overseer character is Folke (Tomas Norstrom), who works for Norway's Home Research Institute and basically what they do, is try to find way to make cooking and cleaning in the kitchen easier, usually for the housewives, but in this case he's studying the rural bachelors kitchen practices of bachelors. By doing this, he's sitting in the corner of the kitchen, on a high-chair in the corner of the kitchen refused to speak to his subject (Joachim Calmeyer) who is more ambivalent about his participation in the project especially as Folke's presence becomes more abundant. It's interesting for awhile, the dynamic, but again, even as the two strange eccentric recluse characters become friends, it almost seem to counteract, the direction with Hamer's work. He may care for the characters he creates and that's why we're fascinated by them, but seeing another character also grow to love and care for them, almost seems completely counter-productive, and, similar to my review of "The Spectacular Now", if you need a character, basically to be there to show that another character is worth caring about, then maybe the other character isn't worth caring about, and maybe the film isn't worth caring about? That was my general impression. Not a bad movie, but I know he can do better, and since "Kitchen Stories," Hamer has thankfully.