I've been watching a lot of Northern Exposure recently. Sometimes I just like to pull out something on DVD and pop it in, and recently that's been Northern Exposure. Granted, a lot of the original music has been changed on the DVDs, but that's a discussion for another day.
The first night of Hanukkah is upon us, and Christmas is fast approaching. So in celebration, I thought I'd post this clip that focuses on Dr. Joel Fleischman during the holiday season. These selections are from the episode "Seoul Mates", in my opinion among the best episodes.
So happy Hanukkah, happy Christmas, happy whatever.
Tonight is the first of the Presidential debates between Governor Romney and President Obama. I could point out that the purpose of these debates has been significantly muddied over the past hundred years or so, with the media making it seem as though this is valuable information to inform the American people for their vote, even though the American populace does not elect the President, nor should it. But I've made that argument elsewhere, and I'll stay on topic. Tonight's debate is being moderated by Jim Lehrer, which makes me very happy because he is my favorite moderator.
In honor of this occasion, I want to recommend a book. Last year, Lehrer wrote a book called Tension City, which is all about the tricky business of moderating debates, and traces some famous debates from recent history. It's great because Jim Lehrer is able to write from the unique perspective of having done it so many times, and he comments on his own failures and those of others. He analyzes certain questions which have gone down in history. And he's quite candid.
I picked up the book shortly after it came out, and I was up all night finishing it. It's not a very long book, and it reads easily. So if you enjoy recent American history, or just wonder what things are like on the other side of your TV screen, I highly recommend it. Near the end of the book, Jim Lehrer says that he has decided to never moderate again (though not the first time he's said it). I'm glad that he didn't keep his word. I look forward to watching him tonight. Presidential debates always have an element of the unknown, but I find something comforting about Lehrer being on the other end of the table. I trust him in the same way prior generations trusted Walter Cronkite. So I hope if any of you tune in tonight you enjoy the debate, and if you are looking for a good read, check out Tension City.
I have not been a regular viewer of the series, but recently I've been watching Bones. I've always liked the concept, as a sort of cross between CSI and X-Files. Plus it has Zooey Deschanel's older sister Emily and an all grown up John Francis Daley from Freaks and Geeks. But I never was a regular viewer due to it sharing time slots with other things I watched. However, recently there has been nothing on on Friday nights, and I've enjoyed watching reruns.
This post is concerned with one particular episode, "The Prisoner in the Pipe", which I saw about a month ago. During this season, Bones has been pregnant and this is the episode where she finally gives birth. The rest of the plot has nothing to do with that, but those last ten minutes did something really cute.
Bones and Booth were interrogating a suspect, when Bones goes into labor. So they are racing to the hospital, but it doesn't look like they will make it. Luckily, they pass a nearby inn. Unfortunately, there is a large function there and the man outside refuses to let them in since there is no room... at the inn. However, when Bones pushes the issue, he points them to a building around back. And it is there in the BARN around back that Bones gives birth. Booth even references the similarites to the Biblical narrative. I thought it was very cute that their baby was born in a stable behind a crowded inn. And what tops the whole thing? It's a baby girl, and guess what they name her: Christine! Yes, she had a little Christ child!
I've seen the nativity parallels done on other TV shows, and often it's too cute. For example, 7th Heaven had Haylie Duff as a pregnant girl who comes to Jesus just in time to play Mary in the town's living nativity scene. But in this case I thought they neatly addressed the parallels, but still made it true to the characters. The scene worked dramatically for the show even without having Biblical overtones; they just enhanced it for me. I left having thoroughly enjoyed the episode (and I've seen a LOT of birth episodes on television; ER did it like 5 times). The name Christine was perhaps the best part for me, being a derivation of Christ. Very cute, writers.
P.S. sometimes I think it would be fun for someone to do a movie about Rachel and Leah and cast the Deschanel sisters.
I wasn't going to comment at all on the surprising events in Aurora, Colorado last night where a young guy opened fire in a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Crazy events are troubling, but they are the exception and not the rule. Every now and then some radical will do something horrific in some unexpected setting. It is the way of the world in this present darkness. However, to blame the movie for it or to take drastic actions across the country because of a clearly isolated incident is foolish fearmongering; and to discuss it too much brings the danger of making this guy famous.
It's reasonable for people to be shocked, and it is reasonable for news to be covering it, as it is a major story that deserves coverage. But it should end there. A paranoia has ensued. People who bought tickets already have refused to go to screenings of the movie today out of fear. Yet there is no indication that there would be copycats or that there were any more than one man working. This film was screened at midnight last night in thousands of theaters across the country and this is the only incident. Furthermore, it is reasonable to presume that the "event" nature of the midnight screening attracted him in the first place, and I consider it unlikely that any subsequent screenings will bring further actions from other people elsewhere. Theaters have now banned anyone from coming in costume, as if that will ensure safety. Yes, the guy was wearing body armor but the real issue is that he had guns on him and no one else did. This is just as ridiculous as when schools were banning black coats after Columbine. There was also talk of Warner Bros. pulling screenings of the film, which is ridiculous and I'm glad they aren't going to do so. The movie is not to blame. Even if you want to blame Batman (and claims that the shooter referred to himself as "the Joker" might lend credence), this film in particular isn't responsible. It would have to be the previous film, a suggestion which is still dubious. Yet Warners has decided to edit the trailers and remove all images of guns from them.
These sorts of events are rare but they do happen. The public often wants to jump on the blame train and find some cause that they can eliminate. But look, crazy people are crazy and do crazy things. There was a stabbing (I think it was a stabbing; might have been a shooting) at the theater in Framingham about ten years ago at a screening of the (now forgotten) horror movie, Valentine. It was nowhere near this massive an assault, but it happened. There may not have been any prior signs he would act this way, or there may have. Now everyone who knew him will try to qualify their interactions with him, second guessing every little conversation, glance, statement or lack of one. While some of these are natural human reactions, my biggest problem is with the way the media will foster them.
And so it is that the primary reason for this post will be mentioned. Tonight, CBS preempted its usual programming to air an hour-long 48 Hours special: "Tragedy in Aurora." It contains interviews with people out in Colorado, discussions of the victims, speculations on the shooter, and all the sorts of things you'd expect. And yes, I might even expect this type of thing after a national tragedy eventually. I'd have a problem with it then too, but not nearly so much as I do at this moment. This event occurred early this morning. It has only been about 20 hours before this piece was aired. That means that CBS News spent the entire day flying out to Colorado, shooting and editing content all to put this piece on the air. This is beyond simple nightly news reporting; this is flagrant exploitation and it sickens me. They have to be the first ones to air this thing. It JUST HAPPENED! Simple reporting is one thing, but for the television news cycle to swoop down and make content from it that no one has demanded that very day is astonishing. Let Aurora grieve, let the police do their job, let justice be served, and stay out of the way.
I recently watched the Billy Wilder film Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival), which was a fairly prescient movie about the media circus that surrounds tragedy. And this television special strikes me as being in that same vane. I do highly recommend the film, by the way. Kirk Douglas puts in a great performance. I have seen a lot of television reaction to tragic events over the years. I remember Fox pulling the broadcast of Independence Day that was scheduled for the weekend after September 11, 2001 and running Mrs. Doubtfire instead. I remember the special news magazine programs that dealt with the Columbine shooting or other similar events, often on anniversaries. But I have never seen a network so quick to pounce as to air something the very day of a massacre. Shame on you, CBS.
"Upset the established order and everything becomes chaos." - The Joker, The Dark Knight
I read on Sunday that a white buffalo had recently been born. I immediately wondered about its significance, either to me personally, or on a bigger scale.
A white buffalo is an extreme rarity. So their births are seen as portentous. But beyond that, among many indigenous American peoples, the white buffalo is a sacred omen of renewal, a powerful symbol traced back to legend. Among the Lakota (and I think other tribes, but I'm not expert), there is the legend of the White Buffalo Woman. She was a beautiful woman who appeared and taught the people many things, and when she was finished she turned into a white buffalo and disappeared. So in the years since, whenever a white buffalo is born it is seen as a sign by the tribe; a special holy event. There is going to be a special naming ceremony for this particular buffalo at the end of the month.
But the ominous nature of it was greater for me when I read that this particular buffalo was born to a farmer in Goshen, Connecticut. First, Connecticut seems an even more unlikely locale for an already unlikely event. And secondly, I cannot shake the significance of the name Goshen. That was the region of Egypt where the Israelites settled, were ultimately enslaved, and Moses was born. For the Lakota, a white buffalo is almost like the second coming of Christ. Add that with Goshen, a name calling to mind the rising of Moses, and I wonder if there is some reason for this. I don't hold to the truth of American legend, but this time I can't help wondering if it is an omen of some sort. Or was it simply something that I was meant to see; a sign to me personally? An indicator of good change finally coming?
It may not mean anything and may be purely coincidental. But I was gladdened to read this news on Sunday because it felt important. Whether it is or not, I know at least that the Lord does work in mysterious ways...
Last night I had a dream wherein I was visiting the web site of some nonexistent popular singer. Said singer had a stage name, but her real name was provided on the site as well, and that name was Angelina Sherpickle. When I woke up, there was something so oddly familiar about that name. I did not remember where it had come from, but I had a feeling that I had not created it; I was certain that it had simply been stored from some time previous and recalled by my unconscious mind in dream state. So the first thing that I did was to go to Google and search the name. At first, I misremembered it as Regina Sherpickle, but there were no results found. When I remembered the correct name, I tried again, but to no avail. I tried searching variant spellings, but all results came up void.
What then could this mean? Have I indeed concocted a strange name that I have some memory of in my own mind? Is said memory a vestige of prior dreaming? Or perhaps the name exists somewhere beyond the scope even of Google? Wikipedia was similarly no help.
I don't know what to think about this, but I found it curious. It is unlikely that anyone else knows anything about an Angelina Sherpickle, but if perhaps someone does, I'd be interested. Maybe it's Angelica Sherpickle? No, that can't be. Now, should anyone search the name this post will be the lone result. Odd the things we remember in dreams.
"If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." -- Romans 12:18
If there's one thing that drives me crazy it's mythical origins that are taken as fact. I'm talking about those urban legends that everyone thinks are true, so they present them as history and base teaching around it. For example, most people are familiar with the idea that the songs "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" are about drugs. To them, this is obvious, and they believe it's been proven that they were. When you tell them they are wrong, they refuse to believe you because they WANT to believe in these secret origins. But they ARE wrong. Surely, if "Lucy in the Sky"were about drugs, the Beatles would have said so by now. Paul has been candid about the origins of some of his other songs ("Got to Get You Into My Life" is actually an ode to marijuana, but nobody thinks it is). But people believe that "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" clearly points to being about LSD. Well, as Paul has said, the initials of the song are LSWD, so that doesn't even make sense.
Another similar myth that continues to be perpetuated is that the old rhyme "ring around the rosie" is about the Black Plague. And because some guy somewhere made a convincing argument for it, everyone likes to pretend they are smart and believes it. But they have been duped, as in all likelihood that isn't the case. The human mind searches for patterns even when none are there. When dealing with the origins of old rhymes, it's important to look at earlier variants, as folk rhymes often change over time. Snopes.com makes a substantial convincing argument that this origin story is entirely false. And yet it's so prevalent that it even turns up in books now as academic fact. In an otherwise superb book for children researching the true origins of John Henry, the author mentioned the "ring around the rosie" story as fact. To me, this immediately made his credibility seem questionable, though the rest of his actual argument about John Henry makes a lot of sense.
But the main target of this post is an urban legend that has particularly angered me because it is most prevalent among Christians; it involves the "peace sign". You know the one I mean:
I've known many Christians who were offended by the symbol and are quick to say that it's anti-Christian. They claim it actually represents a "broken cross" and I've heard all sorts of corollaries to this, such as that the hippie movement of the 1960s used it to proclaim a death to their parents' Christianity. And while there are certain similar ancient symbols one can point to, I don't believe that particular origin is true as it pertains to this symbol, at least regarding its present-day "peace" usage. Yet Christians proclaim their ignorance year after year. A Christian school I attended made it against the rules to display.
Bear in mind that this post hasn't been thoroughly researched, but also consider that you can find just about anything on the internet from any crazy out there with a bias, so if you think I'm wrong I need solid proof. But I have read and seen enough to make me agree with a separate origin that has nothing to do with Jesus or the cross.
The symbol as we know it does not stand for "peace" in its abstract form, but rather for a specific type of peace being proclaimed by protest movements of the 1960s: nuclear disarmament. If you look at its usage in pictures from the period, you'll often see the symbol on banners and among signs proclaiming not only "stop the war" but "disarm weapons now!" and other slogans of that ilk. My research indicates that this is what the symbol means. This origin was even a Jeopardy! question, and they've got full-time researchers. Why then does the symbol look the way it does? It is two letters.
A stylized W, something like this:
and a D, something like this:
both sitting together in a circle. Together, the letters W and D stand for Weapons Disarmament. So this peace that it proclaims is not about loving your neighbor so much as it is about not bombing Cambodia. Even so, it has nothing to do with destroying Christianity or any such nonsense. And yet, that mythical origin continues, even being used in passing in the film version of The DaVinci Code (but then, there's enough nonsense in that film as it is). update: for some reason, the images i had for the letters have disappeared, and I'm not going to bother trying to re-draw them. Just look at the peace sign and erase the top and bottom of the circle and the line down the middle for the W, and just look at the right half for the D.
In conclusion, it seems to me that most Christians and others who object to these things do so primarily out of fear and there isn't enough evidence to convince me that there's anything inherently evil about a peace sign. Feel free to object to it on political grounds, but to object on religious grounds seems unfounded. There is enough in this present darkness to war against without creating issues to divide us.
I find it fascinating how people talk about the Psalms in ways that suggest they haven't read them. Everyone knows Psalm 23, but most psalms don't read like that. There are feelings and ideas that many religious people would seem to be shocked by. But that's reality, and THAT's the way David and others talked to God. No filter, just throw it out there, and sing about it. Sometimes, for others to sing too. Would it surprise you to learn that the Psalms say God is angry all the time (psalm 7:11) or that David longs to bathe his feet in the blood of his enemies?
When I was in middle school, we were assigned to each write a psalm. Only two of us really did, with everyone else simply writing bad poems. But mine was a cry of despair about the faculty, so I was given a bad grade and forced to rewrite it and make them look good. I stand by my original words; that's how David wrote. It doesn't matter whether he was right or not to hate his enemies "with a righteous hatred" (and remember, this likely included Saul, the king of Israel); that is how he felt and expressed it.
I've recenty discovered a band called Red. They are essentially Christian metal. I like "Let It Burn" particularly, as I consider it much more a psalm as David would sing than the kind of things sung in churches these days. To me, most of today's Christian music is poorly written, and certainly shies away from the realities of pain. I appreciate a band that writes something like this.
And just for the other side of the equation, here's Red's answer with their song "Not Alone".
Glee returned from its brief hiatus this week and started it's stretch of episodes before the season finale. Unfortunately, after the previous cliffhanger they took the easy way out and didn't pick up this episode with the immediate aftermath. I hate when TV doesn't deal honestly with what just happened, and instead jumps ahead in time. We don't get to see how the gang found out about Quinn or anything else, we're just quickly filled in with a five-minute exposition scene. That bothered me, but it was evidentiary of the sometimes lazy and uneven writing I'm finding the show slump into (and I say this as a writer so lazy he ended that clause with a preposition). So I started thinking what kinds of things I would do if I were on the writing staff for Glee.
1. Remember the pilot -- The first episode was such a hit not just because of the music, but because it had a great sardonic wit. That wit carried over for the next few episodes, and the series felt a lot like Popular used to feel. Popular was a prior series from the same creators on the WB, that had a bit of a bite to it for people who didn't watch Dawson's Creek. Sometimes there were sweet moments, but it didn't forget what it was. Sometimes Glee doesn't know what it is anymore and lets itself get too silly in its humor, too unrealistic, too preachy, or too "musical". It's gotten into a rut, which they sometimes self-consciously comment on, but I always appreciate it more when the writing has that satire to it. I find also that there seem to be chunks of episodes that focus on one idea, then it's totally forgotten about for the next chunk of episodes. Like the seasons are written in three or four blocks with little thought to integrating them over a whole year. But mostly, I just liked the feel of the pilot, and it hasn't often felt that way in awhile.
2. The band doesn't know the song -- I know this show wants to follow the illogic of being a musical, and with that come certain conventions that we just accept. For instance, in any Gene Kelly movie, you know that he'll suddenly start tapping at some point, even though his shoes have no taps on them for the rest of the scene. The series used to straddle this line better when it had more fantasy sequences or had characters bring in sheet music. But for some reason now there always seem to be enough musicians in the room (even sometimes playing random instruments just for that one song) and they ALWAYS know how to play and how to play it perfectly. Nobody ever criticizes them. So I think it would be great if there were a moment in some episode where one of the kids says he doesn't know the song and can't play it. Or someone else plays a wrong note somewhere. They can still play it right for the album, but it would not only lend a little more reality to the show, it would also make for a witty commentary on the series to date.
3. A band-centered episode -- And while we're at it, I'd like to see a special episode that focuses exclusively on these band kids who are forced to stay in the background. Star Trek: The Next Generation once did an episode called "Lower Decks" that was about a group of junior officers on the ship and what life was like for them. It was insightful and interesting, and only marginally featured the main cast. I think it would be an interesting experiment to explore some of these other people that we see all the time, but don't get to hear about.
4. 4-week run with no soapbox -- A big part of Glee has always been about acceptance and tolerance of everyone and that of course has included the gay community. However, the series has gotten bogged down in making characters gay, in exploring its gay characters, and in parading them sometimes for no reason, or worse to make some preachy statement. This was especially harmful in season 2, which began by exploring Kurt beyond his sexuality and into his thoughts on religion and his relationship with his father. But then they started the bullying storyline, and Kurt has been mainly "the gay one" again. I'm not saying they shouldn't have gay characters or write storylines for them or give them love interests. But I think it would be healthy for the series to take 4 consecutive episodes and not touch on it at all. This goes for doing heavy-handed "message" episodes as well. Ryan Murphy has gotten so used to using his show as a forum (the recent valentine's episode felt like it was written solely as a response to Victoria Jackson) that it sometimes seems that he's forgotten that his characters are people first. Consider the way they write Artie. He's there, but they don't always focus on the wheelchair. They do every now and then, but it doesn't come up all the time. The constant focus on Kurt and Blaine and now Santana is becoming repetitive, makes them one-note characters, and takes focus away from other cast members. They've found ways to take Quinn away from being the stereotypical cheerleader (sadly, they've put Brittany more in that dumb blonde category), and I think it only right that they take Kurt away from being a stereotypical gay character. Every now and then they make real progress, but they constantly seem to slide back. Especially now that they have Blaine.
5. Stop adding characters!!! -- Another reason they can't service all their actors is that there are just too many characters now. This is another reason that storylines keep getting started and dropped; they can't keep that many balls in the air.
6. Do a Beach Boys episode -- Glee has surprisingly done comparatively little music from the 1960s. The Beach Boys have a decade-spanning career. Granted, this same point could be made for a number of other artists and it also comes down to what songs they can get. But I'd love to hear an a capella version of "Good Vibrations."
7. Focus on '90s music -- The series has done a lot of music from the '70s. It's done a lot with classic rock, as well as funk and there's an upcoming disco number. This is all music from before the kids' time. On the other end of the spectrum, there has been a lot of contemporary music (sometimes too much); Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum, Avril Lavigne. But that one piece that they've really avoided is the sound of the 1990s. For these kids, the 1990s is just as foreign as the 1970s. It weirds me out to think of it, but high school students today are people who weren't born when Lion King first came out. Some '90s songs would be the soundtrack of their childhoods, others they might know through bands still popular like Green Day. But up until now the series has almost exclusively avoided this decade. Usually, songs of this period are Broadway showtunes or hits from the careers of '80s icons like Michael Jackson or Madonna. I think it would be just as beneficial to focus on some of that '90s indie rock sound as it is to do funk or disco.
9. Return to the internal logic of competing -- In the first season, or at least the first 13 episodes, there was a sense that the glee club was choosing songs and rehearsing them for competition. But as the series went on, they got more and more away from that to the point where they never seem to do the same song twice (except "Don't Stop Believin'") and worse, go to competition without a final set list. In the early episodes, there were requirements for types of songs to be sung. Now that seems like it's all out the window. It's making the show a joke. Yes, they've undone some of that damage by commenting on it this season, but until we actually see things done differently, it still feels false.
10. Educate the writing staff about musical theater -- Every single time the series puts on a musical, it follows the movie version even when that is vastly different. It happened in the first season when Rachel was doing Cabaret and she was rehearsing dialog from the movie and doing a song written for the film (it was later put in some revivals). It happened in season 2 when they put on Rocky Horror, but it was really a love letter to the movie. And it happened this season with West Side Story, when they performed the movie version of "America". There was a lot wrong with the way they did West Side in those episodes (particularly the casting of Kurt). But my point is that they don't seem to really know anything about the shows themselves. Or about the realities of high school productions. Musical theater gleeks make up a large portion of their audience, and they do themselves a disservice when they don't write it properly.
That's just my two cents. I know I haven't done anymore of my episode reviews for this season. I just haven't had the time. Perhaps I'll have more to say on some of this if I get to them eventually.
I just read a fascinating interview regarding the closing of a video store in Brooklyn. It made me so sad. In the discussion, they bring up so many areas about which I have felt the same for years. Sometimes when people ask me what I want to do, I ponder whether I'd like a video store. But reading stories like this reminds me that it's hard enough to start small business right now, and the rental world is dying unnecessarily. So why bother doing something that isn't going anywhere?
I encourage everyone to follow the link and read this piece because it is amazing. This beautiful elegy reminds me of the things that make me happy and are important to me, and sadly reminds me that the world is leaving me behind. Don't throw away the chance of buying things in stores, or visiting stores, or renting hard copies instead of doing it all on a computer. Sometimes you get more than just what you thought you wanted. It's good to have a place for these things; sometimes you'll find the destination was really the journey.
I now present my annual best films list for the previous year. It took this long because I didn't want to compile a list until I had seen more of the movies. Again, this only covers movies I actually saw, so there could be great movies out there that I missed. Other good but flawed movies nearly made this list, but I wanted to keep it to ten. Sorry Martha Marcy May Marlene.
10. Drive -- There are certain movies that go on to define a season or a year regardless of their quality. Both Bridesmaids and The Help fit into this category. And even though it almost made this list, Bridesmaids had a fatal flaw that made me exclude it: the movie hates its protagonist. For some reason, the message seems to be that everything is her fault, though it clearly is not, and that she just has to get over herself. That, and the fact that the movie really didn't need it's much-talked-about bathroom gross-out scene. But the other movie that got everyone talking this summer was Drive, with Ryan Gosling. It's a strange movie with an odd energy to it that is both engrossing and off-putting. Gosling is good in it, but he's been good in a lot of films over the past ten years. In some ways, this movies a kind of modern Taxi Driver. The premise is that Gosling is a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights driving get-away for criminals. Like certain other films, the movie is schizophrenic; the second half becomes a very violent maelstrom, while the first half is more slow and brooding. If you're put off by gore, do not be fooled by the first half! This movie gets bloody really fast, and doesn't let up. But I was still taken with some of the performances. It was great seeing Bryan Cranston in a supporting role, playing someone both different form and similar to his Breaking Bad persona Walter White. But the real stand-out here is Albert Brooks who gets to put aside comedy to play a very menacing character. The fact that he was denied a supporting actor nomination is shameful. Drive is not as good as many people extolled it to be, but it's engaging for what it is and impossible to ignore.
9. The Muppets -- We have to appreciate that Jason Segal was able to bring the Muppets back to the big screen. But let's be clear, this is not as good as the best of the classic Muppet films. Nothing can replace the work of Jim Henson and Frank Oz on films like The Great Muppet Caper. But it's a lot of fun, and helps wash away the taste of disappointment left by Muppets From Space. There are some very funny moments and some great references to previous Muppet stuff. This is the only Muppet movie to really reference the Muppet Show, and makes it the center of the plot. Unfortunately, the references sometimes hurt the movie, and it sometimes starts feeling less like a great Muppet movie and more like very good fan fiction. The story of Segal and Amy Adams' characters is sidelined midway for the "let's reunite the gang" story. The movie isn't always sure what plot to follow. But Adams is charming as she always is and has a lovely solo moment in a restaurant (there are so many good musical moments its a shame the Academy only recognized one song). She even pays homage to Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. Since Frank Oz has retired, it takes a little getting used to the new voicing for Piggy and Fozzie (though it's a little better than it has been in recent specials and appearances). I came out of the movie charmed, but missing just a little something, which is why it's so low on the list. And yet, the sheer energy of the movie, the love for what the characters used to be, the cameos from Mickey Rooney and others I won't spoil, make it a movie well worth seeing, hopefully signaling even better things to come from the Muppets now that they are back.
8. The Descendants -- George Clooney puts in another great performance in this movie, playing one of the remaining descendants of Hawaiian royalty who are trying to decide whether or not to sell their remaining plot of untouched Hawaiian real estate. Meanwhile, his wife is in the hospital following a water skiing accident, and he's just now learning she had an affair. He's torn between taking care of his daughters and his love for his dying wife, and facing this revelation of her infidelity. He's in an emotionally impossible situation. In moments like this, the film really works. Both his daughters are good characters, and ably played. Unfortunately, the movie pays attention to the younger one at the start of the movie, but then she drifts into the background for precocious moments of comic relief once her older sister returns. It bothers me that the movie is unable to really deal with both girls at once. This could have been handled had it been pointed out that Clooney's character can't handle both at once, making this deliberate. But it doesn't feel that way. Also, there's a little too much voice over, and the ultimate resolution of the Hawaiian land plot could be seen a mile away. These facts keep me from thinking of it as a truly great movie, but it is a very good one. I don't want to make it sound like it's a bad movie. It's not.
7. War Horse -- Here's one that many critics wrote off as being too old-fashioned, and I don't understand why that is a bad thing. It's a classic Hollywood Technicolor epic. It's shot to have that feel of older movies, and I love it for that. People always complain that "they don't make movies like this anymore", but when movies like that get made, they are written off. While this movie lacks the novelty of the stage play with it's puppet horse, it does a lot with the actual horse, really following him as a character. It's a great "boy and his horse" movie, like The Black Stallion. Yes, it gets a little bit long as it heads into the war sequences, but it's just a solid feel-good movie. If you love horses, I highly recommend it. There's no profanity (save one "bastard" in the first scene), and only a fair amount of war violence no worse than Gone With the Wind.
6. Red State -- This movie totally took me by surprise. When I first read that Kevin Smith was writing a horror movie with a religious subject, I wasn't sure what to think. But it ends up being a fascinating look at extremism. The movie is about a church like the Westboro Baptist Church only cranked up even crazier. These guys don't just show up at funerals with gay-bashing signs; they have an arsenal of guns in their church, and they lure perverts in with sting operations so they can execute them publicly in church for their sins. There's a real frightening charisma on display. There are echos of real-life cult incidents. The young leads in the movie start off like typical Kevin Smith stoner characters just looking to score. What happens to them is one of the most disturbing shifts since Janet Leigh was slashed in Psycho. In fact, the movie owes a lot structurally to Psycho, right up to the final expository wrap-up. It's Smith's most well-directed movie, as he's finally grasped the knack of the moving camera. He seems to have studied a lot of modern horror in the way he shoots it. Michael Parks is impossible to ignore (kind of like if Robert Duvall in The Apostle were a serial killer). It's certainly not a movie for all tastes, nor is it flawless. There's a moment or two that feel like characters say things just to be darkly humorous or satirical, but that feel out of place in context. At one point a character is told to behave "like a good Christian" and it just feels trite. But I was effected by the movie, and I have to commend Smith for that.
5. Moneyball -- A better movie than I expected, exploring the use of Bill James' ideas about statistics in baseball and their real-life application with the Oakland A's in the early 2000s. Brad Pitt gives a great performance, his best in awhile, and Jonah Hill is just as good, still managing to be funny without breaking character. Sometimes understanding the exact details of what's going on may be hard for people who don't follow baseball, but the movie succeeds in making the feeling of it all make sense despite this. I loved the use of actual game footage and the way the sound would sometimes drop out. I also thought it was a nice way to give a little of the other side of the Red Sox' eventual World Series win. It's weird to see this movie open with the A's losing Johnny Damon to Boston. The movie makes a good case that their win would never have happened without these events playing out first. A must-see for baseball fans and anyone who likes unconventional thinkers.
4. Midnight in Paris -- Woody Allen does it again! He shoots Paris the way he used to shoot New York, even opening the movie with a montage of still shots that echo the opening of Manhattan. The movie is a gentle fantasy following a modern writer who finds himself in 1920s Paris hobnobbing with famous writers and artists at midnight each night. It's a light-hearted meditation on the deceptiveness of nostalgia, and it's also quite funny at times. Many of the jokes will play better for hyper-literate people who will get all the references. I particularly like the scenes with the surrealists; Adrien Brody is a hoot as Salvador Dali. I love the moment when Gil tries to suggest to Luis Bunuel the plot for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
3. The Artist -- Oh look, a silent movie! I find it remarkable that the same critics who fault War Horse for being old-fashioned are praising this movie which does the same thing in a different era. The movie is set in the late 1920s and early 1930s at the end of the silent movie era, so the movie is (almost) entirely done as a silent film. It handles this quite accurately in the way it is scored, shot and edited. There's even a moment of surprise that derives solely from a title screen. The basic plot is of a great silent film star who doesn't want to go along with the sound revolution. It's sort of a mix of Singin' in the Rain and some of the reality of Charlie Chaplin, who continued making silent movies until 1940 (well, Modern Times had sync sound, but no dialogue). It's a very cute movie, but there's not a whole lot of story here or much that we haven't seen before. I liked it, though I found I didn't love it. May have worked better as a 40-minute short subject than a full feature, but the cast does a good job with the material and for the most part they remain true to the conceit which, though a little precious, does what it sets out to do. It's really a metaphor for George refusing to be heard in the movies. One of the first lines in the movie is "Speak!" This is of course the point of the whole concept and I at least can't fault the movie for committing to it.
2. Hugo -- Martin Scorsese's 3D family film is very well-made and a love letter to film preservation in some ways. It encompasses many aspects from a number of the Best Picture nominees: it has Paris in the '20s like Midnight in Paris, the making of silent film like The Artist, and a number of plot similarities to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. If it get's the younger generations learning more about the early days of cinema, special effects, and the genius of George Melies, then I'm glad it was made. There is one seemingly giant plot hole regarding the automaton that leads Hugo to the revelations he seeks, and that does bother me. I don't know if these are flaws in the novel or unique to the movie. However, it remains a well-constructed ode to the silent era of film and to neglected artists just trying to get by in the world. The 3D is well-done. I only wish that Scorsese hadn't stereo-converted the old Melies footage at the end; I thought that was unnecessary and to me doesn't sit right with the movie's message of film preservation; that's alteration, and bothers me. Fun fact: the movie has the standard "the story and characters in this movie are fictitious" disclaimer at the end of the credits, despite the fact that George Melies was a real person and those were all real films of his!
1. Take Shelter -- Just like the past two years, the best movie of the year is the one that the Academy completely ignored. Take Shelter is a movie I wanted to see as soon as I saw the trailer, but wasn't sure what to expect. I have to say no movie has moved me more this year. It's got a little bit of Noah's ark, a little bit of Field of Dreams. The basic story is that Curtis, a working class guy in Ohio, starts having disturbing dreams of a coming catastrophic storm so he works hard to build out the tornado shelter in his yard. However, this action puts strains on his job, his relationships with friends and family, and may be due to mental illness; he has a family history of schizophrenia. I loved the detail of his having a deaf daughter. I think Jessica Chastain does great work here, and should have been nominated for this film and not The Help. But the real centerpiece here is Michael Shannon's amazing performance. The best actor category is weird this year, and Shannon's absence is both conspicuous and horrible. The movie maintains a reality, even amid it's more poetic, fanciful elements. It had only a very small theatrical release, but has just been issued on DVD. I encourage everyone to seek it out. I don't want to say much more about it for fear of spoiling it, but you have to see this movie.
I saw mentioned on the news this week a story about the MBTA doing away with advertisments for alcohol on their trains. Now, for those outside the area who don't know, the MBTA is the transit system in and around Boston, commonly known as "the T". If you watch a TV series set in Boston, you'll see the round T signs everywhere.
Anyway, the news broadcast had a poll question as to whether the public thought it was a good idea for the T to stop taking ad revenue from alcohol manufacturers. I should also mention that right now the MBTA is in a major debt crisis; they are, if I recall the number correctly, 160 million dollars in the hole. There is serious talk right now about cutting bus lines, late night trains, service to certain areas and drastically raising fares. These things make frequent commuters angry, especially as some of us think they've been throwing money away on useless stuff for the past five years. So the question really being posed is, can the T afford to be so choosy about where its ad money comes from?
The argument being made is that they don't want to advertise these things were children can see it, and thus be encouraged to drink. The vox pops interviews mentioned that again and again: "Think of the children!" And I am so tired of that. To that I say a hearty "Fie!"
Why is it that when it comes to drinking, the public thinks children are moronic sponges? The ads are not saying "Hey kids, let's drink!" This isn't about marketing something to children; it's no Joe Camel situation. This is a product marketed to adults. Underage kids who are going to drink are not going to do it just because they see a sign with a beer on it. I know that people are going to disagree and say, "Yes they will! Children are impressionable!" Well can I ask you then, how many print ads for sports cars have resulted in underage or unlicensed driving? ...Can't answer that, can you? Why? Because nobody is bothering to ask the question, since it is absurd on its face. And I think alcohol ads are not any different.
If we start denying ad space for fear of influencing children, how long is it before we stop advertising cola, or cookies, or video games? This sort of thinking sounds good and gets people all riled up, but it really means the death of print advertising. Frankly, I think print advertising is LESS dangerous than video ads where people are depicted drinking. Most print ads are just a picture of the product with some text. We're afraid that ads will make people want to drink? Well, that just means the ad is doing its job. It won't have any special effect on children. And remember, kids can't buy alcohol; so why make the issue about the train ads instead of about cutting off access to the product?
If a print campaign were really so influential, then all those anti-smoking ads should have resulted in a drastic decline in teen cigarette use. Did they? I don't know, I'm not a statistician. But I think ultimately a few advertisements aren't going to make kids go out and break the law any more than an ad for body wash is going to make a kid want to immediately take a shower.
The T needs all the money it can get. Can we please stop pretending that people magically become smarter only at 21? Because after listening to these arguments, the opposite seems true.
This week's episode of How I Met Your Mother featured a very clever gag in which Barney proclaimed himself leader of gang, and re-imagined the opening credits to be all about him. It then happened a second time later in the episode. Normally, I'm a big fan of these kinds of self-referential gags on television every once in awhile. It rewards viewers who watch every week, especially when it involves opening credits. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that the joke in this instance was funny for a moment, but betrayed the underlying conceit of the series. It bothers me when series abandon their conceits in this way, and that's what this post is about.
Before I go further, I do want to say there are times that I love gags like this. X-Files fans thrilled to any time the "The Truth is Out There" tagline was changed at the end of the opening. There was an arc on The Office a couple years ago where Michael started his own paper company. For one of those episodes, the opening credits were redone with images of this new office. I thought it was very clever. Or Community, which derives it's very existence from being "meta" and referential, changed the artwork in the "cootie catcher" paper folded thing in its opening for the Dungeons and Dragons episode. But what happened on How I Met Your Mother ultimately doesn't work in the same light. The conceit of the show is that Ted in the future is telling his children the long, convoluted story of how he met their mother. The series then should always be in Ted's point of view. The opening credits are done as a kind of photo collage of moments of him and his friends. They work, out of the kind of nostalgia of telling your kids "this is how we used to be, back when I met your mother." But the series has recently been drifting a little too far off that road with some outside stories that really have nothing to do with this main thread, and episodes being told by other characters' voice-overs. That means we have to think Ted is telling the kids what his friends are telling other people; a flashback in a flashback. This used to be handled better in the earlier seasons, but now for the sake of the show's longevity it is stretching beyond its concept. Which is why I ultimately don't like the Barney joke this week. For it to work, it means that Barney is aware of this as a TV show, or aware of there being opening credits like this. While it's funny for a moment to call the show "How I Met Your Barney" and all that, it flies in the face of the show's concept. Had this been Ted proclaiming leadership and changing the credits, that would have worked because the series is Ted's point-of-view. It sadly spoiled the joke for me on reflection, in a way that other similar gags had not.
Other current sitcoms are running into similar issues related to their concepts. Parks and Recreation is brilliant, but since the third season has lost some of its early drive. The impetus behind the pilot, the entire first season, and much of the second, was that Leslie promised Anne that she would build a park on the vacant lot by Anne's house that was a pit. Somewhere in season 2 they filled in the pit, so that was good. And for awhile the series had an excuse; they wrote in that the parks department was bankrupt, so season three was more about acts of good faith to get their funding back. But it's at a point now where it seems they've forgotten why they started. Is Anne ever going to get that park? Leslie made a promise, and every new week that goes by without any progress on that front makes me wonder why Anne is still friends with Leslie. At some point, shouldn't Anne say, "Hey, whatever happened to that park you promised me?" I wish they would at least address the issue in an episode here or there.
Fringe is another series that changed gears in its second season. This was mostly for the better. The first season was all about unrelated strange events being part of "the pattern", and tying into some complicated business about multiverses. This was streamlined down and the show got better, but for so much of the past couple seasons this has seemed like everything in season one that was supposed to be somehow related was completely ignored. From what I've seen, season 4 may finally tie these ends up a little more. But I haven't liked the way some of it was handled.
And the list goes on. The Office was set up to be shot in documentary-style, which spawned a number of imitators. The British version uses this conceit to its advantage, since UK televison series are generally shorter. But the longer the US version goes on, the more the logic behind this actually being a documentary is thrown away. It's easy to tell a joke using a talking head, but that cannot be all the form is for. Modern Family uses this structure, but it's never really pretended to be documentary; it's more a way to talk to the audience, the way that Malcolm (Malcolm in the Middle) or Clarissa (Clarissa Explains It All) used to do. But The Office was and is a documentary. They used to make reference to the cameras every now and then. Parks and Rec has done a little better job maintaining that same veneer, but it gets harder and harder to buy the logic of The Office. I'm constantly stopping and thinking, "Where is this being shot from?" every time characters drive places. The episode where they attended Andy's play was otherwise fine, but I was supposed to believe a camera crew was there in the aisles and backstage shooting all of this? Also, how long is this crew going to keep shooting these people? The logic reached its breaking point several years ago when they did a clip show. I forget what the set-up was, but Toby was in an interview with somebody and as they discussed certain things it would cut to old episode footage. Sorry, that's stretching the concept beyond its means.
What I'm getting at here as that no matter how good a series is, it cannot betray its own rules. Even if its funny, an audience has to expect certain parameters. I could go on about various other ways many different series throughout the years have broken their rules in some way, but I don't want to belabor the point. Suffice to say that as much as television pilot season thrives on these high concept ideas, the writers need to remember that these concepts must sustain a long-running series. M*A*S*H shouldn't have run as long as it did, nor should That '70s Show (especially since the latter begin around 1977). No series should get to the place where an audience asks, "But how does this relate to meeting their mother?" or "Shouldn't these characters have graduated by now?" To abandon these conceits may bring momentary joy, but ultimately betrays the origins of the work. No one part is worth sacrificing the whole. A television series is a house of cards; it can build as wide or tall as you like, but attention must be paid that it doesn't topple unnecessarily.