Sunday, February 26, 2012

Netflix Queue Challenge: The Help

I tend not to give much of a shit about the Oscars, etc., not because I have anything against award shows but because I usually haven't seen the majority of nominated movies. That's partly because I don't go to the movies all that much and have an impossible Netflix queue and a full DVR, but it's partly because I'm frequently not that interested in the sorts of movies that get the most nominations. And, as I've written about here before, I often react badly to hype. I like the idea of an Oscar Death Race; I think it's a cool project and a good way to give structure to movie fandom, but the fact is that even if I had time I have no interest in seeing Tree of Life or Iron Lady and no amount of awards is going to change that.

Which is a really roundabout way of saying I can't believe I've actually seen two of this year's big nominees before the Oscars.

What's even weirder is that they're both movies I didn't actually think I would like, but was interested in anyway. That's the sort of thing that could easily sit at the bottom of my Netflix queue for years, but I wanted to see The Artist in the theater (Hugo too, which I also don't expect to like, but I haven't gotten to that one yet). And one day shortly after the DVD release of The Help it seemed like every one of my Facebook friends was talking about it so I was inspired to move it up in my queue.

I'm not sure why I even wanted to see it, since I expected an Oscar-baity, schmaltzy, kinda racist movie with terrible exaggerated accents and stereotypical characters. And it was exactly that. But also, somehow, entirely delightful. The performances completely won me over. Is Hilly a ridiculous character? Yes. But I could watch Bryce Dallas Howard play her all day. My predisposition to adoring Allison Janney meant that I didn't really care what she did, I just wanted her to have more screen time. She had some of the most ridiculous lines in the movie but managed to make them all work. Jessica Chastain (for all the movies she's been in this year, this was the first one I'd ever seen her in…though according to IMDB she was on two TV shows I watched a while back), Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, and Viola Davis are all just as good as "everyone" says they are, especially given how much they're doing to make pretty thinly drawn characters feel real. They bring their real life charisma to their roles in a way that helps you understand why these people are drawn to each other beyond professional obligation, which the script doesn't entirely provide for them. And Sissy Spacek simply steals every scene she's in, like a southern Maggie Smith.

My biggest criticism is that for all the talk of danger and consequences, the stakes felt awfully low. In part because we know things got better...but not that much better, really. The movie seems to want to use our knowledge of the future, Mad Men style, to let us shake our heads and be glad that this isn't the way the world works anymore. But that's not entirely true, and it makes the whole thing feel a little pat, and a little privileged. I was very aware that I was a white person (and an urban yankee at that) watching a multi-million dollar movie made by other white people about solving racism. The happy ending felt unearned, especially since (as is so often the case) it wasn't really the end of anything. Not that the movie should have been any longer, nor would I want a sequel, but we really don't know what happens to these people down the road, and there's a high chance that the answer is nothing good. To get me to care about them and then lie to me about how it turns out seems a little unfair.

But, like many others I found The Help unhateable. And it's a great movie to watch at home. It's painted in such broad strokes, it's sort of perfect for background viewing on a lazy weekend afternoon. I look forward to it becoming a TNT staple.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Shut up, silent movie!

When I say that the dog was my favorite thing about The Artist, it doesn't actually mean that I thought the dog was so fucking great.

I didn't like the movie, is what I'm saying.

I was interested in The Artist from the start, since it seemed like a cool idea, and definitely something that wanted to be seen in the theater, but I didn't actually think I was going to like it. As Couch Baron wrote in his brilliant review, "if going in, you worry that it’s going to annoy you? You’re probably right." And I can't say this any better than he did, so: "The film is so up its own ass that it seems to think it’s above mundane considerations such as story and editing, and as a result I found it far too clich├ęd, too overwrought, and too indulgent."

As a piece of filmmaking in the most literal sense (separating out that pesky storytelling part), it is unquestionably well made. It's beautifully shot and well acted, and I appreciate the experiment of it and the homage to old Hollywood. There were some moments that I loved, particularly the use of silence — which sounds like a silly thing to say about a silent movie, but I mean real silence, when the score (more on that later) dropped out and there was no sound at all.

But admiring a movie and enjoying a movie, sadly, are not the same thing, and I don't remember the last time I wanted so desperately to look at my watch during a film (I need a new battery so the light doesn't work so I couldn't and it was like time had stopped, not in a good way). At one point I actually thought, If I were here alone I would leave. I was so bored! Is that a symptom of my modernness? Am I unable to engage in a story told without words? Maybe? But I think it was that I just didn't care about this story. Or more importantly, that this very slight story was dragged out to a horribly paced hour and forty minutes during which not a whole lot really happened and I certainly wasn't made to care about any of the people it wasn't happening to.

For as much as I respected the visuals, I hated the score. Which is tough, cause, y'know, silent movie; there is literally no other sound besides this awful awful music. I get that they were going for a period thing and I don't mind the music being heavy handed necessarily - it has to carry a lot of the weight of the storytelling (such as it is) - but I just thought it was terrible. This is not music I would ever choose to listen to and it is ever present and so oppressive.

Also? George is a dick. He starts the film being a giant asshole to everyone, and his fall from grace doesn't really do anything to change that. He's sullen and whiny and completely ungrateful to the people who try to help him. It's never explained why he can't move to talkies. I know in reality lots of silent film actors had terrible-sounding voices, or couldn't transition to a more natural style (which feels really relative by today's standards), but it seems like George just doesn't want to? Why the hell not? And are we meant to believe that this dipshit also trained this dog? Rag on the dog all you want (you're not wrong) but training animal "actors" is hard, and George is a fucking idiot.

At least the dog is cute and provided some smiles. I think the fact that people seem so bizarrely fixated on what is just another gimmick in a film that's all gimmick suggests that maybe none of the humans were worth paying any attention to and the whole thing is wildly overrated?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fall TV, Part, in February

"For the truly wronged, real satisfaction can only be found in one of two places. Absolute forgiveness, or mortal vindication. This is not a story about forgiveness."

And this isn't a post about how I can't seem to manage to keep up with this blog. Life is hard (it's not). But that is an explanation for why this post is the way it is. I started to follow up on my Fall TV preview post back in October when things were actually premiering. And in trying to get started writing again I find I don't like loose ends. So fair warning: This is not a very good post. And it's entirely too long. And it's taken me weeks to finish. But it seems to be an unfinished business hump I need to get over to get back to blogging, which is something I want to do, so here at mid-season-ish are some thoughts on the rest of the shows I said I'd be checking out in (relatively) brief and in the order the shows premiered.

First, updates from the last post: I dropped Ringer six or seven episodes in, because nothing really happened on it ever. The only character I liked was dead (or presumed dead, regardless she wasn't on the show for weeks) and the episode-ending twists almost always got reset the next week somehow. I wanted to like it because of SMG and it seemed like a cool premise, but it kept making me kind of angry at its stupidity. Reading recaps at The AV Club it seems that nothing has continued to happen, so I made the right choice.

Speaking of boring, I lasted all of 2 weeks with The Secret Circle. I know I throw around "boring" a lot, and often I just mean "slow," or even "not for me." The Walking Dead was pretty "boring" this season, but I'm still interested in the premise of a zombie show, so it's...borinteresting? You'd think I'd be totally into Dawson's Creek with witches but it made so little impression I barely even remember that I watched it.

The Playboy Club also feels like a distant memory. I stand by my enjoyment of it, but I can't say I was sorry when it got canceled, especially since it means Laura Benanti is now free to do other things (like maybe Smash?).

Anyway, next on the list is Glee but I have longer thoughts on that show than a capsule review so I'm going to skip over it for now. Suffice to say that I still watch it and I still enjoy it and it still infuriates me.

Speaking of infuriating, I don't know what to make of New Girl. I enjoyed the pilot, and I feel like I'm the only person in America without a strong opinion about Zooey Deschanel. I hadn't really seen her in much until now. She's fine, I guess. I neither find her anything special nor particularly annoying, but she's charming and funny. My problem is really with everyone else on the show. Based on the pilot I thought the premise of the show was going to be that Jess is weird and moves in with these relatively normal, relatively cool guys and that's where the friction would come from. But by episode two it had turned into Four Assholes Share An Apartment That For Some Reason Has A Locker Room In It. It really seems like every single character on this show has absolutely no social skills. Jess included, but she's become the most normal one! I've kept watching because there's always a handful of jokes that make me laugh enough to want to see where the show goes, because it does seem to be still evolving. I'm not sure how long I'll stick with it in the spring, but I do think it's a show that may find its feet. I'm still mad at them for ruining the word adorkable though. Adorkable means cute in a dorky way, or cute despite being also dorky looking. Seth Cohen is adorkable. Willow Rosenberg is adorkable. Zooey Deschanel is just kinda hot, and her character is many things but she's not a dork. Awkworable maybe? Adouchable? Cutechebag?

I had nothing to say about Modern Family before and I have nothing to say about it now. I like it very much. I don't think it's the best show on TV, but I do think it's very good and it makes me laugh very consistently. I don't get why some people seem to be mad at it for being popular. But also maybe someone else could win an award sometime. That's all I got.

Revenge is my new second favorite thing. It's delightful and ridiculous and ridiculously delightful. I liked the earlier episodes best, when it was basically a revenge procedural, but I appreciate that that was probably unsustainable, and it's evolved nicely into an insane, over-the-top soap. I think it says something that my two favorite new shows this season are slightly insane soaps that revel in their ridiculousness, in which the actors always appear to be having a great time. And the shows I've been most disappointed in (Ringer, Pan Am) looked like they'd be like this but turned out to be super dull. What's great about Revenge is it's silly but not disposable. I genuinely care about these characters, both the good guys and the bad guys, and that grounds the absurdity somewhat. The cast is charming enough that even the plotlines I'd just as soon see go away (everything involving the bar) are pretty watchable. They're treading the fine line between drama and farce exceptionally well. If you're not watching Revenge I highly recommend catching up from the beginning. It'll fly by.

Forgive me for this, as I know many of you are fans, but I just can't shed a tear for Community. I really liked the first season. I never fully loved it, but I found it reliably funny and occasionally inventive, which is a pretty decent bar to clear. I also had a DVR conflict which meant that not every episode recorded. When I missed something that had buzz, like the paintball episode, I'd go watch it on demand, but largely I think my feelings towards the show benefited from not actually watching every week. I pretty much hated the second season. It felt like it was trying too hard and I started to realize that I hated every single character. These just aren't people I wanted to spend time with. Yes, even Troy and Abed. They annoy the fuck out of me. The genre episodes, while sometimes funny, felt forced to me, like this is a thing that Community does now. I love a good meta gag and a good parody, so I should like this show but I just can't. I wonder if this is a show that would benefit from shorter seasons, so only the really great episodes get made and the characters don't wear out their welcome. Anyway, I gave season three a shot in spite of all this, because for some reason this was a show I wanted to like. I think we watched two episodes, maybe three, and simply didn't laugh. Everyone seemed either mean or stupid or both. Later on when some episodes got some buzz I tried watching them online and they just didn't do it for me. I understand why some people are so into it, but I can't get sad about its apparent passing, since I also know lots of people like me who wanted to like it and gave it up because, well, maybe it just isn't very good? I'd rather see it go and let the people involved in it use their talents elsewhere.

Like Modern Family I don't know what to say about Parks and Recreation that hasn't been said. (It turns out I think I'm not very good at writing about comedy, in part because what makes us laugh is so subjective.) Um, it's really really great? It is. It's my favorite live action comedy on TV right now (my favorite overall is Archer). Weirdly, the same praise I had for Revenge applies here: These people feel real and I care about them, which makes the comedy work. It has a great balance of snarky and sweet which feels very real to me (Modern Family tries to do this to, but for me it's only really the snark that works, while the moral of the week has me rolling my eyes, while Parks and Rec can totally make me cry if it wants to).

Yes, Grey's Anatomy is still on. And you know what, I still love it. It had a slump in the middle there, but they came back strong two seasons ago with an episode that managed to be incredibly tense and heartbreaking while also doing the show the great service of killing off most of the too-many new characters they'd added. And it's been solid ever since. Yes, it's totally predictable and formulaic and you know exactly how they're going to manipulate your emotions before it happens but that doesn't make the manipulation any less effective. It has some of the most interesting and complicated female characters on TV (and, yes, also at least one of the most irritating, Meredith) and I will watch Sandra Oh, Chandra Wilson, Sara Ramirez, Kim Raver and Jessica Capshaw act in anything forever. The show is starting to run into the ER problem where it's kind of hit all of the medical calamities it can think of, so it's getting a little repetitious and/or ridiculous (also what year is it supposed to be now? the seasons have never lined up to the show's timeline). I feel like they should probably wrap it up soon, but I'll keep watching until they do.

I didn't make it past two episodes of A Gifted Man, which made me sad given how much I like the actors involved. But I found it dull, and while I don't mind formula this one made me a little crazy. Also, while I like it when shows set in New York shoot in New York (and use lots of theatre actors!) this one tried so little they might as well have been in Vancouver. This super-wealthy, super-snobby, what's-a-poor-person doctor lives and runs an exclusive clinic in Brooklyn? Please. Mostly I just found it dull and completely unconvincing.

Speaking of formula, I do love The Good Wife. My same complaint about lazy location shooting applies (there's no Radio City Music Hall in Chicago, guys), but I can deal with NYC subbing for another city better than another city subbing for NYC, especially when it means every episode is packed with amazing theatre actors. I had a weird experience with this show where I watched the first episode, didn't like it, and didn't keep watching. After the first season, when the show had some buzz, I decided to try again and had a completely opposite reaction to the pilot. I've been hooked ever since. It doesn't hurt that I've had a crush on Josh Charles since Dead Poets Society. Like Grey's, the show's formula makes it fairly predictable but it's so well executed that I don't mind. Unlike Grey's, they seem to be treading water already in season three. I don't care at all about Will's problems this season (especially since there are no real stakes — he's not leaving the show, is he?), though I'm always happy to see a scene with him, Christine Baranski, and Carrie Preston.

I'm doing much better this season than in years past about giving shows up. Unless I completely loathe something right away, I try to give shows a chance after the pilot and that's often enough to hook me. Especially if it's something where I'm sold on the concept before it even airs, I'll give a show a good long chance to meet its potential. The problem is once I've invested that time, I'm less likely to stop watching even if that potential clearly isn't there. As with Ringer, I gave Pan Am a decent amount of time before accepting that it was actually getting worse. As appealing as setting a show back when air travel was glamourous seemed, it's not exactly a great environment for a workplace drama. I don't mean to in any way dismiss the work of real life pilots and flight attendants, which is difficult (I'm not sure what sounds harder: flying a plane or dealing with customers you can't get away from), but there's not the kind of variety that would naturally keep a TV show going. Flights aren't long enough for us to get to know passengers well (and the stewardesses don't have enough contact with them) and it's not like you can have a near-accident every week. The show's solution, in the episodes I saw, was to have this one plane and crew miraculously fly into famous historical events every week. Which is fine on Doctor Who or Quantum Leap, but really stains credulity on Pan Am. And then there was something about spies. And the French lady managed to have a breakdown in an embassy Berlin, which I suppose was understandable, but what was she doing there in the first place? And Christina Ricci stalked JFK, disturbingly successfully. It was bad is what I'm saying. It's too bad, too. I liked the cast and the show definitely looked stylish and great. But life's too short and there's too much TV.

And yet I'm still watching Gossip Girl. Or rather, I'm watching Gossip Girl again. It was in a tight timeslot in the fall and I gave it up, but with The Sing Off over and the big royal wedding coming up I foolishly started again. Clearly I like a good silly soap but GG has really gone downhill over the years. For starters, aren't these characters still supposed to be 19? As I've said before I need a smidgen of reality to ground these things and I feel like I don't know who these characters are anymore. They also keep doing this thing where they spend an entire episode running around trying to prevent something from happening or make something happen and then in the last minute they utterly fail. Which I guess is realistic? But it's lousy storytelling. It feels like they're just treading water to fill 22 episodes. But dammit, I'm hooked. Will Chuck and Blair finally end up together? Oh, those crazy kids!

Comedy "problem" again: I can't explain why I like Happy Endings but I really do. I suspect it maybe isn't very good? But I find the cast incredibly charming and their slightly troubled (but not so troubled that you don't know why they hang out) friendships really fun to watch. It just consistently makes me laugh. It treads a similar fine line that New Girl does where the characters could easily tip into unlikeability but they don't for me. They do stupid things but they know they're stupid, they're not socially inept imbeciles. Plus, a gay character who's neither a stereotype nor asexual, and nonchalant jokes about race. I wish neither of those things felt so subversive.

Almost last and definitely least, there are the two weirdo fairy tale shows. I don't have much to say about Grimm, because I only watched two episodes. Maybe three? It's all a blur. A dull, dull blur. For reasons unclear the DVR skipped recording a bunch of episodes after the pilot. Maybe it was protecting us from them. So I didn't watch in sequence, but I'm pretty sure it didn't matter. Certainly in terms of letting the show find its legs over a few weeks, I did that by accident. The premise is cute and the tone is sort of X-Files-y but I was just super bored. There's that word again, sorry! The cast is mostly terrible - wooden and charisma-free, and the one actor I really like was killed off early - and the premise was repetitive in just the few episodes I saw, so I don't really see how it can sustain itself. I wanted to like the modern twists on the fairy tales but they pretty much all come off as generic monsters. I started to write that it's humorless but I don't think that's exactly true. I think they're trying for humor and failing miserably, at least on me. Which is somehow worse.

And then there's Once Upon A Time, which certainly isn't a good show either, but I'm finding it to be an eminently watchable mess. Look, I can't explain my whims or why I stick with some things but not others. The acting is mostly terrible (Ginnifer Goodwin is a notable exception) and the writing is even worse. Even that's not as bad as their inability to light scenes on green screen sets so that the people don't look like they're floating (seriously, I know this isn't easy, but is it really thishard? the production design is actually beautiful and the CGI is pretty good, and then they just paste the actors in like colorforms? I don't get it). And nothing is as bad as that fucking kid, who is the absolute worst. The basic premise makes absolutely no sense. What good is this curse that sent these people to a beautiful small town in Maine? With no memories of anything that came before? How is that punishment? I guess the mayor remembers (maybe?) so she has the power she wanted, but to go from being a wicked witch with a castle to the petty mayor of a small town in Maine seems like a step down. And do they not age? Or have children? The plot is moving forward, so clearly they're not stuck in some sort of time loop. Except in the last episode I watched there was a lingering shot of Snow White's cell phone and it was a 10-year-old Nokia, and once I noticed that I started to notice other antiquated technology in town, so maybe they are? Outsiders can clearly enter the town so wouldn't someone notice all of that? There's no logic at all. But I don't know, it keeps me curious. As dumb as it is, it can be clever about how it twists the fairy tales, and connects the characters to the modern world and to each other, in an Into The Woods-ish sort of way. In these moments, as with any involving evil queens or gratuitously shirtless huntsmen, the silliness is what makes it so watchable. It is never boring. How could I not sort of love a show with lines like "I need my pain. It makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy."?

Speaking of never boring, I went slightly out of order to save my favorite show of the fall for last: I couldn't be more in love with American Horror Story. Here is a show that's completely batshit and over-the-top yet has a clear set of rules and followed them closely (I only caught them break them once, and it was shocking to me because I'd been so lulled into the show making perfect sense within its fucked up premise). Never have so many great actors (Jessica Lange! Connie Britton! Frances Conroy! Denis O'Hare! Zachary Quinto!) been given such opportunities to chew so much scenery. It's the perfect Ryan Murphy show, since he doesn't have to sustain character consistency over multiple seasons, and in this world he can be as insane and nonsensical as he wants. But also? I actually thought it was really good. I genuinely cared about the characters. Sometimes "caring about" meant "hating," but the stakes were so high that that was okay too. I cared very much that a vengeful ghost would murder Ben. For all the craziness there was a real sadness too, with unhappy people who were literally trapped in their situations forever. It was genuinely scary and creepy and also frequently funny (spin-off with Christine Estabrook's realtor character please!) and there wasn't a single episode that didn't work for me (I'm sure it helped that there were only 13 of them). I get that it wasn't for everyone, but it was so so very much for me. As we were watching the finale I said, "I actually wish this hadn't been renewed because this was sort of a perfect season of television and a perfect way to end it." We didn't know at that point that they were hitting the reset button on the whole thing. I obviously think that's smart, since I would have been happy to just see it end, but I'm also not sure I want to watch them try again. Part of what I loved was how it wasn't like anything I'd ever seen on TV before. That can't possibly be true anymore.

And that's the fall TV season! In late February! Oops. I guess I should get right on the spring now if I'm to have any hopes of finishing by August. But I have some other catch up to do first. And I've been doing something crazy lately: Reading books.