SQOG - the Sasquatch Blog

****All the posts below are bigtime SPOILERS if you haven't seen, read, or heard the entertainment I am talking about. Look at the post heading for the day and decide if you want to be spoiled on that topic or not.****

August 2011 posts

 

-Friday, September 30th, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #6: Our Mrs. Reynolds

Sneaky SaffronContinuing with my retro-reviews of the much-loved FIREFLY episodes, oh man, this is a good one, Our Mrs. Reynolds is one of the best constructed episodes of television I’ve ever witnessed. It has heaps of comedy, thrills, and character exploration. The episode has twists upon turns, but never gets confusing, and leaves a viewer feeling smart and satisfied, like they just consumed a wonderful mean. And it has one of my favorite endings to a FIREFLY episode yet. All this, and this only ties for 3rd for me in the list of Best FIREFLY episodes. Crazy, huh? Shows what great stuff we have to look forward to. This episode to me, shows the amazing versatility that Joss Whedon is capable of. From BUFFY and ANGEL, we are used to tragic reversals and characters dying whenever Joss is the writer. We can also always expect exceptional dialogue from his pen. But the construction and comedy of this episode shows that Whedon is capable of so much more a writer. And there are so many great lines here, I’m going to be quoting all over the place. In the original out-of-order Fox episode schedule, this episode aired 3rd, just after Bushwhacked, which boggles my mind. There is a whole lot of character comedy here, but I think it fits better as 6th in the order because we have been given time to learn about these characters, about Mal and Inara’s love dance, about Jayne’s badass-ness, so the comedy is more knowledgeable. I certainly would have enjoyed seeing this episode 3rd in the airing order, but I would have been confused and not nearly as impressed. This episode introduces us to ‘Saffron’ played by a pre-MAD MEN Christina Hendricks, and she does a fantastic job here playing a variety of different characters. Let’s dig in!

Love that western carriage beginning, just the thing to get us right onboard with our loveable, yet powerfully ugly crew. But they do something really interesting here with this sequence that undercuts the action and lets the audience know that this holdup isn’t all that important. Look how they cut from Zoe’s badass leap from the carriage, right to the dancing, at 1:30. It’s almost like the editor got bored halfway through the fight and wanted to move on to something more interesting. Some might think this is just an editing error, but I think it’s cooler than that. It’s a subtle way for the episode to show us that we shouldn’t get too involved with the thrills of this scene, we know everything is going to work out, the creators know everything is going to work out, hell even your dog probably knows everything is going to work out, so let’s just skip ahead to the meat of the story, shall we? A small little editing choice that is unique and lets us know how much attention was lavished on each second of this show. Love the drunken dancing, again showing how this crew is a family and enjoy getting absolutely blasted with each other. But I liked the emotional counterbalance with Book saying prayers over the dead men. Yes, we are celebrating, but we must remember that men died to get us there. Neat little note of sobriety.

Once Saffron stows away on board and reveals that she was married to Mal in a drunken ceremony the previous night, all manner of comedy ensues, and it is just so much fun to see all the characters bouncing off each other with the revelation of this news. Part of what makes this smart writing is how no one reacts in the same way; Jayne is jealous, Zoe bemused, Kaylee sympathetic for the girl, Wash so so happy, Simon above it all, Inara pissed. I love how Saffron’s mere presence upsets the delicate balance of Wash and Zoe’s marriage. It also results in one of my favorite lines ever, from the clip above at 8:00, which should sound familiar to anyone who went to college:

MAL: (softly) How drunk was I last night?
JAYNE: Well I don’t know, I passed out.

I want to talk about River here though, because she isn’t around much for this episode. I’ll spoil the story and reveal that Saffron is actually a con woman, pretending to be an innocent farmgirl so that she can steal the ship and kill the crew. We don’t learn this until much later, and I, for one, was completely sold by her bashful prairie-girl demeanor. But look closely at the first scene with everyone’s reactions, from the clip above at 7:32, at River’s reaction to Saffron’s story. She knows that Saffron is a liar, you can see it in her dismissive face. Therefore, in order to have a story, River needed to be put aside for a while, but what a great small reaction shot that subtly reveals that there is more to Saffron then we are led to believe. Love Book’s moral teasing to Mal, If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell; a level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre, and then how he pops back around the corner like a preacher jack-in-the-box to remind Mal again, The special hell. I think it’s a sign of the fine writing of comedic episodes to have lines that repeat and gain importance through the episode. Whedon does this here with the ‘Special hell’ line, the hilarious ‘Woah, good bible/myth’ line, and the geese juggling story. It makes the audience feel like the script is smart to hear these dialogue couplets appear again, it’s a neat little trick.

This comedic story gives Nathan Fillion a showcase in funny reaction shots. He has uncomfortable mugging/surprise down pat! While his reactions never fail to make me laugh, my favorite reaction of his is when he responds to Saffron asking him if he’s allow her to wash his feet, from the clip above at 13:50. That non-rxn blank look to Zoe and Wash, then his turn away never fails to get a guffaw out of me. Inara is very cool during all this, but she has one great moment, when she kicks Mal out of her shuttle with a rushed yell, that belies the passionate anger she is experiencing. And one clever turn on a phrase when Jayne hilariously tries to trade Vera, his most favorite gun, for Saffron, Well, my days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle. Adam Baldwin’s comedic timing can not be underestimated, listen to his incredulity in this part, and how lovingly he talks about Vera.

Tragically, there is a big part of Mal that actually is attracted by the kind of life Saffron has to offer. He talks about children in a bemused way, as if the thought isn’t all that terrifying to him. She gets him to open up about his childhood on Shadow, and even that little tidbit explains so much about our dear Captain and his thoughts on what forms a family. He tries so hard to resist Saffron and her ample bosoms, but in the end, you can’t hate him for giving in, they are technically married. Fillion is just gold in the bedroom scene. When Saffron’s true self is revealed, it makes her seduction scenes all the more fun because now we know she is playing a role. Poor lovely Wash, you really got to give that guy some credit for being so beholden to his wife, and resisting Saffron’s sweaty earthy charms. Marriage must be a custom that probably seems antiquated to this future society. And the scene between Inara and Saffron, just so cool to see two titans of seduction squaring off. Saffron reads people so well, her line to Inara saying that she is ‘Malcolm Reynold’s widow’ ensures her escape because she can see how strongly Inara feels for Mal. She knows Inara will run to find the Captain rather than try and stop her Saffron.

If possible, everything gets even more fun. If you’ve been reading these recaps, you know I am a huge fan of the love/hate relationship between Mal and Inara. And I love Inara in the scene where she kisses a drugged Mal, then fakes her way out of a doctor’s inspection by saying that she fell and knocked herself out. And another great Fillion sequence on the bridge, at 3:50, with him trying to convince everyone that he was taken advantage of while Wash and Kaylee are working. Wash’s exasperated, OK! Everybody not talking about sex in here, everybody else, elsewhere! And even in a packed comedic/thriller episode like this one, I love that Whedon still has space to put in another Book line that shows he knows far more about criminals than any preacher should. I find it fascinating that when Mal realizes that the trap is a net, he is talking to Book. It’s a cool little note about Mal’s non-intrusive personality that he clearly knows about Book’s vast knowledge, but never pressures Book to reveal his past secrets. Nice character beat. The crew figure out how to escape the trap, mostly relying on Jayne and his big gun, and they live to hunt down Saffron and get their shuttle back. Saffron comes back to haunt Serenity in a later episode called Trash that isn’t nearly as successful as this one. Part of it is that Joss didn’t write that episode, but another part of it is that Hendricks in full sarcastic sociopath mode is a character best handled in small doses. Not sure why, but after time, she begins to grate, maybe I’ll figure out why when I get to the later episode.

Anyhoo, we get to the end, which I adore. Mal comes back to talk to Inara, clearly not believing that Inara bumped her head and passed out in Mal’s room earlier. It’s a big moment, for Inara and us, because we think that Mal is going to put the pieces together and that he knows that Inara kissed him. Maybe finally these two will have their attraction out in the open. Inara’s admits that she didn’t fall and bump her head, then Mal smiles and admits, I knew you let Saffron kiss you! and walks out all smug and satisfied. What a perfect little narrative shuffle there. All the pieces are there, but Mal, like a horny teen, follows his prurient interest and puts together a not-unreasonable theory that Inara kissed Saffron and didn’t want to admit that she fell for Saffron’s seduction techniques. It's not a crazy conclusion, so its easy to buy Mal figuring it out this way. That frustrated/disappointed look on Inara’s face as she watches giddy Mal bounce out of her shuttle is a priceless way to end such a delightful episode. This is really the beginning of FIREFLY’s hot streak, because the next 4 or 5 episodes we get are all gold. Can’t give enough credit to the writers for crafting such a great episode, there just isn’t a part of Our Mrs. Reynolds that I don’t like. Please stop reading my yammering and go watch it for yourself!

COOLEST ACTION/WESTERN MOMENT: Oh come on, this is totally that very first scene with the wagon being hijacked in the river. Look at that awesome first shot descending down on the wagon, filmed in high shutter speed so you can see the sunlight stuttering in the lens. This is all iconic Western imagery here, from the horses dancing through the sun-drenched water to the muddy-rich color palette at play. And kickass Zoe’s flying shotgun leap from the caravan that I wrote about above, she is just such the warrior goddess.

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: Maybe its not an digital effects shot, but I can’t get enough of how faithful FIREFLY is to the idea that space has no sound. It constantly amazes me that they stick to that reality. So for me, the coolest shot is of Jayne’s bigass gun, Vera, silently firing through the face mask of a spacesuit, disabling the net and killing the bad guys. 

 

-Thursday, September 29th, 2011: MATRIX REVOLUTIONS - Trinity's sky

No sun, no tanThe MATRIX trilogy certainly became a series of diminishing returns. The first movie is great for what it is; a film with some truly mind-bending, ground-breaking special effects that unfortunately felt the need to hammer home the Christ metaphor. It was fun, especially with Hugo Weaving’s delicious turn as ‘Agent Smith’ and that wonderfully heady reveal about the nature of the Matrix. I thought that the second movie introduced a lot of interesting points, even if it started to suffer from bloat, especially during that waaaaaay too long ‘Burly Brawl’ between Neo and a bajillion Smiths in the park fight. But the freeway fight captured some of the jaw-dropping magic of the first film, I really enjoyed the talk with the Architect, and I remember some wondrously crazy speculations online after Neo appeared to have powers outside the Matrix. Was the ‘real’ world just another level to the Matrix?! The third film, MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, was a real stinker in my mind. It dropped the ball about Neo’s powers, revealing their origin to be disappointingly vague. We were forced to drown under a sea of war clichés, though I’m not as bothered as some were by the girl-power missile duo led by Marvin Gaye’s daughter. But God, that yelling overacting General in the mech-suit made me want to stick my fingers in my ears. BRAVEHEART this is not. And really, I know it’s still considered to be cool and gangsta, even though the trend is 10 years old by this point, but did the mech suits really need to cock their guns to the side, at :51, to look badass?? I’m not even really sure what happened in the end, though the final fight with Smith and Neo was pretty fun. If Neo's goal was to get everyone out of the Matrix, didn't he utterly fail? At the end, it seems there is a peace, but the Matrix and its enslavement of millions will still continue. Wha?! I think what the 2nd and 3rd films lost was a sense of fun. They were so bleak and self-serious. Trinity and Neo are running around, grunting in monotone about how much they love each other in their goth S&M gear, but the tone of the film is so cold, it feels laughable to believe them.

There is one moment in the 3rd film that really worked for me. When the atmosphere of dull dread and the color scheme of sickly green and gray gave way to something beautiful. Near the end of the movie, Trinity is trying to take blinded Neo to the Machine City in a hovercraft. When Neo is unable to mentally detonate the hundreds of missiles fired at the ship, Trinity takes the ship up in the air and for a moment she breaks through the permanent black cloud layer covering the planet. The ship floats silently into the blue and the sun paints the sky like a Renaissance watercolor. With sun shining in her eyes for the first and last time, Trinity is overcome by emotion. Her face is stunning, a mix of awe and soul-crushing regret. In the bright light, she looks naked, and I remember thinking that this is real emotion, not the mechanical lust between her and Neo. Their ship descends back into their tech hell, Trinity peeking out as the sun disappears like a thirsty person lusts for water, but we never forget that moment in the light and how much better it is up there. Trinity dies soon after and has a laughably extended death scene so she can go through a couple pages of clichéd love platitudes. But somehow it’s all okay because she saw the sun. I like to think that her last thoughts weren’t of wooden Neo, but of the brilliant blues and golden-hued clouds that still exist in her world. I’ve never been one to believe that the Wachowski Brothers were forced into turning the MATRIX into a trilogy. They were already a modestly successful directing team and would not have been enticed by money. I’m sure they had the three films worked early in the writing process and once the first was a success, it allowed them to finish their ultimate expanded universe vision. This was their vision and the story they wanted to tell, I just don’t like how conventional and lazy they got with their storytelling by the end. Though the hints were there before. The badly veiled religious metaphors in the first film were equally lazy. The Wachowskis have suffered recently due to the mammoth failure of SPEED RACER, but I hope they come back soon, they are a unique visual team that deserves to keep making worthy films. Their influence can be felt all over one of my favorite action movies, V FOR VENDETTA, and that they are capable of that kind of emotionally involving film, coupled with the Trinity-in-the-sun scene, shows me that they are capable of far more than cool action and cool aesthetics. They can craft stirring moments and those kind of artists are in short supply in our action movie landscape. Come back Wachowskis!

 

 

 

-Wednesday, September 28th, 2011: LOTR - Fellowship of the Ring

Was Elijah Wood chosen for his lovely blue peepers?I was out at dinner the other night with my sister, and we started geeking out about movies and television like we so often do. We got onto one of our old well-traveled digressions about the awesomeness of LORD OF THE RINGS. Sitting there, talking about our favorite parts of the series just made me miss that trilogy again, so I spent the next week watching all 3 movies again, revisiting a world I hadn’t been to in a while. I see the success of the LOTR movies as an enormous fluke. Sure, there are great battles and epic landscapes, the films themselves were critically acclaimed and this is an adaptation of a beloved book trilogy, but this is hard fantasy here, sentimental and emotional stories about elves, wizards, dwarves, and little people. How did this appeal to so many people?! To reach those kind of box office numbers, you have to have 4-quadrant penetration, so girls, boys, men, and women all went to see these movies. Now I can understand that kind of appeal for something like TITANIC, but I don’t get it with LOTR. I just have a hard time believing that soccer moms and inner city kids lined up equally to see this trilogy, but the box office bears that theory out. I shamelessly love these films. And for the record, I like the 1st movie the best, then the 3rd, then the slightly uneven 2nd.  I was never a fan of the original Tolkien books. When I was younger, I struggled through ‘The Hobbit’ and gave up on the Lord of the Rings trilogy halfway through ‘Two Towers’. Too many names to remember, too much walking around from place to place, and too many people with more than 3 names for themselves. So though I planned to see the 1st movie, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, I was in no hurry to do so. When my sister finally dragged me to the theaters over Christmas Break in 2001, I was blown away. The combination of scope and intimacy that Peter Jackson strikes in his little kingdom of New Zealand felt like nothing I had seen in film storytelling before. Talk to film people and they will bring up BEN-HUR and the David Lean epics as examples of grandeur and passion. And while I appreciate those older films, I can admit that they weren’t made for someone of my generation who is used to faster-paced cinematic storytelling. Jackson makes a driving, emotional, action-packed modern epic that stands its ground with the great titles of the past. But enough about me, let’s skip ahead and dive into some of my favorite parts from LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.

Yes, its quite the exposition info dump at the beginning, but it works because the lyrical Cate Blanchett narrative is partnered with some stunning images. That Sauron fight has little moments that just rock and show how unique this film series is going to be. I love how the arrows whip Elrond’s hair around as they zip by, perilously close to his face. Very cool. And the massive thud of Sauron’s defeated helmet falling to the ground is awesomely satisfying, even if we really have no emotional connection to the story yet. I was worried about that, this quick start in battle that was just action with no emotion, that it might be like this the whole way through. Boy, was I ever wrong. The sequence of Gandalf returning to the Shire is my favorite part of the entire series. The iconic music and the pastoral images of these silly little people make you feel like you are wrapped in a warm blanket of peace and tomfoolery. But I can’t possibly praise Ian McKellan’s performance as ‘Gandalf’ enough. He is returning to these Hobbits and you can see that an immense weight that is lifting off his shoulders as enters this wonderful world. Gandalf looks like a man remade, like he had forgotten how to be fun and light and playful until he had come back to the Shire. And the thing that McKellan shows you, just with his eyes and bearing, is that he misses those light parts of himself and is sorrowful that it has been so long since allowed himself to feel at peace. This kind of performance in a fantasy film is part of what allows these movies to transcend LOTR geekery. Who among us hasn’t felt that sigh of contentment when we return home after a long absence. Universal connecting emotion. I think my favorite moment of this sequence is when Gandalf is getting fireworks from the tent, cackling like a demented child. Gandalf is the grounded center of the film, which is why it so horrifying when he falls.

It’s so funny that Peter Jackson was put in charge of this $300 million+ enterprise in the first place, considering his odd past. Before LOTR, he was mostly known for making extremely gory and weird horror films. But placed within this emotional and fantastical world, Jackson is able to get away with a lot of weird little moments that harken back to his strange days. I look at the last scene between Bilbo and Gandalf when they argue over the Ring. There are so many tone shifts in this scene, from the pettiness of Bilbo to the terrifying reveal of Gandalf’s true nature to the lovely bit when Bilbo leaves his home and the Ring and immediately feels both lesser and better than he did a few minutes before. But this is strange stuff here. The Black Riders are terrifying creations that belong in a horror movie and part of the fun is watching those horror movie influences but up against the innocence of the hobbits. I loved how the worms wriggle out of the ground when the Rider is looking for Frodo over the tree root. The Riders are relentless, but I love their imposing elegance. They move smoothly, with a stateliness that somehow makes them creepier. Think of that stunning shot of the terrified hiding barman in the Prancing Pony, the pointed swords of the Riders flowing horizontally behind him. Or the way the Riders stand over the beds with their swords in some kind of traditional pose, the same way they attack the Hobbits en masse when they are alone on top of the hill. These motions imply that these Shadow Kings still hold on to some of their traditions, some of their dead personalities and that is uniquely frightening. Or look at the fight between Gandalf and Saurumon. There is some crazy heightened action here between two senior citizens pointing sticks at each other. I mean at one point, Gandalf is rotating in the air on his head like a broken record. I love this weird little fight about invisible power and will.

Ugh, this is getting way too long and I haven’t gotten anywhere, I’m going to have to speed this up. Love Viggo Mortenson’s ‘Aragorn’. He brings a manly intense soulfulness to the character that I can’t imagine from any other performer. He is burdened by his history, but yearns to do the right thing and break from his line. Love that character. The Arwen horse chase is fantastically tense because there are two threats working together, the ticking clock of Frodo’s death and the Black Riders advance. And Liv Tyler probably does the best acting of her career as she starts to lose Frodo to the darkness. Her tremulous empathy for Frodo is deeply touching as is her begging for him to stay. I love the forming of the Fellowship, finally meeting all the other characters. And yet, the defining moment of that scene is Gandalf’s reaction to Frodo’s unheard shouts that he will take the Ring to Mordor. He closes his eyes in pain and gratitude and the acknowledgement of the inevitability that this is the only way. I love how protective Gandalf is of these hobbits and how McKellan expresses that to the audience. What a lovely humanizing moment to have Frodo lead this group of warriors and kings, but not know which way to turn out of the main gate.

Part of the fun I find in these films is that Peter Jackson doesn’t rely on just one type of special effect, he really uses them all. At times, its like a tour through the history of special effects. He is obviously on the cutting edge of effects with WETA and the development of the MASSIVE software which allowed him to render armies of independent soldiers. Gollum was the first fully-realized CGI character ever created. But Jackson also uses a ton of blue/green screen mattes, along with fantastic painted backdrops. Then he also uses simple tricks to sell the size differences of the hobbits, using dwarves in some scenes as body doubles or staging complicated split-room scenes that place Gandalf closer to the camera to make him appear to be so much larger than Frodo. There is one great shot as the Fellowship makes its way up the mountain and Frodo drops the Ring. It lies there in the snow, beautiful and brilliant against the blinding white. Apparently, the LOTR team built an enormous 2 foot-wide Ring prop for that scene so that they could get that certain angle on the Ring in the snow. That’s an effect that reminds of what Hitchcock used to do, creating a 3 foot-wide showerhead in the PSYCHO shower sequence so he could get a shot in the pouring water. This blending of various forms of effect is ingenious, because it always keeps us guessing and distracts us from looking for the seams in the visual palette.

The whole Mines of Moira sequence is stunning, both visually and emotionally. The breadth of those mines, the first time Gandalf lights the Main Hall, the palpable sense of awe felt by all the characters. The terror of those drums from the deep. 10 years later, and this is still one of the better action sequences in film history. The long quiet journey, the accident of the bucket, the Cave Troll, the skittering goblins, the videogame-like puzzle of the falling stairs, the teasing reveal of the mammoth Balrog, and finally the tragedy. That mean mean death of Gandalf. This is still one of the better death sequences filmed, it is harrowing and tragic and edited perfectly. That gritty badass “Thou shall not pass” moment, McKellan leaving nothing behind with his intensity, and the fact that we thought Gandlaf had won. Then that sneaky little fire whip that grabs his ankle. I love how powerful Gandalf was in the fight, but then how scared and old he looks hanging on to that little spit of rock. We feel like, how could he have defeated a being of fire and dark, yet not pull himself up onto the bridge? But we buy it, because we are sold on how drained he is from that fight. I dare you not to feel something as the camera sits on Gandalf’s dirty, frightened, sad face, as he grunts out his last selfless line, “Fly you fools,” and slips into the darkness. That sudden slip is so quick, I remember the entire theater collectively gasp when that happened. Jackson definitely milks that death, but he needs to. Gandalf was our rock and we need to see how this decimates the Fellowship. I love how silent it gets, with that mournful track overhead as each member reacts in their own way. Frodo’s screaming as Boromir carries him away. Aragorn’s stunned numbness, how he waits around, desperately trying to think of what he can do. I like how Aragorn gets tough, insisting they move on, but listen to the tender way he whispers, “On your feet, Sam.” What a leader. And Boromir gets a nice moment of empathy, pleading for his little friends to have a moment of grief. Just an amazingly naked emotional scene and it is this depth of care and love that the people of Middle-Earth are fighting for. They may be dwarves and elves and hobbits, but they love and grieve just as strongly as we do.

I’m going to zip ahead here, because honestly, the Galadriel stuff doesn’t do much for me. I know we need a break between Gandalf’s death and the final battle, but I just don’t get a lot of what is going on here. I re-read the LOTR books after seeing this trilogy in 2004, and I remember that the Galadriel stuff was explained more, but frankly, I could do without. I love the dual temptation scenes that are played out between Boromir and Aragorn. Sean Bean does a tremendous job with Boromir in this section. He is angry and pathetic and impotent, but somehow manages to turn his failures into one last heroic stand. I love his ending with Aragorn and how much he sacrifices to try and right his wrong with Frodo. And then Aragorn, fully feeling the temptation of the Ring but making a different choice by trusting and Frodo and realizing his own limitations as a man. And that is what makes Aragorn king-material. Not his skills with a blade or his morality, but his acknowledgement of his own faults. And that sad line to Frodo, “I would have gone with you to the end.” What a brutal fight between Aragorn and the Uruk-Hai, wow! There are so many cool moments here, from the flying sword that impales Aragorn against the tree to how Aragorn is able to deflect a thrown knife with his sword. Mortenson makes you feel his exhaustion and pain, and when he finally beheads the Uruk-Hai with a last surge of desperate strength, it is a stand-up-and-cheer moment of explosive relief that got whoops and hollers from the audience I was with. Legolas gets his contractual movie cool moment, stabbing one orc with an arrow, then shooting another with the same arrow. He also gets to mow down orcs in one of the smoothest and most effectively cool demonstrations of the bow and arrow ever. But the ending is what works for me. Frodo alone on the shore of the lake, listening to the sounds of his friends dying, lost and scared. And then Gandalf’s voice breaks in, and its surprising to us and to Frodo, his steadying cadence and passion and love shining through each word as he says “All you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to you.” Then we get that breathtaking shot, looking up at Frodo’s tear-stained face, the bleak sun playing like a halo over his head as he finds his mettle and makes the hard decision. The voiceover and the visuals and the music make this scene the most powerful of the film, and it will always be my goal in filmmaking to come up with a scene that is even a tenth as emotional as this one. And poor sweet child-like stubborn Sam swimming after Frodo with that lovely line after Frodo says he is going to Mordor alone, “Of course you are . . . and I’m coming with you.” And for a second, I thought Sam was dead, and that really would have been too much. Such an innocent soul, one more death would have been far too much for the audience to bear. And so they go, but I also love the realization of the remaining Fellowship that they have failed but have a new mission. You can feel that energy as Aragorn lays out their plan for retrieving their friends. They have new purpose and hope and it is thrilling and invigorating and propulsive. The men disappear, sprinting off into the woods and I was so excited for them that I wanted to be sprinting with them on this new adventure. This whole sequence is keyed up so well by Jackson, I can’t really express how exhausting and satisfying the whole final sequence is, with the fights, betrayals, deaths, realizations, and partings. OK, that’s it, I am stopping now. There is so much more I want to talk about. The awesome one shot that moves from the fires of Isengaard to the purity of the flying moth, matched with a single singer on the soundtrack, then descends back down to the clanking iron of the fire pits. How Tolkien’s fear of industrialization becomes clear with Sauromon’s butchering of his lands. No! Stop! I’m done!! TWO TOWERS next month!

BEST SHOT: Well, I already talked about it, but without a doubt, its that shot of Frodo crying on the beach, that moves from below his face with sun shining over his head, to face-level as he hears Gandalf's words and makes his decision to continue on to Mordor alone. It's a simple camera movement up, but in that transition and through the music, we move from a feeling of loss and fear to a straight-on moment of determination. There are a lot of stunning shots in this film, but this one is my favorite because it ties visuals, music, voiceover, and pltting into one expressive shot.

BEST ACTION: Already talked about too, but the final fight between Aragorn and the Uruk-Hai. Just a brutal, desperate battle. It feels like all form was thrown out of the window and Aragorn is fighting from a place of fear and exhaustion. Survival fighting. There is no grace here, just a brutal muddy clash that is thrillingly intense and you feel a physical sense of relief when Aragorn triumphs and falls to the ground spent.

 

 

-Tuesday, September 27th, 2011: SEVEN - Chase Scene

Mills & SomersetSomewhere in my sophomore year of college in New York, I finally figured out that I wanted to work in film. As I took all the required film courses, I realized how few ‘classic’ films I had actually seen. For a year in a small cramped dorm room, I ran my little TV/VCR unit to the point of ruin on rented tapes from Kozmo.com. PSYCHO, CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, BEN HUR, GOODFELLAS, GODFATHER, and many many more. As a break, I would occasionally pop in more recent films that were considered to be ‘modern classics’. After popping in SEVEN, I needed to take a break from movies for about a week. Maybe it was the innocent Minnesota boy in me, but so much of SEVEN was just too much for me. This movie disgusted me, it felt infected and dirty, like it planted a bug under my skin. It’s a depiction of a hell city and the scuzzy immoral denizens of that hovel. The depths of human depravity. But I was still utterly enthralled by the talent being shown in the directing, the lighting, the editing, the production design, and the story. It was a paradox for me, and it took me awhile to get to a place where I could respect a work for its skill and ability to manipulate me while also being horrified by the subject matter. These days, I can absolutely appreciate the striking things that David Fincher accomplished with this film. I think there are some flaws, but for the most part, Fincher built one hell of a setup and followed through with a wicked denouement that fulfilled the promise. My big problem has always been how Morgan Freeman’s character, ‘Somerset’, gets minimized in the ending. Somerset is more intelligent than Mills and can verbally spar with John Doe, like he does excellently in the car. But when the big reveal comes about what is in the box, the movie shrinks to Brad Pitt’s ‘Mills’ and the evil John Doe. I think the screenwriters could have done a better job of making this a three-man finale. Even though it is an amazingly sick moment when John drops that bomb on Mills, that his wife was pregnant (incredibly performed by Kevin Spacey), I think it could have been twisted further. What if John Doe pushed the point that Somerset also knew about the baby and had never told Mills? What if that caused Mills to threaten Somerset and question his choice of actions? What if Somerset, intent on saving Mills’ career and soul, decided to murder John Doe himself? There are many possible permutations of that final scene, and though I was blown away by what was filmed, I can’t help but wish the ending had used Somerset in a more impactful way. Plus, I really am not a fan of that Hemingway voiceover quote that gets thrown in the very last scene. Though it’s a clever twist of phrase, it sticks out, like it belongs in another film. I much prefer Somerset’s noir-ish last line, “Oh, I’ll be around.” I love Morgan Freeman’s calm performance at the center of this film, his horror at these acts allow us to latch on to him as an ethical rock in this sea of filth. He is particularly good in the quiet and funny dinner scene with Mills and his wife, a scene that shows there is still room for hope and levity in this world. And his frank advice that makes Tracey cry in the diner scene is lovely.

What I really want to talk about is the John Doe chase scene that occurs in the middle of the film. I wouldn’t call SEVEN an action film, but the extended foot chase between Mills and Doe is an unbearably tense sequence that really gooses the whole film. Now, I have never been an enormous fan of Brad Pitt’s acting ability. I think he phones in a good deal of his performances and relies too heavily on character tics to sell personality. And I am still torn about his job in this film. His screams of “Oh God!!” in the final shootout feel overdone, but I do like the shocked/confused/questioning/almost innocent look on his face as he shoots John Doe and continues to pump him full of bullets. But Pitt does a tremendous job in this chase sequence. The way he handles his gun during the chase is like nothing I have ever seen done in a film before or since. He ‘paints the corners’ of each room with his gun before moving on, covering potential blind spots in a frantic yet methodical method. I’m not sure how realistic this type of gun handling is, but it feels authentic, like something cops actually do. Audiences love to see new twists on traditional action and Pitt’s gun skills add a lot to this chase. I also love how frightened Pitt is during the chase, he looks like he is expecting to be shot at any moment and that is a level of insight we don’t often see in movie gun battles. Look at his face at 2:20 as he breaks down a door. He seems to be holding his breath in expectation of a bullet to the face.

There are so many amazing visual shots in this scene, it’s hard for me to list them all. The shaky-cam really gets you into the chase, especially when the camera jumps in reaction to bullets being fired. I love the shot of Mills running across the top of the containers, pigeons scattering from his path. At 4:14, that awesome downwards shot, rain pouring past the lens, as Mills swings onto the fire escape. The end alley scene is filled with creative and iconic shots that are hard to get out of one’s head. Look at 5:39 at John Doe’s looming reflection in a puddle of water, its straight out of a German expressionist film like DR CALIGARI. Or the extreme POV shots of Mills looking up at John Doe when the gun is to his head, the gun in focus in the lower corner, Doe just a menacing blurry figure of Death above. Or at 6:05, when Doe whips the gun away with almost superhuman speed, disappearing like a phantom. And all through this, the rain is pouring, beading on guns, pouring off faces, still unable to wipe away the stains of the city. Real time and talent went into the creation of the chase scene in SEVEN, and it demonstrates how meticulous Fincher is in his films. There are no accidental scenes, no insert shots passed off to the Assistant Director. Fincher has a reason for every shot, every cut, and no matter how dark and horrifying his material, it’s nice to know that each of his films showcase a master at the top of his game. Can’t wait to see DRAGON TATTOO this winter!

 

 

 

-Monday, September 26th, 2011: BREAKING BAD - Crawl Space

Walt as the JokerMan, is there any doubt that this is the best show on television?! After the last few seasons, I judge this show on a pretty damn high curve. Crap that I suffer through in shows like GLEE or CASTLE or BURN NOTICE, is not something that I expect or even tolerate with BREAKING BAD. So, I’ll admit that I was starting to get a little bit down on the middle part of this fourth season. There was still some killer stuff; like Jesse’s speech, begging someone to make him take responsibility for killing Gale in last season’s finale. Or Hank’s long presentation to the DEA, explaining his theory of Gus Fring as a meth mastermind. This speech is pure exposition, information that the audience already has, but Hank delivers it with such zeal and showmanship, that I felt like applauding by the end. Or Gus’s badass Terminator walk into the bullets, supremely confident that he was too valuable to the cartel to murder. Or the sliding Walt, so confident in the beginning of the season with his terrifying ‘I’m the one who knocks’ speech to Skylar, brought down so low. Between his crying to his son and his desperation laughs in the crawl space, Bryan Cranston better clear some room on the shelf for another Emmy, because after being out of the race this year due to show scheduling, Cranston can’t lose in the next Emmy race.

See? So many great moments in the mid-season, yet I am still admitting that it was losing my interest! That is a damn high standard. I think it felt to me like the show was repeating itself a bit. We had multiple scenes of Walt doing something dangerously stupid and overconfident, but not suffering consequences. Then we had Jesse’s slow transformation into Gus’s enforcer that seemed to take forever. But these last two episodes have started twisting the patented BREAKING BAD crank, ratcheting up the tension to a near-unbearable level. First we had Gus’s fantastically realized scheme to overthrow the cartel. The poisoning sequence was stunning, especially how it echoed Gus’s first time at that pool and how Gus still nearly died from the poison, despite his use of antidote pills. This is a huge action scene, but look at all the little touches still there. Like when Gus went to the bathroom to puke up the poison, how he neatly folded a towel on the floor so his knees could have padding as he emptied his stomach. Or later, when Jesse was defending Gus and Mike in the race to the car, look at the split-second pauses and stylized camera angles used here. The crew isn’t trying to be flashy, they are visually calling back to Jesse’s time playing that shooter videogame, ‘Rage’, in the beginning of the season, when he was still trying to move past Gale’s murder. It’s telling that when playing ‘Rage’, Jesse kept flashing back to Gale’s death. Now, later in the season, when Jesse needs to kill again, he is flashing back to the videogame and not Gale. Jesse has moved into a very scary place.

But wow, I was still caught speechless by this past weekend’s episode ‘Crawl Space’. There were two amazing moments that will not be topped in this television season. The first is one of the trademarked BREAKINIG BAD vista landscape scenes. There is clearly a large Western movie influence in this show and occasionally the creators get us out to the broad plains and deserts outside of Albuquerque, treating us with beautiful wide shots that show our characters as small little dots set against the stunning Western scenery. In this scene, Gus is standing, informing a kneeling Walt that he is fired and can’t interfere with Hank’s murder. Walt tries to convince Gus that killing Hank is wrong in a long desperate monologue. This monologue is shot from way back and as we listen to Walt, we see dark clouds pass over the characters, ceaselessly moving towards the horizon. The darkness covers the land until the sun finally breaks out again over the plain. I’m not sure whether this is some commentary on nature’s uncaring character or whether the darkness and light represent the themes, but there is no denying that this is epic cinematic filmmaking here, reminiscent of Leone or the Coen Brothers. TV shows are shot on limited time and budget and I am always so appreciative when a director gives us a new way to appreciate a scene, or even when they just sit and hold a shot, patiently, letting time crawl. It’s not an easy thing to do when networks are clamoring for more commercial act breaks.

The second tremendous moment of this episode is when everything goes wrong in the end. Walt dashes home in a mad panic, desperate to get his family out of town, only to find that the money in the crawl space is gone. Skylar tells him that she gave the money to Ted to shut him up and Walt loses his shit, screaming peals of laughter from under the floor. Skylar then receives a terrified call from Marie and Walt is still there in the background, howling in misery. With a deep, penetrating bass throb on the soundtrack, this scene is scarier than any horror film I have seen. I mean, it’s big in an almost over-the-top manner, but the creative team has done such a good job of building this tension, that it really really works. We have seen this kind of situation a billion times in television; some bad guy threatening the protagonist’s family. But this feels so different, so visceral, like a reality gut-punch. At this point, Vince Gilligan and his team have us so wired that they could make a scene of Walt reading the telephone book an epic sequence of terror and tension. As Skylar is on the phone, we are treated to another stunning shot as the camera backs away from Walt, straight up out of the crawl space, past a bare lightbulb, ascending from Walt’s framed face as he calms down and starts to ponder his next move. The camera trembles as it rises, as if we are some kind of frightened omniscient force, afraid of Walt’s frenzied laughter, slowly backing away from its consequences. Two more episodes left in the season and I am sure I will be back to write more, but I just had to take a sec and appreciate the stunning artistic work done in the last couple episodes.

 

 

 

-Friday, September 23rd, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #5: Safe

Simon and River out for stakePushing onwards with our exploration of the much-loved, but brutally cancelled television series FIREFLY with Episode 5, Safe. Not my favorite episode, but I found that the episode had a lot more to offer than I had originally remembered. I usually pair this one with Bushwhacked as early episodes that I’m not particularly fond of, but this episode has a lot more heart and warmth than the earlier one, qualities that are right up my alley. This is family-building here, and except for some really awful bits, Safe has a lot of strengths. This episode originally aired out of order in 6th position back in 2002. While 6th position isn’t that far off, the studio aired this episode after some huge character episodes like Out of Gas and Jaynestown. Safe is very much still an introduction episode, giving us some more hints about Book and a lot more info on the backgrounds of Simon and River. I feel like this episode needs to be aired before some of the deeper character studies, showing once again how FOX got it all wrong.

Safe continues the delivery from Shindig, showing what happened when Mal and co. attempted to deliver the cattle. I like that sense of continuity; it helps build the world, or just confuses the audience when FOX airs the gorram episodes out of order! First we have a flashback to the Tam residence years ago and hey! There’s Zac Efron playing a young ‘Simon Tam’! And the Tam father already showing what an absolute dick he is. Back in modern times, River is freaking out again. Mal comes down to get her to be quiet, telling Simon that she might cause the cattle to spook. They have a great exchange when River mutters, “The human body can be drained of blood in 8.6 seconds, given adequate vacuuming systems." Mal responds smartly, "See, morbid and creepifying I got no problem with, long as she does it quiet-like." In fact, there are a whole lot of great lines in the beginning part of this episode. Jayne’s response to Mal saying that it is actually easier to lead a herd of cattle, “I like smackin’ ‘em!” Or when River says something weird and esoteric about the cows not being cows inside until they saw the sun, Mal asks, “Is it bad that what she just said makes perfect sense to me?” I love the little bit where Book is quietly advising that Mal should be more wary of his nervous buyers. Mal wants nothing to do with religion, but he still sees Book as a guide of sorts, maybe even a bit of a father figure. Mal respects that Book has a lot of ambiguous past that he is trying to escape. The two of them are the most intuitive of the crew and there are many times where they understand things before anyone else does. I like that dynamic, it’s a very small thing, but it adds so much subtlety to Mal and to the oft-underused Shepherd Book.

One of my favorite moments happens next. Simon is looking for River and finds her at a local Maypole dance. At this point in the series, River is just a tortured and depressed girl, and even though the actress, Summer Glau, was not very experienced at this point, I think she does a great job of telegraphing how awfully fractured and broken her brain is. Well, here we get a lovely moment when she sees a small window of clarity through the madness. At first, she is studying the dancers like she is looking for patterns or doing math about their spatial relations or something. But then look here at 13:13, as the music kicks in and River joins in the dance. She radiates with a big free smile, and for a short time, she is the confident and happy girl that she is supposed to be. No dialogue, just her joyous face spinning in the sun. The character of River can become a little boring in the series, basically because she is always freaking out and never really gets better. But this moment of levity just made my heart break for her plight. And the music of the Maypole dance fits River perfectly; it’s happy, but melancholic too. Wistful and increasingly frantic. And what a wonderful editing decision to intercut the increasing tempo of the dance with the violent shootout occurring over the cattle. It gives the violence a bit of grandeur and threat, composed against the innocence of River. It’s a thoughtful and creative decision that you don’t often see made in the hurried production schedule of network television.

Then River and Simon get kidnapped by religious zealots in the hills. I’m not quite sure what so turned me off about this storyline, but wow, I just found that hillbilly town to be the worst kind of boring Western claptrap. I get that the writers are saying that history repeats itself and there is still religious fanaticism in the future, but does it have to happen the exact same way it did before?? Part of the fun of FIREFLY is the melding of sci-fi into traditional Western stories. I don’t see why there couldn’t have been a futurist angle on the idea of this town of religious extremists. It smacks of lazy writing that they couldn’t come up with a town and clichéd characters that were ripped out of GUNSMOKE. Oh well, much more entertaining is the action shipside. I found it touching just how sweet and supportive Mal and Zoe are with the badly injured Book. Especially that short scene with Zoe and Book, at 6:50. Zoe knows that Book will probably die from these wounds, but when he asks where the doctor is, she smiles and says, “We don’t make him hurry for the little stuff.” Gina Torres doesn’t get a lot of attention for her solid work as ‘Zoe’, mostly because her character is so stiff and unemotional, but the tenderness and competence that she exudes in this scene is heartbreakingly good. And again, I love seeing the different combinations among the cast, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen Zoe and Book have a scene alone. Then we get the big Book mystery when the Alliance sees his ident card and apparently Book is some person of secret high standing in Alliance society. The mystery is never solved in the series (except in a comic released last year, and I wasn’t that fond of that revelation), and in fact, I really like how Book handles this mystery in a certain scene in the SERENITY movie. Mostly, I like that even though Book could have stayed on the Alliance ship, the first thing he says when he wakes in the Serenity medical bay is, “It’s good to be home.” Whatever his vaunted position in the Alliance, Serenity is now Book’s home and family, and that is a choice that Mal can strongly empathize with. Two outcasts, building their own family communities. And of course, we still get some classic hilarious Whedon dialogue, I love it when Mal and Zoe discuss the meaning of the word ‘sanguine’.

Unfortunately, we have to go back to the planet. There is one great bit where the music score is used to redeem a small part of this mess. With the flashbacks, we really begin to see the depth of love that Simon has for River and just how far he is willing to go to protect her. Simon is such a buttoned-up character that I’m not often moved by that realization. But there is a moment, here at 9:50, when Simon is looking up at River tied to the stake, his face so open, so frightened for her, his love plain to see. The music builds and the camera pushes in as he stands beside her to be burned. It’s heroic and sweeping, and the music in that instance really sells their relationship in a way that I didn’t feel through all the flashbacks. It’s a sweet moment that really completes their arc in this episode. Sure, Simon is willing to sacrifice his family and career for River, but now he knows that he would die for her too. Lovely. Then we get another one of the iconic FIREFLY quotes that Browncoat fans use the world over, as Serenity comes to the rescue. Jayne wields a big gun and Mal and Zoe walk up bantering,

MAL: Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
ZOE: Big damn heroes, sir.
MAL: Ain't we just?

Badass. The end of this episode is all gravy for me as it really cements Simon and River as part of Mal’s crew. It proves to Simon that Mal isn’t Tam Senior and he will not abandon any members of his misfit crew.

SIMON: Why did you come back for us?
MAL: You're on my crew.
SIMON: Yeah, but you don't even like me. Why'd you come back?
MAL: You're on my crew. (annoyed) Why are we still talking about this?

What a great exchange. Simon asks his questions almost bashfully, as if he were talking to his father. But Mal doesn’t see a question. Simon has proved his worth and that makes him a part of this family, someone that Mal would die to protect. Simon can be a pain in the ass, River can be a psychotic, and Mal might not like either one of them, but they’re family. And in the cold depths, the passion of that kind of human connection is endearing. The episode ends with the crew boisterously eating a big family meal, driving home the point, and I love it. The plot isn’t being moved forward here, we just spend a couple moments enjoying these characters as they enjoy each other. This is the kind of togetherness that spoke to my drug-addled brain years ago stuck in that basement, this show like a beacon in the dark. Next week brings us a perfectly constructed comedy episode that is as funny as it is satisfying.

COOLEST WESTERN/ACTION MOMENT: I refuse to list any moment from the damn hillbilly town parts, so that's out. Actually, the best Western moment was probably early on, in the teaser, just before the opening titles roll. The bad guys watch Serenity come to port while hunting rabbit. The lead bad guy hangs up a dead rabbit and stabs this massive-ass knife into the tree. Then, in one swift move, he tears all the skin right off the rabbit. Gross, but also undeniably Western cool.

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: There really aren't too many elaborate CGI shots in this episode, it looks like the money was mostly spent on locations. That said, I do like the CGI shot of Serenity approaching the Alliance cruiser. They approach from behind the ship, right between its gigantic blasting engines. Again, the space shots are all silent, so its a very cool juxtaposition between these viscerally powerful engines that in any other space show would be roaring with fervor, and the lonely quiet of space. Again, the shot still feels like something new, and I love how a simple decision to be realistic about the lack of sound in space makes the show feel distinct and unique.

 

 

 

-Thursday, September 22nd, 2011: STTNG - Picard's Flute

Picard's fluteAs I’ve mentioned here before, I grew up watching STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION on a weekly basis. As a kid, I loved this show and even though I can admit that the show’s quality pales in comparison next to most modern television, there is still a special place in my heart for the adventures of Captain Picard and the Enterprise. Just recently, it was announced that the show is going to be released on Blu-Ray next year, something I am strongly looking forward to. The show was never really good-looking, I remember it always looking fuzzy and pastel-y. But I am excited to see what modern tech gurus can do with the unaltered master footage. They are starting off by only mastering a couple episodes; the series premiere, the first big Klingon episode that won an Art Production Emmy back in the day, and ‘The Inner Light’. The best science fiction stories aren’t actually about science fiction, but about finding new ways to experience and explore the human condition. Every now and then, STTNG would showcase an emotional story about humanity that was only possible as a sci-fi tale. One of the best examples of this is ‘The Inner Light’, a quiet story about Captain Picard and a long-dead civilization. The Enterprise runs into a probe out in the depths of space. Before they can do anything, the probe zaps Picard, and he awakens on a strange planet with no memory how he got there. After initially struggling to accept that he has never been a starship captain, but a simple farmer named Kamin all along, Picard lives a lifetime on this world. He has a wife and children, learns how to play the flute, and one day, as a very old man, he watches as his planet launches a probe into space. Picard suddenly wakes up on the Enterprise, surrounded by his medical team. He is confused and shocked to hear that he has only been unconscious for twenty minutes. While only a short period of time passed in the real world, Picard lived a lifetime in his mind. This is how the civilization chose to be remembered, by launching a probe that would make one person live a lifetime on their long-dead world. So that in at least one man’s mind and heart, they wouldn’t be forgotten. The Enterprise takes the probe on board and finds a small box inside. Once he is alone in his quarters, Picard opens the box and finds his flute that he learned to play as Kamin. Sadly, he starts to play, looking out his window, playing for the dead memories of his family and friends.

This is a fantastic episode of television. What a fascinating idea that a man can live an entire lifetime in the span of a few minutes. I would argue that one of our greatest fears as a species is that we won’t be remembered, that our lives won’t matter. This episode directly plays to those fears. No one remembers the dead civilization and now knowledge of their entire race lives in the soul of one man. Because Picard is emotionally entwined with his experiences, he can spread the word through the databases, making sure that this wonderful little civilization will never again be forgotten. I have a few issues with the episode, like, I find it hard to believe that Picard could recover so easily from this experience, with only a few moments of hesitation before he remembers his friends and duties. But I can chalk that up to alien technology or whatever. I love that when Picard wakes up on the alien world, he isn’t mind-wiped or anything, but he thinks he has been kidnapped or is on the holodeck. It’s a much more interesting dynamic to see Kamin struggle to let go of this ‘fantasy’ of Picard as he ages and accept the world and people around him. But it really all comes together for me in that last scene (at 8:00) with Picard and the flute in front of the window. I remember tearing up at this scene when I was a kid and the ache and pain that is written across Picard’s face as he begins to play still gets me every time. I think the emotion in this scene is heightened by the fact that the whole scene is one long shot. Without any cuts to distract us, we stay with Picard for over two minutes as he gets reacquainted with his room, talks to Riker, and opens the box. Shot edits sometimes allow an audience to break away from a character’s emotion because they can recognize the artifice in the filmmaking craft. With a long take, like being in the front row of a dramatic play, there is no escaping the intensity of emotion on display. This long shot reminds me of a famous moment in the original STAR TREK series. Leonard Nimoy, who plays ‘Spock’, was asked to play a scene where he is overcome by emotion due to a virus. Because the film crew short on time that day, the director wanted to take the easy route and cut the scene up into many shots. Long shots take more preparation and rehearsal, so they are often not used in television where speed is of the utmost importance. Nimoy insisted on filming the scene in long take and even though the director stormed off the set, Nimoy was able to get his long shot. Look at that scene. Imagine how much power would be lost here if the scene were cut into various camera angles.

But back to ‘The Inner Light.’ I love that moment when Picard picks up the flute and cradles it against his chest, as if it could warm the empty hole in his heart. It’s a tender, almost child-like gesture that is not like Picard at all. Jean-Luc Picard is a stern, mature authorial figure who is often cold and distant to his crew, rarely prone to displays of emotion. That little cradling gesture reveals to us just how deeply affected the captain is by this experience. He had a family, a wife, grandchildren, that he loved and for all intents and purposes, are now dead.  He moves to the window and begins to play. I love the lonely melody that he has learned and the mournful tune that it carries. It’s a beautiful song that is used in a later episode when Picard reveals his story to a new girlfriend and plays for her. I remember watching this scene as a kid and being amazed that music could be transformed like that. With her piano accompaniment, the simple melody gains depth and richness, becoming a truly stunning melody. It was a bit of an awakening for me at the time, a realization that there was so much more to boring old orchestral music than I had previously thought. Back to the scene, its wonderfully moving to have the camera slowly move behind Picard, silhouetting him alone against the emptiness of space outside his window. It’s wistful and majestic, qualities that are oh so rare in science fiction. It may be dorky as all hell, but part of the reason I got into film was so that I could have a crack at crafting moments like these. I remember watching this episode as a child with my Dad, catching him wiping a quick tear from the corner of his eye when it was done. My father, big company CEO, in many ways like Jean-Luc Picard himself, emotionally moved by a silly television show. It was one of those moments you remember, and I wanted to make people feel like that. For maybe just a minute in their lives, watching TV after a long day’s work, to immerse viewers in a far-away world and make them feel something. That’s something I will always strive for as long as I work in film.

 

 

 

-Wednesday, September 21st, 2011: NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH - Alda Speech

How could this not have played in theaters?!? Farmiga and Beckinsale go at itNOTHING BUT THE TRUTH is a great but tough little movie. It’s one of those intense political films about people and ideas, a full meal of a movie that makes you realize how long it’s been since you’ve eaten. These kinds of smart little movies used to be commonplace, but when studios focus on selling their product to teenagers, these kind of films get dropped along the wayside. Literally, in this case. During post-production, TRUTH’s production company filed for bankruptcy during post-production, so a film starring Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda, Vera Farmiga, Noah Wyle, and directed by THE CONTENDER’S Rod Lurie never actually showed up in theaters. What a freakin’ travesty that such a smart film went straight to DVD because of a lack of funds. Though if you want to catch it, the whole film is on available on Youtube! TRUTH is loosely based on the story of journalist Judith Miller, who was jailed in 2005 for refusing to reveal her source in a story she wrote that identified an undercover CIA operative. The basic idea is there, an ideological debate between national security and the First Amendment. The film takes it further. I mention it’s tough because it is really hard to watch Beckinsale’s character ‘Rachel Armstrong’ go through so much shit just to protect her source. Just when it seems she might have a break of light, they throw her back in prison for something else. It is interesting to discover in yourself when you would have broken and revealed your source. When the government sends you to prison and separates you from your children? When the CIA agent you outed in your article is murdered in her own driveway, leaving her child motherless? When there are hundreds of government employees willing to lie and say they were the source just to get you out of jail? Rachel is upholding a moral line here, but damn, there were times I wanted to scream at the television. Is defending a moral stance worth the destruction of your own family? How much blame should Rachel bear when the CIA agent is murdered? These are wonderfully complex questions, but there is so much more to dig into here. Personally, I loved to see how gender politics suddenly arise in the film when the public begins to turn on Rachel. She makes a good point about the double standard, how a man can go to jail for a principle and he is considered a hero. But a mother sent to jail for a moral stand is seen as a monster. If Rachel gives in, would that mean that a source should never trust a reporter who is a mother?

I love the color palette of the film, its dark, crisp, and immediate with a roving camera that likes to frame faces in corners and behind imposing government bodies. The acting is excellent, especially Alan Alda as a charming and fascinating attorney. Vera Farmiga makes her short scenes crackle, especially when she shares the screen with Beckinsale when the two are at odds. Matt Dillon plays a despicable attorney who really does a good job of showing empathy even while being ruthless. Even at the end, he is being so cruel, mostly just to force Rachel into making the right decision. It’s also fascinating to see that the trial judge is the actual attorney who defended Judith Miller, and he is actually damn good! But it’s Beckinsale that does awards-worthy work here, for the first time in her career, and I wish the film had shown in theaters so that she could have thrown her hat in the Oscars ring. But Alda gives the big speech near the end of the film that is just so damn good, it makes me realize how badly written most film speeches are these days. In the speech, Alda lays out the danger in prosecuting reporters who refuse to reveal their sources. It’s a fascinating speech told with fervor and passion that points out a real problem in the American media/justice system. What a fantastic discourse on the accountability of government and some of the very tough issues that face our existence as a nation. How easy it is to confuse rights with power. Even though all the actions make sense, when Rachel is thrown in prison yet again after Alda’s speech, it was almost becoming Job-like trial that she was being asked to endure. I guess when that much crap is placed on a person it’s easier to distance them from ourselves. If you push Rachel’s plight too far, her pain can be dismissed as ‘There but for the Grace of God go I.’ Rod Lurie often punches up the finales of his films with revelations that tie all the film’s threads together. While not as good a finish as THE CONTENDER, I was still moved by the eventual revelation of who Rachel’s source was. It makes perfect sense and also makes us understand why Rachel has been fighting so hard to protect her. Rachel helped make this little girl an orphan and even though she may be sacrificing her relationship with her son, she is defending not only a moral stance, but the life of a child. We wind up fully on her side and leave the film refreshed, excited to argue politics, morality, and journalistic responsibilities. And when the hell does that ever happen?

 

 

 

-Tuesday, September 20th, 2011: ASSASSINATION - Train Scene

Haunted PittI’ve written before about my fascination with Westerns, their depiction of strife and gritty survival against lonesome and striking landscapes. Part of what strikes me about these films is that the lifestyle of Westerns happened not so long ago. Only one old person’s lifetime away, people had no telephones, no television, none of the creature comforts that we have come to depend on in our lives. If people wanted to travel, they needed to plan for days of horse riding across vast dangerous plains and sleeping out in the open. The rhythm of lives were different, it’s just hard to imagine from a modern point of view how sparse lives were in the first part of the last century. In 2011, we receive hundreds of texts, emails, and phone calls a day, so imagine the import and momentousness of receiving one letter per week from a distant relative. Those letters would be poured over, read multiple times, each word weighed and counted. I would imagine it was a time that demanded reflection and patience in a way inconceivable today. That fascinates me and makes me ponder the exponential increase in living convenience that we experience these days. The unfortunately named THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is an example of a modern Western. Instead of filmed as a violent cowboys-and-Indians type of entertainment, this film attempts to capture the flow of the time, as a kind of psychoanalytical epic. There is so much going on in this film. A smarter critic than I described it as being “a treatise on celebrity, a Victorian account of an era’s last gasp, the cloud of mythology. It’s a sterling elegy to a time, a place, a state of mind.” To really get an idea of the oddness of this film, you should take a look at the first scene. It’s all so new, the unique narration, the interesting blurred edges of the screen that evoke a restless sense in the viewer. And that stunning score written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, fresh of their other orchestral masterpiece on another ultra-modern Western, THE PROPOSITION. In many ways, this film is a study of celebrity and that is what gives it a modern edge. Jesse James was crumbling under the weight of his own legend. The film makes it clear that James crafts his own demise, grooming Robert Ford to be his killer to preserve the gunman’s legacy. James prods the murderous fascination Ford has in the guise of a close friendship, so that when James is finally killed, it feels inevitable. As Peter Bradshaw noted in The Guardian, the title of the film is precisely crafted to be wrong. In fear of the loss of his own legend, Jesse James cowardly assassinates the real Robert Ford personality, corrupting a kid’s shyness and latent whims into a focused tool. Fame was different then. After James’s death, Robert Ford makes his money by reenacting the murder on stage for audiences across the world. By his estimation, he ‘killed’ Jesse James over 800 times. The closest modern comparison I can make to that form of craven entertainment would be if someone paid good money to have Seal Team 6 reenact its killing of Osama bin Laden nightly on a Broadway stage. The idea sounds appalling, but is there really that much of a difference between Ford’s performance on stage and the eventual movie that will be made of bin Laden’s death, possibly using actual members from the Seal team? Maybe fame isn’t that different after all.

And as usual, I find myself light years from the topic I wish to discuss. Narrative parallels and depth aside, ASSASSINATION is also one of the more beautiful films I have ever seen. If you aren’t watching this on a big screen in Blu-Ray, then turn it off. Roger Deakins leached the film stock of much of its color, relying on an interesting palette of blacks and browns. The choice really makes the landscapes pop. There is one scene in particular that is often talked about as one of the most beautifully filmed scenes of the past decade. Check out the train robbery in this clip at 2:21. That deep darkness, then the glaring heavy train light dancing through the trees, playing across the freaky robbery masks of the gang. The music is evocative, setting a mood that makes us appreciate the beauty even more. I like the strange shot of the train hitting the camera and pushing it back along the tracks. After so many still shots of the trees and light, it’s a visceral jolt that heightens the magic of the scene. I love that final threshold framing of Jesse James against the light as the smoke engulfs him. This is bravura filmmaking, something to really be treasured. It evokes mystery and emptiness, quiet terror and intent. I remember seeing this scene in theaters, my jaw hanging somewhere around my belt, wanting desperately to rewind that scene and watch it again. The director, Andrew Dominik didn’t make a blockbuster here, but wow did he film a singular cinematic vision and make sure that it arrived whole to the screen. That rarely happens with a project heavy on star actors and capable of such beauty. Casey Affleck pulls out his strongest work yet and Brad Pitt, an actor whose craft I usually can’t stand, acts this haunted and lonely celebrity role to perfection. I’m still not sure how I feel about the abrupt ending, I feel like it hits the wrong note on the way out. Ford dies sadly, alone, but I wanted more of a wrap-up. That might be the point Dominik is trying to make about the times, but I oh so wanted more. Nonetheless, I feel like ASSASSINATION is a film that will only grow in stature as time passes. Someday it may be called a storytelling masterpiece, but we can already call it a masterpiece in terms of its breathtaking cinematography and poignant score.

 

 

 

-Monday, September 19th, 2011: EMMY AWARDS 2011 - FNL

Poor lost Coach TIt’s hard for me to get through a whole awards show these days. I push through the Oscars, hoping that some surprises might crop up, but I spend most of the time shuffling through on DVR, hoping I can zip through the show in a manageable 2 hours. It’s hard to get worked up about a show where you can reasonably predict all the main categories. Last night was the Emmys, and since I had nothing going on and I had already trimmed my nose hair for this week, I flipped it on. You would think, with my strong love of television that the Emmys would be something I could stand. You would be wrong. But I suffered through and was rewarded with some thrillingly unexpected moments that fought through the stale jokes and unfunny segues. I actually like Jane Lynch as a host, I think she has the right DeGenres-like spirit. Her joke about being a lesbian because of the cast of ENTOURAGE was hilarious. But the only part of the waaaay too long opening number that I actually liked was Don Draper’s cold disgust aimed at Lynch. Ahh, John Hamm can do no wrong. And just because you mock your own song for being schmaltzy and long doesn’t mean that it isn’t still actually schmaltzy and long! And Leonard Nimoy, huh?!? The open in 2010 was actually really good and I wish they had stuck with that Fallon-esque kind of retro-fun. Because again, Hamm do no wrong. And it’s fun to see Jorge Garcia (Hurley) get in on the action. Oh well.

But back to the good parts about 2011. As expected, MODERN FAMILY was sweeping up everything and while I am sure it was deserving of all the kudos, holy crap was I getting bored. But then some crazy shit started happening. In best script for an episode, I thought it was pre-ordained that Matthew Weiner was going to win for his fantastic bottle show, “The Suitcase” on MAD MEN. It was such a release to have these two characters with so much history go at it, especially with Don’s indignant yell, “That’s what the money’s for!” at 1:54. Just an awesome scene. But it didn’t win, instead the Emmy went to never-awarded FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and Jason Katims’s script for the series finale. As readers here now, I am a massive FNL fan, but if I’m being honest here, ‘The Suitcase’ was the better script. But Weiner has a bajillion Emmys already, and as an award to recognize the many years of fabulous unrecognized work on FNL, Katims more than deserved to stand upon that stage. But the best was yet to come. Peter Dinklage justly won for his hilarious and poignant turn as Tyrion in GAME OF THRONES. His speech is a model of appreciation. Margo Martindale delightfully took home a trophy for her work as the awesome poisonous villain in JUSTIFIED. But when Best Actor came up, it was assumed that with perennial winner, BREAKING BAD’s Bryan Cranston, ineligible this year, John Hamm would finally take home a much deserved Emmy. Instead, Kyle Chandler got the award for his brilliantly understated work as Coach Taylor in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. Oh man, I couldn’t agree more here. Over 5 years Chandler has created a model family man, filled with faults, but also possessed of an unswerving moral compass. Coach Taylor is this generation’s Atticus Finch and if you think that is a crazy comparison, then you haven’t watched FNL before. Chandler looks so lost up there, I honestly don’t think it even occurred to him that he might win. And he completely forgot to thank his on-screen wife, Connie Britton (equally deserving of an Emmy), and even his real wife, but I’m glad he ran back to the mic to say something even after the band had already cut him off. And I liked what the women did for the announcement of Best Female Lead in a Comedy. Amy Poehler led all the ladies up on stage so they could support each other and the eventual winner. It was unexpectedly sweet and it made the award look a little less cutthroat to see all those women so effusive and proud of Melissa McCarthy. I liked it. Of course, MAD MEN restored the balance in the universe by winning Best Series, but I was shocked by the surprises in this awards show. It wasn’t worth the many hours of commercials and uninspired banter, but I feel like I can be happy knowing that FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS ended its spectacular run with at least a little awards recognition. Things are a little more right in the entertainment world.

 

 

 

-Friday, September 16th, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #4: Shindig

Cpt. Tightpants & the Birthday CakeContinuing our journey through the television show, FIREFLY, we reach the delightful Shindig. After the very dark previous episode, Shindig is a welcome dose of light humor and fantastic dialogue. Sure, there is still peril and action, but it’s never overly serious and doesn’t interfere with the wonderful character work being done. I might be in the minority, but I really love the hate/love relationship dance between Mal and Inara. Yeah, this kind of relationship has been done to death, but I don’t care, I love these wo characters and the way they interact. And it just so happens that Shindig takes a good deal of time to explore the many issues between Mal and Inara. This episode originally aired 6th even though it is the 4th episode of the series. I think it really has more of an effect earlier in the show’s run, because it focuses on the characters and the dialogue more than any outside plot interference. I’m pretty sure that Jane Espenson wrote this episode, a woman who has been with Joss for a long time and written some very good BUFFY and ANGEL episodes. In addition to that, she has also worked on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, GILMORE GIRLS, CAPRICA, DOLLHOUSE, and about a bajillion other series. She has her ups and downs, but Shindig stands tall amongst her work.

We start the episode with a bar scene that is nearly identical to the one in The Train Job. However, by throwing Inara into the mix, this scene is far more fun and action-packed. One note I had about this scene is that I love the little ways that the creative team shows futuristic things on a tight budget. The pool table that Mal and Jayne are playing on is a regular pool table, but the sound effect of the cue striking the balls has a very futuristic ‘zing’ to it. In a very similar way, the guns in the FIREFLY universe look very plain for the most part, but they tend to reload with a very futuristic zap. I love these little touches. They are very cheap and subtle, but the sounds always remind us of the western/sci-fi mashup that Joss Whedon is so interested in. The fantastic dialogue bits starts very soon. I love that scene, here at 7:00, when some of the crew goes shopping and Jayne makes a dirty remark to Zoe. Still smiling, Zoe looks over and says, “I can hurt you.” So very funny.

The plot launches pretty quickly, and soon we find Mal and Kaylee attending a ball in order to meet a potential smuggling client. This complicates matters because Inara is there too with her male client. I am again impressed how much effort is put into making Inara’s profession legit. Yes, she is a high-class whore, but this society considers her to be the height of society. This is such a controversial idea for audiences to accept, but Whedon knows that, and so makes Mal a vocal opponent of the profession of a Companion. This allows the audience to see this strange idea through a familiar viewpoint, even if Mal is seen as a stodgy dinosaur because of his views. Mal punches the male client  for disrespecting Inara, then calls her a whore to her face. When Inara calls him on the double standard, Mal explains that the difference is that the client didn’t respect Inara, while Mal doesn’t respect her job. Very smart writing here. But I’m rushing past some awesome stuff here. The ball is a long set piece that is stuffed with goodies. I love Kaylee in her pink dress and her complete obsession with strawberries. There is a funny exchange when Mal and Kaylee are searching for the client:

KAYLEE (pointing): Is that him?

MAL: That’s the buffet table.

KAYLEE: Well, how can we be sure unless we question it?

She says this line in such an innocent way, it would be impossible for Mal to say ‘no.’ Then, there is one of my favorite scenes of the whole episode where Whedon and Espenson show how good they are at writing these characters. In a predictable scene, Kaylee is mocked by some society girls for her silly dress. It’s hard for us to watch Kaylee’s fragile ego be bruised like this, but we kind of knew it was going to happen. Than an older guy comes along and saves Kaylee, insulting the society girls. I feel like in any regular series, that would have been it right there, a mediocre wrap-up to Kaylee’s night out on the town. But Whedon/Espenson take Kaylee one step further. A little time passes and we see Kaylee holding court with a bunch of wealthy men, impressing the hell out of all of them with her engineering knowledge. In fact, one young man asks Kaylee to dance and he is roughly rebuqued by the protective men around her. Watch Kaylee here at 9:25 then make an insider joke about engines that all the men roar about. I absolutely love this little scene. It tells us everything that we need to know about Kaylee, that yes, she can be fragile and girly, but her irrepressible spirit won’t be kept down for long. She has a wealth of knowledge that is respected by all and she shows complete confidence when talking about the machines that she knows and loves. This short bit could have been so cliché, but instead, it is a wonderfully revealing and redemptive little arc for dear Kaylee. In other circles, Mal is getting in fight with that client, unwittingly challenging him to a swordfight. That results in one of the most clever lines I’ve ever heard in a television show:

RANDOM DUDE (to Mal): Any gentleman here can give you use of a sword.

MAL: Use of a s-what?

Hilarious. Mal and Inara have a nice scene together afterwards, dancing around each other as much with their words as with their fight practice. There are some enlightening phrases about Mal, telling us that he gets into trouble so much because he is too independent to fit with high society and too moral to fit in with criminals.  I like Mal blurting out to Inara not to take the client’s offer and to stay on Serenity. He immediately looks down, bashful and a bit surprised at his boldness. It’s very humble and very sweet, and just so gets me behind this couple! The challenge swordfight the next morning is pretty damn awesome. I love that Mal never has a chance; he doesn’t suddenly become a master swordsman. The client is playing with Mal for most of the match, stabbing and slicing him up at will. Let’s be honest, Mal wins because he cheats, using Inara’s distraction to punch the client down even though Mal had already been beaten. It’s an effective win, very true to Mal’s character. Then of course, I love the way the fight ends, with Mal standing over his beaten enemy with a sword, saying here, at 8:40:

MAL: Mercy is the mark of a great man.
(stabs Atherton)
Guess I'm just a good man.
(stabs Atherton again)
Well, I'm all right.

Perfect funny character statement for the ?noble? rogue character of Mal Reynolds. Mal and Inara have a sweet finish back on the ship, wringing more laughs out of Mal’s injury. And I really like her simple question, “Why would I want to leave Serenity?” To which Mal replies, “I can’t think of a reason.” And I love the reveal that the cargo Mal is asked to transport is actually cattle. Listen to that sweet resolved melody over the shot of the cows here at 13:13. Amazingly, I haven’t talked about any of the amusing things that happen on the ship during Mal’s jaunt at the ball. I loved the short scene with Zoe and Wash in bed. Their husband-and-wife banter is just adorable and I would have loved for that scene to be three times as long. I kind of don’t want you to skip ahead and see the fantastically funny FIREFLY gag reel until you have seen all the episodes this season, but you really should see the Wash/Zoe bedroom outtakes here, at 4:30. But wait, start at 3:10 with that clip so you can see Wash’s funny improvs for the interrogation scene from Bushwhacked that finally makes his interrogator crack up! But back to the ship scenes, the scheme to get one over on Badger is cute, especially when Jayne suggests he should get naked as a distraction and Wash reacts in horror and disgust with an emphatic “NO!!” You can see how much I love this episode, especially for its amazing dialogue, the nimble script, and the obvious love that these characters have for each other. The fact that of the 14 episodes, Shindig isn’t even in my top 3, just shows how good FIREFLY gets in episodes to come. But don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic episode, one that is always a pleasure to revisit.

COOLEST WESTERN/ACTION MOMENT: Oh without a doubt, it has to be that opening fight in the bar. There is some excellent choreography here, considering the show was working on a very small budget. It definitely feels like an old Western-type of brawl, but I still love how that futuristic pool table that lets you know what era you are in. Check out Jayne’s huge pool cue hit at 1:45 where he hits the guy so hard that the guy does a full back flip. And I also love the last fight shot, at 2:04 when the guy goes flying upside-down into the bar mirror. That’s a damn good stunt, looks like it hurt!

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: Can I cheat and say that the best effect was Inara’s nightwear outfit that she wears while practicing fencing with Mal? Yowza, those dress slits went all the way up! But I also love that last shot of the cattle in Mal’s ship, a very subtle CGI effect to get all those cattle in, but another wonderful composition somehow marries the Western and sci-fi images together.

 

 

 

-Thursday, September 15th, 2011: TRUE BLOOD - Season finale

The Ugly Cast of TRUE BLOODA lot like I how watch ENTOURAGE, I try to check my brain at the door when I watch TRUE BLOOD. I think it’s a mistake to see this show as anything other than pure pulp soap opera. It’s a series of awesome crazy R-rated moments, well-lit sex scenes, and copious amounts of juicy gore. I think that every now and then, the writers pretend that they are trying to write something that has more of a social consciousness, but come on, this is just pulpy fun. And if there is one thing TRUE BLOOD is, its full-boor bloody entertainment. That’s why I have been so surprised that its season finales tend to be terrible. The show has an extremely talented stable of riders that usually do a great job of holding the balance between storyline development and gore, but whenever the season finales roll around, the ball inevitably gets dropped. I know a finale needs to balance a lot of things; wrapping up loose ends and starting new threads, but the finales so far feel mightily unbalanced, showing all the action into on half and doing leaden exposition for the other half. Well, this year they did a little bit better.

This season has been pretty good actually. Usually the storylines in TB get way too out of control, bouncing around, completely unrelated to each other until the second half of the finale. This ‘Witch’ year brought many of the season threads together in a comprehensive manner. Okay, I don’t know how Tara’s lesbian fighting fits in here, but I’m pretty sure that the writers didn’t really think that one through either. And wow, I have never seen a storyline dropped as fast as Sookie’s trip to fairyland. Seriously, what was the point of that trip when it had absolutely nothing to do with the larger season? I really liked the fear that Marnie struck into the vampires with her power over them. The image of the vampires silvering themselves so that Marnie couldn’t kill them was a very cool idea made visual. Was there any stranger image this year than that of Pam’s slave vibrating on the coffin, here at :47?? But my favorite cliffhanger this year was later in that clip, from 3:20 on when Jessica is forced to walk out into the sun. The music is epic and I really like how that scene builds into a big beautiful moment when the brightness of the light wipes out her face. The parts you expect to be cacophonous are actually kind of quiet and I like that. Of course, then the moment is ruined by Jason’s cheesy jump from the light in the beginning of the next episode. Oh well, can’t win them all.

So Marnie was defeated, Sookie let down both Bill and Eric, Nan is dead, Sookie thankfully blows off Debbie Pelt’s head and it looks like Tara got half of her head blown off in the thrilling final moments of this year’s cliffhanger. Is it too much to hope that she is gone for good?! But I know what you want, were there any crazy-awesome vampire moments like in season’s past? I’m not sure anything can top Bill’s head-spinning sex scene from a couple years back. That scene is so ludicrously over-the-top that I found myself laughing at the sheer audacity of what they were doing. Or how about Russell Edgington’s fantastic television appearance when he ripped out the newsman’s spine, then continued to ask about the weather? This scene’s power hinges entirely on Denis O’Hare’s performance and he is truly amazing here. Yes, he is theatrical and huge, but it fits his character and when he leans into the TV monitor and hisses out, “We will eat you and after, we will eat your children,” well damn, his sinister words go straight through to the scared little boy inside of me. He is confirming the worst fears that people have of vampires and it is gloriously chilly. In the final moments of this year’s finale, it appears that Russell escaped his cement prison and I cannot wait to see Denis O’Hare back as TRUE BLOOD’s most outrageously scary and entertaining villain. I was also freaked out whenever MaryAnn’s maenad form would chase Sookie through the woods with her bull’s head and prehensile claws. Wow, those scenes were scary, but I also loved that quiet scene between MaryAnn and the bull under the streetlamp. Eerie, beautiful, and evocative. But enough with the past, this year’s finale also had a moment of ballsy outrageousness. Check this out! Eric is just such a badass, ripping out the man’s heart, then, without ever breaking eye contact with Marnie, sipping from a ventricle as if the heart were a freakin’ Tropical Sun pouch! This is not our gentle, memory-lost Eric, this is full-on Norse Viking King viciousness back to reign! I also like Bill’s snarl before gunning down Marnie, these guys are back in animal-vampire mode and it is glorious.

So, this post is really less about the finale this season and kinda more an appreciation of the crazy moments TRUE BLOOD has brought to its fans. I’ve never read any of the source material, the ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ series by Charlaine Harris, but the creators of the show have managed to give us a visceral guilty-trip thrill-ride of a television series about hot horny vampires willing to get bloody. And while the season finales have not been as entertaining as the seasons that precede them, you really can’t look too deep into the mind of this show. Just admire the pretty lights and enjoy the show.

 

 

 

-Wednesday, September 14th, 2011: ENTOURAGE - Series finale

Leaving on a jet planeENTOURAGE has always been a show that defies any kind of deep critique. I keep trying to look for any kind of depth under the surface, but the show is determined to not mean anything. Which, for the most part, is fine with me. I’m not looking for massive character growth from Vince, Eric, Turtle, Drama, and Ari, all I really want is some mildly entertaining celebrity problems, some great celebrity cameos, and a little skin. These were attainable goals for the show, especially in its entertaining first two seasons. But even though I take this show lightly, there were some developments that started happening that really just pissed me off. The show had its series finale this past weekend and the episode brought back a lot of the things that just rub me the wrong way. I understand that Vince leads a charmed life, but I thought part of the fun was mocking Vince and the hubris of his life. Instead, by the end of the finale, he has somehow become this benevolent God-like figure who bestows gifts upon his friends on his way to a quickie wedding. Do the writers even remember that Vince saw someone shoot his brains out earlier in the season?? Maybe it’s because I have worked in the industry, but it started to bother me how everything works out for Vince. I liked it when he struggled through his crazy passion project, MEDELLIN, and I loved him getting that first big break in AQUAMAN. I think Vince really lost me after coming off the fire jumper movie and moving to NY. Eric gets Gus van Sant to see some of the dailies from the fire movie to try to convince van Sant to put the washed up Vince in his next movie. Before we know it, van Sant has talked to Martin Scorcese and based on the strength of a few dailies, Vince gets a personal call from Scorcese asking him to star in his version of THE GREAT GATSBY. What?! I mean, I know this is exaggerated, but the idea that these directors would choose Vince as their lead actor based on AQUAMAN and some shitty rushed dailies from a cancelled movie is just the height of lunacy. It’s beyond lazy writing. It is an insult to the deux ex machina. This kind of easy solution just upsets me as someone who wants to see a reasonably motivated and logical plotline.

As much as I despise the journey of Vince, something that pisses me off even more is how the show started to really degrade women. I wasn’t offended by the early seasons; even with all the sluts throwing themselves at Vince and his friends, because you know what, that is actually LA. But somewhere in the last couple seasons, the women stopped being part of the ENTOURAGE in-joke and just became the butt. The worst example of this is the character of Sloan. She had always been portrayed as a strong career woman, willing to let Eric into her life, but always thinking with her own head. As a small aside, I absolutely detest every single thing about the character of Eric. To the point where, like my hatred for Chris O’Donnell and Tea Leoni, I refuse to watch any movies from now on co-starring Kevin Connolly. Anyways, in the season finale for last year, Eric and Sloan had been broken up for a while. Sloan is currently dating someone else, but finds herself fighting with Eric in his car. In the most backhanded, unconvincing manner, Eric asks Sloan if she wants to get married. She immediately starts giggling and says ‘yes’. What happened to the strong independent Sloan?! What is the show saying here? That all women are just needy emotional wrecks covering up their loneliness and marriage-frenzy with a career and ambition? And as soon as a woman is proposed to by a guy she hasn’t dated in a year, she will throw her current beau to the side and immediately get married? Ugh, this was an awful scene that was again, extremely lazy writing. And then last weekend in the series finale, Eric is trying to get Sloan back, but Sloan is understandably furious with the fact that Eric slept with her step-mom. Turtle, Drama, and Vince lie to her, telling her that Eric never did that, and when Vince buys a private plane ticket for Eric and Sloan, we are supposed to swoon at the romance of it all and forget that they are  re-starting their relationship and having a baby all based on a big filthy lie!! And that is supposed to be okay, go ahead trusting viewers, lie to your girlfriends, because god know they are just too damn crazy to ever be honest with. The writers did a similar character assassination with Vince’s fiancé, the Vanity Fair writer, ‘Sophia’, played by Alice Eve. She comes across as a strong businesswoman, intent on getting the story. But after spending one night with Vince, suddenly Sophia is so in love and swept up with Vince and his money that she agrees to get married to him the next day! How are we supposed to respect this relationship when it came out of nowhere and honestly looks like Sophia is marrying him just to get a Paris wedding out of the deal. And finally, just in case we weren’t completely aware what the writers of ENTOURAGE think of women, we get a long lingering ass-shot of Ari’s wife to close out the series and have Ari tell a bald-faced lie to his wife to kick off their resurrected marriage. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice ass, but really, what the hell was that for?! It was too bad, because I kind of like Ari’s redemption in the final season, for once he wasn’t just yelling like he always does and Jeremy Piven put in some excellent acting bits.

Okay, sorry, I got waaaay off track here, but some of the things ENTOURAGE has been doing really pisses me off. I certainly enjoy parts of the show on a very surface level. It’s fun to spot the celebrities and get some good raunchy boy talk. But as you can see from the last two paragraphs, once I start thinking about the show for even a second, I start getting mad and lost down some tangent hole. So goodbye ENTOURAGE. I thought you had a great first two seasons, and reached some fun heights with the MEDELLIN debacle and that goofy Chinese commercial. The rest was just a lazy joke and a distracting way to spend 30 minutes on a Sunday evening.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, September 13th, 2011: RESCUE ME - Series finale

Fiery end for LearyOh boy, we have some television finales this week! Well, the series finale of RESCUE ME didn’t embarrass itself too badly, so that’s something. Last month I wrote about the awful downward spiral that this show has taken in the past couple seasons by repeating plots, destroying character logic, and playing off the tragedy of 9/11. They just wrapped up the 7th and final season of the show this past week, a move purposely scheduled to air close to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a move which borders on exploitative. The episode had some major problems, but it also managed to stumble home with some good scenes that make me miss the great show RESCUE ME used to be. The penultimate episode left us stuck in an exploding stairwell with the firefighters of 62 truck and we weren’t sure who would survive to reach the finale. The episode opens with fat Lou reading a eulogy to his five fallen brothers. First off, I didn’t believe this for a second. RESCUE ME loves setting up fake-outs and there is no way that Denis Leary’s ego would allow himself to remain off-screen dead for the entire episode. But even though that eulogy is fake, it is the best moment in the episode. John Scurti delivers an impassioned speech about the heroism of firefighters that is moving and gets to the core of what RESCUE ME has always been about. Are the words overwrought and hokey? You bet. But Scurti speaks with passion and I love the way his voice chokes up near the end. But I wish the fake-outs had stopped there, I didn’t need to see it dragged out so we thought that Tommy was the only one who had survived. Eventually we realize that Lou is the one who died, but all the buildup just felt like stalling, something that really shouldn’t be done in the damn series finale. We do get a flashback to the aftermath of the fire and RESCUE ME managed to shock me once again by showing the melted face of Lou’s corpse, here at 2:43. It’s a shocking image that I didn’t forget for a while, the dead face of a firefighter, and I was impressed by the show’s balls to go that far in actually showing us that much.

The rest of the episode was a mixed bag. I loved that we got to spend a lot of time shooting the shit with the guys. Those scenes have always been some of the most fun of the series, and I’m glad we got one more stupid incident with the boys to send Lou off. I found the vortex scene with Lou’s ashes hilarious and I think Lou’s twisted sense of humor would have enjoyed the fact that his ashes were eventually mixed with cake mix and dirt after being spread all over the boys of the crew. And we did get to see one more great inappropriate physical comedy routine from Sean. I thought that Sheila had a great last scene where she made it very clear to Tommy that he couldn’t retire because there were two things he couldn’t live without: sex and fire. It helped redeem a troubled and often shrill character that was horribly used as a drunken harpy in last week’s wedding episode. And the funeral was decent, I especially loved how one of my favorite characters, Tommy’s preacher brother, noticed the cake mix ashes and quietly flipped out on Tommy. Great scene that reminded me of some of their best family strife moments. But the show really dropped the ball with Janet and Tommy’s family. So let me get this straight, Janet and Tommy’s daughters have been trying to get Tommy to retire for about 6 years at this point. But all it takes is one bad playground trip for Tommy and his baby son to convince the women that he should not retire? Then they actually suggest that instead of getting a safer desk job, that he go back to 62 truck?! That is just an insulting turnaround for these women who have been fighting for years to get Tommy either retired or behind a desk. Janet also gave birth in this episode in like 2 minutes in her home. It was the quickest, silliest birth scene I’ve ever seen, I was hoping that it was another Tommy dream sequence, but no, this was actually supposed to be reality. The birth just kind of happened and if you had left the room to get a drink, you would have missed the whole thing. Really, just a terrible scene that was shoehorned into the script to provide obvious birth/death symbolism. But I do love that they named the kid ‘Shea’, a perfect NY name.

The series ended where it began, with a long and tough speech for next year’s proby firefighters class. Yes, another Tommy monologue about 9/11. I know this was supposed to be inspiring and all, don’t-ever-forget-the-men-on-the-wall, Knute Rockne-type power, but it just felt like Leary doing more over-the-top showboating and driving one more damn nail in the 9/11 topic. I liked it better when Tommy got in the car and started talking to Lou’s ghost. Tommy’s ghosts have always come to home in times of pain, trauma, or alcoholic despair. But this seemed different. Ghost Lou was just there to accompany his friend. This show began with tragedy as Tomy’s ghosts led him down numerous paths of self-destruction. And even though the show ended with the death of Tommy’s best friend, Tommy’s ghosts aren’t haunting him anymore; they are more like comforting friends. It shows that Tommy really has changed and that his future looks like it has a chance at being normal this time. RESCUE ME hasn’t been great in a very long time, but the series finale reminded me of some of those iconic moments from the first few seasons that will be hard to forget. In the wake of a national tragedy, the show never veered away from the presence of 9/11 in these men’s lives. Did it often use tragedy as an exploitive crutch. Yes, definitely. But at the beginning, the show was messy, angry, raw, and often hilarious television; not soon to be forgotten.

 

 

 

-Monday, September 12th, 2011: 9/11: 10th Anniversary - Simpsons

Oh sweet crab juice...Like every other commentator out there, I’ll also add my own two entertainment-centered cents about yesterday’s 10th anniversary of 9/11. But I feel a little awkward about it and it’s hard for me to express, so sorry if I offend someone, I really don’t mean to. There are some genuine heroic stories out there of survivors and people who did amazing things in NYC that day. But I feel like we are also getting flooded by a whole bunch of half-ass “Dude, I was there” stories that feel like exploitation of a tragedy. Some of these stories I’ve been reading make it feel like a competition, like if you weren’t in New York that morning, then you’ll never understand. I guess you could coin it ‘tragedy elitism’ or something, but some of these stories just add fake symbolism to simple events, like “I was in Jersey City that day eating cereal and the O’s in my Cheerio remind me of what the screams of people dying must have sounded like, so I can never eat Cheerios again.” Maybe I’m being cynical, but people keep ascribing pain and anguish in their stories, even when they had no connection to the events. Don’t you find that disrespectful to the men and women who actually suffered or lost a loved one? Still not sure I’m explaining myself well here, but I can at least give my own straightforward account of what I was up to 10 years ago.

I was in my senior year at Columbia University in upper Manhattan, living in campus housing with a good friend. Since I didn’t have class that day until noon, I slept through both plane hits and only woke when my roommate shook me awake, telling me what was going on and that my mom had been calling the room phone all morning asking if I was alright. We didn’t have cable in the room, so we both went downstairs to see what was happening on the common basement TV. There were a bunch of other students there in pajamas, all of us trying to figure out what was going on. Everyone was pretty convinced that this was a terrorist attack from the Middle East, but for some reason the first thought I had was that this was some sort of large-scale, Timothy McVeigh-style domestic attack. Maybe I was paranoid after seeing ARLINGTON ROAD a couple weeks before, a surprisingly dark and disturbing mainstream film about how terrorism is understood by a nation’s population. In that 1998 film, a university professor played by Jeff Bridges is framed for blowing up the FBI building by a domestic terrorist group led by a family man played by Tim Robbins. Compare the scene where Bridges teaches a class about the impact of terrorism to the finale of the film and you see a chilling use of media to assuage our population. Anyways, back to 9/11.

After watching the coverage for a while, a couple of us went to the roof of our dorm room to see if we could see the twin towers and get a wider view of the whole tragedy. From the roof, we watched the towers fall. It was hard not to get emotional at that point; I remember struggling to comprehend the idea that thousands of people were dying in the seconds it took those buildings to slide to the ground. And all this wasn’t happening through a television set, but in front of my own eyes. Even though I didn’t know anyone in those buildings, hell, I didn’t even know anybody who knew anybody in the towers, on a human empathetic level, it was hard not to be affected. Classes were cancelled that day and Manhattan went into lockdown, closing all its bridges. I walked around campus for a while, just feeling awful knowing that so many families were grieving right then. But I also couldn’t get the thought out of my head that they were never again going to play that Simpsons episode where Homer takes his family to NY to get his car which is stranded in the World Trade Center Plaza. I think it’s one of the best Simpsons episode, the crab juice gag is classic, and I especially love how Homer sees a seedy and corrupt side of NY while his family sees an enchanting wonderland. There’s a great wistful ending where the Simpsons are driving home over the Brooklyn Bridge at night and Marge and the kids are sighing contentedly, asking Homer if they can come back to NY someday. Homer, exhausted and furious after an awful day, is following a biohazard truck that splatters gunk and syringes over his face. He answers with gritted teeth, “We’ll see honey. We’ll see.” Then Sinatra’s New York, New York kicks in and plays the episode off. Great damn episode. But it’s weird what your inappropriate things your mind will obsess about, and I could not get this idea out of my head all day. Obviously, as years passed and the sharpness of the tragedy diminished, the episode came back to my relief. Tragedy can bring strangers together, but it never really lasts for long. That’s not really pessimistic, it’s just the truth. Time steamrolls sentiment just as easily as it does everything else. I was rollerblading through the Village a week or so after 9/11 and joined a prayer circle of people holding hands around Washington Square Park. It was sweet and touching, but it’s not like that happens every week. I’m not sure what I’m babbling about, so I’ll stop here. It is nice that people stop and remembered yesterday, gave a moment of silence in the morning. But I hope our prayers weren’t for our beleaguered country or our personal and communal loss of innocence, but instead for the families and people that were directly affected by the tragedy of 9/11.

 

 

 

-Friday, September 9th, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #3: Bushwhacked

River's sad space faceAnd so we continue with our weekly FIRELFY reviews, on to episode #3, Bushwhacked. Not my favorite episode, but a solid early episode that introduces the Reavers to the audience. Talk about a tone shift, this episode is moody and dark, far more like the shelved 2-hour premiere Serenity than the light and fun The Train Job. Mal himself is back to his tortured self here; I can’t imagine how confused audiences must have been to see such a character shift here, like they had tuned into a whole different show. In Bushwhacked, Mal and Serenity come across a derelict ship and decide to explore it. While doing so, they find valuable cargo, but also discover that the crew has been murdered by Reavers. For those who don’t know, Reavers are human men who have gone insane, cruising space to rape, eat, and kill. I love how even the mention of Reavers terrifies the entire ship. We never actually see a Reaver in this episode, but they take up all the air, filling the space of Serenity with menace and fear. It was a smart move to make Jayne so frightened of them. If this big-ass muscle guy is terrified of Reavers, well then damn, they’ve got to be awful! This episode was written by Tim Minear, a man who would go on to write one of the best FIREFLY episodes later in the season. There isn’t a ton of memorable dialogue in this episode, but the atmosphere of dread is potent and the writing is strong. The camera work is especially good here too. I like the tracking camera on the bridge when the crew sees the dead ship and we track all the way back out to the hall to see River quietly listening in. Or when Mal goes back in the ship looking for the survivor with the Alliance, turns a corner, and Simon and River are hiding right there! Looking back with these reviews, I was fascinated by this episode’s preoccupation with the psychology of space. As depicted in this episode, space is terrifying. The blackness has turned regular men into cannibalistic beserkers. Simon is afraid of putting on a space suit, just a thin layer between himself and the vacuum. When he does put on that suit, it is scary to see his face twisted up against the glass, an interesting commentary about feeling claustrophobic even when surrounded by nothingness. Much time is spent exploring the dead ship, exploring all the nooks and crannies, filling the spaces. With such a deadly threat always waiting outside the thin metal hull of Serenity, it is heartening to see the warm feelings the crew shares towards each other in the early basketball scene. The only way to stave off depression and madness is to find comfort in each other, always a good lesson to impart. It also explains the warm feeling these characters have towards their ship. Serenity literally keeps them all alive, and so it itself becomes the 10th core character of this series.

My favorite scene is also the most explicit about the effects of space, when Simon and River hide on the hull of Serenity to avoid an Alliance search party. Look at this clip, at 4:15, at the wonderful pullback from inside the ship to reveal River and Simon outside the ship to reveal the smallness of Serenity in the black. Simon is petrified of being out in space, and I love the cut to his POV of the massive starfield, it really evokes the lonely massiveness. But its so sad for Simon and the audience to see how happy River is in space. It’s nice to see her smile, but the only reason she is smiling is because the thoughts of other don’t bother her as much in the dark. It may make sense for her to smile, but it’s so sad that it’s nothingness that appeals to her. I think this scene does a great job of showing just how damaged River is after the Alliance experiments. It is often said that the music of FIREFLY is also a character on the show, and I agree, the score is often tender, evocative, and nothing like the generic scores created for regular television. After the aural introduction to the Reavers in the pilot episode, the space scene with River and Simon in this episode is really the first excellent use of the score to evoke a mood. Listen to that beautiful choral movement throughout the long camera pullback. It’s tender and tragic, and gives so much weight to that camera shot. Then I love the shift to a quieter melody when River is smiling. It sounds almost like a child’s song, simple and sweet, but with those insistent strings in the background, turning the child’s melody dark. This is a stunning use of orchestration in a silent scene, and we will see a lot more like it in episodes to come.

I also want to make a quick mention of a great little scene that tells us a lot about Mal for one and also foreshadows an episode to come. When Simon learns that the Alliance is boarding the ship, he freaks out, thinking that Mal is going to give him and River up to the Alliance. Instead of explaining himself, Mal continues to insist that Simon to go get his sister. It’s an interesting bit of passive-aggressiveness that Mal sometimes demonstrates. He feels that he doesn’t have to explain himself here. Mal thinks that since he cares for Simon like family, than he deserves a modicum of blind faith from Simon. Mal could very easily say to Simon, “Shut up dude, we aren’t going to give you up, we are going to hide you and River.” But part of his notion of being a Captain means that his crew has to trust that his decisions are for the betterment of them all. I really like this theme of Mal’s, it shows a subtle trick that he employs to earn the respect that command deserves. Again, we’ll see this faith that Mal demands challenged later on this season in The Message.

Amazingly in such a dark episode, there are still moments of hilarity. The interviews with the crew are awesome, not just in the stories told there, but especially the distinct and interesting ways in which each character reacts to the interrogation. Inara is helpful (with a wonderful verbal trick when the officer asks, “Do you love him?” only for us to realize that he is now talking to Zoe), Zoe is cold, Wash is hilariously chatty, Kaylee offended at the Alliance disrespecting her ship, Jayne completely sarcastically silent, Book insightful, and Mal indigent. Sure, this interrogation is really just an excuse to do a data dump about all the crew members, but it works so well and is so insightful, who cares?! This is a quiet episode and it lacks much of the joy, warmth, and brilliant dialogue of the best FIREFLY episodes. But going back through, I found it fascinating to see how much depth this episode brings to the series. Think about what the episode says about humanity with the character of the only survivor from the dead ship. He was forced to watch while Reavers slaughtered his family. In some perverse depiction of Stockholm syndrome, when confronted with such barbarism and hopelessness, the survivor felt that his only solution to deal with that torture was to make himself a Reaver. What a horrifying conclusion to make about human nature, that sometimes our only way to make it through the world is to become that which we fear and despise. Yikes. Oh well, enough moody emotions, let’s move on to the wondrous 4th episode of FIREFLY.

COOLEST WESTERN/ACTION MOMENT: Obviously not too much action in this episode, but I loved the quiet gracefulness of River moving through the dead ship. It reminds me of some of the cramped utility spaces in DEADWOOD that were still beautifully lit with rich golden/brown colors, like the Doctor’s cabin. River experiences the world in a tactile manner, always touching things or walking barefoot, feeling the sense of things. I love the air that blows her hair back when she enters the ship. And I like the tenderness of her pink skin against the cold grates of the ship. There is one great shot of her walking through an intersection, here at 13:13, when the strange brown/red light plays down on her as if she were in some kind of space cathedral.

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: Without a doubt, the slow camera pullback that reveals Simon and River hiding on the hull of Serenity, then pulling back to show how small and insignificant they are when placed against the great black void. Such a smooth shot, but with the music to accompany it, this shot is stunning work by ZOIC.

 

 

 

-Thursday, September 8th, 2011: WALKING DEAD - Andrea and Amy

Always good advice: Don't go into Atlanta!When THE WALKING DEAD premiered last year, I knew this show was going to be right in my wheelhouse. I like me some zombies and apocalyptic drama, and have kept up with the long-standing comic series of the same name, so I was really excited to see what Darabont could do with the hatchet-swinging, dead-man-walking Rick Grimes. And wow, I was not disappointed! Thoughtful, insanely gory, funny, scary, and emotional, I want to see this show last for years or at least long enough to get through the whole Governor arc. I’m not a stickler for following the comic, transferring a work into a different medium requires changes to allow it to reach greatness. I loved the detour to the CDC for the finale, and I am confident that Darabont will continue to expertly explore other parts of this world other than what is offered in the comic. I mean, let’s remember that Darabont came up with one of the most depressing and bold genre endings ever in THE MIST, I feel like he can give this dark epic the attention and weight it deserves.

But the best moment of the first 6 episodes shown in 2010 was the death of Amy and Andrea’s tortured response. I wish I could find a clip of this moment, but this behind-the-scenes featurette will have to do. The setup here is that Andrea and Amy are sisters and Amy just been bitten and killed by a zombie. While trying to save her sister, the camera sticks on Andrea’s face for a long time, watching her grief build into this terrible, body-shaking sorrow. It was frankly uncomfortable to watch. In television, we usually get a cut-away to spare a viewer immersion into this level of grief, to remind them that this is all fake, scripted stories. But the director really shoved our faces into Andrea’s pain, and despite the brutal emotions being channeled into the viewer, by god, it was a riveting choice! And well done Laurie Holden. I found her a bit too over-the-top in the first couple episodes of the series, but Amy’s death was amazing work on Holden’s part. It wasn’t subtle, but it wasn’t too far either, if that makes any sense. The scene picks up in the next episode, when Andrea is cradling Amy’s dead body. The tension in this scene is unbelievable and I found myself watching through half-covered eyes, waiting for Zombie Amy to wake up and tear out Andrea’s jugular. We understand that Andrea is grieving, but it seems crazy to stay so close to someone who could jump up and kill you at any second. What a cool mix of emotions to feel when watching a scene; fear and sorrow in one scene. Unexpectedly, when Amy does wake up, it’s almost beautiful. It’s slow and gradual. Amy is being born into a new world, and she acts like a child; lost, confused, looking for the familiar. Grotesque grandeur. Andrea tearfully says her goodbyes and shoots Amy in the head. Suddenly, Andrea doesn’t look crazy anymore for holding vigil over Amy; she just wanted to say a few last things to her sister’s open eyes before she did what needed to be done.

It’s a draining, tough scene, but it shows what kind of areas this show can explore and how great it can be. Yes, we have the gore, the action, but it’s these moments of character, of love and humanity, that will keep me tuning back in for the long haul. Some other great moments in these first 6 episodes were when Rick returns to the park where he saw half a zombie woman slowly crawling across a park. Rick apologizes to the woman and then puts her out of her misery. What a demonstration of Rick’s mercy, to end the non-life of this pathetic zombie, respecting the life she used to have. It shows that there are characteristics of humanity that are worth preserving and surviving for. Another great moment happens with the character of Morgan, sniping zombies from his roof. As he looks through the scope, he sees his wife, zombified, stumbling through the streets. He tries to shoot her, but instead he breaks down in tears, a shell of a man tortured by the walking form of his dead wife. This isn't the clip, just the audio of the scene over still images, but it is still deeply affecting, especially with Bear McCreary's haunting score. I also really like the scene in the finale with everyone banding together to drive to Atlanta, the deeply stirring song from SUNSHINE playing as they move out. All human moments, real emotions in a zombie show. THE WALKING DEAD finally comes back in a month for season two, and I can’t wait to see what’s next and what the hell Jenner whispered in Rick’s ear in the season finale last year. I’m guessing “Lori’s pregnant.” Also, let’s get Rick some hatchet time, huh?

 

 

 

-Wednesday, September 7th, 2011: CALL ON ME - Sexy Aerobics

Seriously, this is the safest pic I could post! Okay, this is about as shallow as I get, but I came back across this music video for Eric Prydz ‘Call on Me’ from a few years back and had to talk about it. This is all kinds of wrong coming immediately after a post about Muppets, but just as a warning, this video is Not Safe For Work! The song is a dance track sample of Steve Winwood’s ‘Valerie,’ and apparently Winwood was so impressed with this remix that he rerecorded his vocals so that they would better fit the new beat. Then this video was made, directed by Huse Monfaradi in London. Holy crap, what is it about pastel-y 80s women aerobic wear that is just so damn hot?! Apparently, the video is a modern spoof of the infamous aerobics dance scene in 1985’s PERFECT with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. This clip needs a warning as well; there are just far too many shots of Travolta’s barely covered crotch. Someone older than me would know, but were there really mass-attended crazy-ass aerobics classes like this in the 80s? Were men really allowed to wear shorts like that in a class? I do like the note in the comments below this video, about how Travolta needed to have the costume designers sew some kind of basket into his shorts. I don’t want to make any summary judgments here, it could have been to make sure that he wasn’t flopping out of those short shorts or maybe Travolta was getting too excited, who knows. Either way, funny.

But back to the Prydz video. It’s obviously titillating from the very first shot, but my guess is that if you can make it past the hip thrusting when the beat kicks in at :35, then you’re in to the end. Now, this may be putting waaaaay too much thought into a stupid hot video, but seriously, I kind of like that it makes working out sexy. With an American obesity epidemic that is spiraling out of control and an entertainment industry that demands our actresses be wasted stick figures, I like that a video might encourage a fat kid to go to the gym or a skinny girl to put on some muscle. Granted, maybe they would be going to the gym for all the wrong reasons, but who really cares, butts are in the gym. The women in this video are unrealistic pin-up models, but they do all have athletic, toned, dancer bodies. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of these ladies have hips, but they do have curves that might flip you if you go too fast. Come on. In an article about sweaty women, I’m allowed one suggestive comment! I don’t want to get too far into female empowerment stuff here, but even as we are ogling these female bodies, aren’t we also kind of respecting how good they are at this kind of dancing? Isn’t lusting after this kind of action, professionals having fun exceling in their job, more respectful than guys whistling at a girl walking down a street? No? Too far? I’m going to stop, I feel like I’m hurling myself down the slippery slope. Reading up on some of the consequences of this video, I found that this music video was so popular that all the dancers got back together and made a feature-length workout video of them dancing in similar suggestive fashion to other popular songs. The video even caused Tony Blair to fall off his rowing machine. OK, I’m done. Sorry folks, even by my low SQOG standards, this is a pretty damn scatterbrained posting!

 

 

 

-Tuesday, September 6th, 2011: MUPPETS - Pepe the King Prawn

Spanish prawns are funnyAs a kid, I was never a huge fan of the Muppets. Maybe I just kind of missed the whole Sesame Street/Muppet phase, but they just never interested me that much when I was younger. In college, I had one of those cool/nerdy friends who knew everything about movies. He was the genius who introduced me to the awesome majesty of Bruce Campbell’s chin in ARMY OF DARKNESS and especially EVIL DEAD 2. Strangely enough, he also introduced me to PSYCHO. I remember going over to his place one night and he was all pumped up because he had just gotten MUPPETS FROM SPACE in the Kozmo pouch. I was pretty doubtful; I mean really, we were going to spend a raucous evening watching a Muppet movie? Sure, I like Kermit and the Swedish chef, but really dude?! He looked at me with a knowing smile and insisted that I was going to change my mind because this movie had a brand-new Muppet that was absolutely hilarious, Pepe the King Prawn. Oh man was he right. Over a good many beers, Pepe’s silly Spanish accent, his inappropriate advances towards Miss Piggy, and the way he ends every sentence with ‘Okay’ just had me in hysterics. Apparently, his full name is Pepino Rodrigo Serrano Gonzales, which follows the rule of any Spanish name; it gets funnier the more names you add to it. I still think my favorite part is at 1:24 when Pepe starts doing his little victory dancing, then leans forward singing ‘The Gambler’. Hilarious. Or when Pepe is coming on to Katie Holmes in a very dated scene that tried to bring the DAWSON’S CREEK crew into Muppet land. Very weird, but kind of awesome too.

Usually when a franchise decides to add a new character and throw in a space theme, the creators are pretty much coasting on fumes. If you can catch the full Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show episode of THE SIMPSONS, they do a perfect parody of dying television shows. Until you see that episode, you can peek at this clip, which shows how a new character is often a hopeless amalgam of studio interference and meaningless buzzwords that try to introduce a hip new character that is ‘extreme’ and ‘in your face’.  Somehow, Pepe seamlessly fits into the Muppet world. Sure, his endless flirting might be a tad too risqué for the toddler set, but that kind of foreign pompousness is damn funny. You have to give credit to those Muppet creators for inserting a new character into the mix so seamlessly. And now we have a new Muppet movie, seemingly willed into existence by Jason Segal’s obsession with all things Muppets. I have certainly been getting a kick out of the parody trailers they have been releasing. And with Amy Adams’s pipes as a co-star, I hope this movie is able to bring the Muppets back to the big screen in style for a whole new generation of kids who don’t know Miss Piggy from Animal. That being said, I see no sign of Pepe in the trailers. Come on guys, I know he’s new, but give Pepe some love! He could be a star!

 

 

 

-Friday, September 2nd, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #2: The Train Job

Time for some thrilling heroicsMoving on in our FIREFLY reviews to infamous Episode #2, The Train Job. When FOX saw the serious and dark 2-hour pilot that Whedon shot for FIREFLY, they flipped out. And not in a good way. With a very short time until their premiere date, the studio insisted that Whedon take his second episode, the already filmed The Train Job, and modify it to be the series premiere. The result is a rushed and often confusing episode. And I place the entirety of the blame for the fractured nature of this episode on FOX. Seriously FOX?? How on earth could you expect this show succeed when you give Whedon such a nonsensical and chicken-shit last-minute demand? I am truly amazed this episode works at all. From the very beginning, the tone of this ‘new’ FIREFLY is very different from the Serenity 2-parter. Mal is drawn considerably more broadly, with a far more playful and goofy attitude. I don’t mind that Mal is lighter here, Nathan Fillion has always been more comfortable with lighter material, but he is not nearly as interesting as the tortured captain in the original series premiere. There is also soooooo much exposition that the actors have to get through to re-explain the whole backstory to the series. Whedon and his crew try to make these info dumps as smooth as possible, but there is really only so much they can do when they have to not only recap the storyline, but they also have to recap the entire original premiere episode! Heavy task.


The actual train heist is pretty thrilling, and the plot as a whole does a good job of showing that our heroes, while outlaws, do have a strong moral code. But what really makes this episode is the dialogue. It feels like Whedon and Minear knew that this was going to be an uneven premiere so they just decided to stuff as much cool language in here as possible. There is the great scene with Inara, Kalee, and Mal, when Inara asks Mal, What did I tell you about barging into my shuttle? He responds, That it was manly and impulsive? Love that. Then the bit about the terrifying space monkeys. But by far the best line in the episode is when Jayne is trying to explain the chain of command to Simon:

“You know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I go get and beat you with 'til you understand who's in ruttin' command here!”

Hilarious. In fact, having Jayne be that bull-headed force has the great effect of drawing out the characters of the rest of the crew. They each get to shine when knocking Jayne out. There isn’t much too subtle about this episode, but I do like an early moment, when River is bouncing around the infirmary. At one point she falls under the overhanging light and she gasps in shock as she quickly moves out of its way. The intense light reminds her of the torturous interrogations she went through at the Academy. I liked that quick little callback to her times. Her mind can’t make sense of her memories, but her body’s instincts naturally react to that light. Very subtle. The episode culminates in a very strong scene when Mal and Zoe return the medicine they stole from the train to the sick townspeople. The sheriff stops them on their way into town:

SHERIFF: A man can get a job, might not look too closely at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.
MAL: I don’t believe he does.


What a great simple exchange delineating the moral stance that Mal believes he must maintain. This line alone gets us right behind our heroes. Later, when Mal kicks Krull into the engine (at 9:55 in the above clip), its nearly a restaging of the Dobson shooting in the first episode. I think Whedon fought for this humorous yet quite dark moment to stay in the cut. This feels far more like the Mal from Serenity than from The Train Job, but its another quick character snapshot that lets the audience that while Mal does have a strong moral center, he is not above killing to protect his crew. Thankfully, this introduces at least a little bit of complexity into Mal’s character. As you can tell, The Train Job isn’t my favorite FIREFLY episode, but I believe that it still gets the series started adequately, promising an adventure-filled ride with some sharp dialogue and character that will soon be fleshed out. If I had caught this episode back in 2002 as my first taste of FIREFLY, I certainly would have made sure to tune in for next week’s episode.

COOLEST WESTERN/ACTION MOMENT: 1. At the bar fight in the very beginning, when Mal gets thrown through the bar window (1:51 in the clip above), this is a sequence we have seen in every Western in existence. But it gets tweaked here by having the bar window actually be a hologram that Mal flies through. It’s a great play on Western expectations to see Mal just pass right on through the window. 2. Sorry, there just had to be two moments this time. Mal taking that thrown blade from Krull in the shoulder is shocking. At this point in the series, we aren’t used to seeing our hero get injured like that. Boy, is Whedon going to play on that expectation in the coming weeks!

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: The train job is laid out for us very clearly by that bastard Niska. But I love that establishing shot of the train valley, a lonely weed-filled desert with rotting telephone poles and brown tracks. Then the train passes by and it turns out that it is a futuristic mag-lev bullet train. What a cool dichotomy between future and past in that open establishing shot of the valley.

 

 

 

-Thursday, September 1st, 2011: SIDEWAYS - Hilarious Golf

Pissy ChurchHow much do I love this scene? As a golfer and lover of films, it rarely gets better for me than when someone gets both so right. Okay, yes, SIDEWAYS is obviously about more than golf, but stick with me, this really gets so many details just right. First off, what golfer hasn’t dealt with annoying golf advice from their playing partner? Is there anything so cloyingly annoying as obvious golf advice in your backswing?? The answer is ‘No.’ Then when the group behind hits their golf balls into them, I love the shocked ire from our main characters. Nothing gets a golfer more righteously furious than when the group behind fires a ball past their ears. Look at the perfectly timed ‘WTF?!’ shrug of both Giamatti and Church. Most golfers would let it go at that, maybe a yelled curse at the sheepish group behind. Giamatti does what we all wish we had the balls to do; fire their golf ball right back at them. And, as every golfer knows, when you aren’t thinking about the shot, that is when you swing most smoothly. As the back group comes charging up in their golf cart, only slightly less intimidating than the choppers in APOCALYPSE NOW, Church has that classic unhinged reaction which I’m sure has been aped on many a golf course since this film was released. Hell, I’d get the hell out of there if I saw a crazy man coming at me with a driver. I know this scene got big laughs in the theater when I saw the movie. II think there is just something inherently funny about the effete trappings of the game of golf. Watching upper-class white guys lose their cool in the preppiest sport imaginable is something very easy to laugh at.

Of course, SIDEWAYS is about a lot more than its golf scene. I do have problems with Giamatti’s constant downer of a character, Miles, but without Miles’s presence, Thomas Haden Church’s reckless lothario character wouldn’t have had someone to play off of. Miles’s depression is never cured over the course of their outrageous bachelor party, but he begins to see a way out of the woods. And on a symbolic level, I always felt so satisfied in how snugly the metaphor of winemaking fit into the arc of Miles and Maya’s characters. I went back and watched Virginia Madsen’s performance as ‘Maya’ and her infamous speech about wine and it is still a stunningly incise and seductive commentary about the wonders and perils of aging. It’s too bad we haven’t seen Madsen in much since this film; she really commands the hell out her scenes, portraying a damaged but still tender woman quietly looking for companionship. With all this depth and soul-searching, its hard to believe that SIDEWAYS is, first and foremost, a comedy. Take a look at one of the more famous sequences in this film, Miles’s diatribe about merlot. This scene alone decimated sales of merlot throughout California. All credit for the delicate balance of comedy and pathos goes to the writer/director Alexander Payne, the creator of so many other beautiful works like ABOUT SCHMIDT and ELECTION. I am eagerly awaiting his next film THE DESCENDANTS, his first film since SIDEWAYS in 2004, which should be coming out this winter. I’ve talked about how much I love films that don’t really end, but instead, find a new beginning. I love the ending of SIDEWAYS, when Miles realizes that he needs to go after Maya one more time. He marches up to her door, all nerves and bad flowers, and knocks. Then we cut to black. I love that we don’t know how things turn out. Whether Maya will reject him on that porch or maybe invite Miles in for a glass of wine. It’s not important what Maya will do next, what’s important is that Miles has found the humility and inspiration to chase after something. Instead of depressively reacting to his life, Miles is boldly taking a chance, and it’s that act, that outburst against the pain and fickleness of life that defines the finale. A low-key but redemptive ending. But what do I know, I’m just here for the golf!