Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jordan's Review: Glee, Season 1, Episode 20: Theatricality

I am a Lady Gaga fan. I think she's doing some very interesting things with pop music and with performance, I think her fashion choices are raised to the level of modern art, and most importantly, I think her music is very, very catchy. So when I heard that Glee was doing a Lady Gaga episode, my first question was, of course, "Howes to can Glee screw this up?" The show manages to wreak havoc with a lot of good material, and over the course of this season the show has pretty much convinced me that it can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every time it wants to.

"Theatricality" is another episode built on a premise that is just fucking stupid if you think about it for 30 seconds. This week, Figgins believes in vampires and then irrationally associates this ridiculous belief with being Goth and so bans Tina from dressing how she likes. Instead of suing Figgins for discrimination, or trying to get him fired for being clearly insane, Tina decides to participate in this week's horribly contrived Glee assignment: dress up like Lady Gaga and sing one of her songs. At this point, the episode promptly forgets that its a Tina episode until the last thirty seconds and goes off on a bunch of tangents that aren't really related at all.

First of all, Glee immediately gets to work on dropping one of its few promising storylines. It seems Idina Menzel's Shelby, who concocted an elaborate plan to get Rachel to find her literally last week, has decided that she doesn't want to be in Rachel's life anymore. Let's ignore the fact that Rachel, Quinn, and Mercedes were apparently friends this week (I feel like the writers just draw characters' names out of a hat to decide who are friends in any given week) and just focus on the idea that this storyline was entirely squandered. Shelby and Rachel could have developed a meaningful relationship over the course of a few weeks, or they could have failed to connect and abandoned their efforts, but for the storyline to just be so transparently dropped was flat out silly.

That's ignoring the fact that the show basically ignored its Gaga concept. Unfortunately for Glee, not just anyone can pull off Gaga, and the cast clearly couldn't make it work. The "Bad Romance" cover came off as incredibly forced and robotic, basically just forcingthe cast to go through the pre-established Gaga dance routine and failed to pull it off. And the idea of a mother and daughter dueting to "Poker Face," a song that's about fucking someone and thinking about somebody else is beyond creepy. Had the writers thought for even a minute about the story they were telling, they could have had Rachel sing "Speechless," a song about parental issues and the fear of abandonment, but instead they had Shelby croon at her daughter about "bluffin' with my muffin." Why? I can only imagine because the recording of the cast of Glee singing "Poker Face" will sell better. And that has clearly become a factor in the writing of the show.

One thing about this episode worked though. The relationship between Kurt and his father yet again provided by far the most powerful scene tonight, and Mike O'Malley's defense of Kurt after Finn called his decorations "faggy" was a powerhouse scene that packed a real emotional punch. That Kurt's dad was so quick to abandon any pretense of bonding with Finn, and in fact kicked him out of the house, at a hint of hate speech from Finn was dead on and truly moving. O'Malley has come a long way since his days on Yes, Dear and he is giving a consistently excellent performance as Kurt's Dad. If the show were just about those two characters, I would be honestly invested and actually excited about where the show could go. As it is, Glee just continues to turn out shitty episode after shitty episode. I loved the Kurt and his dad scene, but the rest of it is a giant train wreck. And that isn't at all surprising at this point.

Grade: C


-If you were born in 1994 (as these characters are supposed to have been, as scary and unrealistic as that is), I don't think your choice of masculine band is KISS. I'm not even sure you know who KISS is...

-Is that black kid a new character or just another shell of a background character?

-Rachel on the paino guy: "He's always just...around..."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Jordan's Review: 24, Season 8, Episodes 23-24: 2:00 pm-4:00 pm

Nine years ago I sat down alone in my bedroom with the lights off, and turned the TV on. I was about to watch the pilot of a show that I thought had an interesting gimmick, and one I figured would probably entertain me. No one I knew watched 24 at the beginning, and it was almost better for it. Each week I would go into my room, sit there alone with only the glow of the television, and get engulfed in a frenetic thrill-ride with so many twists, turns, and cliffhangers I could sometimes barely hang on. Each week I would rush out of my room afterwards to freak out to my mother about whatever big twist or reveal had occurred that week, even though she couldn't possibly have cared (in my defense, I was in middle school at the time. In hers, she became a fan starting with Season Two and has been a die-hard defender of the show in even its darkest hours ever since). What drew me to the show initially, and what received a great callback tonight for the first time perhaps since as far back as that first season were five simple words: "Events occur in real time."

You'll excuse me if this review is only partially about those events that unfolded in real time over the two hours that ended the show, and is also partially about what the show has meant to me, and to television over the past almost decade. To say that 24 is a landmark show that changed television might sound like an overstatement, but I believe it is the absolute truth. That isn't to say that 24 wasn't a flawed show (in fact, it was often a deeply flawed show), but it redefined the action genre and changed the way we think about suspense and pacing in ways that will long outlive its run time. Its legacy also far surpasses the gimmick that had me worried the show could never last past the first season. Sure it became increasingly unrealistic that one man would be thrown into that many horrible events that would each take exactly 24 hours to resolve, but let's get honest here: we never watched 24 for the realism.

We watched it for the chance to follow along with everything that occurred, to see actions, yes, but also to examine their consequences. I have been mocked for trying to read too much into 24 before, and I may be guilty of that again in this review; if that is the case, I ask you to humor me for this one last examination. This show wasn't about terrorism, nor was it about the national security state (though the pilot's preemption because of September 11th did give it the opportunity to become a show of its times). At the end of the day, 24 was never about an us versus them mentality. It was never really about the good guys triumphing over the bad guys, nor was it about America kicking the rest of the world's ass (Though the good guys did invariably triumph, and America pretty consistently showed the world who was boss). The show was really about good people trying to do good things, being forced to sacrifice for their convictions, and ultimately being morally compromised by their dedication.

In that light, these last two hours were a fitting end to the show. Jack Bauer has lost literally everything in his drive to stand by his convictions: he sacrificed his wife, his relationship with his daughter, two girlfriends, his health (he became a drug addict and got radiation poisoning), his freedom, his life (even if it was a faked death) and, briefly here at the end, his sanity. The series began with Jack being forced to aim a sniper rifle at a world leader, and ended with him choosing to point the gun himself. I do think I am reading too much into that comparison and giving the writers and directors a bit too much credit in their attempts to wrap the show up. But it also struck me that the way that Jack forced Jason to his knees and regretfully aimed the gun at his head echoed the execution of Ryan Chapelle those many years and many bodies ago. This time, though, Jack refused to compromise. This time he did not kill to fulfill his convictions but placed his final faith in a system that, while broken, was the only thing he hadn't lost by tonight.

I don't think the last half hour of the show really worked dramatically. Taylor's going so far but then no further to protect her peace agreement, and Jack's coming so close to pulling the trigger on a world leader only to back off seemed like they were done more for convenience sake than because they truly made story sense. And Jack being saved by a call from the president in the nick of time also didn't really feel true to me. It was a literal deus ex machina as the drone from above saved Jack from certain destruction, and honestly, though this show hasn't been above that in seasons, I hoped it would be tonight. All that being said, I never really thought Jack would pull that trigger, and I knew that Taylor would get her comeuppance before the end, so the show satisfying those expectations isn't that shocking. What did work about the ending was Jack's speech to Chloe, which was incredibly moving and allowed him the chance to thank her for years of having his back. Just like him, I never though the mouthy computer geek from Season 3 would end up being Jack's longest running ally, but I am glad that after sacrificing that bond for story's sake in the last few weeks the show paid homage to it in its last moments, and I am glad for that in the end. I also appreciated the heartbreaking and insightful message Jack recorded before steeling himself for an assassination. What he said can easily be read as a message from the show's creators to its audience, a final statement of sorts. "Lasting peace cannot simply be political," Jack told us. It must be built on truth, on honesty, and on real intentions of all involved parties to move forward.

Throughout its run, 24 has often been co-opted by the conservative movement as evidence of the efficacy of torture and as an example of how bad things could get without improved national security. It is fitting, then, that its final season developed such subversive politics. Think, for a moment, and realize that the bad guys of this season were Americans as well as Russians and Middle Easterners. At the last, the most prevalent threats came from within, as factions within the government fought against truth and justice for personal gain and political points. I'm not saying that this season of 24 should be read as an indictment of American politics, or as a criticism of American foreign policy. This show is nothing if not fiercely patriotic to its last. The point I am making is that at the end of it all, 24's villains weren't just two dimensional bad guys or terrorist stereotypes like the show was often lambasted for. Its bad guys were villainized because they were flawed. They were morally compromised, forced into impossible positions, and lead to act in ways that promoted evil over good. In short, the show's bad guys were just people.

This has never been a show I expected to come together as one narrative, and I wasn't looking for some big closure tonight that would tie everything together (especially since this was written as a season, not a series, finale). 24 was at its heart an action show that aimed to thrill and entertain. That it was also during its run an exploration of personal ethics, an in-depth character study, a moral compass that revealed by its existence that sometimes compasses cannot point north, and yes, a vehicle for political messages on both sides of the aisle is a testament to its efficacy and its enduring legacy. It transcended the strictures of its procedural conceit (even if it was a high-concept show from the get go) and became something much more. It was never a perfect show, and it was far from it in its last few seasons, but I loved it anyway. I loved the action, I loved the suspense, I loved the ethical quandaries, and I loved Jack Bauer. He gave everything he had for his country, and I appreciate his (admittedly fictional) sacrifice. I can't say I wish the show wasn't ending, because I recognize its time has come, but I am still sad to see it go. The preceding took place between the day of the California Presidential Primary, and the day of an aborted peace treaty with the Middle East. The preceding took place in a decade rife with security risks, moral compromises, and political strife. The preceding took place in a quintessential American time, and told a very American story. Let's send it off with a silent clock.

Episode Grade: B+ (great first 3/4, pretty standard endingthat left a little to be decided)

Series Grade: A- (flawed, but bold, original, and for far longer than it should have been, very successful)

Jordan's Review: How I Met Your Mother, Season 5, Episode 24: Doppelgangers

Several months ago I wrote about a discussion I had with Sam, my co-critic, over the line between a slump and a bad season. A slump,we reasoned, can be rescued if the show proves it has direction and turns itself around by season's end. Sadly, How I Met Your Mother wasn't having a slump this year. This was just a bad season for the once great sitcom. Now all that's left is to pray that it is JUST a bad season, and that the show can pull itself back from the brink next year and keep me from engaging in a debate over when, exactly, How I Met Your Mother jumped the shark. For now, the season ended without even a whiff of master-plot, as we moved toward the inevitable, dreaded Lily's pregnant storyline, and discovered that Robin wasn't leaving the show afterwards (how shocking).

The one effective moment this finale offered up was a series of flashbacks that showed us how far the characters have moved in the last five years. It did tug at my heart strings to remember Marshall proposing to Lily, Robin meeting Ted, and Barney playing the field like a champ. That montage documented the real changes these characters have undergone over the course of the show, and reminded us as viewers how much time we've invested in their progression. Sadly, the show had to use images from its golden age to affect me emotionally. It just didn't have the confidence, nor possibly the skill, to do it without relying on what it once was. And Ted's message, that we are all doppelgangers of our former selves, felt more forced than honest. The season had to sum up with a big moment, but instead of actually providing one, the show grasped at straws.

I liked the idea that it would be impossible to spot Barney's doppelganger because he goes to such great efforts to bag women that any look-alike could easily just be him. The thought had crossed my mind before, and I'm glad that the show knows its characters well enough to stick that joke. I also honestly liked watching Robin choose love over her career for the first time ever. What I am much less likely to get behind is the idea of Marshall and Lily having a baby, a plot that the show could have handled in its prime, but may fell it in its already weakened state. For a long time, I was a strong defender of the show's slow-paced approach to The Mother question, because I knew it would spell the end (or at least the climax) for the show, and I wasn't ready for that in season two, or three, or even for the most part five. Yet each of those seasons felt tied inextricably to Ted's journey toward the mother.

In Season One Ted realized his desire to get married. In Season Two, he pursued a meaningful relationship that taught him what he wanted, and what he needed in order to make love last. In Season Three he got over that bump, tried to be someone else, and realized he was better off being himself in time to get engaged. Season Four saw his first engagement fall apart and watched him get his groove back and prepare himself to let someone in again. And then season five came along. What happened to Ted in Season Five? What progress did he make, what part of his story was he telling? I understand that while Ted is the center of the show the other characters have storylines too, and I think those can and have been meaningful for the audience as well as for the story of the show. But I have trouble swallowing the idea that this entire season is at all related to the show's central premise, and that, for me at least, is a serious problem.

I support the show's decision to tell the Barney and Robin story (Even though they told it badly). I support the idea of Robin meeting and falling for Don. I don't support the Marshall and Lily having a baby plotline, but I understand that the show stalled on it for a very long time, and it had to tell that story at some point. What I don't get is how, for 24 episodes, the writers entirely forgot to move the masterplot forward. All they gave us this season was a glimpse of the mother's ankle, a tidbit which is entirely inconsequential, and which was confined to a single episode. To put it simply, How I Met Your Mother failed this season. The show has always transcended the sitcom genre with its high concept, a clever idea of a love story told in reverse. This season forgot entirely what the show was about, and acted as if it was just a standard sitcom. Sometimes it was a pretty funny standard sitcom, but mostly it was a pale shadow of its former self. I miss How I Met Your Mother, and I want it to get good again. I hope next season it will. Because I do care about the changes these characters have gone through over the last five years, and I don't want all of that emotional investment to be in vain. I want Ted to finally find the woman of his dreams, and I want it to be done in a way that reminds us this is a story being told from the future, and that each piece is part of the larger puzzle of a man's life, which comes into focus only when he meets the mother of his future children. That's what I expect from Season Six of How I Met Your Mother. But I'll be happy if it just gets funny again and remembers what its supposed to be.

Grade: B-


-"What are we all thinking about? Nachos?"

-"That is NOT the outcome we were hoping for..."

-Robin and Don's guest appearance on the puppet show was nice. "I've experimented with drugs..."

-"You're doing surprisingly well in the Baltics."

-"Do you ever read my blog? Its gotten a lot better." I feel like that's something I would say...

-"Why are you in our bedroom? Why are YOU in our bedroom? Why is Ellen Degeneres in our bedroom?"

-See you all next season, when I hope things will be much, much better.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Martin Scorsese

By Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“You don’t make up for your sins in church; you do it on the street; everything else is bullshit and you know it…”-Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets

In the first installment of this column, I examined a wide range of different technical aspects that I believe make Wes Anderson the definitive author of his films. This week, I want to try something a little different; I want to narrow the focus to one particular aspect of Director Martin Scorsese’s work and examine that in-depth as opposed to shallowly glossing over the myriad facets of his films that remain consistent. While I could expand the scope of this piece to focus on Scorsese’s use of music, his persistent return to the tracking shot, his predilection for New York as a setting, his recurrent use of first Robert De Niro and more recently Leonardo DiCaprio as leading men, or his long term relationships with screenwriter Paul Schraeder and editor Thelma Shoonmaker, I have chosen instead to focus on one aspect of his career that I see as defining of his aesthetic: the tendencies towards paranoia, insecurity, and social ostracism in many of his protagonists and other main characters.

A brief aside on authorship before I dig into Scorsese’s work. An issue that I think will come up repeatedly in this column in the months to come is the question of the screenwriter’s place within the auteur theory. The theory prescribes that the director is the author of the film and that he has more control, and therefore more expressive power, over the final product that is released. This is an issue that I presently take with the auteur theory, as I believe the screenwriter in many cases originates and so fully develops the story of the film that his or her mark must be left on it at least as strongly as the directors. The first installment of this column, on Wes Anderson, cleanly side-stepped the issue, as Anderson has written or co-written every one of his screenplays so far. This column will examine screenwriters on an individual basis in future installments, but for now Scorsese is a prime example of a director who is clearly an auteur despite a limited hand in the actual writing of his films. Most of the times when he is credited as a screenwriter, he is adapting the work of another author to fit to the screen (such as in GoodFellas, The Age of Innocence, and Casino) and even when he is writing an original story, he generally co-writes the screenplay with a more experienced writer, as is the case with his second film, and the real start to his career, Mean Streets which he co-wrote with Mardik Martin (who would collaborate with the director again when he wrote the screenplays for New York, New York, and Raging Bull).

After serving as a director-for-hire on Boxcar Bertha, Scorsese was advised to make a more personal film. The result was Mean Streets, which has many of his recurring themes in full swing. The film is Scorsese’s from the outset, even opening with his voice as he narrates the inner thoughts of Charlie (Harvey Keitel). Scorsese says, “You don’t make up for your sins in church; you do it on the street; everything else is bullshit and you know it…” From here out, we are in Scorsese country, and for most of the rest of his career, the director has told stories centered around men with exactly those ideals. The character who most fits into the mold of a “Scorsese man” (which is what I am setting out to examine) in Mean Streets is Johnny Boy (played by Robert De Niro in his first collaboration with Scorsese). Johnny Boy is of a piece with many supporting characters in Scorsese movies: he is a lifelong friend of the protagonist, and an unabashedly violent sociopath. Johnny Boy begins the movie in debt all over town, and continues throughout it to engage in fights and reckless behavior, all leading to the film’s climax in which he is finally forced to face the consequences of his actions.

Johnny Boy is the first appearance of this character type in a Scorsese film, but the particulars of the character’s viewpoints and outlook on society became much more solidified in Scorsese’s next collaboration with De Niro: Taxi Driver. The film centers around Travis Bickle (De Niro) a lonely, depressed, and paranoid outsider who drives the streets of New York while carrying on a seething inner monologue about the corruption and moral degradation of the city. His insecurities manifest in letters he writes to his parents, in which he fabricates a life as a successful, well-adjusted government employee, and in his aborted romance with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a campaign volunteer. As the film continues, Bickle devolves into paranoia, becoming obsessed with cleaning up the streets of New York and ending corruption, even going so far as to buy a variety of guns to prepare for his ascension to vigilante status. Travis has no friends, and no companionship save for his occasional conversations with fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle), and his ostracism deepens his descent into madness as the film continues.

In New York, New York, Scorsese’s musical homage to classic Hollywood and the big band era in New York, Jimmy Doyle’s (Robert De Niro) insecurity and paranoia alienate him from his wife and lead singer Francine (Liza Minelli). Doyle excels musically, both as a saxophone player and as a band leader, but is crippled in his personal life by his inability to handle his relationship with Francine and the pressures of society to live a traditionally domestic life. While he has a charming persona, it only serves to hide his manic insecurity and final weakness. He constantly attempts to control the fiercely independent Francine, but she resists. Francine is empowered and self assured enough to succeed in life and love, yet Jimmy resorts to violence and eventually abandons his wife and child simply because he lacks the strength to be a standard father.

The trope of paranoid, insecure men continues through what may be Scorsese’s best film, Raging Bull as Jake La Motta (De Niro, yet again) also abandons his first wife for Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a younger woman whom he can more easily control. As he attains boxing success, Jake continues to fear that Vickie is cheating on him, keeping her in line first by beating potential suitors, and eventually resorting to physically intimidating her. His violence and paranoia lead to estrangement from his brother (Joe Pesci), his wife, and his kids before he attains a modicum of redemption by the film’s end.

De Niro continues to embody Scorsese’s take on the dangerous side of masculinity in The King of Comedy, where he plays the nebbish Rupert Pupkin, a failed stand-up comic who delusionally dreams of making it big by getting a spot on the late night show hosted by Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Much like Travis Bickle, Rupert fails in his attempts to woo a woman, and is driven by desperation to criminal acts in order to feel he has self worth, but more importantly, as a means of forcing others to accept that worth. Like most other Scorsese men, Rupert judges his own worth only through the way he is viewed by others, and as a show man, his success is entirely tied up in the opinions of his audience.

Even when he tackles subject matter far outside his general comfort zone, Scorsese’s view of masculinity pervades his films. In The Last Temptation of Christ, he portrays Jesus (Willem Defoe) as a man tortured as his personal demons struggle to shout down his better angels. Never sure whether he is truly the son of God or just insane, Jesus is always paranoid about both whether he is doing right, and whether his morals are derived from a higher power or a source of endless evil. As he tries to spread his message, he is totally ostracized by society and forced to the fringes in spite of his deep seated desire to be a normal, productive member of society with a family.

Scorsese’s portrayal of Jesus further conforms to his notions of masculinity when Jesus attempts to flee the hopelessness of his harsh reality by falling prey to the temptation of a life that more closely matches his ideal. Jesus imagines for himself a life in which he is able to live as a normal man, marry, raise children, and live a full life. Similarly, at the end of Taxi Driver, as he is confronted with his own fate, Travis Bickle imagines that he is hailed as a hero for his actions and gains the respect and appreciation he has always desired. Even Rupert Pupkin allows fantasy to soften the blows dealt to him by repeated failures in The King of Comedy when he fantasizes about the stardom he attains because of his desperate acts.

The Age of Innocence is likewise out of Scorsese’s comfort zone (being a costume drama set in New York’s high society in the 1870’s), yet the film still examines a man who longs for nothing more than to fit into a society he constantly feels ostracizes him. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a free-thinking feminist who becomes increasingly disillusioned with the society to which he belongs as he is forced to choose between entering into a passionless marriage with May (Winona Ryder) and becoming involved with her social outcast of a cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer). More than anything else, including true love, Newland wants to be accepted by his society, and is willing to sacrifice his personal happiness to achieve that goal.

Scorsese’s masterpiece Goodfellas features three more examples of deeply flawed men. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) rejects a more socially accepted life in favor of a life of crime, but also finds himself dragged into paranoia as he begins using cocaine and suspects his friends may not be as loyal as he once thought. Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, who won Best Supporting Actor for his performance) are classic “Scorsese Men” eschewing their insecurities by resorting to acts of extreme violence and allowing their paranoia and arrogance to lead to their eventual downfalls.

Casino follows a similar path as it traces Ace (Robert DeNiro) through his reign over the titular gambling house in Las Vegas, and explores how his relationships lead to his downfall. Unlike most of Scorsese’s protagonists, Ace is not at all paranoid, and is in fact almost fatally secure in the love of his wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) and the loyalty of his best friend Nicky (Joe Pesci). Yet he is still ostracized from society by his criminal past and his association with the sociopathic Nicky. All Ace really wants is to become licensed to operate his casino so that he can be a legitimate businessman, yet he is denied his license because of his past and is therefore forced to operate outside of the law to keep his dream alive. Nicky makes up for Ace’s lack of insecurity in spades, forcing others to recognize him with brutal acts of violence and garish behavior aimed solely at garnering the respect of those around him through fear if other means elude him.

The trend continues into the new century and into Scorsese’s pairings with Leonardo Di Caprio. In The Aviator, Howard Hughes (DiCaprio) amasses great riches and attains nearly every goal he aspires to, but he is personally plagued by his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and by a nagging insecurity that destroys his personal relationships with Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). His paranoia also threatens to destroy his success as he doubts the fidelity of his lovers, the loyalty of his workers, and the security of his home and his professional secrets. Hughes is also viewed as a social outsider, seen as incredibly eccentric by most and protected from criticism by those close to him.

In The Departed, seemingly every male character fits into this type. The film follows two undercover operatives, one working for the police and one for a criminal syndicate. The secretive nature of the work every character is involved in leads to a high level of paranoia, especially in the undercover operatives Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), but also in their superiors, especially Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The characters are all so dedicated to their work that many of them actually abandon their places in society, delving into fabricated lives and thus existing outside of social norms.

Scorsese’s newest film, Shutter Island, is one of the more transparent examples of his views of masculinity. Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a U.S. Marshall investigating the disappearance of a patient from an isolated mental institution. Daniels has a dark past, and is forced deeper and deeper into paranoia as he begins to question his own sanity. His insecure mental state further alienates him from the doctors and forces him to question his role in society and his role in his own life.

Many things tie Scorsese’s films together technically and thematically, but central to his work is his recurring examinations of the male psyche. I have focused on an extremely narrow portion of this, for better or worse, but rest assured that there is enough to write another full column on how his protagonists treat the women in their lives, or the role that religion plays for his main characters. Knowing about Scorsese’s recurrent characterizations can deepen the appreciation of any one of his individual works, and can lead to a better understanding of his goals as a film maker. One thing is certain though: while he does not control his films by writing the screenplays personally, Martin Scorsese exercises a level of mastery over his works that establishes him definitively as an auteur.

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

6/6: Terry Gilliam

6/20: David Mamet

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson

7/18: Fritz Lang

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jordan's Review:Community: Season 1, Episode 25: Pascale's Triangle Revisited

So remember last week when I wrote my whole review about "English as a Second Language" as a finale? Well, it wasn't. In fact, Community had a whole lot of finale drama to shove into an episode before saying goodbye for the summer. Part of me liked last week's low key end of the year better than tonight, which ran through a barrage of finale cliches and barely stopped to wink at them in its standard fashion. But most of me is already caught up enough in this show's master plot (and yes, even in its romances) that I really enjoyed being left with a little bit of a cliff-hanger ending to while away the summer contemplating.

The big finale moments shoved into tonight's episode-- from a sudden romantic quandary for Jeff, who must choose between Britta, Slater, and apparently Annie, to a friendship crisis for Troy and Abed, to the almost departure of a character who comes back in the last second to share a kiss--all felt like they had been done a thousand times before. What makes that ok is the fact that this time they were being done by characters I've become deeply invested in. That doesn't change the fact that Britta wouldn't just blurt out "I love you" to Jeff if this wasn't the finale, and it doesn't make Jeff and Annie any more likely to kiss each other at random, but it does make me more willing to forgive the show for its lapse into cliche over substance and cliff-hanger over plot that makes sense.

The show did some other nice finale things, like bringing back John Oliver and John Michael Higgins, as well as giving little moments to a lot of the recurring characters they've developed. I also enjoyed the obvious nod to the fact that Troy and Pierce were originally foils before the show figured out how great Troy and Abed were together. And the visual of Troy eating that giant cookie for most of the episode was a very solid gag, as was the Dean's surprise that TWO dalmatian mascots showed up as his date based on the ad he placed. I enjoyed myself throughout the episode, and my belief that Community has become the best comedy on TV this year stands, but I could have done with a finale that felt a little more developed and a little less random.

Grade: B+


-"Stroke or Tai Chi?"

-"Its called chillaxing!"

-"I finally get to click send on so many 'I toldja so' emails."

-"How many dances is this school gonna have?" "Five!"

-"Banana Penis!"

-"He's like an evil genie."

-"Transfer formal isn't really rolling off the tongue, so we're just gonna call it a Tranny Dance." "That's much more Greendale."

-Nice callback to the fact that Britta was sentenced to counseling from John Oliver.

-"Don't wear as much lipstick as you did on Valentine's Day. Your mouth looked like a coin purse."

-"Its not a Jane Austen novel. We have cell phones."

-Another great callback: Pierce finished the school song!

-"I will find a loophole...Then I'll kill you."

-"Hot people. Two of them. Coming this way. Which one do you want?"

-"Cleanest face ever."

-"Am I black boobs?"

-"Oh, and for the record, there was an episode of Happy Days where a guy LITERALLY jumped over a shark. And it was the best one!"

-"Who has your car keys?" "They're in the taco meat."

-"Oh, I'm sorry. I have to go. I just won a contest for being hot."

-"I love you." "Britta! Britta! Your lipstick looks better."

-"My friendship with Abed is a giant cookie!" "I've kinda got my own thing going on right now."

-"First of all, I'm flattered. Second, have you heard of email?"

-"Team Britta!" "Britta's lame. Team Slater!" "Bring Conan back!"

-"Do you try to evolve? Or do you try to know who you are?" Great question Community. Can't wait for season two.

-Oh, and let's leave it like I did last week: Jeff and Annie forever!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jordan's Review: Get Him To The Greek

In 2008, Russell Brand was a huge scene stealer in the very good rom-com Forgetting Sarah Marshall. As Aldous Snow he played rock star hypocrisy and charming obliviousness to the hilt and brought the already very funny movie up an extra level. His character was easily the breakout from the film, and there was almost no doubt that he would get his own movie as a result. But Snow is like most breakout characters in a sitcom (think Urkel or The Fonz): he's brilliant in small doses, but that doesn't mean the show should be recalibrated with him as the center. I was nervous from the moment Get Him To The Greek was announced that this would be the case. His character seemed perfect as a supporting player, but moving him to the forefront was a risk from the beginning.

For his part, Brand does everything he can to carry the film. He is still absolutely hilarious and plays Aldous Snow as well as he did the first time around. When the movie works its almost solely because of his efforts, and it really is a comedic achievement. Russell Brand is less an actor than a stand-up comic whose act has been reappropriated into a charcter in movies; he has a very narrow schtick, and he's not departing from it any time soon. That's the sort of thing that should really annoy me, but he plays his role so winningly that I don't care. So long as he continues to be so effortlessly funny, I'm not sure its really a problem that his whole character is a riff on one very good joke.

The rest of the movie, though, is like some kind of nightmare. The story centers around Aaron Greene (Jonah Hill), a young record exec who suggests that his company could make a killing by getting Snow to do a reunion concert at the Greek Theater. He is sent to retrieve Aldous and bring him to the venue in time for the concert. Fortunately there is plenty of time for the two to get into shenanigans, most of which revolve around them taking a lot of drugs and Hill vomiting and getting anally violated a lot. If you're a big fan of vomit-takes of anal rape jokes, you'll probably love Get Him To The Greek. Otherwise, your feelings may be a bit more tepid.

Much will likely by made of P. Diddy's role as the abusive record executive who bullies Hill into doing the insane things he does to move the plot from one set piece to the next, but the performance isn't one that requires any comedic chops to pull off. The character is only so much swearing and screaming, fairly similar to Tom Cruise's turn in Tropic Thunder (which was also very well received for reasons that escape me). Any actor (or even P. Diddy) can scream and swear a lot, but it would have taken someone of considerably more comedic skill to make a set piece involving a drug-induced Oedipal struggle the slice of comedic gold the movie seems to think it has.

Still, I'm hesitant to call Get Him To The Greek a bad movie. It may not be good, but at its worst its affably awful and imminently watchable. I don't regret seeing it, and its the type of movie I would watch again if it was on TV and I was really bored, but its also a movie I will promptly forget until someone reminds me about it. Brand does some great work here, but one character alone cannot possibly hold a movie together, especially not one as tenuously constructed as this, which feels from its opening frames like someone sat down to crank out a movie with Aldous Snow in it, because people like the character and will pay to see more. If you like Aldous Snow enough, there are some good moments throughout. Me, I'll just pop in Forgetting Sarah Marshall again if I ever get nostalgic for the character.

Grade: C- (saved from a lower grade simply by Russell Brand, who could probably make Aldous Snow funny in absolutely any movie, no matter how terrible).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taking Off: Scrubs

Taking Off is a series of columns looking at the oft forgotten beginnings of some of your favorite TV shows from recent years. Some shows got better after their lift off and some got worse after years on the air. But they all share a beginning. Pilots sell the show not just to network executives but to audiences. Characters and themes often show where the program wants to go, but rarely is the path so clear cut. So
let’s look back this week at…

SCRUBS-“My First Day”

Original Airdate, October 2, 2001

“I don’t know jack.” – JD

The wacky sitcom, Scrubs has just been cancelled officially. Though many of the show’s hardcore fans felt that it had truly ended with “My Finale”, it continued another season as Scrubs: The New Class-or something like that. I never cared to watch this new incarnation. I was finished when series hero, JD, walked out Sacred Heart Hospital for the last time (or what should have been the last time).

But to appreciate how much Scrubs had changed, one needs to go all the way back to October of 2001. The series opener, “My First Day”, starts with an alarm going off and a young medical intern, JD, has the first day jitters. JD’s problem is something a lot of people can relate to, except for the fact he can kill someone. The central conflict of the pilot is fits perfectly as most “first day at the hospital/office/firehouse/spaceship etc.” episodes go. It allows for the protagonist to meet all the new crazy characters and introduce the audience to this strange new environment that we can also learn to get comfortable with.

First we meet JD’s best friend, Turk who is a surgical intern and thanks to JD’s narration (which works excellently at dolling out exposition like nobody’s business) we learn that there is a line drawn in the sand between surgeons and medical folk like JD. The difference between the jock surgeons and the nerdy medical docs is constantly revisited throughout the show. We then meet Elliot who is, to anyone who’s watched a sitcom before, clearly set-up to be the love interest to JD. They have a bit of a rivalry and the two appear in the first of a series-long string of JD fantasies. Next comes Carla who in a quick, seemingly throw-away line says to JD upon first meeting him while wheeling in a patient, “Carla will take care of you.” He has no idea, and neither does the audience really know how true the statement rings for the rest of the series.

In addition to Carla’s intro, the first appearance of Dr. Cox is a surprisingly finished product in terms of character. John C McGinley’s performance as Dr. Cox in episode one is spot on in tone and the cadence he reads his lines are absolutely the same as the last episode of the show. He’s no nonsense and to the viewer-the bad guy. Well at first he’s the bad guy to JD. He’s tough on him and basically tells him to face his fear of messing up otherwise he has no business being in the hospital. JD is turned off by Cox’s approach and much prefers Dr. Kelso who is introduced as a safety net. Like Carla’s line, JD delivers a single, sarcastic line that sums up one of the major plot devices of the show. When he is being berated by Dr. Cox, JD says, “You’ve been like a father to me.” He has no idea. Watching this as someone who had seen the entire series already knows how true his statement is. He just doesn’t know it and neither did I in 2001.

Dropping these little clues of themes and character traits in the pilot leaves little nuggets of information in the back of the viewer’s mind that pay off later by helping to establish an emotional connection to these fictional characters. This is the success of any pilot. Being able to lay the groundwork to what viewers should expect week to week while subliminally setting them up to fall deeper into the show’s universe. A good pilot sticks the penny in the door, if you will. Casually mention something, and feel the implications throughout the rest of the run of the show.

The tone of the pilot was wacky, yet dark and subdued. While JD was kind of wacky in his fantasies he was in a serious place. The show maintained this certainly for all of the first season and most of the run up until around the halfway point (around season 5 or 6). The show became a bit more candy-colored and the characters a bit more broad. The pilot also offered the first of many fantastic musical choices which the show became famous for. In this case, David Gray’s “Please Forgive Me” acts as background music to a hectic first night on call.

“My First Day” offers a great jumping off point thematically for Scrubs. The fear that he knows nothing after years of Med School, weighs on JD. But we learn it weighs on everyone at the beginning, even the faux confident, Turk and Elliot. Clueless and scared, JD and the gang head toward an uncertain future in a line of work that must often be beyond stressful.

But we see JD grow like we would go on to do just about every week of the show. Dr. Cox proves he’s the real good guy forcing JD to overcome his fear and the young doc leaves the hospital a better person for it. The pilot for Scrubs is really top notch in that we sympathize with the main character but are eager to see how he grows as a doctor and a person. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Scrubs went off the tracks (ELIZABETH BANKS) but any show that goes on for so long falls into the dreaded “We’re having a baby” or “We’re getting married” territory. Scrubs’ sins can often be pointed at keeping the series on for too long, but even though there were wacky road trips and new, stupid characters (KEITH) it was fun to see the doctor who didn’t know jack grow into a good doctor and a better person.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jordan's Review: Glee, Season 1, Episode 19: Dream On

For everything I sort of like about Glee, and for everything the show could do, pretty easily, to become a great hour of television, there are about five things about it that piss me off. Its characters are stereotypes at best (and pretty much shells for dialogue at worst, like Tina, who I'll talk about more in a moment), its storylines are often pat and offensive when they aren't entirely illogical or just plain stupid. And it tends to hit the reset button at the end of every episode and sacrifice any interesting story developments or character movements just so things will be back at square one for the next episode.

Yes, Glee is a deeply flawed show, but it still reeks of the potential for greatness. I once wrote (some have said insanely) that I wish the show was just a little bit more like Mad Men. As I said a lot of readers (well, ok, two or three) told me I was crazy, but I think there's a potential parallel between Mad Men's characters who are trapped in lives they don't want to lead or constrained from achieving their dreams, and Glee's kids who, for the moment at least, are keeping the dream alive. Chances are none of our protagonists will ever be a star, and that fact haunts them all, even as they glue a smile to their faces, step outside, and put on a show. Will is more than just a teacher to these kids, and more than just a supportive reaction shot during musical numbers, he is a cautionary tale for what their lives may (and in fact, probably will) become if they keep chasing their dreams decades after its clear they are dead. There is a lot that Glee could be, and "Dream On" gets two-thirds of the way toward making a step in the right direction.

Because I liked quite a bit about this episode, I'll start with the storyline that I think was a failure (and isn't it true that Glee's insistence on doing three stories a week generally leads to at least one terrible one?). Arty's plotline this week was about the only thing that the Glee I hate would ever let an Arty story be about: the fact that he was paralyzed. Arty can sing, and he is a potentially interesting character, but why does every one of his plotlines basically just entail him screaming, "I'M PARALYZED!!!" at the screen with the show's characteristic lack of subtlety. I know that the show is trying to have a heart by having Tina tell Arty that he will walk someday, just as it tried to have heart by having the deaf school sing in the first half of the season, but what it doesn't realize is that there are some things that some people just cannot do. That is the nature of disability, and while it doesn't make the disabled at all inferior to other people in terms of worth or in terms of what they can give to society, it does mean that there are certain things that will be hard, or even impossible for them. And giving Arty hope that someday he may walk isn't a sweet thing to do; it dooms him to ending up like Bryan Ryan, crushed at the way his life has turned out, and bitter about the cards he was dealt.

Now on to the things that I think did work. Its time to mention that "Dream On" was directed by Joss Whedon, and that I am an unabashed Whedon fan. I have watched, and to differing extents, loved all of his shows, and I loved a lot of what he did as director tonight. He once said that the job of a television director is to be anonymous, and to an extent he is tonight, but there is a single scene that is Whedon at his best: the scene in which Rachel and Idina Menzel (I can't remember her character's name at the moment) duet to "I Dreamed a Dream" in a fantasy sequence on a darkened stage. Whedon has always been a fan of long shots, and there is a shot in that sequence that goes on for at least a minute, as the two pass each other, but barely come into contact, showing the connection they share in spite of the huge distance between them. This story line is working, in spite of its predictability, and I hope it keeps up this dramatic resonance in the weeks to come.

I also thought that the A-plot tonight, centered around Neil Patrick Harris' Bryan Ryan, indicated the themes of the Glee I hope this show becomes very well. Sure, Bryan was a bit ridiculous, basing his decisions on an entirely selfish reasoning, but NPH pulled it off believably by making his whole performance a bit tongue-in-cheek. It also helps that he is one of the few actors out there that can break my heart with just a look, and he does so tonight when it is revealed that he didn't get the lead in the community production of Les Miserables. Its a moment I don't think would have worked with another actor, but NPH pulls it off without a hitch. He also manages to turn in some excellent vocal work, with a rendition of "Piano Man," a personal favorite of mine, and with he and Will's duet of "Dream On." One thing that surprised me was how flat the scene between NPH and Jane Lynch turned out to be. With two nimble comedians in the frame, I expected the laughs to flow freely, but instead they just entered into an awkwardly statistics filled argument that pitted sports against the arts, and then dropped some jokes about having sex, only one of which really worked.

So Glee is still not the show I want, but tonight was a tentative step in the right direction. If the show can just remember that its characters should behave like people, not stereotypes, and if it can focus on developing these characters, and some sort of theme that continues from week to week, it may be something actually worth watching in the weeks, and even years to come. But if experience tells me anything, the show will jsut leap ten steps back next week.

Grade: B+


-Or not. The idea of a Lady Gaga episode is actually pretty exciting...

-Sorry I missed last week. Life is a bit hectic lately, but I'll try to stay on top of everything in the next few weeks.

-"Don't make that face. Global warming is a theory!"

-"Putting on a show about your father's prostate cancer will actually just make him more depressed..." Nice John Michael Higgins cameo.

-"You can't feed a child sheet music, Will! Well I guess you could for a while, but he'd be dead in a month."

-"Is it a tad over the top to bill the school district to have my Cheerios parachuted onto the football field? Perhaps."

-" I have a secret room upstairs. Like Letterman."

Jordan's Review: 24, Season 8, Episode 22: 1:00 pm-2:00 pm

Yet again this week, President Taylor was the biggest problem with 24. Her character is unquestionably acting as an agent of evil at this point, but she isn't fun to watch like Charles Logan (Itzin bobs his head like a snake tonight while he tempts her to censor the press, just begging for all sorts of slimy comparisons). She isn't threatening like so many 24 villains before her, and she isn't tragic evil, which would require us to sympathize with her increasingly irrational and immoral actions. She may not be any type of evil that is enjoyable to watch, but nevertheless she is a despicable force, trying to blame Logan for any of her unconscionable acts, then immediately proceeding to censor the press, and arrest a reporter who might have some damning evidence against her. And most infuriatingly, she continues to insinuate that she never had any choice in any of this, which shows cowardice of a much less enjoyable sort than Charles Logan (who was never more of a coward than when he was whimpering, "That's Jack Bauer! He's coming for me!" in that underpass).

All this is by way of saying that President Taylor's scenes are by far the weakest part of this episode, but fortunately they are pretty brief. In contrast to that, Jack Bauer, always the strongest link in the 24 chain by a mile, is providing for some stunningly compelling television, as he operates against the wishes of his president, law enforcement officials, and even against rationality. Jack is flat out terrifying tonight, and when he dons his black hockey mask he pretty much becomes the vigilante superhero his the show has always wished he was. For seasons now Jack has been as unkillable as any masked hero of comic lore, and tonight he actually donned a mask and reigned brutal vengeance down on those who he believes have wronged him.

Sure, it would be easy to point out that we could have used this level of intensity earlier this season. It would also be within reason to point out that whiel Renee's death would have come as a shock to Jack, its hardly the most traumatizing thing he has gone through, and it seems unlikely to cause him to transform into the angel of chaos he has become since she died. But this is 24's swan song, and for better or worse I'm going to cut the show some slack, sit back, and enjoy the mayhem Jack is causing.

And my god was there some great mayhem to relish in. Perhaps the best moment was Jack's attack of Logan's motorcade, if only for the aforementioned girlish terror Logan exhibited at the sight of him. As soon as he got the chance, Logan spilled everything he knew to Jack (no surprises there), but watching Jack swoop in like a mythological embodiment of righteous fury was a sight to see. He may not have been eviscerating anyone this week, but he coldy, calculatedly terrorized a tunnel full of innocent bystanders to kidnap a former President and extort information out of him.

The other parts of the plotline were comparatively weak and boring, but then anything would be boring in contrast to Jack's rampage. Meredith the reporter got arrested, which would have mattered more if there was enough season left to make a story out of her censorship. And Chloe is still trying to bring her friend back from the edge, recruiting Cole and Arlo to help her out. This is all standard fare, but got me thinking: Can Jack Bauer be saved at this point? And should he be?

The reveal of the room filled with Russian bodies was less out of an action film and more a scene of pure horror. Jack seems to have become a combination of Harvey Dent and Beatrix Kiddo, with all the darkness, emotional baggage, lack of mercy, and awesomeness that entails. Just seeing the trail of bodies he left in his wake, and the way he snarled at Logan tonight made me wonder if there is any coming back from what he's done. It took them almost an entire season to get here, but I am on the edge of my seat with anticipation for next week's two hour finale. For once this season I don't know what's going to happen next, and even more importantly, for once I care.

Grade: A-


-"There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal."

-Earlier this year I read an interview with Sutherland where he said that if this ended up being the last season, there was some powerful stuff to end with. I didn't believe him for most of this season, but now I see he was right on the money.

-Jack bugging Logan's lapel was the first legitimate twist this whole season. And my God was it a satisfying one.

Sam's Review: HIMYM, Season 5, Episode 23, The Wedding Bride

So far this season of How I met Your Mother the story has stayed frustratingly static. Earlier there was Barney and Robin, then Robin and Don. Besides those two non-Ted storylines there has been really little story progression, at least that’s memorable. However, this week I thought it would change. I am a fool.

This week had a great callback, well, a potentially great callback in the film “The Wedding Bride” teased seasons before after Stella left Ted at the altar for her ex, Tony who wrote the film. This was all a bittersweet reminder of the major life events that used to happen on the show. This season has felt like a standstill, perhaps spinning its wheels until they can figure out/time correctly meeting The Mother.

Ted starts dating Joyce (Judy Greer) after discussing baggage with the buddies in the bar. The storyline is neatly set up in the cold-open, but it feels pointless. This is a typical “life lesson” episode, the lesson this week is that everyone has baggage-even Ted (gasp!). After worrying about Joyce’s baggage, Ted’s own past comes back to haunt him when the pair go to see “The Wedding Bride” a film that is a twisted retelling of the Ted-Stella saga.

The movie provided a blank-slate for the show’s writers to get big laughs. They failed. The main joke is how horrible Jed Mosly (Chris Kattan) was to Stella (Malin Akerman). It was one note and the movie that was supposedly being seen by millions around the world was terrible. Call it the Sorkin Sketch Comedy Problem (I’ll get more into that whenever I talk about Studio 60-shameless plug). If you want people to think this is a great hilarious movie, you better bring the goods. Supposedly the humor was supposed to be derived from how untrue all the events in the film were, but it was just sad. In that regard it was effective in getting the audience to sympathize with Ted, but it was certainly played for laughs.

After wallowing in self-pity, Ted realizes we all have baggage and he runs to the theatre dramatically to tell Joyce who is there watching it again because it is so good. In a well staged scene, Ted runs to the front of the theatre and explains his past with Stella in synch with the running film. This was probably the most clever writing in an otherwise uninspired episode. Ted wins Joyce back with his honesty and openness about his baggage. So the episodes ends with them together. Wait, is Judy Greer going to be on HIMYM for more than an episode? Hell NO! The conveniently have the blip at the end of the episode reveal that Joyce has tons and tons of baggage which prompts Ted to kick her out of the apartment, thus ending a beautiful meaningless relationship while at the same time undercutting the message of the episode to some point.

Next week brings the season finale to, what I believe, is the show’s worst season. No growth, nothing really happens. Want to get depressed about where HIMYM is now? Pop in a DVD of season two and just watch. The finale is entitled Dopplegangers which means we’ll probably see Barney’s doppelganger meaning it’s time for Marshall and Lilly to have a baby. Great.



-Part of my grade reflects the frustrating nature of the season, and the blandness of this episode, so much rich story to work off here and its squandered for a stand alone episode few will remember.

-Good to see them cast comedic stalwarts Chris Kattan and Malin Ackerman for something that is supposed to be funny.

-Judy Greer wasted

-Marshall had a B-story. He is really nice to people-too nice. I’m not kidding.

-Single laugh of the night for me was Barney chanting “Kiss him, Kiss him” in the theatre when Bob Saget says he wasn’t really saying Kiss

-Jordan will be back next week to cover HIMYM duties, can’t wait to see how wraps up the season.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Jordan's Review: 30 Rock, Season 4, Episode 21: Emanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land

One criticism that can rightly be lobbed at 30 Rock is that it overly relies on its guest stars, to the point that some episodes forget to be funny in favor of cramming in a bunch of celebrities. In fact, the show's general lack of character development can to some extent be blamed on the constant parade of celebrities that come in for one or a few episodes before vanishing, returning occasionally if we're lucky. Tonight was a guest star heavy episode, but to a pretty large extent, it worked. The show has only truly developed three of its characters beyond stereotypes (and the third is a stretch, but let me make my case): Liz, Jack, and Tracy. Tonigh gave each of them a story, and two of those stories a litany of guest stars. Let's break it down that way.

Liz' Story: This was a pretty standard episode for all three of the characters, as each struggled with pretty much the same things they've struggled with since day one. Liz needs to find a man, in this case a date to Floyd's wedding so she doesn't have to do her reading alone. Following Colleen's advice from last week, she decides to settle and revisits her exes to figure out which one is right for her. This provides an excellent opportunity for us to see Drew and Dennis again, and both turn in great cameos. Jon Hamm is so perfect in his scene that I am reminded how much I miss Mad Men and what great, mostly under-utilized comedic timing he has. Drew has gotten no smarter in the interim between he and Liz' break up, and has in fact lost both of his hands to different terrible accidents. Hamm plays the physical part of the scene to the hilt, but he also nails Drew's vacant stare and unbelievably stupid reasoning. I pretty much just wish Jon Hamm was in everything at this point. Dennis is always fun in small doses, so it is a blessing that he returned for just long enough to try to send his mentor (he's now in a program where bright kids mentor troubled adults) up in a balloon for publicity. Liz finally ends up taking Westley (a returning Michael Sheen, still humoruously annoying and out of touch) as her date ,but is reminded just how much she hates him by the time the To Be Continued pops up...

Jack's Story: Jack is still caught in a love triangle with two pretty boring characters, and his story is really a non-starter. He and Julianne Moore don't have as much chemistry as he and ELizabeth Banks (I credit that entirely to writing), so their subplot just sort of sits there, as Jack has sex with her and immediately regrets it. The only way he can break the news to her without losing her is by trapping her in mass, which she is to Catholic to leave. So Jack is about to lose one of the women we're supposed to believe he loves as the episode ends and the cliffhanger arrives (I don't want to spend much time on his story as it was pretty dry really)...

Tracy's Story: The show returned to the ongoing EGOT plotline tonght as Dot Com and Kenneth convinced Tracy to go out for what basically amounts to Mo'Nique's role in Precious in order to get his Oscar. I thought it was a perfect comparison, especially considering the respect Mo'Nique had as an actress before taking on the role. And good lord was Tracy Morgan on fire tonight. His (pretty likely improved) rants about his horrible life growing up poor in New York were some of the best moments on this show in a long time, and he matched the rest of the episode (and proably the last few too) laugh for laugh in those extended rants that were smattered throughout. The plot here was pretty thin, but that was all the show needed to give him in order to let him shine. Earlier in this post I claimed that Tracy was one of the three most developed characters on this show, and at first glance that probably sounds ridiculous. But pause for a moment to try and stereotype his character like you can every other supporting player on this show. You may say he's just "Crazy black man" but that doesn't really incapsulate him. He isn't just a "man-child" either as he has managed to maintain a pretty solid personal life throughout his madness. No, Tracy Jordan is a unique creation, and he works on a level that really transcends any stereotyping or cliche's you might try to pin on him. Morgan really outdid himself tonight, and raised the level of an otherwise pretty forgettable 30 Rock. He threw out so many one liners so quickly it will take me several viewings of the episode to suss out all the hilarity he managed to fit into one thirty second rant. Tracy decided to go for the Oscar-bait role as the episode ended, and I can't wait to see where this story goes next week.

Giving each of the show's three strongest characters a story seems like the best bet to ensure a great episode of the show (we are always better off without a Jenna plotline), and this week it pretty much delivered. I'm quickly tiring of Jack's triangle, but hopefully that will wrap up next week in the finale and with any luck, Jack will lose both women so I never have to hear Julianne Moore's annoying accent or see Elizabeth Banks try really hard to milk laughs out of lines that would be gold in anyone else's hands ever again. the Liz plotline was saved by great turns by her three exes, and Tracy Morgan turned his plotline into an all time classic by just being non-stop hilarious for as much screen time as he was given. Tracy alone raised the grade on this episode higher than it would have been based on the other two plotlines. I hope his hot streak continues into next week. Until then, To Be Continued...

Grade: A-


-"I'm on that pill where you only get your period once a year." "Damn! We're so close to beating that thing entirely."

-"My elastic line is going to get infected again."

-"What goes good with second chances? Ugh. Water. Water is fine."

-"That was my last ungashed painting."

-"You're too good for me now that I have pirate hook hands?"

-"Garfeild 3: Feline Groovy?" "Its a pun! Because cat's have grooves in their paws!"

-"And they're paying me one million teacher's salaries."

-"Excellent pantomime is supposed to look idiotic."

-"I watched a prostitute stab a clown! Our basketball hoop was a ribcage. A Ribcage!"

-"We're like Russ and Rebecca on Chums."

-"Our term for intercourse is 'yiffing.'"

-Here's as much as i could get from Tracy's stellar monologue at the end: "A puppy committed suicide when he saw our bathroom! [...] A pack of wild dogs took over and successfully ran a Wendy's [...] I once saw a baby give another baby a tattoo! They were very drunk!"

Jordan's Review: Community, Season 1, Episode 24: English as a Second Language

We've finally arrived at the finale of the first season of Community. And what a ride we've been on over the past 24 episodes, as the show figured out what it was about, how the dynamics between the characters worked, what journey each of them is on, and what a wonderfully weird place Greendale Community College is. Over its first season, the show has learned how to tell tightly planned, brilliantly executed stories that range from heartfelt to just plain weird, from glaringly original to nearly exact parodies. It has learned how to tell pretty much any story it wants to and make it not only hilarious, but also consistent with its characters and meaningful to its themes. In short, Community has achieved a lot in its first season, and if it continues on the path its been on for the past year, its only going to get better from here.

Tonight we watched the group go through finals, and while that story could easily have sustained the finale (and, barring a Good Will Hunting parody that was very funny but just a little forced) the show also gave us some excellent character moments for everyone. Really though, this one was Annie's show, as she struggled with her anxieties about losing the group and resorted to getting Senor Chang fired so the gang would all have to repeat Spanish next year (worry not Ken Jeong fans, the show has already explained that he will return as a student next year, with his keytar in tow). While Annie's feelings almost destroyed the group, Pierce's dysfunctions saved them when he seduced the new Spanish teacher and made sure the final would be easy enough to pass. Its indicative of how much this show has grown that this reveal, and the major joke for Chevy Chase, the actor with easily the most marketable name going into this show, was saved until the blip at the end of the episode.

Jeff's story, as it has been so often this year, was a journey from self-centered detachment to a selfless act of friendship as he moved throughout the episode from being entirely willing to sacrifice the group to graduate in four years to being entirely willing to take on extra classes to keep the gang together. Shirley and Britta remained a bit to nice for their own good, and Troy and Abed remained an excellent dynamic duo. Basically, "English as a Second Language" was just your average episode of Community, and in being that, was indicative of just how great this show has become.

If there is anything really negative I can say about this episode, its that the Good Will Hunting parody didn't really work as organically as the show's best referential plotlines do, and actually felt a little forced. That doesn't mean I didn't find it very funny, especially in the extended homage at the episode's beginning in which the two students were confused by the math problem, then Troy arrived, picked up the chalk, immediately just pocketed it and went over to fix the water fountain. Flipping the premise of the film so that the janitors (or plumbers, I guess) were trying to recruit a student who was reluctant to meet his destiny because he wanted to learn things and get a job doing nothing was clever, but it didn't connect for me on a character level and ultimately, it didn't go anywhere except to have Abed quote the movie and Troy be mad at him over it for like 30 seconds. At its best, Community's parodies connect with the actual story and deepen our understandings of these characters; this one just felt a little too surface-y, as if the writers decided it would be funny to flip Good Will Hunting on its ear and didn't have anything better for Danny Glover to be doing.

That's really nitpicking though, because the parody worked well enough to keep me laughing throughout it, and the episode brought some serious laughs elsewhere as well. We got brief turns by the Dean and Star Burns (sadly no Leonard this week) as well as an affirmation that this is a group who will stick together until the end. "English as a Second Language" wasn't Community's finest hour, but that's just because the show is quickly becoming the best comedy on television. And when you're that good, even your standard episodes are imminently watchable, excellently plotted, and very, very funny.

Grade: A-


"Monday-Friday, 6:00 AM." "And now, crickets!"

-"Of course you think that, Britta. Its obvious from your name your parents smoked pot."

-"If anyone asks, I sent you to learn things."

-"One question: Where did you learn to count questions?"

-"In High School, I was in a band. We could have been huge, but the world wasn't ready for an asian man on keytar."

-"So I did what anyone would do. Faked my way into a job as a Spanish teacher at a community college relying on phrases learned from Sesame Street."

-"Why is she teaching Spanish if she's a doctor? Go cure something!"

-"I don't mean to sound like a defeatist, but we're defeated."

-"I can't wake up Pierce. Is this going to take an unexpected turn?"

-"Troy, do you know what the best part of my day is? The ten seconds between when I walk into Spanish and when you get there. Because I look at your desk and think maybe you won't be there." "He said the best part of his day is when he thinks I won't be there!" I may have found this one extra hilarious because that's one of my favorite parts of Good Will Hunting.

-"We love Hannah! We love Hannah!"

-And, to end the season on, Annie dressed like a professor and caused tension with Jeff! Annie and Jeff forever!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Jordan's Review: 24, Season 8, Episode 21: 12:00 pm-1:00 pm

One thing 24 always does well is follow Jack bauer down a very dark, desperate path. Last week set that up, and I lacked faith that this week's would follow through. But the (not at all surprising) revelation that Jack is only out for bloody vengeance at least spiced up this episode a bit. Jack doesn't care about justice at this point. He doesn't care about truth. All that matters to him now is finding the people who killed the woman he (apparently) loved. And that's at least a little exciting.

With all of this season's villains in plain sight, and none of them particularly threatening, the only thing the show could really do at this point is show Jack Bauer as a threat, and rachet up tension as two forces equally willing to do evil go up against each other in the last hours of the show. The Russians are flat out boring, President Taylor is pretty much useless, and Charles Logan is as much of a snake as ever, but doesn't seem all that threatening since Jack has already bested him once. I'll say again that Gregory Itzin is great in his role, and at the show's worst, Keifer Sutherland is spellbinding. Adding tension through Michael Madsen's return to back Jack up was a nice touch too, and when the guns are blazing, the show still does some great work. As the episode ended tonight, Jack was entirely over the edge, and its hard to say how much further he will go. If nothing else, that's something to watch the end for.

Sure its pretty lazy to have Pavel, Renee's killer, fall right into Jack's hands immediately this hour, but it wasn't the worst thing this show has done by a long shot. Chloe's position is interesting-ish, even though I still feel its a very cheap attempt to stir up drama at the expense of years of story development. Cole's disillusionment could be great, if we had any background information on Cole or if Freddie Prinze Jr. wasn't such a terrible actor, but I give the show credit for trying.

The show has a troubled past with torture, but in the last two seasons, it seems to have come out firmly against it, as no torture session has ended with "actionable intelligence" and all of them have been carried out by people who are deeply morally compromised, so at least the show has figured out what it wants to say about national security in its final hours. The torture scene was flat out brutal, and having the episode end with Jack's revelation that Charles Logan was involved amounts to the biggest cliff hanger the show has done in months (if not years). The season is still deeply flawed, but the viciousness our protagonist showed tonight amounts to some of the most interesting television 24 has produced in quite a while. Jack is entirely over the edge, and I care about where he goes from here. That, at least, is worth it.

Grade: B


-The preview for next week was WAY too spoiler-y for my taste.

Jordan's Review: How I Met Your Mother, Season 5, Episode 22: Robots vs. Wrestlers

I like a lot of things about "Robots vs. Wrestlers." I liked the idea that Ted gets to experience his inner douche, if only because a part of me is just as douchey (I totally geeked out that the show got Arianna Huffington, Will Shortz, and Peter Bogdanovich to guest star). I actually have sat around discussing Truffaut and the auteur theory (hey, I'm writing a column on it right now!) and I, too, enjoy sitting down and discussing the intellectual idea of hell. And the fact that they got all of these awesome, pretentious guest stars in the same episode in which Robots fought Wrestlers should have made it an absolute classic. It wasn't.

For one thing, the idea of Robots fighting wrestlers is much funnier than it actually is to see them fight, which was actually pretty boring. For yet another time this season, How I Met Your Mother relies on its cast to make an unfunny joke seem hilarious just because they are laughing at it. Further, the fact that there was an actual recurring gag centered around fart noises actually hurt me inside. Beyond that, this episode did just what I feared after last week's--it turned a potentially great storyline into a five minute piece of one episode. Robin leaving the group for Don makes sense, and would be a great storyline, but by the end of tonight, she was back and all was right with the world.

Further, the ending, which clearly wanted to pull our heartstrings, lost all its effectiveness because of how briefly it teased out the idea of our central group growing apart. This should be a huge deal for both the characters and for the audience, yet it plays out so lamely, with silly Barney jokes taking the place of a real conversation, that I felt basically nothing as this episode ended.

Except anger at the idea of Marshall and Lily having a baby. We all know the Barney doppelganger is coming soon, and with it, the storyline that is almost always a shark jumping moment: The show's supporting couple having a baby. How will the gang hang out in a bar constantly with a kid in tow? How will they hang at all? Will we deal with the same awful stories every sitcome does? I hope to God this was another delay tactic, a red herring meant to focus us on Marshall and Lily procreating. The show has contstantly flirted with the idea of the two having a baby, but its always dismissed it with a joke and moved on. I hoped it would keep doing that until the very end. If this show, with its awful recent track record, tries to mount a storyline that likely would've spelled doom to the show at its peak, it will kill it in its tracks. I seriously hope I'm wrong about this, but I don't think it bodes well.

Tonight was an episode that should have been a home run, but instead it was another tepid, mostly unfunny effort from a show that used to be a weekly pleasure of mine. Two episodes remain in this season. Let's hope the show figures out a way to turn this meaningless string of mediocrity into something before it ends for the summer.

Grade: C


-"Guys, I'm flattered, but I think Lily should do it."

-Nice callback to Lily's shitty British accent.

-When someone says they don't own a tv, I set my stunner directly to loathing. Perhaps someday I'll write a piece on what an intellectual cop out that is...

-I Know! You don't have to say it. You don't decant white wine..."

-Ted's doppelganger was wasted, but at least it isn't as offensive as the wasted slap earlier this season.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Wes Anderson

By Jordan

Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

“The task of validating the auteur theory is an enormous one, and the end will never be in sight.”-Andrew Sarris, Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962

The idea of a director as an auteur gets thrown around a lot by cinema nerds and pretentious film students everywhere, but a common understanding of the term is much harder to come by. As the above quote points out, the charge of proving or disproving the auteur theory is a large one, and to an extent that is not the point of this feature. Rather, the idea that drives this column is to examine the theory and spark a conversation about its merits and its weaker points. I do not seek to prove or disprove the auteur theory entirely, simply to learn more about it, and through that, deepen my understanding of film as a medium. Before beginning an examination of the first director I have chosen to cover (Wes Anderson), I thought it best to spend a few moments discussing the idea of the “auteur” as I see it, a view that is come by more through being a huge film geek than by an actual scholarly pursuit of writings on the auteur theory, and thus one that is open to correction or criticism by anyone who happens to disagree with my assessments.

As I see it, the auteur theory presupposes that the director is the primary “author” of a film; ergo he or she exercises ultimate control over the final product, whether from a story, style, or thematic viewpoint, and thus is ultimately responsible for the film. This manifests itself through recurring technical elements, a definable personal style, and thematic consistency throughout their work.

This is why Wes Anderson is the perfect director with which to open my examination of the auteur theory. Whether you ask a rabid fan or a vehement detractor, there is little doubt that Anderson has a definitive style. Though arguably less present in Anderson’s debut film Bottle Rocket, all of his films to a certain extent display his singular view of the world, and espouse the themes he believes are important to understanding the human condition.

In terms of technical aspects, Anderson pays far more attention to minor aesthetic details than most other directors. For example, in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, every crew member of the submarine the Belafonte wears an identical uniform made up of matching wetsuits, red caps, and Adidas sneakers, all emblazoned with the Zissou crest. A starker example comes in Anderson’s third film, The Royal Tenenbaums, which takes place in a period neutral, highly fictionalized version of New York City. The entire cast is decked out in clothing that would fit better in the early 70’s, the city is overrun with heavily dented Gypsy cabs, and the destitute can find solace at the nonexistent 375th Street YMCA.

More than just the basic mise-en-scene, Anderson peppers his films with subtle visual quirks, like the Dalmatian mice that freely roam the Tenenbaum household and find themselves in the background of several scenes, or the stop-motion sea-life that Team Zissou explores. Anderson also allows for subtle visual humor and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags, from Dignan’s punching Anthony and running away in Bottle Rocket, to the extended montage of pranks in the escalating war between Henry and Max in Rushmore, from the shifty “intervention” in which Richie, Pagoda, and Royal try to get Eli Cash off of drugs, to the brotherly struggle on the train in The Darjeeling Limited.

Anderson also has a particular musical style that flows through all of his films as well. He is notorious for his deft use of older pop music, particularly from the late 60’s and early 70’s. With the exception of “Starálfur” by Sigur Rós near the end of The Life Aquatic and “Needle in the Hay” by Elliot Smith at a climactic moment in The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson sticks exclusively to the use of pop and folk music from that period. Whether it’s The Faces “Ooh La La” that ends Rushmore, the David Bowie covers that fill The Life Aquatic, or the Nick Drake, Nico, and The Velvet Underground that underscore the protagonists’ malaise throughout The Royal Tenenbaums, the period fills all of Anderson’s work. Even The Darjeeling Limited, which takes place in India, is filled with period Bollywood music, with asides from The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.

Another stylistic element that Anderson often incorporates into his films is a large recurring cast. From the Wilson brothers, who appear, either individually or together in all of Anderson’s films, to Bill Murray, who has shown up in every one of Anderson’s post-Bottle Rocketefforts, to Seymour Cassell, who appeared in Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, and The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson often returns to the same troupe of actors throughout his career. This does not necessarily signify that Anderson works as an auteur, yet a closer examination reveals that most of these actors play similar roles in all of Anderson’s films. Owen Wilson can be found as a woefully immature and emotionally vulnerable charmer as Dignan in Bottle Rocket, as Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums and as Ned Plimpton (cum Kingsley Zissou) in The Life Aquatic. Bill Murray plays a morose, downtrodden old soul in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic (though an argument can be made that Murray has been playing this trope out in all of his films for more than a decade now). Even Anjelica Huston can be seen as an intelligent, fiercely independent divorcee in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, as well as playing a similar character in The Life Aquatic (differentiated only because her character there is only separated from her husband, not officially divorced).

In terms of personal style, much of Anderson’s life creeps into his films. His admitted obsession with Jacques Cousteau is an obvious inspiration for The Life Aquatic, but also plays heavily into the plot of Rushmore, when Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fisher falls in love with his teacher based on a note she wrote in a Cousteau book and sets about wooing her by attempting to construct an aquarium at the titular school in her honor. Bottle Rocket clearly oozes the ennui and malaise of an aimless mid-twenties that Anderson spent in Austin, Texas where he met frequent collaborators (and Bottle Rocket stars) Luke and Owen Wilson. Anderson is also the product of divorce, as are the primary characters in Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Darjeeling Limited.

Yet the similarities between his works run deeper than simple autobiographical similarities. The theme of a controversial love interest is hit on repeatedly throughout Andersons films. In Bottle Rocket, Anthony falls in love with a housekeeper who doesn’t speak a word of English. In Rushmore, Max Fisher falls in love with Miss Cross, who is twice his age, and Miss Cross in turn is wooed by Henry Blume, who is much older than her. In The Royal Tenenbaums, Richie and Margot have what amounts to an incestuous (though technically legal, as she is adopted) attraction that is explored throughout the film. In The Life Aquatic both Steve and Ned actively pursue the pregnant journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson, who is pregnant as a result of adultery.

All of these complex romances are symptomatic of another theme that runs through Anderson’s work: the idea of a protagonist with unrealistic expectations that are constantly at odds with the real world. In Bottle Rocket Dignan wants to be a criminal mastermind, in Rushmore Max hopes to win the love of Miss Cross, in The Royal Tenenbaums Royal desires to win back his family and stop the remarriage of his ex-wife, in The Life Aquatic Steve hopes to make a hit film for the first time in years while avenging his fallen friend, and even in Anderson’s newest film, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox the titular animal wishes to continue a life of crime while providing a safe, comfortable life for his family. Each of these expectations, just like the romantic conquests discussed before them, end in disappointment for the protagonists. Reality infects Anderson’s whimsical world, and the dreamers that populate that world must inevitably come to accept that life does not always provide what they want.

Even in failure, though, Anderson stresses there is always hope. Dignan may end up in prison, but only because he realized his dream of a criminal escapade. Max may not win the heart of Miss Cross, but he does find a place at a public school and a romantic interest closer to his own age. Royal does not stop Ethilene’s marriage, but he does find a way to be a part of his family’s lives again. Steve does not kill the jaguar shark, and experiences several other important losses along his journey, yet the film ends with him striding triumphantly onward to face the world again. Even Mr. Fox is forced to live out his days in a sewer after his theft brings the ire of three villainous farmers, but in the end he discovers his sewer provides him access to a supermarket, and as such to all the food he could ever need. The failures Anderson puts his protagonists through are a way to sift through their shallow self-centeredness and provide them a sort of enlightenment that even though the world is a less magical place than they hope, it is still a place worth living.

Further, a particular strain of male bonding recurs throughout Anderson’s work, in which two characters, who either become friends or have always been friends are torn apart by the presence of a romantic interest, and eventually thrown back together in a revelation of their mutual pettiness. Max and Henry do horrible things to each other in their rivalry for Miss Cross, Royal and Henry are at odds over the affections of Ethilene for most of The Royal Tenenbaums, just as Richie and Eli fight over Margot, and Steve and Ned are constantly competing for Jane’s affections in The Life Aquatic. All of these men behave reprehensibly toward one another until they are finally confronted with their immaturity by the objects of their affections. By the film’s dénouement, all of the aforementioned pairs have reconciled or at least grown to accept each other, and come to a better understanding of their previous pettiness.

Finally, a current of emotional subtlety runs through Anderson’s work. His characters rarely express their feelings openly, except in crucial scenes which often occur about once in a film, yet when they do express their feelings, they are bluntly honest with one another, even if they express their honestly in an off-handed manner. For example, in The Royal Tenenbaums, when Royal is about to be kicked out of the house, he tells the family, “I just want to say that the last six days have been the best six days of, probably, my whole life.” The narration explains that Royal realized the truth of this statement immediately after saying it, in keeping with his roguish dishonesty, and penchant for a good grift. Another of these moments occurs when, in the same film, Margot and Richie discuss his suicide attempt. She asks him, “You’re not going to do it again, are you?” And he responds with honest ambiguity, “I doubt it.” In Rushmore when the characters have hit rock bottom, Max and Henry meet on an elevator inside a hospital, where Henry lights up a cigarette and pours vodka into his coke. When Max asks how he’s doing, Henry replies, “I’m kind of lonely these days” before simply walking off. These moments of brutal emotional honestly stand out against the sense of subtle yearning and repression that characterizes most of the rest of Anderson’s films.

It may be possible to critique Anderson for living too much in his own hyper-controlled insular world, of writing essentially the same film about the malaise of upper-middle class white people whose lives fail to meet their expectations, and for being musically stagnant in the same small period, yet no one can deny that Wes Anderson embodies the idea of the auteur. Walking into any of his films at any point, it is almost immediately possible to sense his presence behind the camera, and his views of the world are continually communicated through the ever-growing body of his work.

Whether the auteur theory holds up under subsequent examinations is yet to be determined, yet it is clear that at least in this case, Wes Anderson is the author of his films, and controls each of them with a precise, inimitable style that makes each of his movies his and his alone.

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

5/23: Martin Scorsese

6/6: Terry Gilliam

6/20: David Mamet

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson