Monday, June 28, 2010

Random Pop Culture Top Ten List: Top 10 Dream Sequences in Television

by Jordan

Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) weekly list in which the writers at Review to Be Named take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

The dream sequence is an established format for communicating the inner desires of characters, for examining the decisions they have made, and for looking at their deep-seated insecurities. Dream sequences can also serve as an excuse for a show to dabble in absurdity, a chance to foreshadow what’s to come for the main characters, or even as the ultimate cop-out for either a retcon or a show’s ending. This week, Random Pop Culture Top Ten List looks at some of the best dream sequences in television history. [WARNING: The following list may contain spoilers about the shows discussed, especially when the dream serves to foreshadow events to come. Attempts will be made to keep the spoilers vague and minimal].

10. “Freudian Sleep”, Frasier

Following a day when his call-in show receives no callers, Frasier, Niles, and Daphne invite themselves along with Martin for a weekend at a cabin in the woods. What follows is a series of dreams from each of the characters, examining their worries and fears. Frasier dreams of killing is brother and marrying Daphne, and also of a months-long period in which he receives no callers. After disparaging Frasier for taking his dreams so seriously, Niles dreams of being a bad father and dropping his baby, and Daphne dreams of becoming immensely overweight. Finally, we are given a view into Martin’s psyche, where he dreams about adopting a positive attitude, set to “The Sunny Side of the Street.” Each dream reveals something about where the characters are at this point in the series, and how they relate to one another.

9. St. Elsewhere, Everything

After 6 seasons and 137 episodes, St. Elsewhere came to an end by revealing that the entire preceding series had occurred within the mind of the autistic Tommy Westphall, as he stared into a snow globe. This scene also implies that Tommy’s father, Donald was not a doctor as the show had portrayed him all along, but was in fact a construction worker. So, hope you enjoyed wasting six seasons worth of time watching ongoing stories that weren’t even actually occurring in the show’s fictional universe, which, for the most part, didn’t even exist. Read this as a commentary on the artifice that is television or as the ultimate cop-out of an ending as you see fit.

8. “Lucy Goes to Scotland”, I Love Lucy

The characters in I Love Lucy went many places during the show’s run. They traveled across America to Hollywood, around Europe, and even into the countryside of Connecticut (not to mention to Japan, among other places on the series continuation, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour). But one place they never actually went was Scotland. Instead, the trip there occurs entirely inside a dream of Lucy’s, in which she, being a member of the McGillicuddy clan, must be sacrificed to a ferocious two-headed dragon (played by Ethel and Fred) unless she can be saved by a dashing villager (Ricky, of course) who pledges to do battle on her behalf. The episode provided a chance for the cast to play wildly against type in an entirely different format, and allowed for some very strange storytelling that never would have fit within the reality of the show.

7. “City on the Edge of Forever”, South Park

The children are taking a field trip into the mountains when their bus nearly careens over a cliff. While cantankerous Ms. Crabtree goes for help, the children are left on the bus to reminisce past experiences in the face of their apparently imminent demise. Every memory they share is slightly altered from how it actually occurred on the show, including the fact that each adventure ends with everyone eating ice cream. When the bus finally falls, Cartman wakes up in his bed, only to be served a breakfast of beetles by his mother, which leads to Stan waking up from his very strange dream. “City on the Edge of Forever” allows South Park to riff on the idea of the dream sequence in television, including the “dream-within-a-dream” joke that often ends these episodes. Plus, everyone gets to eat a lot of ice cream, which is always a good thing.

6. “The Attic”, Dollhouse

After hearing about The Attic as the place where dysfunctional dolls are sent throughout the run of Dollhouse, curiosity was incredibly high when Echo and her friends were finally sent there. It is quickly revealed that The Attic traps people within their own nightmares in an endless loop while the nefarious Rossum Corporation uses their fear to power its computer servers. The episode follows Echo through the dream-like realm of The Attic as Echo travels through the minds of her friends, and some complete strangers, trying to save them from a shadowy predator and find a way back into the real world. The episode delivers on the promise that The Attic is a terrifying place by allowing dream logic to create the perfect hell for Rossum’s enemies to rot in. The dream of the Japanese programmer in particular will leave you shuddering for weeks.

5. “Perfect Circles”, Six Feet Under

After the cliffhanger that ended Season Two with Nate going into risky brain surgery, Six Feet Under’s third season begins with Nate living a very different life, with a very different family. After enjoying a strange Christmas dinner with this alternate Fisher clan, and spending some time with Lisa and their child and viewing himself in several different potential outcomes of his surgery, Nate is whisked away by his dead father Nathaniel to get something to eat prior to attending his own funeral. The opener allows for Six Feet Under to dabble in the absurdity it does so well, in addition to playing off of viewers anxieties and foreshadowing what is to come in Nate’s life over the rest of the episode, the season, and arguably even the series.

4. Newhart, Everything

Newhart ran for 8 seasons and 184 episodes before it reached “The Last Newhart,” in which the entire town is purchased by a Japanese businessman and turned into a golf course. Dick Loudon plows on through his increasingly strange existence, until finally, Dr. Robert Hartley, Newhart’s character from the 1970’s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show wakes up in his own bed, turns and tell his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the previous show) about the strange dream he had, and the beautiful blonde he was married to in it. The ending of Newhart is widely considered one of the great series finales of all time, both for its parody of shows who tried this technique seriously (like St. Elsewhere from above) and for its callback to the former career of the show’s beloved star.

3. “The Test Dream”, The Sopranos

Throughout its run, The Sopranos became notorious for its highly symbolic and deeply meaningful dream sequences. The show managed to perfectly mix the absurd logic that goes along with dreams and psychological symbolism that allowed viewers a window into the deep recesses of Tony Soprano’s subconscious. Perhaps the most significant of these dreams (and arguably the longest), “The Test Dream” follows Tony on a path towards committing a murder he dreads (and one his waking self knows by this point is unavoidable). Along the way, Tony converses with many of his former victims, including those he killed himself and those whose deaths were his fault. He also confronts a coach from his past who gave Tony an opportunity to pursue a different life, and gets chased by an angry mob led by Annette Bening. Finally, Tony rides his ill-fated horse into the home he has been removed from and attempts to negotiate his reentry with his wife, who tells him “you can’t bring that in here with you.” The dream outlines the acts Tony will commit throughout the rest of the season, and also provides insight into the guilt that resides at the center of his life, and the moral and ethical compromises he constantly makes to keep his increasingly unstable existence afloat.

2. “Restless”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

At the end of a seemingly directionless season and after dispatching the Big Bad in the previous episode, Buffy prepares to relax and take in a movie marathon with her friends, all of whom are too troubled from the ordeal they just survived to sleep. But before the opening credits roll on the first movie, the gang all fall asleep, and we are provided entry into their subconscious’s as they are hunted by an ancient force. The episode not only allows for some hilarious absurdism (including Spike as Giles’ apprentice and a very strange man who appears in each dream to make a comment involving cheese), it also puts the entire season into perspective as it examines the internal forces that have divided and threatened to conquer these characters over the past season, and it provides a blueprint for what Buffy will go through for the rest of the series.

1.“Zen, Or the Skill to Catch a Killer,” Twin Peaks

Perhaps the definitive television dream sequence, and a definite influence on all that followed it (especially #2 and #3 on this list), Agent Cooper’s dream at the end of the third episode of the series is probably the weirdest thing to ever be broadcast on network television (which should surprise no one as it came from the mind of David Lynch). At the end of another long day investigating the murder of Laura Palmer, Cooper has a classically Lynchian dream in which he encounters two men who seem to be intimately involved n Palmer’s death, and is then rocketed forward 20 years into the future, where a dwarf known only as The Man From Another Place sits in a red room with an aged Cooper and a woman who looks a lot like Laura Palmer, and lays out for Cooper the path to the killer, all while speaking backwards and dancing to the eerie jazz score that provides the backdrop to much of the series. Cooper’s dream is a wonderfully surreal segment that introduces some of the show’s long form mythology, plays with the viewers perceptions, and provides Cooper with the framework to solve the murder at the center of the show.

Read more Random Pop Culture Top Ten List here

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: David Mamet

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.

“Take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.” –David Mamet

When I began brainstorming this column, it was clear to me that I wanted to look not only at auteurs, those directors whose technical skill, personal style, and thematic consistency drive their work, but also at directors who were not auters and at non-directors who may actually have more to do with the final product than the director. So central to my game plan was this idea that it is permanently ingrained in the introductory note to every installment of the column. Yet so far, I have only examined the work of directors that I would say are definitive auteurs. I have eased myself into the examination of auteurism, and hopefully any of you readers as well, by focusing first on modern examples of auteurs and explaining why I think they fit the mold.

This time I’m looking to try something a little different. David Mamet is a director of 11 movies over the past 25 years, so there is no doubt that this installment is examining a director. Mamet also pretty clearly drives the quality and content of his work with more assuredness than any (or almost any) of his collaborators. Yet I would forward the argument that David Mamet is not an auteur, and in doing so, will introduce a theory I have mentioned before, and one that I imagine will do battle with the auteur theory throughout this column for as long as I continue writing it. This theory is, as I have forewarned you, a screenwriter’s theory.

A bit on my bias before I dig into how Mamet is a perfect introduction to a screenwriting theory. Those of you who read this blog regularly will likely have noticed my near constant references to the motivations, ideas, faults, and hang-ups of “the writers” on any given television show I happen to be covering (this is especially true of my reviews of Glee, though I think its something that gets thrown around a lot in my treatments of How I Met Your Mother and 24 as well). To some extent, I tend to believe that the writers are the creative force behind any given story, and that a lot of the credit, and a lot of the blame should be placed on them for any given creation. This occasionally places me in philosophical opposition to the auteur theory, which I think often deprives the screenwriter of the credit they deserve for, you know, actually creating the story, characters, plot developments, and themes of any given piece. Working on this column so far has pushed me towards a greater understanding of the auteur theory and has lead me to see some of its validity, but I still tend to be biased in favor of crediting the writer.

All of this is prologue to the idea of David Mamet as a consistent creative force behind all of his works, but not as an auteur. If I were to ask someone to name a David Mamet film (provided that person is familiar with Mamet at all), many people would likely name Glengarry Glen Ross, a tour de force about real estate agents locked in a competition for their jobs. The film is a masterpiece with an unimpeachable cast (Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce and Alec Baldwin), a stellar script packed with the signature Mamet dialogue and cadence, and some very solid direction that keeps the film’s theatrical roots in mind while also adding cinematic depth. Sounds like a home run for Mamet, right? Except for one thing: David Mamet didn’t direct his most well known movie.

What he did do, however, is write the phenomenal script, both for the original play and for the screen adaptation, which includes the film’s most famous scene, a monologue not included in the play in which Alec Baldwin’s character explains the basic plot of the film and espouses its basic philosophy. If that makes it sound anything less than scintillating, I’ll let the scene speak for itself:

Watching that scene, and, for that matter, the rest of the movie, there is no doubt that it is the work of David Mamet, whose dialogue has such a familiar rhythm and cadence to it, he famously forces actors to rehearse with a metronome to get the timing right. Mamet’s dialogue, which often plays with the differing meanings of words (like the meaning of the word ‘talking’ in a key scene in Glengarry) and the ability of communication to allow us to explain our worldview to one another (or, in some cases, the failure of words to sufficiently get our meanings across) doesn’t just drive this movie, it is the movie. Without Mamet’s script, Glengarry Glen Ross would not exist, plain and simple.

So why is it that with Mamet behind the camera an auteur does not emerge? In part, it’s the way that Mamet views directing. In addition to the quote that opened this column, Mamet has also said, “The work of the director is the work of constructing a shot list from the script. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humor. This is a philosophy that’s inherent in Mamet’s directorial style and clearly elevates the script to the center of any film’s universe (at least, any of Mamet’s films. I’m far from making the pronouncement any wider than his work alone). Mamet has also been known to say that he believes the job of the director is to set up the camera so that it captures the action, and that the job ends there. This can be seen throughout his works, which lack any technical style or achievement, mostly because Mamet eschews the idea that the technical portion of filmmaking should even matter.

In Homicide, Mamet’s third feature as a writer-director, Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) is pulled off of a high profile case he is working with his partner (William H. Macy) tracking a drug dealer (Ving Rhames) in order to investigate the murder of an elderly Jewish woman. Gold is embittered that he was chosen because he too is Jewish, yet is drawn in to a potential conspiracy around her death. The film explores Mamet’s pet themes of problems with authority and of elaborate confidence games played out over time, utilizing Mamet’s trademark dialogue specifically in two soliloquies that push the issue of race, and all the complexities associated with it at the forefront of the film. It is impossible to deny that this is a Mamet film, but the fact that he was behind the camera has little to do with that.

The Spanish Prisoner, a (not particularly good) film both written and directed by Mamet, exhibits the downside of this flaw. The film follows Joe Ross (an unremarkable Campbell Scott), an inventor responsible for creating “The Process” through a series of twists as various interests compete to deprive him of his invention or of any financial gain from it. The movie makes room for some appearances by Mamet regulars like Ricky Jay, Ed O’Neill, Felicity Huffman, and Rebecca Pidgeon (the epitome of ‘I got the job because I’m sleeping with the director’ jokes) but the tone of the whole thing feels off. The actors, particularly Campbell Scott and Steve Martin, who acts as the film’s annoyingly obvious antagonist, never seem to nail down Mamet’s dialogue which leaves the whole movie feeling stilted. Beyond that, there’s the fact that the film telegraphs each and every one of its plot developments, with references in the script, to be sure, but also with achingly obvious close-ups that focus our attention on something we are now painfully aware will come back later in the film. It becomes difficult throughout The Spanish Prisoner to determine whether Mamet turned in a terrible script, or whether his uninventive direction just made a more subtle work feel terribly overdone.

Mamet faired much better a few years later with State and Main, a clever Hollywood satire that puts him fully in his comfort zone. He is working again with a large troupe of Mamet regulars, including William H. Macy as the film’s director, Ricky Jay as a producer, Alec Baldwin as the star, and Clark Gregg as a local attorney with political ambitions. Not only can this very capable cast handle his dialogue, they’re also in on a lot of his in-jokes, like when Mamet stand-in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s writer refuses to do any edits without his beloved type-writer (Mamet never writes on a computer), or when he falls in love with a stage actress in the small town (played by Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon, at her least annoying here). Another running gag throughout the film has Macy’s director insist on including a complex, if not impossible, shot for the opening of his movie. The request seems patently ridiculous, and also reads as Mamet’s appraisal of the work most directors do—technically ambitious but ultimately empty in terms of adding meaning to the film.

In Redbelt, for my money the best film Mamet has yet made as a director, his dialogue takes center stage again in an in-depth character study that follows Mike Terry (an incredible Chiwetel Ejiofor) who owns a martial arts studio and lives his life by a very firm code, and watches as that code is challenged by the rigors of daily life. Much of the film evokes a play, but in the style of Glengarry it also utilizes the advantages of being a film effectively, opening up its combat scenes and even (shocking, for a Mamet directed film) shooting from some interesting angles to accurately capture the feel of the fights. Mamet was likely aided here by the fact that he has studied martial arts for years, yet the film is still centered far more on his script than on any technical element.

If I have made it sound like Mamet’s emphasis on his screenplays over the visual representations of them is a flaw, don’t be fooled. I am simply endeavoring to draw a distinction between Mamet and the three auteurs I have previously examined in this space. David Mamet drives the meaning behind his films whether or not he is directing them, and makes a strong case for the idea that a screenwriter can be more influential in making a film than a director. This column has focused less on the specifics of Mamet’s career (like his predilection for stories about con men, his views of masculinity, his ideas about communication and his penchant for viewing America as a place that forces self-examination through a lens of cynicism and nihilism) and more on his philosophical differences with those who would be considered auteurs. For any of you Mamet die-hards out there it may seem that I’ve given him short shrift in favor of speculating on the importance of screenplays in general, but I think that he weaves a very interesting path through the debate on auteurism, and one I hope I have highlighted in a coherent fashion. Mamet seems to find directing to be a necessary evil, a middle man between writing a script and communicating it to the masses. He sees directors as achingly inessential to the process of movie-making, and yet, it is easy to spot his mark on any movie he has worked on (unless you tend to watch movies on mute). Mamet shows up in his dialogue, in the way he develops his characters, and in the way that what each character says also says something about them (to use the word “says” in a way that might make Mamet proud). Watching one of his movies, you may not be able to tell whether he directed it. You may have absolutely no idea whether he was even on set during its filming. But you’ll know pretty quickly if he wrote it.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

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

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson

7/18: Fritz Lang

8/1: Charlie Kaufman

8/15: Todd Solondz

Random Pop Culture Top Ten List: Top 10 Badasses Who Take a Turn as a Transvestite

by Jordan and Ashley

Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) weekly list in which Jordan and Sam take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

Throughout the history of film, it has occasionally become necessary for some bad ass mother fucker to dress up like a lady. Sometimes he's doing it to escape from bad guys, some times he's doing it to ensnare them, and sometimes he's just playing a transvestite in a movie. Let's look at some of the great thespians (ok, great bad asses) who have undertaken this challenge...

10. John Travolta, Hairspray

Before the Scientology, awful career choices, and accepting the title of “Oprah’s Favorite White Man” (seriously, this happened), John Travolta was pretty badass. He was Danny Zuko, Bud Davis, AND Tony Manero. And though something seemed to fall apart in the 80s, he may even have irrevocable membership in the Badass Club for his stellar performance in one of the badassiest movies of all time, Pulp Fiction. While seeing Travolta covered in prosthetic fat and doing a terrible Baltimore accent in the 2007 musical film adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 comedy may have been a depressing reminder for some of how far one man can stray from his dignity, for others it was a delightfully out-of-character romp. One thing’s for sure: Divine did it better.

9. Johnny Depp, Ed Wood

Though one could argue that Johnny Depp’s badass cred wasn’t cemented until Captain Jack Sparrow became a cultural phenomenon in 2003, his underground appeal as a teen idol gone rogue was well established by the time he donned angora and sequins as Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic. Wood, a lifelong crossdresser, was eager to lend his personal experiences (as well as his questionable acting ability) to his films, an element Burton captures in all its tragicomic glory. Meanwhile, Depp perfectly embodies the failed director in all of his earnestness, optimism, and sheer perversion; in a particularly memorable sequence, Depp-as-Wood manages to incorporate an angora bolero into an Arabian striptease, a spectacle that convinces girlfriend Delores (Sarah Jessica Parker) that Ed’s freak flag might be flying a bit too high for her liking.

8. Gene Hackman, The Birdcage

In many ways, Gene Hackman’s character in The Birdcage differs little from the tough-guy characters that have become his trademark: Senator Keeley is a Moral Majority-era Republican in a perpetually dour mood after his reelection campaign is sullied by a sex scandal. But when his daughter (Calista Flockhart) is engaged to a boy who has two daddies, one of whom is a professional drag queen (Nathan Lane, obviously), he finds himself in a sticky situation that calls for an ingenious disguise. Hackman is especially brilliant in the film’s penultimate scene, in which he can be found shimmying awkwardly while humming along to Sister Sledge in a Miami gay club.

7. Cillian Murphy, Breakfast on Pluto

Cillian Murphy has fought zombies in 28 Days Later, fought Batman in Batman Begins (and briefly in The Dark Knight) and fought Rachel McAdams in Red Eye (she's more threatening than she seems!). But in Breakfast on Pluto he puts all of that violence aside to portray the soft spoken, and quietly willful Patrick "Kitty" Braden, who leaves her small Irish town to avoid persecution and sets out to find her mother and become entrenched in the English music scene. Patrick isn't someone you'd want to push around, but she also isn't going to spray you with neurotoxins, so she has that going for her.

6. Chiwitel Ejiofor, Kinky Boots

Ejiofor is definitely a man you don't want to mess with. He is chillingly deadly as The Operative in Serenity, treacherously persistent as a revolutionary in Children of Men, a cold hard police detective in Inside Man, and even a mixed martial artist in Redbelt. In Kinky Boots, on the other hand, Ejiofor plays Lola, a sassy drag queen who agrees to help a small town shoe-maker diversify his business by making men's fetish footwear that would allow drag queens to walk more comfortably. To avoid a "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" pun, I think we can just move on...

5. Wesley Snipes, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

Wesley Snipes is Blade. Need we say more? Yet in To Wong Foo he trades in his swords and sunglasses for high heels and a skirt to play Noxeema Jackson, part of a trio of drag queens on a road trip to a national competition in L.A. (if this plot sounds derivitive of a movie that will appear higher on this list, that's because it is). They face discrimination and change some minds in small town America along the way, and a fun, sassy time is had by all.

4. Michael Caine, Dressed to Kill

Brian de Palma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill is mostly known today for is Razzie Awards, its insensitive portrayal of transgender issues, and for blatantly ripping off Psycho. But it also features preeminent badass Michael Caine in drag, even if it’s homicidal-maniac-drag. The film follows Dr. Robert Elliott (Caine), a psychologist who specializes in sexual disorders. After one of his patients is murdered, another patient, a transsexual woman named Bobbi, becomes the prime suspect. In one of the least climactic “big reveals” in recent memory, Dr. Elliott and Bobbi turn out to be the same person, driven to homicidal madness by gender confusion. While Dressed to Kill is both a catalogue of outdated DSM diagnoses as well as a generally shitty movie, Michael Caine in bad drag almost makes sitting through it a worthwhile endeavor.

3. Willem Defoe, Boondock Saints

Willem Defoe shows off his badass credentials in Platoon, Wild at Heart, and in Spider-Man. Plus, the man played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, and anyone willing to deal with that kind of torture has to be pretty badass. Defoe doesn't go far off of his badass path in Boondock Saints, playing Special Agent Paul Smecker, an FBI Agent with a preternatural sense of how crimes occurred (which leads to some flat out ridiculous sequences and plot developments, but we aren't here to review the movie). At the film's climax, Smecker needs to gain admittance into the house of some Russian thugs, and let's just say he's got a pretty smooth way of doing it.

2. Tony Curtis, Some Like it Hot

As both an action-adventure and western star, Tony Curtis epitomized classic Hollywood masculinity, a persona that made his appearance in Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon as male musicians who go into hiding as members of a ladies’ orchestra after witnessing a mob hit all the more hilarious and surprising to audiences in the late 50s. The film is consistently ranked as one of the greatest comedies of all time, in part because of Curtis’ performance as Joe, whose alter-ego Josephine finds herself engaged to a smitten older man (which provides for one of the greatest ending scenes in movie history).

1. The Cast of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Almost doubtlessly the largest collection of badasses playing drag queens in film history, Priscilla follows Mitzi (Hugo Weaving, who would go on to be Mr. Smith in The Matrix, Elrond in Lord of the Rings, and V in V for Vendetta), Felicia (Guy Pearce, who was headed towards L.A. Confidential, Memento, and The Count of Monte Cristo) and Bernadette (Terrence Stamp, who had already done Superman II, and Young Guns, and still had The Limey and Wanted in his future) as they travel across Australia to put on a show at Mitzi's ex-wife's failing hotel. They encounter discrimination, mistaken identities, a phenomenal soundtrack and a whole lot of fabulous costumes on the way (the film won a much deserved Oscar for Best Costumes. Three Words: Flip Flop Dress), and also learn something about how complexities are a part of any relationship and that no matter what, true connections can survive the complications.

Read more Random Pop Culture Top Ten List here

Jordan's Review: Toy Story 3

There has been a good deal of talk on this blog about Pixar's near perfect string of movies over the past 15 years. If you make a list of the defining kids' movies of this period, all or almost all of them will come from the studio. And Toy Story started it all. The string of Pixar sequels that now waits on the horizon has me worried, not because Pixar hasn't earned my trust, and not because they haven't made a great sequel before (Toy Story 2 would easily make my list of top ten sequels of all time...which we may do here at some point), but because the idea of making sequels instead of creating original material tends to move toward rehashing overdone ideas and turning out just more of the same. Yet if Toy Story 3 is any indicator, I will follow Pixar to the ends of the earth and back, even if that means seeing Wall-E 5 in twenty years.

The film begins with the sort of overblown action sequence that might characterize a lesser film, but it is quickly apparent that we are inhabiting the mind of young Andy as he plays with his favorite toys in the world, and some great examples of kid-play logic abound. However, as Pixar refuses to let us forget, time marches endlessly forward, and soon Andy is 17 and preparing ot go off to college. This leaves the toys in a difficult position. Woody (Tom Hanks), ever the loyalist, thinks they should be resigned to living in the attic, waiting until their owner needs them again and just being there for him, even if he'll never recognize it. But the other toys, including Buzz (Tim Allen), Jesse (Joan Cusack) Ham (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) are not so sure that's best from them, and their doubt ends up getting them all donated to Sunnyside Day Care Center, which leads to some fun meditations on the passage of time, the place that toys have in our lives, and some pretty excellent riffs on the prison escape genre.

Toy Story 3 is not entirely flawless, but it does get pretty damn close, especially for the third installment in a kids movie franchise (compare it to Shrek 3 and this movie may as well be The Godfather). Some of the setpieces come off as a little too video game-y and reek of being written so they would translate easily into a video game (which was advertised right before the movie), yet those moments pass quickly, and what they leave behind is the meditative examination on loyalty, commitment, bravery, and aging that makes this a great Pixar movie. And for all the game-like shenanigans the gang goes through that threaten to take you out of the movie, there are plenty of redemptive scenes, perhaps the best of which comes when the toys discover that all of their plans may have been for naught, and that all of their bravery, intelligence, and skill might not have saved them from a terrible fate. In most kids movies, you would get comedic panic at this point (Rex is a character pretty much written to be in scenes like this), but Toy Story 3 is not most kids movies, and instead the characters sit silently, gather together, and pass into a moment of sorrowful resolve and deep, lasting camraderie. This isn't just the stuff of kids movies, its the stuff of classics.

Grade: A-


The pre-movie Pixar short is nearly as important as the movie itself. This one, "Day and Night" doesn't have the best premise to work with, but it uses its sheer earnestness, and some truly incredible animation to make up for it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Random Pop Culture Top 10 List: Top 10 Blemishes on Otherwise Great Movies

By Jordan and Sam (with help from many friends)

Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) weekly list in which Jordan and Sam take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

You remember that awesome movie? You know the one with the great story/acting/directing/musical score? Yeah that one. Well there's this thing in it that really pisses me off, but otherwise it really is as great as everyone says it is. What pisses us off? Well for starters....

10. Cassandra (Tia Carrere), Watyne’s World and Wayne’s World 2

There’s a lot to love in Mike Myers two film adaptations of his best SNL character. In fact, pretty much everything is something to love. The extended parody of advertising, meeting Alice Cooper, re-enacting the Laverne and Shirley theme song, Lara Flyyn Boyle riding a bicycle straight into a car—pretty much every scene in both movies is executed flawlessly to create two of the most gloriously dumb movies ever made. But this is Hollywood, kids, and our man Wayne has to fall in love. Enter Tia Carrere, whose performance as Cassandra is the dollop of ketchup right on top of your ice-cream Sunday. She’s terribly unfunny, can’t seem to figure out how to deliver lines, and just seems to exist either as a sex object to Wayne, or to be stolen from him by the film’s antagonist (Rob Lowe the first time out, Christopher Walken in the second movie). Granted, her presence in Wayne’s World 2 does lead to likely the most detailed parody of The Graduate ever executed, yet by that point, does anyone care if Cassandra runs out of that church with Wayne? The rest of the movie might have been sheer perfection if she hadn’t.

9. Batman's Voice (Christian Bale) Batman Begins, The Dark Knight

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight restored Batman’s good name. Christian Bale’s darker, more brooding Batman was just what audiences needed after Joel Schumacher’s nipple-ization of the caped crusader. Christopher Nolan’s direction kept the dark mood in place and did the mythology of Batman justice. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Bale is the best of the film incarnations of Bruce Wayne. Though if one was to make an argument against him, they would have to point to “the voice”. Batman typically has his “Bruce Wayne voice” and his “Batman voice”. Bale took this to the extreme. So much so, it’s become a bit of a joke as seen in this wildly popular and all too accurate YouTube spoof.

8. Broadway Melody Sequence, Singin' in the Rain

Every film musical to come after Singin’ in the Rain owes a bit to the 1952 film. It was funny, had great music and spectacular dancing from the likes of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. The plot was great as the movie took the audience back to the birth of talkies. What better way to tell the story of the beginning of sound in film than with musicals. For all of its trailblazing, Singin’ in the Rain was not susceptible to avoid pandering. The songs from the movie were all classics that people already knew. The movie was advertised as having those songs you’ve been singing for years. The other instance of pandering came with the Broadway Melody sequence of the film. The reason its such a blemish on an otherwise great film is that the sequence has nothing to do with anything. It serves as a venue for Kelly do dance but that’s it. The sequence brings the story to a screeching halt as it is literally dropped in the film. In fact, it was only placed in the film because of the success of the extended dance scene in An American in Paris.

7. Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is without a doubt, one of the most important movies of the 90’s. It’s fun, endlessly quotable and the movie that put Tarantino into another class of director after his astounding debut with Reservoir Dogs. Each small vignette interwove within the larger story in fantastic and unexpected ways as Tarantino took a non-linear approach to telling the story-and it worked. Well, it almost always did. There was one story, nay, one character that is endlessly irksome in an otherwise flawless movie. Butch has a girlfriend named Fabienne. Now you may not remember her right off the bat. But think a little while, she’s the one that goes on and on about wanting a pot belly. Oh, she also loses Butch’s (Bruce Willis) watch. These are all well and good as plot points but the characters voice and dialogue is mind numbingly annoying. Her only purpose is to have someone that is on the receiving end of one of the film’s best lines, “Zed’s dead baby. Zed’s dead.”

6. The Death of Boromir, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Remember that time when you were watching Fellowship in the theater for the first time, and the final battle arrived? You were probably so excited to see another excellently choreographed battle sequence, you were ready for anything. If you’d read the book before hand, you were even preparing yourself for the epic sense of loss that would accompany the death of Boromir. Director Peter Jackson had already pulled off heartbreak with Gandalf’s death earlier in the film, so it was going to be a heartbreaker. And then Boromir got shot with an arrow. And then he got shot with another arrow. And then everything went all slow-motion and Frodo probably screamed “No!” and Boromir got shot what amounts to a comedic amount of times, lumbering around for far too long before falling over and living just long enough to give the classic “I’m dying” speech. By the time he actually got around to dying, we had forgotten why we were supposed to care.

5. Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), American Beauty

Perhaps the best movie satirizing suburban life, American Beauty was a worthy Best Picture winner. Alan Ball’s characters are appropriately dysfunctional to prove his point. But the character, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) was just preposterous. So much so that it was a bit distracting. Ricky was the unbelievably sensitive artistic type that just loved to find the beauty in mundane things. He loved to take video of Thora Birch from afar and documenting a plastic fucking bag. This was just plain annoying. However, this is totally forgivable. What made no sense was his reaction to Kevin Space seconds after his brains were shot all over the wall. Ricky just stared and admired the beauty of it. Any real human being that’s not a Dexter-esque serial killer would probably scream in terror at seeing an annihilated human head. Maybe that’s just me.

4. Harrison Ford’s voice over, Blade Runner (Theatrical Cut)

Ridley Scott has made himself a reputation as a sort of anti-Lucas, in that he has re-cut his sci-fi noir five times, and has made it slightly better with each pass. The biggest problem with the first version was something Scott, and his star Harrison Ford, never wanted there in the first place. The studio insisted that Ford provide narration to explain the world of the film and to add emotion to a story that is sometimes clinically detached. Ford hoped that if he did a terrible job on it they would change their minds. Unfortunately, movie studios can be a little stubborn, and what we’re left with is a stilted, bored-out-of-my-mind reading of entirely unnecessary narration, which actively works to take you out of what is otherwise a completely immersive movie.

3. The Rat, The Departed

For two and a half hours, director Martin Scorsese weaves a complex web of deceit, betrayal, and undercover tension, as legions of corruptible characters from both sides of the law do bloody battle in the streets of Boston. That anyone could possibly survive this ordeal and come out morally unscathed is unlikely, and in fact the film, true to its excellent form, fulfills that promise that every character would be sullied by the end of the day. Just as I’m about to sit back in my chair, heave a tension-relieving sigh and enjoy the credits, a CGI rat walks across the screen and blows the awesome power of an otherwise perfectly satisfying ending with a piece of digitally rendered heavy-handed symbolism. See, it was the characters in this movie that were the real rats. And something tells us that if you didn’t get that in the first two and a half hours of the movie, the CGI rat probably isn’t tying everything together for you.

2. The Final Scene in PSYCHO

Psycho is a brilliant thriller and perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s best work, though there is a lot of worthy competition. The story is crafted so well, that the audience is at the end of their seat until all the pieces fall in line and the chilling questions behind Norman Bates are answered. The movie concludes logically, though there is a scene at the end of the film, in a police station, where a psychologist explains to the audience exactly what just happened. I’d like to think that Hitchcock was forced to put this scene in the movie by a film studio that had no respect for the intelligence of its audience. No spoilers here, but everything is very clearly explained and it just leaves you with a rotten feeling, that is, until the final shots of the film that still manage to make viewers’ hair stand on end.

1. Ewoks, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Everything is moving along quite nicely in the closing chapter of George Lucas’ space epic. There’s that fantastic opening Tattoine rescue, Lando is going to pilot the Millenium Falcon, Admiral Ackbar is there, and the Rebel Alliance finally has an actionable plan to end the war with the Galactic Empire. And then the Ewoks show up. Sure, they’re cute, and fuzzy, and its sort of funny that they see C-3P0 as a God, but their novelty quickly wears off, and by the time they are single handedly responsible for the end of the rebellion, the shine is at least slightly off the apple. Not that they’re Jar Jar Binks or anything.

Read more Random Pop Culture Top Ten List here

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Terry Gilliam

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.

“Maybe I'm just trying to explain my reality and life and imagination and myself.” –Terry Gilliam, 2006.

Considering the work of one director as a whole, it’s easy to see continuing themes, outlooks, technical achievements, and even ongoing collaborations with similar individuals. What is clear when viewing the films of a director that aspires to auteurism (or, just as often, in the films of a director who is an auteur whether or not he would admit it) is that something drives his or her work and makes them return again and again to similarities that can grow to define their aesthetic. Yet what drives a director to make a particular film may say more about his role as the true author behind it. In earlier installments of this column, I have examined the what of my selected auteurs—the recurring aspects of their filmmaking that tie their career together and make any one of their films belong definitively to them over someone else. For this installment, I would like to turn my attention over to the why and look at how the life and experiences of Terry Gilliam have driven his films.

Gilliam was born in America, but moved to England in the 1960’s and has barely looked back since (he renounced his U.S. Citizenship officially in 2006). While much of the fantasy of his work can be traced to his whimsy as part of the Monty Python comedy troupe (and prior to that as a cartoonist for Help! Magazine), the aspect of his life that I think has come to most define his work is his experience with Hollywood. Looking at his films, and at the struggles he had making them, provide a great insight into what drives Gilliam’s work, and gives added relevance to his persistent examination of the struggle between unbridled imagination and the often bureaucratic or ambivalent society that rejects whimsy.

In Time Bandits, one of his early movies and the first in his self-proclaimed “Trilogy of Imagination” (which continues through Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, films we’ll get to in due course), imagination wins outright against the imposing force of technology and modern society. Kevin (Craig Warnock), the film’s young protagonist, is an imaginative history buff who is ignored by his technology and status obsessed parents. He rebels against their way of life by escaping with a cabal of dwarves who have utilized their quick wits and cunning to steal a map of space and time that allows them to travel throughout history and steal treasure. Throughout their adventure, it is this spark of imagination that gives them the edge over Evil, who wants to use the map to destroy the universe. When the film reaches its deus ex machina (a character referred to as The Supreme Being appears to save the day), the movie’s stand-in for God (Ralph Richardson) does not grow angry with the dwarves, but rather seems amused at the cleverness of their scheme. In fact, the film goes further, into the realm of wish-fulfillment, when Kevin’s parents are literally destroyed by their obsession with new technology over imagination, yet he remains triumphant.

This reading of the film fits with the relative freedom Gilliam had while making it. The movie was made on a modest budget, and was both a critical and a commercial success. Throughout production, there was limited studio interference (this being a movie with a smaller budget) and Gilliam was allowed to make the movie he envisioned. As a result, the movie serves as a celebration of imagination, and allows for the imaginative to triumph over the more creatively stunted throughout the story.

Gilliam’s next film, Brazil, would expose him to the ugly side of Hollywood he has spent much of the rest of his career rebelling against. This time around, Gilliam was working with a budget around three times as large, and was thus subject to more potential studio interference. The production became so stressful that at one point Gilliam lost the use of his legs for a week. The film reflects this tension between creativity and a seemingly nonsensical bureaucracy kept together only by a strict adherence to its absurd rules as it tells the story of Sam (Jonathan Pryce) a mid-level bureaucrat and day dreamer who gets drawn into the dangerous side of totalitarianism by his efforts to correct a machine error that lead to the arrest and murder of an innocent man. Sam dreams of flying, of fighting a giant samurai made of machine parts, and of winning the love of his dream woman Jill (Kim Greist), but his real life never lives up to the fantasy.

At the end of the film (if you haven’t already figured this out by the beginning of that sentence, spoilers lie ahead) Sam is apprehended by the government for his role in a probably nonexistent conspiracy surrounding renegade air-conditioning specialist Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro, whose name seems to be coming up a lot in this column) and taken in to be tortured by his old friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin). Lint uses the standard excuse for amoral actions provided throughout the film, and by figures like former Nazis in the real world: “I’m just doing my job.” In one last fantasy, Sam escapes the torture, helps to destroy the Ministry of Information building, and escapes the fascist nightmare with Jill, to live happily ever after. As the two drive into the sunset, the shot cuts to reveal Sam still sitting in the torture chamber, dead eyed and smiling, humming the titular song as he survives his torment only through escape into his imagination.

It is fitting that the studio system that created Gilliam’s anger expressed in the ending of Brazil also tried to censor that ending. Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg dramatically re-cut the film into a version popularly known as Love Conquers All, which not only removed the ending (so that the film actually ended with the destruction of the Ministry and with Sam and Jill’s daring, and incredibly unlikely, escape) but also excised a large portion of the fantasy sequences that revealed Sam to be a dreamer trapped in a world that won’t let him dream. Through the use of a very clever campaign to turn the public in his favor (including taking out an ad in Variety that read, “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film, Brazil? Signed: Terry Gilliam.”) he managed to secure the release of the movie the way he wanted it, but he was forever soured on Hollywood by the experience.

His struggle with Hollywood did not end there, however. As he embarked on making his next film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he was plagued with production problems from the start. After allegedly being promised a budget of $35 million (far greater than the budgets of either of his last two movies) he was given only $23 million. He was also stuck with a producer who insisted on filming in Italy instead of London, which lead to production delays and the film going over budget. By the time it was finally completed, David Puttnam, the Columbia CEO who greenlit the project, had been fired and replaced by Dawn Steel who, according to Gilliam, did not want any of the films made by the previous regime to succeed. As a result, Munchausen was barely released in theaters and became a giant commercial flop.

The story centers on the aging adventurer Baron Munchausen (John Neville) determining to embark on one last quest before succumbing to death. The Baron travels all the way to the moon, beneath the earth’s crust, to the bottom of the ocean in his attempts to save a city under siege. The Baron is, at heart, a storyteller, relating tales of his exploits to an audience who came to see a play based on them in the frame that opens and closes the film. The frame takes place during “The Age of Reason” (as a title card at the opening informs us), but this distinction is played as farce from the first. The city is under attack and chaos seems a more apt description of the times than reason. The play detailing The Baron’s exploits is shown to be a high budget extravaganza, handled poorly by a frantic director and cast. The real Munchausen enters angrily and puts a stop to the show in order to tell a story that he believes relates his life more accurately. His version is simply spoken, without all of the bravura special effects of the bigger production, and the audience is quickly bored and shuns him.

Gilliam must have felt similarly at the time, as he attempted to dazzle his audiences with wildly imaginative stories, only to have the studio try to silence him and cut off his vision. Just like Kevin stood in for Gilliam’s clever use of imagination in Time Bandits and Sam expressed his disillusionment with the system in Brazil, Baron Munchausen reveals a Gilliam that has been beaten back by a world that ignores his creative visions in favor of large scale spectacles and that fails to value the unique skill set he brings to the table.

Considering Gilliam’s disillusionment and his growing reputation as an outsider apt to make impractical flights of fancy, it is no wonder that the next Gilliam stand in, Parry (Robin Williams) in The Fisher King is a homeless man the world views as insane. Parry had slipped into a catatonic state following the death of his wife, and emerged with a single-minded obsession—to defeat the Red Knight and find the Holy Grail. In the view of his work I am forwarding, the commercial failure of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen can be read as analogous to the death of Parry’s wife, and that the film centers on Parry’s quest as a form of redemption for cynical shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) can be seen as Gilliam telling Hollywood that if given a chance he could save them from their sins.

The key scene in the film occurs when Parry meets Lydia (Amanda Plummer) and is immediately convinced she is his great love. He sees her from across Grand Central Station, and reality melts away as the two of them are swept up into a giant waltz through the main terminal. This scene was not originally in the script (which was written by Richard LaGravenese), and Gilliam was hesitant to include it for fear that it would make the movie, “a Terry Gilliam film.” As the mundanely dressed business people who are trapped by the boredom of their daily lives are swept up into a grand, whimsical waltz through the train station, there is no doubt that Gilliam’s presence is felt, nor that he is openly expressing the redemptive power of imagination.

It is almost too perfect that when the oft beleaguered Gilliam—who so often tells stories about one individual’s struggle against a society that rejects his imaginative world view—undertook to tell the story of Don Quixote (in a film to be called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) the production was felled by one disaster after another. As recounted in the excellent documentary Lost in La Mancha, Gilliam’s incredibly ambitious project (which he managed to finance on a budget of $32 million collected entirely outside of Hollywood) fell apart when the production was beset by noise pollution from overflying military jets, a flash flood that destroyed some of the locations, and, in a blow that meant death to the project, Jean Rochefort, the actor cast as Don Quixote (who had learned English for the role) was diagnosed with a herniated disk, and was thus unavailable to continue shooting. Production was shut down on the movie, and Gilliam has spent the years since attempting to jump start the project again (its current incarnation, starring Robert Duvall as Quixote and Ewan McGregor stepping into a role originally intended for Johnny Depp, is set to start production soon).

I dedicated myself when I sat down to write this column to making this installment shorter than the last two, and in that respect I have failed. Yet before I wrap this up I feel it is essential to discuss Gilliam’s latest film, which continues to express his frustration with the way his films are received by both Hollywood and the general public. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus centers on the aging showman of the title (Christopher Plummer) who travels in a ramshackle carriage around modern London, trying to entice modern day consumers to pay a small price to enjoy his simply, homegrown show. Parnassus is shunned by society, constantly laughed at, ridiculed, and attacked by the general public, yet all he wants is to tell a great story and excite the imagination. In fact, Parnassus is engaged in an endless struggle with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), the incarnation of Satan who believes he can collect more souls by tempting base desires than Parnassus can with the power of his story. As Gilliam even admits, “Its autobiographical. I’m trying to bring a bit of fantasticality to London, an antidote to modern lives. I loved this idea of an ancient travelling show offering the kind of storytelling and wonder that we used to get, to people who are just into shoot-em-up action films.” Gilliam sees himself in Parnassus, an aging showman with a vivid imagination in a world that doesn’t want to hear his stories anymore.

It is not difficult to realize the recurrent themes of the individual versus an oppressive society, or the struggle between creativity and the bureaucracies of an ambivalent world throughout the films of Terry Gilliam. Yet an understanding of the deep personal reasons that these themes exist, and persist throughout his work leads inexorably to the conclusion that the films of Terry Gilliam belong to him and no one else. More than any director I have yet covered in this space, Gilliam lets his personal life and the struggles he faces in it bleed onto the screen and permeate even those of his films that are only tangentially related to his recurrent themes. When you sit down to watch a Terry Gilliam film, you can expect to be taken on the kind of ride that can only be produced by a brilliant imagination, but you can also identify the pain that goes along with championing that creativity in a world that often rewards mediocrity and struggles to keep this unique talent suppressed. Fortunately for him, for his characters, and for his audience (when they will listen) no force can keep down the imagination of Terry Gilliam.

Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

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

6/20: David Mamet

7/4: Paul Thomas Anderson

7/18: Fritz Lang

8/1: Charlie Kaufman

Whose Film Is It Anyway?: Archives

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.

For ease of navigation, below you will find a collection of the past installments of Whose Film Is It Anyway?. Enjoy!

Notes on the Auteur Theory in 2011

Christopher Nolan

Aaron Sorkin

Michael Bay

Hal Ashby

Quentin Tarantino

George Lucas

Akira Kurosawa

Kevin Smith

Mike Myers

Frank Capra

Darren Aronofsky

Kathryn Bigelow

James Cameron

John Carpenter

George Romero

Ingmar Bergman

Sergio Leone

Jean-Luc Godard

Todd Solondz

Charlie Kaufman

Fritz Lang

Paul Thomas Anderson

David Mamet

Terry Gilliam

Martin Scorsese

Wes Anderson

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Feature: Random Pop-Culture Top 10 List: Top 10 Leading Sluts in Film and television

by Jordan and Sam

Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) weekly list in which Jordan and Sam take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

Throughout the history of film and television, there have been a good number of characters who, for lack of a better word, were sluts. Some of them we love, some of them we hate, but we can all agree that they have an obsession with sex. Here is our list of the Top 10 Leading Sluts in Film and Television. Feel free to add, subtract, rearrange, or bang your way right through the list:

10. Zac and Cody, The Suite Life of Zac and Cody and The Suite Life on Deck

Sure the Disney power twins haven't had sex on the show (that we know of) but in terms of tween programming, these two sluts are by far the most consumed by the beckoning call of their nether-regions. That vomiting feeling you get when seeing or reading about "The Suite Life" is perfectly natural as these two have spent years trying to get with girls. There is precocious and then there's these two. An early obsession with the ladies is all well and good but the Disney twins are obnoxious and pervy. They are as romantic as that Uncle who gets awfully "touchy" at Christmas after a few eggnogs. They have the same lust for women as the crew on "Entourage". Quite frankly, it is pretty vile that the Disney Channel peddles this on tweens but that's the way the wind is blowing these days. In one episode Zac (or Cody, I can't tell the two apart) asks the other to be his wing-man. Pray for our future.

9. Poison Ivy, Batman

Like Zac and Cody, Ivy's sexual history is a bit shady, but as far as Batman's enemy's go, Ivy probably gets around the most. Sure there's Catwoman but Selina Kyle is really only interested in Bruce Wayne. Ivy uses her pure sex appeal to lure men in to her traps and controls them to do her bidding. If kissing her would kill you, I can't imagine what would happen if someone even tried to have sex with her. So no, Ivy is not a slut in the sense that she sleeps with a lot of guys, but she definitely is promiscuously flirty. The fact that she uses her hot plant attraction to kill her enemies earns her a spot on this list. If only there was a way to introduce her to Zac and Cody.

8. Ally McBeal, Ally McBeal

Ally McBeal followed her high school sweetheart Billy (Gil Bellows) to college, and then to law school. The two then went their separate ways, only to be re-united when they find themselves working at the same law firm. The only downside is that the love of herlifes now married. Ally responds (as any potentially crazy slut might) by sleeping around, both in the office and outside of it. Couple that with her lapses into fantasies that often include licking attractive people in the face, her ridiculously short skirts, and an incredibly overactive biological clock that manifests as a dancing baby and you have one of the bigger sluts ever allowed at a counsel table. For sheer force of charm and by the number, she may be beat by another David E. Kelley creation in James Spader's Allan Shore from Boston Legal, but when push comes to shove, Allan never licked anybody in the face (and his courtroom attire never screamed, "Do me right here!").

7. Nancy Botwin, Weeds

Nancy Botwin's adventures in drug dealing started simply enough as she was struggling to make ends meet after suddenly losing her husband. She would sell weed to teens and adults around her typical suburban California town with the help of her brother-in-law and eventually her kids. Though Nancy quickly realized she could sleep her way to success. Mary Louise Parker can definitely pull off the sexy mom thing but it was not really much of a plot point until season 3. The turn from Nancy being smart business oriented drug dealer quickly turned to smart, slutty, business oriented drug dealer when she realized she could use her sexuality to get her far in the drug trade. Nancy's transformation can be marked back to season's three's "Brick dance".

6.Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother

Many people on this list so far can be called slutty, but few tackle their quest for some ass with as much relish as Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). Barney has famously bedded over 200 women in his day, many of them with elaborate schemes that range from pretending to be an astronaut to putting on make up and claiming to be himself from the future. In recent seasons, Barney has tried his hand at love, but his devotion to boobs and bimbos always seem to beat out his desire to find someone to actually spend time with. Barney is disgusted by the idea of marriage, but never tires of the endless pursuit of his next conquest, no matter what lengths he has must resort to in order to bed her.

5. Don Draper, Mad Men

What separates Don Draper from many of the other loose folks on this list is that his slutty ways hurt people in his life. The biggest hit obviously comes to his marriage which when last we checked (SPOILER ALERT) is over as far as we can tell. Don has banged quite the menagerie of women in his time, and of course in some weird way it is acceptable. Perhaps it's because the audience knows Don is living a lie or maybe we forgive him because he is a man and we are collectivley sexist and we can just say "It was the early 60's!" but Draper is a total slut. Don's sexual exploits provide us with some actual character depth which is a tribute to the strong writing and performances on the show. The audience is left asking after he fingerbangs yet another beautiful woman, "Who is this man? And who will he fuck next?"

4. Brenda Chenowith, Six Feet Under

Brenda Chenowith (Rachel Griffiths) is introduced having random, anonymous sex in a maintenance closet at an airport. From then on, she cheats on every partner she has throughout the series, often multiple times and in some pretty grotesque situations. Brenda commits sex acts in a department store, the back of a truck, at a key party, and even with two random guys who come biking past her house. In her defense, she does eventually seek treatment for sex addiction, but in ours, not even that stops her rampant infidelity from tearing apart further relationships. Plus, there's that weird tension she has with her brother...

3. Captain Kirk, Star Trek

Captain Kirk has certainly gone where no man has gone before. He is easily the sluttiest man in Star Fleet. He also has to get bonus points for having sex with scores of alien women. The faith he has that they have genitals that would not burn/tear his earthly dick off is inspiring and disturbing. It takes quite the slut to go to the ends of the galaxy just to hook up with some weird green chick. Like a gentleman who appears later on this list, he not only is a slut, but he can kick some ass. So of course he was a hero to a generation of Trekkie nerds. Getting laid and going through space? Clearly this is the dream. Alas he is only the third sluttiest leading slut in film and television. Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!!

2. James Bond, Dr. No et al.

Is there anyone more synonymous with having a lot of sex than James Bond? If your answer to that question is no, you should realize he's only #2 on our list, but nevertheless there is no question that 007 gets around. He has at least one, but usually two (and sometimes more) lovers per movie, and with a franchise that has now spanned five decades and 22 installments, that is a whole lot of slutting around. Bond was married once, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and tried his hand at monogamy once again in the 2006 reboot Casino Royale, but both efforts ended in tragedy and in an affirmation that for a man as dangerous as James Bond, one night may be all a woman can handle. Any more than that and she may end up shot, drowned, or even encased in gold. James probably doesn't mean to hurt anyone with his promiscuous ways. In fact, he's probably just trying to trying to fuck the hole in his heart where love used to be. Its a big hole to fill, but we're confident he can fill it.

1. The Cast of Sex and the City

When the basic premise of your show (and, hell, even its title) is about four women having as much sex as possible, you're bound to run into some accusations of promiscuity. But the four ladies of Sex and the City wear the term slut as a badge of honor, and live up to the designation with pride. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) may be the most brazen of the group, but her friends have their share of encounters as well over the run of the series. If sex is a metaphor for female empowerment, these ladies must be the most powerful women alive. Running through as many as one man each per episode over the course of six seasons (and now two movies as well) makes it possible that one or more members of the group have had sex with every single man in New York City. That would explain why the sequel had to move them to Abu Dhabi...

Read more Random Pop Culture Top Ten List here

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Taking Off: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

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…


“Change the channel.”-Wes Mendell

Despite Studio 60’s failure to be the big hit that NBC executives were hoping for, it was a massively successful concept. Of course, concept doesn’t pay the bills, at least if you work in television. Aaron Sorkin’s pilot episode of the behind-the-scenes drama about a late-night comedy show tackled so many issues as effectively as any show that’s had years of character development and story to its advantage. Probably the only accidental commentary from Sorkin was how much the pilot said about the future of the series.

The cold open to the pilot is quite simply the best start to a series there has ever been. Yes, that includes Lost and Sorkin’s own, more famous series, The West Wing. The amount of information Sorkin is able to cram into just a few minutes without anything feeling forced is staggering. Using the hectic pre-show mood going on in the eponymous studio, we see “Studio 60” cast member, Simon Stiles (DL Hughley) warming up the crowd while simultaneously getting the audience up to speed before the live broadcast starts.

The show within the show has been on since 1996 and seems to be the younger, less popular brother to Saturday Night Live. We learn that decisions regarding which sketches go on air are made literally right before the show goes on. Executive Producer, Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) is told by a Standards and Practices lackey (Michael Stuhlberg of A Serious Man fame) that a sketch that will offend religious viewers must cut. Mendell is insistent on keeping it in the show as it is the most inspired thing they’ve had on the show in ages. But Mendell is powerless as S&P run the show essentially and he has to fold.

Hirsch’s performance in the pilot is incredible subtle and over the top (as you’ll see later) and he, and Sorkin’s script, are effectively able to create a character that has become absolutely sick of the creative stifling of the industry. Mendell warns guest host, and Sorkin favorite, Felicity Huffman that the monologue that’s written for her is bad and not her imagination. As the show starts with a tired Bush/Cheney sketch Nelson interrupts. Words cannot describe the power of this scene. That’s why there’s YouTube:

Of course Mendell is fired and it’s up to newly hired Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) to clean up the mess. She turns to former writers, Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) to right the Studio 60 ship. It’s revealed the two have become wildly successful in the world of film. Thanks to some strong arming from Jordan and information regarding a failed drug test from Danny, the two are on board. Of course it is way more complicated than that-this is an Aaron Sorkin show.

Like any great writing, there is much more beyond the simple premise for Studio 60. The first clear objective of the show is to talk about the television industry, something Sorkin has become intimate with, for better or worse. Hirsch’s opening “Network-esque” monologue provides a good base of the problems Sorkin has with much of the industry. The two parties Sorkin points to specifically are the FCC and the religious right. This is something that Matt Albie battles with throughout the tenure of the show.

The only thing more obvious in the pilot than Sorkin’s criticism of the industry is the references to his personal and professional life. Matt Albie and Danny Tripp both contain parts of Sorkin. Albie is the genius writer who blows away audiences with his writing on the big and little screens. Albie is also just out of a relationship with Studio 60 cast member, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) who is both very religious and very conservative. Hayes was a clear stand in for Sorkin’s real life ex, Kristen Chenoweth who fits the description of Harriet Hayes down to the blonde hair and singing career. Apparently many arguments that Harriet and Matt had were lifted from real life arguments between Sorkin and Chenoweth. Like Sorkin, Albie was not fired from his position; he chose to leave his show because he was being strong armed out of the position for other reasons, perhaps a reference to Sorkin leaving The West Wing. Tripp’s past drug addiction mirrors Sorkin’s same issues with drug use. Even little things like having Huffman as the guest host (she was the star of Sorkin’s series, Sports Night) and naming one of the cast members Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) likely after Derek Jeter of his beloved Yankees.

None of these self indulgences is particularly distracting because the writing is so strong and if one writer has earned the right to be so self referential it is Sorkin. Studio 60’s pilot was incredibly promising as it seemed it would take the viewing public behind the scenes and show us the world of working in television. But it was not to be and the reasons are pretty much spelled out in the pilot.
Studio 60 rated very highly with wealthier homes but was never able to find a large audience but because of the network’s meddling, it never really had a chance. Sorkin would have been best served to show NBC executives his pilot to give them an idea how creativity was being stymied by the business people behind the shows. The pilot laid out all these great ideas for the show to run with and for a while they did.

The Albie/Hayes relationship allowed Sorkin to have fun writing dialogue that has liberal and conservative trading quips. There were some touching episodes and characters were starting to take shape. The problem came when in a ditch to get ratings up, the show lost what makes an Aaron Sorkin great. The predictable love entanglements were rushed to get people to watch and were thrown at the wall in the very first season. Sorkin takes his sweet time with the will/they won’t they storylines. Another part of the show that turned off viewers was the sketches themselves. People familiar with Sorkin likely knew the point of Studio 60 was to be an awesome sketch comedy show, but many people thought they would get some big laughs form genius writer, Matt Albie. Sorkin is a very funny writer, but he does not do sketch comedy well at all and it showed. This undoubtedly turned people off to the program and made people doubt Matt Albie’s position as “genius comedy writer”.

The changes to the show hurt the series’ chances two-fold. First, the people who loved Sorkin were turned off by tactics that a much lesser drama would take (though Studio 60 was the first Sorkin show I ever watched, I fell into this group). So the core fan base was alienated-this is never a good sign. The people the networks thought they’d be reaching out to by tinkering with the show were also alienated by Sorkin’s writing which of course still had a large presence. After re-watching the pilot for this column, I felt that excitement for what was to come from such a sharp script and already developed characters. All that followed was flashes of a brilliant show that never was able to materialize.