Sunday, December 1, 2013

TV Review: Dracula (Season 1 Episodes 1-5)

I'm a graduate of the Whedon School of television. I've watched all of his shows, most of which while they were on the air, and have been a fanatic of his for a very long time. I like to think that this means I know good long-form storytelling when I see it, but I think it mostly means I've gotten used to "good" or "enjoyable" shows getting cancelled before they've had a chance to really find their audience. But when Dracula on NBC gets cancelled, as I'm almost certain it will be, that's going to be fairly tough pill to swallow.

It's not that Dracula is as good as Firefly or anything, it really isn't even in the same league, but it's surprisingly entertaining and enjoyable and delivers a lot of good things to look for in a series. And for it to be on NBC makes it even more surprising, but that fact also seems to spell its doom. Add to that its Friday night time slot (also known as the kiss of death), and its falling ratings and it seems like the show is doomed. Which is too bad because for the first time in a number of years NBC finds itself poised to deliver some real quality programming if they'd only sit back and allow the story to take hold and find its audience. Granted the show hasn't been cancelled yet, and after giving Hannibal a second season, some of the signs seem to point towards NBC finally learning it's important to be patient in the current TV market, but I won't rest easy until the show is officially picked up for a second season and we see what it and Hannibal are capable of doing with a little word of mouth press and some time under their belts.

There are two facts potentially coloring my view of Dracula: 1) I had very low expectations going in. And those expectations were only barely surpassed by what was ultimately a weak Pilot. 2) I binge watched episodes 2-5 in one morning. So it's possible that the show is only as good as I think it is when its being consumed all at once, but in the day of the DVR and Netflix and such, I don't think that this is a bad thing.

But enough about the fact that I think the show is good, here's why I think it's good (spoilers to follow):

1) Character, character, character!
I can't stress enough how important clearly defined characters with clearly defined goals and motivations are to just about every story. Dracula seems to understand who its characters are and what drives them to do the things they do. Everything from Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) helping Dracula (with no pleasure from the action for either of them), to the complications in Mina (Jessica De Gouw) and Harker's (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) relationship make perfect sense. The show has yet to make a character decision that doesn't feel understandable and organic, and the few main characters we don't know as well yet (Lady Jayne Wetherby comes to mind) we know well enough to understand the decisions being made in the moment and I have faith that they'll get origin type episodes like Renfield got most recently.

2) The story is simple and interesting.
Dracula (the constantly sexy Jonathan Rhys Meyers but I mean really really sexy) is resurrected by Van Helsing so the two of them can embark on a quest for revenge against the shadowy cabal that ruined both of their lives. Everything Dracula does from taking on the persona of an American entrepreneur (bad accent and all) to getting involved in a Victorian race for renewable energy is dedicated to eliminating his enemies. Along the way he meets Mina Murray who happens to be the spitting image of his murdered wife and romantic wackiness ensues. The story is never convoluted or difficult to follow, but the focus on intrigue and the traffic of information leaves the series with the ability not to rely too highly on big action set pieces to keep your interest. This lack of reliance on pulse-pounding action was one of the first things I noticed when watching Game of Thrones, actually, and the same sensibility is found here.

3) A dedication to diversity.
This might not be a big deal to some people, but I think the way that this genre show is showing a dedication to presenting a story with queer characters and characters of color when it really doesn't have to is brilliant. The story is set in Victorian London, so it could easily get away with the idea that blacks and gays just weren't all that prolific. Instead they've made it a point to introduce important queer characters (yes plural!) and people of color into their early episodes. Compare that to another genre show, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and you've got a study in opposites. And worse, AOS has no excuses since it takes place in a contemporary world. But I digress, the point is that I don't doubt that each viewer will be able to see his/herself in this show by the time the first season is over, and the stories they're telling about race relations, gender equality, and queer visibility in their world are fun, interesting, and entertaining.

In the end, we're simply left with a good and enjoyable show. Now if only I could do something to ensure NBC would be smart for once and let it take its time to find an audience.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Film Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

In the interest of full disclosure, I hated the second Hunger Games book. I also wasn't a huge fan of the first film because I thought they tried to stay too true to the book (book purests who, incorrectly,  think the books are always automatically better are hating me right now) instead of focusing on making a good adaptation of the source material. But I didn't hate the first film, and I didn't hate the first book either, so those are the caveats I feel obligated to make before starting this review. I guess logic dictates that my next statement be that I hated The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but I really really didn't.

Here's the major mistake that I think Collins makes that the films, by necessity, rectify: The First Person, present tense narration. Even though the films (the first more than the second) pull almost all of their dialogue from the book, they were smart enough to avoid the too easy trap of including some kind of voice-over narration from Katniss. I don't know if this is because the film makers know how horrible voice-over generally is, or because, like me, they found the narration of the books to be the weakest element. Being stuck in Katniss' head while she repeatedly and willfully makes the worst deductions and most illogical leaps about the things in front of her face is one of the most torturous experiences I've ever had. Per usual, the films take place in third person, and the difference it makes to Collins' story is tremendous.

The story of the film shouldn't be surprising to anyone at the this point. Katniss (played by the most glorious human being ever, and someone I totally wish was my best friend, Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home from their defiant triumph in last year's Hunger Games. Now they're in a position to play up their false love (false from Katniss' point at least) for the cameras in an attempt to quell the burgeoning rebellion of the districts that their actions in the games have started. This is complicated by Peeta's (understandable) lack of interest in allowing his very real emotions to be placated by Katniss' farce, Gale (Liam Hiemsworth or, I mean, sorry, maybe this one is better?) starting to make his long standing feelings for Katniss known, and the continued threats from President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a continuously fun and evil performance) that if things in the districts don't get any better, he'll take his frustrations out on Katniss' loved ones. So in an attempt to do his part to eliminate Katniss' status as a symbol of hope, President Snow uses the upcoming Quarter Quell (a special version of the Games that takes place every 25 years) to enact a rule that this year's Hunger Games Reaping will take place from the previous winners of each district. So of course Katniss and Peeta (after he volunteers to take Haymitch's place) find themselves heading back into the games.

(Spoilers follow) As an adaptation, Catching Fire is pretty much everything I look for. The core story elements are there and pretty much unadulterated, some of the things that are a little more implicit in the book are made perfectly explicit in the film (the relationship between Katniss and Gale is one of the things that I feel is being firmly taken out of speculation and the subtext and placed firmly on the screen, and the scene in which Katniss saves Gale from being publicly flogged is one of the more powerful in the film), and the things that are being left out are more or less inconsequential, while the scenes that are added do a lot to add color and context to the story and the characters we don't get to spend as much time with in the books (the scenes between Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee [the constantly amazing Phillip Seymour Hoffman] come to mind).

There are a couple moments in the book that don't make the cut which could be argued as being important, but I'm not sure the storytelling experience is truly lessened by their absence. As for Peeta's amputated leg, while I agree that leaving this out was an oversight, I also think it's a flaw to be held against the first film and not this one, which couldn't have fixed this issue without a hugely problematic retcon. As a result, what you get is not only an intelligent and highly entertaining film, but a rare adaptation that truly surpasses the experience created by its source material.

If I have one complaint about the film, it's that the pacing still feels to be a bit off. Where I think Collins had a tendency to allow the pre-games scenes to take their time and build character and suspense, and for the pace to be picked up during the life and death games, I feel like the films have tended towards the opposite with the earlier scenes flying by while the games lack a more pulse pounding tempo. That isn't to say that the scenes in the Arena aren't exciting, tense, and suspenseful, because they often are, but the general feeling of death coming and passing the characters by in a blink is lesser here than I felt it was in the book.

But in the end, I'm left with one simple fact: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was an exceptionally entertaining way to spend two hours and twenty-six minutes. I left the theater very excited for the next two films, which is way way more than I can say for how I felt putting the book down.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

TV Review: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Season 1 Episodes 1-7)

I purposefully wanted to wait until about six episodes in before offering up a review of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.EL.D. because 1) all series need a little time to get their legs under them and 2) the last time Joss Whedon had a TV series (the amazing Dollhouse), it wasn't until the sixth episode that everything took off. Granted, that time, everyone involved with the show repeatedly reminded viewers that the sixth episode would be the best and we just needed to hang in there to reach it. No such assurances were offered for AOS, and after seven episodes I've realized why: It simply isn't going to get any better. Another thing I've realized about the show is that no matter what anyone says and no matter how much ABC wants to promote it as such, AOS isn't a Whedon show in the traditional sense. It lacks Whedon's trademark humor and quick fire dialogue, there's no standout character for the viewers to really latch onto for better or worse (the fan favorite Agent Coulson not withstanding, more on that in a minute), and there's no real season long story arc yet (which after 7 hours is a significant problem). Acknowledging early on that this was not a Whedon show changed my expectations and allowed my enjoyment of the show to increase, but it didn't make the show any "better," and as someone who really wants to like this show, I find this to be problematic.

I think the biggest and most glaring problem facing AOS is how episodic its format has been. Coulson's team tackles a specific threat each episode. Instead of setting the team against an enemy and allowing them to do battle intermittently throughout the course of the season, the creators have decided that it would be better to give them an ever changing threat or problem to solve. This could be a good thing as it would give the writers the opportunity to expand the already established Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for some reason the show doesn't appear to be doing that. The threats are typically contained to the episode in question and they haven't done much to expand our understanding of the world in which the characters operate. Nor have the episodes done anything to enhance our understanding of the characters themselves. At this point in the show's run, we've really only been given two separate serialized stories: What really happened to Agent Coulson, and what's the story behind Skye's parents, and both stories have been done poorly. Skye's story is arguably the most interesting of the two at this point, but that's only because it's new. Its novelty, however, also works against the show as the story's introduction in the fifth episode feels rushed and comes out of nowhere without giving the audience time to really care. The fact that Skye is looking into the S.H.I.E.L.D. in order to discover the truth behind her own origin should have been introduced in the first episode to allow suspense to build around it organically. It also wouldn't hurt to have the story center around someone more interesting than Skye, but that's another issue we'll get to in a bit. The Coulson story was the main thing I took away from the first episode and it was the primary source of interest for me as a viewer. But as the show has dragged on and on with no real headway being made on that front, I've found my interest to be lessening with each passing week. Again, this would be easily rectifiable if either Coulson came off as a significantly different character than he was in the Marvel films, or if the show just showed us some kind of forward momentum towards a resolution instead of just teasing us with hints that he's "different" every week.

The characters are the second problem facing the series. None of them are interesting. Besides our previous ties to Coulson (which as I mentioned already have been growing thinner each week), Malinda May is the only character that seems to be even remotely three-dimensional at this point, and I can't help but think that this has something to do with the fact that she hardly ever speaks. If the writers gave her as much dialogue as they do the others, she'd probably be ruined just as quickly. None of the characters feel like fully developed people yet so much as cardboard cutouts who exist to do the one thing they each do. The show doesn't strive to surprise us with out of left field character beats. This is most obvious in one of the show's better episodes to date: F.Z.Z.T. Simmons is infected with some kind of Alien virus transmitted through static electricity and the team, Fitz in particular, rush to try and find a cure before she basically explodes and kills them all. Even though the scenes that follow are entertaining, nothing in them is surprising. Of course Simmons would throw herself from the plane instead of risking the lives of all of her team, of course Fitz and Simmons combined brain power would come up with a cure that works in time, and of course after complaining the entire episode that he needed something action-y to do, Ward would jump out of the plane before having his parachute fully fastened and save her. Again, this was all very entertaining in the moment, but I don't think it did much to add coloring to the characters we'd been faced with for five hours already. But the worst character ever award certainly goes to Chloe Bennet's Skye. She's boring, she's annoying, and her continued presence on the team is totally unjustified. She's a double agent and then she isn't, she's a computer hacker who has to be fitted with a bracelet to stop her from hacking computers because she can't be trusted, and her sole purpose continues to be to tell the team "no" for some reason or another each week. It's pathetic.

Shows in general, and Whedon shows in particular, work best when each major player's position within the group makes narrative sense. The best example of this from the Whedon-verse is Firefly. Not only do the characters have an immediate purpose (pilot, mechanic, doctor, muscle), they also serve a deeper role of representing elements of Mal's soul that he's lost over the years. There's never a question about one of them being left behind or replaced with someone else capable of doing their jobs because the audience understands why they're there. Or as Mal puts it when asked why he'd come back for Simon and River, "You're on my crew. Why we still talking about this?" The same cannot be said about Skye; surely if her only purpose is to be a computer hacker, the team could find one far more trustworthy and reliable.

All of this boils down to a show that's not in full command of itself yet and is falling into bad storytelling methods. These problems are problems I would expect to have been ironed out after two or three episodes. That they're still so prevalent and that they're all so easily fixable, tells me that the show probably won't get much better than it's been thus far. Or at the very least it'll require an entire overhaul to make it better. I don't want it to seem like I hate the show outright. I actually find all of the episodes watchable if not enjoyable. But I'm not rushing to my TV set each week to make sure I've caught the latest installment. I had high expectations for the series given the stellar work Marvel's been doing with its cinematic universe and the names attached. It's sad how hard those expectations of a great show have come crashing down around the reality that it's little more than middling at best. Do we really want to dedicate 22 hours to something that will never be more than mediocre?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Film Review: Thor: The Dark World

I finally got around to seeing Thor: The Dark World for a second time and I must say that I found it a lot more impressive upon rewatch than I did initially. The problems I had with it on a macro level (which I'll get to in due time) are still there, but the problems I had with it on the micro level of the sheer storytelling in the moment have vanished. Where I initially thought that the film had eliminated some of the storytelling flare of the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films in favor of straight action, I now see that the story is a lot stronger than I gave it credit for and the manner in which it is being told is actually rather masterful. I held off on writing my review of the film after my first viewing because I have a lot of faith in Marvel's ability to create good films (at the very least, I have faith in their ability to create good films in this Avengers dominated run. I'm willing to simply gloss over the flaws in some of the X-men and Spider-Man movies and the complete ridiculousness that was Fantastic 4 as anomalies), and so I left the theater acknowledging that if I didn't enjoy the film as much as I should have, then the problem was probably with me as a viewer and not with the film. In the end, I think this proved to be the right move.

The film opens with Odin (played as always by the incomparable Anthony Hopkins) giving a voice over recap of the the beginning of the universe and the war fought between Asgardians and Dark Elves over the elves desire to return the universe to the darkness from whence it came. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is the leader of the Dark Elves and he's looking to use a MacGuffin weapon known as the Aether to basically end the world as we know it. Odin's father stops him, hides the weapon somewhere where it'll never be found (because that always ends well) and tells the world that Malekith, who scampered off when the battle was lost, is dead. Fast forward a few thousand years and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is being locked in the Asgardian dungeon for the rest of his life for the crimes he committed on Earth during The Avengers, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is fighting to restore peace and balance to the nine realms which fell into chaos after Loki's actions in the first Thor. And of course there's Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor's mortal, earthbound love interest who's moping about since Thor left her two years ago, but who's been spending her downtime using her awesome scientist brain to track gravitational anomalies over London. So things are tough all over for our group and, of course, when the Aether is found in the place no one would ever find it, and Malekith and his elves wake up from their thousands of years of slumber, wackiness ensues.

The movie is fun and entertaining. The story is straight forward and easily comprehensible (something I didn't realize when I watched it slightly drunk the first time around). And, somewhat surprisingly, it's really funny; consistently funny throughout much of it's 112 minute run time. It wasn't that I doubted Marvel's ability to bring the humor, but after spending so much time with the ever refreshing and snarky Tony Stark, it seemed odd that one of their films could pack in so much humor without him. But more than all of those reasons, I was surprised by the film's subtlety in its storytelling on the second watch. A lot of the story progresses without words, relying on the visual to convey the intricacies of what's happening. I found this to be especially true during a major action set piece towards the mid point of the film where the characters allowed to act and react to the situations before them without any real exposition about what was happening. (general spoiler) When Heimdall (the always amazing Idris Elba) moves to raise the protective barrier around Asgard, he doesn't talk aloud to himself about what he is doing or needs to do; he simply does it and there's never any confusion as to what is being done. So while this can leave things seeming a bit murky to the slightly inebriated brain, it makes perfect sense when sober, and I'm sorry for initially thinking the film was cumbersome and convoluted before, Marvel, I was wrong.

But that's not to say that I don't have problems with the film, or more specifically with its place within the series as a whole (significant spoilers and specific story elements to follow). Aside from the extreme lack of scenes featuring a scantly clad Chris Hemsworth (only one shirtless scene? really?), I only have two serious complaints. 1) I feel that Thor is the only Avenger with his own franchise thus far who isn't getting very much emotional development. 2) I think the series would have been much better served by allowing Loki to remain dead. I'll admit, that I'm more capable of being swayed on that second one, but in the moment it kind of irks me.

About Thor's emotional development: While it's clear that Thor underwent a great change in character after the first film, I don't feel as though the same can be said about this one. I'll admit that it's possible that the filmmakers intended the moment when he confronts Odin at the end of the film to tell him he can be the protector of the nine realms but he can't and won't take his rightful place on the throne to be the defining character moment, but if that's the case then I have to say it didn't work for me. First off, I was never under the impression that Thor becoming king of Asgard and ruling from the throne was ever going to happen. Given everything they want to do with the Avengers franchise, that just never realistically seemed to be in the offing to me. Secondly, I never really got the impression that Thor was interested in taking the throne to begin with. Early in the film Odin tells Loki that the plan is for Thor to finish bringing peace to the nine realms and then to become king, but we never hear that aspiration from Thor himself. It's set in stone by way of his birthright, sure, but what reason are we given to believe that all of the fighting and struggling to bring the nine realms to heel is being done, on his part, simply so he can get to his throne sooner? Giving up something someone else wants you to have but that you never really wanted in the first place (and something that would stall the story progression were you ever to possess it anyway) doesn't really count as character growth to me. Furthermore, Thor's mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), dies in this film and it's clearly a moment meant to spark a change in everything, but beyond his grief, I'm not sure I feel comfortable saying that Thor emerges from the incident as a different man than he was prior. Compare him to Tony Stark who underwent a serious progression within his most recent film, and Steve Rogers who appears to be being confronted with the same kind of big character moments in his upcoming film (based on the trailer at least), and you've got a character who seems to be being left behind by the Marvel writing staff.

As for Loki's death, allow me to say that I fully understand why the creative team would want to keep Hiddleston around. Even though I'm not one of the many many fans of the series who thinks that Loki is just the greatest thing since sliced bread, I do understand how invaluable Hiddleston has been in the role and how much fun he's constantly been on screen. I also understand the desire to stay true to the comics the films are based on. But seeing as how the films in most of the MCU have been adapted from Marvel worlds and characters more so than direct stories and comic runs themselves, I'm not of the opinion that the films have to remain as staunchly true to the source material as a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games adaptation has to. I would also point out that between Agent Coulson being returned from the dead in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Bucky making his return in The Winter Soldier, I'm starting to wonder if the series (and I do view all of these independent films as one whole series in a lot of ways) has the balls to pull the trigger on something as big and important as a major character death. I love Frigga, but sorry she doesn't count. I felt as though the film had the chance to do something significant with Loki's death and the redemptive elements of it in this film and they squandered it with that ending.

With all of that being said, Thor: The Dark World is a ridiculously entertaining and enjoyable film. The performances always seem to toe the line between headstrong seriousness and self-aware camp (or maybe it's just the Elizabethan language that makes it seem that way), the romance between Jane and Thor is crazy moving and fun to watch, and the film is told with a frankness and confidence that still surprises me when I find it in action films. You'd think after so many Marvel films I'd be used to it. Between this and Iron Man 3, I think Marvel's Phase 2 is shaping up to be every bit as good as Phase 1 was.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

I watched Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave last night and I'm still not sure how to go about processing what I saw. I hope it's not hyperbolic for me to say that not since Roots have we seen such an unflinching portrayal of Slavery in America. But even more important than that (or at least more important within the confines of this blog) very rarely have we seen a more confident and capable filmmaker than McQueen. If this man doesn't finally get his (long overdue) Oscar, a great disservice will have been done by the academy.

The Story (possible spoilers to follow): 12 Years a Slave is based on the novel of the same name by Solomon Northup and it details his experiences in slavery. Northup is a free black man living in New York with his loving wife and their two children. As a talented violinist, he is offered a job playing for two magicians in a traveling circus, and he goes with them to Washington DC in faith and friendship only to wake up one morning after a night of hard drinking chained in a slave market. Without easy access to his papers, and working within a system that clearly doesn't want him to have access to his papers, he is quickly given a new name, and a story claiming that he is a run away slave from Georgia. What follows is an amazing story of a kidnapped black man being sold into slavery for 12 years and forced to try and survive.

The story is powerful and amazing to witness, but the film is really a triumph of excellent direction from McQueen. I honestly don't have words to accurately describe how amazing McQueen's work is here, and somehow that's the most fitting reaction since the most powerful things McQueen does within this film have nothing to do with the words. This is a triumph of visual storytelling. I first noticed this signature from McQueen when I watched Shame in theaters. There are so many moments in that film where McQueen was content to just let Fassbender sit and allow the thoughts and emotions of the character to play across his face. Often during the numerous sex scenes of that film, the camera was trained on Fassbender's face instead of on the bodies of the characters, and the affect of this choice was to bring the viewer into Brandon's head and witness the turmoil of a person suffering from a sex addiction. McQueen brings that same sensibility to 12 Years and the affect is twofold: you get a great human story watching Chiwetel Ejiofor allow Solomon's emotions just bubble up to the surface or forcing them down and out of sight, and you get an uncomfortable experience of witnessing the horrors of slavery.

In one of the more remarkable scenes of the film, Solomon is being lynched after he dares to challenge and then repeatedly strike his first Overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano in a very understated and ultimately thankless performance). One of the other Overseers saves Solomon's life, but leaves him hanging from the tree, his toes barely scraping the muddy ground and supporting enough of his weight to stop him from suffocating, until the plantation owner, Ford (played by the eternally amazing Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives home and cuts him free. McQueen holds the shot of Solomon hanging from the tree for the most amazing interval. It might have been five minutes, it might have been five hours, I'm not sure, but the impact of it is undeniable. As Solomon struggles in the foreground, life goes on around him in the background. Children play, men and women continue their work, the lady of the house looks on briefly before heading back inside, one woman sneaks up to him to give him a drink of water before quickly rushing off again, no one speaks, no one other than that kind slave woman acknowledges him, and the audience is left with the impression that this is just business as usual. It's nothing short of brilliant.

The film always stays in the moment and never really crosses into judgmental territory. I can't say that the slave owners are ever portrayed as sympathetic, but they aren't unduly demonized either. McQueen presents the situations as they happened and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. There are two moments in the film where it feels, however briefly, like the filmmakers are trying to make a message or tip their hands a bit more than necessary. One exceptionally illuminating conversation with Alfre Woodard and the conversation between Fassbender and Brad Pitt's characters. But both scenes work well and fit within the confines of the story. Oddly enough, the resonant moment in the film, for me, was something Ford said to Solomon. "Whatever the circumstances, Solomon, you are an exceptional nigger, but I fear no good will come of it." If you're looking for a line with implications that echo through time to the present, look no further.

12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart. It earns its R rating through unflinching portrayals of abuse and sexuality that were as much a part of Slavery as the hard back-breaking work. But for those with the stomach to take it, 12 years is an amazingly powerful and exceptionally well made film. Great direction, breath taking performances from all of the film's stars, and an emotional experience that will move you and open your eyes.

Monday, November 4, 2013

TV Review: The Tomorrow People (Season 1 Episodes 1-4)

I never had much faith or interest in The CW. Beyond it's pretty young people, the network never really had much going for it. So imagine my surprise when a few friends of mine started drawing my attention to The Vampire Dairies as an actually good and worthwhile show. While I can say that TVD is hardly revolutionarily great television, it is crazy entertaining and well worth watching. And then The CW comes out with Arrow and I find a second show I'm willing to watch on the network. My opinion has honestly started to change. Their shows tend to move quickly and burn through plot at a level that most shows with 22 episode sets don't. They tend to have very consistent characterization and motivation that often makes sense. So while their shows aren't quite on the level of Breaking Bad, they tend to be very fun on a basic, visceral level.

So enter The Tomorrow People. Besides it's blatantly horrible title, I'm still not completely sure how I feel about the show. It's certainly got it's CW quota of pretty people who take as much of their clothing off as network cable will allow as often as possible, it's certainly got an interesting story foundation to work with, but I'm still not sold on it fully for a number of reasons.

The Story: The show starts with Robbie Amell's character (Stephen Jameson) discovering that the sleepwalking and schizophrenia he's been being medicated for are actually symptoms of the powers he's been genetically blessed with. He's got a case of Telekinesis, Telepathy, and Teleportation (the three T's they're called). In fitting with the typical genre requirement that your protagonist be special, he also seems to be able to control time which is something none of the others can do. What follows is an introduction to an underground group of people with the same powers (The Tomorrow People) and a shadowy organization run by an uncle he didn't even know he had and dedicated to finding and stopping them (Ultra).

The Pros: Clearly there's the sheer attractiveness factor of the cast. Amell, Peyton List, Luke Mitchell, and Aaron Yoo are all easy on the eyes. The show has a mythology it's clearly thought a lot about before jumping into action. And I think the show does a good job of asking the question what will set them apart from some of the series' that came before with the same premiss (X-Men, Heroes). By the end of the first episode, Stephen has chosen to work with Ultra instead of throwing in with the Tomorrow People. It's a surprising development that occurs partially because the plot requires it to in order to be unique but mostly because Stephen acknowledges that the resources at Ultra can better help him to find his estranged father. Granted the father who abandoned them in order to try and protect them from his own Tomorrow Person status is the least interesting of the show's stories, but as a motivation for its main character, it can be compelling. And the biggest thing the show has going for it is that the graphics are actually a lot better than you'd assume for a network TV show. The supernatural fight and action sequences (of which there are many) all look significantly impressive.

The Cons: I'm not a huge fan of some of the elements of the show's burgeoning mythology. Another way the show is trying to distinguish itself from previous stories of a similar nature is with the twist that the tomorrow people have developed a gene that prohibits them from killing. This serves the purpose of balancing the scales between the homo superior tomorrow people and their homosapien enemies. While the tomorrow people can read minds, move things with their minds, and teleport around like crazy, the humans can still pull the trigger and do so with increasing regularity. I'll admit I'm not expert in evolutionary biology, but as an intelligent and active audience member, it makes no sense that a species would evolve in a capacity that could lead them to being extinct in a few years. I tend to think of evolution as something that increases a species' survival chances not decreases it (from the wiki article on Evolution: "Thus, when members of a population die they are replaced by the progeny of parents that were better adapted to survive and reproduce in the environment in which natural selection took place"). I think the show could have accomplished the same moralistic standing in a different fashion. Namely by making the tomorrow people so extremely human that they have even more of a conscious than regular people do, and using their powers to kill fills them with even more guilt and perhaps even changes them in some drastic fundamental way that they just chose not to do it. Perhaps the guilt over taking lives (and I certainly think there could be some contrived number of times it could happen before reaping consequences) drives them insane to the point where they lose themselves and become completely different people. This might seem like a small issue to some, and to be fair the show seems to be attempting to do something interesting with this story element as of this most recent episode, but it's a pretty big deal to me in the sense that it tends to pull me out of the narrative every time it's brought up.

While this is the biggest issue with the show, it isn't the only one. The episodes tend to be a bit rote and too formulaic for my liking (in his recent review of the episodes to this point, the TV Club's Rowan Kaiser points to this as a good thing while I find it to be a bit boring and predictable), the show lacks a strong central personality that I can latch onto as someone I want to tune in to every week or a character that I can have an abundance of sympathy for, and the show lacks a believably menacing antagonist. Mark Pellegrino's Jedikiah Price (Stephen's uncle and leader of Ultra) simply doesn't work for me. I find him to be irrationally angry and his only motivation seems to be jealousy that he wasn't born as one of the tomorrow people. He does all of the things a bad guy is supposed to do; he makes pointless speeches that are meant to be menacing while indiscriminately killing and taking the powers away from young and innocent tomorrow people, and he possesses the zeal of a fanatic for his "protecting humanity" cause, but something about the character feels empty to me. Every scene he's in (a lot of which feature him scowling and antagonizing his nephew) leave me wondering why no one has ever punched him in the face and put him in his place. This is a question I've never felt the need to ask about Magneto or the Joker. I think the best antagonists generally either have an abundance of charisma to pull people over to their cause, or just a status as scary mother fucker that you don't want to cross (the best cases have some combination of the two, see Tom Riddle for such and example). Jedikiah has neither and I'm not sure if this is due to Pellegrino's performance or to the character's writing, but I generally just roll my eyes when he's on screen and wait for a more viable threat to present itself.

These flaws stop The Tomorrow People from being all around great or highly recommendable television, and yet to be honest I haven't felt a desire to stop watching yet. Granted I'm never in a rush to watch the episodes immediately after they air, but I tend to be up to date with them prior to the new installment. There's a good foundation under this show and it's very easy to see how it could grow into something great if not exceptional. The problems with it aren't totally unfixable and the show itself isn't made unwatchable by their presence. And if nothing else, there's always the good looking and often shirtless people. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: Going to Meet the Man: Stories by James Baldwin

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
~James Baldwin
I've always been somewhat fascinated by the phrase "La Petite Mort." For those who might be unfamiliar, the French phrase translates to 'the little death' and it's become a euphemism for an orgasm, specifically the moment right after an orgasm when it feels like all of the life force has been drained from your body. But as a phrase in and of itself, I find la petite mort to be fascinating and wide ranging. I've never thought it had to be relegated to sexual satisfaction, or exhaustion as the case may be. Indeed, I think active audience members experience the little death often. Whenever we're engaged with a great story, I think we get so wrapped up in the proceedings that the result can only be described as the little death. How many times have you put down a book or left a movie theater and thought "That was better than sex?"

This describes the experience I'm left with after every James Baldwin book and short story that I've ever read, and in the interest of full disclosure, I've read a lot of them lately. I am forever and irrevocably in love with this man. James Baldwin had a way of conveying human experience that I don't think I've ever seen before. To read his passages is to feel immersed in the experiences they describe. Whether he's writing about sitting in a Jazz bar or sitting in a church sermon, you'll feel it. James Baldwin is the kind of writer I long to be.

Going to Meet the Man is the first collection of Baldwin short stories I've read, and it creates a wholly different feeling than reading his novels or a short story on its own. As a fan of the short form, I've always been fascinated by collections of short stories. How do you decide which works to put into the collection? How do you decide what order to place the stories in so that they tell a grander story in the end? I've read a number of short story collections that don't seem to have a rhyme and reason behind these questions. The same cannot be said for this one; each story is clearly chosen with painstaking attention to detail and organized in the same fashion. Notice how so many of the stories deal with the struggles of African Americans living in America and having to deal with racist whites before you reach the last story, the titular Going to Meet the Man, and find a story told from the perspective of a racist white man. Notice in that story how some of the experiences Baldwin has explained time and time again from the perspective of blacks are now reversed and we see just how different they can look from the other side of the aisle. Brilliant.

The two stories that open the collection, The Rockpile and The Outing, are supplemental reading for his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (which is also amazing by the way). The Rockpile doesn't do much to enhance one's understanding of Go Tell it since the scene it describes is actually just a rehash of another pivotal scene in the novel, but it's still a fascinating read. The Outing, on the other hand, is pure gold. There could be a complaint that Baldwin uses the story to take something implicit about his main character in the novel, John, and make it explicit, but the emotional journey the story takes you on makes it well worth the effort. If Rockpile starts the collection off slowly (at least for readers of Go Tell it), Outing is Baldwin slamming his foot on the gas pedal. The collection doesn't ease off until around the penultimate story in the series, Come Out the Wilderness, and even that story only starts slow before finally showing its teeth for the final 1/3 or so. 

Contained within these pages is an entire collection of Baldwin themes and messages. Everything I've seen coming up in his writings over and over again these last few months that I've dedicated myself so fully to his writings I found in these stories. Stories about race relations and sexuality and the intersection of those two things; themes about how things never seem to change and people don't change and on some level the world will be like this forever, but a continued and prolonged hopefulness that maybe we can make the best of it are all strung throughout these pages. And always, always, there is the beautiful and affective writing that strikes to the core of us all:

Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn't hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that we would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mamma and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother's face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father's brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel's tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

I could let that passage from Sonny's Blues (my review of just this story) carry this entire review and speak for itself; it's one of my favorite Baldwin passages, but I love it too much not to try and do a little heavy lifting myself. Look at how this scene, a scene of a brother listening to his estranged junky (recently reunited and sober) brother play jazz, is so perfectly rendered that you feel as though you're there. Baldwin's prose mirror Jazz so well that I'm not fully sure those are words and not just music notes on the page. His sentence structure and diction in this passage is alive and varied in a manner that a Jazz musician would be proud of. Baldwin gets it.

I could go on and on, but there are only so many ways that I can say I love this man and I love his stories. Literary critic Roland Barthes spoke of la petite mort as the chief objective of reading literature. He metaphorically used the concept to describe the feeling one should get when experiencing any great literature. Read James Baldwin and you will get that feeling! You'll get a fascinating look at Race in America in the 50s and 60s (and today for that matter), you'll see your own experience mirrored back at you in some fashion, you'll feel less alone in the world, and if all else fails, you'll fall in love with his prose. You won't regret picking up any one of his books, I promise!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Sometimes you finish reading a book and can't help but be overwhelmed by what you've just read. I'll say the same can be said for any story no matter the medium, but for the time being let's just focus on books. This was the case when I finished reading Neil Gaiman's latest novel: The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And given that I only just finished it a couple minutes ago and still find myself crafting semi-coherent sentences and stringing them together is a feat in and of itself; I demand your awe. Reading the book left me feeling, as do many of his books, that Gaiman might just be the most accomplished storyteller of our time. [Slight Spoilers and direct quotes from the book shall follow, enter at your own risk]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about an unnamed protagonist who is drawn back to his childhood home after the furneral of someone close to him. There, he sits next to a pond half-remembered from a turbulent time in his youth and remembers fastastic experiences he'd long since forgotten. The events of a summer from his seventh year are recalled in amazing detail, and that anyone could have forgotten such events is amazing. There's magic and wonder, evil and danger, and the most important figure of his entire life--his young friend Lettie Hempstock. It all culminates in one wild and amazing ride that anyone and everyone should be happy to go on. 

What always strikes me most about Gaiman's storytelling is his confidence. He is confident in his reader and he is confident in his story and it shows in the most amazing fashion. Magic happens in Gaiman's worlds, and when it does, it tends to be accepted and understood in the most amazing fashion. His characters don't react in hysterics when fantastic things are happening around them or to them, and as such the reader doesn't panic either. There's a transportation that takes place when reading this story; by not feeling the need to bog the magical elements down with long lines of exposition, Gaiman allows for the most amazing sense of escapism to take hold of the reader. 

The confidence doesn't end with the fantasy elements of the story, however. Gaiman's stories have a tendency to cross between genres and age boundaries with an ease that's almost unprecedented. All at once, the story is a fantasy, a period piece, a coming of age drama, and a romance; it's for children and for adults as well. This is because Gaiman, as an adult, fully understands what it means to be a child witnessing the grownup world in a manner that he might not fully be able to comprehend or rationalize. The protagonist witnesses things he shouldn't, but finds himself incapable of understanding them beyond his own limited scope, so he doesn't try. He takes the information necessary for himself and moves on. Even the present day adult narrator that the child has become doesn't attempt to apply his learned logic to the proceedings. In this way, the events of the story are unadultrated and remain pure for a younger audience while still being interesting for an older reader.

Gaiman also deals with a number of themes and deeper messages that one typically doesn't find in YA books. My favorite comes from a passage towards the end of the story that makes for a great allegory of depression and suicide:
How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and sell you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived. But you won't grow. You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die in there, of hunger and of fear.
I think anyone who has suffered from depression will understand this fear, this constant droning that it's not ok, will never be ok, and there's nothing that can fix it but death, and even then it won't be fixed properly. It's heavy stuff to find in a kid's book when viewed through that adult lens, but when viewed through the eyes of a child, it's just a scary moment in which the monsters are trying to get what they want. It's brilliant.

But beyond everything that Gaiman is doing in the background of the story, the simple truth is that his words never cease to be anything but beautiful:
A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn't I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don't change.
With a full 178 pages of phrasing and language like this, how could anyone not love this book and this man's writing? I wanted to highlight just about every single sentence; I lost track of the number of times I had to put the book down and just marvel at it after reading a line or a paragraph that took my breath away.

In short, Gaiman's book works on multiple levels. It's fun, it's entertaining, it's suspenseful, it's young, it's old, it's just plain great. Forgive me for slipping into cliche, but this book is perfect for all ages. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Story Analisys: Guinness Commercial

A big part of the focus on the teaching of craft within storytelling is the question of what constitutes a story. I think the most basic definition that I've ever heard is that a story must have a beginning a middle and an end. Granted the only rule within much of any art form is that there aren't any rules, so films like Children of Men and Broken Flowers might be breaking the rule of the necessity of an ending, but they do so skillfully so it's perfectly fine. But I digress, my main question here is whether or not a sixty-two second commercial can ever truly constitute a story?

By their very nature, commercials are meant to be quick, simple, and message based. They lack distinct arcs and character development. They're meant to convince the viewers that they need—can't live without—this or that product. But the easiest way to work on a person's sympathies and emotions is often through storytelling. And with the proliferation of DVRs, commercials have needed to be all the more interesting to attract viewer's attention. So if companies grew to understand that, it serves to suggest that they would have edited their model accordingly.

Enter the latest batch of Guinness commercials; specifically the basketball one which happens to be my favorite commercial since the E*Trade baby hit the scene. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm one of those DVR owners who habitually fast forwards as quickly as possible through each commercial break. The only time I ever watch live TV is when I'm watching sports or Sports Center. Lucky for me, this commercial airs during just about every break ESPN takes.

So if this is a story, then what element makes it so? Could the point be argued that there is a (very loose) plot here? A group of highly competitive friends get together at the gym to play a game of basketball. Afterwards they all go out for drinks. On its own, I'm not sure that this constitutes a plot. God is in the details, and so something would need to happen during the game or drinks in order to make this a story. Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be a set beginning, middle, or end to all of this. Basketball and then drinks are fairly standard activities. If I told you that I went to work today and then came home, would that be a story in and of itself?

The important element of the commercial then is the twist of the basketball game in which it is revealed that the group of wheelchair bound friends actually aren't paraplegics. Only one of the men lives his life in the wheelchair; his friends get into the chairs in order to allow him to remain included in their regular basketball games. Again the question must be asked whether or not the twist in and of itself constitutes a story? (M Night Shyamalan would say yes) I'm not sure of the answer, but I will say that the twist itself has a profound affect on characterization. It's odd to consider a commercial as having fully flushed out characters, and yet the moment that the men all start to stand up and pat their buddy on the back, it's impossible for your entire understanding of them and of the commercial itself not to be reconstituted. If nothing else, I think this level of manipulation of viewer assumptions is deserving of a higher level of attention and appreciation than your typical commercial.

I don't think there's a hard and fast determining factor in designating what is and what isn't a story. I think if what you're reading or watching speaks to you in some kind of distinct fashion, then it can be considered a story. If you can look at it and see some sort of progression of events/revelations unfolding, then it is a story. This is one of the few commercials I've ever seen that I felt an immediate need to show to other people and discuss, and that's remarkable. More over, it made me want to go out and buy Guinness, and as a person who honestly isn't a fan of Stouts, that's saying something.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Film Review: The Shape of Things

The Shape of Things (2003)
Written and Directed by Neil LaBute

Last night I had the first of many movie nights with a couple of my friends. I got to make the first choice of what movie to watch and I chose LaBute's film adaptation of his own play The Shape of Things. The story is a classic LaBute tale about the dangers and pratfalls of relationships. Adam (Paul Rudd) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) meet cute at the museum where he works. Allow me to take this opportunity to point out how much I love the Adam and Eve elements of this story, and the play on their names works well. She's a grad student at the local college they both attend working on her Art Thesis, and he's an aimless undergrad, so of course the two start dating. What follows is a treatise on the manner in which two people in love with one another work to change each other and themselves in an attempt to be perfect.

I love this story, but I don't necessarily believe it's the best movie. The storytelling lacks subtlety and finesse. At times the characters feel less like people and more like talking heads concerned with conveying the grander elements of LaBute's point. But that's to take nothing away from the performances of Rudd and Weisz which carry the film through some of it's more awkwardly pedantic moments. The same cannot be said for co-stars Gretchen Mol and Fredrick Weller, but their characters exist to serve a very specific purpose and little more.

What works about the story is that LaBute's hyperbole is still highly entertaining and the message he's working so hard to get across is important and fascinating. The story not only brings up interesting issues about adult relationships, but it also has a lot to say about the nature of Art and the responsibilities/moral code of the artist.

Sometimes the method of the storytelling can be flawed. The dialogue, while fast and furious, is pedantic and more message based than character based. There are times when the film feels static as it tries to maintain the general feel it had on the stage. One of the elements of adaptation is that you can usually break free of some of the shackles imposed by the original medium, but LaBute seems more interested in maintaing the spacial integrity of the original work than making changes to suit the new medium. It's not a bad choice to make, per se, but it can leave you with a feeling that you're watching a play with better sets than an actual movie. But in spite of the flaws in the storytelling, when a story is strong, the experience of engaging with it will be entertaining and fulfilling. Such is the case with this film by one of my favorite contemporary minds.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Short Film Review: With a Piece of Chalk

With a Piece of Chalk wows me. Not only do we have an example of excellent storytelling in the short form, we also have a look at the power of purely visual storytelling. The score does a lot of the work as well (and this is also an excellent example of how filmmakers use music and melody to manipulate the viewer’s emotions), but ultimately you’re left with the fact that this is an entire story told without dialogue. It all hinges on the stellar performance of young Justin Beer, and the strength of visual presentation of who he is, what he’s going through, and how he copes and makes it through day by day. I’ve watched this through a couple of times now and it always gives me goosebumps and brings tears to my eyes. Also note the multicultural element of the casting. This is a very important, meaningful, and uplifting 3 minute film that I promise you’ll be glad to have watched.

Short Film Review: Eu Nao Quero Voltar Sozinho

I love shorts! Whether in film or just short stories, I find the excellence of storytelling required for properly condensing a tale into 15 minutes or 5 pages to be bar none. My newest find is the Brazilian film Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho (I Don't Want to go Back Alone)by Daniel Ribeiro. The story is a fairly basic first love/coming out tale with the twist that our protagonist is blind. This twist seems like a cheap gimmick, but the manner in which it pays off over the course of the film and culminates in the final moments is well worth it. I Don't Want to go Back Alone posts a lot of interesting questions about how we make it through life and what it can be like when someone's incapable of really seeing you. I highly recommend watching it.