Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Empire: "Without a Country"

What does the word "family" mean to you? I'm an old school lover of language, so the idea that words with such a clear and obvious denotation can have such varied connotation is something that will always amaze me. To some people, family is a source of strength, support, and unwavering, unconditional love. To other people it's a curse; a source of unending horror and a repository of painful memories. To the Lyons, family is a weapon, or at times maybe a shield, but seemingly never anything stronger or more transcendent than that. Over the course of a season and two episodes, we've seen the characters on this show cry, spit, and throw claims of family at one another to justify some of the most vile and horrible actions. But have we ever seen the other side of that coin? Do the writers behind this show have any positive notions about familial relations? And if they don't, is that a problem?

Empire's second episode of its sophomore season is nowhere near as engaging as its first. This is always a problem with Empire since the cracks in this show are always more visible and less defendable when the episode in question isn't as good. If there aren't as many laugh out loud Cookie lines, or soapy drama so juicy you can't help but to leave your jaw on the ground for the entire commercial break, then you're left seeing nothing but the man behind the curtain. But what continues to amaze me about this show is the presence of small moments that are nothing short of astounding.

Towards the end of this episode, Andre goes to visit Lucious in jail and beg his forgiveness and to be let back into Empire. As anyone could have predicted, Lucious says no, but then Andre pleads his case with a kind of quite furry that's more compelling than if he'd just stood up and yelled his indignation to the rafters. Lucious has shunned Jamal his whole life for being gay, but now he gives Jamal Empire. Hakeem sleeps with Lucious' fiancé and helps in the hostile takeover, but still Lucious wants him back at the company. Andre makes one mistake, and then apologizes for it in a manner that no one else is interested in, and yet Lucious says no. When Andre asks why it is that his father hates him so much, we're treated to a flashback of a young Lucious in his mother's arms as she sings him a lullaby. In the midst of it, she seems to zone out a bit and the assumption we're left to make here is that she suffered from a mental illness same as Andre does; Lucious doesn't hate Andre, he hates the way he reminds him of his own mother who probably hurt him due to her own struggles.

As an explanation for his actions, this ranks right up there with the hint from last season that he was simply jealous of Jamal's talent instead of hating him because he's gay. Granted, the show hinted at that and never took it any deeper than that surface level last year, so there's no reason to expect a deeper treatment of this subject matter either. However, the scene plays brilliantly, and the flashback of Lucious and his mother is just subtle enough that it's open to interpretation. It's all done with such a deft hand that you're left wondering how could this be the same show that had Cookie dressed as a gorilla in a cage to beat home a message last week? If each Empire episode was full of nothing but those kinds of moments, can you even begin to imagine how much better of a show it would be?

But if it was full of those moments, those moments wouldn't be as special as they are here. The scene between Lucious and Andre is a diamond in the rough that is the rest of the episode. An episode that features Hakeem being an idiot and trying to force their new label to fly before it can even crawl, Lucious making a radio ready track from a prison supply cabinet, and a horribly uninspired performance from guest star Ludacris.

That's not to say that "Without a Country" is a total waste of an episode. There's some important place-setting in this hour, and if the first episode served to wrap up storylines left over from last season, this hour has a lot more to do with setting up some of the stories we'll be dealing with over the course of this season. Place-setting will always be a thankless job in TV, and with the full season order having been bumped up from 12 to 18 episodes, a few slow filler episodes are unavoidable, but there had to be a better more interesting way to handle this.

One thing that seems interesting about this season is the juxtaposition of Cookie and Lucious. Cookie was the far more sympathetic party last season. It was hard not to be when the show started with her strutting out of prison in that fur coat and immediately making her way to see her kids. While Lucious started the season out pitting his sons against one another, Cookie started out trying to just bring them together and start recapturing all that she missed out on. Now Cookie's the one setting them against each other in service of getting what she wants and while Lucious hasn't become the good guy by any means, he still feels like the wronged party.

This episode sees her make the plan to start her own label, struggle to keep Hakeem in line enough to do the work that needs to be done so he can actually put an album out, continue to fight with Anika, tell Jamal they're starting their own company with as much of a threatening glower as she can, and then lose Andre as an ally in spite of her attempts to hold on to him. It's another remarkable scene as she follows him down the hallway repeating his name only to have him beg her to let him go, but it's also a scene that sets Cookie up as just as big a failure on the family front as Lucious ever was. I've questioned the purity of her motivations in the past, and this episode made me question them more. Clearly she's owed something for taking the fall for Lucious all those years ago, but does her recompense have to come at the expense of her kids? And if she doesn't care whether it does or doesn't, can she ever claim the moral high ground over Lucious again?

I ask that because the heart of the show clearly always has been and maybe always will be the battle between Cookie and Lucious with their kids as both collateral and collateral damage. It's family as a war zone. And if that's what the show wants to be, then that's fine. If the writers have nothing positive to say about the family dynamic, then they're more than entitled to their opinion. But I said last season that my preferred outcome for the show is one where the brothers band together to run Empire as a unit. I've noted multiple times how my favorite parts of the show continue to be these little moments where there's some kind of love and devotion shining through, or at least the deeper bonds and scars (which can be simultaneously painful and beautiful) that family creates. So while I have to acknowledge that my preferred version of the show isn't the only possibility, and might not even be the "best" possibility, I can't help but to wonder whether or not a show that was about the strengths of family and about the Lyons banding together to take on the world wouldn't be a show that resonated more deeply with a wider audience? Then again, if the ratings are any indication, Empire is reaching a wide enough audience doing what it's been doing this whole time. Maybe it's not broken, and if that's the case, then it can't be fixed.

Random thoughts:

--I've mentioned him before, but Hakeem's gender fluid bestie is one of my favorite side characters on this show. I want to know more about them. How do they identify, how do they know Hakeem, and what's the overall plan for them on the show?

--I'm ready for Cookie and Anika to stop the overt fighting. I think if the show took them in more of a frenemies direction with constant backhanded compliments and little barbs being flung but no more overt hostility, that'd be for the better. They don't have to like each other, but maybe just work together for the greater good.

--Still trying to figure out what the point of Michael is. I was very happy when he wasn't on the show anymore. No matter how adorable Rafael de la Fuente is.

--Tiana is back in this episode but no reference to her sexuality or her previous relationship to Hakeem. Which isn't a problem, per se, just a disappointment.

--Andre's never been my favorite character, but he certainly owned it this week. I understand the drama capable of being created from his more manic moments, but these moments of just quiet despair always resonate so much deeper for me. I don't think Trai Byers is a bad actor, but I do think he's maybe a bit better at this things than he is the louder, crazier moments.

--Who should we be rooting for at this point? Who are you rooting for? Is the point to just make all of these characters equally hatable? I still love Jamal, but the more he devolves into Lucious, and the more scenes of him yelling and looking around with that stank face, the more I jump off that bandwagon.

--Part of the reason I wanted to write reviews for Empire is because I tended to disagree with the reviews posted on my number one TV review site, AV Club. Joshua Alston, whom I generally love in his other coverage, and I simply have different takes on the show. However, his review on this episode is really good and one I agree with fully in spite of us having different opinions on what stands to make this show "good." Either way, you can check out his review here if you're interested to see where our opinions differ and where they converge.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Empire: "The Devils are Here"

And so starts the 2015 Fall TV schedule. Empire starts not with a bang so much as a gorilla suited Cookie roaring and thumping around in a cage, and anyone thinking the show might tamper some of it's campier moments down in its sophomore year were shown just how mistaken they were. This first episode alone features the caged gorilla, a large lesbian themed party, a severed head in a box, and guest stars such as Marisa Tomei, Chris Rock, and Al Sharpton. I guess there are benefits for breaking records left and right in your first season. But is the episode any good?

After a long hiatus I've realized that I honestly can't tell just how "good" I think Empire is any longer. It makes me laugh out loud multiple times an episode, but it also makes me roll my eyes a lot. It's headstrong enough to take on the injustice of the American justice system, but we all know it's also fickle enough to not follow through and have anything more to say than it did in this one episode. Even if I decide to engage with the show that Empire is instead of the show I want it to be, I'm still left wondering how well it tells its story and how effective anything it does is in the long run.

And so I end up watching the episodes with a kind of battle raging in my head. "The Devils are Here" opens with a concert being thrown by Empire to raise awareness about Lucious' three month long incarceration. It's good music, Empire artists, and a general fun time, and I enjoy it. And then Cookie and Lucious' brother, who I don't remember ever meeting before, use the platform to drop stats and talk openly about how unjust the American prison industrial complex is. At this point, I'm left to wonder whether or not the fact that Lucious is indeed guilty and therefore right where he should be undercuts the concert's, and by extension the show's, message about unfair incarcerations. But clearly that's thinking about things too much when the point is to be entertained by the music and curious about the hints of sapphic flirtation between Cookie and Marisa Tomei's Mimi.

Meanwhile back in what looks like one of the most minimal security prisons that anyone accused of murder has ever been interred in, everyone's abuzz with the news that Frank Gathers (Chris Rock playing strongly against type) is about to be joining them. Apparently her and Lucious and Cookie all go way back and we're told more than once that he's crazy. Cookie's cousin Jamel, last seen murdering the wrong person on Cookie's orders in a drive by, is worried about Frank's retribution and attempts to appeal to an uninterested Lucious for protection. It's protection he clearly needs as we find him later in the episode having been beaten up and, it's at least suggested, cannibalized by Frank. So I should add "bad guy who eats parts of people right in front of them while trying to get information" to the list of insane things in this episode.

But crazy doesn't mean bad. There's nothing really wrong with the prison scenes in this episode except that they take time and attention away from Empire's greatest strength: the Lyons family. Lucious is in there on his own, and while I don't hate Lucious as a character, I also don't think there's very much to him outside the confines of the rest of the family.

The real meat of the episode takes place back at Empire records. Cookie and everyone who isn't Jamal is busy trying to secure a lot of money from Mimi in order to complete their hostile takeover and remove Lucious as CEO of the company. This seems to require appealing to Mimi's homosexuality with a big girl on girl party and lots of flirting from Cookie and Anika. Anika even sleeps with her (which leads to one of the funniest lines of the night), but it's all to no avail. Mimi has an off screen meeting with Lucious and decides to throw her money and influence behind him and Jamal. In another show, I'd lament the fact that so many of these scenes take place off camera, but the truth is I think it was for the best here. In last season's finale, I mentioned how uninterested in the hostile takeover storyline I was. This is mostly because in that episode they seemed more interested in explaining the legal side of it like I was in business school. But here they put it all in basic and dramatic terms and it works. Andre, Cookie, Hakeem and Anita need a couple hundred million dollars for Mimi and they set out to get it. By the end of the episode, they seem to have it and move in to make their announcement only to find out they've been double crossed. No talk about percentages or major shares or the strategy behind corporate takeovers. They set a reasonable and understandable goal and they go after it and then they succeed and yet still fail. It's basic storytelling, and that's where the show needs to stay.

The important thing about all of this is always the family. Jamal and Hakeem, once so close, are clearly at each other's throats over Jamal being named the heir apparent. Cookie is claiming left and right that she's trying to unseat Lucious not to oust Jamal, but to bring the family together, and through those statements we see just how torn apart it all is. Also, the more Cookie says "I'm doing this for you" the more I see Walter White saying "I'm doing this for my family," and I can't help but to think if the two characters aren't more similar than I ever gave them credit for being before. But either way, the fact that so much of these developments, even Anika's sex session with Mimi, happen off camera allows us to stick with the Lyons family and see the fallout from their schemes and plots.

It all adds up to one of the better episodes of the show. It elevates what Empire is good at, while limiting its flaws. But it's also the first episode in a show that's seen its season order bumped up from 12 to 18. I'm walking into this season not expecting any real serialization, no really deep commentary on the important social issues they continue to bring up but only skate over the surface, and for the show to continue at a breakneck speed that will make your head spin. My expectations, however, are that since I know to expect those things, they won't be so shocking or annoying this season as they were last. Also, in the event that the show decides to surprise me and carry those elements a little better this year, it'll all be for the better. Here's hoping, but not really expecting.

Random thoughts:

--Jamal's story this episode, if not this whole season, seems to be about how much he's losing himself in the wake of trying to fill Lucious' shoes. He's more forceful than is at all warranted with his boyfriend, uninterested in throwing his face behind this LGBT cause, and hasn't been able to make time to get into the studio at all while his current album keeps falling from the top spot on the charts. On top of that, his interactions with Hakeem and Cookie are heartbreaking since his relationships with those two were the stronger parts of last season. I'd by lying if I said I wasn't both excited and curious to see where this all led.

--Speaking of Jamal's boyfriend, Michael's back. No word on why or how, or why they seem to have an exclusively Spanish speak butler, but there's that, I guess.

--The exceptionally fast pace that was both the boon and the bane of last season is back as Chris Rock's character is both introduced and killed off in this one episode. I can't tell if I'm more impressed by that or disappointed that they didn't get more out of powerhouse like Rock.

--Conversely, Marisa Tomei's character could stand to stick around. IMDB only has her listed as being on this one episode, but lord knows they've been wrong in the past. Fingers crossed that we get more of her in the weeks to come.

--There's one dream / memory sequence for Andre about what he and Rhonda did to Vernon, but that seems to be about where that storyline ends this week. I'm assuming it'll be one of the serialized elements of this season and I'm already not looking forward to it.

--I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the final scene between Cookie and Jamal! It's really fucking fantastic and Henson and Smollett absolutely kill it. The moment he breaks down after closing the door and the look on her face as he backs her out are just priceless.

--"You can't even dyke right!" has got to be one of the funniest lines in TV history.

--Likewise, every time Porsha is on screen is a treasure.

Short Film Review: Pink Moon

Pink Moon (2014)
Written & Directed by Sal Bardo

I want to try something new: Reviews on short films. I wrote a couple towards the start of this blog, but at some point I just spiraled into only covering TV. Which isn't a bad thing; I love TV and it's more than worthy of attention, and with Empire starting up again this week, you can be sure there's more week to week reviews to come. But I love short form storytelling just as much as I do long form, so why have I been neglecting short films? Well, whatever the reason, hopefully I can be diligent a let that end now.

Pink Moon is a short that I've watched twice now and I can't quite figure out if I think it's brilliant or if I think I'm just a sap. The truth is that it has a strong affect on me either way, so I guess you have to say it's a success. The story takes place in a society where the roles are reversed and homosexuality is the norm while heterosexuals are the persecuted minority. On top of that, abortion is illegal and there seem to be strict rules in place geared towards global population control. It centers around Ben and Emily, two teenagers in love and working to hide their forbidden straight relationship and terminate their unplanned pregnancy. Through this conflict, the film does strong work showing just how important open and ready access to abortions and better health practices are. The horror of shady back alley abortions is something we should all want to avoid at all cost, and the film isn't shy about suggesting such.

One of Pink Moon's greatest strengths can be found in the performances of the two leads, Brandon Tyler Harris and Cole Johnston. In quick and quiet moments, the couple's love for each other is made plain and they come off not as deluded Romeo and Juliette stand ins, but as mature and loving people trying to make the best of a shitty situation. Emily in particular seems to be worried about disappointing her mothers (of whom we only meet one) and upsetting the life they've all had planned for her.

There is one mark against Pink Moon as far as I can tell: Ben's boyfriend Leo. He's here to represent some mark of normalcy for the society in which they live, and obviously Ben only has a boyfriend because it's expected of him much in the same way that gay men have long been marrying women in our real world. But the two scenes with Leo feel oddly ungrounded and unbelievable. Or to be more specific, we don't know enough about Leo to know exactly how to respond to his two scenes. Is he a good guy who's been pushed over the edge by dating someone he's clearly into but who refuses to have sex with him? If so, does that justify him finding a piece of paper with a phone number on it and battling against his boyfriend to call it against his wishes and then getting two of his friends to beat up said boyfriend while shouting slurs of "Breeder!" at him? Or is he just an all around horrible person? If so, why were he and Ben dating in the first place? I think one scene in between the phone call and the straight bashing scene would have been enough to better illuminate Leo's motivations, but without that he's left a little flat.

Other than that, I think Pink Moon posits an interesting if not totally revelatory world and then sets out to do it justice. And it's the rare kind of Queer film that doesn't seek to villianize the straight characters. Indeed, how can it given its basic premise? Instead, by the end, you're rooting for the straight couple and hoping they'll be able to craft the kind of life they really want and within which they'll be the most happy. It's a very enjoyable 17 minutes, and well worth your time.