Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Short Film Review: Eden

Eden (2014)
Written by Jason Rostovsky
Directed by Sean Willis

Trigger warning: Suicide and depression.

In a perfect world, I'd only write here about films and shows that I really liked. Indeed, the shows I cover are shows I enjoy watching, or else why would I keep giving them my attention. But I cover even the episodes I don't really much care for. Such is also the case for short films. Eden is not the worst thing I've ever watched, but it is painfully heavy handed and full of cliches.

Set in the year 2042, Eden is the story of Adam and Everett (yes those are their actual names), two young gay men interred at the Eden facility. From what I can tell, the Eden facility is a prison / hospital where gay men can be "cured" of their homosexuality. Or more specifically where white gay men can be cured since I don't think I saw a single brown face in the entire movie. There's no word on how Adam and Everett ended up there, but it doesn't seem like the treatment is voluntary. But the point is that Adam and Everett are in love, or well Everett at least seems to be in love with Adam while Adam doesn't know how he feels about anything. And it is through their respective love and ambivalence that they decide to break out. They're aided, for no discernible reason whatsoever, by one of the facilities nurses.

Eden is a bit of a mess from top to bottom. The characterization is spotty at best, the world lacks enough detail to be believable, and they force out cliche scenes as if they're brilliantly reinventing the wheel. I swear if I never see another scene of someone punching a mirror again it'll be too soon. Devon Graye (whom you may recognize from his stints on Dexter and, more recently, The Flash) and Derek Stusynski do passable work as Adam and Everett respectively. But any deeper grasp of their characters is ultimately undermined by the weak dialogue and the waffling storyline they're given.

The extended scene the two of them share in the church is the biggest offender. They talk a lot but I can't be sure that they actually say much of anything. Everett wants to get out, but Adam isn't so sure. Everett declares his love, but Adam can't even return the favor. And yet in the meantime, Everett seems to have been relying on Adam to be the one to come up with the plan to get them out in the first place. Is it because Everett is too weak to come up with a plan on his own, or did Adam lie to him and say he had a plan when he wasn't even really considering actually leaving to begin with? If it's the latter, then why are they together at all? Is it really love that binds them, or is Everett the only person Adam's found willing to blow him in a church and worth keeping around for just that reason?

The weak love story could maybe be forgiven if the world were better conceived and executed, but sadly there are more questions than answers on that front. If the Eden facility is involuntary, and the idea behind it all is to cure these people of their affliction, then why do the patients get to decide when or if they get the cure? The big red button in each of the patients' rooms seems counterintuitive to the core concept of the world they created. If gay men are bring rounded up and locked away, and there's a functioning cure for homosexuality, then why wouldn't that cure just be forced onto the men crossing the Eden threshold?

The saddest part about all of this for me is that the problems with Eden aren't problems that would require a feature length runtime to fix. Sometimes a short story only needs to be flushed out and longer to be improved, but in this case, the story they're trying to tell in Eden is perfectly suitable for the short format. But that doesn't change the fact that it needed an extra edit or two, and maybe for the people behind the camera to be more aware of the world they're working in. I mean did we really need another scene of someone getting hurt while running away and tearily telling their love to run off and save himself? I think not.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Empire: "Be True"

By now, it should be clear that Empire doesn't have a slower pace than the sprint we've seen them operating at since the first episode. But hours like "Be True" suggest that the show doesn't need to slow down so much as make sure that the storylines they're running through are consistently interesting. And perhaps when they aren't as interesting the fast pace works in the show's favor because they don't last too long. Either way, "Be True" is the best episode of Empire's sophomore season to date and it doesn't even have a standout line like the first episode's "You can't even dyke right!" I think some part of this is due to the importance of each character's storyline.

Jamal's in the studio with guest star Ne-Yo recording more great music and talking about touring together. Ne-Yo's another big get in the long line of big name guest stars the show's been able to pull in, but more than that he's a breath of fresh air for the show. He disagrees with almost everything Lucious says and isn't shy about standing up to him and speaking his mind, and more importantly he talks to Jamal like he's a person and a real artist, not like he's just some gay rich kid riding his dad's coattails. My friends and I have spent a lot of time lately talking about Nashville and their continued failings with the Will Lexington storyline. I've brought up the similarities between these storylines before, but it seems just as important now since Will just recently came out of the closet on that show. It's taken them three whole seasons to do what Jamal did in one, but more importantly since Will came out he's been dropped from his label, fallen into a bit of a depression, and hounded by members of the gay community for not doing enough to use his star status to push forward issues of visibility and equality. In short, he's been punished for being gay and the show doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong with that.

Conversely, Jamal works in Hip-Hop and R&B, an industry that's every bit as homophobic as the Country music industry. Yet in the wake of him coming out, he's been named the CEO of his father's company, had a hit album, is creating what should be another hit album, and has real life people from the industry telling him at every turn that his sexual orientation doesn't matter. There are scenes here where Ne-Yo talks to Jamal about the choice to bring Michael on the road with him like they're discussing something as simple as the weather. He compares Jamal's decision to his own experience of bringing girls on the road with him. Never once does he stop to sure up his position as a straight man or point out that there's any difference between him and Jamal. I know it's scripted, and who knows maybe in real life Ne-Yo feels differently on the subject (though I strongly doubt it), but that doesn't change the fact that it's important. At multiple times throughout the show's run, Empire has made it clear that it does not agree with Lucious' position on the subject of Jamal's sexuality. The more Nashville allows people to be horrible to Will without facing any kind of retribution for their actions or without bringing in powerful people to offer their unwavering support of him, the more I think that the show and it's writers are the ones that are homophobic. But that's a rather long tangent to go on for me to basically say that I really enjoyed Ne-Yo and his role in this episode and would greatly like it for him to come back at some point.

While Jamal battles with whether or not to take Michael on the road with him, Michael seems to be battling with his jealousy or whatever the fuck has been his problem towards Jamal. They spend more time with Adam Busch's character this episode and listen to him make common complaints about monogamy and same-sex marriage. They're arguments that shouldn't be new to anyone who's had an honest conversation with a gay person lately, but it's still interesting to hear them laid out on a popular primetime show. It culminates in him trying to blow Jamal in a hallway at Leviticus, being turned down, and then successfully blowing Michael out on Jamal's balcony. I've made no secret of the fact that I've hated Michael since his return this season, and in truth if this how we can finally be rid of him, I'm all for it. The problem with this storyline is I don't know that Michael's motivations for anything he does have been explained or sussed out well enough for him to be compelling or anything other than the full out villain in this situation. I'm guessing we'll finally get to hear his side of things later, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he's just unceremoniously gone from the show like he was last season.

While Jamal's stories in "Be True" are my favorite, it's Andre's decision to get baptized that hold the hour together. It leads to a nice scene between him and Rhonda where we're strongly led to believe that she isn't pregnant at all, something I've suspected since she first said she was. There's also a solid scene where he tells Lucious about his botched suicide attempt, but that doesn't really go as far as it should. And there's the best scene between the three brothers that we've seen since the elevator scene last year. Andre tells them that he set up Jamal's robbery, not Hakeem, and they both forgive him. It's a scene of strong performances all around, and I really really liked Hakeem's indignation over the fact that Jamal could have been hurt in all that instead of being mad that he'd been lied about. The Jamal--Hakeem relationship is still one of my favorite aspects of the show, and when they do little things like this to sure that up, it makes me hopeful about the show's future.

For his part, Andre seems genuine about wanting to do all he can to be a good big brother and to heal this family. Outside of the horrible influences of Cookie and Lucious, it's impossible not to root for him. The three of them together have a strong chemistry, and there seems to be a lot more unconditional love between them than there is between the kids and either of the parents. It all brings me back around to my main point that Empire the company would be much better served with the Lyons boys having equal control over it. If that's not the direction the series is heading in, it's all going to seem like a significant waste.

In 1100 words I still haven't mentioned Cookie's new promoter/bodyguard/love interest, the new threat to Lyon Dynasty, or Hakeem's continued struggle to set up his girl group and his obvious new love interest. And that's not because those stories are uninteresting, but simply because there's so much here. Empire at its worst crams a lot in to an episode and feels like it goes nowhere. But at it's best, it seems to crack through storylines at a breakneck speed without losing momentum or feeling like a waste. I don't think this kind of thing is at all possible to sustain for long periods of time, but Empire doesn't seem interested in marathons so much as wind sprints. It's an odd choice for a TV show (the ultimate in long form storytelling), but it's a choice that seems to be working more than not working for Empire, so I guess we should wish them well and just get out of their way.

Random Thoughts:

--Porsha's back! And thank God, because I love her. And the way she walks back in with a "I know you're busy, but can I have my job back?" kind of attitude is so indicative of who she is as character.

--There's another flashback to Lucious' time with his mom in this episode. This time to explain his seeming PTSD about Andre's being baptized. These scenes continue to be interesting to watch and continue giving us more about Lucious' past, so I don't want to come down too hard on them, but I do think they're starting to feel a bit one note. It all boils down to one thing: everything Lucious hates in the world is because his mom was bipolar. They're going to need to do more with these scenes or else find a new angle.

--Speaking of who Lucious is, it turns out he's an Atheist. This is actually something that I think the show could stand to explore more of. I'm interested in how a black Atheist would come to success in the black community. And I'm also interested in seeing more of the basis for his extreme homophobia. There's usually a correlation between high levels of religious fervor within a community and high levels of homophobia, but if Lucious lacks one, then why hold on to the other?

--I'm going to break character a bit and actually go to bat for Michael on one point. I refuse to believe that Michael, the active member of the gay community that he is, and constantly trying to get Jamal to get behind this or that great gay cause, doesn't know what the term "heteronormativity" means.

--Lucious: "This family is my business." In the ongoing conversation about what "family" might mean to this show, I guess we have to add Family as a business transaction to the list.

--The episode ends with Hakeem being kidnapped in broad daylight. This might be a little silly, but it's also a great way to go into a brief hiatus. The show will be back after the World Series is over, and when it is, we'll get what looks to be a tense and highly rewarding episode. I honestly can't wait!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Empire: "Poor Yorick"

When was the last time you went into the woods, stood in a small clearing no more than 15 feet in
diameter, and saw that you were surrounded by a group of identical trees? Never mind surrounded, when was the last time you saw as few as two trees that looked exactly the same with the same unique identifying characteristics and were right next to each other? I ask because I'm a born and raised city kid, and even living in a beautiful state like Florida, I make it a point not to spend anymore time than needed outside. But I'm honestly curious about whether or not this is a common phenomenon that I've just never heard of or witnessed before. And I ask because such a question is what was rattling around in my mind during one of the important scenes in this week's Empire episode. The problem with this is that while main characters are trying to dig up dead bodies on a TV show, I shouldn't be stuck thinking, "But that's not how trees work."

The willing suspension of disbelief is a two-way street. I'm willing to meet a storyteller halfway most of the time. I'm willing to do my part and turn a blind eye to silly and nonsensical things in an effort to best enjoy the story, but you have to give me a story worth enjoying first. There's actually a great example of the show doing just that in the previous episode. The Lyons sit down to dinner in the wake of Lucious' release. Never mind how ridiculous it is that all these characters who hate each other and have split up, gotten back together, and split up once again would agree to just head over to Lucious' house to sit down to a meal. I'm willing to overlook the ridiculousness that is the origin of this dinner party in favor of the fun and drama of seeing these stupid characters all in the same place at the same time. In other words, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief in favor of the juicy soapy story that I find far more interesting than I do the continued woes of Andre and Rhonda and the Clue case of finding Uncle Vernon dead in the living room by candle stick. So if you can't make the story interesting, at the very least you have to make it make sense, and the two of them forgetting where they buried Vernon because all the trees in this one small space are 100% identical does not make sense, so the entire scene crumbles as a result.

Which is a shame because I was rather enjoying most of the episode before that. "Poor Yorick" is an odd tale of two halves. The first half feels like some of the better aspects of Empire that we've seen this season. The second half kind of falls apart. The entire episode is written and directed by Danny Strong, so I don't understand the reason behind the loss of logic past the midpoint, but there it is. One minute everything flows consistently and the drama feels organic, and the next minute Cookie's got weird PTSD flashes leading to stupid behavior and Hakeem is stabbing a painting that shouldn't be there in the first place.

But I feel like I've spent so much time talking about the bad of this season that I want to focus a bit more on the good. Starting with the opening FBI raid of Empire and the song it's set to. The music of this season hasn't felt as stand out and impressive as the music from last season. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think the music last year was setting any new standards or heights for contemporary Hip Hop, but a lot of it was at least catchy and memorable. They'd spent so long teasing "No Apologies" that it was impossible not to recognize the beat and the hook by the time we finally got to hear it in an episode. While I don't think "Battle Cry" is quite on that same level, it's easily my favorite song so far this season, and I thought setting it against the FBI raid was both really on the nose (as tends to be the case with Empire songs) and really entertaining. The opening scene offers good music, the chance for a bit of levity from Becky (which is always appreciated), and an opportunity to push some aspects of the story forward. It's a lot of heavy lifting for one Empire scene, and I'd commend them for it.

Also in the good column was seeing Adam Busch guest staring as the artist photographer brought in to come up with a cover for Jamal's Rolling Stone appearance. Seeing another Buffy alum show up in an episode written and directed by Danny Strong was really quite great. And I have to say I like his weird sloppy artistic energy. And I like the way he was flirting with Jamal throughout their scenes together. What I don't like are the shots of Jamal's useless and annoying boyfriend looking all pained over it, but I've said more than enough about how I feel about Michael at this point. Suffice it to say, if Adam Busch can manage to stick around, I'm going to start hoping for him to replace Rafael de la Fuente as Jamal's love interest. It's nothing against Fuente himself, who I think is easy on the eyes and talented enough to stick around. It's just that Michael was ruined for me last season and they don't seem at all interested in doing any character rehab on him this season, nor have they justified his continued presence on the show, so I'm ready for him leave. Couple that with the fact that I think Busch's character has a kind of vision and an energy that I'd really like to see paired with Jamal. I don't know that they'd make each other better, but I do think these two characters could stand to make each other more interesting which is a lot more than I can say about Jamal's current relationship.

There was one more small moment in this episode that I really enjoyed, but it was so insignificant that I almost don't want to mention it. The shot of Hakeem at that bar prepared to send Jamal an apology through text only to delete it and change his mind. It's not that he's not sorry, it's that he can't bring himself to say it just yet, and there's a lot going on in Bryshere Gray's face in that quick scene. I think all three of the Lyons' boys have had impressive moments this season and this was Hakeem's. Never mind that it doesn't seem like the kind of bar that Hakeem would ever be caught dead in; the whole thing simply hints at an aspect of this story I'd like to see them explore deeper: the effect this rift is having on Jamal and Hakeem specifically. They had the strongest relationship of last season, and seeing them put through their paces this year has been painful and sad. It only makes sense that they'd feel dubious about the actions they're having to take for one reason or another, and I'd like to see more of those little cracks in the facade.

The rest of the episode is stock Empire fare by this time. The good thing about this episode is that there are at least small tidbits of good that weren't really a part of the previous few installments. So it seems they haven't fully forgotten how to tell good stories, but I don't think this is some kind of turning point for things. Something has to jolt this show into gear before it starts to feel like we're all just wasting our time here. Here's hoping finding a dead body in a passenger seat is that thing.

Random Thoughts:

--Cookie and Lucious have a funny scene where they shoot barbs at each other the likes of which only two people with their history would really be able to pull off.

--I think this show has to figure out what they want to do with Anika. All this back and forth bouncing between Cookie and Lucious isn't working. And while it seems like they've got her making moves to benefit Lyon Dynasty, all of them have been off screen and therefore might as well not happen at all. I've never seen a worse case of a character spinning their wheels.

--The music video scene was sadly predictable. I knew Jamal would throw the first punch, and I knew the bat would come into play. It's too bad because the more I see those boys together the more I remember that that's the best state for them. Talk about two people capable of making one another better.

--I haven't mentioned it yet, but I do think Andre Royo has been a joy as Lucious' lawyer.

--“If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide.” It’s funny coming out of Cookie’s mouth, but the sad reality behind it and the necessity of it is tragic. Still better than seeing her in that gorilla suit though.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Empire: "Fires of Heaven"

I can, and do, put up with a lot from Empire, but one thing I can't really abide is when the show is boring. I complained about the same thing with the last episode, but that one at least posed some interesting questions about the show's position on "family" and what that means to the Lyons' and had a couple killer scenes under its belt. This week's installment can't claim either. Family is still a word thrown around like grenades throughout the hour, but the same questions from last week are still floating around instead of being answered. And nothing of note happens. Which is surprising for Lucious' first episode back from the country club that pretended to be a prison.

So what is there really to talk about after the third hour of this new season of the show? The only thing that's really stuck with me so far are the scenes about Lucious' relationship with his mother. Before I gush about this too strongly, allow me to say that they seem to being pouring it on a bit thick with the characterization of Leah Walker's (being played by Kelly Rowland) illness. In much the same way that I thought they could have been a little more subtle and worked on their pacing a bit more with Andre last year, all we seem to be seeing of Leah are the extremes, and I don't think that that serves to really put a real face on this illness. However, the reason why I think this works a lot more than Andre's devolution is because these scenes take place solely in Lucious' memory and of course he'd be more fixated on the extreme highs and lows of his mother's condition.

So after the deft hand they employed last week, we're treated to a couple flashbacks that make Leah's condition explicit. She buys a bunch of "gifts" for a young Lucious even though it's well past his birthday, and she exuberantly helps him to open them. And then, seemingly in no time at all, she's plunged into a depression so deep she's nearly catatonic. The mention of needing to return the gifts in order to be able to eat suggests that not much time has passed between the two scenes. So either she cycles really quickly, or Lucious simply remembers these things in one go and they all get jumbled up in his mind. The latter explanation works much better than the former, and that's what I'm going to choose to believe in spite of not having enough faith in the writers to really buy that they'd have the kind of foresight to pull that off. But willful ignorance and blindness are still necessary to really get a lot out of this show.

These scenes do more work examining Lucious' motivation than anything we've seen thus far. We've seen glimpses of why he views Andre the way he does, some of his earliest connections to music, and assuming they take this story in the direction I expect they'll take it (which is about as bold of an assumption as I can offer), we'll probably see the basis for his commitment issues. It's hard to miss the fact that Lucious' father isn't in the picture, and I assume living with an unmedicated bipolar mother would have led to a lot of abandonment and trust issues. So what we've been seeing through these short scenes are explanations of who Lucious is.

The smart thing I think the show is doing is that they aren't allowing these explanations to serve as excuses for his horrible actions. Lucious is still a dick, and by no means do I think we're intended to sympathize with him currently, but the ability to know the difference between a reason and an excuse is something more advanced than I ever would have given this show credit for in the past. So the only thing left is to see where this all goes and how it continues to impact his present situation. Obviously he's going to continue to be a dick to Andre, but will this history and his potential guilt over Andre's condition drive him to be colder than expected towards his future grandchild? And I assume with this being introduced this season that there's no real way the truth won't come out by season's end. How, if at all, does that shake things up and change the other character's perception of Lucious?

We'll have to wait and see if we get answers to these questions, but in the mean time these flashbacks continue to present the sole bright point in otherwise dreary and boring episodes. The problem for Empire is that these scenes, compared to everything else, are too few and far between to save the quality of the rest of the show. So the assignment for the writers going forward is to find a way to either tap back into the fun level of crazy from last season, or to find a way to draw the pathos of these flashbacks through the rest of the episode.

Random Thoughts:

--In case anyone wasn't sure about Jamal's story about becoming more and more like Lucious, the two of them have a choreographed simultaneous removal of their sunglasses towards the beginning of the episode. It was pretty pathetic.

--Also pathetic was that Empire! salute from Lucious and the fans at his press conference. Give me a break.

--What the ever-loving fuck was Cookie wearing during Lucious' party?

--Am I the only one who finds it a bit ironic that they've brought Kelly Rowland in to guest star in a season where they seem to be doing a kind of Destiny's Child storyline with Hakeem's girl group?

--Speaking of Kelly Rowland, while I think it's probably easier to convey the extreme highs and lows of someone with this illness, I still think it's worth noting that she's been strong in her appearances.

--And speaking of guest appearances, can we not find a better rapper than Pitbull to guest on the show? And after a full season of being the musical producer for the show, Timbaland makes what I think is his first appearance in front of the camera this week.

--What a blessing to not have to deal with Jamal's annoying boyfriend this episode.