Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Aughts: Television

The Aughts were an interesting decade. As cable and independent companies produced increasingly complex and interesting shows, network television became an almost untenable mishmash of reality shows, crime procedurals, and sitcoms. Here are some of my reflections on the decade that was as it came on my TV (or computer), by category winners, with a couple of extra lists thrown in for fun.

Best reality show: Survivor. Hands down - it's the only reality show I watch on a regular basis, and it's by far the best. I'm still stoked about it at Season 20. Runner-up (kind of): Joe Schmo, Joe Schmo 2, and Invasion Iowa. The spoof reality shows from Spike TV were hilarious and poignant.

Best British import: The Office. Not only did it bring Ricky Gervais' delightfully pompous David Brent to life, it laid the groundwork for The Office (US). Runner-up: Extras. Ricky Gervais' luckless adventures as Andy Millman were the perfect antithesis to Brent's overexaggerated bravado, as well as serving as the perfect death toll for the sitcom.

Best rookie season from a show that went downhill quickly: Heroes. Season 1 was a taut, tense, suspensefully woven tale of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Season 2 tried to regain the mojo, but the characters (and actors) had gotten too powerful too quickly, and the show never regained its initial feel. It's best to not acknowledge anything after Season 1. Runner-up: My Name Is Earl. The first season was fresh and hilarious, and it teetered on the precipice of tastefulness, just on the side of more funny than wrong. Season 2 had some great moments, but started to slide, and by the time that Earl spent most of Season 3 in jail and in a coma, the show was a mess.

Best one-season wonder: Firefly. The crew of Serenity did get another chance to fly, but I wish they had been around for a few more flights on the small screen. Runner-up: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The show had a great start, an awkward middle, and a roaring end. It may have been preachy at times, and it may have not always worked, but it should have had more time to grow. Runner-runner-up: Andy Barker, P.I. Andy Richter and Tony Hale made six episodes of a show that should have run longer.

Best late-night news parody: The Colbert Report. The Report was consistently sharper and funnier than its predecessor (and runner-up), The Daily Show. The Daily Show's Indecision 2004 was epically funny - in part due to Colbert, but if I had to choose between the two on a nightly basis, I'd take Colbert.

Best comedy featuring an awkward boss: The Office (US). Although the show has occasionally lost its way and veered too far past the border between awkward and funny, it has consistently come back with great moments and characters. I do think it should end soon, though. Runner-up: 30 Rock. The show is currently one of the funniest on TV, but it's not guffaw out loud funny - more of a chuckle and enjoy kind of funny.

Best comedy (tie): Arrested Development. 53 episodes of magical goodness, especially "Good Grief." Why, oh why, did Fox not give this show longer to live? Tie: Corner Gas. A completely different type of comedy and a little bit of home.

Six comedies I did not watch that I would like to watch sometime: Better Off Ted, Big Bang Theory, Bored To Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and Parks and Recreation.

Best show to be brought back from the brink: Futurama. 72 fantastic episodes, four feature films that varied from funny to hilarious, and new episodes still to come in the fall! Runner-up: Chuck. Season 3 is awesome, so far, and I'm very glad that we get more Chuck, if not just for the awesome soundtrack. That gives me an idea...

Best drama: Dexter. He's growing up fast, and I cannot wait to see what happens next season. This should be the year that Michael C. Hall finally gets the Emmy love that he deserves. Runner-up: Friday Night Lights. Okay, so I didn't watch as many dramas this decade, but the Texas teenage football soap opera is still excellent. But here's an embarrassing list of ten dramas that I did not watch that I feel I should catch up on: Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Freaks and Geeks, Glee, Kings, Mad Men, The Shield, The West Wing, and The Wire. Any of those probably work its way into my top three or five.

Best year from a TV network: 2006, NBC. First seasons of Heroes, 30 Rock, Studio 60, My Name Is Earl, Friday Night Lights, and the first full season of The Office (US). Awesome.

Five shows I have had little to no interest: 24, any crime procedurals on network TV (especially the CSI franchise), Family Guy, Lost, and The Sopranos.

Mini-reviews: The Brothers Bloom, Public Enemies

I usually like to write full reviews, but in this case, I think I need to get a couple of smaller reviews out of the way. Here goes...

The Brothers Bloom is a highly entertaining conman movie about two brothers and a wacky woman who comes in between them. Bloom is a light-hearted yet existentially meaningful new-ish take on the heist movie - think a less pompous, more fun version of The Sting - that keeps you guessing until the very end. It's the kind of movie that you should watch more than once, and you don't mind the second or third time. Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz have great chemistry, which is what brings the movie through some of the confusing side plots along the way. I suppose the goal is for the viewer to be like the protagonist, Bloom (Brody), and to be slightly out-of-sorts for most of the experience; if it was, it worked well. Despite some very minor hiccups, this is a strong sophomore effort from Rian Johnson, who is quickly learning how to make very interesting movies with unique characters. This is actually the perfect kind of recommending movie - it's a movie that stars recognizable actors and that most people will not have heard about because it did not get much press. It's a great "slip it into the conversation and have someone pick up on it and establish your cinema cred" piece, as well as a fun way to spend an evening.

Public Enemies is the newest entry into the gangster movie genre. Granted, the genre is not very large - more of a theme than a genre, really - and it has been mostly dormant since its heyday between 1989 and 1991 (The Untouchables, Miller's Crossing, Dick Tracy, and Bugsy). Michael Mann's film takes up the mantle of telling the story of the Most Wanted man in America, John Dillinger, and how he was brought to justice through the efforts of Melvin Purvis. The film looks fantastic - the set design, costume design, and artistic direction are impeccable, and the cinematography is likewise arresting (pun intended) and enlivening. Mann uses a bleak palate of colour to enhance the feel of the Dirty Thirties, and the film, perhaps more than any previous effort, feels like it captures the sense of the Depression. (The Untouchables just seems campy 20 years later. Seriously - try watching it again.) Johnny Depp is riveting, as usual, as the renegade bank robber trying to keep an uncontrollable lifestyle in his grasp; Christian Bale presents a somber and appropriate foil as the lead FBI agent on the case, and the alluring Marion Cotillard is the flirtatious Billie Frechette, Dillinger's girlfriend. But though all of the pieces are in place - director, story, cast, authenticity of setting - the movie never really gripped me; it hovers somewhere in the range of "possibly forgettable" to "pretty good". What keeps it from achieving the kind of greatness it could have reached? Mann could have made Purvis more of a person than a figurehead; Bale did well with what he had, but it was not as much as he could have been given. There could have been more attention given to the relationship between Dillinger and Frechette. Perhaps some of the scenes devoted to secondary characters could have been trimmed. But it's possible that even with some of these changes that the movie was as good as it could be; it might be possible that it hit its limitations, and that it's the kind of movie that just cannot crack into that top tier. Michael Mann has an interesting history of these kinds of films: the kind that sit within common acceptance but never really become common movies. Mann does have a track record for bringing out great performances from his actors, and they have been recognized as such, so it is possible that this movie will sit somewhere outside that top list of great movies for the year: it will garner some awards attention technically and for Depp and possibly Bale, but it will fade from the collective cinema consciousness within a year or two. This is the story of Mann's movie career, but I can honestly say that I have not given his films much of a chance; perhaps he will be my next "project" for directors. So if you're into gritty gangster movies, you love Bale or Depp, or you need a somewhat intense yet ultimately not very deep movie to occupy your attention for a night, watch Public Enemies. Unlike Dillinger, it's not number one on the list, but it is an interesting film.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Salinger dies, but Caulfield lives on

The news came today that American author J.D. Salinger has died at the age of 91. Salinger is most famous for his novel The Catcher In The Rye, which details the escapades of a weekend in the life chronically depressed 16-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield, whose perspective on life has perhaps reflected the social pressures of adolescence more than almost any other character since. I read the book several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I am not sure if I would go through the hassle of trying to teach it (brilliant though I think it is) because of the objectionable content; perhaps I will have to be happy with recommending it to select students who can handle the style of the novel...but I digress. Caulfield, along with characters like S.E. Hinton's Ponyboy from The Outsiders, Joseph Heller's Yossarian from Catch-22, or William Golding's Ralph and Piggy from Lord of the Flies, has become a significant touchpoint in literary and pop cultural history - but Caulfield is a little different. Unlike other memorable characters who have since evolved in other works, been depicted in film, or even been extrapolated upon by the authors at a later date, Caulfield remains in a kind of stasis through the silence from his creator. Salinger was a hermit for most of the last four decades, and he has not allowed any other interpretations of Caulfield to come as long as he was alive. It is interesting to observe that, even in a time of media saturation, a character can remain static - Caulfield and Salinger are both aberrations in modern pop culture, and exceedingly odd ones at that. So all we have of Caulfield is one weekend of existential angst and excess and a picture of what life was like for one troubled teen in 1950 - and maybe that's all it ever should be. In the same way that James Dean is idolized in his youth and the iconic pose from Rebel Without a Cause because he never grew up, so is Caulfield trapped in the eternal grip of adolescence. We can always look back at his example, but once we grow up, we are no longer his peers, and his experience refreshes our memories of our struggles. I do not know if I would want to see Holden Caulfield brought to life again, either through literature or film; I kind of like him, like Salinger, as being an anomaly in the world, a reminder of times gone by, a sign of a world that perhaps never was and certainly never will be again. Salinger may be gone, but Holden Caulfield lives on.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Friends and the Rule of 150

I would say that I have a better-than-average recollection of names, faces, and circumstances. I am able to remember names almost instantly, and I can often place the context through which I know someone within a few minutes of re-meeting them. My circle of acquaintances seems to be large for someone my age, and my wife, family, and friends all mock (and marvel at) my ability to make meaningful connections with people in some of the most random circumstances. (I think the topper might be the time that a friend and I were meeting a group after church at a popular restaurant in ToonTown, and I knew two of the other large groups there (about thirty people). It took me a long time to get in. Though I concede that the other most random meetings might compete for the crown of most random happenstance: the time that my grandfather was in the hospital and I had gone to university with one of the nurses; or the time when we travelled up Island and I ran into some friends from church on the end of their honeymoon in Cathedral Grove, a provincial park. Like I said: random.) Anyway, I sorted through my Facebook friends the other day and disconnected from about 30 of them, leaving me with just over 700. Those 30 were people who I didn't really know or didn't really have any interest in knowing (though only one or two were names that I did not recognize at all) - people who went to my high school, or who I had attended some conference with, etc. But I still have 703 or so, which seems like a high number of "friends" to have, until I realized that there are only about 150 of those with whom I would likely stay in direct contact without the aid of a social internet network. People say that the internet has revolutionized relationships - and it has allowed my close relationships to stay close - but the biggest effect is that it has allowed those acquaintances to stay on my radar, rather than fading into the netherworld of random meeting in supermarkets and movie theatres. My informal findings are corroborated by research by Dr. Robin Dunbar, who began researching social relationships in the 1990s. Dunbar discovered "Dunbar's number", also known as the Rule of 150", which states that most humans do not have the capacity for more than 150 meaningful relationships at a time. He has recently reopened his investigation in the wake of the increase of social networking sites, and he has found that the Rule of 150 still holds, according to this article in the Globe and Mail. He does further suggest, as he did almost two decades ago, that most people can recognize between 1500 and 2000 faces. This is partly why I currently doubt that I will be part of a church that is larger than 150 people, or that does not have structure to break into smaller communities; the rule of 150 makes sense. I think this research explains why true friendships take a lot of time and effort, and why it gets more difficult to create meaningful relationships as you get older: if the maximum number is 150, and most people already have that maximum by, say, the age of 25, any new person would need to "bump" someone else from the 150. I have found that, on average, I have added one new meaningful friendship an average of every four months since I graduated from high school a decade ago (it might have been higher in the first few years, but certainly since 2003, this is the case). That alone has placed 30 new people in my 150, and then when you include family and friends, I'm pretty much maxed out. I find it interesting, as well, that we invited 300 people to our wedding, an average of 150 each, using just over 100 invitations; perhaps couples can count as "one" in this Rule of 150, thus expanding the actual number of people in your 150. But this time in Victoria has been really useful for us to actually evaluate who fits into our closer circle of friends, and to see which people do not fit into that 150. I think there are likely about 15-20 people we invited to the wedding with whom we have not had contact since we moved here a year and a half ago, and since Dunbar's number factors in friends you contact at least once a year, maybe those people have been "bumped" by new friends in Victoria. I'm really not sure how this will all work out in the long run. I suppose that this pattern will continue: people within my 150 will phase out and others will phase in, depending on where I am and how much I am connected to my surroundings. Maybe that will be the "litmus test" for new friendships: can I foresee these people making it into my top 150, or are they somewhere in the other 1350-1850 people I can fit into my brain and life? Yes, these are the things about which I think - but if you belong in my 150, you already understand that.

(Thank You) Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin

The last six weeks or so have been heavy with the weight of my world on my shoulders. It has probably been the most challenging time in my year and a half of marriage (not because of my wife), and probably the most stressful time for me since March 2006, when the Sheaf "Capitalist Piglet" debacle and an issue with a professor sapped most of my energy away for the month. This time, the issues have been with the school, its financial future, and our future at the school. We have had to ask some really hard questions, and receive some answers that are even more difficult to hear, and I have allowed it to sit there, taking away my time and energy and life. But something changed last Friday, and I feel like a new person now; rather, I feel like the person I have wanted to be. I have started putting in processes to ensure that I am not "living" my job, and to protect myself and my family. It seems like the worst of it has gone by, and at least for the next few months that I (we) will be able to settle into a routine again. There is still a lot of work ahead, but I think it will be manageable and enjoyable. Life goes on, and so do we.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Review: Avatar

I saw Avatar two weeks ago, but I have postponed writing a review on the movie mainly because I have not figured out how to review it. As a film, it's pretty terrible: the characters are flat, the plot is recycled, the themes are exhausted and repetitive, and the imagery is painfully obvious. As a movie, it is spectacular in the sense that it is a spectacle, and there has been nothing like it. It is a must-see movie for the experience of the visuals, and it has set a new standard for visual effects. It is an immersive movie, though paradoxically not a very memorable one; many of the scenes carry a sense of awe and wonder, but leave little impression of the actual occurrence of events. Avatar is a movie that will serve as a divide for decades: there were movies before Avatar, and movies after Avatar, and it is now a watershed movie. For the record, there have been a few in my film-watching lifetime, which for better or worse have made a huge impact not only on movies but on popular culture as a whole: Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Pulp Fiction, Braveheart, Titanic, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and The Dark Knight. It is likely that it will continue to receive accolades, both critical and commercial - soon surpassing Titanic on all box-office charts (though it only ranks in the low twenties if inflation is calculated) - and possibly be named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It certainly is the most significant, and the most memorable, but it is the kind of movie that the Oscars will fawn over just to place it in the canon of "Best Pictures". Like Titanic before it, it may fade and become a pop-cultural phenomenon in the past, overshadowed by other, more meaningful movies released in its proximity. It may be treated differently because it is a fantasy (masquerading as science fiction), rather than a drama, and fans of that genre tend to be more obsessive about their movies. (I would not be surprised to find out that the book on the Na'vi they showed in the movie is already in the publishing works.) But despite its follies, it is an amazing spectacle, and one that I may well see again in theatres. There are not many movies that inspire me to spend $15 per ticket, especially twice, but this may be one of them. Kudos to James Cameron for again turning schlock into gold, and making even the most cynical critics experience the power of the cinema anew.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Review: Up in the Air

It could easily be argued that, even though Jason Reitman has made only three films, all in the last half of the decade, that his films have captured the zeitgeist of the Aughts - or at least the post-Katrina Aughts. That is, perhaps, the time at which the dichotomy of unreasonably unbridled optimism and arrogant skepticism from either end of the cultural scale was replaced with a general sense of smug self-satisfied schadenfreude in the downfall of previously powerful figures, perhaps best exemplified by the celebrated exit of embattled U.S. President George W. Bush (can you tell I'm feeling like an English major again today for some inexplicable reason?). Reitman's trilogy of introspective, satirical, closely focused character studies has perhaps encapsulated that reality more than any other series of films in recent memory, and perhaps none more so than his most recent film, Up in the Air.
I suppose it is necessary to discuss the content of the film (though I'd much rather pontificate on the cultural significance of the content, but I'll delay the rest of that discussion). George Clooney, in what is a more complete version of similar characters he has played in the past, including the Coens' 2003 semi-dud Intolerable Cruelty, portrays Ryan Bingham, a professional terminator. Bingham lives a solitary existence, travelling by airplane across most of the U.S. (or at least the midwestern part of it) through about 90% of the year to various corporations, assisting in firing employees gracefully and simultaneously enjoying his wandering existence.
The conflict of the film comes when Bingham's oblique existence is ironically threatened by the same force that gives him his career: downsizing. In his frantic push to maintain his existence, he meets two women who also might sanction his lifestyle. The first is a blousy, breezy, care-free career woman named Alex (a delightfully sexy Vera Farmiga), who starts her time with Bingham as a one-night stand but soon becomes an item on his to-do list whenever they're in the same city. The second is the perky, pugnacious, pointy-nosed, perplexed 23-year-old phenom of the company, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick, and the name appears to be consciously chosen), the author of the strategy that threatens Bingham. Keener is assigned to accompany Bingham on his travels, ostensibly to learn the tricks of the trade, both in flying and firing, but surreptiously to prove that she is worthy of respect. What follows between the three principals is a portrait of characters that is both intimate and expansive as they journey through their single-ized, sanitized, corporatized version of life. Their interactions reflect on many subjects - the need for community, the difficulty of change, moving on from failed relationships - and somehow Reitman manages the three disparate and arguably unrelatable characters through their circumstances and makes the viewer think deeply about their own life and what is important to them - what's in their backpack, as sometime motivational speaker Bingham states repeatedly throughout the film.
If nothing else, this film has cemented Reitman's status as the heir-apparent to the throne of Pre-eminent director of quirky indie character-driven films. Wes Anderson, Reitman's apparent model and primary competition, is still making movies (and from what I understand, they are still Fantastic - pun intended), but Reitman is close to supplanting Anderson in current cultural significance. But perhaps they are two sides of a similar coin: Anderson crafts much of his own work and focusses on groups, often close friends or families. Reitman's films have adapted others' works and focussed on alienated protagonists - Thank You For Smoking's Nick Naylor, Juno's Juno MacGuff, and now Bingham - who navigate their way through the foreign territory of relating to others while enduring circumstances that often only alienate them further. It is no coincidence that the other director I would nominate as "the director of the Aughts" would be Anderson. Reitman continues to be one of the most intriguing and dynamic directors of this time, and he has now crafted three films that all have similar themes but different moods and ways of communicating those themes. He is also developing a recurring cast, and many of those actors put in great performances again here - Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, and Sam Elliott among them - again pointing to Reitman's deftness as a director, even at only 32. After all, someone who cites directors such as Hal Ashby, Stanley Kubrick, Kevin Smith, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Alexander Payne, and Paul Thomas Anderson as his influences has got to be pretty good just from osmosis. (Which means I should start directing films, eh?)
Up in the Air is one of the best films of the year, and likely one of the best of the decade. It features one of George Clooney's best performances, and he is as close as possible to a lock for winning many of this year's top acting honours. Reitman's work deserves all of the accolades it has accrued thus far, and then some. His future as one of the best directors around is anything but up in the air.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The Aughts: Review in Haiku

Today marks the beginning of a new decade: the teens.(An aside: I've been listening to the debate about the name for this decade between "The Aughts" and "The Naughts." I prefer the former, if not only for the sense of what "aught" to have been, so I'm calling them the "Aughts".) I have been thinking about where I was ten years ago - writing Grade 12 essays - and where I am today - grading Grade 12 essays. Okay, so more has happened than one verb changing. But as I have considered how to do a decade in review of my life, I realized that I could be excessively wordy, so I needed to edit myself. Then I recalled my long-lost and occasionally revived feature on my blog, "Review in Haiku", so I present to you the decade that was in the Life of Turner, in haiku form. (Note: in case you're wondering who the mysterious "Ed." is, it's short for "Education".)

Finished Grade 12, worked
At Puzzlemaster, moved to
Regina for school (2000)

Worked at Carillon,
Summer at Stoney, back to
uni, met the girl (2001)

Altered career path,
Camp, school, and IVCF
Started dating girl (2002)

Year of big changes:
Done Regina and Stoney
Moved to S'toon for Ed. (2003)

Asked girl, "marry me?"
Put Ed. on hold for IV
Unengaged in Dec. (2004)

Six months recovering;
Five weddings, two funerals
Still in Ed. limbo (2005)

Sheaf scandal, prof nuts
Back to camp and nine weddings
Interned in Humboldt (2006)

Finished both degrees,
Scott's, Camp, re-engaged; teaching
Job in Caronport (2007)

Done in 'Port, married;
Summer in Sask; teaching job
in Victoria (2008)

Summer in Taiwan
Relief from major changes
Loving West-Coast life (2009)


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