Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Man on Film: Midnight In Paris

Having seen the bulk of Woody Allen's directorial output over the past two decades, I can say with little trepidation that Midnight In Paris was the most enjoyable film of his since at least Sweet and Lowdown. In fact, this was such a triumphant return to form that it forced, if only for a moment, the question into my mind as to whether Woody Allen had made a film this good since Manhattan. That Midnight In Paris forces these thoughts speaks volumes.

The primary problem with most of Allen's films over the past 15 years (and really, this could be said of everything he has done since the mid-1970s) is that they are essentially all the same three or four films. His big stand-out film, Match Point, was all fine and dandy--unless you had seen Crimes and Misdemeanors within the fifteen years prior to having seen Match Point.

With the exception of the fact that Allen's protagonist is in a relationship that is unfulfilling but is not entirely aware of the fact that it is not meeting his needs, this is a different film. A time-travel movie. A literary movie. A love letter to Paris. An historical comedy. A film about romanticism and its trappings. It is all of these things and so much more.

Perhaps the fact that I majored in English Literature factors in too heavily to my love of this film, but its  ventures into the world of The Lost Generation and the Belle Epoque bring icons from history to life with such vivacity and attention to detail that it is nearly impossible not to marvel at. For proof, one need look no further than Corey Stoll's brilliant turn as Ernest Hemingway. Every word that comes out of his mouth, every turn of every phrase is the perfect distillation of Hemingway's treatises on the masculine ideal delivered in a way as sparse and direct as if Hemingway had written them himself. And it is hilarious. Every time Stoll opens his mouth gold comes out. There are other 1920s and 1890s Parisian cameos, but Stoll's Hemingway would be enough to carry these portions by itself.

Luckily that is not necessary. Midnight In Paris affords Owen Wilson an opportunity to return to the sort of character that suits him best. With a few exceptions, Wilson has spent the past decade chasing commercial success as a leading man in mainstream comedies. This typically means he is cast into roles that do not cater to his strengths, ones that don't relish in insecurity and pathos. Here, Wilson gets to channel what appears to be his inner self, the self he wrote parts for in Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. For Owen Wilson, much like Woody Allen, Midnight In Paris is a return to form, reminding us of the promise that once seemed to be boundless.

Wilson plays Woody Allen, at least if he were a screenwriter attempting to write his first novel. He is engaged to Inez (played by the always comely Rachel McAdams), who just wants her fiancee Gil to settle for a career path in which money and security take precedence to chasing something creatively stimulating. Gil is a dreamer, an idealist, a romantic. Inez is an uninspiring pragmatist. As they kick around Paris, both with her conservative parents and her pseudo-intellectual college friend Paul (the pitch-perfect Michael Sheen), he finds himself extracting himself from social situations to roam the city at night. As he gallivants around Paris, he finds himself transported back to the era he's so enamored with each night at the stroke of midnight. It is not bogged down with quantum mechanical explanations for the time travelling. This is light-hearted fare.

What really matters though is that Allen's love for character, city, and history comes through at every moment. The art history and literary influence is not simply for the literati but enrich the film throughout without feeling inaccessible. Allen has made his first great film of the new millenium.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tube Steak: A Fond Farewell to Friday Night Lights

I put this up after the finale aired on DirecTV's then Channel 101. Obviously a lot of you had not seen it at the time. Since you have now, here is a timely re-publish.

SPOILERS ABOUNDING! You have been warned.

As the montage in the series finale's coda struck out to tie up five-year-long storylines, the sinking feeling that I was losing a family member began to engulf me.

Friday Night Lights has been a part of my life for a while now. It's filmed in the town I've called home for seven years. Connie Britton and Adrianne Palicki* used to walk their dogs by my place of employment three days a week. Kyle Chandler would come down to the dock and rent a canoe with his family**. Matt Saracen's 'Chicago' apartment was two doors down from another job. He said goodbye to Julie in the alley that I've parked in two days a week for three years.

*I also saw her on the way to the wrap party back in August or so. She smiled at me in the Hyatt lobby. 

Ms. Palicki, you were stunning.

**I feel like I was weirdly dickish one of these times. I get oddly territorial about the bigger boat that serves as the office, and one of his delightful daughters was asking questions in the way that a young child would, walking into it to look around. I drolly said, "It's a boat." I apologize if this came off dickish, Chandler family.

But there are a lot of things filmed in Austin. I haven't cared about any of them like I do Friday Night Lights.

These characters. Their lives. Somehow they have meant as much to me as actual people in my life.

I guess that's the true testament to the full extent of what FNL has accomplished. I truly care about what happens to these fictional characters. Their realistic trials, their relatable tribulations somehow seem to make these people jump off the screen and into my life. I know that from time to time (especially at the hopefully soon to be no longer dormant Munch My Benson) I have taken joy in blurring the line between pop culture and reality. For me, Friday Night Lights actually transcended the genre of television series and introduced these real people into my life.

Perhaps the most impressive thing that Peter Berg, Jason Katims, & Co. accomplished in their run was their reboot after the third season. They raised the stakes, threw the Taylors into flux by stripping some of their status away, introduced an almost entirely new cast, and flourished. Seeing Vince* grow from a teen on the brink to a stand-up man has taken me places that the first three seasons were never able to take me, and he has only been on for the past two seasons. The scenes with his mother in "The March" had me holding back tears. Sure, some of the relationships may not have mattered as much as the ones with original cast members might have to us, but they certainly got us to care about many of the more integral pieces to the fourth and fifth seasons.

*There is also the added 'what if' element inherent with Vince's character for all fans of The Wire, and Michael B. Jordan (and accordingly, Wallace) are all growed up.

The thing about Friday Night Lights is that this is not uncommon. I can't tell you how many episodes have seen me get choked up multiple times--during "The Son"* I was bawling.

*For those who do not remember episode names this is the episode from the fourth season with Saracen's father's funeral.

The finale, "Always" was no exception. Eric's aside to Vince in which he tells him, "You may never know how proud I am of you" got me. Vince's response, "You changed my life coach" got me. Jess's dejection while telling Coach she was going to be moving away got me. The Lions walking on the field at the Cotton Bowl got me. Tami's non-verbal reaction to Eric's speech about what marriage means at the dinner table got me. Eric's detour to the mall to ask Tami if she'll take him to Philadelphia with her got me. Riggins telling Becky she was family got me. Luke getting on the bus got me. Hell, the extended series recap before the episode even started got me.

Now, the finale had its slight problems. As it was a definite series finale, there were a lot of character story lines that needed to be tied up. This resulted in an insane amount of declarations of undying love for one episode. Granted, it was a long episode, but it felt like there was one every five minutes. The conflation of these moments was inevitable, I suppose, but it was sort of a lot to take. At least, they had the common sense to keep Tyra and Riggins apart in the short-term. Between that and their decision to have Jess's announcement that she would be moving to Dallas be to Eric not Vince, the episode had its two strongest moments and set at least a few of the female characters in orbits that were not dependent upon the men in their lives but would instead be setting out on their own paths.

And then there was State. I don't know if the show could have had a stronger statement about how it was always much more about the characters than the football than how they dealt with the State Championship game. Its conclusion and subtle revelation of its result through the closing montage were absolutely inspired.

Maybe it's that I'm from a small town. Even though it isn't filmed a small town, it's a town I know. Its portrayal of small-town life is as accurate as I've seen since Northern Exposure. It is entirely possible that this resonates with me more than most, but I don't think that is it. I think it is that Friday Night Lights was a brilliant damn show. It is one that I will always love dearly, and one that I will miss more than possibly any show before it.

Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't Lose!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Guest Column: How NBC has managed to not just fall down, but has managed to trip down a big-ass starcase: Part 2

This second edition is long overdue, but most non-professional bloggers will gladly take life experiences over reclusively blogging. The entry was written once, but not finished, and then finished several weeks later, only to be completed at a location without internet, and then sat on for a few months, so some comments in here will be dated (see: present tense usage for shows like Perfect Couples, and the odd addition of comments about the short-lived Paul Reiser Show). Regardless of that fact, I’ll apologize for this delay…

Now, I’ve already talked at some length about the other shows, and I hope I can keep my Thursday comments short, but I’m not going to make any guarantees because this is the NBC lineup that I feel the strongest about...

Community was very good in its first season, but it became extremely hit-or-miss. My biggest beef is with their use of Chevy Chase. His character is easily what I dislike the most. The constant immaturity and neediness of his character got old after one or two episodes, and now it’s all he does on the show. Admittedly, I’ve continued to watch Community, but NBC almost loses me for the rest of the night because Perfect Couples* is on at 7:30.

*Try sitting through an episode of this show…

Perfect Couples is 100% unwatchable*. Do you know a single person who actually enjoys that show? If you do, then you know someone who has a terrible sense of humor. The single reason anyone still watches the show is because of the show it precedes.

*NBC agreed and canceled the show

The Office is still very popular, but it’s taken quite a long time for it to return to a consistently funny product. I don’t really feel like I need to go too in depth into this show as it’s a staple for NBC and for the most part it has gotten back to a point of knowing what you’re going to get each week.

I would argue that Parks & Recreation is the NBC’s best show on Thursday night (and possibly the whole network). Rob Lowe and [especially] Adam Scott have been welcome editions to an already great show. Yet, NBC decided to delay the premiere of its third season.
About the only [theoretically] smart move NBC made was dropping the third hour drama off their Thursday lineup. I say in theory, because they need a watchable product to keep viewers attention. 30 Rock and Outsourced got the time slot, but neither of those shows are doing anything to keep my attention following a strong 8 o’clock hour (The Office and Parks & Rec), but I almost forget to watch it because of how uninspiring the 9 o’clock hour has been. I’m somebody who had always enjoyed 30 Rock, but I’ve stopped watching, and, consequently, stopped watching Outsourced.
NBC gambled, and I think they lost. Previously decent shows like 30 Rock and Community have been unentertaining (please only people who at one point enjoyed the show make a comment, because if you’ve always disliked it, your opinion holds little water). Add a terrible new show [Perfect Couples] in the mix in with Outsourced* which isn’t any good either (regardless of how attractive I find Rebecca Hazelwood and Pippa Black**) and really only The Office*** and Parks and Recreation and you’re left with a lineup that’s almost flatlined.

*Newsweek had an article which specifically talked about Eastbound & Down, but mentioned (if I recall correctly) Outsourced, and how a show like that can only be successful on a network like HBO. I 100% agree because Outsourced is completely lame because of the FCC’s regulations on regular networks.

**Which always makes think of “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” which was horrendously bad.

***How big of a drop off was there following Jim and Pam getting together. Thankfully, they gave up on forcibly advancing their story line because every episode they did that in was awful. Every fan of The Office wanted them to be together, were happy they got together, but will admit that there was something off with them.

Part of the problem is that NBC has failed to come up with any new shows worth a damn. I’ll give you Parks & Recreation for being a successful new show they’ve created (given it’s consistency), but what does NBC do after seeing the great ratings following its second season? They cut it down to a half season show, and move its season premiere back to January of the following year. Maybe I can understand their mindset that people loved it before, and the midseason additions to lineups tend to fall on deaf ears so the people who normally wouldn’t watch the new midseason additions would tune in, but you can easily make an argument that NBC’s hallowed “Must-See TV” Thursday lineup should’ve been going from the fall.

This is the same network that idiotically aired Freaks & Geeks Saturday nights when it’s target audience wouldn’t have ever thought of staying home to watch it (except for me…because I did that). Consequently, they never really gave it a chance only to watch it live on as a cult favorite and to see virtually every actor from that show go on to at least regular acting jobs down the road (with maybe the exception of Neal (Samm Levine)) if not near stardom.

They pretty much pulled the plug on Friday Night Lights if it weren’t for DirecTV coming in to share production costs (at least that’s my interpretation of what went down), and now it’s one of the best series’ of the last decade in my mind.

Have you watched Southland? That show is absolutely fantastic, but NBC gave it a half season and never bothered with it after that only to hand it over to TNT. Not that this replaced Southland, but somehow they think The Cape* is more worthy of a timeslot than Southland?

*Try sitting through an episode of this show…

This is a list of the new shows NBC has aired this season: The Event, The Cape, Harry’s Law, Outsourced, Perfect Couples, and Law & Order: Los Angeles (which is already killing off main characters), and The Paul Reiser Show*. That’s not an impressive list of shows.

*Seriously?! That should have been the sign that NBC was throwing in the towel because even if this were 1996 Paul Reiser wouldn’t’ve been able to save that time slot, and 15 years later his new show lasted all of TWO EPISODES before getting pulled.

NBC created a brand of TV from their Thursday night lineup. Shows know they made it when they moved to Thursday. Their “Must See TV” was actually must see, but now a minority of their shows keep bringing me back week-in and week-out.

My upbringing without cable probably makes me somewhat of a romantic for network television, so I’m sad to see a once hallowed network and lineup fall so far from where it once was. NBC could come back without much effort because I honestly don’t think the other main networks are that much better than NBC, it’s just the crap NBC’s churning out is that much worse.

Get your shit together NBC…

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Guest Column: How NBC has managed to not just fall down, but tripped down a big-ass staircase: Part 1

This was originally posted several months ago with the intent of having the second part (of 2) posted shortly there after, but, well, it never happened. As has become a theme with both contributors (of the same blood), life happened, and I never got around to posting the second entry. Tomorrow, part 2 will be posted, and for context, I've taken the liberty of re-posting the first part...

Is it just me or does TV as whole leave quite a bit to be desired? Without doing research of any kind, it seems like for every good/decent/tolerable show on TV right now, there are at least 3-5 hardly watchable shows. Obviously, there are holdovers from previous seasons that are still pumping out episodes of quality like Dexter, Parks & Recreation, and Psych, but to me…those are few and far between.

I’ve noticed this phenomenon ever since the writer’s strike a few years ago because almost every show had a huge drop off in overall quality. Shows that were stalwarts for quality episodes week in and week out totally sucked following the strike. The Office almost lost me entirely because each episode was totally unfunny. Some of you may not care for 30 Rock, but I used to enjoy it quite a bit. After the strike…not so much. About the only shows that come to mind that didn’t blow after the strike (that I watched anyway) were Dexter and Friday Night Lights.

The writer’s strike shouldn’t be completely to blame because the other part needs to go to the individual networks. Can you remember a network that’s fallen further out of the graces of viewers than NBC? I sure can’t.

Have you looked at NBC’s weekly lineup lately? Here it is…

Sunday: Who Do You Think You Are?; Dateline

Monday: Chuck; The Cape; Harry’s Law

Tuesday: Biggest Loser; Parenthood

Wednesday: 2 Hours of Minute to Win It; Law & Order: SVU

Thursday: Community; Perfect Couples; The Office; Parks & Rec; 30 Rock; Outsourced

Friday: Who Do You Think You Are?; Dateline

Saturday: Chuck; Law & Order: Los Angeles; Law & Order: SVU

Let’s start with Sunday’s lineup and work our way through the week…

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to NBC, but a show about genealogy isn’t going to get people watching your network. Vanessa Williams’ family history is of ZERO INTEREST to me. Even someone like [insert either one of my parents] who actively participates in the hobby of genealogy will have no interest in this show*. And apparently NBC wants to make sure you get a chance to see Who Do You Think You Are? badly enough that they re-air it on Fridays.

*Listening to someone else talk about his/her family history (with the exception of a passing comment) is like listening to someone talk about their fantasy sport team. No one outside of the owner of said team/family cares, so we just sit there acting as if we care until the appropriate time comes where we can insert a comment the includes ourselves.**

To be fair, I am a sucker for a good Dateline (see: “To Catch a Predator” highlight reel below), but I don’t think it serves any purpose aside from providing additional shows to validate the salaries of news anchors. NBC should be given some props for realizing that no one watches on Saturdays and Sundays, so as far as the bottom-line is concerned, they actually made a wise decision, but they aren't good.
Moving on to Monday… I used to watch Chuck, but there wasn’t anything about that show that made me come back after the first season.

Honestly, I have been watching The Cape, and those of you have seen an episode know how horrendously bad that show is. To me, it seems like NBC thinks they can “cash in” on the success of Heroes* but that show was actually good**. I keep watching The Cape only because it’s got to be better, and I'm kind of a sucker for superhero crap.

*Five years later...

**There was such a huge drop off following the first season, and it got progressively more terrible with each successive episode, too.

Harry’s Law looks to be even worse than The Cape. It’s my contention that NBC heard some good things about Kathy Bates as "Jo Bennet" in The Office, so they decided to create a show with the main character being basically Jo Bennet. There isn’t an ounce of me that has any interest in watching that garbage (opinion is solely based on the ads).

Their Tuesday lineup is hardly worth mentioning. I’ve never bothered to sit through an episode of The Biggest Loser. From what I’ve heard, it’s actually okay, but the main networks have copped out by having so many reality shows, but that will mentioned later.

I’m not really sure where to start with Parenthood. I guess I’ll start by mentioning how much I hate Dax Sheppard. Jesus, he’s terrible. He’s 100% unfunny, and only making matters worse is his relationship Kristen Bell. Adding to my distaste is how the show was advertised in a manner leading fans of Modern Family* to believe that show was going to be like that. Well…it’s not. Plus, I read an article recently that said who the creators of Modern Family initially wanted for its cast and none other than Craig Tiberius** Nelson was at the top of their wish list to play role of family patriarch.

*And "Parenthood" was a mid-season addition to their lineup. Did they have this show just ready for development if "Modern Family" was a success?
**It's true...look it up

And yes, that's Tom Arnold...

Guy Fieri is another person who is on my hate list. I don’t want to eat at TGI Fridays because of him. That being said, Minute to Win It isn’t on my watch list. My issue with many reality shows is that they really only have a few minutes of action surrounded by terribly annoying hosts (like Guy Fieri).

But LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT!?!?!?! How we at IP feel about this show is probably understated. For all of NBC’s shortcomings, SVU does aide to bring its image back up.

This post was initially even longer, so I’m going to take the liberty of making this a two-part [what I hope to be] conversation because my comments about their Thursday lineup and other NBC related subjects is also long, so stay-tuned…

Monday, July 11, 2011

Man on Film: Bridesmaids

In a down year for film, I can safely say that Bridesmaids has been one of the brightest spots on an otherwise bleak landscape. Going in, it was hard not to be hopeful as a big fan of the director, Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, and much of the cast, including writer/star Kristen Wiig. 

My hopes were exceeded in every possible way. 

From beginning to end, this film is endearing, hilarious, honest, bawdy, and refreshing. The plight of Wiig's protagonist Annie is one that transcends gender. While clearly a woman, her struggles to come to terms with a life that hasn't played out as planned is easy for most of the audience to empathize with. As she continues to be the most destructive force in her life, it isn't difficult to see the worst of ourselves in Annie's behavior. Her struggles are not exclusively gender-based, as is too often the case in films featuring a majority of female characters, so her problems are relatable to both the male viewer as well.

Now in the nearly two months that have passed since the film opened, so much of what has been written about this film has focused on the fact that a women's comedy with a hard-R-rating has proved financially viable at the box office. I shall refrain from throwing my two cents in on that particularly irritating meme. As always, it's about the talent involved with the project. This film is ultimately successful because it is another Team Apatow production, and while some of the Apatow-directed films have been uneven, Judd Apatow has surrounded himself with a bevy of brilliant people. These brilliant people have shockingly crafted a brilliant comedy. That is the long and short of it. 

As for those brilliant people, Wiig's talents are front and center here. Her freak-outs (that I'll not spoil) are priceless. Her scenes with Jon Hamm are rife with insecurity and awkwardness. She aptly carries this film on her shoulders. 

This isn't to say that her supporting cast doesn't contribute. Rose Byrne is fantastic, as usual. Chris O'Dowd gets his first big opportunity stateside and delivers. Maya Rudolph is great. Jon Hamm is willing to make himself look like an asshole for the sake of the movie. Ellie Kemper, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Melissa McCarthy are all outstanding as the remaining bridesmaids. 

If anything can be determined by the slew of crap movies this year, it's that making a movie this good must be pretty damned hard.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

PSA: Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery Needs Your Love

This space is not typically one that I use to promote anything. Sure, I may talk about a book or film or show that I love, but that is merely a reaction to art.

This is something more important.

Coffee Donuts - Photo Courtesy of Red Rabbit Bakery
A lady very special to me has embarked on a business venture. This is not just any business venture, though. She is one of five women who have started a vegan bakery here in Austin, Texas. They are committed to producing high-quality vegan baked goods with their initial thrust being vegan donuts. While they are branching out past that into realms I'm not sure I'm allowed to talk about, the donuts currently available at Wheatsville, Pacha, Genuine Joe's and various other establisments around town are awesome. Their Mexican chocolate donut is particularly outstanding.

But they're not just any bakery. They're a worker cooperative.

Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery.

They are trying to carve out their own niche in the world and the local bakery market.

Where they stand apart is that they aren't all vegans. They actually know what their product would taste like as traditionally prepared. There is no discernible difference.

Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery is looking for donors for their business. They have set up a page on Kickstarter, a platform by which creative people can be connected with donors. Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery is looking for donations that would provide them the capital required to procure a trailer and equipment necessary to get their goods out to the masses not only via wholesaling but through a central location that they would control.

As their donation page says:
For the last year, we have been working tirelessly to get our bakery off the ground. We spent six months developing our vegan donut recipe (we ate a lot of donuts!) and another six months finding a kitchen space, equipment, getting all the permits, licenses, suppliers, and clients we needed to start a wholesale bakery business. Finally after many months of hard work, late nights, and a lot of vegan donuts, our dream is slowly becoming a reality! And the best part: the good people of Austin love our handmade donuts!
They are currently sitting just over 34% of the way toward their goal of $10,000 with slightly over two weeks to go. If the goal is not met, none of the donations go through.

If you care about a) the American dream, b) being your own boss, c) high-quality vegan baked goods, or d) the supremely democratic work environment that worker cooperatives provide for all involved, then please venture over to their donation page at Kickstarter.

If my efforts were not enough, here is a feature that the Daily Texan did on Red Rabbit a couple of months ago:

Vegan Donuts from The Daily Texan on Vimeo.
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