Thursday, October 29, 2009

Modern Family, or How I (heart) this show

Are you watching Modern Family? Cause you should be.

Here are a couple of reasons why:

Jay: What are you wearing?
Manny: A poncho.
Jay: It looks like an old christmas tree skirt!

"She is not Donna Summer. Clearly, she is Dianna Ross from the RCA years. Why can't daddy see that?"

(And here's Lily as Olivia Newton-John,
Madonna - "the early years,"
and Stevie Wonder)

Claire: Phil, put some pants on!
Phil: This covers up more than my bathing suit.
Claire: Don't remind me.

Did I mention those come only from the first 5 minutes of last night's episode?

And my favorite line from the entire episode:

"Batman doesn't get picked on and he wears a cape.
A poncho is just a cape that goes all the way around."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mary and Max, or How 'Aspies for Freedom' should be sold as a shirt

Mary and Max
Written, Directed and Designed by: Adam Elliot
Voiced by: Toni Collette & Philip Seymour-Hoffman

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Mary and Max would make a great double feature alongside PIXAR's Up. After all, in their own ways, they paint a picture of 'living life anew' pairing an older character with a younger one both for contrast and for character development. But whereas Up gives us a candy-colored adventure, Mary and Max immerses us in a world as stark and monochromatic as its color palette.

You see, Max (Seymour-Hoffman doing amazing voice-work) is a jewish-raised older New Yorker suffering from Asperger's syndrome while Mary (as an adult voiced by Ms Toni Collette, a wonder as always) is a young Australian girl with distant and cold parents. They begin an unlikely pen friendship throughout the years and the film moves episodically with their correspondence through deaths, marriages and everything else the world throws at them.
To call the film's humor "dark" would be an understatement (see one of my favorite visual jokes of the film below), but this - alongside its no-nonsense trip through mental illness and depression and their consequences in the lives of Mary and Max- makes the film a pleasure to watch, especially given its visual beauty (the choice to make New York a mostly black and white environment while tinging Australia in brown hues makes for a simple yet inspiring move). At times absurdly hilarious (Mary, for example, believes that Aussie babies are found in beer glasses by their fathers, while Max informs her that in America babies are hatched: by Rabbis if you're Jewish, by Nuns if you're Catholic, and, by hookers if you're an atheist; both a result of their respective parenting) and at times harrowingly uncomfortable (Toni singing 'Que Sera Sera' in a pivotal scene in the film is heartbreakingly stunning), Mary and Max makes for a roller-coaster ride of a film (not just because of its quick shifts in tone, but for its lulls - an unfortunate side-effect of the structure of the film, based on the epistolary conversation between the two characters). A-
PS. I couldn't not share the following frame which seems to pay homage to Collette's breakout film (Muriel's Wedding for those of you wondering) as Mary finds herself crying over heartbreak after getting all dolled up for her neighbor Damien (Eric Bana):

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dollhouse, or How consent isn't a play-thing

Not often can one drop the names of (feminist thinkers) Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon when discussing a network show, but that is exactly what Emily Nussbaum did over at her blog Surf when discussing last night's episode of Dollhouse "Belonging." And damn if it's not a great read!

Written by Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen and directed by Jonathan Frankes, this latest episode moved away from Eliza Dushku's Echo/Caroline plot (and even benched Tammoh Penikett's Paul Ballard!) and focused instead on the doll Sierra (played by Dichen Lachman) - her backstory which we had glimpsed at last season (namely, Priya-turned-Sierra was taken to the Dollhouse because she wouldn't comply with a valued 'higher-up' of the Rossum corporation which owns the Dollhouse). Discussing the main themes of Dollhouse and how they relate to the Whedon world, Nussbaum tells us that,

If you're a resentful Whedon nerd, you've got mind-control issues, a sexually charged situation his series tend to at once oppose in theory and play out in a cathartic way in practice. (As Dollhouse in particular demonstrates, it's awfully hard to distinguish these things when your sex slaves are mincing around in tiny tank tops.)

"Belonging" pushes that sex-slave theme to its limits. It bubbles over with unsettling insights into the Dollhouse's ethical status, fueled by brilliant performances by both Dachman as Sierra and Fran Kranz as Topher, whose status as Sierra's creator/brainwasher is given tremendous complexity (he's regretful, he's complicit, he's innocent, blood is on his hands).

As a quasi-fan of the show myself (during its first season it never quite grabbed me though those last episodes, and Epitaph One - the unaired mythic 13th episode, really pulled all the punches and got me back into the Whedon-bandwagon) I am thoroughly enjoying this new season (trust FOX to pull a Whedon and give us a good thing before killing it off!). This is mainly due to the fact that it has truly embraced its ethical ambiguity and exploited it to advance more (and more interesting) questions than any other broadcast show on TV. Through Sierra's storyline - clearly the one that most mirrors the slavery-motif of the Dollhouse, Whedon & co. crafted one of the most affecting episodes dealing with human trafficking and female consent I have ever seen on TV.

With "Belonging," Dollhouse breached new territory for the show, delving deep into the wounded conscience-addled Topher (played by Fran Kranz) - a character who began as a two-dimensional "nerd" stereotype, at once too smart for his own good and too disinterested to care about his dolls, but who has morphed into the character that most self-reflexibly shows us the limits of the Dollhouse's ethics. In one of the most chilling lines of the series, we hear Olivia Williams' DeWitt tell Topher that

"The cold reality is that everyone here was chosen because their morals have been compromised in some way. Everyone except you. You Topher were chosen because you have no morals. You have always thought of people as play-things. This is not a judgement; you alwasy take very good care of your toys. But you're simply going to have let this one go."

Topher's character arc (as Epipath One showed us) will be to deal with this newfound conscience as the searing revelation of what his technological prowess has done (and will do) to everyone inside and outside the Dollhouse becomes clearer and clearer. Is the Dollhouse simply a fancy prostitution agency which manages to disavow human consent by instilling/imprinting a 'real' desire out of nothing? Or is the question an even bigger one: what are the expectations of desire and consent in a world that is already so invested in performance and make-believe? Priya/Sierra may be able to go back to the Dollhouse as a clean slate (maintaining only her love for Victor) but Topher is left alone in his geek quad to live with what he has done and what he must do every day: 'help' these dolls. But at what price? At whose bidding?

If the last couple of episodes have shown us anything is that the better Dollhouse is as a series, the more uncomfortable are the ideas/questions it (re)presents. We have to wait til December 4 for the next couple of episodes, but I personally can't wait for what Whedon & co. have in store for us.

30 Rock or How :: laser shield ::

There are few things I enjoy more on 30 Rock than seeing Will Arnett & Alec Baldwin go head to head. This week's episode didn't disappoint:

"What kind of gun was that?"
"A laser gun. It cuts through everything"

And then later,

"I'll make this company so profitable so fast the only headline will be...
'Donaghy saves G.E., comma, marries your mom'"
"See you in a couple of days Jack. Peewwww"
"Pffttt. Laser shield."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are, or How I rant on ranting

Rule number 1 of reviewing: don't assume anything.

If there's one thing I hate to read in a review is: people said A but...B!!

Reviews that attempt to position themselves in a conversation about outside expectations have a place in film discussions but I wonder how much are we really talking about say, Juno or The Dark Knight or Slumdog Millionaire when a review is insistent on how the 'buzz' is right/wrong/misguided/etc.

The latest case for this is Spike Jonze's adapation of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. This is not only because Sendak's book is adored by a significant amount of people but also because the film went from 'it's delayed, suffering from bad test screenings' to 'hit viral sensation' after the Arcade Fire trailer debuted earlier this year. Mainly: there's no way you could enter into this film without a preconceived idea of what it'd be (or what you wanted it to be, or what Warner Bros. wanted you to think it'd be or what your childhood self wanted it to be or..well, you get the idea). Add to this that we live in a Twitter/instant reaction world and you've got a situation where seeing a film where you have no expectations of it is more the exception than the rule (I was flabbergasted the other day when I friend told me he had seen this film called 'Precious' and he thought it was really good. Yep, he caught it at the New York Film Featival and loved it and knew NOTHING about it beforehand. Crazy, I thought to myself, but it also showed the type of audience reaction that probably greeted the film at Sundance before Oprah and Tyler Perry and everyone in the blogosphere started telling us how great a movie this was - and before the backlash that may or may not be now pervading the film recently given the Gotham Awards snub). But I digress. Back to Where the Wild Things Are. I recently read James's "Rants on Where the Wild Things Are" and while I'd usually shrug off my dissension from James's view to his "Humbug" mood recently (I think he just needs a visit from La Tisdale - or Zac Efron - to cheer him up and make him love 'stuff' again). I'm not saying James is 'wrong' in not liking the film: we are, after all, allowed to have (and voice!) our own opinions. Yet, his review seemed to come from a place of 'can people stop saying how good this film is?' which in certain ways is a version of 'my opinion doesn't jibe with the consensus' yet morphs into 'my opinion should be the consensus' (which, ultimately is the reason we write about films for the blogosphere to read, no?). If it feels like harping on James, I'm not (I'm sure I've made similar comments on this soapbox of mine). I just think that there must be a place for healthy film discussion that doesn't take into account 'buzz' in order to frame an opinion about a film (look at the way An Education - for a more recent example - went from 'Amazing' to 'Meh, what was everyone talking about?' in a matter of blog-tinged seconds)

I could sit here and rile a couple of counter-arguments to James' review - it isn't after all, a perfect movie - (for example I think the first half hour of the film is a great glimpse into Max's world - which never seeks to explain Max's "misunderstood nature" nor does it attempt to advocate or endorse it, and the ensuing narrative works to fractally retell it over an over again) but instead I wanted to open up a discussion on the way recent technological (and marketing strategies) have made our appreciation of films a reactive (rather than an active) activity. Recently, Nat came up against the same problem when screening Precious:
Can you have a pure reaction to a movie if you've already heard a thousand opinions about it? Probably not, as the annual conversation cycles of awards season illustrate. It starts with "my god it's amazing!" which quickly turns to "it's everything you've heard it was and more!". Eventually the "I liked it but..." hedging and the angry "it ain't all that!" begins. Well, you know how it goes. You've probably joined in dozens of these conversations yourself.
So, I have to wonder: do we have to have these conversations? Is there no way to talk about Where the Wild Things Are in terms of its approach to Sendak's book: what does it mean to translate a slim children's book into a hipster Oz-like parable? What does it say about the American audience its aimed at? About its place in a studio/auteur-based economic model? About its place in Jonze's filmography (clearly, Keener isn't the only thing it shares with Adaptation and Being John Malcovich)? Just as I think too much is made of "Oscar" films conversations during the Fall ("Will/Should it be nominated?") I think there are plenty of more conversations to be had about films these days that move beyond "good/bad"/"was what I expected/not what I wanted/expected." Does An Education not spark more interesting conversations regarding May/November romances than about Mulligan's Oscar chances? Does Precious not raise more challenging discussions when framed in terms of its subject matter rather than its press backlash?

It seems the conversation is happening already. Over at Awards Daily Sasha Stone points to Roger Ebert's review of Amelia to showcase how a review can do both things I'm talking about without falling into certain traps. As she states,
Here’s the thing, though – when writing a review, why not make it a good read? Ebert’s recent review of Amelia isn’t just a think piece on himself and why he’s right that the movie sucked and where it doesn’t work and why it is going to bomb — most importantly, he doesn’t yarn on about how he would knew it would fail and how right he has now become – is there anything more annoying than that?
And really, we could all be doing worse than aiming to be as entertaining in writing reviews than Roger Ebert (who, even when he raves about a film I hate - see his adoration for Crash, he does so in a way that doesn't feel like he's trying to persuade me to think like him or join in whatever buzz he aligns with, but to make me watch the film itself).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Romance & Cigarettes, or How I had waited long to see this why...?

Romance & Cigarettes

"Life is more than just a hard-on"

Why I had waited so long before watching this film is beyond me. It's an absurdist tale about ordinary people dealing with ordinary events in extraordinary ways through zany and literate dialogue. What other movie would feature a pregnant women ballet, a conversation about Ethel merman, a cat-fight between two Oscar winners, an affecting cameo by an Emmy/Tony winner, a speedo-loving straight man, a song celebrating red-heads, and an underwater relationship elegy?

Part post-modern musical, part-family drama, part-surrealist comedy, Romance & Cigarettes is a hilariously affecting (if uneven) film. But what I really loved was the cast. Oh the cast, they're all lovely:

And what kind of post about Romance & Cigarettes would be complete without a scantily-clad Bobby Cannavale?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Welcome to Season 4, or How 30 Rock is back!

"Hello everyone. I'm so happy to see you and to welcome you to Season 4...Which is of course the name of this restaurant, the number one Asian-fusion restaurant in New York where we will be eating the number one selling food in the rest of America."

Welcome back gang!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sofia Vergara, or How Pepsi gave her the break she needed

I guess it's COLOMBIA Week on the blog (first Shakira and now this)

And no, I didn't plan it that way but watching Modern Family (and LOVING it) made me appreciate Sofia Vergara more than ever before. To me she's always been a bimbo supermodel who wanted to break out as a star... thankfully with the ABC comedy she has put her voluptuous body and boastful comedic timing to great use as Ed O'Neill's (much younger) Colombian wife who needs help knowing "how you say the tac-ac-tac-tac-tac-ac?" (hint: rhymes with melicopter) and whose home town is known for the "what's the word?" ... the "murders, yes."

But, want to see how she was "discovered"? Below you'll find the first commercial she ever booked (rumour has it she was at the right place at the right time when the casting director found her):

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

She Wolf or How Shakira is a world-class pop-star

It's no secret that I'm a rabid Shakira fan. I have followed her career since Piez Descalzos (that was in 1995 for those of you keeping track). Needless to say I have been following with some hesitation her cross-over into the North American music industry, first with Laundry Service (which to me is still her least accomplished album - I blame her broken english, which is saying a lot when it has great songs and a distinct sound) and later with Oral Fixation Vol 2 (the twin-album to her Fijacion Oral Vol 1 in Spanish, both much more subdued than Service but showing a great range, from latin ballads to hip-swivelling dance mixes). It wasn't until 'Hips Don't Lie' took off that Shakira could call herself a bona fide world-class pop star akin to the likes of Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan. Now with She Wolf she seems to be experimenting with different sounds and as most of her albums she hits, she misses, but she never disappoints. The album dropped in the UK and in Latin America. Here's a rundown of the tracks (English/Spanish versions are lumped together) in the international version (we're hoping to get some bonus tracks here in the US when it's released next month):

She Wolf/Loba
S.O.S. she's in disguise.
This synth-pop single grew on me and now every time I hear it at the club I wanna dance like a She Wolf coming out of the closet.

Did It Again/Lo Hecho Está Hecho
But I said, “hey what the hell? for once in my life i’ll take a ride on the wild side"
Probably my favorite track from the album. I love the heavy percussion and the beat.

Long Time
I wish I had longer legs that I could fasten to your body so you'd take me with you everywhere
Not as great a line as the 'breasts' one from 'Whenever Wherever', but then, 'Long Time' isn't as good of a track either. A bit repetitive and grating.

Why Wait/Años Luz
There's nothing in the world you can think of that I won't do to you.
Mixing Middle-Eastern harmonies and a strong dance-beat, this seems like a good dancing song but something about it doesn't click for me. But then 'Ojos Asi' never did it for me either.

Good Stuff
You don't have to rub a lamp 'Cause I'll take care of you
Shakira's attempt at mixing Colombian, Caribbean, Middle-Eastern sounds with the overall electro-feel of the album would be a total mess, but somehow this sensual song makes it work.

Men In This Town
The good ones are gone or not able... and Matt Damon's not meant for me
For me it's always been about Shakira's lyrics, and well, when you're name-dropping Mr Damon, you're headed for a good song. It's got a great chorus and an electro-feel about it without losing its edge (and that "Fresh! I'm so fresh!" part kills me every time!)

I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me
I tend to not care much about Shaki's slow songs. She's better at rocking a beat or swerving her hips, I think. Thus, this track doesn't quite grab me - maybe it's the weak lyrics or the repetitive harmony in the background.

Spy Feat. Wyclef Jean
Colombian with a swagger? Yes I am
That line tells you everything you need to know about Shakira. While this collaboration isn't as danceable as their 'Hips Don't Lie' it's a great lounge-y number.

Mon Amour
And every night I pray that you don't knock her up 'Cause I still want to be the mother of your child
No one does "scorned woman" lyrics better than Shakira (See 'Si Te Vas'). This is no exception. I love the buildup, the rock-beat and the lyrics about how the ex is taking his new gf to Paris.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Toy Story 3 or How I can't wait!


Pixar sure knows how to work the marketing machine. And they seem to be having a blast with the Toy Story toys to advertise the third installment in the series (both movies which are just as good - if not better, when experienced in 3D as I did last weekend). The trailer (below) makes me giddy about revisiting these characters that I love. And the fact that Kristen Schaal (from Flight of the Conchords) joined the cast is just icing on the frosted cake batter-brownie cupcake-flavored cake that is anything Pixar :D

Toy Story 3 Trailer in HD

Trailer Park | MySpace Videos

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mad Men, or How smoking is damn sexy!

Despite what ads in bus stops may tell me, smoking can be sexy (!) without making want to partake in the practice itself. I mean, it sure as hell looks like it could be oodles of fun, no?

At least when it's done by January Jones (who looked gorgeous in this week's episode):
Part of it must be the fact that she doesn't even need to light up herself (though I do lover her lighter which looks like it could be used to escape a maximum security prison)
Here, light up and join her!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Modern Family, or How I LOVE this show (but hate 'family' shows' in general)

Okay, I promise not ALL of my blog posts will be soapbox-opportunities for my opinions from Twitter (like that Glee post) but the other day Tapeworthy called me out for not liking Once & Again (which for me will always be the reason Sarah Michelle-Gellar isn't a Golden Globe Winner), to which I simply responded that I'm no big fan of "family" shows. And the more I thought about it, the clearer it became: shows that revolve around a happy (or even not-so-happy) heterosexual nuclear (white) family just don't appeal to me. At all.

If i simply run through a list of my all-time favorite shows I find - not families - but particular groupings (the 'Charmed ones,' a couple of 'Friends,' the TGS cast & crew, a Battlestar fleet, a 'Scooby gang'...). Shows that center on just family (ie. Everwood, Everybody Loves Raymond, Once & Again, 7th Heaven, Malcolm in the Middle, Brothers & Sisters, to name just a few) just don't appeal to me. Or I guess, I don't connect with on a 'OMG I LOVE IT' level.
I mean mom-dad-kids shows just bore me to death (which is not to say they're not good or well written or engaging): but I do believe there is something more fascinating about seeing non-traditional families being represented (which is maybe the reason why United States of Tara and Big Love - the only "family" shows I could think of that I actually seek out and enjoy - appeal to me). They turn the family formula on its head and try to reformulate what it means to be a "normal" family.
But that's actually a long way of prefacing my love for one of the new Fall shows, namely: Modern Family. While the two shows that precede it on Wednesday nights on ABC actually take a page out of the shows I've been talking about (I mean, what is The Middle if not a long-lost cousin of Malcolm in the ?), this new mockumentary show follows three different families. In a way, what is most appealing about this premise (and its title presents it as such) is the fact that these are indeed "modern" families: here we have variations of the nuclear family that self-consciously work with/against the formula.

- We may have mom/dad/son but it's actually (latin) mom/mom's (white) rich husband/son from earlier marriage.
- We may have (white) mom/(white) dad/children but to see these parents at work ("I'm a cool dad!") is to see that the traditional model of parenting (think All in the Family/Simpsons/Cosby Show) is slowly being displaced.
- And lastly, and (hard to think it's 2009 and this still being) most groundbreaking is the (gay) dad/(gay) dad/daughter configuration.

This could sound like a mere hokey premise were the writing, casting, acting and directing not also top-notch. The pilot was a master-class in comedy (which, when paired with Ms Cox-Arquette's show which followed... well, it put it to shame, really) with a moment that had me rolling over laughing hysterically - so much so that I had to rewind and watch the scene again to make sure I got all the dialogue. I am talking of course of the Circle of Life scene where the very familiar/familial image of Simba being presented as heir to the nuclear lion family in The Lion King becomes the way in which Cameron presents Lily to Mitch's parents. Hilarious (oh so hilarious!) but also emblematic of the show itself and of the type of family-reframing I've been praising. Can't wait to see what the rest of the season has in store!