Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best of 2011

Best Albums

1. Undun by The Roots

2. Civilian by Wye Oak

3. The King is Dead by The Decemberists

4. 21 by Adele

5. Bon Iver by Bon Iver

6. I Am Very Far by Okkervil River

7. House of Balloons/Thursday/Echoes of Silence by The Weeknd

8. As If To Say I Hate Daylight by Bellows

9. Take Care by Drake

10. Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li

· Best Songs

1. “Someone Like You” by Adele

2. “Life’s a Happy Song” by Bret McKenzie

3. “Civilian” by Wye Oak

4. “Countdown” by Beyonce

5. “We Found Love” by Rihanna

6. “Why I Love You” by The Throne

7. “Shivers” by Zola Jesus

8. “Take Care” by Drake

9. “Gangsta” by Tune-Yards

10. “Radio Bar” by Fountains of Wayne

· Best Films

1. Drive

2. The Artist

3. Young Adult

4. Attack the Block

5. Tree of Life

6. Beginners

7. The Muppets

8. Shame

9. The Future

10. Super 8

· Best Film Lead Performances

1. Charlize Theron in Young Adult

2. Michael Fassbender in Shame

3. Bernice Bejo/Jean Dujardin in The Artist

4. Ryan Gosling in Drive

5. John Boyega in Attack the Block

· Best Film Supporting Performances

1. Elle Fanning in Super 8

2. Patton Oswalt in Young Adult

3. Hamish Linklater in The Future

4. Christopher Plummer in Beginners

5. Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids

· Best Television Shows

1. Friday Night Lights

2. Parks & Rec

3. Breaking Bad

4. Louie

5. Game of Thrones

6. Homeland

7. Fringe

8. Community

9. Cougar Town

10. Happy Endings

· Best Television Episodes

1. “Fancy Party” – Parks & Rec

2. “The Weekend” – Homeland

3. “Always” – Friday Night Lights

4. “You’re Getting Old” – South Park

5. “Goodbye, Michael” – The Office

6. “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux” – Community

7. “Last Words”/”Symphony of Illusion” – How I Met Your Mother

8. “Baelor” – Game of Thrones

9. “Joan” – Louie

10. “Face Off” – Breaking Bad

· Best Television Lead Performances

1. Kyle Chandler in Friday Night Lights

2. Connie Britton in Friday Night Lights

3. Anna Torv in Fringe

4. Claire Danes in Homeland

5. Amy Poehler in Parks & Rec

6. Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

7. Damien Lewis in Homeland

8. Louis C.K. in Louie

9. Sean Bean in Game of Thrones

10. Neil Flynn in The Middle

· Best Television Supporting Performances

1. Busy Phillips in Cougar Town

2. Mandy Patinkin in Homeland

3. Giancarlo Esposito in Breaking Bad

4. Michael B. Jordan in Friday Night Lights

5. Taylor Kitsch in Friday Night Lights

6. Cobie Smulders in How I Met Your Mother

7. Glenn Howerton in It’s Always Sunny

8. Damon Wayans Jr. in Happy Endings

9. Chris Pratt in Parks & Rec

10. John Noble in Fringe

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In Which I Present a Theory That Jerry Is the Hero of Parks & Recreation

In your lifetime, there are going to be about fifteen Presidents of the United States. There will be around 78 Oscar winners for Best Director released in theaters. Approximately the same number of Pulitzer Prizes will be given out to fiction authors. Odds are, you won’t be any of those people.

The television show Parks & Recreation on NBC follows the lives of characters that will never be among the ranks of those described in the first paragraph. This, however, does not mean their aspirations are not astronomical. Tom, played by Aziz Ansari, hopes to be rich and successful, and anything less will fail to satiate him (though more on this later). Chris Pratt’s Andy hopes to be a rock star with his Dave Matthews Band-esque group Mouse Rat. Our hero Leslie Knope, brought to life by Amy Poehler, aspires to follow in the footsteps of her heroes such as Madeleine Albright and Hilary Clinton.

Unfortunately, they all find themselves in Pawnee, Indiana, a town that is fictional in name, but very real in the hearts of anyone who grew up in a small town. Pawnee is not a place where one goes to flourish. However, unlike the cubicles of The Office, the show that most closely resembles this one, or at least what this show began as, this is not where dreams go to die. Tom’s company recently went bankrupt, Andy is taking community college classes, and Leslie is about to spoil her shot at being mayor, let alone the Secretary of State. Yet, these are the cheeriest characters on television, and this is the show I turn to most when I am in a grumpy mood. How does a show present a number of dreams constantly being deferred, and yet maintain a positive attitude?

There is the basic answer of course. These characters love each other and have built a community in this small town. They help each other with font problems, aid their friends’ college funds, and are considered a dream team of sorts. This itself provides a beautiful little message, something about relationships and all that, but this is nothing revolutionary. The idea that misfits find hope in one another is basically the thesis of sitcoms. No, there is a richer, more texted answer to the question embedded in the show, that certainly has something to do with this principle, but is presented in an interesting way. The answer is resident punching bag, Jerry.

In order to fully argue for Jerry’s importance on P&R, let’s compare him to his closest analogue on The Office, Toby. These characters are punching bags, Toby by his former boss Michael, and Jerry by his entire office. The major differences between these characters are their home lives, and in this difference we find one of the major reasons that P&R is considered one of the finest sitcoms on television. Toby is a divorced sad sack who leaves his job to go home to a sad home. Though he is repulsed at the office, it is heaven compared to lonely life that awaits him at home. Jerry, however, has a wife that he loves, and three children. Jerry’s work comes second to his family.

As he admitted in the most recent episode, Jerry does exactly what he is asked to do at work, and doesn’t push the limits. The important detail here is that this isn’t delivered as a punch line. Jerry is fine if work isn’t that exciting, it doesn’t need to be. Work isn’t where he finds his happiness or his worth. The other vital detail regarding Jerry is his eye roll, which rivals that of April’s, the show’s youngest, most “hip” character. Jerry takes the insults thrown his way in stride, because they don’t take place at the most important place in his world. This isn’t to say one can’t find fulfillment in work, simply that the most functional character in the world of P&R doesn’t need to. We never see Jerry’s home life because it’s probably without much incident. He loves his wife and he loves his daughters and that’s enough. That’s what the rest of the characters want, isn’t it? Not even Ron Swanson is innocent of this desire. Why else would he fall victim to the women in his life in the yearly “Ron & Tammy” episodes? The Tammys in his life only exert a power over him because he knows that meat and libertarianism isn’t actually enough in the world.

Now, I don’t mean to say the show is saying the only way to find happiness is through marriage, though that case would be easy to make. Rather, I believe the show uses marriage as an example of limited dreaming, and how it differs from settling. The show draws a very bold line between these. Jerry enjoys painting, we’ve seen, but he’s fine not being a famous painter. This isn’t because he’s lazy, or because he’s given up, or simply settled for a lesser life. Jerry has found a different avenue for his dreams, a simpler avenue sure, but since when is simplicity such a bad thing?

I think Leslie may end up becoming mayor of Pawnee. Perhaps she will become governor or a state senator as well. I do not think she will ever be in the United States Congress or the White House however. She doesn’t need to. She’s finding her dream in Adam Scott’s Ben, and in the possibility of the position of mayor of Pawnee. Tom won’t ever own a media conglomerate again, but as he makes achingly clear in one segment of the show’s most recent episode, all he really wants is a wife and kids. All he really wants is to be like Jerry. Who wouldn’t?

Jerry is made fun of for being boring and lame. Perhaps though, the bullying of Jerry is also fueled by jealousy. Perhaps all of the characters that push Jerry around simply want the contentment that he’s found. It is noble to never be content, to always push forward. But is that lifestyle ever truly fulfilling? Is there happiness in always striving for the best when it is LITERALLY unachievable? Of course you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, but maybe curbing them isn’t the worst idea.

There are currently upwards of one thousand mayors in the United States. In 2010, 754 films were produced. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Parks & Recreation reminds us, through the character of Jerry Gergich, that striving for the impossible is beautiful and important, but it isn’t for everyone. Happiness is.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Three Tragedies: Norway, Winehouse, Us

I want to begin with a few qualifications and apologies. A number of my comments, statuses and Tweets today were attacks, which is me being hypocritical and missing my own point. The terrorism in Norway that killed upwards of 90 people is a worse incident than the passing of singer Amy Winehouse. This is without question. I am doing my best to find a way to donate money to Norway, and if anyone can refer me to a website to do this it would be much appreciated.

In the past 24 hours, two disheartening news stories broke. The more tragic of them was the explosion in Oslo and related shooting on an island in Buskerud. The total number of casualties exceeds 90. The second news piece concerned Amy Winehouse, a singer who was once famous for her throwback music and deep voice, but became a punchline in recent years. The terrorist attacks in Norway were tragic in the dictionary definition of the word, something that is overwhelmingly sad. Winehouse’s death is tragic in the Shakespearean sense of falling from grace. The majority of social media reaction has been in response to the Winehouse story. It is unfortunate that more attention isn’t being paid to the attacks. However, the way people are going about supporting that idea is unlikely to help anybody. And there is a reason, whether it is right or not, that people are more obsessed with the Winehouse story.

There are two different Facebook statuses floating around today. The first is some variation of “RIP Amy Winehouse”. Perhaps a sentence or two about what her music means to the writer, or a note about how sad her life became. Those who are not writing those statuses are coming at the story from the opposite angle, with jokes. The past few years have seen Winehouse deal with incredible drug addiction, and a general lack of hold on her life and sanity. Apparently this is hilarious. Jokes at the expense of her well-being are nothing new, but in light of her passing, they seem even more cruel. There is nothing funny about addiction. Because of her fame, people feel almost as if she was a character, not a real person suffering from real problems that money and fame couldn’t fix. In fact, being in the spotlight hurt her more than it helped. A number of the statuses criticizing her also focus on the fact that nobody is talking about Norway. The main problem is that most of the people posting these thoughts have not written anything in support of Norway themselves. Instead, they upset Winehouse fans and do nothing to inform people of the attacks or help out those suffering in Norway. It doesn’t benefit either tragedy. Another issue is that the majority of people who are posting about Winehouse would not write about Norway if she hadn’t passed. Facebook doesn’t limit the number of statuses you write. We all have the option to write about both the attacks and the singer’s death. People aren’t choosing Winehouse over Norway. They are choosing Winehouse, which has nothing to do with Norway. They are completely unrelated in regards to public reaction. People are attracted to Winehouse’s life and unattracted to Norway’s terrorist attacks for very simple reasons.

We have celebrities for a number of purposes. They provide us with entertainment, keep various industries alive, and perhaps most importantly, we live vicariously through them. We all want to be famous, to have piles of money, or at least to be loved by millions. When a celebrity achieves fame we latch onto them and follow their every move, because we wish those were our moves. And when that celebrity fails, and falls and is damaged, we feel those pains as if they were our own. Those on the outside of this fan-celebrity relationship don’t get it, hence the jokes. We mock the feelings we don’t understand, label them as stupid. However, for those within this connection, there is a profound sense of loss when a celebrity is taken away, and Winehouse was taken away years ago. This is merely the time to say goodbye, once and for all. In a celebrity culture, it is to be expected to have a large, swelling reaction to a star’s passing. If this did not happen, if we did not acknowledge their downfalls and ends, we would never feel as lifted by their achievements, their comebacks. Back to Black, Winehouse’s 2006 sophomore album is, as Steven Hyden writes for The A.V. Club, “one of the great pop records of the last decade”. There are scores of critics who would agree with him. This achievement catapulted her to the mainstream in America. Thus, when she fails to live up to the standard set by that album (she never released a third) we lash against her for failing to deliver on her unmade promises. We sympathize with her for succumbing to human flaws. We weep for her passing without a swan song to end her time on earth, merely an addiction and empty, sad years.

The attacks in Norway are heartbreaking and unexpected. Yes, there should be more of an effort by the American people to sympathize with the victims’ families, with all those affected, because we felt the very same things only a decade ago. Perhaps, though, this is why it is so difficult to dwell on the situation for too long. It is a large, overwhelming problem with no end. Though the terrorists in Norway had no relation to terrorists in many other incidents our generation has lived through (in fact, the supposed perpetrator may have had anti-Muslim views), the general idea of the horrors that humans are capable of is a subject that has dominated the lives of all those who have ever lived on this Earth. It is difficult to read article after article about how almost a hundred people are dead for no other reason than a number of men wanted them that way. It is sad, but not like one singer’s death. It is sad in a way that it cannot be explained away; there is so simple solution to stop an incident of this type from happening again. We can try to be kinder to celebrities in peril (though we will not be) but we cannot stop humans from being evil.

I do not condone the lack of focus of the bombing and shooting. I do, however, understand it. I too would rather read a piece on how a singer I loved tumbled through addiction to an inevitable end. It is less sad. It is an easier kind of sad to process. You can blame a lack of priority, but perhaps the cause of the social media attention on Amy Winehouse stems from a deeper cause. And even if it doesn’t, even if you believe most people are ignorant or uncaring about tragedies outside of their own country, words of hate are not the answer. Hatred is what got us here in the first place.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter & Friday Night Lights: Art as a Snapshot

Steven Hyden’s recent brilliant article on Counting Crows’ Recovering the Satellites at The A.V. Club discusses how that album captures a specific moment in his life. This is by no means a revolutionary idea, but it is a poignant one for me. This weekend welcomes the finale of two series that absorbed specific portions of my life. My childhood was defined by the Harry Potter series, and I am by no means alone on that. On a more personal scale, the TV series Friday Night Lights assured my love of television, and shaped my adolescence. The final Harry Potter film, and the final episode of FNL both premiere on Friday, and that is no coincidence in my opinion.

This week I was approved for my first apartment, the official departure from my childhood home. I’ve realized recently that I’ve grown apart from a number of high school friends, which happens. I’m growing up, which I hear happens to just about everyone. But the ending of these former segments of my life is accompanied by the ending of the art that guided them.

Harry Potter is the story of a boy wizard. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The series helped create my love of fantasy literature. Hell, it helped create my love of literature. It was, in a way, my childhood. I grew up wanting, yearning to be as special as Harry, to find that important of a purpose in life. Then, I graduated to Friday Night Lights. Less actual magic, yet it redefined my goals. Rather than having the somewhat irrational desire to attend Hogwarts, I wanted to find a place in life where I could be happy, like Coach and Mrs. Coach. Sure, they have squabbles, but they love each other, and their daughters and their jobs. They are inherently good people living in an inherently confused world, much closer to the real world than the one filled with flying broomsticks and wands. Now, comes the part of my life where I go out to accomplish those goals.

These pieces of art, along with plenty of others, are forever a part of me. When I read Harry Potter to my kids I will be flushed with memories of my childhood home, the day I spent devouring the final tome, and the evening I spent in my room weeping at the closing of The Half-Blood Prince. And I will think of the mission trip I attended the day after finishing the series, and the friends I had in grade school, regardless of whether I discussed the books with them or not. When I, after coming home from my future job to my future family, decide to revisit Friday Night Lights, I’ll think of the friends I watched the final season with, of course, and the hour-long conversations with my dad about how Riggens screwed up this week. But I’ll also remember high school, all of it, especially how the episode “Underdogs” (detailing many of the characters’ last game) was unbearably painful to watch after my Speech Team career had ended.

I’ll remember these things not because of how good the art was, or even because of the specific details of watching every episode or reading every book, but rather because these series have come to define those portions of my life. I will never separate my youth from Harry Potter, or my teenage years from Friday Night Lights. And I would never want to. I never want to become a jaded critic that forgets why he got into the job in the first place. It wasn’t some brilliant film, or a classic novel. It was being that boy who knew that if he dreamed hard enough, he too could see all the magic the world had to offer.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

TV Review: Wilfred - "Happiness"

"No Ryan! Nobody's happy!" - Kristen

Wilfred is the story of Ryan, played by Elijah Wood who sees his neighbor's dog, Wilfred as a human (played by Jason Gann, reprising his role from the original Australian series). The pilot episode doesn't give the viewer much more than this. There is a light plot, but really the point of the episode is to get you adjusted to the kind of show that begins with a man trying to kill himself, and ends with that man clinking beers with a man in a dog costume.

The attempted suicide, it should be said, is handled with a light touch. Ryan opens the show with joy at "nailing" the third draft of his suicide note. He gains a milk mustache over the course of the night. He looks up "Drug Overdose" on Wikipedia, given his chosen method of offing himself. However, the pills prove unsuccessful (due to the fact that they're sugar pills, which comes up later). The next day, looking miserable from a lack of sleep, Ryan opens the door to his beautiful neighbor Jenna, and her dog Wilfred. He ends up dogsitting for Wilfred and it takes him a while to get over the shock of seeing the dog as a man.

Meanwhile, his frustrated sister, Kristen (Dorian Brown, who does well with a fairly thankless shrew-ish role) is furious at him for skipping his first day of work for a job he only recieved based on her recommendation. Instead of punching the clock, Ryan spends the day with his new friend, who shows him how to live life: humping waitresses, chasing motorcycles, and breaking into houses to steal weed. It's that last activity that gives Ryan enough of a rush to turn down his new job for good. Right when you think this happiness due to his friendship with Wilfred might last forever, we see the dog place Ryan's wallet outside the house where they jacked the weed from. What is Wilfred up to? And if Wilfred is just a manifestation of Ryan's depression/anxiety, is he sabotaging himself?

And while we're asking questions, what does it mean to be happy? Is it working a job you may not like, just because that's what you're supposed to do? That's what Kristen does, and she certainly doesn't seem happy "prying twin babies out of a little Asian lady". Is it not working? And turning down dates with your attractive neighbor, and sitting around all day, red-eyed, wondering if you've chosen the right path in life? Ryan doesn't seem much better off. While the show may hint at asking these questions, in the pilot at least, it refuses to answer them, or even give them any depth. It seems to support the lifestyle of living for a cheap thrill, like theft or drugs. There's nothing wrong with a show having this viewpoint, but if Wilfred wants to make an impact, it's going to have to strengthen its ideas. A good place to start would be giving the neighbor Jenna a personality beyond "inexplicably wanting to date pretty weird, strung-out neighbors and be really cute". Seriously, why does Jenna ask Ryan back to her place for wine? Maybe she's looking for happiness too, and thinks, for whatever reason, a washed-up, dirty-underwear-wearing Elijah Wood is the answer. Right now this show is deeply flawed, but I see enough glimmers in it to hope that every week I tune in to find a little happiness for myself.

Grade: B-

-I hope Ethan Suplee returns as the pot-growing motorcyclist next door. He didn't have much to do this episode, but I quite enjoyed him on My Name Is Earl, and would love to see him in a much different role.
-The "human doing dog things" joke gets old pretty quickly, so I hope it isn't overused in episodes to come. However, Wilfred rushing after a motorcycle yelling "I'll kill you!" was pretty amusing.
-"Can I get you anything? Orange juice? Medical attention?"

Monday, June 6, 2011

White-Men: First Class

Race in films is a subject rarely thought about until it rears its head in a dramatic way. Take 2010’s The Last Airbender, a film that received heavy criticism for its use of Caucasian actors in Asian roles, before the film received heavy criticism for sucking. Then there are occasions where the role itself doesn’t call for white actors, but the casting sheet does (see the upcoming Hunger Games). The problem with simply supporting these causes is that it misses out on confronting the larger issue: that if a role is for any race, it will probably go to a Caucasian.

My three favorite American films so far this year (Source Code, Bridesmaids and X-Men: First Class) all star predominantly white actors. Or, more importantly, it fills the roles of heroes with the white actors. The semi-corrupt leader of the Source Code in the movie of the same name is African American. Maya Rudolph may be a bi-racial bride, but all of her bridesmaids stick to the singular Caucasian. And, and here’s where the slight spoilers begin, the only non-white members of the X-Men are evil or dead by the halfway point of the film. Here I’ll mainly discuss X-Men, because there are a number of reasons non-white actors not only could have been cast, but also should have been.

X-Men: First Class is a damn good movie, the best superhero film since The Dark Knight. The writing is solid (if occasionally extremely cheesy). Matthew Vaughn has proved with this film and Kick-Ass that he can direct the hell out of an action scene, and just may be the best action director there is out there today (at least in America). The scene where Kevin Bacon (who is very enjoyable here) and his gang break into the CIA’s building is tense, and thrilling and a tad heartbreaking. The final, Cuban Missile Crisis sequence of the film is pretty incredible. There’s enough buildup that when shit finally goes down, it’s incredibly thrilling. And the build-up itself is an enjoyable mix of cartoony and tense. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender giving performances far better than necessary, especially the latter as the emotionally damaged Magneto. The rest of the cast (wretched January Jones aside) is solid, and overall the film is a blast.

Here’s the big problem: the film is accepting what you are despite what society says. It takes place in the 60’s. Even if they didn’t want to push the metaphor too far, would it have been that difficult to cast an African-American actor in a heroic role? A line repeated throughout the film, “Mutant and Proud”, could easily be paralleled with Black Pride. While in many films casting only white actors seems like a harsh oversight, here it seems like a missed opportunity. This isn’t to say that the film would have to discuss the similarities between society’s attitudes with mutants and those with African-Americans in the 60s. Rather, if you’re going to make the moral of your film to accept people despite their physical differences, you could back that up with your casting decisions.

One excuse I could see is source material. These characters are white in the comic books, so they must be here. This is partly why we have never seen a non-white Spiderman, Batman or Superman and probably never will. This is not a valid excuse at all, but even assuming it is, there is still a major issue. TWO OF YOUR CHARACTERS ARE BLUE. Beast and Mystique both assume an obviously non-human form by the time the credits roll. As much as I love Jennifer Lawrence, neither of the actors gives good enough performances to assume there was no one better for the job. Sure, there are two non-white actors. They just happen to play Bacon’s evil henchmen and are not allowed to develop any personality.

As depressing as this is, let’s at least give the rest of the summer films a chance:

  • Super 8
  • Green Lantern
  • Mr. Popper’s Penguins
  • Bad Teacher
  • Transformer 3
  • Larry Crowne
  • Horrible Bosses
  • The Zookeeper
  • Harry Potter 7, Part 2
  • Captain America
  • Cowboys & Aliens
  • The Change-Up

Oh. Shit.