New Sitcoms 2012

September 30, 2012

I’ve been watching some of the new sitcoms, and I have to say that this year’s crop seems stronger overall than what premiered last season.  Here’s a little summary:

Animal Hospital (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC) — seems cheesy to me, but I may watch another because of aesthetics.  It seems like an hour-long show (dramedy) squeezed into a half-hour format.  That makes me curious.  Hijinks at an animal hospital.  Need I say more?

Ben and Kate (Tuesdays at 8:30 on FOX) —  Dakota Johnson shows real heart as Kate, a very appealing performer, and the show ends stronger than the pilot begins.  Single mom is ready to start dating, and her less mature brother seems poised to move in with her and his niece.  I might end up liking this.  I’ll watch a second episode.

Guys With Kids (Wednesdays at 8:30 on NBC) — Some good characters.  A bit “high concept” (three men have babies about the same age) but might work.  Anthony Anderson is my favorite actor and Tempestt Bledsoe (The Cosby Show) plays his wife.   Jimmy Fallon is executive producer.  I’ll wait and see.  It reminds me, though, of a USA drama I loved for two seasons, Men of a Certain Age, that explored the long friendship and life changes of three men (two white and one African American) who met in college but at the time of the show are turning 50.  I loved that show!  It made me think that men have an interior life.  Too bad it didn’t get more viewers…in my opinion, most of the best shows do not.  Sigh.  Is it a bad sign that I’ve talked more about Men of a Certain Age than about Guys With Kids?

Go On (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC) — I’ve never been a huge friend of Matthew Perry (my least favorite friend, I guess), but this show is well-written and well-produced with an interesting premise.  Perry is a sportscaster whose wife has died, and he finds community in an oddball support group.  I watched all available episodes.  I’m going to give it a chance.

The Mindy Project (Tuesdays at 9:30 on FOX) — I’ll watch a second episode and see how it unfolds.  I’m a little ambivalent but think there is a certain honesty to her portrayal of an ob-gyn looking for love.  Mindy Kaling, best known for her role on The Office, is smart.  I’m pulling for her.

The Neighbors (Wednesdays at 9:30 on ABC) — I barely could stand the pilot!  Who thought this wacky idea was a good one?  A “normal” family moves into a neighborhood populated by aliens.  Worse yet, the show was flat.  I won’t watch again.  With Modern Family as a lead in, it got respectable ratings the first week.

New Normal (Tuesdays at 9:30 on NBC) — very timely and topical with Ellen Barkin in a hilarious turn as a Midwestern Republican (she’s a pretty big name — another actress “of a certain age” who starts a new chapter on TV after the big screen) whose granddaughter has gone to California and become a surrogate for a gay couple who want to have a baby. This is probably the one of the new shows I’m most likely to follow for the entire season.  It’s possible, though, that topical episodes like the mock school election could limit the shelf-life of the show if this becomes a regular narrative feature.  I’ve watched all available episodes.

What am I still watching in the sitcom realm?  Mike & Molly, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and The Office – hoping for a strong finish for that series.  That’s pretty much it for the network shows.  Cable favorites like Nurse Jackie and Curb Your Enthusiasm are on a different schedule.

 

 

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THE MASTER

September 25, 2012

Back in the day, I sure loved Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

The Master?  In a word:  tedious.

In fact, instead of actually writing about it, let me quote my former student (and a film school graduate from UCLA) Alex Creswick’s Facebook post about the film:

THE MASTER is like if you had all the best ingredients for a really amazing crockpot recipe but then forgot to turn it on…

Sounds about right to me.


Kudos to HOMELAND

September 23, 2012

Great to see Homeland getting so much Emmy love.  It is a terrific show, and I can’t wait to welcome it back to my DVR!


SLEEPWALK WITH ME and ARBITRAGE

September 16, 2012

Hard to image two more stylistically different yet pleasantly entertaining films than these new to the Triad this weekend.

Sleepwalk With Me is authentic – not surprising since it’s based on Mike Birbiglia’s comedy and other autobiographical narrative forms – and multi-layered as it unfolds to reveal a man much more complicated than he seems at first.

The logline conveys the plot well enough: A burgeoning stand-up comedian struggles with the stress of a stalled career, a stale relationship, and the wild spurts of severe sleepwalking he is desperate to ignore.

I love small films like this one that unfold and reveal, unfold and reveal, unfold and reveal until we know all that we need to know and are satisfied.

As spare and deeply knowing as Sleepwalk With Me is, Arbitrage is lavish and superficial.

This it not a criticism exactly.

Written and directed by newcomer Nicholas Jarecki, the film centers on a hedge fund manager eager to sell his business and cover up a slew of personal and professional failings.

Richard Gere is perfectly polished, but underneath his expensive haircut and suits and the other trappings of his wealth is…not much. (The veneer is everything, which is why a glittering surface over an empty core suits the film as well as the character.)

I find the juxtaposition of glittering on the outside and hollow within preferable to an implausible character arc that turns the man he is, a man driven by his desire to win at everything no matter the cost, into the man he could be, a man driven by something more or something better or a maybe not so driven a man after all.  I find that easier to buy, somehow, than redemption for hedge fund managers.

Susan Sarandon has some good scenes as Gere’s wife worth noting – best never to underestimate her.

Arbitrage is fun to watch but not notably memorable.


THE PROPOSITION

September 9, 2012

There are many movies – even really good ones – that I just don’t have time to see.  After hearing that I liked Lawless, I was advised to see John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian Western (also written by Nick Cave), and I’m so glad I did.

The story is simple:  Outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) are captured, and the only way for Charlie to save Mike’s life is to track down and kill their older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), who really is a nasty piece of work.  Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who makes the deal with Charlie, has to deal with townsfolk, a politician, his own men, and even his wife who second-guess his decision to let a murderer go in hopes of catching another.

If the story is spare, everything else about the film is extremely well calibrated.

This is one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve seen in recent years (Benoît Delhomme also shot Lawless).  Many of the images are unspeakably beautiful – yes, I know I’ve used beautiful twice, but it bears repeating because the care and craft displayed elevate this work to art.

It’s not just the look of the film that is so carefully, perfectly calibrated.  The performances, too, are nuanced and even delicate at times, which forms the same contrast between the violent and the gentle that I noticed in Lawless both in terms of landscapes and in gender roles.  Nowhere is the duality more evident visually than the contrast between the house and garden where the Captain lives with his wife and the surrounding countryside.

Normally, one might expect a feminist scholar (like me) to find that type of essentialism offensive, but there is enough depth in the way these two films are conceptualized and enough awareness about cultural patterns that actually exist that Hillcoat, Cave, and Delhomme transcend narrow stereotypes and create a sort of warts and all verisimilitude that is surprisingly unjudgmental even if it does tend to place women on a bit of a pedestal.

All of this brings me to Emily Watson, a performer I’ve long admired, who plays Martha Stanley, the Captain’s wife.

Everything about this role from the way it is written to the way it is showcased (sets, props, costumes, and the sublime cinematography) is an exquisite frame for Watson’s indelible performance, which unfolds in perfect interplay with Ray Winstone’s own equally fine performance, each scene more revealing than the next until the scene with Watson bathing in which drops of water on her bare shoulder seem better actors than some actual people cast in bigger roles in more pretentious films.

Sex roles, and certainly marriages, are complex.  Winstone’s own duality as the loving husband at home and the hardass at work convey this well.  So, too, are family relationships complicated when brothers hope to transcend the circumstances of their history and traditional bond.

The Proposition says a great deal about these primary relationships while also speaking to issues of colonialism and mob rule and isolation.  That’s a lot to accomplish in 104 unrushed minutes, and it is accomplished with such a stunning array of visual feasts that you are well advised to partake.

 


Anticipation

September 4, 2012

Who knows if there will be any good shows (let alone great ones!) in the new fall TV lineups, but I sure am looking forward to the return of TremeBoardwalk EmpireHomelandModern Family, and a few more…


LAWLESS

September 2, 2012

The only John Hillcoat film I had seen before today is The Road – lots of drama within a constrained narrative and superb production design – and fortunately Lawless is not stultifyingly bleak and depressing because I left The Road feeling like I had a cinderblock on my chest.

On the other hand, I left Lawless feeling nostalgic for stories and images from my childhood and feeling appreciation for a well-crafted film in the traditional style built on good production values, a well-developed story, and actors who seem larger than life.

Sometimes an old-fashioned story with plenty of action and romance is just the ticket for a Sunday matinee.

Based on the book The Wettest County in the World written by Matt Bondurant about his bootlegging relatives in Franklin County, Virginia during Prohibition, Lawless follows three brothers who become entangled with a new lawman from Chicago, a sadistic weirdo who wants to take a cut of their operation.

Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke play the Bondurant brothers, Jack, Forrest, and Howard, with skill, but it is Jack and Forrest’s respective love interests who are even more evocative for me as the film unfolds.

Mia Wasikowski (love her recent performances in Albert Knobbs, Jane Eyre, and The Kids are All Right) plays Bertha Minnix, a young girl cloistered by her religious father but whose adventurous streak is evident to young Jack.

Jessica Chastain (love her in everything from The Tree of Life and The Help to Take Shelter and The Debt) is an astonishingly good actor and one of the most beautiful women to grace the screen.  She is mesmerizing in every scene even those in which she is a marginal figure.

What are my problems with the film?  The music is occasionally too intrusive, and the narration that concludes the film is a bit too much (and too long).

What is most appealing to me about the movie beyond its solid craftsmanship and gentle love stories (surprising when set against some quite violent scenes and sequences)?

Some of the images are treasures – images that will stay with me for awhile.

Franklin County, Virginia skirts the Appalachian Mountains sort of like Cleveland County, North Carolina where (as we say) my people are from.  The foothills leading up to the mountains have a rolling beauty that can be rugged yet gentle at the same time.

It occurs to me now that the landscape provides a sort of a parallel to the competing tones of violence and romance in the story mentioned above.

During childhood visits to the farms where my parents grew up on either side of Shelby, I heard stories about the local bootleggers along with other shocking tales.  I suspect the adults would share these stories when they thought I was reading and not paying attention or when I was quiet enough at play or shelling peas or shucking corn or whatever the task of the moment was not to interrupt the flow of their conversation.

My family was comprised mostly of “church people,” but those stories and others about various forms of bad behavior were thrilling to me during the day just as the familiar (and tamer) ones I heard about our family in “the good old days” were comforting at bedtime.

When I saw the landscapes of Lawless, I thought of Cleveland County as winter turns to spring with soft sunlight, rolling hills, a tangle of leafless kudzu vines in bold brown shapes, scattered ramshackle buildings in need of a coat of paint, and twisting dirt roads that seem familiar even when they are not.

So many of those sites have disappeared from the countryside I once knew so well, but they are still located inside my head and were released as a series of vivid recollections when I saw the locations chosen and lovingly captured in Lawless.

Seeing this film today made me want to watch Get Low again.

Lawless I like; Get Low I love.