Monday, July 28, 2008
Mad Men's hotly anticipated Season 2 premiere aired last night (just in time, I hope, for it to ride the Emmy buzz to new viewership), and if you haven't seen it yet, snap to it, because here there be spoilers:
Matthew Weiner and company are back from vacation, and they brought us so many presents. My face lit up repeatedly throughout the episode: first for the opening shot of my favorite Mad woman Joan in her iconic red dress, again for Betty learning to ride horseback, then for Paul and his lovely bearded face, strangely for Pete who has a surprising appeal now that he's been dismissed so thoroughly, for John Slattery's perfection as Roger Sterling, and finally for the glorious return of Anne Dudek's Francine.
I know I sound like a rabid fanboy (I only wish there were a Comicon for Mad Men), but not having seen this show since it ended last year (and I only rewatched "The Wheel" since) has filled me with unexpected glee upon its return. It helps that Weiner's atmospheric portrait of American life builds from characters rather than contrivances. I'll admit most of my reticence to return to Mad Men since its exemplary inauguration was because I didn't want it to lose any of the magic.
But now that we've all seen the beginning of a new season, I think we can agree: the magic remains. Maybe not for Don and Betty's "marriage," or Don's once youthful physique (did Jon Hamm put on some weight for this season, or is it just me? Again, it's been a few months since I last saw Don Draper in action), or Don's firm handle on his office, his romances, and himself. But for the show as a whole, the magic is alive and well.
By which I mean the series has not lost its knack for the subtle art of details illustrating greater points, like Don wearing a hat post-Kennedy, Peggy's copy evoking Don's distant family (both of them), Peggy's neglected parenthood, and the generation gap, and Betty riding giving way to Betty "riding." Magic also lies in the series' determination to avoid the obvious, as in Don's reaction to the "sex sells" suggestion or Betty's roadside encounter (and did you notice how Pete stayed up alone on Valentine's, after a conversation in which his wife cried about not being able to get pregnant?).
It's disconcerting to see that Don seems to be suffering more than the rest of them. Not surprising, considering we first see Don at the doctor's office (where nothing good occurs) with high blood pressure promising to cut back, and we follow up with a hearty lunch of steak and eggs. On top of which, the Don Draper who improvised a paean to nostalgia to sell a slide projector is aloof about the Mohawk Airlines account. What's more, he can't even celebrate Valentine's Day properly.
I'm worried for Don, but confident he'll come through. The rising tension with Duck is certain to be a great draw this year. Don hired Duck as a means to keep Pete in line--also, Pete is manifestly unqualified--so it's weird knowing that Duck is not only decent (trying to go through the proper channels) but right. Don's no stranger to the wrong side of history, but it's never comfortable to see him so adamantly wrong.
Peggy may be the jolt he needs. They make an excellent team, partially because she seems to be the most diligent of Don's staff, and I hope to see them learn from each other. Peggy standing up for Don, though misguided and overblown, was a wonderful testament to her dedication to her old boss. But the charm here is that Don also admires Peggy, constantly encouraging her to improve her natural penchant for salesmanship.
Meanwhile, Joan remains fabulous as the keeper of Sterling-Cooper. Dealing with the copy machine, she works all the angles: treating it as a reward for the secretarial pool, using it as a means to give Lois minor consolation after her scolding (by apparently valuing Lois' opinion), and ultimately firing it at Peggy, the latest volley in what I hope is an endless struggle for office dominance. Christina Hendricks is consistently reliable to play many interesting tactics at once, again displayed in her scene with Lois (as she cocks her head mischievously, puts on a naive face, and asks about Peggy, "Why would she do that?"). I adore that Joan really wants what's best for Sterling-Cooper, and if placing the copy machine in Peggy's office--she said at the outset that it was so big it needed an office--wasn't the best fit, I believe she wouldn't have done it. On the other hand, I'm dismayed that Joan may be engaged shortly, because I don't want this show to lose Joan's flirting.
Of course, the non-Jewish doctor who may soon be proposing to Joan is a welcome addition himself, although we barely got to see him in the premiere. Meanwhile, Lois nailed her scenes with Peggy and Joan, and I hope to see more of her. I also want to see more of Carla, the Drapers' housekeeper, if for no other reason than race relations haven't been explored to nearly the degree promised by the pilot's opening scene. Finally, Duck is already a welcome addition to the cast, providing the voice of reason amidst the Draper/Sterling Stodgy Club.
As for the remaining mad men, Pete won me over when he demanded Trudy open his gift to her because he wanted a chocolate. But more importantly, Sal got married?! Of the many hanging chads, I was less looking forward to the fate of Peggy's baby than Sal's personal journey. And it looks like we've got plenty left on that road.
So for the big cliffhanger (and what other show would have their cliffhanger involve mailing poetry to an unknown recipient), who did Don mail the poetry to? My immediate thought (read: fervent wish) was Rachel Mencken, who I felt was a better foil for Don than Midge. But the more I think about it, the more likely scenario is Don sending poetry to his former beatnik mistress in the midst of a mini-sexual crisis with his wife.
Now I'm busy anticipating next week's episode, and the rest of the season, glad to have the current king of drama back. Don Draper's universe can only stave off tension for so long. Or as his secretary Lois might put it, "I think it looks good now, but I think it will become messy."
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Sunday, July 27, 2008
In celebration of lazy Summer, instead of doing anything that requires thought, research, or, you know, facts, I decided it's time for a grab-bag of Top 5 lists, mostly related to this year in pop culture, but who knows what's in store?
Top 5 Batman villains:
5. Harley Quinn - The only character who originated in the animated series, which is pretty revolutionary in itself. On top of that, Harley Quinn has stolen hearts as the Joker's crazy stalker girlfriend.
4. Catwoman - I prefer Catwoman as a straight-up villain for Batman, but one who uses his attraction to her to her advantage.
3. Two-Face - The inherent tragedy of the Batman universe.
2. The Riddler - A personal favorite that not many writers or directors (ahem, Schuhmacher) have taken seriously.
1. The Joker - Unequivocally the most frightening villain, it's been argued in some stories that he's so brilliant he's not insane but super-sane. He sees the world is as random and insignificant as it is, and responds accordingly.
(Favorite Watchmen character: I know you sheeple are going to say Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, but I've always identified with, I mean, liked Ozymandias. But Nite Owl II is my favorite.)
Top 5 Mamma Mia! songs:
5. "Lay All Your Love on Me" - I really hope major studios take note of Amanda Seyfried. She's amazing in Mamma Mia! (and Mean Girls, and Big Love, and especially Veronica Mars). Dominic Cooper's good too, but he's already a theatre star.
4. "Mamma Mia!" - The title song is the first highlight for Meryl Streep, and I loved seeing her fall back into her romances.
3. "Does Your Mother Know" - Christine Baranski simply owns this number, to the point that I wish she had more solos.
2. "Dancing Queen" - The cliche, but there's a reason it's so popular.
1. "The Winner Takes it All" - I'm telling you, Meryl is just unstoppable, and giving her her own song is a guaranteed success.
Top 5 Batman graphic novels:
5. Hush - Look, I realize the mystery bad guy was a lame character with a lame motive and apparently had been evil since birth. But apart from that, you get a ton of Jim Lee splashes featuring the best characters in Gotham. Also, Batman's a detective, and the graphic novels rarely give us real mystery. But above all, Jeph Loeb made the Riddler respectable again.
4. The Long Halloween - Dark Victory doesn't come close to touching the drama or intricate mystery of this one. And I love getting to see so many members of the rogues gallery.
3. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth - Along with The Dark Knight Returns, this is one of the most serious looks at Batman, and Dave McKean's interpretative illustrations underscore the madness of the story.
2. Batman: Year One - Frank Miller reinvents Batman along the lines of Batman Begins (because the movie was drawn heavily from the graphic novel), as Batman and James Gordon begin working together to clean up Gotham.
1. The Dark Knight Returns - Not an original choice, but impossible to defeat.
Interlude: the Watchmen trailer
I'm sure you've all seen this by now (if not, follow the link), and I promise to give away no spoilers for those that haven't yet read this masterpiece. First of all, great job, Zack Snyder. The comic book-y stuff looks expertly done, and I was a little worried about the tone--this is a detective story, after all, not a superhero action movie--but that Smashing Pumpkins song ("The Beginning is the End is the Beginning") sets the perfect tone. Nevertheless I have a quibble: "By the visionary Zack Snyder," the trailer announces. A visionary, I presume, is someone who has vision, someone who can see the world they want to create out of thin air. But Zack Snyder's prior films, Dawn of the Dead and 300, are both based on previously visually defined works (a movie and a graphic novel), and Watchmen is already storyboarded in its original form. I just don't see how much "vision" it takes to faithfully adapt a graphic novel for the screen. I admit I'd have less of a problem with the title if Zack Snyder had made anything remarkable in the past, but he hasn't. In closing, you may be as shocked as I was to hear that Snyder's not gay, but is married to a woman named Deborah. I take that back: he's probably not gay. Well, he's not openly gay anyway.
Top 5 movie performances that I've seen so far this year (with apologies to Robert Downey, Jr. as I still haven't seen Iron Man):
5. Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, and Michael Caine - The Dark Knight - I didn't want the superb supporting cast of The Dark Knight to take every slot, so I grouped these three faultless performances. Consider it a three-way tie for 5th, if you must.
4. Russell Brand - Forgetting Sarah Marshall - Somehow, Brand (and writer Jason Segel) created a well-rounded, entirely believable non-villain in the bad guy role. On top of that, he's the funniest character in the movie.
3. Brendan Gleeson - In Bruges - Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes are splendid, but Gleeson is my favorite.
2. Laura Dern - Recount - "The law says there has to be a hurricane." If ever there were a female counterpart to the Joker...
1. Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight - I don't think an Oscar nomination is a foregone conclusion, and I sincerely doubt he'll win. My guess is the only way he'll actually make that shortlist half a year from now is if the buzz abides, which it inevitably won't because the media (especially entertainment media) has a short attention span and Fall is the time for the serious performances. But do I think he's worthy? No doubt. On the other hand, how often do the worthiest performances win? The defense rests.
Honorable Mention goes to Neil Patrick Harris in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I guess it classifies as a short film (?), but regardless, in 42 minutes, NPH delivers a complex portrait of a wannabe supervillain.
Top 5 movies that I've seen so far in 2008:
5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
2. In Bruges - Check it out. There's a reason it was so many critics' favorite film of the first half of the year.
1. The Dark Knight - It's weird to even think this, but In Bruges is probably going to pass this one up by the end of the year. But for now, I'm reveling in Nolan's sadistic moral quagmire.
Top 5 movies I wish I'd seen so far in 2008:
5. Son of Rambow
4. Iron Man
3. The Fall
2. Snow Angels
1. Encounters at the End of the World
Top 5 albums so far from 2008 (that I've listened to, which really only goes to about June--sorry Nas):
5. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend - Yes, I know, I'm sick of hearing about how great they are too. But that doesn't make me enjoy "Oxford Comma" and especially "Walcott" any less.
4. The Age of the Understatement - The Last Shadow Puppets - The Arctic Monkeys' side project is infinitely more interesting than their main one.
3. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes - Mountain hippie music, am I right?
2. Consolers of the Lonely - The Raconteurs - Anchored by highlights "Consolers of the Lonely," "The Switch and the Spur," and "Carolina Drama."
1. Real Emotional Trash - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Jazzy improvisational riffs adorned with semi-coherent jibberish about the state of the union, among other things.
Top 5 books I was so going to read this summer:
5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac- I'm shocked that, 100 pages in, I'm dreading picking it back up. Kerouac failed to excite me, apart from the travelogue aspect. I want more Dean Moriarty!
4. Y - the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan - It's finally over, so I wanted to start again at the beginning and read it all. Still haven't done it, but let's be honest, I'm more likely to read this one than the rest.
3. The Tempest by William Shakespeare - I don't mean to brag (that was a lie), but I read King Lear for fun last semester. No big.
1 & 2. Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce - I swear I'll get to this next month. Or at least by Halloween. Definitely by December.
Top 5 happenings in politics:
5. "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter." - Who in their right mind thought that would go over well at the G8 summit on global warming? You know, we've always heard that Bush may not be the brightest, but he's great socially. Really? For some reason, I don't buy it.
4. The New Yorker cover - In my opinion, it's awesome of The New Yorker to publish this cover. And I think the Obama camp should have laughed and only responded in a way that affirms free speech and a sense of humor about themselves. But even better than all that: the frenzy that followed, wherein the media relentlessly covered a "story" about a magazine cover satirizing, well, the media's irresponsible reporting. At some point, it just turns into an episode of Arrested Development.
3. The John McCain green-screen challenge - Regardless of what anyone else thinks, The Colbert Report has long ago surpassed The Daily Show, thanks mostly to its satirical edge (but The Daily Show remains genius, of course), and seeing McCain in a Madonna video supports it.
2. A two-fer: Karl Rove fleeing the country in order to protect his non-democratic right to non-transparent government, and the millionth name on the terror watch list - At this point, it takes a major shock for anyone to care that the Bush administration screwed something else up, but Karl Rove leaving epitomizes their disdain for democracy. The terror watch list being so massive I'm probably on it also betrays the ridiculous tactics of our "war on terror," albeit in a more jovial way.
1. "You know, you're allowed to laugh at him." - Thank you, Jon Stewart, for 1) proving The Daily Show is an enemy to all political absurdity, not just the neverending follies of the Bush administration, and 2) reminding us not to get so caught up in Obama that we forget he's not the perfect candidate. The best one, sure, but far from perfect.
On that note, Top 5 current Daily Show correspondents:
5. Wyatt Cenac - Take it from me: the new guy is amazing. His first segment compared this season of Lost to the democratic primary, and there was no looking back.
4. Jason Jones - Wouldn't you know, Samantha Bee's hubbie (who joined the show a few years after she did) is also quite funny. My new favorite Jason Jones segment is his two-part Laguna Beach expose.
3. John Hodgman - PC is so much more likeable than Mac, and John Hodgman's writing as a Daily Show correspondent is dependably witty and intelligent.
2. John Oliver - What a trooper. It's not unusual for John Oliver to do a segment multiple nights in a row (some weeks, he's in every episode), and his batting average is off the charts (I don't really "get" sports metaphors).
1. Samantha Bee - I know she hasn't had a segment since May, but she remains the firm heir to the Colbert/Carell comedy throne (and she's, I think, the current correspondent who's been there the longest, unless Lewis Black counts for his semi-annual appearance). Off the top of my head, she's done fantastic segments on gay penguins, emergency preparedness, and whether the world is ready for a female president.
Top 5 shows of the Summer (just in time for Mad Men to blow them all away--oh, and all the talk about how dense Generation Kill is inspired me to watch it once the entire series is out...sorry):
5. Weeds - Frankly, it's still a ghost of its former self, but Elizabeth Perkins continues to deliver a remarkable performance rivaling Mary-Louise Parker's.
4. Project Runway - I know they've only aired two episodes so far, but it's so refreshing to have Heidi and Tim back in my life.
3. The Daily Show/Colbert Report - They'd be higher, but they took their usual (and deserved) summer vacations, so I feel like it's been a while.
2. The Middleman - I'd urge you to watch this from the beginning, and then challenge you to find a show that's more fun. It's not TV, it's ABC Family.
1. Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List - I'm no lover of reality television (although my Hills obsession may say otherwise), but this season has been the most reliably hilarious show on the tube.
Top 5 Emmy snubs:
5. Connie Britton for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama
4. Anyone from The Wire for an acting award
3. David Schwimmer for Best Guest Actor in a Comedy
2. Mary McDonnell for Best Actress in a Drama
1. The Wire for Best Drama
And now, since I inevitably left out someone or something major, I turn the floor over to you. Who did I forget? And what do I need to see/read/listen to in order to be a responsible blogger?
P.S. Bonus list: Top 5 polygons:
5. Non-parallelogram isosceles trapezoid - You know you love 'em.
4. Regular hexagon - The ultimate tessellation.
3. Non-right isosceles triangle - 90 degree angles are useful but maddeningly boring.
2. Non-rectangle parallelogram - For you geometry/logic-lovers, you know this excludes squares as well, although within the competitive arena of non-rectangle parallelograms, non-square rhombi are necessarily better than non-rhombus parallelograms.
1. Regular pentagon - I don't make the rules.
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Saturday, July 26, 2008
As with any proper member of Generation Y, it's going to take a lot more than this to make me leave Never-Never-Land. My friends are now spread across not only the United States but the world, and I'm constantly reminded that it's not a temporary change. But I'd been thinking heavily about geography long before planning trips to visit them.
You see, I have a theory that geography influences us subconsciously a lot more than we realize. Like, for instance, how elderly New Englanders flock to Florida when they're old (because with the Appalachians in their way, they take the path of least resistance, at least in their heads), while the rest of us realize Florida's just a subpar version of California or Hawaii, albeit with a greater chance of a Katherine Harris sighting. Similarly, the setting of a movie immediately establishes the appropriate mindset to take it in, an idea which Jim Jarmusch experimented with to fascinating results in Night on Earth.
To use last weekend's examples, it's impossible to focus on real life while Meryl Streep belts out Abba, Christine Baranski fabulously dances with a kid, and Mrs. Weasley (the glorious Julie Walters) gets the laughs on a mythical* Greek isle at a labyrinthine resort with no real worries (*I know it's technically a real island, but filmed that gorgeously in a story that slight, it may as well be mythical). For the record, Mamma Mia Exclamation Point was hardly a great film, but I had plenty of fun anyway. And that Meryl Streep's going places.
Next we have The Dark Knight, an ensemble crime drama that explores every corner of Gotham. One look at those dirty, corporate skyscrapers and murky, neglected streets and we know we're not in Kansas any more. I've always appreciated the ambiguous location of Gotham, a town so corrupt it's not on any maps and its public officials aspire to no higher office, for that would give away the state it snuck into. Sometimes it's right next door to Metropolis, but usually you have to fly between them. One thing's for certain: I don't want to live there.
But the reason for my twelve introductions and intended frameworks for this piece has to do with one setting in particular, Central Europe, land of enchantment. I just finished another movie from this year, In Bruges, which sees two hit men, Ray and Ken, hiding out in Belgium's best-preserved medieval city. Ray is determined not to enjoy himself, like a teenager on vacation in Disney World when he'd rather be in Miami, but Ken thinks being in Bruges is a dream--a wintry, quaint, cobblestoned village in a mostly untouched corner of the world during Christmastime. It's a land of fairy tale.
I have to agree, and I think there's a reason Central Europe is the perfect place for fairy tales. It could have something to do with the Disney castle being modeled after Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, but that's more likely another example than a root cause. Rather, I think it's because Central Europe occupies a unique position in the world as one of the few areas where many cultures blend, so it's naturally a bit fantastical. Think about it: Globally, there's a West and an East (and an Africa/Pacific Islands, regions unwanted by the rest of us), but Japan, significantly, is politically Western and culturally Eastern. Then, just on our continent, there is a North America consisting of the United States and Canada, and a Latin America from Mexico on southward, with no real hybrid state. But Europe has a distinct West (Britain and the nations of Latin languages) and an East united by the Slavic language family and a shared history of communist destruction (not bias, simple fact).
And in the middle of those cultural forces, there's a central region, with its own culture and further influence from the more distinctly Germanic Scandinavian countries. It's not too modern like the West, too scary like the East (Dracula, anyone?), too bleak like the North, or too frivolous like the South. As Goldilocks would say, it's just right. You get medieval castles and exotic ruins set in snowy forests without the risk of finding yourself in a gulag. Maria Von Trapp and her clan waltz through the Alps fighting Nazis and singing all the while. The Beast may die, but a kiss from his true love can not only resurrect him but also make him beautiful. Hansel and Gretel make off with the old witch's jewels, Snow White marries a prince, and Rumpelstiltskin loses his claim to the princess' firstborn.
Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman, another movie I've enjoyed this summer, shares this treatment of Central Europe. Ophuls' tale is set in Vienna and features at its heart a single romantic night between its leads, who are thereafter separated by fate and tragedy. But that one night was perfect, as the young lovers pay a band so they can dance alone in a grand ballroom, saunter through a softly snowing forest to gaze at the Ferris wheel on the Danube, and travel the world at an amusement park's train ride attraction much as I tour Vienna via the film. It's no coincidence that Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise is set in Vienna too, as Jesse and Celine are the Generation X counterparts to Ophuls' lovers.
Maybe it's because of this renewed love for Central Europe, but I've been delving for the first time into the New German Cinema of the '70s. Werner Herzog is probably now among my 10 favorite directors, although many of his films are difficult to acquire. Among my favorites are two mystical, meditative, timeless pieces set in ambiguous German countryside villages, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Heart of Glass. In each, Herzog plays the bizarre story and grotesque characters against an ethereal, romantic setting, the films playing as fairy tales as well, though more in the Grimm tradition than the Disney one: Heart of Glass was Herzog's most apocalyptic adventure until he named his most recent documentary Encounters at the End of the World, (which I am dying to see).
I also traveled north to round out my Ingmar Bergman viewing by catching up on some of his Vietnam-era works. Shame, Bergman's outstanding war piece, is deliberately set not in rural Sweden, like most of his family dramas, but on an unnamed island nation at war with another. It certainly looks like the site of Through a Glass Darkly or Sawdust and Tinsel, but the indefinite setting is intensely unsettling, especially given the harrowing events on display. Were I a freshman psychology major or Sigmund Freud, I'd assert that Bergman's Swedish upbringing accounts for his bleaker works, while Herzog's Central European childhood gives him a more romantic bent. But I'm just making observations.
What's striking to me is the preoccupation of Central European romantic tales with the tragic or macabre, even apart from the postwar works like Slaughterhouse-Five or The Third Man. Jesse and Celine, like their predecessors in Ophuls' Vienna, share a perfect night and then go their separate ways (for nine years). The Brothers Grimm focused on devilish endings for their villains, so while Snow White marries her beloved, her wicked mother steps into a pair of scalding shoes so she can dance till she dies. Frankenstein's monster ravages the continent after his rejection from society. Franz Kafka concocted bizarre nightmares with no escape. Mother Courage loses all her children. Even the German Santa Claus has a servant who carries switches and steals from children. Need I say more?
Again, I return to my cultural diffusion theory. German folklore combines the flurry of Mediterranean romance with the weight of Scandinavian reality, so every happy ending is balanced by violent tragedy. It's fitting then that The Third Man evokes Vienna's beauty through its postwar ruins. Also, the temperance of humor with existential heft probably explains why I became so surprisingly enamored of In Bruges.
Personally, I'm a lover of Western culture. I have no desire to visit even Japan, much less China, and certainly not India. So it's no surprise that the simple use of setting in these films subconsciously places me in the right frame of mind to absorb the splendid, medieval romance of a hit man drama like In Bruges, for instance. Of course, I'll soon be gallivanting across the globe in real life (albeit domestically), but something tells me the real Central Europe can never live up to the fairy tales.
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Thursday, July 17, 2008
Emmy nominations came out this morning. In short: better than usual, but not good enough. In my opinion, the nominations are as scattershot as ever, except they now include a healthy mix of excellence and mediocrity (as opposed to previous years that would overlook the truly great). Let's get to it.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Two and a Half Men
I thought this would be the category they couldn't screw up. I'm okay with the expected Two and a Half Men nomination, but two slots being taken up by unfunny dreck (ahem, Entourage)? That ruins it, especially compared with the far more deserving Pushing Daisies, Flight of the Conchords or How I Met Your Mother. Scrubs' worst season was better than Entourage this year. But it doesn't really matter, because 30 Rock will win.
Best Actor in a Comedy:
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock
Steve Carell - The Office
Lee Pace - Pushing Daisies
Tony Shalhoub - Monk
Charlie Sheen -Two and a Half Men
There's that Pushing Daisies nomination! Baldwin ought to have this in the bag, though, but good for Carell and Pace. On the other hand, Monk is still on the air?
Best Actress in a Comedy:
Christina Applegate - Samantha Who?
America Ferrera - Ugly Betty
Tina Fey - 30 Rock
Julia-Louis Dreyfus - The New Adventures of Old Christine
Mary-Louise Parker - Weeds
The silverest lining of all: Not one slot is given to any of the Desperate Housewives! I wouldn't really mind if they were, but it's nice to see a reversal of fortune in a year where Emmy proves its dedication to many other usual favorites. I feel like Tina Fey is the frontrunner here, too, but it does worry me to think that 30 Rock has the top 3 Emmys in the bag. Emmy has a well-known history of disappointment.
Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy:
Jon Cryer - Two and a Half Men
Kevin Dillon - Entourage
Neil Patrick Harris - How I Met Your Mother
Jeremy Piven - Entourage
Rainn Wilson - The Office
Not only does Jeremy Piven steal a spot from someone who hasn't been doing the same tired thing for years now, but Entourage steals two spots?! Of course, Piven and Dillon are the funniest parts of the show, but neither are top 5 material. I love the nomination for my new pony in this race, Neil Patrick Harris, and Rainn Wilson's great (though I'd prefer John Krasinski or BJ Novak).
Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy:
Kristin Chenoweth - Pushing Daisies
Amy Poehler - Saturday Night Live
Jean Smart - Samantha Who?
Holland Taylor - Two and a Half Men
Vanessa Williams - Ugly Betty
I cheered loudest all day when I saw Amy Poehler's name. I'm thrilled that, in the first year SNL perfomers could submit in Supporting categories, their current star Poehler scored a nomination. Of course, she may be leaving for the Office non-spinoff spinoff, but it's great for now, and I think I'm rooting for her, even over Chenoweth's glorious performance on Pushing Daisies. I have nothing against the other nominees (except Holland Taylor for the obvious reasons), but I am disappointed that Jenna Fischer (or Melora Hardin) or Jane Krakowski or Kristen Schaal failed to make the cut.
So close, but this is a perfect example of why I say the new Emmy system is still incredibly scattershot, but includes both highs and lows. First, the obvious: Where the F is The Wire? I guess I never really expected it to make it, but this is the ultimate proof that giving a judging panel 50% of the nomination power only works when said judging panel is not made up of the same Emmy voters. I thought the whole point was to give weight to the critical appeal, the "smart" shows that are overlooked? Anyway, I would rank these in almost reverse order (switch Damages and Dexter). I'm thrilled about Mad Men and Lost, happy for House, and frustratedly amused by the rest. I like watching Damages and Dexter all right, but these are not "Outstanding" shows. They're (usually) fun, dark dramas whose characters lie way outside our reality, with dialogue and plot points similarly hokey. I'm not saying there's no place for something like that on the awards circuit, but there's certainly no place for them when compared to such intricately woven explorations of humanity as The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, or Friday Night Lights (Season 1).
Best Actor in a Drama:
Gabriel Byrne - In Treatment
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall - Dexter
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Hugh Laurie - House
James Spader - Boston Legal
Good lord, a category with five great nominations? It could only come from a category with six slots (indicating a near-tie at the lower-end). But man, Jon Hamm, Hugh Laurie, Bryan Cranston, Michael C. Hall...I'm obviously rooting for Hamm, but they're all deserving. Of course, Spader will win, and these guys can go hang out with James Gandolfini at Satriale's to discuss their next course of business.
Best Actress in a Drama:
Glenn Close - Damages
Sally Field - Brothers and Sisters
Mariska Hargitay - Law and Order: SVU
Holly Hunter - Saving Grace
Kyra Sedgwick - The Closer
Memo to Ronald D. Moore: Give Mary McDonnell multiple crying scenes and long monologues discussing her innermost feelings. And have her cook, shop and do womanly things. Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply the Emmys are subtly misogynistic. But look at that list and tell me a series of tearful monologues is not the ticket to Emmy gold. That or just immense scenery-chewing. And if we could give her a ridiculous accent and an "edgy" arc where she sins and faces her religious problems, that would be great. I even like Glenn Close and Sally Field (and Kyra Sedgwick in theory), but first Connie Britton doesn't make the shortlist (for Supporting, but she also didn't make Lead last year) and now television's greatest actress (yeah, I went there) is snubbed again? I have no pony in this race, which is good because Close has got it locked up.
Best Supporting Actor in a Drama:
Ted Danson - Damages
Michael Emerson - Lost
Zeljko Ivanek - Damages
William Shatner - Boston Legal
John Slattery - Mad Men
That's more like it. Well, take out Shatner. That's better. Scratch that: remove the list, and replace with the cast of The Wire. But in a less perfect world, this is the kind of Emmy nomination list I could get used to.
Best Supporting Actress in a Drama:
Candice Bergen - Boston Legal
Rachel Griffiths - Brothers and Sisters
Sandra Oh - Grey's Anatomy
Dianne Wiest - In Treatment
Chandra Wilson - Grey's Anatomy
Boring, barely passable choices. But nothing I'm too up in arms about. It's nice to see Grey's get slapped back down to reality with no Best Drama nomination, but I still say it's taking up too many acting slots, particularly when I remember my slate of The Wire and Mad Men actresses, Aimee Teegarden, and Tricia Helfer. But I've seen much worse.
The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and SNL are up for Best Variety Show, and both Stewart and Colbert are up for their individual performances (as is Tina Fey for her host episode of SNL, the best of the year). Project Runway kept its slot, and host Heidi Klum is up for Best Reality Show Host, a new award. My Life on the D-List again goes head to head with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The Wire scored an Emmy nod for Writing, for its series finale. In fact, the Writing nominations were fairly excellent and I wish they translated to the Best Series nominations. For comedy: Flight of the Conchords, The Office ("Dinner Party"), Pushing Daisies, and two for 30 Rock ("Rosemary's Baby," "Cooter"). For Drama: Battlestar Galactica, Damages, two for Mad Men ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "The Wheel"), and The Wire.
Oh! In one of the quintessential Emmy moments (where no matter how good it can be, it's never perfect), 30 Rock garnered 4 of the 5 slots for Guest Actor in a Comedy, but none of them are for David Schwimmer as Jared/Greenzo ("Hillary Clinton wants an all-homosexual army. How will that affect my family?") or Matthew Broderick as Cooter Burger ("But not your best friend, right?"). The Miniseries/TV Movie awards are exciting though, with numerous nominations bestowed upon the deserving John Adams (including acting noms for Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, and Tom Wilkinson, among others), Recount (my favorite for Laura Dern's Katherine Harris), and Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale.
All in all, I have to concede that we've been dealt far worse Emmy ballots. But my disappointment continues, because I want the Emmys to get it right. They don't have to line up with my thoughts exactly, but nobody liked Entourage this year (or Boston Legal ever, it seems), yet it still scored highly. I'm not sure how to fix it. Maybe, as Maureen Ryan suggests, they should nominate the entire shortlist of 10 names and see how it shakes out. Certainly, as Tom O'Neill has urged, the process should be as transparent as other awards shows. And if they're committed to this judging panel system, I still demand judges with sharper critical faculties. Is it possible for the judging panel to judge entire seasons (like critics/people who actually like television)? In my opinion, a judging panel that sees one episode should not be voting on Best Series awards. What do you think?
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Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Yesterday, after futility ended my foolish quest for Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage--a movie so well-liked I didn't think it would be so hard to find--I sat down to flip through the colossal movie tome 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. First off, that's an awfully bossy title for a book whose last slot is given to Million Dollar Baby, a movie that has been successfully pretending it's great for years now.
More importantly, how'd I do? Well, considering I haven't even seen one and a half times as many movies as are in the book, I estimated I'd have seen maybe half. Nope. 377, just over a third. Even worse, it took until 1995 for me to check off more than four in a row. What have I been doing with my life?
After wiping my tears and swearing to get to Ben-Hur some day (can't tonight, I've got a thing), I went to the index to investigate some absent classics. I watched Andrei Tarkovsky's The Mirror for the first time the other day--which I admired but did not immediately love as I have his other works--so I immediately checked to see which Tarkovsky films made the cut: Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, and Stalker. No Ivan's Childhood?! I rewatched Tarkovsky's first feature a few days ago, again falling in love with his dreamy, occasionally haunting camerawork. But it's not just me. Ivan's Childhood is praised by masters Bergman and Krzysztof Kieslowski as expanding their cinematic horizons. I was appalled to find it missing.
I also recently delved into Werner Herzog's filmography, and the book did hit most of his highlights. But it conveniently passed over The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, whose philosophical explorations are more representative of Herzog's meditative style and more interesting (and deeply examined) than in, say, Fitzcarraldo, which probably would have made the list by reputation alone. I suppose I should just be happy the book found room for Stroszek and Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
I could go on. No Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, or F for Fake. No Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, or Barton Fink. No The Shooting, no The Lady Vanishes, and no Army of Shadows. They didn't even make room for Sunset Blvd. Okay, I'm lying about one of those.
Obviously the book isn't just a list of 1001 of the best movies, but rather it serves as an intended canon, the essential movies for anyone interested in absorbing it all. So it makes sense that they'd leave some off, especially from well-covered filmmakers like Bergman, Welles, and Herzog. But I am curious about their criteria.
I assume the goal is to cover every major filmmaker, movement, and genre. But that doesn't fully explain their choices. A look at the publishing history is enlightening. The second edition, which expanded to 2003, removed Far from Heaven and Adaptation and threw in The Barbarian Invasions and Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Telling that they just took out two slots from the last year to make room, and a bit foreshadowy. In fact, that each edition only makes changes from recent years makes the earlier exclusions even worse, as if they can admit to being wrong about including Adaptation, but not about excluding some of Welles' best work. Spoiler alert: both of the new additions here will be rotated out for later editions.
The next edition went a bit further back, but only to the '90s with one exception (removing The Accidental Tourist). Someone saw the light of day and took out Coppola's awful Dracula. The other major removals (to me) included Kubrick's final feature Eyes Wide Shut (acceptable), 2002's Best Picture Oscar-winner Chicago (bowing to the snobbery of cinephiles), and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, yet another chance for them to ban the Coen Brothers. Good thing they made room for Hero. They also made room for the final two Lord of the Rings movies, Oldboy, Goodbye, Lenin!, Fahrenheit 9/11 and more. But seeing The Passion of the Christ, which made the list in this edition, implies that maybe the buzz around a movie (Fitzcarraldo, take notes) is enough to make the cut. And much as I loved Michael Mann's Collateral, I'm not sure it's worthy to be placed alongside Mulholland Dr. as the standard-bearers of the 2000s in film.
Meanwhile the most recent edition (which is newer than the book I saw at the store) reversed many of the changes made by other editions, including Million Dollar Baby (whew), The Aviator, Kill Bill, Vol. 1, Gangs of New York, City of God, The Passion of the Christ, Collateral, and, damningly, the first two Lord of the Rings films. Yes, even Fellowship. On the bright side, they found a spot for The Big Lebowski. But apart from that, Brokeback Mountain, and Lost in Translation, many of their newest changes feel like more placeholders that will change with the next edition: Tsotsi, Sideways, A Very Long Engagement, Downfall, and other mainstream European fare.
Let's take a walk. Now is as good a time as any to reveal that I'd been working on an entry about my favorite directors, one section of which would be dedicated to the best director of each decade. I may still get around to that someday, but for now, it goes something like this:
1930s - Frank Capra - It Happened One Night, You Can't Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
1940s - Orson Welles - Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth
1950s - Alfred Hitchcock - Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest
1960s - Ingmar Bergman - The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna
1970s - Francis Ford Coppola - The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now
1980s - Woody Allen - Stardust Memories, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors
1990s - the Coen Brothers - Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski
And 2000s? Well that's very difficult, since I surprisingly haven't come across anyone with more than three good movies this decade. We've still got a year and a half left (and this weekend may give us Christopher Nolan's fourth great movie of the decade--I still haven't seen Insomnia), so we'll see. But until then, doesn't it seem weird to put Christopher Nolan's name up next to the rest? His competition so far includes Peter Jackson (especially if The Lovely Bones is as excellent as I'm hoping), Wes Anderson , Sofia Coppola, Alfonso Cuaron (probably my lead contender at this point), and David Lynch (although two movies, great as they were, probably isn't enough for me). Paul Thomas Anderson's done one masterpiece and one passable piece. Martin Scorsese's had a strange eight years, but can't compete with the rest. Spielberg's been inconsistent too, but I suppose he's still in the running. Who am I overlooking?
My point with all this is that I feel the modern selections in the book overlook some of the best works in favor of the usual, lazy choices. To be fair, I'd say at least half of the modern inclusions are good choices, and a few more are at least passable for a list like this. But I'm tired of seeing the usual undeserving favorites like Gladiator, The English Patient, or even Braveheart, perennial entries on Oscar mistakes lists. Cameron Crowe made it for Jerry Maguire but not for the perpetually underrated, semi-autobiographical Almost Famous. Similarly, Satantango but no Werckmeister Harmonies? I'm thrilled to see The Lion King on the list, but Beauty and the Beast is just as worthy, and remains the only animated film to be a Best Picture Oscar nominee. Maybe Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story wasn't included because it hasn't been officially released, but then again, Killer of Sheep didn't come out until last year and it was in the first edition.
Brokeback Mountain is another special case. Surely it will be one of the most enduring films of the decade, but it rarely topped critics lists in 2005. It scored very highly, of course, and won practically every award leading up to the Oscar, but most critics would say it wasn't the "best" of that year. I'm not arguing against its inclusion, and I don't think there's a single film from that year with more critical approval (maybe A History of Violence...maybe), but it makes you wonder about the efficacy of such catch-all lists.
I suppose if I were in charge of the canon, and I had to decide on the five films to represent, say, 2007, I wouldn't choose my five favorite films, or the five that I think are the "best." So I understand a bit where they're coming from. But on the other hand, the 1992 Aileen Wuornos documentary made the list, because, I assume, it was compiled around the time everyone was falling for Charlize Theron's performance in the pointless but "edgy" Monster. I'm also not sure why they think Edward Scissorhands, charming though it may be, is an important movie. Pretty Woman I sort of buy, given its throne in the chick flick pantheon, but even that wouldn't garner it a spot on my list. Is Saturday Night Fever really a more valuable inclusion than Robert Altman's 3 Women?
The only reason these lists trouble me is because I'm interested in really exploring the highs of cinema. If the best modern movies are overlooked, what older classics will I never discover because of such conformist lists? I don't mean to imply that all the Greatest Movies lists succumb to groupthink, and certainly the goal of such lists is not to provide me with the films that I will most love. But the story of Harold Bloom rising to prominence by defending an overlooked movement (19th century Romantic poetry) reminds me that even long-approved canonical lists have a margin of error.
The movie canon necessarily leaves off some of the best works. I think the best way to approach a list like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is to think of it as a primer. Nothing more, nothing less, and I'd wager the writers would agree. In case it wasn't obvious, I'm the kind of person that loves such lists, probably because I view them as merely lists. It's not really helpful or innovative to say that Hitchcock is the best director of the '50s, but it's a fun diversion, and sometimes a list like that can lead to a new perspective. And now, I'm off to continue hunting for Scenes from a Marriage, which incidentally, is not one of the 1001 movies I must see before I die. Oh well.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 11:02 AM