Thursday, November 3, 2011

Horror Films 101

Thought you might enjoy this semantic map I created for a class assignment.  Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Halloween Channel Flipping

I thought it might be fun to see what's on TV on this All Hallows' Evening.  I am hoping to find something nice and scary.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Great Performances: Jason Miller in The Exorcist

From time to time, I want to highlight a performance that I find truly remarkable.  This may be from film or TV and could be a leading role, a supporting role, or even a guest appearance.

I am not sure what is more amazing: Jason Miller's performance in The Exorcist or the fact that it was the first movie that he had ever acted in.  The studio wanted a marquee name for the role of haunted Jesuit priest Damian Karras.  Jack Nicholson was reportedly screen-tested and Stacey Keach was actually hired for the part before director William Friedkin spotted Jason Miller (father of actor Jason Patric) in an off-Broadway play and asked that the studio buy out Keach's contract.  The play in question was That Championship Season, which had also been written by Miller and it made him an overnight success as a playwright, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1973.  Friedkin won the battle with the studio, who banked on the fact that an adaptation of a bestselling novel had a built-in audience.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

10 Horror Movies That Should Have Been Better

It has been an unacceptable four months since my last post, but what better time to get things rolling again than October with a post on my favorite subject--horror flicks.  This list is not about scary films that I dislike - on the contrary, I actually admire these movies, but I have always felt that the premises promised more than the films delivered.  They could have been truly great if the creators had made a few different choices.  I am curious to know if you agree... [Spoilers ahead]

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hey, it's...Rusty Schwimmer!

This should be a great summer, what with the returns of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad and my favorite comedy on TV, Louie.  Last night's premiere episode of Louie's second season lived up to expectations picking up with the same awesomely strange tone that walks the line between surrealism and sobering doses of reality while remaining hilarious and sweet.  The episode centered around a visit from Louis CK's very pregnant sister played by the wonderful Rusty Schwimmer, your go-to character actress if the role calls for a salt-of-the-earth, working class woman (see Twister, The Perfect Storm, North Country, etc.).  She makes quite the impression despite spending most her performance screaming in pain (though she does get to deliver the best line, commenting on Louie's ex-wife: "That pasty, big-titted, black-eyed guinea bitch can suck my dick!").

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dr. Katz and Ben: A Great Father-Son Relationship

In the stand-up comedy heyday of the 1990s, young network Comedy Central launched an animated series with a clever format for showcasing the country's comedians.  In Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, stand-up Jonathan Katz, who long toiled in relative obscurity gaining a reputation as a comedian's comedian (someone who - like Larry David - was a favorite among fellow stand-ups, but never caught on with a wide audience), plays a version of himself as a New York therapist whose clientele consists solely of comedians and the occasional semi-famous actor.  The therapy sessions are really just an opportunity for the stand-ups to do their act, which makes sense because most comedians' material feels like things one would complain about to a psychiatrist.  The strength of individual Dr. Katz episodes is thus variable depending on each installment's two featured comedians.  Things are great if you get a Louis CK or a Mitch Hedberg, but sitting through even five minutes of Gilbert Gottfried is enough to make me want to shove a railroad spike into my ears.  The only consistently entertaining aspect of the show is the relationship between the Dr. Katz and his adult son Ben, voiced by H. Jon Benjamin.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

5 Great (Fake) American Accents

1. Hugh Laurie - House - I must admit that when I first saw House, I had no idea who Hugh Laurie was.  However, I was surprised to find out that not only is this interesting new actor not American, but he is the most British actor who ever Britished.  Laurie has been a cult-favorite comedic actor in the U.K. since the mid-80s, working as a comedy duo with Stephen Fry in shows such as Jeeves and Wooster and performing opposite Rowan Atkinson in the Blackadder series.  Story goes, House creator David Shore also had no idea that Laurie was British when he saw his audition tape, remarking to his producer, "See this is what I want: an American guy."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Netflix Report: Old Joy

Since my son was born a year ago today (happy birthday Sammy!), I have seen a grand total of one movie in the theater (the Coens' True Grit - not bad...) and thus have been depending on Netflix to satisfy my film fix.  For obvious reasons, my wife and I have been bad about turning over our Netflix discs lately, but fortunately the video rental company has a decent growing selection of movies available for instant streaming.  Kelly Reichardt's 2006 film Old Joy caught my eye because of the glowing reviews it had received upon its release and because I had enjoyed the minimalist pleasures of the director's follow-up Wendy and Lucy.  Unfortunately, the movie did not live up to the "hype" (if you can call it that for a movie that raked in $255,923 in domestic totals) and left me more than a little bored, which is an unforgivable cinematic crime.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Great Performances: Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive

From time to time, I want to highlight a performance that I find truly remarkable.  This may be from film or TV and could be a leading role, a supporting role, or even a guest appearance.

The story is well known: David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was originally a 2-hour pilot filmed for ABC that the network not too surprisingly passed on.  The irked director turned around and found French backers to give him the money to extend the existing footage into a 2-and-a-half hour-long theatrical mindfuck.  I have no idea if Lynch planned on eventually having the series take the bizarre turn that the film takes around the 2-hour mark, but Mulholland Drive ended up as one awesomely strange and beautiful movie.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hey, it's...Ned Bellamy!

I have been catching up on season 2 of HBO's Treme of late.  Last night I watched the second episode, "Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky," and I must confess that I am still not fully engaged in it.  I had such high hopes for David Simon's follow-up to The Wire and while the series has a great cast, its lack of narrative drive and urgency is making it harder for me to tune in.  It has me pining for the July return of Breaking Bad, a drama series that is nothing if not urgent.  The plot line from "Everything" that I found most interesting was the one in which Toni (sublime Oscar-winner Melissa Leo) helps a Bostoner find out how his son died during a post-Katrina looting incident.  I perked up when I saw that the father was played by Ned Bellamy, whom I recognized from The Shawshank Redemption (he was one of the prison guards alongside future "Hey, it's..." post subjects Clancy Brown, Paul McCrane, and Don McManus) and from the late-period Seinfeld episode "The Fatigues."  Bellamy played a mailroom employee of J. Peterman who is promoted by Elaine because she she is too scared to fire him (he wears the titular fatigues).  His deranged catalogue ideas are one of the episode's highlights.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #1

The Wire - Season 4 - At this point, proclaiming The Wire the greatest television series of all time sounds almost cliché, but by the end of its fourth season, I feel that the show had unquestionably earned the title.  Creator David Simon started out with grand plans of chronicling the drug war in Baltimore from both sides of the fight, and the vision kept on expanding season by season until The Wire was a portrait of the destruction of the American city.  Season 2 continued with the drug trade, but centered on illegal activity among the city's working class stevedores.  The third season folded in politics, juggling a plot line about a young White city councilman angling for a mayoral run with the story of a rogue police captain who comes up with an unconventional method of combating crime.  And then season 4 took all of the elements from previous seasons and added a critique of the educational system detailing the ways our society is failing the younger generation.  What makes The Wire so special is how it shines a light on important and often ignored sociopolitical topics in a way that is completely entertaining.  It never feels preachy and is never condescending.  In fact, the show is so committed to realism in its depictions of life in inner-city Baltimore that some of the dialogue and character motivations can occasionally go over the head of even the most attentive viewers.  Yet David Simon and his writing staff of ex-cops, teachers, journalists, and crime novelists know how to keep the big picture visible and how to use engaging tactics such as generous amounts of humor interspersed with shocking acts of violence.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #2

Arrested Development - Season 3 - I didn't give much thought to Arrested Development when it first aired on FOX in 2003.  Here was another sitcom starring Jason Bateman that didn't look very promising in the early ads and would probably last three or four episodes before being unceremoniously cancelled.  I tuned in from the pilot episode and was surprised to find that the show was actually pretty entertaining.  It didn't blow my mind, but the cast was superb and the writing was sharp.  But somehow, by the end of the first season, I had come to believe that it was the best comedy on TV.  And by the end of the second season, it was. in my opinion, the best show on TV.  And then the third season was even better.  I can almost understand why the show had poor ratings and was whittled down to cancellation despite drawing rave reviews and winning Emmys.  The characters were frequently terrible people and the humor was dark, often subtle, and usually depended on the audience having seen multiple episodes to get it.  Not to mention the fact that each installment had more confusing, intersecting plot lines than three Seinfelds put together.  But the show snuck up on me (and grew a sizable cult following) so quickly that I didn't know that I was being hooked until it was too late.  Going back and watching the first season again has shown me that Arrested Development arrived pretty much fully-formed.  It is the type of show that grows on you and, even more than The Simpsons, rewards repeat viewing. By the time the third season comes around, the show is chock-full of so many hilarious in-jokes that the writers could have penned entire episodes without an original thought (or at least an original punch-line) and they would be comedy gold from top to bottom.  Season 3 is not everyone's favorite, and it has practically half of the number of episodes that the first two seasons had, but catching up with it again I am convinced that the series was definitely not on the decline and was in fact cut down at the height of its brilliance.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #3

The Simpsons - Season 6 - The Simpsons is the pop cultural touchstone for generations X and Y.  In the show's heyday, which spanned almost an entire decade, the show's influence went beyond the water cooler and into our lives.  Most of us have seen all of the episodes hundreds of times and our brains have become encyclopedias ready with a Simpsons quote for any situation life throws at us.  The series added new words into the English lexicon and spawned comic books, art, video games, music, clothing, a hit film, and books on surprisingly academic topics such as physics, psychology, religion, politics, and philosophy.  And all this from a cartoon spun-off from a sketch-comedy show.  In many ways, The Simpsons is the definitive American television show.  It has the broad premise of a nuclear family living in the suburbs, which allows the writers to poke fun at all aspects of American culture from the education system to holiday celebrations.  Season 6 is the perfect season because, by this point, the animation was honed but had not yet switched to CGI, and the writers had perfected the craft of delivering hilarious scripts that paid equal attention to high-brow and low-brow humor without losing their emotional resonance.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #4

Seinfeld - Season 4 - Seinfeld put the last nail in the coffin of the traditional multi-camera sitcom.  Apologies to How I Met Your Mother and...and...(I can't think of any other halfway decent multi-camera shows), but modern audiences have concluded that laugh tracks, bright lights, and fake, simplified sets are more of a detriment to comedy than an impetus.  Seinfeld worked because it was often hilariously self-aware of the ridiculousness of the old format, making it the first true postmodern deconstruction of situation comedies.  Never was this more clear than during the show's Emmy-winning, groundbreaking fourth season.  Co-creator/show-runner Larry David and company had the brilliant idea of doing a season-long arc (something they had initially eschewed because Seinfeld was supposed to be about nothing) where Jerry (who, of course, plays himself--a stand-up comedian) and pal George write a pilot for NBC that will star Jerry as himself and ends up being exactly like Seinfeld--following the adventures of a fictional version of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer.  This allowed the writers to poke fun at themselves and the sitcom genre as a whole, and season 4 finds everyone involved at the top of their game.  There are stretches of episodes that represent possibly the best streak of greatness ever sustained by a comedy series.  Seinfeld remained superb for another three seasons or so, two of which could easily have made this list, but when you see the key episodes below, you will understand why there was no real competition.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #5

The X-Files - Season 2 - After quietly debuting on Friday nights (the least-watched TV night of the week) in 1993, The X-Files grew into an unlikely smash hit.  Here was a show starring two relatively unknown actors that was filmed in Canada on a low budget, using a guest cast culled from the local pool of talent, and it focused on the adventures of two FBI agents who travel around the United States chasing after aliens and monsters.  It sounds pretty terrible on paper, but creator Chris Carter and his small writing staff turned the potential weaknesses into strengths.  David Duchovny occasionally underplayed the role of Fox Mulder to the point of near-catatonia, but this is exactly what the role called for: dry humor and the ability to rattle off details about supernatural phenomena ad nauseum with a straight face.  And Gillian Anderson, who was only 26 when the pilot was shot, came out of nowhere to deliver a remarkably assured performance as Mulder's skeptical partner Dana Scully.  She was intelligent and strong, but occasionally displayed a tender vulnerability that gave the show its heart.  The Vancouver locations that doubled as anywhere from Florida to Montana were fantastic because it meant that every episode was cast in a perpetual gray dampness, enhancing the atmosphere of the show, as though a cloud of danger was constantly following our heroes.  Even the Friday night time slot (where The X-Files was relegated until the fourth season when the series moved to Sunday nights and became the the first series on the Fox network to ever crack the top 20 in the Nielsen ratings) was a perfect fit for a science-fiction show about two socially inept people working outside the mainstream and under the radar.  Like most quality shows that gain a following, The X-Files lasted about four or five seasons too long, but the three Friday-night seasons were were like a dark and original hidden gem well worth staying home for.  Season 2 especially found the pistons firing on all cylinders, prompted by the writers being forced to work around the surprise pregnancy of Gillian Anderson.  Agent Scully is abducted and our protagonists are separated, giving the season a continuity that deepened the characters and the mythology while solidifying the series as one of the best ever to air on TV.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #6

6. The Office (U.K.) Season 2 - When I first heard reports about a British comedy show that was supposedly funnier than anything on television at the time in the U.S., I assumed that it was just another sitcom that wouldn't be worth my time.  I enjoy the likes of Monty Python, Black Adder, and Mr. Bean, but I never found them as funny as similar shows on this side of the Atlantic.  Yet, the early 2000s was a dry period for American comedies so I caught up with The Office on DVD and my mind was thereafter blown.  This was not a sitcom - not in the traditional sense anyway.  It is shot in the style of a documentary, but I am hesitant to call it a "mockumentary."  The Office attains a level of realism that Christopher Guest would kill for and that makes it ten times more brilliant.  This is not embarrassment humor.  This is can't-watch-because-it's-so-fucking-awful humor.  There is no winking to the audience.  There is nothing to let us know that they can relax, that everything will be OK for the characters.  It won't be OK.  The employees of Wernham-Hogg paper company are doomed to suffer just like the rest of us.  But the writing and acting on display here milks as many laughs and, surprisingly, as much pathos from the material as humanly possible.  Choosing a favorite season of The Office is a bit silly because there were only twelve (amazingly consistent) half-hour episodes in the entire run of the series, capped off by an outstanding two-part Christmas special.  Yet, with my back against the wall, I chose the second season because of the dynamic between ineffectual manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) and the new members of his sales team.