2010: The Year in Television

Looking back at 2010 there were a lot of highlights from television. Here’s the ones that standout as the most memorable for me:

The Lost Finale (ABC): After six years, Lost came to an end with a three hour finale that didn’t seek to solve the myriad of mysteries built up during the show’s run. Instead, the creators chose to focus on emotional closure. There are some valid criticism of the show’s six season, but overall I felt very satisfied by the way things ended. It definitely evoked some of the same feelings I had years ago reading The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. Despite my own personal views on religion, I found the “spiritual” ending to not come off as hackneyed. It was also the hardest I’ve ever cried while watching a single episode of television.

Continue reading “2010: The Year in Television”

Film Review – True Grit (2010)

True Grit (2010, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

I’ve never seen the original True Grit, mainly because I am not such a big fan of John Wayne. I’ve only seen two films of his (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). I totally get Wayne as an icon, but as an actor he seemed a little weak. So I entered the remake of True Grit with no expectations and found it to be a great western and adventure story, with enough subtext to keep me thinking for a long time. Despite advertisements, this is Hailee Steinfeld’s film. The other actors are there to support her and she does a magnificent job keeping up with the likes of Bridges and Damon.

Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is the 14 year old daughter of a man shot in cold blood by Tom Cheney (Brolin), a dim witted scoundrel. Mattie travels to the location of her father’s body under the pretense of preparing it to be sent back home, but is actually out to find a hired gun to help her track down and murder Cheney. She happens upon the grizzled federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a man who shoots first and asks questions later. After some convincing, he agrees to take Mattie into Choctaw territory where Cheney ran off to. Before they can depart, Texas ranger Le Boeuf (Damon) who is looking for Cheney in relation to his murder of a Texas state senator. The trio bickers and bonds as they draw closer to their prey, which in the end will test each of their resolves.

The Coens are employing their strongest tactics in this film: dialogue and character. The language of the characters is so precise and specific, and this is how they have created countless memorable and iconic characters. True Grit is a showcase for the complex figure of Mattie Ross, whom could easily become a “girl power” anachronism. Instead, through well placed pieces of dialogue, we learn about Mattie’s role in her home and the extra responsibility she has been strapped with. She is both courageous and vulnerable in a way many female characters in film rarely are. Beyond Mattie, the central and side characters all have unspoken histories that we catch glimpses of. As she and Rooster travel the wilderness they encounter characters who may have a line or two (or none at all) and are fully realized figures in this world. The Coens succeed in producing another film chock full of those things that cause the brains of film geeks like myself to salivate.

Film Review – Black Swan

Black Swan (2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

With Darren Aronofsky you know you will get something ambitious, whether its ambitious in its drama (Requiem for a Dream), its scope (The Fountain), or its simplicity (The Wrestler). Are they always winners? Nope, but they always bring forth a completely unique vision and experience. With Black Swan, Aronofsky is bringing together elements from all his previous work. You have the severe schizophrenic breakdown of a character, you have a hallucinatory transformations, and you have the destruction of the physical body for the sake of one’s art. The film also breaks the boundaries of genre by being both one of the best dramas and one of the best horror films of the year.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is one of the many dancers that perform at New York’s Lincoln Center. The prima ballerina of the company (Ryder) is on her way and out and the manipulative director, Thomas (Cassel) is looking for his new “little princess”. A re-interpretive staging of Swan Lake is in the works and Nina finds herself in competition with the new girl, Lily (Kunis). Lily works against the conventions of the ballerina, staying out late, dropping ecstasy, and being very laid back with her work ethic. Nina must also contend with her mother (Hershey) who is babies her daughter and attempts to mold her into the dancer she failed to be. Nina is suffering from strange abrasions on her back and is beginning to have intense nightmares about the ballet. All of this is leading down a dark and destructive path….or is she merely fighting against those who have constrained her since she was a child.

Everything about this film clicks, the performances are pitch perfect and the direction from Aronofksy hits on all cylinders. There is the return of the shaky handheld cinematography of The Wrestler that adds that vérité feel to the story. In direct contrast to the realism of cinematography there is amazing use of makeup and CG effects. The films does a great job in balancing the psychological horror, and will make you question deeply what events actually happen to Nina and which are the product of a fragmented mind. I was most impressed with how Portman manages to infantilize Nina’s behavior in very subtle and nuanced ways. She doesn’t babytalk, but the way she interacts with her mother and her director bring out her childlike mentality. Her rebellion against these forces of control is played naturally and its horrific outcome resonates in the mind for a long time after.

Film Review – Catfish

Catfish (2010, dir. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)

Its strangely appropriate that at the same The Social Network is playing in theaters, this documentary about what Facebook hath wrought is making the rounds as well. It can be looked at a sequel in some ways: The Social Network are the origins and this is the results of its existence. Since the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year it has garnered mixed reviews. Some critics have seen it as a perfect slice of life in a society where identity has become malleable, while others question the very reality of the documentary, charging it as a meta piece that forces the audience to question if they are being fooled. Catfish was preceded by a mountain of hype and I approached the film with a tempered mind, thinking I would encounter something not quite as good as the trailer claimed.

Nev Schulman is a professional photographer who struck up a relationship with a young girl in Michigan who saw his work in a newspaper and made an oil paint reproduction of it. Through Facebook they converse, he meets her mother, and eventually her 19 year old sister, Megan. Nev and Megan hit it off and find themselves chatting online or over the phone frequently. As time goes on, Nev and his friends, who are documenting the experience, begin to question why Nev has never been able to talk to Abby. This causes a domino effect of other lies being revealed, and leads to the group driving to Michigan to surprise the family and learn the truth.

Whether the film is real or not, it is still an intriguing examination into what the anonymity of the Internet allows. I think the filmmakers do a good job in not passing judgment on anyone who is lying in the film, because they understand that all of us have exaggerated an aspect of ourselves in those moments of conversation where we feel that we can get away with it. The deceit in the film is not one of spite or cruelty, rather its someone seeking to create an universe to escape into. Being an artist, particularly in the small town the family lives in has to be a difficult and alienating situation. So for one of them, populating a Facebook microcosm with characters of your own invention seems like a freeing opportunity.

Film Review – Four Lions

Four Lions (2010, dir. Christopher Morris)

For fifteen years British satirist and comedian Christopher Morris skewered media culture and politics through a variety of radio and television programs. Most notably Brass Eye, a mock news magazine show that focused on the exploitative nature of news, and Nathan Barley, a series that followed a fictional web media hipster and looked at the buffoonish nature of a lot of tech people. It comes as no surprise that now Morris has taken on the current war on terrorism and Islamic extremism in our culture’s psyche. It sounds like an outlandish concept to make a slapstick comedy about Islamo-British terrorists, but Morris has the satiric chops to deliver it such a skilled way, and this kind of film demands a very subtle hand to make it work.

Omar is the head of a small unaffiliated terrorist cell in England. He and his friends are surprisingly sympathetic in how pathetic they are. All of them feel insignificant so when given the idea that to martyr themselves would make them heroes they jump on it. Sticking out like a sore thumb in the group is Barry, a man of British descent who is actually the most militant of them all. Omar and Barry clash when the former is invited to a training camp in Pakistan because his uncle is involved. The films jumps back and forth with an episodic nature, and will with out a doubt challenge you because its characters are incredibly endearing. Part of your brain roots for them because they are classic underdogs, but then the intellectual side steps in and says you can’t root for people who plan on blowing themselves and others up for an imaginary concept.

There are some great comedic moments in the film. I loved that to stay under the radar of British officials, the cell communicates via a Puffin Party webchat for children. The chat requires them to have multicolored puffin avatars. At one point, the car breaks down and Barry blames it on the Jews, at which point he is asked which part of the engine is Jewish, and a conversation ensues. Barry also demands they swallow the SIM cards from their cell phones, after which Omar reminds them the SIM cards can still be tracked inside them. Much comedy comes out of the training camp sequence, and I won’t ruin the big reveal of its largest gag but its a good one.

What shocked me was how, during the final sequence when the crew has assembled to perform the bombing during a cancer fun run in London, I felt incredibly sad for them all. Omar especially sees it as wrong to get Waj, the simpleton of the group, to blow himself up. The end credits are composed of fictional news reports about the events in the film, and they made the story feel even sadder. Instead of going the easy route and presenting terrorists as one dimensional monsters, Morris makes them painfully real and relatable. The result is that we still believe terrorism is wrong, but its because of the waste of life that is the result. Omar has a loving wife who is not an oppressed woman and a son who loves him unconditionally, so his sacrifice feels incredibly empty.

Game Review – Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain (2010, Quantic Dream, PS3 only)

In 1999, I was very excited about the release of Shenmue on the Dreamcast console. The conceit behind that game was you were in a completely open world where you could interact with everything. That had me very interested, while the game’s action mechanic didn’t seem as appealing. For instance, if you were in a footchase with someone, buttons would flash on screen and you would have a couple seconds to press the corresponding one on your controller. At the time, I found that style of play a little stressful and not very fun. Heavy Rain doesn’t have the freedom and openness, but makes that initially frustrating game play riveting.

In an unnamed metropolitan city, we find ourselves in the shoes of architect Ethan Mars, a family man with a beautiful wife and two sons. His happy life turns to tragedy when his eldest, Jason is hit by a car and put in a coma. Ethan’s marriage falls apart and he ends up sharing custody of his younger son, Shaun. A second horrific tragedy strikes when Shaun disappears and appears to be the victim of the Origami Killer, a criminal plaguing the city. You will simultaneously play as Madison Paige; a journalist who befriends Ethan, Norman Jayden; an FBI agent using experimental VR tech to investigate the Origami Killer, and Scott Shelby; an ex-cop turned crusading P.I. out to avenge the victims of the Origami Killer. The game is divided into alternating chapters as these characters pursue their individual paths, while occasionally crossing over.

What stands out most about Heavy Rain over traditional video games, is that you can’t die in a way that ends the game. Instead, characters can be wounded and make mistakes that branch the story in different directions. Near the end of the game the possibility of death becomes a major reality, but up until then you constantly feel progression even if you aren’t making headway in the case. For example, Shelby and his partner visit a local repair shop where things go bad. Before they can leave you (as Shelby) have to wipe your prints from everything you touched in the store. If you fail to wipe down everything the story branches into you being brought in for questioning. This type of game play comes across as a more complex version of a Choose Your Own Adventure.

There are other types of play moments that involve a limited amount of time. Fights with characters consist of a button flashing on the screen, which you must hit within seconds or you miss a block or the chance to throw a punch of your own. Occasionally you end up in a grapple with a foe which requires you to quickly tap a button to break through. Other moments involve the physically movement of the controller to emulate a character’s on screen action. There’s also certain challenges that involve your hands contorting unnaturally on the controller as your avatar on screen must contort to escape being bound or restrained.

Heavy Rain manages to deliver an interactive cinematic story that will pull you deep into the drama. From the excitement of footchases and fights, to the shocking reveal of the Origami Killer’s identity I was completely absorbed.

Film Review – The Social Network

The Social Network (2010, dir. David Fincher)
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rashida Jones, Brenda Song

In the middle of David Fincher’s latest film a character sums up the current technology driven economy by saying this current generation creates jobs for themselves. In the past supply-demand was the dominating force; the people wanted something, then someone provided it. Now, we have products that are given to us and we are conditioned to need and want them. Facebook as one example. No one ever needed Facebook, but by preying on some very primitive psychological compulsions, it has become an addictive force. The Social Network rewinds back before there was Farmville or Poking or Mafia Wars, and focuses on the collegiate roots of Facebook. Here we see at its core the entire idea came from the exclusivity of Harvard’s Final Clubs.

The more intimate moments of the film are fictionalized and used to reveal aspects of Mark Zuckerberg’s personality, but the litigations that frame the film are very real. Its 2003, and Mark is a sophomore at Harvard, a kid from a middle class family who is studying computer science. Mark and his best friend, Eduardo are a clever pair, with Eduardo able to get money together whenever needed. After being spurned by a female student due to his emotionally stilted personality, Mark strikes back via Livejournal and quickly cobbled together webpage that has students rate Harvard girls against each other. The site gets him placed on academic probation and the attention of the Winklevoss twins, monied legacies who want to make a Harvard dating site. Mark listens to their idea, turns it down, then rebuilds it in his own images. As the site spreads beyond the walls of Harvard and even across the pond, Mark becomes more obsessed with becoming the very elite he resented in school.

This film succeeds on a number of factors: Aaron Sorkin’s amazing script, David Fincher’s perfect direction and editing, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. In a movie that is mostly people sitting around talking, you think it would drag, but the craft around everything creates tension and drama in every moment. I find myself liking every *other* Fincher film. Meh on The Game, loved Se7en, Fight Club doesn’t hold up, Zodiac is underrated, Benjamin Button is a yawn, and now The Social Network. I think Fincher works best with a script that isn’t trying to be anything huge. These small stories are given scope through the way he makes films. The score is also one of the strongest elements of the film, in particular a rowing competition scene that involves tilt-shift camera work and tight editing that is a short film unto itself.

The Social Network reminded me a lot of films like All the President’s Men. That film was made only a couple years after the events of Watergate, and it is a much stronger film about the Nixon administration than it would have been if they made it in 1990. The Social Network is very much about this moment and mindset in time. The young men behind Facebook were following the capitalist fundamentalism they were born into in the 1980s. They were never too concerned about the money behind the site, it merely worked to fund the venture, but they desired the power that came with it. There’s a moment in the film, Mark and Eduardo have just had sex with a couple girls in a club bathroom, they stand outside grinning and revealing their adolescent nature. Eduardo turns to Mark, smiling, and says “We have groupies”. Counter this with an image at the end with Mark obsessively refreshing a Facebook page and its clear this mindset is a destructive one.

In Theaters Now: Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010, dir. Edgar Wright)
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Mark Webber, Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzmann, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Mae Whitman


This is the official film of the Nintendo Generation, from the opening Universal logo to the final battle, the film is painted with pixelated brush strokes of late 80s video game fandom. Its also the closest I’ve seen director Edgar Wright come to recreating the style of humor found in his wonderful British series Spaced. These are the same kinds of people that populated that television show, just born a couple decades later. They have the same idiosyncratic obsessions and quirks just colored in an 8-bit aesthetic. This also marks a major departure for Michael Cera who has made a career on playing the lovable loser. The Scott Pilgrim character is a real asshole, especially to the girls in his life, and Cera does a good job of shifting his style of acting to fit Pilgrim. Simply put, this is the best date movie/action flick of the year.

The story takes us to the snowy streets of Toronto where Scott plays bass in Sex Bob-Omb and has upset fellow bandmates by dating the 17 year old Knives Chow. His dalliance with Chow is usurped when the mysterious Ramona Flowers crosses his path. Once they start a relationship its quickly revealed that Ramona’s seven exs have formed a villainous league who are intent on destroying anyone who dares to date her next. In this world you don’t need to be a black belt to fight like a character out of Mortal Kombat, and no one questions when Scott drops his bass and flies into the air to clash with ex after ex. This is a world where the line between game console and reality are blurred.

The humor here is so wonderful, its geeky and silly and the film never takes it self too seriously. Its the kind of thing you expect from Edgar Wright. Characters talk in a hyper real way, popping in and out frame when ever they are needed. The standout in the cast for me was Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace. Wallace is devoid of stereotype and is simply a perfect compliment to Scott’s often immature relations with the female of the species. The rest of the cast hits every note they needed to. None of the characters are all that fleshed out, by the conceit of the film is that they don’t need to be. This is a live action video game so characters are more types rather than three dimensional. Despite that lack of character dimensionality, the film does an excellent job of world building. While the far edges are kept blurred, the world of this fictional Toronto feels like it is bursting with life with so many characters passing through the frame.

It’s a shame the film didn’t have a bigger opening and appears to be quickly fading from theaters. It is Wright’s highest opening film though, almost twice as much as Hot Fuzz. The thing about Scott Pilgrim is that it is not ever going to appeal to a mass audience. This is a film made squarely for people who were kids when the Nintendo was released and were obsessed with it. It doesn’t have the mass guy appeal of The Expendables or the mass gal appeal of Eat Pray Love. Though, I’m willing to bet it is much much better than either of those films.

Tune-age: End of Summer Mix 2010

Here’s a mix for your downloading pleasure. It features songs that I first heard this summer, or have some sort of connection to a mood or tone during this season for me. Enjoy.

1. Money – Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
2. City With No Children – Arcade Fire
3. The Happy Goth – The Divine Comedy
4. Lady Luck – Richard Swift
5. Teenagers – Department of Eagles
6. God Help the Girl – God Help the Girl
7. Airplanes – Local Natives
8. Kim & Jessie – M83
9. Flash Delirium – MGMT
10. Crash Years – The New Pornographers
11. Melectric- Ramona Falls
12. Sleep All Day – The Rural Alberta Advantage
13. Home – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes

Click here to download

Tune-age: Arcade Fire – "Suburbs"

Arcade Fire – Suburbs (2010, Merge Records)

To try and define the Arcade Fire’s sound is an impossible task. When I first heard “Wake Up” in Brent Hamric’s car in the spring of 2004 I immediately thought of The Flaming Lips. One track later and that was changed. Three albums later and they are still too eclectic to pin down. A lot of music critics wait like vultures for the bands they love or others love to slip up, so that they can pounce and claim that the grandeur that once was is lost. Arcade Fire seems to dare them to try it, by dropping the dark gloom of Neon Bible and adopting a more pop-folk vibe. There’s some familiar sounds to bring you back in, but then suddenly things change up and we hear some arrangements and instruments that show the band is still testing its limits.

It seemed a natural fit for Arcade Fire to score a film, and they did so last fall for Richard Kelly on The Box. While the music there resembled Bernard Hermann more than any of their typical music, they still have a cinematic sound in this latest album. It’s a very West Coast, bouncier collection of songs. Every few tracks there’s that dark underscoring that comes through, but for the most part this is a pop-ier album, very much music you could dance to. Like all their work, the cinematic qualities come from the story being told in the lyrics. Each album has felt like a dystopian novel, touching on themes of the end of our civilization. It sounds like heavy material to be working with, but they manage to make tracks that you tap your foot to. The voices in these song stories are typically disaffected twenty-somethings reflecting on the desolation around them.

The opening track “The Suburbs”, has a bouncy piano underscoring the song which came as quite a jolt when I started the album. For the first time on their albums, I find lead singer Win Butler sounding like a spiritual successor to Neil Young. And this opening song, like a couple others, have a folk-rock element to them. “Ready to Start” is the track you expect to hear on an Arcade Fire album, there’s pounding drums and alt-pop guitar riff. References are made in the lyrics to “the kids”, a recurring noun in all their albums, that seems to represent youth in general who has an awareness above the adults. “Modern Man” is back in Neil Young country, but also made me think of some of The Talking Heads’ work in the early 1980s and is a song I would not have guessed was an Arcade Fire song if I didn’t already know it. “Rococo” seems to be a mix of expected elements and this new West Coast folk sound being incorporated now. “The kids” are back again, a force of apathetic destruction, constructing massive pillars of junk to burn down. “Empty Room” begins with some wonderfully light strings and then turns into a classic right out of the standard playbook, with some very Kate Bush like vocals led by Chassagne Butler. “City With No Children” evokes thoughts of *gasp* Bruce Springsteen, a comparison I never thought I would make. There’s a strong of sense of small town nostalgia woven through the song and even the arrangement feels like a track off Thunder Road.

“Half Light I” and Half Light II” continue the nostalgia trip, and I have a feeling the band made this album as homage to their own youths growing up in the 1980s and the music that filled their lives during that time. It is a good explanation for how the album is able to evoke memories of so many different artists of that time, yet is still able to not go off the rails. “Suburban War” comes back to Springsteen but not as heavily, its much more Arcade Fire gloomy. “Month of May” is yet another splash of ice cold water as the band is backed by the unceasing guitar of what could easily be a Ramones song and more mentions of “the kids” as a defiant force of purity. “Wasted Hours” is back to folk pop guitars and continues the themes of adolescents tooling around the desolate wastes of Southwestern small towns and looking back on this time as something to be missed. “Deep Blue” is one of the few tracks where Win stands alone, his voice turned into an echo-y voice mourning the past, but also makes use of that same bouncy piano rhythm from the first track. “We Used to Wait For It” continues on from “Deep Blue”, now talking about the time spent by youth in anticipation of the future, only to look back on their youth as adults and want to somehow return to it. “Sprawl I (Flatland)” is Win Butler returning to his childhood home, singing out from open landscape and becoming lost looking for it. This is a track so full of narrative elements, it makes you want the band to compose an opera. And where that songs leaves us mournful, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond) is a chorus of angels beyond the hills that surround this small town lifting our protagonist up and away. The album wraps up with a short and haunting track, reprising the opening song, where Win states that if he could have the time back he wasted as a child, he’d simply waste it again.

Arcade Fire proves that they are about revisiting the same ideas thematically, but constantly experimenting with their sound. This by far the most listener friendly album they have released and every track could easily find a place in the radio rotation. They take a lot of chances and flirt with mainstream sounds, only insomuch as they hearken back to brothers Win and Reg Butler’s youth in the suburbs outside of Houston. For all its slightly dark atmosphere at times, there’s a revelry in being a kid without responsibilities or being forced mete out time as a valuable commodity. A great album from one of the best bands of the 21st century.