It's the End of the World As We Know It

What I'm Watching: RuPaul's Drag Race - Season 4

All reality shows reach a point where the formula just doesn't work anymore, despite (or in some cases, due to) the personalities and challenges getting bigger and more intense. America's Next Top Model. Project Runway. The Amazing Race. All are shows I used to follow religiously, and have now lost my interest. Even my beloved Top Chef is starting to show its age. So at some point, the cheeky charm of RuPaul's Drag Race will fade. But judging by the Season 4 premiere, it hasn't happened yet.

I'm still trying to wrap up Season 3, and was worried that I'd be queened out, but no such tragedy has befallen. This show manages to get me invested in the outcome, while still being light, and moving along at an agreeably quick pace. I don't think I like this crop of queens quite as much as the ones in Season 3, but there are already one or two standouts.

This premiere episode's theme is post-apocalyptic ferocity, and even if some of the ladies can't even pronounce that, they're able to bring some incredible end-of-days couture to the runway. Elvira graces the judges' table, bringing the wit and wisdom I love her for. Side Note: People are always talking about the actresses of Hollywood, and the lengths they'll go to retain their youth, but Elvira looks exactly the same as she did in the '80s, without being a garish mess of plastic surgery. Janice Dickinson's Death Mask, take note.

It's uncanny how much this show gets right. In most episodes of this show, I agree with the choice for both the winner and the loser, which is uncommon for most reality TV. It's sincere without being sappy. It's wacky without being whacked out. RuPaul's Drag Race could easily be an over-the-top mess, but instead, it somehow manages to be an over-the-top delight.

Get Me Off This Rock

Pilots are often not the best indicator of how a new television show is going to shake out, so I like to give them a few episodes to find their legs. Well, we are now at episode four of JJ Abrams' Alcatraz, so I don't have to feel guilty about dropping it like a bag of wet cement.

I can see where they're trying to go with this. There are already too many cop procedurals on the air, so you have to set yourself apart from the crowd to avoid being overlooked. So why not add some of Abrams' patented long-arc mythology to spice things up? In this case, a batch of violent criminals vanished from Alcatraz in the 1963, and are now reappearing in modern-day San Francisco to wreak havoc anew. Sam Neill is the mysterious expert who rounds up the errant inmates with his team, which consists of Jorge Garcia as a shy, nerdy Alcatraz expert and Sarah Jones, a hard-nosed cop that REFUSES TO PLAY BY THE RULES. Sigh.

You know, I'm going to go ahead and just leave out the part where the good guys could just wait around the island and pick up the miscreants as they appear, instead of tracking these people down after they start murdering citizens. And the part where these people who last walked the streets in the 1950s pop into modern existence with absolutely no sense of culture shock. Cell phones? No problem! Weaponry? Nah, that hasn't changed in 60 years! Computers? Of course they'd know exactly how those operate! I'm leaving those ridiculous things aside, because who knows? They may figure into whatever shadowy background story is causing this event in the first place.

The problem is that shadowy background story takes up the last forty seconds of every episode. The remainder is just another paint-by-numbers, bland cop procedural. And frankly, not a very good one. Maybe they're building to something awesome. Maybe the story will become more intricate. And hey, if it does, I can always come back and fill in the blanks. But for now, Alcatraz, you have been found guilty of the ultimate television sin: Being Boring. I'm afraid that carries the death penalty.

Alcatraz: C-

"Like" This

Within a week or two, I hope to have seen all of 2012 Academy Award Best Picture nominees I care to, but last year, I wasn't half so diligent. I've still got a lot of movies to catch up on, but I managed to get one under my belt the other night by finally watching The Social Network.

When I first saw this movie advertised, I have to admit that I dismissed it out-of-hand. I may have said snide, condescending things like: "A Facebook movie? What, they couldn't get that script about how Whole Foods was founded nailed down?" It sounded silly and pointless. Then, people started to tell me that actually, this thing was pretty good. Then, it racked up awards left and right. But as usual, I'm a late adopter. I didn't join Facebook until most people had already joined, and I didn't watch the Facebook movie until most people had already seen it.

Part of me still remained skeptical, but after watching it, I have to say that I was wrong. It's a very good movie, and I should have given it more of a chance. Jesse Eisenberg does a worthy job as Mark Zuckerberg, though I get the sense that playing an intelligent person lacking in social graces isn't much of a stretch for him. The only thing that struck me as odd about the other characters was how the filmmakers intended to paint these real-life people, both as heroes and villains. Nobody is portrayed as purely good or purely evil, which makes sense, given that they're actual people, and not characters in a Dudley Do-right cartoon. There are a couple of notable exceptions, though.

Eduardo Savarin (as played by Andrew Garfield) is the movie's martyr. Plunged into a shark tank he's ill-equipped to navigate, he's soon marginalized and cheated, despite his noble intentions. On the flip side, Sean Parker (as played by Justin Timberlake) is a opportunistic douche who radiates confidence, but folds like a card table when faced with any real challenge. I'm not complaining about these characterizations, but I do wonder how much artistic license was taken to enhance the adversarial theme of the movie.

In any event, The Social Network explores all sorts of interesting ideas, from questions about how far friendship stretches to whether people born into a life of entitlement are still due a fair share when they feel wronged. It also gave me a much-needed reminder that I should really think twice before judging a film too hastily. Unless it's Twilight-related. Then all bets are off.

The Social Network: B+

Bad Touch

Touch - Season 1, Episode 1

I'll often try out a show I'm not particularly excited about. It's not unheard of that my initial assumptions were incorrect, and a show I thought was going to be disappointing actually captures my attention. Mostly, though, my initial assumptions were spot-on, and the new series Touch is not an exception.

The premise is interesting enough, if increasingly worn: The underlying equations and numbers that our universe is based on could tell us everything we'd ever need to know, if only we knew how to interpret them. Besides that, all I knew going in was Kiefer Sutherland, Tim Kring, and yet another Magical Autistic Child. Two of those three aren't promising. Tim Kring took Heroes, a show with a fascinating story, a good effects budget, and terrific actors, and somehow managed to make it completely unwatchable. The Magical Autistic Child who cannot function socially but conceals some kind of vast talent or superpower is also quickly wearing out its welcome.

I wanted to give the show a fair shot, though, and went into it with an open mind. In a word... Meh. It's not terrible, but there really isn't much story to it. The pilot mostly functioned as a way to show off Sutherland's silent progeny, and his amazing gift for predicting disaster through numbers. I'm willing to suspend disbelief, of course, but a lot of story elements depend on not just the kid's ability to foresee events, but to predict every human reaction to those events. That's not science. That's not even coincidence; it's contrivance.

There's a kernel of a good idea buried in this show, but in order for it to really succeed, it's going to have to depend more on its character interactions than on the weight of a mysterious mythology that is already threatening to collapse. I'll probably give Touch another episode, but if it appears that every week is a new excuse to weave ludicrous coincidences together with no real purpose, the only thing getting touched is the channel changer.

Pilot: C

Monster Mash

What I'm Watching: Being Human (US) - Season 2

I don't have a problem with the whole supernatural creature (vampire, werewolf, zombie, etc.) craze going on in entertainment right now, but it does seem like they're scraping the bottom of the barrel as far good ideas. We've come a long way since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and unfortunately, it's been mostly downhill. If someone comes along with a fresh take on things, though, I'm always willing to hop on board.

Being Human started out as a British television show, and follows the stories of a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost, both individually and as a group of housemates. It was adapted into an American version, and I mostly enjoyed the first season, so I figured I'd tune in for Season 2 as well.

The show does some things better than others. As far as the individual stories, the vampire saga is fairly weak. It seems to split mostly evenly between vampire-with-a-heart-of-gold treacle and power-struggles-within-the-council-of-vampires tedium. The werewolf story is fairly standard, and tracks the character's self-loathing and attempts to forge some sort of relationship with the woman he adores. Things are picking up in the current season, with pregnancy and werewolf infection getting thrown into the mix. The ghost story is the most interesting to me, as it progresses in multiple directions, from Sally's haunting of her murderous fiancee to her exploration of manipulating objects in the physical world to her search for the reasons she hasn't moved on to the next realm.

The group scenes are the best. The three otherworldly roommates have great chemistry, and it's fun to watch them commiserate about being outcasts, support each other's plans, and wildly misunderstand what makes each other tick. You get the sense that if you woke up as a hellish beast tomorrow, it would all be bearable if you could hang out with pals like these. Even if they do occasionally behead their boss or melt through the wall.

2012 Oscar Nominations

The entertainment year revolves around the Oscars, and I always look forward to the day the nominees are announced, so I can bury myself in articles about who will win and who should win and who was snubbed, and so on. Oh, and all those Facebook statuses by people who loudly crow that they don't even care about the Academy Awards. Yeah, well, I don't care about your toddler, and that doesn't seem to stop you, does it? Where was I? Oh, yeah! The nominees are out, and the list supports my theory that this was a pretty disappointing year for movies. Shall we dive in?



So, nine nominees. I've seen five of them, (and will have seen the sixth by the time the awards are given out). Of those five, only The Artist is a movie I'd call truly award-worthy. It's not that Moneyball or The Descendants were bad or anything, it's just that they don't stand out as especially noteworthy. I wonder what film the tenth nomination slot would have gone to, if they were still going by the old rules. It probably would have been Drive, but I'm giving my imaginary vote to Contagion, which was solidly better than several of the movies listed up there.


Jean Dujardin, THE ARTIST
Damien Bachir, A BETTER LIFE


Viola Davis, THE HELP
Meryl Streep, THE IRON LADY
Michelle Williams, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

2011 truly was the Year of the Great Performances in Underwhelming Movies. Viola Davis was great in The Help, which wasn't. Meryl Streep was great in The Iron Lady, which wasn't. And so on. The field is too bland for me to make a confident prediction of the winner, but Clooney will probably snag the Best Actor prize, while I hope Davis takes Best Actress. It's too bad that Tilda Swinton didn't get a nomination for We Need To Talk About Kevin. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I loves me some Swinton.


Nick Nolte, WARRIOR
Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS


Berenice Bejo, THE ARTIST
Melissa McCarthy, BRIDESMAIDS
Octavia Spencer, THE HELP
Jessica Chastain, THE HELP

Academy Award Nominee Jonah Hill. That sounds weird, doesn't it? All of the categories are hard to predict this year, with Best Supporting Actor being the only possible exception. Anything can happen, of course, but Plummer looks to have this one all sewn up. Best Supporting Actress is a lot more difficult. I'm sure Jessica Chastain is a lovely woman, but there is no reason on Earth her performance in The Help should have earned this nomination. I haven't seen Albert Nobbs, and McTeer seems like a long-shot, but then, so did Marcia Gay Harden. Spencer got the Golden Globe, but who knows how much of a predictor that is anymore? I loved Berenice Bejo's performance, but must admit that it would be a refreshing change for a bawdy comedy performance like McCarthy's to win.


Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Alexander Payne, THE DESCENDANTS
Martin Scorsese, HUGO
Terrence Malick, THE TREE OF LIFE

I always feel like I need to surreptitiously survey my general area to make sure there aren't attackers lurking, ready to pounce every time I say that Hugo is the most overrated movie of the year. It was certainly beautiful, and two-thirds of it was very enjoyable. All of the parts having to do with that obnoxious kid and his adventures in the train station, though, were overwrought and hackneyed. It pains me to think that Scorsese might win this year. I know he was overlooked for a lot of his earlier, more worthy movies, which is a terrible oversight, and will certainly be the subject of an Award Repo. He doesn't deserve the prize this year, though, and given the way that Academy members tend to stick to their stalwarts, I'm afraid he may be the subject of his own Repo someday.


Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne and Jim Rash, THE DESCENDANTS
Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, MONEYBALL
John Logan, HUGO
George Clooney and Grant Heslov, IDES OF MARCH
Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY


Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo, BRIDESMAIDS
Asghar Farhadi, A SEPARATION

I don't have a great track record in predicting what will win the writing awards. This is the one category that I do think The Descendants should win, and I'm not just saying that because Jim Rash is on Community. I'm sure someone smarter than me can explain how a screenplay nomination for The Artist works. Is it just a bunch of stage directions? Woody Allen always seems to clean up in writing categories, so this may be the one category that nets him a win this year.







I don't think Hugo deserves half the praise it's getting, but one area that the hype is totally justified is the Art Direction. Similarly, the people who tell me the The Tree of Life is pretentious nonsense begrudgingly admit that the cinematography was incredible. I'm not sure what to think in the area of costume design. All five of the nominees are period pieces, and Colleen Atwood isn't up for the award this year, so who knows?




"The Barber of Brimingham"
"God is the Bigger Elvis"
"Saving Face"
"The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom"
"Incident in New Baghdad"


"The Shore"
"Time Freak"
"Tuba Atlantic"


"The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"
"La Luna"
"A Morning Stroll"
"Wild Life"

I haven't seen any of the above. Hopefully, one of the local movie theaters will have one of those nights where they'll screen all of the nominated short films. As to the documentaries, I'll have to do some research to see if any of them aren't the usual horrors-of-humanity fare that I get tired of pretty quickly.



Your guess is as good as mine.



I haven't seen A Separation, but judging by the amount of internet ink I've seen spilled over it, it seems a safe bet.





I don't have a dog in either of these races, although I didn't really see anything in The Iron Lady to suggest it needed to be recognized in the makeup category.




"Man or Muppet," THE MUPPETS
"Real in Rio," RIO



I normally don't think too much about the Best Original Score category, but this year, I have an actual opinion. In a movie with no dialogue, the score essentially functions as an additional character, and it was used to fantastic effect in The Artist. I don't think there can be much argument that it deserves the win, no matter how many heart-swelling violin pieces were written for War Horse. I don't even know what's going on in the song category. Two songs? And that's the one they picked from The Muppets? Weird. Visual effects is a tough choice, but I'll go out on a limb and guess that it'll go to Harry Potter as a kind of fond farewell to the series.





The sound mixing team from Transformers has been ignored for long enough! I demand that these pioneers of aural accomplishment...

Yeah, I couldn't keep that up. Look, sound editing and mixing are noble professions, but there's no reason these two awards need to be included in the telecast. Nobody knows what they entail, and frankly, nobody cares. Everyone's always talking about how the Oscar ceremony is too long, and one of the quickest fixes is to shuffle these two categories off to the technical awards.

And there you have it! I'm surprised that Young Adult didn't receive a single nomination, given all the buzz it got. I'm not thrilled to see that the schmaltzy 9/11 misery porn got a Best Picture nomination, but it's a safe bet that it'll lose, and we can go back to ignoring it. What else is there to say? I wish I could be more excited about this crop of movies, but it's been an unfortunately bland year. People are always wringing their hands over how bad the telecast is, and with this slate of nominees, I wonder how they're going to generate any kind of excitement. Is it too late to ask James Franco back to cause another trainwreck?

Mini Movie Review: Joyful Noise

When I head to the movie theater just to have fun, rather than for the quality of the movie itself, trying to come up with a well-reasoned review just seems silly. So why not embrace the silliness with a silly mini-movie review?

-1:15 PM
I arrive at the Esquire theater. For those not from St. Louis, the only reason you'd ever go to a movie at the Esquire is if you don't mind the other patrons... Interacting with the movie. You know, yelling at the screen and loudly opining that the characters shouldn't go in there. I wouldn't see We Need to Talk About Kevin at the Esquire, but for things like Spiderman 3 or Joyful Noise, it can be a grand old time.

-1:20 PM
I meet my friends Tiffany and Becky at the concession stand, and buy a soda with some room at the top of the cup. This may have something to do with the bulge in Tiffany's coat pocket.

-1:30 PM
Previews. I make a raspberry noise for all the movies I have no interest in seeing, which turns out to be all of them.

-1:33 PM

-1:34 PM
Just seeing that is enough to ask for the coat bulge to be revealed. Out comes the Captain Morgan, which is surreptitiously added to all of our sodas.

-1:37 PM
The title screen comes up, and the only other people sitting nearby curse, stand up, and leave. Apparently, all those previews with warm family messages and Tyler Perry didn't tip them off that they weren't in the theater next door, which is showing The Devil Inside.

-1:55 PM
We devise a game in which we have to take a drink every time a down-home folksy cliche like "The cheese may be free in the mousetraps, but trust me, the mice there ain't happy," pops up.

-1:57 PM
And whenever "regionals" or "nationals" are mentioned.

-2:04 PM
There is a character whose sole trait is that she repeats what people just said. She turns out to be the best secondary character in the whole movie.

-2:15 PM
Because the other secondary characters are 1) A lady who can't find a boyfriend because a dude died after fucking her, and 2) A gangly white guy who is having trouble with his faith because the economy is so bad.

-2:16 PM
Although I don't admit to Tiffany and Becky that I think said gangly white guy is super-cute.

-2:20 PM
That said, there sure is a lot of racial diversity in this gospel choir from small town Georgia. Plus, two interracial relationships, because people from small town Georgia never have any problems with that.

-2:40 PM
It's very important that the choir does well in competition, because the sluggish economy is causing all the businesses in town to collapse. And nothing pays the rent or fills empty bellies like a church choir winning a contest. That sounds glib, but there is literally a scene in which people in a bread line tell choir members that winning is their last hope.

-2:44 PM
The writers think that if they directly address the fact that Dolly Parton has had seventeen face lifts, that should end any conversation about the fact that she doesn't look quite human anymore. And I say this as a massive Dolly fan. Sad.

-2:47 PM
I haven't said anything about the forbidden romance between Queen Latifah's daughter and Dolly Parton's grandson. Nope, I sure haven't.

-2:50 PM
That grandson is meant to be a handsome rogue, but is totally that douchey guy who plays guitar in the corner at every college party, trying to get into the insecure girls' pants.

-2:55 PM
That folksy cliche drinking rule has really paid off in spades. Urp.

-2:59 PM
If you're going to try and get out of explaining your quirky character by making them autistic, you should probably do a modicum of research on autism.

-3:03 PM
There is actually a scene in which the choir sings updated music instead of the tired old standards, and shows this transition by taking off their choir robes to show the bright clothing beneath. Really.

-3:12 PM
The choir wins the big competition. Everyone in the small town is thrilled, and the movie is capped off with a wedding. Please ignore the fact that except for learning valuable lessons about life and love, nobody's life materially improves.

I wasn't expecting much out of this movie, which is why I was able to enjoy it. The guy who directed this also directed Camp, and it suffers from a lot of the same problems. Chiefly, all the music is great, and most of the storyline is crap. I was hoping for a bit more catfighting between Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, but all I really asked from this movie is some showstopping numbers, and on that front, it was able to deliver.

Joyful Noise (as a movie): C+
Joyful Noise (as an experience): B+

Minority Report

Time is running short, but I'm making good progress on the Oscar checklist. Thanks to some tortilla soup and a wine-fueled double-feature at a friend's house, two more movies have been knocked off the list. Both of them ostensibly deal with the trials and tribulations of people forced to live outside of the mainstream, though only one actually focuses on that.

Naturally enough, we began with Beginners. Every single thing I had heard about this movie before I saw it dealt with Christopher Plummer's character, who comes out in his seventies as a gay man. Plummer is deservedly a lock for an Oscar nomination, and although I knew it would be in the Supporting Actor category, I was surprised by how little his role actually amounts to in the movie. Beginners may feature a man coming to terms with his new, public sexual identity, but the movie is really about his son (Ewan McGregor), stumbling towards happiness with a woman as aimless and melancholy as he is.

It was a very intriguing movie, from the shifting chronology to the dog whose thoughts are subtitled, and I get the feeling that I'll appreciate it more every time I think about it. Anyone who went in based on the marketing, though, will find that this isn't the film they thought they were getting.

The second movie we tackled was The Help, which could almost qualify for Pop Culture Homework status. Everyone had either read the book, seen the movie, or both. Articles questioning how uplifting for the African-American community this movie claims to be began to pop up. I listened to all the conversations about this story without reading or seeing it for myself. I finally did see it, and I have to say, I'm kind of on the naysayers' side.

It's not that the movie didn't succeed in several aspects. The actresses (Viola Davis, in particular) did an extremely admirable job. I laughed when I was supposed to laugh, and felt tugs of emotion when I was supposed to feel tugs of emotion. The problem is that the strings doing the tugging were glaringly visible. There is barely a whisper of subtlety to this story. Everyone good is angelically heroic, and everyone bad may as well have had a Snidely Whiplash Mustache of Evil. Every bit of this movie is, if you'll forgive the term, painted in black and white.

Not to give away too much of the ending, but the movie concludes on a note of auspicious promise for the future. When you take a giant step back and really look, though, the majority of the characters are worse off than when the story began. The Help is a morality tale about the horrors of racism, and while every character learns a lesson, only the spunky white women profit from it.

Beginners: B+
The Help: C

Save the Date: The Hunger Games

Event: The Hunger Games Release Date
Date: Friday, March 23

Agatha Christie wrote many great mysteries, but my favorite is And Then There Were None. Ten people, trapped on an island. All of them have gotten away with murder, and now someone is evening the score by murdering them one by one. I've been fascinated by this story ever since I first read it. Who would be next? What methods would the doomed employ to evade their unknown attacker?

From then on, I've always been a fan of the one-by-one winnowing of a group of characters, from Series 7: The Contenders to Harper's Island to The Hunger Games. Mass popularity only struck for that last one, and now the book that kicked off the trilogy has been made into a movie.

The story of the The Hunger Games, in which the protagonist volunteers in her sister's place to be sent to an arena, where she will fight to the death against other young children, is just as fascinating as the others I've mentioned, though you'd never know it from the trailer. Often, a book's story will be lost in translation, and I worry that the film will concentrate less on the intelligence and bravery of a girl desperately trying to stay alive than on all that blooming romance nonsense. Heartfelt conversations about making an impression and staying true to yourself are all well and good, but let's not forget this movie is called The Hunger Games, not Sensitive Girl Learns A Valuable Life Lesson.

Those worries aren't enough to keep me away. I'll definitely be grabbing my ticket for this first film. There are two more books, though. If Hollywood screws this up, I'll show them what getting rid of characters looks like. May the odds be ever in their favor.

Idiots Are People Two!

30 Rock - Season 6, Episode 2

I'm emphatically not going to post about every episode of every TV show I regularly watch. That would leave about three hours a week to eat, sleep, and work. But I would like to check in once in a while as a snapshot of the show as a whole: An episode that's particularly good or particularly bad or particularly important.

Last night's episode of 30 Rock falls into that last category, because it attempts to address the whole debacle of Tracy Morgan's homophobic ranting. I say "attempts" because I came away pretty dissatisfied, though that's not entirely the show's fault.

Let's dispense with the B and C plots first. In the B plot, Liz has a new man in her life, but doesn't want to share the news with Jack, because she's rightly worried that he won't approve. The man in question is played by James Marsden, deploying the usual dopey charm he always pulls off so well. We're still at the beginning of this storyline, so I'll give it some time, but there's no real reason for Liz to approve of him, either. Marsden's character (Criss Chros - snerk) is essentially Dennis Duffy, except he's better looking and treats her more respectfully. The C plot is the strongest of the evening, because it plays on the always hilarious interactions between Jenna and Kenneth. Jenna wants to get a special light bulb from a locked supply closet, and Kenneth assists. Hijinks ensue. That's basically it, plot-wise, but it does supply Jenna with some quality one-liners, such as when a box of bulbs shatters on the floor:

"I’m just going to tell you what I told Phil Spector: It’s okay, baby. We just have to get some trash bags and get back here before anyone’s the wiser. Then we can keep recording my album."

Which brings us to the main story of the episode. Tracy (Jordan) has made disparaging remarks about gay people, who quickly organize and lead a protest against the network. Obviously, 30 Rock is a comedy, and if they're going to mirror the real life situation at all, they're going to do it by poking fun at it. Unfortunately, they weren't able to do it successfully. Tracy Jordan's remarks are lot less despicable than Tracy Morgan's were, and Tina Fey's solution to this problem is for Liz Lemon to apologize on Tracy Jordan's behalf, asking people to forgive him because he's an idiot that doesn't think things through.

Tracy Jordan hears of this, and is angry, because as an idiot, he now understands what it's like to be vilified and marginalized, so he organizes a new protest made up of self-proclaimed idiots, led by Denise Richards. In other words, all is forgiven by those fickle gays, and we can move on to the next outraged group. Truly, the thrust of this episode is that people are offended so easily that it's ridiculous, and any group can make their voices heard, even if their point is that their stupidity deserves validation. Great message, Fey.

The episode ends with a "To Be Continued..." so perhaps it's not fair to judge yet. Nobody told 30 Rock that they had to bring the subject up at all, though, and now that they have, it should be noted that they should have done a much better job with it. The Girlie Show has always had a Tracy Jordan problem, and now, 30 Rock has a Tracy Morgan one. If this episode is going to be the sole response to a cast member's overt homophobia, it's a piss poor one, and makes me rethink sticking with this show at all.

"Idiots Are People Two!": C

Then I Took An Arrow to the Knee

What I'm Playing: Skyrim

I got an Amazon gift certificate over the holidays, and I wanted to spend it on something I knew I was interested in trying out, but wasn't willing to bet my own money on liking. I've always been a fan of sword-and-sorcery RPGs, but they cost a pretty penny, so I decided to use my newfound wealth to get Skyrim. I was a little suspicious, given how much I hated its precursor Morrowind. It got tons of good press, though, and several people declared it their Game of the Year.

I'm not very far into it yet, but I can see what they like. It's visually stunning, and rather than being stuck in a rigidly-assigned role, your character can improve in any skill that you wish, from fire-blasting to crafting armor.

It may be a little too much of a good thing. The realism and freedom are taken to such a degree that this is one of the most difficult games I've played lately. I often need a lot more guidance than the AI in this world is willing to offer me. I have so much freedom here, that I'm not really sure I know what I'm trying to accomplish, and often wander into an area where an enemy can take me out with a single smack to the head.

The training wheels are off as far as this game is concerned. Want a side quest? Go figure out who offers them. Want to train yourself to be a power mage? Take your best guess as to which skills to improve. Need to find a distant town? Blaze your own path. It's a little daunting, but an interesting digression from my usual style of play. Normally, I'd be somewhat frustrated with how challenging it is to blindly pick my way through this vast game, but you'd be amazed how much that frustration is eased when you're playing on someone else's dime.

Don't Fuck It Up

What I'm Watching: RuPaul's Drag Race - Season 3

There are countless movies, TV shows, books, and such that I didn't or couldn't catch when they first came out, but unlike the Pop Culture Homework Project, these aren't important works that became part of the national conversation. It's just stuff I missed.

I try to be a good brother to my fellow sisters, but not all entertainment geared towards gay audiences is easy to endure. Like all minority audiences, we'll snap up any crumb that people deign to toss us, whether or not it's any good. I won't even open the can of worms that is the time when, in an effort to clear up space in my Netflix queue, I watched six indie gay films in a row. I've done too good a job of repressing it to go back to that horror show.

It is getting better, though, and never more so than RuPaul's Drag Race. I've never been a gigantic fan of the drag phenomenon in general, but I caught Season 2 of this show on a whim, and enjoyed how it skewered everything that's ridiculous about reality shows, even as it perpetuated the same stereotypes.

I wasn't able to tune in to Season 3, but just discovered that it's streaming on Netflix Instant. So, I'm (muff) diving in! No spoilers, please. I've only gotten through the first episode so far, and although I don't have a great sense of who will win or who the biggest bitch will be, I don't think there can be any argument that Mimi Imfurst has the best name.

Look At Me Still Talking, When There's Science To Do

It's odd how seemingly disparate projects with similar themes pop up simultaneously. Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love. Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Snow White & the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, and Once Upon a Time. Sometimes, it's fun to be able to compare and contrast different works about the same topic. Other times, you get the tedious vampire craze that refuses to go away.

Lately, I've gotten into one of the fun ones: Science Devoid of Compassion. That may sound like a weird topic, but it's actually a rich source of material for both drama and comedy: Scientists striving for progress with no thought given to the effects it has on actual humans. The heavy morality tales can be great, but I tend to go for the more light-hearted kinds of work in this vein, and just wrapped up three of them, each in a different genre.

The first was Max Barry's latest book, Machine Man. It's about a socially-inept scientist who knows all there is to know about mechanical engineering, but can't understand how little things like love or guilt or jealousy work. When the scientist loses a leg in an industrial accident, he happily replaces it with a prosthetic of his own invention that is capable of all of a real leg's function, with none of that pesky biology getting in the way. Plus, who wouldn't want a limb with wifi embedded into it?

Complications soon arise, as he starts to think about other parts of his body he can replace, he attempts to woo a very special lady with a very special implant, and his company starts plotting how they can use his technological advancements to, say, run the world. I like Barry's books as a general rule, and this one is no exception. Unfortunately, the one problem I do have with Machine Man is an important one, and that is that it has no ending. I mean, there's a last page and everything, but after the story builds and builds, it just comes to a gentle stop with no real resolution.

Over in the world of television, I thought it was time to revisit Better Off Ted, a criminally underrated show that only lasted two seasons. There are tons of workplace comedies out there, but how many of them involve the ethical implications of weaponizing pumpkins? There are countless laughs to be mined out of the horrifically realistic idea of a heartless company stopping at nothing to make a buck, and Veridian Dynamics is the perfect blend of exciting scientific achievement mixed with soulless corporate power grabs.

Jay Harrington is a charming and affable lead (and I desperately need to know where he buys his Handsome Pills), but much of the credit needs to go to Portia de Rossi and Andrea Anders, who basically steal every single scene. Both seasons are currently available on Netflix Instant, so if you haven't seen this show, go give it a whirl.

And finally, in the video game realm, I managed to beat Portal 2, though I have to admit to some...help. OK, fine. I looked up how to solve some of the tougher puzzles on YouTube. Happy? I named this my favorite game of 2011, and most of that wasn't even for gameplay reasons. This game has the best writing and voiceover work I've seen in a long time - better than many television shows. As in the original Portal, the backdrop is a science lab that's been taken over by a homicidal robot bent on putting you through the paces of testing, all to advance its/her knowledge. GLaDOS does have a human component, though, so in addition to her thirst for the advancement of science, she also has a thing for revenge. Revenge against you. Not only must you devise a way to pass her tests, you must find a way to survive.

It's a delightfully fun, witty game, and I'm looking forward to replaying it, just so I can hear things like this again.

Machine Man: B-
Better Off Ted: B+
Portal 2: A+

Oscar Checklist

As we wend towards the end of January, it's almost time for the Academy Award nominations to come out. In preparation for this, Entertainment Weekly has put out its "25 Movies You Need to See Before Oscar Night" article. Let's see how I'm doing:

1) The Artist - Done!

2) The Descendants - Done!

3) War Horse - I'm wrestling over whether to see this at all. I kind of already get the gist of the story, and I know it'll be incredibly depressing. We'll see.

4) The Help - It's on the Netflix queue. I suspect I won't like it as much as everyone else does, but I do love Emma Stone.

5) Hugo - Speaking of not liking as much as everyone else. This movie was admittedly beautiful, and the back third, about the history and evolution of cinema, was wonderful. Everything having to do with the title character and his adventures living in the train station, however, was annoying, bordering on obnoxious. Grade: B-

6) Midnight in Paris - On the Netflix queue. I'm looking forward to this one.

7) Moneyball - You can tell that 2011 was a fairly weak movie year, because a lot of films that were perfectly fine - but not stellar - are getting the awards buzz. Here's another example. I'm sure it's tough to make a movie about baseball statistics compelling, and they pulled it off. That's impressive. I enjoyed the movie, and think everyone involved did a nice job with it, but it in no way deserves an Academy Award in any category. Grade: B

8) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Saw the Swedish version (Grade: B), and have no interest in revisiting this story.

9) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Ew. No.

10) The Tree of Life - I've heard from two vocal camps on this one. The first says that this is a beautiful, deep, though-provoking film. The second says that it's pretentious claptrap. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground between them, so I'll have to see for myself.

11) Beginners - On the Netflix queue. My fear is that it'll fall into the trap I've been seeing a lot recently, where there is a masterful performance in an otherwise tepid movie.

12) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 - A good way to wrap up the franchise, with dazzling special effects and a reasonably tight script. I doubt it can pull off a Return of the King type of win, though. (Grade: B+)

13) The Iron Lady - Done! Feh.

14) Rango - I would like to see this at some point, but question whether it's really necessary to get it done by the Oscars, nomination for Animated Feature or not.

15) My Week With Marilyn - Michelle Williams just won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe. Frankly, I think she's being over-praised, as is the movie as a whole. Monroe was a fascinating woman, but this film didn't dig deep enough below the surface for me. (Grade: C+)

16) Shame - I'm going to wait for the DVD for this one.

17) Albert Nobbs - No, thanks.

18) The Ides of March - Really? I don't remember this generating that much excitement when it came out. The plot seems intriguing, though, so I'll probably check it out at some point.

19) Kung Fu Panda 2 - I think the first one was plenty for me. It was good, I just don't feel the need to continue with the series.

20) Bridesmaids - I hope this does get nominated, just to put a giant crack in the ceiling of the Oscars' silent ban on comedy. If it can't get through as a picture, then at least let Melissa McCarthy get an acting nomination, because she stole that picture right out from under the rest of the cast. (Grade: A-)

21) J. Edgar - I'm not in love with Leonardo DiCaprio's acting. I liked him in Inception, but aside from that, he leaves me cold. I just never really buy him in the other Big Important Films he likes to make (The Aviator, Revolutionary Road, etc.) and J. Edgar looks like a chore.

22) We Need to Talk About Kevin - I read the book, and like War Horse, I can tell that I'll be an emotional wreck after this movie. Unlike War Horse, I still want to see it. I love Tilda Swinton, and I'm curious to see how they adapted the source material.

23) Drive - This is one of those movies that I know other people love, but am just going to let pass me by. I can't even fully articulate why it doesn't appeal to me, but every time I read about it, my brain gives a little mental shrug, and I move on.

24) Young Adult - Now this, I'm looking forward to. I'm not positive I'll be able to catch it in the theater, but it looks great, and I'll be sure to watch it at some point.

25) Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory - I'm picky about my documentaries, and this one, about three teens who may have been wrongly convicted of murder, falls far outside my topics of interest. Let me know when documentarians make another Spellbound.

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #2: The Room

Normally, my intent is to seek out entertainment I think I'll like. Something that's been well-reviewed or is massively popular with critics I tend to agree with or has gotten good word-of-mouth from my friends.

Not always, though. In this case, I went hunting for something I knew in advance was going to be crap. It started with podcasts: They'd play weird sound drops that were funny, but didn't seem to make any sense. They'd reference not being so confused about something since The Room. Articles popped up about people attending screenings to yell at the screen, a la Rocky Horror Picture Show. Books are being written about it. One day, I heard a How Did This Get Made? episode that attempted to explain the whole phenomenon. But no amount of description could do the job. Clearly, the consensus that The Room is one of the worst movies of the modern era had solidified, and I had missed the memo.

So, I rented it. I fear I'll fall even shorter at attempting to describe what can loosely be defined as a "plot". Suffice it to say that director Tommy Wiseau stars as good-guy Johnny, whose fiancee Lisa becomes bored with him, and seduces his best friend. Johnny finds out, Lisa dumps him, and Johnny kills himself. The end. All of this is padded out by about seventy-six tertiary and quaternary characters introducing subplots that appear out of nowhere, are discussed for thirty seconds, and disappear, unresolved. Por ejemplo:

That's it. The house? Never mentioned again. The brother? Never mentioned again. The BREAST CANCER? Never mentioned again. And that was forty seconds of film. Imagine things like that popping up all over the place for an hour and a half. I suppose those unresolved plotlines are broken up by the five interminable sex scenes, which go on and on and on and on and on and on forever, to increasingly horrible music.

This movie seems like visitors from Mars came down, were given a brief summation of how movies work, and gave it their best shot. No, you know what? Strike that. This movie is like visitors from Mars came down and were given a brief summation of how humans interact, and gave it their best shot:

It's a gloriously terrible film. It's nice to finally be in on the joke, of course, but I'm mostly glad I was able to revel in a movie that will give others a run for their money in Best of the Worst.

The Room (as a movie): F
The Room (as an experience): B+

Star Light, Star Bright

We've entered that part of the calendar when I'm hysterically trying to get all the important movies I've missed under my belt before the Oscars roll around. I was planning on meeting a friend to see The Descendants today, but an accident of schedule and geography dumped me at the movie theater a couple of hours early, so I caught a showing of The Iron Lady as well. Awards buzz is heavy for both of these movies in differing categories, and in both cases, I'm afraid to say that it's not entirely earned. If there's one thing that saves them (in one case more successfully than the other), it's that there are legitimately wonderful performances in both. Unfortunately, those performances can't and don't carry the film that contains them.

When it comes to The Iron Lady, not much needs to be said about Meryl Streep, because you know what everyone is going to say, and I'm no exception. She's wonderful. I think the most uncanny thing about her is how easily I can lose myself in her characters. When I'm watching Maggie Smith, I always enjoy her, but I never forget for a moment that I am watching Maggie Smith act. When it comes to Meryl Streep, however, the fact that she's perhaps the most acclaimed living actress quickly fades after the first few minutes, and I fully engage with the character, as if I'm seeing an actress for the first time. She truly is Julia Child or a horribly mean fashion editor or a judgmental nun or an amoral zombie. She brings her A-game to the role of Margaret Thatcher as well, and as always, I have no complaint with her portrayal.

That portrayal is about the only thing to like. The rest of the movie is wildly unfocused, swinging back in forth in time, never deciding if it wants to celebrate Thatcher for making bold, unpopular decisions or condemning her for being a heartless plutocrat. Movies like The Queen or the The King's Speech work so well because they're a specific snapshot of a towering historical figure's life. The Iron Lady bites off way more than it can chew, trying to cram Thatcher's rise to power, her economic policies, the Falkland Islands conflict, her issues dealing with sexism in office, her mental instability in her advanced age, and more besides into one story.

The Descendants, on the other hand, holds together much better. George Clooney takes a break from his usual charm-oozing characters to play a man who's losing his grip on all the relationships in his life, from personal to business. He discovers that his wife, comatose and dying, was cheating on him before the accident that put her in the hospital. This is while he's trying to deal with two rebellious daughters and a land deal that will displease someone no matter what direction he takes. Clooney does an admirable job, and the girls who play his daughters are outstanding.

Even though the movie does everything well, no one aspect ever leaps out as particularly noteworthy. The emotional parts are never wholly affecting, and the comedic parts never add more than a dash of levity. It was a perfectly good film, and one I'd recommend, but certainly nothing sets it apart as one of the year's best.

Both of these movies have something to offer, and both serve as a showcase for some stellar acting, but much like a gifted violinist, a great solo performance can't compensate for a disappointing orchestra.

The Iron Lady: C
The Descendants: B

Guilty Pleasure: Death Becomes Her

Ooh, it's Friday the 13th! I should write about something scary. Or at least morbid. Of course, writing about morbid pieces of entertainment is hardly anything unusual for me, but I'm trying to keep to a theme here. I was puttering around my apartment last night, and wanted to watch something I enjoy, but don't have to pay overly close attention to. My eye fell on Death Becomes Her, and that was that.

It's often tough to distinguish between a guilty pleasure and an underrated movie. Neither one is particularly loved or respected by the world at large, but I'd say that an underrated movie is one you feel should have been praised more highly, while a guilty pleasure is something you know is crappy, but adore it anyway. Death Becomes Her pretty definitively falls into the guilty pleasure category; I don't think anyone's out there arguing that it should have gotten more critical acclaim. That's not to say it didn't get any. Its special effects were pretty remarkable for 1992 - so much so that it won an Oscar for them.

This movie is hammier than Easter. Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Isabella Rossellini take turns chewing the scenery as vain, selfish immortals, while Bruce Willis does his best to be the lovable goof in the center of the whirlwind. I like Bruce Willis in general, but his is the least successful performance here. I'm not sure why Meryl Streep's wild overacting works, while Willis' doesn't, but then, it's Meryl Streep. Everything she does works.

Luckily, I don't have to defend a guilty pleasure. I know how spastic, shallow, and just plain weird this movie is, and I don't care. There are plot holes you could pilot the International Space Station through, and I don't care. I'm not proud of loving Death Becomes Her, but love it I do.

The Pantheon: Clue

Everyone has their own personal Hall of Fame. The books you read a thousand times without getting bored. The actors that knock every single performance out of the park. The television episode that perfectly encapsulates what you like about a show. These are the gems of the entertainment world - the unimpeachable properties that earn a rare A+ in the report card of your heart.

The first thing that gets enshrined in my pantheon is Clue. I fell in love with the board game as a kid. And why wouldn't I? After all, it combines murder mysteries, secret passages, colorful characters (literally!), and the person who wins is the one who solves a logic puzzle the fastest. In short, everything I love.

I've played my way through most of the variations and spinoffs of the game: Clue Master Detective, the computer version, the Sega version, the VCR version, the iPod app, and so on. None of them is terrible, but none have been able to really improve on the original. I still like to take it down off the shelf when I'm able to find a willing group. You can keep your Taboo and your Cranium. Just give me Mrs. White, a lead pipe, and a billiard room.

Then there's the movie Clue, which is also lovable for an entirely different set of reasons. The first time I saw it, I laughed my head off, despite being so young that half the jokes sailed a mile over my head. This was the first movie I saw Madeline Kahn in, and she was so wonderful that it inspired me to seek out her other films, for which I'll always be grateful. I have lost count of the number of times I've watched this movie, and despite knowing every word and gesture by heart, I never get tired of it.

I know it's not the most highbrow film in the world, but it always brings an idiotic grin to my face, and I'm sure as hell not going to undervalue that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to make some monkey's brains. Although popular in Cantonese cuisine, they're not often to be found in Washington, D.C.


While I was over at my dad's house, busily recruiting my stepmother into the cult of Downton Abbey, my father launched a sneak attack, and had me watch the first episode of Sherlock, which airs on BBC in the UK, and comes to PBS in America much later (much like Downton Abbey itself).

I can't claim to be the biggest Sherlock Holmes fan in the world, and yet... I agreed to watch the ninety-minute premiere. My dad and I don't agree on much, entertainment-wise, and yet... I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

And hey, while we're talking about things I'm not generally enthusiastic for, add "Gritty Reboots of Classic Properties" to the list, and yet... Something about the way this show weaves modernity into the traditional stories really works. The first season is available on Netflix Instant, so I settled in at home to watch the rest of the episodes. There are only three in the first season, but each one clocks in at an hour and a half, making this more like a set of mini-movies than an episodic television show.

All three episodes were incredibly engaging, though not without some problems: The landlady character is wasted to the point of being totally unnecessary. Sherlock comes off as arrogant, which is entirely natural, given the character's immense mental acuity, but Benedict Cumberbatch (Britishest Name Ever) sometimes has problems portraying that without making the character tedious. Sherlock is physically powerful and agile as well, which combined with his observational skills, risks turning him into an invincible super-human.

These are minor issues, though. In general, this show is far better than I expected it to be. The storylines are solid, and provide plenty of winks to the source material without being corny. As Dr. Watson, Martin Freeman creates a perfect blend of incredulity, peevishness, and gleeful willingness to assist in Sherlock's schemes. When Sherlock returns to America's shores this May, my dad can be assured that it has a new viewer firmly in its clutches.

Sherlock - Season 1: B+

Award Repo: Cuba Gooding, Jr.

It's very important that we as a society take care to correct mistakes where possible. Scientific hypotheses that don't stand up to scrutiny are discarded. Newspapers print retractions. I don't see any reason we shouldn't treat awards the same way. If we truly wanted to recognize deserving performances, we'd hand the accolades out five years after the fact, because with all the hype and buzz and politics and pageantry of awards season, it's easy for the actual quality of the work to get muddled. There's no way we could ever do that, though, so the best we can do is look back in time and admit that mistakes were made.

So, let's hop in our time machines and head back to the 69th Academy Awards, when Oscars for the movies of 1996 were presented. And once we get there, let's revisit Best Supporting Actor:

Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Jerry Maguire)
William H. Macy (Fargo)
Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine)
Edward Norton (Primal Fear)
James Woods (Ghosts of Mississippi)

Before we get to the winner, there's another problem that needs to be addressed. I remember being gobsmacked, even at the time, that Jerry Maguire was nominated for anything. Not only is it up there in Best Supporting Actor, but it took one of the five Best Picture nomination slots. WHY?!? It was a middle-of-the-road romantic comedy that didn't distinguish itself in any way. It was fine, but not anything to write home about. It'd be like Friends With Benefits or 27 Dresses being nominated for Best Picture. Sure, The English Patient sucked too, but at least it was aspiring to be something more than passable.

Anyhow, Best Supporting Actor. Jerry Maguire is an unfathomably over-praised movie, but it didn't win. No, that honor went to Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Quick, tell me what he did in that movie besides shout "Show me the money!" into the phone. You have no idea, do you? Me neither. That's because it was an unremarkable performance in an unremarkable movie, which is especially galling when you look at who he was up against. Edward Norton tore his role in Primal Fear to shreds. William H. Macy's role in Fargo could have easily been a one-note joke. He turns Jerry Lundegaard into a nuanced, tortured loser, and what happens? The one-note joke wins an Oscar.

Perhaps I wouldn't be so tetchy about this if Cuba Gooding, Jr. were a better actor in general. There are plenty of compensatory Oscars given to great actors for less-than-stellar roles, and I don't have as much of a problem with those. But here's what Cuba Gooding, Jr. has been spending his time doing since his triumphant victory:

-Chill Factor
-Pearl Harbor
-Rat Race
-Snow Dogs
-Boat Trip
-Daddy Day Camp
-Eleven movies you've never heard of because they went straight-to-DVD.

The prosecution rests. When the repo team has successfully reclaimed the award, they may deliver it to either Macy or Norton at their convenience, and we can consider this wrong righted.

Save the Date: Joyful Noise

Event: Joyful Noise Release Date
Date: Friday, January 13

Honestly, I have no idea what this movie is even about. Something to do with a singing competition or whatever. Does it matter? I mean, look at the poster.

It's a movie with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton! Singing! Together! It clearly must be seen. If it's not good as a movie, it'll be good as a musical experience (see: Roll Bounce). In the unlikely event that it's not good as a musical experience, it'll be a fun way to pass the afternoon with friends.

So often around Oscar season, watching movies becomes an exercise in the Grand Experience of Cinema, which is fine. But once in a while, you've got to see something that just looks like pure fun, and this movie looks like it will fit the bill nicely.

Silence is Golden

It's been a very satisfying weekend, entertainment-wise. That's thanks in no small part to two movies - one selected from the Netflix queue to watch at home, and one I went to see in the theater. One was animated, and one was live-action. One was in color, and one was in black and white. One had a rather sad, poignant ending, and one ended on a decidedly cheerful note. That makes it sound like they couldn't be more different, but there was one important aspect that the two of them shared: Neither one had more than a dozen words of dialogue. Since there is a barely a spoken word between them, both films have to rely heavily on their scores, and both are lovely.

The first was The Illusionist. There are multiple movies with that title, but this is the one from 2010 that comes from the same team that made the supremely underrated The Triplets of Belleville. This movie was just as beautiful.

It tells the melancholy tale of a stage magician whose art is falling out of favor with the public to make way for rock and roll. A young barmaid is enchanted by his tricks, however, and she accompanies him when he leaves her little village. Her belief in the wonder he spins inspires him to keep trying, but his determination to please her with expensive gifts leads to trouble, as does her inevitable transition into more mature interests.

And speaking of people whose work has fallen out of favor with the public, I went to see The Artist, which charts the downfall of a silent film star who is left behind when the talkies make their debut.

As his star falls, the ingenue he helped become established in Hollywood (sorry, Hollywoodland) becomes more and more famous. It's a romantic, often hilarious film, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it rewarded, come Oscar season.

The Illusionist: A-
The Artist: A

Lifetime Pass: Christopher Nolan

Most everyone is familiar with the concept of the Lifetime Pass: An artist of some stripe -- be they actor, musician, director, or what have you -- puts out work so remarkable that they engender a seemingly inexhaustable supply of goodwill in your heart. Sometimes, it's that a movie, song, or whatever it is becomes your unwavering favorite, and though the artist may not go on to do much else of note (or even slides into actively terrible territory), you will always think of them fondly.

There's another type of Lifetime Pass, though, and that's when an artist has a string of reliably enjoyable work, to the point that his or her name attached to a project means that you're immediately on board, even if you have no idea what it entails.

I tend not to think in terms of directors. I can sort actors into "I like" and "I dislike" piles all day long, but I rarely bother with directors, because for the most part, they're not as easily pigeonholed. I can predict whether I'm going to like a particular actor in a movie, but a director can go either way; making a good or bad movie doesn't really portend how I'll feel about his or her next one.

Christopher Nolan is a notable exception. He's directed seven movies (the upcoming Batman release is his eighth), and there isn't a single stinker in the bunch. He has literally never made a movie I've disliked. Memento. Inception. The Dark Knight. The Prestige. I came away from all of these not only loving the movie, but knowing that when I inevitably watched them again, I'd discover more layers beneath the one I saw on first viewing. I think I've seen Memento a dozen times, and spot something new each time. His movies please the art-house crowd, yet still make gobs of money from the general public.

At this point, he could announce his next film is a fourteen-hour documentary on paint drying, and I'd be first in line. As far as I'm concerned, regardless of his future projects, Christopher Nolan gets to coast on his current reputation for the next sixty years.

Save the Date: Downton Abbey - Season 2

Event: Downton Abbey Season 2 Premiere
Date: Sunday, January 8 (8PM - 10PM, PBS)

I'm almost frightened of watching the Season 2 premiere of my current television obsession this weekend. Season 1 was so utterly fantastic, and received such widespread praise, that it's likely the new season won't be able to meet the impossible expectations set for it.

That doesn't mean I won't be glued to the screen this Sunday. If you haven't caught up with Downton Abbey, get thee to a Netflix Instant streaming device immediately. There are only a handful of episodes, and all of them are incredible. Team Edith!

Pop Culture Homework Assignment #1: A Wrinkle in Time

I figured the best way to kick off both the Pop Culture Homework Project and the new year would be to do something simple.  And what could be simpler than a children's book?

I've always been an avid reader, but when I first picked up A Wrinkle in Time in about seventh grade, I found it intolerably boring, and tossed it aside after only a few chapters. My classmates didn't seem to have this problem, and so I'm one of the few people who have managed to make it to adulthood without being able to look back on this novel fondly as a cherished childhood memory. I can't understand why, because I've always loved stories of children who journey to a magical land to face down challenges and demons, like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, etc.

So, how did it fare now that I've finally read it? Well, it's not entirely fair for me to judge it, because I'll never be able to see it through the eyes of a kid. It's like those people who wait until they're 32 to watch The Goonies, and then can't understand what all the fuss is about. Perhaps that explains why I found this book underwhelming.

The main characters are essentially yanked along on their journey by other entities, rather than setting out with a plan of their own. All the challenges are faced by staring deeply into one another's eyes and yelling. The character of The Happy Medium is introduced, only to play absolutely no real part in the events. The religious themes, so nimbly hidden in The Chronicles of Narnia such that I didn't notice them until years later, are overt and clumsy here.

These may be unfair complaints, akin to playing art critic to the kindergarten fingerpainting a proud parent has displayed on the family refrigerator. Still, I can't say that I regret missing out on this book. Either I've missed my window of opportunity for loving it, or my seventh-grade-self was on to something.

A Wrinkle in Time: C+

The Pop Culture Homework Project

No matter how faithful a consumer of pop culture you are, there are going to be things that struck a chord with the public at large that simply passed you by. Perhaps you always meant to read that book, but never got around to it. Maybe you were too young to fully appreciate that movie, and never gave it a second chance.

The Pop Culture Homework Project is a way of attempting to fill some of these gaps in my cultural history. I'll no doubt find that I love some of the works in these assignments as much as everyone else did. I'll probably discover that I gave up on or skipped something for a very good reason, and will not sign off on the public's stamp of approval.

This exercise is not about tracking down hidden gems that were overlooked. This is all about finally experiencing something that most people have already gotten under their belts. Really, the biggest potential risk is that I'll wind up loving something and want to spread the word, and then be embarrassed to remember that the word has been spread for many decades. In any event, this kind of homework sure beats the pants off Calculus.
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