Bone Chilling

While it's easy to plop down in the living room recliner for a breezy comedy, I have to be in the proper mood to watch a serious drama. Since my window for dramas is so much slimmer than for comedies, dramas tend to pile up in my queue. So when I found myself in one of those quickly-passing Drama Moods last night, I jumped on it, and settled in for Winter's Bone. This is the movie that made a breakout star of Jennifer Lawrence, and for good reason. She plays Ree, the oldest child of an Ozark family. Ree is forced to run the household and care for her two young siblings, since her mother is nearly catatonic and her father is a habitual meth user/dealer. When said father disappears after posting bond, she is informed that since he put up the homestead to pay for his release, if he doesn't show up for his trial, the family will lose their home.

Thus begins her search through her desolate, depressing, and intimidating surroundings. The other denizens of her world are dangerous people; this is a community where violence is the answer to every problem, drugs and pregnancy are the main ways of passing the time, and women are trained to be either terrified or vicious at the behest of their men. John Hawkes plays Ree's uncle Teardrop, an unlikely ally who vacillates between bursts of violent temper and sense of duty to the family he's distanced himself from.

Needless to say, nobody is anxious to help the daughter of a local meth cooker who is rumored to have informed the police about other drug dealers in the area. Despite the fact that the characters barely raise their voices, there is always a sense of danger and hopelessness simmering under the surface. By the time the movie ends, nobody's situation has changed that drastically, but there is a sense that Ree has been made all the stronger by the events that have transpired. By turns terrifying and hopeful, it's easy to see why this movie got so many accolades. It deserves every one.

Winter's Bone: A-

Free Pass

Trying to separate the art from the artist is difficult for everyone, and I'm no different. I've been avoiding reading any of Jonathan Franzen's work, because every single thing I've ever read or saw of him has lead me to the same conclusion: "What a supercilious prick." This thought was always followed by a slight pang of guilt, because I judge him on such slim evidence, and who am I to completely dismiss his work, just because he rubs me the wrong way?

Well, thank the heavens I don't have to feel that way anymore, because a copy of his novel Freedom fell into my lap, and after reading it, I can judge to my heart's content. It was everything my preconceived notions suggested it would be. Ostensibly, it's about an upper-middle-class family and their constant struggles to maintain their ideals and relationships. In actuality, it's page after page of smug, selfish characters pissing each other off because they're all smug and selfish.

There isn't one worthy person in the bunch, and as I forced myself through each chapter, any hope that there would be some breakthrough in the story was swiftly torpedoed. Every time someone actually threatened to grow as a character, they would soon sink right back down into their default mode of blithe self-satisfaction. I have no idea why Franzen is hailed as some great, modern American novelist, when the lesson I learned from this book is that the only kind of character he can write is a reflection of himself. What a supercilious prick.

Freedom: C-

The Fox and the Hound

I've been having a lot of issues with hype lately. I try to begin any entertainment consumption with as few preconceived expectations as I can, but it's not always possible. We watch a movie with the weight of all of a particular actor or director's previous work directing our bias, or we'll start watching a television show because a reviewer we respect has praised it. Recently, I watched both a movie and a television show based solely on how much other people liked them, and came away from both a little disappointed.

In the movie realm, I got The Fantastic Mr. Fox from Netflix. I'm a casual Wes Anderson fan, in that I loved The Royal Tenenbaums and at least sort-of liked a bunch of his other films. I had skipped over The Fantastic Mr. Fox when it was in theaters, but when a bunch of people told me it was their favorite Anderson movie to date, I felt I had to catch up with it.

The story is a simple one. A fox that has built his life by raiding farms for supplies agrees to a less dangerous line of work at his wife's insistence, but can't help returning to his thieving ways when his staid life becomes too rote. When the farmers retaliate, the fox puts not only his life in danger, but all of the woodland creatures'. In a way, this movie would be the result if The Royal Tenenbaums and Chicken Run had a baby. What's weird is I love both of those movies, but couldn't really get into this one. It was fine, but certainly nothing I'd go out of my way to recommend.

In a similar vein, the entertainment websites I read are full of commenters rending their clothes and gnashing their teeth over the loss of Terriers, a show that lasted a mere 13 episodes on FX. Any discussion of show cancellation, whether it's premature or long overdue, is sure to bring the plaintive wails of the Terriers fans, bemoaning the little show that couldn't. Convinced that I had missed something really special, I was delighted to find that the show was available on Netflix Instant Streaming, and settled in for some amazing television. It never came.

Not that it was a bad show; it was perfectly fine. On the surface, it was about an ex-cop and an ex-thief teaming up as a pair of private investigators. The show delved a lot deeper than that somewhat fluffy premise, though, and got into storylines involving massive conspiracies and personal demons. I'm not sure if I can accurately gauge how much of my disappointment with the show stemmed from it just not being to my taste versus what I was expecting out of it, but it seems like a fair amount of the blame can be directed squarely at hype. Chances are, if I had just stumbled upon either of these properties, I would have enjoyed them as much as everyone else did. As it is, neither came close to matching the ideals they're held up as.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox: B-
Terriers: C+


My relationship with comic book superhero properties is midway between geek and casual participant. I never got into comic books, but I did obsessively play X-Men video games and watched the Saturday morning cartoon, to the point that I had more than a passing familiarity with the characters. Then the disparate Marvel universes started to blend with recent games like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, so I learned more about characters like Iron Man and Captain America, but beyond that, I'm still in the mainstream. I've never been to a convention or anything like that. I'm similarly walking the middle of the line with the deluge of superhero movies lately. I saw Iron Man, but Captain America and Thor are languishing in my Netflix queue.

So while I was excited to see The Avengers, I was nowhere near as jazzed as your average comic book enthusiast. I was more excited because I wanted to see what Joss Whedon could do when given control of something with an actual budget. Turns out, he doesn't disappoint. He was tasked with taking four superheroes, each with their own backstories and movie franchises (of varying quality) and two governmental agents with no extraordinary abilities, and throwing them together into one story in which everyone gets camera time. It's like grafting wheels onto a gorilla, and yet he pulled it off with aplomb.

It's amazing how many pitfalls this movie could have fallen into, and didn't. The sultry Black Widow could have been a generic eye-candy character, and instead, pretty much becomes the glue that holds the entire plot together. Any of the heroes could have been lost in the background, but everyone gets a chance to shine. The Hulk, so sullen and plodding in other movies, becomes simultaneously more threatening and more empathetic in Whedon's hands. I could go on and on. And a lot of people already have. Critics love this movie. Comic book geeks love this movie. General audiences love this movie. It's even rare to find harsh words about it in internet comment threads. The onslaught of superhero movies is far from over, but the ones that come after this one are going to have a high bar to clear.

The Avengers: A-

Award Repo: Pietro Scalia

Naturally, most of the snubs and outrages of awards given to undeserving recipients are related to big categories like Best Picture, Best Actor, or Best Album. That's understandable. But hey, it's only fair that people in less showy fields get their share of anti-love too, right? So, travel back in time with me to the 2002 Academy Awards, and let's take a look at our nominees for Best Film Editing:

Jill Bilcock (Moulin Rouge)
Dody Dorn (Memento)
John Gilbert (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)
Mike Hill, Daniel P. Hanley (A Beautiful Mind)
Pietro Scalia (Black Hawk Down)

Film editing can be a rough category to judge for a casual moviegoer. We can easily form opinions on how the actors did, how good the script was, and if the director put together a cohesive film, but we don't tend to think much about how successful the stitching between scenes was. When editing does strike a chord, it's probably because it was either really, really good, or really, really bad. A Beautiful Mind won Best Picture that year, but nobody thought that was due to masterful editing. Moulin Rouge and Black Hawk Down had their fans, but again, nobody watched those movies and shouted "Wow! Can you believe that editing?!?" When it comes to Lord of the Rings, some editing achievement is actually visible. John Gilbert did a great job of keeping a sweeping epic contained and economical enough to follow. In any other year, I'd happily hand the award to him.

This year, however, there was Memento. Memento is one of the best movies I've ever seen, and one of the biggest reasons it works so well is due to its editing. Dody Dorn was responsible for editing a film in such a way that...

1) The main narrative is told backwards.
2) A separate narrative is told forwards.
3) These narratives must be interwoven into each other.
4) The audience must be confused enough to mirror the main character's chaotic brain condition, but...
5) Should still be able to understand the overall story.

She accomplished all of this with aplomb. Like I said, editing is not a branch of film I think about often, but hers was so outstanding that I had to sit up and take notice. It's shameful that she wasn't recognized for it, and more than that, it's confusing. Taste is subjective, of course, but to me, this was one of the more obvious choices Academy voters have ever had to make, and they goofed it. In the last Award Repo, I took an Oscar away because the performance wasn't good. In this case, I rescind Pietro Scalia's award not because his editing was poor, but because Dody Dorn turned in some of the best work I've ever seen, and deserves the recognition far, far more.

The British Invasion

What I'm Watching: Sherlock - Season 2

British programming has always held a lot of allure for me, but nothing much has grabbed my attention and held it in the last few years. Until, that is, Downton Abbey arrived and blew my socks off. And then, right on the heels of that, came the first season of Sherlock, which at least made my socks tingle. I thoroughly enjoyed those three episodes, and made plans to settle in for Season 2.

Which started tonight! As with the first season, there are only three episodes total, but at ninety minutes each, there's plenty of Holmes to go around. "A Scandal in Belgravia" introduces the famous Irene Adler character to this particular series, and she's been updated into a dominatrix that serves the wealthy and powerful, and as such, is in possession of a lot of sensitive secrets.

The episode takes a lot of twists and turns. Maybe even too many; several characters have plans in play, and there's almost no end to the you-thought-I-was-doing-this-but-AHA!-it's-actually-something-else plot threads. Still, Lara Pulver imbues Irene Adler with danger, intelligence, and simmering sexuality, and she plays off of the main cast incredibly well.

Next week is perhaps the most famous Sherlock tale of all, "The Hound of the Baskervilles". Can you deduce where I'll be at 8 PM?

Charisma! Uniqueness! Nerve! Talent!

Reality television has been on a roll lately. A roll of being not very good. All of my old favorites have gotten or are rapidly becoming tepid and forgettable. Happily, there's an exception to this trend: Season 4 of RuPaul's Drag Race just wrapped up, and despite starting on a rather janky note, it quickly morphed into one the best seasons they've produced.

I was skeptical at first, because there were, not to put too fine a point on it, some really fugly contestants. But every competition needs its cannon fodder, and the season still managed to get off to a roaring start with a post-apocalyptic (or "post-apopacloptic," according to one of the dimmer competitors) challenge and a frighteningly realistic fake-out that Shangela would be in the running for a third consecutive try at the crown. It only got better from there.

Aside from the usual stream of hilarious one-liners from the contestants and RuPaul herself, there was an enjoyable arc to the season itself. You had your clearly-in-over-her-head contestant (Jiggly Caliente), your lovable neophyte (Dida Ritz), your stalwart professional (Chad Michaels), and your mischievous troublemaker (Willam). And then, the big three. Two of them were a match made in reality show heaven: Good vs. Evil. Showgirl vs. Goth Girl. Light vs. Dark. Sharon Needles vs. Phi Phi O' Hara. These two couldn't have been more dissimilar, and they hated each other's guts from the word go. Their constant spats and struggles (not to mention the brief periods that they attempted to get along) turned a good season into an unmissable one. But even that epic battle wasn't the season's biggest hook.

Ladies and gentlemen, Latrice Royale. Gigantic. Ex-con. A laugh like the blare of an eighteen-wheeler's horn. Den mother. Taskmaster. Glamor girl. Miss Congeniality. When Latrice spoke, everyone listened. Santino apologized for an overly personal critique. Phi Phi, who would instantly attack anyone who criticized her, scuttled away meekly when Latrice expressed disappointment in her Snatch Game performance. RuPaul let her give a lengthy good-bye speech, a boon never granted to any other contestant. Latrice is a one-in-a-million contestant, and the viewing audience knows it.

Add to all of this some fun challenges (political debates, making over grizzled, older straight dudes, getting tossed around in the wrestling ring) and some fun guest judges (Elvira, Dan Savage, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and many more), and it's easy to see why this season shined. The problems it had were minor, and all had to do with embracing stale reality show conventions, rather than skewering them, like Drag Race usually does. Dragging out reveals to unsatisfying conclusions (like the reason for Willam's disqualification) were hokey, and could have come straight out of any hackneyed episode of The Bachelor. Other than that, there's not much to criticize. This show is really hitting its stride these days, and the ultimate victory of Sharon Needles is the delightful cherry on this naughty sundae.

RuPaul's Drag Race - Season 4: A-
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