Previous month:
November 2016
Next month:
January 2017

tv 2016: penny dreadful through the strain

Penny Dreadful. “There were all the great fictional characters thrown together: Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, and the Bride ... Dorian Gray ... Dr. Jekyll ... The Wolfman ... Dracula and Dr. Seward and Mina Harker and Van Helsing and Renfield ... I half expected Abbott and Costello to show up. But in all of this, Eva Green rose above the rest. She was the best thing about a very good show.” Looking back, I think Penny Dreadful might have been more than just a "very good show".

Rectify. “The best show currently on TV (The Americans is between seasons). Its glacial pace turns away most viewers ... it’s a gift that creator Ray McKinnon has been given the chance to tell the story in full, given the poor ratings. Recently, I decided the show reminded me of soap operas, where it takes months to resolve anything. Except I don’t expect things to be resolved on Rectify. I can only hope that sometime in the future, people catch up with it on streaming, and kick themselves for missing out in the first place. Aden Young, the unknown-to-me star, is as good as anyone, week after week. And this is what Abigail Spencer did before Timeless. If you actually want to take my advice, this is the show to start with.” Since I wrote this, Rectify’s series finale has been shown. There was more resolution than I expected, but even then, it was very much in tune with how Rectify worked. As Aden Young as Daniel said, “I’m cautiously optimistic.” I’ll emphasize this point one last time: Rectify is one of the best series to ever appear on television.

Shameless. “Showtime always lets their shows run for too long. That would seem to be a problem here, but somehow, Shameless is still very good. The changes in the characters over the years are believable (at least within the cockeyed world of the show), Emmy Rossum deserved more than one of those awards named after her, and I’m glad it’s still on. Oddly, the least-interesting character is the one played by William H. Macy, the de facto star. Macy is excellent, his character is not.”

Soundbreaking. Terrific documentary series about music recording. Serves as a history of the music, and covers many bases. Especially good on the ways advances in technology led to an expansion of artistic possibilities. I could see this being used in the classroom, but it’s not nearly as dry as that might sound. If the subject interests you at all, I suspect you’ll be enthralled.

The Strain. “Another zombie show, this one doesn’t try for overarching significance, which for me means it’s better than The Walking Dead. I care about the characters, and there’s some good acting here, but this isn’t a classic.” I’d add that you won’t find The Walking Dead in these TV 2016 posts ... I quit watching after the recent season premiere.

Penny Dreadful Season 3 trailer:

Scene from Season Four of Rectify:

Shameless Season Seven trailer:

Trailer for Soundbreaking:

The Strain Season 3 trailer:


:


cure (kiyoshi kurosawa, 1997)

Earlier this year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa released a film that is titled “Creepy” in the U.S. and many other places. Cure is the first of his films I have seen, and I can already see how nearly twenty years later, he’d turn out something Creepy.

It reminded me a bit of American procedurals like Criminal Minds, which features a serial killer of the week. But where a show like Criminal Minds seems to wallow in the killers, Cure takes a different approach. The police try to identify the killer, but their job is both easy and difficult, for with each murder, someone immediately takes credit for the act ... and it’s a different person each time. We don’t see the act of killing, we see the post-murder victims, so the focus isn’t on the pleasure of the murderer, but on the brutality done to the victim. Eventually it becomes clear that someone is influencing the killers in some unknown way.

What follows is part psychological study, part fantasy, and Kurosawa doesn’t ground the film in the real. (Neither does he fall completely into fantasy. It’s an interesting blend.) Cure derives most of its power from the performances of Kôji Yakusho as the policeman, and Masato Hagiwara as the “influencer”. Memory and self-identity are the key to it all, and honestly, it would be a bit cheesy if Yakusho and Hagiwara weren’t so convincing. Kurosawa creates an ambiguous atmosphere, and Cure is ultimately, yes, creepy. But it’s much ado about nothing in the end. Kurosawa seems to be reaching for some deep statement about life, but I liked Cure despite the overreaching, not because of it. 7/10.


tv 2016: the night manager through outlander

The Night Manager. Classy mini-series based on a le Carré novel, with a cast headed by Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, along with other stalwarts of modern television like Olivia Colman, David Harewood, and the ever-present Tobias Menzies. (I first saw him as Brutus in the great Rome, but he has really kicked it into another gear the last few years. Besides The Night Manager, he was in an episode of Black Mirror, was in Game of Thrones, The Honorable Woman, a regular (in two roles) in Outlander, and the English comedy Catastrophe. All in the last three years.) It won a couple of Emmys, and probably would play well if binged. We watched an episode a week, and liked it, but I wouldn’t go any further.

The Night Of. “The first of eight episodes is as good as TV gets, and if the rest of the series can’t live up to that introduction, it’s still plenty good. Zaillian and Price work hard to elevate The Night Of above the usual crime drama, then turn it into something far more ordinary at the end. It’s a shame, because much of that last episode is equal to what came before. The result is a series where the first episode was an A+, the next six episodes were A/A-, but the last episode fluctuated between A and C.”

Orange Is the New Black. Now we’re four seasons in, and still going strong. The cast is enormous, which creates problems when trying to tell everyone’s story, but for the most part, Jenji Kohan pulls it off, adding new characters, changing things around to keep it fresh. The characters have evolved over the years ... no one is stagnant. And great acting abounds. Special shout out to Samira Wiley.

Orphan Black. Fans of the show might differ with me, but as a series, Orphan Black has about run its course. But it could run for another ten seasons and I’d be watching, just to see what Tatiana Maslany will manage next. It’s a decent show, but Maslany is far and away the best part. This year, she finally won her Emmy.

Outlander. A fascinating show, gorgeous to look at, intriguing in its narrative (a romance with sci-fi thrown in), and remarkable in its female-centric view of sexuality. (Maureen Ryan wrote strongly about this in Season One.) Showrunner Ronald D. Moore once again demonstrates a facility with genre fiction, taking us far beyond our preconceived notions, much he did with Battlestar Galactica. Drawing on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Moore is true to the books while creating something special on its own. And Caitriona Balfe is exquisite.

Night Manager trailer:

The Night Of trailer:

Orange Is the New Black Season 4 trailer:

Orphan Black Season 4 trailer:

Outlander Season 2 trailer:

 

 


music friday: 2016

No, not music released in 2016. This post is devoted to what I actually listened to in 2016. Spotify made me a playlist of my top songs of 2016. I can’t tell how they ordered the songs, so I’m going to pull the top ten off the list.

  1. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep
  2. Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
  3. The Supremes, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking
  4. Jerry Reed, “Amos Moses
  5. Cat Stevens, “Here Comes My Baby
  6. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Who’ll Stop the Rain
  7. The Strangeloves, “I Want Candy
  8. Cat Stevens, “Where Do the Children Play?
  9. Fleetwood Mac, “I Don’t Want to Know
  10. Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

I don’t remember listening to a lot of those songs (#3, #5, take a bow). Not only that, but Last.fm tracks a large portion of my Spotify listening, and their Steven’s 2016 Charts look a lot different than Spotify’s. Their #1 is CIA Man” by The Fugs. Only three of the Spotify Top Ten make the top 128 on Last.fm. So clearly, this is complicated.

Here is the Last.fm list of my Top Ten artists for 2016 in terms of tracks listened to:

1. The Rolling Stones

2. The Beatles

3. Bruce Springsteen

4. Donovan

5. Bob Dylan

6. Prince

7. Liz Phair

7. The Beach Boys

9. Cat Stevens

9. Dolly Parton

I have a serious Sixties fixation.


tv 2016: jane the virgin through mr. robot

Steven Rubio's Online Life

 


tv 2016: fleabag through the 100

Fleabag. “It’s one of the best accomplishments of this television season. Creator/writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the key to what makes Fleabag great, which given her multiple duties might seem obvious. I’m inclined to hail a new star, and ask where she has been all of our lives, but of course, she’s been around for a long time (she’s 31, and has been at this for a decade). It’s her face that does it. Her unnamed character regularly breaks the fourth wall, which is a cliché by this point, but she makes it work because 1) she gives herself great dialogue, and most importantly 2) because of the wordless times when she stares at the camera and tells us everything we need by facial expressions. She sucks us in from the very first scene ... she is so engaging in a recognizably human way that we don’t just want to root for her, we want to be her.”

Game of Thrones. "There is no question that Game of Thrones is treated with respect in part because of the network on which it airs. It has won 26 Emmys and counting. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t escape it.” The most admirable thing about Game of Thrones is that it maintains a level of consistency. Some seasons are better than others, just as some episodes are better than others. But, to this point, you always know what you are getting: a quality show with violence and sex, with the latter often exploitative. The acting is variable, but the good actors are great. Many of the characters are memorable. I can’t imagine anyone out there is still making up their minds about this show.

Girls. What does it say that I don’t seem to have written about Girls Season 5, and that I had to look it up to remind myself what happened during the year? Perhaps it’s more important that I am still watching. A look at critical reaction tells us a lot. According to Metacritic, the “Metascore” for the first five seasons has been 87, 84, 76, 75, and 73. This shows a gradual fade, but 73 translates to “generally favorable”. Girls may not be the center of the zeitgeist any longer, but that’s probably good for the show.

Happy Valley. Season 2 was as good as the first season. Happy Valley benefits from having short seasons (six episodes), and from the stunning performance of Sarah Lancashire in the lead. Downton Abbey fans will enjoy seeing O’Brien (both seasons) and Molesley (S2). Advance warning: Happy Valley is often quite dark.

The 100. “Became quite problematic in its third season, yet I may be looking forward to next season more than any other show on this list, and it’s another I recommend you catch up on (be aware it takes a few episodes before it reaches its potential). The season finale proved that the creators of The 100 know quite well how to properly send off a beloved character. If the send off we got had occurred in, say, Episode 307, I'm guessing the uproar would have been reduced, or even absent. That those creators felt perfectly happy saving this send off for the finale, while participating in a trope that lost them a significant part of their viewership, is remarkably clueless at best. I love The 100, and I loved most of the season finale. I really loved that send off. But it pisses me off the way it was mishandled. For many people, Episode 307 made The 100 beyond redemption. I'm still here. But part of me wishes I'd just skipped all the episodes between 307 and the two-part finale. (After Ep. 307, I wrote, ‘That moment when what happens in fiction is so affecting you can't feel the real world for awhile.’)”

The now-infamous first scene of Fleabag:

Game of Thrones Season 6 trailer:

Girls Season 5 trailer:

Happy Valley Season 2 trailer:

The 100 Season 3 trailer:

 


richard pryor live in concert (jeff margolis, 1979)

Richard Pryor was the apex of stand-up comedy in his era, and to this day. His influence can be seen in any number of current comedians, most obviously Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s stand-up can be funny, and he is an excellent mimic. But Pryor is a class above. Live in Concert is the first full-length presentation of his act (there was a short film, Live & Smokin’, earlier in the 70s), and it is the best Pryor film, although Live on the Sunset Strip has its moments. Pryor made a few good non-standup movies ... his comedies with Gene Wilder were popular, and I liked him in the drama Blue Collar. But the essence of Richard Pryor is in his standup, and Live in Concert is the place to start.

What is he known for, more than ten years after his death? His influence, to be sure. I imagine a lot of people think of him as a master of profanity, which is true if reductive, or as a master of social commentary in his comedy, which is also true and also reductive. What I think makes him so great is that, even when his anger shows through, he has a basic connection to humanity. His comedy is honest, and we recognize ourselves. He uses words to paint evocative pictures, and he extends his humanity to inanimate objects, which seems odd but which somehow brings out that human side of him even more. It’s not just that he sees the humanity in black people and white people ... he sees humanity in automobiles, and wind, and deer, and shotguns, and bodily organs. His acceptance is expansive.

He is, of course, hilarious. But part of the hilarity comes from the way he personifies the objects in his life. When he has a heart attack, he takes on a number of characters, including his heart and himself, but also including God (his heart gets pissed at Rich for going behind the heart’s back to beg God for mercy). When he goes deer hunting with his dad, he is himself, and he is his dad, and he is a deer, and he is the crunching leaves under their feet. In one of the most famous scenes from Sunset Strip, Pryor becomes his crack pipe, so willing to be Rich’s friend that you understand the addiction, right up to the point where he sets himself on fire.

It’s a remarkable gift. It wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t funny ... Pryor was a comedian ... but it usually is very, very funny. Then you consider the importance of social commentary in his act, both implicit and explicit. Add in his marvelous ability to cuss like a motherfucker. When Richard Pryor was on, there was no one better.

You could do worse than to listen to his many comedy albums. The albums based on Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip are excellent, Bicentennial Nigger from 1976 was a seminal bicentennial work, and there’s even a nine-disc box set of all his Warner Brothers records. But I think he’s best when you can see him, which is why I prefer the movies. And Live in Concert is the best of those. 10/10.


tv 2016: better things through downton abbey

Better Things. Wonderful “comedy” co-created by and starring Pamela Adlon (Louis C.K. was the other creator, and while I haven’t seen his own show, apparently Better Things is a bit like Louie). There are plenty of autobiographical elements in this story of a single mom with three daughters. I admit I wasn’t overwhelmed with the premise, but critics loved it, so I gave it a try, and I loved it, too. Adlon is the perfect center of a show like this, and all three of the actresses who play her daughters are strong (casting of kids is often the downfall of shows with families). Definitely looking forward to Season Two.

Black Mirror. “Not sure this makes sense, but I like this show enough that I don’t feel the need to binge. Each episode is a stand-alone, which is probably the main reason ... I can sit down for an hour, and feel I’ve gotten enough for one day.” I join with those who rank ‘San Junipero’ as the best episode of the season, perhaps of the entire series (one episode features Hayley Atwell, so you know I like that one).

Broad City. At this point, I can’t imagine anyone is unfamiliar with Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Abbi even gave one of the finest performances ever on Lip Sync Battle. (Ilana wasn’t bad either ... in fact, she was declared the winner of the battle.) Comedies like this are never 100% perfect, but when Broad City hits, nothing compares.

Casual. “Over two seasons, the three main characters work gradually towards becoming better people. All three of them are extremely self-absorbed, but when they step outside of themselves we see some pretty decent people. The characters feel real, with all of their flaws, and we root for them. Except the brother is the #1 amongst equals when it comes to self-absorption. I know this kind of person ... I am this kind of person. And I try to do better, as does the character. But he is so horrible that he is practically unwatchable. The writing is good, the acting is good, but I simply can’t stand that guy. I don’t even like when he gets a comeuppance, because I know it will lead to more scenes where he thinks only of himself and his traumas. Let’s just say he hits too close to home for me. It’s a good show, but I can’t say I enjoy it much.”

Downton Abbey. “Progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikeable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions. The finale was nice and tidy, and in the future, I’ll remember the better things about the show, and hopefully forget about the endless legal problems of Bates, or the pointless cattiness of Mary against her sister Edith, or any of the other plotlines that served only as digressions designed to get us through another season. Downton Abbey is not the worst show that I stuck with for six seasons, but it is far from the best.”

Better Things trailer:

Black Mirror Season 3 trailer:

Broad City Season 3 trailer:

Casual Season 2 trailer:

Downton Abbey Season 6 trailer:




tv 2016: americans through atlanta

Much of what follows over the next several days will be re-posts of what I've written during the year, although the first entry is all new. (I thought I posted this four days ago, but it seems to have disappeared.)

The Americans. I haven’t written much about this show over the years, for no apparent reason, since if it’s not the best show on TV, it’s in the top two. There have been four seasons, with two to go, so you have plenty of time to catch up. The premise is intriguing: in the early 1980s, we follow the Jennings, a typical American nuclear family except Mom and Dad are secretly Soviet spies. This angle never gets old, but what raises The Americans above pretty much every other show on the air is that the premise isn’t even the main reason to tune in every week. The ongoing story of the Jennings is the key, and Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell have been great since day one. As spies, they are required to manipulate others ... Rhys’ “Philip” even marries another woman who is the secretary for an important FBI supervisor. Philip and “Elizabeth” take different approaches to their jobs ... Philip comes to appreciate life in the USA more than Elizabeth does. They also find themselves becoming closer as a couple, having been originally assigned each other. There are a number of other fine actors, especially Noah Emmerich as an FBI agent who moves in across the street from the Jennings, and Margo Martindale as one of the Jennings’ handlers. Luckily, the show has a winner in Holly Taylor, who plays Philip and Elizabeth’s teenage daughter, Paige. Teenage characters are often annoying, but Taylor has grown with her role, and been given more to do as a result. One interesting plot twist is that Paige discovers religion, which really pisses her Communist mother off. Meanwhile, the violence on the show is occasional, but often brutal, even in arguably the most romantic moment of the entire series, when Philip has to extract a tooth from Elizabeth, without an anesthetic. One of the only undisputed “A” shows on television today.

Angie Tribeca.Angie Tribeca, like its spiritual father Police Squad, is so relentless is its destruction of clichés that it’s hard to watch an ordinary show after seeing an episode of Angie. Things that aren’t supposed to be funny on something like Supergirl remind you of something similar on Angie Tribeca that was supposed to be funny, and you end up laughing inappropriately.”

Ash vs. Evil Dead. “Perhaps the easiest TV series in history to evaluate. If you like the Evil Dead movies, you will like this show. If not, you won’t. And I suppose if you’ve never even heard of the Evil Dead movies, you won’t like this either. This is possibly the goriest show we’ve ever seen on TV, which is right in line with the movies (if for some reason you aren’t up to date, this show is part of the Evil Dead universe, taking place after the events of Army of Darkness). The entire show is over the top, including the gore, which can’t be taken on a serious level ... the inspiration for all of this is the Three Stooges. No one tries to make a case for the Evil Dead universe as meaningful ... it’s just a silly gore fest that has the honesty to know what it is about. Plus, Bruce Campbell and Lucy Lawless. One of my favorite shows, but if ever the cliché “Your Mileage May Vary” was appropriate, it’s here.

Atlanta. “Might be the best new show in recent times, although it’s erratic. Donald Glover created and stars in it, and he offers a small world that feels real (whether or not it actually is), with characters (and actors) to fill their roles perfectly. This show might get so good in future seasons that we’ll look back on Season One as a mere warm-up, but it stands on its own.”

The Americans Season 4 promo:

Angie Tribeca Season 2 Episode 1 "Hyper Binge":

Ash vs Evil Dead Season 2 Trailer (NSFW):

Atlanta trailer:


the asphalt jungle (john huston, 1950)

I never knew that Paramount Studios advertised Sterling Hayden as “The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies”. He was 25 years old at the time. When The Asphalt Jungle came out, he was 34, and I don’t know what Paramount called him at that point. He was still pretty, but he snarled a lot, which served to cover up the essential decency of his character, Dix, the muscle on a team of jewel thieves. The Asphalt Jungle is very well cast, which makes it easy to establish character. But Hayden is the best of them all.

John Huston directed some all-time classics in the 1940s, including The Maltese Falcon (#18 on my all-time list) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which would probably rank around #55). He was nominated for a Best Director Oscar four times, including The Asphalt Jungle (winning for Sierra Madre). He also got an Oscar nom for the screenplay for Asphalt Jungle. All of which suggests The Asphalt Jungle might be a classic on the level of a Maltese Falcon.

It’s not. It’s very good ... the word that best describes it is “efficient”. Outside of a moronic speech about good cops that feels squeezed in, the terse dialogue does the job and is finely delivered by the cast. I’m not a big Marilyn Monroe fan, but she does great with her big speech near the end. Again, the casting helps ... it’s as if the lines were written for Hayden and Sam Jaffe and the rest. Jean Hagen is also good, two years before Singin' in the Rain.

It’s very much of a piece with other Huston films, with its emphasis on revealing character through actions and its examination of male codes of honor. We like the “bad guys” here, because Huston likes them. I suppose for some, the fine line between an Asphalt Jungle and a Maltese Falcon is small indeed. But for me, while I think it’s better than some of Huston’s more underrated films like The Bible or The Man Who Would Be King, it just misses the pantheon. #418 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time (12 higher than The Long Goodbye, which is a better movie). 8/10.