The Martian Is a Feel-Good Movie that Earns Every Bit of the Feeling


Despite a number of well-crafted elements, the success or failure of The Martian absolutely depended on Matt Damon’s performance in the lead role. It’s true that, in contrast to spiritual predecessors like Gravity and Castaway, the film was not a one-man show, instead featuring a murderer’s row of stellar supporting players. What’s more, its narrative thrills were not limited to its protagonist’s adventures on Mars; The Martian told an equally compelling story of what was happening back home.

But Damon’s Mark Watney, and his lonely trials and tribulations on a desolate planet, were the lifeblood of the film, commanding the lion’s share of its run time and focus. That meant that for much of the movie, Damon alone had to convey his character’s distress, his resolve, his humor, and his humanity, with no one but the camera to talk to. And despite that handicap, he succeeded with flying colors. Few major roles share the degree of difficulty of Damon’s here, where the main character spends much of the film in solitude, with little in the way of major plot developments or action to maintain the energy of the picture, and the performance Damon delivered with that backdrop more than lived up to the challenge.

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The Simpsons: How “Moaning Lisa” Learns to Make Something Out of Sadness


The story of Lisa on The Simpsons is, in many ways, a tragic one. More than any other character on the show, she does not really fit into Springfield. That means that when she’s facing the type of complex problems that bother a sensitive young woman like herself, there’s little hope for a helping hand from someone who could address those problems with a level of understanding beyond her own.

Bart loves his sister, even if he can only admit it in a roundabout way, but he’s a brat whose bad behavior draws his parents’ attentions away from a child who needs it just as much, if not more. Homer, as Lisa acknowledges, means well and cares about his daughter, but he’s in so far over his head when it comes to the big questions nagging at her that he’s not much help beyond a good hug. That leaves Marge, perhaps the least-regarded member of The Simpson family among the show’s fans, as the only character on the show who “gets” Lisa.

Marge’s connection to her daughter makes her the emotional core of episodes like “Moaning Lisa”, particularly within the more grounded confines of The Simpsons’s first season. Even if Marge is, at times, a little too provincial to truly connect with her daughter’s world-weary concerns, she understands that Lisa is a remarkably precocious child, and that along with the insight and intelligence that will hopefully give her a better life someday, Lisa’s greater potential comes part and parcel with a greater set of challenges as well. The throughline for the episode, heavy stuff though it may be, is Lisa and Marge working through these types of challenges.

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The Hateful Eight Is Quentin Tarantino’s Meditation on Justice, Tribalism, and Identity

Caution: This review contains major spoilers for The Hateful Eight.

The Hateful Eight is filled with characters who are constantly performing for one another. Some of them are pretending to be something they’re not in the hopes of avoiding detection, some tell tall tales with theatrical enthusiasm in order to provoke, while others embellish at the margins to puff themselves up or knock someone else down. It’s no grand reveal when discussing a Quentin Tarantino movie to note that more than a few of them meet a bloody end, but what’s striking about the director’s eighth film is the way that the personas his characters assume, what roles they inhabit and which factions they align themselves with, change the kind of consequences they face within it.

The Hateful Eight is a film about justice and tribalism and how those two concepts inevitably lead to some strange, unsettling outcomes when combined. At the same time, the movie is just as concerned with how the identities that we project affect the kind of “justice” we receive.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is Like a Great Cover Song


CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
.

I had a phase as a teenager where my musical tastes veered toward covers: punk rock versions of old standards, acoustic covers of hard rock classics, and even orchestral arrangements of Top 40 hits. The blend of the foreign and familiar appealed to me at a time when my taste in music was just beginning to expand. When an artist takes another’s work and puts their own spin on it, transforming what a song means or how it works at an emotional level by filtering it through a different lens, the end result can be both compelling and approachable.

The Force Awakens is, essentially, J.J. Abrams’s cover of A New Hope. That’s not a knock. It’s a superb cover, that hits the right notes while still creating something new, and it stands as a genuine achievement that’s all the more notable in light of the franchise’s prior missteps.

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Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Is a Cold, Empty Film in a Series Known for its Richness, Excitement, and Warmth


The internet is the land of hyperbole. Everything is either the greatest event in the history of the world or the worst thing to ever happen. So when it came time to watch The Phantom Menace–arguably the most maligned of the already ill-regarded Star Wars prequels–I approached it with optimism. I didn’t love the film when I saw it at twelve, but I didn’t hate it either. Surely the case against it was overstated. Surely there was a charitable interpretation to be made. Surely it couldn’t be that bad.

And then it was.

Make no mistake — The Phantom Menace is an awful film. It’s not the blight on the soul of cinema that its most ardent detractors would have you believe, but it’s not a good movie. In truth, somewhere past the halfway mark, Episode I manages to settle into a groove of mere okayness. There’s a good portion of the film that, separated from the ardor and expectations that come with the Star Wars appellation, would fall into the voluminous “fine but forgettable sci-fi adventure” category, never to be spoken or thought of again.

Unfortunately, The Phantom Menace does labor under those expectations, and the worst elements of the film are front-loaded. The racial stereotypes, the parliamentary procedure, and the bad child acting are all at the forefront in the early going of Episode I. At some point, the movie stumbles its way into a decent-if-unremarkable story about bucking authority and making peace with longstanding rivals to face a common enemy. But it’s a long slog to get there without nearly enough of a payoff.

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Star Wars: a Hero Falters when The Empire Strikes Back


The Empire Strikes Back
has a reputation for being the darkest of the Star Wars films. In contrast to the triumphant mood at the end of A New Hope, Empire closes with our heroes having been thoroughly defeated and left scrambling. Han is frozen in carbonite, placed in the hands of a bounty hunter, and ferried to the crime boss he’s been trying to avoid for two films. Luke fails in his quest to neutralize Darth Vader and has his hand sliced off for the trouble. What’s more, he learns not only that the man he loathes most in this world is his father, but that the people he trusted–the ones who guided him on this journey–have misled him. And Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2-D2 are all lucky to escape with their lives after being imprisoned, strangled, torn apart, and dragged through the muck.

The title “The Empire Strikes Back” could easily have been a simple marketing ploy, something that looked good on movie posters and sounded cool enough to rev up Star Wars’s legions of fans. Instead, it became an animating principle for the film. Empire contrasts the unexpected blow struck by the Rebels in the first film, with the measured counterpunch delivered by The Empire in the second. The ending of Empire sent the message that this would not be the type of series of films where the good guys win every time just because they’re the good guys.

But there’s much more to the movie than that darkness. It’s easy to judge Empire based on where the characters are at the end of the movie, but the route the film takes to bring them to that point is not so much dark as it is meditative, not so much bleak as it is serious, and, if I’m being honest, a bit more uneven in the effort than its predecessor.

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Star Wars: The Balance of the Grand and the Intimate in A New Hope


Of all the memorable visual flourishes in the original Star Wars, there are two images that stand out. The first is arguably the most iconic — Luke Skywalker, gazing off at the horizon, as the twin suns set on Tatooine. It represents the promise of adventure, the enormous world that waits beyond the garden gate, and serves as the prelude to his epic journey.

But the second is much simpler. It’s Luke, Leia, and Han, arm-in-arm and filled with joy, as they celebrate their victory over the Empire back at the rebel base. That moment underlines their unlikely friendship, borne out of shared struggles and triumphs, and shows the film’s heart, clearly felt even in the midst of this grand adventure. That contrast is what Star Wars, at least in its original form, comes down to, and what makes the film still so salient and impressive nearly forty years after its release.

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The Simpsons Did a Takeoff on the Caitlyn Jenner Story and It Was…Weird

Say what you will about “Stunning and Brave”, the season premiere for South Park’s nineteenth season, which centers on Caitlyn Jenner and the public’s reaction to her transition, but in that episode, series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had a point they wanted to convey about Jenner and the surrounding media hoopla. In classic South Park style, the quick production turnaround let them have their say while the topic was still fresh in everyone’s minds. And while their commentary may have been crass, with plenty of room to disagree, Trey and Matt had a clear viewpoint and message behind their work that came through in how South Park handled the issue.

The Simpsons’s much longer production cycle means that it’s always going to be playing catch up when it comes to addressing the issues of the day. The show has tried to work around this obstacle, trying everything from turning the show’s lagging response time itself into a joke, making their easier-to-animate chalkboard gags more topical (including in support of South Park), and more recently, creating short topical clips meant for viral internet consumption. But as a general rule, the creative minds behind The Simpsons have had to wait patiently to speak their piece in the national dialogue. Until now.

Enter The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a mobile “freemium” game (the likes of which South Park has previously taken aim at), featuring the denizens of Springfield in a Farmville-meets-SimCity type of environment. Within this game, there are various “quests” — brief in-game tasks that feature minor storylines (often rehashes or sequels to the show’s most notable episodes) with small bits of written, interstitial dialogue to break up the action and add a little flavor to a mode of game play that can otherwise become repetitive. The fact that nearly all of this dialogue is conveyed via comic book-esque speech bubbles, without the need for voice acting or animation, allows it to be much more timely than in the game’s televised counterpart.

It’s in these bits of written dialogue that The Simpsons offered its take on the Caitlyn Jenner story, by having a little-known Springfield mobster become a woman as part of a bid to overthrow the local government, only for the character to just as quickly transition back to being a man, without fanfare, after the citizens turn on him. It’s odd not only for the peculiar nature of this riff on the Caitlyn Jenner story in and of itself, but because the Jenner takeoff seemed tossed off into an unrelated storyline, with no real criticism or commentary behind it.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Chaos Theory” – How We Respond When People Change


People change — some because they want to, some because they have to, and some because of factors beyond their control. It’s a fact of life. But people also have relationships with friends, family, and those closest to them. And as a person changes, so too must those relationships. But navigating how those relationships should evolve in the face of those changes can be extremely difficult, and the more drastic the change the harder it is to figure out. That’s the struggle for Melinda May in “Chaos Theory”.

But it’s also what makes her story, and her relationship with Dr. Andrew Garner compelling here. In Season 2′s “Melinda”, the show implied that May herself was so changed by her experiences in Bahrain that it led to the dissolution of her marriage. She was shaken by the events she witnessed, and these experiences made her a different person, putting a strain on her relationship with Dr. Garner.

Then, as this episode’s flashbacks to Hawaii show, May was finally able to move beyond her past and once again find common ground with the man she loves. The last scene in the episode puts too fine a point on it, but when Andrew takes her picture as she gazes off into the horizon, the implication is that May has finally made some kind of peace with who she is and who she wants to be. Then, right after May finds her equilibrium with the man she loves, he’s forced through his own change, by forces neither of them has any control of. And in “Chaos Theory” those nascent changes drive a new wedge between them. It’s tragic, and it’s not hard to understand why May feels like happiness is something meant to elude her.

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2015 Dallas Cowboys: The Season Ends Before It Began


In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys had one of their best seasons in recent memory. Despite some ups and downs in the regular season, they not only managed to beat the Eagles to win their division, but they picked up Dallas’s first playoff victory since the last gasps of the 90s Cowboys dynasty. Their season would end with a loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the second round of the playoffs, but hopes were high going into the next season. The Cowboys, it seemed, had found their winning formula, and they looked poised to capitalize on their newfound success.

Instead, in 2010, the Cowboys found themselves with a 1-7 record after the first eight games of the season. Due to a combination of some tough breaks in close matchups early in the season, and other fits of missed opportunities and bad luck (including starting quarterback Tony Romo suffering a broken clavicle) the team looked absolutely miserable at the halfway mark. Head Coach Wade Phillips was fired in the middle of the season, and the team would finish well out of playoff contention. The fans lamented that a promising year had gone down the drain.

It’s hard not to feel the echoes of the same one-two punch when looking at the Dallas Cowboys over the last two seasons. In 2014, despite times when it seemed like all was lost, the Cowboys stormed back to outpace the Eagles in the division, win the NFC East, and pull off the team’s first playoff victory since the one in 2009. After years of false starts (both literal and figurative), Jason Garrett seemed to have finally found a winning formula on both sides of the ball. Though the team’s post-season ended in a controversial loss to another NFC North opponent, hopes were once again high for the following season, where Dallas was penciled in as a playoff, and maybe even Super Bowl, contender.

Instead, in 2015, Tony Romo suffered another clavicle injury; the team again found itself on the losing end of a number of bad breaks in close games, and the Cowboys struggled, stumbling to a paltry 2-6 record at the halfway point of the season, hopelessly out of playoff contention. Once more, a season where Dallas looked so primed for success had gone down in flames. And it felt all too familiar.

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