Salon’s Matthew Brandon Wolfson recently criticized Mad Men for its commercial appeal. He accused the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, of “selling…an image of a glowing past — a prettier, simpler time when people knew their social roles and played them perfectly.” And he insinuated both that the show’s commercial-friendly nature sits uneasily with its art and that Weiner wants the viewer to “find [the show] twisted and layered and dark, but [he] also wants you to buy it.” But in describing Mad Men as an “exquisite empty shell,” Wolfson mistakes the packaging for the package, and misses the subtly brilliant way the series has its cake and eats it too.
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I’ve been thinking a lot about Chris Benoit lately.
His name is a curse word in the WWE. His image has been expunged from its history by the company’s ministry of truth. And yet, his specter haunted professional wrestling’s grandest stage this time last year, and he’s lurked in the back of my mind ever since.
Though I have long since lapsed as a professional wrestling fan, I still pay yearly homage to the sporting spectacle of Wrestlemania, the Super Bowl of professional wrestling. Each annual supercard features clashes between the WWE’s biggest stars and the climax of its most significant storylines. Last year, the 30th edition of the once-ragtag-but-now-storied event featured Daniel Bryan, a lean, if scrappy wrestler, known for his technical prowess and enthusiastic affirmations, but who stands as far more diminutive than many of his larger-than-life colleagues, much as Benoit did. Bryan’s path to the main event embraced two of the most time-honored archetypes in professional wrestling: the underdog and the rebel.
While watching the first season of Agent Carter, I couldn’t help but wonder why I enjoyed it so much more than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., its much maligned and mildly resurgent Marvel television counterpart. Although the two shows have different teams behind them, they are, nevertheless, small screen cousins, with Peggy Carter making more than a few flashback cameos on AoS. The two series would seem to have too much shared DNA for anyone to have such different reactions to them. But in investigating this mystery, I kept coming back to one, overwhelming factor – Hayley Atwell.
Atwell soars as the protagonist of Agent Carter and commands nearly every scene she’s in. She portrays the titular character as a woman of quiet strength, with a steadiness in everything she does despite the tumult that surrounds her. But Atwell’s take on the character transcends the trope of the typical “action girl”, instead making Peggy a fully realized, three-dimensional character. Atwell acquits herself well when Peggy is exhibiting a steely resolve in a tense situation, and can just as convincingly show the character’s vulnerability and empathy in a private moment, with each emotional state feeling genuine and inhabited. She brings an undeniable presence to the character, and her rising tide lifts all boats in the series.
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I started watching The West Wing as part of a trade. I agreed to watch the show, one of my wife’s favorites, as long as we would alternate with episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of mine. And while the pairing seems odd on the surface, the shows have a surprising amount in common. Both center around a clear leader, supported by a cadre of his most trusted advisors, each with their own relevant backgrounds and specialized roles. In both series, a typical episode features the team facing what amounts to a crisis of the week, buoyed by loose arcs and character development, using these stories to comment on politics and society.
I grew to truly enjoy The West Wing, but it also hit some of the same speed bumps that its space-bound counterpart did. While I suspect that I will always be more partial to Star Trek: The Next Generation, as it’s buoyed by the affection and nostalgia of youth, the show is not beyond criticism. One of the series’s most glaring flaws was mandated by the father of Star Trek himself, Gene Roddenberry. In Next Generation’s early years, Roddenberry forbid the show’s writers from having the main characters meaningfully disagree or genuinely argue with each other. Sure, there could be the occasional spirited debate, but it was all conducted with an undercurrent of collegiality and mutual respect. All real conflicts and threats were required to be external. That dictate was part of Roddenberry’s central vision for his “wagon train to the stars” universe. He wanted to present an optimistic view of the future, where mankind had evolved beyond such trivialities as money or prejudice or petty disagreements.
The more I think about it, the more upset I am that Bradley Cooper was snubbed at The Oscars on Sunday.
Hear me out. I know Cooper did not portray the kind of character or take on the kind of role that the snobs in Hollywood typically care for–it didn’t fit the traditional “Best Actor” mold. There was lots of violence in the film; he spent most of the movie brandishing a gun, and yes, the character was portrayed as something of a superhero in a situation with much bigger political issues at play that the movie only grazed.
“Santa, I appreciate your position. Really, I do. But what you’re talking about is theft.”
Susan shifted uncomfortably in her new chair as she waited for Saint Nick to respond. Too many of Benton’s awards and photographs were still on the wall for her to feel comfortable doing business in this office. The near-empty mahogany desk stretched between her and the red-suited sprite on the other side of it like a still black sea. Santa looked back at her with a quizzical expression.
“Well I don’t know about that, Suzie. I don’t suppose we’re taking anything from you. You have just as many iPhones to sell as you did before.”
“Yes, but that’s not really the point.” Susan cleared her throat. “I know you’re not sneaking into our warehouses and filling up your sleigh with purloined phones.” She deliberately let the silence hang in the air for a moment. The company had done an extensive five-year study and could find no hiccups in their inventory beyond the usual shrinkage and minor employee infractions, but security had been increased nonetheless.
Every modern adaptation of A Christmas Carol starts out at a disadvantage. No matter the strengths of its take on the material, no matter what unique flourishes or embellishments it adds, no matter how novel its interpretation, the new version will inevitably be compared to its hallowed predecessor, so ingrained in the public consciousness that it has become a part of the cherished lore of the holiday season.
I am speaking, of course, of the classic 1992 film, The Muppet Christmas Carol, starring Michael Caine and Kermit the Frog, in the production that forever proved that Dickens’s work is best realized in shades of well-trained British grump and felt.
Despite working in the shadow of that seminal work, writer and director Robert Zemeckis, of Back to the Future fame, brought Dickens’s story to life anew in his motion-captured retelling of the classic tale. The film stars Jim Carrey as the curmudgeonly Ebenezer Scrooge, Gary Oldman as his put-upon employee Bob Cratchit, and Colin Firth, Robin Wright, Bob Hoskins, and Cary Elwes who, alongside Carrey and Oldman, play multiple roles in filling out the film’s cast. While Zemeckis assuredly puts his own stamp on the source material, in the end, his interpretation is a muddled one.
Posted in Movies
Tagged A Christmas Carol, Animation, CGI, Charles Dickens, Christmas, Disney, Gary Oldman, Holiday Season, Jim Carrey, Performane Capture, Robert Zemeckis
“It felt like a religious experience.” That’s how I described the last time I saw Conor Oberst perform live. In the summer of 2007, Oberst, fronting his usual band Bright Eyes and welcoming a slew of special guests, did a week of shows at Town Hall in New York City. I found myself sitting in the front row, captivated. That description feels hyperbolic now, but it was truly and sincerely felt at the time. For a certain strain of twenty-somethings who entered adolescence at the turn of the millennium, Oberst did more than just provide the soundtrack to our heartaches. He gave verse and form to our struggle to find meaning and come of age in a world that seemed to be both rapidly shrinking and receding away from us.
And yet beyond those starry-eyed acolytes, Oberst became a polarizing figure for both music diehards and casual fans. Equal parts lionized and dismissed, the pallid, dark-eyed singer has been championed as the next Dylan for his trenchant insights and folky style, and also slammed as a hack who scribbles feeble mawkish laments.
But for those few pitiable individuals who seemed to be untangling the same messy thoughts Oberst tried to unravel in his music, the Bright Eyes frontman sang something approaching beautiful, heart-rending truth, or, at least, truth to that experience. When he bellowed out to the crowd at Town Hall that his next song, “was about the rapture–maybe you’re waiting for it” before breaking into “Four Winds”, it felt like the heavens themselves would shatter as the band broke into the first violin-soaked beat.
Many explanations have been offered for the creative decline of The Simpsons, from standard seasonal rot to the alleged tyranny of former showrunner Mike Scully. But one of the most persistent theories has been that when Matt Groening created Futurama with Simpsons writer David X. Cohen, he took the best of The Simpsons’ staff with him. While the work of Cohen and other former Simpsons scribes who migrated to Futurama like Ken Keeler, Bill Oakley, and Josh Weinstein cannot be overlooked, the truth of the series’s fall from grace is far more complicated.
But it’s not hard to see why the Futurama theory is so appealing. Futurama came about right when The Simpsons started to lose its fastball. And though Futurama has had its fourth, and presumably final, series finale, while The Simpsons marches on, in many ways Futurama feels like the spiritual successor to The Simpsons’ greatest years. No other show has been better able to replicate the peculiar alchemy of Springfield—the combination of a cynical worldview, a devotion to absurdist humor, and an undeniable grounding in real heart and character moments—than Futurama.
I dreaded the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover. Even setting aside the inherent pitfalls of crossovers generally, it’s been a long time since either show was pitching its fastball. Despite the two series’ basic similarities, their comedic sensibilities differ pretty dramatically. The idea of one show’s staff writing the other show’s characters did not inspire confidence in either side of the writers’ room. And the tense, if playful, rivalry between The Simpsons and Family Guy did not suggest an easy fit behind the scenes.
But against all odds, Richard Appel, who served as a writer and producer for both shows, oversaw the episode, and put together a surprisingly cohesive, funny, and above all else, worthwhile crossover.