Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Solid-but-Spiritless Success of Spotlight

It’s hard to say how much knowing what happens in a story affects our enjoyment of it. We live in the age of the spoilerphobe, where nerds like me abandon social media in the days leading up to a major release for fear of having significant plot points or major twists revealed too soon. But in Shakespeare’s day, everyone more or less knew the ending ahead of time, and the lack of novelty didn’t lessen the draw. That’s a reminder that what the story is need not, and arguably should not, overshadow how the story is told.

Which is to say, I’m not sure how much the greater effect of Spotlight was lost on me given that I already knew a decent amount about the molestation scandal within the Catholic Church that played out in the newspapers and on our television screens for years after the time depicted in the film. The movie is, if not exactly a mystery, then certainly a story of the intrepid reporters of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team starting a small investigation and slowly but surely uncovering how widespread a pathology there was.


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The Walking Dead and the Stillness and Joy of “The Next World”

How rare is it to see people on The Walking Dead actually happy? Sure, the show gives its band of survivors the occasional moments of triumph or brief bits of levity, but how long do we ever really get to see the atmosphere around Rick and Daryl and Carl and Michonne be simple and pleasant?

It’s not often, and there’s a reason for that. Happiness and stability are nice for a while; it’s comforting for the audience to see the characters they’ve gotten to know over the years catch a break here and there. And yet too much happiness or too much stability over the long term becomes boring. Storytelling is fueled by conflict. As shows like Parks and Recreation have proven, that conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be dark or dour, but a good show needs real, meaningful obstacles for its characters to hurdle over or the entire enterprise eventually feels too slack to be truly engaging.

But it’s been such a harrowing season for The Walking Dead, and beyond that, a harrowing series from the very start, that it was incredibly refreshing to have an episode like “The Next World” where, more or less, everything was okay. After the gruesome deaths, fireworks, and bombast of “No Way Out”, this was a quieter episode that let its heroes enjoy their victory for a little while before the next great challenge (Negan?) rears its ugly head.


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Better Call Saul: Running Over the Same Old Ground in “Switch”

“Switch” isn’t a bad episode of Better Call Saul necessarily. The cold open featuring Jimmy’s misadventures in the mall is quiet and revealing; his main story in the episode has its moments, and Mike’s interaction with his dolt of an employer is the type of humorous vignette that the show does so well. But it’s hard for me to be too over-the-moon about the season premiere for a simple reason — it’s largely a recapitulation of last season’s finale.


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Brooklyn and the Merits of Charm and Simplicity in Storytelling

Caution: This review contains major spoilers for Brooklyn.

Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, is known for several things — his trademark bottle of vodka, his tendency to spill his guts to audiences full of strangers, and also his Story Circle. The Story Circle is a device that Harmon uses to create nearly any story he writes or supervises. It consists of eight steps for how a narrative ought to progress under his watch: 1. A character is in a zone of comfort; 2. But they want something; 3. They enter an unfamiliar situation; 4. Adapt to it; 5. Get what they wanted; 6. Pay a heavy price for it; 7. Then return to their familiar situation; 8. Having changed.

Brooklyn is basically “Story Circle: The Movie.” Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) may not have the best life in Ireland, but she is certainly comfortable there. And yet she hopes and wants for a better life than any she could expect to have where she grew up. So she moves to Brooklyn, and the unfamiliarity of her new situation is hammered home in every interaction she has, from the coaching she receives from a more experienced Irish immigrant that she meets on the boat to America, to the snotty comments she hears from the more experienced residents in her boarding house who better understand the local culture, to the homesickness that plagues her in her quieter moments.


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Deadpool: The Anti-Superhero Movie

Caution: This review contains major spoilers for Deadpool

Deadpool is at its best when it’s making fun of superhero movies. The film feels like a deliberate counter-reaction to the seriousness and prominence of comic book films in pop culture, and in that regard, it’s a wild success. When it fills the opening credits with descriptions of its actors rather than their actual names (e.g. “Moody Teen”, “British Villain”, etc.), features knowing winks to its star’s prior, emerald-tinged efforts as a cape, and plays “Angel of the Morning” behind its freeze-framed mayhem, it’s a statement of purpose, an indication from the very beginning that this is not going to be your average superhero flick and the movie is very much in on the joke.

At the same time, Deadpool is at its weakest when it capitulates to the sober, formulaic demands of its genre, when it hits the expected beats of your typical good guy origin story—a tragic past, a dull antagonist, and a lost love–even as it vociferously proclaims that its “hero” is anything but a good guy. The film does its best to throw in a comedic riff on these moments. Deadpool himself, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, has plenty of playful quips for the movie’s villain, Ajax (Ed Skrein), even as his rival slogs through the usual, perfunctory threat and intimidation routine. And Wilson’s ribald remarks permeate the sad-sack backstory and star-crossed romance that might otherwise hurt the film’s humorous tone.

To this end, the film makes a firm attempt to take some of the edge off of some of its more standard-issue elements—generic baddie Ajax and his wooden henchwoman Angel Dust (Gina Carano) chief among them. But at its core, Deadpool can’t completely run away from the typical superhero movie tropes it ends up employing, even as it’s trying to make fun of them. That drags down the proceedings in the moments where the otherwise off-the-wall film tries to be a little more solemn or conventional.


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Community and Humanity in The Walking Dead‘s “No Way Out”

There were two big themes that emerged in “No Way Out”, and they’re themes that have been with The Walking Dead almost since the beginning: the concept of community and the idea that this post-apocalyptic world can change an individual in profound ways. The episode was certainly a bit overly didactic about these points at times, but for once, it allowed them to dovetail together with a surprising harmony.

The community element of the episode has been telegraphed from at least the beginning of this season, if not long before. Rick has spent so much time decrying the preparedness of the Alexandrians, declaring that they are children of the summer, and drawing a dividing line between them and his own people, that you just knew he was going to turn around and accept them with open arms sooner or later. It was inevitable that some event was going to take place, Rick was going to see that these people had potential, and then eventually, he would embrace them. It’s not even the first time we’ve seen this type of arc with Rick.


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Agent Carter: The Different Paths of the Hero and the Villain in “Smoke and Mirrors”

The concept of a backstory episode is something of a cliche. Take one of two characters; cut in some scenes from the past that inform scenes set in the present, and show the contrast between who a person is now who they were along the way to becoming that person. It’s a fairly standard exercise, especially in genre television. But it’s a recurring trope because it’s effective.

To the point, it’s nice to know where Peggy Carter comes from. Hers was definitely the better of the two parallel stories told in “Smoke and Mirrors”, where the show contrasted the ways in which Whitney Frost tried to be something different and was taught to be something more traditional, and the ways in which Peggy Carter tried to be something traditional and was taught to be–true to her nature–something different.

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Larry David Hosted Saturday Night Live‘s Best Episode in Years

The phrase “Best SNL episode in years” has been thrown around a lot recently. The show has been uneven since the en masse departure of many of biggest stars, and the subsequent influx of new talent  That gives fans and critics alike a tendency to overreact to the peaks and valleys that inevitably occur has another era of SNL takes shape and a new cast finds it voice. But this weekend’s outing really was the best show Saturday Night Live has put together since that era began, possibly even going back to the tail end of the last regime.

Much of the credit goes to host Larry David. David, who was briefly a writer on SNL in his pre-Seinfeld days, brought his particular energy to the show, and it paid real dividends from the word go. His monologue was pure Larry, with a tight five that leaned into his self-deprecating, borscht belt humor, touching on everything from his being a bad host, to the advantages of being a rich prick rather than a poor schmuck, to the unimaginable shame of being a young Jewish boy who might have an eating disorder. David has a distinctive style that he used to turn the usual SNL monologue clichés on their head just a bit, and he sold it like a champ.


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