One Down, One to Go

So I decided to indulge in a little self-flagellation. Nothing too masochistic of course — no bloggers were actually harmed in the writing of this post — but I do find myself mildly aching and queerly disappointed after subjecting myself to the first four episodes of “Arrow”‘s third  season. In metaphorical pain because some of the show’s worst elements, in my opinion, are still lingering in plenty of scenes, like a clingy ex-boyfriend who just can’t figure out he’s not welcome any more, and deflated because a tiny, optimistic sliver of me wanted to like this show again.

Anyone who followed my sporadic reviews of a number of last season’s episodes — there are piteously few of you, I know, but I have had some friends tell me they enjoyed my analyses — should remember that I became rather disenchanted with “Arrow.” The light, to contradict Rust Cohle, wasn’t winning. Most of the flashes of quality I observed, and to a lesser extent documented, turned out to be just that — flashes, momentary glimpses of an intriguing, potentially gripping show that were swallowed up and almost entirely snuffed out by the myriad failures which are apparently a prerequisite for most popular television.

I’m not delighted to tell you that the dialog remains exposition heavy, that plenty of characters remain laughable imitations of humanity and that the episodes still progress like a mash-up of several half-baked ideas instead of as the steady development of one or two (or maybe even three) fully-formed ones. I have it on good authority that the creative team grabs their bucketful of tricks, slightly overflowing with “interesting” concepts, flings its sopping load at the blank canvas of an episode and hopes everything sticks.

“You have a hit TV show until you don’t,” said Stephen Amell, the star of “Arrow,” in a recent interview with BuzzFeed, apparently parroting producer Greg Berlanti. “So why are we saving something? We just press on. Press on, press on, press on, press on.”

Who can deny him? That strategy probably does make for “hit TV”; it just doesn’t make for good TV, or at least not stimulating TV. Look, I don’t want to seem like that pretentious snob at a dinner party who sucks on a pipe and fingers his monocle and snickers derisively at what “less evolved” people enjoy, but if a network’s template for crafting an appealing show is quick-cut action sequences, broad (and surprisingly gender-neutral) sex appeal and preposterous melodrama — I’m sorry, that’s just not riveting television; that’s an AXE commercial (minus the gender-neutral sex appeal, naturally). And I’d rather not be counted among the people who lap it up.

A close friend recently pointed out to me that it should impossible to write badly or superficially about comic book characters who have reams upon reams of back story that existed before a show (or movie) did. But the only thing “Arrow”‘s showrunners appear to care about is leaving their no longer insubstantial viewer base howling in manufactured awe or disbelief at their flat screens (or on Twitter) at narrative twists or reveals doubtlessly designed to compel them to tune in the next week for another foaming-at-the-brain experience. Hear me: if every moment is a climactic moment, then there is no climax — there’s not even a build up. There’s just a deluge of “big” emotions drowning out any gasp of nuance or subtlety or ambiguity in a scene, and that feels maddening to me, like every line is written in capitol letters. Like everybody’s screaming all the time.

What’s more, character “development” (or choices or motivation) is often explained in one line of dialog, usually defiantly, by the character in question before he or she storms out of a room to punctuate the end of the conversation. And I get it. Watching a person ruminate over a tough decision for 35 minutes wouldn’t be any better, but I’d like watch to an episode, or a few strung together, that doesn’t begin with characters feeling one way then 20 minutes later — like magic! — undergoing a complete change of heart. The bottom line is this: what’s happening is not nearly as important as the people it’s happening to, whatever it may be, and people rarely if ever renounce their worldviews in the span of a few hours.

“It’s a superhero show, sourpuss, lighten up!” objectors might say, and I know well it’s unfair to criticize a series (or anything) for not being something it’s not trying to be. But any serious fan of “Arrow” is going to tell you he or she loves the show because it reaches for those capital-“t” themes all the time. I just happen to think and am now convinced it can’t hit those beats; and, moreover, that one, if not the only, thing that makes superhero characters so appealing and empathetic is their fallibility, morally or otherwise, their irrepressible humanity. I don’t detect much of that on “Arrow” either. Obviously sad things make characters sad, but there are no lessons to be gleaned about grief, or even any character-specific grieving. Nope. We get “once you let the darkness inside, it never comes out” instead. Bleh. I can’t find the power button fast enough.

Now I’m sure I’ve tested your patience long enough, generous reader, and I do apologize if my screed has grown tiresome. I’m selfish enough to think my opinion matters to you, so I’ll compress it here once more to reward your perseverance:

I’m going back to “Twin Peaks.”

Both Sides Now

I know it’s been a while since a wrote an Arrow think piece, but I’m still following the show and it recently passed the halfway mark in its second season, which is as good a time as any to resume my critique. Although, I won’t lie to you, I have an ulterior motive. And here it is (in all it’s contrarian glory): Arrow isn’t as good as everyone seems to think it is. Of course when I say “everyone,” I mean those individuals dedicated to reviewing every episode, and when I say “not as good” I don’t (necessarily) mean “bad.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, my excoriation.

Everywhere I look (or everywhere I can check), the reviews for this season’s episodes amount to a litany of plaudits. Seriously, you could drown in all the drool.  At IGN, out of 13 episodes, the mean rating per episode is 8.6 (also the median); the mode is 8.5; all three indicate, according to the IGN scoring system, episodes of “great” quality. The A.V. Club ratings are virtually identical (a mean score of 8.8), and season 2 boasts a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the average critic score? 8.2/10. For any recent show not titled Breaking Bad to sustain such a reproachless caliber over a three month span remains firmly entrenched under the banner of highly improbable. To think that just such a caliber can be — and is — found in a show on the niche CW network is abject lunacy. With that foundation, I can only conclude that either a) I do not adequately understand television criticism b) I am watching a different, worse version of the show, or c) the fanboys (or girls!) masquerading as critics are blind to, or willfully ignorant of, the show’s apparent flaws because they’re too busy gushing over an episode’s latest comic-book reference or prepping their salivary glands for the next barrage of superlatives. Let me address these concerns in turn.

A normal day for me consists of reading, or otherwise consuming, at least one piece of criticism (usually concerning movies, television or music) and very often more than one. So I don’t think it can be said that I’m unfamiliar with the critic’s approach to analyzing entertainment, or that I don’t understand the nuanced aspects of such an approach. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything particularly esoteric about a critical approach to begin with, only a difference in knowledge breadth. Therefore I must reject option a).

Option b) similarly falters upon examination. As yet, I am unaware of any television show that presents critics and audiences with dichotomous viewing experiences. (The only example I can think of is Firefly, which Fox aired in anachronistic order. Even so, the episodes were unaltered.) Though the existence of a counterexample wouldn’t matter anyway because reviews for Arrow only ever appear the night, or morning after, each episode airs for general public consumption. So at the very least Jesse Schedeen and I judge the same content.

Which leads me, by process of elimination, to option c). The people talking about Arrow are critics in name only. A complete lack of dissent (remember: the mean averages of the critical opinions I’ve mentioned differ by no more than half a point) implies that either all the reviewers share one opinion — the same opinion — of the show, all of them are trying to claim the title of taste arbiter (because the show has gained a substantial following) or those who hold differing views are afraid of fan blowback and thus keep their protests to themselves.

If there is any truth to the last two statements, the individuals responsible have reduced criticism to petty hipsterism (i.e., “I liked it before everyone else liked it”), in the first instance, or shameless pandering in the second. Both distort and pervert and frankly soil the critic appellation.

I could be persuaded to accept that the critical consensus of Arrow is merely the only possible reaction to its unfailingly spectacular quality — this happens all the time with movies or albums or TV shows, though there tends to be at least one not-as-favorable opinion — if my eyes and ears didn’t avow otherwise. The acting from Willa Holland (Thea Queen), who delivers all of her lines the same way, with the same head-shakes and inflections, and Colton Haynes (Roy Harper), who relies heavily upon the quivering of his lips, never eclipses mediocrity, character history or background is often only revealed in passing conversation and the dialog tends to oscillate between absurdly expositional and almost insultingly unsubtle.

That, as I said before, doesn’t mean everything is bad or unworthy of exhortation. Just about all the material given to Paul Blackthorne (Quentin Lance) is exceptional, and exceptionally performed and delivered, David Ramsey (John Diggle) is criminally underused, and occasionally a great line or witticism pops up from someone else. But, thinking about it now, that level of dialog (for all the characters involved) is probably a sine qua non on any number of other shows, and only stands out because on average the Arrow script is only, well, average.

Which says nothing of the show’s penchant for melodrama (seriously, someone was resurrected) and the creative team’s ostensible addiction to sending as many narrative plates spinning per episode as they possibly can (and torpedoing Laurel Lance in the process). But those issues, and the aforementioned ones, are really just symptomatic of the show’s largest problem: the producers can’t make up their minds, and that let’s-have-it-both-ways attitude permeates every facet of the show.

Arrow is a superhero story, typically a one-main-character affair, trying to accommodate an ensemble, family-drama angle. The problem: very little of that present-day drama directly involves Oliver, the main character. Arrow is a show that earned strong early reviews for its deviation from comic book lore (that’s what my younger brother still claims to love about it), now ramming comic-book references or homages into episodes. The problem (and I’m sorry to trot out a cliche): you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Arrow, with the flashbacks, was supposed to tell a superhero origin story (Oliver’s), and is now using those sequences to explain the origins of several other characters. The problem? Flashbacks are no longer required to feature the show’s protagonist.*

Am I the only person to notice this, or am I the only one that cares? I won’t insist on having everything my way (I’m not that childish), and I completely understand the desire to brave new artistic territory, I welcome it in fact, but if originality’s the goal then it must be wholly embraced and pursued, not merely used as an excuse for unusual narrative shifts. And this adopting of ideas and storylines as rapidly as the writers are inspired by them (then dropping some just as quickly) needs to stop. 

To be clear and (finally) to conclude, I’m not advocating for the cancellation of the show, or even for the fans who like it to stop watching it. I just want some fair-minded people, besides myself, to speculate about or at least mention everything I’ve rambled on about here. I’m not trying to be contrarian or elitist, but sometimes that’s exactly what’s necessary. Arrow isn’t as good (right now) as seemingly everyone thinks it is, and I shouldn’t be the only one to say so. 

*Not an exhaustive list.

What to watch: films of 2013

I didn’t rank or score any of the following movies (although I will tell you which one was my favorite). But in a year of great movies, I whittled my list down to this lot — and that should speak volumes about their quality. Every film named below, each in its own way, is sensational; though some are, for one reason or another, certainly easier (or harder) to watch than others. I think they’re all must-sees, but I also pride myself on the versatility of my tastes and, children aside, there should be something here for everyone.

 12 Years a Slave

Plot: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejoifor), a well-to-do black man and accomplished musician, living free in New York, is drugged, abducted and sold into slavery from Washington D.C. in 1841. Traded between masters, each more savage than the last, Northup unjustly endures and bears witness to various quotidian horrors of the antebellum South for more than a decade.

Review: Director Steve McQueen, who’s made a name for himself depicting human suffering, though never to this degree, ensures every heinous act of racial violence is documented with visceral, unflinching vibrancy. He highlights not only the magnitude of these atrocities — the only time Northup tries to escape, he stumbles upon a lynch mob in flagrante delicto, and both Northup and the viewer then realize that the evil of slavery is all around him — but also their banality. After striking an overseer, Solomon is strung up from a tree and left to dangle, one slip of a toe from asphyxiation, while all other slaves go about their daily routine — there are even children playing — as if they do not see him hanging.

Irrespective of the brutality, Northup’s journey is also fiercely compelling because Solomon’s experience of slavery — as a foreigner, not yet inured to its dehumanizing vicissitudes — mirrors our own. (Steven Spielberg achieved something similar with the eponymous protagonist of his 1993 Holocaust-epic Schindler’s List.) And the incendiary performances, from Ejiofor on down (Michael Fassebender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson all give award-worthy turns), only fuel and intensify the barbarism that unfolds on screen, ultimately climaxing in a harrowing display (shot in a single take) late in the movie’s 134-minute runtime. The somewhat abrupt arrival of the conclusion (the film’s title is its own spoiler) is an emotional reprieve but also deeply unsettling; it’s McQueen’s final stroke of genius. Our happiness for Northup is swallowed up by our knowledge of the many more unlike him, still suffering. That bitter taste, McQueen seems to be saying, has yet to leave our mouths.

Verdict: Visually arresting, emotionally exhausting and poignantly convicting, 12 Years a Slave succeeds where other slavery narratives fall short (to wit, the loquacious Lincoln and the lurid, revenge-fantasy Django Unchained) by presenting an exceptional and unsparing portrait of the violence and subjugation visited upon blacks in the 19th century, the reverberations from which we still feel today.

 Her (2013 Top Pick)

Plot: Technological advancements in the near future lead to the creation of the first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and nebbish writer, recently separated from his wife, downloads the OS, which is personalized to meet his every need, and falls in love with it.

Review: Her is, among many things, a miracle of execution. Spike Jonze, in his first feature as both director and writer, surrounds a high-art concept (the human-OS romance) with themes ripe for didacticism (love and connection in an impersonal, technologically driven age) and, for many of the film’s 126 minutes, follows only one (on-screen) actor. The possibility of failure is astronomical; if even one of those elements falters, the picture is doomed. A unique premise might not seem accessible, or Jonze might use the film as a vehicle for delivering a bludgeoning homily (movies are at their worst when they do this), or Phoenix’s character might try the patience, and strain the credulity, of the audience. But it’s not — the fact that Twombly’s relationship with his operating system seems only slightly weird is perhaps the film’s greatest triumph —, Jonze doesn’t, though there is some satire (Theodore works for a company called beautifullyhandwrittenletters.com that specializes in personalized love letters to and from clients too busy to write the words themselves), and when have you known Joaquin Phoenix to be anything but a splendid actor?

Scarlett Johansson likewise deserves heaps of praise for her work here as the voice of Samantha, Theodore’s amorous OS1. Though, ironically, words cannot sufficiently extol her ability in this purely vocal performance. Everything else, from Hoyte Van Hotyema’s creamy, pastel photography and the art direction and costume design (high-waisted pants, for the win) to the setting, which is near-future Los Angeles (the cityscape is actually a computer-generated amalgam of L.A. and Shanghai) and Arcade Fire’s ambient, piano-heavy score, works too. (And there’s humor, to boot!) The narrative is no exception. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, interspersed by wordless flashbacks of Catherine (Rooney Mara), Twombly’s estranged wife, dips and swells like any other, and takes an inevitable turn in the end, but the film’s message, dictated by Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s lone human friend, that falling in love is just a “form of socially acceptable insanity” but we do it anyways because we have to, is among the most profoundly romantic and insightful. So ultimately we leave Theodore knowing he’s better off than when we met him, and, for once, it’s really happily ever after.

Verdict: Without veering into pretentious message mongering, and despite an idiosyncratic set up, Jonze delivers his most assured, wistfully romantic film to date. A movie brimming with smart ideas and penetrating insights, about the journey towards self-discovery — as true a love story as there ever was.

 Gravity

Plot: Two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) search for a way back to Earth after a cloud of space debris destroys their ship and communication relays, kills their crew and leaves them stranded, untethered and alone in the void of space.

Review: A narrative synopsis of this movie beyond what I just described isn’t merely unnecessary, it’s actually superfluous. The reason for one to see Gravity will not be found in the film’s tale of survival against (I’m sorry) astronomical odds. Though Bullock’s performance, as a first-time space-walker and mission specialist Ryan Stone, and George Clooney’s work as Matt Kowalski — the veteran-astronaut version of himself — deserve proper commendation. And Steven Price’s score is especially chilling. But, no, neither the writing nor the acting nor the music (or even all three) are capable of outmatching the groundbreaking work of director Alfonso Cuaron and his longtime DoP collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. Simply put, Gravity is best movie I have ever seen — and I mean that in a very sensory-specific way (it wasn’t even the best movie I saw last year). One does not watch this movie so much as one experiences continuous wonder at the visual poetry on display before his/her eyes. Case in point: the movie’s opening shot, in which the camera zooms in and out, dips, swivels and pivots, is a nearly 13 minute, unbroken take.

In my estimation, a finer example (and another tracking shot) arrives about a third of the way into the movie when Stone (Bullock), in an effort to survive another barrage of debris — the cloud completes an orbit every 90 minutes —, frantically dodges the shrapnel and navigates the exterior of the International Space Station in search of an airlock. (For narrative reasons, the ISS is parked relatively close to the former site of Stone and Kowalski’s mission.) She survives, of course, and a rebirth metaphor is apparent, and the emotional power and catharsis of the moment, the flawless choreography and lighting, the strains of Price’s score, coalesce into one of the most searing and unforgettable images in Gravity. I felt so tangibly moved by the scene that I wished simultaneously (and instantly) to replay it at least twice, and for the movie to end immediately after the scene was over (it doesn’t) so that the image would linger even longer in my mind. However, I cannot go without saying that the movie has some shortcomings. The dialogue (from a script co-written by Cuaron and his son Jonas), which possibly could have been eliminated altogether, stumbles in places and Stone’s backstory feels trope-y and excessively tragic; her character’s circumstances are empathetic enough. But these are minor quibbles against an otherwise astonishing, paradigm-defining movie. Not the kind of movie made for the UltraScreen, but the very reason for the UltraScreen’s existence.

Verdict: Alfonso Cuaron, directing with virtuosic flourish and bravura, surges past some slightly unpolished writing and produces a dazzling and nigh-peerless spectacle of technological mastery and visionary artistry. See it, if possible in 3-D, on the biggest screen you can find.

‘The Spectacular Now’: unmissable, unforgetable

The Spectacular Now, adapted for the silver screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the duo behind (500) Days of Summer — from a young adult novel of the same name, is nothing short of its titular superlative.

It’s the story of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a high school senior with a drinking habit and an absentee father (the two are entwined in more ways than one), and an attitude that epitomizes the Millennial Zeitgeist: he only cares about the moment he’s in and chasing the one to follow. He makes friends like he breathes, without effort, and plays matchmaker for his buddy Ricky, but he’s not without relationship issues.

Sutter’s girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, of 21 Jump Street) dumps him because she can sense he’s a dead-end, an act that hurtles Sutter into a drunken tailspin, crash landing him on a stranger’s lawn in an unfamiliar neighborhood, blocks away from his abandoned car and miles away from home.

He wakes to find Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish but comely girl, standing over him. Sutter offers to help her with her morning paper route in exchange for a ride back to his car, wherever that might be. And thus their somewhat cliched, party-boy/unpopular-girl relationship begins. Except it’s not what you think. (Well, maybe a little.)

Sure, they learn from one another — for Aimee that means not letting those she loves walk all over her, Sutter included; and for Sutter that means dispensing with his bumper-sticker philosophy (“serious about not being serious”) — but Sutter only makes a pass at Aimee after Cassidy’s made it clear she’s moved on, and he only kisses Aimee after she takes a pull off his trusty flask and shouts some expletives. The rest unfolds mostly unpredictably: a jealousy-laced trip to the prom, an eye-opening encounter with Sutter’s estranged dad (Kyle Chandler), and a promise made by Sutter for all the wrong reasons then broken for all the right ones. Not to mention an open-ended conclusion that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll.

Deftly directed by James Ponsoldt (who’s apparently fascinated by alcoholism), and vibrantly photographed by Jess Hall, The Spectacular Now deserves as much praise for its craft as well its defiance of formula. Two single-shot, long takes comprise two of the most memorable scenes (the couple’s first kiss and their first — ahem – sleepover), and the performances by Teller and Woodley are magnificent, their chemistry undeniable.

Despite occasionally almost veering into douchebaggery, Teller’s Sutter is equal measures affable, charming and empathetic, like a young, booze-swigging John Cusack during his Say Anything… days. But it is Woodley who’s the more memorable star — if only slightly.

She climbs inside the skin of her character, projecting a self-effacing intelligence and beauty that’s remarkably genuine, and a naive, saucer-eyed hopefulness that everything will work out for her in the end, to poignant effect.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Winstead likewise excel in small but important roles as Sutter’s mother and sister, respectively.

The Spectacular Now, like the novel upon which it’s based, is a startlingly tender, wholly authentic coming-of-age story about gaining perspective, learning to take the time to truly appreciate the few watershed teen moments there are (and all who make them possible and worthwhile), and the rarity and uncertainty of second chances.

Don’t miss your first chance to see it.

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