Friday, December 16, 2016

The Best Things I Watched This Year

II haven’t written a ‘Best’ post at the end of the year since 2012 (maybe?) because I dislike Best Of lists. I’m writing this specific post because I want to highlight one episode of Frontline. Other things struck me and surprised me this year. Do read on. 
BEST THINGS I WATCHED THIS YEAR
FRONTLINE’S CHILDREN OF SYRIA
While the mainstream media has finally become aware of the horror, hardship, and atrocities happening in Aleppo, as they question why Westerners ignored Syria until this week (and, hey, mainstream media, don’t project your shortcomings on the general public; some of us have followed this story for years), as Assad’s forces and the Russians push the rebels out, Frontline broadcast a documentary made by Marcel Mettelsiefen in April 2016. One will not see the documentary make the multiple ‘Best Of’ lists of the most notable TV critics in the United States. It aired one Tuesday night. Newsweek was the lone outlet to publish an article about the documentary describing it as ‘deeply moving’. Christiane Amapour called it “extraordinary”. Children of Syria was the best thing I watched this year and maybe ever. It’s an immeasurably moving and touching documentary of one Syrian family, from Aleppo, the Kassmou famly, that struggled to live through the civil war and ISIS occupation (ISIS kidnapped the children’s father, and they never saw him again, except for Hala Kamil, the mother and his wife, who received a photo of his dead body, but she denied that it was him) as they leave Syria behind for a new life as refugees in a quiet, small German town.
The United Nations featured the documentary, its director, and the Kassmou family, at a special event for World Humanitarian Day in August. I wish that every American whose vote for Trump was motivated partially or primarily by fear of Syrian refugees would watch Children of Syria. We’re all the same. Our cultures and our religion have differences, but no one should be abandoned in a living hell and left to die because Americans have been led and brainwashed by fear-mongering politicians who would welcome another Kristallnacht before they offered Syrian, Iraqi, Somalian, and Yemeni refugees any measure of salvation, of rescue, of refuge.
The documentary features many stirring moments, including when Hala receives the photo of her husband, the eldest daughter becoming the teacher of her siblings, the eldest daughter’s momentary anxiety-ridden paralysis on her first day of school in Germany, the German students lovely welcoming of their new classmates, the son’s list of what he’ll miss about his home, his Syria, but no moment is more stirring to me than when one of the younger daughters says, “We love you Syria, forgive us” as their van turns a corner and out of the van window we see three small boys playing, or looking, around the rubble and the trash.
I think Children of Syria essential viewing. Frontline has produced a number of recent episodes about Syria, including an episode titled “Inside Assad’s Syria” in which we see Assad promote the country as if he hasn’t killed thousands and thousands of his own people. The scenes of Damascus, particularly, are surreal, or the areas of the country Assad has made for tourism. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the rise of ISIS, the fight against ISIS, and on December 27, they will air an episode titled “Exodus” about the reality of the global migration crisis.
Watch the episode https://vimeo.com/178249464 or on the PBS website.
RECTIFY
The series concluded on Wednesday night. Critics have already christened it ‘The next Wire’ because few people watched the series. I most agree with Sarah D. Bunning’s opinion about the finale. It had the defect of Ray McKinnon being too aware that it was a finale and that he needed to satisfy an audience. The season had some wonderful stuff overall, and no scripted series came close to Rectify’s quality even if past seasons were stronger overall.
ROOM
No, this post isn’t restricted to things released in 2016. It is about things I watched in 2016. I recently watched Room and thought it was masterful. In this era of overstuffed streaming shows, I liked the reminder given by Room that the silver screen still has something special to give.
THE WITCH
I loved the film’s cinematography, especially the framing , composition, and natural lighting. I also marveled at The Revenant’s cinematography during a sickly day last month. The common thread between both movies? Natural lighting. Eggers and his D.P. Jarin Blaschke used an ARRI ALEXA to shoot the movie. Watching the movie returned me to my younger dreams of making gorgeous movies and TV. I wanted to make my own coming-of-age TV series for TheWB in the early 2000s. Nikki Reed had written and co-starred in Thirteen when she was 14, the same age as me, so I wondered why I couldn’t become a creator, show runner, lead writer, and director of my own coming-of-age TV show. Also, I wanted to act as director and cinematographer on my episodes. I had a fantasy of me drinking Orange Juice and arriving to set on a Monday morning and completely running the set with wonderful ease.
A fun note about The Witch, via an IndieWire article: Blaschke wanted to shoot on film, but logistics made that impossible. I’ve spent months researching digital cameras. He explained that he chose the Alexa because it’s the only digital camera he can stomach. I looked at the rental price for an Alexa on LensRental. No, I will not shoot the ocean or the wilderness with an Alexa anytime soon.
HIGH MAINTENANCE
I never expected to like High Maintenance. It seemed like another one of those NYC/Brooklen set hipster half-hour comedies about flawed, directionless twentysomething hipsters. I watched the second episode first, randomly, late on a Friday night (It aired at 11). The first half of that episode followed a young Muslim woman who wants a normal college experience; the second half is set at a birthday party. I knew only that I never saw anything quite like High Maintenance before on TV as I watched that transfixing episode. The next week’s episode, “Grandpa”, was even better.
ATLANTA
Donald Glover’s Atlanta was funny, bizarre, and similar to Louie in that it experimented weekly and did not care about any kind of ‘grounded reality’. The Tavis Smiley esque talk show episode was a highlight, as was the Justin Bieber episode.
PBS NATURE
I watched some of PBS’ Nature documentaries this year. “The Soul of the Elephant” and “The Thin Green Line” stood out to me. “The Soul of the Elephant” showed, among other aspects of their interesting lives, how elephants mourn the dead. “The Thin Green Line” showed how impactful modern society is on every creature, their ecosystems, and nature at large.
THE X FILES-“Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster”
The X Files revival was worth it for this Darin Morgan episode. Amazingly, the three episodes written and directed by Chris Carter were among the worst things I watched in 2016. Season 11 hasn't happened yet because of Carter's currently playing Matthew Modine playing Dr. Brenner on Netflix's Stranger Things. 
BETTER CALL SAUL
Now that Rectify has ended, Better Call Saul becomes my favorite scripted show. I love the cinematography, the production design, the writing, and the acting. The writers and the entire crew haven’t made a bad episode yet.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Vampire Diaries "The Next Time I Hurt Somebody, It Could Be You" Review

The Vampire Diaries excelled in the second half of season one, all of season two, and some of season three because of pacing. The better later season episodes of the show stand out because of that type of pacing. “The Next Time I Hurt Somebody, It Could Be You” reminded me of the pacing of early seasons, though the episode had the defects of this season and last season.

For example, Damon and Sybil crashed the Christmas Eve Party Caroline has planned since forever (though a day ago her kids went missing) to threaten everyone and ruin their evening.  Damon rambles, channeling Audrey from Dawson’s Creek’s sixth season Christmas episode ‘Merry Mayhem’, on about why each guest deserves a Christmas trip to hell. He succeeds in alienating father and son—Peter and Matt. He ruined Stefan’s last day by sending him to see Cade. The middle of the episode became a series of scenes in which characters drone on about their motivations.

Seline, from out of nowhere, announces her decision to redeem herself after Sybil screwed her in the deal she made with Cade. For 99 years, though, she had a conscience and didn’t send Cade souls to eat; however, she killed Georgie not long ago, a decision she chooses not to defend. Instead, in a bizarre choice, she declared that Georgie was the last she ever killed. Seline looked darn committed to evil, killing, and sending souls to Cade. Stefan credited her mercy towards him for his epiphany that renewed his conviction for life, but her mercy left her when she killed and then ATE intern Georgie. All of this information was relayed in alternating scenes between Stefan and Seline and dissolved the momentum of the teaser and first act. The writing’s not only slow but inconsistent.

Stefan’s scenes with Cade lead to another sacrifice: he’ll become The Ripper in exchange for his freedom after a year service. Cade countered by betting Stefan would choose to stay after he serves his term. The end of the episode finds Stefan and Damon on the road after Damon ripped Sybil’s heart out for putting on Elena’s necklace. Earlier, Caroline and Bonnie agreed that Elena’s presence would’ve prevented Damon from choosing the path. I realized the true tragedy of Damon Salvatore after their scene: his complete and utter dependence on another person and his sacrifice of his own individuality.

Anyway, the Salvatore brothers will experience one last ride to the ultimate darkness in this final season before they, like Seline, find redemption. Stefan’s arc this episode was, in essence, a summary of his arc throughout the series; however, Cade blamed what happened to Elena on Stefan meeting her. He argued that Stefan’s presence in her life slowly drained the good from her life. Of course, he’s TVD’s interpretation of the devil, and the oldest trick the devil has involves twisting and distorting the past and memory. Stefan will be all right.

The whole episode wasn’t a drag, though. Caroline was great during the Christmas party. The tuning fork of death returned to revive Bonnie’s earliest season one storyline when she thought she was a psychic. Bonnie and Enzo had the first normal conversation of the season when they joked about Enzo buying her a trip to Paris and Bonnie buying him T-shirts.

A timejump seems likely when the season resumes January 13, 2017. We’ve all seen Ripper Stefan for extended periods, right? Sybil is temporarily out of action. Seline is reformed. Alaric could probably keep the girls in Mystic Falls for a little while longer. No danger seems imminent, but we shall see in January.

Other Thoughts:

-This week’s ‘Which cast member has clearly checked out?’ goes to Ian Somerhalder. This is his second time earning that honor.

-I thought that episode eight would air December 16. That would’ve split the episodes in half between 2016 and 2017. What do I know?


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- Shukree Hassan Tilghman wrote the episode. Tanya Hamilton directed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Stranger Things of Westworld and Criticism

Westworld’s first season ended Sunday night. The 90-minute finale sparked numerous essays from professional critics, bloggers, and folks on the message board. I read long essays in support of the show and long essays that criticized the show. Every essay I read, except for one, extensively wrote about the prominent Westworld themes: consciousness, freewill, the self, the soul, meta-narratives, genetics, etc. Whereas some critics thought of the finale as brilliant, others did not and wondered why Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy would tell a 10 hour prologue to the story they want to tell in season two (expected to premiere sometime in 2018).

I watched season one with bland indifference. The show became interesting to me once I read the various theories that surfaced around episode three, but those theories became a lightning rod in TV critical circles. Alan Sepinwall damned the show for telegraphing the solutions to its mysteries too clearly. Other outlets blamed Reddit for ruining Westworld. Another reviewer on Doux Reviews criticized her own reviews for her perceived failure to draw the links between timelines and other theory stuff I won’t spoil in case anyone reading wants to watch the series. Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter was happy for the people who felt happy about Westworld. Now, it’s Wednesday, and everyone has moved past the premiere.

I didn’t like the finale, and I won’t watch the second season; however, the abundant perceptive theories that all came true didn’t ruin my experience; the show’s themes about the self and the soul, consciousness, freewill, change, freedom, meta-narratives, etc. didn’t sour me—in fact, I like those themes. The structure of the show’s narrative is rather admirable, actually. They weaved some intricate patterns that the adept viewer noticed. Vladimir Nabokov would commend those attentive viewers. Nabokov would fail me. He would fail me so hard. Nolan and Joy undid it all, unfortunately, by explaining each and every ‘twist’ in a series of monologues and flashbacks. Nabokov uses one word—‘waterproof’—for Humbert’s clue to the reader about the identity of Lolita’s abductor. The reader, then, has to return, or re-read, the book to see what she or he has missed the first time, and then repeat as more things reveal themselves in the novel. Of course, Nabokov was a better writer than nearly every working TV writer today, and a better critic than every critic alive today. If you like themes of consciousness, the self, and the soul in your art, read Ada or Ardor a few times and them complement it with Brian Boyd’s book about the book, Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness. Brian Boyd is the best living critic in the world. Follow that with Speak, Memory

Nolan and Joy also made the crucial mistake of prioritizing mystery over character, which was Sepinwall's essential gripe with the show. Westworld drew comparisons to LOST, as any genre show will forever and ever. Abrams is an Executive Producer. Bad Robot produces the show. Westworld still bungled the formula. 

Damon Lindelof said, during the Writers' Panel's 300th episode, that, "the real cheat of the show (LOST) from the word 'Go', which was frustrating to the audience, was that the characters couldn't give a shit about the mysteries...You had to have the character dynamics [be] involving enough."

Damon Lindelof told David S. Goyer, co-creator of FlashForward: 
"One of the problems you're going to have is the lead of this show is the FBI agent responsible for solving the flashforward, so the show is going to have to have an engine of mystery solving versus just have it be all about these other characters who are affected by the flashforwards but are not tasked with solving it. This was the Twin Peaks problem...Dale Cooper's job was to find who killed Laura Palmer and, so, the idea that the show isn't about the characters and the conditions of living in Twin Peaks, it was about the resolution of this mystery. And, so, one of the things that was really hard for us to do on LOST and why we kept expanding the cast was trying to find stories that were engaging enough to believably understand why the characters were not asking the same questions that the audience was." 

FlashForward made mystery its driving force instead of character, and it failed. LOST made central its characters, and writers have, a decade later, still failed to recreate LOST, including Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy. Sepinwall wondered how much the mystery matters if the characters don't resonate at all, if they only exist for the sake of the mystery, and it's a good question. Many viewers of LOST will reverse the question because a majority of fans felt disappointed and ripped off by the end of LOST. Damon and Carlton didn't answer many of its mysteries. Sepinwall offered a succinct explanation for why LOST succeeded even when its answers underwhelmed, disappointed, or enraged the viewer: "LOST always had more to offer besides questions."

Westworld revealed the shortcomings of contemporary critical TV/film circles. There’s too much to watch and to review every month to devote any serious mindful viewing and re-watching of a series to engage in a substantive critical discourse. Every site or blog you read, including my own, is full of hastily written shallow, surface level reviews and essays. Consciousness in Westworld is the easiest to grab onto and run with for today’s swamped critics and editors desperate for clicks. I used ‘Identity’ as a crutch for my undergrad papers when I was crushed by other work. Certain shows produce a critical rat race in these three-month cycles and then one rarely ever reads about an individual episode again. Of course it falls to devoted message boards to explore the guts of a show and to deeply engage with it. Mainstream critics don’t have the time for it. They only have the responsibility to tell you whether or not to watch a show in their pre-reviews, but if they commit to weekly reviews, or post-finale reviews, then they need to work harder so as not to waste the readers’ time, or make a choice. If 7,000 other websites all run the same basic Game of Thrones & Westworld reviews and yours won't stand out in any way, don't write it unless you find something no one else has found or you argue something no one else is.

A NOTE ON STRANGER THINGS

I watched Stranger Things. I have no relationship with 80s pop culture, so the show was flat for me. For example, the penultimate episode had an extended E.T. homage. I didn’t know it was a homage to E.T. until I read it was online. I liked parts of it. One’s relationship to 80s pop culture will determine your love, or indifference, for the show. It was a two-hour movie blown up to eight hours—another problem of contemporary TV. I will not watch season two.

CHEKHOV MURDERS MONTE CRISTO

Anton Chekhov abridged Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo for the Russian newspaper, New Times, run by his friend Aleskey Suvorin. His brother, Mikhail Chekhov, remembers his brother making a ‘bloody mess of it.’ Chekhov wrote in a letter to Suvorin: “What shall I do with Monte Cristo? I’ve abridged him so much he looks like someone who’s just gotten over typhus; he started out fat and ended up emaciated. The first part, while the count is still poor, is very interesting and well done, but the second part with very few exceptions is unbearable because everything Monte Cristo says and does in it is pompous and asinine. But in general the novel is striking.”

Monte Cristo’s one of the many bloated 19th century books. The public loved reading serialized novels in the same way we in the 21st century love consuming TV shows in long binges. TV seasons have significantly shortened over the last five years, only networks continue to produce 22-25 episodes per season, but the number of series has increased by an incredible rate. TV shows have resembled movies more and more in structure and execution since the emergence of streaming platforms. I’m sure some complained about the length of The Avengers’ sequel or Captain America: Civil War, but Netflix made a 13 hour Jessica Jones movie and a 13 hour Luke Cage movie. Critics wrote that Jessica Jones could’ve had four or five episodes cut and lose nothing and that the lack of stand-alone hours affect’s one interest in revisiting certain episodes. The unique individuality of episodes should continue being the thing movies can’t replicate. Instead, TV executives and creators have chosen to replicate the structure of a movie.

Of course, TV is vast, the options are many, and one can find whatever one wants to, but as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other streaming platforms continue to develop original content to replace expensive licensed shows, they’ll likely continue developing bloated long movies.


IN CLOSING 

That’s essentially what’s been on my mind about TV lately. The Vampire Diaries is having a terrible final season. They could’ve benefitted from a less stringent serialized format. I will post a ‘Best Things I Watched This Year’ sometime within the next two weeks.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Vampire Diaries "Detoured on Some Random Backwoods Path to Hell" Review

A few things in “Detoured on Some Random Backwoods Path to Hell” stuck out to me, the first being the old saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, becoming a literal plot point for Stefan. Stefan’s tried his hardest to act with good intentions, but, once again, Damon draws him down a hell-ridden path. This time, he’s actually going to hell, or a version of hell, with either the literal devil or an approximation of the devil tasking the brothers with bringing the darkest souls to him, because of a deal Damon and Sybil thought up that would save Caroline’s and Alaric’s children. The deal seems to suggest, as did the last episode too, that Damon, even after giving up on feelings, has a modicum of humanity in him—that, maybe, he’s playing a long con. His way of manipulating the Sirens was consistent with good guy Damon. Yes, the writing for Damon could be inconsistent, or there’s a pattern (yes, perhaps a pattern of inconsistent writing). So, Stefan’s good intentions landed him in hell. The irony may be his selfless sacrifice for the sake of children makes him akin with Christ.

The second thing that stuck out to me was the last scene between Bonnie and Enzo, post-near death for Enzo. Bonnie wondered why Enzo beat mind control and Damon didn’t. He explained why, and Bonnie said, “You make me sound like an angel.” Enzo said, “No, you’re the world.” Damon’s world is Elena. Sybil removed his world, even though she sort of didn’t. (Damon remembered Elena well in the last episode.) That’s unfair to Damon. Aside from the library voices Kat Graham and Michael Malarkey used in that scene and every scene they have together (is that what Plec and Williamson want?), it was a touch poetic.

Also, their story has the recurring theme of CW shows, but, specifically, TVD, and the narrative world of Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, which is the redemptive power of love, albeit a power that ignores the unhealthy parts of it. Burning your own cabin down in hopes the love of your life will remember his or her love for you is no way to save a relationship. There’s a cut scene from Dawson’s Creek laying somewhere in Williamson’s house in which Dawson burns down the Potter residence for Joey’s love.

The third thing that stuck out to me was Sybil’s lines about what people will do to avoid dying because it continued The Vampire Diaries’ impressive to express unexpected but effective sentiments about death, whether it’s dying or the death of a loved one. There are critically acclaimed dramas past and present that haven’t had a character say so simply that people would do anything not to die because it’s scary and unknown. Maybe David Chase would have Tony Soprano feed a horse and tend a farm for an episode in an elaborate metaphor about death.

Sometimes, in writing, the clearest, simplest expression of thought will hit the viewer or the reader with more force than the most ornate metaphor. There’s a part in a Chekhov story—“My Life”—that staggers me whenever I read it because of the clarity and directness of the language Misail uses when he writes about taking his niece to his mother’s grave. Of course, a Sopranos episode in which Tony tends a farm and feeds a horse that’s dense with meaning, allusions, and suggestions can hit the viewer harder once he or she has thought it over, researched references and allusions, and etc, as in the end of chapter nine in Ulysses, and, really, all of Ulysses, when Stephen thinks of the birds of augury outside the National Library.

Anyway, those three parts stood out to me because the rest of the episode was beige. Alaric and Caroline searched for their children. Alaric decided to leave Mystic Falls with his children, forgetting that leaving didn’t help him escape the ‘darkness’ the last time he left, but I liked the scene when Matt and Alaric ‘killed’ Damon. It broke the monotony of this season. Elsewhere, Enzo tried not to die, and Stefan chose more of the aforementioned selfless sacrifice for his brother’s sake.

This episode emphasized the darkness of everything. Of course, in an episode that made real such clichés as angels on one’s shoulder and the road to hell is paved with good intentions, you know what they’ll find as they near the end of their dark tunnel.

Other Thoughts:

-Next week’s episode will be Stefan’s last as a free vampire. The previews show that TVD has continued its tradition of our heroes dining with the villains.

-Enzo’s story was the worst in the episode. I didn’t like the editing of his brainhack, but I thought parts of Enzo’s story had the best videography of the episode, namely the series of shots beginning with the slow zoom off of Enzo’s face from overhead and concluding with the slow zoom in on his face. I wonder what lenses Paul Wesley and Darren Genet used.

-Remember when Enzo made it his life’s purpose to ruin Matt Donovan’s life? Matt didn’t. He sounded like Mitt Romney when he praised Enzo to Bonnie.

-All season I'm looking out for "Which cast member has clearly checked out?" This week's winner is Kat Graham. 


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-Kyle McElroy directed the episode. Paul Wesley directed it.

About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.