Pass the Clicker — Stories in 60 Seconds

December 25, 2009

Some ads are pure genius.  In 30 or 60 seconds they can tell stories that capture the human experience more beautifully than many 2 hour movies (certainly better than Avatar does in 3 hours).

Check out the ad above for Coke and Wal-Mart.  Yes, it’s sappy.  But so are many movies.  What’s great is the way this ad captures certain relationships with little more than a gesture and a look in a few seconds.  I particularly like meeting his best friend and the on-line date.  Notice how the best-friend puts his arm around the date and she reacts uncomfortably and then relaxes, just like someone would on a first date. 

I also think the protagonist’s declaration of love for the first girl he ever kissed is just brilliant.  Notice how she is clearly there with her boyfriend and they are both shocked by his declaration.  She is then flattered and the boyfriend is diminished.

These are essential parts of the human experience and they are captured in just seconds.  Think about how many takes they probably had to do to get it just right.  Think about the acting skill involved.  This is art.


Pass the Clicker: The Future Lost?

November 6, 2009

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ABC headquarters the day after Lost goes off the air

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

With Lost coming up on its last season, ABC has been scrambling for a new cash cow. It bet heavily on Flash Forward, a new drama with acting talent coming out of its ears and a premise with potential: everyone in the world blacks out for two minutes and experiences a “flash forward” – an intense, dreamlike vision that appears to be a glimpse of what each of them is going to be doing exactly six months later. And everybody’s visions match – if I saw myself having a conversation with you, you also saw yourself having the exact same conversation with me.

The ratings have been slipping and it’s not looking like Flash Forward is going to be the big cash cow ABC was hoping for. Which is too bad, since after a slow start the show is really finding its legs. (Disclaimer: I haven’t gotten around to watching last night’s episode yet, so if the show stank last night I’m not responsible.)

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They clearly invested a lot in stacking this show with talent. In addition to securing Joseph Fiennes to anchor, they rounded up Courtney Vance (known to the general public as a prosecuting attorney on one of the Law & Order shows, but the fan base for Flash Forward is more likely to remember him as “Jonesy,” the brilliant communications officer who figures out how to track the silent sub in The Hunt for Red October), John Cho (Sulu in the new Star Trek) Sonya Walger (Lost’s Penny), and cameos – with suggestions that more appearances may be on the way – from Firefly’s Gina Torres and The 4400’s Peter Coyote.

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Another Lost alum makes a shocking surprise appearance a few episodes into the season, and it looks like that character is going to be a recurring presence.

The show resembles Lost in that it revolves around the intersection between human drama (the “soap opera” element)and great cosmic issues. FF’s cosmic issue is similar to Lost’s, but more anthropocentric – it’s less about man confronting the larger forces in the unverse and more directly about the question of free will, which has come up on Lost but only as one of several themes. Having seen a glimpse of the future, everyone wants to know: can that “future” be changed? Or is it inevitable?

The biggest difference between Lost and FF is the latter’s stronger emphasis on plot. The heroes believe the “flash forwards” are not a cosmic fluke but are the result of some kind of human action, and are trying to track down who’s responsible and why. And so every episode of FF has suspense, thriller and/or mystery-solving elements; the show makes regular use of cliffhanger and twist endings.

This does give the show some strengths. There have been no boring episodes. And the unfolding of the “mythology” is much more well constructed and proceeds at a steady, satisfying rate. The hero has become the lead investigator because he had a “flash forward” in which he was the lead investigator, and he was standing in front of his giant bulletein board full of clues in the case. He remembers many of the clues he saw in his “flash forward” and begins to track them down in the present – and, lo and behold, they turn out to be valid. The idea is for the explanations behind all the seemingly unrelated and sometimes nonsensical clues to be slowly revealed over the course of the season. This will presumably require the writers to avoid making things up as they go.

It also provides a lot of opportunities for the writers to do clever things with the story. More plot = more opportunities for great storytelling, and the writers don’t disappoint.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the script can be dumb – but no dumber than Lost occasionally gets.

That said, as I indicated before, the series did take a few episodes to find its legs. The first few episodes telegraphed various underlying conflicts that were obviously going to unfold over the course of the show, but it allowed them all to simmer too long before they started to produce direct conflict among the characters. For a while, all these great actors just weren’t given enough to do.

That’s all over now, but it appears from the ratings that the show may have missed the chance to find its audience. If you like Lost, you should give this a shot.


Pass the Clicker: John Adams

October 2, 2009

Adams

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently I finally got around to watching the HBO mini-series John Adams. It’s very good and you should watch it!

But I think this material would have been better as, say, three or four separate movies rather than one long story. Because three or four separate stories is pretty much what you’ve got here. There is some overlap, especially between Adams’s political career and his marriage. But the multiple storylines would have come out better if we’d been able to focus on one at a time.

I’ve increasingly come to think that the “biopic” is a poor format for storytelling, becasue no human life meets the demands of narrative structure perfectly enough. Instead of focusing on “the life of John Adams and the big stories that he saw,” what you want is to tell each of the stories.

Adams & Washington

One of the stories is about Adams’s political career, and here you have the makings of both classical tragedy and triumphant epic rolled up into one narrative. Tragedy, in that Adams had the makings of a great statesman but he was constantly undermined by his own vanity and stubbornness. Triumphant epic, in that he repeatedly disregarded his own self-interest to accomplish great things for his country. From his first significant political act (defending the innocent British soldiers falsely accused in the “Boston Massacre” case) to his last (keeping America out of an unnecessary war with Napoleon), he repeatedly chose to do the right thing in the teeth of extreme pressure from popular opinion and political interests alike.

Real Hamilton 1Hamilton 1

One story I especially enjoyed seeing was the gradual development and then explosion of the scorpions-in-a-bottle rivalry between Adams and his keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer political ally, Alexander Hamilton. It’s a story I don’t think anyone else has ever taken a crack at on the screen, and it’s well worth seeing. I have to say Hamilton gets something of a bad rap in a show where our sympathies are meant to lie with Adams. But the exceptionally talented Rufus Sewell makes Hamilton into an effectively menacing villain.

John & Abigail

The second story, also combining triumph and tragedy, is Adams’s family life. Just his famous marriage to Abigail alone would be more that sufficient to carry a movie by itself, and Laura Linney’s outstanding performance matches Paul Giamatti’s step for step.

Real AbigailJohn & Abigail at meeting

Different productions have chosen different approaches to the John and Abigail relationship. The musical and movie “1776” went the cereberal route, depicting the relationship through the letters they famously exchanged (inevitable, perhaps, given that the story takes place while they were separated) with an emphasis on how these two equally sharp minds fenced and parried with each other.

John & Abigail alone

The HBO production, by contrast, periodically references Abigail’s intellectual impact on John, but focuses on two other aspects of their relationship. The first – and here is the overlap with the strictly political story – is the way she effectively tempered John’s fatal political weaknesses. When John and Abigail are living together, his ego is kept in check. She persuades him to minimize the rhetorical excesses of his defense speech in the Boston trial. She advises him to drop his extremely ill-advised campaign to add a quasi-royal honorific (“his excellency,” “his majesty,” etc.) to the presidency. But when they are apart, as they frequently are for extended periods, John’s demons keep rising to the surface.

The other focus is on John and Abigail’s role as parents, another story I don’t believe anyone has told on screen before. John’s stern insistence on controlling his children’s lives (especially his eldest son John Quincy) and his extended absences from the family both create extreme emotional burdens for Abigail and the children alike. As is well known, John Quincy turns out as well as his father, but we are made to see the dreadful price his father made him pay for it; as is not well known, his other children lived broken lives, his son Charles dying of drink and his daughter marrying a man with a tendency to lose money on speculation, and who ends up having to flee his bad repuation by moving west and starting over while his wife and children remain behind.

 Jefferson, Adams & Franklin

The third – and perhaps fourth, depending on how you count – story concerns the friendship and rivalry of Adams, Jefferson and Franklin. Here is where the series really shines; we see how these three very different men – Adams the blunt man of law, piety, and conservatism; Jefferson the quiet man of philosophy, romance, and radicalism; and Franklin the wry man of science, humor, and sensuality – at first become brothers bound by a common cause, and are then slowly but surely forced into opposition against each other by the divergent demands of their consciences. By far the two best scenes in the movie occur when Jefferson arrives in Paris, where Adams and Franklin have been serving as diplomats. Jefferson, after the deaths of his wife and child, is becoming cold and (even more) distant; Franklin and Adams have become rivals since Franklin felt he had no choice but to ask Congress to remove Adams from the French delegation due to his ineptness at diplomacy.

Real FranklinFranklin

Tom Wilkinson absolutely steals the show as Franklin. It’s hard to make Franklin fresh to an American audience, but Wilkinson does it, aided of course by the scriptwriters.

You could count the Adams/Jefferson/Franklin friendship as either one or two stories, since Franklin’s death leaves us with only the famous Adams/Jefferson relationship on screen, and the dynamic changes. Meanwhile, the Adams/Franklin story is equally worth telling, and (yet again) a story I don’t think we’ve seen on screen. On the other hand, the rivalry that develops later between Jefferson and Adams isn’t dramatically interesting unless it’s preceeded by their friendship, and Franklin was central to that part of the story.

Real JeffersonJefferson

Regarding the later rivalry between Jefferson and Adams, the thesis of the movie is that Jefferson hardened his heart after the deaths of his wife and daughter, and this is what led him to shrug his shoulders and make excuses as the French Revolution became more and more barbaric, distrust his former friend Adams as a liar and a cheat when their disagreements over France became politically critical, and ultimately permit his retainers to print scandalous lies about Adams in order to secure his election in 1800. I have always preferred Adams over Jefferson, even before it was cool, but it must be said that this storyline, while it works as drama, is unfair to Jefferson. It is clear in the record that he recovered emotionally from his wife and daughter’s deaths, as his famous “dialogue between my head and my heart” love letter to a French lady shows pretty clearly.

The case against Jefferson was much more effectively made in the David McCullough book on which the HBO series is based. McCullough tells us that when Jefferson was born, he was placed on a pillow and carried out of the room by a slave, and “he was carried by slaves for the rest of his life.”

As Matt might say: BOOOOOOOM!

Someday, someone needs to make a movie of the Adams/Jefferson relationship. “Thomas and John” would make a great title. (Get to work on that, Hollywood readers.)

There’s so much more packed into this mini-series that I can’t hope to include it all. There are constant little touches history buffs will smile at and history novices will find intriguing – in fact, some of the eccentricities of the real historical characters have actually been softened so that they could be presented without seeming implausible. The stiff and uncomfortable formality of Washington, the shyness of Jefferson, and the eccentricity of George III have all been noticeably toned down so that they could be presented without the audience feeling like they had been exaggerated.

It will take a significant chunk of your time to watch it. And it is not thrill-a-minute stuff. But if you make the investment, you will be rewarded.

Especially if you plan to take the citizenship exam.


Pass the Clicker — Filled with Glee

September 25, 2009

With the possible exception of Flashforward, which I haven’t had a chance to see yet but looks promising, Glee is the best new TV show of the season.  It’s a dark high school comedy about the struggles and triumphs of the glee club coach and its members. 

The best part about it is its unhindered departure from realism.  No glee club really sounds that good.  All of the characters are outrageous stereotypes.  No high school is filled with as much viciousness.  I especially love the coach of the “Cheerios” cheerleading team enforcing the Darwinian social hierarchy and Principal Figgins with his hand always on the calculator looking to save money by feeding the students prison food.

But in fully departing from realism the show probably better captures the reality of high school life than any of the sappy, gritty, “realistic” high school dramas, like Boston Public, Dangerous Minds, or Dead Poets Society.  Those are adult fantasies of what they would like high school to be — filled with heroic teachers battling the odds to save eager students . 

That’s not high school.  High school is often banal, outrageous, awkward, and pathetic.  Surrealism captures the experience so much better than realism.  The only other depiction of high school that I can think of that similarly captures the high school experience is the movie, Election.

Given that much of the attraction of the show is its outrageousness and novelty, I expect that the quality of the show will rapidly fade.  By season 2 we will have exhausted the one-dimensional characters and become jaded to the show’s novelty.  But enjoy the ride for now.

And yes, a show about a glee club is pretty “gay.”  The show tackles this issue head-on by featuring the tension between youthful anxiety about masculinity and youthful desire to express one’s creative self.  Just watch how the football team uses a dance to Beyonce’s All the Single Ladies to win the game:

And if you need more dancing to that song (and who doesn’t?), check out this video of All the Single Babies:

(edited to correct typo)


Random Surreal Pop Culture Moment

January 16, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I haven’t seen any movies lately, but here is a great moment in pop cultural apocalypse: Elton John and Miss Piggy together at last!


Pass the Clicker: House of Cards

November 20, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

If you’ve never watched the BBC House of Cards series, you need to rectify this gaping hole in your life immediately. Go to Netflix, type in House of Cards, get them delivered. Watch them. The second installment is called To Play the King, and the third The Final Cut. Get started without delay.

Michael Dobbs- a former aid to Prime Minister Thatcher- provided the source material. Ian Richardson, a stage veteran and founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Society, turned in a performance for the ages as the completely-evil-but-appealing Machiavellian Francis Urquhart. Known simply and appropriately by his initials “FU”, Dobbs and Richardson created one of the most delightfully sinister characters you’ll ever have the chance to secretly root for, whatever your feelings of guilt for doing so.

FU is the Chief Whip of the British Conservative government who cheats, lies, steals, bullies and murders his way to the top with ice cold precision and with aristocratic gentility, humor and style. The series debuted on the BBC just as the Conservative Party had thrown out Thatcher and replaced her with John Major. It quickly became a national sensation. FU’s frequent refrain “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment” entered into the British pop lexicon and remains there to this day.

Try it sometime. It actually is a handy phrase.

In this scene, FU makes his move against the weak John Major like Prime Minister who he has dutifully served but consistently undermined. Ben Landless, a media mogul, is readily identifiable as a character based upon Rupert Murdoch.

Richardson’s portrayal can only be described as inspired. FU frequently addresses the audience en route to perform some new work of villiany. His knowing smiles to the camera are simply priceless. One reviewer noted:

His depiction defines menace and cold cunning but his ultimate success lies in his ability to make Urquhart simultaneously loathsome and likeable. The audience may be repelled by his ruthlessness, but his wit, coolness, preening intelligence and conspiratorial asides to camera combine to make this minister a strangely charismatic monster.

In one scene, FU has done something terrible- had some of his aides killed and made it look like an IRA bombing, or something worse. FU isn’t too fussy to occasionally perform an occasional murder himself, or to order troops to open fire on unarmed crowds.

Riding in the back of his Jaguar limo after some such offense , he looks at the camera and chides you for getting “squeamish.” Urquhart intones with what came to be known in Britain as “the voice”:

Britain needs strong leadership. You voted for strong leadership, and everything I do, you partake of it.

If that doesn’t make you want to take a shower, well, nothing will. Usually I recommend things that are so bad they are good, but this is just good. Very, very good.

 


Pass the Clicker — The Frog Prince (Muppet)

November 14, 2008

I know it’s cliche to say it, but… there was a time when the entire family could enjoy a TV show together.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a lot of great stuff on TV these days.  I enjoy South Park as much as — well, maybe much more than most people.  But I certainly don’t want my kids to watch it with me.  And my kids enjoy The Wizards of Waverly Place, but I have a hard time sitting through more than a few minutes of it.  It’s not that it’s so bad.  It just clearly isn’t made for people my age.

But back before there was micro media, like South Park on Comedy Central geared toward adults and Wizards on Disney Channel geared toward tweens, there was such a thing as mass media — TV that had to appeal to a wide range of ages and types of audiences.  Appealing to such a diverse audience is a hard thing to do well, which is part of why so many old TV shows were so lousy. 

But Jim Henson was a master at creating entertainment for people of all ages.  The Muppet Show and movies are just loads of fun for people young and old.  I confess that I still enjoy seeing Henson’s old bits from Sesame Street.  It’s great stuff.

Pretty much everyone knows the Muppet TV series and movies, but earlier in his career Jim Henson made a series of fairy tales called Tales from Muppetland, with which I imagine fewer of you are familiar.  The best story from this series was The Frog Prince.  It retells the classic story, but adds all of the fun of the muppets, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and crew. 

There’s lots of singing, oodles of slapstick humor, a hilariously funny evil witch and sidekick ogre, a buffoon king, and a beautiful princess.  One of the best aspects of the muppet telling of this story is that the princess also lives under a terrible curse where she says everything wackbards, I mean, backwards.  She actually is saying Spoonerisms

My favorite part is when the princess and the enchanted frog sing a duet in Spoonerisms.  She sings, “Ny mineteen, ny mineteen, by mirthday’s dotay” and Robin, the cursed frog, echoes in translation, “I’m nineteen, I’m nineteen, my birthday’s today.”

As it turns out, the entire muppet Frog Prince is available on YouTube broken into 6 segments, each 10 minutes long.  I also believe that it is available on DVD and video.  Here’s part 1:

And here is part 2:

So, next time you want to all sit down as a family and watch something, or just when you grow tired of the non-stop hipness of MTV, crudeness of Comedy Central, and schmaltziness of the Disney Channel, check out the muppet’s Frog Prince.