Friday, January 28, 2011
Thursday, January 27, 2011
The 6-episode series, based on a Chicago Public Radio program also called This American Life, first aired in June 2007 on Showtime. It featured an interesting mash-up of journalism, documentary style filming, and first person narratives to tell stories about Americans and the choices we make throughout our lives. Hosted by Ira Glass, TAL lasted two seasons, until in 2008 the creators asked to be removed from television due to the scheduling difficulty involved in composing each show. Although the entirety of its career on Showtime consisted of 12 shows over two years, it won three Emmy's and is currently re-airing on TV and Netflix.
Host and producer Ira Glass, who looks like a well-adjusted Buddy Holly on nerd pills, has a voice made for grabbing attentions and keeping it. The greatest strength of This American Life are the narrations done by Glass. He points to important, easily overlooked facets of life; shows us the extraordinary behind the norm, and manages to do it without sounding pretentious. There are several other talented narrators throughout the series, usually reserved for the longer single-story episodes, but Glass's sympathetic comments resonate the most influential.
The bulk of the episodes begin with a short glimpse into oddities which have cropped up in American culture; like the group of Christians who gather every week to photograph the sun so they can speculate on divine symbols they see in the bloom effects. Or a pair of scientists who started to receive heartfelt requests for the chemical treatment they stumbled upon, a treatment to wipe a subject's memory clean. After a short introduction the show's theme is revealed and a couple of 20-minute stories are presented to the viewer following that theme.
Episode one, Reality Check, talks about people whose dreams have run far ahead of their reality, and are snapped back into focus in bizarre ways. A family of Texas farmers clone their beloved pet and prizewinning bull when he dies of natural causes, creating from Chance's DNA a bull calf named 'Second Chance', who amazingly turns violent despite the original Chance's Ferdinand-like demeanor.
Later in the same episode, a little-known rock band who has gotten used to playing to empty crowds, find a bustling nightclub full of fans who know their lyrics by heart. Later they discover over the internet that their fans were frauds, and all part of an elaborate prank from an acting troupe, some who went so far as to memorize their material and print out groupie T-Shirts before attending the NY show.
If you're not a fan of public radio, don't be afraid to turn This American Life on the TV and leave it in the background while you're preparing breakfast in the morning, or dragging yourself onto the treadmill for ten minutes. But I guarantee you'll be sucked into the program soon enough.
Each consecutive episode is as quirky as the first, and almost feels like a Ripley's Believe It Or Not of life lessons. Some of the stories sound bizarre enough to be fiction, yet still ring true as only reality could. And with each freakish situation or confusing twist is a seed of humanity. If I could pick a television series that best illustrates the human condition, This American Life would be it.
Monday, January 24, 2011
Some time during the last decade the gods of comedy divided our world of laughter into three movie spheres. In one of these dwell the raunchy Seth Rogen flicks and their ilk, which lean heavily on foul bachelor humor and the assumption that men’s IQ have a direct relation to the content of weed they smoke. The other sphere consists of precocious indy comedies and awkward teen flicks that would be great date movies, if only they were funny. The ones that make you sound smart when you tell your friends about them.
The third branch of funny, and the hardest to get onboard with, spawned like lightening out of the stormcloud that is Saturday Night Live. Stars of SNL frequently break from sketch comedy to find movie vehicles for themselves; Chevy Chase, Dana Carvey, Mike Meyers, Tim Meadows, Tina Fey, etc. One of the most recent and highest grossing stars of the SNL phenomenon is Will Ferrell, whose movies frequently feel like 10-minute character sketches that were stretched to fill an hour and a half of screen time (Anchorman was great, Step Brothers should have been incinerated).
The Other Guys, a buddy cop movie starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, balances slapstick, raunch, and over-the-top action, with flair rarely seen in today’s comedies. It looks like just another Ferrell bit on the surface. But between the ridiculous gunfights, Samuel Jackson’s berating of the unassuming secretary, and Wahlberg’s impotent tantrums, The Other Guys strikes a funny chord that keeps humming all the way to the end.
Why it works:
Everyone in the cast of The Other Guys is utilized to their utmost, giving each actor the freedom to play an extreme version of the characters they’re known for. Samuel Jackson, as the intensely angry black man, and his muscled partner Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, fight petty crime with all the prejudice and tenacity of a bundle of lit dynamite. As the fantasy cop duo they wreck up the city and reap the public accolades, while ‘the other guys’ stuck in the office take care of all the paperwork.
After a freak jumping-off-a-skyscraper accident proves fatal for the real heroes, the ludicrous crime fighting torch is passed to the spineless paper pusher (Ferrell) and an irate, love-starved benched cop (Wahlberg). Their quest for justice takes them deep into the underbelly of...more paperwork. Each big break in the case leads to more evidence of a cashflow scheme- one that’s so nefarious it taps into cop retirement funds and the revenues of public servants.
The unlikely pair remain combative with one another throughout most of the film, despite uncovering several shocking truths about each other. Such as a history of pimping college co-eds in a quirky prostitution ring. Or Wahlberg’s macho character having extensive art and ballet training, which he only used to mock the queer artsy kids from his old neighborhood, so he claims. The hatred between these two, especially near the beginning, make the Odd Couple look pleasant and well adjusted.
After the leaflets settle:
Not every line delivered in this movie is gold, and some of the jokes fall flat. But one of the hardest parts of comedy is accounting for everyone’s sense of humor. In a horror movie it’s a safe bet that your audience will be frightened by the same things; events or monsters that threaten the protagonist’s mortality, something we can all sympathize with. Comedy, however, hits everyone differently. Some people can’t stand puns or wordplay, while others love redneck or potty humor. The Other Guys manage to consistently stir a good chuckle without pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Another note I’d like to make about this film is its subtle message about white collar crime. During the movie Will Ferrell comments on the amount of money stolen through major corporation heads compared to the insignificant value of most drug and property offenses. There is even a series of charts and animations that run during the credits, depicting simplified versions of the big money schemes we’ve seen in the media. It may be misplaced in its attempt to educate the audience after a slapstick blockbuster that dwells heavily on the subject of hobo-orgies, but I applaud the effort nonetheless.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
- A witch's love spell backfires, causing all the girls in the school to fall for Xander. The episode shows that forcing someone to love you is ultimately meaningless compared to the purity of natural love.
- A monster causes Buffy to be able to read minds. The episode shows how this ability, while revealing, would take all the mystery out of life and be more of a curse than a blessing.
- A 'magical candy bar' is produced that causes adults who eat it to act as they did when they were rebellious teenagers. The episode shows us a side of some of the characters that we haven't seen before, and also how perhaps they need to relax a bit, as they did when they were young.
Friday, January 21, 2011
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
I would like to say that prior to this movie, I liked Justin Long. Drew Barrymore has started making a comeback, and I've been truly impressed by her more recent movies. You can still watch this, but I would definitely recommend picking up something else. Unless you have a friend seriously considering attempting a long distance relationship, in which case you definitely should torture them with this movie. Then follow it up with The Break Up. The cards are in your favor that they will change their mind.
The reasons are complex and many. The movie drops hints as it goes, from her up-front statement about not believing in true love to her difficult childhood of divorced parents. It is clear that, despite his best efforts, Tom is unable to understand this side of her. He believes utterly in true love. Fate. The One. But she can't; she just isn't ready on an emotional level to respond with such devotion. Consequently, to a certain extent, their relationship is doomed to fail from the beginning. It just takes time for them to realize that.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
Ferelden, not Salem.
I don’t often comment about downloadable content for games since I consider them part of a whole, although most DLC comes at a small price nowadays, separate from the on-shelf version. But Dragon Age: Origins has been releasing a constant flow of extra material since its initial launch, bridging the financial gap to their next project, Dragon Age II.
Warden’s Keep, The Stone Prisoner, Return to Ostagar, Darkspawn Chronicles, Leliana’s Song, and Golems of Amgarrak were all released between late 2009 to 2010, containing a few additional hours of gameplay per DLC package. The cost of these packages range from 5$ to 15$, and are playable as either separate smaller campaigns, or as side-quests within the primary module Dragon Age: Origins.
With so much content, why focus on Witch Hunt? Because it’s a weak offering.
Witch Hunt picks up where Dragon Age Origins left off, importing your character from either DA:O or the Awakening expansion. Morrigan, the cynical witch with abandonment issues, has run away after the final battle with the Arch Demon, possibly carrying the god-child of one of the Gray Wardens (depending on your choices in DA:O). It is up to you, nameless hero of one-of-three potential races, to bring her back, although I’m not exactly sure why.
Nor does the game know why you’re chasing the wayward party member. In your first dialogue with a new, shallowly fleshed-out companion, you’re questioned about your reasons to pursue her. Your options, respectively: A) I want to kill her. B) I want to love her. C) I don’t know why.
So, with your character’s motivations firmly resolved, you set off through a series of quests to unexplored lands, against horrors unseen, discovering new and frightening monsters…
Just kidding, it’s all stuff you’ve seen before. Witch Hunt rehashes old maps from the Origins campaign and from the other DLC’s, shaking them up like an etch-a-sketch and filling them with the same old Darkspawn you’ve mowed down before. Instead of fighting a giant dragon in the Dragonbone Wastes, you fight a giant bug. Instead of finding clues about golems in Cadash Thaig, you find clues to an ancient mirror. In Flemeth’s hut you don’t encounter Flemeth, you encounter an elf. Witch Hunt feels like a racing game in which you run the same old tracks in reverse.
And if you aren’t playing for the content alone and feel truly invested in the story, again you may be disappointed. The only familiar characters we see from Origins are Morrigan, in one brief scene where she tells you ‘adios’, and Sandal, the enchantment-happy halfwit. Oh, and if you started as a human noble in DA:O, you also get your Mabari hound back.
When the spells fizzle:
DLC’s are a great way for bigger game titles to stay afloat while they produce new content, and until now Dragon Age has had a good run. But if you want to know how Morrigan’s side of the story resolves, look up the end cinematic on youtube and send Bioware a check for five bucks. It’ll save you an hour or two.