Tag Archives: entertainment

Lost in a Fairytale: Once Upon a Time and the Flashback Trend on TV

It was a pretty surprising moment for the show. Not as shocking as a death or pregnancy or any of the many events that usually make up May sweeps. But still, it was very surprising when in the second season premier of Once Upon a Time, a show that had become rather formulaic by the end of its first season, actually changed from something very procedural into a more serialized narrative. And it was in that moment that it became clear that the show could probably survive into more seasons to come.

The show, built on the conceit that fairytale characters are real and that a curse has brought them into our world, relied on a flashback formula during its first season to help explain that often confusing concept. The fact that the local schoolteacher is Snow White, the mayor is the evil queen and a pawnbroker is Rumplestiltskin is much more easily explained by showing the same actors in gowns and crowns, fighting off monsters and magic. And as the show veered from the accepted versions of fairytales that everyone knows, the flashbacks helped to create a world that was unique to the show, and that had its own rules. In essence, Once Upon a Time spent half of its first season on some very glitzy exposition.

But when the curse was broken at the end of season one and suddenly everyone remembers who they all really are, the time for explaining how and why was over. The time for the past was over, as the future was so uncertain for the characters. But how to change something that had worked for a whole year?

The premier did indeed flash between the fairy tale world and the real one, only not in a way that the show had ever done before. In fairyland we see Sleeping Beauty, a brand new character, awakened by her handsome prince who is accompanied by Mulan. They encounter a hooded phantom who marks his victims with a metal disk and then sucks out their souls. Aurora’s prince is marked and dies.

It all seems a little irrelevant until the phantom appears back in the real world. Although it still seemed a little unnecessary. Introducing three new characters just to explain what the scary hooded monster did? He was scary and hooded and so logic says he probably sucked out souls. But when in the real world they get rid of the phantom by banishing him back to fairyland, and the two female leads with him, they land right next to Aurora and Mulan. It wasn’t a flashback; it was a peek into the not-so-distant future. The show had introduced three new characters to move the plot forward, not back. And suddenly a whole world of possibilities emerges.

The flashback formula was made most popular by Lost, and when you think back to the first season of that show, you can understand why it was so good. It made a high concept, serialized show more procedural, and easier to watch and understand. It kept the show from having the entire series on a beach. The audience could see how the plane crash had changed the characters. It was a great way to bring those characters together.

But in that show, and others, the brilliance of the flashbacks just didn’t last as characters joined cults, got married randomly, and got strange tattoos in Thailand. And when the flashbacks started to falter the show started flashing forward and eventually “sideways” into the increasingly absurd. These scenes weren’t telling the audience anything about the characters or the plot of the present. They were just there to be there, because that is what the show had always done.

But now Once Upon a Time is not cursed to the same fate as Lost. It doesn’t have to flashback endlessly to fairytale characters who don’t last more than one episode, or create increasingly absurd back stories for the characters. And they can continue to flashback, occasionally. It never hurts to know more about the characters, even if we think we already know everything about Snow White. But inevitably the story matters more than the procedure.

Of course the showis still struggling with the transition. A few episodes in this season have gotten a little heady, sporting three separate plots in a short forty-three minute episode: the real world, the current fairyland, and a flashback. But as the stories converge over the season and the stakes are raised, the show ultimately has dropped the flashbacks in episodes where they weren’t needed. It has chosen instead to focus on the here and now, where all of the action is happening. This is a lesson Lost never learned.


Do the Right Thing

Political Animals Episode 5 Recap and Review

As the political miniseries moves from character to character, doling out telling flashbacks, I wonder why there’s “mini” in the series. With only one episode to go, I wonder how the story will resolve itself, which it has to to qualify Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress in a Mini Series for next years Emmy’s. But let’s dive in to this week’s episode, in which we learn what makes Susan tick, how crazy Bud really is, Garcetti isn’t really such a bad guy, and that Anne is still boring.

The episode was titled “16 Hours” but it should really have been called “All About Susan.” our intrepid reporter was the focus of the flashbacks this episode, which strangely was devoid of all things Georgia. We see her emerge as a budding columnist and make her mark by tearing Elaine down. Ripping her apart in a column her editor calls more “judgmental” than editorial. To this criticism, Susan accuses him of being sexist. She goes over his head and suddenly her column is published and she has a new swanky office. This is the part that bugged me. Susan steps on Elaine’s ashes to climb her way up the corporate ladder, all the while accuses her boss of being sexist. She doesn’t really know where she stands, and neither does the show. What does feminism mean here? Is what Susan did strength or was it cheating? Are women supposed to help each other or claw each other’s eyes out? I of course have my own opinions and I’m sure you have yours, but I’m not entirely sure what the show thinks. Sometimes I think all the gains that the character of Elaine makes in terms of the portrayal of women on television, Susan gives away. I’m hoping something great will happen next episode.

The more exciting news was Doug and Susan sleeping together, something you could have called a mile away since that first clandestine meeting. He also drunkenly admits to the other thing we all knew before: that he doesn’t really love Anne enough to marry her and that they’re just a puppet couple. He can’t leave her for Susan but I wish he could. Anne is boring and Susan needs to date a nicer guy. Sigh.

In the meantime, TJ is unconscious in the hospital after an overdose which Elaine covers up by leaking the Chinese nuclear sub story to Susan. The rescue mission is underway but China is so dead set on keeping the sub out of American hands that they threaten to release their nuke onto California if a rescue is attempted. When Vice President Asshole votes to kill the Chinese, Garcetti makes the first good call of the series and steps out as a not-so-bad-guy after all. Of course no bomb is deployed and all is saved, especially Garcetti’s political future. Elaine herself says he’ll be unbeatable. It was noble of her to sacrifice her own political aspirations for the lives of a hundred men, but it’s clear that she’s needed in the federal government, as Garcetti wouldn’t  have lifted a finger without  her. I wish Elaine would have had more to do this episode besides talk about the sub and talk about TJ. It was Bud who got the real action, taking swing at the Vice President for blackmailing Congressman Gay way back when. It was a hilarious scene, one that got me thinking, what would the secret service do in that situation? President, VP, and former President in a fist fight? I wonder if something like that has ever happened…

And of course, we can’t forget Margaret and Anne, busy searching the house for drugs to flush so that TJ can come home and rehabilitate. When they find some good old fashioned Mary Jane, they decide to smoke it instead of flushing it. Cue the high revelations, all of the good ones coming from Margaret of course. The pot brings on a case of the munchies and of course, causes Anne to hit the bathroom to puke her guts out. Only Grandma knows all, and confronts her. It’s a great speech for Ellen Burstyn and she handles the scene well while Brittany Ishibashi sort of stands there like the doll she is. She is such an unnecessary character and even her own personal storyline is boring. They’re spending so much time with TJ and addiction they don’t really have time for another mental health problem in the short six episodes. My only hope is that we leave the series with Doug and Anne resolutely broken up. We’ll just have to wait until next week to see.

The Hobbit and Hollywood’s Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome


I am a Lord of the Rings fan. I am also a fan of The Hobbit. I never thought of it as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings though. I thought of it as a one-off adventure, a completely contained story with overlapping characters and plots. Like JRR Tolkein once said, a children’s story.

The most important reason I felt that The Hobbit was very separate from the later trilogy was because of the stakes. It’s right there in the title: There and Back Again. Bilbo undoubtedly will come back. Yes his quest is dangerous and often life-threatening, but it’s also fun and an adventure and something of an extended holiday for Bilbo.

The Lord of the Rings is an entirely different story. The stakes couldn’t be higher. They are, in fact, apocalyptic. Frodo isn’t leaving his home out of any desire to see the world or have an adventure, he’s doing to because otherwise people will die. There is no fun involved as he’s chased by Wraiths and orcs and travels across barren landscapes with little rest and little food. And there is the possibility that this is a one way journey for him. And meanwhile, the rest of Middle Earth is caught in the throes of war, the outcome of which will be decided by Frodo. It is an epic. It has three stories to tell, and as such, was told in three films.

When I heard that Peter Jackson’s long-long awaited adaptation of The Hobbit was going to be split into two films, I was pretty nonplussed. The trend started with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The book was just too long to make into one film. Of course, Warner Bros. had the benefit of double the profits from two separate releases, but, as an avid Harry Potter fan, I’d agree that you could find two separate movies in that last book. And when I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 I was pleased that it was its own movie, if only because of the flashback scene with Snape and Lily. Then came Twilight: Breaking Dawn split into two films, which I could care less about, although it was clearly a profit minded move, as I’ve read that travesty of a book and there is certainly not enough material for two movies. Then The Hobbit announcement, which I accepted because The Hobbit is long, and I trusted Peter Jackson. Then the third Hunger Games installment is officially two films, which I could see, because Mockingjay is a wild and unwieldy book. Then comes today’s press release from Peter Jackson that The Hobbit will be not two, but three films. And I am out of excuses for the filmmakers. 

Peter Jackson made it out like we are supposed to be excited about this. Who’s excited? The reaction I’ve seen is mostly one of anger and disappointment. Does anybody want three three hour films? Did anybody really want two films? Sometimes stories are just that, one story. They deserve their beginning and end in one sitting.

But moreover, this latest announcement illuminates the problem with Hollywood right now that I like to call the Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome. Symptoms include: sequels to crappy films (Transformers 2 and 3), sequels to films where the story really ended in movie one (Taken 2), reboots of franchises before the old ones have really died (The Amazing Spider-Man), continuing franchises after the original actors/characters have gone (The Bourne Legacy), remaking good old films into bad copies (Footloose), remaking bad old films into bad copies (Conan the Barbarian), and this new trend, breaking up adaptations into smaller and smaller pieces.

I’m not naive. I do understand that the movies are a business and the goal of a business isn’t to make art but to make money. It’s sad but true. Like 3Disease (a horrible affliction sweeping our nation), Rapidly Expanding Franchise Syndrome has taken over Hollywood and has become the norm. But the problem here isn’t that they’re trying to make more money, but rather that genuinely new stories are becoming rarer and rarer. Look at last weekend’s box office. The Dark Knight Rises, a threequel in a rebooted franchise, topped the chart, followed by the fourth installment of a children’s cartoon. And that is the real sad truth here. Hollywood isn’t safe for ingenuity anymore. I don’t mind that studios try to make money by betting on known quantities, but rather that they won’t gamble on a good new idea. Instead of seeing new ideas and new stories, we are going to start going to see the same movie over and over again.

And we are the cause. Movie prices are continuing to climb into the stratosphere, and so why would you waste $10 on something that you don’t know much about, when you can just go see the most recent James Bond film? I’m guilty of it too. I love adaptations and am excited for sequels that continue stories I love. I like reboots too. But I also like stories. And I wish I could see more of them.

Possibly the most disappointing thing about this announcement is that it came not from a money-grubbing studio, but from the artist himself, an artist that many fans have come to revere over the past decade. Jackson has become a trusted guardian of a story that we love. And now he’s broken our trust. What is the point of expanding trusted properties when that trust is gone? Hopefully one day there will be a tipping point. One film too far. I think a small one happened this past weekend with Step Up: Revolution, the fourth film in a teen dance franchise. The tipping point for Hollywood would have to be much bigger, a huge tentpole sequel that didn’t hold up at all. I don’t think it will be The Hobbit. Despite my reservations, I plan to see all three films. But hopefully, someday soon, they will start making new movies again.

500 Movies #4: The Iron Teddy Bear

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

4. The Iron Giant (1999) Brad Bird

A lot of the movies on this list are there because I suffer from something I like to call “youngest child syndrome.” It’s a common disease in which children of families with multiple children who are the youngest tend to miss out on things. I never saw some classic children’s movies because of the simple fact that, by the time I was seven or eight, my parents weren’t going out of their way to show me kids’ films. Instead just let me tag along to the adult movies they were watching. And so I never saw The Iron Giant although I had always meant to.

Perhaps that is the reason why I’ve always enjoyed children’s movies and tv, even beyond my own childhood. I mean, I recently just finished watching the Avatar: The Last Airbender spinoff, The Legend of Korra and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is something to be said for entertainment for children that isn’t dumbed down at all. Full, cohesive and mature stories that simply are told from the perspective of children are the best kind. It’s part of the reason that Avatar: The Last Airbender was a huge success on tv and why the live-action movie version failed so miserably. It started to treat the story as less than it was.

And so, it was genuinely refreshing to see such an earnest kids’ film. The story of Hogarth, an outsider in 1954 Maine, was just the story of a little kid who wants a friend. His friend ends up being a 60 foot tall giant with the capacity to destroy the world, but still, you know, cuddly. It’s really wonderful to see how Hogarth uses his experience with the giant to open up to his mother and to make new friends. He just needed somebody who understands him, to make that first step. And then he was able to make more after that.

The Iron Giant himself was in the same predicament. We never really learn where he came from, but its irrelevant anyway. We know what we need to know: that he’s lost and alone and needs a friend. And so these two lost souls meet one fateful night and forge an unlikely friendship. And it’s really beautiful.

The movie also contains some truly sharp commentary. Agent Mansley, the bumbling government agent sent to investigate the strange goings-on in the small Maine town, is the crazed adult villain from the mind of children, but also from the real world. He’s impulsive, has a one-track mind, and would rather use children to achieve his goals instead of trying to understand them. The scene that montages his various attempts to get Hogarth to talk to him is both hilarious and spot on, as he cycles through a cliched list of names adults use to try to prove to children that they’re their friend. Sport. Scout. Buddy. Kiddo. Tiger. Champ. Hogarth wasn’t falling for it.

The movie also deals with incredibly mature themes, including the nuclear age. Set in the height of the Cold War, there are allusions to the old “Duck and Cover” drills as well as anxiety over Sputnik and the Space Race. A lot has been made recently of the nuclear problem in movies, brought to light by the use of a nuclear missile in the recent smash, The Avengers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it dealt with so deftly, or a satire so plain, than in this film. Evil Agent Mansley is determined to destroy the Iron Giant, going so far as to order a nuclear strike on the robot. But he’s in the middle of a town in Maine, not in the ocean or the USSR. The bomb will kill them all, including Mansley, who makes a pathetic attempt to escape. It is only because of the giant himself that they are saved. He sacrifices himself to save his new friends. In this one scene in a children’s cartoon, director Brad Bird tackles the problem of over-reliance on a nuclear solution, and how it will inevitably destroy us all. And in the real world, we may not have an Iron Giant to save us. A children’s movie did all of this. I wish they would make more movies like this, instead of things like Ice Age 4. Really, kids deserve better.

The Iron Giant is now ranked 329/712 movies on my flick chart. 

The Expectation Rises

This morning I was slightly appalled to see that Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review aggregator, had to shut down its comments on The Dark Knight Rises after response to negative reviews got out of control. Apparently, fans are so loyal to this film that they are spewing vitriol at reviewers who haven’t liked it, even though the fans haven’t seen it yet.

I am guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I am an avid fan of The Hunger Games books, and before the film adaptation opened I read review after review, exalting the positive and disdaining the negative. But rather than getting angry about the negative reviews, I rather became sad, as I started to think that the movie I had been waiting for over a year to see wasn’t going to be everything I had hoped. I tried very hard to manage my expectations. The film ended up exceeding my consciously-lowered expectations and I was happy. But it took a lot of effort on my part.

This reaction to negative reviews brings to light a problem with The Dark Knight Rises that I’ve been predicting for a long time. I feel that, no matter how good the movie is, it’s going to be disappointing. Nobody is going to be completely satisfied. For four years this movie has been built up, almost never being entirely out of the pop culture conversation. Expectations have been growing and growing until they literally exploded with these comments, which reportedly included significant profanity and threats against the reviewers. How can Rises possibly reach the heights to which fans have prematurely set it?

Perhaps a more relevant question than how can it meet expectations is how it got those expectations in the first place. It started with the release of The Dark Knight itself. The highest opening weekend gross (at the time). Heath Ledger’s incredible performance and the posthumous acclaim he was garnering. The Oscar Buzz. Then Oscar season rolled around and the general pop culture public was roiled to see that Knight had not been nominated for Best Picture. Heath Ledger won the Oscar. Soon after the Best Picture category was expanded to ten nominees instead of five. The Dark Knight Rises was announced. Inception was released to acclaim and box office success. It snagged a Best Picture nod. Famous faces were added to the Rises cast list. Shooting began. Photos were released. Some were grabbed by the paparazzi. First teaser. More photos released. First poster. First full trailer. Six minute prologue premieres.More trailers. More photos. More posters. More trailers. TV spots. Viral marketing.

And on and on and on. Not to mention the simple fact that The Dark Knight, to many fans, surpassed Batman Begins by far, and so the logical expectation is that The Dark Knight Rises will do the same. It’s just too much for one film to live up to.

I actually missed a lot of The Dark Knight pandemonium. I was studying abroad in London when it premiered in the US and it didn’t premier in the UK until after I had left. By the time I got home all of my friends had seen it already. I ended up seeing it alone several weeks after it had opened. I liked it, I did, but I suffered from the expectations problem. It was only natural. I watched from across the pond as the film swept the US, and heard accounts from my friends with phrases like  “it completely blew my mind,””life-changing,” and “the best movie ever.” I read articles and reviews about it and saw it break box office records. So by the time I saw it I really was expecting the “best movie ever.” It wasn’t. Maybe that’s blasphemous to some of you, but it’s not my favorite movie nor the best movie ever in my opinion. I did really like it. Heath Ledger completely blew me away. I thought Aaron Eckhart was also incredible. I always love effects and big fight scenes. I was surprised by the psychological and political undertones of the movie. But I was also very underwhelmed.

I have, in my mind, an idea of what “the best movie ever” would be. I imagine it would have much of what was in Knight. Great actors, great performances, great story, great effects, great pacing, great music, etc etc etc. But it also has to have something else. Some kind of x factor that punches you in the gut while your watching it and does leave you changed when you walk out of the theater. It doesn’t have to be emotional. It just has to stick with you. I felt that with a few movies I’ve seen in the past few years. Million Dollar Baby. Brokeback Mountain. Slumdog Millionaire. The Avengers. 

The Avengers is a good comparison for The Dark Knight Rises. It also a highly anticipated comic-book adaptation preempted by multiple movies. Although none of the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers came even close to the impact of Knight, they did do very well in their own right, and the two Iron Man movies greatly exceeded expectations. But the sheer amount of build up for The Avengers was also incredibly huge, with the simple truth that no movie like it had ever been made. It also had similar marketing campaigns that involved leaking select photos, teasers, and posters, to build up to the premier. And it worked. The Avengers has since become the third highest grossing film of all time.

But the thing that is different about The Avengers I think, is that everyone who went to see it and everyone who wrote about it had, in the back of their minds, the idea that The Avengers could fail, and fail miserably. Six superheroes, one movie. Five lead up films. No one had ever done anything like that before. It could have crashed and burned. The story could have been nonsensical to people who hadn’t seen the original five films. The personalities of the different superheroes could have clashed. It could have ended up as Iron Man 3, with Robert Downey, Jr. stealing scenes. It could have just been bad.

And so when the movie bypassed all of these potential problems and went above and beyond expectations, the world responded in kind. And that’s really what it’s about. Expectations. So much about how we enjoy things is based on the context in which they are experienced. Think about a bad time you had at the movies. A movie you wanted to see because it looked good in the trailer, and then it disappointed you. Maybe you went with a group of friends and they were talkative and distracting. Maybe other people in the theater were obnoxious. Maybe you wore uncomfortable pants, or the popcorn sucked, or you had to use the bathroom for two thirds of the movie or the projector glitched or the sound was off or any other number of things. We can’t deny that context is incredibly important. It’s part of the reason I didn’t like The Dark Knight quite as much as everyone else. Maybe if I had seen it earlier with a group of excited friends I would have felt the same as they did. But I saw it alone, weeks late, and so I didn’t have anyone to chatter with excitedly about my favorite parts. I instead had only to dwell on my disappointment in the car ride home alone.

On the other hand, I truly loved Batman Begins. Based on the expectations game, I was inclined to like it. The only previous Batman movie I had ever seen was the disastrous Batman and Robin, nipples on the Batsuit and all. I knew nothing about movie other than that it was about Batman. I saw it with my family, a movie-loving group that loves to dissect films in the car ride home and for days after.  I didn’t particularly like superhero movies then. All in all I had very low expectations and excellent context. Batman Begins turned into one of the films that changed my mind about superheroes. I really loved everything about it. The background into Bruce Wayne’s training and travels. Cillian Murphy’s really scary Scarecrow. The climactic fight on the train. The whole dark feeling of the movie. The way that Gotham felt like it desperately needed a superhero, and how Bruce Wayne filled that role. I definitely felt that x factor when I walked out of the theater. It was just so much better than I thought it would be. And I loved it for surprising me like that.

I’m sure that The Dark Knight Rises will do well this weekend. I’m sure lots of people will like it. But I’m also sure a great many will be disappointed. It’s just the way expectations work. We can either be hyper-aware of it, in the way I treated my Hunger Games viewing experience, which requires conscious effort, or we can roll with it and let our expectations guide our reactions. It just depends on how you like to see your movies. If you’re like me,  you may be more likely to choose the former. But, validly, we can’t always control how we feel. Sometimes, we just love or hate something.

Personally, I’m cautiously excited for Rises. I’m seeing it midnight Thursday, so you can expect my take Friday morning. I’ll try to keep my expectations out of it.

500 Movies #2: Is this the Real Life?

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

2. Blade Runner (1982) Ridley Scott

I haven’t seen much Ridley Scott so far. Many of his movies are on the 500 Movies list, but my current exposure to him is rather limited. I’ve seen Alien, of course. Randomly I’ve also seen Robin Hood, because history has always appealed to me. Oh and I’ve seen the Apple superbowl commercial from the 80s. With my limited knowledge of Scott and how he directs I sat down to watch Blade Runner with a friend (whose reaction to my revelation that I’d never seen it could be most casually described as aghast). And so in writing this article I do not intend to claim any knowledge of Scott or his directing style or tropes or anything. But goodness me if Blade Runner wasn’t just dripping Ridley Scott all over the place. The low camera angles. The dark filter. The future that’s a bleaker than the present, rather than brighter. I felt like the world of Blade Runner was the world of Ridley Scott. And it’s a dark, dark world.

The story of the film felt all at once cliched and entirely original. A neo-noir sci-fi thriller that made you think but relied on old tropes. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Battlestar Galactica, what with the rebellious robots who look just like us, and, of course, Edward James Olmos. I had to remember that the film came out in 1982, and place myself in context. That, I think, is going to be the hardest part of my 500 Movies venture. But I think I’m okay so far.

The story itself was that of Rick Deckard, expert blade runner, or in laymen’s terms, robot hunter. See the science of this future (which I was surprised to find out is only 2019. It’s 2012. Where are my flying cars? Hmmm?) has created robots that look just like humans, and they have rebelled. They are only allowed on the colonies outside of Earth, but four escape and make it back to home sweet planet Earth. They are seeking their creator, Dr. Tyrell, to get him to extend their limited lives. Deckard is called upon to hunt them down. Along the way he meets Rachael, a replicant (as the robots are called) who believes she is human. She has had fake memories implanted in her, as an experiment. Conflict and violence ensues. Deckard falls for Rachael. He kills three of the four escaped replicants. The fourth saves Deckard’s life before dying due to his own time-limited existence. Deckard and Rachael leave together.

Laying aside the tired cop-hunts-fugitives storyline, the oneness of Blade Runner is in its handling of the question of life. It’s interesting, lately I’ve been watching a lot of film and television that deals with the idea of consciousness and life. Blade Runner. Battlestar Galactica. Dollhouse. What is alive? Who are we? How much is body tied to life? Is there a soul? Is consciousness life? I claim no answers to any of these questions, yet am incredibly intrigued by the way they’ve been handled in pop culture over the past thirty years. In Blade Runner‘s semi-dystopia, replicants were not considered alive. In fact, the whole purpose of Deckard was to “retire” them, not “kill” them. Yet the four who escaped sought to prolong their non-lives, and Rachael remembered a whole life before she was told she didn’t have one. As Deckard’s partner Graff says so succintly, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?” And true, who does live? Were any of the humans any more alive? Was what they were doing living? In the bleak world we are presented with through dark filters, there is clearly not much to life, even for humans. Everything is fake, from the companions that JF Sebastian builds for himself to the snake draped around the stripper’s shoulders. The whole world is artificial. The line between real and fake is blurred. So is the line between human and machine. Even the line between life and death.

My friend informed me that one of the major points of discussion amongst fans of the film is whether or not Deckard is an android. This does not surprise me. Hints are dropped throughout the film. The most poignant moment occurs when Rachael brings Deckard a photo of herself and her supposed mother when she was a child to prove that she is real. When she leaves Deckard is moved to look at his own photo collection and realizes that they prove nothing. Nothing is real. Photos are just pictures on paper, and they can be faked just like people can be. So why should Deckard be real? 

I don’t know if I can definitively say whether or not he is a replicant. And I kind of love not knowing. Because at the end it’s not about what anyone is, but the choices they make. That is how life ended for Roy, our most villainous replicant. He ends his life by saving Deckard’s. In the world of Blade Runner, the old adage “actions speak louder than words” should be changed to “actions speak louder than DNA.” It turns out it doesn’t matter what you are. Who you are depends on what you do. And so Deckard and Rachael leave together at the end of the film. And that is all I need to know about what or who they are.

Blade Runner is now 180/709 movies on my Flick Chart

500 Movies #1: The Pulpiest of Fiction

Realizing that although I’d seen many, many movies in my life, I still hadn’t seen enough, I recently created a list of the 500 Best Movies I’ve Never Seen. As I attempt to watch them all, I will write about my experiences seeing classics (and some not-so-classics) for the first time. Warning: these are spoiler-ridden posts, as the films are all past their time in theaters (some, long, long past). If you haven’t seen the film I recommend you first see it and then read. If it’s on the list it’s probably worth seeing. 

1. Pulp Fiction (1994) Quentin Tarantino 

Pulp Fiction. Even its name connotes some type of importance, classicism. Everyone I talk to about film tells me that I have to have to see Pulp Fiction. It’s groundbreaking. It’s life-changing. It’s the best movie of the past 25 years. It’s just plain awesome.

Before I sat down to watch the movie, I had no idea what Pulp Fiction was about. I knew that Samuel L. Jackson was in it, that it was a Tarantino film, that it involved guns and drugs and a pop tart, but I didn’t know what the story was. So when I sat down to watch it with my roommate, herself a cinema studies major, I asked her, quite plainly, “so, what’s it about?” “A lot of things,” she replied, deepening my confusion. I sighed and decided to just get on with it and watch the movie.

I don’t know if “watched” is the right word to describe my experience with the movie. “Absorb” might be better. I didn’t watch it. I sat back and let the sounds and images flood over me. In essence, Pulp Fiction is about four intertwining stories and how and why they intertwine. I’d watched it, so I knew what it was about, but did I really know what it was about? Probably not.

Quickly I learned that the root of Pulp Fiction is not necessarily in the “fiction” itself, but in the overall feeling the film gives you. The story can be a little hard to follow when you don’t know how all the puzzle pieces fit together. But the story didn’t matter all that much. The overall pastiche of images and clips and sounds and characters and blood was the important part of the movie. I don’t particularly know if the idea of Uma Thurman and John Travolta doing the twist is particularly profound but the image of the two of them is resonating. They’re drunk. They’re high. They’re in a nostalgia 50s restaurant. They’re attracted to each other and they shouldn’t be. And they’re doing the twist, of all things. Two people who never looked so out of place and yet fit in so well. It might have been my favorite part of the movie.

To me, what makes a movie great is its ability to continue to amaze on multiple viewings. Without even doing so, I knew that Pulp Fiction was going to be one of those movies.One of my favorite things to do is to re-watch a movie or tv show. It’s probably the English major in me but I feel like there is so much to be gleaned from any one piece of art (and yes, I think both movies and tv are art, get over it) than you can get in an initial exposure to it. Whenever I write a paper about a book I read the book at least twice. There’s always something new to find. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least three or four times, but each time I go through the series again I find something new. And so as I sat in my living room and watched a couple argue the virtues of robbing restaurants, I knew there was something I was missing. And I was dying to find out what it was.

Is it the best movie of the last 25 years? I don’t know, I haven’t seen enough movies to judge that yet. But it was good. Damn it was good. I don’t usually like this kind of film. I abhor graphic violence, not out of any moral qualms but simply because I’m incredibly squeamish. I also usually like character driven movies with a protagonist I care about, rather than a smattering of smaller characters with questionable ethics. But there’s something about the pastiche that works so well here. When you see that Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are in the diner being robbed, there’s something almost poetic about it. The audience gets to smile at a private joke while Tim Roth has a gun pointed at his head. And so I really can’t wait to watch it again. I want to see what I missed.

Pulp Fiction is now 107/708 movies on my Flick Chart

The Newsroom Episode 1 Review: Hopefully More as the Story Develops

Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer in "The Newsroom"

Aaron Sorkin is good at a lot of things. He’s good at giving characters names that roll of the tongue with over-alliteration (see: CJ Cregg, Mackenzie MacHale). He’s good at dialogue. He’s good at having characters fight. He’s good at politics. He’s good at writing movies. Occasionally, he’s good at making television.

One of the many things that doomed Sorkin’s 2006 attempt on the small screen, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was the feeling that he was simply trying to remake The West Wing in a different setting. The idea he was trying to force down our throats was that the backstage drama at a Saturday Night Live knock-off could be quite as consequential as the backstage drama in the White House. And quite simply, it wasn’t. The political ramifications of a sketch about the President are just simply small compared to a scene in which the President ordered a tactical assault on a foreign power. And the drama of poor unfortunate celebrities didn’t quite pull the heartstrings the way that the drama of overworked and underpaid geniuses attempting to help the country did. And so feeling like Studio 60 was a cheap knockoff of television gold, audiences fled, and it was soon cancelled.

I actually liked Studio 60 a little more than many other people, and stuck through it to its unnecessary end. Despite all of it’s flaws, there’s no denying that it was charming, and entertaining to watch when it wasn’t lost in a quagmire of its own self-righteousness. And so I was quite excited to discover that after Oscar-winning success at screenwriting, Sorkin was moving back to television in a new HBO show about cable news. I thought, this at least is an appropriate arena for the political and social meanderings Sorkin likes to take. That was step one in improving upon his Studio 60 failure. Step two was quickly established as well when I saw that the cast of characters all logically worked together on a single show, as opposed to randomness of the Chairmen of the Board of a media conglomerate constantly dealing with the cast of a sketch comedy show. I maintained cautious optimism for the show.

And so “We Just Decided To” aired and it felt less like an attempt to put The West Wing into cable news and more like an attempt to redo Studio 60 and fix it this time. The parallels to the pilot of that show are multifold. The episode opens with a BIG CONTROVERSIAL EVENT in the form wizened media icon unloading publicly about the faults of something. This BIG EVENT causes some sort of staffing shift at the SHOW involving bringing in SEASONED VETERANS who are too good for the job but have nowhere else to go. An IDEALISTIC EXECUTIVE brings them to the SHOW in a maverick-esque move against the profit-grubbing executives he/she is forced to work with. The SEASONED VETERANS cause CONFLICTS with the EXISTING STAFF both personal and professional. Two WILL THEY/WON’T THEY COUPLES are identified. Eventually, everyone agrees they can make the SHOW the best it can be, free of COMMERCIALIZED PROBLEMS it had before. The FIRST SHOW with the NEWLY UNITED STAFF is aired. It is a fantasy version of real-life shows in that medium. All rejoice and look towards a BETTER FUTURE TOGETHER. Roll credits.

Which show am I talking about? If you’ve seen Studio 60 you’ll know that’s the basic plot of the first two episodes. And it also the basic plot of the first (extra-long) episode of The Newsroom. It’s not necessarily a bad plot. I’ve just seen it before. And it didn’t lead to good longevity in 2006. And though I liked Studio 60, a rehashed version of it with slightly better characters and a better setting is not what I was looking for when I turned The Newsroom on. Sorkin seems like that student who wrote a bad paper, but keeps trying to revise it to get an A. It’s not the paper that’s the problem, it’s the subject. If you want to make it better, you have to start from scratch.

There is much to be said about the other problems with the show, including Sorkin’s inability to write strong women and the cynicism that is masked as idealism, and it’s been said very eloquently by other reviewers. See Linda Holmes’ excellent review from NPR. My main problem with the show is that it’s problems are all things we’ve seen before from Sorkin. Political grandstanding and idealistic speeches are simply not made in normal discourse. And surprisingly, in his most political undertaking, The West Wing, Sorkin seemingly did not feel the need to have his characters espouse forced patriotic platitudes in nearly every scene. Rather, the dialogue was natural and normal (if a little fast), and the plots, though larger than life, felt natural as well, and were original every time.

Now with only one episode in, it is unfair to fully judge the series as a profanity-riddled Studio 60 remake, as we have to let the show find its sea legs. I’m hopeful it will start to pull in a different direction, because despite his faults, I do have a great tonnage of faith in Aaron Sorkin. He wrote things like this. So perhaps he just has to figure out how The Newsroom really works. After all, the first season of The West Wing did have Mandy in it.