Thursday, March 31, 2011

Podcast Rollcall: Mr. Deity

Genre: Comedy/Satire

What It's About: An unspecified (but clearly Judeo-Christian) deity deals with the hassles of managing Earth and all the life forms on it.  Constantly nagged and questioned by his ex-wife Lucy, his son Jesse, and his assistant Larry, Mr. Deity eventually makes the decisions that will dictate how life on Earth ought to be lived -- how nature sustains, why humans treat each other the way they do, and why he needs to be worshipped a certain way.

Why You Should Care: Because it questions the commonly-accepted notions of religion that are truly strange when you stop to think about them.  Creator and writer Brian Dalton is clearly bemused by the tenets of Christianity and sets out to demonstrate the more absurd points by framing "god's" decision-making process as a series of bickering conversations between a deity and those closest to him.

Frequency: Bi-weekly

Average Length: Less than 10 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Monday, March 14, 2011

How 'Californication' Should End

"Californication" hasn't always had the clearest sense of direction.  As with most shows these days, it's always had season-long story arcs -- one season is about writing a music producer's biography, another season is about taking a teaching position at a university, etc. -- that act as clotheslines upon which smaller stories can be hung.  But the show has typically been short-sighted, more concerned with the smaller day-to-day adventures of the main character rather than the broader scope of his life.  Until the current season...

For those of you unfamiliar, "Californication" is a guilty pleasure series whose primary objective is to get as many up-and-coming young actresses as possible to take their clothes off for the camera.  David Duchovny stars as novelist and sometime-screenwriter Hank Moody.  The quintessential "bad boy with a heart of gold," Hank juggles more women than James Bond would know what to do with while always pining for the domestic-life-that-could-have-been with his teenage daughter, Becca, and her mother, Karen.

"Californication" is also a prime example of a growing sub-genre of cable series that manage to be good enough to keep you watching, but bad enough to make you question why you do.  It crosses into unbelievable territory far too often... which would be fine, except that in other moments it wants you to confront heartbreaking realities.  The tone is, let's say, inconsistent.

The downfall of many of these "Good Enough/Bad Enough" cable series is that they're bogged down by dull characters that can't be gotten rid of.  In the case of "Californication," it's the afore-mentioned Karen and Becca, who bring the show to a screeching halt whenever they're on screen.  It's hardly the fault of the actresses (although I won't argue the complaints about Madeleine Martin's acting) -- Karen and Becca are, unfortunately, symbols and plot devices more than characters.  They serve as Hank's ultimate goal (happy family life) and moral compass (regret for his bad behavior).

At least some attempt is made to realize Becca as a fully developed character, with actual goals and motivations of her own.  Somewhere along the line she started playing guitar and has since set herself on a path to become a rock star.  Best of luck to her; but we, the audience, don't care.  Her dad is doing far more interesting things, and that's the show we signed up for.

Karen has no such goals and motivations.  In the first season, she had gotten engaged to an upstanding businessman.  This, of course, rankled Hank, and he set out to prevent the wedding.  That wasn't much characterization for Karen in the first place, but she's had even less to do ever since.  By now, she shows up just to harangue Hank for two to ten minutes every episode and then move on.  This makes her immensely unlikable, and makes us wonder why Hank is so enthralled by her.  Having unconditional love for your own offspring is understandable.  But why does Hank want Karen around?  We've seen what his life is like when she's out of the picture, and it's far more noteworthy.

But it's a catch-22.  The catalyst for the entire series was Hank's determination to win back his ex-girlfriend and his daughter, despite his compulsive self-sabotaging via sex and drugs and anti-authoritarian behavior.  From an audience perspective, the sex and drugs and anti-authoritarian behavior are way more interesting.  We want to spend all our time on those, and as little time as possible with the ex and the daughter.  But if the writers were to get rid of the ex and daughter, then Hank has no hope of achieving his personal goals.  So there's no choice but to keep those characters around, and to keep Hank perpetually pining for their affections.  Hank keeps trying to make things right with them, screwing it up, but managing to keep them just happy enough to allow him into their lives.  It's a perpetual motion machine.  And it could literally go on this way as long as the network and the writers want it to.

But then this season (its fourth), the writers pushed something forward that's been more damaging to Hank Moody than anything that's come before.  It's been brought to light that Hank slept with an underaged girl, and he's been formally charged with statutory rape.  This has been handled remarkably well by the writers, especially considering the show's proclivity for "Bad Enough" territory.  It would have been easy to get bogged down in heavy drama, and to lose the character of Hank.  But no, Hank has remained Hank -- sleeping around, drugging around, running up debt -- even while he's on the verge of being convicted of one of the most serious crimes against civilized society.

In other words, this season has been the best yet in finding that balance between the unbelievable and the heartbreaking.  As of yet, our hearts haven't been broken.  But there's a lot of very subtle tension building up, and I'm loving it.  Hank Moody is on the verge of a total meltdown -- one that is absolutely true to the character and has been earned by the show.  And in order to truly deliver on all this potential, Hank Moody needs to become the fictionalized Charlie Sheen.

Yes, this is a Charlie Sheen article!  Sorry if this feels like a sneak attack.  Frankly, I was reluctant to say it, but there it is.

Look, Charlie Sheen is a real person who needs real help.  He's been really abusive to real people.  He is not beyond redemption, but he has a lot of work to do.  I'm not making light of his situation, and I'm not pretending to have any sort of valuable insight into it.  I'm talking about a TV show that has never had anything to do with any real people (except maybe Rick Springfield), which now finds itself in a position to shed a little light on the destructive nature of addiction.

And incidentally, if the makers of "Californication" had gone into the series with the explicit intention of making a fictional version of Charlie Sheen, I would have considered that crass exploitation.  But they've always been doing their own thing.  It just so happens that this moment of reality has converged in such a way that, through no design of their own, they've found themselves in a position to bring a bit of enlightenment to their audience.  And believe me, that's more ambition than a guilty pleasure show such as "Californication" ever desired.

Granted, Charlie Sheen has never been accused of statutory rape.  But other than that, there are more similarities than dissimilarities between him and Hank Moody.  The excesses, the wild child extravagances; the looks and the charm and the cleverness to pretty much have the world in the palm of your hands, yet the destructive tendencies to be able to lose it all in a heartbeat.  (Maybe I'm just a jealous troll.)  And through the anguish and the sympathy of the otherwise extraneous Karen and Becca, we could get a sense of the impact such behavior has on loved ones.  Those characters would finally serve a greater purpose to the audience, rather than just a thin purpose for Hank's motivations.  It's all there.

I'm not saying the producers of "Californication" should go all "ripped-from-the headlines" with Sheen.  I'm saying they've already done it without even meaning to.  If they commit to what they've already set up -- that Hank has sewn the seeds of his own destruction, and that he may not be able to handle the consequences -- then I think "Californication" is in a better position to illuminate the Charlie Sheen situation than any Johnny-come-lately biographer who's looking to cash in on a celebrity's downfall.  And that's the way I'd rather see it unfold.

Monday, March 7, 2011

2011 Oscar Wrap Up

Loose Thoughts

Before writing about this year's Oscar ceremony, I thought I should take a moment to review what I said last year.  As it turns out, I came out pretty negatively about last year's show.  Which is strange because while I was watching this year, I kept wishing it were as good as last year.  Lesson learned.  Despite my overall negative feelings about the Oscars this year, the passage of time will probably leave me with a better feeling about it.  In that spirit, I'd like to focus on the positive.

Shorter.  Last year's telecast rolled straight to 9 o'clock Pacific, midnight Eastern.  That's never necessary.  This year's show weighed in 20 minutes lighter, despite the strange addition of a lip synching children's choir at the end.  Remember, Academy, less is more.  Let's see if we can wrap it up by 8 next year.

Kirk Douglas.  Look, I couldn't understand half of what the guy was saying.  But he still seems really sharp despite being a post-stroke 94-year-old.  Once he got on a roll, he provided one of the few moments of spontaneity the whole night.  We could have used a few more Kirk Douglas moments.

Melissa Leo.  Another one of the more spontaneous moments.  She and Kirk Douglas were the only people to get bleeped during the night.  Thanks for giving us something to talk about.

Christian Bale.  Somehow didn't get bleeped, but still gave us something to talk about by delivering one of the most heartfelt -- but not blubbering -- speeches of the night.  He gave due respect to the man his role was based on, and then got choked up when he thanked his wife.  "I didn't think I was like this," he said.  We didn't either, Christian, but it's nice to see that you are.

The Writers.  Both of the screenplay writers gave excellent speeches.  And while you might expect writers to be apparently good with words, speaking in front of one of the world's biggest crowds isn't always the most comfortable place for them.  Aaron Sorkin and David Seidler both came through.

Best live-action short.  "God of Love" wasn't my prediction to win, but it's easy to see why it did - it's probably the most casually entertaining of the five nominees.  Luke Matheny's acceptance speech demonstrated exactly that.  Funny and relaxed while still respectful and appreciative (and short!), it's what every awards speech should aspire to be.

Randy Newman.  Not bogging down his speech with countless thank yous, Newman riffed humorously on his history with the Oscars (20 nominations and only two wins) and poked fun at the whole Oscar process.

In Memoriam.  This may have been the single most respectful year for the In Memoriam segment.  The audience was asked to hold all applause until the end, so the historically crass "popularity contest" aspect was removed.  Furthermore, unlike last year, the camera only cut to the singer a couple of time, and this was obviously planned around moments when the video roll for the deceased was put on hold so that the home viewer wouldn't miss anything.

Spielberg.  Not just because he's Spielberg, but because of the introduction he gave before he announced the Best Picture winner.  "One of these ten movies will join a list that includes On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather and The Deer Hunter.  The other nine will join a list that includes The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate and Raging Bull.  Either way, congratulations.  You're all in very good company."  Well said.  With all the griping that follows the Academy Awards every year, it's best to remember that it's ultimately meaningless.  We love the movies that we love, and we'll keep watching them for decades to come.

And now, the griping.  Come on, you didn't think I'd let this whole thing pass without complaining, did you?

You'll notice I didn't have much to say about the hosts in the "positives" section.  They were sort of a void in the evening's proceedings.  Some commentators have come out in favor of one over the other, but no, they were both pretty bad.  I've always liked Franco and Hathaway (well, post-Princess Diaries), and I don't blame them.  They shouldn't have been asked to host.  I think we, the viewing audience, would do best to forgive and, especially, forget.

Tom Hooper.  In his acceptance speech, he told the story of how his mom saw the stage version of "The King's Speech" and told him he should make it a movie.  "The moral of the story is to listen to your mother," he said.  Cell phones across Los Angeles lit up, as mothers told their aspiring-filmmaker children that they should heed Hooper's advice.  Well, mom, as soon as you start delivering me Oscar-worthy material, we'll talk.

The stage.  Apparently a lot of people liked it.  I found it distracting.  It brought the show to a dead halt when the presenters pointed out that it was changing in front of our eyes.  And then those magma colors would pulsate in the background during the acceptance speeches.  No good.

Lifetime achievements.  One of the most venerated directors of the last 40 years, one of the hardest working character actors of the last 60 years, and one of the biggest figures in silent film restoration and preservation won distinguished awards this year.  And they were allowed onto the stage, as a group, for about five seconds to give a quick wave and then were sent on their way.  If the Oscar stage isn't the place for people like these to be recognized, then where is?

I'll leave it at that.  I could go -- and on -- but we're trying to keep it positive.

My Score Sheet

This year, I made predictions in 24 categories.  I got 14 right.  It's more than half, but still not a great average.  I'll have to try harder next year.

In Summary

While some news organization were citing this year as the first official Twitter Oscars, I already made that call last year... and I still agree with myself on that.  Last year, people taking their real-time Oscar commentary to the Twitter-verse seemed inspired, and their giddiness showed.  This year, it felt like most people were doing it out of obligation.  Not particularly inspired, going through the motions, doing it simply because they thought they were supposed to.

And that pretty much describes the Oscars overall this year.  Oh well; still happy to have them around.  And let's just be optimistic that next year's ceremony will be better. Grade: D-

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

2011 Oscar Liveblog

This is an archive of the comments I made on Twitter during the February 27, 2011 Oscar telecast, enhanced with a timeline of the televised ceremony, in Pacific time.

3:00 PM - Oscar pre-show coverage has already started on E! and locally.  It's best to avoid watching it.

5:12 PM - Settle in for a long night in front of the TV.  Am immediately greeted by horrible red carpet questions.  Host Robin Roberts asks Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban who picked the music in the limo on their way to the show.  Ugh.

5:25 PM - They give a brief glimpse inside the production trailer, with the director and others sitting in front of 20 monitors.  This sort of thing might be interesting to viewers for more than three seconds.

5:30 PM - The show opens with a montage of Best Picture nominees.
  • I was told they were doing away with montages this year. Instead, they open with a big one.
5:33 PM - For the opening, pre-filmed bit with the hosts, the broadcast falls back on the old trope of inserting the hosts into recognizable scenes from the year's movies.
5:38 PM - The clip finishes, and the hosts take the stage in the flesh.  James Franco comes out with phone in hand - Twitter has made its official stage debut at the Oscars.

- The jokey banter between Franco and Anne Hathaway lands with a resounding thud.  Mercifully, it's short.

5:42 PM - Tom Hanks arrives to hand out the first awards.  He draws attention to the fact that the stage is surrounded by several arced video screens that transition into a Gone with the Wind theme background.  I remember hearing that the Oscar producers planned to "bring us inside the movies" or something like that.  This is apparently what they meant.

5:44 PM - The first award of the night, Best Art Direction, goes to Alice in Wonderland's Robert Stromberg and Karen O'Hara.

5:46 PM - Hanks also presents the Best Cinematography award to Wally Pfister for Inception.  Then the telecast goes to the first commercial, having handed out awards to older, unfamous people in categories that few people care about.  On the way to the commercial, the announcer runs through a list of upcoming categories and presenters.
  • That bumper out might as well have said, "We promise young famous people when we come back"
5:51 PM - 94-year-old, post-stroke Kirk Douglas takes the stage; so, not so much with the youthfulness the Oscars are angling for.  He hands out the award for Best Supporting Actress.  He teases the nominees by delaying the winner announcement as long as possible.
- Finally, he announces Melissa Leo as the winner.  Somewhere in her speech, she says "fuck."

6:01 PM - Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake start talking animation.  Once again, they draw attention to the video screens surrounding the stage which "take us into" an animated backdrop.
  • The changing backgrounds are as annoying as I imagined them when reading the pre-show coverage
- Timberlake makes "an app for that" joke and pulls out his phone.  We're going to be seeing more and more phones on stage in years to come.

- "The Lost Thing" wins Best Animated Short.

- Toy Story 3 wins Best Animated Feature.
6:11 PM - Anne Hathaway gives a quick tribute to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929.

6:13 PM - Javier Bardem and James Brolin hand out the Screenplay awards.  Social Network wins Best Adapted.  Aaron Sorkin's speech goes longer than writers are allowed to go.
  • Did you really think the cue off music would work for Aaron Sorkin? You've heard his dialogue, right?

- Original Screenplay goes to King's Speech.
6:23 PM - Hathaway sings a parody of "On My Own" from Les Miserables, jokingly lamenting that Hugh Jackman refused to sing with her... which couldn't possibly be true.
6:26 PM - Russell Brand and Helen Mirren do a comedic bit which has Mirren speaking French and Brand mistranslating.  The Best Foreign Film goes to In a Better World.
  • Just noticed they went back to "the Oscar goes to..." Last year, it was "the winner is..."
6:29 PM - Reese Witherspoon hands out the Best Actor award to Christian Bale.
6:38 PM - Academy president Tom Sherak and Disney/ABC Television Group president Anne Sweeney essentially talk about renewing their contract with each other.

6:40 PM
- Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman award the Best Original Score to Social Network's Trent Reznor.  The telecast repeatedly cuts to David Fincher, sitting with who I assume is his daughter.
6:46 PM - Scarlett Johansson and Matthew McConaughey do the Sound awards.  Mixing and Editing both go to Inception.

6:53 PM - Marisa Tomei gives a quick mention to the sci-tech Oscars, which were presented at a different ceremony so as not to nerd up the joint.

6:55 PM - Cate Blanchett hands out the award for Best Makeup to The Wolfman, then Best Costume Design to Alice in Wonderland.  Colleen Atwood gives a lengthy acceptance speech from a single index card.
7:00 PM - They play a video where people on the street are asked to name their favorite Best Original Song winner.  Obama is the last person to name a song.  Yes, that Obama.

7:02 PM - Kevin Spacey introduces performances for two of the Best Song nominees.  Randy Newman performs his song from Toy Story 3, followed by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi from Tangled.

7:11 PM - Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal present the Short Film nominees.  Gyllenhaal notes that these can be vital tools in winning your Oscar pool, so everyone should strive to see the nominees.  True, but it didn't help me.  The Best Documentary Short winner was Strangers No More.  Best Live-Action Short was God of Love.
7:18 PM - In an amusing bit, some movie scenes are remixed into music videos using auto-tune and fancy editing.

7:20 PM - Oprah hands out the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  Inside Job wins.

7:26 PM - Billy Crystal honors Bob Hope and introduces a clip reel of Hope's Oscar-hosting highlights.
- The end of the Hope clip reel is doctored to make it sound like Hope is introducing the next presenters - Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr.  They give Best Visual Effects to Inception and Best Editing to Social Network.
7:41 PM - The remaining two Best Song nominees do their performances.  First AR Rahman and Florence Welch for 127 Hours.
7:43 PM - Then Gwyneth Paltrow sings her song from Country Strong.
7:45 PM - Finally they award the winner for Best Original Song.  It goes to Randy Newman for Toy Story 3.  He frets that his speech will slow the show down.
7:52 PM - The telecast comes straight out of commercials into the In Memoriam clip reel, with Celine Dion singing live underneath it.  The audience was clearly instructed to hold their applause until the end, and the camera did not pull away from clip reel in favor of the performer as it did last year.
7:56 PM - Halle Berry gives a special tribute to Lena Horne at the end of the In Memoriam reel.
8:01 PM - Hilary Swank and Kathryn Bigelow present the Best Diretor award.  It goes to Tom Hooper.

8:06 PM - Annette Bening introduces Governors Awards winners - Kevin Brownlow, Eli Wallach, and Francis Ford Coppola.

8:10 PM - Jeff Bridges singles out each of the Best Actress nominees for individual love, then announces the winner - Natalie Portman.
  • Did any of the perverts drooling over 13-year-old Natalie Portman in -The Professional- ever think they'd see this moment?

8:20 PM
- Sandra Bullock gives the individual love treatment to the Best Actor nominees, then announces the winner - Colin Firth.
8:31 PM - Steven Spielberg takes the stage to announce the Best Picture winner - King's Speech.

8:39 PM - As if the show hasn't already gone on too long, some sort of children's choir is trotted out on stage to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  Kind of strange, but hey, good for them.
So those are the minutes for this year's Oscars.  Check back in a couple days for my final summary, and then we can put this awards season to rest.  See you then!