Thursday, February 24, 2011

The End of Hollywood Story-telling?

Just in time for the Oscars, here's a great article from GQ about how marketing demands has turned Hollywood from an institution that creates films to one that adapts reliable brands. Here's an excerpt:

For the studios, a good new idea has become just too scary a road to travel. ...
With that in mind, let's look ahead to what's on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children's book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title .*
* Captain America, Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, and Thor; X-Men: First Class; Transformers 3; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Rise of the Apes; Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2; The Hangover Part II; Winnie the Pooh; The Smurfs in 3D; Spy Kids 4; Fast Five and Final Destination 5; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

Now I understand that people want to feel like the creative environment is one in which, y'know, creativity can flourish. But let me play devil's advocate here for a while.

Simply because an idea is new, it is not automatically better than something which is adapted. Let's remember that:

Now I'm sure we could all go on about this ... but would the first "Pirates" have been better if it hadn't used a pre-known name and a couple images from the ride that people only know because they're in the movie?


People like familiarity. The expectation that people can only enjoy something that's new speaks to a predilection for ADD and infidelity. Also if something is new, and is good, is it too much to expect that people might want to see more of that? Or does something have to be new to be good?

No. "Cars" was new when Pixar did it ... and it was drastically inferior to "Toy Story 2" or "Toy Story 3."

Having said that ... they are releasing "Cars 2." So ... well, maybe these people have a point.

But then again WHO CARES? If you want creative films, go to the Sundance Film Festival. If you just want quality story-telling, there is more better writing on TV than ever before: were there dramas as good as "Mad Men" in the 1990s? No. Were there comedies as good as "The Office" in the 1980s? Hardly.

Or forget about traditional entertainment entirely: if you want to find creative work, there is the whole g-d Internet. Movies are the laziest, greediest form of entertainment we have. If that medium has one foot in the grave, I say push the rest of it in.

Note: The Red Letter Media review of the Star Trek reboot has some good insights on this subject.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book of Mormon musical? I believe

The one thing I like most about “South Park” is the fact that it’s based in Colorado, neighbor to my home state of Utah. It’s probably too much to hope for a show based in Utah that isn’t overtly, sappily religious (“Touched By An Angel”) or that isn’t overtly, scatchingly anti-Mormon (“Big Love”) – so Colorado is going to have to be good enough.

And growing up in the Mormon-concentrated Intermountain West, it’s no surprise that show creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker would show some examples of the faith in their show. What’s surprising, though, is how much of the show has been dedicated to the LDS Church. This includes items such as Joseph Smith’s membership in the “Super Best Friends” (where he uses his ice powers to help save the day) and the fact that in the South Park-verse, although Jesus is Catholic and God is a Buddhist, only Mormons go to Heaven.

Matt and Trey have gotten a good amount of press coverage lately because of the Broadway musical called “The Book of Mormon.” (This Slate article on the subject is great.) Exactly what that entails remains to be seen; obviously the LDS leadership doesn’t like anyone else branding them … but if the episode “All About The Mormons” (available for viewing on the South Park site here) is an indication of their perspective, the musical will treat the religion favorably, which is why predictions that the LDS Church will boycott it are ridiculous.

If you (or someone you love) are LDS, I strongly recommend you watch this episode before forming an opinion about the musical. The basic premise is any religion’s super-natural tenets will look bizarre to outsiders, but the important thing is how those tenets affect their members’ behavior. The LDS family in the episode is portrayed as somewhat silly, yes, but overwhelming positive, loving, and civic-minded, whereas Stan and his family are portrayed as dysfunctional, intolerant, and violent. The episode’s closing lines speak for themselves:

Gary (the Mormon boy): Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend back. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.

Cartman: Damn, that kid is cool, huh?

From a rhetorical standpoint, the message of this episode is a more authentic, convincing advocacy of LDS teachings than anything church PR could come up with, because it's their job to say nice things about Mormonism, but it isn't Matt and Trey's. Modern-day audiences are too sophisticated to accept PR as anything other than PRopoganda, no matter how well it’s packaged, whereas an endearing portrayal by outsiders, set against the backdrop of a message about religious tolerance, reaches audiences that would never watch a church PSA. It sounds like "The Book of Mormon" is going to be in a similar vein, in which case I can't wait to see it.

And hey -- at least we have people talking about something other than Prop. 8.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thursday shows recap 2/17

Well it shouldn't be a surprise who came out on top this week.

No. 1 The Office

Returning to an idea that had been mentioned once in season 2, The Office debuts Michael's movie, Threat Level Midnight. It was a departure from their standard fare, in that clips of the movie were intermingled with their standard mockumentary style. Worked brilliantly with lots of laughs, and gave the show some great cameos from Karen, Jan, etc.

No. 2 Parks and Recreation

Also a clever episode, developing the character of that one guy they appear to be grooming as a love interest for Leslie. The creation of a small town pair of shock jocks, Crazy Ira and the Douche, was clever and felt painfully authentic. Also the Alta Vista jokes? Brilliant.

No. 3 30 Rock

Pretty clever business with Liz sleuthing at the end ... they have been building up to this with her dropping hints about her obsession with The Mentalist for a while. Well done.

No. 4 Community

This episode was cool in that a) it hopefully resolved the Pierce-as-dirtbag storyline and b) had Levar Burton, but no big laughs. Also good work from Abed as the documentary filmmaker. The show is still too soap operatic, but this was a pretty good installment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Thursday shows recap 2/10

Couple days late, but you can all forgive me. Here's the round-up of Our Favorite Shows from last Thursday.

No. 1 - Park and Recreation

Impudently grabbing the No. 1 spot is this week's "Parks and Rec," which beats out the other shows by bringing back whatshername from "Will and Grace" as Tami Swanson. While it can be tricky to bring back a guest star and without just recycling the script from the guest's original outing. "PnFnR" succeeded admirably by having Tami Swanson remarry Ron to become Tami Swanson Swanson. Good dynamic between Ron and Tom, and the other characters all had great moments too. (Especially Rob Lowe when he asked his assistant to join him in Indianapolis, but not his girlfriend.)

No. 2 - Community

"Community" puts in a great sophomore Valentine's episode, with hilarious jibes at Britta's faux-tolerant liberalism, a cute love story for Troy and Abed and some hot librarian, and lots of John Oliver being oh-so British. They still have no idea what to do with Shirley, and the problem is it's rapidly becoming obvious that's not a problem for the show. Hopefully they figure something out. But until they do, hope their episode quality stays this high.

The Barenaked Ladies debate was brilliant. Especially when Annie calls them "BNL."

No. 3 - The Office

This episode was also entertaining, as the office has to deal with Michael and Holly's PDA. The show continues to successfully balance its many characters. Good episode - not great - but highly watchable and very Valentines-propriate.

No. 4 - 30 Rock

"30 Rock" has grabbed the bottom slot on my weekly countdown and just run away with it! There is no stopping the levels of mediocrity this once-great show can satisfy itself with. The jokes about Canada were predictable and trite (except the ones about meth labs -- told by former stoner Harold). There were a couple other storylines, but they were likewise uninteresting. C'mon, guys! Do you think they gave you all those Emmys so you could scratch your backs with them?!?!?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Weekly Thursday comedy redux

OK I haven't been as diligent on this as perhaps I could have been, but here's your weekly Thursday evening NBC comedy redux:

No. 1 "The Office"

Yet again The Office steals the top spot. This unquestionably beat the rest of the shows this week, as it makes use of its remarkably deep bench of primary, secondary, and tertiary characters. Everyone had something to do but it didn't feel jammed. Further proof that the series will survive without Michael Scott, as Steve Carrell is only in a few minutes of the episode.

Great Dwight-isms ("I can't take my car - it's full of fox meat.") and a happy resolution to the Erin-hates-Holly runner before it ran out of gas.

However, this show did violate its own rule about acknowledging the presence of the camera crew: if Michael were really lost, they could have called the camera guy trailing him.

No. 2 "Parks and Recreation"

Very funny episode that plays to the show's strengths (Leslie's overeagerness, April speaking Spanish); a few good jabs at Twilight, and Leslie's great line "I'm more of a Harry Potter girl." Also I love her trying to armchair quarterback the reporter on what her headline should be ... as an award-winning small-town newspaper headline writer (cough, ahem, pats back), I got a huge kick out of it.

No. 3 "Community"

Community has been suffering from some serious sophomore slumps, with the writers demonstrating no idea what to do with about half the characters (Shirley, Pierce, Chang, and half-ways Britta). This season has featured far too much soap opera and not enough humor, and this episode is no exception.

Also, I have to point out that they wouldn't be playing Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. A college-student in 2011 would have been born in the late 1980s or early 1990s, after the game had switched to second edition. If he had started playing the game when he was 10 - 12, he would have played Third Edition D and D, or far more likely, Everquest.

The main problem:

This episode is about a character we've never seen before, and therefore less relevant, and Pierce is completely out of character as a selfish a-hole. (In the first season he was clueless but always avuncular.) These two problems are exacerbated by the fact that it's heavily implied that this new character is one step away from suicide. Not funny.

Chang in drow black face was funny, but that lasted about 5 seconds. Making the episode so serious made it unpleasant to watch -- it would have worked much better if it had been revealed that Jeff had played AD n D as a kid, which thing Troy and Abed stumble across and decide they should play together as part of a research project FOR THEIR ANTHROPOLOGY CLASS. That way they could have had a cameo from John Oliver, the bright spot of this season, and cut out the new character entirely. Oliver, or the Dean, could have done the voice over --- they have talented actors and should use them.

Note that this idea of mis-placed nostalgia was also a problem with the Scott Pilgrim movie: 20-somethings in 2010 would not feel nostalgia for 1980s-era video games, even though their 30-something creators would.

No. 4 "30 Rock"

Strange that an episode featuring Tina Fey tromping around in nothing but a bra wouldn't win No. 1, but the key to comedy is comedy, which this episode mostly missed. The quality of 30 Rock has been sinking like, well, a rock. Turning Jenna into a duplicate of Tracy hasn't worked anytime in the last two years that they've tried it, but that hasn't stopped them. Jack's struggle with the new corporate leadership was OK, and Avery's trying to conceal her pregnancy from a rival broadcaster was funny -- but they shouldn't be getting their best (only) laughts on an episode from a supporting character.


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