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Movies/TV

Sleepy Hollow: Season 1

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The prevailing zeitgeist regarding Sleepy Hollow seems to be that it is a show that has succeeded despite itself.  I firmly agree with that.  The idea is sophomoric -- What if the Headless Horseman from Washington Irving's story was actually one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?  And what if he and Ichabod Crane traveled forward in time to the present?  And what if the person who defeated him then was George Washington?

In spite of the ludicrous plot, the show is pretty good, especially for serial network television.  The show knows that its fundamentally ridiculous, and gives the audience plenty of knowing winks, which allows us the freedom to buy into it and just go along with it.  The acting is good, with serious charisma between the show's two leads, and the mysterious monster-of-the-week format is lovingly stolen from shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files.

I have my doubts about the energy being sustainable for several seasons, but at least for now, I'm having a lot of fun with it.

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Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth

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Mike Tyson is a fascinating character.  He's very nearly the last gasp of the heavyweight champions when we still cared about such things.  (Evander Holyfield has a better claim to being the true last gasp.)  Everyone knows his name, and he was an incredibly talented fighter that has left an absolutely crazy trail in his wake.

The span of his career is mindblowing.  He has served so many roles for our culture that it's incredible

  1. A rags-to-riches heavyweight champion
  2. A convicted rapist
  3. A rehabilitated boxer
  4. An ear-biting lunatic
  5. A washed-up has-been
  6. A bankrupted victim of Don King's horrible embezzlement
  7. A shiftless addict
  8. A scene-stealing cameo artist

That's much more depth than almost any sports star gets a chance to attain, and much more varied than any would wish for.  He now lives in a strange zone of Popular Figure Emeritus, rewarded for his career by playing himself in The Hangover and its sequels.  He lends his name to the movies, seemingly in full acknowledgement that the joke is, at least in part, on him.  And this, more than anything else, seems to have reignited our love affair with Tyson.

Is it any wonder that an autobiographical tell-all with Spike Lee makes for compelling watching?  Tyson is adroit with a word, and still possesses a physicality that he uses a few times on stage to great effect.  Of course, I can't help but wonder if this is just another Tyson high, and if there's one of his consistent falls to come later.  But, at least for now, he lives in the happy part of narrative, as having overcome adversity to carve out a niche for himself. 

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Blackfish

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SeaWorld does bad things.  They had an Orca, they didn't really want to have to give it up despite the fact that it was dangerous, and so they told themselves little white lies to make sure they could keep it, because it was worth mucho dinero.  It then ends in tragedy when it kills one of the handlers.

SeaWorld is a problematic place even aside from this story, and so I had a healthy dose of confirmation bias here.  I'm particularly not a fan of them cloaking their for-profit nature.  Almost every zoo and aquarium is either run by the government, or as a non-profit organization.  This has led Americans to take a few things for granted when seeing big animals: it's ingrained that this place is almost certainly a) transparent in their financial records and daily operations, and b) primarily designed as a cultural showpiece to educate the public and foster a sense of husbandry and environmentalism.  I'll grudgingly let them have the second point, but they completely fail on the first -- they are incredibly secretive.  Part of this is a longstanding feud between the save-the-whales faction and Seaworld, but a healthy dose of it comes from the fact that this is a for-profit institution, aimed at maximizing profit, and not particularly interested in letting public see anything that might make them look bad.  Transparency is fundamentally against the corporate model, and although SeaWorld wants you to have the warm fuzzies whenever you see a whale leap out of the water, they don't want you to think too hard about how they got a whale to leap in the first place.

It's not that the people in SeaWorld are evil.  Like most corporate mismanagement and sleazy behavior, the culture itself is corrupt.  People in the system believe that they are powerless, or that the ends justify the means, or that it's simply impossible for an organization like SeaWorld to do something bad.  The true corrosive nature of the establishment is the ability to get good people to do bad things collectively.

But I digress.  The movie is worth seeing.  It's an eye-opener if you don't know about the culture of SeaWorld.

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2013: Best of Movies and TV

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As always, best of 2013 means best that I saw this year, no matter when they were released.

 

Best Movie

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Full review here

Here's the story of one poverty-stricken girl named Hushpuppy and her father, living on the edges of our society, told through the vehicle of magical realism.  The technique is a wonderful fit, capturing the imagination of childhood in a way that instantly pulls the viewer in to a different worldview.  We get the best that a movie can offer, seeing through the child's eyes, yet as viewers, we are able to stand just a bit aloof.

There's symbolism all over this movie as it reflects the girl's past, present, and future right back at her.  The most obvious one is the Beasts of the title, but there's also the island home that is dependent on the ocean and yet doomed to be swallowed by it, the father who is deathly afraid for Hushpuppy but too encumbered by circumstance to provide a future, and the woman who outright prophesies Hushpuppy's future.

The movie is profoundly affecting.  I cried as I haven't for quite a while.

 

Best Television Show

Breaking Bad Seasons 1-4 (2008-2011) - Season reviews 1, 2, 3, and 4

I haven't yet seen the finale, but seasons 1-4 are a doozy.  Season 4 has been my favorite so far, but every one has kept me glued to the set. It's set in Albuquerque, which is what drew us in, but it's definitely great apart from that angle.  The shots are some of the best I've ever seen in television, and it has such a strong sense of place and timing that it shows all the effort that's gone into direction and production.  TV has come a long way beyond being merely a vehicle for three-room apartment sitcoms.

The show is just so... Shakespearean.  You see the flaws in the characters, you know where the story is ultimately leading, and yet you want it to be somehow different.  This show, being about meth, throws a whole different moral perspective into the affair, as you know this is the bad guy, but you still want him to triumph.  It's a novel treatise on ends vs. means.

 

Honorable Mention

12 Years a Slave (2013) - This would be the best movie in a lot of years.  It's technically flawless, and even better, it tells a story that desperately needs to be told, one where the Antebellum South gets shattered for the myth that it is, and we Americans get to look hard in the mirror at what we were.  It's a nice companion piece to last year's Lincoln, which tells the story of the political reality of slavery, while this tells the very real, very brutal human cost of slavery.  (Review)

30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo (2012) - This does a great job of casting the sports star as hero.  This is the real-life version of The Natural.  Bo Jackson is amazingly articulate, and guest appearances by the like of Chuck Klosterman really make this sports documentary exceptional.  (Review)

30 for 30: 9.79* (2012) - Chalk this one up as another story that we needed to hear.  We like to flog our steroid-ridden athletes of the 1990s every time the MLB Hall of Fame vote happens or the pustulence that is Lance Armstrong skeezes his way into the news, but it's worth seeing just what happened to the biggest, earliest bust of the steroid era.  The systemic corruption that this documentary reveals in track and field was prophetic.  How long are we going to try to uphold an unsustainable and unenforceable moral purity standard for our athletes? (Review)

Captain Phillips (2013) - I thought it was part of the studio's contract that every action movie had to be as subtle as a porn mag.  This movie proves it wrong.  I desperately hope that this socially-conscious thriller starts a trend of smart action movies.  (Review)

In a World (2013) - A tightly-written, well-executed indie feminist comedy.  See?  Feminists DO have a sense of humor.  (Review)

 

Worst

Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) - The most transparent money grab by a studio that I've ever seen, and I say that without hyperbole.  There's no reason for this movie to exist, because you can see all the good parts in the movies that were made before Sellers died.  (Review)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) - Star Trek at its previous worst was preachy, but it was never this bombastically stupid.  (Review)

The Artist (2011) - Hollywood sure does love to heap adoration on films about films.  There was never a "why" to this movie other than pretension. (Review)

 

Complete list of movies and TV

Silver Linings Playbook
Trail of the Pink Panther
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 2
Two Days in April
Les Miserables
Breaking Bad: Season 1
30 for 30: The Marinovich Project
Argo
30 for 30: The Announcement
30 for 30: Unguarded
30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle
30 for 30: The Dotted Line
Breaking Bad: Season 2
30 for 30: Ghosts of Ole Miss
30 for 30: 9.79*
Portlandia: Season 2
30 for 30: There's No Place Like Home
30 for 30: Catching Hell
30 for 30: Broke
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 3
30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo
Jurassic Park 3D
Breaking Bad: Season 3
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby
Star Trek Into Darkness
Game of Thrones: Season 3
The Dust Bowl
Behind the Candelabra
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
30 for 30: The Fab Five
Ken Burns Presents: The West
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
In a World
John Adams
Breaking Bad Season 4
Gravity
30 for 30: Book of Manning
Bernie
30 for 30: Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau
42
Captain Phillips
The Artist
30 for 30: Free Spirits
30 for 30: No Mas
30 for 30: Big Shot
30 for 30: This is What They Want
Bernie and Ernie
Eastbound and Down
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Crooked Arrows
Life of Pi
Going Big
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Flight of the Conchords: Season 2
12 Years a Slave
Girls: Season 1
 

Lord of the Rings

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Almost every year, we rewatch this trilogy when I go home for the holidays.  It was great.  It always is.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy occupy such a pinnacle that it's impossible for the new movies to reach the same heights.  But they're still very good.  The length is still very over-the-top, as the movies have still yet to justify splitting one pretty simple caper tale into three books.  But overall, this movie is better than the first one.  The meeting with Smaug, including his golden coating, is visually incredible.  The river chase scene is also rollicking fun, including the first time that I've ever laughed at a Lord of the Rings movie.  The changes from the books are generally good, if overblown.  The new female elf character is good, as is Gandalf's showdown at Dol Guldur with the Necromancer.  I'm more pleased with this one than the first one, though I have a feeling I'll gladly continue to lap up as much of Peter Jackson's reimagining of Tolkein as he'll ever make.

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Girls: Season 1

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God, I want to like this show.  It's a female-dominated show with real characters who are navigating real problems, yet it feels just exaggerated enough that it is still frequently funny.  In that respect, it's the feminist comedy I'm always clamoring for.

But ay yi yi, I can't watch it, because it affects me too much.  It's that particular kind of train-wreck humor where I empathize with the character, but I can't handle watching them mess up.  It's the same feeling I get watching George Costanza in Seinfeld.  It's a horrible pit-of-my-stomach pain, almost a too-real empathy that makes the show seriously uncomfortable for me.  I watched about half a season, and that's as much as I could handle.

But the writing is great, the show is crisp, and if you don't have weird hangups like me, you should absolutely watch it.  I'll just have to remain a distant admirer.

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Flight of the Conchords: Season 2

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Yeah, yeah, this was the shit back in 2007.  I'm a little slow, okay?

With our brand spanking new subscription to HBO, we finally polished off the second season, which we (like cheapskates) refused to buy.  The charm isn't quite as strong on the second season, and the songs aren't as laugh-out-loud funny.  It sinks the show, and made me long for the first season's quality.  Not that the second season is bad, it just suffers from the lack of new ideas and new songs.  It's classic second season syndrome.

If you haven't seen Season 1, go do it.  Season 2 is missable.

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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The Potter movies continue apace.  At this point, the series is moving on pure inertia.  Harry has mysteries, Voldemort is evil, how are they ever going to do it.  It's getting old how they are repeating the showdown with Voldemort, and he's doing slightly more evil things every time, but yet Harry and Voldy never quite manage to finish each other off.  It's a lot like a video game end boss progression: "Hi, it's me! I'm the end boss.  It's important for me to show up now so that the narrative is established.  Because all RPG heroes are sociopaths, the way that you interact with everything in this universe is to fight it.  Thus, we must fight now.  Here are the ground rules. 1) I will hold back my full powers and inexplicably not fight to the best of my ability, because you need to level up before you get to the end of the game, and I must still be challenging then.  2) Unlike everything else in this game, you will not kill me, but rather wound me, or be interrupted by Deus ex Machina.  Ready?  Let's begin!"

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Life of Pi

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I don't think humanity is every going to get tired of the shipwreck story.  It makes humans so isolated, in an environment so foreign, and with such high stakes that it is something we come back to, again and again and again.  Life of Pi is a neat iteration on the basic idea, where there's one human and one tiger on the boat.  It isn't a stuffed tiger, either.  Even though the tiger's behavior strains believability (as it's supposed to), this is a real-ish tiger.

Visually, the movie is a treat.  The special effects are completely convincing, particularly the tiger.  The main actor, Suraj Sharma, is particularly amazing.  It takes a special kind of actor to take us through almost the entire movie without any other humans, and Sharma pulls it off.

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