Arrested Development, Season Four: Look Closer

Spoiler free, just in case…

There were two schools of thought going into the new and final season of Arrested Development: the fanboy mentality and the cynic. I will openly admit that I fell into the latter category, which I usually do just because if I’m wrong then I am pleasantly surprised and if I am right, I get to come up with creative and passive aggressive ways of implying how much I told you so. Everyone wins. There were also two approaches to watching it; those of us without enough hobbies would burn through every episode as quickly as possible, others would ration out each one to savor the experience. I tried to find a happy medium and I’m very happy with that decision. I’ve also looked back on at least one episode, but I’ll get to rewatchability later.

The first thing I realized watching the first three episodes of this new season is that I completely forgot how to watch Arrested Development. I’ve been catching up on The Office recently after it’s finale, trekking through the awful seventh and eighth seasons, which aren’t really that bad, in the hopes of enjoying the ninth fully informed. I love that show dearly, as well as 30 Rock and, in retrospect, I think Scrubs was my first love, where I actively sought out the first four seasons on DVD. These shows are all great in their own ways but I think one of the things that has made them so popular and commercially successful is their accessibility. More than that, it’s possible to relate to one or more of the principal characters. Further, they are excellently constructed with a combination of stories-of-the-week and longer story arcs, with a stronger emphasis on the former. Arrested Development inverts that formula. Arrested Development does not care if you can’t keep up. It does not care if you need a second to process that reference to a running gag in the second season or if it’s increasingly difficult to relate to anyone on the show at all, it is going to keep on rolling towards a sight gag or a pun or a double entendre that you might have spent five episodes assuming was a completely innocuous plot point. And in that way, this show gives its audience a ton of credit more than most modern American comedies. Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator, seems to say with each wildly elaborate interlocking storyline, if you pay attention and look a little closer than usual, you will be rewarded.

This is also the genius of this show, in that the complexity exists right alongside the most straightforward sight gags that it is possible to see the same episode twice and laugh at completely different places the second time through. I can pinpoint the exact moments where I knew this show was something special and amazing on two completely different levels, like a dual threat quarterback or a dog that is capable of fetching a beer. The first moment was, and still is, my favorite arc, the MR F episodes with Charlize Theron because the revelation at the end caught me completely off-guard. Maybe it helped that I was unfamiliar with the show and I was already enjoying the more basic humor enough, but the fact that the truth is so spectacularly obvious the second time around ended my casual attitude towards the show. I started to really pay attention. The second moment is, and always will be, my favorite sight gag. When Tobias is describing his attempt to be come the world’s first combination Analyst and Therapist, the screen flashes his business card for one second and my perception was again realigned. Once I stopped laughing and got up off the floor.

So something happened when the new season was released on Netflix that, despite being totally expected, still irritates the daylights out of me. Apparently, according to the absolutely-never-ever-hyperbolic internet, the new season is garbage. It sucks. It’s not funny, the jokes feel forced, Mitchell Hurwitz never directed an episode of the first three season, why is he directing these, etc. The complaints can be boiled down to the following sentence: “This show is not EXACTLY what it was before, therefore I hate it.”

Here is where I take issue with the detractors, the internet, nay, humanity itself (I will not be out hyperbolized); this reaction to the fourth season describes what is one of the most loathsome characteristics that a generation can affect. That characteristic is entitlement.

save fship

It is a late Christmas miracle that a fourth season of a cancelled live action television show, with an ensemble cast of successful actors and actresses were able to get together under a new production house to create an entire original season for a company that doesn’t even want you to watch commercials or tune in once a week or go out of your way at all. Hell, they are even going to give you the entire season at once to do with what you will as often or rarely as you like. What a bunch of assholes.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the new season of Arrested Development and I will enjoy watching the episodes again because, even as I started to remember how to watch this show, eyes peeled for references and hidden jokes, I still know that I missed a ton of stuff. If you have tried it out and the magic wasn’t there, stick for a few more episodes or so; give it a chance. If you haven’t checked it out yet, don’t worry, you’re in for a treat.

My response to those folks who felt it necessary to massacre this sacred cow as loudly and energetically as possible is thus: to me, the best counterpoint to an entitled perspective is gratitude. I am incredibly grateful for a new season of this television show that I love. I am grateful that almost everyone aged so gracefully (Steve Holt, dude….what happened, man). I am grateful that I don’t have to wait three months to watch the whole thing and I’ll be grateful when I am able to sit down with someone who hasn’t seen it yet and share it with them as often or rarely as we want. Lastly, I am grateful that the real beauty of this show, its depth, hasn’t aged at all, to those of us who take the time to look a little closer.

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Iron Man 3: It’s Only After We’ve Lost Everything That We’re Free To Do Anything

I’ve liked Shane Black ever since I saw his largely ignored noir crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang years ago. The interaction and chemistry between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. is hilarious, the dialogue is clever, and the story is a highly entertaining send up of classic hardboiled detective stories that I enjoy. When he was selected to take over the Iron Man franchise, I had a good feeling but I was curious if they would be able to take Iron Man 3 into new territory of some kind; I had a difficult time figuring out what new direction was left, since the second film in the series had already mastered the idea that if one powered flying suit is cool, dozens and dozens will be a guaranteed improvement.

Iron Man 2 has apparently left a bad taste in a few people’s mouths and I’m not sure why, exactly. It was more or less what I expected: there were lots more robots going vroom, Mickey Rourke played an effective Russian Mickey Rourke type character, and I will watch Sam Rockwell in absolutely anything. Anything. I would watch him read Congressional minutes on CSPAN-2 with a six pack and a bag of Frito’s. So as far as I was concerned the movie was satisfying, if missing a little bit of substance. But that’s okay, I don’t look to the Iron Man movies for substance. Tony Stark is the kind of character I would really enjoy in real life for about a weekend, maybe at a party or on a road trip , but if I sat next to this guy at an office job I’m probably going to discover that his massive intelligence, ego, and air of superiority are about as charming as the swift kick to the balls he would be on the deserving end of after a few weeks. That being said, I love RDJ. But the important question that remained was what is left to tell in a story about a man with near unlimited wealth, ingenuity, and resources?

The answer provided by Iron Man 3 is a very good one. Pride goeth before the fall, and Tony Stark’s character has no shortage of hubris. His fall comes in two parts, the first cleverly tying in the events of The Avengers presenting a dilemma completely alien to him: fear, in the form of anxiety. His near-death experience begins to unravel his supreme confidence and self control; for once he finds himself vulnerable, mortal. In a darker film that isn’t designed to be a summer blockbuster, I would have really liked to see this development explored but I can forgive them for only touching the surface for the sake of accessibility. In the actual canon, and briefly touched on in the previous film, Tony Stark has a serious drinking problem, at one point retiring as Iron Man while in the throes of his addiction. I think that an actor like Robert Downey Jr., with his own experiences of hitting rock bottom with substance abuse in real life, would have portrayed the descent and nadir with brilliant verisimilitude but, again, I’m just happy they were willing to do a darker story at all, rather than simply further increasing the number of flying robots. I digress.

The second fall comes in the form of his open challenge to what he believes to be a psychotic terrorist (Ben Kingsley channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker by way of Richard Nixon) , inviting his wrath in an emotional tirade. When that wrath arrives, his arrogance puts everything he values in jeopardy and, in a clever metaphor, he is nearly dragged to his death by the same house and possessions that he previously believed had made him invulnerable. After a thin transition, he wakes up to find himself stripped down to just a man without any of his toys and this is where the movie has a real opportunity to mature the franchise.

Gone are the gorgeously expensive cars, the bright sunny skies of Southern California, and the fantastic holographic computers and technology. Instead, Stark is in a dark, cold place, with the all the rustic charm of a small town in the middle of nowhere. Out of his element, with nothing but his wits and his instincts to guide him, he pushes on. These are the stories that are the most interesting to me: what is the character of a man or a woman in the face of real defeat? How do you get back up from the mat when you have truly been knocked on your ass?

The opening narration describes the idea that we have a tendency to create our own demons, which is then take literally in the form of the antagonist and figuratively in the form of Stark’s anxiety. There is also the requisite nod towards a post 9/11 world in which we find out that the antagonist is a hilariously fictional manifestation of what we imagine when we picture terrorists (Ben Kingsley channeling Russell Brand). Also fascinating are the permanent shadows burned into the walls at the site of each ‘terrorist’ attack, reminiscent of the same such shadows found in the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is this a subtle implication that the United States has created its own demons around the world with its presence as a nuclear capable superpower? I’m reaching pretty far on that one but it is fun to think about. I read somewhere that so much of Japanese manga and anime takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting because Japan itself is, for all intents and purposes, a post-apocalyptic society following the toll and devastation of World War 2. The same can be said of the United States following the September 11th attacks, that sense of vulnerability follows us everywhere now, in every film or TV show, unavoidably informing our way of life.

For Tony Stark, when that sense of vulnerability threatens to unravel his confidence he does the thing that comes most natural to him, the thing that brings out his passion: he builds. For me, when that feeling comes, if I can, I write. And for you, when you’re all the way down without the things that we think we need to be happy and productive, you may feel alone and overwhelmed. Or you may find that without all the distractions and expectations all that’s left is exactly what you need.

Zero Dark Thirty: When Setting Out for Revenge, First Dig Two Graves

This is an older piece I wrote a few months ago but it has shares some common themes with Star Trek Into Darkness and I thought I’d share it while I work on something new. Enjoy!

A fine film from Kathryn Bigelow, director of Point Break and The Hurt Locker. I understand why it generated a lot of conversation about the use of torture. When I say conversation, I’m really talking about partisan nonsense, the denial of reality, and the political shenanigans that follow in the wake of genuine journalistic integrity. That’s what this film is, a journal. I can’t speak to the veracity of the scenes depicted but I understand them and I have a few words to say.

The opening is only audio from 9/11 and it’s a brilliant stroke to leave the screen dark. The real horror is what we fill in with our imaginations and I’m constantly and consistently effected by the annual tributes, I watch them to the extent that I can because it is my responsibility to. Call it a cliche, but I will not forget and I will not look away. But the sounds of people on their phones trying to describe the situation from the planes, the desperate ‘I love you’ as these people saw the end, and the screams of absolute horror on impact are a lot to deal with. Particularly for a story that drops away completely into the nuances of spycraft and bureaucracy and the singular passion of a few dedicated CIA operatives. I appreciate this sensibility; this is not about bold heroes who make dangerous decisions and save the day, it’s about real human beings who are methodical and detached about their work but take on it’s importance with a sense of diligence that belies the real passion that lies underneath.

How do you describe the emotions of a victim of terrorism? And by victim, I mean survivor. Where do you draw the line between the need for revenge and justice? I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive ideas and I don’t think revenge is a bad word. Not to say that it is a healthy thing, there is real cost, but when you set out for it and it is your goal, your soul is in the chamber of that gun. It becomes the blade you swing and when it is buried in flesh, stuck in bone, it stays there and you are forever married to it, an idea that this film expresses beautifully.

I am irritated that the depiction of torture created genuine controversy in our legislative branch. Actual Senators and House Representatives chastised the filmmakers for showing what we did. And what we did was awful. Maybe these people we tortured are monsters and maybe the only way to fight their brand of horror is to become monsters ourselves, but don’t shy away from the responsibility and don’t look away. Whether or not ‘enhanced interrogation’ yielded actual results is irrelevant. We ignored the basic tenets, the fundamental ideals the United States of America was founded on, in order to save peoples lives. The right to due process, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, the fact that all people are created equal and have a right to pursue happiness, we turned a blind eye and lowered ourselves to base, unsympathetic fighters in a war of symbolism. Because make no mistake, to hell with terrorism, Al Qaeda, and Jihad, but these things do not threaten our way of life or our belief in freedom, they aren’t going to change or defeat the good things about all of us, not really. At the same time, I’m not demonizing that decision. When your family is threatened, you do whatever you need to. Period. But you do not look away.

If there is a message in this film, it’s about a strong, focused female lead character, a real hero; the one who turns herself into a weapon and doesn’t look back. Particularly in a world dominated by men, she believes ferociously, without unrealistic doubt. I admire the real life people she was based on.

The truth is America let me down a little bit when Osama Bin Laden was killed. I remember exactly where I was, I was watching the news when it broke that the President was going to make a special announcement. I followed the story as a crowd built around the White House and Ground Zero. The cheering of USA and the American flags were…., well, they made me sad. I don’t want to celebrate anyone’s death, even when it comes to that vicious man. On the other hand, there was a definite sense of relief, of closure. This was a monster on the loose who would have continued to use misguided people to perpetuate murder and mayhem in the name of God, until he was stopped. Some men can’t be reasoned with. Some men are made into symbols of evil and the world needs to destroy them to restore order and to set an example. I didn’t feel the need to celebrate, I felt the need to reflect and breathe deep. But I am also not a direct victim of terrorism, so celebrate away, whatever reminds you that you are not alone.

I’ve written about the professionalism of our Armed Forces before and it comes into focus in the latter half of this film. These guys are remarkable. If you are paying attention you can understand and see the science of warfare at its epoch portrayed with awesome attention to detail. Say what you will about American foreign policy, our elite soldiers are the finest tip of the sword in recorded history. The brotherhood, the skillful efficiency, the ability to kill…no, the ability to win, is daunting. They are improvised ballet with automatic weapons.

Obviously, I recommend this film. It is well written, skillfully directed, and the acting is superb. Also Coach Taylor is in it and he curses, Andy Dwyer is always a treat and Captain Jack Harkness shows up for some freaking reason.

In essence, you are watching a fictional documentary, historical fiction. Because if you are reading this you were there somehow, someway, maybe making dinner or watching a movie while these guys, Seal Team Six, made war on Bin Laden’s compound. They avenged our family, eleven years later, and brought our idea of justice down on this one man, not to make us safer or to make the world a better place but to send a message. In my heart, I want the message to be this: To the disenfranchised, the tormented, and the abused in the world, there is a way, look to Ghandi, Martin Luther King, look to Muhammed or Jesus or Buddha. But if violence is the only option you can find, do your worst and I will do mine. I will not look away.

Star Trek Into Darkness: Putting Away Childish Things

At the Alamo Drafthouse the pre-show entertainment consisted of various clips of amateur recreations of the classic show as well as a few fan made documentaries that were mostly amusing, sometimes a little bit painful. Nothing really caught my eye until a segment involving Gene Roddenberry appeared where he was introducing something related to the Original Series and I found my heart catching a little bit in my throat. One of the things I was most afraid of seeing in this movie was the final and complete absence of his influence on the Star Trek universe. I appreciate that JJ Abram’s vision and style is bringing new fans into the fold and introduces them to something I love, making for a more accessible and action oriented story that keeps the humor and heart that makes the crew so interesting and compelling. Star Trek and the original crew of the Enterprise were conceived of in a time of optimism, with mixed gender and ethnicity decades before television and, in fact, the nation had begun to shake off stereotypes and embrace our diversity. Coming out of the economic boom of the 50s and the spiritual awakening of the 60s, the show was a reflection of our imaginations at the time when anything seemed possible. This trend continued when the show was revived in the early 90s. The Berlin Wall was down, along with the Soviet Union and a show about exploring space and discovering new forms of life was exciting again. Ultimately, this was Roddenberry’s unfortunately unique vision: our species united without pursuit of wealth or status exploring the final frontier and expanding our circle of friends across the stars, protecting the weak, and learning for the sake of itself. When he passed away in 1991, his legacy was going strong in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I don’t know how he would react to the first reboot. I enjoyed it because Abrams is a gifted storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing and suspense. All the references were there, it played out like a primer for introducing the uninitiated, describing all the principal characters with their personalities mostly intact. I liked it a lot but I was wary about the direction they were going. There wasn’t enough science to call it science fiction and the nobility and optimism about the human spirit that encompassed the source material was completely missing. I accept this because up until that point people thought of the show as being about multi-colored onesies and facial prosthetics. I accede that this alienated a lot of casual audiences and that, overall, most of the stories told from the Original Series through Voyager lacked the core human emotions that allow for most people to have something to relate to. The common emotion present in both the rebooted Star Trek film and Into Darkness is revenge, explored with more depth in the latter and with much more intelligence than I was expecting. But still, going into the movie, I was worried that the hardcore Star Trek nerd inside of me would be resentful that the things I loved would be further stripped away; that Abrams would turn my beloved franchise into (even more of) a shadow of the Star Wars universe he openly cribbed and that I would hate this film for ignoring the basic tenets that made Star Trek what it was.

What I was forgetting was the basic tenets that made Star Trek what it is, rather than what it was. This universe was and is a reflection of our own society and right now we don’t live in the 1960s or the 1990s. A society coming to terms with its own power and responsibility is suddenly devastated by a horrific act of terrorism that shakes it to its foundations. Our sense of invulnerability and entitlement are stripped away by that act, the specters of our actions and sins abroad are now at our doorstep to visit revenge using unorthodox and horrifying methods. Some of us believe that the only way to fight these monsters is to become monsters ourselves and suspend the basic liberties and ethics we live by in order to protect our way of life and, more importantly to us in our fear and anger, take eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. This is not a criticism of these decisions, nor is this exclusively a description of a post 9/11 America. The Star Trek universe, in the destruction of Vulcan, is now and as it always should be, a reflection of our own. In Star Trek Into Darkness the villains are, to me, startlingly appropriate, and its conclusion is more satisfyingly optimistic than I could have hoped.

In the end, this film is about Kirk assuming the mantle of leadership as a man rather than an ambitious ne’er do well with extraordinary luck, where he both learns to trust his instinctive leadership abilities while at the same time coming to terms with what it means to be a Star Fleet captain. That may be a particularly nerdy thing to say but it is important to understand how significant that responsibility is in that universe; it was a rank that got passed around in the first reboot so many times it makes for a good drinking game. But what makes Into Darkness an exceptional and effective sequel is that Kirk learns that being a leader isn’t solely about coming up with great ideas and saving the day, it’s about accountability to the people who look to you for guidance. Accountability and, ultimately, sacrifice.

Where the first film was fun and featured youthful versions of the principal characters of the Star Trek universe essentially playing with an awesome new toy, Into Darkness moves the story in the only logical direction it can go: towards maturity, towards the darkness. Because children are allowed to play with childish things but when they are required to become men and women, they put childish things away. For now we see through a glass, darkly. And I can’t wait to see where we go next.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVXTmav24Wk

Drive: I Don’t Care Where Just Far

It’s a brilliant film that can make Los Angeles seem beautiful and mysterious. Heat, Collateral, Mulholland Drive. All these films have something in common with Drive and it is the ability to film at night, when the city has a soul. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Los Angeles is the city that sleeps late, wakes up and looms like a schizophrenic over the hot desert air. There is an energy in the air in the middle of the night that feels like you’re living near a run down casino built on top of a graveyard. The sunny side of the city is what you make of it, and if that is what you’re looking for, go watch Entourage. If there is an identity to the population of LA, it is that there isn’t one. It’s the pulp feel of anonymity in a crowd, the disregard for community itself except in small conclaves, and the noir sensibility that there are no heroes.

The two leads have the presence of the old school era of actors. Ryan Gosling is stoic, implacable, stupidly handsome. Carey Mulligan is beautiful, vulnerable, angelic. As Driver and Irene, they are lovely together, tragically so. This is beauty and the beast, at it’s core, because she is indentured and he is a monster, but that comes later. What is important is the quiet energy that passes between them, love expressed with the kind of confidence that only exists when there is no real certainty, only the thrill of potential. The word chemistry comes to mind, but that’s literally too clinical, chemistry is the science of reaction. Love is the reaction itself, it doesn’t exist objectively or in a vacuum, it’s only real in fits and starts, and it’s only part of a bigger story.

There is a lot going on in Drive, it’s possible to watch this film without any dialogue at all and understand the entire story completely. This comes from great acting, brilliant cinematography, excellent directing and….the music. I never thought that this brand of 80’s post-pop revival could evoke emotion the way it does. It’s literal, as it would have to be, but perfectly atmospheric. Again, without dialogue, this film would be a brilliant 90 minute music video if it wanted to be. And it is even if it didn’t.

My personal experience with this movie is seeing it at Alamo Drafthouse. My friend and I got there too late, all the seats were taken up and I had to watch it from ten feet under the screen. I walked out and didn’t give a shit at all. It was neat but I didn’t care or know why I’d just seen a special screening presented by Mondo (a wildly overrated pop art company that makes limited edition prints of movie posters that I have never once been interested in looking at twice). Two days later I was wondering if I cared about Driver or not, but I was invested in his need to protect Irene and her child. Three days later I struggled with whether or not I would have done the same in his position, or how I would have handled it. And then I blinked a few times and realized that I had been thinking about this film for three days. So I bought it and watched it again.

Ryan Gosling petitioned to have Nicolas Winding Refn direct, which confuses me. First, the man can’t drive a car, he didn’t have a license at the time and second, the endorsement came after seeing his film Bronson. I recommend that film, it’s based on a true story about a man who is addicted to violence and incarceration. Tom Hardy is the lead (Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) and he is horrifying and hypnotic at the same time. But there is a subtlety in Drive that I wouldn’t have expected from the same director. It is violent, when Driver makes his move it is hard to continue sympathizing with him. Damn near impossible. The Hyde to his Jekyll comes out so fluidly that I can’t help but admire Gosling all over again (the first time was in The Notebook, obvi). It’s the small things that make Driver so fascinating. When he is on, when he is Hyde, he doesn’t blink.

It occurs to me (intensely) of late, that the idea of love is more powerful…no, that’s not quite right. The influence of love can be wildly unpredictable, like a wounded animal. In this story, the lives of these lonely people are unraveled and then blasted apart. Would they have been better off without each other? Probably. But when that feeling comes, it comes in tidal wave form, it sucks you up and drags you along. You fight for your life and hope to end up on a piece of driftwood out in the middle of the ocean, that’s the best case scenario. In a good movie you know whether or not the person you were rooting for succeeded in the end. In a great movie, the ending isn’t an ending at all, it’s the end of a beginning. When it is done correctly, the plot transcends the storyteller and the listener. And when you are allowed to finish it in your heart it becomes a part of your story.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvknOXGPzCQ

 

Move Confidently…

This is my second blog that I have created, the first is currently being hosted on a garbage website that keeps crashing. I will be transferring the bulk of my work here with the hopes that these servers are more reliable. As best as I can estimate I have 14 full articles posted, with an average of 1000 words per, with a review of Hemlock Grove in progress that is already looking like it might double that number. So that’s around 15 thousand words written on topics ranging from Watchmen to Brokeback Mountain, the films Biutiful, Zero Dark Thirty, Serenity, and an experiment in real time blogging involving the movie Twilight and copious amounts of wine.

This is a transitional period of my life where I will be taking my writing seriously to a degree that I am able find some sense of fulfillment about it, some sense of purpose. To clarify, I will still write from the heart and have as much fun doing it as ever, but I want to share that fun with as many people as possible. Maybe get paid for it, that would be great. And it is important for me to do this now as I will be unemployed in the near future, what better way to fulfill the stereotype while having something sexier to say at a bar than ‘I’m between jobs at the moment…’.

I am between jobs at the moment, one of them was fun and interesting but had no future. The other is fun and interesting and may not have a future, but it is what I love to do. And that’s enough for me to move confidently in the direction of my dreams.

Anthony Florez, 5/11/13