Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Happy birthday The Wonder Years and Homicide: Life on the Street

Less than a year ago I ran my blog series, 16 Great TV Shows, which focused on the shows that most shaped my own writing and my own love of television. Today, two of those shows are having notable birthdays. Even though I've recently written tributes to both, it seems wrong not to mark the anniversaries for The Wonder Years and Homicide: Life on the Street.

How is it possible The Wonder Years is 30? The series - created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black - first aired on January 31, 1988, with its setting in 1968. From there, the series remained set twenty years prior to the time in which it aired. So had the series never been cancelled, the episode airing this week would be set in 1998 and probably would have the Monica Lewinsky scandal as its backdrop. I can tell you one thing I was doing this week in 1998: watching reruns of The Wonder Years on Nick-At-Nite. It's a bit staggering to be confronted with that realization that much time has passed.

My earlier tribute covered so much ground that I don't know what to say except marvel that somehow the young woman who was the first crush for many guys my age, Danica McKellar, gets more stunning by the year!

In all seriousness, I remember one of my earliest realizations about The Wonder Years being that despite the period setting, my world and Kevin Arnold's world weren't so different. The school environment was largely the same, the kinds of relationships you had with friends, family and crushes were all mostly along similar dynamics, whether you came of age in the 70s or the 90s.

And that's when I realized that a coming-of-age show set in the 90s would stick out as far more of a period piece than The Wonder Years did to a kid growing up when it was on air. There are two things that changed being a teenager forever. In 1999, the horror of the Columbine High School shooting completely altered the way teens felt about how safe their school was. Security measures were implemented and for a while, it felt like we'd never look at alienated students the same again.

The second advent was the concurrent development of smart phones and social media. It completely altered the landscape, particularly for teens, where both facilitated new means of bullying and emotionally abusing people. If you watched American Vandal or 13 Reasons Why, you get a good sense of how all of that is different now. It makes me wonder if The Wonder Years still feels relevant to the current generation.

For as much as I've seen people talk about the sixties as a similar time, the show resonated with me because of how easily I could see myself in Kevin's shoes. Maybe today it plays as an idealized depiction of a simpler time. Or maybe it's as foreign to modern teens as Little House on the Prairie was to me. The show is the teenage experience I hope everyone gets to live through in some fashion, heartbreak and all. I'll admit, it's a little weird to watch The Wonder Years and long for the time in which the show was produced.

And then we have Homicide: Life on the Street, celebrating 25 years this year. Like The Wonder Years, it premiered after the Super Bowl, though it struggled for much longer to find an audience. I wrote a pretty exhaustive retrospective piece five years ago for the 20th anniversary, in addition to my tribute piece last year, so you'd be justified in thinking I had little left to say.

Homicide is the true beginning of the Peak TV era. It's everything that came together to make The Wire, but done on a network TV platform. For me, 25 years of Homicide means two and a half decades of prestige TV that strives to transcend its medium. The show remains distinctive in a way most shows akin to the CBS procedural genre do not. When you turned on Homicide, you never would mistake it for a different show on the air at the time and even now, I can't picture many people confusing it for any other procedural, past or present.

I don't know if there's every been a greater broadcast TV actor than Andre Braugher. While that statement might be hyperbole, it's even more accurate to say that the perfect marriage of actor and character in Braugher's Frank Pembleton is even rarer. Frank gave the show many of its most intense moments, but he also had so many moments of emotion and heart with his partner Tim.

Richard Belzer's Munch had an even longer legacy, going on to 13 seasons as a regular on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and appearing on 10 series as that character. For a show that struggled in the ratings during most of its run, it cast a long shadow on TV.

There's one Homicide story I keep thinking of as we find ourselves in the conversation about the importance of representation in film and TV. Showrunner Tom Fontana spoke of filming a scene where Lt. Giardello, Pembleton, Lewis and Captain Barnfather are all in a heated discussion about how to handle a particularly delicate case. Once they called cut, Braugher went over to Fontana and said, "Did you do that on purpose?" Fontana, taken aback, said he didn't know what Braugher meant.

Braugher said that he'd never been in a scene with four black actors that wasn't about race. This was just a scene where all the characters happened to be black - their skin color wasn't a story point, or even a thematic issue. There was no "other-ing." I found it fascinating that Braugher picked up on that at once AND that it was notable enough that he assumed it must have been done on purpose to make the very point the actor highlighted.

It seems equally telling that that issue was completely invisible to Fontana. He wasn't trying to make any point - this was simply the result of him having a diverse enough cast where this could happen without it being an event. This also resulted from him writing his characters as being true to their natures and not defining their identities solely by their skin color.

More than twenty years since that scene and it still feels like it would be an anomaly on contemporary television. Hopefully the next two decades will bring bigger strides forward.

Happy birthday Homicide and The Wonder Years! You've certainly aged better than shows that were three decades old when YOU were first on the air.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Happy 20th Birthday, Dawson's Creek!

It seems unreal to me that Dawson's Creek turns 20 today. It was a show that forever defined the WB and its audience. When it premiered, the hype behind this thing was unavoidable. Creator Kevin Williamson was on a hot streak after writing Scream, Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer, and so it was a rare promotional blitz where the writer got name-dropped as much as the actors.

I wasn't a viewer from the start. At the time, I considered silly teen soaps to be beneath me, even if the lead character was a teenage aspiring director who, like me, idolized Spielberg. I soon changed my tune before the start of the second season, and for a while the show remained a guilty pleasure. ("I watch for Katie Holmes!" was my half-joking defense and I know I was not alone in that.)

But around season three something strange happened, the show got REALLY good. You wouldn't have guessed it from the first couple episodes that year, which were the first under a new showrunner who really didn't understand the show and tried to turn it into something sleazy. Very quickly the writers realized they had to change course, and a seminal moment in TV history came with the eighth episode, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." TV legend has it that Greg Berlanti - who had only gotten his first job in TV a year earlier when he joined the staff of the show - completely rewrote the episode in the space of a weekend and vaulted all the way up to showrunner as a result.

The whole saga of how season 3 came out of a nosedive and reached a creative peak is told in Jeffrey Stepakoff's book Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek. It's well worth your time. it's about how Season 3 became the Joey/Pacey story, creating the triangle that would play out through most of the rest of the series.

It was a total pleasure a few years ago to interview Liz Tigelaar, a showrunner who got her start on Dawson's Creek as a writers assistant, even getting her first writing credit on the show. I did a video interview with her and you can find the first part below, where she talks about that experience.

If you want to see the remaining 12 parts, go here.

To mark the 20th anniversary, I wrote a piece for Film School Rejects looking at the films of Dawson Leery and projecting where he might be today. You can find that here.

And I'll close this post with my Top 10 Dawson's Creek episodes.

1. True Love - Joey and Pacey run off together for the summer.

2. All Good Things...Must Come To An End - Series finale

3. Four to Tango (after I posted this on Twitter, episode writer Gina Fattore expressed amazement, saying, "Four to Tango at #3? Seriously? Written in, like, 45 minutes in the middle of the night when other stuff was thrown out.")

4. The Long Goodbye

5. Detention (Joey hits bully with lunch tray!)

6. Appetite for Disaster

7. Castaways

8. The Graduate

9. Show Me Love - (Liz Tigelaar's first screen credit, btw)

10. To Green With Love

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My Top 10 Movies of 2017

For my picks for 11-20, go here.

No one reads these intros, so I'll be brief. It was a great year for film, though the seeming uniformity among a lot of Top 10 lists might have you thinking only 10 or 15 really good movies came out this year. There are a couple deviations in my list - I loved a few movies others didn't and was left cold by a couple that others breathlessly raved about. The really good stuff tended to leap to the top, but there was a pretty solid second tier too.

Picking a number one film is often as much about the statement it makes for the year in film as it is the quality of the film itself. Any of my Top 3 films could be justified as the Number One pick, but all things considered, I have to lead off with...

1. Wonder Woman - With the kind of year we've had politically, it was more cathartic than ever to see women kicking ass on the big screen. Considering how easy it would have been to screw up Wonder Woman (and don't kid yourselves with the "it's so easy" talk. It's hard to get a great adaptation of BATMAN and he's a far simpler concept to execute and get an audience to buy in on) the fact that we not only got a good movie, but a superhero film that stands with Donner's Superman and Nolan's Batmans in terms of quality is nothing short of a miracle. I want Patty Jenkins to be the first director besides Nolan to complete a superhero trilogy.

Yes, the climax it a slight stepdown when it threatens to become a pure CGI battle, but the film doesn't forget there are emotional stakes for Diana, and Steve Trevor's sacrifice is nicely one of those moments that shows Diana that even though mankind often uses free will to embrace evil, sometimes they choose good. Beyond that, the No Man's Land sequence is one of the most emotionally satisfying action sequences of the year and one of the best "debut of the hero" moments on film.

2. Get Out - Is there anything to say about this that hasn't already been said. Jordan Peele's dark Twilight Zone-y look at race relations is a great study in gradually-building paranoia and tension. It very savvily leads us to expect one reveal (that all the black people are brainwashed) and then flips for a darker one (the black people's bodies have literally been appropriated by the liberal white town folks.) It's a creepy look at the white establishment's fascination with and admiration of black culture and achievement, while also taking it all for their own without any empathy for the other side. One of Peele's best idea was to make the white characters liberal and even likable. It asked more of the audience than if they were a bunch of racist rednecks.

3. Logan - We've known Hugh Jackman's Logan and Patrick Stewart's Professor X for 17 years, traveling with them through good movies and bad. Now, in the tenth film X-Men film (and the ninth to feature Jackman in some capacity), we go on Logan and Xavier's final adventure together. Feeling more like a western than a traditional superhero outing, Logan shows that comic book films, even comic book franchises, are durable enough that not every film has to end with our lead actors facing off against CGI pixels. A weary Logan ends up with a young charge who has abilities very similar to his own. The father/daughter material gives the film some heart, even though the young Laura spends almost all of her screentime mute.

Most of all, the film doesn't flinch when it comes to shutting the door on this end of the X-Men saga. We've reached an era where superhero stories are allowed to conclude. Christopher Reeve's Superman never got that, instead going through a series of increasingly weaker sequels until the franchise died. A similar fate befell the Batman that began under Tim Burton. Logan knows that the best sagas actually conclude and the ending of this film packs more power than you'd expect from a Wolverine feature.

4. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Look, I wanted Luke Skywalker to be a Jedi John Wick as much as the next guy, but instead writer/director Rian Johnson gave us a scarred, embittered Luke who's lost reason to believe in just about everything he was raised on. A lot of films last year reflected our political reality, both intentionally and unintentionally, and The Last Jedi clearly falls into that. What do you do when the old battles keep having to be fought and you've lost all faith in what was once your source of strength? I don't think this is Hamill's swan song as the character, but it's definitely his most interesting performance as Luke.

Meanwhile, Kylo Ren's story takes a major leap forward and ensures we won't get an easy redemption for this psycho. Adam Driver is fantastic at making Ren more and more unhinged, even as Daisy Ridley shows Rey growing more confidant even as her story moves away from "Chosen One" territory. At this stage in the game, some sacred cows probably had to be blown up just to make this trilogy more of it's own thing. I get why this is so divisive in a few corners of fandom, but I expect this'll be more accepted as time goes on.

5. The Post - I can understand a temptation to compare this to All The President's Men, or even Spotlight, which took the Best Picture Oscar just a couple years ago. The significant difference between those films and The Post, though, is that the former films are about reporting and the latter film is about publishing. In most "big story" journalism films, there's always that scene where the crusading reporter has to stand up to some lackey in legal and fight for the right to tell the story. Usually it's presented as one final obstacle easily disposed of. Here, that IS the main conflict.

As the story opens, The Washington Post has been scooped by The New York Times, which has just published the Pentagon Papers, stolen documents that showed several administrations knew the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, but they kept that fact from the public. The Times is enjoined from publishing more documents, and when The Post comes into possession of them, publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee weigh if they should publish in solidarity with the Times, knowing it will bring the full wrath of the White House on them, or play it safe and keep the paper out of jeopardy.

There's gonna be a temptation to compare Nixon to Trump, but for me, this is really a story telling journalists, "Hey! This is how you do your job, even in the face of a President determined to destroy the free press!" Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's script mines this conflict for everything its worth and the result is one of Spielberg's faster moving and impactful films of the last decade.

6. Wonder - I've not read the book that Wonder is based on and so the movie ended up being so much more than I expected. It's the story of a young boy named Auggie, born with facial deformities that have been gradually reduced via a decade of surgeries, though his face clearly isn't "normal." As he goes off to school and regular contact with kids his age the first time, the story expands and shifts POV. We go from Auggie's perspective to his sister's, and her estranged friend, and eventually get inside the head of a classmate who befriended Auggie and hurt him.

In many cases, someone will appear to do awful and selfish things in a way that we can't imagine has sympathetic motivations... and then the shift to their perspective puts their side of the story front and center and we begin to understand their private pain. It's a neat trick for a film that tells us from the start we shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Time and again it proves that we're all often too guilty of not looking below the surface. Between this and his earlier film Confessions of a Wallflower, I'm down for anything else co-writer and director Stephen Chbosky has.

7. The Disaster Artist - How do you tell a story about the making of the worst movie ever released? If you're screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, you latch onto the friendship between young aspiring actor Greg (Dave Franco) and his older friend, the enigmatic and eccentric Tommy Wiseau, played to the hilt by James Franco. I've never seen The Room, the notoriously awful film whose genesis is chronicled in this movie, but at no point did I feel I needed to. It's the story of a friendship that becomes a very strained friendship, as Tommy's jealousy manifests in how he uses the movie to control Greg.

There's also a lot here that will be familiar to any Hollywood dreamer, particularly those who have tried to make their own movie, or been acquainted with another wannabe with a passion project. It's all done in a way that doesn't feel too "inside baseball," though and as much as Tommy's ineptitude as a filmmaker makes you want to bang your head against a wall, Franco manages to get to feel for the crazy guy.

8. The Big Sick - The autobiographical story of how Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanijani met, fell in love, broke up due to culture clash and then become forced together when she suffers from a severe illness is one of the most unique films of the year. It's essentially a rom-com where the guy loses the girl halfway in, she falls into a coma, and he gets to know her parents, bonding with them even as he realizes he's not ready to let go of her.

I like that some parts feel messy. Kumail's parents are very adamant that he must marry a Pakistani woman, and so knowing they'd never approve of Emily, he keeps them from her. When that truth comes out, there's real hurt there and the movie doesn't pretend that it's gonna be alright. The same goes for the post-illness trajectory of Kumail and Emily's romance. Avoiding the fairy tale ends up making the very satisfying ending feel earned.

And of course there's that 9/11 joke. That alone should earn it an Oscar nomination.

9. I, Tonya - I remember the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal well, one of the earliest 24-hour-a-day scandals that consumed the news for months. Then it turned out that was just a dry run for the O.J. Simpson murders, which happened just a few months later. I, Tonya tries to remake the narrative around the woman usually seen as the villain in this case, positing she's as much a victim of the media, a terrible mother and an abusive husband, as Kerrigan was from an attack meant to keep her out of the Olympics.

Margot Robbie delivers us a Tonya who makes us want to believe she's just a victim of circumstance. It's a narrative I've been skeptical of with regard to the real life case. One of the film's wisest creative move is that it embraces that to an extent. Using (eerily recreated and often conflicting) interviews with the participants as the basis for Steven Rogers's screenplay, the result is a movie that feels like an oral history. For two hours, I bought Tonya Harding as an underdog who never got a break and seemed to have the whole world conspiring against her. This could easily fit on a double-bill with The Disaster Artist.

10. Brigsby Bear - See this one as I did, knowing nothing about it. It's under the radar enough that I'm willing to bet you haven't heard about it. Here's what I'll say, Mark Hamill gives a great performance as sort of a twisted Mr. Rogers character and SNL's Kyle Mooney manages to hit a very difficult tone as a young man who... (man, this is hard without spoilers) ...finds it hard to adapt to adult life in the real world.

Monday, January 8, 2018

My Top 20 Movies of 2017, Part 1

As is my tradition, once I've seen most of the major film award contenders for a given year, I compile my Top 20 rankings. I always feel like doing 20 rather than 10 gives a broader sense of what the year in film looked like, and gives me a chance to spotlight movies I really enjoyed, but maybe just got outplayed by the ten films appearing on everyone else's list.

Of the big award contenders, I believe the only major one I haven't seen is Call Me By Your Name. There may be one or two more that I'm forgetting, but overwhelmingly I've seen enough that I feel comfortable standing by this as my take on the year in film.

11. Coco - After all this time I shouldn't be surprised when a Pixar film turns out to be beautifully emotional. I guess I got lulled in by the incredible visual design brought to this Day of the Dead story, and let down my guard. A young boy with dreams of being a musician finds himself in the afterlife on the Day of the Dead, and tries to find his great-great-grandfather, whose abandonment of the family in favor of music years ago has made being a musician an unacceptable career choice in that household. There are several points where we're sure we're ahead of the movie, only to have those expectations subverted. And if "Remember Me" doesn't win Best Original Song at the Oscars this year, the Academy has no heart.

12. Lady Bird - I'm told this movie is even more powerful if you're a young woman who had a tense relationship with your mother growing up. I'm pleased to report that's not a necessity for enjoying Greta Gerwig's feature directing debut, about a teenage girl in her final year of high school chafing against her hyper-critical mother and her desire to escape Sacramento when she goes off to college. Saoirse Ronan makes Lady Bird uncomfortably relatable even when she's doing unsympathetic things like ditching her friends for the cool kids or clearly showing shame about her home situation. It's a less showy film than most of the competition this year, but it understands its characters and the actors all really give these relationships a sense of history.

13. Colossal - This movie turned out to be much more than I expected. The initial hook is that Anne Hathaway plays a down-on-her-luck drunk who moves back to her hometown and finds than when she goes on her benders, her actions control a Godzilla-like monster that's currently terrorizing Korea. So we're geared up for this movie where the theme seems to be how a person's self-destructive actions have consequences for others and then the film takes this amazing turn. Her "nice guy" childhood friend played by Jason Sudeikis starts to reveal a resentful, controlling side. It's a turn that spends the whole movie hiding in plain sight. It's not a left turn that invalidates everything that came before - it's the thing we should have noticed sooner, but we're so used to accepting it in real life that it barely registered on our radar. This was one movie that really surprised me with its cleverness, and while it's not for everyone, it probably deserved a bigger audience.

14. Baby Driver - I'm still waiting for Edgar Wright to top the pinnacle of Hot Fuzz, but Baby Driver is another solid case of the writer/director taking an established genre (in this case, a heist/car chase movie) and doing it his way. The opening getaway sequence is a masterful work of stunt-driving, pacing and editing, and even if the rest of the movie fell short, I would have felt I got my money's worth. Are a few of the characters perhaps too cliché? Maybe, but the actors all work to elevate the archetypes. (John Hamm as a banker turned criminal is possibly the most entertaining member of the game, the right mix of sleazy, quietly caring and way in over his head.) And yeah, Kevin Spacey's in it, which makes for awkward viewing now, but his part is such a stock Spacey role that I bet you can FF most of his scenes and still follow what's going on.

15. Molly's Game - Sorkin has a knack for taking subjects that seem unfilmable and finding a compelling way in on the page. Not many people would have found a way into Moneyball or the story of Facebook's founding. The film is the story of how former Olympian Molly Bloom got into the world of underground poker and came to run one of the most exclusive high-stakes games until the shady people she was associating with brought her to the attention of the FBI. There's a rough patch or two, but a supporting turn from Kevin Costner really helps add the emotional stakes and underline that what she achieved really was an accomplishment. Jessica Chastain brings real steel to the role of Molly, and while it's not the first time she's played an assertive woman, Molly is uncompromising in a way that renders her extremely formidable. As good as Sorkin's writing and directing is, this is Chastain's film and she gives us the right avatar for the year of "Women are sick of your shit."

16. The Lego Batman Movie - And now for something that was just straight-up fun. This year's superhero films bounced between deep, serious explorations of heroism and aging... and total blasts of pure, unashamed fun. There are Bat-fans who recoil at anything they perceive as disrespecting or undermining the ultra-serious nature of the character and his "important" mythos. But then you remember this is a story about a guy who wears a cape and a batmask to beat up cackling criminals and you realize there's plenty of absurdity, and this film embraces every minute of that. I love Will Arnett's interpretation of Batman and I hope it spawns an entire franchise.

17. It - I rarely find a good horror movie that manages to be genuinely unsettling rather than simply relying on shock and gore to keep the audience off-balance. Thus, it figures this film comes from New Line, which was also behind The Conjuring and Lights Out. I've never read the book or seen the miniseries, which allowed me to go into this fresh. I won't deny there are some problematic elements, but the creators assembled an incredibly strong cast of young actors and Pennywise is the perfect foil for them. I don't know what Bill Skarsgård looks like out of makeup, and I don't want to, for fear of it diminishing Pennywise's psychological impact.

18. War for the Planet of the Apes - Put a gun to my head and I'll tell you I preferred the previous entry in the series, but that doesn't diminish how effectively this film puts us on the side of the apes and makes us by into mo-cap CGI creatures as living, breathing actors. Not once during this film did I think about how Caesar's really just a collection of 1s and 0s in a computer. You'll feel more for the ape deaths in the film (even the ones that are basically "Women in Refrigerators") than you will for the humans, and that might be the greatest visual effect of all.

19. Spider-Man: Homecoming - It's become fashionable to bash the Sam Raimi movies, but I love that version of Spider-Man (well, more the first two films than the third, but still...) When starting the third Spidey continuity in 15 years, Marvel wisely skipped over the origin and surrounded Peter with a supporting cast we'd not met in previous films. Michael Keaton proved to be a perfect choice for the Vulture, particularly in one scene where we can see the gears turning as he realizes his daughter's boyfriend Peter is actually Spider-Man. Tom Holland reminds us of what we all knew during Captain America: Civil War, he's the right man to play every-teen Peter Parker, bringing the perfect mix of youthful earnestness and enthusiasm. It feels fresh even though we've seen Peter in five previous solo films, embodied by two other actors.

20. Gerald's Game - Longtime readers know I'm a sucker for limited location thrillers. This film has a doozy of one when a wife handcuffed to the bed as sexual foreplay finds herself trapped there after her husband suffers a fatal heart attack. She's handcuffed at both wrists, in a cabin far from any help and anyone who will hear, and she's growing more fatigued by the minute. As she weakens, she grows delirious, seeing hallucinations and something that she perhaps only thinks are her imagination. This would have placed higher on the list if not for an unnecessary epilogue that drags out resolution when the film really needs to end and get out.

Oh, and there's a really graphic scene that it makes me wince to even allude to, but just about any other review of this film has you covered in that regard. Suffice to say, I wasn't expecting the film to go there and it might be more painful to watch than the hobbling scene in Misery.

So that's 11-20. Come back tomorrow for the top 10.