Thursday, September 26, 2013

Castle: The Downfall of a Series

Maybe it was inevitable. All shows go through peaks and troughs. It’s undeniably hard to sustain a formula for season after season without things getting stale or shaking them up in some pretty big ways every once in a while. I’m actually a big fan of directional shifts in TV shows as long as the heart of the beast remains the same. But when you stray too far, when a show has changed so much from what it initially set out to be that I feel fundamentally different when I watch it, is it even the same show anymore? Or is it some new animal wearing the skin of my former friend like a coat, a twisted doppelganger...

It was 2009, and like every Freshman in college that year, I’d just discovered Hulu. I lived on a small floor and didn’t do many extracurriculars, so I didn’t know anyone. Mostly I just sat in my room and worked on my TV education. Death Note went by in six days. I held my breath for new Fringe each week (remember season 1 of Fringe? Oh man). I was a kid in a candy store.

One day Hulu dropped the usual Geico ads and started showing me clips from this upcoming police drama. I scoffed at first, but then I noticed Nathan Fillion. Coming off of watching three times through of Firefly the previous summer, I smiled at the quick dialog (even if it was a little cheesy). I was reminded of reading Agatha Christie novels with my dad in grade school and how much I missed those little mysteries. CSI, Law & Order, and other typical procedurals had always fallen flat for me as everyone was so serious all the time. So melodramatic. I figured any police show that was going to have a confession at the end of every episode might as well embrace the fact that it wasn’t based anywhere close to reality, and this show was selling itself with a handsome millionaire playboy, the unbearably confident-through-his-stubble Nathan Fillion sitting in an interrogation room and giving this hardboiled female detective trope standing over him the most aggravating time of her life… something about it clicked for me. I’d watch that pilot.

It was exactly what I’d hoped for. Of the four or five guest characters introduced in the pilot, it was pretty easy to pin down who the bad guy would be. You just had to count the remaining commercial breaks, decide what the most interesting twist would be for each one, and remove people from the pool accordingly. The dialog was snappy - everyone was a total sass-factory. The jokes flowed just as the murder unraveled in such a pleasingly predictable way. I was hooked on this stereotypically oddball partnership. It was the best mediocre cop show I’d ever seen.

The more I thought about the show, the more it impressed me. Beyond nailing the quip-to-quip comedy and the mediocre mystery-of-the-week done exactly right, Castle’s family structure was something I hadn’t seen before. A single father living with his daughter and his mother, but both his ex-wives potentially in the picture as guest stars. An odd little family unit. Something different. Maybe a little more reflective of this modern day where more and more of my friends were growing up with step dads and foster families. It’s not like TV had been stuck in the perfect nuclear family of the 50s since, uh, the 50s, but it had felt a little like we’d gotten stuck in the perfectly dysfunctional family of The Simpsons. Castle’s home life was so completely off the reservation, and I liked that, even if Alexis has almost always been an uninteresting Mary Sue.

I also realized that Castle the show was going to operate on another level I hadn’t appreciated just yet: class commentary. At the still early stages of the financial crisis, this show came along and delivered episode after episode of scathing commentary on the way the rich lived. Castle was loveable, but there was no denying how irresponsible he was. The show may not have played that up much (because without a likeable Richard Castle it was doomed to failure), but victim after victim was some rich bastard killed for being greedy or because the rich people around him or her were jealous. If the victim wasn’t doomed by their surroundings or inherent nature, the show still found a way to get its digs in. I remember the second episode of season 1 like it was yesterday (also get off my lawn). This was the one that really hooked me, because in addition to a compact little murder with a great key to solving it at the end, it managed to throw this whole subplot in with a wealthy married couple that appeared on the surface to be so happy but underneath were rotten to the core, backstabbing each other at every turn on their race to divorce court. Seriously, if you’ve never seen this show (or even if you have), go find season 1 episode 2 on Netflix and just bask in the glory of perfectly executed pulp entertainment.

The end of that episode introduced the other thing that would go on to make Castle so great: an abrupt change from zingers flying around the police station to a shockingly effective dramatic moment where Beckett gets to talk their murderer down from suicide. The tension of this scene put me on the edge of my seat all the way through the inevitable success of our hero. Even though there’s only one way for a scene like that to end on a mainstream TV show, I admired the writers’ dedication to showing a really tense, completely screwed up, violent moment on an otherwise lighthearted show. It was a scene that for me really got to the fact that murder is not just action sequences, investigations, zingers, and “if it weren’t for you meddling kids”. Murder is a scary thing committed by seriously messed up people, and it’s absolutely harrowing for the friends and family of the victim. This how seemed to know that somewhere in the back of its head.

Season 1 maintained this level of quality in my eyes. The class commentary continued as we got several episodes at the poverty end of the spectrum, often involving how those at the top and bottom ended up with their lives intertwined. Sure, the show’s perspective was always hopelessly from the top, but this is a show about a millionaire playboy mystery writer. I never expected miracles. And speaking of which, it remained so much fun to watch this good-hearted but absolute jackass protagonist grind the gears of Beckett week in and week out, and even more fun to watch how capable she was of turning the tables on him. The dynamic between Beckett and Castle was arguably the best part of the show, and it made for the meat of the show’s constant quips. The backup cast developed well, too, with everyone getting good lines and Ryan and Esposito thankfully not blending together when it would’ve been so easy to let them.

In other words, a friggin great first season.

So what happened? As the years went on, Castle has drifted. It started subtly, when a specific kind of “niche community” episode emerged. These started out fun - a fashion world episode, a vampire/werewolf cosplayers halloween episode, a SNM episodes - and holiday themed episodes aside, they stayed true to the class commentary of season 1. But somewhere along the line, they got increasingly lavish - the steampunk episode and the spy-games episodes both come to mind - and the spectacle of the thing seemed to take over the commentary. Even this is somewhat forgivable, because while the show was slowly losing its interesting commentary, much of that was in the name of entertaining premises. Some of the most outlandish episodes were also some of its best.

The first major strike for me was somewhere along the line when I noticed that it had been months since Castle had acted like a spoiled little kid. I suppose he was going to have to grow up eventually, but that transformation is something I was waiting with baited breath to see on screen. Instead, the brash, flirtatious, obnoxious playboy from season 1 just sort of gradually turned into someone’s goofy dad after a few seasons, and no one seemed to have stopped and taken the time to notice. Castle - both the show and the dude - had lost their fangs.

Meanwhile, the show also started to go to further and further lengths for capital D Drama. Plotlines like Beckett’s various love interests making Castle have all them feels were all well and good, getting played for both humorous acts of jealousy as well as real soul-searching for the show’s titular character. At the same time, there was apparently a “one overly-dramatic two parter per season” policy instituted upon the series renewal. While switching gears for a few scenes had made the show special, these really got into hardcore “save the comedy for two weeks from now” episodes that were a drag to get through. And since each one had to up the stakes from the one before, they slowly got more and more preposterous as first FBI, then CIA, and then mysterious people in suits above even them got involved in our funny little NYC bureau. Then there were the season finales: always so much with the feels. Drama slowly crept into the show, and as the D went up, the funnies had to be shuffled aside to make room. Slowly but surely, the reason I came back every week gave way to boring, convoluted melodrama.

Then there was the season 4 finale and Captain Montgomery’s death. In what I thought was actually a well done character death and dramatic moment (even if I was over the “my mother was murdered by mysterious evil folks” trope a decade ago), they went and brought in Gates. As I said at the top, I think shaking things up is a good and necessary thing to do to a show that’s been on the air for 4 years already. But Gates was always just harshin my mellow, man. Where Montgomery had always been in for a laugh, Gates was a buzzkill. Aside from a couple memorable and hilarious comedic plotlines with her, she was always there right in time to make things difficult for our heroes instead of adding an extra flavor of fun like Montgomery had. I wasn’t attached to that flavor in particular - by all means, shake it up, bring in someone new. But with the show already slipping away from its comedy, this was a big step in the wrong direction.

I don’t know what to say about season 5 other than it just felt bland. It wasn’t the happy couple finally getting together; there were plenty of fine plotlines there, and if it hadn’t happened I would’ve faulted them for dragging that whole thing on for far too long. Maybe it was just complacent writers or the fact that the same formula week in and week out can only go for so many years before it starts to just get samey. Season 5 was a blur.

Which brings us to this week, and the premiere of season 6. I had high hopes after the opening scene took what had been such a serious, downer finale and turned it into a cute and giggly bit. But instead of getting things back to normal, things have just gone full serious mode, guys. And as far as I can tell, there’s no going back. This premiere was clearly full of new regular cast members - this CIA thing isn’t going anywhere - but none of them were any fun. There’s not even a goofy tech guy! Come on, guys. There’s always a goofy tech guy. But no, we’ve just got serious partner, serious boss, completely bland and also serious black dude, and a few other serious people walking around in the background. I guess their tech guy was kinda pudgy, but he wasn’t goofy. He was a little nervous but also, say it with me now, kinda serious.

But wait! Maybe Castle can come in and liven things up, and there’s always Ryan and Esposito. Maybe even Lanie. Except with Beckett in a new location entirely, we’re left shoehorning the old precinct into the plot through some gimmick or another. And then the episode ends, and unlike a normal Castle season premiere, we don’t get back to normal. We just get more Drama.

Is this how it’s going to be now? Serious people working on Serious cases? Elaborate excuses to get in every one of our extravagantly large cast?

In the end, this season premiere made me feel just like Alexis’s new stupid boyfriend: annoyed, old, worn-down, and like I’ve seen this movie before. Or maybe I just saw the first half before walking out.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Elysium Made Me Angry

I loved District 9. It was this perfect use of using a sci-fi concept to both build a unique and fascinating setting while simultaneously exploring very touchy subjects relevant to the real world without having to poke them directly with a stick. The CG stuff melded shockingly well into the hand-held, documentary shooting style, and the story really made my feels start acting up. Plus, it made me think. I still use it as a reference point four years after its release. Oh, and maybe I should get around to writing that essay about District 9 and Avatar - two movies about a white dude, aliens, and that white dude eventually becoming an alien. Why does Avatar make me mad and District 9 kick ass? There’s a lot to say.

So that movie happens, and I’m very pleased by it. Then this past spring I’m walking by a wall of movie posters when I pass by a poster for Elysium:

[pic of the Elysium movie poster with Matt Damon’s back to camera]

Matt Damon is looking kinda subtly badass. The font is giving me an intriguingly pristine contrast to the weird, makeshift, spidery, robot suit he’s wearing, which I’m not quite diggin, but at least I haven’t seen done before. But wait, what’s that there at the bottom? From the director of District 9? Sign me up! This guy’s first movie was so great, he can only have learned things from there, right? I’m pumped.

But alas. Here we are in the present, and I know better now. I know not to blindly trust this Neill Blomkamp going forward. I know this because weeks after having seen Elysium, I’m still so angry about it.

Alright, let’s dig in. I’m going to start with what Elysium does right, because Elysium does start out right. There’s a different approach to exposition than the slightly out of place but charming and well executed documentary segments of District 9, but just like District 9, that exposition is some of the best that the movie has to offer. The world of Elysium may be an absolutely unashamed metaphor for class stratification in America, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s kind of nice that it lets that metaphor just hang out there, not even attempting to tuck it back into its boxers. I respect that. Hell, I really enjoyed the fact that even my friends who don’t have much film studies training would open conversations about Elysium with “so how about that class warfare, eh?”

And it’s not just that metaphor, the whole world is pretty cool. It’s basically a post-apocalyptic world where the apocalypse was “everyone just stopped giving a shit”, and that’s cool. Also terrifying, because I totally buy it, but cool. Seeing Matt Damon’s childhood is a little cliche, but tropes exist because they’re effective, yes? I’m willing to let that stuff slide while we’re warming up our engines. The police unit is sufficiently Big Brotherly, that conversation between Damon and his parole office is hilarious and exposition filled. Nicely done.

Then we get our view into the underworld where people are trying to get to Elysium, and our first glimpse at Jodie Foster being a cold and harsh realist, and that cleverly disguised protagonist of Distrcit 9 shoots down everyone with a rocket launcher because he’s a badass. Shooting down those ships is a hard decision for Jodie to make, but she’s old and jaded - she knows what’s at stake, and she makes it in a heartbeat because of what she believes: Elysium is only so big, and if we let everyone up here, we’re going to run out of resources so quick no one will have anything left.

Wait. Except that’s not what happened. That’s just what I thought was going to happen, because that would make sense, and would be an actually interesting viewpoint to throw an ideal “free healthcare for everyone” worldview into conflict with. Instead, Jodie is dragged into a disciplinary hearing and told that actually we don’t wanna be killing people, and I guess if poor people wanna fly up here we should just let them? And Jodie gets all pissed and decides that, uh, her actual only driving motivation is that she’s an evil, power-hungry witch on a quest to stage a military coup so she can keep murdering people for her own amusement?

Let me be clear: Jodie does mention once that she’s all about Elysium’s longevity, and her actions are only to protect that. But wow is it not convincing, and she never brings it up again. It’s like the only reason she said it in the first place is because that logic probably goes over with the president much better than “because hiring out convicted murderer-rapists to shoot missiles at stuff is so much fun, and I really want to keep doing so”.

This is the crux of my problem with the film. There’s this great world constructed to take a look at the class issues of the modern day, issues that desperately need to be addressed. Remember Occupy Wall Street? How everyone was pissed and no one knew quite why or what to do about it? Those questions need to be answered, they need to get more time in the public spotlight, and blockbusters are a great place to keep that discussion on society’s collective subconscious. But Blomkamp takes this great setup for doing exactly that and decides that instead of there being two sides to this argument, there’s just gonna be Evil Jodie Foster and Christ Symbolism Matt Damon, and that’ll be enough of a discussion.

Just imagine for a moment that Jodie Foster actually believes that Elysium needs to keep people out for the greater good, that this extreme class divide really does benefit everyone somehow. You can make that argument! I’m sure you can, because republican candidates still get votes in this country. I’m sure you can, because I can actually imagine what such an argument looks like. I will fight you to my last breath that you’re wrong, but I can at least understand you. I can understand why providing universal healthcare is a potentially difficult and hard thing to do. I can understand why someone needs to be down there doing the heavy lifting in factories because there aren’t enough robots to go around. I understand that some people will always be better off than others just because even in perfect communism, some people are just born at the right time and place, and that life isn’t always fair. I may not draw the same conclusions from those points as you, but I will at least understand you. Imagine a hypothetical world where Matt Damon makes it to Elysium and confronts Jodie Foster only to have her explain that making everyone a citizen of Elysium will stretch its free healthcare booths so far that they’ll break, the human race will run out of energy, and millions will suffer. In the same way that I understand those arguments above, Damon would understand her and yet make the choice to give everyone that citizenship because for better or worse it’s the right thing to do.

But I don’t understand why someone would create a world perfectly framed to have that discussion, to get to that difficult and flawed, yet interesting and thought-provoking ending, and then give that all up so that Jodie Foster can be a one-dimensional monster and get shot and Matt Damon can cut his hands open for maximum stigmata symbolism.

I have a million other smaller complains, but I’m getting tired, so here are a few in list form:
1. Why did so many people need to explode? Did I really need to see that?
2. Why did Blomkamp reduce the whole class metaphor thing to universal healthcare? Pro-tip: universal healthcare is not the only issue dividing the upper class from the lower class these days!
3. Did Jodie Foster really not have any qualms about hiring out convicted rapists? Really? Really?
4. That robot suit just looked stupid. I mean, just fucking stupid.
5. Why did Matt Damon’s friend just kind of agree to come along while Matt was negotiating with the guy who could get them up to Elysium? He was all like “dude, you will fucking 100% die if you go up there, don’t do it,” and then like two seconds later he was all like “aight dude, I’m down to go up there with you.” For someone who has just been talking about how this whole mission is suicide and yet has so far not revealed any particular loyalty to Damon beyond basic human decency nor revealed any particularly suicidal tendencies, he sure was ready to head into raging gunfire and get filled full of holes. But I suppose his death will make the stakes that much higher for Damon, which is a better motivation for someone in this movie than most!

I’m sure I could go on, but I saw this movie like 3 weeks ago and have spent most of that time trying to repress it. Seriously though. This movie absolutely squanders an incredible premise, and from a director who’s first movie held so much promise, I expected better. I expected characters with basic motivations, who weren’t just evil for evil’s sake. When you’re in a position to make big movies and you have the heart and the passion and the desire to spread a message like the person who made District 9 clearly does, you have a responsibility to make movies deeper than Elysium. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to your audience.

Get back out there Blomkamp. I haven’t counted you out yet, because there’s still so much potential in these premises. But you gotta do better.

Sam out.

Friday, September 20, 2013

In Which I Burst Onto the Scene Once Again: Fall 2013 Edition

I’ve seen a lot of movies lately, and I’ve had many thoughts about them (as one does). And man, I’ve been wanting to write again, so let’s just see what comes out of my mouth-hole when I start pushing buttons on this here keyboard.

I went to a movie by myself today. I’ve never done that before. It was an interesting experience… it shed light on why seeing movies with other people is a key part of the experience for me. I feel I can’t get the most out of a movie without talking about it afterwards, trying to make my thoughts about it concrete by putting them into words while they’re still fresh. Without someone to bounce ideas off of, the whole thing will take much longer to percolate and bring fruitful thoughts to the surface, if indeed any such thoughts ever emerge. Actually, that’s pretty much how my brain works in all things, but whatever.

At the same time, the experience didn’t feel that off from normal to me. I made sure to arrive at the theater right as it started so I didn’t have to sit awkwardly in the theater by myself, but apart from that, the only thing I missed about having a viewing partner was not being able to make snide remarks about each preview as they were happening. Even after exiting the movie and now some time later, I feel just as I often do after most movies: like I didn’t get the chance to do that discussion thing as much as I wanted to. I think this means I’m supposed to try and talk about movies more with the people I see them with.

Maybe that percolating phase needs to happen before talking about something I’ve seen, as I’ve noticed that my best conversations about the movies I’ve seen this past month have come days later when talking to people I didn’t see the film with. We’ve each had a chance to come at the thing without influencing each other, and we’ve had a chance for our resulting opinions to solidify and congeal a little. Indeed, I felt like after I saw The Spectacular Now with 3 others and talked about it at a bar for an hour, we didn’t really do much except repeat what had happened in the movie. “Oh man, that part with the thing was really good. And all those long takes!” But three days later talking to someone else that had seen it and hated it, I learned so much more from their simple question of “What did you like about it?” and my resulting response than I did at the time of watching. Though that may be because different opinions about things lead to more dynamic ideas about them.

Whatever. The point is that I like talking about movies and should just do that more. Also I apparently being the guy seeing the movie by himself. OH! One nice bonus of being that guy is that I got to leave the theater exactly when I wanted to during the credits instead of trying to figure out whether or not my party was ready to leave and waiting on me or wanted to sit back and let the final frames wash over them through the duration of the credits. Nice.

The movie I saw was Short Term 12 ,which I highly recommend. It’s named for the central location of the film, a state run center for kids going through the foster home system who haven’t been placed yet, and who generally stay for around a year. The protagonist is this girl Grace, a 20-something who works at Short Term 12 as sort of the highest up person who still interacts directly with the kids. The whole thing was just… incredible. Great performances all around, and a hell of a script.

There was one particular scene that made me really appreciate the structure, around the 60 minute mark when everything is falling apart for Grace, another character gets a moment of hope. It took this series of events that was utterly harrowing to watch and gave the viewer an out. “Yeah,” the movie says, “all this shit sucks. It sucks a lot. Life can absolutely suck in ways that you can’t even imagine. But sometimes you get something you can hang on to, whether you make that yourself or have it given to you, and this is the kind of movie that believes those bits are worth living for.” It may have been interesting or more “powerful” or something to let the viewer just get crushed under the weight of it all in the same way that Grace is. I know people who would criticize the scene I’m referring to exactly because it tints the climax of the movie with that glimmer of hope. But that hope is part of the movie’s point, and I love that a little something found under a couch cushion in a plotline entirely removed from our hero can keep that hope alive in me as a viewer. Story structure! Woo!

And that scene with the baseball bat… just… amazing. And the beginning / ending… Here I go listing things about the movie I liked without adding anything new to them. Maybe I should let this one sit a little longer.

I’ve been thinking recently about moments in movies when characters tell stories. There’s this thing that happens for me in real life where someone will start telling a story, and if it’s a good one, I’ll stop seeing. It’s not that my brain stops receiving visual input from my eyes, it’s just that it discards that information as unimportant and turns its energy towards building up its own image of the story being told: a man on a bus with tacos rumbling in his stomach. Taking that step off the bus and feeling shit run down your legs (you gotta see Short Term 12, people). I start to picture these things instead of what’s in front of me.

So in a movie when a character tells a story, you can do two things: you can either try and build that story-world image for your audience (see the genius of Seven Psychopaths) or you can just show the people talk (Chasing Amy). There’s obviously reasons you’d use either one - having control over your audience’s image is a powerful thing, but so is letting their imagination run wild - but I’ve been thinking about what filmmakers choose to put on the screen when they choose not to show the events of the tale. Mostly you sit with your characters all listening to this story, but who do you show and when? Or do you show something else? You can use the story to reflect thematically on the content of the scene, or you can contrast it to the setting - a vulgar tale at a cocktail party. Or maybe you want a story being told while a couple plays footsy under the seat. But if you’re just going to sit with the story, choosing who’s reaction to show when and when to just stick on the storyteller is an interesting thing.

Short Term 12, for example, does this cool thing with this. The movie opens on this guy who works at Short Term 12 telling a piece of the place’s old mythology to a new coworker. They’re not doing anything particularly special with the cuts, but right at the climax of the story, some kid breaks out of a door behind them and runs screaming across the lawn. The experienced employees in the group listening to this story drop everything and run after the kid, tackle him, let him kick and scream and then cool down. Then, when everything seems fine, the storyteller picks right up where he left off. The story is used to show how mundane this crazy event is in this place. It contrasts to the events at hand which tells us a lot, and meanwhile the content of the story is both entertaining and full of necessary exposition while also being justified in the telling so that we don’t feel like we’re being force-fed information. Great use of a character telling a story without cutting away to the content of that story.

Something about characters telling stories within the contents of another story is both very appealing to me (I love stories and will always take on more!) and tough to pull off. You can’t just spend 2-3 minutes on some character telling a story that doesn’t relate to the main plot at hand without having a damn good reason, so I admire it when it’s done well.

That feels like enough rambling for now. To close out, here’s a bunch of movies I’ve seen recently.

The Spectacular Now - this thing is the best thing I’ve seen recently. Coming of age story with a pretty lackluster plot carried on the shoulders of stunning acting. Go see it.

Short Term 12 - as discussed, I recommend this look into a world I’ve otherwise no experience with.

Elysium - this movie made me actively angry at how bad it was. It took this amazing sci-fi premise and completely squandered it on flat characters and people exploding into muck.

World’s End - right up there with Sean of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Very savvy, very funny.

The Way Way Back - Serious Steve Carell and silly Sam Rockwell both make me happy. A few too many “my high school summer coming of age movie” tropes to be above and beyond just “another very good movie”, though I did find an interpretation of the movie that made me accept and embrace those tropes…
In A World - funny actors being funny people. Full of comedic performances instead of zingers - just the way I like my comedy. I’m not quite sure what that Rob Corddry / Michaela Watkins plotline was doing in this movie, but it wasn’t bad, just out of place.

Good stuff, people. Cinema is not dead. It’s only getting better.


Sam out.