Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mozart in the Jungle Is Basically Slings & Arrows. So... Awesome and Hilarious

So, I’ve been pretty disillusioned with the teevee offerings, but then lo! I happened upon ye Amazon Prime. And yea, before me was Mozart in the Jungle. And there was much rejoicing.

Is it Slings & Arrows but with an orchestra? Yeah, kinda. That doesn’t mean it isn’t great and completely addictive.

Zombie Heath Ledger, is that you?

Gael García Bernal stars as Rodrigo, the flamboyant maté tea-drinking enfant terrible conductor of the New York Symphony orchestra. Brought in to replace aging, life-crisis-having Thomas (Malcom MacDowell), Rodrigo both inspires and infuriates the orchestra’s members and administrative staff (the latter embodied by Bernadette Peters).

Rodrigo’s first subversive act is to hire Hailey (“HAILAI!!”), the ingenue oboist, portrayed by Lola Kirke. Hailey subsists as struggling musician in New York by giving oboe lessons to sullen pre-pubescent students, and by playing in off-Broadway orchestras for sub-par trite musicals. Rodrigo hires Hailey because, as he says, she plays with “THE BLOOD,” but she is too inexperienced to keep pace with the older, more seasoned orchestra veterans.

Turns out, adults come up with as many innuendos about wind instruments as 12-year-olds.

Inspired by Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall (on whom Hailey is based), the show is a comedic look at the lives of classical music musicians and their business-oriented overlords. NPR doesn’t want to believe that artsy types take drugs and sleep around. Oh, NPR. You are adorable.

Executive producers are Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Paul Weitz (the latter occasionally directs). Schwartzman, who seems to have given up acting and has decided to make a career out of being a hirsute hipster, makes occasional appearances on the show as a pretentious classical music podcast presenter. Veteran actress Saffron Burrows appears as Cynthia, the borderline nyphomaniac cellist.

For those of us who wanted MOAR Slings & Arrows, Mozart in the Jungle serves as a pretty fair substitute. The Golden Globe-winning series is not just for classical music or art wonks, although it might be the most appealing to that demographic. Like Slings & Arrows, its humor does depend somewhat on inside jokes, but the rest of it is genuinely funny and quirky.

Or maybe it’s just funny to those of us who suffered through private music lessons and a crazy competitive band program inhabited by teenage music fascists. Maybe that’s just me.

Mozart in the Jungle is free for Prime members. Plebes will have to pay per episode/season.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Peyton Manning’s Sloppy Seconds Super Bowl

Okay, people. It’s time again to talk about football. Like a dependable locust, arriving once every 12 months to devour all the snack food in your local grocery store, the Super Bowl arrived as predicted this past Sunday. And it was messy. (And before you tune out completely, don’t panic non-sports fans. I’m going to talk about the halftime show as well.)

Football! Now even 50-ier!
Before I get to the mess that actually unfolded on the field, here’s the obligatory background: This years’ teams were the Denver Broncos, led by quarterback and commercial star Peyton Manning, against the Carolina Panthers, led by one-man self-hype squad Cam Newton. If these names sound familiar to you, non-sports fan, it’s because Cam Newton got a lot of press for being the first person ever to win a Heisman trophy, a national championship, and be a first round draft pick in one year. Peyton Manning you know because there’s not a product on TV he hasn’t considering filming a promo for. Manning is also the oldest son of former NFL quarterback Archie Manning and the older brother of current New York Giants QB Eli Manning. The Mannings are sort of like the Lannisters of the NFL.

Google Image searching "Lannisters and Mannings" actually returns a surprising number of results

Look, I could write a doctoral thesis on the oedipal dynamics of the Manning family. Suffice it to say the comparison to the Game of Thrones dynasty is important because at age 39, Peyton Manning is an old man in pro football terms and one seen as desperate to claim his place in the family glory. When he stepped on the field for this Super Bowl, he was officially the oldest QB ever to play in the game. He’s also been somewhat eclipsed by his younger brother who has won two Super Bowl rings. When Peyton played in the Super Bowl two years ago, it was seen as his last chance to win a second ring for himself so that he could retire on top. When the Broncos lost spectacularly that year to the upstart Seattle Seahawks, Peyton was on shaky ground. This game was his for real last last chance. And, like two years ago, he would be facing an upstart team fronted by a young, fresh face that had no qualms about strutting wherever he walked.

So what drama did we actually see in the game? Well, put it this way: I’ve had to consult a thesaurus when writing this to make sure I didn’t overuse the words “sloppy” and “messy.” And not to bury the lede anymore than I already have, but Denver eventually emerged as the winner. And though the score makes that win look decisive, let me show you exactly how not the case that was.

The thing is, Super Bowl 50 was a record breaker. Not in a good way. Denver made only 11 first downs and gained less than 200 total yards in the entire game. That’s the lowest for any Super Bowl winner ever. Over at the Carolina side, Cam Newton only had 18 of his 44 passes reach their targets, about a 44% success rate. Newton was also sacked (tackled to the ground by the opposing team before he could throw the ball) seven times, which ties him for first place in the number of sacks in the Super Bowl. Between the two teams there were 18 penalties for a total of 153 lost yards. Carolina had four turnovers (unintentionally losing the ball to the other team) and Denver had two. Both sides literally were tripping over themselves trying to run the ball. There was so much fumbling, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was actually a basketball game.

One of the more dignified examples of utterly shitting the bed, professionally speaking.

It was also a relatively low-scoring game. Denver won 24-10, which by pro football standards is a very modest end result. It also doesn’t really reflect the reality of how those scores were won. Denver’s first touchdown came quickly at the start of the game, but only because Carolina somehow fumbled their own ball and Denver recovered it in the Carolina end zone. Which is sort of like when Wile E. Coyote would try to kill the Road Runner with a bazooka only to have the bazooka blow up in his own face. You can’t exactly say that the Road Runner won that exchange.

Carolina itself didn’t even score until about a third of the way through the second quarter. Denver came into the game with the highest ranked defense in the country, but Carolina didn’t exactly make them use it much. This is doubly surprising given that Carolina had a remarkable season, coming almost out of nowhere. In fact, Carolina was favored over Denver going into the game, a prediction that probably made for some fun times in Vegas on Sunday night.  

It’s tempting to see an analogy here: the upstart, anti-establishment team comes roaring out of relative obscurity to capture the media’s attention, which initially ridicules said team before taking more note of them, predicting their demise, becomes dismayed when team continues to rise, and finally all but preparing the coronation before the older, establishment team delivers the crushing blow. Not sure where else I could have seen that story.

I'll tell you what, it would be YUGE.

I’ve just been reminded by Maggie Cats that I am obligated at this point to talk about Beyoncé and, specifically, that I must use the word “fierce.”

Look, I’m not convinced that Beyoncé is an actual person. I think she’s a next-generation hologram precision-designed in a corporate lab somewhere in Heidelberg to give the world something to care about. I’m also pretty sure that Beyoncé Corporate has formed a contractual agreement with the Internet that the Internet must at all times speak of BeyoncéTM in only exaggerated, breathless terms. The Pepsi commercial halftime show kind of underscores that. In the parlance of the Internet, she “slayed.” Which, I guess? I mean, when your competition is Bruno Mars wearing a hefty bag and that one guy who Gwyneth Paltrow contentiously uncoupled from it’s not that hard to land, is it? I do think Beyoncé Corporate was smart to schedule their product’s performance literally hours after dropping another stealth song and video as a lead in to her World Tour/Adele Assassination Strategy. Well done, team! Take a long lunch today for coming up with that creative synergy.

For me, the halftime show is more notable for what happened afterwards. Which is to say, horrible people on the Internet continued to be horrible. Did you realize that all those psychedelic colors and outfits were actually secret number generators that were beaming stealth messages DIRECTLY INTO YOUR BRAIN and that Nobama knows about it and it’s all part of his plot to replace your guns with gay people? IT’S TRUE! Behold:

Your voters, America.

So, yeah. That was pretty much the halftime show.

As I say every year when I write this post, the Super Bowl is not about excellent sportsmanship or athletic prowess. It is about showmanship. The Super Bowl is event television where the only unforgivable sin is to be boring. In that sense, Super Bowl 50 lived up. Disheveled as it may have been, it was entertaining to watch the players messing all over themselves in the same way that it is entertaining to watch Japanese game shows, albeit with less crushing pain in this case. It also should give lots of support to struggling junior high school football players out there. “You see?” their parents will say to them, “It doesn’t matter if you fumbled into your own end zone. It was good enough for Cam Newton!”

Always next year?

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The X-Files Strikes Back

I remember when I first heard the news The X-Files would return. So many feels: excitement, nervousness, glee, and of course, terror. Because what if it the show comes back...and isn't any good? What if the old magic is gone? What if the sinkhole mess of mythology that broke the show in the later seasons (and we won't even mention the second movie) similarly sucks the joy out of these new episodes?

In short, I was freaking terrified. But I also WANT TO BELIEVE.

And now here we are. The first three episodes have aired and we're halfway through the new "season." I am sure you're all did it go?

Yes, indeed, The X-Files is back. Everything that we loved about the original show is still here and a lot of the same beats, themes, and jokes work. But I don't mean to imply it feels like no time has passed. Somehow everyone in front of and behind the cameras managed to capture the tone of the show, but it's clear that events and relationships have evolved and changed. It's like when you get together with your good friends from many years ago. It doesn't matter how much time has passed, you still click and carry on as if you had seen each other just yesterday. But now you joke about spouses, kids, or jobs. You know, actual life stuff instead of boobs. Well, let's be honest. You're still going to joke about boobs. 

Ok, so we can all agree that The X-Files is well and truly back! Of course, this also means that all the old problems with the show are still there. The alien conspiracy still doesn't make any sense, Vancouver is still not Washington, D.C., and the idea that Mulder and Scully would still be employed by the Federal government is totally ludicrous. Oh, and Duchovny is still all mumble and Anderson seems like she could start snoozing in the middle of a scene.


Scully still rockin the pantsuits. She wore it before it was cool.

Of the three episodes that have aired, the third (Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster) is the strongest. It's also not a coincidence that it's a monster-of-the-week episode seemingly unrelated to the alien stuff. I always considered the stand-alone episodes the strongest of the series, when The X-Files could play with genre, expectations, and storytelling techniques.

Don't get me wrong, the conspiracy remains the core of the series and the reason Mulder and Scully are positioned to investigate the other weirdness. But the thing I loved most about The-X-Files was the creativity of the stories and the chemistry between the two leads. I think some of that gets lost when we spend so much time trying to explain that aliens are real and are working with a shady group of old white dudes to take over the world except not really it's just the shady old white dudes stealing the alien technology to plan a complete collapse of the world economy and then fascism. Um, something like that anyway.

I will admit that the first episode of the new series basically did what I thought was impossible: it condensed a bunch of the past mythology into something that actually makes sense and is (somewhat) easily explained. It also put Mulder in a position to have a crisis of faith, which means Scully can help bring him around. For the most part though, Mulder is still the believer, Scully is still the doubter, and Skinner is still strangely hot. And bald. Just in case you were worried about that last part.

To sum up, watching the new X-files episodes feels just like watching the old ones. Whether that's good or bad, I leave it to you to decide. From my perspective, it's most decidedly a wonderful thing.

Now if they figure out a way to bring back Krycek I can die happy.

Monday, February 01, 2016

DC's Legends of Tomorrow

DC Comics continues their domination of prime time with another show on the CW (from the same team that brought you Arrow and The Flash): DC's Legends of Tomorrow. In a nutshell: a group of B-side characters from other shows are brought together by a time-traveler from the future to defeat the Big Bad Guy who is bent on world domination. Does the show hold together? Guest-blogger, Karen, has the answer. --Maggie Cats 

I sat down to watch the newest foray into the DC-verse with a little trepidation...I'm WAY behind on both Arrow and The Flash. Will I be able to keep up with who is who? Will it make sense? Will I be hopelessly lost? (SPOILER...maybe).

During the first episode of DC's Legends of Tomorrow, I was bombarded with characters, back stories, and information. Of course, every time Arthur Darvill, from Doctor Who, is on screen I squeal with fan girlish delight. I love the fact he has stepped up to captain his own, Waverider. But sadly, I could not keep all the other characters straight in this first hour of the pilot. Some I know from previous exposure, but many just sort of fade into their archetypical obscurity.

Umm...that's a lot of legends. 

Here's what I actually got:

White Canary - Tortured, sad assassin, previously dead, needs a good mission give her life meaning.

Bad guy thieves (who are quite entertaining but thus far sadly nameless for me) - want to steal antiquities and are easy to catch.

Weird, merged fire hero - old guy + young guy = fiery hero? Old guy wants to have adventures, young guy really liked when he was, thank-you-very-much.

Hawkman and Hawkgirl - Reincarnated lovers who fight Vandal Savage, the Big Bad, again and again. Hawkman is way more up to speed, with his past lives, though meeting her son apparently jolts some of Hawkgirl's memories. Apparently they had a son in a past life. Wonder how many children they left behind, lifetime after lifetime of battles and deaths?

The Atom - It's Ant Man! Only it's not. And he's really smart! But nobody takes him seriously. He's kind of a big kid needing affection and attention. Well, this is going to end badly.

Rip Hunter - It's Doctor Rory! Man, I love Arrthur Darvill. He plays tormented but good intentioned so well!
Vandal Savage - The bad guy. Who we are TOLD is awful and terrible and we even see him DO awful things but he....falls terribly flat. Where's the menace? Where's the savagery? He seems so calm and not scary. Maybe I've been spoiled, but I want some terror with my eternal evil menace. Maybe he needs some good theme music, like Darth Vader.

Watch out! HE HAS A BIG STICK! And a sweet beard.

In the first hour we meet our hero team and have our first trip through time! In which we go to the 1970s. Woo. Big whoop. The team finds the man who can track Vandal Savage, who we learn is in fact Hawkgirl and Hawkman's son from their previous lifetime! And we learn some of their backstory. (Not enough, alas, to make them three dimensional characters yet.)

Meanwhile, we learn that JUST LIKE THE DOCTOR, this time traveler ALSO stole his ship!! Only instead of just sort of shaking their heads and collectively deciding "Time Lords will be Time Lords", his bosses send Boba to stop him. Chronos manages to hurt the ship and fatally wound Dr. Hawkson...surprise! You cannot change the past that easily, Hawkcouple. The trusty team ends up stuck in the time vortex or whatever they're calling it on this show while Rip makes repairs.

We also discover, along with the team, that Rip tricked them all into this gig because Savage savagely murdered his wife and son (at the beginning of the show) and none of them, not one, are least not yet. Instead, Rip plucked them from a place of relative obscurity in history as their absence (meaning, in case they die horribly) would not disrupt the timeline. Way harsh, Rip.

Legends, ASSEMBLE. Oh, wait....

I enjoyed this hour of television, but I can't say I'm enamored with Legends of Tomorrow. At least not yet. I'll give it 3 more episodes to really hook me. There are so many characters, I feel I need more time to get to know them. And the time travel better get more exotic, pronto! Because 1970s? Really?!

3.5/5 stars

DC's Legends of Tomorrow airs Thursday nights at 8:00 on the CW. You can catch the two-part pilot on CW's website.