June 28, 2011

Watch What Happens - Again and Again

Crazy Countess Luann (left) and not-Niclole Kidman, a.k.a. Alex
Reality television comes in several distinct flavors...  

One family of shows is the competition, which can be either audience-vote driven (American Idol, Dancing with the Stars) or a self-contained elimination show (Survivor, Top Chef). Personally, I much prefer the latter, when done well. 

However, the other family of shows is, sadly, far more prevalent. That's the "faux-documentary" cameras which follow the "stars" of the show 24/7 and showcase their "real lives." 

I use the adjective "faux" because on most of these shows, "real" is a very loose term. I don't dispute that these shows aren't scripted, but there's a big difference between sticking the cameras in a room to record what actually happens and sending your entire cast off to a luxury resort, getting them liquored up and then instructing them to discuss hot button issues. 

But here's what's different with the Real Housewives of New York. Yes, they do all of the same things that other programs of this ilk do. This season, for example, they shipped all the titular ladies off to Morocco for a three-episode adventure. And yes, the conversation seems very contrived... "Luann, I need to talk to you about what happened between us right before we left..." Cue convenient clip to refresh our memories of the prior confrontation.

Location: Morocco. The argument? About a year-old incident in the Caribbean. So been there.
Yet, there's no mistaking the reality of these conversations... because they go nowhere. A typical argument goes like this:

"You said A, B and C." 
"No, actually, I said D, then YOU said A and C, but then she said B." 
"That's not how I remember it... and frankly, I was very upset that you said B and C." 
"But I never said C. YOU said C."

And so on, until finally both combatants either agree to disagree, bury the hatchet and move on -- or one storms off, vowing that the friendship is irreparably damaged. 

Because we each remember our experiences from our own perspective, this sort of thing happens in real life all the time. It's very "real" - but ultimately tedious. 

We, the viewers have been shown the actual footage and therefore, we know with a high level of certainty as to who is in the right and who is in the wrong in these fights. Sure, in the heat of the moment, it's fascinating to see just how different each woman's view of the world may be (in some cases, the level of delusion is incredible -- and strangely compelling), but the failing of the show is that they rehash these same arguments over and over and over again, each time replaying the same incriminating sound bites "proving" to the audience who is the "villain" to be scorned. 
How dare you call me a drunk! And where is the waiter with more Pinot Grigio?
The story doesn't advance... and that's when inertia starts to set in and the remote control works its magic.

So, while I give props to this set of Real Housewives for trying to keep it real, where they succeed in doing so somehow (perhaps illogically) also ends up being the reason the show ultimately falls flat.

June 14, 2011

Platinum Miss

"People living their lives for you on TV...They say they're better than you and you agree"

If you don't recognize those words, allow me to refresh your memory. That's the opening lyric from  Who Will Save Your Soul? a huge hit from Jewel, the host of Bravo's god-awful new reality series, Platinum Hit

Basically, the show is Top Chef, but instead of cooking meals, the contestants have to write songs. Here's the problem: on Top Chef I can't taste the food that the chefs prepare, so I have to take the judges at their word when they say, "This tastes great, but that tastes like crap." And Padma and Tom usually can put into words exactly what they find wrong with the dishes they hate. We accept their expertise and the cheftestants do as well, even if they disagree. 

On Platinum Hit, I can hear the songs they sing, so I am more than able to form my own opinion as to who should win each challenge and who should be eliminated. As a result, the judges need to be incredibly clear with their criticism in order for me to see things their way, and it is here where Jewel and Kara DioGuardi completely drop the ball. 

Your lyrics need to be special, like "You're lifting me up. My bra, My bra, My bra."
Last night, which will be the last time I watch the show, they tasked the songwriters to write a catchy "road trip" song. Each contestant crafted a chorus and Jewel and Kara picked their top three. The contestants were then split into three teams to fine-tune and finish those "winners." 

After the writing was all sung and done, we got to hear the end product: one uptempo "road trip" ditty and two angst-ridden dirges. So naturally, the one group that actually did what they were asked to do was deemed the loser by Jewel and Kara. 

Then they reamed out the contestant who had written the hook they already said they liked because apparently, they liked it so much the rest of the song sucked by comparison -- and therefore, she's in danger of being eliminated while the girl who contributed one lyric to the song and the guy who played a little guitar at the beginning of the song were both safe. 

It made so little sense that the contestant herself started crying and screamed, "This makes no sense!" And I have to agree... Jewel and Kara's logic is erratic at best. You can't handpick three songs that you think are the best, team these "winners" with lesser talents (by your own evaluation) and then threaten to eliminate the winners because their inferior cohorts (by your own evaluation) dragged them down to their level. 

But then again, I have only myself to blame. After all, I should have bailed after the premiere episode when Jewel and Kara both ripped into a lyricist for singing, "They say you won't make it." 

"Who are they? You never use they in a song! The audience will think you're talking about them! You've just alienated your entire audience!" 

Once again, I bring your attention to the lyric at the top of this post. Channel changed. The defense rests...

June 13, 2011

District 9, Enjoyment 6

No, I would not like to read any pamphlets.

District 9 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, which is quite the achievement for a foreign-made science-fiction film about bug-like aliens who are essentially forced to live in a South African interment camp after their spaceship runs out fuel in orbit over Johannesburg. 

There are so many things that work in this film, most notably the special effects which are so seamless, you easily forget that these creatures aren't actually living, breathing entities. Unfortunately, even though I was able to fully immerse myself into the movie, eventually, it collapses under its own weight, and by the final act of the film, whatever interesting social commentary had been present in the first half of the film (the "aliens" are more "human" than can be seen via the lack of humanity shown by humans to each other) disappears and you're left trying to figure out when Michael Bay took over the director's chair and when Shia LaBeouf is going to jump out and join the explosion-fest. 

How do you say "Optimus" in Swahili?

Not only was the film's final act "transformation" unfulfilling, but the whole concept of the movie was that we were watching a documentary about what happened to main character Wikus. Interviews done after-the-fact and found footage are weaved artfully together to get us up to speed on how the aliens arrived and what they are doing on earth. The film does such a good job in this regard that it didn't even occur to me to question the fact that every alien understood English and every human understood Bug-arian, when in practice, that wouldn't make any sense. 

After a time, though, you realize much of Wikus' journey would never have been captured on film, and while it is a testimony to Neill Blomkamp's direction that the story doesn't screech to a halt due to this erratic inconsistency in the point of view of the storytelling, it still counts in the "imperfection department" as a strike against the movie.

There were plenty of things to like about District 9. The achievement in special effects is to be praised. The overall concept was sublime. But in the end, it just didn't hold up to all the critical acclaim. An "A" for effort, but at best, a "B-minus" in terms of delivery. 

June 6, 2011

Drag Me to War (Spoilers Within)

Bad things happen in dark cellars...

I just caught up on two movies that had been sitting in my DVR, just begging to be watched. The first was Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, and the second was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. While I was hoping to enjoy both movies, I had no idea that I'd be viewing perfectly complimentary works of art. 

With Raimi's work, you know it's going to be campy horror -- more "startles" than actual scares and a fair share of Rube Goldberg-styled cartoonish violence in lieu of the current glut of torture and sadism. In contrast, with Tarantino, you know you're going to get long scenes of witty dialogue and philosophical debate, punctuated by bursts of horrific gore. 

The two styles could not be more distinct, and yet, like two sides of the same coin, they somehow come to the same conclusion on morality. 

In Drag Me to Hell, Christine Brown wants a promotion at her job. She is disgusted at the way her primary competitor for the position behaves in his attempts to curry favor with her boss, and refuses to stoop to his level. She's far too decent a person to sell her soul to the bank just for a few extra dollars in her paycheck... and believes her decency and hard work will win out... 

However, when an old gypsy woman comes in begging for yet another extension on her delinquent mortgage, Christine asks her boss what she should do. He says it's up to her to decide, and she takes that to mean she needs to reject the old woman's request. For her efforts, the gypsy puts a curse on her that will ultimately end up with her being dragged to hell by demons. 

Of course, the boss never actually said she had to reject the woman's request... Christine took it upon herself to make that call. Throughout the rest of the film, with her only goal now being to act in selfish self-preservation, she will agree to sacrifice animals, desecrate graves and even consider murdering completely innocent strangers, all in an effort to "atone" for her initial act of greed. 

By the end of the film, Christine only admits her wrongdoing when she believes herself to be free of the curse and in possession of the promotion, and therefore no longer subject to any repercussions. She has transformed from an innocent farm girl into someone deserving of all that evil that came her way during the movie.

The message is clear: do the right thing and show compassion to others or else you'll get what's coming to you. 

Now, let's look at Inglourious Basterds. This movie does not take place in everyday society, but rather in a time of war. The rules are different here... in order to survive, you cannot show compassion. Any act of kindness or concern for the welfare of others will result in death. 

Shoshanna (Tarantino's innocent farm girl) only meets her tragic demise after she has a pang of remorse about shooting Fredrick. Bridget von Hammersmark's treachery is only brought to light because she had signed an autograph for an adoring fan at a time when she would have felt bad about being rude to him. The German soldiers who escape the clutches of the Basterds along the way? Those are the ones who betray their fellow countrymen's positions, trading their own lives for theirs. Those who show blind loyalty to "the cause" end up both dead, and with a gruesomely receding hairline to boot. 

They say war is hell -- and living at a time and place where more often than not your only chance at survival is by killing before you get killed yourself is certainly not a place I ever want to find myself. I'd much rather live where respecting others and lending a helping hand is the preferred (and rewarded) course of action... 

After watching these movies, on this, I think both Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino would agree.