Turning Over (the Remote) Control

Spring appears to have finally taken up residence in this part of the world; the nights can still get a little chilly, but for the most part all the signs of warmer weather have appeared: no jackets, restaurants have opened their patios and outdoor musical festivals are beginning. This is our reward for putting up with the long and cold winters and the warmer weather seems to put people in a better mood, at least while it is still a novelty. Three months from now we’ll be complaining about the heat and the humidity, but this is the sweet spot when we appreciate what we have.

Spring also marks the end of the traditional television season. Though new series will promote over the summer, the bulk of new series are coming to an end. In the next two weeks or so, most of the shows that I regularly watch will be wrapping things up, some for the last time (Adios, The Office. You were terrible your last two seasons).  Some shows will simply be ending their relationship with me, as I imagine I will not be returning when they come back in the fall (prime candidates: The Following, Once Upon a Time, Modern Family).

While there are summer shows that I am excited for – Breaking Bad foremost among them – I have a lot more free time as the days get warmer. I fill that with travel, baseball games, BBQs and concerts, as well as the summer movie season, but I always pick a few TV viewing projects to help fill the void. Without so many regular programs to keep up with, I like to use my down time to catch up on a show that I have fallen woefully behind on or finally get around to a show that I haven’t watched yet but have consistently heard is worth my time. For the latter, that may be a show that is still in production or it may be a show that has ended its run. With Netflix and so many streaming options, it is fairly easy these days to catch up on shows that you’ve missed.

This year, I’ve decided to turn control over to my readers and allow you to vote on what should be my summer viewing project. I’ve put together some options of shows that I haven’t seen but that I often hear come up in conversation. I’m sure I missed some great options, so feel free to suggest other shows for consideration. I tried to mix in some shows that are still running with series that are complete. I have no other restrictions, though I would generally prefer not to watch most reality show competitions. I don’t know how readily available most seasons are and if I already know the outcome, I’m not sure that’s a fair test for any show.

 

 

I currently watch/have watched: 24, 30 Rock, American Horror Story, The Americans, Archer, Arrested Development, Bates Motel, Being Human, Bent, Better Off Ted, The Big Bang Theory, Big Love, Boardwalk Empire, Bob’s Burgers, Breaking Bad, Childrens Hospital, Community, Copper, Cougar Town, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Damages, Deadwood, Dexter, Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23, Downton Abbey, Eastbound & Down, Family Guy, Firefly, The Following, Freaks and Geeks, Friday Night Lights, Game of Thrones, Gilmore Girls, Girls, Go On, Gossip Girls, Hannibal, Happy Endings, Homeland, Homicide, The Hour, House of Cards, How I Met Your Mother, The Inbetweeners, In Treatment, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Jersey Shore (no I am not proud of this), Justified. The League, Legit, Lost, Louie, Luther, Mad Men, Men of a Certain Age, Modern Family, Nashville, Newsradio, The Office (US and UK), Once Upon a Time, Parenthood, Parks and Recreation, Party Down, Political Animals, Portlandia, Rescue Me, Revenge, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Scrubs, Seinfeld, Sherlock, The Shield, The Simpsons, Six Feet Under, Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos, Southland, South Park, Terriers, The Newsroom, Top of the Lake, Treme, True Blood, Undeclared, United State of Tara, The Vampire Diaries, Veep, Vikings, The Voice, The Walking Dead, Weeds, The West Wing, Wilfred, The Wire

I have tried and ultimately decided it isn’t for me: The Amazing Race, American Idol, Castle, Celebrity Apprentice, Dallas, Dawson’s Creek, Doctor Who, Entourage, Glee, Grimm, House, Hung, The Killing, The Middle, Project Runway, Pushing Daisies, Revolution, Suburgatory, Survivor, The Mindy Project, Top Chef, Ugly Betty.

So I leave this decision in your capable hands. You can pick a show that you think I’ll really like or you can pick a show you think I’ll hate. Whatever the winner is, I’ll watch the show (or at least a couple seasons) and then write about what I thought about. The adventurous part of me is very excited for this experiment, but the control freak/type A part of my personality finds this process terrifying.
I’ll leave the poll up for a couple weeks to allow people the chance to vote. I am your dancing monkey – just tell me what song to dance to.

 

monkey

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Pain & Gain – A Review

When you see the words “Directed by Michael Bay,” the question isn’t if you are about to watch a bad movie. That’s a given. The question is exactly how awful it is going to be. In the case of Pain & Gain, released nationwide on Friday, the answer is pretty terrible. Michael Bay has at least found a new way to make movies dreadful, in that he took a real story that really no elaboration or embellishment and then pumped it full of steroids (figuratively and literally). I guess it is only fitting that a movie about three bodybuilding muscle heads trying to pull off a caper would be bloated and empty.

As Pain & Gain likes to remind you, the story told in the film is based on actual events that took place in Miami in 1994-1995. Truth is in fact stranger than fiction in this case; without that disclaimer, the actions and decision making of the main characters is so ludicrous that you would almost be forgiven for assuming that some screenwriters just decided to write up the most preposterous story that they could come up with and decided to film it. Mark Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a fitness enthusiast who believes that he is much smarter than he actually is and that he deserves more than the world has given him. After a seminar with a motivational speaker from infomercials (Ken Jeong), Daniel decides that he best course to getting rich is to just take from someone who is already successful and wealthy. He sets his sights on Sun Gym customer Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and recruits his friends Adrian (Anthony Mackie) and Paul (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) to assist him. His brilliant plan is to kidnap Vincent, torture him and force him to sign over all his assets to the trio. The fact that this might seem shady to anyone – a prominent businessman suddenly turning everything he own to a guy who works in a gym – doesn’t cross anyone’s mind. When the mastermind of your crew is played by Mark Wahlberg, you know you are dealing with a bunch of dummies (I like Wahlberg – given the right material he can be quite good – but I don’t think anyone is going to mistake him for a Mensa member). The gang is in way over their head and continues to make bad decisions that will ultimately lead to their undoing. Ed Harris pops up to class up this whole affair as a private investigator trying to figure out what exactly happened. The fate of Lugo is never much in question – the opening scene is him being surrounded by the police – and the story is primarily told as one extended flashback with narration by the lead characters.

There is a lot to find frustrating with Pain & Gain, but primary for me was the fact that in the hands of a different director this could have been an interesting movie. Done as a smaller independent film with a director that has more subtlety and finesse, I think I would have quite enjoyed Pain & Gain. The true story in and of itself was enough; it was weird and bizarre and didn’t require much tinkering to make it interesting. Bay, however, is incapable of doing anything small scale or quietly and the result is a movie that is tonally a mess and leaves the viewer confused as to whether this was one long elaborate joke and, if so, if the people involved with the film were in on it. I’m not sure if the entire movie was some sort of immersive meta commentary on the stupidity of the Sun Gym gang or just lazy film making.

The film definitely plays the story for laughs and plays up the gang’s incompetence and lack of intellect. In the process, they took an already over the top premise and made it even more cartoonish. Bay really couldn’t help himself; even with compelling source material, his answer to everything is more. He throws in crazy camera angles and slow motion cinematography. He has to add sophomoric scenes about body hair and diarrhea. This is a movie turned up to 11 when a 7 would have sufficed. Coco Chanel is famous for saying “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove on accessory.” That logic would have benefited Pain & Gain as well, which is so overblown that it collapses into itself and becomes complete parody. You roll your eyes at their buffoonery and complete lack of self-awareness. But I also found myself wondering if that applied to the actors as well; Wahlberg isn’t a nuanced performer and I don’t know if he thought that he was in a drama or a comedy. I really was waiting for his character to earnestly shout “I’m a star; I’m a big bright shining star” at some point. The Rock’s Paul is so dumb and simple that you wonder if he is in fact developmentally challenged. Of the trio, Anthony Mackie seems to have the best grasp on what is going on, but he is given such terrible material and lines that it becomes irrelevant. The scenes with Ed Harris are the smallest and most restrained of the film, which makes it feel like he’s in a completely different movie that got spliced into this one. Tony Shalhoub chews so much scenery that I am surprised that he didn’t get indigestion.

The Shalhoub character is the most problematic from a morality stand point in that the movie seems to be indicating that if you are a big enough jerk, you deserve to be kidnapped, beaten and have your wealth extorted from you. There is an unseemly undertone of blaming the victim in Pain & Gain; while the Sun Gym trio are portrayed as somewhat lovable lunkheads, Victor Kershaw (the name has been changed from the original victim) is so obnoxious and terrible that you get the feeling that the writers and directors are rooting for the gang to pull this off and that Kershaw was, to some extent, “asking for it” by being awful. That’s a pretty crappy point of view to take of the real life victim of a pretty heinous crime, especially when the family of the victim is still alive and, based on everything I read about the real life case, is a compete character assassination of the man who already suffered enough. It’s easy to forget that underneath all the inanity and preposterousness of the Sun Gym gang, they left a stream of torture and murder in their wake. This is a tragedy that is played for cheap laughs and that is an important thing to keep in mind. Real people had their lives ruined.

Now, I’m not saying that it is impossible to turn a real life crime into a comedy; it was done and done well in last year’s Bernie, which dealt with the murder and subsequent cover up of an elderly woman. That film also was based on an incredible real story that stretch credibility, but was handled with the necessary finesse and trust in the original story that it turned out to be one of my favorite movies of 2012. Of course, it helped that everyone agreed that the victim in the case was terrible in real life – her family included – but if Pain & Gain had been done in the similar vein of Bernie it would have been a much better movie.

Some other thoughts:

  • For a film that hypes that it is telling a true story, they did make some pretty big changes (like the number of people actually involved). If you are interested on reading up on the actual case I recommend this excellent series of articles from the Miami New Times.
  • I’ll hand it to the actors that played the Sun Gym gang – they certainly beefed up for these roles. While the Rock is already pretty muscular in real life, Wahlberg and Mackie are much more ripped than usual.
  • Even though this movie was pretty bad, I still got to see The Rock shirtless in overalls, which was probably worth at least half the ticket price. Full disclosure: I had a life sized poster of The Rock up in my various apartments from 1999-2011. The prominence of the poster diminished the older I got (he moved from our kitchen to my office to eventually the inside of my walk-in closet) and I’d love to tell you that it is not hanging in my current apartment because I have finally accepted adulthood, but the truth is that the poster was ruined in my most recent move.
  • Rebel Wilson is completely wasted in this film.
  • I could have sworn that Mischa Barton (Marissa from The O.C. and not much else) appeared in one of the shots of the movie, though I can’t find anything to back this belief up.
  • While I knew going in that this movie was most likely going to be a train wreck, I was actually pulling for it to be better than expected. Going to see Pain & Gain is what happens when you are bored and it is a very weak weekend at the box office.
  • Michael Bay continues his need to insert unnecessary casual homophobia into his movies.
  • For a movie that seems to think it is a comedy, I didn’t hear a single person in the audience laugh even once

Pain & Gain is abysmal, even by Michael Bay standards. It really is a shame that this story wasn’t told by a better director as I think it could have been really interesting. There is definitely a movie to be made about a delusional man who thinks he is entitled to his piece of the American dream without putting in the real hard work necessary to achieve it. Bay is just not the man to make it.  By asking his leads to play it straight and making everything as crude and over stylized as possible, Bay suffocates whatever promise the insane source material provided.

Inside Amy Schumer

Regardless of how many hits it would drive toward my blog, I’m abandoning my usual title formatting by refusing to call this post “Sneak Peek – Inside Amy Schumer.” I’ll probably still get some people disappointed that this is a review of the new half hour show on Comedy Central and not something more “adult” in nature. Sorry peeps – I didn’t name the show. Though in all likelihood, Schumer herself would get a kick out of my original blog post title. It’s not like this is a woman that is prudish.

Amy Schumer is probably best known to most people more from her appearances on the Comedy Central Roasts than for her stand up; she has the same persona in both and definitely isn’t for those that are uncomfortable with sexually explicit humor or course language (NSFW).

 

Part of her shtick is being a woman that talks pretty openly about things that are still considered shocking for female comedians to discuss; some element of her humor comes from the “I can’t believe she just said that” reaction. If you like Lisa Lampanelli, you’ll probably like Amy Schumer. I am not someone that is easy to offend and generally like Schumer; she does spend a lot of time talking about sex (her last standup special was called Mostly Sex Stuff – worth checking out), but she does cover other topics and I like her delivery. I don’t usually watch the Roasts as a rule, but I’ll go online to specifically see what she had to say. I saw her doing stand-up about two weeks ago and while I was a little disappointed that I had seen her do some of the same material the night before on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, I thought that overall her set was very funny and enjoyable.

 

Schumer’s new show hasn’t officially debuted yet, but I was able to watch the first episode. I was kind of curious what the format of the show would be; in my experience a lot of these shows featuring stand ups take a while to really figure out what they want to be. I like Anthony Jeselnik, Schumer’s on again off again boyfriend and stand up colleague, but I’m not sure that his show The Jeselnik Offensive totally works as conceived in the first season. We seem to be having a renaissance of stand-ups getting their own shows; this was a go-to move in the 90s when pretty much every new sitcom developed featured someone from the world of stand-up. However, while shows like Seinfeld excelled, the vast majority of those shows didn’t quite live up to expectation. A person who is great at stand-up may not necessarily be great on a weekly show; they are two very different animals and require different comedic sensibilities. Sometimes, the talent in one just doesn’t translate to success in the other.

Inside Amy Schumer structurally has three parts; the half hour is made up of sketches, stand-up and woman on the street segments. I think this mix is smart as it gives them some different elements to play with as they work through putting together the best show that plays to Schumer’s strengths. Having just seen her live, I had already heard all the stand-up bits that were in the pilot episode. This was a little disappointing; you’d think that she’d want to give fans some different material than she is doing on the road, but I also understand that crafting jokes takes time and it may have been unrealistic for her to have material for the show and totally different material for her stand-up (especially since the tour that I saw her on was cross-promotion for the show). My only hope is that as the series progresses, there will be some stand-up that I haven’t already seen. None of this should be taken to say that the material wasn’t funny, but that it just wasn’t new to me. I have been spoiled by comics like Louis CK and Seinfeld, who always have new material.

I thought the sketches held the most potential for Inside Amy Schumer, perhaps because they were completely new to me. I particularly liked the sketch “One Night Stand” that looks at the male and female perspective of the morning after a random hookup the night prior (the remote controlled helicopter reminded me of some people) :

 

It doesn’t exactly blaze a new trail with material, but I thought the execution of the jokes was well done and the concept was refined enough for Schumer to put her own comic stamp on it. I thought the other main sketch in the pilot was funny, but went on a little longer than the joke required.

The “woman on the street” segments also have some potential; they are a nice way to transition between the other parts of the show and Schumer is pretty personable with the everyday folks. They are brief, which is important, and anytime you take to the streets of a major metropolitan city and ask the questions that Schumer is asking, you are bound to occasionally hit some comedy gold.

All in all, while I wasn’t overwhelmed by Inside Amy Schumer, I definitely saw some possibility and will be back to give subsequent episodes a chance. I’m guessing that I’m going to find some of the sketches hit or miss, but I think that is not unusual. Even when Saturday Night Live was really firing on all cylinders, it was generally uneven. It’s hard to hit 100% with comedy. I’ll be interested to see what Schumer does with a weekly series and if her comedy suffers at all from being limited by basic cable standards and practices (my prediction is no, since the guys at South Park haven’t had any problems and have gotten away with a lot). Inside Amy Schumer definitely isn’t for everyone and I don’t know that it is required viewing. But Schumer is a very talented comic and I think that her show will have some very fun moments. Though the pilot was uneven, if she figures out the right balance for her material I see some promise.

Inside Amy Schumer debuts Tuesday April 30th at 10:30 pm