Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Play Review: Fences

It was a Sunday evening, and we were shuffled into an intimate little setting at the Out Front Theatre Company, nestled to the northwest of Atlanta.  This indie outlet hosts a playhouse no bigger than the cheap seats at the AMC, which serves only to enhance the intimacy of venue.  The lights dim as the image of Troy Maxson - Illiterate garbageman, former Negro league star, checkered husband and father - leaps into view.  He’s standing alone, bat in hand, swinging at Death as his whole world slips away due to his own flaws and personal misdealings.  It is one of the most iconic images of the modern stage, closing out the visible history of its demon-haunted hero.  August Wilson’s tragic creation helped launch his name, and made Fences the most well-known and studied play of his ambitious Pittsburgh Cycle.  It has been subject of analysis from scholars and critics alike since its 1985 debut, and luminaries such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington all stepped up to the honor of playing its flawed patriarch - the latter bringing Wilson’s masterpiece to the big screen in 2016.  But for the inspiring minds behind Atlanta’s Independent Artists’ Playhouse, the intimate environment of the indie theater scene is well-suited to draw out the power and tragedy of Wilson’s work.  The talented cast, despite some minor flaws, brought Troy, Rose, and the rest of the characters to life, bestowing a force and agency distinct from the admittedly stellar performances of Jones, Washington, and Viola Davis.  The small setting, in fact, only enhanced the play's claustrophobic feel, earning another tip of the hat to the producers and their stylistic choices.

Wilson’s play centers on the fall of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector living in a small house in Pittsburgh, with his nurturing wife Rose and their son Cory.  The central story unfolds over a series of episodic vignettes featuring Troy as he interacts with the rest of the cast: his strained relationship with Lyon, a son from a previous tryst; the damage wrought upon his marriage due to his infidelity; his unresolved shame and doubts centered on his brother Gabriel, who sustained brain damage following his war tour; and, perhaps most central of all, the disintegration of his relationship with Cory, as he first sabotages the boy's chance to play college football, and finally drives him away completely as his son loses all respect for him and they clash in the climax.  Though Troy’s cut from the same mold as tragic heroes of old, the eternal question both within and without the story is how much of Troy’s downfall can be blamed on the racist society around him, and how much lies his own faults and foibles.  Wilson himself seemed ambivalent on the question, and a common thread running through all iterations of the play is how far they tilt to one side or the other.  

The minds behind Independent Artists’ Playhouse offer their own interpretation, thanks to the commanding performance of Marcus Hopkins-Turner as Troy Maxson.  Marcus is a tall man, physically imposing but lean and lanky.  He plays this up in his nuanced depiction of the Maxson patriarch; he’s not James Earl Jones’s stern authoritarian, nor is he a prickly imp like Denzel Washington, but rather, convincingly blends both portrayals into one whole.  The strength of Hopkins-Turner’s character lies in his ability to catch the audience unawares; his lean, grandfatherly form and penchant for good-natured ribbing suddenly morphing into a towering, bellicose figure who at moments seems capable of any act of violence.  And yet, the actor also bring a sense of weariness to the figure; his Maxson seems, above all else, a man fundamentally fed up with his life and what he has been through.

His cast mates all live up to their roles, though results may vary.  The two most important characters in the play after Troy are Rose and Cory.  Britny Horton was a lovely Rose Maxson - jovial and good-natured, and trying desperately to be a supportive wife to the cranky Troy, though her squealing pitch at times got the better of me.  A key, easily forgotten fact about Fences is that the titular structure belongs to Rose just as surely as it does to Troy; while Troy guards against all the outside forces conspiring to do him in, Rose wants to protect all she holds dear, and Horton’s graceful and breezily feminine interpretation - challenging to Troy, but largely devoid of any self-aware snark or biting remarks - makes us feel for her struggles as strongly as Troy’s.  Jael Pettigrew holds up well as an adequate Cory, though the play’s direction leans heavily towards Troy and Rose, and Cory, despite being the play’s designated antagonist (if of a heroic sort) gets completely overshadowed by the other two.

One performance I distinctly did not enjoy was Jared Brodie as Lyons Maxson.  Though obviously a talented and expressive young actor, he plays Troy’s elder son as an overly emotional whiner, liable to storm off in a huff if he can’t get his father’s ear.  Though that is, I suppose, a legitimate angle on a character whose own spotty actions often only inferred, seeing him play a strong counter to his father - hardened and a bit bitter for his absence in his life, even as he tries to steer down a different path - would have been preferable.  Besides Brodie, some of the stage direction did not work according to the atmosphere of the play.  Troy and Rose spent too much time looking off in different directions during their most heated exchanges.  This makes sense in some cases, as in the infamous “baseball dialogue,” during which Troy talks past his long-suffering wife with sports metaphors while they argue over his infidelity.  But at other times it didn’t fit, and looked as if Troy was having a soliloquy off on his own while Rose lectured him.

By and large, though, these is small trifles before a strong and tightly directed play, and the fitting resolution at the end gave no question onto which side of the fence they stood regarding how much blame Troy should shoulder for his misfortunes.  It was a concise and fitting end to a well-done interpretation of Wilson’s seminal work, and though this showing of Fences has, tragically, run its course, if you are in the Atlanta area and in the mood for an evening rendezvous with the stage, you’d do well to swing by and give the IAP a look at any of their venues.  It would be time well spent.

Grade: A

Friday, December 1, 2017

December Premieres

December Releases

Alright, let's get real: we all know what the biggest story is this month.  You know - a certain internationally renowned modern mythology?  Starts with an "s," rhymes with "tar pours?"  Whether you're a new fan, an old staple to the franchise, or even just a casual moviegoer with a pulse, odds are you will be seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi if nothing else this December.  I honestly feel bad for the poor slobs that have to open on the same weekend, but hey - you never know.  Besides that gaping crater on the surface of the end-year movie world, Jumanji is getting set for a modern face life courtesy of Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and others, while Hugh Jackman stretches his post-Logan legs in P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman.  Last but certainly not least, Anna Kendrick brings her rag-tad girl posse back together for one last song in the conclusion of the well-regarded Pitch Perfect trilogy.

Check out the links down below to find out what else is popping in the entertainment world:




See you at the movies!


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November Releases

November Releases

It's November, and 2017 is winding down as it gets set to enter the holiday season and all the jolly studio competition that comes with it.  Adaptations seem to be high on the list this month, with Thor: Ragnarok stepping out swinging to rouse the MCU fan base with it's typically solid blend of humor and high-flying action.  Later in the month, DC will also be taking a stad at consolidating its fickle movie verse with Justice League.  Here's hoping it goes down more like Wonder Woman and less like...well, like everything else they've produced.  Besides the big guns, Blade of the Immortal, based on  Hiroaki Samura's famous manga of the same name, is set for it's limited US release after debuting in Japan earlier this year.  This Tokugawa-era chanbara staring an emotionally constipated samurai named Manji who cannot die has been a staple for Japanophiles in the West for nearly two decades, and now has a chance to reach a slightly wider audience.  Last but not least,  R. J. Palacio's uplifting juvenile novel Wonder, featuring a young boy with a disfiguring congenital condition and his attempts to navigate through childhood, hits the big screen November 17th.

Check out below to see more movies, plus new releases across the entertainment industry:





See you at the movies!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

One Punch Man: Deconstruction and Reconstruction - Part One

"Just a series that's a parody for fun."

I’ve made no secret of my respect for One-Punch Man and its fairly recent but profound fixture in the cluttered world of modern anime.  This senin send up to the shonen superhero genre -  born from the unsteady hands of creator ONE as a webcomic nearly a decade ago - initially appeared as nothing more than a poorly drawn gag manga, and even its most stalwart fans often balk at providing a detailed explanation on why it got so big, so fast.  What is it about this bland, bald protagonist in a goofy costume and his zany cast mates that strikes such a chord with so many people - some who’d be the last to call themselves anime fans?  

Of course, there’s the obvious draw of a new massively powerful, near-invincible character fans can add to their roster of titans - a cudgel with which to play out their vicarious power fantasies.  There’s no end of the toxic hate flung about the Internet whenever someone innocently (or not) asks, “Who would win in a fight between Saitama and [X]?” - with “X” being anyone from Goku, to Superman, to God himself.  While amusing in a train wreck sort of way, these pissing contests don't help us understand the wider appeal of the series - and in either case miss the point entirely.  One-Punch Man has been called everything from a gag series to deconstructive satire - usually by people with little understanding of what these terms really mean.  

In fact, One-Punch Man nimbly straddles quite a number of genre lines - partly because ONE didn’t have a solid sense of direction after his crudely drawn webcomic found a bigger audience than he anticipated.  But the series rides on thanks to his skills as a storyteller, particularly where he manages to maintain a compelling story arc without losing sight of the absurdity of his premise - letting his fans in on an extended joke even as he (seemingly) plays typical shonen conventions straight at times.

The crucial figure in this tightrope dance is Saitama himself, and ONE expertly uses him to pivot the fraught nexus of literary deconstruction and reconstruction: the dismantling of literary archetypes by exploiting the real-world implications and consequences of their outlandishness; and the more difficult task of rebuilding them into something a bit more solid and more resilient to both past and future critiques.  

A Hero Shall Lead Them...   
A good place to start is with the the idea of the shonen hero and what he represents.  In these series the main protagonist is usually the central focus.  True, he (and it's almost always a he) may get eclipsed every once and awhile by another character due to creator preferences or fandom response, but it's still his actions driving the plot, and his growth keeping our butts in the seat.  To accomplish this and keep our interest, it’s usually necessary to endow him with some standout feature: good looks, a sad backstory, a drive towards an impossible dream, or just plain, simple badassery.

...Or not  
Saitama’s got precious little of any of that.  On the surface, he’s a vanilla, rather boring protagonist - dull, plain-looking, and lacking any semblance of motivation or ambition besides “having a good fight.”  He doesn’t have a particularly tragic backstory, or any other issue that isn’t, in some way, of his own making.  He even falls a bit short in the “badass” department, since unquestionable power and ability aside, he’s too low-key and lazily efficient to capture the attention of his in-universe protectorate.  Despite his phenomenal powers and obscene strength, despite his status as the main character, there’s nothing about Saitama that really stands out - at least, not in the way most audiences expect from a shonen hero.  He defies our assumptions about what a hero is supposed to look and act like.  But what makes this a brilliant twist instead of a recipe for tedium is the reason why Saitama obtained his unbelievable power.  No mutant bite, no phenomenal superpowered lineage; he's just a guy who trained so hard that he accidentally became the strongest being in the known universe.  If you think that sounds utterly ridiculous, well, you’re right - and you’re not alone; several characters in story aren't drinking his Kool-Aid, either.  But the consequences of his current state is where the real fun lies.  Saitama paints the picture of the quintessential shonen hero during his training - striving to be the strongest, pushing his body to the limits, and stopping at nothing to fulfill his goal.  And guess what?  He succeeds.  The boring battles, easy victories, and existential ennui that defines and constrains Saitama is merely the end result of what happens when our shonen heroes take “wanting to be the best” to the logical conclusion.  Saitama woke up one day and found that he really was the strongest guy around - and without the convenient serial escalation of threats that’s such a hallmark of every other series of this kind, he can do nothing but mourn the lack of any challenge to his unwanted supremacy.      

Heroes, Inc.
Saitama’s blandness stands out all the more because he is surrounded by so many colorful characters who to varying degrees of sincerity strive to reach the pinnacle of heroic gestalt.  Unfortunately, that amounts to all of jack squat in this world.  Heroism is less a service to mankind or a motivator to help the helpless than a stepping stone to stardom, a way to blow off steam, or just a simple paycheck in the mail.  The Hero Association who employs most of these “heroes”  is a shady and slightly corrupt organization, warping the concept of heroism into some bastard offspring of a numbers game and a popularity contest.  Many of the Association's cronies are apathetic to all but their names headlining the front page news, and even those who shun the limelight tend not to hold heroism in the most ideal light.  Genos, our hero’s faithful cyborg Number Two, is a perfect example of this, especially in the beginning: the call to heroism had little appeal to the intense, vengeful youth, and even after joining the Association, he cares nothing for the hero culture it brands and advertises.  Not that you can blame him; One-Punch Man lifts the veil on what happens when heroism becomes a commodity - much like My Hero Academia at times, but with neither that show’s affirming narrative of striving for your dreams, nor its generally upbeat framing of heroic actions through the eyes of idealistic youths.

The Breakdown of the Ideal Hero
All of the above combine to drive home the deconstructive aspect of the series.  In the One-Punch universe, heroism is a public relations racket, meant to boost your social capital or that of the association who hires you.  Those few who sincerely wish only to save other people often find themselves overwhelmed by powerful foes and unappreciated by an ungrateful populace.  And when Saitama - a genuine powerhouse who, despite his laziness, does believe in the call to protect and serve - shows up and makes everything look so damn easy, both his fellow heroes and the people they watch over have a hard time believing he’s anything but a fraud.

At play here, then, is a fracturing of two of the most dearly-held beliefs of the shonen superhero genre: that pursuing power with single-minded focus - even if for the right reasons -  will somehow make your life easier or better, and that being a hero is a noble calling that carries its own rewards.  The following example shows just how ruthlessly One-Punch Man can grind down the above “logic” over the course of its run.

Case study: The Deep Sea King
The Deep Sea King Arc (for anime viewers, episodes 9 -10) is a narrative turning point in what had been up to that point a largely episodic gag fest.  Besides giving us the series’  first persistent threat to actually cause a significant degree of damage to both the image of the Hero Association and the heroes themselves, this arc also established several trends that come back to wallop the shonen enterprise at many points during the show’s run.  For one, we have the introduction and development of multiple heroes, each given a chance to shine and show how deadly they would be if they were up against any normal foe.  Stinger, Lightning Max, Snake Fist Snek: all members of the Hero Association’s Class A, the second strongest; all laying out their well-earned hero cred, either here or in previous episodes.  And all fall to the Deep Sea King with little or no effort.  It only escalates from there: Speed-o'-Sound Sonic, One-Punch Man’s resident ninja and self-proclaimed rival to Saitama, fails to inflict any lasting damage on the brute.   As does Puri Puri Prisoner, the first S-Class (the best of the best in the Association) we see in action besides Genos, despite a rather impressive showing.  Even Genos himself gives a strong if futile effort against the evil beast, accustomed as he is to getting ragdolled in order to make the monster of the week look more dangerous before Saitama fists it to oblivion.

So far, this all still follows the standard shonen patterns: evil enemy appears, carves a bloody swath through a line of lesser heroes, and eventually stumbles into a final showdown with our protagonist.  Even so, One-Punch Man still has time to play with a few genre archetypes along the way to varying degrees of faithfulness: the power of teamwork, which fails miserably; the heroic transformation sequence, which only served to show a side of Puri Puri Prisoner most of us definitely did not want to see; and even the infamous “nakarma power up,” during which resident low-ranked muggle hero Licenseless Rider gained a second wind in his hopeless battle against the Deep Sea King because the crowd he’s protecting all rallied behind him...which does absolutely nothing to change the outcome in any way.  It's at this point - with all the shonen-trope fish riddled with bullets at the bottom of the barrel - that Saitama finally steps in, annoyed and ready to throw down with the king.  

By now, most fans probably know the deal - but those few who miraculously missed the memo on what this series is all about might be expecting a decent fight for once.  And were this any other series, they’d have every right to.  Years of shonen narrative archetypes have conditioned us to expect a fight in these circumstances- maybe one-sided, maybe back- and-forth, but still, a fight.  What we get was the usual half-assed, one punch victory; Saitama drops him like an afterthought, just like every other baddie on the show.  But it is the crowd’s reaction and what follows that really twists the deconstructive knife.  Saitama’s hilariously effortless dispatching of the Deep Sea King is par for the course for him, but completely throws his spectators for a loop- so much so that one particular ingrate uses it to argue against the efficacy of the Hero Association and heroes in general.

For most fans, this venom-spewing cretin should be burned in effigy.  But his arguments, on closer inspection, don't deviate much from the tirades shonen fans often level at “weak” characters in many franchises.  He questions the strength and usefulness of heroes and the hero ranking since a low-ranked nobody like Saitama can come along and end it in a single punch.  Truth be told, he does have a point about the rankings' unreliability, but when he equates strength with heroism, thus casting all the heroes who risked everything to keep him and his fellow citizens safe into the proverbial waste bin, he’s not saying anything out of the ordinary for fandoms like Dragonball or One Piece, where “weak” characters are often the butts of many jokes for the sin of not being in the top power tier.  

What's at heart here is the very nature of heroism itself, and who gets to define it.  Our obnoxious jerk lays out his own understanding: “Anyone can buy a little time, but a hero has to beat monsters.”  With that, the heckler shows his shared lineage with those who lust after the violent anti-hero archetype - the ones, like Saitama in the beginning, who are motivated more by the thrill of a good fight than a desire to save people.  These are the heroes who stop at nothing to “beat the bad guy” - collateral damage, protecting innocents, or a sense of higher purpose driving their actions be damned.  These are the heroes who own a dominant share of the current shonen market and who power the 90s Anti-hero trope so well known in Western comics.  These heroes, and their fans, hold “badassery” as the most important and defining trait a hero can have, giving lift to the most reprehensible personal and moral views so long as they have what it takes to annihilate the enemy and confer bragging rights to their vicarious backers.

Tear Down, Build Up
There are many other instances like this all throughout ONE’s webcomic and especially the fabulous redrawn manga made in collaboration with the great  Yusuke Murata.  Teamwork among these heroes is seen not only to fail, but to be fundamentally flawed when weighed against the egos and relative powerlessness of the parties involved.  The Hero Association gets rattled a few more times over the course of the series - each time revealing an even more unsavory underbelly in the process.  Perhaps the most troubling manifestation of One-Punch Man’s deconstructive digs is Handsomely Masked Sweet Mask, the Association’s top A-Class and unofficial gatekeeper to the coveted Class S.  Popular, charming, and incredibly handsome, Sweet Mask harbors an almost sociopathic degree of black and white thinking.  His main quirk - aside from badgering other heroes for not living up to his ideals of “perfection” - is his relentless desire to vanquish “evil,” however he sees it.  This isn’t new, of course; hero teams across genres and cultures often have at least one moral monster to wreak havoc with the series' karmic tilt.  But ONE keeps true to his ironic bent by showing how flat-out insane it looks from the outside to idolize someone like that.  Sweet Mask will disregard orders to bring a target in alive,  threaten other heroes and even children who dare interfere with his directives, and all the while his fans cheer him on because hey, he looks so damn good doing it.  This creep's in-universe fandom love him for all the most shallow reasons, and though most of us in real life are thoroughly repulsed by him (if the tremendous amounts of hate he gets across the Internet is anything to go by) Sweet Mask slyly reveals the many illogical ways we justify flocking to characters that intrigue us superficially, even as we’d find their behavior under any other circumstance - or even if enacted by a less attractive or "cool" character - repugnant.  

One-Punch Man, far from being a simple gag series, runs quite a few deconstructive currents under the smooth surface of in-jokes and silliness.  Sure, it’s no Voltaire or Jonathan Swift, but ONE’s crafting has more than a little method behind the madness.  Indeed, you might be forgiven for assuming that the series is primarily satire - a brutal poke at the superhero premise specifically and anime archetypes generally.  But there’s another side to the story; just as the little creep in the Deep Sea King Arc made his case of what a hero is supposed to be, Saitama himself had his own answer.  And we’ll examine that in depth in the next part, along with the slew of other gems ONE throws in to veer his series away from simply demolishing fictional heroism’s house of card and towards rebuilding it in (partial) glory.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Kevin (Probably) Saves the World

Face of a real hero right here, folks.

Show: Kevin (Probably) Saves the World
Genre: Fantasy comedy-drama
Network: ABC
Premiered: October 3, 2017

Nightly news got you down?  Does the world feel a bit scarier and a whole lot colder than it did even just a few years ago?  Are you bored and just looking for an hour to kill?  Well, whatever your reasons, you might find what you’re looking for in ABC’s new comedy drama, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.  Created by Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, the series follows the well-trod formula of quasi-mystical, inoffensive “spirituality” shows meant to drive home some tough-love lessons.  This kind of gimmick would have gone the way of the dodo and Touched by an Angel a long time ago were it not for the recent desire to believe in something beyond the seemingly intractable political shouting matches erupting both within and between nations that have polarized and alienated so many.  But can this old formula learn a new trick to keep up with today’s reality t.v. culture, short attention-spans, and cynical viewers?

Kevin Finn (played by Jason Ritter, son of the legendary television actor) is the very definition of “rock bottom.”  A failed investment banker, he emerged from a hollow life and seemingly broken relationship disoriented and directionless.  Worse yet, he’s cluelessly self-absorbed, unaware that his limited empathy drifts him further away from those around him and bring him closer and closer to the brink of despair.  After a botched suicide attempt, he heeds the warning signs and heads home to stay with his loving, widowed twin sister Amy (JoAnna Garcia) and her caustically  troubled teenage daughter Reese (Chloe East), all while trying to sort out the mess that his life has become.  Unfortunately, contrary to Kevin's seeming day-to-day praxis, there’s a whole world out there he’s not the center of that’s experiencing its own tribulations.  One night, Amy, a world-renowned engineer, is spirited away by the government to investigate a series of meteor strikes that have been afflicting the world in short series.  When one of said meteors strikes near their home, and inexplicably enthused Kevin drags Reese out to investigate the space rock.  What results is a violent shock, more heat from Reese, and an unexpected guest: a no nonsense angelic guide named Yvette (Kimberly H├ębert Gregory) who informs Kevin that he is one of the chosen of God with a mission to save the world.  Now our unlikely apostle must overcome his flaws to find the 36 other Chosen - and maybe, in the process, find some much needed healing for himself and his family.

The Good
I’ll say it straight out: I love Jason Ritter.  He bestows Kevin Finn with so much awkward charm - such sensitivity for the nuances of a man simultaneously depressed, somewhat self-absorbed but heroically striving to be a better person - that you really can’t tell where the line between the man and the actor diverge.  I rarely fall into superlatives like this, but Ritter truly does an outstanding job as Kevin, making us truly like and care for a man who’s supposed to be unsympathetic at the start; in fact, he may have done his job too well.  Besides Kevin, JoAnna Garcia sparkles as his sister Amy.  While most of the pilot gave them only limited interaction, it was still enough to notice Amy’s justifiable protectiveness, and by the second episode I was convinced that they really could have been twin siblings.  Of course, Amy’s strengths aren’t limited to support; she’s weighed down with unresolved issues of her own, and how Kevin will help her work through them can prove to be a pleasant B plot throughout the series.  Beyond Ritter’s stellar performance and the intriguing character interactions, the series’ narrative somehow blends the slice-of-life foibles of Kevin’s mission to be a better person and the wider mystery of why he was chosen by God and where his mission to find the Chosen will take him.

The Bad
But with all this praise, there are a few notable disruptions to the show’s generally enjoyable pace.  It’s sense of humor can use a little work - and no, I’m not talking about the witticisms and awkwardness Ritter pulls off so well.  I mean its tendency to devolve into snark or even Buster Keaton levels of slapstick when it would be best to just let the scene play out naturally.  Okay, I get it: you’re trying to push a series about faith and self-transformation to a world and generation swamped in the sarcasm, narcissism, and banal nihilism that are standard defense mechanisms in a seemingly meaningless and hostile global environment.  This ain't your momma’s "walk by faith" show, and the creators are well aware that playing those tropes straight is series suicide.  On the other hand, do I really need to see Kevin get zapped 20 feet in the air by a radioactive rock, or have someone butt in with a snide remark or sardonic glance every time the show takes a turn to the mystical or contemplative?  There’s diffusing the potential for cheese in a situation, and then there’s derailing the mood altogether and ruining one half of what you hope to accomplish.  The creators would be wise to hammer out that distinction more thoroughly, least what little sense of mystery and mystic uplift peeks out from under the covers will get swallowed up in the audience’s tempered sarcasm.  And speaking of religion, the show’s bizarre Crypto Judeo-Christianese faith is a hodgepodge of mutually inoffensive beliefs that stands out by how arid it is.  Nothing is said about the strictures or commands of this God - just a lot of harmony-with-the-universe nonsense, and I almost cringed when Yvette - usually a judgmental little tart on all matters Kevin every second of her screen time - casually brushes off any hangups he has regarding a sexual tryst with an old flame, regurgitating the usual “sexuality is a gift of God!” tripe of many modern series.  It's not that I want to see an old-timey religion represented; just that the limp, PC non-faith shtick can leave us floundering as to what, exactly, we’re supposed to expect from this God and his mission.

The Ugly
There is one particularly “ugly” side to this series, and that's how it treats its male lead.  Kevin gets kicked around and abused - verbally and physically - at least once every fifteen minutes or so.  And yeah, I get that slapstick is the main way to disarm the potential pretense factor inherent  to this genre, but it goes beyond that.  The show pushes hard Kevin’s supposed “selfishness” and general failure as a human being, but does little to support its case.  Maybe it's Jason Ritter’s disarming magnetism, maybe it's a matter of overstating the case; either way, Kevin just doesn't seem bad enough warrant most of the treatment he gets.  He's a little self-centered and vaguely materialistic, but compared to Reese’s callous teenage hypocrisy where it concerns him, or Yvette’s overbearingness in general, he looks, if not quite good in comparison, at least no worse, and is certainly more tolerable.  This makes the general insensitivity others show towards a man who had just attempted to take his own life especially painful.  The emphasis at times squares on how much his death would have impacted other people's lives - which while a valid point, is loaded with lots unfortunate implications.  This is a trait played very often with heroism fantasies - even comedic ones, like this - and especially when the lead is male: his personal struggles and emotional world are often downplayed or subverted in favor of his mission.  The only reason I don't count this all as an "F" against the series is the second episode, which alleviated these irritants somewhat.  Yvette is still obnoxiously judgmental and pushy, but...less so, and she seems to be warming up to Kevin.  Reese has mellowed out as well, and in either case is mercifully absent while Amy steps forward and provides some semblance of concern for Kevin and his mental state for his own sake, and not how it will affect others.  The plot's tightrope dance between slice-of-life, small-steps heroism and glimpses of a wider story arc are intriguing and interesting for now, but can run out of steam depending on how long it tkes to get this boat in motion.

Tune In or Tune Out
Tune in.  Jason Ritter alone is worth sticking around for, and Garcia is icing on the cake.  I’m honestly more interested in how they can aid in each other’s healing than in where the story is going, but Kevin's possible destiny is a nice carrot to waive all the same.  There is a lot up in the air at the moment, but this Toughed by an Angel with attitude may be just the thing to complete your night.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review: The Mayor

Brand new voice - same old wrapping

Show: The Mayor
Genre: Political Sitcom
Network: ABC
Premiered: October 3, 2017

Who’s sick and tired of politics?  Odds are, you’re raising your hand from the other side of the screen right now.  The rising polarization and carnival sideshow that marks modern politics has left many of us weary and searching for an escape, or at least a view of the statecraft arena different from the ugly one we see every night on the nightly news.  Tense, gritty dramas like Scandal and House of Cards offer one flawed if compelling picture, as does Designated Survivor in a slightly less tarnished and more polished frame.  But what if you’re just looking to laugh at the absurdity of it all?  Sure, Parks and Recreation was a thing for a while, but its departure has left only the late night skeleton crew to fill that void.  “Whither flew the political sitcom?” you may ask.  Creator Jeremy Bronson may have found your answer with his brand-new series The Mayor, bringing the whole political enterprise down to grassroots by infusing it with something quite alien to its make-up: optimism and human warmth.  But after running such an unlikely platform, does this October dark horse deliver on its promises?

Young Courtney Rose (Brandon Micheal Hall) is an erudite but self-centered aspiring rapper based in Fort Grey, California, with star-studded dreams that unfortunately outsize his record sales at the moment.  So in a bid to boost his popularity, he does what every successful entrepreneur would in his situation: make a phony publicity campaign for the mayoral office and watch his name sparkle in the headlines.  If this all sounds uncomfortably familiar, well, it gets worse (or better?) from there.  When his vacuous but emotionally laden plea at his final public debate works magic on the crowd, he returns home and discovers to his horror that his publicity stunt proved a little too successful - in the worst possible way.  Now faced with the dire responsibility of running a city, Rose must rely on his friends, his supportive but no nonsense mother (played by the lovely Yvette Nicole Brown) and an acrimonious classmate-turned-mayoral manager (Lea Michele) to whip this potential disaster into a best-selling success.  And maybe he’ll learn a little responsibility along the way.

The Good
One thing right off the bat with this series is that it lives and breathes an infectious sense of fun and optimism.  In a swerve away from the dark and gritty political dramas listed above, and even the often mean-spirited satire of the admittedly brilliant Parks and Recreations, The Mayor brims with bright futures and the possibilities inherent in an elected office.  Hall is a central contributor to this, eschewing offensive and one-dimensional stereotypes to play Courtney Rose as an upbeat and well-intentioned young hustler who nonetheless has a lot of growing up to do.  The pacing doesn’t drag anywhere, and the direction of this series is made clear throughout the pilot.  Special note goes to Yvette Nicole Brown as Dina Rose, taking the “sassy black mom” stereotype and wringing it of its overbearing Medea-ish detritus, leaving behind a close yet humorous mother-son bond.  The presence of these two characters alone took what could have been - okay, is - a standard, cookie-cutter sitcom and turned it into something...not objectionable.

The Bad
That said, not all is sunshine and candies with this new show.  It is, in so many ways, woefully generic; the plot sprints ahead with all the self-awareness of a blind rooster, and the basic setup all but guarantees a story that can be called eight or nine episodes down the line.  In exchange for a mildly pleasant and affirming viewing experience, The Mayor seemingly sacrifices subtlety, dynamism, and a healthy sense of uncertainty.  It doesn’t help that the cast outside of our main lead and his mail carrier mom is rather lackluster.  Courtney’s obligatory two best friends, played by Bernard David Jones and Marcel Spears, are whimsical and charming, but add nothing else to the story.  Lea Michele made the weakest showing by far, giving Valentina Barella all the depth of a paper cut and delivering her lines with a stilted punctuality.  She highlights the one major thread uniting all of the show’s minor flaws: everything is too measured.  The lines for most of the actors are tossed out in a forced and sterile fashion, and the entire episode felt like they were just ticking off marks on the Great Board of Sitcom Conventions: from the new mayor’s bread and circus approach to community revitalization- which, of course, runs counter to his straight-laced but ultimately right assistant; to the plot-ruining slip of selfishness, complete with the “wisdom lecture” courtesy of his mother; to his mea culpa and, finally, redemptive act of kindness that proves once and for all where his heart truly lays.  Now none of those things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, and I’d hate to come off as an anti-feel-good cynic.  I just hope The Mayor shakes loose from the formula a bit as the series continues its course - otherwise, it can get very boring, very quickly.

The Ugly
There's very little to put here, honestly.  The pilot reveals a comedy lacking any major depth, flexibility, or - to its credit - pretense, so there isn't a whole lot that can either wiggle out from the narrative shadows, or crash and burn after takeoff.  I'm still weighing whether The Mayor’s by-the-book interpretation of the political sitcom is more tongue-in-cheek than I’m giving it credit for; it would be nice to see a series for once dip into some much-needed satire without painting the whole world in black with a smattering of gray - especially when the potential is so ripe.  But otherwise, it doesn’t seem to be any more or any less than what it presents to the world, which on the plus side, means it can potentially whip out some homespun, down-to-earth advice on how a politician can actually be of service to his or her constituency - something they already touch on in the pilot, and something the national power players both on and off the screen tend to forget at their peril.

Tune In or Tune Out?
Tune in.  And I say this with more feet-dragging than with any other show I’ve ever reviewed.  Despite the seemingly undue weight to the negatives I give above, there’s nothing really bad about this series as far as I can tell; it’s just a tad too safe and predictable for my tastes.  But that’s no reason for audiences to write it off, and considering the insanity that’s been going on in the world today, maybe “safe and predictable” is just what the doctor ordered.  So by all means, have a seat, and enjoy Courtney’s ride on the political bull.  Just don’t expect it to be too exciting.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

October Releases

October Releases

October's approach heralds the end of the year, and as usual, Hollywood scrambles to close it with a bang.  Probably the front "runner" this month is Blade Runner 2049, an old-school neo-noir sequel with some mighty big shoes to fill.  Coming out the same day is My Little Pony's feature film debut, which will no doubt see its theaters filled to the brim with grown men pretending to bring their daughters or little sisters to see itHappy Death Day, starring rising actress Jessica Rothe, is best described as Scream meets Groundhog Day - a premise that just might be more interesting than it sound.

 On t.v., ABC's Kevin (Probably) Saves the World is a Jason Ritter showcase, centered on a sad and somewhat self-absorbed failed banker who's chosen by God to - you guessed it - save the world.  We'll see if the series lives up to the nefarious tightrope of optimistic life affirmation mildly cynical self-awareness that's always so difficult to pull off.  Channel-mate The Mayor examines the saga of a rapper who ran for mayor as a publicity stunt actually gets elected in a manner that has nothing to do with recent American politics over the past year or anything.  Seriously, you reading into it too much.

 There is plenty of other great stuff coming out this month across the entertainment industry, so have a look down below at the latest in games, books, and music.





See you at the movies!