Following the Following: Chapter Two

“This is my chapter and I can write it any way I want to!” – dim-witted ex-prison guard, Jordy

If you were in an inauguration induced euphoria coma last Monday night or were breaking down Beyoncé’s previous live performances frame by frame as an amateur lip synch detective, you may have missed the pilot of The Following, Fox’s serialized horror/suspense thriller answer to the cable networks creative drama takeover.  Set up as a vehicle for a Kevin Bacon v. James Purefoy good guy/bad guy chess match filled with “jump out of your seat” thrills, gratuitous violent acts, suspense and angst filled show oversight by Kevin Williamson, and a growing motley crew of obsessive cult followers of Purefoy’s (less than as far as I can tell) charismatic English professor turned serial killer Joe Carroll, The Following had some Dawson and Joey sized growing pains.  Besides the fact that I am not sure if I am even allowed to call it a “cult” yet (I should check with Annie Parisse’s new addition squad leader who is from the alternative religions bureau unit – I kid you not – who seems to have the last word on which words are acceptable to use when discussing Carroll’s murderous groupies), pilots must be given the benefit of the doubt.  Our gauge of a show’s future success is better considered when we have a few episodes (or in a bit of condescending tone to the viewer, “chapters” as they are deemed here) under our belt, so let’s see what this week’s installment had in store.

The Following: Chapter Two began where the pilot left off (a trend that seemed to continue this week), showcasing the next victim (or this case, victims) of the Joe Carroll Killing fraternity (or in this case, sorority).  Dim-witted (we were reminded of this a few too many times by a few too many characters – there must be something here) prison guard turned animal cruelty captain Jordy, pays a visit to a neighborhood collegiate sorority and decides to kill a few of the sisters (many of them while they are sleeping).  Having seen the “sorority sister” archetype victimized in several too many a horror movie before, this subplot all seemed a bit usual and expected (and thereby unnecessary).  Since we are all made to question Jordy’s comprehension of everything, was this just an arbitrary decision by a man incapable of decision making?

Annie Parisse and Kevin Bacon

Back at investigation headquarters, personnel changes are the talk of the squad room.  Bacon’s Ryan Hardy wonders why Mason (initial good riddance, but after an hour with her miscast replacement, I may change my tune) is off of the case in a move that was triggered by anyone who watched Jeananne Goossen’s troubling performance in the pilot.  Annie Parisse plays Debra Parker, aforementioned alternative religion unit member and English language critical analyst, who is a strong frontrunner for the 2013 television award for “role that least matches the actor playing it.”  We immediately learn that she means serious business and is going to be tough on all aspects of Ryan Hardy (until she’s not).  The current investigative focus centers on the abduction of Joey Matthews (the young son of Joe Carroll and his ex-wife Claire Matthews) and the true identity of his three abductors, the nanny, Denise, and the two gay men that had been imbedded neighbors of Sarah Fuller, Maggie Grace’s pilot episode featured Joe Carroll murder victim.

It is not all book readings and Edgar Allen Poe impersonator parties at the house where Joey is being kept.  In order to spice up cult abduction life, it turns out that the gay man Will is not actually, but is madly in love (with flashbacks and sex scenes to prove how “special” he thinks she is) with Denise.  Billy, on the other hand, may actually have fallen for Will (three years living as a couple may do that) and is struggling as the third wheel in this new troubled triangle.  At least Joey has some replica toys to check out.

Meanwhile, Hardy and company are hard at work tracking Denise’s connections to Joe Carroll and discover that her real name is Emma (in a flashback we learn that after attending a Carroll book reading in 2003, she begins visiting him in prison and practicing his teachings) and has been a Carroll plant at the Matthew’s home as a nanny all this time (even though Claire did a background check!).  Denise/Emma/Will’s lover had an old address and the Hardy Boys Troupe go to investigate.  After an illegal break-in (“You can’t, but I can because I am not an official federal agent”), a house tour reveals ground zero of the Joe Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe obsessed worshippers.  Lines of text graffiti the walls, portraits and Poe artwork are everywhere, and there are some creepy Poe masks that would absolutely kill at a late nineteenth century Halloween party.  It turns out that one of the masks is a person trying to remain hidden amidst Hardy’s search, and, after the one goose pump (you got me KWill) increasing moment of Chapter Two, the masked Poe jumps up and knocks out Hardy before escaping (we meet him or one of his masked brethren in the final scene).  Hardy recovers from the blow to discover the body of Denise/Emma/Will’s lover’s mom in the wall who, in her two flashback scenes, had an “I am about to be murdered by my daughter” effect written all over her before she was actually murdered by her daughter (because she had finally had enough?).  Yes, she may be a good nanny, but now that Denise is revealed to be a killer, Joey’s artificial bedroom suddenly does not feel so safe.

"Denise"

After an unsuccessful attempt to yell the location of her son out of him (not before he easily forced her to reveal that she was “quite satisfied” during her two month affair – “after the divorce!” – with Ryan Hardy), Claire returns home to a clinic in how law enforcement can least protect the ex-wife of a serial killer.  She is brushing her teeth upstairs when the one upstairs officer (there appeared to be thirty doughnut eating and coffee drinking colleagues downstairs) is easily removed by the not-too-bright Jordy (remember me!) who then holds Claire at gunpoint.  Hardy leads a federal agent raid of the upstairs and after averting a Jordy bullet firing, enters the bedroom upon Jordy’s (and based on Carroll’s instructions) request.  Hardy is to kill Jordy (although he is not sure he is ready to die yet) or Jordy will kill Claire.  Hardy tries to flip the script by reasoning with the deranged police impersonator, Jordy freaks out because he was promised full authorship of this chapter by Carroll, and Hardy has enough and shoots him in the arm (to the disdain of Carroll who in their next prison room tea time seems particularly ornery when he learns that Jordy the opposite of fast is still alive).  Hardy spends the night by Claire’s side (to her credit, is there anyone else she can trust – “If you are not a federal agent, get out of the house!”) and all is well – for now.

The episode ends with two final intentionally important notes: Annie Parisse delivers Carroll a collection of Poe’s work (he had requested some reading material!) to the intrigue of the increasing second week viewers (A clue!) and a masked Poe (reminiscent of the Joker gang during the amazing first ten minutes of The Dark Knight) pores kerosene on some guy (who we have never seen before) in broad daylight and burns him alive (because apparently we hadn’t reached our violence for the sake of violence quota yet this episode, sorry, chapter).

Two weeks in and The Following is doing some things very well.  Williamson’s command of tension and pacing is at a high level.  The show moves and has so far had a pleasant balance of delayering clues from the past with forward moving action.  I am on the edge of my seat (although too often wanting to fall off) and Bacon is (not surprisingly) a competent and somewhat enjoyable guide of this story and genre.  I am appreciative of production for removing the pilot’s least inspired character (see you later, Mason) and for its willingness to “go there” in killing off Sarah Fuller (and the “talents” of Maggie Grace).  This malleability will be essential in The Following’s ability to move forward successfully.  Also, the Poe masks are admittedly kind of creepy (even if the man on fire is to this point another meaningless killing).

James Purefoy

Unfortunately, this whole cult (Am I even allowed to call it that yet, Annie Parisse?) following thing is one of the toughest television buy-ins since The Magic Hour.  I don’t buy that James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll is either charismatic enough or his followers are messed up enough (eh, with Jordy, this may not be true) to make this all logically work.  Purefoy, as far as I can tell, seems to be a moderately charming man because he is British?  I think back to Javier Bardem’s first scene in Skyfall (well played, Sam Mendes) and just how mesmerizing (albeit creepy) Silva was.  I could understand how others could follow this dude and do what he said (if anything out of fear).  Purefoy has little of this effect and seems to be just a waste of everyone’s time (the surprisingly very convincing Natalie Zea as Claire Matthews seems to be the only one who kind of gets it).  The whole “two gay men and a nanny” subplot was excruciating to watch (just keep playing with the toys, Joey!) and it seems like each reveal of more of “the why” makes any previous interest I had in “the what” rendered moot.  Again, we are only two episodes chapters in and I am digging spending some time with Kevin Bacon on the television, but as U2’s first track on Boy did not say, “Walk away, walk away, walk away, walk away – I will not follow” for long.

What do you all think?  Am I allowed to call it a “cult” yet?  Will Joey get bored of checking out the toys?  Will Hardy ever get to sleep (c’mon people!)?

David Bloom can be reached on twitter at @davidbloom7.  His other pop culture writing can be found on Bishop and Company (bishopandcomp.com).

Let’s Get a Few Things Off My Chest – Boston Celtics Edition

From time to time, I need to get a few of things off of my chest…this is the second installment…

 The extreme surreality of yesterday’s Celtics live viewing experience is staggering to think about.  As I recall each iteration of the 12:30 PM – 4:00 PM EST telecast a day later, I remain dumbfounded.  Beginning with the sudden announcement of the late game scratch, to when the news of Rajon Rondo’s ACL tear went from twitter rumors to Doris Burke confirmations (courtesy of Celtics PR guru Jeff Twiss), to watching Bill Simmons bury his head during the half-time show in fear of the worst, to how Celtics’ on-court play kept matching the defending champs in regulation and then into two overtimes in what had to be the biggest win of the season, and finally to post game questions about who knew what when, I am still awestruck by all that happened.  Although we are not sure which dominoes are now going to fall in wake of the devastating Rondo injury news, January 27, 2013 will always be one of the most unforgettable and emotional days etched in my long history with the Boston Celtics.
• It is no surprise that Jackie MacMallun was at the center of the information flow on this infamous day.  Based on her account, she was responsible for sharing the news with Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat bench and even more bizarrely, with Rajon Rondo himself (who had yet to hear the MRI results).  Again, this is another bizarre element to this story.
• One of the most dramatic aspects of yesterday’s information flow concerned the Celtics players who did not know about Rajon’s season ending injury until after the game.  Watch Paul Pierce’s reaction when Doris Burke shares the fateful news…
• Where do we go from here?  I am choosing, at least for a few days, to take a breath (yesterday took a lot out of me) before I can properly put into prospective the ramifications that this injury may have on our current version (and the KG era for that matter) of the Boston Celtics.  If you want to read what the smartest NBA writer alive has to say, read Zach Lowe here on Grantland.com.  Be warned: much time is given to scenarios in which Paul Pierce is traded.
• Removing my intellectualized viewing of the NBA and looking at this situation as just a pure fan, I am going to miss watching Rajon Rondo play basketball for as long as he is injured.  There is no player in the modern NBA who I enjoy watching more.  His incredible court sense and passing ability are wholly unique and can only be matched by a handful of players in the history of the league.  Let us hope that Rondo is made of the same ilk as Adrian Peterson (if anyone is, it is Rondo), and can recover quickly and even better than before.  It is no surprise that Rondo was walking on a torn ACL for a few days and just thought he was nursing a minor hamstring.
• Finally, the Boston Globe sneakily released this article on Robert Parish a few days ago.  It is a must read for any fan of the 1980s Celtics who have wondered what ever happened to the Chief.  This is pretty sad stuff, especially his feelings about his ex-teammates.
It is a sad day in Celtics nation.  Rajon, get better soon.
David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.
 

Following the Following: The Pilot

Several times a year, major television networks make deliberate, highly researched, yet hopeful decisions about what new shows to heavily promote.  Advertising money and air time is divvied out across days, weeks, and often months before a new show debuts.  The thinking is that if (a) enough people watch a series premiere and (b) the quality and interest level of this pilot and subsequent early episodes are compelling enough to want to delve deeper, a television network can build a hit that is commercially lucrative over time.  For the four major television networks as they are currently constituted (CBS, ABC, Fox, and “welcome back to the party” NBC) this task is increasingly difficult as cable’s critical revolutionary successes of this millennium (the Sopranos to Break Bad lineage so expertly explored in Alan Sepinwall’s book) and the DVR/internetization of television viewing have changed the entire television landscape to a marketplace that is more niche-based, artistically edgier, and less reliant on a mass-audience twenty-two episode season model.  In this new world of TV in which a “massive hit” on a network like AMC can mean the same number of weekly viewers as one of the four major networks least watched shows, the major networks have struggled to find the fusion of critical and commercial success (especially in the scripted drama department) as they once could.  Based on the aforementioned frequent pre-premiere ad campaign extravaganzas, it is not for a lack of trying.

For every fall of 2004 when the ABC marketing department focused on two shows called Lost and Desperate Housewives (the former was an outright and transcendent cultural phenomenon and the latter a long-running hit show that established the tone of the entire network), there have been enumerable The Events, The Rivers, Terra Novas, and Flash Forwards that despite in your face and relentless advertising failed to replicate the magic of predecessor shows.  The most successful modern cable shows (Mad Men, The Walking Dead) unencumbered by a typical major network season length and a higher bar set for ratings success, could build an audience over time, allowing for greater artistic freedom and most often a better product.  This midseason, Fox has banked what must be a huge pie of the “NAI” (not American Idol) ad money on The Following, the latest attempt to make a cable-like drama (e.g. worth watching and of artistic merit) on a major network.  If you turned on Fox television (my NFL fandom, X Factor obligations, and Mindy Project loyalty were my gateways) any time over the last several months, you could not miss the Fox ad men pursuit to inform the masses that Kevin Bacon (the central conduit of cinema connection himself!) was headlining a new serial killer psychological opus.  All the buzz as articulated through unnerving visual repetition and pre premiere hype focused on Kevin Bacon as the star of a network series (almost as if either no bigger movie star had ever come to television or as a Fox less than subliminal allusion to the network arrival of another movie pseudo star, Kiefer Sutherland, some twelve years ago) and how violent, edgy, and cable-like The Following would be for simply a “network show.” (That scene of a woman with text written all over her body was here to prove it!)

I am admittedly a sucker for new major network television program buzz and have gone down the rabbit hole of many a show searching for my next Lost (a serialized experience that becomes an emotional touchstone of my viewing life).  Seemingly each time, any pilot promise unravels faster than a Lindsey Lohan work experience (last season’s failed Alcatraz and The River were the latest culprits) and I am left with another wasted investment.  As Netflix streaming (Mad Men? Check.  Break Bad? Check.) and more thoughtful dvd purchases (hello The Wire at a bargain price for $89.99 three years ago!) have given me front row tickets to the cable TV revolution, my overall television taste has become more refined and discerning and less lenient of major network drivel.  Yet despite it all, I remain a romantic for the next great major network drama and The Following is (as I have been informed many a time by Fox) the most likely candidate in 2013.  Consequently, I will be a weekly follower of The Following in 2013 in hopes that this one show with some potentially sustaining credentials (Kevin Williamson has been a somewhat successful TV frontrunner before) may finally break from the trend of mostly floundering forerunners.

This week’s pilot episode of The Following (delivering a “Fox is happy” 10.4 million pre-DVR viewers) must be considered with a fair amount of benefit of the doubt.  Pilots can be flashy and exciting, but the show itself can be less sustainable over time (Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip immediately comes to mind) or pilots can be hard to get into (both Mad Men and Breaking Bad had tonal qualities that took some getting used to before becoming the masterpieces that they are now) that eventually become incredible series.  However, with this in mind, The Following’s first episode was a bit of a disappointment.  In its quest to establish a clear understanding of the circumstances and stakes of the series, it became bogged down in unrealistic and exposition heavy dialogue, flashback heavy backstories (a definite ode to Lost), boxed characters that already began to irritate (an awful female FBI agent wasn’t even killed off but smartly won’t be returning for episode II), and a premise that may have a challenge to build and sustain over time.

Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent and the author of a true story serial killer book who is called back into duty when James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll, the serial killer in question in Hardy’s book and an author himself, brutally kills (let the graphic body count begin!) some prison guards before escaping from a federal penitentiary.  We learn that Joe Carroll’s last victim before incarceration, Sarah Fuller (played by Lost alum Maggie Grace, just in case you took Lost off your mind for a second), survived his last attack because of the persevering Javert-like commitment and detective work of Hardy who was there to save the day, and is now, ten years later, a doctor in Virginia suburbia.  The new FBI brass (particularly Shawn Ashmore’s tech savvy agent) and victims of Carroll’s past (including Carroll’s ex-wife, Claire Matthews, played by Natalie Zea who long ago had some kind of affair with Hardy) revere the ground Hardy walks on and will only speak to him (this is emphasized one too many times).  It all gets real when the woman with writing all over her naked body stabs her eye after receiving a text from Carroll.  It turns out that Joe Carroll, a former professor of romantic literature (Thoreau, Emerson, and obsessively, Edgar Allen Poe), has a cult-like following (thus the title) of serial killer copycats who will do anything (quite unrealistically I might add which is thankfully acknowledged by one of the smarter agents) in the name of their teacher.  It is revealed that a prison guard under Carroll’s spell (with a propensity to practice killing on helpless animals in his basement) is another disciple and was the likely aider and abetter to Carroll’s prison break.  Sarah Fuller lives next door to two (something was amiss from the beginning, especially on the Fox network) gay men who, in a twist that everyone saw coming, turn out to be members of the church of Joe Carroll as well and abduct Sarah Fuller right under the noses of FBI protection (secret tunnels through closets will allow for such action).  Hardy’s detective skills lead him to a rundown bed and breakfast where he and Carroll have their first onscreen confrontation (Ryan Hardy – meet two by four to the head) before (SPOILER ALERT!) it is revealed that Hardy is too late and Sarah Fuller is already dead (Carroll kindly discusses how hard it is to remove an eye from the seven muscles that connect it to the body.  Thanks so much for this intel.).  The FBI support pulls the despondent (Joe Carroll – meet Ryan Hardy choke hold) Hardy off of Carroll’s neck and sends the serial killer back to prison.  As the episode ends, we learn that the two gay men (imbedded in a plot to kidnap Sarah Fuller for three hard to believe years) along with the nanny to Claire Matthew’s and Joe Carroll’s nine year-old son have abducted little Joey.  Future episodes (“this season on…”) promise jailhouse confrontations between Hardy and Carroll, some in fighting among the nanny and gay couple followers, more romantic backstory about Claire and Ryan, and a new FBI-type character played by Annie Parisse.

So far, there are a few things that are working for The Following:

  • Both Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy (most notably of HBO’s Rome) are competent actors whose cat and mouse game, seemingly central to the action of this show, will be intriguing to watch.
  • Kevin Williamson, no stranger to the horror genre, packs in several “gotcha to jump up out of your seat” moments (a trend that will likely continue), that may disallow other forms of external distractions (my favorite is diving into the IMDB information maze any time the action on screen becomes dull) from pervading the viewing experience.
  • The “follower of the week” format will allow for an endless number of character introductions.
  • The Following, although serialized for television, sports a movie-like psychological DNA that could be an asset for tension building over time.
  • Killing off Maggie Grace always seems to make sense (Shannon had worn out her welcome on Lost too).

Unfortunately, if the tone of the show set by the pilot is any indicator of what is to come, The Following is a cold, and unemotional journey through a psychological game of serial killing that will yield few warm returns on your investment.  The following premise of The Following takes many a logic leap and may be too much of a buy-in to sustain viability over time.  Although Kevin Bacon can deliver a role, he has never been an actor that makes you root for him, so the thought of spending several episodes (let alone several seasons) with him as the protagonist is less than comforting.  Thrills and chills only go so far (this may be reason why horror movies are usually short and sweet) if character connection is not made.  The language comes across as unrealistic (there is a bit too much emphasis on full names – I am not sure I have come across a pilot I came out of knowing more surnames of characters) and is exposition-heavy and nuance-lite.  Each character revealed to follow James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll seems like too far a reach (The nanny?  Really?) and may further derail any future attempts at believability throughout the life of the series.

With all this in mind, the pacing and tension will sustain my interest for at least a little while.  The task for The Following in coming weeks is to make me actually care about the characters, especially Bacon’s Ryan Hardy, whose pacemaker-supported heart must produce more of a pulse.

What did you all think?  Are you a follower?  Would you rather just play a healthy game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon than watch him on your TV?

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: THE IMPOSSIBLE

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.  Additional note: I am working my way through the movies that are relevant to next month’s Academy Awards (nominated in one of the six major categories).  Stay tuned for AMOUR, LIFE OF PI and THE SESSIONS.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

THE IMPOSSIBLE

1. The Impossible, a profound and moving true story about one family’s traumatic separation in the wake of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami (a not often discussed major world tragedy), is anchored by an Academy Award-nominated performance (as a Lead Actress) by Naomi Watts.  Her performance as Maria, the mother of three boys and wife to Ewan McGregor’s Henry, is riveting, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and is both filmed (we are always placed so close to the action) and delivered (her eyes especially are telling great information) with complete accessibility.  Although Watts gives a commanding performance deserving of award season praise, it is in fact her eldest son Lucas, played expertly by newcomer Tom Holland, who is the heart of this story as he strives to put the pieces back together of his family and his world in the aftermath of this tragic natural disaster.  Lucas is both the viewer’s emotional guide and the guide of so many more injured trying to find their way through the debris of destruction and their separation to loved ones.

2. Ewan McGregor may be the most underrated and under appreciated actor working in cinema.  I have seen at least a dozen of his movies and each time I am struck anew about how effortless, compelling, and enjoyable his performances are.  I recognize that post Star Wars trilogy, his role choices have not focused on “winning the weekend box office” but rather on mostly low-budget stories driven by character, director, or fellow actor, but even still, why his name isn’t tossed around on the list of the best of his craft is beside me.  Once again, Ewan McGregor’s performance in The Impossible is overshadowed by Naomi Watts award season invitee, but someone needs to give a shout out to another emotionally gripping, beautiful performance from the Scotsman.  There are several scenes (especially one involving a phone call) that match up against the best acting (Daniel Day Lewis, both lead actors in The Master) of 2012.  I presume that his upcoming role in August: Osage County will once again be overlooked among an all-star cast working on all-star material (the best stage play I have ever seen), but let us hope that this movie or one in the near future will finally provide Ewan McGregor some proper recognition for a job so well done.

3. The Impossible is this year’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I think this is a great thing.  I am not referring to the often used punchline (that I vehemently disagree with!) about how ELAIC embodies just how weak the crop of 2011 Best Picture nominees were, but rather how The Impossible is a movie that carries the such deeply moving resonance of a recent real world tragedy with such beautiful and thoughtful execution.  For whatever reason, The Impossible has not found its cultural relevance amidst the award season hullabaloo (a less than stellar advertising campaign may be part of the reason), yet I can near guarantee that each viewer will be touched by its emotional profundity (Be advised: bring your tissues).

4. The Impossible is wonderfully directed by relative newcomer J. A Bayona.  Its depiction of the tsunami (so horrifyingly real) and debris field of natural destruction is a near perfect fusion of sight and sound.  I was impressed with both its at times wide and then focused scope of each character’s personal hell.  This is a hard situation to watch, but Bayona manages to find natural, human, visual, and auditory beauty amidst the rubble.

5. The Impossible is a movie of breathtaking emotional and visual delivery that tells the true story of a family (here they are of some non-descript British descent, in real life they are from Spain) who must deal with the most unnatural adversity caused by the most devastating natural event.  This is a movie that is profoundly moving and unabashedly and openly emotional, and, in a season where controversy about great movies seems to be par for the course (see Zero Dark ThirtyDjango Unchained), The Impossible is simply (and refreshingly) a beautiful story about courage, family, and hope.   

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com (next up, Fox’s “The Following”) and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.

Let’s Get a Few Things Off My Chest…Episode 1

From time to time, I need to get a few of things off of my chest…this is the first installment…

• In a span of just a few days last week, Britney Spears announced that she will not be returning to the X Factor (not a surprise, she was a disaster), that her engagement to Jason Trawick was off, and that she may be signing on to headline her own Las Vegas show.  All of this is troubling news for a person who seemed to be mounting a promising career comeback.  I wish her the best.

• For all you Celtics doubters out there, Avery Bradley’s return has finally allowed the Danny Ainge offseason roster blueprint for success to take flight.  Rotations are crisp, players seem to understand their roles from night to night, the bench has been reinvigorated (especially Jeff Green, Sully, and Courtney Lee and Jason Terry at least in the M.L. Carr role off the court, his on court play has left something to be desired), and the defense seems to finally be coming around (even without KG on the court).  Speaking of defense, please watch Avery Bradley play on ball defense.  I was at the Rockets game the other night and his work on James Harden was simply incredible (James Harden by the way is even more of an offensive stud in person).

• I hope Rajon Rondo “adapts” because he is just too special of a player to be missing games every few months because of his uncontrolled emotional tomfoolery (although his arm grab of Kris Humphries in KG’s defense remains a season highlight – Humphries has been pretty much MIA in Brooklyn ever since).

Rajon Rondo after the Kris Humphries altercation

• Brian Billick may be the worst football color analyst I have ever heard.  His comments this weekend in Atlanta was either comically inaccurate or painfully obvious.  Why is it that the NBA seems to find incredible on-air talent (Barkley, Jeff Van Gundy), but the NFL coach or player transition yields so few breakout stars?  Thank goodness Ray Lewis will be joining the media ranks next year (and hopefully immediately after Sunday’s game).

• This year’s Golden Globes ceremony were quite enjoyable.  Tina and Amy could not have been more wonderful as hosts (although why they couldn’t have been more active in the latter half of the show is an awards show conundrum – no offense, but is anyone pining for a Jeremy Irons intro?) and the program had its share of memorable moments.  I was struck by the elegance of Daniel Day-Lewis, the grace of both Ben Affleck and his beautiful wife Jennifer Garner, how Bill Clinton was the biggest star in the room, and how uncomfortable Quentin Tarantino makes me feel.  Jodie Foster’s speech was something special, but to say I fully understood it would be a house of lies (congrats Don Cheadle on your unexpected win!).  Also, what was going on with that Mel Gibson stuffed animal hamster moment besides creepiness?  Here is my highlight of the night:

• The Oscar nominations had their share of omissions (Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director) and pleasant surprises (Beast of the Southern Wild had a nice go of it), but one point of true disappoint are the zero nominations for The Dark Knight Rises.  It may be an imperfect motion picture that to many (of which I am not one) did not live up to The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy conclusion deserves some sort of recognition.

• Speaking of Christopher Nolan, excitement for Interstellar has officially begun.

• Wednesday nights (and my week for that matter) are just not the same without The Challenge.  I would love the suits at MTV to finally create a seasonal structure for this unofficial fifth professional sport (a fall and spring season perhaps).  Why hasn’t this happened yet?

The Challenge...you are missed
The Challenge…you are missed

• Girls is back (season 2 premiered on Sunday night while simultaneously winning some Golden Globes) and if you haven’t joined the party yet, it is time.

• The NBA Countdown pre-game show on ESPN featuring Michael Wilbon, Jalen Rose, Magic Johnson, and Bill Simmons has wrestled the “best pre-game show” crown from Inside the NBA (still struggling when Shaq expresses himself verbally).

• FInally, here is an assignment if you have cable: do a search for Fuse network or Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street and sign up for a season pass.  You will not laugh harder over a thirty minute period than watching Billy’s incredible on the street games and conversations.  For now, here is a “Quizzed in the Face” from a recent episode:

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com (next up, Fox’s “The Following”) and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: ZERO DARK THIRTY

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.  Additional note: I am working my way through the movies that are relevant to next month’s Academy Awards (nominated in one of the six major categories).  Stay tuned for THE IMPOSSIBLE, AMOUR, LIFE OF PI and THE SESSIONS.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

ZERO DARK THIRTY

  1. Zero Dark Thirty is one of the two best movies of 2012 (along with Lincoln) and is deserving of a Best Picture Academy Award.  The recent award season developments (no Best Director nomination for Kathryn Bigelow, a tough go at the Golden Globes besides Jessica Chastain’s Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama win, some worrisome bad press and subsequent protests about its glorification of torture) have pulled it far out of co-frontrunner status to where it now seems highly unlikely for it win anything but Jessica Chastain’s first Oscar.  This is an unfortunate byproduct (although the negative press is helping it kill at the wide-release box office) of telling a story that includes some brutally honest depictions of deplorable chapters in our nation’s history (War on Terror Bush Administration torture tactics) that are still freshly on our watch (Spielberg’s equally successful Lincoln also shows our dirty hands on the slavery question, but the 148 years since provide a bit of a culpability cushion).  Zero Dark Thirty is not a documentary and Mark Boal’s taut, tight, and tension-filled script is a work of (albeit well-informed and well-researched) fiction based on true events, yet because of the quality, tone, and the believability of Ms. Chastain, we regard most of the two hours forty minute run time (the in movie length in 2012) as fact.  Whether or not more fiction than fact (when the CIA comes out against it, shouldn’t they be mistrusted?), one thing is clear: Zero Dark Thirty is a phenomenal movie. 

  2. Full Disclosure: I never finished watching the Hurt Locker (After ninety minutes or so, I got the picture about how awful and tension-ridden war is.  At a certain point, it was all a little too much).  Do I think it was a great movie? Absolutely and admittedly very well-made (although The Social Network should have won Best Picture), but I openly and unabashedly swim more comfortably in the Spielbergian sea of optimistic resolution or like to see through the Christopher Nolan narrative and psychologically challenging cinematic scope.  Ultimately, Kathryn Bigelow may not be my directorial jam, but let it be known that she did an incredible job directing Zero Dark Thirty and I am not sure anyone working in cinema today could have told this story of the obsessive hunt for Osama Bin Laden as brilliantly.  Her delicate, deliberate delivery of tension, moment by moment layering of plot and information, subtle characterization and understanding of when to put down the metaphoric scene stealing wrecking ball, and eloquent execution of the OBL execution are the work of a master of film.

  3. When I wrote about Argo many months ago, I contended that there were “a staggering number of great film and television actors in small supporting roles in this movie that amount to consistent scene stealing and unheard of structural support.”  Zero Dark Thirty also features a similar number of great actors (mostly from some of the golden age of television’s greatest shows) in supporting roles, but unfortunately, they often pull us out of the “this is actually real” construct that Ms. Bigelow has so effectively cultivated.  Let me tell you, if you name a golden age of television series, Zero Dark Thirty has an actor from it.  The Sopranos?  There’s Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) as the the “CIA Director!”  Friday Night Lights? Coach Taylor was in Argo too! (Kyle Chandler has an amazing scene, but it is hard to separate him from his “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” speech here.)  Lost? Michael (Harold Perrineau) shows up as does Kate’s U.S. Marshal (Fredric Lehne) from flight 815!  Mad Men?  It’s Betty Draper’s new husband, Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley)!  Perhaps most egregiously distracting is Chris Pratt (Andy from Park and Recreation) as a featured NAVY SEAL who so effectively embodies Andy’s lovable buffoonery on P&R that I couldn’t really buy his essential role in the mission to take out OBL.  The best moments of ZDT are when I forget I am watching a movie (the chameleon Jessica Chastain is surprisingly uniquely Maya, I am not sure what this says except how easily I forgot 2011 Best Picture nominees The Help and Tree of Life) and every time a TV character shows up, I know I am watching a movie.

  4. Although I have a few more performances to see (Naomi Watts in The Impossible and Emanuelle Riva in Amour), Jessica Chastain is my pick to win Best Actress in a Leading Role at next month’s Oscar ceremony.  Her performance, highlighted by some of the best nuanced nonverbal body language of recent cinema memory and a quiet, focused conviction that is at the center of her character’s heroism, feels seamless and almost without effort.  Ms. Chastain’s inner strength drives this ship (and her dogged pursuit of OBL’s location) with a graceful tenacity.

5. Zero Dark Thirty is a motion picture whose decision to show the historical truths of the United States administration of torture may ultimately and ironically impact its own historical significance.  By courageously and honestly depicting this epic American tale of (ostensibly) one woman’s obsessive perseverance to avenge our nation’s most tragic day, Zero Dark Thirty must expose some of the skeletons in our national closet.  This controversial reveal and its ensuing unnecessary backlash may make a movie out of a motion picture that was destined to compete against Lincoln for the annual most valuable cinema player prize in 2012.

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com (next up, Fox’s “The Following”) and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: LES MISERABLES

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.  Additional note: I have been a little behind in my writing turnover since the holidays.  Expect more prompt delivery in the new year.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

LES MISÉRABLES

1. Tom Hooper, winner of the 2011 Best Director Oscar for The King’s Speech, directed Les Misérables.  For some, who thought that The King’s Speech was a monumental motion picture deserving of its Best Picture Academy Award win, this should come as welcoming news.  How wonderful for one of the industry’s most impressive young auteur voices to tackle the beloved stage musical!  For others, including myself, who remember the monotone and less than engrossing visual and storytelling boredom that permeated The King’s Speech, this intel is bleak.  Unfortunately, many of the too flat or too sharp moments in Les Misérables seem to be consistent with the kind of filmmaker Mr. Hooper has been (Even the mostly successful John Adams from HBO, with many episodes directed by Hooper, has a similar tone.  At the time, I thought it was just the conditions of an American Revolution in the wintery Northeast, but now, I understand Hooper’s role).  The result of Hooper’s muted monotony is a movie that struggles to find emotional crescendos (some of the incredible performances trump this trend) that are so pervasive in the live stage experience.  The single-shot song performances are used too frequently and in some of the wrong places.  Hooper creates a world of the play that is successfully intimate and personal, but never fully realizes the external circumstances and historical stakes that surround this epic tale crafted by Victor Hugo.  The parts are there, but the sum never adds up.

2. Anne Hathaway deserves to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award at this year’s ceremony.  Her brief performance as factory worker turned prostitute Fantine in the first act of the movie is revelatory.  I freely admit that I am and always have been a member of Team Anne (it is not hard to find a member of her surprisingly feisty group of detractors that openly do not respond well to her “earnestness”), but after her four minute and thirty eight second performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” you cannot help but catch your breath from the sheer brilliance of what you have just beheld.  She is raw, unwavering, and FEARLESS.  Hooper’s decision (more on this in a bit) to have his actors sing live may constrict the best possible vocal performance, but it allows the character to explore the song in an unleashed and unencumbered manner.  Anne Hathaway takes this opportunity to the most incredible place, delivering a career defining (even if all too brief) performance.

3. Albeit perhaps used in too many instances, Hooper’s decision to have his actors sing live provides a forum for some of the most memorable song performances ever on film.  Combined with one-take, single shot execution, Hooper creates individual Les Misérables music videos that would have swept any past VMA ceremony.  The most successful songs, besides Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” are Samantha Barks’ (“It’s raining!”) “On My Own” and Eddie Redmayne’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”  The latter song, positioned so late in the long musical saga, crept up on me and then surprised as the most uniquely intimate and relatable rendition of this Marius vehicle that I have ever heard.  Eddie Redmayne is stunning as Marius and his delicate delivery and pained mourning of his fallen comrades is the highest peak of the movie besides Anne Hathaway’s early appearance.  Samantha Barks as Eponine, one of the few lead actors who also played her role on stage, came alive within Hooper’s structure on an intimate song that likely benefits from a live audience to ride the emotional wave.  She manages to redefine “On My Own” as a most personal and beautiful soliloquy through restraint and a dose of Ms. Hathaway’s fearlessness.

4. The Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert conflict and ongoing battle that is central to the story of Les Misérables is unsuccessful on film because of the casting of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.  First, I give both actors tremendous credit for their effort, commitment to the work and the structure of intimate live singing that Hooper has created, and for managing to find several moments of beauty and emotional connect.  In Russell Crowe’s case, his is simply miscast as Javert.  Yes, his vocal chops (a long-time member of the rock band, 30 Odd Foots of Grunt) may not be traditional musical theater, but even more so, his best work on screen has always been as an underdog (GladiatorA Beautiful MindThe Insider) achieving amidst great adversity.  Javert is in power throughout the movie and Crowe seems uncomfortable there.  Even when Javert has more introspective moments, Crowe’s performance feels oddly unearned.  Much of the credit (or in this place blame) has to go to Hooper’s World that does not allow a brooding talent like Crowe to ever come out from under the mono tone. As for Hugh Jackman, a likely nominee for a Best Actor Academy Award, I never fully appreciated his performance as Jean Valjean.  Jackman has a classical musical theater voice and he is certainly competent here, but I think he would have benefited from pre-recorded vocals more than some of his other cast mates.  His voice will never be transcendent, but I do think some of Valjean’s most iconic songs call for the vocal to be able to transform and inspire and Jackman will never be this kind of performer.  Jackman seems small and weak here in role of great size and scope.  Again, Hooper seems all over this and the oft choices to play down moments that should be played up, but somewhere in the casting and performance, Hugh Jackman feels a bit out of place.

5. Les Misérables is a movie wearing a motion picture’s story and material that despite some of the best individual song performance moments in movie musical history (Anne Hathaway!!!), stalls in Tom Hooper’s world of tedious sameness, monotone execution, and visual monotony.  Not including a wide lensed opening segment with a gaunt and shackled Hugh Jackman, the movie never captures the epic and historical backdrop and stakes of the French Revolution that the stage version manages to convey so successfully.  This version gets the intimate and personal, but never understands how the momentous nature of the external circumstances informs these internal struggles.  The Les Misérables movie is a series of singular songs and performances that struggles to amount to the epic composition of the source material.

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com (next up, Fox’s “The Following”) and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Django Unchained

When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.

5 Things You Need to Know About… 

DJANGO UNCHAINED

1. Django (pronounced Jango, the “D” is silent) Unchained is a well-paced 165 minutes that rarely drags its feet and is often galloping through scene after scene of memorable character interactions, interesting interpretations of southern hospitality, and  beacoup de (admittedly Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie may not appreciate this use of French) blood bursting graphic killing.  The plotted premise, dynamite script, cinematic homaging, and execution thereof of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino are of the highest form.  If you are a Tarantino fan (of which generally I am not), you will love Django.  If you are not a Tarantino fan, Django will shake, rattle, and roll your senses into becoming one over the course of this movie.

2. As is his cinematic want, Tarantino infuses Django with constant graphic (albeit at times artistic) violence (I spent at least a cumulative five minutes turning my head away) and relentless (and thereby, forced desensitized) use of the n-word.  It is part of the tenor of the filmmaker and of the historical (1858-1859) Deep South slavery period that the movie depicts so acutely, but I would be disingenuous to say it didn’t color my cinematic experience just a little bit.  This is tough subject matter and as explicit a telling as I have seen.  Once you buy in, you are sold relatively quickly, but for some, the price may be too much to pay.   

3. Christoph Waltz, as Dr. King Schultz, is a master of his craft and a joy to watch on screen.  His scenes are memorably electric, uncomfortably yet satisfyingly violent (in both the traditional and Anne Bogart meaning), and articulated with a consistency and clarity that bring such joy to the viewer.  It was a pleasure to spend much of the near three hours of Django with Mr. Waltz.  In other successful casting news, both Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio so expertly play against what is expected and subsequently flourish.  Mr. Foxx’s stoic yet powerful lead character is precise, deliberate, and nuanced without ever reaching for some of the over the top flamboyance (clothing appropriately excluded) that we often find in his performances.  Django‘s Django is brilliant.  As for Leo (in his first role in sixteen years that did not get top billing), he is almost unrecognizable in his portrayal of Southern plantation owner Calvin Candie.  He delivers a character so reprehensible and villainous yet so playfully enjoyable in way that very few of his peers could.  There may be no bigger movie star working in the industry today (box office receipts do not wholly support this) and it is privilege to see him explore his uninhabited and unchained range here.  Samuel L. Jackson (box office receipts may support his biggest movie star crown), no stranger to the work of Quentin Tarantino, is once again a representative of what greatness is all about.

4. There is a scene in Django involving hoods (and a random appearance from Jonah Hill!) that may be the most clever, hilarious, satirically pleasing, and successfully comedic segment in my cinematic memory.

5. Django Unchained is a movie of grand imagination and excellent execution that is all fun and games until it is not anymore (some of the violence was a bit too violent and slavery is American history’s most horrendous legacy), but nevertheless manages to captivate, cajole, and charm its way through the muddy waters of the Deep South into a most memorable and enjoyable cinematic experience.

David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company.  He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com (next up, Fox’s “The Following”) and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.