Editorials, Film

The Briefcase Blues: Pulp Fiction, Pop Culture, and Nightmares of Depravity

– Nathan

Quentin Tarantino begins his much-acclaimed film Pulp Fiction with the definition of the word “pulp.” In reference to the film, the second definition offered, which gives the meaning for pulp fiction, is often viewed as much more pertinent; however, in my personal opinion, the first definition is equally relevant.

Although I respect the film and do find it entertaining and enjoyable on a certain level, Quentin Tarantino’s film is ultimately a wet blob, as it does not put forth the effort to have a deeper meaning. The obvious exception is, of course, to serve as commentary on pop culture, film, and genre. Ultimately, Pulp Fiction is a work of art that exists on a solely visual level; that is, it contains absolutely no symbolism. Despite the obvious “suitcase = Marsellus’ soul” argument, there is no meaning. There is no theme. It exists entirely to bring together all tropes, stereotypes, clichés, plot elements, and stylistic devices used in cinema from the Eisenhower-era to the date of its birth and dissect them. It is the equivalent of a “Greatest Hits” film. I think I should again establish that I do enjoy this film, yet it is on a completely superficial level, because I do not take anything away from it in terms of meaning, and I do not feel enlightened by it.

Tarantino has stated himself that plots elements used in this film really have no meaning, but that they are just MacGuffins used to advance the plot and create style. The suitcase isn’t a symbol, but a reference, an allusion to the film Kiss Me Deadly. Pulp Fiction‘s characters inhabit a world that is not real life; it is movie life, an inescapable Hollywood-land. It is not trying to capture the essence of anything realistic or put forth any human meaning, as there is nothing realistic or human in this world. It is all reference and style. It has no deeper meaning, only surface-level genius, visual intelligence, rehashed originality.

In this way, Tarantino is like the Jean-Luc Godard of suburbia- both filmmaker’s work is an homage to the films they loved as children, but unlike Godard, Tarantino does not use these references and allusions to establish theme. Instead, he uses them to construct a movie world that is his own personal play-land. The world he wishes existed. In a recent article on The AV Club, Community was offered as a television show that works to serve a critical purpose on established tropse and genres, and compared to Tarantino and James Murphy (in terms of music) in this respect. It’s almost like porn for the TV Tropes cult, because it’s just an assemblage of the old, bringing it together and assessing how it works in terms of entertainment value. Therefore, Tarantino, like Godard and the others I mentioned, functions as a critic through his art. However, as opposed to Pulp Fiction, Community and Godard actually create characters and situations that are drawn from real life. Tarantino, on the other hand, puts his characters into a movie of movies, not a movie of life anything real. These characters are intended to live in a film.

An example of this is Jules’ transformation and redemption, which could appear symbolic, but in its most basic form is a religious presentation of the film and genre archetypes Tarantino loves. This is shown by Jules comparing his journey to the one made in Kung Fu, which reveals the fatal flaw of Tarantino, and a problem most filmmakers, myself included, face today. As so much media and entertainment is available to us instantly and we have an enormous appetite as a society for culture in all forms, it becomes impossible to separate our own original ideas from those we have already consumed, processed, and taken in, and we cannot create anything without comparing it to another work, or using other films as reference points. This explains why in “pitching” a film, so many young people will say things like “It’s Citizen Kane meets Eraserhead”, or “It’s like Lawrence of Arabia 2 mixed with The Brady Bunch Movie”. I think you understand. This is an idea I have addressed previously, that pop culture today is simply a repacking of pop culture yesterday. I don’t think that’s necessarily true with all film, but it is definitely true in the case of Tarantino, as Kill Bill is just a take-on of kung-fu films, Jackie Brown blaxploitation, Inglorious Basterds war films, and the upcoming Django Unchained westerns. In Death Proof, he even recreates the car chase from Vanishing Point, and Pulp Fiction is full of characters walking straight out of The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, Saturday Night Fever, and other films. It’s all an homage to what he loves, a commentary on what we expect from certain genres. Because Quentin Tarantino draws his inspiration from the cinema, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the real and the cinematic within his films, as all the characters inhabit his movie playground.

In this sense, Pulp Fiction is almost like the 50s nostalgia restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim’s- it is an explosion of different references to different eras. It is the essence of post-modernism, filled with references to both cultural touchstones and itself, built on a foundation of PC-era prehistoric meta-humor, a Möbius strip and moveable feast of American cinema. In the words of critic Geoffrey O’Brien, “Pulp Fiction is more a guided tour of an infernal theme park decorated with cultural detritus, Buddy Holly and Mamie Van Doren, fragments of blaxploitation and Roger Corman and Shogun Assassin, music out of a twenty-four-hour oldies station for which all the decades since the fifties exist simultaneously.”

So the question remains, if it has no discernible theme or underlying meaning, what exactly is Pulp Fiction making a visual commentary on? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I think there are several ways of approaching this. The first and most obvious viewpoint is that it is purely the fever-dream fantasy of Quentin Tarantino’s inner pop-culture fanboy, a paradise where everything he loves cinematically collides and comes together. While I think this is definitely to a certain extent true, I think we may miss out on a little bit of the meaning of this commentary when we focus too heavily on psychoanalysis. In my view, just as Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, Star Wars, and Avatar served to sum up everything that had happened technologically in film prior to their existence, Pulp Fiction seems to be created for the purpose of serving as a compendium of all popular culture from the 50s onward, a sort-of tourist’s guidebook to navigating the cultural landscapes. In addition to the direct verbal references, it also contains many visual references, such as the trove of weapons Butch has to choose from, containing references to films as varied as The Seven Samurai and the Evil Dead movies. While the films and television shows referenced in Pulp Fiction are definitely ones that clearly affected Tarantino, they are also what he sees as important cultural landmarks in the 20th century. As Mr. Tarantino is as much influenced by a director such as Godard as he is by someone like Tobe Hooper or Sam Raimi, it is clear that he has created his own “canon”, one which takes place inside the world of Pulp Fiction. This canon definitely breaks with what is often viewed as important culturally to the past century, but it nevertheless is an important guidebook to the cultural happenings of the past 60-or-so years.

What initially prompted me to write this post was the discussion of some of the meanings of motifs within Pulp Fiction in my film studies class (which is where I viewed the film), and I feel like I have hopefully made clear my argument about the film. While it does make use of “symbols” and “motifs” in a strictly superficial and surface-level sense, in that certain objects or repeated phrases, like Jules’ Bible Passage, may appear to have deeper meaning, I ultimately believe that it is more a representation of culture from the 50s on and the culture that has influenced Tarantino than a symbolic work. I respect the film and think it is well-crafted, witty, and solid, but I ultimately feel it has no deeper theme or meaning besides an assessment of the 20th century. Despite what Mr. Bob Dole may say, Pulp Fiction is not a “nightmare of depravity”; rather, it is a sometimes genius work representing the creative degradation of original art, art uninfluenced by other works and objects.

– Nathan

Community, Television

Review: Community Season 3, Episode 12: Contemporary Impressionists

– Nathan

As I don’t have the endurance/monetary benefits of The AV Club to keep me reviewing television shows on a constant and tight schedule, I have to apologize for being a little late with these reviews. But alas, I have a life outside of Greendale, although I would like to dwell there all the time.

Last week’s episode of Community was a little of a dip from the spring opener last week, and it brings up what I think is probably the big problem the show faces. As it is so character-driven, it can become difficult for the characters to exist as anything more than what we expect them to be, so they quickly fall into caricatures of themselves, with Abed being pop-culture-y and weird, Pierce being adorably crude, Britta having a hard time getting along with other women, etc. The episode started off this way with its opening, with each character detailing what they had done over the break, and even the beginning of the show’s main plot, the characters helping Abed with this celebrity impersonator addiction, felt a little too obvious. For the most part, Community has been able to overcome this flaw by digging deep into its characters’ psyches, and this occurred by the end of the episode with the reveal of EVIL ABED. Similarly, the Jeff/narcissism plot was similarly obvious, but it also ended up showing us something a little deeper by the end; that is, it built upon the fact that Jeff is not the perfect man he appears to be.

I’ll probably keep this review brief as it’s been a while since I’ve seen the episode now, and my thoughts aren’t quite as clear. But I’m hoping that Community doesn’t get stuck in this character problem quite as much anymore. Because the show is now to the point where the characters are the ultimate focus and the school no longer matters as much. Especially since the show isn’t really just about a community college, it’s more a comedic exploration of communities and human interaction in general, so this show has more potential than a show like Glee, in which new characters are necessary to perpetuate the school. Community could very well go for six seasons and a movie, which each of the characters graduating and leaving the school. While it could still show the school, and maybe have one character remain to teach at the school, or something (just an idea), it’s not about the show. It’s about the characters, and that’s what makes it great. However, this is also the challenge that it faces.

Grade: B+

Some other side notes:

-Has anyone else noticed that I generally end up talking about the future of these shows rather than what’s actually going on in the shows? Just a thought.

Editorials, Film

Hunger Pains: My Problem With the MPAA and Its Ratings System

– Nathan

I should probably preface this article by stating that I have not seen or read The Hunger Games, and honestly, I have no interest in doing so. This article is probably going to land me in the hot water that I always seem to end up in for disliking the bandwagon movies of the past few years like The Dark Knight, Avatar, and Inception, but I just can’t help but disagree with popular opinion. This multi-platform franchise doesn’t interest me, so I’m not going to spend my time with it. Now that we have this over, let’s begin.

In a recent article on Our Far-Flung Correspondents, a blog curated by Roger Ebert with articles by international film critics, Michael Mirasol compared The Hunger Games to the Japanese film Battle Royale. Although the film is now generally regarded as a cult classic and was deemed by Quentin Tarantino to be the best film of the last decade (he liked The Green Lantern, so I can’t really trust him, honestly), it was not released in the United States because of the Columbine shootings. And what makes it similar to The Hunger Games? A dystopian future, adults cast as totalitarian figures, adolescents forced to kill each other.

Now to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me that these two films are similar, because as far as I can tell they are still pretty different once you move past the basic similarities. However, what does bother me is how two films dealing with the same thematic premise are treated entirely different by the MPAA Ratings Board and the American film industry in general. Although from everything I’ve read and heard, The Hunger Games is not as graphic as the novels, yet the violence is still heavily implied. If the moral standards of the MPAA are all they’re cracked up to be, this film would be stamped with an R and throw into a dustbin.

Battle Royale was made with close proximity in date to the Columbine shootings; however, there was a school shooting in Ohio only a few weeks ago, yet it already seems our national conscience has blocked it out and forgotten. I think there is a deeper, underlying reason for why The Hunger Games garners different, or even special, treatment. It is a sure-fire hit, while Battle Royale was not. Let’s break it down:

1) The Hunger Games is from the good ol’ red-white-and-blue, while Battle Royale is *gasp* foreign.

American audiences have been conditioned to think that subtitles are only for skinny intellectuals who wear black turtlenecks and smoke clove cigarettes, and so they are ultimately suspicious of anything foreign (and by foreign, I mean non-English, because they will still go see a film like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 which has a remarkably British aftertaste), which needless to say frustrates me. In addition, Battle Royale is Japanese, and American audiences have been even further trained to think that anything from Japan is read backwards and is only enjoyed by the teen pop-goth set. And recently this might be true in a lot of cases, but one has only to travel back to the films of Kurosawa to not that Japan is not quite as bizarre as we think it is, although the nation is usually seen as strange by our standards. So if there’s anything foreign playing at the multiplex, the average American will see anything spoken in their native tongue over it.

2) The Hunger Games is directed squarely at the industry’s favorite demographic, with broad cross-over potential.

If there’s anything that can be taken away from the post-Jaws/Star Wars era of film-making, it’s that the kid is king. Until about 2007 or so that kid was the 12-year old boy, and often times he still is, but it was at this point that Stephenie Meyer’s alleged magnum opus of young-adult fiction was published, and cash began being waved in the the direction of squealing tween girls. A lot of the fire for The Hunger Games spread out of that group, eventually leading to slightly older girls and even pre-teen boys, and it soon followed the path set forth by Harry Potter and Twilight and was adopted as the official carrying card of suburban motherhood, the sacred text of book clubs across the nation. So it was obvious that The Hunger Games was a hit, because it was guaranteed to not only draw out kids but their parents as well. I probably sound like I have some serious cynical issue with The Hunger Games, and I don’t think I do, although I subconsciously may, but my issue lies with the fact that the majority of films that land at your local multiplex are not targeted at you, they are targeted at kids who are 11 and 12. When people talk about adults of the past generation not growing up and still playing video games and such, I think this is part of the problem, because there are few films actually made for adults that attract a broad audience. (But that’s an article for another time, my friends.) In addition, the film has action elements that will probably be prone to attract men, it will attract those who are proud to see a tough female heroine in a major film, and it will also draw out fans of typically non-teen film actors like Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson. So really, it is destined to be a hit.

What am I getting at here? My thesis could probably be summed up as this: The MPAA, despite what it says, is not out to protect the moral and standards of children from “corruption” or even provide information for parents about choosing the right films to take their kids to see. It is using it’s “moral crusade” as a thin disguise in its quest to assist the American film industry in racking up profits. Although I won’t go as far to suggest that these two entities are directly in bed with each other, but I’m saying that no matter what its intent is or was, the MPAA has only served to help the film industry in gaining profit. The Hunger Games and Battle Royale have an incredibly similar plot and both deal with children being forced to kill each other, and while yes, one may be more graphic than the other, it makes absolutely no sense to me why they are not both assessed on issue of theme and intent, which is an issue I will get to a little bit later when assessing the MPAA overall. Yes, Battle Royale may have not been released due to its proximity to the Columbine shootings, but does that really have anything to do with it? School shootings still happen today, and the passage of time does not justify the MPAA’s actions. The events of September 11th created a similar situation, in that many speculated whether or not films could ever contain the destruction of a large building. Anyone who’s seen Michael Bay’s zealous and almost fetishistic quest to destroy every semi-large city in the Midwest knows these prophecies did not come to pass, so this “respect” for the events at the time they occurred really only appears to be individuals biding their time until they can blow stuff up again without potentially causing any offense. In my own personal opinion, I think it’s worse to prevent a film from being released in a time of national pain because in those times we do not need blind hope or patriotism. We need to step back and say to ourselves “Why did this happen? What caused this? How can we prevent this?” We need to stop assigning blame to heavy metal and to video games, or to the fact that they are “jealous of our freedom” and our toilets flush, and we need to look, think, and reflect. And film can help us do that. If Apocalypse Now had been released during Vietnam as opposed to The Green Berets, what would have happened? It’s only a speculation, but I think we would have greater cause for change.

My issue is not with The Hunger Games or its content itself, for my crusade is not a moral one and I do not care what sort of content is placed in film as long as it serves a purpose in terms of theme, plot, environment, or character development. My issue is with the fact that the MPAA (which for those who don’t know, and hopefully all of you know, but that stands for the Motion Picture Association of America) thinks that the passage of time and the fact that The Hunger Games will without a doubt bring in lots of money justifies it not treating it and Battle Royale (although I do acknowledge that Battle Royale appears to be much, much more graphic) the same. I’m not calling for The Hunger Games to be pulled out of distribution or boycotted or anything, I am just saying that from this point on we need to begin treating all films the same regardless of timing or profit possibility.

From my assessment, the MPAA generally tends to help films that will probably bring in lots of profit for the studios by slapping them with a lower rating than they would normally give, which is shown by the MPAA’s treatment of violence. The MPAA is fairly cavalier with its rating of violence, which explains why a film like The Human Centipede is within the same ratings category as The King’s Speech or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Similarly, this also explains why the PG-13 rating is bloated with violent action pictures. These films will make money, and the MPAA doesn’t want to anger the studios by giving them a harder rating that would prevent the studios’ main target audience, young boys, from seeing them. However, films that contain sexuality are immediately slapped with an R, or worst of all, NC-17. This is my problem with the ratings system as it is, and why I think letter ratings should be done away with completely and instead replaced by a detailed description of a film’s content instead of a brief, several-word summary. The MPAA is basically saying that violence is more “okay” than sexuality or even in some cases, strong language. Now this is getting into a morally sticky area that depends upon personal preference and beliefs, but ultimately I don’t think violence is the “better” one, and I think that people should be informed of what a film contains before going into it so they can make up their mind, rather than having a very vague letter rating that contains a wide assortment of contents. Again, The Human Centipede and The King’s Speech. If a person had only a basic knowledge of the letter ratings system, they would associate these two films as both being extremely inappropriate and hardcore. However, if a content description were used, the person could realize that these two films are totally different and share absolutely no similarities in what they contain. This would place all films on an equal level, which they are not on now. As of this moment, films with a PG-13 or PG rating are usually deemed more favorable than films with an R or NC-17 label, which does not give people the opportunity to choose for themselves. They may see a film with a PG-13 label and immediately assume it is better than one with an R, while in fact the film with a PG-13 may have large amounts of violence and the R only a few uses of the f-word.

This problem extends even further to the NC-17 rating, as these films cannot play in most multiplexes, cannot be advertised for on television, and are not sold in major retail chains such as Wal-Mart. This has caused the NC-17 rating to be associated with pornography in the national consciousness, when in fact pornography is not rated at all by the MPAA and NC-17 films are usually more intellectual or psychological explorations of sexuality. And most NC-17 films are about sexuality, as a film will almost never earn an NC-17 rating for violence alone. This is not a hard and fast rule, but in most cases, it is definitely true.

One of my biggest problems with the MPAA is that it does not evaluate why a film contains certain content and its association to the theme of the film. In a film like The King’s Speech, the strong language is very brief and necessary, and the film could serve as inspiration to young children with stammers or stutters. However, because it is labeled with an R, children would definitely not be able to see it. Most children above a certain age, although their parents may refuse to believe it, hear constant swearing on a daily basis, and it will not bother them. This is a similar issue with the film Bully, released by the cult of Harvey Weinstein, which is a documentary about bullying and its effects on children. It contains a few uses of the f-word, no more than children are used to hearing in school, and it should not offend them. The film also could potentially be used as an anti-bullying statement by schools and teachers, but because of its R Rating, it certainly won’t be used for that purpose and many children who may be inspired by it will be unable to see it. The rating was appealed, to no avail, which is what usually happens when a film’s rating is appealed to the MPAA and is why many films are butchered to gain a lower rating. However, one benefit of the publicity gained because of the film’s appeal is that it has definitely raised public awareness about the film, which will probably bring in a larger audience. This causes me to wonder if the MPAA almost repeatedly gets itself into these sticky conflicts on purpose, to raise publicity and profit for films like this and The King’s Speech. Many people are not aware of these films until they hear about the appeals, so it almost serves to help the industry, again bringing us back to the main point. While this may be a bit of over-analysis on my part, I think it could be true.

Many foreign, independent, and yes, NC-17 films explore sexuality and human emotions in a more complex way than mainstream films, and the MPAA only serves to hurt them by slapping them with ratings that prevent them from being seen. While some films may contain sexuality or violence for pure thrills, others don’t, and this isn’t taken into consideration. Similarly, the MPAA has begun rating films based on whether they contain images of people smoking or not, and it does this with no consideration of why a film may contain such images. Some films may need smoking to create the credible feel of a historical period or era, while others may contain pervasive and gratuitous smoking for no reason, so it is necessary that the ratings board consider why a film contains what it does.

The MPAA has continually shown its bias toward commercially-viable films over and over again, from the Scary Movie/Orgazmo debacle to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, which is further proof that it is a useless organization when it comes to rating films. Despite what it may seem, it has no interest in protecting morals or providing information to parents so they can make choices; rather, it is only interested in helping the film industry machine at large by creating publicity and dragging in more profits. It’s time for a new ratings system, one that provides explanations of a film’s content and how it relates to a film’s theme, rather than broad and extremely vague letters and numbers.

– Nathan


Review: Community Season 3, Episode 11: “Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts”

By Nathan Smith and Alec Lindner


Being frank, I was a little worried that when Community came back, it wouldn’t be as good, or it would sell its soul, or something in a similar vein to try and get viewers back. But it wasn’t that at all. Seeing that it was the last real chance for the show to draw in new viewers and lock in the show for six seasons and a movie, it was a great episode that still avoided pandering to those who prefer Whitney or The Big Bang Theory. Because honestly, it could be very easy for Community to become The Big Bang Theory. Community is TV for nerds, but The Big Bang Theory is TV for people who a) think they are nerds or b) like to laugh at nerds. And while the second group may be a larger demographic, Community has something Theory and most sit-coms don’t have: heart.

“Urban Matrimony and Sandwich Arts” proved yet again to me that beneath all the highly-calculated concepts and the nuance and the subtleties, Community is a show solely focused on its characters, and this episode is a great example of why I love the show. I’ve talked before about how much I love 30 Rock, and I still do to a certain extent, but 30 Rock feels tired when compared to Community, because the latter has managed to realize that ultimately, its the characters that matter. I love the characters on 30 Rock because of their absurdity, but I don’t feel deeply connected with them or identify with their situations. I do with the characters Community. Because ultimately, Community manages to show the small struggles we face as social creatures but bring laughs. The characters aren’t just coin-operated joke machines; they are actual human beings. This is part of the reason why I’ve stopped reviewing 30 Rock; yeah, I’ve been busy, but it’s also all the same. It never strives for feeling or for anything new, and in fact it tried to rip off Community last night, but it missed the main point, the heart of it all.

This post is probably less about last night’s episode, and more about what last night’s episode proved. Last night, while it may not have been a “Critical Film Studies” or “Remedial Chaos Theory” in terms of concept, managed to find the middle of the Venn diagram, the special space between reference and heart. I love Community because it makes me realize that I’m not the only person who sucks up every last bit of pop culture and dissects it to an infinite level, turning everything into a critique. However, I also love Community because these characters feel like real people that I can connect to, understand, and relate to. Dan Harmon’s genius is that he has not only managed to disassemble every trope and genre and expectation imaginable, but he has done it with feeling and emotion and love.

Last night, Community beat American Idol in the Adults 18-34 category. I hope that means something about society as a whole, that maybe we’re changing from needing freak shows to feel good about ourselves to needing people we identify with. That maybe we’re gaining a societal heart of our own. But I mean, I don’t know. That could be over-analyzing it.

Grade: A+

Some other side-notes:

-I didn’t realize until the AV Club informed me, but the “Literally” title screen was a jab at Parks and Rec. Now I feel better about it.


Community IS BACK. HERE TO CLAIM ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON NBC THURSDAY NIGHTS WITH a fairly unexceptional, if solid, episode, actually. One might expect that Community might try to pull out all the stops in its triumphant return to the airwaves, but airing a more conventional episode in this slot makes sense too: they’re proving that they can solidly perform week-to-week. Unfortunately, now that we know the show’s back, it’s easier to see its flaws.

Rather than an unconnected A, B, and C plot, tonight’s episode has one main plot from which all others are derived: Shirley’s remarriage to her husband. Troy and Abed experiment with being normal at the rehearsal; Jeff struggles to write a toast for Shirley, even though he’s critical of marriage; Britta and Annie team up to plan Shirley’s wedding so she can pitch her restaurant idea to the Dean with Pierce. This mostly goes as you’d expect. We get some wackiness from Troy and Abed as they attempt to conform, before ultimately embracing their weirdness. This was fun, but derivative of stuff we’ve seen with Troy and Abed in the past, particularly in “Epidemiology.” Still, Community has defined its characters so well that it’s fun to hang out with them even if the show isn’t breaking new ground. The Pierce/Shirley plot features Pierce’s casual racism, which is always fun. It also gave us the only Dean we got in this episode.

The real strength of this episode comes in Jeff and Britta’s plot. While planning Shirley’s wedding, Britta discovers she has an affinity for wedding planning and becomes depressed, fearing she faces a future of being an obedient wife. At the rehearsal, Jeff, mulling over marriage and drinking for a while, drunkenly reveals that he doesn’t believe in marriage because his dad left his mom, and he and Britta, thoroughly drunk herself, decide to get married out of self-hatred. The Jeff/Britta relationship is my favorite on the show, and we got a great example of why it works so well tonight; Jeff and Britta are both insane, and their bouncing off each other allows their insanity to spiral dangerously out of control. Britta’s grown to become my favorite character on the show; while the other characters can sometimes be overpowered by their quirks and feel somewhat one-dimensional (Annie is naïve, Troy is childlike), the writers have defined Britta really well as a character; she’s funny, but she feels like a real person as well.

As much fun as this episode was, it had the problems standard to Community’s non-theme episodes. As much as I love Community, I realize that it’s a deeply flawed show. Unlike other comedies like Parks and Recreation or Archer, which are pretty consistent, Community is a show you love because its tremendous strengths outweigh its glaring flaws. I won’t go into detail about everything that’s wrong with the show, since that would go on too long and make it seem like I didn’t enjoy tonight’s episode, which I really did, but there are glaring problems that Community could benefit somewhat from fixing. The main problem I had tonight was with the dialogue. Community is somewhat like an autistic savant: incredibly smart, but somewhat awkward. Sometimes, it seems like the show’s dialogue is more focused on delivering jokes than on producing authentic conversations. For example, lamenting the closure of Greendale’s coffee shop, Annie remarks, “I miss having a coffee shop. Now where am I going to get cappuccinos are Sarah McLaughlin CDs?” This was a funny line, but it just sounded too… stilted. Rather than sounding like something a real person would say, it felt forced, as though the writers knew it was a good joke, but couldn’t figure out how to fit it into Annie’s dialogue. Unlike something like 30 Rock, which can use its characters as mere vessels for jokes and cutaway gags, one of Community’s main strengths is its strong cast of characters; the show functions best when it can find a balance between humor and heart, and it often falters because its characters can feel unrealistic sometimes. In order for us to feel invested in Greendale, we have to believe in its inhabitants as real people, but the show’s often clunky dialogue often takes us out of the show’s word to remind us that, yes, these are just characters. The most egregious example of this came in the florist hired to help plan Shirley’s wedding, the only part of the episode I thought simply did not work. With him, the show wants to poke fun at the frivolousness that comes with wedding planning, but rather than doing so in a believable way, it simply paints him as unfunny and bizarre caricature. After Annie asks for a pink bouquet, the florist replies “we don’t call it pink. We don’t call anything by its name. That’s like day one floral school stuff;” Upon seeing Britta’s impressive arrangement, he exclaims “color me lavender!” Who the hell talks like that? By sacrificing realistic dialogue in favor of overly-broad jokes, the show feels forced, while the best Community episodes leave us in awe of how effortlessly they seem to flow. Still, this was a very solid episode, and it’s great to have the show back.

Grade: A-

Quotes and the rest:

“If the good lord wanted you to have a penny, you’d have one.” –Line of the night

“It’s like a thought with another thought’s hat on.”

“Flowers look good in a pot. There are people dying in Uganda.”  Was this a dig at the Kony 2012 thing? It seems like that would have been too recent to make it into tonight’s episode, so I guess they just coincidentally picked the same country that’s come into the public consciousness. Pretty impressive, since there are like ten million countries in Africa.

“Troy and Abed being normal.”

“That was… an odd dot to connect.”

“Don’t you dare use your sexy voice on me.” “Ohhh…”

Is anyone else surprised that Jeff’s dad hasn’t shown up yet? After his meltdown in “Documentary Filmmaking,” I thought for sure we’d see him by the end of season two. The show seems to be building to a pretty epic confrontation.

“Or is it hardly… the space?”

“Remember his temper tantrum when Adam Sandler “stole” his idea for Jack and Jill?”

Best of, Breaking Bad, Film, Music, Parks and Recreation, Television, Video Games

Best of 2011

In the spirit of awards season, here’s our top 5 everything from 2011.


I felt generally that 2011 was one of the all-time great years for television, but a weaker year for movies. I didn’t play many games, but the ones I did were great, and the music was great if you knew where to look. Let’s start with the games.


5. Minecraft

Like the best casual games, Minecraft puts up a front of simplicity that hides a deeply complex system of gameplay, leading unwary players into inescapable addiction. Dropping players into a randomly generated world with nothing to their name, Minecraft asks the player to do nothing but explore.

4. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Full disclosure: I didn’t play many games in 2011, so I haven’t actually played very far into my number four pick, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. But good god is this game fun. At the very end of the console’s lifecycle, Sword finally realizes the squandered potential of the Wii in its fluid and intuitive motion controls while building a fantastic and fun world. (My favorite Zelda, by the way? Wind Waker.)

3.Super Mario 3D Land


MARIOOOOOOOOOOOOO! You can’t beat the king, and he’s at the top of his game in Super Mario 3D Land. As someone who grew up playing Super Mario World and Super Mario All-Stars, I love the way 3D Land combines the 3D world of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy with the game mechanics and level design of Mario’s 2D adventures. Plus, 3D Land does something I thought was impossible by actually integrating the 3DS’s 3D successfully. It just goes to show that the geniuses at Nintendo can do anything.

2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I hope this battle doesn't drag-on.

What can I say about Skyrim that hasn’t been said already? It improves on its predecessor, Oblivion, in nearly every way, and it offers potentially hundreds of hours of thrilling sword-and-sorcery. While other games are content to create stories, Skyrim creates a world.

1. Portal 2

Because I'M a POTATO

Portal 2 is an titanic achievement for gaming. In an era when games are continually being dumbed down to keep players from having to think (Here’s looking at you, self-playing Nintendo games and Kirby’s Epic Yarn), Portal 2 offers incredibly deep and rewarding puzzles; players may not easily understand what to do at all times, but the sense of achievement that comes from solving the game’s more difficult puzzles far outweighs the frustration. More importantly, however, Portal 2 tells a story rivaling 2011’s best movies and television shows; the colorful writing behind the infamous GLaDOS and newcomers Wheatley and Cave Johnson helps validate the argument that games can be art.


I didn’t see as many movies this year as I would have liked, so anticipate some glaring omissions.

5. Winnie the Pooh

In a world where children’s movies often simply compete amongst themselves to see which can bombard audiences with the highest number of flashing lights and shit jokes per minute (Cars 2), Winnie the Pooh takes a step back, says “AW HELL NO,” and succeeds through clever storytelling, surprising humor, and timeless characters. Kung-Fu Pandas and talking gerbils will come and go, but Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and all their friends in the Hundred Acre Wood are forever.

4. The Adventures of Tintin

Cap'n Haddock, the original captain

Fuck that Shia LeBeouf swinging around on trees with monkeys bullshit. This is Indiana Jones 4.

3. The Artist

SPOILER ALERT: He's thinking in French

All style, The Artist portrays the life of its main character George Valentin with all the glamor and slickness of the 1920s Hollywood it celebrates. It may not have been 2011’s most substantial movie, but it sure was one of the most fun.

2. Hugo

Thanks for reading the alt-text! You're the best!

Hugo is a personal love letter from Martin Scorsese to film, and we audiences are lucky enough to be allowed to watch. In its embrace of the way movies affect people and bring us together, it manages to tell a great story of its own as well.

1. The Tree of Life

Fuck you.

Aww, you didn’t like that The Tree of Life made you think? Fuck you. Terence Malick has possibly made his magnum opus in this film, in which he contrasts the turbulent lives of a suburban Texas family with the birth and development of meaning in the universe. In choosing to explore his story through symbolism and imagery rather than literal depictions of events and heavy dialogue, Malick wisely emphasizes his characters’ inner lives and feelings, creating an epic story out of an intimate subject.


2011 was a great year for music, both mainstream and underground.

5. So Beautiful or So What

So beautiful.

In So Beautiful or So What, a 69-year-old Paul Simon steps up to the plate and shows everyone how it’s fucking done. Simon has maintained a staggeringly high level of quality throughout his five-decade career, and So Beautiful catches him at a calmer and more introspective point than almost any of his other albums. The cold, delicate power of his voice and guitar stay with you after many flashier albums have faded.

You know life is what you make of it/so beautiful or so what”

4. Helplessness Blues

These guys are the king of album art.

With Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes have expanded on the charming, rustic sound they first showcased on 2008’s Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant, creating a folk-pop opus. Their songs are simultaneously withdrawn and epic, turning frontman Robin Pecknold’s lonely inner ruminations into powerful, instrumentally-driven masterpieces.

If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see/of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak”

3. Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

I age like wine as I get older

BEASTIE BOYS! After an oh-too-long hiatus after their previous album, 2004’s To the Five Burroughs, and a cancer scare from MCA, the Beasties came roaring back with Hot Sauce Committee. Perhaps the most laudable aspect of Committee isn’t that the Boys’ rhymes “age like wine as [they] get older,” as MCA assures us on “Make Some Noise,” but that the album sounds completely fresh. Committee‘s heavy, electronic sound is unique from anything the Boys have ever done, yet maintains a consistently high quality to the end; the Beastie Boys may be older, but they certainly aren’t done innovating.

“Pass me the scalpel, I’ll make an incision/i’ll cut out the part of your brain that does the bitchin’/put it in formaldehyde and put it on the shelf/and you can show it to your friends and say ‘that’s my old self'”

2. David Comes to Life

Hello, your name is David

I’m a sucker for rock operas, and the Quadrophenia-inspired David Comes to Life doesn’t disappoint. Fucked Up’s 18-song hardcore punk opus about the tragic relationship between a lightbulb factory worker and a protester is about as epic and ambitious as a single rock album can be without imploding on itself and becoming a black hole.

“Sun rises above the factory but the rays don’t make it to the street/through the gates come the employees, beaten down and dragging their feet/a group of lefties hand out pamphlets to the workers coming in/for two people on the pavement life will never be the same again”

1. Wild Flag

*something sexist*

In a world where mainstream rock ‘n’ roll is nearly dead and the only charting rock artists are slushy mumblers like Nickelback and Staind, Wild Flag come to liberate us with their debut album. Wild Flag‘s driving, powerful rhythms and catchy, jangly guitars combine the best of classic rock ‘n’ roll with modern indie sensibilities and creativity.

“Hey, hey, can you feel it? The way it sways you/the hum in your chest/you make my feet move, you turn my head loose/that’s why I love you the best”


2011 really was one of the best years ever for television. With so many great choices, creating a list of 5 was not easy.

5. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David is God

It’s always a special year when Larry David deigns to give us more Curb, a show that’s even risen above Seinfeld in some of its most genius moments. Season eight didn’t disappoint, as social assassin Larry, unarguably one of television’s greatest characters, fought Israeli-Palestinean tensions, vows of silence, and Michael J. Fox with his trademark tactlessness and strangely appealing bluntness. I like to think there’s a little Larry David inside all of us.

Best episode: “Palestinian Chicken”

4. Archer

Survey says:

Television didn’t need another spy parody, but Archer overcomes its cliched premise with what has to be the funniest writing team on TV; Archer has a higher laughs-per-minute ratio than any other show on television by far and rewards multiple viewings simply because the jokes come so fast that they’re easy to miss. Season two also fleshed out the pencil pushers and lab rats behind the titular super-spy, and now the show features one of the best casts on TV; Cheryl, Pam, Ray, and Krieger help make up a community that rivals Parks and Recreation’s. Did you see Regis this morning?

Best episode: “Placebo Effect”

3. Louie

Truly a man for all seasons

Louis CK uses Louie less as a comedy show than as a chance to experiment with short films, as a result, it’s the most original show on TV right now. You’ve never seen anything like Louie. Season 2 was a collection of unexpected vignettes about life, the universe, and everything, all tied together by the dumpy, quiet man caught in the middle who’s unprepared to deal with them.

Best episode: “Come on, God”

2. Breaking Bad

In Breaking Bad‘s fourth season, the three-year-in-the-making tension between Walt and Gus Fring exploded into open conflict as Gus slit Victor’s throat with a box cutter in the season’s first minutes. Each episode piled on astonishing twists and showed Walt heading further to the dark side until the unbelievable final moments, which moved Walt and his family past the point of ever returning to normalcy. Assuming the final season, airing this summer, sticks the landing, Breaking Bad may go down as the greatest televised drama in history.

1. Parks and Recreation

no words. I have no words.

In its abbreviated third season, Parks transitioned from a great show to the best comedy on television. The show’s feel-good humor, sharp writing, and, most importantly, incredible cast of characters, not only bolstered by the additions of Chris Traeger and Ben Wyatt, but by the show’s increased focus on the bizarre citizens on the fringes of Pawnee, create not just a great show, but a vivid, deep world that viewers are all-too lucky to be allowed to enter every week.

Best episode: “L’il Sebastian”


I’m really bad at picking lists and ranking things, and honestly, I don’t really like ranking because my opinion changes every day. And unlike Alec, I’m not going to rank TV or video games, as I didn’t really play any video games last year and honestly, I didn’t watch much current TV either. So here, in alphabetical order, are my picks of 2011.


The Artist

Despite whatever negative feelings the Oscar backlash this year may have created, The Artist is a great picture, one that is a nice break from so much of the cynicism associated with the Hollywood movie machine. If you don’t appreciate it for anything else, appreciate it for its pure joy and for its graceful style.


The reason I like Hugo is the reason I like movies in general, because it is a way to show pure love and joy. Martin Scorsese’s brief flirtation with whimsy shows us not only how much he loves the cinema, but how much we love the cinema as well.

Midnight in Paris

It’s interesting how the alphabetical order lined up, but the three films that wax most with nostalgia on my list are all in a row. Midnight in Paris is a lot like Woody Allen’s version of Hugo in that it shows us how much the director loves something, in this case Paris and the culture of the early 20th century. The film’s ensemble cast is delightful, and the light pasty that is this movie really is a treat, even if it is just because Ernest Hemingway talks like he writes.

The Muppets

Actually, you know what, nevermind, the first four movies on this list are pretty nostalgic and past-y. I really love this movie. And honestly, I’m not sure why. I totally acknowledge that it is not perfect, and there are a few things about it I don’t like. But for some reason it feels like the closest anyone has ever gotten to making a movie of my life, as absurd as that sounds. I saw it twice when it was in theatres, and I can’t wait to watch it again, over and over, because it makes me so happy. AND JAMES CARVILLE IS IN IT. If I had to pick a favorite movie of the year, it would be tied between this and my next pick, which are two selections not related to each other in the slightest, except in how transcendent they make me feel and how personally they speak to me.

The Tree of Life

I cannot add to anything Alec said about this movie, except that Terence Malick is a genius and I bow down to his hermit feet. I am just really glad this movie exists and I had the opportunity to see it.

The Trip

You probably haven’t heard of this last movie and I don’t blame you for it; it probably came nowhere near your local theatre, and I only saw it on Netflix Instant. But this slightly off-the-wall foodie road movie/BBC documentary series/sort-of sequel to Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story/Famous Actor Impersonation Hour is an enjoyable film, something unexpected and brilliant in its spontaneity and simplicity. I feel like I repeat myself on this blog when talking about movies, but sometimes a movie can become good or achieve greatness by being so simple, and The Trip definitely does this. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are two incredibly talented actors who deserve more recognition here in the states. But for now I’m content with their renditions of ABBA songs until they find a larger audience.


Bad As Me

Marc Maron pretty much destroyed the nail and its head when he said that it “sounds like Tom Waits had the history of music stuck in his throat and he clears it on this new record.” Mr. Waits has been around for a long time and produced stupendous album after stupendous album, conquering everything from sleazy heart-attack lounges, nudist junkyards, expressionist motels, honky-tonks, Eastern European carnivals, and the piano bar in the Holiday Inn off of Exit 36 on Highway 21. This album goes down among the damning body of evidence that proves Tom Waits is probably one of America’s greatest living songwriters, if not up there among Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young, and the like. I tell you, whether he’s covering the Ramones, doing his best Disney song, singing about a broken camera, or comparing himself to graffiti of Jesus, this man can do no wrong.

“What sounded like fireworks turned out to be / just what it was”


I was a little sad to see Childish Gambino’s first signed-to-a-label record fly a little low under the radar, because it seemed like besides “Bonfire”, it came and went quickly. But this album is great. Donald Glover has an affinity for rhymes and beats that few maintain or even come close to having, and the way he puts, in his words, his “soul on the track” and lays down everything he’s feeling is truly magnificent. In one of his earlier songs, he says that Tina Fey taught him that everything that is good comes from honesty, so maybe we have her to thank for this great album? But no matter who’s responsible, Childish really is a mastermind.

“I always wanted to get picked on the cool team / But alone is exactly how I should be”

Drive Original Soundtrack

Can I put a movie soundtrack on here? Like Alec said a bit ago, this is my blog, I can do whatever I want. So yeah, I’m putting this on here. Even if you cut out the original movie tracks and it was just a collection of electronic songs, I’d still dig it, because it’s so great. It thumps and jives and moves, and the original songs are amazing as well. Most people don’t seem to enjoy movie soundtracks on their own, and if anyone tries to pull that trick on you, show them this.

“You have proved to be / a real human being / and a real hero”

Hot Sauce Committee Part Two

I’ll be honest, I’d never really listened to the Beastie Boys much until Alec showed me this. I knew it was coming out but wasn’t all that interested, but this is a really sensational record. For a group that’s been around so long in a genre that seems to have no tolerance for the “old school” anymore, the Beastie Boys have kept their foot down and prove their still capable of great things. That seems to be a common theme this year, with Tom Waits, Paul Simon, and the Beastie Boys each making a great case for relevance, and Childish Gambino making a great case as well for why he should be taken seriously. But I digress. This album is great.

“The best is yet to come / And yes, believe this”


Just watching Tune-yards, it seems like they’re/she’s having more fun than anyone else in music today. If Fela Kuti, Paul Simon, and Vampire Weekend had a child, it would be this. Actually, that’s probably not an apt comparison. Maybe tone down the Vampire Weekend, turn up the Fela, throw in some Graceland and folk-iness, John and Alice Coltrane, Flying Lotus, Pharaoh Sanders… I can keep making comparisons, but Whokill is a wholly original record that is unlike anything else.

“Anger in his heart / But he’ll never be a gangsta”

Film, Reviews

Review: A Separation

– Nathan

Roger Ebert called A Separation the best movie of last year, and if I had seen it in 2011, I would have agreed with him. Unfortunately, it didn’t come here until 2012, but the wait was worth it, as this film is of such powerful depth and magnitude. A Separation tells the story of intersecting lives and more importantly the story of a society caught between tradition and modernity. Simin, wanting to provide more opportunities for her daughter, wishes to leave Iran, but her husband, Nader, feels that he must stay and take care of his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. They decide to get a divorce and go their separate ways, but, in a masterful opening shot, the court denies their plea. Simin decides to live with her mother until Nader grants permission for her to obtain the divorce, and a whole series of events falls into motion.

While it may sound like a simple domestic drama, it isn’t. Not in the slightest. The director, Asghar Farhadi, uses the plot to discuss issues relevant both to Iranian society and our changing world; issues such as class, gender, and faith. I will try to avoid rhapsodizing about it, but the film is, honestly, breathtaking. Mr. Farhadi’s camera never wastes a shot, and the way it lingers and speaks softly gives power to the conflict of the film. He does not rely on neat camera tricks or flashy editing because doing so would, in my opinion, greatly detract from the film. The film is so powerful because of its simplicity. There is no reliance on visual stimulation; the actors live their roles and the camera watches them, taking us inside. The main reason I love this film so much is probably because I find longer shots more interesting than faster ones. Fast-paced editing, though appropriate in many films, gives the viewer no time to soak in the film, to interact with it, to feel it. A Separation gives plenty of time for these actions. It lets the conflict brew, slowly, and finally tensions explode, emotions run, but still in the same confined space. Still lingering, still watching. Still beautiful.

I think it’s difficult to explain what is so great about this movie without showing you the movie, because there is no one instance that makes it great. The whole movie is great. The screenplay is superb. The cinematography is wonderful. The acting is dynamic and moving. Everything is perfect and fits in so sublimely that it becomes almost like a painting in that every brush stroke is permanent and necessary and beautiful, and nothing is lacking.

There’s a reason this film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and was such a critical favorite. But sadly, there’s also a reason that this film didn’t find more acclaim with mainstream audiences. I will avoid the general cynicism that is so often used when discussing American audiences and just say that I think if people viewed this not as a foreign film, not as something “snobbish” or “elitist” or “difficult”, they would enjoy it. So often we find ourselves settling for pure entertainment that we forget what it means to go to the movies. We forget how transcendent, how personal, how moving films like this can be. This film contains an emotional depth that is little seen in American cinema as of late, and it is an emotional depth I think is needed in our lives. Yes, this film may be emotionally challenging, but it is worth every tear.

– Nathan

A Separation is directed by Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, Fireworks Wednesday), starring Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, and Sarina Farhadi. 123 minutes long. Rated PG-13.

Film, Watch Star Wars with Me!

Watch Star Wars with Me: Introduction

Now let's see how you HANDLE it!

Star Wars is an American institution of which I’ve never quite been a part. It’s probably the defining American movie, but I’ve never loved it as much as everyone else seemingly does. Why? What is wrong with me? I have had Star Wars on the brain lately because of all the controversy about Lucas’s re-editing of the films, something I find deplorable, not particularly because I feel strongly about the films, but because I feel that any film is a complete piece of art when it is released, and forcing viewers to watch changed versions distorts that art. So, in honor of this great American tradition, and in an attempt to discover what exactly I’ve been missing, I’m going to watch each Star Wars and tell you dumb motherfuckers what I think about them. I’ve decided to watch the oft-maligned prequel trilogy first, since the director intended for the films to be viewed this way. I think this will be the most interesting part of the recaps, both because I really don’t have an opinion on these films yet (I haven’t seen Phantom in probably twelve years, I saw Clones and Sith only during their theatrical runs) and because these films arouse such violent hatred from fans; I think it’ll be fun to find out what exactly went wrong. For the Original Trilogy, I’ll be watching the Star Wars Despecialized Editions, a set of fan edits that return the films to their original cuts, to get the purest viewing experience, and I’ll follow all of this with a conclusion (and maybe a little something-something about Spaceballs, a movie as important to my childhood as Star Wars is to most peoples’). Throughout this experience, I’ll both try to judge whether the series as a whole deserves its classic status and to find out what exactly I’ve been missing all these years. So join me on this magic space adventure, and may the force be with you.

See you space cowboys,


edit: I’ll also try to get Nate, a true blue Star Wars fan, in on this.

Film, What We Watched

What We Watched: 2/27/12


I relaxed with an old favorite, and was terrorized by a new find this week.


Being There

What a great, great picture. Hal Ashby’s Peter Sellers-starring tale of a simpleton who is catapulted through social and political affluence through a series of coincidences is funny, poignant, and moving. Sellers’s Chance is such a great character, it’s hard to think that he doesn’t deserve the Presidency it’s implied he’s soon to achieve after the film ends.

Recommended? Yes.

Pick of the Week:


Can I change things up a little bit and include what I read this week? Of course; I can do whatever I want. It’s my weblog. While searching for a movie to watch Thursday night, I somehow stumbled upon this Japanese horror graphic novel, which ‘Kipedia tells me was written by a fellow named Junji Ito. Ito isn’t concerned with creating fleshed-out characters or clever dialogue, but with creating a memorable world and telling as scary a story as possible. Good God does he succeed. Uzumaki is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read or seen in my life. I didn’t think a book could ever really be scary, but Uzumaki proves that’s not the case. The book tells the story of a small Japanese island town in which the citizens become obsessed and then terrified by spirals (“Uzumaki” is Japanese for “spiral”). Ito cleverly disguises the book almost as a conventional horror story at first, but gradually ramps up the action until the story reaches bizarre, disturbing heights matched by few others. Since this book affected me so much, I’ll write a full analysis later, but for now I cannot recommend Uzumaki highly enough.


My apologies for not putting this up earlier in the week, WordPress has been acting funny on my end. I didn’t watch that much, so my Pick of the Week is kind-of by default, because I wouldn’t have probably picked it under normal circumstances even though it was a good picture.


My hatred for this movie cannot be expressed in words. I hate it. I hate it hate it hate it. Not because it mocks my favorite movie, but because it does it so tastelessly, so pointlessly, and ten years after the movie was originally released. And it also represents the fall of Mel Brooks from his golden comedic throne. This movie is just sad. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Recommended? NO NO NO.

Pick of the Week:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

This is probably one of the greatest Westerns ever made, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin. A tale of vengeance and law in the Homestead-era West, the film extracts a great performance from most of the cast, as this is one of the few pictures I actually like John Wayne in, and Marvin is excellent as well. For those who enjoy westerns or want to learn more about 19th-century American bureaucracy, this film is a must.

All previous editions of What We Watched can be found here.