Monday, September 24, 2012

Canceled Shows: Revisiting Pan Am and Unforgettable

Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm not a fan of winter and one way I try to combat the anxiety about the coming cold and dark months is by appreciating the unique charms of fall. One of these is the traditional fall line-up of new TV shows. So far this year, however, I haven't seen any new shows advertised that sound compelling so I'll mostly be sticking with the tried and true. But that still means that fall will be an exciting time of seeing those shows come back with new story lines. 

However, you loyal readers may recall that last fall I did find some new shows to invest time in for a season. Those shows were Pan Am and Unforgettable. Unfortunately, both ended up being canceled, although apparently Unforgettable ended up becoming uncanceled. For some time now, I've been meaning to write up my closing thoughts on these shows after they had a full season to flesh out characters and story lines, so here at long last are those comments.

Pan Am 

The basic premise of this show revolved around the lives of four stewardesses and two pilots working at Pan Am during the 1960s. One reason the show interested me was for the historical context and the potential to open up discussion about women's rights and roles in society, then and now. In my opinion, the show succeeded to some degree with both.

However, the show became by and large an evening soap opera, which is not particularly my favorite genre of TV. While big issues were addressed (politics, civil rights, women's liberation, smuggling, etc.), these were frequently done in that over-the-top, dramatic kind of way rather than just focusing on the moral dilemmas and character development that resulted from these. There was also a huge focus on the romantic lives of each character, which is not a bad thing in and of itself if it is done well. However, it was not always done so well on this show, with characters falling in and out of relationships in what sometimes seemed like a willy-nilly fashion. For instance, in some cases, there was no build up showing how characters came to be interested in one another, such as Ted and Amanda's whirlwind romance. But in other cases, we do get to see a long and simmering tension heating up, such as Colette and Dean's on-and-off again relationship. 

Speaking of relationships, when I first wrote about Pan Am, I objected to the writers' attempt to push a relationship between Ted and Laura. By the end of the series, I was actually invested in this plot line and found the derailing of this by the Ted-Amanda relationship frustrating. So, hey, sometimes I'm wrong. ;) But, like I said then, one of the most appealing things about Ted's character was that he was basically an impulsive, immature person who needed to grow up and learn a bit more about the world, which gave him the most room to grow as a character. He did that in spades, even if sometimes falling a step backwards here and there, so he was a character I always enjoyed watching. Laura also grew as a character, even if somewhat unevenly, and perhaps she was still too naive and trusting by the end of the first season, but the idea of her in a new, committed relationship was no longer so absurd.

The show's flashbacks had been a major selling point for me in the earlier episodes of the season, as they provided the characters with rich back stories and motivations for their actions. As the show continued, however, these became less frequent and we were left with characters doing things that seemed uncharacteristic (i.e., much of Maggie's actions) without any explanation for the rationale behind these things. 

However, it is important to note that the ABC network also did end up airing one of the episodes out of order so some things, such as the relationships that seemed to drop off without explanation or other plot events that seemed to come out of nowhere, suddenly became much clearer with the new information that came from actually seeing an episode that should have been aired earlier. The network did the show a great disservice here -- in a series that has a definite arc where episodes can not be just stumbled upon at random, it is imperative that the story be told in order.

The season finale (and now series finale) certainly left many things open-ended with the potential for exploration in a later season (that was never to be). Still, the final scene of the episode has just enough happiness and togetherness amongst the main cast that it makes for a satisfying enough ending to the show.

Overall, I enjoyed the show enough that I might go back and re-watch this first season (with the episodes in order this time) sometime in the future, but not I wasn't so over the moon about it that I was crushed by news of its cancellation. After the show Ringer was canceled, my friend commented in a blog post, "I'll miss you. Sort of." That pretty much sums up my feelings on Pan Am.


My feelings about Unforgettable are more complicated. To me, it felt like this show had potential to be better than it was, but it kept dropping the ball. To recap, this show was about Carrie, a woman with hyperthymesia (the ability to remember everything) but can't recall the details of her sister's murder when they were children. At the show's start, Carrie picks up extra cash by basically counting cards at illegal gambling spots and spends her free time volunteering at the nursing home where her Alzheimer's-suffering mother lives. When a murder occurs in her apartment complex, Carrie is thrust into the police investigation, which is being run by Al, her former boss at the Syracuse police department and also her ex-boyfriend. By the next episode, Carrie is re-instated as a homicide detective, working with Al, Mike, Roe, and Nina on cases in which her ability to remember every little detail comes in handy and helps bring in criminals.

As a police procedural, Unforgettable picked up on every trope in the book - sexual/romantic tension between members of the crime-fighting team, a serial killer case where the killer becomes obsessed with a member of the police force, a mafia connection that leads to an ill-advised relationship, a growing expansion of the team to include the coroner and a tech-savvy lab worker, and the standard opening of each episode with a murdered corpse being found in an unlikely scenario. (This last one in particularly felt like a rip-off of Bones and NCIS and irked me to no end. Unforgettable, you're better than that. You have a fabulous main character who does interesting and exciting things. Let's see more of her personal life in the brief intro to each episode instead of the same old thing on every other crime procedural.) 

The problem with most of these was that Unforgettable try to cram all of that into one season. Rather than letting these be real hooks that keep the viewer coming back from week to week, they felt like simple ploys for attention. For instance, when Carrie becomes involved with Steve Cioffi, whose family has mafia ties, this felt like a subplot that could really develop and go somewhere. Instead, we hardly ever saw their relationship or heard about it except for their initial meeting and their ultimate break-up. Granted, these were both dramatic events, but it felt like there could have been much more build up and growth than there was in the end. Likewise, Carrie and Al's past as lovers should be something that's always in the back of the viewer's mind, but the execution of this is spotty as well. There are some really great moments where you are reminded of the sexual tension that did/does exist between the two, but these intense reminders are punctuated by lots of nothingness on their relationship. The introduction of Dr. Webster and Tanya at first felt forced and too much like the show was just trying to be like every other cop show on TV, but I eventually came to like these characters and wished to see more about them develop. Like I had said when the show originally came out, the supporting cast of characters needed to be better fleshed out for the show to succeed. Unforgettable certainly made some strides in that department, but I still felt like the personal lives and motivations of Mike, Roe, and Nina especially needed to be injected more into the show. Character-driven stories are always more compelling in my book than plot-driven ones, so I was constantly craving more about the characters' relationships with each other, their home lives, their back stories, how the cases were affecting them, and so on. We saw some of this, but never enough for my tastes.

The serial killer obsessed with matching wits with Carrie was one subplot that was done very well. This story line, along with the ongoing mystery of the murder of Carrie's sister Rachel when they were children, was one that kept me tuned into the show and wanting to see where it would go next. These were where Unforgettable shone and you saw how it could be compelling, even if not so very different from the myriad of other police procedurals on the air.

Otherwise, most weeks the show was just another cop show with a mystery to unravel by the end of the hour. I like a good mystery (although these ones weren't terribly hard to guess before the big reveal), so this isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just not necessarily a good thing either. For that reason, I wasn't particularly surprised when the show was canceled, although I was disappointed that it was going to end without us knowing who murdered Carrie's sister, despite her coming closer to finding this out throughout the season. I was, however, surprised to find out it was renewed after being canceled, as that seems like an unusual move for TV executives. With the mystery of Rachel's murder still out there, I'll probably tune back in to the show. But it still has some work to do before it can become truly unforgettable.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Quietly Watching Trains Go By with the Station Agent

Last night I sat down to the watch the movie, The Station Agent. I can't honestly recall now where it is I first heard about this movie, but I think it might have been in an article listing movies featuring librarians. At any rate, this seems like a movie that mostly flew under the radar, being a quiet, indie movie. That being said, that's a real disservice to many people, as this was a great movie.

The Station Agent follows the life of Fin (Peter Dinklage), a New Jerseyan dwarf whose quiet life is turned upside down when his employer, Henry, dies. The hobbyist train shop that Henry owned - and where Fin worked - is sold, but fortunately Henry has some property that he willed to Fin. It is thus that Fin ends up living in a train depot, the former place of employment for the town's station agent, in the sleepy town of Newfoundland, New Jersey. Here Fin tries to continue to have a quiet existence, bothering no one, but his attempts are confounded. First, there's Joe (Bobby Cannavale), the talkative hot dog vendor who sets up across the way from the train depot and desperately wants to make friends in this quiet town. Then there's Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a free-spirited artist who has recently lost her son and separated from her husband. Rounding out the cast are Fin's young neighbor Cleo (Raven Goodwin), who is similarly obsessed with trains, and Emily (Michelle Williams), the flighty but sweet young woman who works at the library.

This film is one of those slice-of-life movies of which I am so fond. We catch only a small glimpse at the lives of these people, based on a brief period of time, but there is very much the feeling that these people existed before and after the credits rolled. That is to say, they don't feel like over-the-top fictional characters but instead resemble real people. In terms of plot, not a whole lot happens, but that does not mean the viewer walks away feeling nothing has changed. Indeed, the characters have grown throughout the film, most particularly Fin, who opens up and lets friendship into his life. One particularly poignant scene is when Olivia receives some bad news and shuts out Fin as a result, and you can see the hurt on his face and perhaps even the realization that her behavior mimics his when Joe, Olivia, and the others first tried to reach out to him and received no encouragement.

That all being said, a film like this really needs strong characters to carry it. After all, what is a movie about character development if the characters are dull and uninteresting or boorish and crass? Character-driven movies must have at least one likeable character, or I find that they fail miserably, at least for me. In this movie, that is not a problem. All of the characters are likeable in their own way. Joe was such a ridiculous character, trying so desperately to make friends, that I could not help laughing out loud several times when he could not contain his talkativeness or desire to build bridges. For instance, there is this gem of dialogue between him and Fin when he learns that Fin intends to stop by Olivia's house to drop off the cell phone she left behind:

Joe: Hey listen, if you guys do something later, can I join you?
Fin: We're not gonna do something.
Joe: No, I know, but if you do, can I join you?
Fin: We're not gonna do something later.
Joe [becoming more insistent]: Okay, but, if you do?
Fin [exasperated by this point]: Okay.
Joe [relieved]: Cool.

With Fin being the main focus of the movie, however, it's important that his character be likeable as well. As I mentioned above, he is at first cold to those who try to make friends with him. While this might make most characters seem less than likeable, in this case the viewer is sympathetic to Fin as the movie includes several scenes to indicate Fin's pathos and his desire to be alone. These largely revolve around Fin's dwarfism, which casts him in a light as "other" and evokes explicit and tacit mockery from new people. Fin later confides in Olivia about his feelings of being viewed in such a way, noting, "It's funny how people see me and treat me, since I'm really just a simple, boring person."

But even a simple, boring person could be interesting in the right light, which is exactly what The Station Agent shows. While the lives of these people are not exactly thrilling per se, the pacing, dialogue, music, and cinematography provide the perfect backdrop for drawing in the viewer.  It's a great understated movie that is well worth watching.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Grounds for Sculpture: The Garden State’s Garden of Art

Anyone reading this blog -- whether long-time followers or new readers -- knows that I am a big fan of art and can surmise that I also like gardens. But it’s rare that I get to combine these two interests. However, one place that can always be done is the magnificent Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. This place is a large sculpture park built on the former New Jersey Fairgrounds, which were bought and converted into this artistic space by Seward Johnson. Grounds for Sculpture was officially opened to the public as a sculpture park in 1992.

Although I’ve only been to Grounds for Sculpture only a handful of times in my life, it just so happens that three of those visits were between 2011 and 2012. It seems that every time I go, I end up gushing so much about it that I inspire another person to want to come visit it with me!

One of the things that I really like about Grounds for Sculpture is that it is not just an outdoor museum; there are others like that elsewhere, albeit Grounds for Sculpture is the nearest to me. But Grounds for Sculpture is more than that – it boasts a large collection of sculptures by Seward Johnson himself, who re-creates famous paintings in the landscape of the gardens. For instance, Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Adresse (a painting I know well for I have a copy hanging in my living room) is re-created on a grand scale here, placed before a lake. Visitors can stop by and physically plop themselves into a chair next to the seated lady and gentleman admiring the view. Elsewhere, there are re-creations of famous paintings by Manet, Rousseau, Matisse, and so on.

There’s also a fair amount of sculptures designed to appear like regular people about the park. Look out for a gardener trimming some bushes, a couple sleeping under the shade of some trees, a young girl reading on the grass, and so forth. These sculptures make you do a double-take to confirm that it’s really a piece of art and not a person.

Of course, there are also numerous other sculptures throughout the park that are not based either on other artists’ work or meant to be trompe l’oeil. These works vary from George Segal’s “Depression Bread Line” to more abstract and conceptual works. Whatever form the work takes, it is sure to be incorporated into the landscape in a most fitting way, whether that be within a bamboo forest, alongside a shady pathway, in a broad grassy area, or near the lakeside. All and all, this makes for a pleasant walking experience -- just remember to take a map with you and/or watch for some landmarks or you will find yourself lost on the property! But don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path to find some hidden gems, like a quiet nook with a hammock for relaxing.

Some other features of Grounds for Sculpture worth mentioning are its Water Garden, peppered with still more sculptures but this time in the extra aura of mist and tinkling waterfalls; fine dining at its Rats restaurant (hearsay, as this blogger has never actually been); and its peacocks. Yes, its peacocks. Somehow these beautiful birds have taken up with art and live on the grounds. You will see them throughout the park, can buy stuffed animal versions of them in the museum shop, and can even dine at the Peacock Café on site (no peacocks served there, of course!). Be warned that at the Peacock Café, you might be hard pressed to find a seat on the outdoor patio as sculptures have their places here as well.

During my most recent visit to the grounds, we got some extra treats. The first was that the artists’ studios on the grounds were partially open to the public. One artist was unofficially giving visitors a tour of his work space. Another artist was working on a project and allowed viewers to stop in to see his progress and asks questions. This was a really exciting opportunity to see behind the scenes and get answers to any burning questions about technical details about sculpture and the artistic processes from concept to construction.

The second treat was that we found some exhibits on display in the grounds’ Domestic Arts Building, which had not been on our agenda per se. The bottom floor of the building featured the “E Pluribus Unum” exhibit of artist Willie Cole’s work, which largely focused on works made with recycled items. For instance, the thing that caught our collective eyes first was a chandelier made from plastic water bottles. There were also several sculptures that resembled cows, which took me a few moments to recognize as made up of parts of toilet bowls. When I found in the accompanying literature that this work was called “Two-Faced Bull Shitters,” I could not stifle a loud chuckle at the cleverness of this title. The top floor of the building was giving over to artist Marilyn Keating’s exhibit “Natural Curiosities.” As the name implies, many of her works focus on beauty in the natural world, including insects, animals, and plants. Several of her works were created with wood blocks, which is one of my favorite artistic mediums, if I have not mentioned that before somewhere in this blog.

Although we arrived too late in the day this last time to take advantage of this other great Grounds for Sculpture feature, on a previous visit we participated in the Tots on Tour event. This special tour is for 3- to 5-year-old children (and, of course, their accompanying adults!), who are treated to a story time, a craft time, and then a quick run of some of the park’s many art works, highlighting those that would be most exciting for children. These include a giant snake the kids could run on top of and an interactive musical sculpture. As soon as the tour began, the guide explained to the kids that if a sculpture had a green sign near it, they were allowed to touch it with care but if the sculpture had a red sign near it, they could admire it with their eyes only. The kids were thrilled to run around looking for green signs and have the opportunity of interacting with the sculptures tactically. I’ve now been to Grounds for Sculpture with young children of a variety of ages (younger than 1 year old; not quite 2 years old; age 3; age 4; and age 5) and they have all been delighted with visiting the sculpture park. All of the staff running the Tots on Tour feature were well-versed not only in art but in child development as well, making sure every part of the event was the appropriate amount of time and complexity for young ones’ attention spans.

If you are driving in or around Hamilton, no doubt you’ve noticed some of the giant sculptures scatted about the grassy areas near major roads. These are some of the greatest advertisements that could be given for Grounds of Sculpture -- pass near them, and you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to be in the sculpture park. But visit the park itself for the much grander scale of what that’s like. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rango, the Tiny Lizard with a Lot of Gumption

Rango is an animated film that tells the story of a little lizard who dreams up and acts out big adventures in his small glass tank. But when the moving van swerves unexpectedly on a highway through the big open country of the West, the tank flies out of the truck and shatters to pieces on the road. Our little lizard friend is abandoned and, after meeting with an armadillo on a spiritual journey to the other side of the road, he goes in quest of water to a town called Dirt. His first encounter, just outside of town, is with a girl lizard called Beans (so named because "My daddy plum loved baked beans."). Once in the town, he puts on his greatest act yet as Rango, a no-nonsense gun-slinger right out of an old Western movie. He quickly wins over the town with his tough-guy act and is appointed sheriff. But being sheriff isn't all about tough talk -- Rango has to figure out the mystery of the town's drought, stave off an impending rattlesnake attack, and track down some bank thieves. Of course, he has help along the way - including the feisty Beans and a host of humorous characters amongst the townsfolk, who are a hodgepodge of small animals.

This Nickelodeon movie came out last year and although I had wanted to see it at the time, I finally got around it to when some family from out of state was visiting. After having suggested the movie for our outdoor movie night (an annual favorite pastime), I was a little nervous at first as the movie was a bit slow going in the beginning. It picked up though and became very funny as well as action-packed and holding a mystery to be solved. Rango held the attention of both kids (of all ages) and adults alike, which probably isn't a huge surprise given that it won an Academy award for the best animated picture as well as numerous other awards. Like with many other animated features, Rango works on two levels - there's the basic storyline and slapstick jokes aimed at children while there are also a number of Easter eggs and quips that appeal only to adults. For instance, there are numerous references to classic Western movies, and I have to admit some of these probably went over my head as well as over the heads of the children and teens in our audience. However, a brief reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Johnny Depp also starred, had me cracking up.

Rango boasts a considerable amount of Hollywood talent. For starters, it teams up director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp once again (as with the first three Pirates of the Caribbean), with Depp spot on as the voice of Rango. Amongst the other talented cast members are Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, and Ned Beatty. Several of the voice actors, including Depp, play more than one character, which can surely be no easy feat.

However, there are a few down sides to this movie. As I mentioned earlier, it started a bit slow but then picked up a great deal with additional comedy and also some adventurous moments. But to be honest, I actually got bored during some of these extended action-packed sequences. This is not a fault of Rango only; I find that as I age, I am much more interested in plot and characterization, resulting in me becoming bored with yet another long scene devoted to some sort of fight and/or chase, which will inevitably end with the good guys winning. A second problem, and one that I find more troubling, is that it's debatable whether Rango passes the Bechdel test - if it does, it's by the skin of its teeth, which isn't a great sign of a movie being female-empowering. Likewise, it has some troubling portrayals of non-white ethnicities as well. Both of these issues may be related to the fact that Rango is inspired by - and parodying - old Western movies. For instance, take a scene like the one in which Rango is leading a posse into the desert to search for the bank robbers. One member of the posse, named Wounded Bird, is very much meant to be playing the role of the mystical American Indian. I rifled at first at the idea of this character, but then these lines came out as Wounded Bird is releasing some feathers into the wind:

Rango: I see you're communicating with the great spirits.
Wounded Bird: No. I'm molting. It means I'm ready to mate.

It's incredibly clever and turns a stereotype on its head. Still, I'm not sure how much - and what exactly - young children are absorbing when they see and hear from characters such as these. There's also a framing device used in the movie, once which breaks down the fourth wall a bit, in the use of a mariachi band of owls. Again, perhaps it's a bit stereotypical, but it's also very funny as the mariachi band frequently employs dramatic irony that is quite wrong. For instance, they keep predicting Rango's demise and death at various points only to later have to shrug and say they were wrong that time. There's also this great scene:

Rango: Now... we ride!
[whip cracks; Rango stops and looks to his right, puzzled]
Rango: [the band of mariachi owls stands a ways away with their instruments, waiting; Rango shouts to them] That means we're riding now! This moment.
[another whip is heard and the owls start playing the background music; everyone is riding roadrunners in the next cut

All in all, I like the addition of the mariachi band, but I again wondering about what take-away children derive from their presence. And, of course, the entire West (or at least what we get to see in this film) is one giant stereotype based on old movies, with a saloon being the most crowded place in town, a main dirt road for shooting duels, and so forth and so on. Even though the rest of the world seems to be in the 21st century, the town of Dirt is stuck sometime in the 1800s or early 1900s at best.

Still, I found this movie entertaining enough to enjoy it at the time and I would not object to watching it again, especially to see if I caught more of the in-jokes and Western references a second time around.