Tuesday, August 19, 2014

All Aboard the First-Class ‘Snowpiercer’

I’m not one of those film enthusiasts who generally buys into the hype – either good or bad – surrounding movies. Burned too many times by the pre-release buzz propagated by the often hive-minded film critic establishment in the mainstream media, I’m immediately wary of any movie released to universal lauds. Likewise, I generally dismiss collective critical denunciation, preferring to judge a film’s merits (or lack thereof) with my own humble analytical viewing skills. Granted for every widely-panned movie that I end up extolling its virtues (yes, I’m talking Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN), there are far more critically-acclaimed films and fan favorites that leave me scratching my head like CABIN IN THE WOODS, AVATAR, and any number of non-genre hype movies (Oh, FOREST GUMP, how I detest thee!).

Naturally, I approached this summer’s buzz-generating SNOWPIERCER with the same abiding skepticism.
SNOWPIERCER marks South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut. The film is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, which was continued as a series with two subsequent volumes penned by Benjamin Legrand in 1999 and 2000, respectively (both Rochette and Legrand have cameos in the film in a clever wink to the story’s literary origins).

When efforts to thwart an environmental catastrophe backfire, cataclysmically spawning a second ice age, the last remnants of humanity are reduced to life aboard a thousand-and-one-car train called the Snowpiercer. The futuristic ice-chewing train is a self-contained ecosystem that hurtles along at precariously high-speeds on a continuous loop of track that circles the globe, with each full rotation marking a calendar year. Designed by an enigmatic billionaire industrialist, the Snowpiercer mirrors the social classism of the lost civilization of the planet it now endlessly circles – with the have’s reveling in in the hedonistic opulence of the front of the train while the hordes of have not’s are reduced to the squalid conditions of the rear railway cars. The message is as clear as it is bleak: Classism will survive the apocalypse.
Even as Tilda Swinton’s buck-toothed Minster Mason – a schoolmarmish mid-train official tasked with maintaining social order aboard the Snowpiercer – admonishes the citizens of steerage class to “Know your place, keep your place”, an uprising is in the works. No longer satisfied with either their
spot or lot aboard the “train of life”, a ragtag (and internationally diverse) group of passengers – including their reluctant leader, his sharp-tongued protégé, a mother desperately searching for her taken child, the train’s drug-addled security expert and his wide-eyed daughter (bribed into service with a steady supply of a hallucinogenic drug called kronole) , and their wizened, appendage-challenged mentor – throw their grateful obedience to the wind and make an audacious charge for the front of the train and its malevolent conductor known only as Wilford. Within the film’s philosophical thematic core, the precariousness of social hierarchy erupts into brutal class warfare with comic-book overtones.

What follows is a mesmerizing master class in production and set design as the revolutionaries forge their way forward one railway car at a time. The drab gray palette and cluttered chaos of the rear sections strikingly convey a sense of bleak train-bound claustrophobia that feels downright airless, while the gradual brightness and increasingly whimsical coloring of each successive train car snowballs in synch with the action-packed push forward by the insurgents. The arresting set pieces and costuming – courtesy of production designer Ondrej Nekvasil, set decorator Beata Brendtnerovà, and costume designer Catherine George – visually cement the idea of the train’s compartmentalization as a metaphor for the socioeconomics of society, with each successive car in this self-sufficient Noah’s Ark taking us from poverty to prosperity. Among the Snowpiercer’s many onboard amenities: a nightclub, hair salon, dental suite, classroom, ecological sanctuary, and an aquarium with (in a twisted little visual one-liner) a sushi bar.
Bong assembles a stellar multinational cast that includes Chris Evans (here a very different type of Captain America), John Hurt, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell (little Billy Elliot all grown up), Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung, and Alison Pill. Yet it’s the aforementioned Swinton who steals the show and – if there is any justice – this thespian chameleon will be eyeing Oscar gold come awards season.

SNOWPIERCER is one of those rare heavily-hyped movies that actually deserves a one-way ticket to commercial success, despite the best efforts of Svengali-like Harvey Weinstein to inexplicably punish this masterwork by relegating its domestic release to a mere handful of theaters and video on demand channels. Reportedly, Weinstein demanded twenty minutes of cuts to the finished film as well as a new prologue and epilogue; Bong refused. Let’s hope SNOWPIERCER defies the odds stacked against it, realizing its blockbuster potential and leaving Weinstein to choke on one of the film’s gelatinous cockroach-infused protein blocks.
SNOWPIERCER is a potpourri of post-apocalyptic audaciousness, a cinematic experience that blends the high-concept of an arthouse film with the high-octane of a commercial action-thriller. This highly-stylized science fiction masterpiece and intoxicating dystopian nail-biter that alternates between action, high camp, and heavy-handed Orwellian allegories about social stratification. It’s an energetic, wildly-imaginative (literal) train ride through the permafrost of man’s cruelty to one another and the oppressive perversities of economic disparity that prove (at least in Bong’s artistic vision) to be immutable even in the face of extinction.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jamie Lee Curtis and the Tale of Two Pilots

You undoubtedly heard the screams of elation this morning when this consummate Jamie Lee Curtis fan awoke to news of the actress’s casting in a new CBS pilot, at some past or present point titled ONLY HUMAN. This casting news quickly became – at least for me – the ultimate good news/bad news scenario: Curtis had previously been attached to a very tasty horror-drama pilot over at ABC Family called THE FINAL GIRLS. Now her involvement in the latter has been dubiously called into question with news of the former.

Here’s what we know:
In September of last year, the Internet went crazy with the news that ABC Family had bought a high-profile spec script from screenwriter Jeff Dixon for a buzzy horror-drama pilot. Stoking the fires of excitement was news that veteran former scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and her HALLOWEEN: H2O director, Steve Miner, were attached to the project. THE FINAL GIRLS – its title referring to the moniker given to the surviving heroine of a slasher film as coined by Carol J. Clover in her seminal exploration of the subgenre in MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS: GENDER IN THE MODERN HORROR FILM – is the story of a mysterious older woman (Curtis) who assembles a group of young women who have each survived their own real-life horror of some kind “to channel the stress and scars of their experience for some greater good”.

At the time of the announcement, ABC Family had not actually greenlit the project but merely closed a deal for the script and the involvement of those attached. Nothing else has come out officially on the project, but Dixon has dropped a few vague semi-updates on his blog. He’s alluded that the show is going through what most savvy viewers know as “the Hollywood machine” – the countless rewrites, behind-the scenes hirings and firings, and subsequent delays. Less optimistically read, Dixon hints that THE FINALS GIRLS is not “in a typical pilot situation” (uh-oh) and that the pilot’s original March shoot (with an eye on an apropos Halloween bow) isn’t happening. Factor in a new network President and today’s breaking news of the show’s leading lady booking another high-profile pilot on a major network and hopeful horror hearts have no choice but to sink a bit.
ONLY HUMAN, which is penned by David Marshall Grant (of BROTHERS & SISTERS and SMASH fame), will place la Curtis in the lead role as a “dynamic and distinguished” physician who is also the mother of adult quadruplets – three boys and a girl – who grew up in front of reality TV cameras. According to THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, Curtis’s Caroline character “seems hard-hitting and demanding, especially where her son Jonathan, a new hire at the hospital, is concerned. But her toughness really covers a devastating loss that she has never quite recovered from – the death of her husband from a rare genetic disease. And the fact that her children have a 50-50 chance of meeting the same fate has colored her life ever since."

While being clearly in demand with two high-profile pilot bookings that all but guarantee the actress’s imminent return to television with a full-time dramatic role and means a win-win for Curtis fans, it’s now hard not to ponder which would be the better vehicle for her triumphant return to series TV. Let’s examine the seeming pros and cons of each.
THE FINAL GIRLS is (putting no too fine a point on this) every adult horror fan’s dream project. Curtis playing den mother to a bunch of junior scream queens sounds dark, delicious, and campy. Although the pilot’s network affiliation seems to indicate that the horror itself might be watered down for the tween and teen ABC Family demographic, Dixon himself promises this is not the case and even alludes to a sequence involving a nailgun remaining intact even after tweaks and revisions to his script. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how nailguns could be considered tame in any sense of the word. In addition, it’s logical that ABC Family is investing so much time and pre-pilot work in the project because it’s (perhaps) got some high hopes that the show will draw in more of the much-coveted 18-49 demographic in an effort to expand the channel’s reach. On the upside, ratings on basic cable networks don’t need to be huge to earn future season pick-ups; on the downside, Curtis may command a pricey paycheck…

…which brings us to the ONLY HUMAN pilot. Without a shadow of a doubt, CBS – positioned in first place among the major networks – has the deeper pockets to afford Curtis. Their network also seems to have a built-in older demographic to which Curtis will have undeniable appeal, having test-driven her already with a five-episode guest stint on their juggernaut NCIS which resulted in a ratings spike. Pilot scribe Grant is a respected and pedigreed screenwriter and producer with proven network success. Plus, the synopsis sounds darned interesting. On the upside, CBS – unlike NBC or even ABC – has a better track record of nurturing shows through their freshman year and sticking with them over a season or two before turning the lights off; on the downside, good (if not stellar depending upon the show’s price tag) rating are still a must on network TV, so the pressure would be on.
All this speculation begs the question: Which series would this unmitigated Jamie Lee Curtis fan prefer to see the actress land and launch? As always, I’m going with the underdog – in this case, Dixon’s THE FINAL GIRLS. In terms of sheer ratings potential and water-cooler appeal, I think FINALS GIRLS has the edge. It’s got a genuine genre pedigree, interesting premise that screams possibility, and built-in buzz-worthiness. While I think both her role and profile will be bigger from the get-go in the CBS pilot, I think audience response to THE FINAL GIRLS and Curtis herself would quickly auto-correct the slim chance that network execs over at ABC Family would relegate her character to some sort of framing device (i.e. Charlie in CHARLIE’S ANGELS) and prefer focus on the youngins.

THE FINAL GIRLS or ONLY HUMAN? Either way, Curtis is poised to make her full-time television comeback. And that’s reason enough for this longtime fan to celebrate.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Elegy: Philip Seymour Hoffman

In a world that often seems dark and incomprehensible, yesterday’s passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman makes it appear a little darker, a little less comprehensible even the day after. News that the Oscar-winning actor was found dead in his West Village apartment at the age of 46 was like a punch to the gut, and his sudden and untimely passing is one I’m grappling with.

Hoffman’s career will forever be a permanent milestone in modern acting. Arguably the best character actor of his (my) generation, Hoffman brought a vulnerable sense of humanity to the darkest of characters. His performances were unguarded and so finely nuanced that you often forgot that the shlubby, oft disheveled misfit you were watching on the screen wasn’t the character he was portraying. Hoffman excelled at portraying the oddities and oddballs of contemporary society, and he did so with a searing sense of honesty and gentleness.
Tom Junod, in his gorgeous ESQUIRE requiem “Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Secret” captures the essence of Hoffman’s skills as an actor perfectly:

“He often played creeps, but he rarely played them creepily. His métier was human loneliness — the terrible uncinematic kind that has very little to do with high-noon heroism and everything to do with everyday empathy — and the necessary curse of human self-knowledge.”

Much has been – and will continue to be – written about Hoffman’s manner of death, about his struggles with heroin. Those who judge the manner of someone’s passing miss the point of death entirely – not to mention display a troubling lack of empathy and compassion in the process of their ghoulish Monday morning quarterbacking. Three cheers for the golden children untouched by any kind of addiction, and those who possess the mighty strength to rebuke the psychological and physiological pulls of compulsion and dependence. Most of us – at least those self-aware and honest enough – struggle with some kind of preternaturally strong impulse toward something that’s not necessarily good for us. Alcohol, drugs, food, sex and pornography, gambling, shopping, exercise, a bad relationship – hell, even the Internet – are all forms of addiction that myriad people struggle with at certain points in their lives. The degree to which one struggles is irrelevant, as is the object of the addictive behavior.

Despite the media’s salacious need to paint a final, vivid picture of the fallen actor with imagery of syringes stuck in arms and the street names of the drugs allegedly found inside his home,  I prefer to honor what Hoffman shared with me – personally, through his body of work – by remembering him in terms of the characters he played. He did, after all, take great pride in being a character actor. So, instead of that final image of a man felled by his demons, I choose to forever remember Philip Seymour Hoffman as the at times quirky, eccentric, flamboyant, flawed, imperfect, troubled – but always human – characters he played in a distinguished career cut much too short.
For me, Hoffman will forever live on as Scotty, the self-loathing, closeted boom mic operator and lighting technician of the porn film crew in BOOGIE NIGHTS who harbors an unrequited crush on Mark Wahlberg’s character; as Phil Parma, the guardian angel of a male nurse caring for Tom Cruise’s estranged, cancer-stricken father in MAGNOLIA; as Caden, the miserable theatre director
mounting a new production in the bold, surrealist drama Synecdoche, New York; as Father Brendan Flynn, the Catholic priest accused of inappropriate sexual relations with an underage altar boy in DOUBT; as Rusty, Robert DeNero’s drag queen neighbor in FLAWLESS who gives voice lessons to his stroke-stricken character to help him overcome an embarrassing speech impediment; as grief-stricken widower Wilson Joel in LOVE, LIZA who disguises an addiction to inhaling gasoline fumes (known as “huffing”) within his hobby of flying remote control model airplanes to avoid opening his late wife’s suicide note; as Allen, an obscene phone caller in Todd Solondz’s HAPPINESS, whose kinky anonymity masks unrequited love for his neighbor, Helen;  as Freddy Lounds, the sleazy tabloid reporter in RED DRAGON whose runaway journalistic ambitions bring his character to a fiery end; as ill-fated jetsetter Freddie Miles who runs afoul of Matt Damon impersonating a missing mutual friend in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY; and, of course, as the eccentric Truman Capote in his hypnotic tour-de-force, award-winning role in CAPOTE.

Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t impersonate the characters he played; he possessed them. He embodied them in ways most contemporary actors will never experience. This was both his blessing and his curse, for it was in this full immersion into character that he undoubtedly met and confronted the demons that haunted them. Some ended up haunting him. As Junod writes in his fine ESQUIRE piece, this was the price he paid for holding up a mirror to those who could barely stand to look at themselves. Those of us who are artists – actors, writers and poets, painters, photographers – share this risk of internalizing the external when we create. It is the plaintive reality of the nature of creativity when we allow ourselves to touch – however fleetingly – the raw, uncensored honesty of the human experience. Philip Seymour Hoffman, unable to escape the madness of the rabbit hole his craft led him down, came to know this reality only too well.
"For me, acting is torturous, and it's torturous because you know it's a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, ‘That's beautiful and I want that.’ Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that's absolutely torturous."
– Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Best of TV 2013: Memorable Moments and Trends

Poet Gil Scott-Heron got it wrong: The revolution apparently will be televised. Make no mistake about it, friends. We are living in a genuine Golden Age of television where the outlets for creativity have expanded exponentially and the choices are myriad. We are witnessing a glorious insurgency in which creative revolutionaries are challenging the old and forging forward into new and uncharted television landscapes. With original programming no longer relegated to the confines of the “Big Three” major networks – having slowly expanded first into the pay cable arenas of HBO and Showtime and now flourishing on basic cable channels like AMC, A&E, FX, and seemingly countless others – originality and imagination now saturate our television viewing hours. As the limits were pushed and the boundaries expanded, the heightened quality of television programming (DUCK DYNASTY and HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO notwithstanding) attracted Hollywood’s highest caliber of actors to the small screen.

So, in honor of this artistic revolution, it’s only fitting to look back at the year in TV, bestowing some of my own honors on the shows and trends that made their mark in 2013.
13. Most Improved Show

With characters coming back from the dead, complicated revenge plots, long-lost sons, “shocking” gay reveals, and more ISPM’s (icy stares per minute) than Republicans at Obama’s last State of the Union address, REVENGE easily returned to the form that defines it and once again became the soapiest primetime…well, soap on television. High points thus far in the season have included the introduction of Victoria’s long-lost bastard son (who heated up the Hamptons with some pretty fierce abs and lusty lip locks with resident bisexual, Nolan Ross), the back-from-the-dead appearance of Lydia Davis, Conrad Grayson’s presumed-dead mistress, the French sophistication of pixie-coifed magazine editor Margaux LeMarchal, and Victoria’s iconic French script armchair (RIP!).

12. Best Use of a Comic Book Universe
Marvel may be kicking DC Comics’ ass when it comes to bringing its universe and characters to the big screen, but it could certainly use some super-schooling when it comes to television development. For everything that the much-ballyhooed AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. has missed the mark on, ARROW hits the bullseye. In the midst of the show’s second season, the creative forces behind ARROW have fully taken advantage of the DC universe, pulling in other superheroes and villains to slowly and methodically create a larger backdrop behind the immediacy of the Green Arrow landscape. Whereas AGENTS has opted for the insularity of a core group of elite Level 7 intelligence agents who investigate a strange new case of some threatening supernatural event on Earth each week in standard creature-of-the-week format, ARROW – although centering around the titular superhero, his origins, and cases – has painstakingly expanded the landscape around Green Arrow, introducing new long-term characters and a few just dropping by for single and recurring visits. In addition, whereas AGENTS’ minimal use of continuing storylines threads primarily through popular Agent Carlson, ARROW juggles multiple continuing story arcs more in line with a primetime soap opera.  The tone of ARROW is decidedly darker, with the writers not afraid to kill series regulars – so when someone in the ARROW universe runs afoul of a dangerous, unsavory baddie, the sense of tension over that character’s fate is genuine.

11. Most Premature Sendoff
Just when it was getting good…SMASH was sent to television heaven. In its retooled (and much delayed) second season, the addictive adult GLEE, centered around not one, but two, fledgling Broadway productions, gave us oodles of delicious guest stars (Jennifer Hudson, Sean Hayes, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, Grace Gummer, Nikki Blonsky, Dylan Baker, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Rosie O'Donnell, Kathie Lee Gifford, and Harvey Fierstein), and a decidedly more soapy feel. It kept all the things that worked (campy moments like Anjelica Huston tossing drinks in her ex’s face and pretty much every musical number) and ditched the things that didn’t (Debra Messing’s distractingly voluminous scarves and her inconvenient family). Yet for all that, the show just couldn’t find its footing in the NBC schedule, finally relegated to the Saturday night graveyard. NBC – that great nurturer of quality television (just ask  Kathy Bates) – had one last spit-in-the-eye for SMASH fans when it decided to dim the lights and lower the curtains on the show after one final performance… with a two-hour series finale on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.  

10. Most Shocking Sendoff
In the fictional apocalyptic landscape of THE WALKING DEAD in which no one is safe from the flesh-tearing jaws of the zombie hordes, it would seem unlikely that – 39 episodes in – audiences could be shocked by a character’s exit. Yet that’s exactly the jaw-dropping feat that writers pulled off during the “Indifference” episode when the beloved character of Carol (played with understated brilliance by Melissa McBride) was jettisoned from the show’s canvas. But what made the character’s exit even more dramatic than the tragic norm of becoming zombie chow was that the no-nonsense, ever-resourceful Carol wasn’t killed but rather shockingly banished by group leader Sheriff Rick. After it was revealed that Carol took matters into her own hands by murdering two fellow survivors with the (noble) intention of helping contain the sudden onset of an unsettling flu-like illness, Sheriff Rick determined that her impulsivity posed a threat to the larger group. Under the pretense of scouting for supplies, Rick lures the quietly unrepentant Carol away from their prison sanctuary, matter-of-factly confronts her, and then sends her off in a station wagon loaded with provisions.  The scene is nothing short of devastating in its emotional restraint as fan favorite Carol – domestic abuse survivor, grieving mother, and self-made zombie warrior – simply drives off into a world that feels as incalculably cold as the walking corpses that now infest it. 

9. Best Character Sendoff
Less unexpected due to the real-life passing of the actor who portrayed him, the iconic J.R. Ewing who presided over the fictional denizens of DALLAS, was also laid to rest in the grandest, most reverent TV sendoff of last year. Following Larry Hagman’s death from complications of acute myeloid leukemia at the end of 2012, producers and writers of the DALLAS reboot scrambled to fittingly bid adieu to the definitive TV villain. The task was a tall order, considering that both Hagman and his career-defining character remained beloved by millions of TV viewers. Hagman had appeared as the conniving, womanizing oil tycoon for all 357 episodes of the series’ original run between 1978 and 1991, in both reunion movies that aired in 1996 and 1998, and in the TNT reboot that bowed in 2012. To the credit of the creative forces behind the new DALLAS, J.R. was indeed given a sendoff befitting the master villain he will always be remembered as – having his own longtime private investigator kill him after discovering he had terminal cancer and then framing longtime nemesis Cliff Barnes for the crime. As an added tribute, an onscreen memorial was held for the fallen villain that was attended by a cavalcade of former DALLAS characters, giving testament to the enduring popularity of both the character and the actor who portrayed him. RIP, J.R. Ewing.

8. Best Acting Ensemble
In the genteel world of post-Edwardian era costume drama DOWNTON ABBEY, viewers are transported back to the fictional Yorkshire country estate of its title to eavesdrop in on the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their loyal staff of valets, footmen, butlers, chauffeurs, housemaids, cooks, and kitchen maids. In a class-based society of fixed hierarchies and strict formalities that demand to be observed, it’s no small feat that the perfectly cast residents of DOWNTON manage to push sizable amounts of warmth through the miniscule cracks of their stone cold, upstairs-downstairs walls. From the begrudging respect between The Dowager Countess (played to crisp English perfection by the inestimable Dame Maggie Smith) and her one-time nemesis Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) that seeps through between their innumerable quarrels and quips to the slips in maternal affection shown by the curmudgeonly cook Mrs. Patmore(Lesley Nicol) to her doe-eyed kitchen assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera), the acting ensemble of DOWNTON ABBEY has mastered the balance between the conventions and compassions of the time period in their portrayals of the estate’s denizens. 

7. Best Trend, Part I: Serial Killers

The good news for television day players this year was that roles were in abundance; the bad news was that the proliferation of TV serial killers all but insured they’d play ill-fated victim to one of them. Shows like THE FOLLOWING, HANNIBAL, and BATES MOTEL gave us cultists, cannibals, killer teens, and body counts that rivaled any slasher film. Indeed, it seemed to genre fans like somebody flicked the murder and mayhem switch at almost every network. Although the result was a decidedly mixed bag, no fan of horror or thrillers could complain about their lack of choices in 2013.

6. Best Trend, Part II: Women of a Certain Age
While AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN may have become this year’s theatrical repository for women of a certain age – with Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Basset, Frances Conroy, and Patti LuPone all representing the 50+ set – television was teaming this year with mature actresses who stole more scenes than Snowden stole intelligence. From the fast-flying double-entendres, zippy one-liners, and high-energy zaniness of Jennifer Coolidge (2 BROKE GIRLS), Swoosie Kurtz (MIKE & MOLLY), and Linda Lavin (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SEAN), to the backstabbing bitchery, power plays, and general scowling of Madeline Stowe (REVENGE), Christine Baranski (THE GOOD WIFE), Judith Light (DALLAS), Dame Diana Rigg (GAME OF THRONES), and Dame Maggie Smith (DOWNTON ABBEY), to the deftly-toddled tightrope between comedy and drama as walked to perfection by Susan Lucci (DEVIOUS MAIDS), Laurie Metcalf (GETTING ON), Susan Sullivan (CASTLE), and Joan Cusack (SHAMELESS), mature actresses enhanced our viewing experience with their timeless talent and ageless beauty.

5. Most Consistently Audacious Show
Who would have thought that abject poverty, runaway addiction, and dildo-wielding housewives would be the ingredients in (easily) the best family drama on television today? Yet that’s exactly what SHAMELESS, the continuing chronicles of the whitest trash TV family you’re ever likely to meet, is at its drug-addled heart. The show’s energy is frenetic, its characters flamboyant, its plotlines scandalously audacious. If you haven’t watched it, to give away any of the delicious insanity that ensues would be a disservice. Suffice to say, nothing is taboo within the dilapidated houses of its gritty suburban setting on the South Side of Chicago. Now in its fourth season, the Gallagher clan has proved resilient against the unlikeliest of odds, somehow managing to always find hope within the despair, stability within the instability, and function within all the dysfunction.

4. Best New Show You’re Likely Not Watching
Face it: An exploration of aging and one’s own mortality in our youth-obsessed culture doesn’t exactly scream “Must-See TV!” Lack of thematic appeal aside, GETTING ON is easily the season’s best new show – and one I’ll wager a bet you’re not watching. Equal parts heartbreaking and hysterical, this gentle portrait of the daily operations of a geriatric extended care wing of a beleaguered California hospital packs more insight and humanity into its 30-minute episodes than most hour-long dramas. Shot against an unwashed, unglamorous fluorescent backdrop, the show’s visual drabness is counterpunched by the multihued performances its three leads – Laurie Metcalf (as the wing’s medical director), Niecy Nash (as a newly recruited nurse), and Alex Borstein (as the wing’s head nurse). Metcalf, in particular, is brilliant in her portrayal of Dr. Jenna James, wearing her pained reluctance to be assigned to the career-killing microcosm of the Billy Barnes Extended Care Unit like battle-worn armor. While the comedy runs black and the humor is decidedly gallows, the essence of the show is about the care and compassion we, as humans, deliver and receive. In its woefully short , six-episode first season, GETTING ON has only skimmed the surface of the rich vein of material waiting to be mined by the show’s scribes. If HBO wisely decides to give this unlikely comedy a second season, you owe it to yourself to tune in.

3. Best Guest Gig for Character Actors

If you’re as big a fan of THE GOOD WIFE as I am, then it’s important that you remember this name: Mark Saks. Mr. Saks is the (deservedly) three-time Artios Award-winning and four-time Emmy-nominated casting director for the show and the man responsible for parading across our screens a veritable who’s who of veteran character actors and up-and-comers as guest stars who’ve – collectively – made THE GOOD WIFE more watchable five seasons in. What’s even more impressive – and a credit to the show’s casting department – is that the actors are matched perfectly to roles in which they are believable and complement, rather than detract from, the series regulars. Among Mr. Saks’ casting coups: Nathan Lane, Carrie Preston, Audra McDonald, Stockard Channing, Dallas Roberts, Matthew Lillard, Michael J. Fox, Martha Plimpton, Dylan Baker, Matthew Perry, Anika Noni Rose, Anna Camp, Mamie Gummer, Gary Cole, Rita Wilson, John Benjamin Hickey, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Denis O’Hare, David Paymer, Michael Boatman, America Ferrara, Parker Posey, John Glover, Ana Gasteyer, Edward Herrmann, Bebe Neuwirth, F. Murray Abraham, Jane Alexander, Joanna Gleason, Miriam Shor, Maura Tierney, T. R. Knight, and Lisa Edelstein.

2. Biggest Jaw-Dropper/WTF Moment of 2013
While I’ll endlessly debate most things political and pop culture, there is no arguing that the GAME OF THRONES episode "The Rains of Castamere" (aka “Red Wedding” episode) was hands-down the most jaw-dropping, brutally shocking scene on TV last year – at least for those of us who have not read the George R.R. Martin series of books. It was visceral punch after punch to the gut as character after character met an abrupt and grisly end in a merciless massacre that seemingly came out of nowhere and left viewers wrung out in a heap on the floor in front of the carnage on the screen.

1. Best TV Moment of 2013
Arguably, the most memorable television moment of 2013 took place just as the New Year began. In the tenth episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM, which aired on January 2nd, Jessica Lange – veteran Academy Award-winning actress – did this…

…and the world sang along for nearly two and a half inescapably delirious minutes of collective happiness and utter pop culture insanity.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Musical Baker’s Dozen, Part II: The Top 13 Albums of 2013

We’ve arrived at the end of yet another year and my annual reflection on the music that made up the soundtrack of 2013. The past year in music could easily be summed up in a single word: Electronica. To this music lover’s ears, 2013 will be remembered as the year electronica matured and came fully into its own. It’s the year electronica ripened from an experimental musical medium to a mainstream genre, earning a deserved spot as a bona fide musical category. Some artists whose 2013 albums made my list – like James Blake, Jessie Ware, and the incomparable Alison Moyet – embraced the form completely, while several others used elements of electronica as accoutrement to augment the more traditional pop stylings of their albums. Whether artists used electronica as musical accessory or foundation, the music of 2013 was peppered with a decidedly electronic aesthetic.

Without further rumination, I offer up my list of 2013’s best albums – a baker’s dozen of the musical collections that resonated with me on the greatest levels.

13. Pet Shop Boys / Electric

Here’s what I like about Pet Shop Boys: Despite having been around long enough to easily coast into
a comfortable retirement, the electropop duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have stayed the course over the past three decades, creating albums that have never once lost the signature new wave synthpop sound that defined them. In 2013, they released their 12th album, ELECTRIC (continuing their long-running tradition of single-word album titles). This dance-floor focused set finds the duo in fine form, with their lyrical wit and undertones of longing once again marvelously married to the requisite synthesizer-generated pulsating beats. Dance music for smart people.

Standout Tracks: “Vocal” / “Love is a Bourgeois Construct” / “Thursday”

12. Cher / Closer to the Truth

Dismiss Cher all you want, but there is something to be said about an artist who releases her first studio album in over a decade only to have it become her highest-charting solo album in the U.S. to date. Yep, for as much as she’s become somewhat of a pop culture caricature, it’s hard to write-off the staying power of this 67-year-old with the distinctive contralto and penchant for Auto-Tune. CLOSER TO THE TRUTH, the iconic singer’s 25th studio album, finds the seemingly indefatigable songbird not straying too far from the anthemic dance-floor formula of 1998’s juggernaut BELIEVE or its 2001 follow-up, LIVING PROOF. But it’s on the mid-tempo tracks and slower numbers included here – like a stunning cover of Miley Cyrus’ “I Hope You Find It” – that we’re reminded that behind the glitzy Bob Mackie gowns and distracting plastic surgery and outrageously blunt Twitter outbursts that often eclipse Cher, the singer, there is a beautiful, breathtaking voice.

Standout Tracks: “Take It Like a Man” / “I Hope You Find It” / “Red” / “Favorite Scars”

11. The Neighbourhood / I Love You

Don’t let the decidedly British orthography of this American quintet’s name fool you – they’re about as LA as they come. Falling somewhere on the musical spectrum between Garbage and Foster the People, The Neighbourhood fuses lyrics full of petulant bitterness and angst-ridden melodrama and coats it with a thick, shiny pop-rock candy shell. The result is somewhat teen-leaning and shallow in terms of content, yet decidedly adult in terms of songcraft and production. An impressively mature, eclectic debut from a promising new band. 

Standout Tracks: “Sweater Weather” / “Female Robbery” / “How” / “Alleyways”

10. James Blake / Overgrown

This accessibly abstract exploration of space and sound is – on first listen – challenging to the casual musical ear. Majestically melancholic and moody, the deceptively sparse arrangements on OVERGROWN are layered one on top of the other like a ghostly blueprint, giving the album an undertone of restraint even when Blake’s warbling falsetto and muffled mumbles seem to drown in a cacophonic crescendo of electronic anarchy at times. The disarming minimalism of the songs here is punctuated – sometimes simultaneously – by icy mechanical clatters and lush caresses of the piano. Cold to the touch on first listen, the lyrically confessional tone of the tracks, coupled with Blake’s occasional vocal cracks and an almost unsettling silence between notes at times, imbue OVERGROWN with its ultimately satisfying emotional resonance. Contemplative and dreamlike, OVERGROWN needs to be musically absorbed versus consumed.

Standout Tracks: “Retrograde” / “Overgrown” / “Voyeur”

9. Lorde / Pure Heroine (Expanded)  

You’d had to have been living in a bubble to have missed the meteoric rise of this 17-year-old New Zealand pop prodigy in 2013. And in a year that saw other pop princesses behaving badly, it was refreshing to witness the unflappable self-assurance and mature demeanor of Miss Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O'Connor. Lorde became the first solo artist from New Zealand to top the domestic Billboard music chart, and the youngest artist to hold the number one chart position in the U.S. in more than 25 years with her inescapable breakout hit, “Royals”. With PURE HEROINE, her debut album that followed, Lorde proved she’d be no one-hit wonder. With obvious comparisons in vocal delivery to Lana Del Ray and Adele, Lorde sing-slurs over intoxicatingly stark electro-pop beats and sharp, thought-provoking lyrics that are devoid of sentimentalism and full of biting honesty. Her astute songwriting – coupled with Lorde’s wholly unique voice – gives the impressive collection an overall feeling of one big sarcastic, satirical wink. Treat yourself to the expanded edition of PURE HEROINE, which includes six additional tracks, most of which were culled from a previously released EP, THE LOVE CLUB.

Postscript: Producers of the HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE soundtrack wisely took advantage of Lorde’s widespread visibility and added her icily sublime cover of Tears For Fear’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” to their track listing. Well worth the download price and will fit perfectly at the end of your PURE HEROINE playlist.

Standout Tracks: “Tennis Court” / “White Teeth Teens” / “Million Dollar Bills”

8. London Grammar / If You Wait

At the forefront of this strikingly understated, self-possessed debut from UK trio London Grammar is the instantly memorable soprano of lead vocalist, Hannah Reid. Calling to mind Everything But The Girl and Florence + The Machine with a weighty huskiness and ethereal sophistication, she anchors this atmospheric pop-electronica collection with a maturity that belies her youth. Reid’s at times soaring, at times slurred vocals ground the lyrically plaintive songs with an aching earnestness that’s complimented to perfection by the subtle instrumentation provided by bandmates Dot Major and Dan Rothman.

Postscript: Reid was wisely plucked by electronica outfit Disclosure as a featured vocalist on their acclaimed 2013 album SETTLE for the stunning closer, “Help Me Lose My Mind”.

Standout Tracks: “Strong” / “Nightcall” / “Hey Now” / “Sights”

7. Alice Russell / To Dust

With TO DUST, the UK’s Alice Russell delivered the closest thing to a new Adele album listeners were likely to hear last year. Lurking just beyond the breakout successes of other female British soul singers of the last decade, Russell has inexplicably flown under the musical radars of most – and this is a crime. With hints of Dusty Springfield and Adele, Russell’s husky voice effortlessly envelops this collection of contemporary soul, the British soulstress' fifth solo album in a little under a decade. Like recent albums by contemporaries Emeli Sandé and the late Amy Winehouse, Russell’s TO DUST has a decidedly throwback feel that’s firmly embodied in a neo-soul freshness, leaving the songs with a retro vibe that never feels outdated.

Standout Tracks: “Hard and Strong” / “Heartbreaker” / “To Dust”

6. Tegan and Sara / Heartthrob

The indie pop-rock duo of Tegan Quin and Sara Quin – identical twin sisters, both lesbians, hailing from Canada – delivered the bounciest, most radio-friendly album of the year – and their career. HEARTTHROB, the sibling pair’s seventh studio album, is quintessential pop music, full of bright synthesizers and infectious choruses. Tegan and Sara throw down the power pop gauntlet on ten perfectly-crafted tracks ranging from breezy dance-pop anthems to bittersweet power ballads, whose retro 80’s grooves and dramatic walls of synths might just make you wax nostalgic for an old John Hughes flick like SIXTEEN CANDLES or PRETTY IN PINK.  But don’t let the spinning disco ball at the roller rink blind you to all the yearning and lamenting for loves lost and love gone wrong behind the lyrics. This is smart pop music, shrewdly crafted by two gifted singer-songwriters with deft ears for head-bopping melodies and the souls of poets who have loved, lost, and lived to tell about it. 

Standout Tracks: “I Was a Fool” / “Drove Me Wild” / “Closer” / “Shock to Your System”

5. Lady Gaga / ARTPOP

If Lady Gaga would just stop talking and making statements about…well, making statements, she’d likely not have suffered the rather brutal commercial backlash she did this year. ARTPOP will not, alas, be changing the world as we know it, nor was it a statement of epic proportion about much of anything. But it’s a damn fine pop album, filled with strong hooks, stronger beats, and luridly campy, Gaga-esque lyrics like: “Uranus! Don’t you know my ass is famous?” And a prediction: The record label will get smart and release “Gypsy” as a single – and it’ll be a huge hit for Lady G in 2014.

Standout Tracks: “Gypsy” / “MANiCURE” / “Fashion!” / “Do What U Want”

4. Sara Bareilles / The Blessed Unrest

On her fourth album, singer-songwriter Bareilles builds on the individual strengths of previous efforts to put forth her most stylistically serious and mature album to date. That she’s been recognized with some weighty Grammy nominations (including a nod in the prestigious Album of the Year category) is no surprise. From her inspirational battle cry on the booming anthem “Brave” to her more plaintive reflections on songs like “Manhattan” and “December”, Bareilles substitutes some of the trademark cheeriness of past endeavors for a more global sense of seriousness that adds some heft to THE BLESSED UNREST. Her songwriting acumen and keen ear for melody has only sharpened further on this superb collection of smart, humanistic pop.  

Standout Tracks: “Brave” / “I Choose You” / “Chasing the Sun” / “Little Black Dress”

3. Arcade Fire / Reflektor

For the follow-up to the decidedly linear rock approach taken with their Grammy-winning Album of the Year, THE SUBURBS, Arcade Fire did something illogically brilliant: They made an entirely different sounding album. The Canadian outfit’s fourth album is like a night out at the alt-rock discothèque – and if you think those terms incompatible, then you haven’t given REFLEKTOR a proper listen. In this 76-minute behemoth of a set, Arcade Fire lyrically and musically reconfigures the myth of Orpheus within thirteen propulsive, reverb-heavy tracks that are awash in bouncy synthesizers and fuzzy guitar licks in equal measure. The result is a spectacularly overblown masterpiece that eschews all pretense of subtlety for musical merrymaking that sounds positively symphonic at times.

Standout Tracks: “Reflektor” / “Porno” / “You Already Know” / “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”

2. Jessie Ware / Devotion

Why the UK’s Jessie Ware wasn’t a bigger breakout success in 2013 is beyond me. Hailed by ROLLING STONE as the missing link between Sade and Adele, Ware sings with a cool, sultry voice set against a slow-burning hybrid of pop, soul, and adult contemporary held surprisingly cohesive within a hypnotic electronica framework. Ware’s vocals are deceptively restrained on most of this chilled collection, but when her voice stretches from a breathy whisper to a muscular wail, the results are glorious. DEVOTION is an exquisitely sophisticated, understated affair on every level that only hints at Ware’s range and potential.

Standout Tracks: “Running” / “Imagine It Was Us” / “Swan Song” / “Devotion”

1. Alison Moyet / The Minutes

In her first solo album since 2007′s THE TURN, Moyet determinedly goes against market grains, shunning those clamoring for the 80’s nostalgia of her Yazoo days while politely flipping the middle finger to still others who would see her boxed in making covers albums with other female singers of a certain age.  Producer-programmer Guy Sigsworth – famed for his work with Madonna, Björk, Britney Spears, Alanis Morrisette, and Sweden’s Robyn – returns Moyet to the synth-heavy realm of earlier career efforts but never lets her slide into a full-blown nostalgia tour. The result is an album on which Moyet sounds as ageless as ever – yet relevant. Still boasting a singularly powerful voice full of depth and drama that’s complimented by trademark lyrics bursting with lush and poetic imagery, Moyet remains true to her artistic self while stretching her musical legs in a way that never seems forced despite the album’s youthful sonic wizardry. And although Sigsworth – who easily proves himself here to be Moyet’s musical soul mate – opts to surround the singer with jarring, jangling synthesizers, her voice is never lost within the – at times – bombastic electronic landscape. On “Horizon Flame”, the set’s opening track, she sings, “Suddenly the landscape has changed…” letting listeners know from the outset that THE MINUTES is both a welcome departure and return-of-sorts for the UK chanteuse.

Standout Tracks: “Changeling” / “Apple Kisses” / “Right As Rain” / “Remind Yourself”

Check out my list of favorite songs from 2013 here.