Category Archives: Uncategorized

How Survivor Changed TV

I previously discussed how and why Survivor is my favorite show currently on TV.

I found this article really interesting, discussing how the creation of alliances in Survivor ended up being a game-changer for TV in general.

Anyway, I’m excited for the season finale tonight. (For those of you watching, I’m on hashtag Team Aubry.)

 

 

Men in Black/21 Jump Street Crossover

Men in Black is one of my all-time favorites. And I thought that 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street were two of the funniest movies of the last half-decade. But the idea of crossing them over is just bizarre.

I have a lot of reservations about this. There’s nothing inherently funny or interesting about a spoof of an 80s TV show about cops pretending to be teenagers – What made the Jump Street movies so brilliant was the writing and directing. But this has a different writer and director. And the sequels to MIB were, well, I can’t come up with a nicer way to describe them than steaming piles of crap trying to coast on your memories of the original.

But it could be good. This certainly doesn’t seem like a cynical cash grab movie. Usually cynical cash grabs consist of a studio executive saying “Here’s a property people are vaguely familiar with that. Let’s make a movie out of that, plan out the toys and fast food tie-ins, and then come up with a story as an afterthought.” However, the idea of a MIB/21 Jump Street crossover is so strange that I can’t imagine a genesis for it that doesn’t involve someone coming up with a good idea for a story first, and then packaging the movie to support that. (Well, I can imagine a genesis that involves lots of drugs, but they’d have to come up with a good story in order to convince the studio to go along with that crazy idea.)

Hollywood may be out of ideas, but it’s nice that they can at least come up with interesting ways to combine their old ideas. This movie may end up being amazing or it may end up a disaster, but it’s unlikely to be a boring rehash of generic crap we’ve seen a thousand times before.

On Deadpool’s February release

When a movie is released in February, that means the studio executives think it won’t be very good. They’ve seen the movie, so they usually know more about its quality than we do.

Here’s a list of the top 200 February releases by opening weekend domestic box office. Most of them are pretty dreadful.

But sometimes the studio executives are wrong, and a movie they expect to suck will be good/embraced by audiences. The studios are most likely to underestimate a movie when it’s an unusual movie that doesn’t fit into a neat bucket and the studios don’t quite know what to make of it. Examples are The Lego Movie, Coraline, Kingsman, Warm Bodies, and (while this wasn’t my cup of tea) Passion of the Christ.

On the other hand, when a conventional movie is released in February, the studio is almost certainly correct it their belief that it is going to suck. For example, Daredevil, Constantine, Shutter Island, Friday the 13th remake from 2009, Norbit, 50 First Dates, Scream 3, Identity Thief, The Wolfman, Percy Jackson, Jumper, Die Hard 5, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Ghost Rider, Ghost Rider 2, The Monuments Man, RoboCop remake, The Pink Panther Remake, Jupiter Ascending, Dante’s Peak, Shanghai Noon 2: Shanghai Knights, Collateral Damage, Sphere, Hall Pass, and 832 different Tyler Perry movies.

Anyway, I think that Deadpool certainly fits into the “unusual” category. So that’s a reason to be hopeful about it despite its February release. And it’s at 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, and Deadline has a highly positive review. So I’m looking forward to it.

The Personas of the Current Saturday Night Live Cast

My wife and I were recently discussing Saturday Night Live, and she was explaining why she disliked the late 90s/early aughts era cast centered around Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, and Jimmy Fallon. She felt that they were just so incredibly smug. They had the attitude that the show was lucky to have them, and the audience was lucky to be able to watch them, and they weren’t shy to make you aware of that.

I felt like that was accurate. I wasn’t a fan of that era of the show either. (Though I do love the Celebrity Jeopardy skits.)

But it got me thinking about the personas/attitudes of the current cast. SNL frequently has skits where cast members appear as themselves, and also a lot of light characters where the underlying personality of the performer shines through. For most of them I couldn’t say whether these are their genuine personalities or are carefully crafted personas. If they’re phony personas, they’re consistent enough to be believable. (Except for Kyle Mooney.)

Here is how I would describe the on-stage personas of the current cast:

Vanessa Bayer: She comes across as insecure and ditzy, but manages to use that as a source of comedy.

Beck Bennett: He’s as smug as the late 90s/early aughts cast, without the talent to back it up. (In my opinion, he’s among the least funny of the current cast. Only Kyle Mooney is worse.)

Aidy Bryant: Like Vanessa Bayer, she’s insecure, but instead of being ditzy she’s more indignant about the way the world mistreats her.

Colin Jost: He’s like the overly eager smart kid who has been invited to dinner with his professors and is trying to impress them.

Taran Killam: He can’t believe he’s actually on Saturday Night Live, and is simultaneously thrilled and nervous about it.

Kate McKinnon: She always seems to be in character of whatever she’s playing, and doesn’t really have a persona of her own.

Kyle Mooney: He tries to play the socially awkward nerd, but does a bad job of it, so it seems horribly disingenuous. It’s like he’s playing the socially awkward nerd in an amateur musical. I always feel like at any moment, he could instantly cease his nervousness, say something pithy, wink directly at the camera, and then burst into song. As a real-life socially awkward nerd, I find this obviously fake portrayal to be condescending and grating, and think Mooney is actively anti-funny. Like, he sucks the humor out of any sketch that might otherwise have been good without his presence.

Bobby Moynihan: He always seems like he’s getting away with something, isn’t sure how long it could last, and is terrified that at any moment someone could yell, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be on Saturday Night Live!” and then drag him off the stage.

Jay Pharoah: Like Kate McKinnon, only plays characters and doesn’t have a persona of his own.

Cecily Strong: She shows up as herself, but when she does she’s kind of bland and doesn’t really have her own persona.

Kenan Thompson: Like Killam and Moynihan, he can’t believe he’s on Saturday Night Live, but he finds it ridiculous and amusing that they’re letting him be there. (Even though he’s been on the show for like half his life.)

Sasheer Zamata: Doesn’t show up enough to have her own persona.

Michael Che: He feels like he just doesn’t care and is phoning it in. Like he’s giving a presentation at a job he knows he’s about to quit. He doesn’t want to be a dick about it and is still going through the motions, but in his heart he’s checked out.

Pete Davidson: He shifts back and forth between being terrified that someone will figure out that he’s high on pot while on national live TV, and realizing that everyone already knows he’s high yet somehow he’s totally getting away with being on SNL while high as balls.

Leslie Jones: She’s an odd one because she has two entirely distinct personas. When she’s doing commentary on Weekend Update, she’s high-energy, fun-loving, and amuses herself by making people uncomfortable. (Especially Jost.) Outside of update, she’s angry and won’t take anyone’s nonsense. I have no idea if one or both of these personas are an affectation, or if they represent different sides of her genuine personality.

Jon Rudnitsky: Hasn’t been on enough to establish a persona.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with these descriptions?

Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spoilers)

As I predicted, The Force Awakens was reasonably entertaining, but nothing special. A dumb-but-fun action movie that is an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours, but would be easily forgettable if it didn’t have the Star Wars name.

I try to look at The Force Awakens as being in the same category of Oz the Great and Powerful; more or less a work of fan fiction. If there are any nuances or character beats that add to your appreciation of the original, then you can incorporate those into your view of the work. But anything that detracts from your feelings on the original can be ignored.

If at the end of Return of the Jedi there had been a title card saying, “And then 30 years later, some other stuff happened,” that wouldn’t change how much you liked the original trilogy. So you should try to treat TFA as being the same thing.

Good Stuff

Looking at TFA as its own movie apart from the legacy, there were some good pieces to it:

– I really liked the characters of Rey and Finn. They were well-established, interesting, had clear goals and character growth. These are characters that you could build a great movie around. Creating compelling characters is the hardest and most important part of screenwriting, so we shouldn’t gloss over this. Lawrence Kasdan did a great job introducing characters worthy of Star Wars, even if the rest of movie wasn’t.

– BB-8 was totally dorbs. The animators/puppeteers did an incredible job of conveying emotion and character through movement, head-angle, and beeps. I think BB-8 is cuter and better at inspiring affection than R2-D2, which is some high praise.

– The action scenes were well-shot and visually interesting. They were exciting and clearly conveyed what was going on.

Contrast this to the prequels, where the action consisted of characters running in arbitrary directions like smurfs fleeing Gargamel, and then there’s some variety of meaningless glowing light, and everyone either cheers or is sad.

The action scenes in TFA also had clear stakes. You knew who were the good guys and the bad guys, what each side was trying to accomplish, and what would be the consequences if they succeeded or failed. Whereas with the prequels, you’re watching battle-droids fight clone-troopers, and thinking to yourself, “Uh, which army of unlimited faceless interchangeable sort-of-but-not-quite sentient slaves who have been programmed to kill and are secretly being manipulated by an evil mastermind as part of his eeeevil plan that makes no god-damned sense am I supposed to root for?” (Or when battle-droids fight Gungans, and you think “I know the Gungans are supposed to be the good guys, but they’re so annoying that I kind of want them to die.”)

Unfortunately while the individual scenes had clear stakes, the overall plot did not. But I’ll discuss that in the Bad Stuff section.

– This isn’t so much praise as a lack of a complaint, but I didn’t mind the presence of old Leia anywhere near as much as I was expecting to. For years I’ve been arguing including her in the movie was a terrible idea, because nobody wants to see Princess Leia old and fat and ravaged by decades of heavy drug use. But the way they actually used her in the movie was fine. It makes sense for old Leia to be the wise leader, a minor character showing up in a couple of scenes to dispense sage advice and send the main characters off on their adventures.

Had they limited Han to this role as well, with him and Leia running the resistance and squabbling but clearly still loving each other, that would have been fine. But alas, they didn’t. Which brings me to the problems.

Bad Stuff

First off, I need to make clear that this is the sort of movie where the more you think about it, the more problems you will find. So you really *shouldn’t* think too hard about it, because it will only detract from your enjoyment. (Unless you’re the sort of person who takes pleasure in picking something apart. Which, as I explained in my last essay, is much more common after The Phantom Menace.)

I could keep pointing out flaws all day, but because I don’t want to think too much about it, I’ll focus on a handful of the most glaring issues.

– The biggest problem is that there so many parallels to Episode 4, to the point that it became obvious, glaring, and annoying. You always knew exactly what was going to happen next because you’ve seen this story before. I won’t bother laying out all the similarities, because you’ve probably already thought about them yourself. (And if you haven’t, I suggest that you don’t, because it will just irritate you.)

If I wanted a greatly inferior blatant rehash of Star Wars, I could watch Eragon. I never actually watched Eragon, but I read enough of the book to realize some kid had written down the plot of A New Hope, did a find-replace to change “spaceship” to “dragon,” and hoped nobody would notice. JJ Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan did pretty much the same thing, only without bothering to change anything. This would have been a much better movie if it had its own plot.

– Having old Han in the Obi-Wan role was a huge mistake. Han is supposed to be a swashbuckling seat-of-his-pants devil-may-care cowboy. Not a grumpy old man. And his presence was additionally problematic in that he ended up being the one to drive the plot, with the main characters Rey and Finn relegated to spectators whenever Han was around. The movie would have been so much better if Rey and Finn had been free to make their own decisions, figuring things out for themselves, and moving the story forward on their own.

– Too many wildly implausible coincidences that ended up being hugely important to the plot. I won’t take the time to list them because that would just annoy you. But I will point out a couple of the most egregious: That in the huge vastness of the galaxy, Han and Chewie just happen to stumble across the Millennium Falcon at the very moment that Rey and Finn desperately need their help. And that in the entire vastness of the galaxy, the Mos Eisley Maz Kanata Cantina that they go to for help happens to randomly be where Luke’s lightsaber is hidden.

– The MacGuffin of the Rebellion and First Order both trying to find Luke just didn’t work at all. The movie never established why that was important to either side, so the audience didn’t know what was at stake or why we should care. And there’s no way this even *could* make sense. If the wise space wizard who is interconnected to all things decides it’s best for the galaxy for him to go into hiding, why would the heroes assume he’s wrong and try to find him? Or if he was hiding because he felt bad about himself and not because he believed it was best for the galaxy, that’s much worse. That turns Luke into a pathetic whiny bitch who is willing to let the galaxy burn because he wants to go off and pout. That’s totally inconsistent with Luke’s character in the original trilogy, and would retroactively ruin the good movies if you considered this to be part of the same series. (Which is why I don’t consider TFA that way.)

In practice, because this MacGuffin had zero emotional stakes, the plot ended up getting wrapped around the Death Star 3: This Time It’s Slightly Bigger And Has Longer Range. But we’ve already seen the heroes take on the Death Star twice before, so yawn. Return of the Jedi avoided being repetitive by focusing on the emotional struggle of Luke and Vader trying to turn each other. And the external visual action surrounding the second Death Star was very different from the first Death Star. It was about Han & Leia’s commando raid on Endor, while the space battle was relegated to supporting characters. But in The Force Awakens, we saw all the same stuff happen as had happened in Episode 4, and, well, we had seen that before.

– An untrained former storm trooper who wasn’t even very good at storm troopering holding his own in a lightsaber battle against a sith lord? Come on. If a random schmo is just as good at lightsabering as a master of the Force who has years of practice, what the hell is the point of the Force? And if we as the audience know that, why should we be scared of Kylo Ren?

– It’s just plain annoying that there are characters named Rey and Ren. “Don’t have characters with confusingly similar names” is one of those things they teach you in the first few weeks of an introductory screenwriting class.

Conclusion

The Force Awakens is an entertaining mindless movie if you don’t consider it to be part of the original Star Wars trilogy that you know and love. If you enjoyed the JJ Abrams’ version of Star Trek or the Michael Bay Transformers, You’ll probably like Episode VII. Just don’t think too hard about it.

Xena: Warrior Princess Reboot

This is the first I’ve heard of the Xena reboot. Normally I’m skeptical of this sort of thing, but I think this could actually work out.

The original show had a fun camp factor that is sorely lacking from today’s media landscape. At least, it did until it went off the rails in its later seasons, as the show started taking itself seriously, tried to take a darker tone, and collapsed under the weight of its own mythology.

Hiring Javier Grillo-Marxuach is a good sign. His show The Middleman  is possibly my all-time favorite obscure show you’ve never heard of, and is exactly the right tone that would make Xena work.

So I’m looking forward to this.

Survivor – The Best Show on TV

Are any of you still watching Survivor?

For those of you thinking, “What, that show from 15 years ago? That’s still on?” you should definitely give it another chance. I think it’s the best show currently on TV, and it’s coming to the exciting conclusion of it’s all-time best season.

The thing about Survivor is that it’s constantly evolving. Contestants figure out winning strategies, other contestants figure out strategies to beat those, and the producers come up with ways to shake up the game and force the contestants into entirely new strategies.

If you care at all about psychology, strategy, game theory, or behavioral economics, you definitely need to be watching. There are all sorts of open questions in these fields that would be impractical to study in a lab. But CBS has been kind enough to spend millions of dollars running an ongoing experiment for us.

The first season started off being about personalities rather than strategy. Contestants voted to get rid of the people they didn’t like. Then someone figured out that if he got four people to vote as a bloc while everyone else was voting for whomever, they could control the game. Thus the concept of alliances was born, which laid the foundation of the game for the next 15 years.

The next several seasons were all about alliances. Whoever formed the bigger alliance and kept it faithful would eliminate all the other players, until they were the only ones left, at which point whichever sub-alliance was biggest would take over. This made the show predictable and boring, and you all stopped watching.

The producers recognized this was boring, and figured out ways to shake it up. They started having people swap tribes early on, to keep them from maintaining an alliance. Would people stick with an alliance from their original tribe, or stick with their new tribe, or pull in some of each? They also introduced a bunch of smaller features to add new twists and wrinkles to strategy. Hidden immunity idols, returning players, special advantages, Redemption Island, Exile Island, rewards that involve picking a handful of people to be physically separated from everyone else, a Final Three instead of a Final Two, etc.

Partly in response to these shakeups, and partly out of the idea that in order to win you need a strategy better than everyone else’s, contestants evolved. Instead of sticking with an alliance until they were the only ones left and then scrambling for a suballiance, contestants started thinking, “If I wait until there’s a few people left outside of my alliance, I can recruit them to knock off the strongest people in my alliance but outside of my suballiance. The target will never see it coming, and the people who are out of the alliance entirely will be thrilled to go along with me because it means they aren’t the ones getting voted out.” This became known as a blindside.

That become the norm, at which point strategy evolved again, as the smarter contestants said “I better pull off that coup earlier, so I can do it before someone else does it to me.” So alliance infighting kept happening earlier and earlier.

This season we’ve reached a point where the intra-alliance battles spark up before the alliance can even form. In other words, there aren’t alliances at all. The entire concept of an alliance has been replaced by temporary voting blocs, which last for at most one vote, and often don’t even last that long. A bloc will form, and then people will change their mind and form a different bloc a few hours later.

Another evolution of strategy is that contestants used to have the attitude of “I’m in my alliance and sticking with it, so if someone outside my alliance tries to talk to me, I’ll just tell them to buzz off.” But then they figured out that they want to preserve their options for a coup, or make sure they’re on the right side of things if someone else tries for a coup, so it’s much better to talk to everyone and be open to whatever they propose. Also you never know who has a secret hidden immunity idol, so it’s better to keep someone comfortable even if you’re planning to vote them off immediately. So now whenever anyone proposes a plan, everyone they’re talking to will generally say, “Yes, I will definitely go along with that,” regardless of if that’s a complete lie. Combine this with the demise of alliances, and it creates a wonderful chaos. Nobody, including the viewer, knows who is really in whose voting bloc, and none of the contestants have any certainty of what’s going to happen at any vote.

And all of this plays out in the pressure cooker of physical deprivation, having to deal with the elements and lack of food, while performing in incredibly demanding physical challenges.

It used to be that you could predict what would happen 4-5 episodes in advance. Now you can’t predict 4-5 minutes in advance.

The show has become completely brilliant, and I highly recommend you watch it. Also, let me know if you’re interested in joining my discussion list for the show.

Story and Literature

I recently read this noxious and silly article in Slate, about how adults who enjoy popular fiction that is billed as Young-Adult should be embarrassed that they read and enjoy it.

The article is easily dismissible pretentious crap.  The author comes off as someone who is bitter over her inability to write books that people want to read.  Rather than accepting that she’ll never be more than a niche author, or learning how to be a better writer so she can appeal to a larger audience, she blames the world in general for not recognizing her brilliance.

Plenty of other people have already criticized or mocked the piece.  (If you were aware of it at all before reading this blog post, it was probably because one of your Facebook friends was ripping it apart.)  I’m writing about it because the piece inadvertently brings up a key point about story, and how it relates to both popular/young-adult novels and “classic”/sophisticated/pretentious literature.

At its basic level, a story is about a sympathetic character pursuing a difficult and meaningful goal.  The story is the vehicle through which a movie or book conveys emotion to its audience.  It’s what ties a book/movie together.  Without that central story, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.

Story isn’t the only aspect of a book.  There are many others, such as character development, style of writing, literary allusions, symbolism, theme, mood, atmosphere, morals, metaphors, point of view, interesting ideas, moral ambiguity, and probably fifty more that you can think of.

The key difference between “literature” novels and popular or YA novels is that the literature novels incorporate a lot more of these aspects into the writing.  To the extent that these aspects are done well, they improve the book.  That’s a good thing.

But the problem is that many of these “literature” type novels focus so much on the other aspects of writing that they don’t bother with an actual story.  So the book ends up being just a bunch of stuff that happens, or even worse, a whole lot of nothing happening.

Without the story, most people aren’t able to truly engage with the book.  And without that engagement, they’ll be too bored to appreciate any of the other literary qualities.

This doesn’t apply to everyone, of course.  There are people who are capable of enjoying literary qualities without a story.  But people who enjoy story-free literature will always be a small niche compared to the broader public.

(To be clear, I’m not saying this applies to all literature-style novels.  There are plenty of pieces of classic literature with very strong stories.  Brilliant works like To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Huckleberry Finn, or most of Shakespeare’s plays. These are works most people can enjoy.)

By contrast, YA books tend to lack these literary qualities.  Without flowery language and symbolism to hide behind, all they have left is story.  If they have a strong enough story, they’ll be enjoyable to the general audience.  (Excluding pretentious twits who want to look down on books that normal people like.)

Going back to that silly article in Slate, it seems to revel in how superior it is for a book to *not* have a story.  Praising some of the author’s favorite books explicitly because they have unlikable characters and a complete lack of a coherent ending.

That’s not to say she’s somehow wrong for liking those books.  Her tastes are her tastes.  Though I pity her inability to enjoy books most people like, I envy her ability to enjoy books most people would find boring.  I also envy people with the ability to enjoy televised golf.  In both cases, they have options for entertainment that would not be enjoyable to me, so they’re better off.  Life is more amusing when you’re easily amused.

But having personal tastes that allow you to enjoy storyless literature, like having person tastes that allow you to enjoy televised golf, does not give someone any sort of moral superiority.  And anyone that suggests it does deserves to be mocked.

Fast Food Review – Taco Bell Breakfast Menu

Let me say right off the bat that I’m not one of those food snobs who looks down on the idea of Taco Bell breakfast.  It seems that most of the commentary I’ve seen on the subject comes from a place of complete contempt for the concept and for the type of person that would even consider eating there.

This isn’t that sort of review.  I like fast food.  I especially like innovative and novelty fast foods, that cheaply and conveniently bring me taste sensations that I’ve never had before.  So I was excited for Taco Bell’s breakfast menu, and I really wanted it to be good.  But unfortunately, it just wasn’t.

Waffle Taco

This is the item that people were most intrigued about.  I feel like most people expected it to be either awesome or horrible, or possibly both at once.  But the reality is neither.  It’s just bland and tasteless.  Here’s a picture:

20140420_110625

The biggest problem is that, despite it being called a waffle taco, there’s no waffle there.  A waffle is sweet, crispy on the outside, and fluffy in the middle.  Instead, the taco is on a vaguely waffle-shaped piece of soggy spongy flatbread with no flavor whatsoever.  The sausage is also very bland.  The eggs, cheese, and bacon are about what you would expect from fast food, but there are plenty of much better ways to eat fast food eggs/cheese/bacon.

If you’re really interested in the concept of combining sweet and savory breakfast foods, you’d be much better off with the McDonalds McGriddle.  Personally I’m not a fan of that, but at least the pancake buns taste like pancake and the sausage tastes like sausage.

A.M. Cruncwrap

This is basically a large breakfast burrito that’s shaped differently.  You already know what a breakfast burrito tastes like.  This is like that.  In terms of premium fast food breakfast burritos (or burrito-like items), it’s okay.  I prefer the Carl’s Jr. Big Country Burrito, which has chicken gravy in it, or the McDonalds McSkillet which has roasted vegetables.  But the A.M. Crunchwrap gives you what you expect, and if you order it you won’t be disappointed.

Breakfast Burrito

I hadn’t intended to review this, because a small breakfast burrito is a small breakfast burrito.  But my wife ordered it, and discovered this:

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Notice how little actual stuff there is in that burrito, compared to how much tortilla there is.  So I definitely would not order this again.  You’re much better off with the McDonalds Sausage Burrito, which is cheaper and has more filling in it.

Cinnabon Delight

Holy crap these are good. They’re basically deep-fried cinnamon donut holes filled with delicious goo. I would say this is the best desserty item offered at *any* major fast-food chain. I feel sorry for all the parts of the country that haven’t been able to enjoy these for the last few years. (They aren’t quite as good as actual Cinnabons, but they’re also only 260 calories, compared to a Cinnabon which is… holy crap! 880 calories! Yeah, I knew there was a reason I rarely eat at Cinnabon despite it being delicious.)  Note that these are available all day – not just at breakfast.

Conclusion

Speaking as a fast food fan who normally likes this sort of thing, I would not return to Taco Bell for breakfast.  The only good item is the Cinnabon Delights, which are available all day.  If you’re hungry and no other fast food places are convenient, the A.M. Crunchwrap isn’t a bad choice.  But it isn’t worth a special trip.

(Let me know in the comments if there are any other weird fast food items you would like me to review.)

Films Re-imagined as Ottoman Art

This slideshow is pretty entertaining.  Try to look at the pictures without reading the captions, and see how many you can identify.

Note that despite the title of the slideshow, these aren’t cult films.  They’re all well-known famous films, several of which I’ve already written about in the Movies We Still Care About series.