Monday, August 03, 2015

OVP: Silkwood (1983)

Film: Silkwood (1983)
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, Craig T. Nelson
Director: Mike Nichols
Oscar History: 5 nominations (Best Director, Actress-Meryl Streep, Supporting Actress-Cher, Original Screenplay, Editing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

I do adore Meryl Streep, this is a true statement.  But on occasion I do miss her a little bit.  The reality is, for those who have grown up with a Devil Wears Prada-style Meryl that the Grand Lady of American Cinema wasn't always so stylized in her work on the screen.  Yes, there's little doubt that the past decade has been terrific for Streep, and that she's managed to parlay her work into being a movie star for a new generation, but it's worth remembering that she used to be a more naturalistic performer.  When Streep rose to prominence, there was such a sense of excitement around her, and the way that she could inhabit characters and create these deeply real, fleshed-out human beings.  She also, and this seems a bit harsh, used to be in better movies.  Perhaps few have been as good, though, as Silkwood, her 1983 drama about the life of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear whistleblower and labor activist from the 1970's.  The film, over thirty years old now, still feels fresh and relevant, a near-impossible coup for an issue film, but Mike Nichols and Streep herself aid this with bravura acting and a script that is more about human ignorance and bullying against a crusader than a specific issue.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Karen (Streep), in many ways in the same vein as Erin Brockovich who would succeed her.  She's not a great mother (her children don't even live with her, a less forgivable reality in 1983 than today, but the indictment still rings the same), she is sexually promiscuous at work (she flashes a coworker in a crowded room), and she seems to just sort of skate by with an okay performance while claiming she's doing a great job (we all know that person at work).  She works, however, at a nuclear plant, and is frequently dealing with issues of nuclear safety.  The film features the famed Silkwood shower scenes, where after nuclear exposure a person (in this case, frequently Streep) has to endure a harsh, rough shower and forced scrubbing from coworkers in order to "prevent" radiation from the plutonium.

The film is certainly at its best when it focuses on Streep and her role as an unlikely crusader.  One of the more interesting points of the film that separates it from other "unlikely crusader" style films is the way that they don't point out how odd it is that Karen, who hasn't seemed to care about anything but herself before this fight, is the one doing it.  Karen Silkwood doesn't have her "come to Jesus" moment, and in many ways is doing this to save herself and find purpose in her life rather than initially as a safety precaution for her fellow workers.  Still, the way the script unfolds around her becomes even more haunting as the film progresses, as thirty years later we have a sense of the lies that she was being told, and the ways that the the plant would eventually go belly-up in the wake of her death due to the misplaced plutonium.  Watching her coworkers use arguments like "I want to keep my job" and "it's fine the way it is" are scary not only because you know they're essentially in the building that is guaranteeing their death, but because you see that sort of ignorance still today, where people claim climate change can't be real not because of the science but more because "it would cost jobs" and "it's too expensive."  A lot of the film, quite frankly, resonated with me as a climate change crusader, and I felt that you could pretty easily bring the entire story to the present day without much issue in that regard, which is petrifying.

The film received five Academy Award nominations, with Streep positioned best-of-all in the bunch.  There's something so mesmerizing about Streep in the early-1980's, watching the way that she doesn't dumb down her performance, the way she's so on in every scene.  In many ways her work here recalls Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and There Will Be Blood in the way that she abandons any sense of the movie star behind the work, instead just becoming an iconic character.  I feel like in some ways, despite some really amazing work since, she hasn't done that in modern memory in quite the same way since Miranda Priestly.  Cher, gaining her first experience of "serious" acting, is fine but not in the same league as Streep's lesbian best friend-she and Kurt Russell both have their moments (I love the question mark that Cher leaves on her character, whether or not she sold her out in order to keep her job), but really they just sort of our sidelined by Streep's outstanding work (Kurt Russell was definitely a dish in this movie, though, it's worth saying).  Mike Nichols' directing is taut and clear as always-he keeps slightly extended-shots when he needs it, and the ending is filmed with just enough malice to get across his opinion of what happened to Karen Silkwood without legal being involved.  Combined with Nora Ephron's succinct script, the film is certainly well-done.  The movie might have a tad bit of sprucing up of the supporting characters (I particularly never quite got what was going on with Craig T. Nelson), but that's a pretty quiet quibble for such a film.

Those are my thoughts on this movie-what about yours?  Are you with me that Silkwood still feels remarkably prescient today?  Do you occasionally miss the Meryl of yore?  And considering she had an amazing cast of Debra Winger, Julie Walters, Jane Alexander, and the victorious Shirley MacLaine competing against her in 1983, do you think she deserved that Oscar?

OVP: Original Screenplay (2008)

OVP: Best Original Screenplay (2008)

The Nominees Were...

Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter, WALL-E

My Thoughts: After the highly-disappointing turnout for the Adapted Screenplay race, part of me was worried about what the originals had in store for me, but that worry was foolishness, as this is easily the superior of the two nominated groups.  Quite frankly, this may be the best lineup, period, of 2008, and I'm more than excited to say that, in a rare circumstance, I actually like all five of these nominated works.  If this had been the Best Picture lineup for Oscar it would rank amongst the best of the new millennium.  We'll start out with the name you're most likely to recognize up-top if you're a Millennial on Instagram: Dustin Lance Black.

Yes, Dustin Lance Black is the guy with whom most of gay America would love to body swap.  Youthful in an otherworldly sense, talented enough to have an Oscar in one hand and a pile of future Clint Eastwood scripts in the other, and of course he gets to go to bed with Tom Daley every single night.  Not shabby work if you can get it.  Still, we aren't here to admire or envy, we're just here to judge, and boy does he create something wonderful with Milk.  Unlike some of his later work (principally J. Edgar) the film doesn't shy away from being out-and-proud.  There's a sense in mainstream gay Hollywood cinema to make the main protagonists more heteronormative, but that's not the case with the flamboyant but still true-to-life Harvey Milk.  The film doesn't underwrite side characters, giving plum assignments for the likes of Emile Hirsch and James Franco, and the dialogue and story is flowing and occasionally quite funny.  A home run in every sense.

The same could be said for Martin McDonagh's hilarious In Bruges.  My best friend and I saw this together and couldn't stop texting lines from the movie weeks after we saw it, which is a sign of a strong script when you can memorize key moments in just one sitting.  The film reeks of instant classic-the interplay between the three main actors, the choice use of profanity as a blunt instrument of comedy-it works just wonderfully.  Swearing has never felt this fresh and creative, and I adore the way that it occasionally intersperses random dialogue (like Ray's conversation during his first date with Chloe) and incredibly devastating heart (Ray's little boy soliloquy) amidst the rapid-fire jokes.  This is a comedy that is consistently, constantly funny not just from sight gags and talent, but a deft and rich script.

Happy-Go-Lucky is also a script that defies expectations.  At this point going into a Mike Leigh film it feels impossible not to have your hopes up as he's so wonderful so often, but he constantly finds new ways to create meaning and re-examining of our lives.  I love the way in particular Poppy unfolds, with her getting situations that largely go her way even if we don't quite see that at the beginning-her career, her relationships, her boyfriend-we see that slowly until it sort of hits us at the close that she will receive a no-strings-attached happy ending, which is the opposite of Scott, the man who is clearly enamored with her but doesn't know how to proceed in life to find a sense of happiness.  Leigh is one of those people who juggles the warm fuzzies and the cold pricklies of existence better than anyone I know, and frequently lets the bitterness and pathetic permeate his scripts, which gives them such authenticity.  Another wonderful installment in his filmography.

Frozen River is the film that it's probably been the longest since I originally saw it, but it still burns in my memory, principally because of Melissa Leo's spectacular work as Ray Eddy.  Courtney Hunt's script is remarkable not just because it's very compact (made in under 100 minutes), but also because it never gets preachy.  Hunt's film clearly has a political message, but that's not what the script provides-it's just that she so wonderfully gives us realism and cold that it's impossible not to feel a hurt for the working poor who make their struggles through this film.  That's what the best films do, though-they demand your attention even if they aren't standing on the pulpit.

Another film that clearly has a message, though it's a little less subtle about it would be WALL-E.  It's interesting that WALL-E manages to get nominated for a screenplay award, since so many people think of screenplays simply as words on a page, and not as something like stage direction and writing the next moments of the movie, but that's really where WALL-E thrives.  So much of the film is based off of us gaining a feeling for WALL-E's loneliness, and how much of a blessing Eve is for his world, which is based entirely on the script, which gives us clear moments amidst the sea of day-to-day robot cleaning activities that WALL-E must partake in; without the writer we wouldn't have the clear emotional fulfillment brought on by these two mechanical lovebirds.

Other Precursor Contenders: As we realized in the Adapted Screenplay race, the Globes inexplicably went for all adapted so they had no contenders in this race.  The BAFTA Awards skipped most of this lineup, keeping only their winner In Bruges and Milk, choosing instead to select Changeling, Burn After Reading, and I've Loved You So Long.  The WGA Awards (which, as we should always recall have odd eligibility rules, also skipped out on nearly everyone (picking Milk as their only Oscar-related choice, and DLB won the trophy), with Burn After Reading, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor, and The Wrestler all making the cut.  I honestly can't quite tell between Vicky and Burn for the sixth place finish since both writers are huge favorites in this category, but I am sticking with Woody Allen as this is the only recent film of his that got mad critical love and yet somehow missed out on an Oscar nomination.
Films I Would Have Nominated: As I already said, this is a superb lineup and part of me doesn't want to alter anything.  That being said, I'd probably still allow a little bit of room for Burn After Reading, a hilarious Coen Brothers entry even if not a major one, which finds the oddest of humors and gives a lot of really great actors (particularly Brad Pitt) hilariously funny things to say.  Still, I do applaud the Academy's roster.
Oscar’s Choice: As the only Best Picture nominee, it was a pretty easy win for Dustin Lance Black and Milk.
My Choice: The real winner here is the audience (oof-talk about your cliches), but the true winner is In Bruges, which is the funniest film I've seen in years and an absolute joy of a screenplay.  I would follow that with Milk, Happy-Go-Lucky, WALL-E, and Frozen River.  

Those are my thoughts-what about you?  Are you with the Academy in honoring Dustin Lance Black, or do you prefer the black Belgian comedy?  Why do you think the Globes skipped out on such a splendid lineup, and are you as excited as I am about the plethora of contenders that the BAFTA, WGA, and Oscars all found to honor for this category?  Share your thoughts below-we get into the acting categories on Wednesday!

Past Best Original Screenplay Contests: 2009, 201020112012, 2013

Top 200 Favorite Songs, Part 1

All right, all right, all right.  So I have been working on a number of projects for the month of August that I'm super excited to start kicking off, and the first of them I am going to lay on you right now.  Yes, as we have finished the Top 15 TV Shows project (finally), this past weekend, we're now headed straight into my Top 200 Favorite Songs.  Every three years I update my Top 200 Songs list, and I figured that in the Summer Months of August that I would indulge in sharing this with you!  I will point out ahead of time that this will not be a case similar to the Top 15 TV Shows (it will not take me over a year to finish-I have most of these articles already completed, so no delays)-we'll be doing ten songs for each of the next twenty weekdays, and then we'll be done for the month.

You might be wondering how I came up with the list, and while it's a little bit science, it's mostly just personal opinion.  I'm not going to vouch, exactly, that these are the 200 Best Songs Ever, but they are certainly the ones that I loop continuously on my phone or computer, the ones that I love to listen to the most (I also picked the artist that I most loved listening to the recording, though as I'll be using YouTube videos they might not be the exact one that I listen to all day long).  I should warn you that I have an extremely eclectic taste in music.  Literally everyone says that, but the reality is that it's not actually true because they immediately dismiss rap, country, opera, and pretty much everything but rock and pop when they make that statement, but I don't-you're going to find all of those genres on this list.  I picked songs I love to listen to, love to dance secretly in my car to, songs I love to cry in the dark to, and songs that just fill me up.  As a result, I hope like any favorite songs list that you come across some new music, and if you don't, that I at least gave you a fun playlist for the next twenty weekdays to enjoy on your way to work.  Without further adieu...

200. "Downtown," Petula Clark (1964)

I used to remember my mom singing this in the car when we were driving around when I was a kid.  I feel like my parents shaped so much of my taste in music, and in general gave me an appreciation for a world that wasn't of my own era (something I feel most people don't have, and as a result I am eternally grateful).  I love the effervescence Clark brings to this song, and her thrill in just stepping outside.

199. "Town Called Malice," The Jam (1982)

I first heard of The Jam when Lane on Gilmore Girls was putting together her list of musical influences and a guy she was interviewing for her band had never heard of the band, and she was agog.  I hadn't heard of the band either, so I rectified this immediately as I didn't want theoretical judgment from a fictional character-what I found was a fresh punk sound that I couldn't stop, well, jamming to as a result.

198. "I Only Have Eyes for You," The Flamingos (1959)

Is there a smoother, richer love song to dance in the moonlight to?  The group may not have been a major act of the 1950's (this was by far their biggest hit), but The Flamingos knew doo-wop like none other and reinvented this old Harry Warren song in their own jazzy style.

197. "April Come She Will," Simon & Garfunkel (1966)

No one in the world can sing like Art Garfunkel.  This is probably never quite as evident as on this slow, sad, and wonderful song.  Singing the months of the year as if they are his long-lost loves, the song's meaning of a slowly forward moving time is something that becomes more and more evident to me as I get older.

196. "Love and Happiness," Al Green (1972)

This may be TMI, but Al Green does something to me.  Not sure exactly what it is, but when the Reverend is in the house I am listening.  The confidence in his voice, the swagger-Al Green can create such a wink in his songs, and I love this song with its come-on opening ("something that can make you do wrong can make you do right") and then it just sails into such a fantastic swing.  Hot damn.

195. "The Sound of Silence," Simon & Garfunkel (1966)

Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk to you again.  Does "The Sound of Silence" mean the same thing to you as it does me?  Probably not.  Does its intense poetry, daunting imagery, and clear melody affect everyone in some way they can't quite explain?  Absolutely.

194. "Dream On," Aerosmith (1973)

Steven Tyler is almost certainly insane, let's be honest.  We all realized when he hosted American Idol-it's a statement of fact.  That doesn't mean that his voice can't shred glass.  He might be too old to rock the glam makeup and his lips may be made of rubber, but his prowess singing "Dream On" always makes me forget it-such a kinetic rock song.

193. "Nights in White Satin," The Moody Blues (1967)

You're going to hear me discuss my parents a lot in these write-ups.  I remember my dad playing "Nights in White Satin" growing up and thinking it sounded like when you're about to fall asleep.  It might be a dream or a nightmare, but it entranced me.

192. "Strange," Patsy Cline (1962)

It's impossible to believe that Patsy Cline died at only the age of thirty.  How could someone with a voice that immortal, who somehow recorded SO many songs that it feels like forty years of hits, have had such a short life?  Indeed, it is strange, and like so many of Patsy's songs, this song features her favorite subject: the weird ironies of love.

191. "Sweet Child O' Mine," Guns 'n' Roses (1988)

I told you we were going to get eclectic, going from Patsy Cline to Axl Rose.  And yet, who can deny this song, with its amazing guitar riffs and wonderfully simple nostalgia not making it onto a rundown of the greatest songs of all time.  Admit it-this was your favorite Guitar Hero song to pretend you could jam out on.

And there you have it-the first ten!  Share your thoughts on these songs-do you have a favorite?  Did you have one you're discovering for the first time?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Everybody's Still Linking for Glenda Jackson

Agh!  When I was doing yesterday's Everybody's Linking for the Weekend, I completely forgot my favorite link of the week-I blame this on Cara Delevingne's poor attitude and ridiculously hard-to-spell last name.  The post deserved its own link, though, so please make sure to click over to Luke's article about the 1970's Best Actress Oscar races!  Not only has Luke guest-blogged on this site before, but also he's a great writer and shares my love of all things Oscar minutia.  I was particularly interested looking at the link in his fascination with Glenda Jackson.  For those unfamiliar, Jackson was a MAJOR actress of the 1970's, netting four Oscar nominations and two wins (and likely came very close in 1978 with a third for Stevie, had the studio done a better job of releasing the film).  Normally I have heard some critics scoff Jackson's omnipresence in the decade frequently comparing her to another 1970's aberration Marsha Mason (who doesn't get as much love in the link), but Luke, a critic I frequently concur with, makes a strong case for her, keeping her in the top three for all of her competitions and even gives her two Oscars.  Click on over and find out for which films as well as for discussions on Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda, and insist that Luke make us wait less time for the 1960's than he did for the 1970's (he's also profiled the 80's, 90's, and 00's, so you should really just feel the love in general over there and have an Oscar-tastic afternoon).

John's Favorite Shows #1: Lost

In case you're new to the blog, I'm doing a countdown of my favorite television shows and their best episodes.  If you’ve missed any of them, check out the links at the bottom of this post for all of the past roundups.

See, I told you I wouldn't make you wait as long.  We're actually starting up a new project tomorrow, so I figured I wouldn't leave you hanging on this particular post.  We have arrived at long last at my favorite series of all-time, Lost.  Yes, the show on ABC about the Island.  The one everyone complains about not being "satisfying" and having a suck-y final season.  To those people, I say get a life (I actually say a lot more colorful things, but I'll try to refrain as it's Sunday morning).  Seriously-anyone who watched the entirety of Lost and were still complaining about the minutia of what the purpose of the statue was and nothing else didn't get the point (if you complain AND still loved the ending, you are forgiven as we all still wonder about that statue).

Honestly, I sometimes think that Lost may have been made specifically for me.  It has literally everything I look for in a work of art.  There's multiple characters, complex ones with lots of different directions and layers.  There's thick plotting, storytelling, and attention-to-detail; you're rewarded if you get obsessed, and there's no easy answers, but always clues.  It somehow manages to be a mystery, an epic, an ensemble, a tragic romance, and a tale of loneliness, hope, and purpose all in one.  It's literally everything I'm ever hoping to see in a television series, and in my opinion, though it may have dipped slightly, it was always wonderful and always the best thing on television at the time.  There's a reason that below there is an episode from literally every season of the series-I never lost interest, and was always onboard.  Honestly, though I love literature and movies a bit more than TV, if I lined them all up in an impossible "best of the best" list, Lost would top my favorite books and favorite movies.  As a result, most of these episodes would quite frankly make my list of favorite TV episodes, period, and so I hope you enjoy our last little sojourn through my favorite TV shows.

(Note: I normally don't get all spoiler alert-y on these posts as the show has been off-the-air for five years, but since it is my mission in life to make people, specifically my brother, watch the series, I am just putting the alert out now that this thing gets spoiler-y).

10. "The Other 48 Days" (#2.7)

This is one of the best episodes in one of the most maligned seasons, and I don't care that some people weren't fans of the Tailies, the reality is that this group of survivors would have been just as compelling to watch as the ones we had loved for over a season.  Eko, Bernard, Libby, Ana Lucia, even the quickly disappearing Cindy were all worthy of their own storylines.  It's a testament to the writers that they so quickly made us engulfed in these characters' lives, and that they were able to so properly illustrate the "it could have been worse" answer to the initial first season's hardships.  This is perhaps Rodriguez's finest hour in the show, and she earns the starring role she'd get for the remainder of the season.  Kudos also have to go out to the editors toward the end, as we are washed into the episodes we already know with speed and respect to the storyline (and that wicked timpani).

9. "Walkabout," (#1.4)

The first episodes may have started out iconic, but it's this episode that began the truly legendary stature of Lost.  This episode features Jack seeing his dead father across the way, Locke facing the thing he would become in the jungle, and a truly emotional realization during the funeral that this is the way of life from now on, and in the cases of some characters, forever.  To top it off, though, we are getting the best of the best with Locke's sideline story-we see that this is a man who can so easily see the faith in the island, mostly because he was the first it touched.  His obstinacy in the face of impending doom would be his greatest ally on the island, and only when he gave in to it did he falter.  Locke is the most fascinating character in the show's long history, and so it is fitting it starts out for him with such an emotional catalyst.

8. "Exodus, Part 1" (#1.23)

From start to finish, a blissful ride; the second part gets all of the credit, as we officially go down the rabbit hole in that episode, but this one's a doozy too.  Every single flashback is relevant, even Shannon's as she tries to incarcerate Sayid and proves how she does and doesn't need her brother.  There are better ones, of course, with Kate pinning down Edward, Jack meeting Ana Lucia, and Sun's sneaky smile about speaking English.  There really isn't anything to put down in this episode.  Quite frankly, it's the only episode in the entire series that I think had this been the series finale, I would have been okay with it.  The iconic launching of the raft (one of the best moments in the history of Lost) steals the show, but there's also the trek to the Black Rock, the haunting black smoke, Rousseau's warnings about the Others.  The next episode may be even better, but this was a killer and a thriller.

7. "There's No Place Like Home, Parts 2 & 3" (#4.13)

And so there were six.  At the end of the previous episode, quite frankly it was difficult to see how the six would be sorted out from Jin, Michael, Desmond (well, it turns out, not so much Desmond), Juliet, and Sawyer.  It turns out some people would have to die, some would merely be left behind, and some would be presumed dead.  It's interesting to see, after all the work people did to get off, that the only people who were truly happy at the end of this episode were likely Miles, Charlotte, and Locke, all of whom stayed on the island.  I also think it's interesting that a season that largely gave us a bridge between the first three and final two seasons gave us so few answers, and yet was ridiculously entertaining.  Like The Two Towers, it doesn't say where we're going or how we got there, but it's a portrait of what the world (in this case, the world of the Island), is completely capable of being.  Brilliant on every level.

6. "Deus Ex Machina" (#1.19)

This is perhaps where the show truly began for me.  It was no longer a mere curiosity, it was no longer an excellent, bump-in-the-night sort of thriller, but in fact something more-something to ponder, something...higher.  It's also the moment where the Island storylines would remain the more interesting aspects of the story.  Everything is in the episode, which of course features the one-and-only John Locke at its core.  There is deception, in the form of the most sinister father to enter Hollywood's psyche since Noah Cross.  There's a fascinating island co-storyline, with John Locke's paralysis returning as he tries to unlock the mysteries of the hatch.  There's even an hilarious side story about Sawyer needing glasses.  And yet, in those final moments of the episode, we are treated to something more-the light coming from the hatch, and a man so lost, he'll desperately cling to anything including a metal hole in the middle of an uncharted island, to find purpose.  And, as luck would have it, the meaning of his life would be hidden behind that door.  It's a masterpiece, and the start of something wonderful.

5. "The Incident, Parts 1 & 2" (#5.16)

Finally, after a sleepy season, we get the masterpiece we so deserved.  Everyone is firing on full cylinders (except the missing Desmond) for the entire episode.  Ben and Locke on their quest to kill Jacob, Ilana with her package full of John Locke, Juliet and Sawyer with their soon to be expired love, Jack, Kate, Hurley, and of course, the magnificent duet of Jacob and the Man in Black.  Every scene is filled with significance, and with a sense of impending war.  I love that all of these story lines come to a head, and some people are blinded by their own rage (Ben, Jack, Sawyer), and others suddenly see the light (Sayid, Juliet, Richard).  The next season wouldn't have had quite the finite urgency that it did without this watchful, brilliant episode and the way that it unites all of the castaways in their fight to find home and salvation.

4. "The Candidate" (#6.14)

I can genuinely say, with only three episodes left in the series at "The Candidate," that the show had never quite gotten me, emotionally, like this episode.  I'd sat through character deaths, I'd sat through disappointment and betrayal, but this was almost too much.  Watching as Sun, Jin, and Sayid disappeared into the ocean deep, the stuff of one of the most diabolical schemes in TV history, I felt like that innocence still left in the show had slowly vanished, and the harsh reality was we were all taken, at least a little bit, by this long con.  In the long pantheon of Lost, this is the moment where we realized that evil could indeed win, and that we may have to sacrifice our beloved characters in order to defeat it.  The screams of Claire as she's abandoned, the look of malice on Locke's face as the sub begins to sink, and those final moments where Sayid sacrifices himself, the Kwons are drowned and pulled apart, and our four survivors bury themselves in grief-never again would we so trust the producers, or doubt that Lost can make masterworks.

3. "The Constant" (#4.5)

When discussing the "best" episodes of Lost there is probably only one episode that consistently shows up on every person's list, and it is this one.  There is no question about the brilliance on display here, and the trust that the writers have in the audience.  For starters, we abandon the back-and-forth, and the story is told almost entirely in linear action, and we get an explanation of what may be happening on the island, and perhaps more than any episode, we get an explanation of what this Island could be capable of.  This is, perhaps, the turning point in the series, where it goes from a quest to getting people rescued and the mysteries of the Island to what their purpose in life is.  It's complex science on network television, and the show never shies away from it.  And it gives us the most satisfying moment in my personal favorite love story on the show, that of Penny and Desmond.  The episode really seems to have been an entire season's worth of memories (the new freighter team, the auction house, the explanation of time travel), and the fact that it happened in 44 minutes, well, that's just icing.  When all is said and done, when I think of the reason that I love Lost, this episode remains MY constant.

2. "Exodus, Part 2" (#1.24)

And so we say goodbye to Lost's best season, and head down the long winding road to the present day. I've heard the writers only planned the first season out, and then planned out the next five seasons.  While I question this, one could definitely believe it based on the great tying-together of this episode.  The series quite frankly could have ended with the two-part Exodus, and it would have made sense-this show needs to maintain mystery.  Thankfully it didn't, and we can enjoy this as a cliffhanger rather than a horizon.  The show is littered with iconic moments, from man of faith/science to the black smoke to the blowing of the hatch.  Like Part 1, everyone brought their A-Game, and in what is the longest episode in Lost until the finale, we really give everyone their moment to shine.  In the final moments, though, this becomes one of the best episodes in the history of the show, particularly with Walt's kidnapping and the blowing of the hatch.  The legendary Locke/Jack rivalry came to a head-there's so much to say about it, but at the end of the day it can be summed up with one look at the photo above-looking ahead to the madness that would come from opening Pandora's Box.

1. "Through the Looking Glass," (#3.22)

My favorite episode of my favorite show.  Its competition relies heavily on mythology of the Island or the Others, but this one relies on more conventional, but just as compelling mysteries, primarily-will they get off the Island?  It opens up a whole host of new questions-whose boat is it exactly?  Why do they have to go back?  But posing questions isn't the only purpose of this show-it's a show-stopper of an episode.  The way that they lead you on for the entire episode, making you think that this is another vestige of Jack's horrible divorce to Sarah (until they sucker punch you at the end), the way that we finally get to be on the inside of a crazy person's plans (Charlie), the way that Rose tells Claire to congratulate Charlie for his bravery-this is a marvelous piece of television, and one that will be remembered always in the land of the Lost.

And there we have it my friends-the best episodes of Lost!  What are your thoughts-what did I miss or shouldn't I have included?  And what series are you surprised never made it on the list?  The comments are there-go forth and make them.

For more of my favorites: GirlsPushing DaisiesHow I Met Your MotherGame of ThronesThe OfficeAlly McBealSex and the CityDesperate HousewivesSouth ParkMad MenThe Twilight ZoneFriendsGilmore Girls, The Simpsons

Saturday, August 01, 2015

John's Favorite Shows #2: The Simpsons

In case you're new to the blog, I'm doing a countdown of my favorite television shows and their best episodes.  If you’ve missed any of them, check out the links at the bottom of this post for all of the past roundups.

Wait, what?  I read this blog regularly and I have never seen anything about a TV Show episode countdown-how could this be?!?  If you're asking that first, thanks for reading regularly and second, yeah, that's on me, not on you.  Last year I started a series of the best episodes of all-time of my favorite series, but got stuck when I hit #2 (they are some of the most-trafficked posts in the history of the site and some of my favorites, so if you haven't read them yet please click the links at the bottom of the page, and remember the date they were published if you're grousing about the fifth season missing for Game of Thrones).  It's hard not to be daunted when picking the best episodes of the television series The Simpsons, though.  574 episodes and counting, so many of them absolute brilliance, and yes, as a true fan I have seen literally every episode.  I actually started watching the show in the mid-90's when my parents had banned me from watching the show-my brother had the same idea, and we were both sneaking around watching it on different televisions when we both laughed at the same spot, thus blowing both of our covers (after that, in a far more environmentally-friendly way we perused clandestinely on the same television).

Creating a Top 10 list for it, though, was a challenge not just because of the daunting task ahead, but also because with dozens and dozens of well-rounded side characters, it's hard not to look chummy and a bit like you aren't spreading the wealth.  My favorite characters on the show are Lisa, Sideshow Bob, and Mr. Burns, and I could easily just fill up a Top 10 with those three characters as the central figures and be happy, but that would leave out Marge, Homer, Bart, Moe, Edna, and all of the other Springfield-ers that fill Matt Groening's magical world.  As a result, I tried to spread the wealth a bit, but you can judge in the comments if I did what I intended.  Since you've already waited long enough, I won't make you stave off any further.  Here are my Top 10 Simpsons episodes:

10. "Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in 'The Curse of the Flying Hellfish'" (#7.22)

Possibly the prettiest episode of the series (the animation is flawless), this is also one of the greatest stand-alone style episodes, where Abe, dismissed by his grandson for being an old coot, realizes that he is one of the last surviving members of the Flying Hellfish, and has a tontine with Mr. Burns involving some priceless World War II artifacts (in true Simpsons attention to detail, the paintings depicted are actually lost WWII art).  The episode features Mr. Burns at his most diabolical, including hiring a bumbling assassin to off Grampa and consistently tries to murder he and Bart.  The episode is unique not only because it's one of the few where Homer, Marge, and Lisa don't factor in at all (this is clearly a Bart-centered episode), but also because it's so action-packed, essentially serving as a stirring adventure movie more than your average Simpsons installment.

9. "Sideshow Bob Roberts" (#6.5)

"The dead have risen-and they're voting Republican!"  So proclaims Bart in arguably my favorite line in the entire series.  This is one of the best Sideshow Bob installments in the series, a wonderful parody of the entire political system, with Bob being released from prison and promptly runs for political office against the inept Mayor Quimby.  Bob wins the election, but it turns out he was pulling a Mayor Daley-style election-style, having dead citizens of Springfield out voting for him to ensure his victory.  The political junkie in me is overjoyed by all of the detail in this episode, from Birch Barlow's blowhard impression of Rush Limbaugh to the Waylon Smithers Deep Throat aspect to the final courtroom speech from Bob.  Best of all may be Kelsey Grammar actually being a charming, confident conservative in real-life, finding a strong corollary between art and life.

8. "Treehouse of Horror V" (#6.6)

I'm just now realizing these episodes were back-to-back-awesome.  You can't do a Simpsons rundown without at least one Treehouse of Horror, where all pandemonium is thrown into the carefully structured universe of Springfield, and this is certainly the best one.  When the clever Soylent Green-parody is easily the worst of the bunch, you know you're in for a treat. You also have the brilliant "Time and Punishment," where Homer throws us into a series of visually-popping realities ranging from a world where Bart and Lisa are giants to Ned Flanders as a cruel dictator (considering he's also the devil, it's sort of a cold rag the producers throw on religious zealots in the series).  Best of all you have Homer doing his best Jack Torrance in "The Shinning," with a dead ghost Moe and a soon-to-be-axed Willie filling out the supporting cast.  I cannot stop laughing during the episode's best sight gag, where Homer continually chops into doors saying not just "Here's Johnny," but also taglines for The Late Show and (successfully) with 60 Minutes.  It's smart comedy at its brainiest.

7. "Lisa's Substitute," (#2.19)

Lisa Simpson is a tragic figure in a lot of ways.  A young woman with sparkling ideals, stuck in a house that frequently dismisses her as a kook or someone that is "outside the norm," she needed a role model, and that comes in the form of substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom.  While both Marge and Homer have had near affairs or cheated on the family, no one did it in the emotionally-starved way that Lisa did, as she finds a newfound hope in a role model who celebrates her individuality.  The episode's best moments may not just involve Dustin Hoffman's wonderful guest spot (he was billed under the pseudonym Sam Etic), but the way Lisa blasts Homer for being callous and how Marge a-characteristically stands against her husband stating, "no little girl can be happy unless she has faith in her daddy."  In one of those rare moments in the series where Homer isn't just given a free pass, he actually apologizes, finds some solace in Lisa, and she forgives him.  It's a beautiful moment in perhaps the series most poignant relationship (Homer and his completely opposite daughter Lisa), and one that decades later is still fondly recalled by fans of the show, including yours truly.

6. "A Streetcar Named Marge," (#4.2)

I promise not to make this entire list about Homer-shaming, but if Lisa got her day against her father's oafishness in Number 7, then "A Streetcar Named Marge" gave his wife a moment of pride over Homer's callousness.  Marge is playing Blanche DuBois in a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but Homer is acting with indifference toward her artistic and creative side, and she fuels her anger at him to drive her performance.  The show is wonderful not just because it allows Marge to have a personality outside of being just a wife and mother, but also because it shows the weird dynamic in their relationship has to be stretched on occasion, as Homer is too unkind to Marge too often, and she reaches a breaking point.  This alone would qualify it for the list, but we also have one of the series' great B-plots with Maggie at an Ayn Rand School for Tots, where she parodies The Great Escape to get back at her teacher for taking away her pacifier.  So memorable was this story that it became the source of The Longest Daycare, which scored The Simpsons their first Oscar nomination.

5. "Bart Sells His Soul," (#7.4)

Occasionally in the 1970's, the era of sitcoms that Matt Groening would have grown up with, episodes would try to encapsulate something more important, something uncomfortable for the audience.  It was a moving experience, principally because it showed that our beloved comedic characters whom we would go to for warmth and familiarity could have their lives interrupted by a crisis.  This is probably the closest The Simpsons ever got to that, with Bart selling his soul to Milhouse without realizing its worth.  In the end he gets it back from the always kind Lisa, but in the meantime he goes on a spiritual journey, feeling lost and alone. This episode has been taught in religion classes about the nature of the soul and spirituality, and is surely the darkest moment in the history of the series.  It also proclaims that Bart is familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda, a passion I wouldn't have expected from him.

4. "Mr. Plow," (#4.9)

If ever there was a season of television that the Emmys should be ashamed for not letting be nominated for Best Comedy Series, it is the fourth season of The Simpsons.  Basically every episode from the season is considered a classic, perhaps none more iconically than Mr. Plow, Homer's snow-plowing business that creates him much success, and garners him the most familiar ditty of the series (just try not to sing it right now).  The episode features an intense rivalry with Barney, who essentially pushes Homer out of business with Linda Ronstadt somehow in tow, and has wonderful touches from Homer doing an impression of an old woman (Forbidden Widow's Peak) to God himself ruining both of their businesses at the end of the episode.  All-in-all, it might be a cliche to put it on a list of the greatest episodes, but like "Time Enough at Last" and "The One Where Everyone Finds Out," "Mr. Plow is undeniable.

3. "Lisa's First Word," (#4.10)

Once again we have back-to-back episodes, but unlike "Mr. Plow," this one is iconic for the ridiculously beautiful ending to the episode.  The characters, while trying to get Maggie to speak, stumble instead into a story about Lisa's first word.  We were still close enough to beginning of the series to get away with a story of the children being in the actual 1980's, rather than later gags where flashbacks couldn't rely on pop culture, and so you get wonderful sight gags of Homer singing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."  The episode's ending is what sets it apart, though, as the producers got Oscar-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor, one of the biggest stars to grace the series, to be the voice of Maggie Simpson, having her first word be "daddy."  It's a beautiful little moment that Taylor reportedly did dozens of takes to get exactly right, but it's perfect that the silent Simpson get such a gargantuan titan of acting to be her vocalist.

2. "Marge vs. the Monorail (#4.12)

For the record, the eleventh episode (since we went three out of four here) of "Homer's Triple Bypass" was also quite wonderful and poetic, but if I have to pick a favorite episode from the best season of the series, it would assuredly be "Marge vs. the Monorail," a wonderful parody of The Music Man which involves Marge trying to solve the city's infrastructure problem with the millions that Mr. Burns has been forced to spend as a result of EPA violations.  However, Marge is overruled by a huckster named Lyle Lanley, who convinces the city that they need a monorail to improve transit.  He shortchanges them on supplies and eventually they build a monorail (with Homer as conductor, naturally) that is clearly destined for doom.  The entire episode is classic, with a lovely cameo from Leonard Nimoy and the classic "Monorail Song" at the episode's center.  All-in-all, a great showcase for both Julie Kavner and the late, great Phil Hartman.

1. "Cape Feare," (#5.2)

How do you pick a best episode of a series that has run for 26 seasons?  Well, you start with an episode that would result in iconography for the series (that score!), you mix in a plot so impressively full that you don't need a B-story, and then you mix in references from everyone from Gilbert & Sullivan to Linda Lavin.  Honestly-this is pretty much a perfect 22 minutes of television, with Kelsey Grammar wonderfully-playing his role as Sideshow Bob, creating the model for pretty much every later endeavor he undertakes, while the entire Simpsons clan gets consistent humor and sight gags.  Parodying the similarly-named Robert de Niro picture of two years earlier, this shows exactly what I love about The Simpsons: it's biting, wry, and not afraid to keep the humor sophisticated, even amidst the occasional belch.

And there you have it-my list of the Top 10 episodes.  I swear you won't have to wait as long for Number One on this list as you did for Number Two, but in the meantime, let's discuss-did I make the right call for the Matt Groening series (I'm a little disappointed I didn't pick any of the episodes past Season 7, as there's still a lot of great stuff there, even if this list sort of backs up the "Simpsons classic years" argument)?  If not, the comments are there for the typing!

For more of my favorites: GirlsPushing DaisiesHow I Met Your MotherGame of ThronesThe OfficeAlly McBealSex and the CityDesperate HousewivesSouth ParkMad MenThe Twilight ZoneFriends, Gilmore Girls

Everybody's Linking for the Weekend

I am up EARLY today, a sign that I went to bed too soon last night (always a temptation on a Friday), so I better get this out before I inevitably take a mid-morning nap.  Let's get started, shall we?:

In Entertainment...

-CNN has a rundown of some of the entertainers that have Walk of Fame stars despite scandal, in the wake of the furor over Bill Cosby and whether or not his star will be taken down (the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce repeatedly has said no to the request, citing any star as being part of the historic fabric of the Walk).  While there are names you'd expect such as Charlie Sheen, Pee-Wee Herman, and Michael Jackson in the video, I'd never even heard of Spade Cooley (and I'm willing to bet you haven't either), a Western swing singer who was convicted of murdering his wife, but had his star in place prior to the trial.  The real question is how did Fatty Arbuckle (who is not in the video) end up with a Walk of Fame star considering his scandals happened decades before he won the star?

-Playbill has a fun rundown of actresses that Hollywood forgot but Broadway discovered in the process.  The list focuses principally on musical actresses so no one along the lines of Estelle Parsons, but with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Christine Ebersole, and Harriet Harris on the list it's hard to quibble.  Also, when is Catherine Zeta-Jones finally going to return to Broadway?  I want to hit the boards next April-CZJ, if you're listening, perhaps a return engagement?

-Speaking of actresses that Hollywood can't seem to figure out what to do with and then head to New York, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o is going to make her New York Stage debut at the Public Theater this fall in a play called Eclipsed, about post-colonial Africa.  Every time I recall Nyong'o I think about how she and Margot Robbie both competed for an Oscar nomination that year (I'm convinced that Robbie was around seventh place in that race, and had Julia Roberts stayed lead like she should have may well have scored her first nomination as a result).  Nyong'o has a part of some sort in the upcoming Star Wars film and will be in The Jungle Book as a voice role, but it's hard not to see Robbie's career (what with a prestige Z for Zachariah coming up this year as well as two franchise plays next year in Tarzan and Suicide Squad) as the one that Hollywood noticed, despite who ended up winning the Oscar.  I'm not knocking the talented Robbie of her success, but it's pretty obvious there's a racial bias happening here.

In Politics...

-Politico has a rundown of some of the usual swing suspects and how things might fall with the upcoming Planned Parenthood vote in the Senate.  From the looks of things Heidi Heitkamp, Bob Casey, Jr., Mark Kirk, and Susan Collins all seem opposed to the bill, likely ensuring that it won't hit the 60 votes to get it to land on the president's desk (he would veto) while Sen. Dean Heller has said he will vote to defund, but Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Joe Donnelly, and Joe Manchin are all still on the fence.  It'll be an interesting vote to go down considering the flack Planned Parenthood has received, but I generally agree with Sen. Collins on this one-investigate whether Planned Parenthood violated any federal law or medical ethics, and if not then move on as this organization provides not only family planning resources, but also cancer screenings and STD-testing that are vital to saving lives for poorer Americans.

-The continued push for more Animal Rights' legislation in the wake of Walter Palmer's killing of Cecil the Lion is interesting.  There seems to be a push to ban tigers as pets and legislation will soon be forthcoming from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to extend rights to near-endangered and threatened species such as the lion.  My thoughts on this are pretty clear from the above link, but all I can say is it's about time.  It's also, admittedly, a silver lining in this tragedy, though I will admit that one of my truly great pet peeves about Congress is, with as many people in that body as there is, along with their staffs, it's always disappointing to me that we pass so few laws-I wish we had more legislation like this, truly helpful and meaningful legislation, getting voted upon every day in Congress.

-While I applaud the Boy Scouts of America for including gay scout leaders again (though as a reminder, it's 2015 and this should have happened years ago), it's worth noting that there are still multiple laws that legally discriminate against GLBT people.  Everything from housing discrimination to employment discrimination to bans on giving blood are still legal in many states, so as you take down the rainbow filter off of your Facebook profile, remember that the fight isn't quite over yet.

Shameless Self-Promotion of the Week...

-My constant Box Office worry of the year.  Seriously though-I'm going to cry if Jurassic World, one of the worst films I have seen all year that is essentially a poor man's remake of Jurassic Park, manages to upset Avatar or Titanic two populist but excellent movies, at either the domestic or worldwide Box Office-this weekend should be telling if it's possible.

YouTube Video of the Week...

-The below video illustrated so well my thoughts on Cara Delevingne and her attitude during the Good Morning Sacramento interview that I skipped my rant yesterday which I was planning about it.  This is a brand-new movie, it doesn't have a guaranteed hook, doesn't have any household names (arguably John Green is the most well-known person attached), and while it appears likely to recoup its costs, it isn't going to be The Fault in Our Stars, so the stars need to be out full-force to support it.  Delevingne may be a top model, but making the transition from model to actress is extremely difficult (just ask Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford, and Claudia Schiffer, all of whom were far more famous than Delevingne when they made it to the movies).  The Rene Russo's of the world who can make that transition seamlessly are rare, and Delevingne needs to check herself before a Fair Game ruins her career (also, I love Whoopi's reaction in this, even if Michelle Collins and Raven Symone's obnoxiousness makes me not want to return to The View outside of short snippets-seriously, Raven, just stop, blaming behaving like a jackass on a "generational difference" makes all Millennials look bad):

Just One More...

-I am seriously so mad at the IOC lately-what is with them continually picking countries that are too dangerous or too unprepared for the Olympics?  First they go with China, whose air pollution problem is egregious, for the 2022 games, and then we learn that Brazil is not only struggling to prepare for the Olympics, but also that the waters there are dangerously polluted.  Rowing, open-water swimming, and yachting are principle sports of the Olympics, and already they're having Olympians try-out in what is essentially raw sewage.  Seriously IOC-you need to look into not just security risks but also environmental risks for the athletes.  If there's a massive boycott by some athletes who don't want to risk bacterial infections or worse, I wouldn't be surprised.