Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bamboozled, or, Blackface is Bad The Movie

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Southland Tales, calling it the most bizarre major studio movie of our era. Bamboozled is the only film I've seen that can really be considered competition. But while Southland Tales is an incoherent mess, it's still a single incoherent mess. Bamboozled, on the other hand, suffers from severe Multiple Personality Disorder.

The main part of Bamboozled acts as a kind of race-tinged Network with a dash of The Producers. Damon Wayans stars as the only black writer for a major network, who gets called out by his boss (Michael Rapaport) for his tame, Cosby-like show pitches. Wayans decides to prove...something or another by pitching a show so hideously racist that his boss will understand...I really don't know. One of the major problems with the film is that both the characters and the film itself appear to have no real concept of cause-and-effect. At any rate, Wayans' pitch is Mantan: The New Millenium Minstrel Show. Because the film takes place in something that only superficially resembles reality, the hideously racist variety show somehow becomes a massive hit. Hilarity fails to ensue.

Network took a similarly absurd premise and generally made it work, based on superb over-the-top performances from its cast, thanks to dramatic monologue after dramatic monologue. Bamboozled's cast can't hold its own. Wayans' annoying affectation of an accent helps bring most scenes around him to a screeching halt, and Jada Pinkett Smith is merely competent in a film that demands insanity. The smaller characters are often better, such as Mos Def's inane radical rapper, who demands to not be called by his slave name, instead as his revolutionary chosen name: Big Black African. (note: most clips are rather not safe for work if you don't have headphones.)

When Mos Def and Michael Rapaport's characters are on-screen, the film starts to work as a satire or parody filled with outsized characters, absurd situations, and a devastating critique of the kind of institutional racism which masquerades as multiculturalism and tolerance. The high point of the film occurs when, once the New Millenium Minstrel Show becomes a hit, the network brings in a PR guru to counter claims that the show might be racist. Wayans is still operating under the impression that he's making the show to prove the point that the show is bad (or whatever), and skillfully eviscerate the consultant's defense of racism:

(consultant scene begins at roughly 8:12 and continues into Part 8)

These scenes are from a movie I'd love to see. They just happen to collide with another movie I'd also be interested in seeing, and the collision turns out terribly for all involved. It often feels like, during the creation of the film, Spike Lee came across so much intense historical footage of blackface, sambos, and minstrel shows that he wanted to make a documentary about just how ghastly this stuff was, and how it still pervades our culture. Several montages of these historical artifacts, as well as a collection of Sambo dolls Wayans begins to collect, and some beautifully tragic scenes where the actors put on their blackface in the traditional fashion show Lee's unsuppressed rage and sadness. They also never mesh with the Network-like satire or the disposable relationship drama of the rest of the film. More than anything, most of Bamboozled feels like several unrelated scripts thrown together, with actors playing the same characters while the tone, style, and plot change from scene to scene, almost totally inexplicably - it's often downright amateurish.

The end of the film, which follows Network's lead into over-the-top violence and tragedy, just makes things worse. Wayans, at some point, inexplicably changes from hating his show to being its staunch defender, and everything just falls apart from there. It ends with Wayans repudiating the entire minstrel show concept, destroying his entire collection of Sambos, and closes on a montage of minstrely and sambos. The montage is shocking and powerful, and includes thingslike tiny Shirley Temple dancing in a minstrel show, but it ends the film on a simplistic, unsatirical note: blackface is bad!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gateway to Geekery: Babylon 5

Babylon 5 is perhaps the only television show ever to have a multi-year plot structured in advance of its creation, and the follow-through for that is entirely effective. However, the plotting is so far-sighting, that it can be initially imposing - particularly given that the pilot movie and first season of the show are occasionally less-than-competent.

I was a fan when it aired, and, with some trepidation, I decided to rewatch it again recently. Happily, the show was still good, and easily held its own against other 90's SF, like Buffy or The X-Files. The Renaissance Poet watched it as well for the first time, and since she didn't have a nostalgia cushion, so I decided to blast through the crap and get to the good stuff. By and large, it worked.

There's another minor complication - particularly in the first and second seasons, episodes aired out of order. I don't know if this was fixed for DVD releases. I do know that seasons 1 and 2 on Hulu are in airing order, not proper order. Generally this isn't terrible (it wasn't gutted like Firefly) but occasionally watching in the proper order makes the show make much more sense, especially in season 2. A master chronological list is available here. Bookmark it!

Season 1

Season 1 is the most iffy of all the Babylon 5 seasons. First of all, as a television show, B5 was struggling to find its footing, especially given that no science fiction show other than Star Trek had ever aired successfully on American TV. Second, the plot of B5 unfolds slowly, and it's hard to see it as anything other than a procedural/monster-of-the-week show most of the time.

It's easiest to sort the episodes into three categories - those critical for the main story (which are also generally the best episodes), watchable episodes which bring up somewhat important character or universe background, and those which are just plain bad.

The best way to go about watching the season is to watch the first two episodes, in my view. If you think "Hey, this is fantastic!" then watch 'em all. If you think it's moderately interesting, then watch the first two categories. If your patience is tested...well, sorry about that, but it does get good. I swear. Watch the critical episodes and get to Season 2 as quickly as you can.

Critical Episodes

1-01 - "Midnight on the Firing Line"
1-02 - "Soul Hunter"
1-05 - "Parliament of Dreams" *
1-06 - "Mind War"
1-08 - "And The Sky Full of Stars"
1-13 - "Signs and Portents"
1-16/17 - "A Voice in the Wilderness" pt. 1/2 **
1-18 - "Babylon Squared"
1-21 - "Legacies" *
1-22 - "Chrysalis"

* In terms of plot, these aren't absolutely necessary. However, they both introduce important characters, and are better-quality than others.

** If you're really, really disliking the show after the first couple of episodes, skip to this one. It's early B5 at its best - good character development, interesting storyline, and for the first time, it has a successful sense of humor! If this doesn't grab you, it may be that nothing will.

Watchable Episodes
1-03 "Born to the Purple" *
1-09 "Deathwalker"
1-10 "Believers"
1-12 "By Any Means Necessary"
1-15 "Eyes"
1-19 "The Quality of Mercy" *

* These episodes are directly referenced later on, more than once in certain cases, so they're somewhat important. On the other hand, they're not terribly good, particularly "Born to the Purple." A plot summary may be the best way to go.

Eminently Skippable

1-04 "Infection" (this is pretty clearly the single worst episode of the entire five seasons)
1-07 "The War Prayer"
1-11 "Survivors"
1-14 "Grail"
1-20 "TKO"

Season 2

Most of the second season is a step above the first in quality and importance. One episode, though, just kind of raises a stink: 2-04 "A Distant Star"

The Movies

Babylon 5 had one pilot movie, and five other made-for-TV movies.

"The Gathering" - This is the pilot movie, and has several problems. First of all, it's kind of bad. Second, it was scored by a totally different composer than the rest of the series, and B5's music is one of its most distinctive and good qualities. It was later re-edited for TNT with proper music and some of the crap eliminated, but it's still not terribly good. I advise skipping it, or watching the edited version after you're sure you like the series.

"In the Beginning" - A prequel movie made for TNT. It's a little contrived, but has some occasional moments of excellence. I would recommend watching it, at one of three points: as the entry into B5; after the two-parter in season 3; or when it was produced, between seasons 4 and 5.

"Thirdspace" - Made at the same time as "In the Beginning," it's kind of a reimagining of Babylon 5 as a big dumb action movie, and reasonably successful at that. Watch after its chronology at any time (around the middle of Season 4).

"River of Souls" - Set after the end of the last normal episode, but before the grand finale. It's pretty good. Watch anytime in the second half of the fifth season.

"A Call to Arms" and "Legend of the Rangers" - Two pseudo-pilots for spinoffs, one of which came to be, the second of which didn't. I didn't like "A Call to Arms" and I heard "Legend of the Rangers" was worse. I'd skip 'em.

In conclusion, I am a geek.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Glee: It's gonna be a bumpy ride

Glee has a wonderful premise for a show, and it happily lives up to the promise of that premise much of the time. Its combination of wicked humor, talented performers, the fertile setting of a high school glee club all combine to make a show that seems like it can't miss, right?

When it plays for farcical laughs, Glee is great, and when it adds songs that play off that energy, it's fantastic. However, most of the time, it doesn't do that. Glee has a big problem: it can't decide if it's Arrested Development with songs or Desperate Housewives with songs. There is a lot of melodrama. An excess of melodrama. Mostly involving babies. For several episodes in a row, the main plot was something involving one character's pregnancy. It's not terribly funny, and because we don't really know the characters, it's not terribly moving. It's like the Simpsons quote: "There is no moral, it's just a bunch of stuff that happened."

Glee is occasionally praised for its insane energy with regard to plots and subplots, but in the first season of a show, that can often mean burnout. It's occasionally compared to The O.C. and Grey's Anatomy, two shows that lost a lot of their drive early on, but it reminds me most of Battlestar Galactica. That too had a sensational pilot and first thirteen episodes, but it just moved so quickly that it forced the writers to come up with more and more outlandish things as the show moved on, eventually resulting in a near-complete collapse. Glee is moving faster and doesn't have as much of a core. At the rate it's going, it could be a disaster by the middle of the second season.

There is some hope, though, but only if the writers manage to pull it together. Glee focuses on the teachers and adults as people more than its teen-aged students, who only occasionally move beyond one-dimensional stereotypes into, well, two-dimensional stereotypes. If it takes some time and turns them into people instead of Wheelchair Guy or Asian Kid and Other Asian Kid, it should be able to take a deep breath and improve its quality. In roughly the same number of episodes, Freaks and Geeks managed to make its student characters three-dimensional and likable - Glee can too.

Second, Glee's music choices vary wildly, and they represent two different visions for the show. The first vision is of Glee as musical theater. This is when the show takes itself literally. A kid who's sad decides to sing a sad song. The plot exists to provide a vehicle for the characters to experience emotional swings, and sing about those swings.

I tend to get tired of Glee when it goes in this direction. The serialized nature of television, combined with the melodrama required to make the musical theater work, seems like it contrives to make every episode end on one character gazing longingly at another/into the distance, singing about how sad they are, while the energy required to maintain the melodrama simply cannot last. The songs also tend to be montages, and decidedly unrealistic in a way that musical theater just can't do.

The other version of Glee is a a comic show about musical theater. Much of the time, Glee works this way. The music is diegetic and, in order to work within the show, it has to resort to absurd and farcical situations. The best example of this is, of course, "Single Ladies:"

Making the show about a musical theater troupe, instead of musical theater itself, also allows for the occasional take-the-brakes off number, where hey! This cast is talented. Let's let them show just how damn talented they are, in exactly the kind of competition that glee clubs do. The final episode of the first 13, "Sectionals," finally allows Lea Michele and the rest of the cast to show off just how well they can sing.

I hope that Glee's show-runners get together and figure out just what kind of show they're doing, and go with it full-force. But that's just a hope. I expect that it'll burn out within a year or so. Which is unfortunate. Still, it's fun now, and it should be fun for a while.