Monday, April 28, 2014

Parks and Recreation (Season 6) (2013-2014)

Parks and Recreation Season 6 Cover

Up until that shocking twist to close out the season, Parks and Recreation was, in its sixth year, a show definitely feeling its age, tired and spinning its wheels, as the characters just kept acting out the same formulaic jokes week after week. Even big moments, like Ann and Chris leaving Pawnee, or the Unity Concert (which turned out to be, not only a season finale, but essentially the finale to the entire series as it had been up to that point), were unable to move me, because it just felt to me as though the show had, some time ago, already said all it had to say about these characters, and these farewells were only reiterating once more their love for this town that, many times during this season, seemed not to deserve it.

The high point of the season was surely the addition of Craig (Billy Eichner), the fearsomely intense, hilariously overdramatic new member of the parks department, who, while fairly one-dimensional in his humor, at least brought something different to an office dynamic that was growing stale. I also quite enjoyed villainous Councilman Jamm's appearances this season. I had found the character irritating when introduced last season as Leslie's nemesis, but, given fewer opportunities this season to stand in the way of progress (since Leslie herself seemed less often to be working toward any significant reforms), he came off more as just an amusingly creepy weirdo. Jamm's photoshopped pinup of Michelle Wie was, along with Craig's regular blowups, probably the most chuckle-out-loud gag for me this season. My favorite episode, meanwhile, was Episode 8 "Fluoride"—a bit of a throwback story, 1) because it featured Tom involved with and invested in his government job, and 2) because it followed one of Leslie's projects through its complete process, more or less, from proposition to strategy to execution—a crude yet effective primer on how the bureaucratic game works.

The topical elements, which, at the show's best, were always as core to Parks and Recreation's identity as its humor, this season included the vote to recall Leslie from city council, an episode titled "Filibuster," and a major plot line involving Pawnee absorbing its bankrupt neighboring town of Eagleton. Even as the Pawnee-Eagleton merger was ostensibly the central story of the season, however, it felt more like a subplot, consistently the "B" story in episodes more concerned with Ann and Chris's relationship, Tom's entrepreneurial endeavors, and, finally, Leslie's pregnancy. Even on the occasions when episodes would actually focus on the work of the parks department, the challenges always proved mild and short-term, the resolutions easy. Once again, the answer was to stage a big community event, which this time came together with nary a hitch. And this was a season where, with the recall, Leslie suffered her greatest setback on this show that has, for years, been a rare font of optimism about government and politics in the U.S. Yet even that seemed, for Leslie, the "B" catastrophe, compared to her best friend leaving Pawnee.

The recall was a move that struck me as disappointing yet necessary. On the one hand, it was disappointing, because it so quickly undid what had been the culmination of four seasons and, in my opinion, the proper climax to the series—Leslie winning a seat on the city council at the end of Season 4. And it was necessary because the show would never have been able to progress further dramatically to top Season 4, so long as Leslie remained stuck in her new city council position through its normal term. Even after the recall freed her up to pursue larger ambitions, however, how much further could she realistically go in the span of this consistently low-rated sitcom? As soon as Season 4 ended, I wanted only to see Leslie Knope go on to become governor, then president. But unless the show was going to continue on for another decade at least, that wasn't happening.

Which is why the three-year time jump in the final scene of Season 6 was so exciting. Even if it doesn't lead into a presidential run for Leslie, at least it will allow us to skip over years that, although probably productive for her in the parks department, might appear stagnant to viewers. Other shows have pulled similar stunts before, to varying degrees of success. Sometimes it's a desperation move—a "hail Mary" play to try to reinvigorate a dying series. In the case of Parks and Recreation, this year was actually an unusual case, because, despite the show's mediocre ratings, it got renewed for another season fairly early on. Nevertheless, it was in need of a creative shot in the arm, and I hope this twist does the trick, because, even as the show has declined, I maintain that it's an important program, without which the TV landscape would be bleaker.

Again, a fairly steadfast source of optimism in an area where pessimism is the rule in this country, Parks and Recreation, beyond just the laughs, employs the television sitcom as a platform to teach its audience, not only how government works, but that it can work. A cynic on politics when I first started watching this show (and, to be honest, still so in my most sober moments), I've since gone from thinking, "The system is hopelessly rigged," to "Well, it could work, if only everyone in government were like Leslie Knope," and, finally, to "I want to be like Leslie Knope when I grow up." Indeed, the character of Leslie Knope has been a more outspoken voice for progressivism than most of our real-world elected liberals—ahead of the curve in firm support of such issues as same-sex marriage and equal pay for equal work—consequently more inspiring a role model than our most prominent real-world officials, Obama included. Such is her influence beyond the scripted world of the show, in fact, that it has pulled into the fiction such real-world players as Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama. And so I hope that the time jump works to give us one more season at least to see how much further Leslie Knope can go as one of the few public servants we can believe in.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Veronica Mars (Film) (Rob Thomas, 2014)

Veronica Mars Film Poster

Like Firefly or Arrested Development, the Veronica Mars TV series was one of those beloved but underperforming shows "canceled too soon," whose cult fan base never really waned but perhaps even grew over the years following its untimely and unceremonious demise, and whose creator and cast members remained equally passionate about resurrecting, even as their respective careers took them in different directions. Talk of a movie hung around for years, until finally the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter gave the fans and creator Rob Thomas alike the chance to prove that the demand was there for more Veronica Mars. Warner Bros. would distribute the film, but the funding would be provided by the fans themselves, whose contributions would nearly triple the campaign's minimum goal to raise $2 million. Now, nearly a year since the successful closing of the Kickstarter campaign, and seven years since the original series went off-air, we've finally gotten our Veronica Mars movie. So is it any good?

I really wasn't sure what to expect from a Veronica Mars movie, because I honestly didn't know what more there was to tell of that story. Although the show was canceled, and many threads were left hanging, it must be acknowledged that, unlike Arrested Development, the Veronica Mars series did not go out at the top of its game, and rather than ending too soon, I'd almost argue that it went on too long. Through its first two seasons, Veronica Mars was, without question, one of the best shows on television at the time. The third and final season, on the other hand, not only was by far the worst but actually felt, at least to me, largely unnecessary. Veronica Mars was clearly conceived as a high school story, and it just didn't quite work once it moved to college.

The film, in its own way, tries to correct some of the problems with the third season, although it comes off desperate and misguided in how it goes about it. A new murder mystery summons Veronica from New York City, where she has retired from private investigation work to instead pursue a career in law, back to her hometown of Neptune (now in LA instead of San Diego, alas), where, it just so happens, all her high school classmates are still residing. And, it also just so happens, the timing of the case coincides with her high school class's ten-year reunion.

So, they're acknowledging that the college setting for the third season did not work so well, and that the show's good years were those set in high school. Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple as sending all the characters back to Neptune High. The problem with the third season was that, with the setting having moved from public school to a considerably less racially and socially diverse university, lost was the keen and relevant commentary on class struggles that had so elevated the first two seasons above every other teen drama. Dragging Veronica back into a reunion with her high school classmates, all of them now well into adulthood, still fails to reignite the original spark, because 1) it's mostly only the self-important white kids who make it to reunion, 2) even though we don't see the people not at reunion, I think we can safely assume that they're fine with not being there (i.e. nobody is going to choose to go to reunion and then complain about feeling marginalized at reunion), and 3) the whole high school reunion subplot is actually almost completely incidental to the movie's central mystery and feels largely gratuitous.

Also gone after the high school years was a lot of sense, as far as Veronica's motivations for conducting her investigations. Part of what made the first two seasons more compelling than any run-of-the-mill procedural drama was that, besides the weekly mysteries, Veronica was obsessively working season-long cases that held deep personal importance to her. But if the writers just kept contriving deeply personal cases for her to tackle as the new goal for each season, it would quickly have become ridiculous. Two seasons may have been the sweet spot—two years where we would have followed this character through a particularly dramatic chapter in her story, before she rode off into the sunset of the rest of her life. Being a private eye, though exciting, was never realistically supposed to be the end goal, after all, for someone so exceptionally bright and socially aware.

With the movie, they try once more to concoct a very personal case for Veronica to obsess over, and, guess what, it feels contrived and ridiculous. It's also not too terribly interesting, on top of being hard to swallow. None of the characters seem actually to care very much about the high school classmate that was murdered. They seem instead to recognize and accept the case for what it truly is—merely an excuse to revisit old haunts, old friends, and old romances. More intriguing, though not fully explored nor resolved in this movie, is the subplot of the ruthlessly corrupt cops now running Neptune.

To its credit, the film doesn't completely try to regress these now-well-into-their-twenties characters back to the people they were in high school. It is at first refreshing, given their tempestuous history, how maturely Veronica and Logan handle themselves on finally reconnecting. Mostly, though, seeing the adults these people have become only further demonstrates why Veronica Mars doesn't really work past high school. As it tends to do, age has taken the edge off all these people. Toned down, if not altogether gone, are Veronica's snarkiness, Logan's mean streak, and Dick's depraved cruelty. Weevil, once the leader of a biker gang in high school, is now a settled man living cleanly, if not glamorously. His is a story I've witnessed play out in real life, and, in real life, it's heartwarming. But, in a TV series or movie, the post-made-good part of that story is not interesting to follow. Duller, then, are the adult versions of these characters. Realistically so, perhaps, but duller nonetheless.

Some have criticized the film for being little more than an exercise in fan service. They point to the crowdfunding model as the culprit, speculating that Rob Thomas felt beholden to give his Kickstarter backers exactly the pandering movie they wanted. I don't know if that's really what happened, and, obviously, it's stupid to blame the fans, without whom no Veronica Mars movie would have happened at all. I think Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell were just as much servicing themselves throughout this campaign and the entire production, too wrapped up in the prospect of a real-life reunion of cast and crew, and, like the die-hard fans, too blindly passionate to recognize that the story had already run its proper course with the first two seasons.

From beginning to end, it is basically just one callback after another to the series, particularly the first two seasons. Almost every significant cast member that could reasonably return from the series gets paraded out for their own moment, no doubt to tremendous applause from longtime viewers. My favorite of these (and my favorite moment in the entire movie) had to be the return of Leo, the deputy who was briefly a love interest for Veronica. Played by Max Greenfield, now recognized for his role as Schmidt on the sitcom New Girl, Leo was always a very charming character, who probably got short shrift on the show just because there was never room to develop him amid all the other threads running at any given time. So I was glad to see this character brought back, and in such crowd-pleasing fashion.

The Veronica Mars film is disappointing mainly because it fails to live up to the heights of the first two seasons of the series. But, again, I don't know how it could have. Yet, for all the film's shortcomings, I can't say I'm sorry that it got made. It may not add much of anything to the greatness of those first two seasons, but, as much affection as I had for the series and for the characters, I'm glad for this chance to spend a little more time with them, even if that time spent comes with a touch of melancholic nostalgia, followed by resignation that, try though this movie might, there truly is no going home. I suppose it's a bit like meeting again with an old friend you haven't seen in a long time, realizing over the course of a conversation why perhaps you grew apart, but ultimately still appreciating the reminder of what this person has meant to you. "We Used to Be Friends," as goes the suddenly more-fitting-than-ever title theme by The Dandy Warhols.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, 2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Poster

Of the Phase One movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was not my favorite (truth be told, it was my least favorite), but it may have been the most fully realized and successfully self-contained. More than any of the other Phase One directors, Joe Johnston managed to put his own personal stamp on the work. Whereas Thor (2011) felt awkwardly split between the lofty Asgard segments and the half-baked Earth episode, Captain America: The First Avenger had a very definite identity as an old-fashioned period action film in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or The Rocketeer (1991). With the sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony and Joe Russo do a similarly good job crafting a film that possesses a distinct personality within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while still feeling of a piece with the other movies.

Removed from the World War II setting, this latest story draws inspiration from the more recent Ed Brubaker run of the comics, whence came the character of the Winter Soldier, and which recast the title as more of a spy thriller. Up until the final massive action sequence, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels more akin to something like The Bourne Identity than to any of Marvel's other superhero movies. And, as a more grounded action thriller, it's extremely well-executed. Despite being a Marvel movie, it rarely feels like a kiddie take on the genre, but rather stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best spy films.

What I especially love about Captain America: The Winter Soldier are the urban action sequences. Broad-daylight city streets have always been my favorite setting for action scenes. Not that I'd ever want to see warfare break out in my neighborhood in real life, but, in a movie or video game, I just think it's more exciting when the stage for explosive action sequences more closely resembles the stage on which day-to-day life transpires. It makes the action feel more real and consequential.

The car chase involving Nick Fury is superb, as is the cat-and-mouse sequence where Winter Soldier is stalking Black Widow through the streets. What makes these sequences stand out is that there's a palpable sense of danger to them—something that, one can imagine, is extremely difficult to pull off in a PG-13 superhero movie, when we already know the characters are slated to appear in future films. I will say that one of the things that holds Captain America: The Winter Soldier back slightly is that, unlike in typical R-rated spy films or even a PG-13 James Bond movie, no significant noncombatant ever just gets suddenly and unambiguously blown away, so the bad guys maybe don't always seem legitimately threatening. But, for a few great sequences at least, the villains in this movie, Winter Soldier in particular, are played up to be very menacing and ruthless, and Nick Fury and Black Widow, for all their skill and experience, seem actually vulnerable and in fear for their lives—something none of the previous Marvel movies have ever managed to convincingly convey.

Captain America himself, meanwhile, never feels vulnerable in this movie. Out of all the headline Avengers, Chris Evans's Captain America is, I think, the most likely to be killed off eventually. But we've known it wouldn't be happening in this movie, so the action scenes involving him tend to be among the film's more predictable and less engaging. The exceptions, of course, are Cap's fights with the Winter Soldier. Every time these two mix it up, the results are spectacular, even when the outcome is unsurprising.

Part of what makes Captain America less compelling to me than his fellow Avengers Iron Man and Thor is that he's just more limited in the things he can do. Thus, in The Avengers (2012), he mostly got stuck doing the tasks that the other heroes were simply too busy to take on, and director Joss Whedon evidently couldn't think up any better ways to show off Captain America's abilities than to have him doing some gratuitous gymnastics. Heck, that even happens a few times in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At the same time, he's almost too pure for spy films, since he's never going to pick up a gun and start shooting people in the face a la James Bond.

But, in Winter Soldier, Cap finds his perfect match—basically just a dirtier version of himself. The speed of their hand-to-hand combat is mesmerizing. And credit must be given not only to the choreography but also the sound editing—the little mechanical whirring noises always keeping us mindful of the Winter Soldier's ever-threatening bionic arm.

Compared to Iron Man and Thor, I also find that Captain America has kind of a blander personality. A wartime invention, the character has transitioned uneasily into the modern era of relative peace, a man always in desperate need of something to stand for. Since Captain America's reintroduction into comics in the 1960s, it has been precisely the anachronistic Rip Van Winkle-esque angle to the story that has been the most compellingly tragic aspect of the character—something that, in the previous movies, was sadly glossed over via a perfunctory post-credits scene in Captain America: The First Avenger, before it was back to business in The Avengers because aliens were invading.

Truly, that was an unfortunate consequence of having Captain America: The First Avenger be the last Phase One film leading into the "event" that was The Avengers, but at last Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes some time to explore more thoughtfully Cap's tragicomic struggles adapting to life in a new century and trying to come to terms with the fact that the world he knew is gone forever, literally all the guys in his old barbershop quartet now dead.

Even as we live in times of relative peace for the U.S., cynicism about the American state is also much higher than it was in Captain America's day, the leaks about the government spying on its own citizens being the latest breach of our trust. The film tackles this issue of privacy vs. security, ultimately falling rather squarely on one side of it. I did think it a bit far-fetched that supposedly the most effective espionage and law-enforcement agency in the Marvel universe could be so thoroughly infiltrated by its criminal counterpart for decades without anyone noticing. But then I considered that, nine times out of ten, S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA's goals were probably in complete harmony—before HYDRA turned his own plans against him, Nick Fury himself was the one who tried to sell Captain America on spy satellites and preemptive strikes on his enemies—and I was ready to say, "To Hell with the both of them!" But, really, the debate is not explored that deeply, and the plot of this movie is more so just the unholy union of the convolutions of a conspiracy-laden spy film and a continuity-heavy superhero movie.

Maybe as good as any of the action sequences are a few quieter moments that Captain America spends with Black Widow, as these two fringe operatives, now on the run from the very spy organization that formerly commanded them, pause to have unusually honest conversations about each one's suitability for this line of work that is, at once, directed with cynicism yet inspired by idealism. These scenes help us to better understand Captain America's perspective, but they're even more essential to developing the character of the Black Widow, who had been little more than eye candy in Iron Man 2 (2010), then just the token female member of the team in Avengers. Despite Joss Whedon's reputation for being a feminist storyteller, his Black Widow was a pretty painfully one-dimensional "strong woman" type. What Captain America: The Winter Soldier manages to pull off is to develop her into an actual human being—someone with coherent opinions, personality, a worldview and a life beyond just the immediate mission. For the first time ever in one of these Marvel movies, I found myself unexpectedly thinking, Man, I guess these superheroes are actually people. And the movie is better for it.