The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com
Thursday, January 6, 2011- 3B
'Small screen standouts of the year
With classes on space flight, dorms with elaborate blanket forts and
stop-motion classmates, Greendale Community College is, without a
doubt, the coolest place to get your degree. On the surface, "Commu-
nity" details the misadventures of a diverse study group at community
college. In actuality, the show is a love letter to our favorite movies and
TV shows, with episodes recreating "Mean Girls," "The Secret Garden"
and zombie flicks. Augmenting the pop culture references is a meta self-
referential humor that hasn't been seen since "Arrested Development."
As is often typical with television, the show's ratings haven't reflected
its awesomeness. "Community" fights against CBS's powerhouse "The
Big Bang Theory" in Thursday's 8 p.m. timeslot. Despite being snubbed
at the Emmys, facing regular threats of cancellation and struggling
through its financial woes (KFC even sponsored an episode, during
which Senor Chang exclaims, "I'm tryingto buy us some time with these
Doublicious sandwiches"), "Community" has still garnered a cult fol-
lowing of media junkies and pop culture-obsessed college kids. Just like
its characters, "Community" is quirky and lovable. And it's the Daily's
pick for the best TV show of 2010.
Once upon a time, there was a show on HBO that combined gangland
violence with symbolism, intelligent stylization and incredibly power-
ful acting. That little fairy tale was "The Sopranos," which came to the
most ambiguous ending in television history in 2007.
This year, "Sopranos" veteran Terence Winter and legendary direc-
tor Martin Scorsese united to bring this winning formula back to TV.
They shifted "The Sopranos" to the Prohibition era, moved it a few
miles south to Atlantic City and voila, we have "Boardwalk Empire" - a
bloody, symbolic, period-correct crime drama. It's "The Sopranos" with
a loud pinstripe suit and a tommy gun.
Really though, it's a bit "The Sopranos," but almost as much "The West
Wing," as central character Nucky Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic
City, toes the line between running the local political machine and sup-
plying the underground speakeasies with illegal booze. His interactions
with some of the period's most notorious criminals, such as Al Capone
and Arnold Rothstein, make for an incredible viewing experience and
contribute to some of the most complex stories currently being told on
"How I Met Your Mother"
Ted gets the opportunity of his career when asked to design the new
headquarters for Goliath National Bank, Barney comes a bit closer to
discovering the real identity of his father and Marshall and Lily make
their first attempts to start a family. The gang gains a member in the
form of Zoey (Jennifer Morrison, "House") and a new Robin Sparkles
video is revealed. Sound like a lot? Throw in the fact that each episode
moves effortlessly from dramatic to slapstick, and it's understandable
why these carefully crafted storylines have landed season six of "How
I Met Your Mother" on the Daily's Best of 2010 list.
The series progressed this past year, but while maintaining the
light, playful humor we've come to know and love. Where this beloved
series will head remains a mystery, but one thing is certain: Co-cre-
ators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have succeeded in making a tra-
ditional sitcom fresh and original - a plot-driven show that strives to
serve the story.
For better and worse, Don Draper has gone wild - better for the faith-
ful and verdant "Mad Men" audience; likely worse for its dapper hero.
Season four of the hit AMC drama took our favorite angry gents in a
new direction, as a new look and new characters gave the series a fresh,
if sometimes jarring, start. But of course the alcohol and fornication are
along for the ride.
With its new beginnings, everything in the series was taken up a
notch - the emotional highs have soared higher, and the lows have
become more depressing and pitiable. In the undeniable triumph that
was "The Suitcase," Don Draper's late-night meltdown gave audiences
a raw look at the troubled boy we always knew was hiding behind the
aloof fagade. But what made "Mad Men" trulygreat in 2010 isjustwhat
made it great in its three past years. The writing is masterful, slowly
luring in viewers instead of hitting them over the head. The perfor-
mances are true-to-life, differentiating the series from a caricatured
period piece. The stories are complex and volatile while still contained
in a small space, both physically and temporally. It's one of the smartest
shows on television.
There's a reason why this show continuously wins comedy awards
- it just doesn't get much better than Liz, Jack, Tracy, Jenna, Ken-
neth and the rest of the "30 Rock" crew. Over the years, the show has
become the gold standard in comedy. Season highlights included Liz
Lemon finding her favorite pair of jeans, Matt Damon's kooky airplane
pilot character and Tracy Jordan's career as a "serious" actor in "Hard
to Watch." True, the jokes and situations are often unrealistic, but
because of the amazing cast, they work almost every time. When the
show chooses to go the route of realism, it attacks both conservative
and liberal ideas, sparing nothing from the line of fire.
With Alec Baldwin's retirement from playing Jack Donaghy immi-
nent, let's hope that season six is just as good, if not better, than the
rest. One thing is for sure, though - the show is bound to go out with
a bang. It's just so hard to pass up the workplace of 30 Rockefeller
"The Ghost Writer"
Toparaphrase Eric Cartman, Roman Polanaki may have date raped an
underage model, but he known how to make a thriller - keeping his films
old-school despite box office pressure from thrillers filled with shaky-
cam. In "The Ghost Writer," the veteran director uses subtle cues like
beautiful cinematography and extended precise takes with the camera to
create an anxious atmosphere. After the title character (Ewan McGregor),
meets his newest client, a former British Prime Minister who finds him-
self facing war crimes charges, he quickly finds himself caught in a web
of intrigue. Polanski's direction ratchets up the tension in a sweeping cre-
scendo, ending with a haunting, poignant reveal.
The best suspense film of the year is a family movie atits core, though its
chilly, remorseless tale of children suffering for their parents' actions isn't
likely to make your heart feel all warm and fuzzy. "Winter's Bone" sends its
protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in an unflinching performance),
out on the huntfor her meth-cooking, authority-ditching father inthe heart
of the Ozarks, confronting her vicious extended family along the way.
There's an uncomfortable truth buried here: The illusion of kinship, the
love we all count on to get through life, protects no one in a lawless world.
In this adaptation of a John Wayne film, Joel and Ethan Coen take an
old fashioned story about courage and turn it into something more. It's
not just another washed-up Western with southern drawls, ghost towns
and gun fights.
"True Grit" avoids the traditional mold because of the strength of the
actors. Matt Damon adds humor to an otherwise desolate landscape as
LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is proud of what he is and lets everyone
know it. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld's portrayal of smart, overconfident
Mattie Ross - a girl on a quest for real justice - guides the story with
force. And she manages to hold her own against Jeff Bridges's character,
But creating memorable characters has always been something the
Coen Brothers have been good at. What's particularly impressive is their
transformation of the story. They don't try to modernize it or jazz it up
- none of the characters speak using contractions - but the story does
become edgier and more haunting under its rendering. The film takes
the audience to a world where the boundary between good and evil isn't
clearly defined, which raises questions about the nature of justice and
redemption in the world.
The Daily picks the previews that
lingered after the main attraction.
The new Coen Brothers film is the acme of the duo's directorial career,
deftlystraddling the line between the commercialism the brothers have
tried to avoid and the pure aestheticism they've always embraced. This
marriage of ideals is reflected beautifully by the trailer. It provides just
enough meat to intrigue us with its plot, but not so much that it spoils
the feast (Liam Neeon's "Unknown" trailer, anyone?). Most importantly,
it foreshadows Jeff Bridges's brilliant performance with billowing gun
smoke, bottled bourbon and the grouchy, sarcastic quips we've come to
expect of him.
This trailer ingeniously plants the idea in viewers that "Inception"
is worth seeing without giving away too much plot - or what the title
means. It features the faces of the film's stars; memorable, ominous
music and a city folding over on itself. A voice mentions that what
we're watching is "called Inception." This secretive trailer ends beg-
ging the question: "What is Inception?" Ironically, if you were curious
enough after the trailer to see the movie, you answered the question.
"The Social Network"
Familiar icons flash across the screen. Friend requests. Status
updates. "In a relationship." This is what we do. This is what we have
become. This is a Belgian children's choir telling us we're creeps. This
is the shiny college campus, equal parts elitism and debauchery. This
is TIME's Person of the Year, or at least an approximation - the clos-
est the public will get to the man who created the need for privacy
settings. This is the story of Facebook in two minutes flat: a group of
frustrated, snarky individuals who took social networking very, very
seriously. Go ahead - call it a joke. Your profile page says otherwise.
Aronofsky's twisty-turny psycho ballet thriller didn't stick its land-
ing with all folks that ended up watching it, but the hype building up
to its premiere almost made up for it - as the frigid, winding lines at
the Michigan Theater on Friday and Saturday nights demonstrated.
The trailer, a mlange of oozing lust and beauty, has a lot to do with
this. And that climax, that harrowing climax - all reflective surfaces
and Freudian doppelgangers, coupled with Clint Mansell's quiver-
ing tremolos, as a red-eyed Natalie Portman yanks out a single black
feather from her arched, tensed back. Obvious and melodramatic?Yes.
Terrifying? Most definitely.
The best trailers aren't always made for the best movies. Sometimes,
they're assembled from satisfying, well executed cliches - a love tri-
angle, a crew of thieves, a relentless FBI agent - and hint atsomething
the source material doesn't quite offer.
The trailer for "The Town," from washed-up star-turned-up-and-
coming director Ben Affleck, is a prime example. The film itself was
simply, well, a satisfying, well executed clich. But the expertly edited
trailer cut out the fluff and gave audiences a product that was more
sizzle reel than trailer, presenting stars Affleck, Jeremy Renner and
Jon Hamm at their most intense, and teasing at 90 minutes of non-stop
badassery that, unfortunately, wasn't really there.
"Raging Bull." "Rocky." "Cinderella Man." Boxing has become an
Oscar-bait sideshow. "The Fighter," however, differs magnificently. Man-
aged by his pushy mother (Melissa Leo) and trained by his crack-addict
half-brother, a former boxer (Christian Bale), title character Micky Ward
(Mark Wahlberg) struggles to find the sport's glamour. Ward struggles
toward the top while flirting with the idea of quitting altogether. The
film focuses as much on the family dynamic as the fighters themselves,
as Ward searches for individuality. Wahlberg's endearing performance is
among his best, but it's the ensemble that steals the show - particularly
with Bale, who delivers the most unsettling performance of his recent
career. From a distance, it doesn't seem like the most original picture, but
a closer look reveals a more sophisticated, layered story.
"The King's Speech"
"The King's Speech" is a powerful, funny and historically accurate
masterpiece. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush play King George VI and
his quirky speech coach, respectively, who at first, couldn't be less com-
patible. Firth wants a quick, impersonal fix to his impediment, but Rush
knows his issues have less to do with his tongue than they do with the
King's mind and heart. It's rare that a film so artfully enhances a true
story into something this moving, but the performances and writing in
"The King's Speech" make it an instant classic.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I"
For those who waited anxiously for their Hogwarts acceptance let-
ters, consolation lies in the latest "Harry Potter" movie. The franchise
has tried to capture the magic of Hogwarts but, outside of bedazzling
special effects, the movies have disappointed many fans - which makes
the deeper, more mature "Deathly Hallows" all the more rewarding.
The film stays true to the book, even if it means svatching the emotional
aspect of the plot unfold in a tent in the middle of nowhere while our
heroes try to destroy a Horcrux. It's a much darker movie that's made
for a generation that can't be dazzled by Quidditch matches anymore. It
gives them exactly what they want.
Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky's tale of Nina (Natalie Portman),
a young ballerina given the lead in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," turns the
delicate art of ballet into something riveting. The best aspect of Aronof-
sky's work is its enthralling predictability. Strange as that may sound, the
imminent demise he constructs for his protagonist demands a nontradi-
tional interpretation that draws our eyes to the lighting, staging and cin-
ematography rather than the plot. It's another tragic time bomb in the
vein of "The Wrestler" and "Requiem for a Dream," and we're helpless to
do anything but count the seconds until the glorious explosion.
No longer will the impressionable masses indulge in heroin, profes-
sional wrestling or suicidal ballet routines. However, they may very well
continue to indulge in Aronofsky. His vision - paired with Portman's
flawless execution - will transform his career, and may win the pair a
few Oscars to boot.