Month: February 2010

Why Aren’t You Watching MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE?

Posted on Updated on

My husband and I tend to get  a little antsy over the winter holidays, when most TV shows are on hiatus. We value that precious block of time — between 8pm and 10 pm — when the 3-year-old is in bed, the dishes have been washed, and we can finally put our feet up and watch TV. Romantic? No. Enjoyable? Ahhhh yes. So to prepare for that cold, dark 4-6 week stretch of primetime emptiness, I load up our Netflix queue with new releases or try to burn through a season of TV on DVD (recent favorites include Starz’s hilarious and underrated Party Down and the disappointing 5th season of Showtime’s Weeds).

Any show with Dick Casablancas is automatically going to be kickass.

My husband depends on me to investigate and select our television and film diet (this is all a film/media studies professor is good for, after all) and after reading some glowing reviews (also here, here and here) I suggested that we check out TNT’s new hourlong drama Men of a Certain Age. My husband tends to trust me on these matters, but I still knew it was going to be a hard sell: “So honey I think we should watch this new show. It’s about middle-aged men. It stars Ray Romano. And the guy from Quantum Leap. And some other guy who starred on a show we’ve never watched. It’s on TNT. Ummm…it’s supposed to be good…” Nevertheless, my husband agreed because, well, we had nothing else to watch. And as I mentioned, we’re TV addicts. We’ll take methadone if we can’t have heroine.

Watch out, Sam, Al’s a Cylon!

But as it turns out, Men of a Certain Age isn’t TV methadone — it’s the good stuff, people. Men focuses on three friends: Joe (Ray Romano), a recently divorced father of two teenagers, Owen (Andre Braugher), a married father of three who sells cars at his father’s dealership, and Terry (Scott Bakula), a single playboy and struggling actor. Believe me, I am normally not interested in the lives of middle-aged men — especially middling car salesmen and the owner of a party supplies store, but the show manages to make their stories compelling, amusing and touching all at the same time. What I love about Men is that it is realistically treats topics like aging, divorce,  and parenthood without cynicism. Joe doesn’t bicker with his ex-wife, Sonia (Penelope Ann Miller, sporting the most unflattering haircut of all time), nor does he concoct elaborate plots to get back her back. Instead, Joe exists in the twilight between acceptance and denial — he lives in a hotel (to avoid moving into an apartment) and offers to fix things up around his (former) home. Indeed, it is often hard to tell if Joe misses his wife or simply his old life (that happened to include his wife). Sound depressing? It is. And yet…it’s not.

Here are some specific reasons to tune into Men:

1. You won’t hate Ray Romano


Okay, that was a little unfair — maybe some of you don’t hate Ray Romano. But anyone who names their sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is kind of asking for it. Especially since Everybody Loves Raymond was such a colossal pile of shit. I tried — and repeatedly failed — to get through an entire episode of Raymond during it’s long run. But the Ray Romano in Men is both different from and similar to his character on Raymond — there’s the dopey look, the ennui of marriage and children, the humiliations of middle age — but  as New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley put it “Joe is what would happen to sitcom Raymond if his wife left him, his parents died, and he started to hate his job.” Romano’s Joe is a chronic gambler (part of the reason behind why his wife left him) with crippling anxiety (part of behind why he failed to become a pro golfer) who misses his old, pre-divorce  life. His predicaments, such as a tragicomic attempt at seducing a new date with sexually charged instant messages, are both uncomfortable to watch yet extremely real. Joe needs a hug and Romano plays him just right that the viewer wants to give him one.

2. Andre Braugher’s gut

In one episode of Men Braugher’s Owen is talking to his wife, Melissa (Lisa Gay Hamilton), as he dresses for work. He sits down on the bed, shirtless, his man boobs and formidable middle-aged gut on full display. This moment is not played for laughs, nor is it necessary to the narrative (he could have just as easily performed the scene wearing an undershirt). Rather, Braugher’s gut is simply a detail of the mise en scene, a reality of middle age. The scene is intimate, personal. Marriage — after so many years — is about sleep apnea machines (which Owen must use nightly) and bellies that have gone soft. These realities do not seem to bother Melissa, however. Their relationship is tender and real.

3. It’s a little bit sad, a little bit funny, a little bit disturbing

Not many shows can master this mix of emotions. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of one other show that mixes these various emotions without plunging any one character into caricature: My So-Called Life (my guess is that Freaks and Geeks strikes a similar tone, but sadly I have not yet watched this series). Men manages to keep its humor, tragedy, realism, and awkwardness in a fine balance throughout each episode. One great example of this occurs in the pilot episode, when the three friends are driving to through the woods and accidentally hit a possum with their SUV. Joe worries that the animal might be suffering ad backs up over it (complete with a sickening thump noise) in an effort to put it out of its misery. But when the men look in the rearview mirror, they see the possum crawl off into the woods. Later that night, Joe  and his bookie, Manfro (Jon Manfrellotti), with whom he has established an unlikely friendship, head back to the woods to seek out the possum — Joe simply cannot stomach that the animal might be in pain as a result of his actions. When the two men finally locate the (now dead) animal, we see Joe pick up a large rock and it seems that this will turn into a scene of violence. Is Joe going to vent his frustrations by bashing in the head of this dead animal? The next shot reveals that Joe is actually using that rock (and several more) to build a cairn for the animal. Some might call this storyline overkill (excuse the pun) but it really illuminates Joe’s character.  As Manfro observes, “You’re weird, Joe.” I also like that the scene could have gone either way — violent or tender.

4. The lighting

I‘ve blogged about lighting before in my praise of Mad Men — not because I am a lighting aficionado, but because television shows do not always take their lighting design seriously. The light in Men of a Certain Age is beautiful and always appropriate for its Southern California setting.

Lucky for me, Men of a Certain Age has been renewed for a second season, despite its low ratings. But I’m still going to urge you to watch it because I promise, you will thank me later. Even if you hate Ray Romano. So go on, give it a try. You can watch full episodes at the TNT website. I recommend “Go with the Flow,” a funny but touching episode devoted to Joe’s first date in 20 years.

So what do you think? Are you watching Men of a Certain Age? Did you watch it and hate it? Please share your thoughts below…

Why AVATAR Makes Me Feel Like an Old Russian Man

Posted on Updated on

Back in graduate school I read a short essay , written in 1928, by three Soviet filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov. In it, the men worry about the effect that newly developed sound technology would have on the future of the cinema. They fear, for example, that “…misconception of the potentialities within this new technical discovery may not only hinder the development and perfection of the cinema as an art but also threaten to destroy all its present formal achievements.” When I read this I remember thinking that these men probably felt pretty silly by the mid-1930s, when it was clear that sound had not in fact destroyed the artistry of the cinema, but greatly enhanced it. Certainly, early sound films like The Lights of New York (1928, Bryan Foy) did suffer from stilted camera work (since noisy cameras were encased in bulky, sound-proofing boxes) and immobile actors (who crowded around microphones hidden around the film set), but the industry quickly adjusted to the new technology and rebounded. As much as I enjoy a good silent film (Sunrise [1927, FW Murnau], The Crowd [1928, King Vidor], The Playhouse [1921, Buster Keaton]) I greatly prefer sound films (bad film professor!). Technology is good.

However, with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) I feel a lot like Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov must have felt back in 1928. I am suspicious. I am grumpy. I am a naysayer. Now let me state right off the bat that I have not yet seen Avatar. Part of that has to do with the fact that I just had a baby and part of it has to do with the fact that I am fed up with hearing about this film and its status as an industry “game changer.” In the weeks leading up to its release I couldn’t pick up an entertainment magazine or click on a film blog or turn on the radio without reading or hearing about Cameron’s technological marvel.

James Cameron "directing"

But it wasn’t the overhyping of the film that bothered me  so much as it was the endless stream of reviews that stated that the film was visually stunning but lacking in story.  The New York Daily News writes “‘Avatar’ clears the hurdle in terms of being optical candy. Its story, though, is pure cheese.” And‘s Stephanie Zacharek says,

“The movie was made, and is designed to be seen, in 3-D, and no matter what anyone — particularly the movie’s studio, 20th Century Fox — tries to tell you, the technology and not the story is the big selling point here: If a less famous and less nakedly self-promotional director had made the exact same story with a bunch of actors in blue latex, the Fandango ticket sales wouldn’t be going through the roof.”

At the risk of sounding like those grumpy old Russians, I have to agree with Zacharek.  CGI and 3-D technology should enhance a film, not be its primary draw. Avatar may represent the “future” of filmmaking — as so many bloggers, critics and Cameron himself have claimed — but what about the story? The acting? Are these things not important?

Yesterday the Academy Award nominations were announced and Avatar received a whopping nine nominations. I expected nods for Art Direction and Special Effects, but Best Director and Best Picture? What exactly is being rewarded here ? Shouldn’t Best Picture reward the achievement of the film as a whole, rather than its (spectacular) parts?

Of course, even as I write this I realize that I may be the one in the wrong. Even if Avatar‘s story and dialogue are as cheesy and derivative as the film’s detractors claim, does that mean the film should not be recognized for those things it does exceptionally well? After all, I adored Up in the Air (2009, Jason Reitman) for its clever dialogue, subtle acting and emotionally engaging story, but the film’s actors are rendered through simple camerawork, not motion capture technology. And as far as I know, Up in the Air is not playing in 3-D anywhere.

I’m not being facetious here. Perhaps motion capture and 3-D are the future of filmmaking, a technology which, like the invention of sound, will soon enhance, rather than limit the artistic possibilities of the medium. Rather than a novelty these technologies will become integral to the medium.

So while I vowed to never go see Avatar, I’ve decided that it is time to go (just as soon as I pump enough milk to allow for a 3 hour trip to the movies without the newborn). After I see it I will revisit this post and determine if my grumpy, Luddite view of the film is warranted. In the meantime, for those who have seen Avatar: Did it deserve 9 Academy Award nominations? Is it worth the hype? Is it the best picture of 2009? I’d love to hear your thoughts.