Serial (2014)- A Review of Sorts

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Who the hell reviews a podcast? Who reviews a nonfiction series of episodes that have no formal narrative, no set structure like even a documentary has? It’s true that in theory the idea of a critic analyzing a group of people around a microphone seems… rather excessive, but Serial is not the production of a couple of geeks with microphones. Serial, co-produced by NPR and specifically This American Life, is far more than that. It’s the product of the sweat, blood, and tears of Sarah Koenig’s tumultuous journey through the case of Adnon Syed. The culmination of 15 months of fascination and hard work on the part of Sarah and her producers. With the NPR association there is a certain level of budget and technical professionalism, but within the 12 episodes of Serial there is not just fancy audio mixing and elaborate reporting, but heart. Real heart. The kind that we easily forget exists, until a particular piece of art reminds us of it. That word, “art,” is one I’m quite willing to apply to Serial, one of the few podcasts out there deserving of that classification (another would be Welcome to Night Vale for clarification).

Be warned, if my prose feels flowery it’s because I just finished listening to the final episode and the style of writing used in not just Serial, but This American Life as well tend to leave a lasting impression in my mind. It’s a way for the author to report the facts while also turning a phrase, to weave a narrative around the developments as they come. Perhaps it’s this writing style that allows Serial to achieve what many believe to be the ultimate goal of art: to teach us or get us thinking about life, humanity, or the world we live in. Most media doesn’t do this and I used to be skeptical of this standard as far too high of an expectation to have. However in the afterglow of such a shining example of it, one that wasn’t a 500 million dollar movie or a 24 episode TV series or an avant garde painting, but rather a simple 10ish hours of audio, I find myself willing to maintain that standard. I don’t mean to demean podcasting as a medium, but to this day the majority of its content is informal at best. I should know, I’m the proud host of one.

It is my hope that Serial represents the future of podcasting. The beginning of its transcendence as a medium into art and mass consumption. A new spectrum of low to high budget, artistic to blockbuster, star-powered to geeks in their basement. Podcasts that capture the imagination of the country like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and to an extent Serial. While I know it won’t, I hope that the heart and integrity of Serial is maintained in this future of podcasting. So that the realm of storytelling can advance, giving us an emotionally rich catalog to choose and learn from.

Not much detail is needed, nor should be given to someone before they listen to Serial. It’s a podcast about the murder of a high school girl and the man who was accused of killing her. 15 years removed, every aspect of his guilt/innocence is examined, with the hopes of proving whether or not he actually killed her. You don’t need much more than that. Go listen to the first episode. It’s 45 minutes of audio, so it’s easily consumed. One episode is all you’ll need to either get hooked or not.

Like I said though, Serial goes above and beyond. It has left an impression on me, taught me lessons about life. I’ll never take for granted the daily occurrences of my existence, for I never know when they’ll be thrown into the warped light of a courtroom. I’ve always seen the world in shades of grey, but now I’ve never been more certain in this belief. Most importantly, and I think most relevantly, I’ve learned to never reduce a crime or event to a set series of facts, for there are always details I’ll never know and sides to the story I’ll never hear. Serial is ultimately a tale of ambiguity. Take what you want from it, feel how you want about it. Yours is merely another voice in the cacophonous symphony, another piece of the big picture.

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Cinema Cynique: Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Saw

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I can’t believe I forgot to promote this!
I’ve got a new podcast: La Cinema Cynique Podcast, where my co-host and I review movies!
Check out our episode on Scott Pilgrim vs the World here!
And our recent episode on Saw here!

Enjoy!

Lost in the Static is Awesome!

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Lost in the Static is truly one of the greatest podcasts I’ve ever listened to and it’s taught me about media approximately the same amount a year of college has. The hosts are interesting and knowledgable, not to mention controversial. If your commute to work or school needs some entertainment then check them out here:

http://www.1201beyond.com/blog/category/podcasts/archives/lits/

If you like them then please sponsor them! I strongly believe in supporting artists and with the amount of content they’ve provided me it’s well worth it. Donate here:

http://www.patreon.com/user?u=129886

Check them out on Facebook!

V/H/S (2012) 50th Review

There was a point in time when I used to be the angry internet geek, one who took the Nostalgia Critic’s word as gospel and points off a film for not meeting my ridiculous expectations. I had little respect for the filmmakers and a mean spiteful opinion of many movies without having seen them. Looking back at my Legend of Sorrow Creek Review you can see that, and while that is where I got my start and where many critics operate, I’m glad I’ve grown out of it. It’s important to look at not just plot holes and bad acting, but why those things don’t work for you in a movie. To see the film as a whole and as a work of art, not just it’s individual parts and as a piece of pure entertainment. To pay mind to the intentions of the filmmakers, as well as how I respond. While to an extent I’m still like that (the mere mention of Baz Luhrmann makes me twitch) there was a time when I was much worse, and during said time I was on a podcast called Podwreck. My co-hosts and I made an effort to review a movie each episode and on one episode we watched V/H/S, which I HATED with the burning rage of a thousand suns . I started to write a script for a video review of it and I made it about 5 full pages before losing interest and giving up. So what better way to reflect on 50 reviews of growth then taking a look at that bane of my existence: V/H/S.

V/H/S is the 2012 anthology horror movie that was (surprisingly) popular enough to warrant a sequel in 2013. Since it is an anthology, it’s hard to talk about the movie without examining it’s parts. So we’ll talk about each short individually and then how they compound to form a movie as a whole.

The first short “Amateur Night” is the story of three guys who go out clubbing, secretly recording the whole thing on a set of camera glasses they bought. The cameraman catches the attention of a mysterious girl who comes along with him and the others back to the hotel where sexual frivolity, and of course horror, ensues. This short is fairly middle of the road with no characters to speak of, mediocre writing and an interesting, (though predictable) twist. The effects are pretty fairly good and the idea of recording from glasses is an intriguing one (definitely ahead of its time considering how Google Glass just came out). My problem with this is that the characters are so obnoxious and unlikeable that the first half is hard to watch. However, once shit hits the fan (which I won’t delve into due to spoilers) it’s admittedly intriguing to watch.

The second vignette, “Second Honeymoon” is written, directed, and edited by Ti West (director of The House of the Devil) and is the story (if you can call it that) of a couple who are on a road trip out west and are unknowingly being stalked by a mysterious stranger. This is definitely the worst of the bunch, because it’s soooo boring. West’s characters aren’t likeable or intriguing, and there is so little going on that there’s no escaping them. The twist is out of nowhere, despite being painfully foreshadowed by a scene with a fortune-telling machine. The acting is mediocre, with some of the better performances of the film, but there’s little in the script to work with. There is an effective scene where the man is being filmed at night and then it pans over to the girl to show she’s not operating the camera, proving that Ti West is still competent. I think that if Ti West can get past his narcissistic auteurism and direct someone else’s script maybe he can pump out another quality work.

The third short ” Tuesday the 17th” is a perfect example of wasted potential in these anthologies. It’s the tale of a group of stereotypical teens who are invited up to a lake by one of their friends, only to end up as her bait for a mysterious killer. This is a great concept and a fantastic twist on the classic slashers, essentially being what would happen after a film like The Burning. However, it’s stained by the incredibly loathsome characters and the awful and cheesy effects. I understand the homage to the 80s, but this is clearly supposed to be some kind of deconstruction and therefore it should be played straight. I would have loved to see this script turned into a feature and put into the hands of someone far more competent.

The fourth vignette is the annoyingly titled “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” This will be our final venture into mediocrity, and it’s the chronicle of Emily and her boyfriend, who are long distance due to college. Strange things start to happen in Emily’s apartment and as they get worse it becomes clear to the boyfriend that there’s something wrong with her. This one is just bloody weird, and while I’ve got very few reasons to dislike it, I just do. The progression of the plot is fine and the twist is interesting, despite raising a ton of questions. It just feels hollow, like the writer didn’t think any further than what we saw on screen and never truly created a world for you to get immersed in.

The last short is “10/31/1998” and it’s the only record of a group of guys who, in search of a friend’s halloween party, enter a house and get far more than they bargained for: some kind of ritual in the attic. In every story up to this there’s been a lack of realism, a sense that you’re watching a shitty horror movie instead of actual footage, but this short manages to insert slightly more realism than the others. Despite the unlikeable characters, they still act like normal humans, and because of that the events progress much like one would imagine they would in reality. The effects are pretty good considering it’s budget and thankfully so, as they’re used for some of the most interesting and fresh ideas I’ve seen in horror in a while. This one hits a lot of the right notes for me and while it’s not perfect, it sure makes me wish I had directed it.

Then of course there are the interludes, titled “Tape 56”, and they provide the framework for the film with the story of a group of filmmakers/criminals who get hired to steal a VHS tape out of an old guy’s house. While searching they get picked off one by one, mostly while watching the collection of strange footage this now deceased man has. This one bothered me a lot as the camera work and editing were the most chaotic out of the lot and the characters the least likeable. We see them molest a woman, but we don’t even get to know their names before they’re picked off by the “creature.” It’s lack of explanation of almost everything we see from motivations to plot points set the tone for the underwhelming shorts to follow.

As a whole, despite it’s retro title, V/H/S feels very modern. It abides by the STUPID modern cliche of making your characters dislikable assholes and has a very rebellious/punk feel to it. It plays more on the ideas of the past then creating it’s own, as most horror does these days. The writing as a whole wasn’t very strong and I think that if maybe a few of the weaker shorts were replaced by more original ones, the film could have really risen above the rest of the indy slog. For me the film was summed up in its ending credits, which were flashy, stylized, and nauseating. It wanted to be cool, taking up the very important title of V/H/S (In the horror community VHS is a golden age), but it didn’t exploit its title to the fullest. It instead resorts to the tropes of today and falls flat on it’s face. V/H/S is worth watching if you’re a horror fan, but it’s a low priority one at that. It’s currently on Netflix instant.

Well after all that negativity, it’s about time we move onto something a little more positive. Thanks everyone for sticking with me through 50 reviews! We’ve been through some of the worst and best films made, not to mention a ton of really mediocre ones. We’ve been depressed about the state of cinema and excited for the future. Here’s hoping for not just 50 more, but 500!


Edited by Kelly Leung. Contact/hire her at kellyleung09@gmail.com