Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Top TV Episodes of 2014

This is the fourth year writing these silly TV articles and they are some of my favorite things to work on every year. In the previous one, it’s just me ranting about a ton of great shows. This one is easily more fascinating each and every time. Why? It’s because my friends are fascinating.

Critic polls always are a great way to look at a year of art but they are limited by the fact they all are critics. That is what their perspective is. TV is a medium that everybody watches and has an opinion on. Since there are so many installments of a show and so much time is devoted towards the story and characters, everyone is a little bit of a critic as they decide whether they should keep going or not.

Every year I’ve increased the number of people I have writing in this because I’m greedy. I want to read more and more thoughts about what is exciting my friends. So this year I do have some excellent film critics, but I also have lawyers and news producers and video editors and actors and directors and students and marketing experts. I have people who work at a film festival. I have people who work in Spain. I have people who work in sports, in politics, in advertising, in publishing and for colleges and nursing homes and community resource centers for LGBTQ people. I have authors who write about cowboys and skeletons and fools. What connects them all—besides their regret about having me as a friend—is their love for art.

So without further ado, here are everyone’s Top TV Episodes of 2014!

The Americans – “Echo”
(Season Two, Episode 13)

Editor’s note: There are spoilers for the dramatic reveal featured at the end of the second season in the second paragraph. If you don’t wish to be spoiled skip ahead.

The second-season finale of The Americans — cable’s best current series never nominated for a meaningful Emmy — climaxes with a long reveal. Perhaps it’s a tad too long for the usual badge-of-honor believability of the show, which follows Philip and Elizabeth, married undercover KGB agents undermining 1980s America from inside and played by the astonishingly versatile Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.

Jared, a mortally wounded teen whom we thought cruelly orphaned by a rogue element, reveals that he killed his KGB-operative parents. He retaliated for their rejection of his decision to become a second-generation spy, made after a lithe, comely female KGB agent lured him. Later, we learn this insidious KGB initiative has its sights set on Philip and Elizabeth’s teenage daughter, Paige.

This atypical rush of exposition hardly matters when it so beautifully crystallizes the (sometimes overly) slow burn of themes that dominated the season’s other two best episodes: “Behind the Red Door,” in which Elizabeth demands Philip make love to her like his married alter ego “Clark” to destructive ends; and “New Car,” in which America’s unfettered confidence wilts Philip’s own greener-grass curiosity about iconic American culture.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Top TV Shows of 2014

Every year I talk about how good TV is on this blog. It’s almost like I don’t know how to originally think of a way to start these articles. But the level of quality is getting ridiculous. Instead of a Top 20 this year, I have a Top 35 and there are still a dozen awesome shows that I’m not able to write about. In 2014, I watched over 100 shows while only dropping a handful of them. (Fun unrelated fact, I was unemployed for a few months this year! I’m better now!) Next year marks the end of plenty of beloved shows but as you can see from the influx of new shows on my list, the quality just keeps coming.

Yet remarkably I did sleep a couple of times this year so I wasn’t able to see everything. I’m either very behind on or haven’t seen Babylon, Derek, Father Brown, Getting On, Happy Valley, High Maintenance, The Honorable Woman, The Knick, Line of Duty, Manhattan, Over the Garden Wall, Parenthood, Peaky Blinders, Penny Dreadful, The Real Husbands of Hollywood, Shameless, Silk and A Young Doctor’s Notebook. I really liked the pilot for Mozart in the Jungle but that season isn’t dropping on Amazon until December 23rd so…

This is going to be impossibly long so I should quit stalling and get right to…

Key and Peele 
(Comedy Central)

“Do we throw something other than rice?”
“What would you throw?”
“I don’t know. Cous cous. Skittles.”

Why this is one of the greatest sketch shows is because it’s a show that refuses to be lazy. It doesn’t just look at topics that are popular, but challenges the perspective we have in our society. When a sketch is able to have a successful reversal it’s because they’re creating richer characters than expected. Something can have the illusion of controversial but they’re creating an actualization of a threat that could only exist in a cartoonish form. My favorite of the season is taking the idea of a family being uncomfortable with gay marriage but the family is only uncomfortable with how much they are unrealistically trying to be accommodating. In a season where they abandoned their comfortable format and characters to keep delving deeper, this remains one of the most exciting comedies on TV.

Billy on the Street 

“Now they’re going to try and find Dori. Here spoiler alert: SHE’S DEAD. HOW LONG DOES A FISH LIVE?”

Thanks to his role on Parks and Recreation and his appearances on late-night shows, the Emmys and a great one-off in New Girl, this was the year of Billy Eichner. Yet none of those can compare to the delightful madness of the game show where everyone wins, even if Billy is yelling at you. This season was even stranger with a chorus of people thanking Adam Levine for this tweets, Joel McHale being trapped in a giant hamster ball while arguing career choices, Billy’s Meryl Streep obsession culminating in the Meryl-Go-Round and one of the best things that has ever happened: Lena Dunham plays a game with Billy’s tiny nemesis Elena which caused Billy to break character for the first time all series. For other people this would be hell, but through the eyes of Billy he is making New York a better place. And I’m too scared to argue with him.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Organizing Crime 2015 Edition

What is my latest excuse for not blogging enough? Well I moved to Chicago, I have a full-time job, I'm working on producing a new play, I'm writing scripts and--oh yeah--I published a (sorta) new book!

ORGANIZING CRIME 2015 EDITION is the third version of our guide to active mystery series. This is a book that Jim Huang and I have been updating for over five years. With this edition, we brought in Nikki Phipps who was instrumental in the companion book ORGANIZING CRIME CLASSICS. 

These books are list books covering active mystery series so you can keep track of what you've read, what's next in the series and find new recommendations. 

So why should you buy this book when we've already done this twice? First of all, come on, man. Secondly, we make every edition worthwhile. We wait about two years between books because we design it so the information can be up-to-date as long as possible. Then every new edition will update every series in the book, but we'll also keep adding more and more authors. We want this to be as definitive as possible. Our 2010 Edition had 300+ authors. The 2012 Edition has 400+ authors. This time we have 800+ authors. Also there are new jokes in the introduction! 

This is the perfect gift for mystery lovers. Our favorite part of going to different conferences where we sell these and find people who have returned with a book they bought a year before filled with checkmarks and additional notes and a lot of love. The spiral bound book makes this easy to take with you to bookstores and libraries to find the next mystery you want.

I don't want to overstate this but this may be the greatest book of all time

You can buy a copy directly from The Crum Creek Press website and enjoy the joy of free shipping! 

Or you can buy it at some great independent bookstores like The Poisoned Pen, Murder by the Book or Uncle Hugo's. Also there's something called Amazon, but support local! 

Also I'm very happy to tease that we're developing an app version of this book. It is currently in beta at the moment. If you would like to be invited to test the beta please email me at Austin @ (No spaces). The beta is only available for Androids but it will be on iTunes as well when it's finished.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hank and Asha

Hank and Asha was one of my favorite movies from last year and as of TODAY it's now available on Amazon. Support independent film and support romantic comedies that don't belittle the genre.

With the benefit of modern technology, it feels like we’re able to be in communication with anyone at any time. At this very moment, I can use free technology to talk and see someone on the other side of the planet. It’s a level of global intimacy that has never been available to mankind before, where you can know someone better than you know anybody else…but you have never been in the same city before.

Asha first heard of Hank when she saw his film at a festival in Prague. Smitten by his talent, she decides to send him a video of appreciation. When he receives the recording in New York, he returns the favor. Then she responds. And he responds. And she responds.

What they create is something special. The entire film is composed of these recordings they send each other with the titular characters looking right into the camera as they imagine the one they care about on a different continent. While a show like Peep Show uses this device to bring the audience along into their spiral of awkward destruction, Hank and Asha uses it to make you part of the romance. We become even more invested because, more than any other film, we feel that we’re in the room for their most sincere moments—even though nobody technically is.

This experiment could have easily been a series of Skype calls with the leads always moving a bit too close to their laptop camera. Since both characters are enthusiastic documentary filmmakers, this allows director James E. Duff to make every video they send each other to be more visually dynamic. These are two people who want to depict their own individual truths. So they create experiences that they can capture on film to share with each other. This includes setting up the camera before they try the famous beer from the Czech Republic for the first time or when they are at their most emotionally confused, they press record so they can convey exactly what they’re feeling when they receive surprising news.

Enough cannot be said about the two actors who have to carry the film. Andrew Pastides and Mahira Kakkar never miss a beat for even a millisecond. They have no one else to react to but the all seeing-lens and the results are incredible. They control the frame with their expert understanding of the characters as Pastides and Kakkar are able to portray all the emotions the characters mean to put onto film and the ones they can’t hide. This gimmick is incredibly challenging for actors and without them this could be an unfortunate disaster. Instead, thanks to their charmingly perfect performances, a beautiful vision and a wonderful script by Duff and Julia Morrison, this is one of the most likable and rewarding romantic films in years.

Monday, February 17, 2014

House of Cards is Better Because It's Not Great TV

I’ve seen the first five episodes of Season Two of House of Cards. I will absolutely be spoiling the first episode and mention minor things in the next four.

I thought the first season of House of Cards was fine. It had a cool style and fine performances, but it never lived up to the hype that it was creating for itself. Then something changed during the premiere of its new season. It decided that it was going to be crazier.

Sure Frank killed Peter Russo at the end of his convoluted plan to make the Vice President quit. However that was seen as a dark scary moment in Frank’s psyche that allowed him to improvise from his scheme and learned a bit about his psychotic ambition. Yet it still wasn’t that interesting of character inspection because I never cared about Frank. I didn’t care about any character on the show; I felt bad about the lack of control in Peter Russo’s life but now he’s gone.

In Season Two, the show seems to embrace how emotionally distant the show is and will just let us enjoy the chaos. And this show really wants to be chaotic. It’s taking the Breaking Bad big moments without any of the emotional stepping-stones it takes to get to those moments.

At this point in the show, we have a vice president who is essentially a serial killer, a wife who is threatening unborn babies, a McPoyle hacker who will bark like a dog to save his beloved guinea pig and a possible Christian lesbian—definitely Christian, maybe lesbian—who is converting a prostitute who can blackmail the aforementioned VP.

This show is silly.

So very silly.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Top 61 Films of 2013....Because Why Not

As I write this, we are now 27 days into 2014 which means thanks to the effect of New Year’s consumption, the polar vortex freezing our brain cells and probably something that has to do with Rob Ford, we can’t remember 2013. Every publication wraps-up the year with a billion slideshow articles they turn in before winter break because they’re pretty positive nothing will happen during those last two weeks.

Then we’re done! No more 2013! Now it’s time to focus on “films” like I, Frankenstein and….what the hell is The Nut Job? Today I’m going to go against the grain and write about the best of cinema from last year even though we are almost a month into its predecessor. I can never do it at the end of December because there are too many movies that I want to see before I write my (pseudo) definitive list.

This year I want to go even crazier. I want to talk about my Top 61 films because I see this as one of the best years in cinema I’ve ever experienced. Also I think the film market is changing. Right now you have access to amazing films so you don’t have to go see The Legend of Hercules. There are more options!

Last thing before this gets any longer (Ha!), even though I waited to see more movies, that doesn’t mean I saw everything. I still missed About Time, After Tiller, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Bastards, Best Kept Secret, Beyond the Hills, Caesar Must Die, Clear History, Deceptive Practice, Ernest & Celestine, Escape From Tomorrow, Go For Sisters, The Hunt, Night Across the Street, Paradise: Love, Pieta, Post Tenebras Lux, Sightseers, Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, Something in the Air, Starbuck, Tim’s Vermeer, A Touch of Sin and You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet. I’ll get to those…one day.

Last first thing, why 61 films? Because I was going to do 60 and then I realized I forgot to put one on my list halfway through writing this. Why even have this many? Make it to the end of the article, but now let’s get started…

How to Make Money Selling Drugs

This movie is so obviously influenced by The Wire it’s even bold enough to have scenes from the HBO masterpiece and interviews with David Simon. The gimmick of making this movie a “How To” guide is a lot of fun and serves as a nice counterbalance to the depressing financial statistics about how the decades long War on Drugs has severely damaged America.

Currently Available on DVD.

Hey Bartender

Another year, another documentary about an awesome niche world I’ve never seen before. This movie shows the cultural rise of the cocktail and how the right bartender could be just as exciting as the brilliant new chef. Always cool and slick, this brings such a nice allure to this world and the work it takes to make a successful environment.

Currently Available on iTunes

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Beauty of Her

One more thing about today’s nominations. I like the Oscars because there’s a sense of legacy to the flawed institution and it gets to reward those who aren’t typically rewarded. I really can’t care about Oscar snubs for Robert Redford and Tom Hanks because I’m going to go out on a limb and say they’re probably going to be okay. Instead let’s focus on the unheralded who did some amazing work.

What I was really happy to see was K.K. Barrett and Gene Serdena’s nomination for the film Her. There have been so many tweets and Facebook posts lately about what all “needs” to happen within the next year to make Back to the Future II accurate. Those are amusing (well mostly repetitive) but that was never meant to be a fully realized science-fiction world. It’s a fun satirical look at different aspects of culture that are all jumbled together to make for an entertaining romp.

Why I love Her so much is that it’s not a glimpse of our future, but a future we wish we had. I started to notice halfway through the movie that I hadn’t seen a single corporate logo. The OS system that Theodore uses doesn’t have an apple on it or even a name. Everywhere he walks, there aren’t billboards screaming about things to buy. He does get the occasional junk email but he is able to get a system in place to ignore those for him. The elevators are clean, the offices are colorful and the homes are filled with items not products.

Her has a world where society has evolved to become user-friendly, not corporation friendly. It’s shockingly nice. There were two times during the plot I was worried that a lawsuit was going to break out, but that never happened. There is civility amongst everyone because in this magical world, people are just trying to connect with one another. When Theodore sits for a moment near the end of the film and watches everyone on their mobile devices, they’re not looking like drones. They are engaging and talking and happy. This isn’t a world of distractions, but a world to focus on the things that matter the most to us.

These types of worlds are rarely depicted because the boring conclusion to technology is that it’s bad and evil and we need to only use quills because that’s what our Founding Fathers had. Other than ignorant/boring luddite approach, futuristic stories often use technology as a foil because that’s where the conflict arises. Spike Jonze has taken the (in retrospect) obvious approach in that concept and realized that people inherently create their own drama in their journey to be happy.

Barrett and Serdena created a world where people try to fulfill their happiness through their lifestyle without commenting on consumerism. Money is rarely brought up in the world, often only when it’s being rejected. Chris Pratt’s character of Paul is complimented about his shirt from Theodore and then is seen wearing it a couple of more times throughout the film. That shirt wasn’t about how much it cost or what brand it is; it’s about how that shirt made him connect to Theodore.

When Theodore talks to his date about the video game, it isn’t about the top-of-the-line graphics but about the connection he had with one of the characters. He doesn’t even own a TV to play it, but lets it surround him in a room as if it was tangible as anything else in his life. This focus on a richer importance seemed to make a superior product because nothing is seen malfunctioning in the world. Theodore can always get the letters sent, voice-command to listen and the videos to play exactly when you want them to.

Now I’ve given credit to a lot of people in this including Jonze as a screenwriter and (not-nominated) costume designers. Yet it was Barrett and Serdena that made me realize how this world functioned and they did so in an intelligent and non-flashy way. I can’t wait to see the movie again for a number of reasons, but I want to look even closer at the way this world reflects the kindness and peace the characters want for themselves and others.