Tuesday, June 01, 2010

CAKE BOSS - Season 2

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Musgo has been around the Reality TV block a time or two. I grew up a fan of the Game Show genre which fell under the Reality TV umbrella with the advent of competition shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Amazing Race. My earliest exposure to the genre was the hidden-camera gem, Candid Camera which paved the way for the documentary style shows that dominate Reality TV as we know it today. The genre is subdivided into shows that follow famous people - The Osbournes, The Simple Life and a bevy of shows seemingly about Hugh Hefner's girlfriends. And there's the shows that follow everyday people doing their jobs. The genre, if not started by, is dominated by COPS which has been showing us different policemen doing their jobs for over 20 years. The most current craze is to show people with interesting or unique jobs. Shows like The Deadliest Catch and Miami Ink have set the bar for these shows.

When I think of the current trend of Reality TV - two networks come to mind, A&E and TLC. The A&E Network follows Dog The Bounty Hunter, Billy The Exterminator and The First 48 (which follows multiple homicide detectives). It's TLC that has made the biggest commitment to this style of TV - once known as The Learning Channel, now they are the home to shows about police women, little people (Little People, Big World; Our LIttle Life), big families (Jon & Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting), inked-up folks (Miami Ink, LA Ink) and now people who like sweets (Little Chocolatiers, Cake Boss).

Cake Boss premiered just over a year ago but in a world of "strike while it's hot", I'm reviewing the latest DVD release of Season Two just as Season Three is premiering on the network over the Memorial Day weekend. The second season which started in October 2009 ended in February 2010 with 17 episodes. The DVD release is spread over two discs with very little in the way of extras. My little darling daughter has been quite a fan of the show but other than brief glimpses, this was my first exposure to Carlo's Bake Shop.

Buddy Valastro is the "Cake Boss" of the title. He runs Carlo's Bake Shop in Hoboken, New Jersey with his mother, his four older sisters, and their husbands. The conceit of the Jersey accent and portrayal of the family on the DVD cover and beginning of each episode is that of a Mob family with Buddy as "The Boss". Their popularity also probably helped by other Jersey notables Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives Of New Jersey. When it comes down to pursuing this line in the actual episodes - the conceit falls apart. The worst parts of any episode are the forced "acting" we see when Buddy interacts with his sisters. These scenes feel scripted and forced. When the ladies change the voice recording in "Robots . . ." or when they change his painting plans in "Painters . . ." it's all painful and predictable.

Any channel that produces similar shows will develop a house style. NBC has it with The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice - both different style shows that are edited for storytelling very similarly. Same goes for TLC where a show like LA Ink about tattoo artists in Los Angeles is edited in a similar way to Cake Boss on the East Coast. In an average episode (and let me tell you they all run almost exactly the same pattern) Buddy will usually have to make two cakes. One will be a larger project for a company or charity. The other will be a smaller piece for an individual. At the beginning, Buddy will travel some place like a battleship ("A Battleship, Ballet and Burning") and after meeting the people will say "I have to make this cake. . .", Buddy will come up with the concept for the cakes and his crew will start on the process. At some point, they will encounter a problem and Buddy will chime in with "I don't know how we're going to get this cake done in time." But they will and it will be delivered over the end credits as everyone has a grand time. In between making the cakes, the secondary plot will usually revolve around Buddy making a bet or getting involved in a challenge.

Buddy is best as the lovable loser. I'm not sure that's how he likes to see himself portrayed in the show but when he's out playing golf in "Golf Greens and Gravity" or getting nagged by his sister over her birthday cake in "Apple, Arguments and Animal Prints", it's always fun to see Buddy as a Rodney Dangerfield persona. He talks big but rarely delivers and that's what's lovable about him. It's easy to separate out these boasts from the cake making. It's that dichotomy that can make the show more appealing - here's a guy with nagging sisters who thinks he's talented at everything but really he's just better than everyone at making cakes.

There are two comparative shows that put Cake Boss into perspective. The first and most obvious is Ace Of Cakes. The Food Network show focusing on Duff Goldman's bakery in Baltimore has been on for eight seasons since 2006. The basic structure is similar - constructing cakes and delivering crazy styles and sized cakes for huge clients like Radio City Music Hall or the cast of Lost. The Ace Of Cakes crew concentrates their 30-minute show more on the actual construction of the cake and less on the personalities behind the cake. In some ways that caters much more to the Food Network fan that may want to know more about the cake itself. Plus the cakes on Ace Of Cakes seem to have pushed the arms race a little more as each show tries to top the other for sizes of cakes.

The other show I'm more familiar with is TLC's LA Ink. In three seasons of the tattoo shop show, the producers have found just the right balance. Kat Von D is like the Buddy of her High Voltage Tattoo shop - she runs a family business with other artists helping out in her shop. There's a blend of ongoing soap opera-ish tales of the shop managers, Kat's boyfriends, other businesses, and drama from the lives of the other artists. In between these are the tattoos. Like the two-three cakes that Buddy is going to make per 30-minute episode, there are five-six tattoos per episode on LA Ink. The tattoos are really the effort of one artist whereas the cakes are a group effort. Buddy is the idea man but he can't make each of these cakes without the help of his team. The hour-long format for LA Ink allows time to tell interesting backstories behind each tattoo - these are the stories that make the viewer invested in the person getting the tattoo. The 30-minute format for Cake Boss doesn't allow that same freedom. I'd like more time to get to know these charities or the stories of the people buying cakes for their weddings and birthdays.

Cake Boss is a fun ride. I loved the cakes for the Hell's Angels in "Motorcylces . . ." and the Sesame Street cake and the beautiful cake for Disney Work in "Castles, Cannolis and Cartoon Characters". But like his cakes, the show can be all sweets and little substance. Buddy and TLC should learn from other shows in the Reality genre that it's the side stories that hook the viewers. It's the lives of other people that come through Buddy's life that fascinate us as much as his talents at making the cakes. That's what The Biggest Loser learned long ago - once you've watched someone lose weight over 16 weeks - it's hard to make it interesting the next season. Unless you invest the viewer in the backstories. The show might benefit from a longer format or from focusing in on the stories that happen outside of his family. Buddy is our guy, and we love him immediately - now give us something to sink our teeth into.

The DVD contains a few short pieces called "Sauce Boss". Buddy is our guide as he shows the viewer step by step how to make seven different Italian dishes. While the "Linguine w/ Giant Shrimp" and the "Mushroom Risotto" look tasty, I really was hoping for a peek behind the scenes at some of the wonderful cakes. I don't feel like some of them really got featured near enough - how about a still gallery to really see them.

Musgo will return to the Reality jungle undaunted by the size and scope of the genre. The Cake Boss enters a third season with plenty still to prove, more stories to tell and many more cakes to bake.

Article first published as DVD Review: Cake Boss - Season 2 on Blogcritics.

STAGECOACH (1939) - The Criterion Collection

Written by Fantasma el Rey

The Criterion Collection has added another masterpiece to their list in John Ford’s 1939 classic, Stagecoach. The title alone sounds like an epic in storytelling, a huge saga in the annals of the American West. And it is kind of that way. A story about people, all with a past, some good, some bad, and all really only hinted at. The location of the story plays just as big a role and is also in its own way shrouded in mystery. All this is put together well by a master filmmaker holding the reins of an unforgettable story. Along for the ride is an all-star cast, including one whose star will begin to truly shine here as a team will be forged that will last two lifetimes.

Stagecoach is the tale of travelers thrown together in tight quarters, forced to deal with each other for long hours on a trip that would become the stagecoach ride from Hell as they fight for theirs lives against harsh weather and Apache Indians. As our core players are assembled we notice that most are outcasts of some sort, looked down on by society and victims of “that foul disease known as social prejudice.” We have a fallen Southern gent turned gambler (John Carradine), a crooked banker (Burton Churchill), a drunkard doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a “lady of the night” (Claire Trevor), and an outlaw cowboy called the Ringo Kid (none other than John Wayne) recently busted out of jail and seeking revenge. Also present are the finer folks of society, the military officer’s wife (Louise Platt), the whisky salesman (the aptly named Donald Meek), our stage driver (western staple Andy Devine), and the lawman (George Bancroft) riding shotgun to keep an eye on the kid. As well as many others who had been in western films and would continue to for years to come including Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, Chris-Pin Martin and legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt.

A big cast might seem hard to follow or care about but Ford gives us just enough of each character to lure us into caring while never confusing us in their part of the journey. We want to know more about each and can’t wait to learn their fate after the stagecoach ride. The suspense and tension build as the stagecoach nears its destination of Lordsburg and the Apaches of Geronimo attack. We also have the tale of our cowboy’s feud with those who wronged him and had him locked away. Not only does Ford give us a thrilling Indian battle but a good ol’ shootout to boot.

Sounds clichéd and overplayed, doesn’t it? Ford knew that and spins his tale with action, humor, and drama in a way that makes it all fresh and new while setting the mark for all westerns that followed. This isn’t a Sunday-matinee B-western; Ford takes the clichés of the genre and makes them interesting. He used the camera, his actors, and the setting of Monument Valley to tell this old tale in a unique way with the directorial choices he made. He boldly announces the cavalry with blaring trumpets. The shoot-out is quick and mostly takes place off-camera. We are given the outcome of both plain as day yet each in a different way.

Ford would make two big connections while filming Stagecoach. One was Monument Valley to which he returned many times, and the other was his wonderful, lifelong friendship with star John Wayne. Ford announces the actor to the big time with the well-known, introductory shot of a zooming, slightly out of focus close-up. Those two men along with the awesome desert setting would make many more great westerns together.

The people at Criterion have done a fantastic job once again with this two-disc set. Disc one is a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer of the film and a good audio commentary by western authority Jim Kitses. Disc two holds all the great extras. Bucking Broadway is an early silent western by Ford, which is a simple story of a cowboy gone to the big city to get his girl back. There is a good interview with Ford from 1968 that’s over an hour long as well as five great featurettes ranging in run time from ten to twenty minutes. There’s a segment with Peter Bogdanovich who knew Ford and Wayne well, clips of Ford’s home movies with commentary by his grandson Dan Ford, and a video essay by Tag Gallagher on Ford’s visual style in Stagecoach. All are very interesting and shed a world of light and knowledge this classic.

Two more extras include a look at the man who brought Monument Valley to Ford’s attention and a look at stuntman/coordinator Yakima Canutt, who was a master at his craft and innovator in how many stunts were performed, rigged up, and pulled off. The DVD also comes with a great booklet that contains a short breakdown of the Criterion set and the original story “Stage To Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox that inspired the film.

As always, Criterion has done a masterful job in presenting another film that should be preserved, studied, and loved by all for generation to come. The Criterion Collection is a bit pricey at anywhere from 30-40 bucks but it's all worth it for the time and love they put into keeping these film classics alive in the best possible condition.

Article first published as DVD Review: Stagecoach (1939) - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.