Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Small Screen: The Leftovers Final Season Review




It's funny how some movies or television shows are highly anticipated for quite literally years prior to their release, and other things sort of sneak up on you and knock you off your feet. Game of Thrones is a show that the moment the screen went dark on the sixth season, I wanted to know when the seventh would debut and I have been ready ever since. Mr. Robot, I could use that third season now please. Pretty please? I love been in love with Star Wars: The Last Jedi ever since roughly 10 minutes into The Force Awakens, knowing I was ready for deeper exploration into characters new and old, fresh stories to expand the universe.

As of only just a few months ago, I had no interest in diving back into the world of The Leftovers. I watched the first season, I thought it was okay but absolutely nothing that compelled me to come back for a round two, especially because at least the first was adapted from a source material that I found somewhat interesting. Allowing storytellers to go down their own path away from the book can be exciting, but The Leftovers didn't grab me and I figured nothing could be down to pull me back in.

I was so, so wrong.

People love to point fingers and rage towards websites that display critical assessment and consensus of art, like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, and I have always found that hatred so silly and misguided because it's merely just a database of opinions for audiences to refer to. You, the viewer, still holds the right to watch the work and determine for yourself whether you enjoy it or not. No one can take that away from you, no matter what number appears next to the name of the film or series. When I watch a Nicolas Winding Refn or Terrence Malick film, the furthest thing from my mind are what other people thought of the movie, whether they are the guy sitting next to me or the most revered critic on the planet. That isn't to dismiss a critic or their job, hell, that's exactly what I do here on this site as a hobby, but all I am doing is sharing an opinion and possibly, hopefully, providing some insight as to why I feel that way. My goal is never to make it seem like others have to agree with me, and I am not even remotely upset if you don't. In fact, let me know just how much you disagree with me, I welcome it and would love to find out why.




I bring up those sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic because without them I don't know if I ever would have given The Leftovers another chance. I not only didn't watch season two despite its critical acclaim, I pretty much blocked it out of my mind because I honestly don't remember when it was originally on, who was saying what about it and so on. All I remember was positive reactions and me rolling my eyes and thinking nope, can't get me back that easily The Leftovers. Too much to watch, still not interested. That changed when I saw the truly remarkable reviews of the third and final season and I finally considered the possibility that I was intentionally missing out on something special. I quickly ran through the second season and loved it, and the third season turned out to be worthy of all those high scores awarded by critics.

I have come to the conclusion that besides sitcoms, I typically despise the traditional 22+ episodes a season format of network shows. What always happens with this format when it comes to dramatic storytelling is that there is way too much fat and they aren't allowed to trim it, with mandatory 42ish minute episodes edited specifically to fit with commercial breaks. I like the show Gotham, for example, but it has become a background watch while I play my Nintendo Switch, because I can pretty much skip entire episodes without feeling like I missed anything all that important. That should never happen. Therefore, while others see short episode amounts of series like Legion, Stranger Things, or Game of Thrones and complain that they are getting so little, I applaud the creators for focusing on quality over quantity. The fact that The Leftovers closed out the series with 8 wonderfully crafted installments rather than tried to stretch anything out is a great thing, and it shows from the finished work.




All performances in the show deserve recognition and admiration but for me the highlight of the whole thing, and more specifically of the final season was Carrie Coon, an incredible turn while the camera and story were so often fixated on her, and for good reason. If Coon isn't at least nominated this year at award ceremonies like the Emmys or Golden Globes, it better be because the field was so crowded there just wasn't room, but I don't see how that is possible. Being the best thing about one of the best shows of the year seems to be good reason to receive award attention in my book.

What I loved about The Leftovers was the balance the series was able to strike while successfully including so many different tonal shifts, from the bits of comedy needed to add a lightness to the darkness that otherwise surrounds these people and their lives, to the intensely personal drama that both moved and disturbed, to the absolutely surreal moments that felt like creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were tapping into their inner David Lynch-ian sides of themselves. Well, okay maybe not that weird. If you are watching the new run of Twin Peaks episodes, nothing in The Leftovers even comes close to that level of bizarre, but you get the idea. The Leftovers had everything and I am so glad I gave it another chance after almost 3 full years between watching the last episode of the first season and going back and seeing what all the buzz was about regarding seasons 2 and 3. Who knows, I might just go back and watch it all over again in the near future. It's that good.




Season Grade: A+

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman Review




A few hours before I took my seat for Wonder Woman, I revisited Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as it just felt right to transition right from the last DCEU film to the newest addition. No, don't correct me by pointing out that Suicide Squad was released in between the two films. I don't think I can ever bring myself to sitting through that again. I continue to be a defender of Batman v Superman, especially the extended cut, but the issues I have with the film only weigh heavier on my experience with each watch. I'm not screaming about the lack of joy, but without question it could have had a dash of lightness and warmth mixed somewhere in the three hour running time. I love the idea behind the Lex Luthor character, but I still can't watch the film without cringing at the way Eisenberg delivers his lines and the mannerisms that only distract rather than sell his insanity.

I never want to spend my time writing a review for one film while harping on the flaws of another because the work at hand deserves its own time and attention, but I felt the need to address this here because being able to watch the movies back to back only made me bond with Wonder Woman more. Patty Jenkins, who inexplicably has not directed a feature film since the Oscar winner Monster back in 2003, absolutely knocks it out of the park here with the the help of great performances and a dynamite screenplay that allows these characters to showcase their chemistry, charm, flaws, emotions and bravery. Wonder Woman is paced beautifully, shot gracefully or explosively depending on what the content of the scene dictates, and made with love. You can't ask for anything more than that.

There was a certain palpable feeling of excitement walking up to the theater, and I took notice of a few girls pulling out their phones to take pictures of the giant words plastered across the marquee above the cinema outside: WONDER WOMAN. I have gone to see an awful lot of films during my life, but I don't know if I had ever seen that before, those excited to attend stopping just to take a photo of the title. Sure, it is possible that this was nothing more than an opportunity to send the picture to a friend who couldn't attend, but it felt like more. A group of teenage girls so noticeably enthused and ready for a superhero movie that they felt taking such a picture was worthwhile, the first time they were able to go see a female hero be the absolute star of the work rather than just a member of a powerful ensemble mostly filled with men. I hope they weren't disappointed. I'm sure they weren't. Lord knows I wasn't.




The beautiful and talented Gal Gadot takes the lead in Wonder Woman after her somewhat brief role in Batman v Superman still managed to be one of the brightest pieces of that film and she does really good work here, believably bad ass with a spectacular presence that makes every frame feel more alive. Chris Pine is superbly cast as the main supporting character, Air Force pilot Steve Trevor who had gone undercover as a spy in Germany to observe how powerful of an operation they were running during World War I. The lives of Diana (Gadot) and Trevor collide when Trevor's plane crash lands just off the coast of the island Themyscira, the home land of Amazon women who have lived for a long time peacefully yet always prepare for battle just in case. With Trevor comes the German army that pursues him, thus bringing war and the tragic repercussions of it to the gorgeous paradise.

Unlike the previous DCEU efforts, Wonder Woman has such a warmth and an ability to make an audience laugh and smile and this bleeds over into the rest of the film, making the stakes raised when the lives of characters are in jeopardy because we actually give a shit whether they make it out alive. The film suffers from a very common syndrome that plagues many superhero pictures, the one where the villain is rather shitty and not nearly as interesting as it should be, but I was able to forgive Wonder Woman in a way I can't other films because I fell so hard for Gadot and Pine and the other "good guys" throughout. Also, the final battle sequence felt reminiscent to the ugly CG display of the Doomsday sequence in Batman v Superman which was disappointing considering the rest of the movie looked so fluid and natural.

Nevertheless, Wonder Woman is a treasure and the No Man's Land scene in the film is truly something special, a top notch moment directed and performed so perfectly I was actually moved by what I was seeing. I hope this universe learns a thing or two from this moving forward, because this is a superhero film should be done. I must admit, I didn't know much about the Wonder Woman character prior to seeing this. Now I am in love.




4.5/5

Friday, June 2, 2017

War Machine Review




The problem with David Michôd's new film War Machine, a Netflix original picture, is that it never really knows what it wants to be. At times a military satire, aided by an often absurd performance from Brad Pitt that feels more like a person doing a mediocre impression of a general than an actual general, but then in an instant we are supposed to be emotionally moved by the harsh realities of war and the erroneous narrative that the United States can fix a war torn foreign country and push them on a path towards greatness solely through military intervention.

I think I know what Michôd was going for here, basically an Afghanistan U.S. military clusterfuck version of The Big Short, but that film was so effective in its tonal balance that by utilizing comedy it actually made the dramatic truths of the story hit even harder, like a shock to the system. War Machine simply doesn't get there, it never earns any lasting resonance desired from its message because the comedy and the earnest attempt at sadness and honesty don't mesh well.

As for performances, I was completely unable to take Pitt seriously in the lead role as General Glen McMahon, with his sincerity and growing realization of just how little he could accomplish in a misguided war effort being his best moments but they are completely hampered by his cartoon like General portrayal hanging over every serious interaction or moment of self-reflection. The rest of the cast is fine, good even, and there are plenty of solid scenes here to elevate the overall film to decency, but it just doesn't do enough to be good, and I also really didn't care for the artistic choice of having a voice-over fill in some of the empty moments with unnecessary explanation of exactly what the General was thinking or wanted to believe.



2.5/5

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Small Screen: Master of None Season Two




It's still only May and living in these peak TV days of having different shows being released by different formats quite literally every weekend, it is impossible to make any guarantees of what might be my favorite show of the year so early. All I can say is this: the second season of Master of None is exquisite, a brilliant blend of perfect comedy with a melancholy pall looming over moments at just the right time, a heartfelt episodic television masterpiece that starts off in black and white with a gorgeous ode to the classic film Bicycle Thieves with the episode titled, appropriately, "The Thief" and ending with an ambiguous final shot at the end of the tenth installment titled "Buona Notte" that will leave anyone with a pulse begging for more, wondering whether what we just saw is or isn't reality.

It isn't just about the start and the finish though, with everything in between being such a smooth and easy watch, with my wife and I plowing through all ten episodes in two days this weekend and we could have watched even more had they been available. What is truly remarkable about the deft creative touch of creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang is the way they play with tone not only from episode to episode but moment to moment, knowing just when those watching at home need a laugh and then suddenly we will all stop smiling because of something powerful, something insightful and something moving. Ansari and Yang have stories to tell and by god, tell them. I will listen to them all.

The thing about this show that may throw some off is that even though it does run in a cohesive linear pattern from point A to Z in terms of storytelling, Master of None is more than willing to get sidetracked along the way with one off episodes and I love it. Not every character has to pop up in each one, not every set piece has to be utilized over and over, and while a romantic arc does begin in the first episode and become the major plot mover to close out the season, it isn't our one and only emotional piece of the puzzle, say like a typical sitcom and the way a budding romance is teased and yanked away from us as a means of "will they or won't they?" every single week for years. Master of None has now hit us with two pretty big "will they or won't they?" moments but during the journey we see other character's stories told and the results are extraordinary.




Those that loved the first season of the show and specifically were big fans of the parents in the series, played by real life parents of Ansari (Shoukath and Fatima Ansari) and Clem Cheung as the father of Kelvin Yu's character Brian, will be happy to hear they are all back and used in terrific ways, like the third episode titled "Religion", but the standout family episode of the season has to be "Thanksgiving" which revolves around Denise and her family, watching the way things change from one Thanksgiving to the next starting when her and Dev (Ansari) are in middle school, with the main conflict around the table for dinner is Denise finding her truth with her homosexuality and being willing to come out to those she loves but knows won't accept it. It's honest, painful, raw, real stuff, and it is also unafraid to be really, really funny without damaging the importance of the message.

The best episode of the ten though is titled "New York, I Love You", a standalone piece that barely features a familiar face at all, instead following different people with completely different stories to tell as they all wind up in the same place. It's ingeniously plotted and structured and is willing to go in traditionally uncomfortable places in order to portray realism, like when we are following a deaf woman and absolutely no sound of any kind is used during her entire segment. We are in her shoes, seeing the world through her eyes and more importantly not hearing a thing much like she cannot, and it is really fascinating to recognize exactly what is taken away from an experience when it is delivered in silence. It isn't that she is doing anything particularly remarkable, in fact her day is completely unremarkable, arguing with her boyfriend over their stale sex life and joking in a store about buying an ugly scarf, but that's what makes it such a personal and revealing thing to witness: imagine your day, a fun day shopping and spending time with a loved one. Now imagine that same day but you're deaf. Obviously ten minutes of watching a show without sound cannot truly replicate what it is like to live as a deaf person, but it's still a viewing experience I won't forget, and I am proud of Ansari and Yang and anyone else writing for or contributing to Master of None in any way for trying something so interesting.




The first season of Master of None was awesome, a special slice of television, but they have truly stepped up their game with season two, and considered it was 18 months between the two seasons I have to wonder if more shows should be willing to take their time and really pour their minds, hearts and souls into the work to get it right rather than rush the product to meet deadlines and pull in ratings. I don't care how long it takes before Aziz sits back down and starts crafting a third season, as long as he keeps making such extraordinary entertainment.

Okay, I care a little bit. Please make a third season and don't take too long. I already want to know what happens next right now.

Master of None is a Netflix original series, and if you have Netflix you absolutely must watch it. If you don't have Netflix, you absolutely must order it and watch it. Even if it's just a free month trial thing. Shh, I won't tell.




Season Grade: A+

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Small Screen: The Leftovers




This isn't so much a review of anything specific regarding the HBO Original Series The Leftovers, as writing such a thing randomly for the first time after watching the fourth episode of the the third season is a strange place to start. It's the fact that I just watched the fourth episode of the third season that inspires me to write something. anything about this series because it wasn't smooth sailing for me to become a fan of the show.

Prior to the release of the first season I read an article about the production of it and decided to give the novel it is adapted from a read, and I'll be honest, I had a very mixed reaction to the book from author Tom Perrotta. Brilliant in concept but the read left me a little cold, my expectations dashed, I still was geared up and ready to go for the television series because I figured HBO so consistently produced quality programming, surely it would be the type of material that would translate really well to the screen.

Then the first season hits and...eh. Pretty good. Not great. Just wasn't floored, despite the excellent performances and top notch production value I was still left cold, wondering why a story about a fascinating event like the rapture and the aftermath of it wasn't grabbing me emotionally like I had hoped. I hung around for the first eight episodes of the season, pessimistic that the show could go anywhere else after the already laid out plot from the source material and I ended up not even watching the last couple of the first season. Figured I knew what was going to happen and between the many other television programs and films I planned to watch, no need to waste another two hours on it. I moved on.




Fast forward to the following year and the second season of The Leftovers is due to be released, no where even close to my radar but I happen to catch some reviews that were filled with extreme enthusiasm for the direction the series had gone, and I was stunned. Not so much that others could fall in love with the show, one person's trash being another's treasure is true of any art and lord knows I respect the hell out of that, but it was the level of praise being heaped toward the show that caught me so off guard. Despite the weekly excitement and reactions to another great installment, I continued to avoid the show although I'm really not sure why. Every time I considered going back and just picking up from where I left off, I would find something else to watch and push The Leftovers to the side.

Finally it was announced that the third season would also be the last of the show, which intrigued me enough because I knew catching up on it would also mean getting to see how they could end such a story, and then I saw the reviews of the third season and holy lord were they through the roof. I knew it was time, and boy was it time. What a brilliant, perfectly constructed series The Leftovers has become, constantly intriguing and bizarre and shocking fashion, always keeping me on my toes episode after episode and now that I have caught up I would imagine week after week. Sort of sad that I have finally opened my eyes to just how spectacular a series this is with only a few weeks left to go, reminding me of the way I went about seeing Six Feet Under, easily one of my favorite programs of all time. I had not seen a single episode until the final season was underway, scooping up DVD box sets (the only way one could binge watch back in 2005) until I was able to watch the final few installments on the night they aired, including what is still the greatest series finale of all time.

Which leads me to the question that keeps flying through my mind since I watched the most recent episode last night: how will they end this show? How the hell do you conclude such an odd, unique show with such a chilling and thought provoking premise? With most shows I can form a guess, even if I end up being proven wrong (I formed a guess with Six Feet Under...boy was I wrong there). I can't even come up with a shot in the dark theory, although I am sure creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta had a pretty clear plan in their minds, and I hope it is just as rewarding and intelligent as the last season and a half have been, and I also hope it is unconventional because that is exactly what a show like this not only deserves, but needs. It is essential The Leftovers goes out in a fashion that will leave a memorable taste in viewers mouths, even if it is polarizing rather than universally appreciated.




To sum up this post: basically, I haven't been writing as much lately nor watching as many films in general because the news is an endless shit storm circling around a President I am ashamed of and embarrassed by, and to distract myself I have been watching a lot of stand up comedy specials and reliable favorite television series from years ago that put a smile on my face, all while playing endless amounts of my Nintendo Switch. Despite this, I knew it was time to put down the games for an hour a night and really devour The Leftovers (<<<this was unintentionally when I wrote it, I swear). What a delicious dish the series has turned out to be (okay, this time it was intentional). Being challenged to actually absorb the nuance and admire the complexities of such a narrative has brought my desire to shift back to normal and watch more great films and write a bit more about them. Television series as well, of course. There is a second season of Sense8 waiting for me on Netflix and a new season of Master of None dropping today after all, so lord knows I will be consuming plenty of episodic television but I won't be distracted, I won't be looking away. The world sort of pushed me away from my love of these arts, but I think it's time to welcome them back in again, mostly thanks to a single show that reminded me how great it feels to dig deep into storytelling and think about the world and the scary shit in it rather than try to block it out.

If you were like me and abandoned ship early, or never watched The Leftovers at all, do it. Just do it and get ready for an absolutely masterful second season and the first four of the third and final season being just as remarkable, maybe even better. It is so, so worth the journey.

I will hold off on a score of any kind because, like I said at the beginning, this isn't a traditional review. Not yet. I will write a bit more thoughts after the show wraps up, and that thought is bittersweet because with only four more episodes to go, I don't want it to end, but holy shit I can't wait to find out how it does.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Casting JonBenet Review




I want to be upfront with a warning regarding viewing the new Netflix original documentary Casting JonBenet: it takes some time before you can really make sense of what the picture is trying to do, and I'm sure many will still be left cold even after it ends because the film doesn't provide a single answer. It's not looking for answers. I have seen some clickbait headlines about how the film presents a new theory on the murder of young JonBenet Ramsey, it doesn't and director Kitty Green never sought out to solve the notorious cold case. What she does do is focus her microscope on a very specific and well known case to explore bias and obsession with such cases, and the way the film is structured makes for a fascinating watch.

Casting JonBenet is presented as a series of interviews, which normally would scare me off a bit with a documentary because I have grown a tad weary of the talking heads telling a story that lacks footage of its own style, but what transpires her is different because Green is reliant on this method to make a statement. The subjects being interviewed are under the impression they are auditioning for a role in a new film based on the JonBenet Ramsey story, each person there to try to play a member of the family or a key other piece to the puzzle, one that has never and unfortunately may never be solved. Each subject in Casting JonBenet is a resident of the Boulder, Colorado area that the murder occurred in, many of them residing nearby when it happened and the perspective they share along with their deep rooted beliefs on what happened that night prove to be illuminating as to how each person sees things differently and form bias in their own way.

The surprise of these interviews is that through discussing the case and the way each person sees it, some of the subjects end up opening up about their own tragedies and traumatic experiences, as if trying to fill the shoes of a member of the Ramsey family has created an almost therapeutic channel for the pain they either push down or bottle up. From a woman reliving her own molestation to another who experienced the murder of her brother when she was a child, a man who was once briefly suspected of foul play after the unexpected death of his girlfriend before the evidence cleared him, these people aren't merely looking into a camera trying to win a part, they are looking into a mirror and exposing how each can relate to what happened to JonBenet Ramsey on the night of December 25th, 1996.




Kitty Green isn't looking for the truth, she's looking to dissect the concept of truth and the way we form our own opinions and conclusions. As a result she has crafted a terrific documentary.



4/5



Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kong: Skull Island Review




Kong: Skull Island is dumb, predictable, and often times feels recycled from previous big budget blockbusters. It's also a ton of fun.

It's impossible not to land on Skull Island and think you are about to embark on a journey through a Jurassic Park sequel, as the mix of characters from military meatheads to fish out of water scientists stranded on a dangerous, isolated island full of creatures feels all too familiar. What Kong does well though to make it stand out from the work that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly clearly ape (pun intended) is their dedication to embracing the time period it takes place in, utilizing a Vietnam war atmosphere and a clear nod to Apocalypse Now to bring some batshit crazy awesome visuals to life, so vibrant and ridiculously cartoonish that it's impossible not to grin.

You don't typically buy a ticket to a film like Kong: Skull Island for the performances and that stays true here, although no one is by any means poor in the picture. Lead by Tom Hiddleston and the wonderful Brie Larson, they do what is expected in a movie where the real stars are the action sequences and visual effects, and the supporting performances from brilliant veteran actors like Samuel L. Jackson (although his character is the biggest cliché of the whole movie as he plays military guy who has his own violent agenda on the island that endangers them all) and John Goodman are rock solid but again, you won't walk away from a film like this talking about which actors were the best. You will be talking about Kong and the other creatures and the big, awesome action spectacle moments and the post-credit scene that builds a big monster universe whether you like it or not (I like it).




I can understand and appreciate every different opinion imaginable in regards to Kong: Skull Island, ranging from those that believe it is a terrible disaster to those that had an absolute blast with it on the big screen. I could see all the warts while watching and yet I cannot deny I enjoyed the experience, one of those movies I would turn on years from now in the middle of the night when I just want to lay down and look at something pleasing and fun for a couple of hours.



3.5/5