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



Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Win It All Review




I can find power in all kinds of stories involving addiction despite never suffering from all but one of them. Did I drink a fair amount on weekends in high school? Sure, but I also would volunteer to be designated driver and serve the position with ease, and now in my 30's I literally drink maybe 6 beers a year. I smoked a whole ton of weed during those days too, but I stopped without issue and despite the "gateway drug" claims, a door never opened for me to anything more destructive. Cigarettes? Tried one, what a waste of time. Probably helps I had already smoked a whole ton of weed at that point so the appeal of smoking something bad for my health with no potential to get high wasn't there.

I had one addiction though, one that brought me a fair amount of pain and watching it depicted in cinema still bothers me all these years later, probably because I don't think I will ever truly be "cured" of it. I was a gambling addict, technically probably still am.

Now I know this is going to sound like denial from an addict, but it was never about playing cards and I will continue to play when I get the chance. I love poker and I am good at it, and over the course of my many years playing it I almost certainly have come out in the black. I also always knew my limits while playing No-Limit Hold'em, an ability to recognize when it wasn't my night and walk away from the felt without losing it all. Oddly, while that is quite obviously gambling, I always maintained a calm, focused demeanor when around the game, always thinking and processing everything around me and I believe it is because I love it so much. Playing poker is never really about the money for me, it's just an added bonus.

My descent into gambling addiction hell came around 15 years ago and some colleagues at the time had a bookie. I caught wind of their conversations about what bets they were planning for the night and I thought, I have money and I love sports, I should give this a shot and initially started with 50 bucks here and there, win some and lose some, no big deal. Before long I was up all night wondering if my parents would lend me money because I had lost my entire paycheck and I was supposed to take my girlfriend out the next night or had a bill due soon. I would bet on a game being played at noon, lose and my entire day was ruined, sitting in misery wondering why I was doing it to myself when I experienced so little joy, but there I was the next day desperately trying to win it back, desperately playing catch up yet digging my hole even deeper.




It is with this personal experience that I enter films or television storytelling with a bit of trepidation but also curiosity over how genuine the portrayal would feel to me. The new Netflix original film Win It All, directed by Joe Swanberg, gets two essential aspects right: the lead performance of Jake Johnson and the screenplay, co-written by Johnson and Swanberg. Throughout the entire film I could feel the pain from those days when I struggled so deeply resurfacing because of the realism portrayed by Johnson, as I started to recall the times I would be talking to myself aloud, sorting out a plan to get it back or coping with the reality that there was no path forward until the next payday. I started vividly seeing the times when I would lose everything on a brutal beat but have to put on my best face to go out that night, pretending to listen to a conversation when in reality my entire thought process was consumed by what were the best lines to play the following day. Johnson is great and the script works completely, and on that level Win It All is a success.

The problem with the film is despite all it does right, even with the deeply personal way I can connect with the narrative, it still has a stale fog that hangs over the whole thing because the plot has been done to death before, the lead with the gambling addiction, things crumbling around him as he tries to maintain a new relationship with a love interest kept in the dark regarding the demons that haunt him. If you want essentially the exact same film as Win It All only with even more stakes since it is based on a true story, and an extraordinary performance from the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, check out Owning Mahowny.

On its own terms and merits though, Win It All works because it's a smart film, one that portrays poker and addiction with realism whereas so many other films fail to do their research and feature cringe worthy scenes in which characters literally don't even play by the damn rules (if I see one more film with a character who says "I'll see your bet and then raise you..." I will throw my shoe at the screen). Jake Johnson gives a funny performance portraying a deeply flawed man that you can't help but root for, and for a film that runs less than 90 minutes, you won't regret watching it. I just wish it didn't feel so recycled in the end.



3/5

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Discovery Review




"Faith. Oh, God. I have such contempt for that word. Show me someone who relies on faith and I'll show you someone who's given up control over whatever it is they believe."


Early on during The Discovery there were some hiccups in the script that made me cringe a little, and I thought I was taking a dive into a film with a fascinating premise that would fail to appropriately execute it. I was so drawn into that premise though, one that tickles me in just the right spot in regards to what is quite possibly the greatest mystery our world will ever know: what happens when we die?

It's a mystery I struggle with on a somewhat regular basis, to be honest. I love being alive and the idea of a complete lack of existence is haunting. I want to believe in something greater than me, whether that be a deity or a powerful energy that connect us all or perhaps something else entirely that no one has even been able to conceive of as of yet. I look for proof of this throughout the world around us, as a beautiful day, a remarkable and deeply personal bond or the birth of a child serves as a far more profound message of something else guiding our world than a book could ever deliver for me. I want to believe and I desire to know the truth, but I don't have faith.

I have read various studies and the resulting theories regarding an afterlife or lack thereof, but I have always wondered, what if actual proof of an afterlife was attainable? On the one hand, finding out another plain of existence is undeniably awaiting us would provide me with some comfort, knowing I could live out my days with a peace of mind that something awaits. However, it is safe to say that such an enormous and world changing revelation would not lead to only smooth sailing for everyone, and the brand new Netflix original film The Discovery delves into that territory.

With an extremely talented cast made up of Jason Segel, whom had stepped away from the acting spotlight for a couple of years prior to this, the brilliant Rooney Mara, the legendary Robert Redford and great supporting work from familiar faces Jesse Plemons and Riley Keough and of course the always lovely Mary Steenburgen, The Discovery is not lacking in terms of performances and after those rough bumps I mentioned early, the screenplay really settles in and delivers some intriguing and meaningful dialogue as the story progresses. The film really takes off for me during a scene when a test is being done during the quest to find the definitive proof to back up the public claims made by Thomas (Redford), a scientist who made the public declaration that an afterlife and as a result millions have taken their own lives in order to reach the next chapter of existence. His son Will (Segel) continues to be skeptical of his findings, and such skepticism presents two utterly fascinating questions that I continue to think about long after the film ended: what if the initial claims were wrong and so many people died as a result of them, but perhaps even more of a mind fuck, even if it's true, who's to say what happens next is actually better than what we have today?




Directed by Charlie McDowell, son of Malcolm McDowell and Steenburgen whom appears in the film, and co-written by McDowell and Justin Lader, The Discovery has a heavy vibe to it due to its premise but that's exactly the tone I am looking for when seeking out films covering such subject matter. I want my own mind to be challenged during and after the picture with the questions it presented, and this has proven to be the case with The Discovery. Various scenes like the one I mentioned earlier that allowed the movie to really take off continue to dance through my head, and I have no complaints. A few steps short of anything masterful, but Netflix has offered plenty of meat to chew on here, a welcome original film only a few clicks of the remote away from the comfort of your own home.



4/5


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Small Screen: Planet Earth II Review




I'm not a religious man and no church service can make me believe with any level of certainty that a God does in fact exist, but a series like Planet Earth II makes me wonder and want to believe there is something behind the scenes that crafted the incredible beauty our world has to offer.

A sequel to the series Planet Earth released in 2006, Planet Earth II utilizes 4K cameras to take us to some of the most remote places in the world and capture nature like never seen before, and it's truly a remarkable thing to behold. The 6 main episodes are titled for what each installment covers, "Islands", "Mountains", "Jungles", "Deserts", "Grasslands" and most interestingly "Cities" with a focus on how animals are living in a world that is being taken over by man and the structures we occupy. There is also a seventh episode titled "A World of Wonder" which showcases how the series was made, and the all too real danger this filmmakers and crew members put themselves in is unnerving and completely awe inspiring.

With our world changing seemingly every single day, and mostly for the worse rather than the better, it's fascinating to get an update a decade later after the first series to highlight the wonders of nature and how things might have adapted as a shifting climate continues to be a terrifying concern. Not everything is so serious with Planet Earth II though, although trust me, be warned that there are some really sad and hard to swallow moments as the series doesn't turn a blind eye to the hard truths that go along with the cruelty of nature (the most devastating moments arrive in the final "Cities" episode, especially a sequence demonstrating the damaging effects the bright lights of our world are having on a specific species). There are plenty of adorable moments and laughs to be had, with narrator Sir David Attenborough bringing an essential balance of lightness, darkness and comedic playfulness to the various moments they capture throughout.




Planet Earth II is the best show of 2017 thus far, an incredible non-fiction event that absolutely has to be seen, although if I can make a suggestion to those that didn't catch it on television but do want to watch it, perhaps wait for it to be streaming on a service like Netflix because of their abilities to properly stream native 4K, if you have a 4K television of course. Because my cable provider isn't able to broadcast at that level, I fully plan on watching this show all over again on there when the time arrives and explore the world all over again the way it is truly meant to be seen.



Series Grade: A