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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

A word that will be used a lot to describe the new, live-action retelling of the 1991 Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast is "unnecessary". It's the most commonly tossed around word when one is judging a remake of any kind, specifically when the original film is so acclaimed and cherished, and while I can't disagree in the sense that of course the film doesn't need to be made, my general opinion on the matter is, why not? I know, I know, less retreads, more original ideas. Celebrate bold and daring cinema rather than business as usual projects that are made with the goal of printing money. Here's the thing though, remakes and sequels are going to happen. They are a part of the cinematic landscape whether you like it or not, and while the concept of don't pay for a ticket and then studios will learn their lesson is accurate, in the words of Terence Mann from Field of Dreams, "People will come.". 

I walked into a nearly sold out IMAX screening of the new Beauty and the Beast, people crammed into the seats like sardines excited to experience a story they love told in a new way. The box office numbers this weekend will be astronomical because people want the familiar along with the new, they want the nostalgia pouring out of the words they know with a dash of original content to mix things up a bit. They want characters that they have loved since their childhood played by Hermione Granger and the dashing actor from Downton Abbey (although for me it's Legion and The Guest that make Dan Stevens a familiar face).

When I say they, that includes me. Sure, I want more original cinema. I want more innovative storytelling and unique concepts and bold, memorable work. I also love the animated Beauty and the Beast and am more than willing to pay for a ticket to see if the magic translates to a live-action canvas, and while perhaps it has a bit of a pacing issue with some new content included that extends the length beyond the brisk, tight 80 minutes of the original, overall the good news is it does translate. The new Beauty and the Beast is a winner.

The single most important aspect to get it right was casting, specifically Belle because without the right beauty, no one would care about a beast. Emma Watson is perfect in the role with a look that glows and the essential touch to both charm and inspire empathy for Belle and her plight. To put it simply, if Watson was in the frame, that scene was better for it, and while it may prove hard to look away from her at times it's also mandatory in order to fully appreciate the artistry that went into the various elaborate set pieces and costumes, the way the castle is so perfectly lit to make one room inviting and the next ominous and unwelcoming. I previously mentioned Dan Stevens and he proved to be a good choice to play The Beast, while throughout a vast majority of the film you wouldn't know who was playing the role nor may you care to find out. Stevens' face was digitally imposed onto the Beast with motion capture technology so he is always playing the character, but what he is tasked with here doesn't inspire a level of praise that someone like Andy Serkis gets and deserves for his work in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, although honestly it's not fair to hold anyone to those lofty heights and expect similar results. For what Stevens was asked to do here, he did it well.

As for side characters, Luke Evans embodies everything that is needed out of a live-action Gaston, the good looks along with the smug arrogance that makes him so unlikable. Nevermind the absolutely absurd controversy surrounding the film and Josh Gad's take on LeFou, with a blink and you will miss it "gay moment" that honestly is so tame and run of the mill it actually makes me cringe a bit that this film was being praised in the other direction for having taking such a progressive stance by introducing an openly gay character because now having seen it, can we really call him openly gay? I expected a far more inclusive and heartwarming statement about love and equality, but I digress. I won't judge the film because of hype but rather what the film itself actually achieved, but I figured it was worth mentioning. The only actual issue with Gad's LeFou is that not every joke lands, especially early on in the film during his follow Gaston around and idolize him portion, but as the story unfolds his material feels less forced. Kevin Kline is solid as Belle's father Maurice, and Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald all do great vocal work as the various household items in the castle that are brought to life because of the curse.

Perhaps it doesn't run as smoothly as the 1991 animated feature and of course since the material has already been done, this retelling was never going to feel as fresh as that once did, but it was easy for me to get lost in the songs I know and love, the intricate detail that went into crafting the village and the castle, the precise choreography that made big musical numbers feel joyous and effortless and the performances by a gifted ensemble, lead by a beauty that was born to play Belle.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Logan Review

"So, this is what it feels like."

For years now I have heard the calls from many for an R-rated superhero film, and I will be honest, I was pessimistic. Not opposed to it but also not calling for it myself. My concerns stemmed from the idea that once the green light for such a project was given, the content that would ultimately earn that rating would feel forced, plugged in for the sake of shock value and grabbing headlines rather than flowing naturally with a great story. While I very much enjoyed Deadpool for what it is and am not afraid to admit laughing quite a bit while watching it, that film did step in the trap I feared a bit, with a screenplay that is steeped in dick jokes yet conventional in its origin story foundation, willing to step over the line to make the audience blush but unwilling to have the balls to put care in the right places in order to make a good film great.

For all of you who were calling for the R-rated superhero film, congratulations. Logan is the blueprint of exactly what you were hoping for and exactly what I doubted could happen, a story not bogged down by an overwhelming desire to prove just how R-rated it is but rather one that feels totally natural using the freedom it was given. That's the word that kept coming to mind as I watched the film last night: freedom. Director James Mangold litters his film with brutal violence and plenty of foul language but it all feels right in this painfully honest, desolate vision of an aging mutant long since past his prime, hiding in the shadows under an alias trying to make an honest living just to be able to afford the life he envisions for his remaining years.

Without question Hugh Jackman does his best work of the entire franchise here and it can be hard watching a hero fall apart before our eyes, but it's a beautiful thing when the actor brings so much passion to the role. His chemistry with Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Charles Xavier is top notch, sharing plenty of frustrating, pain and love on screen that makes their briefly used ruse in the film in which they pretend to be father and son feel so real. The breakthrough aspect of Logan though is the introduction of young Dafne Keen as Laura, a young mutant whom shares the same abilities as Logan, being pursued by a group of men who clearly have ugly motives behind their desperation to put the girl back into captivity. The trio effectively form a family during the film and their bond blossoms despite limited dialogue thanks to performances and a screenplay that understands that the most important thing about this story isn't visual effects or constant battle sequences but rather a shared humanity between people who feel isolated and alienated because of who they are. Some of the quieter moments of Logan proved to be my favorite scenes.

My only real issue with the film is a somewhat lackluster villain, and by that I don't mean the entire group, what they did or their motivations going forward because all of that worked and made total sense, but rather the leader of the group specifically, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant). Starting with the only scene that made me cringe, taking place when Logan is watching footage taken in secret and Dr. Rice is heard literally instructing people to remember that mutants are not people, they are things, which for such a well written film felt so forced and unnecessary. It's quite evident and easy to understand that what we are seeing is evil and wrong, so having it spelled out with poor dialogue was basically on the same level as just flashing THIS IS A BAD GUY across the screen over his image. Even beyond that, I just felt this character was very underwritten and nothing more than a cliche, which stood out during a film that was anything but.

As this is the last time we will see Jackman portray this character on screen, it's hard to believe looking back that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men film when we were introduced to his take on Wolverine, and now it is difficult to imagine anyone else stepping into those shoes for future projects. What a fitting way for his run to end here, a punch to the gut and certainly not a colorful blast of fun some are looking for when taking their seats for a superhero movie, but the tonal balance achieved in Logan is remarkable and creates a beautiful, heartfelt and devastating story that finds a certain grace and delicateness despite the stellar action sequences that produce piles of bodies that met their demise in rather graphic ways. Throughout the film I found myself laughing, caring, and nearly crying but it never feels jarring, nothing beyond a little quibble here or there feels out of place.

Logan is a dark, hard hitting comic book film that explores the human condition and the universal desire to find ones "Eden", whether it be to reunite with people whom you can share yourself with or to disappear on a boat away from shore in search of a personal peace. It's haunting and powerful stuff and might just be the best X-Men film of any kind to date.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 8

The good news is, the first season finale of Taboo was the best episode of the show thus far. The bad news is even with that being said, it wasn't without its flaws, but it was a mostly riveting, beautifully shot and exciting final chapter to a mixed bag of a season overall.

It was a pretty safe bet that the Taboo crew, starting with creators Steven Knight, Chips Hardy and Tom Hardy (whom also stars) on down, would close out this eight episode run with some explosive stuff considering all the time and effort it took to build up these characters, their relationships and the feuds that would inevitably turn deadly. I just wish I didn't feel the time and effort getting there as much as I did throughout the first seven weeks. Perhaps had these eight episodes been six instead, with some trimming done to a bit of the storytelling fat that completely failed to engage me, I would be far more positive about the series as a whole, but that being said I know a lot of people loved Taboo from start to finish, so perhaps it's just me.

This show has always been bleak, which is actually just fine by me although at times it played a little too one note which created the notion that getting through a particular episode felt like a bit of a slog (looking all the way back at you, second episode). I loved every inch of the cold, joyless aesthetic and when you get to know these characters, it only makes sense that this would be the world they would occupy. The finale utilizes the best traits of this show, from the photography to the production design to the solid performances and tosses in some brutal, bloody war that piles up the bodies by the time it ends.

When I started watching Taboo I was under the impression that it was only eight episodes total, a limited series never destined to continue on beyond that, but now that I have seen the finale and the way it concludes I feel pretty confident that we will see more of James Delaney in the future. While I didn't always love what I was seeing during this season, at least it ended on a high note.

Episode Grade: B+

Season Grade: B-

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 Review

I love the way the two John Wick films feel like they belong in the fantasy genre despite featuring real locations filled with real people including a protagonist dealing with real, powerful grief. When one hears the word fantasy they are immediately prone to think of wizards or hobbits or fictional galaxies far, far away, but for me it works for anything that feels removed from reality and the rules John and those around him play by are not soaked in realism, nor should they be. A ballet of bullets blasting through the air, violence almost feels beautiful and poetic during the immensely well choreographed sequences in both John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2, and like most action films the concern for innocent bystanders is removed from the equation but with these films it's like it was never even a consideration to be factored in in the first place. Whether John moves through a crowd of people dancing or engages in a deadly fight while on a train, those that look on feel like spectators in the same way we in the audience are because the only people in danger are those that stand in his way, and police intervention is never truly taken into account as a possibility. Even when law enforcement does arrive, it is through vague inference and minimal dialogue that we gather that an understanding exists that they know exactly what John is doing and they have no intentions of trying to stop it.

Currency exchanged throughout the film doesn't appear as stacks of dollar bills but rather a single gold coin and it is understood by these characters that whatever the value is, it is sufficient to pay for his attire or supplies or perhaps vital information needed to find his target. This entire underworld of crime bosses and assassins run through the Continental Hotel which itself has its own rules, one very specific and notable one that prohibits bloodshed on the property regardless of what grudges are held or what unfulfilled missions are ongoing involving those whom are staying in it at the same time. This concept reminded me of growing up playing role playing video games like the Final Fantasy franchise in which no matter what creatures or villains were out there trying to get you, a step inside a peaceful town served the purpose as a sanctuary, the guarantee of a nights rest and the opportunity to acquire what is needed for the journey ahead.

When a contract goes out for a new target, the call runs through an old fashioned switchboard and seemingly every person in every frame gets notified on their cell phone, which of course seems silly unless you approach John Wick as fantasy. These sequences were reminiscent of Walter Hill's cult classic The Warriors in that a heavily populated New York City is seemingly owned by the rival gangs and little else, as John isn't being stalked by merely a single face in an enormous crowd but rather the crowd itself, a world where assassins are around every corner and he must kill every single one of them with intentions of collecting the bounty. The irony of these films is that the most mocked aspect of their premise is that John started his quest for vengeance after the death of his dog, yet for me this concept is the most grounded and realistic thing about these pictures, and I love the way they represented the depth of John's pain in John Wick: Chapter 2 by introducing a new companion but one he refuses to name, perhaps a method to avoid the level of attachment that ends in heartbreak.

Directed by Chad Stahelski whom has an incredible eye for filming brilliant action sequences against vibrant backdrops, with familiar faces returning for round two while also bringing in new characters like villain Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) and assassins hunting John down named Ares (Ruby Rose) and Cassian (Common), if you loved the first John Wick film you will not be disappointed returning to this world. Endlessly entertaining and deliciously violent with the certainty of a third (and hopefully final) film on the way, the second piece of the John Wick trilogy takes the stylized brutality of the first picture and utilizes an expanded budget to upgrade the scale and scope of the experience and it delivers.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 7

So here is a quick little thought regarding the seventh episode of the FX series Taboo that pretty much perfectly exemplifies my feelings on the show overall: I watched it maybe 5 days ago, felt very little desire to write some thoughts on it immediately, and by now I already am having trouble remembering exactly what happened during the episode. I remember thinking it was good for all the same reasons I normally appreciated it, incredible set design, an authentic aesthetic overall and great performances. However, the plotting of this episode, what happened from point A to B and B to C and so on, I am piecing back together in my head now with very little enthusiasm.

I remember the mystery and intrigue around the murder of Winter, and I am left with questions like, is someone framing James (Tom Hardy) or is he being accused by Helga just for the sake of an additional threat for James to deal with and obviously the enhanced drama of more to deal with? This seventh episode did answer a lot of questions too, ones that had lingered since the first few minutes of the first episode, but I didn't really care as much as I hoped to discover the answers and therein lies the problem: Taboo just never grabbed me. Even at its best, it has been one of those shows that delights some of my senses but leaves me heart cold and my head less invested than I expected.

Only the finale left to go, airing on Tuesday night in the U.S. Let's see if it ends on a high note.

Episode Grade: B-

Friday, February 24, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Director

While I am a fan of all five of the films that are recognized in the Best Director category at the Oscars (four of them are in my top ten of the year), I only agree with two of the five nominees being chosen specifically for their achievements in direction. These are my picks for the five filmmakers who crafted incredible art in 2016.

Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon

Refn is a visual storyteller, his films sparkling with different colors and textures and The Neon Demon is certainly no exception with an appropriate title as the film just oozes style, the characters living in a vivid neon nightmare. Refn polarizes audiences because he doesn't deliver traditional narratives, choosing to feed audiences a steady dose of violence, perversion and disturbing imagery in hopes of making a connection knowing full well that 50 percent of the people watching could potentially boo in the end. I am usually cheering.

Robert Eggers, The Witch

I know some people who were upset that The Witch wasn't recognized by the Academy in any way, but did anyone honestly expect it to be? Don't get me wrong, in my world it is deserving of numerous nominations, but perhaps my years of paying close attention to what does and doesn't get nominated has taught me when to expect a great film to be ignored because of a combination of release date, genre, and lack of playing the political games necessary to get voters to take a second look. The Witch isn't an Oscar film, but so what? It's a brilliant slice of horror cinema and one that will surely make the stock of Robert Eggers rise, as this cold, terrifying picture unnerves and haunts throughout.

Pablo Larraín, Jackie

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made his English language debut in 2016 with the biopic Jackie, an incredible movie that works so well because every aspect melds harmoniously together seemingly with ease, including an Oscar nominated performance from Natalie Portman, the Oscar nominated costume design and an Oscar nominated musical score from Mica Levi, but Larraín was left out of the director mix and without his perfect grasp on how to handle the material, Jackie wouldn't be the masterful film it is.

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Nominated for 8 Oscars, Moonlight has only made roughly 18 million at the box office since it was released back in November. That's insane. It's a gorgeous, meaningful, emotional, important film and the heart of the whole thing is the man who adapted the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, writer/director Barry Jenkins. His vision for telling the story of Chiron in three chapters, from childhood to adulthood, is remarkable and needs to be seen by far more people. He is my runner up for this award only because his competition made one of my favorite films in years, but in a normal year I would absolutely be rooting for Jenkins to walk away with the trophy at the Oscars.

the winner is...

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

After his incredible film Whiplash, I wondered if Damien Chazelle could ever top such a great film made at such a young age. He already did it with his follow up La La Land, a gorgeous, joyous, treasure of a motion picture, the kind of film that fills me with joy from start to finish, even when the story unfolding on the screen includes a bit of heartbreak and regret. It's the best film of the year, it's the best direction of the year, it's got the best music featured in any film in years, it's a damn delight and I can't wait to see Chazelle win the Oscar.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Actor

The final performance based category is Best Actor, and I will share four of the five nominees as the Academy...technically. Oddly, two of them will be from different films than those they received recognition at the Oscars for because, frankly, those weren't their best performances of 2016, which is a big compliment because they were great in those movies too.

Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys

La La Land is going through the weird, completely ridiculous and total waste of time and energy known as the Oscar front runner backlash right now. So many think pieces about why it is actually a bad film and it's exhausting, and not just because it happens to be my favorite film of the year. Even when I don't care for an Oscar front runner, people need to relax. Film appreciation is subjective and just because you didn't like a movie doesn't mean everyone has to agree with you, and also, the Oscars and fun and kinda important, but not really that important. When one looks back upon a film they love, do they google how many Oscars it won 30 years ago? Probably not because it doesn't matter. Most of what are now considered the greatest pictures every released made little to no impact at the Oscars because it is short-term recognition. Time will tell on all of the films.

That being said, despite my overwhelming La La Land love, it wasn't even my favorite Gosling performance of the year. If you want to see his incredible comedic timing and the charisma to lead a film in action, check out The Nice Guys. My second favorite film with Gosling in it from last year, but his best individual performance.

Andrew Garfield, Silence

Hacksaw Ridge is a good film and Garfield is great in it, but the Academy overlooked his best performance and really the entire other film he was in for the most part. Silence is incredible despite the lack of award recognition (remember what I said above? Mark my words: a decade from now Silence will be studied and discussed and considered remarkable and Hacksaw Ridge will probably be a distant memory). Andrew Garfield lead the way in this very challenging Scorsese film, and it is one of the best performances of the year.

Mark Duplass, Blue Jay

If you have any interest in admiring a completely under the radar film with terrific performances, look up Blue Jay right now on Netflix and give it a watch. It's a short movie and a great one about a man and woman randomly reuniting after 25 years, there time as high school sweethearts long in the rear view mirror, and it is compelling, emotional, funny and beautiful and Mark Duplass gives one hell of a lead performance. A scene late in the film (which I won't give away) allowed Duplass to break my heart and it was then that I realized how perfect he had been the whole way.

Denzel Washington, Fences

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Denzel won the SAG award for Best Actor and the whole race shifted. Calling it a race up until that point doesn't even feel fair, it wasn't a race. Casey Affleck had won EVERYTHING for Manchester by the Sea and his win was a shoe in, to the point that Affleck himself couldn't hide his shocked reaction when a different name was announced that night, and it is that one win for Denzel that lends me to believe he will win the Oscar as well since the Actors voted on him and they represent a pretty meaty piece of the Academy as well. It's a mighty great choice and I will not question it obviously, given that I am naming him a nominee here as his performance in Fences is elite Denzel level, the type of work that makes him a legend.

and the winner is...

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

My winner is still Affleck, despite the seeming sway towards Denzel by the Academy. The subtle nuance he brings to Manchester by the Sea is breathtaking, which can also basically describe the entire film because it is so powerful without ever feeling like it is trying to be powerful. It just feels real, and the combination of Lonergan's direction and words with performances like Casey Affleck are why. It takes real, remarkable talent to devastate an audience without actively pulling at the heartstrings, and this is Affleck's greatest moment to date.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Actress

Without a doubt the most difficult category for me to bring down to only 5 nominees, this years Best Actress category is crowded and incredible. This is the only category that compels me to discuss some honorable mentions real quick, those being the up-and coming soon to be superstar Anya Taylor-Joy who was incredible making her feature film debut in The Witch and has since been great in films like Barry and Split, Mary Elizabeth Winstead for her terrific work in 10 Cloverfield Lane, child actor Royalty Hightower for her remarkable debut in The Fits and Ruth Negga for her elegant, subtle and beautiful work in Loving. I'm sure there are even more I am not thinking of, and if I weren't trying to match the format of the Academy Awards here I could expand the category to 10 nominees with ease.

Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen

Featuring a great script and a perfect supporting performance from Woody Harrelson (whom I already nominated for Best Supporting Actor), a memorable, authentic teen comedy needs a memorable, authentic lead performance: enter Hailee Steinfeld, probably mostly known these days for her blossoming music career but everyone needs to turn their attention to just how awesome she is on camera. This is old news of course, given her Oscar nominated performance in True Grit when she was only 14 years old, but it's great to see she not only can be the lead of a film but completely knocks it out of the park too.

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

It has been established that Paul Verhoeven is basically a misunderstood genius, but when it comes to a film like Elle I believe any praise thrown his way needs to also be tossed in equal measure towards Isabelle Huppert who is astonishing in the lead role. You can't sell his brand of ambiguous, deeply thematic material without performances that fit the tone he, as a director, is looking for, and Huppert was the perfect choice to lead this highly sexual, violent and controversial picture.

Amy Adams, Arrival

I still can't believe that Arrival is nominated for 8 Oscars, which is a substantial amount, and yet the lead performance from Amy Adams is not one of them. I can't make sense of it. The film just doesn't work as well as it does (and it works really, really well) without her incredible, graceful performance, and given that the Academy obviously appreciates the hell out of the film, how did she fall short? Well, to make up for it, I am here to nominate her for my completely meaningless award, so congratulations Amy!

Emma Stone, La La Land

One of the hardest things I have had to admit this award season is that Emma Stone is going to win the Oscar and yet I don't agree. I will be thrilled to see her up there, the star of my favorite film of 2016 and she is beautiful, charming, and funny, an outstanding actress giving the performance of a lifetime...and yet I would personally give it to someone else. Emma would be my runner-up and by no means do I think the Academy is really make any sort of substantial mistake when she wins (and she will), and I hope La La Land racks up the trophies because the film is simply magical. I love Emma Stone, so don't misinterpret this. But...

the winner is...

Natalie Portman, Jackie

My single favorite performance from all of 2016, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy is a stunning thing to behold. She has it all down, the look, the vocal patterns, the mannerisms. Everything. The collaboration of Portman and director Pablo Larraín proves to be a match made in heaven, and with the camera pulled in close Jackie presents its lead in a claustrophobic manner and there is no where for Portman to hide and she nails every single damn scene. It's devastating, gorgeous, must see stuff.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The 2017 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Supporting Actor

Moving on to the next category, that being Best Supporting Actor, and I will be recognizing two actors from the same film that never appear on screen together, one of which will likely be receiving the Oscar (and rightfully so) and the other not nominated but his time in the film continues to stick with me.

Ashton Sanders, Moonlight

Here is the first of the two actors from the same film, this being the one that was not recognized with a nomination and unfortunately that isn't really a surprise. I'm sure many would question what makes this one performance more special than the others, as it is one of three actors to portray the main character Chiron throughout Moonlight, and it is important to note that I do not mean to slight Alex R. Hibbert or Trevante Rhodes in the least. Every performance in this film is remarkable, truly every one, but for whatever reason the second act of the film really hit me hard and it is when Chiron is a teenager and being bullied at school, and Ashton Sanders plays it perfectly, sometimes while barely saying a word. 

Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

It is basically impossible to recognize Casey Affleck without also pouring the same praises onto Lucas Hedges, and vice-versa. They each have their own individual brilliant moments in the film, but it's the chemistry they share together and the comedy and heart their relationship provides that make the film work so well, on a far different level than just another "tear-jerker". Manchester by the Sea is devastating but it will also make you smile and laugh quite a lot, and much of that is due to Hedges with a terrific performance as the nephew left behind by a mother living a very different life and a father who has just passed away. 

Woody Harrelson, The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen didn't shatter any box office records, but this film will find its audience and it should. It needs to. A tremendous teenage comedy that doesn't feel forced like so many do, like you can tell it is an adult writing what he or she believes teenagers are rather than having any real authenticity, the lead performance from Hailee Steinfeld was the most recognized piece of the film (and she is absolutely wonderful), but the scenes she shares with Woody Harrelson playing her teacher provide some of the most memorable moments from the whole movie. Harrelson doesn't really show any shocking range from the type of performance we already knew he was capable of, but he doesn't have to. What he brings to The Edge of Seventeen is sheer perfection and essential to making me love the movie as much as I do.

John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

I recall back when 10 Cloverfield Lane was released last March, there were some articles buzzing about the Oscar prospects for John Goodman and I was immediately a pessimist no matter how much he deserved it. A perfect, terrifying performance, without a doubt, but one that would be overshadowed later in the year when all of the award season releases started hitting theaters, and sure enough that's exactly what happened. The good news is, fans of the film will never forget what Goodman delivered in 10 Cloverfield Lane. I sure won't.

the winner is...

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

If you are yet to see Moonlight but have taken notice of all the awards and praise Mahershala Ali has received for his performance thus far, you may be shocked to find out just how little he actually appears in the film, as he is only in the first of the three acts. Don't be distracted by how much time he is there, but rather focus on just how there he is during that first formative and powerful part of Chiron's life. It's actually far more impressive that he does so much without being a presence throughout and without a showy, over-the-top "Oscar moment" to point to, but that's the compliment I can pay to the entire picture. It's just so real and honest and moving, and Mahershala is completely brilliant and worthy of the Oscar he will win.