Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Small Screen: The Leftovers Final Season Review

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

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

I was so, so wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

Season Grade: A+

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman Review

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, June 2, 2017

War Machine Review

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

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

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