Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Small Screen: Z: The Beginning of Everything Season One

I must confess, I knew very little regarding F. Scott Fitzgerald prior to my watching of the new Amazon original series Z: The Beginning of Everything, beyond reading The Great Gatsby and knowing the names of a few of his other classic works of course. I knew even less about his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, formerly Zelda Sayre, so I can't give you a breakdown of whether or not the events that happen on screen were authentic in any way to their factual story together. All I can do is critique what I saw.

I had some pretty severe doubts about whether this show could keep me engaged after a few episodes because it just didn't seem to have much meat on its narrative bones, but that brings me to the first thing I did appreciate greatly about the series. Thank goodness creators Tim Blake Nelson, Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich understood that the material they were working with was better suited to shorter episodes, with each of the ten being a half hour or less. It feels like dramatic televised storytelling is constantly being stretched out to nearly an hour per episode whether the writing is worthwhile for that much time or not, and the easiest way to lose an audience is boredom.

Z: The Beginning of Everything is never boring and while it isn't perfect, it certainly is well made and the farther you dig into the ten episode run, the more you are likely to appreciate stuff like the set pieces, costumes and the performances, all of which effectively transport the viewers back to the era it takes place in, which begins in 1920 when a beautiful small town girl named Zelda (Christina Ricci) falls in love with a soldier and aspiring author named F. Scott Fitzgerald (David Hoflin). The presence of a supporting player like David Strathairn playing Zelda's father help give the show an extra shot of legitimacy and integrity, as he is an accomplished and outstanding actor.

One thing that does bring the show down though is a feeling of redundancy, that we are watching the same two people travel down the same road over and over throughout the ten episodes as we are witnessing the painful struggles of their marriage, and despite some solid character work in the show as a whole, I am not sure that I cared enough about either of them individually or especially their lives together to really be invested in their marital ups and downs. The best moments of the show happen later in the season when they experience a change of pace and move from the glitzy and glamorous city life to a gorgeous beach side home they purchase to escape from the hustle and bustle, with some tremendous camera work and breathtaking scenery working to make this show a soothing, easy watch.

It's a good show, and after doing a bit of reading on their history together, I hope a second season is granted by Amazon because there is a lot of material to explore. Based on the way the first season ends, I would hope and expect to see more streaming on Amazon Prime at some point.

Season One Grade: B-

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 4"

I don't know what it is, but I am drawn to religious storytelling and imagery when it comes to art. I haven't stepped inside a church in years and do not practice any sort of faith, but I do not begrudge anyone else finding peace and joy from such things and I am fascinated by the subject matter despite my personal lack of interest.

I have no idea if people are taking The Young Pope seriously yet, what with it basically being nothing more than a meme generator prior to the first episode airing, but if not everyone should be. This is a gorgeous, deep, meaningful, bizarre, blasphemous, insightful, impeccably made television series, and while every moment thus far has not been perfect, it has been bold and ambitious from the very beginning.

The fourth episode is probably my favorite thus far, featuring some impossibly beautiful scenes and pretty much perfectly conceived dialogue including plenty to chew on regarding faith and the fact that even the most devout people imaginable still have their moments of doubt in the existence of a higher power. I love when The Young Pope goes in this direction. It's easy to draw in an audience with shocking moments and controversial behavior from men of the cloth, but when I am most pulled in are those scenes featuring personal reflection and by the chilling conservatism of the lead character.

The best is still yet to come, isn't it? The Young Pope is going to get even better. I can't wait. On to episode 5.

Episode Grade: A-

The 50 Finest Films of 2016 - #50 - #41

Thus, it begins. My countdown of my 50 favorite films of 2016 is here, a list that began over a year ago and expanded and changed constantly ever since. This list will include all genres, films from various countries, and a combination of works of fiction and non-fiction. I saw 176 movies released last year in total, including all 9 best picture nominees.

First, the films ranked 50 through 41:

50. Under the Shadow

Let's start off with an Iranian horror film, one that is streaming on Netflix and absolutely worth the brief 80ish minutes it runs. Under the Shadow, directed by Babak Anvari, tells the story of a mother and daughter who are trying to live in war-torn Tehran during the 1980's, not to mention an evil that literally haunts their home. This is a ghost story and can be enjoyed on a basic scary movie horror level, but it's clear Anvari is delving into far more meaningful thematic material under the surface.

49. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson is back, this time in the directors chair bringing an incredible true story to the big screen in Hacksaw Ridge. Conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss saved the lives of 75 men in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of WWII without firing a single bullet, as he refused to carry a gun because it was against his beliefs. It's an inspiring and slightly syrupy film during the first half, but boy does Gibson not hold back on his portrayal of war. It's brutal and disturbing, as it should be, and by showing the carnage of battle it illustrates just how brave (and perhaps a little crazy) Doss was to go out there willingly unarmed.

48. Don't Breathe

The second horror film on the list already, although Don't Breathe is definitely a different sort of beast than Under the Shadow. What we have here is 80 some minutes of tension that cuts through the audience like a hot knife through butter, a film about a group of three young thieves who break into the home of a blind man after finding out he is sitting on a large sum of money, only to find out the man is not as helpless and vulnerable as it would seem. It's a simple picture but it's unnerving and perfectly paced, and I haven't been able to shake a few of the disturbing moments ever since.

47. Finding Dory

It may not be getting the acclaim that the best of Pixar receives, and frankly it isn't as good as their best can be so it's understandable, but Finding Dory is still a warm and adventurous winner with a ton of heart. I had my doubts about revisiting the world of Finding Nemo with a sequel but an exploration into the backstory of Dory ended up working quite well, and new characters featuring great voice work only enhance the journey.

46. The White Helmets

An outstanding short documentary running only 40 minutes in length, The White Helmets is a Netflix original and can be found streaming there, and everyone should watch it to understand and appreciate exactly what is happenining in Syria right now and the heroism and bravery of a group of men who volunteer their time and energy, risking their lives to save others. It is nominated for the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject and that recognition is well deserved.

45. Barry

A Netflix original biopic about Barack Obama might not sound like everyone's cup o' tea, but this was a very well handled and interesting look at a very specific, transformative time in the life of the man who turned out to be the 44th President of the United States. The focus of the film surrounds when he attended college and Columbia University NY in the 1980's and takes a deeper look at the way he struggled with racial tensions at the time. Barry is a great watch streaming on Netflix.

44. Deadpool

A vulgar, very R-rated Marvel film that captivated audiences in a big way, Deadpool is just a load of fun. I have issues with the film, like a pretty uninspired villain (although one could argue this almost felt intentionally satirical in nature because a lot of Marvel films have poor villains), but Ryan Reynolds performing the hell out of this character and a very funny script makes Deadpool work. A revisit at home sold me on just how entertaining this movie is.

43. Zootopia

The frontrunner to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the upcoming awards, Disney's Zootopia is colorful, fun and kid friendly but also has a lot to say that will connect with adults and hopefully create some dialogue between parents and their children about the harm in stereotyping people because of the way they look or the area they live (sure sounds topical at the moment, eh?). Enjoy it however you want to, just go enjoy Zootopia.

42. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

I have come to love the work of the ingenious Taiki Waititi, mostly known for writing and directing What We Do in the Shadows as well as writing the new Disney hit Moana (which just narrowly missed this list, still a really good film), and later this year we will be seeing his approach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe when his Thor: Ragnorak is released. His film from 2016, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a funny and warm picture that should not be missed, with a top notch screenplay and the right performances to deliver it.

41. Midnight Special

The first of two films directed by the incredible Jeff Nichols to appear on this list, Midnight Special dabbles in the science fiction realm as it tells the story of a father and son on the run as the government tries to track them down because the boy has special powers. Some will be turned off by Nichols typical desire to avoid essentially any exposition at all with his storytelling, but it works just fine by me, keeping the film's narrative contained to these people and these moments rather than worrying about the past. His working relationship with Michael Shannon continues to shine, and while Midnight Special doesn't reach the heights of their collaborative masterpiece Take Shelter, it's still a damn fine film worth seeing.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 3"

My faith in Paolo Sorrentino has been rewarded. The Young Pope is a terrific show. I can officially confirm this after the third episode. Some thoughts:

- This show is expertly scripted, such perfect dialogue in every scene.

- Jude Law remains perfect for the lead role. I highly doubt that will change. He is a captivating and chilling bad guy, and make no mistake, this pope is the villain.

- One of my favorite aspects of this series after three episodes is the fact that I both feel like I know where it is headed but really have no idea at all. I predicted that Lenny (Jude Law) wouldn't so some overly progressive pope which many assumed solely based on the title of the series being focused on his age, but as for specifically what happens next, who the hell knows? That's exciting.

- I think The Young Pope is just going to get better and better.

On to episode 4!

Episode Grade: B+

The 10 Best Documentaries of 2016

As a documentary enthusiast, 2016 was a strong year for the genre and there were great films covering a wide range of different subjects. These are my ten favorite of the year.

10. Jim: The James Foley Story

An in-depth, deeply personal look at the life of a man named James Foley, an American journalist who was captured by ISIS soldiers in 2014 and eventually beheaded live on camera, a tragedy reflected upon through interviews with family, friends and even others who were kept in captivity with him yet were lucky enough to be set free. This was one of the first films I saw during 2016 when it debuted on HBO in January and it has still stayed with me over a year later. Extremely well made, comprehensive and heartbreaking, this movie is available on HBO Go and HBO NOW and also to rent on platforms like YouTube and iTunes.

9. Cameraperson

Not your traditional documentary which is what makes it so fascinating, Cameraperson is made by cinematographer Kirsten Johnson who decided to put together a collage of footage she shot over the course of her career, the material that resonated deeply with her spanning decades and filmed across the world. Everything you see has quite literally been done before, as nothing was filmed new for this movie, and yet when edited together by the very person whom the footage is so important to, it's a beautiful experience.

8. The White Helmets

If there was ever a more appropriate time to watch The White Helmets on Netflix, I don't even want to imagine what would have to be happening in our world. A short documentary running only 40ish minutes in length, this film follows a team of volunteer rescue workers that risk their lives every single day trying to save Syrian civilians as the bombs rain down on innocent people in Aleppo. It's a horrifying watch but don't let that deter you. Personally, I think I owe it to the people that are going through these circumstances and being so brave, that I can spend 40 minutes admiring their courage and trying to comprehend their pain. 

The White Helmets is nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 2017 Academy Awards.

7. Tower

Using a unique blend of animation and actual interview footage, Tower tells the story of the tragedy that took place on August 1st, 1966 at the University of Texas when a sniper went to the top of the tower on campus and opened fire on innocent people walking below. The result of the carnage was 16 dead and three dozen wounded people, and the film allows those still alive and lucky enough to tell their stories to do so. It's a challenging watch but a rewarding one, with tales of unthinkable heroism being told. 

6. Life, Animated

What an amazing story this is, one about an autistic child who couldn't communicate with his family in any way until they realized that his love for Disney animated movies could be channeled into a way of speaking to each other by talking through dialogue and the voices of the characters. The film follows Owen Suskind into adulthood, showing the challenges he still has to overcome and the way his love for those very same movies still helps him to function today.

Life, Animated is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards.

5. 13th

Racial inequality was a huge topic of conversation in 2016 and continues to be today (and rightfully so), and a film that covers that topic and more specifically the way we use the prison system as a form of modern slavery is Ava DuVernay's 13th. It's insightful, comprehensive, intelligent and informative stuff, and it is a Netflix original film available to stream now.

13th is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards.

4. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

I don't typically seek out concert films and consider them some form of high art, but perhaps I need to start. Director Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs and more appropriately for this conversation Stop Making Sense, the iconic concert film featuring Talking Heads, films every inch of this Timberlake concert experience and frames it all in a way that is a celebration of music, production design and the idea of truly giving an audience a show worthy of the dollars they dropped in order to be there. I have watched this beauty, streaming on Netflix, three or four times now and I smile throughout every time. It's hard to explain how great a concert can be filmed and delivered to people sitting on their couches at home, so my advice is to give it a chance and admire how Demme has mastered the art.

3. Gleason

From all smiles to a fair amount of them mixed in with a whole lot of tears, Gleason tells the story of former NFL player Steve Gleason who went from a top notch athlete to his body breaking down after being diagnosed with ALS, and the film captures five years of the lives of Steve and his family after he decides to keep a video journal to eventually give to his then unborn son, fearing that by the time his child will be able to speak to him, Steve will be unable to speak back. It's a tragic, heartbreaking film but also extremely inspiring, watching someone struggle so terribly with an awful disease still find the motivation to laugh, love and help as many people as possible who are also fighting ALS but may not have the means to afford the best treatments and care. Gleason is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

2. Weiner

After this film was released and I had already seen it, some new and even more damning evidence of Anthony Weiner's deeply troubling issues surfaced, with new images released that he had sent to a girl he had an online relationship with only this time she was underage. It's entirely possible someone viewing Weiner now might see the film in a different light because of this, but the movie itself is such a triumph of documentary filmmaking, with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg capturing the marriage of Weiner and his then wife Huma Abedin as they struggle to stay together after his first controversy destroyed his political career, and they film Weiner while he attempts to make a career comeback by running for Mayor of New York...only to have another scandal take him down again while the film was being made. Weiner is fascinating, taking a fly on the wall approach to its subjects as they discuss deeply personal aspects of their lives. It's the second best documentary of the year, behind only one of the best all around pictures regardless of genre.

1. O.J.: Made in America

A towering achievement in filmmaking running just under 8 hours in length, it may seem daunting to try and watch O.J.: Made in America but not only is it worth it (holy shit is it worth it), but the film was originally presented as 5 separate installments on television and can be viewed as such, making sitting down and watching it over the course of a week rather than one really long day seem much more realistic and easy to digest. Easily the most comprehensive and well made documentary I have ever seen, this movie covers EVERYTHING in order to paint the whole picture of not only O.J. Simpson and his infamous crime, but the climate surrounding race relations in Los Angeles at the time that lead to the circus of a trial that took place. When I was a kid and the verdict came down, I remember hearing everyone question, how could they possibly say he was innocent? Therefore, I always wondered the same myself, only now after watching O.J.: Made in America, I know now there was never even a slight chance he was going to be found guilty. It's a remarkable film and one of the best things I watched in 2016, and it is available to stream on Hulu.

O.J.: Made in America is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Academy Awards (and it will win).

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 3

After a misguided and unremarkable second episode, which is typically far more forgivable with a normal series but with a limited run of only 8 installments time is of the essence to tell a good story, the FX original series Taboo came back with a much improved third week.

Some thoughts:

- My god, how refreshing to have an episode that seems to actually be telling a story after that nonsensical second episode? I am certainly far more intrigued and invested in what is going to happen next now.

- On the other hand, we are nearly halfway down with the entire show and I am still waiting for that "wow" moment that feels like it is coming, but I am losing a little bit of faith. I keep thinking this show has the components to put it all together and deliver an episode that stays with the audience long term, a reason to remember Taboo as a whole, but it just hasn't happened yet.

- To be fair though, even without the "wow", a show can still be worth watching. I still feel like Taboo has been worth watching, maybe just for the performances and leading presence of Tom Hardy. It's only disappointment it isn't more than just being worth watching because there is too much talent involved here to be so lackluster.

- Last week I wrote that I was hoping the third episode would be the moment this whole thing turns around. It wasn't quite that, but it's enough of an improvement to keep the hope alive.

Episode Grade: B-

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Jackie Review

The release of a Jacqueline Kennedy biopic during Oscar season had me expecting some of the standard flair that usually gets poured into films such as this, and it's a storytelling style that often times bores me. Start at the beginning and move forward chronologically, portraying the critical moments of the life of someone who left an indelible mark on society, one way or another. I was prepared for a powerful lead performance from Natalie Portman, but wasn't sure if the film as a whole would be memorable beyond it.

Well, silly me for doubting Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín whom has created a searing, brilliantly structured film in Jackie, his vision combined with Noah Oppenheim's script, Mica Levi's Oscar nominated score and the stunning photography of Stéphane Fontaine makes this picture an absolute must see, and if you experience it like I did you will likely continue to admire various shots and sequences as they run through your mind after the film has ended. When the final frame left the screen I knew I had loved what I had seen, but a couple of days later I am left wondering if perhaps my feelings are even stronger than I had initially thought.

Make no mistake though, while everything needed to come together to create something as great as Jackie, this is Portman's film and she gives the performance of a lifetime, encapsulating the iconic look, speech patterns and mannerisms of the former First Lady of the United States in a way that is equal parts mesmerizing and haunting. She isn't just in the frame throughout Jackie, she often times is the frame with the camera pulled in almost uncomfortably close, focusing on her with intensity after the horrific assassination of her husband and our former President John F. Kennedy, and as we watch her wipe his blood from her face it's almost as if we can feel the trauma ourselves. Supporting players like Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup are solid throughout but at the end of the day there is a single star shining from the first scene to the last and everyone around her is doing what is necessary to elevate her work even higher.

Running at a brisk 100 minutes, Jackie is alluring, painful art that I can't stop thinking about, a biopic that understands that there is a better story to be told focusing in on the most critical snapshot of a life than the fatigued tropes associated with painting the whole picture.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Manchester by the Sea Review

When you know that a film is an Oscar contender prior to seeing it, especially in regards to performance categories, you tend to wait for those "wow" moments throughout. You know the ones, the clips that they will eventually show during the broadcast of the awards, the staggering displays of intense emotion that will either bring the audience to tears or perhaps even rub them the wrong way because the actors seem to be trying too hard, trying to win an Oscar rather than the art coming naturally to them. Having already seen nominations and wins early in this award season for people like Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, I knew the "wow" moments were coming, and I was ready.

Except they never really come, the closest being an exchange between Lee Chandler (Affleck) and Randi (Williams) that carries profound power and devastating emotion without going over a line that makes it feel like manipulation. The "wow" moments never really come because the entire film is one, with every scene feeling real. Honest. Authentic. Human. What Kenneth Lonergan has created here in Manchester by the Sea, both as a director and almost more importantly a writer, is remarkable, a beautifully elegant portrayal of the human condition before, during and after an unspeakable tragedy takes place. The story is told both in the present and with a perfectly executed usage of flash backs, so we can see what a person like Lee is going through now and then fill in all the gaps as to what lead to this point.

I knew I was in for some special performances and the buzz regarding Affleck taking home the Oscar for lead actor is absolutely justified, with his subtle and nuanced take on the material being one of the crucial components to carry the entire damn film, but I think the one performance that absolutely floored me was from Lucas Hedges as Lee's nephew Patrick. It's a supporting turn that elevates the work of Affleck by his side, bringing not only essential comic relief but also tender, shockingly natural emotion to the screen. He's a perfect example of what I was referring to early. He's honest, authentic and human. He isn't Lucas Hedges during these 130 some odd minutes. He's Patrick.

The aspect of this film I suspect will be the most surprisingly, as it was for me, is just how funny it is. Manchester by the Sea is correctly labeled a drama and a deeply emotional, heartbreaking one at that but that doesn't demonstrate just how important it is that Lonergan's script taps into the lighter moments in order to balance out the darkness.

Manchester by the Sea is a masterful work, and easily one of the best movies of 2016.


The Small Screen: Sneaky Pete Season One

Despite the supporting presence of Bryan Cranston, I initially sat down to watch the new Amazon original series Sneaky Pete with limited expectations and the solid but unremarkable pilot episode pretty much confirmed my suspicions that this would be a good, fun show but one that would fade away once I was done watching. Interestingly, I was reminded of another show that I had a similar preconceived notion of only to be proven wrong with an outstanding six season run, that being the FX original Justified. No, Giovanni Ribisi is no leading man in the vein of Timothy Olyphant's Raylen Givens, but something about the style of the storytelling brought me back to that show, and then I started noticing some other similarities too, those being members of the cast. Jacob Pitts and the outrageously talented Margo Martindale, two actors that appeared in Justified, are vital pieces of Sneaky Pete, so the tonal comparison combined with the familiar faces had me wondering if there was more to this feeling I had than meets the eye. It wasn't until a few episodes in that I noticed the name Graham Yost in the credits, the creator of Justified, and I couldn't help but smile because right around the time I finally put these pieces together, I was becoming hooked on Sneaky Pete. If it can have a run like his former show and get better and better with each season as well, Amazon will have a hit on their hands, and the announcement of a second season that already came down gives me hope.

The show tells the story of a con man named Marius (Ribisi) who is being released from prison but has a former life worthy of hiding from, one involving a violent gangster named Vince (Bryan Cranston), so he assumes the identity of his cellmate named Pete and returns home so to speak, to Pete's family of which he was estranged for 20 years since he was a child. The family is filled with terrific characters that are all fleshed out and interesting by the end of the first season, played by Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Libe Barer and the aforementioned Jacob Pitts, but the real stars of this whole thing are the grandparents, played by Margo Martindale and Peter Gerety. Some of the best scenes from these ten episodes involving those two showcasing power performances.

I mentioned before that I hope Sneaky Pete gets better and better with each season in the way Justified did, but rather than just hope I can confirm that the first season just gets better and better as it goes along, with a penultimate episode is probably the peak of it all, followed by a satisfying and entertaining finale. This is a well written, well acted drama with plenty of lighter moments mixed in, which is to be expected when you cast Ribisi in the lead. With so much television to sift through these days, what with every conceivable network and streaming service creating their own original programming, it can be difficult to keep up with all the options worthy of your time. I highly, highly suggest you give Sneaky Pete a look, and after you get a few episodes into it the desire to binge will hopefully hit you like it did me.

Sneaky Pete is streaming on Amazon Instant Video, free for all Prime members.

Season One Grade: B+

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 2"

The Young Pope is back for its second episode this week, and my skeptical but excited by its well crafted oddness after the first has been rewarded. Some thoughts about this terrific step up from an intriguing premiere.

- The marketing of The Young Pope along with the start of the first episode was intentionally misleading, we know that now after the second episode. When I first saw advertising for the series I assumed that the story would go in a painfully obvious way, with a young, handsome Pope being too liberal for such a position, but I think creator Paolo Sorrentino may be going in the opposite direction...

- Jude Law continues to be absolutely perfect for the role, and the great supporting performance from Diane Keaton only enhances the lead even more.

- After the first episode, I predicted that what was being set up as a silly premise would eventually turn completely into a serious drama. I think I am going to be correct.

- Pope Pius XIII gives his first sermon to a massive crowd of people, and the scene is chilling and outstanding, his words pointing to my first point about Lenny (Jude Law) being a lot more conservative than it first seemed.

- James Cromwell is a choice addiction to this show as a supporting character. I have no idea how often he will appear through the rest of the series, if at all, but his short time in "Episode 2" was excellent.

- The most exciting thing about The Young Pope is that even while watching such a good episode, I was thinking man...this thing is going to get better, isn't it? Potentially A LOT better. I could feel true greatness bubbling underneath this bad boy, like a masterpiece is headed our way at some point this season.

Next Sunday, January 29th. The third episode of The Young Pope will air on HBO. I will be there, and I suggest you join me.

Episode Grade: B+

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 2

The FX Original miniseries Taboo is only 8 episodes in total, so it's interesting to look at it as being a quarter done already since it feels like just yesterday I saw the first advertisement for the show and wondered what the hell it was.

Some thoughts regarding the second episode:

- Tom Hardy absolutely makes and saves this series from being a slog. When he is in the frame, it's impossible to look away but pretty much everything else going on is, frankly, uninteresting at this point.

- Some scenes are incredible, but the problem there is "some". The incredible is the minority, because far more of this second episode just kinda drifted along on the ever-building intrigue and the presence of Hardy.

- The best scene in the episode was when the will of James Delaney's (Tom Hardy) father was read in a crowded room. Hands down, the whole atmosphere of that moment was top notch and it stood out in the midst of a rather lackluster overall affair.

- Performances continue to be great although I am never exactly blown away by the script they are working with.

- There has to be something special in the works going forward, right? It just feels like there is going to be so much more to Taboo that redeems a bit of the struggle to set it all up through 2 episodes. If it is going to get better, it should get on that soon because as I said at the start, we are 25 percent done with the entire series here. Hope episode 3 is an awaken of a series with a lot of potential that just isn't maximizing it yet.

Episode Grade: C

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Small Screen: The Young Pope "Episode 1"

This past Sunday, HBO debuted the television series The Young Pope (it has already played in full and been renewed for a second season in Italy where it was broadcast on Sky Atlantic) but prior to ever hitting the airwaves, the series had become a hit for all the wrong reasons across social media due to its premise seeming ridiculous, resulting in a wave of memes and jokes aimed at the show.

Despite this, I was never not going to give The Young Pope a fair and open-minded shake considering its creator Paolo Sorrentino, whom I have only seen two of his films but one of which is The Great Beauty. That one masterful movie is plenty for me to know that when he is in charge, greatness potentially awaits.

Now that I have watched the premiere episode, some thoughts:

- The show is as bizarre as trailers made it seem, at least up front because who knows how the tone will settle in as it goes on? Well I guess the answer to that is the many, many Italian citizens who have already watched the entire season know. I refuse to do any further research on that front though, I want no spoilers of any kind. I was surprised and riveted by the first hour and have no idea what is in store going forward.

- As I just said, riveted. Even when The Young Pope was at its most ridiculous, it never made me want to reach for the remote to change the channel but rather turn the volume up and lean in a little bit more. I'm in to see where Sorrentino takes this.

- In case you aren't familiar, the premise of The Young Pope is that the first ever American born Pope has been elected, a man in his 40's born Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) now known as Pope Pius XIII. Silly, right? Absolutely, yet as I was watching the episode it occurred to me that House of Cards was deemed silly early in its run, and then the 2015/16 political rise of Donald Trump happened in reality and made the show feel almost grounded in comparison. Who knows, in 5 years we may actually see a 30 something get elected Pope despite photographic evidence of his relations with prostitutes and cocaine addiction.

- Jude Law is perfectly cast. Perfectly. If you are going to sell an audience on a young Pope and make him good looking, charismatic but just creepy and unsettling enough to push the series down an intriguing and potentially very dark path, Jude Law works wonders. Just see his work in Road to Perdition to understand creepy and unsettling, it's the role I always think of when someone mentions Law as an actor.

- I can't be alone in thinking that despite the silly premise and the odd first episode, I am willing to bet The Young Pope ends up being a drama that demands to be taken seriously in the end. I believe in the talent involved.

I'm pretty much booked solid for the entire first season and beyond of The Young Pope unless this series goes really off the rails at some point. Check out the first episode replaying on HBO, On Demand or on HBO GO or HBO NOW to see for yourself if the tone does anything for you.

Episode Grade: B

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Moonlight Review

When you arrive a little late to a party that everyone has gone out of their way to hype as extraordinary, it's difficult to not be at least a bit concerned that it might be a let down. It seemed like a day didn't go by without someone new I spoke with seeing and praising the critically acclaimed Oscar contender Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, and I was dreading a picture that would be crushed by its own weight, or at least the weight I put on it through building expectations.

The phrase "turn your brain off" is used quite often in regards to viewing both cinema and television, usually referring to content one might find fun as long as they don't think too hard about it, because with each thought a poor performance or a plot hole will rear its ugly head and bring the experience down a notch. So when I say I had to turn my brain off before taking my seat to finally see Moonlight, don't misunderstand me and believe I mean it in the same realm as watching a Transformers sequel. I simply had to turn off the part of it that held all of that noise, all of those voices heaping praise and bouquets at the film while I could only wonder why and when I would find out for myself.

It's easier said than done, blocking out the noise, but looking back upon my viewing experience of Moonlight, I really did it. I don't recall ever thinking about what others had said or the awards it had won or what it could win in the future. I was swept up almost instantly by the grace of the film, the tender way it approached the heavy subject matter of a boy becoming a man, always trying to find himself while feeling lost in a world that will not accept him for who he is. He won't accept it himself, and you could feel the internal struggle from all three actors that brilliantly portray Chiron.

When the film starts, he isn't Chiron just yet. It's his legal name, sure, but when we first meet him he's a young boy who goes by the name "Little", played by Alex Hibbert. "Little" is growing up in the 1980's and we are introduced to him as he is being chased by a group of bullies. We don't know why and we don't need to, as Jenkins is establishing what this young man is going through without having to say a word. He finds safety in the form of an abandoned motel, and he is discovered there by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local crack dealer. When "Little" is asked where he lives, he won't answer. In fact he won't say a word, so Juan takes him home to be with him and his girlfriend to make sure he is safe. After being fed and told he can spend the night, "Little" starts to speak, and the following day Juan brings "Little" home to his emotionally abusive, addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris).

The entire film is masterful but the first scene that made me swoon happens during the "Little" first act of Moonlight, a scene in which Juan takes "Little" to a beach, teaches him how to swim and has a superbly written conversation with the young boy about figuring out who he is and making his own path through life. It's the moment I realized that what I was witnessing was truly an eloquent, tender, beautiful picture, one that wouldn't need to manipulate or pander in order to make me feel something. Nothing after this moment proved this realization wrong.

Moonlight is split into three acts, each named after Chiron representing different stages of his life, "Little", "Chiron" and "Black". The second, "Chiron", takes place during his teenage years (Chiron now played by Ashton Sanders) and the bullying is still plaguing his life, only now he can't outrun them and hide with one classmate Terrel (Patrick Decile) being the main facilitator of the harassment. Chiron's only friend being the same one he had as a young boy, Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland throughout the film) whom he shares his first sexual experience with one night on the beach together. We learn during the third act called "Black" which follows Chiron (now Trevante Rhodes) as an adult that that night, along with what happens the very next day had a profound impact on his life.

Not one word of what I was told before I had seen Moonlight turned out to be false or hyperbolic. It's incredible cinema, directed with such a precise focus and artful sense of emotion and humanity, photographed by James Laxton whom will almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar for his work, written by Barry Jenkins based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,  performed across the board by actors that clearly had a passion to work with Jenkins and the material he provided them. Moonlight is what it looks like when artists tell a story to the best of their abilities and everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, comes together, and after the unforgettable final shot of the film left the screen, I literally said "wow" aloud, quietly to myself. Moonlight is a wow kinda film.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 1 "Shovels and Keys"

Tonight on FX, the brand new miniseries Taboo from creators Chips Hardy, Steven Knight and Tom Hardy (who also stars) debuted. The series follows James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a man who has returned to London in 1814 after being away and presumed dead for 10 years. The reason for his return is the death of his father and his desire for vengeance, and upon his return he learns he has inherited the family shipping empire.

Some brief thoughts about the premiere:

- The show will certainly not work for some on a tonal level, being that it is a dark and rather morose episode, but it is absolutely right up my alley.

- Are you a fan of Tom Hardy? If so, you will love him here. His character feels like a blend of others he has played before, an imposing figure like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, fitting into an 1800's setting like his Oscar nominated performance in The Revenant, and a bit of the wonderful crazy that shined in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson.

- While not an action packed nor a typically "exciting" start, this first episode is well written and excellently performed, and typically a premiere is meant to set the table for the rest of the season.

-  I absolutely love the dark, shadowy aesthetic of the show, and it is beautifully photographed by Mark Patten. The preview of what's to come during the rest of the season showcases that this will not change, with so many gorgeous shots.

- The second billed star of the show is actress Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of the iconic and incredible silent film star Charlie Chaplin. Just a fun nugget.

- While I am a huge fan of binge watching a series of Netflix with their dumping all episodes of a season at once release format, I will say there is something fun about the traditional weekly installments. The tease of wanting to see what will happen next but having to wait a week, having something to look forward to and knowing that a new show will take 8 or more weeks to get through rather than being a lazy Sunday away from being completely done with it reminds me of being a kid and I would count down the days until the next new X-Files episode.

Count me in for the limited run of Taboo. It wasn't a perfect premiere and I am not sure this specific episode will prove to be very memorable, but I can't shake the notion that we will see something special going forward.

Episode Grade: B-

Monday, January 9, 2017

Always Shine Review

"It's a woman's birthright to be attractive and charming, in a sense, it is her duty...She is the bowl of flowers on the table of life." - John Robert Powers

The opening frame of the film is that quote, and after doing literally no research in advance of watching Always Shine, I instantly wondered what I was in store for. 

A tremendous, unnerving, cold slice of a dark thriller with a whole lot to say, as it turns out.

The very next shot after the quote is a close-up of a screaming woman, begging for her life. Her name is Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), but don't be alarmed for she is only auditioning for a role in a film. The camera looms on her face and we are subjected to her being forced to react and stay composed as the men creating the picture speak of their expectations if she is to get the part. Extensive nudity is demanded, and if she isn't comfortable with that she better not waste their time. "Don't worry, sweatheart. We'll make sure you look beautiful.", says the disgustingly patronizing voice of one of the men. I cringed watching Beth try not to do the same.

Next is a close-up of Anna (Mackenzie Davis) seemingly also at an audition, demanding an explanation as to why a repair was done to her car without her permission. The camera lingers solely on her face much like it did with Beth, only this time instead of feeling objectified and horrified for the way the men are speaking to her, Anna won't be pushed around. When the camera finally pulls back, we see this isn't an audition but rather real life. Also an actress but minus the success, Anna pays only for the repairs she authorized, broke and struggling to make any income off of her passion.

Beth and Anna are best friends, although their relationship is clearly strained, quite possibly because of their similar career goals yet differing paths to meeting them thus far. They decide to go on a trip together to Big Sur, and on the way up Beth is recognized by a fan who requests a picture, handing Anna the camera to take it. We see the jealousy, the resentment that comes with success and failure between close friends, and it only adds fuel to the fire when Anna discovers a magazine featuring Beth in its Young Hollywood edition.

Between this film and the Black Mirror masterpiece of an episode "San Junipero", Mackenzie Davis went from not even on my radar to being at the top of any sort of people to watch list, playing the Anna role with perfection, with even just the most subtle facial expression and mannerism making a frame more uncomfortable yet I was never truly scared of her. In fact I was always empathetic, which I think was the intended goal of writer Lawrence Michael Levine and director Sophia Takal. Sure, some will find the ill-will towards her successful friend misguided but I don't think the character is meant to be torn down but rather the culture of the business itself, ironically the very one required in order to make a film like Always Shine happen in the first place. I was reminded of the themes of The Neon Demon while watching this movie, the criticism of the modeling industry and the way it pits young women against each other to the point that it almost feels abusive. I would imagine when it comes to getting their foot in the door, acting is quite similar.

Now that I am thinking about it, The Neon Demon and Always Shine will make one hell of a double feature. I will put that on my absolutely needs to happen list.

Davis isn't the only star here, with Caitlin FitzGerald playing off of her as the one finding success but doing so sheepishly, afraid of offending her friend to the point where her quiet nature and forced modesty are, ironically, offensive. It's expert casting on display, putting these two actresses on the screen together and allowing them to play characters that clash perfectly, essential to making Always Shine work. That, along with the incredible direction from Takal who clearly gets how to expertly build tension and utilize tone, are what elevates what could have been merely just another good film to greatness. There is one scene in particular in which Beth is on the phone with her boyfriend and the camera frantically follows her back and forth as she paces that will prove to be unforgettable. I was quite literally nervous the entire sequence, and even if we see the pay off coming, not knowing when proves to be plenty to make our skin crawl.

Always Shine is one of the best surprises of 2016, an absolute winner that was difficult to even get made due to working with such a tiny budget. The film required a Kickstarter campaign to gather the funds just to be able to finish post-production, and I am so glad it did. Sign me up to contribute the next time Sophia Takal needs a little help completing such an accomplished piece of cinema.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Monster Calls Review

When I was a kid, I only associated death with being old. I would hear stories from either my parents lips or the news of a tragedy blaring through the speakers of the television, but none of it would resonate with me. Sometimes I am jealous of that version of me, the one who wasn't scared of anything because even if I didn't consciously think in these terms, I know now that I thought I was invincible.

I don't remember the exact moment this changed. I recall in middle school a murder-suicide happened in my town, a father taking the lives of his wife and children before turning the gun on himself. They named a little league baseball field after the young boy to honor his memory, and I still remember staring at the new sign and the finality of it all sinking in. I remember trying to understand how a dad could do that. I remember being plagued by the thought that that little boy and his sister were probably terrified before their lives were cut so painfully short. Maybe that's when I stopped feeling invincible, when I acknowledged that we are not guaranteed any set number of years. We aren't even guaranteed tomorrow. I remember having a nightmare about a baseball field named after me.

There was a time when my own mortality was the most horrifying thought I could have. That changed when I had a daughter. I never understood fear until I had to be afraid for her safety. Suddenly the world that I once felt invincible living in seemed so scary, with a new and unthinkable danger around every corner. Everyone talks about nonsense like changing diapers and not getting enough sleep at night, but that stuff is so trivial and easy. The first time I truly felt like a parent was when I had to let go, even just a little. When she was invited to play at the neighbor's house and she walked through their door and I didn't follow. When I dropped her off at school and had to trust that the people inside that building would keep her safe, that she would run out of those doors hours later and give me a hug and tell me what she had learned and whether or not she made new friends.

When I read the novel A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, I ran through the first half of the book at home one night and I brought it with me to work the next day to finish it. As the words printed on those final few pages began to seep into my brain, I can still remember the tears falling from my eyes, sitting at my desk with colleagues sitting nearby. This was especially memorable because I had never really been moved by literature before. I am frequently emotional while watching films, easily broken down by the artistry of visual storytelling, but even when dealing with the saddest material imaginable, reading never could get me there until I lost myself in the tragic devastation of A Monster Calls. 

Ness adapted his own novel into the screenplay for the new film from J.A. Bayona whom previously directed movies like The Orphanage and The Impossible, and the cinematic version of A Monster Calls does not disappoint, earning those very same tears all over again through terrific performances from talented child actor Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver, along with an essential vocal performance from Liam Neeson. The story revolves around a young boy named Conor (MacDougall) who is forced to cope with the circumstances around him, a mother (Jones) battling cancer and facing the prospects of having to move in with his grandmother (Weaver) whom he has never quite bonded with. One night when the clock flips to 12:07, a giant tree monster (Neeson) appears and begins speaking with Conor, informing him that he will tell him three stories, and after he is done the fourth story will come from Conor himself, a story revealing his truth, the dark secret he keeps locked up inside but needs to get out if he is ever to properly deal with his grief. Bayona is a master of storytelling on a visual level, frame after frame beautifully composed and the decision to feature mini segments of animation to portray the stories told by the monster added a welcome colorful flare. Ness wrote a beautiful, unforgettable novel and Bayona was a terrific choice to make sure it translated naturally utilizing the possibilities of cinema.

The concept of mortality haunts every inch of A Monster Calls, and as I both read the novel and watched the film I couldn't shake the reminder that nothing is guaranteed, a lesson I learned so long ago, derived from an incomprehensible tragedy. What if something happens to either myself, my wife or both of us? I hope to be there for that beautiful little 9 year old girl for as long as it's humanly possible, but just in case she needs it, I hope she has a monster by her side to grieve with and show her how to be brave.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

10 Best TV Series of 2016

I move into 2017 with a goal to increase the amount I write about television throughout the year, and I recently published my list of my favorite episodes of 2016 (list can be found here). One more list in regards to last year feels necessary, that of course being my favorite shows of the year, and then the page will turn to a new year full of more television options than ever before, with web series, streaming services and pretty much every cable network imaginable getting into the original content game.

I will probably be able to expand this into a top 20 come next year at this time, but for last year I watched just enough good shows to do it but it wouldn't feel right. A bit of a stretch making a top 20 list if you watch roughly 30 shows total.

My favorite shows of 2016:

10. Black Mirror

The British series Black Mirror aired its first two seasons on Channel 4 before the third season moved to Netflix, and the 6 new episodes debuted in 2016. One of them, "San Junipero", was at the top of my list for best single episodes, an installment that I watched twice over the course of 12 hours and have not stopped thinking about since. The reason the show itself ranks at the bottom of my top ten is because it's all good, really good in fact, but none of the other five episodes resonated the way "San Junipero" did. None are bad either though, there isn't a single total misfire in the bunch, so I still give the show as a whole a confident recommendation, but at the end of the day I am left not thinking about the whole package but rather one brilliant part. Even at its worst though, Black Mirror is still an entertaining, crazy science fiction experience that never loses it's edge, and the anthology aspect of storytelling lends itself to letting creative minds craft really fascinating short films. 

9. This is Us

Okay I have to be honest here: my wife was a lot more confident that this freshman network drama would be a good show than I was. I didn't doubt it would have its merits based on the trailer, but I was concerned that the obviously sticky, syrupy aspects of the family-based stories would be too melodramatic and make me cringe. I am all for a bit of that stuff with my television experience, but typically that would be the type of thing that would keep it off any best of list I might make. This is Us completely proved me wrong thanks to really smart writing from creator Dan Fogelman and others and great performances, must notably from Mandy Moore and Sterling K. Brown, fresh off his multiple award wins for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (and you might be seeing something about that show shortly on this list). Ten episodes in and these characters and their relationships have not lost a thing, and the way the show is edited to flow between two completely different eras seamlessly is a treasure. 

8. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

I have to wonder if this series would be even higher on my list had I not already seen the incredible 7 and a half hour documentary O.J.: Made in America prior to watching, because I learned so much from that film that made some revelations on the show far less explosive. Regardless, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story does basically everything right aside from some silly things early on where creator Ryan Murphy just had to toss in cute little Kardashian jokes because of the fame the family has achieved since father Robert served on O.J.'s lawyer dream team. Performances are incredible, the drama works despite knowing exactly how the case plays out, and for those who did not see O.J.: Made in America, there will be a lot to chew on regarding how race and media manipulation played such huge roles in the acquittal of a man who almost certainly committed the crime.

7. House of Cards

Four years into House of Cards and it has not lost any of its luster with me, and given the political landscape that we witnessed in 2016, does the show really feel that silly and/or unrealistic anymore? I actually found the fourth season to be a major bounce back from the slight let down that was season three. Despite my love for all things Underwood, I do hope the show has a plan in place to wrap itself up soon with a great ending rather than overplay their hands for multiple more years and lose steam. The upcoming season five or a season six at the absolute most should close it out, and I can't wait to see how they do it.

6. Atlanta

I had seen Donald Glover in a few things, but his comedic genius was completely lost on me until I witnessed his very personal, unique television series Atlanta when it debuted on FX in 2016. Every episode seemed to play by its own rules, and I admire FX for the way they let their showrunners actually run the show however they see fit rather than loom over them with suggestions and concerns about pandering to an audience. This level of hands-off collaboration was first apparent to me with the show Louie and it certainly continued on with Atlanta, a funny, insightful, smart and at times surreal new series that has been recognized already with some well deserved awards, and I can safely assume more are on the way.

5. Horace and Pete

A web series that initially could only be found on Louis C.K.'s website early in 2016 (it is now available to stream on Hulu), don't expect big laughs from this one despite the creator and top-billed star being a comedian. The series in its entirety plays like a really tragic play, utilizing minimalist set pieces and dialogue driven sequences to deliver its emotional moments and themes. Horace and Pete was one of the smoothest and most moving binge watch sessions I had last year, watching all 10 episodes over the course of two days. Whatever C.K. does next, I hope he brings as much passion to it as he did here.

4. The Night Of

Sure, this HBO miniseries may have ended on a note that didn't really feel as strong as it should have, but I said the same thing about The Night Of that I did after the first season of True Detective: how would you have ended it? What I mean is, when a show is this great and only tells its story over the course of 8 episodes, it's really a challenge to deliver an ending that packs enough of a wallop to feel worthy of everything that came before it. The Night Of, created by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, is masterful when it was at its best, and the first episode titled "The Beach", which I ranked as my #2 of the year behind only the previously discussed "San Junipero", is just that.

3. Stranger Things

The third and final appearance of a Netflix Original on this list, Stranger Things is a show designed to invoke a nostalgic feeling in its viewers who loved an era of storytelling found in the 1980's. My goodness does it work, but it shouldn't be dismissed as being nothing more than a warm blanket to those looking to live in the past. Stranger Things is like an amalgamation of the work of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King and it never misses a beat, helped by great writing and direction, a terrific musical score and a terrific cast of young actors.

2. Game of Thrones

It's pretty remarkable how not only has Game of Thrones not lost any of what has made it great for years now, but it got even bigger and better during it's 6th outstanding season, featuring a few of it's most memorable episodes yet (two of which made my ten best list). I mean, what really needs to be said about this show at this point. If you aren't watching it yet, you probably have little interest to, and if you are you already know what happens and how epic it was. With only two shortened seasons to go before the show signs off, I am happy that Game of Thrones will be going out on its own terms at the top of its game.

1. Mr. Robot

I know it's a cliche at this point, but seriously, there is nothing else quite like Mr. Robot on television. It's a remarkable, bizarre, wonderful series that just gets better and better, with a lead performance from Rami Malek that deserves every award he can possibly win for it. It's not only great acting, it's essential, to portray a character like Elliot Alderson with such brilliance and dedication to nailing every bit of nuance needed to make it work. Creator Sam Esmail delivers amazing episodes weekly and I am already checking the calendar wondering when I can sink my teeth into a third season, and word is he is going to adapt the incredible silent film classic Metropolis into a modern re-imagined miniseries? Holy lord I'm in. Sign me the hell up, and if you haven't seen Mr. Robot yet (ratings suggest you haven't), stream it to catch up. Just an incredible piece of storytelling, the best on television.