Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"Special Correspondents" and Ricky Gervais's curious lowered bar in the filmic world

If there's one thing most people can agree on, it's that Ricky Gervais is a comic genius when it comes to making TV. The breadth of influence from his melancholy character creations on "The Office" and "Extras" has been seen all over the TV landscape.
What's curious is that a lot of this innovation is absent in Ricky Gervais's films. "Ghost Town", "Invention of Lying" and this film basically work through the age-old comic method of character and opposing concept like (off the top of my head) guy who wishes to grow up meets adulthood ("Big" or "13 on 30" in reverse), president wielding extraordinary power meets small-town politics ("Welcome to Mooseport"), thoughtless man with no appreciation for present meets eternal present ("Groundhog Day"), or powerless man meets eternal power ("Bruce Almighty") "Ghost Town" is a case of a guy who wishes to be left alone being forced to deal with the dead on top of the living people he wishes to avoid. "Invention of Lying" is a case of man without influence gets power over gullible society. "Special Correspondents" is a case of lazy news reporters meeting real news.
With the exception of "Invention of Lying" (which lends itself to home-run-hitting dialogue), none of these have the depth in their premise that could reach the same comic heights. As is, it's a decent film that works at the lower degree of difficulty set in by its script. The quieter moments of character development, though somewhat sitcom-llke, tend to work and the characters hit their notes.
Ricky Gervais is a news reporter who has accepted he's a schlub in life (much like his "Invention of Lying" character at the start) despite somehow managing to snag Vera Farminga as a wife. Gervais digs relatively deep although the tone of the supporting cast (Vera Farmiga is pretty arch, America Ferrera is "Latino comical" in a way that mirrors Sofia Vergara's "Modern Family" role) and the film's plot would pick a fight with any sense of pathos. Still, Gervais is likable and kind of sweet and his chemistry with love interest (though the two have an admirably platonic vibe).
Why Gervais is so stifled when he apparently has directorial control and is credited as a writer on these films is hard to figure out, but the film is what it is.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Big Eyes (2014) Review

"Big Eyes" tells the real-life story of painter Margaret Keane and how she was trapped by a marriage in the worst way: Stripped of her name and artistic identity through her husband's lies. Tim Burton previously made one of the best films about the artistic struggle with "Ed Wood" and he touches upon similar themes here. Like how "Ed Wood" flips the traditional artistic biopic formula on its head, "Big Eyes" is cleverly inverted here. Instead of portraying the joy of art, the film takes on the trappings of being a great artist: That if art is intertwined with the aspects of your identity, you can lose it at any moment.

The film is a departure from Tim Burton's usual Gothic style but it has shadings of the characters he's drawn to in both Walter and Amy. What originally unites them together is perhaps where many Tim Burton characters might finish their filmic journey: Outsiders to the mainstream who have found a partner-in-crime that could move them closer to the center of societal acceptance and, ultimately, societal success.

But as they say, "Happily ever after fails" (In this case, I'm specifically thinking of  Don Henley
who followed  that line with "We've been poisoned by these fairy tales") and what's left is the trappings of a psychological thriller. This ends up being a more adult conflict than  his way, this is a much more adult work than say "Corpse Bride" or "Alice in Wonderland."

The film is egregiously mislabelled as a comedy by organizations such as the Golden Globes (and Netflix). The closest it comes to comedic is Walter Keane's sense of self-delusion. That characterization, however, is an important plot point, and ignoring that is a sign that perhaps Burton's reputation prevents the film from being taken as seriously as it should.

The film is also further evidence that Christophe Waltz is one of the most fascinating actors of today. He is mostly consigned to villains but can make something out of practically everything he's handed.  It's hard to fathom that this remarkable actor was toiling in the German film industry for years before being discovered. He's well-known for his roles in Quentin Tarantino films but I can't emphasize how much fans of this actor should check this film out: This is a film that acts him to be both a complex man and a devious villain.

Additionally, check out the real life story.

Movie Review: Our Brand is Crisis (2015)

"Our Brand is Crisis" was supposed to be a realization of director David Gordon Green's potential with big-budget projects (his film "George Washington" launched his career as an indie darling that culminated only in "Pineapple Express" and not too much since then). Unfortunately, this film saw its pre-release hype dissipate by the time it hit theaters for reasons I can't easily pin down with a few minutes of googling.

What I can say is that it's a definite shame this film didn't make it into the conversation for Oscar or gross more than $7 million domestically, because it's a richly textured film with a well-paced sense of adventure and exoticism.

The film revolves around the rivalry between two ace political strategists (Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton) working different sides of a Bolivian election with the cultural sensitivity of two seasoned board game players competing in a heated contest of Risk.

Bob Thornton's character is based on James Carville (between this, Saturday Night Live, and Documentary Now, he seems to be a standard part of any impressionist's repertoire). Bullock channels a slightly darker version of her frazzled but endearing rom-com persona in a part that was originally scripted for a male character and she steals the show.

A supporting cast of Scoot McNairy, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan and Ann Dowd adds a cadre of characters with varying degrees of seriousness that makes for some memorable bantered dialogue. It's perhaps in keeping with the film's commentary on geopolitical ethno- centrism that the presidential candidatate (Joaquim de Almeida) is the least interesting character in the entourage. There is, however, a relationship that Sandra Bullock's character develops with a local teenager that comes closest to providing the film's protagonist with a moral awakening.

The film successfully threads the needle of thought-provoking without being overly preachy, even if
the resolution is slightly less profound than it thinks it is.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

All 32 films I've seen in 2016 ranked from best to worst

1. Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood-Extremely economic storytelling, and theatrical in its execution, provocative in its dedication to showing the nuance of a military strike. If it was released at a better time of year, it could have been remembered years from now as the definitive film of the military-via-drones era.

2. My Name is Doris, Michael Showalter-Sally Field's sweet spinster character is the perfect remedy to check our own ageist tendencies but this is also a bit of a psychological thriller wrapped in a misplaced comedy of errors. This lady is really on a collision course with an embarrassing truth bomb and you can't look away.

3. Don't Think Twice, Mike Biribiglia-The film has a great balance between its ensemble and really captures that world (although why they couldn't just say "SNL" is beyond me). A very loving film.

4. Hidden Figures-An uplifting film but one that’s generally earned despite a couple moments where the film erroneously steers towards schmaltz. It walks that fine line between historically faithfulness, go-for-broke sentimentally and grittily realism. Taraji P Henson deserves accolades here

5. Hell or High Water-A great exercise in genre experimentation: Tackling the housing crisis by moving the Western forward in time 120 years.

6. Mascots, Christopher Guest-The best thing about this film is that it exists at all if you read the news article a few years back that Guest didn't feel he had anything more to give to the genre he practically created. This isn't a game changer but it's a joy to see so many rich comic stories merge together like this for the first time in a decade.

7. Lion, Garth Davis-The first half had a really dark look at life in the streets of a third world country like 1990s Calcutta. The second half could have done a better job or picking and choosing which scenes were most relevant and God bless Dev Patel for finally getting an overdue Oscar nom from Slumdog, but this felt like a casting mistake: He just had too much swagger and self-confidence to fit the narrative. I would assume what motivated him to find his family was a feeling of being an outsider but he seems like the most popular kid in class and picks up Rooney Mara as a girlfriend within minutes of meeting her. Still, this is the most emotional film I’ve seen regardless so the sentimental effect overflowed past any sloppy positioning.

8. Fences, Denzel Washington- Does Troy represent the popular image of the African-American man? Is he to blame for his ill fortunes or is he a product of society? The fact that he and his situation are complex enough that you can argue so well either way makes this such a provocative work of art. The film embodies what’s best about theatrical adaptations from the poetry in the dialogue to the thoroughness with which the actors do their legwork. The film also boasts the year’s best ensemble.

9. Star Trek Beyond, Justin Lin- Very much enjoyed the smaller scale in story as it allowed the characters more quiet moments of character development and pairings that showed new angles. This was balanced by special effects that wowed me in an era where every blockbuster has a budget larger than many 3rd world countries

10. La La Land-The romantic plot between the numbers felt kind of empty, but damn, the musical numbers were amazing. I still support it for a best picture win. It was extremely innovative and extremely thematically coherent and smart. Nearly every second is visually thoughtful and its very clear that Damien Chazelle and his team used an encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals to fashion its commentary.

11. Aquarius-It's a foreign film (I watch very few foreign films) about a woman in her 60's struggling in Brazil against a corporation who wants to tear her house down. A very solid character piece that like "Hello My Name is Doris" is a celebration of an elderly woman in defiance of the way society tries to (literally and figuratively) make her obsolete

12. Popstar: Never Stop Popping, The Lonely Island team- The film sails by more on cameos and side joke than the character-based humor of Connor 4 Real but laughter speaks: It was just plain hilarious. Lonely Island can get random and scattered in 3-minute clips, so it works to their advantage to be able to develop their riffs over a longer running time.

13. The Lobster: Satirizing both the problems with pressure to couple up and overly conservative societies, the film has thematic currents against both sexual obsession and sexual chastity which is really interesting. Colin Farrell is really interesting and the ensemble is filled with all kinds of interesting characters. Has some wierdly dark moments.

14. Alice Through the Looking Glass: It’s kid-oriented, but surprisingly coherent and complex storyline-wise and works on a kid’s level. Visually quite wonderous.

15. Deepwater Horizon: I have a soft-spot for a good disaster film and consider the genre a form of art with a slightly higher purpose than the typical "things go boom" fare. Like "Captian Phillips"the film gets full-on emotional in the last act as its hero, Mark Wahlberg, starts suffering PTSD. Both films redefine the image of the hero in a larger way then the traditional view thats restricted to members of the military, inspirational teachers and fireman/cops.

16. Arrival-Didn’t appeal that much to me beyond the deep sciencey premise. If you buy Amy Adams’ performance, then you’ll feel the film on an emotional level

17. Now You See Me 2-Sleight-of-hand magicing is a great way to reinvent the heist genre (like adding history professors as in National Treasure). The story twisted and turned too much for me to care and the sexual chemistry between Lizzy Caplain and Dave Franco was forced (I don't think either of the Franco brothers has an easy time with romance) but it was pretty fun along the way.

18. Ghostbusters, Paul Fieg-Serviceably funny. It might be a bold statement here but a side-by-side comparion of this quartet of characters to the original shows how the UCB generation of comedy really goes a step beyond in developing comic characters from the inside out.

19. Tallulah-A Netflix film with Ellen Page and Allison Janney. I thought it's most interesting element was that this despicable character played by Ellen Page is unapolagetically the protagonist. The movie is kind of a ticking time bomb. You have no idea how long she'll get away w/this ruse of stealing someone else's baby but you're bracing for the explosion.

20. The Bronze-As an Olympics enthusiast, I enjoyed the exploration of what happens to Olympics stars after their big movement. The love story was sweet and I liked that Melissa Raunch's character had to grow but she never really had to bend her own personality that much to get to a happy place w/her dad, her gymnastics and her boyfriend. Some of the humor's bread and it had the grossest sex scene I've seen in a while

21. Special Correspondents-Ricky Gervais is curiously nowhere near as bold in film (Ghost Town, Invention of Lying, this) as he is with his TV work. I would be interested in reading an essay as to why, but I can't say that these films aren't pleasant if you don't take away the high expectations. Besides Gervais'

22. Sing Steet, John Carney: Not as memorable as the last Carney film I saw ("Begin Again") but a pretty sweet film about a kid reinventing himself through creating an 80's band. It has a strong sense of place and a sweet love story. Reminder of how cruel certain schools can be.

23. Captain Fantastic, Matt Ross-Stretches reality a little bit in the form of this superdad who can keep his kids extremely isolated and turn them into extreme geniuses with abnormal levels of obedience (except one of the six kids) but an interesting film. Some might call it artsy, but I found the camera work obnoxious.

24. Race: A pretty generic sports film but with a lot of chemistry between the characters and interesting historic detail

25. Batman vs Superman, Zach Snyder-I'd classify this as not awful. Tonally it was pretty consistent. Batman's kind of dark and Superman kind of got there too and Jesse Eisenberg was nice and playful with his part. I don't know if the film had much to say though but I've seen worse...

26. Eddie the Eagle, Dexter Fletcher-Pretty generic with a few sweet moments. The film curiously cares very little about history which is odd because the actual historical facts of Eddie the Eagle would have made a better movie. Taran Eagleton plays a mostly asexual klutz well. Also, Lake Placid is all wrong.

27. X-Men Apocalypse, Brian Singer-Because it is the sole superhero series I’ve ever gotten into as a kid, I watch every X-Men film as a general rule. Still, my loyalty doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to rip on it. Still, they are going through the motions here. Some of the criticisms of X-Men 3 (needing to decrowd the landscape) would hae been wise here and Apocalypse lacked personality. Why waste Oscar Isaac’s valuable time (as well as that of the make-up department) for something so lifeless. hey needed to decrowd the landscape a bit and have given Acopalypse some personality. Special-effects wise, Psyloche was one of the highlights.

28. Gold-The film's big twist had no foreshadowing and came way too late in the movie for me to care. The first hour of the film had no real point to make? The film could have at least tried to make the gold trade interesting but instead, it is capitalism porn: the stuff found in Wolf of Wall Street, Boiler Room and American Hustle.

29. Zootopia-I heard it had an interesting message but I wasn't really interested in being preached to by a Pixar-like cartoon. Found it uneventful with a few spare jokes here and there

30. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot-Is anyone else getting tired of Tina Fey playing Tina Fey? 40ish woman feeling down on herself bc she's on the verge of no longer being able to meet Mr. Right in time to have kids who is always surrounded by idiots. And this is supposed to be about a serious war film and not an episode of 30 Rock?

31. Keanu-I like Key and Peele a lot but this felt like swing and a miss for me. They've done stuff way more nuanced and complicated than here. So they're forced to act like gangsters?  That's a 5-minute skit, guys, not a movie.

32. Suicide Squad-Oh, the horror! Why did I watch this. It felt like a violent video game specifically made for 12-year-old boys. When the dialogue seems like filler to get to the action and the action seems like filler to get to the dialogue, you know you’ve got a problem. Still, Margo Robbie manages to dazzle and Jared Leto gives a brave performance.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Annual 12 Best Shows of the Year List

This hasn't been a particularly productive year in terms of keeping up my blog, so it's helpful to briefly discuss why I have still been blogging for such a long time. Considering a few professional writers I know stopped blogging after they became published elsewhere because it's difficult to maintain content on multiple platforms, it does seem like at the very least, I can't logistically  put my very best content on this blog if I'm writing for other places. 

Contrary to popular belief, I don't write here to build a fan base. If you came here and are a fan, thank you (donate if you want)! My blog is used to showcase my writing for people that make their way over here, to develop ideas, to test promotional strategies and on rare occasions: Because there's something I just want to write. My 12 best shows of the year is strictly for me. It's literally something I think about every time I write a TV show: Will this show make my top 12? It pushes me artistically to broaden my horizons as a viewer and pushes me critically as well. I also just want to highlight what I think is great TV.

1. 11.22.63, Hulu  (Season 1)-This TV show recalled the work of Frank Darabont  (not the "Walking Dead" era, of course) in telling a historic fable that retains its sense of sepia-soaked nostalgia without shying away from the era's darker elements like the casualness of domestic violence or the disenfranchisement of immigrants that could partially how someone like Lee Harvey Oswald could fall through the cracks in the first place. Through it all, the show plays with all the logistical tropes of a loopy time travel scenario (essentially, going down all the roads of the Hitler Time Travel Exemption with Kennedy's murder) and centers around a romance (with Sarah Gadon) and fragile alliance/friendship (with George McKay) that's played with utterly convincing sincerity by James "my life is a perpetual art experiment" Franco of all people. Between this, "Timeless", "Agent Carter", and "The Man in the High Castle", 2016 was a good year in television for sun-drenched nostalgia and the year's best show took this on with a singular vision.

2. People v. OJ Simpson, FX (Season 1)-Rarely has a docudrama aired on TV like this with so little wiggle room in the imaginations of its viewers, or at least the portion who was alive in 1995: If you made the choice not to live under a rock back then, the events of the OJ Simpson trial were simply an inescapable part of daily life. With so much of this history so ingrained in our collective consciousness, it's a wonder at all that a narrative with any sense of suspense or discovery can be crafted at all. But "People v OJ Simpson" doesn't just do that; It weaves together found art to tell what might be the definitive tale of present-day Americana with explorations on the self-imposed tensions around race, our national obsession with celebrity, the fallibility of public opinion, and the curious way fame has a way of magnifying mistakes (although the show got admittedly clunky when trying to posit Robert Kardashian as a lesson in irony). Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, Courtney Vance and Sterling Brown are excellent as lawyers dead set on winning with varying degrees of moral integrity and at the hollow center of it all is OJ Simpson (played with a childlike misunderstanding of his own actions by Cuba Gooding Jr) who ultimately turned out to be the least important part of the equation.

3. BoJack Horseman, Netflix  (Season 3)**-BoJack is rolling in the animal-based puns and
pathos with more self-assurance and ambition than ever before. BoJack's depression is portrayed with such a level of realism that it wouldn't be surprising to know that a mentally-ill person could find comfort here. BoJack's universe continues to expand with the recurrence of his castmates and the reintroduction of Kelsey Jannings (BoJack's efforts to repair this relationship made for 2016's most popular and dissected episode). This is also a great year for Todd, who discovered he was asexual (quite possibly the most underrepresented sexual subset on TV), and for BoJack discovering who his real friends are: It turns Sarah Lynn was really reliable after all (while she was in the "alive" category) and Dianne had a nice moment or two. If the show didn't botch the ending, it would have topped the list.

4. Lady Dynamite, Netflix (Season 1)-My initial difficulty with this show wasn't because there was nothing like it on TV but because I saw traces of nearly everything else on TV: The cutaways of "30 Rock", the awkward attempts at social justice statements from "Master of None", the use of a comedic veneer to mask trauma that's shown on "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt", the fourth-wall randomness of "Man Seeking Woman", and the feminist celebration of woman as proudly dysfunctional adult from "Broad City." Within a couple episodes, however, Maria Bamford and crew are able to master all these tricks and weave them together into a coherent tone. At its heart is Maria Bamford as Maria Bamford (I know that comedians playing themselves is as old as time, stick with it): A modern-day Mary Tyler Moore if Moore's neuroses were slightly more severe and had clinically-defined labels that she wore on her sleeve.

5. The Good Wife, CBS (Season 6)-To be fair, I never watched a single episode before this year. Once I caught it on a domestic flight, I was immediately hooked and have since been gobbling up the last three seasons when I'm looking for a dependable dose of intellectual excitement. Rarely have I encountered a procedural with such purpose beyond going through the same rote motions. Rarely have I ever seen characters whose intelligence and sense of conviction can come across on screen so well without resorting to blatant Sorkinist cheats.

6. Orange is the New Black, Netflix (Season 4)**-In an era where your average high-profile TV includes an Oscar winner or two, "Orange is the New Black" is still the medium's strongest ensemble. As such, so many balls are being juggled in the air, that there are always going to be plots that will strike the viewer. This year, Soso and Poussay's relationship along with Pennsatucky's liberation from Coates were among the strongest in my eyes, but there were a lot of directions the writers went in that got traction. While I maintain that the season finale resonated with social activists because of erroneous connections, it's good to know that people draw inspiration from the show in whatever ways they see fit. Although cruel guards (have we forgotten "Pornstache" already?) are relatively familiar territory for this show and the "Orange is the New Black" seemed relatively unaware that Season 4 was not a particularly new shade of evil, Brad William Henke made a memorable villain as Piscatella nonetheless.

7. Another Period, Comedy Central (Season 2)-For me, “Another Period” is proof positive that with a couple tweaks, a show can really grow on you. During first season, I thought the show was broad and -- because I had trouble finding anything likeable about the two sisters who anchored the show -- quite cruel. The second season has benefited from a grand karmic leveling with the girls being upstaged by Harriett Tubman and Hortense along with Chair being a serious threat to Dodo's power in the upstairs quarter. Of course, Blanche still isn't getting any human dignity from Peepers or the universe in general, but here's hoping she channels her inner craziness enough to seriously stab him in season 3. The increased maneuvering for power and the *gasp* hidden Belacourt family secret(s)
 has posited "Another Period" more in line with the upstairs-downstairs class drama (likely "Downton Abbey") its made to skewer with a more American twist. One jarring thing about the show is its mix of humor. It takes a while to appreciate because the jokes are so intricately plotted, yet there is no limit on how low-brow these guys are willing to go for a joke. Watching this meticulously crafted blue humor delivered by some of the straightest men on TV-- stoic Victorian personalities like Peepers (Michael Ian Black) and the adorably naive Garfield (Armen Weitzman)-has been one of my biggest guilty pleasures this year.

8. Those Who Can't, TruTV (Seasons 1 and 2)-This is an entry in which my head is telling me that it’s absurd to rank this show ahead of some 55-60 other TV shows I saw this year, but my funny bone simply can’t resist. From Denver-based comedy trio Grawlix (Ben Roy, Andrew Orvedahl, and Adam Clayton-Holland), "Those Who Can't" looks at secondary education through the world of three lazy teachers enabled by a dysfunctional school administration. The show is striking in how confident it is of its comic tone right out of the gate and how deeply it dives into that joke no matter how dumb or smart it is. The characters come fully-formed and what’s underlooked is how the episodes have an escalating complexity in their plot that leads to a eureka moment akin to “Seinfeld” (although that’s admittedly a pretty lofty comparison to make). The show also boasts a lot of supporting roles with unsung actors including Sonya Eddy as the off-again on-again principal, Mary Lynn Rajskub as a loopy drama teacher, Rory Scovel (full disclosure: I have no idea who he is and don’t even want to check his IMDB page to find out he’s not particularly Quinn-ish in real life) as a touchy-feely principal, and Maria Thayer (who looks like she’s having the time of her life here) as a librarian desperate to fit in.

9. Shut Eye, Hulu (Season 1)-A breezy noir that has explores the world of psychics with a little bit
of magic, hypnotism, and gypsy mafia culture for good measure. Jeffrey Donovan plays a variation of his character from "Burn Notice": level headed under pressure and always thinking two steps ahead. Donovan plays a former magician Charlie Haverford who reluctantly operates as middle management under a mother-and-son mafia threat. Charlie's ambitious wife (KaDee Strickland) wants to stake out a bigger piece of the pie for herself by going after a wealthy mark. From there, the narrative spirals in all sorts of directions as the couple juggles all sorts of external threats while keeping law enforcement at bay, doing damage control on a drug overdose on their premises, and trying not to let a lesbian tryst with a hypnotist (Emmanuelle Chiriquí) threaten their trust in each other.

10. The Good Place, NBC (Season 1)-The always-game Kristen Bell helms one of the year’s most ambitious sitcoms as a self-absorbed slacker of outrageous proportions who accidentally ends up in Heaven and has to bluff her way through it with the aid of an ethics professor. Helmed be Mike Schur (“Parks and Recreation” “The Office”), the show has a very self-evident sense of fun exploring surprisingly deep moral conundrums under a comic guise while doing an excellent job at building a world. Ted Danson is one of TV’s best characters as a nebbish celestial architect from above constantly fretting over his creation and newcomer D’Arcy Carden is a wonderful bundle of contradictions as an android personal assistant who takes every command too literally. Who knows how long the show can keep up these cliffhangers, but so far, it’s a great ride.

11. American Horror Story: Roanoke, FX (Season 5)^:  "American Horror Story" best functions as a supernatural whodunit of sorts: A regular Joe with a healthy dose of skepticism gets thrust into something otherworldly, and the exact nature of the evil perpetrator is revealed to them (and us) over the course of the season. The first season executed this to a T but the first season was just a house in LA with a bunch of ghosts. It didn't have the same potential for fun as a 1950s asylum or a tourist trap freak show. On the other end of the spectrum, the show became overloaded with excessive plotlines and camp as it set its sights higher. The second season alone had an evil Nazi doctor, a sadistic nun, some freaky form of beasts out in the woods AND a malicious monsignor who all just coincidentally happen to be doing their dastardly deeds in the same cul-de-sac of horrors.

Season Six was a return to form with the best of both worlds: Set within the context of the haunted ground of Roanoke’s Lost  Colony and the racially-tense modern day backwaters of North Carolina, this season exudes a great sense of place while maintaining the scale of a tightly-wound  narrative.

12. Schitt's Creek, Pop TV (Season 2)-Co-created by Eugene Levy and son Daniel (who's apparently semi-famous or, as we like to say, famous in Canada), the show centers around an obscenely rich family with stunted adult children (Levy and Annie Murphy) being stripped of all their assets and being forced to move to a backwater town. The show initially was watchable but didn't really deliver on its potential of a small-town comedy with characters eccentric enough to be engaging. It also didn't help that central character David (Levy) was mostly a sad sack whose lone emotional M.O. was cosmopolitan disgust at his surroundings. In fact, the show's only real source of delight in the first season was Stevie  (Emily Hampshire) bringing David back to reality.

In the second season, we had a David-Stevie relationship that was as fresh as ever, but  it also helped that giving the kids jobs enabled their rough edges to be sanded off every so slightly while Moira (Catherine O'Hara) went in the opposite direction. She became more overtly aloof which drew more out-loud laughter from me. The TV landscape is shifting more toward soft-laugh dramedy and Moira's absurdist demeanor keeps "Schitt's Creek" out of that trap. There was also a greater sense of familiarity with the characters that enabled the show's character-based humor to shine more. I enjoyed the sweetness of David and Steevie's evolution alongside each other, but I also found myself suddenly becoming enamored with Twyla's tangential  blabbing, Jocelyn's eternal reservoir of patience and  Bob's creepy intrusions into  Johnny's space. Like "Another Period," this show had one of the best sophomore season spikes I've ever seen.

Honorable Mentions:
Agent Carter, ABC-This action show really nails down the aesthetics and feel of a 1950's action serial but delivers it with a knowing wink. It never failed as a straight-up action story while simultaneously keeping the subversive meta-commentary in the picture.
Billy on the Street, TruTV*-Billy Eichner's refusal to abide by pedestrian social norms as he grills contestants on minute pop-culture details isn't just hilarious, it's also incredibly creative. Look at how Escaping Margo Robbie's moment satirizes the zero-sum game of staying on Hollywood's A-list or how the "This is Olivia Wilde, aren't you hideous in comparison?" segment satirizes the way tabloids encourage us to worship celebrities.
Casual, Hulu**-For a show tonally stuck between drama and dramedy, "Casual" managed to be one of the most engaging programs on TV without a net of laugh-inducing moments to fall back on. If it hadn't lost steam around the last three episodes, it would have made the list again. Why it doesn't just take the leap into "drama" like the recently-concluded "Parenthood," I'm not sure. 
Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency, BBC-There was some criticism that this wasn't particularly faithful to the source material, but if the source material is as non-linear as Douglas Adams, what would have been the point? This show was one of the most unique television entries and I understand how it could be a your-mileage-may-vary type of series, but it managed to keep me engaged enough in its narrative to keep me involved in the story's endgame. Within an eclectic ensemble of characters, there were enough winning storylines to smooth over any rough patches.
Fresh off the Boat,  ABC**-Nahnatchka Khan continues to use her immigrant experience (though from a different part of the Asian continent) to consistently provide a mix of aw-shucks moments, subversive humor and 90's nostalgia each week. Although this is typical sitcom fare, few sitcoms are as consistently inventive on a weekly basis.
Grace and Frankie, Netflix*-Move over young'uns. Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda can still out-act the Julia Louis-Dreyfuses and Lena Dunham's of the TV world with their hands tied behind their backa. The second season was more of a lateral move narrative-wise than a stakes-raising season. Some of the big developments like Grace's new relationship or Frankie's business idea splattered with a thud but the new directions the show has taken have been interesting nonetheless.
Gravity Falls, Disney-An extremely rare breed of children's show that can be enjoyed straight by adults rather than the way Pixar likes to layer kid-friendly comedy (with references only adults can get). The difference with "Gravity Falls" is that you find yourself rooting for the kids and laughing on their level. The show's strong conclusion was an indication of just how far Dipper and Mabel have come as people and into our hearts. That last sentence was corny, I know, but this show has a way of eliciting those kinds of sentiments.
Late Night with Seth Meyers, NBC-The late night wars were a particularly cut-throat battle for eyeballs this election season, and Seth Meyers' unexpected ascension to must-watch commentary was great validation for those who watched him on Weekend Update and always admired his edge. As the Trump campaign got more ridiculous, Meyers just said "screw it" to fair and balanced and pummeled Trump with every "A Closer Look" he could come up and never surfaced for air until a somber post-election concession speech.
Silicon Valley, HBO^-Mike Judge's show is about how Murphy's Law is always conspiring against America's latest incarnation of the rags-to-riches myth in dot com start-ups. It's a different type of show with less emphasis on the characters' personal lives and more about them as a single (and rarely functional) work unit. This season, Stephen Toblowsky's deceptive billionaire provided the show with it's best nemesis to date.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix**-Like "Grace and Frankie" this show didn't raise the stakes, but not all great TV has to make the narrative more intense from season to season. Kimmy and Dong didn't turn into Kimmy and Dong 2.0, for example, but that doesn't take away the merit of the interesting directions the show took. Having Tina Fey play a character again is just showboating, but there were plenty of positive developments with Titus' new romantic relationship being key among them.

**=Made my top 12 last year
*=Made my honorable mentions last year
^=Has made my top 10 or top 12 before  (Silicon Valley here and American Horror Story here) 
To give you an idea of how deep the field was, here were the other shows I saw this year (many of which were very good, but just didn't make the cut):
Adam Ruins Everything, TruTV; America's Got Talent, NBC; Archer, FX; Atlanta, FX; Braindead, CBS; Conan, TBS; The Characters, Netflix; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, CW; Daredevil*, Netflix; Difficult People*, Hulu; Documentary Now!, IFC; Falling Water, USA*; Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, TBS; Flaked, Netflix; The Get Down, Netflix; The Great Indoors, CBS; Grinder, Fox; Haters Back Off, Netflix; Idiot Sitter, Comedy Central; Impractical Jokers, TruTV; It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX; Last Man on Earth, Fox; Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO; Lost and Found, Netflix; Mad TV, CW; Modern Family, ABC; Mozart in the Jungle; Amazon Prime; Night Manager, AMC; One Mississippi, Amazon Prime; The Path, Hulu; Plebs, Hulu; Preacher*, AMC; Real O'Neals, ABC; Saturday Night Live, NBC; Search Party, TBS; Small Business Revolution, Hulu; Sing it Off, Pop TV; Son of Zorn, NBC; Strange Calls, Hulu; Supergirl*, CW; Speechless*, ABC; South Park, Comedy Central; Superstore, NBC; Time Traveling Bong, Comedy Central; Timeless, NBC

The asterisk means I didn't get around to watching the full run because in the case of most of these, I wasn't intrigued. In the case of "Supergirl," I watched it out of order.

Something I wrote to my fellow news editing students

This past semester I took a course on news editing and at one point, I decided to share my experiences  and best direct advice I could muster on freelance writing for my classmates:

The real first step is knowing where you want to send your pitches, and our professor covered that. To add to that, if you’re going for money you have to manage risk. Publications with broad guidelines and big payouts (GQ or Salon Magazine) will have tons and tons of people pitching them so don’t be a needle in a haystack if you want a chance. For me, a steady paycheck is preferable and specific pitching guidelines help big-time. I’m more comfortable expending time on a pitch with clear guidelines: “We’re currently taking stories on dogs” doesn’t give me as much confidence that I’ll hit the mark as “We’re looking for a story about mixed-breed 2nd hand dogs.”
I also said something a couple weeks ago that I’ll clarify: If it’s something abstract like humor, a short story, or a poetry contest, it’s generally up to the tastes of the editor, and that can be frustrating. When you pitch a humor piece, the rubric really boils down to one single thing: Did the editor laugh when he read it. If you have a concrete pitch with something to bring to the table, then experience of subjectivity matters less.
Jack mentioned going to the bookstore and that’s a good first step, but there’s A LOT out there (which is good news!) so get a copy of the book “writer’s market” and ask around.
From there, what you need to freelance write for money is generally three things:
1.       About five or six clips that you will send along with your pitch letter. I don’t recommend leaving college with less than a dozen published clips with a good amount of variation. Write in different sections of the school newspaper and write for different publications if possible. If need be, blog. If not, you’re going to be stuck in unpaid internship land. Keep a file of everything you’ve published with links (and don’t be afraid to pester past publications about keeping their links current). If it’s print-only, than scan and download. From those, pick the five or six most relevant ones to whatever you’re applying to and put it in the bottom paragraph in an about me section of whatever pitch you send. And good news: You can recycle cover letters!
2.       A good idea or two in the present. If it has a time-sensitive peg that’s a factor that works for you. BUT an awesome story also works. It doesn’t have to be time-sensitive but a) it can’t be something that sounded a lot better a while ago and b) it doesn’t hurt to throw out something that explains its relevance in the present. Where to get the ideas from is a whole other issue (hopefully, your classes have taught you that) but I generally work backwards: I just go about my life and if I pass along something interesting, I explore it and make a note of it. Example: Once I was on the metro, and a guy sitting a couple rows back was wearing a tuxedo on a Tuesday evening so I asked him why he was wearing a tuxedo and it turned out he get hired as a maître d for one of the most exclusive restaurants in DC and because they don’t take reservations, he has to do a lot of juggling on the job. Stuff like that. If I had to come up with an idea in two hours, I don’t think I would give you much, but I have a list of stuff like the guy who works at an exclusive restaurant banked up.
Also, I know it’s easy to be lazy and say to a publication, “I’d like to write, got anything for me?” but that’s generally gonna get you nowhere AND you can do that anyway. Send your pitch and then at the bottom, say I’m a freelance writer and open to writing about blank, blank, and blank. So play the game and throw out a pitch or two even if you secretly think they’re crap. They’ll appreciate you took the time to develop an idea.
3.       Contact the editor and don’t stop until you reach them and find if they’ve read your pitch.  I know that sounds like I’m a stalker out of a horror movie, but I constantly e-mail, re-email, look them up on twitter and engage them there, call up their office, call up their colleagues and  I have pretty much never had an editor tell me this was a bad thing as far as I can remember.  They have really busy in boxes and generally won’t know you exist and sometimes they’ll work with you for a year and a half and forget you. It also helps that I generally space these things out a week at a time to avoid bothering them too much.

A case in point:
This morning I just got a letter from a guy named Jesse who was listed as the editor of Vulture Magazine after writing him either two or three times and randomly tweeting him at various points “hey, I sent you an email” (sometimes after saying something insightful in response to his thing).
“Hey Orrin,
Your tweet reminded me to look at this. I don't really look at this email that often. I'll say this, I am not an editor, so I don't really assign anything.
But I don't think any of these pitches exactly work. It's hard to say why, but they don't. In general, your best bet is probably reaching out to Nate Jones, who is our movie editor, with a pitch that demands specific expertise.
A letter like this gives you clues as to what to work for if you write back. I just wrote back thanking him and he dropped another hint of advice:
No problem. I understand it's hard to sort of breakthrough.
But, yeah, you have to think what is a story only I can do or at minimum a story the site doesn't have someone to do
I asked a question for clarification with possible topics  A, B, and C and he replied and said “yes, pitch something about topic C”
Keep gleaming clues like these and try to meet people for the publications you have written for. I generally talk to people on twitter or might fb them if we start to have a lot of back and forth.
If you do get an article greenlit, get terms beforehand, and realize it could be rocky writing for an editor for the first time. Each editor is different and has different demands, some are bat-s**t crazy, some are really demanding and some give no guidance at all. Your job is to figure out what kind of editor that person is and adapt to their style over the course of the editing and the next pitch. For many publications, the editor fact-checks the freelancers harder than staff and they will fact-check nearly everything in your article the first time you submit something, so double-check every proper noun and fact in addition to grammar (something I admittedly didn’t do when a friend got me a trial at zergnet where I had grammatical errors in the first sentence, they never read past that and I was finished there).
Other than lost time and the hits to your ego from the near-constant rejection from people telling you your ideas suck before meeting people who will eventually like them, there’s virtually nothing to lose by trying out the freelance market. You can form relationships that could lead to jobs, you can pick up interesting experiences, you can get money that could hold you over until a “job” comes in. On a larger level, freelancing is about redefining what you think a job is which is the best defense against Plan A not working out. It’s a wide world out there.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

25 Best Acting Performances of 2014

  1. Ralph Fiennes, Grand Budapest Hotel: The centerpiece of Wes Anderson’s best received film to date is a sublime comic creation and one of those unique characters whose iconic stature should be remembered for years if there’s any justice. He’s unapologetically shameless in the lengths he’ll go to to please a client and his emotional core develops as the film goes on through his relationship with Zero. It’s a high-water mark for Fiennes as well who, just the other day, The Film Experience was asking to resounding choruses how it could possible be that 20 years have passed with an Oscar nomination for this uber-talented actor.  .
  2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl: Pike reconciles both ends of the dichotomy of a woman in love by playing the extremes-- sugary/sweet and vengeful/bitter- with delicious wickedness. Just like Fiennes’ performance, Pike’s work here is indisputably a game changer.
  3. Julianne Moore, Still Alice: While Moore’s Oscar win is a recognition of her great career as well, there’s little doubt that she at least deserved to be in the conversation for her thoroughly researched role of a woman in Alzheimer’s. Without Moore making the character so engaging, this film would have been a snoozefest designed to win someone an Oscar. With Moore at center, her acutely-felt awareness of her degradation gives the movie the feel of a psychological thriller.
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch, Imitation Game: In his portrayal of severely anti-social mathematician Alan Turing, Cumberbatch allows us to empathize with someone who is nearly devoid of feelings. And he was a lot of fun to watch on the awards circuit.
  5. Reese Witherspoon, Wild: It would be dismissive of the last decade to call this film Witherspoon’s graduation from a rom-com-centered ingenue to a grown-up, but it’s fair to say she has never had a role so demanding and the way she makes so many solo scenes engaging says a lot about her capabilities.
  6. Brendan Gleeson, Calvary:Gleeson stars as a priest in a small Irish town, whose congregation has regressed so far morally that when he receives a death threat, he has no idea who it’s from. His pensiveness and jaded interaction with the townsfolk carries the movie’s somber aura.
  7. JK Simmons, Whiplash: Simmons deservedly won a best supporting actor here for his intensity and the sheer uniqueness of his creation. The “what makes this character tick” question is just enigmatic enough that the film’s twists have enough room to surprise us.
  8. Miles Teller, Whiplash: By contrast, Simmons owes plenty of his Oscar to the quality of his scene partner. Andrew’s descent into artistic obsession is filtered through a timid teenager wrestling with being comfortable in his own skin. Teller portrays both parts of the character with the adeptness of someone twice his age.
  9. Ed Norton,Birdman: Looking back nearly two years after seeing the film, I can barely remember any of the performances. It was such an ensemble film that none of the  performances really were able to escape the conformity of the group effort and the acting felt oversahdowed by the razzle of the camera tricks anyway. The sole exceptions were Norton and the one-scene wonder of the critic (was it Lindsey Duncan? I’ll have to double check the credits). The temperamental actor is a standard but not one who would initially turn down sex with Emma Stone or punch someone else in his underwear. There were a lot of odd specificities that powered this film.
  10. Keira Knightley, Imitation Game: I know it would be reductive to call a brilliant thinker like Joan Clark “plucky,” but that really is the first word to come to mind when thinking of Knightley’s portrayal. It’s why you can understand how Clark could deftly navigate her way through a boy’s club or convince a gay man to abandon his better judgement and propose to her. It’s been a great year for Knightley and she got her long-overdue second nomination here.
  11. Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes: As I started watching this film, I was thinking of how refreshing it would be to see Waltz play someone other than a maniacal villain. Boy, was I wrong….
  12. Carrie Coon, Gone Girl: Coon and Affleck nail down the easygoing ebb and flow of siblings so well that they seem more natural together than Casey and Ben did on the press tour for “Gone Baby Gone.” Coon also nails certain moments of revulsion, whether at her brother or his wife.
  13. Alec Baldwin, Still Alice: Playing the significant other or other loved one trying to maintain steadiness while a loved one suffers is not always easy to do. It has won Alicia Vikander, Jennifer Connelly, Brenda Fricker and countless other women Oscars or nominations. It has been rare, however, to see a man go through a caretaker role like this. Baldwin’s approach from a masculine perspective was an interesting take: It was more externally quiet.
  14. Mark Ruffalo, Begin Again: At this point, Ruffalo has three Oscar nominations which is quite a lot for an actor who squints his way through some of his most difficult scenes. This performance, however, really hits home. Ruffalo’s character here is a wide-eyed (a character with less squinting is good news for this guy!)  dreamer inside a jaded record executive and, in this fairy-tale-like story, we are sure invested in seeing that wide-eyed dreamer reemerge. When he smiles or jaunts around the city with Keira Knightley, or figures out the logistics of a musical number, it’s electric.
  15. Chris Dowd, Calvary: This isn’t the baby-faced dreamboat from “Bridesamaids” you’ve grown to love. In a short amount of screen time, Dowd stands out among the cast of lowlives in the “Who wants to murder the priest” sweepstakes.
  16. Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer: I not only love the uniquely enthusiastic regime enforcer Swinton creates here. I also love how a non-traditional-Oscar-bait role from an even less traditional film made so many dents in the Awards season.
  17. David Oyelowo, Selma-Sorry #Oscarssowhite protesters, I have to agree with the Academy. This performance had a good gravity to it, but wasn’t up there with the best of the year. I'm sure this guy will make it sooner or later though.
  18. Ben Affleck, Gone Girl: It takes two to tango and Affleck is particularly eclectic when Nick starts figuring out Amy’s game and playing by her rules.
  19. Channing Tatum, Foxcatcher: To be clear, I found this movie excruciatingly boring. Frankly, I would have been more surprised by a revelation that a multi-millionaire  volunteering to let a bunch of Olympic athletes wrestle in his house wasn’t doing it for inappropriate reasons. Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that amid all this Oscar bait, the actors are doing what they’re supposed to pretty well. In particular, Tatum blew me away as a sensitive brute enamored with darker secrets.
  20. Keira Knightley, Begin Again-I might have moved her up a couple spots if she wasn’t so overly flowery in moments. Her relationship chemistry with Adam Levine didn’t seem entirely convincing either but she more than made up for it as one half of the cinematic year’s best platonic friendship with Mark Ruffalo. Her instant girl-bonding with Ruffalo’s daughter (played by Hailee Steinfeld) was particularly adorable as well. An additional paragraph can be written about Knightley’s musical performance here.
  21. Emily Blunt, Into the Woods-Emily Blunt had a somewhat bizarre part here with her loyalty to her husband so well established in the first half and the second half being marked by---well, no spoilers. Blunt maintains the comic and fantasical tones of the film very nicely. Blunt is well-known but I think it’s still possible to call her underrated
  22. Paddy Considine, Pride-Like “Into the Woods,” this film was a big ensemble effort. There were a lot of great performances in this film, so it’s hard to single one out. Considine, though, has one of the biggest presences in the film as Dai, one of the more elderly Welsh miners facing the cultural shock of an alliance with London’s gay community. One morning, he casually announces over breakfast to his wife that he’s not just comfortable with gays but also gay, and it’s one of the film’s most out-of-nowhere moments. It’s also, in the hands of Considine (and scene partner Imelda Staunton), one of the film's most beautiful moments. 
  23. Matthew Goode, Imitation Game-The straight man to Benedict Cumberbatch’s erratic character.
  24. Anna Kendrick, Into the Woods-Kendrick sings and dances and dresses like Cinderella! What more can you want?
  25. Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar-McConaughey convincingly playing a man who’s future Earth’s smartest scientist and best pilot might be a stretch. However, he makes the list for two moments: 1) The tear-ridden scene in which he learns his daughter grows up and 2) His endearing banter with a sarcastic robot.

The one I just realized I forgot to put in: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Frank
Films I did not see that might have affected my judgment: Nightcrawler, Boyhood, American Sniper, Mr Turner, A Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, 2 Days One Night