Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Capsule Reviews: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Killing Eve, and Ozark

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 4A)-
Some of the most memorable episodes of the show came out in this bite-sized six episode sample: Specifically, the one where Lily turns a tech conference into an orgy and Lily goes toe to toe with her late lover's daughter for her inheritance (I guess Carol Kane is the MVP).

Like Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's other project, 30 Rock, there seems like an unspoken centrifugal force in this universe that wants to keep its four principal characters from finding any sort of permanent comfort. Kimmy switches projects from working at a start up to writing a childrens book and Titus goes from executive producer of The Capist to high school drama teacher to landing an acting gig. Titus as a showbiz personality is more conducive to the gig economy while Jackie and Kimmy are being whiplashed a bit more inorganically to fit the template. Still, knowing what I'm in for at this point leads to easier suspension of disbelief.

The shortened season feels like I just got an appetizer-sized portion than a full meal which is why it might not make my top ten.

Killing Eve-I can understand why this show is a critical darling and I wanted to like it too. It was slick and stylized; it offered an engaging and tight plot; and an even better lead. Sandra Oh's Eve Polastri doesn't have an overriding gimmick (like say, autistic in The Good Doctor, an a-hole in House, or victim in Jessica Jones) but she's pretty intriguing in a lot of subtle ways: As an Asian-American in a man's field, she's a fish out of water in more ways than one; she's outspoken but not in a way that feels inorganic, and she's legitimately uneasy because she is not field-tested.

On the other end of the spectrum is a psychopathic serial assassin who's meant to be a doppelganger. She's an intriguing villain but like Francis Underwood in House of Cards, she does so much bad that you start getting invested in wanting to see her punished. The problem is the show doesn't really treat her like a serial killer. Either that or they have massive strokes of stupidity when trailing her. In one episode, Eve's colleague follows her into a nightclub unarmed without even calling for back up. Later on, they go after her without even carrying any weapons? The last episode I watched featured our heroine twice facing our villain unarmed without defensive measures. Villanelle's colleagues are equally ridiculous around her.

As far as I can tell, the show isn't about catching a killer as it is exploring Eve's relationship with the killer. She was singled out in-universe for her fascination with Villanelle and the show's overtones are a bit Hitchcock/Cronenberg. The scenes with Eve and her colleagues meeting Villanelle face-to-face recall the Seventh Seal without the ghastly imagery: facing death personified. 

However, it sure is awkward when the rest of the show aims for a more gripping form of realism.

Ozark (though Episode 8)-Shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and The Americans have led to a popularization of the notion that great TV is about characters being irrationally ordered to do impossible things from all sides. 

Take Ozark as an example:
A) The cartel holds Marty Byrde responsible for the Snells when its pretty nonsensical to think that Byrde can control a pair of criminals who are often hell-bent to doing the polar opposite of what would be prudent.
B) Wilkes (along with cartel pressure) wants the Byrdes to single-handedly change the voting of the entire Missouri legislature by upending nearly every other player in the state. 
C) Meanwhile one unchecked agent, Petty, is abusing his power in every conceivable way to make life impossible for the Byrdes. Petty's demand of Rachel to get dirt on Marty is pretty impossible to fulfill if Marty's not saying anything
D)  On top of that, there are a number of wildcards like an ex-pastor who suddenly turn murderous, because of course he does. Rather than think strategically, he instead makes a superfluous demand --he wants his son back in less than 24 hours or else Wendy is dead-- which isn't realistic considering the speed of bureaucracy. 

The tension on this show has gone from satisfying to an adrenaline high. At what point, however, does the show's credibility cancel out any gains? The second season is imminently watchable because watching characters maneuver out of tight situations is as hard to turn away from as an explosion or fight scene or juicy romance. But could the show be made better if it wasn't based on contrivances? As sacrilegious as it is to take shots at the above-mentioned shows, I blame the effect of the three shows above for setting such a template and having the flaws in those shows go unexamined.
Another question at stake is the intrigue of the anti-hero which has played out in many shows including the ones listed above. Through several of the episodes, Marty made the flimsy justification (overtly or tacitly) that he was protecting his family but what about the costs to other people's families? How would FBI protection not protect his family? It wasn't until the very end of Breaking Bad that Walter White came to terms with his selfishness. The Americans had a pair of complicit anti-heroes coming to terms with it in opposite ways which remained something that enriched the show greatly in later seasons.

Marty started out this season as a zombie of sorts: He turned his moral barometer off and retained a tunnel vision on his goal imagining his river boat casino would liberate him. The more interesting version of the show has come in the past couple of episodes as he started to veer off his original course with acknoweledgement to the consequences for Wyatt, Julie, and Rachel (the only characters worth caring about when this show is at its least interesting).
I'm on episode 8. Let's see where this show ends up.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Fun Summer Movies are No Longer an Option, Are They?

For all the evidence you need that the days of leaving identity politics out of movie reviews are over, look no further than the critical treatment of two of the most care-free popcorn comedies of the summer over at Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz laments on “Set It Up”, “We never gain a sense of what it means for these two to be in charge of—and yet isolated within—a predominantly white workplace and the film” while “Tag” gets called out by Glenn Kenny as “a lazy, vulgar celebration of White Male American Dumbness.” That the films’ racial politics are prioritized over their aesthetic appeal or even their apolitical contexts shouldn’t surprise any casual consumers of movie reviews lately. 

What was originally intended as a movement for greater inclusivity has made way for a brand of hyper-specific criticism leveled against perceived offenders of progress that has come to dominate entertainment writing. What is desperately needed for consumers and writers in the industry is to consider the effects of having so many critics cluster together on the political spectrum.

In 2007, Ebert himself reviewed the Wes Anderson film “Darjeeling Limited” and praised the film’s “Indian context” noting,“ Anderson and his co-writers Schwartzman and Roman Coppola made a trip through India while they were writing the screenplay. It avoids obvious temptations to exoticism by surprising us.” Anderson’s quirky visual style and life-affirming themes of belonging, however, don’t really register to film critics in 2018 as his potential for creating offense has now been prioritized.

Odie Henderson, writing on the same website writes about his 2018 film:

“Unlike that Roald Dahl adaptation, “Isle of Dogs” does not have a compelling story, and even worse, it has the most egregious examples of its director’s privilege since “The Darjeeling Limited.” .."But as entertaining as it is to look at “Isle of Dogs,” I couldn’t get past Anderson’s usual clumsiness when dealing with minorities. This is a film where a character is literally whitewashed, an act that makes him more agreeable afterwards. “Isle of Dogs” treats this as a sight gag. It plays more like a confession."

Each of these three aforementioned film reviews has a problematic dichotomy that begs for a critical examination of its own.

When Seitz notes in his review on “Set it Up,” that the “film plays differently on characters who are African-American and Chinese-American, and therefore had to fight their way into a corporate workplace that welcomed most white people of a certain social class” he either egregiously assumes that all African-Americans and Chinese-Americans followed the same path of struggle or erroneously posits that every film must represent the quintessential member of the minority they depict on screen. This flies in the face of decades of cultural writing that advocates for putting people of color in leadership positions without portraying it as a big deal.

“Tag”, is a similarly innocent comedy about a group of adult friends who have played the playground game continuously for 30 years. Kenny writes: “No one should be surprised, I think, to learn that the actual group of men on which this movie is based are in fact all white. It’s not so much that I’m under the impression that tag is a game most sensible persons of color might consider corny. It’s more that, well, try to imagine a group of African American men feeling safe enough to play "adult" tag at their places of work or various other public spaces. You get the idea?" Kenny is now calling any film that features white people on screen having fun without overtly commenting on racial relations in the U.S. racially insensitive. By that same logic, is Ed Helms’ character required to comment on the Flint Water crisis or the lack of drinking water in the Third World when he gets thrown into a pool?

Henderson’s review of “Isle of Dogs” first and foremost attempts to posit Wes Anderson as a controversial figure when no such controversy existed. In addition to Roger Ebert’s neutral review on the film’s cultural context, a glance at Rotten Tomatoes shows a general critical consensus that took issue with the film’s redundancy but had no such issue with Wes Anderson’s whiteness. In contrast, Henderson never gives Wes Anderson the wiggle room to safely delve into the territory of the Japanese director he’s trying to pay homage to in the film. His review echoes those accusing Anderson of sloppy cultural appropriation which is part of the newfound trend of narrowly defining cultural appropriation as a red flag signaling malicious intentions despite the fact that many have pointed out cultural appropriation has been a necessary ingredient of cultural development that has rarely discriminated between oppressor or oppressed.

This is just the tip of the ice berg for some essays I'm trying to write at the moment following my publication last year film criticism being overly based on identity politics. I look forward to continuing to publish more. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

Every Film I Saw in 2004 Ranked

1. Life Aquatic, Wes Anderson-Didn’t fare as well as some of the other Anderson films at the time, but the theme of enemies and friends and estranged family members overcoming their detachments because of a need to belong is still prevalent in a very touching way and it’s a feast for the eyes.
2. Aviator, Martin Scorsese-Everything about this film feels grandiose in a good way. It’s a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood from a man who’s arguably Classic Hollywood’s most prominent fanboy. The biopic is compelling, the hokey sentiment at the ending works, and I also like the lack of resolution. I went into the film knowing very little about Howard Hughes as well.
3. Sideways, Alexander Payne-The moment in history where Alexander Payne’s neorealist screenwriting style and critical tastes aligned. It’s a tense and funny story that treats its characters with gentleness and understanding.
4. Spanglish, James L Brooks-It’s high ranking with me is affected by the fact that it mirrors my own life story because I had a live-in Spanish-speaking nanny and her daughter stay with us when I was young. But seriously, I don’t understand the hatred for this film. Aside from that, I think it’s a very well-balanced story tonally and cleverly shifts audience loyalties between the neglectful wife, the nice guy husband, and the house interloper.
5. Anchorman, Adam McKay-My first bit of education that making a good comedy can entail the same degree of artistic difficulty as a good drama. The layers of absurdism, the strength of the characters, the timing of the jokes, everything clicked to the point that I was literally laughing throughout at least 80 to 90% of the film’s running time.
6. Ray, Taylor Hackford-The debate over whether to put Ray or Finding Neverland first was a tough one. Ray was a bit more of a known story, whereas Finding Neverland found a lot of nuance in the unknown. Ray was downright inspiring though and the redemption at the end (while not a complete redemption at all) was tear jerking. I remember leaving the theater thinking, “OK, I am not gonna let my disability hold me back.” The cast of characters rotated so often, the film felt like a series of vignettes but there was enough centrality to hold it all together.
7. Finding Neverland, Marc Forster-The film appeared a little stuffy but the theme of defining your own family resonated very well and, like, Ray, the film was quite a tear jerker.
8. Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore-Whether you agree with the politics or not, Michael Moore has really broken open the mold of a stale genre. Before Michael Moore, I wasn’t a fan of the genre at all: Talking heads, newsreel footage, self-satisfying photography. No thanks, I’ll go read a book.
9. Manchurian Candidate, Jonathan Demme-Yes, it’s a remake but the story’s one of my favorite of all time so I don’t mind seeing it again, it’s transported very appropriately to a new setting, it plays well like a thriller, and Denzel, Liev and Meryl are fantastic reinterpretations.
10. Kinsey, Bill Condon-A very interesting way to tell a story that’s largely about collecting data (even if it’s about very sexy data). The central conflict is about a scientist’s struggle to present a truth in the face of moral naysayers but it nicely meanders in talking about the man’s detachment from emotional love and his complexities. In delving into side characters, it’s an early template for so many of the great serialized shows (Dexter, Transparent, House of Cards, Orphan Black, Masters of Sex) that start with a subject and work their way out.
11. I Heart Huckabees, David O Russell-An extremely innovative and resonant form of comedy. The scene of Mark Wahlberg panicking about the state of petroleum in the world while he has a real-world problem right before him in the form of a wife leaving him, spoke to me so much as someone in my head. I didn’t know whether to laugh or scratch my head, but it was really something else.
12. Mean Girls, Mark Waters-The film that launched Tina Fey into the stratosphere still holds up very well as a quintessential teen movie. The dialogue is sharp, edgy and relatable to anyone who’s felt like an outsider in their adolescence. It also captures very well how all those cliques and aliiances that you’re obsessed with in high school seem to dissolve at some point and you realize what’s ultimately important.
13. Dodgeball, Rawson Marshall Thurber-Like Anchorman, this is a film that knows where to pin its jokes for maximum effect. It’s a brilliant sports parody, pure unadulterated fun and encapsulates Vince Vaughn’s screen persona better than any other film.
14. National Treasure, John Turteltaub-I probably would’ve ranked this more in the middle of the pack back in 2004, but it’s a more memorable film down the road and one I would rewatch in a heart beat. The premise is absurd but the marriage of history and adventure is done in a much tighter way than Da Vinci Code and it skates by on a sense of fun the whole way.
15. Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock-Morgan Spurlock’s grotesque piece of performance art is the only known example besides Michael Moore I’ve seen of a documentary breaking the mold and showing something you couldn’t get out of reading a book on the same topic.
16. Spiderman 2, Sam Raimi-Back in the day, this film got amazing reviews and topped (whatever would have been the equivalent back then of) the Rotten Tomatoes chart, and was even included in AFI’s ballot for the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. I’ve never been too keen on the Spiderman universe because the characters feel so rigidly drawn to archetypes (James Franco is the best friend but why? Can Kirsten Dunst be any more Girl Next Door?), but the story takes the hero into new territory, the special effects are very impressive and story relevant, and there’s a grandiosity to the whole film.
17. Silver City, John Sayles-A wonderful little satire and ensemble piece about government corruption and a peon in the system (Danny Huston) finding a little piece of political redemption.
18. Shrek 2, Andrew Adamson-Not sure if I loved this cartoon as much as Chadwick Bozeman’s recent SNL character but this was a great movie about how to deal with the aftermath of happily ever after. A thematically mature cartoon is pretty rare. The laughs weren’t AS strong as they could be because they were overly character-reliant and the characters -- an ogre who’s not that bad and a donkey who’s a vehicle for Eddie Murphy humor -- wore themselves out by the end of the first film.
19. Maria Full of Grace, Joshua Marston-I don’t watch foreign films nearly as often as I should because stuff like this does give me a nice insight into another part of the world. It was nice to see a protagonist like Maria here who wasn’t entirely helpless and could advocate for herself.
20. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry-It’s hard to separate the film from the critical love for said film. You know why it’s a great film. I don’t remember it as much. I believe a major distraction of the film was the focus given to the Elijah Wood-Mark Ruffalo-Kirsten Dunst-Tom Wilkinson as a separate B-plot rather than just a framing device. The jumps in time gave me whiplash and not in a good way (“500 Days of Summer’ steps into and out of time more gracefully). But, yes, it has a lot of great stuff in it as well.
21. Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich-It goes up several points based on how well I remember it. Even though it’s extremely implausible, the plot’s not nearly as flimsy as 2012. It fits well with Emmerich’s milieu of large-scale disaster and is a fine ensemble piece. Some of the visual imagery (such as the characters outrunning cold itself or the initial onset of the storm) is indelible.
22. I Robot, Alex Poyras-Like Kinsey, this is an extremely difficult story to adapt so I have to give the film credit for making a coherent story that’s somewhat thought-provoking (what the Asimov intended his work to be) and has a genuine element of mystery. The jaded cop angle was a little strained. There was also a bit too much exposition but it would be hard not to do with source material 23. Terminal, Stephen Spielberg-There were parts that were a little schmaltzy, but it played with some interesting cinematic and spatial space (re-thinking the airport as the setting of a movie rather than a transition point) and I found the film lined with quite a bit of philosophical depth if you consider the airport to be a purgatory of sorts. The film has a nice bit of tension between Stanley Tucci’s character and Hanks. One weakness is that Hanks is a bit Tom Hanksian in a been-there-done-that kind of way which is a shame since he’s based on an actual characterthis tough.
24. Wimbledon, Richard Lorcaine-It’s not a particularly ambitious film, but three things in the film’s favor: 1) A very endearing romcom 2) one of the few sports films dealing with staying in the game past your peak 3) making tennis (an already underrated sport) sexy and exciting through great action shots and the like
25. Welcome to Mooseport, Donald Pietrie-It has a reputation buoyed by its reviews of being bland and vanilla, and to make matters worse, it’s rumored to have scared Gene Hackman into retirement, but I don’t care. To me, the film is a pleasant throwback to the 90s era of wholesome family-friendly comedy. A bit of fish-out-of-water stuff and a nice love story
26. Merchant of Venice, Michael Radford-Hard to judge this super-objectively since I saw this for a literary class on Merchant of Venice and not really for pleasure. Al Pacino deserves accolades for going for broke here and doing Shakespeare. I’d much rather see him do this than a cop or mob member or robber. Visually nice.
27. Around the World in 80 Days, Frank Coraci-When I first saw this, I thought it was a shameful dilution of a great literary work simply to give Jackie Chan a vehicle for his blend of martial arts and children’s comedy. Then, I rewatched it and discovered how marvelously fun and virtuosic a Jackie Chan movie can be. The film’s humor can seem unimpressive at points but it’s consistently filled with the kind of jokes that would delight a 12-year-old and if you meet the material halfway, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to let your inner child out.
28. Troy, Wolfgang Petersen-When I first watched the film in 2004, I felt it was shameful that the film stripped the Iliad of its cultural specificity in favor of a more broad story. Looking at the irritating complexities of Game of Thrones or Westworld or Orphan Black, I don’t necessarily think simplifying a narrative is the worst thing you can do anymore. At the same time, the film loses a little by keeping this a tale only of humans when the source material was a more extravagant opera of Gods and humans on opposite sides of a battle. If you accept that this movie is just a watered-down Brad Pitt vehicle and lower your expectations as such, it’s an easily digestible epic.
29. 50 First Dates, Peter Segal-Not a fan of Adam Sandler’s man child screen persona but he occasionally puts his characters in solid enough plots that they cancel out the weakeness of his presence enough to make a good movie. The only three Adam Sandler films I liked were Mr Deeds, Big Daddy, and this one. Sandler films are juvenile in their jokes but they also are sincerely enveloped with a lot of heart. This is an interesting premise for a love story and it mostly works in spite of how little I like Adam Sandler as an actor.
30. After the Sunset, Brett Ratner-The film strikes just the right playful tone. Pierce Brosnan, who was as heavily associated with Bond as he would ever be, had an odd penchant for playing Bond-like figures in Tailor of Panama, No Escape, Matador, and this. All four characters are what I would describe as sleazy versions of Bond. This one is an interesting role for Brosnan because it’s laced with a playful sense of (very un-Bond-like) homoeroticism between Brosnan and Harrelson while simultaneously trying to aim for a monogamous love story. Like many of Bond’s most famous films, it’s also set in the Caribbean and has a chase scene in the Junkanoo just like Thunderball.
31. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran-My reaction is pretty much entirely neutral. It was pleasant and technologically innovative but the technological innovations were quite distracting.
32. Incredibles, Brad Bird-I just didn’t feel particularly inspired by this. I preferred “Sky High” or the underrated Ben Stiller vehicle “Mystery Men”
33. Taxi, Tim Story-One has to admit the scene of Queen Latifah breaking all laws of traffic (and perhaps physics) to get a passenger to Laguardia in fifteen minutes is pretty solid. And who doesn’t actively fantasize about a taxi driver (or perhaps an Uber) who actually cares about getting you somewhere on time? The premise is thin, the show is inoffensive and fun, and harkens back to the days when Jimmy Fallon didn’t make me want to stab someone. If he was better in films, he might not be imposing his annoying giggly fits on the late night landscape.
34. Stepford Wives, Frank Oz-A remake of a 1975 film starring Nicole Kidman is a burnt-out TV executive whose supportive husband moves her away from the city to a pleasant suburban enclave. This is an attempt at suburban satire that morphs into a Shyamalanesque eerie town mystery. The thru-line between the former and the latter is the peril of conformity but it’s a completely different picture in the second half which invalidates much of the first half’s thematic thrust. First, the film is about a woman learning to relax and open up; than bam!-- they’re all zombies or robots or something. The film does have a twist or two but by then it’s a little too late.
35. Garden State, Zach Braff-It’s an extremely typical coming-of-age story that doesn’t have a lot of forward momentum that is overly filled with quiet spaces. The protagonist has some issues to resolve but he’s so internal and broody, that it’s not translating on screen more than a guy voicing first world problems. Aside from an extremely typical romance with a young lady, who as far as I could tell seemed mentally ill (sorry Natalie Portman, you are an Oscar winner but I couldn’t swallow your interpretation here), basically amounts to a guy trying to decide whether to go off prescription medicine of not. There is one meaningful conversation he has with his dad and when I pulled the quote on IMDB, there was a sense of poetry to that one scene, but everything else was blah.
36. Napoleon Dynamite, Jared Hess-Napoleon Dynamite has some genuinely sweet moments between its central teenage characters but I don’t find the characters to be particularly iconic. I also don’t think Idaho (from my experiences in the state) deserves this portrayal as the capital of bland weirdness.
37. Catwoman, Pitol-It had some iconically cringe-worthy scenes (the basketball game choreographed by people who don’t know how the sport works) but it was moderately watchable. Not a high compliment, I know.
38. Ocean’s 12, Stephen Soderbergh-On the one hand, the film is crafted by Soderbergh with a genuinely impressive level of slickness that helps remind us why he won a Best Director Oscar in a competitive year. On the other hand, putting all the technical expertise in the world to an ending that basically says f--- you to the audience for caring about the story doesn’t absolve you. It’s also a self-indulgent mess. You think George Clooney and Brad Pitt are egoless actors? Nearly all of their dialogue is self-praise which is even more obnoxious considering that Pitt and Clooney are doing it on a meta-level and think it’s a wonderful use of our time to revel in their smugness.
39. Lady Killers, Joel and Ethan Coen-Part of my extremely low ranking here is high hopes. Like all Coen brothers films the sense of place is very strong and I very much enjoyed Tom Hanks’ acting here. His fast-tacking huckster is a delight and one of the best performances of the year. But no one else in the movie was remotely memorable (this was the second film that Spring I’d seen featuring a character who had IBM and I found it equally unfunny the first time) nor did the group have any discernable sense of banter. The pacing between the heist and the subsequent struggle against their landlady (Irma P Hall) was a bit abrupt which made their doom feel empty in a tragic way. The original felt less ambitious but the symmetry of the character’s success and demise made for an effective moral tone poem in its simplicity.
40. The Whole Ten Yards, John Lynn-I remember almost nothing about this film and what’s even worse news for this film’s chances of implanting itself into my memory 14 years later: I remember almost nothing about the original except that it features Amanda Peete naked and that Bruce Willis subverts the mold of a hitman by also being humorous and affable. When has Bruce Willis not been affable? I don’t even remember the decision that led to me thinking I want to put myself through a forgettable two hours.
41. 13 Going on 30, Gary Winick-I don’t believe in using the word chick flick because a movie with a female-centric character or a romance can always be appealing if made well. This is not one of those movies. The story, a gender switch on “Big” starring Jennifer Garner, is short on plot movement and overindulgent in a bath of cutesiness (makeover scenes, karaoke-filled sleepovers) that’s carried entirely on the back of Garner’s gifts for physical comedy. Garner is on screen nearly 100% of the time which gives the added disadvantage of denying us any narrative-breaking B story or plot meander.
42. Along Came Polly, Jon Hamberg-Philip Seymour Hoffman, you’re so much better than this. Why did you think channeling Jack Black was a good idea here? The film has little chemistry and the tension before the two get together was skipped which made me care less about these two. Also, could they think of nothing more sophisticated for a character trait than IBS?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Disobedience (2018) Review

Rachel Weisz stars as a Rabbi's daughter returning to an Orthodox Jewish community that's shunned her because she didn't want to adopt their ways. This is a common problem in Orthodox communities when people choose a different belief system than the one they were raised with. It presents a myriad of challenges to navigate and this film portrays it with the utmost delicacy.

The film has a brilliant pseudo-horror vibe with the voyeuristic looks that her disapproving peers inflict upon her with as she sits with them at dinner or walks through the streets alongside them. 

The film is advertised as a film about a lesbian relationship, but it's really a film about free will because being in a pre-marital sexual relationship, dating a secular jew, even having secular Jews in your friend circle or getting an education all lead to the same end result of shunning anyways. 

Perhaps it's my experience in this type of community, but the film is beautiful, spot-on, tense, sexy , and treats each of the three leads (Rachel McAdams and Allesandro Nivola) and their character arcs with a great sense of respect.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Orange is the New Black Season 5 (aka the one where they riot)

I was hesitant to watch the fifth season (AKA the one with the prison riot) of Orange is the New Black because I was worried about the way the show’s thematic messages were being read by a critical sphere that I’ve made no secret in knowing I have issues with. To review, the show’s fourth season ends with the cruel reign of MCC culminating in a revolt. Poussey Washington, one of the show’s many breakout characters, is accidentally killed by one of Litchfield’s greenest  officers, Bailey Baxter, in the ensuing chaos. The ideas being floated around in response to this episode – that Baxter was representative of the recent wave of newsworthy police brutality against the black population or that death of Washington was analogous to some sort of in-show racism – seemed antithetical to the spirit of the show itself. 

Through its first four seasons, OitNB has been an extremely illuminating show that teaches empathy for people at all ranks of society. Villains and heroes emerge from every rank and position, regardless of race or sexual orientation and regardless of whether one is a correctional officer or prisoner (although we find ourselves having a surprising amount of sympathy for the prisoner). The idea that the Litchfield experience has been less fair to the black population is simply not true although that’s not to deny that the backstories illustrate those inequalities outside of Litchfield quite well.

This is a show that, for the most part, has never told its viewers what path it should take in terms of differentiating wrong from right. This is why it’s somewhat upsetting that it never makes much differentiation between manslaughter and murder in terms of Bailey. Another move that doesn’t move discourse forward is filling Bailey with no emotions but guilt. The narrative has no interest in giving Bailey a man with any forward path to redemption or even sound restoration of mental health. The narrative is geared towards its viewers  who are upset about the persecution of blacks in the U.S. but don’t have the effort to think about the logistics about anything else. In other words, Bailey is a projection of what Black Lives Matter must want for the purveyors of black violence to do and think, and he’s just as easily a projection of their lack of anticipation that someone like Bailey could be anything else. 

The fact is Piscatella was clearly the villain of the fourth season whereas Baxter was one of the more humane members of his guard. Taystee and her fellow negotiators could be forgiven to some degree for having imperfect information,  but by how much? People more invested in the Black Lives Matter movement than myself will find nobility in her cause. 

I, on the other hand, spent my time thinking about how counter-productive her actions were and how they mirror the danger of tunnel vision with advocates pushing too strongly for any one cause of which Black Lives Matter is no exception: She did little to stop the PTSD-inducing experiences her fellow inmates were giving the guards, she felt “justice for Poussey” was more important than advocacy for Daya or keeping the only trained medic out of harm’s way, she failed to recognize the logistics involved in MCC’s limits when she was negotiating, and she didn’t take into account the needs of other prisoners when negotiating. 

The final episode posits Taystee as a Javert-like figure who’s seen the errors of her ways, but the question remains how other viewers interpreted the season. I’m not going to delve into the reviews and it’s not the responsibilty of the show to tell us how to think one way or another. It’s only my wish that the critical movers and shakers in TV see Taystee’s downfall as a legitimate part of her arc that makes sense in-universe. 

On the whole, though, the creative minds behind this show balance dozens of character arcs and get more leeway to mess up a couple. This season still gets a raving review. It has the same levels of nuance and masterful plotting and possibly deserves more credit for experimenting with the time frame. The whole season takes place over a four-day period in which the prisoners go bonkers and this world is turned upside down. Watching this season 16 months after it premiered without any knowledge of how this madness would end was quite thrilling. 

Random notes:

-This season is built like a classic tragedy. It's a study in human folly. What generally happens with tragedies in moviedom and on stage is the story spirals down to the worst case scenario and the title credits roll and we're left to think about the irony of people who could have done good having messed everything up. Audiences traditionally don't want to wallow in the aftermath because that's just plain sad. Let's see how Season 6 will navigate such a tricky balance. 

-I felt more than ever like skipping over the flashbacks. We are glued to the storyline at hand we don't need anything to break the tension at this point. They are completely unnecessary.
-I can't remember the name of the Hispanic prisoner who used Gloria's strategy against her but, ethically, it was entirely fair and I'm glad someone got pardoned by the governor.

-There should be a lesson here about how pharmacology and medicine are highly precise science and you shouldn't play God with other people's medicines. It was kind of amusing how Morello felt like "the new doctor" but that plotline could have carried more weight.

-The season kind of reminded me of the film "King of Hearts"

-Biggest plot hole: If Caputo's hands weren't tied, couldn't he have just taken his chances against Leanne and Angie when they were shoving him along to the poo. He had the element of surprise, and at that point, pretty much everything was going to become screwed.

-The show relies pretty heavily on pair bonds in various forms.  There’s: The unlikely friendship of Boo and Pennsatucky; the extremely likely friendship of Leanne and Angie who serve as this season’s most effective comic relief; the aggressive courtship of Nichols to the now-married Morelo; the reconnection of Sophia and Gloria after one hurt the other, and the Chapman/Vause romance that’s now being framed as true love rather than toxic co-dependency. This was a season in which a lot more couples- Flacca/Maritza, Pennsatucky/Boo, “Von Barlow”/Boo, Nichols/Morelo, Chapman/Vause, Angie/Leanne were going through positive phases and weathering the storm significantly better because they had someone by their side. It’s a stark contrast to Taystee and Soso who both felt isolated because they felt the weight of their friend.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

A letter to my local journalism club about the need to support freelance journalism

This is a letter to my local press club about the need to support freelance journalism more. I'm posting it here as a way to highlight the struggles of people who freelance for a living
I am a first-year member at the NPC who arrived here a year after the freelance committee dissolved. From what I know, this is because  freelancers found it easier to network with people in specific fields.That makes sense: I don't think networking is particularly important since most of us can do that anyway by meeting people at the bar or taco night.

I am not a member of any committees so I cannot speak from experience as to what they do and don't do, but I did see on the broadcast/podcast committee, one of its functions is to "provide a forum for members interested in multimedia....." Bingo! As a freelancer, a "forum" of some sort whether in a committee or not, is  very much what I need and I believe other freelancers could benefit from this as well as journalism itself. NPC President Andrea Edney said, in a news release, "I believe this is a crucial time for the Club to help strengthen journalism and its role in our country. In addition to the important press freedom efforts we have underway, I plan to work with our National Press Club Journalism Institute on professional development in areas such as investigative reporting and advance serious discussion on topics like the importance of objectivity in journalism."

To the degree that freelancers fill an important need, there aren't the support systems anymore for freelancers to make a living wage carrying out the missions that Edney holds important such as press integrity and the quality of journalism. I speak as a freelancer who has published continuously since 2010 in over two dozen publications including the Washington Post, Mental Floss Magazine, Northern Virginia Magazine, Gothamist, Richmond Times-Dispatch and Richmond Style Weekly,  At the outlet that I've done the most work for the past 18 months. I recently met with an editor who revealed his salary was $33,000 a year but he needed me to make the newspaper complete and that it would be some degree of trouble for him to find a freelancer to replace me. If we're both crucial to the newspaper, that's not reflected in the difference in our pay. Additionally, I've experienced everything from late payments, to being thrown under the bus by editors, to horrific editing, to articles being killed midway through because of editors changing their minds with little more than a "thank you for your time, I appreciate your efforts on this" but no monetary appreciation. I suspect I'm not alone.

I have a friend who exposed the difficulties of Mexican deportation by doing a multi-day feature below the border and she wasn't even sure she'd be reimbursed for her hotel room and had to fight tooth and neck to make sure the story was published so she wouldn't go bankrupt on it. As I was writing this e-mail, I texted her and she's currently on the Texas border doing research without health insurance. Another acquaintance I've made at the NPC hasn't made a penny for the last month because he's getting back into freelancing and is simply developing stories. If this were Hollywood, he would get signed to a development deal that would allow for financial security during that period.

Personally, I can attest to the importance of freelancers because. I wanted to start upon graduating college around '06-'07 but it wasn't until the Connection Newspapers started laying off their reporters and had holes in their coverage in 2010 that I got my foot in the door. Freelancing was a great option for me because if I were to go immediately to writing 4-5 stories a week, I would have failed and burned out quickly. 

As the growing literature on the topic and the growth of the freelancer's union has established, the gig economy is not a fad but what now comprises 20% of the workforce and it has enormous benefits to both the industry itself (i.e. Connection Newspapers in 2010) and the workers. I read a quote nearly a decade ago from one of the perspective candidates for Secretary of Labor in Time Magazine who said that our perceptions of what it means to be a worker in the America is massively different in the 21st century than the typical 9-to-5 model and that it would take a while for institutions to catch up with it. I'd like to humbly suggest that the NPC rise up to be one of those institutions that embraces this transition rather than get left behind as this industry has such a porous line between freelance and regular work.  
I don't know if anyone on the board has ever had one of those condescending conversations with a rich friend in an industry like banking or business consulting ask you "why are you doing this as opposed to a real job?" I once interviewed American U's journalist-in-residence who told me that journalism isn't always respected even when it's done well. That goes doubly for freelance journalists where people (including fellow journalists) who treat the occupation of freelancer, for example, as an acceptable purgatory while waiting for a staff job. Conversely, it's also easy to look to the small handful of freelancers who have found their golden goose and think that's the norm, which subsequently erases the struggles that are pervasive in freelancing life (instability, lack of insurance, being the first to be affected by job turnover at editorial), the issues are much more complicated as I hope NPC can address. .

Issues such a forum/committee could address:
1 What is the value of freelancers? How do we negotiate our worth? How do we emphasize our worth?
2 What obligations do we have to newspapers outside of what we write for them?  Should we have to police ourselves on twitter or submit articles one at a time as opposed to single submission clauses? What are other best practices?
3. What's the state of the market and how can we best cope with those changes?
4. Do we have the same access as freelancers?
5. How can we expand our scope of publications?
6. What's the best thing to do with killed pieces and unused work?
7. To blog or not to blog...
8. What risks do we take on as freelancers?
9. The freelancers union and access to health insurance?
10. Is freelancing sustainable
That's off the top of my head. The list could go on and on.......I don't need a leadership role in new committee but I'd like to argue it's need.

Orrin Konheim

Monday, August 27, 2018

Lasse Hallstrom marginally clears the mediocrity bar with Salmon Fishing in Yemen (2012)

It would be a little harsh to label Lasse Hallstrom the paragon of Oscarbait mediocrity but he's not too far off. His films often are overconfident in their ability to turn a hooky premise -- a free-spirited woman introducing chocolate to a repressed town, a drifter caring for a mentally ill brother, an engineer moving salmon to the desert, a young man raised by an abortion wizard -- into an uplifting narrative. With the exception of Cider Housr Rules, where all the elements came together to make a very solid film, a lot of his films feel overmanufacutred on sentimentality and manipulative with the musical score.

Salmon Fishing in Yemen is not as bad as the most saccharine of the director's offerings at its most predictable moments and its surprisingly pleasant on the whole.

Ewan McGregor plays a doctor, Alfred Jones, who is recruited by a shiekh's emissary (Emily Blunt) for a ridiculous task and McGregor is firmly against the idea. Blunt's character, Hillary, is a woman who comes prepared with the art of persuasion and she slowly wears him down. It's the kind of initial resistance one would see in a screw ball comedy but a nice feature of the film's first act is that Dr. Jones is firmly in the category of married man at the start of the film. It's a purely professional banter and it's a chemistry between two strong personalities that keeps the film interesting.

The film has some major twists in terms of the wants and needs of each of the two characters towards one another. Hillary deals with a tragedy and the film almost gets tonally jarring to the point of distraction but, with the exception of one scene (which carelessly throws around a possible mental illness on the part of Jones), it maintains course.

As the two begin to move past a relationship of colleaguedom and develop romantic feelings for each other, the film takes a slow pace with a development that feels organic. 

With such a strong relationship between the leads, the background can feel superfluous and it doesn't help that little of it is well-developed. There's a terrorist plot that's laughably underdeveloped and a Sheikh character (Amr Waked) who doesn't register on the whole. At least Kristin Scott Thomas makes a strong impression as a foil of sorts who's fast on her feet (although I honestly didn't understand the details of her plot on first viewing).

On the whole, McGregor and Blunt transcend the material and make this one of Hallstrom's  better outings.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

How Many Films of Sidney Lumet Have You Seen?

Originally posted on THE SOLUTE

Welcome to a new series called How Many Films of _____ Have You Seen, in which I pick a director each week, discuss him and my experiences with the director and list the films that I have seen of that director. Then you tell me how many and which films you’ve seen and from there we make recommendations, discuss and maybe dive into the auteur theory. This is a space where we can open up about the holes in our film viewing and not get beaten up by a million responses of “you haven’t seen ______? How dare you!”

This week I am posting about Sidney Lumet to promote a talk I’m co-leading about Sidney Lumet at DC Cinema Lounge this Monday at 7 PM in Washington DC. Teaism is located by Archives/Navy Memorial metro. Please come so we have people to discuss with.
This week’s director Sidney Lumet.
Murder on the Orient Express

Sidney Lumet consistently made films that have stood the test of time from 1957 with a sensational debut in 12 Angry Men to his sleeper critical darling 50 years later in 2007. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola or William Friedkin (the 70s), Blake Edwards (60s), or Brian de Palma (70s/80s), or Clint Eastwood (00s) who were among the most critically praised over the course of a single decade, Lumet was never associated with the greats of any one decade even though they made films in other eras. A child of stalwarts in the Yiddish theater scene, Lumet worked as a child acting in Yiddish theater but also taking a keen interest in every department. When he returned from the war, he set his sights on putting those experiences into directing.
He cut his teeth in live TV which perhaps gave him the workmanlike quality of serving the project rather than trying to infuse his personal style into (in most cases) already-adapted material. Lumet was most comfortable in gritty urban settings (although many films such as The Hill or Murder on the Orient Express were exceptions) and had a great gift for suspense but if there was a singular trait, it was possibly his gravitation toward and handling of socially significant material. This quote is a good guide to Lumet’s work:

"While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes on step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of their own conscience."

 What Most People Believe Are the Essentials:
12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Verdict

2nd tier: Pawnbroker, Murder on the Orient Express, Fail Safe, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Prince of the City.

My number: 8

12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Verdict, Prince of the City. Pawnbroker (Additionally, I saw the Richard Dreyfus TV reproduction of Fail Safe)
My Favorite: Network is a masterpiece based on just how eerily prescient in its foreshadowing of the media’s influence in the present day, but it’s also a great stand-alone morality play. Like much of Lumet’s work there’s a theatrical quality with characters (particularly Ned Beatty in what might be the best one-scene appearance ever) going for mythological performances rather than naturalism. While Peter Finch’s Howard Beale has the quote “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore”, nearly every character except William Holden’s Murrowesque executive is pretty much an epic lunatic. There’s also the cryptic romance between William Holden and Faye Dunaway’s characters that is so deliciously twisted.

Underrated: Murder on the Orient Express. The 2017 remake upped the thriller angle to it (perhaps wisely so), but the original has an aura of continental sophistication with an admirable adherence to the source material. Has a novel mystery ever been bought to life better? (I honestly don’t know, so correct me in the comments) It’s a fun mystery with one of the best ensembles ever assembled on screen. And no offense to Kenneth Branagh, but Albert Finney is the better Poirot: A big presence and idiosyncratic without being hammy.

Overrated: Prince in the City seemed bloated with characters who all made little mark on the story and felt static in terms of plot movement. I’ve never been able to get particularly invested in mole/informant-type plots because it lends itself to such easy plot twists that there’s little reason to be surprised.

What I might approach next: Serpico is the most high-profile film I haven’t seen, but after Prince in the City I am burned out on crooked cop stuff. Find me Guilty seemed like a flop. Because it has the great Rod Steiger and deals with the Holocaust in a curious way, I’m very curious about The Pawnbroker. The Fugitive Kid might be interesting because of the amusing anecdotes I read between Marlon Brando and Sidney Lumet in Lumet’s book Making Movies. I also would be interested in watching The Hill to compare and contrast it against other prison escape movies of that era.
If you need help remembering what he’s directed, here’s this handy-dandy list (credit to TCM):

1.Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead(2007)

2.Find Me Guilty(2006)

3.Strip Search(2004) as Director.

4.Gloria(1999) as Director.

5.Night Falls on Manhattan(1997) as Director.

6.Critical Care(1997) as Director.

7.Guilty As Sin(1993) as Director.

8.Stranger Among Us, A(1992) as Director.

9.Q&A(1990) as Director.

10.Family Business(1989) as Director.

11.Running on Empty(1988) as Director.

12.Morning After, The(1986) as Director.

13.Power(1986) as Director.

14.Garbo Talks(1984) as Director.

15.Daniel(1983) as Director.

16.Deathtrap(1982) as Director.

17.The Verdict (1982) as Director.

18.Prince of the City(1981) as Director.

19.Just Tell Me What You Want(1980) as Director.

20.The Wiz(1978) as Director.

21.Equus(1977) as Director.

22.Network(1976) as Director.

23.Dog Day Afternoon(1975) as Director.

24.Serpico(1974) as Director.

25.Lovin’ Molly(1974) as Director.

26.Murder on the Orient Express(1974) as Director.

27.The Offense(1973) as Director.

28.Child’s Play(1972) as Director.

29.The Anderson Tapes(1971) as Director.

30.The Last of the Mobile Hotshots(1970) as Director.

31.King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis(1970) as Connecting seq dir.

32.The Appointment(1970) as Director.

33.The Sea Gull(1968) as Director.

34.Bye Bye Braverman(1968) as Director.

35.The Deadly Affair(1967)

36.The Group(1966) as Director.

37.The Hill(1965) as Director.

38.The Pawnbroker(1965) as Director.

39.Fail Safe(1964) as Director.

40.A View From the Bridge(1962) as Director.

41.Long Day’s Journey Into Night(1962) as Director.

42.The Fugitive Kind(1960) as Director.

43.That Kind of Woman(1959) as Director.

44.Stage Struck(1958) as Director.

45.12 Angry Men(1957) as Director.