Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Review

If you make a list of the most memorable biopics in history, very few of them come from before 1970 (The year of "Patton"). Films like "Life of Emile Zola" "Sergeant York" "Day for Night" and even Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata" feel rather dry despite the efforts of their actors. Perhaps it's the Hollywood code that prevents the juicy dark parts of these characters' lives from coming to the forefront in these narratives. Or perhaps Hollywood felt more comfortable with fictional characters whose lifespans they can depict like the title characters of "Johnny Belinda" or "Goodbye Mr. Chips".

"Birdman of Alcatraz" is a rare exception. It follows the entire adult lifespan of a man and remains faithful to much of his life story so that the emotional effect really feels authentic and packs punch.

The film's subject, Robert Stroud (played by the never disappointing Burt Lancaster), is a lifer at Leavenworth Penitentiary (and later Alcatraz) who transforms from an anti-social rebel to an elder statesman (within the confines of his prison walls) when three birds enter to his cell and his senses of empathy and curiosity are awakened. In caring for his birds, he begins to care and form friendships with those around him and finds a purpose to devote his time. When his birds get sick and the local veterinarian tells him it's a routine epidemic and doesn't offer a solution, he exhaustively researches and finds his own and in publishing his results, he becomes one of the leading ornithologists in the country.

The degree to which Stroud was a spiteful man or simply misunderstood (many inmates described him as psychopathic even in his "reformed" stage) is debatable, but both Burt Lancaster and the author of the film's source material, Tom Gaddis (played by Edmond O'Brien in a somewhat odd fourth-wall-breaking narration), have an affection and admiration for the man and that shines through.

Because the character of Stroud is in every frame of the film and in many of these moments, it's just him and the birds. Similar to films like "Cast Away", "All is Lost", or "Wild" the challenges on the part of Lancaster and director John Frankenheimer to make these quiet passages work are met extraordinarily.

Similarly, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Thelma Ritter, and Betty Field do great work in supporting parts. In particular, Karl Malden makes the case for being one of the most consistently great actors of his generation with this understated role as a straight-laced prison warden is what Robert Stroud's anti-hero persona is defined against. The two share a begrudging respect for each other after spending over half their lives on opposite sides and it's a relationship with a lot of depth.

This is a film that one should see not just because Robert Stroud was a fascinating character but because Frankenheimer and Lancaster bring his story to life so well.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sporcle Quiz I Made: Most Nominated Actresses for Golden Globe (for movies)

This is another Sporcle quiz I made updated from an old quiz that didn't account for the last five years. When playing, keep in mind: -This quiz only covers movie nominations -The Golden Globes were created in 1943 but were highly irregular in terms of categories and the number of nominees in their first couple of decades. Some years, they didn't include any alternative nominees at all. -Comedy (and in some years musical) is included here, so actresses with great comedic performances to their name might pop up higher. -Have fun!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Three Edgar Wright Films: Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Baby Driver

To the degree that the separation between comedy and drama remains relevant (or honest as far as award showology is concerned), Edgar Wright’s films generally gets placed in the comedy category which might be giving them short shrift. His genre parodies have a certain lightness to them when compared to the real thing but to call them laughter-inducing isn’t an accurate word (unless, of course, you are finding it ha-ha funny on first viewing). The only problem with shortchanging him is that there are so many other words to describe the unique appeal of Wright’s unique works:  kinetic, visually inventive, comfortable to genre watchers, and affectionate. And yes, there’s a decent amount of pure dramatic sediment that drives his stories first.  

The two films I’ve seen prior to Baby Driver- Hot Fuzz (2007) and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) - are cacophonies of sound and action. The former is a buddy cop parody on overdrive. Like a Terry Gilliam film, the biggest draw is its visual invention. Like a kid playing with the rewind and forward buttons on a tape recorder (only a thousand times better), Wright’s affection for his subject is matched, perhaps overshadowed, by his love for telling a story. Simon Pegg’s arc - a determinator cop who needs to loosen up a little – hits its emotional notes but it’s more of a soft landing.

Scott Pilgrim is a hybrid adaptation of a comic and a cross-medium exploration merging conventions of films and video games. Michael Cera plays the titular character. He’s a bassist in a band and a hopeless romantic and despite looking and sounding like Michael Cera, he finds relatively good-looking women willing to date him and is considered hip amongst his small circle of friends in his small town (did I mention that the film is set in Toronto, the fourth largest city on the continent!?). Pilgrim finds an appropriate emo girl of his dreams but things start getting surreal when her seven exes show up and he must defeat them in videogame combat which is where the majority of the cool visual trickery comes in.

For some odd reason, everyone in the film is a manic pixie dream something (whether roommate, bandmate, sibling, standard Aubrey Plaza character or ex-girlfriend): Everyone in his life is incessantly interested in the news of his love life without ever having a need to share news of their own with him. Perhaps if the film is a meta-commentary on how video games are an exercise in egocentric empowerment, it’s fitting that Scott Pilgrim is at the center of his own universe. The mythology of this filmic universe is rich with parallels to video games that add a layer of depth and richness to the story. There’s also a thru-line of symbolism here about how romantic courtship with a damaged partner involves a metaphorical fight against their baggage. In short, there’s a lot of depth here. On top of that, it’s a movie about a guy asking a girl to love him (or whatever that line from “Notting Hill” is).

Like Wes Anderson and “Grand Budapest Hotel” or Richard Linklater and “Boyhood”, “Baby Driver” is the kind of film that has the potential to make Edgar Wright a player in the awards season and cement his place as an acclaimed director (again, as far as awards matter). Like the band OK Go’s YouTube career, Edgar Wright’s technical expertise is used for an entirely different magic trick: In this case, it’s attempting to stage the most ambitious car chases ever seen without use of green screen. At the same time, the film is rich with character work: Miles AKA Baby is an original creation with deep back story and the work by John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey and Lily James builds up the support significantly. More importantly, there’s a deep emotional component at play with Baby’s newfound love, his good will towards innocent civilians in dangerous situations, the hole in his life from his late mom, his care for his foster dad, and his emotional coming-of-age as a man of moral character. Baby's final surrender isn't just a nice combination of sound and music but something of an emotional meaning. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Last Minute Emmy Wish List in the Comedy Categories

Here are some last minute predictions for the Oscars in the comedy categories using only shows I've seen. Seven shows get nominated in the comedy category and in the writing and directing categories the shows generally go to specific episodes. In this case, I listed overall writing and directing and then picked twelve episodes I really liked in hopes of picking them up. On the drama side, I don't really have many hopes except hoping that Bates Motel gets honored and that Aubrey Plaza gets a supporting nod in Legion.

Best Comedy
Good Place
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Trial and Error
The Real O’Neals
Lady Dynamite
Schitt’s Creek
Those Who Can’t
BoJack Horseman

The Good Place
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Trial and Error
Dirk Gentley’s Whollistic Detective Agency
I Love Dick

Dirk Gentley’s Whollistic Detective Agency
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The Good Place
BoJack Horseman
Trial and Error

Lead Actor:
Hank Azaria, Brockmire
Randall Park, Fresh off the Boat
Pete Holmes, Crashing
Eugene Levy, Schitt’s Creek
John Lithgow, Trial and Error
Andy Daly, Review

Lead Actress:
Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie
Maria Bamford, Lady Dynamite
Kathryn Hahn, I Love Dick
Constance Wu, Fresh off the Boat
Kristen Bell, The Good Place
Amanda Peete, Brockmire
Ellie Kemper, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Supporting Actor:
Danny DeVito, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Fred Melamed, Lady Dynamite
Sam Waterson, Grace and Frankie
Kevin Bacon, I Love Dick
Tituss Burgess, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Ted Danson, The Good Place

Supporting Actress:
Martha Plimpton, Real O’Neals
June Diane Raphael, Grace and Frankie
Lauren Lapkus, Crashing
Mary Steenburgen, Last Man on Earth
Jayma Mays, Trial and Error
Catherine O’Hara, Schitt’s Creek

Guest Actor:
Adam Scott as Trevor, The Good Place
Daveed Diggs as Perry, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Ray Liotta as Paulie Fiuccillo, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Stephen Tobolowsky as Jack Barker, Silicon Valley
Aasif Mandvi as Parshwall, Another Period
John Gemberling as John Hancock, Making History

Guest Actress:
Cheri Oteri as Cattie Goodman, Those Who Can’t
Annie Mumulo as Jill Kwatne-Adelman nee Kwatne, Lady Dynamite
Christine Rose as Josie Davis, Trial and Error
Ramona Young as Allison, The Real O’Neals
June Dianne Raphael as Eleanor Roosevelt, Another Period
Sandy Martin as Mac's mom, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Twelve Best Episodes
"Juan Likes Rice and Chicken" Documentary Now-An absurdist take down of high-end dining involving a Colombian restaurant in the middle of nowhere and the half banana, rice, and chicken dish that drives people wild
"Chadwick’s Angels" Making History-"Time travel with idiots" was the basic gist of this under-rewarded series and few plots were as superfluous as a guy traveling back to the 1980's just to complete an ice cream challenge he failed as a middle schooler. The episode ends with some impressively heavy time travel conundrums.
"Kimmy Goes to College" Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt-The episode features Kimmy Schmidt reuniting with her one true frenemy Xan and surreptitiously finding herself in college while Titus and Mikey end their relationship on the sweetest of terms. 
"Real Secrets" Real O’Neals-The season finale is a high stakes episode with a possible marraige proposal and pregnancy scare. More importantly it ends with Eileen using all her collected wisdom as a recovering homophobe to win over Allison's disapproving parents. Like many of the show's episodes, it ends with the appropriate "aw" moment
"Always an Oscar Bridesmaid" Documentary Now-Fred Armisen's love of quirk combined with the show's love of milking out little details of derivation from the original story result in a a great season finale about a man who Forrest Gumps his way through the last 50 years of Hollywood Awards history.
"The Gang Tends Bar" It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia-Of all the adventures the gang has tried, they've never done one where the gang simply does their jobs.
"Jason Mendoza" Good Place-The cliffhanger for the last episode is that the buddhist monk is, in fact, Jason Mendoza but we had no idea he was this stupid and fun. One of the season's big shockers.
"Eight Mile High"Those Who Can’t-Abby joins a gang and Loren enters the world of freestyle rapping. It's about as hard-core (and oblivious) as these characters. Also earns points for being so politically incorrect it comes back to satire (either that or dumb fun)
"Prince and the Pauper" Another Period-A prince comes to Bellacourt manner seeking a bride. The episode's an excuse for Lillian and Beartice to unleash their most awful traits and for Peepers to get schooled in the art of butlership. And poor, poor Blanche.
"Michael’s Gambit" The Good Place-AKA The episode with the big twist
"That’s Too Much Man" BoJack Horseman-BoJack's demons become completely unhinged in this time-skipping episode that pairs BoJack with old costar (and on-again off-again) friend Sarah Lynn. It's an episode where BoJack reaches some odd level of self-discovery with a person who has always been important to his life in an odd way that appropriately ends tragically. Happiness is fleeting indeed.

"Fish Out of Water" BoJack Horseman-The visually splended underwater episode that was talked about everywhere on the blogosphere.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orphan Black Season 1 Notes: My Introduction to Clone Club

Credit: BBC America

I recently started watching Orphan Black and have been racing against time to watch the series in the present by the Season finale. In less than three weeks, I have seen three entire seasons of the show and have taken some notes as I've progressed. I took the liberty here in these notes of annotating based on what I know at the end of the third season. 

-Similar to “Terminator” or one of those fish-out-of-water Hitchcock films (“North by Northwest” and “39 Steps” are the most famous examples), the pilot cleverly layers itself with other genres over the hard science-fiction. There’s a stolen identity charade, a underground crime angle, and a buddy cop dynamic.
-The pilot doesn’t have a lot of up-front exposition either but that’s because it has a lot of action. The show gets a lot of mileage out of one hour. Sarah’s status as an orphan, ward of Mrs. S and mother to a little girl named Kira are not things that we know automatically and a lot of things are pieced out as we go along. True, there are some sloppy exposition bombs being dropped, but it’s preferable to slowing down the pace.
-As for the exposition on Paul and Art’s storylines, there’s even less time to establish anything but it’s mostly from the POV of Sarah. Virtually the only character trait we really know about Sarah is that she’s far less disoriented than she should be under this situation
-When watching this on Amazon Prime, you can use the x-ray feature to see when Tatiana Maslany is playing Beth or Sarah and that’s helpful. It’s almost a cheat sheet

Second Episode:
-I’m kind of tired of artistic people like Felix living in swanky lofts that are clearly designated as storage space and not living space (see “New Girl” or “Friends”)

-If Sarah was this intelligent, studious, and amazing at improvising social interaction, you think she would have been employed somewhere with a high paying job already? I have yet to see a TV character that fits in the overlapping space in the venn diagram of drifter and stoner

-Allison is kind of a jerk, yes, but she also sticks out because she doesn’t want to volunteer exposition to Sarah like everyone else.

-The actor who plays Art is emoting so much, it borders on parody. The science-fiction here is layered over other genres but very little effort is expended to make Art’s dialogue not sound like the standardest of standard cop speak.

-I’m also not particularly cool with Art’s confiscation of Beth’s money. Sure, it moves the plot along (or rather, keeps it in an amenable holding point) but it’s wrong on so many levels. If Art is trying to make sure his partner is getting her life back together, how is s—t not going to hit the fan when Paul finds out that $70,000 has been stolen from her account.

-It’s taking a while to get into my head that this show is supposed to be Canadian (the Ontario license plate is tipping me off). Because of Felix and Sarah’s heavy accents and the British punk aesthetic, I was confused for a while as to where this was set. This still leaves questions of how two young adults have not sufficiently been acculturated enough to the Ontario landscape to adopt the accent.

Third Episode:
-Sweet catharsis: Things are finally explained! Here’s what I’m most wondering. I’m more or less watching this in a vacuum, for others guys how much of the clone plot did you know in advance of this reveal?
-Finally, things get a little easier for Sarah! This is a show like “Americans” “Prison Break” or “Breaking Bad” were all kinds of disparate people and organizations are conspiring against one person in entirely different directions to make their life near impossible. It’s in Episode three, that the impossible starts to feel possible. (Ed. Note: Apparently, there’s A LOT more to learn, I was so young and foolish back then to think I was close to learning the truth here)
-Where did Allison come from? She moved her family to Toronto or she was already there?

-I wonder if it alludes to Sarah’s past life that she is adept at flirting to get what she wants with men

-With all her secrets and her mission, why did Beth acquire a live-in boyfriend like Paul?

-Allison strikes me as one of those annoying uber-moms. “I have kids, I’m important!” is her mantra (Ed. Note: This later gets majorly dropped. Allison also clearly has the ability to enjoy and do things for herself. I dub her in later seasons)
Fourth Episode:
-Sarah: Paul is dead weight. Dump him ASAP. I would even recommend killing him and disposing his body for all that is at stake

-Why doesn’t Sarah just get “Beth” relegated to the desk as fast as possible? Thee less “work” she has to do the better.

-Helena reminds me of Paul Bettany in the Da Vinci code (Ed. Note: apparently, with her religious upbringing there’s a reason for this)

-As someone who did a semester at the University of Minnesota, the campus does not look like that, but it’s kind of nice to see my sort-of alma mater referenced in television. Much of the show’s hard-core science comes through Cosima and there’s something to be appreciated about the prevalence of a TV character whose dialogue could legitimately be believed as real science as opposed to technobabble

The Rest of Season 1:
On the whole, I think this show and is up there with the best dramas on TV. It's a situation where the protagonist is dealing with pressures from 8 or 9 disparate parties that are trying to kill, extort, expose or use them in some other bad way and they have to keep them all at bay with different sets of lies. “Prison Break”, “The Americans”, some of the serialized storylines in “Burn Notice”, and “Breaking Bad” are examples of this, but there’s a lot to be said of how the protagonists are flexible enough to alter their game plan rather than stick to a mantra of “no, we're never telling anyone anything" and a lot of the show's turns are about revealing truths to different parties as they go on and playing some of these parties who are now in-the-know off each other in strategic ways
In short, it’s a show that differs in that it’s not about characters trying to define themselves through deception of society. Rather, the show builds positively among its characters through openness (sharing of “the big secret”) as time moves on. C

Other Notes: 
-I still think Art isn't played by the best actor, and I’m glad he’s a bit more out of the picture. At least Angie is more outwardly a jerk to others (and Sarah's line "bite me" was one of the best moments of the season)
-I like the budding Allison/Felix relationship. Allison is an adequate character, so far, but not great. I didn't really buy her fall from grace and while she talks about her family a lot in the beginning, bucan't even remember offhand the names of her adopted children.
-Aynsley's death was horrible to witness and hard to excuse. It's really just not human natural instinct if you're not a murderer to let someone die like that. Aynsley never got dealt a good hand in the events of this show. She kind of reminds me of those shallow nosy rich suburban housewife archetypes TV generally likes to diminish to some form of evil but I'd like to think shows like “Desperate Housewives” tried to play with those misconceptions. In any case, it’s interesting to note that unlike shows that feel the need to kill off characters just to keep the suspense going, there’s no such pressure with “Orphan Black”
-My crush on Delphine knows no bounds
-Badly needed: Cosima's origin story. Who are her parents? At what point did she find out she was a clone?