Friday, November 27, 2015

Spotlight makes the mundane riveting

Journalism isn't an inherently cinematic profession.  After all, nailing down a story, researching the details, and hashing out a piece doesn't exactly lend itself to a dramatic viewing experience.  Those elements can be employed as seasoning on top of a film's structure, but it's rare that they can sustain themselves when they're asked to be the film's structure.  Like Zodiac and All the President's Men before it, Spotlight is a bold exception, managing to spin an engrossing yarn of a narrative out of the journalistic process.

The story follows "Spotlight," a branch of the Boston Globe that focuses on long-term investigative pieces, and their real-life efforts to uncover the widespread pattern of sexual molestation of children within the Catholic Church in 2001.  Spurred on by the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team (Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d'Arcy James) set forth on interviewing alleged victims and lawyers in past settlement cases in order to get to the bottom of this institutional corruption.  Spotlight fights against any kind of assumptions one would make when approaching a film about this story.  It's a movie about the grind of journalists, but it's absolutely riveting; an investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic church that ends up being one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the year.

Most of that comes from writer/director Thomas McCarthy's lively script, which he co-wrote with Josh Singer.  He exhibits the same terrific ear for dialogue that he did in previous gems like The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win.  Spotlight is full of little conversational touches that you rarely ever hear in movies, but happen all the time in real life.  And McCarthy knows how to move the story along too.  There's a lean forward momentum to the film, and as the investigation just keeps cracking open wider, the audience is right there with the characters, marveling at every introduction of an additional piece of damning evidence.  

There's an authenticity on display that makes it feel like a love letter to journalism, maybe even the last full breath of print media.  Little details spring out about the state of the Globe, its relation to the competition, and the painstaking steps that go into carving out a story.  We see characters running around to procure important documents, attempting to follow leads to the very end of the line, and scribbling notes furiously on a pad as new information is revealed to them.  This is a film about process, which sounds dry -- and McCarthy films it with a clear, unfussy visual sensibility -- but that's only because he knows the story is so compelling and the writing has enough inertia to carry itself.

That's not to say that Spotlight isn't interesting visually.  McCarthy makes a variety of smart choices that let us know that stakes of this story, strictly from the way he frames scenes.  Just look at the way every street shot of Boston shows how tight-knit this community is.  We get a sense of how this scandal could exist just below the surface for so long, why even after all that has happened, people are willing to let most of it get swept under the rug.  We see the way churches loom over every street; the power of the church is evident in almost every frame.  That's pretty much Spotlight's modus operandi, it's so restrained and controlled that it never goes for any boldfaced declarations.  There are no forced stakes or sentimentality, just subtle, effective drama.  It's an important story that never puffs its chest out about it, which is what makes it feel even more important.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Flesh and Bone

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays at 8:00 PM on Starz

Going into 2015, Starz's dark ballet drama Flesh and Bone was one of my most anticipated new shows of the year.  Part of that was due to its pedigree, which boasted show-running from Moira Walley-Beckett (most famously known for writing Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias" episode), a pilot directed by David Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover, Enlightened), and cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, True Detective).  Part of it was caused by fierce longing for my beloved Bunheads and the desire to see something -- anything -- involving ballet, even if the similarities stopped there.  But as time passed, hesitance began to mingle with that excitement.  First, there was the news that the show had been changed into an eight-episode limited series: rarely a good sign for something initially conceived to run for multiple seasons, but especially ominous for a show on a network known for renewing series for additional seasons before the previous one has even aired any episodes.  Then there's been the uniformly negative tweets about the show from TV critics in the past few weeks.  It was looking like Flesh and Bone was going to be the biggest disappointment of the year.

Now that I've seen the pilot, I don't think it's the dud everyone is making it out to be.  In fact, I quite like what I've seen so far.  Much credit is due to those involved with this project who made me excited about it in the first place.  Though Walley-Beckett isn't able to exhibit the storytelling chops she showed on Breaking Bad yet, there's some solid, impactful dialogue in this initial episode.  (Occasionally it devolves into too much "fuckity fuck," but that's to be expected on Starz.)  And the partnership of David Michod and Adam Arkapaw gives the pilot a muted look, but one that is crisp and beautiful nonetheless.  Flesh and Bone provides a gritty, insider's look at the fascinating world of ballet.  Best of all, it feels real and authentic, probably helped by the fact that all of the actors are also professional dancers.  Michod shoots all the important details with precise close-ups, as we see toenails fall off, shoes come apart at the seams, and limbs stretch in impossible directions.

The moments where actual dancing occurs are absolutely breathtaking.  There's a poetry to the way these bodies are able to move, and when the story falls away to simply showcase this artistry is when the pilot is at its best.  Unfortunately, the further it gets away from the action -- as it does more often than you would like -- the less successful it becomes.  We're introduced to main character Claire (Sarah Hay) as she escapes an unsatisfying life in Pittsburgh to try out for the American Ballet Company in New York.  She's an archetype we've seen again and again, and the "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed newbie gets turned out by the seedy world she enters" arc feels a little by-the-numbers.  Along the way, there's a detour into a storyline about an exotic dance club, and it almost seems like we spend more time there than in the ballet studio.  There's also some material involving the homeless man (Justified's Damon Herriman) who lives outside of Claire's apartment.  Oh, and because this is Starz, there's tons of sex and nudity.  But the whole time, you'll wonder when you're going to get back to the real goods: the ballet.

Critics have had some problems with the series' tone, many tossing around the phrase "misery porn" to describe it.  They certainly aren't wrong to apply that label, but the show doesn't deserve all of the negative connotation that comes with it.  So far this show seems relentlessly bleak, piling on as many "dark cable drama" trappings as possible, but at least it's grim in a compelling way.  It's that mixture of being dour but digestible that makes Flesh and Bone so fascinating.  At least for now, the show seems like its reaching for something, and though it could fall flat on its face in the next seven weeks, it's interesting enough that I'm more than willing to give it a twirl.

Grade: B

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Thank Your Lucky Stars: Beach House's 2nd album in 2 months

Beach House seem like a slow and methodical band.  Each of their first four albums came out two years between one another, and it's easy to imagine them using that entire timespan to carefully craft their precise, insular tunes.  That's why it was so shocking a month ago when the band announced via Twitter that they were going to be releasing a new album only two months after the release of their excellent Depression Cherry.  Even as the release date inched closer on the calendar, Thank Your Lucky Stars still felt unreal.  Could it be?  Did they really have another set of new songs that they were ready to unleash on the world?

Well, Thank Your Lucky Stars is here and feels nothing like a toss-off either.  These tracks are just as tight and meticulously constructed as the ones on Depression Cherry, unlocking themselves slowly over the course of many exploratory listens.  In a way, the record feels like vintage Beach House, if such a thing exists.  When discussing the duo back in their early days, I often described their music as "Halloween meets Valentine's Day."  Over the years, they slowly scraped off the Halloween half until all that remained was huge, gauzy dream pop.  Thank Your Lucky Stars makes an effort to bring the balance back, and it's a refreshing return.  When's the last time we heard something like the spooky, vaguely sinister "She's So Lovely," or the croaking synth lead of "Common Girl"?  In recalling those older sounds, the band really emphasizes just how far they had progressed away from it, putting to bed those notions that they've been making the same album over and over.  Beach House finds a way to carve out distinct plots in a single sonic space, and this album is no different.

In the tweets that announced Thank Your Lucky Stars, the band wrote, "We are very excited, it's an album being released the way we want.  It's not a companion to Depression Cherry or a surprise or b-sides."  It's true too, this album is not an afterthought or a series of songs that weren't good enough to make it on an album with the typical promotional cycle.  In fact, the songs on Thank Your Lucky Stars don't sound like they were made in the same sessions, or even the same head space, as Depression Cherry.  Still, it's hard not to think of the ways these two records contrast and complement each other.  The songs on Depression Cherry feel more glossy and blown-out, they're constructed to be so large you can't wrap your arms around them to hold them down.  This album is made up of tracks that feel more tangible -- it's the darker, dustier cousin of what we heard a few months ago.  Songs like "One Thing" or "Elegy to the Void" may crack open in their second halves, but it's nothing like the swirl of a "PPP."  That doesn't mean this record is less enjoyable, it just holds its pleasures closer to its chest.

Some critics have been acting like this album is ruining the band's mystique, that coming so shortly after Depression Cherry diminishes it in some way.  But honestly, it makes this album even more of an achievement, in that it shows off Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally's ability to create two distinct, but equally compelling records without needing to come up for air or reset themselves.  I've heard people referring to this as "minor Beach House."  But I've also heard Thank Your Lucky Stars itself, and it's another set of beautiful, emotionally overwhelming songs.  There's nothing minor about it.

Pilot Talk 2015: Week of 10/25/2015

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Supergirl (CBS, Mondays at 8:00 PM)
Superheroes are beginning to flood TV as much as they have been flooding the movie market over the last few years, to the point where there's a show to scratch each itch you may have as a viewer.  Arrow's got the whole brooding Nolan-esque vibe covered, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is often a superhero-adjacent spin on something like G.I. Joe or The A-Team, and The Flash delivers a straight-from-the-comics level of splashiness.  Supergirl; created by Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Ali Adler; is CBS' effort to finally enter the game, and it ends up filling its own unique niche as well.  Though Berlanti is also responsible for Arrow and The Flash, Supergirl winds up feeling much more like his non-superhero shows (Everwood, Jack & Bobby) that just happens to have a super-powered individual at the center of it.

That individual is Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), who comics-savvy viewers will know as Superman's cousin.  She was sent down to Earth to protect him, but complications led to her landing years later and being raised as a normal girl by the family who found her.  As present-day Kara, who's currently working at a media conglomerate while trying to hide her powers, Benoist is a real superstar.  Some are going to find her performance a little too much, but it's absolutely great.  She's all wide, darting eyes; nervous laughter; and wild gesticulating -- it's hard not to be charmed by it.

There are some rough spots to the pilot, that keep it from being wholly successful, like the interminable exposition dump required to get to the jumping-off point of the show.  However, the zippy Silver Age tone of the episode sweeps you away in a fashion that makes those flaws easier to swallow.  Even the special effects, which seem a little chintzy at first, begin to feel deliberately stylized in a way that's perfect for a series like this.  A few fight scenes are peppered into the pilot and they've got a surprising amount of heft to them, which is pretty essential for anything relating to Superman or Supergirl.  It may seem like critics are placing a lot of hope into the idea of what Supergirl can be, but the pilot itself is pretty enjoyable on its own too.
Grade: B+

Wicked City (ABC, Tuesdays at 10:00 PM)
Must we keep doing this?  Wicked City, ABC's period piece about the seedy streets of the Sunset Strip in 1982, is another one of those shows about how killing is sexy.  It's not really about that -- it's about a serial killer named Kent Grainger (Ed Westwick) and the detectives (Jeremy Sisto and Gabriel Luna) investigating his murders -- but it secretly is.  Kent's first kill occurs while he's receiving a blowjob from a woman, and the rest of the violence in the pilot is similarly sexualized, which the show thinks is tantalizing but it's actually just gross and boring.  Nothing feels fresh as cliches abound, such as Kent's penchant for making women be as still as corpses while he's having sex with them.  Along the way, he meets Betty Beaumontaine (Erika Christensen) a woman who's got a "killer's instinct" and -- you guessed it -- just needs somebody to bring it out of her.  On the other side of the episode is the standard police procedural stuff, which ends up being even less surprising than the proto Bonnie and Clyde routine that Westwick and Christensen are doing.  What a plodding, misshapen episode this is.  It has all the momentum of a slug.  There's so much set up that by the end, it doesn't feel like a satisfying hour of television that can stand on its own.  It's more like a fragment of a story.  A really bad fragment.
Grade: D

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Mondays at 8:00 on The CW

Who would have thought that Pushing Daisies would have so much influence?  Bryan Fuller's cancelled-too-soon gem seemed like an outlier when it was on the air, what with its quirky flights of fancy, flowery narration, vivid color palette, and cheery optimism with a dash of macabre.  But more than five years after the show concluded its run, we're starting to see its roots take hold.  You could find many of Daisies' signature qualities in last fall's breakout hit, Jane the Virgin, a zippy spin on telenovelas that features a "Latin Lover Narrator" and onscreen comments via typewriter print.  And you can see even more of its influence in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the new show that The CW is smartly pairing with Jane the Virgin.

Like Jane, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a title and premise that make passersby think that it's going to be terrible, but it actually turns out to be one of the most refreshing and effervescent shows on television.  The premise in question involves a woman named Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom, who also co-wrote the pilot) who uproots her hectic life as a lawyer in New York to follow Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), a guy she had a fling with 10 years ago at summer camp, back to his small hometown of West Covina, California after she randomly bumps into him on the street.  Bloom is absolutely magnetic, and she's a large part of why this pilot works so well.  She's got a springy energy that brings her character's neuroses to the forefront in a way that's both endearing and entertaining.

The whole episode itself has a pep to match its lead, moving along like its been pumped full of caffeine, jokes and songs flying at the audience a mile per minute.  But there's also a deep undercurrent of sadness that runs through Ex-Girlfriend, this idea that Rebecca has to just keep charging forward because any hint of slowing down would cause her to come to grips with the fact that she's depressed and completely obsessed with some guy that she barely dated when she was 16 years old.  Before leaving New York, Rebecca constantly sees an ad centered around the question "When was the last time you were truly happy?," and you get the sense that she's only fixating on Josh because she associates him with the last time in her life that she felt real joy.  That's some dark stuff for a musical comedy to be grappling with, but it completely works.

Marc Webb stepped behind the camera to direct the pilot, and more so than anything he's done in a while, this feels like the perfect use of his talents.  The episode really pops visually, its bright colors and elaborate detail complementing the zany energy of the writing and performances.  Webb made his bones directing music videos, so there's an authenticity and high-production value to musical interludes like the endlessly entertaining "Sexy Getting Ready Song."  Not to mention the fact that the big number in the first half of the episode resembles the iconic song-and-dance scene from his debut feature film, (500) Days of Summer.

This was originally a Showtime pilot that was apparently much raunchier (even containing some kind of blowjob scene), but you can't really tell that the pilot was toned down in any way.  Its chipper, sunny vibe feels like it was always meant for The CW.  You can tell there was editing for length more so than for content.  The original incarnation of the first episode was 30 minutes, but it had to be bumped up to fit the hour-long standards of The CW (though without commercials it stands at a slim 39 minutes and 55 seconds).  As a result, there are times where the structure of the episode doesn't seem as sound, especially in the second half when a few scenes start to feel like they're lasting a beat or two too long.  Yet it's not enough to knock the episode down any pegs.  This is by far the best pilot of the very weak fall season.

Grade: A-

Addendum: Because I'm a failure -- a busy and tired failure! -- this review is coming a week late, which gave me some time to watch the next episode as well.  Second episodes for shows like this are crucial, because these high-energy, tonally tenuous series tend to burn out very quickly.  I don't think this week's episode was as much of a mess as some critics seem to, but it certainly doesn't maintain the quality of pilot.  When a show has to churn out as many musical numbers as it seems like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is going to, some of them are bound to be clunkers.  And "I'm So Good at Yoga" was truly awful.  I also think the writers need to transition away from Rebecca's obsession with Josh being the show's only focus, especially since Josh is kind of dull.  Still, Bloom is so terrific and the show seems to be embracing its own dark weirdness, when it could have easily tried to become safer and more conventional.  It's going to be fun to see where this goes.