Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Late to the Party #11: HBO's War Trilogy

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around.

The miniseries is a slowly dying format.  They were first introduced to North American television around 1974 with the CBC's National Dream, and reached prominence with the format's first blockbuster hit in ABC's Roots.  For those first few years, the miniseries was primarily a way to adapt popular novels to the small screen, and they resulted in astronomical ratings success for the networks that aired them.  Through the 1990s, the format remained popular, especially during sweeps period, but around the 2000s they gradually started to wane as the television landscape changed.  Nowadays, you can still find a handful of them every year -- and some, like History Channel's Hatfields & McCoys, still produce high numbers -- but they've mostly been corralled to a very tiny number of networks.

One of those networks that still has the luxury of producing miniseries is HBO, whose latest foray into the form, Olive Kitteridge, premieres in a few weeks.  And when the words "HBO" and "miniseries" are mentioned in close proximity to one another, Band of Brothers is probably the first that comes to mind.  The Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg-produced series was a big deal at the time -- its budget of about $125 million made it the most expensive miniseries production at the time it was created -- and it was met with a popularity to match that hype.  In fact, its DVD box set is still one of the best selling of all time, having sold approximately $250 million worth.

True to its name, Band of Brothers is about brotherhood.  It tells the true story of Easy Company, a crew of paratroopers in World War II, following their journey from training in Curahee to victory in Europe.  Throughout its 10-episode run, we're constantly shown that the safety of the whole matters more than the safety of the individual.  These are men who will do anything to protect the guys they're fighting with, and no matter how dire any situation becomes, it's always slightly leavened by the fact that these people are in it together.  Though the cast is huge, and they initially seem like an amorphous mass of faces, the writers do a great job of giving each of them tiny flashes of characterization that are easy to identify with and latch on to.  (It certainly doesn't hurt that they're played by actors, such as Damien Lewis and Michael Fassbender, who would later go on to greater fame.)  These are high-stakes situations that Band of Brothers depicts, and seeing funny, likable characters thrown into them make them even more gripping.

There's an episodic quality to the series, passing from major military event to major military event with little interludes of downtime tucked between them.  It's in those action sequences where the Band of Brothers' blockbuster budget really starts to show.  There isn't much time wasted in getting to the fireworks factory either.  "Day of Days," the second episode of the series, depicts the events that occurred when Easy Company landed in Normandy, and it's a brutal, propulsive hour that features nonstop action.  All of it is excellently staged and edited too, as a flurry of bullets fly, dirt kicks up everywhere, and soldiers dash through trenches while dodging the carnage.  It hardly lets up from there either -- from the two big setpieces in "Carentan" to the botched operation in "Replacements," the first half of Band of Brothers is characterized by high-adrenaline, action movie running and gunning.

While the second half still contains some breathtaking action, it slows down and starts to really dig into single-character focus episodes.  Though every episode technically has one or two main characters, it's not until sixth episode, "Bastogne," that the format becomes sharper and more experimental.  The Battle of the Bulge is one of the most famous battles of World War II, so the choice to show it from the perspective of Easy Company medic Eugene "Doc" Roe was a risky, but ultimately successful one.  "Bastogne" gives an excellent insight into the difficulty of being a military medic.  Roe may not be a soldier, but he's right there running through the frontlines along with them, putting himself in harm's way to try and keep everyone alive.  But throughout the hour, the losses build (visually displayed by the pile of bodies that get higher every time Roe returns to a nearby post), and it's clear how futile the effort to save everyone is.  It's an unrelentingly bleak job that gets a spotlight in this unrelentingly bleak episode.

"Bastogne" may be a grim affair, but most of Band of Brothers is rimmed with a golden glow, despite the body count.  That's where Spielberg's influence really shines through, in its depiction of World War II as the Great War we're always told that it is.  You can see it in the reverent introductory segments at the beginning of each episode, which feature interviews with the real life versions of the members of Easy Company who were still alive at the time.  Characters are given brief moments of unlikability, but the series ultimately underlines how heroic they for fighting in the first place.  The war may have been perilous and terrifying, but it was also just and necessary.

If Band of Brothers was about why we fight, then 2010's The Pacific -- Hanks and Spielberg's spiritual successor to Band of Brothers, depicting the Pacific Theater of World War II -- is about why we shouldn't fight.  Fitting with the real history of the battles in the east, the depiction of war in The Pacific is far more brutal than in Band of Brothers.  At times, it feels more like a horror show than a war drama.  The malicious jungle, the endless rain, the torrents of blood, the piles of mutilated corpses, the small prospect of a victory -- every episode feels like 60 minutes of pure nightmare fuel.  It's so unrelenting and pummeling that it's hard to even believe that these events took place around the same time frame as the those portrayed in Brothers.

Narratively speaking, the series takes a different approach as well.  Where Band of Brothers told a story about a massive ensemble, The Pacific focuses on three main characters: Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and John Basilone (Jon Seda).  The former may contain the more endearing characters, but the latter was able to tap into the psychology of its leads with far greater success.  Over the course of 10 episodes, the series digs into the poetic tortured soul of Leckie, the green timidity of Sledge, and the action hero valor of Basilone.  And they all have wholly satisfying arcs, particularly Sledge, who becomes the closest thing the miniseries has to a true protagonist, as he transforms from a fearful rookie to a hardened Marine who has seen too much.

The rhythm of the story is much wavier than the relatively straightforward Band of Brothers too.  Since Leckie, Sledge, and Basilone were all in different regiments in the 1st Marine Division, even entering the war at different times, they're rarely ever in the same location.  Episodes ebb and flow, shifting the proportion of time each character gets, or sometimes devoting an entire hour to just one character and his regiment.  While it may take time to get accustomed to The Pacific's bobbing cadence, it builds nicely, concluding with one of the most powerful episodes of television I've even seen.  It's a post-war denouement, showing how the weight of the previous nine episodes has affected these characters, and it's quietly moving in a way that television rarely is.

Different in intensity and trajectory though they may be, The Pacific still feels like it's of a piece with Band of Brothers.  It's got the same high production values (another record breaking budget of $250 million), the same talking head segments that lead in to each episode, the same sense of Spielbergian prestige.  The Pacific is like Band of Brothers' darker, more soulful brother.

On the other hand, 2008's Generation Kill feels like an entirely different entity than Brothers and The Pacific, partially because it's not a production from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.  This miniseries comes from David Simon, hot off the end of his towering masterpiece The Wire, and he brings his journalistic sense of hyper-realism to the story of the U.S. Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the first phase of the Iraq War.  He even uses a Rolling Stone writer, Evan Wright (whose real-life counterpart wrote the book on which the miniseries is based), as his POV character.

Simon bring his worldview along as well.  If The Pacific questioned whether what the Marines were doing was worth it, Generation Kill is an interrogation looking to know if what these Marines had to do was even right.  Unlike World War II, the war in Iraq wasn't a just war, and David Simon uses that to his advantage, burying the series in the moral grayness he's so comfortable with exploring.  The enemy isn't just men in uniforms -- now there's the prospect of civilians pointing guns at the Marines as well.  Danger is at a higher level, which only widens the capacity for these men to do amoral or foolish things to score a "win."

With Generation Kill, David Simon took his pet themes about institutions and power structures and translated them to the Iraq War.  This is a world where there's a huge disparity between the people who make decisions and those who are ultimately effected by those decisions.  Leaders only care about numbers that will make them "look good," subordinates care about lives and making the smart move.  "Can you believe that retard is in charge of people?," one character says about his higher-up after a poor decision, and it's a major question that implicitly pops up through out the miniseries.  Most of the people in a position of power in the 1st Battalion are hypocritical, clueless, and blind to the point where it seems impossible that they got anywhere in life.  But really, that could be extrapolated to be about the American government at-large at the time.  Simon's hatred of the Bush Administration is palpable in Generation Kill.  As a writer, he has a habit of becoming a little didactic, but here he smartly puts his opinions in the mouth of Ray (brilliantly played by James Ransone), the doofus who nobody lends much of an ear to.  It's a way for Simon to get his point across without being preachy.

Instead of the brave, affable heroes we meet in Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Generation Kill presents many of the Marines as a bunch of meathead jocks.  They joke about shooting dogs for no reason, spout racist invective, and have very few qualms about the idea of killing innocent Iraqi citizens.  In another context, these would not be good people.  With a big gun and an American flag stitched on their uniforms, they're the protectors of our nation.

But the series is also notable for the subtle things it has to say about warfare.  Where The Pacific throws the war in Europe in stark relief by showing the nightmare of the Pacific Theater, Generation Kill draws constant comparisons between the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some of the characters even served in Afghanistan, and their time there never comes up without there also being a mention of how much smoother things ran there.  By comparison, the Iraq War is an absolute trainwreck.   When viewed in close proximity to the twin Hanks and Spielberg WWII series, it's easy to see how much war has changed over the decades.  The technology has advanced and the weapons have become so powerful that it's easy to kill an enemy without even knowing what they look like.  (It's ironic, then, that there aren't any deaths of any main or secondary characters in Generation Kill.  Lots of Iraqis sure do die though.)

With these three miniseries, HBO was able to make their own approximation of a blockbuster action film, complete with expansive casts and expensive action sequences.  We've seen all of the themes they explore before, but Band of Brothers ("war is fought by heroes!"), The Pacific ("war is hell..."), and Generation Kill ("why are we even here?") had the liberty of being seven to 10 episodes, allowing them to stretch out and dig in to those themes.  You just can't get that on the big screen.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Constantine

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.

Thursdays at 10:00 PM on NBC

No, not that Constantine.  NBC's Constantine is the latest in the line of new network dramas this fall that are based on comic books, but unlike Gotham or The Flash, its source material doesn't have anything to do with superheroes.  That source material is Hellblazer, the long-running series that follows occult detective John Constantine.  I've never read the comic, nor have I seen the 2005 Keanu Reeves film, so I don't have much of the built-in affection for the character that NBC was surely hoping for.  But while I'm not outraged about the fact that he can't smoke cigarettes or won't be bisexual the way that diehards are, it's not hard not to feel like this is Diet John Constantine.  Matt Ryan plays him with a suitably gruff roguishness, but the writing never really takes him any further.  Constantine just isn't much of a character at this point, and any attempt to deepen him in the pilot comes off as clumsy or ineffective.

Many flaws at the script level are made up for with the show's production values.  Neil Marshall, best known these days for his excellent work on the big battle episodes of Game of Thrones, directs the pilot and imbues it with a slick and cinematic style.  There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout the episode, mostly thanks to the way Marshall stages sequences and builds momentum.  The majority of the visual effects are solid for a TV budget, but even when the quality does flag a little bit, the handsome direction saves it.

It's very difficult to give a grade to Constantine, because many elements in the pilot -- both good and bad -- won't appear in the second episode.  The bulk of the plot in this first episode revolves around Liv Aberdeen (Lucy Griffiths), a character who was meant to be a regular until David Goyer and Daniel Cerone decided to go in a different direction with the show.  All of that backstory and exposition for her character goes down the drain as soon as the awkward re-shot scene that explains why she won't be joining Constantine's mission comes along at the end.  And of course, future episodes won't have the benefit of Neil Marshall behind the camera.  So who knows if the new character introduced in episode two will improve the show, or if the production values can maintain a high quality with other directors, but for now Constantine isn't the worst way to spend a Friday night.

Grade: B-

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Antonio's Anime Roundup #2

Though I originally planned to have this post up much sooner than, I'm finally back with another roundup of anime.  I started this recurring feature as a way of getting back into anime, an art form I was never too much of an expert on in the first place, but one that I had especially abandoned in recent years.  At this point, I'd consider myself a full-fledged anime fan.  Admittedly, there's much more chaff than wheat, but when you stumble across a series that's really good, watching it can be a uniquely rewarding experience.  This time around, I've once again watched and reviewed five different anime.  It's an interesting mix of shows from the most recent summer season, acclaimed shows from the last few years, and a series from over a decade ago.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 5 of Fall's TV Pilots

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.

The Affair (Showtime, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
There's no way to describe The Affair without it sounding prosaic, so I'm just going to skip the premise.  In fact, can I skip talking about plot altogether?  Just take my word for it when I say that this is by far the best pilot of the fall (to me, the gap between an A- and a B+ is wider than other gaps).  The show comes from Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, both of whom had a hand in HBO's In Treatment.  We don't talk about this enough, but In Treatment might be the most structurally daring shows of the past decade, and you'll be happy to know that The Affair has ambitions of its own. I didn't know much beyond a simple logline going into the pilot, so the series of upheavals that occur near the middle of the episode left me absolutely giddy.  The show is deeply invested in the nitty-gritty of truth, memory, and perception; and the process of unpacking the motivations of its characters is fascinating.  In doing so, it also implicates the viewer, causing them to question their own worldview as well.  I'm holding back on giving this a full A only because the pilot hints at the show possibly going in a direction that I'm not crazy about, but if it can avoid that pitfall, this is going to end up being something special.
Grade: A-

Jane the Virgin (CW, Mondays at 9:00 PM)
In order to enjoy Jane the Virgin, it's necessary to get past its silly premise.  Jane (Gina Rodriguez) is, well, a religious virgin who gets pregnant when she's accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of Rafeal (Justin Baldoni), a wealthy man who also happens to be her boss.  Not only is that setup horribly convoluted, but the moment of the insemination is even more goofy and illogical.  However, the show has a playful enough tone that it's easy to just roll with it.  Once that's out of the way, there's more than enough to enjoy about this pilot.  Above all else, there's Gina Rodriguez, who is spectacular and incredibly likable as Jane.  She's part of the reason why the show works as well as it does, able to play the comedic and heartfelt moments with equal aplomb.  It's also refreshing to have a show that depicts faith and virginity in a non-judgmental way.  Where lesser shows would be satisfied with a sex-negative worldview, Jane the Virgin chooses to have more nuance.  Jane isn't against sex -- one of the most interesting scenes implies that she and her boyfriend have had phone sex before -- she just has a different set of values that inform her decision to not engage in it until marriage.  So instead of the show's central question being "how long will Jane remain a virgin?," it asks bigger and better ones like, "how will Jane deal with this freak occurrence that happened to her"?  There may be one or two too many complications added to the mix, like Jane's fiancee having some sort of secret that his brother is threatening to uncover, or Rafael's wife being evil and scheming.  But otherwise, Jane the Virgin is a sweet, earnest, and funny little show.
Grade: B

Marry Me (NBC, Tuesdays at 9:00 PM)
Marry Me is about Annie (Casey Wilson) and Jake (Ken Marino), a long-term couple who are stumbling through their engagement period after a series of botched proposal attempts.  But here's the thing about Marry Me: It will not be about that for very long.  That's just one of the symptoms of a show from creator David Caspe.  After all, remember when Happy Endings started off as a show about how Alex left Dave at the altar on the day of their wedding, and then it moved away from that as quickly as possible?  As it stands now, the show is torn between its limiting premise and the hangout show it so clearly wants to be.  From a comedy standpoint, the softer NBC romcom style in the vein of A to Z is wrestling with the "fusillade of jokes" style that Caspe is known for.  There is some vintage Happy Endings gold in the pilot ("Ugh, I'm sweating like Shaq!"), but overall it's much more low-key.  That's a recurring theme of the episode, the feeling that the show is holding itself back.  For example, Ken Marino is one of the funniest comedic actors out there, but he's mostly relegated to playing the beleaguered straight man.  Still, this pilot is solid and charming, if a little flabby and shapeless.  Marry Me will almost certainly be one of the funniest network sitcoms on television if it lasts long enough, but it's just not there yet.
Grade: B-

Well, that concludes the fall round of Pilot Talk!  There are still some new shows slated to premiere (Constantine, The McCarthys, State of Affairs, Ascension), and I'll cover some of them, but they're spread out enough that there won't be any roundups of a week's worth of pilots until midseason.  Let's see the total tally of grades from the last five weeks.

A's: 1
B's: 9
C's: 8
D's: 4
F's: 1

Just for kicks, I looked at the tally from last year,'s nearly identical.  (Fall 2013's tally: A's = 1, B's = 9, C's = 8, D's = 3, F's = 2.)  Though I felt like I had become a much harsher grader this year, apparently that's not the case.  Overall, I'd call this a pretty solid fall.  There are a few shows that I've decided to keep watching based on the quality of their pilots, and a few shows whose pilots I didn't like as much that have greatly improved (be on the lookout for my "Selfie is the Greatest Show of All Time" thinkpiece).  I wouldn't be able to tell you whether or not something as torturous as The Mysteries of Laura was has gotten any better though.

Like last year, I'm incredibly burnt out from watching and reviewing all these pilots and I never want to do this again.  Somehow, though, I know I'm going to talk myself into it all over again in 2015.  Either way, I'm glad I can get back to writing about other things in the meantime.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Week 4 of Fall's TV Pilots

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.

Cristela (ABC, Fridays at 8:30 PM)
Cristela bears a few superficial similarities to a couple of other comedies premiering this fall.  Like Mulaney, it's a multi-camera sitcom based around the personality of a popular stand-up comedian.  Though I'm not familiar as familiar with Cristela Alonzo as I am with John Mulaney, her big, infectious personality makes a strong impression in this pilot.  And like Black-ish, the show has a distinct cultural identity, which proves to be its greatest asset.  Many of the show's best jokes are centered around Cristela and her family's status as Mexican-Americans, the joys and difficulties that come with it.  It's too bad, then, that the comedy falls flat in so many other respects.  Many of the jokes are too easy, too similar.  There just aren't many surprises when it comes to the comedy, with every other joke falling back on the same structure of somebody saying, "[statement]" and another character, usually Cristela, responding with, "No actually, [exact opposite statement]."  The multi-camera format lends itself well to the theatricality of the show, but also contributes to those problems with its obviousness.  Cristela is a flawed show, for sure, but it's easy to see it falling into a solid, comfortable rhythm just as its lead-in Last Man Standing did.
Grade: C+

The Flash (CW, Tuesdays at 8:00 PM)
The CW's latest effort in superhero programming, The Flash, has the benefit of built-in goodwill from its sister series, Arrow.  In the latter's second season, we were introduced to Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a bright-eyed forensics analyst from Central City, but better known as the guy who would eventually become The Flash.  There are even a few moments in the pilot of The Flash that we already saw in Arrow, depicting the catastrophic event that led to Barry getting his gift of super speed.  The first 10 to 15 minutes of this episode blaze through the origin story, often clumsily.  It's saddled with not-so-great voice-over, forced exposition that sets up his relationship with best friend Iris (Candice Patton), and an overall sense of familiarity.  Thankfully, things get much better after they're able to move past that, cutting to nine months later when Barry wakes up from his coma.  So much joy and wonder is infused in the scenes of Barry's discovery of his powers -- something that many superhero shows are lacking.  All of this is very goofy, no doubt, but deliberately so.  It certainly embraces its inherent comic book sensibility with greater success than Gotham, that's for sure.
Grade: B

Mulaney (Fox, Sundays at 9:30 PM)
I feel like now is as good of a time as ever to introduce a concept that I like to call "negative laughter."  It's the idea that bad jokes actually take away laughter, so that when a good joke comes around, you're not even in the mood to respond accordingly because you still have a bad taste in your mouth.  Mulaney's pilot has good jokes -- albeit very few -- but the episode builds up so much negative laughter that you'd be hard pressed to find the energy to enjoy the funny moments.  At this stage, the show is just way too broad, with hacky jokes and characters who amount to nothing more than vaguely offensive stereotypes.  Sitcoms are always more of a work in progress than dramas, so the show will most likely become funnier, but Mulaney has a bigger problem: its titular star.  John Mulaney simply can't act.  Multi-cam comedy requires a bit more of a heightened delivery, but Mulaney's style is just stilted and uncomfortable.  He's a funny guy, and I like his stand-up, but even those portions of the pilot don't work.  They're mostly just setups for more thin plotlines.  Surely, this is the most disappointing new show of the fall so far.
Grade: D+