Monday, March 19, 2018

Pilot Talk 2018: Rise

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.

Tuesdays at 9:00 PM on NBC

These days, there's an extreme dearth of great network dramas.  With all the different options of places to make content, there's not much incentive for talented creators to bring their ideas to a major network, where they are more likely to receive interfering notes and punishing episode counts.  But if there's anyone you can rely on to deliver a great network show in this day and age, it's Jason Katims.  He's responsible for two of the greatest network dramas of this century in Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, and his gift of elegantly channeling relatable human emotions into his three-dimensional characters fits well with the format.

Well whatever the great savior of network drama is, Rise is not currently looking like it.  Katims' latest show follows Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), a restless English teacher who wants to revitalize his high school's theater department by having them do Spring Awakening, and when he asks the principal whether he can take over the position of theater director it's immediately given to him, much to the dismay of the woman who currently holds the position (played by Rosie Perez).  This setup leads to one of the most glaring issues that plagues the pilot: it seems as if the show wants us to root for Lou and his quixotic quest, but he mostly just comes off like a jerk for steamrolling in and taking a woman's job.  Not only is it bizarre that he would be given the position in the first place, we're given no context or history that would make such a thing seem reasonable.

If that were the only issue with Rise, it would be easy to overlook, but unfortunately there are many moments in the first episode that erode all of the goodwill its creative pedigree establishes.  Though it may have surface similarities to Friday Night Lights -- the intimate handheld camerawork, the muted palette, people saying the phrase "QB1" -- Rise fails to capture that same sense of emotion.  It's loaded with cliches and broad characters, like the star quarterback who tries out for the musical or the mean girl with a chip on her shoulder, all of which have been done much better by shows that came before it.  None of the conflicts laid out so far are enough to buoy those characters either.

Another network comparison that comes to mind is obviously Glee, since both shows have a musical element and wear their hearts on their respective sleeves.  But Glee was working from a different tonal framework, which allowed viewers to accept its more ridiculous moments.  The hyper-realism of Rise's aesthetic makes it harder to roll with the idea that a high school would ever entertain the notion of the drama department putting on a rendition of the sexually explicit Spring Awakening.  And without that sense of playfulness that Glee had in its early going, the earnestness of Rise just comes off as saccharine and preachy.

Still, there are embers of promise in the show that make it worth sticking with.  Moana's Auli'i Cravalho is great as Lillette, the young ingenue who's given the lead part in the musical.  She's got a great screen presence, and her level of earnestness seems properly pitched enough to work where other attempts in the pilot don't.  And the high school setting at least provides an interesting ecosystem, one that could lead to some rich storytelling in the future.  It's hard to make any show work immediately, not to mention a network one, where you have to appeal to the widest swath of people possible.  Despite the rough start, it's easy to see Rise becoming a great show if it's given enough time to grow.  Katims has earned that benefit of the doubt by now.

Grade: C+

Sunday, March 4, 2018

2018 Academy Award predictions

Another year, another set of Oscar predictions.  This year's Best Picture race is as wide-open as it's been in a very long time, so I'm very worried about how I'll fare.  Either way, it should be a fun ride.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Favorites: January and February 2018

Favorites is a monthly feature that offers up quick thoughts on media, both new and old, that I've recently enjoyed.

Heat (1991)
I'm embarrassed to say that before last month I had never seen Heat, Michael Mann's crime epic in which Robert De Niro and Al Pacino become entangled in a cat-and-mouse game on opposing sides of the law.  It turns out the film lives up to the hype and more.  De Niro and Pacino are terrific, of course, but Mann is the one who elevates the film to its legendary status, imbuing the movie with a mythic quality that genuinely makes you ponder its musings on life and how we spend it.  Plus, the post-bank robbery shootout still might be the best that has ever been put to film.

Paddington/Paddington 2
Film Twitter was all abuzz about these films, and with good reason, because they are truly delightful.  Unlike everyone else, I'm slightly partial to the first movie, but both are heartwarming, funny, and astonishingly directed family films.

Kero Kero Bonito
I first became aware of KKB last year when Frankie Cosmos, one of my favorite artists, talked about her love of the band when she covered their song "Fish Bowl."  But I didn't get around to checking them out until this year, when I decided to listen to their album Bonito Generation and fell completely in love.  Their cutesy, playful style may not be for everyone, but if you can get on their level, you're in for music that's actually impressive on a sonic level (the amount of neck-snapping synth sounds on display in "Lipslap" is astonishing) and has some pretty thoughtful observations on that limbo period of semi-adulthood that is your 20s.  I haven't listened to TOTEP, their new EP that dropped last week, but they're one of the bands I'm most excited about now.

The Smiths singles and B-sides collections
I like the beginning of the year, because not many new albums have come out yet, and it gives me time to catch up on older music that I have been meaning to check out.  Despite being a fan of The Smiths' proper albums, I never listened to much of the singles collections like Hatful of Hollow, Louder Than Bombs, and The World Won't Listen.  And just as everyone has always been saying, they really do contain some of the band's best songs.  Most collections like these are inessential, but you're missing out if you've never heard songs like "Sheila Take a Bow" and "Unloveable."

Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
I had also never really listened to The Avalanche, an album of songs that didn't make it to Sufjan Stevens' masterpiece Illinois.  I love Sufjan's recent changes in style, but a part of me misses that lush orchestral sound he was working with during his 50 States project.  This record is very clearly a collection of outtakes, but even his toss-offs have a million interesting ideas in them, and something like "The Pick-Up" is up there with some of his best work.

American Vandal
There was something that irked me about American Vandal, which caused me not to watch it last year.  Even with all the effusive praise it was given, I was convinced I wouldn't like it, due to my general apathy for true crime shows and podcasts.  My stubbornness ended up being unwarranted, because I loved it once I finally watched it.  The show builds off of its premise -- excavating the ins and outs of the case of a bunch of penises being drawn on all of the faculty's cars in a high school parking lot -- and goes deeper and deeper into the silliness.  But it also delivers a story that's terrifically constructed, making great use of the engaging high school world it sketches out.

The End of the Fucking World
Every week there's a new Netflix show that the internet insists I have to watch.  The overwhelming amount of content makes me want to give up on checking any of them out.  If there's one to prioritize over the rest of the deluge, however, it's British import The End of the Fucking World.  The less said about it the better -- just know that it's got an extremely original voice and two fantastic performances from Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther.

Ellen Pompeo's Hollywood Reporter profile (article)
I never thought I'd be recommending an article about Ellen Pompeo, of all people, but the profile on her that came out earlier in the year was hilariously candid.  She's an icon.

Hayley Ever After (blog)
Hayley G. Hoover is one of my favorite internet people, and I've missed her work ever since she stopped making videos on Youtube.  Her new blog fills that HGH hole in my content diet.  Even when she's talking about things I think I won't care about, I always find myself lost in her delightful writing voice.

We Are Okay (novel)
I loved Nina LaCour's YA novel Hold Still when I was in high school, but I hadn't read any of her books since then.  Reading We Are Okay, her highly praised 2016 novel about a girl isolates herself in her freshman year of college after a traumatic event in the previous summer, felt like being greeted by an old friend.  LaCour's writing is so gorgeous, and even though this is a sparse story, it's also full of complex shades of love, grief, and loneliness.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A belated review of Black Mirror season 4

Becoming popular was the worst thing that ever happened to Black Mirror.  Not necessarily for the quality of the show, but for the internet itself.  Back when it wasn't easily accessible in America, it was more of a cult hit for those who did manage to track it down, so it felt like a small little secret to be a part of and enjoy.  But ever since it was made available on Netflix, with the promise of new episodes produced by the streaming service, it became a part of the zeitgeist, the thing that everyone talked about.  And whenever something becomes an addition to the cultural conversation, the floodgates open up for torrents of backlash.  Those who've been hearing others raving about it are ready to prove that it's not as good as everyone says, and even those who once loved it seem to be in a race to prove that they're smarter than the show.  Nowadays you can't see one pro-Black Mirror tweet without seeing 10 others that are just "what if iPhone but too much" memes and other reductive sniping.

What those not very clever jabs seem to miss is that Black Mirror succeeds because of the human element of its stories, not the technological factor.  The episodes usually have an interesting, new bit of tech them, but they use them as a launchpad for emotionally gripping tales about human beings wrestling with that technology.  It's not just a cynical show about technology being bad, it's often about how technology just reveals the worst parts of humanity that has always been there.

Even if it didn't have the quality to back it up, Black Mirror deserves credit for its high degree of difficulty alone.  It's not easy to create a completely new world, with its own rules and technology that dictate it, then tell a fleshed out story within that world in the span of an hour.  Charlie Brooker is a genius on the level of Rod Serling in the way he's able to constantly pull this off.  (Serling still has him beat of prolificacy though.)

So that disconnect, the one between the aims of the show and the snarky derision it's met with, had me a little burnt out on engaging with the Black Mirror.  I put off watching the show's latest season, which dropped on December 29 last year, not because I was no longer into it, but because the surrounding discourse made me feel like I wasn't as into it anymore.  Now that the hot takes have cleared, I've been able to watch season, and if there is anybody who still cares to hear about it, here are my thoughts on each of the latest episodes.

USS Callister
This is the closest I've seen to a consensus favorite of the season.  I can totally understand why -- it's got the double easy hook of riffing on Star Trek and also being a story about mostly marginalized people overcoming an angry white male gamer.  But aside from that easy pandering, it's also just a rock solid entertaining episode.  Black Mirror can lean on its grimness at times, but "USS Callister" works so well because it has a terrific balance of tones.  It's horrifying, funny, exciting, and it even has a happy ending.  But what's most fascinating about the episode is the moral and psychological implications it subtly examines.  Technically, these aren't the "real" versions of the people that Jesse Plemons' character is torturing.  In that way, it mirrors the detachment one can feel when enacting violence in video games.  It was smart of Brooker to start off with a crowd-pleaser like this.
Grade: A-

One of the biggest reasons why Black Mirror is so interesting is that it seems like everyone has a different idea of what the best version of the show is.  It leads to the wildly divergent opinions that we get on each episode every season.  For every person like myself who found "Shut Up and Dance" to be abysmal nastiness with nothing to say, there are people who thought it was terrific and tense.  All of this is a long way of saying that I, too, have a favorite mode of Black Mirror.  The show is at its best when it pares its story down to simple interpersonal drama, usually between two people.  "The Entire History of You," "San Junipero," and to a certain extent "Be Right Back" are all examples of that, and they're all in my top five favorite episodes of the show.  So it goes without saying that I thought "Arkangel" was a phenomenal episode of television.  I've seen some quibbles about the logic of the Arkangel technology, but none of that matters, because it served its purpose as a vessel through which the episode could examine the emotions between a fearful mother (played by the always excellent Rosemarie DeWitt) and her daughter.  It's an engaging story almost perfectly told, and that's all I want from the show.
Grade: A

Okay, I don't know what Charlie Brooker's obsession is with Nordic crime dramas, but I am not okay with it.  At least with last season's "Hated in the Nation," he married that gloomy procedural style with some delightful X-Files wackiness (ROBOT BEES!), but "Crocodile" has nothing to leaven its dreariness.  It starts with an inciting incident that feels completely divorced from believable human behavior, continues without giving the audience any reason to be interested in its characters, and worst of all, it features some truly underwhelming tech.  This is just a dull, drab affair that never has any sense of drama or tension.  The only thing that saves it from being a complete failure is that Andrea Riseborough is really giving it her all with her performance and Kiran Sonia Sawar's Scottish accent is very lovely.
Grade: D

Hang the DJ
I was enjoying the story of this one from the very beginning, but there were nagging questions about the world that made me feel like Brooker hadn't fully thought things out.  Do none of these people have friends or lives outside of the dates they go on?  What were they doing before they started this dating program?  Did they opt in or are you automatically put into the system at a certain point?  It turns out that I should never doubt the show in that regard, because the episode had consider all of that weirdness, and answers those questions with a reveal that isn't entirely surprising, but still completely satisfying.  "Hang the DJ" is an episode that really comes together with that ending.  Before that, it rides on Joe Cole and Georgina Campbell's crackling chemistry and the way concept of this dating system takes our algorithm-based, swipe-heavy dating culture to its logical extreme.  But the reveal that this was all not just a simulation, but a simulation that decides two people's actual compatibility, is what took it to the next level.  It certainly doesn't hurt to end your episode on "Panic" by The Smiths.
Grade: A

Even though Black Mirror has been around for six years and four seasons at this point, the show hasn't even had as many episodes as there were in the first season of The Twilight Zone.  So it still has a chance to expand on what an episode of Black Mirror can be, and that's really exciting.  That's a part of why "San Junipero" was such a hit -- not only was it a moving story, but it felt so unlike anything we had seen from the show at that point.  "Metalhead" functions in the same sort of way.  Never have we had an episode that's this daring in its sparseness and lean storytelling.  It's a survival story, simple but unrelenting, and it crafts some great sequences of stomach-churning suspense.  Though it throws the viewer into the deep end with little context, the episode has efficient details that clue you in to how things work.  (That scene with our protagonist stuck in the tree, trying to figure out the killer robot dog's sleep cycle, is a particularly ingenious sequence.)  The episode also features some of the best photography of the show yet, thanks to some glorious black and white work from David Slade and his DP.
Grade: A-

Black Museum
Remember how in 1941, Steven Spielberg's fourth feature film, he paid homage to Jaws (his own work) as if it was already a canonized classic?  It was actually pretty awesome and ballsy when he did it, but it feels like it's a little too soon for Black Mirror to be doing a rehash of old ideas.  With its triptych structure of mini-stories tied together by a framing narrative, "Black Museum" pretty obviously mirrors "White Christmas," but the mini-stories themselves also recall previous episodes.  The middle story felt alot like the middle story of "White Christmas," while the last one felt like a mixture of "USS Callister" and "White Bear."  The best story ended up being the one that was the most original -- the doctor who becomes addicted to pain was lots of fun to watch.  And even despite my story complaints, I like the campfire tale vibe of the museum owner telling these stories to Letitia Wright's character.
Grade: B

Overall this was a great season, one that was better and more memorable than the (still quite underrated) third season.  I would have almost been willing to make a case for this being the show's best season if "Black Museum" was a little bit stronger, even with the dreck that is "Crocodile" bringing things down.  Let's hope Netflix orders more episodes of this show.  Hearing people talk about it may be infuriating, but Black Mirror remains an absolute pleasure to watch.

Season 4 episode ranking
1. Arkangel
2. Hang the DJ
3. Metalhead
4. USS Callister
5. Black Museum
6. Crocodile

Sunday, January 14, 2018

In defense of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri

Around this time last year when we were deep in the throes of The La La Land Discourse, it seemed like we would never get anything more exhausting.  And yet, here we are in the midst of another bit of awards season backlash, this time with Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.  It's a film that I loved when it came out (enough to put it at number six on my Best of 2017 list a few weeks ago), and I've listened to the complaints about it with open ears and still find myself disagreeing with most of them.

Despite all of that, it's a movie for which I'm hesitant to come to a vocal defense, for a number of reasons.  1. The attacks against it feel so passionate and personal -- I've seen many reviews saying variations of "I don't trust you if you loved this movie" and "You're a bad person if you put this on your top 10 list" -- that I didn't want to wade into that sea of vitriol.  2. I don't want to invalidate the genuine hurt and pain people feel about this movie, because I understand and sympathize with that feeling.  3. This isn't exactly a movie that needs a defense.  After all, it's winning awards and many critics still love it.  But enough people I follow on Twitter and Letterboxd (and by enough, I mean 90%) hate it that I feel the need to at least put my thoughts out there, so people can get a measured response from the perspective of someone who has heard the complaints and has some things to say about them.

A few weeks ago on the podcast Get Up On This, there was a heated debate about Three Billboards, and I really liked what co-host Matt Robinson had to say about it, because I felt like somebody else finally came away with the same perspective that I did and was able to articulate it very well.  Essentially, he explained that the movie was such an exquisite representation of what it feels like to be in America in 2017.  The anger, the confusion, the cruel treatment of marginalized groups -- all of it.  McDonagh is a British man, but he uses his outsider status to take a look at the state of our nation from his distance and say "Look at this terrifying, grotesque comedy," and then proceed to give us a movie that matches that thesis.

To do so, McDonagh works in a mode where he uses heightened dialogue and broad characters in order to force the audience to think more about how they stand in stark contrast with the actual issues he's trying to examine.  Part of the criticism of Three Billboards seems to be rooted in the fact that many people are taking the film at face value.  The movie is racist because the racist characters don't get a comeuppance, the movie is sexist because its female characters are portrayed in a sexist light, the movie has bad dialogue because nobody talks like that.  But that's not the way a stylized work is supposed to function and be assessed.  If you take a Douglas Sirk film at face value, you'll likely come away from it thinking that it's bad too.  McDonagh may be working with something that has a more realistic veneer, but in the end he's still attempting to do the same thing.  If you acknowledge that and still think it sucks, then fine, that's just a matter of taste.  But I've seen so many bad faith takes on the movie that it feels like people watched an entirely different film.  This is the guy who gave us In Bruges!  Hasn't he earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt that he didn't make something as dumb and racist as people are saying it is?

I've tried to read as many negative reviews as possible and compile the gripes that popped up most frequently, so I could offer my thoughts on them.  I won't be addressing any complaints that are primarily taste-based, because it's hard to offer a rebuttal to "the plot is bad" with anything other than "I didn't think so."  This post isn't meant to change anybody's mind, as I don't imagine it will.  But there are so many people out there who are asking themselves "How could anybody like this film"?  This post is meant to offer an explanation, from one person who happened to like Three Billboards.

Criticism #1: The movie expects us to root for a racist cop's redemption arc
This is the big one that I just do not get at all, simply because I don't think that arc is something we're supposed to root for.  If you've read my Letterboxd review on this, you've heard my thoughts already, but I'll repeat them.  Here we have this movie about people lashing out at wrongs, feeling like the "proper" form of retribution hasn't happened, that certain people have been let off the hook too easily.  And then the film itself attempts to let Dixon off the hook in a way that feels too "easy."  I think McDonagh deliberately wants to make us uncomfortable with that, not be on the side of the narrative.  He's placing us right in the headspace of the characters in this story, questioning whether there can ever be forgiveness for certain acts.

We live in a culture of cancellation: when somebody does something wrong, we want them to disappear forever.  But the uncomfortable fact of the matter that Three Billboards explores is that these people don't just go away.  Others may not see value in watching a dumb, evil person fumble around trying to get on the path of good, but I think it's compelling to watch.  And the (again, deliberate) irony is that Dixon probably fails!  The film ends on an ambiguous note, where he and Mildred possibly go to kill a man who has nothing to do with the crime at the center of the story.  He is not being endorsed.  This is not a redemption arc.

(Also, full disclosure: I am a black man.  So it feels a little weird to have white people on Twitter tell me what I should find racist.)

Criticism #2: The women and minority characters are poorly written and portrayed
This one I can actually understand.  I think the women especially aren't given much life or complexity, and it feels like laziness on the film's part to make all of the supporting women paper-thin just because it has a magnetic Frances McDormand at the center.  But I'm also open to the possibility that this is another deliberate instance of commentary on the movie's part.  Who are the only sensible, kind people in this film?  A little person and three black people.  Even though Mildred's ex husband has a new 19 year old girlfriend who is portrayed as a naive airhead, she also gets a moment of tiny kindness and wisdom in the restaurant scene near the end of the film.  And yet these are all the people who get shunted off to the side in the narrative.  Don't those feel like reflections of how America itself treats these people?  I don't think the movie has contempt for these characters, even though the main characters do.

Criticism #3: The plot has multiple elements that don't add up or make sense
To me, this is something else makes it feel like the nasty, confusing mess that is our country right now.  Nothing makes sense anymore!  Plus, I tend to like when narratives allow for weird diversions and vestigial limbs.  Movies are not math problems.  Not everything has to "add up."

Criticism #4: There's a flashback where Mildred wishes her daughter gets raped, right before her daughter actually gets raped and murdered
Again, this is a heightened and stylized work.  If you take it at face value, it's bad dialogue.  But the purpose is not to be poetic or an elegant bit of dramatic irony.  It's meant to be an extreme moment from the gallows in order to reinforce the feeling of guilt that Mildred has, not the actual realism of the matter.

Criticism #5: The film has multiple little person jokes
To use modern internet parlance, I think the phrase "retweets are not endorsements" applies here.  I really don't think we're supposed to laugh at those jokes.  Nothing about the tone or the rhythm of the scene indicates that this is the moment where we laugh.  In fact, it seems to take sympathy with Dinklage's character at all times.

Those are the five big ones I found when perusing reviews.  I apologize if I missed anything or if you feel like your criticisms weren't represented.  I could be wrong with my take and become known 10 years from now as the fool who liked the new Crash.  Despite my feelings about this film, I really hope it doesn't win Best Picture at the Oscars, because that will just stoke the flames even more and the discourse will never end.  Also because Lady Bird is a better film.