Monday, October 28, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Week 6 of Fall's TV Pilots

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

Dracula (NBC, Fridays at 10:00 PM)
For a show called Dracula, this one spends much of its first half being light on, well, vampires.  Although there's a bit more of what you'd expect in the second half, this show seems like it's much more concerned with being a period drama, which would be completely fine if that period drama wasn't so dull.  Of all the spins to put on Dracula, making it about petroleum is an odd choice.  Looking at the pilot, you can't help but think the show doesn't really know what it wants to be.  It's caught between being a refined historical tale and tapping into its trashier impulses.  When it indulges in the latter is where Dracula truly shines, and there some sequences in the middle of the episode that are creepy, confident, and backed by a surprisingly excellent score.  Unfortunately, there are far too few of these kinds of scenes, and the rest is just rather bland.  Apparently, Dracula was awoken from his eternal slumber to put us in one.
Grade: C+

Well folks, that's the end of Pilot Talk 2013.  There's still Almost Human, but Fox decided to start that one so late that I might not even review it at all.  Overall, this has been an experience that was educational (in that it taught me a bit more about what I like and don't like in my television shows) and excruciating (because there were some real stinkers).  I'd like to say I'm going to do this again next fall, but this might've been my last opportunity to do something like this, seeing as next year I'll be out of college and probably won't have as much time on my hands.  At the very least, I'll be reviewing the midseason pilots, so that's something.  Until then, let's take a look at the breakdown of grades that I gave:

A's: 1
B's: 9
C's: 8
D's: 3
F's: 2

Saturday, October 26, 2013

No surprise here: Before Midnight is basically perfect

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine's (Julie Delpy) relationship has always been driven by a sense of urgency.  In Before Sunrise, the first installment in Richard Linklater's decades-spanning trilogy, the two of them randomly meet on a train and try to make the most of their one night together before parting ways.  Nine years later, they meet back up in Before Sunset, and have an even more condensed window -- about 90 minutes -- to fill in the gaps and pick up the pieces that formed on that one night in Vienna.  What makes Before Midnight so interesting is that it explores their lives after that urgency has gone away.  No longer under some sort of ticking clock after Jesse decided to miss the flight he was supposed to catch at the end of Sunset, the two of them are deep into their relationship, now with twin daughters and all the time in the world together.

The passage of time has always been deeply ingrained in the series -- there's 9 years between each of the three, both in terms of real-world release dates and within the film.  The transition from Sunrise to Sunset was about showing the little changes that happened to Jesse and Celine in the years that they'd been apart, but in the one from Sunset to Midnight, the two of them remain more or less the same people; only the lens through which they see each other has slightly altered.  Where the Jesse and Celine that met on that train to Vienna 18 years before saw their differences as pieces that fit together to form a better whole, the push and pull of their ideologies causes much more friction in their relationship now.  Smartly, the script (co-written by Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke) plays on elements that were in the DNA of these characters from day one, and shows how easily time can change the perception of the way we see each other.

In my piece about Before Sunset and Before Sunrise, I brought up a point about how they are a reflection upon the current ages of the protagonist at the time of each film.  Midnight continues that trend, offering up a thoughtful meditation on confronting your 40s.  For Jesse and Celine, life is less in front of them and more side-by-side, and they fret about all the anxieties that come with age.  There's a lengthy scene, near the beginning of the film where they're having a meal with the various couples that they're on vacation in Greece with, that's the key to the theme of the story.  In it, they have a conversation about the inevitability of every relationship's demise, revealing the fatalism that runs through all of them.  The circumstances of Jesse and Celine's initial connection was so fortuitous that it seems like their entire relationship has been a highwire act to keep things going.  There was a danger to the end of Sunset that was at once exhilarating and frightening, but everything beforehand was so hypnotizing that you forgot about the doubt and hoped that things would end happily ever after for the two of them.  Midnight asks you to sit down and really think about how their relationship would logically play out.

There's always been a heavy emphasis on talking in these films.  In Sunrise, conversation is what initially attracted Jesse and Celine to each other and in Sunset, it was enough to bring them back together.  But in Midnight, it's the main root of trouble for the two of them.  As was the case with the first two installments in the series, the dialogue in this film is incredible, and every conversation between Hawke and Delpy is well-acted, warm, and funny.  Or at least it starts that way in the case of the latter two qualities, before things quickly turn sour.  During the feeling-out phase of their relationship, disagreement just added to the fire that sparked between them, but 10 years into their relationship, it's more like real bickering.  That's because the stakes have been raised in the time between films -- the excitement of true undying love has faded, and has made space for resentment and disappointment.  Celine feels like her role as a mother has dulled her feminist-tinged hopes and dreams, while Jesse feels like his role as a husband has caused a strain on the relationship with the son from his previous marriage, and their dissatisfaction clashes together all at once in a hotel room where they're supposed to be having a romantic evening.  It's one of the most tense and wrenching sequences I've seen all year.

There's no doubt that this series is a shining achievement in filmmaking.  It's brilliant in that quietly unflashy way, letting these characters age as we do, and checking their pulse every 9 years.  Somehow, Before Midnight manages to be the best of the three films, which is no small feat, given that the other two are some of the best of their respective decades.  But like Jesse says about his third book, which serves as a meta-commentary on this series, this film is much more ambitious and wider in scope.  The first two films were looking in on this specific relationship that formed under extraordinary circumstances, and are lovely because of it, but Before Midnight is about the ups and downs of marriage as a whole, and how falling in love is not the end of any story.

Short Term 12 transcends past the level of cliche indie drama

There's a specific type of independent film that seems to flood Sundance every year.  You know the traits: low-key, low-budget, handheld camerawork, dour characters, miserablist tone.  Far too many filmmakers go this route, and it's easy for those films to get lost in the mix when they all seem to blend together after a while.  In order to stand out from the pack, this type of indie drama has to really bring something extra to the table.  Apparently Short Term 12, the feature-length debut of director Destin Daniel Cretton, succeeded on that front.  When it premiered at Sundance back in January, it was met with glowing reviews, and became a film I was hotly anticipating.  Now that it's finally come to theaters here, I can attest that Short Term 12 is much better than its film festival baiting premise would imply.

The film opens on a scene of a man named Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) regaling his coworkers with an amusing anecdote, only to be interrupted by the blaring sounds of a siren and a kid running towards a fence.  This is just another day at Short Term 12, the foster care facility for at-risk youths who are in between homes.  They all suffer from a litany of problems -- depression, anger issues, bouts of self-abuse -- and the film focuses on a select few of these kids.  There's Marcus (Keith Stanfield), whose 18th birthday is quickly approaching, signifying the point where he has to be released from the facility and sent out into a world he's not ready for.  Then there's Sammy, who copes with the loss of his sister with fits of rage and frequent attempts to escape the facility.  And early into the film there's the introduction of Jayden (the terrific Kaitlyn Dever), the newest resident at Short Term 12, whose father shipped her off to stay there on weekdays after she became too much of a hassle to deal with.  The film neatly structures itself around the arcs of these characters, telling their stories in a clear and complete fashion without ever feeling cluttered.

But Short Term 12 is really about Grace (Brie Larson), one of the twenty-somethings who supervises the facility.  Her job description, as she tells one of the new workers, is not to be a parent or a therapist, but to make these kids' lives as comfortable as possible in this transition stage of indefinite length.  Although she's helping them with their rough lives, things aren't going so well for her either.  Early in the film we see her go to a clinic to get the results for a pregnancy test, and she seems anything but pleased when they come back positive.  The film is pretty upfront about the backstories and psychologies of the kids at the facility, but it's more interested in playing the long game when it comes to Grace.  She's presented to us as someone who is very guarded, but the "why" of it all is meted out slowly.  Larson is incredible here -- her performance is up there with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine as one of the best of the year.  Grace pours all her energy into her work as a way of running away from her own personal troubles, and Larson is heartbreaking throughout every moment of Grace running on fumes.

The film doesn't pull punches about its subject matter either.  Cretton films the scenes of characters breaking down and lashing out with a raw intensity that's at once frightening and sad.  These are teens with deep problems, and Grace's own issues are there to show that that damage doesn't just go away easily.  Her past informs the deep anxiety she feels towards her impending motherhood.  In fact, parentage plays a large role in almost every one of the threads in the film.  There's an underlying point being made about how the actions of parents can have a harmful effect on children.  In the midst of dealing with all of these children who come from abusive homes, it's no wonder why Grace is so hesitant to become a parent and bring a child of her own into the world.  Yet the film shies away from the usual indie drama bleakness by providing a little bit of hope and beauty.  By showing Mason, a former product of the foster care system, now as an adult who has his life together, you can tell the film has a real belief in what Grace and the others are doing to help these kids.  There are ills in the world that will always exist on a macro level, but sometimes you have to find small victories under dire circumstances.  Short Term 12 does just that, and the result is one of the most heart-rending and powerful films of the year.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Making a case for Dana Brody

No previously acclaimed show on air receives as much vitriol as Showtime's Homeland does.  It premiered in the fall of 2011 to rapturous critical acclaim, with some even positing that it was ushering in the new Silver Age of drama.  Yet even then, there were some jitters that came along with the praise.  After all, the show was from former 24 writers, Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, so people were always wondering how long Homeland could sustain itself before flying wildly off the rails, as they believed the former did.  Whether it's due to actual quality or self-fulfilling prophecy, almost everyone has been having an increasing amount of problems with Homeland as it closes out the first act of its third season.  And a large subset of those people who have soured on the show use Dana Brody, the teenage daughter Nicholas Brody, as a conduit to channel their frustrations with the show as a whole.  It's not hard to do this because she's the furthest away from what the show feels like it's about -- the CIA, terrorism, and identity in the age of constant surveillance.

But what's the real root behind these complaints?  I don't want to make any assumptions, but the internet largely has a problem with women and teenagers, and Dana happens to be both.  That's not to say that people wouldn't still hate Dana if she was a guy, but there's an uncomfortable "who cares about this dumb teenage girl and her dumb teenage girl problems?" vibe to a great deal of the criticism of her storylines.  Even if it isn't driven by closeted sexism, Dana is such a realistic depiction of a teen -- moody, mumbly, singularly-focused -- that it's easy for people (particularly those far removed from their teen years) to find her infuriating.  The one exception to this "everybody hates teens" theory would be Mad Men's Sally Draper.  As a whole, the internet generally loves her and wants to see more plots surrounding her, but I'd argue that it's because she didn't start out the show as a teen and we only get around 3 episodes per season that really focus on her at all.  People may say they want more, but if she got as much screen time as Dana did, I'd imagine more people would grow to dislike her too.  Either way, I'm staking my claim on this terrain and launching a defense: Dana Brody is the best character on Homeland.

That might be blasphemy to say about a show where Carrie Mathison exists, but for as much as Carrie was once one of the most original and complex characters on television, it's gotten to a point where it feels like we're just getting a greatest hits collection (both in terms of the writing and Claire Danes' performance).  What beat in Carrie's story this year hasn't been hit three or four times before?  Dana, on the other hand, continues to impress on both fronts.  She never feels inessential to the show, despite what some fans might say.  Homeland has always been about the mixture of foreign and domestic drama, and Dana is such an important piece to the latter that the show would feel less complete (not to mention less interesting) without her.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Morgan Saylor is a terrific actress, who just gets better every year.  There's alot of pouting and stammering involved in her performance, but she sells the reality of it.

Back in season 1, when she was the emotional center of the Brody storyline, playing a crucial role in Nick deciding not to set off his explosive vest in the bunker housing the vice president, there weren't too many Dana haters.  It's only in season 2 where people really started to hurl invective in her direction.  The "Dana and Finn hit somebody with a car" development really rankled viewers, who felt that it was a ridiculous story turn.  And sure, it was kind of bizarre and unnecessary, but it all tied into the idea of moral relativism that the show was exploring, particularly in that middle chunk of season 2.  Season 2 focused on projecting the flaws and crimes of the larger world onto Dana.  She realizes just how unfair things are and is the only one to speak up about it, because her and Finn's parents are too wrapped up in privilege to bother doing the right thing.  It's a risk to go through with a storyline that's idiotic on a pure plot level in hopes that it'll land thematically, but it's one that season 2 mostly nails because of how high-stakes the emotions are.

We picked up this year where things left off, as Nicholas Brody has been accused of being behind the Langley bombing at the end of season 2, and this season shows the twin sides of the fallout -- bureaucratic and emotional.  Everyone is trying to put the pieces back together, but the problem is that not all the pieces are there anymore.  For the CIA, it's that pile of rubble where the edifice of their headquarters once stood, a haunting reminder of the attack.  But for Dana, it's more personal -- the giant hole in her life exists in the form of her father, the presumed terrorist.  She's just been let out of a mental health clinic in the season 3 premiere, and we quickly learn that it's because she tried to commit suicide in the months between seasons.  Where Homeland usually tries to draw parallels between Carrie and Brody or Dana and her parents, this year we've gotten a few between Carrie and Dana.  Dana's circumstantial mental illness is contrasted with Carrie's biological mental illness, and the latter is committed just as the former is released.  Dana's stories wouldn't work if they weren't so resolutely intent on being in her head space.  These first few episodes have featured so many intimate closeups of her just thinking, with either nothing in the background or the rest of the world blurred out of focus.

Her arc this year also fits in with the themes of confinement that the writers are playing with this year.  These themes are the clearest in "Tower of David," which alternates between Brody and Carrie in their own prisons (Caracas and the psych ward, respectively).  But with Dana, her confinement is more abstract.  She may be free from the care center, but she finds herself suffocated in the suburban world, where her whole family is associated with a national traitor.  "Game On" continues this idea even further.  Take a look at the scene where her and Leo visit the military location where her father was first shipped off to Afghanistan.  The two of them are looking in on this enclosed space, but the camera rarely shows it.  Instead, the scene is framed so that it looks like they're the ones who are behind a fence.  It's no coincidence that this occurs in the very same episode where Carrie discovers just how much the CIA could ruin her life if they wanted to.  Both women are trapped by forces far greater than them.

As I mentioned above, there's been alot of grumbling about how this Dana storyline is a completely unrelated diversion, and I just can't agree.  Listen, I'm not a huge fan of how Leo intersects with it all (even if it is realistic for a teenager to base their life around a romantic prospect), but it's totally in line with the themes of the season, and serves as a quiet emotional reflection of the higher-stakes storylines happening elsewhere on the show.  With the Carrie's development occurring more like a circle than an arc, and the CIA material taking a while to really rev up, the Dana stuff was the most compelling plot of the season until the twist at the end of Sunday's episode (a topic best saved for another blog post).

That's not to say that season 3 of Homeland isn't a strange one -- it is.  It's messy and lumpy and bizarre, but in the most fascinating ways.  Between Carrie spending most of these episodes in the psych ward, Brody stuck doing heroin in Caracas, and the latest reveal of Saul playing a long game with his opponents and the audience alike; this is the kind of devil-may-care storytelling that led to some thrilling moments early in season 2.  It's also the same type of writing that set up what would eventually cause the second half of that season to haphazardly spiral out of control.  Everything is still up in the air for season 3, and it has equal chance of landing either way.  All I'm saying is that on a show that strains credulity at every turn, the Dana material is the only thing that consistently feels real and grounded.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: 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 biggest hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

The Birthday Boys (IFC, Fridays at 10:30 PM)
The past couple of years have been especially good for fantastic sketch shows (Key & Peele, Kroll Show) and generally inventive comedy (Nathan For You, Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Eric Andre Show).  And for about the same amount of time, I've heard about The Birthday Boys, with seemingly everybody in the LA alt-comedy scene citing them as the best sketch group currently working.  Needless to say, their new sketch show that follows Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC, had alot to live up to.  Judging from the pilot, it doesn't quite reach the high expectations that were placed upon it, but there's no reason for me to believe that the show won't gel in the same way that Comedy Bang! Bang! did after a few episodes.  As of right now, it just doesn't have the strong point of view that many of the best sketch shows do.  Without something to tie everything together, the pilot feels just a little bit scattered.  It doesn't help that the sketches are hit-or-miss comedy-wise too, which is another thing that plagues many sketch shows.  But still, there are things to like about the pilot, such as the way sketches make callbacks to earlier segments, building on a bit as the episode goes along.  Of all the members of the group (of which there are 7), the one who stands out is Mike Hanford, who's great at playing smarmy or slightly aloof characters.
Grade: B-

Reign (The CW, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
There's one thing that Reign has got going for it that most of the other drama pilots of the fall don't: pizzazz.  It's very slick and full of artistic flourishes -- like the decidedly modern soundtrack, full of folk-rock from end to end -- that make the pilot go down extremely easily.  It's enough to cause me to overlook all of the glaring problems that rear their head, like the overly explanatory dialogue, ham-fisted incorporation of supernatural elements (this is The CW, after all), and wild leaps in tone.  Because behind that erratic, often puzzling curtain is a really enjoyable show attempting to blend historical drama with a young woman's coming of age story.  That young woman is Mary, Queen of Scots; played by Australian import, Adelaide Kane.  Kane is the latest in the wave of lead actresses holding together fall shows that would otherwise fall apart (see also: Once Upon a Time in Wonderland), giving enough gravitas and personality to Mary.  The core of the show is the relationship that she has with her four friends, who are also daughters of royals.  In the pilot's short amount of time, there isn't a chance to develop them beyond broad sketches, but the scenes of the girls just hanging around and bonding are easily the strongest of the pilot.  If the writers hone in on telling refreshing stories about this group of friends set to the backdrop of European history, then Reign can find its groove and become something solid, but I worry that they'll lean too heavily on the more superficially exciting aspects that they've set up in the pilot.  Oh, was I supposed to mention the controversial masturbation scene?
Grade: B-

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Captain Phillips is pulse-pounding from start to finish

Most of Paul Greengrass' films fall into the quasi-category of "smart people doing smart things."  Sure, he's also known for his gritty realism and heavy use of handheld camerawork, but his films are so impressive in their mixture of broad entertainment and intelligent filmmaking that they have basically become a brand of their own.  It's no coincidence, then, that the one aberration in his filmography is 2010's Green Zone, which was hindered by muddied motivations and shaky plotting.  Luckily Captain Phillips, his latest "based on a true story" film, is more like the rest of his work in that regard.

The film starts out with the titular character (played by Tom Hanks) getting ready for what he expects to be a routine day of manning a cargo ship set to sail around the Horn of Africa, an area known for its presence of dangerous pirates.  This is introduction -- like all of Greengrass' work -- is economical, effectively setting up who Captain Phillips is and what his life is like outside of his job, where he has a loving wife waiting for him at home.  From there, the film gets straight to the action, as the ship quickly comes under the attack of a band of Somali pirates.  The portion of the film where the pirates board and search the cargo ship could almost exist as its own white-knuckle mini-thriller.  Tom Hanks is terrific as the level-headed Phillips, and his attempts to get out of this life-threatening situation with minimal collateral damage are riveting to watch.  Chess match metaphors are pretty tired at this point, and it's especially moot when the stakes are as high as they are here, but there's a reason why there are so many mentions of "playing games" from characters in the movie.  The first half of the film is like The Most Dangerous Game if it were contained to a large cargo ship, and the jockeying for control of the situation ramps up considerably as it goes along.  This isn't the first hijacking that these pirates have done, so the script -- and Phillips by proxy -- manages to come up with some really clever ideas to try wriggle free of their hold.

The film is never as exciting as it is in that first half, which is some of the tensest stuff I've seen all year, but it's only in the second half that it begins to feel like a substantial work.  It'd be easy to make the pirates one-dimensional characters, because it's even easier to root for the American protagonist's quest for survival if he's fighting against foreign savages.  However, Greengrass spends much time on the psychology of the pirates, particularly Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the group.  Captain Phillips may be the title, but its really about the twin journeys of Phillips and Muse.  The two of them are opposed, but both of their stories are about their determination to survive and the dedication to their goals.  We may not be asked to sympathize with Muse and the rest of the pirates, but the film does require that you understand them, which ends up making them even more effective as villains.  There are moments where it can feel manipulative (take the youngest pirate, who shows more compassion than the others, for instance) but the script keeps things simple enough to still work.

Greengrass shoots all of this in the same style as the rest of his films, full of tight close-ups, shaky cam, and frequent cuts.  These choices only serve to keep you right in the action, leaving you as on edge as the characters within the film are.  Everything works on such a visceral level that the film never feels as long as its 133 minute runtime would suggest.  Captain Phillips spends so much of its time winding the audience up that the conclusion of the film, where the tension finally releases, leads to a powerful sense of catharsis.  It's a finale as tense as anything since the bunker raid in Zero Dark Thirty, with a final scene that's even more devastating. 

Pilot Talk 2013: 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 biggest hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (ABC, Thursdays at 8:00 PM)
I had a bit of a meltdown while watching the pilot for Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.  I was a substantial way through the episode when I realized I didn't have any thoughts on it.  And it's not like I was so wrapped up in the experience of watching it that I forgot to think about it.  In fact, I was wracking my brain trying to come up with something, yet churning out nothing of value.  The episode was just kind of...there.  It made me get stuck in this spiral of depression where I worried that I would never make it as a professional television critic (where they often have to write 1000+ words about a show weekly) if I couldn't even come up with a paragraph's worth of thoughts on this.  Then I panicked even more when I realized that I was going to write one of these insufferably meta reviews about the review.  Maybe I'm a talentless hack.  Perhaps Pilot Talk has broken me and I've run out of ways to call bad pilots "shapeless" and good pilots "promising."  Or maybe I don't know what to make of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland because it doesn't know what to make of itself.

At times, the pilot feels very pilot-y -- what with the first half's too-rigid structure of constantly jumping between Alice undergoing a psychiatric evaluation and her actual time in Wonderland -- and not pilot-y enough.  It's often a good thing when a pilot feels more like the fourth or fifth episode, a signal that the show isn't afraid to plant you in the middle of a world, but Once Upon a Time in Wonderland feels all over the place.  It's almost as if the writers were trying too hard to check all of the boxes in the Alice in Wonderland lore (one that never really did much for me as a child).  Nonetheless, the overstuffed story still isn't enough to distract from the very, very bad CGI.  I don't know if it's worse than the CGI in Once Upon a Time, or if it only seems so because there's more of it, but there are times when the episode looks like a Saturday afternoon show from the 90s.  That's not to say there isn't anything good to be found here.  For one, it has Sophie Lowe, who's such a great find as Alice.  Over the course of the episode she's able to show so many shades -- loneliness, despair, lovelorn vulnerability, steadfast determination, and insatiable curiosity.  With her help, the pilot manages to have way more of a sense of fun than Once Upon a Time, which is often very dull and drab (full disclosure: I quit that show after about 13 episodes).  After a while, the loopy rhythm of the episode just overtakes you and I found myself sort of going along with it.  Yet despite all of these thoughts that I've shared -- some positive and some negative -- I still don't really know how I felt about this pilot.  This one's a head-scratcher.
Grade: ?

The Tomorrow People (The CW, Wednesdays at 9:00 PM)
The Tomorrow People commits the worst sin that any pilot could ever commit -- it's not particularly memorable.  Things happen in it -- some of those things are good and some of those things are bad -- but none of them really leave much of an impression.  Even shows like Dads, Super Fun Night, and Hostages allowed you to think about their mediocrity.  The Tomorrow People is just bland.  Like Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, this pilot just sort of throws you into the world.  It turns out that that's the mode the show works best in, when it's presenting you with ideas, because it becomes very inelegant once the explaining begins.  Much of the middle of the episode is bogged down by scenes where characters sit around and deliver globs of exposition to the main character, who's just discovering that he possesses Jumper-esque abilities.  From there it's the standard formula for these kinds of stories, complete with the rote refusal of the call to action before the hero decides to put his powers to use.  I admire its ability to dive headfirst into sci-fi, and it should be a good fit for the CW's gradual change in branding, but The Tomorrow People is too unremarkable to give a second episode.
Grade: C

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gravity: Brilliant filmmaking, hollow emotional core

Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron's first film in 7 years, is essentially a horror film masquerading as science fiction.  That shouldn't be too much of a surprise, since it's not hard to imagine somebody saying the same thing about his previous film, Children of Men, but Cuaron amps things up in his latest.  Straight from the opening shot (which lasts about 10-15 minutes before making any cuts), Gravity really taps into the essence of space.  There's that endless -- literally limitless -- sea of black, made all the more infinite in IMAX 3D, awakening anxieties within you that you didn't even know existed before.  It may not seem like the kind of film that's full of scares, but there are a few scenes that are as terrifying as anything you'll see in a conventional horror movie.

But the film is really about the terror and beauty that exists all at once.  Gravity is absolutely gorgeous.  In the multi-year lead-up to the release of the film, there has been an ever-shifting news cycle relating to its technical aspects.  For a while, reports were saying that it would be shot in one continuous take, and even though that is not the case with the finished product, the long takes that Cuaron has become known for are numerous and in their full glory.  The camera takes on a weightlessness, freely drifting around Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they navigate the Hubble Telescope on a mission to service its system.  Even the characters themselves can't help but remark upon the sheer visual splendor on display, constantly commenting on how beautiful the endless expanse of space is.  Throughout the entire 90 minute runtime, there's this oscillation between awe-stricken reflection and the pure terror that follows, when the random dangers of space rear their ugly head.  It's a delicate balance, one that the film walks confidently, continuously holding the audience in its orbit.

For all its technical brilliance, however, it's hard to be as enthusiastic about the script.  You had better hope that you never pick your jaw up off the floor from the spectacle, because if you do, you'll have time to take in the often clumsy dialogue that propels the film forward.  Clooney and Bullock sell the material to their best abilities, but many of the words they speak to each other feel like the product of a first draft -- rough, stilted, and entirely too expository.  Films as tight and tense as this live and die on the depth of the characters in peril, but the two leads here are so thin that it's hard to be invested in them.  What's worse is the film demands that you are, despite the fact that the entire drive for the emotional journey is based on one measly line of dialogue.

Nevertheless, Gravity is still a pleasurable film experience, one that's especially necessary to view on the biggest screen possible.  It's got some hiccups for sure, big enough that the universal praise its getting is a bit perplexing, but small enough that there's nothing wrong with feeling positively about it.  Maybe next time Cuaron can make a film that's wholly satisfying on a technical level and an emotional one, like he did with Children of Men.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Pilot Talk 2013: Week 3 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.

Betrayal (ABC, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
I strongly considered being unprofessional and having my review of Betrayal just be me saying "Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz."  Boring is my least favorite word to use when criticizing a work of art, but really there's no other way to describe this show.  It's got a very schlocky premise -- think the movie Unfaithful but without Diane Lane -- yet it doesn't play up its trashiness in the way that other ABC shows like Revenge and Scandal get praised for.  Where those two shows would get straight to the point of this story about a woman who unknowingly cheats on her husband with the man he's going up against in a big court case, this show chooses to twiddle its thumbs, endlessly teasing the hookup we all know is coming.  The whole pilot is just so lifeless, and while there have been worse shows this fall, Betrayal was the first one where I strongly considered giving up on it in the middle of the episode.  It heavily relies on cross-cutting -- THE ESSENTIAL FILMMAKING TRICK WHEN TRYING TO GENERATE TENSION -- yet it still just flops around like a dying fish.  And I haven't even gotten around to the clumsy ways in which it tries to incorporate a family crime drama into its romance novel story.  My mom loves this show though.
Grade: D-

Hello Ladies (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 PM)
HBO generally gets more recognition for its dramas, but they really deserve some credit for the interesting choices they make when it comes to their comedies (or in some cases, "comedies").  They've got a surprisingly auteur-driven mentality, taking creators with a very distinct point of view and giving them their own show to channel that voice through.  In recent years, it has resulted in some heavyweights like Lena Dunham's Girls, Mike White's Enlightened, and Armando Ianucci's Veep; but they've also produced more insubstantial shows that wouldn't be able to exist anywhere else, like Christopher Guest's Family Tree.  Of the two categories, Hello Ladies, the new show from the UK Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, falls into the latter.  That's certainly not a bad thing either -- Family Tree is frequently funny and charming, but both shows have a low-key nature that doesn't demand your attention or love.  They also both have a loose structure that guides them along.  Where Family Tree contained the throughline of Chris O'Dowd having awkward interactions with members of his extended family, Hello Ladies seems to be structured around Merchant having awkward encounters with women.  He hasn't lost his knack for crafting some really cringeworthy scenes, and while they generate many of the pilot's biggest laughs, it sometimes gets taken a step too far.  However, the thing that made me decide I was going to come back for more was the other characteristic of his work -- that twinge of melancholy that undercuts every moment.
Grade: B

Ironside (NBC, Wednesdays at 10:00 PM)
I'll say this for the pilot of Ironside: it's surprisingly stylish.  Some of the shots even feel like the creators have taken a page out of their network counterpart, Hannibal's, book.  Unfortunately that's all of the praise I can heap onto the show, which is otherwise generic.  It lays out its exposition in the most conventional ways, as characters stare at pictures of their family so you feel invested in them and flashbacks appear frequently.  There's even a moment where Ironside says, "I'm in this chair but you're the one that's emotionally crippled!!," underlining what the audience is supposed to think of these stock characters.  There's no denying that Blair Underwood is great, but he and this entire show are completely coasting.  It doesn't make much of a case to justify its existence as a remake, much less a TV show at all.
Grade: C

Masters of Sex (Showtime, Sundays at 10:00 PM)
This is one of those pilots that just gets better and better as it goes along.  At first, the show seems to approach Masters and Johnson's revolutionary sex research in the 50s and 60s with a winking archness, getting alot of mileage out of the lack of knowledge that society had about sex in the early going, but it quickly evens out and is quite excellently paced after that.  It's the kind of pilot that has the confidence to wait a whole 16 minutes to put Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan together, and that urge must've been difficult to contain, because every scene with the two of them together is crackling.  It's easy to see how their chemistry could carry the show as it figures out what it wants to do.  However, Masters of Sex might be the most fully-formed pilot I've seen so far.  It's about an hour long but it flies along, and it's all great fun -- much lighter than you'd expect, without being irreverent or cutesy.  Still, it has pretty high-stakes too.  Masters and Johnson's quest to be at the forefront of unexplored scientific terrain while fighting against the conservative constraints of society is a strong conflict to center a show around, and it's very compelling to watch.  Wonderfully directed, acted, and scripted -- Master of Sex has all the makings of one of our next great dramas.
Grade: A-

The Millers (CBS, Wednesdays at 8:30 PM)
The Millers has Greg Garcia, who's created solid comedies like My Name is Earl and Raising Hope, at the helm, so it's got the potential to become something interesting, and it definitely does show some flashes of promise in the pilot.  Margo Martindale's vomiting gag in the middle of the episode is one of those strange things that indicate the show won't just be another run-of-the-mill multi-cam sitcom.  In fact, the entire scene is really funny, and it drew one the biggest belly laughs of this fall season from me.  The extended fart gag later in the episode, though?  Not so funny.  The problem with The Millers is that there's just alot of funny and unfunny fraternizing together, creating a confusing mix of hit-or-miss bits.  I don't like the show, but somehow, it's the one that I'd be the least surprised about if I heard that it became really funny in 13 episodes.
Grade: C+

Sean Saves the World (NBC, Thursdays at 9:00 PM)
This year, every network seems to be trying to capture CBS's magic by venturing into multi-cam sitcoms, and the old-fashioned Sean Saves the World is NBC's attempt.  At the center of it is Will & Grace's Sean Hayes, whose high energy schtick I've always found grating.  He brings a great deal of physicality to the role, but he's more like a sugar-addled kid than Buster Keaton.  There's some supporting players that liven things up, particularly Tom Lennon having fun as the boss from hell and Megan Hilty displaying some pizzazz as one of Sean's coworkers, but they're overshadowed by Hayes' sweaty performance.  The actress who plays Hayes' daughter also has potential, but the show doesn't seem interested enough in the father-daughter dynamic to give it any real weight.  Overall, Sean Saves the World is a bunch of slapstick bits haphazardly thrown together, failing to form a satisfying whole.
Grade: C

Super Fun Night (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 PM)
I was predisposed to disliking Super Fun Night from its inception, because I think Rebel Wilson is terribly unfunny, and America's mission to make her a thing is one of the more baffling things going on right now.  It certainly doesn't help that they make her character American, forcing Wilson to take on a really bad accent that barely masks her natural Australian inflection.  The accent distractions and preconceived notions could've been ignored if the show was any good, but it is decidedly not that.  The pilot never really settles into any kind of rhythm, possessing a manic energy one second and completely dragging the next.  It's all just so flabby.  Having everything be about this lead up to the titular "super fun night" should give the episode focus, but it doesn't do much at all.  The scenes in Wilson's workplace just end up feeling limp.  When there are any jokes at all, they're tired and predictable.  Everything culminates in a comedic setpiece where Wilson and her rival duel in karaoke, and it's grating and interminable.  This pilot was just a gigantic misstep at every turn.
Grade: D

We Are Men (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 PM)
We Are Men made me regret wasting my F on Dads.  For as racist and unfunny as Dads was, at least you could get angry at it.  We Are Men, on the other hand, is extremely dull along with being unfunny.  It feels like a relic of 2011, where so many comedies were concerned with the "Mancession" and the reclaiming of masculinity that's never been threatened.  There's a scene in the beginning of this pilot where a camera pans to a bikini-clad woman for no apparent reason, and that's basically the show in a nutshell.  It feels like Entourage for the CBS set, where they still use the word "whore," but its vanilla enough to not push the envelope too much.  But hey, I shouldn't be mad at this show!  After all, it's just about dudes bein' dudes!  Sports!  Women!  Sports!  However, for being so focused on "bro-ing out," the chemistry between the four leads is nigh invisible.  At the time of writing this, it was just announced that ABC's Lucky 7 was the first show of the fall season to be cancelled, but I wouldn't be surprised if this quickly follows it.
Grade: F

Welcome to the Family (NBC, Thursdays at 8:30 PM)
I was fully expecting to find Welcome to the Family insubstantial and unfunny, so I was surprised by how sweet and charming the pilot was.  It's funny straight from the first scene, where it sets up the premise -- two teens from very different families discover that they're going to have a baby together, right as they're graduating high school -- and is peppered with funny lines throughout the episode.  Unfortunately those comedic moments co-exist in a mixture that also includes some very questionable choices and generic elements.  The set-up between the two teens' clashing fathers is a bit contrived and it doesn't ever gain any nuance or, more detrimentally, comedic value.  Yet the cast is so winsome that they elevate even the basest material.  There are enough elements that I don't like about the show that I can see how it could fly off the rails, and the previews for upcoming episodes do nothing to mollify those fears.  On the other hand, there are times where it seems like the writers are really onto something, trying to tell a heartwarming story about how one event can alter carefully constructed life plans and show diametrically opposed people coming to slowly understand one another.  If they can slough off the rough edges, then the writing and the game cast can truly shine.
Grade: B