Saturday, July 25, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is a bewitching rumination on age and fame

Examinations of Hollywood have been done to a point past death.  For as long as Tinseltown has existed, it seems as if there have been movies about the ins and outs of the industry.  In a sea of savage satires and aspirational tales, it's hard to make anything about this particular setting/subject that's fresh and exciting.  But Clouds of Sils Maria, the newest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas, manages to do just that, by creating a story that's a conversation about Hollywood, but takes place a whole ocean away from the city of angels.  It's a languid, melancholy film that cloisters itself away, then explores the itch that manifests from that isolation.

At the heart of this itch is Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), an aging international actress, known for her work on both the screen and stage.  The film begins with her learning of the death of her mentor, Wilhelm Melchior, the man who wrote a play called Maloja Snake (which later became a film).  Maria achieved breakout success for her role in both the play and film as Sigrid; a young, callous businesswoman who has a complicated and troubled relationship with Helena, her vulnerable older colleague.  Though her career remained fruitful for a while, it's clear that Sigrid was Maria's defining role, and the well of new projects is beginning to dry up.  When a prominent new theater director presents the idea of a modern version of Maloja Snake, this time with a now-aging Maria playing the role of Helena, she reluctantly accepts.

In the play, Sigrid and Helena's tempestuous relationship leads to an ambiguous ending for Helena, but one that could be easily be interpreted as a suicide.  And in a grim matter of life imitating art, the actress who played opposite Maria during Maloja Snake's first run killed herself a year later.  It's obvious that all of this, along with the recent death of Snake's creator, weighs on Maria.  The act of taking up the role of Helena almost seems like a dare to herself, an ultimate acting test that she wants to see if she can pass.  But as the reality of the part and the play begins to seep in, it becomes apparent that Maria is not at peace with this character, mostly because she's not at peace with herself.  She's fighting her age and the possibility of her irrelevance, the latter of which is partially caused by her own unwillingness to engage with various elements of modern culture, from Hollywood blockbusters to the entire internet.

Following Maria around Europe while she prepares for the revamped Maloja Snake is Valentine (Kristen Stewart), her young and dedicated personal assistant, on whom Maria depends a borderline toxic amount.  Maria and Val's dynamic forms the backbone of the film with its endless fascinations and layers.  It's a union that's part work relationship, part friendship, and part unspoken emotional tug of war.  The ways in which those different parts swap in and blend together throughout Clouds is absolutely riveting.  Binoche is characteristically wondrous as Maria, but it's Stewart who ends up stealing the show with an astonishing performance.  In fact, it often feels like there's no performance at all, that Val is a real person and not just an assumed role.  Stewart has been accused of being a charisma vacuum in the past, but here she pivots around those qualities to push out a serene naturalism that fits in nicely with the film's laconic rhythms.

Nobody will try to make the case that Clouds of Sils Maria is a subtle film.  Clearly, the Maloja Snake (a meteorological phenomenon that causes a plume of fog to pass through the Alps) and Maloja Snake (the fictional play within the film) are symbolic of Maria, who seems reluctant to accept inevitabilities.  The film itself could also be a meta-commentary on artists like Juliette Binoche and Olivier Assayas, both of whom have long since past the first act of their careers.  Yet the lack of subtlety has a subtlety of its own.  The play initially presents itself as being about the contrast between Maria and the up-and-coming Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Moretz), who has signed on to play the role Maria did when she was in her 20s, but then shifts to resemble shades of Maria and Val's relationship.  That constantly coiling meta nature of the film leads to these rehearsal scenes between Maria and Val in the middle portion, where it's hard to tell when they're pulling from the text of Maloja Snake and when they're pulling resentment and anxieties from their own hearts.

Save a few mesmerizing touches, Assayas keeps his direction unfussy, but he remains probing nonetheless.  One of the crucial elements is that the movie doesn't take Maria's side on art and the modern age.  Assayas smartly allows Stewart's character to be there to defend mainstream Hollywood films, so it doesn't seem like he's some grumpy old snob grousing about the current state of things.  Instead, Clouds feels like Assayas is really trying to search within and have a conversation with himself about his career and the industry he's in.  And he ends it on a daring ellipsis for himself and Maria.  Maybe she'll finally embrace her age and accept the necessities involved in staying relevant.  Or maybe she'll disappear and never be heard from again, just like Helena at the end of Maloja Snake.

Monday, July 13, 2015

My Mad Fat Diary ended on a marvelous high note

The teen drama is like the television equivalent of R&B.  Wait, hear me out.  These days I don't listen to a ton of R&B, a genre whose best years have long since passed, but I still consider it one of my favorite genres of music.  Because when I hear good R&B, its pleasures are unparalleled.  Likewise, there aren't that many teen dramas that I watch, but the best of what the genre has to offer results in some of my favorite television shows of all time.  A little bit of a "they don't make 'em like they used to" sense can creep in, since we haven't gotten much to match the likes of My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks, and modern greats like Friday Night Lights approached the genre from an angle.  But for the last three years, there's been a wonderful little gem waiting right across the pond: UK's My Mad Fat Diary, which closed out its 16-episode run last Monday.

Airing on the E4 network -- home to crossover favorites like Misfits and Skins -- My Mad Fat Diary followed the life of Rae Earl (played by the revelatory Sharon Rooney), a teenage girl living in a small UK town in the mid-90s.  The show picks up after Rae's four month stint at a psychiatric hospital, caused by her mental health and body image issues, as she tries to reconnect with her childhood best friend Chloe (Jodie Comer) and her group of friends.  Right from the start, Diary made its unique charms known.  It gave us a deep dive into Rae's mind, via crude onscreen doodles and voiceover narration that ping-ponged between witty remarks and anxious self-loathing, all set over some great 90s Britpop.  I liked the lively spirit of the first season, along with the way it handled its volatile blend of tones, but I couldn't quite get to the point of loving it, simply because I found Rae to be such a frustrating protagonist.  The nature of the show meant that audiences got front-row seats to Rae's selfishness, self-sabotage, and lack of self-awareness.  Season one was often an emotionally draining experience because of that.

Part of why I loved the second season so much (enough for it to crack my top 20 list last year) was because it made it abundantly clear just how aware of Rae's frustrating aspects the show was.  It did so by upending our whole perception of the series in the stunning "Not I," where Rae is revealed to be an unreliable narrator of sorts, as we see the last two seasons from Chloe's perspective, and realize that Rae's constant focus on her own problems caused her to miss all of the pain that her best friend was going through.  In that way, My Mad Fat Diary is true to how mental illness really is, how it can be so consuming that you shut out all the ways in which the people around you may be trying to help, or even dealing with their own set of problems.

Shows and storylines about mental illness are hard to sustain, because mental illness doesn't really have a clean arc.  It's something that stays with you for your whole life in slightly different forms, through a series of endless setbacks and breakthroughs.  It's for that reason that My Mad Fat Diary ultimately had to end after three seasons (with a reduced episode count of three in this final season), as much as it might have pained its fans.  Any longer and it would have run the risk of becoming repetitive.  But writer George Kay -- who took over for series creator Tom Bidwell -- decided to make the most of it and go out with a bang, making this final season the best yet.  Season three found Rae at a crossroads in almost every aspect of her life: her future with Finn in question, her acceptance into a university in Bristol taking her away from the gang, and Kester deciding that it's time for them to end her therapy.  She reacts negatively to all of these changes swirling around her head, sliding back into her old habits of self-harm and self-sabotage.  These moments in the first two episodes were especially painful to watch because we've seen Rae make so much progress.  If season three's central question was, "Will Rae ever overcome her problems?" then those devastating episodes pointed to a grim answer.

"Voodoo" is as close to perfect as you can get in actually providing a response.  Ultimately, the finale answers that question in the most satisfying way it can, landing in a sweet spot where Rae makes a breakthrough, while also knowing that she'll never be completely out of the woods.  But not before she has to hit rock bottom.  Realizing that all of her friends are worried about her and that her mom chose to forgo moving to Tunisia because of her, Rae takes that to mean that she's a burden to those who love her.  She begins to think that maybe everybody would be better off without her.  I love the way the episode zigzags, making us think that Rae attempts suicide only to be saved at the last minute by Finn, but then reveal that it's all just a fantasy, one that makes Rae finally figure out that she can be her own savior.  It's the growth we've all been waiting to see from her, along with her finally coming to terms with the fact that she's not a burden, that she makes people's lives just as full as they make hers.

And no other relationship is deeper and more full than the one that exists between Rae and Chloe.  Without question, the most moving scene of the finale is the one where Chloe breaks down before prom, expressing to Rae her fear that she can't handle life after college or the idea that everyone will move on from her.  Rae reassures her, "The gang will keep in touch...for a bit.  But, well...that's just life isn't it?  But you and me, right?  We are Chloe and Rae.  We're not the gang."  In just 16 episodes, the show built Chloe and Rae's relationship into one of the strongest friendships ever shown on screen.  Nobody could've guessed at the start, but it turns out the heart and soul of the show was the bond between these two girls who are very different people, but who deeply love and understand one another nonetheless.

Because the final season was so short and Rae-centric, there wasn't much time devoted to the core side characters the show had done so well developing, however.  Would I have liked to have seen more of somebody like Archie?  Sure, but in the end, what we got was something that's hard to complain about.  2015 has been full of finales for many of my favorite shows, but this episode hit me in a way that no other one has yet.  I love Mad Men and Justified and Parenthood, but I felt that I had spent a good enough time with those show's characters by the end.  But the fact that I'm never going to spend time with some of these people again?  That hurts.

We'll always have those good old memories, though.  My Mad Fat Diary will leave a legacy of being one of the very best portrayals of mental illness, self-harm, and friendship.  It more than deserves a place in the pantheon of classic teen shows.  Like many of those it joins -- My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Bunheads -- its star burned short, but so, so bright.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How Halt and Catch Fire became one of TV's most fun shows

I was always more of a fan of Halt and Catch Fire than most people.  Critics gave the pilot above average reviews, citing their skepticism about AMC only sending out one episode, and getting hung up on very thin similarities between it and Mad Men.  Meanwhile, I thought it was a compelling start, one promising enough to earn an A- in my Pilot Talk series.  While I felt like the show struggled to fully realize the potential of its first episode over the course of its 10-episode debut season, getting bogged down in its own self-importance and delivering some uneven storytelling, I still found this look into the beginning stages of the computer age a relatively painless way to spend an hour.

Even in those worst moments of season one, Halt and Catch Fire always struck me as the kind of show that could take "the leap" in its second season.  All the pieces were there -- great cast, talented group of writers and directors, terrain relatively unexplored on television -- they just weren't quite fitting together yet.  Of course, shows like these can just as easily flounder, and it wasn't difficult to imagine this series settling into being another mediocre AMC show.  It could have doubled down on its fascination with Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the enigmatic software salesman who consisted mostly of platitudinous speechifying and very little depth.

Luckily, it went the way of improvement -- we're halfway through the show's second season, which has been a lively, massively entertaining piece of television.  And this marked growth is no mystery either.  The creative success of Halt and Catch Fire can be attributed to a few key changes.

The show rebooted its premise
Season one's story engine was driven by Joe's quest to reverse engineer the revolutionary IBM personal computer, roping in downtrodden former system builder Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and post-collegiate programming wunderkind Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis).  Part of the problem with that is that it's only a season long story, and it was difficult to imagine what the long-term version of the show would be.  They could've tried to stretch things out even though history was not on these characters' sides, but showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers realized that there weren't many more places to take this IBM plot by the end of season one.

Instead, the show embodied the maverick spirit of its characters and wiped everything off the table.  Season two found the show taking place a year after the events of the season one finale, where Joe left Cardiff Electric and Cameron started up her own company called Mutiny.  Time jumps haven't been a revolutionary choice for a long time, but this fast forward feels like such an important move for this series to make.  As opposed to trying to force a way for the show to be centered around Cardiff again, season two has refocused its story on Mutiny, a company aiming to be at the forefront of computer gaming and online interactivity.

The lead and secondary characters have swapped roles
As a result of this shift in subject matter, Halt has also been forced to change its perspective too. Season one was primarily the Joe and Gordon show.  Most of the story was devoted to trying to peel back the many layers of Joe, or Gordon wrestling with his past failures and dissolved dreams.  Cameron and Joe's wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) had roles, sure, but they were mostly in relation to the two male protagonists.

By necessity, season two has reallocated its weight strongly towards Donna and Cameron in their trials and tribulations at Mutiny, and it's all the better for it.  (Now, the unemployed Gordon is playing the traditional role a wife character would play, sitting on the sidelines and screwing things up any time he takes a step off the bench.  Meanwhile, Joe has spent most of the season on an entirely different playing field.)  Of all the various character permutations on the show, Donna and Cameron have always been the best, even back in the first season.  They're just fascinating foils for one another, and watching the ways their approach to work and womanhood clash has been the biggest treat of this year.  Season two has also done wonders with making them more engaging characters on their own too.  Donna was never the wet blanket wife archetype that critics consistently tried to box her into during the first season, but we're really seeing that now.  She's kind, supportive, strong-willed, and comes with a whole set of hopes and dreams that make her one of the most fascinating and likable characters on TV.  The Cameron of season one was very inconsistently written, but season two has gotten a handle on her petulance, manifesting it in ways that may not always make her enjoyable to watch, but reliably compelling and logical.

There's no real precedent for a show making its two male leads take a backseat in favor of two female characters, and it's a big reason why Halt is so gripping this year.  Most of that is due Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe's electrifying chemistry.  Davis and especially Bishe are giving two of the year's best performances.  "10Broad36," last Sunday's excellent episode, provided Bishe with an opportunity to give an Emmy-worthy tape, as Donna slowly unraveled after the pressure of keeping all of the threads of her life together finally became too much.  This ultimately lead to her decision at the end of the episode to abort the baby she found out she was carrying at the beginning of the season, and Bishe plays every moment with such power and grace.

It has gone through the natural process of finding itself
Television shows rarely come out of the gate as the strongest versions of themselves.  Time is needed for everything to gel, for everyone involved to get on the same page about what show they should be making and execute that idea.  Much of Halt and Catch Fire's creative uptick can be traced back to that simple explanation: the show needed a while to figure itself out, and now that it has gotten that, it's charging on full speed ahead.  Just look at how much stronger the direction has been this season.  There may still be too many dutch angles, but there's an exhilarating, kinetic feeling to the handheld scenes at Mutiny that was absent last year.  And the directors are smart about framing choices, especially Larysa Kondracki, who continuously set characters against a backdrop of machines and progress in "10Broad36."

The writing is much stronger too.  This year, the show especially seems to get off of on playing around with dramatic irony.  Almost every character holds a piece of information that others don't.  With Gordon's illness, Donna's terminated pregnancy, and whatever Joe may have up his sleeve looming in the mix, the tension comes from waiting for all of these precarious secrets to come crashing down.  And of course, we as the audience know so many things none of these characters do, simply because their present is our past.  It's a complex house of cards that the writers are building.

Watching the critical turnaround on Halt has almost been as fun as watching the show itself.  Critics have been writing pieces left and right about this fantastic second season, and this collective feeling of falling in love with a show along with rest of the world has provided a joy that has few competitors.  So here's another article extolling the virtues of Halt and Catch Fire season two.  Hop on the train and feel that joy with us.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

What's going on with Hannibal this season?

Season two of Hannibal was a rip-roaring run of television, one that confirmed the show's status as one of the best things airing.  It all culminated in the shocking bloodbath of "Mizumono," a finale that left the audience with a collective feeling of breathless anticipation for season three, just to see what creator Bryan Fuller and his team of writers would come up with next.  Naturally, these early stages of the show's third season have been about reckoning with the events from last year, putting the pieces of this world back together after Hannibal Lecter so thoroughly shattered it.

Fuller reintroduced everyone back into the mix slowly, teasing fans with a hypnotic and tense premiere episode that only featured Hannibal and his partner-in-crime/hostage Bedelia Du Maurier.  After a year of waiting to see who made it out of "Mizumono" alive, Fuller cleverly (or cruelly, however you prefer to think of it) made us wait another week.  Episode two flipped things with a mostly Will and Abigail affair, only the latter was revealed to be a figment of the former's imagination.  Jack's survival gets confirmed in "Secondo," the following episode, and by episode four we learned the fates of everyone involved in the season two finale, as we saw that Alana lived, but not without significant emotional and physical damage.

In these episodes, the show moved at a dreamy, leisurely pace, and the visuals had a woozy look to match.  The first three installments were all directed by the great Canadian director Vincenzo Natali, who amped up the beauty on what was already unquestionably one of TV's most gorgeous shows.  This wasn't his first time in the saddle -- you might remember him from his two directorial efforts last season, where he was able to deliver some imagery that deviated from the show's usual style without feeling completely alien (see: his truly mesmerizing, amorphous sex scene in "Naka-Choko").  Natali is less interested in the grotesque tableaus established by David Slade in the pilot than he is in gauzy scenes that dissolve together and layer over one another.  I love his half-lucid approach to visualizing scenes, and his work in "Antipasto," "Primavera," and "Secondo" resulted in some of the most stunning shots in Hannibal history, which is saying something.

Brian Reitzell's score seems to have found another gear too.  He has a way of finding clashing, abrasive sounds and blending them together for a wild and hair-raising effect.  Hannibal is hardly a scary show, but you wouldn't know it from just listening to Reitzell's score.  Just a few notes are enough to make you leap out of your seat.  His sonic wizardry couples with the stable of directors' haunting imagery to create a wholly original aesthetic value that makes you wonder just how this show ended up on TV, let alone NBC.  It feels like watching an hour long avant-garde film every week.

If only the story felt as satisfying.  While it's nice to bathe in the show's sumptuous style, the narrative has no forward momentum so far this year.  A little breather post-"Mizumono" was probably necessary, but these first few episodes have felt less like a change of pace and more like outright stalling in search of a plot.  Things are proceeding in a circular motion, as the story continually doubles back on itself.  We've gotten numerous flashbacks to the second season (as if anyone could ever forget it), and even the new material will do something like present Will in Florence, but then shift into reverse, spending two whole episodes showing the process that lead he and everyone else to that point.  There's elliptical and then there's just plain dithering.

I had a thought while watching this week's "Cotorno": Is this show just not as interesting now that everybody knows what Hannibal is up to?  The first two seasons wrung buckets of tension from dramatic irony.  Everyone watching knows Hannibal's true nature, and we're just waiting for the characters on the show to catch up.  Season two raised the stakes even more, presenting Will as the only one convinced of Hannibal's evil for the majority of the episodes, and introducing a new level of gamesmanship between the two.  Now that everybody is aware of Hannibal's murderous ways, it's just a straightforward race to get him, rather than the mystery it was in season one or the cat-and-mouse game that existed between he and Will in season two.  Because the show can't move too quickly and have Hannibal get caught, it runs the risk of turning him into a supervillain, always two steps ahead even when it seems like he isn't, and somehow scampering off just in the nick of time.

Really, the problem boils down to structure more than anything.  Season two was breathlessly paced, constantly lunging forward with reckless abandon.  Even the trial episode near the beginning, which seemed to be most people's least favorite episode last year, moved the story forward much more than anything we've gotten so far this year.  Season three probably couldn't ever match that, but the first season didn't have a bullet train narrative either, and it worked out fine.  What it did have was the underlying structure of its cases of the week to hold everything together.  We live in an age where the word "procedural" gets a reaction similar to a baby being forced to eat vegetables, but it's awfully valuable in giving episodes a structure while you play around with longer narratives in the spaces between.  Without that, season three is waffling under the weight of its own intense serialization.  After all, even season two had a case of the week in over half of its episodes.

These complaints aren't show-killing ones though.  Season three may be a step down from its first two seasons, but a limping Hannibal is still stronger than almost everything else on television.  Plus, there has been some compelling material amidst the sluggishness.  As mentioned before, "Antipasto" was a great premiere, and this season has continued to explore its most fascinating theme: the idea that it's both terrifying and liberating for somebody else to truly know you.  If nothing else, season three has emphasized just how brilliantly laid out season two was, giving so many characters different motivations for wanting to seek vengeance against Hannibal Lecter.  We're only five episodes in, so things could come together eventually and render all of these points moot.  I just hope it happens sooner than later, especially given that this season could very well be its last, if nobody else picks it up after NBC cancelled it.  So get it together, Fuller and crew -- stop stalling and show us your design.