Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

I am supposed to fly out to my hometown of Lima, Peru tomorrow, but due to Sandy, everything is far less certain than I would like. However, I hope you have fun this Halloween, and if you've been hit by the storm, I hope you're safe and sound. As for me, I'll spend this Halloween watching Linus wait for the Great Pumpkin and hoping for the best regarding my flight.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sandy Television 10/28/12: Homeland, Q&A

So far there have been two big characteristics about Homeland's second season.

The first is that they have been burning through plot in a way I would have never expected. They could have spent a whole season on what they did last week, but instead they seem to be on a high-speeding roll of going from one huge plot development to another to the point almost every episode has ended with a season finale level cliffhanger. The second is that while they had Carrie on a very particular journey of coming back to where she once stood tall, they have been having Brody doing some pretty far-fetched stuff like texting Nazir and killing tailors in the woods. Both of those characteristics took what I would call a left turn in this episode. 

Like in the one before it, the developments in this episode could have also been spread out through almost half a season if the writers would have liked to. By having Brody being taken into custody, they finally gave him something to do, but when Brody was captured it took years of breaking him to make him turn into islam and ally himself to Abu Nazir, while this time around, it takes one interrogation to win him back. In most cases, a show wouldn't make this work, it would artificial, a big plot mechanism. 

The thing with 'Homeland', though, is that we have a whole season worth of story behind this episode. We have everything that happened between Brody and Carrie, how he almost destroyed her life. As well as all that happened to Brody since he came home and his reconnection with his family, especially Dana. All this backstory doesn't only help to make what could have felt as a highly contrived episode work, but also turns it into one of the series' best. 

I say it helps, because the backstory would probably not be enough to make the episode work if we didn't have the amazing acting talent of Claire Danes, and in this episode especially, Damien Lewis. Lewis remains silent for long parts of the episode while he is being interrogated, but he has make such a great work of developing the character and has such great chemistry with Claire Danes, that he gives us a lesson on how reaction is as much a part of acting as action. 

After what happened in this episode, and the fact that it didn't have one of the cliffhanger episodes of previous entries this season, I would dare to say this was finally the time in which the show settles the stage for the rest of the season, but then again, with how things are moving, I wouldn't dare.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Everything is Connected All the Time Always

"Our life is not our own" is a phrase repeated and emphasized upon on 'Cloud Atlas', one of the most epic films to hit theaters this year. Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) are remembered for directing two of the most visually striking films of the nineties. More than a decade later, they decided to work together to bring a novel widely regarded as unfilmable to the screen precisely, it seems, because of that particular line. 

Cloud Atlas is built around six story-lines set in different times: In 1849 Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) makes an expedition to the Pacific Islands. In 1936 composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) works with an aging legend to compose a masterpiece. In 1973 reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) tries to uncover a controversy regarding a nuclear power plant. In 2012 book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) gets in trouble just when he is starting to become successful. In 2144 fugitive clone Sonmi-451 (Donna Bae) starts a revolution and in 2321 tribesman Zachary (Tom Hanks) tries to survive in an post-apocalyptical world. All these stories are connected and influence one another. You can now see where the titanic part of the task Tykwer and the Wachowskis set out for themselves comes from. 

David Mitchell's original novel is structured in a very particular way, in which the first half of the stories is told chronologically, then the last story is told in its entirety and finally the back half of the other stories are told in reverse chronological order. For the movie adaptation, the Wachowskis and Tykwer (as well as editor Alexander Berner), decide to take a more complicated approach to the structure. It is not as clear as the novel, instead they cut back and forth the multiple stories. It is a very good idea, it gives a more cinematic flow to the movie and the juxtaposition of images and sound add enormously in expressing the themes that got the directors interested in this story in the first place. 

One of the most publicized aspects of 'Cloud Atlas' is that actors play multiple roles. All the ones mentioned above, along with Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David and Hugh Grant, among others, appear playing supporting roles in all the other story-lines. The actors play different genders and races. This race-bending has spawned a few comments accusing the movie of being racist. I would argue the practice of changing actors into other races through makeup is only racist depending on its purpose. In the case of 'Cloud Atlas' the multiple roles is one of the most effective ways in which the themes of resurrection, karma and connection is explored and expressed in the movie. And a wonderful way of translated content from the novel to the film in an inherently visual way.    

'Cloud Atlas' is a movie that outright expresses its themes. So despite its complicated plot structure, it is not a particularly difficult film to follow and to take something out from. Lines like that or "From womb to tomb, we are bound to one another" are repeated throughout. But none struck me as much as the one I quoted at the start of this review. You, like I, may not completely buy into the new age ideas of karma and rebirth, but the idea that our lives are not entirely our own is a very true one. In a way we don't decide who we are when we are born, we are given a race, a gender, a sexual orientation and a family we don't get to choose, but 'Cloud Atlas' says we still have a chance to change all of that. All throughout the stories, there is a strong theme of slavery and oppression as characters decide to take a stand to change their life and the life of those around them for the better. 

For its huge scope and ambition, that Tykwer and the Wachowskis managed to pull off a satisfying screen version of this story, is worthy of praise. It is a film that people will enjoy when watching. It is not the deepest film of the year. Or the best. Like I said before, despite its scope and structure, it is very easy to follow. A little too much at times. Everything is expressed out loud and full frontal. Everything is, in many ways, simplified. Telling six stories at the same time makes them feel a little too simplistic and not that complicated. It seems like there is a complicated behind the movie, but its pretty simple. You see, 'Cloud Atlas' is interested in telling a good story and connecting with as many people as possible. In many ways it is a huge popcorn blockbuster. Even if not every story ends with a happy ending, it is the ultimate crowd pleaser. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Middle of Nowhere

'Middle of Nowhere' premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and didn't exactly light the festival crowd on fire. The biggest reason for that, it has been said, is the fact that it doesn't fall into one of the two categories of movies that tend to get huge buzz out of Sundance. It isn't a visually innovative bordering in the fantastical (i.e. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Take Shelter) or a quirky dramedy (i.e. Little Miss Sunshine, Safety Not Guaranteed). It is now in limited release in the U.S. and has been praised by critics for being a movie made by and about african americans that isn't either Precious or a Tyler Perry comedy. 

In that regard, 'Middle of Nowhere' is undoubtedly worthy of praise. Director Ava DuVernay's sophomore feature stars Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby, a woman who drops out of med-school after her husband is sentenced to eight years in prison. She wants to concentrate on her husband's well-being and good behavior in order to reduce the sentence to five years. In that sense, the title of the movie refers to Ruby's state, as she seizes to exist in order to try to get back to a place in her life where everything seemed to be working out. 

The movie is more than anything a character study, with Corinealdi sporting out a terrific performance as Ruby, but it also has a strong thematic focus that ends up being one of its biggest strengths. The movie presents a facet of relationship drama that hadn't really been explored very much in the past. Usually, once a character is in prison, he is either evil or unjustly convicted. The wife of the character either easily ignores him or does whatever it takes to prove his innocence. I think that has a lot to do with the patriarcal society we live in and the extent into which we have restrained the types of female character that we will accept to watch on screen. Luckily, DuVernay presents us with many shades of grey and relevant questions about morality and the foundation of marriage. 

The movie is successful in asking the questions, but not so much in the way it asks them. For such an original point of view, the dialogue is too often tediously sugary and the storyline somewhat simplistic (especially in the final outcome). DuVernay is also intensely focused in presenting us with a series of visuals that represent Ruby's state of mind during her daily rituals. There is far more than a couple of such moments, where the contemplative nature of the sequence turns the movie slow-moving to a fault, which I can only guess will displease a lot of audiences. Corinealdi can do an impressive work to communicate with only her face, but just because you close up on her doesn't mean you're necessarily saying something. An even more interesting movie could have been made if instead of focusing so much in these silent sequences, DuVernay had use the time to explore the questions, instead of just asking them. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Television 10/21/12: Homeland's "New Car Smell"

First things first. Virgil is back! Didn't you miss him? You can't argue against the fact that he was one of the bets characters from the first season, even if he never got all that much to do. David Marciano's performance just makes him an incredibly likable guy. 

Now, on to the episode itself. 

I really felt like not writing about this episode of 'Homeland', but the truth is I don't have anything better to do right now and no matter how little people actually read this, the OCD in me couldn't let me miss writing about an episode of this show. The reason why I didn't want to write was the ending. I didn't quite now what to make of it. 

In terms of plot, that is. The literal final moments of the episode, with Carrie standing in the room were great, I just couldn't understand the early capture of Brody. I guess it has a lot to do with the way we have learned to watch television through the years. Common television viewing tell us that things shouldn't really change that much, especially when it concerns one of your main characters. 

Up until that final scene in Brody's hotel room, everything indicated to me that this was an episode in which the show set itself into the status quo for the season: Carrie back at the CIA spying on Brody while he tries to hide his true identity. But by the end of the episode, Brody was captured. In many ways I loved that development, that the show is not afraid to apparently put things on the line and change stuff up a little bit. But is this when they finally go off the rails? What will happen to Brody now? If they reveal him as a terrorist, they couldn't possibly continue the show, could they? And could we go forth with Brody just escaping the CIA constantly from now going forward? I guess we'll have to wait and see. 

Disney Canon: The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

I'm sorry for the late entry, I have been very busy and had to take last week off the canon. I apologize, but now I'm back for the last entry in the 'package film' part of the Disney legacy. This one is not all that different from 'Fun and Fancy Free' in that it features two segments that are more or less the same length. Initially titled 'Two Fabulous Characters', the movie is composed of two literary adaptations each featuring the title character of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad from Toad Hall. 

The first half stars Mr. Toad in an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows'. I have not read the book, but people who are fond of the original story have long regretted the fact that Disney decided to condense the original story in order to fit it into a package film instead of making it a complete feature. Initially, though, that was exactly what Disney intended to do. As far as I know, the main reason for trimming the adaptation was that Disney thought the anthropomorphized animals were below the Disney feature standard, which I find a little ridiculous considering the existence of Jiminy Cricket, Timothy and many other characters in his previous films. 

Anyway, I might not have read the book, but I can surely see how this segment would have benefited of a feature-length adaptation. While Mr. Toad is a pretty funny character and there is much plot to the story, there isn't really much time for character development. We don't really get to know any of the supporting characters such as Mole, Ratty and McBadger, all of whom seem like great characters form what see of them. It's just that we don't really get time to know them and care about them. We barely have reasons to care for Mr. Toad, who is frantic and does a lot of stuff that kids will find funny, but isn't given the time to proof he is a likable guy worth rooting for. 

Another big problem is that it tends to rely too much in not showing how its characters get out of trouble. Particularly Mr. Toad, who constantly gets into and out of trouble, but rarely is it known how he manages to survive over and over again. But I don't want to come off too strong on the segment. After all, it still has a lot of fun sequences and charms that will surely entertain the young ones. 

The second segment is an adaptation of Washington Irving's 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow'. As far as I know, unlike 'The Wind in the Willows', this segment was never intended as a feature-length film. And not without reason. I think it works remarkably well as a 30-minute story. 

While 'The Wind in the Willows' segment features many characters, legal battles and contrived escape plots, 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' is a much simpler story, focused basically on three characters: school teacher Ichabod Crane, local bully Brom and the woman they fight over, Katrina Van Tassel. There is also a clear and progression to the relationship between the three that is also easily divisible into different tones and sequences, which embody the film with a strong structure. It is much more well-suited for the short format and the results show it. 

Although there is plenty of it, this time I can't argue about the narration. Bing Crosby is in charge of the narration, which unlike previous entries, always informs the characters and their personalities. Why is the narration so much better this time, you may ask. Well, first, it is used in a very fun way, including many songs performed by Crosby that help establish characters and easily move the plot forward. Second, it makes the movie an almost silent film. Ichabod never speaks in the first half, which makes his encounter with the Headless Horseman in the second half all the scarier. And talk about scary. It's easy to see how Tim Burton took much of what he did in his 'Sleepy Hollow' from this very sequence. It is one of the finest and scariest pieces in the Disney catalogue.

The 'Wind in the Willows' segment might be highly uneven, but the 'Ichabod' segment is so good I wouldn't hesitate calling it the best of the package films. 

Finally, a curious fact: another literary adaptation that at one point was set to take part in the film was Roald Dahl's 'The Gremlins', which Disney long tried to bring to the screen (not to be confused with the 1980s film).  

Next Time: I know, I know. We have finally finished up with the package films, it's finally time to revisit some of the films considered Disney's biggest classics, but the Disney Canon must take a break. Look for a 'Disney Canon Detour' entry in future weeks for the exact date of the Canon's return, which will finally bring us to Disney's second princess: 'Cinderella'. On the meantime, here's the 'Ichabod Crane Song'.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Gotham Awards Nominees

The Gotham Independent Film Awards are in many ways regarded as the first notable film awards of the so-called "awards season". As you might have guessed from the name, they are based in New York City and reward independent film. Although they are sometimes flexible on what constitues an independent production ('The Departed' was nominated for Best Feature in 2006), usually it's true independent hits and smaller films that benefit from the exposure that brings being nominated for the award. So, who are this year's nominees?

Best Feature
The Loneliest Planet
The Master
Middle of Nowhere
Moonrise Kingdom

I've reviewed 'The Master' and talked a little about 'Moonrise Kingdom' in the blog, so you might already know I really liked both films. The only other nominee I've seen is Richard Linklater's 'Bernie', a very good little film starring Jack Black in what is probably the best performance of his career. All three of these films are very deserving nominees in my opinion and I hope they manage to get some awards recognition at the end of the year so that more audiences get to see them (especially 'Benie', which had a very small release). 

I will not comment on either 'The Loneliest Planet' or 'Middle of Nowhere' since I haven't watched them yet, but I will say that I read some great reviews for 'Middle of Nowhere' a couple of weeks back and then forgot about it to the point I didn't even realize it is currently playing in New York. I will try to watch it next week. 

The other story with these nominees is who didn't make the list. Two of the films I thought were locks for a nomination didn't make it: 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' and 'The Sessions'. I'm on the record as saying 'Beasts' is an amazing film (maybe my favorite of the year so far), so I was sad it didn't make it, although it did get nominated in the "breakthrough" categories. 'The Sessions', on the other hand, was snubbed completely. I still expect them to get some nomination come the height of awards season.

Here are the other nominees:

Best Ensemble Performance
Moonrise Kingdom
Safety Not Guaranteed (happy to see this film's not been forgotten)
Silver Linings Playbook
Your Sister's Sister 

Breakthrough Director
Zal Batmangjil for Sound of My Voice
Brian Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky for Francine
Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin for Now, Forager 
Antonio Méndez Esparza for Aquí y Allá 
Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Breakthrough Actor
Mike Birbiglia for Sleepwalk with Me
Emayatzy Corineadl for Middle of Nowhere
Thure Lindheart for Keep the Lights On
Melanie Lynskey for Hello, I Must Be Going (I like Lynskey, but is she really a breakthrough actor? I thought her breakthrough was 1994's Heavenly Creatures)
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild

How to Survive a Plague
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Room 237
The Waiting Room

Film Not Playing in a Theater Near You
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Red Flag
Sun Don't Shine
Tiger Tail in Blue

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Seven Psychopaths: On the Couch

Martin McDonagh goes meta in his latest film. 'Seven Psychopaths' stars Colin Farrell as Marty, a screenwriter trying to finish a script called, you guessed it, 'Seven Psychopaths'. The big problem Marty runs into in this Adaptation-like setting is that his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who along with partner Hans (Christopher Walken) earns a living kidnapping dogs in order to get a reward when he returns them to his owners, has kidnapped the dog of murderous psychotic gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). 

McDonagh has made a name of himself on the stage by writing a series of darkly comedic and extremely violent plays. 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore', 'The Beauty Queen of Lenane' and 'The Pillowman', which I consider his masterpiece, are examples of his particular style. He jumped from stage to screen in 2008, with a terrific little movie called 'In Bruges'. Also starring Colin Farrell, that film had him play an assassin tormented by his own guilt who is sent to spend some time in the impossibly boring city of Bruges. The film, like the plays before it and 'Seven Psychopaths' was also very violent. 

There seems to be some of the overwhelming guilt Farrell's character feels in 'In Bruges' in McDonagh himself, who basically writes himself as the protagonist of 'Seven Psychopaths'. Marty and the other characters spend most of the movie talking about his screenplay. Marty in particular seems to be displeased about writing violent movies starring gangsters all the time. He wants something different, something life assuring. At one point he is asked whether he believes in heaven. He responds even though he writes about heaven and hell in his movies, he doesn't really know what he believes in. 

Violence in entertainment is one of the most complex topics for me and I have had lengthy discussions about it. I am generally against violence, but I also enjoy movies that are unashamedly violent without the violence necessarily informing the character or the story. Quentin Tarantino's 'Kill Bill', for example, seems, on a level, to have been made just to showcase the violence it so cartoonishly presents. Watching 'Seven Psychopaths', it seems like McDonagh has felt similarly about the work he's done in the past. He has to justify his use of violence and his writing about such dark and macabre themes in such a hilarious fashion. It is pretty clear to me watching the movie and understanding its references to McDonagh's work itself that the making of 'Seven Psychopaths' must have been a largely therapeutic enterprise. 

It feels like in order to maintain his sanity and keep writing, McDonagh had to make a film in which he put himself in the middle of a situation like the ones he writes about. It is largely on-screen psychoanalysis and I'm all for that. One of the greatest films of the past decade, Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood', also felt to me like a way of the director to express something he felt like he just had to shout out to the world. Similarly, Woody Allen, has made a career out of presenting versions of himself and his thoughts in almost every single one of his movies and Louis C.K. is doing the same and having outstanding results on his television show 'Louie'. There is, however, something that doesn't quite work for me in 'Seven Psychopaths'. 

McDonagh is an incredibly talented writer, one of the best around, and so his script is funny and very well written as far as structure and character are concerned. Actually, 'Seven Psychopaths' is an overall very well executed film and features some amazing performances (especially from Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken). The thing is that while it says a lot about Martin McDonagh, it doesn't feel like it is really saying anything to us. Its views on movie violence and McDonagh's ideas end up not being exactly clear by the end. Like Marty's character, it seems like McDonagh has found catharsis in this movie, but while the audience might enjoy it, they will not.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Some Thoughts on Homeland and more TV

As you might have guessed from the lack of posts, I'm having some pretty busy weeks. So even if I still have to catch up with a lot of tv, here are some thoughts on a few shows. 

When I reviewed Homeland's second season premiere, "The Smile", I mentioned I expected the show to start focusing more on character now that it was in its sophomore season. "State of Independence" was clear proof of that. 

'Homeland' has had strong characterization and some terrific character moments in the past, but its first season was so tightly plotted it always seemed to me like the suspense came first. But the show has done a great job of strengthening the lead characters to the point where we can get an episode like the one we got last night. Saul finding a tape of Brody revealing his true nature at the end of the previous episode was one that will undoubtedly have a great impact on the show's overarching plot, but the show-runners have decided to follow the revelation with an episode based purely on our familiarity with Carrie's character. In her conversation last week with Saul, we were reminded how much the dismissal of her theory about Brody affected her and so we can have a scene as fantastic as the prolonged silent sequence in which she nearly kills herself when she realizes she is not being reaccepted into the CIA. Not to mention the incredibly emotional payoff to the episode in her last scene with Saul: "I was right", like the smile in the first episode, is as much an appropriate as a powerful close to an episode of television as we can get. 

We also get strong character dynamics in the Jessica/Brody storyline. Especially on Jessica's side, since she has to get up and give a speech about helping veterans just like her husband at the same time she thinks he is out sleeping with someone else. I expect more tension in the dynamic between Brody, his wife and his daughter going forward through the season. And while Brody was off doing what seemed like a very mission-of-the-week story, 'Homeland' remains as thrilling and exciting as it was in season one, just this time around we are anxiously expecting the characters' reactions more than the plot developments. 

What Else Did I Watch?

Like I said, I still have to catch up on a lot of stuff, but here are some shows I did have stuff to say about:

Modern Family: "Schooled" and "Snip"
After a so-so season opener, 'Modern Family' seems to be strongly getting back on track with two very good episodes. 'Schooled' was the best of the two, because it had Phil's hilarious wisdom book and a very well-earned emotional payoff to Hailey's departure to attend college. A focus into more deserved emotions instead of the auto-pilot of last season could bring 'MF' to the heights of its first year. 

The Mindy Project: "In The Club"
The best episode so far of 'The Mindy Project'. It seems like the show is finding itself better as an effective workplace comedy more than as the romantic comedy I was expecting based on Kaling's writing and the pilot. The episode didn't have much plot, but it had the characters doing fun stuff on a night out and proved to me I do want to spend time with these people every week.

How I Met Your Mother: "Who wants to be a Godparent?"
Probably the best 'HIMYM' this season, but also a very frustrating one. It did have a nice ending and there were some very funny jokes, but the whole game show shenanigans were way too similar to one of the best ever sitcom episodes: Friends' 'The One with the Embryos'. That episode was so effective because how what we knew about the characters informed the new things we learned about them during the game. In tonight's HIMYM, I didn't feel like I learned anything about the gang, it was just a fun way to throw in some jokes about their clearest characteristics. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Argo: Timely Tension Affleck Spy

It's hard to believe how dramatically Ben Affleck's career has changed in the last ten years. At the beginning of the past decade he was considered one of the worst actors in hollywood starring in such critically panned movies as 'Daredevil', 'Pearl Harbor' and 'Gigli'. It seems like somewhere along the way he decided to take the manner in his own hands and become a director (after all, he had won an Oscar for writing 'Good Will Hunting'). His first two films 'Gone Baby Gone' and 'The Town' were both big hits with critics and now his third film, 'Argo', premiered to rave reviews at the Telluride Film Festival and is already being buzzed as an Oscar front-runner. Even though I wasn't a huge fan of either 'Gone Baby Gone' or 'The Town', I have to give it to Ben Affleck. Third time seems to be the charm, as he has made one hell of a movie. 

The story is based on true events taken from a CIA declassified mission that took place during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, as about 50 people were held captive at the American embassy. Six of these Americans managed to escape and found refuge at the Canadian ambassador's house. If they ever leaved the house, the Iranian rebels would most probably murder them. That's when CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes in. He comes up with a plan to take the hostages out of Iran by pretending to be a film crew scouting for exotic locations. He flies to Hollywood to team up with makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Les Siegel (Alan Arkin) to create the cover: a science fiction extravaganza called 'Argo'. 

The movie's biggest triumph lies in the direction and composition. The movie starts out as a political drama depicting the high tention of the hostage situation in an amazing sequence involving the rebel storming of the US Embassy. It then shifts gears into what could be best described as a surprisingly funny satire of Hollywood movie business (and to a lesser extent American politics) to finally turn into a nail-biting thriller as the missions starts to take place on Iranian ground. It all builds up to a brilliant sequence in which all three aspects of the movie play off of each other building all the suspense necessary for the grand finale. Along with editor William Goldenberg and composer Alexandre Desplat, Ben Affleck creates a film that without any grand chase or action sequences, is the most thrilling experience I had at the movies and can only be described as an outstanding achievement in direction. Affleck had proven his chops in this department before, but this time around, there's no doubt he has what it takes to become one of the best. 

My problems with Affleck's previous films were always oriented towards the story and screenplay rather than the direction. This time Affleck didn't write the film, leaving screenplay duties to Chris Terrio who definitely contributes a lot to the structure of the film and the comedy (from which Arkin and Goodman are the biggest beneficiaries). Still, I have a few minor quarrels with the script. The movie works very well as it is, but I would have liked a little more characterization for the main payers. There is a lot characters, most of them with very interesting stories to be told, but in order to keep up the tempo, the film can't really stop too much to delve into them. Our protagonist in particular gets screen-time to depict some of his personal life, but it still informs the character only partially and not in a completely satisfying manner. It leaves some of the characters a little cold, but it is also nice that the script focuses in as many as it can: a subplot involving an Iranian housemaid, for example, provides one of the film's best scenes. 

In the grand scheme of things, 'Argo' is an incredibly satisfying and effective movie. In a time when the Middle East is experiencing a big political change and diplomatic relations start to shift it is important to look back both at the political actions that started the 1979 hostage crisis as well as the outside-the-box thinking and cooperation that was required to provide a solution.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sunday Television 10/07/12: Dexter's Return to Form

Damn, just when I had decided to quit watching 'Dexter' for good, they had to come up with this. 

For the past couple of seasons, 'Dexter' had become a pretty terrible show. The plot was always basically the same, which meant the show lacked any kind of thrill or surprise when Dexter was shockingly not caught at the end of every season. Also, in the past two years it started stripping down the moral complexity that it sported in its first years (especially season two). When the show started Dexter was a very complex figure, a serial-killer, a man addicted to kill that wanted to make a good thing out of it. In the past two years Dexter's status as a rightful vigilante that was cleaning up the street of any bad guys took over the moral compass of the show. 

In any case, those two major problems seem to be gone in season seven. 

I initially didn't believe the hype when people starting saying that the newest 'Dexter' season was being any good (especially after season six, which was just outright horrible), but soon it wasn't just a couple of people saying it, it was everyone. I didn't watch the season premiere last week, but I caught up with the show and watched its second episode tonight. And it was really good. 

The big thing about the season is the fact that Debra has discovered Dexter is a serial killer. When this sloppily happened at the end of last season's finale, I thought the writers would find out a way to write the whole thing off, so I was very pleasantly surprised they decided to actually change the status quo of the show. This development seems to have been very invigorating for the show. The fact that Dexter is now living with Debra, who in turn is trying to serve as a kind of rehab for her brother is pretty interesting and brings back the morally complex storytelling from the first seasons of the show. 

'Sunshine and Frosty Swirl', which was tonight's episode, was one of the very best episodes of 'Dexter' I've seen in a long time. It featured some terrific scenes with Deb going through the emotions of finding out her brother is a serial killer (although I thought they should have done more with the fact that Harry trained Dexter, considering Deb had such a peculiar relationship to her dad), but most of all it gave Dexter a very existential journey to embark into. 

I thought it was pretty nice writing that Dexter thought he could handle being 'rehabed' by Deb and that he could really change to become a better person because of the serial killer who is now revealing the location of his victims' bodies to the police. That man, of course, commits suicide at the end of the episode. He couldn't handle not being able to kill and now Dexter is afraid he can't either. 

I don't know if this 'return to form' will last more than one season for 'Dexter'. Many shows have had a stand-out season late in their run to then continue to the mediocre state they were in ('Friends' eighth and 'Frasier's last come to mind). This might very well be the case with 'Dexter', but it seems like at least we'll get one very good season this year. 

What Else Did I Watch?

The Simpsons: "Treehouse of Horror XXIII"
'The Simpsons' did their annual halloween episode (it seems a little too early to me, but whatever). It featured parodies of 'Paranormal Activity', 'Back to the Future' and the Mayan prediction that the world will end this year. It was basically the kind of treehouse shenanigans they present every year, nothing especially funny or clever. though. 

Bob's Burgers: "Full Bars"
Bob's Burgers also had a Halloween themed episode tonight, in which the Belcher kids go trick or treating and have to stand up to teenage bullies. These three kids always work better when they are featured together in a storyline, so the episode brought a lot of laughs out of that front. The storyline featuring Bob accidentally killing Teddy's guinea pig wasn't as strong and had an unsatisfying ending, it did however provide a great capper for the episode having Bob and Linda tell the children what happened in a very nice scene featuring the family hanging out together.  

Homeland: "Beirut is Back"
Here we f***ing go. Not only did this episode have one of the best 'Homeland' cliffhangers, it also did a great job leading up to it. On the one hand we have Carrie being once again distrusted by   the CIA, which brings her to a very emotional scene with Saul in which she expresses how much it has affected her to know she was wrong about Brody being a terrorist. On the other hand we have a Brody who has to safe Abu Nazir from being murdered by sending a text message in a room full of American politicians and then seemingly wanting to get out of informing for the terrorists. It all added up so that when Saul found the video of Brody, I just lost it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Disney Canon: Melody Time (1948)

'Melody Time' is the first-to-last of Disney's 'package' films and has an enormous resemblance to 'Make Mine Music', which we already covered. It is also composed out of seven short segments animated to popular music of the time. Much that could be said about the production of the film has already been said in our previous entries and there's not much to add to that. 'Melody Time' might well be the most obscure of all the entries in the Disney canon. Some of the segments in the other package films have gotten pretty well-known, but none of the pieces that make 'Melody Time' seem to have stood the test of time. 

Like we did with 'Make Mine Music', I thought the best way of covering this one was to do it by segment. Here we go: 

Once Upon a Wintertime
The first segment is sung by Frances Longford and I am familiar with these images, albeit from a Disney VHS in which they were the images to a 'Jingle Bells' sing-a-long. However, I didn't know they belonged in this movie, much less that they weren't scored to 'Jingle Bells'. The segment focuses on a lovestruck couple and some cute rabbits skating on a lake. However, when the ice starts breaking things get pretty dangerous. I didn't see the danger sequence coming and was glad that it played silently to the score, without narration. As you might remember, constant narration was one of the things that bugged me about the previous 'package' films.

Bumble Boogie
Freddy Martin and his orchestra play a jazzy interpretation of Rimsky-Koraskov's 'Flight of the Bumblebee'. It features a little Bumblebee amidst a chaotic musical nightmare. It is quite surreal and entertaining, although a little too short, but it's still one of my favorite segments of the film. Also, Wikipedia tells me it was one of the pieces considered for 'Fantasia'. Take that as you will. 

The Legend of Johnny Appleseed
Dennis Day tells the story of American pioneer John Chapman, who roamed the Midwest planting apple trees. It is one of the most well-known segments of the film, because it was re-released separately in 1955, but that's still not saying much. A celebration of the American pioneers seems like something that doesn't really resonate with me, but it is nice to see the man being celebrated be a guy who plants trees instead of a native-killing warrior. 

Little Toot
Now, the Andrew Sisters are back from 'Make Mine Music' for this segment. Little Toot is a little boat who wants to be like his dad. Now, I'm a sucker for the Andrew Sisters, so I really enjoyed this segment, which provides a surprisingly emotional arc for the lead character.

Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians make a musical arrangement of Joyce Kilmer's poem and animators set it to some beautiful images of the seasons passing. I appreciate it as an ode to trees, which are a pretty nice thing and something that this movie seems to appreciate a lot and I think it's a smart move of their part to make the segment rather short so that the young ones don't get bored by it.

Blame it on the Samba
Here we have a 'Three Caballeros' reunion, in which Donald Duck and Jose Carioca are joined by the Aracuan Bird, who lifts their spirits by introducing them to the Samba. Now, the Aracuan bird is a funny character and the segment is very amusing, but I thought it was Jose Carioca who was the big samba enthusiast. Also, wasn't the Aracuan bird supposed to be Colombian? Anyway, I'd still rather blame it on the samba than the boogie.

Pacos Bill
Now, the last segment (featuring Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers) is most probably the most famous of all the segments in the film, but not exactly for the right reason. The story of the famous Texas cowboy may be the longest of the segments, but it isn't particularly better than the other segments. Neither is it significantly worse. It just achieved notoriety because of a scene featuring Pecos smoking a cigarette  which was later edited out of the film in subsequent home video releases. Still the story of the best cowboy that ever lived (who incidentally was supposedly raised by coyotes!) is very amusing, although not quite as kick-ass as it sounds.

Overall, 'Melody Time' is the most consistant of the 'package' films in that all its segments are in the same area of "goodness". Now, it certainly doesn't achieve the heights of 'Mickey and the Beanstalk' or 'Peter and the Wolf', but there is something to be said about uniformity and how it enhances the viewing of the film when compared to the others.

Next Time: It's the last of the 'package' films: 'The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad'. On the meantime, why not practice your samba moves?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

TV Classics: Freaks and Geeks - "The Garage Door"

TV CLASSICS is a section of 'Coco Hits NYC' dedicated to episodes of television to which I have a special connection. In many ways, Television has been the medium that has informed my life most than any other and here is my way of paying back for its influence. 

I love 'Freaks and Geeks'. I think it is one of the best television shows ever produced, which has become even greater due to its tragically short run. It is the most successful portrayal of school and adolescent life that I've seen on television. It's not so much the plot details of the stories that make the show great, but the emotions they spark up on the characters. That is the true earnestness and realism of the show. If you are in high school when you first watch it (like I was),  then you will see what you feel mirrored in the screen. If you are out of high school (like I am now), those feelings will come rushing back and it will feel as if you never left. That was the show's blessing and probably its biggest curse. The feelings someone has in high school are not always the happiest ones and are far less glamorous than anything you watch on 'Beverly Hills 90210' or 'The O.C.'. 

I've been rewatching the show and I was surprised that out of all the brilliant 'Freaks and Geeks' episodes, the one that resonated the most with me was 'The Garage Door'. Even though I would have probably fitted more into the "geek" label during my time in high school, I tend to identify most with Lindsay and the freaks' storylines when I watch the show. This one is all about the geeks, though. As Alan Sepinwall mentions in his review of the episode, this was a significant episode in the series evolution because the geeks' story has more dramatic weight than the freaks'.

The story starts out with Sam seeing Neil's dad, hugging another woman at the mall. Dr. Schweiber notices he has been busted by Sam, so he tells him the woman is just a high school friend and the he shouldn't say anything about meeting him because he is buying Neil an Atari and wants it to be a surprise. But Sam knows what is really going on. The next day at school, he tells Bill about it in this very funny scene:

They end up telling the truth to Neil, who initially dismisses the whole thing, but later finds two garage door openers in his dad's car. The three friends set out to go around town with their bikes, trying to find the house the garage opener belongs to.

As I said before, the poignant thing about the episode, at least for me, is not in the plot, but in the emotions involved. As far as the plot is concerned, I don't have much to relate to. I know people whose parents have divorced or been involved in affairs, but it just isn't the case with me. To explain what really sticks to me about the episode, we have to go back to the first scene of the episode. Sadly, I couldn't find a clip of the scene in Youtube, but it has the geeks hanging out at Neil's house watching Saturday Night Live and having snacks with Dr. Schweiber. The realization that Dr. Schweiber is having an affair is certainly devastating to Neil, but it also affects Sam and Bill. That someone who seems like such a cool guy to them could be doing something so wrong is tragic.

The realization that someone you admire isn't perfect is a very tough one to swallow when you first encounter it. I won't go into much detail, but I'm 20 years old, so it wasn't long ago that I first had a similar realization involving a person I looked up to. It was pretty rough. It created a huge sense of conflict inside of me. You just don't see it coming and suddenly you've been disappointed by the least expected person. It's something that we all go through sooner or later. Something that makes us grow up and see the world in a different light. But something that doesn't stop. At least not for me. To this day, I get disappointed by people I admire. And it still hurts.

The way 'Freaks and Geeks' tells this story made me go back to that time, reflect upon what happened and what I felt and understand life and myself better. That is what makes it such a great show. And it's all in the storytelling. Neil has the most emotional ark of the episode, but the scene that strikes me the most doesn't involve him. It happens when Sam goes back to his house after a long day of riding his bike in search of the garage opener's door. He is greeted with a surprise: his parents have bought him an Atari. Sam just hugs his dad and starts crying. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Frakenweenie: Burton by Burton

Tim Burton is, undoubtedly, one of the most famous directors alive. He burst into the scene in the late eighties with a unique visual style inspired by low-budget horror movies and german expressionism. It was an original style that soon became the Burton trademark. Almost thirty years later, Burton has become such a synonym with his style, that what once felt original now feels generic. And in the latest years, Burton seems to be in auto-pilot, making whatever project that could fit with his trademark style. When you go see a Tim Burton movie nowadays, you only  get what you expect. 

In that way, 'Frankenweenie' is a quintessentially Burton. The film is based on one of Burton's first shorts. It's the story of Victor, a young boy so sad about his dog Sparky's death, that he decides to bring him back to live frankenstein-style. Victor is a weird loner who doesn't really fit in the suburban setting he is in. Victor is also a boy very enamored with horror movies. He even dresses Sparky as a monster to film his own. 

As you can see from the subject matter, this feels like a very personal film. Victor feels very much like a child version of Burton, a weird boy with a love for film who just doesn't fit in. But the personal connection and emotion stops there. As a 'Frankenstein' spoof, the movie is full with somewhat clever horror references and has a cast of very bizarre Burtonesque characters, but the story is very straightforward and unimaginative. There is nothing surprising, special or original about Victor's quest. 

There is very little of a character arc and I couldn't tell you what the movie is really about. At one point I thought it was about acceptance. Then about tolerance. Then about learning to let go. But it ends up being about nothing at all. It is just a horror spoof with some amusing jokes. Like I said at the beginning of this review, it's the kind of movie you would expect from Tim Burton: One that is filled with his once original style, but has an incredibly generic substance. 

You might or might not have read my review of 'Paranorman', a movie that bears many similarities to 'Frankenweenie' in its stop-motion animation style and horror comedy theme. It, however, does a much better job of telling a story worth listening and connecting to. 'Frankenweenie' is the movie I was afraid 'Paranorman' was going to be: a sometimes amusing horror spoof, but nothing more. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thursday Television 10/04/12: The Beginning of 30 Rock's End

After a critically acclaimed and improbable long run (considering its low ratings), this is officially the last season of Tina Fey's show. So this season will see the last episode of both '30 Rock' and 'The Office' (and probably 'How I Met Your Mother'), something that will surely feel like the end of a television era. 'The Beginning of the End' was the title of the premiere, which in a way displayed both the strengths and the weaknesses of the show.

'30 Rock' is a show that seems to put good jokes above everything else. Most (if not all) of the supporting characters on the show are ridiculous, because the writers will do anything to make the audience laugh. Usually, '30 Rock' is very smart about its jokes, which not only makes this approach work, but also gives the show a huge advantage: even in bad episodes, you'll get a few very well earned laughs. However, every now and then there will be a subplot so ridiculous that it just doesn't work. Tonight was one of those nights. 

The story of Kenneth and Hazel inviting Tracey for dinner didn't work because it put the characters' broader, more cartoonish characteristics in the foreground. Those trades can be hilarious when in a supporting role, but when they have to carry a story they usually fall flat. Especially when the characters are denied a more nuanced side.

But even if that part of the episode didn't work, the story with Liz and Jack did work very good with me. Among its all-for-a-joke way of comedy, the writers of '30 Rock' have developed Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy into some of the most compelling characters on television. Tonight's plot also brought in '30 Rock's favorite punching bag: NBC. The show has mocked the failure of the very channel they are many times in the past, but this time felt especially funny and satisfying because it tied in to the character of Jack Donaghy's motivations and hinted at a bigger ark for the season. 

I'm glad to have '30 Rock' back. Like I said, it's a show that will always have something to make me laugh and that will turn out some great episodes in the process. It will also be interesting to see if the show pursues the NBC storyline, considering the network (thanks to the success of 'The Voice', 'Revolution' and, to a lesser extent, 'Go On') is doing relatively well now. 

What Else Did I Watch?

The Office: "Andy's Ancestry"
There were some mayor developments in the Jim and Pam storyline, which is by far the best part of the season so far. But the rest of the episode didn't work as well, although it had a few laughs. Like I said in previous weeks, the problem remains the same: the characters have devolved to a cartoonishly dumb state they didn't belong in back when the show started.  

Parks and Recreation: "How a Bill Becomes a Law"
'Parks and Rec' was, as usual, pretty great. The show is continuing Leslie's ark of starting to get disappointed by how politics work and is doing it in a surprisingly funny fashion. It might not be as realistic about it as show like 'Veep', but I am having a better time watching it. 
Also, The Ron storyline was pretty neat. Pairing Ron and Andy, because of their completely opposite personalities always works very well. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tuesday Television 10/02/12: Mindy's Second Try

The pilot for 'The Mindy Project' was very hard to judge because it didn't really felt like a sitcom. It focused almost exclusively on Mindy, we got her backstory loving romantic comedies, her current love life situation, her current workplace situation and two extended scenes involving Bill Hader and then Ed Helms that didn't feel incredibly necessary for the story. It felt like a series of funny, entertaining bits, but they didn't really add to a coherent whole. The episode itself felt messy. 

Now it was time for Mindy's second episode. In 'Hiring and Firing', as any show would require, it was time to get into a much more traditional structure and using the supporting characters. It was so much traditional in its structure that we even got a B-Plot (something we didn't have in the pilot) involving Ed Weeks having to fire an old crazy nurse. This Subplot was the weakest part of the episode. The nurse character was so cartoonish and stereotypical and the humor didn't really work there. But it at least gave a supporting character something to do. 

The main plot of the episode had Mindy and Dr. Danny (Chris Messina) being unable to stop arguing in order to hire a new nurse. The chemistry between Kaling and Messina is pretty good and their back and forth was also consistently funny, but the show isn't really quite there in terms of conveying what it wants to do and doing it. The fact that the episode ended with what seems like the addition of yet another character to the cast when they already have someone like Anna Camp being pretty much wasted wasn't a good sign. 

The episode focused on Mindy's job and worked solidly as a workplace comedy. But we also got an initial scene in which she met Seth Meyers at a book store than reinforced the romantic comedy thematic established in the first episode. Being somewhat familiar with Kaling's writings on The New Yorker, I assuma what she is trying to do is a deconstruction of a romantic comedy. She acknowledges that romantic comedies work on a different dimension than real life and she seems to be winking at those cliched trope. The fact that Meyers' character was an architect was a wink at one of her New Yorker articles and her banter with Chris Messina's character is nothing if not your typical opposites attract romantic comedy dynamic. 

The question that remains to be asked is if Mindy will indeed try to comment on what is like for a woman to have to be so heavily influenced in her life by movies that present a world set by  a completely fantastical set of rules, or if the show itself will become one of these romantic comedies. Mindy is a very charismatic lead and very good writer and I don't see a reason why not still hope for the best here.

What Else Did I Watch?

Raising Hope: "Not Indecent, But Not Quite Decent Enough Proposal"
I enjoy watching 'Raising Hope'. Like creator Greg Garcia's last show 'My Name is Earl', it relies a lot on wacky antics and characters being dumb. But unlike that show, it also has a strong emotional core and love for its characters. Tonight's episode had Melanie Griffith pop up as Sabrina's mom and it was quite funny even if it wasn't quite as moving as the episode in which Jimmy proposes to Sabrina was going to be in my mind. 

Ben and Kate: "Bad Cop/Bad Cop"
Nat Faxon and Dakota Johnson were really funny and the writers got some great use of the supporting characters in a very 'Frasier'-like farcical plot. The plot was the very typical plot about the lie that grows out of control, but you know what I had a great time watching it. The show is unashamedly sweet and sentimental and it works for me. The jokes are funny and the emotion seems sincere. It just brought a huge smile to my face. 

New Girl: "Fluffer"
Your enjoyment of tonight's 'New Girl' probably depends on how you feel about the sexual tension between Nick and Jess. From episode one we knew these two were going to be romantically involved at some point and for the most part the show has worked better when it was more of an ensemble piece instead of focusing on them. It seems like they might be working towards a development in this relationship this season, I'm hoping they do a good job with it. 
The episode itself was alright, although the solution to Schmidt's storyline pretending to be Mitt Romney's son felt forced by the writers in order to have him have an emotional moment with Cece.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Monday Television 10/01/12: I'm Stuck with this One

Monday is turning up to be a terrible night of television. 'Partners' is excruciatingly bad, I can't stand either '2 Broke Girls' or 'Mike and Molly'. I'm not very much into reality, so I can watch some of 'The Voice', but I can't stand 'Dancing with the Stars'. And my dad loves 'Castle', so maybe I'll watch some of that. But for the most part, I'm stuck watching 'How I Met Your Mother'.

For a few years now I've been watching the show just as a residual love for its first wonderful four seasons and the curiosity to see how things ended up for the characters. And while sometimes the show has the ocasional good episode and reminds me how much and why I loved it in its early years (example of this are "Subway Wars" and "The Ducky Tie"), a lot of times I just can't answer myself why I'm still watching.

Today was one of those days in which I felt masochistic. I don't know why I would want to watch the characters I once loved take part in a completely stupid, ridiculous, poorly written story. You can still feel the talent of the cast while watching 'How I Met Your Mother', but the writing has become so awful it feels very sad to watch. 

Tonight's show didn't work not only because the jokes were terrible, but also because there was really little invested on any of the relationships it was breaking up. We knew Barney and Quinn had to break up in order for Barney to marry Robin, so it wasn't at all emotionally significant to watch their relationship end. We know Ted won't end up with Victoria, so we don't care when and how they break up. Ditto for Robin's relationship with a boyfriend we barely now and empathize with. All this was punctuated with a terrible resolution scene that had the magical psychoanalytic scene in which characters magically now how to perfectly explain what's ailing them and so they can all be ok with each other. 

If there was something good to this terrible episode, it was Robin being turned on by watching herself deliver the news on tv. I did laugh at loud at that. 

Seth McFarlane: Oscar Host

A couple of weeks ago, Seth McFarlane hosted the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. Then he appeared at the Emmys to present an award. Now he's been announced as the host of the 85th Annual Academy Awards. McFarlane is best known for being the creator of animated television shows such as 'Family Guy' and 'The Cleveland Show' as well as being the director of this summer's biggest comedy hit: 'Ted'. 

Now it seems weird that the Academy would pick the creator of such a crude show as 'Family Guy' to host the Oscars (Especially the year after they went completely safe and retro having Billy Crystal as MC), but I think I can see where the Academy is coming from. 

My first thought was that they wanted to get some of the Ricky Gervais-style action that the Golden Globes were having as of late. You now, for the past few years Gervais has been hosting the Globes and getting headlines for his hard mocking of various celebrities at the telecast.  Now, I haven't seen 'Ted', but McFarlane's tv shows are notorious for relying on asides that usually mock celebrities and pop-culture. 

Going for this kind of "edgy" thing does not always work and I was ready to begrudge the Academy for yet again trying to be hip instead of embracing their true old-fashion nature. Then I remembered what McFarlane's real passion seems to be:

Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have a musical background and it seems that by hiring a guy who both crated 'Family Guy' and recorded a crooner album, they are trying to get both the old and the new into the ceremony.

To say I'm not a fan of 'Family Guy' would be an understatement, but I remain optimistic that McFarlane could end up being a good host. Still this sounds like something that could end up being a complete disaster. We'll just have to wait.