Thursday, May 18, 2017

Small-Screen Swagger: Six Shows Stretching the Boundaries of TV

Aubrey Plaza going bonkers in FX's "Legion"
Television used to be a safe space. It was a repository for the comfortable and familiar: the family sitcom, the police procedural, the doctor show. After a long day, we settled on the couch to bask in the routine pleasures of our favorite weekly programs—chuckling along with the laugh track, racing to uncover the killer, wagering on the survival of the patient. We didn’t watch TV to be challenged or jostled. We watched it to be soothed.

Here’s a decidedly cold take: TV has changed. Over the past several decades—the point of origin is a matter of dispute, but most critics cite the launch of The Sopranos in 1999—television has transformed into a multi-headed hydra of prestige entertainment, teeming with hard-bitten dramas and historical epics and anarchic comedies. (It’s also grown more cinematic, but don’t worry: This is not one of those insufferable think-pieces declaring that TV is better than movies, or vice-versa. (For the record, the only correct answer to the question of “Which is better, movies or TV?” is “Yes”.)) As competition expands and delivery options multiply, showrunners are capitalizing on this land of digital opportunity, developing series that are bigger, costlier, and riskier than anything we’ve seen before on television.

This can only be a good thing. Not every huge new TV show is a huge success—for every Game of Thrones or The Americans, there’s a Vinyl or a Bloodline. But there’s a heretofore untapped vein of possibility to the medium now, the sense that the next mind-blowing series is just one click away. What’s particularly gratifying is that creators are seizing the moment and pushing TV into uncharted territory. Emboldened by their compatriots’ achievements, showrunners aren’t just telling bigger and better stories; they’re telling them in new and exciting ways.

What follows are a half-dozen programs that are especially noteworthy for their ambition: the way they use the classic format of the TV show—a series of individual episodes that gradually accumulate a greater and more cohesive power—for breathtakingly novel purposes. These aren’t necessarily the best shows on TV, but they are among the most audacious.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Saving the World, One Wisecrack at a Time

Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Pratt in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"
In the middle of the hectic opening set piece of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, the green-skinned alien Gamora reproaches two of her squabbling colleagues: “Can we put the bickering on hold till after we survive the massive space battle?” It’s a sensible request that comes from the troupe’s most sensible member, but at the risk of mansplaining (human-splaining?), allow me to point out the flaw in Gamora’s logic. Whereas the typical superhero extravaganza centers on its high-octane action sequences, the first Guardians of the Galaxy made its mark by inverting the formula; it emphasized writing and character, pushing its passable pyrotechnics into the background. With this franchise, the bickering isn’t ornamental—it’s the main attraction.

That canny focal adjustment made the original Guardians a welcome antidote, a rejuvenating tonic that helped offset the fatigue brought on by the glut of superhero pictures constantly invading the American multiplex. The challenge now facing James Gunn, returning as both writer and director, is how to reconcile the bracing freshness of the first installment with the rigid demands of the cinematic universe. The standard operating procedure for comic-book sequels is simply to take what worked the first time around, then blow it up to even greater dimensions, but spunky originality isn’t so easily amenable to magnification. How do you bottle lightning twice?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Unwelcome to the Jungle, But Pressing On

Charlie Hunnam in James Gray's "The Lost City of Z"
The soldier finds the mission underwhelming. Sure, he once trained with the Royal Geographical Society, but that was ages ago, and he barely remembers his studies. Why should he be the one tasked with mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia? He’s a warrior, not a surveyor. Yet by the end of The Lost City of Z—the grand and grave historical epic from James Gray—the soldier’s reluctance has transformed into obsession. This touching, tragic film chronicles its hero’s gradual descent into something like madness, even as it acknowledges the nobility of his pursuit and the dignity of his character.

For all of the death and misery that it uncovers, The Lost City of Z is not exactly a downer. Gray, once known for his gritty thrillers, has of late developed an odd and interesting talent: He can make human suffering seem strangely beguiling. His Two Lovers put Joaquin Phoenix through the emotional wringer, but it also recognized the thrill of newfound romantic attraction. And while The Immigrant essayed the challenges facing Marion Cotillard’s woebegone traveler with unflinching directness, Gray’s lustrous craft shaded her predicament with tenderness and hope. Now with The Lost City of Z, he examines the ecstasy and the agony of mania—the fanatical need to prove yourself, no matter the mortal cost.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Free Fire: Shots Squeezed Off, Insults Catapulted

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley in "Free Fire"
Near the end of David Mamet’s Heist, two rival criminal factions engage in a shootout on a pier. It’s a fairly unremarkable scene, except that standing in the crossfire is Bergman, an irascible fence played by Danny DeVito. As the bullets whiz past him, Bergman transforms from a tough-talking hoodlum into a conciliatory wimp, yelping in protest, “Put the fucking guns down, let’s just talk!” Free Fire, the latest whatsit from the English auteur/weirdo Ben Wheatley, essentially extends this bit of off-kilter gunplay to feature length. It assembles a motley crew of hooligans, junkies, and reprobates, then sets them loose on one another in a display of inept savagery that’s more pitiful than lethal.

That phrase might also describe Wheatley’s prior films, which have relied on showy extremism to enliven themes and narratives that are fundamentally banal. These include Kill List, a glum study of blue-collar ennui that morphed into a grisly and tasteless horror movie, and High-Rise, an initially fascinating but ultimately unwatchable satire that squandered a terrific cast in favor of incoherent montage. (I haven’t seen A Field in England, but Variety assessed it as combining “imagination-teasing ingenuity” with “a startling lapse in basic storytelling competence”, which seems to fit.) Qualitatively, Free Fire represents a dramatic improvement for Wheatley, but what’s most interesting is how he’s improved. No longer straining to confound audiences with his avant-garde brilliance, Wheatley has instead chosen to wield his gifts for the old-fashioned virtue of entertainment. Free Fire has little heart and even less depth, but compared to the arduous nature of Wheatley’s past works, its breezy emptiness is oddly refreshing.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why You Need to Watch Netflix's "13 Reasons Why"

Katherine Langford is dead and hating it in "13 Reasons Why"
High school is a crucible. It can be at once wonderful and terrible, a paradise of joy and discovery and a battleground of spite and cruelty. It’s the claustrophobia—for four consecutive years, you spend an inordinately high percentage of your time stuffed into the same space, surrounded by the same people, chasing the same dream of escape. That pressure-cooker environment explains why every emotion, every experience, feels heightened: Every friendship is destined to last forever, every fight rends you in two, every romance is Shakespearean in scope. At times you wonder if you understand anything, but what you know for certain is that nobody understands you. And whenever something bad happens to you in high school, it doesn’t feel like a discrete event, a fleeting moment in the anthology of experiences that will shape you as a person. It feels like a cataclysm.

Perhaps I’m speaking only for myself. But I am also speaking for Hannah Baker, the stricken, haunted protagonist of Netflix’s sweeping, searing new drama, 13 Reasons Why. As played in a breakout performance by Katherine Langford, Hannah is the series’ focal point, its magnet for the emotional turbulence that so forcefully buffets the students of its nondescript suburban high school. Sad, sweet, hopeful, and scared, Hannah is in many ways a typical teenager—a drama queen to some, a wayward soul to others. She is the show’s lifeblood. She is also dead.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Your Name.: Trading Places, and Finding Feelings

Two teens trade places in "Your Name."
Part playful comedy, part wistful romance, part sci-fi mind-bender, Your Name. (yes, the period is part of the title) is a strange and beguiling experience. It’s a movie that nimbly hopscotches between tones and across genres, but it always demonstrates firm commitment to its characters. Visually, it’s a beaut, but the loveliest thing about it is its tenderness.

The ultimate intensity of Your Name.’s emotions sneaks up on you, given that the film initially scans as a poppy Japanese update on America’s cheesy ’80s comedies. Taki (voice of Ryûnosuke Kamiki), a high school student living in the clattering hub of Tokyo, is a typical teenage protagonist—comfortable with his male pals, awkward around his female crushes, and nursing a nagging worry that his existence lacks real meaning. The same is true of Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), a dreamer living in the country village of Itomori; she has a relatively peaceful life going to school and making traditional sake, but she longs for the bustle of the big city. Residing in decidedly different worlds, Taki and Mitsuha have no connection to one another, except for one little thing: Intermittently and inexplicably, their minds get swapped into one another’s bodies.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ghost in the Shell: All That Glitters Is Not Code

Scarlett Johansson is a troubled android in "Ghost in the Shell"
Is Scarlett Johansson superhuman? In recent years, the one-time ingénue from Lost in Translation has played an assortment of otherworldly women who fit the bill—the sociologically curious alien of Under the Skin, the cerebrally enhanced anomaly of Lucy, the preternaturally gifted warrior of the Avengers films. (The only foe whom Black Widow can’t seem to conquer is the studio that refuses to green-light her own franchise.) But even beyond her portrayals of these exceptional characters, Johansson herself has demonstrated an uncanny, seemingly inhuman ability to dig, well, under the skin, to invest her fantastical creations with quiet longing and simmering grief. That talent proves crucial to Ghost in the Shell, yet another futuristic flick about a faux-human figure wrestling with the concept of her own identity. On the page, the film’s heroine is a fascinating but familiar archetype. Johansson makes her a character.

Good thing, too. Repurposed from the hit Japanese anime from 1995, Ghost in the Shell is a brisk and surprisingly contemplative affair, but it doesn’t have much original to say about the (in)human condition. It’s easy to perceive its central story—set in a glossy dystopia where man and machine have melded—as a greatest-hits compendium of classic science-fiction cinema. There’s a dash of the chilly aesthetic of Blade Runner, a pinch of the caustic irreverence of RoboCop (though lacking the broad comedy of The Fifth Element), a heaping of the cyberpunk chic of The Matrix. Yet despite its composite nature, the dark and sleek universe of Ghost in the Shell still manages to look and feel reasonably novel. It borrows, but it doesn’t steal.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: A Provincial Remake, But Some New Magic Flickers

Dan Stevens and Emma Watson in Disney's remake of "Beauty and the Beast"
“You can’t judge people by who their father is,” Mrs. Potts sagely intones. This preoccupation with parentage is new to this version of Beauty and the Beast, Bill Condon’s half-enchanting, half-enervating remake of the 1991 animated classic. But while Mrs. Potts’ wisdom is undeniable—she speaks in the voice of Emma Thompson, after all—it is impossible to view this latest child of Disney without considering the long shadow cast by its progenitor. Every work of art must be judged on its own terms, yet the question lingers: Was there a genuine reason to make this movie, an artistic justification beyond the piles of cash that the studio is already raking in? Or, to turn another of Mrs. Potts’ observations into a question, is there something there that wasn’t there before?

Yes and no. Operating under the all-seeing mandate of a corporate overlord, Condon and his screenwriters, Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, have transported the original’s two-dimensional drawings into spit-and-glue live action with a predictable degree of fidelity. This immediately lowers the remake’s ceiling; imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is perhaps the laziest form of filmmaking. Yet this new incarnation of Beauty and the Beast, while expectedly faithful to the original, is not entirely a retread. Narratively, it has some additional backstory, which is arguably extraneous but which nevertheless adds heft to the movie’s thematic interest in the bond between parents and their offspring. Musically, beyond the instantly hummable hits from one of the biggest-selling soundtracks of the ’90s, it exhibits a handful of original songs, several of which are lousy but a few of which are actually pretty good. And of course, it features the services of a litany of estimable British and American actors, who help imbue an otherwise commercial enterprise with artisanal craft.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kong: Skull Island: Doing the Monster Mash, Upriver in Vietnam

Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston take a gander at King Kong in "Skull Island"
One of the lasting lessons of Jaws was that shrouding your monster in mystery elevates its threat level; over the film’s first half, we grow to appreciate the terrifying power of its man-eating shark, but we don’t actually see the beast for well over an hour. Kong: Skull Island may aspire to the heights of classic ’70s cinema, but it deems this particular piece of Spielbergian wisdom to be hogwash. Here, we glimpse the titular ape almost instantly, and while he’s obscured by shadow during the prologue, by the time the first main set piece rolls around, we’re treated to the sight of King Kong in all his massive glory. He’s big, he’s mean, and you had better believe that he’s going to knock your puny little helicopter right out of the sky.

Subtle and suspenseful, this is not. But while Kong: Skull Island is undeniably blockheaded, its bluntness is also kind of disarming. Here is an unpretentious big-budget movie that is unapologetic in its prioritization of action and spectacle. If you want thoughtful storytelling or complex characters, go to the art house. Here there be monsters.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Logan: For Ailing Hero, a Road Trip and a Reckoning

Hugh Jackman returns one last time as the Wolverine in "Logan"
The most valid criticism of Marvel movies is that they’re all the same. That’s an exaggeration, certainly, but there’s an undeniable whiff of formula that pervades the MCU, a familiarity that sometimes slips into complacency. The oversized casts, the pithy banter, the FX-laden fight scenes, the mundane aesthetic, the cameos and the fan service and the post-credits stingers—all of these combine to form a brand that, while powerful and successful, threatens innovation and disdains originality. (My favorite MCU entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, is delightful in part because it is only tenuously connected to its eponymous universe.) Some of the individual titles are good, others are bad, but few even try to be great.

Logan, the seventh movie to feature Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine (ninth if you count his single-scene appearances in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse), is not a great movie. Its villains are bland, its action sequences are mediocre, and its pacing is occasionally sluggish. These are flaws that would cripple most comic-book movies. But Logan, which was directed by James Mangold from a script he wrote with Scott Frank and Michael Green, is not most comic-book movies. A welcome outlier in a cinematic landscape of alarming uniformity, it is decidedly unlike its peers: bold, thoughtful, and surprisingly powerful. Above all, it is distinctive.