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This is pulled from much of my TV writing, especially year-end Top 10 lists: http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com/2012/04/super-belated-top-10-tv-shows-of-2011.html http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com/2010/12/top-ten-shows-of-year.html http://www.sophomorecritic.blogspot.com/2012/12/top-10-of-year-in-tv.html http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com/2009/12/top-ten-tv-shows-of-year.html and I've attached a few links below where I've written extensively about the show if anyone's curious
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
A beautiful film, rare biopic
If you make a list of the most memorable biopics in history, very few of them come from before 1970. Films like "Life of Emile Zola" "Sergeant York" "Day for Night" and even Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata" feel rather dry despite the efforts of their actors. Perhaps it's the Hollywood code that prevents the juicy dark parts of these characters' lives from coming to the forefront in these narratives. Or perhaps Hollywood felt more comfortable with fictional characters whose lifespans they can depict like the title characters of "Johnny Belinda" or "Goodbye Mr. Chips". "Birdman of Alcatraz" is a rare exception. It follows the entire adult lifespan of a man and remains faithful to much of his life story so that the emotional effect really feels authentic and packs punch.
The film's subject, Robert Stroud (played by the never disappointing Burt Lancaster), is a lifer at Leavenworth Penitentiary (and later Alcatraz) who transforms from an anti-social rebel to an elder statesman (within the confines of his prison walls) when three birds enter to his cell and his senses of empathy and curiosity are awakened. In caring for his birds, he begins to care and form friendships with those around him and finds a purpose to devote his time. When his birds get sick and the local veterinarian tells him it's a routine epidemic and doesn't offer a solution, he exhaustively researches and finds his own and in publishing his results, he becomes one of the leading ornithologists in the country.
The degree to which Stroud was a spiteful man or simply misunderstood (many inmates described him as psychopathic even in his "reformed" stage) is debatable, but both Burt Lancaster and the author of the film's source material, Tom Gaddis (played by Edmond O'Brien in a somewhat odd fourth-wall-breaking narration), have an affection and admiration for the man and that shines through.
Because the character of Stroud is in every frame of the film and in many of these moments, it's just him and the birds. Similar to films like "Cast Away", "All is Lost", or "Wild" the challenges on the part of Lancaster and director John Frankenheimer to make these quiet passages work are met extraordinarily.
Similarly, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Thelma Ritter, and Betty Field do great work in supporting parts. In particular, Karl Malden makes the case for being one of the most consistently great actors of his generation with this understated role as a straight-laced prison warden is what Robert Stroud's anti-hero persona is defined against. The two share a begrudging respect for each other after spending over half their lives on opposite sides and it's a relationship with a lot of depth.
This is a film that one should see not just because Robert Stroud was a fascinating character but because Frankenheimer and Lancaster bring his story to life so well.
Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
Great Black Comedy of Awkwardness
Selma Hayek plays Beatriz a masseuse with a cordial relationship to a wealthy California socialite (Connie Britton as Kathy). When her car breaks down, Kathy suggests she stay for their dinner party. Kathy's husband (David Warhofsky) begrudgingly agrees in hopes that Beatriz will stay out of the way of his big client but chaos ensues when the big client, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), proves to be an unapologetic blowhard and Beatriz turns out to be more expressive than expected. To make matters worse, Strutt might have built a hotel in Beatriz's Mexican hometown that demolished the local economy.
It's a clash of one of the haves and someone who was born out of the have-not sector and it's every bit as cringe-inducingly glorious as you would imagine if you like that style of humor.
Mike White (who has done a lot of interesting work including the TV show "Enlightened") writes an excellent screenplay that brings out the tension beautifully. A couple of major reviews have criticized the film for hitting its viewers over the head with class and race symbolism, but it's themes of the awkwardness inherent in dinner parties and other social gatherings among unfamiliar people of different stations is universal.
Connie Britton does great work as a legitimately compassionate person who just happens to be caught between two opposite personalities.
Deidra & Laney Rob a Train (2017)
Shows an interesting corner of life
"Deidra and Laney Rob a Train" is set in a non-descript town where almost no one goes to college, the local rail yard doesn't pay a sustainable wage, and signs of the town's glory days have littered the town's visual landscape. There's a lot of talk lately about showing more people of minority races on TV but this is a film that shows a landscape of economic depression that doesn't discriminate against people of either color. The two protagonists are bi-racial and neither their African-American mother nor their white father can make enough to provide them a brighter future (though points go to mom for trying quite a bit harder).
When the titular characters' mother gets incarcerated, they decide to rob the insides of slow-moving freight trains to raise money for their bail. The film gets interesting when exploring the dangers and logistics of such an act. Like a lot of the film, the appeal is in exploring a corner of Americana that has been right under your eyes most of your life.
Deidra and Laney are astereotpical with the elder sister being an overachiever in school and Laney being angst-filled and Laney filled with a mixture of angst and a desire to fit in. She's bullied quite a bit and these scenes are perhaps the cruelest in the film to stomach if you haven't seen much of this genre. The film is filled with a few familiar faces (Sasheer Zamata of "Saturday Night Live", Missi Pyle, and Tim Blake Nelson) but mostly thrives on new talent and these actresses have a lot of room to surprise us.
It's a worthwhile watch.
Special Correspondents (2016)
A decent fish-out-of-water film
If there's one thing most people can agree on, it's that Ricky Gervais is a comic genius when it comes to making TV. The breadth of influence from his melancholy character creations on "The Office" and "Extras" has been seen all over the TV landscape.
What's curious is that a lot of this innovation is absent in Ricky Gervais's films. "Ghost Town", "Invention of Lying" and this film basically work through the age-old comic method of character and opposing concept like (off the top of my head) guy who wishes to grow up meets adulthood ("Big" or "13 on 30" in reverse), president wielding extraordinary power meets small-town politics ("Welcome to Mooseport"), thoughtless man with no appreciation for present meets eternal present ("Groundhog Day"), or powerless man meets eternal power ("Bruce Almighty") "Ghost Town" is a case of a guy who wishes to be left alone being forced to deal with the dead on top of the living people he wishes to avoid. "Invention of Lying" is a case of man without influence gets power over gullible society. "Special Correspondents" is a case of lazy news reporters meeting real news.
With the exception of "Invention of Lying" (which lends itself to home-run-hitting dialogue), none of these have the depth in their premise that could reach the same comic heights. As is, it's a decent film that works at the lower degree of difficulty set in by its script. The quieter moments of character development, though somewhat sitcom-llke, tend to work and the characters hit their notes.
Ricky Gervais is a news reporter who has accepted he's a schlub in life (much like his "Invention of Lying" character at the start) despite somehow managing to snag Vera Farminga as a wife. Gervais digs relatively deep although the tone of the supporting cast (Vera Farmiga is pretty arch, America Ferrera is "Latino comical" in a way that mirrors Sofia Vergara's "Modern Family" role) and the film's plot would pick a fight with any sense of pathos. Still, Gervais is likable and kind of sweet and his chemistry with love interest (though the two have an admirably platonic vibe).
Why Gervais is so stifled when he apparently has directorial control and is credited as a writer on these films is hard to figure out, but the film is what it is.
Our Brand Is Crisis (2015)
An underlooked gem
"Our Brand is Crisis" saw its pre-release hype dissipate by the time it hit theaters for reasons I can't easily pin down with a few minutes of googling.
What I can say is that it's a definite shame this film didn't make it into the conversation for Oscar or gross more than $7 million domestically, because it's a richly textured film with a well-paced sense of adventure and exoticism.
The film revolves around the rivalry between two ace political strategists (Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton) working different sides of a Bolivian election with the cultural sensitivity of two seasoned board game players competing in a heated contest of Risk.
Bob Thornton's character is based on James Carville (between this, Saturday Night Live, and Documentary Now, he seems to be a standard part of any impressionist's repertoire). Bullock channels a slightly darker version of her frazzled but endearing rom-com persona in a part that was originally scripted for a male character and she steals the show.
A supporting cast of Scoot McNairy, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan and Ann Dowd adds a cadre of characters with varying degrees of seriousness that makes for some memorable bantered dialogue. It's perhaps in keeping with the film's commentary on geopolitical ethno- centrism that the presidential candidatate (Joaquim de Almeida) is the least interesting character in the entourage. There is, however, a relationship that Sandra Bullock's character develops with a local teenager that comes closest to providing the film's protagonist with a moral awakening.
The film successfully threads the needle of thought-provoking without being overly preachy, even if the resolution is slightly less profound than it thinks it is.
Finding Dory (2016)
A sequel with purpose an flair
For its grandiose reputation as a creative mecca, even Pixar has been unable to resist the Faustian bargain of a sequel every now and then. While Ellen DeGeneres' popularity and "Toy Story 3""s Oscar nomination made a sequel inevitable, it shouldn't be discounted that Dory (DeGeneres) was deservedly a breakout character in her own right when she debuted thirteen years ago as Marlon's (Albert Brooks) memory-addled sidekick. The circuitous dialogue resulting from Dory's short-term memory loss makes for the kind of back-and- forth of an updated Abbott and Costello routine. Similarly, Dory's chipper attitude in the face of her (presupposed) inability to accomplish anything outside a 30-second window makes her a spunky can-do everyman.
The challenge coming into "Finding Dory" is similar to nearly every TV spin-off from Gomer Pyle to Joey: Can the comic relief carry their own storyline? In this case, yes: It turns out there's a lot of depth to Dory when you factor in the potential that her memory could resurface and, indeed, that's the route we go down.
Dory begins to experience flashbacks that take her, Nemo, and a reluctant Marlon (taking each other for granted is a theme here) all the way to a Seaworld-like aquarium in California where Dory, Nemo, and Marlin find themselves in and out of various rooms and fish tanks. Lack of opposable limbs or bodies larger than three inches be damned, this is the Pixar universe and pesky human contraptions like doors are no match for you if you have determination and some crafty friends to help. These include a beluga whale (Ty Burrell) with echolocation, a near-sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), and a curmudgeon of an octopus whose congruence with voice actor Ed O'Neill's screen persona makes him the film's breakout character.
If you're someone with a deep-seated love for aquariums and Jacques Cousteau like me, there's an enchantment in the animation that you would never get from the renderings of toys, ants, superheroes, or dystopian garbage piles that Pixar has previously done. There's also the added bonus of the biological accuracy and the clever ways in which these traits are ingrained in their characters.
High-quality animated flicks typically come with moral parables and the original one here is the way that people with disabilities can contribute to society and are capable of surprise. Although Dory couldn't really navigate the freeways of California, it all feels surprisingly organic here.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
A bit squeamish-inducing but plenty of bang for the buck
Owing a bit more to the James Cameronesque horror of grotesquely-shaped beasts than to the simplistic awe of a majestic beast, Kong: Skull Island is an effective nail biter. It's not for the squeamish, however.
With the genuine shocks of adrenaline and the action geared towards 3-D viewing, Kong: Skull Island feels like a two-hour roller coaster ride but there's an honest attempt at characterization and story.
There's a loosely-established mythology that Kong is the last of his kind and protector to a tribe of very indigenous looking people and a necessary balance to the ecosystem from the dangers of a very ugly creature called the skull duggers and yada yada yada. The film's need for moral parable is precipitated by the fact that Samuel L Jackson (who normally plays such level-headed characters) plays a military commander who's attitudes towards animals are evil with a capital "E" which sets up the main narrative conflict of the film, prompting the need for the good guys to step in and rescue Kong from animal cruelty. Perhaps, it's because of the Vietnam setting that the film has an anti-military stance as Jackson's character represents militarism run amok.
Chief among the good guys is a castaway played by John C. Rielly who is both a throwback to 50's B-movies (other reviews liken him to "Apocalypse Now") and an endearing character in his own right as a castaway who has been stranded on Kong Island for nearly three decades. Brie Larson makes her first big post-Oscar move in style as a Ripley-esque action heroine and Thomas Hiddlestone proves that this guy has a future as a leading man (piggybacking on his great performance in the in "Night Manager").
"Kong: Skull Island" is beautifully shot and highly entertaining provided you can stomach it.
Woman in Gold (2015)
A great film that fell through the cracks
My original perception was that this was an indie flick that only played in the art houses because it was an artsy film. the truth is that it's a great film that simply didn't get the luck of the draw when it came with mass distribution. Woman in Gold would be at home with any of the Oscar nominees and contenders and would easily be considered more of an outright crowd pleaser than a film like Danish Girl (which got nominated in acting categories) or Brooklyn (which did make the final cut for Oscar).
The film is based on an eight-year-long quest by a California-based lawyer of Austrian descent and a longtime family friend from the motherland (the prior relationship between the characters is erased in the adaptation process) to reclaim confiscated art by the Nazis.
The film's main strength is that it's neither a holocaust story nor is it a standard courtroom drama, but it's a fresh new take on both genres. As for the former, the film feels fresh through its specificity to the Austrian experience and the specificity of a wealthy family. The film is more relatable to the experience of anyone descended of an immigrant who had to leave the old regime. As for the latter, the film's main challenge wasn't showing a guy having his flashy day in court but rather a long slog as it was taking a toll on his life. The film handles this challenge in pacing admirably.
More than that, the film flies on the strength of its central relationship. You never think of Ryan Reynolds (best known for subversive leading men or a smug action stars) and Helen Mirren as occupying the same universe but the chemistry between the two goes a long way towards making this film transformative.
The film is a powerful one about remembrance and loss. It teaches that one can't fix the past, but healing those wounds is a noble cause.
Provocative in the best sense of the word
Set in an archetypal black household in mid-20th century Pittsburgh, "Fences" is a tale of an apologetically flawed man who's a product of an era. Adapted from an August Wilson play, the story centers around foul-mouthed garbage man Troy Maxson who lives with the bitterness of being shut out of a professional sports career and sees his family as nothing but another in a long list of responsibilities he's saddled with. His disabled war veteran brother depends on him for support, his oldest son asks for handouts and his lover-on-the-side (although he has a genuinely visible love for his wife played brilliantly by Viola Davis) saddles him with another kid. On the other end of the spectrum is a middle son played by Jovan Adepo who would be able to thrive if his father could give him the chance.
Does Troy represent the popular image of the African-American man? Is he to blame for his ill fortunes or is he a product of society? Did Troy fail his children? The fact that he and his situation are complex enough that you can argue these questions any which way makes this such a provocative work of art.
The film embodies what's best about theatrical adaptations from the poetry in the dialogue to the thoroughness to which the actors do their legwork. Denzel Washington directs it with a very light touch (I can't even be sure he did much of anything at all but it's very much appreciated).
The film also boasts the year's best ensemble which includes unsung actor Jovan Apedo and Mykelti Williamson playing one of the few performances of mentally disabled that I personally left wanting more.
Gives us little to reason to care until the second act
The problem with "Gold" is that it takes you into an esoteric world (in this case, let's call it "large-scale multi-national gold mining?") without making us care about the intricacies of the topic. Instead, it follows the template laid out in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (and that Martin Scorsese bludgeoned to death in "Wolf of Wall Street") of showering the viewer in capitalism porn: Shots of people getting rowdier as visual cues (i.e. graphs going upwards, the stock exchange ringing) show them getting richer and richer. This is a shame because Stephen Gaghan masterfully wove story threads in an Altmanesque manner to tell the story of the global oil crisis.
Perhaps my expectations were high here, but without that effort to make the economics of an economics film engaging ("Big Short" is a better example of this), there's little reason to care about this story. It's just some schlub who looks an awful lot like Christian Bale's character in "American Hustle" (another better film with which this one shares suspicious stylistic similarities) who hits a lucky streak and experiences good things.
In the second half, some twists emerge, including one big blind-siding whopper that is very likely what catapulted the real life story out of obscurity and led to the existence of this film, but by then it's too little too late and there's not really any foreshadowing that makes the big reveal interesting. What's even more frustrating is that what could have made the film palatable was right there in the script. The story is framed around a mysterious interview that McConaughey's character has with either his lawyer or the FBI but this narrative device is employed extremely half-heartedly.
Despite the film's grandiose ambitions, the film is only memorable in the end for a smattering of striking images that don't lead up to more than the sum of their parts: The "Apocalypse Now" allusion of a man coming to terms with his demons in the Southeast Asian jungle, the contrast between the sweetness of Bryce Dallas Howard and the raw ugliness of McConaughey (I'm presuming he gained weight for this part), and the odd homoerotic gaze with which McConaughey shows to Edgar Ramirez's character.