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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
Excellent picture from Jean-Marc Vallee
"Wild" is based on the autobiographical novel of Cheryl Strayed who set out to hike the Pacific Coast Trail when her mom passing away at the age of 45. Strayed was not a hiking enthusiast by any stretch of the imagination but rather a lost soul who didn't know what else to do when sexual promiscuity and drugs didn't cure her of the void in her life.
Although the film is populated by all sorts of colorful characters who Strayed meets on her journey, it's essentially a survivalist film in the vein of "Into the Wild" and "127 Hours." This film, however, is set apart by its highly praiseworthy fluidity between flashbacks and the present.
Even though Strayed is in contact with other people at many points throughout the film, the film does an excellent job of showing that Strayed is still very much alone. In particular, Strayed has to remain on guard as an unaccompanied woman on a trail with guys, some of whom might have gone long stretches since seeing a woman. Interestingly enough, the film plays with the concept that all guys are creepy predators as the first dubious person she encounters turns out to be someone she can trust at face value.
Among the characters she encounters, the most important are those she leaves behind including her best friend Aime, her brother Lief, her estranged husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski from "The Newsroom") and the inescapable image of her recently departed mother Bobbi. Interestingly enough, the flashbacks don't necessarily portray an entirely happy home. One gets the sense that the narrator only appreciated her mother in adulthood and her regret was that by then it was too late to fully enjoy her.
Reese Witherspoon previously won an Oscar for "Walk the Line" but this is a much more challenging adult role for her as she's unable to hide behind an accent or musical number. It's not the most dazzling role I've seen this year, but it's an admirable step towards maturity for this actress. One might see the previous sentence as belittling to an actress who's 35 years old, but Witherspoon's ex-husband, Ryan Phillipe, recently retired from acting at the age of 35, and I get the sense that Witherspoon is someone who will be improving over the long haul.
One complaint about the film is Strayed's closing sentiment that the endpoint toward her journey was that years later she would get married again and have a kid which struck me as unnecessarily gift-wrapping the film with the standard "kids/marriage" happy ending that Hollywood loves to go with. The problem is that the film had a powerful message about self-reliance that felt kind of sanded off. I wasn't opposed to seeing the character get married at the end, but the the line about kids and marriage becoming the closing line left a bad taste in my mouth.
Pretty typical biopic
As much as I love learning about the history of Hollywood, there can be something pretentious about the Hollywood biopic. The story of a great creative mind taking Hollywood by storm is one that's been told too many times and easily falls into repetition. Aside from that, there's always the sneaking suspicion that the screenwriter or director is co-opting his subject's story to wrestle with his own greatness.
"Catinflas" intrigued me enough at the start that I decided to throw caution to the wind hoping the plot wouldn't veer into cliché. I enjoyed seeing the trial and error process over how Catinflas discovered his true calling, I thought the setting was unique (especially the unforgiving Mexican stage where heckling is the norm) and the actor who played Catinflas had a magnetic working-man kind of presence.
The decision to intercut the story of Mario "Catinflas" Morelli's ascension to fame over the years and the trials and tribulation "Around the World in 80 Days" producer Michael Todd to get his film made, also had potential except for the fact Michael Todd seemed like a rather flat character (not to take anything away from Imperioli's performance), and while I enjoyed "Around the World in 80 Days" as a kid, I'm not sure if there's anything to celebrate in Todd's methodology of putting every actor he could find in the film.
The storyline itself is one I've seen a hundred times before, so the film was largely on the shoulders of Oscar Jaenada and to the degree he could, Jaenada did an extraordinary job. If only he had slightly better material to work with.
A great ensemble and feel good film
"Pride" can definitely be categorized as a feel-good film with the added bonus of historical accuracy and it doesn't disappoint on either level.
The film revolves around the collaboration between the gay community in London and the striking miners in Britian in the 1980's. Focusing on well over a dozen characters, the film is a true ensemble piece and a truly great one at that. Joe, a timid University student from a conservative family whose entrance into the gay community coincides with the film's historical subject, serves as our audience surrogate and is the only character with a complete back story.
The film adeptly interweaves bits and pieces of the stories of the rest of the cast from the Welsh ex-pat who never came out to his mom, to his flamboyant boyfriend, to the sole lesbian in the group who lights up the dialog with her droll wit, to the long-married Welshman (Bill Nighy) who comes out to his wife (Imadelda Stanton) as gay in one of the film's big twists (which is played with a quiet grace). Each of these characters is given a chance to come to life which doubles the film's theme that the more people of different backgrounds interact, the more swiftly prejudices between those groups get erased.
In terms of meaty conflict, there are few straw men in the picture as bad guys who just don't like gays and to the degree they are, they're not fleshed out with much color. In the film's defense, this is true to real life in which the gays and lesbians were welcomed by the Welsh community pretty immediately. As I said, it's a feel-good movie and that's part of the tone. In a sense, I might even describe the tone as sugary with so little actual conflict happening on screen. The main enemy is some vague off-screen entity known as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who I honestly don't know much about as someone who isn't English or an Anglo-file).
Into the Woods (2014)
memorable with a flawed second half
Perhaps, because of the dearth of grandiose musicals (Jay Carney's output is disqualified here), "Into the Woods" is one of the films I most remember despite some problematic elements in the second half.
The film is adapted from a Stephen Sondheim play that doesn't outright parody memorable fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk or Repunzel in a ha ha sense, but rather a critical eye and a dark, Gothic tone.
The film combines the Jack and the Beanstalk, Repunzel, Cinderella, and Little Red Hiding Stories hearkening back to the original source material where, for example, Cinderella's two step-sisters mutilate their feet in order to be able to fool the prince into thinking they're his soul mate.
Adapting Sondheim's play presents some very strong challenges in terms of where to intermingle the humor, the Gothic angles, and most importantly, balancing the tone as the film progresses from its first to second half.
The first half of the play is relatively bright and sunny in comparison to a second half where death and destruction occur in this same universe. As a result, maintaining any semblance of tone becomes a ridiculously difficult balancing act so I don't fault Rob Marshall (who has gotten a lot of flack for being a clunky director) for failing to pull it off entirely. In my opinion, the first half needed a little more darkness (and maybe just a couple more jokes) while the second half needed either a greater touch of whimsiness at the appropriate moments or a full-on tonal shift that matches the darker turn of events. The film's production values are also quite strong despite reports of the contrary. The film certainly feels and smells of the forest. The film boasts a memorable cast and has a great ensemble that includes Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden (who could have used his 2014 performances to launch a great film career if he hadn't already signed a deal to take over a TV show), Chris Pine and Daniel Hiddlestone, and it's certainly a true ensemble
Bad Words (2013)
Have to stick with it to see results
I'm pretty convinced that this film exists as an excuse for Jason Bateman to break out of his screen image than it is to explore the nuances of an interesting subculture, because the film treats the spelling bee with only a cursory interest and more than a little bit of insensitivity as anyone who's watched ESPN's coverage of the spelling bee for even a few minutes could tell you.
That being said, the film is an interesting one in that it takes about 2/3 of the film for the protagonist to be seen as remotely redeemable (by film's end, he really is a character that is root-able). Part of this is because of an interesting choice to keep the motives of Bateman's character-- an adult who insists on entering the spelling bee on a loophole -- vague until well past halfway through the film. It's certainly a creatively interesting choice if nothing else.
There definitely is some depth to the character, as he starts the film in narration talking about being 40 and alone, and more importantly, misguided in his actions in the past tense. The choice of narration is more strange than interesting as it hearkens to a film noir feel that doesn't really fit the story.
Kathryn Hahn has an interesting turn as a somewhat jaded journalist whose sponsoring him (for the sensationalistic coverage) and occasionally sleeping with him. Allison Janney plays a protagonist that is well within her stride.
The Librarians (2014)
A bit cheesy, somehow watchable
The is how reminds me of a couple of the '90s syndicated series like "Sinbad: The Seven Seas" and "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles." Kid-friendly adventure series with a bombastic score and cheesy special effects.
Times have changed though and TV has grown in leaps and bounds. Next to the output of J.J. Abrahams and Joss Wheedon, the show's attempts at building some grand mythology is so vague ("we must recover 'the magic'") it's kind of laughable.
It's nice to see Rebecca Romijn doing something different on TV and it's nice to see Noah Wyle on TV at all, and Cassie (the frazzled redhead) is the kind of character I tend to fall in love with on screen (see Emma on Glee). but the characters are all a little flat. The jewel thief is a one-note antagonist in someone else's movie, not someone who has as much screen time as this guy has, though I do give the show points for combining their token Asian and token Brit into one character.
The above two paragraphs, however, are written with my head. On paper, this show doesn't cut it against so much great programming that's on TV right now. However, I do find it watchable and am continuing to watch it, 3 episodes in.
It's definitely a show that knows what it is (a bit cheeky, tenuous grasp on reality, stock kid-friendly characters that act rather predictably) and runs with it. If it's cartoonish, that's because it's made in the style of Sunday morning cartoons. Coming at the show on its own terms will definitely help you enjoy this.
There is indeed room for one more comedy
It's a crowded place on TV and I didn't expect this to supplant so many great shows on my viewing schedule when it's not too much a variation of the stock sitcom. However, I was surprised that adds something a little new to the equation.
Eliza Coupe stars as former hotshot lawyer Nina Whitley who is banished from the high-priced world after a public meltdown cost her her job.
She takes a job as a public defender where she often doesn't have enough resources or time to do a halfway decent job with her clients. Because of these constraints and this satiric bent, this half-hour comedy gets to the nuts and bolts of the legal system better than many legal dramas.
Nina's office is full of people who aren't on the same wavelength as her. Her arch-nemesis (and potential love interest) Phil does not take the job as seriously and as he's the ring leader of sorts, Nina is often the fish out of water.
Coupe is the rare actress whose stunningly beautiful yet can convince the audience that her character would have trouble landing a date.
The chemistry among the cast is impeccable and Oscar Nunez and Jay Harrington find themselves in roles that are complete reversals from their last TV roles of Oscar on "The Office" and Ted from "Better off Ted" respectively. The brilliant Maria Bamford is underutilized however but hopefully that will change.
Red Band Society (2014)
Pushes the bounds of credibility quite a bit
The show has a couple decent enough characters to keep me invested and it's different enough to keep me watching but it's got a lot of grating qualities too.
The show's set up, as a breakfast club of sorts, is problematic for the TV show format as hospitals are very temporary places. In fact, I'll go far enough on a limb to say, that this is the worst idea for a TV show when a movie would be so much better with this premise.
In the pilot, Leo gives a speech to the group about how they're all united by their illnesses (and obviously being in the hospital on the same date) and must wear red bands in solidarity. So as a result, we're actively rooting for people to stay sick and hospital bills to go through the roof. This is probably a health care reform opponent's nightmare scenario: That as soon as we start being generous with free health care, kids will start living in the hospital.
The band leader of the group is the soft, sensitive Leo, who is as close to the manic pixie dream guy I've ever seen. It seems like everyone from Emma (a broadly drawn stereotype of an arty kid with her trademark fedora), to Dash who man-crushes on him pretty heavily, to the nurses, is inexplicably drawn to him.
The show also heightens the romance angle a little too much and it's moderately disappointing that their choosing to make romances happen with the adults. The British quack doctor is naturally attracted to the only other black woman on the show as if it's simply not OK to have unattached characters. Likewise, the handsome doctor claims to be bad with women even though but has bedded every character he's set his eyes on.
For some reason, the show (because of the novelty factor and a few strong performances) is still watchable and there might be a range of opinions on how people respond to these characters.
The Newsroom (2012)
At best, there's a love-hate relationship with Sorkin's stubborn insistence on sticking to the same tropes for every TV show of his: Characters that have three conversations at once talking 50 miles a minute, male protagonists with godlike egos, characters indistinct from each other in their level of intelligence and temperament, romantic relationships and flirting based on an intellect (even when the participants are friends with benefits), and the list goes on and on.
If people are still watching Sorkin, however, there are things to love: If there's anything that dramatically hooks the viewer, then the stakes and tension can get high. The dialogue itself can be grating but there can be something majestic at times about watching intelligent people passionately go toe-to-toe with each other.
But there's a big catch here: At some point, Sorkin will wear thin. Around "Studio 60," Sorkin's inflexibility with writing even a single character different from the standard Sorkin prototype reached a boiling point and he suffered backlash before moving on to success with films such as "Charlie Wilson's War", "Social Network", and "Moneyball" (one suspects the greater control allocated to directors in filmdom tempered Sorkin's voice).
In "The Newsroom," Sorkin essentially recreates "Studio 60" with a climate more appropriate--a cable news channel--to Sorkin's voice where characters don't look out of place walking around with a sense of urgency and spouting off facts about economics.
The end result hardly looks less ridiculous and at this point, I'm at my Sorkin saturation point. On the plus side, the cast is amazing and in the two episodes I watched (the first two of the third season), this show has the potential to launch some meaningful discourse on various news issues (which I'm a sucker for as a journalist). In one episode, for example, Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) overhears a conversation by a government official and considers using it as breaking news. This is the kind of ethical dilemma that one hopes the public actively thinks about in order to appreciate the news.
However, as previously mentioned, there's so little differentiation between them. And it's a shame because that's all I'd need to consider the show watchable.
Bad Teacher (2011)
A great Cameron Diaz vehicle
The comic set-up of a slacker in an important profession is getting some legs lately with Bad Teacher, Bad Judge, Bad Santa, and Brooklyn Nine Nine (which is essentially "Bad Cop") and why shouldn't it? TV, film and real-life are all inundated with people who take their jobs too seriously, so this is a refreshing charms.
The film comes in a phase in Cameron Diaz's career where she was no longer America's hot it girl (her "advanced" age is even referenced in Diaz's other 2011 film "The Green Hornet) and could have fun indulging in her comic persona which generally has a bit of a bite to it. The film can be read as a commentary on Diaz actively rebelling the shorter expiration date for hot film actresses by trying in vain to raise the money for a boob job and attempting to con real life ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake (who likely will not run out of roles 20 years from now) into marrying him. Back when Diaz was known for her supermodel looks and screen presence, her comic gifts were taken for granted which is why this has been such an interesting phase in her career.
As for the film itself, while the premise is risqué, the film is in the mold of a classic comedy. It uses the medium well (something movies have to do more and more in this age of TV comedy) by filling up its two hours with nicely outstretched character arcs and big scenes (i.e. the car wash, the field trip). Lucy Punch, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins and the endearing Jason Segel shine strong in supporting parts as well.