Wednesday, March 20, 2013

GIRLS: Season 2 Review

HBO’s Girls is a unique entry into the canon of modern television.  Partly ushered in by HBO itself with shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, quality TV is closer than ever before to resembling movies both through the style of production and through their narrative structures.  AMC shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead follow this model to great success (both critically and commercially).  

 Perhaps one of the best characteristics of these types of shows is that they all, at least in some measure, subscribe to the auteur theory: the showrunners for all these programs are given more latitude for creative control than most shows have been given in the past.  When you consider the shows that I’ve just mentioned, they are all 1-hour dramas with a fairly specific angle, whether it’s the time period (the 60’s with Mad Men), the setting (post-apocalypse with The Walking Dead), or the plot (crime with The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos).  Each of these uses the stated device as a method of either character study or social commentary, or in some cases both.  

Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls (eating, as usual).
Which is why Girls is such a fascinating entry onto this list: it is arguably the first in this modern era of television to apply the auteur approach to a half-hour “comedy.” When HBO and producer Judd Apatow handed Lena Dunham the reins to the show, I’m not sure they totally knew exactly what roads she would take them down, but they also knew that sometimes it’s better to trust the unique voice of one person rather than the stunted ideas of many.

Season one of the show was very good in its own right.  We spent a good deal of time getting to know the major characters, learning of their various plights in trying to survive the scene in Brooklyn New York as intermittently employed 20-somethings.  A lot of criticism of the show stems from this very specific setting and type of character.  “Why should we care about a bunch of whiny, hipster, liberal-arts college grads?” is the common refrain.  

But the reason I believe this works such wonders for the show is because of this old writing adage: “The best way to be universal is to be specific.” No, I’m not a hipster from Brooklyn who regularly attends warehouse parties or conceptual art shows.  I don’t have an online startup, and I’ve never been in an indie rock band.  But the show is a lot less about the specific setting of the show than it is about how the characters react to their situations and surroundings.  

Season two of the show, which just had its finale on Sunday, vastly improved upon a successful first season.  In a lot of ways, the script is flipped for many of the characters.  Hannah in S1 was dealing with being in a (bad) relationship and being unsuccessful in a myriad of jobs, while S2 found her (mostly) single and struggling with a little bit of success she found as a writer.  Similarly, Marnie had a steady job and a steady boyfriend in S1, and had neither in S2.  Adam’s character went from borderline psychotic behavior to having to act like a relatively normal human being, and then back around again.  

Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky in Girls.
Inside the gaps of this rough outline of the character arcs this season were some of the most compelling single episodes of television I've seen in the last couple of years. One Man’s Trash had Hannah ending up spending a romantic(ish) weekend with a good looking upper-class doctor (Patrick Wilson), all taking place inside his Brooklyn Brownstone, and somehow bringing together many of the shows themes about love, happiness and contentment without even featuring any of the supporting cast members.  The episode Boys gave a chance for the male perspective in the series, having the characters Adam and Ray spending an afternoon tracking down the owner of a dog on Staten Island, and considering Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky are arguably two of the best actors on the show, it was a hilarious and even emotional half hour of television.

The end of the season circles the characters back around to places they’ve already largely been, and stands (presumably purposefully) in stark contrast to the way the first season ended.  The first season ended with a shot of Hannah eating a piece of wedding cake on a beach she had accidentally ended up at after falling asleep on the train, alone and having broken up with Adam.  The end of season two has Adam running shirtless through the streets of Brooklyn to win her back.  Similarly, Marnie swallows her pride and, with some lines that sound like they are out of You’ve Got Mail, basically begs Charlie to take her back, after dumping him near the end of S1.

We expect characters on television to grow, to change, to shift. The character arcs on display here, however, thwart that troupe. We know that Adam and Hannah, and Charlie and Marnie, are not good together because we’ve seen them together and it was borderline toxic on both counts.  But young people make mistakes, and we do what is comfortable to us even when we know it’s the wrong thing for us.  

And that is what makes this show different from most others.  There’s a realness to it simply not found anywhere else on television right now.  At least four or five times an episode, I find myself nodding my head and smiling at the way Dunham’s writing captures a moment that I feel like I’ve been a part of before in my own life; whether it’s a situation, a thought, a line of dialogue, or even the inflection used in the way a character says something.

It can feel a tad like scientifically observing gorillas in the wild rather than actually empathizing with the characters, and in this way I understand why some people would not be inclined to watch the show.  But as long as Girls keeps being interested in the awkwardness, the strangeness, the hilariousness, and the pain of real situations and real people, I will be a fan.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Best of 2012, Part II: The Top 10 Films of 2012

I guess if I had to pick out a theme found across my favorite films of 2012, it would be that most of the films here represent the unique voice of each of their directors, and are almost sort of a window into their hearts and minds.  None of these movies could have been made better by a different director, and that’s what really makes them special.  

I’ll try and keep my blurbs short for each film on my list this year, because you were just going to scroll through and look at the titles anyway, weren’t you? Hope you enjoy.  

(10) "21 Jump Street" 
(dir. Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

The first movie on my list was this total comedy surprise featuring one of the year’s biggest success stories: Channing Tatum.  I had not seen any of his movies as of that point, but it quickly became apparent that he has pretty great comedic timing, completely holding his own next to Jonah Hill.

(9) "Django Unchained" 
(dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Django is far from perfect as a film, with at least two or three glaring flaws (the editing, a couple of the performances).  But this movie is so damn fun, that it becomes pretty easy to overlook its flaws and just enjoy it.  One thing Tarantino has always been a master of is creating an undercurrent of tension in scenes of dialogue, and seeing Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio go toe-to-toe in a few of these types of scenes was a real treat.

(8) "Bernie"
(dir. Richard Linklater)

Jack Black gives the best performance of his career in this dark comedy (based on a true story), about an ambiguously gay funeral director from Carthage, Texas who commits a murder.  Black does a great job of making the character so loveable that you take his side (like the town did) after things start going downhill for him.  The interviews of real-life town folk who knew Black’s character provide some moments of outstanding comedy.

(7) "Silver Linings Playbook" 
(dir. David O. Russell)

The second film in a row from David O. Russell that really had no right being as good as it was.  In this romantic comedy he gets so-far career best performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and turns something that, in the hands of a lesser director, could have gone very poorly, into something very real and heartfelt.  In his last two films, he now has directed SEVEN Oscar-nominated performances along with three Oscar wins.  A dumbfounding statistic.

(6) "Moonrise Kingdom"
(dir. Wes Anderson)

I’m pretty hit-or-miss with Wes Anderson films, although I do always appreciate what he brings to the table even if it doesn’t totally work.  Here, it totally works, as he was able to find material that completely suited his unmistakable quirky aesthetic.  A fanciful and fun tale of young “love” that really took me back to what it’s like being an adolescent.

(5) "Beasts of the Southern Wild" 
(dir. Benh Zeitlen)

The film that was this year’s token “little indie film that could” definitely lived up to the hype.  It is, at once, a bizarrely surreal fantasy-adventure combined with a heartbreaking, almost documentary-like glance at the extreme poverty of the southern-Louisiana gulf, all anchored by one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen in Quvenzhane Wallis.

(4) "The Master"
(dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

A performance for the ages in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal as the leader of “The Cause,” an unpredictable and visceral performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a WWII Navy Vet, and some masterful directing from Paul Thomas Anderson all add up to show us a somewhat disheartening look at how human psychology can be exploited by modern religion, a thought that will leave audiences left feeling greatly unsatisfied but for me was an exercise in introspection.

(3) "Holy Motors"
(dir. Leos Carax)

I must disclaim that this is one of the three or four strangest, most messed up movies I’ve ever seen.  So it’s not for everyone.  Once you get past the strangeness of the premise (an actor going around in a limo all day and doing several different acting gigs: an old woman, a leprechaun, a mobster, etc.) you begin to see how rich the idea is: all the world’s a stage, and we go through it playing different parts; whether it’s as a father, a lover, a working man, or a friend.  This one gestated in my mind after watching it more than any other film this year.  

(2) "Lincoln" (dir. Steven Spielberg)

I’m the last person to go along with ideas when it comes to movies just because everyone else is saying it, which is why I wasn’t necessarily prepared to worship at the altar of Daniel Day-Lewis when I walked into the theater for Lincoln.  I’ve never been so happy to have my skepticism vanquished.  He was already arguably cinema’s greatest actor of the last 25 years, but with his performance as The Great Emancipator in this film, he might have also become America’s most beloved.  The film was very good on many other counts, but replace DDL’s performance with an above-average one, and it probably falls off this list.  

(1) "Amour" 
(dir. Michael Haneke)

No need to wax poetic again about this one, as I’ve already laid myself pretty bare about it here.  I read a Woody Allen quote once about when directors begin working on a movie they know exactly what they want, but by the end of production they are just trying to get out alive even if they know it is terrible.  Amour exemplifies the antithesis of this statement: from start to finish, it is possibly one of the most controlled pieces of cinema of the last decade.  Rich, delicate, and vulnerable, it is a treasure I will not soon forget.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Best of 2012, Part I: The 2012 Movie Awards

Better late than never.  I normally try and get out my year-end film awards and Top 10 of the year posts written before the Oscars, but this year it didn’t happen.  It’s actually kind of difficult to write these columns at the end of the year like real critics do, because I’m not a special person who gets screeners of films in advance of their release, and I don’t particularly like making these posts until I’ve had a chance to see as much as possible from the prior year.  So, I think a two-month buffer between the end of the year and my post is acceptable.

In this Part I of my look at 2012 in Film, I hand out my yearly Movie Awards, and in Part II I will unveil my Top 10 films of the year, so stay tuned for that.

Until then, enjoy my somewhat serious, somewhat not-so-serious movie awards.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

The Other Nominees:
Dwight Henry, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe
Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty
Javier Bardem, Skyfall

Movie I will Probably Watch More in my Lifetime than any other Movie this Year: Pitch Perfect

The “Hollywood can Pretend this Movie was Never Made, and I’ll Pretend I Didn’t Watch It” Award: American Reunion

The “Why? Oh Yeah, Truckloads of Cash.” Award: The Amazing Spiderman (But, seriously, why?)

Best Ensemble Cast: The Master

Ann Dowd in Compliance
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Ann Dowd, Compliance

The Other Nominees:
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Judi Dench, Skyfall
Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom
Amy Adams, The Master

Actually a lot better than it had any right to be: The Grey

Most Underrated Movie of the Year: Goon

Most Overrated Movie of the Year: Zero Dark Thirty

Best Movie You Didn’t See This Year: Holy Motors

Best Movie Everyone Saw This Year: The Hunger Games (ended up on my year-end list at #20)

Best Cinematography: The Master (Mihai Malaimare Jr.)

Best Original Musical Score: Anna Karenina (Dario Marianelli)

Biggest Letdown: Prometheus

Biggest Surprise: Moonrise Kingdom

Worst Movie I Saw This Year: The Trouble With the Curve

The “Should be in Every Movie” Award: Javier Bardem

The “Shouldn’t be in Any Movie” Award: Aaron Johnson

Emmanuelle Riva in Amour
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

The Other Nominees:
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea

Best Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln (Tony Kushner)

Best Original Screenplay: Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola)

The “Tim Riggins Would be Very Disappointed with your Acting Career” Award: Taylor Kitsch, Battleship, John Carter and Savages

Breakout Director of the Year: Benh Zeitlen, Beasts of the Southern Wild

The “Please, Someone Put All of Them Out of Their Misery” Award: Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter, Dark Shadows

The “Let’s Not Forget This Was an Actual Movie That Got Made” Award: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

The “We’re Still Pumping These Out, Huh?” Award: Madagascar #9, and Ice Age #15

The “Okay, It Wasn’t That Good” Award: Les Miserables

The “Yeah, It Was That Good” Award: 21 Jump Street

The “Let’s Never Forget that an Eddie Murphy Movie Actually Scored a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes” Award (I’m actually kind of impressed): A Thousand Words

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

The Other Nominees: (Had 6 total nominees this year. because I can do what I want, that’s why.)
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (Hey Oscars, this is a leading performance!)

Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour
Jack Black, Bernie
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master