Thursday, 31 March 2016

The 150th Review: The Newsroom - A Love Letter to Aaron Sorkin's Writing

A newsroom undergoes some changes in its workings and moral as a new team is brought in, bringing unexpected results for its existing news anchor.

This was a series about a group of journalists trying to change the way modern news reporting works. Aaron Sorkin, HBO and a show about network news seemed a perfect fit, nonetheless the first season had a rocky start. You can remove any elements of suspens from The West Wing, but at its best, Sorkin's writing remains unmatched. A Sorkin drama is one filled with dramatic turns, characters trying to overcome their flaws and storylines that are meant to get us to ask big questions about our ethics and values. To prepare this 150th post I've been re-watching some episodes of The West Wing recently, and it's easily apparent; what is it about Sorkin's writing that is so appealing: it's his rhythm, his sense of tempo, build and resolution. Maybe even the show's lack of any real pessimism or irony as well. In broad terms The Newsroom is very close to its predecessor, like The West Wing, it has a fantastic cast, a sweeping music, the walk and talks and these rapid fire dialogues. 

It's not that characters who inhabit these alternate universes are perfect. Far from it. They are flawed in the most human of ways. But they are also brave and courageous in ways I would like to believe we all can be. They have backbone, as few do, when push comes to shove, and integrity always wins out. Who doesn't want to live in a world like that? Jeff Daniels plays the angry, smug, flawed character of Will McAvoy perfectly. Pontificating with enough "I know I'm being a jerk" self-awareness that he doesn't quite enter the realm of outright villainy. Though, Will McAvoy needed to be at least a little heroic or else the big noble crusade he's leading everyone on will be in vain. Plus, Sam Waterston's superb performance as Network president Charlie Skinner may be the role that broke him away from Jack McCoy (RIP Law & Order). The most resilient actress in The Newsroom is Alison Pill, whose Maggie Jordan was almost ritualistically punished for the sin of rejecting Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr. being the avatar of Sorkin's good guy). At the end of the series, she's treated a little bit more fairly as she flourishes, grows up and asserts herself. It's progress, but no one's out of the woods just yet. 

The actors get the job done, but it's Sorkin's clever dialogue that brings the show to life. It's raw, gritty and takes a hard look at what's wrong with journalism in this day and age, but still provides hope of a new, better day. In "We Just Decided To", the first episode of this series. Everything that frustrates, enrages and/or depresses me about the current climate we live in was addressed when the lead character, newsman Will McAvoy, responds honestly to a college co-ed's question about why America is the greatest country in the world. Whatever else it is The Newsroom is - noble and earnest - Sorkin wants to emphasize how the news media has failed us by satisfying their own business interest first and forget in the mean to be independent, a belief held by many of us. 

An episode of Aaron Sorkin television is a fully constructed ride, all twists and turns carefully contoured. You may not like every minute of it, but you have to appreciate the sureness of its form. The Newsroom accomplishes what a first-rate dramatist like Sorkin has always done best: rouse your emotions while magically fooling you into thinking rousing you I.Q. For all its many flaws, this series deserved more time to flourish. After an all ill-conceived first season, Sorkin realigned the show for Season 2, making a fictional news scandal the season long arc, rather than rehashing old news every week. Season 2 had at least one female character get the nasty Sorkin treatment and it fizzed like the best Sorkin can. It was a series reborn. Perhaps the most audacious stroke of storytelling performed by The Newsroom is to place it in the recent past, and have the series demonstrate how a principled news broadcast, agressive in its pursuit of facts, would have covered actual events such as the 2010 BP oil spill. 

Viewers who actually watch dramas for the drama should savor the third season. It pays off for the patience in the growth of its characters and the bonds they formed over the first two seasons. Finally, Sorkin loves to bring everything back around at the end, and the finale presenting the pilot in a new light is a wonderful motif. Mr. Sorkin, if by some kind of magical reasons you come to reading this, thank you for finding such a wonderfully entertaining and inspiring way of suggesting that we can be better version of ourselves, the one that affects positive change because "We Just Decided To". That is really what it comes down to, isn't it? 

Overall The Newsroom might have been the most entertaining show on TV, while being exactly what you'd expect from a writer such as Aaron Sorkin.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Fearing the actions of Superman are left unchecked, Batman takes on the man of steel, while the world wrestles with what kind of a hero it really needs. Within Batman and Superman fighting each other, a new threat, Doomsday, is created by Lex Luthor. It's up to Superman and Batman to set aside their differences along with Wonder Woman to stop Lex Luthor and Doomsday from destroying Metropolis. 

This DC new extended universe is as loud and glossy as you'd expect from a Zack Snyder production. In fact Snyder long awaited Batman v Superman may be the closest thing fangirls and fanboys will ever get to their childhood playground dreams, with these two movies squished into one. Both setting up a plausible conflict between the two superheroes and shifting pieces into place for future sequels and spin-offs. It's a film with a lot on its mind. As well as being the introduction to the DC cinematic universe and embracing the new, financially lucrative Marvel-inspired reality of shared-universe blockbuster filmmaking, it does a little more creating a darker and more mature environment. 

The main issue facing the writers of a superhero smackdown like this, is concocting a reason why. Two titans of the pop culture will, we are assured, rearranged city streets with each other's faces. And once it arrives, the fight is a tightly choreographed treat. That Wagnerian final battle is exactly what you want in a film called "Batman v Superman". 

Let's address fans number one fear: Ben Affleck as Batman. I was one of those people who genuinely thought since day one that he would be great, so let me tell you that he is a solid successor to Christian Bale, even if he's a better Bruce Wayne than Batman. He (literally) killed it! He was phenomenal, his Bruce Wayne is interesting, investing, I cared about him, I was behind him and I completely understood why he disliked Superman. Batman never looked more badass in a movie. Henry Cavill works as per usual perfectly as the man of steel. Gal Gadot is fantastic as Wonder Woman. Her appearance in this movie is brief but crowd-pleasing as a lot of people were excited to see her show up and kick some ass (myself included). Last but not least, I was really anticipating Jeremy Irons as Alfred and he was also brilliant. 

However, I do have a problem with Lois Lane character, this film as Man of Steel before, has a hard time making her relevant, especially in the third act. She has an object, she gets rid of it, then she has to get the object back, then she gets trapped and she's a damsel in distress. She goes back and forth between being a character that deserves to be in this film and a character that is just there because she's Lois Lane. Plus, the solemn, grandiose atmosphere is disrupted by Lex Luthor, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg and his over-the-top performance. He might as well be wearing a buzzing sign around his neck that says "Crazy Villain". I don't know if it worked for me, he's a good actor and there were moments when he did a pretty good job but overall the performance was just fine where it could have been a lot better. He's so intensely annoying that very early on, you wish Batman and Superman would just patch up their differences and join forces to put up the squarely rascal out of his, and our, misery. For a film so concerned with its character's inner lives, there's a fundamental disconnect going on here - sometime enough to make you yearn for the lighter touch of the Marvel films.    

Snyder applied the degree of visual polish that the contemporary superhero movie demands. He's one of the most interesting visual directors working today and he already did legitimately great work in movies such as 300 or Watchmen. Though modulation, economics and nuance may not be Snyder thing. At least his movies always look like a billion buck. And this one does too. The action is distinctive, particularly during the build up to the main event. There's something about Snyder's visual style, his penchant for hard-hitting violence and his willingness to embrace ridiculous that is quite compelling. This film is filled with motion heavy sequences rich in light and colour, Batman v Superman doesn't lack for inspired visuals. The palette is rich with engaging contrasts. One of my favourite being Superman drifting in space against a rainbow coloured Earth. 

Snyder gives Bruce Wayne's defining childhood trauma the haunting visual power of a primal myth. Now the question is: at this point in Hollywood's superhero cycle is that really enough? In fact, filmmakers nowadays are so concerned to expand a movie and especially superhero movies to a whole universe that they forget to create good stand alone movie. In this film, at last it's here, amid the fight between two legends that the movie discovers its awesomeness. Which is why it's a shame that Snyder feels the need to throw in a Hulking-city-smashing monster afterwards. A climax to a climax, it's CGI overkill, making for a generic denouement. This film is not perfect, it has a lot of problems, mostly narrative and story based as Zack Snyder seems to have a hard time balancing his story with amazing visuals. This movie genuinely feels like two different movies. The first one being very mature, almost like a political thriller with the whole controversy surrounding Superman, which feels very realistic and very grounded. But all of a sudden, the film blows up and it becomes this gigantic sci-fi extravaganza with lazy introduction to the Justice League. 

Overall, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice starts off as an intriguing meditation about two superheroes discovering an all-too-human emotion: hatred out of fear of the unknown. Then almost two hours later the film is very far from that, but at the same time somewhere familiar. All in all, job done, just about.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Midnight Oh So Special

A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.

Midnight Special or the buzziest title of this year's Berlin Film Festival. Still settled under a larger than life mysterious Southern sky, still lead by Michael Shannon, Jeff Nichols' cinematography welcomes sci-fi elements. Nichols new film is closer to Take Shelter as it went beyond the mysteries of the human heart and into a more cosmic enigma. Here Jeff Nichols pays transporting homage to the rich tradition, spanning the late 70s through the mid-80s, of intelligent sci-fi, emotionally grounded in relatable human dynamics. Midnight Special is the first movie of the director to be produced by a major studio (Warner Bros.); though this film is as stylish as all of his former pictures, even if this time around he must have been more aware of criticism and must have had to defend his ideas and choices to impose his point of view again and again. 

What if there were something new in the world? And what if it was your son? The main theme of this movie is a father and son journey, literally on the road, with a father trying to understand where his son has to be and helping him to go there. I've been immediately interested by the title of this film and after some googling, I found the reference to the folk song covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which featured memorably in the opening scene of the 1983 Steven Spielberg big screen spin off of The Twilight Zone. There's a wave of young filmmakers brought up in the 70s and 80s blockbusters that changed the Hollywood system, who are doing their best to replicate them. J.J. Abrams already managed to work alongside Steven Spielberg himself for throwback fantasy Super 8 before taking charge of the rebooted Star Wars franchise - and others such as Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson or Joss Whedon are clear students of the multiplex masters who birthed the event movie. 

Characters are not superheroes, but looked upon as normal people. Once again, in constant collaborator Michael Shannon, Nichols finds the perfect engine to power this delicate story forward - was ever any actor so able to project an aura of utter conviction, even when faced with the impossibly wrenching eventuality that the only way to save his child might be to let him go? Alton embodies the never ending possibilities of the universe. No one ever experienced what comes after death (well, no one came back to tell us anyway), other dimensions or metaphysical appearances of God. None of these things are tangible, but men want them to exist. Alton is the personification of this need. 

Moreover, Jeff Nichols did not forget that we as an audience are smart people. We've grown up with movies, we've been taught to pay attention to what was happening on screen; as soon as a new character emerged, we began instinctively to make supposition and hypothesis on his link and relationship with other characters and his environment. He relies on the ability of an intelligent audience to make sense of what is happening. This film is made almost entirely of mysteries and none of which are resolved by the final scenes. The bigger the questions you ask are, the less likely it is you can answer them in any satisfying, definitive way and the human, existential, metaphysical questions that Midnight Special poses, if you care to look for them, are enormous. 

The visual effects heavy sequences raises more questions than it answers. Was Alton an alien, an angel, a more highly evolved human being? Was he going to heaven, or another dimension? The explanation is ultimately less important than what Alton's journey succeeds in illustrating about human nature - demonstrating just how desperately some people want to believe. In fact, the sci-fi elements of the film have an organic style, they look quite real, inspiration of movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by Steven Spielberg or even Starman by John Carpenter with their opaque dark night. Religious themes aside, though, Nichols draws on both the paranoia of those 1980s films - the feeling that the government is a largely faceless, monolithic force, out to control and suppress all forms of wonder - and on Steven Spielberg's blockbusters filmmaking rhythms. Plus, family is a central theme in all Jeff Nichols' movies as well as couple relationships. Always a contradictory love or even an impossibly love, a love that has to fight in order to survive. A real tragic dimension as well as romantic is present in this vision of love. And I like it, I grew up with Disney movies so I pretty much have messed up relationship goals. However, I really do believe in true love and soul mate. I've always wanted to know what happens after the happy ending of romantic comedies, because life doesn't end at that particular moment right? This always intrigued me. Yes I'm a romantic, but a realistic romantic and after all, I really do think that Jeff Nichols must be one too. It's this fundamental human component that ultimately makes Midnight Special such a fascinating ride. 

The film also benefits from the formal elegance of its two acts structure. Cinematographer Adam Stone and composer David Wingo have helped give Nichols' films a cohesive look that goes beyond their consistently grim tones. Finally, the very last shot of Michael Shannon, a close up on his face, there's something in his eyes that is very clever from the part of the director, it somehow shows the evolution of his character from his role in Take Shelter to this film. It's the kind of wrap-up that doesn't provide closure so much as it unlocks a dozen new doors. 

Overall, Jeff Nichols produced a richly structured story that's more about character emotions than about the life-or-death battles those emotions push them toward. A story that meant so much more than the things that happened within it.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

House of Cards - Season 4

The politicians you love to hate are back as Netflix blesses us with thirteen new episodes in this new fourth season. House of Cards has played a major role in Netflix's extraordinary rise as a provider of original series, the show's place in history is secure.  

"Keep your friend close and your wife closer."
That could be the unofficial mantra for Season 4, well the first six episodes anyway. Show-runner Beau Willimon - who will be sadly leaving after this season - cleverly addresses right from episode one the problem in the closing kick of Season 3, which is as per normal, where the program picks up. This year, real-life presidential politics have caught up with the series. Granted that the fourth season release date could hardly seem more timely than to come in the thick of the election chase in the US, with fictional President Frank Underwood in the ache of a challenge as he seeks another term. Never mind that he schemed, plotted and literally committed murder to put himself in the White House: given the list of crises he had endured Underwood's time in office has mostly been of the "be careful what you kill for" variety. 

The main criticism I had, has been the lack of antagonists worthy of the Machiavellian politician. No surprise that in town of political animals, Frank Underwood is a shark. House of Cards remains one of the best show on air  nowadays in large part due to its splendid casting, from Spacey to Wright and down. As it turns out this season, the most formidable adversary Frank could face is his wife: Claire, who has come to see him as a drag on her own political ambitions and begun to plan her own future. In fact the cat-and-mouse game between them has genuine electricity, especially when Doug Stamper, back in the fold, is running interference. This is also on this front where some of the smarter political insights the show has exhibited begin to break down. 

Kevin Spacey is as per usual brilliant in this role. Old skeletons and older ghosts come back to haunt him. The show's history works marvelously to its advantage this season. Plus, Cecily Tyson is one of many interesting supporting characters this season, along with Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn and Neve Campbell. But more than ever, it's the First Lady - and Robin Wright - who rules this term. Her story resonates with issues, gender, race and power. Claire veers past Hilary Clinton into something quite closer to Lady McBeth territory. She's the most perfect realization of the precise and chilly aesthetic minted by co-creator David Fincher. President Claire Underwood? She has my vote. Though watching her cruelly impose her will on her mother - catharsis for the powerlessness she feels with Frank - is heartbreaking. 

Still, as their real-life counterparts might learn in the months ahead, there's a marked difference between the quest for greatness and the hard work of maintaining it. Basically they are the world's most powerful and evil couple. And everyone at the end of the season can agree, that is why I probably shouldn't enjoy Claire and Frank as much as I do. But I can not lie: I do. I love them. I hate them. I want them to succeed. I want them destroyed.                  

House of Cards has always aspired to a higher level of reality. Even if it sometimes stumbles in its handling of politics. Yes the Underwoods can have done all kinds of horrible things behind the scenes in their pursuit of power but even in this day and age it can temporarily burst the dramatic bubble, making viewers keenly aware that they're watching a work of flamboyant fiction. 

Wright framed many of the season's most striking images herself. Her direction of Episode 3 and 4 is magnificent. The show also made a leap this year into more surreal territory, going for experimental moments that blur the line between obvious symbolism and brilliant creativity. House of Cards exists in own pocket universe and aims for thematic timelessness, not timeliness. You can understand why... It has to work whenever and wherever we find it or take it, given that it's a bing-at-your-convenience show on a streaming service. This is all to say that if you want House of Cards to reflect US current political spectacle, you'll find fistful satisfaction. The drama is also very smart about media in the most generic of ways. 

Overall, House of Cards delights me, it indicts me. It is. On my level, a true guilty pleasure.