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American Crime

Who would have thought that ABC’s American Crime would emerge as the best show of the year so far in its second season? The low ratings for the good, but not great season one would have spelled “cancel” at any other network, yet ABC stuck with its John Ridley-produced anthology series, and season two is simply outstanding. Covering a sexual assault at a prestigious high school, the second season of American Crime looks at sexuality, race, and class through the perspectives of many different characters.

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American Crime doesn’t hold back from the gritty reality, and it emerges as a bleak tale with a lot of truth behind it. There’s no sugar-coating the content here, because it is dark stuff, surprisingly for a network series. After Taylor (Connor Jessup) is the victim of a rape at a high school basketball team party, events are set into motion as members of the team are accused, and the school comes under fire as headmaster Leslie (Felicity Huffman) must salvage the school’s reputation. Meanwhile, team captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson) is facing pressure at home as allegations against their family threaten his mother Terri (Regina King) and father Michael (Andre Benjamin). Additionally, Eric (Joey Pollari) struggles with his sexuality and accusations against him as coach Dan (Timothy Hutton) tries to rally the team after this horrific event.

If this sounds like a lot, and it is, don’t fret because American Crime manages to keep all the balls in the air and only manages to drop a few. Everything is linked together, and one of the show’s most potent themes is the chain reaction of events that one big incident can have. The series examines how the sexual assault affects the small town, the elite private school, the small lower-income school that Taylor transfers to, and every family and individual in between. A few plots are quickly resolved, which is a shame, including a messy strand towards the end involving a comic hacker threatening to expose the school feels a bit out of place amid the more grounded elements. But on the whole the plot is cohesive and brilliantly linked like a web.

What I love about American Crime is that the show does not throw any value judgments towards any of its characters. Any other series would have a clear protagonist and clear antagonist, but American Crime manages to avoid that by giving its characters so many facets to their personality. They become real individuals, and I got very invested in their stories, particular Taylor’s and Eric’s. These multi-dimensional characters are refreshing to watch as they make mistakes but learn from them, avoiding the traditional “likable” or “unlikable” categories. I grew frustrated with coach Dan’s failure to admit that his team did wrong, but I appreciated his treatment towards his daughter Becca, whose drug-dealing gets Taylor into even more trouble. Leslie, in particular, was always riveting to watch as she tries to please the school’s board and uses media-friendly terminology in describing the incident. The well-developed characters make the stakes of American Crime feel real, and boy they certainly are.

So American Crime features a stand-out cast (young actors Jessup and Pollari are particularly excellent), a riveting story with a great pace of just ten episodes, and plenty of complex characters, so what? Luckily, the direction takes it a step further to make the heavy moments have the impact they need. I rarely notice direction on television series, but American Crime really stood out. Just watch the rape kit scene in episode two. The camera focuses entirely on Taylor and his face, while a nurse explains to him the procedure off-screen. We see every reaction, every small nuance in Jessup’s performance, and the moment sticks. Other scenes, as well, quick dialogue’s between Taylor’s mother (Lili Taylor) and headmaster Leslie, moments between Eric and his divorced parents, are elevated simply because of Ridley or his team’s direction. It makes the heartbreaking scenes all the more heartbreaking, and some of it becomes tough to watch.

TREVOR JACKSON, REGINA KING

American Crime doesn’t lose steam towards the end of its run, but I did feel that the climax came too soon. Episode seven and eight are a doozy, eight in particular, as a shooting rocks the school to its core. The decision to feature Colombine teachers and victims in a sort of documentary break from the drama in episode eight is extremely risky, but it works. These individuals give an element of humanity to the already-very real plot, and we’re reminded of situations like these that do occur. The ambiguous ending may leave some viewers frustrated, but American Crime‘s refusal to wrap up storylines with a bow is refreshing instead of rushing to resolve everything. The final scene is absolutely brilliant, and while you’ll be left questioning the story and its characters, you’ll also question how you think and how your privilege informs these judgments. That’s the mark of great television, the ability to have an impact beyond the screen.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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House of Cards Season Four

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The fourth run of Netflix’s baby is a full-on comeback season. With season three earning vocal detractors, many thought the acclaimed political drama’s best days were behind it. That all changed however, as season four of House of Cards is the series’ best since it began. The layered political schemings coupled with an impeccable cast of old and new faces makes a case that we should definitely still be considering House of Cards in the upper tier of peak TV.

Season three ended with Frank and Claire’s marriage coming to a close, amidst sketchy dealings with Russian president Petrov and scandal and corruption threatening the Underwoods at all sides. Season four, then, begins with small victories. Claire coerces an older black congresswoman (Cicely Tyson) into vacating her congressional seat, while Frank tries to gain ground in key primary states during the election year. Chapter 43 throws a wrench into the mix as an old character seeks reparation for past sins, and Frank finds himself stuck in a rock and a hard place. The back half of the season is the best, as Frank and Claire teams up against common foes, including new Republican candidate Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), and scandal finds its way to the press through Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver) and Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), among others.

Season four is at its best when it’s Frank and Claire against the world. While I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made season three so lackluster, I’ve decided that when the two have a common enemy (in this case, many), the series sings. This season, in addition to being during a timely election year, Frank and Claire are at the top of the game as they join forces and run for president and vice president, respectively. The election stuff makes for the most viewer-friendly but also pulse-pounding entertainment. Classic backdoor schemes, bribes and favors make for a riveting plot. Chapter 49 might be one of the tightest House of Cards episodes ever produced, in which an open Democratic convention leads to Frank and Claire betraying old friends while making new ones. As the votes are tallied and things could change any second, I was on the edge of my seat.

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New characters also shake things up a bit, and season four finds many, chief among them Leann Harvey (Neve Campbell), political advisor for Claire and later campaign manager for the Underwoods. Like other Underwood employees Seth (Derek Cecil) and Meechum (Nathan Darrow), Leann learns not to get too close to the Underwoods yet to give them what they want. Despite her manipulation in what I thought the weakest plot of the season involving search engine optimization, Leann is another formidable addition to the growing cast. Will Conway, GOP candidate and “big bad” against Frank, is also an interesting character along with his wife and child. Their lust for the spotlight and positive media attention makes them great foils for the Underwoods, and Conway learns a thing or two from Frank in politics 101.

The writing in House of Cards has always been its own brand of cheesy, yet rooted in political reality. Showrunner Beau Willamon and his team of writers have a knack for making the silliest things sound terrifying coming from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who both deliver awards-worthy performances once again, especially Wright. Watch how her character changes with the flip of a switch whether she’s dealing with her judgmental mother (the brilliant Ellen Burstyn) or her new flame/speechwriter Tom (Paul Sparks). Towards the end of the season, Claire must interrogate an imprisoned terrorist in order to free hostages taken by ICO (sound familiar?), and Wright does her best work. The fourth-wall breaks are also intermittent this season, and while none have the same “holy shit” effect as they did in seasons one and two, season four ends on one that will send shivers up your spine. While none of the main plots are resolved by season’s end – frustrating, to be sure, but necessary – season five looks to be all kinds of the messy fun we’ve come to expect at this point from House of Cards.

 

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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Zootopia

Zootopia

Smack in the middle of Disney’s Revival Era, Zootopia is a brilliant social commentary. The film manages to deliver thrills a minute with its detective caper, and a heartfelt message the next, while still remaining laugh out loud funny. In this beautiful city inhabited by animals, anything is possible,

Even a small town bunny like Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, pitch-perfect like always) can become a police officer in Zootopia. The film makes it known multiple times that she’s the first bunny cop, and since a young age Judy has been an ambitious little mammal, choosing the city life instead of becoming a small town carrot farmer like her thousands of siblings. Here she gets in over her head in a hard-boiled police precinct and crosses paths with the sly fox Nick (Jason Bateman, also perfect), and the two stumble upon a city conspiracy while trying to solve a missing mammal case.

If Zootopia’s story is by-the-books, its execution is anything but. The city rightfully feels like a living and breathing world, ripe for a Disney theme park region. The city’s boroughs all have distinct themes, ranging from Tundra Town to a thick, lush rainforest, and boasting a massive metropolitan Manhattan. World building is always one of Disney’s biggest assets, and the attention to detail here is astonishing. Notice the “As Seen on TV” sign at the small town carrot fair, or the advertisement for the car service “Zuber” on a city billboard. Zootopia is definitely a product of its times, with a total of zero musical numbers (save for a Shakira money grab) and fairy tale sentimentality.

Zootopia’s character development make Judy and Nick feel like real individuals despite being a rabbit and a fox, respectively. Great voice casting lends shades of emotion to the characters, and their zany adventures are coupled with great character moments for kids and adults alike. While the beginning introduces us to Judy’s childhood and her lusty ambition and drive, flashbacks show us Nick’s childhood as a fox, a “predator,” and how he subverts expectations of predatorial preconceptions that others may have. Preconceived expectations of behavior is something that Zootopia warns us to be mindful of, and it doesn’t let its characters off the hook. Even the self-righteous Judy has flaws herself.

Where Zootopia really gets sharp is its message. It is a Disney film after all, and Zootopia’s message of empowerment and embracing differences never gets lost. What’s brilliant about Zootopia is the film’s ability to make these universal morals applicable to practically any social issue today, be it racism, sexism or anything in between. The “predator versus prey” philosophy that the film’s villains try to preach is a great parallel for any “us versus them” story imparted in the world today.

A modern-day metropolitan fable, Zootopia is another smash hit for Disney, whose new films have continuously managed to be more progressive than the ones that came before it. Boasting a great cast led by Goodwin and Bateman (I haven’t even touched on the terrific supporting turns from Idris Elba and Jenny Slate) and beautiful animation that warrants multiple repeat watches, Zootopia is the year’s best film beginning with “Zoo-.”

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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Oscars 2016: Best Picture

What a crazy Oscars season wasn’t it? Some categories have been locked up since last fall, others have come down to today, and others are legitimately too close to call. The best part of the Oscars is the unpredictability, and when they do throw a curveball into the mix, things get much more interesting. So let’s over-analyze things and see if we can score big on our ballots come Sunday.

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The Big Short

Bridge of Spies

Brooklyn

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Martian

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Room

Spotlight Will Win, Should Win

Power Rankings: Spotlight-The Big Short-The Revenant-Mad Max: Fury Road-The Martian-Room-Bridge of Spies-Brooklyn

This has been a close race all season, as no one film is dominating the conversation. The Big Three, that is; screenplay-director-picture is typically vital for a clean sweep, but this year it’s all hazy. In the end though, I think Spotlight will triumph. First, it’s the right kind of film that wins Best Picture, it’s a success story for director Tom McCarthy, and it has scored acclaim across the board for its three main performers. While the same can be said for The Revenant and The Big Short, they came into the game too late and don’t have the edge that Spotlight does.

Historically, Golden Globe success doesn’t always translate into Oscar gold, and while The Revenant scored a whopping twelve Oscar nominations, it might have to settle with a win for DiCaprio and Iñárritu while Spotlight takes top prize. The film has many fans but just as many polarized haters, so it will be interesting to see if The Revenant has the mileage to sneak ahead. This is the kind of win that can only be called during the broadcast itself, as we’ll have to see how each film is doing throughout the evening. This happened last year when Birdman snuck ahead and took it from Boyhood. Switch those films with The Revenant and Spotlight respectively and it might just happen.

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I also wouldn’t count out The Big Short, which has had the strangest underdog story. It’s a film that is almost universally loved, and despite the subject matter and comedic tone, like Spotlight it’s the kind of film that historically wins. Timely, relevant, and well-made, it’s this year’s The Wolf of Wall Street (minus hookers and cocaine).

Also interesting to look at are the remaining nominees. Of course Mad Max and The Martian made it in, but the last three are well-deserved nominations. Bridge of Spies may end the night with zero wins, but Spielberg’s craftsmanship rarely goes under appreciated. Additionally Room and Brooklyn are the little indies that could this year. Any other year they would be left out, but since the rule change in 2009 it’s allowed room (get it?) for smaller films to earn recognition. The controversial rule change allows films like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, and Nebraska to call themselves nominees despite their smaller voices.

So who missed the cut? Just on the edge was Straight Outta Compton, which many thought would take a ninth slot after earning a SAG award for ensemble, which typically translates to Oscars success. Instead, it had to settle for a screenplay nomination. Also left out was Todd Haynes’s Carol, which may have lost out to Brooklyn as the small period indie piece. It’s unfortunate, as the preferential ballot may have screwed it over, but the subject matter may be too progressive for voters. Also for a while, we were all taking about Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl, and The Hateful Eight as well, but these are examples of films that didn’t live up to their hype, whose reviews may have caused them to miss out on the final list.

 

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Oscars 2016: Best Director

This is one of the few legitimately interesting categories to watch. Will we have a back-to-back winner and make history in Iñárritu? Will we have a winner in the technical mastery of George Miller? Or could Adam McKay sneak in thanks to a last-minute boost? A Best Picture/Best Director split isn’t unprecedented, and lately has seemed the norm, and this is one category that will definitely come down to the wire.

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Adam McKay, The Big Short

George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road Should Win

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant Will Win

Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Power Rankings: Iñárritu-McCarthy-Miller-McKay-Abrahamson

I’m honestly at a loss for who could and should win this year, but we can rule out one director, Lenny Abrahamson for Room. While beautifully directed, the film is too small and Abrahamson too small a name to make an impact. He nabbed the spot from Golden Globe winner Ridley Scott, who just missed the cut and could’ve shaken up the five-way tie even more.

So let’s examine each director individually, starting with McKay for The Big Short, whose name has come up more and more as guild awards are revealed. McKay snagged a DGA nomination (essential in this category), but other than that nothing too substantial. It’s worth noting his omission from the Golden Globes, where the film did not score any wins, despite the Globes’ effect not being what it used to be.

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Moving on to Tom McCarthy, hot off the biggest disaster of his career (The Cobbler), he resurrects it with Spotlight, and since November the conversation has been focused on Spotlight‘s inevitable sweeps, some of which didn’t happen. McCarthy scored a DGA nomination, a Critics’ Choice nom, and the film also did well at the independent shows. McCarthy clearly isn’t out of the conversation, and the understated tone of Spotlight has earned him many fans. If we’re looking at a split, however, and Spotlight does win Best Picture, McCarthy might leave this one empty-handed. That seems most likely at this point, as when Best Director does split, it goes to the most technically impressive film, and Spotlight is not it this year. This last happened in 2014, when Cuarón took it home for Gravity while 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture.

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Now to the two technical beasts, first George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road, which is feeling like this year’s Gravity. While it’s shot at Best Picture is low, I’m anticipating a sweep in the craft and technical categories for Mad Max, including sound mixing & editing, film editing, makeup, and possibly production design and visual effects. The craft categories will be interesting ones to watch this year because of Mad Max but also because of The Revenant and The Martian, which will both put up a fight. Miller has scored in all the right places for this film, and he’s my personal winner for this category, which feels like a career victory lap for the acclaimed veteran.

But then there’s Iñárritu, previous winner for 2015’s Birdman and he will not go down without a fight for The Revenant. He won the Directors Guild Award earlier this month, which possibly could have cemented his victory. The last winner of the DGA who did not go on to win the Oscar was Ben Affleck in 2013 for Argo, and that one was an anomaly since he did not even score a nomination. DGA almost always signifies an Oscar victory, but if the voters are feeling Iñárritu fatigue, and for a film that has many vocal detractors, he could miss out.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Oscars 2016: Best Actor

Boy, this is a weak category isn’t it? I could re-do this category with five completely different performers, something I couldn’t do for the previous categories. I’m not really sure what happened here, and the conversation for this category seems surrounded over DiCaprio finally receiving his Oscar. Thankfully I hope it happens so that Twitter pundits will finally have somewhere else to put their repressed anger. I could rant about how awful his performance is, but I don’t want to take away from the other four talented performers, so let’s just dive into this mess.

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Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

Matt Damon, The Martian

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant  Will Win

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs – Should Win

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Power Rankings: DiCaprio-Fassbender-Cranston-Redmayne-Damon

Let’s get the other guys out of the way. A back-to-back win is often unprecedented, and as good as Eddie Redmayne is, overexposure is never a good thing. While his performance is hailed, the same can’t be said for the film, so let’s leave The Danish Girl to the craft categories. Ditto to The Martian for tech awards. The love for The Martian can be explained by the box office numbers but also the love for Ridley Scott and straight-up crowd pleasers. There’s always a film like this in the mix, one universally loved and nitpicked. While it just missed my top ten, and swept in the “Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, I don’t see Damon walking away with the prize in any universe. Additionally, Cranston falls in the “it’s an honor just to be nominated” echelon, and the rising adoration for Trumbo may have been too little, too late.

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If I had my pick, Fassbender would have this one in a heartbeat. Danny Boyle’s film is a masterpiece, and it’s a tragedy alone for the film to be left out of top categories, but that one I can forgive. Unforgivable however, would be missing out on Michael Fassbender’s remarkable performance. He’s an actor that is revered in some corners, yet completely obscure in others, and an Oscar might be just what he needs to break out. Still though, if a loss means we’ll be treated to more performances like MacBeth, then it’s fine by me.

And now we come to Leo, poor Leo, who will most likely win for one of his worst and least memorable turns in The Revenant. Asking where his Oscar is at this point is unproductive, since he probably has his acceptance speech for this one ready. I wish he had received an Oscar for a role more daring however, one like he gave in Catch Me If You Can or even 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. His performance in The Revenant is uninspired, and a plain bore to sit through.

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In a perfect world, Steve Carell would be back in the mix again for his role in The Big Short. His transformation throughout the film is heartbreaking to watch, and always entertaining. He’s better than Bale in my opinion, and his omission is an unfortunate one. For a while, many thought Johnny Depp was number one for this category, but the mixed response to Black Mass and simple lack of conversation about his performance may have hurt him. I haven’t seen the film, but like DiCaprio, Depp is the owner of zero statuettes.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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Oscars 2016: Best Actress

Curse you, Charlotte Rampling (for a number of reasons). All of the women nominated in this category were nominated for films with one-word titles, but you couldn’t just star in “45” could you? I digress, although this may be the best category this year, full of outstanding actresses giving career-best performances. Three first-time nominees are going head-to-head with old Academy favorites, and the talent on display here is impeccable. Even though there may be a blatantly clear winner, like often happens with the Best Actress category, that doesn’t mean she’s out of the woods yet, as much can change in four weeks like we all know too well.

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Best Actress: The Nominees

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Brie Larson, Room – Will Win, Should Win

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Power Rankings: Larson-Ronan-Rampling-Blanchett-Lawrence

Brie Larson has this one in the bag, and she deserves it. One of my favorites from last year, Larson is tremendous in Room, exhibiting probably every emotional possible within a two-hour time span. I called this one a long time ago, as Brie Larson was announced to be playing Ma, a pitch-perfect choice for such a brilliant novel. Besides destroying everything in her path at festivals and the guild awards (I managed to catch a glimpse of her at the BFI London Film Festival), the AMPAS adorned the film, and it managed to squeeze into Picture, Director, and Screenplay nominations, earning the big four.

So where does that leave the remaining nominees? Well, one could certainly make a case for the exquisite Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, another one of my favorites from 2015. While she may not have that scene like Larson, Rampling, and Lawrence, the young Irish actress has managed to snag a number of trophies, mostly from across the pond. Whatever her prospects, this definitely will not be the only nomination Ronan receives in her lifetime.

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Controversy aside, Charlotte Rampling is devastatingly compelling in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, which I finally managed to see over the weekend. She doesn’t have many lines, but when she does she delivers with such complexity. She is able to conjure up emotions from just the look on her face. Although it is a small film, Rampling definitely deserves her place. Unfortunately for Cate Blanchett, being a recent winner for Blue Jasmine in 2014 won’t do her any favors for her title role in Carol. I wasn’t as smitten by her performance as I was for her co-star Rooney Mara, but Blanchett does remarkable work (although when does she not?) Academy favorite Jennifer Lawrence takes the final spot for her role in Joy, the film’s only nomination. Her work with David O. Russell keeps paying dividends, and while she took home the Golden Globe in a traditionally weak category, she doesn’t hold a candle to the other ladies.

As for the snubs, there weren’t too many, as this is the strongest category this year. Many thought veterans Blythe Danner, Helen Mirren, or Maggie Smith would take a spot away from Lawrence, although history has shown the Academy loves to skew younger for this category. Wild card Amy Schumer would’ve been a breath of fresh air for her great work in Trainwreck, but the Academy doesn’t normally go for pure raunch. For my personal nomination, I give Bel Powley for The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The young newbie has years ahead of her, but like Rampling, is able to stir up emotions just by facial expression alone. The film may be too progressive for some voters (see the omission of Carol from the top prize), but Powley shines in the indie treasure, and I hope she takes home the Independent Spirit Award in a few weeks.

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Posted by on February 10, 2016 in 2016 Academy Awards

 

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