Monthly Archive for June, 2014

Orange is the New Black, Season 2

Orange is the New Black, Season 2 (6/29/14) Netflix (2014 ****) Created by Jenji Kohan, based on the autobiographical book by Piper Kerman, starring Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Uzo Aduba, Laura Prepon and Lorraine Toussaint as Yvonne “Vee” Parker. 13 episodes, originally released 6/6/14. Following a stint in solitary, Piper rejoins her fellow female prisoners to bear witness to a mighty battle of wills between Red and “Vee,” a returning inmate with impressive powers of manipulation. It was true to some extent in the first season, but in the show’s sophomore outing POV character Piper Chapman began to melt into the background as the ensemble took center stage. I was frequently impressed with how fascinating Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee character was as a villain. Her skills for building an empire starting with nothing more than a stale pack of cigarettes she’d stashed away decades before was a delight. It was also wonderful to see just how fragile the reigns of power were at the prison, as the once indominable Red’s power base dwindled to the point where her death seemed inevitable. Finally, without giving too much away, I must say that the season finale ended on a note that was more satisfying than any TV show in recent memory. I nearly leaped from the couch and danced a jig, it was just that good.

Orange is the New Black, Season 1

Orange is the New Black, Season 1 (6/23/14) Netflix (2013 ***1/2) Created by Jenji Kohan, based on the autobiographical book by Piper Kerman, starring Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Uzo Aduba and Laura Prepon. 13 episodes, originally released 7/1/13. Piper Chapman, an upper middle class woman with a felonious past, begins a 15-month stint at a women’s federal prison. At Emmy time, this program was classified as a comedy. While there were certainly comedic elements, I’m hard-pressed to think of it as anything other than a drama. With a decidedly class-conscious premise, there’s more than a little vicarious “there but for the grace of God” built in. While Piper, the central character, is quite flawed, it’s still not hard to identify with her or her reactions to the world in which she enters. Ultimately though, she’s less interesting than the characters she’s forced to interact with in order to survive. On another note, I haven’t done any particular research to learn just how closely the series (created by Weeds creator Kohan) stuck to its autobiographical source material. I can only imagine it was necessary to diverge fairly early on in order to build drama that could be sustained over multiple seasons.

Game of Thrones, Season 4

Game of Thrones, Season 4 (6/19/14) HBO (2014 ***1/2) Series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, based on the books by George Martin, starring Kit Harington, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Maisie Williams. 10 episodes, originally aired 4/6/14 – 6/15/14. A shocking death interrupts Joffery and Margaery’s wedding and results in Tyrion Lannister being wrongfully accused of murder; plus, some other stuff happens involving dragons, zombies, swordplay and occasional gratuitous nudity. The big question heading into this season was how they were possibly going to top season 3’s red wedding scene. The solution? Action and plenty of it. Highlights of the season included the trial of one of Tyrion (who sadly spent most of his time this season behind bars) and a massive battle between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings. Overall, the season was highly satisfying, with Arya and Tyrion continuing their run as my favorite characters, with Amazon-proportioned Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth running a close third. At this point the series is more than just a phenomenon, it’s must-see TV, and the ten episodes came and went far too quickly. I still haven’t read the George Martin books on which the show is based, mostly because I don’t want to spoil any delicious surprises to come.

Fargo, Season 1

Fargo, Season 1 (6/18/14) FX (2014 ***1/2) Created and written by Noah Hawley, based on the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks. 10 episodes, originally aired 4/15/14 – 6/17/14. Minnesota insurance salesman Lester Nygaard makes a deal with the devil in the form of a highly-skilled hit man named Lorne Malvo. Of all the various permutations of how film properties get turned into TV shows, this one was unusual: It would seem that the pitch was to take the setting, tone and some of the characters from the 1996 classic by the Coen brothers, but discard its major plot elements, creating an entirely new spine upon which to construct a fresh 10-hour narrative. I feel that Fargo, which was advertised as a miniseries, got stronger as it went along. In its first few episodes, the people responsible for the show seemed to be trying a little too hard to capture an affected, quirky Twin Peaks vibe. While I’m a card-carrying (not really) Twin Peaks fan from its original run, and I didn’t exactly hate it, the overtness of the attempt was distracting. Eventually, as the show found its own solid tonal footing, that was cast aside for the most part, and it begain to really grow on me. Still, in one of the later episodes Billy Bob Thornton, who played Lorne Malvo with a level of deliciousness that is sadly rare in TV or film, delivered a nod to Peaks‘ Special Agent Dale Cooper that made me smile with the line: “Nothing good ever came from a slice of cherry pie.” As I mentioned, Fargo was presented as a mini-series event, and so it came as a pleasant surprise when FX announced it would be back for another run the following year. I look forward to seeing what they do with the characters, though they’ll be hard-pressed to top an antagonist like Malvo.

Sherlock, Series 2

Sherlock, Series 2 (6/17/14) Netflix (2012 ****) Created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, based on the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves, Mark Gatiss and Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty. 3 episodes, originally aired 5/6/12 – 5/20/12. The world’s greatest consulting detective and his assistant/biographer match wits with villains great and powerful, including one that might be Holmes’ final case. This season consisted of the following three episodes: “A Scandal in Belgravia,” “The Hounds of Baskerville,” and “The Reichenbach Fall.” Let’s deal first with the literary elephant in the room: As anyone with any passing familiarity with Sherlock Holmes knows, his creator killed his annoyingly popular hero off in 1893. That story was called “The Final Problem,” and in it, Holmes plummets to his apparent death during a cliff-side scuffle with his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The locale for that tragic event? Reichenbach Falls, hence the inspiration for the third and final episode of the season. I don’t think it’s worthy of a spoiler alert to say that the finale’s end was a foregone conclusion. As for the other two episodes, the update to the classic Hound of the Baskervilles was the weakest episode yet, I’m afraid, but the first episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia” introduced a delicious female antagonist with little compunction for shedding her clothing and a mind brilliant enough to be a match for the great Sherlock Holmes.

Hope for the Flowers

Hope for the Flowers (6/16/14) Illustrated Fiction (1972 ***) Written and illustrated by Trina Paulus. Two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, search for the meaning of life, which may or may not involve climbing a writhing pillar of their brethren. I was loaned this book by a friend, who said it was a personal favorite of hers. I began reading it one evening, got about halfway through, then set it atop a stack of books on my nightstand and didn’t get back to it for about two years. Finally tired of the feelings of guilt, I brought it into work and read it in one sitting over a long lunch hour. It would be extremely hard-hearted and cynical of me to dismiss its anti-establishment hippy-dippy message as the product of its early 1970s origins. So I won’t do that. After all, it’s ultimately about something that is near and dear to my heart, something I learned long ago and never forgot: Ambition can be a very dangerous thing; it’s all too easy to live your life driven by the thrill of competition, only to turn around at the end and realize just how much of life’s rich pageant you’ve missed out on as a consequence.

Sherlock, Series 1

Sherlock, Series 1 (6/15/14) Netflix (2010 ***1/2) Created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, based on the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves, Mark Gatiss and Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty. 3 episodes, originally aired 10/24/10 – 11/7/10. An Afghanistan military veteran takes on the role of assistant to a brilliant but socially toxic consulting detective. This season contained the episodes: “A Study in Pink,” “The Blind Banker,” and “The Great Game.” A writer friend of mine recommended that I check out this series some time ago, and I finally got around to doing it. There is a great deal to love about this show, beginning with the fact that its creators were able to find a perfect marriage between the original stories (published between 1887 and 1927) and the modern age. For example, Holmes’ uncanny deductive abilities and his social awkwardness are attributed to Asperger’s syndrome. The episodes of the series followed an unusual structure: Each of them was about 90 minutes long, making it effectively feature film length, and there were only three of them in each season (or series), each one based on an original Sherlock Holmes story from more than a century ago. The acting was top-notch, with Cumberbatch and Freeman fitting perfectly into their respective iconic roles. On the same topic, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, I was particularly tickled by the casting of series co-creator Mark Gatiss as Holmes’ brother Mycroft. Also on the casting front, I want to call out Andrew Scott, whose interpretation of Jim Moriarty, one of the greatest fictional masterminds of all time, was a delight every single second he was on the screen.

Primary Colors

Primary Colors (6/12/14) HBO (1998 ***1/2) Directed by Mike Nichols, based on the novel by Joe Klein, starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates. When idealistic Henry Burton joins Governor Jack Stanton’s presidential campaign, his eyes get opened to the real forces and personalities in America’s political process. It’s worth remembering that when this film was originally released, Bill Clinton was still in the White House, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal (which broke in January 1998) was all over the news. John Travolta’s character clearly had a great deal in common with Clinton, a man who had a lot of enemies. Because of the timing, it was hard to separate the film from real life events. Now that 16 years have passed, it’s a little easier. I enjoyed the film quite a lot, and it was interesting to watch a movie about the American presidency that wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin, but probably could have been. My only real complaint about Primary Colors was that it was a little long. At 143 minutes, it probably could have been shortened by a half hour.

Brazil

Brazil (6/9/14) Netflix (1985 ****) Directed and co-written by Terry Gilliam, starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and Michael Palin. A gifted but unambitious worker living in a Kafkaesque future society attempts to correct a fatal bureaucratic error and becomes entangled with a member of the underground who’s also his literal dream girl. I have vivid memories of seeing this when it was originally released. At the time I was an undergraduate engineering student taking film classes on the side. I was already a fan of Terry Gilliam because of Time Bandits and his involvement with Monty Python. This film blew me away and I saw it at least three times in the theater. At one point in my younger life I proudly pointed to it as my personal favorite film of all time. Seeing it again years later, I still hold it in high regard. However, as a man approaching fifty, I find elements of the story troubling. We’re also living in a post-9/11 society when sympathies for terrorists (even if mistakenly categorized) make for a bitter narrative pill. Then again, maybe it’s appropriate for Brazil to be unsettling, given the dystopian world it represents. Of course, I’m basing my feelings on the version of the film I watched, which was the original theatrical cut, the one Terry Gilliam was famously unsatisfied with. In fact, I’ve never watched any of the other versions, and I wonder if that would make me less troubled or more so. It’s likely that in the annuls of film history that Brazil will be known as Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, and given his output the past few decades it seems unlikely he’ll manage to surpass it artistically or commercially. Personally, I also have a fondness for The Fisher King (1991), a film I’m criminally overdue to rewatch. (Favorite)

R.I.P.D.

R.I.P.D. (6/9/14) HBO (2013 ***) Directed by Robert Schwentke, based on the comic by Peter M. Lenkov, starring Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon and Mary-Louise Parker. A dead cop travels to the other side, where he’s assigned to the “Rest In Peace Department” and partnered with a grizzled gunslinger straight out of the wild west. I was a little surprised, given the low-brow source of this film, that they were able to score the Oscar-winning Jeff Bridges for the part of the rootin’ tootin’ Roy. But then I had to remember that Bridges had also played the big bad in the first Iron Man movie and I got over it. He certainly embraced the role, playing to the rafters and doing the best he could with the material he had. Ultimately, the film was a fun but borderline forgettable variation on Men In Black (1997). While I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly, it contained enough entertaining set pieces to provide entertainment on a day when your brain might happen to be too tired to watch anything more challenging, as was the case for me.