It must be said that, if there was ever a time in which remaking Annie with a black protagonist would be seen as a vital and necessary addition to the lives of American children, it would be now. With the escalating racial conflicts that have acquired a constant presence in the American consciousness (and now specifically in New York, the city in which this story is set), there couldn’t be a better time to take a familiar story and rework it into the movie that will take the crucial step towards, once and for all, achieving some sort of racial equality in the media. Sadly, if director Will Gluck’s Annie was ever supposed to be that movie, it fails on account of how terrible it ended up being.
The Annie remake was sold to by star producers Jay-Z and Will Smith, two of the most influential and beloved black men in America (although Smith seems to have been losing some steam lately thanks to his questionable parenting techniques). It wasn’t an entirely crazy proposition, after all, Jay-Z had successfully sampled ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ into a hit. I imagine these men didn’t have a hands-on role in the production of Annie, because not only is Jay-Z’s version of ‘Hard Knock Life’ absent from the movie, but so is any ounce of the pathos and nuance that can be found in that track.
At the end of the day this is still a major Christmas release by Sony Pictures, so I’m not saying that we had to turn Annie into The Wire (although how cool would that be?), but the fact remains that what we have ended up with is the most sterile and prepackaged adaptation of the Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin musical that I could have imagined. It’s scary to think that this supposedly “edgy” modernization ends up being more toothless than a straight-forward adaptation would have been.
I’ll give the filmmakers this: you know you’re in for a terrible ride right away, when the movie starts with a traditional, ginger-looking Annie giving a presentation in class that bores all her classmates. Then, the teacher asks the “other” Annie to step forward, this one is played by youngest-ever-Oscar-nominee Quvenzhane Wallis, who explains the politics of the New Deal by making her classmates clap and stomp on their desks. Even ignoring the fact that Annie’s little spiel doesn’t make much sense as a way to explain FDR’s politics, the scene is one of the most transparently lame attempts at making a character seem “cool” I’ve ever seen.
In 2014, Annie is , and lives in a Harlem that looks like the result of our worst fears about gentrification coming true. This movie’s vision of New York is as lazily tourist that it feels almost like an insult. If you remember the original musical’s “N.Y.C.”, you’ll know his story has always positioned New York (like many other works of media have) as a place people dream their dreams will come true. The New York of this Annie looks like your generic shopping mall. The city that never sleeps has gone on Ritalin, and turned into this artificial piece of plastic that doesn’t allow for real life.
Everything in this movie shines with a hideous air-brushed glow, especially the horrific new arrangements of the musical’s score, something that, like I said, is even more irritating considering Jay-Z’s involvement in this enterprise. Quvenzhane Wallis ended up being a far better singer than I initially feared, but her voice is still buried underneath two dozen layers of Glee-fied auto-tuning. That, however, is only one of the ways in which Annie mistreats its lead actress. I don’t know what Benh Zeitlin did when he was filming Beasts of the Southern Wild, but Will Gluck can’t get a decent performance out of Wallis even if his life depended on it. It’s not her fault -I mean, she’s a child- but she is a zombie in this movie, a vacuum that delivers lines in the most inhuman way possible. Being completely honest, she borders on the scary.
As painful as it is to watch Wallis, though, the worst performance in the movie belongs to Cameron Diaz, whose Miss Hannigan has finally found the bottom of the well of the unfunny by playing every line to the back row of a house the size of Yankee Stadium. Also in the cast is Jamie Foxx, who play the Daddy Warbucks character -renamed William Stacks- who now is a media mogul running for mayor. This is important, because it’s a sign that the movie wanted to keep the original’s political commentary, and then do absolutely nothing with it.
Ok, that’s actually not true. It’s not that the movie doesn’t do anything with its commentary, but it is the case that it is absolutely content with barely caressing the surface of its themes in the most superficial and safe way possible. What’s the point of bringing Annie to the 21st Century? Is it about the recession? Obama’s America? The rise of social media? The movie’s answer is no. It’s not interested in commenting on any of these topics, yet wants the credit for doing so. Writing the words “going viral” in your script doesn’t mean you’re making any kind of commentary about our relationship to technology. Similarly, the movie’s view of wealth and luxury is as prepackaged as their vision of the city, and all its “clever” lines are made out of the kind of cheap shot that belong in third-rate Dreamworks Animation movies.
In any case, commenting on American life in a meaningful way isn’t required to be an acceptable movie. Not doing it certainly keeps this from being a good movie, but it could still work as a piece of sentimental entertainment. A melodrama about an orphan finding a new father figure… except there is zero chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhane Wallis, and even less in the script to help the actors try to establish any kind of bond. William Stacks only realizes he loves Annie because we’re in the movie’s third act… oh, and because he sees her look like a dead-eyed android while singing at some sort of gala. There’s nothing to do about it, Annie is nothing but a shrill, shiny movie.
Grade: 2 out of 10.
Is there a wrong way to approach reviewing a movie? Because I find that the most effective way for me to write about Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh’s portrait of the last 25 years in the life of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, is to think about the concept and consequences of an artist making a movie about another artist. This is all to say that after watching Mr. Turner, I found myself endlessly wondering why Leigh decided to make a movie about this particular artist, and how the portrayal of Turner relates to the way Leigh sees himself and the world around it. It might be too meta-textual a way to engage with the film, but it is the one I’m most interested in.
Leigh, who is most famous for his untraditional filming process, which includes long improvisational rehearsal periods during which the director and his actors come up with the structure for the film, is most often associated to observational stories about the British working class. This is curious because some of his most successful (and best) movies have been his few period pieces. And of these period pieces, Mr. Turner is the second that deals with renown artists of Britain’s past.
The first of these movies was ‘Topsy-Turvy’, which I still think is Leigh’s finest work, and which focuses on the relationship of Victorian composing duo Gilbert and Sullivan, as they go through the process of writing ‘The Mikado’, one of their most famous pieces. But while ‘Topsy-Turvy’ focused on the nature of collaboration, and human interaction that accompanies creation, Mr. Turner, which deals with the solitary art of painting, is mostly interested in digging into the character’s personality. In this way, ‘Topsy-Turvy’ was based on historical facts, but Mr. Turner is Leigh’s first true biographical movie.
Which is not to say that this is Leigh’s first portrait. His career is, after all, almost exclusively made out of character studies. Be it the despicable man at the center of ‘Naked’, the hopelessly sunny protagonist of ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, or the lovely but conflicted ‘Vera Drake’, Leigh has always seemed fascinated with the idea of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. A metaphor that is most appropriate (and almost too puny) when talking about a movie about a painter. The fact that we are supposed to watch this movie from Turner’s point-of-view is made text with the film’s opening frame, which presents us with the Dutch countryside, as the sunset saturates the sky with a thick, misty, yellow hue that can almost be touched.
The man in charge of the cinematography is Leigh’s longtime collaborator Dick Pope, who doesn’t really make the movie look like one of Turner’s paintings as much as he makes it look like a believable representation of the visions of nature that must have inspired him. Pope is only one of the people responsible for making Mr. Turner look as beautiful as it does, as he frames and lights the detailed sets and costumes (the latter by costume designer extraordinaire Jacqueline Durran) in a manner that is best described as thoughtful.
If you think all this praise is making the movie sound like your typical good-looking 19th Century period piece, you should know that the movie’s beauty is not just embellishment. Mr. Turner’s beauty is designed to contrast with its protagonist. As played by Timothy Spall, another longtime Leigh collaborator who won the Best Actor Award at Cannes earlier this year, Billy Turner is not far from the most unappealing and grotesque man you’ll ever meet. He is one twirly mustache away from being a cartoon villain, resembling Gargamel more closely than any British gentleman we’ve seen in film before.
why is he so gross? Well, for starters, he communicates almost exclusively in groans and growls. He is constantly hunched down, he breathes as if he were always out of breath, he spits onto his painting to keep the paint wet, and he laughs like a delighted pig, sweatily showing his crooked teeth. On this note, kudos to Spall for so willingly showcasing his most unflattering features, and for committing to such an unlikable personality. Animalistic is an accurate way to describe him. He moves like a beast and shares the sexual appetite of one too. He has fathered two daughters with a woman played by Ruth Sheen, but wants nothing to do with them. He greets his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) by violently grabbing her breast, and has his way with her too, without any intention of ever reciprocating the affection she clearly feels for him.
But not everything is quite as heartless about Turner. To a degree, we are asked to sympathize with this apparent monster, who in a manner not uncharacteristic of Leigh’s work, is not as much a bad person as he is just someone you would just rather never have to hang out with. We see Turner’s softer side pretty early in the movie, when he addresses his father (Paul Jesson) as ‘daddy’ for the first time. And also, when he falls in love with a widowed woman (Marion Bailley) who rents him a room in a small coastal town. When Turner first professes his love, he stumbles and kisses her as clumsily as we’d expect. The goodness and badness that can be found in this man cannot be divorced from each other
All of this brings me to the question: does Mike Leigh see himself as a figure as grotesque as the way he portrays Turner in this movie? I don’t know the man personally, but he doesn’t strike me as particularly distant or obtuse. And if we look to the way Turner was treated as an artist, and the way his groundbreaking impressionistic style was criticized and mocked at the time, we cannot find any moments in Leigh’s career in which his movies were dismissed as redundant or unartistic. If not hugely popular with audiences, his movies have been pretty much consistently been well-regarded by critics.
This is the discrepancy that keeps me from engaging fully with Mr. Turner. I feel like Leigh is trying to give me something beyond a thoughtful portrayal, like there is something about the movie that I still have to unpack. The question of how Leigh sees himself in relationship to Turner has been everything I could think about the movie, and the fact that the character of Turner is so richly developed (not a surprise when you consider previous collaborations between Leigh and Spall) makes finding an answer even harder.
But that is if, like me, you can’t help but engage with Mr. Turner as an entry within Leigh’s career. As far as the experience of watching it is concerned… Well, if I’m being completely honest the movie is a little too long for its own good, considering how not even half of the effort put in developing Turner’s character is put into trying to come up with a (traditionally) satisfying plot. Even then, I’d be hard pressed to find a redundant scene that doesn’t bring something new to our understanding of Turner as a person.
This is, after all, a Mike Leigh movie, and he is an incredibly observant director. At its best, the movie is almost too rich in detail, from the performances going all the way to the sets, props, and colors. The ultimate thing about my experience with Mr. Turner, though, is that the man ends up not being nearly as interesting as the idea of questioning why Leigh decided to make this movie.
Grade: 7 out of 10
At this point in the series, I’ve written about seven Studio Ghibli pictures, and all of them have been directed either by Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. There is no question that those two men are the masters whose talent helped made Ghibli one of the most reliable production houses in the world, but by the mid-nineties, Ghibli had officially become a powerhouse studio, with its movies topping the Japanese box-office more often than not. What one was the dream of a studio that would allow Miyazaki to make the movies he envisioned in his imagination had turned into an blooming business venture, and as we all know, relying the future success of a company in the work of two men is not a good business venture.
This is why Miyazaki looked through the ranks of Ghibli for a younger talent that could become his successor, and found Yoshifumi Kondo, an animator nine years younger than him, who had worked on the five most recent Ghibli projects. But as we know from Kiki’s Delivery Service, which started out as a smaller project for Ghibli’s younger animators and ended up being taken over by Miyazaki when he concluded that no one but him could make the movie he wanted, he is not exactly the easiest person to please. So the remarkable thing about Whisper of the Heart is that despite the fact that it went into production with Miyazaki having a very hands-on role -he wrote the screenplay, based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi, and oversaw the storyboarding process- he eventually stepped down, and left the project on Kondo’s hands.
This is a remarkable moment in Ghibli’s history, because even if Whisper of the Heart is not quite on the same level as Ghibli’s masterpieces (but then again, not many movies are), it shows the promise of Kondo as an auteur that shares certain sensibilities with Miyazaki and Takahata, but has a voice that is clearly his. There is, however, a tragic part to this story, because on January 21, 1998, Kondo died of an aneurysm at the age of 47. His death was supposedly caused by an excessive workload, a fact that prompted Miyazaki to announce his retirement, but later settle for a more measured pace for the production of his movies.
The death of Kondo is a blow from which Ghibli hasn’t fully recovered. yet The Studio has certainly produced many commercially and financially successful movies since this tragic moment, but in the meantime, it has failed to meet the goal for which Whisper of the Heart was made in the first place: it has failed to find a successor to the Miyazaki-Takahata dichotomy. Earlier this year, Miyazaki announced his (apparently actual) retirement; an announcement that has forced the Studio to put all productions on hold, and take a moment to reassess the direction Ghibli will take in the future.
But that is a conversation for another time, right now we want to talk about Whisper of the Heart, and why there is a persistent idea that out of all the younger people that directed movies for Ghibli, he was the most likely to rise up to the level of its two founding masters. This view is certainly affected by the fact that we never got to see a second Kondo movie, but if you look at Whisper of the Heart, you not only have a very solid movie, but a director who is interested in serving character above all else, to the point where I was trying to describe the plot of the movie to my girlfriend, and couldn’t really do it.
I guess you could categorize it as a coming of age story, but it takes place over just a couple of days, and by the end of the movie, it’s not so much that our girl protagonist has become an adult, but that she is… contemplating the idea of what will happen in her future? Yes, that’s it. The most truthful thing about Whisper of the Heart is that it isn’t about some bullshit tale in which the kid goes through some sort of adventure and learns lesson about herself, this is a story about that very real moment in which you realize that you are going to be an adult someday, and that said day will come sooner than you thought.
Anyway, let’s get into some of the plot. Our protagonist is 14-year-old Shizuki, who is just starting her last year of Junior High. She is an ardent reader, but curiously enough, all the books she checks out of the library have been previously checked out by one Seiji Amasawa. One day, she sees a funny fat cat on the train, and decides to follow it to an old antique shop run by a kind old man that, oh surprise, turns out to be Seiji Amasawa’s grandfather. That last bit could be thought of as a little bit of a spoiler, but the plot is so far down the list of things that make Whisper of the Heart worth watching that I don’t think I’m really ruining anything.
From that description you will surely agree with me on that not much happens in the movie. There is really not much in it in the way of plot points, big reveals, or anything like that.The main conflict comes when Shuzuki realizes she hasn’t really done anything with her life yet, and that according to her, she doesn’t have any skills (never mind the fact that she’s a fourteen-year-old). Things happen in such an understated and natural way that when the movie starts moving towards its last act, you realize how much time has gone by without there being a clear direction to the story. On that front, one must give the movie infinite kudos, for what could be seen as a weakness in any other story, ends up being a crucial formal decision that, for the lack of a better way of saying this, puts us in the headspace of the protagonist.
From that description, you could also gather that this is a very realistic movie. And despite being written by Miyazaki, very different from the fantastic adventures that he is known for. The most relevant precedent in Ghibli’s filmography for Kondo’s debut is Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, and even then there is a clear distinction between the movies’ styles beyond their realistic plot-lines. Takahata very clearly used stylization (both in the visuals and the dialogue) of the flashback sequences to achieve an overwhelming emotional climax. And as we know from having seen some of his other movies, Takahata is also very much interested in transcendent themes. Kondo’s approach, on the other hand, is completely about remaining true to the truth of the story, which in this case means giving over to the most realistic and least fanciful of all the Ghibli movies up to this point.
The movie does feature a brief fantasy sequence in which Shizuki envisions the novel she is trying to write as a way of proving that she can be good at something (the story is based on a cat statue she finds at the antique shop, of which we will talk more about in a later installment of this series). But even then, the sequence is very brief, and most of the movie is as mundane as you could imagine. And I don’t mean “mundane” as some sort of diss. This is the perfect fit for this movie. It is rare for a movie to commit so fully to being a portrait, and even if it may seem a little too inconsequential, and its emotional heights are not as overwhelming as Only Yesterday‘s (although it does with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” something similar to what that movie’s finale did with “The Rose”), it is still a valuable movie, and a great starting point for wondering what Kondo’s career as a director would have looked like.
Next Time: Miyazaki goes epic, and starts being noticed as a master in the west, with Princess Mononoke.
The year is ending, and list-making time is beginning. I like looking at the year that was and, in a way, express my gratitude for all the media that made me think, feel, or sparked any other kind of reaction in my life. I will be writing about my favorite movies of the year sometime in January (it’s so frustrating that so many movies get released in the last weeks of December!), but for now, enjoy my take on the best television shows of 2014.
Honorable Mentions: Before I get to the list proper, let me take some time to give a shout-out to some shows I really love, but couldn’t make room for them on the list. First, there are Adventure Time and Bob’s Burgers, both fantastic examples of the heights that can be achieved through animation. Adventure Time is a masterclass in world-building, while Bob’s Burgers features some of the best (and funniest) character work. The reason they’re not on the list is simply the fact that I am not caught up on their most recent seasons (although I did watch the Bob’s Burgers premiere, “Work Hard of Die Trying, Girl”, which was hilarious). Similarly, although I sung its praises in a lengthy article, I must admit that I’ve also been very bad at keeping up with the delightful, and Golden Globe nominated, Jane the Virgin.
Now that that’s out of the way, on to the actual list! (and yes, I know it’s not a top ten, but I just couldn’t keep any of these shows off the list).
1. Over the Garden Wall (Cartoon Network)
When it comes to making lists, and especially when it comes to numbers ones, one is always plagued with doubts about whether or not he is making the right choice. I probably loved many shows on this list as much as I did Over the Garden Wall, but the complete lack of love for this fantastic miniseries from most publications and critics making best-of-the-year lists was enough to secure its place at the top. If no one but me is going to admit that this animated series is a work of genius, well, I’ll take that job with pleasure. One of the most original and touching pieces of media to be released in the entire year, Over the Garden Wall is a treasure. A true gem. If you want the details of what makes it so special, then you will be glad to know I wrote extensively about this show a couple months ago. If you haven’t seen this yet (and I think very few people have), you’re in for a treat.
Show MVP: The best character is Greg, the little brother who is as funny as he is adorable. I found him so awesome that I made him my Twitter avatar.
Best Episode: The show’s real power kicks in once you’ve seen the whole ten-part miniseries, and with each episode being only 11 minutes long, finding the time to watch it shouldn’t be a problem. That being said, my personal favorite is episode 3, “Schooltown Follies”, and not in small part because it features my new favorite song of all time.
2. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Perhaps the most important show to air on television last year, what initially seemed like an ad-free version of The Daily Show ended up becoming one of the most essential programs for anyone who wanted to get thoughtful news. That you would also laugh your head off became just a bonus, as Oliver was willing to dedicate full half hours of television to news stories that were barely touched upon by America’s mainstream media, while never being afraid to show all the colors of the story, no matter who ended up looking like an idiot. A wonderful reminder that intelligence means being interested, and always questioning, what is happening around you.
Season MVP: Considering it’s his show, it has to be John Oliver. But I will use this space to point out how effective a host he is, and how his outraged persona works wonderfully with this type of content.
Best Episode: It’s hard to choose, with Oliver making amazing episodes on Miss America and the World Cup, but considering my roots, I just had to go with this clip.
3. Mad Men (AMC)
I think at this point not even a catastrophically bad finale would keep Mad Men from having a place at the top my “best of” list next year. We’re only seven episodes away from the show coming to an end, and I’m pretty confident saying it has become my favorite show of all time. What doesn’t make sense, though, is that so many people are saying that it isn’t as good as it once was. To these people I want to say: “What show are you watching?!” Especially now that we’re reaching the finish line, every line, every scene, every gesture comes wrapped in layers of meaning and history that we’ve seen develop through the past seven years. The big finale might not have aired yet, but the seven episodes that aired this year set us up for an amazing finish.
Season MVP: One of the best things about this season was the way it payed off, in more ways than one, the relationship between Don and Peggy, and the truth is those moments wouldn’t have had the same impact if it weren’t for Elisabeth Moss’s acting skills.
Best Episode: While we’re on the topic of the Don-Peggy relationship, the biggest moments for that pair came in “The Strategy”, but just the fact that pieces of television as genius as “A Day’s Work” and “Waterloo” weren’t the best episode of the season speaks volumes about what a great year it was for Mad Men.
4. Olive Kitteridge (HBO)
I also wrote extensively about this HBO original miniseries, and how freaking amazing it is. But in case you don’t have to read my whole article for some reason (jerk), then let me tell you really quick that this four-episode saga about the life of a grumpy lady and the other inhabitants of a New England town -adapted from the Pulitzer-winnning novel of the same name by writer Jane Anderson and director Lisa Cholodenko- is some of the most empathetic and humane pictures of a complex human being I’ve ever seen on television.
Show MVP: There is no touching the genius that is Frances McDormand’s performance in the titular role, but among the supporting cast (which includes great turns by Zoe Kazan, Cory Michael Smith, and Bill Murray), I have to single out Richard Jenkins, who, as usual, turns in some incredible work.
Best Episode: It’s hard to tell, this being only a four-part miniseries, but I have a strong preference for the second episode, which focuses on Olive attending her son’s wedding.
5. Hannibal (NBC)
When I made last year’s equivalent to this list, I had only seen two episodes of Hannibal. Having caught up with the series since, I had to mend the mistake of leaving off the list. This is not only hand-down the best show on network television right now, it’s one of the very best the medium has to offer, a true audiovisual nightmare, and the rare show where the images as artistic and revelatory as the dialogue. This comment is not meant to diss creator Bryan Fuller, who has managed the impossible in crafting an exciting and refreshing story out of the tired Hannibal Lecter character, but to praise his recognition of the full potential of television as a visual medium.
Season MVP: Anthony Hopkins’s hamminess could have driven any character into the ground, so props to Mads Mikkelsen for erasing Hopkins’s Hannibal from my mind and replacing him with his morbidly chilly take.
Best Episode: The season finale “Mitzumono”, one of the most violent and shocking hours of television this year.
6. Fargo (FX)
Making a television series out of the Academy Award-winning Coen Brothers movie about a pregnant small town cop trying to solve a grizzly kidnapping in eighties Minnesota? It seemed like a recipe for disaster, and yet, writer Noah Hawley and his team came up with a fantastic story that is not so much a sequel as it is a spiritual companion to the original movie, and an homage to the Coens’s iconic career. For someone that thinks the Coens might be the best American directors working today, this show was nothing but a joyride.
Season MVP: This show was full of name-stars turning in great work, from a despicable Martin Freeman to a superhuman Billy Bob Thornton, so it was unexpected, but very rewarding that newcomer Allison Tollman’s ended up giving the most outstanding performance as Officer Molly Solverson.
Best Episode: “Buridan’s Ass”, the episode that brings Oliver Platt’s character’s sub-plot to an end, and features one of the tensest scenes of the year when a shootout is interrupted by a blizzard.
7. Transparent (Amazon)
Amazon ventured into television last year, but unlike Alpha House and Betas, 2014 saw the release of a show that people were actually interested in seeing… and talking about. Jill Soloway’s Transparent is the story of the Peffermans, a family whose dynamic is turned upside down when patriarch Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out of the closet to his three self-absorbed children as a trans woman. Soulful, quiet, observant, funny, clever, and touching are all suiting articles to describe the vibe of Transparent, the rare show that is willing to take as much time and energy as is actually needed to have a conversation about the way we relate to (and through) our sexuality.
Season MVP: It’s hard to not go with Jeffrey Tambor, who obviously has the meatiest role playing Maura, but still should be commended for his touching work. Sometimes the role of a lifetime is just the role of a lifetime.
Best Episode: The first six episodes of the show are fantastic, but they gain so much new gain when all the plots come together and build-up is finally payed off in episode seven, “Symbolic Exemplar”, which you might remember as the “trans got talent” episode.
8. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Last year’s favorite might have lost its title thanks to shinier new toys, but it’s still one of the best shows on television, and secured its spot by refusing to sit on its laurels, and daring to go further in its exploration of Litchfield Correctional Facility. This second season ended up being less the story of Piper Chapman and more the story of how messed up the prison system can be, and how such an institution can be kept from crumbling. Throw in the fact that Orange is one of the few Netflix shows that seems designed to be binge-watched and you have yourself a fascinating winner.
Season MVP: One of this show’s biggest strengths is its ability to take minor background characters and turn them into you absolute favorites. This year, Miss Rosa came into the spotlight and ended up being the stand-out of the season thanks in no small part to Barbara Rosenblat’s performance.
Best Episode: It’s hard to pick a favorite episode when a show is as serialized as this one, but if I’m going based on which episode featured which flashback story, the most effective one was “A Whole Other Hole”, which gave us a heartbreaking glimpse at the inner life of Lorna Morello.
9. Review (Comedy Central)
A show about a man who has a show about reviewing life experiences. Does it sound complicated? Well, it isn’t. If you want to know what it feels like to go to space, or being a drug addict, or if you ever wondered what it’s like to be a racist, you just write an email and host Forrest McNeil (Andy Daly) will experience and review those things for you. I’m not gonna lie, this is a weird show, but also the funniest thing I saw on television this year.
Season MVP: This show IS Andy Daly, and he deserves all the praise he can get for going to the dark and weird places he goes to in the name of comedy.
Best Episode: If you are not sure about this show yet, just watch the episode titled “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” and all doubt will be gone. Pure genius.
10. The Knick (Cinemax)
I’m one of those people who doesn’t quite get the critical fandom for director Steven Soderbergh, so it was really surprising that his turn to television would be the project that would make me warm up to him. Full disclosure, I’m a sucker for shows (and movies) set at the turn of the century, but even then, The Knick is a solid (if albeit familiar) workplace drama (taking place at a hospital at a time when healthcare technology was still relatively primitive) that is taken to new heights by Soderbergh’s stylistic and idiosyncratic direction.
Season MVP: The show has a pretty fantastic cast. It’s actually really hard for me to choose someone, so I’ll go with Matt Frewer just because of his AWESOME beard.
Best Episode: By the time the show reaches episode seven, titled “Get the Rope”, it is ready to spin multiple plates all at once, and deliver an action-packed episode inspired by the 1900 Tenderloin District race riots.
11. Louie (FX)
People are starting to get over him (I can feel it), but to me, Louis C.K. will always be a genius. And with such a flexible production arrangement as the one he has with FX, it’s becoming really fascinating to see what kinds of stories he wants to tell next, and how he decides to flex his muscles as he evolves as a filmmaker. Case in point, this season was characterized by longer story-arcs, including the extra long episode that flashed back to Louie’s childhood, and the epic feature-length “Elevator” saga. That, plus classic Louie pieces like “Model” and “So Did the Fat Lady” make this still one of television’s bests.
Season MVP: Just because saying Louis C.K. year after year would be too repetitive, let’s praise this season’s guest casting, especially Sarah Baker, Skip Sudduth, and the kid who played Louie in the flashback episode.
Best Episode: Even with the epic six-part “Elevator”, I would still say my favorite episode was the “In the Woods” flashback.
12. Broad City (Comedy Central)
Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are not the future of comedy. They are the now. Executive produced by Amy Poehler, Broad City could be reductively described as a funnier version of Girls, but that would negate the originality and sharp-edged humor that makes these women’s voice such a welcome addition to the television landscape.
Season MVP: I guess it’d be cliché to say you’re either an Abby or an Ilana, but if I had to choose, I would go with Ilana Glazer. She just makes me laugh harder.
Best Episode: They’re all hilarious, but “Stolen Phone” has Hannibal Buress acting opposite a bunch of cute puppies.
Special Mention: 2014 was also the year of the Every Simpsons Ever marathon, which had me watching way more Simpsons episodes than I had seen in the past five years, and while I discovered that the show’s decline in quality wasn’t as sharp as I thought it was (gems can be found in almost every season of the show), the year’s truly transcendent Simpsons experience came in the form of animator extraordinaire’s Don Hertzfeldt’s couch gag, which at two minutes, is as fascinating as any piece of filmmaking that I saw this year.
“It doesn’t make sense”, “It’s impossible to follow”, and “It’s overindulgent without a point” are the criticisms that have attached themselves to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice since its premiere at the New York Film Festival. It’s not entirely surprising, because after a career trajectory that had positioned him as one of the greatest American director, with many critics calling him an outright genius, Anderson has apparently decided to follow such capital-I “Important” movies as There Will Be Blood and The Master with what is essentially a stoner comedy.
This shouldn’t be a complete surprise, though. Inherent Vice might lack the intense masculinity of his previous two movies, but fans of the director shouldn’t forget how hilariously ridiculous those movies could get. After all, the final moments of There Will Be Blood, the infamous milkshake scene in particular, are as intimidating as they are over-the-top ridiculous. The same could be said about The Master, in which the late Philip Seymour Hoffman makes Joaquin Phoenix walk across a room ten times in a row in a scene that could very well function as an avant-garde piece of sketch comedy.
Anderson’s fascination for old bits of comedy is as old as his identity as a post-modern director. Truth be told, basically every director working today is a post-modernist, but Anderson’s reverence for certain filmmakers is palpable. When he first came into the scene, the naturalistic ensemble nature of Boogie Nights and Magnolia brought a lot of comparisons to Robert Altman, which is a great place to start when talking about Inherent Vice, which has universally been compared to Altman’s neo-noir classic The Long Goodbye.
A little bit about Inherent Vice’s plot: Based on the eponymous novel by Thomas Pynchon, our protagonist is private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who spends as much time trying to solve crimes as he does getting high which ever way he can. Our movie begins with his “ex old-lady” Shasta (Katherine Waterston) paying him an unexpected visit, and asking for his help as she describes the convoluted way in which her millionaire boyfriend Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) is about to be betrayed by his wife and her lover. Things only get more complicated from there, as Doc tries to make sense of an overtly complicated case while being almost too high to function.
Altman’s The Long Goodbye featured a hard-boiled detective straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel weirdly inhabiting a world full of hippies, Inherent Vice works almost as an opposite version of that movie. It fits with the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski as a deconstruction of the nonsensical nature of film noir plotting. Doc, however, is different to Lebowski’s “The Dude” in the fact that he is actually a professional detective. He wants to be part of the case, even if his slobbish nature renders him unable to keep up with the array of quirky characters at the center of this conspiracy.
Chief among these quirky characters is Lieutenant ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornson, played magnificently by Josh Brolin, a straight-arrow cop whose unhealthy relationship to Doc has him obsessed with following his every step waiting for the moment in which he can finally put his hands around this dirty hippie’s neck. Brolin’s performance, aided by a flawless deadpan delivery, is the stand-out in an all-star cast that includes Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, and Reese Witherspoon, all playing characters who do a lot of talking, and make very little sense.
So, yeah, its detractors are onto something when they say Inherent Vice is unnecessarily hard to follow. Formally speaking, the movie is designed to put us in Doc’s shoes. We’re experiencing every scene through a haze of smoke. The dialogue is stylized to a fault, it often goes in circles without a point, and all kinds of off and weird behavior becomes hilarious. There is no point in watching Inherent Vice while being high, the movie is already doing all that work for you.
They are also right when they say it’s an overindulgent movie. At two and half hours long, the movie is much longer than it has any right to be. Scenes stretch out, and thing just keep happening, with Anderson’s adaptation of Pynchon’s prose never showing any intension of building up any kind of tension, or resolving things in any sort of satisfying way.
Detractors might even by right that there is little point to the movie, but the way I see it, the point the movie is trying to make is that there is no point. This is an exercise in formality. This is the movie that results out of someone wanting to capture the effects of cannabis on film, and this facts extends all the way through the movie’s reason for existence. Is it a pointless adventure? Yes. Is there any bigger reason for it existing? Probably not. But then again, what is the reason people smoke pot? It’s about the experience.
Don’t let all this intellectual talk deceive you, though, Inherent Vice is first and foremost a ridiculous piece of comedy. I’m not going to lie, you might need to be in the movie’s wavelength to enjoy it. That doesn’t mean you have to be into drugs. As someone who does practically no drugs, I absolutely enjoyed it. It might not be ideal for you, but if it is, you will have a great time.
Grade: 9 out of 10.
The Globes giveth and the Globes taketh away… In honor of the occasion, let me do a quick list of the nominations that made me jump off my seat, and the ones that me groan at my computer. Without further ado, the “Best” and “Worst” of this year’s Golden Globe nominations!
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel had a very good morning, with four very valuable nominations on its way to the Oscars, including a Best Lead Actor (Comedy or Musical) citation for Ralph Fiennes’ outstanding work, and even more surprisingly, a Best Director nomination for Wes Anderson. Could this finally be the year that he breaks big with the Academy? The timing wouldn’t be bad, since Budapest is his best film yet.
2. I must admit I’m not caught up with the show, but I really loved the first few episodes of Jane the Virgin. So much so, that I wrote about it on the blog. If you read that article, then you already know I’m ecstatic at the show being nominated for Best Comedy or Musical Series, and that its star, the lovely Gina Rodriguez, is also nominated. The feat is even more impressive when you consider the fact that the show airs on the CW, a channel whose awards traction is usually relegated to the Teen Choice Awards.
3. Another great new series that got more traction that I expected, is Amazon’s lovely Transparent. I was expecting Jeffrey Tambor to get nominated for his amazing performance, but the show getting in for Best Comedy or Musical Series is a wonderful, and deserving, surprise.
4. Keeping the conversation to television, I was also super happy to see Orange is the New Black get three nominations after it didn’t get much last year. Even Uzo Adubo managed to get a Supporting Actress nomination. It also look like it might be the front-runner to win the Best Comedy Series award, and I’m more than ok with that.
5. I don’t want to sound like one of those people who get excited for a movie they haven’t seen yet, but just the fact that Selma director Ava DuVernay got a nomination, which means she’s very likely to become the first African-American Woman to get nominated for a Best Director Oscar (maybe even win!), makes me very, very happy.
1. It was also a big morning for The Imitation Game, which is not a horrible movie, but presents a level of mediocrity that shouldn’t be rewarded by awards bodies, and yet, it very often is. It’s definitely got to do with the fact that awards puppet-master Harvey Weinstein is backing the film, but still, five nominations is way too much for this disappointment of a movie.
2. Just a couple days ago I wrote about my Golden Globe wish-list in the comedy categories. None of those wishes came to pass, and the most heartbreaking one was Jenny Slate being ignored in the Best Lead Actress Comedy or Musical category. Her performance in Obvious Child is one of the best in any genre this year, but I guess they just had to make room for Quvenzhané Wallis in Annie (which by the way, is a horrendous movie that doesn’t capture an ounce of the sparkle Wallis showed in Beasts of the Southern Wild, instead turning her into an uncharismatic zombie).
3. The LEGO Movie and The Boxtrolls are pretty good, and I haven’t seen The Book of Life, but the Animated Feature category feels very disappointing this year. Nominating five films and not making room for The Tale of Princess Kaguya is just wrong. Well, I guess they just had to nominate such big-studio nonsense as Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2.
4. In the television categories, nothing makes me more depressed than the fact that Ray Donovan stars Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight took two nominations that could have gone to any number of deserving actors. I don’t watch the show regularly, but I’ve seen my dad watch it enough times to know it’s pretty bad.
5. I don’t have anything against Robert Duvall personally, but it’s starting to look like he’ll be nominated for the Oscar, which means my obsessive brain won’t leave alone until I watch The Judge, and judging by the reviews and that dismal trailer, I really, really, don’t want to.
You can see a full list of this year’s Golden Globe nominations here.