Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black is Netflix's newest original series is about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who is incarcerated for transporting drug money, and her fellow inmates at Litchfield federal prison.  Orange is the New Black is fantastic and refreshing. It made me realize how much I've missed watching shows about strong, well developed female characters.  I've watched several movies in theaters and the last recent movie I can think of in which the main female characters weren't just the love interests was Bridesmaids which was out two years ago.

I also love how it actually allows older women, women of color, and butch lesbians speak and become fleshed out characters instead of just the younger, prettier women.  There's even a transwoman on the show, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), and I think they handle her story and character well.  I am frankly impressed by how many stories and themes the show addresses that you usually don't see.  I like that many of the women on the show get to develop as characters in their own right.  It's so refreshing to see female characters who aren't mainly just about finding or dealing with love and to see them actually get to develop relationships with each other.

I think the show plays it very safe in the beginning with Piper being the character who we follow into the world of Litchfield prison.  Of all of the storylines in the season, one of the least interesting ones is how Piper's fiance Larry (Jason Biggs) and her WASPy friends and family deal with Piper's incarceration.  The contrast between their lives and those of the inmates is stark and Piper's brother is a good comic relief but with so many other characters from the prison left unexplored, I found myself a little frustrated whenever the show focused on life outside of the prison.

I was surprised by how quickly the corrupt wardens, correction officers, and gaurds grew on me as the show progressed and the power dynamic between the prison guards and the inmates.  Particularly fascinating are: sleezy guard "Pornstache" Mendez, corrupt vice warden Figueroa, and Piper's correction officer Healy.

At the heart of the show are, of course, the inmates- all wonderfully portrayed with so many fascinating stories. There's stern Claudette (Michelle Hurst), tough and motherly Red (Kate Mulgrew), transwoman Sophia (and I love how above all else, they emphasize her classiness and downplay her flamboyance), joker Taystee (Danielle Brooks), the mother and daughter Diazes, former junkie Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Piper's ex girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Abuba).  It's absolutely fascinating watching the relationships between the women develop and the dynamics of the different prison cliques change over time.  The show is at its best when it tells stories we don't usually see like Janae, the track star who gives in to peer pressure to fit in, and how for some of the inmates, prison isn't bad compared to the dangerous neighborhoods they have to return to after they leave.    

Brilliant, hilarious scene from the show.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Prequels: Monsters University and Hannibal

Monsters University 

Monsters University is the prequel to Monsters Inc following Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan during their college days.  MU is delightful.  I enjoyed it tremendously and had forgotten how charming the Monsters world was- full of color and optimism.  Given Pixars two latest films, the cliche, forgettable Cars 2 and well-intentioned but too preachy Brave, I was a little worried they were losing their touch.  With Monsters,  I am reassured that Pixar still has many fun and meaningful stories to tell.

Monsters University is very much Mike's story.  We learn why he's so optimistic and why he's the guy who is still over the moon when he's on a TV commercial even when the logo happens to be covering him up.  I like how it goes back to those classic Pixar movies in which the messages were always uplifting but not saccharine.  I was also particularly impressed with how brutally honest the characters are with each other when they finally confront each other.  


A more terrifying prequel I've been following is NBC's Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies).  For a while, Hannibal had been one of those shows I put on in the background while I did other things, but somewhere in the middle of the season, "Sorbet," completely blew me away.  

Hannibal is a prequel of sorts to Silence of the Lambs and features Hannibal Lector (Mads Mikkelsen, the Bond villian from Casino Royale) when he's still a psychiatrist before he gets caught.  Lector is at the top of his game.  He is respected in the community for his medical expertise and for his gourmet cooking.  Mikkelsen really nails this role, especially since Anthony Hopkins so iconically portrayed Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs.  Mikkelsen's Lector is mysterious and frighteningly cool.  He has an accent no one can quite place but he appears so cultured and polite, other characters can't help but to instinctively trust him.

The show follows Hannibal's relationship with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a gifted FBI profiler who's gift and curse is his ability to empathize with others, and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), Will's supervisor.  Other main characters include: Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Will's close friend and Beverley Katz (Hettienne Park), a member of Jack's forensic team.  I was also really excited to see Gillian Anderson (Agnet Scully!! :D) make an appearance on the show.  

Hannibal is a very character-centric show and visually striking, full of eerie imagery.  I enjoyed it the most somewhere near the middle of the season, when things weren't too bleak yet and when there was this undercurrent of tremendously dark humor and when you really had no idea where things are going.  The episodes leading up to the finale are tough.  Will Graham, who uses his gift of empathy to profile serial killers, becomes increasingly damaged as he bears the brunt of the emotional trauma the characters experience.  While the Abagail Hobbs story was interesting especially for the development of the characters and Will and Hannibal's relationship, I wish they had featured other arcs more heavily, like Franklyn, another one of Hannibal's patients, and Tobias the violin maker.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby

My review of The Great Gatsby.  It's very much Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby and not in a good way.  It's gaudy, flashy, and lacks substance.  I did enjoy the soundtrack though.  In particular, Florence + the Machine's majestic "Over the Love."  There's also a very amusing, jazzy cover of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Haruki Murakami's1Q84

1Q84 features two seemingly parallel storylines: Aomame, a physical trainer who kills violent, abusive men and Tengo, an aspiring novelist who ghost writes a promising short story he feels particularly drawn to.  The first two books of 1Q84 are magnificent.  They draw you in immediately and introduce you to the strange and sometimes creepy world of 1Q84 in which there are two moons instead of one and policemen carry semi-automatic weapons instead of revolvers.  The pacing is tight and characters are motivated to act.  The third book of 1Q84 feels weak.  Another character's POV is introduced (he doesn't really add all that much to the story) and things that should get resolved sooner drag on.  The antagonists in the story are also surprisingly disappointing, especially when they've been built up as so omniscient and cunning.

I liked Tengo right off the bat and initially looked forward to his part of the story more.  As the story went on, I found myself liking Aomame more.  Her struggles are deeply moving and become more fascinating as the novel progresses while Tengo seems to take a more passive role.  There're many minor characters and I wish more of them had felt more like real characters rather than plot devices.

Of the minor characters, my two favorites were Fuka-Eri and Ayumi.  Fuka-Eri is the mysterious teenager whose story Tengo ghostwrites.  Fuka-Eri is wise beyond her years but deeply damaged and oftentimes unable to communicate her wisdom.  She also had this strange, intimate dynamic with Tengo that I almost wish Murakami had explored more.  I would love to read a whole novel just about her.  Ayumi is a policewoman who befriends Aomame.  Ayumi has had a very damaged background just like Aomame but deals with it in a very different way.

IQ84 is at its best when it builds up to its fantastic climax- it's exhilarating and terrifying.  There are a lot of moving pieces and it's especially satisfying to see the characters behave unexpectedly.  I also really enjoyed the stories both about the characters (the dowager's history, Aomame's friendship with Tamika) and about the books that they read ("The Cat Town" and "Air Chrysalis").  Cat Town and Air Chrysalis are both haunting in their own ways and Air Chrysalis does live up to all the hype the characters in the book put around it.

In many ways, the love story in IQ84 feels like the weakest part.  Despite the relationships they develop in their parallel story lines Aomame and Tengo both still feel terribly alone and only find solace in their idealized love for each other .  In some ways, I wish the author let them develop deeper relationships with others around them because those relationships felt very raw and much more realistic though what the love meant to Aomame is genuinely moving.  

I also still have so many questions about Air Chrysalis and the world of 1Q84 and if any of you have read it I'd love to get into a debate about what the more mysterious things in the book meant.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mace's Five Favorite Lesser Known Films

I saw this question posed on a movie forum recently and gave it some thought.  I'm sneaking in one extra.    

The Wedding Banquet (dir: Ang Lee) is about a gay Taiwanese man who fakes a wedding to a woman with his partner to please his traditional Taiwanese parents who don't know he's gay.  It's funny, poignant, and heartfelt.  

This might just be my favorite Ang Lee film because he captures the Chinese parent-child relationship so well especially when there's that generation/cultural gap between the parents who live in the home country and the kids who move to the US.  To some extent I think every Asian kid can relate to the relationship- how there are things you don't tell your parents because you don't think they'll get it (but they do or they'll try their very best to). 


Another one of Ang Lee's earlier films that I really enjoy is Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, which is is about a former chef and his three daughters. Like the Wedding Banquet, it starts off with a light, comedic tone but reaches quite a different and more serious tone towards the end.  Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is about growing up and moving on.  It also features some really magnificent Chinese cooking.  One of my favorite food sequences on film is below.  


The Children's Hour. The Children's Hour is a haunting story about how a little girl ruins the lives of two of her female teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine) after she spreads a rumor about them. I was impressed by how progressive it was since it was made in the 1960s.  

This one is definitely a downer but I do wish more people knew about this movie since the messages it conveys are so important.  It also has fantastic performances from Hepburn and Maclain.    


Marty (1955).  Marty () is a very well-liked butcher in his town, but he can't seem to get a girlfriend. When he finally finds someone he really likes and gets along with, none of his friends or family approve of her. 

This is another older, black and white movie.  Marty holds a very special place in my heart because this was one of the first older movies that I really enjoyed and connected with.  I remember catching it on Turner Classic Movies and just being really charmed by all of the characters and the lovely plot development.  

The Science of Sleep (dir: Michel Gondry)- a very imaginative movie about an eccentric man (who confuses his dreams with reality.  The Science of Sleep is filled with beautiful, creative imagery- it's really beautiful what they do in this movie without CGI using cardboard, foam, and other basic art supplies  At a deeper level, Science of Sleep draws you in because of how personal the movie feels.  

The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Before it was the Denzel Washington thriller, The Manchurian Candidate was a really haunting and gripping thriller about conspiracies, brainwashing, and assassination   


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

     Zero Dark Thirty (directed by Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker) is about the CIA’s manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.  The film centers around the sharp CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) who spearheads the investigation.  Zero Dark Thirty is somber, intense, and well-made but for some reason it left me feeling a bit cold.  It doesn't have the energy or raw intensity of The Hurt Locker and I found it harder to connect to the characters.  We really only get to know Maya.    
     One thing this movie does really well is to keep the narrative grounded firmly in reality.  It does a good job of portraying how difficult and frustrating the search for Bin Laden was.  Though the movie follows a linear narrative, the search for Bin Laden was certainly circuitous.  There was not one eureka moment but a series of small steps forward with many steps backwards.  While many movies shy away from uncertainties to keep to a clear and clean narrative, this one really embraced them and it strengthened the movie because it kept the search realistic.  Even as we get closer and closer to finding Bin Laden in the movie, we never get that it’s a sure thing.     
                There’s been quite a lot of controversy over various aspects of the torture scenes in the movie: that they weren't accurate because the CIA didn't use them to find Bin Laden and that the movie promotes the use of torture to extract information.   The torture scenes in the movie are intense and difficult to watch but it doesn't seem like the movie is promoting the use of torture to get information.  Ultimately, it is unclear how useful and reliable the information the characters get from the interrogations are. 
                There’s a secondary storyline to the manhunt that doesn't come through as well: the changing role of the CIA and how that has affected its priorities.  We get hints of it from Maya’s bosses but it’s mostly pushed to the side when the search starts making progress.
                In terms of performances, this movie really belongs to Jessica Chastain.  As Maya, you watch her find her voice as the movie progresses.  She starts off as the newest CIA agent in the Pakistan office who stands quietly in the interrogation room to the only person in a room full of CIA leaders who has complete conviction that they have found Osama Bin Laden.  While we see Maya find her voice, I wish the movie had spent more time on how she formed her views.  We see her looking conflicted during earlier interrogations but how her views change on interrogations as time progresses is not really shown. 
                Rounding out the rest of the cast, there is Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as CIA agents, Kyle Chandler as Maya’s boss, and Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation) as a Navy SEAL.  I’m a big fan of Parks and Recreation, but it was a bit distracting to see Pratt in the movie.  Pratt provides some levity but doesn't seem to quite fit the tone of the rest of the movie. 
                Zero Dark Thirty is a somber portrayal of a manhunt.  It is intense, draining, and worth seeing but it's missing something that I can't quite put my finger on.