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.