Sunday, November 8, 2015

Master of None

Master of None
5/5 Stars

Master of None is Aziz Ansari's new Netflix show and it is fantastic.  It is funny, smart, and really relatable to people in their late 20s and 30s.  Ansari plays Dev, a late 20s something actor.  The show features loosely connected stories that Dev and his friends who include: sensible Denise (Lena Waithe), quirky Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Brian (Kelvin Yu), fellow actor, Ravi (Ravi Patel), and Rachel (Noel Wells).  Master of None reminds me a lot of Louie in terms of storytelling style, though in terms of tone, it is far more optimistic and vivacious, as would be expected from Ansari.  The show is also a really fun and easy watch- I found myself watching seven episodes in one fell swoop and the episodes feel short in a very good way.  I can't wait to watch the next season or see Ansari's next project.

One of my favorites parts of the show is how conscious it is about race and gender and also what it means to be an advocate.  One of the stand-outs is the second episode in which Dev and Brian who are first-generation Americans decide to learn more about their parents, who are immigrants.

Growing up, when my mom watched movies and TV shows with me, she was always excited whenever she saw someone who looked Asian in a show and for the longest time I never quite understood her excitement until recently.  As a first-generation Asian American who watches a lot of American entertainment, I haven't really seen too many shows or movies that talk about the Asian-American experience.  I did not realize how great it is to see some semblance of your story or experience told until watching the episode.  For example, Brian's dad, Peter, texts very formally and communicates with Brian by sending him Economist articles.

One key difference between Master of None and something like Fresh Off the Boat is that Master of None is willing to go there.  While it's fantastic to see an Asian family on TV, I was disappointed that for the most part, Fresh Off the Boat felt very sanitized.  There's another fantastic Master of None episode, "Indians on TV," in which Dev and Ravi are both being considered for a role in a sitcom and only one of them can be cast because including more than one "Asian" character on the show would automatically make the show just for Asians.

Master of None also deals with gender issues and advocacy.  There is an episode later in the season, Ladies and Gentleman, that honestly deals with how men and women experience the world differently.

Master of None features a slew of really interesting minor characters as well.  One of my favorites is Colin Salmon, playing a very dramatic, Shakespearean actor version of himself.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Marvel's Daredevil Review

     When I first heard that Netflix was doing a Daredevil series, I wasn't terribly excited.  The original Daredevil movie (2003) was not only terrible but it has the unique distinction of being an extremely memorable bad movie.  Some of the distinct details of how bad it was include:
-A villain named Bullseye played by Collin Farrell who literally has a target drilled into his head
-When Matt Murdock/the Daredevil and his love interest, Elektra meet up, they solidify their budding romance by showing off their fighting skills on a playground
-Because the noises of the city are too much for him, Matt literally sleeps in a coffin filled with water.
See- lots of ridiculous details that are all surprisingly very memorable.

     I am pleased to say that Netflix/Marvel's Daredevil is a lot better than the movie.  The series is really solid entertainment.  In terms of tone and feel, it reminds me a lot of Batman Begins and is definitely very heavily influenced by the Christopher Nolan Batman Trilogy.  Daredevil also has a fantastic theme song that I just want to keep replaying.

     Daredevil tells the origin stories of how Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a blind lawyer with heightened senses, who fights injustice in New York's Hell's Kitchen.  By day, he and his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) have their own start-up law firm, Nelson and Murdock.  By night, Matt is a vigilante who takes the law directly into his own hands, who is sometimes aided by nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson).   Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) is their secretary who investigates a mystery that has been haunting her.  She later loops in Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), Hell's Kitchen's world-weary investigative reporter.

    Daredevil relies on many tried and true tropes and character archetypes.  While it does not really do anything revolutionary with the plot or the characters, it executes what it has well and that's always pleasant to watch.  Matt/Daredevil, like Batman, has his one rule- he will not kill anyone directly and struggles with the morality of what he does as a vigilante, especially since he is Catholic.  Ben Urich is the Jim Gordon of this universe- he's seen a lot of ugly things happen and is worn down by the world he lives in but he will continue to fight to find the truth.  The heroes in the series are fantastic.  They feel three-dimensional and really drive the series forward.  The Daredevil, who has a disguised speaking voice from Matt's, also provides yet another example of how heroes can disguise their voices and still sound menacing without grunting into incoherence.

     On the other side of the fence are Hell's Kitchen's villains.  Vincent D'Onofrio gets top billing among the antagonists as the mysterious Fisk.  Fisk is highly reminiscent of Bane- both are not only physically intimidating men but also highly intelligent.  D'Onofrio plays Fisk too big and I really wish he'd gone with a smaller, more subtle performance.  Fisk has a halting manner of speaking like he has trouble pushing out his words and that becomes more distracting the more Fisk speaks.  Most of the villains are flat characters who feel like flimsy cut-outs.  The only two exceptions are Wesley (Toby Moore), Fisk's loyal right hand man, and Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), an elderly heroine manufacturer who has her own army of blind drug runners.

     Episodes shift between the character-driven ones and the action-focused ones.  The action-focused episodes almost remind me of Justice League and Batman cartoons with elaborately choreographed fight scenes.  With the TV-MA rating, the fight scenes do get brutal and very violent.  Daredevil has a good grasp on the small/character driven events.  I would really like to see it address the world of Hell's Kitchen more.  One thing that I really enjoyed about the series is how actions do have consequences in this universe.

     The first moment I knew I wanted to invest time watching this series was actually a small one in the second episode.  The second episode is now famous for the fantastic tracking-shot hallway fight scene.  In the second episode, there is also this small scene in which Foggy and Karen go out for drinks because Karen does not want to go home yet.  Karen, seeing all the seemingly seedy people in the bar feels uncomfortable but Foggy goes around and tells her about each of them including how they've been helping one scary looking guy get his kid into daycare.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014) Movie Review

The Imitation Game

Biopics are a tricky business.  In the cynical 2010s, sweeping biopics about historical figures just don't really cut it anymore.  There have to be complications and something different than just a series of events in the storytelling.  Recently, Lincoln (2012) did it fantastically by focusing deeply on a narrow time frame- what was going on in Congress and within Lincoln's inner circle during the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery.

The Imitation Game uses a similar technique by having flashbacks focus on Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) during his arguable peak when he and a team of academics worked on cracking the Nazi Germany ENIGMA codes at Bletchley Park.  As a framing device, the film also follows Turing in the present day when he is jailed for having relations with another man.  The movie is really at its best when it focuses on the past.  I wish the writers had spent as much time developing the bleak, present day when Turing is broken down by society's treatment of homosexuals because that is also a really critical to piece to Turing's tragic legacy.    

The Imitation Game is a fine, solid, serviceable movie but could have been a much better film if it hadn't tried to thickly force the main themes.  One of the main themes is that even though Turing can't seem to understand other people, that is also what makes him so unique and singularly able to break the code.  There are lots of ways the movie conveys this main theme naturally through the plot, but it also, ungracefully, has characters verbally state the theme.

Despite that though, there's a lot that I like about the Imitation Game.  It does a fantastic job explaining how the Bletchley Park team of mathematicians and linguists broke ENIGMA.  I am sure we got a vastly simplified explanation of how the machine that Turing's team built, but I appreciated how the writers were able to describe how the Turing machine (precursor to modern computing) worked for a general audience.

The performances are fantastic, especially Cumberbatch as Turing and Alex Lawther as young Turing.  Both do a really wonderful job of showing what it is like being unable to belong and not understanding people well enough to understand why they don't.

I was also really pleasantly surprised by the prominence of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), the female mathematician on Turing's team.  While Turing is unable to connect with his teammates, since Clarke is a woman, she is not even allowed to work with the team in the same room.  Turing has to sneak Clarke's work to her room during odd hours of the night.  I love that Clarke clearly has her own agenda and is never relegated to being defined by her relationship to Turing as female characters unfortunately often are in movies.  Clarke and Turing's friendship is one of my favorite parts of the whole movie, especially because both of them want different things from what society expects of them.  

One really fantastic scene that has stuck with me was how when Clarke meets the rest of the team, she is pleasant and the team immediately likes her.  Turing, confused, wants to know how Clarke gets them to like her so easily.  In reply, Clarke states, "Unlike you, I don't have the luxury of being difficult."  Especially in light of all these studies showing how women do face biases in the workplace, I wish more movies and TV shows told these stories about women not just in period pieces but in modern day pieces.  I do find it strange how some of the best fictional portrayals of women fighting social limitations all take place in period pieces (such as the always fantastic Mad Men).

Overall, The Imitation Game is a decent film.  The story telling could be a little less heavy handed but its fantastic performances, explanation of modern computing, and unexpected feminist leanings definitely make it worth watching.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Movie Review: Perfume- The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is one of those rare movie trailers that really stood out because of  how visually striking it was.  I'd meant to see it but never really had a chance to until I saw it recently on Netflix.

Perfume is definitely not for everyone.  It is about Jean-Baptise Grenouille (Ben Whishaw, Q from Skyfall), a strange man who has an incredible sense of smell.  Over time, he becomes obsessed with preserving smell using whatever means possible.  Many parts of the story really make me pause to recommend it to others, especially the fate of all the beautiful women Jean-Baptise terrorizes in his insatiable desire to capture scent.

In many ways, the movie reminds me of a dark fairy tale- the original Grimm's fairy tales in which truly macabre, gruesome things happen beside the fantastical.  There really are not too many fantasy movies and one thing I really enjoyed about the movie is how confident it was visually.  It shows us what Jean-Baptise smells through its beautiful visual scenery and really immerses us in a different world.  In particular, I loved seeing the flower harvests in perfume-town Gasse.

The movie fluctuates in tone between the serious and lighter areas.  It really works best when it does not take itself too seriously and plays up the dark fairy tale aspect, which it does well when Jean-Baptise first learns the perfume trade from a highly entertaining, struggling perfumist, Baldini (Dustin Hoffman).  The always wonderful Alan Rickman also makes a memorable appearance as Richis, father to Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a girl who becomes Jean-Baptise's object of obsession.
I really wish the women in this movie were given more to do than be victims of Jean-Baptise.  Laura is really the only female character in the movie and she really does not have much to do except look lovely and suffer in silence between two unappealing choices.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and House of Cards Season 3 Review

Between House of Cards Season 3 and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix is having a fantastic month.  My reviews are mostly spoiler free and the spoilers are hidden.  

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a new comedy on Netflix, produced by Tina Fey.  I just binge watched the season last weekend and adored it.  Kimmy Schmidt is delightful and leaves you wanting more in a good way. If you are a 30 Rock fan, you are going to love Kimmy Schmidt.  The humor, rapid fire jokes, quick cutaways are all very reminiscent of 30 Rock.  However, Kimmy Schmidt distinguishes itself early on from 30 Rock by being more optimistic and grounded in reality.

One thing that I love about Kimmy Schmidt is the main, titular character Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) who is unapologetically optimistic.  Even though Kimmy comes from a tremendously dark place (she and 3 other women were kept underground for years by a crazy cult leader for several years), nothing can quench her inner strength and positivity.  With so many comedies grounded in cynicism, it is so refreshing to see one centered around positivity.  (Side Note 1: One fantastic comedy that was centered around optimism is the recently ended Parks and Recreation.)  On a completely unrelated side note, if they ever did a live action version of the Teen Titans, I can't imagine a more perfect actress for optimistic alien princess Starfire than Kemper who makes Kimmy such a compelling character.

The main cast of Kimmy Schmit is also fantastic.  My favorite is probably Titus Andromedon (Titus Burgess), who is Kimmy's fabulous gay roommate- a singer hoping to make it big.  Burgess, who comes from a Broadway background, gets to show off his gorgeous voice often.

There is consequently a lot of funny musical moments, including Titus' party playlist and fake musical Daddy's Boy , which I would definitely pay serious money to see a whole production of.

 One of the show's funniest moments early on is Titus's surprisingly catchy music video for his song Pinot Noir which has really impressive rhyming.

There's also Kimmy's boss, Jacqueline Voorhees (the always fantastic Jane Krakowski aka Jenna from 30 Rock).  Jacqueline feels very much like Jenna in the beginning, rich and self-absorbed,  but soon distinguishes herself as more human and contemplative of her life choices.  The only main cast member who did not quite work for me was landlord Lillian (Carol Kane).  Lillian certainly has a lot of funny, hilarious moments, but she hasn't really come together as a character for me yet except as someone who gets to say a lot of funny things.  I liked Lillian the best when she gets paired with Titus and hope to see the two of them go on more misadventures next season.

Among the supporting characters, my favorites are Xanthippe Voorhees (Dylan Gelula), Jacqueline's teenaged-daughter and Kimmy's frenemy, and Dong (Ki Hong Lee), Kimmy's immigrant study buddy.   Kimmy and Xan share some hilarious barbs that you've probably seen memes of floating around.  Dong and Kimmy have a genuinely sweet friendship in which they bond over all the strange things they've observed in NYC so far.  (Minor SPOILERS below)

Besides the supporting characters, there are also quite a few fantastic cameos that I will not spoil here.  But when you see them, you will be excited.  If you haven't already, go watch Kimmy Schmidt- you really are in for a treat.

House of Cards: Season 3 

I really wanted to write a more positive review of Season 3 of House of Cards because it starts of so strong.  There's so much energy and potential throughout the season that I was surprised to see it all fizzle away as the season limped towards the end.

People who really enjoyed Season 2 are not going to like Season 3 at all.  There are not too many brash, bold Frank Underwood moments and the Underwoods actually come across as more human and vulnerable.   I wasn't a huge fan of Season 2 so I was pleasantly surprised in how Season 3 improves upon many of the flaws from the earlier seasons.

Season 3 is much quieter than the earlier seasons in a good way.  House of Cards actually manages to pull off this wonderful slow burn throughout this season, especially in the first half.  In the second half, there is also a tremendous amount of tension but it disappointingly does not clearly lead to anything.  A lot of the conflict ends up being what is left unsaid and unshared.

Season 3 picks up soon after Frank (Kevin Spacey) takes office.  One very welcome change is that people around the Underwoods are no longer stepping aside or playing directly into their hands.  In fact, the Underwoods face many worthy adversaries this season.  A few of the most memorable ones include Russian president Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), underused Senate Majority Leader Hector Mendoza (Benito Martinez), and US Solicitor General Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel).   Mikkelsen's Petrov is a fantastic House of Cards version of Putin- confident, ruthless, and pragmatic.  I was really excited to see Mikkelsen in the cast, especially after his creepy turn as antagonist Magnussen in Sherlock Season 3.

Another Underwood adversary that I really enjoyed was Dunbar.  One thing I really like about Dunbar is that even in the corrupt House of Cards world, she is a somewhat moral character and people like and respond tremendously well to her.  Dunbar is however human and I am glad to see that she genuinely and realistically gets tempted with some morally dubious choices.

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) has slowly become my favorite character of the show.  The sexual assault storyline last season and how media treated her because of her potential infidelity were some of the most riveting parts of an otherwise lackluster season.  This season, Claire gets some of her most compelling story-lines.  I like that this season they do start to address directly, if you can really have a power couple in which both parties are equal.

In terms of supporting characters, the Underwoods, as always are the protagonists and their political allies and enemies flit in and out as needed.  Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali), despite having a key role, really gets little to do story-wise.  I've been neutral to him in the past but he does get a really compelling, brief story that we don't really see told in entertainment often enough, if at all.