The Binge – MASTER OF NONE, Season Two

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“America is grappling with cultural diversity, and I just want to put a show on that represents the world in which I live.” – David Alan Grier

Two years ago, when Aziz Ansari’s freshman outing as a showrunner, creator, executive producer, occasional director, and star hit the ever expanding world of Netflix’s original content, it signaled the arrival of a new truly original comedic voice paired with a refreshingly diverse team of artists collaborating to better represent a multiplicity of human experiences. Though it featured some early episode growing pains, by the mid-season point, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang began to make more daring choices, breaking from convention, and MASTER OF NONE became one of the most honest, insightful, and bold television comedies of 2015. With the advent of the second season, many were curious to see if Ansari and Yang could recapture the magic in their next go around. To say they succeeded might be an understatement, as the newest season available for streaming not only assures that the charm, sincerity, and distinctive quality is far from lost, it also continues to break ground by achieving new heights in inventiveness, storytelling, and deep feeling. It’s back and better than ever, more timely, more cinematic, and more moving than before, making it an early standout as one of the best television programs of 2017 so far. Continue reading

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2017 – ALIEN: COVENANT, dir. Ridley Scott

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“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” – John Milton, Paradise Lost

Bursting forth with sickening brutality and chilling thrills, Ridley Scott’s second ALIEN prequel is a lean, mean, disturbing machine packed with genre delights that still manage to feel fresh and daring in a decades old series. With plenty of narrative cohesion, bristling conflict, significant tragedy, and grounded grittiness, ALIEN: COVENANT isn’t just superior to PROMETHEUS, it makes a damn good argument for the previous film’s existence. This is late, hardened, and dark Ridley Scott, one that seemed to take the fucked up machinations of McCarthy’s THE COUNSELOR as a blueprint for showcasing all of humanity’s bleakest and most frightening aspects, yet also one that finds ways to naturally tap into his affection for all things biblical and mythical. Following many unexpected shifts and turns, and a few that are quite expected, the ride is still gripping and terrifying from start to finish, ending in spectacular cliff-hanging quiet. It feels as though Scott remolded much of its predecessor, doubling down on its triumphs, reworking its faults, and produced a prequel that is not perfect, but immensely satisfying nonetheless. Back with a returning Michael Fassbender in a performance that argues his place as the finest actor of his generation in any genre on any scale, as well as a cast of actually definable characters, COVENANT has enough strengths to land among the top tier of the franchise, and, with THE MARTIAN, hopefully signals the return of a more focused and inventive director in his later years. At the very least, it’s a spectacular way to kick off the summer blockbuster season. Continue reading

The Re-watch – PROMETHEUS (2012), dir. Ridley Scott

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“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

The earliest ventures of Ridley Scott in the realm of science fiction delved deeply into the relationship of creator and creation, the inclusion of android life as a reflection of human beings own potential to replicate the work of gods and of their creation’s ability to turn on them, to question them, or demand answers of them. It’s an element more prevalent and poetic in Scott’s BLADE RUNNER than in ALIEN, but his 2012 prequel to the latter borrows aspects of both to create a squirm inducing horror-fest that also reaches for loftier ideas, though is far more successful in the former. A return to the genre he defined in the late 70s and early 80s that generated ample excitement prior to release, and myriad questions upon viewing, it’s still one of Scott’s best outings in the last ten years. It struggles to find decent footing, and occasionally relies too heavily on previous tropes from the series thus creating scenes that are sometimes more predictable than frightening, but once the wheels start turning and foreign bodies start using the humans as hosts for future destruction, Scott’s knack for terrifying anatomical grisliness is put on dazzling display. Even upon revisiting, foreknowledge of what transpires is not enough to prevent one from partially shielding their eyes during the most gruesome and sickening moments. It certainly bites off a whole lot more than it can chew, especially in ways that still aren’t completely satisfying in their relation to the rest of the ALIEN universe, but the methodology of the chewing is nauseating and still greatly entertaining.  Continue reading

2017 – THE LOST CITY OF Z, dir. James Gray

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“I looked on, I thought, I reflected, I admired, in a state of stupefaction not altogether unmingled with fear!” – Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth

They just don’t make them like that anymore. That’s a common phrase trotted out frequently by those reminded of some of the virtues of bygone eras and artistic movements, and yet it feels perfectly fitting when tackling James Gray’s lengthy and absorbing rumination on adventure and discovery. Spanning across decades of time, yet with a quiet patience and soft beauty, THE LOST CITY OF Z evokes moments from a multitude of classics throughout its robust runtime, including AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD, FITZCARRALDO, APOCALYPSE NOW, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, PATHS OF GLORY, and many others. Yet, it feels far from an imitation of its precursors, and more of a painterly composition of elements from the type of grand-scale, epic filmmaking that is rarely seen today. It’s a love letter to two epochs of the past, silently nostalgic for times of exploration and daring discoveries as well as sweeping and majestic storytelling. Gray’s sensibilities and aesthetic provide for a contemplative and engrossing, if admittedly uneven, telling of little known historical explorations to the heart of the Amazon. Even if it buckles under a shaky lead performance, it’s ultimately a success of artistic vision and quality craftsmanship throughout, building to a moving and satisfying conclusion. Continue reading

2017/The Re-watch – KONG: SKULL ISLAND, dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts

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“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Almost completely devoid of anything resembling story or fleshed out characters, yet abundant in thrills, awe-inspiring action, and countless visual delights, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a gorgeous mess of a movie, an unnecessary endeavor that manages to ride its stylistic flourishes and impressive effects to rousingly entertaining heights, even if it never escapes the shadow of its half-baked script treatment. A director of several episodes of television, including the underrated YOU’RE THE WORST, Jordan Vogt-Roberts was targeted to helm a new King Kong feature following his mildly successful indie feature debut, THE KINGS OF SUMMER. According to an interview with Vogt-Roberts, the original screenplay he was shown was set in 1917, and while he felt it had some great aspects, it wasn’t the type of film he was interested in making. When asked what type of film he’d like to make, he eventually responded with the idea of setting the monster film in 1970s Vietnam war era, feeling a connection between the disillusionment and confusion of the period and our current climate. And so, with approval from the studio, he set out to mash together a ginormous ape with as many elements of APOCALYPSE NOW he could muster. The result is a magnificent spectacle filled with stunningly rendered creatures, beautiful imagery, brutal and spectacular destruction on all levels, and a bloated ensemble of talented actors trudging through the wilderness while weighed down by writing that gives them practically nothing to work with. There’s many attempts throughout to make statements on the brutality of war and the irrevocable marks left on those who experience it, and while they are far from untrue, they can’t help but feel shoehorned in amidst the bone-crunching slug fest of Kong vs. everything. Overall, however, it amounts to enormous heaps of ridiculous fun, but if it had given as much attention to fleshing out its human characters as the outlandish world Kong inhabits, it could’ve achieved something truly special. Continue reading

The Re-watch – DUCK SOUP (1933), dir. Leo McCarey

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“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” – Albert Camus

There are very rare moments in time in which a constant stream of fits and giggles gives way to an overwhelming wave of dizzying euphoria, transporting you to a plain of hilarity and happiness that, while brief, wraps itself around you like a warm, comfortable blanket. Such is my experience watching the zany and nonsensical antics of the Marx Brothers in what is perhaps their greatest singular triumph, DUCK SOUP. There are very few individuals in the history of comedic cinema who have been able to successfully pull off feats of humor so riotously funny that they overshadow a lack of narrative cohesion or even comprehension, but they cannot compare to the true masters. The Marx Brothers succeeded not in spite of their incoherent and disjointed meanderings, but because they wholeheartedly embraced the absurdity of them. The joy of watching their work is that there’s no particular rhyme or reason to any of it, no foreseeable goal or destination other than the next joke which might be directly connected or completely out of left field. The film is quite simply a rollercoaster of laughter, but one where the thrill is the fact that they’re laying the tracks right in front of you at the last second, no particular end in sight, but always willing to whirl you on some wild turns whenever possible. Yet that’s not to say it’s empty or has nothing to say, because it may also be one of the most scathing criticisms of the politics of the world, timely at the moment of its release, and even more frighteningly relevant amidst the baffling chaos we currently find ourselves in today. It’s a circus: a crazy, wacky, messy, jumbled circus that dishes out guffaws and harsh truths in rapid fire succession, and that cements its place year after year as one of pinnacles of the genre. Continue reading

The Re-watch – DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), dir. Terrence Malick

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“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.” – Alan Watts

The Magic Hour, or Golden Hour, is a fleeting period of each day at dawn and dusk, an evanescent time of stunning color and breathtaking beauty. It’s within this realm that Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, DAYS OF HEAVEN, frequently lingers, the soft light revealing rolling, resplendent fields and the silhouettes of those moving slowly through the picturesque landscape. Such compositions are among the most gorgeous ever to be committed to celluloid, and demand to be seen in their full glory projected on film wherever and whenever possible, but they’re also symbolic and emblematic of the film as a whole. There’s an almost aching longing in the quiet radiance of it all that acknowledges both the gorgeous imagery and its transitory nature simultaneously. It registers on an emotional level not so much through its human interactions as its wondrous rendering of a specific quality of life in this world: its inherent impermanence. The days fade, the seasons shift, relationships change, and what is most clear is that each moment in existence is just as magnificent and temporary as the dwindling lights during those late hours of the day. In only his second feature as a director, Malick reached for grand, mysterious, and meaningful heights with a simple story practically whispered to his audience, making for a daring film that rewards the patient and reflective viewer willing to become swept up in its hushed majesty. Continue reading

2017 – GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, dir. James Gunn

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“If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me; I had it from my father.” – William Shakespeare, Henry VIII

With a killer playlist, psychedelic visuals, unique humor, and an infectious sense of pure fun, James Gunn’s first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just the right blast of fresh air that was lacking in their diminishing canon three years ago. A surprise hit, the original GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and its titular ragtag crew of space miscreants charmed its way into the hearts of mass audiences, and so a sequel was beyond inevitable. Yet grasping the same energy in a follow up has never been a particular strength of the (abbreviated) “MCU”, and even Gunn’s attempts to recapture the magic fall short. The first film was far from perfect, but it was scrappy, bold, and the right amount of self-aware, and VOL. 2 proves that it was pretty much lightning in a bottle. In the second go-around, they’ve doubled down on a lot of elements that were at the core of what made its predecessor special, but an equal number have been scrapped, giving it a feeling of incompleteness and, ultimately, a lack of a real journey. It wants to have its darker moments and emotional punches, but it doesn’t truly set them up well enough for them to feel earned. That’s not to say it isn’t a good time, because there’s plenty to enjoy, and while the humor swings and occasionally misses, what actually connects is pretty hilarious. It’s a shadow of the previous film, one that reminds you of all the things you loved, whether they appear onscreen or not. The escapism is definitely entertaining and trippy, but it won’t quite live up to that first delightful trip.

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Watchlist – INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003), dir. Joel Coen

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“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

The “Massey pre-nup”, a supposedly foolproof, unbreakable prenuptial agreement is at the heart of the Coen Brother’s attempt at recreating the magic of early Hollywood screwball comedy, as frequently brought up as it is immediately torn apart in the name of love. Strangely, that might just be a fitting metaphor for the messy, contradictory, and downright odd film that it is. It hints at the potential of something greater than it is, only to have mainstream convention and plot contrivances mire the facade. The first job as “writers-for-hire” for the Coens, it gives off the impression of several screenwriters all trying to cram their large, misshapen pegs into a circular hole. And it’s hard to hold that against the pair, as the original concept and developed screenplay were each created by different people before it to eventually landed in their lap. There are occasional moments where their vision shines through, but they are few and far between, leaving a jumping, befuddling piece of work. It can’t seem to make up its mind between appealing to mainstream audiences or adding dashes of Coen absurdity and philosophy, leaving it somewhere in the middle in an area that’s bland, and ultimately disappointing.

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They Shoot Pictures #863 – ROPE (1948), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

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“An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life – becoming a better person.” – Leo Tolstoy

Apparently once referred to by its masterful creator as, “an experiment that didn’t work out,” this lesser known title in the Hitchcock oeuvre is dazzling, thrilling, witty, and a remarkable display of the command of the art form the notorious director possessed. Designed to feel as if shot in five separate twenty minute single takes spliced together to create a seamless narrative happening in real time, it is the precursor to every one take wonder, from RUSSIAN ARK to VICTORIA to the Best Picture winning BIRDMAN. However, it’s worth noting that the gap between Hitchcock’s attempt and the others listed is vast. Being the first recorded feature of such daring, it wasn’t for another thirty-four years that another filmmaker would try it again. The reason long takes are used so frequently in contemporary film is that the technology has finally caught up to the visionaries. That’s what makes ROPE truly amazing: Hitchcock was using the full ten minutes of film camera magazine capacity allowed at the time, using them like no other auteur before him. Though to reduce the film to simply its groundbreaking wizardry feels like a slight to the diamond in the rough that it is as a complete picture. Adapted from a 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, it features a delightful cast and a sharp, smart script that compliment the incredible craftsmanship, making it a truly underrated classic.  Continue reading