Television – Orphan Black

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To begin – this may be the best television show I have ever seen. I say may only because several other shows I discovered in this past year (which has more to do with my stubbornness than my ignorance, but that is for another time) are of such amazing quality it would be hard to select the “best” [see my post Favorite Film for my thoughts on choosing a favorite movie and apply it to television as well].

That being said Orphan Black is nothing short of outstanding. I am using some big, powerful words here and I am not throwing them about carelessly. This is a meticulously crafted show, where each aspect is handled with such care and precision that, under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to point out the one aspect that makes this show exceptional. None of the traditional sins of television apply to this show. There are no disposable characters or “retconned” storylines because the people making the show decide to go in a new, exciting direction for no apparent reason. Everything in this show is there for a reason. It is pleasing and rewarding to watch something where so much thought and effort has been devoted to the planning and execution of what you are watching.

I could and want to go on about everything this show gets right. It is simpler to say it gets everything right. I have watched the first three seasons several times now and I can say, without hesitation, that there none of those moments that the viewer has to accept, knowing in their hearts that what they are watching is wrong/bad, in order to stay with the show.

All of this being said if I had to offer you one reason to watch this show (which is horrible and unfair and should not be done) it would be Tatiana Maslany. She is out of this world, insanely good doing something no one has every done before. Don’t try and remind me of Kind Hearts and Coronets – that was a movie, not a television show (meaning the duration is much shorter and easier for a feat like this) and at no point did you cease seeing Alec Guinness and only see the character he was playing.

I have watched these episodes multiple times, I know everything coming and still, still I find myself forgetting that I am watching Tatiana Maslany playing a character. It is incredible. It is the reason why in every interview she gives people try and get her to explain the “how” of her acting abilities.

I have attempted to not spoil the show for someone who has yet to watch an episode, which is not easy to do. If I have tipped you off I apologize, but let’s be honest the show is about to start it’s fourth season and if you are still somehow in the dark you should not be reading random blog posts online. If you have a reason for not watching Orphan Black allow me to try and address it here.

  1. The title is awful. I do not care about the actual meaning and how if you watch the show you come to see how appropriate it is. Anyone who has not seen an episode comes across this title and thinks, “Orphan Black? What is that? It sounds awful. Bad things happen to Orphans? No thank you.” Or something like that. Or you think of Kevin Klein and how orphan can be mispronounced as another word and golly, wouldn’t that make for a good song. Either way – don’t let this title put you off and confuse you. Ignore the title and watch. I assure you, when you get what the title means you will no longer have feelings about the creepiness/silliness of the title.
  2. The artwork. It’s creepy. It’s weird. It is meant to be. Ignore it. Let it be. Watch the show.
  3. Patton Oswalt. In his attempts to champion this show and Tatiana Maslany he has, inadvertently, kept some people away from it. I have no proof of this, only my own feelings. Before I saw the show I followed him on Twitter and aside from teaching me that you should not follow comedians on Twitter it also taught me that one man’s fan is another man’s off-putting Internet commentator who needs to calm down and let things be.

That should cover matters. Do yourself a favor and watch this show if you haven’t.

See it Again – Inglourious Basterds

 

What You Should Know

If, like me, you have been avoiding this film based on the following criteria:

1) It is a Tarantino film and the posters/things you heard have lead you to believe that this film is nothing more than “Jewish revenge porn” and/or

2) The trailer for the film gave you the sense that the movie largely consists of Brad Pitt and a group of men running around Europe killing Nazis, you need to reconsider.

Why You Should Reconsider

Aside from the last twenty minutes of the film if you were able to come across this movie knowing nothing about it you would never guess the director. The first section of the movie is unlike anything I have every seen from Mr. Tarantino (as an aside I have since seen Django Unchained and I expect The Hateful Eight fit neatly into this category as well). The locale, the pace, the dialog none of it feels like anything I have encountered from this director before.

This is due partly to the look of the film, which is very rich but subdued. The first section could be referred to as being pastoral. It’s partly due to the dialog which is much more “natural” and devoid of pop culture references and (aside from Brad Pitt) guys trying to talk tough. The pace is also quite slow so that even in sequences where there is tension concerning possible death and violence, the usual uncomfortable claustrophobic atmosphereI typically associate with Mr. Tarantino’s films is pleasantly absent.

Which is not to say that people do not die, or that the dialog isn’t snappy. Lots of people die and the dialog is certainly snappy at time. I would be hard pressed to put my finger on what, exactly, is different about this film from Mr. Tarantino’s previous efforts but there most certainly is something. Call it maturity, call it scope but what you get from this film is more rewarding and interesting than what has come before.

Misconceptions

As previously stated the trailer and reviews for this film gave the impression that this was Reservoir Dogs meets World War II. There are some wonderfully rich characters in this film, who I found myself genuinely caring for.

The sections containing Brad Pitt feel to me very much like the Tarantino we all know and love/hate/whatever you feel. Yet Mr. Pitt and his men are in very little of the film. Couple that with a significant portion of the movie not being in English – and that we spend time with some fantastic actors like Christof Waltz, Michael Fassbender and the true star of the film Melanie Laurent.

This would be a great film to show someone who has given up on Mr. Tarantino and I think for someone who has never seen one of his films. It builds on his previous works and adds new components to deliver an interesting, satisfying film. Give it a chance, I think you might like it.

Favorite Film

If there is one question I have struggled with it is, “What is your favorite film?” Granted, this question is nowhere near as important as: “How do we achieve world peace?” or “How do we stop global warming?” but then people never seem to ask me either of these.

So recognizing the proper ranking of the importance of this question let me now try and address some of the assumptions being made regarding movies.

First – that all movies are alike, and are comparable. I touched on this briefly in another post when I mentioned comparing Cliffhanger to Citizen Kane. What I was attempting to show with this comparison isn’t that one film is lesser but that different films are made to satisfy different conditions. Cliffhanger needs to be exciting in order to be successful as an action film. The stakes in a film like Cliffhanger are life and death and therefore the story being told has to make the audience care whether the characters live or die. We need to worry when they are in peril, cheer if they manage to evade death feel satisfaction when the villain (unless it is the Earth which is tricky) gets his due.

The same isn’t true for Citizen Kane. I don’t need to spell it out, different kinds of films have different rules, have different problems and different goals. So while we can attempt to compare them in terms of the overall experience there are still many cases where this is a fruitless exercise.

So in thinking about awards like Best Picture and answering the question of Favorite Movie I cannot help but dwell on these differences because they do matter.

Take for instance the different between comedy and drama. Forget subcategories for the moment. The comedy wants to make you laugh. It wants to make you happy. The drama usually wants to make you feel some deep emotion like sadness or longing or ennui or some other wonderful thing. I am being unfair but the truth is not far off. Comedy seeks to entertain you and make you happy, the drama usually attempts to make you experience some unpleasant emotions, possibly entertains you or it tries to teach you something.

This distinction is important and why you rarely see a comedy being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For some reason we have decided that this is okay. That Comedy as a category does not compete in the same realm as Drama. Okay.

Yet, if you were to poll most people concerning their favorite film many would name a comedy. So what gives? The second distinction: is this a film you watch once in your life or never again?

We have all seen amazing, life-changing films that have moved us in ways words cannot properly express. Yet once seen we have no desire to ever see these movies again. Not in a Usual Suspects kind of way where once you know the story watching the film becomes less interesting. This is more that you have had an incredible experience and are glad to have had it but the thought of going through it again, even if it were somewhat lesser holds no appeal for you. Think Schindler’s List.

Then we have the other category, the film you can watch repeatedly and it is always pleasant. The film that when you are sad or sick or just looking for a nice night on the couch you know will give you what you need. These films are usually comedies of some sort. For me the best example is The Philadelphia Story but I could list dozens that fit this bill.

So we have comedies and dramas. We have one-offs and we have endlessly watchable films. With just these four categories I find myself at a loss. How do I pick a favorite? What are we talking about? Pure entertainment? Something that helped shape who I am today? It becomes impossible for me to make any kind of choice because I need to explain the criteria involved in making that choice.

So, yes, this is not the most important decision a person will ever face. In fact, it is somewhat silly. Yet, and this is why I bothered to write all of this out: when I try and pose these questions to others I always find them puzzled at my response. “Why can’t you just pick one?” I can’t help but feel that when it comes to the awards that are given out that this must be the attitude of many who do the voting. Something must be chose, so just pick one. They are only movies, so what does it matter.

Awards Season

 

As we find ourselves in the middle of yet another awards season let us take a moment and reflect on why we, people who have nothing to do with these damn things, care? And let us also add another item to this mental exercise – acquisition formats.

In the past three months the number or articles, tweets, posts, messages and smoke signals I have seen about films like Carol, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight and, yes, even Star Wars has been so staggering that even my daughter, who does not use the Internet has become familiar with several of them.

Although she has not asked me if this will be Leo’s year to finally win the Oscar I cannot help that it is not far off. She goes to school now and the things from popular culture that already filter down to a Kindergarten student are somewhat astounding. So while Star Wars has made its way to her the debate of film vs. digital has not.

Which again makes it even more apparent that many of these discussions and debates are just advertising and marketing and promotion and nothing of much value. The number of reviews and comments I have seen about The Revenant that say much of anything of value I can count on one hand. More has been said about the acquisition format of the films I have listed than about the qualities of the films or the actors or even whether people like them.

As someone who is interested not only in watching films but also in making them I find I am interested in these aspects but even still only up to a point. That The Hateful Eight is being presented in 70mm in some locations is less interesting than the “roadshow” aspect of these presentations. Which are not one and the same. Yes, it will look different but that the film will have an intermission, that there will be a printed program, that the filmmakers are making an active push to say, “This is why you should see this film in a movie theater and have a shared experience with your fellow human beings,” is much more interesting.

Yet all anyone can say is, “boy the frame is really wide!” and “he did it for interior scenes” because “it makes the blocking really noticeable!”. Which is all well and good from a technical point of view but very little is being said about whether the movie is any good. Or whether people are finding the movie-going experience to be interesting, new, rewarding, worthwhile or anything else. Very little is being said about this aspect, which is what we should all be talking about.

The same is true of The Revenant. The experience is “immersive”, the bear attack is “realistic” and shooting only with natural light is “neat-o”. But then all of the comments concerning the film itself are either snarky and flippant, to one writer being thankful to have made it through the film (which is clever because their experience seems to mirror that of the main character…dear lord) or just that most in general found the film to be difficult to watch and grueling. Because, of course, when you watch a film that is about one man’s incredible tale of survival against all odds you expect it to be light and chipper and float on by.

Because, of course, The Revenant is not trying to offer a unique filmgoing experience with anything other than the film itself. Which is not to diminish the film, the filmmakers or what they have achieved. But you cannot help and see that although these two films, which have in a way become pitted against each other (one for resurrecting not only a forgotten acquisition format and the other for being the first to make use of a cutting-edge technology) are getting attention for parts of their productions that are perhaps not the most interesting thing about them. That they were acquired under harsh conditions using these interesting technologies maybe isn’t what we should spend all of our time talking about.

The same can be said for Carol, for different reasons and even the new Star Wars. Article after article has been written and shared about the formats chosen, the reasons why and what wonderful results have been achieved. Except, of course, the results we should be focused on are the films themselves. Not excluding the lighting and the look and grain structure but absolutely not limited to these aspects either.

I am ranting now and I try not to do that with strangers so forgive me. I have been paying more attention that usual to the state of film, largely because all of us are (I believe). What I find odd is that I am not sure what is being presented (the end is nigh) reflects that actual state of things. When The Walking Dead, Carol and fifty other well known television shows and films are making use of the super 16mm format is it really dead or about to be? When Kodak announces the release of a new, hybrid super 8mm camera are we living in the end times?

I know that many filmmakers are currently being asked to weigh in on the future of film and that is why the endless articles are appearing but it would seem, and forgive me if I am wrong, that the timing of this is about two years too late. Filmmakers and studios bonded together to give Kodak a reprieve. Now, indie filmmakers who had previously embraced low budget technologies to inexpensively make their films are choosing to make their new movies shooting using actual film.

Perhaps it is healthy that this issue is near constantly mentioned. That unlike two years ago when few were speaking or reading about it and the future of this format was truly in jeopardy now people are paying attention. I do not know.

What I do know is that so much attention is being paid to how the movie was acquired or how it is viewed but so little is being said about how people like or dislike the movie.

Perhaps that is what this award season is good for, with categories for the technical achievements as well as acting, direction and things like costumes it allows us to filter and sort through these different aspects. I am not sure.

What it feels like, as does nearly everything these days, is that it is just another marketed aspect of movies. Because we don’t talk about whether Carol is a better film than the new Star Wars. We don’t compare them for so many different reasons. I used to think this made sense. Cliffhanger should not be pitted against Casino, they are different kinds of movies with different aspirations. Yet we lump Carol with Tangerine and Sicario because of their budgets or subject matters or who the filmmakers are behind the films and, obviously, that makes much more sense.

See it Again – Bottle Shock

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In honor of Alan Rickman’s passing I am doing this “extra” See it Again. I have been meaning to write about Bottle Shock for some time and sadly it took his death to properly motivate me.

What You Should Know

This is a small film with an amazing cast telling a (mostly) true story. It is about wine, snobbery and growing up. I think Technically Chris Pine is the lead of the film but watching the film I think you would be hard pressed to agree with that statement. This is an ensemble film with a cast that plays their parts and does not try and outshine one another.

Why You Should Reconsider

My guess is you never heard of the film. Like so many smaller, comedy/somethings these get widely ignored. They don’t win awards or set the box office afire. What they do is provide interesting, satisfying stories with moments of levity.

Alan Rickman is perfection in this film (as always). Cast, I think, as an Englishman living in Paris who operates a wine store/school that is widely ignored. It is perfect casting as you get to experience all of the wonderful shades of Mr. Rickman – contempt, scorn, snobbery, weakness, compassion, loyalty and passion.

His friend, fellow business owner and advisor, played by Dennis Farina is yet another piece of perfect casting and their scenes together are terrific. Evenly matched, perfectly off-balance, like so much of this film, there is a never a sense of watching a formulated story.

I won’t go into detail about the rest of the cast but everyone delivers and they do so in unexpected and interesting ways. The casting is well done, as the familiar faces bring comfort to the viewer but to unfamiliar roles.

Misconceptions

I imagine the idea of a wine comedy does not appeal to many. The film, though portraying a rather snobbish character, is anything but. It is a centered, earthy movie that lacks pretension and strives for naturalism rather than being “artistic”.

Some of the actors involved come with their own baggage, especially now with people like Mr. Pine. I think this, along with the film Stretch, is a great film to see if you wish to change your perception of him. The characters in this film are not paper-thin, yet this is a comedy, so while there is some misery and drama the touch is light and confident.

I am writing about this today, as I said, because of Mr. Rickman’s passing. There are several films he is well known for and sadly this is not one of them. It is a shame because in this role he is allowed to present several different sides of this character and he does so brilliantly. There is something very human, touching and real in this performance that helps elevate this film without shifting the focus to land squarely on him.

If, like I imagine many people are right now, you find yourself wanting to watch something with Mr. Rickman in order to remember him I would recommend giving Bottle Shock a try. It is a rich, rewarding film filled with unexpected moments and ultimately a warm, full heart.

 

Computers, Technology and Hoopla

I would like to be a tech savvy person. I would like to sit down at a computer, any computer, and immediately be able to do all the tasks I wish to do and never need to touch the mouse. I would like to pick up a digital camera and effortlessly navigate the menus in order to arrange all of the settings and presets so that my pictures rival anything out there.

I would like this and it will never, ever happen. My experience with technology is, I think, much like everyone else’s: a big game of catch up. Whatever the piece of technology is I am attempting to figure out the “right” way to be using it. Which is to say I figure things out, mostly, but there is usually something I am not doing quite right. Even if I do not know that I am doing something incorrectly.

Which brings me to one of my many current technology related problems – iPhoto. A while back I bought a DSLR (technically a DSLM but that really is being pretty picky) and I started taking pictures. A lot of pictures. Everything I have read about being a “real” photographer (who is shooting digitally, because there still seems to be a pretty big debate over film vs digital and “realness”) told me that I should be shooting in the RAW format. Yes, you have to write RAW in all caps for some reason. I have heard it and I have forgotten the reason and so should you. Just write the word in caps.

Anyway I have done this and I have then used iPhoto to try and store and manipulate these photos. Which has caused near exponential growth in the size of my iPhoto storage. Which has caused all kinds of computer problems. Which has lead to me playing catch up as to what is going on and how I can fix it.

As far as I can tell I can’t really fix the problem. Or I can but it would involve deleting most of the photos, which isn’t really a solution in my book. So I have begun looking at alternative programs to replace iPhoto. And I have found them. They just cost money and I am adverse to spending money I do not have to on computer programs. Call me cheap. That’s fine. I can take it.

Anyway, I do a fair bit of video work on my computer and now time lapse photography, which is where I ran into trouble with my hard drive space. So the reason I have written this long and not terribly exciting account of my photo woes is that even when a cheap person like myself finds solutions, which I have (Darktable is a free, RAW image editor) it seems you simply replace one set of problems for another.

So I spend three days trying to find an iPhoto solution that does not involve me deleting all of my photos and it leads to a new program. I use the new program and can find no way to make it pull photos off of my external hard drive. Now the point of this rant, if there is one, is when does it end? At each step of trying to do something (because believe it or not I am sparing you the video component of the time lapse saga that goes hand-in-hand with this) there are more obstacles, more problems you did not know existed to then find solutions and encounter a new set of problems.

Which is really another way of saying – I am tired of working for my technology. We all take pictures now and lots of them. Our old system was imperfect but the storage of the photos was rather simple. If we printed the pictures we then stuck them in an album. We kept the negatives in something or other and pretended that twenty years later we were going to find those negatives and do something with them. Maybe we made a large print of a picture we liked and put it in a frame. That was it. You found a place to put your albums and then every once in a while you took them out flipped through the pages and then put them away.

Now I have three external hard drives on my desk and slow desktop because I tend to dip below the recommended level of storage on my internal hard drive and this is a no-no. My photos are now technically stored in the “cloud” so that they take up less space and I can access them on all of my devices that I have linked to the “cloud”. This is also supposed to be a safer way to keep them should anything happen.

Now I will end here but I want to share my silver lining to this problem and my working through this problem. I started writing this post a year ago. I stopped did other things and came back at various points. In that time I glommed onto this idea of how things used to be. I watched a film called Side by Side which talked about the perils of digital and chemical process filmmaking. And something clicked for me.

At the moment the only future-proof format that motion picture films (Hollywood, baby) have is film. Analog. You put it into canisters and store them in those climate controlled dust free something or others. There is a system, we don’t really know what it is but people do and you do it. And then, you can play it on any device that plays that format of film. Even if that particular piece of machinery is already 100 years old.

So how does this relate to my pictures? I spent about three days, sifted through 20,000 digital photos and chose about 900 I cannot lose. I then order 4×6 prints of each picture bought some albums and put them on my shelf. They had been there for about six months now and already I have sat down with my five year old daughter several times and flipped through them, like I used to do with my parents. And I know, if there were some catastrophe and I had time to rescue something from my home I would not try and grab my iMac, I would grab these albums of pictures and run outside.

Television – The Americans

(This is a post I wrote a year ago but for some reason did not share. I have since seen seasons one and two and think they are excellent but I like the simpler point made here by…me. What a guy!)

I would like to discuss the television show, The Americans. Now it may seem silly to try and discuss a show that has not finished and it will seem even sillier when I add that I have not finished the first season. So why discuss this show? Because it is one of a handful that gives the impression it was fully realized before they started making it.

This is a big claim and it is entirely possibly that the rest of season two might make what I am writing absurd. I will take that chance. In particular I want to say a little something about the pilot episode of The Americans.

What I feel sets a pilot episode like this apart from so many others is that you get the sense that they characters are fully formed. You meet your central characters, their relationship is not immediately explained and then through a series of events you come to know who they are. It is interesting and arresting television. The story is intriguing, it is engaging and what I enjoyed most is that the little details are simply put out there for viewers to either notice and understand or to be lost.

Making a show set in the early eighties that does not stop and point at each and every detail of clothing, hair, music etc., but rather attempts to recreate the world as it was without having a character stop and say, “Isn’t this earpiece absurdly large? We can’t hide the fact that we are wearing earpieces. If only someone would make them smaller.” allows the viewer to be swept up in the story being told. It is refreshing and rewarding to watch a show that does not call attention to itself, that does not feel the need to point and say, “Don’t you see now, thirty years on, that Regan was a bit of a …” but rather have the characters be as they should be and do as they do?