Tuesday, November 24, 2020

High Fantasy at its Best: THE DRAGON PRINCE

The Dragon Prince (2018 -- present)

IMDB: 8.4


RT: 100%

The year is 2013. House of Cards has just made its streaming debut on Netflix and transformed the production of TV content permanently. 

Flash-forward to 2020. Netflix is spending $17 billion a year producing original content with the streaming wars in full force. Sadly, most of that original content sucks. Some gems do slip through the cracks, but Netflix and all the other platforms nowadays (with the possible exception of HBO) basically function as content farms designed to shove out as much bingeable crap as possible to a pandemic-ridden stay-at-home audience.

It was against this depressing backdrop that I sat down to watch the Netflix original The Dragon Prince for the first time about a month ago. I say the "first time" because I've already re-watched all three seasons a second time (and I rarely ever rewatch a show immediately after watching it for the first time). And after the second time through I can safely say that not only is TDP one of the most satisfying Netflix productions I've ever watched, it's also one of the greatest high fantasy stories I've ever seen. At its best, TDP more than holds its own against series like Game of Thrones. For me, at least, it's that good.

The show's opening credits are really great

TDP is the brainchild of Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond and has been widely labeled as the spiritual successor to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Ehasz was a lead writer on ATLA, and quite a few similarities between the two shows are apparent on a first viewing. Plenty of corny, kid-centric humor (dad jokes abound). Strong commentary on the cyclical nature of war and its impacts on individuals and society as a whole. A clearly defined magic system built on natural elements.

TDP isn't a mere ATLA clone, though. In some ways, I think TDP has the potential to exceed its creative predecessor. We're only three seasons in, with four more planned to round out the saga, and I think I am more emotionally invested in this show than I ever was with ATLA, which astounds me because I absolutely love ATLA.

So without getting into spoilers, I just want to highlight a few aspects of the show that make it so great.

"Do you have a moment to talk about The Dragon Prince?"

The Worldbuilding

Like any good high fantasy property, TDP excels at constructing a complex and well-realized universe. It draws on many fantasy tropes, but manages to put a unique spin on most of them. And while Season 1 does struggle a bit at times with lengthy exposition, the writers do a great job fleshing out the world organically as the show progresses. The use of flashbacks in particular stood out to me as a significant strength of TDP. Normally I'm not a huge fan of flashbacks as a plot device, but TDP (like ATLA) uses them brilliantly. Finally, the magic system is not only highly interesting and internally consistent, but metaphorically builds on the core themes of the show itself.

The Characters

Like most good shows, the characters are what really make TDP a pleasure to watch. The show manages to introduce and develop a sizeable main cast consisting of several primary and numerous secondary characters. All the main characters progress through satisfying and well-realized arcs, each packing a heavy emotional punch. Nothing ever really feels forced, and at no point did I find myself questioning seemingly arbitrary character decisions shoehorned in to suit the needs of the plot. There are so many characters to love in TDP, and what's even better is that they cover a huge swath of diversity and representation. None of it feels performative or artificial either, which can be difficult to pull off. Kids programming has come a long way in this regard! Honestly, I think TDP does a better job on that front than most shows oriented solely towards adults.

Given its wide audience range, TDP gets really creative with its use of action and violence

The Credits

TDP uses its post-episode ending credits sequence quite creatively to further the story and develop its characters. Netflix's automatic skip credits feature is actually quite annoying because watching the credits for TDP is a must. In just 20 seconds after each episode with simple still illustrations, the credits provide both background character development and critical plot foreshadowing. I've never seen a show do anything like this before and honestly I think it's absolutely brilliant.

The Animation

Ironically, one of the things that initially put me off from watching TDP was the use of 3D animation. I'm not always a huge fan of 3D animation when used in a TV setting with budget and time constraints. Sure, Pixar makes computer-generated 3D animation look stunning again and again, but on the TV side such animation doesn't always look that great, especially when compared to the beauty of traditional 2D animation.

Although the lower frame rate in Season 1 does take some time to get used to (a la Into the Spiderverse), the quality of the animation really picks up in Seasons 2 and 3. Many of the set pieces, creatures, and battle sequences look flat out amazing.

Primal magic versus dark magic

The Themes

One of the things I love about programming ostensibly intended for children is that the limitations on what can be said and shown really forces writers to address heavy themes in creative and subtle ways. Game of Thrones can throw blood, gore, and nudity at the screen with gusto, but a show like TDP obviously cannot. On paper, such a restriction might appear like a significant obstacle in writing mature plot lines that deal with heavy subjects like war, death, anxiety, and corruption. But when done right, I think "kids" shows can tackle these themes just as well as their adult-oriented counterparts. To use an obvious example, ATLA expertly dealt with topics like colonialism, refugee migration, and environmental destruction.

TDP continues in this tradition. There are lots of great messages for kids and adults alike packed into the show, but I want to focus on one in particular: coping with grief in the wake of the death of a loved one. Grief is a hard theme to do well in TV programming. But I'm honestly not sure if I've ever seen a show do it as well as TDP. The show takes the better part of two full seasons exploring how two of the main characters process the death of a loved one. The thematic exploration of death and grief in that subplot hit really close to home for me, especially on the second watch through. It was just done so well and it felt incredibly realistic.

Watch TDP or I will do this to your eyes

So . . . should you watch The Dragon Prince?

I'd recommend this show to pretty much anyone who enjoys fantasy in any way, shape, or form. It's got an epic world, wonderful characters, and a thrilling story. The writing can be a little corny at times, and the pacing in Season 1 is a little slow in the second half of the season. But on the whole, TDP is truly a fantasy epic that represents some of the best original content put out by any streaming platform in recent years. 


Thursday, April 2, 2020

My Top 10 Favorite Films of the 2010s

Since the 2010s officially drew to a close a few months ago, I've been thinking about which of the decade's films stood out to me most. Now that we are all sheltering in place for the forseeable future, now is as good as time as any to reflect on my favorite films of the past decade. The following are not the ten films I think are of the highest quality from an execution perspective; rather, they are the films that I enjoyed or that impacted me the most. I have listed them in chronological order, as it would probably be too difficult for me to actually rank these films.

The Social Network (2010)
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin

The Social Network is one of those films that I truly believe is flawless. With nearly every movie I watch, I can usually find one or two minor issues, even if I enjoy the film immensely overall. But The Social Network just doesn't have anything like that. I've seen it multiple times, and each time I am simply blown away by the incredible pairing of David Fincher's visual style and Aaron Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue. Sometimes Sorkin's pretentious writing irritates me; certain episodes of The West Wing come to mind. But in this case, his dialogue perfectly matches with the smugness and arrogance of all the main characters in The Social Network. No one in the film is without flaws and each character is full of himself. Yes, I say "himself," because the film features basically zero prominent female characters, a biting indictment of the nature of start-up and Silicon Valley culture more broadly. Long before we had a name for it, The Social Network gave us one of the first cinematic depictions of the "CE-Bro". 

Jessen Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, and Andrew Garfield all give career-best performances, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide one of the best film scores of all time to round out the complete package.

Facebook co-founders Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

How to Train Your Dragon
Directors: Dean DeBlois; Chris Sanders
Screenplay: Will Davies;  Dean DeBlois; Chris Sanders

Sometimes you just need a film that makes you smile and feel warm inside, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. HTTYD is that film for me. I can watch it over and over again and never get bored. The story is equal parts touching and exciting, the characters unique and memorable, and the animation holds up remarkably well nearly ten years later. What makes this film stand out for me though, more than anything else, is its amazing original score, composed by John Powell. Powell's gorgeous compositions and use of motifs elevate many scenes to perfection, especially the memorable "Test Drive" and "Forbidden Friendship" sequences. The YouTuber Sideways put out an excellent video essay on what makes the score so memorable; check it out!

One of my favorite moments of HTTYD

A Separation (
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi

Like The Social Network, A Separation is a flawless film, to me at least. I watched it in the theater, and remember my first thought upon seeing the credits roll: "That is a perfect film. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it." I won't spoil any of the plot here, but needless to say this film is one of the best family dramas I've ever seen. But it's more than that. It's an examination of the clash between progress and tradition. It's an exploration of faith and dogma. And it's a portrayal of contemporary challenges in modern-day Iran. Featuring some of the sharpest writing and most naturalistic acting of the decade, I'd recommend this film to anyone who doesn't mind reading subtitles. Farhadi's film is one that has so much to say, and does so more efficiently than most movies could ever dream of doing.

Simin (Leila Hatami) seeks a divorce from Nader (Payman Maadi)

The Cabin in the Woods (
Director: Drew Goddard
Screenplay: Joss Whedon; Drew Goddard

The Cabin in the Woods is one of those films that you just need to go into blind. Granted, I generally think most films are better-watched without knowing anything beforehand; but Cabin requires it. Although it's certainly not for everyone, Cabin blew me away with its creativity and ingenuity. It's certainly one of the best horror films I've ever seen, and one of the wittiest meta-commentaries on any genre, ever. For those who have watched it, I think this essay by Karl Delossantos captures much of what makes Cabin such a strong film, one which led the vanguard of the horror renaissance of the 2010s.

Our victims first arrive at the Cabin

Nebraska (
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Bob Nelson

I've already written at length about my love for Nebraska in a prior blog post, which you can find here. Needless to say, few films have hit me as hard emotionally as Nebraska. It didn't quite bring me to tears, but it got real close. Bruce Dern delivers one of my favorite performances of all time, and the beautiful black and white cinematography of Phedon Papamichael captures the decaying landscape of a bleak Nebraskan town, mirroring the socioeconomic crisis that has engulfed much of rural America.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte)

Dunkirk (2017)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan

I've never been a huge fan of Christopher Nolan. I find most of his movies vastly overrated, including Inception and The Dark Knight. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Dunkirk. Nolan has always had a keen visual eye, so the film of course looks incredible. His attention to detail -- from the use of authentic vintage WWII airplanes to shooting on location in Dunkirk -- ensures that the film feels supremely real. Sound design, cinematography, visual effects, and production design are all top notch and will surely stand the test of time.

However, Dunkirk isn't just a visual feast. The film is also flush with understated yet convincing performances, especially from Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. I know many have criticized Dunkirk for its supposed lack of character development, and I see where that critique comes from. However, to me it was obvious the film isn't really about the characters. It is about depicting the anxiety and sheer terror of war. And in that regard, Dunkirk succeeds brilliantly.

Finally, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually like Hans Zimmer's score here. It builds almost unbelieve tension to accompany the horrific events that unfold on screen.

Dunkirk perfectly captures the fear and anxiety of war

The Death of Stalin (2017)
Director: Armando Ianucci
Screenplay: Armando Ianucci; David Schneider; Ian Martin; Peter Fellows

Oftentimes, movies that try to put a humorous spin on otherwise evil people can fall completely flat. I think Jojo Rabbit falls in this category. 

On paper, it seems a rather difficult task balancing slapstick humor with the cutthroat political maneuvering that followed the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. Yet Armando Ianucci manages to pull it off brilliantly, crafting one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. The constant jokes and bumbling machinations of Soviet leaders as they each seek to fill the power vacuum left by Stalin's death don't downplay the horrific actions they take; in fact, the humor in some way magnifies their malevolence. After all, who could crack a joke following a brutal execution, if not a supremely messed up person? A stellar ensemble cast of British and American actors, led by a dynamite Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev, bring the film's hilarious dialogue to life and left me gasping for breath as I laughed at scene after scene.

The Death of Stalin features one of the funniest ensemble casts I've ever seen

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directors: Bob Persichetti; Peter Ramsey; Rodney Rothman
Screenplay: Phil Lord; Rodney Rothman

I'm not a comic book film aficionado. I've only seen a handful of films in the MCU, and generally haven't been impressed. In fact, I only went to see Into the Spider-Verse in theaters because of its high Metacritic score. It was worth the price of admission and then some. Despite my comparatively limited knowledge of Spiderman lore, I had an earnest grin plastered across my face for much of the film. This movie is not only hilarious but also heartfelt, and features a supremely satisfying arc for its protagonist, Miles Morales. The animation is unlike anything I had ever seen before, and works so well for a comic book aesthetic. I can only hope the sequel reaches the same level of excellence.

Infinite universes; infinite Spider-people

Roma (
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón

Simply put, Roma is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. Each and every shot in the film would not look out of place in an art gallery. Cuarón's direction and cinematography are deliberate and meticulously-crafted, with long and sweeping tracking shots that frame the characters and action perfectly. The ensemble cast is strong, and the story carries quite a lot of emotional weight. By the time I made it to the now-famous beach scene near the end of the film, I could barely move in my seat. Roma is Cuarón's undisputed masterpiece, and I don't think I'll ever get over the fact that it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Green Book.

One of the most intensely emotional scenes I've ever witnessed on film

Parasite (2019)
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Screenplay: Bong Joon Ho; Jin Won Han

What more is there to say about Parasite? Not much. A well-deserved winner of the Palme d'Or and Best Picture Oscar and an all-around dynamite film in every way possible. It's a rare film that simultaneously provides maximum entertainment and social commentary. I've enjoyed many of Bong's films, but Parasite represents an entirely new level of excellence for him. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Who are the parasites in Parasite?
Honorable Mentions:

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Dir. Doug Liman

I went into this film with very low expectations, due to a terrible trailer and all-around poor marketing. I was pleasantly surprised to experience one of the most well-directed and well-written action films I had seen in a long time. A perfect mixture of action, humor, and drama, all with a compelling sci-fi plot and excellent performances from leads Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Dir. George Miller

MM:FR has been labeled by many the best action film of the decade, and for good reason. Mindblowing stuntwork and practical effects combine with phenomenal visual storytelling and minimal exposition. This movie builds a world and sells it so convincingly: the audience is hooked and along for the ride from the get go, and barely gets a moment to breathe until the film ends two hours later.

Shoplifters (2018) Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

In many ways, Shoplifters addresses a lot of the class commentary issues highlighted by Parasite, yet didn't get quite the same level of buzz and international attention. It's less comedic and over-the-top generally, but still serves as a timely portrayal of wealth inequality and poverty in modern Japan.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Enchanting and Entrancing: THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water
2017 - 123 minutes - Drama / Fantasy
Director: Guillermo del Toro 
Country: United States
IMDB: 7.9
RT: 92%

Guillermo del Toro loves to make creature features. From his 2006 masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth to his 2013 action extravaganza Pacific Rim, del Toro films tend to focus on supernatural monsters and their interactions with humans (both positive and negative). 

The Shape of Water is no different. This time, del Toro crafts a love story between two societal outcasts - a mute custodial worker on one side and a fish-person on the other. In fact, most of the film's characters are members of oppressed or marginalized groups, including Communists, African Americans, and homosexuals.

Set in the early 1960s during the height of the Cold War and Space Race, The Shape of Water features a conventional plot that unfolds mostly how one would expect. The dialogue is solid, and the acting across the board is quite good. Sally Hawkins, in particular, does a phenomenal job silently emoting through her facial expressions and sign language. The film also contains a number of interesting Biblical allusions (including the tales of Moses, Samson, and Delilah) which aid the viewer in interpreting the film's deliberately ambiguous ending. 

However, like most of del Toro's films, what makes The Shape of Water truly beautiful is a unique visual flair and direction that carries most of the film's emotional weight.  

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) comes face to face with the creature
First things first - the color palette in this movie is breathtaking. The film exudes warmth through a seamless blend of subtle blues, greens, and browns across set design, lighting,  costuming, and visual effects. Our protagonists are always framed using these warm colors. Conversely, when the film's villains appear, the colors shift to black and white, visually conveying their lack of any sort of moral spectrum or understanding. Without getting into too much detail, the primary antagonist wanes in color and complexion over time until he becomes a black and white husk without a trace of humanity by the film's climax.

Del Toro's visual flair behind the lens is on full display here. The film's opening and closing scenes in particular are some of the most beautiful and atmospheric sequences I've seen in recent years. Del Toro's direction and cinematography perfectly mirror the film's mood at all times and never become obtrusive or overbearing. The visuals are perfectly accompanied by a smoothly nostalgic score by Alexandre Desplat equal parts ethereal and heartwarming.

Del Toro's use of perspective is also a highlight of the film
I really don't want to say too much more about The Shape of Water for a few reasons. Firstly, because it tells a simple tale that I don't want to spoil, but more importantly, because I don't want to hype the film too much either. Del Toro's films are polarizing because he has a very unique style that folks usually tend to love or hate. I personally find myself on the "love" side of that spectrum, but totally understand those who don't. That said, I think most people with reasonable expectations can find something to enjoy in The Shape of Water, provided they are willing to dive headfirst into a rich and dark fairy tale with an open mind.


P.S. - I've been told the trailer contains A LOT of major spoilers, so I won't post it here.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Love and Attention — Lady Bird

By Christian Sandler

I'm not sure why I find the coming-of-age genre so fascinating. Maybe it's because I experienced all of it. Maybe it's because it's so deeply moving. It's consistently the only genre that makes me feel nostalgic, awestruck, and full of life. Watching Lady Bird was like growing up again.

On the surface, there are plenty of differences between my childhood and Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson's. I grew up in Tampa, she grew up in Sacramento. I went to a preppy suburban high school, she went to a small catholic school. I went by Chris because Christian wasn't cool enough, she went by Lady Bird because she never chose Christine. I'm a guy, she's a girl. Really, though, it's all the same. The details come second because every great coming of coming-of-age story is about the subject. It's about finding yourself and probably coming up short.

Saoirse Ronan, a stunning Irish actress in her early twenties, is seamlessly transformed into the edgy teenage outcast of Lady Bird on screen. She wears short, messy red hair and bracelets that clash with her school uniform. She's snarky, rebellious and doesn't have a clue about who she truly is or what she truly wants to do. She speaks maturely of leaving Sacramento behind to join writers in the woods of New Hampshire, but after she throws herself out of a car and breaks her arm, the cast is bright pink to go along with her bedroom decor.

It's not exactly this wildly original plot line — every high school has a Lady Bird. What makes the film so special is that all of these things happening, all of these seemingly uninteresting and commonplace obstacles of adolescence, seem to really matter. There are plenty that would argue nothing earth-shattering occurs in Lady Bird, but for someone like me that consistently thinks back to my time in high school and wonders just how it shaped me, everything happened.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig sends us plunging into Lady Bird's world in the opening scene of the film, a car ride with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. At first they seem to be enjoying each other's company, but soon the conversation shifts to a mother-daughter standoff. "I want to move out of Sacramento and live in a city with character, like New York." "We don't have money for that, Christine, we'll barely have enough for in-state tuition." You see where this is going.

I didn't throw myself out of a car when my parents told me I couldn't get out of Florida and go to Penn State, but I probably thought about it. Lady Bird's dream was one I just woke up from, and Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento, captured scenes like this perfectly, because she lived them too. For so many high schoolers, senior year is a harsh, hazy gateway into a world that just has to be better. Lady Bird and I didn't appreciate it at the time.

The film coasts freely along the ups and downs of senior year, with Lady Bird falling in love and giving the school play a shot. She's somehow not good at math like her dad, so maybe theater is her calling. Maybe that's what she's been looking for. Breaking news: it's not. She disappoints her mom and spends Thanksgiving with her boyfriend's family, only to watch the relationship crumble in an instant.

I remember lying in the grass under the same blanket of stars that Lady Bird did, telling someone I love them and thinking nothing else could possibly matter. Then suddenly, we aren't talking. Why aren't we talking?

The beauty of Gerwig's perspective as a thirty-something is that she can look back on the experience and laugh. Laugh at writing a guy's name on her bedroom wall and laugh about the painstakingly awkward conversations with her mom about having sex at a "good time." Adolescence is often hilarious, and Lady Bird is just that. Amidst all the raw and visceral emotion is Lady Bird's friend Julie drooling over the math teacher in front of his pregnant wife. It's throwing the teacher's grade book in the trash and buying a Playgirl magazine solely because she can. Gerwig handpicks and writes all of these moments flawlessly, as if they'll soon turn into memories that Lady Bird will fondly look back on.

In her solo directorial debut, she's also surprisingly slick with the camera. No one would have blamed her for "just close-ups of Saoirse Ronan's face" given her beauty, but Gerwig was very thoughtful with perspective. In a more playful scene filled with giggles, she shoots from above and captures an upside-down view of typical teenage girl dialogue. For the tense sequences, Ronan is often the sole focus. Lady Bird is masterful not only in its authenticity, but in its craftsmanship.

As senior year rolls along, Lady Bird has lost her virginity in a very unflattering and un-special way. It wasn't supposed to be like that. But with prom around the corner, she's in a tough spot. "Are we still going to prom together?" stands out as one of the most organic lines of the film. Such a letdown, such an awkward, hurtful letdown. But it's prom. It's the last dance.

I never went to prom. My senior year, the only girl on my mind was going with someone else, so there was no place for me. I never understood why it was so important. Lady Bird saw it differently, because as her new "friends" are ready to ditch and go to a house party instead, she decides it matters. She wants to go. In a night of rediscovery, she ends up dancing with Julie all night and taking silly prom pictures next to all the real couples.

I had this romantic idea of prom in my head, where I'd go with my girlfriend and I'd remember it for the rest of my life. Maybe Lady Bird will remember prom for the rest of her life in a totally different frame.

When she lives the dream and makes it to New York, all she can think about is Sacramento, the very place she'd been trying so desperately to escape. It was the same way for me. I made it to Penn State and now I joke with my friends about how much Tampa sucks. The truth is I miss it. It's pretentious, shitty, overcrowded, and too hot. But it's where I grew up. It's where my story unfolded.

High school was a winding roller coaster laced with bliss and heartbreak for me. Watching Lady Bird go through something so similar was a true emotional rush. I look back now and all I can do is thank my parents for what they gave me over those years. That's where the movie ends and where Christine grows up.

As a film enthusiast, I can respect what Lady Bird is. I can applaud the brilliance of Ronan and praise Gerwig for her extraordinary vision. It very well could win best picture and as a film, it would deserve it. But as a human, I can empathize with Lady Bird. As a 24 year old still trying to find myself, I can so fully and wholeheartedly relate to her. Nothing else makes me feel quite that way. Nothing else brings me to the verge of tears.

Lady Bird is an absolute coming-of-age marvel and like my adolescence, I'll never forget it.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Far From Just Ordinary — Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder (2003)

(major spoilers below)

The American crime genre seems to have a very worn-out structure. We see crimes, we see suspects, we see a police investigation, and we see someone get caught. Maybe that's precisely what people want. By the end of the film or TV show, the stage is always clear for the next crime and the next set of cops. 

I think that's why I found Memories of Murder so haunting. By the end, the stage wasn't clear at all. The actors were starring back at the audience wondering who?, what?, how? as if nothing in the film happened. Where most stories would come full-circle, Joon-ho Bong's just stopped, creating a shape that would never be whole. In a lot of ways, it was far more chilling than any real suspect could be. 

On the surface, the storyline in Memories of Murder is quite familiar. Multiple murders break out in a small Korean province in 1986 and the police start to notice a trend — always female, always at night, always when it's raining. There's a good cop and bad cop, only the good cop is only good-ish. Detective Park Doo-man, played by famous Korean actor Kang ho-Song, claims he can see through every suspect. All he has to do is usher them to look into his eyes and he can decipher guilt from innocence. It's "how he survives as a detective," but on this case, it's not working. Detective Cho Yong-koo is slapping suspects around and kicking chairs over and nothing is coming of it. Not even coerced false confessions are making it go away.

Then the young hotshot violent-crimes detective from Seoul hits the scene. He's volunteering his time because at this point, the murders are being plastered all over the country. While Doo-man and Yong-koo interrogate and pressure suspects with their typical tactics, Seo Tae-yoon is in the background smoking a cigarette and contemplating his next move. This punk isn't the killer and he knows it.

It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? They'll keep investigating and eventually Tae-yoon will be one step ahead of the killer and catch him in the act. At one point early in his screen time, I even thought "I've seen all of this before." But Memories of Murder is like nothing I've ever seen before, and it didn't take long to realize it.

Tae-yoon, seen in the far left, isn't on board
Like all great thrillers, the film builds tension in seemingly trivial scenes. Every conversation and every shot has a purpose. Sometimes it's a slow-burn to the next light bulb going off and sometimes it's out of the blue. It's all thoroughly effective because it's not quite predictable. There's no pattern to anything unfolding, but it's all shot smoothly and it's often accompanied by an eerie score from Taro Iwashiro. Bong has everything envisioned perfectly and all you can do is watch.

He even manages to successfully intertwine some dark humor throughout the story, which doesn't seem to call for it all. Rumors are swirling throughout Gyunggi of the police torturing innocent people inside their headquarters, and at one point late in the film, it's not getting anywhere. Everyone in the building is going through the motions when Tae-yoon comes in and proves what they're doing is a waste of time. Off in another room, the sergeant hands Yong-koo a piece of rope and nonchalantly asks 'Have we hung him from the ceiling yet?"

In the middle of a terrifying killing spree that's based on real murders from the time period, what place could cheeky little one-liners like that have in the script? I don't know, but it works. Normally, I'd find them distracting, unfunny, irrelevant, or all of the above, but in Memories of Murder, they just seemed to work.

Some of Bong's cinematography at work
Really, everything works. Everything in the film works while absolutely nothing in the investigation works. The suspect leaves no evidence at the scene. It's always raining, so footprints are smudged. He's precise and professional and everyone's dumbfounded. It gets to the point where every time it rains, they declare a state of emergency and send cops everywhere. The entire province is safely indoors and yet, he kills again.

What's truly refreshing about Memories of Murder is very little of the actual crime is shown. You don't have to see it. A few sharp takes before or a couple post-mortem shots is all it takes because the atmosphere is so engrossing. It's all frightening enough on its own, and that's hard to pull off.

The film's most climactic scene comes after the final murder. Tae-yoon knew the killer would strike again and let his prime suspect get away the night prior, causing a major guilt trip. He storms to the suspect's house, pulls him aside to some desolate train tracks and resorts to what he doesn't stand for. He's punching him, throwing him to the ground and pointing a gun in his face until he gets a confession. "I killed them all. That's what you want to hear isn't it?" Except, it's not. He didn't do it. 

Doo-man bursts onto the scene with the paperwork they've been waiting for. Without advanced-enough technology in Korea at the time, they had to send a crime-scene sample off to America in hopes of matching DNA. It doesn't match. This isn't the killer. Doo-man is staring deeply into his eyes. The camera is zoomed in tightly on his face for an uncomfortable amount of time. It's haunting because it's not even him. The detectives desperately need him to be the killer and he simply disappears into the darkness of a tunnel, still in handcuffs. 

Memories of murder
Normal films might end there. It was fitting enough. That was their last chance of cracking the case and it evaporated. But what Bong has in store is far more captivating. He flashes forward, years after the crime spree caused Doo-man to quit the police force. As he's driving by the field that sparked the entire story, he tells the driver to pull over. He meanders down the dirt road and bends over to peer into a small tunnel. It's where he found the first body. 

A little girl comes by and asks what he's looking at. "Just looking," he says. And that's mysterious to her because not long before that, another man came by and was doing just that. He had memories there from years ago and just came back to look. Stunned, it occurs to Doo-man that it was him. He came back to the scene. The killer was there.

"What did he look like?" he asks. The little girls struggles to answer. "Well...kind of plain. Just...ordinary." Doo-man's stare into the camera gets deeper and deeper. He's looking into the lens, into the audience, into the world, in search of the killer. How will he ever be found? Who is he?

They'll never know.

— EE

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Revolutionary Genius of Survivor

Survivor: Borneo (2000)

Outwit. Outplay. Outlast. Three simple words that redefined the landscape of network programming and ushered in the golden age of reality television.

Survivor, like many reality shows born in the early 2000s, is still around today. While the show has long lost the originality that made its first season so groundbreaking, the fact it's still going strong 17 years and 34 seasons later is a testament to the strength of its brand and loyalty of its fanbase (around 10 million people still tune in to each episode).

While the show has devolved to a parody of its former self, it's hard to overstate how big of a deal the first season of Survivor (later re-titled Survivor: Borneo) was when it premiered back in 2000. The show's mammoth popularity is largely credited for the introduction of the Emmy category for best reality competition program in 2003. An estimated 51.7 million people watched the finale on August 23, 2000, with 125 million tuning in for at least part of it. 

To put those numbers in perspective, the US population hovered at about 281 million in 2000. So around 18.5% of the population of the entire United States sat down in front of the TV and watched the 2-hour finale to a show in its first season. Barring high-profile sporting events (e.g. the Superbowl), numbers like that are unheard of for network television nowadays. (Fun fact: it also put a decisive end to the reign of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as the most popular show on television at the time.)

The zeitgeist surrounding the airing of Borneo represents one of the most significant events in the history of American television. So what made it so popular? 

"Got Milk" ad campaign capitalizing on the popularity of the show

I decided to sit down and watch the show to find out. I was a fan of Survivor back in middle school and watched several seasons with my family in the mid-2000s. However, I didn't watch the original season when it aired, and as an adult, I had always dismissed the
Survivor franchise as just another manifestation of trashy, low-brow reality entertainment. 

The verdict? I. Was. Blown. Away.

The show is absolutely worth watching and holds up incredibly well to this day. Two characteristics make it so captivating: its documentary-style tone and its outstanding cast of everyday people from across the canvass of American society.

The show opens with 16 strangers scrambling to salvage as many supplies as they can from a boat before being forced to paddle on crude rafts to a remote island off the coast of Borneo. They arrive on two beaches and quickly have to find water and shelter, all while working with a group of strangers with which they have no preexisting bonds of trust. Friendships are formed, conflicts arise, and we watch as these people struggle to survive - going hungry for days and braving the elements -  all while navigating the foreign rules of a competition where the castaways are forced to vote one another off the island. 

The original 16 castaways on Survivor: Borneo
Borneo's paltry budget and modest production values made the show lean and mean and feel more like a documentary than standard TV entertainment. Subsequent seasons of Survivor featured massive competition set pieces and slick editing, but Borneo just feels really gritty and down-to-earth. 

Regardless of the show's tone, watching 16 strangers mope around on a deserted island for 39 days would grow dull quickly if the cast weren't so darn interesting. Several castaways became national celebrities as the show aired - particularly Richard, Kelly, Susan, and Rudy - but pretty much everyone that washed up on the beach on day 1 had their own unique story to tell. The producers did a fantastic job in selecting a group of individuals who in many ways reflected America as a whole.

Watching these people interact is absolutely riveting. In many ways Borneo feels like a social experiment - how will strangers act and react when deprived of food and modern amenities and thrown into an extremely high-stress situation? We witness friendship, loathing, competition, attraction, sorrow, despair, and more. 

The castaways arrive on the beach on Day 1
At the time, reality TV was in its infancy, and many of the well-established tropes of the genre (forming alliances, practicing open deception while claiming the excuse "it's just a game," etc.) hadn't yet been formed. As a result, we witness many castaways take issue with the ethics of the game - i.e. coping with the fact that only one winner can take home the $1 million prize, and can only do so outlasting everyone else by voting their peers off the island. Who's the most deserving? Who's the best player? Who's the best person? These are all questions raised by the castaways as they determine the fate of the others on the island.

Several struggle with setting aside their own personal ethics to advance in the game, some have no issue whatsoever compartmentalizing the game from reality, and others refuse to participate altogether, openly disdaining the nature of the game and rejoicing when they are finally voted off. In this regard, Borneo is vastly different from later seasons, where all 16 castaways arrive ready to lie and cheat their way to the money. 

The two original tribes - Tagi and Pagong
In retrospect, it's easy to look back and blame Borneo for the deluge of trashy reality shows that would follow in its footsteps. However, the first season of Survivor stands out for its creativity, originality, and execution, and deserves credit for the massive impact it had on the network television landscape. Like it or not, Survivor is one of the most influential franchises of all-time, and any serious lover of TV history should take the time to check out the first season. Not just because of its historical significance (though that's reason enough), but because at the end of the day, it's damn good television.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Romeo and Juliet in Manhattan - West Side Story

West Side Story (1961)

I spent most of my academic life ensconced in every type of musical ensemble imaginable. No surprise, then, that I've been intimately familiar with the superb score to West Side Story for quite some time. One of Leonard Bernstein's most famous compositions, it melds the traditions of musical theatre with the bombastic leitmotifs of Romanticism, all injected with a substantial dose of American jazz. 

Most musicals contain one or two truly memorable songs; WSS gave us a litany - from "Maria" to "America." I cued up the full WSS soundtrack while at work a few weeks back and - shocker - had difficulty getting much work done. At that time I came to the realization I had never actually listened to the entire score from beginning to end. It's a well-known masterpiece, of course, and remains delightfully infectious. The mixture of Bernstein's raucous riffs with Stephen Sondheim's legendary lyrics combine to produce a simply unforgettable aural experience.

Shortly after plowing through the soundtrack a half-dozen times, I also realized I had never seen the famous cinematic adaptation of the original musical. Released in 1961 to much fanfare, WSS won 10 Oscars (including Best Picture). Rightfully considered a classic, I checked out a copy from my local library and sat down to watch it.

The Sharks (left) and the Jets (right) face off
While it definitely shows its age at times, WSS is a film that I think everyone should see at least once. The plot of film is essentially a modern re-telling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in 1950's Manhattan. Two street gangs, one white (the Jets), the other Puerto Rican (the Sharks), are tussling over turf on the Upper West Side. In the midst of their brawling, a young Puerto Rican woman (Maria) and a former member of the Jets (Tony) meet and fall for each other. Like Shakespeare's play, the story ends in tragedy, with conflict between the warring gangs, and Tony slain by a member of the Sharks.

The story is nothing to write home about - it unfolds predictably and with no real twists or turns. What really makes the film outrageously memorable isn't the tragedy of of its star-crossed lovers, but the outstanding score and lyrics - and, of course, like many an excellent musical, the staging and choreography of its dance sequences.

The Sharks showing off their stuff
Choreographed by Jerome Robbins and directed by Robert Wise to perfection, the dance sequences in WSS are simply extraordinary. From the inventive staging and camera angles, to the impressively technical choreography and splendid costuming, the numerous ensemble dance numbers in the film are a sight to behold. Expertly edited and accompanied by Bernstein's rousing score, each song features a wide variety of moods and moves. The diversity of set pieces and styles is really astounding, and the visual direction of each scene perfectly mirrors the music and movement unfolding on screen.

The opening scene ("Prologue"), in particular, is a fantastic example of the best the WSS has to offer. The film opens with a series of panning shots across the cityscape of Manhattan. Accompanied by whistling tri-tones, an extended unison note slowly swells and swells until exploding into a biting resolution while the camera simultaneously zooms at light speed to the Jets, cloistered together in the corner of a basketball court. What follows is 10 minutes of beautifully staged and choreographed dancing as the Jets and Sharks go toe-to-toe. No dialogue, just Bernstein's wonderful music.

The first time we meet the Jets
That's not to say we don't want the gangs to talk! Once they start singing you'll wish they'd never stop. Sondheim's energetic lyrics mix incisive social commentary, lighthearted gamesmanship, and pure machismo while critiquing a range of societal ills omnipresent in 1950's New York - from racism to drug abuse. The film's subject matter is surprisingly progressive given the fact it was released in 1961, and a few couplets in particular remain pretty relevant today:

"Our mothers all are junkies / our fathers all are drunks / golly, Moses / naturally we're punks!"

"Life is alright in America / if you're all-white in America!"

The Jets try to play it "Cool" in an explosive dance number near the end of the film
Despite the sheer exuberance and energy exuded throughout most of the film, WSS does drag in spots. The main romance between Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood) is painfully unconvincing. Part of that may be because the acting hasn't aged all that well, but the over-the-top faux-Shakespearean writing doesn't help things either. Though their love affair is supposed to be the centerpiece of the film, I just found myself wanting the Sharks and Jets back on the screen, and for people to start singing and dancing again. 

While the film's leads certainly fizzle, WSS has a whole swath of outstanding supporting characters. Two in particular stand out - Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. They play a pair of Puerto Rican lovers and steal every scene they're in with a fiery chemistry that totally outshines the dry, wooden interactions of Beymer and Wood. The duo sang, danced, and acted to a pair of well-deserved Supporting Acting Oscars. Moreno later went on to become the first woman EGOT - winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.

Despite a few lulls here and there, West Side Story remains an outstanding film that still holds up well today over 50 years later. The music and choreography make it worth watching alone. Throw in outstanding direction along with a cast of memorable characters, and you have yourself a musical accessible for all ages.


Not sure if WSS is for you? Check out "America":