Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black, coupled with the tremendous House of Cards, gives Netflix now two masterpiece shows to stake its claim as a powerhouse studio in the making. I called House of Cards one of the best TV shows around a few months ago, and I may like Orange even better. It is, by my account, flawless. Sure, maybe I'd cut 15-20 seconds off of Regina Spektor's great opening theme song, but that's just because I wanna get to the show already! While a show set in a women's prison may lead some to expect certain things, this show blazes its own trail. One way it does that is by being one of the funniest shows on TV. At least once in every episode, something made me have a big belly laugh. Creator/executive producer Jenji Kohan (Weeds) also lets us into the hearts and minds of these women so that we get plenty of drama as well.

Each episode has flashbacks to help us fill in the stories of most of our main characters. This approach is pulled off perfectly by the series' directors (which include many TV veteran filmmakers as well as names like Andrew McCarthy, Allison Anders, and Jodie Foster) so that each episode is semi-dedicated to one character. Main heroine Piper (Taylor Schilling, who deserves any and every award she's given) is a focus of each episode, but her friends, enemies, and others also get their day in the sun, with sometimes funny, often heart breaking stories of how they ended up in Litchfield Minimum Security Prison. My favorites include Russian hardass Red (Kate Mulgrew), who doesn't soften so much as we begin to see where she came from and forgive her harder edges, same goes for Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). There's the transgender prison beautician Sophia (played by real life transgender actress Laverne Cox), peppy driver Morello (Australian Yael Stone, whose Boston/Jersey accent is simply a marvel), annoying Bible thumping former meth head Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning, grossed up with rotting teeth), Alex Vause (That 70's Show's Laura Prepon) who is the reason Piper is in prison to begin with, and many, many more characters astutely written and impeccably acted, making for a cast that can contend among the best acting TV has ever seen. Special mention must also go to Pablo Schreiber's performance as George "Pornstache" Mendez, one of the most gleefully hateable characters I can remember. Not because he's a cardboard cutout villain, but because of the humanity Schreiber injects into this asshole that is a type of guy we've all known in our lives and didn't like.

The 13 episodes of both seasons absolutely flew by, and I eagerly await S3. The word I keep coming back to when thinking about Orange is the New Black is flawless. Even when I try to look for cracks in the armor, all I can come up with is that if you're weirded out by girl-on-girl stuff you probably won't like the show. But they don't hide that. Before we're even 30 seconds into the first episode there's a glimpse of Piper and Alex making out in the shower. So they let you know up front. And even though it's a "prison show", it's not OZ, or even Shawshank Redemption when it comes to violence or getting a prison wife or anything like that. This is minimum security, generally non-violent offenders type of prison. So it's a whole different feel than any other prison thing we've seen before. And I'll say again, a flawless show that's among the best I've ever seen.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


A movie like Danny Boyle's Sunshine is incredibly frustrating. Its premise is a great one: the sun is dying and a crew of astronauts and scientists are sent to detonate a bomb inside the sun, thereby reigniting it and saving humanity from a slow decent into fatal cold. The problem is that Boyle is a crap filmmaker, and continually undermines the possibilities that this movie had. The crew is aboard the Icarus II, their mission the absolute final chance for Earth, as the previously sent mission aboard Icarus I went missing before being able to detonate its bomb. So many philosophical themes could've been explored. So many tense situations could've been had after our heroes catch the distress beacon still going from Icarus I. What happened? Why? How? These questions are answered, but very unsatisfactorily, much like the rest of the movie.

The Icarus II is populated by a truly stellar cast, with Cillian Murphy's physicist Capa being the closest thing to a main character. Murphy is better in the role than the movie deserves, and the rest of the cast follows suit. Rose Byrne as the pilot Cassie is gorgeous and heartfelt and just a wonderful bit of work from the underappreciated actress. Chris "Captain America" Evans is straight forward and no nonsense. Biologist Michelle Yeoh is also gorgeous and does especially good work when seeing her oxygen producing garden going up in flames. And the rest of the group is equal to these stars, with the ever reliable Cliff Curtis being his usual brilliant self.

The problem ultimately becomes that Boyle has no interest in exploring the psychology of the pressure a group would be under if they were the last hopes for the human race. Although the issue is brought up, it's quickly sideswiped by Boyle's hackitude in letting the issues play out. He's gotta put us, ultimately, on an Alien like picking off of the crew for various stupid reasons, none of which work dramatically. And Boyle has some nice visuals, not even all of them are stolen from Soderbergh's Solaris remake, which makes it again disappointing for the viewing experience.

If you are upset by spoilers, stop reading now

What happens is that they change course to try and pick up the bomb from the Icarus I, because two bombs are better than one, right? So they find and dock with the abandoned ship, with intentions to grab some of their oxygen as well. But Boyle turns things into a ridiculous slasher movie mentality by having the Icarus I captain Pinbacker (the typically genius Mark Strong) sabotage things and inflict chaos on the dwindling crew members. Why? Who the fuck knows, since Capa finally succeeds at detonation and saves the day. The stakes were high already, it's the saving of the human race. Why do the last 30 minutes of the movie become a horror flick? It doesn't work in the context of the movie, it doesn't work within the context of itself (Boyle can't even get it right regardless of how badly it fits with everything around it), and it not only doesn't add anything to the movie, it knocks it so far down that the movie can't get back up.

Boyle also makes the mistake of not resolving his stupid bullshit before he tries to go for some poetic visuals and moments with Capa. So we can't get lost in the moment because we expect Pinbacker to magically pop out at any moment (his ability to be certain places has proven he has magical powers in addition to his superhuman strength, not sure where that came from). This is such an awful miscalculation on the part of a filmmaker that it wrecks what he had left of a movie and it never recovers. From the previous Boyle's I'd seen (Trainspotting, The Beach, and Slumdog Millionaire) it was obvious that any success his movies had came from the acting and was in spite of Boyle. But not even Slumdog was so ruined by Boyle's true hack-dom as a filmmaker.