Lunchtable TV Talk: Motive

Standard

TV is a lot richer in summer these days than it used to be – we got a few seasons of some exciting new stuff, whole seasons of Orange is the New Black and BoJack Horseman on Netflix and quite a lot of “off-season” (if you can really even call it that any more) filler to carry us through until fall. In fact, you could almost argue that spring and summer bring some of the best stuff now. There are no boundaries to prime release time for TV shows (and, as I have argued, can you even call them “tv shows” any more, seeing as how they may fit the format but aren’t broadcast on any network and can be inhaled one full season at a time?

Because of that, addicts like me are spoiled – and never have to go through the withdrawals that generally accompanied the dry season of summer. Still, though, nothing is so abundant that I don’t end up seeking out filler beyond the filler I was already watching.

That’s how I ended up watching Motive. My mom told me about it, and apparently had been telling me about it for some time since I still claimed never to have heard of it when it was heading into its fourth season. Maybe because it’s Canadian and didn’t last in its big US network broadcast slot (and was eventually moved to USA), it was not a big title. Nevertheless, just before the fourth season kicked off, I watched all three of the preceding seasons. Why? Reason one: nothing much else to watch that weekend while I was busy with other things; reason two: Louis Ferreira. Who is he, you ask? Well, the only reasons I know and like him: he was Colonel Young in Stargate Universe (the only one in that franchise I cared for, largely because of Robert Carlyle) and was in Breaking Bad. There are worse reasons for watching a show. Reason three: I liked the idea of already knowing the crime and finding out the motive.

Oddly, for a Canadian police mostly-procedural, I have been pretty entertained. I raced through and didn’t pay rapt attention, so I can’t cite plot points or anything particularly notable. But I saw a lot of standard Canadian-actor extras and Battlestar Galactica alums, which is also fun. I didn’t remember at first that the lead, Kristin Lehman, had been a key supporting player in The Killing, which was also good – I like her a lot better in Motive as detective Angie Flynn. In fact, I came to like her a lot, and it’s the easy chemistry between Lehman’s and Ferreira’s characters that make the show as watchable as it has been. That is, chemistry based on deep friendship and respect between colleagues, not sexual tension or something similar. You don’t see that much on TV. In very subtle ways, stuff about Motive is different, and is why I keep watching.

Photo (c) 2014 Michalis Famelis.

Weekend movie viewing: Miele and Drei

Standard

While I did indulge in my normal TV viewing during the weekend (Danish show Dicte, all of season two of BoJack Horseman and this week’s episodes of Hell on Wheels and Rectify – how is Rectify only six episodes this season?!), I also watched a few films.

I have always loved films, particularly non-English-language films – the more obscure or difficult the better. I like getting lost in them, examining them, comparing what the characters say to what the subtitles say (when I can). That said, I don’t watch films very often now because I have too many other things to do. TV can be consumed in bite-sized morsels and is usually in English so I do not have to pay attention to subtitles (and even if it is not in English, it is episodic, so it can be turned on and off). Films demand more – more attention, more care, more time (not in the long run but upfront they do). I want to indulge but long gone are the days of watching five films per day, as I did once during a period of unemployment – it was cinema visits constantly coupled with the long-ago “innovation” of unlimited DVDs on Netflix. Yes, DVDs! This was way before streaming.

This weekend I watched Miele, an Italian film about a woman who seems dispassionately compassionate. She helps the terminally ill to die, providing veterinary drugs to help the dying take their own lives on their own terms. Her “moral code” is shaken, though, when she meets an older man who wants to die but claims he is not sick. It is through her connection to him that she seems to renew her connection to being human and feeling emotional. She seemed, through her work, to become more clinical and further and further removed from her feelings. She had things set up to keep people at bay. A married family-man boyfriend, work that requires certain boundaries for legal reasons, etc. It was a subtle film, and without being an outright debate about the morality of assisted suicide, it handled the topic with sensitivity. It presented some arguments and thinking about the subject without beating anyone over the head with it. And ended in similarly ambiguous fashion.

Then I watched a German film, Drei. It is a Tom Tykwer film, so it was very unusual in his unique way. But in many ways difficult to watch. For one, many scenes were like a collage of many different, overlapping activities that meant to convey the passage of time and activity. Like cheesy montage scenes without being cheesy. Secondly, the female lead in the film, Austrian actress Sophie Rois, is… well, not a good actress. I am sure other people may disagree, but she got so many downright weird looks on her face, none of which seemed to fit to the situation or reaction she was having – and that is when she was not just overacting. Oddly, in scenes near the end when her character had moved temporarily to London, her strong accent when speaking English coupled with this over-the-top, loud, obnoxious way of being, made it seem as though she had been plucked from the street and asked to act. She was that bad. Not just amateur or new – just bad.

The story, though, was interesting. As the two main characters reach the 20-year point in their relationship and find themselves questioning, dissatisfied and bored, but are not really talking to each other about it, they each start having an affair. The side effect, though, is that the affair reignites their passion and feeling for one another as well. Until the woman, after many years of not succeeding, becomes pregnant. At this point both she and her husband learn that they are each, separately, having an affair with the same man.

While there are many other things going on in the plot, many of which motivate these characters’ actions, it interests me that the couple realizes in the end that they want to be together but also want to be together, not separately, with the man with whom they both had an affair. I enjoy how the outcome challenges head-on what would happen in most films. (While it seems unlikely that a married couple in a big city like Berlin would somehow separately meet the same guy in very different ways and have an affair with him, I can suspend my disbelief for the sake of asking the bigger questions about relationships, fidelity, “sharing” and what really constitutes a relationship or happiness.)

The film embodies many opposites from the very standard way in which most TV and films deal with infidelity. A case in point: I watched the Danish TV show, Dicte, in which one of Dicte’s best friends has been struggling to have a baby and has had years of infertility treatments and finally gets pregnant. I think most people can guess, if they have not been through this ordeal, that the struggles to have a baby can take a real toll on a relationship. Naturally, you discover in the story that Dicte’s friend, Ida-Marie, has been so focused on her pregnancy and everything leading up to it that her husband has already gone off to have an affair. Dicte discovers the evidence when she goes to Ida-Marie’s house to pick up some clothes after Ida-Marie gives birth (and the husband is absent, missing the entire birth. He claims he was away on business in Germany. When the child is kidnapped from the hospital, of course the police get involved and discover that he was in Copenhagen with his mistress the entire time). By this stage, because it is TV, the marriage is basically over, even though Ida-Marie gives it another chance. Essentially all these people’s marriages end over infidelity. But on TV and most films it feels lazy not to at least try to work through the issues to get to their root, even if the couples involved cannot solve them (they sure as hell will not react as the characters in Drei, who decided to all be together).

Lunchtable TV Talk – House of Cards and Veep – Politics

Standard

I can’t add much to the feverish discussion surrounding the latest, much-anticipated release of House of Cards episodes on Netflix. Similarly, I won’t be eloquent about HBO comedy Veep. Both have been around for a few seasons – and in both cases, the new seasons began with the stakes higher than ever for the main characters, Frank Underwood and Selina Meyer, respectively, because both had since last season, ascended to the presidency of the United States.

House of Cards is a drama predicated on a lot of underhanded and often illegal machinations and dealmaking. Veep is a comedy predicated on the idea that vice presidents are little more than puppets who appear for photo-ops and toe the party line. Each show has its strengths – particularly their stellar and varied casts (as I have written before – I will watch things just because I like the actors in it). These shows are no exception.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright head a cast that includes quite a few great performers. I happen to love Molly Parker, and her Jackie Sharp seems genuinely conflicted at times about balancing the need for honesty and humanity against the requirement to lie and scheme to achieve upper-echelon power. Michael Kelly’s continued portrayal of Doug Stamper as a shady operator, willing to do whatever it takes, has been riveting. I also enjoyed seeing Lars Mikkelsen (brother of Mads Mikkelsen of Hannibal fame) playing the Russian president to idiomatic perfection – “it’s a lot of work being a Dane trying to do a Russian accent” (naturally adding a tick in the checklist of even more Scandinavian men appearing on TV). There is a lot of drama, a lot of intrigue, and there are many unlikable people and actions here.

In that sense, I didn’t always enjoy the latest season. Wright’s performance as the First Lady is as commendable as her spot-on work throughout the series – she commits to and embodies Claire Underwood completely. But the story about her husband naming her as US Ambassador to the UN felt a bit half-baked to me. Even if such a move is possible, it seems so unrealistic and highly risky given the stakes pitted against her inexperience. Her demand that the president yield to her, reasoning that it is “her time”, might be authentic, if petulant and crybaby in tone, but the outcome feels forced. Nothing good comes of it.

Meanwhile the troubling trajectory Doug Stamper is on feels quite genuine, even if unrealistic, and Kelly embraces it with aplomb. He doesn’t just lie down and die when the president distances himself. When he is no longer in the inner circle, he finds ways to ensure he will get back there. Not pleasant ways, but sometimes chilling and always manipulative schemes to get him the information, leverage and power he needs to return to the president’s side.

Veep is of course, for the most part, a horse of another color. Despite superficial similarities, the shows – their casts, their tones, their drive, their stories, their purposes – could not be more different. In previous seasons, all the characters bring something special, comedic (sometimes embarrassingly comedic) to the table and present a farcical take on (vice) presidential politics. Headed up by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who is really in her element here, as vice president (now president) Selina Meyer, the cast is made up of characters both overly driven and egotistical who compete with each other to try to win favor with the VP, as is the case with Anna Chlumsky and Reid Scott. Both are smart and want to be at the forefront of Meyer’s campaigns and staff – and often ended up, for lack of a better term, “eating shit” on Meyer’s behalf. Tons of other great characters played by great actors – nothing more notable that I can add. (I am so happy to see Patton Oswalt on the show as the new VP’s chief of staff. Oswalt’s showing up everywhere these days, and I love it: Justified, a hilarious episode of the beleaguered Battle Creek, voiceover in The Goldbergs, voice work in BoJack Horseman, a role in Brooklyn Nine-Nine… and he is still something to miss about United States of Tara!). It’s a funny show, and keeps getting funnier – while House of Cards feels like it’s sliding.

All of that said and done, if you want the best political drama ever to be on TV, it’s Danish and includes the aforementioned Lars Mikkelsen: Borgen.

Lunchtable TV talk – BoJack Horseman: “Son of a bitch – that literal son of a bitch”

Standard

I have never been one much for animation. Somehow I can’t get past the actual animation. As a person who is not that visual in the first place, I sort of need the realism of actual people to draw me into something I watch (even if I often watch only halfheartedly). I have always been this way, preferring live-action Muppets to cartoons. Animation just does not hold my interest for some reason, even if the story and the content are fantastic. Which means that I don’t get as much out of something great, like the film Persepolis, as I should.

I read many good things – or even not good things, but things that made me curious – about BoJack Horseman – yet another of Netflix’s triumphs – so I decided to give it a try. What struck me as I watched episode after episode is the sense that animation can actually poke fun at and draw out real satire from things, people, situations, trends in ways that “real” shows cannot as easily do.

That said, it always takes me a while to readjust my view to watch animals become anthropomorphized, interacting with and dating humans. Lifting the anchor to reality, the whole thing becomes a lot more palatable: it’s fine that a horse, BoJack Horseman, who starred in a sitcom is now a has-been trying to reignite recognition by publishing an autobiography he can’t get around to writing. It’s fine that his great rival is a dog, Mr Peanut Butter, who starred in a suspiciously similar sitcom. And because a dog is always aiming to please, this rivalry is more grounded in Horseman’s envy and depression. The dog is always exceedingly good-natured, a little bit vacant but very sweet and sincere and always attempting to be friends with Horseman. There’s almost no real rivalry until Horseman starts to have feelings for his ghost writer and Mr Peanut Butter’s girlfriend, Diane, a human.

Son of a bitch – that literal son of a bitch.” -BoJack on rival Mr Peanut Butter

The mix of human and animal characters becomes, if not invisible, just an extra level of comedy. And can you fault anyone for creating a seal who is a Navy SEAL? No new stories in “Hollywoo”.

Slate offered a solid description of the show’s premise. It argues that the show is more clever than funny, delving into the comedic yet sad territory of has-been celebrity and the pervasive idea of “revival” in the form of tell-all autobios and reality shows.

Vulture’s analysis goes a step further and echoes about what I feel after watching the show: it is “one of the most aggressive portraits of depression I think I’ve ever seen. Look past the anthropomorphic animal characters and the satire of toxic celebrity culture: This show is radically sad. I love it.”