Friday, January 31, 2014

My Favorite New TV Show of 2013

I know what I'm supposed to say my favorite new show of 2013 was. The critical community has spoken. I'm supposed to say "Orange Is the New Black" or "Masters of Sex." And yes, those are two excellent shows that everybody should watch. (Side question: how did two of the best new shows of the year -- both named after the books that inspired them -- end up with such terrible titles?) But at the end of the year, it wasn't "Orange" but an earlier Netflix series that impressed me the most.

My favorite new show of 2013 was...

House of Cards

"House of Cards" follows fictional South Carolina congressman Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey with all his Oscar-winning charm, menace and vulnerability. The series opens on the inauguration of a new president, a president Frank helped get elected and who's due to reward Frank with an appointment to secretary of state. When the president reneges on this promise, Frank begins plotting an alternative ascent to power.

Not to be outdone, Frank's wife Claire plays the role of mild-mannered non-profit head in the daylight, but in the shadows is every bit the political schemer Frank is. Their marriage is more of mutual respect than outright love, with the understanding that they're more powerful as a couple than they are independently. Claire is played by Robin Wright in what I consider to be a career-best role.

If the series seems not especially true to the reality of Washington, D.C., that's because it's not - a fact confirmed by a friend of mine in government. (Oh yeah, Frank Underwood isn't the only one with connections.) But the show is successful in establishing and maintaining its own reality, and the fantasy is part of the appeal.

For me, the standout character of "House of Cards" is up-and-coming young journalist Zoe Barnes. Carefully written and strongly portrayed (by Kate Mara), Zoe is a character of seeming contradictions that could have easily fallen apart in lesser hands. At times, she's the brash young go-getter, gaming the system and confidently climbing the ranks. At other times, she's naive, in over her head and prone to mistakes. More often than not, characters like this are the result of lazy, sloppy writing. Zoe, instead, is a sign of just how skillful the writing on this series is.

A great cast across the board, intriguing characters, and twisting plots that unravel captivatingly make this my favorite show of 2013. Looking forward to more.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Favorite Movie of 2013

It's been 17 years since "The Year of the Indie," when the independent film movement of the '90s reached its peak and movies like Shine, Secrets & Lies, Sling Blade, The English Patient and Trainspotting took big money and big awards.

Possibly the most highly-regarded of the indie hits of that year was the Coen brothers' Fargo. The Coens had had a small but strong following since their 1984 debut, Blood Simple. But it was Fargo - the perfect movie at the perfect moment - that raised their profile for a mass audience. Ever since then, just about every Coen movie has been met with reflex praise by critics, film students, and people who are just trying to look smart when awards season rolls around.

Well, I apologize if it seems too obvious, but my favorite movie of 2013 is...

Inside Llewyn Davis

From the very first frame, with Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography immediately evoking (without ripping off) the iconic imagery of the '60s folk music scene, this movie had me. All the more so as that first song kicked in, produced by frequent Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett. (Inside Llewyn Davis is, on one level, a spiritual sequel to the Coen/Burnett movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, which was set a couple decades prior.)

Admittedly, the 1960s Greenwich Village setting and American folk revival soundtrack gave this movie a huge head start with me. I dug into the Dylan catalogue in my teens, and haven't strayed too far from folk since. But the movie has far more to offer than simply a recreation of a time and place.

The Coens are once again operating at the top of their game. They are, at this point, technical, formal and artistic masters. Every turn of the story, every move of every character, the Coens make with confidence and self-assurance. They make it look easy.

As a character, Llewyn Davis can be difficult to relate to. His grief is legitimate, but his inability to process it only alienates him further. He's not looking for a free ride, but he expects favors. He has bad timing, but also a stubborn refusal to see beyond his own expectations. Oscar Isaac, a relative unknown, strikes a perfect balance between being the cause of his own misery and being a victim of circumstance. He delivers a nuanced performance disguised as morose and monotone. And he can sing too!

Inside Llewyn Davis is smart and insightful, visually and aurally beautiful - another grand achievement by Joel and Ethan Coen. How have these two been this good for this long?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Daddy's Handwriting - script and production notes

Here's a look at the script for the animated short I wrote called "Daddy's Handwriting":

Click here for script

And here's the finished video, in case you missed it.

As with any movie, you'll find that what works on the page isn't always what's best for the screen. I'd set the scene in a kitchen, probably imagining a plate of cookies and some milk (not mentioned in the script) left out for Santa Claus. Director Cam Leeburg wisely set the scene in the more visually interesting living room, with a nice fire going. This also meant animator Jason Oshman only had to design one location instead of two. That might sound minor, but it's a big time- and budget-saver.

Scripted details such as Santa's bag of toys and the wife's final reaction to the transformation were also left out. When you watch the finished video, it's easy to see why: they just weren't necessary after the way everything previous played out.

The final line of dialogue was also modified by Zeb Wells, who provided the voice. The way it's written, the father treats the horrific transformation as if it's no big deal. In the moment of recording, the actor found a different interpretation - a bit of annoyed hostility - which worked perfectly, and everyone agreed was the way to go.