domingo, 30 de septiembre de 2012

In Bruges: Fairytale or Hell?

(Although I tried to refrain from spoilers, this review might include some light ones)

This is the question that lies at the core of In Bruges. The film follows a duo of hitmen: veteran Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and rookie Ray (Colin Farrell). After Ray's first assignment goes awry (he kills a young child), his boss, Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes), sends them to Bruges, allegedly to lay low. So, even though Ray calls the place "a shithole", they try to enjoy the pleasantries of Bruges, be it the tourist settings, museums, the women, drugs, etc. However, the next day, Ken receives a call from Harry in which he instructs him to get rid of Ray. This leads him to question his loyalty to his boss, or his friendship to Ray.

Overall, the film was entertaining enough, even though the first half had an awkward, sorta bumbling pace. The random dialogues between Ken and Ray felt at times like the writer was pushing too hard for a Pulp Fiction-like vibe. Also, the performance of Farrell didn't help. I've seen him doing much better work (Tigerland, Minority Report, Phone Booth) but his performance here wasn't that great. Particularly in an important scene where he breaks down crying due to the guilt of what he did. Gleeson, on the other hand, was solid as usual. And the addition of Fiennes in the last act didn't hurt the film either. Speaking of that, the film does kick it up a notch during its second half, the pace felt more settled, and everything felt more assured than it did at first.

The film walks a thin line between drama and black comedy. But despite its seemingly off-the-wall nature at times, it does raises some thought-provoking questions. Most of them have to do with the nature of Bruges, and how do the characters perceive it. From the minute they arrive, Ken loves the place and enjoys riding the canals, visiting museums, or sitting in parks. His boss, Harry, later tells Ken that he sent them to Bruges because he remembered the place from his childhood, and how it was like a fairytale. He wanted Ray's last days to be at a beautiful place. However, Ray considers the place "a shithole", and is unable to see the beauties that his partner sees. The guilt of his crime makes him feel like he's been taken to Purgatory or Hell, and he suffers like so. His rationalization is strengthened by the characters he meet in the way: a dwarf, a drug dealer, a thief, a gun dealer... a couple of Canadians.

In the end, I think it's up to us to answer the question. Is this place the fairytale setting that Ken says it is, or that his boss remembers? or is it the hell, or the Purgatory Ray is sent to as punishment for his crime? Judging from the events of the final act, it's all up to the perception of each character. Be it Ken, Ray, or Harry; and each of them ends up seeing the place in different lights. As for the film itself, it was good, but it could've been better. Grade: B

The Cabin in the Woods: WTF?

 (This review includes spoilers for the film, so if you want to walk in fresh, don't read it)

If my whole review of this film consisted of just "WTF?", that would be more than appropriate for this film. Also, an "LOL" could work. Seriously, this film was, for better or worse, unlike anything I've seen before. 

The cabin in the woods... look familiar?
The film breaks its narrative between two groups of people. The first group? five college students about to take a vacation on a remote cabin. The group is comprised by "athlete" Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and his girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), her best friend, good-girl Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Curt's best friend, mature Holden (Jesse Williams). The group is rounded up by pothead Marty (Fran Kranz), who provides the cynical comments and comic relief. After one last stop at a creepy gas station where a creepy attendant warns them of the road ahead, the group arrives at the cabin where they begin drinking, dancing, and having fun. In the process, they discover a cellar full of strange artifacts, including a diary. When Dana reads some Latin scripture from it, they awaken the Buckners, a family of zombies that terrorizes them.

If at this point, you're thinking "Hey, this is just like every other shitty horror film!", then let's talk about the second group of people. Beneath the cabin, there's a modern, underground laboratory, where a team of scientists led by Hadley (Bradley Whitford) and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) monitor the first group, and control the environment that they dwell on. The scientists use everything from switches and knobs to turn lights on or off, or open and close doors; to drugs that alter the group's behavior, making them less aware, and even raising their libido. They even make bets around the office trying to guess what "monster" the group will awaken (Maintenance won the bet). So, while the kids are being chased and slaughtered by a family of zombies, we see this group of scientists cavorting in their offices, with the usual banalities of office life.

Richard Jenkins plays one of the scientists.
And this is just the beginning. As each kid dies, the scientists pull a lever, which triggers some sort of sacrificial device below them. We discover later that all the show is indeed a sacrifice ritual to appease the "Ancient Ones" that are slumbering beneath them. So, when the two surviving members of the group stumble upon the underground laboratory, security teams are sent to eliminate them. And this is where things get... interesting. As they explore this laboratory, they encounter all sort of monsters and creatures caged, awaiting their release through whatever the designated victims activate (i.e. diary of Patience Buckner = Buckner zombie family). As they find themselves surrounded by security, our survivors use a control room to open all the gates, releasing all the horrific creatures, that end up slaughtering everyone in the facility.

But this is not all, while trying to escape, our survivors enter the underground temple where they are met with the Director (played by none other than Sigourney Weaver), who explains them their purpose, and incites them to finish the ritual in order to save the world.

I have to give points to the writers (Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard) for originality. Their approach to the clichés of horror films was unique and, well, funny. As we see scenes of the kids in the cabin intercalated with the trivial environment on this office/laboratory, I couldn't help but go "WTF?". Their premise serves as a critique of the genre, as the scientists take the place of the director and writer of any horror film, while also serving as some sort of homage to some classic horror films (Evil Dead, Hellraiser, It, The Shining, etc.). Now, it is on the final act that the writers/director go balls out, and throw everything through the window, including the kitchen sink. The scene where all the creatures are released is such a randomly messy and bizarre scene that you have to admire their boldness for going for it. Did it work? well, I can say I was constantly chuckling and shaking my head. As for the ending, well, it doesn't let go either. From the "WTF" of seeing Weaver as the Director, to the exact final scene, the writers/director continue to throw everything they can at us, and I couldn't help but laugh.

I wouldn't know how to rate this, or even if I should recommend it. I don't know if I liked its underlying commentary, or if I just laughed at the silliness of it all. If you are a horror film buff, then chances are you'll be more appreciative than the regular viewer. Other more casual viewers will probably be left going "WTF?". I, for one, couldn't stop chuckling as I went "WTF?".

(All pictures belong to Lionsgate and its affiliates)

sábado, 29 de septiembre de 2012

Last Resort: How far can they take it?

 Last Resort, Shawn Ryan's new show, premiered two nights ago. It follows the crew of a fictional submarine, the U.S.S. Colorado, led by Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) and X.O. Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman). When they question a direct order to shoot nuclear missiles at Pakistan, they are attacked by the United States itself. After seeking refugee on the island of Sainte Marine, Chaplin threatens to use their nukes if they are attacked again.

Those of you unfamiliar with Ryan, he is the creator of The Shield, which I consider to be my favorite show. I had seen the ads for the show, but when I found out Ryan was behind it, my interest shot up. The pilot episode (titled "Captain") didn't disappoint, but it does raise some questions, cause I really don't see how this plot could be stretched beyond a single season, or even a couple of episodes. But in the meantime, we'll see how it works. I did think the first half was better than the second. It lost some steam in its last 20 minutes or so.

Braugher was pretty good as the captain, while Speedman held his own against the experience of the former. Robert Patrick was his usual, tough, s.o.b. playing Chief of the Boat Joseph Prosser. Other notable characters were James King, a rescued Navy SEAL, who seems to be the bad-ass, don't-f*ck-with-me guy from the bunch; Grace Shepard, the female boat's navigator looking for respect; and Bruce Davison, as one of the Admirals back in Washington, who happens to be the father of Grace. Also, Omid Abtahi seems to be on every show, isn't he? He was on 24, NCIS, FlashForward, The Event, Fringe, Grey's Anatomy, Homeland, and now this. There's also a local despot, played by Sahr Ngaujah, which will probably bring additional conflict to the crew. Most of the performances ranged from good to ok.

All in all, the pilot was good, but I can see ways for this to sink quickly. Mostly because, like I said, I don't see how much they can stretch the plot without sacrificing plausibility. But I'll be watching. Also, kudos to Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, the Zorro films) for his neat direction. Grade: B+

(All pictures belong to ABC and its affiliates)

viernes, 28 de septiembre de 2012

Face Off: The Show, not the Film

(This article includes spoilers about the whole season, so far)

For those that didn't know, Face Off is a reality game show for prosthetic makeup artists. They have to face different challenges related to their field, creating prosthetic and makeups from different inspirations, while being judged by a panel of concept and creature designers. The show is broadcast by Syfy and its third season just reached its midpoint this week.

So, after watching Episode 6 (of a total of 12), here is my take on what has happened so far:

Week One
Working on teams of two, the artists had to create an alien character that would fit on the Mos Eisley Cantina scene from the original Star Wars. A geek's dream. I basically agreed with the judges decision: Joe and Tommy's alien/bodyguard was a mess and the worst of the bunch. Plus, judging from what we see, Joe did behave like a douche. Him leaving the way he did only proved it. On the other hand, Roy and Rod's exoskeleton, and Laura and Sarah's Dagobah bounty hunter were clearly the best creations. The guys surely had the most ambitious creation and they excelled in it, but damn, I really liked the girl's bounty hunter. Really cool concept and execution. (see Roy and Rod's creation here)

Week Two
The artists had to create a pirate character inspired by a specific article found on a treasure chest. I thought that this episode was mostly a mess. IMO, most of the contestants had problems conceptualizing the inspiration. To be fair, some of them were tough. I mean, how do you translate "ship in a bottle" to a character? That said, Roy and Sarah were clearly the superior creations. Roy "dagger" pirate was slick, cool and bad-ass, while Sarah's "sea urchin" pirate was creepy and ghastly. As for the eliminated contestant, even though C.C.'s "barnacle" inspired pirate was weak, I thought Jason deserved the boot. Not only was the concept bad, but the execution was poor.

Week Three
Working on teams of two, the artists had to create a Chinese New Year dragon makeup that could hold its own after an acrobatic dance routine. The inspiration for each dragon was the zodiac symbols of the contestants. I thought that most of the makeups here were solid. I agree that Derek and Tommy's monkey/ox creature was the most elegant and colorful, but I disagree with the judges as far as the "bottom" looks go. I thought that Eric and Sarah's monkey/boar creature was solid, and I also liked the colors from Jason and Roy's rabbit/snake creature. If anything, the one I thought was the weakest was Alana and Laura's goat/rat. IMO, it didn't fit with the colorful inspiration of the Chinese New Year.

Week Four
Each artist had to create an original take on a character from Alice in Wonderland, that was just infected by the Resident Evil zombie virus. I think this is one of the episodes where I've disagreed the most with the judges. IMO, the worst creatures were Sarah's Cheshire Cat and Tommy's Rabbit. Both were a mess. Horrible costumes, poor makeup. They were plain bad. Nicole was eliminated for her take on Alice, which wasn't that great, but I really didn't see it being as bad as those other two. I thought both Hatters were cool, and I would've given Laura the win. But the judges chose Roy, for his Queen of Hearts which, to be honest, I didn't like. It never looked real to me. It looked just like a costume would look.

Week Five
Working on teams of two, the artists had to create an original superhero and a sidekick, inspired by a specific vehicle. Here is another one where I didn't necessarily agree with the judges. Although Jason and Rod's effort was weak, I thought that Sarah's lack of effort was deserving of the boot. She practically did nothing to her character, except from a fake-looking scar, some bad coloring, and a weird eye patch. That said, Jason's character was pretty bad too, but at least he did something. On the other hand, I did like Laura and Tommy's approach, and I could see their concept, even though the judges couldn't. As for Alana and Roy's, sure, they looked like comic-book characters, but I hated the fake-looking flames on the superhero. Overall, I think most of the makeups were weak, but I think that Laura's superhero alone was way above the rest.

Week Six
Each artist had to create an original character with exaggerated proportions, inspired by the video game Dishonored. This last week, I had no major complaints. I thought the two top looks were good, even though I really liked Laura's "weeper". And I agreed with the elimination of Tommy. I think he had something going when he began, but the problems he faced with the gloves, the hair he chose, and some other things, ended up sinking him. As for Derek, even though his "thug" looked a lot like his character from the previous week, I think he embraced the complete look of the video game with the clothes, the proportions, and whatnot. But I still think Laura's character was the best.

So, overall, the show has been pretty good, even if I don't always agree with the judges. I started watching this last season, and I think it's a unique show about a unique profession.

(All pictures belong to Syfy and its affiliates)

jueves, 27 de septiembre de 2012

Top Chef Masters Finale: Flavor vs. Boldness

Last night, Chris Cosentino ended up winning the 2012 edition of Top Chef Masters, defeating Kerry Heffernan. After 10 weeks and 12 chefs, Chris edged Kerry with his bold approach to the finale challenge. The chefs had to prepare a four-course meal inspired by four letters: a love letter, an apology, a thank-you letter, and a letter to themselves.

Even though Kerry seemed to have developed more flavor, the judges admired Chris' boldness. The chef known as the "gut man" ended up serving heart tartare and blood sausage, among other things, while Kerry took a more "finessed" approach. In the end, Chris was awarded the prize of $100,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson Research and the title of Top Chef Master.

I must admit I was surprised by Kerry's performance during the last weeks. He came as a true dark horse after several weak efforts during the first weeks, and ended up winning two of the last three Quickfires, and one of the last two Elimination Challenges. Chris, on the other hand, came hot out of the gate, winning the first Quickfire AND Elimination Challenges, and being in the top for the first four weeks. Chris was also the chef that won more challenges, winning three.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sure the finale would be Chris vs. Takashi. I'm still surprised that the Japanese was eliminated. He did a great job. On the other hand, what was up with Patricia's attitude? If that's how she is, and it wasn't a product of editing and script, then I'm glad she was ousted by Lorena. All in all, it was a solid season and I was glad with Chris winning.

(All pictures belong to Bravo)

Extreme Prejudice: NCIS Season 10 premiere

(This review includes spoilers for the episode.)

NCIS debuted its 10th season a couple of days ago with an episode titled "Extreme Prejudice". This premiere follows closely last season's cliffhanger, which left most of our characters in some kind of dangerous situation. To sum it up, Harper Dearing (Richard Schiff), an investment banker that held a grudge against the Navy for the death of his sailor son, had planted a bomb inside the Navy Yard. When the bomb exploded, Tony and Ziva ended up stuck inside the building's elevator, while McGee was injured by shards of glass while running out of the bullpen. Gibbs had run on time to Abby's laboratory to shield her from the blast. Meanwhile, in Florida, Ducky had been the only member of the team able to attend Palmer's wedding and, upon hearing the news of the explosion, suffered a heart attack on the beach shore.

So, season 10 begins with the hunt for Dearing, as the President orders the authorities to proceed "with extreme prejudice", which literally means "kill the guy". And so begins a game of cat and mouse between Dearing and the agents of NCIS and FBI. When Dearing apparently kills himself with a bomb, Gibbs doesn't buy it. After a brief visit by the recovering Ducky, and interrogating Dearing's sister-in-law, Gibbs decides to face Dearing alone. During a brief and tense face-off, Gibbs ends up stabbing Dearing when he goes up for a gun. The episode closes with Gibbs watching his "family" walking around the Navy Yard.

The episode had some great moments and some not-so-great. First, NCIS has a tendency to give simple resolutions to its own complicated cliffhangers. This was most notably seen after the season 7 finale, which had Gibbs facing his past demons, only to give a fast resolution to it on the season 8 premiere. This episode is no different. After the cliffhanger, we find out that - obviously - all of our characters are doing well. McGee only needed some stitches, DiNozzo and Ziva had some alone-time while trapped in the elevator, and Ducky was recovering from his heart attack.

Despite this simplicity, the episode, overall, was pretty good. I thought that seeing Palmer taking care of Ducky was a pretty good and touching moment. And the chase of Dearing was done well. However, I didn't like how they handled Tony and Ziva's moment in the elevator. I thought that their flirting at the end (him brushing her hair) felt forced and unlike them.

The end was, like I said, a bit simple for its buildup, with a quick face-off between Gibbs and Dearing. However, there was still a coldness to the moment that I thought was pretty neat, and felt like could carry some emotional baggage in the future. In a way, I would've preferred if Dearing didn't went for the gun, which would've made the kill more cold for Gibbs; and considering the President's order and Vance's green-light, I  thought they would do it that way. But still, the moment worked, and I liked how they drew a parallelism between both characters.

All in all, a pretty good premiere despite the mentioned flaws. Looking forward to season 10. Grade: B+

(All pictures belong to CBS and its affiliates)

miércoles, 26 de septiembre de 2012

The 10 Rules of NCIS

(I planned on publishing this entry yesterday, before season 10 premiere, but couldn't)

NCIS debuted in 2003. It enters its 10th season tonight. It's ratings have steadily increased through its 9 years, and it's currently ranked among the top scripted shows on cable. But still, the show is rarely mentioned among "great shows", and is usually dismissed as "another procedural". Despite all that pedigree and its popularity among viewers, the show lacks the respect of other current shows.

The show follows a team within the real-life NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) dedicated to investigate major crimes against the Navy and Marines. The team is led by veteran Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon), and is comprised by a team of three Special Agents: Anthony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly), Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), and Timothy McGee (Sean Murray). The team is completed by Forensic Specialist, Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette), Medical Examiner Donald "Ducky" Mallard (David McCallum), and his assistant, Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen). Their job is overseen by NCIS Director, Leon Vance (Rocky Carroll).

So, what's the hook? I started watching the show by chance about 3 or 4 years ago. Flipping channels, nothing else to see. After one of those three-hour marathons, I was hooked. Ever since, I've been a loyal fan of the show, and have watched and rewatched every episode. So, to shed a little light in the aforementioned dilemma, here are the 10 rules that the writers of NCIS probably follow.

Rule #1: Keep the settings simple
NCIS takes place in what can be seen as a generic government building. The main bullpen is a sterile, tan-ish colored office room with little flash. The other settings inside the building (the autopsy room, the Director's office) are as generic and sterile as the bullpen. The notable exceptions could be MTAC (with its big screen) and Abby's laboratory. But the former's only standout feature is the huge screen, and the latter is more a result of Abby's colorful character.

The only other recurring setting featured prominently is Gibbs' house, which follows the same rule. In truth, Gibbs' house is as empty that it borders on "vacant" and "abandoned". There's not much else to see elsewhere. McGee's apartment was seen a couple of times in the first seasons, and so was Ziva's in the last seasons. To this day, DiNozzo's apartment has never been featured (I don't know if Jeanne ever visited him there, but it seemed they were always at her apartment).

This "rule" doesn't necessarily mean anything, but it does establish a precedent on the show of "no distractions". The setting is just that: a setting, and it shouldn't overshadow the characters that inhabit it. There are no flashy police stations, no luxurious houses, no shiny places. Just a normal building with normal offices. And after 9 years, the producers, writers, or directors have felt no need to "revamp" it or anything, which is fairly uncommon for shows nowadays, who feel the need to "revamp" their settings just to keep things "interesting". After the season 9 finale, we'll see how they deal with that.

Rule #2: Hire a dedicated cast
There are no huge stars in NCIS. Mark Harmon had a relatively decent career in the 80s/90s and David McCallum had his success in the 60s/70s, but that's about it. What it does have is a cast that's dedicated almost entirely to the show. Surprisingly enough, most of the cast's careers revolve around the show. Sean Murray hasn't done anything else in the last 9 years. Michael Weatherly has guest starred in 2-3 shows and 1 film in the last 9 years. Cote de Pablo has starred in only one film after joining the cast. And Pauley Perrette has guest starred in a handful of shows, but not much. Even Harmon has only appeared in a few films since the show began.

I don't know if their contracts limit their careers, but this is another instance of the same precedent as the above rule: "No distractions". The cast remains focused and dedicated to the show. There seem to be no external distractions with stars threatening to leave shows, or with disgruntled actors, and whatnot. And I suppose this keeps their minds and hearts on their characters, which in turn might instill the characters with more life than that of an actor that stars in more shows.

Joe Spano (Tobias Fornell) with Gibbs
Rule #3: Find a solid supporting cast
Aside of the main cast, NCIS keeps a solid, recurring cast of supporting actors. Characters like Tobias Fornell, Mike Franks, Eli David, and Trent Kort, among others, have appeared in lots of episodes through the show. This deepens the connections between them and the main cast, and also helps establish a strong continuity from season to season.

Rule #4: Develop and encourage a strong chemistry between your cast
Other than finding the cast, the writers, directors, and the cast itself do a great job of developing a strong chemistry between the characters. Be it the paternal relationship between Gibbs/DiNozzo, or the brother-like banter of DiNozzo/McGee, or the romantic tension between DiNozzo/Ziva, or the innocent romance of McGee/Abby.

Even if none of the actors are particularly strong (at least when compared to other shows), they embody their characters, which makes you believe the relationships. Most of them don't feel forced, they feel natural. A similar example could be the lead cast of the original Star Wars trilogy, where none of them was particularly great, but they still had an excellent chemistry.

Rule #5: Keep the format simple...
Regardless of other considerations, NCIS is still, at its core, a procedural. Usually, every episode follows a separate case, and each episode follows a similar format: a body is found or a crime is committed, team investigates crime scene, they return to the bullpen where they come up with theories, suspects are interrogated, climax, crime is solved. This simple format makes the show easy to follow for casual viewers, like I was 3 or 4 years ago. I started watching random episodes, and still didn't find myself too lost. Sure, a lot of the character interactions are fleshed later, once you know what's going on, but the format is still a simple one. Again, "no distractions".

Rule #6: ...but without sacrificing the show's continuity
However, despite the show's procedural format, there are usually underlying subplots that are carried from season to season; and crucial seasonal subplots have their seeds planted sometimes since the beginning of the season, or before. For example, the motives of season 9 finale antagonist, Harper Dearing, have its seeds planted on the events of the season 9 premiere where we see other antagonists auctioning something Dearing wants. This events in turn come as a direct consequence of the events of the season 8 finale, which ended with the death of an NCIS agent and the extraction of the article to be auctioned later. And so on.

That dedication of the writers can be seen on almost every subplot. There's a certain care to the story that I haven't seen on other shows where plotpoints feel forced or rushed, or things don't flow as naturally. For example, the story of Gibbs' past (his wife and daughter) remains hidden until season 3, I think, but there are moments in the first seasons where you can see they hinted at it. Also, snippets of Gibbs and Jenny's past missions in Europe are scattered through the show at various points, and so are snippets of Vance's past.

There's a continuity, even with the little things. Like the use of DiNozzo's stapler, or calling McGee "Elf Lord", or Abby's hippo (Bert)... or with how they use pictures that were taken on previous episodes (like Ziva's bikini picture, or DiNozzo's "crazy" face). Also, past events are continuously referenced, like they would be on real life between co-workers that have spent 10 years together. Be it DiNozzo's illness, or McGee's book.All this attention to details help the viewers connect to the stories and help the natural flow of the show and its characters. It makes the characters feel more real.

Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) goofing off.
Rule #7: Don't take the show too seriously
Even despite the seriousness of its subject, one of NCIS most notable traits is its humor. The writers and directors usually take a light approach to the subject, helped by the delivery and performance of the cast. The thing is that the humor usually doesn't feel forced. It just flows as a normal interaction between the characters. Be it Palmer's awkward interruptions, McGee's naivete, or DiNozzo's witty remarks. I think I've laughed more with some of the interactions between the characters than I have with some modern comedies.

However, this comedic aspect doesn't overshadow the necessary seriousness. The show knows when to take things more serious, and handles those shifts in its tone extremely well.

Rule #8: "Never date a coworker"
Just like Gibbs' rule #12 (Never date a coworker), the producers and writers seem to carry a similar rule. Don't let personal relationships overshadow the show and its format. For a show that begins its 10th year today, they've shown a lot of restraint in the way they handle the relationships between their characters. When other shows feel forced to stick unnecessary relationships for a character every season, this show has dangled potential ones for seasons, and when relationships are actually brought, there's a certain subtlety to it that doesn't allow them to take over the show.

Abby (Pauley Perrette) and McGee (Sean Murray)
For example, McGee met Abby in season 1 and, although clearly smitten from the beginning, their relationship was nothing more than a passing comment on-screen. After their "break up", they've maintained an interesting relationship of mutual friendship, and even jealousy, but without it overtaking the show. Through those years, they both have had a few other relationships, but the possibility that they end up together again is still present. The other obvious example would be the relationship between Tony and Ziva, and writers have dangled that one since Ziva joined the team on season 3. Enter season 10 and still, nothing has happened. As a matter of fact, I kinda like that restraint.

Whenever relationships take center stage is because they are, sometimes unknown to us, central plotpoints. For example, the importance of Jeanne Benoit (Tony's girlfriend on season 4) was revealed later in the season when audience finds out she is the daughter of a powerful arms dealer, and that DiNozzo's relationship to her was merely a cover to capture her father. I also loved how they handled Gibbs' relationship with attorney Hart, where there was an ambiguity to it. Even his relationship with Jenny, which carries so much baggage, is underdeveloped. And that underdevelopment leads to his regrets later on.

Rule #9: Keep your characters growing
One of the strongest points of the show is how carefully they develop their characters. Like with all of the above, the writers and the cast take extreme care in not keeping the characters static. And if you've seen the show from the beginning, you'll see that the characters are the same, but they've just grown and changed with time. For example, DiNozzo's more mature than he was in season 1, McGee is more confident than he was in season 2, Ziva is more trustworthy than she was in season 3.

You can see interactions between McGee and Tony in season 1 and season 9, or Ziva and Gibbs in season 3 and season 9, and believe they're the same characters 8 or 9 years after. And you believe that change comes as a result of their experiences together. It was natural for McGee, who became an agent right after graduating, to feel a lack of confidence during the first seasons, which in turn makes him the butt of DiNozzo's jokes. But as the show goes on and he gains experience, he becomes more confident professionally and personally, and even develops a certain wit and healthy cockiness.

After you find out what Ziva has gone through and how she was raised, it was natural for her not to trust anyone. But as she spends more time with the team and starts disconnecting from her previous way of life, you can see how she opens up more to her partners and to Gibbs, whom she sees as an alternate paternal figure. Gibbs, in turn, sees her perhaps as the daughter she couldn't raise, and his relationship with her is notably different from his relationship with Tony, McGee, or even Kate.

Rule #10: Create a strong lead character
Finally, at the center of it all, lies the character of Leroy Jethro Gibbs. A character so carefully constructed by the writers and so neatly played by Mark Harmon, that it holds all the pieces of the show together. Sure, there is a cliché to him, but everything built upon that, is perfect. His story, his work ethic, his mannerisms. Harmon manages to infuse this character with such a rich performance, led mostly by his body language, that I can't see Harmon as anyone else. Like Kiefer Sutherland and Jack Bauer, Harmon has become Gibbs.

Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon)
Gibbs is, as described by DiNozzo and others, a "functional mute". A guy so closed to everyone and withdrawn from everything. Someone who keeps his emotions bottled up and who chooses woodwork to vent his anger and frustrations, or to just relax. Harmon conveys so many things with his eyes, his face, or his body. Whether it's his sharp look when he expects his team to do something, or his exasperated sigh when things don't go the way he wants, or how cockily he handles suspects.

Gibbs is a bad-ass. But like with other things on the show, you believe he is such as a result of all his experience. It doesn't feel, at least for me, as Horatio Crane on CSI: Miami, with silly one-liners, sunglasses, and his coat in the wind. And as the show progresses, you can see he is vulnerable. We see his vulnerability in "Hiatus", where we find out about his past, or every time his wife and daughter are brought up. Heck, every time he interacts with kids, which bring out memories of the past, we see him struggle. Or in "Rule Fity-One", where he has to accept - at least to himself - that he can be wrong.

So, all in all, those are the main things why I love the show. Maybe my love for it blinds me from some of the weaknesses, but I still think it is an excellent show that deserves more respect. I acknowledge that a lot of other shows I'm watching are superior in lots of aspects (i.e.: Breaking Bad), but at the end of the day, NCIS feels like the one I love most.

domingo, 23 de septiembre de 2012

From Despair to Hope: Of Shawshank and Se7en

(Although I tried to refrain from spoilers, this review might include some.)

If somebody asked around what does the films Se7en and The Shawshank Redemption have in common, chances are that most people would say that both star Morgan Freeman. But these two seemingly different films have a lot more in common, other than their lead actor. 

The first and simplest similarity is their release date. Both Shawshank and Se7en were released within a year of each other. The former was released in October 1994, while the latter was released less than a year later (September 1995).

A second similarity might be each film's position within their directors oeuvre. Both films could be considered as their respective director's "first" full-length feature film. Sure, David Fincher was hired to direct Alien3 two years before Se7en, but the production of that film was so troubled that the filmmaker himself refuses to acknowledge it as one of his films, and doesn't even include it in his filmography. Fincher had severe disagreements with the studio, and he abandoned the project during post-production. With Se7en, he was allowed to have more control over the final product, and thus it could be considered HIS "first" film. Frank Darabont, on the other hand, had a successful career as a screenwriter. But his only films before Shawshank were some shorts and a TV-film. The prison drama was his first full-length feature film.

The third similarity, as mentioned above, is the most notable: the cast. Both films star veteran actor Morgan Freeman, paired with a younger actor (Tim Robbins on Shawshank and Brad Pitt on Se7en). In the first film, Freeman plays Red, a longtime convict who befriends Robbins' character: a banker wrongly accused of the murder of his wife and her lover. On the second film, Freeman plays William Somerset, a veteran detective who is days from his retirement. During his last week, he is paired with his replacement, a young detective played by Pitt.

But the similarities doesn't end there. The constitution of these pairings are also fairly similar. In both films, Freeman plays a fairly pessimistic man, defeated by the odds around him. Be it life in prison or accepting the violent city around him. Both characters have given up on their fights for freedom and hope, or against crime, and have surrendered to their inevitable fate. In Shawshank, Red is an institutionalized convict who has accepted his role as the "go to" guy for prison contraband; while on Se7en, he's just cruising towards retirement, longing for a life outside of the city, away from the crime he feels he was unable to fight against.

On the other hand, both of Freeman's companions have a different outlook on life than him. In Shawshank, Andy seems to be unfazed by the circumstances around him. He manages to make prison life different for his friends, while always holding out hope for the future. This tends to rub the hopeless Red the wrong way, despite their good friendship. In Se7en, Mills arrives to this nameless, violent city, expecting to be the "hero" to make a difference. His energetic persona and idealistic view of life also rubs the old and weary Somerset the wrong way, which makes them butt heads at first. 

In both films, Freeman's character expresses what his future will be to his new, younger companion. In Shawshank, he considers himself "institutionalized", and when Andy asks him if he thinks he'll ever get out, he replies: "Sure. When I got a long white beard and about three marbles left rolling around upstairs." In Se7en, he considers his job pointless. And when Mills confronts him, and asks him what he thinks they're doing, he coldly replies:

"Picking up the pieces. We're collecting all the evidence, taking all the pictures and samples. Writing everything down, noting the time things happened... That's all. Putting everything in a neat little pile and filing it away, on the off chance that it will ever be needed in a courtroom. Picking up diamonds on a deserted island, saving them in case we get rescued."

Both Red and Somerset are different representations of defeat, despair, and hopelessness. Red has pushed away his dreams of freedom and seeing the Pacific Ocean (which are more notable in the short story than in the film), and has settled into his comfort zone, waiting for his life to wilt away. Somerset seems to be wandering through his job, awaiting the moment to retire, to walk away from all the evilness around him, and to safely retreat away from it all, where he can watch things from afar, a victim of the own apathy he criticizes.

Finally, both films have spectacular final acts. Starting with the moment where Andy doesn't walk out of his cell, or when John Doe walks into the police station, both films start intense sequences that challenge our characters outlook on life. From despair to hope, or viceversa. In Shawshank, Red's hopelessness and conformity is challenged by Andy's ability to break away from the mold, and forces him to change the direction he had assumed into one of hope. In Se7en, it is Mills' idealism which hits a wall, as his character ends up consumed by the "evil" around him. Those two film sequences are among the best I've seen on any film.

A final similarity, more personal than anything, is that both films have remained as my favorites for more than 15 years. Both films struck me in different ways: Shawshank in an emotional, intimate level, and Se7en in a more visceral one. Both films changed the way I saw films and still manage to thrill me and amaze me, whenever I rewatch them. I'm pretty sure I've seen "better" films, but I don't think any other has had the effect these two had in me.