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TV/Film Review

Aziz Ansari's Sharp 'Master of None' Tactfully Fills Culture Gap

TV/Film ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

Aziz Ansari’s Netflix original series Master of None is an urban romantic comedy in the mode of an early-thirties, American-Indian actor’s exploration of what it takes to satisfy a young man in twenty-first century New York City. Ansari shines in his leading role as Dev, navigating bad dates, workplace disappointments, and a progressing relationship with his signature enthusiasm and sharp humor throughout the first 10 episodes. 

We learn about Dev through dialogue comprised mostly of questions he poses to his friends Denise (Lena Waithe) – the voice of reason, Arnold (Eric Wareheim) – the quirk, and Brian (Kelvin Yu) – Dev’s fellow first-gen American. Each presents his and herself as an expert on the topic of inquiry, giving Dev unique answers that speak to their personalities. While Dev’s friendships set up the show’s most interesting narratives, much of the show’s appeal is owed to Dev’s relationship with Rachel (Noël Wells). 

Though Rachel’s introduction is ambiguous and awkward, chemistry builds quickly between her and Dev. Ansari and Wells are natural complements to each other on screen, authenticating their characters’ playful humor. We are made to believe that these two were made to laugh together. Their jokes, while obviously methodical, are so intimate and endearing that we elevate their comedic interplay to an ideal. We aspire to their shared laughs and imagine ourselves within their vibrant and seamless relationship. 

Master of None engages itself in contemporary arguments regarding underrepresentation (typecasting in particular), feminism, and the generational culture gap between immigrant parents and their American-born children. The series is not condemning in presenting its case, but makes its point through instances of absurdist humor that offer poignant criticisms from minority perspectives. The gravity and relevance of the topics Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang have chosen to take on seem to have overshadowed the show’s merits in early reviews, but Master of None is undeniably tactful in how it addresses these issues and revolutionary in how it combats the discriminatory practices addressed in the show by how it conducts business in real life.  

Where the show does seem to falter is in its transitions between the aforementioned absurdist humor and its more realistic humor founded in common experience. There is no middle-ground comedy bridging the downturn of Dev’s romantic endeavors with a pitch to rebrand the Washington Redskins as “the Washington Breadsticks.” Like Ansari’s stand-up material, the show can sometimes be overly dependent on its battle-tested humor (racial jokes, Ansari’s mannerisms), but each cast member brings a personalized comedic sensibility that resonates with its audience by nature of its distinctiveness. 

Master of None's debut season features full-bodied storylines whose humor is at all times conscious of what has already happened. Case in point: “You cut in line in front of me at the ice cream store.” “So you fucked my wife?” The narratives demonstrate equal retrospective reach. Interlocking themes reappear five episodes later, developing Dev and Rachel’s relationship as fully as the brevity of ten episodes allows and making the show perfect for the binge-watching exploits of both religious and casual fans to romantic sit-coms. An impressive first production by Ansari, Master of None walks you through the cultural moment with insightful humor and criticism that only its dynamic multicultural cast can provide.

'Steve Jobs' Is Dynamic Fire-Cracker of a Biopic

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Walter Isaacson's incredible portrait of the tech icon Steve Jobs in preparation for this very movie and I found myself simply unable to put it down. I had always been fascinated by Jobs as a CEO unlike any other, a man I saw as responsible for products that completely revolutionized how I viewed computers, telephones and music.

But Isaacson's book also helped me grasp Jobs' incredibly difficult nature. He was one of the most stubborn and irritable people to work with and often had fractured relationships with many people due to his arrogant and driven nature. But as insufferable as he was, Jobs was wholly dedicated to creating some of the world's greatest ever products. Jobs didn't believe that art and products has to be independent of each other and in fact considered himself an artist above all, just as his idol Bob Dylan whose music is accurately prominent in this latest attempt to capture Jobs onscreen.

Isaacson's biography is an intricate and intimate examination of a very complex individual and probably comes as close as we'll ever get to knowing everything there was to know about the complicated visionary and the demons that drove him.

So of course something is immediately lost in the translation to the screen as the level of detail that is compiled in such a comprehensive overview of Jobs' life would be impossible. And instead of even attempting to cover such an eventful life in just two hours, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin chooses to focus on three of the most important product launches in Jobs' life: the unveiling of the Macintosh, his NeXT cube after he left Apple, and culminating with the launch of the iMac.

This is certainly a clever idea because if there was anything Steve Jobs’ life revolved around it was the launch of his products, but the fact that Sorkin now must pack in all the drama and relationships formed over a person’s life into three very specific events does get a bit maddening at times. Steve Jobs certainly didn’t have three life-defining conversations with CEO John Sculley, marketing director Joanna Hoffman, co-founder Steve Wozniak, and his estranged daughter Lisa Brennan at each of them, but I can understand why they were all included. This is a biopic after all, and Sorkin needs some human drama at the center of these tech talks. So while the bold new format to this biopic is certainly novel, it does require a bit of truth-stretching.

Luckily though, Steve Jobs is helped massively by scene after scene of predictably zippy and clever dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, all delivered by a massively talented cast. Michael Fassbender proves once again he is arguably the best actor working today, imitating Jobs’ high-pitched nasal voice but still managing to fully inhabit Jobs’ arrogant and calculating nature. Jeff Daniels is also an excellent casting as tepid CEO John Sculley, Jobs’ reluctant father figure in his turbulent time at Apple, and Seth Rogen is surprisingly confident as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

And while the film wants to explore Jobs’ up-and-down relationships with Sculley and Wozniak among others, ultimately this attempt to capture Jobs onscreen is about his fractured relationship with his illegitimate daughter Lisa, whom Jobs famously denied ever fathering for a number of years. It’s a relationship that is of course rife with potential for human drama, and Sorkin chooses to explore it as the biggest contradiction of Jobs’ life: that he himself likely felt rejected by his birth parents, but ultimately it took him a very long time to grasp that he was rejecting his own daughter in a similar way. It’s certainly the script’s most compelling element, even if I personally would’ve liked to see Jobs’ ultimately more important relationships with his wife and other children explored at least to a certain degree.

For such a dialogue-heavy film, Steve Jobs certainly needed some solid direction and Danny Boyle absolutely excels. Though its events take place entirely before the year 2000, Boyle's sensibilities lie fully in the 21st century, full of color and life that give so many scenes of backstage exchanges between two characters a crackling dynamism. Beautifully photographed by Boyle’s former Sunshine collaborator Alwin H. Küchler, Boyle’s direction gives Sorkin’s script the zip that it needs to separate itself from the pack. His use of frame inserts to invoke flashbacks, the brisk but clever transitions between all three acts, and his use of visuals to both convey information and illustrate Sorkin’s dialogue all turn what would’ve essentially been a well-acted stage play into something that’s gripping and totally cinematic.

I recommend that if you want the more real and nuanced portrait of the enigma that was Steve Jobs, pick up Walter Isaacson's excellent biography upon which this movie is supposedly based. But Steve Jobs the film is a vibrant fire-cracker take on the Hollywood biopic. Decidedly brisk but somehow managing to pack in a compelling amount of human drama into product launches, it's easily the most worthy portrayal of Jobs yet and probably the best we're going to get committed to screen. Confident direction from Boyle combined with a sizzling Sorkin script allows sparks to fly, even if some parts fizz out instead.

Drug War Epic 'Sicario' Is Gripping and Intense Filmmaking

TV/Film ReviewEthan WilliamsComment

Since making the translation to English-language films, director Denis Villeneuve dropped one of the most viscerally gripping crime films of the past few years with Prisoners and one of the most thought-provoking thrillers starring a Hollywood actor with Enemy. And with his latest, Sicario, Villeneuve brings his excellent grasp of cerebral tension to a very timely drama about the Mexican Drug War. Reuniting with the incomparable Roger Deakins as his cinematographer, Villeneuve tries to dig deep into a struggle that has defined a region for decades now.

Sicario manages a very rare thing in Hollywood in that it happens to be a movie completely of its time. The conflict being portrayed is still very much happening and is still taking lives on both sides of the border. Even though most Americans aren't truly aware of the day-to-day skirmishes, the cartels and the agencies of both governments are still fighting for control.

Our window as an audience into this frankly terrifying new world is Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), newly assigned to a Department of Defense task force to take down some high-level cartel members. But the more she works towards making things right the more she begins to realize that she may be in over her head and nothing is as black and white as she thought.

But if Kate is our protagonist and supposed to be the audience's viewpoint into this unfamiliar world, she is interestingly kept at arm's length from most of the film's action. She is always shown to be at a distance or just out of earshot when her superiors are discussing operations or explaining tactics. Therefore she's kept in the dark and so are we as viewers. It’s more than a little intimidating for both audience and character because if we are kept in the dark, that means we have no idea of the potential danger that lies ahead.

This is the film's way of carefully doling out information piece by piece, and the more that Kate tries to pry into what’s really happening, the more horrified she is to learn of the implications of it all. Josh Brolin plays up his bravado as the DoD man Matt Graver who reluctantly yet unabashedly reveals to Kate and the audience that their view of morality is simply nonexistent in this underworld. And that gray morality comes into full view with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick, in a role that has to be a frontrunner for this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Del Toro is mysteriously aloof for the first hour in the middle of so much mayhem but as the action escalates his portrayal of menace and determination was an absolute revelation.

Boasting setpiece after intense setpiece, the realizations come very slowly and the tension builds to a fever pitch with another wallop of an ending from Villeneuve. It will have you gripping your seat from start to fantastic finish.

But the most important thing is the film doesn't offer any easy answers because there simply aren't any. Morality is a mess of grays; "good guys" and "bad guys" simply don't exist in this universe. Families are torn apart every day by this drug war, and Sicario acknowledges that we are near helpless to stop it as innocent bystanders, as the gut-punch ending makes very clear.

Boosted by a tight script from Taylor Sheridan, a searingly intense score from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, some absolutely beautiful shots from Roger Deakins(the shot where the assault team disappears under the Mexican horizon as if they are descending into hell is one of the year’s best) and some truly Oscar-worthy performances especially from Benicio del Toro, Sicario is yet another overwhelming experience from Denis Villeneuve and one of the year’s must-see films.

Shot in a Single Take, 'Victoria' Will Send You Anxiously Exploring the Streets of Berlin

TV/Film ReviewMaxim ChubinComment

Here's the deal: your flatmate just killed himself by accident. The problem is that it doesn't look quite like an accident. He lies in the kitchen floor with a knife in his back. A knife that you just used a few seconds ago. Your fingerprints are all over the place. The fact that you two had a really big argument last night and that all of his friends (which absolutely don't like you) know about it just adds more fuel to the fire. 

Knock Knock. Someone is at the door. Apparently the neighbor, an old lady who loves drama, heard some screaming. Cops must be on their way. Fuck.

Quick, think of the implications: If you go to prison, you won't be able to be with the person you deeply love for decades. But there's more. You won't be able to hug your parents. To touch their hands. Or continue your life together with your best friends, or even see their cheeks move while they eat fried chicken.

Within seconds your entire life as you know it will completely change for the worst. The American justice system will hunt you down. The prosecutor will try as hard as she can to put you in jail. It's her job, and having no mercy pays well. The knocking on the door persists. It's time to make a decision.

But that's not exactly the premise of Victoria. For your best interest, I don't recommend watching the trailer, nor reading the synopsis. The less you know, the better you will enjoy the unexpected chain of events. This German independent film aspires to claustrophobically portray the process of someone's life – someone like you and I – falling down like a Jenga tower. And it does it well.

One of the factors that makes this film different from the rest is that it was shot in one single long take, which might sound like a banal filmmaking choice, but it is actually brilliant due to the nature of the story. It couldn't have been used any better, and here's why: nowadays, most psychological thrillers create tension by giving the audience information that the characters in the film don't know yet, an approach that Hitchcock pretty much forged back with the classics. However, in Victoria, the audience and the characters truly learn and progress along together. You will never know more than our protagonist. There are no cuts. You are constantly with her, living the present, and this provides a very refreshing experience.

Now, not everything is perfect about this film. Many might consider certain plot details and some character decisions in particular situations not very realistic, and the first half of the film might be slow for some, but taking into account the promise that things eventually do escalate quickly to a genuinely anxious climax – particularly during the last thirty minutes of the film– it is very much worth the wait.

 Victoria will be released in the US on October 9.

'You're The Worst' S02E03 "Born Dead"

TV/Film ReviewHenry SmithComment

It’s your typical “nice guy wears down oblivious girl” story, but “Born Dead” takes it to its logical conclusion as Paul brings his new girlfriend Amy to the party, by actually showing how that goes down in real life. 

Sure, Edgar and Lindsay kiss, but instead of her realizing the right guy was in front of her the whole time and running away into the sunset together, it’s presented here as what it is; a nice guy taking advantage of the vulnerability so very apparent in Lindsay, and the kiss resonates in a bad way. Luckily, Desmin Borges’ earnestness as Edgar means it’s not outright creepy, but had you been abandoned by your parents as a baby and been raised solely by wolves and romantic comedies, this exchange would make you go “Huh?” before you went back to hunting rabbits or something. (If wolves and romantic comedies have, in fact, raised you, thank you very much for reading this review. I’m not sure how you get Internet deep in wolf territory, but kudos to you.) This subversion of romantic tropes is where You’re the Worst really comes into its own, and its effect here is more of a blunt clubbing than a rapier-like evisceration.

On the other side, we see Gretchen’s innate reluctance to grow up, and a stronger insight into what makes Jimmy our surly, cynical protagonist. Jimmy is spurred on by a near crippling sense of loneliness and rejection (that hit ever so slightly close to home) – it’s elaborated on here as he recounts the story of “Shitty Jimmy” to an inexplicably emotional Vernon, and it explains a great deal why it took Becca’s initial rejection to get his creative juices really flowing. What has become apparent, though, is that Sullen-Writer Jimmy is completely at odds with Likeable-Human-Being Jimmy. In the end, it takes the aforementioned quote from Vernon to put him right, but for Gretchen, it takes a reminder of her past to spur her to look toward a future. Her friends show up, all right, but at past 30 years old, they’ve grown up and moved on from her. Except for one, who offers an insight into staying the same all your life. She ends up stealing Gretchen’s stereo, and it should provide the kick Gretchen needs to grow up a little. 

There’s no rush, however – You’re The Worst makes no excuses for any of its four central characters, and their open flaws are part of what makes the show and its comedy work. Part of that is down to Stephen Falk’s fantastic writing, too. What we’re seeing here is hopefully the beginning of the end pertaining to this Edgar and Lindsay storyline (though the kiss at the end makes me doubt it slightly), and the beginning of a development that allows Jimmy and Gretchen to move that much closer to being in an adult relationship with one another. 

'You’re The Worst' S02E02 “Crevasses”

TV/Film ReviewHenry SmithComment

You’re The Worst continues to follow the fallout from the awesome season finale, and we see the first set of consequences from “Fists and Feet and Stuff” in “Crevasses”. Gretchen’s upset that Jimmy doesn’t seem to want to make room for her in their place together, making her live “in the crevasses”, which is where episode two gets its name. They take a trip to the mall, where Gretchen has multiple breakdowns buying basic stuff for her place after it emerges she has the inventory of a 19 year-old university student, culminating in a tirade that starts off as a rant against the patriarchy and the perils of visible panty lines, and ends with the phrase, “I’m an irresponsible monster who burned down her apartment with a vibrator”. 

Jimmy appears to take a backseat in this episode (and in the one after this) but what we’re seeing here is Jimmy and Gretchen in their natural habitats, and a little bit of an insight into why these two are truly considered the “worst”. In episode three, “Born Dead”, Gretchen holds a party to reconnect with her old friends, while Jimmy is forced to hang out with Vernon after an Instagram mishap. Vernon actually gives us our episode’s title, explaining the futility of human life without connection by explaining his still-birth. It’s a harrowing tale, but only the second-most harrowing one of the episode, as Paul describes the death of his friend’s wife in stuttering, visceral (though completely, sadistically hilarious) detail.

He’s explaining it to Edgar, who in these last two episodes has made good on his pursuit of Lindsay. “Crevasses” involves him accompanying Lindsay to a bar, and acting as her wingman as she looks to get back on the saddle after Paul’s departure in episode one. Luckily, he runs into a gay fellow, who seemingly sets him on the right path, by setting him up with the bartender. It works for about half a day, before Lindsay pulls him back in by having him take pictures of her. Racy pictures, with an uncomfortable amount of barbecue sauce in uncomfortable places.