Alternative to What: “Brooklyn” (2015)

Saoirse_Ronan_Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified.

THIS WEEK:
Brooklyn (2015)
– Alternative To –
The Accountant (2016)

If there is one thing that’s obvious, it’s that being an accountant is one of the lamest jobs that you could have in cinema. What is there really to do besides crunch numbers and hit buttons? While there have been some iconic accountants throughout cinema, the reality is that few rise above mediocre people obsessed with their job. Ben Affleck’s latest The Accountant attempts to turn that into an exciting profession by adding espionage and international incident to the table. The only question from here is: who cares? Considering that Affleck has consistently risen between prestigious Oscar bait and nonsensical films like Batman v. Superman, one must wonder where The Accountant falls on that spectrum. Frankly, it looks too dumb to really be good.

However, one doesn’t have to go too far back to find an accountant that is actually worth watching. Last year’s Brooklyn is a film about an Irish immigrant who falls in love with a man in New York and becomes conflicted about returning to her homeland. Does she return home, or enjoy the new happiness that she has while working and befriending her peers in a women’s boarding house? There’s a lot of simple questions, and ones that become explored in light and a bit quaint ways. It’s a drama about heritage and identity, showing the struggles that come with culture in a new land. It may not seem like much, but it does help when the cast is charming and knows how to make the most of an earnest story.

Saoirse Ronan is at the center of the film and adds a certain weight to her hesitant performance. She seems to speculate through her eyes as she nervously navigates New York. It is a personal time, and one that gives heartwarming affirmation to her life. It’s humorous and tender. Brooklyn doesn’t have much in the way of major stakes, but it achieves the field of light drama with enough memorable moments to make it worthwhile. Is it the best immigrant story ever? Not exactly. However, it does have plenty of character – and that is often overlooked in films like this.

So, what does Brooklyn have to do with accounting? Ronan’s character is pretty good at the profession, even if her American job doesn’t give her the most chances to use it. The third act centers largely around her capabilities as an accountant to improve the work environment in Ireland that she came from. She is a hero. She makes everything better in a way that causes the viewer to feel like she would be of better use back home. Yet why would she want to stay in her homeland? The questions pile up and soon the answer isn’t simple yes or no questions. These are the personal issues that face everyone at some point in their lives. This one just happens to be told elegantly.

So while The Accountant looks to be a boring film that focuses around accounting as a means to an end, Brooklyn is a film that only uses it as a smaller part of a larger identity. She isn’t defined by her skills solely. She is more of a fleshed out character and is given freedom to try new and exciting things. Good luck seeing Affleck do that, especially with international business on the table. Even then, the general profession of accounting isn’t the most exciting to watch. There has to be more to the character, and it looks like Ronan may have the upper hand in that respects.

Check This Out: IMDb Launches the Top 250 for TV

Scene from Band of Brothers

Over the past decade, there have been few movie internet websites as valuable as IMDb. Short for the Internet Movie Database, the website prides itself on compiling information on every project that has ever had connection to a film or TV series with a voting scale of 1-10 stars to indicate what users think of them. Among the website’s primary features is the Top 250, which compiles the users’ favorite movies. It is an indicator of tastes and trends related to the website. But what about TV and its growing appeal over our downtime? Well, today IMDb launched its Top 250 TV feature that now compiles TV shows similarly to how they do movies. What tops the list? While the Top 5 isn’t likely to surprise you, the rest of the list is full of staggering results.

For majority of the website’s run, the only way to gauge TV series was through fan made lists that did applicable jobs of ranking the more noteworthy/recent series. Of course, TV in general is a lot harder to rank than TV. The quality of episodes can differ rapidly from week to week, season to season, etc. In fact, there’s subdivisions of rating for TV series that separates the episode rankings from the cumulative. So while we’re not looking too much at which show had the highest rated episodes, it is interesting to look at what audiences have been voting on.

As mentioned, the Top 5 isn’t that surprising and feature probably the finest diversity of the bunch with focus on miniseries, documentary series, and two of HBO’s most acclaimed series ever:

Speaking as voting is also partially a popularity contest, it makes sense why Breaking Bad is the highest rated TV series. In 2013, its episode “Ozymandias” held the honor of being one of the few episodes in the website’s history to have a perfect rating (it since has fallen to 9.9/10). Likewise, there’s the HBO flagship series The Wire, which has become considered the best drama series in TV history. And of course, Game of Thrones continues to flourish thanks to continual internet conversation around each season’s controversial stories. If anything, this list is a very admirable top.

But now we get to the heart of something more confounding: where does everything else rank? It is likely that if the show was halfway decent, it made the cut. However, the ranking may be quick to upset some people who take TV seriously. For instance, where does HBO’s other premiere series rank? The Sopranos is at #8, Oz is at #41, Rome is at #42, Deadwood is at #63, Six Feet Under is at #67, Curb Your Enthusiasm is at #90, John Adams is at #99, and Boardwalk Empire is at #114. Meanwhile, shows like Girls, Enlightened, and Treme are just a few that didn’t make the cut.

Just from the order of those things, there may be those quick to complain about the order. Is Oz really better than every almost every other series on HBO? It is speculative. However, it should also help to provide context to shows that all of these have outranked: Futurama is at #121, Parks and Recreation is at #125, The Muppet Show is at #146, Community is at #152, I Love Lucy is at #169, Lost is at #188, and Orange is the New Black at #234. There’s also a few confounding selections, including the high ranking of The Newsroom at #130 or even more recent series like Daredevil at #40. Meanwhile, Mad Men is at #111.

Much like the movie Top 250, this list is probably going to change a lot over the course of its existence. However, it provides an interesting insight into what people are watching and how they rate it. True, there are aspects of this that contradict the general consensus, but it is impressively diverse. The amount of miniseries and documentaries mixed in proves that this list may end up being a valuable tool to assess popularity of each show. Is it perfect? No. Then again, neither is the movie Top 250. However, it makes for an interesting conversation, especially as the recently maligned True Detective season 2 clocks in at #11 on this list – a fact that is mostly due to its first season. It is likely to go down, but how far?

I don’t feel like I have done the website its fair share in simply pointing out where everything ranks. If anything, I mostly do it to show how interesting the results are. While there aren’t as many features yet as the movie version, I am sure that it will all come in time. For now, we have a new feature to one of the internet’s most valuable resources for movie fans. With the growing impact of TV, I can only imagine how more integral the Top 250 TV feature will become as time runs its course.

Review: “Nightcrawler” is a Disturbingly Hilarious Look at Voyeuristic Journalism

There is a moment in the third act of Nightcrawler that may be the most profound commentary on contemporary news culture from this decade. It’s on par with the infamous Network scene in which Peter Finch shouts “I’m mad as hell!” Content manager Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is in a control booth telling on air reporters how to handle some gruesome footage. There’s a need to emphasize the terror and scare the viewers. The man behind the footage, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) watches over Nina’s shoulder as the incidents play out. It isn’t a reaction of concern, but of pride. He shot the footage that will make him a lot of money. He is a new type of psychopath. He isn’t a person who kills, but feeds off of disaster for a paycheck. In this moment, Nightcrawler has become the defining statement of shock journalism.

Bloom is a nightcrawler in the Los Angeles county. Living by the motto “If it bleeds, it leads,” he drives around the city during after hours to find the latest tragedy. He isn’t there to help. All he wants is to stick a camera in your face to get the best shot. Working for news station WXLA, he strives to be the top story. This means getting something so gruesome and shocking that its report has to be prefaced by “Viewer discretion is advised.” He is a voyeuristic type of journalist that is only made creepier by his obsessions. The cockier he gets, the faster he is to beat the cops to crime scenes and the more likely he is to stage the set for a better shot.

If there is one issue with the film, it is that it doesn’t quite serve as the great American journalism tale of the 10’s. It wants to, but the story is all about Gyllenhaal’s performance. With confident eyes and a salesman delivery of every line, there’s a sense that Bloom isn’t right in the head. He is conning his way through illegal jobs without a single ounce of empathy for anything. He wants to make money plain and simple. He embodies a new form of journalism that has popped up in the post-Cops era in which trashy culture sells over real events. Bloom should know. He has researched everything thoroughly. What makes this go from just another psychopathic character to a deeper, complex performance is that director Dan Gilroy doesn’t choose a side. He allows Bloom to preach his rules to whoever will listen. Much like the heightening of reality that Bloom contributes to, he sounds crazy.

The film is best viewed as a dark comedy a’la American Psycho (minus the homicidal/sexual elements). While Gyllenhaal only gives the character two emotions, he plays them wonderfully for comic effect. He is a disgrace to journalism, but he isn’t doing it for dignity. He plays the field like Daniel Plainview. He sees people as consumers. Likewise, his calm delivery almost seems meant to humor them. He doesn’t understand human emotions and that makes his job easier to do. With witty dialogue, he manages to turn disaster into some of the film’s most darkly comedic moments, which helps to elevate the insanity into something greater. This is an amazing performance in a hilarious film with elements of The French Connection in the third act.

However, it doesn’t work as the great American journalism tale because of this. Yes, its exploits into how he drives through the night while scrutinizing which freeway to take are key to understanding the insanity, but what does it all add up to? This is best viewed as a character study of a man who starts off selling fence mesh that he tore off of a gate. He doesn’t care what he’s selling, just that you’ll buy it. He is a decent negotiator, which makes him even more dangerous. In a way, the journalism he makes is no different than the stolen bike that comes early in the film.

It is a wonderful parallel that reflects a void in humanity and makes him all the more despicable. While there are scenes at KWLA that capture something marvelously exploitative about a reporter’s morality, most of the emphasis is on Bloom’s obsession with the next shot. It’s about flying too close to the proverbial sun until he gets burned. The sensational success of Nightcrawler comes from watching a man enter and then create danger just to get paid. He didn’t need to be there. He’s kind of an idiot. But hey, at least he got paid.

It also helps that James Newton Howard gives a great, ominous score that pumps the tensity and makes the drab Los Angeles streets into something dreamlike. With a huge focus on media and radio towers, the film knows what it is commenting on visually. It doesn’t romanticize anything, instead making everyone seem unflattering when they see Bloom approach with his cheap camera.

Still, the music contradicts this perfectly, allowing the scenes to play out as if he is a director filming a movie that plays around him. It could be seen as a commentary on journalism, but also reality TV and gossip shows as well. What is the level of decency that people are given anymore? To Bloom, there isn’t any. He is enigmatic, but you can’t be. Even if it’s a dream, it’s kind of like a nightmare.

Nightcrawler is a wonderful invention and an excellent debut with plenty of powerful moments. Its commentary may be a little weak, but it does present a necessary think piece on morality. There have been few journalism films that have been this engaging and strange. For that, be thankful that it exists, especially with Gyllenhaal’s amazing performance that solidifies him as the best actor of 2014. This is his show and you’re all just going to be stuck on camera. If nothing else, there’s hope that this film’s messages will be explored in better context in the future. However, in a time where there aren’t that many great dark comedies, this may be one for the books. It’s exploitative, sick, bizarre, informational and hilarious all in the span of two hours. It is modern Los Angeles in a nutshell without a repentant eye and where journalism is not about informing, but manipulating fear into the viewer. The world has become a stage show of insanity.

Channel Surfing: The Jeselnik Offensive – T.J. Miller and John Mulaney

The Jeselnik Offensive

Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.

**Before I begin, I apologize for the long absence between the last piece and this one. I am well aware that while sporadic, I should be posting with more frequency. I also admit that I missed the deadline for writing up a piece on Kroll Show. Maybe next season. Also, I promise that there will be a piece on Out There and maybe Loiter Squad sooner than later. Why have I been absent? I have been doing extensive work on Retrospective pieces. That’s right! Very soon, you’ll have pieces on Bunheads (coming next week) and Delocated. Keep an eye out, and I promise to keep Channel Surfing alive in the meantime.

I am well aware that in this column’s brief existence, I have done THREE pieces on Comedy Central shows. The reason is simply that the channel has produced some promising work in establishing itself as an actual comedy channel. True, nothing this season has even compared to last year’s brilliant Key & Peele, but what we have gotten is something great (Nathan For You), something awful (the Ben Show), and something bizarre.

The something bizarre is the Jeselnik Offensive. For those unaware, the host is Anthony Jeselnik, who has made a career out of being offensive. With albums called “Shakespeare” and “Caligula,” he does whole bits on rape and death. While I am more familiar with his work via appearances on the podcast Doug Loves Movies, I have never found him too out of control when it comes to off color jokes, nor do I find him particularly hilarious. He rides the fine line with me of being acceptable, or a very calm person’s Doug Stanhope.

With that established, I figured that I would give his new show a shot. Immediately, right off the bat, it feels familiar. With the quota that every comedian of note in the past five years getting a show, it only seemed inevitable that Comedy Central would give Jeselnik his own, aptly titled show the Jeselnik Offensive in which he takes the familiar news show format akin to the Daily Show or the more recent Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and just makes a whole lot of offensive jokes in segments that end up coming across as stand up routines. Fair enough. Russell Brand on Brand X is making a career out of this.

The one notable thing when comparing this show to even the Ben Show is not why are they offensive, but how are they approaching it. True, I admire Ben Hoffman from the days of Infomania, but after a few episodes, it is clear that he is fine tackling easy targets and being extremely rude to people. The cleverest that Hoffman has been is getting a barbershop quartet to sing about porn videos. Even that is repetitive and unfortunately repulsive at times. He is based in a world of gimmicks that don’t feel like he has creative control, but more that he only had five ideas for the whole season.

Compare that to the Jeselnik Offensive. In the episode with John Mulaney and T.J. Miller, there are numerous references to rape, women’s body issues, and racist comments about black people. While the formatting is different from the Ben Show’s sketchy nature, it almost seems to be tackling the same subject matter, but more successfully. Maybe it is because Jeselnik is more established, but maybe because it feels like he actually put time and effort into his jokes.

The Jeselnik Offensive

I have seen one episode before this that featured Amy Schumer (who will also have her own show in the near future) and I found it a little dumb, hitting low targets. However, I was intrigued enough to give the show a second chance. I picked a really solid week to do so, as the topics included Breaking Bad scripts, James Holmes, and somebody who faked a rape. These were all spread out across segments known as Panel, Sacred Cows, and Gun Shot Wound or Italian Food. At very least, there is a structure to the Jeselnik Offensive that forces the material to come across more layered and at least look professional.

For the most part, Jeselnik definitely feels like a stand-up comedian in his delivery. From the opening monologue, it had the familiar scenario-set up-punchline flow. This traditional outline has worked in the past, and while these jokes were meant to be “offensive” or off color, they worked because they were short and despite pushing buttons, didn’t feel entirely insensitive. For the most part, that is the appeal of Jeselnik throughout the entire show. The worst that can be said is his topics are too easy, but the best that can be said is that they can be short and sweet.

It all depends on how you dig racism. However, I feel like even he is prone to a few easy punches akin to the Ben Show. While the Sacred Cow segment in which he insulted women’s body issues, he turned it into a creative skit that involved talking to people varying in weight on a teeter totter. A simple sight gag that while offensive, was subtle enough not to take away from the fake sense that Jelenik was getting down to the sense of an issue. The Ben Show equivalence? Playing a tuba while a fat man walks down the street.

Possibly the biggest reason to come back to this show is not Jeselnik himself, but the promise of two panel guests that are forced to riff on whatever the host wants to talk about. For instance, James Holmes is a consistently referenced topic in this episode and T.J. Miller uses the phrase “raped to shreds” consistently. While it seems a little much, it is the chance of the guests riffing into a clever idea that gives me intrigue to keep watching. I was more into John Mulaney’s riffs, which were more subdued than the other two, but equally as appalling.

Still, probably the best segment has the least to do with racism. Defending Your Tweet is a game in which the guests are forced to defend things that they said on Twitter. While there is a chance for offensive subject matter, it is essentially a fun game of trying to spout nonsense. It works because there is really no structure and it just leaves everyone open for self humiliation. It doesn’t always work, but at least it gives us a nice break from the offensive humor.

In the end, what makes the Jeselnik Offensive a solid show is not that it is well written jokes about easy targets, but that it treats offensiveness as a normalcy. It is neither too taboo or off limits. It is spoken almost with reverence. While it definitely has the flaws of any typical offensive joke, it doesn’t feel familiar enough to feel as stale as the Ben Show. Depending on how you like your humor, the Jeselnik Offensive may be one of the more entertaining shows currently on Comedy Central. At very least, it continues my belief that Anthony Jeselnik has charisma and is able to deliver these gags with enough dignity to not make anything feel uncomfortable.

I probably won’t become a dedicated viewer, but if a guest is on that is worth noting, I may pop in for a quick visit. Jeselnik at very least has one of the more authentic voices on the channel and that gives him the edge when it comes to a familiar format and a style that could go easily wrong. He isn’t as brash as the Ben Show nor too timid to be considered false. This is a show meant to just have fun and say what’s on your mind, and for the most part, it succeeds.