WHAT ELSE I'M WATCHING #4

I've been meaning to write another entry in this series for some time now. I watched a few movies I missed throughout 2014 after getting them on Blu-Ray for Christmas and have been meaning to document them on the site for some time, but I will get around to those in a bit. More recently I've been re-watching many of my favorite films from last year that have been released on home video. Returns to Gone Girl, The Drop, Fury, Nightcrawler, Birdman and Whiplash have all proved to be rather rewarding and reaffirming in some of my choices for my favorites list of last year. Getting to see these films with new people, some experiencing them for the first time, was also refreshing and rather enlightening as some of the special features included on the Blu-Rays were more enlightening than others. The Gone Girl release was rather bare bones, but features a full commentary from director David Fincher which is always a treat. On the other hand, the Boyhood disc could definitely have included a better look at the making of the project as the making of it was one of the most fascinating aspects, but I will say I enjoyed the film even more on second viewing as I was more accustomed to the tone and knew better what to expect. Beyond re-watching many of this years Oscar contenders though I've been speeding through a few seasons of television on Netflix as well. Hit the jump to continue the conversation.

I originally watched the first season of Bates Motel when it premiered on A&E, but cancelled my satellite service before the second season premiered. As it was recently added to Netflix my wife and I caught up on the second season and became as entrenched as ever in the plight of Norman and his mother whom Vera Farmiga continues to make strangely engaging and irritating at the same time. I enjoyed the arc of the second season and how it brought in several new layers while building more complexity around the personality flaw the entire premise hinges on. It is somewhat disappointing to see the third season already beginning on television as I'd like to continue the story as soon as possible, but I'll likely end up waiting another year before catching up. I recently finished binge watching the third season of House of Cards as well and while I can somewhat understand the critique that the show is more entertaining and fun than it is necessarily good I completely bought into everything that was happening, character developments/changes and all. There was only one way for the writers to go with it all once Kevin Spacey's Francis Underwood took the oval office and that was down. This was executed in as best a way as I could have expected with plenty of new obstacles to overcome and the building of the dynamic between Francis and Claire (Robin Wright) to a peak that leaves the loyal salivating for more. Plenty of the new secondary characters laid out interesting new paths to be explored as well and personally, I can't wait to see where they lead in season four.

Robin Wright, Kevin Spacey and Ellie Kemper make their presence known on Netflix.
Lastly, the wife and I also sped through the latest Netflix original series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in about five days. Granted, there are only thirteen episodes at about twenty minutes a piece, but it is almost nothing short of great with a theme song that will be stuck in your head for days. Since warming up to Ellie Kemper when she joined The Office and through to her bit part in Bridesmaids I've been slightly rooting for her to get her own starring chance knowing that it would inevitably come. That starring role in the form of the titular character on Tina Fey's new sitcom is realized by Kemper is all you expected given her previous persona as Erin on The Office while contrasted perfectly by the arrival of Tituss Burgess as Kimmy's new roommate Titus Andromedon. I never watched 30 Rock, though not because I wouldn't like to and might actually try to do now at some point, but that is all to say I was unfamiliar with Fey's style of writing when it came to the format of a sitcom and developing characters throughout a series. From the concept to the comedic timing to the vast vault the show raids in terms of references it is consistently on point and laugh out loud funny. I enjoyed it much more than I expected and am sad I will likely have to wait another year before re-joining Kimmy and Titus on more of their adventures. Oh, and if none of that convinces you to give it a look the dedicated cameos alone are worth your time.

As for movies, beyond the new releases and second viewings I've been taking in the most note-worthy watching I've done has been catching up on releases from last year that garnered solid buzz and positive word of mouth that I missed out on because they never opened in my neck of the woods or were only available for a short time. That said, check out quick reviews for I Origins, The Skeleton Twins, Pride and The Trip to Italy below...

There are no ideas or concepts that can push the mind too far for Brit Marling and collaborator/director Mike Cahill. The two first teamed-up on 2011's Another Earth which, while it wasn't what I expected, engaged me in a completely different manner that I found truly affecting. The same could be said for their latest, I Origins, though I knew this time that what I was getting into was beyond anything the advertising could capture. What sets this film and so many of Marling's choices apart from others are the conversations she likes to create and be a part of. There is this ongoing, but seemingly buried battle of ideologies and facts that either directly support a point of view or lack solid evidence which in turn requires a certain amount of faith. In looking at the big picture of writer/director Cahill's story here it is about the competing schools of thought when it comes to science and spirituality. Our scientist is out to disprove the existence of God when he meets a free-spirited and entrancing woman who steals his heart. It is easy to think of all the scientific evidence against intelligent design as the more favorable view, but it is certainly more compelling, more hopeful even to consider the fact someone is up there looking after us all. I Origins never takes a cynical approach to the debate though, but instead asks unassumingly what you might do if something spiritual disproved your scientific beliefs and vice versa. The film is both creative in its major dramatic question and the places it goes while never losing sight of the wonder its premise naturally elicits.

The Skeleton Twins is a film that could simply exist as "just another movie" touching on nothing fresh in its meanderings and offering nothing exceptional in the way of its comedy or drama. And yet, it features two performances that elevate it to something of a memorable trifle. Nothing about writer/director Craig Johnson's second feature screams importance or even value, but there is something meaningful to the characters that Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig portray and their depressingly mundane existences that serve as the basis for who and why they've become who they are. More than a movie with a driving plot, The Skeleton Twins is a study of family dynamics and personal turmoil that inherently affects the people around you. There is a good amount of suicide involved that, at this point, feels a little obvious, but never does the film lean on it as a crutch (only the characters). Instead, the film uses it to highlight the importance of those familial, necessary bonds that should be present when nothing and no one else can be counted on. These ideas, these traits, these themes would have surely been lost in the hands of lesser actors, but Hader and Wiig command you listen to their Milo and Maggie as they plead their cases to one another. Both need to be validated in the different lives they've been living by their sibling who they've lost touch with, neither of which would like to give it, but in rekindling and reconnecting there is magic to be made on screen and the two leads convey these arcs with an ease that gives way to a wholly touching, if not revolutionary, experience. And Luke Wilson is more than solid here as well, reaffirming your faith in his comedic abilities.

The cast of Pride.
Pride is one of those films you don't expect too much from going in because there has been little to no buzz around it and therefore you have little to no expectations for it. I sat down not knowing what exactly the film was about other than it was based on a true story dealing with gay rights. More specifically, Pride concerns itself with the 1984 trials of a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists who raise money to support the National Union of Mineworkers who are on strike. The two groups discover that standing together makes for a stronger union for both their causes and generally serves as an inspiring tale all around. What makes the film so rousing and fun while telling an inherently dramatic story is that of the characters and the genuine way in which they interact with one another. From Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to Paddy Considine and Dominic West with a cast of exuberant youths in between including Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay and a star-making performance from Jessica Gunning, Pride knows where its charms lie and it utilizes that quality to ensure the viewers feel its points. Maybe it was that lack of expectation that made this a more emotionally stirring experience than I expected, but it is also a rather exhilarating study of the human spirit and the kind of, well, pride that comes along with seeing differences set aside for the greater cause. Either that or maybe it's simply because director Matthew Warchus and first time screenwriter Stephen Beresford gauged just the right tone with which to capture this story and allowed their actors to flourish; creating not only a winning film in terms of being entertaining and informative, but a rather moving and intimate portrait of a little-known narrative that feels more relevant than ever.

There is a scene in The Trip to Italy where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon visit the exhibit around Pompeii and while Brydon takes the expected comical approach to their surroundings Coogan stops to consider the reality of the situation. There is a rich and very depressing history to what they are seeing; these were human lives that were taken away in one short breath and while Coogan is somewhat flabbergasted at the thought of that occurrence Brydon takes advantage of the situation by excelling at his trade of doing voices. He gives the body, still covered in concrete ash, a voice from inside the glass case to which he carries on a conversation with. This scene in particular captures the balance of not only these films, but this film specifically in one small moment. It gives credence to the solemnity of life while allowing the overwhelming sense of comedy that seeps into our every day experiences to serve as the highlight because, well, we'd all really like to live in a comedy, wouldn't we? I've only been familiar with Brydon since the first installment of this series a few years back, but Coogan has been a presence, for me personally anyway, for a bit longer and his profile outside of these movies lends the atmosphere a little more depth if not credibility. These aren't films you necessarily look to for entertainment value, but they are certainly stimulating and deliver plenty of laughs where you chuckle to yourself and feel present and enthralled for sharing in their journey.

Well, that's it for now. I'll hopefully be back to this column sooner than later, but of course that all depends on what else I'm watching outside the latest theatrical releases. As always, thanks for reading!