Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Happens in the Library, Stays in the Library

Some time back, Hulu recommended the show The Librarians to me and while I almost immediately added the show’s three seasons* to my queue, I only recently got around to watching them.

 The Librarians is a gem of a show, airing on Australian TV from 2007 to 2010, and featuring a host of hilarious situations. The sitcom revolves around the staff of the Middleton Interactive Learning Centre, a public library run by head librarian Frances O’Brien, “a Catholic bigot with a panic disorder.” In the first episode, Frances finds that her hand is forced into hiring Christine Grimwood as the children’s librarian, despite the fact that Christine is facing drug-related convictions – and that Christine is Frances’s ex-best friend from her youth. The library staff also includes Dawn McConnichie, a klutz who is dealing with being in a wheelchair after an accident at a staff retreat; Matthew Bytnskov, the library’s self-described “writer in residence” who is as pretentious as he is lovable; Ky Lee, the stereotypically effeminate gay man starting a new relationship; Nada al Farhouk, a devout Muslim who tries to counteract Frances’s racism by reaching out to the diverse community; Neil Slider, a mama’s boy and wannabe jockey who was convicted of stealing money from his postal job to bribe owners into letting him ride and now does his community service at the library where he crushes on Christine; and Lachie Davis, who struggles with dyslexia and doesn’t quite seem to grasp that Frances hired him only as eye candy.  

Some of the other regularly appearing cast includes:

- Terry, Frances’s hapless husband (played by Wayne Hope, the show’s co-writer, producer, and director);
- Frances and Terry’s four daughters (only ever heard off screen) who are out-of-control pranksters;
- Pearl, Frances’s cruelly strict mother now suffering from dementia;
- Nikko, Christine’s boyfriend convicted of dealing drugs;
- Paolo, Nikko and Christine’s shady lawyer; and
- Father Harris, a sounding board for Frances but also her foil as he is far more liberal and embracing of others than she is.

These characters show off Australia’s diverse background by representing a variety of ethnicities such as English, Irish, Malaysian, Welsh, etc. The characters are all quirky, more like caricatures than real people but somehow still endearing. This is except for Frances, who is maddeningly frustrating at times. Understandingly, it is part of the comedy for her to be so ridiculously rigid and frightened of anyone who seems to be “other” than her, but it is also an odd experience to follow a show centered on such an unattractive personality. However, it does seem that Frances grows over time and by the third season, she is a more bearable character. Also, the more her back story unfolds, the more you do develop some sympathy for her character and can understand how she justifies her own unhappy life choices by fixating on how she is the only one holding the “correct” beliefs and following the “right” path. And, it’s always extra entertaining to see her slip up and do something so antithetical to her own beliefs, like have a schoolgirl crush on Christine.

While the stories of the characters’ personal lives and how they interact with one another is the primary focus on the show, each season has an overarching plot revolving around the library. In the first season, it is the upcoming Book Week in which the premier will unveil a new governmental children’s literacy initiative; in the second season, it is the re-building and re-opening of the library after it burns down in a suspected arson; and in the third and final season, it is a government official’s demand that the library must turn a profit or face closure. The seasons themselves are short with only six episodes each in the first two seasons and eight in the final season, which allows for a tight story arc and little room for superfluous scenes or episodes just to fill space but without adding anything substantial.

Each episode begins with something inappropriate being shoved into the book return, with this object being related to that episode’s storyline in some way (i.e., a pig’s head from the local butcher shop stuck in the returns chute signals an episode in which there is concerns about racist attacks against Nada). In a few episodes, a framing device, such as Frances making a confession to Father Harris, is used to tell that week’s story. This serves to mix things up a bit, but I’m not sure how truly effective it always is. The show often makes uses of quick flashbacks, often from earlier in the day or week, to highlight a point or squeeze in another laugh. All in all, the show seems like a cross between the British/American sitcoms The Office mixed with the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas.

Unlike many sitcoms, The Librarians is very clever (not to say it doesn’t have its share of crass** and/or slapstick moments though), doesn’t rely on a laugh track for its audience to get its jokes, and is anything but predictable. That being said, in the third season in particular, there are moments that become perhaps too outrageous – for example, the OCD governmental minister’s fear of germs over the telephone, the converting of the library to a ShowBizz Video franchisee, and Terry’s The Oils Not Oils band stretch the limits somewhat. It’s certainly still enjoyable and funny, but it also feels like perhaps the show had hit a peak in the second season and couldn’t quite follow that up.

The acting, the directing, the sets, the costumes – everything about this show fits together well for a finished product that is entertaining. If you like quirky comedies, The Librarian is the show for you.

*What’s referred to as a “season” on American TV is called a “series” in Australia. You learn something new every day. (Incidentally, this show also taught me about long service leave. If only I lived in Australia…)
** There are clearly major differences in what is acceptable television fare in Australia versus the U.S. as the show is able to use profanities and cover adult topics without evasion.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Farcical Romp: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Back in 2008, a friend and I went to see the movie Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, based on the 1938 novel of the same name. (Fun fact: The novel was so instantly popular that Hollywood was going to make a movie version of it back in the 30s but WWII beginning put an end to that plan.) Recently, I bought a copy of the DVD as a gift and lo and behold, also then told me I could have access to an instant copy online for a limited time. So, I almost immediately capitalized on that gift from Amazon by watching the movie again today.

Set in the late 1930s, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day follows the eponymous character over two days of her life. On the first day, Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged governess with high morals, is fired from her job and reduced to getting food from a soup kitchen and spending the night on the London streets. The next day, Miss Pettigrew tries to secure yet another governess job from an agency but is refused due to her past record. Out of desperation, she pilfers the business card of Delysia Lafosse, a woman seeking assistance, and shows up at Delysia Lafosse’s door pretending to be from the hiring agency. Of course, Miss Pettigrew has misinterpreted the situation, thinking that Delysia Lafosse is a married woman looking for a governess instead of a social-climbing young woman looking for a “social secretary” to help her manage her whirlwind lifestyle, which includes juggling her three lovers – Nick, the wealthy nightclub owner who employs Delysia as a singer and finances her flat and wardrobe; Philip, the young producer who promises to make Delysia a star on the West End stage; and Michael, the impoverished pianist who loves Delysia despite seeing through her pretenses. In spite of her moral reservations, Miss Pettigrew finds herself charmed by Delysia and in desperate need of employment, so she comes along for the ride and finds herself transformed in more ways than one throughout the day.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a delightful comedy, similar to the kind of screwball comedies that proliferated in the 1930s-1940s but are rarely seen today. Given the movie’s setting and the timing of the original novel, this is hardly surprising but it’s still a refreshing change from what often passes as comedy in Hollywood these days. The movie’s set and costumes embody the timeframe, with the swinging big band and jazz music also providing a great touch from the era. Besides the color filming and a few more risqué scenes than we would have seen back then, this movie transports viewers right back into the silver age of cinema.

While the movie is overwhelmingly light-hearted and funny, it is not just a piece of fluff. Miss Pettigrew’s morals, though wavering at times, serve to keep everything in its proper perspective. For instance, in a rare fit of anger, she lashes out at a cocktail party by telling a fellow guest, “You people, with your green drinks and your parties and your subterfuges! You're all playing at love. One minute her, the next minute someone else, flit, flit, flit! Well, I'm not playing. Love is not a game.” She serves as a foil to Miss Lafosse by reminding her of what is important in life – the love of someone who knows her true self rather than the endless pursuit of empty fame and money. Also, the desperation of Miss Pettigrew’s situation is a recurring theme, as we are often reminded of her hunger, her lack of money or worldly possessions, and how easily she might be spending another night on the streets.

It’s not just Miss Pettigrew’s welfare that is at stake. Throughout the movie, we are given often small but constant reminders of the world at large. And that world is on the brink of another world war, even as the older set of characters is still reeling from the consequences of the first world war. To be clear, this is not a movie about the horrors or tragedies of war, but it is not all just about the frippery that appears on the surface.

The movie wraps up fairly predictably but, to be fair, most comedies do and this is something we tend to like in light-hearted films. The happy ending was perhaps a little too easily tacked on, but it leaves the viewer feeling satisfied.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day also succeeds by having a great cast at its heart – Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew plays the transformative part with understated perfection, Amy Adams channels Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee in her bubbly role of Delysia, Ciaran Hinds plays the one character with any insight into the absurdity of this lifestyle with the appropriate amount of English gentlemanliness, and Lee Pace as the lovable Michael does not fail, as usual. These actors were particularly notable, but the rest of the casting was spot on also.

In case you couldn’t tell yet, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie, especially when you’ve having a down day and need something cheery!

Awake: When Is Reality Not Reality?

Back in the fall, I wrote about two new shows that piqued my interest; this is rather unusual for me as I generally don’t get into shows until after they’ve been on for some time and I am drawn in by good buzz (often from family and friends) or because the show comes on after another one I already watch (becoming less and less of an thing as I increasingly watch shows only via the Internet and not the television set). Well, this has a particularly strange year in that regards because I began watching yet another new show from the start, this one a show that began mid-season. That show is Awake, and it is one of the best new shows I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. Unfortunately, in the time it’s taken me to write this blog post (originally intended for posting after the first few episodes aired), the show’s fate had been sealed: canceled after just 13 episodes. Having just watched the 13th and now final episode of the show, here are some of my thoughts on this amazing creation.

Awake has a fairly simple yet entirely complex premise – after a massive car accident, Detective Michael Britten’s wife Hannah dies, and Michael and his son Rex struggle to cope with this loss, with Michael being ordered by the police captain to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Evans. But when Michael goes to sleep at night, he awakes to find another life where Rex has died in the crash and Hannah is still alive. Here, not only is Michael required to see a psychiatrist, this time a Dr. Lee, but he is also transferred from working with his longtime partner Isaiah “Bird” Freeman to being partnered with rookie detective Efrem Vega. Back and forth, Detective Britten switches between these two alternate outcomes and he has absolutely no idea which one of these lives is actually reality and which is just a dream. Meanwhile, events that occur in one scenario help inform events in the other, further causing confusion as to which one is real or what on earth is actually going on here.

The concept of having two different realities based on only one difference is not entirely unique (I’m instantly reminded of the movie Sliding Doors), but it is certainly not your run-of-the-mill primetime TV idea or yet another “reality” TV show. I for one absolutely love this concept, and the execution was done well throughout Awake. While it could sometimes be a bit confusing to keep up with the changing lives and the stories in each, especially initially, the show’s creators do their best to give clues about the different lives – for instance, in order to help keep his own mind straight, Britten wears a red rubber band around his wrist when with Hannah and a green one when with Rex. (In talking about the show, people will refer to the “red world” or “red reality” versus the “green world” or “green reality” because of this. These colors are also “pushed” ala Amelie in the scenes from the corresponding lives.) Having two different psychiatrists and two different partners is purely a ploy to make the two lives more distinguishable, but it helps to ease any confusion and rounds out the cast.

It was consistently interesting to see how the two worlds would cross over so that clues from one case helped crack another case (i.e., 611 Waverly in first episode) and to see both psychiatrists react by saying this overlap is Britten’s subconscious using his “dream” to inform his real life. Obviously because of Britten’s occupation, Awake is a cop show in some regards, but it’s really more of a drama about a person, his relationships with his family and co-workers, and his increasingly tenuous grip on reality. The cases are there and they are interesting enough in their own right, although fairly predictably. But the thing that hooks you back in each week is how well Britten is going to be able to juggle these two realities, if/when he’ll find out which one is real, how he’ll react then, and so forth. Starting with the episode titled “That’s Not My Penguin,” there’s the suggestion that Britten might be schizophrenic and/or suffering from hallucinations, putting yet another spin on what is going on in the series. Throughout, there so much interesting psychology to this show that I found myself really enjoying it on multiple layers.

Early in the series (I believe in the second episode), there’s a suggestion at the end that the accident that stole the life of one member of the Britten family was not actually an accident but a corrupt cop cover-up, although few details are given at the time. This piece of dramatic irony adds another wrinkle to Awake’s fabric by planting a seed in the audience’s mind about the show’s potential and where it might go next. Other interesting angles include the suggestion in the episode “Oregon” that one of the “dreams” will be forced to fade away once/if Detective Britten moves to Oregon with his wife because there won’t be the same landscape in both to allow reality to keep informing the dream of Rex still being alive. It would have been interesting to see if the show went in that direction but I would have hated to see a new partner, psychiatrist, and so forth in Portland as the cast was already so perfect (more on that later). There was also a great hook left behind with a serial killer still on the loose being the only one besides Britten’s psychiatrists to know that he can’t tell if he’s awake or dreaming. In addition, there was sometimes the hint in the green world that a romantic relationship could grow between Michael and Tara, Rex’s tennis coach and sounding board, which would have created an interesting dynamic to see Michael struggle with feelings for someone new and moving on in the green world while still being with his wife in the red world.

The cast of Awake was absolutely perfect in two regards – both diversity and acting. It’s refreshing to see a show where there’s actually a fair amount of diversity in the casting. Unlike in other detective shows where there’s only one stock female character (i.e., Psych, Monk, etc.), here we have a wealth of women on the show including Hannah, Dr. Evans, and Captain Harper in the weekly cast as well as Tara and Rex’s girlfriend Emma in the regularly recurring cast and numerous witnesses, suspects, police staff, and an FBI agent in various other episodes. I’m impressed that there’s no falseness to these characters either – they act like real people, not like sad stereotypes of the damsel in distress or the femme fatale. Bird is played by an African-American actor, Vega by a Latino actor, and Dr. Lee by an Asian actor, so it doesn’t feel like the show just stuck one stock minority character into the cast either. I also noticed that in the background crowds there’s a decent amount of diversity, which I hadn’t realized until I saw this show that this is not the case in many crowds in other shows or even movies, which is just silly because it’s an easy way to get at least some minority characters into any production.

In terms of acting, everyone is perfect in his or her respective role. Jason Isaacs as Detective Britten is ridiculously good – there aren’t words enough to explain his performance and how top-notch it is. Wilmer Valderrama does not disappoint as always, playing his role of the “new” guy trying to get a handle of Britten’s erratic behavior with perfect understatement. Laura Innes as Captain Harper played some superb scenes in the last two episodes in particular. B.D. Wong’s role as Dr. Lee also stands out as especially compelling, but the actors playing Dr. Evans, Rex, and Bird was also all phenomenal. In the beginning, I wasn’t in love with Laura Allen as Hannah, but I think this might in part be due to the way the character was written at the start. In the first episode in particular, Hannah is almost maniac, moving from redecorating the house to talking about selling it altogether to considering going back to school to trying to convince Michael to have another child. By the second episode, she has calmed down and is dealing more with Rex’s death and next steps forward. Both the character and the actor grew on me quickly, and I came to dislike the possibility of Hannah being just a dream as much as I disliked the possibility of Rex being just a dream.

*Now, I am going to talk a little about how the season wrapped up so if you want to be spoiler-free, stop reading here.*

Somewhere in the middle of the season, I read an article that put the realization in my head that the red world is more likely to be reality because this was the one where all the clues about the conspiracy theory behind the car accident were creeping into the plot. Indeed, these were some of the only times where the viewers saw much of anything happening outside of Britten’s perspective. (There was the occasional scene with just Hannah or just Rex without Britten but these largely tied into that episode’s arc and didn’t add much more to the feeling of reality.) At the time, Rex’s role had been diminishing somewhat in the show, with Rex showing up not at all or only limitedly in a couple of episodes, such as in “Nightswimming.” But just when you think you start to have things figured out, Awake snaps another possibility your way, with the conspiracy theory starting to rear its head in the green world as well.

Still, I felt like the red world was going to be the real one up into the last couple of episodes when I didn’t know what to expect. In the end seems like green world is the real one? That, or everything up until that point was a dream with both Hannah and Rex living all along (or dead all along, with Britten finally meeting up with them both in heaven, as one theory goes). Another theory is that Britten just split again and created a third reality, in which both of them are still alive after realizing that there were no set “rules” to his dream world and he could make it whatever he wants. (I cannot take credit for this fabulous theory; I read it online and think it makes sense given the context of his talk with Dr. Evans right before this final dream/reality occurs.) In some ways, I liked that the ending was just ambiguous enough -- apparently, this was the ending to season one as intended all along, not one hastily tacked on because the show was canceled, so clearly it was meant to be ambiguous so that there were be new issues to tackle in the second season. Still, it works as a series finale, too, considering that’s all we’re going to get at this point. I would be interested to watch all of the episodes over again and see what could be gleaned a second time around and if/how everything ties in now that I sort of know the ending.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Dangerous Method: A Look at Jung’s Perhaps-Not-So-Dangerous World

Hello all! Once again, I’ve fallen behind on updating this post, largely from working too much followed by quickly doing too many arts and entertainment-related things to have time to write about them! I’m hoping to catch you all up shortly on what’s been going on A&E wise (because work-wise would just be dull J). To that end, here’s the first of several overdue posts, this one about the 2011 film, A Dangerous Mind, starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, and Viggo Mortensen.

Set in the early 1900s, A Dangerous Method begins with a relatively young C.G. Jung (Fassbender) studying Sabina Spielrein (Knightley), a patient suffering from hysteria. Over time, Jung and Sabina move from the doctor-patient relationship to that of lovers. Already a relationship set up for disaster, it is further taut by Jung’s marriage with children on the way and Spielrein’s sporadic healing and studying to become a psychiatrist herself but not necessarily always embracing Jung’s methods.

Concurrent with all this drama, Jung is also developing – and struggling in – a relationship with renown psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Mortensen). Freud clearly wants to pass the mantle down to the younger doctor, but Jung does not buy all the emphasis Freud puts on sexuality as the base of so many psychological problems. Freud, meanwhile, begins to mistrust Jung’s interest in mysticism.

Some time back, I had seen one trailer for A Dangerous Method, didn’t think much of it either way, and then never heard anything about it again. That is, until on a recent flight home from vacation when it was an option to watch. There wasn’t anything else that sounded even remotely appealing on the plane’s menu, and the psychological aspect of this film intrigued me, having once been a psychology major.

That being said, I was a bit disappointed with the film from a psychological angle. The story between Freud and Jung did seem to be grounded in fact (i.e., Jung was indeed doubtful about Freud’s obsession with the sexual aspects of psychoanalysis and was critical of Freud for refusing to ever be analyzed himself), and I noted somewhere in the credits that the film referenced actual letters between the psychoanalysts where possible. In addition, the film is based on a play, which is in turn based on a nonfiction book, so somebody did their homework somewhere along the line. I knew nothing about Sabina before this film, despite having studied about both Freud and Jung in numerous classes, so her character was a welcome introduction, which allows me to do some more research on her on my own. However, I felt like the movie did not explain her psychological problems in depth and very much glossed over her (somewhat spotty) recovery. This included quickly brushing over Jung’s psychoanalytic methods, which had seemed to me to be at the heart of the film’s premise as I understood it going into the movie (not so much, it would appear).

Part of this may be due to the disjointed nature of the film. Frequently, several years would pass by from one scene to the next. I found this very disorienting, particularly with a character like Sabina who could go from stark raving mad in one scene to a perfectly polished young lady in the next. (It is possible that some of this may be due to the airline’s formatting and editing of the film, although I should point out I watched Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows on the same airline a week earlier and didn’t note any appreciable differences between the airline’s version and the one I had seen in theaters. Also, I doubt the airline would remove any substantive scenes, although it is possible that they removed/limited some of the sex scenes from this particular title.) These jumps made it difficult to really ever feel like the movie was telling a logical story or for me as the viewer to become fully immersed in the story. That is not to say that I didn’t find the movie engrossing, it’s just that it never took away the feeling that this was a movie. Does that make sense? What I’m trying to say is that the movie was indeed riveting, but it didn’t sweep me up so fully in its world that I forgot I was watching something purposely built up to be viewed by outsiders, namely moviegoers.

It is also possible that other viewers got the exact opposite feeling – perhaps there was too much psychoanalytic history and terminology for a lay audience. (One reviewer refers to it as being full of “shop talk.”) Having studied psychology in an academic setting for more than four years and on my own for even longer, I can’t really say at this point. To me, it could have delved much further into the psychoanalytic methods used by Freud and Jung, but then again, I could see how this could alienate many viewers.

The movie ended on a peculiar note, which is about as much as I’m going to say on that so I don’t give anything away. I felt very much like I have at the end of some other quirky, independent movies (i.e., Lost in Translation) where I’m not really sure what to make of the ending or indeed anything that came before it. As I alluded to earlier, there wasn’t really an overarching story throughout that would culminate in a conclusion of some sort, so it just sort of felt more like it ended because two hours had passed. Like with many biopic or historical films, the viewer is given a brief synopsis of what happened to these characters later in life. Sabina’s life story ended so tragically as to leave a distinctly odd and futile feeling to the whole film.

A high note of the film was the superb acting by all, but particularly by Fassbender and Knightley. I’ve yet to see Fassbender disappoint in any role, and he plays the complicated Jung well and with nuance. Knightley throws her all into playing the insanity stricken young Sabina and then transforms perfectly into the studious, well-mannered older Sabina. Her Russian accent is perhaps not pitch perfect, but it suffices (and is more than either Fassbender or Mortensen put into their roles, as oddly enough they both do not attempt at an accent). The settings were sumptuous, the score is haunting and an absolutely perfect fit, and the cinematography was excellent. But none of this makes up for a plot that felt a bit watery. I might recommend A Dangerous Method to a handful of people that I think would enjoy this type of movie more than most, but I’m not leaping over the moon about it. I'm still kind of scratching my head about it, trying to figure out what to make of the film.