Sunday, November 16, 2008

Getting Intimate - Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married would like to amend the age-old saying: "Fish and family stink after 3 days." This film posits that it doesn't take that long - only a few minutes.

Jonathan Demme's latest release Rachel Getting Married, is an unexpected visual onslaught. Featuring a hand held camera, Demme's film is rarely stationary. Even if a conversation uses a shot-reverse-shot pattern, Demme uses different angles.

All of this makes viewing Rachel an uneasy experience. A seemingly banal and innocent conversation might erupt into a violent verbal exchange. No remark too insulting. No topic too taboo. At times, the camera may linger instead of an obvious cut to the speaker, allowing a real-time display of a character's reactions. In short, Demme and his DP, Declan Quinn a visually arresting character drama. Normally in a character study, the camera lets the characters tell the story, but not here.

Most striking is the proximity of the camera. A good portion of the film frames the face or the head. Initially, unsettling, the cinematography supports the intimacy of the film. The audience feels close to the characters - so close that we can see a twitching eye, and even the slightest frown. Rachel Getting Married does not allow its characters the freedom to hide within the frame. We know how a character feels, even with their best attempts at hiding it beneath a smile.

Adjusting to a differing family dynamic is difficult. Think of a family as an automobile and whenever a new family member enters the mix, the car rocks a little bit. In this family, the new family member is Kym (an overrated, but still effective Anne Hathaway), a recovering drug and alcohol addict. She's lost her chance at a first impression. She has to earn the respect (and love) from her family. Kym believes that her family should be more supportive, but we understand their trepidation given her history. This family has to learn how to function with its additional member. Likewise, Kym must adjust to her new social dynamic.

Everyone wants to feel like a part of the family. Rachel Getting Married forces us into this role and it's hard when you have no influence. All we can do is feel the highs and lows of a dynamic and diverse family.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The West Wing Restrospective - Exceptional Writing!

Remember when NBC had "Law and Order", "Friends", AND "The West Wing?" Feels like a long time ago doesn't it? "Law and Order" is still around, but "Friends" and "The West Wing" have ended their run.

I watched three episodes of "The West Wing" yesterday and I was reminded of one of the greatest television pleasures - exceptional writing. Two of writer Aaron Sorkin's television series were cancelled quickly ("Sports Night", and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"), but "The West Wing" had success for a long time. "The West Wing" won four - FOUR! - Emmys for best drama! (All this coming in the years of the HBO juggernaut "The Sopranos.") Not only did they win those four Emmys, but they won them in CONSECUTIVE years! Only "Hill Street Blues" can claim that kind of success.

"The West Wing" was nominated for Best Drama every year it was on - even in the days when Aaron Sorkin left to create "Studio 60." Sorkin is master of the "walk and talk." He is more notorious for it than praised. Does it create unnecessary and complicated camera work, or does it raise the tension? I think the latter and its probably an accurate demonstration of what happens in the most famous office in the world. Most of the walking and talking occurs while characters deliver paperwork. I would imagine that's probably a lot of what happens around the oval office - paperwork.

The series is also surprisingly funny - but not in a laugh out loud way. It's more like a chuckle. When was the last time you laughed during one of the most respected dramas in history? Sorkin treats the president's offices just like any other office, one where e-mail slows to a hault, and desk chairs have squeaky wheels. But the writers always remember the weight of a show about the president of the United States. A series with this premise can be as topical as it wants. It's not like watching "Mad Men", where you feel overwhelmed by the tension. Obviously, "Mad Men" makes it work (because I like it!), but "The West Wing" is so refreshing because it manages to do both.

The other thing a well-crafted series needs is a balance between good writing and actors who deliver them. With a Sorkin show, the pace is so extreme and the lines need precise and quick delivery. The Emmys recognized the actors as well. Allison Janney won multiple Emmys for her turn as Press Secretary C.J. Craig. So too for Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman), Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler), and the late John Spencer (Leo McGary). Martin Sheen (President Bartlett) went without an award. But for a show that emphasizes an ensemble cast, I guess it's okay that the president doesn't win an award and his cabinet gets the credit.

Aaron Sorkin might be the stealth bomber of Hollywood. He wrote A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner) - based on his own play - but most people remember the Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson showdown in the courtroom. More recently, he wrote Charlie Wilson's War (Mike Nichols) and his penchant for blending humor with serious consequences is evident. I love you Entertainment Weekly, but sticking "The West Wing" at #23 of the greatest TV shows of the last 25 years behind shows like "The Real World", "South Park", "Lost", and "Roseanne" grounds for impeachment!

Netflix the DVDs and re-discover this classic!