Big Little Lies

Self-important women clad in Lulu lemon picking their kids up from chakra therapy: a sign of the end times or maybe just the pinnacle of gen-X living. HBO seemed to be trying to tackle a certain demographic with its latest mini-series, Big Little Lies. If Girls is an ode to the college-grad who works as a dog walker and writes bad, sexually explicit haikus and yells at her parents about gentrification before asking them to venmo her some money for vegan lunch, then Big Little Lies is a love letter to the halfway college grad who opted to marry the doughy college boyfriend who got a job in silicon valley with whom she has two back-talking kids named Atticus and Hamilton. Or so it would seem.

I’m always fascinated by a product that appeals to a broad audience, especially when I enjoy it myself – it makes me question my own taste. Embarrassingly, I associate the widely lauded with lesser quality, and the lesser known with untainted artistry – a rookie mistake. Of course, sometimes untainted artistry is appreciated widely, and that makes it no less inspired and true. This is the case with Reese Witherspoon’s latest project, an adaption of Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies, which shares similarities with two of Witherspoon’s recent projects, Gone Girl and Wild, the latter sharing a director and co-star with the HBO series. It has the artistic vision and elevated style of the latter, undoubtedly the work of director Jean-Marc Vallée, and shares the crime-thriller genre of the former, which apparently draws a large audience.

I typical avoid media revolving around crime on the basis of not wanting to hear about made up terrors when there’re enough non-fictional atrocities affronting me on the daily. So I was glad to discover that Big Little Lies doesn’t seem to relish crime as much as Gone Girl, but rather use it as a juxtaposed medium to contrast complicated characters. I’m getting ahead of myself.

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The seven episode mini-series centers on five women in present day Monterey, California, which means yoga, questionable parenting, wine, and since it’s HBO, shower nudity. The fifteen-second-skip-ahead was made for prudes like myself.

Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) holds an unofficial, influential role in her tight-knit community, a societal position mirrored by her young, wise-cracking daughter, Chloe, who has similar influence over her fellow first graders. Everything is set into motion when Jane (Shailene Woodley) moves to the area and extends a hand of friendship to Madeline, who in turn welcomes her into her inner circle – which really only extends to her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman). Jane’s new friends soon become lifelines when she and her son, Ziggy, fall victim to primary school politics, gossip and slander on the very first day of school. A murky accusation pits Jane against Madeline’s frenemy, Renata (Laura Dern), adding further fuel to an established rivalry. The line is drawn in the sand, sides are picked and the hoard of mothers have new drama to sink their teeth into.

The developing micro-scandal turns out to be a sort of crucible, bringing long dormant secrets to the surface and welding the women together inseparably. Madeline seems to be losing the passion in her marriage, control over her kids, and influence at her job. Jane is losing her peace of mind, wondering where she’s going and if the past she eluded is as far behind her as it seems. And Celeste is starting to question the life she’s built for herself with her kids and seemingly perfect husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), a marriage that has its own precarious imbalance of passion.

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The creative team did a remarkable job of creating seven episodes that are as strong on their own as they are together. Each episode is a cohesive piece of the puzzle while still being independently entertaining as well as a cohesive part of a puzzle that enriches the episodes that precedes and proceeds it. And I think that speaks to the usefulness of the “mini-series” as a medium of story telling, both generally and specifically with this story.

I haven’t read the book, but between marathoning the series, twice now, and my rain-man-esque, obsessive attention to detail, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the story. I don’t think a feature film would have worked; neither would a regular TV series. There was too much story to fit into 120 minutes and network television would’ve stretched the plot beyond recognition for profit. I’m even glad it was broadcast on HBO, a more esoteric alternative to Netflix. Had it been shown on netflix, it would have been like selling artisan coffee at 711.

As I mentioned before, Big Little Lies is the epitome of quality television. That’s largely thanks to the direction by Vallée, whose previous credits include Wild and Dallas Buyer’s Club. He masterfully curates the work of his inspired creative team, giving the series a distinct, evocative aesthetic that’s both brooding and full of breath. The production design is immaculately tasteful, with exquisite shades of muted blues and greens that draws you in with siren-like allure. The design and breathtaking locations are pure art as captured by cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who might have super-hero abilities when it comes to using natural light.

Vallée also outdid himself directing his cast. The series has been praised for its strong performances, and for good reason. Reese Witherspoon is a force, giving her best performance since her Oscar winning role in 2005’s Walk the Line – and that’s saying something, as she’s had multiple outstanding performances since then. I was most impressed with the ease in which she switches between comedic and dramatic delivery. I found her character to be the most compelling, both as written and as performed; partly because in any other hands the character’s unbecoming traits would have been exaggerated to the point of villainy, or worse, her shortcomings would have been celebrated to the point of parody. Instead, we get a complex and winsome character played artfully.

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Between Nicole Kidman’s brilliant performance in last year’s Lion and her role in this series, the past year has made me a major fan. Most of the word-of-mouth I’ve heard about Big Little Lies has been about to her compelling performance. In many ways, she had the hardest job; her character is arguably the most layered and is at the crux of most of the biggest twists and turns. Kidman plays them with the subtlety and instinct that can only come from a rare talent, reminiscent of golden-age movie stars. Again, in other hands, these dramatic moments would have been cringe-inducingly over-performed and enjoyed only by the YA readers and Buzzfeeders. Excuse the searing cynicism.

Really, the smart acting choices and trope-avoidance isn’t much of a surprise, not only because of the caliber of the actresses, but also because of who’s at the helm. Vallée is unmatched in his ability to direct resonating and true depictions of mental and emotional anguish. This is wonderfully illustrated in Shailene Woodley’s performance, which is no doubt at the same caliber of her more vetted costars, in case you were wondering. A minor spoiler alert – her character’s storyline deals with past, traumatic assault. I’ve never seen this subject matter handled so compellingly. This is no doubt the result of a partnership between an equally gifted and perfectly matched actress and directer.

I couldn’t, in good conscience, finish my review without mentioning the incredible Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård and Zoë Kravitz. They all add immense depth and sincerity to the character-rich series. The story prevalently features the children of the characters, and the young actors who play them are the best young actors I’ve seen, particularly the boy playing Ziggy. The only disappointments for me as far as performances go, are those by Adam Scott and Jeffrey Nordling – but it’s inscrutable if the graining performances are a problem of creative direction, unimpressive acting, or not a problem at all but, rather, intentional.  Either way – woof.

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Finally, what impresses me the most about the series is the brilliant editing and incorporation of music. I’m often curious how much of the final cut of a film is shaped by decisions made on the page – the script, behind the camera or during the editing process. Especially with Mysteries, which rely heavily on the timing of when pieces of information are revealed, editing is everything. And this is unequivocally the best editing I’ve seen. Whether it’s mostly the work of the editors or some credit is due to the director or screenwriter (David E. Kelly), it’s an impressive achievement. And it seems that the brilliant choices in music, from supervisor Susan Jacobs, go hand in hand with the editing. The musicality exhibited in the editing is rare and the song choices themselves are fantastic. This is exemplified in the end of the each of the episodes, all of which have enormous impact, thanks to the musicality. Jacobs is brilliant.

In the end, Big Little Lies is not what it seems, which is fitting for a mystery series. Instead of the hoighty-toighty, scripted-version of Real Housewives-meets-Gone Girl that some of us expected (guilty), we get an impeccably produced, outstandingly performed, and deeply resonant masterpiece. Or whatever the television equivalent is to a masterpiece. If anything, I’ve taken away a new appreciation for the mini-series as a medium. And a renewed resolution to never underestimate Reese Witherspoon.

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When I heard the small, supplemental book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was going to be adapted into a series, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a reader, I was skeptical there was anything left to adapt in the mostly excavated Harry Potter canon. And alhough it was sure to be a financial success, it was a gamble of reputation for Rowling to give the go-ahead to revive a perfectly concluded film series and pen the new film herself. Initially shrouded in mystery as to what sort of movie it would be, Fantastic Beasts ended up exceeding expectations; its fairytale-esque storytelling is smartly produced, brilliantly acted, and masterfully written.

Some context: Fantastic Beasts started out as a fictional Hogwarts textbook referenced in the early Harry Potter books. Then in 2001, Rowling decided to write the “in-universe” textbook as a charity project. It was fifteen years later that the novelette – less than 150 pages – was announced as the subject of a new film series. With the short book having no storyline, there was no way of knowing what to expect from the film.

Bringing the magic of Rowling to prohibition-era Manhattan, Fantastic Beasts follows the misadventures of the “magizoologist” Newt Scamander – from the understandable complexities of carrying a kleptomaniacal creature to his involvement in the broader geopolitical issues of the wizarding world. A lot is going on in the American magical community: an international dark wizard is at large, a mysterious, destructive force is loose in Manhattan, bringing unwanted attention to the community, and there’s an austere movement of “Second Salemers” inciting a literal witch hunt.

Newt is blissfully unaware and sweetly gawkish when he steps off the boat into Manhattan. As a magizoologist, he has dedicated his life to learning about the magical beasts of the wizarding world and advocating on their behalf. His only intention is returning a trafficked creature to its native habitat, but he’s hardly off the ferry before a mixup with his enchanted case – containing his innumerable creatures – sets several of them loose into the city.

If that wasn’t Dr. Seuss enough, the inopportune mixup also happened to involve a non-wizard, Jacob – a huge breach of wizarding laws. The infraction draws the attention of Tina, an auror (the wizard equivalent of a detective). She unofficially assigns herself to Newt’s case, seeing it as an opportunity to reestablish herself after a recent demotion at her job at the Magical Congress. With no backing from the overwhelmed MACUSA (Magical Congress of USA), Newt and Tina enlist the help of the non-magical Jacob as well as Tina’s gifted sister, Queenie, to help track down the endangered beasts.

The team of four are soon entangled in the bigger issues of the wizarding community. And the simple yet daunting task of recapturing creatures leads to uncovering more mysteries surrounding the elusive dark wizard and his unlikely connection to the unknown destructive force threatening Manhattan.

Fantastic-Beasts-and-Where-to-Find-Them-19The design team artfully curates a grand and cinematic Jazz Age Manhattan setting. Most of the sets were built practically, meaning full out, which is hugely impressive given how expansive and detailed they are. Production designer Stuart Craig played an invaluable role in creating the aesthetic of the original Potter series and his hand in this new project is immediately identifiable, bringing vital cohesion. As much as the original series and this new film feel cut of the same cloth, Fantastic Beasts has its own aesthetic and point of view – a result of bringing fresh eyes to the franchise, like co-designer James Hambidge.

The art department meticulously enriches and embellishes the ornate settings, which are a work of art themselves – especially as captured by the easeful cinematography of Philippe Rousselot. But the most memorable contribution comes from costume designer Colleen Atwood, whose work won her the Oscar this year. Her creative prowess makes an immediate impact with the protagonist’s iconic look; his costume boasts a lot of personality, feeling almost like a design for the stage, while still translating beautifully on screen.

She adds immersive depth to the world, dressing the entire ensemble in period costuming that still feels inspired. Whether it’s the bleak Second Salemers or the congress of international wizards, the costuming is gorgeously rich. It calls to mind the second act of The Nutcracker, e.g. the Spanish Chocolate and Arabian Coffee. When you see the ballet, each group of dancers is smartly identifiable and more impressive than the last.

Atwood outdoes herself with the costumes worn by Alison Sudol’s character, Queenie. This is where the designer indulges in her whimsical side, particularly in the speakeasy dress, showcasing flowing femininity, impeccable taste and perfect choice of color. The magical transformation before the girls enter the speakeasy is the type of intersection of creative departments – special effects, costuming – that makes a movie a classic.

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The film is impeccably cast, from the four main leads to the smallest of secondary roles. Alison Sudol, in particular, stands out among the leading cast in her feature debut. Having relatively little background in film, Sudol is better known for her music career. She’s a complete natural and suits her role well. She has an inherent presence and charm that shows promise for success both within and outside the series. She has nice chemistry with her onscreen sister, Tina, played by the clever and talented Katherine Waterston. Her role is a tricky one, as she could quickly become annoying – not unlike Emma Watson’s character in the Harry Potter films.

Eddie Redmayne’s leading role could’ve been irritating, as well, had it been entrusted to cruder hands. His finesse as the protagonist hits the right balance between empathetic and curious: you’re left wanting to know more, which is great for the beginning of a series. His restraint works particularly well in the heavier scenes, which he plays with subtle caution. He also does well as the straight man, working with other comedic characters, whether they be digitally animated or the non-magical Jacob. Dan Fogler is a pleasant surprise in the comedic role of the non-wizard who wants to open the bakery.

The film benefits from a large ensemble cast made up of both new and long-celebrated talent. Ezra Miller, a young actor to watch, is wonderful in his layered and pivotal role. And Colin Farrell is as compelling as ever as the film’s main antagonist, Graves – a fellow auror. The two work incredibly well off of each other, making for some of the most riveting screen time. The rest of the ensemble is fleshed out by countless great performances, such as those given by Samantha Morton and Ronan Raftery, to name a couple.

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But the truly remarkable performances come from the titular beasts. The characters were first created practically as high-quality, functional puppets to be used on set, before they were recreated digitally in post production. My biggest concern about the film was that it would feel goofy or nonsensical when dealing with the creatures themselves. But the animators create incredibly emotive characters in these creatures – some of which were the most relatable in the film. Newt’s Niffler, the klepto-animal I mentioned earlier, is particularly expressive and winsome. But it’s hard to compare and contrast when all of the creatures are brilliantly brought to life. It reminded me of the genius work done by Disney on their recent remake of The Jungle Book – which also won them an Oscar.

The last takeaway of the film I have to touch on is the brilliant writing by J.K. Rowling. Of course we all know she’s most likely the literary talent of the century – or at least the most beloved. But this was her first attempt at screenwriting, a completely different challenge, and she hits it out of the park. The story is immaculately constructed, which is no surprise as that’s become her sort of hallmark, along with her knack for creating immensely authentic characters. I’d venture to say the film isn’t really an adaption of the short, titular book, as much as it’s just a complete unleashing of J.K. Rowling’s imagination and further ideas on the world she created. And I’m not complaining.

Rowling’s writing lends itself to cinema, as it’s endlessly imaginative and searingly truthful. When you take her writing and add the equally heartfelt and wistful musical cues by James Newton Howard, you get pure movie magic. That’s what this film is at its heart: collaborative magic.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is impressive for many reasons, but mostly for its masterful execution of a seemingly impossible task. The creative team, namely director David Yates, took a relatively simple text and adapted it into an inspired, relevant film that’s worthy of standing alongside the original, acclaimed series while still retaining its own independence. They chose to build off of the original films rather than start over and begin this series as wholesomely as the first one did. It makes for a darker tone, but I think the seasoned director and creative team know what they’re doing.