TV Episode Review: “Orphan Black” “To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings” (02.06, 2014)

“If you knew where Swan Man was, you would leave me behind.”

Helena may be a psychopathic child, but she isn’t stupid. We open this week with a scene of Helena and Sarah camping out in the woods, Helena acting the fun child for Sarah even as Mr. Big Dick searches their car to discover what exactly Sarah is after out in the middle of nowhere. As they drive away, Helena finds the Archies on the radio and continues to drive Sarah nuts like a child.

The fact that she’s listening to the Archies is interesting. For those who don’t know, the Archies are one of the many fake bands that populated the ’60s. They were supposedly cartoon characters performing the music. In reality, it was just a competent set of bubblegum studio artists with no real image–much the same setup that would create a scandal for Milli Vanilli years later. In a show about clones, someone listening to music created by a faceless bubblegum music factory is very appropriate.

Helena ends up back in the hands of the Proletheans, willingly this time, because she’s a child and her loyalties, as strong as they are, are fickle. Her sestra doesn’t need her as much as her babies would, so she’ll go to the babies. And she may have shown earlier that she has a brain by realizing that Sarah would leave her behind, but she also has a child’s naivete, accepting what Mark and Gracie tell her essentially unquestioningly.

“A place of screams.”

Cold River, unsurprisingly, turns out to be an old institution named the Cold River Institute. While we don’t get many specifics, it seems to have been the forerunner to Project LEDA, one that was interested in breeding patterns, eugenics, and the “nature-nurture debate.”* It’s unsurprising information, but information they probably needed to give us at some point.

“I’ve been demoted from babysitter to bargaining chip.”

Felix and Sarah’s relationship at this point is essentially broken. Felix feels like he is really nothing more to Sarah than one of her marks, and it’s an understandable reaction–as much as she may care about him, Sarah hasn’t been shy about using Felix where he’s necessary and dumping him when she doesn’t need him. She probably sees the dumping him as keeping him out of harm’s way, but he doesn’t see it that way.

However, Felix still cares too much about Sarah not to help Art out in trying to piece things together. And it’s Felix, not Art, who can find what Sarah needs later. Felix is still the one Sarah needs.

“I’ve been at it longer, so I’m better at it than you.”

Mrs. S is an older, wiser version of Sarah, isn’t she? I never really thought about it before, but imagine what Sarah will be like in 20 years–isn’t it essentially the same as Mrs. S? She has Sarah’s confidence, but it’s not as often spilling into overconfidence as Sarah’s is. She knows that Paul is there and goes to talk to him when Sarah has had no clue at all.

“Aldous Leekie killed my Susan. He killed Rachel’s mother.”

I really don’t understand why this moment was treated as some sort of revelation. I assumed that Leekie killed her–was I really alone in that?

However, the interaction with Duncan is still a powerful scene. We, like Sarah, are so used to everyone being nefarious that it’s really a surprise to find that the scientists who started this just wanted children. Leekie and his fellow neolutionists stole his daughter and his project

Notes

  • Helena has better taste in music than Felix, though Felix’s music was much better this week.
  • Mark may be smarter than I gave him credit for–picking up the hat to give to Helena was a smart move.
  • “So, can I see one?” That was funny.
  • Carl is a bastard and deserved everything he got. “Next one I break.”
  • Helena will eat anything. And do so gleefully.
  • It feels like Alison is really just in a holding pattern because they don’t have anything to do with her for a while. Rehab is a good enough place for that, though I wish the rehab weren’t quite so by-the-book.
  • Somehow, I am completely unsurprised that Tatiana Maslany seems rather at home playing basketball with only her left hand. I’ve seen actors trying to play actual athletes look more uncomfortable.
  • Was the song playing during Helena and Jesse’s dance an original for the show? I felt like I vaguely recognized it, but I can’t find it searching for the lyrics.
  • Felix’s pants were the comic relief in this episode.
  • Sarah didn’t mention Helena to Duncan, I’m assuming because she wants the most powerful, most dangerous person she knows available as a secret weapon.
  • I assume the stem cell line being from a relative is a major plot point for the future, but I don’t think we have any information for speculating on the future about that.
  • I love Maria Doyle Kennedy’s performance in this show. She often seems like the only one who belongs in the same show with Maslany (to the extent that anyone can).

*Psychology geek note: There is no nature-nurture debate as the public understands it. Everything is both.

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The Prince of Darkness

On May 18, Gordon Willis died. While his death did make the news everywhere, it was not given the headline treatment that an actor would receive or even what a director or writer may get. But while he may not have been a celebrity of the highest order, few people in history were as clearly at the peak of their profession as Willis was. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion,” and no one will argue with me when I say that is a severe understatement.

Willis began his career with a number of smaller films that have not stood the test of time, but then he took the position of cinematographer for The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1972). Adapting the extraordinarily successful Mario Puzo novel was an Oscar-winning screenwriter and graduate of the Roger Corman Film School who had not yet proven his ability to tell visual stories named Francis Ford Coppola. It was an important project, and for such an important project with a young writer-turned-director in charge, the cinematographer is an even more important position than it usually is. I’m not enough of a historian of The Godfather to say how Willis was tapped for the job, but his getting it may have had more to do with that film’s success than any other individual.

The Godfather may be more remembered in the public imagination for the dialogue, infused with so many catchy lines that are so common as to be cliche 40 years later, but it was Willis’s mastery of simple-but-effective light-and-shadow techniques that truly made the film exceptional and would earn him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness.” However, even that nickname isn’t worthy of what Willis could do. A good cinematographer has more than one trick up his sleeve, and Willis was more than good. The famed wedding scene in The Godfather is a bright and cheery affair, filled with reflective whites that make the daytime lighting even brighter than it would otherwise have been. The darkness, especially around characters’ eyes, that is the real defining visual feature of the film infuses may of the scenes, but it was his ability to adapt to what each scene needed that made him such a master.

Willis followed a similar path to success with such films as The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1974), All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976), and of course The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974), defining a special type of dark, cavernous look that seemingly half of the films of the ’70s tried to mimic but never really could. And then, as luck would have it, he crossed paths with another young director who had some success but was more known for his writing (and, in this case, his comedy) and had yet to develop his own visual style.

In 1977, Woody Allen was already a success. He was one of the most popular stand-up comedians of the 20th century and had successfully transitioned into life as a film writer and director, but his films still often relied on his writing skills over visual abilities. Love and Death (France/USA 1975) had been a fine-looking film thanks to the efforts of long-time veteran cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, but when Willis came on board for Annie Hall (USA 1977), Allen went from a comedian/screenwriter who made some good films to a genius, and a big part of the difference was actually Gordon Willis.

The two would work together seven more times, ranging from the showy black and white of Manhattan (USA 1979) to the widely varying elegance of The Purple Rose of Cairo (USA 1985). It was a partnership between a great writer and a great cinematographer that led to a series of films that were perfectly structured and loaded with incredible dialogue and visual storytelling. Allen gave Willis the ability to expand his palette beyond the cavernous darkness that Pakula and Coppola had created with him in the early ’70s and Willis made Allen’s films look absolutely beautiful no matter what the subject was.

After Willis and Allen stopped working together following The Purple Rose of Cairo, Willis’s only real noteworthy projects were returns to working with Pakula and Coppola and essentially recreating his earlier work with them. He didn’t do as many important films as, say, Conrad Hall or Sven Nykvist, but I’m not sure any other cinematographer can lay as much claim to having created a dominating visual style as Willis can for his early ’70s work, particularly on the Godfather films.

Gordon Willis had not worked on a film in 17 years when he died, but his legendary career still establishes him as someone who will be missed.

Movie Review: “Vals im Bashir” (Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany/USA/Finland/Switzerland/Belgium/Australia 2008)

To begin, here is my standard note about documentaries: to judge them fully and properly, one should also judge them by journalistic standards, which requires researching the subject in a similar fashion to how the documentarian should have. It requires an amount of work that is rather infeasible for a critic (perhaps especially for an amateur critic like me). So, you should take this entire review with a heaping scoop of salt and remember that it’s only part of the story.

Waltz with Bashir tells the story of filmmaker Ari Folman as he attempts to reconstruct his lost memories of his presence for or participation in the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of 1982. It begins with a friend telling him about a dream relating to that time in the military that sparks a “vision” based on the day of the massacre. Folman visits a psychologist friend to learn about memory and then sets about finding people who were present at the massacre to find out what he saw and what his participation was. The first person he finds is one from his vision, an old friend whom he believes was there with him, who is willing to talk to Folman but says, “It’s okay if you draw, but don’t film.”

It seems that interaction was the impetus for what really makes this film unique: it’s an animated documentary. It follows most of the same structure and even similar beats and types of shots to what most documentaries do, but instead of simple medium camera shots of faces, it’s an unusual and striking animation that frankly looks like nothing else.

Folman and illustrator David Polonsky come up with an artistic style that is truly unique. It looks something like a mixture of the animated sequences in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates, UK/USA 2010) and the animated sequences in Chicken with Plums (Vincent Paronnaud/Marjane Satrapi, France/Germany/Belgium 2011). However, this film has a hand-drawn roughness to its look, apparently from the fact that Polonsky drew the film with his non-dominant left hand, that is unlike anything I can remember seeing. (Though admittedly, I am far from an expert on animation.)

And that striking, odd animation fits the film, which is not actually about a massacre or about Folman but rather about the nature of memory.

The psychologist immediately tells Folman about one of my favorite pieces of memory research (I was a psychology major, so yes I have favorite pieces of memory research): subjects were given a series of photographs of their childhood. Most were real, but one was fake, with their image superimposed on a scene that never occurred. Confronted with these photographs of fictitious events, subjects created memories of the events, claiming to remember details far beyond what the photographs could tell. Some subjects required a little nudging to start creating their memories, but most required nothing more than the picture. Folman uses this research as a jumping off point to explore the nature of memory, the way some people lose memories of the same events that others are convinced that they remember to the most minute detail.

Like Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada 2012), the film is using the way that it tells its story to make a point about memory. However, this film is mostly using its visuals–it’s an animation of the past, not a photograph, that we see slowly being constructed as Folman seeks out witness after witness. Even their memories and current interviews are presented in animation, as parts of the picture show rather than an objective, photographic reality. It’s a very smart technique that makes the film’s point very quickly and simply.

And then, when it appears that we’ve gotten the final version of Folman’s participation in the massacre and the massacre itself, he pulls the rug out from under us and shows us actual footage of the aftermath of the massacre. The rubble-filled “camp,” the screaming family members, the dead bodies, the blood, the smoke–everything we’ve heard described and seen drawn out for us is now suddenly there in real photographic reality. It’s one of the more powerful endings I can ever remember seeing in a film, and it’s the visual technique that makes it so powerful.

Throughout the film, one thing that keeps it from becoming a dull slot through depression is its sense of whimsy. There are dark jokes between the soldiers and bits of comic relief in the animation. But perhaps the best part is Max Richter’s original music. In parts of the film, the haunting, dramatic score adds to the emotional power of the story being told. At other points, the bizarre lyrics on top of the spot-on ’80s pop and rock music is what lightens what could otherwise be an oppressive film.

Waltz with Bashir is not a typical documentary, and it’s one that should not be missed. It has a special look that gives it a power few documentaries can even come close to matching, so much so that it actually surpasses its already highly-charged subject matter.