Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fuller House

Creator: Jeff Franklin
Starring: Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin, Andrea Barber, Michael Campion, Elias Harger, Soni Nicole Bringas, Dashiell and Fox Messitt, Juan Pablo Di Pace, John Brotherton, Scott Weinger, John Stamos, Lori Loughlin, Dave Coulier, Bob Saget
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Recently, I read an article about a scientific study conducted on nostalgia. The findings were somewhat surprising in how it revealed that being enraptured by these warm, fuzzy recollections of the past can be positive, helping us move forward. The reasoning was that we tend to look back on anything from our past as being much better than it actually was. I tried to keep this in mind while watching the somewhat excruciating pilot episode of Netflix's Full House reboot/spin-off, Fuller House. In it, the very definition of the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for" is pushed to its breaking point, as every beloved character from the classic TGIF sitcom barges into the original house within minutes, spewing their catchphrases as if no time passed at all. In fairness, the actors all look great, but it's a lot to take in at once, testing even the most dedicated diehards patiently waiting thirty years for a moment that not only drags on too long, but feels more like a Fallon skit without the laughs.

Fuller House on Netflix
When creator Jeff Franklin said the first episode (Ep. 1.1, "Our Very First Show, Again") would essentially be a reunion show, he wasn't kidding. It goes on for 38 minutes and unfortunately it's hard not to feel each and every one, confirming fears that Netflix executives think that just rounding the original cast up for a victory lap is good enough. They did it with Arrested Development and then again with Wet Hot American Summer, thinking we'd be satisfied by merely seeing everyone together again (or in the former's case, seeing them separately). Even Full House's classic theme song (the catchy "Everywhere You Look," originally performed by Jesse Frederick) gets a peppy, if initially jarring, cover by Carly Rae Jepsen that kind of grows on you. It's set against an opening credits sequence that's still leaning a bit too heavily on the old cast, at least in the pilot.

Nothing really clicks in the first episode, whether it's a gag about Stephanie's newly acquired British accent, a meta, fourth wall-breaking joke at the expense of the Olsen twins, Bob Saget looking like he just woke up or Dave Coulier's comic antics aging poorly. And while the older cast members have never seemed more off their game than in these initial minutes, it's still important to remember they're only as good as the material they're given and adults watching now were children when the series initially aired. Then comes the big moment toward the end of the episode. Just when I was just about to give up all hope, it's Candace Cameron Bure to the rescue. She has this one pivotal scene that convinces us maybe creator Jeff Franklin does have a plan. That he knows where to take this.

Now comes the good news. That first episode is not only by far the series' worst, it's really the only stinker of the thirteen. And as much as it pained me to type all that about something I'd long consider a slam dunk on paper, it only applies to the pilot. There was a better way to do that and I certainly shouldn't want to be warning any original cast members to not let the door hit them on the way out. So to be nice, I'll instead warn bingers to skip to episode 2, which is where Fuller House actually begins, or should have began. And you know what? It's really good. In fact, you could go as far as to say that of Netflix's rescusitations of dormant, nostalgic properties, this is easily the strongest as far as both constructing a logical continuation of the original series and capturing the spirit and feeling with which it was created.

"Olsens, where are you?"
Of course, given that this was a family sitcom rarely cited for creative brilliance, it has a relatively lower bar to clear compared to those aforementioned reboots. A more appropriate comparison point might be the recent Girl Meets World. But it's fascinating to examine why this worked, and why nearly all that does comes from narrowing the focus on all the right characters, and finding new ones that can perfectly compliment them. After a rough opening, the show (while still not without problems) starts finding its groove, making for some mindlessly fun, addictive TV that recalls the family sitcoms of Full House's era, and a time when families would gather around together to watch them.

Recently widowed veterinarian D.J. Tanner-Fuller (Cameron Bure) is now in a similar position to that of her father over thirty years ago, as her firefighter husband Tommy's sudden death leaves her to take care of three sons, teenager Jackson (Michael Campion), 7 year-old Max ( Elias Harger) and baby Tommy, Jr. (Dashiell and Fox Messitt). Obviously overwhelmed and desperate for help, she accepts an offer from her younger sister Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and childhood best friend, Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) to move into the original Tanner house with them, the latter bringing along her half-Latin teenage daughter, Ramona (Soni Nicole Bringas). While keeping busy with their own endeavors, Tanner patriach Danny (Saget), Jesse (John Stamos) and Becky (Lori Loughlin), and Uncle Joey (Coulier), still pop up in San Francisco to lend a hand to D.J., who's trying to adjust to her new, extremely hectic life as a single mother.

The casting and story focus are the easiest elements to identify as succeeding from the get-go. Once all the supporting players from the original take leave after the pilot and are reduced to recurring roles, we're left with the core three: D.J., Stephanie and Kimmy. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the four new kids (or five, taking the Messitt twins into account) and one really annoying appendage of an ex-husband for Kimmy. It was the right decision to have the series revolve around D.J. while Stephanie's involved in a major way and Kimmy Gibbler is, well, Kimmy Gibbler. If you were a fan of that character you still will be and if you weren't, then nothing's changed and you'll still find her irritating. Isn't that the point?

The Tanner/Gibbler clan
Keeping the setting in San Francisco and even going so far as to have it in the same house was also smart. Whereas a Boy Meets World spin-off could afford to shift locations from Philadelphia to New York with little harm done to the creative integrity of the series or its characters, the city of San Francisco is just too ingrained into the fabric of Full House to even attempt justifying such a move. Just look at the opening credits.

If Franklin made a mistake hammering us over the head with too many characters in the opening episode, he finds the right balance for the remaining twelve, and further atones for it with the casting of these new kids. Elias Harger as Max is a little ham and mini-Danny Tanner who steals every scene he's in while Michael Campion as sarcastic, but good-hearted older brother Jackson will be relatable to younger male viewers everywhere. The Messitt twins are actually cuter babies than the Olsens, both filling that perceived void as Tommy, Jr. And if Kimmy Gibbler had a daughter, chances are she would look and act exactly like Soni Bringas' Ramona, who's a bit less goofy than her mom since it would be tough not to be. She also gets to gamely deliver the one inside joke at the expense of the Olsen twins that does hit the mark, earning some well deserved laughs.  

Most of the episodes follow a structure that would be familiar to anyone raised on 80's family sitcoms, and probably even to many who weren't. There's some kind of crisis or complication of some sort that usually wraps up with a big lesson being learned. In this first season, it includes story arcs involving compromise, divorce, change, sibling rivalries, dating, crushes, blackmail, lying and discipline. And of course, a few guest stars show up to test the definition of the term "guest star," unless singer Macy Gray, Maksim and Val Chmerkovskiy from Dancing with the Stars, the San Francisco Giants' Hunter Pence were exactly who you had in mind.

D.J. and Dr. Matt at a giants game
Three of those guests conveniently serve as excuses for a few of the season's many dance/musical scenes, while the Pence appearance is actually kind of great. The fact that they picked the most insane player in the Giants line-up to date Stephanie (Ep. 1.10, "A Giant Leap") and then actually had her refer to him as "crazy eyes" should be enough to make anyone's day. The episode only ranks behind D.J. Tanner's impromptu match for a Mexican wrestling promotion (Ep. 1.6, "The Legend of El Explosivo") during which Cameron Bure shockingly does all her own stunts, proving to be skilled enough in the ring to have this be a second career. 

The show does contain two sub-plots that seem to permeate through all thirteen episodes. The first is a love triangle in which D.J. is torn between her new veterinary co-worker, the almost offensively normal Dr. Matt Harmon (John Brotherton) and returning high school boyfriend, Steve (Scott Weinger), now a divorced podiatrist with ownership of Comet Jr., Jr. (don't ask). One of the bigger developments this season is the reimagining of this character as a creepy, obsessive ex who still hasn't gotten over D.J. twenty years later. Get in line, Steve. I'm still not sure whether this insane depiction was intentional or not, but you haven't seen anything until witnessing the perpetually hungry podiatrist arrive in the Tanner kitchen for a date with D.J. like he's reeanacting a scene from Psycho, only wearing a high school letter jacket instead of a dress.

You have to love the writers for including moments like this, while also recognizing that families tuning into this G-rated show will also be getting their fair share of sex, butt and boob jokes. It's surprising that THIS, of all things, has been a source of criticism and controversy while no one seems takes issue with Kimmy's on again off again ex-husband and Ramona's father, Fernando Hernandez-Guerrero-Fernandez-Guerrero (Juan Pablo Di Pace). Yes, that's the character's full name. It's funny to imagine that this is Jeff Franklin's response to how "white" Full House has always been, an issue even directly addressed at one point during this season.

Kimmy and Fernando at "Ramona's Not-So-Epic Party”
If anything, the over-the-top Latin stereotype that is Fernando is too ridiculous to even be offended by, existing (as do other parts of this spin-off) in a time warp. The bigger problem is that he's relentlessly annoying and if they do insist on keeping him around for future seasons, they're going to have to scale back his appearances since he's just too much, especially in a stretch toward the end when his shenanigans nearly hijack the proceedings. This and the kids' faces constantly being buried in their smartphones and tablets, texting their brains out, are the two big lowlights of the season. While at least the latter can be justified as an accurate reflection of the times, TV still hasn't found an satisfying way to visually depict actors typing conversations with their heads down. But barring the pilot episode, the series is respectful of its own past without deliberating trying to recreate every little detail of it.

If Cameron Bure stands as the show's rock and centerpiece, it makes sense not only for the narrative, but because she's been the most steadily working actor aside from Stamos since the original wrapped. And while it may take a period of adjustment for fans to s like myself to start seeing her as an overprotective, somewhat uncool mom, adult Kimmy Gibbler is literally the living, breathing incarnation of what we always figured she'd grow up to be: Herself. From the way she acts, dresses, talks, and even in her party planner career, Andrea Barber doesn't miss a beat, as if she arrived in our present in a time capsule marked "1989." What does take some getting used to is having a character we've previously experienced in limited doses as the goofy neighbor promoted to a full-fledged co-lead. It's almost as if Family Matters returned and now starred Urkel as the lead, which you know it surely would.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Jodie Sweetin, and while it's common knowledge that she basically came back from the depths of personal hell to get this opportunity again, she's just such a natural at this. Similar to Kimmy, her adult Stephanie is a funhouse reflection of her younger self, but with a twist. Hard partying and somewhat irresponsible, she's the new Uncle Jesse and her questionable job choice as traveling DJ, "DJ Tanner" provides the series with one of its best running gags. And while Steph's often the butt of racier jokes involving the character's propensity for partying and sleeping around, Sweetin has a way of making that material seem family friendly and likable, frequently selling some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue with impeccable comic timing. If hardcore Full House apologists want to get nostalgic or emotional about anything, it should be the fact that she's the series' MVP                                  

Danny Tanner sure loves his couch
The decision to essentially make the pilot episode a reunion show may have been a big mistake, but it's somewhat rectified when the remaining original cast members occasionally pop in as guest stars. This is a far better use of them and more in line with how Girl Meets World operates, saving certain characters for key points during the season to build anticipation and make the appearances feel special. Saget and Stamos fare the best in this regard, as the former has a strong showcase episode (Ep. 1.8, "Secrets, Lies and Firetrucks) in which we get a really heavy dose of the old Danny Tanner we know and love, obsessing over the dreaded possibility his couch could get reupholstered. All this eventually this leads to the disturbing image you see to your left, and sorry, but when Danny takes out his phone and starts snapping selfies in that jacket, all feels right in the Full House universe.

Of all the originals, the ageless Stamos' vain, Elvis-obsessed Jesse has changed the least, which is fine, since there's little need to fix what wasn't broken to begin with. While time has also been very kind to Lori Loughlin, the writers were not, giving Aunt Becky this strangely psychotic empty nest disorder that has you fearing for Baby Tommy whenever she's near. Dave Coulier doing his Joey Gladstone, complete with puppet and pajamas seems a little weird considering he's pushing sixty, but his best moment actually comes in an episode he isn't in, when DJ slides in the one Coulier joke we've all been waiting for but didn't think they'd have the guts to write in. As for the elephant in the room that isn't in the room that are Mary-Kate and Ashley, they're mentioned or alluded to enough that their presence can't really be missed. Supposedly, producer Stamos actually attempted to get Elizabeth Olsen for the role, which was a brilliant, if unrealistic, idea. Needless to say, she was busy. Given this show's popularity, I still predict there's a better than good chance we'll see Michelle Tanner before the end of it.

All the critics hate Fuller House. This isn't really news, or unexpected considering they never cared for Full House all that much either when it originally aired. And some of what they're saying is true. You  may have also heard its defenders claim that the series "isn't made for critics." While that's a statement I'd usually scoff at, it does carry a certain amount of weight in this instance. Anyone who hated the original will no doubt feel the same about its spin-off and those who believed the sun rose and set on TGIF in the 80's and early 90's will be immensely satisfied. That tells me Jeff Franklin and Netflix accomplished their goal, simultaneously angering and exciting exactly who it was supposed to by delivering a series that's faithful to the spirit of the original, yet updated for current times.

Fuller House cast
Far from a well-oiled machine, there are many kinks in the show that still need working out, but it's at least strong enough to deserve a chance to do that. Having long fallen out of the audience it's intended for, it's comforting to know a show like Fuller House can exist and thrive in a vastly changed TV landscape from the one its predecessor premiered in. There's nothing else quite like this out there anymore, and nostalgia or not, that has to count for something.      

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Arthur Redcloud, Grace Dove
Running Time: 156 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's rare that the reputation and mystique of a film so firmly rests on a single scene's reception the way it does in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated The Revenant. By now, everyone knows the scene, or at least knows of it, regardless of whether they've actually seen the movie. Before the public conversation inexplicably morphed it into an animal-on-human rape punchline, the scene could be viewed for what it is and how it plays out on screen. Bears don't sexually assault humans. They maul them to protect their young. And it's scary as hell. I feel like an idiot even typing that, and while always counting myself as good for a laugh at the expense of serious material, it's a testament to how far the joke went that this actually warrants explanation. 

There's no confusion as to what's happening but it's hard not to wonder if Academy members marking their ballots thought there was and unfortunately decided against honoring a film that was turned into a national joke by the media. It's likely few have ever seen a grizzly attack before, onscreen or otherwise. And whatever idea we had of one in our minds certainly wouldn't match the close approximation of reality that occurs in the film.

The details of the scene is one of the many surprises that makes The Revenant special, and the inciting incident that starts Leonardo DiCaprio on the path to giving a performance that's easily the most physical, yet verbally sparse, of his career. Bu the most surprising thing about it is that his character somehow survives it, only to face further  insurmountable odds that test his will to live, and perhaps eventually, extract revenge. It's a man vs. nature survival story and historical adventure epic all wrapped into one, and despite my minor issues with how it culminates, there's little fault to be found.

It's 1823 when the Arikara Native American tribe launch a surprise attack on a crew of American trappers hunting for pelts in the Northern Plains. After what ends up being a particularly brutal battle with many casualties, the surviving trappers escape on a boat lead by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and their guide, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). When the latter suggests they abandon the boat to travel on foot, it raises the ire of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a mealy-mouthed bully who not only directs his outrage at Glass, but also his mixed race son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Tensions further escalate after a savage grizzly bear attack leaves Glass maimed and unable to continue the journey, prompting Fitzgerald to suggest they kill him so they can all promptly move along.

What happens next is a catastrophic series of events that leave Glass, crippled and clinging to life, alone in the wilderness, fighting the elements as the Arikara tribe continuing to trail the Americans they believe abducted the Chief's daughter. But Glass has only thing on his mind: Revenge. He needs to survive, if only to get his hands on Fitzgerald, who committed the ultimate crime against his family, and one he'll pay dearly for if Glass can live long enough to catch up to him.

Partially based on Michael Punke's novel of the same name, the opening half hour of The Revenant isn't entirely dissimilar to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, before settling into a rhythm and tone more closely resembling Dances with Wolves. It's an odd comparison to make but one the picture earns by starting with a shockingly brutal battle that doesn't hold back in either gore or psychological implications for the men involved. There's very little dialogue both before and after the trappers escape to the boat, and whatever talk there is, serves to briefly establish their personalities and formulate a travel plan. Fitzgerald, who was scalped by natives years ago, harbors almost unrelenting resentment toward Glass and his son from the get-go, establishing himself as an arrogant jerk with little regard for anyone else. And of course, Hardy, playing the baddie with an unintelligible redneck drawl, is just perfect at eliciting this extreme hatred and disgust.

What we do know of Glass comes in brief, almost Malickian flashbacks to his life with his late wife and then infant son. But most of what's revealed about the frontiersman comes following the horrifying grizzly attack (partially accomplished with some really impressive CGI) that eventually separates him from his party, fighting for survival. And it's here where the film hits its stride, as Glass must withstand sub-zero temperatures, life-threatening injury, wild animals and angry natives to eventually arrive at his showdown with Fitzgerald. For most of this, the character is incapacitated in some way and can barely talk.

While it's completely true that good acting involves much more than just performing under brutal conditions, what makes DiCaprio's work so remarkable is how little he must rely on dialogue, instead transcribing every thought, feeling and emotion through sheer physical distress. Despite the minimal speaking, it's nonetheless an engrossing journey thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's Oscar-winning cinematography and sound, costume and production design that fully brings to life the 1800's in the Dakotas.

Those looking for a revenge-oriented ending out of The Revenant will probably be disappointed, and if it's plot seems as thin as the paper its screenplay (by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith) was written on, that hardly matters. The film seems to be building to this epic confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald, and while I'm being coy in revealing details, the route the film takes to arrive at that conclusion will undoubtedly frustrate those weened on more dramatic finishes. Then again, it might be advantageous to ask whether this story really was about vengeance to begin with.

With themes drenched in familial loyalty, spirituality and a bond with nature, this was always a mood piece that wouldn't ever be mistaken for something like The Hateful Eight. But it still is, in very different way, a full blown assault on the senses, technically towering above most films released in the past year in terms of visuals and sound. Iñárritu makes good on fully immersing us in this unfamiliar world. It's DiCaprio's performance that takes care of the rest.