Monday, September 01, 2014

Fall movie preview

Labor Day has come and gone, the kiddies are back at school, but somehow it doesn't feel like summer is really over. Meteorologically, of course, it isn't fall yet - and on the movie front, Hollywood hasn't yet shaken off its late-August doze. But it will soon enough.

If the recurring theme of last fall's movie lineup was "based on a true story" (12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, even American Hustle to a degree, sort of), this fall looks to be particularly packed with movies based on bestselling books. Or maybe I'm just noticing it particularly this year since I've read a fair number of the books and am interested to see how they've been adapted.

In order of release date, here are the ten films I'm most looking forward to this fall:

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM (Sept. 12) and HIM/HER (Oct. 10)
directed by Ned Benson
starring Jessica Chastian, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Ciarán Hinds

Originally conceived as a pair of films chronicling a relationship from first the guy's and then the girl's point of view, "Rigby" has since been reworked into a single movie - but the "combo" version apparently isn't going to be the only or even the last word on the subject. "Them" will be released first, in September, followed by "Him" and "Her," to play together, in October. I have several issues with this approach, namely, (1) I'm not sure the world needs three different versions of the same movie, (2) given that the juxtaposition of the male/female perspectives is what attracted me in the first place, I'd rather see "Him" and "Her" before "Them," but (3) not necessarily in one 3+ hour sitting. However, I'm curious enough to give it - them - a try.


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (Sept. 19)
directed by Shawn Levy
starring Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Connie Britton
based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper

I remember thinking, when I read this dysfunctional-family comedy for my book club a few years ago, that it felt more like a movie than a novel, would probably work better as a movie, and played like a movie in my head. But whether it actually works as a movie will depend on how appealing the actors can make their characters, who were funny but not always all that endearing on paper, and how much chemistry they have together. The quality of the cast has me reasonably optimistic on both points.


THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY (Sept. 26)
directed by Hossein Amini
starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac

I don't know much about this film except that it has a stylish noir vibe, is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, and features three excellent actors, one of whom is Viggo Mortensen. That's enough to get my attention.


GONE GIRL (Oct. 3)
directed by David Fincher
starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit, Kim Dickens
based on the novel by Gillian Flynn

If you've read the book, you know why I want to see the movie. If you haven't, what are you waiting for?


INTERSTELLAR (Nov. 7)
directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, others

Nolan & co. have been pretty tight-lipped about this one, and the teaser trailers haven't revealed much except to confirm that the movie stars McConaughey and Hathaway as space explorers, appears to take place in the future, and involves traveling through wormholes. Here's hoping it's more "2001" and less "Contact," though my guess is it will be not much like either film - except in that it's probably more interested in metaphysics than in space battles.


FOXCATCHER (Nov. 14)
directed by Bennett Miller
starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

A hit at Cannes, this strange-but-true story features a nearly unrecognizable Carell as an eccentric millionaire who sponsored a pair of Olympic champion wrestler brothers (played by Tatum and Ruffalo) and (spoiler, but not really unless you count history as a spoiler) eventually killed one of them for unknown reasons. Looks rather dark and a bit creepy, but Miller has proven to be good at capturing dark, creepy true stories without sensationalizing them (see, e.g., "Capote").


THE IMITATION GAME (Nov. 21)
directed by Morten Tyldum
starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode

The star of BBC's "Sherlock" and unlikely Internet heartthrob takes on the meaty, Oscar-baity role of Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who helped decrypt the Nazis' communication codes during WWII and lay the foundations of modern computer science, only to be later convicted of (and punished for) homosexuality. Cumberbatch is probably hoping the film meets with a warmer reception than last fall's "The Fifth Estate"; it should help that Turing is a much easier figure to root for than Julian Assange.


WILD (Dec. 5)
directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
based on the book by Cheryl Strayed

The title of the book is a bit clunky - Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - but the story it recounts is surprisingly compelling, a kind of mash-up of Eat Pray Love and Into the Wild, only with a more sympathetic protagonist. Fundamentally it's as much a tale of letting go of real, palpable, soul-crushing grief (as opposed to the usual vague, diffuse malaise/white First Worlder discontent with modern society) as it is of surviving in the wild despite a woeful lack of preparation. I'm not sure how effectively Strayed's spiritual journey can be conveyed on film, but Reese, a capable actress who hasn't been challenged enough lately, should give it her best shot. At the very least, the scenery should be beautiful.


INHERENT VICE (Dec. 12)
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short
based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon's brand of southern California noir is one of a kind, as is the hero he created for Inherent Vice, Doc Sportello: think Philip Marlowe reimagined as a permanently stoned hippie. As an actor Phoenix seems a bit too introverted for the part of Sportello, but I've no doubt he's got the chops to make it his own, and Josh Brolin is pretty perfectly cast as his nemesis, "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. Can't wait to see what director P.T. Anderson - who lord knows has plenty of experience filming oddballs and misfits - will do with them and the rest of Pynchon's wacked-out characters, not to mention his byzantine Chandler-on-acid plot.


INTO THE WOODS (Dec. 25)
directed by Rob Marshall
starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt
based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim

Confession: I've never seen Into the Woods. Assuming the movie does at least reasonable justice to the musical, it seems like the easiest way to address that deficiency. Plus Meryl Streep is awesome.


Other movies I'm keeping an eye out for: BIRDMAN, wherein confirmed miserabilist Alejandro González Iñárritu (aka man whose films make me want to shoot myself) tries his hand at comedy - or at least dramedy - with help from Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone; ROSEWATER because it's Jon Stewart's labor of love; THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 because the first two movies were good, even though dividing up the last one into two parts still annoys me no end; SELMA because we need to be reminded of that history; UNBROKEN because I heard the book was good, even though I never read it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer movie roundup

After a slow start, it turned out to be a pretty good summer for movies. For the second year in a row, an unusually strong showing on the indie/arthouse front counterbalanced a weaker than usual slate of franchise blockbusters ("Guardians of the Galaxy" being the notable exception to the latter). Here are my top five films of summer 2014:

1. LIFE ITSELF

Based on Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name, this isn't so much a documentary as a lovely, well rounded portrait of a lovely, well rounded man - and no, I'm not making any cheap fat jokes here. As a movie lover who grew up watching Siskel & Ebert "At the Movies" I'm clearly the target audience for this film, engagingly directed by Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"). But even those who don't share my bias should find it exceptionally well made, equal parts humorous and poignant, though shading more to the latter as it explores Ebert's final years struggling with the debilitating medical problems that he eventually succumbed to last year. Ultimately, however, it's an uplifting tribute to...well, life itself. Best part: the clips of Siskel and Ebert sniping at each other between takes of their TV show. GRADE: A

2. BOYHOOD

The ever-experimental-minded Richard Linklater shot this film over the course of 12 years, using the same actors, to depict a boy growing up. It may sound like a gimmick, but the end result feels remarkably organic. Like most of Linklater's previous work, it's rather loosely knit and, with a few exceptions, doesn't follow the usual narrative or dramatic beats of a "coming of age" film; rather, it's content to take a snapshot approach to the boy's life, showing as much interest (if not more) in the incidental and liminal moments of childhood as in the more conventional milestones. But that's a big part of what makes it ring so true emotionally - that, and the wholly natural screen presence of Ellar Koltrane, a non-actor who literally matures before our eyes. GRADE: B+/A-

3. THE IMMIGRANT

James Gray continues to be one of the most underrated American directors working today, as evidenced by how little attention his latest film received - sadly far less than it deserved. Part of the problem might be that Gray's style feels more European than American (there's a reason his work has been more acclaimed in Europe than here): his films tend to focus on the unspoken undercurrents of ambiguous, often messy relationships and how these dynamics are affected by subtle social and class differences; despite recurring elements of violence, they have a quiet, almost muted tone and color palette, and they're usually anchored by Joaquin Phoenix in full-on enigmatic mode. All these features are present in "The Immigrant," which stars Marion Cotillard as a beautiful, much put-upon Polish immigrant trying to find her way in 1920s New York, with Phoenix as her dark but not quite evil angel and Jeremy Renner as his slicker, more extroverted rival. What could have devolved into trite melodrama becomes a fascinating study of outsiders trying to fit in, and Cotillard delivers a compelling performance despite - or perhaps because of - a sometimes frustratingly (I think deliberately) opaque affect. Her final moments with Phoenix are some of the most powerful I've seen all year, as well as the most visually stunning. GRADE: B+/A-

4. A MOST WANTED MAN

Amid pop culture's perennial oversupply of espionage thrillers, there's no one quite like John le Carré for conveying the gray, morally enervating universe that real spies occupy and attempt, with varying degrees of futility, to manipulate in the service of an illusory greater good. Though set in post-9/11 Hamburg and definitely contemporary in its specific political concerns, "A Most Wanted Man" feels like vintage le Carré, and director Anton Corbijn ("Control," "The American") is the perfect match for his bleak yet gripping world view. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last movie roles, is excellent as Gunther, a jaded German intelligence operative who painstakingly sets up a web to trap a suspected terrorism financier. The supporting cast, too, is solid, with Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright as particular standouts. The film moves at a deliberate pace but never drags or loses its overarching sense of anxious urgency, and the ending, while abrupt, is also devastating. GRADE: B+/A-

5. BEGIN AGAIN

Yes, this is basically "Once" refitted and glossed up for a broader, American audience - relocated from Dublin to NYC, and re-cast with high-prestige actors like Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Catherine Keener, plus pop music A-listers like Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, and Mos Def (or whatever he calls himself now). The engaging scruffiness of the original is completely scrubbed away, and the music isn't nearly as good. Yet the basic formula - two emotionally wounded souls find platonic solace making a record together - still works, and the film has a surprising freshness and breezy, unforced charm, thanks in large part to the appealingly low-key chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo and the easy rapport among all the actors and musicians. GRADE:B+

Honorable Mentions:

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Who'd have thought this band of second-tier Marvel misfits would turn out one of the biggest box office hits and most widely liked movies of the summer? Not me. But count me among those won over by their Hollywood debut. It's fast-moving, light-hearted fun, and gets great comic mileage playing off the character contrasts between the Guardians. Occasionally it tries a little too hard to be funny (Chris Pratt, I'm looking at you), but for every line that misfires there's at least a dozen guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. While the movie knows not to take itself seriously, it also knows when to be serious and mostly pulls off those moments as well. Not quite the best superhero movie of the year ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier" still holds that honor in my book), though the truth is "Guardians" is far closer in sensibility to goofy space-opera serial adventures like Buckaroo Banzai and OG "Star Wars" - and not just because it features not one but two Han Solo characters, one of whom happens to be a talking CGI raccoon. GRADE: B/B+

FRANK

Why would you cast Michael Fassbender as a lead character and then cover his face with a giant paper-mâché head? Maybe because Fassbender, apart from being a stud, is also a damn fine actor who can convey volumes through body language alone. In this offbeat British indie production, he plays a gifted, mentally troubled musician who's not quite ready for the 15 minutes of fame that an ambitious but talentless bandmate aggressively pushes on him. The film bears the tricky task of balancing quirky comedy and sensitive treatment of mental illness - and for the most part succeeds. But the main reason to watch it is Fassbender, who does some of his best work without showing his face - no mean feat. GRADE: B/B+


The rest of the movies I saw this summer, in roughly descending order of preference (even though they're all bunched pretty close to one another):

22 Jump Street
It won't win any awards - but what can I say, I enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed its predecessor. Better in some ways than "21 Jump Street," as the last 20 minutes didn't drag as much. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill continue to be one of Hollywood's funniest and unlikeliest comic duos, and Ice Cube is a hoot, too. GRADE: B

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Solid, serviceable installment in the franchise that makes good use of its two generations of actors playing Dr. X and Magneto; James McAvoy is particularly good as a disillusioned young Charles. The parts set in the past (the 1970s) are stronger and more entertaining than the parts set in the future. Oh, and any movie that features a gratuitous Hugh Jackman-as-Wolverine bare butt shot gets an automatic grade hike from me. GRADE: B

Chef
Essentially the same movie as "Begin Again": dude in mid-life and mid-career crisis rediscovers his love of his calling by making a fresh, personal, totes realz product he really believes in (here, Cuban sandwiches from a food truck) - and in the process, reconciles with his estranged family. Of the two, "Begin Again" is by far the better movie; but as romantic fantasy, food porn, and travelogue, "Chef" goes down perfectly easily. GRADE: B

Edge of Tomorrow (now called "Live. Die. Repeat." WTF?)
In the words of an Internet wag, think "Groundhog D-Day," with Tom Cruise playing the role of the less-than-sympathetic protagonist who must live the same day over and over again until he gets it right - only here he's a soldier at war, so we get to see him offed repeatedly. A well-cast Cruise evolves from overly slick, hollow-patter salesman-Tom Cruise to earnest, clenched-jaw action hero-Tom Cruise, with an able assist from Emily Blunt as a celebrated female warrior who knows his secret. Their choose-your-own style adventure is fun enough to watch, though the ending feels like a cop-out. GRADE: B

Snowpiercer
A wacky multicultural mélange of a film (Korean director, French source material, mixed American, British, and Korean cast) that hasn't entirely blended its disparate elements. Inventive it certainly is; thoroughly reasoned, not so much - though what can you expect from a movie about a class revolt on a train of the Future that circles the globe endlessly, carrying the remnants of humanity after a climate change catastrophe? Up till the ending, which just went several steps too far into the realm of implausibility for me, it's pretty trippy fun - if you can deal with the wild tonal swings and somewhat jarring juxtaposition of naturalistic and highly mannered actorly turns (Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton representing the two extremes). GRADE: B

Get On Up
A biopic that tries to shake up the standard biopic formula by jumping around chronologically between different stages of James Brown's life. The results are mixed, as the final product feels like a handful of great scenes interspersed with biographical filler. Still, Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in last year's "42") is dynamite as the late Godfather of Soul. The movie's worth seeing for him alone, as well as for the nicely drawn relationship between Brown and his friend/collaborator/upstaged bandmate, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, also terrific). GRADE: B

Lucy
Passably entertaining, though it gets pretty loopy (Luc Besson style) and is not at all what the previews suggest it to be. It also suffers from the fact that Lucy (Scarlet Johansson) abandons her humanity early on, making it next to impossible to empathize with her, and the fact that the whole "humans use only 10% of their brains" myth is total crock. GRADE: B-

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams

Before last night, I hadn't thought about Robin Williams - really thought about him, for more than a passing moment - in years. I certainly hadn't seen him in a movie in over a decade, and I hadn't bothered to check out his recently-cancelled TV show.

Yet the news of his death carried all the impact of a personal loss. And judging from the reactions of my friends and peers, I'm far from alone. For my generation, Robin Williams was like that uncle who you thought was the coolest, funniest man in the world when you were little, who might have begun to seem less cool and a bit corny as you grew older, but for whom you always had a solid core of residual affection and who you assumed would be around forever. Until he wasn't.

I knew him better as an actor than as a comedian. I was a little too young to have watched him as Mork, and I didn't see any of his stand-up routines. Still, it didn't take much exposure to his comic personality to get a good sense of its feverish exuberance - the almost manic energy that sometimes came off as too much of a good thing. Sometimes he managed to channel it into his movie roles ("Good Morning, Vietnam" being maybe the best example, and of course "Aladdin"; unlike many, I never did care much for "Mrs. Doubtfire"). But what struck me early on was his ability to dial back and play it completely straight, whether as a dryly sardonic ex-shrink ("Dead Again") or a shy, earnest doctor learning what it really means to be alive ("Awakenings"). [Note: I have not seen "The Fisher King," though I just bumped it up on my Netflix queue.]

For me, though, and undoubtedly for many others my age, his signature role will always be Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society." I haven't watched that film since VHS tapes were still widely available, and I suspect I would find many more faults with it now than I did as an adolescent or a twentysomething. But I have no doubt that Robin Williams' performance still holds up. What remains with me most clearly and poignantly isn't so much Keating's classroom lessons in yawping and seizing the day as a quieter scene in his office, when he tries to persuade Robert Sean Leonard's budding young actor to be honest with himself and with his father. Gone is any hint of playful posturing or pontificating to make a point; this Keating isn't there to inspire but to inquire, and to draw out his student's innermost fears. In this respect, it was a dry run for the movie that finally won Williams the Oscar, "Good Will Hunting." He was great in that. But Dead Poets came first, and will always have pride of place in my heart.

"Good Will Hunting" arguably marked the apex of a career that ranged wildly in quality; even after becoming a huge star, Williams made a good deal of dreck that hardly matched his talent or his Juilliard training. While he continued to be effective in roles that tapped into his dark side ("Insomnia," "One Hour Photo"), he was also drawn to movies that seemed to wallow in the most cloying kind of sentimentality ("Patch Adams," "What Dreams May Come," "Bicentennial Man," admittedly none of which I've actually seen). Looking back, I can't help seeing this dichotomy as a manifestation of the tension within Williams himself, even though I ordinarily resist inflicting dime-store psychoanalysis on people I've never met. It's something of a truism, after all, that comedians struggle with deeper depression and darker demons than most people; comedy is their defense against the darkness. In Williams' case, though, the truism seems especially true: even the bathos, as well as the madcap comedy, embodied a palpable desire to connect, to love and be loved.

Which brings me back to why so many of us felt so hard hit after the initial shock of his death. Whatever you thought of his comic persona(s) or his movies, it was almost impossible to feel anything but good will towards him. The man exuded benevolence - a rare quality in most comedians, who tend to have at least something of the asshole about them - and was by all accounts a mensch in real life as well. I don't pretend to know whether or why he took his own life, and I don't presume to know. All I know is that whatever misery he may have endured, he contributed great joy to the world, and I hope he took some comfort in that.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mad Men 7-7: Waterloo

More and more in recent years, "Mad Men" seems to delight in up-ending its viewers' expectations, and the "mid-season" finale of its final season was an especially pointed example of this trend. I'm not talking about the Ghost of Bert's little song-and-dance routine (though I'll get to that in a bit). I mean, more generally, that the episode took a number of turns I did not see coming, and that every time I thought I knew where it was going it would move in another direction entirely. It zigged where I expected it to zag.

As I watched, I thought the narrative was about moving on - that it was building towards Don's finally leaving Sterling Cooper and resigning himself to that fact, as evidenced by his handoff of the Burger Chef pitch to Peggy. I thought Ted, too, would leave the firm to lick his emotional wounds in peace. When Roger picked up the phone and his face registered bad news, I thought something had happened to his daughter - not Bert Cooper. I thought Sally was going to kiss the hunky college-bound son of her mother's friend, not his geeky star-watching younger brother.

Above all, I most certainly did not anticipate that Roger's power play against Cutler would succeed. Or that it would result in Sterling Cooper getting absorbed into McCann, after so deftly avoiding the larger firm's clutches just a few years earlier.

Was it a victory? A hollow victory? Just another corporate reshuffling, with an even bigger payout for its partners? Hard to say at this point, though on the whole it felt like a muted and ironic echo of "Shut the Door, Have a Seat" (still my favorite MM episode ever). Any thrill we might feel in seeing Roger and Don outmaneuver Cutler has to be weighed against the final word on their move: Don's vision (hallucination?) of Bert cavorting and crooning "The Best Things in Life Are Free." As commentary goes, it was as oblique as it was surreal. It could be a warning, or a simple check - a reminder that money isn't everything. Or it could just be a cute nod to the actor playing Bert, Robert Morse, who had a storied career on Broadway long before we knew him as Bert, including a Tony in 1962 for the lead role in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. No question it's that, and yet the tie-in of the song to the moon landing, the event that formed the linchpin of the episode, makes me think it's more than just that.

"The moon belongs to everyone," so the song goes, and so it does - but in the world of Apollo 11, it isn't free, as Sally's rejected boy toy snarks, a party-pooping complaint that seems as insufferable and small-minded today as it probably did back then. Or does it? Given that the moon landing arguably marked the apex of the U.S. space program, rather than the beginning of a major ascension, it may sound a cautionary note for the next phase of Sterling Cooper. "It's a lot of money," as even the defeated Cutler admits, but it's no guarantor of the firm's future. Like the space program, Sterling Cooper may never be valued as much as it is at this moment.

That said, for most of us, at least, what happens to the company itself is less important than what happens to its individual members, particularly - and I never thought I'd say this, given how much he's exasperated me over the years - Don. And it's not all dim there. Just because he's staying rather than moving on doesn't mean he hasn't learned to value what really matters: Loyalty; good work - the kind that matters to him; his family. It was lovely to watch him encourage Peggy to step up and assure her she could do it, and even lovelier to watch her go on and prove him right. I also liked that he called his kids while watching the moon landing, and that he indirectly helped turn Sally's attention from the meathead to the budding astronomer. And even though he clearly had self-interest at stake in persuading Ted to stay on, too, the thrust of his pitch ("You don't want to see what happens when it's really gone") rang true - which is why Ted bought it.

So in a sense, Don has made progress, even if it's still halting and fragmented. It's been a slow journey, but it's almost over - and I can't wait to see how it ends.

Random observations:

-The episode is titled "Waterloo," which strikes me as a bit ominous, especially with Bert's admonition that even after a deposed Napoleon won back his throne, he still ended up back on an island. The analogy was directed at Don, but one can't help wondering if there are implications for Sterling Cooper as well. Then again, per Roger, it could just have been a sign of Bert's imminent demise.

-Gotta hand it to Roger for pulling off the coup, even if it ultimately leads to the death of SC as we know it. I did not think he had it in him. Neither, apparently, did Bert, which might have been precisely what drove Roger to pull it off.

-Of course even an imaginary dancing Bert would still be in socks. Of course.

-I've enjoyed the dynamic between Peggy and Julio, even if the latter felt more like a device/lens for her character than a character in his own right. I did love how Peggy seamlessly incorporated him into her Burger Chef pitch as the "ten-year-old boy" waiting for her at home. That was Peggy to a T - brilliant, almost ruthlessly pragmatic in her calculations, and yet, at bottom, undergirded by sincere emotion. I also liked the bemused reactions of Don and Pete, who probably thought she was making it up.

-But speaking of Peggy and Pete and ten-year-old boys, wouldn't their kid be about that age by now?

-Pete's unshakeable faith in Don is rather touching, even if he sees the man primarily as a high-priced, "very sensitive piece of horseflesh."

-I shouldn't take such joy in Roger's constantly screwing over Harry, but I do. I'd feel bad about Harry losing his partnership, on top of getting divorced, if he weren't such a douche.

-Speaking of the ever-expanding Divorced Mad Men's Club, I also loved that scene in the plane when Pete divines that Don and Megan are splitting. There's a moment of shared, glum commiseration between the three men (Don, Pete, Harry) before Pete spits out, "Marriage is a racket."

-I don't know if this is the last time we'll see Megan. If it is, I have to give props to Jessica Pare, who's really knocked it out of the park this season, even if her character's storyline has never been as compelling as the others'. The whole gradual, gentle decline of her marriage to Don has been quite well done. I appreciate that it's basically been without rancor, in contrast to his split with Betty.

-This was a great episode for Priceless WTF Looks from Don Draper: there's his reaction to dancing Bert, of course, but almost better was his response to ditz queen Meredith's advances. ("Tell me what I can do." "You can get my attorney on the phone.")

-For anyone else who thought Betty's friend (the mother of the two boys Sally flirted with) looked vaguely familiar, that's Kellie Martin, who had a recurring role on "E.R." (as Lucy, the ill-fated med student) and, before that, "Life Goes On." Way to make us thirtysomethings feel old!

-Line of the week: Telescope boy, after Sally kisses him - "What do I do now?"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mad Men 7-6: The Strategy

I hadn't really thought about it until now, but "Mad Men" is a show full of broken families. In fact, you could even say it's about the breakdown of the American family as much as anything else - or, viewed another way, its evolution from the Kodak-ready family of 1960 to the odd, makeshift work family at a burger joint in 1969.

If I've said it before, I've said it a hundred times: contrary to popular belief, "Mad Men" is not subtle, not really. It will pound a theme into the ground, and this week's episode was a perfect example of that. But what it may lack in subtlety it makes up for in power, and this week's episode was a perfect example of that, too.

There's an attractive coherence in focusing on the dissolution and reconfiguration of the show's various families that stood in stark contrast to the chaos of last week. It helped that the central axis of the episode was the ad campaign for Burger Chef, which served as a kind of Rorschach test for the characters' views on family and the working woman. Don, who's always yearned for the ideal nuclear family he never had as a child and failed - twice - to construct through marriage, brushes away the image of the working mom who's too busy to cook dinner as being "too sad." Pete, grappling with the realization that his marriage is truly, permanently over and that he's a stranger to his own child, pushes Peggy into the role of "mother" and remains fixated on having the ad turn on mothers. And Peggy, after enduring broadsides of casual sexism from both men, broods on the path not taken - marriage, children - before reaffirming that the idyllic vision of family she's trying to shoehorn into the ad isn't the right fit at all, either for the ad or for herself.

Or, for that matter, for Don and Pete, though both men resist that conclusion: Don still holding wistfully onto the beautiful fantasy of domestic bliss with Megan, even as she drifts further and further away, taking the physical reminders of her presence with her; Pete, for all his glee at showing off the hot blond realtor girlfriend from his new life, still hung up on the woman who ejected him from the old one. It's no coincidence that we later see Bonnie and Megan on the same plane back to L.A., leaving behind the men who can't quite accept the idea of a non-traditional partnership with a fully independent working woman. And yet it's also no coincidence that the very last shot of the episode is of those two men at dinner with the show's most important independent working woman. Whether or not they like it, whether or not they admit it even to themselves, the three of them have become a more stable, if hardly less contentious, family than their own respective families.

The episode also saw the return of Bob Benson and with him, a fleeting image of another kind of non-traditional family - the single mother, her mother who helps out, and her gay BFF. Bob pushes his luck trying to make the arrangement more traditional, at least on the outside, undoubtedly inspired by the less-than-inspiring example of the Chevy/GM man with the wife who "understands." Joan's right to reject his proposal, of course, and gracious enough to be sympathetic rather than offended. But the whole encounter made me wonder how often women in her situation would - and did - knowingly accept just such an offer, and how uncharacteristically naive it was for her to advise Bob that he, too, should wait for love. "I'm just being realistic," he tells her, heartbreakingly, even as his expression reveals how dim his hopes are of finding happiness in the institutions of marriage or family. The culture may be changing, but not enough for men (or women) like Bob Benson.

Random notes:

-It's been a while since we've seen Don and Peggy have an extended, emotionally intimate scene together, and I could feel the "Mad Men" fan base collectively squeeing as the pair moved from sniping at each other to collaborating together, like old times (with roles slightly shifted - they're on a more equal level now, even if Don is still the mentor). It was a wonderfully satisfying sequence, right down to their tender dance to "My Way," which felt for all the world like the daddy-daughter dance that neither of them has ever had. Yet some part of me felt skeptical - as it has in the past with similar scenes - that the two of them would move so quickly and neatly from hostility to reconciliation and creative inspiration.

-On the flip side, it's sad watching the slow crumbling of Don and Megan's marriage, especially since you can tell they still care for each other. You could see the pain on Megan's face at that secretary's casual comment that she didn't even know Don was married.

-Everyone loves Don and Peggy, but in some ways I love the Peggy-Stan dynamic even more. I cracked up at their telephone exchange, especially Peggy's tart "Hey baby yourself."

-Pete, giddy as a school boy at the prospect of joining the Mile High Club: "I've always wanted to do that!" Of course he would.

-I would have liked Pete's championing Don for the Burger Chef pitch more if it hadn't been at Peggy's expense. Still squirming at the insufferable condescension of "every bit as good as any woman in the business."

-Harry Crane, partner? Have to admit I had the same knee-jerk reaction as Joan and Roger, although as I've said before, he probably deserves the promotion when you measure his overall contribution to the firm. But maybe not if you balance it against his douchiness.

-I didn't pick up on all the plot machinations relating to GM and the rival firm (McCann) that seems worried about losing Buick to SC&P, but I'm guessing they will play out further in next week's so-called "mid-season finale." Will Bob Benson going to Buick help Roger poach that account? Or is there something else afoot? Whatever it is, I'll be delighted if it gives Roger leverage over that shark Cutler.

-Line of the week: Don to Peggy - "I worry about a lot of things, but I don't worry about you."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mad Men 7-5: The Runaways

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...
-Allen Ginsberg, "Howl"

If you haven't yet seen this week's episode of "Mad Men" (and don't mind spoilers), try to guess which of the following happened:

A. Don has a threesome. Roger is not involved.
B. Don, on the verge of ouster, throws a Hail Mary to save his job.
C. Betty embarrasses Henry by speaking her mind.
D. Ginsberg cuts off his own nipple.

The answer, of course, is "E. All of the above."

Every once in a while, "Mad Men" likes to throw a "wtf did I just watch" episode at its audience. Often, though not always, drugs are involved. They're marginally involved here, though a bigger player is the new office computer, which finally drives Ginsberg completely off the deep end.

One could read all sorts of cultural and psychological subtext into both the trigger and the response, though I don't know if I even want to try. Ginsberg's always been a bit off - lately more so than ever, unnerved by what he sees as the harbinger of the dehumanizing forces that are coming for them all. That he interprets the outward signs of these forces as turning men into "homos" is a little weird but frankly not especially weird for Ginsberg, and I'm hesitant to conclude it's a manifestation of his own repressed homosexuality. Even if that is part of it, his breakdown has more complicated roots. Arguably more of a construct than a totally convincing character, he's always come across as something of a mad prophet, an idiot savant, one who's especially sensitive to the dark, twisted, and corrupt side of humanity.

But seriously, cutting off one's own nipple? That there is some fucked up shit.

Still, one could see his removal of "the valve" as a symptom - or an extreme case - of the unease and instability that afflicts all the characters. In fact, everyone else in this episode seems lost and precariously on edge, from barefoot and pregnant Stephanie, who reenters Don's life and exits again before he can even see her, to anxious Megan, who quietly banishes the threat she perceives Stephanie to pose, only to fail to draw Don back into her orbit, to bumbling Harry, who wanders into and out of Megan's party, unsure of how he should handle the weakened but still formidable giant that is Don Draper, to Don himself, who pingpongs from the receiving end of Lou's petty vindictiveness to Megan's version of Hotel California and back again to deliver what he can only hope is a coup de grâce against the former. Not to mention Betty's stumble from incredulous shock at being left to twist in the wind, when she inadvertently goes off Henry's script, to furious rejection of having to stick to a script at all. Even poor little Bobby tries to escape the pain and anger in his house, only to have to settle for temporary refuge in his sister's bedroom.

Perhaps it's deliberate, but the overall effect of all these comings and goings, freakouts and resets, threats and fleeting reprieves is to give the episode a very choppy, disjointed feel. It doesn't help that we've had pretty limited exposure to half of the characters that are prominently featured this week - not enough to provoke much reaction beyond bemusement and maybe a small pang of sympathy at their fates. As for the characters we do know well, Megan and Peggy each seem stuck in a rut, while Don and Betty are still searching for their long-term trajectories. In some ways, Betty offers the most intriguing possibilities. Over the years we've seen her anger and discontent build and fester, and, like a much dimmer echo of Ginsberg's, it finally seems to be reaching a breaking point. (Though as the necessary catalyst, Henry Francis being an overbearing dick feels forced and out of character.) But what will she do with her budding desire for independence? Will she find a constructive outlet for once, or will she relapse into bitterness?

If Betty's beginning to explore the possibility of a new role in life, Don appears bent on reestablishing his old one. "I don't want anything right now," he says, heavily, as Megan and "Amy from Delaware" coax him into some fairly half-hearted three-way action. In fact, Don does clearly want something else: to regain a sense of authority, in both his personal and his professional life. Hence his eagerness to see and help Stephanie and his giant F-U to Lou and Cutler in hijacking the meeting with Philip Morris. The latter move may have worked, at least for now. Still, one can't help sensing that Don may be winning battles only to lose the war. "Get out while you still can," a departing Ginsberg implores his former colleagues. Don isn't with them, but he might do well to heed the advice. Even if it comes from a lunatic with one nipple.

Random observations:

-Highest gross-out factor since the infamous John Deere episode, ever so many seasons ago. When Peggy opened the box, I thought at first it was Ginsberg's ear. But no, it was worse.

-Ginsberg's ramblings about the computer's bad vibes was somewhat reminiscent of the unhinged general in "Dr. Strangelove" and his obsession with "precious bodily fluids."

-Also, a callout to "2001: A Space Odyssey": Ginsberg watching Lou and Cutler plotting in the computer room, unable to hear what they're saying. (Only unlike HAL, Ginsberg doesn't read them quite right - though he is correct that they're up to something.)

-Once again, the writers go out of their way to make Betty into the worst mother on earth. Sigh. She really wasn't always this way.

-Unexpectedly sweet, if sad, scene of brother-sister bonding with Sally and Bobby. It's good to have occasional reminders that Sally's aversion towards her mother hasn't totally curdled her affections towards the rest of her family.

-Visually, the show has been laying on both the hippie look and the hideous proto-'70s fashions pretty thick this season, as well as the contrast between the counterculture (Megan's party) and the establishment (Henry and Betty's friends). Can't say I care much for either, but aesthetically the latter is so much worse. I sincerely hope checked jackets never come back into fashion. Especially not when paired with striped ties.

-Line of the week: "I'm not stupid. I speak Italian." Oh, Betty.

-Runner-up: "Hello, everyone. Bye, everyone." -Amy from Delaware, leaving the most awkward Morning After ever.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Summer of Meh?

Normally the summer season heralds the end of the spring drought for movie lovers, as Hollywood rolls out its splashiest, flashiest, if not necessarily its best, offerings - candy for the eyes rather than the brain. You may not be edified, but unless you're a confirmed film snob, you'll probably be entertained. So imagine my dismay as I surveyed this summer's slate and realized that there's only *one* movie I'm truly excited about and only a few I'm even interested in seeing at all. What's up with that, Hollywood? Better hope that the springtime rule of low expectations holds true for the summer, too.

With that caveat, here are five movies that I'm looking forward to this summer, in order of release date:


X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (May 23)

X-Men generations unite! I don't know much about this one other than that it involves a time-traveling Wolverine who's tasked by old Professor X and Magneto to warn their younger selves about an impending threat to (what else?) the survival of their species. Which means we get Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, AND James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender all in the same movie. Sold! (Meanwhile, the studio suits are probably sweating bullets over the recent sex abuse allegations against director Bryan Singer - but for better or worse, they shouldn't affect the movie's box office performance.)


BEGIN AGAIN (July 4)

My most anticipated film of the summer, by a large margin. Written and directed by John Carney, the guy who brought us the wonderful little indie musical "Once," it's once again set in the music world, only with a bit more gloss: Mark Ruffalo plays a failing record label executive whose career and family are falling apart when he crosses paths with a young female singer-songwriter (Keira Knightley) who's been ditched by her more successful former musical & romantic partner (played, very appropriately, by Adam Levine) and finds new inspiration in guiding and working with her. Catherine Keener and Hailie Steinfeld ("True Grit," "Ender's Game") also appear as Ruffalo's estranged wife and daughter.


BOYHOOD (July 11)

Richard Linklater's fictional version of the "Seven Up" series? To show a little boy growing up, Linklater filmed the movie starring the same actors (including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy's parents) at various intervals over the course of 12(!) years. Interesting concept, though that doesn't mean the film itself will be interesting. But I trust the Linkman, who brought us the "Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight" series and, before that, films as varied as "Waking Life," "School of Rock," and "Dazed and Confused."


A MOST WANTED MAN (July 25)

Philip Seymour Hoffman's last lead performance? What a sad thought. But I've little doubt it will be a memorable one, as a German spy tracking a terrorism suspect in a film based on a recent (as in post-9/11) John Le Carre novel. Co-stars Daniel Bruhl ("Rush," "The Fifth Estate," "Inglourious Basterds," "Goodbye Lenin").


GET ON UP (Aug. 1)

Yes, biopics are generally plodding affairs, and the lead performances usually straddle the line uncomfortably between acting and impersonation. But *musical* biopics at least have the joy of good music and the curiosity factor of whether the actor (in this case, Chadwick Boseman, who played another, very different historical figure - Jackie Robinson - in last year's "42") can channel his or her subject's special star quality. Besides...it's James Brown, yo.


OTHER FILMS I'M TRACKING, MAY SEE IF REVIEWS ARE GOOD: Chef (Jon Favreau directs and stars as a down-and-out chef who tries to revive his career by starting a food truck); Million Dollar Arm (Jon Hamm stars as a down-and-out sports agent who tries to revive his career by recruiting Indian cricket players as pitching prospects; side note: what's with all the movies about middle-aged men trying to revive their failing careers?); The Immigrant (directed by the severely underrated James Gray, a probably dark tale of a poor N.Y. immigrant in the 1920s (Marion Cotillard) who falls prey to a pimp played by Joaquin Phoenix); The Fault in Our Stars (based on the bestselling three-hankie young adult novel about a girl dying of cancer - played by the luminous Shailene Woodley - who falls in love with a fellow cancer patient); 22 Jump Street (what can I say, I mostly enjoyed the first one, and I have a soft spot for Channing Tatum); Jersey Boys (based on the musical, directed by Clint Eastwood); Lucy (ScarJo stars as ordinary woman who accidentally gains superhuman powers after ingesting a drug she was supposed to be transporting; directed by Luc Besson, who may be uneven as a filmmaker but does know how to give us strong action heroines).

Spring movie roundup

Most people associate springtime with new life and hope. In the movie business, spring is winter: cold and dead. The charitable view is that it's a period of rest for Hollywood, as it falls between the campaign frenzy of Oscars season and the marketing frenzy of the summer season. Less charitably, it's also the period during which Hollywood tends to dump the movies it doesn't think are likely to do particularly well, either critically or commercially. On a rare occasion, a genuine blockbuster does arrive - for example, the first Hunger Games movie, which was released in March 2012 - but most years, spring is a time of low expectations for both studios and moviegoers. On the plus side, that means one is less likely to be disappointed and, conversely, more likely to be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps for that reason, I enjoyed most of the movies I saw in theaters this spring. It's a short but generally solid list:


THE LEGO MOVIE (voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Will Arnett)

If you'd told me a year ago that the LEGO movie would get better reviews than George Clooney's prestige project "The Monuments Men" (see below), I'd have asked what you were smoking. But turns out it's true, and what's more, justified! Yes, the Lego movie may seem at first glance like the crassest kind of product placement - a massive toy advertisement masquerading as a movie. That doesn't disguise the fact that it's actually a good movie. Thematically it's surprisingly high-concept, playing out the age-old tension between the order of conformity and the chaos of creativity. Oh, there's also a prophecy, a diabolical plot, a counter-plot, and a lot of chases in between, but the main attraction here is the often hilarious interplay between the Lego characters and the ingenious rendering of the Lego world through detailed CGI that's made to look like stop-mo animation. The pace is sometimes a little frenetic, and I also wasn't a huge fan of the ending, which seemed too cute by half - though I can see it appealing to those who actually grew up playing with Legos (unlike me, for whom even stacking blocks was too much of a challenge). Still, overall, it lives up to its weirdly catchy them song: "Everything is Awesome!" GRADE: B+


THE MONUMENTS MEN (directed by George Clooney; starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett)

Proof that great (true) story + good director + great cast ≠ a great, or even a good, movie. Based on Robert Edsel and Bret Witter's acclaimed book about the unlikely WWII heroes who saved some of the greatest art works in the world from being destroyed or made part of Hitler's private collection, Clooney's labor of love unfortunately doesn't yield a very compelling movie. The first half lacks any real narrative momentum and fails to convey a clear sense of where the Allied and German forces are moving, or why. Worse still, the film doesn't let us get to know the Monuments Men themselves in any depth. While the pace and urgency do pick up in the last third or so, the protagonists remain undeveloped as characters. We can care, in theory, about the mission, but it's equally important for dramatic purposes that we care about the men who committed to it. "Monuments Men"'s failure in this regard ends up being its fatal flaw. GRADE: B-/C+


VERONICA MARS (directed by Rob Thomas; starring Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni + most of the rest of the show's cast - yay!)

(This review for fans only; I've no idea what a non-fan would think, and suspect there weren't many in the audience.) Rob Thomas delivers a perfect tonic to those who felt cheated of a satisfactory ending to the series. Who cares if the movie stretches contrivance a little to bring a grown-up Veronica, on the cusp of a successful New York legal career, back to Neptune. As with the series, the plot is just middling to ok, but the wit is razor-sharp and the characters are aces. Logan Echolls, of course, is front and center, though thankfully less dickish this time around, and the Veronica-Logan dynamic is balanced by a healthy dose of the Veronica-Keith father-daughter dynamic, IMO the best thing about the show. The movie also provides just the right amount of Dick Casablancas (who hasn't lost any of *his* dickishness, and somehow became even funnier), and a downright lovely appearance by Leo D'Amato (my favorite of Veronica's boyfriends). Not quite enough Wallace and Mac, but what you gonna do with a 2-hour limit? All in all, a fun couple of hours revisiting our old friends. GRADE: B+ for Veronica Mars fans; probably a B for anyone else


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes and a whole bunch of Wes Anderson's regulars)

A Wes Anderson confection at its most Wes Anderson-y, crammed with super-stylized visuals, dazzling miniaturization, and quirky tics and crossed with undercurrents of wistful melancholy that save the whole production from being annoyingly precious. However, in some ways "Grand Budapest Hotel" feels like a departure for WA; there's a darkness that hasn't been present in his previous work. It's the darkness of pure evil - specifically, the evil that haunted Europe in the 1930s. No, Hitler isn't in the film, which takes place in a fictional central European country, but the specter of the Nazis' brutality looms over the fragile, double-embedded narrative of a first-rate concierge (Fiennes) trying to keep alive the Old World charm and civility his hotel represents, even as the region teeters ever closer to the brink of war. Fiennes is fantastic; the rest of the characters, alas, aren't given enough room to develop beyond caricature, and as is often the case with WA, the driving A-plot turns into a series of elaborate setups with a far too drawn out (and ultimately rather anticlimactic) payoff. GRADE: B/B+


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; starring Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford)

The rare superhero sequel that's decidedly superior to its predecessor, "The Winter Soldier" builds off the discovery made in the first "Captain America" and expanded in "The Avengers" that Marvel's squarest hero could be its most compelling. Steve Rogers, a WWII-era soldier now planted in the 21st century, is an obvious fish out of water, but the movie doesn't just play that displacement for laughs (unlike, say, the first THOR movie). Instead, it zeroes in on the loss of his moral innocence - his belief that good and evil are easily identified and his job is to defend the former, slowly undermined by the dawning realization that he's being manipulated to serve other, far more sinister ends. In that respect, the film hearkens back to the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the '70s (yes, I know every other critic has said that), and not just because Robert Redford appears as a key character. Of course, "Winter Soldier" is still a popcorn movie, loaded up with the requisite bang and boom, and surprisingly gripping fight and chase scenes, but what it's best at is building the tension of not knowing who one's true friends are. Chris Evans, as before, gives a likable and nuanced performance as the decent man whose decency is what makes him remarkable in an indecent world, and ScarJo pairs well with him as his ultimate foil - the woman of no fixed moral attributes who acts as his ally but whom he may or may not be able to trust. GRADE: B+


THE LUNCHBOX (written and directed by Ritesh Batra; starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui)

Did you know that Mumbai, India, has a service that allows any office worker to have his lunch delivered every day from his home to his desk? It's true, and the system is reputed to be remarkably efficient. But not, apparently, infallible - at least for the purposes of this quiet, modestly appealing film about a young housewife (Kaur) who tries to rekindle her relationship with her inattentive husband by cooking him scrumptious lunches, only to discover that they're being delivered to the wrong person. The accidental recipient is an older man (Khan, excellent as always), a widower who's on the verge of retirement and in semi-denial about it. The two strike up a correspondence that eventually leads to the question of whether they should meet in person. I won't spoil whether they do except to say that the film, somewhat annoyingly, tries to have its cake and eat it too. However, setting aside the unavoidable will-they-or-won't-they beats of the main plot, "The Lunchbox" provides an intriguing look at the culture of modern Mumbai and captures the isolation of being lonely in a big city with subtlety and grace. GRADE: B/B+