Monday, October 29, 2012

Homeland Ep. 2-5: Q&A

As a narrative, this was the simplest episode so far of season 2. Picking up from last week, Brody was taken to an underground bunker and interrogated by the CIA. First by Peter Quinn, who appeared to become completely unhinged ("appeared" being the operative word) when Brody wouldn't admit anything, even after being confronted with the damning video. Then by Carrie, who managed to get through to him - enough for him to admit yes, he did try to assassinate the VP, yes, there was a plot to attack America, and yes, he'd help the government foil it in exchange for avoiding a trial and public exposure of his treason.

But from a psychological perspective, this may have been the most layered episode we've seen yet this season. As I commented last week, I rather expected the show would go this route to keep Brody - and more particularly, Brody's relationship with Carrie - front and center, even if I had some misgivings that it wouldn't be able to match their extraordinary first-season dynamic. While it's still too early to call, tonight showed that there's a LOT of juice left in that engine. As always, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis each brought out the other's A game, transcending the improbabilities inherent in their characters' respective situations to create a riveting standoff.

Carrie's approach, as her approach to everything Brody-related, was unorthodox. She began obliquely, not immediately targeting Brody's vulnerabilities but rather exposing her own where Brody was concerned. She doubled down on what she'd admitted to him before, that he'd broken her heart, and pressured him to tell her that her feelings weren't unrequited, that he'd felt at least *some* twinge of guilt in destroying her life. It felt almost like some kind of surreal post-breakup conversation, which in a sense it was. But it was just a prelude to the main event: She turned off the cameras, creating an illusion of intimacy, then looked into him and read him, as only someone who really loved him could - and as no one else ever had, or even could.

And that, ultimately, was what broke him. Some viewers may conjecture that Brody simply made a calculated decision to give in and play along. Maybe it became that later, or will become that in the future, but it wasn't in that moment when he slumped over Carrie's outstretched hand, or to anyone who could see his expression at the climax of her interrogation, mesmerized - no rapt - by her spooky intuition. (Damian Lewis's facial and body language was aces, absolutely brilliant, in this scene.) And later, when he told Jessica that he was working for the CIA, there was an undertone of quiet conviction that recalled Carrie's earlier coaxing: wouldn't it feel so good, such a relief, to be able to tell the truth? Even being able to disclose a partial truth must have felt like a balm to his tortured soul.

I suppose it was inevitable that Carrie would become Brody's de facto handler. She's at once the only person for the job and the last one they should have given it to, a tension that should be a rich source of suspense and psychodrama for at least the rest of this season. I know I can't be the only one who twitched nervously when she established the code and protocol for their future contacts: "I miss you," followed by meetings at her apartment, with an affair as their cover? This arrangement seems risky, to say the least, on a number of different fronts. Here's hoping Virgil continues to keep an eye out for our girl - because she's definitely going to need a guardian angel.

Random observations:

-There was only one side plot tonight (other than Jessica trying for the umpteenth time to figure out Brody's whereabouts, which is starting to become almost comically routine), and that was Dana's disastrous hit-and-run date with the boy I will continue to call Spawn of VP - or just Spawn for short. Not sure where this storyline is going, but there was clearly an ironic contrast between Brody finally being able to say something truthful to his wife, and Dana finally having to lie and conceal. Well, actually she doesn't have to lie at all and *shouldn't* conceal the incident, but whether she tells or stays silent, I have a feeling there will be dire consequences either way.

-Peter Quinn driving his knife through Brody's hand was probably the most jarring moment so far in "Homeland" - and lord knows there've been plenty of those. By no means should we condone such methods of "setting the table," so to speak, but you gotta admit: Peter Quinn is a badass.

-Does Carrie know that Brody killed Walker? The Gettysburg bomb maker? She certainly seems to know, or have guessed, that they're both dead. But Brody never copped to being responsible, which could create some complications down the road.

-So shady-lady journalist has been outed to the CIA. I hope this means her character either becomes more interesting or gets taken out quickly. Btw, I wonder if she ever went on that date with Estes? Maybe they've been boinking this whole time and we just haven't seen it. That could be interesting, at least in its implications.

-Saul's been very much in the background these last couple of episodes, yet he's still had an important role in ensuring that *Carrie* has a role. I did love that he totally called Peter Quinn on the real intent behind his outburst.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Homeland Ep. 2-4: New Car Smell

Wow. I was *not* expecting that turn of least not this early in the season.

The last time I had that feeling watching "Homeland" - "holy shit, they're really going there - and so soon?!" - was in the middle of the first season. And somehow the writers managed to keep the narrative going just fine. So I have faith they'll be able to do it again. But I really wonder what their plan is, and in particular I wonder how much longer they're planning to keep Brody and his family as central characters in the "Homeland" universe.

That's not to say there haven't been signs that Brody was going down sooner rather than later, as I commented last week. And there were signs early in this episode that his fall would be accelerated, despite Saul's efforts to set up a longer game. (And no, I don't believe Saul's strategy is evidence that he's a mole - after all, wouldn't a true mole have ensured that no one ever saw the Brody video in the first place?) There was the urgency of discovering Abu Nazir's plot; the quick buildup of a critical mass of witnesses to Carrie's vindication; and, on the sidelines, Jessica's ultimatum and Lauder's piecing together the truth about Walker's assassination attempt. Something had to give - but again, I was expecting at least a couple more episodes before the rug got pulled. If I had to predict where Brody's arc is headed now, I'd guess that the CIA "persuades" him to play double agent for them in the hope of uncovering Abu Nazir's plot. But with "Homeland," you really never know what's going to happen next.

All I know is I'll be sad if this latest plot turn means we won't get to see any more of that wonderful cat-and-mouse dynamic between Carrie and Brody - those supercharged scenes when we're never really sure who's got whose number or how much of what they're saying or showing to each other is true. We got a taste of it tonight in their run-in outside the CIA and even more so in the bar scene, but these interactions were one-upped by their last, climactic encounter in Brody's hotel room. Which I think marked a point of no return: while there may well be future power struggles and mind games between those two, I fear they won't have that same delicious ambiguity now that the masks (and gloves) have come off. Of course they could always go back on if the CIA decides to use Brody against Nazir.

But regardless of what happens in the long run, how fantastic was that last face-off between Carrie and Brody? You could see the murder in Brody's eyes and the crazy in Carrie's - or vice versa. They're twisted mirror images of each other, which is also why they're irresistibly drawn to each other. The moment when Carrie let Brody know the game was up and essentially dared him to kill her reminded me, in its intensity, of when Brody pushed the button on his suicide bomb vest. For each of them the pulling of the trigger was not only their moment of revenge, but, in their own sick way, their moment of fulfillment - of justification for their royally fucked-up existence.

I don't mean to suggest any kind of moral equivalency between Carrie and Brody. But their similarities in temperament can only feed our doubts about Carrie - at least, of her subconscious rather than her conscious motivations. Was she correct that Brody had "made" her, or was she so obsessed with payback that she made herself believe that he had? Did she tell Brody that she'd loved him to throw him off balance or (as I believe) because she simply couldn't help herself? And if the latter, did she unwittingly hand him a weapon he might use later?

We'll find out, I guess. And I can't wait.

Random observations:

-Contrary to my expectations, Estes responded to the Brody bombshell in an entirely appropriate manner. But then he brought in the mysterious Peter Quinn, whom we're clearly supposed to wonder about, although I like his dynamic with Carrie and my money's on him being a good guy. My money's also on him and Carrie hitting the sheets at some point. Where there's friction, there's a spark.

-Trivia: the actor playing Peter Quinn, Rupert Friend, is yet another Brit pretending (quite successfully) to be an American - in case you didn't already know, both Damian Lewis (Brody) and David Harewood (Estes) are Brits. The Friend's been in several British period piece-ish movies (Prince Albert in "The Young Victoria," Wickham in the Keira Knightley "Pride and Prejudice") and was dating Keira Knightley for a while. (Maybe still is, for all I know.)

-I love Virgil and was happy to see him again, but good Lord, could the man be any less subtle in his spy work? I half expected him to come up to Brody and tap him on the shoulder.

-Other than the Carrie connection, I don't understand why Mike thinks Brody might have been working for the CIA. His theory still doesn't answer the million dollar question raised by Lauder: why did Walker shoot to miss?

-I'm not really that interested in Dana's relationship status (though the writing was on the wall for that change since at least the second episode). But I expect its significance will become clearer soon enough, given how fast this show moves.

-Line of the week: "Key lime, sounds like a winner."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Homeland Ep. 2-3: State of Independence

Words cannot express how much I love Saul Berenson, or how glad I was to see him on Carrie's doorstep tonight.

I knew the writers were going to wait until the very end of the episode for that moment. They just had to ratchet up our fears that something would prevent Saul from telling Carrie what she needed most desperately to hear: that she was right about Brody. Part of the emotional power of "Homeland" since the end of the first season has been the agony that's been eating Carrie up inside - the agony of being, to paraphrase her own words, so sure and yet (apparently) so wrong about the man who single-handedly destroyed her life. For my own personal sanity as a viewer I'm grateful to see her liberated from such a crippling burden of self-doubt.

How the CIA reacts remains to be seen, but I can't see that video being anything less than a full vindication of Carrie...which also makes me nervous that something's going to happen to it. But even if it does mysteriously disappear, Carrie's at least recovered some measure of faith in herself, enough to go on functioning, and that's the mainspring of this show. Claire Danes continues to deliver some of the best work of her career as a woman perpetually on the verge of implosion - from the feverish perfectionism of her report-writing to the soul-crushing moment where Estes turns her away, to her arguably melodramatic (but totally in character) suicide attempt and the final, hugely cathartic sight of her face crumpling in that inimitable Claire Danes way as she watches the video. Mandy Patinkin, too, is superb in his limited screen time, bookending the episode as the spy capable of outwitting the Hezbollah and the father figure quietly watching Carrie watch, understanding better than anyone else how crucial his discovery is not just to national security but to her very existence.

As with the previous two episodes this season, while I found everything to do with Carrie's storyline quite compelling, I had a lot more difficulty with Brody's. Especially to the extent it involved that shady lady journalist, who seems to exist solely to send Brody on ridiculous assignments for Abu Nazir. Even assuming that Brody was really the only one who could move the bomb-riggin' tailor to safety - or that it's some kind of bizarre test - why would Nazir risk the man who's his best hope of infiltrating the U.S. government at the highest level getting caught way out of his own district with absolutely no explanation for being there with a random Middle Eastern man? Not to mention jeopardizing his good standing with the VP and arousing the suspicions of his own wife? It's a senseless scheme that not surprisingly ends disastrously for Brody (and even more disastrously for the bomb-maker).

Between the reemergence of the video, Jessica's knowledge that he's covering something up, and his old Marine bros pressing him about Walker, the net seems to be closing in on Brody. This probably, though not necessarily, means his days on the show are numbered, though I expect he'll at least as long as the CIA thinks he can lead them to Nazir. I hope in the meantime the writers give him a more plausible plan of action than sending text messages from inside the Situation Room and choosing to commit murder rather than hang up the phone on his wife.

Random observations:

-I really can't stand Estes. Wouldn't be surprised if he sits on the Brody video without showing it to VP Walden, though how he justifies that I can't imagine.

-I had a feeling Jessica would rise to the occasion in Brody's absence at the benefit dinner, but I wasn't expecting such raw honesty in a public address. Nice work by Morena Baccarin, who's generally been very good on this show despite being distractingly glamorous.

-There's clearly still unfinished business between Jessica and Mike. And if they keep talking about Brody's weird, erratic behavior, they might start putting two and two together about him.

-Do I detect a budding romance between Dana (reliably bratty as always this episode) and the young VP spawn? Xander better watch his back.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Taut, timely "Argo" makes early bid for Oscar


directed by Ben Affleck
starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, others

We’re still early in the Oscar season—preseason, really—but 2012 just may have its first bona fide frontrunner for Best Picture. An impressive feat by any measure, “Argo” is set up to appeal particularly to Academy voters. Based on the story of one of the most outlandish CIA missions in U.S. history, it’s at once a tense white-knuckle thriller, a topical and uncannily timely reminder of the tarnished history of U.S.-Iranian relations, and a slyly entertaining satire of Hollywood that punctures the industry’s self-importance while elevating its actual, real-world importance. It’s also an ideal vehicle for the Academy’s acknowledgment of another amazing true story: the improbable rise of Ben Affleck from pretty-boy movie star, best known for his overexposed love life and his terrible choice of screen roles, to one of today’s most respected young American directors. For all these reasons, I’ll be very surprised if the film—which is Affleck’s best yet, by a country mile—doesn’t gather some serious Oscar traction between now and February.

“Argo” opens with a concise summary of the historical events leading to the 1979 Iranian revolution before cutting quickly to the day a mob of Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took over 50 Americans hostage. In the ensuing chaos, six Americans managed to escape the embassy and find refuge with the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Faced with the near-impossible task of getting the six secretly and safely out of the country before they could be discovered, the U.S. government approved a scheme just-so-crazy-it-might-work: CIA “exfil(tration)” expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) would enter Iran under the pretense of scouting Middle Eastern locations for a movie and, armed with fake passports, papers, and cover stories for the six Americans, get them out by having them pose as his crew. But first he had to lay the groundwork by securing a real script, a fake production company and office, and P.R. for the fake movie in the Hollywood trades—all of which he did, with the assistance of his Hollywood contact, John Chambers (John Goodman), and a screenplay for a fantasy film titled, you guessed it, “Argo.”

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the plan, against all odds, worked. The real revelation is Affleck’s ability to make the story of its execution so riveting, even for viewers who know how it turned out. Shot on grainy film rather than digital, with Istanbul standing in for Tehran, and incorporating substantial archival news footage from that period, “Argo” effectively evokes the gestalt of the Carter era—from the undercurrents of anger and anxiety over the hostage crisis to the ubiquitous cigarettes and unfortunate stylings of the period. Affleck also captures, all too convincingly, the bizarre alterna-universe of a post-“Star Wars” movie industry eager to cash in on the popularity of that sci-fi juggernaut. We see Tinseltown mainly through the eyes of the jovially cynical Chambers and the even more cynical, wisecracking producer he recruits (a fictional character, I think, but delightfully played by Alan Arkin) to get Argo’s fake production company up and running. The two of them are comedy gold, with Arkin stealing most of the best lines. Though for that matter, it seems like half of the characters in this movie know exactly when and how to deliver the perfect quip—even the government grunts, including Mendez’s CIA boss (Bryan Cranston, wonderful).

Alas, that doesn’t include Mendez himself—at least not as portrayed by Affleck, who as an actor, it pains me to say, is the weak link in his own movie. His idea of gravitas seems to be to look morose for most of the film, with occasional stabs at looking earnest or pensive. It’s not a grating performance, just inert, and frankly outclassed by the excellence of the rest of the cast. I found myself wishing he’d cast his old buddy Matt Damon instead for the lead; or maybe Kyle Chandler, who has a small role here as Carter’s chief of staff.

Still, Affleck’s limitations in front of the camera don’t diminish his skills behind it. One of his most admirable accomplishments in “Argo” is his ability to shift seamlessly from suspense to comedy and back again without missing a beat. Another, related, is his crisp pacing; he knows exactly how long to draw out a scene for maximum effect. In the last third of the movie he masterfully ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable point as he cuts between the Americans making their great escape and the Iranians on the verge of piecing together the truth about this Hollywood “crew.” (In the theater where I saw the movie, there was an audible collective exhalation the instant it let go of our balls, if you'll pardon the expression.)

Not surprisingly, some of this cinematic virtuosity comes at the expense of historical accuracy. In that nail-biting final stretch, “Argo” invents a lot of complications, while in other places it excises or simplifies them. In particular, the film’s elicited complaints that it marginalizes the role the Canadian government played in assisting the six Americans—not just hiding them but also facilitating the rescue mission itself. While these omissions weren’t very tactful to the Canadians, they most likely reflect a desire to maximize watchability rather than to glorify the Americans. In general, the film avoids anything that could be construed as either mythologizing or vilifying the U.S.; it’s simply focused on telling a ripping good yarn.

Ironically, that’s also perhaps why it doesn’t quite rise to the level of greatness. “Argo” is at its best when it shows the operation in motion, and that’s clearly where its heart is. The characters, while well played, seem more like cogs in the machinery of the plot, and Affleck’s efforts to give Mendez more of a (largely fictionalized) personal history fall flat. Ultimately he doesn’t really have all that much to say about the incredible true story he’s coopted other than what an incredible true story it is. Still, it’s rare to see such stories told so well, and for that alone he deserves all the accolades he's getting.


Monday, October 08, 2012

September movie roundup


Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano

Time travel in movies is a tricky business. Done right, it can inject suspense and humor into the narrative, raise fascinating questions about individual identity, fate and free will, and add some visual pizzazz, whether by recreating a past era or imagining a (usually grim, dystopian) future. But it’s also a logical minefield, from which few, if any, time travel-centered films escape unscathed. Some manage to avoid the more obvious fallacies; others ignore or even embrace them. “Looper” falls into the latter category, with mixed results.

In the “Looper” universe, time travel has been invented but outlawed by 2072, used only by criminal syndicates to rub out people without leaving any traces. When the syndicate wants someone dead, the target is captured, tied up, and sent back in time (with his or head in a bag) 30 years, where a pre-appointed assassin, known as a “looper,” shoots the target dead and disposes of the body. Loopers are handsomely rewarded for their services, but they pay a hefty price of their own: at some point, their future selves are sent back for them to kill. This is known as “closing the loop.”

At the outset, a viewer might wonder how likely a criminal syndicate that had the power of time travel would use it solely for body disposal purposes—or if that’s the objective, why they don’t kill the victims immediately and just send the corpses back for burial rather than risk a looper bungling the job. (Particularly when the job is killing his older self.) But these aren’t logical or continuity errors so much as large orders for suspension of disbelief, which any time travel movie, by its very nature, is going to require anyway.

No, the real logical difficulties come later, when certain loopers start having problems closing their loops—leading to their younger and older selves coexisting, at least temporarily, in the same time period. There’s obviously something that’s equal parts intriguing and headache-inducing about this setup, and it’s fair to say that writer-director Rian Johnson (no stranger to baroque plotting, as evidenced by his previous films – the twisty, super-stylized high school noir “Brick” and con man caper “The Brothers Bloom”) revels in the complications without really trying to resolve them. In a funny moment about midway through the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, who play younger and older versions of the main looper protagonist, Joe, start to discuss the existential implications of their interaction—only for Older Joe to cut the palaver short with an imperious “don’t think about it!” That pretty much sums up “Looper”’s attitude towards the paradoxes it raises, right up to the end, where…well, let’s just say that title is apt for more reasons than one.

That’s not to say the movie is lazy or carelessly crafted; far from it. As futuristic noir with a dash of sci-fi horror (including one hard-to-shake scene, involving a brutal vivisection, that manages to be utterly terrifying without ever actually showing the surgery), it’s largely successful, paying obvious homage to classics like “Blade Runner” and the original “Terminator” while adding some original, rather charmingly retro touches of its own. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a movie set in 2046 in which assassins wield blunderbusses and are paid in silver bars, and a huge chunk of the action takes place on a sugar cane farm?

The film also benefits from the believably tense dynamic between Willis and JGL (who does a pretty good Willis impression, from which the elaborate makeup and prosthetic job only distracts) and an unexpectedly compelling performance by Emily Blunt as the woman who comes in between Younger Joe and Older Joe, though not in the way you might think. Young Pierce Gagnon, who plays her son, also delivers a memorable turn as a child who can shift from cute to creepy on the turn of a dime, and Jeff Daniels supplies some welcome moments of sly levity as Younger Joe’s jaded boss. All in all, “Looper” is a solid piece of entertainment that’s smarter and more thought-provoking than most. But its strength is also weakness: it’s a movie that makes you think, which inevitably leads to the conclusion that its story doesn’t really add up.



Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

Whether you think he’s a genius or a crock, or simply a talented but uneven director, you have to credit Paul Thomas Anderson for ambition. He does things on a grand scale, from the sprawling human tapestries of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” to the outsize passions of “There Will Be Blood.” Now he’s directed a film entirely in 65mm, set in the 1950’s—a callback to the sweeping epics of a bygone era—that’s been whispered about for months as being a thinly veiled takedown of Scientology.

Except that it isn’t really. The core of “The Master” is not about a movement but about two men, one hopelessly displaced and out of control of his own nature, the other seeking to tame that very nature through a tightly controlled methodology. That the methodology echoes many aspects of Scientology and that its founder bears more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard is, more or less, beside the point. But what is that point? That’s the bigger question, and the more difficult one to answer.

I’ve just said “The Master” is about two men, but it’s really the story of one man, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy grunt we first meet at the end of World War II. Freddie ashore is a lost, damaged creature, a bundle of nervous tics and unrestrained animal instincts that accelerate his ejection from a short series of post-war jobs. His main talent appears to be concocting literally lethal cocktails, the ingredients of which vary but which always include at least one substance not designed for human ingestion. Eventually he stumbles across the path of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of a mysterious quasi-spiritual movement called the Cause, which induces its acolytes to recover memories of past lives through a set of techniques known as “processing.” Dodd, known to his followers as Master, takes an interest in Freddie (and Freddie’s hooch); Freddie, in turn, willingly offers himself up for processing and embraces the Cause—but only up to a point. Despite the best efforts of the Master and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, looking angelic as always, but displaying the soul of Lady Macbeth), to bring him in line, Freddie never subdues his wayward, violent impulses or submits fully to Dodd’s authority. This dynamic, always unstable, can’t last. It doesn’t.

And really, that’s about the sum and substance of it. “The Master” features plenty of enigmatic scenes and images—many of startling beauty or strangeness (or both), heightened by another tense, jagged score by Jonny Greenwood—that any critic could mull over for days. But these only have impact to the extent that they illuminate or complicate our view of Freddie’s psyche or, specifically, his relationship with Dodd. In that respect, the film is reminiscent of its immediate predecessor, “There Will Be Blood,” which was similarly focused on the destructive id of Daniel Plainview and, in particular, his intense hatred of the unctuous preacher Eli Sunday. (PTA seems to have an ongoing fascination with false prophets and charlatans, though in both this movie and TWBB, he seems to be less interested in their motivations than their effect on others.)

Here, Freddie’s relationship with Dodd is more complex than pure antagonism. There’s an element of devotion, maybe even of love—or if not these things, the desire for them. Yet the fundamental nature of their attachment remains frustratingly elusive. This isn’t so much a fault of the actors, who are individually impressive, but something about the juxtaposition of them: somehow, these two larger-than-life performers don’t quite connect even when they’re gazing intently into one another’s eyes. In one memorable scene, Freddie and Dodd are shown in side-by-side jail cells, the former howling and rampaging like a wolf while the latter castigates him in sonorous tones, to no avail. Perhaps that disjunction is, precisely, the point. Perhaps PTA is trying to say something more expansive about the alienation of post-WWII Americans struggling to find their spiritual footing in a changed and changing world. But if he is, the insight he’s searching for doesn’t quite come through, and “The Master” remains a collection of arresting moments that don’t really cohere into a larger whole.



Directed by Jason Moore
Starring Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, Skylar Astin, Elizabeth Banks

“Pitch Perfect” isn’t exactly a good movie, but its charm is irresistible. Irresistible, that is, if you enjoy watching fresh-faced, fresh-voiced young singers performing perfectly harmonized a cappella versions of pop songs and snarking at or flirting with each other in between numbers. It’s “Glee” goes to college, but without the wildly incoherent character shifts, zany authority figures, or over-the-top plotting to bring down the underdog glee club. (Disclosure: former Gleek here who gave up on the show for good midway through last season.)

The movie turns on two axes that eventually merge into one. First, we have a rivalry between two a cappella groups at fictional Barden College—a rivalry that threatens to become lopsided after the all-female Bellas tank spectacularly in the finals of the national championship and the all-male Trebletones take home the trophy. As the new school year begins, the Bellas’ uptight captain, Aubrey (Anna Camp), and her more reasonable but less assertive second in command, Chloe (Brittany Snow), are hungry for redemption and desperate to prevent the complete dissolution of the group. They’re so desperate, in fact, that they’re ready to consider anyone with a double-X chromosome who can belt a tune, rather than the picture-perfect lookers they’re accustomed to recruiting.

Enter Becca (Anna Kendrick, sporting her best non-threatening alterna-chick look), a Barden freshman who’s unhappy to be matriculating because what she really wants to do is go to L.A. and mix some beats—or, uh, do something in the music industry that doesn’t involve being a pop star. Through a series of somewhat improbable circumstances she’s induced to join the Bellas and to her surprise discovers she likes it. Unfortunately, she’s also constantly butting up against Aubrey, who doesn’t like Becca’s attempts to shake up and modernize the group’s repertoire, and fellow freshman Jesse (Skylar Austin, better known on Broadway, but hugely appealing here), a cutie-pie who’s clearly smitten with Bella but who also just happens to be a hated Trebletone.

Needless to say, all of these complications work themselves out, and along the way we’re treated to a whole lot of perfectly delightful, occasionally inspired singing, as well as a number of scene-stealing comedic turns by the supporting players—among them, a pair of hilarious a cappella judges played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, Jesse’s weird but sweet roommate Benji (Ben Platt), an Asian Kewpie doll (Hana Mae Lee) who speaks so softly no one can hear the crazy shit she’s actually saying, and, best of all, the glorious Fat Amy (rising comic star Rebel Wilson), who’s fat, loud, and proud of it. Not all of the lines and gags land, but enough to do to keep the laughs rolling and prevent the time between songs from dragging. Ultimately, though, the music is where it’s at: the movie’s never better than when it lets its stars jam, most memorably in an underground “riff off” in which various groups try to one-up each other by, well, riffing a cappella off a set theme. There’s so much energy and sheer joy in that sequence, it’s no wonder that we finally see a smile break through on Becca’s face. If you’ve any love of good performance, you’ll be smiling, too.



Directed by Jake Schreir
Starring Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Jeremy Sisto

“Robot & Frank” is a small gem of a movie that manages to be at once an odd-couple buddy comedy, a heist film, a gentle satire of man’s relationship with technology, and a poignant meditation on aging and the impermanence of memory. There are so many ways this combination could have failed; the fact that it works as well as it does is a testament to the delicate touch of first-time director Jake Schrier and the surefooted lead performance of the great Frank Langella. Both of them tread lightly and draw a lot of laughs, yet somehow leave a lasting impression of melancholy sweetness.

Set in the “near future,” Langella plays an aging man, also named Frank, who’s retired to an idyllic little town in rural-ish New York. Though he lives alone, he doesn’t lack family attention: his son Hunter (James Marsden) drives several hours every weekend to see him, while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), who appears to be some kind of globe-trotting do-gooder, calls him frequently from various far-flung locations. Frank seems content enough with his quiet existence, whether he’s puttering around at home or venturing into town to flirt with the local librarian (Susan Sarandon) or pinch a tchotchke under the hostile eye of a shopkeeper (an amusing cameo by Ana Gasteyer) who correctly suspects he’s up to no good. But because Frank’s memory is becoming increasingly unreliable and his cluttered home increasingly squalid, Hunter decides that what dear old dad needs is his very own personal robot to look after both him and the house. Although Frank resists at first, he becomes grudgingly accustomed to the presence of his new companion (voiced with buttery-smooth aplomb by Peter Sarsgaard). Robot, despite his curiously retro design (he looks like a cousin of R2D2), proves a capable cook, impeccable housekeeper, and attentive yet unfailingly polite caretaker.

Then Frank discovers that Robot, while quite strict about regulating his master’s dietary and exercise regimen, is not programmed to regulate Frank’s moral or ethical conduct. In fact, Robot provides a handy assist to Frank’s shoplifting habit, which sets off a light bulb in the old man’s head. Because, as it turns out, Frank isn’t just some idle kleptomaniac—he’s a former cat burglar and master jewel thief whose time in prison hasn’t killed his appetite for a good sting. Before long, Frank is training Robot to help him pull off a major burglary at the multi-million dollar home of a young tech tycoon (Jeremy Strong) whom Frank despises for his efforts to replace the local library’s collection of books with electronic media. Complications ensue, though not the ones you might expect.

On the surface, “Robot & Frank” is a feather-light diversion, yet it carries more weight on reflection. It’s rare for a movie to be such breezy fun while at the same time underscoring fairly sobering, even disheartening truths: That we grow old. That our memories deteriorate with age, and sometimes abandon us altogether. That we can develop unreasoning attachments to inanimate technological devices—because they provide us a surrogate for company and connection to the outside world. “Robot & Frank” sounds these themes without beating them to death, so that they somehow become a counterpoint, rather than a discordant note, to the delightfully comic interactions between Frank and his robot. It’s a tricky balancing act that somehow works, even if the denouement and resolution feel just a little too pat. This is a film that aims primarily to entertain, while reminding us that life plays tricks—and not always funny ones—on us all. It succeeds on both counts.


Monday, October 01, 2012

Homeland: Season 2 premiere

Ok, I'm somewhat of a late arrival to the Showtime phenom that is "Homeland," having finished season 1 last week - just in time for the season 2 premiere. But I see no reason why that should stop me from blogging what's quickly become (for me, at least) the most exciting new show on TV right now. I may not be able to do it every week, as I don't have Showtime and am therefore dependent on friends who do, but when I do blog it, I'm aiming for a quicker turnaround than I usually managed for "Mad Men."

On that note, here are some quick thoughts on the season premiere:

-SETTING THE SCENE: Tensions running high in the Middle East, based on a (sadly) not-at-all-farfetched premise - Israel bombs Iran's nuclear sites, sparking rage across the Middle East. Remarkably topical and even more remarkably well timed, coming so soon after Netanyahu's little cartoon-bomb drawing stunt before the U.N. Will be interesting to see where the writers go with this. It seems tied in to Abu Nazir's plotting (what isn't, in "Homeland"-universe?), but why exactly would Nazir want to retaliate on behalf of Iran? And how's he going to convince Brody that this has anything to do with avenging Issa?

-THE TWO SIDES OF THE COIN: Meaning Carrie and Brody, those two crazy kids, "damaged goods" both. For the moment they're on totally separate narrative paths - a sharp shift from last season - but I've no doubt they'll intersect before long.

-CONVALESCING CARRIE? I have to say I found Carrie's storyline, at least in this episode, much more compelling, if not necessarily more realistic, than Brody's. I liked the little details of her mental "convalescence," like the gardening, the blue books, and the little note "BREATHE" pinned to her mirror - even if it was all too conveniently cut short by the magical reappearance of the CIA in her life. Yes, the "source that will only talk to Carrie" was a bit of a deus ex machina, but the results were worth it. Apart from the pilot, we've never really seen Carrie "in the field" - I don't think stalking Brody counts - and it was pretty riveting watching her try, tentatively at first, to get back on her game, and her momentary elation after successfully eluding her pursuer (what exactly did she do to incapacitate him, anyway - knee him in the groin?) and realizing she still has It. It was also wrenching to see what I assume were the effects of her electroshock therapy on her short-term memory and her obvious frustration butting up against her refusal to admit what's clear to everyone else: she isn't really ready for this mission just yet. I hope the show doesn't go overboard with the cloak-and-dagger stuff, but for now, it's fun to watch. Claire Danes continues to show just the right amount of crazy, and the right balance between brittleness and strength.

-FUTURE VP BRODY? I love Damian Lewis, and he was excellent as always tonight, but I had a hard time buying any of his three main plot threads in this episode. The first - VP Walden tapping Brody for potential running mate - was perhaps the least objectionable, probably because we've seen something like this coming ever since his ill-fated aide turned her appraising eye on our favorite messed-up war hero. But it did seem a little premature (as Brody himself noted) and that first meeting with Walden rather short and perfunctory, unless there's a deeper game afoot on the VP's part. (The ultimate twist: WALDEN's the Manchurian Candidate! He's working with Nazir! Never mind that that would make no sense whatsoever.)

OTOH, Brody plot #2 - in which a reluctant Brody lets the shady journalist-lady (played by Zuleikha Robinson, who reminds me physically of Norah Jones) pressure him into raiding Estes' safe - just didn't work for me; it felt like something out of a second-rate spy thriller, not up to "Homeland"'s usual standards. And for someone Carrie's previously referred to as one of the smartest men at the CIA, Estes sure acts pretty dumb sometimes. What kind of CIA boss-man leaves a Congressman alone in his office (with the door closed, no less) where there's CLASSIFIED INFO? (Of course, the characters on this show have played pretty fast and loose with exposing and leaving classified info unprotected, Carrie being the worst offender in this regard, though Estes is a close second - I rolled my eyes at the pair of them discussing an asset on HER SISTER'S FRONT PORCH.) And who sets up a date with aforesaid shady journalist-lady after she's been trying to pry some more classified info out of him? (The ultimate twist: ESTES is the Manchurian candidate! He's working with Nazir! Never mind that that would make no sense whatsoever.) One thing I did like about the Estes-Brody encounter was the little exchange between them about the drone program. That one line from Brody - "you lost count?" - was just dripping with irony.

And Brody plot #3 - Dana getting provoked into spilling the beans about her dad's religion, Jessica freaking out after Brody confirms it (did not see that coming) - also felt a bit contrived, although the acting was solid. Jess's reaction was in some ways the more understandable of the two, but her natural anger and dismay that her husband's continued to keep secrets from her was overshadowed by a colder motivation - her fear of losing their newly-elevated status. This is a side of Jess we haven't seen before, and it has the potential to make her a more interesting, if less sympathetic, character than last season's put-upon wife. As for Dana, well...I think sooner or later Brody’s going to have to kill her – or, more likely, convert her. She’s halfway there already.

-LET'S PLAY WHACK-A-MOLE! Last season it was strongly suggested that there's a mole within the government who's been consistently sabotaging the CIA's best-laid plans vis a vis Abu Nazir. So the question remains: is there a mole? And, more importantly, is it someone we know? It can't be Saul, just can't. That would ruin the show and the lovely relationship he has with Carrie. Estes is in some ways a more likely starter, but I don't think it's him. That leaves Galvez (Carrie's former colleague, the half-Lebanese guy) but I don't really want it to be him, either. First because I kinda like him (even if his character's been underdeveloped so far), second because...well, it would be disappointing to have the Muslim guy be the mole. (The ultimate twist: CARRIE's the mole! She's actually schizophrenic, and her other personality is working with Nazir!...oh, never mind.)


-So apparently Dana goes to Sidwell Friends now? That Quaker meeting was painful to sit through on so many different levels. Cannot speak to how realistic it was.

-Did I mishear, or is Carrie's asset's name really Fatima Ali? Sounds like something straight out of Arabian Nights.

-Claire Danes is pregnant and still shooting "Homeland." She's so thin it’s gonna be hard to disguise the baby bump.

-Not enough Saul! Btw, I still don’t know whether Saul reports to Estes or whether they’re of equal rank. For that matter I don't even know what Saul's exact position or title is...anyone else know?

-Judging from the credits and previews for next week, it looks like the actor who's playing Mike is still around, even though his character arc seemed more or less played out by the end of season 1. My prediction: he figures out what happened to Tom Walker and gets offed - possibly by Brody himself - before being able to tell anyone.

-More from the credits: yay, Virgil’s a regular!

-Line of the week goes to Carrie: “I cook dinner on Thursdays!"