Friday, April 26, 2013

Summer 2013 Movie Preview

Maybe I'm just overly affected by the schizophrenic weather we've been having lately, but my moviegoing mind still hasn't quite realized that summer's just around the corner. "Summer," that is, as defined by Hollywood, which has been moving up the beginning of the season so that it now effectively kicks off the first weekend of May. Hell, it may even start creeping backwards into April, if "Oblivion" is any indicator. It's as if the long-term goal is to abbreviate spring as much as possible - "spring," again in Hollywood terms, being the euphemism for that period between the Oscars and "summer" during which the major studios quietly dump the crap from the bottom of the barrel. There have of course been exceptions - last year's "The Hunger Games" comes to mind, perhaps "42" and "Oblivion" (neither of which I've seen) this year - but their relative infrequency only proves the rule.

Anyway, here, in order of release date, are the ten summer movies I most want to see. This summer's an atypical one for me in that (1) it's *extremely* front-loaded as far as expectations go, meaning the movies I'm most excited about are all coming out in May, and (2) most of the movies I want to see are not blockbusters but more indie-ish films. I just hope their being released in summer, rather than during Oscar season, isn't a bad omen for their quality.


Modern-day adaptation of the Henry James novel, starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as a divorcing couple who use their young daughter as a pawn in their struggle for one-upmanship. Alexander Skarsgaard co-stars as Moore's younger lover. I find Henry James adaptations weirdly fascinating: of all authors, he should be one of the most unfilmable, and yet he can challenge directors to take really interesting, if not always successful, approaches (Iain Softley, "Wings of the Dove," Jane Campion, "Portrait of a Lady"; we'll draw a veil over the Merchant-Ivory "Golden Bowl" misfire). At the very least, I'm curious.


This looks to be very much a Baz Luhrmann production - swirling, lavish spectacle (in 3D, no less - ugh), modern music, operatic-level melodrama - and, as such, may or may not be a good match for Fitzgerald's prose, which can be equally heady but also has a quiet sadness at its core. Maybe that's why Baz cast sad-eyed Carey Mulligan as Daisy - an interesting choice, though not at all my idea of Daisy - and perennial lost-boy Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway; though I'm more intrigued by the prospect of Leo playing Gatsby and the up-and-coming Australian actor Joel Edgerton as the brutish Tom Buchanan. The movie trailers, unsurprisingly, have proven polarizing, but they worked for me. Again, at the very least, I'm curious. Even if it's a train wreck, I know I won't be able to look away.


Two words: Benedict Cumberbatch. If you don't know who that is, mark my words: you will after this movie. Even without him, I'd still probably want to see this, since I did enjoy J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise. But BC makes it must-see viewing.


Hands down, THE film I'm most looking forward to this summer. Picks up nine years after "Before Sunset" ended, reuniting us with Jesse and Celine in yet another beautiful European setting, once again walking and talking and musing on the mysteries and challenges of human relationships. I admit I was initially worried the film would be a letdown after the divine diptych of "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset." However, judging from the reaction at Sundance, the trinity of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have succeeded in making it an equally divine triptych. Can't wait.


Great cast (Morgan Freeman, Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine, Isla Fisher), iffier director ("Clash of the Titans," anyone?) - but I'm a sucker for heist movies and movies about illusionists. This appears to be both.


Yet another modernized literary adaptation - is that the new trend this summer? It would be hard to top Kenneth Branagh 1993's "Much Ado" for sheer joy and élan, but Joss Whedon has a way with ensembles that I'm sure he's put to good use here - especially since he's using a lot of his go-to players. No big names (Nathan Fillion, playing Dogberry, is probably the best known of this bunch), but many of the actors will be recognizable to fans of "Buffy," "Firefly"/"Serenity," and Whedon's other TV work.


Based on a true story, but I can't help thinking of it as the Sofia Coppola version of "Spring Breakers." Probably fewer T&A shots, hopefully more insight into young girls' obsession with fame. The emptiness of fame is, after all, something of a Sofia specialty. I say this as a fan. Not so much a fan of Emma Watson, but the role should be a good stretch for her.

MAN OF STEEL (June 14)

Ok, so it does seem a little too soon for another reboot of "Superman" - how long ago was "Superman Returns," anyway? - but that didn't stop "The Incredible Hulk" (five years after "Hulk") or "The Amazing Spider-Man" (five years after the last Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie). I feel like I should oppose this trend of rebooting the reboot, but what can I say: that emo-Superman trailer piqued my interest, even though I'm not sure the Chris Nolanized approach to superheroes is necessarily the right choice for Superman. I have no idea if Henry Cavill has the chops to make it work, but at least he's pretty to look at - and the rest of the cast is full of heavy hitters (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne). Reserving judgment on director Zack Snyder, as I haven't seen any of his previous forays into graphic novel adaptation ("300," "The Watchmen").


Another film based on a true story, "Fruitvale" depicts the last day in the life of a young Oakland black man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It slayed 'em at Sundance, and stars Michael B. Jordan, who was so brilliant in "Friday Night Lights" and "The Wire," in the lead role.

ELYSIUM (August 9)

Neill Blomkamp ("District 9") once again ventures into futuristic sci-fi, this time with presumably a bigger budget. Matt Damon stars as the unlikely hero who challenges the boundaries between the Haves (who live in comfort on a giant space station) and the Have-Nots (who slave away on a squalid, environmentally destroyed planet Earth). In addition to literary adaptations and movies about illusionists, I'm also a sucker for futuristic, dystopic sci-fi. And I really liked "District 9." So count me in! Much more interested in this than in that other futuristic dystopic flick, "World War Z," starring Brad Pitt (the one with the zombies), that's also coming out this summer.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mad Men 6-4: To Have and to Hold

I've been scrambling to get a lot done before I leave for vacation this weekend, which means that I had time to see this week's "Mad Men" but not really any time to write about it. Now that we're at mid-week a recap seems a tad pointless - but I will share ten general thoughts I had about the episode:

1. I enjoyed it more than any of the previous episodes this season - I suspect largely because it focused a little less on Don and a little more on the women he's *not* sleeping with, especially Joan. And one can never have too much Joan! Even when she's miserable, she is still the shiznit.

2. I'm all for more fully realized African American characters on MM, and Dawn, as Don's secretary, is a logical starting point - but the focus on her did feel a bit abrupt, partly because she was so much on the margins last season. Still, I appreciated the glimpse into her world, and wouldn't mind seeing more.

3. Joan may have been "punishing" Dawn by handing over timekeeper duties to her, but in a way she was also passing the torch (or, in this case, the keys). That moment was heavy with symbolic significance.

4. Harry's evolution into a Grade A, 100% certified douche is now complete. I was so hoping when Roger and Bert handed him the big check that it meant they were canning him. And yet, when you think about it, he's not wrong about his value to Sterling Cooper. He's just wrong about Joan's.

5. Speaking of douches, the theme of Don's treating/viewing women (Megan, Sylvia) as whores - when really, HE's the biggest whore in the room, or at least the biggest hypocrite - continued this week. Not a coincidence, I think, that this is also the episode in which Joan was basically made to feel like a whore (again) and both Sterling Cooper and Ted Chooooaugh's firm turned tricks for Heinz ketchup - in a hotel room, no less.

6. Loved the juxtaposition of Don's and Peggy's pitches to Heinz, Peggy's cribbing Don's "change the conversation" line...and Don's reaction. I initially thought that Peggy won the showdown, but I have since learned from other recappers that in fact neither of them landed the account; a bigger firm did. Which explains Ted Chooooaugh's somber demeanor afterwards and his comment about Heinz letting all the little firms fight over scraps.

7. Lots of people being shut out of rooms where they desperately want to know what's going on: Ginsberg and the secret Heinz Ketchup workroom; Harry and the partners' meeting; and, of course, Don eavesdropping on Peggy's pitch. No matter what, these folks always seem to feel like they're on the outside looking in, and it gnaws away at them. All of them. Except maybe Ken Cosgrove, who lights a cigarette and affects not to care (but even Ken's good humor is wearing thin, as we see).

8. Lines of the Week That Shouldn't Have Worked, But Did:

-Sylvia telling Don that she prays he'll "find peace." I'm not a fan of Sylvia (even though I like Linda Cardellini), and the line only underscores the hypocrisy of her behavior - and yet, somehow, it rang true.

-Not really a line, but Joan's friend's whole spiel about how inspired she was by Joan's career success. Her naive admiration is supposed to highlight the disparity between appearance and reality, a disparity Joan herself points out. Yet there was something oddly compelling, rather than frustrating, about her friend's refusal to accept it. Because the fact is, despite the price Joan had to pay and is still paying, despite the fact that she's still not being accorded the credit and power she deserves, what she's accomplished IS truly remarkable. And her friend was right to tell her not to let the bastards grind her down.

9. Least Subtle Line of the Week: Megan's co-star, on Don - "I'm sure he's a man who plays many roles." Look out for the falling anvil!

10. And last but not least: SWINGERS! Don's and Megan's reaction: priceless.

Finally, a heads up that I won't be recapping the next couple of episodes because I'll be traveling. But I'll resume when I return.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men 6-3: Collaborators

Don, please stop being such a dick.

Pun fully intended, of course.

"Mad Men"'s Dick Whitman flashbacks have always been one of my least favorite elements of the show, and tonight's episode was a perfect illustration of why. I've never cared for the device because it seems to operate as clumsy shorthand for explaining why Don Draper is the way he is. This time it endeavors to shed some light on why he's engaging in what he clearly recognizes is an exceptionally tawdry affair. The crudest and least charitable interpretation is that treating Sylvia like a whore - schtupping her in the maid's room, paying her (ostensibly for dinner, but really for you-know-what), and contemptuously dismissing her affectations of guilt as just that, affectations - gets Don's rocks off, despite or more likely because of the fact that he essentially "came of age" in a whorehouse. But just because it's crude doesn't mean it isn't true. No doubt watching one's stepmother (pregnant with baby Adam, it looked like) submitting to the head whoremaster might be enough to mess with anyone's sexual psychology. But as a character-driving device it just seems too overdetermined, somehow, and doesn't diminish my weariness of his current affair. Yes, we're only three episodes in, but I'm already tired of it. Maybe that's the point - it's supposed to feel tired and empty and cheap. As such it doesn't, however, make for very riveting television.

It also doesn't help that Sylvia hasn't really been developed in a way that's calculated to inspire any sympathy. Even in her tete-a-tete with distraught Megan, we discover only that she doesn't watch daytime soaps and that she's a better Catholic than Megan as far as abortion is concerned - though not, evidently, when it comes to adultery. At least she has the grace to feel some pangs of conscience for receiving Megan's confidence, though not enough for her to cut things off with Don. In short, all we know about Sylvia is that she's Italian, is cuckolding a very decent husband, and is apparently meant to evoke associations with the devil (Dante's Inferno, steak diavolo, etc.). She just better not spill Megan's secret to Don or she will officially BE the devil.

Fortunately, I liked Don's other main storyline - his subtle jujitsu on Herb the Hutt's attempt to hijack the Jaguar ad campaign - as much as I disliked the Sylvia storyline. Interestingly, Don's conduct at work reflected the very qualities that have gone missing from his personal life: loyalty (to Heinz baked beans guy as well as Joan) and respect for a woman (Joan again). Or maybe it's just the flip side of his complicated attitude towards whores, in that it sickens him to think of Joan prostituting herself for the Jaguar account. Still, the connection to his childhood is much subtler here, and for that reason much more effective. And the denouement of the Jaguar plot, wherein Don undermines Herb's plans while ostensibly delivering what the guy wanted, was absolutely PERFECT - from Don's fiendishly clever play on Jaguar's fears of cheapening their brand, underscored by British Jaguar guy's cut-glass accent, to the slow realization dawning on Pete of what's going on, to Herb's total obliviousness, to Roger's final quip.

Pete Campbell and his sideburns got about as much as screen time as Don tonight, and not surprisingly, his storylines both paralleled and intersected with Don's. Like Don, he sexes up a willing lady neighbor; unlike Don, but very like Pete, he sees the tryst almost immediately blow up in his face. I would say that it also fundamentally alters the power dynamic between him and Trudy, except I don't think that dynamic really has altered; it's just come out in the open now that Trudy is done dissembling in Pete's presence. (Very fine acting this episode from Alison Brie as Trudy.) Angry Trudy is a force to be reckoned with, as Pete well knows. So, too, is Don, still, as revealed in his outmaneuvering Pete at the Jaguar meeting. By the end of the episode, the double defeat is etched into every line of Pete's face and body, and only emphasized by eager Bob the Climber's flattery.

Peggy's arc was largely a continuation of last week's - she's still intimidating her underlings, who predictably resent her for it, and still bonding over the phone with Stan - but did set her up for a huge impending conflict of interest between her lingering loyalties to her old comrades at Sterling Cooper and her desire for professional advancement. Looks like Ted Chuffnstuff is going to go after Heinz, which will put Peggy in a pretty quandary, especially if she has to make the pitch. Maybe she can take a page out of Don's book and pull a Jaguar-like feint.

Random observations:

-The shot of adolescent Dick Whitman pulling a peeping Tom on stepma reminded me of Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates peering through the keyhole in "Psycho."

-We are definitely in sleazier times, as the episode seemed determined to remind us right at the outset with that scene of Pete and Trudy entertaining their neighbors. Funny how the Campbells seemed almost old-fashioned in their initial reactions to their neighbors' come-ons; Pete, of course, being Pete, was soon happy to adapt, only to do it ineffectually.

-Speaking of old-fashioned: Don's still drinking them. And still prone to saying "This never happened."

-The blurring of the lines between Megan's "real" and "T.V." personas in her conversation with Sylvia was a very meta, very "writerly" touch. Surprisingly, it didn't annoy me.

-Still not enough Joan, though she did make short (and stinging) work of Herb's advances. I wondered for a brief moment if that was what inspired his turn on the Jaguar ad campaign, except I don't think he's capable of coming up with something like that so quickly.

-Not much Roger this episode, either, but as always, he made the most of his few lines: "Deftest self-immolation I've ever seen," on Don's performance at the Jaguar meeting, followed by this priceless exchange with Don: "As my mother used to say, your options were dishonor or war. You chose dishonor. You might still get war." "That was Churchill."

-Least subtle line of the week: the last exchange between Pete and Bob the Climber about the disparity between "what it looks like" (Pete doing what he loves) and the reality of what *is*. Bob's little speech about his own family did make me wonder if he's going to turn out to be a more important character than just an annoying climber. If Pete is Don 2.0, is this guy future Pete 2.0?

Monday, April 08, 2013

Mad Men Season 6 premiere: The Doorway

So thanks to a very ill-timed temporary cable/DVR fail last night, I ended up watching the last 30-35 minutes of the "Mad Men" premiere first, followed by the first hour and a half of the re-broadcast at 11:00 pm. And you know what? I don't think it made a difference, given how disjointed, and at times disorienting, the episode was. Despite the recurrence of certain well-established MM themes, it felt singularly incoherent, and not at all inviting to newbies. (though I doubt anyone's going to try to pick up the show in season 6.)

In all fairness, "Mad Men" is well known for having slow starts to its seasons. Typically, the season premiere is more about table-setting and bringing viewers back into the MM universe, and this year was no exception. But there was something especially off-putting this time about the deliberate yet weirdly choppy pacing, the ponderous symbolism, and, above all, the sight of Don Draper lapsing back into mopey existential mode.

I know, I know - these are the things we love about "Mad Men," or at least love to discuss. (Except for the choppiness, which hasn't been a noticeable trait before now.) But after years of watching inscrutable Don wallow in his inscrutable malaise - last season being a welcome, if short-lived, respite - it's frankly wearing on this viewer, at least. Yes, it's all too easy for even smart and self-aware people to get mired in their own discontents, psychological fixations, and patterns of self-destructive behavior, and yes, there's a certain fascination to be had in watching their downward spiral. But only to a point. No one wants to watch the spiral go on infinitely, and it's starting to feel that way (again) with Don.

Luckily, Don isn't the only character on the show. Even if others seem to be reaching their own crisis points, too, at least they show a little more joie de vivre, if only in brief flashes. And the premiere did devote roughly equal attention to three of the other chief protagonists (Betty, Peggy, and Roger) as well, even if it jumped around between them with disconcerting abruptness.

1. DON

Don goes to Hawaii on a post-Christmas work junket (courtesy of Sheraton, seeking an alluring ad campaign for their Waikiki Beach-front hotel), where he mostly broods and meditates on mortality. He's accompanied in body but not in spirit by an obliviously happy Megan, who frolics in a bikini, smokes weed, dances at a luau, and is flattered to be recognized as the character she plays on a TV soap. On returning to wintry New York, Don's confronted with more reminders of mortality, which ultimately infect his pitch to Sheraton. The discomfited client observes that his proposed ad evokes associations with suicide; Don disagrees, but the incident only makes him brood some more. Meanwhile he bonds with a downstairs neighbor, a Jewish doctor named Rosen, and for a while it looks like the two men are competing to see which admires the other more. Then - the climax, of sorts, of the episode - we discover that Don's been banging Dr. Rosen's wife (played by Linda Cardellini). And rather joylessly, by all appearances. Oh, Don. Get over yourself, for fuck's sake.


New territory for Betty! In short order, she gets a ticket for reckless driving, tries to counsel Sally's violin-prodigy friend Sandy (whom we've never seen before, but whatever), then, remarkably shows she's more than talk when she learns Sandy has disappeared and goes looking for her. This leads her to a squalid tenement in the Village, where she and some hippies meet un-cute and have a sneer-off over some pretty nasty-looking homemade goulash. (Ok, the goulash man seemed a little kinder than the others, but overall, it's safe to say there was no love lost on either side.)

Apart from the bad fat makeup and grotesquely weird joke she cracks to Henry about raping Sandy (seriously, wtf, Matthew Weiner?), I appreciated the writers' efforts to develop Betty's character in a new direction. Her interactions with the Goulash Guys felt a bit forced (January Jones' affect seemed particularly flat in those scenes), but prior to that it was interesting seeing her trying and largely failing to relate to Sandy, showing both her good intentions and the limits of her empathy. I especially liked her unexpected response to Sandy's withering "Do you?" when she asked if the girl knew what it meant to have nothing. Most viewers, including me, undoubtedly thought, "Of course Betty doesn't, any more than this kid does," which her initial silence seemed to confirm. It turns out though, that her modeling days had a decidedly unglamorous side. Not likely on a par with what she encounters later but enough for her to try to reach out and connect, which is something we've rarely seen from Betty since season 4. I hope for more of this, but I don't trust the writers to make her more sympathetic. More rape jokes seem more likely.


We catch up with Peggy at her new firm, slowly but surely becoming the new, female version of Don - working through the holidays, running her underlings ragged, and coming through with a last-minute brilliant save when a planned Superbowl ad for headphones ("Lend me your ears") gets derailed by a gallows-humor comic routine on Johnny Carson.

I haven't much else to say about Peggy's storyline except (1) I didn't think her brilliant save sounded all that brilliant (but that's happened to me before on this show, with Don and Ginsberg) (2) do I detect a hint of potential sexual tension between her and the boss, Ted what's-his-face? Too bad if so: I like Abe, ridiculous new hair and all, and he and Peggy seem pretty happy together, at least for the moment.


Roger, like Don, spends the episode fending off constant reminders of death, mortality, and the pointlessness of it all. Only somehow his existential struggles feel more palatable than Don's (in fact, his storyline was probably my favorite of the four) because, well, it's Roger: possibly the only man on the show who can make even death funny. Even when he's on the couch he's an assiduous entertainer, as his shrink dryly observes - though even Roger can't salvage a clunky monologue on life being a series of doors and bridges that had all the subtlety of an anvil.

He does better as MC of his mother's memorial ("He's only saying what everyone's thinking," he quips of Don's drunken puking), although his tantrum at Mona's bringing her new man - and his angry Freudian slip ("This is MY funeral!") - isn't much better in the subtlety department. But in his scenes after the funeral, there was something really poignant in the muted Roger Sterling sadness under the Roger Sterling humor, both in his pass at Mona and in his conversation with a daughter who shows no interest in either her grandmother or her own father except as a source of funding. When news of the death of the shoeshine man proves the tipping point, Roger's final breakdown feels like genuine, palpable pain.

5. HAIR. Because it really was a character of its own in tonight's episode. How long has it been in Mad Men time since the end of last season? Not that long, from what I gather, and I find it hard to believe that Abe, Peter, Stan, Harry, and Ginsberg would all have changed their hairstyles so radically in such a short period. As it is, the combo of ridiculous new 'dos (which, along with the awful checked jackets and the fondue fad, feel more '70s than '60s) was hilariously distracting. Can't decide which one's the most hideous, but I think it's a toss-up between Harry and Ginsberg.

Random observations:

-According to my sources, the season 6 opener takes place at the end of 1967. Vietnam hangs around the edges of this episode, most obviously manifested in the soldier Don meets in Hawaii, but also in the ad-killing joke about Viet Cong ears. 1968 was a watershed year for Vietnam, in a bad way, but it remains to be seen what, if any, effect, it'll have on our characters. Most likely an oblique one.

-Some more experimenting with time-shifting in this episode, in particular the abrupt cut from the doorman welcoming Don and Megan home from Hawaii to the flashback to the doorman's earlier collapse and back again to the present. Unlike some of the more interesting manipulations of time in season 5, however, this one felt purposeless...except maybe as a reflection of Don's state of mind.

-The carousel makes a reappearance! If past history is any indicator, it's not a good omen for Don's and Megan's marriage.

-Is Bob Benson, accounts, going to be a significant character? I didn't really get the point of his subplot. Is he the new Pete?

-Not enough Joan! Though she looked very fetching in purple.

-When did Stan and Peggy become BFFs? Still, I liked their little late-night phone bonding. Also enjoyed Peggy's phone interrogation by her boss's pastor. (The last line was the kicker: "And also with you.")

-Roger's daughter looks a little like Lindsay Lohan, if LL hadn't let herself go to shit. Also, obscure literary observation of the day: the son-in-law's interest in refrigerated transport reminds me of a subplot in Steinbeck's East of Eden, where, let's just say, a similar investment did not go so well.

-Bobby gets a line! Two lines, in fact, but the one about the violin gets my vote for line of the week: "I like the case. It looks like a coffin." Kid clearly got the memo for this week's episode.

-Runner-up LOTW: "I can't laugh at everything you say." (shrink to Roger)

-Second runner-up: "She was always so nice to me - when she could hear me." (Roger's secretary, weeping over his mother's death)

-Least subtle line of the week: "I want you to be yourself." (Photographer to Don.) Runner-up: Roger's monologue about doors and bridges.

-Visual touches I liked: Don's ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian echoing the image of his clothes strewn across his bedroom floor; the contrast between the bright tropical warmth and color of the opening Hawaii scenes with the final, haunting image of the good doctor Rosen skiing off through the streets of New York in the falling snow.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Ambitious "The Place Beyond the Pines"'s Reach Exceeds its Grasp


Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn, Dane DeHaan

Are the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons? It’s a question that clearly preoccupies director Derek Cianfrance in his new film, “The Place Beyond the Pines.” The follow-up to his superb debut feature, “Blue Valentine,” “Pines” offers up a gritty tale of two radically different men who cross paths by chance, and the far-reaching impact of their interaction on their families, particularly their sons. The result is an ambitious, fitfully compelling drama that struggles to tie its various threads together into a unified whole.

Set in Schenectady, New York (“Schenectady,” in case you didn’t know, being Mohawk for “the place beyond the pines”), the film falls into three parts. Part one focuses on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a professional motorcyclist and drifter who discovers that a fling from the last time he passed through Schenectady has produced an infant son. After the initial shock, he feels compelled to provide for both baby and mother (Eva Mendes) by robbing banks—a pursuit that eventually brings him into contact with a rookie cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), who happens to have a son of his own. Part two switches gears to follow Avery, who’s confronted with both danger and opportunity, as well as a serious ethical choice, when he uncovers certain unsavory information about his fellow police officers. After Avery makes his choice, the movie skips ahead 15 years to show Luke’s and Avery’s sons playing out the final act of the drama that their fathers set in motion.

In interviews Cianfrance has made no bones of the fact that he deliberately designed the movie as a triptych. This isn’t the first time he’s played around with narrative structure: one of the most striking devices in “Blue Valentine” was its side-by-side pairing of scenes at the beginning and end of the protagonists’ relationship, showing in perfect tandem the progression towards their marriage and its eventual dissolution. Here, however, the sharp shifts in perspective and time feel choppy and disjointed—it’s like watching three separate, only tangentially connected movies, rather than one. At the same time, in crossing from one character’s consciousness to another, and then from one generation to another, the film seems to be striving for an epic, almost mythic quality that it doesn’t quite achieve. In the end, the crucial third act buckles under too much symbolic weight that seems forced rather than genuinely earned.

Part of the problem is that most of the movie’s punch is front-loaded in Luke’s story. Luke’s decisions may be dumb and destructive, but he projects an emotional energy that gradually dissipates once the spotlight shifts elsewhere. Gosling manages to sell his basic impulses as essentially pure, even innocent, and wrings unexpected poignancy out of their unfortunate consequences. Avery, by contrast, is smarter, cooler-headed and more calculating, and considerably more self-interested, though not bereft of conscience. As such, he’s intriguing enough to watch, but his most vulnerable, most emotionally exposed moments don’t have the same kick to the gut as Luke’s. Interestingly, the sons (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen) reflect a similar imbalance. DeHaan, a rising star (“Chronicle,” “In Treatment”) who looks a little like a very young Leonardo di Caprio with a dash of Jesse Eisenberg, imbues the character of Luke’s son with a vaguely lost, unstable quality that plays effectively off the viewer’s knowledge of his family history, while Cohen seems miscast as Avery’s son and mostly comes off as a prick. Maybe that’s intentional, but it tends to lower the stakes in the denouement, which falls curiously flat as a result.

Despite these flaws, “The Place Beyond the Pines” confirms that Cianfrance remains a director worth watching. The film has plenty going for it: a willingness to subvert expectations; strong performances, especially by Gosling; riveting chase sequences, impressively shot by Sean Bobbitt, who’s also director Steve McQueen’s go-to guy (“Shame,” “Hunger”), as well as equally tense, if outwardly quieter, scenes involving Avery and his fellow cops. There are lovely moments of great tenderness and of surprising levity, especially in the first third of the film—Luke pensively watching his son get baptized, Luke feeding the baby ice cream, Luke’s friend Robin (a very good Ben Mendelsohn, dialing down the creepy vibe he brought to “Animal Kingdom”) playing with his dog—where the “Blue Valentine” DNA is most apparent. In short, there’s no lack of good or original elements in the movie; the real weakness is a lack of cohesion. What we’re left with is a stew made up of high quality ingredients that aren’t very well blended. Individual bites are tasty, but they don’t add up to a wholly satisfying meal.


Thursday, April 04, 2013

R.I.P. Roger Ebert

What can I say? Too much, and yet not enough. Roger Ebert, the most famous and most beloved film critic in the country - if not the world - has passed on. I'm both surprised and unsurprised at how hard the news has hit not just me, but movie lovers everywhere. Surprised in that his death wasn't exactly a shock - it's been an impending reality ever since he began undergoing aggressive treatment for cancer in the mid-2000s. (He didn't let the prospect faze him - witness this lovely passage from his memoir Life Itself, which is still one of the most moving reflections on death I've ever read.) Unsurprised in that his loss, however foreseeable, is both devastating and incalculable.

Ebert embodied what's best about America. He was a man from the Midwest, from a middle-class family, an enterprising journalist who was able to marry his deep love of movies with his outstanding ability to communicate, and to parlay the union into a wildly successful career. He was a true cineaste, with a discerning eye and sometimes idiosyncratic tastes, but he was also an everyman who never condescended to his audience. He engaged with them as equals, and did it with such clarity and intelligence that everyone could appreciate him, even if not everyone agreed with him. Late in life, he suffered a particularly ghoulish form of cancer that necessitated the partial removal of his jaw, stripping him of his ability to talk and eat and reducing him visually to a barely recognizable version of himself. He endured it all, at least publicly, with grace and humor. And he wrote to the end, showing no drop-off in the quality of his writing or his insights...or his greatest gift, his abiding humanity.

Like a lot of movie lovers who grew up in the '80s and '90s, my first memories of Ebert go back to watching Siskel and Ebert on TV in their weekly program "At the Movies." My early impressions: Siskel was the thin, caustic one; Ebert was the chubby, slightly kinder one. As I grew old enough to form my own opinions on movies, I found myself agreeing more often with Siskel than Ebert and occasionally getting annoyed with the latter as a result. It wasn't until I got to college that I started reading Ebert's reviews (and later, his blog) regularly and realized that while I still disagreed plenty often with him, he was a terrific writer and a smart critic, blessed with a hilariously deadpan wit and an exceptionally compassionate and generous mind. He didn't just write about movies, either; he wasn't shy about wading into the minefield of political writing, and stood by his views firmly but without arrogance. It warmed my heart, of course, that his politics tallied almost perfectly with mine - he was an unabashed liberal and a secular humanist, and saw no reason to hide it - but he also treated others' contrary views with courtesy and respect.

And then came the cancer. The first photo I saw of him after the jaw removal surgery - the lower part of his face collapsed into a kind of ghastly, pouchy grin - hurt me like an almost physical pain. As did reading about the loss of his voice and his having to be fed intravenously. At the same time, I admired his sheer determination not to let any of it interfere with his life's calling: watching movies and communicating with as many people as possible, as persuasively and eloquently as possible. He had become a role model for me in both respects, and that didn't change with his illness.

But in both those respects, as well, his passing marks the end of an era. No film critic (except maybe Pauline Kael) had previously attained such public stature or such widespread recognition and reverence. And in the current universe, where everyone can get online and opine publicly on what they just saw, it's unlikely anyone ever will. This isn't a dig at the democratization of criticism via the Internet, which has proliferated crap, sure, and made it even harder to get a stable, paying critic's gig than it was before, but has also produced a lot of high-quality writing and arguably more vibrant, widely accessible discussion of movies (and other forms of arts & entertainment) than was previously possible. Ebert himself embraced its opportunities to reach out to a broader community of film lovers, rather than treating it as a threat to his existence. Other critics have tried to emulate his example, with mixed results.

Long story short, there will never be another Roger Ebert. He was one of the very rare movie critics who was able to bridge the pre- and post-digital world with unqualified success. And he was the only one who managed to become a household name through the old media only to *expand* his audience through the new. He was fortunate in that respect. He also deserved every bit of his good fortune.

I can't think of a better way of closing this rambling eulogy than quoting words from the man himself that, to me, summarize everything that was both good and great about his life.

I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Truer words never spoken. Rest in peace, Roger. You just got thousands - no, millions - of thumbs up for a beautiful life, beautifully lived.