Monday, September 30, 2013

Homeland Season 3 Premiere: Everything new is old again. Sort of.

It feels like both forever and no time at all since we last saw Carrie Mathison losing her shit after failing to prevent a terrorist attack. Forever in that we've had a lot of time and many other TV shows in the interim to distract us; hardly any time, however, in plunging us into the aftermath of the last attack.

I'll be upfront: I haven't decided whether I'm going to recap "Homeland" regularly this season. I'm not going to stop watching the show, but I'm not sure it really merits week-to-week treatment anymore. While the season premiere was perfectly serviceable as season premieres go, I found it hard to care as much I once did about whether Carrie's instincts are ever vindicated or what will become of her strange, near-pathological bond to Nicholas Brody. In addition to prolonging Brody's storyline to the breaking point of all plausibility, "Homeland" appears to be afflicted with what I call the Don Draper Problem: as with "Mad Men," the show is centered on a protagonist with deeply self-destructive tendencies, and seems way too content to show the endless downward spiral resulting from giving in to those tendencies. The repeated relapses may be accurate as a reflection of basic human inability to change, but as television drama they can be very trying.

"Mad Men," at least, will always retain a certain amount of interest by portraying a time period and culture that's still somewhat removed from our own. "Homeland," by contrast, purports to be partly a mirror of our own post-9/11 climate of unease tipping into paranoia. To do that successfully, though, it has to convince us that what it shows could actually happen, and "Homeland" has increasingly played fast and loose with its audience's willingness to suspend disbelief. Now in focusing on the negative fallout of the CIA's decision to use Brody as an asset and Carrie's even more questionable decision to get involved personally with Brody, the show's writers appear to be pulling back a little and trying to regain some footing in reality, or a passable imitation of it. I don't know, though, that a Congressional investigation is the first place I'd go with that approach, even if it does set up a potentially interesting conflict between Carrie and her beloved mentor. Perhaps I should have been more shocked by Saul's decision to throw her to the wolves, metaphorically speaking...and yet I wasn't. I'm more shocked at my own apathy. Well, not so much apathy as the kind of weariness Saul probably feels at the sight of Carrie going off the reservation again.

Far more compelling, to my mind, was the depiction of Saul's inner dilemma, as acting CIA director, on whether to proceed with the Wizard-of-Oz assassination op. Those scenes embodied the gripping tension that "Homeland," at its best, does so well. I was also glad to see the black ops characters - Peter Quinn and his boss (played by F. Murray Abraham) - back in action.

No Brody this week, but plenty of BrodyS; too much, perhaps. I give the show credit for exploring how a normal, everyday family would cope with the discovery that its head was a self-avowed terrorist. But I don't have much interest in how Dana's romantic life plays into this - and a topless selfie, really? You just know that's going to come back to haunt her; the question is, do we care?

Random observations:

-I kinda miss the jazz-scored, schizoid opening credits.

-Chris Brody: growing up cute. Still as superfluous as ever. But where's devoted Mike? (In the narrative, that is; the actor I believe has a gig on the new James Spader show.)

-That guy Carrie hooked up looked a little like Brody. Undoubtedly not a coincidence.

-So if everyone's favorite unsolved mystery from last season was "Who's the mole?" it looks like this season's candidate might be "Who's the leak?" (And: are they one and the same?) It might be F. Murray Abraham, trying to set up Carrie to take the fall; but I'm kind of hoping it isn't. Maybe the crazy conspiracy theorist viewers are right and it's Saul's wife. Just as long as it isn't Saul himself!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Prisoners" taps into dark side of parental instincts


Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello

How far would you go to protect your children? No, really: ask yourself this if you have kids, especially young ones. Even if you, like me, are not a parent, you may have observed how having a child in danger can inspire the most astounding, practically superhuman feats of will, as well as the most spectacular meltdowns. “Prisoners” runs the full gamut in playing out every parent’s worst nightmare, the disappearance of one’s children, and I suspect most parents who can bring themselves to watch will do so with horror but also a glimmer of empathy, perhaps even self-recognition.

The rest of us may find such empathy more difficult, especially when it comes to the behavior of the film’s lead, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, shorn of his usual charm). When Keller’s young daughter goes mysteriously missing along with the daughter of his neighbors (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), the latter react more or less as normal parents would be expected to react, exhibiting extreme grief and fear but also some degree of control. The Dovers…not so much. Keller’s wife (Maria Bello) quickly slips into a medically induced fog to dull her pain, while Keller, convinced he knows who kidnapped the girls and frustrated with the perceived inaction of the detective on the case (an excellent Jake Gyllenhaal), proceeds to take matters into his own hands.

No, this isn’t “Taken,” and Keller’s no vigilante hero; director Denis Villeneuve, who’s no stranger to stomach-churning violence and moral gut-punches (see his Oscar-nominated “Incendies”), never implies that what he does to the man he believes responsible (Paul Dano) is remotely justified even if the latter is guilty. The brutality of Keller’s tactics speaks for itself, although the film works more by suggestion than by direct depiction. But Villeneuve also shows how the agony of not knowing the worst, not having an answer to the most important puzzle of one’s life, and the obsession that results, can grind up one’s soul—not just Keller’s or the other parents’, but also that of the detective (curiously named Loki). In this, “Prisoners” is reminiscent of David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” not least because of Gyllenhaal’s presence as a man consumed with solving what may be an unsolvable mystery. Only this time he’s the seasoned cop rather than the eager reporter; and this time, after a few baroque plot twists, he does solve the case. He doesn’t, however, solve the larger question that the film leaves conspicuously open: what are the just deserts of a man who becomes a monster in trying to save his child from a monster? It’s a question that most parents can only hope they’ll never have to answer.


Monday, September 23, 2013

The last indie roses of summer


directed by James Ponsoldt
starring Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler



written and directed by Woody Allen
starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Stuhlbarg



written and directed by Lake Bell
starring Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Rob Corddry, others


Reviews to come

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fall movie preview

After a summer overflowing with high-quality indie films - several of which I still have yet to see - I'm not as starved for good movies as I usually am around this time of year. And surveying this fall's offerings of mostly grim, dark material, I feel a bit like someone who just enjoyed a summer diet of surprisingly tasty salads and refreshing icy confections now being handed a menu full of heavy stews, steaks, and stockpot entrees. It's not that lighter is always better, just that the switch seems to have come without much of a transition. Still, the season isn't totally without hints of fun, like the new "Hunger Games" movie or the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis"...though maybe "fun" is relative, given that we're talking a dystopian saga about a society that forces children to fight to the death for sport and a Coen brothers flick (read: merciless) about a down-at-heel folk musician struggling and failing to succeed. Still, enjoyment can come in all forms, and I, for one, plan to enjoy seeing some of my favorite actors abuse each other on screen for the greater good of cinema. Here are the ten movies I'm most looking forward to this fall, in order of release date:

PRISONERS (Sept. 20)
directed by Denis Villeneuve
starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard

Jackman plays a father of one of two missing girls who resorts to desperate (and probably ill-advised) measures when the police hit a wall in their investigation. That kind of plot normally holds little appeal for me, but I'm drawn to the cast and even more to Villeneuve, who previously directed "Incendies," an Oscar nominee for best foreign film and one of the most powerful films of 2011.

GRAVITY (Oct. 4)
directed by Alfonso Cuarón
starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

One of the tougher commercial sells of the year, despite its A-list pedigree, "Gravity" features Clooney and Bullock as a pair of astronauts faced with disaster when an accident leaves them stranded in space and running out of breathable air. Judging from the raptures at Toronto (International Film Festival), it's a gorgeous piece of work. One would expect no less from Cuaron ("Children of Men," "Y Tu Mamá También," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), and that's enough for me.

12 YEARS A SLAVE (Oct. 18)
directed by Steve McQueen
starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Quvenzhané Wallis and the dude who played her dad in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," others

An adaptation of the true story of a free black man (Ejiofor) kidnapped into slavery in the antebellum South, the film version got raves at TIFF but is reportedly unsparing in its portrayal of the brutal treatment of slaves. Personal squeamishness aside, I also have some reservations about McQueen, an undeniably talented director whose films ("Hunger," "Shame") tend to leave me cold despite starring (and making a name for) the glorious Michael Fassbender. Still, any film that features Fassbender (albeit as Solomon's most sadistic master) AND Cumberbatch (albeit in a small role) AND Ejiofor and has the kind of buzz it's been getting is going to have me there opening weekend. In particular, this may finally be the breakout role for the charismatic Ejiofor, who despite a string of respectable performances in well-received indie and foreign films hasn't yet quite fulfilled the terrific potential he showed in "Dirty Pretty Things."

directed by Ridley Scott
starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, John Leguiziamo, Rosie Perez, Goran Visnjic

All I know about this one is that Fassbender plays a lawyer who gets involved - presumably in an extra-professional capacity - with a drug ring. You know this can't possibly end well, especially since the script was written by Cormac "despair and die" McCarthy. Nevertheless, Fassbender facing off against Javier Bardem should be a sight worth seeing.

directed by Martin Scorsese
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, Kyle Chandler
based on the book by Jordan Belfort

I like to think Leo took my advice from a few years ago (circa "Inception"/"Shutter Island," or maybe it was "J. Edgar") when I bemoaned his confinement to what I called "furrowed brow" roles (or, in my unkinder moments, "constipated look" roles). Where, I asked, was that boyish charm and intriguing volatility of yore, that million dollar smile with the suggestion of troubled layers beneath it? Lo and behold, he brought it back with a fresh new twist, first as the sociopathic Calvin Candy in last year's "Django Unchained," then as the deluded dreamer Jay Gatsby, and now as another larger-than-life fellow ripe for a fall: real-life Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort, a shady high-flyer in the early '90s who was eventually convicted of massive securities fraud only to serve minimal time and write a best-selling book about the experience. Watching Belfort and his ilk parading their ill-gotten gains may make one want to throw things at the screen, or despair that nothing about Wall Street culture has changed...but I say it's better to be reminded of this cinematically than not at all. And it's Scorsese, so prepare to be reminded with panache.

directed by Francis Lawrence
starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz

By this point, you're probably either already on the "Hunger Games" train or unlikely to get on now. But if you haven't yet given it a try, I recommend watching the first movie and hopping aboard for the second one. JLaw continues her conquering march through Hollywood, reprising her role as the intrepid Katniss Everdeen. Also returning: most of the cast from the first movie, plus new additions Philip Seymour Hoffmann as the new Gamemaker and a couple of lesser known faces as reader favorites Finnick and Johanna. The franchise has a new director, too: Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), who directed "I Am Legend."

directed by the Coen bros.
starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham.

A hit at Cannes, the Coens' latest recounts the travails of a gifted but feckless and unlucky young folk singer-songwriter (Isaac) just scraping by in the early '60s: the anti-Dylan, if you will, or maybe the unsuccessful alternative-universe Dylan if that Dylan were a bit of a loser and more of a dick. The music's apparently pretty good, and for good reason - a reason with three words: T. Bone Burnett. For this and other reasons, the movie's already drawn favorable comparisons to "O Brother, Where Art Thou." Sold!

directed by David O. Russell
starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK

After being wowed by "The Fighter," I found myself in the critical minority of those left distinctly underwhelmed by David O. Russell's follow-up, "Silver Linings Playbook," and concluded that I prefer "serious David O." to "comedic David O." (I wasn't a fan of "I Heart Huckabees," either; yet I'd really liked his breakout '90s film, "Three Kings.") This pattern, however, makes me hopeful for "American Hustle," which is based on the true story of an FBI political corruption sting in the late '70s, and stars "The Fighter"'s Bale and Adams as a pair of con artists who team up with an FBI agent played by Cooper. Unfortunate '70s fashions abound, judging from the publicity stills.

directed by George Clooney
starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville

Hmm, is the theme of this fall's movie season "based on a true story"? At least this one seems a bit more upbeat than the others: based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, it depicts the clandestine efforts of a special WWII Allied task force to rescue works of art from destruction by the Nazis. I'm guessing the heroes of the tale aren't quite as cool or dapper as the "Ocean's Eleven" crew, but they seem to have been pretty successful as a historical matter...and let's face it, their cause was far nobler.

directed by John Wells
starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nichols, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin
based on the play by Tracy Letts

I haven't seen the play, but as I understand it's a pretty dark depiction of a pretty dysfunctional Southern family (is there any other kind?) who hash out their grievances while gathered at the home of their (dying?) matriarch, Violet Weston (played here by Meryl Streep, naturellement). The fiercest battle appears to be between Beverly and her oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), though I'm sure there are plenty of uncomfortable-making scenes involving all the other characters, too. Films based on plays, even successful and acclaimed plays, are always an uncertain proposition, and early word on this one is inconclusive - but with that cast, how can I not go?


As always, I have no doubt that some of these films will underwhelm, and others that are totally not on my radar right now will creep up and surprise me. That's the beauty of the fall movie season: you never know what you'll end up loving, but chances are you'll find something.