Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mammie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The most rewarding aspect of the safe but satisfying Ricki and the Flash is seeing Meryl Streep actually appearing to have fun on screen again rather than headlining another project that exists solely for her to earn an Oscar nomination. The problem with those dramas was never her performance, but that the material too often couldn't equal the skill she brought to them. If you're Streep it doesn't matter, but for critics and audiences who have to sit through them, each new film brought the realization that she may never be challenged again, stuck dragging mediocre material over the finish line during awards season. So despite boasting an acclaimed (if somewhat inconsistent) director in Jonathan Demme, it kind of comes as a relief that no such lofty expectations accompany this or her work in it. Or at least it doesn't consciously feel like it this time.

There's very little at stake here dramatically and that's fine. While Streep's performance still unquestionably carries everything, this is entertaining mainstream fluff, and as backhanded a compliment as that seems, it doesn't do much wrong. And neither does she. So yes,it's really Streep singing, and for what's asked from the character, she delivers in spades. The same can mostly be said of the film, which is fun and succeeds at what it's trying to do within its fairly constricting, predictable formula.

Decades after abandoning her family to pursue her dreams of becoming a famous rock star, Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) works as a cashier while playing gigs at a small bar with her band, the Flash, who perform enthusiastic covers of everything from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga.  Receiving a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) that estranged daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer) has slipped into a severe depression after her husband left her for another woman, Ricki flies from California to Indianapolis to be with her. Only Julie resents her, with Ricki having been such a spectacularly absent parent when it really counted that even her two sons can barely tolerate this homecoming.

Ricki's own life isn't much less of a mess, as she continues to uncomfortably deny (sometimes onstage) the existence of her very real relationship with lead guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield). Always saying and doing just the wrong thing at just the wrong time, this family crisis forces her to not only reconnect with her adult kids and become a parent, but learn how to finally become a responsible adult herself.

We know that Streep can hit hit the necessary emotional beats this story requires in her sleep so the big question is how she fairs as a singer and performer on stage. And it's a loaded one. Since Ricki really isn't supposed to be this incredible talent that somehow slipped through the cracks of the music industry, but an older, well traveled, raspy voiced bar singer whose best days long passed, Streep's work needs to be judged within that context. So taken for what it is, she's actually very good, and even if sometimes it doesn't appear that she's playing guitar, that honestly didn't bother me much either. She's an actress rather than a musician and having one of the best in the role seems to be a fair enough trade-off.

The band's opening performance of Petty's "American Girl" did have me worried though, until remembering no one's ever really covered it well, or could be expected to. She finds her groove with just about everything that follows, especially a somewhat interesting re-arrangement of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Streep also performs the film's only original song, "A Cold One," written by Jenny Lewis, and while it's a good song delivered well from the actress, I couldn't help but imagine how much better it would sound if Lewis was singing it instead. Assuming it's nominated for Best Original song, we may actually find out.

If I'm dwelling on the music that's only because there's so much of it, which is a plus. Demme stands his ground enough to at least give us entire performances rather than just snippets of gigs, and while an argument could be made that this was done to pad a fluffy narrative, he does it at the risk of potentially exposing Streep's shortcomings as a singer and musician, which was gutsy. That gamble paid off since the band holds our attention and whatever the actress lacks in that department she more than compensates for in the authenticity she brings to her onscreen relationship with her real-life daughter, Mammie Gummer.

For a change, it's nice not to worry about clearing the casting hurdle of mother-daughter believability since they're not only really mother and daughter, but share an identical resemblance to boot. Of course, none of that would matter if it didn't effectively translate to the screen, which it does, as both share a natural shorthand that make their scenes together some of the strongest, particularly Julie's breakdown scenes.

Getting past the fact that Kevin Kline's almost comedically reserved Pete was once actually married to Ricki hardly matters since Kline is such a seasoned pro at playing the straight man to absurd characters. And while singer and former soap star Springfield fares about as well in his role as a heartfelt, grungy guitarist as Streep does in his rock star realm, the film's best performance is actually a smaller one in terms of screen. As Pete's current wife, Maureen, Audra McDonald defies expectations by actually playing this woman as a sane, composed, thoughtful person, who also makes it firmly clear she's open to having Ricki in all their lives, provided she shapes up, and fast. McDonald goes toe-to-toe with Streep in the film's single best scene, so sensitively navigated and performed by the former that it's hardly a stretch to say this entire story would have been more compelling if told from her character's perspective.

The ending either represents some kind of breakthrough for Ricki, or further proof that this is a woman who just can't resist making everything about herself. But in even making it about herself yet again, she still finds this roundabout way of reconnecting to her family, albeit under her terms. As odd as that seems, it does manage to feel completely true to the character. What doesn't fly is an out of left (or rather right) field attempt to make Ricki a conservative Republican just because someone thought it would be a hilarious reversal of expectations. It's not, nor are some of the distracting, eye popping performances from the extras at the wedding who can't stop staring at Ricki like she's just arrived from outer space. The point is clear but Demme should have definitely reined that in.

Diablo Cody's screenplay is easily the most conventional work she's penned, which is ironic considering it's partly based on her mother's experiences. But in this case, that might not be a criticism since she seemed overdue for something a little more mainstream and less polarizing. Still, it's surprising to discover the writer of Juno, Young Adult and Jennifer's Body is attached to a project you could picture characters in those films mocking.

There will undoubtedly be comparisons made to last year's slightly superior Al Pacino picture, Danny Collins, and for good reason. The basic premise of an aging rocker struggling to reconnect with their estranged family is nearly identical, with both even working in similar ways. The problem of fewer complex roles being written for aging actors and actresses isn't solved or even addressed with Ricki and the Flash, but despite its flaws it provides just the right dose of entertainment you'd expect.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Steve Jobs

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Sarah Snook, John Ortiz
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

During one scene in Danny Boyle's extraordinary Steve Jobs, Jobs gets into it again with Apple Computer co-founder and old friend Steve Wozniak just as he's about to reveal his new iMac to the world. As this shouting match ensues, centered around Jobs' adamant refusal to publicly or privately credit anyone other than himself, you can't help but notice a small group of young Apple employees uncomfortably looking on. They're trapped in the auditorium as these two go at each other, baring witness to twenty years of dirty laundry being aired at the worst possible time. Then you just try to imagine being one of those cringing employees in that room when this happened. Did it really happen? And if it did, how would you tell people what went down. Would anyone even believe you?

There are many such moments in the film and just as many conversations, arguments, speeches and quick witted dialogue exchanges. While loosely based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography, this is still an Aaron Sorkin script after all, and in case you haven't heard, Steve Jobs wasn't such a great guy. But not in the same sense that the Mark Zuckerberg character wasn't in The Social Network. He was emotionally shut off and severed important relationships to build his technology empire, but as much of that story was successfully exaggerated and even sometimes fabricated by Sorkin, there was always this fleeting glimpse of humanity in there. The final scene served as a messed up, but poignant reminder that Zuckerberg, in his own mind, did it all for a girl. At one point during this, Jobs is asked, "What's your excuse?" and it's a real treat spending all of the film's enthralling 122 minute running time trying to discover it.

Had Jobs lived to see this, he'd probably appreciate its narrative tidiness, which not only tells us everything we need to know and some things we maybe wish we didn't, but does so with laser-like precision. It focuses only on the hours preceding three product launches: The Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. It's a testament to how tight Sorkin's script is that anything earlier, later, or in between, isn't missed, or in most cases, is covered anyway in the conversations and confrontations taking place before he takes the stage.

Only two scenes take place outside, flashbacks are used sparingly, and yet, it never once feels like a talky stage play. If anything, it's an action movie that uses it words as weapons, the story flying by at a breakneck pace, with Boyle using a myriad of visual flourishes to make each time period look and feel different.  He brings a non-stop energy to the proceedings that stands in stark contrast from the clinical style David Fincher (who was originally attached to direct) would have likely brought to an already icy story. But for Boyle, it's the highest imaginable compliment that we're not left wondering what could have been. No matter confined and contained the setting, it always feels like the story's moving. In hindsight, he actually ended up being the ideal choice for the material.

If the ingenious structure tightens the noose on the story and its characters then it also turns the microscope on Fassbender's performance, in which every expression, line delivery and physical action seems far more important than it otherwise would. When we first see Fassbender as Jobs in 1984, it's amazing is just how little he looks like him, and then how quickly he makes us forget by so convincingly playing such a colossal asshole. Once he busts out of the gates swinging, it's clear we're in for a wild ride. An obsessed control freak who threatens and berates employees, he never admits failure or accepts blame, even when on more than a few occasions, he completely should.  And nothing represents that failure more than him cruelly denying paternity of ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan's (Katherine Waterston) daughter Lisa (played at different ages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine), both to their faces and in the press.

While Sorkin's script goes a certain distance in acknowledging Chrisann isn't perfect and won't soon be competing for "mother of the year," Jobs' behavior in the opening '84 section of the film still comes off as nothing less than reprehensible. And yet, the few fleeting moments he shares with the daughter he believes (or at least says) isn't his show that he's capable of being a good father only when Lisa's connecting with him at his level. That is to say on a Macintosh. For all his flaws, he at least recognizes that it would be criminal not to foster this obviously gifted girl's creativity and intelligence, causing him to open up his wallet, regardless of how much he resents her mother. We learn that education is apparently the window into Jobs' soul, or at least for most of the film, that empty void where his soul's supposed to be.

It wouldn't exactly be accurate to say Jobs' treatment of anyone necessarily "improves" throughout the course of time covered here so much as his temperament ebbs and flows unexpectedly, with Fassbender impressively sliding in and out of jerk mode on what seems like a whim. Jobs is a volatile character and he captures that, sometimes offering even the littlest tease that this guy's turned a corner or had an actual moment of self-awareness, only to slip right back into another scary meltdown.

Physically, Fassbender's resemblance to Jobs is about on par with Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella's to Nixon, but what's strange is when we enter the infamous jeans and sneaker phase, he somehow begins looking EXACTLY like him.The complete immersion has set in, and while it's true that original choice Christian Bale would seem on paper to be the perfect choice, it's hard to envision him surpassing Fassbender's total immersion into the public idea of who Jobs is, which never approaches  imitation of any sort. He's a complicated, contradictory figure and despite two actors attempting this before him, there's still no blueprint for it, making what he accomplishes all the more remarkable.

Supporting players and events that were skimmed over, cliff notes-style, in 2013's Ashton Kutcher-starring Jobs (which took a more traditional biographical route), 1999's TNT film, The Pirates of Silicon Valley, or even in this year's acclaimed Alex Gibney documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, are explored in far greater detail here. More accurately, it makes everything that came before it seem like a cartoon, lacking in depth or a singular vision. Regardless of how much is confirmed to have actually happened, there is this sense (prevalent in most of Sorkin's work) that we're eavesdropping on certain conversations and incriminating backstage shenanigans that weren't intended for public consumption.

Besides pulling the curtain back on Job's dysfunctional family relationships, almost as much time is spent digging into the circumstances that led to the ousting from his own company by CEO and former Pepsi chairman, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Previously depicted as the out-of-touch figurehead who fired Steve Jobs in just about every version of this story put on film or in print, Sorkin's script presents an entirely different take. Played by Daniels as a wise sage with some genuine insights into both the marketing of Apple computers and its co-creator's psyche, it wouldn't a stretch to call him a father figure to Steve and the only person who understands what makes him tick.

His experience on the Newsroom making him no stranger to rattling off Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue, Daniels elicits sympathy for Sculley and his dilemma, making us wonder if we wouldn't take the same actions if put in his shoes, contending daily with an unpredictable, insubordinate Jobs. Just the very idea of a meglomaniac like him answering to a Board of Directors is a recipe for disaster. While his ousting was the first time he ever seemed to take something personally, Sorkin squashes any notion  he was somehow humbled by this or even the subsequent failure of his own competing NeXT venture. Instead, Jobs' return to Apple is depicted as the latest frightening chapter detailing his unhealthy obsession with proving himself.

As uncompromisingly as Jobs is portrayed, there's still this undercurrent that he really did something right to have inspired such loyalty in those he frequently mistreated over the years. It comes to a point where you have to wonder whether they're just asking for it, constantly coming back for more, even long after he seems to have outgrown his use for them, and they for him. Seth Rogen plays Woz as Seth Rogen playing Woz, and for this film's mission, that actually works quite well. He's a likable schlub whose request for acknowledgment of the Apple II team's contributions by Jobs spans over a decade and falls on deaf ears. The practical engineer to Jobs' big picture designer, this was a partnership always destined to crumble, as flashbacks to the garage show us.

Original Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) is yet another victim of that tyranny, but handles it better than just about anyone, even managing to completely turn the tables on him at one point. But it's Kate Winslet's Joanna Hoffman as Job's right-hand woman and marketing executive through the years who serves as the rock of the film. The only person capable of standing up to him and winning, she's the constant presence guiding Steve in the right direction by reigning him in and cooling him off. Whenever his raging ego careens out of control to continuously threaten everything he's created, she's there to talk him off the cliff.

The character of Joanna is so strong, and Winslet's work so economical and invisibly efficient in every scene, that by the end you're convinced she's as much responsible for his success as the man himself, by simply refusing to let him self-destruct. But even she has her limits, justifiably sickened by the one thing she can't fix on her own: His relationship with his daughter. She can push but it's up to him to do the rest. Although the last scene comes closest, there's no epiphany of eureka moment where Steve Jobs suddenly becomes a heartfelt guy or great father. Rather, there's this sense the needle maybe moved just enough, his failures making him slightly more open as a person than the monster we met in the opening scenes. That's why what Fassbender pulls off is something akin to a highwire act without a net, capturing the mercurial behavior of someone you'd find impossible to like or admire, yet still begrudgingly feel forced to respect.

Jobs has his loyal followers and gets the desired results, presenting the question of whether the same qualities that define his moral failure as a human being also qualify him as an effective leader. We're left trying to reconcile the fact that this forward-thinking genius who bettered so many lives could have also been a deadbeat dad and raging egomaniac. Do the ends justify the means? It turns out what little love he had was poured into his machines, leaving very little to the one person most deserving. His biggest design flaw may have been himself, but we were lucky enough to reap the benefits. Much like The Social Network, Steve Jobs is a perfect film, not for what it says, but how, utilizing an exciting structure to thematically capture one of the most contradictory figures of our time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinki, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Jaeden Lieberher, Danielle Rose Russell
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

In his 2005 film Elizabethtown, writer/director Cameron Crowe's depressed protagonist infamously attempted to differentiate between a failure and a fiasco. Now, after the disastrous release of his poorly received Aloha, he's probably asking himself that same question. It's not the most promising sign when the biggest question going into a film is whether it's really as bad as everyone says. How can any movie directed by Crowe and starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams and Bill Murray be THAT bad? But the truth is that any movie starring or directed by anyone can be, and it still takes an enormous amount of talent and to even do that.

Aloha isn't entirely successful, but it's not a disaster either. Far from it. And it certainly doesn't deserve to end a filmmaker's career, especially considering most of what ends up on screen proves he's still got it, occasional missteps and all. Despite what's been said, this is vintage Crowe, aside from an overly ambitious plot that's unlike anything he's previously done, sometimes to the film's detriment. But what's been lost in all the manufactured controversies is that it also contains one of the best directed scenes of his career, on par with anything from Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire or Say Anything. Unfortunately, the movie it's in is not. This begs the question of whether Crowe's work has really changed at all, or audiences have just grown more cynical, leaving our bright eyed optimism in the 90's, the decade this type of film seems practically enshrined in.

Following a failed stint as an Air Force pilot, military contractor, Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) returns to Hawaii to aid billionaire Carson Welch (Murray) in his efforts to develop land into a space center and launch a privately-funded satellite. He also encounters ex-girlfriend, Tracy (McAdams), who's now married to a pilot of very few words in Woody (John Krasinki), with whom she's raising their two kids, 12 year-old Grace (Danielle Rose Russell) and 9 year-old Mitchell. Brian's liason for the mission is Air Force Captain Alison Ng (Stone), whose sparkling personality and connection to the island's rich spirituality helps smooth things over with the native Hawaiians. As he eventually falls for her, it not only complicates Carson's mission, but Tracy's already shaky marriage as well.

As tempting as it is to describe the almost needlessly ambitious main plot as having something to do with Hawaii and space, all those aforementioned details are required to grasp it. And yet, no amount of them could suffice. It's not that it's convoluted or confusing so much as everything moves so quickly that it's tough to take it all in. Perhaps thankfully, Crowe is more interested in setting than story this time as he spends most of the opening hour drafting a love letter to the Hawaiian culture, drenching us in its mysticism and spirituality. But unlike The Descendants (with which this will most frequently be compared), the location doesn't feel quite as seamless and organic to the story, as Crowe really lays it on thick in the first hour.

If the satellite plot isn't enough of a head-scratcher, try keeping up with Cooper and Stone's characters meeting with Hawaiian sovereignty activist Dennis 'Bumpy' Kanahele, lending an impressive presence as "himself," even if it's his shirt that ends up stealing the show. Crowe should only wish that's the only controversy this film courted, as his casting of Stone as an Air Force pilot who's "half Swedish, one quarter Chinese and one quarter Hawaiian," created a noticeable stir. But let's just call it what it really is: PC nonsense that has little to do with the film's merit or content.

Actors act. That's what they do. And sometimes they even take on roles that are a drastic departure from who they really are. Other than Crowe having Stone's character pointlessly remind everyone of her ethnicity out of what seems like some massive insecurity, it's hardly worth a discussion. But judging from the extreme reaction, you'd think Stone was playing Mickey Rooney's role in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Whitewashing is a problem, but so is the fact that Crowe felt he had to apologize for how he cast his own movie. If anything, his only mistake was writing the character's ethnicity into the script without anticipating a media firestorm. But that's Crowe, completely idealistic in believing audiences would care enough about these characters to drown out the noise and disappear into whatever world he's created. He probably didn't even give a second thought to the implications of Stone's casting and, in a strange way, that's kind of reassuring. 
Joining Ione Skye, Kate Hudson and Kirsten Dunst as the latest in a long line of Crowe's Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Stone might be playing the most manic. Given what she's done up to this point, that path does seem right, but watching the opening hour it's hard not to consider Alison Ng one of the more overbearing, hyperactive MPDG's to be experienced in a while. It's easy to see how Brian would be completely put off by her, as are we. But just when the volume is pumped up so high on the character she starts making Dunst's Claire Colburn seem as if she's on depressants, the script, and Stone start to find their groove.

The exact turning point comes during a Hall and Oates dance sequence involving Stone and Bill Murray that's so weirdly compelling you're forced to just surrender to both actors' charms and the pure random absurdity of it. That Murray's supposed to be playing a self-serving, meglomaniacal CEO makes little difference to him, and of course, us. It's impossible to dislike the guy and he knows it, lending an eccentric quality to Carson that makes this nonsensical space plot bearable for at least the scenes he's in.

Bradley Cooper not only comes out of this unscathed, but demonstrating a versatility and charisma in a lead Tom Cruise would seem perfect for fifteen or twenty years prior. Jerry Maguire meets Top Gun meets Silver Linings Playbook would probably be the best way to describe the film, as well as Cooper's work in it. Depending upon how you feel about the idea of the actor starring in that kind of a project, he gets us on Brian's side quickly, rooting for the redemption of a guy who's kind of a self-absorbed jerk. Two big scenes near the end confirm just how smoothly Cooper excels at this, and whatever problems exist within the film, he definitely isn't among them.

Despite what was advertised, this isn't some kind of romantic comedy love triangle in which Brian is torn between Alison and his ex, played by McAdams. That this doesn't at all occur is most refreshing aspect of Crowe's script, as is the treatment of the family Tracy's built with aloof husband, Woody. Everything about their lives is handled so realistically and intelligently you almost want the whole film to be about them. McAdams occupies a different space than we're used to seeing her in on screen, making Tracy seem almost defeated and agitated at her ex's arrival, despite her marital problems being present long before.

In a nearly wordless performance, Krasinki delivers what's probably the best big screen turn of his career thus far as the complicated Woody, whose unpredictable reaction to Brian's arrival flies in the face of what's expected. Everything isn't as simple as an ex-boyfriend arriving to destroy a marriage, and the few scenes Krasinki shares with Cooper are successful for doesn't happen rather than what does.

Only Crowe could could find a way to work David Bowie and Bob Dylan into a space satellite scene and get away with it. Well, maybe he doesn't exactly get away with it. It's about as ridiculous as it sounds, even if you can't help but think the space storyline was the biggest casualty in the editing process, chopped and cut until it made little sense. As usual, Crowe uses his personal playlist as a backdrop to the action, but the best choice might be going with Jonsi again for the score since their We Bought A Zoo collaboration felt as natural a fit for his work as possible without sounding too cloying or whimsical. There's a lot of that same sound here too, as no one could ever accuse Crowe of merely phoning it in with a soundtrack.

The better movie stuck inside Aloha struggling to break free comes through in the last scene, which tops every single minute that came before, lending the film an unexpected emotional pull that nearly toppled me over. Without spoiling it, there's an obvious, conventional resolution you assume will be the last scene, before Crowe pulls back the curtain to reveal the actual finish, which brings the focus back to exactly where it belongs.

Subtly bubbling under the surface the entire time, the picture's most perfectly executed subplot takes center stage in the final few minutes, reaching its logical culmination and knocking us out with the scene we didn't know we wanted until it came. Wordlessly displaying an entire range of emotions in a matter of moments, young actress Danielle Russell provides us with a 30 seconds so astounding it would play well even out of context. But placed in the context of the entire film, it's safe to say Aloha primarily exists just so we can arrive there.

Anyone watching how skillfully Crowe constructs the end would probably assume a masterpiece precedes it. And they'd only be setting themselves up for disappointment. But not as much disappointment as you've heard. If all the doomsday prognosticators are correct in proclaiming Crowe's big screen directorial career over (which it won't be), it's hard to imagine a better, more fitting scene to close it. Neither a failure nor a fiasco, Aloha sits somewhere in between, leaving to our imaginations an alternate version in which everything went right. But that movie wouldn't be nearly as interesting to talk about or revisit. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, LeBron James
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's easy to assume you have Judd Apatow's Trainwreck all figured out before even seeing it. It'll be an uncomfortable, awkward mixture of comedy and drama with some toilet humor thrown in, eventually culminating in an unlikable, emotionally arrested protagonist learning to grow up. And since it's an Apatow production, there's always the chance it'll take thirty minutes longer to arrive at that revelation than it should. In the best case scenario, that would be just over two hours, or in the worst case, closer to two and a half. While those details do prove correct, there's something very different about the execution this time, resulting is his most purely satisfying effort in a while.

After essentially repeating the same formula that worked in the 40-Year-Old Virgin, but grew progressively worse with Knocked Up, Funny People and This is 40, Apatow finally nails it. Maybe it's the absence of
autobiographical subject matter or a willingness to relinquish his desire to be the next James L. Brooks, but he's delivered a movie that stands out from his others. But you have to figure the real difference maker is Amy Schumer, who in her first big screen starring role proves she's more than deserving of all the hype surrounding her.     

The film opens with a flashback in which a young Amy and her sister Kim are told their parents are divorcing, and warned by their drunken, philandering, Mets obsessed father, Gordon (Colin Quinn) on the dangers of monogamy. Flash forward twenty-three years and an adult Amy (Schumer) has internalized that advise, regularly smoking, drinking and sleeping around with guys like gym rat, Steven (John Cena) in order to escape the possibility of an actual adult relationship. Meanwhile, Kim (Brie Larson) has done the exact opposite, settling down with Tom (Mike Birbiglia) a dorky, if generally decent guy with an equally nerdy son Amy finds annoying.

It's Amy's intense dislike of sports that causes her intimidating editor at S'nuff men's magazine, Dianna (Tilda Swinton), to assign her a piece on renowned sports surgeon, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader.), who spends most of his free time hanging with best friend LeBron James (as "himself") and is currently preparing for a major surgery on Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire (himself again). With a promotion on the line and her father recently admitted to a nursing home, Amy hasn't a clue what to do when she actually starts dating and falling for a genuinely good guy who really likes her, faults and all. So, of course, she does her best to sabotage it, not realizing the person she's hurting most is herself.

This is a comedy that gets a lot right, which is a big surprise considering how much it's attempting to do at once, and how shaky Apatow's previous attempts at juggling this type of material have been. Helping is a really strongly defined character at the movie's center, which is evident immediately upon her introduction in the first few minutes. There's no doubt Amy likes to have fun, and it's interesting to note that when she wakes up in some random guy's bed completely hung over without a clue where she is, we realize this isn't a scene we'd even wince at if the protagonist were male. Schumer (who penned the script) and Apatow know this and are always a few steps ahead of our thinking she's a slut by having her admit to being one with little hesitation and no regrets.

I know very little, if anything, about Amy Schumer other than the fact that she has a show on Comedy Central a lot of people love that's supposedly dirtier and more controversial than this. That her casting was met with groans that she's not "hot enough" for the role is an especially bizarre complaint considering this isn't exactly the kind of female part we frequently see. Schumer makes it soar, hilariously transforming what should be detestable character traits into relatable, often painfully sympathetic quirks. She's also able to switch gears on a dime between the laugh-out-loud scenes and some of the more serious, soul-searching moments which are thankfully never all that serious in her hands.

The movie's secret weapon is Hader, would seem to be as atypical a choice as Schumer to lead a romantic comedy, which makes him an inspired choice, while marking sort of a divergence from the goofball characters he's known for playing since his SNL days. She's not as funny without Hader's straight man to play off and if the running joke is that Aaron's supposed to be boring, than it would be tough to find another actor who makes boring as interesting. Similar to Schumer, audiences will walk away from this experience with a higher opinion of his acting talents than when they went in, potentially opening the door to different types of roles we can picture him in.     

What separates this from other entries in an increasingly popular comedy subgenre is that this is actually invested in exploring what's behind Amy's behavior, while still consistently eliciting laughs doing it. She's on a journey with a very clear end point but the plot doesn't feel as forced or telegraphed as usual does because the writing and acting are so strong. It's the little details that count, such as the hilarious workplace scenes where we get to see an unrecognizable, but delightfully evil Tilda Swinton endorse one ridiculous story idea after another, as Amy and her hapless co-workers (played by Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park and Jon Glaser) sweat with fear.  Or how John Cena's musclehead character becomes a little too boyfriend-like for Amy to handle. Even a sub-plot involving Ezra Miller's overeager intern that has no business working, somehow pays off hilariously.

Every scene with LeBron and Bill Hader's Aaron, specifically those involving the world's highest paid athlete stiffing the latter with every bill. It's worth noting that Cena and especially LeBron's roles are almost ridiculously substantial compared to what would be expected of them. Neither necessarily feels like stunt casting and both end up excelling in supporting parts that don't ask too much of them and actually serve a function in the story. The real celebrity stunt casting actually comes at the end, and it's so random and unexpected that it rightfully earns some of the film's biggest laughs.

Colin Quinn playing Amy's ailing father in a nursing home while looking exactly like his 56-year-old self is definitely a head-scratcher that strangely serves to make an already hilarious performance seem that much funnier. At worst, Quinn's trademark sarcasm and deadpan delivery is put to such excellent use that it's difficult to even notice or care that he's playing someone nearly two decades older. As Kim, Brie Larson is given a slightly undeveloped role she still manages to still do a lot with, as we see through her how Amy turned into such a disaster. And as her oddly matched husband, the loony Birbiglia unexpectedly steals most of the scenes he's in.

Despite employing the usual Apatow tricks, the movie never forces us to like Amy. We just do, and that's all Schumer. The running joke will be that this is really a guy's part since Hollywood dictates only they can struggle with the issues she does here. It's almost impossible to watch without thinking her script's really on to something that hasn't been publicly acknowledged, at least on the big screen. In finally figuring out how to effectively juggle comedy and drama, without giving audiences a headache, Apatow does creep over the two-hour mark, if just barely. But this time it doesn't feel like a drag or mishmash of tones. The only quibble might be the ending, as it's difficult not to wish for a conclusion a little less pat, and maybe a bit more ambiguous or edgier. But that may have been asking too much. As it stands, Trainwreck is the kind of movie we all not so secretly wish Woody Allen could still make, even when it's poking fun at him.         

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire (Seasons 1 and 2)

Creators: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Starring: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss, Aleksa Palladino, James Cromwell, Mark O' Brien, Scott Michael Foster, Graham Beckel, John Getz, Annette O'Toole
Original Airdate: 2014-2015 

Season 1: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Season 2 ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

                                                                **Contains Minor Spoilers and Plot Details**

“Computers aren’t the thing. They are the thing that gets us to the thing.”

When AMC premiered Halt and Catch Fire, on June 1, 2014, there was this unspoken expectation that Christopher Cantwell And Christopher C. Rogers' period drama about the 80's personal computer boom would be the new centerpiece for the network. With Breaking Bad finished, Better Call Saul's potential for critical and commercial success still up in the air, and Mad Men on its way out, they needed a new hit. And while they never came out and said it, the plan was for HACF to inherit the throne of prestige television, with the advertising relentlessly touting it as being "from the producers of Breaking Bad." Then people saw it. Or more accurately, a few people did, and were only mildly impressed. Critics like Alan Sepinwall justifiably took it task for trying too much too soon, citing that a story about techies trying to reverse engineer a PC was really about a series trying to reverse engineer the acclaimed dramas that preceded it, with mixed results.

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire
Incorporating easily identifiable elements from both Breaking Bad and Mad Men, HACF was already being written like a show that belonged in their company without earning that right. But the most frustrating thing was how much potential it had and how many promising signs there were that it could reach that level if the writers just got out of their own way. After a satisfying pilot (Ep.1.1, "I/O") that appropriately debuted online before the premiere, the rest of the season was wildly uneven, while still showing glimmers of hope that they're on to something.

While the acting, directing, cinematography, music and production design can on any day compete with AMC's finest, it's at the service of a story desperately trying to find itself in its first season. All the ingredients can be there, but unlike film, TV is first and foremost a writing medium. And we also know too well that it's a numbers game in which the prestige factor can only go so far. When the rating aren't there, they'll pull the plug. So give the network credit for having the patience to grant it a second season and the creative forces credit for listening to all the criticisms and feedback and making those necessary changes. You'd have to go back to the sophomore season of NBC's Parks and Recreation to find a show that course corrected itself to such an extreme. Gifted with another chance, they listened, addressing nearly every problem until the rebooted series became what it was meant to be all along.

Set in the Silicon Prairie of Dallas, Texas in 1983, the series initially centers around the arrival of charismatic former IBM employee Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who mysteriously exited the company in a cloud of controversy. Now determined to one-up his ex-employer at their own game and make a name for himself, he formulates a plan to reverse engineer an IBM PC. To do it, he manipulates his way into getting hired by John Bosworth (Toby Huss), the VP of sales for Cardiff Electric, a fledgling software company loosely based on the real life, Texas-based Compaq. But what he really needs from Cardiff is Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) a brilliant engineer and former systems builder who previously tried and failed at launching a new computer  with his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) at the '81 COMDEX convention.

Mackenzie Davis as rebellious coder Cameron Howe
With Cardiff facing certain legal action from IBM, they're forced to enter the PC business as Joe brings in college student and rebellious coding superstar Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) as their programmer. Possessing the punkish, rebellious spirit of Angelina Jolie in Hackers while recalling the look of Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful, she's as temperamental as she is brilliant, and as much a visionary as Joe. But under his manipulative leadership, the question becomes how these three difficult personalities can co-exist to create a machine that can not only compete with IBM, but take computer technology into the future. But what will be the cost to each of them personally?

The show's unusual title actually refers to a now defunct machine code instruction that shuts down the computer's central processing unit. And the biggest obstacle facing the creators is how to make a piece of entertainment about people sitting around computers engaging. Taking its cue from The Social Network, the writers eventually realize that the key is having us care about the characters by raising the personal stakes as high as possible. The personal and professional aspects must be intrinsically merged, traveling on the same road to a clear destination the viewer wants to be on a journey toward. The first season's inconsistency mainly results from them instead going in a couple of different directions at once, causing a lack of focus and confusion as to the series' mission.

Lee Pace as the enigmatic Joe MacMillan
Perhaps overcompensating for what the network feared would be an abundance of technical jargon clobbering audiences, the writing seemed more focused on cloning Mad Men's Don Draper instead of the journey of these characters. While it probably wasn't intentional to turn Joe MacMillan into a less interesting hybrid of Draper and American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, but that's how it played out when the material hit the screen. Each minute spent on his "mysterious" past (which includes a strained relationship with his father, commitment issues, and bi-sexuality) feels derivative and especially irksome in the season's draggy middle episodes, which are weighed down heavily by the writers' early insistence on depicting him as an irredeemable sociopath.

The show is better than its creators initially seem to know and so is Lee Pace, who's just handed too much of a cliched anti-hero right out of the gate to make it entirely successful. With better writing in the next season, we get the nuanced portrayal we suspected him capable of all along, as the show hits the ground running with a more concrete vision, raising everything and everyone around it. I'm making it sound like the first season is terrible when in fact it's only the presentation of Joe holding it down. Making it all the more frustrating is how much greatness hovers around the edges and the potential it has moving forward, specifically in regard to the other supporting characters and their relationships.

As the Steve Wozniak to Joe's Steve Jobs, Gordon is the nuts and bolts engineer, self-proclaimed visionary salesman Joe needs to execute his plan, but also a walking disaster run down by life. If Joe's Don Draper at the start of the series then Gordon's Walter White, even if Scoot McNairy's tortured super nerd performance far transcends such a simplistic description. An alcoholic consumed by failure and basically a doormat to everyone in his life, including his wife and daughters.

Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy)
Much of the early episodes are spent wondering what a smart, capable woman like Donna is doing with this guy, until realizing she has her hang-ups too. Having previously played onscreen spouses in the Best Picture winning Argo, Bishé and McNairy and able to expand that sketch to a greater scale as an entirely different kind of couple, presenting one of the more realistic, period accurate TV marriages we've seen depicted on screen in years.

Far from a passive spectator to her husband's lost dreams and ambitions, Donna's the breadwinner in this household with her job at Texas Instruments and is every bit the intellectual and technological powerhouse Gordon is, if not more so. A scene in the pilot when she fixes her daughter's "Speak and Spell" in alarmingly short order lets us know right off the bat that she isn't Betty Crocker, or even Betty Draper.

Having been business partners with Gordon before, Donna knows the drill, and is justifiably weary of Joe or any new venture. Of course, she gets pulled in along with him, and marital strife, usually the weakest aspect of any drama series, becomes this one's strongest. Joe talks a big game but he's a poor man's Jobs, cribbing his inspirational speeches to use people to get what he wants since he lacks the technical expertise to do it himself. And Gordon is the perfect mark to be manipulated into helping him make and market the ridiculously named, only 15 pound (!) Cardiff Giant PC (Ep 1.7, "Giant").

Gordon's elusive Cabbage Patch Kids
Desperate to prove to his wife he isn't a loser of a father, Gordon's lowest point of the first season comes when he braves a hurricane to steal Cabbage Patch Kids for his daughters (Ep 1.6, "Landfall"). McNairy makes this Gordon's seemingly noble effort come across as hopelessly pathetic, while somehow making the character even more relatable and endearing. It also represents one of many small, but spot-on period details the series skillfully slides in for effect (like Joe intruding on a Clark family outing to see Return of the Jedi).

The costuming and production design may not be as pleasing for viewers to swoon over as the 60's and 70's of Mad Men since the 80's were aesthetically uglier, but that doesn't make its accuracy any less of an accomplishment. Similarly, the soundtrack isn't littered with wall-to-wall 80's hits so much as it's just hitting that occasional, perfectly timed sweet spot with the just the right obscure track from the period, whether it be classic rock, country, punk or new wave depending on the character or moment. And for all those Mad Men comparisons, an area it doesn't fall short is its mind-blowing, Emmy-nominated opening title sequence (accompanied by Trentemøller's synthy electronic theme), easily the best on television right now.

The only person capable of calling Joe out on his B.S. is Cameron, with whom he becomes romantically involved almost from the get-go, even if the fallout from that relationship doesn't fully pay off until the following season. Like Joe, Cam's a forward thinker, only more rebellious and immature and not without her own ideas about where the future is headed. For the most part, they're aligned with his, but they often clash over exactly how to get there.

The Apple Macintosh unveiled
It's ultimately the Joe/Cameron dynamic that torpedoes the entire project and proves that Joe isn't above sabotaging anything he can't completely control or tearing down his own creation if it doesn't meet his standards of excellence. Only when he lays his eyes on Steve Jobs' ultimate creation and IBM's true competition, the Apple Macintosh, does he realize just how inferior their product is, and how right Cam was all along in her desire to make these machines more user-friendly (Ep. 1.9, "Up Helly Aa"). And in seeing a future Joe may no longer be a part of, the series is finally given its beating heart: Failure.

By making this a story about four people with ideas and innovations two or three decades ahead of their time but lacking the capital, technology, or support to bring any to fruition, it now suddenly carries more thematic weight and relevance. Only winners get to write history and since these are completely fictional people, the sky's the limit as far as what can be done with them in the reality we know.

Season 2 starts exploring these exciting possibilities by very wisely shifting the focus off Joe and onto Donna and Cameron, who are struggling to go into business together in the wake of Cardiff's demise. Having caught wind of the fact that these are our two most intriguing characters and the axis around whom the show should rotate, the writers ratchet up the drama, making smart decisions that are brought to life by ambitious direction and terrific performances.

Joe and Gordon start Season 2 at a crossroads
Flash-forwarding to early 1985, Cardiff Electric has been liquidated, resulting in a big payout for company president Gordon and nothing for Joe, causing a reversal of sorts from their positions in the previous season (Ep 2.1, "SETI"). Though, not really. In some ways, Gordon will always be chasing the superficially more successful Joe and itching to impress him, as if that validation, rather than his own work or the love of his wife and daughters, will finally establish him as "something." But in what ends of being a shrewd creative move, they'll spend most of this season apart, with Joe having left Dallas to embark on a spiritual quest to reconnect with his college sweetheart, freelance journalist Sara Wheeler (Aleksa Palladino).

As little as Gordon will deal with Joe, he'll deal even less with his own wife, as Donna becomes immersed in Cameron's ragtag startup business, Mutiny, which they both run out of the latter's house, employing a staff of geeky, misfit coders from Cardiff. Except the immature Cam doesn't really want to run anything, insisting on no titles or bosses, yet whining when things don't go her way and skirting responsibility at every turn. With a specialization in gaming, they hardly have enough capital to keep afloat, and the atmosphere more closely resembles Animal House than an efficiently run company looking to expand.

With Gordon quickly becoming a mentally unstable island unto himself, he can't resist meddling in Donna's new career, further escalating their marital problems until it reaches a boiling point. Problems are just piled onto Gordon this season, and while viewers could make a case it's over-the-top or turns the series into a soap opera, but every great drama is. The question is how well it can be hid. The storyline is just too entertaining, well written and performed to legitimately consider criticizing it.

A disoriented Gordon hits rock bottom
McNairy's physical and emotional transformation in the role over the course of these past ten episodes comes to a head in a parking garage incident that's basically your worst everyday nightmare come to life. The whole season goes a long way in explaining much of the characters' behavior since the pilot, making you consider that Cantwell and Rogers may have had more of a master plan in place than originally suspected. 

Previously playing Donna as the perfect picture of composure and stability, this season is when Bishé gets to play her unraveling under the pressure, foregoing the supermom persona for a more challenging one in the series' most controversial sub-plot. Without giving too much away, it's something most dramas wouldn't dare touch, much less be capable of handling with the intelligence and brutal honesty it is here. Donna's always been the fan favorite because she's the most real and relatable, and now at the show's center where she belongs, Bishé stands out as the most Emmy-worthy of the cast.
With Cam seemingly severing all ties with Joe, the question remains whether it's possible for anyone to really be done with Joe MacMillan. She thinks she is, having moved on in every way with hacker-turned-Mutiny programmer, Tom Rendon (Mark O' Brien), who seems to be her intellectual equal in every way, despite lacking anything resembling a discernable personality.

After putting to bed the smooth, calculating villain from the previous season, this Joe is actually attempting to do the right thing, even if his methods call into question whether he's even changed at all. That the woman he thinks will redeem him just so happens to have a wealthy father, Jacob Wheeler (James Cromwell), who's the CEO of oil company, Westgroup Energy, immediately causing red flags to go up. But the writing's far more nuanced than that, as the full extent of his plans involving Mutiny, and to a lesser extent, Gordon, start taking shape.

The rise of Mutiny
Watching how everything ties together is almost as fascinating as contemplating the goldmine Cameron and Donna could be sitting on if only the world knew they were ready for it. Unfortunately, they're a good twenty years before that technology and even the ideas behind it, start catching up. With the gaming industry being taken over by a little thing called Nintendo, Mutiny must shift its priorities toward chat rooms and what ends up being the initial stirrings of a legitimate online community. In 1985.

It's in one of the series' finest episodes, the Kimberly Peirce-directed "Play with Friends," (Ep. 2.4)  that we realize just how far the writers are willing to go with this forward-looking concept, as Cameron comes up with the idea for a multi-player first person shooter game, clashing with Donna over whether the company's future lies in gaming, Community, or both. It also includes the first known instance of what you could call an "accidental tweet." Again, this is 1985.

While it's fun and even a little surreal charting the evolution of today's social media from that long ago, it's just as wild appreciating Cameron's journey from the hotshot cyberpunk in the premiere episode to a young business owner being forced to grow up, kicking and screaming the entire way. As frustrating as the character's stubbornness is at times, Mackenzie Davis shines, subtly conveying Cam's agonizing lurch into responsible adulthood and the discovery that the world doesn't revolve around her every whim.

Cameron contemplates the future
There comes a point toward the end of the season when it's apparent Cam is as good an actress as the actual actress who plays her, essentially using Joe's own tricks against him (Ep. 2.9, "Kali"). And we're finally forced to admit, that with her huge, expressive eyes and jittery mannerisms, Davis becomes more than just the nerd fantasy she was introduced as when the show premiered. She's also a very natural performer with all the necessary tools to break out as a major mainstream star, whether there's another season or not.    

Cam's bond with former Cardiff executive John "Bos" Bosworth, whose transformation from first season's stuffed corporate suit into father figure is one of the most rewarding and surprisingly organic story arcs. After his release from prison, Mutiny's newest employee provides valuable guidance for some of her toughest decisions, work or otherwise. Laying on that good ol' boy charm and charming salesmanship, Toby Huss makes Bos the show's most consistently funny and likable presence, stealing nearly every scene he's in.

Whether it's winning over a boy's mother on the fence about his presence in Community, or being rejected by his ex-wife, Bos goes beyond providing comic relief to become the show's heart and soul. That such a previously inconsequential character from the first season is now so thoroughly developed and fleshed out is a testament to both Huss' performance and the strides made by the writers to really shake things up.

The world is Joe's for the taking in the Season 2 finale
Season 2 fittingly ends with Joe MacMillan looking out at the San Francisco skyline from his new office, prepared to start yet another venture jump-started by his pilfering of someone else's idea (2.10, "Heaven is a Place"). As a broken man trying to change and do the right thing for much of the season, and even occasionally succeeding at it, his disappointment becomes that much greater upon discovering that sometimes others refuse to play by the rules. And with that, he takes the journey that evolves him into the complex character the writers were desperately trying to make him in the first season. But this time there are no shortcuts. It's earned.

Again standing at the precipice of a revolution, the characters and series head where it seemed destined for all along: Silicon Valley, California. Now that most of the creative issues have been ironed out, there's good reason to believe that if that next season happens, all the cards are in place for it to be the one that achieves complete greatness. With the gang mostly back together, the series come full circle, having grown exponentially since the premiere and with a lot of creative territory still left to mine. 

It still isn't perfect, as it could be even tighter and more focused, with the minor characters sometimes feeling like mere place settings to fill plot until arriving at main course with the core four we care about. But there's just too much potential moving forward to contemplate the possibility that this season may have been its last. And given we're only in '85, there's still a ridiculous amount of time much time left to explore what happens with the these characters and how they'll adapt to the changing times.

The cast of Halt and Catch Fire
The first season works as a primer for its succeeding one, laying the groundwork for the complex plotting and characterization that eventually hook us. HACF had the best of sophomore seasons not only because of the leap in quality, but because it makes the first play better in retrospect. By intrinsically tying the world these people lived and created in to our lives today, the writers crack the code. If it were cancelled now, finally firing on all cylinders, it would be a disservice to anyone who appreciates smart, compelling television.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Gambler (2014)

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing, Emory Cohen, George Kennedy
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

The Gambler isn't about gambling. Nor is it necessarily about a gambler, as the protagonist doesn't even consider himself one. These are pluses since he's really bad at it and few things are less exciting to watch on screen than gambling. The film begins with such a sequence, but it's only a false alarm. The action won't be taking place at the craps tables since it's clear early that this is a character addicted to losing. He hates himself, his life, his job, and on top of it all, he's a selfish jerk who irritates just about everyone he comes in contact with, especially his own mother. With a debt finally too big to pay, he's looking at the very real possibility his days are numbered, which at least saves him the trouble of taking his own life.

There's so much to appreciate in this remake of the 1973 film starring James Caan that you can't help but root for it to cross the threshold into greatness. It's not your typical studio effort, or at least hides that it is for enough of the running time that you start to doubt its true intentions. For a significant stretch, Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt appears to throw away the rule book, instead choosing to make a dark character study about an irredeemable loser. He's the kind of doomed figure you'd find in the 70's films from which this takes its inspiration. And you really haven't seen anything until witnessing Mark Wahlberg give a Shakespeare lecture. Scenes like that and the killer soundtrack would be worth the price of admission, but luckily there are many more pleasures to be had in an effort that's gone somewhat misunderstood, though not entirely. It may slightly disappoint, but it's rarely safe and never boring.

English professor Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) has a compulsive gambling addiction that's fed by his trips to an underground ring operated by a man named, Lee (Alvin Ing), to whom he now owes $240,000. He has exactly seven days to pay it off or face certain death, which doesn't seem to bother him in the slightest. Making matters worse, he owes another $50,000 to loan shark, Neville Baraka (The Wire's Michael K. Williams), who witnessed his losing streak and actually seems to have some pity for him.

Wedged between asking his wealthy mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange) for the money or hitting up another loan shark, Frank (John Goodman), it's a toss-up who's scarier. As the seven days count down, he also forms a bond with one of his students, Amy Phillips (Brie Larson), a gifted writer who catches a glimpse into Bennett's secret world and finds herself strangely intrigued. But the clock keeps ticking for him to get the cash and clean up the mess that is his life, before someone ends it.        

If Mavis Gary from Young Adult took a job teaching at a major university, she'd be Bennett. It's just that kind of repulsive, self-loathing attitude that spews out whenever he steps in front of a class. He wrote a semi-successful novel years ago and still seems angry about it, even if it's tough to tell whether he's unhappy with the content or the fact that he wrote one. What we do know is he'd rather be anywhere else and isn't shy about expressing it, sometimes resulting in philosophical musings and humiliating public lessons for his students. He's the kind of person from which even high praise manages to come off as back-handed insults.

Three students grab his attention. There's the aforementioned Amy from Ohio who Bennett singles out as a writing prodigy because either she is, he doesn't want her spilling about his gambling activities, or he just wants to sleep with her. It may even be a combination of all three. Then there's top ranked tennis player Dexter (Emory Cohen) and NBA bound hoops star Lamar Allen (Anthony Kelley), the latter of whom is in danger of failing unless he puts away his phone in class. For sound reasons that come to light later, these lecture scenes take up a considerable amount of time and are too well-written and compelling to do anything other than completely hold your attention. Had the whole film taken place in this lecture hall, I wouldn't have complained, but there's still the matter of that debt.

As Bennett falls in deeper, he finds new ways to self-destruct and alienate everyone around him. Mid-film there's this great scene in which Amy basically propositions him to leave his job and run away with her. And there's this feeling of urgency and excitement in not being exactly sure where this story's going, regardless of anyone's familiarity with the original. While the route it takes is almost disappointingly conventional considering what's come before, the flare with which Wyattt executes it keeps us hooked, as does Wahlberg's performance as a compulsive risk-taker struggling with a real illness that's long passed the point of addiction.

Having dropped a substantial amount of weight and sporting a shaggy mop for hair, Wahlberg would seem as poor a casting choice for a college English professor as he was for a scientist running from the wind in The Happening. So it ends up being a good thing he's not even attempting to play one, but rather getting inside the head of a character more disgusted by the idea of this guy as a teacher than we are.  It's why those scenes play so well and Wahlberg deserves respect for again proving he's willing to try anything, regardless of the consequences or whether he necessarily "fits" the part on paper. Even given the critical drubbing Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan's (The Departed, Edge of Darkness) script received, it's understandable why Wahlberg felt couldn't pass up the opportunity to tackle such a dark, conflicted character when it was initially presented.

John Goodman may actually not be the best thing in the movie since there's still a lot more to appreciate, but he does almost walk away with his slimy, intimidating performance as Frank, whose downright scary presence casts a large shadow over the proceedings. Michael K.Williams is nearly as memorable in an entirely different way as the charismatic Neville while Jessica Lange bites into a surprisingly meaty role as Bennett's mother, who partially blames herself for his sorry state.

While Brie Larson's Amy has been criticized as merely a throwaway love interest for Bennett, a  deeply developed romantic sub-plot could have curbed the refreshing sense of spontaneity the story contains. The only downside is that asking us to really care about their relationship at the end feels somewhat disingenuous as a result. The most we get to know her is in that initial classroom exchange, but it really is entertainingly written. Larson captivates as usual in the limited role, further confirming suspicions that Jennifer Lawrence probably needs to watch her back in the years ahead, even if this didn't give her a lot to do. But she does get the film's best musical moment, as we follow Tracy across campus with Pulp's "Common People" blasting through her ear buds. With ideally placed additional selections from Rodriguez, Ray Lamontagne and Billy Bragg as a hazy supplement to Bennett's state of mind, the soundtrack should rank near the top of anyone's list for the past year. I guess they figured Kenny Rogers would be a little too on-the-nose.    

Considering so much of what leads up to the final act doesn't make this any more a crime thriller than Ridley Scott's baffling The Counselor, it's somewhat of a disappointment that this pulls back instead of diving headfirst off a cliff, giving us the crash landing it's earned and we deserve. The funny thing about it is how certain scenes and sequences are so memorable and superbly filmed by Wyatt that it's almost frustrating that key moments surpass the total of those parts. Certain scenes stay with you and resonate, while the entire experience leaves almost as quickly as it arrives. You're never quire sure what it's trying to say because it's so deliriously crazy and moving in a bunch of directions at once.

The ending isn't nearly as nihilistic as the original's, but stylistically effective in its own right and kind of great.  You don't see this type of conclusion anymore because most filmmakers are probably too afraid it will look ridiculous. It doesn't, and that's taking into account that the groundwork wasn't even fully laid to earn it. Just think if it was. Unceremoniously dumped into theaters Christmas day, the bland marketing campaign behind The Gambler promised another thoughtless remake looking to cash in. Even taking all its problems into account, it's anything but that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Danny Collins

Director: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer, Katarina Čas, Giselle Eisenberg, Melissa Benoist, Josh Peck, Eric Michael Roy, Nick Offerman
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

About a decade ago, Neil Diamond released a Rick Rubin-produced album that was complete departure from anything he'd previously done, trading his usual, over-the-top bombast for an acoustic guitar and stripped down sound. The result was his biggest commercial and critical hit in years. I couldn't help but think of it while watching the immensely enjoyable Danny Collins, wondering if Diamond had a crisis similar to the title character to cause that change in course. Probably not, even if the aging rocker Al Pacino plays seems much closer in style to Diamond than the actual inspiration, folk singer Steve Tilston.

Just as his music was taking off in 1971, Tilston was written a letter of encouragement from John Lennon and Yoko Ono that he didn't receive until 34 years later, sparking a dramatic change in his life. As a concept, it's an ingenious starting point, made all the more satisfying screenwriter Dan Fogelman's (making his directorial debut) immediate acknowledgment that he'll be taking liberties with it. And they're mostly clever ones. But what's more amazing might be his ability to secure the rights to Lennon's music for the film, as some of his biggest solo hits punctuate key scenes. While I'm not sure it dramatically increases the overall experience and he goes a bit overboard with it, if ever a screenplay screamed out for Lennon's songs, it's this one.    

While Pacino's clearly channeling Diamond, he's also channeling Pacino, as it's impossible not to consider the actor's legendary career while watching and rooting for this character. It's not only a reminder of how long he's been at this, but perhaps some of the choices he's made along the way. Some good, others less so. This is one of those better choices and, as usual, he looks like he's having the time of his life.

Pacino plays Danny Collins, a show-stopping rocker whose fan base now primarily consists of older women singing along with his early 1970's pop hit, "Hey, Baby Doll." Filling up arenas by coasting on the success of that "Sweet Caroline"-like smash, he hasn't written any new material in 30 years and refuses to give up his costly, hard partying rock star lifestyle, which includes a girlfriend (Katarina Čas) half his age. But when his best friend and manager, Frank (Christopher Plummer) gives him a framed, 40-year-old undelivered letter written to him by John Lennon as a birthday gift, he's forced to reexamine his choices and consider how differently his life could have turned out had he gotten it.

Danny's suddenly determined to locate his estranged son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who's built a normal life with wife Samantha (Jennifer Garner) and daughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) that emphatically excludes the celebrity father who abandoned him. But an indefinite stay at the local Hilton turns his attention to the hotel's no nonsense manager, Mary (Annette Bening), who he keeps trying to hit on. She keeps his ego in check as he reluctantly begins to write new material and attempts to find redemption with his family.

From the opening flashback scene, it's obvious this is going to be a good time. It shows a twenty-something Danny (Eric Michael Roy, a dead ringer for young Pacino) being interviewed by a music journalist (an unrecognizable Nick Offerman doing his best Lester Bangs) looking like a deer caught in headlights of fame. Scared to death by celebrity harming the artistic purity of his work, a letter from his idol could have provided him with some guidance and encouragement at just the right time. Instead, he became this larger than life showman, who never stopped to consider himself a sell-out until reading Lennon's letter delivers an unexpected jolt.

Danny's far from a failure, but it wouldn't be a stretch to call him somewhat a joke. At this point, he's famous for just being famous, having contributed nothing meaningful in years, yet still riding high with an enjoyable but tired act. Without naming names, we see it all the time, so it's easy to understand why he'd be afraid to step out of his comfort zone to try something artistically different. And it helps that Pacino plays him as this charming, wonderful, one-of-kind guy who just storms into this hotel like a force of nature and wins over everyone in sight, complimenting the staff and even trying to set the desk clerk (Whiplash's Melissa Benoist) up with the parking valet (Josh Peck). Only the seemingly humorless manager, Mary, remains unimpressed, which of course makes her his ideal equal.

Danny even eventually wears Mary down in the film's most successful sequence, with Pacino and Bening at their respective bests playing off each other in a hotel bar as their characters discover they have much more in common than they thought. They share such a natural chemistry (or "patter" as Danny calls it) that would feel entirely contrived with two other actors in the roles. Here, you're just lost in two real people just enjoying each others company. Their interplay is so seamless it's often tough to tell where Al and Annette end and Danny and Mary begin.

A development occurs almost midway through that's best not to talk about other than saying it comes out of the "Screenwriting 101" handbook and would likely get you kicked out of class. It's a credit to Fogelman's expertise, Pacino's convincing work and Bobby Cannavale's realistic, matter-of-fact performance as a working class father justifiably offended by Danny's arrival, that they pull it off. And as questionable as it looks on paper, that I'd have problems coming up with any reasonable alternatives must speak to its success on some level. Without it, we also wouldn't have gotten the unusually observant final scene, which puts a nice bow on the story while not depriving us of the (admittedly remote) possibility that maybe things don't work out.

In hindsight, the direction this goes does kind of make sense in that his son Tom's problems (more severe than expected) would get in the way of Danny's "happy ending" and redemption. After all, as likable a guy as he is, he's also an egomaniac who thinks the world revolves around him. Pacino plays these two sides of him so well that it's a blast seeing him bounce off everyone else.

Aside from Bening, who invests Mary with more depth than anticipated, Christopher Plummer smoothly and sarcastically conveys the experience of a music industry vet who simply tells it like it is. Jennifer Garner also gets some solid scenes opposite Pacino as the spouse more receptive to having Danny in their lives, despite the emotional risks to her husband and daughter. And as Hope, Giselle Eisenberg (no relation) accomplishes the rare child actor feat of being the precocious center of attention without becoming overbearing.

There's an alternate moviegoing universe in which Danny Collins tops the box office and becomes a giant hit for Pacino, possibly even earning him a nomination. That universe is the 1990's, when crowd-pleasing, star-driven adult dramas were still filling multiplexes. Consider the fact that this was released at all, and turned out this well, a victory in itself. And those justifiably lamenting that studios aren't making intelligent mainstream movies about older people anymore will find a lot to appreciate here. It's formulaic in every sense, but proof that in the right hands, the formula still works.