Sunday, July 20, 2014


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Melanie Laurent, Isabellla Rossellini, Sarah Gadon
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

“Chaos is merely order yet to be deciphered.”

It's often said that everyone has a double. In the psychological thriller, Enemy, that idea is pushed to the breaking point with a set-up that dares to go further than just merely acknowledging the occurrence. It's interested in how someone would react and what they'd do if they ever discovered it. At least that's the literal interpretation of the film, and the one I prefer to go with since it's the only aspect of the story that can be proven for sure while watching. And then it works on a whole other level, where you can start to peel away layers on top of layers of information and clues that suggest it's an allegory about identity and how we battle ourselves in both our lives and relationships. Aside from the tense mood and claustrophobic atmosphere created by Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve, the big takeaway is Jake Gyllenhaal's brilliant performance in a dual, complex role that showcases some of his best acting work.

A premise like this is difficult because the film's entire success can hinge on an explanation, and if one isn't given or it's unsatisfactory in the context of what's come before, the whole thing can collapse under the weight of its own ambition. Villeneuve scoots around this nicely, realizing no explanation could possibly suffice. Those who want answers and want them yesterday will only be satisfied if they adjust expectations to appreciate the unique experience on the level it's delivered.

Gylenhaal plays Adam Bell, a kind of sloppy, depressed college history professor who gives lectures talking about how "History repeats itself twice. The first time is a tragedy, the second time is a farce.” He's about to find that out first-hand when a colleague recommends he rent a movie called, There's a Will There's a Way from the local video store. While watching Adam notices an actor in a bit role who looks exactly like him. Both equally troubled and fascinated by the discovery, he does some internet research to discover the man's name is Anthony Claire (acting under his stage name Daniel St. Claire). Despite his growing obsession with this newfound doppelganger concerning his girlfriend Mary (Melanie Laurent), Adam begins stalking him, eventually catching Anthony's attention and that of his pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon). Their two worlds are about to collide, as both physically identical but fundamentally different men attempt to get to the truth of what's happening.

Prior to his discovery of Anthony, Adam's existence wouldn't be mistaken for anything other than dark and depressing. In fact, our introduction to him in both his apartment and classroom becomes almost uncomfortable to watch in how far the film goes in establishing a man who has completely given up on life, recalling the similarly depressing set-up to John Frankenheimer's 1966 cult classic Seconds. In that film an unfulfilled man trading in his life and physical appearance for an identity upgrade, only to later discover the decision carries dire consequences. Whether that's happening here is a more loaded question, but the protagonist definitely has a "second" whose life he envies, and uncovering his existence is only causing him more emotional pain.  He even seems to be putting himself to sleep during his own lectures, shuffling out of the building with his head down when he's through. His apartment is so dimly lit and desolate it's almost surreal.

The Toronto we're used to seeing depicted in movies (too often as merely a cleaner stand-in for NYC) is boldly reimagined by cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc as a cold, bleak dystopia with danger lurking along the edges in the form of intimidatingly towering skyscrapers and giant insects. Yet, this isn't a sci-fi or horror movie, at least in the traditional sense. It's more of an existential nightmare made all the more frightening because Villeneuve plays everything completely straight, treating the bizarre situation as if it were real without wavering once. Some may say Adam's reaction to discovering his own double is too over-the-top. But is it really? He seems to go through the investigative steps anyone else would looking for answers, only in a slightly more panicked state. It's hard to believe anyone wouldn't be freaked out over it, but for him it only magnifies all his existing fears and insecurities. 

Despite Anthony only being a bit actor he still seems ten worlds away from Adam, as the happier, more confident of the two. But that doesn't mean he's without his own personal demons, struggling mightily to make his marriage work, with apparently little success. Without revealing whether the two eventually meet, the mind of the viewer still races to solve the mystery of how they're physically identical. Are they siblings, the same person, or is this whole thing something else? My biggest concern was the script suddenly turning supernatural, a betrayal that thankfully doesn't occur. It's never presented as anything other than what it actually is right until the end. And about halfway through the suspense is such that you're not sure you even want to know since it could spoil the fun.

Gyllenhaal's real feat isn't that he's playing two characters that look identical yet act wildly different, but that there's never any confusion as to who's on screen at the moment. And he accomplishes this all through body language and mannerisms, which physically make Adam appear smaller in stature to his counterpart, reflective of his depressed state of mind. Appropriately, he plays Anthony much bigger and more charismatically, but without stretching it so far that it feels like a parody. If a half-year Oscars were held right now, he'd be nominated.

The real victims are the women shell-shocked by a development that defies human explanation. Both  are a bigger part of the puzzle than it first seems, with Sarah Gadon making a memorable impression as Anthony's ignored and very pregnant spouse, Helen, who comes face-to-face with a man who looks just like her husband, while possessing none of his qualities (which could be a good thing). That the downtrodden Adam has a girlfriend, much less one played by Melanie Laurent, is probably the most surprising thing about him. But even she seems to have one foot out the door, given how distracted he's been. These aren't sub-plots. The movie is as much about these two relationships than the doppelganger plot, if not more so. You could even argue they're one in the same, transforming this into an erotic, psychosexual thriller of sorts.

When things get really weird there's still this feeling that what we're watching is strangely plausible within the universe Villeneuve loosely adapted from Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's novel, The Double. It's true even right up until the terrifying final scene set to the Walker Brothers' "After The Lights Go Out", which is likely be deconstructed and extrapolated for symbolic meaning whenever discussion of the film comes up. That it comes from the same man who brought us last year's unexpectedly gripping Prisoners (also starring Gyllenhaal, but shot after this) makes sense when considering this could be described as a more challenging low budget, indie version of that, doing less plot-wise to accomplish more, leaning more on mood than mystery to tell its story. But it's a mind-blower, deliberately paced and excruciatingly suspenseful, at times combining elements of Hitchcock, Fincher and Cronenberg. It should really come with a warning: Multiple viewings required.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Sam Caflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer
Running Time: 146 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 
Having never read The Hunger Games series on which the films are based, the big question I had going into its first sequel, Catching Fire, was exactly how Hunger Games co-champions Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) would end up competing again. I mean, they won, right? Isn't it over? This installment spends the good part of an hour explaining how that's possible, setting up the circumstances surrounding her forced return and giving much needed attention to fleshing out the dystopian society mostly ignored in the preceding installment.

After seeing the original, I remember having a conversation with someone more familiar with the franchise and asking what was up with all those ridiculous costumes. "It was in the book." "It's the future." Those answers sum up my problems with the first film in a nutshell. This one has a scene where a female tribute, sick of all the pageantry, just strips naked in an elevator. That's the difference. All I asked of the first film was that it take seriously its premise of a reality game where contestants are fighting for their lives and that it not take concessions to get a PG-13, needlessly sanitizing the material so it plays better for the masses.

While this still certainly isn't a bloodbath, it's a big improvement that actually contains some ideas. For all I know they could still be watering everything down, but at least it doesn't FEEL that way this time and those compromises aren't as noticeable on screen. There's a concerted effort to explore the moral implications and fallout from the first film to reach beyond the usual YA audience. Francis Lawrence takes over for Gary Ross as director and while he's a workmanlike filmmaker without a particularly distinctive cinematic voice or visual style (probably a plus for tackling a tentpole franchise), he nonetheless does a excellent job bringing this world to life, proving himself worthy of an encore.  

A year removed from being declared co-winners of the 74th Hunger Games, District 12 golden girl Katniss and baker's son Peeta must now embark on the victor's tour across Panem's districts, as per the orders of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), still enraged over the fact they both outsmarted him, escaping the games with their lives. But now Katniss' job is simpler: Show the world her staged romance with Peeta wasn't a televised ruse to defy the Capitol, but real relationship that will continue long after the games have ended. For him, that's clearly true. For her, it's a little more complicated, as her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is patiently waiting for her back home, even as both their families' lives continue to be threatened by President Snow.

With Katniss and Peeta joined again by dissheveled mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and kabuki-like chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) on their victory lap, the one thing they can't do on this tour is give the districts hope, which could rally the already disgruntled citizens into rebelling against the Capitol. Fearing that's exactly what's happening, Snow enlists newly appointed Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to destroy Katniss. His master plan: Hold another Hunger Games.

The idea that there would be an "All-Star Edition" of the games that include previous winners from all the districts just so Katniss and Peeta could be thrown to the wolves (or in this case, killer baboons) in the arena again is inspired. Why they're being forced to compete again and how it ties into their influence as celebrities inciting a social rebellion is certainly more compelling than anything in the first film, where it seemed as if there was no danger or stakes at all. Much more than before, they're targets that Snow wants killed or at least made into examples to crush the public's spirits.

It helps that this time there's an hour of build-up getting to know this world and dealing with the fact that these two competed on a reality show where kids killed each other for entertainment. They must have opinions and feelings on that, so it was nice to finally get them. And see legitimate threatening danger in the form of Peacekeepers (basically stormtroopers with flamethrowers) led by a scary Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) baring down on the districts to "keep order." We even see a public lashing. The actual Hunger Games mean nothing without context or a sense of why they're happening. In the first 60 minutes the material finally earns its popular comparisons to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" while strangely invoking new ones like Fahrenheit 451 in its depiction of a politically oppressive dystopia. Too much set-up? Maybe, but it's time well spent considering how little we got in the first film.

That the possibility exists that Woody Harrelson's drunken Haymitch, a former winner, could again be competing if called as tribute speaks to the unpredictability surrounding this outing. A key difference this time around is that they're not battling each other, but a government forcing them to go at it again despite promises to the contrary. Some new faces include the cocky Finnick (Sam Caflin) and District 7's outspoken, but dangerous Johanna Mason (Jena Malone). And due to the new format there are middle-aged tributes (played by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer) and even a senior citizen (Lynn Cohen) competing, all of whom have every right to be more furious than before at being there.

While the games itself was the highlight of the last film, but they're improved upon here with crisper CGI and the absence of a shaky cam that previously defined the action sequences, making many of them difficult to decipher as Ross went out of his way to avoid showing any kind of graphic violence. And considering this outing isn't helmed by a director known for visual wizardry, everything still looks much better than its predecessor, as the booby trapped tropical setting for the arena is staged well, but more importantly, feels dangerous. Katniss and Peeta have no idea who they can trust or what's lurking around the corner and that the screenplay (co-written by Slumdog Millionaire scribe Simon Beaufoy) has some thematic meat on its bones this time around only bolsters the suspense.

Now entering this installment with the "Academy Award Winner" title in front of her name, Jennifer Lawrence manages to give a performance that far surpasses her stellar work in the previous entry, only this time doing it in a really good movie. Freed from the shackles of having to carry sub-par material on her back, she now shows us what she can do with Katniss when she's written well and a meaningful story surrounds her. Unsurprisingly, the results are astounding, especially in that opening hour as she experiences a painful internal struggle about what she's done and its implications for Panem. If Lawrence is this good now and the franchise many worried would imprison her career and waste her talent has just turned the corner creatively, how much better can she get? It's almost a scary thought. Here there's much less to elevate, and yet, she still elevates it.

In the face of Lawrence's acting dominance, it's almost a backhanded compliment to say Hutcherson seems more assured as Peeta with each passing minute in the franchise, but he is. That they're taking a slow burn approach to his relationship with Katniss is a relief to those worried that narrative aspect would move to the forefront. It's even more subtle and restrained this time, carrying none of the YA baggage you'd associate with movies of a similar ilk and permanently killing all comparisons to garbage like Twilight. Liam Hemsworth still feels like the third wheel as Gale, but the cliffhanger ending hints that's soon about to change. More impressive is newcomer Caflin as Finnick, whose allegiance to Katniss and Peeta is constantly in doubt, even when his bravado isn't. Jena Malone, makes a tough, sexy Johanna, with the aforementioned elevator introduction perfectly setting the stage for a bold character whose intentions are also up in the air.

That The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2 will be the final listed screen credit of Philip Seymour Hofffman no longer feels like the travesty many have feared, as he gives a smart, subtle performance as Gamemaker Plutarch that's obviously a major upgrade from Wes Bentley's Seneca Crane from the previous installment. What's funny is how it seems like he just rolled out of bed and is put in no effort at all, until you realize it was a very deliberate choice for him to play it this calm and collected, further solidifying his ability to invisibly slide into any character. What was initially deemed a "sellout" role is instead revealed as an opportunity to appreciate whatever screen time remains of our greatest actor.

Elizabeth Banks still annoys as Effie, as I've come to terms with the fact that I'll just never care for this character or the actress's over-the-top approach to her, especially sticking out as a nuisance in this more serious entry. The opposite is true of Stanley Tucci's manic TV host Caesar Flickerman, who again is a highlight and a comic diversion that works because Tucci makes sure something twisted and sadistic breaks through. The script should also be credited for finding pupose for Lenny Kravitz's Cinna this time out, making his brief role count for something that reflects the themes of the story.

The first film may have been a slight misfire but it was never dull and a joy to assess because of its potential. And now that potential comes much closer to being completely fulfilled here. In an era where big money franchises don't have to creatively deliver to make bank, this one does and has ideas to go along with its action.  Movies are only getting unjustifiably longer and more bloated, so the fact this one is 146 minutes and doesn't waste any of them shouldn't be taken lightly. I'm still curious what would happen if the creative handcuffs were totally removed but they go as far as they can within the confines of a PG-13, recognizing and correcting nearly all of the previous film's problems. The only remaining concern is that movies like this tend to have a ceiling of quality and this may have hit it. Let's hope not. That it's been called The Empire Strikes Back of the series may be slightly overstating matters, but I get it. Catching Fire leaves us hanging and wanting more.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Orange is the New Black (Season 2)

Creator: Jenji Kohan
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Michael J. Harney, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, Yael Stone, Samira Wiley, Dascha Polanco, Adrienne C. Moore, Nick Sandow, Lorraine Toussaint, Laura Prepon, Pablo Schreiber, Matt McGorry, Alysia Reiner, Kimiko Glenn
Original Airdate: 2014

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

With its second season, Netflix's most successful foray into original programming, Orange is the New Black, breaks through into the upper echelon of great TV drama. Or is that comedy? Probably a bit of both, but genre confusion aside, there's so much to appreciate about their first four-star season, it's hard to know where to start. Showrunner Jenji Kohan takes a big risk in taking the focus off the series' protagonist and turning it on its wild cast of supporting characters we'd only just gotten to know a season earlier. That's a creative gamble when you already have a strong protagonist whose story we were so invested in, and still are. Only now, everything doesn't always revolve around her,  which is an irony considering how she seems to think it always does.

This season is really centered around a villain that shakes up the series in a major way, even if calling her a "villain" seems too constricting a term, failing to do justice to the character's complexity in both writing and performance. She brings a sense of legitimate danger and mayhem that was strangely somewhat lacking in a series set in a women's penitentiary, even one that's part-comedy. That a second season this strong is delivered after a somewhat shaky premiere makes it all the more satisfying when it all comes together in the end.

Piper takes an uncomfortable flight
Everything seems more purposeful this time around, as the writers brilliantly maneuver around the absence of a major series regular, invisibly weaving it into the narrative to the point that you hardly notice she's gone. The prison politics deeply delved into, with the guards and administrators motivations more fully fleshed out.  And with few exceptions, the flashbacks are also more meaningful, carrying greater impact on present events and giving us more insight into the characters, a couple of which pay off in surprising ways. The episodes just keep gathering steam until the last, which puts the perfect exclamation point on a season where we view every character differently than when it began. Despite some concerns at the beginning, there's no sophomore slump here.

In last season's shocking cliffhanger, we saw newbie Litchfield inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) deliver a brutal beating to mentally unhinged religious zealot Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) as Counselor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) did nothing. As this season begins, there's a lot less fallout from that event than you'd expect, and while we do find out its outcome, the show moves on to other business fairly quickly, with Piper being transferred off the radar to a Chicago prison. It's there where the show attempts to wrap up her storyline with former lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), whose drug smuggling landed both in prison, where their reignited affair eventually destroyed Piper's relationship with her now ex-fiancee Larry (Jason Biggs).

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that we all thought Prepon's departure as a series regular would be some kind of death knell for the show, since the only episode primarily focusing on that arc (as all of last season did) ends up being relatively the weakest of these thirteen. It's unfortunate that it happens to be the Jodie Foster-directed premiere (Ep. 2.1, "Thirsty Bird"), but at least it's out of the way early, and plays much, much better once you've seen the entire season. Needless to say, the Piper/Alex saga still feels far from done since Piper has proven herself to be an co-dependent addict when it comes to this woman, still allowing herself to be manipulated and lied to in order to gain her affection.

"40 OZ of Furlough"
The premiere is the most we get of Piper until she starts a prison newsletter (Ep. 2.7, "Comic Sans") and a family crisis affords her an opportunity to be granted furlough in an episode that examines the change she's undergone behind bars (Ep. 2.9, "40 OZ. of Furlough") and how it's affected her relationships on the outside. She's not the same entitled princess she went in as but the show cleverly posits the theory that this may not be such a great thing. Now she's the one being judged as a failure and there's no turning back or reversing the clock. She's a convict and everyone couldn't be more disappointed, including her own ashamed parents and her jilted, opportunistic ex-fiancee Larry who continues to use her incarceration as a vehicle to further his journalistic career. A strong argument can be made that he's the most selfish character on the show.

This new Piper and Larry very far apart and a development with Larry only serves to separate them even more, and finally giving viewers full permission to hate a guy who's been on a slippery slope since last season. That so many can't stand Biggs in this role is only a credit to just how well he's playing it. Neurotic and disingenuous at every turn, any fans the character may have had vanish by the end of the season. Piper also vanishes for much of the rest of the season too, but that Schilling is still impressive enough to never make the character seem sidelined is noteworthy in itself. In a welcome change, the show's biggest moments involve everyone else.

It's the arrival of drug dealing sociopath Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), foster mother to Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and former nemesis of Red (Kate Mulgrew) that shakes things up at Litchfield. It wouldn't be inaccurate to say she takes over the entire season, making the series considerably darker, dangerous and more unpredictable as a result. She's even at the center of three (!) flashbacks fleshing out her backstory, marking the only time in the show a major flashback player suddenly shows up in the present.

"Crazy Eyes" finds a mother figure in Vee
How quickly Vee's able to exert power and control over all the inmates is terrifying, sucking them in like a mother figure before manipulating them to do her dirty work. The most vulnerable are those who don't have anyone, and since it's prison, that would be just about everyone. She runs the guilt trip over Taystee to bring her back into her fold and is even able to drag "Black Cindy" (Adrienne C. Moore) and Watson (Vicky Jeudy) along for the ride with empty promises and more deceit. She's evil, but also incredibly smart, which is a mix we're not used to seeing in this environment, giving her a definitive edge over everyone.

While the wedge Vee drives through Taystee's friendship with Poussey (Samira Wiley) is reprehensible enough, her absolute worst, most bottom of the barrel action is manipulating the mentally unstable "Crazy Eyes" (Uzo Abuda), who's willing to do just about anything to fit in and be loved. Vee casts such a large shadow over the season and Toussaint's work so quietly gripping that at points the series feels like it's channeling Oz or The Wire. And the intensity only keeps escalating to the level where you badly want to see this monster get hers, even if you know the show may suffer without her around. There's no way Toussaint isn't riding this chilling performance to an Emmy nomination next year, as she puts you on pins and needles waiting to see the depths her character sinks to next.

The long awaited backstory of "Crazy Eyes" is given time in Episode 2.3, "Hugs Can Be Deceiving"  and it doesn't disappoint, depicting events in her childhood already powerfully hinted at in Uzo Aduba's performance. Always a lonely outcast ridiculed and mocked, the flashback provides an greater context to her current situation with Vee, as well as revealing some surprising details about the struggles her well-meaning parents faced raising her. But the strongest flashback comes in what's possibly the season's best episode (2.6, "You Also Have Pizza"), as we learn the recent history of Samira Wiley's Poussey.

Poussey gets some awful news in a gripping flashback 
Whereas an argument can be made even the most surprising flashbacks flesh out details already hinted about these women, everything about Poussey's is revelatory, completely changing our perception of the character. I didn't expect her to have the upbringing she did, get caught in the dilemma she was, and her situation elicit nearly this much empathy.  It really stands out from the rest not only because of an extremely heated lesbian sex scene (maybe the first of the show's many that actually does feel necessary), but because of Wiley's heartbreaking performance, which insures she leaves this season one of the most beloved characters.

Another fan favorite, Red, struggles after the kitchen (and basically her whole prison identity) was taken from her by the Latinas last season. The return of Vee only causes more problems for her, and as we find out via flashbacks, their history is violent and complicated. New Jersey native Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) also gets one of this season's more revealing flashbacks, dispelling all myths that she's the most normal, well-adjusted inmate at Litchfield when we learn the details of exactly what she's in there for (Ep. 2.4, "A Whole Other Hole"). That this revelation hardly changes our opinion of Morello speaks to how likable Stone (now bumped from recurring to series regular) continues to make the character in the face of some really dark material.

Previously a background player, cancer patient Miss Rosa (Barabara Rosenblat) steps to the forefront as her history as a big time bank robber is unspooled as she currently receives treatment alongside a teen chemo patient in one of the more moving story arcs. At first, you wonder why the show's spending so much time on a bit player, until realizing: A) She's no longer a bit player B) It's a classic case of the writers knowing something we don't. The new face at Litchfield is hippieish inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), who besides crying herself to sleep out of fear, not showering and generally annoying everyone, clumsily protests prison conditions with Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) in a storyline that dominates the back half of the season. It's clear she'll be around a while so it's a good bet her story will be explored further moving forward. That should be interesting considering that, of everyone, she seems the most out of place in a women's prison. She's practically the new Piper, only weaker and more irritating.

A low turnout for Healy's "Safe Place" support group.
This season pulls back the curtain on prison politics amongst the administration, starting with Counselor Healy, who last season went from inmate advocate to sexist, homophobic pig. The more we learned about him, the less there was to like, but he kind of finds some form of redemption in these episodes, starting a prison support group and becoming an unlikely mentor to Pennsatuckey. After years of feeling beat down by the system (and his mail order bride at home) he finally starts taking baby steps toward making a difference for the prisoners and himself.

Similarly, Assistant Warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), who after being portrayed as somewhat of a perverted creep, is revealed to actually care about these prisoners, even if his hands are tied by beaurocracy. They really start to explore his character, revealing personal details (like him moonlighting in a band or his ongoing crush on Officer Fischer) that cause us to look at him in a whole new light, as Sandow shines in a role that's expanded in both depth and screen time. But he's undermined at every turn by corrupt, arrogant Warden Natalie "Fig" Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) who's not only more concerned with the prison's reputation than the health and safety of its inmates, but running an embezzelment sheme in the midst of her husband's political bid.

Litchfield's biggest scandal continues as Officer Bennett (Matt McGorry) and pregnant inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) attempt to implicate hated guard Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) as the father of her baby. What's surprising is how far they get with it and the eventual outcome which highlights the price that comes with doing the "right thing," a theme repeated often this season. Thinking along these lines, it wouldn't be a bad idea to add flashbacks for the guards and administrators next season, developing them even more. Healy seems to be the best candidate for this, as his backstory could help shed light on how this formerly idealistic counselor transformed into a woman-hating curmudgeon with no friends or personal life.   

Miss Rosa takes the wheel in the season finale
Whereas last season's finale ended with a cliffhanger, this nearly feature film length one (Ep. 2.13, "We Have Manners, We're Polite") appears to wraps things up neatly in a bow for the time being. It's telling that that in the sensational final scene, Piper is nowhere to be found. It comes down to a battle of good and evil between the two characters most deserving of appearing in it, bringing their arcs full circle.

For a series not praised enough for its soundtrack selections, they save a couple of the best ones for this episode, including an out of left field use of Deep Blue Something's 1995 pop classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's and a note perfect incorporation of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper." And I'm not ironically using the word "classic" for the former. It's no wonder many have misread its objective in that scene, choosing instead to take more cheap shots at a song that's too earnestly infectious and nostalgia-inducing to ever rag on. It makes perfect sense a character on this show would love it, as most of their musical tastes were left in the past when they entered Litchfield. 

Superior in every way to its inaugural season, this one manages to be much grittier and darker without losing any of the entertainment value or warmth and humor that initially made it such a success. And for those already sick of Piper and wanting the supporting players spotlighted instead, 12 of these 13 episodes surpass those expectations.When OITNB first started few could have guessed it would be this insightful about the prison system and how often society can fail those who end up a part of it, whether they're inmates or administration. That story isn't exclusively Piper's. But when you watch the flashbacks of these characters with their current struggles, you realize it almost doesn't matter what crime put them there. Sometimes we see it, but oftentimes not. Most of the damage was done before that, making their eventual incarceration an inevitability. The series can easily go a few more seasons as long as there are still stories to tell, even if we might eventually have to find out just how difficult it'll be for them to adjust once they're out.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Oldboy (2013)

Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, James Ransone, Max Casella, Pom Klementieff, Lance Reddick
Running Time: 104 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Watching Spike Lee's remake of Park Chan Wook's 2003 South Korean cult classic Oldboy, it occurred to me just how little I remembered about the original. Of course, there's one thing EVERYONE remembers and all eyes were on how Lee would handle or avoid the gigantic, shocking twist that constitutes the core of the story. He's really in a no-win situation. The film can't exist without it, yet if he decides to go there, critics and audiences will call for his head, accusing him of not only remaking a respected classic, but doing so pointlessly by not altering enough of it. Lee handles this thankless dilemma in the best way possible, even if any choice he made would have been wrong in the eyes of the original's rabid admirers. But if that version's so good, why am I having problems remembering it? There's the twist and the famous hammer hallway scene, all wrapped around a story that's fairly unique and daring, not to mention downright disturbing. But I haven't thought of it since. At least until now.

Being no fan of Spike Lee's and counting very few (if any) of his films amongst my favorites, this strangely ranks as one of his most satisfying outings for me. Remakes are a good idea for him since  they're completely out of his comfort zone, reining in his worst tendencies and removing some of the pressure of having his original fingerprints all over it. His creative loyalty must be to the source material rather than his own ideas, which have always been shaky and inconsistent at best.  If the original Oldboy didn't exist, I'm convinced the reception to this film would have been far different. And retaining certain elements from the original doesn't make it "safe, "as its sharp edges remain surprisingly intact. The film definitely won't be confused with your generic, run-of-the-mill sanitized Hollywood thriller, which should have been the biggest fear going in.

It's 1993 and alcoholic ad executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) just lost a major potential client and is arguing with his ex-wife about how little he's been involved in their 3-year-old daughter Mia's life. After arriving in a drunken stupor at the front door of good friend Chucky's (Michael Imperioli) bar late at night, he encounters a woman with a yellow umbrella before being knocked unconscious. He awakens imprisoned in a hotel room with vodka and Chinese food, seeing on TV that he's been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife while Mia was put up for adoption. That's all he knows, but it's enough. He quits drinking, starts writing letters to his daughter and gets himself into fighting shape, training for the day he can escape.

Twenty years pass before Joe's let out by his mysteriously deranged captor (Sharlto Copley) whose identity and motives for imprisoning and eventually releasing him remain unknown. But it's a mystery he'll have to solve if he wants to clear his name and be reunited with daughter Mia, who only knows her missing father as a murderer. He gets help comes from Chucky and nurse Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), whose own troubled past and weakness for helping tortured souls puts her in harm's way. The clock ticks for Joe, with his only shot at a father-daughter reunion hinging on finding out why this happened, and acclimating himself to life as a fugitive in 2013.

It's easy to forget just how strong a premise this is. While everyone can agree the film's central concept is brilliant and needn't be heavily tampered with, a great deal of suspense comes from speculating just how far Lee's willing to stray from the original film (as well as the Japanese Manga from which that's adapted) when Joe is released. That tension reaches alarming levels in one particular scene, as we're not quite sure yet whether screenwriter Mark Protosevich plans on repeating the shocking twist or going in an entirely different direction.

Without giving too much away, it's almost as if you're watching everything unfold with double awareness, seeing what's actually happening as it is, but with that sick thought in the back of your mind that it may be this other thing that the original pulled. There's legitimate doubt and the movie has fun with this, zigging and zagging in certain ways and offers up a great deal of misdirection to throw viewers off the trail. There's probably no better recent case of a remake actively engaging the audiences' knowledge (or lack thereof) of the original as part of the film experience. It's always arguable whether certain things work or don't, but you can't say it doesn't do so equally for both familiar and uninitiated viewers.

There's a twenty year imprisonment here as opposed to the fifteen year term the protagonist endures in the 2003 version and that's important only in the sense that it brings us into the present time and makes Joe's disconnect to the real world a little more pronounced. The early scenes of Joe's plight are particularly gripping, giving us an even better idea of the passage of time and hammering home key cultural touchstones via the media. It also takes full advantage of the protagonist waking up to a society that's technologically moved past him, as he's forced to adjust to iphones having taken the place of the beepers and phone booths of the early nineties. That he has no idea how to use his means of communication with his captor makes for some funny scenes, making us stop and consider a fairly recent advance that's already taken for granted.

The fight scenes are deliriously entertaining and well choreographed but I'd be lying if I said the big hallway hammer sequence comes off as well as it did in the original. It works on its own terms and Brolin is great at selling it, but there was something about the lighting and cramped corridor that made the staging of the original extra special. Lee was probably wise in not attempting to exactly duplicate it, as Gus Van Sant found out the hard way with his shower scene reenactment in 1998's Psycho. He also makes very clever, original use of flashbacks that could have felt especially tired since it's a story some are already familiar with. He actually has the characters in the present as somewhat active participants in the past events, which often makes for a striking and creepy visual. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit does a great job here, as images linger in the mind's eye long after the credits have rolled.

Brolin was the right choice to play Joe, as he expertly conveys a silent anger befitting a fairly complex character. He's also believably intimidating as a brutish tough guy, despite the quite sadness over his daughter being what stands out most in the performance. Though we know from the original  that Elizabeth Olsen's Marie will likely be important, she would have been anyway since Olsen is so captivating and capable in the role. Clearly nursing some serious emotional wounds from her past, she has her guard constantly up with this guy, yet still can't help falling in. Her involvement isn't a coincidence but just how it isn't keeps you guessing all the way, with Olsen's natural instincts as a performer further solidifying her status amongst the most talented of young actresses.

Sharlto Copley's performance is absolutely insane and next level as far as movie baddies go. There's simply no other way to put it. This is how it's done. Creepy, scary, menacing and dangerous, his character is the most original creation in the film, gloriously hitting his peak in the final scenes when the truth comes out. The screen time may be limited, but he chews up each scene like a madman.  Samuel L. Jackson's presence as the henchman doing Copley's character's bidding is less welcome, if only because it feels like a performance we've seen from him countless time before. It's not his fault he's been typecast in this badass persona but at least he's collecting his paycheck for a quality film this time, in a remake that doesn't feel like a cash-in.

A South Korean film is bound to have elements that appeal primarily to that country's audience and leave us scratching our heads, while the reverse is also true. So adapting a foreign thriller for American audiences is far from "pointless" when considering different cultures. That's true here in a script incorporating media obsession with a late act development that calls to mind something out of The Truman Show. And unless I'm mistaken, it seems we get a closer look at the inner workings behind Joe's actual imprisonment and release, in a way not totally dissimilar to the presentation of the CRS organization in The Game. This is largely one calculated game in which Joe is the playing piece and his unknown adversary controls the board. This is all Lee and Protosevich updating the material just enough to make an impact, while still preserving the creative integrity and themes of the original.  

This couldn't have turned out better, while still representing Spike Lee at the top of his game, excelling in a genre few figured he could. Supposedly, there's an unreleased 144-minute director's cut of this movie that may not see the light of day but it's difficult getting too excited knowing how strong and tight this is in its current state. That Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were originally attached to this project is perplexing, as if either would ever compromise their squeeky clean images or bank accounts by tackling it. But it's even more doubtful they'd be able to read the last few pages without fainting, calling for changes that would neuter the entire project before cameras even started rolling. Nothing Lee does here feels sanitized and the eighty or ninety something percent who haven't seen the original will be shocked out of their minds a mainstream studio released it. For the rest, its biggest crime is being a remake of Oldboy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Mad Men: Season 7 (Part I)

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jessica Paré, Kiernan Shipka, Robert Morse, Kevin Rahm, Ben Feldman, Rich Sommer, Aaron Staton, Jay R. Ferguson, Christopher Stanley, Harry Hamlin, James Wolk Allan Havey 
Original Airdate: 2014

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

             **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers For This Season And Previous Seasons of Mad Men*

With so many questions going into the seventh and final season of Mad Men it almost seems cruel of AMC to make the controversial call to give the series a Breaking Bad send-off, splitting it in two halves and forcing viewers to wait a year for the resolution. While it was obvious how milking the season monetarily benefits a network looking to fill a void left by two of television's all-time greatest dramas, less clear was how it would creatively affect the series, hamper pacing or compromise showrunner Matthew Weiner's vision for its end. At the risk of stating the obvious, Mad Men isn't Breaking Bad. It's a much slower burn, with a character-heavy focus that rewards viewers who watched from the pilot. And that number, as Nielson figures indicate, has dwindled considerably. Despite all the seasons streaming on Netflix, it's unlikely to enjoy the eleventh hour popularity surge BrBa did. But the faithful who are still hooked know that the show's gotten better as it headed into the more compelling historical backdrop of the late 60's, only strengthening our ties with characters we already feel a long-term connection to. This may only be a half-season, but a lot happens to set the stage for the end.

Megan's memorable entrance in Ep.7.1, "Time Zones"
When we last left selfish, womanizing, alcoholic ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) he appeared to have lost everything. After picking exactly the wrong time and place to come clean about his impoverished childhood as Dick Whitman, he gives a disastrous Hershey's pitch that cause the other Sterling Cooper partners to send him packing. While Don's not officially fired, it's clear his services are no longer needed and the majority of the season will focus on him trying to crawl and scratch his way back into the company. He's also attempting to repair his marriage to Megan (Jessica Paré), who fled to California for acting opportunities when it became clear he wouldn't be joining her. Straddling both coasts without a job and barely a marriage we see the character as we've never seen him before. Not as a slick ladies' man or anti-hero, but defeated and desperate. But more importantly, humbled.

We saw signs of this newly humbled Don at the end of last season when he felt comfortable enough to give both his kids and co-workers a brief glimpse into his real past. It was also evident when he sacrificed a California relocation to Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm), potentially destroying his marriage so a friend could have shot at saving his own. Even the terms he must agree on to return to the agency is something the Don Draper of the first six seasons would never go for. Without work, he's completely lost, still attempting to repair not only his fractured marriage, but his relationship with daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who's still emotionally traumatized after walking in on his extra-marital affair.

Don's still married as we start the season, but barely, as he and Megan are not just on opposite coasts, but orbiting different planets entirely, as she throws herself into a bohemian hippie lifestyle that's definitely not in his wheelhouse at this point. The penthouse apartment they once shared doesn't even look the same, taking on a cold, deserted quality that's far removed from Megan's "Zou Bisou Bisou" days.  He can't even bring himself to drink as much, or even cheat on her (with guest star Neve Campbell nonetheless). Desperate enough to get back in the game, he's hired a now clean and sober Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) to secretly pitch his ideas and most of them prove he's still got it.    

Don visits with Pete "California" Campbell
For all the focus on the agency having a bi-coastal presence it's kind of surprising just how little that aspect plays into the season. Sterling Cooper and Partners is an East Coast outfit and always will be since this has quintessentially been a New York series from day one. Excursions to L.A. have proven to be just that: Excursions. If the idea of all the action (or even half of it) moving out there was a red herring, don't try telling that to Pete "California" Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who enjoys a fake reinvention of sorts with a new preppy wardrobe and a hot blonde realtor girlfriend, both of which fail to conceal his collapsed marriage with Trudy (Alison Brie) and the fact his daughter literally has no idea who he is.

Joining Pete out there is Ted, who's not only become a non-entity this season, but is apparently depressed and suicidal enough to draw comparisons to the late Lane Pryce, who's referenced quite a bit, especially in relation to Don, who ends up occupying his office. While that development  provides mileage for those already convinced the opening credits hint at a Don suicide jump, after this somewhat hopeful half-season, that already far-fetched theory seems unlikelier than ever. The obvious lack of screen time for Pete and Ted might be the only true disappointment of these seven episodes, even if certain agency developments promises a return to form for both soon. Especially Pete. 

If last season's finale promised Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) rising to prominence and even poised to take Don's seat at creative director, this one sees her crashing back to Earth, reminded at every turn that even as good as she is, she's still very much viewed as a woman in a man's world. Still distraught over Ted, her personal life's a mess, it's sole highlight a 10-year-old neighbor who comes to watch TV in her lonely apartment. To add on to the insult of being the most qualified passed over for Don's suddenly vacant position, it's filled by an incompetent moron who never met a pitch or client he wasn't apathetic toward. A terrible boss and an even worse creative mind, cardigan wearing Lou Avery (Allan Havey) is really just holding Don's office until he returns, but it's still fun watching his ridiculously pathetic behavior in the meantime.

Lou Avery's "Scout's Honor" sketch
Havey's performance as Lou is one of the best things of the season, with the veteran comedian expertly skirting the line between an out-of-touch, uncool relative you avoid at parties and that annoying superior who can't help but be insultingly offensive to everyone in sight. His treatment of Don's star secretary Dawn (Teyonah Parris) is reprehensible while his aspirations of becoming a cartoonist (with his "Beetle Baley"-inspired "Scout's Honor"comic strip) would probably seem noble if anyone else but him had them. Peggy loses more than a few steps working for someone who couldn't care less.

With an office not only been split into two coasts, but two warring factions, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is losing control of his own company to nemesis Jim Culter (Harry Hamlin, in full smarmy villain mode). Roger's been phoning it in for a while now and this season is no different, opening with him in a similar state of arrested development and serial womanizing. But now he's finally forced to step up. Between scheming to get Don back into the fold, attempting to rescue daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) from a hippie commune and forge meaningful relationships with both his grandson and illegitimate son with Joan (Christina Hendricks), he might finally be beginning to outgrow his mid-life crisis and come to terms with his absenteeism as a parent. The coup he stages at the end of this half-season only proves that when Roger's on and motivated, few are smarter.

Joan's having issues of her own, aside from a mean streak and nastiness that's developed from getting the least respect (and money) of all the partners, she's in her late thirties slumming it with her overbearing mother in a small apartment trying to raise an infant son. To an extent, things begin to change at the office as she's given her own accounts and a voice in important company decisions. One of the most interesting developments of last season was her friendship with the mysterious corporate suck-up Bob Benson, brilliantly played by James Wolk. He unfortunately only appears in one episode this go-around, but it's important in conveying the pressures facing a closeted gay man in the 60's and what Joan is willing to sacrifice for her own happiness. But her coldness and greediness really shine through this season, especially in her interactions with Don.

A 2001-inspired shot from Ep. 7.4, "The Monolith"
One of the nagging questions from the 1968-set Season 6 was why Weiner and his writers made no mention of that year's release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even amidst incorporating The Planet of the Apes and Rosemary's Baby, it seemed odd they'd miss an opportunity to reference one the greatest films ever made or put it into some kind of historical context with these characters. Now we have our answer: He was saving it.

The idea of computers taking humans' place in the workforce is just the latest example of these characters being left behind in an era that's rapidly changing and outpacing them. Those who can adapt and roll with this change buy themselves some more time. Like Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), the office goof who's now suddenly invaluable. Those who can't will be left behind. Of course, we now know that computers didn't replace people in the workforce (at least not yet), but there was a huge shift, and back then no one had any idea what would happen with those giant, noisy IBM machines.

Cutler and Avery's dismantling of "creative" was bound to adversely affect everyone, but it's Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) who's sent off the deep end. Stifling the creative energy of someone wrestling with mental issues is like playing with fire and it's Peggy who ends up getting burned when he finally loses it. And by losing it, I'm not just talking about his mind, but also his nipple. Ironically, the precipitous for this bizarre event is a clever nod to 2001, in which Ginsberg reads the lips of his conspiring superiors, just as HAL 9000 did before he snapped. He theorizes that the new computer is turning everyone gay but unless by "everyone"  he means Bob Benson, then yes, he's going crazy.

Ginsberg is stretchered away in Ep. 7.5, "The Runaways"
The events leading up to Ginsberg being stretchered to a mental hospital features some of Elisabeth Moss' finest acting work on the series, which is really saying something. The same goes for Ben Feldman, who often popped in and out of the show with little regularity. Now it's easier to fully appreciate what he brought within the confines of that, much of it uncomfortably piercing the surface during this sequence. Even the usually stoned and jovial Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) turns deadly serious, deeply concerned for the health of his good friend.

If the changing culture is passing anyone fastest, it's Don, who returns to an agency not at all the same as he left it. It's the rare chance to see him, not only powerless, but nervous and zapped of confidence. The idea that he'll have to work for his former protege Peggy is just an added slap in the face. Having to eat crow and like it, it's of little surprise that it takes him about a week in show time to violate the ridiculous terms of his agreement, which the partners knew he had no chance of upholding.

If not for Roger, Don really would have been completely out of a job. He's certainly short a wife, as his on again, off again marriage with Megan appears to finally be off for good, though you could argue it was really off the second she left advertising and decided to (unsuccessfully?) pursue acting full-time. No longer under his control, the distance and generational gap between the two only grew, to the point that neither was worth the others time anymore, with Megan now shooting an attitude back at him just as good as he gives it. When not even a three-way with her friend can entice him back into this marriage you know there's trouble. Has he ever looked more bored?

A jealous Megan buys off Don's pregnant "niece" Stephanie
The last connecting thread between Don and his past as Dick Whitman rears its head when Anna Draper's niece Stephanie (Caity Lotz) returns as a pregnant, homeless hippie. Her abrreviated reentry into Don's world ends up being the death knell to his marriage with Megan, as she'll never know the "Dick Whitman" side of Don as intimately as Stephanie does, even if nothing ever happened between the two. Realizing that he lives to be the protector, she takes revenge the only way she can. By writing a check and condescendingly sending her on her way before he tries to again assume that responsibility.

It's interesting to observe how Mad Men portrays hippies. Stephanie's a real one while Megan's clearly an actress attempting to live a hippie lifestyle despite being extremely well off. Almost out of necessity, the usually likable Megan is the most unlikable she's been, as the fights with Don give Pare probably the heaviest acting to do of any season in which she's appeared. It remains to be seen whether she'll be on the show at all for the final episodes, or shuffled off to the sidelines in favor of more pressing developments once she's officially divorced from Don. If nothing else, Megan at least has to stay around long enough for the Manson murders, which are almost literally right around the corner. The extent of her involvement is still a question mark but her dancing with a Charles Manson lookalike certainly hasn't done much to dispel speculation.

The idea of family, or the evolving definition of it, could easily be considered the theme of the first half of this final season. With the entire country gathered together and transfixed by the moon landing, Don has to consider who his family is. The good news is that he's slowly repairing his relationship with Sally by simply telling the truth and her realizing that while her father isn't the man she thought he was, at least he'll never come close to inflicting on her the long-term psychological  abuse Betty (January Jones) has. And now it's being repeated with her brother Bobby, further solidifying her incompetence as a parent. It continues to astonish just how much of Betty and Don's mannerisms Kiernan Shipka works into her performance as Sally, especially when putting her obnoxious mom in her place.

Even Betty seems sick of herself at this point, gradually realizing that she went from being a trophy wife to a political trophy wife, as she's required to dutifully and silently stand by her husband Henry (Christopher Stanley) as he attempts to further his career. It turns out he's just as controlling as Don, only in a more passive-aggressive way. A basketcase not the slightest bit cut out for marriage or motherhood, Betty discarded her own life and identity for a white picket fence so how she handles coming to that painful self-realization could make for an interesting closing arc for a character who  still has some gas in the tank story-wise.
Don and Peggy slow dance to Sinatra in Ep. 7.6, "The Strategy"
The family Don is left with may be a dysfunctional one, but it's still a version of the real thing. One of the most touching moments of the half-season (and possibly the series) sees Don circling back around to Peggy and guiding her, finally comfortable enough to take on the role of mentor and encourage her success. After a rocky professional reunion, the two realize there's no sense fighting the fact they're cut from the same cloth. That their relationship isn't romantic and most likely never will be somehow makes it the purest connection on the series, stretching all the way back to their Season 4 classic, "The Suitcase." Peggy's pitch to fast food chain Burger Chef rivals Don's infamous Kodak Carousel presentation from the first season in terms of how the show uses advertising to not only reflect cultural shifts in society during that time, but make us think about how those shifts have carried into the present day.

Seeing Don, Peggy and Pete reunited as a family of their own at a Burger Chef table is a reminder of just how far removed each of those characters have been from ever being apart of what the outdated Lou Avery describes as the "nuclear family" of the 40's, 50's, or 60's. By the late '60's all of that was coming to an end, and the Apollo 11 mission represents possibly the last time Americans gathered together in a way reflecting it. The notion of the American family was certainly changing with women now working and meals being enjoyed at a Burger Chef table instead of a dining room. It's carried on to this day, making the pitch Peggy delivers as timely now as it was then. And that's why the image of the three (Father, Mother, Son?) eating at the table as the camera pulls back is one of the most enduring images the series' has given us. Here are people who couldn't be more different, yet know more about each other than maybe anyone else ever will. It's the new definition of family.

These rapidly changing times are solidified in the mid-season finale "Waterloo," with the death we've been prepared for, but didn't exactly envision playing out as it did. For many, the character of Bert Cooper outlasted his usefulness at Sterling Cooper a while back, popping in occasionally to make ignorant, old fashioned, and sometimes even flat-out racist observations. If anyone, aside from Don, had become a walking symbol of a bygone era it was Bert. And yet there was always a certain warmth and humor actor Robert Morse brought to the character in even the smallest doses that made him likable. Only beloved Bert would have the timing to die minutes after watching the moon landing. And it's special seeing Morse given a fitting series send-off with a crazy, afterlife musical number that proves the 83-year-old star of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying hasn't lost a step.

Bert Cooper says goodbye in Ep. 7.7, "Waterloo"
We've seen Don hallucinate and even "see dead people" before but him hunched over and teary-eyed as he imagines Bert (clad in his trademark argyle socks) singing "The Best Things in Life Are Free" definitely takes the cake. Yes, it's ridiculous, but also really moving and joyous, emblematic of the biggest moments this show always nails. In terms of what it means for Don, maybe he can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that his personal and professional stresses have subsided and it's time to appreciate that the best things in life, like his children and friendships, are free. Bert's death hits him. All at once. And Hamm is ingenious in silently conveying that.

Breaking Bad changed the rules for final seasons by proving that a series finale doesn't necessarily have to be the greatest or most important episode. It just has to close the deal. And most of the work should be done before that. But that series was telling one story with a finite number of ways it could have ended given Walter White's situation. With Mad Men, that number is practically unlimited and it's easy envisioning more than a few of them being letdowns. This show doesn't have a definitive end point since it could reasonably keep going, following these richly drawn characters into the 70's, 80's and beyond if Weiner wanted to go that route and AMC let him. But that's not how things work, and as comforting as the show's been, it's the right decision to bow out while it's still creatively strong.

How this split season would impact the parsing out of plot was a question mark, but by the finale, it becomes clear Weiner had a game plan: Tear Don down before redeeming him, while also tying up all the loose business ends at Sterling Cooper and Partners. But sticking the landing will be tricky. With Don suddenly facing a more hopeful future and SCP business taken care of, what's left? Will he fall back into a downward spiral or successfully reconcile his two identities? Will he continue mentoring Peggy? Will Stephanie return or have we really seen the last of Dick Whitman's past?

The gang sits transfixed by the Moon landing
With Woodstock, the Manson murders and the '69 Mets right around the corner, there's also the big question of what era the show will end in, with many assuming 1970 was always set to be the cut-off. While that still may be true, if any finale situation ever lent itself to a massive flash-forward giving us a glimpse into the characters' futures, it's this one. As we get closer to the end, it's hard not to think back to Matthew Weiner's comments about tying the show and its events to the present day. It's a worthy goal, but also one you can argue the series may have already reached.                                            

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Don Jon

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's a point in Don Jon when the womanizing title character is roped into taking his date to a formulaic romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. It's especially ironic considering this film could have easily turned into one of those in less capable hands than Joseph Gordon-Levitt's, whose directorial/screenwriting debut (and the first feature under his HitRecord production banner) has some clever, surprising things to say about sex and relationships, at least by Hollywood standards. The conclusion it comes to and the paces he takes to get there proves he could have as much potential behind the camera as in front of it, which is no small praise. While the genre and topic it covers would definitely seem to be a strange choice for the actor better known for dark, gritty dramas, the story confounds expectations, in addition to providing plenty of laughs. And in doing that, he also manages to write himself a role that's as big a departure as anything he's recently done as an actor.

In his own words, New Jersey native Jon Martello cares about only a few things: "my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn." If he were to rank them in order of preference, that last one would come in pretty high. Despite having a very active sex life, Jon's addiction to online pornography is out of control, with his most controversial claim being that he could never get the pleasure out of sex that he does from masturbating to porn. Through voiceovers and some really clever editing, he explains in detail exactly why. It's only when out clubbing with his friends and rating girls that he encounters Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who isn't surrendering to his charms without a fight. And even when she does, seems determined to reform him, forcing Jon to work for it and play the long game to win her over

It's clear early Barbara isn't just another one of his conquests, as she holds an unflinchingly traditional view of relationships. She even convinces him to enroll in school, where he meets Esther (Julianne Moore) a kooky, highly emotional middle-aged woman who can't seem to leave him alone. Now finally with a girlfriend that earns the approval of his doting mother Angela (Glenne Headley) and sports-obsessed, profanity spewing father, Jon Sr. (Tony Danza!), he has to hope she'll be able to overloook his escalating porn addiction, which is threatening to destroy their relationship.

Don Jon exposes a lot of uncomfortable truths about how men and women behave in relationships, and why, despite the best of intentions, they frequently fail to make it work. This is essentially about two characters in a fantasy, with the addition of a third, who seems crazy but is actually the only one clued into reality. Aside from some of the porn footage interspersed throughout the picture to depict the extent of Jon's addiction, the full-fledged nudity is actually kept at a minimum, which had to be intentional given that this isn't what this is about. Initially we hear some pretty crazy things via Jon's voiceover that most other movies (especially mainstream rom-coms) wouldn't even touch. And we see it and hear it in graphic detail, which is kind of disturbing since it hits on some uncomfortable truths neither gender would publicly admit to. Some of it is crude and unfair, but a lot of it just simply stems from the title character's inability to connect with women on any level but the physical. And according to him, he isn't even finding enough fulfillment in that area either.

Whether it's porn online or a girlfriend, sex for Jon is a one-sided, masturbatory exercise in getting himself off and there's nothing even Barbara can do to change that. She's just as deluded and into herself as he is, extracting from him what she needs to attain the perfect, unrealistic life depicted in the goofy romantic comedies she loves. Operating under the false guise of class and stability, she thinks Jon's job is to provide it to her, with no questions asked. That in exchange for sex is why this relationship is bad news from the get-go. It makes sense she'd be repulsed by his porn addiction and he'd be repulsed by her freaking out over discovering it. Neither character is particularly likable in the least, but they are complex, with both actors giving the audience a window to their motivations.

JGL writes himself a role that reminds us that before all the dramatic acclaim, he was (and still is) a gifted comic presence. He infuses Jon with considerably more substance than the character's misogynist musclehead persona initially suggests while Johansson has the tough task of playing someone who's integrity is first underestimated then greatly overestimated by the end of the picture. For some reason, I was surprised at every turn with what happened with Julianne Moore's Esther and her ultimate purpose in the story. It's an odd part, yet she has every bit of it covered without missing a beat, with a role more significant and interesting than anything the trailers and commercials hinted at. Moore, the pro she is, finds a way to make it even more intriguing than that by slowly revealing this crazy, nosy, disheveled woman as someone wise and worth paying attention to.  

Reunited with his Angels in the Outfield co-star, the great Tony Danza steals scenes as Jon's overexcited dad, even more impressed with the hotness level of his son's new girlfriend than the score in whatever game he's watching during dinner. It's a treat anytime the too frequently underseen sitcom hero, boxer, teacher, author and former talk show host appears in anything, so it's a relief when Danza's let completely loose to entertain like only he can, providing most of the film's biggest laughs. And in a nearly wordless, dialogue-free performance, Brie Larson's face is buried in her phone texting as Jon's sister, Monica, but conveys more with an occasional eye roll or glance than most other actresses would with pages of lines. She knows exactly what's happening and we know when she does eventually speak, it'll be important. Compare this to most other rom-coms, which do have characters text throughout the entire film. But not as a joke or commentary. They really have no clue what's going on.

It isn't often that you have no idea where a rom-com is going but this one caught me completely off guard with its u-turn midway through. What starts out looking like it's going to be an extended episode of The Jersey Shore gives way to something more profound, as its clear JGL is using these character types for a reason. The movie is wiser and funnier than it lets on, leaving much of the work to the audience in figuring out how. While this isn't as strong a film, it does make an unlikely companion piece to (500) Days of Summer, hitting a few of the same notes, but in a more graphic way that doesn't go down quite as easily. Both are about two characters living in relationship fantasy land. While Don Jon still seems like a strange choice for JGL's directorial debut, there's no question he makes very tricky material work when it has no business to. There are many ways this could have turned into a disaster but he saves it, delivering something that's increasingly rare: A smart romantic comedy.   

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Ayelet Zurer, Christopher Meloni, Russell Crowe
Running Time: 143 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Well, better late than never. The fact that I waited nearly a year before finally seeing Zack Snyder's Man of Steel should give you a pretty good idea how high on my priority list it was. Not because I dreaded it in the slightest or was at all protective of the character, which is easily the most challenging of all superheroes to adapt to the screen. But because I'm just so burnt out from superhero movies and franchises to the point that it's almost impossible to distinguish them from each other. You can blame Marvel for that.  So now it's good to know every day I avoided seeing this wasn't time spent in vain because in attempting to "reimagine" Superman and make him relevant to contemporary audiences, Snyder's stripped away the character's essence, succeeding only in making an overblown Marvel movie out of a DC property.

About 10 minutes into the film I completely checked out, realizing we've seen this all before when it was titled Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Avengers. But this is actually much worse than all those, and perhaps even worse (or at least barely even with) Bryan Singer's much-maligned Superman Returns, which made the supposedly crucial error of being too slavishly devoted to Richard Donner's original vision. Snyder is slavishly devoted to blowing things up, as his vision features some of the most mind-numbing, soul-crushing CGI I've ever seen in a film and a third act that literally had me tapping out and reaching for the Advil.

Remember when the teaser trailer came out and everyone actually compared it to The Tree of Life, thinking we'd be in for a deeper, more contemplative treatment? With few exceptions, this project is actually more of a disaster than it's been credited for, with the only hope being that this darker, more other worldly incarnation of the character is eventually seen for the embarassing misstep it is. But now that Snyder has temporarily been entrusted with Batman as well, that seems unlikely. If this Superman really is a reflection of our times, that's not a compliment.

This almost two and a half hour movie can essentially be broken down into four sections:

1. Thor Redux
2. "The Deadliest Catch"
3. "Field of Dreams"
4. Avengers Redux

Of these, the first section is by far the weakest and most pointless, not to mention the most troublesome aspect of the mythology to depict on screen. We spend nearly 30 minutes on the depleting Krypton learning how scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) come under attack from evil commander General Zod (Michael Shannon) and are forced to launch their newborn son Kal-El to Earth, his cells infused with the genetic code of the Kryptonian race. It's a sequence that could have easily been depicted in two minutes, but Snyder drags it out, calling attention to some spectacularly bad visual effects in the process. The opening resembles Thor's in terms of how much boring mythology is unloaded as a mere excuse to pummel our senses. That said, when Kal and the movie land on Earth, I really appreciated what it was trying to do and for a while it  actually looked like Snyder could pull this off.

Our first glimpses of an adult Superman (Henry Cavill) are interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood in Smallville, Kansas, where he's raised as Clark, the adopted son of Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent. These scenes of the young Clark being picked on at school and the advice he receives from his father about the importance of accepting, yet also concealing his identity, comprise the strongest moments in the film. By far. Why everything didn't just begin here is a mystery, but perhaps the filmmakers worried this ground was already covered in the Smallville TV series and fanboys would throw a hissy fit if the god awful Krypton scenes weren't included.

The idea of an adult Clark Kent as a bearded, brooding fisherman is a novel one that earns points for originality. Snyder is nothing if not a visualist and it clearly comes across in these scenes and especially the ones in Smallville, which are beautifully filmed. It's his commitment to actual storytelling that's a weak spot. Hans Zimmer's elegiac score is a plus, making it unlikely anyone will miss John Williams, whose incredible orchestrations just wouldn't fit here.  I refer to the Kansas section as "Field of Dreams" not out of sarcasm, but as a compliment to Costner, who delivers the film's finest performance with limited screen time. It's also perfect casting, not only playing up the actor's famously down home persona, but giving us a fresh but comfortable entry point into what could have been tired territory. Instead, watching this father trying to protect his unusually gifted son provides the only humanity in the story, as it all flies off the rails from there.

As Superman, Cavill is okay. With all the speculation about who would play the "Man of Steel," who would have thought that the choice ultimately wouldn't matter? Most of the time he takes a back seat to the distractingly bad effects and confusing set pieces. The British actor definitely offers a more brooding take on Clark Kent that won't soon be confused with anything done by Christopher Reeve or Brandon Routh. In fact, it's so far removed it won't be confused with anything related to Superman or Clark Kent at all, as even David Goyer's script goes out of its way to avoid mentioning him by name (see title). Some may appreciate these attempts to supposedly go "darker" or more "realistic" with the character but it's hard to even apply those adjectives when so many of the action sequences undermine it. But at least this is the best the costume they've had and if Cavill really was hired because he didn't look ridiculous in it, that's as good a reason as any to pick him for what's always been an impossibly thankless role.

The Lois Lane situation is bizarre in the sense that she's almost TOO involved, as if the filmmakers felt a need to justify the big name (and admittedly lazy) casting of Amy Adams by having the character wear as many hats in the story as possible. She's still the Daily Planet reporter. but there are almost as many points where you'd confuse her for a geologist, a military commander or maybe even a superhero herself in the last act. While Adams going out there and simply delivering lines still surpasses the miscast Kate Bosworth in Returns, it's worth noting that's all she does. Giving Lois a more prominent role and having her played by an older, more experienced actress than the male lead was an excellent idea on paper, but Adams seems completely bored with it, as if she can't get to the bank soon enough to cash her royalty check. And forget about any chemistry between the two. There's none.

Poor Russell Crowe is given what's easily the silliest expository dialogue of the entire cast as Jor-El. That he can deliver it with a straight face even long after his character's initial demise is more deserving of an honorary medal for screen survival than an acting award. He does great under terrible circumstances, working with material that's the polar opposite of Costner's. As Zod, Michael Shannon didn't need to be Terrence Stamp. He just needed to be Michael Shannon. But what's strange is how this movie doesn't even allow him to do that. Ironically, when playing a superhero villain, our creepiest, scariest actor is somehow not very creepy at all. Snyder just has him yell and and yell some more in a terrible CGI suit.

German actress Anteje Traue as his Krytonian sidekick Faora is a different story, as she basically steals every scene she's in, giving a seductively badass performance that recalls the best of Sarah Douglas as Ursa in Superman II. In his few scenes, I liked what Laurence Fishburne did with Daily Planet editor Perry White, but the part is so miniscule it barely warrants a mention. Metropolis itself is similarly shafted as a setting, functioning only as a CGI battleground for the tortuously long final act during which it's often difficult to make out what's happening. Those crying heresy at Superman (SPOILER AHEAD) killing Zod should probably consider the context in which it happened, not to mention the fact that this movie would still be continuing right now if he didn't. So for that, I'm eternally grateful.

Superman just isn't the type of superhero that lends itself to various interpretations or reimaginings. It can't be a campy 60's TV series or an 80's Gothic styled blockbuster or the first part of a dark, reality grounded Christopher Nolan trilogy. The character just doesn't have that flexibility, and despite the marketing trying to convince us we were getting the latter, they were really just trying to deliver a Marvel entry. Nolan may have a producing and story credit, but does anyone believes his involvement extended beyond giving a couple of notes and getting his name on the picture as a show of goodwill to him and a sign of reassurance to audiences? You can tell this was made by a committee looking to cash in on the Marvel craze, while poorly sprinkling traces of Nolan's tone to silence doubters.

That the writer is Batman trilogy scribe David Goyer is a surprise, but most of the problems lay in the execution more than the conception. It's obvious all the big creative decisions resulted from Warner Bros. guiding Snyder to create a DC "universe" or franchise for future tie-in installments. He did exactly as asked, with the irony being that Man of Steel ends at the exact point it really should have started, negating this film, yet putting them in a decent position for the follow-up. Unfortunately, all that was originally special about the Superman character was sacrificed in the process, resurrected in a way we never thought possible: As just another superhero.