Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Love and Mercy



Director: Bill Pohlad
Starring: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Bill Camp, Brett Davern, Kenny Wormald, Graham Rogers, Erin Darke
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

"Sad. Lonely. Terrified."  Those are the three words a middle-aged Brian Wilson scribbles on the back of his future wife's business card during their awkward first encounter in the 1980's. They can also best describe the troubled life of the legendary Beach Boys musician and songwriter, whose fascinating story somehow escaped a big screen treatment until now. It wasn't for a lack of trying, but rather waiting for the right director, script and actor to play him. While it may have taken decades for all the pieces to finally fall in place, the result is one of the more unconventional biopics in recent years, putting a laser-like focus on the two most pivotal eras of his life. It's sad, emotionally draining and insightful, confirming our suspicions that of all the music icons, living or deceased, his journey ranks amongst the most unique.

Had director Bill Pohlad gone the way of a traditional, straightforward biopic I wouldn't have complained and it still could have been one of the more satisfying moviegoing experiences of the year. Instead, he takes a huge gamble by splitting the story, practically begging viewers to draw comparisons and take sides in what would initially appear to be an unfair battle. There's no sense denying it's the 60's era Wilson everyone's most interested in and that on paper Paul Dano seems born to play the young Brian, joining an exclusive list of perfect casting decisions like Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. He doesn't disappoint, exceeding already high expectations.

Given the chance to capture Wilson's essence and physical mannerisms, we already had an inkling of what the quirky, off-kilter Dano could possibly bring to the part, as well as the type of film we'd get. It was rashly assumed the 80's section of Wilson's story would be an afterthought, with the casting of John Cusack as the elder version being at best a head scratcher. At worst, most thought it could be a potential disaster, which is less an indictment on his acting abilities than a critique of his recent VOD-filled career trajectory (which has drawn understandable comparisons to Nicolas Cage) and lack of physical resemblance to the musician. Such a performance wouldn't seem to be in his wheelhouse, even with fingers crossed that he'd somehow pull it off. Well, he does. But the bigger surprise is how both eras exist on equal footing in terms of time, attention and creative quality. Neither would mean as much without the other, even as they still seem worlds apart.

It's the early 1960's and young songwriter Brian Wilson (Dano) is rapidly rising to fame with his band, The Beach Boys, consisting of cousin and co-founder Mike Love (Jake Abel), Al Jardine (Graham Rogers) and brothers Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis Wilson (Kenny Wormald). With Brian's creative genius driving them in the studio, it isn't long before the band shoots to the top of the charts with massive hits like "Surfer Girl," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Surfin' U.S.A."Getting the itch to take the group's sound in a more mature direction, Brian soon fires their father Murry (Bill Camp) as manager and sets out to abandon much of the fun surf rock that made them famous. He instead withdraws into the studio with the goal of creating the "the greatest album ever made."  The resulting Pet Sounds is a critically praised but commercially underperforming psychedelic concept album that splits the band apart, with Brian's grip on reality slipping as he's tormented by the voices in his head.

The parallel 1980's narrative focuses on a middle-aged Brian (Cusack), depressed and overmedicated under the tyrannic supervision of psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy. Misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, he's held hostage in his own home and unable to go anywhere without being flanked by handlers, making every outing a major production for the fragile star. A trip to the Cadillac dealership leads to him meeting saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who's intrigued enough by his oddness to agree to a date. As their relationship grows and Brian becomes more independent, she realizes the dangerous extent of Dr. Landy's control over him, working tirelessly to get him away before he dies under this madman's care.

Both timelines, while wildly different in their aesthetics, are also eerily similar in how they fit in piecing together the complete picture of who Brian Wilson is as a person and musician. And that common thread is an abusive and overbearing father figure who Brian resents yet still can't help but try to please. In the 60's it was his father, who verbally and physically assaulted him and his brothers. Later, it's Landy who controls him with seemingly even more force. Based on what's shown, his father has a tin ear as a music producer, from being completely underwhelmed by "God Only Knows" to boldly declaring The Beach Boys won't be remembered in fifty years. Of course, this proves he probably would hated anything his son did, but boy do we ever see and hear what Brian does. And exactly how he does it.

From opening credits, the depiction of the band in their prime has an almost documentary-like approach that makes you feel as if you're watching archival footage rather than a merely respectful recreation of key events in group's early career. And while other musical biopics too often face roadblocks in obtaining music rights (see the recent Jimi: All Is by My Side), the band's best work is here incorporated masterfully onto the soundtrack and into the narrative itself. And in what has to be a first, we're granted seemingly unprecedented access into Brian's process in the studio, in particular how he created Pet Sounds and saw that vision through to the end while using extremely unconventional instrumentation and methods.

Pohlad spends a lot of quality time on the making of the actual music, unlike most biopics that only talk about how their subject is unique or even a "genius," as if expecting us to just take their word on it. This very specifically shows us why. Note for note. We also see how he comes up with "Good Vibrations," as a nearly dialogue-free sequence takes us from its gestation period with Brian just fooling around on the piano, all the way to it becoming the classic it's now regarded as.

Despite never appearing, The Beatles seem to be this omnipresent force bubbling just below the surface, with both bands competitively but healthily pushing and borrowing from each other to reach their creative peaks. With Wilson's new direction practically a direct response to the "British Invasion," you get the impression that maybe John Lennon understood what Wilson was going for better than his own father and bandmates. It's a nice angle to include and screenwriter Oren Moverman is smart enough to only lightly push it, letting viewers make of it what they may. It's just a beautiful thought to leave in our minds and one of many small details the script absolutely nails.

What's most interesting about Dano's performance is how it bleeds into the parallel story. You see shades of the naive, childlike soul who would overtake him in the 1980's with the only difference being that past Brian at least had the confidence to go in his own direction, regardless of whom it alienated. Dano's made a career of playing supporting oddballs with a good heart so the starring role of Wilson is a natural fit, even when putting the uncanny physical resemblance aside (which his reported thirty pound weight gain only enhances). He also gets the vocal down well enough for the real Brian to sign off on it, with Pohlad careful enough not to give him too much to do in that department. This works since performing was never Wilson's first love anyway, freeing the story up to focus more on his genius as a writer and producer.

Drugs use is talked about and even shown, but it's inclusion is more directly related to how it affected the music rather than Brian. It wasn't the root of his problems, at least until Dr. Landy got a hold of him over a decade later, as his pushing of prescription drugs cause a more severe form of chemical dependency that anything in the 60's. Giamatti is in full "pig vomit" mode here, only far scarier and menacing as he works under the guise of "rescuing" Brian from his three years spent bed ridden and depressed. If you thought Brian's dad was a pitiful, abusive record producer, all bets are off after seeing Landy screaming at the nearly comatose former Beach Boy hunched helplessly over his piano.

There's a squirm-worthy barbeque sequence where we first realize the true extent of Landy's power over Brian, who's essentially a prisoner at this point. This is the first time Elizabeth Banks has truly been tested in a major way dramatically and it's surprisingly just how strong a center to the story Melinda is, basically saving his life and breaking through the childlike shell to still see the brilliant, generous musician hiding underneath. She doesn't play her as a saint, but rather someone just tough and brave enough to face Landy head-on and win, even if it means the end of what's been a heavily supervised relationship with Brian.

Cusack has the tougher job since it could have been problematic picturing him as the musician to begin with, regardless of the age or time period (even if mid-eighties photos reveal it to be a closer match than you'd think). He bares even less of a resemblance to Dano, and yet that's hardly noteworthy since it's easy to believe this guy's been through enough that he wouldn't. He's also portraying someone even deeper in the throes of mental illness than his younger counterpart, but Cusack clears all these hurdles, transcending his subject to deliver something more substantial and fulfilling.

Besides getting the tics and mannerisms just right, Cusack creates an enduring, likable portrait of this sensitive man-child who just so happens to be Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Just his work opposite Banks in the opening scene at the dealership and when he's receiving Landy's constant psychological abuse represents the actor's best work in years, if not decades. For a story in which we know the general outcome, if not the specifics, he keeps us on the invested and on edge by showing us the most challenging side of Wilson to depict on screen: His days spent as a depressed, inactive spectator to his own life. And finally, Cusack gets a great role that shows us how good he is and still can be when given meaningful material.

Shattering preconceptions, Pohlad tells manages to create this complete portrait of Wilson out of two halves.  While the 60's portion containing more nuance and detail than we ever expected, the 80's section manages to hold us completely captive, shining a previously unseen spotlight on Wilson's darkest period. Both tragic and triumphant, it's less a biopic than a hazy, surreal journey through the psyche of one of our most brilliant, tortured artists. There's a sequence toward the end that's a real head trip, converging Brian's life into a series of influential people standing bedside as he slowly awakens from what's been his long, painful nightmare. It gives the song "In My Room" a whole new meaning and makes us wonder what the real Brian Wilson must be thinking while watching this.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Men, Women and Children



Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort,
Kaitlyn Dever, J.K. Simmons, Dennis Haysbert, Olivia Crocicchia, Elena Kampouris, Travis Tope, Emma Thompson (voice)
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating:  R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Throughout the 1970's, the ABC network aired The After School Special, a series of made-for-TV movies aimed at teens that tackled controversial social issues of the time. If such a special came out today, exploring the dangers of social media and technology, and you mixed it in a blender with American Beauty, the result would sort of strangely resemble Jason Reitman's Men, Women and Children. But while those comparisons seem to set the stage for the latest in a long list of pans for one of the worst received movies of last year, it's actually kind of a compliment. After all, both won awards and critical acclaim for good reason. This sure didn't, but it's certainly more intriguing than expected, and hardly the huge abomination the media trumpeted it as.

Reitman may not achieve everything he sets out to, inevitably falling short of its brilliant teaser poster's promise, but it mostly works. For better or worse, I was gripped by each of the stories that comprise the narrative and impressed by a handful of actors playing against type. The big surprise was that it was a bit more restrained than expected given a subject matter that deals less with the dangers of the digital age, but how people are really the problem.

After a cosmic framing device speculating on humans' place in the universe (sardonically narrated by Emma Thompson), we crash down to Earth where Don (Adam Sandler) is a depressed, sexually frustrated husband stuck in a passionless marriage to an equally bored Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt). She spends her free time at work creating an Ashley Madison profile while he's building up the courage to seek out an escort service and sneaking into his teen son Chris' (Travis Tope) room to view online pornography.

So extreme is Chris' taste in porn that it's actually preventing him from being aroused by anything or anyone else, including would-be girlfriend and aspiring celebrity, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). Her vanity proves to be a contagiously destructive influence on younger classmate, Allison (a shockingly good Elena Kampouris), a formerly overweight girl starving herself to gain the attention of an older "bad boy" who wouldn't give her the time of day.

Meanwhile, Hannah's mom Joan (Judy Greer), a former actress, is maintaining her daughter's website, taking and posting inappropriate photos of her for paying subscribers in a desperate attempt to boost her profile. Joan forms a bond with single dad, Kent (Dean Norris) over their mutual dislike of the neighborhood's cyber-watchdog mom, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), whose constant monitoring of daughter Brandy's (Kaitlyn Dever) online and cell phone activity is preventing the teen from having anything resembling a social life.

At school, Brandy finds a kindred spirit in Kent's son, the similarly depressed and introspective Tim (Ansel Elgort), who suddenly quit the football team and is addicted to an online role-playing video game. They start secretly seeing each other in what ends up being the golden ticket storyline, easily doing the best job at conveying the film's themes of loneliness and isolation amidst a world that's more technologically connected than ever. 

Okay, so when described like this, the whole thing does seem a little ridiculous. But it isn't strung together by contrivances or coincidences, as is often the case when dealing with intersecting storylines within a single film. Nothing happens here that's crazy to accept and it plays more like a collection of character sketches. Of course, some are better than others. And as uninteresting as it would seem spending two hours watching strangers text and stare at their screens, this presents that idea more tolerably than similar films exploring the subject, or even movies of other genres with characters electronically plugged in. At least Reitman can provide the reasoning that he's showing exactly what his film is about through their actions.

It's almost painful to reveal that the weakest thread is Sandler's and DeWitt's, if only because the last thing Sandler needs is anyone discouraging him for stepping out of his comfort zone and exploring his dramatic side. Here he proves again just how subtle and effective a performer he is when out of goofball mode. Unfortunately, it's in a typical unsatisfied spouses storyline, as these two downers sulk through their extra-marital affairs. This, along with their son's impotence issues (which isn't given as much time), is the weakest segment, culminating in a resolution that's very matter of fact. Those complaining this film hits audiences over the head with its themes should re-watch this story arc as its restraint is more likely to induce a nap.

The pairing of Dean Norris and Judy Greer is a highlight, with both are cast wildly against type. Norris' Kent is nervous and underconfident in the wake of his wife leaving their family while Greer plays the stage mom from hell, living vicariously through her daughter until a harsh dose of reality knocks her cold. It's an especially big jump for Norris, who's very far removed from Breaking Bad's macho, authoritative Hank Schrader as fans should be surprised just how large his supporting role is and what he does with it.

Tim having this sudden epiphany and quitting the football team because he's miserable for reasons having nothing to do with football just might be the most realistic event in the film. That's just exactly the kind of thing an angry, depressed teen would do and it feels completely earned, as does most of the storyline involving him and Brandy's secret, forbidden relationship. Touching and truthful to a fault, you have to wonder how good a film this could have been on its own, with Elgort and Dever proving why they're on the top of everyone's list of young actors to watch.

Elgort continues his streak of straddling the line between likable jock and sensitive introvert, adding depth to what could have been a superficially drawn teen caricature, while Dever conveys this world of hurt and shame on her face without muttering a word. And with Jennifer Garner's psychotically overprotective parent watching her every move, that's understandable. Would anyone go to the extreme lengths she does to shield her daughter from social media? You wonder why she even lets her daughter have a phone or computer considering all the work she must put in monitoring it.

The most interesting takeaway is that if this took place during another era, we'd still have this issue. It's the technology that's allowing us to hurt each other faster and more impersonally, as a phone or mobile device in the hands of these characters may as well be a pipe bomb. Reitman's multi-narrative approach toward presenting modern technology as gasoline on a fire is a good one, even as many didn't care for how he went about making that point or thought maybe he just shouldn't have said anything at all. As someone who's no fan of his pitiful previous effort, the belabored Labor Day, and agrees he's slipped recently, there's still no denying pitchforks were undeservedly out for this one before it was even released.

Chalk it up to low expectations or this falling firmly within the suburban drama genre I tend to heavily favor, but Reitman deserves credit for at least trying something different and achieving passable results, thanks mostly to the performances. Years down the line, when the technology becomes dated and the film's an artifact, it remains to be seen whether this effort provides any insight on human behavior. It's a movie very much of its time. Of course, that time happens to be now and the characters inhabiting it are irritatingly and uncomfortably recognizable.
        

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mad Men: Season 7 (Part II)



Creator: Matthew Weiner
Starring: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Aaron Staton, Christopher Stanley, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka, Jessica Paré, Kevin Rahm, Christopher Stanley, Jay R. Ferguson, Alison Brie, Bruce Greenwood
Original Airdate: 2015

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Season 7 of Mad Men and its Series Finale, "Person to Person"**

It seems that whenever a beloved, long-running dramatic television series takes its final lap, a sense of urgency builds as we inch closer to the end. Our pulses quicken and our minds race with all the intriguing outcomes that could unfold, each seemingly crazier and more far-fetched than the last. And not being showrunners, most of our ideas are terrible, yet perfectly reasonable for fans caught up in the groundswell of finale hysteria. If a final season in TV is the equivalent of a freight train picking up speed and gaining momentum, Breaking Bad-style, as it speeds toward its ultimate destination, Mad Men would seem to represent the antithesis. With a structure more closely resembling a long-form novel, it was never dependent on its characters ever reaching an end point, as part of the fun was speculating the direction their lives would take after the last episode concludes.

Mad Men (2007-2015)
It's easy to envision creator Matthew Weiner stomping around the writers' room, resenting the very idea of a "series finale," arguing that no matter what he does, he can't win. To a certain extent, he'd be right. If Don Draper (Jon Hamm) only likes "the beginnings of things" as he was once told, you'd figure showrunners must love them. It's endings they hate. That's why the biggest surprise is just how much momentum this half-season builds in its last few episodes and how finale-ish its finale feels.

It was always assumed the ending would be more Sopranos than Breaking Bad. Not the culmination of a story with a concrete beginning, middle and end, but something more polarizing, sure to be open for varying interpretations and poured over for years. Knowing Weiner's history as a writer on The Sopranos, we suspected he had that kind of finale in him and my fingers were always crossed that he'd give it to us. And for a show that's mostly had its characters sidestep direct brushes with history like the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Movement and the Moon landing, it managed to keep a big surprise up its sleeve for the final twist. Forget about whether Tony Soprano died, the new question is whether Don Draper really did change. Or rather, whether anyone ever really can.

The 60's are over and we've jumped in time to 1970, where there's no eleventh hour save for Sterling, Cooper and Partners. And no rabbit Don can pull out of this time to rescue the agency. Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) is dead and Roger (John Slattery) made a deal in last year's "Waterloo" that may have saved Don's job, but guaranteed the firm's eventual demise, albeit slower and more mercifully than expected.

The ax falls on Sterling, Cooper and Partners
Lulled into a false sense of security, they've been swallowed whole by McCann Erickson and even Don's idea to salvage the Sterling Cooper name with a smaller California branch seems like a desperate hail mary. His pitch to McCann honcho Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene), while well executed, falls flat because he's so used to selling big. It's all over, and these remaining episodes explore how that carries a very different meaning for each character.

Despite Hobart talking a good game and repositioning the takeover as an exciting opportunity for all involved, the reality is far harsher. We know the expendable Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), who even in her best moments was never taken seriously because of her looks, will last only a matter of days in a corporate culture of sexist pigs at McCann, with Hobart and his sleazy right-hand man Ferg Donnelly (Paul Johansson) leading the charge. It turns out one-eyed Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) was right about these guys, even if he's no longer around to gloat about.

Roger will continue to coast along like he always has while Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Ted Chaugh (Kevin Rahm) and Harry Crane (Rich Somer) should sadly fit in just fine. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is the wildcard, with every experience she's had over the course of her decade-long career preparing her for this shift. And by procuring Don, Hobart has finally caught, in his own words, the "Moby Dick" he's been chasing since he placed his then-wife Betty (January Jones) in a COCA-COLA commercial as a bribe to switch agencies. But we know Don doesn't like to be owned by anyone.
                                                                                                                                                
Don with mysterious waitress, Diana
Talking about the final seven episodes is really talking only about the last four. The season is built on "Time and Life,""Lost Horizon," "The Milk and Honey Route" and "Person to Person." The rest, while still as solid as Mad Men's ever been, is the preamble. But for a while there, it was easy to worry the series was spinning its wheels rather than gathering steam. Don's obsession with mysterious waitress Diana (Elisabeth Reaser) is really just an obsession with himself, albeit a far more depressing and less charismatic version. Having abandoned her family and living a lie, he mistakenly thinks he can save her, not realizing he's hardly the first man to be swallowed into her self-destructive vortex.

Joan's somewhat controlling new lover, Richard (Bruce Greenwood) is the series' latest and last representation of her struggle in choosing between life and career during a time where it was thought impossible for a woman to have both. On this show, characters always frustratingly come and go as they would in real life, and while quibbles can be made about introducing them this late, it's not purposeless. And you have to wonder if their presence wouldn't be judged as harshly if this were any other season but the last. It's also a fair trade-off since for every Diana or Richard, there's a long-time supporting character getting an expanded role, like Don's ditzy but extremely competent secretary Meredith (Stephanie Drake) and the aforementioned Ken, who finds a new way to continuously torment Roger and Pete. What I can't defend is the the time wasted on Megan's (Jessica Paré) family, and that's coming from a huge Megan fan.                     

Arriving at what looked to be some kind of epiphany after his tap dancing vision of the late Bert Cooper, you'd figure the second half of Season 7 would find Don in a better place, back doing the job he does best. Instead, it seems as if little has changed at all. Still mostly absent from his kids' lives, the drinking and womanizing continues as the material facets of his life are systematically stripped away in the closing episodes. Empty apartment. Empty Sterling Cooper offices. His divorce with Megan is finalized in a rare, caring moment of self-reflection and regret. But Don at McCann is a stranger in a strange land. This isn't him and he doesn't want to do it anymore.

Don looks to the skies for something more in "Lost Horizon"
The episode "Lost Horizon" (named after the 1937 film Don was watching in last year's premiere, "Time Zones") is the turning point and where all the fan theories start coming home to roost. Will he jump out the window like the falling man in the opening credits? What's with that plane Don's fixated on during the beer meeting? Will he become D.B. Cooper? Of course, we should have known these theories were crazy since Mad Men's just not that kind of show. And Matthew Weiner knows that, but it doesn't mean he still can't have fun subverting those expectations. Don would rather be anywhere but at that meeting surrounded by COKE bottles, so he just walks out. Only this time there's reason to suspect it could be for good.

Weiner also toys with expectations by redeeming who was possibly the most irredeemable character in Betty Francis (January Jones). And he does it while delivering a hilariously shocking conclusion to one of the series' weirdest storylines. The return of a nearly unrecognizable, 18-year-old Vietnam bound Glen Bishop (Marten Weiner) to finally follow through on his creepy, 10-year plan to bed Betty may as well be Weiner's version of Richard Linklater's Boyhood, but on acid. It seems like  only yesterday when Sally's (Kiernan Shipka) weird little friend from down the street was stealing a lock of her mother's hair, causing his ban from the Draper's Ossining household.

The fact that the childish, immature Betty resists Glen's advances is actually kind of a breakthrough for her, sparing Sally the indignity of walking in on a horrifying sight that would put to shame anything she's ever seen her father do. I know many don't like Weiner's son as an actor, but this entire storyline wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining with a trained professional in the role. His awkwardness and stilted delivery make the whole thing painfully, almost embarrassingly real in the most cringe-worthy way possible.

Glen puts the moves on Betty
The look of disgust on Sally's face as she watches both her parents bask in the attention paid to them by her smitten friends is priceless, as is her statement that they just "ooze" at the adulation that comes with being at the center of every room they enter.  It's so spot-on, as is most of Shipka's performance throughout the series, in which she always found ways to subtly convey through Sally the best and worst of Don and Betty's mannerisms and behavior.

With all the smoking and drinking that's taken place since the show's inception, it was almost a given that at some point a major character would die, but few guessed it would be Betty, or that her terminal lung cancer diagnosis would prove to be both Betty and January Jones' finest hour. As it turns out, the icy, detached qualities that made the character so frustrating serve as a source of strength and grace under the worst of circumstances. Betty's quiet acceptance of her fate and determination to take complete control of her own passing is evident in entrusting Sally to carry out her final wishes.

For once, Betty acts selflessly, refusing treatment to spare her children the prolonged trauma of watching her suffer. While Betty was never strong enough to handle her parents' death, she's now strong enough to manage her own, and realizes, as we have, that Sally's capable of handling anything. That she must comfort her usually stoic and stable stepfather Henry (Christopher Stanley) when he delivers the devastating news speaks to this. As is her putting Don in his place when he unreasonably expects custody in the first of many phone calls that take place during the finale. If there was ever a Mad Men spin-off, a coming-of-age drama centered around Sally in the 70's would be the only one worth watching.

A dying Betty's final instructions for Sally
Betty smiling as she hauls her books up the stairs, physically struggling, but determined as ever to make it to class is how we'lll now remember her. But the true mark of the character's transformation might just be her amusement at the other students' referring to her as "Mrs. Robinson." It's a sign that the vain former model no longer takes herself quite as seriously, and that Weiner and Jones' have taken our least favorite character and made her somewhat heroic, without betraying any of the qualities we disliked in her to begin with. Jones has rightly been regarded as the cast's most limited actress, but even her harshest critics would be forced to admit she really brings it in these final two episodes.

If his ex-wife's unexpected death sentence wasn't enough to pull Don back home to be with her and the kids, you have to wonder if anything would. Maybe the problem is that Don's still trying to figure out where "home" is and what it means. A stop in Alva, Oklahoma during which he fixes a COKE machine and attends a veterans' fundraiser, sees him again uncomfortably confronting Dick Whitman's actions during the Korean War that caused the death of his C.O., the real Don Draper. With him gifting his car to a young con artist, he's now completely rid himself of everything.

As Don sits at a bus stop on the side of the road in the closing seconds of the penultimate episode, "The Milk and Honey Route," it's hard not to be reminded of Walter White sitting on the side of the road at the end of "Ozymandias," waiting for his ride from the disappearer. But Walt's final destination was always crystal clear. Where exactly Don would end up at the end of this series was always murkier, with his eventual transformation destined to be more ambiguous.

Don at a crossroads in "The Milk and Honey Route"
Would it be New York or California? That was always the big question in regards to Don's destination. Ironically, it's Don's (last?) phone conversation with Betty in the highly emotional series finale, "Person to Person" that moves the needle west, as the shattering truth that he's never been there for his kids cuts him to the core. Conceding defeat and acknowledging the only constant has been his absence, Betty's demand for his his limited parental involvement for consistency's sake makes sense even to him.

Weiner made the right move having Don's journey take him To California given that some of the show's most creative moments have spurned from the jarring juxtaposition of transplanting the straight-laced Don into the laid-back, free-wheeling 60's counterculture. I nearly jumped out of my seat realizing he'd spend the final episode trapped at a hippie spiritual retreat in Big Sur since Weiner's handling of this kind of material has continually captivated me over the series' run. And it's only natural he'd use the trip to visit his "niece" Stephanie (Caity Lotz), the last thread connecting him to the real Don and the only person who truly knows him as Dick. Their relationship has always been an odd, uncomfortable one since she isn't his family, even as his own deep seeded guilt continuously convinces him otherwise.

Seeing what rock bottom looks like for Don Draper is scary, but what's more revealing is who he calls once he's hit it. Sloppily dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, he calls Peggy in an utter state of hopelessness and despair, immediately needing a metaphorical lifeline to bring him back to shore. In the episode's first fan service moment, and harkening back to the famous Season 4 episode, "The Suitcase," she must attempt to get through to him with the same stern, no-nonsense approach he's taught her. And in the midst of a full-fledged panic attack, she has good reason to be concerned, as Don's arrived at such a dark place that the possibilities of him dropping of a heart attack or jumping off the side of that cliff no longer seem like fan fiction.

The kiss the world was waiting for
Peggy's most important phone conversation in "Person to Person" may not be with Don, but Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson), whose increased appearances over the past few seasons have consistently emerged as a highlight, as this frequently stoned and impressively bearded comic character has slowly gained considerable depth through their friendship.

Sure, their declaration of love for one another over the phone reeks of fan service and is easily the most bizarre scene in the finale, but the fans are right, and damn if Moss and Ferguson don't absolutely crush it. Having to guess, I'd say it's unlikely Weiner had this pairing in the cards from the beginning, with Moss and Ferguson's chemistry together necessitating the decision. And I'm convinced Stan's the only character who could be dropped in present day with absolutely no adjustment, wardrobe and all, and work just as well.

For all of Peggy's talk, she could never leave advertising and the very idea of her going into business with Joan feels like the spin-off I wouldn't watch and thankfully won't have to since Weiner probably realized the pair would be clawing each others eyes out within minutes, mutual respect or not. But it was generous of him to throw it out there. Advertising runs through Peggy's veins whereas Joan has faced too much sexism and discrimination to not take advantage of an opportunity to start over, minus a man.

Peggy knows how to make an entrance
There were worries our last glimpse of Peggy would be when her rollerskating through the vacant Time Life offices or arriving at McCann with a cigarette dangling from her mouth and Bert's octopus porn painting under her arm. The latter might be my favorite single shot in the shows' history, perfectly encapsulating just how far Peggy's come since the pilot when she started as Don's mousy secretary. We're left with the impression that McCann will be eating all the Sterling Cooper alumnus for dinner. Except one. It's not possible to love Peggy or Moss any more than when we see her walking down that hallway like a bad ass, magnificently paying off what's been a ten-year journey for the character.

Even the smarmy Pete finds some level of redemption when the even smarmier Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) reenters his life with a potential job offer he can't refuse, try as he might. And he does he ever try since it's always hard to take the drunken, desperate dog abuser Duck at face value. Pete's building realization that he needs to reconcile with Trudy (Alison Brie) and actually be a real father to his daughter gives the viewers some degree of hope that he's finally taken the right path. His kind words of praise and encouragement for Peggy also signal what must be viewed as some kind of personal growth. But this is Pete Campbell we're talking about so it's impossible to underestimate the number of ways he could still screw everything up.

As Pete, Trudy and Tammy board their Learjet to start over in Wichita looking like the Kennedys boarding Air Force One, it's yet another reminder of how much time the hilarious Pete, played brilliantly by Kartheiser, spent trying to be someone else. Namely Don. There was a better man in there somewhere and maybe a total change of scenery with the only person who could ever tolerate him will help bring that guy out. But no more falling down the stairs, "Not great, Bob!" "California Campbell," or "The King ordered it!" Of all the characters, the endlessly gif-worthy Pete might be the most missed, if for entertainment value alone.

Roger watches Peggy skate through the Time Life offices
Having already suffered two heart attacks during the course of the series, Roger Sterling may have been high on everyone's "death watch," but the actual send-off Weiner gives him actually had me wishing for that scenario instead. Just about the only aspect of the finale I couldn't get on board with was that Megan's monstrous mother, Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond) was given any screen time in it.

Roger's had his issues with arrested development and serial womanizing so there's little doubt the need to pair him a strong woman is reasonable. But having him ride into the sunset with the show's most annoying recurring character doesn't seem like the answer, even if I'll just continue believing the relationship ended right after the final credits rolled. And one would hope fans who have unjustifiably complained about Megan's continued presence would be ten times more appalled by her mother returning to eat up any of the series' remaining minutes.

The need for Roger to mature enough to be with someone who accepts him for who he is was important, but not as important as his scenes with Joan and taking responsibility for his illegitimate child. Unfortunately, the latter was somewhat overshadowed by the Marie nonsense and it's arguable that him repairing the relationship with his estranged daughter should trump both. Then again, with only an hour and twenty minutes to fill, that reconciliation may be too much. But if it's okay, I'd like to pretend our last glimpse of Roger is him bonding and drinking with Peggy amidst the ruins of the Sterling Cooper offices two episodes earlier.       

A broken Don embraces "Refrigerator Man" Leonard
A character who does earn his few minutes of screen time, and proves to be anything but minor, appears in the controversial closing minutes of the finale. It's not Peggy reprimanding Don to "come home" to work on the COKE account that finally gets through to him, but a stranger at the retreat named Leonard, briefly and powerfully played by character actor Evan Arnold in a role Weiner has called the "most important in the series." And that statement feels fair.  Breaking down as he shares his emotionally devastating story of feeling as if he's on a shelf on a refrigerator, ignored and unloved by everyone in his life, Don is shattered as he gets to see and experience his story through the lenses of an unknown.

While Don's gotten love from many in his life (Peggy, Sally, Betty, Megan, Roger, the list goes on and on) he's never recognized it or felt deserving, pushing all those people away and leaving him as lonely as Leonard in the refrigerator. When he lets go and hugs this crying man, he's finally embracing and forgiving Dick Whitman, emotionally purging in a public display that would be considered shameful for men during this era.  Born in a brothel, raped by a prostitute, abused by his father and having stolen a dead man's identity, Don realizes, seemingly for the first time, he isn't alone. It goes without saying Hamm and Arnold are incredible in the scene and you have to wonder whether this is the episode that finally nets Hamm the Emmy. If this doesn't, nothing will.

It's while chanting and meditating on the hilltop that a bell goes off and a giant smile comes across his face, signaling his ultimate creation: The groundbreaking 1971 "Buy The World a Coke" ad. Of course, this leads to the big question of whether Don has even changed at all. Did he just take this life-altering experience and commodify it? Was this the moment hippie culture went mainstream and became commercialized? That's a very cynical reading, but when you consider details like the girl with the red ribbon braids at the front desk eerily resembling a girl in the commercial (more ingenious work from costume designer Janie Bryant) and the ubiquitous presence of Coca-Cola throughout the series and especially this season, it's one that can't be outright dismissed. But all it really proves is that Don came up with the ad, hardly explaining his thought process or intentions in doing so.

"People just come and go and they don't say goodbye?"
After being the architect of this moment in history, we're to assume Don returns to McCann. And it's quite possible he returns more or less exactly as he left. Slipping right back into his old patterns of neglecting his kids, drinking and sleeping around. That this supposed enlightenment only served as the catalyst to create the greatest campaign in advertising history and little more. That's what the show's about. No one ever changes. It sounds good and the facts support this reading, but the big problem is that our instincts don't.

As much as I want to get behind the cynical interpretation of this series' closing moments, it operates under one huge fundamental flaw: That advertising is evil and Don returning to do what he loves is somehow manipulative, or a return to the dark side. Don wasn't a bad person because he was in advertising. That had much more to do with the choices he made and the people he hurt, most of which stemmed from his crippling insecurity and guilt.

If anything, advertising was Don's salvation and most of the time the only thing that kept him from falling off the deep end. That bell noise we hear could easily be the light bulb going off in his head as he comes up with the Coke commercial, but I prefer to imagine it as the sound right before the elevator doors open and Don returns to McCann to give the pitch of his life, with Peggy by his side.

Don's moment of enlightenment
Unlike Don's infamous Kodak Carousel pitch in the first season built on a lie or the Hersheys presentation in the sixth season that exposed his past and torpedoed his career, this one won't be coming from a place of despair. That's the difference. He's been through too much to just simply walk away from that retreat unchanged. The change may be minimal, but it's hard not believing something clicked that went beyond the idea for that commercial, as monumental as it was.

During the Coke commercial I half-expected the camera to pull back, taking us into the McCann offices during the presentation until realizing Weiner's way too smart for that. He had to leave doubt and intrigue. If The Sopranos' finale was offensively ambiguous to the point of clobbering audiences over the head with a jarring stunt, this open ending is more thoughtful and measured. Like all great conclusions, it allows us to project what we want onto it, telling us as much about ourselves as the characters whose fates we've been so invested in.

The legendary 1971 Coca-Cola Commercial
Don's reluctant acceptance of Betty and Sally's wishes and his moment with the "refrigerator man" suggest a man who may be starting to come to terms with himself. It's a process, but undoubtedly the series finale is the closest he's come to the true convergence of Dick Whitman and Don Draper. The question is now whether it can be maintained, echoing the position all the main characters find themselves in when the show closes. Their lives continue as our viewing ends, perhaps slightly changing us all for the better.                                      

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey



Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden, Victor Rasuk, Luke Grimes, Rita Ora
Running Time: 125 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The most shocking thing about the hotly anticipated film adaptation of E.L. James' best selling cultural phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey is how shocking it isn't. But is that even really a surprise? Going in, the big question was always going to be how they'd be able to make a mainstream 'R' rated picture out of material begging for an 'NC-17.' Well, director Sam Taylor-Johnson has, and the result is understandably compromised, as it's clear the battle for control wasn't just limited to the two lead characters on screen. This is a story of two movies: A darker, twisted one with interesting ideas struggling to break through and the one we actually get, an almost hilariously inappropriate romantic drama with certain scenes that could easily double as SNL skits. Others, meanwhile, border on being tediously repetitive and boring. And yet there are many moments when the movie actually feels somewhat subversive, possessing this clever sense of humor about itself when it turns the tables before its dud of an ending.

That this is much closer to being a success than you'd think can mostly be attributed to Dakota Johnson, who will deservedly emerge as a huge star off the back of this. But those who remember know it's been a long time coming. Say what you will about the finished product, but it's tough to claim it doesn't have a strong, independent female protagonist at its center. But the whole thing is a perplexing near-miss that leaves you wondering what the result could have been with a little more creative polishing and a less blatant attempt at translating erotic female fantasies into ticket sales. But who am I to say? Their plan apparently worked. 

Washington State University senior Anastasia Steele (Johnson), is a mousy, "girl next door" English lit major filling in for her ill roommate for a college newspaper interview with wealthy, 27-year-old entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at his Seattle offices. Upon her arrival, the clumsy Ana doesn't appear to make the strongest of first impressions, tripping before being intimidated and overwhelmed by the mysterious, enigmatic Grey. Despite struggling through an extremely uncomfortable batch of questions, he's still understandably charmed by her shyness, intelligence and beauty.

Ana leaves their meeting all hot and bothered, while he's intrigued enough to later track her down the hardware store she works. It just so happens he's looking for some duct tape, cable ties and, of course, rope. We know where this is going even if the virginal Ana doesn't, at least at first. Grey slowly indoctrinates her into his sadomasochistic world, eventually revealing his hidden "Red Room" of BDSM toys and contraptions. Confronted with very real feelings for Mr. Grey and the prospect of a written agreement making her his submissive in more ways than one, Ana attempts to get closer to someone who's idea of caring is (literally) tied up in a vicious cycle of punishment and dominance. As she's discovering, he's got some issues.

The film's biggest strength is that Ana really seems to react to this evolving situation as the mousy, intimidated 21-year-old virgin who walked into his office would. She's at first intrigued, before being turned on, then genuinely scared when she realizes this is much more than she bargained for. A lot of tiny details feel right, like the fact that she has a flip phone or that Christians parents (specifically his mom, played by Marcia Gay Harden) are nice, well adjusted people who really like their son's new girlfriend, since it's hard to believe anyone wouldn't. The cold, sterile production design  also does an effective job conveying Grey's icy, emotionless world, with each clean, empty setting looking as if it could have been ripped from the pages of Architectural Digest.

Where Kelly Marcel's script gets into trouble is when the tone of the film starts suggesting a sweeping romantic fantasy (supported by a soundtrack of snooze worthy cover songs) centered around this guy's deviant, emotionally destructive behavior. Having not read the novel, I'm only guessing this is the aspect of James' entire premise that's most widely mocked, inevitably hampering whoever eventually signed on to write or direct this material. The irony is that the "Red Room" scenes, while getting away with as much as humanly possible under an 'R' rating, pale in comparison to the uncomfortable behavior Grey exhibits with his non-disclosure agreement and binding contract. For all the talk of this being a female fantasy, the film's so loaded with full frontal female nudity that it plays much more to the guys. But given the nature of the story, that kind of makes perfect sense.   

The line between dark and mysterious and creepy and weird is crossed at many points by the borderline stalker Christian Grey. Part of that problem is the casting of a wooden, nondescript Jamie Dornan, whose only identifiable trait is that no one would be able tell him apart from Man of Steel's Henry Cavill. Robotic and emotionless, this could be a faithful interpretation of the character from the novel, but that doesn't help in making it any less boring on screen. The original choice of Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam would have worked better since he'd be better able to convey that quality necessary to convince anyone to do what he wants. With Dornan in the role I had problems believing this guy could even run a company, as Mr. Grey comes off more like Mr. Bland.

As the "relationship" progresses, the change in Ana's entire demeanor and appearance is gradual, but subtle and entirely realistic. That's all Dakota's performance. If part of this movie's goal was to take her to the next level of stardom, she delivered and then some. You could probably name a long list of actresses who on paper who have been better for the role (and some who were actually considered), but it's doubtful they would have sold the transformation Ana goes through as well, or escaped the film with the audience still on their side. There's no doubt she's the best thing in this.

Supposedly, this film is a huge improvement over the novel, doing away with some goofier elements, like Ana's interior monologue. Forgive me for just taking everyone's word on that and omitting it from my summer reading list. And considering the book was originally conceived as a piece Twilight fan fiction, we could probably guess who's to blame for much of what doesn't work in the adaptation, especially considering rumors the author exerted creative control over every aspect of the production. It's most evident in the disappointing climax (sorry), which feels like a sudden, jarring stop even by cliffhanger standards. Having read the details of one potential alternate ending, be assured it's far superior and would have made viewers heavily contemplate who's in control and what exactly that means. Maybe they just didn't think we could handle it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Better Call Saul (Season 1)


 

Creators: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould
Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Michael McKean, Jeremy Shamos, Julie Ann Emery, Kerry Condon, Mel Rodriguez
Original Airdate: 2015

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

                           **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad** 

There's a scene in "Pimento," the penultimate episode of Better Call Saul's premiere season, in which there's a reveal that causes us to rethink everything we thought we knew about these characters up until then. It literally changes the trajectory of the entire series, forcing us to evaluate just how high the ceiling for this show can really get. While it's only a slight stretch to say underachieving public defender Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) enters this devastating conversation as a likeable screw-up, only to exit it as Saul Goodman, he's definitely well on his way. This just speeds up the process.

Better Call Saul Title Card
If "prequel" is a dirty word and the surest sign of oncoming creative bankruptcy, then "spin-off" is an even dirtier one. Combining them both is a recipe for failure, especially when you consider it's a spin-off of arguably the greatest dramatic television series of all-time. And if we're really being honest, few were clamoring for the origin story of Walter White's sleazy, wisecracking "criminal lawyer" Saul Goodman, as entertaining as he was in small doses.

Would this be a half-hour comedy? An hour-long drama? Neither? How much would it resemble Breaking Bad, if at all? Expectations weren't exactly high, and no one quiet knew how to feel about the possibility of that show's sacred universe being tinkered with in any way. And yet somehow, someway the finished product manages to be reminiscent of the show that inspired it while still being nothing like it at all. It sure isn't perfect, nor necessarily as focused or consistent as it needs to be yet, but the potential moving forward is cause for legitimate excitement.

Any fears  this character couldn't carry a show prove to be unfounded, as co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould far surpass expectations to deliver a first season that's not just as good as it could possibly be under challenging circumstances, but better. And it's doubtful anyone thought we'd be talking about Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean being a shoo-ins for an Emmys. In other words, it's mostly all good, man.

Jimmy/Saul's future as Cinnabon manager, "Gene"
In true Breaking Bad form, the series begins with a flash-forward, picking up after the events of that series have concluded. Filmed in stark black-and-white, we see Saul making good on his promise to Walt that he'll be managing a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. That's exactly where he is, balding, mustachioed and stuck in a humdrum work routine under an assumed identity after Walt's trail of crime forced him out of Albuquerque. His only joy seemingly comes when pouring a drink and watching old Saul Goodman commercials in his recliner, even if the events in this initial season call into question whether he's instead mourning that time, contemplating what could have been.

The series then begins in 2002, before he was Saul and six years prior to when he takes the country's most famous chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin on as his client. He's Jimmy McGill, a struggling public defender in Albuquerque working out of the back of a nail salon while caring for his older brother, Chuck (McKean), a respected attorney who's now been left an emotionally crippled recluse from electromagnetic sensitivity. And Jimmy's battle with Chuck's law partner Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) to cash out his incapacitated brother's share in Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill has put best friend and HHM associate Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) in an impossibly difficult position, compromising her personal and professional loyalties.

Jimmy also manages to get under the skin of courthouse tollbooth attendant Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), with whom he eventually forms an uneasy alliance to take down white collar criminal couple, The Kettlemans (Julie Ann Emery and Jeremy Shamus). Desperate to leave his con artist past behind and earn respectability as a lawyer, Jimmy struggles to to do the right thing, even as outside forces pull him in the other direction, inching him closer to a criminal future as shady attorney Saul Goodman.

One of many visual callbacks to Breaking Bad
Initially, the first few episodes become a game of feeling the series out and counting the call-backs to Breaking Bad, some so covertly placed they almost requires multiple viewings to take in. But if it were just about that, the show wouldn't work, and there is a concern early on it will occur as the show attempts to find its creative footing. The pilot ("Uno") provides an absorbing, if methodically paced introduction to Jimmy and the cast of characters surrounding him, as well as a reminder of just how much we've missed the city of Albuquerque as a setting, as cinematographer Arthur Albert (taking over for BrBa's Michael Slovis) goes to great lengths to make it the show's most prominent character. Many shots visually echo its predecessor like mirror without coming off as a cheap copy since they're often almost equally astounding and fun to compare. 

Between the familiar locations and cold opens that categorized BrBa as a TV institution, it's clear this series will at least be to treading some of that common ground. It's hard not to compare Jimmy's ugly Suzuki Esteem to Walt's Pontiac Aztek or look at the entire Cinnabon flash-forward as the Walter Whitewashing of Saul/Jimmy, complete with cooking segments and a physical appearance that even resembles his depressed, loserish client in that show's pilot episode. Where it deviates sharpest is in tone, mainly because the flashier, more overtly comedic protagonist of this series calls for a different approach from Gilligan and Gould.. At times it more closely resembles FX's darkly comic miniseries Fargo in that the humor's so twisted it's always threatening to spill over into dramatic tragedy.

The least interesting material in this series often involves the heavier crime stuff, like the brief reemergence of BrBa's Tuco Salamanca (guest star Raymond Cruz), whose surprise appearance comes off as little more than fan service. While there's little doubt it's exciting to see him in his pre-meth king days, that's tempered by knowing no matter how intense it gets, no real harm can come to Jimmy on his way toward becoming the flamboyant, scheming Saul. Tuco's appearance is merely the catalyst for introducing him to the criminal world and opening the door for Nacho (Michael Mando), who's clearly being established as a major player. But it's Jimmy McGill's figurative death that this series hinges on, as a clearer picture is painted of how a guy seemingly so committed to getting on the straight and narrow, fell off the morality wagon.

A flashback to Jimmy's con artist past
Jimmy's personal relationships that provide the show's most compelling moments, as well as his desire to shed the "Slippin' Jimmy" con man reputation he cultivated back in Chicago with best friend and partner in crime, Marco (Mel Rodriguez). Or at least that's before big brother rescued him from a potential future behind bars. Chuck, mental illness notwithstanding, is established the successful, straight-laced attorney Jimmy could never be since he's his own worst enemy.

Just as Gilligan utilized masterful cold opens from the past, present and future to convey valuable information and flesh out characters over Breaking Bad's five seasons, the same approach helps establish the dynamics of Jimmy and Chuck's relationship here. And it's a complicated one we think we understand until the wool is pulled over our eyes, causing us to question what we thought was true about their relationship.

We're also forced to rethink how much Odenkirk was capable of as an actor and whether he'd be able to carry an hour-long series requiring him to flex some of the same dramatic muscles Bryan Cranston did, albeit with a bit more comedy thrown in. And while no performer's work (on TV or otherwise) over the past decade compares with Cranston's, just the mere fact Odenkirk's opened up such a conversation in only ten episodes has to be viewed as a promising sign. He took what was previously an effective comedic sidekick and filled him with a depth and complexity that no only stands on its own in this series, but could potentially enrich minor elements of Breaking Bad on subsequent viewings.

Chuck runs for cover in his space blanket.
Comic veteran Michael McKean, even less known as a dramatic actor than Odenkirk, has a surprisingly emotional arc as this control-obsessed man paralyzed by this mysterious condition that strangely seems both out of his hands and of his own making. He has this incredible scene where it's evident just how debilitating this illness is, as a trip out the front door to retrieve the paper in space blanket (Episode 1.4, "Hero") becomes this hilarious and heartbreaking freak show that caused me to simultaneously laugh and cringe with disbelief. In a clever bit of foreshadowing, it also demonstrates just how far Chuck's willing to go to prove Jimmy wrong and fit him into the box in which he always believed he belonged.

At first, Chuck's partner at the firm, Howard Hamlin, seems to be set up as a stock villain, seizing on his vulnerability and screwing Jimmy over at every turn. And watching what appears to be a one-note performance of sleaze from Patrick Fabian, there's no reason to think otherwise. Until there is, and you gain a greater appreciation for just how much he was doing with the character, causing a total reevaluation of his intentions throughout the ten episodes. Similarly, Jimmy's best friend (and maybe more) Kim would seem initially to be another throwaway, but over the course of the season she also gains resonance as the only person who actually believes in and supports his legal ambitions, even going so far as to put her own future at HHM on the line.

The more we get of Rhea Seehorn in the Kim role, the more she excels, and her scenes opposite Odenkirk are some of the most fun and playful of the series, even as she still manages to make the character both the toughest and most vulnerable in the series. Of all the similarities with Breaking Bad, Jimmy and Kim's relationship just might be the biggest, as its hard not to think of the flashback scenes of Walt with Gretchen, and how that damaged relationship served as the inciting incident that eventually led to his dark transformation. Already with more screen time than that sub-plot, you have to believe whatever causes Jimmy to become a "criminal lawyer" will somehow involve Kim.

Mike Ehrmantraut's backstory is explored in "Five-O"
Highly anticipated as it's been, the glimpse into how Jonathan Banks' Mike Ehrmantraut became Saul Goodman's "fixer" and Gus Fring's right hand man is one of the least eventful arcs of the season. To be fair, it's very early, but this is the where you start to see some of the inherent limitations of a prequel. Because Mike was such a specific character viewers got to know so much about on BrBa through his memorably agitated, hangdog facial expressions and violent code of honor, there was a real danger in actually fleshing out his past. A past that didn't need to be conveyed since Banks already did such an exceptional job of it with so few words.

The Mike-centric episode (1.6, "Five-O"), detailing the tragedy he suffered as a cop in Philly that drove him out west is the bleakest, comic-free of the season. It might also be the least interesting since you could easily guess most of what it entails. Thankfully, that doesn't make Banks' powerful performance any less impressive, even if most of its content confirms why Mike is strongest as a supporting character rather than the lead. As a one-off it's fine, but it's still a reminder that the last thing we'd want is a gritty cop prequel series centered on him. Starting off as a court parking attendant harassing (and being harassed by) Jimmy, it takes a little while before he gets out of the booth, but their interplay once he does is predictably satisfying.

The decision to show how Mike evolves from retired cop and ostracized grandfather to career criminal was always a no-brainer, but his biggest draw as a character was always how viewers never had to stop and question why this old man's such a bad ass. Doing that will be tricky, since he was the one Gilligan creation who specifically benefited from a lack of backstory. But it does but into clearer context the protectiveness he showed for Jesse in Breaking Bad, perhaps making those scenes and that relationship resonate stronger on repeated viewings. All this could also make Mike's eventual death at Walt's hands play more tragically if revisited with a better understanding of his past. It's cruelly ironic (and not at all coincidental) that Mike's first big job in this series involves a drug deal with a nerdier, more incompetent version of Walter White. It's little touches like that lift the series and convince us surprises are still possible within the confines of a prequel format.

Slippin' Jimmy in action
Jimmy ends the season (Episode 1.10, "Marco") much closer to becoming Saul Goodman, but maybe not as close as we thought he'd be. No loud ties yet. No inflatable Statue of Liberty or Constitutional wallpaper. But just as the revealingly crude title sequences hint that it's coming, so does the story. But the bigger question just might be who's responsible. Is his brother right? Is this a man who was always incapable of change? His future actions in Breaking Bad suggest Slippin' Jimmy with a law degree is very much a "chimpanzee with a machine gun." But this first season speculates whether it had to be that way and how much of it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting from his insecure, know-it-all brother holding him down. If it were up to Chuck, Jimmy would spend his life in the HHM mail room or at best relegated to continuing to practice elder law.

There's this possibility teased throughout that Jimmy turned over a new leaf and had the potential to be as great and respected a defense attorney, albeit in a far different style than his brother. In court, we see he has the skills, but the big surprise of the season is that his worst enemy doesn't end up being himself, but the one person he always trusted to have his back. We still don't know what happened to Chuck to cause his mental break, even if his actions speak to something deeper and more resentful. There's also a history between Jimmy and Kim that's yet to be fully explored.

The big question is what happens when Gould and Gilligan inch closer to the Breaking Bad timeline. Do they flash a title card on the screen telling us to watch that series and come back? There's also tons of speculation as to when the inevitable Walt and Jesse appearances take place, when Gus Fring enters the picture, and how much  more of Cinnabon manager "Gene" we'll get to see. And it wouldn't take many leaps in logic for Jesse to show up in Nebraska, or for Saul, like Walt, to triumphantly return to Albuquerque to finish business as Jimmy. The possibilities really are endless.


Kim and Jimmy share a smoke
So far, the show's bread has been buttered with Jimmy's dysfunctional relationship with his brother and his bond with Kim, but it's easy to imagine neither lasting since anyone who didn't appear in Breaking Bad is fair game for a "trip to Belize," so to speak. In the meantime, there's more than enough to keep viewers occupied besides the mythology. It's unlikely Better Call Saul reaches even an eighth of the heights of its predecessor just because the stakes can't possibly be what they were on that series. But the best news is that by the season finale, it's hard to argue that it's not already better than most of what's on TV right now.                         

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Interstellar



Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace David Oyelowo
Running Time: 169 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Well, at least we can't continue claiming there aren't any fresh, original ideas left in movies. Christopher Nolan's gigantic sci-fi think piece, Interstelllar, is full of them. Whether I could explain them or decipher what they all mean is another issue entirely but no one could leave the film disappointed that it didn't have enough to say. Every time a space-set sci-fi entry is released, inevitable comparisons to the trailblazing 2001: A Space Odyssey are made, whether warranted or not. Here, they are, and not just visually either. With an overreaching ambition that spans across time, space and humanity, Nolan hasn't just swung for the fences, he's run right through them. If someone asked me to explain what exactly occurs in the film's final hour, I'd give it a decent shot, but would likely fail. But it is surprising that many of these scientific facts do hold up to logical scrutiny even when the actual plot's gone too far off the deep end.

At times, you'll be wondering if this has anything to do with science at all or co-screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are just making this up as they go along. It turns out they're not, as Caltech physicist Kip Thorne actually consulted on the film and it's at its best when playing in those waters, which is luckily 80 percent of its running time. Faltering only when awash in Spielbergian sentimentality that's partially earned, the whole thing is kind of unprecedented terms of the number of influences it draws from. If Kubrick, Spielberg and Shyamalan raised a cinematic child, it would be called Interstellar, so it's easy to understand how it's garnered such polarizing reactions.  It may take years to calculate or comprehend its creative worth, but any picture aiming this high had little chance at achieving perfection. Instead, it's Nolan's most gloriously imperfect endeavor, and one sure to be discussed and analyzed for a while to come.

In the near-future on a resource-depleted Earth, former military pilot and NASA astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to run the family farm the midst of a crop blight that's slowly destroying civilization. His 10-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is not only struggling in school in the wake of her mom's death, but claims her room is being haunted by poltergeists. But these "ghosts" are really unidentifiable intelligence leaving coordinates to a secret NASA facility being overseen by Professor John Brand (Michael Caine).

Brand's discovered a wormhole by Saturn leading to three potentially habitable planets in the galaxy that could offer a chance for humanity's survival. Cooper joins Brand's daughter, biotechnologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway), scientists Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and a pair of robots named TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) aboard the Endurance shuttle in search of a new home. But the clock keeps ticking faster, as Cooper's torn between reuniting with his family on Earth and insuring the future of the human race. 

The opening hour of the film is confounding, with the viewer dropped into this post-apocalyptic wasteland without much of sense of time or location. Nolan trusts us to figure it out  Everything that happens initially becomes clearer by the end, but what a strange trip it is getting there. With depleted resources and the crop crisis, the biggest fear early on is that we're heading into Shyamalan territory. The mention of poltergeists and the appearance of a rogue NASA unit operating as covertly as the CIA, does little to quell those concerns. Fortunately, the explanation of the mission doesn't involve aliens or Twilight Zone twists, but a very real mission more rooted in scientific fact and placed into fantastical fiction. It's when the crew takes off and enters that wormhole that the craziness begins and the story starts to peel its many layers.

Rarely has a space epic been so thoroughly concerned with the passage of time and all the consequences surrounding it.The realization of a massive gravitational time dilation ends up being the foundation on which all the film's most powerful themes rest, with one hour on the surface equivalent to seven years on Earth. It is a "race against time" in the strictest, most literal sense, as each minute Cooper spends investigating could represent a birthday missed or a wedding passed. And the more details we learn of Professor Brand's plan, the less likely Cooper's reunion with his kids seems, especially considering they're now adults his age.

The moment Jessica Chastain takes over for Mackenzie Foy as Murph is emotionally brutal, if not only for the transmissions Cooper sees from home, but the moral quandary the screenplay presents, testing the boundaries of sacrifice and selflessness. It's the ferry boat dilemma from The Dark Knight taken to a cosmic scale with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. Well suited to their roles, Chastain and Casey Affleck are completely plausible as the adult counterparts of Cooper's kids 23 years later, with Murph still harboring a grudge against her father for abandoning them. When their story of trying to survive on an inhabitable Earth starts to take center stage, Nolan juggles it well with the ongoing space mission, which quickly deteriorates from a potential return home to a race against the clock.

For the first time since 1997's largely underrated Contact, McConaughey finds himself in a giant sci-fi space epic, and while he was clearly the weak there, he's now entering this project as not only an recent Oscar winner, but ten times the actor he used to be. Much more relaxed and confident as a performer compared to his rookie years, he must this time carry the entire load of this movie on his back, appearing in every scene and selling some pretty heady stuff in the third act. He's a farmer, father, pilot and equally adept at playing each and all in a role that actually earns him all those Paul Newman comparisons that have been made over the years.

Anne Hathaway joining McConaughey enables us to watch two of the best at the top of their game, feeding off each other with their characters' differing philosophies toward the missions' ultimate purpose and steps toward fulfilling it. The biggest discussion point isn't whether Hathaway's more believable as an astronaut and scientist than Sandra Bullock was in Gravity (hint: she is), but just how much she manages to do with Brand's eyes and subtle facial expressions. That's why it's disappointing whenever Nolan gives her too much to say about feelings that should be demonstrated rather than discussed. There's a cringe worthy speech she has in the vessel about that would have been unbearable had any actress but Hathaway delivered it. In a way, when given clunky dialogue she proves just how good she is, as this deserves to rank amongst her most rewarding performances.

There's also a third major name uncredited the film whose identity has been concealed in the advertising for mostly valid reasons. It's not a well kept secret, but I was still completely taken aback by the magnitude and importance of the part, which heavily informs the film's themes. Again taking from the Spielberg playbook, it can't be a coincidence that the character is named "Mann" given the nature of the role, which is fleshed out to perfection by the star playing him.

Viewers wouldn't even need to be told that this project forgoes the use of CGI in favor of practical effects and miniatures since it's plainly obvious just watching it. Or maybe I should say it's not obvious at all, since the effects sequences don't call attention to itself like green screen work so often does. If ever there was a case not to use it, Nolan wisely knew it was here, as a hard science fiction tale with big ideas is basically begging for a traditional approach that's the antithesis of what's in theaters now, making it easy to see why he rejected a 3D release. While there were supposedly numerous complaints from those who saw it on the big screen about the sound drowning out dialogue, the only sound-related issue that caught my attention was Hans Zimmer's score, which seemed to be constant in every scene, as rarely a minute passes without it. 

It's questionable whether the ending's a complete success. It is somewhat incomprehensible and gutsy, not to mention the closest mashup of the 2001 "stargate" sequence and the final scenes of A.I. as we're going to get, strangely without cribbing either. There's again probably a bit too much discussion about what Cooper's experiencing to reach the transcendent heights Nolan's aiming for, but we could only hope an eighth of the movies released each year had as much ambition as this picture's final hour. It isn't strictly a survival story set in space, as Gravity was, but a hardcore sci-fi fable hinging on thoughtful ideas  As if it wasn't already apparent, Nolan solidifies his status as a visionary storyteller whose decision to leave the Batman franchise is justified by just how much he has to say outside of it. While many currently rank this effort among his least and most flawed, I'm not entirely sure whether that assessment will stick. Ironically enough, that's something time will have determine.       
       

Monday, March 23, 2015

Wild



Director: Jean-Marc Vallée'
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Micheal Huisma, Gaby Hoffmann, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Brian Van Holt, Cliff DeYoung, Charles Baker, Cathryn de Prumn
Running Time: 115 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Sight unseen, the general consensus going into Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild was that it seemed from its trailers and commercials to be another Into The Wild, but with Reese Witherspoon. And while merging one of my favorite films and actresses into a single project should be a sure bet, the constant comparisons instead made me uneasy. The imposing shadow of Sean Penn's 2007 film looms large enough to wonder how this could possibly step out of it when that similar story carries a power few biographical adaptations possess. Based on Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," its author and title give away that Strayed survived her journey, one of the details that separates her from Christopher McCandliss. Another is motivation. While he spontaneously left for the wilderness to escape a society he felt was stifling him, both finding and destroying himself in the process, Strayed's purpose was to escape herself and a tragedy with which she couldn't cope.

Unlike McCandliss, who never had any plans to return, Strayed's trip was always meant to be temporary, designed to give her the fuel to rebuild her life and reach a sort of self actualization. Other than that, their trajectories and the films inspired by them are so remarkably similar you'd think their paths crossed. Journal entries, flashbacks, voiceovers. It should be a screenwriting nightmare, but what worked then works again now. With Witherspoon holding us under her spell with her deepest, most meaningful work since winning the Oscar for Walk The Line, it succeeds on its own terms, somehow proving there is room for both. There are surface similarities, but Wild's style and execution sets it apart from any survival story preceding it.

Four years after the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) makes a decision to hike over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to cleanse herself of the mess her life's become following that tragedy. Having cheated on her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and spiraled into an addictive pattern of drug abuse and promiscuity, she sees the trek as the only way to find the person her mother said she could someday be. And since drifting away from everyone from her life in Minnesota, including younger brother Leif (Keene McRae) and best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann), it'll have to be done alone, braving the elements, but often aided and kept company by the memorable people she meets along the way. Well prepared and powered almost entirely by pure emotion, Cheryl frequently endangers herself to complete the hike, hoping to arrive on the other side with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose that's been absent since her mother's passing.

Rather than going the more expected route of telling Cheryl's backstory then leading up to the actual hike, the film does both at once, intercutting flashbacks of her life within the chronological depiction of the grueling hike. The danger she encounters often comes from unexpected places and people, even if she's seemingly always alert and well-prepared for what could come her way. Perhaps the biggest difference between this and Into The Wild is that Cheryl's rarely flying by the seat of her pants or falls prone to rash decision-making. And while her journey does come off as spontaneous to an extent, it looks to have been meticulously planned out and researched, which is noteworthy considering this takes place in a pre-internet era.

Watching her struggle with a near 60-pound backpack, it's fair to say she's come overprepared, as she finds out in a memorable scene in which a seasoned hiker helps her lose some worthless supplies to cut weight.  It's just the kind of mistake a really smart, but inexperienced person would make and it's in those small details that Nick Hornsby's script is sharpest. You'd hard-pressed to name another film in this genre where we see exactly what supplies are brought, then have them show up later to advance the plot. It also contains a rare instance of justifiable product placement, dispensing revelatory information about a company doing something great that we wouldn't otherwise have known. It doesn't come off as a cheap plug because it's true and worth hearing about. More importantly, we believe this character would react strongly to it.

As much as this is a battle against the elements and an endurance test for Strayed, her biggest fight is being a woman hiking alone. It's a surprisingly big deal, but not at all for the reasons you'd expect and certainly not because the story is some kind of feminist manifesto or fluffy self-help journey like Eat, Pray, Love.  It's important because there's hardly a scene when we're not sitting on pins and needles fearing she'll be raped or sexually assaulted. It may be a controversial observation to make but it's impossible to deny this underlying (sometimes even blatant) threat exists during just about every leg of her journey. Vallée deserves credit for not brushing it under the rug, often making the viewer uncomfortably squirm with each tension-filled encounter. And it's not that he's implying Cheryl can't take of herself, but the dangers of a woman, or anyone, hiking the PCT alone and relying of the kindness of strangers doesn't come without a certain level of risk that requires the traveler to keep their guard up at all times.

Despite only nine years separating Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon, they're believable as mother and daughter throughout the stages of their characters' lives while also credibly passing for far younger than they actually are. These aren't interchangeable parts that could have been filled by any two actresses that have the chemistry and emotional shorthand they do, which is evident every time (and however briefly) they share the screen together. It's flippant to say any film or performance can really ever "capture" the grueling ordeal or immeasurable loss of losing a parent but these scenes would be brutally raw and uncomfortable watch for anyone.

In an odd way, the role of Cheryl Strayed falls right into Witherspoon's wheelhouse, especially when thinking back to all the tenacious characters she played that demonstrated an almost unfailing resourcefulness and determination. Strayed might be the first widely known hiker to overthink everything, approaching the entire journey overprepared and almost entirely too eager. It's the kind of single-minded dramatic character Reese has unfortunately (pardon the pun) strayed from in recent years, but thankfully revisits in an entirely different and challenging form here.

Those thinking she wouldn't dirty her hands in such a physically and emotionally demanding part is a classic misreading of her strengths, but given the lackluster rom-com projects she's taken over the past few years, you couldn't be blamed. It's fitting that the same director who helped cement Matthew McConaughey's comeback with his Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyer's Club, succeeds again with Reese, only this time with a film twice as strong. Unlike that, it isn't a one-trick pony worth seeing only for the performances, containing way too much depth and visual splendor to be merely written off anything resembling a conventional biopic.

Dern's brief but impactful presence is both the source of its lightest and darkest moments as she's called upon with sometimes very little dialogue and only passing clips to depict the inner life and philosophy of this free-spirited single mom who isn't without her own flaws. The Oscar-nominated performance is in many ways a smaller-scaled counterpart to Patricia Arquette's winning one in the same category for Boyhood, but with Dern's Bobbi coming across as even more of a carefree hippie feeling her way around being a parent. While the impression will be that Witherspoon's role is a stretch for the actress, it's easy to imagine this character as an extension of Dern's actual personality. And since she delivers so much sincerity with relatively little, this added layer serves to only make her work resonate that much more.

One of my favorite aspects of any film is seeing a vaguely familiar or maybe even completely unknown actor or actress storm in for only a scene or two and just completely nail it, owning the movie in a matter of minutes. Given its narrative structure, Wild lends itself perfectly to such opportunities and doesn't disappoint, with a parade of actors lining up as Cheryl's various hike acquaintances and people from her past and present over the course of just under two hours. There's Kevin Rankin as a fellow hiker, Everclear's Art Alexakis as a tattoo artist and Breaking Bad's "Skinny Pete," Charles Baker, as a potentially dangerous hunter. To give them all away would spoil it, but the amount of cameos and single-scene performances from recognizable (if not necessarily identifiable) faces are seemingly endless. It isn't until Strayed reaches actual civilization in Ashland, Oregon that she really starts to gain perspective on what it all means and we're given as a valuable time marker alerting us of the year this took place. Being completely unfamiliar with the story, I didn't know until that moment.
    
As much as this be talked up as a spiritual journey of redemption, it's as much about failure as anything else since Strayed believes herself to be one as a wife, daughter, friend and sister before taking this adventure. The flashbacks are drenched in tragedy and self-destruction, but the most cathartic scene comes toward the end of the hike, nearly mirroring an equivalently timed breakdown scene that takes place in Into The Wild. It kind of comes out of nowhere, with the culmination of events piling on to hit viewers like a punch to the gut.

Some could have trouble getting into the film's rhythm, as it bucks convention to create a loose, free-flowing narrative in which images and memories flash before us, standing in stark contrast to a strict survival tale that takes us from point A to point B. In a crowded year, Wild went criminally overlooked and underappreciated by those who felt they've seen it before. But it proves to be a thrilling ride that connects on the most basic human level, leaving in its wake a complicated mixture of sadness and triumph.