Saturday, November 18, 2017

Stranger Things 2



Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Starring: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Joe Keery, Dacre Montgomery, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The verdict is in: The Duffer Brothers clearly know what they're doing and there are strong indications they have a long-term plan in place that doesn't involve making things up as they go along. While this seems to be pointing out the obvious, it was far from a guarantee they'd be capable of delivering a sophomore season as strong as the first. In fact, it was extremely doubtful.  But wherever you land on Stranger Things 2, everyone could agree that the only major factor missing this time around is the shock and awe accompanying a new series without expectations. The thrill of discovery surrounding a project that was shopped around to every studio before Netflix took a calculated risk that paid off hugely. These guys had years to hone that first season so it was just right, and couldn't have anticipated they'd be writing any beyond that. Now, the game's changed. It became a worldwide sensation and the kids are superstars. The real challenge begins.

Stranger Things 2 Title Card
The test is to now somehow write and shoot a worthy follow-up within a year's time or face the wrath of extremely fickle binge-watchers more than happy to move on to the next big thing. And with the expectation there will be a few more seasons, they can't burn through the story too fast, as the child actors are aging and maturing on screen at an increasingly rapid rate. But don't go too slowly either and risk falling into the trap of The X-Files or Lost because we want answers, dammit. The great thing about this series is that it actually gives us those, and quickly, sometimes within the confines of a single episode before moving on to what's next. That's the benefit of a single digit episode order. It moves quickly enough to never be bored and isn't around long enough to overstay its welcome.

So, yes, second seasons can be really tough. And it's important to point out just how creatively trying they can be in order to truly appreciate what's done here. Yes, they've essentially replicated the same formula, but isn't that what we wanted?  By expanding the scope of the universe we were blown away by last year, they raise the stakes, further developing characters we grew attached to while even incorporating purposeful, intriguing new ones into the fold.

In its own way, this follow-up is as much of success as could be hoped for, and a good cause for relief and excitement that this wasn't the one-trick pony some skeptics had assumed. That for all its 80's influences and Spielbergian touches, it isn't just some trip down nostalgia lane. While opinions will vary as to how well it stacks up against its preceding chapters as it heads toward the finish line, it's still as tight and meticulously plotted as anything else out there. Logically continuing what preceded it while whetting your appetite for more, it's a real stretch to find any source of disappointment in the thrilling nine episodes of a series that quite literally turned the sci-fi genre upside down last year.

A traumatized Will returns to school
It's almost one year after Will Byer's (Noah Schnapp) disappearance into the Upside Down, and despite returning home to his mother Joyce (Winona Wyder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), he's still having problems coping, plagued with continuous nightmares and visions of his traumatic experience. It's also been that long since Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) have seen Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) whose whereabouts are still unknown after using her psychokinetic powers to defeat the Demogorgon.

As the lovesick Mike mourns El's absence, the boys have turned their attention to the new girl in town, a red-haired, skateboarding, arcade champ named Max (Sadie Sink), who's moved to Indiana from California with her sociopathic step-brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery).  He also steps on the turf of Hawkins High School's reigning alpha male and returning hero, Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), whose relationship with Mike's sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is again on shaky ground as she becomes obsessed with exposing Hawkins Laboratories' role in Barb's death, enlisting Jonathan's help.

Gruff, grumpy Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is also attempting to move on, investigating a mysterious rash of contaminated pumpkin patches that may or may not be connected to the new tenant at Hawkins Labs, Dr. Sam Owens (Paul Reiser) a Department of Energy executive who's also taken an interest in Will's condition. But Hopper's continued concern for Joyce and Will is somewhat infringed upon by Joyce's new boyfriend, the dorky Bob Newby (Sean Astin), a former classmate who now runs the local RadioShack.

Dusty, Joyce and Max express concern for Will
All these characters will be jolted out of their relative complacency when a dreaded threat returns to Hawkins, more dangerous than ever. The question is whether they'll be able to fight it this time without El's help. Or if she'll even be able to return to reunite with her friends, and possibly get a chance at trying to live a somewhat normal childhood, free from government experimentation and interference.

This season is all about tandems, with our already well-established favorites and some newcomers pulled in different directions, often opposite characters you wouldn't expect. El and Hopper. Steve and Dustin. Joyce and Bob. Nancy and Jonathan. Max and Lucas. Max and Dustin. Max and Lucas and Dustin. Dustin and a slimy pet Pollywog. Once again, after being absent for most of the first season due to his abduction into the Upside Down, Will is the odd-man out, as his friends have attempted to resume their lives while realizing something is still very, very wrong with him. Whether this is entirely psychological (in the form of some kind of PTSD) or physical or something else, it forms much of the groundwork for these nine chapters.

We do find out what Eleven has been up to since she single-handedly saved Hawkins and Hopper was leaving Eggos in the woods. While she spends nearly the entirety of this season cut off from the whole crew, it isn't without a purpose, as the El/Hopper story is the most successful of many overlapping plots. The thrilling results come every time David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown share the screen together in a makeshift father/daughter relationship that complicatedly manages to be both adversarial and loving at the same time.

Eleven "channels" Poltergeist in Hopper's cabin
While Hopper's holding El in seclusion for her own safety and and can't comprehend how she could even consider risking her life to break his "three rule" code of the cabin, his hubris allows him to forget who he's dealing with here: A human lab experiment who's been poked, prodded and held captive for much of her life until she finally found real friends and a chance at a normal existence. So while the temporary living arrangement is for her own safety, it can't help but feel to her like another round of mandatory detainment. Hopper's no Dr. Brenner and has her best interests in mind, but to El he may as well be in so far as his standing in the way of her freedom.

What's even more impressive and expressive about Brown's performance this time around is how she starts to become this angry adolescent, and El isn't exactly someone you want to make angry, regardless of her age or size. One of the season's best scenes involve her and Hopper arguing and the viewer genuinely fearing for this tough, no-nonsense sheriff's life as she dangerously hurls objects at him with her mind, as the show completely reimagines the stakes of a father disciplining a child. The subtext here, of course, is that she's filling void left by the passing of Hopper's own daughter, infusing the encounter with twice the emotion.  El discovering how and when to use these "gifts" is at the crux of her journey toward understanding her true self: Jane Ives.

Locating her comatose birth mother and unraveling the mystery of her time spent at the lab leads to the polarizing self-contained episode, "The Lost Sister," where Eleven tracks down childhood labmate, Eight, A.K.A. Kali (Linnea Berthelsen) and discovers she's been using her powers more nefariously, leading a NYC street gang in crime sprees. While the episode's objective is pretty clear in guiding El to discover her true purpose and return to help her friends, it's a narrative and stylistic detour for a show that hasn't taken one up to this point. Sure, it was a risk, but not as enormous of one as some have been claiming and occasionally even bemoaning. While you could question whether this deserved a bottle chapter and contend it vaguely resembled a lost Heroes episode, it hardly curbed any of the momentum of the main storyline back in Hawkins.

"Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister"
If anything, it's a testament to how good the other episodes are that viewers' tolerance for anything else was so low. And it's not like this is just "anything else" either. El's arguably the series' most valuable character so donating a full episode to her personal arc and leaving Hawkins behind for 40 minutes is hardly a capital offense.
The episode works largely because of the turns from Brown and Berthelsen, whose Eight will almost surely return down the road. This effectively plants the seeds for that eventual story but you have to wonder that if the reaction to this one episode was so inexplicably harsh, how game the Duffers are going to be to take what will need to be even bigger risks if the show continues for multiple seasons. Or more importantly, whether this affected how much rope Netflix will give them to do it.

Of that action back in Hawkins, there's so little to complain about that we're basically just checking off boxes in terms of the varying degrees to which everything clicked. But what impressed most was how creatively the four new characters were weaved into the series. Seamlessly, purposefully, and without distraction, they each added important components in driving the story forward, but special mention should be made of new girl Max and the incomparable Bob Newby, as both Sadie Sink and Sean Astin respectively knock their roles out the park.

As the closed-off tomboy crush of both Lucas and Dusty, Max essentially becomes El's stand-in for the season, much to Mike's disdain. It's a role that could have easily been thankless, with attempts at adding her to the group possibly drawing as much scorn and skepticism from viewers as it does Mike. But Sink's a natural, masking "MadMax'"s recent history of verbal and possibly physical abuse at the hands of stepbrother Billy with a tough, seemingly impenetrable exterior the boys need to break down. Once they do, it's fun to watch Lucas and Dusty battle for the attention of the latest female recruit to the gang without a number to her name.

Sean Astin as Bob Newby
We're not sure what to make of Joyce's new boyfriend Bob, who seems to be trying so ridiculously hard to win the affections of Will and Jonathan that we're sure he has to be up to something. No one could possibly be this transparent, and if the rumors are true that the Duffers did initially conceive him to be manipulating them before Sean Astin's performance convinced them to change course, I'd believe it.  As Bob, Astin gives this perfectly calibrated, open-hearted turn as a type of honest, normal character we don't see enough of on screen anymore. He's a literal "Mr. Nice Guy" who does what he says and says what he does, frequently going out on a limb to help others without expecting anything in return.

The enthusiasm and sincerity Astin brings to the role and how it so thoroughly subverts our expectations of what we assume the character will do is possibly the season's greatest accomplishment. Whether dispensing incorrect but well-intentioned advice to Will or selflessly making a fool of himself to make others smile, the RadioShack manager is this year's Barb, but even better, as Astin seems to accomplish all of it by seemingly just being himself.

While casting nostalgic stars like Ryder, Modine, Reiser and Goonies alum Astin in an 80's set sci-fi series could have reeked of the worst kind of satiric self-awareness, his work here proves why it doesn't. The writing and performances deliver the goods, with the actors' histories serving as merely the cherry on top, adding a clever meta-subtext to what they do. And it's the only middle-aged Winona Ryder role that's come close to recapturing her trademark weirdness and unpredictability she displayed early on in in films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. If we know one thing about her, it's that the odder the material gets, the better she is.

Steve and Dusty team up
By reaching for accuracy and believability in depictions of these characters and the period, we buy into the more fantastical, unbelievable stuff without hesitation. That's particularly true when it comes to the kids, who curse and antagonize each other in a manner very unlike what we see in much of today's overly sanitized, too sweetly positive portrayals of kids in film and television. If it's true the latter approach merely a reflection of a modern era where participation trophies are mandatory, then it's only fair the Duffers get credit for completely ignoring it, writing entirely through the prism and time period in which their story takes place, as well as the pop culture surrounding it.

The kids' sharp-witted, hilarious argument concerning who should be Winston when they dress up as Ghostbusters for Halloween represents the series at its best in nailing those small details. Or even just the character of Billy, who comes across more as a full-blown psychopath than your typical schoolyard bully, until the realization dawns on us that this is exactly what constituted a bully back then. His inexplicable hatred toward Lucas has us wondering whether he's also a racist, but by letting that possibility sit there as his actions speak for itself is more frightening than any outright acknowledgment would be. In a way, we don't want to know.

Whatever the root of Billy's anger (and we're given many indications), a lot of it is misdirected at Steve, whose redemption arc at the end of last season was one of the series' more surprising rewards. This season finds him thrown into kind of a big brother role that not only suits the character well, but gives us some priceless scenes of him mentoring Dustin as only Steve can. It's small treasures like that and even Nancy and Jonathan's trip to see wacky conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), who offers up some shockingly sound and smart advice on how to properly expose the danger in Hawkins.

Eleven and Mike reunite at the Snow Ball
In the season finale, the Duffers do something I'm not sure many other showrunners would even bother delegating the time for. After the action's essentially been resolved and the kids can go back to life as usual (or as "usual" as it gets in Hawkins) much of that episode is spent with these characters processing the aftermath and their connections with one another. There's no doubt many of them have evolved a great deal and we're given these little moments toward the end that remind us for all the Spielberg and Stephen King comparisons the series justifiably receives, it just as heavily influenced by John Hughes movies, if not more so.

Getting these nuances right wouldn't mean as much if the big stuff didn't also work just as well the second time around, like new shades of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's 80's electronic score and the use of practical effects in conjunction with CGI in an effort to stay true to the period. Whatever they've done, it's worked again, as everything looks and sounds great. They basically took what they did in the first season and amped it up, in some ways making it bigger and better visually without losing so much of the character development that initially hooked viewers onto the show. And too think at one point we doubted they could even have a second season, much less one that nearly equals its first.

Now, the new problem will be producing more at a rate of quality that can sustain three or four additional seasons of story. What will this even look like when the kids get older?  Could we get a time jump where we see them as adults? Is the series' style and story so entrenched in the 1980's that it couldn't possibly leave that time period and survive? Every season can't end with El defeating the Demogorgon, can it? These are questions that will likely necessitate a lot of pondering in Netflix offices, and I'm not sure those even scratch the surface in terms of mapping out a future for this show. The good news is that these nine episodes bring with it considerably more hope that they can.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Halt and Catch Fire: The Final Season



Creators: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Starring: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss, Annabeth Gish, Anna Chlumsky, Molly Ephraim, Kathryn Newton, Susanna Skaggs
Original Airdate: 2017

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

            ** Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Plot Spoilers for Season 4 of 'Halt and Catch Fire' **

Everyone thinks about the possibility, but few shows actually have the guts to go through with it. In the third to last episode of one of TV's most improved dramas, Halt and Catch Fire, creators and showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers do the unthinkable. It's what every fan of a major series fears could happen in the home stretch, but rarely does, since the story being told so infrequently calls for it. This one did. You could call it a shock, but that wouldn't exactly be accurate since viewers have known for a couple of seasons now that the show's backbone, everyman Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) was quietly fighting a degenerative brain disease.

So, did we just simply forget about it? Or know, but find ourselves so distracted by all the other compelling goings on that we neglected to consider Gordon was on borrowed time. It's a true credit to the writing and performances that we took for granted that the character would make it to the end because he had too much left to accomplish. This may as well be the story of the series, which started in the Silicon Prairie of Dallas at the forefront of an 80's computer revolution spearheaded by four wildly different, but initially underdeveloped characters who were always a little too far ahead of the curve. 

Joe and Gordon argue in Comet's offices
It began as being all about the technological connections, but with each passing episode the series morphed into something else, until arriving at its final destination of California's Silicon Valley in 1994, at the forefront of another revolution, the internet. Whether it be personal computing, chat rooms, anti-virus software, first-person gaming, and finally, the world wide web, hot shot visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), geeky engineer Gordon (McNairy), shrewd, buttoned-up corporate brains Donna Clark-Emerson (Kerry Bishé), and rebellious coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) were often there first. It's just that someone else was always better.

Right up until the end this was a show about failure, with perhaps no character better epitomizing that than perpetual runner-up Gordon, played with equal parts desperation and inspiration by McNairy. With these three, the next big idea would always be right around the corner. Eventually, the series evolved into being about human connections, as the characters grew and expanded with the world around them, particularly in the past two seasons.

Gordon brainstorms ideas
When audiences do eventually realize what they've missed, and as others discover and re-discover this overlooked series, they'll have its finale, "Ten of Swords" waiting for them. And while this will never usurp Breaking Bad or Mad Men critically or otherwise, it became its own thing, delivering an universally beloved final episode neither could lay claim to having.

Yes, the bar was set higher for those because of the greatness preceding it and most were just relieved that the perpetually ratings-challenged HACF even made it to the end amidst constant threats of cancellation.  But it gets the last word, culminating in an hour and fifteen minutes that's everything a TV send-off can and should be.

After the surprise time jump at the end of last season that took the characters from the 80's into the 90's, Joe and Gordon have joined forces again to launch a new internet service provider, CalNect, spawned by their World Wide Web brainstorming session with Donna and Cameron three years earlier. But despite occupying Mutiny's old office space and employing Cameron, she's too distracted  to finish their browser, and competition from the marketplace is forcing them to change course.

When Joe comes up with the idea to index every website on the Internet, Gordon enlists his youngest daughter Haley (Susanna Skaggs) to help. She creates her own webite, "Haley's Comet" that could prove to be the solution to all their problems, if they Gordon can work out the issue of his 13-year-old working for him and Joe while competing with her own mom, and his ex-wife, Donna, who's venture capital firm is funding a very similar startup company called Rover.

Bos and Cameron have a talk
With Cameron's marriage having fallen apart in Japan and her new video game, the frustratingly impossible "Pilgrim," receiving awful reviews,  she's torn between these two competing companies, as her personal ties to Joe and Comet conflict with her loyalty to old friend Bos (Toby Huss), who's wife Diane (Annabeth Gish) oversees Donna's Rover project. With Cameron offered a new business opportunity from a mysterious source that could give her the independence she wishes, Joe, Gordon and Donna are separately still searching for what they want and figuring out how they'll get it, unaware their paths are converging for the final time.

This season, more than any before it, feels like a completely different show, while still managing to draw upon the rich history mapped out in previous episodes. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with the time jump, which takes a series that was for so much of its run steeped in 1980's culture and pushes it into the early to mid 90's, even managing to forge ahead three years further to 1994 in the season premiere. AOL is king, the internet is in its infancy and now the gang finds themselves in a far different place than they were a decade earlier when they spearheaded the PC craze. But not much has changed either as they constantly find themselves being thwarted by those with similar, sometimes identical ideas executed better or with more capital behind it.

Initially, there almost seems to be a lack of tension and conflict compared to prior seasons as everyone actually appears to be in a pretty good place, both personally and professionally. But appearances are deceiving, even as Gordon celebrates his 40th birthday with a party (complete with the Blue Man Group) and shares a business partnership with Joe that, for the first time, seems to also be a legitimate friendship built on respect and trust. Unfortunately, even as they've grown, they still can't seem to agree on a direction for the company, and the addition of Gordon's daughter Haley into the fold as founder creates all sorts of complications neither were quite ready for.

Donna toasts Rover's success
On the other side is their corporate opponent Donna, now a formidable executive willing to win at any cost, fully completing a transformation that occurred back when she booted Cameron out of Mutiny. Watching her rule over Rover underlings (including Bos) with an iron fist, develop a drinking problem and take colleagues into her bed is jarring, but knowing what we do about Donna up to this point, I believed it. She always had ambitions that stretched beyond what Gordon had imagined for both when they were married, and she's now in her mind making the necessary sacrifices to execute on them.

This is probably Kerry Bishé's  best season, taking extremely unlikable behavior and giving it motivation, while sliding in signs of the old Donna through her positive interactions with Gordon and the relationship with her kids, most notably rebellious teen Joanie. Formerly the show's most beloved character, we start to see cracks in Donna develop with each passing episode that remind us why, making what's earned between her and Cameron in the series' final minutes that much more rewarding. And while the latter has made significant strides in her maturation as a rational functioning adult, the tension between the two stemming from what went down at Mutiny runs through much of the season whenever they're forced to interact.

As far as Cameron's come, we're also reminded at so many points just how little she's changed, even as she and Joe have another go at a formerly toxic relationship that for a while feels like it could really work. Of course it inevitably doesn't, due in part to Cameron doing what she's always done: run away. With her future as a game designer in limbo, she purchases a piece of land, isolating herself from the world while living out of an airstream trailer.

Haley at the negotiating table
While the thrill of creating and coding has always been her life force, she can't help but get sucked into the battle between Donna and Bos' Rover and Joe and Gordon's Comet, with Gordon's daughter Haley stuck in the middle. The biggest benefit of the show's jump into the 90's is the development of what might be the series' strongest plotline, as Gordon connects with his now teenage daughter, who ends up being a lot more like him than both are willing to concede.

More than fulfilling the daunting task of stepping into a character late in the game that's already played by someone else, an endearingly goofy and likable Susanna Skaggs basically owns this season, as her story becomes that of Gordon's and Joe's. While she's undoubtedly going through some things, both related to her social awkwardness and sexual identity, the bigger concern is Joe, who's never met an idea he couldn't shape to fit his vision or a person he couldn't take advantage of to do it. We saw it at Cardiff, again at Westgroup and most famously, with the anti-virus software idea he lifted from Gordon to build his own company

When he gets his claws into Haley's idea and starts working with her, there's legitimate concern he'll see dollar signs and be more than willing to throw a little kid under the bus and destroy his friendship with Gordon to see it through. That this would have happened with Season One or Two Joe, but doesn't occur now, is perhaps the first sign that put cold, calculating Joe MacMillan is being put to bed.
Gordon's life flashes before him in "Who Needs a Guy"
 With that metaphorical death also comes an actual one for Gordon, who quite literally sees his life flash before his eyes moments before his hallucinatory death in the landmark episode, "Who Needs a Guy." The cruel twist was that he finally seemed to arrive at a place of happiness. Running a successful company, on relatively good terms with Donna, having loyal friends, in a healthy relationship with new girlfriend, Katie (Anna Chlumsky) and sharing a personal and professional bond with his daughter that defies description in its overall impact, it was an awful time to go. But it was also the right time, handled so beautifully and with such grace, no one could dare label it emotionally manipulative, as shocking TV deaths so often tend to be.

You wonder how the series could continue after the passing of one of its most important characters until the realization sets in that it doesn't need to. Or at least it only has to do it for a few more episodes. And does it ever. As the shocking news ingeniously moves from character to character in what feels like the cruelest, most painful game of telephone tag in dramatic TV, we must adjust to new reality for the series that's forcing its characters to hit the reset button on their lives with only three episodes remaining.

The grieving process and the possibility of each finding their own way to remember Gordon and begin to somehow try to survive without him is vividly explored in the powerful episode "Goodwill," as Joe and Cameron help Donna and the girls sort out Gordon's belongings.  As the rift between Donna and eldest daughter Joanie grows greater, there's some signs of healing in her seemingly irreparable former friendship with Cameron. Ironically, just as that glimmer of hope presents itself, a sullen, withdrawn Joe's vision of a post-Gordon Comet disintegrates with the arrival of Yahoo! so too does his relationship with Cam.

Whenever the conversation of any series finale occurs, that inescapably dirty word, "expectations,"  always seems to be accompanying it. HACF is in the unique, enviable position of hardly having any since few anticipated the series would make it past its inaugural season, much less be able to map out an exit strategy for a fourth. But for fans of the show who were religiously watching it and knew how good it became, there were expectations that these characters who have developed so much since the pilot would earn a send-off that not only makes narrative sense, but provides suitable closure and a necessary amount of room open for interpretation.

Donna contemplates her future in "Search"
The penultimate episode, "Search," and its succeeding finale, the Karyn Kusama-directed "Ten of Swords," finds a way to honor the past while also looking forward to an fuzzy, uncertain future that comes more clearly into focus in its closing minutes. While Gordon's gone, his creations and failures still feel as integral to the series as when he was alive, driving these characters onward whether they're ready or not.

For Cameron, it appears as if her investor Alex Vonn (Molly Ephraim) will finally provide the outlet necessary to let her ideas roam free without interference. Instead, she again becomes an unwilling puppet to a strangers' vision, reminding her just how creatively fruitful that Mutiny partnership with Donna truly was. In one of the season's most wonderful scenes, both return to the abandoned Mutiny and Comet offices, envisioning a future where they give it another go, naming their fictitious company "Phoenix" as its imaginary neon logo blinks on the wall behind them. They each own their biggest mistakes with Mutiny, determining they would inevitably screw it all up the same way if they tried it again, but with one key difference. This time, they'd have the self-awareness to make sure they walk away friends.

Now at the top of the corporate hierarchy having successfully taken over AGGE and taken it to new heights in the wake of Diane's retirement, Donna's soul-searching has not only made her a better boss and more motivating leader, but allowed her to connect with backpacking daughter Joanie on a level not previously thought possible. All roads lead to her Sheryl Sandberg-like speech Donna delivers at her self-hosted female coders party, conveying a message about work and sacrifice that's as timely and relevant now as it would have been in 1994. Given the character's history, it doesn't feel sappy or sentimental. It just seems right, like a declaration of facts from someone who's earned her place at the head of the table.

Cameron listening intently to Donna's speech
Try as she might, Cameron can't run away this time. Whether she's falling into Donna's pool while clumsily trying to make an exit or working with her to take apart Haley's computer (in a brilliant call-back to Donna fixing the girls' "Speak and Spell" in the pilot), the forces are conspiring to prevent Cam from visiting her mom in Florida. This is where she belongs, as a roadside breakfast with Donna at a diner ends up being the scene that encompasses so much of the series.

A cash register opens. Money is exchanged. People talk. Then Donna runs out to deliver the immortal line to a waiting Cameron at the car: "I Have An Idea." And with that, a series known for its meticulous musical cues saves one of its biggest for last, as Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" starts to take us out. It's a fairly traditional but thematically appropriate choice given how much of the show's identity is inseparable from its soundtrack, specifically when it comes to Cameron, who Mackenzie Davis made the show's beating beating heart while subsequently emerging as its future star, garnering attention for her more widely seen turns in the Emmy-winning Black Mirror: "San Junipero" and Blade Runner 2049. But there's no mistaking that she earned both opportunities due directly to her work on this.

Upon realizing the show was jumping to 1994, there was palpable excitement in discovering what music supervisor Thomas Golubić would do when pushed past the series' early cyberpunk 80's aesthetic and into a new decade. We got a taste of at the end of last season with his unforgettable incorporation of the Pixies' "Velouria" and he doesn't disappoint here, as Hole, James, The Cowboy Junkies and The Breeders help provide a voice for the decade. He also ventures out the period box when necessary, like with the memorable use of Dire Straits' "So Far Away" following Gordon's death, and this final selection, channeling Gabriel's 1977 hit to reflect both the pain and excitement of moving on.                     

Cam and Donna on the cusp of a new idea
I love that we never hear what Donna's idea is in that diner, creating a contemplative sequence that carries echoes of The Sopranos' contoversial finale. Sure, we can speculate. Ebay? Napster? Social Media? Paypal? Smartphones?  There's enough evidence in the scene pointing to each, all or none of those innovations, but it's better we never find out and are instead left endlessly speculating what she had in mind. Anything revealed couldn't meet our expectations anyway, and if we knew what it was, chances are we'd be too busy thinking of ways it could fail to truly stop and appreciate the moment. And it probably will fail, which we've learned by now won't mean the end of the world for any of these characters whose lives and careers were defined by creating "the thing that gets you to the thing."

The series' big remaining piece of unfinished business is Joe MacMillan, the one character we weren't sure could ever come to terms with Gordon's death or himself.  If Cameron was always the one to retreat and run, this time it's Joe's turn, packing his bags and heading home to New York to put this all behind him. The expectation is a return to IBM and the reappearance of the slick, suit-wearing Don Draper/Patrick Bateman hybrid from the first season scares us (however briefly) into thinking Joe has once again regressed, having not experienced an inkling of personal growth from his time with these people over the past decade. The finale is full of clever misdirections involving Cam leaving, Bos' health and Donna's uncertain future. In each of these cases, the rug is pulled out to reveal a better outcome, but never more so than when Joe drives up to what we believe will be IBM headquarters in his Lotus sports car, arriving instead at his office at a local university where he's teaching humanities.

With the Cardiff Giant PC resting atop his desk and pictures of Gordon and Haley in front of him, Joe's finally found a way to move forward while fully embracing instead of resenting the successes and failures that got him here. As in the pilot, he's again in a classroom, only this time it's not to poach talent, but share knowledge.

Professor Joe MacMillan in "Ten of Swords"
As in the pilot episode, Joe opens with the line: "Let me begin... by asking a question" Only this time his delivery carries none of the slimy, know-it-all arrogance it did then, stated with a genuine curiosity that could have only come from someone humbled by experience. It's the perfect final line for a character whose perceived lack of dimension became the easy target of so many of the show's early criticisms, since retroactively corrected by the writers and Lee Pace's multi-layered performance, helping position the series as one of the medium's most overlooked.

Halt and Catch Fire proves again in its final season that it was still even better than it's recently gotten credit for, having not only earned the hardest of victories with an ideal send-off, but told a story that now justifies many of the early decisions the show makers faced derision for. It all makes sense now, and while we know that couldn't have been the plan all along, they deserve credit for making us believe that it was by having all the pieces perfectly fit. The rare achievement that ups its game with each successive season until peaking when it most mattered, the challenge was always convincing more people to watch, which still could come.  For a show many accused of reverse engineering the most successfully familiar aspects of AMC's greatest dramas, HACF succeeded where few did, changing course midway through to carve out a path of its own.           

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Wonder Woman



Director: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lisa Loven Kongsli
Running Time: 141 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Of all the superheroes that have made it to the big screen, whether it be Marvel, DC or otherwise, it's the role of Wonder Woman that's been hardest to cast. That we've gone literally decades without a film dedicated to the character, as numerous incarnations of the project stalled in pre-production, speaks to this difficulty. There must be a vault somewhere of all the unproduced scripts and lists of potential actresses rumored to follow TV's Lynda Carter in the highly coveted role, one that doesn't come with the built-in benefits accompanying Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, or even James Bond and Indiana Jones. All those franchises will continue no matter who plays the character, as disastrous selections have demonstrated. They can be rebooted, remade, prequeled and sequeled to death because no one person is bigger than the character or property itself. Wonder Woman is different.

When Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman got the greenlight, it was all but guaranteed we'd never get another one if it didn't do well. Just look at how long it took to get this. And while there would be plenty of blame to go around, we all know who the public would point fingers at: Whoever plays her. It may be the only case where a really terrible film could be made, but as long as they got the casting right, everything else would be forgiven and it would rule the box office. The primary audience for these types of movies have always been young male fanboys with strong opinions on how the actress playing her should look, talk and act. And they're more than willing to tell you that no one will ever be good enough. While it's true every iconic pop culture character carries similar baggage to some extent, none have bared the burden quite like Wonder Woman.

Leave it up to DC to give the superhero with the roughest road to the big screen an introduction that does feel a little different, not to mention overdue. While it seems as if some actual thought and vision went into this, it does come back around again to the casting, as we knew it would. Somehow, they found an actress who personifies Wonder Woman in every possible way and then actually bothered to surround and support her with a worthwhile film that uses its content to reach an audience far beyond what was considered possible for the character. In other words, they nailed it. And while it's not without certain problems, it's nice to report for a change that there isn't a laundry list of them.

Diana, daughter of Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) was born and raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, as a member of a race of warrior women Zeus created to protect mankind. But this doesn't sit well with his son, the angry and jealous Ares, who vows to obliterate humanity, nearly succeeding before being run off by his father. Anticipating Ares' eventual return, Zeus leaves the Amazon women a secret weapon known as the "Godkiller," which could potentially defeat him. Despite Hippolyta forbidding it, a young Diana is secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), until her mother eventually relents.

Under the right guidance, Diana grows up to become a fierce warrior woman (Gal Gadot) whose life is interrupted when American pilot and Allied spy Steve Trevor's (Chris Pine) plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira and she rescues him. Hearing of the war and believing it to be the work of Ares, Diana leaves home and joins Trevor in his attempt to stop German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who's chemist Isabel Maru (Elena Ayaya), aka "Dr. Poison," is engineering a deadly new form of mustard gas to end the war. Trevor recruits his own ragtag team of misfits to stop them, but it's Diana, armed with lasso, sword and shield, who proves to be their greatest asset, realizing the full extent of her powers to incite change in a world overcome with turmoil.

It's become commonplace to dread the first half-hour to forty minutes of a superhero film where an"origin story" is inflicted upon us. These extended (sometimes neverending) prologues are often ridiculously acted, give audiences information they already know or don't need, and frequently feature distractingly awful CGI. At times it feels like they're just there to pad the running time rather than to give viewers an actual connection to the story or its characters, with Marvel's Thor being the most glaring recent example of these offenses.

Monster director Patty Jenkins gets it right with an origin story that doesn't feel like a complete drag. It helps that aside from the character's recent, well-received Batman v. Superman appearance, she's relatively fresh and untainted from previous incarnations or big screen outings, making her the only remaining superhero that could possibly feel "new" to this generation. But that doesn't take away from everything Jenkins does really well in introducing this character, like keeping things simple. Or competently staging battle scenes that more closely resemble live-action, freeze frame murals or paintings than the overstylized, overedited effects we're used to getting in war porn like the 300 films.

The first sign that Allan Heinberg's script is truly working comes with the death a character early that we really shouldn't have any business caring about, but do, since their importance and connection to Diana was well established within the first twenty minutes, informing each lap of her journey going forward. When Steve Trevor crash lands and Diana makes the sacrifice to leave her people in pursuit of a greater good, we're there, fully invested in seeing her reaction to being thrown into an entirely new world.

It's a surprise just how much the script exploits both dramatic and comedic possibilities of this fish-out-of-water narrative, immeasurably aided by the chemistry between Gadot and Pine, with the latter conveying a likability and comedic delivery rarely displayed in his previous roles. And unlike most recent entries in the genre hampered by goofiness, the humor works for rather than against the more serious aspects of the narrative.

There's a feeling that the actors aren't just phoning it in for a big superhero payday or that this merely serves as an advertisement for a future series of films or spin-offs. While we know there undoubtedly will be and the term "Extended Universe" still very much exists and applies, other than a brief nod bookending the opening and closing, Jenkins focuses entirely on the task at hand. It's especially a relief to not be "treated" to a pointless post-credits scene for purely commercial purposes. For a change, all the energy does seem completely channeled into this project, with so much of it provided by the performer chosen for the allegedly uncastable title role.

Leaving any irrelevant concerns about her accent, physique or acting qualifications in the dust, Israeli actress Gal Gadot simply assumes the mantle of Wonder Woman from the moment she first appears. Not only does she look the part when judged against any previous incarnation of the character, but she's believable as a badass fighting machine, while also managing to convey the naivete and vulnerability accompanying Diana's confusion at mankind's propensity to destroy itself. Her curiosity and disappointment forms the core of a story that remains unusually focused much of the way through.

With superhero movies' reliance on stars at an all-time low, it may be possible for an actor to be afforded the opportunity to give what's considered a truly great performance in this type of role again. And while I'm still unsure Gadot does exactly that, she may accomplish one better by simply doing the character and our imaginations justice. It's as much an achievement in casting as acting, lending weight to those Christopher Reeve mentions, even as this has little in common his Superman films. Its whole look, feel and tone is actually more in line with something like The Rocketeer, a comparison that was more hastily ascribed to Marvel's recent Captain America entries.

If a hero's only as strong as their villain, there's some debate as to who's considered the main one here. Though there's a good reason for that, it's still a bit of a problem considering it's so clearly Elena Ayaya's "Dr. Poison," with her terrifying look and intriguing motivations, who leaves the most lasting impression as an adversary. It's saddest to admit that as strong as most of the picture is, it still doesn't completely break out of the box, remaining recognizable as exactly what it is: Yet another superhero movie. What it has going for it is unusually good direction and a masterstroke in casting. What has little to do with that is the fact that it was directed by woman. Having everything to do with it is that she was the right person for the job, regardless of gender.

Still overlong at nearly two and a half hours, it uses its time better than most, before delivering a third act that doesn't really distinguish itself from other entries in the genre, falling back on a climactic CGI-laden showdown, with a bit of a surprising twist. But at least most of what leads up to it works better than most expected given all the obstacles in bringing one of the most creatively challenging comic characters to the big screen. Whether this can continue, or more importantly, whether it should, is a different question entirely. But for now, it's worth basking in the victory of a successful Wonder Woman installment that's feels as if it's been a long time coming.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Colossal


 
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
  
**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away some plot details**

If judged entirely by its trailers and commercials, it's easy to fall into the trap that there isn't anything all that different about Colossal, and once you set aside a fairly unusual narrative hook, there's only one direction for it to go. That at best it could result in a reasonably satisfying and entertaining diversion headlined by two likable enough actors most recognized for lighter, more mainstream fare. One of them is a major star so there's that. Marketed as a sci-fi romcom of sorts, the genre-bending film never stood much of a chance catching box office fire since those rarely tend to work and audiences know it. But now after seeing what this actually is, I get it. Nothing about this is even the slightest bit safe or diverting. And anyone who has viewed it can't say much without the benefit of spoilers.

Those, among many other factors, was cause enough for Colossal to flop hard. Not to mention the fact no one goes to the movies anymore unless it's to see superheroes, which this draws some sort of strange inspiration from. And as much as I'd prefer to avoid categorizing as that, there's no escaping its influence. The main difference here is that writer/director Nacho Vigalondo doesn't feel the need to advertise the fact he's sliding one in there and have the movie high-five itself in celebration of the script's subversiveness, like M. Night Shyamalan did at the end of the otherwise brilliant Split. He knows to let the audience read this as they may and trusts them to intelligently interpret his ideas how they see fit.

Scene-to-scene there's a genuine sense of danger and unpredictability surrounding the actions of the film's main characters, and what they'll do or say in reaction to an oddball situation we've never seen depicted on screen before. At least not exactly. And this scenario couldn't be more ridiculous. It's catnip for a silly romantic fantasy if Vigalondo wanted to go there. For a little bit, it looks like he will, until completely pulling the rug out, exploring issues related to alcoholism, the internet, bullying, and how childhood experiences shape who we eventually become.

Vigalondo never wavers, and when things get very bleak and surprisingly deep, the material still retains its darkly comic tone, while providing Anne Hathaway the opportunity to give her most emotionally naked and vulnerable performance since Rachel Getting Married. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation meets Godzilla and Unbreakable in what could not only be described as 2017's most original release thus far, but possibly its best and least problem-ridden. And that's no small feat considering all it attempts.

Gloria (Hathaway) is unemployed writer and functioning alcoholic who's been crashing at her boyfriend Tim's (Dan Stevens) New York City apartment until she finds work. Only she isn't really looking, spending her nights out partying with friends while spending most of the following day trying to sober up. Losing patience, Tim kicks her out, forcing Gloria to move back to her New Hampshire hometown, temporarily taking up residence in her parents' vacant house. But a reunion with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), leads her to take a job working at his late dad's bar, which he now owns.

As late nights at the bar with Oscar and his friends worsen Gloria's drinking problem, she wanders to a children's playground and passes out, eventually waking up the next morning to tragic news of a giant, Godzilla-like reptilian monster attack in Seoul, South Korea that's killed and injured many.  After noticing the monster's mannerisms and retracing her steps, it's clear that her presence at the playground at 8:30 a.m. causes this creature to emerge halfway across the globe, making movements that directly correspond to her own. Upon realizing she's unintentionally controlling an inexplicable terror, she enlists her new friends in a quest to take matters into her own hands, possibly preventing further casualties. But as her friendship with Oscar grows, so too does her desire to know the creature's purpose and its mysterious link to her own childhood.

Considering its set-up, you could definitely envision a cookie-cutter version of this that plays out like your typical romantic comedy, where the female protagonist returns home to straighten out her life and romantically reconnect with a childhood friend. Think Sweet Home Alabama, only with a giant monster thrown in. And as strange as it seems, there are few signs pointing in any other direction early on. The introduction of this monster element undoubtedly sets it apart, but it's understandably played for laughs at first, giving few hints at the depth and complexity to follow.

From the start, the movie has more on its mind than you'd think since Gloria's too much of a wreck to make for an entirely likable romantic lead, the humor is dark and cutting, and the character of Oscar is as equally messed up as her. And even when he's right, her current boyfriend, Tim, can't help but come off as a nagging, judgmental jerk. Then it happens. A crucial incident that takes the story down a completely unexpected, thrilling path from which there's thankfully no retreat. No one is who we think they are, the creature plot doesn't exist for the reasons we believe it does and the relationship between Gloria and Oscar is both more and less complicated than we thought.

There's this added element involving Gloria's past, shown in snippets of flashback that pay off in a major way. While watching, you never get that sickeningly frequent vibe that the project was conceived in a boardroom with a group of studio executives trying to determine "what sells." Vigalondo seems to be working in direct opposition to that, not for shock value, but because the narrative calls for it and its true to the tone and characters. Making few concessions in executing his twisted vision, all the creative choices cause reassessment of everything that came before, inducing in viewers the realization that what they were watching was more nuanced and substantial than initially suspected.

As if we needed a reminder of how good Hathaway is at playing flawed people going through real, relatable problems, this serves as one. The situation Gloria finds herself in may be extraordinary, but she makes sure the character isn't. This only makes the victory she eventually earns that much sweeter. But there's nothing simple about what Hathaway does, or how she gets inside the head of this damaged woman and manages to keep pace with the script's many shifts that call upon her to express various stages of depression, self-loathing and elation. That she manages all this while remaining consistently funny serves to only further highlight the full spectrum of her abilities. It's been a while since she's been this good, if only because the material hasn't let her take the risks she's afforded here.

While everyone's been trying to make Jason Sudeikis "happen" for a while now, after what's seemed like an endless string of forgettable comedies, he finally happens, shedding the goofiness to not only display an edge well-suited for leading man status opposite Hathaway, but a natural instinct for more dramatic material thought to be far outside his comfort zone. When talking about the unpredictability of the film, you may as well be referring to everything Sudeikis says and does, constantly keeping us on guard as to what Oscar's true motivations are. It's a difficult role, and he rises to the occasion, forcing those familiar with his comedic work to reassess what they assumed of him as an actor.    

It's hard to miss the irony in Hathaway starring as a character who's actions unwittingly draw the ire of legions of internet trolls across the world. On top of everything else, there's that meta aspect at play in a story that very much works as one giant, or colossal, metaphor itself, as all of Gloria's demons manifest itself as this creature. The ending is surprisingly moving, mainly because it's accompanied by an infrequently delivered message in movies: That sometimes you just have to tune out the noise, dig deep and do it yourself. No one will help you. You're on your own. For this character, the realization is a breakthrough that's been hard earned, culminating in a brutally honest final scene that's just simply perfect. You can almost literally hear the sound of the book closing on this chapter of her story, with the knowledge that she's now the architect of her own future, wherever she chooses to take it.         

Sunday, September 24, 2017

12 Feet Deep



Director: Matt Eskandari
Starring: Alexandra Park, Nora-Jane Noone, Diane Farr, Tobin Bell
Running Time: 85 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Buried. Phone Booth. ATM. Frozen. Open Water. The Shallows. 127 Hours. All largely single location survival thrillers that test its actors and filmmakers, pushing their ingenuity and skill to limit in order sustain viewers' attention under the sparsest of circumstances. Their plots could each be summed up in only a couple of words, but with fewer tools at their disposal, they frequently stretch out that meager description to 90 minutes or longer, a number that in many cases is pushing it. Sometimes as trying for audiences as those directly involved in the project, it's one of the toughest sub-genres to successfully pull off and the aforementioned titles probably fall within the same realm of quality. Now joining them is Matt Eskandari's 12 Feet Deep (formerly titled The Deep End), which features a premise so hilariously bizarre that when I accidentally discovered its trailer, I actually thought it was a spoof of some sort. But not only is it deadly serious, it's at least partially based on true events. Its official logline reads exactly as this:

"Two sisters are unwittingly trapped under the fiberglass cover of an Olympic sized public pool and must brave the cold and each other to survive the harrowing night"

This is definitely a new one, and as ridiculous as the concept reads on paper, you'll still have to concede there's something oddly intriguing about the scenario, or rather the idea that someone's even attempting it. Can an entire movie take place within the confines of an enclosed swimming pool? With only two characters? And no sharks? Released wide into theaters this past June (directly against the Mandy Moore shark cage thriller, 47 Meters Down) that this has been inexplicably sold as a horror movie is just another reminder that anything with anyone trapped anywhere is marketed as "horror." And while it is terrifying and suspenseful, it's really more of a claustrophobic morality play or character study in which two women must survive each other and a sociopathic antagonist. While it easily draws comparisons to other self-contained thrillers of the sort, it does certain things better while working with a whole lot less. By believably writing itself out of corners it has little business escaping from, the extremely well-acted, tightly directed chamber piece is no joke at all, making surprisingly efficient and inspired use of our 85 minutes.

Rebellious, quick-tempered Jonna (Alexandra Park) is meeting up with her estranged sister, the newly engaged Bree (Nora-Jane Noone), at the Ketea Aquatic Center's indoor public swimming pool, both trying to put their childhood differences behind them for a late afternoon swim before the facility closes for the holiday weekend. But when Bree unexpectedly loses her engagement ring and the pool's cranky manager (Tobin Bell) rushes to close the fiberglass cover believing everyone's gone, the girls get trapped.

With a 1-foot gap separating the water and the lid, and only a small rectangular hole in the cover providing air, the sisters have to find a method of escape or eventually perish in a watery tomb. While it seems their only hope of rescue will come from janitor Clara (Diane Farr), the bitter ex-con instead uses their predicament as an opportunity for blackmail, physically and emotionally toying with the girls as the clock runs out. Working together, the sisters struggle to put their deep-seeded differences aside to formulate an alternate plan before it's too late.   

This bare-bones, single location scenario would appear to be the ideal set-up for some kind of horror thriller, maybe with a former swim coach with a hook for a hand locking two girls in a pool and torturing them. Just the mere presence of Tobin Bell in an early cameo as the facility manager only has us suspecting the new Saw film arrived early with a Jigsaw trap, which would at least provide enough action to fill up a good chunk of its story. But it's instead a clever misdirection proving the movie's smarter than that, relying instead on the intensity of human drama, emerging organically from the personalities immersed in this terrifying situation.

How Jonna and Bree get trapped is surprisingly believable considering how absurd the notion must seem to anyone who's ever swam in an indoor pool. On one hand, it's a silly accident they could happen to anyone and was cribbed from true events. But the circumstances also work on another level that sets up the animosity between these two very different siblings, stemming from a childhood tragedy that still consumes them. Already at each others throats, they become the perfect mark for ex-con Clara, who's built up a lifetime of resentment and has enough problems that there's good reason to fear her holding the cards.

Eskandari is adept at exploiting the limited set and claustrophobic atmosphere to its maximum potential, often changing up lighting and shot selection, but in a way that makes sense within the context of the narrative, allowing the viewer to escape the potential monotony of a single location. He comes up with just enough solutions, and while it would be impossible to keep the action in the pool without taking some creative liberties, he manages to keep the manipulations to a minimum. While there's a subplot involving diabetic Bree's insulin shot that's meant to lend further urgency to the proceedings, it's factually incorrect enough to be distracting. As far as effectively piling on complications in a race against time, you just accept it and move on. A superior roadblock is the character of Clara, whose presence is most obviously the added wrench in the equation.

Far from some sneering, one-dimensional villain, Diane Farr's antagonist has a conscience, history and twisted motivation to what she's doing, almost as if she literally can't help herself. And because of the limits imposed, the performances of the three actresses are only that much more crucial in creating that tension. As Jonna, Alexandra Park undergoes a rather believable transformation from angry, recovering addict to protective sister, forced to hunker down and overcome her considerable demons and petty jealousy to fight for their survival. Nora Jane-Noone gives the more reserved, cerebral Bree a tidy, organized facade as the "good sister," but as their situation wears down, so does she, physically spent from her medical condition and even more emotionally drained by the childhood trauma she's suppressed.

What's refreshing about the third act is how the story believably resolves itself. There's no eleventh hour deus ex machina or improbable coincidence that saves them from near-certain death. But the highest compliment that can be paid the screenplay is that you really do get the feeling Eskandari would kill everyone off if it served the story. Because the characters are clearly defined, so are their actions, creating a plausible chain of events that concludes in a way that feels both appropriate and logical. Like most single location thrillers, 12 Feet Deep creates a heightened reality where people find within themselves the will to survive. It may not be a profound statement in the genre, but by intelligently working its way around a head-scratching premise, it definitely stands out from the pack.       

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Circle



Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson,  Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
Running Time:
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Within James Ponsoldt's adaptation of Dave Egger's 2013 dystopian sci-fi novel, The Circle, resides an idea, and sometimes even a reality, so timely and captivating that the film literally forgets to anything with it. Starting strongly, it builds its promising premise one step at a time, methodically mapping out a clear direction the story should take and where everyone wants to see it go. It's one of those rare cases where predictability is desired because the concept is so rich it almost feels as if most of the work is done. Unfortunately for us, as viewers, it's an eye-opening reminder of just how false that assumption is. No concept on its own is ever good enough to carry an entire picture. So just as The Circle seems to get going, it ends. Or rather, it just closes. Complete stoppage. In fact, the film feels so abruptly unresolved, even when the credits started rolling, I was still unsure it concluded. With a certifiable treasure trove of unexplored material left, it may be the cruelest example yet of a movie not being what it's about, but how.

Armed with a talented cast, a superb writer/director, and screenplay co-penned by the author himself, it fails to do something that seems almost ridiculously simple: Raise the stakes. The film's very existence promises that, as we're teased throughout that it'll dive into those deep, dark, morally compromising waters occupied by the likes of 1984 or A Brave New World, its obvious inspirations. And the timing couldn't have possibly been better for it. But instead, we're left nodding our heads in agreement at all the timely, relevant ideas the movie contains, appreciating something that more closely resembles a documentary about what a great movie about those ideas would look and feel like. Two hours of set-up with minimal payoff. Strangely, it might be one of the best recent remake candidates, as it would be tempting to see what the same cast could do with a different script that lets them fully follow through on all the ideas presented, and frustratingly left on the table, relegated to our imaginations.

When struggling customer service rep Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is contacted by her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) about a potential job opening at the enormous, Google-like, California-based tech company she works for called The Circle, it seems to be the perfect opportunity. With her father, Vinnie (Bill Paxton in his final role) suffering from multiple sclerosis as mom Bonnie (Glenn Headly) provides around-the-clock care, Mae's personal life is in a bit of turmoil, tempered somewhat by a recent reunion with ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane). After apparently acing what's best described as a bizarre interview, Mae gets a job in The Circle's "Customer Experience" department, where she learns the importance of maintaining a strong and very public social media presence within the company.

The mastermind behind this entire operation is CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who with right-hand man and co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), envisions a world of complete transparency with his introduction of a program called SeeChange, and wants rapidly rising employee Mae to be the face of it. But when co-worker and social networking pioneer Ty Lafitte (John Boyega) keys her in to the company's potentially nefarious motives, she must make a choice that puts her personal beliefs and the privacy rights of citizens directly at odds with an opportunity to be at the forefront of a new digital revolution.

As a reflection of the world in which we currently live and where it seems to be heading, the script hits it right on the head, successfully envisioning a fictional tech company nearly identical to and inspired by both Google and Apple. With a base of operations more closely resembling a laid-back university campus than the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) really gets the aesthetic  of what this environment would look and feel like, as well as the excitement of being a part of it. That this is happening right now and the film's strongest aspect is that with its emphasis on social media obsession and the elimination of privacy, not a whole lot of what occurs seems even the slightest bit exaggerated. If anything, it could stand to go more over-the-top, which is exactly where we think things are going.

In capturing the wide-eyed exuberance of a reserved girl overwhelmed by her new surroundings, Emma Watson's performance as Mae, while fine, seems to be a bigger achievement in casting than anything else since she (like most everyone else) is never pushed to do the heavy lifting you'd think would accompany a story this ripe with possibility. Of course, Eamon and The Circle have less than philanthropic intentions with the rollout of this new technology, which essentially monitors every individual 24/7 with hidden cameras, and it's to the screenplay's credit that it does at least address the pros and cons of this technology, as well as its moral implications. Unfortunately, it doesn't get around to showing any of them, at least in an impactful enough manner to kick the narrative into the next gear.

When Mae becomes this social media superstar, embracing her role within the company and supporting its mission, the film, and Watson's performance, are its strongest, reflecting Truman Show-like themes that explore the dangers and thrills of living an entirely public life, accompanied by some great on screen visuals. And as she becomes Eamon's pet project, that was absolutely the time to take things to the next sinister level, as you could easily rattle off about four of five steps the writers could have taken to make this company seem like a lethal threat. What they're planning certainly warrants it, posing a big enough threat to be endangering the lives of anyone questioning the organization's purpose, especially Mae, who's ascended into the inner Circle. Why not tamper with her father's medical equipment? Or do something with or to John Boyega's mysterious character, whose dropped just as quickly as he's introduced.

When something does finally occur that could be considered "dangerous," it's essentially an accident involving a character whose relationship to the protagonist was presented in such a muddled, ambiguous way from the moment he first appeared on screen, that it hardly connects. A sub-plot involving dissension between Mae and her friend Annie over the company's agenda isn't developed at all and seems to come out of nowhere.The biggest loss stemming from the script's faults is a failure to properly utilize Tom Hanks, here given the rarest of opportunities to sink his teeth into what could have been one of the actor's most complex roles had the material supported him.

It's almost painful to watch Hanks' scenes since his magnificent channeling of a scheming, Steve Jobs-like CEO, whose greed convinces him he knows what's best for the world, is basically undercut by an uneventful screenplay. Watching him on stage in his corporate presentations, you can only imagine the result had this gone to that dark place, allowing him to really cut loose and get inside the head of a potentially fascinating on screen villain. Instead, he's forced to provide nearly all of this himself, but it's a good bet most will still be thoroughly impressed with how much he does with it. And already well established by now as a surprisingly strong dramatic supporting presence, Patton Oswalt sits it out on the sidelines, mostly forced to stand around giving stern looks. This all leads to a final act let-down, as you could envision something similar to this ending actually working had the groundwork been properly laid leading into it. What we're left with feels more like an extended teaser for a more compelling project.

While assessing the movie you didn't see rather than what's on screen is rarely a good idea, what happens when most of its running time is comprised of reminders of that better, unseen film? It seems as if every scene unintentionally teases us with what we could have been, and despite this being one of my most anticipated releases of the year, it's hard to look at it as anything other than a disappointment, regardless of expectations. That indie-leaning Ponsoldt is such a great director probably accounts for nearly half those expectations, making it easy to assume that the biggest, most mainstream effort of his career was hampered by a studio that lacked the guts to explore the potentially polarizing, but compelling themes Eggers' put forth in his novel. For The Circle to be successful, it had to go dark, and use the platform it was given to intelligently exploit some very real and timely fears. By never fully addressing the ideas at its core, we're left with a final product that feels less like a paranoid thriller than a tame corporate training video.
       

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Split



Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details**


While watching M. Night Shyamalan's Split with a mixture of excitement, dread and trepidation, the one question that kept reverberating through my mind was, "When is he going to blow it?" It isn't an unfair concern given the director's reputation and track record over the past decade, which resulted in the creative implosion of a career that's proven to be anything but unbreakable. This is his hail mary, a last ditch attempt to prove that flops like Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth are anomalies. So now, after showing some renewed signs of creative life with 2015's The Visit, Shyamalan gives us Split, and right from its tense opening, it's obvious he's come to play again.

With a thrilling set-up, a fresh cast of rising stars mixed with established newcomers, and an ingeniously constructed script to support them, Shyamalan makes his best film. Hands down. And while that may seem like damning with faint praise considering I never quite shared the love others had for The Sixth Sense, it's not.  He gets everything right, firing on all cylinders, all while giving audiences the gift of two, maybe even three, award-caliber performances, one of which is so subtly powerful it's gone almost completely unnoticed. 

This is such a strong effort and the comeback so welcome that I almost feel guilty mentioning that giant elephant in the room known as the final scene. While it's a stretch to say he drops the ball as feared, and it does nothing to diminish the power of the overall experience, the decision to close the film in this way makes absolutely no sense because it has so little to do with anything preceding it. Shyamalan does something I've rallied against for years but has become so prevalent recently that it's reached epidemic levels, engulfing someone who could barely get his movies made just a couple of years ago. But what a homecoming this is, and even if its last 30 seconds cause concern, we should just relish what we're given: A compelling, meticulously plotted psychological thriller that methodically lays its groundwork before paying off in a pulse-pounding sprint to the finish that won't soon be forgotten. No twists. No games. To call this a return to form for him would almost be an insulting understatement.

Three teenagers, the popular Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and introverted social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are being driven home from a party by Claire's dad when a mysterious bald-headed man attacks him in the parking lot and drives off with and abducting the girls. The man is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), but the person responsible for the crime is "Dennis," one of Kevin's 24 personalities manifesting itself from abuse he suffered in childhood. Diagnosed with D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder), he's currently being treated under psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who's pleased with his progress in balancing these personalities despite recent red flags that indicate he's struggling.

Locked captive in an undisclosed location, the girls are exposed to "Patricia," a female personality who's assisting the voyeuristic, obsessive-compulsive "Dennis," and 9-year-old "Hedwig," who Casey sees as the easiest to manipulate into helping them escape. With a panicked Claire and Marcia frantically trying anything possible to get out, it's clear that Casey's the introspective thinker of the three, laying back and assessing the most practical way out of what looks to be the most dire of situations. As Dr. Fletcher's suspicions grow, the girls fight for their lives while Kevin's personalities battle for dominance, including a dormant one that's potentially the most dangerous of all.

Like an expertly constructed puzzle box, the details of Kevin's unusual condition reveals itself the more dangerous and unpredictable he becomes. By taking a conceit that if taken at face value should be ridiculous and treating it every step of the way with a certain respect and plausibility, Shyamalan makes us buy in. While Multiple Personality Disorder is very much a real thing, the amplified version of it that this script presents most definitely isn't, but the movie explains it in such confident, mind-blowing detail through both words and actions that we wouldn't dare doubt any of it. But that's not to say this at all plays as some kind of dry psychology lecture, as it cleverly foreshadows what's to come, making and abiding by its own rules the entire way.

Two different cat-and-mouse games transpire simultaneously, with Kevin (or rather "Dennis") attempting to outwit Dr. Fletcher while the captured girls try to predict the unpredictable and forecast their window of opportunity for escape. It all clicks largely due to McAvoy, who prior to this came across as a dependable enough actor who carries a film just fine, the true extent of his talents remaining somewhat untested. But he does here is miraculous tour de force, dropping on a dime to believably shift gears between all these distinctive personalities, some of whom are even posing as other personalities. That we not only get this, but can determine with relative ease exactly who he is at any given moment, is a true testament to the high-wire act he pulls off.

At times a performance within a performance within a performance, how MacAvoy completely changes his voice, movements, posture, tone and even physical appearance (often multiple times during a single scene) defies and breaks the boundaries we have in our heads while watching. It looks exhausting, but if this performance doesn't work, the entire premise crumbles, and the psychological backbone of the screenplay doesn't stick. Also helping hold that up is Betty Buckley, who as Dr. Fletcher helps dispel the myth that there are no vital roles left for actresses over 60 not named Helen Mirren.

Buckley, last known to many for putting her head through a window in the Happening's most embarrassing scene is completely redeemed with a part far worthier of her talents. Going face-to-face with her troubled patient in some of the most important, narrative defining scenes, she's magnificent, finding just the right balance between motherly compassion and tough, brutal honesty, juggling some of the more expository exchanges and sudden revelations like a pro. She, like McAvoy, must switch gears at a moment's notice when the full, dangerous extent of Kevin's condition begins to surprise even her.

Due to the nature of the role, comparisons between Buckley's character and Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis in the Halloween films are practically inevitable, but I hesitate giving more credence to this being mistakenly categorized as some kind of horror slasher, which it surely isn't. There are points where Dr. Fletcher guides the narrative, but never to the extent that you'd think it's her story since Buckley provides such strong, low-key support opposite McAvoy's performance, invisibly steering each scene they share. Her work not only stands out as a real keeper, but feels absolutely crucial to the story's success.

Shyamalan has called Casey Cooke his favorite character he's ever written, so it's probably fitting that the actress cast as her, the still relatively unknown Anya Taylor-Joy, gives what ranks among the most powerful performances in any of his pictures. Anyone who saw her highly praised turn in 2015's supernatural period horror film The Witch or as college student Barack Obama's girlfriend in Netflix's Presidential origin story, Barry, already knew she had something really special and was worth watching. But as Casey, Taylor-Joy gets to dig fairly deep, playing a girl whose own volatile history equips her with the emotional tools necessary to not only cope with horrifying predicament she and the girls find themselves in, but connect with Kevin's personalities at a level no one can, aside from Dr. Fletcher.

From the opening sequence, time seems to stop as we're uncomfortably drawn into Casey's reaction, she uses only her giant eyes to convey all the terror, fear and unpredictability such an abduction would likely entail. This happens a lot throughout, as Taylor-Joy's most memorable scenes often have little to no dialogue at all and consist of her strategizing her next move in the presence of two girls who have far less interest in formulating a game plan.

While childhood flashbacks involving her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke)  are sporadically used to explain the character's past, and they do work, I'm willing to believe we'd probably know anyway just by Anya's facial expressions, demeanor and body language throughout. Any information coming our way rarely feels like a shock or twist (as it often does in Shyamalan films) but rather a confirmation of what she was silently and subtly telling us the entire time.

Unconventional in both presence and looks, Taylor-Joy definitely doesn't fit your typical movie star mold, but in the best possible way, so it would be a shame if after two incredibly successful genre performances she gets pigeonholed as some kind of reigning "scream queen" when she should be competing for dramatic opportunities far beyond that. Her performance stands as the best from an actress so far this year, regardless of how you choose to classify it. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are fine in their underdeveloped roles, which require them to panic in various states of undress, but it's their co-star that commands all the attention as they fade into the background.

Strangely, it's hard watching the last third of this thriller without comparing it to another surprise sleeper hit from earlier in the year, Jordan Peele's Get Out. While the content isn't at all similar and this certainly doesn't carry the same subversive social commentary, both pull off the extremely difficult transition from psychological drama to full-blown horror without missing a beat. And they do it by setting up the premise so well and believably that when the train starts careening off the tracks, it makes sense within the context of the world that's been created. Shyamalan goes very far, but reasonably, likely surprising many who went in expecting a final twist of the knife, because, you know, that's what he does.

What we do get is something that feels like an additional scene past the point where the movie should clearly conclude. In a broader sense, the ill-conceived final moment doesn't make that much of a difference in that it doesn't effect the actual narrative and plays more as an Easter egg or add-on. But if that's the case, then why do it?  It's a real stretch linking the now 17-year-old Unbreakable with Split, and even if Shyamalan did it masterfully within this single scene (which he doesn't), there's still no justification for its presence.

The closing scene just doesn't belong here, and neither does Bruce Willis, whose distracting cameo is more likely to induce head-scratching reactions questioning its purpose rather than build excitement for a potential "Shymalaniverse." Someone needed to tell him this isn't a Marvel movie, and I say that as someone who wholeheartedly agrees that the unfairly maligned Unbreakable probably did deserve a sequel years ago and stands as Shyamalan's most worthwhile accomplishment, at least until this. But it only gets harder justify that when he continues to make these kinds of decisions.

There's this devastating, incredibly acted scene in the police car when Casey's told she's being sent back to live with her uncle that I wish was the last thing we saw in this film. It's just perfect, and could easily be used in an Oscar clip reel sent to Academy members touting Anya Taylor-Joy's lead performance. That's a pipe dream, but only because Shyamalan made it one by not knowing what he had. If he did, there's no way he would have wet the bed with that ending instead of putting the closing emphasis on a character who was actually in the film.

Let's not kid ourselves into thinking an Unbreakable sequel is happening for any other reason than the fantastic work Shyamalan does here on Split, but it seems that in his mind he's just making superhero movies, not realizing that the main appeal of his films was how they never outright acknowledged that.  While he's obviously done something far more substantial with this, it's that lack of self-awareness that's made him his own worst enemy at times. And yet, that's somehow fitting for a filmmaker who's spent a career both thrilling and frustrating audiences in equal measure.