Sunday, August 23, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire (Seasons 1 and 2)

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

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

                                                                **Contains Minor Spoilers and Plot Details**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Gambler (2014)

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

★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Danny Collins

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

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

Jurassic World

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Judy Greer, Katie McGrath 
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It always seemed the one lost opportunity in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park trilogy was actually setting the action in a fully functioning amusement park filled with people. You'd think adding that element of unpredictable danger to the plot could only heighten the stakes and danger. The entire amusement park concept has been gestating so long that we figured Spielberg must have been saving it for a sequel. Then 15 years passed. And now after sitting in development hell for almost two decades the franchise is resurrected with Jurassic World and the timing strangely seems just right for that big money storyline. Amidst an overcrowded field full of unnecessary remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, this is the one that feels closest to being necessary because we never really got what we came for.

Despite unleashing a story that was a long time coming and injecting it with a meta subplot that pokes fun at the film's very existence, there were still a number of things that could have gone wrong. Poor casting, the wrong choice of director, bad GCI, a lackluster 3D conversion or an uninspired script could have easily sunk it. Instead, Safety Not Guaranteed director Colin Trevorrow delivers the type of ridiculously fun, pulse-pounding Spielberg-era thrill ride that even Spielberg himself can't seem to make anymore, or at least has chosen to move past after inspiring inferior imitations. This isn't one of them.

Twenty-two years after the horrific incident at Jurassic Park, Jurassic World is open for business and the park's operations manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) wants it to make as much money as humanly possible. A corporate ice queen, she brushes the park's sordid history under the rug as she unveils her newest attraction: a genetically modified Indominus rex dinosaur sponsored by Verizon. Inconvenienced by the recent arrival of her sister's (Judy Greer) kids, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) to the park, she merely dumps them on her assistant for the day as Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is called in to evaluate the Indominus enclosure before opening. You could probably guess that what unfolds next is a crisis that makes the first three films look like child's play. It's up to Owen and Claire to contain it before lives in the park are lost, including their own.         

There's an early scene where a control room character played by Jake Johnson is showing off the vintage Jurassic Park shirt he won on e-bay, lamenting when the park used to be all about experiencing the wonder of a dinosaur. Now everything has to be bigger and more over-the-top. It's all about the money. While obviously referring to the Indominus attraction, he may as well have been talking about movies, particularly the one we're watching. But Jurassic World fully acknowledging forthcoming criticisms and actively poking fun at itself doesn't make it a good movie, nor should it. What does is the excitement generated on screen, since we're really there to see the dinosaurs wreck havoc.

Trevorrow wastes little time introducing us to the fully functioning theme park, which looks like a Sea World and Disney World hybrid with some surprisingly cool rides and features that seem believable within the confines of the fantasy world Spielberg initially created. As fast as the pace is, there is a considerable amount of time spent building up the first full-on appearance of the Indominus, which doesn't disappoint. It's definitely not Jaws in terms of impactfully limited screen time, but by today's impatient filmmaking standards, Trevorrow's approach is practically restrained.

Much to my relief, the CGI actually looks pretty good, as far as those go, rarely distracting from the action or story. It's also filled with some clever winks and nods throughout the park that let us know this is very much a continuation of the 1993 original and the sequels may as well not exist. Thankfully, John Williams' instantly recognizable, iconic score (the best of his storied career) still does, even if you could quibble with where it lands in the film and how quickly. But at least it's there, which was one of my big worries going in.

With employees clashing over their differing philosophies for the park, it's a given that the uptight Claire and cocky Owen will be brought together by the Indominus escape as she finally learns to care about something other than her job, namely her missing nephews. Her profit-driven approach starkly contrasts with owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), whose chief concerns are the enjoyment and safety of the guests. While both are seriously compromised by Claire's greed, InGen security head Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) is intent on militarizing the dinosaurs as government weapons, crreating an interesting Blackfish-like sub-plot about the humans' control over these creatures. This plays better than expected, with an inexplicably limping, head-tilting D'Onofrio throwing his weight around with the kind of bizarre performance only he could conjure up.

The casting is actually quite creative all-around, avoiding the same four or five names of actors and actresses who usually headline these blockbusters. Chris Pratt will soon likely be one of them, but for now we're still finding out what he can do and what's most surprising about his role is how humorless it is. More Indiana Jones than Han Solo. "Jurassic Parks and Rec" this isn't, as the former Andy Dwyer has to play it mostly straight in order to ground an already far out there plot.

If this is Pratt's Indy audition, he passes with flying colors, and despite being a longtime fan of the actor's work, he quelled most of my concerns that going this route would be a complete misuse of his talents. Instead, the action hero thing seems to suit him just fine and in his scenes opposite Howard he does manage to slide in some of the trademark sarcastic charm and charisma that got him here. He'll probably be cast in everything now, but if it has to be someone, at least it's Pratt, whose sheer likability and presence lifts this kind of material further than it would have otherwise gone.

While Pratt does exactly what's asked of him and surpasses expectations, he is still playing a one-dimensional hero opposite Bryce Dallas Howard's more intriguing character. When was the last time a money hungry, stuck-up corporate suit was the centerpiece of a summer action movie? Howard's always been consistently strong in various projects until disappearing for a while, only to now reemerge four years later in the last movie you'd expect to see her headline. And what a comeback it is, walking right up to that line of playing Claire as an unlikable bitch without ever stepping over it. As a result, the transition she makes to action heroine in the film's second half seems all the more seamless and reasonable, proving her an actress adept at rapidly shifting gears. In an effects driven project that too often relegates performers to window dressing, her performance is remembered. She's really playing two roles, each equally well.

Trevorrow was hired to do a job in which the understanding was he'd be relinquishing a lot of creative freedom. Yet within those parameters, he managed to slide his own vision in there to create something that feels like his rather than a tired retread. One can only hope that similar steps are taken when reviving other dormant franchises ripe for a reimagining or continuation of some kind. This is exactly the story that needed to be told in order to both honor the Spielberg film and move on from it. The final half hour featuring an epic dinosaur confrontation can compete in both scale and thrills with anything from the original. Rarely overstaying its welcome at a brisk two hours, it also features one of the few uses of 3D in recent years that at least seems defensible given the nature of the plot.           

It's funny how some critics have taken Jurassic World to task, making me wonder exactly what they expected or how it could have possibly been improved. It's everything a Summer blockbuster should be and a little more, which may represent the true root of their problem. For all the talk of the film's theme park being nothing more than a cash grab, the movie gets its job done by mocking exactly that, exploiting our fears that the wonder from the original can't be recaptured. The bigger question is why we'd want it to, especially when this sequel is such a worthy successor in its own right.               

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.