Sunday, April 29, 2012

Atlas Shrugged: Part I

Director: Paul Johansson
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Graham Beckel, Jssu Garcia, Edi Gathegi, Michael Lerner, Rebecca Wisocky
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman's favorite film of 2011, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a stiffly performed, poorly written cliffs notes style exercise cold enough to make The Social Network or Margin Call look like Bambi. In this era of Occupy protesting it's no easy task getting audiences to feel sympathy for greedy CEO's (has the timing of a movie's release ever been worse?), but it's a lot more difficult when the characterizations are this boring and one-dimensional. The biggest offense isn't so much that they seem like robotic cult members (which they do), but that the talky script supplies little in the way of drama or excitement. Much more overtly political and on-the-nose than I expected, director Paul Johannson's (yes, THAT Paul Johansson) take on Ayn Rand's sprawling 1957 novel lays all its cards on the table, and not in a good way. It's heavy-handed propaganda, spelling out its right-wing message in large capital letters with cringe-worthy line readings and snooze-inducing meetings that seem cribbed from dry business journals. I'd call it a "train wreck" but given the subject matter that would probably be too easy.

Likely due to budget constraints on this 40 years in the making project that once had Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie attached, Rand's period piece instead takes place in a 2016 dystopian alternaverse where an economic depression and shortage of resources have made railways the primary mode of transportation. Dagny Taggert (Taylor Schilling) is the strong-willed Vice President of Taggert Transcontinental railroad and has entered a deal with Rearden Metal CEO Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler), who's being oppressed by lobbyists and politicians who want to limit his power and halt the the growth of his business. Meanwhile, the country's foremost innovators and industrialists are disappearing one by one after being approached by a mysterious cloaked man named John Galt (Johannson), as the question "Who is John Galt?" buzzes across the nation.      

Setting the story in an alternate near-future actually wasn't a bad idea nor is casting unknowns a deal-breaker, but it's in the execution where things get sloppy. This is a film of extremes and that's a problem, resulting in an effort that's not likely to resonate for anyone unfamiliar with the novel or Rand's belief system If I hadn't known in advance the movie was backed by Tea Party I'd still be able to tell by the results onscreen, which can't be good, regardless of which side of the political fence you fall on. Part of the problem is that the very qualities that make Rand's characters work on the page make for flat, unappealing characters on screen. Instead of acting on capitalistic ideas they talk, talk, talk and then talk some more, giving long-winded speeches about being held down by the government, not helping the poor and praising the virtues of selfishness (sample dialogue: "What's with all these stupid altruistic urges?"). All this takes place in sterile office buildings, on leather couches or in mansions. Perhaps due to the limited budget, there also isn't much done to flesh out the world aside from some impressive shots of vistas and trains. That's a shame because if executed properly this carried some promise as dystopian sc-fi parable with subtle political underpinnings.    

As Dagny, Taylor Schilling is as cold as ice, which is exactly what the script seems to call for. That's not her fault and she definitely has her moments. I'd imagine in a better adaptation she could have really killed it. It's just too bad she's asked to play a character with no emotional entryway at all, which becomes a big issue when it comes to her slow (and I mean slow) burning romance with Grant Bowler's Rearden. Not helping matters is the casting of Bowler who just isn't charismatic enough to be believable as a wealthy, trail blazing industrialist. The insistence on pushing these two as rebels is kind of ridiculous because--let's face it--they're CEO's, not James Dean. In a similar vain, Jsu Garcia isn't any more plausible as a millionaire playboy while Graham Beckel gives it his blustery best as an oil baron forced into business with Taggert railroads. Everything here is black and white to the extreme. The characters are stereotyped one dimensionally as either socialists or right wing fanatics. There's no middle ground here.

The most engaging part of the picture might be the idea of a mysterious, shadowy figure kidnapping the nation's most creative minds to form a kind of free market utopia. That John Galt is played by Johannson, an excellent character actor best known for his TV appearances on One Tree Hill and the original 90210, makes me wonder just how many opportunities were squandered to fully exploit that ability in favor of political posturing.. While he still does seem to be in small screen mode here as a director, should be commended for at least attempting to tackle controversial material no studio has wanted to touch for years. And it''s easy to see why. Whenever a work revolves around specific messages or philosophies it's tricky to find ways of dramatizing that onscreen in a way that not only doesn't preach, but entertains. A moment comes in  the final minutes when a character screams out a Star Wars sized "Noooo!" and I swear it's the first sign of emotion anyone's shown throughout the entire film. Needles to say, it comes too late. And it plays strangely.   
After having to sit through a lot of liberal Hollywood stinkers over the years, it isn't unfair to think that conservative audiences should also be afforded some moviegoing options. The problem is when a film's message overtakes and overshadows the story. Initially proposed as a trilogy, Atlas Shrugged: Part II was somehow given the go ahead for release later this year with a new cast and director despite this film's poor reception This wasn't going to be the easiest sell to begin with and now with a complete overhaul, I'm still wondering why they'd bother. With the opening installment the filmmakers unwisely went out of their way to make sure those who do agree with Rand's philosophies love the movie unconditionally and those who don't hate it. It never asks questions or puts the audience in a position where they can consider any of the issues or have intelligent discussions about what's brought up. No matter what you might think of Rand's novel, at least it provided that.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How I Met Your Mother (Seasons 1-6)

Creators: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
Starring: Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan
Original Airdate: 2005-2011

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Whenever I catch a movie after everybody else there's always this feeling like I'm the last person to the party and much of the conservation has already passed. There's no such problem with TV. With Netflix and syndication it's easier than ever to catch up on missed shows, which could help explain the sudden surge in popularity for CBS' How I Met Your Mother, which in its seventh season (hardly a creative peak for any sitcom) is currently boasting its strongest ratings since its 2005 debut. It was always one of those shows I'd flip past on Monday nights, but despite feverish recommendations could never really get into enough to make it a weekly viewing priority. Now, after indulging in a 126 episode binge, I get it.  On the surface it seems to only be a conventional multi-camera, laugh-track laden situation comedy that wouldn't seem out of place sandwiched between Growing Pains and Family Ties in the mid '80's. But if CBS justifiably gets flak for stacking their entire primetime lineup with grim, uninspired crime procedurals, they also deserve credit for making room on their schedule for a show that resurrects the traditional sitcom format in a non-traditional way.

Watching all six seasons worth at once creates a different perception than weekly viewing. When everything's condensed it's easier to immerse yourself in the universe that the writers create as flaws tend to be less noticeable jumping from episode-to-episode at a rapid pace than having 7 days to dwell on little things that went wrong. And who would have guessed that HIMYM is a show that actually needs to be watched in chronological order to get the full effect?  It is conventional, but often uses flashbacks and flashforwards and is peppered with callbacks and inside jokes related to the show's mythology that couldn't be easily picked up on unless you're a regular viewer. I wouldn't go as far as to compare it to Arrested Development or Parks and Recreation in that regard, but if you just watched casually every once in a while you'd definitely be missing a lot. A Friends comparison is valid only in the sense that this is about "friends," since that sitcom, despite its popularity, was actually pretty terrible. A better starting point might be Seinfeld with its distinctly New York setting and quirky observations of everyday life, though it's not quite as laugh-out-loud funny in the same way. Its reliance on a future narrator recalls The Wonder Years. But with the unusual framing device it employs to tell its story, it may as well be considered the Lost of situation comedies, in both how it milks the central Mother mystery and how its rabid fanbase obsess over every clue and detail related to it. The show's equally addictive, but saying that's only because of that hook or a resemblance to anything else would be selling short the originality of co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. Drawing on their own experiences living in New York City to launch the show seven years ago, they said their main goal was to write about the best friends anyone could have and all the "stupid stuff" they did that brought them closer. Regardless of whatever minor faults are sometimes evident or how the series eventually signs off, there's no debating they've already met that goal ten-fold.

The Gang celebrates "Blitzgiving" in one of the many holiday themed episodes
The series follows the life of lovelorn, soulmate searching Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor), an architect in his early thirties living above the Cheers-like MacLaren's bar in New York City and the misadventures he gets into with college friends Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan), ex-girlfriend Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) and LEGEN-DARY womanizer Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). But there's a fun twist. All this is being narrated by future Ted (voiced by Bob Saget) in 2030 as he's telling his future kids (Lyndsey Fonseca and David Henrie) the story of how he met and eventually married their mother. So the present is actually the past, which will probably end up being a foolproof device in preventing the show from aging poorly should viewers revisit it down the line (say in like 2030). Interestingly, all the scenes with the future kids were shot during the first two seasons, including one directly related to the mother's identity that's expected to be aired toward the end of the series' run.

Whether you care greatly about that eventual Mother reveal or not, the writers still face a challenge in making all of Ted's relationships feel important since we already know in advance none of these women will turn out to be the mother, but instead bring him a step closer to meeting her.  Given the insane amount of dates and failed conquests Ted's racked up and the enormous pressure he's put on each to be "the one," he could almost be considered as much a womanizer as Barney at times, if not for the fact his intentions are always unflappably sincere and the final destination is the altar. Consider him the slightly older version of Tom Hansen from (500) Days of Summer, if not even more earnest and hopelessly romantic. Throughout the course of the six seasons he has four relationships crucial to his journey. His on again, off again relationship with future member of the gang Robin, whom he embarrassingly declares his love for on their first date. "Girl next door" Victoria (Ashley Williams), who would have been the best fit for him if his lingering feelings for Robin didn't put a premature end to it. Witty dermatologist Stella (Sarah Chalke) seems to have everything going for her, at least until she shockingly leaves Ted at the altar in Season 4, sending him into an emotional tailspin and humiliatingly providing the inspiration for a fictional feature-length romantic comedy written by her ex-husband. Then there's the scheming, nearly bi-polar Zoey (Jennifer Morrison) who's arguably the worst match of all, as their rocky love-hate battle over his career defining architecture project provides the lengthy story arc for a Ted-centric Season 6.

As an actor, Josh Radnor has drawn comparisons to Zach Braff, which probably stems more from the type of overly sincere and earnest characters they play than any similarities in acting style or appearance. But Radnor (who actually reminds me more of Jimmy Fallon) is warmer and more accessible, so even when the writers seemingly go out of their way to make Ted look like an idiot, his performance makes it impossible to not root for the guy. He'll never get the credit NPH and Segel do for the show's success, but as the straight man to all the hijinx around him, he's done a great job holding it all together with underrated comic timing and the ability to be believably serious when necessary.

Marshall doles out a slap to Barney as "Slap Bet Comissioner" Lily looks on
But if the show's supposed to be about the search for Ted's eventual soulmate, you still wouldn't be wrong assuming the series' beating pulse lies in the relationship between Lily and Marshall and the successes and failures each face, both comically and dramatically. Whether it's Marshall being torn between becoming a cog in the corporate machine at GOLIATH NATIONAL BANK or following his dream to become an environmental lawyer, their attempt to have a baby, or most memorably, the death of his father. Such a rundown almost makes the series sound like a drama when the one constant is how it still manages to be funny through all this, mastering a tone most other comedies lack. A lot of that credit should go to Segel and Hannigan who are effortlessly and endlessly likable together in their roles, radiating the warmest chemistry.

Of all the leads the one that took the longest for me to warm to was Robin, which is kind of understandable considering she isn't your traditional female buddy sitcom character, albeit in a good way. Raised as a boy growing up, the former Canadian teen pop star known as "Robin Sparkles" and current TV news anchor is as afraid of commitment as Ted is obsessed with finding it. Of all the actors, Smulders has probably improved most since the series' start, doing her best work in moments when her character is forced to let her emotional guard down. It's kind of surprising Smulders hasn't blown up as a huge movie star off her work on this show, but less surprising when you consider how better developed a character this is than any she could be asked to play on the big screen.

What's most impressive about the writing is not much the characters have changed and grown over the course of the six seasons, but how little. That's especially true in the case of the show's most valuable asset, Barney, who's played by Neil Patrick Harris in a series-stealing supporting performance that ranks as one of sitcom's greatest. After five seasons you'd figure the character's womanizing schemes (so elaborate it's accompanied by web sites and handbooks) would grow tiresome but NPH never let's it, carrying all of the series' funniest episodes ("Game Night," "Slap Bet," "The Playbook").

Barney executes his legendary "Scuba Diver" pick-up from "The Playbook"
When the time comes for this seemingly unredeemable character to show some semblance of vulnerability and feelings with the arrival of potential love interest Nora (Nazanin Boniadi) and the introduction of his estranged father Jerry (guest star John Lithgow) in Season 5 it feels important because Bays and Thomas waited long enough to pull the trigger. It's here where NPH proves how good he is, deftly handling the more dramatic aspects of the character without losing any of the sarcastic edge or smarminess. Because of him, Barney is never in danger of simply becoming another Ted and hides some of the writers' creatively questionable decisions. There are a lot of reasons to watch the show but he's definitely the biggest.

No discussion of the series would be complete without addressing not only the mystery of the mother, but the wide variety of big-name guest stars who have passed through. Chris Elliot, Wayne Brady, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Enrique Inglesias, Bob Odenkirk, Alan Thicke, Regis Philbin, Alex Trebek, Maury Povich, James Van Der Beek, Bryan Cranston, Danica McKellar, Laura Prepon, Mandy Moore, Katy Perry, Ben Vereen, Rachel Bilson, Kyle MacLachlan, Will Forte, Chris Kattan, Will Sasso, Amanda Peet, Malin Akerman, Stacy Keibler, Alexis Denisof, Nicole Scherzinger and Jorge Garcia have all made appearances in one capacity or another with some obviously faring better than others. The show's always taken heat for its perceived over-reliance on guest stars to pop a rating and while there's no question some have fared better than others, what always impresses me is the producers' ability to cast them accordingly in ways that accentuate their strengths as a performer or hide their weaknesses.

Robin Sparkles' hilariously embarrassing video for "Let's Go To The Mall"
The only complete guest star debacle was the casting Britney Spears at the start of Season 3, as no writing and directing in the world would have been able to cover for a dead-eyed performance so dreadful it justifiably grabbed national entertainment headlines for its stiffness. It's only saving grace is that it likely drew more eyes to the show during a time it was actually on the bubble for cancellation. If her guest shot was merely for shock value, the award for most purposeful should go to Rachel Bilson, who's appearance as The Mother's roommate in the series' landmark 100th episode ("Girls vs. Suits") led to a truckload of information being revealed about The Mother with Ted even being in the same vicinity as her. Besides being privy to the fact that she owns a yellow umbrella (the series' ongoing symbol), that episode and the Emmy-nominated Season 4 finale ("The Leap")  are about as much of her as we get of the mystery, along with an important flash-forward bookending Season 6 that finally gives up the "when" and "where" of their eventual meeting. So while it's tempting to say the show isn't "about" The Mother (and it isn't), it can't be written off as mere coincidence that two of the series' strongest episodes concern her identity.

The show's is at its weakest when the the five core characters aren't together or their lives diverge in such wild directions that the action wanders out of NYC. It's a testament to the chemistry between the actors and how well the city is utilized as a setting that it's even an issue (although in fairness it doesn't start to become an issue until Season 7). And right there is the trap the series has set for itself that Bays and Thomas will have to contend with in the final seasons. These characters who are joined at the hip will eventually have to move on and Ted will eventually have to meet the mother so that means some changes to the show certain to be jarring for longtime viewers. That they're far stronger and more interesting together than apart could make that eventual transition a rocky one as the series heads into the final stretch. There's also the lingering issue of Barney and Robin, which created one of the show's few creative hiccups in its fifth season. Their relationship (if you could even call it that, and I liked that not even the characters could) was mostly a disaster. Whether it was just a case of bad timing or uninspired follow-through the whole plot didn't click, even if the show quickly rebounded from it. Here's hoping it was just bad timing since the writers still seem intent on returning to a storyline that could harm the show's final lap if it's not executed properly. I hope they throw a curveball or two at viewers because it's really this, not the payoff to The Mother mystery, that seems more likely to lead to an unfulfilling result.

The infamous yellow umbrella belonging to The Mother
The first six seasons of this show flow about as smoothly as any modern or classic sitcom could and it's been a while since I've enjoyed one as much. That any network comedy series is still delivering the goods past its fifth season is some kind of a miracle, even if it's too often overlooked by demanding longtime fans complaining about a steep decline. This isn't the kind of the show that's meant to be picked apart and over-analyzed to death. Newer viewers discovering it for the first time via streaming or some other means will likely just lose themselves in the world Bays and Thomas create and wonder what everyone else is complaining about. Granted, that's a lot easier to do when you watch it marathon-style instead of being invested in it on a weekly basis for the past seven years. In this interactive era where showrunners can get immediate interaction and feedback from fans online it may seem awful for me to say that Bays and Thomas shouldn't listen to any of them. Or you. Or me. If there's one thing we know about hardcore TV fans it's that they're never happy, especially if things don't go in their preferred direction. The writers just need to stay the course and make decisions based on what makes most sense for the characters. It's worked so far. Now all that's left is seeing how the rest plays out.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Week With Marilyn

Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson, Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Julia Ormond, Toby Jones, Dougray Scott 
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The role of Marilyn Monroe has to be one of the most intimidating and challenging parts an actress can be asked to play, though not for the reasons you'd assume. As far as legendary pop culture icons and celebrities go, there was always a tendency to believe there had to be more to her than what we saw. She really wasn't a good actress. She wasn't incredibly talented. Yet here she is today as this tragic figure and sometimes it's kind of tricky to determine how. That's why casting her is thankless. Do you you cast a movie star who isn't much of an actress for a sensationalized look at "Marilyn?" Or find a great actress who may not necessarily come off as a big movie star for a deeper look at "Norma Jean?" Simon Curtis' pseudo-biopic My Week With Marilyn answers that question by laying claim to the most intriguing casting choice in years and Michelle Williams' Oscar nominated performance delivers on it, even in moments when the rest of the film has trouble keeping up with her.

Foregoing the more traditional biopic route, writer Adrian Hodges (adapting Colin Clark's memoirs) instead takes the Frost/Nixon approach, capturing a brief, but pivotal moment-in-time snapshot in the life of an iconic figure. The story's told through the eyes of Oxford grad and aspiring filmmaker Colin (Eddie Redmayne) who spent a week with Marilyn Monroe (Williams) as third assistant director on Laurence Olivier's (Kenneth Branagh) 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl (then titled The Sleeping Prince). Olivier, the respected thespian and stage actor, sees casting Marilyn opposite him as a chance for to regain his youth and vitality, finally becoming a full-fledged movie star. For Marilyn-- already the biggest star on the planet-- it's the rare chance to be taken seriously as an actress by holding her own onscreen with one of the best. Of course, the result of this promising collaboration ended up laying somewhere in between a complete disaster and a curious footnote in cinematic history. Over-medicated, showing up late and flubbing lines, the Marilyn who shows up on set with acting coach Paula Strasburg (Zoe Wanamaker) glued to her arm more closely resembles a frightened child in need of constant babysitting than her sexy public persona. After Marilyn's husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) skips town in the midst of her meltdowns, it becomes Clark's job to look after the star and a semi-romantic friendship develops, awkwardly placing him in the middle of her feud with Olivier. An infatuated Colin falls fast and hard, ignoring warnings from Olivier and her agent Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper) not to buy into the "little girl lost" act they think she's selling.

Outside of Williams' performance and the fascinating on-set clash with Olivier, there isn't a lot here, but there doesn't need to be because those two elements are more than enough. While played well by Redmayne, Colin is kind of a flat character, functioning only as the eyes through which we can observe Marilyn as he attempts to grasp the magnitude of what's happening to him. Whether she's actually interested in him romantically seems almost beside the point. Instead, he represents for her the opportunity to have a real date, act a little crazy and enjoy the normal romantic pleasures that have proved impossible because of her fame. There's a sense all she wants to do is get rid of Marilyn and is unintentionally using Colin to do it, which can only lead to heartache for him. Then again, there are many moments where we sense she doesn't want to get rid of her at all, or simply can't. Her use of the Marilyn "persona" as a security blanket for coping with her own insecurity comes to the forefront when faced with the daunting task of going one-one with the legendary Olivier on set. She can't rely on that persona this time and without so much as a shred of confidence in her own acting abilities, begins to break. Olivier understandably loses his patience and temper, even as his reasoning behind hiring her reveals just as much about his own lack of confidence.

This is some performance from Michelle Williams, justifiably earning every bit of praise it's gotten. She just nails it. The facial expressions. The walk. The voice. Especially the voice. Everything. There's this moment when she's with Colin and they're suddenly mobbed by fans and photographers. She turns to him and asks, "Should I be her?" before slipping into character and becoming Marilyn. Williams seems to turn it on and off at the flip of a switch, alternating between the superstar we thought we knew and a frazzled train wreck of emotional dependency. The question wasn't whether she could play the latter but how well she could capture the former, which is ironic considering her career start as teen sexpot Jen Lindley on Dawson's Creek. It's a testament to how hard she worked since then to move away from that image that seeing her play this now seems like a huge stretch. There's at least a passable physical resemblance to the icon, but what Williams really brings is the depth, making Marilyn the unlikeliest addition to her growing gallery of emotionally tortured heroines.

In his Oscar nominated supporting performance Branagh subtly avoids turning Olivier into an all-out villain, instead showing a gifted actor past his prime who's grasping at straws to turn Marilyn into something she can't possibly be. Her only supporter is actress and co-star Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), who realizes her fragile psyche responds better to encouragement than harsh criticism. The rest of the supporting players aren't as well-developed. Dougray Scott is hilariously miscast (then altogether forgotten about) as Arthur Miller, reimagined here as some kind of enigmatic stud. But the film's most thankless role belongs to Emma Watson as a wardrobe girl Lucy, who Colin strings along while he's off frolicking with Marilyn all week. It's one thing to waste a name actress for a useless, underwritten part, but quite another to insultingly pretend in the last act that the part meant anything. While her purpose is clear, it's just isn't followed through enough to have any kind of impact. There's also a scene early on with Oliver's then-wife Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) that comes of nowhere, seemingly thrown in only to give Ormond a juicy scene and hammer us too hard with the theme of insecurity.

When Michelle Williams was announced to play Marilyn, Monroe fanatics were predictably up in arms, but the most interesting complaint I heard was that she didn't "deserve" it. She's too short. She's not pretty enough. Not enough charisma. But the real question should have been whether Marilyn "deserves" to be played by Williams. By the end of the film I believed that she did and the choice seems especially inspired when you consider all Marilyn wanted was to be taken seriously as actress. It's likely she would have appreciated the irony. The great thing about biographical dramas is how they bring two figures together from different eras with seemingly nothing in common who must co-exist in a single performance. Using that criteria, it's difficult coming up with a more intriguing pairing than Marilyn Monroe and Michelle Williams. What Norma Jean really wanted was a career like Williams. She got Marilyn Monroe's instead. And it destroyed her. Now with a legitimately great actress playing her, she finally ends up attaining the respectability she never could on her own.