Thursday, May 30, 2013

Django Unchained


  
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher
Running Time: 165 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Each time Quentin Tarantino comes out with a new film I find myself saying that this will be the one where I've finally had it. I'll say he's gone the revenge fantasy route too times many times, overwrites, casts the same people, fetishizes violence and music and seems more interested in making his movies "cool" than having them work. Then it's released and all those things end up being mostly true. And it doesn't even matter. It's still the greatest thing out there. He gets away with this because there's only one Tarantino and no one else out there is even remotely capable of doing what he does. Many have tried in the 90's, only to embarrass themselves. His writing is so idiosyncratic it's some kind of  miracle any actor can effectively deliver it and maybe even more of one that his crazy vision can be translated onto the screen, even by the person responsible for it. Django Unchained is his highest-grossing movie to date and also his longest, clocking in at nearly 3 hours to make it the longest of the year's nine Best Picture nominees. And it feels it. Yet, that doesn't matter either because it seems as if you're too glued to the screen to even care and on the receiving end of at least two or three movies for the price of one.

Set in the Deep South in 1858, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is suddenly given a shot at freedom when he's rescued by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist and bounty hunter who grants him that freedom in exchange for helping him track down the Brittle Brothers, with whom Django has a brutal history. Feeling responsible for the man, Schultz takes him on as his apprentice, showing him the ropes of bounty hunting and even supplying him with a new wardrobe. His ultimate act of generosity is in helping Django rescue his slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from her cruel but charismatic owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose "Candyland" plantation is a home to slaves being forced to fight to the death for entertainment in "Mandingo" fights. Manipulating their way into Candie's good graces, Schultz and Django must find a way to outsmart him and his right-hand house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). But escaping with Broomhilda and their lives won't be so easy, especially as Django's conflicted emotions about horrors of his slave past and his new responsibilities as a bounty hunter rise to the surface, threatening to blow their cover.          

It's odd describing the first half of a film dealing with such an ugly topic as being a fun watch but that's just what it is because of how Tarantino presents the personal and professional partnership that develops between Schultz and Django. There's an undeniable thrill in seeing this slave freed and given the opportunity to extract revenge on those who oppressed him. On top of it, it's interesting to witness all the double talk and scams Schultz uses to help him make it happen. Of the criticisms leveled against the film, the most popular is that Django is merely a spectator in his own story, rescued by the white man and unable to think or act on his own. But how much autonomy can he reasonably have? He's still only freed slave. The reality of the situation is that he won't be accepted on his own as a bounty hunter because of his race and he'd need a great deal of help pulling this off. It's simply a story requirement and nothing more.

Django's marginalization isn't a flaw and Foxx's role is clearly lead (or at least co-lead) but Waltz is such a titanic and charismatic screen presence that's he's basically tricked everyone into thinking otherwise. Much like in Inglourious Basterds, he steals show and there are a remarkable number of similarities between the two  characters, with the key difference of course being that Schultz is a German freeing slaves instead of a Nazi Jew hunter. It's fascinating to watch Waltz give a slick, fast-talking, witty performance that touches many of the same bases he did as Col. Hans Landa while this time around earning audience adoration instead of hatred. And Waltz accomplishes all this without really ever making the Schultz "feel" like the hero, but instead just as ruthless and calculating as the white slave owners he's hunting. Not to mention a whole lot smarter.

Foxx's job in comparison would almost seem to be a thankless one in that he must play the strong, silent avenger but he hasn't gotten enough attention for just how much of that quiet intensity and pain he has to convey when they infiltrate Candyland and he must come face-to-face with the atrocities of his own past while staying in character to effectively execute their scheme. It's here where we start wondering if he's enjoying his new role maybe a bit too much and possibly getting too cocky to see it through to the end. There's a great duality going on here and it's difficult to believe that Tarantino's original choice for the role, Will Smith, could have pulled it off better, or even as well, as Foxx. Smith's reasoning for turning it down are well-documented, confirming everything we've already known (feared?) about how he approaches his career, or rather his brand. That his problems with the script boiled down to " Must Be Hero" and "Good Guy Must Shoot Bad Guy" make me wonder if he even read the thing, or maybe just skipped the last fifty pages.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, has never met a role out of his comfort zone or above his ability level   that he won't tackle. On paper, he would certainly seem ill-suited for a racist plantation owner, but yet again, he gives it his all and makes it work, turning in a diabolical, scenery chewing performance as Candie. He's all at once funny and scary, with a good argument to be made that the film doesn't really hit its stride until his arrival. And he's not even playing the most detestable character. That (dis)honor goes to Samuel L. Jackson, whose house slave Stephen might just be the most reprehensible character the actor's played in his career. So sickening in his subservience to Candie and the abuse of his own race that it's difficult to watch, the whole performance is kind of scary in how it touches a nerve and just makes us uncomfortable every moment he's on screen, including a scene where we realize he's more observant than we originally thought.

No Tarantino film would be complete without appearances from veteran actors like Don Johnson (memorable early on as slave owner "Big Daddy"), Dennis Christopher, Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn, Tom Savini and Bruce Dern. Jonah Hill also briefly appears when Tarantino accomplishes the impossible with an absurd gag involving the Klu Klux Klan you can't imagine would ever get laughs, but somehow does. Of everyone, Kerry Washington seems the least essential as Broomhilda, but even that role's challenging and it would be difficult to come up with suggestions as to who else could have tackled it as well. True to form, the director saves an almost aggressively distracting cameo for himself in the last act that ranks as the most unintentionally hilarious few minutes of screen time he's had as an actor in one of his own films. Complete with a bizarre accent and cowboy hat, his appearance is so crazy that it works almost in spite of itself, even as the filmmaker proves once again that he probably shouldn't give up his day job anytime soon. It's a good thing we're having too much fun to care.

Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack is as much a character in the film as any person in it, utilizing the most music of any of his outings since the 90's, with a big standout being the use of Jim Croce's classic "I Got a Name" in a sequence where Django first comes into his own as a bounty hunter. For me, the only questionable musical choice comes in the final act, as Rick Ross' "100 Black Coffins," just seems too glaringly modern and "on-the-nose" to fit amidst the film's setting. But that's a minor quibble. With Tarantino's longtime editor Sally Menke having passed away, the glaring question going into this was what effect, if any, it would have on the finished product. Of course, looking at the running time the easiest joke to make is that there was no editing at all, but the truth is actually that the film holds together surprisingly well under the circumstances and while some action probably could have been cut, there's good reason to be grateful for everything that got in.

Whereas Inglourious Basterds mostly played it straight until its third act, morphing into an alternate history revenge fantasy flick, Django is a revenge fantasy through and through from the opening credits onward. It's also a spaghetti Western, a blaxploitation picture and a buddy film.The biggest surprise is in how it starts as an action comedy not too far removed from something like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and slowly morphs into something darker, calling the country out on its own shamefully racist past as the title character steps up to take ownership of his own story. When analyzing Tarantino's films, the popular approach is always to compare them, not to other works, but to his, which is unusual considering how many influences and inspirations he incorporates. Maybe it's finally time to admit he's more original than we give him credit for. 
            

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How I Met Your Mother (Season 8)



Creators: Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
Starring: Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris, Alyson Hannigan, Lyndsy Fonseca, David Henrie, Bob Saget(voice)
Original Airdate: 2012-2013

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

                                                **Spoiler Warning: This Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers**

So, there's this moment that comes at the end of Episode 20 of How I Met Your Mother's penultimate season, titled, "The Time Travelers," in which Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) attempts to persuade Ted (Josh Radnor) to stop moping at MacLaren's and go with him to see Robots vs. Wrestlers: Legends or he'll regret it in 20 years. Before long, future versions of Ted and Future Barney show up to confirm that. Then comes the kicker: Ted's really sitting alone at the bar. Barney, Robin (Cobie Smulders), Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel) are all too busy with their own lives to go with him. And all the events that occur in the episode actually happened five years ago, as a lonely, dejected Ted replays them in his own mind.

It'll be 45 days until he meets the mother and Bob Saget's narration informs us that if he could go back, he'd spend it with his friends. Ted imagines himself knocking on the mother's apartment door and introducing himself early, saying he'd do anything to get extra time with her. The entire sequence is Season 1 level quality, proving that creators Carter Bay and Craig Thomas are still capable of pulling off the magic when necessary. The moment encapsulates what's best about the series during another season where not enough of the rest does. It's the first time the end actually feels in sight  while even vaguely addressing crazy fan theories that Ted might be telling this story from a rubber room, or that he and The Mother, down the road, may no longer be together.

We've seen Ted Mosby depressed over the past 8 years, but we've never seen him truly hopeless until now. He's given up and is well on his way to rock bottom, which presumably arrives the weekend of a certain wedding that will somehow end for him in the rain on a Farhampton train platform with "the girl with the yellow umbrella." And now, shockingly, she's here. Bays and Thomas definitely saved their biggest play for last this season and while it's a shame it had to follow nearly three years of wheel-spinning and stalling, it does feel like a giant weight has been lifted off the show by revealing her to us (if not Ted just yet) and insuring we'll be getting to know her a lot better soon. Just doing that is a controversial decision in itself so it remains to be seen just how much that will positively or negatively affect their eventual meeting, which is one of the last big weapons the writers can still claim to have up their sleeves at this point.

Teds and Barneys in "The Time Travelers"
Unmistakably, and no matter what has come before, that meeting will still be a MOMENT. How much emotional impact it'll carry is now up to them and the performance of an untested, little known actress.  But as difficult as it is to digest, there's also a full season's worth of developments that came before that reveal. Well, sort of. Mostly it was just more of the same, with very few exceptions. But the good news is that for the first time in a while things at least look promising for a strong finish. It's certainly no secret that we probably shouldn't even be talking about an upcoming ninth season and this story should have been tighter and wrapped up a lot sooner, but because the show continues to financially thrive for CBS, these are the cards we've been dealt.

Most of the first half of the eighth season is spent cleaning up a gigantic mess the writers got themselves into at the end of a pretty awful seventh season. In their defense, they accomplish this as quickly and efficiently as possible, even if there's no getting around the obvious fact that none of it should have happened to begin with. Robin and Barney are each in committed relationships (though not with each other...yet), Lily and Marshall now have a baby and Ted had shockingly run away with Victoria (a returning Ashley Williams) on her wedding day. Of course, we know that none of these relationships will last, as we've continually gotten flashforward glimpses of Robin and Barney's wedding for the past few seasons. They're interspersed, as usual, with the show's main framing device of Future Ted recounting to his kids (Lyndsy Fonseca and David Henrie) the story of how he met their mother. And it's a story that's become increasingly long-winded and detailed, with seemingly no end in sight, at least until this season's potentially show-saving final shot.

Barney's engagement to stripper Quinn (Becki Newton), Robin's not-so-serious union with himbo Nick (Michael Trucco) and Ted's second go-around with fan favorite Victoria all collapse within a span of five episodes collectively known as "The Autumn of Break-Ups." That this doesn't even qualify as a spoiler of any sort should give you an idea how painfully predictable and unfunny they are, with the only relief coming from the aforementioned Farhampton flashforward in the premiere and the fact that we're now finally freed up get down to business.Why Ted, who was so memorably left at the altar himself, would run away with another man's bride on her wedding day is a question we'll continue to ponder. Along why Victoria was brought back to be labeled as a "slob" and give Ted a Friends-inspired ultimatum. Or why Barney seems to be the only one who can't see that marrying a still working stripper could create an issue.That business at hand is of course the path to Robin and Barney's wedding, which at this point almost has to feel rushed considering they weren't even together at the start of the season. But this is at least one development I didn't mind to see rushed since we already know how it ends up. 

I was curious as to how Bays and Thomas would handle the Barney-Robin engagement and was pleasantly surprised. I half expected a long, drawn-out courtship between the two to kill more time but instead they took a clever, short-term approach I can't completely give away. Let's just say they did a good job getting Barney to the place where he could believably settle down with Robin, without sacrificing the key narcissistic, womanizing, lying, scheming qualities that have made Barney Stinson, as played pitch-perfectly by NPH, such an entertaining character over the past eight years. While I'll never be thrilled with the pairing just out of its sheer predictability and the absurd fan devotion it inspires, they did just about as good a job as they could getting there while their backs were against the wall and the series' future time frame was still very much in the air.

The two-parter (titled "The Final Page") not only works as a welcome callback to classic HIMYM story devices like Barney's "Playbook," but also circles the show back to Ted's inability to let go of his feelings for Robin. Unlike many, I don't have a problem with that at all. That's where the story should be at this point and is in many ways the series' most realistic aspect. Why should he be over her? She's one of his best friends and has done very little overs the years to dissuade him from pursuing her, always keeping him in her back pocket as a possible romantic option in case things don't work out. And even as pathetically as Ted can come across, you almost have to admire his dedication and refusal to give up despite being trapped squarely in her "friend zone." As we know, there's only one person capable of triggering him to let go of Robin and until she shows up I'd say it's fair for the writers to go back to that well as many times as they see fit.

The finale hints he may have found one last ditch attempt to slide back into her good graces, even if it comes at the expense of his friendship with Barney. It's clear that we're definitely headed toward a major Ted-Barney battle in the final season and that feels right given that the two of them have never really sat down and hashed out this Robin situation. One of the season's more memorable images comes when Ted stares out from the window of the building he designed, seemingly a success, yet alone as his best friend proposes to the woman he's still in love with. I also appreciate that they finally gave us an update on that GNB building, Ted's teaching career and the renovation of his dream house in Westchester, all of which haven't been mentioned in what's felt like five years.
                 
Robin as her alter ego "Robin Daggers" in "P.S. I Love You"
From the description of it, you'd figure the series is an hour-long drama instead of a 30-minute situation comedy, but this season does bring some laughs to balance out the angst. Cobie Smulders has consistently proven herself to be the most improved actor of the five and it's become especially noticeable in these latter, weaker seasons. This one at least gives her the opportunity to briefly slip back into her most iconic and hilarious persona and one of the series' most satisfying long-running gags. Robin's not so secret past as Canadian pop sensation "Robin Sparkles" and the resulting flashbacks and music videos have resulted in some of the show's biggest laughs. The episode "P.S. I Love You," in which Barney unearths a Behind The Music-style documentary chronicling her career fall, features an onslaught of inside jokes and hilarious Canadian celebrity appearances (Dave Coulier!), proving the show is still at times capable of channeling its early greatness.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the handling of Marshall and Lily's adventures as new parents. It's always been speculated that bringing a baby onto a sitcom can be a death knell, if not a sure sign your show has "jumped the shark" While this doesn't feel like it deserves such a declaration and is more just a reflection of the general course of things, the two sure aren't given much to do this season aside from changing diapers. But that could possibly be considered a step up from the previous season, when the couple was so busy playing house on Long Island that Segel and Hannigan were absent enough to barely qualify as series regulars anymore.

Supposedly, Segel was the lone holdout in signing up for a ninth season, and with a burgeoning film career and Marshall's arc having run its course, he could hardly be blamed if he wanted out. Marshall ends the season with yet another career opportunity (this time for a judgeship) presenting itself just as Lily aspires to follow her professional dreams abroad. Despite being wasted for most of the 24 episodes, Lilly does share a couple of meaningful moments with Ted, which is a relief since their talks have been sorely missed of late. One leads to a surprisingly deep confession from her, while the other unwittingly pushes him further along in his path to meet The Mother. But as absent as Marshall and Lilly may occasionally be from the gang's booth at MacLaren's, it's at least a relief to not to see guest stars filling their seats.

If there's any improvement over the previous  year it's that guest stars are used more sparingly and we don't have a repeat of an underdeveloped character like Kal Penn's Kevin being incorporated into the group for half a season and boring us to tears. Or worse yet, nabbing a huge name like Katie Holmes, only to do little with her. Chris Elliot and Ray Wise make their respective returns as Lily and Robin's fathers, Peter Gallagher appears as Ted's former college professor, Abby Elliot has an arc as Ted's crazy girlfriend, Amber Benson finally gives a face to Barney's long-lost sister, Alexis Denisof briefly returns as Sandy Rivers, Seth Green plays a former classmate of Marshall and Lily's, Mike Tyson shows up as himself, Rachel Bilson cameos as Cindy again, Kyle Maclachlan is back as "The Captain" and Keegan-Michael Key and Casey Wilson make a memorable appearance as an obnoxious couple in the finale. This list is actually pretty conservative by HIMYM's standards. But there's really only one guest star anyone wants to talk about.

A lonely Ted looks out from inside his newly completed GNB building
It's almost surreal finally having a face and an actual name of an actress attached to The Mother. It happened. We saw her. Supposedly, Radnor was pushing very hard for the choice to be relative unknown and, to an extent, I get it. While we all had to throw away our lists of fantasy picks for the role, the fact remains that anyone who isn't complete unknown would carry with them at least some degree of baggage because the audience would already be familiar with them. And it's not hard to like the idea of us meeting and getting to know a fresh face as Ted is since we've been with him on this journey the entire time. Someone unexpectedly sweeping in out of nowhere who we've never seen before dovetails nicely into the show's theme, while giving a working actress, who may not have otherwise gotten a chance, an opportunity to break through to the next level.  You also have to consider that in this age of the internet and social media it would be nearly impossible for Bays and Thomas to plug the leaks and be able to keep anyone resembling a major name a secret from rabid fans. Oh, and they used up every possible actress already. That's the part I most have a problem with because it could have so easily been avoided.

When I first saw The Mother my immediate reaction was one of mild disappointment, the blame of which I'd put at the feet of the writers and my expectations, not Cristin Milioti, who until now was best known for her Tony nominated performance in Broadway's Once, a guest spot on 30 Rock and a big screen credit playing comedian Mike Birbiglia's sister in his 2012 low budget indie gem, Sleepwalk with Me. When she made her entrance to the strains of The Shins' "Simple Song" in the final moment of the season finale, "Something New," I didn't recognize her at all. So, mission accomplished there.  But the disappointment no doubt stems from the usual let down bound to accompany an appearance that's been built up for nearly a decade. Maybe she's just not quite how I expected Ted Mosby's wife to look. Maybe not the right height or weight. Is she not pretty enough? Or maybe she didn't speak exactly how I expected. Then I realized she's competing with nothing except our own imaginations and the unfair expectations the writers have spent the past several years burdening her with.

It probably all goes back to that infamous 100th Episode, "Girls vs. Suits," in which The Mother's then-roommate, Cindy complained to Ted how she just couldn't compete with "the girl with the yellow umbrella" and that every guy she tried to date just instantly fell in love with her. And that was it right there. If Rachel Bilson (who proved she could have handled The Mother role herself) is made to feel insecure and jealous then the idea is already planted in viewers heads to expect the unreasonable. Not helping any is Ted's notoriously high standards and the producers' penchant for stunt casting, as former dates or girlfriends played by Bilson, Holmes, Sarah Chalke, Danica McKellar, Mandy Moore, Jennifer Morrison did set the bar fairly high for the title character despite their characters' obvious faults. Are the writers trying to tell us something by foregoing the temptation to cast a big name actress or a traffic-stopping beauty, but rather a conventionally cute, average girl who seems extraordinary to Ted? I'd say so. We'll see whether the gamble pays off.

Our first glimpse of The Mother, played by Cristin Milioti
It probably would have been impossible for any actress to deliver on all our expectations in just a single moment. Luckily, Milioti will be given more time than that to fulfill those expectations, and she only has to believably fulfill them for Ted, not us. Ultimately, it wouldn't have mattered whether the actress chosen was a huge name or an unknown just as long as she's right for the role. A vocal minority of fans already think she's perfect for this and, if it's any consolation, the reaction to her casting was about ten times more positive than you'd expect given the circumstances. She isn't a disappointment. At least not yet. It just remains to be seen. And we'll apparently be seeing a lot of her as she's apparently joining the cast as a regular in the show's final season to interact with the gang before finally meeting Ted. So this isn't merely a walk-on. It's a lock that we'll be learning more about her side of the story with a whole extra season suddenly available for them to play around with.

The decision to have the final season unfold 24-style during the 56 hours leading up to Barney and Robin's wedding is a a polarizing one. Expect tons of flashbacks and flashforwards to fill in the gaps, lending even more weight to the assertions that this is the Lost of sitcoms, now thankfully minus the mystery. Truthfully, their new approach heading into the final lap couldn't have come at a better time since the main problem plaguing HIMYM over the past few years (besides simply its age) is a tired formula that's enabled Bays and Thomas to take as much time as they need to tell their story with as little forward momentum as possible. But now she's here and they don't have that crutch to lean on anymore. They were smart to finally remove it themselves, even if viewers who have somehow hung in there since the 2005 premiere had already lost patience. Having binge watched the show's previous seasons last year, that level of fatigue hasn't set in for me, but it's easy to commiserate with anyone who decided enough is enough and jumped ship.There's certainly been a nosedive in quality these past few seasons and with it comes a reminder of the kinds of creative problems sitcoms face when they overstay their welcome. But there are few other characters I'd rather have overstay that welcome than these five and most of that has to do with the talented actors who play them. Even as the material has sometimes wavered, their work in front of the camera never has.

Over the years, HIMYM has kind of evolved into comfort television. A familiar place where you can hang out with people you like going through similar problems. And that's why, despite complaints, we keep coming back. When the series concludes there's at least a possibility that it will play well as a whole, marginalizing some of the criticisms that appear to be a big deal now. Whereas the series' seventh season just felt like more filler, this one at least had flashes of the show's glory days interspersed with the mess. And out of that comes potential. The idea that the season 9 may not at all resemble the eight that came before is intriguing when you consider how stale things have gotten. A major shake-up and format change seemed necessary and Bays and Thomas should at least be commended for realizing that if they were planning to go one more season, a whole new game plan had to be implemented. Despite sometimes striking a sour note along the way, the end is finally here, and accompanying it is a feeling of cautious optimism and anticipation longtime HIMYM viewers haven't experienced in a while. The only question left is whether it's come too late.                                    

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Smashed


Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Kay Place, Kyle Gallner
Running Time: 81 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

There are certain actors and actresses you're just a fan of. It would probably be easier to deny it and pretend I go into every movie with complete objectivity, but the fact is that I'm much more likely to watch and appreciate a film starring performers I like and have followed throughout their careers. I want them to make smart choices that confirm my opinions of their talent, and if they don't, it's disappointing. Three of them co-star in James Ponsoldt's Smashed, a film about alcoholism that's really about a descent into sobriety. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul and Nick Offerman appearing together in a single film reading from a phone book probably would have been enough for me, but here's Winstead giving an award caliber central performance as an alcoholic, Paul as her immature, unsupportive husband and Offerman proving he can inhabit a character that's about as far removed from Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson as possible. On top of that, the film itself is nearly perfect in a straightforward, no-nonsense way that may not be immediately apparent. It plays honestly, but without judgement.

Winstead plays Kate Hannah, a schoolteacher who also happens to be an alcoholic. We see in early scenes that, as the former, she's amazingly kind and patient with the kids and pretty much every parent's dream of who they'd trust with their children. Until, hungover from another night of partying, she vomits all over the classroom floor. The kids ask her if she's pregnant and, panicking, she to lies them and a supportive Principal Barnes (Megan Mullally). It's likely Kate's been an alcoholic for a while but is just now starting to come around and realize it. She's not there yet, but getting close. Hardly helping is her equally hard partying husband, Charlie (Paul) whose complete obliviousness to their situation and terminal complacency are the only qualities making him seem like he doesn't have as much of a problem as she does. Kate's only real support comes from the soft-spoken vice principal Dave Davies (Offerman), a recovering addict not only willing to cover up her lie because he has a big crush, but also willing to take her with him to AA meetings where she meets her sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer). On the road to recovery, Kate discovers sobriety is slowly tearing her marriage apart, as a still drinking Charlie feels left behind and a slew of other problems start to surface.  

It seems to be a commonly held belief about young people that their drinking and drug use will never escalate to alcoholism or addiction, and it carries over into movies where the middle-aged tend to be the most serious substance abusers. It's almost as if young adults are expected to be doing it, and, as a result, should be able to handle it just fine. At the beginning of this film you'd almost be forgiven into thinking so, until a moment comes that's frightening in how well Winstead sells it. Waking up on the street with no idea where she is or how she got there, it's the first time Kate seems legitimately scared and mortified of what she's capable of when drinking. During a memorable sequence scored to Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight," we see Kate spend the night smoking crack with a hooker, and it's after that she realizes it's the final straw. But really it's just the beginning. Short-term, her decision to embrace sobriety surprisingly causes more problems than it solves in her marriage and life, while bringing dormant ones to the surface, such as an already strained relationship with her mother (Mary Kay Place).

There were already strong hints of Winstead promise in 2011's The Thing prequel and now seeing this it'll be easier to understand why I suspected that role in Scott Pilgrim was way beneath her. This confirms it. It's almost become a long-running joke that playing an alcoholic is every actor's dream since it invariably leads to awards recognition of some sort, but there's a reason for that. It's difficult to do believably. She doesn't squander the opportunity, knowing that drunk people often behave like delusional sober people, completely ignorant to everything going on around them. And it's the mode she's in for the entire first half of the film, which is no small feat. But it's when the drinking stops that her performance really kicks into high gear, as Kate's eaten with guilt over her sobriety driving a wedge through her marriage. She also has to ward off the advances of confidant and co-worker, Dave, though using the term "advances" is probably stretching it given his struggles talking to women. Offerman leaves all traces of the manly, breakfast obsessed Ron Swanson behind in a really subdued, low-key dramatic performance that still doesn't completely abandon the dry sense of humor he's known for. It proves, unsurprisingly, that he's capable of other things.

Aaron Paul plays Charlie as a good guy, but also one stuck in a complacent holding pattern. In this way, he resembles Jesse Pinkman of Breaking Bad's early seasons (right down to the substance abuse and playing video games on the couch) to the point that he'll probably be accused of just playing a variation on his TV character. But this speaks more to our familiarity with Paul than the actual performance, which is surprising in how he cedes so much of the spotlight to his co-star. Now that Kate's sober, there may no longer be a place for him in her life and they'll have to take stock as to whether they ever had anything that went beyond drinking and partying. We also wonder if she can move past how unforgivably unsupportive he's been in her recovery. But much like Flight, the other 2012 film dealing with alcoholism, Kate won't really be clean until she admits she isn't and takes responsibility for her lies.

Watching Smashed, I couldn't help but wonder how badly it would have turned out if a major studio had released it, interfering to make it more exciting or dumbing it down so a depressing topic like alcoholism could be more cheery and accessible. Thankfully, we'll never see that version and I'm given the opportunity to see three of my favorites given free reign to just tear into this meaningful material with everything they've got. It also marks the first time I've seen a movie character pulled over for driving drunk...on a bicycle. First-time director Ponsoldt makes it happen but it's easy believe the hard part was over once this cast was set in place. It wasn't until the end that I realized Paul and Offerman don't share a single scene together. And that feels strangely like the right call. For the story's purposes, there's no need, so they don't.  But the film ultimately belongs to Winstead, revealing dimensions to her abilities even her biggest fans couldn't have anticipated. And that she does it opposite two of TV's best, only makes the accomplishment seem that much greater.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Lincoln



Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Tim Blake Nelson, Dane DeHaan, Joseph Cross, Gloria Reuben
Running Time: 150 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

A talky slog through a very specific point in American history, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln probably would have been better served with the title, The Passing of the 13th Amendment or maybe even Team of Rivals, the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography on which it's partially based. Then again, advertising and marketing still wouldn't fix most of the problems associated with a film that makes the 16th President a supporting player in what feels like the world's longest episode of The West Wing.  Where it earns points is in impeccable period accuracy and an Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis that's every bit as impressive as you'd expect and then some. History buffs will eat this up, even if we're left with the nagging feeling that, barring a few notable exceptions, Spielberg doesn't give us anything that couldn't be gleaned from doing some reading.

As much as many reject standard, by-the-numbers biopics on political figures, I couldn't help but think that approach would have actually been welcome here, as the choice to only depict Lincoln's last four months in office (and of his life) seem to be almost too narrow a focus. And yet, that was easily the most interesting period so Spielberg's caught between a rock and a hard place. He responds with his most un-Spielbergian effort yet, completely abandoning the sentimentality usually associated with his work in favor of a straight, emotionless recitation of history. In that sense, the film is a welcome departure, as he makes the wise decision to get out of his own way.  Other than an attempted portrayal of Lincoln as a saintly, Gandhi-like figure (that's mostly transcended by Lewis' riveting turn) there's little that would indicate it's even a Spielberg picture. You'd figure that would be a good thing. Instead, it creates an unusual dichotomy that results in a mild letdown. Albeit a really well-made one. 

The film primarily focuses on President Lincoln's attempts in 1865 to obtain passage for the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the House of Representatives. To do this he not only needs the necessary minimum of 20 votes from the Democrats but also, without exception, the full support of the Republicans. It's not as easy as it seems and much of the verbal sparring scripted by Tony Kushner centers around the president's political maneuvering, which is often controversial. Of course, we know he eventually comes out with the win, only to weeks later lose his life to an assassin's bullet, but Spielberg shows the resistance he faced pulling that monumental victory off. Most of those battles involve an unlikely ally in Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets to to deliver some of the film's sharpest insults, proving that politics was just as dirty then as it is now. But for all who are in favor of the amendment's passage, there are just as many who aren't. Namely outspoken Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), and even the emotional First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), whom the President has to constantly placate due to her wild mood swings and fears of their returning son Robert Todd's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desire to join the Union Army.

It's a strange complaint to level against a Spielberg film that it isn't emotionally manipulative enough, but oddly, that's the case here. It's a political procedural devoid of manufactured drama, and even as someone who usually appreciates that approach in other genres, it's dry and talky to the point that I sometimes found myself losing patience and just zoning out. A key factor as to why (aside from the material's sheer denseness) is that it just isn't visually interesting. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has collaborated with Spielberg many times in the past with enormously successful results, but three quarters of the film is shot in dark, dingy corridors and musty rooms. At times it's almost too dark to even see what's happening, which maybe doesn't matter since, most of the time, not a lot is.  For example, there's exactly one shot of the White House, which is unusual, because if any historical period presented a golden opportunity for sweeping visual grandeur on screen it was this one. Instead, the whole thing feels kind of claustrophobic with most the film confined to offices and courtrooms.

Luckily, we still have Daniel-Day Lewis, who inhabits every scene, telling stories and providing valuable insight into Lincoln's politics and morals. It almost seems as if every revelation that comes forth about the man is contained entirely in his performance. Everything else, we pretty much knew already. He's the reason to see this. The voice, the look, the tone of speaking. There are so many points where you're taken aback by the way he delivers a line and forced to ask yourself, "Lincoln said THAT? Really?" At some points it's actually funny to hear the things that come out of his mouth because we've grown so accustomed to history dictating to us the mythic terms under which he's supposed to be viewed. But Day-Lewis humanizes him, which might end up being the film's greatest success. One of the most memorable moments comes at the start when he's interacting with a pair of Union soldiers reciting to him the Gettysburg Address. It's a transformative performance in search of a better movie that focuses entirely on Lincoln rather than the nuts and bolts of the political process.

Make no mistake that this is all about the 13th Amendment, with non of the other sub-plots even getting off the ground. Unforgivably, a mustachioed Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wasted as Robert Todd Lincoln, while little is explored regarding the President's marriage aside from a shrieking Sally Field making it perfectly clear that the Mary Todd was a real basketcase and the polar opposite of her calm, serene husband. Of the many supporting players, it's really Jones who chews into his role as stubborn Thaddeus Stevens with grumpy gusto, stealing nearly every scene he's in. Top to bottom, it's a loaded cast, with David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan, Jared Harris, Adam Driver, Walter Goggins and Bruce McGill all contributing in some form or another in wide variety of small and larger parts. More fun than the actual film might be trying to spot and recognize them all. Especially James Spader, who's strangely hilarious as an determined Republican party member lobbying for the amendment's passage.

It's easy to fault Spielberg for continuing a half-hour longer than what would have been the perfect end point or criticize him for a one-sided whitewashing of history, virtually ignoring (with the exception of Gloria Reuben's character) the African-American side of this issue. Both of those are true, but what really bothered me was how he treated, or didn't treat, the assassination. If Spielberg didn't want to show it (supposedly because he thought it would be tasteless, which is a cop-out, but his call), that's fine. But you can't choose not to show it and still fully acknowledge it. If he was going to show it, then he should have. If not, then he shouldn't have. You can't have it both ways. Not with something like that. Instead he does this silly bait-and-switch that ends up drawing more attention to the assassination than if he'd actually reenacted it in all its horror. You could actually argue he fulfills his fear of it being tasteless just by pulling this unnecessary stunt.

Spielberg's one of only a few filmmakers today who can reasonably be considered a "brand."  The accusation that at this point he's just cashing paychecks and trying to collect Oscars isn't entirely disproven with this effort, but the film is surprisingly restrained and refined, representing at least one of his purest, most honest outings in a while. Unfortunately those very same qualities also make it kind of a chore to sit through. Perhaps it's a little too restrained and in need of some of that magic Ben Affleck was able to create with Argo. While some criticized that for "Hollywoodizing" a historical event, there's no denying his approach worked, giving the material a much-needed emotional spin that captivated audiences. In contrast, Lincoln feels more like a homework assignment. One in which students would actually be more excited to read the book.       

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Les Misérables



Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Isabelle Allen, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running Time: 158 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As someone who's usually not a fan of musicals and was completely unfamiliar with Victor Hugo's Les Misérables on stage or screen, here presents that rare opportunity for me to go into a movie cold. Knowing so little about it, preconceived notions tend to disappear, or at least fade as far into the background as possible. But it still turned out to be a more fulfilling and entertaining experience than my few expectations had prepared me for. It's also a bizarre one, as certain creative and technical decisions are made by Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper that will likely raise the eyebrows of even those who care little about these sorts of things. Arguments could go on all day as to whether they enhance or detract from the material, but at the end it may not even matter. Since all fans will remember is whether it remains true to the source, Hooper's preaching to the choir here. Everyone else will likely be more divided, but it's pretty cut and dry what works and what doesn't, as one section of the story clearly surpasses the other. At the top of the list of successes is the inspired casting, followed closely by a sensational opening hour that sets in motion a chain events that spans nearly twenty years and claims more than a few victims. As the running time wears on and the characters start dropping like flies, it's almost too easy to revert to the joke that this should have been titled Les MISERABLE. Few will debate the film starts losing steam after the opening sixty minutes, but there's still a lot to recommend in a story so expansive that there's genuine doubt all the characters could die of old age before the final credits roll.

Opening in 1815, Les Misérables really tells two tales that eventually converge as one giant, sweeping one. The first involves convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who's released on parole by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), but manages to escape and start a new life for himself, eight years later becoming a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer in France. When one of his workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is fired and forced to sell her hair and turn to prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen) Valjean steps in to become the girl's guardian. Now, years later and set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Valjean is still being trailed by police inspector Javert while an adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) becomes the object of Marius Pontmercy's (Eddie Redmayne) affections, much to the dismay of his good friend, Éponine (Samantha Barks), who harbors a secret crush on him. As Javert draws closer to apprehending Valjean, the political turmoil escalates, putting all their lives in danger as a country's future hangs in the balance.          

The first hour of this film is so strong on every level possible that it was almost inevitable that the remainder of it wouldn't be able to keep pace. And Anne Hathaway's Oscar winning supporting performance as the dying Fantine is the major reason why. She has only maybe a little more than 10 minutes of screen time, but makes the most of each grueling moment, effectively selling her character's rapid descent into hopelessness.  Losing her hair and over twenty pounds, her gut-wrenching rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is without question the defining scene of the movie and it's a magic that isn't quite recaptured once Hathaway makes her exit. Was the role predestined, if not calculated, to win her the Oscar? Maybe, but who cares when she's this good.

It's also the best work Jackman's done in a while as a man on the run, shamed by his secret past as a criminal and racked by his own guilt. The decade plus cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between him and Javert is the film's greatest narrative asset, even when being overshadowed by other goings on in the third act. Russell Crowe himself would probably readily admit his singing isn't exactly the most polished in the cast, at times coming across as a strange hybrid of William Shatner's spoken word albums from the '60's and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! Crowe's not a singer, but because he's such a formidable actor he's able to pull off absolute lunacy with confidence and conviction. Whether it was for the right reasons or not, I looked forward to every appearance he made. As the swindling, manipulative Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter feel as if they've just stepped off Tim Burton's set, embodying comedic goth creepiness as the innkeepers mistreating young Cosette and extorting her mother. Cohen is fantastic in the role, making "Master of the House," in which he sings about cheating the inn's patrons, the most raucous and purely enjoyable number in the film. If nothing else, the characters deserve credit for their surprising staying power, as few would guess these seemingly one-dimensional villains figure into the action as much and as long as they do.

Unfortunately, everything comes to a grinding halt once we get to the love triangle, which never seems to take off despite spirited efforts from all involved. Because the time jump is so sudden and jarring, it's difficult to immediately adjust to Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks as older versions of the child characters we got to know earlier. But they do well nonetheless. Seyfried, besides being a dead ringer to child counterpart Isabelle Allen in looks, is definitely the best singer in the cast, while Barks, who actually played Éponine on stage, sings and acts her heart out in a role that might not be quite as large as you expected. That her part almost went to Taylor Swift would be shocking if not for the fact that the content of this romantic sub-plot isn't entirely dissimilar to that of her hit songs. As for Redmayne, this marks the second time after My Week with Marilyn that he appears to be a spectator in his own movie as the young lovesick revolutionary. In some ways, Aaron Tveit, who plays his friend and charismatic leader of the movement, Enjolras, makes more of an impression. What saves this section is the music and the fact Hooper gets his act together in time for a strong, emotional finale focusing on the characters we want to see, even if most of them are dead by that point.

This isn't one of those movie musicals that directs itself or is in any way shot like a stage play directly transposed to the screen. Hooper's style is umistakenly "in your face" with weird dutch angles and extreme close-ups that could feel like an invasion of personal space for certain viewers. This is especially true of the Hathaway sequence, where the camera doesn't leave her face the entire time. At times it is too much and it's easy to see why many may not be on board with the approach or feel it's just a filmmaker showing off at the expense of the material. But for me, any bells and whistles were necessary since this was just never going to in my wheelhouse no matter what. The best that could be hoped for was to be sufficiently entertained and Les Mis did deliver that in spades It's never boring or uninteresting. Strangely, it sometimes suffers from the opposite problem, moving a mile a minute with hardly a moment to breathe and take it all in. But as far as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have.