Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                         **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Contains Some Plot Spoilers**
 
If conventional wisdom is to be believed,  the colossal cultural success of 1977's Star Wars permanently altered the cinematic landscape by ushering in the era of the blockbuster we're still living in today. For better or worse, every studio tried to duplicate it in some form or another without truly grasping the elements that initially made it work. Unfortunately, its biggest, most shameless imitator may have been George Lucas, whose uncompromising death grip on his own franchise caused him to eventually destroy it. It's a career trajectory that eerily resembles Darth Vader's, as a rebellious young man frustrated by the corporate machine rises to power, only to eventually evolve into the very thing he despises most. It's a parallel not lost on the filmmaker, who's even commented on it himself in various interviews. Anyone looking to pinpoint the source of today's movie industry woes needn't look further than the infamous prequels. They made it okay for overhyped films with expensive effects to rake in truckloads of money, regardless of quality.

Watching J.J. Abrams resuscitation of the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you can't help but wonder what George Lucas must have been thinking while sitting in that theater during the premiere. He finally did the right thing by relinquishing the reins to Disney and in doing so freed up another filmmaker to give movie fans the experience they always wanted, but he stubbornly refused to deliver. And ironically, it's a movie so slavishly devoted to the original trilogy that it kind of cements his legacy once and for all, as difficult and complicated a legacy as it is.

It's far easier to root for Abrams, a skilled, if previously indistinct director who suddenly has to deliver the movie of his life in the clutch. And does he ever, by not only faithfully recreating the look and even recalling the plot of A New Hope, but triggering all the sensory feelings we had watching it. In fact, it's probably the closest we're ever going to get to seeing what a modern, shot-by-shot remake would look like without literally getting one. Some are calling it a retread. Others are saying it amounts to nothing more than fan service You can call it whatever you want but Abrams delivers exactly what's asked of him, doing right by a franchise that needed someone to step up and make smart choices.

In making the strongest, most satisfying installment since The Empire Strikes Back, Abrams follows through on his promise of more practical effects and a return to basic, character-driven storytelling. It's clear from the opening crawl that Abrams, a lifelong fan, is interested in blending the old and new, it's also the first time we can say a Star Wars movie some contains great performances. And not just great for a Star Wars movie. Providing pure, old school entertainment that greatly differs from the excessive emptiness of contemporary blockbusters, it wisely leaves us with more questions than answers, establishing a strong framework for the franchise to successfully move forward in the same awe-inspiring manner the original trilogy did.

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi and destruction of the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished and in his absence the First Order has risen from the remains of the fallen Empire. Led by the masked, Vader-worshipping Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), they seek to find and destroy Luke and topple the Republic. To do so, they'll have to obtain a map to Luke's whereabouts, located inside Resistance pilot Poe Dameron's (Oscar Isaac) droid, BB-8. But when Ren and his Stormtroopers destroy Poe's Jakku village and take him captive, the droid escapes, coming across scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the desert. Soon, she encounters Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper on the run whose conscience won't allow him to kill for the First Order. With Ren on their tail and desperately wanting possession of that map, they'll need help from some familiar faces to evade capture and hopefully discover the location of Luke Skywalker.

As much that goes on in this story, at its crux is something very simple that directly relates to the original trilogy, while still feeling like a very natural continuation of it. By centering the plot around the search for Luke a entirely new set of dramatic possibilities are introduced in a matter of minutes, letting us speculate on the events that happened post-Return of the Jedi that could have led to this. Just reading on the screen that Luke Skywalker has vanished  instantaneously invokes a reaction that harkens back to past, while effectively creating a scenario that lays the groundwork on which these next three films can be built.

The script (co-penned by Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan) ingeniously presents Luke as almost a mythological figure, spoken about in hushed, muted tones by the newer characters who aren't quite sure whether he or The Force even exists. Hamill's mysterious absence from all print and commercial advertising for the film becomes clear very early on, as does the sound reasoning behind it. By hiding him for nearly the entire running time, Luke's importance grows to the point that his eventual appearance is practically transcendent. And it's all because of the journey taken to get there through Rey, Finn and BB-8.

Without giving too much away, there's hardly a moment in any scene that doesn't contain some kind of technical or narrative homage to the '77 film or its sequels, whether it be the scene transitions, John Williams' classic musical cues, a setting or even just sometimes a random character in the background Abrams took the time and effort to subtly squeeze in. And he doesn't digitally shoehorn them in for no reason, making sure their presence, no matter how large or small, makes sense within the context they appear. If extensive fan service is the worst problem this film has, we should all consider ourselves lucky since Abrams spares no expense in addressing the very real creative problems that torpedoed this franchise. It's great to see actual  land again, as well as real dirt. And real people instead of computerized trickery. It's unlikely that anyone thought we'd be seeing bloodshed of any kind, but that's just what we get in the opening minutes, upping the stakes considerably.

As familiar as many things are, it doesn't feel like a carbon copy because it serves to only enhance and underline what is new and original. It can't be stressed enough just how much the previously unknown Daisy Ridley is asked to shoulder as Rey, supplying the entire story with its beating heart and soul in a performance that can only be described as revelatory. As the scavenger unwittingly thrown into the battle between the First Order and the Republic, she's as essential as Luke was to the original, even if that comparison unfairly implies the character is in any way derivative. Tough and strong-willed but instantly likable and vulnerable, Ridley makes Rey so easy to pull for it's almost impossible to comprehend the results had another actress been cast.

Rey shares most of her screen time with a droid, as BB-8's importance and involvement in the action rivals that of any human character over the course of any of the previous six films.  Looking like a robotic soccer ball with a head and a winning personality to spare, it might be Abrams' most inventive creation, and a character completely on par with C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2. And about half-way through it occurred to me that if Artoo didn't appear at all I'd be okay with it since he's essentially been replaced. Though, it's hardly a spoiler to say he eventually shows up. It tougher to talk about Oscar Isaac's smaller role as Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, but with minimal screen time, he slips right into the Star Wars universe, as natural a fit as any of the original players. 

The sarcastic humor and witty one-liners absent from the prequels are back, with much of it coming from John Boyega's Finn, whose backstory is only touched upon, but intriguing in the sense that we get to know the person behind a Stormtrooper mask. It's a luxury we've never been afforded, having long been depicted as nameless, faceless killing machines in previous installments. They still mostly are, but what happens when one of them can't kill or doesn't believe in what he's fighting for? It's a clever idea, with the bumbling Finn going from scene to scene constantly overwhelmed by every situation, until he can find his way, with Rey's help.

Boyega's strongest and funniest scenes are opposite Harrison Ford, who reappears as Han Solo as if no time has passed at all, slipping right back into the role that initially made the actor a household name. The character isn't dour or cranky, but the same smuggler and smooth liar we remember, with Abrams getting the absolute most out of Ford as Han that he can. You believe this is exactly where the character would be and it feels like a natural continuation of his story rather a nostalgic money grab. In other words, it's no Crystal Skull.

Abrams and company seem to have found the perfect balance between introducing new characters and using already existing ones to bolster their stories. This even extends to Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who has more to do here than ever, and the now General Leia Organa, whom Carrie Fisher plays with a more reserved, stately bent. Her scenes with Ford are an emotional highlight, even if it's hard to not wish there we got more of them. As for Hamill, he does appear, and while I'll withhold the details, it's pretty impressive how moving it is and the work that went into earning it. It's safe to say it actually may have worth waiting every one of those thirty years to get this moment.    

With only a few notable exceptions along the way, the acting was never a strong point in the original trilogy, while in the prequels it was often a flat-out embarrassment. Add Adam Driver to that list of exceptions as Kylo Ren, giving what's easily the most complete performance in the film. And as terrifying as he is under the mask, he's somehow even creepier after removing it. Having to follow Darth Vader isn't an easy task and at first glance it's easy to think this is merely a variation on that character,  but the more we learn about him, the deeper and more complex he gets. The script plays fast and loose with his identity, putting it all out there and letting Driver just go to town, having these moments that times make the character appear pitiful and sympathetic. And it works really well, leaving a lasting impact that should carry over into the next two films, and possibly beyond.

If forced to nitpick what's practically a flawless effort from Abrams, there are really only two issues. An Emperor-like, holographic GGI character called the Supreme Leader Snoke voiced by Andy Serkis in a performance that would be a far better fit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy than this. It's especially out of place and jarring after the renewed commitment to more practical effects carried out so well throughout the rest of the film.

Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata is the more successful CGI, motion capture creation, even if I could do without them making characters like this a habit moving forward. It just brings back too many painful Jar Jar memories. On the plus side, at least Snoke's only a hologram and we're left with the feeling there could be more detailed explanation (excuse?) for his existence down the road. The more intriguing second-tier villain is Gwendoline Christie's Cobra Commander-like Captain Phasma, who we could easily stand to see more of. And given the choice, the first half of the film is slightly stronger than the second and a few of the longer action scenes could have probably been trimmed by a couple of minutes, but I'm admittedly grasping at straws here.       

At this point, anything written about The Force Awakens can't help but come off as a regurgitation since everyone who's seen it knows how good it is. It's a Star Wars movie to its core and skillfully sets the table for what's to follow. And as dark as this is, there's good reason to believe its sequel could be even darker given the director attached and what seems like Abrams' unwavering loyalty to the trajectory of the original trilogy. While I still believe releasing spin-off movies during off years is a terrible idea that overexposes the brand, there are few prospects more exciting than seeing a Rian Johnson-directed sequel to this film with Mark Hamill in an expanded role.

After envisioning for years what a follow-up to Return of the Jedi would look like, it's safe to say what ended up on screen met, if not surpassed, the highest expectations. And that's coming from only a moderate fan who went in with considerable skepticism after feeling burned by Lucas' prequels, which will likely now fade from memory, if they haven't already. It's true that this is about as close to a modern remake of the 1977 film that we're going to get. And that's not a bad thing. Lucas has called it "retro" and he's right. But we've already witnessed his definition of "new" so it's hard to blame Disney for passing on his offer for assistance, especially considering these results. When he owned Star Wars he could do with it as he chose, just as we were free to criticize those controversial decisions. But with The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams brings to the forefront the revelation that Lucas hasn't really owned his own creation for a while now. Signing it over to the fans was just a formality.
                                          

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Martian



Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis
Running Time: 141 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

When The Martian hunkers down and seriously focuses in on the nuts and bolts of its story, it's great, gripping entertainment that's almost worth every bit of praise thrown its way. When it doesn't and gets sidetracked with silly jokes and comedy, the filmmakers strive for less than what they should, perhaps out of concern audiences will be turned off by a heavy dose of science and space physics. This is one of those films where a hearty recommendation will seem like a pan because of the talented involved and expectations going in. But make no mistake about the fact that this is a strong film, and for director Ridley Scott, easily his best in years. While its problems may prevent me from fully joining in with those hailing it a "return to form," at least most of the framework is present for it to deserve that designation. There's something besides an astronaut that gets lost along the way, preventing this from ascending to the heights it should with this strong a set-up and central performance powering it.

Based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel, the film centers around astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who's part of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, led by commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and including pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), systems operator Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara),  flight surgeon Dr. Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and navigator and chemist Dr. Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). It's on Sol 18 of their 31 Sol expedition when a dust storm hits, forcing them to evacuate and leaving a believed to be dead Watney on Mars.

Rationing what food he has and taking up shelter in the crew's surface base, Watney uses his botanical knowledge to grow potatoes and hopefully survive until the Ares IV crew arrives in four years. But back on Earth, satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers photos revealing Watney has survived and it's up to Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to establish contact and formulate a rescue plan with the help of JPL director and engineer Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong). This is all in the face of potential PR nightmare for NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), who not only has to inform the public of this situation, but the Aries III crew on their way home. What develops is a tight race against time with Watney's life on line, as well as whomever is assigned the dangerous task of retrieving him.

The Martian's opening hour is its strongest because it might be the only point where we legitimately have no idea what could happen, as the audience is left observing Watney in this perilous predicament as he comes up with solutions to extend his survival. He keeps a video log, which is also an ingenious idea because it gives us kind of a running commentary on the action and adds a lot some humor in a stretch of story when its most needed, both for the protagonist and viewers. Later on the comedy becomes a problem but here it isn't because Damon is a complete natural at sliding it in and finding just the right tone to play this guy, who we hardly know anything about because we don't need to. His performance takes care of everything, including frequent hard science-filled soliloquies to the video camera, which never failed to completely hold my attention.

The surface of the planet and cinematography also look great, likely in part because they were filmed in Jordan rather than a Hollywood sound stage. The space scenes have a similarly realistic feel and it's a relief that we do notice the toll all of this takes on Watney, both through Damon's weight loss and the fact that he suffers what seems like appropriate injuries from the physical ordeal he's put through. Ridley Scott definitely did his homework. And what might be the most impressive aspect of Drew Goddard's script is how little we know about Watney the person, forsaking the type of heart-tugging backstory that undermined Gravity's efforts. They just let Damon do his job, and does he ever, letting us know everything necessary about him through his carefully thought out actions to insure survival.     

It's when the action shifts to NASA that issues start to arise and what started as an intriguing character study shifts into something less captivating, with an outcome that isn't even the slightest bit in doubt. Not just the "what" but exactly the "how" is telegraphed pretty early, leaving the remainder of its two-and-a-half hour run time to be filled with bureaucratic arguing and comedy. A number of rescue scenarios are brought up only to be shot down until another one is explored, before again being shot down. It's almost as if Goddard's screenplay over-explains and justifies every little decision just to cover itself. They talk about how this will work because of that or that will work because of this, only to have Jeff Daniels' NASA director say it just can't be done because of x, y or z. For a far more rewarding Daniels performance this year in a faintly similar role, watch his award-worthy turn in Steve Jobs, delivering material that deftly avoids the cliches he's forced to trudge through here as a disapproving boss rejecting everything simply because the script requires it.

And at the risk of exaggerating, it felt as if there were about fifty scenes exactly like that aforementioned one, broken up only by jokes, clever one-liners or, at worst, moments of broad comedy that seem to have come from another film entirely. Take, for instance, Donald Glover's astrodynamicist who takes a pratfall on the floor in the middle of a dramatic scene for no good reason at all. It takes us right out of the story, creating an unnecessary headwind that prevents anyone from fully investing in what's supposed to be this life or death situation. Some levity is fine, and in the case of some of Damon's scenes even welcome, but I'm not sure how many times I need to be reminded either through dialogue or the soundtrack that Jessica Chastain's character listens to bad 70's music. Ironically enough, among NASA's stuffed suits and lab coats, Kristen Wiig gives the most serious performance in small role as their media relations director.  

The ending, as inevitable as it may be, is handled well, largely because when the script is focused on the retrieval of this character and the moral questions facing the crew that left him, it's firing on all cylinders. If anything, more time should have been spent on the latter, but the scenes we do get of it are no-nonsense and contemplative, held together by Chastain, who couldn't make a mockery of this material even if she tried. There's a point when the Ares III team have to make an important (if predictable) decision and weigh the pros and cons in a scene that contains the thoughtfulness and drama I wish were invested in some of the more jokey NASA scenes on Earth.

It's preferable to focus on the many things this does well since that's easier to explain, but there's still that nagging feeling. You know the one. It's when either the filmmakers or studio just can't seem to get out of the movie's way and trust what they have. Had they done that, this really would deserve to be mentioned in the conversations it currently is. Still, it's an enjoyable survival in space adventure that's more deserving of comparisons to Gravity than Interstellar. But while the latter earned its exorbitant running length with the sheer scope of its story and ambitions, The Martian isn't interested in those bigger questions that would put it in its company. That this got the full endorsement of NASA is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which involves the fictionalized depiction of their employees. It works, just on a level that's more entertaining than suspenseful or thought provoking.  

It's not a backhanded a compliment to label the The Martian as enjoyable mainstream entertainment Scott pastes together with impressive technical prowess, meticulous attention to scientific detail, and most of all, Damon's committed performance. But to uncover what's holding it back, you needn't look further than its bewildering Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical/Comedy. While that controversial categorization is clearly a stretch, there are far too many instances when you're wondering whether its inclusion is really as big a leap as it seems.            

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Jem and the Holograms



Director: John M. Chu
Starring: Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Hayley Kiyoko, Aurora Perrineau, Juliette Lewis, Ryan Guzman, Molly Ringwald, Nathan Moore, Barnaby Carpenter, Ryan Hansen
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When envisioning a big screen adaptation of 80's cartoon and Hasbro toy line, Jem and the Holograms, it's unlikely anyone expected to see this. Or if box office is any indication, possibly never see, as it barely recouped its $5 million budget on route to becoming one of the biggest financial flops of 2015. The undereported story is just how insane and ambitious it is, admirably, if misguidingly, attempting to appeal to two entirely different audiences that couldn't be further apart on the moviegoing spectrum.

While small in number, fans of the original show (with which I'm only mildly familiar), now in their 30's and 40's have no reason to see this unless its a painstakingly faithful interpretation of what they grew up on. And yet there's this entire segment of the female teen demographic too young to even know of it who also needs catering to. On top of that, you have to also make a good film from a fairly ridiculous material that definitely doesn't lend itself to the big screen treatment at a budget that low.It's important to get that out the way because those circumstances heavily inform the fascinatingly flawed end result.

As an adaptation of the cult cartoon, it's a failure, if we're assuming the goal of a successful adaptation is to remain true to the source material and service its fans. But as a standalone film, its kind of intriguing how (for a while at least), the property is taken dead seriously, and why as a filmgoing culture, we take issue with that unless your name is Christopher Nolan. Using that criteria, the G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises were more of a bastardization of the original material than this because of the silliness and constant winking at the audience. Well, that, and they're terrible. And as a fan of both in my youth, it's easy to imagine how Jem fans feel knowing the movie in their heads never materialized because its creators insisted on a "reinterpretation" for current audiences that sucked the spirit from the original. But let's be honest: a big budgeted Jem movie loaded with mindless CGI action could have actually earned all the vitriol this received. So at least be glad they didn't go there.

Chu's version has serious issues, but many of them are reined in by the fact that it's low-budget indie that feels like one. With its documentary-style approach, ruminations on fame and identity and its incorporation and examination of social media, the movie has its moments, a few of them strangely moving. Its closest cousin in tv-to-film adaptation just might be Michael Mann's disappointing reboot of his own Miami Vice. Like that, this abandons all semblance of its inspiration in favor of sometimes causing exhausting bouts of narrative boredom. And also like that film, its beautiful to look at, with cinematographer Alice Brooks making the absolute most of what she's given while the costume design will come close to matching what fans had in their heads.

Where Jem veers of course is in its predictably desperate attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience of teen girls who likely have no interest in it. Had it truly committed to the tone of its material in the first half and plowed straight through without blinking, this could have been a far different conversation. It would have also made even less money, if that's possible. But this isn't disposable, manufactured junk, and while it's fun to kick a movie while its down, I'd at least prefer it be one with no artistic ambition whatsoever. This contains worthwhile ideas, as woefully executed as they may occasionally be.

Shy teen Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), and her younger, biological sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) are living in San Bernardino Valley, California with their Aunt Bailey and foster sisters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). With the family about to be evicted from their house, Jerrica and Kimber are still trying to process the death of their scientist father, whom we glimpse in home movie flashbacks with his final invention, a small robot called Synergy. To cope, Jerrica pours her heart out in song, belting out acoustic ballads in her bedroom late at night. But when the social media obsessed Kimber uploads one of those performances onto the internet, chaos ensues, with Jerrica's singing alter ego "Jem" becoming a viral sensation that catches the attention of coldy ambitious Starlight Enterprises CEO Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), who wants her on her label.

Desperately wanting Jem on her label, Erica reluctantly agrees to a package deal that would include Jerrica's sisters as her backing band. So it's off to L.A. where the girls will undergo training to launch their massive transformation into worldwide pop stars with Starlight employee Rio (Ryan Guzman) acting as their chaperone. But after originally singing to escape, Jerrica's suddenly facing an identity crisis in the midst of such attention, eventually finding herself torn between fame and family.

The movie opens in a documentary-style not unlike a found footage film and features some really good handheld camera work that takes us into these girls' lives and gives us a feel for their personalities. All of it seems surprisingly realistic, and Ryan Landels' script at least seems plugged in to what it's like for this age group to be living their lives online, cleverly incorporating actual viral videos into the narrative at inspired moments. While many of these choices could have easily been made for budgetary reasons, it fits the material and tone Chu's going for, even as little as it relates to the original property he's adapting.

There's no mistaking the intention was to bring these characters and the story very much into the here and now. Unfortunately, the Jem video that Kimber uploads is indistinguishable from the millions of others posted everyday from aspiring singers all over the world, making the resulting windfall of sudden attention seem a bit silly. She has a good voice, so how hard could it have been to pick a song that wasn't completely forgettable?

More memorable is the entrance of a scenery-chewing Juliette Lewis's Erica Raymond, who takes what has been a fairly straightforward, even occasionally touching depiction of orphan lives, a caring aunt struggling to make ends meet and a deceased parent, and appears to move this more toward what fans expected (hoped?) to see from a Jem movie. The handheld camera work stops exactly when Erica flies to the girls out to L.A. to be taken under wing and makes them abandon all social media. This transition is a small, but important detail that's gone overlooked, proving this does contain ideas, if not necessarily ones fans of the cartoon could ever get on board with.

The expectation at this point is that the film seems destined to evolve into some kind of music industry satire in the vain of 2001's surprisingly subversive Josie and the Pussycats feature. Instead, it actually gets gloomier and more serious with much time spent on Jerrica's identity crisis, as the very persona she cultivated to hide is suddenly the most famous singer in the world. The line the screenplay attempts to draw between the two is so thick it's tempting to draw comparisons to something like Supergirl, until remembering this is neither a superhero or action movie and the closest we get to fantasy is a complicated scavenger hunt involving the Synergy robot (which eerily resembles EVE from WALL-E).

For a project even very loosely based on a cartoon, it's still it's kind of remarkable just how moody and angsty it gets. There's a lot of soul searching from Jerrica, dragging the film to 118 minutes for the purpose of bludgeoning viewers over the head with a simplistic message of female empowerment that turns this into the cotton candy convection we initially feared it could be with the director of Justin Beiber: Never Say Never at the helm. And that's too bad because even in the midst of this nonsense are some genuine flashes of inspiration, like the band's improvisation during a blackout performance or Jem's comical encounter with an overzealous security guard.

Even the developing romance between her and Rio isn't pushed down our throats, paying off with believable restraint, which in all fairness probably has more to do with the studio's desire to maintain a PG rating than screenwriting nuance. And they picked the right actress to play Jem, as Nashville's Aubrey Peeples (giving off vibes that land somewhere between Kristen Stewart and Zooey Deschanel) is not only pretty and talented, but has the pipes necessary to deliver on stage as Jerrica's alter ego. We're left with the impression she would have worked in any incarnation of a Jem movie that got released and comes out of this better than many others would. When Jerrica finally completes and accepts her complete transformation into full-fledged pop star, Ziggy Stardust face paint and all, Peeples even seems to look the part, which could only add to the frustration of hardcore fans wishing they got a different film. 

The rest of the girls make their strongest impressions in that opening half hour before literally and figuratively surrendering the spotlight to Peeples. Stefanie Scott follows not so closely behind in screen impact, with Aurora Perrineau and Hayley Kiyoko eventually relegated to background players. That's kind of disappointing considering how integral they seemed in the opening minutes.

Similarly, Molly Ringwald radiates such pure warmth and kindness in her few scenes as Aunt Bailey that it's hard not to wish more were also done with her. But she does have one fantastic encounter with the aforementioned Juliette Lewis, who digs in her heels to absolutely kill it in a bitchy role that was originally filled by a man in the original cartoon, or more specifically Guzman's character. I'm still unsure Lewis' performance even necessarily belongs in the movie we got so much as the one she wants it to be, but it's hard to argue against her being the most entertaining thing in it.

The music performed by the band is mainstream pop, and as far as that goes, it's catchy enough and better than expected. In a perfect world with little regard for commercial prospects, we may have gotten something that veered closer to rock or even punk (think The Runaways or Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains), but that was never going to happen. If this was to be a complete reimagining that takes the characters into the current musical landscape, only pop would have accomplished that. It's unfortunate, but also underlines the inherent difficulties in updating retro material that needs to be aimed at two generations with such wildly disparate tastes. It's actually the film, more than Jerrica, suffering from the identity crisis, eventually falling on the side of teen empowerment when the preceding hour suggested more serious potential. 

It speaks volumes that that fans and critics all seem to be in agreement that the best scene comes during the end credits. Not because they're right, but because it's systematic of the Marvelization of pop culture, in which movies have become "franchises" and "universes" littered with easter eggs and commercials for  sequels imbedded into the narrative. It might be the only scene that pays direct homage to the original material in a way any disgruntled fan could get behind. In other words, it's pure fan service and nothing more. The movie they "wanted to see" and never will. And there's a really good chance that would have been awful.

This somewhat misguided project has enough problems that I can't comfortably recommend it with a straight face, but at least they're understandable ones given the scope. And that's coming from someone with no dog in the fight, watching primarily to discover if it deserves its designation as worst of the year for reasons other than losing a lot of money. It doesn't. If anything, Jem and the Holograms is a case study demonstrating the perils and pitfalls of crafting an entire film as setup and origin story. But at times it also highlights the strengths of such an approach, culminating in one of the few near-misses worth seeing just to say you did. 
          

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ricki and the Flash



Director: Jonathan Demme
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mammie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Sebastian Stan, Ben Platt, Rick Springfield
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The most rewarding aspect of the safe but satisfying Ricki and the Flash is seeing Meryl Streep actually appearing to have fun on screen again rather than headlining another project that exists solely for her to earn an Oscar nomination. The problem with those dramas was never her performance, but that the material too often couldn't equal the skill she brought to them. If you're Streep it doesn't matter, but for critics and audiences who have to sit through them, each new film brought the realization that she may never be challenged again, stuck dragging mediocre material over the finish line during awards season. So despite boasting an acclaimed (if somewhat inconsistent) director in Jonathan Demme, it kind of comes as a relief that no such lofty expectations accompany this or her work in it. Or at least it doesn't consciously feel like it this time.

There's very little at stake here dramatically and that's fine. While Streep's performance still unquestionably carries everything, this is entertaining mainstream fluff, and as backhanded a compliment as that seems, it doesn't do much wrong. And neither does she. So yes,it's really Streep singing, and for what's asked from the character, she delivers in spades. The same can mostly be said of the film, which is fun and succeeds at what it's trying to do within its fairly constricting, predictable formula.

Decades after abandoning her family to pursue her dreams of becoming a famous rock star, Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) works as a cashier while playing gigs at a small bar with her band, the Flash, who perform enthusiastic covers of everything from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga.  Receiving a call from her ex-husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) that estranged daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer) has slipped into a severe depression after her husband left her for another woman, Ricki flies from California to Indianapolis to be with her. Only Julie resents her, with Ricki having been such a spectacularly absent parent when it really counted that even her two sons can barely tolerate this homecoming.

Ricki's own life isn't much less of a mess, as she continues to uncomfortably deny (sometimes onstage) the existence of her very real relationship with lead guitarist, Greg (Rick Springfield). Always saying and doing just the wrong thing at just the wrong time, this family crisis forces her to not only reconnect with her adult kids and become a parent, but learn how to finally become a responsible adult herself.

We know that Streep can hit hit the necessary emotional beats this story requires in her sleep so the big question is how she fairs as a singer and performer on stage. And it's a loaded one. Since Ricki really isn't supposed to be this incredible talent that somehow slipped through the cracks of the music industry, but an older, well traveled, raspy voiced bar singer whose best days long passed, Streep's work needs to be judged within that context. So taken for what it is, she's actually very good, and even if sometimes it doesn't appear that she's playing guitar, that honestly didn't bother me much either. She's an actress rather than a musician and having one of the best in the role seems to be a fair enough trade-off.

The band's opening performance of Petty's "American Girl" did have me worried though, until remembering no one's ever really covered it well, or could be expected to. She finds her groove with just about everything that follows, especially a somewhat interesting re-arrangement of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Streep also performs the film's only original song, "A Cold One," written by Jenny Lewis, and while it's a good song delivered well from the actress, I couldn't help but imagine how much better it would sound if Lewis was singing it instead. Assuming it's nominated for Best Original song, we may actually find out.

If I'm dwelling on the music that's only because there's so much of it, which is a plus. Demme stands his ground enough to at least give us entire performances rather than just snippets of gigs, and while an argument could be made that this was done to pad a fluffy narrative, he does it at the risk of potentially exposing Streep's shortcomings as a singer and musician, which was gutsy. That gamble paid off since the band holds our attention and whatever the actress lacks in that department she more than compensates for in the authenticity she brings to her onscreen relationship with her real-life daughter, Mammie Gummer.

For a change, it's nice not to worry about clearing the casting hurdle of mother-daughter believability since they're not only really mother and daughter, but share an identical resemblance to boot. Of course, none of that would matter if it didn't effectively translate to the screen, which it does, as both share a natural shorthand that make their scenes together some of the strongest, particularly Julie's breakdown scenes.

Getting past the fact that Kevin Kline's almost comedically reserved Pete was once actually married to Ricki hardly matters since Kline is such a seasoned pro at playing the straight man to absurd characters. And while singer and former soap star Springfield fares about as well in his role as a heartfelt, grungy guitarist as Streep does in his rock star realm, the film's best performance is actually a smaller one in terms of screen. As Pete's current wife, Maureen, Audra McDonald defies expectations by actually playing this woman as a sane, composed, thoughtful person, who also makes it firmly clear she's open to having Ricki in all their lives, provided she shapes up, and fast. McDonald goes toe-to-toe with Streep in the film's single best scene, so sensitively navigated and performed by the former that it's hardly a stretch to say this entire story would have been more compelling if told from her character's perspective.

The ending either represents some kind of breakthrough for Ricki, or further proof that this is a woman who just can't resist making everything about herself. But in even making it about herself yet again, she still finds this roundabout way of reconnecting to her family, albeit under her terms. As odd as that seems, it does manage to feel completely true to the character. What doesn't fly is an out of left (or rather right) field attempt to make Ricki a conservative Republican just because someone thought it would be a hilarious reversal of expectations. It's not, nor are some of the distracting, eye popping performances from the extras at the wedding who can't stop staring at Ricki like she's just arrived from outer space. The point is clear but Demme should have definitely reined that in.

Diablo Cody's screenplay is easily the most conventional work she's penned, which is ironic considering it's partly based on her mother's experiences. But in this case, that might not be a criticism since she seemed overdue for something a little more mainstream and less polarizing. Still, it's surprising to discover the writer of Juno, Young Adult and Jennifer's Body is attached to a project you could picture characters in those films mocking.

There will undoubtedly be comparisons made to last year's slightly superior Al Pacino picture, Danny Collins, and for good reason. The basic premise of an aging rocker struggling to reconnect with their estranged family is nearly identical, with both even working in similar ways. The problem of fewer complex roles being written for aging actors and actresses isn't solved or even addressed with Ricki and the Flash, but despite its flaws it provides just the right dose of entertainment you'd expect.  
  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Steve Jobs



Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Sarah Snook, John Ortiz
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

During one scene in Danny Boyle's extraordinary Steve Jobs, Jobs gets into it again with Apple Computer co-founder and old friend Steve Wozniak just as he's about to reveal his new iMac to the world. As this shouting match ensues, centered around Jobs' adamant refusal to publicly or privately credit anyone other than himself, you can't help but notice a small group of young Apple employees uncomfortably looking on. They're trapped in the auditorium as these two go at each other, baring witness to twenty years of dirty laundry being aired at the worst possible time. Then you just try to imagine being one of those cringing employees in that room when this happened. Did it really happen? And if it did, how would you tell people what went down. Would anyone even believe you?

There are many such moments in the film and just as many conversations, arguments, speeches and quick witted dialogue exchanges. While loosely based on Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography, this is still an Aaron Sorkin script after all, and in case you haven't heard, Steve Jobs wasn't such a great guy. But not in the same sense that the Mark Zuckerberg character wasn't in The Social Network. He was emotionally shut off and severed important relationships to build his technology empire, but as much of that story was successfully exaggerated and even sometimes fabricated by Sorkin, there was always this fleeting glimpse of humanity in there. The final scene served as a messed up, but poignant reminder that Zuckerberg, in his own mind, did it all for a girl. At one point during this, Jobs is asked, "What's your excuse?" and it's a real treat spending all of the film's enthralling 122 minute running time trying to discover it.

Had Jobs lived to see this, he'd probably appreciate its narrative tidiness, which not only tells us everything we need to know and some things we maybe wish we didn't, but does so with laser-like precision. It focuses only on the hours preceding three product launches: The Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. It's a testament to how tight Sorkin's script is that anything earlier, later, or in between, isn't missed, or in most cases, is covered anyway in the conversations and confrontations taking place before he takes the stage.

Only two scenes take place outside, flashbacks are used sparingly, and yet, it never once feels like a talky stage play. If anything, it's an action movie that uses it words as weapons, the story flying by at a breakneck pace, with Boyle using a myriad of visual flourishes to make each time period look and feel different.  He brings a non-stop energy to the proceedings that stands in stark contrast from the clinical style David Fincher (who was originally attached to direct) would have likely brought to an already icy story. But for Boyle, it's the highest imaginable compliment that we're not left wondering what could have been. No matter confined and contained the setting, it always feels like the story's moving. In hindsight, he actually ended up being the ideal choice for the material.

If the ingenious structure tightens the noose on the story and its characters then it also turns the microscope on Fassbender's performance, in which every expression, line delivery and physical action seems far more important than it otherwise would. When we first see Fassbender as Jobs in 1984, it's amazing is just how little he looks like him, and then how quickly he makes us forget by so convincingly playing such a colossal asshole. Once he busts out of the gates swinging, it's clear we're in for a wild ride. An obsessed control freak who threatens and berates employees, he never admits failure or accepts blame, even when on more than a few occasions, he completely should.  And nothing represents that failure more than him cruelly denying paternity of ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan's (Katherine Waterston) daughter Lisa (played at different ages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine), both to their faces and in the press.

While Sorkin's script goes a certain distance in acknowledging Chrisann isn't perfect and won't soon be competing for "mother of the year," Jobs' behavior in the opening '84 section of the film still comes off as nothing less than reprehensible. And yet, the few fleeting moments he shares with the daughter he believes (or at least says) isn't his show that he's capable of being a good father only when Lisa's connecting with him at his level. That is to say on a Macintosh. For all his flaws, he at least recognizes that it would be criminal not to foster this obviously gifted girl's creativity and intelligence, causing him to open up his wallet, regardless of how much he resents her mother. We learn that education is apparently the window into Jobs' soul, or at least for most of the film, that empty void where his soul's supposed to be.

It wouldn't exactly be accurate to say Jobs' treatment of anyone necessarily "improves" throughout the course of time covered here so much as his temperament ebbs and flows unexpectedly, with Fassbender impressively sliding in and out of jerk mode on what seems like a whim. Jobs is a volatile character and he captures that, sometimes offering even the littlest tease that this guy's turned a corner or had an actual moment of self-awareness, only to slip right back into another scary meltdown.

Physically, Fassbender's resemblance to Jobs is about on par with Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella's to Nixon, but what's strange is when we enter the infamous jeans and sneaker phase, he somehow begins looking EXACTLY like him.The complete immersion has set in, and while it's true that original choice Christian Bale would seem on paper to be the perfect choice, it's hard to envision him surpassing Fassbender's total immersion into the public idea of who Jobs is, which never approaches  imitation of any sort. He's a complicated, contradictory figure and despite two actors attempting this before him, there's still no blueprint for it, making what he accomplishes all the more remarkable.

Supporting players and events that were skimmed over, cliff notes-style, in 2013's Ashton Kutcher-starring Jobs (which took a more traditional biographical route), 1999's TNT film, The Pirates of Silicon Valley, or even in this year's acclaimed Alex Gibney documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, are explored in far greater detail here. More accurately, it makes everything that came before it seem like a cartoon, lacking in depth or a singular vision. Regardless of how much is confirmed to have actually happened, there is this sense (prevalent in most of Sorkin's work) that we're eavesdropping on certain conversations and incriminating backstage shenanigans that weren't intended for public consumption.

Besides pulling the curtain back on Job's dysfunctional family relationships, almost as much time is spent digging into the circumstances that led to the ousting from his own company by CEO and former Pepsi chairman, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Previously depicted as the out-of-touch figurehead who fired Steve Jobs in just about every version of this story put on film or in print, Sorkin's script presents an entirely different take. Played by Daniels as a wise sage with some genuine insights into both the marketing of Apple computers and its co-creator's psyche, it wouldn't a stretch to call him a father figure to Steve and the only person who understands what makes him tick.

His experience on the Newsroom making him no stranger to rattling off Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue, Daniels elicits sympathy for Sculley and his dilemma, making us wonder if we wouldn't take the same actions if put in his shoes, contending daily with an unpredictable, insubordinate Jobs. Just the very idea of a meglomaniac like him answering to a Board of Directors is a recipe for disaster. While his ousting was the first time he ever seemed to take something personally, Sorkin squashes any notion  he was somehow humbled by this or even the subsequent failure of his own competing NeXT venture. Instead, Jobs' return to Apple is depicted as the latest frightening chapter detailing his unhealthy obsession with proving himself.

As uncompromisingly as Jobs is portrayed, there's still this undercurrent that he really did something right to have inspired such loyalty in those he frequently mistreated over the years. It comes to a point where you have to wonder whether they're just asking for it, constantly coming back for more, even long after he seems to have outgrown his use for them, and they for him. Seth Rogen plays Woz as Seth Rogen playing Woz, and for this film's mission, that actually works quite well. He's a likable schlub whose request for acknowledgment of the Apple II team's contributions by Jobs spans over a decade and falls on deaf ears. The practical engineer to Jobs' big picture designer, this was a partnership always destined to crumble, as flashbacks to the garage show us.

Original Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) is yet another victim of that tyranny, but handles it better than just about anyone, even managing to completely turn the tables on him at one point. But it's Kate Winslet's Joanna Hoffman as Job's right-hand woman and marketing executive through the years who serves as the rock of the film. The only person capable of standing up to him and winning, she's the constant presence guiding Steve in the right direction by reigning him in and cooling him off. Whenever his raging ego careens out of control to continuously threaten everything he's created, she's there to talk him off the cliff.

The character of Joanna is so strong, and Winslet's work so economical and invisibly efficient in every scene, that by the end you're convinced she's as much responsible for his success as the man himself, by simply refusing to let him self-destruct. But even she has her limits, justifiably sickened by the one thing she can't fix on her own: His relationship with his daughter. She can push but it's up to him to do the rest. Although the last scene comes closest, there's no epiphany of eureka moment where Steve Jobs suddenly becomes a heartfelt guy or great father. Rather, there's this sense the needle maybe moved just enough, his failures making him slightly more open as a person than the monster we met in the opening scenes. That's why what Fassbender pulls off is something akin to a highwire act without a net, capturing the mercurial behavior of someone you'd find impossible to like or admire, yet still begrudgingly feel forced to respect.

Jobs has his loyal followers and gets the desired results, presenting the question of whether the same qualities that define his moral failure as a human being also qualify him as an effective leader. We're left trying to reconcile the fact that this forward-thinking genius who bettered so many lives could have also been a deadbeat dad and raging egomaniac. Do the ends justify the means? It turns out what little love he had was poured into his machines, leaving very little to the one person most deserving. His biggest design flaw may have been himself, but we were lucky enough to reap the benefits. Much like The Social Network, Steve Jobs is a perfect film, not for what it says, but how, utilizing an exciting structure to thematically capture one of the most contradictory figures of our time.
          

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Aloha



Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinki, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Jaeden Lieberher, Danielle Rose Russell
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

In his 2005 film Elizabethtown, writer/director Cameron Crowe's depressed protagonist infamously attempted to differentiate between a failure and a fiasco. Now, after the disastrous release of his poorly received Aloha, he's probably asking himself that same question. It's not the most promising sign when the biggest question going into a film is whether it's really as bad as everyone says. How can any movie directed by Crowe and starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams and Bill Murray be THAT bad? But the truth is that any movie starring or directed by anyone can be, and it still takes an enormous amount of talent and to even do that.

Aloha isn't entirely successful, but it's not a disaster either. Far from it. And it certainly doesn't deserve to end a filmmaker's career, especially considering most of what ends up on screen proves he's still got it, occasional missteps and all. Despite what's been said, this is vintage Crowe, aside from an overly ambitious plot that's unlike anything he's previously done, sometimes to the film's detriment. But what's been lost in all the manufactured controversies is that it also contains one of the best directed scenes of his career, on par with anything from Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire or Say Anything. Unfortunately, the movie it's in is not. This begs the question of whether Crowe's work has really changed at all, or audiences have just grown more cynical, leaving our bright eyed optimism in the 90's, the decade this type of film seems practically enshrined in.

Following a failed stint as an Air Force pilot, military contractor, Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) returns to Hawaii to aid billionaire Carson Welch (Murray) in his efforts to develop land into a space center and launch a privately-funded satellite. He also encounters ex-girlfriend, Tracy (McAdams), who's now married to a pilot of very few words in Woody (John Krasinki), with whom she's raising their two kids, 12 year-old Grace (Danielle Rose Russell) and 9 year-old Mitchell. Brian's liason for the mission is Air Force Captain Alison Ng (Stone), whose sparkling personality and connection to the island's rich spirituality helps smooth things over with the native Hawaiians. As he eventually falls for her, it not only complicates Carson's mission, but Tracy's already shaky marriage as well.

As tempting as it is to describe the almost needlessly ambitious main plot as having something to do with Hawaii and space, all those aforementioned details are required to grasp it. And yet, no amount of them could suffice. It's not that it's convoluted or confusing so much as everything moves so quickly that it's tough to take it all in. Perhaps thankfully, Crowe is more interested in setting than story this time as he spends most of the opening hour drafting a love letter to the Hawaiian culture, drenching us in its mysticism and spirituality. But unlike The Descendants (with which this will most frequently be compared), the location doesn't feel quite as seamless and organic to the story, as Crowe really lays it on thick in the first hour.

If the satellite plot isn't enough of a head-scratcher, try keeping up with Cooper and Stone's characters meeting with Hawaiian sovereignty activist Dennis 'Bumpy' Kanahele, lending an impressive presence as "himself," even if it's his shirt that ends up stealing the show. Crowe should only wish that's the only controversy this film courted, as his casting of Stone as an Air Force pilot who's "half Swedish, one quarter Chinese and one quarter Hawaiian," created a noticeable stir. But let's just call it what it really is: PC nonsense that has little to do with the film's merit or content.

Actors act. That's what they do. And sometimes they even take on roles that are a drastic departure from who they really are. Other than Crowe having Stone's character pointlessly remind everyone of her ethnicity out of what seems like some massive insecurity, it's hardly worth a discussion. But judging from the extreme reaction, you'd think Stone was playing Mickey Rooney's role in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Whitewashing is a problem, but so is the fact that Crowe felt he had to apologize for how he cast his own movie. If anything, his only mistake was writing the character's ethnicity into the script without anticipating a media firestorm. But that's Crowe, completely idealistic in believing audiences would care enough about these characters to drown out the noise and disappear into whatever world he's created. He probably didn't even give a second thought to the implications of Stone's casting and, in a strange way, that's kind of reassuring. 
          
Joining Ione Skye, Kate Hudson and Kirsten Dunst as the latest in a long line of Crowe's Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Stone might be playing the most manic. Given what she's done up to this point, that path does seem right, but watching the opening hour it's hard not to consider Alison Ng one of the more overbearing, hyperactive MPDG's to be experienced in a while. It's easy to see how Brian would be completely put off by her, as are we. But just when the volume is pumped up so high on the character she starts making Dunst's Claire Colburn seem as if she's on depressants, the script, and Stone start to find their groove.

The exact turning point comes during a Hall and Oates dance sequence involving Stone and Bill Murray that's so weirdly compelling you're forced to just surrender to both actors' charms and the pure random absurdity of it. That Murray's supposed to be playing a self-serving, meglomaniacal CEO makes little difference to him, and of course, us. It's impossible to dislike the guy and he knows it, lending an eccentric quality to Carson that makes this nonsensical space plot bearable for at least the scenes he's in.

Bradley Cooper not only comes out of this unscathed, but demonstrating a versatility and charisma in a lead Tom Cruise would seem perfect for fifteen or twenty years prior. Jerry Maguire meets Top Gun meets Silver Linings Playbook would probably be the best way to describe the film, as well as Cooper's work in it. Depending upon how you feel about the idea of the actor starring in that kind of a project, he gets us on Brian's side quickly, rooting for the redemption of a guy who's kind of a self-absorbed jerk. Two big scenes near the end confirm just how smoothly Cooper excels at this, and whatever problems exist within the film, he definitely isn't among them.

Despite what was advertised, this isn't some kind of romantic comedy love triangle in which Brian is torn between Alison and his ex, played by McAdams. That this doesn't at all occur is most refreshing aspect of Crowe's script, as is the treatment of the family Tracy's built with aloof husband, Woody. Everything about their lives is handled so realistically and intelligently you almost want the whole film to be about them. McAdams occupies a different space than we're used to seeing her in on screen, making Tracy seem almost defeated and agitated at her ex's arrival, despite her marital problems being present long before.

In a nearly wordless performance, Krasinki delivers what's probably the best big screen turn of his career thus far as the complicated Woody, whose unpredictable reaction to Brian's arrival flies in the face of what's expected. Everything isn't as simple as an ex-boyfriend arriving to destroy a marriage, and the few scenes Krasinki shares with Cooper are successful for doesn't happen rather than what does.

Only Crowe could could find a way to work David Bowie and Bob Dylan into a space satellite scene and get away with it. Well, maybe he doesn't exactly get away with it. It's about as ridiculous as it sounds, even if you can't help but think the space storyline was the biggest casualty in the editing process, chopped and cut until it made little sense. As usual, Crowe uses his personal playlist as a backdrop to the action, but the best choice might be going with Jonsi again for the score since their We Bought A Zoo collaboration felt as natural a fit for his work as possible without sounding too cloying or whimsical. There's a lot of that same sound here too, as no one could ever accuse Crowe of merely phoning it in with a soundtrack.

The better movie stuck inside Aloha struggling to break free comes through in the last scene, which tops every single minute that came before, lending the film an unexpected emotional pull that nearly toppled me over. Without spoiling it, there's an obvious, conventional resolution you assume will be the last scene, before Crowe pulls back the curtain to reveal the actual finish, which brings the focus back to exactly where it belongs.

Subtly bubbling under the surface the entire time, the picture's most perfectly executed subplot takes center stage in the final few minutes, reaching its logical culmination and knocking us out with the scene we didn't know we wanted until it came. Wordlessly displaying an entire range of emotions in a matter of moments, young actress Danielle Russell provides us with a 30 seconds so astounding it would play well even out of context. But placed in the context of the entire film, it's safe to say Aloha primarily exists just so we can arrive there.

Anyone watching how skillfully Crowe constructs the end would probably assume a masterpiece precedes it. And they'd only be setting themselves up for disappointment. But not as much disappointment as you've heard. If all the doomsday prognosticators are correct in proclaiming Crowe's big screen directorial career over (which it won't be), it's hard to imagine a better, more fitting scene to close it. Neither a failure nor a fiasco, Aloha sits somewhere in between, leaving to our imaginations an alternate version in which everything went right. But that movie wouldn't be nearly as interesting to talk about or revisit. 
       

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Trainwreck



Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, LeBron James
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's easy to assume you have Judd Apatow's Trainwreck all figured out before even seeing it. It'll be an uncomfortable, awkward mixture of comedy and drama with some toilet humor thrown in, eventually culminating in an unlikable, emotionally arrested protagonist learning to grow up. And since it's an Apatow production, there's always the chance it'll take thirty minutes longer to arrive at that revelation than it should. In the best case scenario, that would be just over two hours, or in the worst case, closer to two and a half. While those details do prove correct, there's something very different about the execution this time, resulting is his most purely satisfying effort in a while.

After essentially repeating the same formula that worked in the 40-Year-Old Virgin, but grew progressively worse with Knocked Up, Funny People and This is 40, Apatow finally nails it. Maybe it's the absence of
autobiographical subject matter or a willingness to relinquish his desire to be the next James L. Brooks, but he's delivered a movie that stands out from his others. But you have to figure the real difference maker is Amy Schumer, who in her first big screen starring role proves she's more than deserving of all the hype surrounding her.     

The film opens with a flashback in which a young Amy and her sister Kim are told their parents are divorcing, and warned by their drunken, philandering, Mets obsessed father, Gordon (Colin Quinn) on the dangers of monogamy. Flash forward twenty-three years and an adult Amy (Schumer) has internalized that advise, regularly smoking, drinking and sleeping around with guys like gym rat, Steven (John Cena) in order to escape the possibility of an actual adult relationship. Meanwhile, Kim (Brie Larson) has done the exact opposite, settling down with Tom (Mike Birbiglia) a dorky, if generally decent guy with an equally nerdy son Amy finds annoying.

It's Amy's intense dislike of sports that causes her intimidating editor at S'nuff men's magazine, Dianna (Tilda Swinton), to assign her a piece on renowned sports surgeon, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader.), who spends most of his free time hanging with best friend LeBron James (as "himself") and is currently preparing for a major surgery on Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire (himself again). With a promotion on the line and her father recently admitted to a nursing home, Amy hasn't a clue what to do when she actually starts dating and falling for a genuinely good guy who really likes her, faults and all. So, of course, she does her best to sabotage it, not realizing the person she's hurting most is herself.

This is a comedy that gets a lot right, which is a big surprise considering how much it's attempting to do at once, and how shaky Apatow's previous attempts at juggling this type of material have been. Helping is a really strongly defined character at the movie's center, which is evident immediately upon her introduction in the first few minutes. There's no doubt Amy likes to have fun, and it's interesting to note that when she wakes up in some random guy's bed completely hung over without a clue where she is, we realize this isn't a scene we'd even wince at if the protagonist were male. Schumer (who penned the script) and Apatow know this and are always a few steps ahead of our thinking she's a slut by having her admit to being one with little hesitation and no regrets.

I know very little, if anything, about Amy Schumer other than the fact that she has a show on Comedy Central a lot of people love that's supposedly dirtier and more controversial than this. That her casting was met with groans that she's not "hot enough" for the role is an especially bizarre complaint considering this isn't exactly the kind of female part we frequently see. Schumer makes it soar, hilariously transforming what should be detestable character traits into relatable, often painfully sympathetic quirks. She's also able to switch gears on a dime between the laugh-out-loud scenes and some of the more serious, soul-searching moments which are thankfully never all that serious in her hands.

The movie's secret weapon is Hader, would seem to be as atypical a choice as Schumer to lead a romantic comedy, which makes him an inspired choice, while marking sort of a divergence from the goofball characters he's known for playing since his SNL days. She's not as funny without Hader's straight man to play off and if the running joke is that Aaron's supposed to be boring, than it would be tough to find another actor who makes boring as interesting. Similar to Schumer, audiences will walk away from this experience with a higher opinion of his acting talents than when they went in, potentially opening the door to different types of roles we can picture him in.     

What separates this from other entries in an increasingly popular comedy subgenre is that this is actually invested in exploring what's behind Amy's behavior, while still consistently eliciting laughs doing it. She's on a journey with a very clear end point but the plot doesn't feel as forced or telegraphed as usual does because the writing and acting are so strong. It's the little details that count, such as the hilarious workplace scenes where we get to see an unrecognizable, but delightfully evil Tilda Swinton endorse one ridiculous story idea after another, as Amy and her hapless co-workers (played by Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park and Jon Glaser) sweat with fear.  Or how John Cena's musclehead character becomes a little too boyfriend-like for Amy to handle. Even a sub-plot involving Ezra Miller's overeager intern that has no business working, somehow pays off hilariously.

Every scene with LeBron and Bill Hader's Aaron, specifically those involving the world's highest paid athlete stiffing the latter with every bill. It's worth noting that Cena and especially LeBron's roles are almost ridiculously substantial compared to what would be expected of them. Neither necessarily feels like stunt casting and both end up excelling in supporting parts that don't ask too much of them and actually serve a function in the story. The real celebrity stunt casting actually comes at the end, and it's so random and unexpected that it rightfully earns some of the film's biggest laughs.

Colin Quinn playing Amy's ailing father in a nursing home while looking exactly like his 56-year-old self is definitely a head-scratcher that strangely serves to make an already hilarious performance seem that much funnier. At worst, Quinn's trademark sarcasm and deadpan delivery is put to such excellent use that it's difficult to even notice or care that he's playing someone nearly two decades older. As Kim, Brie Larson is given a slightly undeveloped role she still manages to still do a lot with, allowing us to see through her how Amy turned into such a disaster. And as her oddly matched husband, the loony Birbiglia unexpectedly steals most of the scenes he's in.

Despite employing the usual Apatow tricks, the movie never forces us to like Amy. We just do, and that's all Schumer. The running joke will be that this is really a guy's part since Hollywood dictates only they can struggle with the issues she does here. It's almost impossible to watch without thinking her script's really on to something that hasn't been publicly acknowledged, at least on the big screen. In finally figuring out how to effectively juggle comedy and drama, without giving audiences a headache, Apatow does creep over the two-hour mark, if just barely. But this time it doesn't feel like a drag or mishmash of tones. The only quibble might be the ending, as it's difficult not to wish for a conclusion a little less pat, and maybe a bit more ambiguous or edgier. But that may have been asking too much. As it stands, Trainwreck is the kind of movie we all not so secretly wish Woody Allen could still make, even when it's poking fun at him.         
                     

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.