Sunday, August 23, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire (Seasons 1 and 2)

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

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

                                                                **Contains Minor Spoilers and Plot Details**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Gambler (2014)

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

★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While Brie Larson's Amy has been criticized as merely a throwaway love interest for Bennett, a deeply developed romantic sub-plot could have curbed the refreshing sense of spontaneity the story contains. The only downside is that asking us to really care about their relationship at the end feels somewhat disingenuous as a result. The most we get to know her is in that initial classroom exchange, but it really is entertainingly written and Larson captivates as usual in the limited role, further confirming suspicions that Jennifer Lawrence probably needs to watch her back in the years ahead. And she does get the film's best musical moment, as we follow Tracy across campus with Pulp's "Common People" blasting through her ear buds. With ideally placed additional selections from Rodriguez, Ray Lamontagne and Billy Bragg as a hazy supplement to Bennett's state of mind, the soundtrack should rank near the top of anyone's list for the past year. I guess they figured Kenny Rogers would be a little too on-the-nose.    

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

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