Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Kim Basinger, Jack Kilmer, Ty Simpkins
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's an early moment in Shane Black's buddy cop comedy, The Nice Guys, that immediately convinced  me I'd love it. It's when a bumbling private eye played by Ryan Gosling meticulously attempts to break into a nightclub. And just from our initial glimpses of the guy, we can tell this might be the first time he's ever arrived prepared for anything. He carefully wraps his fist and arm measures up the glass window before putting his fist through it. Within minutes, blood's shooting everywhere and the ambulance takes him away. It's the perfect introduction to this character and into the retro world of the movie, which is filled to the brim with subtle jokes that continually keep paying off as its delightfully absurd plot takes shape. Everything the movie does just feels effortless, cruising along for a two hour length that most other comedies would be struggling to fill.  It knows where it's going and all the detours it takes in getting there are actually welcome because they're hilarious and even at times unexpected.

Delivered in a style and tone more reminiscent great, unearthed 70's cop show that never quite made it to air, it's witty and sharp, mining its laughs from quirky characters traits and period nonsense instead of sight gags or toilet humor. And it may be time to start getting scared because if Gosling's capable of bringing this much to what on paper should have been your average mainstream American comedy, there's no telling what else he's capable of. Russell Crowe is superb as his straight man, and while no one could have predicted this pairing would yield such a result, it's Gosling who really surprises with comedic chops few guessed he had, even while generously taking into account his previous work in Crazy Stupid Love.

As if all this isn't enough, Black manages to accomplish the impossible in successfully incorporating a child into the narrative in a major role that feels completely essential. Far from being a third wheel of any sort, the actual performance and discovery of the actress giving it feels like a genuine eye-opener, as she goes much further than merely "holding her own" opposite experienced, powerhouse co-stars. Rarely did a scene pass in The Nice Guys when I wasn't either laughing or smiling, regardless of how little casual buzz it may have generated among moviegoers following its May release.

It's 1977 Los Angeles and frequently drunk private eye Holland March (Gosling) is hired by the aunt of recently deceased adult film star Misty Mountains to investigate the possibility she's still alive after supposedly spotting her following her death in a car crash. A highly skeptical March takes the job but gets a beat down from hired muscle Jackson Healey (Crowe), who warns him to stay away from his only lead in the case, a missing girl named Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley). But when Healey is targeted by a couple of thugs regarding Amelia, he teams up with March and his wise beyond her years 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) to locate Amelia before those guys do. The disappearance of Amelia and how it relates to the LA pornography world and even reaches the highest level of federal government is something this crime solving odd couple will have to crack, with Healey and Holly attempting to protect March from his worst enemy: His drunken incompetence as a detective and frequent deficiencies as a parental figure.

At times feeling more 1970's than the 70's itself, the setting and period in which this takes place ends up being a huge selling point in writer/director Shane Black's capable hands. As he proved over a decade ago with his cult hit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and even more recently with Iron Man 3, he knows how to write and direct comedy that's a cut or more above what we've come to typically expect from projects that could otherwise easily seem slight or unambitious without his touch. He's definitely not phoning it in here, rarely wasting an opportunity to poke fun of the absurdity of the porn industry setting and storyline, as well as the wacky characters inhabiting it. Everything from the production design to the costuming looks authentic to a degree you rarely find in comedies set in another decade.  And that's about half of what makes this all work. The plot may be played entirely for laughs, but it's played straight and taken deadly serious by these two characters, who could have just as easily slid into a sequel to Crowe's own L.A. Confidential.

The casting of Gosling and Crowe, two actors primarily associated with darker material, is a masterstroke in that we've never seem either apply their talents to something as comedic as this. It's a compliment to their talents how easily we could envision a dramatic inverse to this script with two rough and tumble bad-ass detectives trying to uncover a corruption ring in 1970's LA and it still working equally well. Crowe (who noticeably packed on the pounds for the role) actually plays it like this is that movie, even as ridiculous as everything around him gets. Most notably, Gosling's character. What's funny and to whom is such a subjective, acquired taste that it's all the more remarkable how frequently Gosling breaks those barriers with his performance as March, whether he's unintelligibly chatting up partygoers after having a few (or fifteen) too many or doing a spot-on Lou Costello impersonation sure to delight anyone who recognizes the tribute, and likely even those who don't.

Incorporating kids into adult comedies can be creatively troublesome as their characters tend to be annoyingly overwritten or cloying, quickly wearing out their welcome when placed in more sophisticated situations. Through little fault of their own, even the most skilled and mature of tween or teen actors can irritate if the material isn't there or the director has them precociously mug for the cameras since Hollywood's taught us that's what kids should do. Adopting a flawless American accent, Australian actress Angourie Rice doesn't only manage to not wear out her welcome as Holly March, she stands right alongside Gosling as the very best thing in the movie. It's a child star arrival and performance that's reminiscent of the talent Jodie Foster or Natalie Portman displayed right out of the gate when they first debuted. There's that much potential here.

As possibly the true parent in this father-daughter relationship, it's become Holly's job to keep her dad on the straight and narrow following the death of her mother. She seems up for everything, can read adults in an instant, but also has these scary moments in the midst of all the danger that jolt audiences into remembering just how young and impressionable she is. No kid, however street smart, could reasonably be asked to handle any of this and it's to Rice and the film's credit that this detail isn't forgotten. Nor is the fact that their relationship is so often built on the foundation that they have to take turns protecting each other. And Gosling provides these small moments where we realize that, for all of March's faults, he's both a better detective and parent than we initially suspected. Holly finds a worthy verbal sparring opponent in Healey and the friendship they form to keep her dad on track provides one of the more satisfying subplots.

Usually, when an R-rated action comedy enters its third act, the results are a mess as the narrative flies off the rails. This is one of those rare cases where everything only gets better as the plot becomes crazier, and the closing action sequence at the Los Angeles Auto Show squeezes the absolute most out of its setting and characters. Much of that can be attributed to an exciting cast of colorfully entertaining supporting villains played by Keith David, Beau Knapp and and an unrecognizably creepy Matt Bomer as hired assassin "John Boy." Kim Basinger also contributes as a chilly demeanored high-ranking government official whose interest in Amelia's disappearance is more personal given that she's her daughter.

Even with its unusual setting and offbeat sense of humor, it's still surprising The Nice Guys wasn't a bigger hit. While it's possible some of the really subtle, inside jokes flew over the heads of as many as it impressed upon its release, this is one of the few recent mainstream comedies that manages to not only tell a good story, but a few of them simultaneously. In a way, it would be kind of strangely disappointing if it was enormously successful, spawning a franchise of likely inferior sequels that would seem to violate the spirit with which this was made. This seems just fine where it is. A quirky, edgy cult comedy viewers will still slowly be discovering years from now.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Captain Fantastic

Director: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell, Trin Miller, Erin Moriarty, Missi Pyle, Ann Dowd
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Captain Fantastic addresses so many issues that feel so "here" and "now" it's almost downright uncomfortable at times. And if nothing else, it's blunt. As direct and upfront as the controversial title character, Matt Ross' film seems to play by its own rules while asking the audience which rules they'd rather play by, if any at all.  It joins 10 Cloverfield Lane, as one of the few releases this year that could double as a veiled social commentary on the current political climate. But this is operating at an entirely different, more thought-provoking level. It first it comes off as kind of a call-to-arms, with a protagonist's complete rejection of a society protecting and coddling their "snowflake" children while isolating them from any kind of self-sufficiency. Then the narrative zigs and zags in different directions, asking deeper questions before arriving at a conclusion that should infuriate as many as it elates.

Supposedly, Steve Jobs despised the phrase, "That's just what people do," writing it off as a lazy explanation for decisions and behavior unaccompanied any questions, only helping to further promote a thoughtless, herd mentality. It's likely Viggo Mortensen's title character would wholeheartedly agree, with views and philosophies for raising his children that fall way out of line with contemporary society's. A couple of decades ago it may not have seemed as extreme, but in a more politically correct than ever 2016, it's downright shocking. And there are undeniably many instances where his unorthodox methods qualify as dangerous and abusive, regardless of the era. Then there are those other moments when some of his ideas, against our better judgment, really make a certain amount of sense and we've perhaps moved too far away from them. Regardless, it's clear most parents would kill to have the connection this man has with his kids. But when the real question of how far his rights extend as a single dad to determine what's best for his sons and daughters' well being, the waters become even murkier. There are no easy answers or pat resolutions here, but boy am I grateful there's a movie with enough guts to ask the questions.

Following his wife Leslie's hospitalization for mental illness, Ben Cash (Mortensen) is raising his six kids, Bo (George MacKay), Kielyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell), alone in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Living off the land, he instills in his children survivalist skills while also home schooling them literature, philosophy, science, history, foreign languages and physical education. But when Leslie takes her own life and Ben and the kids want to attend her funeral, he has a decision to make. Blaming Ben for Leslie's death, his wealthy, estranged father-in-law Jack (Frank Langella) warns him an appearance will result in his arrest and potential loss of parental custody. Never one to back down to the privileged, he takes the kids on a road trip in their bus, exposing them for the first time to the capitalist city life he and his late wife consciously removed their family from.  And it's only when they start dipping their feet into the waters that are the "real world," to carry out Leslie's dying wishes, are the full consequences of Ben's parenting style evident, as are it's positive and negative effects on these unusually bright kids.

It's rare to find a film where it's tough to determine exactly what could happen next before finding out that it could be anything. In Captain Fantastic, that's mostly attributable to the unpredictability of Ben and the many different shades Mortensen brings to this conflicted character. There really is a feeling that he's not only driving the van for this road trip, but the entire narrative since so much of it revolves around how he stubbornly shapes the lives of his children, both to their benefit and eventual detriment. He's strict and inflexible, yet at the same time manages to show them a surprising amount of respectful affection that's never anything less than completely authentic.

There's much to admire in how much he thinks these kids can handle if he's simply matter-of-fact, even straightforwardly explaining to his six-year-old exactly what "rape" is despite her being at an age where she doesn't need to hear it, or arguably shouldn't. When that invariably leads to her asking about "sexual intercourse," he responds similarly, with solid facts unaccompanied by any kind of judgment. Whether or not it's an appropriate topic of conversation, there's less doubt that this was the most effective way to do it. Ben just doesn't want to hear teen daughter Kielyr talk about her recent reading of Lolita in terms of what it's about. He wants to know what it's really ABOUT and how she interpreted it. And as usual, the word "interesting" is forbidden since, you know, it doesn't mean anything.

As played by Mortensen, Ben's such an easy, laid-back character to root for that you want to look past the holes in his philosophy that manifest when they make a stop at his sister (Kathryn Hahn) and brother-in-law's (Steve Zahn) house. How they've raised their two sons seems to represent the kind of protective coddling Ben and Leslie rallied against when they moved their family off the grid to escape a smothering, materialistic society. When Ben and the kids arrive, it's two extremes trying to co-exist at one dinner table and the result is not only emotionally combustible, but illuminating in how it reveals just how much of life his kids are missing out on, despite the number of books they've all read, wildlife they've hunted or weapons they've brandished.

Whatever real life experience has been gained by these kids, few of it has actually been applied, to the point where Ben, in all his best efforts to raise independent, free-thinking, self-sufficient offspring, could unintentionally be realizing his worst fears by sheltering them in a bubble. It's perhaps most apparent with the eldest, Bo, who has his first, awkward experience even talking to a girl (played by Erin Moriarty) on this road trip and greatly fears revealing his college ambitions to his dad. Younger teen Rellian hates his father's methods altogether and would far rather live like a normal kid and play video games than celebrate fictitious holidays like "Noam Chomsky Day."

Ben's father-in-law isn't depicted as a sneering, one-dimensional villain angling to take his grandchildren away to settle a grudge over his deceased daughter. He does want to take them, but perhaps for very valid reasons and the events that unfold as a result of it feel more painfully realistic than the over-the-top movie confrontation we'd expect. Ben's a good man who cares deeply for his kids while Jack's concerns about the safety and future of his grandchildren come from an equally sincere place. It also helps that Langella plays these scenes just right, expertly walking a fine line other equally subtle actors couldn't in only a few scenes. Then there's the issue of how much say Ben should really have in upholding his late wife's wishes considering her precarious mental state would almost have to call those into serious question. None of this feels easy and Matt Ross' screenplay doesn't insult us by implying otherwise.

Filled with plenty of lighthearted moments and laughs, it would still be inaccurate to categorize this as anything but a drama since the ground it covers is thematically much deeper than it appears on the surface. Viggo may be the anchor in a tricky, multi-faceted role that could have gone wrong in a number of ways, but the kids are good too. George MacKay, previously a strong presence in Stephen King's 11.22.63 miniseries from earlier this year, brings a loony, sincere naivete to Bo while Samantha Isler is also a standout as Kielyr, channelling a sort of Shailene Woodley in training. The much discussed ending is somewhat brave, keeping with the spirit and tone set from the start. Three quarters of the way through, you think you know exactly where it's going, and had it ended that way, we'd still have a perfectly fine film. But it would be one with a rather black and white message that wouldn't lend itself to the type of discussion the film's still generating and should continue to.

This all does feel more like a writing achievement than a directorial one, and while you could argue whether the execution lives up to the magnitude of its ideas, it lays claim to something few other 2016 films can: Cultural Relevancy. It feels significant in how it turns a mirror to our society, coming closer to pinpointing the sociopolitical rift that's developed in this country than most works this year. It's almost scary how its finger rests on the pulse, going so far as to anticipate a discussion that's only now starting to permeate our culture in a major way. It could be read as a warning on the dangers of extremism in either direction and a call for compromise. But however you describe Captain Fantastic, just don't call it "interesting."

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Money Monster

Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O' Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Emily Meade
Running Time: 99 min
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In Jodie Foster's Money Monster, George Clooney plays the smarmy host of an over-the-top investing show in the vain of Jim Cramer's "Mad Money," but far worse and much more ridiculous. Within the film's first few minutes, it's abundantly clear that any viewer taking serious financial advice from this guy is of questionable judgment to say the least. But when such a viewer is allegedly screwed over by one of the show's "picks of the millennium," he makes his presence known in the network's studio with an explosive device and suddenly the show's a lot less ridiculous. If the film's opening scenes are purely set-up, then all the action that follows, unfolding in "real time" as the perpetrator takes an entire studio hostage on live TV,  are reminiscent of exciting of 90's thrillers like Nick of Time or Mad City (with which this shares a similar plot). This compares favorably to both, mainly because it's more skillfully made and doesn't go exactly where you'd expect, cleverly flipping the script to shift our allegiances and make a timely statement about media consumption that surely resonates stronger now than it would have in that decade.

The biggest hurdle the movie overcomes is the unusual casting of Clooney as slick, oily TV host. Luckily, this does only end up being an issue of casting since his performance overcomes it. He's tremendous in this as the situation escalates. And boy does it ever escalate, as Foster milks the most it can out of its single location premise and the chess game tenuously unfolding on national television between the host and a very unexpected guest. It's not damning with faint praise to say it's the best film she's directed since it's also a challenging one, requiring her to juggle a lot of balls in the air while simultaneously keeping a firm grip on tone. Could something similar actually happen? Given the current socio-political climate, it wouldn't be a stretch to say in some respects we're already there, with the line separating news and entertainment fuzzier than ever before.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is the flamboyant host of TV's "Money Monster," offering what he hypes as valuable advice to Wall Street investors as to which stocks they should buy and sell, and when. With a format more closely resembling a bad variety show, Gates raps, dances and dresses in crazy costumes while bloviating about the week's picks. All this chaos is controlled by his total pro of a director, Patty Finn (Julia Roberts), who not only has the daunting task of keeping things moving, but must constantly accommodate the needs of her egotistical host, who frequently goes off on tangents just to hear himself talk and shake things up. But when one of his "can't miss" stocks, IBS Clear Capital, tanks, disgruntled, working-class investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) sneaks into the studio as a delivery man, taking the crew hostage and holding Gates at gunpoint on camera.

With Kyle equipping the host with an explosive vest set to go off whenever he chooses to release his handheld trigger, it's up to Patty to keep cameras rolling and make sure the suddenly humbled and fearful Gates keeps Kyle talking long enough for them to survive. As police Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) and an antsy hostage negotiator close in, Kyle demands answers to how he and other investors were wiped out by IBS, and he's not appreciating the canned ones given to him on-air by the company's PR director Diane Lester (Caitrona Balfe) on behalf of missing CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). There's more to this story and it's up to Gates and Patty to find out what, and the threat of an on-air massacre broadcasting live for the world to see is quickly becoming a very real possibility.

The pacing here is tremendous, with each passing minute containing its fair share of surprises as both men become increasingly desperate and irrational about their expectations of how this could be resolved, if at all. Clooney just might be our most likable star so seeing him as lying, conniving TV host is undeniably off-putting at first, but once it's clear what the situation is and the perilous danger Gates finds himself in, we're off to the races. It works for the actor that his character never quite buys into the persona either, and the longer he's on air with the volatile Kyle, the more he starts dropping his guard. This is where the casting of Clooney works magnificently, as the interaction he has with his uninvited guest changes with each new bit of information about him he uncovers.

Gates slowly undergoes this epiphany in front of a national TV audience that doesn't seem the slightest bit forced under Foster's direction, but rather a natural progression resulting from the predicament he's in. With lives on the line, the show becomes a truth serum of sorts and with each new revelation comes shades of complexity and doubt as to whether Kyle's necessarily wrong, even as his actions are. What's happening proves itself to be bigger than both of them so it's only fitting it plays itself out on the biggest stage of all.

If Clooney's nuanced performance invisibly guides us across the film's more treacherous narrative waters, just as much credit goes to Julia Roberts, who does it all through a headset, her interplay with him crucial to keeping the tension high. Some of the best scenes involve Patty trying to keep Gates from doing something stupid while simultaneously directing a live TV show that thrives on chaos for ratings. The running joke is that she seems more competent at handling this tenuous situation than the law enforcement professionals actually tasked with the job. Until the final act, there's very little involvement from them at all and what's sure to be a disappointment for Breaking Bad fans, Giancarlo Esposito isn't given much to work with in an underwritten, perfunctory walk-on. He can't be faulted for failing to leave a lasting impression in a role clearly not written to, even if it's a relief that this cinematic hostage situation depends more on the psychology of the participants than police intervention.

The film contains two legitimately jaw-dropping scenes certain to grab viewers' attention and hold it. The first involves the shocking appearance of someone important in Kyle's life while the second is an unusual appeal to the public by Gates. Both come from a script that proves to be smarter than expected, even going so far as to give Balfe's corporate character a believable moral awakening on par with the two leads. While the plot ties together a little too neatly in the end with all the characters converging in one of those big, showy scenes where everything's spelled out with expository information, at least this time there's a reasonable excuse: They're on live TV. Considering all the crazy events that occur in Money Monster, it's a credit to the underlying truth behind them and the intensity generated by the actors, that we rarely stop to question it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Shallows

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Over the past couple of years, "Shark Week" has morphed into what could be considered a national holiday. With it now comes an onslaught of shark-related programming, shark documentaries and "so bad, they're bad" Sharknado movies. It only seems that the next logical step would be a single location shark thriller, except for the fact that we already had  a pretty good one with 2003's Open Water, an underappreciated gem in which a married scuba-diving couple out at sea fight for their lives in shark-infested waters. But from the start, it's clear The Shallows isn't going to be THAT type of a psychological thriller. For one, it has a budget. For two, it stars Blake Lively. You don't put a young, big name, popular actress in the lead to get ripped limb by limb by a great white. The highest praise you can give Jaume Collet-Serra's film is that it has its moments where you think he might actually be going there. Of course, we know better, but none of that takes away from the entertainment or enjoyment of it all, as the suspense is skillfully escalates throughout even some of the more credibility-straining sections.

A snake may be able to swallow Jon Voight's villain whole in Anaconda but don't necessarily expect a similar fate for our heroine here, and while this does a surprisingly credible job putting her in perilous danger, it never feels that laughably ridiculous. Lively, who first surprised us with the extent of her acting capabilities in The Town (and to a lesser degree, Savages), is asked to carry this entire project on her shoulders and proves herself more than equipped at handling that responsibility. If you don't like the lead in this, chances are you won't like the movie and its problems will only be amplified. Luckily, that shouldn't be an issue for most and there's enough else that works about the familiar situation and skillful execution to recommend it, including the shark.         

Following the death of her mother, medical student Nancy Adam (Lively) takes a vacation to a secluded beach in Mexico, the same one her mom visited while she was pregnant with her. She's dropped off at the beach by a friendly local and in between an emotionally strained video-chat with her sister (Sedona Legge) and dad (Brett Cullen) back home, she gets in some surfing with a couple of guys, at least until the discovery (and foul smell) of a large, dead humpback whale floating nearby. Pretty soon, the murderer makes itself known, a great white shark that takes a bite out of her leg, forcing her to swim to the closest rock to slow the bleeding and attempt to treat a very serious wound.

Nancy will spend an indefinite amount of time stranded on this rock, with only a seagull for company, as the great white circles below, itching to finish what he started. With the shore suddenly further than ever and swimming becoming an impossibility due to her injury, Nancy must fight for her life as the shark claims more victims and she battles the elements, as well as her deteriorating physical condition. The real battle takes place inside herself, as she must summon up the wits, strength, resourcefulness and courage to come out of this alive and return home. In one piece.

More exciting than it has any right being, the stripped down story is aided not only by Lively's intensely physical performance (a full-fledged endurance test for the actress), but how little we see of the shark. Sound familiar? Obviously, Jaws comes to mind and while that film's malfunctioning shark famously and accidently resulted in seeing far less of it than intended, this movie holds him off intentionally to recreate that same feeling of escalating tension and dread. While Jaws was mechanical and the result of practical effects, this one is entirely rendered with CGI, and it's a testament to how little we see of it that such information is hardly noteworthy.

The shark's occasional appearances are genuinely well placed and scary, with Collet-Serra picking his spots well. But since the bulk of the running time is spent with Blake on this rock, the bigger challenge is holding our interest with a protagonist cut off from the outside world. Steven The Seagull may as well be this film's version of Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away. As a device, it's not relied on quite as much but he effectively serves his function as a sounding board for the audience to gain insight into Nancy's state of mind through a one-way dialogue. Cleverly, a Go Pro camera also serves that purpose with her video confessionals, even as the script arguably travels a bridge too far in terms of its impact on the story's resolution.

While it's doubtful a shark would continuously circle its prey like a serial killer for days at a time and likely has better things to do, The Shallows isn't really meant to be hold up to close logical scrutiny in that regard. Many of the events that occur are preposterous when taken purely at face value, but what makes it work is the tight, compact execution of it all and Lively's believability as a young woman at a crossroads who's suddenly thrust into an increasingly unbelievable situation. Even as the script sometimes tests plausibility, Lively doesn't and it wouldn't be a surprise to find out she put a lot of physical preparation into the role, or has previous surfing experience based on scenes where it's abundantly clear a stuntperson wasn't involved.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the premise that's grazed upon but mostly left unexplored is the danger of this young woman traveling alone in a country where she knows no one and speaks very little of the language. An argument could be made that if this didn't happen, something else just as awful was easily destined to. But they'll have to save that for the sequel. The biggest jump to be made is that anyone could survive a shark attack like this so it's a credit to the filmmakers that you rarely notice they're holding much back for a PG-13, infrequently shying away from the horror of the situation as its main character is put through the ringer. By the time it's over, viewers will feel spent enough to relate.      

Sunday, November 20, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2011

*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

Previous Posts:


Unbeknownst to me until recently, more than a few critics considered 2011 to be a landmark year for movies. While I wouldn't go that far, it is actually a very strong one that ends up supplying the highest quality of films in this 10 For 10 series since '07. The only disclaimer I'd add is that if you're looking for uplifting, inspirational entertainment, you're out of luck. All these films except maybe the eventual Best Picture winner are dramatically heavy, including the action-oriented top pick, which veers considerably from anyone's definition of a traditional "action movie." More crowded than anticipated, this ends up being the only year that was so jam-packed I actually have leftover write-ups for films that didn't make the cut that could at some point see the light. And this time, there are actually TWO entries in the Top 10 for a pair of unreviewed films, one of which (We Need To Talk About Kevin) I watched in preparation for this post and ended up placing the highest of any new watch to date. The second, Contagion, was partially reviewed but unfinished, so that paragraph below largely reflects my original thoughts on it.

Perhaps no film looks better to me in hindsight than Bennett Miller's Moneyball, to the point that it was a serious threat to run away with the top spot if the competition wasn't so overpowering. When it comes to sports movies, baseball always seems to fair the best as there's just something about our National Pastime that translates better cinematically than nearly all other sports. Field of Dreams, The Natural, Major League, Bull Durham, The Sandlot, The Bad News Bears, Eight Men Out, Cobb, The Rookie. The list goes on and on and Moneyball joins it, becoming one of the few to present an entirely cerebral view of the game without sacrificing any of the emotion.

From the start, I pretty much knew it would boil down to Drive and Young Adult for the top spot, and while it could have easily come down to a coin flip on certain days, the overall experience of Refn's film has proven longer lasting. In a battle between the director-driven film and the writer-driven one, it makes sense that directing would triumph, even as Jason Reitman's Young Adult remains, to this day, the most criminally underrated release of 2011. But it may not have been helped coming out in a year loaded with thought-provoking dramas like the sprawling, meditative The Tree of Life, director George Clooney's smart, twisty (and still very timely) political thriller The Ides of March and Kenneth Lonergan's infamously long-delayed Margaret, which somehow still surpassed the unreasonable expectations for it.

The Artist ranks alongside Slumdog Millionaire as one of the most tolerable and rewatchable of recent Best picture winners while the NC-17 rated sex addiction drama Shame lost a real dogfight for the last slot that could have just as easily been occupied by Joe Wright's teen assassin actioner Hanna or the mesmerizing Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film I had a rare reversal of opinion on after initially dismissing. Other respectable titles missing the cut include: Warrior, Melancholia, Take Shelter, The Help, Hugo, 50/50, Win Win, Margin Call, Hesher, Source Code and The Beaver

It seems as if the sheer amount of movies released within the calendar year increased, or at least feels like it, as the gap between critics and audiences' tastes also grows wider than ever. Forget about being on the same page, they're no longer even reading the same book. If nothing, else the year provided a fascinating case study of how easy it is for dark human dramas to dominate lists like this, as depressing as that thought is for some. At their best, they just tend to feel the biggest in scope and most important by zeroing in on the issues that universally hit closest to home. In that respect, 2011 was a banner year.

10. Contagion

"With Contagion, Steven Soderbergh has crafts a form of dramatic entertainment I secretly hoped would come around again. It's comparable to a modern-day 70's disaster movie featuring ridiculously famous but exceptionally well cast actors. Only it doesn't feel like a disaster movie so much as pure horror. And apparently someone forgot to tell Soderbergh it's only supposed to be dumb fun. And yet, in a strangely dark way it is, while also managing to be scary and intensely realistic. Rarely does a moment pass when you're not questioning the possibility of something similar happening. While this performed moderately well at the box office when it was released late last year, it did get lost in the awards shuffle, failing to really catch fire. It's tough to warmly wrap your arms around a disease procedural or tell your friends you can't wait to see the new pandemic movie on Friday. And that's a shame since it's probably Soderbergh's most assured film in years, his cold, clinical style working like it never has before. Plus, it finally gives Gwyneth Paltrow's head a worthy follow-up to its work in Se7en."

9. The Ides of March

 "...the revelations in the film aren't shocking per se (though one blew me out of my seat), but instead meticulously constructed and executed, like a chess game with its pieces moving across the board. And all the players are perfectly utilized.(Clooney) deserves the praise, streamlining a complicated narrative into a clean, concise cinematic experience free of any excess fat. Consider it the Michael Clayton of political thrillers, right down to its chilling final image. If that film marked the turning point for Clooney as an actor then this is his as a director, easily surpassing all his three previous efforts behind the camera which were solid, but dry. There's nothing dry or slight about this. Here's a movie with something important to say. The political system may be broken but those engulfed in it shouldn't look further than the mirror to determine what's most in need of fixing." - 3/15/12

8. We Need To Talk About Kevin

"From the start, we know something's not right and have a pretty good idea exactly what. But the best option is to surrender and let director Lynn Ramsey take us there, which she does, employing seamless transitions between the past and present to show the creation of a monster who eventually evolves into a 15-year-old (deviously played by Ezra Miller) on the cusp of committing an unspeakable crime.  But this is no traditional horror movie. It cuts too close to the bone for that, with an eccentric, free-spirited mother named Eva (Tilda Swinton at her iciest) unwittingly setting events in motion by having a child she's neither motivated nor emotionally prepared enough to raise. Swinton knows to play her as terrible mother who isn't a terrible person, just severely lacking in self-awareness. With her milquetoast husband (John C. Reilly) oblivious of the psychological carnage happening right under his nose, mother and child take turns hurting one another, with Kevin always having the upper hand.  It all seems so effortless, a muted confluence of scenes and images all leading to one tragically predetermined outcome Eva refuses to entertain. Ramsey dares to show it as it would happen, something that probably wouldn't be tolerated by the PC police just a few years later. Luckily, she pulls it off in time. Of course, we're left with the big question: Who's to blame? While a lesser film would have tried to answer that, this one knows there's more than enough of that to go around. "   

7. Margaret

"Multiple storylines and sub-plots are juggled effortlessly, with everything always returning to Lisa and the accident's aftermath for those directly or indirectly involved. But for Lisa, everything is always about her, and it's a credit to the writing and Paquin that we don't judge her for it and at times even empathize with her self-centeredness. She's in over her head and the more she does to make things better, the deeper the hole she digs. Whether it's calling a bad boy classmate (Kieran Culkin) over to lose to her virginity, stringing along her would-be boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.), hitting on her geometry teacher (Matt Damon), or meddling in the bus driver and victim's lives to absolve her conscience, Paquin makes it all seem somehow refreshingly human and relatable. She's not altogether a detestable character so much as a confused one, making it excusable for us to go from hating to loving Lisa (or vice versa) within the confines of a single scene." - 8/25/12

6. The Descendants

"The Hawaii we're presented with here isn't one we've been made aware of before, at least in movies. The opening voiceover even let's us know that much. It's more depressing than exotic, so unlike the vacation destination we've seen on postcards that it doesn't even register as the same place. If only Hawaiian locals only went to the beach all day, rode waves and had drinks with little umbrellas in them like we we've been told they do for years. This is the first time it hasn't been depicted as pure paradise and in doing so Payne fittingly humanizes this film's setting as much his characters, showing real flaws and imperfections that somehow lead to a greater appreciation of both. While people who live in paradise still have problems, they're hopefully not as big as the ones plaguing real estate lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney in a dialed down performance sure to net him another Oscar nomination."12/11/11

5. The Artist

"The exact moment when The Artist becomes really interesting arrives when silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) puts down a glass and it actually makes a sound. Until then, it's the first noise we hear other than the film's bouncy musical score. Then his dog Jack (Uggie) barks. Actresses walk by giggling. Valentin screams in frustration but he can't make a sound as the whole sequence plays out like a scene from The Twilight Zone. This nightmare quickly becomes reality for Valentin as Kinograph Studios' boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) announces that the advent of "talkies" have led to them halting production on silent films and his services are no longer needed. Watching, it's hard not to think of actors being replaced by computer graphics and motion capture in an age of 3D technology, older actresses being marginalized in an industry that worships youth and, of course, the current economic crisis. Despite the old fashioned approach, it's surprising just how fresh and relevant it all seems, and while it's frequently funny, it's also a bit deeper than you'd expect." - 2/23/12

4. The Tree of Life

"Less a film than a symphony, interpretation and analysis is fun, but futile considering each individual will bring however much or little of themselves they want to it.  What it all means could be summed up as "everything," but that still doesn't even really touch it. We're born into this world, make connections with different people that can be fleeting or not, and then we leave it, never pausing to consider whether there's a universal scheme in place hurling us toward our inevitable destination. We've seen movies try to tackle the topic but this is the first to make sure it's felt completely. Similar to a collage of dreams or memories, everything is presented in a non-linear format rather than in a traditional narrative structure. Scenes flow freely to form emotions rather than necessarily tell a story, which is sort of a first. Almost embarrassingly messy and over-ambitious, it's a little early to judge its worth as a true masterpiece, but this does feel like something monumentally important that needs to be talked about for a while to come." - 7/5/11

3. Moneyball

"Director Bennett Millers' handling of the material is tremendous in how he visually simplifies what could have been a dense watch for non-sports fans, with the playing scenes only bolstered by Mychael Danna's anthemic score. At 2 hours and 13 minutes the film arguably could have used a snip or trim, but it's difficult to feel that way while watching. If anything, it's so level-headed and straightforward it's biggest problem may be that it's the type of film easier to respect than love. Time will have to tell. When Beane says "it's easy to be romantic about baseball" we expect nothing less than an easy, inspirational conclusion. Instead we get one that leaves you considering what constitutes "winning" and wondering whether Beane could have been toppled by the very approach he helped popularize. When the title card appears on screen revealing what became of him since that '02 season, I heard audible gasps of shock from the audience, perhaps a testament to how few still know what he accomplished in a sport primarily concerned with who won the last game." - 9/26/11

2. Young Adult

"It seems every year people like to say a certain film ' hits the zeitgeist.' The term is so casually thrown around it may as well mean nothing. But here's one that hits dead center, targeting our culture's current obsession with nostalgia and convincing ourselves that things were better back when we thought we were better, whenever that was. Like the celebrities we simultaneously despise and idolize, Mavis functions as the mirror in which we view ourselves at our worst and it isn't pretty. But it's honest. We expect certain things in films and a likable protagonist is one of them. And if they're not, they at least need to experience growth of some sort. While it might be a stretch to say she achieves none, it sure isn't much. Instead she's given a final act "pep talk" that further feeds her narcissistic delusion. It's clear her road to recovery will be a marathon rather than a sprint, if there's even recovery at all. And yet, that's strangely reassuring. This isn't a coming-of-age story but instead a vicious, bracingly blunt character study that goes for the jugular, creating some cringe-worthy moments that only sting that much more because they feel real." - 12/27/11

1. Drive

"This is exactly the kind of movie you can picture Quentin Tarantino kicking himself for not attempting. Could he do it as well?  Possibly, but he'd have to curb his penchant for having his characters talk about how cool it is they're in it rather than building tension and suspense. This is the result when the right director, cast and material all come together at once, and it's poor box office performance isn't a huge surprise given the polarizing risks Refn takes. It's just too challenging, representing the type of film mainstream audiences have been programmed to hate after being weened on truckloads of generic Hollywood garbage each year. Now when something's finally done right, it feels wrong, if only for daring to be different. Drawing from a myriad of influences that suggest it was transported from another era, Drive still feels wholly authentic and original, proving that action and violence mean little without an investment in the characters." - 10/5/11

My Top 10 Films of 2011
1. Drive (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)
2. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
3. Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)
4. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
5. The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
6. The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne)
7. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynn Ramsey) 
9. The Ides of March (dir. George Clooney)
10. Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr., Bradley Cooper, Suzanne Cryer
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This review gives away key plot details, including the ending**

10 Cloverfield Lane raises a fascinating question for any critic or audience member who might happen to share my general opinion of it. And there will likely be more than a few. What happens when 90 percent of a movie is amazing, but the last 15 minutes are so misguided and disappointing that it threatens to completely overshadow whatever greatness came before? In this case, there was a lot of it, from the overall premise to the atmosphere and performances, it shares very little in common with 2008's monster movie Cloverfield, which was throwaway fun. This isn't. It's something much more than that for a good deal of its running time. With its production, eventual release and title somehow managing to stay shrouded in secrecy, few knew this "spiritual sequel" to Cloverfield was even coming, much less what it would be about, or who would star. But more importantly, that it could be done this well. That may be why the ending is so infuriating, but for me a bigger reason is that I was treated to two of my favorite actors going toe-to-toe for 90 minutes in the service of a story that came so close to doing them and viewers proud, only to drop the ball at the end.

What eventually occurs in no way diminishes those performances, but that any studio thought the idea of John Goodman as a survivalist holding people captive in an underground bunker wasn't scary enough on its own is mind boggling. On top of that, the script attaches enough moral implications and questions to what he's doing to make Rod Serling proud. What he wouldn't be so proud of is the ending. And it's not so much that I'm completely against what they did (though I still didn't care for it), but rather how. So here's my advice: When you get to about the hour and twenty-five minute mark, just hit "STOP" on your remote and turn the missing minutes into one of those old school "Choose Your Own Adventure" books where you pick the ending. There's little doubt whatever scenario you come up with will be more compelling than what the filmmakers ultimately chose. And the sad part is, ending notwithstanding, it's still one of the year's most compelling films.

When we first meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), she's packing up and leaving New Orleans after an argument with her fiancé Ben (voiced by Bradley Cooper). Distraught and distracted by news of major blackouts across the country, her car suddenly hits something and careens off the road. She awakens in a basement chained to a wall with an IV in her arm. The man holding her there is the burly, intimidating Howard Stambler (John Goodman), an obsessive survivalist who's built a fallout shelter under his farmhouse in the event of an attack, nuclear or otherwise. According to him, such an attack has already occurred, claiming the lives of nearly everyone outside who breathed the contaminated air.

Michelle and a man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) who forced himself into the bunker, are told by Howard that under no uncertain terms can they leave until the poisoned air's safe, which could be two years at the earliest. Not buying the far-fetched story and assuming she's been kidnapped by a crazed lunatic (with Howard's actions doing little to contradict that), a terrified Michelle makes plans to escape, but will need Emmett's help. Even as evidence mounts that there might be some truth to Howard's claims that the terror awaiting them outside is far worse than anything he can dish out.

Whether or not this was an intentional inspiration, the premise thematically draws certain comparisons to the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," in which panicked, desperate neighbors turn against each another when faced with an inexplicable, otherworldly threat. This is obviously a more contained version of that but the basic idea of how far people is willing to go and the amount of force they'll exert over others for self-preservation and survival are very similar.

Frightening in its timeliness, the screenplay cleverly and indirectly tackles 9/11 paranoia, terrorism and national security through the character of Howard, who's very much grounded in the world in which we now live. With his emphasis on law and order and second amendment rights it's not hard to picture him heading out to the polls on Election Day, packing heat and wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. That's not a knock on Trump supporters, but rather a reasonable interpretation of this character based on the evidence, as well as a credit to Goodman's complex, forceful performance, which wildly vacillates between cold and detached and enthusiastically charismatic at the drop of a dime. It's because of him that we're able to get that clear a picture of the man, knowing exactly what he stands for and what pisses him off. The writers should also take some credit for concocting a character that really hits a cultural zeitgeist they couldn't have possibly known about when this went into pre-production.

What we're fuzzier on are the stoic, often humorless Howard's exact intentions, which is where so much of the film derives its suspense. The first inclination is that he's a psychotic kidnapper since his doomsday scenario doesn't add up on any logical level and he seems to care way too much about Michelle and Emmett attempting to leave (escape?). Then the clues drop. While certain details suggest Howard could actually be telling the truth, or at least some version of it, he's still a controlling terror with whom sharing any kind of space is dangerous. And yet, because he's played by Goodman, there are these moments of humanity where it seems as if he's legitimately invested in their well being as if they were his offspring. Evolving into this dysfunctional family, they eat together, play board games and watch movies as if Goodman were reprising his role as Dan Connor on Roseanne. The whole thing is so oddly fascinating and atypical of what you'd expect, even as tension continues to build to a fever pitch around Howard's personal history and reasons for holding them.

After turning in impressive, overlooked work The Thing remake, small, character-driven indies like Smashed, Faults and Alex of Venice and in TV's short-lived The Returned, I've always contended that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is only about a role or two off from occupying the same spot her Academy Award-winning Scott Pilgrim co-star Brie Larson currently does. This film probably won't get her there but it still represents the latest in a long line of inspiring choices that show off a dramatic range few know she possesses. In fact, most of the film and her performance recalls the first act of Room, which only makes it that much more frustrating when this eventually deviates from that psychological template.

Michelle is caught in a desperate, hopeless situation right off the bat, and the thrill comes in watching her try to process that, read it, and determine how to react.  The wheels are always turning, as she attempts to negotiate her way out of this predicament and nearly every scene Winstead shares with Goodman carries this consequential weight that nearly suffocates you with suspense. There's a an unbearably tense scene at the dinner table when director Dan Trachtenberg milks the suspense to such a point that the payoff literally caused me to jump. Gallagher's Emmett at first seems to be a major dope blindly following Howard, until his personality and motivations start figuring into the equation in surprising ways.

Considering its title and the fact this supposedly takes place in the same universe as Cloverfield, an argument could be made that we know what we're getting into. I'll cop to that, but still doesn't make the final minutes of the film any less ridiculous, disappointing or poorly executed. The script eventually has to lay all its cards on the table and reveal whether this is a straight-up abduction or some kind of cataclysmic event has actually occurred outside and Howard's holding her there for her own protection and his. Or maybe it's some kind of combination of both. In other words, she has to eventually escape and see what's out there. We know this and it's fine. But even if you're satisfied with THE BIG REVEAL, they don't milk the moments leading up to it nearly enough or execute it with the amount of finesse necessary to justify it. Despite some defending the decision, it's simply incongruous with the tone of the rest of the picture. While I can get on board with the thematic justification and how it relates Michelle's backstory and overcoming the cycle of her abuse, that doesn't excuse involving aliens in a narrative that was fairly grounded up to that point.  

Trachtenberg, making his feature debut, does a masterful job creating a dread-fueled atmosphere, but even he's saddled with a pretty thankless task in the final minutes. He responds with the cinematic equivalent of clubbing viewers over the head multiple times. But he's really just shooting a screenplay that's gone off the rails and it's likely the writers (which includes Whiplash director Damien Chazelle) were only carrying out the wishes of J.J. Abrams or the studio, who determined it was more important to continue building a "universe" that satiates the appetites of comic-con crowds than put the proper coda on an otherwise excellent film. It appears to have been nothing more than a marketing-driven decision, and while it happens all the time, that still doesn't make it any less creatively bankrupt.

If stretching for positives in the disastrous final minutes, Winstead's performance remains strong even during this nonsense and the revelation that Howard wasn't lying casts the character's previous actions in a slightly different light, causing you to likely appreciate Goodman's performance even more on repeated viewings. But I'd argue the same exact thing could have been accomplished in half a dozen different and better ways than what they eventually went with. Since it's unfair to rag on an ending this much without offering up a reasonable alternative, it would have been far more effective to have the final 15 minutes continue to build legitimate doubt as to what exactly happened, how many people survived, whether the air is breathable, or the planet even habitable.

The few minutes Michelle has to investigate before the movie turns into a special effects circus are really good and should have been stretched longer. Then, and only then, if they want to pull the trigger on the reveal (even one as silly as this), it would at least carry greater impact and they could quickly get to the end credits to preserve the integrity of what came before. Of course, had it just been a more believable threat that matched the tone of the rest of the film there would be no need for this discussion. But that wouldn't sell tickets. That's what's so frustrating about 10 Cloverfield Lane, which for most of its running time delightfully shares as little in common as possible with its predecessor. And why it's difficult assessing how much a botched ending should be counted against the overall viewing experience. One major flaw doesn't erase everything else, but it does somehow strangely make it all mean a little less than it should.     

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Halt and Catch Fire (Season 3)

Creators: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Starring: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss, Mark O' Brien, Annabeth Gish, Manish Dayal, Matthew Lillard
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

**Spoiler Warning: This Review Reveals Plot Points From All Three Seasons of the Series**

"The barriers between us will disappear. And we’re not ready. We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable, and we’ll pay the price. It’s a huge danger. A gigantic risk. But it’s worth it. If only we can learn to take care of each other. Then this awesome, destructive new connection won’t isolate us. It won’t leave us, in the end, so totally alone."

It's a good feeling when you stick with something and it pays off. Two years ago, an 80's-set series about the personal computer revolution called Halt and Catch Fire premiered with a reasonable amount of promotion and unrealistic expectations for a network looking to "replace" Breaking Bad and Mad Men, as if that were possible. With alarmingly low ratings and wildly mixed reviews, its initially over-the-top, inconsistent storytelling dragged down a still promising series searching for a voice. Any voice. But even from the very beginning, something was there. The setting, acting, directing, cinematography, production design and overall concept had too much potential to just throw in the towel. This was a well made show that needed a lot finessing to reach its fullest potential, assuming it wouldn't be cancelled before then.

The cast of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire (Season 3)
After AMC surprisingly renewed this for a second season, the writers started working out the kinks, readjusting its focus, as we started to sense a journey for these increasingly nuanced characters, and the series, for the first time, seemed to be flirting with greatness. At that time last year I wrote that those improvements would probably need one more season to fully take hold, but if they did, breaking the through the glass ceiling to reach the upper echelon was legitimately possible. Unfortunately, with the show hemoraging even more viewers, that possibility of more episodes seemed to be a pipe dream. 

Credit should go to AMC for realizing that the TV model has changed enough that ratings matter less and the network's commitment to quality is part of how HACF has arrived here. Season 3 is not only its best, but it retroactively redeems and justifies all the decisions made up to that point, most especially those from its now underappreciated first season. And you can actually pinpoint the moment this all happens. It comes at the end of a season few thought would even happen, as creators and eventual showrunners Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers make a narrative decision that quite literally changes the game, proving the show deserves to share the room with television's top dramas. And this while another far differently conceived computer-centric critical favorite, USA's Mr. Robot, struggled through a disappointingly dense sophomore season. In contrast, there's comfort in just how simple and unfussy HACF is. It would be easy to keep complaining that no one's watching a show this good, but if the network doesn't seem to care, then why should I?  I'm just glad to have it.

Whether it's personal computing, laptops, message boards or first-person shooter games, the ideas and innovations that come from the characters residing in the show's hardwired 80's universe are ahead of the curve. Sometimes frustrating so. They're always just a little too early for what's coming next, with the rest of the world either unprepared for what they've created or the technology not yet where it needs to be. This has almost become a running joke with many pointing out unfavorable comparisons to Forrest Gump, as they seem to have a presence or role in every key computing breakthrough of the past thirty years, even if it's just a walk-on. And up until this season, I may have agreed. But now they're right where they belong, on the precipice of something huge, everything else that's preceded it feels like a primer. A string of baby steps, hiccups and failures meant to get us here.

Joe MacMillan, founder of MacMillan Utility
It's 1986 and when we last left the slick, manipulative Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), he had once again manipulated "Gordon, "stealing" his anti-virus program to build his own company, MacMillan Utility, and closing a deal for office space in California. It's a venture Gordon could have been involved in had he not been given an ultimatum by Donna (Kerry Bishé) to move with her and the kids from Texas out to Silicon Valley, as she and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) relocate the latter's now rapidly growing startup, Mutiny. With his health woes continuing and the wounds inflicted by his recent affair still fresh, Gordon (Scoot McNairy) wasn't given much of a choice but to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Similarly, Cardiff Electric's former Sales V.P. and everyone's favorite ex-con, the incomparable James "Bos" Bosworth (Toby Huss) is also once again along for the ride, after a brief return to the corporate world reminded him how alive he felt at Mutiny, and how strained his relationship with his son still is. While it might be cliched to state that these characters are at a crossroads, the writing, acting and directing throughout this season pays that description off. In a brilliant bit of misdirection, every one of them is forced out of their comfort zone, forcing viewers to reevaluate them, before arriving at an emotional crescendo that brings the entire series full circle.

Clad in white linen pants and sporting a full beard, we're witnessing a more relaxed, Zen-like Joe MacMillan than in episodes past, clearly taking a cue from early Steve Jobs. And like Jobs, Joe's an idea man used to answering to no one, making the presence of a board his worst nightmare. This nightmare comes in the form of venture capitalist Ken Diebold (a mustachioed Matthew Lillard), who acts as a puppeteer, pulling the strings of an increasingly helpless Joe, who's company is slowly slipping away from him amidst a software pricing battle (ep. 3.3, "Flipping The Switch"). The little relief he finds comes from a working friendship with MacMillan Utilty's newest employee, Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), a socially awkward ex-coder at Mutiny whose forward-thinking ideas were constantly shot down by Cameron.

Joe and Ryan brainstorming ideas
With Ryan under the tutelage of his hero, Joe MacMillan, the two begin working on something big, and it's an apprenticeship that not only echoes his days of working with Gordon on the Giant in the garage, but changes the course of the series. It's the first of many call-backs that somehow creates nostalgia in viewers for a series that's only been on a couple of years, and sets Joe on his eventual path of doing right by Gordon. It may be fair to call Ryan the most important supporting character the show's ever had, at least as far as being the trigger for these characters to land where they need to be. And if nothing else, he writes and verbally delivers what ends up being the series' manifesto, (ep. 3.8, "You Are Not Safe") a monologue both timeless and timely in how it accurately describes the dangers and benefits of a future where everyone is connected, while somehow still being completely disconnected from the world in which they live. In other words, the present day.

Growing at too fast a speed to keep up, Mutiny is slipping away from its free-spirited, rebellious founder Cameron and the more composed, business savvy Donna. They just don't know it yet. Or rather, one of them does, and the other won't listen. Unlike for Joe, outside assistance comes for Mutiny from a more benevolent source, venture capitalist Diane Gould (Annabeth Gish), an acquaintance of Donna who's seriously considering investing in the company provided a few obstacles are cleared. Without going into the specifics of how, all of this turns out to be a disaster ten times worse than what Joe's experiencing because at least you know he'll always have some kind of nefarious plan in his back pocket. It sets off a chain of events that puts Mutiny founder Cameron on a collision course with the supposedly more capable Donna, with Gordon and Bos caught in the middle.

Cameron and Donna, while never exactly friends, managed to make Mutiny work, and viewers were always clear where each stood on the company food chain. If the former is a talented, but extremely immature coder who fell into a CEO role she's entirely unsuited for and doesn't want, then the latter is the heart and soul of the company, as well as the show's moral compass. Coupled with Kerry Bishé's extremely warm, likable presence and do-it-all performance, it's easy to see why Donna's been the fan favorite since day one. It's certainly helped Cam has been written to be at her most petulant this season, panicking at criticism or compromise, firing people on a whim and disappearing for weeks at a time while Donna steers the ship, making tough decisions for Cameron to be pissed about when she decides to show up for work. Much of the time, Cam comes off as a scared little girl, which until now has been touchingly reinforced with her relationship with Bos, who's always viewed himself as her father figure of sorts. Except only for the fact that she did have a father who died in Vietnam and her trip back to Dallas (ep. 3.5,"Yerba Buena") to find closure, and potentially reconnect with the returning Tom (Mark O' Brien), finds even Bos justifiably fed up with her behavior, perhaps permanently straining their bond.

Gordon and Cameron playing Super Mario Bros.
If there's a silver lining for Cam this season, it's her surprising friendship with Gordon despite the fact she's at war with his wife. But Gordon's been marginalized too, essentially blackmailed into joining Mutiny, even as his role in the company remains completely undefined. Retreating to the confines of his closet with a ham radio as his symptoms of toxic encephalopathy intensify, it's the first time we're forced to consider that Donna might not be as perfect as we thought. Watching Cam and Gordon bond over beating Super Mario Bros. (ep. 3.6, "And She Was") not only works as pure nostalgia for viewers who grew up trying to do the same, but provides some of the season's few moments of joy for these characters. Gordon wants to help her in fight against Donna, or at least attempt help them find some common ground, but it's painfully clear that his professional allegiance will have to remain with his wife, no matter how rocky their relationship.

As the company heads toward a potential IPO it may or may not be ready for (ep. 3.7, "The Threshold") a funny thing happens to our perceptions of Donna and Cameron. Maybe it's okay to think you're right all of the time, and maybe even okay to lie and manipulate a little bit if you think it's in everyone's best interests, but if you do all these things, you better be right. As all the cards are laid out on the table, it appears Donna was dead wrong. The moment when Cameron slowly exits the Mutiny offices, doubled over, heaving and gasping for air as her eyes flood, it's apparent the series just landed its biggest emotional blow and Mackenzie Davis delivered it, further solidifying her as TV's best, most unheralded actress.

Despite all of Cam's childish, immature behavior throughout the series, we still feel real sympathy for her due to Davis' performance in that scene and everything leading up to it. Donna may have rapidly grown Mutiny and taken it to the next level, but it wasn't her idea. It was Cam's baby. And while it may be a disturbing parallel, Donna symbolically aborts it just as she literally aborted her own baby last season when Cameron secretly drove her to that clinic.

Cameron gets kicked out of Mutiny
Donna's made many sacrifices to achieve her professional goals but the explosive impromptu meeting that determines Mutiny's fate casts that in a different light. She's now a money person, and potentially even a sell-out, short-changing Mutiny's long-term prospects for a big payout and petty revenge. And the amazing thing is that Bishé doesn't really alter a single note in her performance of the Donna we've known and loved since Season 1. It's just a matter of the writers reframing everything that been in front of our faces the entire time. And yet it's still just as easily possible to defend her actions from a business standpoint and see why she felt the need to make these choices, as selfish as they seem.  In many ways, Diane is her role model, foreshadowing her eventual future as a single mother trying to conquer the business world.

If it seems nearly impossible for the season to continue after an event more befitting a series finale, this not only does that, but tops it twice over. Just as Cam's life comes crashing down, Joe's master plan with Ryan to break away from his own company ends in a tragedy that directly or indirectly alters the lives of every character, most specifically him. When Joe MacMillan awakens in his apartment to cops and an open terrace door, he seems for the first time truly shaken to his core. Dare we even say a changed man. The same Joe who hit an armadillo with his car in the pilot episode, sabatoged an entire project at Cardiff just to get press and burned a truckload of Giant computers, and earlier in the season even had an HIV scare, finally hits rock bottom and suddenly everything that came before starts to make a lot more sense.

Of course, this moment means nothing without all of those, and we can recognize both in Lee Pace's delivery and reactions that this guy, as we've known him, is done. In Joe's own words, even he "can't work with Joe MacMillan anymore." The character who seemed to start as a Don Draper-Patrick Bateman hybrid is now a fully developed, three-dimensional human being driving the narrative. A narrative that seems to have reached its conclusion with what again could have easily been a suitable series finale. And it's with no where else for its characters to go, that the writers pull off their grandest trick yet, leaving the 80's in the rearview mirror. They've gone as far as they can go.

Copyright, 1990.
Had it run long enough, that intriguing possibility that the series could pull off a major time jump or flashforward was always on the table. It just makes sense. And its arrival in the first episode (ep. 3.9, "NIM") of its two-part season finale, makes for thrilling television. It's the high-water mark for the show, aweing and rewarding audiences who stuck around long enough to witness its disorienting opening minutes where we're wondering what's going on. Time jumps have been misused and overused so much it's tough to remember when they weren't commonplace. But it's also just as easy to forget how well they can work, freeing up the writers' creative options and enhancing already strong characters by taking them in a new, fresh direction.

When we see the Windows 3.0 screen and realize the series has hit the reset button, making a seamless and organic transition to 1990, it's clear why those preceding episodes has such an air of finality to them. As we scramble to fill in the blanks of the past four years (and it doesn't take long) the true masterstroke of this idea is how the show is rapidly approaching an era where the world and technology is finally catching up to these characters' ideas. And if they took all took a strange detour over the past season, pushed and pulled in surprising ways, this move returns the series to its core. They all converge together again having grown and matured, while also realizing that the more things change, the more they've also stayed the same. Joe's itching to get back in the game, Donna's out on her own, divorced from Gordon, who's struggling to control his rebellious teen daughter and progressing illness while reentering the dating game.

The biggest change has come over a very different looking and acting Cameron, whose time spent in Japan as a successful Atari game designer married to Tom seems to have mellowed and wisened her to the point that she's now open to a reunion of sorts. If anything, THE BIG IDEA certainly seems important enough to warrant it. Bringing back the COMDEX convention (where the show staged one of its strongest first season episodes), is another great touch and a reminder that Joe and Cameron will always be damaged goods, yet intrinsically linked since that first scene in the pilot when he recruited her out of the classroom. It's a dynamic that's sort of taken a backseat to the rest of the action over the course of two seasons, while still bubbling just enough under the surface, destined at some point to reemerge. And the writers couldn't have possibly timed it better.

Joe and Cameron reunite at COMDEX
The brainstorming sessions that occur in the season's final episode (ep. 3.10, "NeXT") do more to reveal the history between these four than maybe any other previous interaction in the series because their interpersonal dynamic affects every technology-related discussion or argument they have. And those debates hold us captive, both because they directly relate to the present and Joe MacMillan's never better than in sales mode, only this time driven by inspiration rather than ego, envisioning the web as a door everyone and anyone can eventually enter and do inside what they wish.

We also sees a more mature, world weary Cameron taking agency in her own life and making a rational decision she couldn't have just a few years earlier. It appears that Donna may have finally gotten her receipt for killing Mutiny when she realizes Cam has cut her out of the very idea she brought to them in an effort to put the band back together. It's no coincidence that Donna's emotional breakdown echoes Cameron's reaction upon discovering she was kicked out of the company she built.  It feels right that the final image we see this season is of Joe, Gordon and Cameron huddled over a monitor working again, as if they've taken this long, sometimes torturous journey to come full circle. Only now they're ready and the timing is right for them to begin the project they've unknowingly been preparing for since day one.

The gang is back together
With the series now so clearly in the zone and completely sure of its voice, it seems nearly impossible to for this not too exit on an extremely high note. And with the recent announcement of Halt and Catch Fire's renewal for a fourth and final season, the writers can plan for a proper finish without that perpetual cancellation ax hanging over their heads. Regardless of how many are or aren't watching the show, its tremendous improvement and uncommonly high quality has, in the very least, earned it that privilege.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2010

*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

Previous Posts:


For 2010, it comes down to ONE. And then there's everything else. In the biggest blowout to come out of these rankings thus far, David Fincher's The Social Network lays waste to the competition. In fact, there is no competition. It's not even close, and that's taking into account that this was actually a pretty good year. But the quality gap between the best and the rest is large enough that compiling this seemed like a formality, merely establishing what we already knew. Fincher and Aaron Sorkin crafted a film so gripping and timely that it would likely win any upcoming or previously covered year in this series. It's simply the best of the decade. Full stop. Since it's already been analyzed to death on this site over the years, I won't linger on the details other than to reiterate how it plays just as strongly for me now as it did when I first saw it in the theater six years ago.

While my top pick is bookended by two of the most successfully written, directed and performed in recent memory, everything in between manages to lives up to it, anchored primarily by Jesse Eisenberg's iconic performance as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, presented (imagined?) here as a terminally antisocial, narcissist who, depending on whom you ask, either founded or stole an eventual technology empire to impress a girl. With Inception, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, True Grit, and 127 Hours following behind, this year's list could almost read as a who's who of greatest contemporary American directors putting out some of their best work. This only makes The Social Network's definitive triumph seem like that much more of a feat.

This time, two films make the list that went unreviewed here upon their original release and when writing about both for the first time here, it became immediately apparent the right choices were made. In the case of Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, it becomes the second documentary in the four years covered thus far to make the Top 10. Not too bad, but an appalling reminder that I've still somehow yet to review a single film in that genre on this site. 

The Coen Brothers' True Grit remake just slid under the radar without until finally catching up with it a year or two after its release. It's tough to even imagine this list without it and while it could have easily ranked higher, I finally settled on what still feels like an uncomfortably low number 5. It's fair given the competition, but the ranking on paper doesn't accurately reflect my love for the film as much as the accompanying write-up. Between this and the underrated and unfairly maligned TRON: Legacy (coming in at number 8) it's tough to argue that Jeff Bridges didn't fully capitalize on his '09 Oscar win.

Two strangely similar character driven films rounding out the list aren't too shabby either, as Sophia Coppola's hypnotic Somewhere and Noah Baumbach's difficult Greenberg may seem small in story, both are told in a style that allows them to linger in the mind long after they've concluded. With the latter, my initial 3-star review assessing it as a wildly mixed, sometimes unpleasurable experience proved over time to be overly dismissive. It's a keeper. Some other admirable titles that just missed the cut include The American, The Town, Enter The Void, The Fighter, Let Me In, Animal Kingdom, Never Let Me Go, Shutter Island, The Runaways, Buried, Remember Me and Toy Story 3.  With 2010 in the books, we're marching toward 2011, the first of more recent years that won't have as much time and distance behind them.

10. Greenberg

"It doesn't take but the first few minutes of the picture for (Greta) Gerwig to get us on Florence's side, whether she's just walking the dog or stuck in traffic. And the more time we spend with her the more we like her and if she says we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, well then, we'll be tolerating Greenberg's behavior today, no matter how irritating it gets. To everyone else he's an angry weirdo, but to her he's "damaged." This is one of THOSE movies, in which a loserish character approaching middle age with regret over a big mistake (or a variety of them) from the past is rescued by a younger, impossibly perfect woman. But in playing her Gerwig instead projects imperfectness, as well as an uncertainty and lack of confidence that would make the scenario plausible. She puts up with his tirades and verbal abuse, yet also somehow makes us understand why." - 9/6/10

9. Somewhere

"The film's style allows its characters, the visuals and the two central performances plenty of room to breathe, very often mimicking the aimless, trance-like state of its protagonist. Despite being told nothing and having to figure out this guy for ourselves, it's a strangely pressure-less experience to sit through, offering relief from the burden of being inundated by too many details. If Coppola's an expert at anything, it's letting the visuals, music and acting speak for itself. Unafraid of letting scenes linger past the point they typically should (or we're used to) to convey a mood, a practice session at an ice rink goes on twice as long as you'd expect and is all the more memorable for it." - 5/30/11

8. TRON: Legacy

"Now that the follow-up to TRON is here and everything we imagined it could be and more, it's kind of mind-boggling (not to mention hilariously ironic) that naysayers are still looking for things to complain about. Most of the unfair complaints leveled against TRON: Legacy have been at its screenplay which makes me wonder what they thought of the original's script, mostly an incoherent mess from middle to end. This story is an improvement in every way, much sharper focused with a clear-end point destination for its characters whose fates we're completely invested in. First time director Joseph Kosinski takes the forward looking ideas from 1982 to the level we always wanted while still managing to remain remarkably faithful to the original. Worth every year of the wait, he's made a sequel superior in every way to its predecessor and a film that comes as close as possible to matching the actual experience of watching it."1-3-11

7. Exit Through The Gift Shop

"Starting as an exploration of the method and madness behind mysterious street art artist Banksy, documentarian Thierry Guetta begins to disappear down the rabbit hole of his own obsession, dragging us along with him before the subversive twist reveals itself. That this wasn't a film about street art, nor necessarily Banksy or even Guetta. It was really about us the entire time, and how our interests and obsessions can boil over to the point that when someone tells you you're capable of doing anything, you actually start to believe it. What is art? And should someone have to earn the right to make it? Since most aren't blessed with the anonymity the film's hooded subject grants himself, the film's opening song becomes cruelly ironic. The streets are indeed ours. And that's a scary thought. Sure, 'anyone' can make art but the bigger question is whether they should, and if they do, will it be any good?"

6. 127 Hours

"Since the book covered Ralston's entire life rather than only those 127 hours, that portion still had to somehow be conveyed on screen, even if I can't help but wonder what we would have gotten if his original wish to have this optioned as a docudrama came to pass, sparing us the bells and whistles Boyle provides. Would the story be more or less moving? Would it be any different from a National Geographic or Discovery Channel reenactment?  The only thing we know for sure either way is the pure power of Franco's performance, creating Aaron from the inside-out, his words and actions shedding light on how the character finally arrives at the mental place necessary to make the brave decision that saves him, as well as the series of mistakes that led him there." - 12/10/10

5. True Grit

"That this can be considered more an adaptation of the original Charles Portis novel than the legendary 1969 John Wayne film that won him his Academy Award is a key distinction that ends up serving the Coens' well, and helps Jeff Bridges escape the shadow of the Duke. But it's not as if he ever needed to since it's the decision to tell the story through the eyes of 14-year-old Mattie rather than aging U.S, Marshal Rooster Cogburn that solidifies this Western as one of the few modern Hollywood remakes that far surpasses the original. Or more specifically it's the whip-smart, slyly humorous performance of young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose nominated work in this deserves a spot alongside Tatum O' Neal in Paper Moon and Henry Thomas in E.T. in the pantheon of all-time greatest child actor performances. She's that good. The Academy can categorize it as they wish, but even amidst immense talents like Bridges and Damon, she's the one leading the way, as the rest of the cast gamely tags along for the ride."

4. Blue Valentine

"Flashing between past and present to track how a relationship implodes, this could have easily been titled (500) Days of Hell, with even the smallest, fleeting moments of happiness (and there are some) tempered by the knowledge of where we know things will end up. Yet strangely, I found it doesn't leave a completely depressing mark, maybe because there's relief in encountering a film that's truthful, or at least tells a side of the truth we're rarely exposed to in big studio pictures. But it's really about the astonishing performances of the two leads, one of whom was previously the best current working actor not to have a great movie to his name and the other a rapidly rising actress extending her winning streak." - 6/15/11

3. Black Swan

"The whole film could basically be viewed as a running commentary on not only Portman but the plight of Hollywood actresses in general, cruelly discarded once they've surpassed their point of perceived usefulness and marketability. Strangely, the performance further confirms what I've suspected of her skills all along, only this time the one-dimensionality works in her favor like never before. Still, it couldn't have been easy for her to put herself out there like this, emotionally inhabiting a character so uncomfortably close to how she's publicly perceived. We frequently praise actors and actresses for taking unexpected risks by leaving their comfort zone, but it's sometimes even more special when a performer is pushed to the limit within it, owning a role they seem destined to play."12/23/10

2. Inception

"The best scenes in Inception come early when we're teased with all the excitement and potential possibilities the central concept has to offer and learn the very specific rules of the world the characters inhabit, which reflect our own preconceived notions and questions about dreaming. How do you come out of it? How do you KNOW you're out of it? Or in your own and not someone else's? How much time passes? What if you free fall? What if you die? The answers aren't what you'd expect and that second question is the foundation on which the film is built. And that isn't even to speak of the idea of planting a concept in someone's subconscious and all the potential ramifications of that, which are explored, shown and discussed in intricate detail, without slowing the narrative of the plot."12/20/10

1. The Social Network

"They talk and talk, firing Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin's dialogue at and over each other at machine gun speed in a crowded, dimly lit bar with the conversation becoming more contentious as he turns sarcastically condescending. At first, (Erica) seems almost interested and amused, until it becomes obvious this is someone without a clue how to interact with people, and as shocked as he is at being dumped, we are at how she's dating him in the first place. That question of whether Zuckerberg really is an asshole never completely goes away. And if he is, does that preclude him from being a genius? Or a visionary? Or maybe he's just lucky. We don't get what resembles an answer until the final scene but it's the aftershock of that opening one that reverberates through the rest of the picture."  - 10/5/10

My Top Ten Films of 2010
1. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
2. Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)
3. Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
4. Blue Valentine (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
5. True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
6. 127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle) 
7. Exit Through The Gift Shop (dir. Banksy) 
8. TRON: Legacy (dir. Joseph Kosinski)
9. Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola)
10. Greenberg (dir. Noah Baumbach)