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Monday, September 9, 2013

Salinger

My bullshit detector might need tuning. I admit to my shame that I let my desire for more information about the private life of one of my favorite authors overly influence my opinion of the film. It was only after a few hours of consideration, and reading other learned opinions of the documentary, that I realized what a shell game it really is.

The film does present information about Salinger's early years in a compelling light. The years before and during his service in WWII, when he was a struggling young author desperate to get a story into the New Yorker, make for a very interesting story, one that it would be nearly impossible for a film to screw up. However, since this information is readily available in many different places, that hardly justifies spending fourteen dollars plus popcorn on the documentary.

The film's depiction of Salinger unsurprisingly gets hazier in the years after the war, when Salinger moved out to the country and distanced himself from the media hype machine in New York. Nearly all of the acquaintances who are interviewed for the film predate his move to New Hampshire, and most of them had little to no contact with him from that point onward.

Even more problematic than the lack of first-hand accounts is the misplace of focus. The filmmakers and the interviewees (including famous actors, notable authors, and crazed fans)are preoccupied with the question of why anyone would avoid attention and value their privacy. Almost none of them seem to grasp the irony that they themselves are the answer to the question. Two interviewees, a fan who was trying to be an author and a journalist, describe their pilgrimages to Cornish in hushed, reverent tones, without admitting that they were being rude, selfish, obnoxious jerks, hounding a person who had made his desire to be left alone perfectly clear.

The more interesting question is not why Salinger avoided attention (which many other authors have done, from Philip Roth to Thomas Pynchon and more) but why he chose not even to publish. And then of course there is the really interesting question of why Salinger matters so much to so many people, which is only discussed in the most banal of platitudes. Amazingly, even people like Tom Wolfe and E.L. Doctorow are reduced to quickie soundbites about "the culture" and whatnot.

Perhaps because of copyright issues, little of Salinger's actual words make it onto the screen, and they are dearly missed. Too much of the film is spent trying to convince you that Salinger was Holden Caulfield, and not enough time is spent appreciating the wonder of the creation.

The only really exciting thing in the documentary is the assertion that at least five new works from Salinger are going to be published between 2015 and 2020. If that proves to be true it will be something on the order of a miracle, especially if the books are any good. The biggest reason to be excited for these new publications is that it will allow Salinger's fans to get back to what really mattered to him and matters to them, the words on the page.

Friday, August 30, 2013

In a World

In a world... where there aren't enough realistic leading roles for women, a criminally under-utilized actress will take matters into her own hands, writing, directing, and starring in a movie that features her many talents. While she may make the sort of mistakes you'd expect from any first-time filmmaker, the result will leave you with a warm feeling and a desire for more.

You get the idea. Lake Bell is the woman in question, an actress who hasn't managed to make the A-list despite being funny, talented, and very good-looking. (Ok, maybe we don't need to feel too bad for her, but still.) I didn't really know what Bell could do until I caught a few episodes of Adult Swim's Children's Hospital. Here, Bell plays Carol Solomon, a voice-actor and vocal coach who longs to follow in her father's footsteps and make it in the highly-competitive (and pretty much exclusively male) world of narrating movie trailers. Her father (Fred Melamed) a near-legendary voice-over artist nearing the end of his career, does not support his daughter's dream and goes so far as to groom a male heir to his throne, Gustav Warner (Ken Marino).

Carol rises up the ranks of the insular voice-over world with the help of Louis (Demetri Martin), a sound-man with a puppy-dog crush on her, and a rag-tag group of technicians including characters played by Nick Offerman and Tig Notaro. Carol is also forced to deal with a crisis in her sister's marriage and nasty rumors about how she's managed to rise in the ranks of her profession.

For such a short movie (93 minutes) there is a lot going on, and frankly there is a bit of a slapdash, scattershot feel to In a World. Carol's struggles in the voice-over world happen mostly off-screen, only referenced by allusion, while we get a lot about Michaela Watkins's Dani and Rob Corddry's Moe. Watkins and Corddry are both impressive in the parts, but when combined with the barely sketched-out love story between Carol and Louis there's just too much in too short a time frame. A lot of In a World's stars are obviously Bell's real-life friends, and it must be tempting when you're making your first comedy to try and get as many recognizable and funny people in it as you can, but sometimes it really is true that less is more. Offerman and Notaro are particularly wasting their time her. Notaro has one funny line and Offerman is basically just part of the scenery. That's a shame, but perhaps cutting them altogether would have tightened up the focus and allowed more room for the interesting, offbeat story to be told.

All in all, In a World feels a little under-cooked. A lot of the jokes feel like placeholders that got left in because better jokes weren't written in time. (The epic movie our main characters vie to narrate is a Hunger Games take-off named The Amazon Games. Seriously.) Bell is an appealing presence and an especially gifted physical comedian, but her screenwriting needs to improve if she wants to keep writing movies for herself. Hopefully she'll be more confident with her next one, and trust the audience a little more. (There's a scene with a tape recorder that is very clumsily shot because Bell is clearly afraid the audience won't notice the tape recorder's presence.)

Still, In a World is a very admirable effort. The central idea is a good one, and it was fun seeing Bell explore a community that's never been seen on-camera before. I'll be looking forward to her next effort.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

14 Potential First-Time SNL Hosts for Season 39

Saturday night live returns one month from tomorrow, on September 28. This will be the comedy institution's 39th season on NBC. I know, I know. SNL? That show hasn’t been funny in years. Except…

There are always a few must see episodes of SNL a year, those few and far-between outings where a rock-solid, experienced host is at the helm, the writers know what they can handle, and the audience knows what to expect. No doubt we’ll see a few such episodes in SNL’s 39th season (Messrs. Baldwin, Hanks, Timberlake, and Hamm are standing by their phones) but which of Hollywood’s younger crowd will get their chance to surprise and amuse us on their first go-around at Studio 8H? Here are some possibilities:

Anna Kendrick

This seems like and obvious slam dunk pick, but unfortunately the suddenly everywhere Kendrick might not have much to promote, and her busy filming schedule might keep her out of New York on Saturdays at 11:30pm. That’d be a shame, because the Pitch Perfect star is quickly becoming one of the most engaging and charming celebrities around. If she can’t host can we at least get her as a musical guest?

Olivia Wilde

Kendrick’s Drinking Buddies co-star never seems to let her string of box-office disappointments get her down. In interviews this drop-dead gorgeous star is refreshingly down-to-earth and her quick wit and lively humor are perfect for SNL. If nothing else, her fiancĂ© could put in a good word for her.

Ty Burrell

The closest thing to a lead on Modern Family, one of TV’s biggest hits. His co-star Sofia Vergara took her turn last year, and now it’s time for Burrel to get a shot.

Mindy Kaling

I thought this would happen last year, but Kaling’s buzzed about sitcom The Mindy Project was greeted by tepid reviews. The show took some time to grow into itself, but it’s getting better and attracting some big name guest stars. If the ratings improve, Kaling’s star might shine bright enough for Lorne Michaels to notice.

Andy Samberg

The annual ritual: the return of the prodigal son (or sometimes daughter, cf. Wiig, Kristen last year). There are plenty of candidates for the slot this year (and personally I’d prefer Bill Hader) but Samberg is the one with a new sitcom, albeit on the FOX network.

Aaron Paul

Breaking Bad is ending, and I’m sure the cast and crew at SNL are big fans. They’ve already had Cranston on, perhaps they’ll give his co-star a chance?

Chloe Grace Moretz

This preternaturally talented young actress is starring in the Carrie remake and displayed her comedic talents in an impressive guest stint on 30 Rock.

Peter Dinklage

I can’t confirm this, but I’m pretty sure the Emmy-winning Game of Thrones star would be the shortest guest host in SNL history. He'd also probably be pretty great at it.

Sandra Bullock

I couldn’t believe she hadn’t hosted already, but it’s true. The Oscar winner could take the plunge in order to promote Gravity, the sci-fi action-adventure movie she’s starring in with George Clooney. Of course, it's extremely doubtful that she hasn't been asked, since she's been a box-office draw for 20 years already. Maybe she's shy?

Jake Johnson

New Girl's Nick Miller is officially the third of Drinking Buddies' star quartet that I've tapped as a potential host. (Sorry Ron Livingston.) New Girl started as a star vehicle for Zooey Deschanel (who hosted last year) but is not a true ensemble thanks to the talents of Johnson and Max Greenfield (who would also be a fine host.)

Kerry Washington

Scandal is a hit, apparently, and Ms. Washington is the first African-American woman to star as the lead of a prime-time drama in a period of time long enough to cause even network executives embarrassment. I have no idea if she can be funny, but it's probably worth finding out.

Just About Anyone From Parks & Rec (Besides Amy Poehler and Rob Lowe)

Poehler and Lowe get excluded merely because they have already hosted. But just about anyone else in the cast would make a great choice. (Except Jerry, of course.) Aubrey Plaza’s weirdness might make for a disastrous show, but it would be fascinating television. Chris Pratt’s manic hijinks would be lots of fun. Rashida Jones is smart, lovely, and would probably welcome the chance to play something besides Poehler’s straight-woman. Nick Offerman might not be a household name, but Ron Swanson should be. Retta probably isn’t going to get an invite, so we’ll have to settle for reading her live-tweeting of whichever co-star gets the gig.

Just About Anyone from Community

Donald Glover is leaving, but he'd be a phenomenal host, even if he'd want to quit halfway through and be the musical guest instead. Joel McHale would probably deliver a very good monologue at least, and who wouldn't want more Gillian Jacobs or Alison Brie on their television? Danny Pudi and Yvette Nicole Brown seem unlikely, but they can stop by for a walk-on during the monologue.

Tatiana Maslany

But only if they figure out a way for all six of her to appear live simultaneously. Honestly, Maslany is a long shot, but after being wowed by her performance in BBC America's Orphan Black, I'm curious to see more from her. Her Parks & Rec guest spot will go a long way to determining whether she can be funny.

So those are my wishes for SNL Season 39. What are yours?

Drinking Buddies

Recently, I watched and quite thoroughly enjoyed Drinking Buddies, a 90-minute indie feature from director Joe Swanberg and featuring an improbably high-quality cast for such a low budget movie. Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde play co-workers at an independent brewery whose strong friendship has been obscuring a powerful attraction for a long time. Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston play their respective significant others, who discover a shared attraction of their own during a weekend trip to a remote cabin.

Working largely without a script, this talented foursome is able to create a believably lived-in feel to their characters and their circumstances as they all try to seek out their own happiness without hurting the people they care about too badly. It's a quintessential example of the human drama that can arise between any two people anytime, anywhere.

Which is why it's so disappointing to read criticisms of the movie that basically boil down to the tired old "white people problems" canard. This pernicious idea that certain types of people don't have stories worth telling is surprisingly persistent, even in otherwise intelligent and perceptive people. The false idea it supposes, that money and privilege can render someone's life free of conflict, pain, and humanity is wrongheaded, harmful, and downright depressing in its prevalence.

Never mind for a moment that the characters in Drinking Buddies are not exactly upper-class (Johnson's job is the epitome of blue-collar, Wilde works in sales, and Kendrick is a teacher.) Even if they were spoiled rich kids, whose to say they wouldn't be interesting anyway? Shakespeare wrote largely about kings and nobleman and I don't see too many complaints about his subject matter.

The film itself nicely anticipates and addresses this criticism. In one of their many heartfelt, drunken conversations, Wilde's Kate tells Johnson's Luke, "That's the problem with heartbreak, to you it's like an atomic bomb and to the world it's just really cliche, because in the end we all have the same experience."

It's that kind of universal relevance, rendered particular by the story-telling and the acting, that I look for in movies, wherever they may come from.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

Kurt Vonnegut had this rule about writing that I always think about whenever I make one of my abortive attempts at creativity: Start as close to the end as possible. I found myself thinking about that a lot in the hours after seeing Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, which starts about as far from its ending as possible and suffers for it.

Though The Place Beyond the Pines is not one of those movies that is overly reliant on a plot twist, it is still sort of impossible to get at a real conversation about the film's strengths and flaws without spoiling the plot. For now, let it suffice to say that the film is not really what you would expect from the advertising campaign, and that it is really more like three films stitched together, running consecutively, than one flowing narrative.

When we begin our journey through the lives of these characters, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is back in Schenectady with his traveling carnival after a year or so one the road. An encounter with his old fling Romina (Eva Mendes) leads to the revelation that he has a kid he knew nothing about. Romina has moved on and has a new man in his life, but Luke decides he needs to step up and take care of his family, even if that's not what they want. A chance encounter with a low-life auto mechanic (Ben Mendelsohn)leads to a lucrative but dangerous side-job as a bank robber. Eventually, Luke's crime spree will force him into a confrontation with local cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a law-school grad alienating his wife and his father with his dedication to his job on the force.

That's the movie that you're familiar with from the commercials, but's really only the first part of Cianfrance's look at fathers and sons and how the decisions made by the former impact the latter. Among other problems with this focus is that it gives remarkably short-shrift to the female characters in this world. Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne are completely wasted in poorly-conceived and thankless roles. It's clear Cianfrance gave little thought to their characters' motivations, thoughts, and feelings. Byrne especially is just a functionary, wholly designed to inject conflict into her husband's life. This is especially surprising given Cianfrance's last film was Blue Valentine, which excellently explored both halves of a failing marriage.

The movie's third act is a mess, disjointed and abruptly inserted into the narrative. It also shifts the focus onto two new performers, one of whom (Smash's Emory Cohen) is either an incredibly convincing meathead, or an actual meathead, I can't determine. Either way Cohen's character is so off-putting and unrecognizably human as to render the whole enterprise absurd. It's impossible to care what happens to him. Dane Dehaan is much better, and fits right in with the expert performances given by Cooper, Gosling, Mendelsohn, and Ray Liotta as a corrupt cop, but not even all these great performers can save a messy script without nearly as much to say as it thinks it does.

I brought up Vonnegut's rule at the beginning of this piece for a reason. If anyone here watches The Place Beyond the Pines, I'd like you to consider how it would impact the movie if it were to start with the third act, with perhaps a few flashbacks to the other two acts to fill in background as needed. I submit that it would make for a much more interesting viewing experience.

Monday, April 22, 2013

42

There's an easy criticism to make of 42, the new biopic of MLB and civil-rights pioneer Jackie Robinson. It might be said that even in this version of the story, so much better as a film than the 1950 "The Jackie Robinson Story" which starred the man himself, Robinson comes off as something less than a fully-realized character. He is an uncomplicated hero, tested to be sure, but ultimately too good and too much on the right side of history too fail. Thus, writer-director Brian Helgeland might be accused of draining the life-blood from the man and presenting the myth, unexamined and unexplored.

But really, if anyone deserves a hagiography, it might be Robinson, who took unfathomable abuse from opposing players and fans on his way to proving that the black man could make it in white baseball. Indeed, the film's spirit seems designed to match the purpose of Branch Rickey's great experiment in bringing Robinson to Brooklyn. Rickey, played with a gruff, gravely nature by Harrison Ford, knew that the first player to break the color barrier had to be such a good player and such a perfect gentleman that he could eventually win admiration from supporters and begrudging respect from detractors and bigots. Whatever Robinson was really like, and he was certainly a great man, he was convincing enough as a hero that he lead the charge of black players that finally democratized America's pastime.

So if we can forgive any movie its orchestral swells, its Christ-like hero, and its sentimentalism, this is the movie to forgive.

Not to mention that there are other charms to 42 that make it a good if not great baseball movie, sure to be well-regarded by fans of the sport and non-fans alike. Newcomer Chadwick Boseman does a fine impersonation of the ballplayer's rhythms and movements. He also has some genuinely tender moments with Nicole Beharie's Rachel Robinson. It takes a little while to get used to Harrison Ford's voice, but once you do you realize what a fine performance he's giving as a businessman trying to forge a legacy for himself and repair some of his past wrongs.

Quite often sports movies are made by people without much connection or interest in the game, and their sloppy mistakes can alienate the serious fan. But 42 is relatively clean on this account, and excellently captures the joy of seeing a master base-runner such as Robinson create havoc on the basepaths. I also appreciated the way Helgeland would often film a pitch coming at Robinson, showing you the lethal force that a fastball can possess.

42 is largely about 1947, Robinson's first season with the Dodgers, a season of conflict and tension which is portrayed most effectively in the Dodger lockerroom and dugout, where Robinson's white teammates struggle to accept him. Whether it's the southerners who circulate a petition threatening to strike if Robinson is not released, or the other white Dodgers who just want to play baseball and not deal with the complicated problems of race-relations, 42 does an excellent job showing a team winning despite a near-crisis on its hands. In particular, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, Jesse Luken as Eddie Stanky, and Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese were standouts.

The film's best scene is also its most disturbing, as Phillies' manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) delights in shouting horrid epithets while Robinson is at the plate, and Robinson struggles to maintain his focus and keep his promise not to fight back. Boseman's portrayal of near-defeat and heartbreak in the clubhouse after this at-bat is riveting and heart-rending.

Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, but that's because everyone should. If 42 helps ensure that people will hear his story in the future, it will have done something well worth doing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men: "The Collaborators"

The Collaborators is basically an hour-long reminder that Don is still better than Pete at everything. Especially at conducting an affair. If I had to lead a seminar in the Draper method of giving your wife the run-around, the syllabus might look a little like this:

1. Don't have an affair with a crazy woman: Pete is so eager to cheat on Trudy that he doesn't notice that Brenda, his partner in this affair (played by Collette Wolfe, who was Travis's college girlfriend on Cougar Town) is more than a little disturbed. You could argue you'd have to be a little touched to be so into Pete, but I'll refrain. Compare Brenda to Sylvia Rosen, who even when she's petulant at her and Don's awkward, unplanned dinner for two, is still a smart, reasonable woman.

2. Confidence is Key: When Collette is at Pete's pied a terre in Manhattan, Pete goes overboard trying to make her comfortable, offering her food and drink and even trying to get the music just right for her. If she wasn't so determined to step out on her husband, it's probable she'd have been turned off by Pete's neediness. Compare that to Don, who is so confident in his ability to seduce a woman he essentially wins an argument with Sylvia by merely informing her that he's going to tear her dress off at the end of the night.

3. Don't Overthink Things: Pete conducts his affair in an entirely separate residence miles away from his wife and he gets caught. Don is literally one floor below his wife and he gets away with everything, even though he has a history of adultery.

To emphasize just how much better Don is at these things, the episode gives us scenes where both Don and Pete are confronted by situations where there wives and mistresses are together. Don is worried when he catches Sylvia and Megan commiserating, but he passes an assured glance to Sylvia and manages to act as though nothing is wrong. From the moment a beaten Collette pounds on his door Pete is a nervous mess, too afraid to leave his wife and mistress alone to get her a first-aid kit. He's also just an asshole to her, and his suggestion that she take a taxi to the hotel must be a final tipping point for Trudy.

Thus we get two more parallel scenes. In the first, a righteously pissed-off Trudy delivers an all-time ultimatum to her philandering husband, in which she orders him to not come home unless she orders him to in order to keep up appearances. He can go stay in Manhattan and sleep with the world for all she cares, but if he so much as opens his fly to urinate in town, she makes it clear there'll be hell to pay. Meanwhile, in the Draper residence, Don is the protective, caring husband when Megan finally tells him about the miscarriage she suffered from after accidentally getting pregnant in Hawaii. He even gets to act a little condescendingly disappointed in her for not telling him sooner. Don is the one in command of the situation, where Pete can't even pretend to have a say.

The Collaborators pretty evenly splits into two halves, adultery and advertising, and in the advertising section some intriguing developments take place. Don, despite having no way of knowing that Pete's marriage has collapsed, seems to be driving the final nail in the coffin when he expertly derails Herb's (Jaguar's sleazy head of the dealerships) efforts to prioritize radio ads for the luxury car. It was a nice way to bring back Herb, in that we get to see Joan re-assert herself in the aftermath of her corrupt bargain, and we get to see Don's barely-veiled contempt for him (contextualized by a new peek into his background as a child raised in a whorehouse, where his mother slept with his uncle to pay for their stay.) This is a professional contrast between Don and Pete, as Pete had been willing to give Herb exactly what he wanted even as he knew it was a bad idea and potentially bad for business. Pete is eager to please, while Don is better at getting what he wants.

We also get a look at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, where Peggy's high standards are leading to fairly open revolt on the part of her subordinates. (Peggy's dismissive: "When you need them to be funny..." is a candidate for line of the night.) Peggy also has a little trouble going along with Chaough's cutthroat business practices, when an overheard phone call between her and Stan leads to her firm pursuing Heinz Ketchup (The Coca-Cola of condiments, according to Ken Cosgrove) from out under SCDP's shadow. It will be great to see Peggy competing against her old firm and trying to reconcile her notions of being a good friend, a good person, and a good boss.

Other thoughts:

-Alison Brie did a tremendous acting job in her tell-off scene

-Bob Benson is in both big meetings at SCDP, and he also buys Pete toilet paper. He was a little more bearable this week, but I want to see what he's up to soon. It's probably just becuase he played Max's boyfriend on Happy Endings, but I did feel a gay subtext to his interaction with Pete. I'm sure I'm just reading too much into his eager-to-please demeanor.

-Precious little Roger this week, but he does awesomely attribute a Churchill quote to his recently deceased mother.

-I don't buy Pete not understanding the Munich reference. Especially since he's so up on the news. This is probably the impetus for the episode's title, however. Pete is behaving like the collaborators in Don's Munich analogy, giving in too much and not realizing this only inspires more want.

-Pete watches a Tonight Show where Johnny Carson's guest is Jim Garrison, the New Orleans ADA whose investigation into the Kennedy Assassination was the subject of Oliver Stone's film JFK.

-The North Korea references this week were very well-timed.

-Don and Dr. Rosen's conversation at the restaurant places this episode in the area of February 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offiensive. We're coming up on the assassination of Martin Luther King, and LBJ's withdrawal from the presidential campaign.

-The always cryptic "next week on" clips do seem to portend bad things for Stan, which would make sense considering he let the cat out of the bag.

-NO BETTY!