Popular Posts

Monday, December 31, 2012

Killer Joe

Desperate people acting on the most primal motivations: money, power, and sex. That's the basis for all great noir films, and that dynamic is heavily represented in William Friedkin's excellent Killer Joe, a Texas-fried update on the classic style of noir masters like James M. Cain.

Killer Joe centers on the twisted murder-for-insurance money scheme cooked up by the Smith family, whose four IQs added together would struggle to crack 300. Chris (Emile Hirsch, in a role unlike anything I've ever seen him in) is a low-level drug dealer who finds himself in debt to his bosses after his good-for-nothing mother steals some of his cocaine before he can sell it. Informed of his mother's $50,000 life-insurance policy, with his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as sole beneficiary, Chris hatches a plan to kill his mother.

Chris is frighteningly stupid, but even he knows he can't get away with murder, so he lures in his father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and the two of them hire Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who moonlights as a hitman. (Joe's day-job, he explains to Dottie, is often a "convenience", especially when he is assigned to investigate his own crimes.)

This set-up is fairly boilerplate for noir, though McConaughey's eerie energy elevates the film's initial scenes. What kicks the film into high gear, however, is when McConaughey, who initially refuses to do the job on the promise of being paid when the insurance comes through, changes his mind as long as he is paid a retainer. That retainer isn't cash, but the entirely innocent Dottie, whom Joe has taken a liking too.

Every scene between McConaughey and Temple crackles with anticipation. McConaughey's single-minded coolness gives way to an inner demon more perverse than seemingly possible, while Temple's Dottie is naive and dim-witted but also curious about sex and willing to learn from the one of the worst teachers imaginable.

It wouldn't be a noir if the whole thing didn't come crashing down in a frenzy of violence and death, and Killer Joe is most certainly noir. The downward action contains a number of twists which are perhaps predictable but Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts layer the plot with nearly unbearable perversion and creepiness, as a scorned Killer Joe confronts the Smiths in an epically disturbing conclusion, with one more twist that I certainly didn't see coming.

Friday, December 21, 2012

My Favorite Christmas Movie

The discussion of favorite Christmas X,Y, or Z comes up every year, and because there haven't really been a lot of great examples of the genre in recent decades, and because too many people tend to casually dismiss works of art from time periods before their own cultural awareness dawned, lately the annual round of blog posts celebrating Christmas movies have taken on a distressing similarity. Many film or pop-culture bloggers, typically male, have taken to christening "Die Hard" the 1988 Bruce Willis cop thriller, as the best Christmas movie of all time. I see this all the time, and my default reaction at this point is just scream "No! No! NO!" and pound my fists on the table. Clearly, I'm an emotionally mature adult.

I should hope I don't have to point out the faulty reasoning inherent in naming Die Hard the greatest Christmas movie, but I will because this is exactly the kind of things blogs were made for. First, Die Hard isn't the greatest anything, not even the best Die Hard. Die Hard with a Vengeance is basically the same movie with a lot more trivia, logic puzzles and Samuel L. Jackson (who plays a character named Zeus solely for the benefit of one single "Hey, Zeus!" joke.)

Secondly, Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. The fact that the events of the film take place at Christmas time are not particularly necessary to the story the movie is trying to tell. It's a coincidence, or more accurately a choice made out of convenience. Die Hard is not about Christmas is any meaningful way.

As for my own favorite Christmas movie, it was for many years the Jimmy Stewart classic It's a Wonderful Life, which is still the only movie guaranteed to make me cry at every viewing. (Multiple scenes can set off the waterworks, but I always lose it when Harry Bailey toasts, "To my big brother George, the richest man in town!")

However, a few years ago I watched the black and white version of Miracle on 47th Street, which NBC used to always air after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, for the first time since I was a kid. Really paying attention to the movie reveals to be a remarkably well-constructed examination of the holiday itself, our collective need to imbue the end of the year celebration with a sense of magic and goodness, at the possible expense of our collective sanity. It is the quintessential Christmas movie.

When a sweet old grandfatherly man calling himself Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) fills in for a drunken Santa at the Macy's parade, he becomes an instant hit and is hired to play the role for the season at the department store by put-upon single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara). Doris has raised her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to be a practical little girl and not believe in fairy tales or other such nonsense. The Walker's neighbor Fred is an idealistic young lawyer who doesn't see the harm in believing in things.

Everything goes great at first, as Kringle's big-hearted disposition fills even capatalistic Mr. Macy with the spirit of giving. But then an interfering psychologist provokes Kringle into an outburst, leading to his commitment and trial. Represented at the trial by Fred, Kringle's fate hinges on the young lawyer's ability to prove to the court of law that his client is the real Santa Claus.

The courtroom scenes are really thrilling, but when I was younger I didn't see what was really going on. It's easy to watch and think of Miracle on 34th Street as just another one of those movies with a feel-good ending where everyone decides to believe again, a la Tim Allen's Santa Clause movies.

But really, Fred's brilliance is less legal than psychological and political. He slowly destroys the prosecution's case by relying on the shared cultural construct of the Santa Claus myth. He gets the prosecutor to admit that there really is a Santa Claus by confronting him with his own son's belief in the man. He gets a respected man like Mr. Macy to admit to his belief in Kris Kringle because Macy is worried about loss of sales. The judge in the case, acting upon the advice of his political bosses, is unwilling to rule against Santa Claus lest a lot of angry parents toss him out of office. The finishing touch of the Post Office delivering Santa's mail is really just a convenient out for the judge. The real cause for Kringle's win is our collective need for Christmas to have a meaning beyond presents.

The movie plays it a little coy too, for the children. Susan gets the house she wanted for Christmas, with Kringle's cane in the corner indicating that he had something to do with them finding it. But the movie makes it pretty clear this isn't actually a gift. Fred's closing line, "Maybe I didn't do such a great thing, after all." could be seen as him admitting it wasn't too hard to prove Kris Kringle was really Santa, but really, he's also quite likely realized that Kringle isn't quite as all there as he appears.

Miracle on 34th Street is such a winning, affirmative movie, that it's easy to miss how perceptive it is about the reasons for the season. It's so easy to miss, that the people who remade the movie in the '90s managed to excise all the wit and intelligence out of the screenplay, somehow managing to turn the best Christmas movie of all time into just another holiday film. But the original is so good it can not be tarnished.

Monday, December 17, 2012

How I Met Your Mother: "The Final Page"

It's been an up-and-mostly-down season of How I Met Your Mother, and "The Final Page" had it's fair share of both. These last few seasons have seen the show constantly struggle to produce genuine laughs while usually having much less trouble provoking genuine emotion. At this point the show could essentially pass as a romantic drama with a penchant for indulging in cringe-worthy silliness.

So it was that in "The Final Page" the comedic bits largely fell flat, with the notable exception of Neil Patrick Harris's expert physical comedy in the first half-hour. The episode was nearly derailed by the shoe-horned appearance of Seth Green's character, a creepy hanger-on that Marshall and Lily lack the ability to tell off. Green's character was far too over-the-top to be credible, and his presence was an unwelcome distraction. Peter Gallagher was not much better as Ted's old college professor, but at least Ted's yearning for approval felt realistic and relatable.

The second half-hour largely bypassed humor and went straight about the business of wrapping up the loose ends the show has to get through before the end of the year. I think most fans of the show saw the Barney-Patrice relationship for exactly what it was, so it was more of a relief than a surprise to see Barney's proposal and Robin's acceptance of same. Had we not known well ahead of time that these two would be heading down the aisle, this scene might have packed more of a punch, but it also might have opened the character's behavior up to more scrutiny. As is, there's still something icky to me about the way the show treats Patrice as something less than a full-fledged human being. I hope that at some point the show will address this, even if it's just one of Ted's narrative asides: "Oh by the way, Patrice met a nice guy who liked her for her and is very happy." Something like that.

Much more poignant than the proposal was the scene leading up to it, which was an unforgettable display of dramatic acting prowess by both Josh Radnor and Cobie Smulders. Their argument in the limo, over whether Robin should go after Barney one last time, was overlaid with the long history between the two characters, all of which was imparted through implication and gesture instead of outright exposition. It was a masterful scene.

When the show comes back in the new year, with it's fate for a possible ninth season hanging in the balance, here's hoping we get more character moments like that limo scene, and maybe a few more laughs as well. After all, this is still supposed to be a comedy.


Though it's 112-minute run time breezes by, Ted eventually reveals itself as an artless take on the romantic comedy bolstered only by the flashy high-concept premise of it's title character, a brash, foul-mouthed, talking Teddy Bear. You get the sense that writer-director Seth MacFarlane and the rest of the creative people involved put in very little effort past the initial idea. Literally everything outside of the talking teddy bear is a repeat of the same lazy cliches and character tropes you find in every romantic comedy.

Mark Wahlberg's John Bennett is an overgrown man-child with a do-nothing job at a car rental agency. He likes getting high and watching DVDs with his buddies, just like a typical Type B male lead, except in this case his only buddy is his childhood teddy bear, turned real by the magic of his Christmas wish.

Somehow, John has found himself in a four-year relationship with Lori, a public relations agent played by Mila Kunis. Because this is a movie decidedly written by and for the male audience, Lori is a ball-buster who is largely framed as an antagonist for wanting John to behave more responsibly and make more of an effort. She also wants Ted to move out.

The rest of the film follows John as he constantly chooses fun and adventure, much of it drug-induced and dangerous, with Ted over spending time with his long-suffering, much younger, way more successful, and more attractive girlfriend. A well-paced and constructed action sequence leading to the movie's climax brushes past the part of the movie where Lori forgives John and accepts him for who he is for no discernible reason.

It should not be surprising that the creator of Family Guy relies on pop-cultural references and politically-incorrect statements for humor, but for some reason it was still disappointing to see it in feature-length. All of the jokes in Ted are disposable, and less than 24 hours later I'm having a tough time remembering any of them in detail.

Ted is the kind of movie that thinks it's hilarious just to bring up the 1980 movie Flash Gordon, and that bringing its star Sam J. Jones in for a cameo just ratchets up the laughs exponentially. It's cheap, one-note, and hacky comedy. Of course it made a killing at the box office and for the next decade or so people will keep telling you it's one of their favorite movies.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Save the Date

The characters in Michael Mohan's feature Save The Date may be going through what so many Twitter users derisively call "white people problems" (or #whitepeopleproblems, as it were) but the emotionally honest performances by the talented cast enable the movie to rise above such complaints. Though the script takes a few unfortunate shortcuts and doesn't do enough to establish its central character, Save the Date is still a satisfying, low-key indie movie.

Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie plays sisters who are both facing questions about their relationships as they near the time when everyone expects them to settle down and start their own families. Brie's Beth is engaged and planning her wedding to Martin Starr's Andrew, a drummer in a band who can't be bothered to have an opinion about place settings or organic catering. Caplan's Sarah is about to reluctantly move in with her boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), Andrew's band-mate.

The opening scenes, featuring Caplan packing up all her belongings, including the still-dirty dishes in her sink, are indicative of quirky comedy, a type of film Save the Date never actually becomes, unless you find heartbreak and emotional honesty just gut-bustingly hilarious.

The turn toward the dramatic occurs when Kevin, despite prudent advice from Andrew and Beth, proposes to Sarah after a gig. Arend's performance as Caplan walks away in silent anger is agonizingly good. His crushing despair is shockingly credible.

From there the film navigates the fallout of the breakup through its impact on Beth's and Andrew's engagement and Sarah's new relationship with Mark Webber's Jonathan, a marine biologist (yes, really) who patronizes her bookstore just to get a look at her. Because you see, when you do it in a movie, it's not creepy.

This is a film that is really little more than a showpiece for some talented actors who otherwise don't get anything but supporting roles in studio comedies. It's nice to see them get a chance to show off their full range, even if they had to settle for a less-than-great script to get that chance. Caplan's character in particular is underdeveloped on the page, as her fear of commitment and need to preserve her independence are never explored or explained. The lack of proximate cause makes her seem not worth all the trouble she puts Kevin and Jonathan through, but they keep insisting on how special she is. Other than looking like Lizzy Caplan, what does she bring to the table?

The film is also soured a little by its not quite a cop-out but still frustrating ending, which seems to be trying to satisfy a larger audience while still paying lip service to its indie base. It's wholly unsatisfying as a story resolution, but by that point you've likely realized you're watching to see Caplan, not to find out what happens to her character.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Marriage Plot

There are two main elements to writing a great novel. The first is to come up with a compelling, original story featuring memorable, realistic characters going through humongous life events, responding to challenges, and reaching some sort of climactic, cathartic conclusion. The second element is the nuts-and-bolts of the writing; clear and concise sentences, arresting images, interesting and unusual word choices, fluidity and dexterity.

There are lots of novelists who excel at one or the other of these elements, but not both. A novelist with great stories and clunky, unappealing prose can still find success with readers who appreciate a rollicking good story more than elegant language. While someone with an immense command of the language can find favor with readers looking for new ways to use words and metaphors they would not have thought of themselves. Both groups of writers (and their readers) tend to look on the other group with condescension or disdain, but I’ve always felt that to be truly great, a novel must have a great story as well as impeccable prose.

The Marriage Plot is the second novel I have read by Jeffrey Eugenides, after his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. In both novels, I have been struck by the amazing ability Eugenides has with words. He is remarkably self-confident and assured in his usage and his construction, and justifiably so. The man writes a good sentence. But in Middlesex I thought his plotting, while buoyed by an interesting and unusual premise and strong knowledge and research of the setting and place, left a lot to be desired. The story eventually caved in under the pressure of all the unnecessary weirdness and outré sexuality Eugenides laid on top of his fractured novel of growing-up.

Now, Eugenides has followed up that effort with a story that is surprisingly toothless and inconsequential. The Marriage Plot is a misconceived overlaying of the comedy of manners style of the Regency and Victorian eras onto the modern age. Featuring three characters who are realistically drawn yet at times alarmingly stupid or unsympathetic, The Marriage Plot stumbles to an uninteresting conclusion featuring no real tension or resolution. But hey, some of the sentences are nice.

Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus are three members of the Brown University Class of 1982. Their intertwining romantic lives on campus lead each to struggle in their immediately post-graduate lives. Madeleine is a rich-girl a bit spoiled by her exposure to the finer things and a bit unreflective when it comes to the privileges that allow her to fritter away her time reading musty old novels while her classmates fret about the recession. Mitchell is a religious studies major captivated by life’s greatest questions, but equally entranced by Madeleine’s tantalizing figure. However, Madeleine is with the brilliant but troubled Leonard Bankhead, a dual major in Biology and Philosophy who turns out to be too smart for his own good when he is diagnosed with manic-depression on Graduation Day.

The novel is at its best in flashbacks to the characters’ time at Brown, delving into the background of the main trio’s relationships. Unfortunately for the reader, more of the novel follows their quixotic post-grad wanderings. Anyone who ever had a friend who claimed to be changed by studying abroad will recognize the feeling of boredom that overcomes them while reading long passages of this novel.

Mitchell joins a friend on a globe-trotting adventure, eventually coming to a crisis moment in India when he tries to put his religious beliefs into practice volunteering with Mother Teresa to help the poor and sick. Leonard tries to keep his illness in control and keep it a secret from the esteemed scientists he is working and competing with. Madeleine devotes her life to Leonard, while trying to squeeze in grad-school applications when she can.

Surprisingly, the novel collapses on its low-stakes plot. It’s perhaps too prejudicial to say that the lives of spoiled rich-kids can’t make for great literature, but it’s definitely true that it doesn’t work for The Marriage Plot. Mitchell’s and Madeleine’s self-created problems are nothing in comparison to Leonard’s very real trauma, and yet Eugenides explores Mitchell and Madeleine in far greater detail, entirely out of proportion with the interest they possess to the reader.

The Marriage Plot is a compulsively readable, comparatively short novel, but it could stand to put on some weight. The narrative shortcuts and shying away from real consequences makes it ultimately a frustrating experience for the reader hoping for greatness.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Writer-director Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette is so darkly and crudely funny it makes Bridesmaids look like a family film. And while the sharp edges may puncture holes through its characters’ believability, ultimately the film is saved by an inspired madcap energy that suffuses the climactic scenes and brushes aside all the minor quibbles and nitpicks through sheer force of laughter.

When Becky (Rebel Wilson) tells her best friend Regan (Kirsten Dunst) that she’s engaged, the news is greeted with simulated enthusiasm and barely-disguised disgust. Regan and Becky’s two other best friends, Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and Katie (Isla Fisher) react to the news so poorly they seem almost like misogynistic characters, the back-biting fake friends of every woman-hater’s fears. Their ambivalence toward Becky’s happiness is made more disturbing because of how rooted it is in their own shallowness. The three friends, all skinny and conventionally attractive, can’t stand that the plus-sized Becky is marrying a stable, normal guy while their romantic and personal lives lie in tatters. They’re not exactly sympathetic figures, which is of course largely the point.

After some inexcusable, and frankly too mean to be funny, actions at the rehearsal dinner, Katie, Regan, and Gena decide to drown their troubles in booze and drugs. When that combination proves harmful to the bride’s dress, resulting in a large tear down the middle, the trio go into overdrive trying to solve their problems.

Along the way, they are helped/hindered by a similar trio of groomsmen including best man Trevor (James Marsden), the groom’s brother Joe (Kyle Bornheimer), and Gena’s ex Clyde (Adam Scott). If you’re dreading the conventional pairing up of trios, well, you’re not entirely wrong, but the film still manages to surprise you.

Bachelorette is remarkable for how well it wrings laughs out of its characters’ personal failings and fundamental flaws. It also pushes the boundaries of comedy without exactly relying on gross-out humor (when one character vomits, it’s actually one of the more serious moments of the film.)

Dunst, Caplan, and Fisher all give spot-on performances as unhappy, troubled women. Their various freak-outs and implosions are fascinating to watch. By the end, though they’ve only taken small steps toward redemption, their humanity has become so apparent that you can’t help but be happy they all made it to the church on time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My TV Posts Have a New Home

I'm pleased to announce that I'm joining my good friend Cassie Belek's TV blog, The Demo. From now on all my TV writing will show up on that site, http://thedemotv.com/

Please give the site a look, we don't officially launch until September 17, when we will make our Emmy predictions and I'll be reviewing the Boardwalk Empire Season 3 premiere, but there are a few preview posts to peruse until then.

As for this site, I'll still be filling it with book and movie reviews, and the occasional list or what have you.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Game Change

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of Game Change, a look inside the campaigns during the 2008 presidential election, are to be commended on their reportage. Getting this close to the campaigns had to be difficult, given the desire for political figures to maintain their cherished public personas. In time, I suspect that the level of detail as well as the unflattering portraits of several key figures will be an invaluable resource for history buffs to get an idea of what the people who sought the nation’s highest offices were really like.

However, for the present-day reader, especially those who were engaged in the events of 2008, Game Change provides not much more than insider gossip in its slim, scant jaunt down memory lane. Its breathless relation of the collapse of the Clinton and McCain campaigns is hampered by a decided lack of perspective and a curious distance from the relevant issues.

All of that would be fine if Heilemann and Halperin were capable of writing clearly and concisely, but alas they are not. Their prose is repetitive and their constant need to coin cutesy little neologisms is beyond aggravating. (Clinton’s staff is Hillaryland, Obama’s is O-Town, and McCain’s alternately McCainiacs and McCainworld. It’s excruciating.) They also show the shallowness of their effort by resorting to using “ten-dollar” vocabulary words in unnecessary and unhelpful ways. (Parlous instead of perilous, chary as opposed to wary, peccadilloes where affairs would be palatable. This kind of thing seems like a crutch for those insecure about their intellect.)

Ultimately, the authors of Game Change are successfully mainly in establishing that all this posturing and politicking is really nothing more than a game, both to the reporters chasing every sideshow and to the men and women conducting our nation’s business. Though some figures come off looking better than others (Obama comes off rather well, something that is reassuring or evidence of the media’s kid-gloves treatment, depending on your perspective) Game Change reinforces the idea that only a crazy person would actually want to be President.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure

Despite the author’s name in the title, The Princess Bride is not the work of the long-forgotten Florinese writer S. Morgenstern but rather the brain-child of famed screenwriter William Goldman, who presents this story as though he were editing, and dramatically abridging, a musty old classic for a younger audience.

Goldman has a deft sense of humor, and his abridgements, always accompanied by his own rationalizing, are a big part of the gag. Goldman’s aim in writing The Princess Bride is to take the classic adventure stories he fell in love with and cut out all the boring parts. Anyone who has read Ivanhoe or other works of its kind knows that in between the thrilling swordplay and acts of derring-do is a lot of unnecessary junk about life in the castle, political intrigue, and endless feasts and speeches.

Of course, the film version of this novel is far more well-known than the book itself, creating an odd echo chamber effect. Goldman’s “update” supposedly took all the boring parts out of the book, but the film, which I’d seen many times before opening the book, cuts out some of Goldman’s excess too, making scenes which are in the book but not the movie feel quite superfluous.

Lovers of the film, which may well include everyone who has seen it, will marvel at how fully-formed the movie lives within the text of Goldman’s novel. Almost all of the film’s best lines are in the original source verbatim.

The Princess Bride is not the type of book you read in suspense. Indeed, Goldman himself considers the ending fairly inconsequential. The true joy is in Goldman’s wry, winking sense of humor.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

Mike Birbiglia’s film, based on a one-man show he wrote about his own life, is a slight, occasionally funny movie caught between its auteur’s desires to tell a conventionally funny story and his ambition to do so in an innovative, rule-breaking manner. Ultimately, Birbiglia’s trickery is not memorable enough, nor his story engrossing enough, to make this film anything more than a minor pleasure.

Birbiglia plays struggling stand-up Matt Pandamiglio, whose career and relationship are both struggling to survive. Lauren Ambrose is his patient, supportive, two-dimensional girlfriend Abby, who is starting to hint, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, that she is ready to settle down and start a family. Matt’s parents (Carol Kane and James Rebhorn) are also exerting pressure on him to get serious, about Abby and his life in general.

Matt’s response to all this pressure can probably be guessed by looking at the title: he starts sleepwalking, specifically by acting out his dreams. Eventually, Matt, just like his real-life counterpart, starts to see his career and life grow after becoming more honest about his feelings. It is only after incorporating his fears and conflicts into his stand-up routine that Matt accomplishes anything.

It’s a satisfying conclusion, but relatively pat and obvious. The slices of Birbiglia’s stand-up that peek through the narrative are often clever, but very little about this film’s construction matches that level of wit and creativity.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man is a picaresque novel of the American frontier, structured as the incredible autobiography of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, who claims to be the only white man to survive the Battle of Little Bighorn. Berger’s episodic novel gives the reader a panoramic, microscopic view of what life might really have been like among the rough, hardened types who sought adventure and fortune in the West, and the Indians whose way of life struck the settlers as so strange and uncivilized.

Witness his parents being slaughtered by drunken Cheyenne warriors, Crabb winds up being adopted by the Cheyenne chief Old Lodge Skins, a wise chief prone to implausibly accurate visions. For the rest of his the novel, Crabb goes back and forth between the white world of his birth and the Indian ways of his youth, never fully at home in either and thus granted with special insight into the faults and attributes of each.

For a while, this homespun anthropology lesson is enough to sustain the novel by itself. Eventually, though, Berger’s episodic ramblings begin to devolve into a “who’s who” name-checking of Old West legends, and the novel starts to lose momentum. The lengthy closing segment devoted to Custer’s Last Stand is astonishingly anti-climactic considering the history involved.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Celeste and Jesse Forever

How much you like Celeste and Jesse Forever will depend entirely on how you feel about Rashida Jones and her performance. This is her movie, she co-wrote the script with an ex-boyfriend, and she gave herself a really juicy part to play. Celeste is a whip-smart career woman whose marriage to her best friend fell apart seemingly without blowing up the friendship. Now she and Jesse (Andy Samberg) are still spending all of their time together and driving their friends nuts. But when Jesse’s life takes a new direction, Celeste realizes she isn’t ready for him to move on.

The smart woman with a career who can’t seem to find a man is about the most cliché of rom-com staples, but Jones’s skilled acting and nimble script manage to find the real woman behind the myth of so many indistinguishable Katherine Heigl movies. Celeste is a rom-com heroine with real personality defects and real things to learn about herself. Jones and co-writer Will McCormack take her on a meaningful journey of self-discovery, and it is refreshing to see a film where the ultimate destination isn’t the altar but a personal epiphany.

Every other part in this picture is a supporting role, even Samberg’s, but each is a fully-realized piece of the puzzle, and all are ably portrayed by gifted actors. Ari Graynor and Eric Christian Olson are the couple whose trajectory contrasts Celeste and Jesse. Elijah Wood is very good as Celeste’s strait-laced, gay business partner, and the suddenly ubiquitous Chris Messina is a charismatic presence as the guy who tries to get Celeste to move on from her marriage.

The film is very well-edited and directed, with several very snappy cuts and arresting images. The filmmakers are smart enough to keep most of the attention directly on Jones. Her expressive, lovely face is a compelling reason to keep your eyes affixed to the screen.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Greater Fool"

There was a moment early in “The Greater Fool”, the first-season finale of The Newsroom, when I sat up in my chair in surprise. Will McAvoy, lying in a hospital bed after being driven to self-medicate by an unflattering profile in New York magazine, is going over the various things said about him in the profile: how he’s self-important, delusional, misguided, bombastic, and doing a poor impersonation of Edward R. Murrow. At the end of cataloguing these insults, Will makes a shocking admission: they’re all spot-on. Will realizes that his changes were driven by egomania, and he seems willing to change again, to become more humble, less incendiary, less convinced of his moral superiority.

And then Mackenzie McHale opened her mouth, and our hero’s path to self-realization was closed forever. Like I wrote last week, The Newsroom could easily be viewed, and more readily enjoyed, as a show about the cult forming around the charismatic figure of Will McAvoy, with Mackenzie the chief acolyte. In the hospital scene, despite assaulting him with a pillow mere moments before, she fulfills her greatest purpose on the show: making sure Will never, ever, questions himself or his superiority ever again.

It’s a scene that is staggeringly easy to read as a meta-commentary on the show itself. Will would here represent the parts of Aaron Sorkin’s psyche that realize the faults of his creation, and Mackenzie his superego, that part of him which believes that he is on a righteous crusade himself.

That, in the end, is the principal problem of The Newsroom. The show is essentially the product of one man’s consciousness, and there is too little to mitigate or improve upon it. Sorkin has achieved so much that HBO is allowing him to do whatever he wants, and he has taken that creative freedom and used it to stage arguments that he knows he can win, settling every old score along the way.

Too much of this show is devoted to establishing the church of Will McAvoy, and even worse, doing it by merely having other characters constantly talk about how great he is. When Will has to step up and actually show us his greatness, he just seems like any other man, only more so. He is egotistical, self-righteous, ill-tempered and consistently unappealing. His lack of actual charisma (so curious from an actor as charismatic as Jeff Daniels) has the effect of weakening every other character on the show by making their devotion to him seem misplaced and unconsidered.

The Greater Fool is all about re-establishing once again how great McAvoy is, but don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time for the love quadrangle to fittingly become Satan’s love pentangle. Yes, because Sloan Sabbith took her fancy job offer and decided to use it to throw a sexy grenade in the middle of Don’s plans to move in with Maggie. But because everyone on this show is an idiot when it comes to their personal life, Don chooses Maggie over Sloan, Maggie chooses Don over Jim, Jim chooses to be gallant about that (perhaps finally realizing what a bullet he is dodging) and everyone should really be more focused on saving America from the Tea Party, no?
Excuse me, make that the American Taliban, natch. Because of course the most important story for NewsNight to cover isn’t the debt ceiling after all, it’s just how rotten those Tea Partiers are.

Curiously, though there was plenty of time for awkward half-confessions of true feelings, there was hardly any time to pay off the phone-hacking plot, meaning Solomon’s suicide and the resulting blackmail negotiation took up only a few minutes, and really only served to set everything back to the status quo.

With Season One in the books, what can we expect going forward? Probably more of the same, unfortunately. There are elements of the show that are extremely interesting and compelling, but Sorkin seems less interested in them. His script for the finale shows that he is aware of what some people might think about these characters, and that he just completely disagrees. He finds their flaws charming and their goals noble. He thinks of them all as Don Quixote, and doesn’t seem to consider that in order for a drama to work, there have to be characters to offset and balance Don Quixote. Watching a bunch of people tilt against windmills isn’t nearly as much fun.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ten Favorite Classic Movie Actors and Actresses

As it has for the last several years, Turner Classic Movies has devoted its schedule this August to showcasing one star a day. This has been hell on my DVR, and I’ve had to make some difficult decisions about which movies I can afford to wait until TCM decides to show again. Of course, some stars are bigger than others. Inspired by Summer Under the Stars, here are my ten favorite classic movie actors and actresses of all time. Later on I’ll try to get to my favorite “current” actors and actresses.

Ladies First:

1. Katharine Hepburn: Headstrong, willful, independent, and proud. Her superior, patrician exterior belied a warm, vulnerable person inside. Too many great performances to list them all, but I especially love her in The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, Adam’s Rib, Woman of the Year, and Holiday.
2. Barbara Stanwyck: Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and Sorry, Wrong Number.
3. Ingrid Bergman: Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Murder on the Orient Express.
4. Grace Kelly: Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Dial M for Murder, High Noon.
5. Faye Dunaway: Chinatown, Network, Bonnie and Clyde.
6. Bette Davis: All About Eve, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Mr. Skeffington.
7. Lauren Bacall: The Big Sleep, Key Largo, To Have and Have Not, Murder on the Orient Express.
8. Maureen O’Hara: The Quiet Man, Miracle on 34th Street.
9. Shirley MacLaine: The Apartment alone would put her on this list.
10. Myrna Loy: The Thin Man series.
Honorable Mention: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Thelma Ritter, Rosalind Russell, Deborah Kerr, Teresa Wright

Now the Gents:

1. Cary Grant: Effortlessly charming, breezily funny, impeccable line reading and comic timing. A remarkably physical actor. My favorite movies of his include His Girl Friday, Arsenic and Old Lace, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Notorious, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, and Holiday.
2. Jack Lemmon: Incredible range, lovable everyman, wonderfully funny. Love him in The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie, Some Like it Hot, The Odd Couple, and Mister Roberts.
3. Jimmy Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take it with You, Rear Window, Rope, Vertigo, Harvey, Anatomy of a Murder, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
4. Paul Newman: The Hustler, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Verdict, Cool Hand Luke.
5. Spencer Tracy: Inherit the Wind, Boys Town, Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
6. Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Caine Mutiny.
7. John Wayne: The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Searchers, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder.
8. William Holden: Network, Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard.
9. Walter Matthau: The Bad News Bears, The Odd Couple, The Fortune Cookie, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Sunshine Boys.
10. Marlon Brando: If Brando had only been in On the Waterfront, he still might have made this list. It’s the best performance I’ve ever seen by an actor.

Honorable Mention: Henry Fonda, Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Gary Cooper, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, James Mason, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How to Fix Campaign Ads

The major party presidential candidates, with assists from their running mates, spokespeople, advisors, and friends, have succeeded in uniting the country. We are all of us, right and left, sick and tired of this campaign. Anyone who is even half-way informed about the issues and the problems facing our nation knows that the Republicans and Democrats are forsaking honest debate for just about the lowest, most mean-spirited and intellectually vacant campaign in memory. (Yes, I know things got heated in Cleveland v. Blaine, but really.)

This year the campaign ads in particular have been a low-point for both Governor Romney and President Obama. How much control or input each man has over the Super PACs running ads on his behalf is a matter of some debate, but with the revelations that most are run by people with close ties to the candidates their content is fair game for criticism of the candidates themselves. Which of course the candidates are already doing, since at this stage of the game anything is more appealing to them than stating their own ideas or positions for the record.

If campaign ads were your sole source of information, you might not even be aware that there is a war on, for all the candidates are willing to talk about it. You probably know that Mitt Romney doesn’t like the President’s spending, but you’d probably be hard pressed to figure out how he plans to cut it. You might know that President Obama claims Mitt Romney will raise taxes on the middle class, but you probably don’t know how or even if he plans to address the deficit.

How can we fix the commercials? Well, Super PAC ads are going to be impossible to fix, since the rules governing them are practically non-existent and the deniability they lend to campaigns has proven extremely enticing. Short of an outright ban, they’re likely here to sully our airwaves for the foreseeable future.

As for the ads actually put out by the campaigns, there seems to me to be a simple fix. A step in this direction was taken a decade ago through the Stand By Your Ad provision, the source of the now-famous “I’m [Candidate X] and I support this message.” My plan would go a few steps farther. If I had my way, every campaign ad would have to read entirely by the candidate, and he would have to appear full-screen for at least part of the ad.

I think a lot of the more outrageous elements of the campaign ads would be ameliorated by candidates not wanting to actually have to say them aloud. It would also cut down on scary animation, quotes pulled out of context, and those expertly crafted low-tones of voice, you know the ones I’m talking about, the ones where the narrator manages to make even the opponent’s name sound frightening.

This solution would probably lead to the ads featuring more content about the candidate’s own plans, which would be a plus for everybody. Finally, something good can come from politicians talking about themselves.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What Should Akin Do?

"Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." -Mark Twain

Todd Akin said a really dumb thing, which happened to fit the truest definition of a gaffe since it let people know what he really thought. Now he's the best fundraising tool in the Democratic arsenal, and his own party is calling on him to withdraw and threatening to withdraw key funding for his race against Claire McCaskill, a race that had looked extremely winnable for the GOP until Akin's gaffe.

So far Akin has remained defiant, pledging to stay in the race and even trying to use his new-found outsider status to rile up his supporters to make up the funding gap he'll now likely face. Recent quotes from him have tended along the lines of (to paraphrase) "the liberal elites are trying to force me out". (Imagine how shocked Sean Hannity, Karl Rove, and Paul Ryan were to find out they now belong to the liberal elite.)

However, the question of whether or not Akin should get out of the race is more interesting than either party would have you believe. Predictably, political advantage is driving principle in a lot of quarters. McCaskill and many Democrats want him to stay in the race because he represents the best chance they have of winning on Election Day, while the national GOP wants Akin out because with him as the most prominent Republican Senate candidate the news-cycle isn't likely to be favorable for some time.

To me, it seems a little distasteful to have national party leaders trying to control who can and can't appear on the ballot. Whatever his flawed understanding of anatomy, the position Akin has arrived at on abortion and the rape exception isn't really out of step with his party. (Banning abortion, even in instances of rape and incest, is officially part of the platform to be presented at the GOP convention in Tampa.) The Missouri voters who cast their ballots for Akin knew what his position was on this issue, even if they didn't know how he justified it. Whether Mitt Romney or anyone else like it, he won a plurality of GOP voters in Missouri, and used a lot of his own money to do so. If he wants to continue his campaign I say he should be able to.

If the Republican party no longer supports Akin, that is fine. They can and should continue to disparage his statements, and clarify the distinctions between his positions and theirs. If they want to encourage GOP voters to write in someone else for Senate, that would be fine too.

The problem of course is that, other than on an IQ test, many establishment Republicans, including VP nominee Paul Ryan, can't separate themselves in a practical manner from many of Akin's beliefs. Akin and Ryan co-sponsored a bill that limited federal funding for abortion to victims of "forcible rape" and one senses that even that was a compromise. Which is why it rings a little hollow when the GOP acts like Todd Akin is a hideous monster just because he arrives at the same position as they do with worse justification.

How To Enjoy The Newsroom

While rewatching the latest episode of The Newsroom last night on HBO, I had a sudden thought: Why am I watching an episode I panned for a second time?

It’s true. “The Blackout, Part II” was one of the most ill-conceived episodes of dramatic television I’ve ever watched, and it has had some stiff competition from the rest of season one of The Newsroom. And yet within its rambling, idiotic shambles of an hour there was enough entertainment value for me to justify the investment of my time. (Plus the Mets were being the Mets again.)

I wonder how many TV critics secretly agree with me. For as much as they rail about the show’s problematic and irritating character dynamics, the lack of believable chemistry between romantic partners, and the contrivance of having the show take place in the recent past, no critic I know has stopped watching or writing about the show.

But I’m sure a lot of you are on the verge of giving up, being worn down by Will’s odd penchant to reference Broadway musicals, Sloan’s disturbing weight fixation, Mackenzie’s screeching tirades, or Maggie. This Sunday’s episode marks the end of season one, and I’m sure if it isn’t very promising many of you will bail. Here then is the secret for how you too can begin to enjoy The Newsroom.

First, stop comparing it to The West Wing, and not just because the comparison would be unflattering to most dramas ever made. It’s difficult, especially because the show definitely seems to be inviting the comparison, but the key to enjoying The Newsroom is to break free from the idea that the staff at NewsNight are people whose mission is noble and whom you want to see succeed.

Second, disregard the premise and the author’s intent. Sorkin pretty clearly hates cable news and the internet, and not wholly without reason. But his grandstanding and holier-than-thou pontifications are worse than the crimes he condemns. While it is easy and justified to view Will McAvoy as a mouthpiece for Sorkin (despite the character’s strained and incredible plea to Republicanism) to do so is to make him the hero of the show by default.

Try looking at the show this way. On stage at Northwestern, Will McAvoy had a psychotic break with his previous personality, and launched into a bit of persuasive demagoguery that has swept up willing believers like Mackenzie, Jim and Maggie, who have since proselytized this religion to the others on staff. Will’s personal magnetism belies a deeply sick and twisted inner persona, which allows him to mistreat the very people who worship him. He tortures his most devoted acolyte Mackenzie by refusing to allow her to move on from their failed relationship. He plays with the confidence of his staffers by inflating and deflating them at random. He feeds his ego with their approbation, and only outsiders can see the he is a shallow figure, hubristic and monstrous, and dangerous enough to be a threat.

Doesn’t that sound a lot more exciting than watching two-year old news events covered in the most high-handed and pretentious fashion possible?

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Blackout Part I: Mock Debate"

Last week’s promising episode, marred slightly by the cheap power outage gag at the end, was followed by one of the most scattershot episodes of television I’ve ever seen. The Blackout Part II was utterly fascinating to watch, in the same way it would be fascinating to watch a train crash in eight different directions.

The episode veered off into so many divergent storylines that it is difficult to know where to begin. Maybe we should start with how insane Will and the staff at NewsNight must be to think that their mock debate would actually impress the GOP. That “new format” they’ve been hyping up for so long involved nothing more than Will being a know-it-all jerk to the people running for president.

Will has so successfully brainwashed his staff, with the help of Mac, his chief acolyte, that it takes fly-on-the-wall Brian Brenner to call McAvoy out on the sheer hubris such a display required. Hey, even a douche bag down-on-his-luck magazine writer is right once in a while.

The Blackout Part II also dips back into one of the show’s most frustrating wells, having the staff accomplish their jobs only through the sheer luck of knowing someone who happens to know what’s going on. Some of these have been fairly defensible (like Sloan being familiar with the Japanese nuclear plant spokesman) while others have strained credulity past its breaking point (Jim’s sister working for BP and his roommate working at Halliburton. Lisa being a classmate of Casey Anthony’s buries credulity and dances on its grave. (Leaving aside the absurd non-sequitur of Lisa’s pro-choice rant, which had so little to do with the issue at hand that it stunned both the other characters and the audience into silence.)

And of course, we got more of the plot no one is asking for, the excruciating Don-Maggie-Jim-Lisa love quadrangle. This week, Don gets flowers from another woman he’d seen behind Maggie’s back. Maggie and Jim pressure Lisa to appear on air. Mac tells Jim to gather ye rosebuds, and so he goes straight to Maggie’s apartment, despite knowing that Lisa and even Don are likely to be there.

Seriously, at this point I’m less wondering why these people don’t get together than how they haven’t been institutionalized yet. Maggie is the worst of the bunch. The way Alison Pill plays the character is as if she went straight from 8 to 22 without learning anything about people along the way. Every detail of her performance seems calculated to irritate the viewer, from her tone of voice to her indescribably annoying arm-motions. (Seriously, watch the way she raises her hand in the staff meeting and tell me this is supposed to be a character Sorkin wants us to root for.)

Like every episode of this very frustrating series, there was some good to go with the bad. I continue to like David Krumholtz as Will’s psychiatrist, and find his insights into Will’s misbehavior come close to justifying that drawn-out story. Paul Schneider is doing a great job with a hard character to play with, and Olivia Munn manages to steer her material back from outmoded sexist clichés into winning personality quirks on a regular basis. I also think that the vetting into Solomon Hancock took a nice twist last night with the revelation that Hancock might not be as trustworthy as the staff had hoped.

However, one last note of unpleasantness, since it seems more appropriate to end a review of this fairly dismal episode with a dose of negativity. The idea that Neal’s big idea for a news story is about internet trolls, and apparently not even the semi-important kind like those at Anonymous, but just regular old annoying people on the internet, is just the most preposterous display of Sorkin’s intense disdain for the web we’ve seen. How could any legitimate news show think this was worth anyone’s time? And the retroactive justification of having this be the way that Will’s death-threat sender is discovered is just so much hooey.

There’s only one more episode left this season. One more week to see how much damage Aaron Sorkin can do to his reputation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Real Problem with Being an NFL Fan

Recently, Will Leitch of the magazine New York wrote a very interesting column about the moral implications of continuing to watch the NFL in this era of greater concussion -repercussion awareness. You can read it here.

Leitch’s point is well-taken, and addresses some of my own concerns with being an NFL fan. For a while I have thought about distancing myself from professional football. But if I’m being completely honest, concussions and other serious injuries are not the sole cause of my reluctance.

Really, the broader problem with being an NFL fan is that it is just not as much fun as it used to be. As the NFL has grown into the hegemonic behemoth of the popular sports landscape, as its influence has extended into the general culture (NFL games are routinely the highest rated television shows of each week), the meaning of a being a football fan has expanded as well. The widespread acceptance both of fantasy football as a sort of substitute for sports gambling has also changed what being a fan means.

To be a knowledgeable football fan in this day in age is a lot of pressure. The amount of information out there about football and its immense popularity means that conversation about football is nearly omnipresent. Fantasy football has helped change the equation too. Being a fan used to mean watching your team on Sunday and maybe following them through the week between games. Now, being a football fan now means being conversant with every team in the league, every injured starter, every free agent and their salary cap ramifications. It’s become too much like being a GM.

The effect of tremendous success, and the potential for wealth it creates, is also having a detrimental effect on the league and its teams. You can see the damage that the need to succeed is having on the league’s front offices. In the last few years we’ve had accusations of espionage levied against multiple teams. The New Orleans Saints were found guilty of paying players a bonus for injuring opposing players. The NFL commissioner is now such a powerful figure that he is the one who hears appeals of his own sentences.

Being an NFL fan used to entail watching the highlights of the other games around the league. Now if you watch ESPN looking for football stories you’re likely to get domestic violence, assault, drunk driving, cheating, drug use, formations guarded more closely than state secrets, and of course the bevy of players suffering from dementia and other debilitating physical conditions. Every so often one of these players commits suicide at a depressingly early age, usually making sure to preserve his brain so scientists can use it to prove that football made him this way. Is it any wonder given this context that the media spend so much of their time focusing on a prayerful, charitable backup quarterback with nothing but kind things to say about others?

People used to debate whether football or baseball was the better metaphor for life. That debate is over. Football isn’t just a metaphor for life any more. It is life. It contains all the worst, most exhausting aspects of life. It is all-consuming, and I for one am tired of being consumed rather than being a consumer.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Newsroom: "The Blackout Part I: Tragedy Porn"

Last night’s episode was the season’s best because it opened up the closed-room airlessness of the show’s premise by injecting some much-needed fictional drama to that of the drama of real-world events. Whereas in past weeks too much of the focus was on how Will and Mackenzie would cover the news, with a little will-they-or-won’t-they sprinkled in because that’s what Sorkin thinks audiences want, here the tension derived from not knowing what was going to happen.

The TMI storyline, intentionally and self-referentially parroting the News of the World scandal, may strain credulity, but that will be forgivable so long as it leads to more confrontations and conflicts like those that we saw last night. Scenes between Charlie and Leona have an extra kick because of the tremendous talents of Waterson and Fonda, but I also enjoyed seeing Will, Mackenzie, and Charlie get into a legitimate argument about the best way to do their jobs.

Also straining credulity while creating dramatic tension was Will’s inexplicable decision to choose Mackenzie’s ex-boyfriend to be the one to write a magazine profile about him and the new direction of the show, right as the show’s new direction is being compromised by sinking ratings. It’s the kind of thing that could actually make for a fascinating article, but the idea that Will wouldn’t realize what a bad idea it really is makes it harder to take. Still, Paul Schneider brings a lot to the role with his low-key manner and air of competence.

It also helped matters that the real world seemed to play along with Sorkin’s dramatic intent. It’s extremely plausible that Mackenzie and the others would be side-tracked by the Casey Anthony trial and Anthony Weiner’s scandal. Sorkin uses these distractions to score some of his easiest, but most important points against the way we are presented with information, while also using history as a backdrop for the drama at the network. It’s an appealing formulation that, if continued, could represent a turning point for the show.

One thing that the show has done quietly, but nicely, is to expand the world of these characters in recent weeks. Terry Crews, David Krumholtz, Natalie Morales, and now Paul Schneider are all fantastic additions who could really contribute on a recurring basis. If things are looking grim inside the newsroom, they are decidedly looking up for The Newsroom.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Les Miserables, Volume II: "Cosette"

Where Volume I expertly built up to its heartbreaking dilemma through extensive use of detail and explanation, Volume II seemed to this reader to be filled with stand-alone details of less importance to the main plot. Hugo’s second volume of five is over-stuffed with digressions and discourses, and very light on character development and plot.

The volume begins with an excruciatingly long examination of the Battle of Waterloo. As chapter upon chapter continued to detail the troop movements, the casualties, the errors in judgment and the role of chance, my eyes glazed over. Hugo’s point is made early and often, and does not wear repetition well. The ending revelation, of Thernadier’s dishonorable nature, is not enough to justify all that came before.

The volume is entitled Cosette after Fantine’s daughter, but her role in the plot is important only in relation to Jean Valjean. After his escape from the galleys by disappearing underwater and being presumed dead, Valjean risks discovery to free Cosette from the Thernadiers. After some difficulty with the disreputable innkeepers, he and Cosette are forced to flee from the tenacious Javert. Eventually they stumble upon the perfect hide-out: a convent where men are typically barred from entry.

All of this takes some 300 pages, mostly due to the inflated Waterloo section and another lengthy discourse on the history of the convent and cloister. Unlike the lengthy personal histories we were treated to in Volume I, these side-trips do little to enhance the reader’s understanding or enjoyment of the story.

Hugo also indulges a little too often in lecturing instead of story-telling. He seems to feel that the novel can be something of a manual for how to live, and he spends an inordinate amount of time criticizing the practices of both the religious and the unreligious.

In Volume II I found myself tiring of Hugo’s moralism and preaching, and less enchanted with his masterful weaving of a wide set of characters. Still I press on, hopeful that the Hugo who dreamt up Jean Valjean and his predicament has more in store for Volumes III, IV, and V.

Go On: "Pilot"

Matthew Perry’s latest attempt to carry a post-Friends series is a conventional, formulaic sitcom wrapped around an unconventional premise. The question for Go On will be one of sustainability. How long can it plausibly maintain its conceit, and how many jokes can be wrung from sadness and loss?

Perry plays Ryan King, a sports talk-radio host who is desperate to get back to work and resume his life in the wake of his wife’s death. His co-workers, including his boss (John Cho) are concerned that he is not adequately dealing with his grief, so they make him agree to attend ten group counseling sessions before he can get back on the air.

This being television, the group is of course stocked with oddballs with broadly defined personalities and defects. There is the lonely woman mourning her cat, the sarcastic old black man (also blind), the type-A woman who has to abide by all the rules, and the bearded weirdo, among others.

King’s first interaction with the group is actually a bit of inspired comedy, probably the bit that got Perry’s attention and that of the network in a crowded pilot season. Uncomfortable with the cooperation and lack of competition of therapy, King overtly pits the group against one another in a contest to determine who’s had the worst thing happen to them. It’s persistently amusing to watch as King imposes the rules and order of sport onto the situation, such as when he disqualifies a woman for taking too long to describe her partner’s death, allowing the cat-lady to move on by technicality. It’s a fresh, funny, invigorating comic set-piece.

The rest of the episode is mostly devoted to laying the groundwork for making the premise more believable. Perry’s initial Cuckoo’s Nest resistance has to be countered by an epiphany wherein he realizes how much help he needs, whereas Laura Benanti’s rigidly focused group leader has to be lightened up by seeing how Perry’s humor and charm can also help people.

NBC is pointedly trying to broaden its audience, and at times Go On shows the signs of being affected by the network’s priorities. It feels a little rote, as though it has a checklist to get through before time is up. For all that though, Perry’s breezy charm and ability with a quip can make the most of any joke, and Go On should have a decent chance at lasting a full season and maybe more.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Best Films of My Lifetime

One of the loudest complaints about the Sight & Sound list is that it skewed too old, or that it was somehow stodgy and conservative since it didn’t have any film made after 1968. (Never mind that all of the films on the list are considered revolutionary.) Well, my own list is not much better in this regard. I do have Network on my list, which was made in 1976. What makes that all the more remarkable is that I was born in 1986, so I don’t have a single film which was released in my lifetime on my own list.

Since there of course have been many great movies released since 1986, I thought it would be interesting to see what my list would look like if confined only to those movies released since then. I have a friend who refuses to watch any movie made before he was born, although he seems to think that every movie released before his birth must be in black and white despite being my age. But if I shared his prejudice against the past, what movies would make the cut?

1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
2. The Big Lebowski (1998)
3. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
4. Goodfellas (1990)
5. The Social Network (2010)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
7. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
8. The Princess Bride (1987)
9. Raising Arizona (1987)
10. Kicking and Screaming (1995) – no, not the Will Ferrell youth soccer comedy.

That’s right, three Coen Brothers made the list, and Fargo is not among them. I actually would go with A Serious Man if I wanted to put a fourth on the list. Among the films that came close to making this list: Rushmore, Toy Story 3, Up in the Air, Little Miss Sunshine, Pulp Fiction, A Few Good Men, Broadcast News, Black Swan, Memento, and The Dark Knight.

The Newsroom: "5/1"

Great works of entertainment are often called thrill-rides, but if we’re talking about things like roller-coasters I think the term more accurately describes watching a show as uneven as The Newsroom. There are moments when the dialogue snaps and the sentiment soars, and you forget that Aaron Sorkin is essentially manipulating the recent past to his characters’ advantage. But there are also dizzying descents into cheap gags, retrograde sexism, and treacle.

The best parts of “5/1”, which chronicles the hectic pursuit of the truth on the night Osama bin Laden was killed, are those which demonstrate so forcefully the sheer thrill of finding something out and passing it along. The episode gives us several variations on this theme, as both out normal reporters and several others get to be the ones to break the news. It’s an emotion we can all claim familiarity with: when we get a call that one of our friends or family members is engaged, pregnant, or getting a great new job or something our first instinct is to get on the phone and spread the news. The joy on the faces of the men and women who get to tell others about the death of bin Laden is just that emotion on a larger scale.

I also enjoyed the part of this story where Charlie reflected on the responsibility of reporting the news before the White House gave clearance. I suspect many journalists will bristle at this as being arrogant and pedantic on Sorkin’s part, but I think there is some merit to at least having the discussion.

Unfortunately, even these scenes, which should be a slam-dunk from a dramatic standpoint, are often ill-served with creaky dialogue. I still can’t believe no one excised Don’s ingratiating “for you” when he told the flight crew.

That however, was not near the worst part of 5/1. Nor was the worst part the show’s unrelenting meanness toward its female characters, which here is represented by Lisa walking into a pole while looking at her phone, random party guest thinking Christian Bale is an Australian actress, and Maggie being Maggie. (Not much they can do on that last one at this point, I know.) Even having Charlie somehow know right off the bat that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a cousin in the Navy Seals was not the worst part of the episode.

The worst part of “5/1” was when it resorted to having Will being stoned just to increase the tension, only to have it play next to no role in the overall story. Seriously, a sober will, or even just a slightly drunk one, would probably have gotten out of the car to report the story just the same. And having Will inexplicably sober up enough to read touching copy about the meaning of bin Laden’s death was tantamount to having Chekhov’s gun turn out to be a water-pistol.

I suspect that Will’s impairment, however hard to detect on-air, will be the revelation that provokes his final confrontation with Jane Fonda’s Leona Langley. If I am correct, I have to say that Sorkin has perhaps out-smarted himself, as it will be tremendously hard to disagree with Leona if she were to fire Will for cause. If I were in charge of ACN I’d fire Mackenzie too for allowing him on air in that state.

As to the larger issues with the show, having Mac kowtow to Will only further underscores just how submissive and subservient she is to his needs, which could possibly sprout into interesting character growth, although I won’t hold my breath. And having Will’s pompous statements about being a “medical marvel” essentially come true only furthers the impression that Will is a kind of superhuman we’re all supposed to bow down to.

Natalie Morales’s character was a bright spot for the women on this show, as she seemed to be a real person with intelligence and real feelings. Who wants to bet she’ll be revealed as the person who told on Will for being high?

The Everett Sight & Sound Poll

Recently, the British film magazine Sight & Sound released its newest Top 10 films of all-time list, an argument starter that has been published once a decade since 1952. The list made waves this time around because for the first time Citizen Kane did not appear in the top spot. That honor went instead to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which has been surging in critical appraisal for a while now. (The AFI ranked the film #61 on its initial Top 100 list in 1997, only to have it shoot up to #9 on the 10th Anniversary list in 2007.)

Vertigo is a fine film, but it is probably not even in my top 5 Hitchcock films. (North by Northwest, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt) Still, consensus is inevitable in this type of exercise, so I can’t blame the critics for coalescing around one particular Hitchcock masterpiece.

In the spirit of the individual lists, some of which are trickling out online and all of which are inherently fascinating. The directors’ lists are delightfully idiosyncratic. (Quentin Tarrantino’s list is especially interesting.) So I thought I would offer up my own Top 10 list, and I would gladly welcome lists from all of you as well.

Now, not being a professional film critic, I have not seen as many movies as the men and women Sight & Sound polled. I have been especially delinquent when it comes to foreign films. One of the greatest benefits of a list like Sight & Sound’s is that directs viewers like me to the best places to start viewing foreign films. Here, then, is my American-dominated list of what I consider the best films of all-time.

1. Casablanca- the greatest screenplay ever written
2. The Apartment- elegantly constructed, warm, winning, great performances by Lemmon, MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray as the heel
3. His Girl Friday- breakneck screwball comedy, great plot, and great chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance- John Ford directs John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in a western that ably deconstructs the myths Hollywood has erected around the American West
5. On the Waterfront- Brando gives the best performance of his career or anyone else’s
6. The Philadelphia Story- Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn are all magnificent, and the supporting cast is wonderful as well.
7. Network- Paddy Chayefsky’s speeches are given the breath of life by William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and in one spectacular scene, Ned Beatty
8. The Bridge on the River Kwai- David Lean’s epic film about the absurdity of war, patriotism, and the men who give themselves over to it
9. The Godfather- majestic storytelling and an amazing cast
10. The Great Escape- compulsively watchable

Honorable Mention: It’s so hard to leave off films like 12 Angry Men, Chinatown, Citizen Kane (which was on the list for the longest time), The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Bringing Up Baby, Patton, Singin’ in the Rain, The Magnificent Seven, any one of several Hitchcock films, and I could not decide which Coen Brothers film most deserved a spot between Fargo, Raising Arizona and the Big Lebowski.

Alright, that’s my list. What’s yours?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Les MIserables: Volume One, "Fantine"

Les Miserables: Volume One, “Fantine”

Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of life in early nineteenth century France is an amazing displaying of authorial command and the mastery of plot. Despite its overwhelming length each detail given to the reader has its place in the overall narrative and their inclusion is the furthest thing from arbitrary. The novel’s all-encompassing style makes the revelations of the key elements of the plot all the more rewarding and affecting.

Volume One (out of Five) begins with an examination of the life of Charles Myriel, later the Bishop of Digne. In painstaking fashion, Hugo describes the manner in which this comfortable heir turned to the life of the cloth, and how, unlike so many others in that estate, he truly came to devote himself to the poor and needy. Acquiring the nickname Monsignor Welcome for his charity, Myriel’s status as a living saint only becomes credible through the avalanche of evidence Hugo provides in support of it. Having spent chapter upon chapter witness the incredible deeds of Monsignor Welcome, it is thus readily acceptable to the reader that this man would save Jean Valjean from returning to the galleys, despite Valjean having just robbed the bishop’s residence.

Jean Valjean had arrived at the bishop’s after being rejected by every inn along the road to Digne. When Hugo first introduces him Valjean is dressed in rags, tired from walking and exceedingly hungry. He is a freed convict, carrying a yellow passport which marks him as such. Having stolen a loaf of bread to feed him, his sister, and her seven young children, Valjean was sentenced to five years in the galleys. With years added to his sentence for escape attempts, Valjean spent nineteen years in prison. The experience had caused him to have contempt for all humanity, but the actions of the bishop cause him to rethink his stance. After committing a minor crime, robbing a small child of a forty franc piece out of habit, Valjean confronts the blackness of his soul and returns to the bishop determined to better himself.

Valjean is the main character of the novel, but Hugo’s storytelling makes room for plenty of other characters to have their turn in the spotlight. This volume is entitled “Fantine” after an unfortunate women who later makes Valjean’s acquaintance, but in order to feel her devastation more keenly, Hugo treats us to a long segment of her in her happiness, attached to a philosophical man of leisure named Felix Tholomyes. Felix and his friends have formed a little social circle, and Fantine’s friends are comprised of their girlfriends. One day, Felix and his pals gather the women for a “surprise”. After much drunken speechifying and suspense, the men cruelly abandon their girlfriends en masse. The length of this cruel joke and its perversity are compounded when Hugo reveals that Fantine had succumbed to Felix and was carrying his child.

Fantine names her daughter Cosette, but is too poor to continue to raise her. She departs Paris for her home of M. sur M. and leaves Cosette with the Thernadiers, married innkeepers with two young children of their own, and promises to send them money for Cosette when she finds work. Unfortunately, the Thernadiers turn out to be liars and crooks who use Fantine’s money for their own children and treat Cosette as a slave, putting her to work as soon as she can walk, and denying her even the most basic needs. Fantine has no idea that this is going on.

Fantine’s employment comes at the factory of the benefactor of M. sur M., a mysterious stranger known as M. Madeleine, or Monsieur le Maire. After arriving in the town, the newcomer made a proposal to make the local industry more efficient, and in doing so made himself a wealthy man. Despite his riches, M. Madeleine is almost universally beloved in the little town for his benevolence. Only a suspicious few, including the officious policeman Javert, remain unconvinced of M. Madeleine’s worthiness.

Though it is, intentionally, fairly obvious from his introduction that this M. Madeleine is none other than Jean Valjean, Hugo playfully draws out the revelation, building up to it by introducing us to Javert and explaining the nature of his suspicions. Along the way Hugo also describes how Fantine has been degraded in the town because of the incessant curiosity and gossip surrounding her. When Fantine, Javert and Valjean are pushed together by Fantine’s arrest, the reader is thrilled by these characters, so dramatically isolated until now, coming into contact with one another.

To say much more would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that Hugo’s story ingeniously places Valjean in a moral crisis that is heart-breaking to read of. Valjean’s struggle, Fantine’s innocence corrupted, and Valjean’s obstinate adherence to the letter of the law come together to devastate the reader.

All that, and we’re only a fifth of the way through.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Newsroom: "Bullies"

There is a flaw in the conception of The Newsroom that I fear will make it very difficult for the show to attain its full potential. The show is clearly crafted so to make the characters heroes for their integrity and their commitment to getting things right, but in order to create drama, they have to fail or at least come up short in their efforts. That in turn leads to them seeming incapable of doing the jobs they are supposed to, which undercuts the whole idea of them being the best at what they do.

The amount of unmitigated stupidity displayed by the main characters in last night’s episode is startling. That anyone could write such things and still expect us to respect these characters is even more so. The most galling part is that so many of these mistakes, these stupid errors in fact and of judgment, are patently contrived and unnecessary.

Take Maggie, please. It’s easy enough to believe that someone would have filed a complaint with HR on her behalf, but the explanation for it is grossly unfair to her character. We’re supposed to believe that a twenty-something who was able to get a job at a highly-rated news station doesn’t know that Georgia is a country? We’re supposed to give credence to the idea that someone in her age bracket, in the 21st century, still doesn’t know what “LOL” stands for?

Stupid little things like this serve only to pull the viewer out of the narrative and cause him or her to spend the rest of the hour picking apart what the show is trying to do. Then when the show asks us to make a bigger leap, like believing that Sloan Sabbith wouldn’t know or care that she can’t reveal off-the-record information on the air, it becomes impossible for us to go along with the show.

Perhaps the biggest leap the show is asking us to make is also one that I am increasingly finding difficult to get on board with. The idea that Will McAvoy is some kind of living saint worthy only of admiration and awe is absolutely preposterous. As written, McAvoy is a control freak with anger issues who is dastardly manipulating Mackenzie into still feeling bad for something that happened four years ago. The show keeps telling us how special he is, how brilliant he is, and how good he is at his job, but there is a significant gap between what we are being told and what we are being shown.

The best scene in “Bullies” is one in which McAvoy gets some well-deserved comeuppance from an aide to Rick Santorum who happens to be gay and black. McAvoy pushes and pokes the aide trying to get him to condemn Santorum’s positions on civil rights for gays and lesbians, but when he pushes too hard the aide denounces his pandering condescension in an impassioned speech about his right to decide for himself what is important to him. It’s a great moment and one of the few times the show has allowed McAvoy’s real character to display itself instead of insisting on some impossible paragon of virtue.

At the periphery, there were a few other nice things going on in “Bullies”. I like Terry Crews as the bodyguard, and his repartee with the staff was rather lighthearted fun, of the type this show could use a lot more of. Dave Krumholtz was fine as McAvoy’s psychiatrist, although the framing device is a little overwrought. Olivia Munn did a great job with some problematic material, and her confrontation with Charlie was especially good.

Next week looks like the Bin Laden killing episode, which has the potential to be an absolute self-aggrandizing trainwreck. Let’s hope they avoid that.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

This Year's (Really, Really) Big August Novel

I like to read a lot of novels. Sometimes, in order to further my goal of being well-read, I will choose to read several short novels instead of taking the time to commit to a lengthier work of greatness. This is a failing, and I recognize that. To make amends, every August I resolve to tackle a giant novel of great length and importance. The tradition began in earnest the summer after I graduated from college, when I would spend a part of every day without employment engrossed in the story of David Copperfield. Over the last few years, I’ve read other Dickens novels and last year I tackled Thomas Pynchon with rather disappointing results.

We’re nearing August, but I have already got a head start on this year’s Big August Novel, because I wasn’t sure I could get it done in just one month. This year I’ve really picked a doozy.

I’ll be reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a classic French novel with a vast cast of characters and a generation spanning story. The unabridged English translation runs about 1500 pages. Luckily, I have downloaded it on my Kindle, making it much easier to read on the train to work.

Kindle doesn’t give you the page number, but right now it tells me I’m 12% of the way through, or about 180 pages. It’s an interesting novel, although it’s hard not to get impatient at some of Hugo’s digressions.

I may post updates on my reading as the month goes on, but otherwise it’ll be a while before you can expect to read a book review on this site.

Friends With Kids

If you can get over the urge to smack Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt upside their heads and yell, “Get together already!” then Friends With Kids is actually a lively, original, low-stakes comedy with a fresh voice and some trenchant observations about what it takes to make a family work. Of course, if you can’t help but find the wait for the big epiphanic “we should be a couple” moment tedious, then it might be hard to appreciate the film’s modest charms.

Jason and Jules are privileged Manhattanites of the age where their friends are having kids, moving to Brooklyn, and walling themselves off from the single life. And as single people in movies are wont to do, they think they can do better. They hatch a plan to have and raise a baby together without any romantic commitment to each other.

Even though no one knows anyone who would do such a thing, the film largely manages to sell this device, especially through the incredulity with which the idea is received by the strong supporting cast. The two couples which comprise their friends are played by a Bridesmaids’ reunion quartet of Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O’Dowd.

The film kicks into gear when Jason and Jules re-enter the dating world, he with a young dancer played by Megan Fox, she with a divorced father played by Edward Burns. Here the film occasionally devolves into the kind of dispiriting series of contrivances that keep “perfect” couples apart in much less pretentious rom-coms.

Still, the acting here is top notch, and several set-pieces showcase the strength of Westfeldt’s script. A group dinner at a ski lodge turns into a nasty, personal fight when a few drinks loosen tongues and real feelings pour out. Hamm in particular is wonderful, as his willingness to play the heel serves the film well. (There will be no carping that he only got the film because he is sleeping with the director.)

As for the lead pair, it’s possible I’m just too predisposed to like Adam Scott to find his behavior in the movie believable. Jennifer Westfeldt’s line-readings show that she has a great grasp of who this character is (as she should, having written it) but her facial expressions are often comically frozen and disconnected from her character’s emotions. I suspect she has had a few plastic surgeries too many.

Still, Friends With Kids is full of likable performers bouncing off of one another enjoyably, a fact which serves as the spoonful of sugar for its admittedly hard-to-swallow premise.

Ruby Sparks

The script for this high-concept romantic comedy, written by Zoe Kazan (who also stars as the female lead), offers a penetrating look at the ugly side of romantic love.

Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weirs-Field, a genius (though he bristles at the term) whose first novel made him a literary sensation at the age of 19. In the decade since he has been unable to finish a second novel and is becoming an emotional wreck, having seemingly only his agent, his brother a therapist, and his dog for companionship. Spurred on by an assignment given by his therapist, Paul begins imagining a young woman who might like him. He dreams of her, gives her a name and a personality, and begins writing her story. Soon this girl, Ruby Sparks, begins to seem real to him.

Sure enough, one morning Ruby shows up in his kitchen, cooking him breakfast and looking cute as a button. Because Calvin is one of those sad young literary men, Ruby is an artistic woman with joie de vivre to spare and enough endearing personality quirks to make Zooey Deschanel look positively strait-laced by comparison. And of course, despite her considerable charms, she has nothing better to do than inspire Calvin.

Or does she? After a brief period of bliss, Kazan’s script starts to turn against Calvin, showing how even his own creation can’t live up to his image of her. Sometimes Calvin doesn’t feel like living in an indie movie, like when he’s visiting his suddenly new-age mother and her woodworker second husband whom Calvin still resents. And sometimes, even the girl of your dreams has a headache and wants to go to bed early.

From there it only gets darker, and as an increasingly desperate Calvin struggles to modulate Ruby to match his desires, his creation gets further and further from what he wants. It leads to a frightening confrontation and an examination of just how dark the desire in Calvin’s heart is.

Unfortunately, though the production codes went out a long time ago, there seems to be a codicil still in effect that no movie billed as a romantic comedy can end on a dark note, so we’re treated to a largely uninteresting coda in which Calvin learns his lessons and gets a second chance that most of the preceding film will convince you he doesn’t deserve.

Kazan’s script is a clever deconstruction of the quirky-girl male fantasy which loses steam as it belabors its essential point.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Newsroom: "Amen"

In its handful of episodes to date, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has committed every sin, narrative and otherwise, imaginable. The show has been criticized and in some quarters pilloried as sexist, naïve, revisionist, biased, reductive, unrealistic, obnoxious, and crass. In many instances I agreed with these criticisms while in others I thought reviewers were being too demanding, expecting the greatness of mid-run The West Wing without any of the traditional flaws of early-run episodes. However, last night’s episode committed a new sin, on that I find harder to forgive: it was boring.

The episode covers two non-related but simultaneous historical events, the protests in Tarir Square and the union protests against Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, although the latter story is barely covered, probably leaving it to a later day, when the Koch brothers involvement will be a battleground between Will and Leona.

Will’s protégé Elliott is covering the riots from the relative safety of his hotel room, leaving NewsNight without the raw footage it craves. But Elliott the news man’s effort to get out in the streets is rewarded with a rock to the head, a broken arm and a few broken ribs. Luckily, the serious nature of this story is largely shoved aside so that we can get to Maggie hitting Jim with a glass door (twice!) and Don and Neal can each injure themselves in improbable fashion, all so Will can have more ammunition for his “real journalists” speech to Nina Howard.

The rest of the episode largely concerns itself with the fallout from Wade’s decision to run for Congress, opening up Mac to ethics inquiries, even from her own network, and to the quest to get ACN’s Egyptian stringer ransomed from his kidnapper. Both problems can be solved by Will’s checkbook, but in one instance the payoff is ethical and the other is not, so of course perfect man Will McAvoy only writes one check.

Let’s breakdown this week’s episode in terms of the Inspiring vs. the Infuriating:

Inspiring: Neal’s London bombing story. Sloan’s tutorial on Glass-Steagall? Not a whole lot here this week.

Infuriating: Mackenzie can’t do math! Mackenzie didn’t understand This Old House! Mackenzie doesn’t know a thing about economics! Even when Mackenzie tries to learn about economics, she can’t keep her mind off her boy problems! Lisa the fashion chick loves Valentine’s Day and hates being stood up! Will’s love of Rudy is predicated on the cheesiest, most made-up scene in the film, and then the recreation of it in the office gets the dynamics all wrong!