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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


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.


Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad Men: "The Doorway"

I find myself without much to say about last night's Season 6 premiere, which of course makes writing a full review of it rather difficult. If it is possible for something to be both heavy-handed and cryptic simultaneously, "The Doorway" is that. For two hours and change we were pummeled with images of death, of heaven and hell, hot and cold, and always doors, doors, doors. And yet it is still possible to feel that so much of the episode was indecipherable. Clearly seasons of Mad Men are best judged retrospectively, and I have no doubt that this new season will include many wonderful surprises and great character moments. It's not like the entire staff could forget how to make good tv.

The thing that gives me the most pause though is that decidedly unsubtle hair. The creatives, who used to all wear suits and ties like Don, are just a paycheck removed from those Greenwich Village bohemian hobos. Harry Crane looks even more ridiculous than usual, and even Pete and Roger are sporting sideburns. The "Sixties", at least the time of our imagining, have finally arrived at SCDP.

Also tremendously unsubtle? James Wolk's new character Bob Benson, the least apologetic brown-noser in history. This guy is a more caffeinated Pete Campbell, ironic since its Benson who supplies both Pete and Don with the good coffee from next door. It wasn't the smoothest character introduction, but Benson's motivations might make for an interesting new dynamic, especially if it continues to ruffle the feathers of Ken. Cosgrove. Accounts.

Also new to the repertoire are Dr. Rosen and his wife Sylvia. The doctor's face is actually the first we see in the episode, saving the life of his and the Draper's doorman Jonesy, whose near-death experience is lingering uncomfortably in Don's memory. Don and the doctor seem quite close, with Rosen stopping by to pick up a Leica camera from the SCDP offices. (If there is supposed to be some awkwardness around giving a Jewish doctor a German camera, it is not apparent on screen.)

The big "surprise" in "The Doorway" is not that Don is unfaithful to Megan, it's who he's sleeping with: Sylvia Rosen, played by a hard-to-recognize Linda Cardellini. Sleeping with a friend's wife, in the same building you live in, seems too brazen, even for Don, so part of me wonders if this isn't some kind of arrangement between all parties. (I doubt Megan and Dr. Rosen are sleeping together, but she might be letting Don sow his wild oats for other reasons.)

And this is where I realize I haven't mentioned Peggy at all, or Roger's therapy and his mom dying, or Don causing a scene at the memorial, or the pitch to Sheraton, or the lighter, or Sally, or her wayward friend. There's just way too much going on in "The Doorway", and I'm not sure it all hangs together or belongs in the same episode, even a double like this one. Let's wrap this up with some quick thoughts:

-Sally's wayard friend seems largely intended to show us how much worse things could really be for Sally. Stuff seems so rough in this fictional world because she's the youngest person who can understand some of what's happening, but really, she's not even that rebellious. Shutting the door on her mother, and calling her "Betty" are nothing compared to forsaking the violin for an unpromising life as a drifter. I don't like that girl's odds of reaching California

-Are we meant to be cheering Peggy on, or fearing thats she's too much like Don? Maybe a little of both, but it was great to see her succeed at salvaging a possible disaster, while Don was potentially turning a sure thing campaign into a disaster by sticking to his guns on his Freudian-ly suicidal Sheraton pitch.

-Twice in this episode Don is photographed without his consent. By Megan at the wedding on the beach, and by the promotional photographer in a moment of confusion after noticing that he has the wrong lighter.

-Roger Sterling's therapy monologue about how life is a straight line masquerading as a series of doorways is one of the more insightful expressions of depression I've ever heard. Slattery did a great job of playing the character in that office, and I hope we see more of him in therapy.

-All Bobby Draper got to do was moon over his sister's friend and tell his mother he hated her hair, but it was still probably the most he's done in several seasons.

-I'd really like to know what comedian it was that did the ear bit. I'm assuming it's a real life thing because they were so specific about Phyllis Diller being the guest host on The Tonight Show. In any case, it was fun to see Peggy's subordinate try and fail to recreate the routine in the office.

-You never know which bits are going to come back and which won't, but I'd be interested to see more of Roger's daughter and her ambitious husband. That was a great moment when she left without the jar of water from the Jordan River.

-Betty's "let's rape the 15-year-old in the next room" routine was the oddest, most disturbing thing I've heard on TV in a while. And yet Henry Francis continues to treat her spectacularly well, complimenting her new hair color and insisting she's still beautiful. He even puts up with that horrendous nightgown. I guess any woman would look good compared with that harridan of a mother he's got. Still I'm wondering if there's a dark secret he's hiding.

-Hopefully the body count doesn't keep going at this rate, otherwise there will be no one left by the end of the season. Boardwalk Empire this isn't.

I have a feeling this will wind up as one of the weaker episodes of Season 6, which considering how entertaining it was despite some obvious flaws mean we are in for some real excitement. Stay tuned.