February 23, 2014

House of Cards (Season 1)

Beau Willimon, 2013
Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a sharp Congressman who is politically proficient. He is loyal to those who serve him and unrelenting to those who cross him.

Never before has a series so quickly exposed the rather deplorable behavior of a Washington politician without build-up. You don't even reach the five minute mark before Kevin Spacey's sharp-minded congressman character Francis Underwood does what he believes is a rational move in taking care of a dog that had fallen victim to a hit-and-run driver. This is clearly a deliberate move by the shows creators who want you to get an instant feel for the character, without making any attempt to humanize him beforehand. You find that this is the tip of the iceberg with Frank. Frank is just another moving part in the political machine of Washington, D.C. The city feels much like the shows characters: grim, cold and unforgiving. It comes as no surprise that money is not the active currency in our nation's capital, that it's power and influence. Frank even says while breaking down the fourth wall: "Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries." Frank is tenacious, calculating. He doesn't waste any calories. Much like the chess board sitting in his den, he's always thinking a few steps ahead.

The casting decisions on the show are remarkable. Spacey never disappoints but his role here he shows that he can bring nuance to a dark figure, although his southern accent is a bit weak at times. In Seven he showed you how far to the dark side he can go. With his Underwood character he shows you a depraved figure that is more multi-dimensional, more unpredictable. Robin Wright, who appears to be channeling Mika Brzezinski from MSNBC's Morning Joe, is another veteran actress who brings a lot of depth without playing it safe. In a way her character is more frightening at times with it's restraint. Kate Mara steps out of her sister Rooney's shadow here, and proves that she has some talent as well. Michael Kelly is another cold force, brilliantly playing Frank's strategist.

One of show's best attributes is it's ability to get you hooked on these very questionable characters, even early on. You get behind them, you root for them at times. Perhaps it shows you your own dark side, and reinforces the fact that we are still the same creatures. Saying that these characters are morally bankrupt is probably an understatement. Like the saying goes: "if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog". In a matter of minutes a loyal friend becomes a political tool that may be used for leverage.  The show constantly surprises you. It shows you characters that will now be in your brain forever. You would think that these characters would be morally subdued, being in such high profile positions. But they sink lower and lower. It will be fascinating to see how far it continues to go.

February 17, 2014

True Detective (Season 1)

Nic Pizzolatto
Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), opposite personalities, are paired up to track down a suspected serial killer that has recently killed a local Louisiana girl. 

There are monsters in the world. They are among us, lurking in the shadows. They prey upon women, upon small children. An ominous force. This evil immersed in the Louisiana Bayou adds a certain eeriness to it. It may be the soundtrack to the series, which at times sounds like Pink Floyd's The Machine. Or it may be the imagery, of the wicker bird traps suspended in the trees or the spooky mist that seems to float through the dark rooms. True Detective certainly knows the ingredients, and has all of them brewing. Junkies. Whores. Bible Thumpers. Junkyard Backyards. Wear and tear. Battered histories.

True Detective is one of those once in a lifetime series that you encounter. Once you're done watching, you're a changed person. For better or worse. And it's very difficult to give it proper treatment here, because it's just so smart and so elaborate that a simple review won't be able to cover it all. We can discuss how it's helping to usher in this Matthew McConaughey renaissance (a.k.a. McConaissance) stage - where we are seeing an actor completely reinvigorate his career from god-awful rom-coms in the early 2000's to serious dramatic roles in 2013. We can talk about how the show is almost a blend of The Wire mixed with the under-rated and forgotten Carnivale set in the backdrop of a demonic Louisiana much like True Blood. But that still doesn't reveal enough of the show's attributes. On paper, the show probably appears to be just another detective drama. But oh no. The first couple of episodes show you great performances and great writing. At that point you know it's a show worth watching. And then episode four shows you the greatest single-take in the history of television. And then episode five shows you that everything you thought regarding the direction of the story could be all wrong, and that it might be serviceable to go back and re-watch everything that you have already seen once because it's just not enough. 

If we are living in the second Golden Age of Television, True Detective is certainly a harbinger of it. It is saddening to see such life changing series like Breaking Bad fade away into the past. But if this series is any sign of whats to come, we haven't seen anything yet. Or perhaps we are in the middle of watching one of the greatest series ever made right before our very own eyes, right now. At least it's only the beginning. How the hell are we supposed to let go of these characters to make way for completely new ones next season? 

February 9, 2014


Alexander Payne, 2013
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a marketing letter in the mail informing him that he has one a million dollars and that he has to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings.

Payne's heartfelt picture has a simple plot but is anything but simple. Woody Grant sits on his old beaten up couch, inside of his old beaten up house. The many years of tavern dwelling has even made his body beaten up. His wife Kate (June Squibb) screams at him from the next room, which he (and the neighbors, probably) can hear through the thin walls. You get a sense that she only has one volume in which she speaks, and that's yelling. The bogus piece of paper is not bogus to him. Not because he thinks there's a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln (maybe he does early on). That piece of paper is a ticket out of Billings. That piece of paper has some value to David (Will Forte) as well. Accompanying his father on the trip to Lincoln could be an opportunity to finally bond on some level before it's too late. He sees himself in his father, and is therefore able to humanize him more than hard-shelled brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Plus, it's not like David has much to lose by going on the trip. He's only leaving his empty apartment still filled with memories of the recent breakup and a wilting plant. David and Woody are not just making the trek to Lincoln for a quick pickup. They are taking a road trip down memory lane. Through Woody's past experiences. Woody's forgotten history. They make a pit stop in Hawthorne to visit family, and the town has aged much like Woody himself.

Payne took risks in making this film, and they paid off. Decisions that some other filmmakers may not have made. His decision to shoot the film in black and white was a bold move, and the right one. The absence of color adds a certain charm to the film, a certain honesty. The weathered Knights of Columbus sign on the outskirts of Hawthorne, or the old paint peeling off of Woody's childhood home's walls certainly wouldn't have that same feeling if you were looking at it in full color. Payne's decision to cast Will Forte as the lead paid off as well. He can now join the list of other comedic actors who have successfully made the transition to dramatic roles. The comedy in the film comes at the right moments, serving as a good relief valve. The cousins aren't big talkers, but are sure inquisitive about automobiles, as is the rest of the townspeople of Hawthorne. The family members and townsfolk sitting in front of the television watching football, completely emotionless. If the television is a window to the world, all of the excitement is on the other side of the glass. The more lively behavior comes as Kate shows her lack of a social filter by revealing past sexual experiences as they weave through the headstones of the cemetery.

Like Kate says: "usually someone has to die before the vultures start circling." Someone winning the lottery can bring out the worst in the people around you. But perhaps it brings out their true selves. Woody finally gets a moment in the spotlight after years of being ignored by those around him. He stands before everyone as they clap, congratulating him and it invokes a feeling of someone getting a lifetime achievement award. Perhaps playing into the facade is the right move. Perhaps it's his one last chance at some dignity. Perhaps it's his chance to have the last laugh, and ride off into the sunset. Ending it all on a good note instead of a sour one. Some retribution. In the end, the film is so redeeming even without needing the actual redemption.

February 8, 2014

The Great Outdoors

Howard Deutch, 1988
Chet Ripley (John Candy) is looking forward to spending some quality time with his family on their vacation in rural Wisconsin when his in-laws Roman (Dan Akroyd) and Kate (Annette Benning) suddenly show up expecting to join in on the fun.

The Great Outdoors is probably one of those films that you put on thinking you've never seen it before, and when it hits a couple of the key scenes you realize that you've seen it. The Old 96'er steakhouse scene. The bat loose in the house scene. Or perhaps the quintessential 80's romance scenes are enough to jog the memory. The point is, those comical scenes stand out in what's ultimately a rather forgettable film. While John Hughes has plenty of notable writing credits over the course of his career (Home Alone, Ferris Bueler's Day Off, The Breakfast Club), not all of them are winners (Curly Sue, Beethoven, Career Opportunities). The presence of two of the great Canadian imports Dan Akroyd and John Candy are certainly enough to pull you in. What's interesting with both of them is they do what they typically do, and as long as that's within the proper framework it's fine. Akroyd is always the fast-talking chubby(ish) robotically-toned force who relies on and shifts in accent and facial expression rather than slapstick comedy. Candy typically uses more physical comedy and is more limited as an actor, but is certainly more of a warm force on screen. There's a familiarity with him, a sentimentality. Whenever you see John Candy on screen it reminds you of how much you miss him. The Great Outdoors certainly has it's flaws. Distracting edits, poor set design, weak story, too much bear, too much raccoon subtitling. Why did they have to talk so much? At times the very heavy animal presence is as wearisome as watching bears pick through the garbage heap like they do in the film. Perhaps their was a SAG quota for animal trainers' working hours in 1988.

February 6, 2014

In a World...

Lake Bell, 2013
Carol (Lake Bell) is struggling to find her place in the working world. Living in the shadow of her legendary father Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), the voice-over industry seemed to be dominated by men with little room for a twenty-something female. That is until she surprisingly books a gig for herself which motivates her to keep at it - and that isn't met with cheers by everyone around her.

Lake Bell proves that she is a triple-threat in this film in which she writes, directs and stars in. It has a lot of similarities to fellow tom-boyish female-led indie Juno, although a bit more grown-up and more plainspoken. Bell's final product is a well put-together story of an aimless female dealing with adversity. This adversity takes many forms. She is trying to endure family dysfunction, mostly caused by her self-absorbed father. She is trying (or maybe not trying but feeling expected) to find romance. Although her friend Louis (Demetri Martin) is lurking in the periphery, their moments never feel opportune and come off awkwardly. Martin, who is usually a forgettable face on screen, is an appropriate casting here as the blundering but like-able friend who wants to be more than a friend but doesn't know how to make his move. She is trying to find her own independence, so she isn't feeling like a mooch on her sister Dani's (Michaela Watkins) couch. In a World contains some rather sporadic laughter, with some of the many throw-aways falling flat. They don't all need to hit their mark because Bell gets plenty of points for her effort. And her efforts didn't go unnoticed. She received a lot of appropriate acclaim for her work here, taking home the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance among many Critics Association nominations for things like Breakthrough Film Artist or Most Promising Filmmaker. Bell succeeds in getting you behind Carol early and sticking with her. Her hardship should feel identifiable for anyone who was young and didn't know what the hell they wanted to do in life, which is who, all of us? 

February 1, 2014

10 Most Anticipated Films of 2014

10. Foxcatcher
Storyline: The story of Olympic Wrestling Champion Mark Schultz and how paranoid schizophrenic John duPont killed his brother, Olympic Champion Dave Schultz.
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, Anthony Michael Hall
Director: Bennett Miller
Release Date: TBD

9. Whiplash
Storyline: A young musician struggles to make it as a jazz performer.
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Director: Damien Chazelle
Release Date: TBD

8. Boyhood
Storyline: The life a young man, Mason, from age 5 to 18
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Director: Richard Linklater
Release Date: TBD

7. Gone Girl
Storyline: A woman mysteriously disappears on the day of her wedding anniversary. Based on the novel, "Gone Girl."
Starring: Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, Neil Patrick Harris
Director: David Fincher
Release Date: October 3, 2014

6. The Lobster
Storyline: A love story set in a dystopian near future where single people are arrested and transferred to a creepy hotel. There they are obliged to find a matching mate in 45 days. If they fail, they are transformed into an animal and released into the woods.
Starring: Lea Seydoux, Ben Wishaw
Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
Release Date: TBD

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Storyline: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jude Law
Director: Wes Anderson
Release Date: March 7, 2014

4. Midnight Special
Storyline: A father and son go on the run after the dad learns his child possesses special powers.
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, Adam Driver
Director: Jeff Nichols
Release Date: TBD (EDIT 9/13/14: Release pushed up to November 2015)

3. Interstellar
Storyline: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain
Director: Christopher Nolan
Release Date: November 7, 2014

2. Untitled Cameron Crowe Hawaii Project 
Storyline: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him.
Starring: Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bradley Cooper, Jay Baruchel, Bill Murray
Director: Cameron Crowe
Release Date: TBD (EDIT: Release pushed up to 2015)

1. Inherent Vice 
Storyline: In Los Angeles in 1970, drug-fueled detective Larry "Doc" Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.
Starring: Jena Malone, Jaoquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release Date: TBD

(Storylines courtesy of IMDB.com)