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Remember When 30 Rock Nailed Its Final Season?

March 6, 2015 Leave a comment

I complained recently about one of my favorite shows, Parks and Recreation, going off the rails in its final season by taking its natural positivity and detonating it into continual happy endings so excessive they seemed like the promises you read in chain emails.

Now I want to remember a show that did pull off a kick-ass final season by pushing its characters into new directions (which they somehow rendered inevitable). That show is 30 Rock.

30 Rock - Season 7

30 Rock was renewed for its 7th season in 2012 with the understanding that its 13 episodes would be it for the show. This is, incidentally, the same arrangement that Parks and Recreation got for its final season, which was also its seventh. Perhaps 30 Rock was thinking further ahead; a lot of the plotlines that pay off in season 7 were set up in season 6. Of course, you could say the same about Parks and Recreation. Basically, both shows seem to have had the exact same advantages and disadvantages, and while Parks and Rec provided a sweaty, dubious final season, 30 Rock’s was concise, heartwarming, surprising (and still funny!).

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Oscar Movies: Dysfunctional Love Stories

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

silver linings playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

A strange case, Silver Linings Playbook. It’s basically a romantic comedy, a trifle that got this huge awards push for some reason (Harvey Weinstein) and thus masqueraded as something grander and more important than it is.

Now listen, I have nothing against proclaiming a romantic comedy as a piece of greatness. Romantic comedies are a crucial part of film history. It Happened One Night won a jillion Oscars back in 1935 and it deserved all of them. Annie Hall deserved its award attention in 1978. I am one of those secret Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture, 1998) supporters, even, because I think one, that movie is brilliant, and two, Saving Private Ryan is overrated.

That’s all right. Go scream and bang some dishes. You’ll get over it, and then come back.

I don’t know that Silver Linings Playbook is of the level of those other movies. It Happened One Night is special just because it’s a near-perfect filmic experience in an era when everything about film was newborn. It set precedents for romantic bickering, comedic action, pacing, movie star charisma, everything. Annie Hall is one of those defining-a-generation movies. (Mmmm, zeitgeisty.) Shakespeare in Love succeeds at comedy and drama, and has a perfect screenplay. (Perfect.) Playbook, on the other hand, does not have a perfect screenplay—it strains and is contrived in places. It is not heartbreakingly of its time. It doesn’t feel new about anything.

Here is what Playbook is: a really funny, genuinely romantic, undoubtedly well-acted, charming movie that we’ll all have forgotten in a couple years, but which you will not regret having shelled out a tenner to see. See, my secret is that I love romantic comedies. Despite being perpetually disappointed by them. The modern romantic comedy is terrible. It’s stupid. It’s sexist. It has Gerard Butler in it. Playbook is a movie that boldly proclaims, “A romantic comedy doesn’t have to be terrible!”

Somehow, everybody tried a little harder on this one. The hook is mental illness: Bradley Cooper, our main character, is a man who in his late twenties or early thirties (not sure if he’s playing his own age, or younger; there is some evidence that he is) is newly diagnosed as bipolar. He has a violent incident in his past for which he spent several months in a mental institution. In the opening scene of the movie, his mother has come to check him out, despite everyone’s anxiety that he’s not ready for the stresses of reality.

Cooper’s character, Pat, has convinced himself that he can overcome his own brain functions with exercise and positivity. He feels strong; he feels like he can take that bipolarity and just choke it dead. And I LOVE that the movie acknowledges almost immediately what a bad and erroneous idea this is. Pat goes back on his meds pretty quickly, because brain chemistry and state of mind are different things, something movies almost never tell you. His psychiatrist is also really good. Movie shrinks tend to be terrible; they say ridiculous things, they encourage their patients to do out-of-character, off-the-wall things because they live to establish plot contrivances. Pat’s guy listens, reacts, reframes.

(Beyond that, some of the things the movie has to say about mental illness are weird, at best. Other reviews can fill you in on that, because it didn’t bother me so much.)

Jennifer Lawrence sails in amidst Playbook’s biggest contrivance: healing through dance. Lawrence’s Tiffany, who is clinically depressed, in a self-destructive heavy-eyeliner kind of way, is a ballroom dancer, and she needs a partner for a big competition. Pat balks at being that partner, but Tiffany’s also a great manipulator and plays an emotional trump card. She knows just what’s important to him, and how to dangle it in front of his face. So he’s caught up, and we get a classic mismatched pair of misanthropes who will “improbably” fall in love.

Again, so obvious, so done before. Still, dancing is always interesting to watch, and everybody in this film is basically excellent. Cooper manages to vault right over his usual douchey Cooperness. The buzz cut helps; he doesn’t so closely resemble Hangover guy. There was something else he did, though, that I really enjoyed. I don’t know how to explain it really, except to say that he was a serious guy who was also funny to watch. The character is hyper; he takes things to ridiculous extremes. To a degree, even his trials and tribulations are funny. The movie knows that, Cooper knows that. But Pat takes himself 100% seriously. And Cooper plays that contradiction: a dead serious guy, smack in the middle of a romantic comedy.

You know who else is great? Robert De Niro. There was a time when that didn’t need to be specified, but we all know De Niro’s kind of lowered his standards in the last decade or so. This character he plays, Pat’s dad, is not built from De Niro clichés, he’s not a tough guy. He’s actually quite a sensitive dude. He has OCD, and he is devoted to the concept of good luck charms. He thinks Pat is one of them, and uses that as a way to guilt Pat into spending more time with him (i.e., “The team lost, and you should’ve been here!”). Pat’s negotiations with his family—trying to rebuild those relationships and regain their trust—are as important to the story as the romance, and that gives the story a little extra weight.

Awards Attention: Though it was up for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and, weirdly, Editing, it was never really in the running for any of those. Playbook is an actor’s movie, so that is where bets were laid. Though the movie came away with one just Oscar, for Jennifer Lawrence in her lead role, there were four nominations—Cooper, De Niro, and Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mom had the other three.

Weaver had the least real chance; not only was she up against a powerhouse (Anne Hathaway from Les Mis), but she had a nothing role in this movie. She was nominated a couple years ago for a movie called Animal Kingdom in which she seemed equally underused until this scene at the end where she suddenly delivered this chilling speech that made you realize there was tons more to her character than you had initially thought. I kept waiting for something like that in Playbook, and it did not happen. De Niro, on the other hand, is doing something very special here—a very modulated, fidgety, improbably emotional tough guy. I thought he had a good chance, but it did not work out for him.

Bradley Cooper is, as I wrote above, just great in this movie, but he was up against Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and never had a shot in hell. The best thing he’s going to get out of this is being referred to as “Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper” in movie trailers from here on out, which is not a bad thing for him.

As for Jennifer Lawrence, I watched The Hunger Games again this week, and—she made these two movies in the same year—I feel like her performance in Hunger Games was so much more intense than Playbook. The circumstances of that movie are just naturally more intense—being hunted for your life will do that—but it still seems like a problem. I don’t want to play into any stereotypes about acting—“there has to be tons of emoting in tons of intense situations or it’s not really acting!”—but the role here just seems slight, compared to others she’s done (Winter’s Bone has another great performance of hers, in another much more serious film).

Having said that, there were a couple moments in Playbook that I found impressive. Not the “I must be crazy!” diner freakout they used as her clip at the Oscars, which seemed overdone, nor the “schooling everybody in football stats” scene everyone assumed they would use as her clip at the Oscars, which was more about the writing than anything special in the delivery. But I loved her nearly-hyperventilating anxiety when she blows up at her sister for inviting Nicki to the dance competition, and the broken, longing looks she sometimes gives Pat when he’s ignoring her. And she danced real cute, and we all love her regardless, so congrats on the Oscar, Jennifer.

amour

Amour

This movie was in strong contention over at Tomato Nation’s recent bracket tournament for the bleakest and most depressing movies ever. It is a movie that many moviegoers—even those game for foreign films and/or Oscar bait—skipped because of its subject matter. It’s about an elderly couple, Georges and Anne (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), and their love which increasingly becomes painful obligation as health problems begin to plague Anne.

I read a lot of comments by people who specifically said they wouldn’t see any movies where grown-ups have to wear diapers. Well, guess what. There are adult diapers in this movie. It is Hard to Watch, much like the movie Tracy Jordan was in on 30 Rock. Anne loses her dignity in myriad ways that Haneke lays out to be as bracing as he can. It takes something that people so willingly ignore—the fact that our bodies age, deteriorate, and then die—and makes it everything, unignorable. Unless, I guess, you don’t show up in the first place.

The movie opens when both are in good health; they come home from a concert (they were classical musicians, formerly), they banter about bedtime. They are both trim and not badly-dressed and seem like models for fulfilling elderlihood (a word I just made up). Then Anne has the world’s creepiest stroke (Haneke has also directed some thrillers, and here and there it shows—quite effectively) and it all goes to hell.

Actually, they roll with the punches first. She is partially paralyzed to begin, largely immobile all down her left side, but still is able to get around a little bit, generally using her husband as a crutch. He will grab her on her right, arms around her, and almost drag her around in half-circles, and that way she can move. It looks almost like slow-dancing, which is not a coincidence. We see her sitting in bed reading, holding and turning the pages both with her good hand. A former piano student of hers visits, and while he is uncomfortable with her appearance, she waves it away. (Even though the loss of a full hand’s functionality for a pianist is a real tragedy, one that the movie does not forget to illustrate.)

There is even one particularly funny little moment when some medical dudes bring Anne a motorized wheelchair and she tries it out in the vestibule of their apartment. She moves it a few feet forward, a few feet back, whirls it in a slow circle, all while Georges talks to her about something else. It’s the closest thing to freewheeling behavior you really see in the whole movie. They still believe at this point that they will weather this setback; that it will mean a different life for them, but not a worse one.

And it just gets worse and worse from there. A movie about eighty-year-olds with health problems is really only going to end in one way. What this movie wants to make clear, though, is that sometimes it happens slowly, and that makes it harder for everybody involved, especially for people who have previously loved each other as independent, self-possessed adults. Georges takes considerate care of Anne at every second, until he is forced to hire a nurse who can do some things he can’t. All through the movie I kept marveling, “He’s old too!” He must be tired, he must have aches and pains, but he makes everything in their life about taking care of her. He bristles at intimations from his daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) that Anne needs to be put away somewhere.

Trintignant is amazing, by the way. Riva got all the attention because her performance involves so much physicality (paralysis, plus looking less and less like a human as she goes on) but the resolve of Georges—that Anne deserves this commitment from him, even though it’s sapping the life out of him, too, even though her decline fills him with profound sadness—it’s astounding and done almost totally in the way he looks at Anne, or stares into space.

There is a strange moment, a line where Anne tells Georges that he “can be a monster sometimes.” It was in the trailer, which I saw a dozen times before the movie came out. She says it quite matter-of-factly, he doesn’t ask for clarification, they don’t discuss it more. Is she serious? Has he been cruel in the past? We just don’t see any evidence of that in the scenes we do see. There is one moment when he succumbs to frustration and slaps her, but it seems to be the result of intense fear and stress, and not a fundamental meanness inside him. Because of its placement in the trailer, I assumed this movie would be about an older man who has neglected his wife, and who has to step up (or fails to step up) when she becomes ill. But (other than that line) that’s not what we see here. It’s very strange. Maybe it’s just a line to remind the audience not to make assumptions. “We may be here now, but there were fifty or sixty years prior to this, and you don’t know what was going on then.”

Despite the devastating nature of the subject matter, there is beauty to Amour, too, in their beautiful metropolitan apartment if nothing else, but also in little moments when Anne and Georges are just coping as best they can. They do have “amour” for one another, and even though it’s a double-edged sword (that title just drips with irony), there is something admirable in sharing a life with someone literally until death.

Awards Attention: It won Best Foreign Language film, to nobody’s surprise. I think its placement in the Best Picture race (where it lost, of course) was mostly to prove to people that the Academy is cool and not in the pocket of Big Hollywood. It was never going to win that, of course. And I wouldn’t have voted for it for that, either, mostly because it’s such a small story; still, in thinking about what makes a movie a success, we can’t forget that telling a story that’s affecting and honest and deep doesn’t happen without some serious artistry behind the camera.

Haneke lost Best Director to Ang Li, who put tigers in lifeboats, and lost Best Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino. This is probably because no one ever stops speaking dialogue in Tarantino movies, while Amour was about 70% intense silence. I will say that Amour’s non-linear narrative (which begins at the end) was a very effective storytelling choice.

Finally: Riva was nominated for Best Actress. She lost the Oscar to Lawrence, but beat both her and Jessica Chastain for the BAFTA a few weeks earlier. As I said above, the physicality is the real marker of skill in this performance. She moves freely and easily, and then she droops on one side. And then her body becomes more and more maimed, and then her eyes become more and more vacant. She physically becomes a shell of a person. And while you can’t underestimate the effect of makeup here, Riva is really doing something that you need to be an actress with 60 years’ worth of experience to be able to do. (Hiroshima mon Amour, people. That was her in 1959.) Amazing lady, who at 85 must still be fully in control of her body to have pulled off this performance, so she’s already winning at the game of life. (Also, she has a César and something called the “Silver Goddess” from Mexico, and she’s still beautiful, so she’s doing OK all around.)

“No Veronica, There is No Santa Claus”: Classic Christmas Episodes

December 29, 2011 4 comments

Just a little bit late! Here are some of the Christmas TV episodes I rewatched over our most recent holiday season.

Community, “Comparative Religion” and not the others

Community is an interesting case. They recently aired the Christmas episode of their third season, a takeoff on Glee that involved much singing and dancing from their regular cast. Last season the creators of the show went mad making an episode in Rankin & Bass-style stop-motion animation. Those episodes both kind of blew. They’re fan favorites, I know. But to me, they are gimmicky in the worst possible way, and criminally unfunny. And there’s too much heartfelt singing in both. No, what’s more my style is the Christmas episode of the first season, “Comparative Religion.” The plot has two threads—Shirley trying to impose her Christian views on everyone’s Christmastime and Jeff being hassled by a lunkhead bully played hilariously by Anthony Michael Hall—and they converge when Shirley tries to deter Jeff from fighting the bully. (What would Baby Jesus do?) Eventually, her Mama Bear instincts take over, she gives the OK to retaliate, and the entire Community gang beats up the bully and his gang, in an awesome and funny fight scene soundtracked by Florence and the Machine’s “Kiss With a Fist.” Afterwards, our beloved group sings carols in the study room, all of them torn-up, black-eyed, and ice-packed.

Like most episodes of Community, there are hilarious little comedy bits crammed one on top of another throughout the entire episode. (One exchange between Jeff and the bully: Bully: “You think that’s funny? How about this? Knock knock—my fist up your balls!” Jeff: “…Who’s there?”) It introduces Pierce’s cult-like sect of Buddhism (“I’m now a level five laser lotus”). But my favorite gag is all of the weird little elements of having a holiday celebration inside the structures of a contemporary academic institution, i.e. hyper-secularization. The Dean prances around the campus dressed as “non-denominational Mister Winter” and wishes everyone “Merry Happy!” And, as befits college educational schedules, everyone keeps making reference to the fact that their celebrations are all taking place weeks before the actual holiday: “Please, it’s Christmas!” “It’s December 10th!”

You can watch the entire episode here with a Hulu Plus subscription (or view a 90-second preview without one).

Frasier, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”

I always liked this show least when it was about Frasier’s love life (for real, who is dating this tool, in all seriousness? well, I guess he is rich) but this episode is a hilarious exception. It opens when Frasier meets this sweet older woman in the mall; she helps him pick out a Christmas gift for Roz and then she sets Frasier up with her daughter Faye. Faye is Amy Brenneman, who has a classic sitcom career trajectory: she had a high-powered job (lawyer) and then gave it up to do something creative (in this case, to become a pastry chef). Frasier is really into her and they start dating. Then they arrange to have drinks in Frasier’s apartment, with the woman’s mother, on Christmas Eve. This is when Frasier finds out that this woman and her mother are Jewish, and that her mother has no idea that Frasier isn’t. So he hurriedly hides his Christmas wreaths and a quintessential Frasier slamming-door farce begins.

Frasier is trying to keep Mrs. Moskowitz out of the room while the Christmas tree is being delivered, and trying to keep her from glancing into the oven at his brisket—which is actually a Christmas ham. The humorous climax comes when Niles, who is running around Frasier’s apartment dressed as Jesus because he’s starring in Daphne’s chuch pageant, is discovered by Frasier, who lets out a startled, “Jesus!” The episode’s emotional climax is also great: Frasier and his dad, Martin, get into a huge argument and finally fling “hates” at each other: they hate living together, they hate being together, they hate each other. They both immediately begin to cry, comedically overwhelmed at having revealed too many repressed hostilities at once, and declare that they should have known better than to try something like that without being Jewish. “Maybe Mrs. Shapiro next door could talk us through it?” “She’s out of town!” They apologize profusely to one another, and then it’s back to a repressed, WASPy Christmas as previously scheduled.

The full episode is on Youtube here.

Coming ahead: Christmas stabbings, Christmas drunkenness, Christmas adultery, and Festivus!

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Movie Reviews: Awards Season Presumptive Nominees

November 27, 2011 Leave a comment

So we’re getting well into the fall movie season now, or more specifically the season when all the good movies come out so that you’ll remember them come Oscar time.

Last year I played major catch up after the Golden Globes in January. This year, I’m going to try to stay ahead of the game a bit more. Here are some of my recent awards-bait viewings.

50/50 (2011)

Likely nominations: for the Oscars, Actor long shot (Levitt), Original Screenplay probably; for the Globes, Best Actor for sure, Best Comedy probably, Screenplay probably

This movie probably has no shot at Oscar contention, but it’s got Golden Globes written all over it. It will maybe get a Best Picture nod (Comedy or Musical) but it’s in the bag for Joseph Gordon Levitt as a Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) nominee. That’s the thing about the Golden Globes: by separating comedy and drama offerings, comedic films and roles get attention that they just can’t sustain when the Oscars are all about the Holocaust and stuff. There’s not usually room for a movie that is about cancer but doesn’t use it for dramatic deathbed confessions and stuff. He still probably won’t win.

It’s going to get an Original Screenplay nomination at both shows, is my guess, even though the screenplay was the least remarkable thing about it. The story unfolded in a very by-the-numbers fashion. At one point I predicted that one of Levitt’s chemo buddies would be expiring very soon. One died in the very next scene. Before his climactic surgery, Levitt’s character seemed overly calm. I expected an explosive moment of catharsis. I got it. Still, it’s a movie where characters mostly talk to each other, and in a Hollywood that produces too many Transformers-type movies (remember 30 Rock? “Written by No One”), the Academy is always impressed by movies in which people talk to each other and it’s still crowd-pleasing.

And 50/50 was certainly that, incredibly enjoyable, definitely funny, due mainly to the combination of Levitt’s charming Everymanness and Seth Rogen’s classic raunchy dude humor. I know a lot of people are sick of Rogen, but here he is presented perfectly: as a completely secondary character, as the goofy friend to a much more centered and even-tempered guy. Levitt’s main character doesn’t have weird habits or tics, he doesn’t play it broad, but he’s still funny and likeable. He gets cancer, and then it continues to be funny for awhile, via head-shaving, companion dogs, cruising chicks while cancerous, and medicinal marijuana hijinks, among other things. It’s reminiscent of The 40-Year-Old Virgin in the best way (and I love that movie).

When it descends into darker moments, it’s effective, too, due to Levitt’s acting and also Anjelica Huston as his mother, who is described as being very pushy, but who doesn’t overplay the hand. She’s just a normal mom who calls a little too much, who wishes her terribly ill son would let her take care of him a little more.

It’s also helped by the fact that you know he’s going to survive. The story is autobiographical; the scriptwriter was working in Hollywood when he got cancer, was real-life friends with Seth Rogen, and wrote the movie when he recovered, enlisting Seth to play himself. (It’s not exactly the same: Rogen’s character has a different name and both guys work for a fictional NPR network rather than in Hollywood.)

The biggest problem with the movie is Anna Kendrick as Levitt’s shrink—psychotherapy is a recommended part of his treatment, because, of course, cancer is a Think Positive! Kind of disease. Kendrick is adorable as usual, and yet she offers the most cringingly ineffective therapy that I’ve ever seen.  The movie was really just setting her up to be an eventual love interest—we could all tell that from the first minute she was onscreen (she’s Anna Kendrick, among other reasons)—but I couldn’t help feeling bad that during the darkest period of his life he didn’t have adequate mental health care to see him through it.

The Ides of March (2011)

Likely nominations: Actor (Gosling) probably, Director (Clooney) maybe, more because he’s Clooney than because it was a directorial triumph, Adapted Screenplay (was a stage play), Supporting Actor maybes (Hoffman, Giamatti, Clooney long shot)

A good, sturdy behind-the-scenes-of-the-political-game movie, it fills the gaping hole that The West Wing left in many of us, for two hours at least. Bonus: Aaron Sorkin is not involved!

The story is set amidst the campaign of a Democratic governor, played by Clooney, who is prepping for the Democratic primaries in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Clooney’s hometown—he shot a lot of the film there.) His main challenger is also in Cincy, and both men are involved in trying to convince a sitting senator to endorse them. The rival candidate’s campaign manager, played by Paul Giamatti, proves quickly that he is not above a little bit of treachery, and he gives a great speech about how Republicans aren’t afraid to get dirty and Democrats only hold themselves back by trying to be above it all. Look at our current political climate and tell me that isn’t a little bit true. You can tell Barack Obama is the kind of guy who always turns the other cheek to bullies, and I think these days we all kind of wish he had just punched one square in the nose, just once to prove he would.

Anyway, Gosling is Clooney’s deputy campaign manager and he has stars in his eyes. He thinks they can win the thing without any double dealing. Almost immediately, his ego leads him into a trap in which the only two ways out are cover-up or scandal. And then the transgressions get darker and deeper, and the stakes all seem very high even though nobody ever votes in Democratic primaries.

The story is surprisingly rote for a movie that started as a play—usually those are pleasingly complicated, but this one went basically where you thought it was going to. The real draw is the slick production and the excellent performances. Surprisingly, charisma machine Clooney is one of the less impressive performers onscreen. Probably this is a generous act: he holds back in scenes with Ryan Gosling, to let Gosling build up his own movie star cache. And he’s got it in spades, that guy. His character is kind of all over the place—why he does what he does at certain moments is baffling—but the character is both reserved and intense, and charming at basically every moment. (Charming even though he’s kind of a douche.)

The most enjoyable work, though, is done by some of the character actors in more tangential roles. Giamatti is obnoxious and coarse without being hammy, and surprisingly shrewd when push comes to shove. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Clooney’s lead campaign manager, is a great character—a classic slow-hand player who seems nonthreatening until he gets crossed and then he is resigned, direct, and merciless. (Also, with his roundness and his mop of blond hair Hoffman looks remarkably like my one-year-old nephew. Just as an aside.) I also liked Marisa Tomei, who is really building a niche for herself as a character actress these days, as a persistent little terrier of a reporter, with great hair and Tina Fey glasses.

Take Shelter (2011)

Likely nominations: Actor (Shannon), Cinematography maybe, Original Screenplay probably, Director long shot, Special Effects for sure, for the storms and the swarms

This one is quiet, intense, sometimes terrifying in an unnervingly realistic setting. It’s about a man who is either a. having apocalyptic premonitions or b. succumbing to hereditary schizophrenia. Neither option is a good one and it’s hard not to watch this guy slowly lose his marbles without thinking, “This is not gonna end well for anybody.” He becomes obsessed with building this storm shelter and you get the feeling that once the family is in there, none of them will get out of it alive.

The movie carries some striking, beautiful imagery. This man, Curtis, is always seeing storm clouds gather. He also sees birds flying in bizarre formations, and in one terrifying scene, the birds dive-bomb him and his daughter. I think a Special Effects nomination will be the prize here, although it won’t stand a chance against any of the Big Budget Extravaganzas it will compete against. (Probably Hugo will take that one. I haven’t seen it. But it probably will.) There are some unbearably tense moments, too, at first within Curtis’s dreams—he dreams the family dog attacks him, he dreams that people swarm his car and steal his daughter out the window, he even dreams that his wife is a threat. In that dream she stands in the kitchen like a zombie, sopping wet for some reason—he’s asking what’s wrong?—she won’t speak—she keeps glancing at a butcher knife on the counter—and the couple minutes of that scene are as nerve-jangling as any moment in a tension-building horror movie. And I just saw The Strangers a couple weeks ago.

It’s also one of those rare Hollywood glimpses into rural America. I guessed they were set somewhere in the prairie states until Curtis and his daughter visited the Elyria Public Library and then people started talking about Columbus, and I realized they were totally in western Ohio, that farmland I drive through on the turnpike when I’m heading to my parents’ place in Michigan. The family in the movie doesn’t have a farm, but their property is adjacent to a field of somebody’s crops. Curtis operates some kind of commercial drill. His wife, played by Jessica Chastain, stays at home with their daughter and sells needlepoint at craft shows. Even when they go out, they go to an oyster dinner at, like, an American Legion. Paper plates, folding chairs.

The real story of this movie will be the attention paid to the lead performance, by an actor called Michael Shannon. A quick glance at his IMDb page tells me I’ve barely seen him in anything although he’s worked steadily for 20 years. He’s a regular on Boardwalk Empire, which I don’t watch (maybe if HBO started streaming stuff). He was in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which I barely remember. And then it’s movies and TV shows I haven’t seen, all the way backwards through time until 1993 when he apparently had a role in Groundhog Day. I haven’t rewatched the movie, but I think he might be the guy Bill Murray’s character talks into getting married. (Remember? He sends him and his wife to Wrestlemania?)

Anyway, this guy is in keeping with his environment, the stoic rural blue collar hero. On the surface, he appears to wear the same impassive expression from beginning to end. And yet, we can see his turmoil grow. He’s a big gangly dude, but he as the movie goes on he appears weakened, shrunk by his fears. In the absence of any powerhouse performances by actors, like Colin Firth last year—Big Name Actor in a Big Deal Performance—Michael Shannon has a good shot at an Oscar. (Although I haven’t seen either of those much-praised Michael Fassbender performances yet.)

The director of the movie, Jeff Nichols, was also the writer, so he will probably miss out on the director’s nomination. If he gets one, he won’t win. It’s a classic maneuver—if they can give the director best screenplay, they will give best director to someone else.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Likely nominations: Actress (Olsen), Supporting Actor (Hawkes), Original Screenplay probably, Director long shot (the director, Sean Durkin, is also the writer. See above.)

This one’s another indie movie—one of those movies I feel like I’ve been reading about for years, which has finally made it out of the festival circuit and onto public screens. It’s a sneaky, non-linear narrative which slowly plants clues about the main character’s history while we wonder what she’s hiding and whether she’s lying. That is, unless you’ve read a lot about the movie already, in which case you totally know exactly what the deal is and you wonder why in God’s name she won’t just tell her sister already. “I’m traumatized but I don’t want to talk about it.” A very tense movie.

Mild Spoilers Follow

This is a well-scripted movie, but one where interpersonal communication (or lack thereof) comprises the majority of the action, so, like most of these other movies it will stand or fall on the basis of its characters. They are all unlikeable (so viewers who need someone to “root for” are probably wise to skip). The brother-in-law character (played by Hugh Dancy) is just kind of a dick. The scene at the dinner table when Martha starts to poke at him about his disposable wealth and talking about how the real way to live is communal, noncommittal, drifting, existing. Has this guy never been to college? Doesn’t he know every young person goes through that selfish socialist phase? He must really hate her at this point (I can’t remember if this occurred before or after she walked in on them having sex) because there’s not a hint of indulgence in his dealings with her. “Where do you get off living under my roof necessity real world grown up responsibilities blah blah blah!”

The sister (Sarah Paulson) is a character I understand without particularly liking her, either. She’s trying to get pregnant, and in the heat of argument, Martha tells her, “You’re going to be a terrible mother.” It’s mean, but based on what we’ve seen of the sister it’s probably not wrong, either. She tries to rescue Martha, take care of her, get her to open up about what has clearly been a traumatic experience that she escaped from, but she (the sister) can’t keep herself out of it. It’s all, “Why won’t you open up to me?” “You hate me because our mom died.” “It would mean so much to me if you would trust me.” She’s clearly deeply insecure and she wants to be loved more than she wants to take care of somebody. This is maybe the only way the two sisters are anything alike—both are trying to right some wrong from their childhood by finding/building a family but  the sister has got too many walls up and Martha, when she was absorbed by the cult, didn’t have enough.

John Hawkes, as the cult leader, is mesmerizing, disturbing, and intense, as usual. The movie touches on little details that reveal how he manipulates his followers—he renames all the girls when they join up, which is how Martha becomes known as Marcy May—he praises them for ‘fitting right in’ and ‘finding your place so quickly’ and all of those things they want to hear. He just seems very friendly and welcoming, and if he was played by anyone other than John Hawkes we would assume he was a benign presence, but he is John Hawkes. Unfortunately, the characters in the movie didn’t see Winter’s Bone.  In a very effective scene—if an unsubtle one—he plays guitar and performs a song about an amazing girl called Marcy. He seems to know this one has got a stubborn streak—that she needs a little bit of extra persuasion. She’s crawling willingly into his bed almost before the last chord is finished. I think Hawkes is going to get nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and I thwink he’s going to win in a two-fer for this plus the performance he should have won for last year, in Winter’s Bone.

As for Elizabeth Olsen, she’s definitely good. I felt for her as a victim, but at the same time she’s also cold and brittle and self-destructive and self-defeating. She’s just the girl who would willingly, eyes-open, join a cult, and then, consequences be damned, escape from it in broad daylight. She has a beautiful, doll-like face (she’s less gnomish than her sisters) that suits the performance extremely well. I’m not calling her a master thespian yet (sometimes these starlets have beginner’s luck, see also: Kate Hudson in Almost Famous) but here she does the job ably and well.

The one major fault I had with the movie is the ending; I really wish that the narrative had resolved itself properly. Epecially because I saw it immediately after I saw Take Shelter, which also ended abruptly. Practically mid-sentence. I’m sure it’s very indie and artistic to build and build and build to a climactic moment and then cut to credits before anything actually happens but ARGHHH. I wanted MMMM to have an ending. It just sets up this very high-stakes situation—she has legitimate fears of reprisal from this cult she has abandoned—and it comes so close to delivering on it in a way that would be especially devastating, hurting her in a way that would also injure her sister and brother-in-law. It would have been depressing, yes, but it would have been so narratively appropriate.

Golden Globes Burnout and Oscar Plans

January 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Usually I do write-ups of awards shows that I’ve watched–and you may have noticed that I skipped the Golden Globes this year.  I actually found the show to be rather disappointing, and I was left with very little to say.  I’ve spent some time figuring out why I was disappointed and put some plans in place to make sure it doesn’t happen during the Oscars.  Because THEY’RE THE OSCARS.

I don’t really have anything to say about Ricky Gervais as host of the Globes; I’m of the opinion that he bombed, not because what he said was too offensive or objectively not funny (a lot of it was very funny), but just because the audience did not appreciate his take on the festivities.  They were so stone-faced and unamused.  I want to watch a good time, a party.  Not some big, awkward mess.

The show might have been saved if I cared about any of the winners, but, as it happened, I kind of didn’t.  The TV categories were a complete sweep of stuff I couldn’t relate to–all the winners were either shows I have no access to (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Showtime’s The Big C, FX’s Sons of Anarchy) or shows I tried and dismissed, finding them not to my taste (Glee, The Big Bang Theory).  My favorite comedies–Community and Parks and Recreation–continue to be snubbed for nominations, and perennial favorites Mad Men, Breaking Bad and 30 Rock were undecorated for the entirety of the evening.

But how about movies?  As usual I haven’t seen the majority of the nominated films.  Another way of putting it would be to say that of the movies you could call Awards Show Bait I have seen two: Inception and Toy Story 3.  Enjoyable films both, but poor coverage overall.

So, taking advantage of the fact that Oscar campaigns push movies back into theaters that they had already left (welcome back, 127 Hours and The Social Network!), and that the other nominees will be staying put for the time being, I have established my Oscar Plan: am going to be working towards seeing all the movies with major nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor/Actress, and Supporting Actor/Actress) before Oscar time.  Hopefully, when I have seen all these movies, I will feel more engaged in the competition aspect of the show.

Today I’m seeing two: The King’s Speech and whichever of them is playing next when The King’s Speech ends.  I’ll be keeping track of my progress on my Movie Challenges page!  (For those of you who don’t follow this kind of thing obsessively, here are the complete nominations on one page.)

(For an even more insane Oscar challenge, let me recommend Sarah Bunting’s Oscars 2011 Death Race.  Every year she pledges to see all nominated films, including the randos that pop up in Best Original Song and Best Short-Form Documentary.  For my part, I think I can enjoy the show without seeing The Wolfman (Best Makeup) or Tron: Legacy (Sound Editing).)

It’s Oscar season, WOO!  Almost makes winter worth it.

Parks and Recreation, My Long Lost Love

January 22, 2011 1 comment

Parks and Recreation came back on the air this week!  Let’s give it a round of applause…

This is my favorite comedy on TV right now, without exception.  I love 30 Rock, I love Community.  I am enjoying Modern Family and Cougar Town and The Office is…well, The Office is like a doddering old neighbor that you feel obligated to converse with once a week, because they did you a favor once.  NBC decided to shelve P&R for the entirety of the fall, for reasons that made no sense to anybody.  But now, it’s back!

I’ve written before about what a fan I am of Amy Poehler’s character, Leslie Knope.  And she is the center of the ensemble, and she sets this wonderful tone that’s a combination of enthusiasm, sincerity, and wackiness that the rest of the show follows.  I highly recommend that anyone who hasn’t tried P&R yet should GO AND DO IT NOW.

It’s going to be really, really easy.  You didn’t watch it on Thursday?  It’s on Hulu right now.  They’ll keep the five newest episodes at a time.  So, you have five weeks to watch this week’s episode.  If you can’t find twenty-five spare minutes in the next five weeks, something is wrong.  You may need to reevaluate your lifestyle choices.

Oh, are you a completist, really?  You don’t want to start at season 3?  You need to see seasons 1 and 2 first?  Well, try Netflix!  They are streaming seasons 1 and 2.  This is why I often misplace an entire Saturday.  Hulu Plus (the expanded Hulu service) has also got the complete series.

How about this: you’re just not sure you’re going to like it.  Here are some promotional videos to get you started!

This is the official NBC season 3 promo, which lets you know right where season 2 left off as well as where the show is headed.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Also, here’s Asiz Ansari as hipster Tom Haverford offering a reboot of the P&R opening credits.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And here’s new cast member Rob Lowe throwing a prima donna hissy fit about the fall hiatus that he apparently didn’t know about.  Let me warn you that there is comic swearing involved.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

In Praise of 30 Rock’s Live Episode

October 15, 2010 2 comments

If you haven’t done so yet, skip on over to Hulu and watch last night’s episode of 30 Rock, which, for the first time, was filmed and aired live.  It’s a gimmick–and other shows have done it before–but it was funny in the goofiest possible way, and it made the show seem more special than it has in ages.

Here are some of the high points:

  • Guest shots from Matt Damon (still playing Liz’s boyfriend, Carol), Jon Hamm (whose character, Dr. Drew, has had a hand transplant), Bill Hader (as Carol’s co-pilot), Rachel Dratch (as an eastern European cleaning woman) and Julia Louis Dreyfus (as Liz, during cutaways, and by the way, what a clever means of keeping that 30 Rock staple in the show)
  • Jane Krakowski and Cheyenne Jackson singing “Live show!  We’re doing a live show!” to the opening credits music
  • Actually seeing TGS skits–when was the last time that happened?  I liked the Fox News one: “This is Fox News.  I’m blonde.”
  • Tracy’s wordplay to avoid making promises: “I swear on my mother’s grape.”  “Kraut’s honor.”
  • The fact that Liz was turning 40.  When was the last time a sitcom lady was allowed to turn 40 without the obligatory, “Dear lord, I’m 40!” plot?  Liz just wanted someone to say, “Happy birthday.”

It was a weird show, and certainly not up to the standard of the best 30 Rocks.  But it was a hell of a good time.