The Zero Theorem (2014): On a Path to Nothing

zero-theorem-posterOverall Rating: B-

Terry Gilliam himself marketed The Zero Theorem by boasting that it was the third and final installment into his “Dystopia Trilogy,” following Brazil and Twelve Monkeys. This has given people a lot to talk about surrounding the film, but has also harmed its reception, as most of that buzz simply says this: It’s no Brazil. A member of the original Monte Python team, Gilliam crafted in Brazil a defining masterwork, a steampunk alternate future that has a special place in cinematic history for its commentary, its inventiveness and its influence. The Zero Theorem looks and plays a lot like that masterpiece, but falls way, way short of the same reward.

The sets and production design of all of these works serve as their central spine (Brazil is considered the pinnacle of the steampunk motif). For this work, Gilliam and crew borrow equal parts from early-’90s cyberpunk, creative interpretation of cities of today, and what looks like an I Party clearance sale. The result, as weak as that makes it sound, is interesting given the other dystopian norms played out in the film. When the protagonist walks outside of his lonely home every now and again, it looks less like a dystopian future and more like a hyperbolization of the present. There is excess materialism, with people wearing headphones clearly styled to poke fun at Beats by Dre around their necks as you might where jewelry. There is an omnipresence of updates and information, not with constant Twitter-feed refreshing, but with Times Square-esque flashing updates running along each and every building. If The Zero Theorem had been released at the same time as Brazil, nearly thirty years ago, it would seem totally ludicrous — smart cars, interactive porn sites, complete digitalization — but today it cleverly seems like Apple’s next big thing.

Beyond the truly interesting walk Qohen takes from home to work, The Zero Theorem walks an unfortunate balancing act between annoying and just plain silly. This video-game-looking world goes far further off the rails than it needs to. The Zero Theorem reaches points where as a viewer, the message is clear, but Gilliam feels the need to go one step more, and I was inclined to lean forward and shout, “we get it, move on.” It delves into fantastical narrative places that Brazil succeeded because it never went. That imagined world felt possible, like someone would push the world in that direction and it could get out of hand if we weren’t careful. This new world is ludicrous. The costumes — whether regarding the outrageous colors people done in their accessories, or Management’s (Matt Damon) camouflage — are too much. The site of the massive machine that Qohen climacticly combats is nonsensical. Even Qohen’s home, a large one-time church — which clearly makes a gesture about Gilliam’s thoughts on the future of organized religion — is out of place and altogether a prison that traps the narrative progression more than it traps our anti-hero.

“You have any idea what the zero theorem is all about?,” he is asked. I think I do. The mathematical puzzle the question actually means is a number-crunch Qohen, and many before him, are tasked to solve, and it would prove that all of existence is for nothing. What The Zero Theorem is about, or at least the most potent commentary it makes, is our socially communication-obsessed society. This allegory, while obvious, is elaborate. When Qohen goes into work, his supervisor and only friend played by David Thewlis notes this when helping Qohen set up to get started: “You can’t get anything if you’re disconnected.” This allegorical remark is at once satire of people who live off of food, water and wifi; and a recognition of its own truth, as the analog world is becoming a thing of the past. That is a terrifying thought, because no amount of passwords or user agreements can manage to keep the cyberverse totally safe (think: the recent NSA revelations). “Those sessions are private,” he angrily remarks to a young hacking wiz who is tasked to help him. “Sure they are.”

Light and sound are amplified in the early parts of the movie, making the viewing experience simulate Qohen’s struggles leaving his home to embark into the loud, crazy world. His self-isolation and loneliness provide the plot an arc, a development to distract us from the boringly childish video games workers play. When he gets more full of life as the film marches on, sets get better lit, music recedes into the background so that Qohen can take full-time center-stage. But is his character worthy of this attention? Christoph Waltz is one of the most talented actors alive; that’s a fact. But that can only take a role so far if the character is inherently not likable and the dialogue poorly written. He becomes self-satire almost by accident when he imagines himself with hair, and when other jokingly refer to him as the Chosen One (only one of many similarities to The Matrix). The more interesting character is Melanie Thierry’s Bainsley, the object of Qohen’s desires as well as fears. She is alluring to him, but he fears being allured. Her feelings for him are the lone part of the story that makes the audience actually root for Qohen; she wants to see him move forward, we don’t want her to be let down.

She introduces him to a program that inserts one’s mind completely in a world of their own imagination. They frolic on a beach, the sun always at the perfect spot in the sky. After his final act, one of rebellion, Qohen goes there, perhaps trapping his psyche permanently in the computer, though this is ambiguous. What is not ambiguous is that he truly believes that he is at a place that makes him happy, that this is where he wants to be. Though, pay attention, he is in this digital paradise still completely alone.

The Drop (2014): The Most Complete, Well Paced Thriller In Years

drop_ver3_xlgOverall Rating: A

The camera’s constant, voyeuristic flow; the tension-setting tonality of the score; the healthy mix of rich dialogue, brief asides from the plot and revealing monologues; not to mention the telling aging of a puppy: The Drop is a flawlessly paced crime film that builds quietly and patiently until it decides you are ready for the rewarding final act. This should be considered standard operating procedure for writer Dennis Lehane, the screenwriter whose novels provided the basis for other seminal entries in the genre like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, and who served as a writer on “The Wire”. The Drop is his first movie writing credit, and it is based on his own short story, Animal Rescue.

With The Drop, he has demonstrated that the craft of excellent storytelling transcends media. The rescue that the short story title alludes to occurs early in the movie, as Tom Hardy’s Bob Saginowski recovers an abandoned pit bull. More than just a “save the cat” tool, this sets the film on its calculated forward march. Others would say the event that kick-starts the plot is a robbery of the joint at which Bob tends bar, but this merely catalyzes other wings of the story. Bob’s arc begins with “this dog’s bleeding” and rises to letting loose with “he was gonna hurt our dog.”

No actor working today could have pulled off the mixture of subtlety and deliberance in the particular shifts this character takes other than Tom Hardy. He has an unparalleled gift at losing himself in a role, at completely shape-shifting without really changing at all. Actors can change mannerisms and accents all they want, but it seems like Hardy is capable of restructuring his very voice, his expressions (consider this, he is both Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and Locke in Locke, and neither one is more the real him) to embody character after character in some of the industry’s most appealing stories. Bob is a shy sort of mind-my-own-business sort of nice guy, but behind he quivering facade, he is three steps ahead of everyone else in Lehane’s version of the Brooklyn underground. “You’re still in the life, right?,” Noomi Rapace’s character, a charmingly modern damsel in distress, asks him. He says, “No, me, no. I just tend bar.” For a second we believe him.

This world, run covertly by organized crime thoroughly but quietly (Lehane’s M.O., Mystic River being the magnum opus of this idea), is among the most believable movie crimedoms I have seen. It is like every urban neighborhood in the country on the surface, but an ominous narrows underneath. Here, criminals money launder by selecting from a rotation of bars every week to be their “drop bar” — the place where their errand boys leave the money at the end of the night for pickup later on. Cousin Marv’s, Bob’s place of employment, serves as the drop bar twice, the first and last nights in the film. It opens on December 27th when a group of guys is given a free round by the non-confrontational Bob because they are there commemorating the anniversary of the last time a buddy of their’s, Richie Whelan, was last seen alive. “There’s gotta be a point when you move on,” Marv, who runs the place, criticizes after Bob hands the guys their free shots. These words shift meanings in a way by the second drop. It ends on another drop night, and again stories are told about the decade-old disappearance, the novelistic bookend to the narrative.

In between, the story carefully unravels in ways that go beyond what I can describe here. The more is learned about the shared history of our characters — Marv, the gangsters, Whelan, the dog — the less we feel like we know what will come next. In high tension moments, director Michael Roskam holds shots on characters looking offscreen longer than most filmmakers would be comfortable, but with Hardy’s and legend James Gandolfini’s ability to hold the screen, it works in creating a light air of mystery around the simple day-to-day. Bob’s history remains largely a mystery, but Marv (Gandolfini) gets the full family treatment, and his big mouth exposes a lot of his past, and why Gandolfini was the perfect man to play him.

Casting directors know that with some stars, it is simply understood that the audience has seen them before, and that carries implications with it. The saying in the industry goes that casting a star saves the screenwriter 25 pages because the audience already knows something about the character. With James Gandolfini, that means Tony Soprano. Before knowing anything else about Marv, we know he is tough, he is not to be taunted or insulted. He has street smarts. His stature in the community may not be on the same level as that HBO don, but his arrogance, his impulsiveness are similar. At one point, he looses a monologue to Bob about how far he feels he has fallen, and it feels almost as if the words are Gandolfini’s own, rather than his character’s. “I was respected,” he says. He makes a statement about how everyone would stand up when he would enter a room, and it is impossible not to picture Tony being greeted by his captains as he walks into the back room of the Bing. The Drop is the last we will see of the late icon, and it is a fitting ending, a modern crime drama that owes a lot to that epic series (I don’t write spoilers, but see the movie and you’ll know exactly what I mean).

By the final act, The Drop becomes a focused chronicle of its characters going off the rails. The thrilling, methodical conclusion got my heart pumping and the ambiguity got my mind racing. Is Nadia an unfortunate bystander or a femme fatale? Will Bob’s friend the cop put the pieces, all of which he has discovered, together? While being rooted in post-Sopranos crime drama, it plays like neo-noir, with the action burying itself in the shadows even while the heart of the story unfolds in daylight. It is a script that pays a lot of attention to itself, tying up all loose ends and building a firm community of supporting characters. “That’s my bar,” one blue collar guy being questioned by the police says, “Don’t fuck with my bar.” When the guy who runs things in this neighborhood walks into Marv’s, the men sitting at the bar know to get out quietly, and Bob knows just what they drink. In communities like this, where everyone knows everyone at the bar for the Super Bowl and everyone at 8 o’clock mass, New York City feels like a small town.

Watching the pit bull age before our eyes is the marker of time in which Lehane’s story is dropped, and these performances are what populate it. Hardy’s turn is inspiring and awe enticing and the backbone of the film, but for many this will be a goodbye to Jim Gandolfini. He was a rare bird, an actor who can play any role under the sun but make each and everyone his own. Hardy deserves condemnation for for transforming himself for every new movie, but Gandolfini deserves just as much for gently making every movie transform for him.

Television: My Pre-Emmy Awards Thoughts

Matthew-McConaughey-and-Woody-Harrelson-in-True-Detective-Season-1-Episode-1

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in TRUE DETECTIVE

I don’t know TV like I know movies, but I’m here to give it a shot, commenting on the more relevant categories before Monday night’s show. When I say relevant, I mean all awards for Drama series, high profile ones for comedy series, and the other fiction top honors awards. Here goes:

Outstanding Miniseries:

American Horror Story: Coven (FX)

Bonnie & Clyde (Lifetime)

Fargo (FX)

Luther (BBC America)

Treme (HBO)

The White Queen (Starz)

Make no mistake, the miniseries awards were destined to be a sweep. Originally, that was to be owned by True Detective, a masterpiece like television has never seen, but we’ll get to that later. In its stead, Fargo is the overwhelming favorite in any miniseries category, especially this one, which is weak regarding the absence of that HBO standout. Nothing has much of a chance to knock off Fargo, but Bonnie & Clyde is likely the next strongest program, which really amplifies how weak the category is. What’s missing is comedy, and I think that the “epic event satire” The Spoils of Babylon is excellent enough to sneak in, as star Kristen Wiig did. Like True DetectiveFargo  and American Horror Story will return next year. AHS has tried for a few years now to do what the two prior seem to finally have accomplished: a truly effective anthology series. True Detective finally mastered the art of the single season arc, perfectly pacing its story to fit into its eight-episode block, so hopefully it and Fargo  can come back equally as strong next year.

Will Win: Fargo (FX)

Could Upset: Bonnie & Clyde (Lifetime)

Should Win: Fargo (FX)

Should’ve Been There: The Spoils of Babylon (IFC)

 

Outstanding TV Movie:

Killing Kennedy (National Geographic)

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (HBO)

The Normal Heart (HBO)

Sherlock: His Last Vow (PBS)

The Trip to Bountiful (Lifetime)

Ah, the HBO category. Even more of a lock than Fargo is in the above category, you can put down safe money for The Normal Heart to win everything in the TV movie category. That goes double for its star Mark Ruffalo, who is nominated and is all but a sure thing in the lead acting category. This unapologetic gay film is not only timely, but impeccably performed. Between Ruffalo in lead, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Max Bomer and Joe Mantello in suporting, and supporting actress Julia Roberts, The Normal Heart is likely to take home three acting awards in addition to honors for directing and best overall. Really, there will not be a second place in this category, and I hate sure things as much as the next guy, but I do love The Normal Heart.

Will Win: The Normal Heart (HBO)

Could Upset: nothing, The Trip to Bountiful is distant second.

Should Win: The Normal Heart (HBO)

Should’ve Been There: Flowers in the Attic (Lifetime)

 

archer

FX’s ARCHER

Outstanding Animated Program:

Archer (FX)

Bob’s Burgers (Fox)

Futurama (Comedy Central)

South Park (Comedy Central)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Nickelodeon)

Archer is so good that some critics were pleading for it to be nominated for Best Comedy, animated or otherwise, and it will probably win this category. What is alarming to me is that absence of serious narrative from animation on television. Animation is a television medium, and no matter what Pixar and Dreamworks are able to do on the big screen, even those films do better on home video. So why can they make feature length animation that fits more easily as drama than comedy, and television cannot? Archer does a little bit. It is a satire for the spy thrillers of yesteryear, and has well established long-form stories, but that’s not why people watch. They watch for the well-timed penis joke. Worth noting, this is the first time in decades that The Simpsons has not been nominated here.

Will Win: Archer (FX)

Could Upset: Bob’s Burgers (Fox)

Should Win: Archer (FX)

Should’ve Been There: The Simpsons (Fox)

 

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series:

Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory / CBS)

Julie Bowen (Modern Family / ABC)

Allison Janney (Mom / CBS)

Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black / Netflix)

Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live / NBC)

Anna Chulmsky (Veep / HBO)

If I were NBC, I’d go to bed every night and be sure to thank my lucky stars for Saturday Night Live. The decades long American treasure is possibly the weakest it has ever been (even when people complained about it in the early 1990s, they knew Adam Sandler and co. were special).  Now, with very few true stars on the recurring cast, it is a blessing to the network for McKinnon to have earned a nod. And she did earn it. I love that she is here, but I woefully accept that the nomination is her award. Allison Janney is considered the favorite here, but on a show with poor ratings and having already been crowned at the Creative Arts Emmys for her work on Masters of Sex, I don’t see her name being called twice. I think in a year where Modern Family is largely being forgotten, this will be their consolation prize.

Will Win: Julie Brown (Modern Family / ABC)

Could Upset: Allison Janney (Mom / CBS)

Should Win: Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live / NBC)

Should’ve Been There: Hannah Simone (New Girl / Fox)

 

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series:

Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine / Fox)

Adam Driver (Girls / HBO)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family / ABC)

Ty Burrell (Modern Family / ABC)

Fred Armison (Portlandia / IFC)

Tony Hale (Veep / HBO)

The Television Academy has a habit of giving awards in tough to call categories to safe picks: the guy who has won before, the show that’s been on the longest. That is why Ty Burrell is my second place pick. I’m hoping and assuming that it won’t come to this, though, as they might get it right for once. Andre Braugher is the best thing about Brooklyn Nine-Nine that isn’t named “Andy Samberg.” His deadpan, two-dimensional delivery hsa created humor where we never thought we’d find it. He goes toe-to-toe every week with Samberg’s bubbling, energetic acting, nd for that he deserves to be crowned. Also, in what has been hailed as the gayest Emmys ever (Orange is the New Black and The Normal Heart likely to dominate), Braugher could be the first black actor to win an Emmy for laying a gay series regular, and the Television Academy is the type of organization that cares about that sort of thing.

Will Win: Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine / Fox)

Could Upset: Ty Burrell (Modern Family / ABC)

Should Win: Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine / Fox)

Should’ve Been There: Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother / CBS)

 

veep-season-1-finale

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in VEEP

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series:

Lena Dunham (Girls / HBO)

Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly / CBS)

Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie / Showtime)

Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black / Netflix)

Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation / NBC)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep / HBO)

This is the year of Orange is the New Black, I’m afraid. Taylor Schilling as Piper is the anchor of that series, and though she is one of its weakest performers, lead actor awards often go to “Star of Best Show” rather than actually best performance. The true best performance is between veterans and many-time Emmy winners Edie Falco and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I’m going to pick the Veep star for a simple reason: she’s funnier. Falco gives an on-par performance, but a case could be made that Nurse Jackie isn’t even truly a comedy (the same could be said of Orange is the New Black, but less so, and if we didn’t let that win something the masses would revolt). Louis-Dreyfus is explosively funny, and one week at a time is making us forget who Elaine Bennis is anyway.

Will Win: Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black / Netflix)

Could Upset: Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep / HBO)

Should Win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep / HBO)

Should’ve Been There: Zooey Deschanel (New Girl / Fox)

 

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series:

Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory / CBS)

Ricky Gervais (Derek / Netflix)

Matt Leblanc (Episodes / Showtime)

Don Cheadle (House of Lies / Showtime)

Louis C.K. (Louie / FX)

William H. Macy (Shameless / Showtime)

I bet you didn’t know Showtime was the premiere network for comedy performances, did you? Well, it’s not, as although Louis C.K. is certainly the most deserving of these nominees for his nuanced performance, and Macy is a wild card as a newbie to the comedy race, none of them have a chance of winning over CBS. C.K., I’ll say again, gave the best performance of the past year among these nominees, but they might as well rename this category the Jim Parsons Award. Why the Television Academy continues to celebrate Parsons’ infantile, simple, characatured, flat, unfunny, repetitive mockery that is his turn in The Big Bang Theory is beyond me. It’s a bad show. He’s a bad comic. Let’s move on to C.K.’s time. Better yet, let’s look back. It is equally as beyond me that Josh Radnor never earned a single nomination for his iconic role of Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother. Now should have been the time, as in its weak final season, Radnor did his finest work melding the serious and goofy elements of his character far better than the rest of the cast — apparently unmotivated to do another round at McClaren’s — could muster. Want to celebrate C.K.’s subtlety and truth in his character? Then why aren’t you talking more about Radnor and Mosby?

Will Win: Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory / CBS)

Could Upset: Louis C.K. (Louie / FX)

Should Win: Louis C.K. (Louie / FX)

Should’ve Been There: Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother / CBS)

 

Outstanding Comedy Series:

The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

Louie (FX)

Modern Family (ABC)

Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Silicon Valley (HBO)

Veep (HBO)

This category has the feeling of the Oscar Best Picture race of this past year. Everyone and mother knew that Gravity was an unparalleled acheivement of creativity. Everyone knew that The Wolf of Wall Street was every bit the epic its history helmer is capable of. Everybody knew that Her was the most intelligent social comedy in years. BUT. Everybody knew 12 Years a Slave was going to win. Modern Family is still as strong as it was when it dominated this category. Veep is the most raucusly funny show on television, period. Louie transcends the half-hour comedy bind with its exceptional writing and acting. BUT. Everybody knows that a lesser show, Orange is the New Black is going to win. It has a massive following, it has publicity friendly issues to discuss, and it has Netflix’s promotion campaign. I’ll hate to see it, but Orange is the New Black is the odds-on favorite. Sidebar: When was the last time a Golden Globe winner in this category wasn’t so much as nominated for the Emmy that season? That’s what Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going through.

Will Win: Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

Could Upset: Louie (FX)

Should Win: Veep (HBO)

Should’ve Been There: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

 

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series:

Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad / AMC)

Joanne Forgott (Downton Abbey / PBS)

Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey / PBS)

Lena Headly (Game of Thrones / HBO)

Christine Baransky (The Good Wife / CBS)

Christina Hendricks (Mad Men / AMC)

You might go your entire life and not meet a fan with more respect for Mad Men than I have, but I would not have included Hendricks in this race. She was featured shockingly little in the first half of the landmark series’ final season, and wasn’t on par with her acting early on. Hop to another AMC staple though, and Anna Gunn is almost guaranteed another statuette for Breaking Bad in it’s final hurrah. She should win. She will win. If not for her talent, then because it says “Breaking Bad” next to her name. The show will own the Emmys this year, and this category will be no different. If an upset is in the works, and I don’t think it is, look for The Good Wife to get a consolation prize, or for Game of Thrones -mania to boil over.

Will Win: Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad / AMC)

Could Upset: Lena Headly (The Good Wife / CBS)

Should Win: Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad / AMC)

Should’ve Been There: Molly Parker (House of Cards / Netflix)

 

John+Slattery+Mad+Men+Season+6+Episode+13+xBDQqvPc7q9l

John Slattery in MAD MEN

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series:

Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad / AMC)

Jim Carter (Downton Abbey / PBS)

Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones / HBO)

Josh Charles (The Good Wife / CBS)

Mandy Patinkin (Homeland / Showtime)

Jon Voight (Ray Donovan / Showtime)

I could take up this space talking about the cult hero Aaron Paul, or the perfect casting of Jon Voight, or of consolation prizes to GOT or The Good Wife or Homeland. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk about the second best performance of the year on television (we’ll get to the best later) and certainly the best in a supporting role. 1969 was a big year for Roger Sterling, and it drew the finest acting in the full career of John Slattery, who has turned his bold, confident ad exec into a sloppy renegade and back again. In the abbreviated seventh season, Slattery took Sterling to a lot of places, including grief, desperation, satire, aggression, revenge, intuition and around and around to reestablish Sterling as the backbone of the show, even if Don Draper is it’s flesh. The fact he is missing here shines a very bright light on the fact that sometimes — more often than people think — these awards circuits get it wrong.

Will Win: Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad / AMC)

Could Upset: Jon Voight (Ray Donovan / Showtime)

Should Win: Jon Voight (Ray Donovan / Showtime)

Should’ve Been There: John Slattery (Mad Men / AMC)

 

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series:

Breaking Bad (AMC)

Game of Thrones (HBO)

House of Cards (Netflix)

True Detective (HBO)

True Detective. Finally. I’d like to note that these awards (Writing and Directing) are broken down by episode, but I prefer to look as many voters do, by series as a whole. So, credit where it is due: Breaking Bad was actually nominated twice. Here we go, HBO versus AMC, even with the disgusting omission of Mad Men. Let me be blunt here, True Detective‘s first season is the best written season of television ever to have graced the screen. I say that with absolute certainty, and when it doesn’t win this award, I will be legitimately angry at the Television Academy. I think Breaking Bad  will win, again on its name alone and for its huge fan base and for its final season, but let no mistakes be made: Just because it wins the award, does not make it the best…True Detective is the best.

Will Win: Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” (AMC)

Could Upset: True Detective, “The Secret Fate of All Life” (HBO)

Should Win: True Detective, “The Secret Fate of All Life” (HBO)

Should’ve Been There: Mad Men, “The Strategy” (AMC)

 

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series:

Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

Breaking Bad (AMC)

Downton Abbey (PBS)

Game of Thrones (HBO)

House of Cards (Netflix)

True Detective (HBO)

Once again, these series submit specific episodes for consideration, but I make my picks based on the series as a whole. Once again, I’m mad about the omission of Mad Men. Once again, True Detective  is probably the most deserving (though by less of a margin — see my surprise vote below). And once again, Breaking Bad will win. I don’t need to say more. My “should win” and “will win” are both shows that literally everyone alive has seen, so you know where I’m coming from, and I don’t want to spoil anything from a certain season premiere.

Will Win: Breaking Bad, “Felina” (AMC)

Could Upset: True Detective, “Who Goes There” (HBO)

Should Win: House of Cards, “Chapter 14″ (Netflix)

Should’ve Been There: Orphan Black, “Things Which Have Never Been Done” (BBC America)

 

Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series:

Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey / PBS)

Julianna Marguiles (The Good Wife / CBS)

Claire Danes (Homeland / Showtime)

Robin Wright (House of Cards / Netflix)

Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex / Showtime)

Kerri Washington (Scandal / ABC)

Masters of Sex is one of the best shows on television and it is a sin that it wasn’t nominated for Drama Series and that Michael Sheen was ignored for Lead Actor. With that in mind, I hope more than anything that Lizzy Caplan can take home this statuette. It will be tough. She was masterful as real-life Virginia Johnson in season one, but has been that much better in season two, and maybe the Television Academy will wait to award her surely impressive work in the future. If that be the case, Robin Wright and Julianna Marguiles are the favorites. Wright took over much of House of Cards‘ electric second season by not only establishing Claire Underwood as powerful, but empathetic. Marguiles is the best thing about the fantastic The Good Wife and both she and the show are coming off of their strongest years. Regrettably, the show went snubbed.

Will Win: Julianna Marguiles (The Good Wife / CBS)

Could Upset: Robin Wright (House of Cards / Netflix)

Should Win: Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex / Showtime)

Should’ve Been There: Keri Russel (The Americans / FX)

 

Kevin-Spacey-In-House-of-Cards-Season-2

Kevin Spacey in HOUSE OF CARDS

Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series:

Brian Cranston (Breaking Bad / AMC)

Kevin Spacey (House of Cards / Netflix)

Jon Hamm (Mad Men / AMC)

Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom / HBO)

Woody Harrelson (True Detective / HBO)

Matthew McConaughey (True Detective / HBO)

The best performance on television ever, with the possible exception of Jim Gandolfini’s epic run as Tony Soprano, was Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. If he doesn’t win tonight, putting a stamp on the McConassaince, it will be an irreparable tragedy. I know I know I know. BLASPHEMY. BRIAN CRANSTON IS A GOD. WALTER WHITE IS THE ONE WHO KNOCKS. I don’t care. There aren’t adequate adjectives for McConaughey’s performance, and I think the Television Academy will agree. In other news, Mad Men finally got nominated for something. Harrelson stole a few scenes, and was truly great, but he was overshadowed by his fellow-movie star.

Will Win: Matthew McConaugey (True Detective / HBO)

Could Upset: Brian Cranston (Breaking Bad / AMC)

Should Win: Matthew McConaugey (True Detective / HBO)

Should’ve Been There: Steve Buschemi (Boardwalk Empire)

 

Outstanding Drama Series:

Breaking Bad (AMC)

Downton Abbey (PBS)

Game of Thrones (HBO)

House of Cards (Netflix)

Mad Men (AMC)

True Detective (HBO)

A lot of people are trying to pretend that Game of Thrones stands a chance, that it will be the surprise victor. With two frontrunners splitting the vote and a ginormous fan following, I see the argument for the event series. But come on guys. That would be the upset of the young millenium. It’s a show about dragons. It doesn’t stand a chance against the two series that so far define the decade: Breaking Bad and True DetectiveBreaking Bad will win, but not because it is better, because it is over and such a high volume of people worship the ground Vince Gilligan walks on. This is a shame. True Detective as an anthology, a self-contained eight-episode season, cannot be awarded in the future. Read above to here why I think what I do about these shows, but know, True Detective is a historic monument of television.

Will Win: Breaking Bad (AMC)

Could Upset: True Detective (HBO)

Should Win: True Detective (HBO)

Should’ve Been There: Masters of Sex (Showtime)

8:00, NBC.

Frank (2014): “Everyone in this movie is a rock star.”

tumblr_n7j9rrsTYu1r6ivyno1_1280Overall Rating: B-

There is a subgenre of films that are especially interesting to me. Well, more than a subgenre, this thematic foundation is present in small patches of every genre. I’m talking about films about the production of other art, artistic creations about artistic creation in general. Some are about movie-making, some feature writers, and “Frank” follows a rock band and it’s titular enigmatic leader Frank.

I find these interesting for their reflective nature. The filmmakers — the screenwriter, director and performer particularly — have exercised their creative process to make a movie in which the characters display their creative processes, thereby giving the audience the a view of a distant, ineffable act from an insider’s perspective. “Frank” may be the most interesting movie that is unapologetically a tribute to the creative process. It opens as Jon, played by the always quirky Domhnall Gleason, wanders in mind and body, trying his very hardest to write a song. He seeks inspiration everywhere, and we hear his thoughts as he tries out countless pathetic lyrics to build on. He sits down to record a voice memo of one, and admits that even he knows how bad they all are.

Later, this idea is parodied in a way that accomplishes all of the following: demonstrates Frank’s genius, mocks Jon’s incompetence and is flat out silly. Frank writes one of the best songs in the film after being inspired by a loose tuft in a rug. He then says he thinks he could make a whole album with the sound of a door clicking shut. Jon looks on in astonishment. Why can’t he be like that?

Maybe it has something to do with the head, though probably not, given that plenty of morons could probably be found wearing equally idiotic masks. The head is the principle interest in the film, and is worn by Frank at all times, including the shower and dating back and unstated number of years. But hey, as another (clearly far from sane) character in the film notes, Frank is “the most 100 percent sanest cat.”

It is obviously inspired by the comic routine of Frank Sidebottom, which featured a very similar papier-mache head. Under the head in “Frank” is actor Michael Fassbender, but by having him adjust his voice for the role and being completely covered we lose the star, and his performance as Frank, which interesting, seems like it could have been done by anyone. This is until the final act in which the head comes off and Frank’s charisma under the head is replaced by naked self-loathing, and Fassbender miraculously links the two otherwise independent character with his incredible gift for non-vocal display of emotion.

At the beginning, “Frank” is funny, but it becomes an increasingly dark character study that suffers from simplicity and predictability, though the points it makes are well received and noteworthy.  Frank’s lack of touch with reality — visually established by the fact he looks different and sounds different with his prop than any other people — is made clear though his childish excitement over a YouTube clip and his foolish misunderstanding of what makes “likable” pop music.

What is in the story supposed to be commentary on psychosis becomes mere self satire, and that isn’t just regarding Frank. Maggie Gyllenhaal acts as another member of band and she is as physical and dark as ever, but in a way that dampens and distracts from the more interesting developments. The other two members of the band speak about a total of a dozen English words, which is a shame because I think something very interesting could have been done with actress Carla Azar, real life drummer for Jack White.

Creative in it’s analysis of the mind of the great artist as well as some visual elements — namely the on-screen twitter pop-ups, as filmmakers must deal with something that simply wasn’t part of stories a decade ago — “Frank” bores for its high implications but lack of effort to get there. It is as if someone wrote a list of what makes dramatic movies interesting, checked them off one-by-one on the screenplay (suicide, check; outdoor sex, check; bushy beard, check), without putting thought into connecting with viewers.

What If (2014): … A Formulaic Film Were Still an Entertaining Film?

what_if_movie_posterOverall Rating: B+

“A good romantic comedy is a good film,” quoth the ever insightful Daniel Radcliffe, and wouldn’t you know, he’s right. Often looked down upon as the cheaper to make equivalent of super hero movies — that is to say, formulaic and unimaginative, but certain to find an audience — rom-com deserves more respect. For every “New Year’s Eve” that makes me think that a fiery death would be better than sitting through another date movie, there is a work of brilliance like “Sleepless in Seattle,” or “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” or “There’s Something About Mary” (man, a lot of great rom-coms came out of the 1990s).

In fact the conventions of the genre go back further than many people give it credit for with classics like “Bringing Up Baby,” “Charade” and “All About Eve” as canonical works of the studio era. But soon it was those very conventions that made people scoff at it, revering only films that were romantic and comedic but otherwise abandoned norms of romantic comedy. Think “Annie Hall” and “Harold and Maude,” some of the most important and admired creations of New Hollywood, and, like it or not, cut from the same cloth as “All About Steve.”

Why is this brief defense of select romantic comedy relevant before presenting my opinion of “What If,” you ask. It is because “What If” is unapologetically a rom-com, meeting all of the expectations of the genre. But, it is a good one, and before saying that, I had to make you admit that there are some good ones.

“What If” is a genre film, a date movie, but it’s writing is such that it does not matter. It’s not a movie about finding out whether out characters survive or any other thrilling arch. It is about these two people and the life they have together. First as strangers, then as friends, then as a self-confused mess of 20-something emotions. Critics have attacked “What If” for its predictability, but I say, So you’ve seen movies before and found this one cliche, who cares, enjoy the ride.

The ride here with Wallace and Chantry, the adorably compatible team of Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, is all the laughs you could hope for. Their story doesn’t sit around and make you wait, it doesn’t litter itself with unnecessary build up. The first time Wallace meets Chantry, it is also our first time as the audience. Within another 10 minutes, they’ve exhanged numbers and agreed to be friends. The screenplay wastes no time at all. This is even true of it’s allusions to landmarks of the genre, two of which it leans upon heavily. The first series of shots, a lightly scored montage of images from the Toronto skyline, evokes memories of “Manhattan,” another film which discusses ethics in contemporary romance.

The second such landmark is the more apparent, and it seems that “What If” really is the ideological offspring of the masterpiece “When Harry Met Sally…” Both are films that pit a man and a woman together who the audience knows are perfect for each other, but who stay friends and become a case study as to whether or not that notion is even possible. Oddly enough, both say it’s not. But that is not where the parallels end, both reunite their drifting leads at a party, and both contain a bevy of pseudo-intellectual conversations about the notion of cross-gender palling out.

All of that said, “What If” somehow manages not to lazily copy, but to adopt and alter. Though the plot is similar to prior movies, the characters are unique, though the conclusion is foreseeable, the specifics and reveal are completely one of a kind. It’s not driven by the prearranged plot points, it is driven by wit and the performances of its leads. Those are of course Daniel Radcliffe, not sporting a waistcoat for the first time, and rom-com veteran Kazan who are perfect together, but also the three primary supporting players. If you’ve read my writing in the past, you know what I think of Adam Driver’s young career as an actor who, while always retaining a part of himself, seems fit for a variety of roles. Here he is an utterly hilarious line-deliverer who makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Perfectly beefed up to play the jerky doofus of early episodes who evolves until we’re only a little surprised to be at his wedding, Driver has an incredible career ahead of him (which will begin at “Star Wars VII”). His partner in crime in “What If” is played by the equally electric Mackenzie Davis, and together they brought out the best in one another’s comic abilities. Megan Park is also fantastic as Chantry’s vulnerable sister, and the two had such a great sisterly connection that it made me realize just for the first time how poorly siblings are sometimes related on screen.

Maybe a large part of my admiration for the characters and their dialog is how easily I can relate to Wallace, a young man burdened with a complicated mix of optimism and hesitation. His storyline goes awry, boldly taking flight to fight for the woman he loves, but all in all he is as ordinary as as at the whim of luck as anyone else.

This movie is a fine mixture of quirky, including creative presentations on screen, and utterly humanistic when its routinely simple and realistic dialog masks the been-there Hollywood-style plot. It is also worth noting that this is a young person’s movie. Just as something like “It Happened One Night” — which director Michael Dowse instructed Radcliffe to watch before shooting — is firmly rooted in its interwar setting, where the Depression is on everyone’s mind and men Clark Gable’s age were eager for the unified direction their fathers had had; “What If” is a nod to we millennials, and a note to stay optimistic. By far the youngest person at the press screening I saw the movie at, I was also laughing by far the most.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014): So Much More Than Meets the Eye

edge_of_tomorrow_ver4_xlgOverall Rating: A

I didn’t realize exactly why I was loving Edge of Tomorrow, the latest Tom Cruise-starring fantasy action flick, until an obscure moment rather late in the film. Without giving anything important away, Cruise’s character, Cage is his name, has a seriously wounded leg. Nothing special happened, just an impalement right on the quadriceps muscle and a couple sizable falls. After one such fall, he visibly stumbles and has a difficult time bearing weight on that leg, but after a few strides, he buries the pain and keeps on running – not smoothly, mind you, because it obviously still hurts, but running nonetheless.

For those who don’t know, Edge of Tomorrow is a high concept science fiction film about a Major in the United States Army public relations wing who, by what can only be described as a series of unfortunate events, winds up among the privates preparing to join the front line in a crucial battle against alien invaders. When he gets killed, he wakes up at the base again.  And again, and again. So, to my point about him managing to run through the pain, it was not on the first try. In his first trip to battle I was afraid he was going to wet himself. He kept crying out for help and that he wasn’t a soldier. There is no way he had a formidable tolerance for pain. But by the end, after countless days of training – not his body, which always returned to the same status when he woke up, but his mind and mind alone – his will can triumph over the pain.

In this light, Edge of Tomorrow is a nuanced epic about the human spirit. Rich not only with creatively depicted action and moral ambiguities, in addition to the most ‘Tom Cruise’ performance Tom Cruise hath performed, it is as illuminating and inspiring as anything in years.  The American Everyman who took his obvious talents for media relations to the military for its job security and benefits after his own business went under saves the day by refusing to accept fate and by trying to learn, to grow and to develop everyday until he has to capacity to win. That might have been stretching the plot a little bit, and it certainly isn’t the main point of the movie (Aliens!), but if it doesn’t get you deep down, nothing will.

Ben Cage (is that the closest name to “Tom Cruise” they could think of or a too-obvious metaphor for the fact that he is trapped, I can’t decide) is the out-of-luck officer upon whom this blessing/curse bestows itself. He is first seen a few minutes into the movie in a flash as part of a really confusing montage of news clips. What are all of these disjointed, disembodied voices and archival footage of Hilary Clinton and animated maps trying to tell me? And that mess of an introduction only devolves into the equally confusing, unexplained run-in that leaves Cage with a demotion for the record books.

He wakes up on a base near London, is handed a pair of boots and a notice that he is wanted for impersonating an officer. How or why this took place is never solved, a gaping hole in our understanding of the situation at hand. In an intergalactic war for survival (the Independence Day comparisons are inescapable, but at least the film doesn’t try to escape), one would think that sending an untrained pretty boy to the front line would be counter-intuitive. From this point he is introduced to the squad with which he will serve, and the excessive military satire, a cousin to both Full Metal Jacket and Starship Troopers (but on different sides), these scenes prove over-the-top and they drag on. These few bits of sci-fi silliness, as well as another tiny plot gap later on, are the major flaws in an otherwise pretty and powerful picture. That isn’t to say that having a jumbled opening, a crucial part of a concept film, is supposed to be forgiven either.

All in all, the point I’m getting at is that Edge of Tomorrow could have been an excellent feature about a man growing as if years pass in one day, because for him this day is truly an infinite amount of days. But it got caught trying to sell tickets with a sweaty heroine and loud explosions. It’s characters are excellent. Cage, a two-dimensional poster of exactly what you’d expect a professional modern propagandist gains complexity throughout the run time. He is at first confident, then utterly confused, then fearful, then repeat until he has undergone enough suffering to evolve to determined. The other significant player is Rita, played by the incomparably versatile Emily Blunt. As the most decorated hero in the army, Cage seeks her help in saving his butt during their invasion, only to find out that she is the only one who knows what is going on with him. Everyday from then on, Cage escapes from his commanders in the same way and finds Rita at the same place and explains why he is there. See, no one else remembers what goes on except him. One other character – the obligatory mad scientist archetype of sci-fi movies – asks him how many fingers are behind his back. When Cage can’t guess he says, “So this is the first time we’re having this conversation.” You can guess what happened in all successive days.

Over the countless days he spends in this loop, Cage remembers everything, which is a crucial to his gradually devising a way to win the battle, but is also an impossible cross to bear. He sees the horrors of war countless times, and while everyone around him has only known him for a few hours, his memory of them last infinitely longer. When he breaks from a plan and suggests they just lay low and cherish time, we find out that it is because he cannot stand to go through watching someone he is so close to die again in the same way she has before. He has slowly been falling in love with Rita, and who can blame him – she oozes confidence and drive, and is not exactly harmful to the eyes – and all the while she only has the emotional connection to him as someone she met this morning.

The supporting players are a motley set of misfits who hardly belong in the army. They include a man who prefers to go into battle in his weapon suit and nothing else, a girl who is never one to back away from a chance at a bitchy comment, and a fierce young man who is revealed to have Don Draper-ed himself (assumed the identity of a fallen comrade, hopefully the first use of “Don Draper” as a verb).

It also includes the bad guys. While they do look fake, because they are, when you get a good look at them, the Oscar-winning director of photography of Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago saves that from holding the picture back. The camera is always moving, and not in the annoying-shaky way that thrillers are trending towards, in the good way.  The movie turns into a thrill ride, constantly panning but revealing exactly what you need to see. The first time Cage deploys from his transport, he falls to the earth in a beautifully planned sequence of shots that feel like the viewer is dancing in mid-flight with its frightened hero. The monsters this quick camera action captures throughout the movie are, in a word, terrifying. They are fast like nothing of this earth – on land and in water – and their lightning movements obscure their reaching, spider-like forms. And of course they are really difficult to kill.

Video game players will recognize the freedom as well as frustration of Edge of Tomorrow. Cage is not afraid of death or other sorts of failure. He knows that he will simply respawn at what amounts to the beginning of the level. But oh, he has to start all over, do the tricks he knows by heart. In one day, very far into his experience, he is followed by a couple tough guys. “Can we not do this today?,” he says as if there were a way to avoid it.

In the mix of genres – distaster, coming-of-age, science fiction, military – embodied by Edge of Tomorrow, it reminds its audience that there is one central tenant in story. No amount of well designs monsters, well-performed lady-sidekicks or crafty camera moves can save a movie that lacks humanity. As a leading man, Tom Cruise is like no other and has been unjustly, harshly judged ever since the advent of internet entertainment coverage dragged him out of his comfort zone. When it came out, Mission Impossible was like nothing we had seen before, so the ambition is there. His Maverick of the exquisite Top Gun is one of cinema’s most unforgettable characters, so the charisma is there. And no one can question his ability in dramatic roles, putting aside guns and jets. The way he depicts Cage’s personal growth, his responses to newfound intelligence and emotions, and his coping with the moral ambiguities of his situation mark Cruise as capable as ever of providing a backbone to an otherwise shallow blockbuster.

Land Ho! (2014): A Test of Your Patience

LandHo-PosterFinal-v2a-140108-webnewOverall Rating: D

This movie is bad. It just is, and I don’t recommend anyone go see it. About an hour in, I scribbled in my notebook, “This movie blows. I want to go home.” What the filmmakers were going for, and arguably achieved in all of its boring glory, was a film about friendship and escape. What they got was a piece about tolerating your poorly behaved family and the fact that humor declines linearly with age.

At the beginning, a man, probably about 70 years old, is vacuuming his house. And believe it or not, it all goes downhill from there. Alright that was a joke, I’ll be nice. His cleaning adventure is interrupted by a knock on the window and a heartfelt greeting. These two – Mitch and Colin – are both recently divorced ex-brothers-in-law who were, we imagine, the best of friends before Mitch and his wife separated. Now, in their age and lonliness, they are reuniting for the first time in many years. The first fundamental issue with the movie is represented right here in the first few scenes which take place in Kentucky. The screenplay by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens lacks for proper development. Before we know anything of Mitch, his visitor Colin shows up. Who are these men? Why do we care about their reunion? Because nothing happens to let us know we should care, we just don’t.

Even more inappropriately soon, the story having only just told us what these men’s relationship is, Mitch makes a proposal. More like a reveal, really, for he insists that Colin has no say and that this is just the way it is. They are going on a vacation together. Mitch, a recently cast-aside surgeon, has purchased first-class tickets for him and his ex-brother-in-law to go to Iceland together to get their grooves back. Colin is obviously taken with surprise, and so is the audience. As far as we know, these guys are long-lost acquaintances who never had a groove to begin with. This is a lesson in the fact that even a lovely idea for a movie requires a well-crafted screenplay. The idea is lovely. Two men setting off in their old age to experience something new and get an escape from their troubles (Mitch’s losing his job, Colin’s recent divorce from his second wife). They arrive in Iceland, and then the character building finally begins and the arc of their journey plateaus.

Mitch is unflinchingly unaware of his age. Colin just wants to relax. The likability of Colin, played by the unquestionably talented Paul Eerhoorn, keeps the tandem’s private moments above water while Mitch’s obnoxious, barbaric banter tries to drown them with penis jokes. Actually, it seems that these jokes are the primary subject of the film. Beginning as blunt language from Mitch and evolving into strategic placement of erect lighthouses and climactic geysers, Land Ho! even gets the casual audience member to ride this wit to the finish. Everything in Iceland, it turns out, it phallic. Stephens’s location scout vacation that inspired the film seems rather focused on that.

In addition to crude humor that I sincerely hope my generation grows out of by the time we are their age, Mitch’s refusal to grow up is apparent in equally upsetting ways. He smokes pot constantly and, like a helpless child, cannot seem to go a night without waking up Colin. Why Colin still puts up with him is beyond me. He insists on going to clubs and going exploring in the dead of night. He even plans on trying to seduce his second cousin or her friend, both about a third of his age, after bragging about how attractive they are (they’re not bad, but he still needs his eyes checked). It seems that after a full life packed with the lessons of fatherhood, marriage, friendship and an important job, Mitch has opted to ignore everything thrown at him. Perhaps that’s why he wound up distanced from his children, divorced and forced into retirement, and why he seems to think that taking these girls out and forcing them to take his money to buy new clothes is a smooth way to operate. Land Ho! would probably better have fit as a sitcom about two men and their episodic escapades in Iceland I think, but then I remember that a sitcom can only work if the characters are at least relate-able, if not expressly likable.

Eerhoorn was capable of making Colin an empathetic, honest figure; and Earl Lynn Nelson cannot be blamed for Mitch’s shortcomings as a human being. The dialogue by this writing team is too childish – not in the sense that its senior protagonists seem like children, but in the sense that it feels like children wrote the movie. I know what you’re thinking: “But the story is lovely, but Mitch is funny, but they evolve so much.” Wrong. The story is ordinary, Mitch is a deviant and they finish in exactly the same pathetic place they started. While the Icelandic scenes are awe-inspiring and the country is certainly shown is a great light, it is often put to waste by the photography which is not only shaky but abuses close-up, shallow focus shots, which can be used to great effect but in this case are used too much and obscure the beautiful sets.

It isn’t all bad I guess. There is one (the first of two) sequence of the two just having a ball, dancing on the beach that is a bit of fun. The landscapes are gorgeous and the work of selecting locations was inspired. The problem is that the story does not tailor to them. It seems far less like a movie was created and then a site was needed for each scene, and more like Stephens found an array of cool looking locations and just mixed-and-matched writing to fill them. Even when Land Ho! tries to create something greater – a metaphor about friendship and aging through a description of Jewish Mysticism, for example – the surrounding elements (often this is Mitch) ruin it.

Colin loves movies. He mentions a slew of them and lists his favorite actors. He likes playing a game where you name a group of actors and the other person has to say what movie they were all in. The audience, full of cinefiles because no wide audience could bare this film, plays along in their heads. He has a wide range of tastes, enjoying everything from westerns to sex comedies. I doubt he would like Land Ho!.