The Skeleton Twins (2014): Bill Hader’s Talent Can Carry a Movie Alone

the-skeleton-twins-posterOverall Rating: C

In the over-calculated downer that was The Skeleton Twins, there was one shining element that shone bright enough to keep the film on my mind through Awards Season. His name is Bill Hader. Sketch comedy, character acting or taking the lead as the embodiment of every gay stereotype to carry this otherwise weak movie; a great performer is a great performer. Bill Hader is a great performer, no one will disagree with that, but with his departure from Saturday Night Live before last season, many worried he wouldn’t find his feet on the outside. That process has been slow, but with small parts in some really interesting projects (I’m looking at you, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him / Her and Inside Out) he kept busy without subjecting himself to trivial, underwritten voice-roles (well, not completely). With Skeleton Twins, he proves he is here to stay, with one of the most perfectly calculated convincing-yet-fun performances of a member of the gay community, which independent cinema is becoming increasingly more vocal about. You can feel the fun oozing from the screen when he let’s Milo cut loose, and there is just something in his eyes that makes his sadness, his perceived place in this world, fully presented.

My problem with Milo, Hader’s impeccably performed character, is that he exists for the purpose of being gay. Moreso, he exists to be a manifestation of all of the stigma — good and bad — about gays. The role would not have worked at all as a straight man, and hardly as a straight woman. After Milo’s suicide attempt kicks off the action, he even says, “I know, just another gay stereotype.” He’s right.

Yes, he tried to kill himself, about one and a half times during the movie (one actual attempt, once on the edge of a ledge), and so does his sister Maggie opposite order, and it’s pills instead of a ledge. She is played by Kristen Wiig, and they are the twins of the title, poetic casting considering Hader and Wiig’s common pasts. Other than a too-obvious metaphor that “we are all brothers on the inside” (quote from Hercules: Zero to Hero), they are skeleton twins because, ultimately, of their late-father’s (suicide, obviously) obsession with Halloween. The opening shots of the film are of the twins as children, dressed head-to-toe in spooky costumes and playing with their toy skeleton knick-knacks from their father. These toys clearly have meaning to the two, as becomes very clear in their adulthood, and they are shown with them evrywhere, even playing in the pool. When the skeleton gets thrown in, Milo swims after it and grabs it off of the floor before swimming it to safety. Sometimes when it gets thrown in the pool it looks like it will be sinking forever. Just sinking, and sinking and sinking.

So begins this film’s Freudian obsession with water. Milo’s greatest concern in the world is his fish. He does the deed in a bathtub. Maggie is taking scuba lessons. This isn’t the only psychoanalytical angle in The Skeleton Twins, and I began to wonder if writer/director Craig Johnson was a psychology student trying to prove their was some connection between his degree and profession.

A major subplot involves a relationship Milo has with a salesman at the local bookstore. At first he is nervous to approach him. Then, the man, Rich, is angry at Milo’s visit. Then, the audience gets bored. If you are going to give this much weight to something ambiguous, it might as well be interesting. Ty Burrell is plays Rich and is catastrophically miscast, and I was in no way interested in this awkward, flat and unappealing character. It turns out that Rich was a teacher of Milo’s in high school, and one of the few people who made Milo feel good about himself. Perhaps too much, because, well, let’s just say Rich isn’t a school teacher anymore. But does this explain all of Milo’s woes? Not at first glance, no. They are shy together, but Milo definitely still has affection toward the man. What is revealed late, too late perhaps, is how the authorities came to known about Rich and Milo’s afterschool activities. The issue in the writing that fails to execute what is otherwise an exceptional idea is that this seems really trivial. There are two types of missing information in movies. First, the kind that when asked about half-way through merits the response, “I don’t know, good question.” The second, in the same situation, merits, “What? Who cares?” This is an example of the second one. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until the, again, otherwise solid reveal, and if asked about it I would have said, “I don’t know. Just assume someone walked in on them. It really isn’t important to the story. Just watch the movie.”

The fact is that it explains the divide between Milo and Maggie, twins who haven’t spoken in ten years until Milo’s attempt to end his life. They were once so close, and again grow so close, that that seems like lost time. The scenes of the two together loving life are the most rewarding in the movie. At the end of the day, no matter what artistic ambitions Johnson had, The Skeleton Twins is an actors’ showcase for Wiig and Hader. Hader rises to the occasion, fulfilling both the dramatic and comedic demands of the role. Wiig is a bit too caricatured in Maggie’s independent scenes, but it was a solid effort for the out-of-comfort-zone super-star. Together though, they made magic in the living room with what must be the single greatest lip-sinc ever of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” A Later scene pits the two comedy stars against some laughing gas after hours at a dentist’s office. It is one of the only natural seeming scenes in the film, and it is the highlight. Wiig and Hader are perfect together, and the scene plays less like planned character development and more like an improvised back-and-forth between two comic wunderkinds seeing who can make the other laugh harder.

Luke Wilson takes on an awesome if totally trite supporting role as Lance, Maggie’s Vibram-wearing, brush-clearing, rock wall-climbing husband. He is already a dad in every sense — Wilson’s pronounced fist pump when Milo finally shows potential at his new job is among the few non-Hader hilarious moments in the dreary film. He’s the type of guy who says things like, “Oh, broken glass, nobody move!,” and “I say ‘We’re trying to get pregnant’ because it’s not sexist that way.” Poor Lance. He’s the great dude who can’t catch a break in this exhaustively structured let-down of a movie. It’ll be ok, buddy.

Child of God (2014): About As Exciting As Actually Watching a Book

Child_of_God-James_Franco-Scott_Haze-PosterOverall Rating: C-

James Franco just won’t go away, will he? I am not one to criticize an artist for working hard and working often, and actually I applaud Franco’s range and ambition, but there are some things that should never get made, and an excruciatingly loyal adaptations of one of Cormac McCarthy’s darkest novels is one of them. Star Scott Haze and Franco have been close for many years, and Haze describes their relationship as fueled largely by their mutual love of acting and creating. According to Haze, whose performance is the best thing about Child of God, the two will simply pass the time doing improv, or creating their own miniature plays with a small group of friends, never even considering an audience, because they just love what they do. Child of God, a passion project of Franco’s which he wrote, directed and appears in, should have been relegated to perpetually being played out with a few guys acting for the sake of acting for love of the novel. Especially with Franco’s strict-constructionist vision of the adaptation, audiences should have been spared.

An undergraduate literature student at Yale, Franco took a course exclusively studying McCarthy. Somewhere during this semester, McCarthy became his favorite writer, and Blood Meridian his favorite book. The star’s passion for the source material is a little inspiring, and there is a case to be made for loyal adaptation, especially in the academic arena. But this movie, while small, was made by a Hollywood super-star and marketed to great fanfare.

To say that the screenplay is meticulously loyal to McCarthy’s novel is an understatement. It replicates the book to a fault, even daring to go as far as to include accurately numbered chapter breaks. This may please a high school literature teacher who is glad his lazy students won’t be off base by skipping reading, but for the audience in the theater for the film, it relegates the project to a series of disjointed episodes that promise a more epic conclusion than the cinematic medium is capable of producing. Child of God was considered by some unfilmable, and for a number of reasons. The first and most important of these is McCarthy’s style of narrative. A bulk of the action in his book is in the mind of protagonist Lester Ballard, describing his state of being, not just where he is and what he is doing. Secondly, it was avoided by filmmakers for years due to its, shall we say, racy content. Before the film’s premiere celebration in July, Franco took the stage and said, only half-jokingly, to remember that this is a movie about murder and necrophilia so it might not be for everybody. It’s not.

But that’s fine, right? If the movies were all supposed to be non-challenging and easy for a wide audience then we’d call them “network TV” (Oh Snap!), so we should not categorically dismiss a film that many would find difficult to watch. Thematically, Child of God is a story about the psychological deterioration that can come with loneliness, as Ballard becomes more and more like an animal the less time he spends with regular society. Scott Haze takes on Ballard with exciting bravery, and the awe of seeing his transformation is the source of all of the joy one can possibly pull from this viewing experience. When Franco first invited him for the role, Haze packed his bags and set off to Tennessee (where Child of God is set, though it was shot in West Virginia) to live as Ballard did. Rejecting the label of “method,” Haze simply says he put himself in Ballard’s situations. He lived for several weeks camping in a cave and asking old men from that remote area to help him master the proper accent. The efforts worked. While the script’s lazy efforts to humanize its subject provide little stimulus, Haze’s willingness to subject himself to the types of visible torments, both physical and mental, that it took to play Ballard with the skill he did carry the movie and make it a worthwhile trip to the movies. In his own words, Haze told me this of his confidence in his performance: “I worked really hard on that. I’ve never worked harder on anything I’ve done in terms of an actor. So, it’s kind of like an athlete. I know that at the end of that film, I had left it all on the floor.”

I also asked him if it was hard to watch himself in such a violent, vulnerable state. Before the screening, he said no. Afterwards, he was a little bit more hesitant. His Ballard was a diamond in a very rough movie, that spurred little else of regard. A well-constructed scene is the preclude to the necrophilia section of the movie, his first experience with an attractive, dead girl. Perfectly hesitant yet careless, Ballard comes to realize what he is going to do. This is also the scene of the worst performance in the movie, as the actress tasked with playing the newly deceased young woman is bad at playing dead. But practically speaking, none of this should matter. It is implied that in the film’s setting — living out in the woods with no tools of civilization in the mountains during the winter — it is really, really cold. That Ballard’s lady friends remain anything but frozen solid is a gaff beyond explanation, but discussion of the plausibility of post-modem rape can only be taken so far.

Seeing Child of God is not for everybody, this is true, but I have shown that it is not the only reason that everybody should feel justified in skipping it. It’s disjointed, meandering episodes turn it into a long, unrewarding affair. It tries to salvage itself with a morally ambiguous and fast-paced ending, but don’t be fooled: James Franco made this movie because he wanted to, and he doesn’t care what the rest of us think.

The One I Love (2014): “Weird, Twilight Zone Shit Going On Here”

one_i_love_xlgOverall Rating: A

It is perhaps the greatest achievement in the century-old history of film criticism that as a community, no one writing about this movie shared any plot details that could ruin the viewing experience. Certain points would certainly do so. Andrew Stanton said, as I very often quote, “great storytelling is inevitable without being predictable.” The One I Love embodies this by never delivering a stunning surprise, but also delicately mesmerizing viewers with it’s air of mystery.

The One I Love is a film by Mark Duplass, which I am comfortable saying even though he neither wrote nor directed it. It is a Duplass film in how much it resembles, structurally, his previous efforts such as The Puffy Chair, a light analysis of romance and its clear effort for realism. Duplass executive-produced this picture, but also came up with the story idea before hiring Justin Lader to write and Charlie McDowell to direct in his anticipated debut. Duplass also stars, and because of the highly improvised dialogue, he and Elisabeth Moss exercise their creativity upon the picture. Duplass, as Ethan, half of the struggling married couple at the center of the film, is the principle star, even though Moss received equal position in the split-lead credit. It is he who dominates much of the movie and takes on the more challenging acting moments and whose character’s psyche drives the arc the most.

That isn’t to say Elisabeth Moss isn’t masterful, and the two stars are what makes the movie what it is. So, what is it?

The One I Love quickly becomes a masterful mind-bender that makes its characters stretch the bounds of their imaginations, and even then they still cannot grasp quite what is going on. Constantly and exploratory commentary on love and relationships, it opens with a very intelligent scene that proves even the happiest couples cannot maintain their romance by living in the past; they must continue moving forward. When their counselor (listed only as “The Therapist” and played by Ted Danson) sends them on a couples’ retreat to an isolated compound, they are magnetically drawn in by the pool and the fine wine and the views. This is when The One I Love takes off. Weird things start happening in and around them, forcing them even to liken their situation to The Twilight Zone and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, while reminding me of evolved versions of Annie Hall or Vertigo. The events, which I too will not discuss here, are just weird enough to hold the struggling couple together around the commonness of being freaked out. Clues are riddled throughout the few sets, but they are irrelevant, there is no need to notice them because cleverly the mystery never asks to be solved. Like Ethan and Sophie, we have to just accept it. The gradual reveals trick you into thinking you understand it, and they are very well spaced out throughout the story, with the greatest as one of the great psycho-comedic moments I’ve seen on a big screen. The dialogue, which includes a lot of improvisation but also demonstrates screenwriting craft, is clever and subversive, even if the plot backs itself into a corner or two.

I scribbled in my notes late in the film, “Oh my god this is the weirdest, most awesome thing ever,” but it goes far beyond that as a cerebral piece of storytelling, and do not buy into the marketing that calls it a new sort of romantic comedy. It is only rom-com in the sense that Her was a rom-com, and when future film scholars stop to analyze it, these two films along with works of Charlie Kaufman like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will be considered in the same conversation. It is a movie largely about psychology and compatibility, and thematically its foundation is deception. In fact, the principle of deception is so deeply rooted into the plot events, the backstory and the subversive commentary that as a viewer I refused to accept anything. Even the reveals, what you think you know, cannot fully be trusted.

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

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)




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)



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 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

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.