Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Short Takes: Dead Ringers, Mary Poppins, and More

Dead Ringers (dir. David Cronenberg, 1988)


To many, Cronenberg is best remembered for his early body horror days, when films such as Scanners and The Fly showed a deep interest in the grotesque. Dead Ringers may not be among his most well-known films, but it is certainly among his best. Loosely based on a real incident, twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantel (both played by Jeremy Irons) have a powerful attachment to each other, a relationship that becomes threatened when Bev falls in love with an actress with a trifurcated womb (Genevieve Bujold) and both begin to spiral out of control. Irons delivers what may be the greatest performance of his career as the twins, making each of them distinct enough but not so much as to constantly distinguish them. More interestingly, this is one of Cronenberg's most psychologically perverse films, as he cuts back on the physical horror and let's the audience descend into psychosexual madness with the twins. The film looks gorgeous to boot. (Best Shot hereB+

Mary Poppins (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1964)


Disney's live-action films have never reached the kind of acclaim that their animated films have, and to good reason: most of them just aren't very good, and very few have aged well. The brilliant exception to this, however, is Mary Poppins. Based on British author P.L. Travers' books, the film chronicles a magical nanny (Julie Andrews) who, with the help of friends like Bert (Dick Van Dyke), mends the broken bonds of the Banks family in pre-WWI London. The performances - from Andrews' Oscar-winner to Van Dyke's Oscar-snubbed to Michael Tomlinson's underrated turn as Mr. Banks - are top-notch. The music - I'm sure most of you can at least hum a few bars of "Feed the Birds," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," "Step in Time," or just about every other song in the film - is timelessly classic. Stevenson was Disney's in-house live-action director for many years; this still stands as the towering accomplishment of his career. Like its protagonist, the film is practically perfect in every way. (Best Shot here) A+

Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984)


Since the film's release, Lynch has publicly disowned Dune, a project he was hired by Universal Pictures to make in order to capitalize on his talent after The Elephant Man, as well as on the sci-fi craze that Star Wars had kicked off seven years earlier. Adapting Frank Herbert's classic - and widely considered un-filmable - novel of the same name, the film features a convoluted plot that involves warring races, government conspiracy, a mystical substance known as the Spice, and sand worms. Lynch - who worked on the script as well - heavily relies on voiceover to convey everything that's going on, which is burdensome. However, there are a number of Lynchian touches to the film, and his sensibilities do ultimately fit well with the insanity onscreen. What's even more fun: a who's-who of up-and-comers in the cast, including Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, and Sting. B-

Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)


It ultimately makes sense that a film with as messy a history as Margaret would turn out to be a mess itself. Filming was completed in 2005 of Lonergan's follow-up to You Can Count on Me, but spent the next six years in post-production as he fought Fox Searchlight for a final cut. The film follows a young girl, Lisa (Anna Paquin), who accidentally causes a bus accident when she distracts the driver (Mark Ruffalo). Lisa, too, is a messy character; like every teenager who's ever lived, she's stubborn, self-righteous, and exceedingly selfish. This makes her a difficult character to like - especially given the film's two-and-a-half hour running time - but it's also what makes the film so compelling, and Paquin does a terrific job at making us understand her without necessarily liking her. It's by no means a perfect film, but as an ambitious character study, it succeeds much more than it fails. B+

Downfall (dir. Oliver Hirschbeigel, 2004)


The film's central conceit: using the memoirs of Traudl Junge (portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara), the last days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) are portrayed as he loses the war, his power, and ultimately his life at his own hands. What emerged was a number of think-pieces and arguments over whether the film creates sympathy for Hitler, and whether he should ever be portrayed as anything other than a monster incapable of anything remotely human. Much of the controversy stems from Ganz's powerful performance; he finds the humanity in history's greatest villain, and it forces us to confront this figure as a man who committed unspeakable evil, yet nonetheless a man. Hirschbeigel's film is a tour de force of the collapse of the German war effort in WWII, evaluating what had gone wrong and how everything was destined to fail. It's a visit to a very controversial part of German history (especially in Germany), but it's a film that demands to be seen. A-

Lenny (dir. Bob Fosse, 1974)


Though he never seems to make the list of film-school-anointed Great Directors of the 1970s, Fosse - a choreographer-turned-filmmaker - created some of the decade's best films, including Cabaret and All That Jazz. The one that time has curiously forgotten is Lenny, his biopic of influential counterculture comedian Lenny Bruce. Dustin Hoffman stars as Bruce, delivering a fantastic and spot-on performance that captures the loose-cannon energy and anti-hypocrisy attitude that informed most of Bruce's routines. Though Hoffman was rightly Oscar-nominated for his role, it's Valarie Perrine, as his stripper wife Honey, who really steals this show. She captures the heartbreak of being in love with someone as volatile and unstable as Bruce was, and she absolutely owns every scene she's in. It's amazing that she didn't win the Oscar that year, but then again, that was one of the greatest Best Actress categories ever. Fosse's decision to shoot the entire thing in black-and-white is a terrific stylistic choice, but his work with the actors is what makes the film an unheralded classic of the decade. A

Rushmore (dir. Wes Anderson, 1998)


Bottle Rocket may have been Anderson's first film, but it was this tale of a prep school student (Jason Schwartzmann, in his acting debut) who gets kicked out and has to attend public school that first captured the attention of film buffs. As Max Fischer, Schwartzmann delivers a delightfully headstrong performance, and possesses the nerdy confidence that he would bring to later roles. Olivia Williams appears as the young teacher at Rushmore Academy that he develops an unhealthy crush on, and Bill Murray - in the first of what would be many regular appearances in Anderson's films - is an absolute delight as the adult confidant who ultimately fails Max's expectations. Anderson gets a lot of flack for his films' diorama-like framing and tweeness, but beneath them all lies a melancholy that makes it all relatable. Here, it's Max's disappointment in the adults around him, and the realization that one day, he will become one of them. Rushmore deserves to be discussed as one of Anderson's best. B+

The Machinist (dir. Brad Anderson, 2004)


An homage to the kinds of psychological thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made during the latter half of his career, The Machinist is perhaps most famous for star Christian Bale's drastic (and certainly unhealthy) weight loss in preparation for the role. Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a factory worker who hasn't slept in over a year, who's mental state is quickly falling apart. Though the film takes a number of plot twists and features a few genuinely creepy visuals (particularly involving Bale's warped physique), it never manages to rise above Hitchcock-lite, and often feels more like a better-than-average knockoff of Memento, which had premiered four years earlier. Anderson has had a hit-or-miss career in film (he's faired better in television), but this stands as a solid effort that proves memorable, but not in the way it wants to be. B

The Bourne Legacy (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012)


There really wasn't any reason to continue the Bourne films, especially considering that original star Matt Damon chose not to participate, other than writer/director Gilroy wanted to return to the franchise after scoring an Oscar-winning film in Michael Clayton and a passable dud in Duplicity. However, despite never really justifying it's existence as a Bourne film, Legacy turns out to be a entertaining action flick. Jeremy Renner stars as Aaron Cross, another operative in the Treadstone operation that Bourne was a part of, who has to outrun an American government that wants to eliminate anyone connected to the program. There's some silly mumbo-jumbo about virals and drugs that enhance Cross' physique and intelligence, but when the film isn't in exposition mode (which isn't all that often), it's in chase mode, and what an exciting chase it is. Gilroy certainly knows how to stage an action sequence, and he manages the government conspiracy angle well too, though it doesn't hurt to have actors such as Edward Norton, Albert Finney, and Corey Stoll working in that area in roles that could've easily gone to Central Casting. It may not make much sense in the end - especially in terms of the franchise - but it's one hell of a joy ride. B+

Only God Forgives (2013)

Let's get this much out of the way first: this isn't Drive.

It's impossible to view Only God Forgives, the new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, without comparing it to his 2011 masterpiece. For one, it reunites the director with Ryan Gosling, once again playing a stoic man caught in a web of violence. The biggest factor, though, is the fact that this is his follow-up to the film that helped him break through on the worldwide stage; therefore, the pressure was always going to be on for this film to match the highs of his previous project.


This is all to say that I approached Only God Forgives with lowered expectations. It was high on my anticipated list at the beginning of the year, but after a chilly reception at Cannes and an even more brutal consensus from American critics, I braced myself to be underwhelmed. But is the film really as bad as it's reputation holds? Yes and no.

The film begins with the murder of Billy (Tom Burke), the brother of drug-smuggler Julian (Gosling); his death was retribution for his raping and murder of a prostitute. Julian - egged on by his mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) - seeks retribution against Billy's murderer, katana-wielding Bangkok police officer Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). From there, violence begets violence, leading up to a climatic showdown between Julian and Chang.

This film bears much in common with Refn's earlier films, such as the Pusher trilogy or Valhalla Rising. There's no denying that Refn is a talented director, especially when it comes to his film's visual aesthetic. Even with all the ugliness occurring in the narrative, this is a beautiful film, with every scene bathed in reds and blues that reflect the neon-lit Bangkok landscape. And, as in Drive, he has a knack for soundtrack; he reunites with composer Cliff Martinez, who provides the film with eerie drones, and deliciously juxtaposes Thai pop ditty "Tur Kue Kwam Fun (Music Box)" as a coda to ninety minutes of bloodshed. Like his earlier films, this one comes from a script by Refn himself, and it plays out like a violent fantasia from the director's daydreams.


Which is also part of the film's greatest failure: it never coheres into anything exciting. From frame one, the film is plagued with a bizarre listlessness. Refn's films have always had a deliberate pace, but there's also been a tension or anxiety or any sort of emotion that helped drive the action. Here, though, there is no real emotion at all, no tension, and nobody on screen seems the least bit engaged in what's happening to them. When those moments of violence come, there's no catharsis, no gut-punch; just empty bloodshed that ultimately means nothing. This wouldn't be so troubling if this was intentional, but it never comes across as some sort of commentary on the emptiness of violence on film. Refn meant for this to be exciting and cool, but it only comes across as a pointless exercise in excessive brutality.

And yet, there's still good things to find here. I wrote a piece about directors' ambitions earlier this year, and as with The Place Beyond the Pines (coincidentally also starring Gosling), this film is the work of a director who scored a critical hit and was given the freedom to make any film he wanted, and there's something to be said about what Refn was going for here: a marriage of his too-cool aesthetic with Asian action cinema. There are moments when the film does click - such as an excruciating interrogation in what appears to be a very swanky karaoke bar - and it feels like a contender as one of the year's best films. But then there are moments that are so mind-bendingly bad - anytime Crystal appears to obnoxiously berate everyone in her vicinity (to her credit, Thomas makes the most of what little sense her character makes) - that it's hard to believe anyone thought they should be committed to celluloid.

That is Only God Forgives' biggest failure: it feels like a film that worked a lot better in Refn's head than it did in reality. It's an intriguing film, one that will at worst become a curio in the director's filmography and at best - and I really can foresee this - become a cult favorite that evolves into a staple of genre-centric film classes of the future. But in this moment, it's a frustrating project from a filmmaker who can clearly do so much better. C+

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Detatched



Because I wasn't already excited enough about this film, here's a trailer that demonstrates how every movie trailer should look: a juicy teaser than doesn't condense the entire film down to two-and-a-half minutes.

October 4 can't come soon enough.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

2013 Emmy Nominations

This year's Emmy nominations were announced last Thursday morning, and though most likely you've already seen them, I've waited to put up this post in order to let my thoughts on them stew a little bit (in other words, I didn't have time to write it earlier). I also used this time to "binge-watch" (side note: I hate that term) House of Cards on Netflix, since I had actually been holding out on watching it to see if it could score Emmy nods. Anyway, below are the major nominees, complete with my thoughts on the quality of the performances and categories, as well as early guesses as to who should and will win.



BEST COMEDY SERIES

The Big Bang Theory
Girls
Louie
Modern Family
30 Rock
Veep

Finally! I'm so excited to see Louie finally recognized as one of the best comedies on television. In general, I was surprised to see it nominated, along with a second consecutive nod for Veep, a frequently hilarious show that I didn't think would get continuous Emmy love outside of star Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  The even bigger surprise for Emmy watchers was that Arrested Development missed out on a nomination here; personally, I'm not too disappointed by this, since I wasn't particularly thrilled by the fourth season (I'm actually kind of glad it wasn't nominated). This is the last hurrah for 30 Rock, a former juggernaut in this category; it remains to be seen whether or not the show will be recognized again for it's final season (the Emmys don't usually honor final seasons; the only recent examples are The Sopranos winning Best Drama in 2007 and Everybody Loves Raymond winning Best Comedy in 2005). But can anyone finally beat Modern Family in this category? And was The Big Bang Theory - primetime television's top-rated comedy, yes - really all that better than the improved and excellent second season of New Girl?

Should win: Louie
Will win: Modern Family
Spoilers: Louie, 30 Rock, Girls, The Big Bang Theory

BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Laura Dern, Enlightened
Lena Dunham, Girls
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep

Here's a question for you: would Dern have been nominated if Enlightened hadn't been cancelled a few months before? I personally don't think that that was a factor, but it is disappointing that the underloved show is only now getting recognized by the Emmys. But if it's going to be for anything, it should be for Dern's terrific and challenging lead role. As always, honestly, this category is full of great performances, though most of them are returning nominees from last year. There's a chance that they could send off 30 Rock with another win for Fey, but Louis-Dreyfus continued to do strong work on Veep this year, and I suspect she'll repeat here (plus she had the most consistently laugh-out-loud material to work with). But given last year's super-sized category, they couldn't find room for Zooey Deschanel again, who was even better this year on the stellar second season of New Girl? Nor for Patricia Heaton - so consistently funny on The Middle - nor Sutton Foster, the only submission from Bunheads?

Should win: Lena Dunham
Will win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Spoilers: Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler

BEST LEAD ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Jason Bateman, Arrested Development
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Matt LeBlanc, Episodes
Don Cheadle, House of Lies
Louis C.K., Louie
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock

Amazingly, this is the much-ballyhooed fourth season of Arrested Development's only major nomination, for Bateman's performance as "the son trying to keep [the Bluths] together." All of these men have been nominated here before, but the most notable - and welcome - omission is last year's winner, Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men). This is nothing against Cryer as a person, but the facts of the matter are 1) his show is terrible, and 2) his surprising wins in recent years have mostly been seen as rewards for putting up with Charlie Sheen for so many years. I still don't understand LeBlanc's nominations here - I'm not crazy about Episodes - so couldn't they have made room for Jake Johnson, who really was the MVP of New Girl this past season. Baldwin and Parsons had dominated this category for four years prior to Cryer's win; can either of them claim a third victory this year?

Should win: Louis C.K.
Will win: Alec Baldwin
Spoilers: Jim Parsons, Jason Bateman

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory
Jane Lynch, Glee
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family
Julie Bowen, Modern Family
Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock
Anna Chlumsky, Veep

This is probably the most bizarre category among the comedies. I'm glad to see Chlumsky score a nomination - she makes a terrific foil for Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer (or would-be foil, if they didn't share more in common than either would care to admit) - as well as additional nominations for Krakowski and Wever. I have nothing against Lynch - I was an ardent supporter of her win three years ago in this category for her role on Glee, and she's been a consistently great fixture in Christopher Guest's films - but why was she included this year? Did she even do anything this year on the show (I didn't watch, so I'm asking somewhat-seriously)? I can see trimming her out of this packed category and improving the field slightly (these are mostly the same performances nominated every year).

Should win: Jane Krakowski
Will win: Julie Bowen (for whatever reason, they love her more than is really necessary)
Spoilers: Sofia Vergara, Mayim Bialik (if they suddenly go nuts for The Big Bang Theory)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Adam Driver, Girls
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family
Ed O'Neill, Modern Family
Ty Burrell, Modern Family
Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live
Tony Hale, Veep

The Modern Family bloc has been (kind of) broken! Surprisingly, two-time winner Eric Stonestreet is the the only member of the show's main adult cast to miss out on a nomination this year. Unfortunately, Max Greenfield (New Girl) missed out this year after scoring a fantastically-earned nomination last year. But the men who did make the cut form a stellar field. Hader has left SNL behind, and this may be the year they honor his essential contributions to the show's legacy. I'm really surprised to see Hale nominated for his hilariously spineless turn on Veep as the vice-president's loyal-to-a-fault lapdog (he is what Buster Bluth could have become), as well as Driver, who really came into his own on Girls this year. (Really, what I'm most impressed by is the number of acting nominations for shows that generally haven't picked up many in the past - Girls, Veep, Enlightened).

Should win: Adam Driver
Will win: Ty Burrell
Spoilers: Ed O'Neill, Bill Hader

BEST GUEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY SERIES

Molly Shannon, Enlightened
Dot-Marie Jones, Glee
Melissa Leo, Louie
Melissa McCarthy, Saturday Night Live
Kristen Wiig, Saturday Night Live
Elaine Stritch, 30 Rock

I love the fact that Leo was nominated for her raucous turn on Louie this season, but if any actress from this past season should have been nominated here, shouldn't it have been Parker Posey for "Daddy's Girlfriend Part 1"? I'm also thrilled with - and totally supportive of - Shannon's nomination for her arc on Enlightened. From what I understand, she was a pivotal part of the action this season, and Shannon is always a delight to watch. I'm still surprised to see Jones getting nominated - again, does anyone do anything on Glee anymore? - though the rest are to be expected. The question is: do they honor Wiig here this year for her work on SNL, since they didn't in last year's Supporting Actress in a Comedy category?

Should win: Molly Shannon
Will win: Elaine Stritch
Spoilers: Melissa Leo, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig

BEST GUEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY SERIES

Bob Newhart, The Big Bang Theory
Nathan Lane, Modern Family
Bobby Cannavale, Nurse Jackie
Louis C.K., Saturday Night Live
Justin Timberlake, Saturday Night Live
Will Forte, 30 Rock

This year's field features an odd line-up. We have two very different SNL hosts, both of whom were very celebrated; comedy legend Bob Newhart, who showed up as a former TV professor; Cannavale, who was all over the tube last year - as villains no less - between Nurse Jackie and Boardwalk Empire (see below); and Lane and Forte as very different but very flamboyant characters on their shows. It's odd that Forte was nominated for 30 Rock and not Will Arnett, the usual "Will" nominee from the show here, but a testament to Forte's truly bizarre work. Though Timberlake usually claims this prize when he's nominated, I wouldn't count on his win this year.

Should win: Louis C.K.
Will win: Bob Newhart
Spoilers: Louis C.K., Justin Timberlake

BEST WRITING FOR A COMEDY SERIES

Episodes; written by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik ("Episode 209")
Louie; story and teleplay by Louis C.K., story by Pamela Adlon ("Daddy's Girlfriend Part 1")
The Office; written by Greg Daniels ("Finale")
30 Rock; written by Jack Burditt and Robert Carlock ("Hogcock!")
30 Rock; written by Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield ("Last Lunch")

I want to re-iterate that I don't understand the hubbub that surrounds Episodes - judging by the Emmy nominations, it's TV's best comedy that nobody really watches or cares about. Maybe it's just a decade-long nostalgia for Friends? However, the rest of this field is fairly decent. The two episodes of 30 Rock combined for the series finale, and the show managed to go out on a high note that satisfactorily closed out the series. Though The Office did tumble much farther than 30 Rock did during it's later season, it's nice to see the series score a nod for tying things together and bringing the long-running sitcom to a close. The real standout, though, is Louie; the show's third season was it's most obtuse yet, but this episode was a highlight, turning the Manic Pixie Dream Girl story on it's head in a funny and compelling way. Louis C.K. won this award last year; hopefully he and Adlon can do it again this year.

Should win: Louie ("Daddy's Girlfriend Part 1")
Will win: 30 Rock ("Last Lunch")
Spoilers: 30 Rock ("Hogcock!"), Louie ("Daddy's Girlfriend Part 1")

BEST DRAMA SERIES

Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
Homeland
House of Cards
Mad Men

All of last year's nominees aired another season this year; however, despite finding a terrific focus and building to a stunning finish, Boardwalk Empire gave way to the freshman from Netflix, House of Cards (a show that, though flawed in a few critical ways, is still riveting and wholly deserving of the nomination). I'm a little surprised to see Downton Abbey here: the show was less-than-beloved critically this year, even though it continued to grow in terms of popularity. The same can be said of the divisive seasons of Mad Men (which I thought was the show's best) and Homeland (which I have yet to see) too, though each of those still carried enough champions and goodwill that I'm not surprised to see them still here. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, despite being genre shows, have continued to score nominations, and have done so by constantly evolving into the most thrilling - and very best - shows on television. Perhaps one of these can break through and secure a win.

Should win: Breaking Bad
Will win: Homeland
Spoilers: Game of Thrones, Mad Men, House of Cards, Breaking Bad

BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel
Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey
Claire Danes, Homeland
Robin Wright, House of Cards
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Connie Britton, Nashville
Kerry Washington, Scandal

Like last year's Best Actress in a Comedy Series, there are seven nominees in this year's categories. First, the surprise inclusions: I was not expecting to see Washington, Britton, Wright, and Farmiga here, especially the lattermost. This is not to knock Farmiga's talent; I just didn't expect her to be nominated for a show as hit-or-miss as Bates Motel (tellingly, she is the show's only overall nomination). Similarly, I figured that Scandal and Nashville were too soapy to be taken seriously by the Emmys, though if I had to pick one, I would've guessed that Washington - a phenomenal actress - would've been nominated before Britton, a terrific actress stuck in a strangely sedate role. And the reason I didn't think Wright would be nominated for her Lady MacBeth-esque role is that I figured House of Cards would be seen as the Kevin Spacey show. I'm not sure how to predict this category; I can't really see any of the aforementioned nominees winning, though Dockery lacks the overall momentum and Moss didn't really have enough showy work this year. So maybe Danes wins again by default?

Should win: Elisabeth Moss
Will win: Claire Danes
Spoilers: Elisabeth Moss, Kerry Washington, Robin Wright, Michelle Dockery

BEST LEAD ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey
Damien Lewis, Homeland
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom

I mentioned above that I'm surprised to see Downton Abbey continuing to score major Emmy nominations; I guess I shouldn't be, given the show's pedigree. But I am genuinely surprised to see Bonneville here, given that he was barely buzzed about this past season the way other cast members were. In general, these are all great performances from great actors, each of them doing great work on their shows - even when their show is as maligned as Daniels' The Newsroom. There's no question Spacey is going to be the odds-on favorite, but don't count out Hamm - if he submits the season finale, with it's killer Hershey's pitch, then he may actually become the first Mad Men cast member to win an acting Emmy.

Should win: Jon Hamm
Will win: Kevin Spacey
Spoilers: Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Damien Lewis

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey
Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones
Christine Baranski, The Good Wife
Morena Baccarin, Homeland
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men

Though many fans of Game of Thrones have decried Clarke's role as Daenarys Targaryan as boring and slow-moving (she's pretty far removed, at the moment, from the rest of the show's action), I've enjoyed watching her evolve into the "Mother of Dragons," and think that her performance will be even more fondly remembered when the series is complete and reflected upon in the future (at least, that's what I hope). Baccarin has been terrific on Homeland, though I'll be the first to admit that I'm just happy to see a former Firefly cast member finally make it to the Emmys (it also erases memories of V, which the less spoken of, the better). The rest of the nominees are excellent in their returning nominations, though the biggest surprise is that Baranski is now the only regular cast member of The Good Wife to be nominated this year.

Should win: Anna Gunn
Will win: Maggie Smith
Spoiler: Christina Hendricks

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire
Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
Jim Carter, Downton Abbey
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Mandy Patinkin, Homeland

Is there any greater drama category this year than this one? All of these men did fantastic work this year. Patinkin has been the beating heart of Homeland, the same role that Paul has played on Breaking Bad and Dinklage has played on Game of Thrones. Carter took his character to new, rewarding places this year on Downton Abbey. Cannavale was an absolute delight as a deeply disturbed gangster with a sadistic streak, and he brought a much-needed dose of energy to the show this year (though it's still a shame Steve Buscemi didn't score a Lead Actor nod). However, no one was more imposing, more terrific, or more heartbreakingly perfect than Banks, who's Mike Ehrmantraut evolved over the past few seasons from sidekick to partner to threat. Need evidence of how great he was? Go watch "Say My Name" right now.

Should win: Jonathan Banks
Will win: Bobby Cannavale
Spoilers: Aaron Paul, Jonathan Banks, Peter Dinklage

BEST GUEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES

Margo Martindale, The Americans
Diana Rigg, Game of Thrones
Carrie Preston, The Good Wife
Linda Cardellini, Mad Men
Jane Fonda, The Newsroom
Joan Cusack, Shameless

If you're a fan of Freaks & Geeks like I am, celebrate with me that Lindsay Weir (Cardellini) is finally an Emmy nominee! Of course, Cardellini wasn't playing that famous character here, but her performance was just as surprising layered and impressive. What's also surprising is that Martindale was the only nominee for The Americans; however, it was her Emmy win for Justified two years ago that finally made the phenomenal character actor a popular - and essential - addition to a number of movies and television shows. Cusack is routinely here for her hilarious and heartbreaking work on Shameless, though the nature of that show has prevented her from winning. Most impressive is Rigg's nomination for playing the Queen of Thorns, and did she ever live up that name.

Should win: Diana Rigg
Will win: Carrie Preston
Spoilers: Jane Fonda, Margo Martindale

BEST GUEST ACTOR IN A DRAMA SERIES

Nathan Lane, The Good Wife
Michael J. Fox, The Good Wife
Rupert Friend, Homeland
Robert Morse, Mad Men
Harry Hamlin, Mad Men
Dan Bucatinsky, Scandal

The Good Wife appears to still be fruitful in terms of guest spots, doesn't it? The return of Fox should be the big get, especially since he's 1) always terrific and 2) coming back to television full-time this fall. More surprising, though, is that Morse and Hamlin were both nominated for very minor performances this year (neither of them were really prevalent in this season). I don't know much about Friend's performance, unfortunately, so I don't know what to make of it. The same really goes for Bucatinsky; I don't watch Scandal, even though I've been told over and over that I should (and I do want to, when I get time).

Should win: Michael J. Fox
Will win: Michael J. Fox
Spoilers: Rupert Friend, Nathan Lane

BEST WRITING FOR A DRAMA SERIES

Breaking Bad; written by George Mastras ("Dead Freight")
Breaking Bad; written by Thomas Schnauz ("Say My Name")
Downton Abbey; written by Julian Fellowes ("Episode 4")
Game of Thrones; written by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff ("The Rains of Castamere")
Homeland; written by Henry Bromell ("Q&A")

For the first time in the show's entire run, Mad Men did not see a single episode get nominated for writing this year. That's perhaps the biggest surprise of these nominations, especially considering how dominant the show has been even in the years it lost here. However, this did pave the way for not one but two episodes of Breaking Bad, a show that I've been advocating for several years now as one of the best-written shows on television, and two of the fifth season's best at that. The late Henry Bromell got a posthumous nod for what was considered to be one of the best episodes of Homeland's second season; however, the Emmys don't usually hand out awards posthumously, so this may be his only recognition. Then there's the infamous "Red Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones, one of the single-greatest episodes that show has ever produced. And of course, Fellowes is contractually obligated to receive a nomination here every year of eligibility.

Should win: Game of Thrones ("The Rains of Castamere")
Will win: Breaking Bad ("Dead Freight")
Spoilers: Game of Thrones ("The Rains of Castamere"), Breaking Bad ("Say My Name")

BEST MINISERIES/TV MOVIE

American Horror Story: Asylum
Behind the Candelabra
The Bible
Phil Spector
Political Animals
Top of the Lake

Two very surprising things here: first, four of the six nominees here are actually miniseries, not made-for-TV movies, quite a big change from past lineups in this category (well, if you consider Asylum - recently discussed here - to be a miniseries). The second is that The Bible was apparently one of the best miniseries/TV movies of the past year, despite a glaring lack of other major nominations and very little in the way of critical acclaim (but it did have huge ratings and was beloved by the Christian base, so there's that, I guess). Out of the possible movies, though, I'm surprised they went with David Mamet's surprisingly lifeless Phil Spector. All told, it's an odd assortment of nominees. (Third surprising thing: Asylum lead all programs in total nominations).

Should win: Behind the Candelabra
Will win: Behind the Candelabra
Spoilers: American Horror Story: Asylum, Top of the Lake

BEST LEAD ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES/TV MOVIE

Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Asylum
Laura Linney, The Big C: Hereafter
Helen Mirren, Phil Spector
Sigourney Weaver, Political Animals
Elisabeth Moss, Top of the Lake

The sad, strange saga of Showtime's The Big C is an interesting one: what started as a show full of promise starring Laura Linney squandered nearly every ounce of it's potential by essentially condensing Weeds' eight-season-long derailment into three seasons, then wrapped it up with a four-episode "miniseries"this past spring. What I'm basically saying is that Linney scored a nod here as a farewell, and competes with a number of fellow Oscar nominees in Mirren, Lange, and Weaver, as well as Moss, who had a really great year this year. Lange won the Supporting Actress in a Miniseries/TV Movie Emmy last year; she was the magnificent center of the show this year, and should pick it up this year here.

Should win: Jessica Lange
Will win: Jessica Lange
Spoilers: Elisabeth Moss, Helen Mirren

BEST LEAD ACTOR IN A MINISERIES/TV MOVIE

Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra
Matt Damon, Behind the Candelabra
Toby Jones, The Girl
Benedict Cumberbatch, Parade's End
Al Pacino, Phil Spector

Here's another high-profile list of actors: besides the obvious suspects (Douglas, Damon, Pacino), I'm glad to see Jones here, given that his Hitchcock biopic played second-fiddle to Anthony Hopkin's theatrically-released Hitchcock last fall. Cumberbatch's nomination ensures that Emmy voters see him as more than Sherlock Holmes; if they're feeling wild, it may be a chance to reward him for breaking out in a very big way this year (he has a Julian Assange biopic premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival later this year). However, there's really no question of who's going to win this year.

Should win: Michael Douglas
Will win: Michael Douglas
Spoilers: Matt Damon, Al Pacino

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MINISERIES/TV MOVIE

Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story: Asylum
Imelda Staunton, The Girl
Ellen Burstyn, Political Animals
Charlotte Rampling, Restless
Alfre Woodard, Steel Magnolias

Lifetime's Steel Magnolias remake didn't exactly give the original a run for it's money, but it was still a fine film, and I'm surprised that Woodard was it's only nominee. Burstyn was a delight, though you'd be hard-pressed to call her work truly Emmy-worthy. Honestly, I'm not sure who I would most support here; all of these are fine performances, but none of them are truly revelatory.

Should win: Sarah Paulson
Will win: Ellen Burstyn
Spoilers: Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Imelda Staunton, Charlotte Rampling

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MINISERIES/TV MOVIE

James Cromwell, American Horror Story: Asylum
Zachary Quinto, American Horror Story: Asylum
Scott Bakula, Behind the Candelabra
John Benjamin Hickey, The Big C: Hereafter
Peter Mullan, Top of the Lake

The biggest surprise here is that Bakula was nominated for Behind the Candelabra, especially given that I had forgotten he was in the film (Rob Lowe, on the other hand, is completely unforgettable, and continues to haunt my nightmares). But I could not be happier to see the great Mullan recognized; he's been turning in great performances in underseen movies for years now, and I'm excited to get a chance to see what he does in Top of the Lake. I support a win for him just on his terrific body of recent work. Both Cromwell and Quinto got to do excellent work as villains on this edition of American Horror Story, with both of them delivering performances of genuine evil.

Should win: Peter Mullan
Will win: James Cromwell
Spoilers: Zachary Quinto, Peter Mullan

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MINISERIES/TV MOVIE

Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra
Julian Jarrold, The Girl
David Mamet, Phil Spector
Allison Anders, Ring of Fire
Jane Campion and Garth Davis, Top of the Lake ("Part 5")

As is often the case with this category, it's loaded with A-list Hollywood directors (if you can even call them that) and TV directors. The most surprising inclusion is Anders, who scored a nod for her June Carter Cash biopic despite the film getting no other major nominations. Jarrold, too, is a bit of an odd inclusion, given the fact that The Girl missed out in the top category. Mamet, though his film was far less that his best work, would have made it into this category on the basis of his name alone. However, there's no real question of who will prevail here: a certain director who's saying goodbye to the industry after years of remarkable filmmaking (and sounding film's death knell in the process).

Should win: Steven Soderbergh
Will win: Steven Soderbergh
Spoilers: Jane Campion and Garth Davis

BEST WRITING FOR A MINISERIES/TV MOVIE

Behind the Candelabra; written by Richard LaGravenese
The Hour; written by Abi Morgan
Parade's End; written by Tom Stoppard
Phil Spector; written by David Mamet
Top of the Lake; written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee

As with the directors, there's a lot of name writers here. Morgan's The Hour is a Cold War espionage thriller from Britain, and she is perhaps best known for writing The Iron Lady, the Oscar-winning Margaret Thatcher biopic. Stoppard and Mamet are two of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, and while the latter misfired this year, the former turned in a pleasantly great miniseries. However, like in most of these categories, the real showdown is between Behind the Candelabra and Top of the Lake; this may actually be the latter's best shot at a win, particularly if Candelabra is seen as more of a feat of direction and acting than writing.

Should win: Behind the Candelabra
Will win: Top of the Lake
Spoiler: Behind the Candelabra

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mutants, Zombies, and Cannibals: 2012-13 in Horror Television

*I had originally intended to publish this article last month, following the season finale of Hannibal, but never managed to finish it in time. On the eve of the Emmy nominations, to be announced tomorrow, it seems like as fitting a time as ever.*

I am not, by nature, a horror fan. I've written a little before about my queasy history with the genre; essentially, I flat-out refused to watch anything that could even be considered horror until I became a budding cinephile around the age of 13. In fact, the first horror film I can even remember sitting through all the way was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - Tobe Hooper's original - on VHS, and even that was just to impress a girl (it didn't work). After that I slowly eased my way in, but a vast number of "must-sees" remain unseen by me, and only recently have I really begun to tackle the genre and develop a better appreciation for it.

So to say that I've found myself impressed by some of the horror offerings on television this past season. Namely, in FX's American Horror Story: Asylum, AMC's The Walking Dead, and NBC's Hannibal. Each of these series utilized different approaches to their terror, and some were more successful than others. What's interesting, though, is that all three shows seem to be dialoging with the genre in ways that mainstream theatrical horror has not been in some time.

Let's start with Asylum. Created by Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, AHS is a truly unique program: it's essentially an anthology series (similar to The Twilight Zone), only instead of telling single-episode stories, the narrative is spread across the entire 13 episodes, with each season featuring a new story with essentially the same set of actors. The show's first season was only occasionally effective, set around a haunted house in Los Angeles and the family (and legion of spirits) that inhabit it (namely, when you pin your story on the back of Dylan McDermott, you get what you sign up for).

Asylum, however, is set exactly where it sounds: in a Church-run Massachusetts insane asylum in 1960s Massachusetts. Sister Jude (Jessica Lange, the series' MVP thus far) is forced to come to terms with her past, while Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) is possessed by the Devil himself. Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) may be an ex-Nazi, and is certainly conducting grotesque experiments on the inmates. Journalist Lana (Sarah Paulson) hopes to write an expose of the asylum, but ends up an inmate for her sexuality. Kit (Evan Peters) may or may not have murdered his wife, may or may not have been contacted by aliens, and may or may not be a killer named Bloody Face. And all of this is just in the first episode: the rest of the season sees Anne Frank visit the asylum, Zachary Quinto be a seemingly-compassionate psychiatrist, mutants, exorcisms, and more.


Which, ultimately, highlights Asylum's - and AHS as a whole - greatest strength and weakness. Both iterations of the show so far (the third, subtitled Coven, is due this fall) have relied heavily on the same wild tonal shifts and "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" approach that has been a hallmark of many of Murphy's shows. While this has been to the detriment of, say, Glee (which always needed a more balanced and nuanced approach - and I'm well aware I'm arguing for a "nuanced" approach to a musical, of all things), it works in this show's favor by establishing tension from the jarring shifts in tone and content. And ultimately, it's throwing together old horror tropes in a way that makes them feel new in the moment.

Of course, if you stop and think about what you're watching for more than a few seconds, it quickly falls apart: story beats that don't make sense, random scenes that do nothing to advance the story, completely arbitrary plotting. But what Asylum succeeds at better than the show's first season (has that one been retroactively subtitled yet?) is developing it's characterization, and basing some of the horror in its characters. This is especially true of Sister Jude and Lana; Lange and Paulson, respectively, turn in terrific performances, and as a result make the more terrifying twists they come across that much more effective. It's may not be good for you, but it is a singular experience to watch. Hopefully Coven will continue to improve this series.

While Asylum was popular for FX, it - and nothing else (scripted) on cable - pale in comparison to the phenomenon that The Walking Dead has become. This season, its third, has found the not-so-merry band of survivors led by Rick (Andrew Lincoln) taking refuge in an abandoned prison. While many - myself included - found this to be an improvement over season two's farm setting, this season did still highlight a number of the show's problems, especially in its languid pacing and shallow characterizations (not to mention its seeming inability to have more than one person of color on-screen at any given time). Though this isn't true of the full season: the season-opening "Seed" featured some of the best "show, don't tell" storytelling the show has done yet, and mid-season standout "Clear" was the best episode the show since the pilot. The addition of David Morissey as notorious villain The Governor certainly breathed some new life into the show as well, creating a more focused source of conflict for the show, though, as is all too common on this show, his performance is sometimes too over-the-top, and his characterization is too shallow.


TWD's greatest strength, though, comes from it's superb sense of dread. Things aren't entirely hopeless for this group - life does go on, after all - but at the same time, the show doesn't ignore the fact civilization as we know it no longer exists, and likely never will. Between all of the zombie-killing and constant arguing, there's the constant drone of the cicadas and crickets (any fellow Southerners know the sound well), the sound of a void left where society used to stand. It's a brave new world, and it's a world haunted by death in the most literal way. When these themes come to the surface - and they almost never do - they do so in an almost over-obvious way; the show functions best when those ideas linger in the subtext. This year was a marked improvement for the show - fan-favorite Norman Reedus continues to be the show's MVP - but it's still not free of it's fundamental issues that keep it from becoming a truly great show.

Hannibal, on the other hand, is a departure from these two shows in several ways. For one, it's on network television, not cable. It doesn't feature anything supernatural (though plenty of surreal). It is the lowest-rated of the three programs (it received a last-second renewal last month). And it's also the best of the three. For those not familiar, the series works as a sort-of origin story of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (brilliantly played here by Mads Mikkelsen), practicing psychiatrist, sophisticated foodie, serial-killing cannibal. He's cooperating with the FBI, namely agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who's grasp on reality is quickly slipping away from him.


The show comes from Bryan Fuller, who's other enterprises include the beloved Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me (as well as a stint with Heroes). Clearly, Fuller's shows often deal with death, but none have tackled it quite the way Hannibal does. In this show, there's no whimsy in death: it's gruesome, terrifying, and permanent. The show does an equally fantastic job of creating a very real fear of death, and not underplaying the gravity that every death has on Will and the others. This is, all told, a remarkable feat: being on network television, the real meat of the show - Will's mental state and his relationship with Dr. Lecter - is grafted onto what could've been an otherwise-standard procedural. However, it presents these characters as real people who are constantly exposed to all manner of horrors; you rarely see this kind of reflection on CSI or Criminal Minds.

Another remarkable feat, though, and a delicious source of the show's horror, is the way that the titular character is not the main character. The show is presents Will as our protagonist, and we're (mostly) told this story from his perspective, complete with his hallucinations and terrifying dreams (though the bluish washed-out cinematography, droning score, and sublime sound design certainly help add to the tension). Dr. Lecter, meanwhile, mostly operates from the sidelines, though it's made clear to us in the audience that he's pulling all the strings. The cat-and-mouse game between Will and Hannibal is a hallmark of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon (the source material), and here it's in its nascent stages, with Will still under Hannibal's spell. Dr. Lecter's convinced everyone that he's the most sane person in the room, and thanks to Mikkelsen's subtly terrific (and completely Emmy-worthy) performance, so do we, even though we know better. That's the most terrifying act of them all.

Season grades:

American Horror Story: Asylum: B+
The Walking Dead: B
Hannibal: A-

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mary Poppins (1964)

*This post is in participation with The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

One thing that I've loved about Hit Me With Your Best Shot is the opportunity to revisit films that I haven't seen in ages, especially films from my childhood (such as Beauty and the Beast or Fantasia). Obviously, at such a young age, I wasn't thinking critically about these films; "mise en scene" was nowhere near being in my vocabulary. But I have fond memories of enjoying this films, and on most of these rewatches, I've found myself enjoying them even more for their cinematic qualities beyond those that captured my young imagination.


This week's selection is another of those childhood favorites: Mary Poppins, Disney's classic movie musical based on P.L. Travers' books about a magical nanny who comes in to mend the fractured Banks family in Edwardian London. The film was apparently a passion project for Walt Disney, and was notoriously hated by the books' author (as will be documented in the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks). For decades it was Disney's most successful live-action film, before Johnny Depp swaggered his way onto a pirate ship and launched a franchise that may never die.

But before we get to discussing the film itself, we need to take a look at the film's Oscar history. It was the only feature film Disney himself produced to score a Best Picture nomination, and to date it remains the studio's only live-action Best Picture nominee. 1964 saw a battle between two major studio musicals: this film and My Fair Lady, with the latter being the ultimate champion (interestingly, Julie Andrews only took the role of Mary Poppins after she was passed over for Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle). Both films together saw two of, in my book, the greatest snubs in Oscar history. Hepburn missed out on a Best Actress nomination, though no one but Andrews should have won the award (and in her film debut too!). She gives a fantastic performance: even though she maintains her distance from the children, she gives Mary Poppins (you must say the full name, after all) some subtle grace notes that show how much affection she has for them. It truly stands as the best work of her career.


The other, and more egregious, snub, came from this film: Dick Van Dyke missing a nomination for his tour de force performance as chimneysweep/chalk artist/kite salesman/one-man band/sidekick Bert (you could probably argue his is a lead role, but I personally would err on the side of supporting, since he's absent for long stretches of the film). Of course his British accent is atrocious, though I'm almost certain that was intentional. Van Dyke was at the top of his comedic game at the time, and he turned in an incredible, hilarious performance that never undercuts the authority of the Banks parents nor Mary Poppins. Indeed, he makes the role of sidekick - for that's what he essentially is to Mary Poppins, one-half of a team - seem not only noble but enormously entertaining, which is no easy feat. And this is to say nothing of the fact that he also played Mr. Dawes, Sr., in full old-age makeup. It's stunning to me that he was passed over (especially since this was a time when strong comedic work wasn't routinely ignored by the Academy, the way it often is today). 


Though it would be easy to make this a post all about how terrific Andrews and Van Dyke are, but since this is supposed to be about the "best shot," I want to highlight some unsung heroes of the film: director Robert Stevenson, director of photography Edward Colman, and the entire art department. A large part of the film's success rests on its imaginative visuals, particularly in scenes that mix live-action with animation. The film was shot entirely on soundstages in Burbank, California, making those painted London backdrops all the more impressive. Just see for yourself how beautiful these backdrops are:




(my choice for Best Shot)


Stevenson, at this point, had become the house director for Disney's live-action features, but he's never done better work than he has here. There's just the right touch of magical realism here, with the fantasy elements never seeming out of place within the reality the film is purportedly set. For example, just look at my choice for Best Shot above: Mary Poppins, sitting on a cloud above the London skyline. It's at once extraordinary and commonplace; she's positioned just left of the center and deep enough in the frame that she doesn't immediately call the viewer's attention. Or look at the evocative use of shadow and "mist" in the frame directly above, with Mr. Banks walking through the park. Or the use of warm, evening colors and cool, twilight shadows in the rooftop "Step in Time" sequence:



There's so much beautiful imagery in this film that I honestly could have just screencapped the entire thing and put it up here. Disney hasn't made a live-action film as visually sumptuous as this one since.

Other great shots:


For my money, "Feed the Birds" is the most beautiful song in the film. I love how Stevenson and Colman frame this sequence like a sumptuous dream, with the outside of the frame blurred, drawing attention to the Bird Woman. It's a simply gorgeous sequence in a film embarrassingly rich with them.


I love the lighting of this sequence: it makes the bank look so much more like a nefarious institution, even though it's run by a bumbling idiot.


It must be said that neither of the child actors are really any good. Karen Dotrice (Jane) is mostly wears a blank expression and recites her lines dutifully, but Matthew Garber (Michael) really overexaggerates everything - just look at his gape above in response to seeing the nannies being blown away.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

RIP Cory Monteith

Cory Monteith, best known for the role of Finn on Glee, was found dead Saturday. He was 31.


As avid readers know, I used to cover Glee a lot on this blog. After being floored by the pilot (just about everyone was, critically speaking), I tuned in every week for the first three seasons, watching as the show squandered its exciting potential, briefly verge on being great again, then falling apart even more (you can find my Glee posts, including my weekly episode recaps for season two, here).

Monteith, it must be said, was never the strongest performer in the cast, whether it be acting, singing, or dancing - and the show acknowledged this several times. But the role of Finn would have never worked without him; he was more than capable of playing up both his affable buffoonery and cheesy romanticism without either ever feeling forced. Finn's relationship with Rachel (Lea Michele) was the staple of the show, and he perfectly countered her shoot-for-the-stars enthusiasm with genuine longing and doubts of the future.

In Monteith, another young star is gone before his prime. Our condolences are with his family and friends.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Dead Ringers (1988)

*This post is a part of The Film Experience's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

There are, it seems, two distinct periods in David Cronenberg's career: the horror schlockmeister, and the director of surreal thrillers. This isn't necessarily to say that he's completely changed; all of his films show some degree of interest in "perverted" psychologies. Nor is it to say that all of his films fit neatly into either of those categories; Naked Lunch and Cosmopolis, to name two examples, seem to confound all notions of genre (which is part of what makes them equally fascinating and frustrating). But Cronenberg is a master at creating films that disorient and disturb, asking the audience to consider things that we may not want to.


Dead Ringers, this week's selection for Hit Me, straddles the line between the two Cronenbergs as well. The film follows twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantel (both played by Jeremy Irons) who have established themselves as visionaries in the field. However, the arrival of actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) - and her trifurcated womb - lead them into a downward spiral of drugs and madness.

That trifurcated womb, it turns out, is what fascinates Bev and Elli, and what fascinates Cronenberg as well. The film is stacked with the twins' erotic obsessions: with the womb, with gynecological instruments, and especially with their "twinness." Cronenberg, with help from director of photography Peter Suschitzky (a frequent Cronenberg collaborator who also lensed The Empire Strikes Back and The Rocky Horror Picture Show), let these obsessions permeate every frame of the film, either through the visuals or through the innuendo-laced dialogue.

For example, check out the first scene in their shared, luxurious apartment. Elliot, the charming one and the public face of the duo (he does most of their speaking engagements), is shown against the backdrop of their spacious apartment:


Bev, on the other hand, is the shy, bookish one; he works in their clinic and is the brain behind most of their accomplishments. He's seen more in the foreground, in his study, wearing more casual clothes than Elli's dapper suits:


This motif is repeated throughout the film - Elli shown at a distance, Bev shown in close-up. It's a necessary distinction, since the twins love to swap places and pretend to be one another. There's a very strong sexual tension between these two - an impressive facet of Irons' performance - and they both let their kinks out with Claire, much to her eventual disgust. There's plenty to unpack in their fixation on each other and disturbing need to "separate," psychologically conjoined and needing to be autonomous, especially as Bev further spirals out of control.

The film's psychological focus, though, leads to my choice for Best Shot:


He's crouched in the fetal position, as if he's ready to return to the womb and escape the pressures of the world (Dr. Freud would certainly agree). But given his interest in Claire's womb, it may not be simply about comfort: the womb is arousing, a place of sexual satisfaction for him. Claire's drugs are destroying him, but so is her "mutant" womb, disrupting his notion of what's "normal." And Cronenberg stages it masterfully.

Other great shots:


Dead Ringers was Cronenberg's follow-up to The Fly, which was embarrassingly rich with grotesque body horror. This film was more psychological, but a dream sequence about Bev and Elli being physically conjoined shows Cronenberg couldn't help himself.


I love how the surgical gowns look like robes, turning the surgery into a religious ritual. The red, in particular, makes it a really powerful image.


The new instruments Bev has made are perfectly grotesque phalluses, aren't they?


A perfect distillation of the film's theme: sexual passion juxtaposed with clinical instruments.

PS Nathaniel chose this film this week in recognition of Nick Davis' (of Nick's Flick Picks) new book, The Desiring Image: Gilles Deleuze and Contemporary Queer Cinema. I've just started reading it, and have had a difficult time putting it down. It's terrific.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day

Even if you're not American, have a festive weekend! I'll be back to (semi-) regular posting Monday. Enjoy some fireworks (but maybe not with Max Cady).


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: American Graffiti (1973)

*This post is a part of The Film Experience's series Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. It can be intoxicating, reflecting on a past that we wish we could back to, a past that we too often idealize to reflect the innocence we knew in childhood that was tarnished by adulthood. The best nostalgia-laced films (for example, this film's spiritual successor, Dazed & Confused) don't just look back on a time period with wishful-thinking (and perhaps wish-fulfillment); rather, they touch on what it was really like to be that age, especially adolescence, when you're a walking cocktail of volatile emotions.


Before he got lost in a galaxy far, far away, never again to find his way into a film that involved neither stars nor wars, George Lucas co-wrote and directed American Graffiti. Set in the summer of 1962, it follows the escapades of four friends - Steve (Ron Howard), Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), John (Paul Le Mat), and Terry (Charles Martin Smith) - as they spend one last night together before Steve and Curt are scheduled to leave for college. Lucas presents a vision of what it was like to be young and clueless in that era, driving your car down the main drag in town either looking for a race or girls (or, in a perfect world, both).

If you've ever been between the ages of 16 and 20 (and suspect most of you reading this have), you'll recognize a number of things here from you're own youth. Take, for example, Steve's conversation with Laurie (Cindy Williams) at Mel's Drive-In early in the movie: his "we should see other people to strengthen our relationship" proposal is exactly the kind of bullshit logic that makes perfect sense at that age, when you don't have any real relationship experience. Same goes for John's tough guy act, which quickly falls away when he's actually challenged by an authority figure.

Even with the help of co-writers Gloria Katz and William Huyck, Lucas' tin ear for dialogue comes through every once in a while. Though each storyline comes to a logical conclusion, not every one feels  essential: Terry's exists mostly for the comic relief of a dweeb like him impressing beauty queen Debbie (Candy Clark, in an oddly-Oscar-nominated role). And more time could have been spent on Steve and Laurie's crumbling relationship, which is collapsing at a school dance. As they argue, their names are called out as class superlatives, leading to this delightful shot:


All eyes are on high school royalty, the spotlight hits, the crowd separates, and here they are, having it out with each other. If you had an argument with your significant other at that age, you know how that feels.

But the real heart and soul of the film is Curt, who's struggling to decide whether or not he actually wants to leave town or not. It's not because he doesn't think he'd do well at university, nor is he really even thinking about the long-term future; like anyone else about to move away from home, he's scared of being on his own, of the unknown that lies ahead. Over the course of the night, he goes from choosing not to leave, pursuing a mystery blonde in a Thunderbird, being roped in with a gang known as the Pharaohs, to finally boarding his plane and taking off. It's a tumultuous run of emotions, and Dreyfuss plays them all with just the right balance of pathos and carefree-ambivalence. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but at the dance, when Curt is pulled aside for a discussion with a former graduate, the scene is bookended by to signs behind the him. The first, announcing the possibility of leaving:


And the second, the possibility of returning (or even staying):


It seems so inconsequential that I'm fairly certain Lucas didn't set up the shots this way, but it is interesting to note thematically.

My choice for Best Shot, though, is a fairly simple and quiet one (literally: it's one of the few seconds of the film not dominated by the film's overbearing collection of early-'60s pop hits). Curt is wandering through the halls of the high school alone, and comes across his old locker. He smiles, then attempts to open it...


...but it doesn't budge. His face falls a bit, before he continues his stroll. But for that one moment, it seems to dawn on him the way it dawns upon us all: once you leave, you can never really go back.

P.S. I didn't have any room for this anywhere else in this post, but Harrison Ford shows up in this thing wearing a cowboy hat.


He challenges John to a race that doesn't quite live up to the hype, but for whatever it's worth, he displays a lot of the cockiness that would define his later roles.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Short Takes: Identity Thief, Hud, American Graffiti, Hotel Transylvania

A handful of short reviews for films I've recently seen.

Identity Thief (2013, dir. Seth Gordon)


Identity Thief, at it's core, is a classic comedy set-up: a case of mistaken identity mixed with two buffoons going on a road trip together. Pratfalls ensue, and eventually lessons are learned. There's nothing new going on in this film, and for the most part it slogs on for way too long with plot strands that never really seem to come together. Worst of all, most of the jokes - if that's what they're meant to be - fall flat. Jason Bateman's stuck with a straight-man character that's never truly likable, leaving Melissa McCarthy to do most of the heavy lifting here. Her work is certainly commendable, garnering laughs from sheer force of will from a script by Craig Mazin (who did work on sequels for Scary Movie and The Hangover) that does her no favors. She belongs in a better movie than this. D+

Hud (1963, dir. Martin Ritt)


When the film first premiered 50 years (!) ago, it was billed as a Rebel Without a Cause-type teen rebellion movie, with Paul Newman's titular character as the focal "outlaw." However, the film is much more sophisticated than its marketing implied. Set on a ranch in a hot Texas summer, young Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) arrives to live with his grandfather Homer (Melvyn Douglas), housekeeper Alma (the incomparable Patricia Neal), and Hud, his uncle. From there, Hud and Homer's contentious relationship is explored as a foot-and-mouth disease epidemic plagues the animals on the ranch. As a contemporary Western, it's a fascinating film, built solely on these characters and their relationships to each other; no gimmicks necessary. One of the best and most overlooked films of the 1960s, it features Oscar-winning performances from Douglas and Neal, plus Newman at his peak, both physically (give or take Cool Hand Luke) and professionally. It's a film that's not to be missed (Best Shot discussed here). A

Hotel Transylvania (2012, dir. Genndy Tartakovsky)


Released last fall, Hotel Transylvania is one of those animated films that goes on to be a major success (it's total domestic gross sits at $148 million) but no one seems to particularly like or even remember (see also: The Croods, any of the Ice Age or Madagascar sequels). The premise promises a monster mash: Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) has established a luxury resort for all kinds of ghouls deep in the heart of Transylvania, far away from the humans that hate them. All the while he's trying to prevent his "teenage" daughter - she's just turning 118 - from wandering out into the human world. This is all threatened when a zonked-out human (Andy Samberg, redeeming the Sandler-Samberg pairing from their other 2012 endeavor) wanders into the resort. There's a lesson about letting go and tolerating others buried in the film, but it's mostly non-stop cartoon chaos, with gags flying at such a consistent rate that the ones that land seem to stick better than they should. Directed by Tartakovsky, perhaps best known for Cartoon Network's Dexter's Laboratory and the superlative Samurai Jack, it has a madcap sense of joy. Too bad it couldn't take time to make the characters memorable. C+

American Graffiti (1973, dir. George Lucas)


Long ago, in a Hollywood far, far away...George Lucas made films that didn't have the phrase "Star Wars" in the title. Here, he travels back to 1962, following a collection of SoCal teenagers over one summer night as they come to terms with the end of high school and the beginning of their new adult lives. Well, some of them at least: while Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) worries about going to college on the East Coast and Steve (Ron Howard, here credited as "Ronnie Howard") frets over his relationship with Laurie (Cindy Williams), John (Paul le Mat) is content to cruise the main drag in town looking for a race, while Terry (Charles Martin Smith) just wants to be cool for once in his life. Everyone's interwoven tales unfold over the course of the film, some better than others. Curt's is the heart of the film, and Dreyfuss is easily best-in-show as he metes out the benefits of staying put or heading out. However, it never feels like a complete film; Lucas is balancing more than he can really handle here, and it shows in how, at times, the film seems like it was just an excuse to use the music rights to a ton of classic songs - there's hardly a single frame of film that's not soundtracked by a Golden Oldie or the howling anarchy of Wolfman Jack - and bask in the nostalgia. What should be a rip-roaring trip to the past just feels oddly muted (Best Shot post coming Wednesday 7/3). B-