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In Media Res
Note that there are spoilers here, but you'll see all of them in the first ten minutes anyway, so caveat emptor.
We find ourselves in an upscale, beautifully-appointed kitchen, where an elegant dinner is being prepared by an impeccably-dressed host. We see the host's knife slicing the raw main dish, and then arranging it into a presentation that can legitimately be called art. He walks across the room and serves it to his guest, who is seated at the dining table, and they exchange words.
Host: This course is called ryukozuki -- seasonal sashimi, sea urchin, water clam, and squid. Guest: What a beautiful presentation, Doctor. Host: Kaiseki - a Japanese artform that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat. Guest: Well, I almost feel guilty about eating it. Host: I never feel guilty eating anything. Guest: Hmmmm...I can't quite place the fish...
This would have been a cool "season opener" in itself, and a very funny one, given that the host in this scene is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and you can't always tell what he'll be serving with the Chianti. :-)
But what makes this scene more powerful is that it wasn't the first scene. It was the second. The first was a type of flashforward known as In Media Res, a technique that dates at least back to Homer, and was discussed by Aristotle. In the real first scene, we're in the same kitchen, and a similarly elegant dinner is being prepared for the same guest by the same host. The host uses the same precision with his knife as he slices the main course, but doesn't get to the presentation stage because then his guest enters the room, they exchange glances, each of them seemingly realizing the same thing at the same time, and all hell breaks loose. (Details deleted) The screen goes black, and a title appears, saying "Twelve weeks earlier." Then we see the scene I describe above.
Very effective technique. It worked for Homer, in "The Iliad," it worked for "Breaking Bad," and it works for the season opener of "Hannibal." Something is going to happen during that twelve weeks (coincidentally enough the length of the season) that explains to us how the dinner scene we see second morphs into the one we saw first.
The third and forth scenes take an opposite -- or perhaps the same -- structure. In scene three we see Will Graham during on of his rare off-work moments. He's standing in a river in his waders, fly-fishing. He looks up, and on the bank of the river he sees a magnificent deer. We see the awe and reverence on his face as Will gazes at the deer. Cut to scene four, and the same face, staring at us from behind bars. Will is now in jail, charged with being the very serial killer he is chasing. So is scene three a flashback to the past, or a flashforward to the future? Guess we'll have to watch twelve weeks of television to find out. Since this was one of the best 40 minutes of television I've seen in a long time, I have no problem with that...
Lust for Love (2014)
A Whedonesque Romance
While we wait for Joss Whedon's own scifi/romance movie "In Your Eyes," those of us who have become enamored of the many talented actors he has worked with and whose careers he has cultivated over the years have something to watch. "Lust For Love" is a Kickstarter-funded, Web-based (so far) project that reunites several of the cast members of Whedon's short-lived but brilliant TV series "Dollhouse" -- Fran Kranz, Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj, Miracle Laurie, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Felicia Day. They obviously became close during their "Dollhouse" experience, and that closeness just as obviously carries over into this delightful rom-com.
I'll be honest and state that I'm probably too old to appreciate this movie. It seems aimed at an audience 20-somethings, and as such I would say that it succeeds admirably. Kranz is tremendous as the nebbishy Astor, hoping beyond hope to get back together with the narcissistic girl of his dreams Mila (played by non-Whedon-alum Beau Garrett). Towards this end he secures the services of Mila's ex-best friend Cali (played superbly by Dichen Lachman, who also co-produced this film). Much embarrassment and dating horror ensue, almost all of it portrayed with heart, and a fairly light heart at that. This is not one of those cynical movies about dating and romance.
It was great to see many of the "Dollhouse" actors together again, and those who loved them will probably be the first audience for this film. But I thought that the film (written and directed by first-timer Anton King) has merits of its own, and I hope it reaches a wider audience. I suspect that it could stand on its own among the classics of young-people romance films, up there with "Say Anything."
Sound of My Voice (2011)
"We started out wanting to make a documentary on cults. And now we're in one." There have been terrible films made about the cult experience, and there have been even more terrible films made about the cult experience. In my experience, both as a former cultist and as a religious sociology freak who is also a film freak, there has never been a film that landed outside those boundaries. Until now.
"Sound Of My Voice" is not easy, and it does not offer easy answers. Nor do cults, except in the moment. That may be what makes them alluring, the temptation to live completely in the moment, and never think about what "living" has become.
Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij (and who also produced and wrote an interesting previous and thought-provoking film called "Another Earth"), stars as Maggie. Maggie's not from here. Or rather, not not from now. She's from the future. Or that's what she says, anyway. And when you listen to the sound of her voice, you kinda want to believe it.
You want to believe it even if you're a husband and wife who have infiltrated her ultra-secretive cult to make a documentary about it.
I really can't say anything more about this fascinating film without spoiling it. I think it managed what no other film about the cult phenomenon -- or even the spiritual phenomenon -- has accomplished as well before: walking that razor's edge between what simply cannot be and what might actually be.
I think the open-minded will enjoy it.
The Newsroom: The Greater Fool (2012)
"The Newsroom" comes full circle
Aaron Sorkin's new show started by being attacked mercilessly before it even aired. I took a stand when it finally *was* aired, and I got to see the first episode. I've just watched the tenth, and final, episode of the year. I stand by my original stand.
It's good writing, it's good entertainment, it's good acting and direction, and it's got a pair of balls the size of Mars.
And I'm still betting on it sweeping the Emmy awards, and sending an enormous F**K YOU to all of the people who ranked on it because...well...because they have balls the size of peas, and brains to match.
It's difficult to make entertainment while conveying a useful and needed message. It's even more difficult when the very people who should be cheering that message on are so petty and green with envy that they play shoot the messenger, too.
This was the rap rattled off by Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy during the wrap-up of his last news broadcast of the season, over a bottom-of-the-screen banner that said Republican In Name Only:
* Ideological purity * Compromise as weakness * A fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism * Denying science * Unmoved by facts * Undeterred by new information * A hostile fear of progress * A demonization of education * A need to control women's bodies * Severe xenophobia * Tribal mentality * Intolerance of dissent * Pathological hatred of the US government
"They can call themselves the Tea Party, they can call themselves conservatives, and they can even call themselves Republicans, though Republicans probably shouldn't. But we should call them what they are, the American Taliban."
This is the message that real news stations in America should have been airing as real news last night as the Republican Convention opened. Instead, it had to be aired on HBO, on a show that even Democrats and liberals tried to kill. This is one of those days that forces me to think about America and remember the lines to a great Bob Dylan song:
"And you ask why I don't live there Honey, how come you even have to ask me that?"
Coppola has lost not only his touch, but his marbles
This film is an embarrassment for all concerned. If the rumors are correct, and Coppola's inspiration for the screenplay was a night spent indulging in alcohol-fueled dreams, might I suggest that this turned out a great deal worse for him than it did for Val Kilmer's character in the film. Have you ever had a dream that seemed vivid and fraught with "meaning" and symbolic "importance" to you, and then tried to describe that dream to others? Remember how their eyes glazed over after a few moments, and they stopped paying attention to you? Well, that's what is going to happen to you if you see this film.
Shockingly, Val Kilmer is the best part of the film. Fans who have watched *his* career circle the drain, consider that statement. He has at least a couple of great scenes. The first shows him, as a failed writer struggling with writer's block, trying to come up with the first lines of his new novel. The result is hilarious. The second is him sitting down over a bottle of Irish whiskey in the dream plane with Edgar Allen Poe and getting a lesson in writing technique from the master. If Coppola had such a dream-lesson himself, he should have listened more carefully.
Plus, Coppola uses a bunch of visual techniques that make him look like a first-year film student, not the director of the first two "Godfather" movies. He pretty much flushes his career down the toilet with this film, and I'm inclined to give the handle a second push to make sure there are no "floaters" left around. I suspect that the only person who will like this film is David Lynch, because finally there is a film that is less coherent than one of his. :-)
Fringe: Letters of Transit (2012)
When your series is in trouble, steal from another series
So what do you do when you are J.J. Abrams and the network your current show is on starts using the "C" word? No, not "cancer," the even worse "C" word, "cancellation." Simple. Shamelessly steal a page from Joss Whedon's playbook.
Back towards the end of the first season of "Dollhouse," when FOX was throwing around the "C" word, Joss hit one over the fences with an episode called "Epitaph." Without either warning or explanation, that episode leapt out of the normal storyline and timeline of the series several years into the future, giving viewers a glimpse of where "Dollhouse" *wanted to go*, if only the network dweebs would allow it to by extending the series. And the amazing thing is that it WORKED. Joss got a second season of "Dollhouse," just enough to finish it up well, and to not leave things hanging. It was the stuff of TV history, and saved "Dollhouse" from the cut-off-in-mid-sentence fate of "Firefly." Now even-heavier-hitter J.J. Abrams, faced with hard times and low ratings, is fighting for a fifth season of "Fringe." So what does he do? He rips off Joss' idea and creates an out-of-the-blue glimpse of the Fringe Division's future. Without either warning or explanation, the episode opens not in 2012 but in 2036, with the descendents of the original Fringe Division living in a dystopia, still fighting the Bad Guys. It's *not* that it wasn't an interesting episode, but the word "r-r-r-r-ripoff" kept echoing through my head the whole time I was watching it.
It really *wasn't* bad, and in fact was better than most episodes. Whether this "Hail Joss" play will work is another question, but I kinda praise Mr. Abrams for not being afraid to steal from his betters. This ploy may become a staple of the industry in the future -- if they start talking about cancelling your show, give them a glimpse of the show's future, to hopefully demonstrate to them that you haven't jumped the shark and that you still *can* come up with new ideas.
Even if you have to steal those ideas from another series. :-)
The Grey (2011)
The Grey Menace
I was drawn to this movie by Liam Neeson, who is often a commanding presence in movies. And, as survival/adventure tales go, it's pretty standard. An ordinary guy, whose Day Job it is to shoot dragons to keep them from wreaking havoc among the tasty human workers in Alaska's oil fields, is depressed to the point of suicide. But something intervenes in his suicide attempt, and he gets on a plane with a bunch of other guys the next day as planned.
Unfortunately, the plane crashes, leaving only seven of the guys still alive. For now. Trouble is, they are surrounded by a herd of big grey dragons, who start picking the guys off one by one as they wander away from the plane to take a pee. So Liam Neeson -- obviously leader material because he gets top billing in the movie -- convinces them to head for the woods, where the dragons might be less able to get at them. Adventure ensues, with our hero now fighting for his life the day after wanting to end it.
What's that you say? Dragons? OK, "The Grey" isn't really about dragons. Insert "wolves" above wherever I mentioned dragons.
The thing is, it just as well *could* have been dragons. There have been almost as many documented attacks of humans by dragons in North America as there have been attacks of humans by wolves. You can count the number of documented wolf attacks on a couple of fingers. Maybe one or two less for dragon attacks.
Although "The Grey" is a passable fictional adventure story, I'm kinda offended because it's *total* fiction. In Asia, there are cases of wolves attacking humans. In North America, one or two at the most. It just doesn't happen.
But the filmmakers decided that the public *believes* it happens (after all, if Sarah Palin shoots wolves from a helicopter, they've *got* to be dangerous, right?), so they thought, "Let's make a movie about guys fighting for their lives against a pack of hungry wolves." They should've chosen dragons. It would have been more realistic, and it might have been a better movie.
Anonymous -- Hacking history
These days, the term "Anonymous" conjures up visions of unknown activists trying to influence history from the wings. They write things, and that writing changes society. In his film of the same name, director Roland Emmerich seems to be suggesting that this idea is not exactly new, and that the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare were essentially motivated by the same desire. He takes the age-old mystery of "Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" and turns it into a political thriller.
If it's difficult for you to imagine a historical costume drama done by the director of "Universal Soldier," "Stargate," "Independence Day," "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012," you are not alone. :-) I suspected that the screenplay (by John Orloff) came first, and that Emmerich discovered it and became enamored of it, and a quick trip to the IMDb verifies that this intuition was correct. It also informs me that Emmerich, taking advantage of the money he made on the previous films, paid for this whole movie out of his own pocket, so that he could have full control of the film, without interference from any studio. It shows.
It's not a bad movie at all. And this is something I never thought I'd find myself saying about a Roland Emmerich movie. The cast is simply to die for: Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth the elder; her daughter Joely Richardson as Elizabeth the younger; Rafe Spall as Shakespeare (a talentless clod of an actor); Sebastian Arnesto as Ben Johnson (a talented playwright, but not even in the same galaxy of greatness as the author of Shakespeare's plays); David Thewlis as William Cecil; Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil; Derek Jacobi doing the prologue; Jaime Campbell Bower (from "Camelot") as the younger Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; and Rhys Ifans as the older Edward de Vere, and the real author of Shakespeare's work.
As presented, the plot is not at all a scholarly argument for the Earl of Oxford's authorship of these plays. It is instead a clever reimagining of historical events (some treated as loosely as Shakespeare himself treated actual history) to turn the answer to the mystery that scholars argue about into a taut political thriller. In Orloff's/Emmerich's vision, Edward de Vere wrote the plays and published them under someone else's name for no less a reason that to foment revolution, change the course of history, and determine the next king of England.
And damnit, that reimagining kinda worked for me. The sets and costumes are pitch perfect, the performances are good, and the potential is there for a good time to be had by all. Like anything related to Shakespeare, the more you know about him and his work, the better this film will be for you. There are so many asides and in-jokes that I cannot begin to go into them. Orloff really did his research. Except for the part about Edward de Vere having died before at least 10 of Shakespeare's plays were written, that is. But that's just a nitpick, and should not stand in the way of writing a good drama. Those kinds of historical nitpicks did not deter Shakespeare, and they don't deter Orloff and Emmerich. All of them understand that "The play's the thing," and that history doesn't mean diddleysquat compared to that.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Tinkers, Tailors, Soldiers, Spies
I don't see how I can review this film without also reviewing the 1979 BBC version of the story. Especially because I prefer the new version.
And that is nigh unto heresy, if you know the original. That version starred Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley, and his performance in it is often referred to (and rightly) as one of the pinnacles of his illustrious career. So my preference for this new version should in no way be construed to mean that I prefer Gary Oldman's performance to Alec Guinness' in the same role. That's not the issue. It's that the STORYTELLING of the new version of the film is better than the storytelling of the older version. It's simply a better movie, on almost all counts.
The reason for this IMO is that they hired Tomas Alfredson (the Swedish director of "Let The Right One In") to helm the making of this movie version, and hired two talented writers (one of whom died during the production) to pen it. And the three of them done good. Real good. With only 127 minutes in which to tell their story, they did a better job than the best BBC directors and writers of their era were able to do with the same story in seven hours.
The plot is as classic an example of Cold War Spy Storytelling now as it was when John Le Carré penned it. "Control" (head of the British Secret Service, played in this film by John Hurt) learns to his dismay that there may be a mole in the top echelons of the "Circus." He sends an operative to Budapest to find out who it is, but that operation turns disastrously and publicly sour, and Control is forced to resign, taking his top aide George Smiley with him. Fast forward a couple of years, and the notion that there is a mole resurfaces. Control has died and the four people he suspected are now in charge of the Circus, so Smiley is brought out of retirement to find out who the mole might be. The twists and turns are exquisite, Smiley personifying a master spy more akin to Bobby Fischer than James Bond. It's been many years since I last read the book, so I can't say for sure, but there is a possibility that this latest retelling of the story may be better than le Carré's original novel.
It should be mentioned that Gary Oldman's performance in this film is as understated as many of his past performances have been overstated, and that's a good thing. But the bottom line for me yet again -- a growing trend in TV and television -- is that if you want a classic British story told well, hire a Swede to tell it. Tomas Alfredson even looks like George Smiley.
Change for a Dollar (2010)
This is an extraordinary film. Deep bow.
Sharon Wright is a name to watch. As I discern from the IMDb, she is an actress who is segueing into the worlds of writing, producing, and directing. If this is the case, I for one wish her godspeed.
This is one of the best short films I have ever seen. The storytelling -- using a total of six spoken words -- is sublime, the acting low-key and perfect, and the cinematography rode on the wings of the same angel who inspired the story. Every moment of this ten-minute film is lovely, a celebration of the power of intent, and the change that each of us could effect on the world around us every day, if only we were a bit more aware.
Rock on, whoever and wherever you are, Sharon. You done good with this one.