Yearly Archives: 2012

Movie Review: Seven Psychopaths

This is one of my favorite movie stills of all time.

“Seven Psychopaths” is one of those film in which its title is also the title of the screenplay a character is writing in the film. However, it’s not one of those films that just ends with the final scene being typed out, so we can take comfort in knowing that everything that just happened was only in some writer’s head.

“Seven Psychopaths” is an insane deconstruction of action movies that I loved every minute of. Perhaps Hollywood has reached a tipping point when it comes to telling crime tales, and “Seven Psychopaths” is exactly what it needed to put it back in line. Meta films walk a very tight rope, and “Seven Psychopaths” manages to consistently stay in line.

I have never understood why films about screenwriters have gotten such a bad reputation. Thanks to the weird minds of screenwriters created by the weird minds of screenwriters, we’ve gotten “Sunset Boulevard,” “Barton Fink,” and “Being John Malkovich.” I have a feeling that “Seven Psychopaths” was written when Martin McDonagh was going through writer’s block. Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) hasn’t gotten past the title for his latest script, “Seven Psychopaths.” Marty is a drunk, which is in his heritage, as others tend to frequently remind him. He is also in a bad relationship with a controlling girlfriend (Abbie Cornish). He wants his script to be about seven different psychopaths. However, he’s having trouble finding his psychos.

“Seven Psychopaths” was made for both film buffs and crime news fanatics. Marty’s best friend happens to be a dognapper named Billy (Sam Rockwell). He wants to help Marty write his script, so he puts out an ad seeking out every psychopath in Los Angeles with a great story. Billy is always eating junk food and he may be completely insane. I always knew Rockwell was a great actor, but I never realized he could be this funny. His performance is filled with twitchiness and manic energy that makes it impossible to know what he could do next. If for some reason another film about Hunter S. Thompson were to be made (I’m hoping for a version of “Rum Diary” that’s actually good), I would cast Rockwell above all others to play Thompson.

Christopher Walken, in his best role in years, plays Hans, the eccentric boss of the dognapping empire. While he can kill it in small roles (“Pulp Fiction,” “Annie Hall”) he is capable of emotional range that goes much further than “creepy guy with a raspy voice.” His character is that archetypal old criminal who seems too nice to ever shoot. He’s also raising money for the same reason many other film criminals have: his wife has cancer. Why he thinks dognapping is the best way to pay for his wife’s treatment is beyond me, but I don’t think the reasons are all that important.

“Seven Psychopaths” commits so many felonies against good screenwriting. Yet, it breaks all of the rules with such confidence and self-awareness that it just can’t be held against McDonagh. Now, I’m not saying that self-awareness is an excuse for bad writing. However, they come across much better when they are done intentionally. “Seven Psychopaths” knows that the kind of story it wants to tell has been done so many times before, so it might as well try to present it in a new way.

“Seven Psychopaths” introduces characters and subplots, and then gets rid of them whenever it damn well pleases. Breaking screenwriting rules is actually beneficial here: it adds a dangerous, unstable element to the whole story. It’s a screenwriter projecting his own mind through the eyes of another screenwriter, and neither have any idea where their own stories can take them. And that is a beautiful thing about writing a film: when you have absolutely no idea where the story you are inventing is going to end.

Despite the unpredictability, McDonagh seemed to have a good plan for where to end this film in the same way that “In Bruges” tied everything together so perfectly in the end. “Seven Psychopaths” is a huge ensemble, and it makes a mobster played by Woody Harrelson, a serial killer who kills mobsters, and an adorable Shih Tzu all come together. I am not trying to start a fight here, but I will take that Shih Tzu over Uggie any day of the week.

I see “Seven Psychopaths” as being about the purpose of violence in movies. Sometimes, it has to exist just punish people who had it coming. At one point, Billy suggests they all just go out into the desert and forget about everything that happened. That doesn’t work for long, and not only because Billy is an idiot. Perhaps the reason that heist films end in a shootout is because that’s the only natural course for a criminal to go on. No matter how hard you try, cliches can never be completely avoided. But if you present them in the right way, they can show why movies are such an exhilarating experience.

A friend of mine made a very accurate remark about Martin McDonagh, in that he is the only auteur bred during a generation of Tarantino ripoffs that can ripoff Tarantino correctly. That may be partly because McDonagh got his training in theater, so he knows how to write the long scenes of dialogue that mark a Tarantino film. Not only that, but he also gives the characters funny and insightful things to say. We don’t mind if the story is delayed for a bit, because what the characters are saying is so good to listen to. If a film has good dialogue, that means it can be listened to without the accompanying images and still be just as good.

As someone who is currently writing a script, “Seven Psychopaths” spoke to me on a very high level by nailing a writer’s journey. Whenever it looks like we’re just sitting there doing nothing, there is actually about a thousand ideas forming in our heads, looking for ways to become a whole. “Seven Psychopaths” is filled with little mini stories that are just as good as the main story. Some of the mini stories are made up and told within a story that is also made up. “Seven Psychopaths” is a movie about how life doesn’t turn out like it does in the movie. Try not to let your head explode before you can actually go see it for yourself.

Yes, that is Tom Waits and a bunny rabbit.

Rosemary’s Baby: My Favorite Horror Film

Three years ago, I released a list of the five best horror films in honor of Halloween. However, three years is a long time and I am certainly not the same person I was back then. Naturally, both my opinions and taste have changed since then.

In 2009, I hailed “The Silence of the Lambs” as the best horror film ever made. I admit that I have never been the biggest fan of horror films. Zombies and slashers have never quite done it for me. So I think it would be more appropriate to say that this new post is about my favorite horror film. Seeing as I have yet to watch “Night of the Living Dead,” I don’t feel totally qualified to judge which horror film is the absolute best ever made. While I still consider “The Silence of the Lambs” a masterpiece, I have come to realize that “Rosemary’s Baby” is truly my favorite horror film of all time.

One of the biggest complaints made against of modern horror films is how the genre has substituted true suspense for blood and guts. Maybe that is why the horror films which effected me most usually have a supernatural element to them. Ironically though, I hate “The Exorcist.” Giving a character powers that they do not understand and cannot handle can say a whole lot thematically. For example, in “Carrie,” her telepathy is partly a metaphor for her ignorance of her journey into womanhood. “Carrie” does not get enough mentions in top ten lists.

“Rosemary’s Baby” isn’t even that frightening throughout its running time. Then again, there shouldn’t have to be someone hiding behind every door in order to make something scary. A scary idea can be more frightening than a few cheap screams.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is also one of the films that proves that Roman Polanski is a master filmmaker. Few directors have ever been so bold as to view humanity as so overwhelmingly dark. With the exception of “The Pianist,” the endings to most of Polanski’s films are devoid of optimism. However, they are never devoid of meaning.

The film is set mostly in one location. More horror films should use less locations, as giving characters less places to go for safety can make a story all the more chilling. The film centers around certified New York yuppies Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) Woodhouse who move into The Dakota. The Dakota would become the sight of a real tragedy 12 years later, as it was the home of John Lennon, and he was murdered just outside of it. One scene in the film showing a dead body just outside the building feels all the more eery when seen through the lens of history.

The film begins more hopefully than it ends. The young couple is ready to have a baby, yet Guy is struggling to make it as an actor. Their neighbors are the overly hospital Castevets (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). Gordon deservingly won an Oscar for this role. It has always been difficult for me to decide which version of Ruth Gordon she should best be remembered by: the crazy, spritely old Maude of “Harold and Maude,” or the crazy old witch who acted like anyone’s grandmother in “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Guy will do anything to make his acting dreams a reality, and he may or may not have made a deal with the Castevets to transform Rosemary’s seed into the son of Satan. Besides one scene early on in the film which is presented with a nightmarish quality, “Rosemary’s Baby” is mostly grounded in reality throughout. It is also a detective story, with Rosemary investigating her own pregnancy and trying to find out whether her deepest fears are actually all too real. I am not sure how this film was advertised when it was first released in 1968, or whether people knew what the ending would be like going into it. I do not believe saying this is a spoiler, but anyone going into this film would automatically believe that Rosemary is right in her suspicions. If she wasn’t, then there wouldn’t be a film at all.

Keeping that in mind does not managet to ruin the power of “Rosemary’s Baby” in any way. “Rosemary’s Baby” possesses the greatest trait of American films from its era: building up and up and up to a devastating conclusion. Letting things sizzle for longer than they should always leads to great results. The unseen is most terrifying, and that is why we are kept in the dark for so long about this Satanic mystery.

Many horror films play on the idea of how frightening the unseen can be. What makes “Rosemary’s Baby” so unique is the way in which it plays on common fears. “Rosemary’s Baby” asks whether or not we can really trust the people who are supposed to help us unconditionally, such as our family, friends, doctors, and neighbors. In true Polanski fashion, “Rosemary’s Baby” shows that even our loved ones could be working against us because human selfishness knows no boundaries.

Polanski’s films always center around one character who are pulled into evil despite never wanting to be a part of it. The final shot of “Rosemary’s Baby” is both haunting and strangely sublime. Rosemary is that moral center, and she comes to grips with the idea that even if the world were ruled by absolute evil, evil would not be able to exist without love. In Polanski’s eyes, a world without love is more terrifying than staring Satan directly in the eyes.

“Rosemary’s Baby” may be so unforgivingly dark, but there is a reason that I want to keep revisiting it. It is a continuously engaging story that is never ruined by knowing the twists. The script, based on the novel by Ira Levin and adapted for the screen by Polanski himself, shows Polanski’s overlooked gift for humor. “Rosemary’s Baby” is populated by an array of colorful New York high society stereotypes that nearly border on satire. I have not read the original source material, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Polanski crafted many of these exaggerated characters himself, as he always enjoyed spinning our views on the wealthy. Polanski had a reputation for being difficult to work with, but it seems as if his boldest decisions usually end up being for the better. If it wasn’t for Polanski’s change to the ending of Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” script, that film might have been just another detective story.

Believing in the existence of a demon child might seem ridiculous, but the world created by this film is so well crafted that I actually felt stupid believing that the opposite could be true. People seem to only want to talk about horror films around Halloween. “Rosemary’s Baby” is perfect for any time of the year. Because it is as frightening and daring today as it was 44 years ago, it remains timeless in every sense of the word.

People please tell me, which horror classics are your favorites? Which ones do I still need to watch?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Usually, romances based on Smiths mixtapes and friendships based on vinyl collections* are on the list of things that annoy me most in movies. However, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” makes all these little obsessions feel authentic.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is based on a novel that I now feel the need to read. This is a rare adaptation that was actually written for the screen by its original author. This is also the directorial debut for author Stephen Chbosky, who should spend more time directing movies in his future.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” deserves to be mentioned alongside many great classics about misfits in high school, from “Rebel Without a Cause” to “The Breakfast Club.” Based on the music, a very prominent feature here, “Perks” takes place in Pittsburgh during the early 1990s. Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a Holden Caufield-type with real problems. After some emotional issues and time spent in a hospital, Charlie returns to the real world in preparation for his freshman year of high school. Before I saw this film, I forgot how much high school tended to suck: the immaturity, the propensity for hurtful nicknames, and the culture of cliques. On his first day, Charlie can’t even eat lunch with his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev). So, he becomes a wallflower.

While the complicated love story might seem like the central motivation for most of Charlie’s actions, it is the friendship formed with Patrick (Ezra Miller) that opens Charlie’s eyes for the first time. Patrick, who is called “Nothing” by his classmates, spends most of his spare time messing with his shop teacher as well as anyone else he can find. He is also the only openly gay kid in the entire school, at a time when being open was not accepted by all. Patrick is played with a manic energy by Miller, who always moves his body around and yells with excitement when there’s nothing to be excited about. It surprises me that everyone wouldn’t want to follow in his footsteps.

When Charlie has no one to sit with at the football game, Patrick has no problem keeping him company. Patrick then takes Charlie under his wing and brings him to his first party. There, he accidentally eats a brownie filled with weed that finally gets him out of his head, and his witty thoughts amuse the exiles of the school, who are appropriately labeled “the island of the misfit toys.” Most importantly, it is here where Charlie meets Patrick’s step sister Sam (Emma Watson) and is on the path to first love. Not before he finishes that milk shake, though.

“Perks” is much more about how kids affect each other, as opposed to just how adults affect kids. The adult characters are just there in Charlie’s life, and they are almost an alien species that he can’t properly communicate with. We will find out why this is so later on. His parents are never given names. Charlie’s one true adult friendship is with his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). I have a feeling that the book delves much deeper into their relationship, as the film shows no conflict in it, except for the fact that Mr. Anderson is always giving Charlie books, which Charlie reads in no time. Despite that, I still really liked this element in the film. It is not just because Paul Rudd is an incredibly likable dude, but because it felt meaningful and never trite.

It is really the young actors that shine brightest here. Watson can now be known as more than just Hermione Granger. Her American accent seems shaky at first, but she ends up sliding into it comfortably and then embodying a character who is both proud of who she is and uncomfortable with who she once was. As Charlie, Lerman is memorable yet understated. Charlie is a complicated character to get down, but Lerman nails it. While the story is told from Charlie’s perspective, there is the feeling that there is information that Charlie is withholding both from the audience and himself. This might be the first film I’ve ever seen in which the narrator is unreliable because he is lying to himself. I think that’s a little more radical than people have made it out to be.

“Perks” feels like a scattered collection of someone’s journal entries and memories that sprung to life with vivid sound and color. The film brings an entire time period to life, and it makes feel as alive as the present day. Its sense of place is evident in a scene where Sam stands in the back of Patrick’s truck as they pass through a tunnel and onto a bridge. Shockingly, it makes Pittsburgh seem more magical than industrial.

The film finds its sense of time in its soundtrack. The music selected is so good that after seeing the film, I immediately listened to the soundtrack, and then listened to it many more times. In terms of creating nostalgia, the soundtrack is on the same level as “Dazed and Confused” and “Almost Famous.” In the same way that I will always associate Foghat’s “Slow Ride” with the ride to get Aerosmith tickets and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” with a bus ride sing along, I will forever associate The Smiths’ “Asleep” and Dexy Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” with mix tapes and such. The best part about a great soundtrack is when it can open your mind to new music. All I can say is that after first finding out the track listing, I had a lot more new artists to find on Spotify.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Emma Watson
The exact moment that everyone who wasn’t already in love fell in love with Emma Watson.

Now, there might be some people who find the idea of friendships and romances based on a love of movies and music to be a little impractical. This idea was parodied quite well in “500 Days of Summer.” Yet, it does not feel pretentious in “Perks” in the slightest bit. “Perks” is not about a group of people showing how cool they are because of their taste. It is about the ability to bond with others over shared cultural experiences. Sometimes, the words we speak can only do so much. Liking the same piece of art as someone else can bring out so much about one’s personality that they could never even speak. And yes, if you don’t like certain things, I may be judging you.

But I digress. It is hard for me to speak to those who have read the novel, because they have a much greater wealth of knowledge of these characters and this world than I do. But I can speak to “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” as a film. Every emotional punch hits as hard as it was fully intended to. It pulls out a late in the story twist that I did not see coming. I believe this was a story that was made to be told on film.

Oftentimes, the purpose of great art can be to create characters who are suffering and who are lonely. I believe this provides catharsis to those who went through these emotions at one point or are currently experiencing them. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” will connect to everyone because no matter who you are, at some point in your life, you were once an awkward high school kid who didn’t quite know where you belonged.

*For the record (pun possibly intended): I like The Smiths and own a vinyl collection. I don’t know what that makes me.


Movie Review: Looper

Director Rian Johnson is exactly what movies need. Perhaps the best way to break Hollywood out of cliche land is to play into the most typical of genre conventions and then turn them completely on their heads.

“Looper” must be the work of someone who doesn’t finish until every little detail is drawn out, and every possible subplot comes full circle. There’s a lot to get through and a lot to sort out, but the fact that the ending pulls it off in an unpredictable way makes it work all the better.

“Looper” might be the first rurban (rural and urban) futuristic dystopia I’ve seen on film. It is not set in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, but rather an unnamed metropolis and its outskirts in Kansas. It also occupies many different times in the future. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper. In the future, time travel is discovered and very illegal. The mob sends people from the future into the past and it is the job of the Looper to kill them and dispose of the body. Basically, the Looper stands in the field and waits for the body to be zapped to them.

However, there’s a twist to being a Looper: your job doesn’t last long. Because of how illegal time travel is in the future, a Looper must kill their own future self at some point. After doing this, they get a big payday and get to live happily off of it for 30 years until they are kidnapped and brought back into the past. This process is called “closing the loop.” I’m always a sucker for creative wordplay.

I like films which hinge their character’s personalities on their careers, and only a certain kind of person is fit to be a Looper. A Looper must act on the fly, never hesitate, and be prepared to die. You can see this in how Joe shoots every person that is zapped to him without even thinking. However, when his future self (Bruce Willis) is zapped to him, he hesitates. It doesn’t feel like one of those inexplicable movie moments when you wonder “why would he hesitate now?”. On the contrary, it feels very human, as if no one can know what death is like until they actually face it.

Yet, despite an expiration date, Loopers never lose their free will. One Looper (Paul Dano) lets his older self go. Meanwhile, young Joe has no control over the reckless and unruly older Joe; his future self escapes into Young Joe’s present.

While hunting down future Joe and attempting to close his own loop, many other loops are opened, and historical events are altered. “Looper” establishes from the very beginning that time travel is possible and because of that, it never tries to explain it. A story that tries to explain time travel can have difficulty working. Time travel involves many disciplines (philosophy, physics, etc.) that I have only limited knowledge of. Watching a film explain it is like being in a complicated lecture with a professor who won’t explain his notes. “Looper” is not about how time travel came about, but rather what potential consequences it can have.

Keep that in mind when you see “Looper.” Some of the time-altering sequences threw me off guard at first, but just keep in mind that the most accomplished part of the film is that it assumes that the audience is smart enough to at least try and figure it out on its own.

Now that you know that there’s more to “Looper” than untangling mysteries, you can appreciate the immense detail put into this world. I believe this is in part what will make it so memorable. Even the guns that the Loopers use (blunderbusses) are instrumental to the story. In this future, China is the new world leader. This splicing in of timeliness made some people in the audience chuckle, but it made me think of “Blade Runner” creating a future that was heavily influenced by Japan, which was world leader at the time. Like “Blade Runner,” “Looper” can be seen as a reflection not just of how we feel the future will be, but how we feel the present is.

Of course, much has been said about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s physical transformation into a younger Bruce Willis. This is a great feat for the makeup department. However, Gordon-Levitt pulls it off by actually morphing himself into Willis. Apparently, he only watched recent movies that Willis starred in to prepare for the role. That way, he could understand what Willis would become, as opposed to only who he used to be.

It is kind of an amazing to see two actors play the exact same person sitting in a room together. Watching old and young Joe trying to piece memories together past and present over steak and eggs in a diner is hands-down one of my favorite scenes of any film this year. It is so well directed and written that it ends up being intriguing and even funny all at once.

Then, Johnson makes an unusual choice for a film like this. Instead of speeding it up and constantly raising the stakes and the action, he slows it down. Joe still needs to clear his name. He seeks the notorious gangster and boss of all Loopers, who is named The Rainmaker, as a young boy, and attempts to kill him. Joe leaves the city and heads out to the country, where he finds the young boy living on a farm with his very protective mother (a nearly unrecognizable Emily Blunt). This section of the film might not be the most breathlessly exciting, but it is where it gains its emotional weight. At its heart, “Looper” is the story of what kind of person it takes to make the world a better place.

Rian Johnson seems like one of those filmmakers who is so well versed in cinema. At times, the characters of “Looper” communicate as if they are in a film noir, a convention Johnson also used in “Brick.” Then, it even becomes supernatural (in a way that I will not spoil). The violence in it is not glorified, but it is certainly stylized. Part of the sick, twisted fun of being a filmmaker is discovering all of the different angles you can use to show someone getting shot in the chest.

The most gloriously cinematic part of “Looper” is that pretty much everything that is brought into play at one part of the story is brought back again later on. “Looper” is a meta story because just as Joe must close his own loop, the film must payoff all of its plants and in effect, close its own loops. “Looper” takes place in the year 2044 and shows a world of hovering cars, nearly microscopic cell phones, and drugs in the form of eye drops. “Looper” is not suggesting that time travel will necessarily be discovered by the year 2044, but what it does suggest is that greed and selfishness can lead to an endless cycle of misery. And eyedrops aren’t enough to cure it.

Time Travel Confusion Scale: More than “Back to the Future,” but less than “Lost”

Also, forgot to mention this in my review: Jeff Daniels gives a fantastic performance as the surprisingly zen crime boss. He is currently having the career comeback that I never knew he deserved. 

Seth MacFarlane to Host the Oscars

This morning, it was announced that Seth MacFarlane will be hosting this year’s Oscars. While my thoughts on MacFarlane are always a little mixed*, for once I can say that the Academy made a smart choice.

I like MacFarlane as a person, and have a lot of respect for him. I cannot even fathom how he has three shows on television and still has time to write and direct a feature film. Also, he did a fine job hosting “SNL” this season, because the guy just looked like he had a blast being there.

In recent years, the Academy has seemed to have trouble figuring out what kind of host they want. With MacFarlane, they get it all: he can sing show tunes, dance around, do impressions, and tell jokes. While he connects primarily with a younger audience, he will also keep the older voters and guests entertained with his Sinatra-like singing.

I can now anticipate that the show will be less of a drag to watch this year. MacFarlane will certainly be more lively than James Franco, and fresher than Billy Crystal. Maybe this will open some doors and in the future we will get other multi-talented hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon (who had to back out from hosting duties). Still, I am going to take this time to complain, because this is the Oscars, and the Oscars always come with something to complain about. Can the Academy ever get a host who will be sharp, funny, and a little provocative in the same way that Jon Stewart was? Could someone like Louis C.K. or Patton Oswalt ever host? Only in my wildest dreams.

People Who Could Make Great Hosts in the Future: John Mulaney, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Donald Glover, Tina Fey, Jon Hamm, Neil Patrick Harris

*On the one hand, Seth MacFarlane created “Family Guy,” which had three of the best seasons of any animated show ever. On the other hand, Seth MacFarlane also ruined “Family Guy.” And again, on the other hand, he created “American Dad,” a show which is consistently underrated.

Here’s MacFarlane’s Spot-On Ryan Lochte Impression:

One of my favorite “Family Guy” moments ever. I can only imagine this is how MacFarlane felt upon hearing the good news:

Analog This: My 2012 Emmy Winners

I think everything that can be said about the many problems with last night’s Emmys has already been said. Instead of ranting about Jon Cryer and “Modern Family” ruining everything, I will just say that I am happy that Louis C.K. got rewarded both for changing standup comedy and pulling off perhaps the greatest fart joke ever and making it last for an entire episode.

Here are my winners for the best the year had to offer in television. Keep in mind that many of these people and shows weren’t even nominated for Emmys this year (after the jump):

Outstanding Comedy Series: “Girls”

Outstanding Drama Series: “Breaking Bad”

Outstanding Writing (Comedy): Chris McKenna, “Community” (Episode: “Remedial Chaos Theory”)

Outstanding Writing (Drama): Erin Levy, Matthew Weiner, “Mad Men” (Episode: “Far Away Places”)

Outstanding Actor (Comedy): Louis CK, “Louie”

Outstanding Actress (Comedy): Gillian Jacobs, “Community”

Outstanding Supporting Actor (Comedy): Nick Offerman, “Parks & Recreation”

Outstanding Supporting Actress (Comedy): Eliza Coupe, “Happy Endings”

Outstanding Actor (Drama): Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”

Outstanding Actress (Drama): Lena Headey, “Game of Thrones”

Outstanding Supporting Actor (Drama): TIE: Giancarlo Esposito, “Breaking Bad”; John Slattery, “Mad Men”

Outstanding Supporting Actress (Drama): Christina Hendricks, “Mad Men”

Outstanding Directing (Comedy): Jay Chandrasekhar, “Community” (Episode: “The First Chang Dynasty”)

Outstanding Directing (Drama): TIE: Vince Gilligan, “Breaking Bad” (Episode: “Face Off”); Neil Marshall, “Game of Thrones” (Episode: “Blackwater”)

Outstanding Variety Series: “The Colbert Report”

And if I were to make this list a little bit longer: Jim Rash (“Community”), Donald Glover (“Community”), Danny Pudi (“Community), the rest of the cast of “Happy Endings,” Amy Poehler (“Parks & Rec”), Chris Pratt (“Parks & Rec”), Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”), “Archer,” “Bored to Death,” Allison Williams (“Girls”), “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (everything about the episode “Palestinian Chicken”), “Portlandia”

From “Game of Thrones” episode “Blackwater”

Movie Review: The Master

“The Master” has already been hailed as a masterpiece by many. I don’t know if that word is exactly right. It is too confounding and too hard to solve in one viewing to already be hailed as a work so perfect that it dwarfs all other films that come near it. The whole thing is like a dream you’re trying to recall: it’s messy and sometimes hard to fully piece together, but it is ultimately engrained in memory.

“The Master” opens up at the end of World War II, as Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) cruises listlessly on a battleship returning home from the Pacific. Like the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous feature “There Will Be Blood” (which deserves to be hailed as a masterpiece), “The Master” starts off quietly. We are asked to observe humans as if we are observing animals at a zoo. This is important, as the cult this film revolves around believes that humans and animals aren’t too different.

Little is told about his war experience, and very little needs to be known. He has probably killed enough people to haunt him forever. Also, he hasn’t been with a woman in a long time. After serving under orders for so many years, Freddie and the other soldiers are told that for the first time, they can now do whatever they want. Listless Freddie goes from one job to another, always getting kicked out for drinking too much and starting fights. Freddie would have found himself a very good fit in a Hemingway novel. All of the aggressive and confused qualities are there. He is like someone from the Lost Generation that got transported to post World War II America.

The film shifts from third person to viewing the world almost entirely through Freddie’s eyes. Once he decides to wander onto a party boat in San Francisco, the eventual story begins to form. Freddie wakes up in a drunken haze the next morning and meets the man commanding the ship: Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd bares a strong physical resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, and they both have atypical first names (Hubbard’s is Lafayette). Yet, Dodd’s newly formed ideology, The Cause, bares a name that is much more vague. Much has been said about how this film is not so subtlety based on Scientology. A fascinating question this film asks about Dodd (and, in effect, Hubbard) is this: did a man who was actually this smart somehow buy into his own lies?

“The Master” is largely about a world that is built on delusion and filled with people who take comfort buying into lies. Freddie follows The Cause as it builds into a phenomenon in 1950. He is taken in by the Dodd family, and has a mixed relationship with them. He constantly has his eye on Lancaster’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers). Meanwhile, Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) sees danger in Freddie’s erratic behavior, and Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie that his father is “making all of this up as he goes along.” Freddie is never there against his will, yet he chooses to stay. Lancaster Dodd, played to perfection with mystery and almost too kind of a demeanor by Hoffman, is a commanding force. Like every leader of a successful movement, he can sway so many because he uses just the right word every time he speaks. While Lancaster is not far off from Hubbard, at times he made me think of Charles Foster Kane. Like Kane, he speaks so smoothly and confidently when swaying others, yet can break down when his wisdom is questioned.

While Lancaster Dodd is the master referred to in the title, this is actually Freddie’s story. Phoenix makes the most of this and delivers what will likely be a career-defining performance for him. He says so much in so few words. Behind his eyes, there is emotional pain that we can’t even imagine. Sometimes, he appears to be talking out of the side of his mouth, as if there is something more that he will never tell us. He is so unpredictable that at every turn, I didn’t know if I should anticipate a mental breakdown or not. Surprisingly, the most powerful thing about Phoenix’s performance is the occasional smile he gives, and his sense of humor that arises at the most perfectly inappropriate moments.

At this point, Paul Thomas Anderson is assured enough of his voice as a filmmaker that he doesn’t mind breaking the rules. There are long stretches of time with just dialogue and no action. Yet, he can make scenes like that simmer with tension. When Dodd first questions Freddie, Freddie is told that if he blinks, they will have to start over again. Just from that line, the stakes of this scene suddenly become so much higher. The closeups make it seem like two men are staring directly into each other’s souls.

 “The Master” is brought to life with Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s stunning cinematography. The landscapes and darkly lit rooms often made me feel like I was watching an Edward Hopper painting come to life. While the people are corrupted, the land feels more pure than it did in Anderson’s other works. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood’s score injects jolts of unexpected emotion that guides many scenes so well. Meanwhile, a few previously recorded songs from the era invoke a sense of melancholy.

Yet, the subtle approach of “The Master” sometimes serves as its downfall. At times, it says too little and doesn’t give enough to guide the audience through. Some important scenes lose their power right after they end, because nothing builds off of it. Lancaster is not given enough obstacles to overcome and Freddie rarely seems like he is in much danger. I feel like I have to compare “The Master” to “There Will Be Blood,” as “There Will Be Blood” was Anderson’s last film and the one in which his vision was most fully formed. “The Master” sets up many ideas, but it doesn’t set up as many conflicts that we are dying to see play out in the same way that “There Will Be Blood” did. “The Master” lacks that seamless flow. I am sure that many of the greatest detractors of “The Master” will claim that it is a bunch of pretty looking scenes strung together with no purpose. I believe there is more to “The Master” than that, but the strings holding it together certainly felt loose at times.

Even with my objections, I cannot place myself into the camp of detractors. The wildly ambitious nature of “The Master” is something to marvel at. One viewing simply won’t do it justice. The ending stirs more questions than answers, but they are the kind of questions that give way to deep conversation afterwards. “The Master” is not simply about The Cause. It’s about what Freddie’s actions say about the rest of mankind. He is someone who wants to be controlled while maintaining independence and he finds that you may only be able to have both. Saying much more may not do anyone well, as there is still so much more to explore below the surface. While it does not end with the bang I expected it to, “The Master” concludes in a manner that is surprisingly thoughtful. Paul Thomas Anderson has broken from his own master (cinematic conventions) and managed to make something that is so abstract yet at times, so clear. Still, there is so much more I wish I could have seen.

Movie Review: Sleepwalk with Me

Even though “Sleepwalk with Me” focuses on bad relationships and near-death experiences, you may feel eerily comfortable. Mike Birbiglia reminds everyone in the first few seconds that we are watching a movie. He also tells us to turn our cell phones off. “Sleepwalk with Me” is like watching a very well directed standup special: the comedian will take you on this journey and no matter what is said, you will have to be on his side or get out.

Birbiglia’s life story is funny, interesting, and inspiring enough to have been turned into a one man show, podcast episode, book, and now a movie. The story has worked in every form. Birbiglia uses film to its fullest advantage to capture some of the best and worst parts of this time in his life, and he proves himself to be as skilled of a director as he is a writer and comedian.

“Sleepwalk with Me” is interspersed with monologues from Birbiglia as he drives around in his car. It has a similar effect to Woody Allen talking to the camera in “Annie Hall,” but here we get an even better sense of what part of his life he is in now. He’s well-rested, self-aware, and sure of himself. He basically tells us how we should feel about his own actions at crucial moments. This is a very nice cushion, as Birbiglia never tries to sugarcoat his own life story as others might be tempted to do.

“Sleepwalk with Me” is also an insightful look at a failed relationship, and would make a great double feature with “Celeste and Jesse Forever.” Playing himself under the alias of Matt Pandamiglio, Birbiglia manages to give himself a name that’s even harder to pronounce than his actual one. “Sleepwalk with Me” details the time in his life when he was struggling to make it as a comedian. After his younger sister gets engaged, he feels more pressure to tie the knot with his long time girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). All of the stresses and bad habits lead to sleepwalking. Sometimes, it is funny (“there’s a jackal in the room!”) and other times, it’s downright destructive.

Mike’s family, frequently the butt of many of his jokes, is a major part of the film. His mother (Carol Kane) is the kind of person who concludes her speeches with something totally insignificant. His father (James Rebhorn), meanwhile, is a little more emotionally distant. Yet, he can repeat every part of a conversation even when he’s all the way in the other room.

At one point, Birbiglia has to remind us that “we’re on his side.” Yes, he believes his actions were bad enough that he has to make sure that we won’t abandon him, and that is definitely one of the reasons we never do. “Sleepwalk with Me” isn’t about trying to justify one’s actions, it’s about growing as a person.  It is a coming of age story for life as an adult. A lot of his revelations truly feel like trinkets of wisdom. It is hard to do that and not seem trite. We witness the moment that he finds his voice as a comedian, and learns a great lesson (taught by Marc Maron in form of Marc Mulheren): being funny is about speaking the truth, not trying to make people laugh. It’s a fact of life that is often easy to forget.

“Sleepwalk with Me” dabbles towards the surreal in its dream sequences. Two of them are obviously dreams off the bat. However, one of the sequences is so well done that it took me almost to the moment that Birbiglia wakes up to realize that it was a dream. The whole sequence is silly, but not implausible enough to not be reality. And some of those moments when he wakes up to find himself reenacting his dreams are funny because they all actually happened. Once again, truth is always funniest.

Independent comedies tend to take the road of dry humor before turning into a drama in the third act. Many of them seem to be afraid to make us laugh out loud. Not Mike Birbiglia. If you followed Birbiglia before this film, then chances are you knew many of these stories, and have heard many of these jokes. But most of his jokes never get old, and seeing events we’ve only heard described acted out make them all the more funny and memorable. The only way to understand the uncomfortable feeling of someone’s first time doing standup is to actually see it. Describing a lip-synching contest is one thing, but showing a girl awkwardly mouthing along to the Backstreet Boys just can’t be topped.

I would venture to say that Mike Birbiglia is a brave man. He reveals large chunks of his life that most people would usually keep private. Not to mention, he has to reenact one of the most physically painful moments in his entire life. True to his comedian form, he even “zings” the doctor in the hospital. And when I say this film is inspiring, I mean it in the best sense of the word, and not in the Hallmark way. “Sleepwalk with Me” is essentially about a man who used to solve his problems by avoiding them and now solves his problems by confronting them. Being a good artist and performer seems to fall in line with this: to work well on stage and behind the camera, you must know what your voice is. And to know what your voice is, you must confront everything good and bad in your life.

Voice and vision are traits that a lot of filmmakers lack. With his first feature, Birbiglia announced who he is with clarity. Comedy buffs will enjoy seeing this behind-the-scenes look at the standup world peppered with many great cameos. Those who are unfamiliar with Birbiglia will find this a great introduction to his style of comedy. If there was one qualm I had with “Sleepwalk with Me,” it’s that Birbiglia didn’t include much of his relationship with his father, which was detailed to a much greater extent in the book. The sense we got is that his father believed he needed a “goddamn reality check.” In the book, it went much deeper than that, and the final part of the story in which the two of them open up nearly moved me to tears. But I think that can be saved for another time, as Birbiglia has so many great stories that will make for many more great movies.

Top 6 Most Anticipated Fall Films

6. Argo

Surprisingly, Hollywood is very accepting of stars who reinvent themselves. After the bomb that shall not be named (but I’ll do it anyway: “Gigli”), Ben Affleck established himself as a fine director with “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.” In “The Town,” he showed that he also isn’t bad in front of the camera. And now comes “Argo,” which has earned rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival. “Argo” takes Affleck out of Boston, as he makes his first foray into historical drama. It’s about the recently uncovered CIA mission to use a fake movie as a way to get into Iran and free the Americans taken hostage in 1979. It’s a story that sounds almost too fascinating to be true. “Argo” looks like a smart political thriller that I’ll enjoy because it speaks in a language that I can understand: movies. Also, Bryan Cranston is in it. Unless he decides to star in “Rock of Ages 2,”* he can do no wrong in my book.

Coming To Theaters: October 12

5. Looper

Director Rian Johnson is skilled at toying with genre conventions (“Brick”). I can’t wait to see what he has in store for science fiction. The concept of “Looper” is already boggling my brain, yet the idea of Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a younger Bruce Willis is kind of brilliant.** I am always prepared for disappointment  but I am envisioning this being a film along the same line as “Blade Runner” and “Minority Report.” Both of those films were misunderstood upon their original releases, but gained future followings. I am hoping that “Looper” breaks through in a big way, because Hollywood still needs to see that original ideas can succeed. No matter what happens, I believe “Looper” is the kind of film that will get better and make more sense upon repeated viewings.

Coming To Theaters: September 28

4. Seven Psychopaths

It’s been four long years since Martin McDonough’s brilliant debut feature “In Bruges.” His sophomore effort, “Seven Psychopaths,” looks just as twisted and funny but with less existential dread. “Seven Psychopaths” takes us into the underworld of dognapping, which I didn’t even know existed. While its poster is very similar to the poster for “Snatch,” I believe this one will be nowhere near the same, as McDonough isn’t just constantly trying to rip off Tarantino. Plus, it boasts a nearly perfect cast that includes Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and Sam Rockwell. No word on whether or not, like “In Bruges,” this one will also include a midget being karate chopped. I will say that I have no idea what will happen in this movie, and that unpredictability is what will make it so fun.

Coming To Theaters: October 8

See the top 3 after the jump:

3. Lincoln

“Lincoln” is the kind of film that so many have dreamed, but never thought would actually exist. It has Spielberg at the helm and Daniel Day-Lewis playing Honest Abe. Hopefully, Spielberg will appeal to his darker side and this one won’t end with the family’s house totally intact despite the fact that the entire city has been destroyed by aliens (I’m still mad about the end of “War of the Worlds”). However, recounting history is one of the things Spielberg does best. Also, did I mention that Daniel Day-Lewis is playing Lincoln? Just from one glance of the first headshot of him as Lincoln, I could already tell that this will be the closest to the real thing that we will probably ever get.

Coming To Theaters: November 9

2. Skyfall

After the Bond series reinvented itself with a vengeance with “Casino Royale,” it did a spin in the wrong direction with the disappointing “Quantum of Solace.” However, I will see a Bond movie whenever it comes out, a tribute to how timeless 007 is. Thanksgiving never feels the same without him. Plus, Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Road to Perdition”) is directing and should be able to breath some new life into it. And Javier Bardem, who has a talent for playing villains (see: “No Country for Old Men”) will play Bond’a new nemesis. If Mendes can infuse the wit of classic Bond movies with the grittiness of “Casino Royale,” minus the technological lunacy of the Brosnan years, then “Skyfall” could be the best blockbuster of the second half of 2012.

Coming To Theaters: November 9

1. The Master

Only Paul Thomas Anderson could make a film that’s already being hailed a masterpiece based on its trailer alone. Trailers are usually misleading, but I have a good feeling that what we saw (at least in tone) is what we will get, plus much more. Seriously, I could watch that trailer on repeat. Anyway, I am  beyond excited to see Anderson’s latest take on false prophets. There has been controversy about the film’s blatant Scientology inspirations, which I don’t think will stop anytime soon. Anderson’s films haunt me long after I leave the theater. After the end credits for “There Will Be Blood” abruptly came up, I sat there glued to my seat, as if I had been shot with a stun gun. Such visceral reactions are an exciting thing that have been missing from movies lately. “The Master” is that jolt of cinematic awe that I’ve been waiting for.

Coming To Theaters: September 14

*I really hope this never gets made.
**As long as it’s not “The Kid.”

Analog This: Breaking Bad and the Crystal Blue Side of the American Dream

“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” 
-The Prestige


Could there have been a more perfect song to put into a “Breaking Bad” episode than “Crystal Blue Persuasion”? I wonder how long Vince Gilligan was waiting to use that song, because tonight’s episode, “Gliding Over All” seemed like the perfect place for it. Tonight, it was more apparent than ever why Walter White’s crystal blue meth is both the best and worst thing to ever happen to him.

“Gliding Over All” was one of the most important and exciting episodes of the series, which I tend to say about almost every episode. However, this one was different than most “Breaking Bad” episodes. Most episodes tend to pick their pace wisely. One week we will get an action packed thriller and the next week will be slow-burning exposition and character work. However, the mid-season finale gave us a little bit of both.

Following the death of Mike, Walt appeared to be much more humbled than he was last week. Even though Walt told Jesse that he did what had to be done (although Walt didn’t actually say that Mike was dead), this obviously wasn’t true. Despite their constant fighting, I have a feeling that Walt had a lot of respect for Mike, as Mike was a man who knew what his job was and knew how to do it well. And as we could see from all of the orders Walt barked at his hired men this week, all he wants is for people to do what they’re paid to do.

If last week saw Walt going through the “ego” stage of the “Scarface Stages of Power,” this week saw him in paranoia mode, which is probably not far from downfall. If anything could perfectly demonstrate paranoia, it’s having nine guys brutally stabbed to death throughout various prisons in the span of two minutes. Walt timed out the murder spree on the watch Jesse got him for his birthday, and it all went down as planned. As I said during the great train robbery, only in the “Breaking Bad” universe could I believe that such events could go on without a hitch. This scene was the first great montage of the episode. Set to what sounded like Christmas tunes from the 1950s, the manic nature of the scene was unsettlingly hilarious and fun to watch. The montage was worthy enough for a Martin Scorsese film, from which it seemed to be heavily influenced.

The episode’s second great montage came from watching Walt and Todd in the process of making and profiting off of their product. This was the one set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and to me, it nearly matched the breakfast montage in “Citizen Kane” in both energy and innovation. While comparing works of art to “Citizen Kane” is usually frowned upon, I believe the comparison comes in handy here, as this show is continually pushing its form forward. From the moment of the transition to Walter putting on his gear to the panoramic view of fumigation tents popping up one after another across the suburban landscape, both the scope and toil of the whole operation can be seen. I believe “Breaking Bad” will one day be taught in film school. “Gliding Over All” would not be a bad episode to put on the agenda.

As the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” montage showed, being a drug kingpin is not a simple path to easy money. Being king is a commitment. The tragic part of Walt’s reign is that he is starting to realize that being king is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Having all of the money you want provides more restrictions than freedom. Maybe Walt was better off staying Gus’s underling. At least then he had the freedom to kill his boss whenever he wanted to.

As Walt began to understand the downsides of power, the shackles of his past began to come back to haunt him. “Breaking Bad” has always been masterful at plants, payoffs, and callbacks, and this week they were plentiful. As Alan Sepinwall pointed out, the painting that Walt was transfixed by was the same one that hung in his hospital room during a season one episode. Perhaps it brought him back to a better time, despite the fact that he was dying of cancer then. However, it was at that moment that his entire family surrounded him and refused to leave his side. Now, instead of being with his real family, he was with a family that wasn’t his own. If we want to bring this back to “Citizen Kane” again, then Walt’s family is his Rosebud.

Yet another callback this week was the dented towel dispenser, which Walt had punched violently in season two after finding out that he had gone into remission. The results of this week’s MRI scan were left a mystery but whatever it was, I don’t think it mattered to Walt anymore. If the result was pain, who would cry with him? If the result was joy, who would embrace his good health?

The scene in which Walt visited Jesse was Walt’s most genuine moment of this half of the season. He had no intention of talking business with him. Rather, they reminisced about their RV. It was a really nice moment between friends, and it shows that the relationship between Walt and Jesse has blossomed into something much more than a partnership throughout this series. This is a friendship that Walt and Todd will probably never share.

After Walt left, Jesse saw the body bag filled with money* that Walt had left for him, after promising him nothing. Jesse pulled out a gun that he had at his side and tossed it to the floor. The most dangerous aspect of Walt and Jesse’s relationship is that Walt secretly takes away the things that Jesse loves, which then drives Jesse to rock bottom. And when Walt does one good thing, Jesse automatically feels like he is the bad guy. This seemed like it could have been Jesse’s final moment in the show, but he is too strong of a presence to just disappear. Also, I still find it hard to believe that Jesse will never find out the truth about Brock, Jane, and now Mike.

This week also included the reconciliation between Walt and Skyler. Skyler showed Walt the uncountable stacks of money that she has been keeping safe for him and in return, she begged for her kids back. For the first time in a very long time, Walt and Skyler wanted the exact same thing. Then, the episode brought Walt, Skyler, Hank, Marie, Walt Jr. and baby Holly out by the pool that they used to spend so much time by. Only here could a scene of domestic bliss feel so eery. It was apparent that no season finale could end this way.

And the season finale did not end that way. Most people predicted that Hank would find out Heisenberg’s true identity by the end of this episode. Only “Breaking Bad” can make predictability seem so fresh. In the episode’s greatest callback, Hank found the Walt Whitman poem and W.W. initials that he discovered in Gale’s notebook in season four. Earlier in the episode, that same Whitman book, entitled “Leaves of Grass,” could be seen for a split second. In “Breaking Bad,” every shot is important. For some reason, it just seemed right up Vince Gilligan’s alley to have Hank discover this explosive secret while sitting on the toilet. Hank, who was starting to grow frustrated with his job, just found a whole new reason to keep on going, while the rest of season five just found its biggest plot point.

With its roots in the American West, “Breaking Bad” is starting to remind me more of a five season long folk song. Walter White is beginning to find himself a little bit like the anti-heroes Johnny Cash always sang about, who discovered that the power found in money and guns don’t necessarily make you a free man. I think the last eight episodes of “Breaking Bad” will give us a man who has stopped living by “Scarface” and instead has listened to “A Satisfied Mind” a few times.

*Am I the only one who thought that Mike’s body was going to be in that duffle bag that Walt gave to Jesse?

Side Observations:

-This episode saw the return of the Ricin. Lydia almost became the latest victim of Walt’s favorite poison, but she struck a deal to save her life. She did what she was supposed to do and for that, I think Walt might take her up as a new partner.

-Not nearly enough Saul Goodman these past few episodes. But with that flash forward still in mind, there is no doubt that his last ditch plan that he presented to Walt in season three will come in handy.

-There was something very unsettling about seeing Heisenberg in such a fancy cafe.

-Surf the web for some more discussion boards and reviews of this episode. There are even more callbacks than I can count. This show truly rewards its most loyal viewers.

-There are also some interesting theories connecting these last two episodes to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” What started off as a joke became a smart, legitimate theory.

-I couldn’t resist this. When Skyler tells Walt that she “just wants her kids back,” this was the first thing to come to mind: