Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sweetheart of Scranton

It's official: My vote for the year's smartest career move goes to Amy Ryan for her current supporting role on The Office (which just started its new season Thursday nights at 9 EST on NBC). It was only last year, you may recall, that Ryan finally broke through in movies with her performance as the mindboggingly irresponsible mother of a kidnap victim in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone (a film that grows even stronger in my memory). It's not often that Oscar-nominated actors immediately move to TV; and when they do, it's usually in a smug, winky, meta look-at-me-I'm-slumming-on-Friends kind of way. Not Amy Ryan. She shows total commitment to her character, Holly Flax, the new HR rep at Dunder-Mifflin's surprisingly resilient Scranton, PA branch. At the end of last season, Holly came aboard and, with her dorky insecurities, immediately won the heart of the quixotic Michael Scott (as well as Kevin, whom, in a funny running gag, she was duped into thinking was mentally challenged). This season's premiere, "Weight Loss," traced their blossoming relationship over this past summer -- sharing a passion for lame jokes, beatboxing, and Counting Crows --right up to Michael, as usual, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

On "Weight Loss," the tragicomic Michael and Holly denouement was offset by Jim and Pam, whose three-month separation due to the latter's acceptance to an out-of-town design school was capped by the former's proposal. (In the rain, no less, but kudos to John Krasinski and director Paul Feig for taking a potentially corny Hollywood moment and making it work.) On the more satirical scale are other Office dynamics: the sure-to-be-doomed engagement between Andy and Angela; Angela's trysts with the increasingly unhinged Dwight; Michael's man-crush on B.J. Novak's Ryan the temp (returning following his humiliating arrest for corporate fraud).

"Weight Loss" wasn't gutbustingly funny, but I can't recall a more pleasurable hour of television this year -- all the more surprising for a series frequently bent on making its viewers squirm. From top to bottom, the cast of The Office has become perhaps the best ensemble on TV. It's not a stretch to say that, in their own indelibly minimalist way, they are achieving what was David Milch's goal on Deadwood: "to become "a single organism....having a somewhat more confident sense of their identity over the course of time." How wonderful that Ryan's Holly -- a character obviously searching for her own self -- should occupy their center.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman 1925-2008

In the days ahead, the tributes to Paul Newman will come pouring in, and by people far more suited to the task than me. Newman came to my attention when he was already in his fourth decade of acting. I may have first seen him on either televised or videotaped versions of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, lightweight yet enjoyable performances in lightweight yet enjoyable movies. I would later come to appreciate his acting chops in weightier fare, catching up to his efforts in The Verdict and The Hustler.

I suspect one theme to his career will be that he made acting look almost too easy, that a man who initially came across as a facile pretty-boy in his early films would eventually show reservoirs of inner life. The typical Newman character is a cocky heel who's almost as smart as he thinks he is, the same of which could be applied to Tom Cruise if the latter wasn't entirely external in his performances, free of depth or shading. Newman co-starred with Cruise in The Color of Money and, naturally, won his only Oscar for a fine yet unspectacular performance in an okay movie, for a character he had played better twenty-five years prior. (Fittingly, Newman didn't show up to receive his award, and Bette Davis, who presented, babbled onstage senselessly.) So much of his work was better than that. In one of Sidney Lumet's earlier books, the director recalled that during rehearsals for The Verdict, Newman seemed reluctant to take his character, an alcoholic lawyer, into a deeper place, but eventually, bravely went there. He did it again in what may be my personal favorite performance as Sully Sullivan in Nobody's Fool, where Newman's cantankerous grace found a kindred spirit in a character out of Richard Russo's prose.

What more can be said I'll leave to the experts. I'll only add that for all sadness at his passing, there isn't a sense of incompleteness. No life cut tragically short as with Heath Ledger, or the lingering possibility of more great work like Sydney Pollack, or the faded promise of Roy Scheider. (Unless one counts the always unlikelihood of a Newman and Redford reunion, to which the former once grunted, "I'm not playing his father.") Paul Newman's body of work will remain and the impact of his offscreen philanthropy will continue to be felt. He had vision to the rest of our bifocals.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Emmy Recap in 63 Words or Less

Well, I called Bryan Cranston's win! As well as Mad Men, 30 Rock, Tina Fey, Glenn Close, Dianne Wiest, and nearly everybody responsible for John Adams. I missed Baldwin, underestimated the appeal of Jean Smart, and got the right series or movie for a couple of supporting actor picks but the wrong actor in them. Overall, pretty good for not giving a damn.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Movies You Almost See

"I almost called you!" several people in my life have been fond of saying. ("I almost answered!" if I'd been smart enough to think of it, would have been my reply.) There are myriad reasons for almost doing things, including the number of times lately why I almost-but-didn't go to the movies.

This weekend's Exhibit A: Ghost Town. I was tempted to see this because:

1. It got fairly positive reviews.
2. Yet, in a rarity, I didn't read the reviews that closely to know exactly what it's about.
3. I love Kristen Wiig (who may get more laughs per minute of screentime than any other actress working today).
4. Ricky Gervais cracked me up in his Daily Show appearance.
5. It looks like a low-key change of pace.

So what's the rumpus? Did I not go because:

1. It's nice outside?
2. Greg Kinnear is in it? (I've never understood the general affection for him.)
3. David Koepp, the culprit behind Indiana Jones and the Laziest Way to Make a Buck, one of the worst screenplays to be green-lit into a major studio production since the advent of sound, wrote and directed it?
4. I dislike movies about ghosts?

Perhaps it's a deluxe combo of those reasons. Perhaps I'll go see it eventually anyway -- if somebody wants to persuade me, feel free to do so here -- though it looks more like something I'd catch on DVD, which will probably be available by Christmas. I was going to try to work into this frayed thread of thought a question about which movies people have regretted not seeing in theaters; I know I have my coulda-woulda-shoulda list, usually comedies that are more fun to see with an audience, or epics that need to fill a wide screen. Right now, though, the titles escape me.

Nothing would make me almost want to see Righteous Kill, however, and not just for the reasons Jason Bellamy mentions. And not just because I correctly fingered the villain sight unseen, from reading the first paragraph of Owen Gleiberman's review alone. (I cross-checked my hunch with the feedback page on the Internet Movie Database, where viewers spill the endings so you don't have to endure the awful movies that precede them....) No, I refuse to see Righteous Kill mainly because Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, two of the greatest American actors of all time, play a pair of cops named Turk and Rooster.

That's right. Turk. And Rooster. It doesn't take a seer to guess which is which.

The Annual Emmys Farce

Tonight's the Big Night, the awards show that proves the Oscars aren't the biggest joke around. It's wise to not get too emotionally invested in the Emmy Awards: these are the voters who denied the existence of Deadwood, after all; who regularly coronated Tyne Daly on Cagney & Lacey. (Does anybody still remember which one she was?) Yet the Emmys are invariably more amusing than the Oscars, with far less pomp and circumstance; and every now and then they'll throw you a curveball and get something exactly right.

Rather than slog through all the categories, I'm going to offer a few random thoughts. For Best Drama, Mad Men with its 16 total nominations is the favorite here; and it is the best show on television, no matter what Wolcott says. I don't think it's a sure thing, though. If Mad Men doesn't take it, look for a dark horse like Damages to pull an upset win. (Comedy? I'll go with 30 Rock.)

Best Actor: Haven't they changed the name for this award to the Spader yet? Or the Shalhoub? James Spader for Boston Legal and Tony Shalhoub for Monk have won so many times (for Drama and Comedy, respectively) that both have to be serious contenders once again. Alan Sepinwall predicts the winner will be Jon Hamm for Mad Men, and that Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad has no chance. I disagree. Hamm, while superb, is a relative newbie, whereas the Cranston love has been building for quite some time. I predict Cranston as the darkhorse for Dramatic Actor, and I'll guess Steve Carell as Comedy Actor for The Office. Unless, God help us, it's Spader and Shalhoub.

Best Actress: Unlike the Oscars, the lead actresses on TV Drama are all heavy hitters, except for the consistently atrocious Mariska Hargitay from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (Who, naturally, has previously won this category). I'll take Glenn Close for Damages, because it's a big juicy role and she hasn't been in anything significant for a while. (She's never won an Oscar.) For Comedy, here's hoping Tina Fey for 30 Rock pulls it off. I think she will. Unless she doesn't. In which case, why not Mary-Louise Parker for Weeds?

Glancing over the supporting categories, of which I have no clue, my gut picks are Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Ted Danson (Damages), Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies), and Dianne Wiest (In Treatment). (Scientific studies have proven conclusively that voters are incapable of resisting the name "Dianne Wiest.") The only no-brainer is John Adams for Best Miniseries, with the biggest question being which of its three supporting actors -- Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Stephen Dillane -- will win their category? I'm going to pick the less known, more deserving Dillane, whose Thomas Jefferson haunts over the series as a specter of democracy compromised. If Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney don't win Best Actor and Actress as John and Abigail Adams, they'll never win for anything.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Patriot Acts

Out of the many winning elements in the John Adams miniseries -- on HBO last spring, on DVD now, and soon to sweep the Emmys next weekend -- the stand-out may be that nearly all of its colonial-era characters sport bad teeth. This may seem like a minor detail until one compares it to the glistening, white-stripped smiles of Mel Gibson and Catherine McCormack in a typical historical epic like Braveheart; then it becomes clear just how fanatically the director here, Tom Hooper, and his army of makeup artists strove for authenticity. Iconic figures like George Washington (David Morse), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), Ben Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), Abigail Adams (Laura Linney), and John Adams himself (Paul Giamatti) frequently grin into the camera with mouths ridden with plaque and gaps between their incisors, and the effect is more funny and endearing than grotesque. (Oddly, Sarah Polley, who plays Adams' daughter Nabby, and whose famous so-ugly-they're-beautiful choppers would seem ideally suited for the time period, now inexplicably has a smile ready for a Crest commercial.) Dental hygiene even becomes a running gag, capping when Abigail angrily reads a newspaper article filled with many adjectives -- "toothless" among others -- critical of her husband, now the young nation's second president. After she declares that the venerated General Washington never would have been described so contemptuously, President Adams breaks the tension by deadpanning, "Well, toothless, maybe."

Giamatti and Linney -- two of my favorite actors to emerge over the last decade -- are terrific in moments like this, and their oddly potent chemistry lends the Adams' 54-year marriage tremendous conviction. (Both long-term Oscar runners-up, normally specializing in contemporary urban neurotics, if they don't take all the other acting awards for these characters they'll never win for anything.) In the first and arguably weakest of the series' seven episodes, which plays like a colonial version of Boston Legal, Adams is recruited to defend the British soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre, and Giamatti's incessant shouting in the courtroom becomes grating. (I realize that Adams is meant to be portrayed as ambitious and overbearing, but in this instance it's difficult to separate the character's grandstanding from the actor's.) Yet beginning with the next episode, depicting the heated debates in Philadelphia among the delegates of the First and Second Continental Congresses (leading, of course, to the vote for secession from Britain and the Declaration of Independence), Giamatti calibrates his performance perfectly, and hits all the right notes -- perspicacity, insecurity, kindness, jealousy -- from then on. Linney is superb from the start, balancing her mix of vulnerability and steel as a loving mother and supportive wife. "The woman behind the man" is a cliche I'm growing tired of, and not just in movies; but Linney makes Abigail Adams equally an independent entity and part of a complex relationship, one in which she refuses to be cowed. Her eyes can fix on another person like twin lasers; and her sudden, explosive laughter (as when she responds to Adams' "toothless" joke) is raucous and disarming. It's easy to see why Thomas Jefferson is taken by her; and why she's courted by suitors while her husband spends several years overseas seeking military aid in France -- a less demur Penelope to a more overbearing, unheroic Odysseus.

Had John Adams been a one-shot two-hour made-for-TV movie or theatrical release, it would have suffered as most films of that stripe do, condensing a long and complicated life into a "greatest hits" chain of events, one high point after another without context. It wouldn't have had time to play and breathe, as Hooper (a director I'm previously unfamiliar with) is allotted here. Sometimes the digressions go on interminably, particularly when Wilkinson's Dr. Franklin is onscreen. I've never much cared for Wilkinson, a hambone with an odd negative energy that threatens to suck the juice out of all the surrounding action in whatever part he's playing. He's better at humorless Puritans than characters predisposed to taking their clothes off, like his bonkers litigator in Michael Clayton and hedonistic francophiles like the famous one here. When Adams -- who is supposed to be Puritanical and humorless, albeit amusingly so -- stumbles on the good doctor playing chess in a bathtub with his French mistress -- the moment, set-up as a classic sight-gag, dies with Wilkinson's lack of energy. Physically he looks right, yet a certain spark is missing. (I concur with Matt Seitz that an actor with Ian Holm's pizzazz may have provided one.)

Faring better with the leisurely pacing are Morse and Dillane, whose portraits of Washington and Jefferson, respectively, skillfully turn Mt. Rushmore heads into human beings. Morse plays the former as a reluctant born leader, whose imposing height is offset by a soft-spoken manner more comfortable along the margins of history that at its center. (In a hilariously eccentric touch, he whispers the Oath Of Office upon being elected president.) Dillane takes the opposite tack, his fiercely ambitious Jefferson only too eager to seek the spotlight (or calculatingly recede from it, as when he resigns his post as Secretary of State when things don't go his way). I'd have thought Thomas Jefferson -- a man of esoteric mind as well as intense and baffling contradictions -- almost impossible to play, but Dillane proves me wrong from his first major scene, after he pens an early draft of the Declaration and listens in a quietly wounded manner as Franklin edits his work. It's not easy pulling attention away from Wilkinson's camera hogging, and Dillane does it with the eyes of a man haunted by revolution.

With few exceptions -- including the miscast Polley and Danny Huston's hellraising Samuel Adams, who starts promisingly only to vanish from the action to presumably run a microbrewery -- the remaining cast of John Adams is uniformly fine. (Special props to Rufus Sewell, another of my least favorite actors, in a small though startling turn as a snake-eyed Alexander Hamilton.) And the ensemble behind the camera is even better. The great cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who seems to alternate between films for M. Night Shyamalan and Jonathan Demme, is the DP for at least a few of the episodes (I'm suspecting the ones set primarily in Philadelphia, which if so, he makes as richly atmospheric a colonial town as the textures he conveys in Shyamalan's otherwise silly modern-day spookfests). I'm not sure which of the film's two credited composers, Rob Lane or Joseph Vitarelli, is responsible for the opening credits score, which plays over images of flags from the era ("Join, Or Die," "Don't Tread on Me," etc.). It provides a stirring start to each episode.

As a filmmaker, Hooper is no great shakes. He employs a variety of gimmicks -- hand-held cameras in one scene, Dutch angles in the next -- without developing a singular style to call his own. (Borrowing music identified with Barry Lyndon also isn't the best way to make one's work feel distinct.) The screenplay by Kirk Ellis is, I'm guessing, an amalgam of David McCullough's novel, primary source material like Adams' letters, and some creative license of his own: it's often smart, at times witty, and overall serviceable. The final episode, titled "Peacefield" (after the name of the Adams homestead), would have been more aptly called "Deathknell," as it features the demise of no less than four principal characters. Other than that relentless pile-up (highlighted by a grisly breast cancer procedure, one of those ostentatious "we're on HBO" shout-outs that should have been cut), the structure of the series is solid, following John Adams from his crucial role as "Founding Father" through his controversial presidency to his closing years, where he doubts his place in history will be remembered.

He had reason to worry, as Revolutionary Era films have typically ranged from forgettable to fiascos. I still recall Hugh Hudson's Revolution, a debacle starring Al Pacino during his 1980s dry patch and reduced to bellowing things like "My mouth belongs anywhere I put it!" Laughable as that line is, I think the John Adams of this miniseries would grasp its meaning and support it unequivocally. Freedom matters, is in essence what it means. Freedom to live one's life, freedom to speak one's mind, freedom to do great things, freedom to be a prick -- this engrossing work of art suggests we wouldn't know the name John Adams otherwise.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Out of the Past

One of the most refreshing aspects of the taut, unpretentious French thriller Tell No One (Ne les dis a personne) is that all of the characters are good at their jobs. Alexandre Beck, the protagonist suspected of murdering his wife eight years earlier, is a skilled pediatrician; the detectives assigned to the case by turns piece together the evidence that points to Beck (the discovery of two bodies in the woods) and uncover the clues that suggest his innocence (would a doctor really tape a gun behind his desk?); the mix of social climbers and vicious scumbags also on Beck's tail tap into his email, wreak havoc with his life and seemingly monitor his every move; even his immediate family, usually naive naysayers in this type of picture, function as both a hindrance and an aid. Granted, maybe the cops pursuing Beck should have paused before running past the trash container he hides in, but that's a rare misstep.

The man behind the camera, Guillame Canet, is also a highly adept fellow, building an exciting forward momentum while pausing in unexpected places for surprising touches. I've heard the lazy adjective "Hitchcockian" applied to Tell No One, but sequences like the aforementioned chase through the Paris beltway more accurately evoke the work of Paul Greengrass from the Bourne franchise. Adapting an American mystery novel (by Harlan Coben), Canet is clearly trying his damndest to make a crossover commercial success with a muscular-visceral style, even padding the soundtrack (at times questionably) to popular Anglo-American music. Yet the film's emotional gravity -- anchored by Francois Cluzet in a sturdy leading-man performance -- is reminiscent of Kieslowski and other European directors. Also telling is the casual depiction of the marriage between Beck's sister (Marina Hands from Lady Chatterley) and his female friend (Kristin Scott Thomas, whose weathered smarts are put to good use here), which appears headed toward an unfortunate cliche only to neatly sidestep it.

This is true of much of the film; even a climactic passage featuring the hoary device of a Talking Villain subverts our expectations. I also liked how odd or apparently irrelevant details, such as the lowlife (Gilles Lellouche) whose hemophilic son Dr. Beck provides treatment for early on, or Beck's hilariously ugly pet dog, come to figure in the plot in a way that attention-deficit American thrillers can't seem to accomplish anymore. Tell No One gets a little too convoluted in its final act -- my head is still spinning from the final barrage of revelations -- but at least it expands rather than retracts, and closes on a note of genuine feeling.

Martin McDonagh's black-comedy-thriller In Bruges (now on DVD) has heart too, even if it's too often buried behind superficial artifice. Fourteen years after Pulp Fiction, the philosophical hitman has become a tired archetype, and this movie features two of them, Brits Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who are holed up in a hotel in Bruges, Belgium after Ray accidentally kills a young boy during a previous assignment. Despondent and suicidal, Ray hits the streets and finds trouble while seeking salvation, the possibility of both manifesting themselves through a comely Belgian woman (Clemence Poesy) who likes to rob tourists with her scumbag sort-of boyfriend, and a drug-addled dwarf actor making a movie on location. (I'm embarrassed to say that I thought the actor, actually Jordan Prentice, was Peter Dinklage from The Station Agent and Living in Oblivion, and I spent the entire running time wondering if he had undergone plastic surgery.) Meanwhile, the older Ken sees the sights and stonewalls the directive telephoned by their employer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to kill Ray.

I didn't need to know McDonagh's biography beforehand to guess that In Bruges was the work of a playwright. (The Beauty Queen of Leenane among other efforts). The early scenes in particular bristle with pungent dialogue, yet also have a staginess that the locale, for all its medieval appeal, can't quite open up. (Even a typically fine score by Carter Burwell makes the picture only slightly more cinematic.) More problematic are the uneven rhythms between tragedy and farce: Ken's paternal concern for Ray is truly touching; Ray's oddball obsession with "midgets" goes over like a lead balloon. The rap on Quentin Tarantino is that his films are recycled from earlier movies, but in actuality his perennial theme -- the quest for spiritual transcendence in an indifferent universe -- is grounded in a more real, identifiable world than McDonagh's journey from the stage.

The jarring qualities of In Bruges are reflected by the two leads. Farrell, who has never done a thing for me in any movie, acts mainly with his eyebrows; while Gleeson effortlessly provides an emotional center, as he has in so many films. In Bruges only completely comes to life with the appearance of Fiennes's Harry, whose arrival in the final act energizes the movie in a manner similar to William Hurt's crackpot turn in the closing passage of A History of Violence. Harry, a vicious thug with weird scruples, comes to Bruges to finish the job; and Fiennes, who seems to be morphing into Ben Kingsley, uses his harsh voice and gleaming eyes to jolting effect. His scenes with Gleeson, by far the best in the picture, form a wonderfully prickly tango between a pair of veteran actors. Like much of the film, the darkly comic logic of McDonagh's climax (with the final shot cribbed from Carlito's Way) doesn't entirely work, but it certainly holds your attention. With so much going on, it's hard for a viewer to get his bearings. I'm not sure whether or not In Bruges is a good movie, but I know I want to see it again.