Posts Tagged ‘reviews’

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode One: “Time Zones”

Monday, April 14th, 2014

“Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.

Do you have time to improve your life? Do you have precisely 30 seconds for a word from AccuTron watches?

The watch appears, bottom third. The second hand moves with a fluid sweep, and above it? ‘AccuTron Time.’

You go into a business meeting. Is there food in your teeth? Ashes on your tie? And you’ve got nothing to say. The meeting is boring, but you can’t be. But you’re wearing an AccuTron. This watch makes you interesting.”

Freddy Rumsen’s right. This is the beginning of something: the end. And the ad pitch for AccuTron watches that kicks off Mad Men’s seventh and final season (or at least the first half of it in this Sopranos/Breaking Bad-style last-season split) tells us a lot about how our heroes will handle it. If Matthew Weiner hadn’t intended us to “pay attention” to the ad for the watch, he wouldn’t have called this episode “Time Zones.”

I’m back on the Mad Men beat for Wired this year, hooray! Once again each review will view the episode through the lens of the ad campaigns the characters are working on. Mad Men is my favorite show on the air right now, and I love writing about it, though it’s a real challenge. If you watch it, I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to say about it.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Two: “The Lion and the Rose”

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Now’s as good a time as any to point out that this episode was written by author George R.R. Martin — a smart move for several reasons, one of which involves defusing potential complaints about the show’s now-innumerable deviations from the source material. For example, sexual sadist Ramsay Snow taking on a female partner in crime was a headscratcher, though that kind of killing couple is hardly without precedent (google the Moors Murders, if you can stand the result).

The other advantage is to allow the series’ demiurge to try his hand at its unique strength: pairing off characters and just letting them talk. Jaime and Bronn, Roose Bolton and Ramsay and “Reek,” Melisandre and Stannis and his wife Selyse, Cersei and Brienne, Jaime and Loras — the list of dynamite dialogues goes on and on. The dessert course may overwhelm the palate somewhat (loved that close-up of the bird blood in the pie!), but the whole episode is a feast of conversation, cooked up by the master’s hand. And note that in Martin’s original novels, Jaime and Brienne don’t make it back to King’s Landing until after the wedding, meaning some of the episode’s best exchanges wouldn’t even be possible without the show’s changes.

But many of its strengths do indeed originate with the originals. The entire ghastly, endless humiliation of Tyrion by Joffrey came straight from their pages: destroying Tyrion’s painstakingly selected wedding gift, hiring dwarves to put on a grotesque show and damn near forcing Tyrion to participate, dousing him with wine and ordering him to serve as cupbearer. Most revealing is Joffrey’s adamant refusal to let Tyrion play any of this off as accidental, or as “an honor.” Joffrey wants everyone to know exactly what’s going on, and nothing short of spelling it out will do. Joffrey’s not just cruel, he’s stupid — a terrible politician who likely wouldn’t have lasted long on the throne regardless. His final act is to point at the wrong man, for crying out loud. Here lies Joffrey Baratheon: He was the worst, even at dying.

Purple reign, purple reign: I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.

The Great Don Debate: Discuss the Greatness of Mad Men‘s Anti-Hero

Monday, April 14th, 2014

The terrific writer and critic Hazel Cills and I are debating Don Draper and Mad Men for Netflix right this very minute. Come by and talk to us about it.

The Self-Destruction of “Mad Men”

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

But now that the subtext is the text, now thatMad Men‘s storyline has caught up to the countercultural moment that would eventually lead to works like, well, Mad Men, the show’s original aesthetic appeal has been tossed out the window like so much suicide foreshadowing. If you were the kind of Don-bro able to turn off your brain and just enjoy early Mad Men for its lush portrayal of a jocularly misogynist time when men were men, women were women, and everyone looked amazing (even if they smelled like ashtrays), brother, you’re out of luck now. It’s like if David Chase had gotten so fed up with the “Who’s gonna get whacked?” side ofThe Sopranos‘ audience that he spent the last few seasons chronicling Tony Soprano as an honest-to-God waste management consultant. It’s enormously gutsy. And while Matthew Weiner (who, unlike his mentor Chase, at least allows his non-Dons to evolve) couldn’t have known he’d get this far when he spent years lugging the unsold Mad Menpilot around in his briefcase, it was a certainty if the show ever succeeded. Mad Menwas designed to self-destruct.

I wrote about Mad Men‘s deliberate demolition of its nostalgic appeal for Esquire. I’ll also be covering the show again this year for Wired, and you might see me pop up in another place or two about it as well. I like writing about this show, which is the best on tv.

The Shocking 16: TV’s Most Heartstopping Moments

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

I wrote up 16 of the New Golden Age of TV’s most surprising and suspenseful scenes and sequences for Rolling Stone (with a little help from my fabulous editor David Fear). Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Deadwood, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Lost, Mad Men, Orange Is the New Black, The Shield, The Sopranos, True Detective, Twin Peaks, The Walking Dead, The Wire. Read, then vote in our neat bracket tournament thing!

“True Detective” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Form and Void”

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Just realized I never linked to my review of the True Detective season finale. Fittingly it was a mix of “gripping” and “a mess,” like the whole season.

Your Grand Unified “True Detective” Theory Is Missing the Goddamn Point

Friday, March 7th, 2014

My own wild speculation is that clue-hunting and twist-anticipating entered the hive mind via cinemas in 1999 with the one-two twist-ending punch of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. Sure, The Crying Game was still a recent memory, but not for the fanboys who flocked to Shyamalan and Fincher’s films and whose tastes were about to become post-millennial mainstream culture’s bread and butter. On the small screen, the phenomenon had its precursors — “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, The X-Files’ sprawling and eventually suffocating mythology — but the blame-slash-credit must be laid at the four-toed feet of Lost. Fueled by decades of pulp-fiction tropes and pop-philosophy mindbenders, structured as a Russian nesting doll of mysteries within mysteries, and riddled with more Easter eggs than the White House lawn, ABC’s sci-fi smash knowingly worked fans into a frenzy of message-board theory-mongering. Turns out it was more or less a shaggy dog story the creators were making up as they went along, but this didn’t stop viewers from applying this mode of audience speculation-cum-participation to virtually every big series since.

Which is fair play, when the show in question invites it. For example, Lost’s big nerd-culture contemporary, the cult-classic critics’ darling Battlestar Galactica reboot, teased its big mysteries in the opening-credit text of every episode, and thus had nothing but itself to blame when viewers gave the whole series a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on those mysteries’ solutions. But even relatively realistic shows, based not around unraveling enigmas but on studying the complexities of human relationships, are now treated like glorified Sudoku puzzles by vocal viewers. The Sopranos’ David Chase worked overtime to design a series finale that would actively defy this kind of clue-hunting closure, but that didn’t stop a host of amateur sleuths out to close the book on that infamously open ending. More recently, the ostensibly sophisticated audience of Mad Men treats everything from promo art to costume choices the way medieval soothsayers treated goat entrails. In this light, the decision of Game of Thrones to largely drop its epic-fantasy source material’s host of cryptic prophecies and hidden truths (google “R+L=J” if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes) in favor of character work and realpolitik seems like the smartest act of adaptation since Francis Ford Coppola dropped Johnny Fontane as a main character in The Godfather.

Over at Esquire, I wrote a piece on the fan fervor for theory-mongering that surrounds True Detective which wound up being kind of an historical overview of the practice’s slow takeover of pop culture. It was fun to do — and commissioned by a loyal All Leather Must Be Boiled reader! See kids, tumblr dreams come true!

12 Times Oscar Got It Right

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I wrote an article about this very thing for Rolling Stone. I got to compare Brandon in The Godfather to James Brown inventing funk and God parting form from void, so that was fun.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Eight

Monday, February 24th, 2014

* There’s something very odd about Downton‘s Christmas-special storytelling model of whisking us off to a different location and surrounding us with new characters who will be a big deal now but, as best I can tell, never again. They did it last year with Lord Shrimpy and the Highlands, and they did it this year with Prince Edward and London (and, I suppose, Harold Levinson). It felt weirder this year, though, because without the narrative atom bomb of the male lead’s death, there’s really nothing tying this episode back to the main narrative. There’s a caper that’s successful but which in historical terms is futile, there’s a trip to the beach, and there’s Paul Giamatti. The end!

* What’s more, there’s very little resolution in the offing for that main narrative. No indication of where Mary’s headed with her suitors. Nothing firm on Tom and his political teacher person. (And obviously not a scrap tossed to the Mary/Tom shippers.) No revelation regarding Thomas’s hold on Baxter. Nothing on the final fate of Michael Gregson, beyond the news that he was waylaid by Nazis (!). Bates skates on executing Green, apparently. Even the sudden, and frankly delightful, autumn-years shipping of Isobel & Lord Merton and Carson & Mrs. Hughes (!!!!!!! serving Roslin & Adama realness!) is more gestural than actual.

* It was nice to see the banker from Sexy Beast put the moves on Shirley MacLaine, though.

* Some conversation or other that Mary had with someone about how hard it can be to make relationships work even when everyone around you is pulling for them made me realize the elegance of having everyone try to get Mary and Matthew together all those years. They weren’t starcrossed at all, except perhaps at the very start. That’s a really unique and almost perverse way to construct an obstacle for your romantic pairing to overcome — it’s too perfect, everyone wants it, and the weight of that is crushing to you.

* “Your strength has made me strong.” “My what?” And so after much adversity, Molesley comes out on top, having survived his fall from the top while still being, I dunno, basically decent and trying to put one foot in front of the other. I suppose that would be inspiring to someone like Baxter, who finds herself in the thrall of creepazoid Thomas apparently because she gave up trying to take all those little steps and was content to just drift along behind him.

* That’s the most consistent ethos of this show, in the end, quite aside from however you feel about however Julian Fellowes feels about the aristocracy or the class system: It celebrates the performance of difficult emotional work. Listen to Mary talk to Tony about grieving and moving on: “A year ago, I thought I’d be alone for ever — that I would mourn Matthew to the end of my days. Now I know that isn’t true, that there will be a new life for me, one day. And even if I can’t decide yet what life that should be, isn’t it something for us to celebrate?” A lot of people, a lot of shows, would say no, slow your roll Lady Mary. Mad Men is the best show on television and it’s all about how people are goal-oriented, routinely crushed by their failure to meet those goals, and often induced into bad behavior to get there by any means necessary. There’s no room on that show for a young widow to take stock of her situation and say “I miss my husband, it’s hard being a parent without him, two dudes are into me and I don’t know how I feel about either of them, I’m presiding over the methodical rearrangement of my family’s entire way of life, I am in many ways way way out at sea, but I feel better than I did, I feel like there’s a future for me, I worked at getting here, and I’m going to enjoy that feeling.”

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Seven

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

* “Work’s like old age, milady: the worst thing in the world, except for the alternative.” Farmer Drewe succumbs to Downton Abbey‘s epigram epidemic.

* “It’s only me.” “I always feel that greeting betrays such a lack of self worth.” Shipping the Dowager and Isobel so hard!

* Was it me or did the Dowager more or less flee the babies?

* Anna tells Lady Mary the secret. Jeez, Anna. Surely you know what will happen.

* I’ve never heard anyone compared to “a sloth underwater” before.

* “Blimey! He puts a lot in a latter, does Alfred.” Can he cram in an explanation of why there was a storyline about him?

* “They’re sweet on each other, but it’s not as simple as that, is it. Then there’s Mr. Blake…” “I thought she didn’t like him.” “She didn’t, at first.” Anna and Bates taking the temperature of the vagaries of the human heart.

* “What’s the matter?” “I was thinking about a couple of people who are in a situation which will cause trouble.” “Will it make them unhappy?” “It’s hard to say. It’ll make some people unhappy.” Isobel asks the right question, there, and an unusual one. That’s the virtue of this show.

* Molesley and Baxter, sittin’ in a tree.

* “Won’t you defend your principles?” “No, not now.” Discretion is the better part of Branson.

* “Why ask the question when the decision has been made?” Another good question, thanks, Rosamund!

* “Well, I heard you had an interesting day. Whether or not it was tiring, you’d know better than I.” Worldly, fuck-wise Lady Mary wonders who’s been watering Cousin Rose!

* “If she wishes to be understood by a foreigner, she shouts.” We all know that person.

* Actually this is a very strong Dowager episode. “If I told you the truth, Granny, you’d never speak to me again.” “Then you have told me the truth. But I’d like to hear it enunciated more clearly.” And then, “I’m a feeble substitute for the entire Crawley family.” “Mmm, yes. But you’re better than nothing.” Lady Violet’s increasingly a creature out of time, her clothing like a time capsule that emits disses at regular intervals.

* “I don’t believe in types. I believe in people.” Tom Branson gives voice to Downton Abbey‘s soul. The rejoinder — very convenient when you’re the people on top! — is obvious.

* “I probably should have stopped it sooner, but at any rate…I’m stopping it now.” The sigh thrown in there is the first moment that Jack Ross felt like a real person instead of some very weird, like, Disney World performer. So this is the out Downton gives itself for its “no way, not even on Downton” interracial relationship — Rose’s rebelliousness and Jack’s inherent decency. Yeah, alright, I guess. I can’t help but feel that if this is the best Fellowes could do, he shouldn’t have done it in the first place.

* Tony’s intransigence walks that fine line between clever and stupid, or as Mary puts it, “I find that both irritating and beguiling in equal measure.” His puppy-dog Byron looks become him, as does that unutterably romantic kiss earlier in the season, though Mary and Blake obviously have the Sam and Diane thing going. I take it this love triangle, the genteel past vs. the rough-edged future, is meant to be the equal of a potential Mary/Tom matchup? I’m a skeptic.

* I have no idea why Robert and Tom needed to go to America at all, really — shooting schedules for the actors — but at least we got a nice romantic kiss for Robert and Cora at the end. They don’t get enough of that.

* “My dear, all life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. First one, then the next, then the next, till at last we die. Why don’t you get us an ice cream?” Huh, maybe this is the soul of Downton.

* “He’s the most unconvincing fiancé I’ve ever come across.” That may have been Violet’s best line tonight, and that’s saying something.

* Green’s dead. Not a big surprise.

* “Friends forever.” Well, I didn’t think they’d do it, but the Daisy/Ivy/Alfred storyline has redeemed itself with this denouement, a detailed and touching argument in favor of treating people with whom you’ve had very high-stakes emotional struggles with decency and respect. How about that! “If you were my own daughter, I couldn’t be prouder than I am now.” Even a Mrs. Patmore beat gets thrown in for good measure! <3

* "What sort of menage has that turned into while I've been away?" And a line of ladies looks on. Maybe that’s the soul of Downton.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Six

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Couple weeks late on this. Apologies, my lord.

* I enjoy when Robert and Cora mildly disagree. “I suppose we’ve made our decision.” If the aristocracy has always been this genially ineffectual how does it even exist?

* “I know plenty of relatives of English earls who belong in gaol.” You becha, Bob!

* Mrs. Hughes asks her not to send Bates to America, and suddenly Lady Mary gets stroppy about the servants not serving enough! I guess not everyone‘s genially ineffectual.

* “All those handsome stewards strutting down the boat deck.” “Don’t be vulgar. What do you know of such matters?” “I’ve been married. I know everything.” Worldly, fuck-wise Lady Mary is the best Lady Mary.

* Uh-oh, the Dowager’s got a cough. Cue near-death storyline!

* Even though his potential face-turn was abandoned immediately upon the start of the season, Thomas still has his good points, and his friendship with Jimmy, odious though Jimmy himself may be, is one of them. Watching them pal around is…nice…I guess?

* Poor Evelyn Napier, always the suit, never the suitor.

* At least Anna’s realized there’s no such thing as a secret at Downton.

* The Dowager refers to Isobel’s verbosity by likening her to “a drunken vicar.” Her conversational anticlericalism is a hoot.

* “Vive le difference!” Oh brother. Cousin Rose…there’s just nothin’ there.

* “But first, kiss me. Or don’t you want to?” “Oh, I want to. Don’t you worry about that.” Now that’s what I’m talking about! Rose may be kind of a cipher and Jack Ross is one of the most weirdly acted characters on a big show ever, but that’s a fabulously romantic exchange. A few more of those and there may be something to this.

* “Have you met my niece and her charming bastard?” Edith has learned the limits of the gentility’s gentility.

* “I’m killing the wanted child of the man I’m in love with and you ask if I’ve thought about?” We can, and should, take issue with Downton‘s handling of reproductive rights, but this line is a headshot on the well-meaning paternalism of the anti-choice movement.

* Keep saying “the pigman,” Downton.

* Branson meets cute with a political woman. I’m starting to worry that the show placing the shipping of Tom and Mary at the center of its entire architecture is a fake-out!

* Oh shit, Lady Mary getting muddy, hair down, goodness gracious great balls of fire.

* Yeah, a pretty grim take on abortion indeed. Don’t be a crying lady! Keep that baby!

* “The tears and the heartbreaks that’ll flavor my puddings for weeks to come.” If it taste’s good then at least some good has come of the Ivy/Daisy/Jimmy/Alfred storyline!

* I ship Mrs. Crawley and the Dowager.

* “You’ll be rewarded in heaven.” “The sooner, the better.”

* Lady Mary’s suitor can’t stay away. “Sounds to me as if the needle’s got stuck.”

* Wow, that was some look Bates shot Mr. Green. There’s the menace everyone supposedly sees in Bates all the time.

“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Five

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

* The first “complicated feeling, elegantly expressed” of the evening comes in the exchange between Tom and Robert about pig farming on the estate: “I thought you were convinced.” “I am, but I’m allowed to be nervous.” Lotta shows out there with life-or-death stakes all the time that don’t have time for all the emotional work each of us does day in and day out.

* Edith’s storyline managed to be both supremely unsurprising — pregnancy as predicted! — and take a turn I didn’t see coming — Gregson’s not just avoiding her (from what I assumed were eventually going to prove to reasons that had nothing to do with “you put out so now I’m out of here”), he’s disappeared entirely and no one can find him. So it’s not that the show doesn’t do life-or-death stakes, or handle the latter well when it comes to that, just that it makes room for other things too. I thought Laura Carmichael handled it all very well fwiw, combining her usual “nobody loves me everybody hates me now I’m gonna eat some worms” demeanor and her recent coming-out-of-her-shell-somewhat demeanor and an “oh my god what the hell is happening” panic.

* Angry Isobel rules, basically. “I’m not your lady– oh, nevermind.” “Things! Things! Things!” It’s occasionally fun to see her come up short against the Dowager, who of course is right to say Isobel is fueled by indignation, but it’s more fun to see her as her own person, I think. Her sense of indignation coexists with her decency and kindness, and her awareness of how her own limitations impede other people. This episode showed her emerging from the mist, as Robert said, but that involved reaching out to Mary and Tom as much as it did whiteknighting for the gardener kid over the purloined letter-opener.

* “It’s a wonder you don’t burn the Abbey down and dance around it, painted with woad and howling.” Okay, that’s pretty great, I admit.

* “How you hate to be wrong.” “I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with the sensation.” That too, even though it’s easy and moreover a remix of something she said already a couple seasons ago.

* “You’re nervous because you’re intelligent, Alfred. Only stupid people are foolhardy.” This is a cool line and a solid aphorism and a nice defense of Alfred against dumb handsome Jimmy (even if Alfred’s a stiff and the servants’-quarters love quadrangle has been the show’s least interesting story for a full season now). But more than that, perhaps it’s also a window into Carson’s traditionalism. Change, modernity, the future, these things make him nervous because it would be stupid to be foolhardy about them, so he thinks. Right?

* Hahaha anyone who thinks Julian Fellowes is entirely forgiving of the aristocracy should note the obvious discomfort and condescension with which they greet Alfred’s unsolicited display of emotion about Carson. Like they just saw a dog they think is super-cute piddle in the corner.

* “Ooh I like that Valentino. He makes me shiver all over.” “What a very disturbing thought.” Only stupid people are foolhardy, Carson.

* Thomas and his spy Baxter — what to think, what to think. He obviously has something on her, or perhaps on a male relative. That’s the best I can come up with. This seems like Thomas’s undoing in the making at last, sad to say.

* “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” “That gives you a bit o’ leeway.” Mrs. Patmore with the layup.

* It’s very rare for Lady Cora to get a decent zinger — she is a very odd character in the context of this show in that way — but when she ostentatious meets’n'greets the Bateses at the restaurant, shaming the maitre d’ into seating them, she had a good one: “That seems to have made a difference. Thank God he’s a snob!”

* He’s also the wine merchant who tried to poison Daenerys Targaryen. A nogoodnik through and through!

* Also, was her joke about the maitre d’ killing himself a Python reference? She gets meta with a Ragtime reference later in the episode, so….

* “I’m not a victim. That’s not who I am. The worst part is that you see me as a victim.” No no, Bates assures her, he doesn’t see her as victim, instead he sees her as a helpless person he should have protected. The wages of the patriarchy is misery even for the loving and well-intentioned.

* Jimmy and Ivy…I don’t know. Not for the last time in this episode will a storyline be short-circuited to an extent because a female character with a botanical moniker has never really cohered into an actual person.

* Anyone else hoping for a Molesley/Carson fistfight when all is said and done?

* The Mary/Blake Sam/Diane thing… I don’t know about that, either. Won’t poor Evelyn Napier ever get his day in court? Is he always to be passed over for dashing if fragile Turks and minions of Lloyd George?

* “I’m not unhappy. I’m just not quite ready to be happy.” Good Lord, the scene in the nursery with Mary, Tom, and Isobel is one of my favorite scenes in the history of this show — gentle, sad, genuinely both bitter and sweet. “Well. Aren’t we the lucky ones!” I gasped “Jeeeeesus” when Isobel said that. The power of that choice, that decision to see it that way — the amount of emotional labor required, and the rewards of it. And then the kids come in. Remarkable work.

* “My people came over in the 1790s. We won’t go into why or how.” Haha you’re alright, Jack Ross, you’re alright. Actually, Ross is quite interesting, insofar as unlike basically every other character introduced to make the Crawleys uncomfortable with the changing world, the issues at play here are still very much a part of our day-to-day lives in a way we all recognize. (Class is also still an issue but it takes a different form than the English aristocracy, obviously. Racism’s just racism.) Indeed Downton is either asking us to show enormous forbearance or level pretty harsh condemnation on the various members of the family who’ve shown discomfort with Ross’s presence, depending on how generous you want to be to Fellowes.

* The problem, honestly, is Rose, who’s still not a person we know anything about. She’s a plot device, and a set of adjectives: young, vibrant, rebellious, naive. This isn’t Tom and Sybil, though that’s its obvious and intended antecedent. For one thing I don’t think we’re to believe Rose and Jack are in love, just that they’re fun sexy young people who enjoy each other.

* Insert joke referencing the Dowager’s remonstrance to Edith that she should let her time in London “rub off” on her here.

“American Hustle” thoughts

Monday, January 27th, 2014

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is best described as…

a) a paperback novelization of a Martin Scorsese movie
b) an SNL skit that blew the week’s wig budget
c) one of those movies with a solid cast and serious-looking art direction on the DVD cover when you spot it in the discount bin at a 7/11, and you look at it and go “whoa, this never made it into theaters? How’d that happen? Must be a story there” and pick it up on a whim and watch it and it’s pretty good, nothing spectacular, you can at least see why Jessica Lange and Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman signed on
c) an experiment to see how much of Amy Adams’s breasts we can see without ever actually seeing a whole breast. Oh, sure, Tumblr tells us you can see a single nipple for a single split-second in a single scene, but if anything that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance only emphasizes its ephemerality. Perhaps this — not the “no more fake shit” mantra, not the Abscam scandal, not the long cons that may or may not be being run — is the film’s central metaphor, the areola atop its mammary gland of artifice and fakery. In the end, can you ever, like, really see a breast?

American Hustle is a fun enough time at the movies, but a pretty preposterous contender for the best the art form had to offer in the year that was. Virtually all of the characters, from Christian Bale doing the film’s second-worst Robert DeNiro impression to Bradley Cooper eating the scenery like Bale must have been hitting the craft services table to Jennifer Lawrence emotionally careening all the way around an inconsistently drawn Perfidious Female, are actors wearing cool costumes and doing funny accents rather than people. There are a couple of exceptions: Adams is pretty good in a role that requires the character to realize she’s only an ersatz femme fatale for two doofuses rather than the real thing — she reminds me of Bilbo Baggins’ self-descriptive “butter scraped across too much bread”; she has a moment in a bathroom stall, a look on her face, that’s the film’s sole genuinely sexy moment. Jeremy Renner works quite well as a politician whose crookedness is really and truly just a matter of constituent services; his character is set in opposition to the film’s entire project of letting sleazy-looking ’70s clothes and tri-state area ethnicity stand in for a thoroughgoing examination of a milieu. I found myself wishing his career arc between this and, say, Dahmer had flowed less through action-hero stuff and more into just disappearing into life’s casualties like he did in those two films.

The film did have one truly memorable scene, the one where it all came together, where Bale and Adams’s con artists and Cooper’s overly ambitious FBI agent and Renner’s hapless mayor and Lawrence’s desperate housewife are all drawn into a party where the sting they’re involved in suddenly balloons into a monstrosity capable of bringing down senators and destroying one of the most powerful organized crime outfits in North America, which is to say one capable of getting them all killed, even as the personal deceptions each of them has been running on one another threaten to crack up in restroom and bar-stool screaming matches. Everyone involved suddenly has so much to do, so much to think about, so much of it disconnected and drawing them in different directions, that you realize how straightforward and inert the rest of the material is. Previous party scenes feel sparse not just because of the bizarrely low-rent number of extras, you know? You just want the rest of the movie to have thought this hard about this stuff. Instead everyone gets a happy ending except the lawman, which is hilarious in a world that spent several months pillorying The Wolf of Wall Street for insufficient opprobrium directed to its scumbag characters. Crime pays!

“True Detective” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “The Locked Room”

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

You know, gang, the dialogue on this show is…less than good. A lot of it is just lame hardboiled cop-show clichés: “Nothin’ is ever over,” “The world needs bad men — we keep the other bad men from the door,” I mean, jesus. The interpersonal stuff is weak too: “Why is there all this space between us, Marty?” Ohhhhh, brother. (That was almost made up for by Marty’s Oscar-worthy performance with his Wile E. Coyote metaphor, but then rapidly undone by a deeply unimaginative sex scene.) It feels like the role of dialogue on formative Great-TV shows The Wire and Deadwood — the way David Simon and David Milch developed their own rhythm and syntax and idioms to have their characters communicate their complicated ideas about and reactions to the dissolution and formation of communities respectively, Simon with simplicity and Milch with filigrees — has been forgotten. Shows that do self-consciously formal, even purple dialogue well, like Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey…that just doesn’t get acknowledged as best I can tell. But this thing, with lines like “I don’t think a man can love” or the college-dorm-room exchange about the impact of religious faith on morality or that whole let’s-repeat-the-double-entendre-twelve-times-just-in-case “I just don’t ever want you mowin’ my lawn” argument, is some weird critical cause célèbre. I have nothing but contempt for writing wherein I set myself up in opposition to other critics, but, like…what the heck, man.

That softness seeps into other aspects of the writing, too. When Marty revealed that Rust, on top of his entire library card-catalog of baleful backstory and character traits, also has synesthesia, I actually laughed out loud. Perhaps it’s supposed to feel ridiculous? And when Rust outlined his findings about their killer’s past crime to Marty, why would he save “the victims had the same spiral mark on their back” for last? Wouldn’t that be the first thing you showed, if you weren’t a character in a cop show building to a dramatic reveal? Even Rust’s nihilism, which is so extravagant it retains a certain vim and vigor even at its silliest, is undercut in this episode by the heavy-handed and shopworn decision to juxtapose his grim proclamations about how murder victims are ultimately happy to die with line-dancing flashbacks. (Which is a damn shame, because the idea of a person becoming a homicide detective out of curiosity as to the precise nature of the cessation of consciousness’ link to the physical body is novel and compelling.)

So how best to enjoy this thing? The final shot — that genuinely frightening slow-motion monstrosity — is the answer. True Detective is best approached and appreciated as a creepy potboiler, with some fun performances. (Give it up for Eli from Boardwalk Empire! Remus, too, by the way — he was the guy on the riding mower.) It’s got a fancier pedigree, but in this regard it’s not a world away from another not-quite-sure-I-get-the-buzz show, The Americans. A great show? Don’t get it twisted. A fun show, if you don’t mind staring at it in wry bemusement, Marty-to-Rust-style? Sure, why not.


“Downton Abbey” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Four

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

* Okay, so, yes, Anna’s fucked up — her concern for Bates is something to cling to.

* There was quite obviously more to Baxter than meets the eye, from the start.

* Huh, did Gregson cancel his order of the cow because he got the milk for free?

* First Wilde, now Byron — the Dowager shivving major literary figures left and right!

* “Nobody cares about anything as much as you do. ha ha! haha! hahaha!” I haven’t said this in a while, but Lady Violet laughing at her own jokes is the best thing about Lady Violet. I find myself hoping Maggie Smith came up with that on her own.

* Right, okay, so Thomas’s maid is gonna kill ‘em with kindness. So much for my theory last season that Thomas was going to find that acting friendly opened enough doors for him that being friendly would be easier to do than not.

* Uh-oh, Edith at the doc. Whatever could the matter be?

* Evelyn Napier’s back! I…don’t know why I got so excited about that, either.

* “The sight of me is torture for her which is torture for me.” Trill shit.

* Very long shot of Bates crying. Man, that was tough. But…I don’t know, Bates is not a character who lends himself to existential terror. Discovering that the woman whose love defines your whole life wants nothing to do with you and won’t tell you why would be horrifying, but his decency and stoicism, and Brendan Coyle’s performance of same, doesn’t allow for plumbing those depths.

* “I don’t want to lose you, Tom.” And with that line, the show at last acknowledges the way that, intentionally or not, it threw the entire weight of its storytelling mechanism behind shipping Lady Mary and Tom Branson, like I don’t think any show has ever done before. That they’ve taken it nowhere up until this point speaks well for Julian Fellowes, in much the same way that taking his time with Mary and Matthew — making them not star-crossed, but simply incompatible, for various reasons, for two full seasons — spoke well for him.

* Here’s what I don’t get about Anna and Bates. Bates finds out Anna was raped. He’s very kind and thoughtful about it, you know, after prying and whatnot, with the exception of declaring of the rapist “he’s a dead man.” Anna’s panic about this exact reaction turns out to have been borne out. But much of their ensuing conversation revolves around how Bates will basically do anything for Anna because she walks on water to him. If she said “John, listen, I know you’re angry, but if you kill this man and go to jail it will kill me, too, so I need your word that you won’t do anything, because it would hurt me terribly,” he’d agree, right? At least as far as the show’s calculus regarding this couple would dictate?

* “You are made higher to me, and holier, because of the suffering that you’ve been put through.” Whoa. That’s…whoa. That’s romance as Christian martyrdom. That’s Bates and Anna, I guess.

* Oh right the footman tried to be a chef.