Monday, June 29, 2015

THE BEST OF 2015 MOVIES...SO FAR


The first half of the 2015 movie season concludes this week, so what kind of movie year has it been so far? It’s been surprisingly good, albeit mostly in small pockets here and there. Perhaps the big, over-produced spectacle of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON or JURASSIC WORLD check your summer entertainment boxes, but I prefer something more original or certainly with less CGI filling every frame. True, more frivolous fare is trotted out during the hotter months, but it's good to remember that the big movie that started the whole summer movie trope was a smart, character-driven picture that returned to the theaters last week to celebrate its premiere 40 years ago. JAWS was and is still tons better than those poseurs, or most films for that matter. And, part of its success is due to its more human elements. The mechanical shark was fine, but it’s the story of the three men that gives the film its weight and classic status.

Still, there is plenty today to be lauding, so without further ado, here are the 10 highlights of the first six months IMHO:


EX MACHINA
The best movie of the year so far was this exquisitely sinister mind f**k. That’s not only what happens to the lead Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he tries to figure out whether he’s testing the humanity levels of the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander, in a star-making performance) or he himself is being tested by her inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The answer is both, and the audience is tested too as the story plays with our loyalties to the lead and we end up shifting alliances from man to machine. Alex Garland wrote and directed this amazing achievement and filled it with a sly, sensual menace rare in most films these days. At times, it almost could be a heady play in the National Theater in England. And like all great science fiction, this film is not only exciting and challenging, but it's also a stinging commentary on today's dependence upon machines, an obsessive predilection for voyeurism,  and our inability as human beings to connect properly with our fellow man. 


LOVE & MERCY
The second best movie of the first six months is this film about The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Unfortunately, this superior character study is dying at the office. It’s a shame that summer audiences cannot find room for the best biopic in ages, but I guess Cineplex patrons are mostly interested in remakes and rehashes. This portrait of an artist explains both the inspiration and madness that often goes hand-in-hand with genius. And as played by Paul Dano as the younger Wilson, and John Cusack as the burnt-out middle-aged version, Wilson is given a comprehensive portrayal, warts and all. Both actors deliver performances that should be remembered at Oscar time, no matter what the box office.


INSIDE OUT
Pixar’s latest critical and box office juggernaut is amazing not only for being ostensibly a kids movie about the inner workings of an 11-year-old girl’s brain, but in its daring for stating that one’s sadness is not only as valid an emotion as joy but may be even more valuable in how one copes, adult or child. All five of the emotions on display here (Sadness, Joy, Disgust, Fear and Anger) are validated in one of the wittiest and truly moving animated films ever. It’s an instant classic, right up there with Pixar's best like TOY STORY, THE INCREDIBLES and WALL-E. And the movie has as  much visual eye candy as it does prophetic thought. I don't know if kids get it all, but for anyone over 15, it is a film you'll want to see at least twice.


MAD MAX FURY ROAD
Filmmaker George Miller gave us a fourth movie in his Mad Max series and he proved that the return was well worth the trip. This adventure is quite the reimagining of the franchise in many ways as it turns Max into more of a supporting character to the real action heroes of the piece - the female characters on the run for their freedom from a crippling, male run hierarchy in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Sure, it's got some of the best action and editing anywhere, but what really makes this one rise above Ultron or T-Rex's is its characters. Specifically, those daring women, and in particular, their leader Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron, pictured above). Miller is a cinematic genius still, creating eye-popping visuals and fueling all of it with an adrenaline unmatched onscreen in eons. But his greatest trick is baiting us with Max's madness and switching the real heart of the film over to Furiosa's fierceness.  


IT FOLLOWS
Not only was this indie film a critical and box office hit, but it was simultaneously a VOD hit too. (More and more releases are going to launch that way.) So often, the horror genre is filled with schlock – gratuitous gore, unnecessary nudity and dumb shocks – but this little miracle avoids all those mistakes. Instead, it's a disquietly terrifying character study of a young woman that is trying to outrun an entity that comes after her, wanting to take her life. It's triggered after she's had casual sex with a date, and while it's a rather obvious STD metaphor, most everything else in the film has nuance and subtlety. It also has a palpable sense of dread from almost its first frame and that is an amazing achievement. This is easily the best horror movie so far in 2015, and it may very well staking that claim on December 31 too. 

Special kudos as well to distributor Radius-TWC for meeting the demands for this sleeper hit so quickly and opening it wide on 1200 screens just two weeks after its modest opening on only a handful of them. 

And while we're on the subject of horror, honorable mention must go to do other frighteners that made excellent impressions in the first half of the year: The Iran horror film A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT. It was arthouse and grindhouse, all in the same movie, and it’s also one of the year’s best frighteners. And INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3, the second sequel in that franchise, and one that gave it's lead over to 71-year-old Lin Shay who makes for one of the most unique ghostbusters ever in cinema. And she totally holds the film in the palm of her hand. Bravo!


WOMEN-FRONTED SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS
What a great six month for female empowerment at the Cineplex! Melissa McCarthy continues to prove to the idiot naysayers out there that not only are women as funny as men, but they can open films too. And they can do so without being a size 2. Her big budgeted comedy SPY has proved to be a huge hit. It took #1 the  weekend it opened, and it still continues to show up in the top 5 box office performers, week in and week out, a month after its release. 

Then there's the fact that the three leads in INSIDE OUT are all female. (That would be Joy, Anger, and the girl whose brain they live in - Riley.) Not to mention that horror has had a lot of leads this year, like in STARRY EYES, the aforementioned IT FOLLOWS and INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3. We've already discussed Theron in MAD MAX. And while it was unfortunate that director Michele McLaren felt the need to part ways with DC Comics over her vision on the WONDER WOMAN movie, at least another female director was hired to replace her. That would be Patty Jenkins, who directed Theron to an Oscar in MONSTER. Wondrous women, all!


OSCAR ISAAC
The most exciting actor working in film today is Oscar Isaac. (I'll have even more about him in a stand alone blog post next week.) Isaac can play good, bad, lead, supporting, serious and funny. Oh, and he can play a mean guitar and sing too, as he did fronting INSIDE LLEYWN DAVIS two years ago. His character of Nathan in EX MACHINA was full of so many shadings and Isaac does as much with his eyes and he does with script lines. His turn as the mercurial inventor pulling all the strings in EX MACHINA makes him the frontrunner for 2015’s Best Supporting Actor at this juncture. And in case you didn't think he was having a spectacular run, what DRIVE, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and EX MACHINA, in December he's starring in the new STAR WARS movie. Not only is the world his oyster right now, but it appears the galaxy might be his as well.


ROSE BYRNE
The most exciting actress working in film today is Rose Byrne. (Yes, I'll be writing more about her in a week too.) Like Oscar Isaac, she is a multi-talent who can do it all. And she’s Australian, but you'd never know it from her superb American accents she's often called upon to conjure for various roles.  She can play straight (INSIDIOUS) and broad (GET HIM TO THE GREEK). She can sing and dance (ANNIE), and she is one of the most gorgeous ingenues to come down the pike in some time too. This year already, she's appeared in two movies that show off her colossal talents. She played big and broad as the Euro-trash villain in SPY. Then she played utterly normal as a beleaguered wife and mom in the indie dramedy ADULT BEGINNERS. It’s great that Hollywood is casting her constantly, but now she needs to be getting leads. Talent this great needs to take center stage. 


ELIZABETH BANKS
She, like Rose Byrne is amazingly adroit at playing comedy, drama, horror, adventure, and farce. Banks also proved this year that she can be one hell of a director. Her helming of PITCH PERFECT 2 topped the original in many ways, and she even lent the film another one of her hilarious supporting turns. She's currently garnering awards talk for her stunning supporting turn in LOVE & MERCY. She is long overdue for trunk loads of awards. And this year, perhaps the odds will be forever in her favor. (Oh, that's right, she's starring in the final HUNGER GAMES movie this fall as well.) 


ACADEMY DIVERSITY

To hopefully produce an Oscar ballot come 2016 that looks younger, smarter, more varied, and less safe, the Motion Picture Academy has invited a slew of artists who are much more active in the business than a lot of those septuagenarian voters, if not also a group of invitees who resemble a better cross section of diversity.  Newer stars like Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Stone were asked to join. As were minority actors like Kevin Hart and Dev Patel. And JK Simmons was invited too. He's not only last year’s Best Supporting Actor but the veteran character actor works all the time and knows what's going on in the industry to say the least.

The Academy invited a large bunch of others too that toil behind the camera as well. Included were director Bong Joon-ho (SNOWPIERCER), costumer Jany Temime (SKYFALL) and Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, GONE GIRL). The fact that Reznor and Ross have Oscars but had yet to be invited speaks volumes about how tin-earred the Academy is too often. But with this list, there's great hope. Now, if the Academy would just get that Best Picture category back down to only five nominees. 

We'll see what the second half of 2015 brings us, but there are very good signs of great things to come. Todd Haynes' CAROL took Cannes by storm and gets released in the fall nationwide. Guillermo del Toro has a big new horror movie opening starring Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. And yes, the return of the STAR WARS franchise has the kid in everyone getting very, very excited. May the force be with it, as well as the rest of this movie year. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

FIVE WAYS "GAME OF THRONES" IS DEFYING THE CONVENTIONS OF HOLLYWOOD STORYTELLING



This past Sunday night on HBO, GAME OF THRONES ended its fifth season and not only was it jam-packed with enough big events for two or three season finales, but some of them were truly shocking. That’s saying a lot, considering this year has been chock full of controversies like the rape of Sansa and the burning at the stake of the child Shireen. Yes, George R. R. Martin’s books are filled with sex and violence, as is this series, but even by the show’s standards, this was a red flag season.

Most of the intense criticism came from those crying foul at the show’s excessive abuse of its female characters. And the naked “walk of shame” by Cersei in the season finale didn’t do much to calm the anger. While the vicious character was due for some comeuppance, the full-frontal scene went on long enough for many online to protest it as exploitation. The show has always taken a lot of heat for its preponderance to show off the female form, but this indeed seemed long, even by show standards. Was it misogynistic or sexist?

Showrunners David Benioff and D.B.Weiss haven’t backed down from such excesses. In fact, they seem to be welcoming the outrage. Exploding social media is good for a show, even though many are now swearing off this Sunday night must-see television. HBO might worry but the show still is a huge ratings bonanza and a mammoth international hit, so don’t expect the protests to change much of what's put on screen. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

One can argue that by now the viewer should know what they’re getting – violence, sex, and vicious treatment of women. But then, it’s a show that is pretty vicious to man and beast too. The show seems to be thumbing its nose at a lot of politically correct ideas, as well as Tinsel Town tropes on how to do a show. In fact, the show all but throws out most of the narrative conventions that we’re used to, and most screenwriting tomes will tell you about.


Some are as shocking as all that violence and nudity. And in many ways the true controversy of the show is how it all but gives the middle finger to the tenets of most Hollywood entertainments. Here are the most obvious five:

GOOD GUYS DON’T WIN

In George R. R. Martin’s world there are few heroes and even less winners. With Jon Snow’s demise in this season’s finale, the world of GAME OF THRONES has shut down another POV character and eliminated one of the more likable central figures. Many thought ‘the bastard son of Ned Stark’ would defy everyone and ultimately take the throne. Nope. Bad, bad things happen to good people on this series. True, the show does off some of its most awful, like King Joffrey, who used whores as bow and arrow targets; or Stannis, who burned his own kid to a crisp. But if anyone is convinced that Tyrion and Dany have now emerged as the bonafide heroes of the story and will survive and thrive, don’t get ahead of yourselves. There is little to laud in Westeros. Mostly, it’s mourned.

     CAN’T TELL WHO'S WHO WITHOUT A SCORECARD

It’s shocking that a television series has as many characters as there are on GAME OF THRONES. The imdb.com page for the show lists dozens and dozens of key characters that have all figured into the narrative strongly over the past five years, and if anything, they keep adding more of them. (Jonathan Pryce, this year, is a prime example). In this attention deficit disordered world of ours, it’s bold and daring that a show would offer up such a cornucopia of characters, all of who are complex with complicated names. Just try telling who’s who without keeping the GAME OF THRONES Wiki page close by. Daenerys Targaryen? Barristan Selmy? Jorah Mormont? Such monikers, and that’s just in one of the seven kingdoms! Never has a show had so many rich characters, such an expansive cast, and such hard to pronounce names.



     HATE TRUMPS LOVE

No one really expects a love story in a fantasy where the supreme throne is made up of vanquished enemy swords, but still, there’s room for some warmth and affection in Westeros, no? Ah, no. This is one of the coldest, meanest, and bleakest worlds ever put on screen. In this icy, cruel landscape, the longest lasting sexual relationship was one based on incest. In this kingdom, ex-lovers kill their former paramours with alarming regularity. A lot of genitalia’s lopped off, children are tossed out windows, and the most moral man is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a self-loathing, whoring, alcoholic, political misanthrope. But hey, at least he loves drinking and screwing!

     NO ONE SAVES THE CAT

The late, great screenwriting guru Blake Snyder famously wrote in his “Save the Cat” screenwriting book that scripters should have their hero do something noble early on in the screenplay, like save a cat, to let the audience know he’s a good guy. Well, not only do cats not get saved in GAME OF THRONES, but the show consistently flips the bird at all creatures great and small. If there’s an animal onscreen, it’s likely going to get slaughtered. Horses are lit on fire, pet wolves are shot point blank by a multitude of arrows, and even fire-breathing dragons are mercilessly pummeled by angry hostiles. Even the horror genre, which often sacrifices animals for dramatic purposes, isn’t as consistently brutal over and over again as GAME OF THRONES.



     THERE MAY BE NO MORAL TO THE STORY

Series finales get all kinds of criticism, from the depressing SEINFELD foursome on trial to the uncertainty of Tony’s fate on THE SOPRANOS. Even the recent end of MAD MEN left some more than a little uncertain as to whether Don Draper returned to McCann and pens the Coke jingle or not. (He does, folks. That was the ending.) Now imagine how GAME OF THRONES will likely end when it does. If there’s already this much consternation about the sexism and violence, do you think the show will have a happy conclusion? How about a logical one or one that’s even cogent? I'm thinking probably not. I’ll tell you what is likely - no matter who ends up on the throne, it won't be much of a happy end. And I doubt the new king or queen will still be great or moral. 

If the show has demonstrated anything over the past five seasons, it is that in order to win in the world of Westeros, you must be as ruthless as your enemies. Look at Dany (Emilia Clarke) who once was innocent and kind. Now, she's becoming pretty strident and cruel in vanquishing her enemies. And yet, she may be positioned more than anyone else at this point to prevail. But at what cost? Will she gain the throne but throw away her soul to do so?  Will she sacrifice her dragons to win? Will she turn on Tyrion if she has to?

The moral of the tale of Westeros, if there is one at all, is likely that one either becomes the butcher or the meat, and that's the only clarity afforded in such a world. We invested five years in Jon Snow, a dreamy hunk of a good guy and now he’s dead. We’ve invested in Starks and they’ve been slaughtered at wedding ceremonies, crippled, raped and rendered blind. Oh, and beheaded, lest we forget about Ned's untimely end in season one. And the best you can say about the Lannister brood is that karma is biting them back big time. But most of them are still standing. Nice doesn't win. Morals don't mean much. Women, watch your back.

Maybe what Martin, Benioff and Weiss are really saying is that the throne isn’t really worth it. All that bloodshed, all the politics, all the compromises, all that death, and what? Perhaps you'll eventually win the throne, take the throne, or luck onto the throne, but the next day the game starts all over again. Someone else, if not throngs, will be trying to wrest it from you. Is that game worth it? 

"Game of Thrones" may be defying rule after rule of Hollywood storytelling, but it's clearest idea is one that has been a staple of books, theater, films and TV shows forever - 

War is hell, and there rarely are ever any real winners. 


Saturday, June 13, 2015

JURASSIC WORLD WILL MAKE MILLIONS BUT WHY DOES IT MAKE SO LITTLE SENSE?

Isn't the logo even a bit too close to JURASSIC PARK?
It’s been 22 years since JURASSIC PARK premiered and became an instant classic. Since Steven Spielberg’s seminal horror film of the 90’s, there have been two big-budget sequels that made money but aesthetically are best left forgotten. The same fate should quickly befall this late entry into the franchise. JURASSIC WORLD will make a ton of dough this weekend, but it only conjures up a handful of frights while leaving a ton of unfortunate questions in its wake. Namely, other than money, why bother?

This question becomes especially pointed after realizing that precious little of what is on the screen bothers to scare, few of the characters are even two-dimensional, and the technical logic at play in the big new theme park at the heart of the story is absurd on dozens of levels. That last one is so egregious that it turns this film into an unintentional comedy. It plays less like a horror or adventure movie and more like one of those “Everything Wrong With” videos that CinemaSins creates on YouTube.

You half expect Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler to show up half way through this movie and start asking, “Really?!” So the theme park in the movie thinks that dinosaurs are like baby lambs and would easily succumb to the tropes of a petting zoo? Really? Paddle boat tours chart through the natural waters on the island where various dinosaurs graze and bathe and that’s safe? Really? And dangerous Velociraptors and Pteranodons are kept on the island for what reason exactly? Since they’re not allowed anywhere near tourists whom they’d eat, they’re caged and extremely hostile because of it. So who on the island’s staff thought that was a good idea? And then there’s the monolithic Mosasaurus that is supposedly trained like Shamu for a Sea World-type stunt show with applauding tourists who could easily be devoured if the beast leapt over its fence. Really now, who thought this was theme park entertainment? (I'd have loved to have seen the training sessions with that big Mosasaurus, but well, that's another picture altogether I guess.)

Ha ha. The dinosaur eats JAWS as a nod to Steven Spielberg.  Ha ha ha.
The screenwriters thought such ideas made perfect sense here, all four of them, and what that really shows is less of a need for logic and more of a brazen contempt for the intelligence of the audience. Their thinking must be that as long as we’re all scared, that’s enough. Well, it’s not scary enough and mostly it's due to the stupidity of this world that the screenwriters have created. The first movie went out of its way to articulate the how and why of the park. This one jumps into an expanded one already well into its existence and yet it doesn’t the tourist destination doesn't make any sense on any level. 

Most parks you have to be a certain height to ride, but here you don't have to be a certain age to drive?
By the time we see tourists steering their see-through spheres off course and Chris Pratt riding his motorcycle alongside rampaging raptors like they’re all part of the same gang, the film’s credibility has completely flown out the window. The horror genre still demands some portent of believability, no matter how outrageous the monsters are, be they vampires or aliens. This movie merely demonstrates a overt laziness with indifferent writing and shoddy plotting at almost every turn. It's too dumb to be scary.

Across the board, there’s a similar laissez-faire attitude. The showcase beast here is a genetic hybrid dinosaur called an Indominus Rex, and the design of it seems to be a hodgepodge of other monsters without making this one recognizable or memorable. Michael Giacchino does the score, and he’s one of the best composers working in the movies today, but here he’s encouraged to mostly riff on John Williams’ score from the first film. Why not let him create a new score for this entry? And Bryce Dallas Howard is made to run around in a white skirt, blouse and three inch heels for the majority of the movie, even when she’s out schlepping around with Chris Pratt in the wilderness. Who’s terrible idea was that? (Howard deserves far better than an awful role like this. She's a terrific talent. Is this the best her agent can get?)

And because it's Costa Rica, I'm not just wearing white, but a jacket because of the chill of 95 degrees.
Ultimately, it’s the director Colin Trevorrow who must answer for all these missteps, but the whole thing has a committee feel to it, like so many of the tent pole features coming from the studios these days. Nonetheless, couldn’t Trevorrow have tried to fix some of the other, smaller problems? Why does the Howard character have to be such a shrill, 80’s cliché of a corporate wonk with her blunt cut Anna Wintour bangs and rigid, clueless corporate myopia? Why is the military man Hoskins played with such an obvious, snarling arrogance by Vincent D’Onofrio? He’s a terrific actor capable of nuance and shading, so why is he directed with all the subtlety of a POWER RANGERS villain? Why are the two kids so bland? Didn’t Trevorrow want to try to equal the wonders that Spielberg always gets out of his kid actors? The two in JURASSIC PARK (Joseph Mazello and Ariana Richards) were amazing. The two in this third sequel aren’t.

The one person who comes out of this unscathed and looking good, as a matter of fact, is Pratt. He holds the center at all times and remains focused as an actor. He never condescends to the genre and is capable of playing the serious moments, as well as the flirty ones, and of course he aces the comedic lines. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t pick too many of these lesser vehicles for his resume. Please do more films like “The Lego Movie” or “Guardians of the Galaxy”, or even do indies that capture the flavor of your clever work on TV’s “Parks and Recreation.” (A romantic comedy with your wife, Anna Faris, perhaps?)

Pratt plays the whole thing straight, including this ludicrous scene. Raptors of Anarchy, anyone?
Still, at the end of the day, a film like this becomes something memorable, not just profitable, on whether it scares the bejesus out of you or not. And this film laid an egg there too. There are few surprises anywhere to be found. You know that the bad guys are going to become food. You know that Howard’s harpy will become courageous and fall back in love with Pratt’s wry hero by the last reel. And you know that the kids are going to be all right throughout, no matter how many dinosaur teeth come within inches of their innocent little hides.

Again, if the filmmakers here merely wanted to reap the rewards of all that JURASSIC PARK created for them over twenty years ago, they should’ve made a movie that imitated that one better. Then they'd have a movie that was smart, scary, well-acted and surprising. Instead, this film is too silly and virtually scare-free for any true horror connoisseur. In fact, the whole venture seems like it was aimed at 10-year-olds. That may be enough to make $150 million in a weekend, but it sure won’t stand the test of time. Heck, it won’t stand the test of a week. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

IS JAWS THE GREATEST HORROR MOVIE EVER?

Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of JAWS (Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider). Copyright 2012.

Yes, I think it is. 

The classic horror movie JAWS is being released back into theaters  June 21-24 to commemorate its 40th anniversary. It is a seminal horror film and one that needs to be seen on the big screen for maximum impact. (That 25-footer looks much more imposing when shown closer to scale!) And as moviegoers take another look, it's a good time to jaw over it's place in the pantheon of cinematic horror. The argument could easily be made that it is the greatest horror movie of all time, not only for its importance to the genre, the movie business, and pop culture, but also, for the unquestionable and enormous skill present in every single frame of it.

Some may believe that while JAWS is up there, the greatest horror film accolade should go to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece PSYCHO. You could argue that the story of Norman Bates is more of a psychological thriller than a straight horror movie, and perhaps they have a point, but it still easily fits into the genre of horror. If it's meant to evoke dread and fear on primal levels, that is horror. 

Others might choose THE EXORCIST and it’s certainly one of the scariest horror films ever made. It plays so real that its horrors seem all too humanly possible, which is more than you can say about the threats of made-up bogeymen and fake monsters. If you believe in the devil then this film strikes way too close to the bone. And for those reasons alone it's a contender.

But this year, as we celebrate the anniversary of JAWS opening on June 20 back in 1975, it is time to assess it fully again. And with that analysis, the landmark film earns the title of greatest horror movie of all time for many, many reasons. It’s scary as hell, it’s expertly done with A-list production values across the board, and it literally changed the horror genre. For that matter, it significantly altered the movie business. And God knows it changed swimming habits for millions and millions of people.

And how many horror films can claim all that? Again, PSYCHO and THE EXORCIST were similarly impactful, but they don't quite cover as broad a spectrum as JAWS does still today. Don't believe me? Next time you're with friends about to wade into the ocean or lake, start humming John Williams' famous two-note theme from JAWS and you'll see your friends lose their collective shit! 

That is the impact of JAWS still with us in our daily lives. JAWS changed the movie business in '75 by creating the summer movie season as the bulls-eye target for big picture releases. Up until that time, studios released most of their substantial movies in late fall or at Christmas, even their popular entertainments. (These days, that is the time to release Oscar hopefuls.) JAWS made the summer the time to go to the movies, to experience the big cultural events together coming from Hollywood. It set the template for films ever since. In subsequent years, such monolithic entertainments as the STAR WARS movies opened in the summer. And we only need to look at all the tentpoles coming out today to realize that Christmas may still be a big time for releases, but the summer is unquestionably the most important.

How did JAWS transform horror? It is one of the rare frighteners that truly stayed with us after the movie experience, certainly in regards to swimming in a natural body of water as previously described. But JAWS continues  to hold a major place in all of our pop culture psyches even when we're dry-docked. Look around and you'll see dozens and dozens of places where popular culture begs, borrows and steals from Steven Spielberg's classic thriller. Year in and year out, National Geographic Channel has their best ratings during "Shark Week." The SyFy Channel has built a cottage industry out of their cheesy B-movie rip-offs of JAWS starting with SHARKNADO. The movie industry continues to try to equal the success of JAWS with multitudes of other imitations.  A-list talent now embraces the genre because acclaimed actors like Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss were willing to do monster movies. Even something like the hugely popular reality series SHARK TANK owes a lot to JAWS.

But in order to be truly heralded as the greatest horror movie of all-time, a film has to stand on its artistry, not just its popularity. That’s why JAWS earns the crown and then some. What Spielberg, his cast and crew created has not only stood the test of time, but the film actually gets better upon each subsequent viewing. With each revisit, one sees how clever its storytelling plays out, how the acting is incredibly nuanced, and how in control of the show Spielberg actually was despite all the production delays due to the shark mechanics and weather on Martha's Vineyard where they shot.

JAWS is not only eminently watchable, again and again, but it is an absolutely indelible work of art. The film has barely aged. Little in it is dated or seems corny. And aside from the shark jumping up on the boat at the end, it's a totally convincing prop. This is a film that is extraordinarily smart, exciting, funny and terrifying, especially compared to so much of the horror drivel that comes to our Cineplex's each year. And it is brimming with memorable lines ("This was no boating accident!"), stunning photography, intense editing, and arguably, John Williams’ most impactful score he ever composed.

And Spielberg created a new vocabulary for fright when so many filmmakers were just imitating Alfred Hitchcock. If you're going to steal, steal from the best, as they say, but Spielberg didn't feel the need to trace the steps and employ the tropes that "The Master of Suspense" so often relied on, and others so blatantly ripped off. Spielberg avoided the Hitchcockian POV shots, head-on close-ups, and the director's droll sense of timing. Instead, Spielberg's directorial style was goofier, younger, even outrageously funny at times. He truly created a new style of tension and the subsequent release from that feeling of dread.

What he did was juxtapose huge scares right alongside big laughs, melding them perfectly into the fabric of his storytelling, and it is first evident in JAWS. The best example might be the scene where Sheriff Brody (Scheider) grumbles about having to shovel all that chum into the ocean to attract the shark while Hooper (Dreyfuss) gets to drive the boat. As he bitches, he doesn’t see that the Great White has popped his enormous head out of the ocean to get a bigger spoonful, almost putting Brody on the menu. It's one of the movie's most terrifying jolts. And then, a moment later, Brody realizes what has happened and stand upright, scared stiff. It's one of the film's biggest laughs. And to make that happen, immediately following such a huge scare, is truly something difficult to do in cinema. And Spielberg did it brilliantly. It quickly became a signature of his.

It’s evident in JURASSIC PARK during the first T-Rex attack. Spielberg juxtaposed the kids’ terror against cutaways to Jeff Goldblum’s droll lines and then shattered the tension with the huge laugh that comes with the lawyer’s darkly comic death on the toilet. It’s also there in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK when the Peter Lorre-esque Nazi pulls out a contraption to torture Marion (Karen Allen), and it turns out to merely be a collapsible coat hanger. It’s even there in his dramatic take on LINCOLN as the lobbyist Bilbo (James Spader) runs from a congressman about to shoot him, when the poor sap realizes he’s dropped his papers and must return to sheepishly retrieve them. No one mixes tension and humor with such spectacular, memorable results as Spielberg. And he started it all with his shark tale.

He also elevated the genre  by not condescending to it like it was B-movie material. The director truly gave it his all, and a thorough A-list production effort is evident from start to finish. Spielberg hired incredible talents like veteran cinematographer Bill Butler, editor Verna Fields, and a cast that was full of tony actors like Scheider, Dreyfuss, Shaw, and stage and film veteran Murray Hamilton. 

Spielberg also streamlined the story, ensuring that it was purer and more focused. Gone was the soap opera affair beween Hooper and Brody's wife that bogged down Peter Benchley’s source material novel. The director probably figured it was enough emasculation for Brody to be pushed around by Quint, the mayor, and the community, without having to add insult to injury by turning him into a cuckold as well. 

His focus remained on the man vs. fish idea, but Spielberg also cleverly attached a strong secondary story of man vs. man. The movie is a modern take on “Moby Dick” with an Ahab-esque villain in Quint. (He may be the true monster of the piece.) Shaw's take on the rugged old salt was truly frightening, with his steely gaze and irrational behavior. Granted, he was sympathetic and full of gravitas when he explained how his ship delivered the Hiroshima bomb during WWII but it doesn't lessen the fact that during this mission, Quint continually places his pride and machismo above common sense. His arrogance and the endangerment of Brody and Hooper creates a dynamic on the ship as dangerous as what's in the water. 

In fact, all the men in this film are tremendously flawed enablers of the horrors who continually put the Amity population in peril. Brody doesn’t stand up to the mayor and the town council and when he allows the beaches to stay open, the subsequent blood is on his hands. (He more than deserved that vicious slap from Mrs. Kinter.) Hamilton’s mayor represents the epitome of sleaze in commerce-driven politicians, and it’s got to be one of the richest inside jokes of the film that he bears such a strong resemblance to Richard Nixon. Even Hooper risks his life to get dibs on that shark’s tooth from Ben Gardner’s boat and endangers the mission when he drops it. And he jumps at the chance to enter the water in his cage to prove he’s better than Quint at stopping a shark with his modern tranquilizer gun. Spielberg cheekily infused every scene with the conflict of ego and it gives the story a resonance far behind its primal scares.

Then there are those artistic touches that rarely show up in most films, let alone those in the horror genre. Butler’s revolutionary camera went under water and back on top of the surface without cutting. John Williams' other two musical themes in the film, beside the one everyone can hum, lent heroism and poignancy to the film. The casting of locals in supporting roles gave the film such an authentic East Coast feel. Spielberg even ensured that the film was filled with symbolism like having Brody lose his glasses right before he was the last man left on the boat. Suddenly, we saw that broken boxer's nose of Scheider's and he suddenly looked like a tough guy who could maybe best that beast.

With all that going for it, JAWS can easily lay claim to being one of the greatest films of all time, let alone the top horror movie. After you've seen it in the theaters again, go somewhere with your friends and ahem, chew it over. Just stay out of the water.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

FIVE KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE END OF MAD MEN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013)

Now that MAD MEN has completed its network run, a full and complete assessment of the series will start by critics, scholars and fans. And as seasons and episodes and minutia are pored over with a zeal not seen since BREAKING BAD went off the air, it will get gloriously complicated. Who was Don Draper really? Did he ever find happiness? Was that ending cynical, hopeful, what? And that's just the last episode's issues!

MAD MEN was a show that was truly one of the smartest, nuanced and most accomplished programs ever to make its way onto our television sets. Arguably, no other TV show assessed the decay of the American Dream like it. It will be a fascinating treasure to return to again and again and discover more and more each time. There is just so much to revel in there. The great acting across the board, the clever dialogue, the sumptuous production values...they were all extraordinary. 

And as we examine it closer, Matthew Weiner’s brainchild will be seen as even more political than perhaps it was during its initial run. Yet such editorializing was always there. Weiner infused the show with his progressive politics and a disgust for the corrupt world of business. Most of the takeaways of the show, as it is examined, are inarguable. Here are five that made the program so thought-provoking and such essential viewing over the course of its run. In fact, for my money, MAD MEN was the television program of the last decade and easily one of the top 10 shows of all time.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013) 
IT WAS A SCATHING CRITIQUE OF AMERICA

Sorry, Marco Rubio, but your tweet Sunday about MAD MEN being a reminder that the 20th century was great was utterly inane. If anything, MAD MEN made a case for the complete opposite. Maybe if one was only looking at its fashion and sets, they'd come away with the idea that MAD MEN was a strong endorsement of the sixties, but it was not. Indeed, it appeared to be a scintillating portrait of mid-century America, but that was just its window dressing. It was its con, if you will. Like all those idealized commercials about love and family sprung from Don Draper's fertile imagination, it was not realistic. But make no mistake, under those tight suits, thin ties and Brylcreem, was something quite ugly. Even monstrous. 

Set aside obvious big ticket issues like assassination, war and poverty that everyone can agree plagued the sixties, MAD MEN shrewdly went after less obvious game. It focused on smaller and subtler horrors of the era. Attitudes, mostly. Repeatedly, the show demonstrated how so many in our nation at the time simply weren't grasping modernity. Even while the times, they were a-changing, a large portion of men in power remained stuck in their ways, unrepentant in their sins, and clinging to their entitlement. They were unwilling to bend and thus got lost in a fog as thick as the smoke from the cancer sticks they still deigned to puff. 

These men acted like pigs at the trough. They not only smoked too much, but they drank too much too. And they treated those not in the "club", particularly women, with contempt. And the show always called these men out. These characteristics were often exhibited by main characters like Don and Roger, the guys ostensibly we were supposed to root for, but the commentary was clear. The indictments were obvious. 

The show was darkly comic as it showed just how these outdated men went a little crazy as the world shifted under their feet. Sure the title of the show refers to the nicknames given to Madison Avenue types, but it carries more important meanings. These men went mad in the world as they realized it no longer was going to be theirs exclusively. And boy, did they flail going down. 

And not only did so many of these foolish men not see how women, minorities and other have-nots were starting to move up and wanted more, but they weren't even on trend with the ad biz. It was shrewd how Weiner even questioned if these relics were masters of that domain. You'll remember that in the very first episode, creative director Don sneered at the revolutionary Volkswagon “Lemon” ad, complaining about how he couldn't decide what he hated most about it. Don was really, really wrong a lot of the time, even in his job.

And Sterling Cooper's power elite displayed other botches too. One of their more famous mistakes was when they worked on the big presidential campaign in 1960. They didn't work for Kennedy, the voice of a new generation; they worked for Tricky Dick. The world was evolving and these guys were still driving their fathers' Oldsmobiles. Even when the British were coming to swallow up the agency, Sterling Cooper's leaders thought it would make things better. Don and his cronies missed a lot of the important road signs along the highway, rendered all the more ironic as ad agency folks are supposed to have their fingers on the pulse of the nation and its trends.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Roger Sterling (John Slattery) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)
IT BROKE MORE RULES THAN ANY OTHER MODERN TV SHOW

Not only did the show roast the old guard of power in the sixties, but also it burned a lot of the Hollywood rule book as it went along telling its story. Tinsel Town strongly believes that people abhor period pieces, but MAD MEN proved them wrong. Like all works taking place in the past, they're really about the present and MAD MEN was no exception. It was about today and that resonated with people. The same issues of men with their heads in the sand during colossal change could be found 50 years after that era. (Wasn't there a lot of Don Draper in Mitt Romney, a man still trying to figure out who he was, what he believed in, and struggling to form a true identity during the 2012 presidential campaign? Even the hair was similar. Again, all that Brylcreem!) 

And who would have ever guessed that a show about people making advertising would become such a phenomenon that enthralled even those who've never set foot in an agency? I suspect Weiner knew that this strange world would resonate with an audience that grew up surrounded by marketing, inundated with commercials and media, and slaves to the urge to consume. Everyone is a potential buyer after all, and MAD MEN was all about showing how everyone then and now is selling something. 

Weiner always talked up to his audience, and I think viewers appreciated having to think a bit more during the show. There was always a lot of water cooler debate on Monday, after the Sunday airing, about the characters and what they really felt, particularly Don. It was fascinating to dissect. Weiner's characters defied convention, so did his storytelling, and we seldom found easy answers. The mystery of it all drew us in even further. 

Weiner truly changed the template for episodic drama even more than his mentor David Chase did during the run of HBO's THE SOPRANOS. It too was amazing TV, of course, but it was about a subject that is always inherently dramatic - the Mob. Then along comes Weiner's show about people who make 30 second commercials and it proved to be just as dramatic and tense as all that gangland warfare was. That was a truly remarkable achievement.

MAD MEN succeeded without any of the surefire scenes that the industry insists upon to keep an audience watching. The show had no action-oriented set pieces. No episode or season finales that resembled anything like a cliffhanger. And few of its characters ever truly found redemption. Every screenwriting book in Hollywood tells you that your script must have such things, but Weiner and his show seemed to thumb their noses at such formula. He resisted. We benefited. 


Original caricature by Jeff York of Betty and Sally (January Jones and Kiernan Shipka) of MAD MEN
(copyright 2015)
IT HAD THE MOST ANTIHEROIC LEAD EVER

And in Don Draper, Weiner created one of the best TV characters ever - a handsome cad who was a train wreck. We just couldn't look away. And Jon Hamm gave one of the greatest performances ever by playing that antihero with such authority and vulnerability. Hopefully, the Emmy voter will finely award him a statue, and shame on them for not doing it years ago! 

And regarding Don, has TV ever seen such an irredeemable lead, a main character so unwilling or unable to change? A man who so often back-pedaled? Don Draper was a cheat, a liar, and a con man so many times that he actually was quite sociopathic in his way. There was a heart somewhere underneath all that, or we'd like to think there was, but Don sure could be the biggest shit nonetheless. At least he was called out on it continually, at work, at home and at play. So why couldn’t Don change? 

Well, as Weiner has pointed out in many interviews, people don’t really change all that much in life. Sure, Don tried here and there, but like most people, he could only venture so far outside his comfort zone. He attempted on occasion to be less selfish and more empathetic, yet for every noble step he took forward, he would seemingly end up taking the proverbial two steps back. It's a credit to Hamm that we always saw the lost soul inside, even when he was wreaking so much havoc.

In an early season, Don bared his soul to his colleague and love interest Faye, and in that moment, he clearly felt like he'd removed a huge albatross from around his neck. But alas, it was too good to last. Don backslid once again, dumping his intellectual equal and moral superior because his ego just couldn't take it. Instead, he ended up quickly courting and marrying his young secretary Megan. She was in awe of him for a while, but she saw his warts soon enough too. Weiner was always on the side of the women Don hurt. And he ensured that they always called him out on his bullshit.

Don did have some wonderful moments of forward-thinking. He recognized Peggy’s talent and often championed her. His shocking admission to the Hershey client about his whorehouse upbringing lost the account and got him fired, but it was a clarifying moment of self-truth for Don. And he reached out to Sally to try to make up for all the hell he had put her through. But Don never quite made it all the way to redemption. It was too easy to turn tail and run.

Don could stand with Tony from THE SOPRANOS in many ways. And that wasn't good. Heck, sometimes Tony came off better than Don because he truly was trying. Despite his sins, mobster Tony was desperate to change, even going so far as to see a psychiatrist. Walter White, too, was another antihero on TV that Don had a lot in common with. Both were always BREAKING BAD, but Walter's motivation for dealing drugs was to secure his family’s future. Comparatively, Don committed most of his transgressions because of a woefully overblown sense of machismo and entitlement. His family never came into the picture. He wasn’t a killer like those other two men, but for a guy whose greatest strength was that he was a marketing whiz, he sure left a lot of damage in his wake.


Original caricature by Jeff York of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)
And in the last moments of the show, when Don is trying to get in touch with his mind, body and soul through chanting and yoga, he likely smiles in that last close-up because the ad wizard in his soul has just thought of an ingenious way to co-opt the touchy-feely youth culture for a soda brand that desperately wants to be the brand in hand. You don't know if such a brainstorm is to be admired or reviled. Maybe both. Don Draper was both tragedy and comedy, a metaphor for that America which Weiner was critiquing throughout the run of the show. He represented a nation that no longer knew who it was, had some serious integrity issues, and took a lot down with him while he tried to figure it all out. 

THE PRODUCTION VALUES CHANGED TV'S LOOK

Sure, we’re now all used to the incredible production design and cinematography of programs like GAME OF THRONES and HANNIBAL. They look like movies. But MAD MEN did it best and set a new course for making every detail count in ways it hadn't before, from top to bottom, socks to props to everything. It revived sixties fashion styles too, particularly in bringing back those tight fitting, small lapeled men’s suits, and you can see them any night that Jimmy Fallon or Bill Maher are on. AMC TV spent a pretty penny on MAD MEN, but every single cent always was there in plain view. Never had the small screen loomed so large.


Original caricature by Jeff York of Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)

IT PERFECTLY MATCHED TODAY'S TIMES

Weiner's finale opted for a cynicism that is perfectly in tune with our times. Clearly, he didn’t want to go for a neat, pat ending and just because Peggy and Stan are together, that doesn't guarantee a "happily ever after" for them. Same with Pete's reconciliation with Trudy. Joan’s business venture could be wildly successful, or not. And maybe Don returns to McCann with a Coke jingle that puts him back on top of the ad world, but I doubt he'd truly be happy even with such fame. 


Original caricature by Jeff York of Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)
And in thinking about the show this past decade, it seemed to me that the show really zeroed in on how badly we handle turbulent times in our nation. 9-11, like the big tragedies of the sixties, didn't bring us closer together. It tore us apart even more and made factions more partisan. Electing a black president didn't make us 'post racial', as Ferguson and Baltimore certainly proved. And even though we know what global warming is doing to the planet, our heads remain in the sand. Is it much different from that bygone era of MAD MEN when too many people refused to believe that cigarettes were killers? (Alas, poor Betty, we knew thee - cough, cough - well.) 

Are we falling like Don in the opening credits, with everything we once believed in falling away too? Weiner's answer was, "Yes, indeed." MAD MEN held up a mirror to all of us and said, "Look America, you're a nation of Don Drapers." Stop flailing, stop falling, and change. Do more than just obsess over the next iteration of the iPhone. Stop being a self-absorbed consumer and think outside your selfies and personal lattes. The world is going mad, after all. So what are you going to do about it?

Monday, May 11, 2015

EIGHT EERIE WAYS "BATES MOTEL" CREPT UP ON "PSYCHO" IN ITS THIRD SEASON

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman Bates in BATES MOTEL.
“Bates Motel” ended its third season May 11 and the show inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film has brilliantly forged its own take on Norman Bates’ backstory, yet it’s also moved closer and closer to its source material with each subsequent season. In fact, this year’s 10 episodes riffed on a number of visual ideas and motifs that any fan of “Psycho” would recognize, and it did so with great wit and finesse. Here are the eight eeriest ways A & E’s hit show inched closer to the 1960 horror classic:

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) either dresses like a mom or a tramp.
Norman has started channeling his mother’s voice

In the past seasons of the TV show, Norman (Freddie Highmore) has experienced fantasies of his mother scolding him, usually when he was about to have sex. In the movie “Psycho” Norman does as well, but he also imitates his mother’s voice talking to him. Now, that’s happened on “Bates Motel” as well.  This season, Norman truly found his voice, er, her voice. And he’s been caught doing it by everyone from his sensitive brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) to his wayward uncle Caleb (Kenny Johnson).

Norman played the mother role this season. He even wore her housecoat while making breakfast.

Norman is starting to dress like his mom too

Vera Farmiga’s Norman Bates is a walking contradiction. Sometimes she’s the conservatively dressed mother hen, lording her maternal instincts over everyone from her brood to the Sheriff (an often flummoxed Nestor Carbonell). And other times, she dresses to seduce. This season she ran away in a snit and dressed like a floozy, hoping to bed a stranger. Norman was so upset with her exit, he lost his marbles and started channeling her whole cloth, right down to wearing her housecoat. 

Mrs. Bates is starting to sit at the bedroom window

The show has sometimes been hesitant to rely on visuals that clearly come from the movie, but this season a number of shots echoed the film blatantly. Norman observed his mother watching him from her upstairs bedroom window. That is a direct lift from the film, and it added even more chills to the show, as we know that Norman will eventually prop his mother’s corpse in a chair by the window to continue the illusion that she’s alive.


The show frequently employed overhead shots

“Bates Motel” has also started to employ the overhead POV shots to make everything in the hotel more macabre, from shots of the ominous staircase to Norman’s time in the tub. Unusual camera angles like that added to the oddity of the Bates world in the movie, and they did so in the TV series as well.

Good girls are starting to disturb Norman’s libido

Did Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) trigger her own death by mildly flirting with Norman in the movie? Yes, as any stirring of his sex drive triggers his Mother’s jealous mindset. That’s been happening all season long this year, first with the prostitute Annika (Tracy Spiridakos) openly propositioning Norman. He didn't kill her, but he easily could have. And sadly, in the season finale, the forlorn Bradley (Nikola Peltz) made a fatal mistake when she tried to pull Norma away from his home. How will Norman/Norma react when he realizes his old flame Emma (Olivia Cooke) is falling hard for Dylan? The likely outcome is not a pleasant prospect.

Is Emma (Olivia Cole) doomed as a good girl in Norman's world?

The show's tracking shots looked like Hitchcock's

The Master of Suspense loved tracking shots, especially those going up or down stairs, and this season “Bate Motel” added more and more of them to its visual vocabulary. Such shots add urgency and tension to the storytelling as the camera moves us closer into the action. And getting up close and personal with this cast of characters is very frightening indeed.

Norman’s obsession with taxidermy has become prevalent

The show established Norman’s strange hobby in season one, but it’s even more of a recurring visual motif now. It shows he’s becoming more and more comfortable with death. And it's a place he has a sense of control as he seldom does anywhere else in his world. How much longer until he starts preserving some human subjects?

Dylan (Max Theriot) and Emma follow Norman up those famous stairs.


 The soundtrack is starting to echo Bernard Herrmann

As shocking as it is, the show has never vamped on the well-known movie score by master composer Bernard Herrmann. And while the show hasn’t employed the shrieking strings outright, the melodramatic orchestrations are inching closer and closer to it. When Norman goes full psycho in the coming season, as everything is pointing to, can the shrieking strings be far away? Doubtful.

Whether or not A & E renews BATES MOTEL for a fourth season remains to be seen. But if it does, rich story opportunities await as the show inches closer and closer to the movie, and Norman inches closer and closer to his mother and a truly horrible killer.