All Is Lost

All Is Lost is not a comforting movie, or even a movie worth watching twice, but it’s an incredibly important one. It sews together incredible themes, brilliant camerawork and a once-in-a-lifetime acting performance from someone you’d both expect it from and still be blown away by — Robert Redford. (I was pissed Christian Bale got nominated in 2014 for American Hustle, just because of his unnecessary weight gain and general smugness, but now I fully understand the uproar. Bobby Reds deserved that nod over him, no question.)

Within the first few minutes of clicking “play,” I was already stressed out and a little nauseous. You know the solitude is looming — it’s in the title, after all — and you know the ocean is basically the globe’s own biggest weapon. Yet the unexpectedness begins early, too. Redford — who I’ll keep referring to as such, because his character’s name is simply “Man,” and I have no doubt the actual Redford would behave identically in real life — is a prepared person, but “prepared” is sort of insulting, actually. He’s an Eagle Scout inside of an ER Technician. He makes MacGuyver look like a clown. (Okay, most people do.) He is a nautical genius, a professional seaman, a true captain. He’s thought of everything. He has waterproof pants. He knows how to ration. He can tie knots. He can purify saltwater. And most importantly, he can keep his shit together.

The script for this movie intrigues me to no end, possibly even more so than the finished product, because it’s gotta be a dreamy haze of description. There’s no dialogue, as Redford isn’t the type to talk to himself to keep company. He’s a student, figuring out the minutae of a sextant in his spare time, rather than bawling into his empty bean can. Yet even with his stoicism, his sternness, he still expresses such nuance and depth of emotion that you truly can’t imagine anyone else playing this role. He survives insurmountable challenges to keep himself alive, and without uttering a word, he builds a history for himself that we can see plainly on his face. When he writes that note, and chucks it into the ocean, it’s the first sign of remote weakness he allows — and it’s not weakness so much as relief. He lets himself stop trying, because he’s done all he can to stay afloat, literally. It’ll rip your heart out.

I’m even more curious about J.C. Chandor, the director, because he’s got a pretty diverse C.V. to date. Between this, A Most Violent Year and Margin Call (which I shoulda seen), he’s proven himself in three very different genres. He’s got an IΓ±arritΓΊ thing going on, or maybe a Lee. He puts his own color palette on the film — blues, grays, harsh warm shades — but he knows when to let the genres do the talking, too. I’m stoked to see what he comes out with next.

And, while I’m at it, a semi-non-sequitur. A recent episode of The Last Man on Earth, “Pitch Black,” also touched on the concept of being marooned on a boat — except here, there’s a comedic bent, a post-apocalyptic setting, and an extra guy. Yet the sentiment is still so strong — there’s something incredibly unifying in that type of terror. It’s hard to imagine reacting differently than Redford or Mike (Jason Sudeikis on LMOE). Both of them stayed at the top of their intelligence (to borrow a phrase from improv) and did exactly what they thought was right to survive. In the case of Sudeikis’ character, he abandoned his compatriot. In the case of Redford, he abandoned himself. I won’t give away either ending, though. You’ll have to watch.

Casual, Season 1

I am in love with this show. Or, the first two-thirds of it, anyway.

Casual, found on that Hulu thing we all have, is worth watching despite its shortcomings, because the list of ’em is relatively just that — short. Let me get to the good stuff first, though. At the top of that list is Michaela Watkins, just the loveliest person to watch on screen. She has such a dead-on “fed-up” face, one that evokes sympathy that you’ve actually felt for a real person, because everyone she portrays feels real precisely because she is playing them. (I loved her on Trophy Wife, too. And the new Wet Hot episodes. And everything else I should have seen her in by now but haven’t.) Her Val has this probably too-close relationship with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), but it’s so enviable and honest to watch that you push aside anything that seems gross about it for the sake of enjoying it more. They operate on cynicism and oversharing, but not in a petty way. They’re not only casual about dating (as the title refers to) but also casual about life. They complain, but only when they really need to. They judge, but they recognize the futility of it. They take themselves zero percent seriously, and for that reason, they’re not bad people at all. They — and the whole show, really — also know when to be silent. The patter is quick, but natural, too. Dewey’s portrayal of Alex is wonderful, too, especially because he’s an outwardly functional depressed person. That doesn’t happen often on TV, and it should. It’s not only more fascinating and better television, but it’s important for the sake of erasing stigmas and building awareness of depression, even in fiction.

The rest of the slate is solid, too — Frances Conroy as their mother is genius casting, of course, especially considering the resemblance between her and Watkins. Fred Melamed steals every scene as their father with his basso profundo. Nyasha Hatendi as Leon is… frankly, just better seen than explained. Eliza Coupe as Emmy, Alex’s love interest, oozes the same casual as he and Val, which makes her blend in perfectly. And Tara Lynne Barr as Laura, Val’s daughter, reminds me of a less vain version of Haley on Modern Family. She makes dumb teenage mistakes, but she’s a hell of a lot wiser than she acts.

However, Laura is the jumping-off point for the one-third of the show that I didn’t love. See, all the while, we follow these folks in their complicated lives, and they return to each other with their issues and sort them out (or not), but they all consider each other safe havens, especially Val, Laura and Alex, because they live under one roof. They’re united against Val and Alex’s parents, at least for a time, and they have each other’s backs. But when a love triangle emerges between Val, Laura and Laura’s teacher, it shatters the show’s already-fledgling sweetness. Yes, it’s a disruptive plot point, but it’s a cliche, unnecessary and unbelievable one. Val is a therapist, for shit’s sake, and she may not have it together enough to know how to date, but she sure as sheep should know to stay away from her daughter’s teacher no matter what. The show exacerbates the situation by having Val sleep with Emmy, too. By the end of the season’s run, I ended up hating Val and loving Alex — the reverse of the start — and felt let down by its promise. The point of it is their special sibling equilibrium, and without it, Casual becomes just like every other half-hour sitcom — predictable.

I’m curious to see how the writers will dig themselves out of the first season’s hole, but I’m also confident that they’ll be able to do it, because the first chunk is so strong and unique and likable. Let’s hope they downplay the drama and get back to the title again.

Dexter, Season 7

Every time I dip back into Dexter, without fail, I’m reminded why I missed it and dumbfounded that I still haven’t finished it yet. I guess it’s a savoring-what’s-left type of situation. After this, only one more season remains.

When Season 7 debuted, I remembered hearing grumblings about how Dexter had truly jumped the shark — but not because of the big reveal to Deb (Jennifer Carpenter). Something else happens this season between Dexter (Michael C. Hall) and Deb that actually trumps the entire crux of the series, which is that Deb confesses she’s in love with Dexter. It’s a weird, gross twist, but after thinking about it for a very long time, I realized that it’s not completely far-fetched. Given how unconventional their relationship was from the get-go, how involved they are with each other’s lives, and how much of his story was known to her as they were growing up (he was adopted after his mother died), someone like Deb would wrestle with difficult, complicated, taboo feelings and have no idea how to process them or reveal them. And it’s not like they actually made out or anything on the show. She talked about it with Dexter, it was a really uncomfortable moment, and then it tonally affected the rest of their scenes together. Given the circumstances, that seems pretty accurate to me. It also served as a way to distract from the thing we all knew would happen, which is that she’d find out he was a serial killer. I have to hand it to the show for creating surprise out of an extremely built-up, possibly predictable element of the show.

Carpenter keeps getting better and better throughout her Dexter run. Hall does, too, but Carpenter really was the underdog here, especially considering the fact that the two of them were divorcing as this incestuous plot was coming to light. Hall had the fortuitous benefit of being able to hide behind Dexter’s emotional wall, whereas Deb only got more unstable, more raw, more exposed the more information she was given. From far away, the season might appear like a soap opera, but up close, it’s far more nuanced than that, because there are so many qualifiers and details that led the Morgans to this point. Had Deb not fallen for the Ice Truck Killer, who was Dexter’s biological brother, she might not have forgiven herself for falling in love with Dexter, too. And had Dexter himself not already taken an interest in someone else, he might have been just vulnerable enough to indulge Deb’s feelings, because he wouldn’t know what else to do. Despite the bizarre, unfortunate turn that their relationship took, Dexter manages to be more human with Deb than with anyone else, because he knows he’s got no other choice. They control each other’s fates, so they may as well continue to be on the same team.

That “someone else,” by the way, is Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski). I hadn’t seen Strahovski in anything before, though I know she was one of those fan-favorite types on Chuck, and now I see why. She has a very obvious sweetness to her, but she also convincingly understands Dexter’s “Dark Passenger,” while also admitting how nauseating that phrase sounds when said aloud. (Only took the show seven seasons. Seriously, what a deplorable combination of words.) Dexter actually fumbles around her — he loses whatever control he had, mostly over his romantic inclinations but also over his ability to actually feel feelings — and it’s both superficially cute and deeply revelatory. After 40-plus years of being a clenched person — a term that the late, wonderful Heath Ledger used on Ellen to describe his character, Ennis Del Mar, from Brokeback Mountain — Dexter unclenches a little, and the results are actually not terrifying.

The downside to Dexter and Deb’s plotlines being totally unique and unpredictable this season, however, is that the rest of the characters’ plots can be telegraphed from several states away. Of course sad-sack Joey Quinn (Desmond Harrington) is going to fall for a stripper. Of course Maria Laguerta (Lauren Velez) is going to get too close to figuring out Dexter’s secret. Of course Angel Batista (David Zay
as) is going to consider retirement and buy a freakin’ restaurant. And of course Vince Masuka (C.S. Lee) isn’t going to get anything interesting to say beyond “that’s what she said” jokes. They all play a little too much into the personalities we’ve grown to love, and they don’t offer any change or growth or progress. It’s very disappointing, because the characters (and actors!) are quite lovable. They’re just not given much to work with. At least we can revel in the glory of Laguerta and Masuka‘s costumes. Laguerta redefines the pantsuit. Eat your heart out, Hillary.

Oh, andΒ here’s a tweet I tweeted when I was actually watching Season 7. I stand by its sentiments still.

Spotlight

Fun prescient fact: Among the notes I made about Spotlight immediately upon seeing it was this: “new frontrunner for me.” Skipping right from A to O (as in Oscar), I’d like to think that I straight-up Called Best Picture. (But really, I thought The Revenant was going to win, and I’m oh so glad it didn’t.)

So anyway! Yeah, this was a beautiful movie! Arguably the best of the year, though up until I made that little note, I was fully in camp The Big Short. But Spotlight edged it out because it was about a terrible thing that affected people — youths — who had no choice. (I guess the same argument could be made about the crux of Short, but… for whatever reason, the idea of children being molested by priests hit me harder emotionally than the idea of people being screwed over financially. Both are terrible, awful things, though.)



So anyway, again. I wrote the above tweet the night of the Oscars, and while it was a joke, the sentiment behind it was completely genuine. See, Tom McCarthy, he of Season-5-of-The-Wire and The Station Agent fame, directed and co-wrote Spotlight, and if you know anything about The Wire, you know it received almost no accolades.

McCarthy winning an Oscar is incredibly satisfying for fans of the show, particularly because it rewards the part that he carried over from his acting experience there into directing this movie — and that’s creating diligent, no-frills, responsible, profound art. It truly feels like it could be an extension of the show. (Minus the fact that Boston is the whitest town of all time.) McCarthy clearly took his work very seriously when he played a journalist, and translated it into one of the most fascinating, important depictions of journalism on the big screen. Journalism isn’t a glamorous profession, nor should it be portrayed as such, and Spotlight gives it the cinematic treatment it deserves.

By that, I mean that the movie wasn’t about the acting. Or maybe it was. Whether it was or it wasn’t, the acting was so good and subtle that it didn’t even matter. Sure, both Liev Schreiber (as Marty Baron) and Mark Ruffalo (as Mike Rezendes) clearly studied their real-life counterparts’ tics and got them down perfectly and could have stolen the show, but they didn’t. They let the tics come out to serve the plot, and never more than that. And sure, a cast that also included John Slattery, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James and Stanley Tucci could have made it impossible to escape into the story fully. Those are all very Known names.

But the story — and the work! — were the centerpiece. Pardon the cheese that’s about to whiz out here, but all those actors were second-billed-and-below to the character of Journalism. Not in an overly reverent sense, but in the most democratic, truthful sense. Each reporter, editor, source and aide had something to contribute to the larger project, and each of them knew how important the work would be in the long run.

To attempt to bring down the Catholic church — and the wretched, stubborn, numerous followers that comprise it — is practically a death wish, and one that’ll make you lose your faith in humanity, especially the more you learn about what the institution itself is capable of burying. But the Boston Globe spotlight team did it. They made sure that something evil was cast into the light, where it couldn’t help but be stopped. And the honorable, clear justice that this movie did to their spotlight work thrust it into an even bigger, even more deserving spotlight. See it and know it.

Hail, Caesar!

Seeing the previews for this movie whilst cramming in as many Oscar-nominated movies as I’m wont to do in the month of January, I got pumped. The cast for Hail, Caesar! looked so stacked, with George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, Jonah Hill and Scarlett Johansson winking at me from trailers and subway ads alike. The Coens always know what they’re doing, right? … Right?

Eh, no. Sort of. Sometimes. This movie gave me the sinking feeling that either they, the Coens, or their studio (ironically) were pushing to have this thing out before the Oscars, and they tried desperately, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason. So the finished film had all the makings of one of the best of the year — aforementioned stacked cast, fascinating storyline about old Commie Hollywood, profound statements to be made about abortion/gossip/homosexuality, Clooney’s legs always exposed — but reeked of a rushed, corners-cut final few weeks of production. A travesty, if you ask me.

I think of all CoeBroes movies as unique takes on film noir, and this one in particular can best be summed up as a film noir about the noir of film — that is, the quote-unquote seedy underbelly of Hollywood. The way people get famous without being talented, the way talented people get shoved aside when life happens to them, the way “talent” is all about timing and luck, really. All of these topics bubble up, but they never quite boil — and the movie never really simmers, if you’ll allow me to perpetuate that cooking metaphor.

Of course, I laughed just as much as I would with any other CoeBroes movie. They’re good at that sort of dark-humor thing. Clooney’s legs were, I think, the star(s), and I must give the Bros credit for letting us look at them the whole time. As movie-within-a-movie star Baird Whitlock, he was in the middle of filming the titular movie, only to be captured by Commies, so he spend the entire two hours grappling with roofies and a prop sword. I bet getting into costume every day was a joy. Made for great comedy, though. Ralph Fiennes also thoroughly delivered as daft director Laurence Laurentz, and his scenes with the Broes’ new guy (there’s one in every movie!) Alden Ehrehreich were classically, perfectly structured. Pure comedy, again. And Frances McDormand made her reliable cameo, basically stealing the show as a film processor who gets her sweater stuck in a rickety machine. Gold. Also have to dole out some points to the Broes for giving Charming Taters the go-ahead to learn to tap dance and for including a mesmerizing synchronized-swimming scene. Even though you can feel my disappointment for this moving seeping into the coming paragraphs, it’s worth the ticket price for those sequences.

Onto the disappointment, now. Remember how I said Hill and Johansson were in this movie? They were, for a total of about 4 minutes. They got top billing over Tilda Swinton, who played TWO roles in TWO times the gorgeous costumery. I don’t understand Hollywood, which is again ironic, considering that this movie was meant to somewhat skewer and explain Hollywood. Hill even made a joke about how minor his role was in his most recent SNL monologue, which I found satisfying.

And, as much as I love Josh Brolin, I didn’t feel that he was a dynamic enough presence to carry the movie as its lead character, Eddie Mannix. Mannix was supposed to be a scattered, stretched-too-thin guy, in charge of too many decisions with too much at stake, but Brolin’s subtle lack of confidence translated into the entire tone of the movie — and his weak voicever just made it worse. It left me wanting a more deeply satisfying story and a more artful ending, something I know the Broes could have delivered with more time.

#NotInvisible

I don’t think I’ve ever made the title of a post on here into a hashtag, but in this case, it’s necessary. It’s a tiny, almost-but-not-quite insignificant thing I can do, so I’m doing it.

The Invisible War is mandatory viewing, both for people who crave well-done documentaries and for people who are hopelessly mis- or under-informed about the innerworkings of our military. I consider myself definitely in the latter category, and sometimes in the former, and while I obviously can’t say that I enjoyed this film, I’m incredibly glad that I watched it.

There’s a giant, abominable, ugly, silent problem in the military, and The Invisible War is doing its part to, at the very least, terminate the silence. There are a ton of women (and a not-insignificant number of men) who have been raped while serving, and the system is structured as such that they can’t report the abuse because (1) they report to their attacker (2) they report to someone who wouldn’t believe them anyway (3) they report to someone who will eventually get stuck behind red tape/a wall/insert other “stoppage” metaphor here. It’s a vicious, brutal cycle, and the mental and physical harm that’s come of it has resulted in deaths, delayed medical treatment, life-altering illnesses and disabilities, and basically no punishment for the attackers.

Watching this movie, hearing the stories of people like Kori Cioca and Hannah Sewell, being confronted with something real and truly invisible, I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Thankfulness, too, for never having to deal with a situation this horrifying myself. I’ve never had a particularly strong connection to the armed forces — of course, I support them and respect them and am thankful for their service — and yet this movie scooped me up and made me feel like I was part of a different army, their army. The united front against sexual assault, not just in the military, but everywhere. Those who experience this trauma shouldn’t have to live the way they do, and they shouldn’t defer to inaction because of the stigma or because of a rigged system. A few Powers That Be have listened, like my homeboy Leon Panetta, but the war is far from won — or from being visible.

The Invisible War anticipates how you’ll feel after you watch, and it directs you to a petition. I’m going to do the same. If you sign it, you’re telling congress that Uniform Code of Military Justice needs to be amended, and that the prosecution of sexual assaulters needs to occur outside of the chain of command.

Sign it.