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Spoilers for everything that has aired so far.

Thanks to AMC's decision to split the final season, we only got seven episodes of "Mad Men" this year, in what's being called the first half of the seventh season. However, as brief as the run was, this felt like a full season, giving many of the familiar characters complete and interesting arcs, and delivering a couple of major developments worth devoting a full post to by themselves. So as far as I'm concerned, this was the seventh season of "Mad Men," and will be analyzed as such.

The end of the sixth season saw Don Draper hit a low point, disintegrating during the Hershey pitch and being forced to take a leave of absence from Sterling Cooper & Partners. Would he stage a comeback like he had so may times before? Would he wash his hands of the agency and of his failing second marriage and start over again? We got the answer fairly early that a Don unable to work was a Don disastrously disconnected and adrift, out of sync. However, getting him out of bicoastal limbo and back to work took up most of the season. In essence, to get any semblance of the old Don Draper back, he had to grow up and become someone else.

And to do that he had to keep failing and failing miserably for a while. He had to be torn down and brought low, made to realize that Megan didn't need him in California and that the firm was doing just fine without him in New York. Betty and the kids? So busy with their own lives that his absence barely registers. Moreover, being awful to Peggy and Joan last year had big consequences, and his bold move to bring in Jim Cutler and Ted Chaough backfired, with Cutler and the supremely hateable new creative director Lou Avery becoming the season's major villains. Don's most enthusiastic supporter this year was fellow exile Pete Campbell, of all people! And it made Don the kind of fascinating, relatable protagonist that I'd been missing for too many seasons.

Of course, Don wasn't the only one in crisis this year. In the show it's now 1969, with the world about to plunge into the '70s and nobody quite ready for it. Peggy, like Don, didn't deal well with personal or professional situations that weren't going her way. She was downright unlikeable for an episode or two before finally getting past her blocks, which was a development that was honestly a little overdue. Peggy has been so sympathetic for so long, it was good to see the status quo shaken up. Nobody else had nearly as much screen time or emphasis among the regulars, but just about everybody got some of the spotlight in at least one episode to remind us why we love and/or hate them.

More than ever, "Mad Men" felt like a collection of character snapshots - Betty and Roger screwing up parenting, Joan ascending to accounts, Shirley's awful Valentine's Day, Megan meeting Don's niece, Sally in New York, Pete in California, and the disintegration of Michael Ginsberg. Some vignettes were executed better than others, and some episodes were certainly better about connecting all the disparate stories than others, but everything felt consequential and nobody felt shortchanged this year. Thematically, it all fit the end-of-an-era, time of reckoning feel to the season where the unknown future was bearing down quickly on everyone.

Nowhere was this more apparent than the finale, one of the best episodes of "Mad Men" to date, where all the major storylines pay off, and characters take big steps forward. Roger leads, Peggy pitches, and Don helps along both of their victories while securing his own position. On the other hand, Don and the firm are right back where they started and surely only delaying the inevitable. The firm's big new clients are names we know become obsolete. Sterling Cooper was actively trying to avoid the buyout last season. And the signs of generational change are all around, Cooper's farewell the most obvious one.

Despite the more heavy-handed symbols of impending doom being toned way, way down this year, "Mad Men" is as full of ominous portents as ever. I loved the multiple references to "2001: A Space Odyssey" accompanying the threatened technological takeover that doomed poor Ginsberg. I loved Bert Cooper going out on a soft-shoe (soft-sock?) number that all but rebuked Don for his successes. And even as Sally chose the nerd over the Neanderthal, she struck a cigarette-smoking pose so positively Betty, it sent chills up the spine.

As "Mad Men" draws to a close, it feels like Matt Weiner and company are well along in the process of saying goodbye to these characters and this universe. I doubt we're going to see Megan or Ginsberg again. I doubt we'll get much more time with Ken or Stan or Bob Benson. There are several episodes in Year Seven that had scenes that could have closed out the series for good. The fact that we have seven episodes left feels indulgent, honestly.

I don't expect that "Mad Men" will go out with a bang - it's not and never has been that kind of show - but the lead-up to the end has been so strong that I'm certain the finale will be worth the wait. Here's to Year Eight.
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I didn't know that Richard Ayoade had this kind of movie in him. The British funnyman made his directing debut in 2010 with "Submarine," a poignant, sweet, occasionally weird coming of age story with some Wes-Anderson-y flourishes. With "The Double," he's gone in a different direction completely. Here we have a dark and paranoid adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Double" that shares similar aesthetics with Roman Polanski's 1970s psychological thrillers, most notably "The Tenant."

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a worker drone for a Kafkaesque data collection company, who lives such an anonymous existence that the security guards at his place of employment don't recognize him even though he's been working there for seven years. He pines after the girl in the copy room, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) and tries to curry favor with his boss Mr. Papadopolous (Wallace Shawn), with little hope of success. Then one day a new employee, James Simon, shows up at the office. He is everything that Simon is not: affable, charismatic, and confident. He also looks exactly like Simon, down to their wardrobes, though no one else seems to notice. At first James is friendly with Simon, even helpful, but he soon reveals sinister ulterior motives.

It is a little difficult to categorize "The Double," which looks and acts like a thriller, but is not particularly concerned with behaving like one. Instead, it's better to think of it as a very dark, wry, comedy about a hapless loser who inhabits a particularly strange and alienating universe. I love the way the world of "The Double" has been constructed, with its dark, moody atmosphere and endless bureaucratic frustrations. Nearly all the action takes place at night, or within dimly lit interiors. The technology and the television broadcasts we glimpse suggest that we're some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but there's a sense of timelessness to the murky environs, which mix Eastern European utilitarianism with peppy Japanese pop songs. The sound design is wonderful, full of oppressive ambient noises that dog our hero wherever he goes. Are they being magnified by Simon's subconscious?

Jesse Eisenberg delivers two fine performances as Simon James and James Simon with ease. These are familiar types that we've seen him play before, but he does a commendable job of keeping them entirely distinct every moment we see them onscreen, and without leaning on many gimmicks. I liked that there's really no attempt made to explain the presence of James, or delve very deeply into any existential questions about why he exists. Once it's established that no one else takes any notice of the fact that James is a double, his role is to be Simon's antagonist. Larger philosophical questions are not off the table, but they're not the point. "The Double" is primarily concerned with Simon's narrative rather than grappling with metaphysics, as the recent Denis Villeneueve film "Enemy" did.

I think that's why I prefer "The Double" to "Enemy," which is also about a pair of inexplicable doubles who wreak havoc on each other's lives. "Enemy" has more high-minded ambitions, and is full of obtuse symbols that demand dissection and interpretation. "The Double" is a far more straightforward piece of work, but with more nuanced execution. It takes the time to build its characters, acquaint us with their lives, and lets us get deeper into the protagonist's screwed-up head. There's actually a nice little romance that plays out reasonably well, which let me connect emotionally to Simon and Hannah, whereas the characters in "Enemy" came off as utterly cold, flat constructs.

My only quibble with "The Double" is that the story plays out almost entirely as expected, and the stylization makes it feel a little too slick. The movie comes off as slight as a result, a genre exercise that doesn't really pack the kind of punch that it could have. However, it is such a unique bit of filmmaking and Richard Ayoade makes a lot of interesting choices here. When searching for other films to compare it to, I kept pulling up art house obscurities like Kieślowski's "A Short Film About Love" and Scorsese's "After Hours." The aforementioned "The Tenant" is probably the most obvious precursor, with its endless insomniac night scenes and deeply confused hero.

So I suspect that "The Double" is one of those odd little films that only an art house nerd could really love. The subject matter and the style are so far off the beaten path that even with a pair of recognizable young actors like Eisenberg and Wasikowska as the leads, it doesn't have much hope of attracting a larger audience. That's a shame, because Richard Ayoade deserves kudos aplenty for puling this one off. And I can't wait to see what he does next.
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Michel Gondry made one truly exceptional film, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," ten years ago, and hasn't quite gotten back to that level since. HIs subsequent projects have all been interesting and watchable (with the exception of a certain superhero reboot that wasn't really his fault), but none have had quite the same clarity and resonance of that Charlie Kaufman-scripted love story. "Mood Indigo" isn't quite "Eternal Sunshine" either, but it does get fairly close. It's an ungainly, over-designed, exhausting film to watch because Gondry gives full rein to his usual whimsical stylization, but there is a solid core to it that gives it some real kick.

Based on Boris Vian's surrealist science-fiction romance novel "Foam of the Daze," "Mood Indigo" tells the story of a man named Colin (Romain Duris) who lives a carefree life with his talented man-servant Nicholas (Omar Sy), bibliophile friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and a mouse roommate (Sacha Bourdo). After Chick gets a girlfriend, Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin decides that he too should fall in love, and soon after meets the lovely Chloe (Audrey Tatou). Colin and Chloe enjoy a whirlwind romance, but alas their happiness is short-lived. Chloe becomes ill, Chick and Alise's relationship becomes strained, and Colin's charmed life is soon beset on all sides by misfortune.

It's always a tricky prospect to make a surrealist film, and Gondry's approach seems to have been to translate every element I imagine was metaphorical in the source material as literally as possible for the screen. Colin appears to live in a Parisian Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Nicholas consults with a cooking mentor who inhabits the oven, and the doorbell is a bug-like creature who has to be swatted to be silenced. At one point the walls physically close in on Colin when he receives bad news. Some of these conceits work, like a character who literally ages years in days due to worry, but others, like a dance sequence where all the characters are obliged to don cartoonish, elongated prosthetic limbs, do not. Some are too literal or too obviously analogues, so the film lacks the truly absurdist free-wheeling nature of something like Leos Carax's "Holy Motors." And I don't think anything involving the mouse character worked at all.

When I'd first heard that the distributors wanted to edit the film down for international release, I was completely against the idea, but now having seen it for myself, I think it's a reasonable choice. "Mood Indigo" has pacing problems and could stand some trimming, especially in the meandering first half that chronicles new love in bloom. Gondry's wild visual inventiveness is always interesting, and I appreciated his efforts, but they kept getting in the way of his storytelling. I've liked Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou in other films, but here their bubbly love connection is not so much enhanced by all the graphic blandishment, but weirdly disconnected from it, such that it feels like the couple is enduring each new scenario - a flight in a cloud car, a picnic that takes place in the sun and the rain at the same time - instead of embodying them.

The story and visuals mesh together considerably better in the second half of the film when things take a darker turn. Suddenly all the whimsy and delight begins to transition to decay and despair, and the central relationship becomes truly compelling as the pair begin to face hardship and doubt. There's a greater universality to Colin and Chloe's downward spiral, and Gondry is more adept at reflecting them in their surroundings. The performances come into sharper focus, particular Roman Duris's, and the supporting characters become more important and are better defined. I especially enjoyed the arc of Chick, who obsesses over a particular writer to such a degree that he finds new ways to consume his writings by turning them into injections and eyedrops, until his whole life is consumed by them.

For fans of Michel Gondry's work, this is about as Gondry as it gets. Though the production values of "Mood Indigo" aren't as high as those of the films he made in Hollywood, his ambitions are as large as ever, he clearly wasn't working under any studio constraints, and he attracted all the right talent to the project. Though there are a lot of missteps, I found this to be a much more cohesive and successful film than anything else Gondry has produced in a long time. Though the documentaries and smaller projects like "The We and the I" have been all well and good, it's the larger fantasy projects like this that continue to be his most distinctive and rewarding. It's hard to imagine anyone else making a film like this, with such commitment and such fearlessness.

"Mood Indigo" is far from perfect, but there's enough good mixed in with the mediocre that I'm glad it got made. I do hope Michel Gondry keeps shooting for the moon. He may never make another "Eternal Sunshine," but his work is always worthwhile.
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I think the work of Denis Villeneuve is overdue for a post here. The Canadian director first came on my radar with the 2010 mystery "Incendies," which made my Top Ten list that year, but which I never got around to writing a review for. He followed that up with last year's crime thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman, and then "Enemy," a strange little existential puzzle film, which hit VOD recently. I thought I'd take a closer look at the latter two pictures, two intense stories about frustrated, lost men.

"Prisoners" is one of those ensemble dramas with a big cast of familiar faces. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working class man who becomes a vigilante when his young daughter and her friend disappear at Thanksgiving, and the police are unwilling to charge a mentally challenged young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who Dover is convinced is involved in the disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is leading the investigation, has to contend with elusive suspects, many wrong turns, and Dover's increasingly desperate and extreme tactics to find his daughter.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trailer for "Prisoners," which seemed to give away far too much of the film's twisty plot, actually didn't give away as much as it appears to. "Prisoners" is quite a complicated narrative following both Dover and Loki in their parallel hunts for the kidnappers. Between the psychological murkiness and the gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography, "Prisoners" reminded me a lot of David Fincher's "Zodiac," except that it plays out in a much more conventional fashion. A clear answer to the mystery is dutifully provided at the end of the movie.

I found that the melodrama occasionally gets cranked up a few notches too high. There's a pulpiness to how events play out that suggest "Prisoners" was influenced by more high octane crime films like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" or several of the recent hyper-violent Korean revenge dramas. While Dover's moral ambiguity is placed front and center, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring it in any depth. We see that the consequences of his rage are horrific, but story choices lessen the impact, to the detriment of the whole.
That's not to say that the movie isn't well made or well executed. The writing is taut, the suspense is excellent, and the performances are all solid, particularly Hugh Jackman's wild-eyed Keller Dover. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime thriller and doesn't mind a few nasty shocks. However, it does feel like something of a missed opportunity, considering how many juicy concepts and sticky issues are raised by the film.

"Enemy" is a smaller, more modest project despite a much more ambitious concept at its core. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor named Adam who discovers that he has an identical double, an actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, eventually tracking him down and involving himself in his life, which has some unforeseen consequences on both Anthony's relationship with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Isabella Rossellini also appears for a brief, but important scene as Adam's mother.

I categorize "Enemy" as a puzzle box film because Villeneuve includes an audacious ending that essentially demands that the viewer go back and actively search out, pick apart, and interpret the film's none-too-subtle symbols and messages. The concept of the double is only one of several themes in play, serving to add more layers to the spare, but involving thriller scenario that plays out between Adam and Anthony. The film manages to be ambiguous and intriguing about its aims without feeling too manipulative, though I found it a little stingy with the little details that make similar puzzle films more fun.

However, I did appreciate the paranoid atmosphere, wonderfully sustained by Villeneuve throughout the whole of "Enemy." We're never told anything particularly concrete about the strange situation that develops between Adam and Anthony, but simply invited to witness the consequences of their existence and meeting. Exposition is sparse, in favor of slowly ratcheting tensions and an alienating mood that is effective without ever feeling too obvious. Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in both roles, and this is one of his better leading man outings in a while.

I don't think "Prisoners" or "Enemy" live up to "Incendies," but then they're very different films and aiming for different audiences. I've enjoyed everything I've seen from Denis Villeneuve so far, and think he has the potential to do a lot more. He's proven he can tackle art house and mainstream material with equal skill, and seems to have a good eye for interesting projects. I'll continue to keep an eye out for his work in the future.
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Go "Joe"

Apr. 16th, 2014 10:20 pm
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"Joe" is being trumpeted as the return of beloved movie star Nicholas Cage to the realms of serious acting. He gets a pretty juicy role here as the title character, an ex-convict with a past who befriends a troubled teenager. However, this is also the comeback of director David Gordon Green, who got sidetracked with idiot mainstream comedies like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" for too many years, and is finally finding his way back to his low-budget dramatic roots with "Joe" and last year's odd but interesting "Prince Avalanche." And it also features another major turn by Tye Sheridan, the young actor last seen in "Mud" and "The Tree of Life."

Sheridan plays Gary, a Southern kid living on the brink. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vile, abusive alcoholic who puts his son in the position of sole provider and protector of his mother and sister. Gary gets a job clearing trees with a work crew run by Joe (Cage), who is impressed with Gary's work ethic and determination, but reluctant to get involved personally. Joe has a violent streak he's been trying to keep at bay, and has made enemies, including Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local degenerate who nurses a major grudge. At stake is the modest, but honest life he's managed to build for himself with girlfriend Lacy (Heather Kafka), and his small circle of friends. However, Joe inevitably finds himself giving into his instincts on Gary's behalf.

I admit that I nearly forgot what a low-key, subtle performance from Nicholas Cage looked like after years of his notorious hamming around in one bad blockbuster after another. As Joe, he still gets a few explosive outbursts to play with, but they're well grounded in the context of a thoughtful examination of a complicated man who is caught between the need for self-preservation and the new role of surrogate parent to a boy who sorely needs one. For the first time in a long time I forgot that I was watching Nicholas Cage onscreen, forgot about all those tell-tale mannerisms and wild-eyed facial contortions he brings out so often, and just got to enjoy his work. And it was great to see.

Tye Sheridan also continues to impress, now three for three in a great run of films. His character here shares about equal screen time and narrative emphasis with Joe, and is equally as compelling. Sheridan is so good at embodying inner conflict, and Gary has plenty to be conflicted about. His best scenes are where we see his dark side manifest, where we see the building frustration and rage growing in him that might become a more destructive force than any singular, immediate antagonist. The surrogate parent-child relationship that forms between Joe and Gary is a pretty convincing one, unsentimental and unforced, that manages to hit all the right notes.

The real star of the picture, however, is its setting. David Gordon Green's personal projects share quite a bit in common with the work of Jeff Nichols, who directed the superficially similar "Mud," another coming of age tale set in the American South starring Tye Sheridan. I admire "Mud," but I prefer "Joe" for its wonderful, simmering tensions, it's rich atmosphere, harshly beautiful environs, and its rougher cast of damaged characters. There's an uncomfortably genuine nastiness to the villains, particularly Wade, which really enhances the impact of the occasional bursts of jarring violence within the film's universe.

This commitment to authenticity extends throughout the film. Everything we see is run down or worn, and value is tied heavily to functionality. Dogs are a major metaphor, kept by several characters for protection rather than companionship. "Joe" doesn't move quickly, and many of the opening scenes are devoted to showing the daily routines and the familiar rhythms of Joe's life. I've seen the film described as an exercise in misery and impoverishment, but there are several moments of happiness and small victories that show the characters have plenty in their lives worth fighting for.

"Joe" has a lot of themes and ideas that have seen a resurgence in American film lately: Southern culture, coming-of-age stories, deteriorating working class families, and rural survival thrillers. The mix here is very strong, and "Joe" works as both a character drama and a more accessible genre picture. I sincerely hope that this isn't just a digression for both David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage, because this is the best thing that either of them have been involved with in several years. I have to wonder why Green hasn't ever tried making a more profile thriller.

As for Nicholas Cage, I didn't realize how much I'd missed him in films like this and roles like this. "Joe" could be a real turning point for him if he wants it to be.
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It feels a little disingenuous to be writing up this post now, because "Mad Men" isn't going to be premiering its last batch of episodes until next spring, thanks to this business of splitting Season 7 into two chunks of seven episodes apiece. But if AMC can cheat, so can I. The season premiere aired last Sunday, and the exiled Don Draper is facing 1969 and the end of the '60s. What do I want to see happen to him and the rest of the ad execs in this final year? I did a "what if" post looking at possibilities and predictions last year, but this time around I want to get more concrete.

"Mad Men" has been all about examining and poking holes in the iconic '60s image of masculinity personified by Don Draper in the early seasons. From the start he's always been a facade, and over the course of the last six seasons that facade has been slowly chipped away bit by bit until we find it in a state of total disrepair at the start of the seventh. Don is left feeding ideas to Freddy Rumsen and resisting the lure of Neve Campbell, having been burned too many times by previous affairs. The episode's final, haunting image finds him alone, unable to sleep. At the same time the show also tackles other familiar figures like the ascendant working woman, in this case Peggy Olsen. For all of Peggy's talents and all her drive, we find her in a place not much better off than Don, her work compromised and her personal life all but nonexistent.

This isn't where I want these two to end up. Oh, I'm not rooting for some kind of fairy tale ending where they pair up romantically and go off to found their own advertising firm of Whitman and Olsen, but I do want them to both survive the decade and make it to a place where they're prepared to tackle the next one. The internet has been full of speculation that Don is going to die in the final episode, but I'd be much happier with a metamorphosis, from Draper back to Whitman, perhaps, or from Draper into someone new. Peggy, I suspect will either claw her way to the top or simply walk away from Sterling Cooper and the world of the mad men in the end. Both could be read as victories, and I'd be happy to see either outcome.

Betty and Sally didn't appear in the premiere. Though her part in the show has been drastically reduced, I still identify with and root for Betty. I doubt that there's more narrative space left to really explore her world, but the Betty and Sally relationship deserves some more attention. I hope these two can figure out to connect with each other, or at least reach some kind of mutual understanding, now that Sally has become disillusioned with her father. From their last encounter, Betty may still have some maturing to do, but she's grown up enough to get over Don. I'd like Sally to be able to do the same, maybe mirroring the scene with Roger and his daughter next week.

Speaking of Roger, I honestly don't see much hope for his redemption at this point, so I can only hope that his decline continues to be spectacular. The possibility of Joan becoming a real wheeler-dealer at the firm was raised this week, however, and suddenly I want her to be a successful account woman very badly. Pete Campbell showed up amusingly tan and happy, and though the little rat has caused a lot of grief over the years, I've grown fond enough of him that I hope he finds a way to stay happy and put all the bitterness behind him - though I know he probably won't. At the same time, I want something really nasty to happen to Teddy Chaough.

Among the minor characters, I'm still rooting for Ken and Ginsburg to make it out of Sterling Cooper with some dignity intact. And then there are all the other supporting characters who were left by the wayside as the show rolled on. I love that we got to see glimpses of what happened to Midge and more amusingly, to Paul. But whatever happened to Sal? And Abe? Does Harry Crane get any more time this year? And what of Bob Benson and the man named Duck?

Finally, 1969 will bring the Apollo 11 moon landing, My Lai, Woodstock, Altamont, and the Manson Family murders. And even if Megan Draper isn't supposed to be a analog of Sharon Tate, I still stand by my original assessment that she's not going to be a part of Don's world for much longer. I think the relationship has run its course, and I'd rather see it over sooner rather than later.
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I wasn't the most consistent viewer of "Star Trek," but when I was in junior high, I spent every weekday before dinner watching the syndicated reruns of "Next Generation" and marveling over an adventure show where problems were solved by smarts and diplomacy as often as fisticuffs and gunplay. It was my gateway into science-fiction television, and though I never became as attached to the other "Star Trek" iterations, I still count myself as a "Trek" fan wholeheartedly. Here are my top ten favorite episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate. And I am totally cheating and counting two-parters as single entries.

"Q Who" - "Next Generation" famously suffered through some rocky early seasons, but Q episodes were always a a highlight. I debated between "Q Who" and "Deja Q," but this one has to make the list for the first appearance of the Borg, the greatest villains introduced by the "Next Generation," and a great supporting turn by Whoopi Goldberg, who joined the cast in the second season. And I love that the whole story was a lesson in hubris - there's always going to be something out there that humans will be unprepared to face.

"Yesterday's Enterprise" - I used to get this one mixed up with the seventh season episode "Parallels," but "Yesterday's Enterprise" is the far better episode, a time travel story that has the Enterprise-D encounter its predecessor ship, the Enterprise-C with some dramatic consequences. I always appreciated that this episode gave Tasha Yar a proper sendoff and was so fully committed to a fairly heady premise involving alternate timelines. You almost never see time travel stories that deal so much in similar consequences.

"The Offspring" - The tale of Data's daughter Lal is one of the funnier hours that the show ever came up with, but also one of the most poignant. Data's experiments to understand humanity and his own existence better were hit-or-miss, often coming across as too pat or contrived. However, his first jaunt into parenting is definitely one of the hits, giving us a brief glimpse of relationship I wish we could have seen expanded into further episodes. It also makes a good counterpart to the famous "Measure of a Man," which just missed a spot on this list.

"Hollow Pursuits" - Poor Lieutenant Barclay. He's that awkward introvert we all know who loves shows like "Star Trek," but is rarely portrayed as part of the "Star Trek" universe. This episode fixes that, giving Barclay the spotlight for a self-contained adventure that takes a piece of future technology we're familiar with, the holodeck, and using it in a way we don't expect - namely giving a man's fantasy life a little too much life. I always liked it when "The Next Generation" gave us a break from formula, especially for stories as much fun as this.

"The Best of Both Worlds" - There's no denying the impact of the Borg on the "Star Trek" universe, and this was arguably their best appearance on "Next Generation," finally clashing with the Federation in full-scale combat. There are so many memorable moments in this two-parter: the wrecked Federation fleet, the first separation of the Enterprise's saucer and stardrive, and who can forget the shocking cliffhanger that introduced Locutus? It's no wonder this remains one of the series' most popular stories, and influenced so much "Star Trek" to follow.

"Darmok" - The first episode that I remember watching, and one of the best examples of a "Star Trek" story that favors thinking through problems instead of using brute force. I've read through enough analyses of this episode to understand that the linguisitic puzzles are pretty much bunk, considering the use of the universal translator, but still the message and the execution of it are so well done that they hit home beautifully. And special kudos to Paul Winfield's performance as Dathon, still one of my favorite guest appearances on the show.

"I, Borg" - There were only six episodes in the entire run of "Next Generation" that featured the Borg, and I've managed to include four of them on this list. This is the last, where Geordi LaForge meets a young Borg he names Hugh, and teaches him the foreign concept of individuality. This is such a wonderfully thoughtful episode, that really gets into what it means to be human and how we define the self. And after the fireworks of "Best of Both Worlds," it's a good reminder that every villain in "Star Trek" is a potential friend.

"The Inner Light" - Boldly going where no man has gone before can take on many different forms, and perhaps no voyage of discovery Captain Picard ever took was as strange and wonderful as the one he experiences in "The Inner Light," where Picard lives out the simple life of a man on a different planet, from a different civilization. It's such a quiet, seemingly uneventful episode where it's not clear what is going on until the final set of reveals, but the emotional punch that it delivers rivals anything else that "Star Trek" has ever done.

"Ship in a Bottle" - I always had a thing for the holodeck episodes, which often provided a nice change of scenery or access to unusual characters. Daniel Davis's Moriarty was introduced way back in the Season 2 episode "Elementary, Dear Data," a clever story but nothing special. I'm glad that they brought him back for this follow-up, where the question of whether a hologram can be considered a form of life is introduced, and there's a twisty plot involving figuring out who is in what frame of reality. I don't even mind that the ending cheats.

"All Good Things" - The finale two-parter gives us a chance to say goodbye to all the beloved characters, gives us another ripping time travel story, and brings back Q in the judge's outfit to deliver a final lecture. It makes for a fitting ending to the series, giving us a peek at what the future holds in store for the crew without setting anything in stone, revisiting familiar themes, and leaving plenty of room for more adventures. "The Next Generation" went out on top, and precious little in the "Star Trek" universe has come close to it since.

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Lots of spoilers for the third season of "Game of Thrones" ahead. That's the third season that aired roughly a year ago, kids, not the upcoming fourth one that you've been seeing all the marketing for. Why am I writing a post about something that happened in year three now, after I already wrote up my thoughts on that season back at the end of last summer? Well, because I think that enough time has passed in regards to spoilers and such that I can finally get my rant on about one of the biggest events in the show so far: the infamous Red Wedding.

I managed to avoid most of the spoilers about the third season. I didn't know who got married to who, who got various body parts cut off, who nearly got killed by who, who became unlikely friends with who, who conquered what, and who finally stuck it to a White Walker. The Red Wedding massacre, however, was something I had been hearing about in offhand comments long before this season began. It seemed like everyone who was a fan of the books was anticipating it, and they weren't shy about broadcasting that anticipation. I've been pretty good about avoiding places where spoilers tend to come up, but talk of the Red Wedding seemed to be the exception to every rule about spoilers. Even the most conscientious and considerate "Thrones" fan couldn't seem to resist referring to it as a major event coming up in the show, and thus is was practically impossible to avoid being hyped up for it. And that's really what killed it for me.

After "Rains of Castamere," the episode where the Red Wedding actually happened, aired on HBO, matters got exponentially worse because suddenly the information went viral in the mainstream media. Even though the details of what actually went down were still fairly scarce, the response to the episode itself became a talking point. I was reminded of this when earlier in the week, Jon Stewart brought up the Red Wedding in his "Daily Show" interview of Peter Dinklage and the popular Youtube videos of upset viewers reacting to the big moment. There were thinkpieces circulating everywhere, and from the titles alone it became obvious that the Red Wedding was a massacre where a lot of major characters died in an especially horrific fashion. I understand the fans' need to share in the experience, and the media commentators' need to generate meta, but this was too much. You had to avoid the internet entirely to avoid being spoiled, something I wasn't willing to do.

When I finally watched "Rains of Castamere" several months later, it didn't live up to expectations. How could it? So much of the effectiveness of the Red Wedding was the suddenness of it, that with hardly any warning the writer would kill off a major protagonist who had up to that point been the center of a major thread of the story. The same thing happened in the first season with the execution of Ned Stark, which was also spoiled for me, but that one stung less because it had attracted much less attention and commentary, so the impact still hit me the way it was supposed to. The Red Wedding was billed as being an even bigger game changer, but honestly I didn't think much of it. The characters who got killed off were among the least interesting, and it was honestly a bit of a relief to learn that they wouldn't be taking up any more screen time. One of the female victims was so bland, I was happy her actress, who I like, would now be able to go take on better work.

I know almost nothing about the upcoming fourth season of "Game of Thrones," except the identities of a couple of the characters are going to survive to the fifth season because they're still being referred to in the present tense by a friend of mine who reads the books. It's actually fairly heartening to hear some claim that it's all downhill after The Red Wedding, and there's nothing in the series that lives up to that moment. That means that I'm not going to have to weather the fallout of another of these big, shocking surprises for the foreseeable future. Instead, I can enjoy season four the way I enjoyed most of season three - completely obliviously.

Season three has actually been my favorite year of "Game of Thrones" so far, but the Red Wedding really didn't play much of a part in that. Would I have appreciated it more if I didn't know it was coming? Sure, but I'd still have been more invested in what was going on with practically all the other characters. I'm sure I'd have been impressed by the twist, but there were plenty of other developments in the season that were just as important narratively. I'm really looking forward to the fourth season coming up, and I'm really looking forward to watching it without the threat of so many spoilers hanging over my head this time.

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I'd seen two of Chinese director Jia Zhangke's films before, "Platform" from 2000 and "Still Life" from 2006. It was enough to get a good sense of his style and his aims as a director, which is to explore modern Chinese life and society with a more critical, nuanced eye than many of his predecessors were able to. His work is definitely art house fare, meditative dramas full of slow, quiet scenes. So it was a shock to find his latest film, "A Touch of Sin," is a crime movie with several jarring moments of violence.

The two-hour film is an anthology of four different stories with very different settings and protagonists. All of them are based on real life crimes that highlight a variety of socials ills. In the first story, a man, Dahai (Wu Jiang) attempts to bring to light the corruption of a group of village officials who have profited handsomely from the sale of the local mine. In the second, we follow a migrant worker, Zhao San (Wang Baoqiang), who is visiting home for the New Year but not received warmly by his family. The third is about Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao), a woman who works at a spa and is conducting a secret affair. Finally, the last story is about a young factory worker, Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), who falls in love with a prostitute, Lianrong (Li Meng).

There are few connecting threads between each story, aside from the thematic goal of exploring different forms of sudden violence and their causes. At first glance all four stories appear to follow a similar pattern. We are introduced to our protagonist and his or her circumstances, following the ordinary course of their lives and witnessing the slow burn of simmering tensions that eventually boil over at the end of the story. However, these characters are quite different from each other and their paths to violence are not the same. One is clearly disturbed from the beginning, another is frustrated by a perceived lack of other options, and another is gradually desensitized to violence after repeated exposure in everyday life.

Jia does not focus on the violence, though it is portrayed bluntly enough that the Chinese censors have condemned the film for graphic content. Each story ends almost immediately after each incident of violence occurs, and we are not shown reactions or consequences, with one exception. Rather, Jia is concerned with the systems and culture that seem to foster violence. We get these wonderful snapshots of the various communities and oppressive social structures that the affect the characters through incidental conversations and interactions with minor players. The introspective leads are often isolated on the screen, brooding silently as part of the long, beautiful shots of busy city streets or empty country roads. In the final story, the cramped factory dormitories and luxurious nightclubs serve to emphasize the alienation and hopelessness of the final protagonist.

How much of the responsibility for these tragedies should be borne by the individual and how much should be blamed on society? Jia doesn't give a straightforward answer, and the circumstances are different enough in each little morality tale that they point to different answers. However, he does single out various societal forces as contributing factors: apathy towards the abuses of the elites, weakened familial ties due to working conditions, and a lack of opportunities for the young, among others. This is all conveyed fairly subtly, in terms that would never get "A Touch of Sin" mistaken for a more typical social justice picture, but I still find it remarkable that Jia Zhangke is able to be so candid in his examination of Chinese social ills.

Of the four stories, I think the first with the corrupt officials is the strongest and the one that makes the most lasting impression because it is so dynamic, and the tragicomic performance of Wu Jiang is a lot of fun. It comes the closest to the usual template of a bombastic action movie, and is the least like Jia Zhangke's other films, which is probably why I found it such a great surprise. I also like the third one featuring the director's wife and longtime muse, Tao Zhao, though the climax feels a little tacked on. The other two have their strengths, but they're less successful and contain some puzzling ambiguities I'm not sure were intentional. The psychopath story in particular needed some fleshing out and I'd love to see a longer version.

I wouldn't be disappointed if Jia Zhangke went back to making his more subdued social dramas, but it's always exciting when a good director tries to experiment a bit, and I hope he considers more genre outings in the future - especially if they come out as well as "A Touch of Sin."

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There's usually a film or two every year that I feel obligated to watch because it's very high profile and making waves in the critical community, so I feel that in order to stay informed I ought to see it despite having no interest in doing so. Past titles have included things like "Dreamgirls," "The Road," and "Cyrus." 2013 was a great year and there was a flood of good features that I was happy to tackle with relish. I couldn't watch everything, of course, but the things that got left off my "To Watch" list were super obscure titles like Claire Denis' "Bastards" and Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which weren't really part of any major conversations about film that I was aware of.

In 2014, however, there's at least one film that I know I'm going to have to figure out how to address one way or another, and that's Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac." It's being released in two parts, totaling somewhere north of four hours of screen time uncut. There's going to be a lot of explicit sexuality that I'm not looking forward to, particularly as it's coming from Von Trier, who seems to delight in making sex as cringeworthy as possible. "Volume I" opens in selected cities in the U.S. today, so there have been plenty of reviews in circulation - some good some bad, and some indifferent. However, Lars Von Trier is a major cinema auteur, and I've seen a good chunk of his work, enough to know that I really should see "Nymphomaniac" and form my own opinion about it.

I've had mixed reactions to Von Trier films. I enjoyed and fully endorse "Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves," and "Melancholia." "Dogville," and his earlier films like "Europa" were middling. I flat-out detested "Antichrist," "Manderlay," and "The Idiots." I have no idea which category "Nymphomaniac" is going to fall into, but the premise just sounds unbearably tedious, and this is from someone who just finished watching the six-hour Mosfilm version of "War and Peace." The length doesn't phase me. The content does to some extent, with the promise of lots of kinky business going on, though I've been assured that there's nothing as gruesome as the final scenes of "Antichrist." Von Trier himself claims that the film is not pornography, and that there is nothing particularly titillating about the copious amounts of sex that he depicts.

Maybe it would be easier if "Nymphomaniac" were just empty, gratuitous sex for four hours, or the trashy erotica that I'm expecting the "Fifty Shades of Gray" adaptation to be. Then I could dismiss it more easily. However, "Nymphomaniac" is supposed to be taken seriously as the newest work from a major filmmaker, and I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that. All the marketing and all the chatter around the film that I've seen so far point to the movie being another Von Trier exercise in shock and awe rather than a mature, grown-up examination of sexuality like, oh, "Last Tango in Paris" or "Eyes Wide Shut" or "Lust, Caution." Sex in Von Trier films tends to turn into a horror show - rape and sex as degradation are way more common than healthy sexual relations - and I don't have much confidence in him changing his approach here, where sex is going to be front and center the whole time. Even if it's not "Antichrist," I expect "Nymphomaniac" to be a difficult watch, to say the least.

I have to say that I am curious about the participation of so many familiar names like Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, and of course, The Beef. Von Trier regulars Stellan Skarsgaard and Udo Kier will be in the mix too. And of course there's Charlotte Gainsbourg as the female lead, Joe. This is her third collaboration with Von Trier, and she seems to be one of his few leading ladies who actually enjoys working with him. And I know that I'll probably get something out of seeing "Nymphomaniac," just as I usually get something out of seeing most of the other films I've had these kinds of doubts about.

Watching difficult and challenging movies is good for us. It gets us to examine and push past our prejudices, to deal with uncomfortable subject matter and the emotions that they stir up. Lars Von Trier films disturb and alienate me because they're provocative and dangerous. And that's why I love some of them too. That's why I keep watching them, and that's why I keep watching films from similar directors like Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke, Harmony Korine, and Nicholas Winding Refn. These are artists who don't play by the rules, and they're important to acknowledge and engage with.
So I will see "Nymphomaniac." All of it. Eventually. Doesn't mean I have to like it though.
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The original "Twilight Zone" that aired from 1959 to 1964 remains one of my fondest media touchstones. I watched the marathons every year at New Years, borrowed the companion book from the local library multiple times, and freaked out classmates by recapping my favorite episodes for them while waiting in the lunch line. So here's a very overdue Top Ten list of my favorite episodes. As always, entries are unranked and listed in order of airdate.

"Time Enough at Last" - Burgess Meredith starred in four different "Twilight Zone" episodes, but Henry Bemis, the little man with the big glasses who just wants some time to read, is by far the most memorable. Like so many of these episodes, the story is simple but the execution is magnificent, delivering one of the cruelest ironies in all of science-fiction. It also made it clear to the audience that the series had teeth from very early on.

"Mirror Image" - A young woman at a bus depot waiting for her ride out of town spots a perfect doppelganger of herself. It's a wonderful, paranoid scenario that hints at sinister forces in the universe just waiting to take advantage of us in a vulnerable moment. Where the more high concept stories have lessened in effectiveness for me over time, I've noticed it's the simpler, more universal episodes like this that tend to stick with me.

"The Eye of the Beholder" - Everyone knows the famous twist ending, and even if you don't I'm sure it's pretty easy for modern audiences to guess. However, that doesn't take away from how wonderfully the reveal is handled, and the horror of this all too familiar dystopian world where conformity is so highly prized. I love the long, tense buildup to the climax too, something that few shows are brave enough to do anymore.

"It's a Good Life" - What is the point of this episode? That small children are really monsters? That innocence can be as awful as knowing evil? There is no point, except for the series to present us with a particularly potent nightmare scenario that continues to make me squirm at the thought. The version of the story in the "Twilight Zone" movie is even more sadistic and terrifying, though it famously bungled the bleak original ending.

"The Midnight Sun" - Scientifically, it's easy to dismiss the story as complete bunk, but of all the apocalypse scenarios that "The Twilight Zone" featured, this remains my favorite. We often hear about the world theoretically burning up in a fireball, but to see the effects of of such a disaster unfolding in slow motion, and to see the psychological effects on the desperate populace up close really helps the idea to hit home.

"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" - One of the simplest and most existential episodes with a charmingly sentimental ending. I don't think this one works for everybody because it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the reveal may be too twee or too incongruous with the rest of the story for some. However, I liked the mystery and appreciated the completely out-of-left field explanation for the characters' state of limbo.

"Nothing in the Dark" - An old woman afraid of Death secludes herself in her home, determined to keep him out. As good as the show was at scaring and disturbing its viewers, I always appreciated that occasionally it could deliver an installment as touching and humane as this one. "Nothing in the Dark" is also notable for featuring two acting greats of different eras: Golden Age actress Gladys Cooper and a very young Robert Redford.

"To Serve Man" - When you think about it, the whole premise is based on a very silly pun that has been thoroughly lampooned over the years by everyone from "Naked Gun" to "The Simpsons." Still, the episode is a lot of fun with the big goofy Kanamit aliens (hey, it's Richard Kiel!), the recycled props and effects footage from famous period sci-fi movies, and a story that delivers a big old wallop to humanity's collective ego.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" - That's a young William Shatner freaking out at the "thing on the wing," in one of the undisputed "Twilight Zone" classics. Anyone who has ever been nervous about flying understands his character's terror, which director Richard Donner ramps up to terrific heights. This was another story remade for the "Twilight Zone" movie by Geroge Miller with John Lithgow - and their take is actually better than the original.

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" - Often shown together with "Eye of the Beholder" to underline the criticism of our looks-obsessed culture, "Number 12" seems to get more relevant every year and you can see its influence all over the media landscape. The ending of this one always got to me, not because our heroine ends up physically conforming with everybody else, but because she ends up thinking like everybody else too, which is far scarier.

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There are flops and there are legendary flops, and Michael Cimino's 1980 western epic "Heaven's Gate" is one of the most infamous of all time. It not only lost so much money that it destroyed United Artists, but it's commonly pointed to as one of the films responsible for ending the New Hollywood film era that saw the control of American films shift away from directors to studios and corporate interests. Critically, it was reviled upon initial release, but its image had been rehabilitated significantly in recent years. A 219 minute "restored cut" was made available by the Criterion Collection in 2012 under the director's supervision, adding over a full hour of footage. This is the version that I saw, having had no experience with the original theatrical cut. So is "Heaven's Gate" a misunderstood masterpiece finally getting its due? No, not really.

Loosely based on a real range war that happened in the 1890s, "Heaven's Gate" follows a marshal named Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) who becomes caught up in the conflict between an Association of rich cattle barons, lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), and the growing number of poor immigrant settlers who are more recently arrived. Averill is friends with Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who has been hired by the Association to hunt down and kill suspected cattle rustlers, a pretext to drive away the settlers. The two men become involved in a love triangle with a local madam, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), known to be friendly to the immigrants, and who becomes target of the Association. The "Heaven's Gate" of the title refers to a roller rink the immigrants use as a meeting place, and where Averill and Ella fall in love.

I give Michael Cimino full points for ambition. "Heaven's Gate" is certainly an epic in every sense of the word, full of beautifully composed, large scale action sequences, huge crowd scenes, and a faithful recreation of the period environs. It's unflinching in its violence, includes some perfectly appropriate sexual content, presents social commentary that still resonates, and has a refreshingly mature take on romance. There are singular moments in the film that are truly arresting, and well worthy of praise. The cast is stacked with strong talents, and I had a great time picking out familiar faces in early roles. Christopher Walken comes off the best as one of the three leads, a hired gun with a sentimental heart. I also like Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a little ridiculous in construction, but she doesn't let that stop her for a moment.

Sadly, the movie is a dreadful bore. Characters show up and are given nothing to do. Important relationships are established quickly and left underdeveloped. The director seems to have something against basic exposition, preferring to spend long stretches of the film acquainting us with beautiful landscapes and incidental moments in his painstakingly recreated Wyoming frontier. I had to look up who some of the characters were, like the roller rink owner played by Jeff Bridges, who wander in and out of the narrative at random. This is not necessarily a bad approach in the right hands, but Cimino too frequently leaves his audience adrift, saddled with repetitive sequences, a plethora of confusing minor characters, and a narrative that fails to maintain any momentum for far too long.

The movie improves as it goes on, and the bodies start piling up, but it's an awful slog to get to the parts that feel like a proper movie instead of an indulgent tonal exercise. Kris Kristofferson's Averill is a major problem, a nonentity who spends a lot of time onscreen without making much of an impression, who I found impossible to connect with emotionally or psychologically on any level - and the whole point of the movie is his spiritual journey. Kristofferson's career would never be the same after "Heaven's Gate," which I find a little unfair. It wasn't so much his performance, but the total lack of a character that did Averill in. By the time the film's coda rolled around, it felt like I'd missed a huge chunk of the story, despite having watched it all unfold for over three hours of screen time.

"Heaven's Gate" doesn't strike me as a legendary disaster, but it is a film best suited for very niche tastes that had no business being made at a Hollywood studio for the exorbitant funds that it cost. There are some wonderful images and strong performances in it, but they're not enough to offset the lack of focus and lack of discipline. I think this was a major missed opportunity for something better, and the best thing I can say about it is that it remains a fascinating, flawed curiosity that once had the potential to be a great work of art.
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Minor spoilers ahead.

I initially pegged "Carnivàle" as a slow-moving, atmospheric supernatural show that didn't concern itself overmuch with plot. Well, in season two the plot showed up with a vengeance. While the complicated series mythology remains largely unexamined, it soon becomes inevitable that our two protagonists, Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin will have their destined confrontation by the last episode of the season, and the series becomes a much more goal-oriented, focused piece of work in order to get them there. Instead of waiting for the apocalypse to arrive, now key characters are actively in search of it.

Spurred by newfound purpose, Ben puts his doubts aside and becomes a hero the audience can really root for, while Brother Justin descends into the depths of villainy in pursuit of power. Nick Stahl and Clancy Brown's performances really kick into high gear, and are a lot of fun. However, the effect of putting so much focus on this pair is that for much of the season the rest of the cast gets sidelined. I wouldn't say they're neglected since there there are strong subplots and character arcs for most of the regulars, particularly the Dreifuss family, Jonesy, Samson, and Sophie, but we see far less of the little character portraits and backstory that was prevalent in the first season. It's also very noticeable that the cast has been reduced by several members.

A few new characters and some strong guest stars help to pick up the slack. Notably there's a new villain, Varlyn Stroud, played by John Carroll Lynch, who Brother Justin sets on Ben's trail like a bloodhound. However, the ones who make the most of an impression tend to be the ones with the least amount of screen time. I love how "Carnivàle" consistently manages to create these fully-formed characters who only appear for a few minutes, some who are totally incidental to the plot. A German hotel clerk and a nameless old man on the road who Ben gets information from are as memorable as some of the major players. There are so many I wish we could have spent more time getting to know.

This season is more fulfilling from a writing standpoint. Though the the pace remains fairly slow, there are far more frequent payoffs to the various storylines, and the status quo changes irrevocably several times. What the series loses in simmering mystery, it gains in strong plotting and a bolder narrative. I found I got much more attached to characters like Jonesy and Samson when they were put in a position to be more active and make more important choices. Meanwhile, those left treading water with dead-end developments like poor Ruthie were more frustrating to watch. Easily the character I found the most improved was Amy Madigan's Iris, whose motivations are much better defined this year. With much of Brother Justin's inner struggle resolved, the spotlight turns to his devoted sister and her myriad sins.

There were some things in this season that came off as rather contrived - someone's gambling problem materializes out of nowhere, the fallout from Lodz's absence is a distraction that doesn't really come to much, and Sophie's existential crisis gets awfully convoluted - but eventually the show finds its groove again when it counts. The back half of the season is one of the most enjoyable runs of episodes I've seen in a long time, finding ways to get all the characters involved in the final battle and building up the suspense to terrific heights. After seeing so many similar supernatural genre programs fail to stick their landings, it's incredibly gratifying to see "Carnivàle" execute a properly epic and apocalyptic showdown so well.

The world of "Carnivàle" remains a source of fascinating horrors. More than once I was reminded of Garth Ennis's "Preacher" comics, with their abundance of uniquely American grotesques. Ben Hawkins runs across several varieties of them in his travels, and of course Brother Justin is one as well. The second season had to undergo some budget cuts and it shows. The carnival scenes are scaled back and crowds are thinner. Still, the effects and makeup work remain top of the line, and the production design of the Depression Era setting is consistently gorgeous. You can see the dust and grit in every frame. And I just love the little details like Libby Dreifuss's bleached hair starting to show its roots in a later episode, and that Lila uses a single curler for her beard. After a decade the series doesn't look like it's aged a day.

I'm not particularly upset that "Carnivàle" ended after this season, because I knew it was going to be truncated from the start and the finale was strong enough and decisive enough that it left me satisfied. "Carnivàle" feels like a complete story even though I know that more was planned. This is certainly one of the best HBO productions I've seen so far, and the most unique.

Looks like it's on to "Deadwood" next.
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It's tempting to want to pigeonhole Abbas Kiarostami as a Middle-Eastern filmmaker. He got his start making documentaries and simple narrative films about everyday people in his native Iran, particularly children. Then in the '90s his films became more experimental and unconventional, full of meta, self-references, often combining fiction and non-fiction elements. His Koker trilogy, for example, is a series of films where the characters in each successive film are aware of, and often participated in the making of the previous installments. The best encapsulation of this approach is 1990's "Close-Up," the story of a peculiar imposter.

"Close-Up" was initially intended to be a documentary about Hossain Sabzian, a film enthusiast who manages to convince the unwitting Ahankhah family that he is the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Through a series of visits, he becomes close with the family, telling them that he's like to use their house for his next film and that he will feature them as actors. Eventually the ruse is discovered, of course, and this is where the story gets interesting, because Kiarostami becomes part of the narrative, as does the act of documenting Sabzian's case. The film is ultimately something far more complex and ambiguous than an ordinary documentary, unfolding like a fictional narrative, with all the real-life participants playing themselves re-enacting past events, including the director. After a certain point it's hard to say what is being caught on film in real time and what is a staged facsimile.

Even without the benefit of the unconventional storytelling, Hossain Sabzian is a fascinating figure, a man who so loves films that he feels compelled to assume the identity of one of his favorite directors in order to participate in that world. He doesn't do it out of malice or for greed, though he does use his leverage with the family to acquire some funds for pre-production of his nonexistent film. Rather, as he explains to the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he's tired of being himself. In his recreations of the scenes with the Ahankhah family, Sabzian is enlivened by the attention and emboldened by his perceived celebrity and authority. Though not a professional actor, the performance he puts on is a wholehearted and committed one. After he's apprehended, he seems reluctant to give up the persona.

Sabzian's journey could not have been so successfully explored without the intervention of Kiarostami. It is Kiarostami who arranges the meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf, which provides the film with its moving conclusion. More importantly, the act of turning Sabzian's story into a film allows Sabzian to fulfill his promises to the Ahankhahs. They do become actors and their house is used in the film. And though Sabzian can never be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he does become a filmmaker in a way, because his actions are responsible for the creation of "Close-Up." The judge in the courtroom does not understand the point of filming the proceedings, as it's only when you see them as part of the film that they become significant.

Kiarostami's films always have very lived-in universes, where you could imagine following any minor character off into entirely different stories at any moment. "Close-Up" begins not with Sabzian or Kiarostami, but with a reporter investigating the story. He takes a cab ride to the Ahankhahs' house with two police officers in tow to confront the imposter. We spend ten minutes listening to their conversations with the driver as they look for the right street, occasionally stopping to ask pedestrians for directions. When they arrive at the house, the camera stays with the driver waiting outside, who kills time by picking flowers out of a heap of garden trimmings. It was only on rewatching the film that I realized this was a recreation too.

So it comes as no surprise that Kiarostami has occasionally revisited stories and settings from different POVs, and at least once has built an entirely different film around a minor character who appeared in an earlier one. The cab driver may only have a very incidental part to play in the story, but Kiarostami gives his viewpoint its due - the driver has no idea who Makhmalbaf is or why the reporter is so excited about the story, making him a good stand-in for the audience. The whole sequence in the cab is wonderful, relaying exposition, situating us in the universe, and playing out its own small dramas. Similar conversations in cars and vehicles recur in Kiarostami films again and again.

Kiarostami's films have gotten more polished and more sophisticated in recent years, and his last two films were made in France and Japan respectively, with actors from those countries. Fortunately, he's largely managed to retain the spontaneity and structural looseness of his earlier work. However, he's never happened upon quite so serendipitous a series of events as the ones depicted in "Close-Up," that have allowed him to create such a fascinating conundrum of a film, about the nature of filmmaking itself.
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2013 could be called the year of the survival film in American cinema, from action films like "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" to the less obvious period dramas like "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club." "All is Lost" is perhaps the most representative of the trend, an absolutely bare-bones, stripped down, man vs. nature story that gets to the core of the struggle to stay alive in a way that none of the others manage to.

Our protagonist is an unnamed man on a sailboat, the Virginia Jean, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The man is played by Robert Redford, and has only minimal dialogue. We learn absolutely nothing about him, not why he's on a boat in the middle of the ocean, not where he came from or where he's going, and nothing about his personal life. All we know is that at the beginning of the film, a drifting shipping container filled with shoes collides with and tears a hole in the side of Redford's boat. His radio is not working and he's very far from land and civilization. The rest of the film follows his efforts to repair the vessel, weather a series of storms, and find help. And that's it. And it's phenomenal.

J.C. Chandor made his directing debut last year with "Margin Call," which was about a group of Wall Street stockbrokers and financiers realizing over the course of an eventful night that they were on the brink of financial collapse. "All is Lost" is not entirely different, a tense character study of a man trying to stave off impending disaster and find a way to save himself from doom. This time, of course, the disaster is far more immediate, and the narrative is simplified to the absolute basics. It's one man on a boat battling the forces of nature, and Chandor does a terrific job of capturing the rising tension as one crisis after another keep compounding on each other, escalating the danger and pushing the hero to further and further extremes.

I went into the film completely sure that Redford's character would survive his experience, but by the halfway point of the movie it wasn't clear at all how things would end, and the title of the film was weighing heavy on my mind. The story plays with our expectations, systematically closing avenues of escape and subverting many tropes that are common in other survival movies. The usual narrative safety nets get slashed left and right, to great effect. Also, the film stays on a slow burn from start to finish, with little of the artifice that intrudes on even the most well-meaning studio films like "Captain Phillips." The music is as minimal as the dialogue, the cinematography stays close and tight, and the editing doesn't stray far from the subjective experiences of the hero.

This creates a very different tone that removes many of the usual assurances that everything will be okay. Even the opening scene, where Redford's character is seen writing a letter during a moment of calm to some unknown loved one, explaining what happened, sets a tone of uneasy foreboding. There are several twists that that seem to come out of nowhere, often triggered by the smallest mistakes or pure, dumb, bad luck. The protagonist is clearly an experienced sailor, capable of handling the boat by himself, and proves resourceful time and time again. However, this is a different, harsher universe than what we typically find on theater screens, where things always go wrong in the most damaging ways, and the odds are not in his favor.

It's startling to see Robert Redford starring in a project like this after a steady stream of stately political thrillers in recent years. The role is intensely physical, requiring the beloved 70-something actor and director to clamber about on the rigging of the sailboat, hang precariously above the ocean surface while repairing the damage to his vessel, and repeatedly subject himself to the misery of the elements. The performance he delivers is an absorbing one, but difficult to watch as the situation steadily gets worse and Redford's character faces exhaustion, despair, and hopelessness. This is the first time I've seen Redford truly look his age on film in a long time, those fabled good looks largely not a factor here for once.

This all adds up to a surprisingly intense piece of cinema that I found to be more visceral and more suspenseful than many similar films I've seen from 2013. I wasn't expecting much form the film beyond Redford's performance, but Chandor has proven that he's not just a one-hit wonder, and he's got the chops to tackle a wide range of subject matter. I look forward to seeing him moving on to bigger, more high profile projects in the future.
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Belgian Best Foreign Film nominee is not about bluegrass music, as it has been widely billed. Yes, the two main characters are bluegrass musicians and there are several musical performances that feature in the film, but you could substitute the bluegrass elements with any number of different things without having much of an impact on the film itself. Rather, "Broken Circle" is a particularly brutal love story about two people who suffer through enormous hardship that tests their commitment to each other and their deepest held beliefs.

We first meet Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) visiting their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) in the hospital. Maybelle has cancer and has to undergo difficult treatments. Then we flash back seven years to when Elise and Didier were a pair of carefree young artists just beginning their courtship. The narrative continues to switch back and forth between past and present, revealing the course of their relationship throughout the years. Though they remain very much in love, they have fundamentally different approaches to life, and have very different - though equally destructive - reactions to a series of traumatic events.

There are a lot of parallels between "Broken Circle Breakdown" and "Blue Valentine," another recent film that juxtaposed the happy beginning of a romantic relationship with its later decline and breakdown after marriage and children. However, "Blue Valentine" is largely about how the central relationship proves to be unsustainable as the two people who share it grow and change. In "Broken Circle," it's outside forces that wreak havoc on a happy, stable marriage. This provides the impetus for a much swifter disillusionment with far more damaging results. The possible split is anything but inevitable for Didier and Elise. The drama is so involving because the couple always seems capable of pulling through together, and clearly have a relationship worth saving. "Broken Circle" is one of the most emotionally grueling films I've sat through in some time, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

I found the film's spiritual themes were handled particularly well. Didier is an atheist who struggles to explain death to Maybelle. Elise is not especially religious but she finds comfort in spirituality. The film doesn't make a case for either for either of their worldviews, but rather extends sympathy for both sides. Both of the characters find their beliefs challenged, and neither are immune from self-doubt and anger, lashing out and looking for targets to blame in the wake of Maybelle's illness. They threaten to turn on each other and themselves, clashing over how to handle the emotional fallout in fairly realistic fashion. Both of the leads deliver utterly wrenching performances. Heldenbergh is the standout though, especially in the quieter moments. Didier initially seems steadier and better equipped to handle the situation, which makes his subsequent breakdown all the more affecting.

The use of the bluegrass music initially seems a little incongruous, but it provides some nice aesthetic and thematic touches that recur throughout the film. Elise and Didier connect through the music, and many of the songs about lost love and bad times make for a fitting soundtrack to their present-day woes. The actors do their own singing for the musical numbers, all of it in English, no less. Otherwise the film doesn't really get into the bluegrass culture much beyond showing the characters in American flag-patterned clothing, so the music largely stays in the background. It certainly helps to make "Broken Circle" distinctive, but doesn't define it. It's only near the very, very end of the film that the music briefly becomes a truly vital part of the story.

As with far too many foreign films, I'm completely unfamiliar with the talent involved. This is Flemish director Felix van Groeningen's fourth film, and it's a wonderfully self-assured, gorgeous looking piece of work. I especially like the way that he flashes forward and backward repeatedly to certain events that only make sense with the context of other events that are revealed gradually. That way the audience has some sense of what's going to happen without losing the impact of the actual moment when we reach that point in the story. There's some stylization of the visuals, mostly in the editing, but nothing overly indulgent or distracting.

In a jam-packed year, this is one of my favorites, and I was a little miffed to discover that it is technically a 2012 film according to the way I count release dates. And I'm not prepared to give it the "Plus One" spot on my upcoming 2013 ten list, usually reserved for the best films I saw too late to qualify, because "The Act of Killing" has that all sewn up. So I have to leave it out of the usual year-end passing out of kudos. However, I give the movie the highest possible recommendation, for those of you who can stand a trip through the emotional wringer, and need a little more bluegrass in your life.

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Yesterday we took a look at the big studio pictures with real box office prospects. Today it's time for the more modest, but probably more rewarding films of 2014 that I'm looking forward to. Movies that were delayed from last year, including Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," are being left off. And here we go:

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" - Wes Anderson's latest is so obviously the work of Wes Anderson, there's no point in even pointing out the avalanche of aesthetic quirks or the presence of Bill Murray and Owen Wilson anymore. However, this time around Ralph Fiennes has joined the fun and the tone looks a touch zanier and more broadly comedic, which is hitting all the right buttons for me. There's also something about the color palette with its rich purples and candy pinks that really make the visuals pop. I'm sure the film itself will turn out to be all too familiar, but I can't bring myself to care one bit.

"The Cobbler" - Thomas McCarthy hasn't made a film that I've disliked yet, from "The Station Agent" to "Win Win." And though I dislike Adam Sandler's typical comedies, when he tries something smaller and more heartfelt, the results can be fantastic. These two sound like they would work well together, so I'm looking forward to "The Cobbler," where Sandler will star as a shoe repairman who discovers a magic MacGuffin that literally lets him "walk in another man's shoes." This is a premise that a big studio would happily turn into yet another idiot comedy, but with McCarthy writing and directing, I'm pretty optimistic.

"Ex Machina" - Alex Garland, the screenwriter of "Never Let Me Go" and many of Danny Boyle's films will be making his directorial debut with the science fiction film "Ex Machina," which has some similarities to last year's "Her." This time the AI is a female robot played by Alicia Vikander and the story is a psychological thriller instead of a straight romance. Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac also star. It's a low budget, small scale film that is being produced in the UK, so it might be a while before we get to see it stateside. The premise and the cast have me excited though, and I'm adding it to this year's ever-growing list of intriguing, ambitious science fiction films.

"Whiplash" and "The Voices" - There are quite a few interesting titles that have emerged from this year's Sundance Film Festival that I'm keeping an eye out for, including "Skeleton Twins," "Life Itself," and "Dear White People." However, there are two in particular that I want to highlight. First, there's the "Whiplash," the tale of a young drummer played by Miles Teller that took home the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. Then there's "The Voices," the latest from "Persepolis" director Marjane Satrapi, where Ryan Reynolds plays a seemingly ordinary man who accidentally kills a woman, and now his benevolent dog and evil cat are both speaking to him, trying to persuade him of what he should do next.

"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" - Swedish auteur Roy Andersson makes bleak satires with painstakingly composed visuals, many of them incredibly elaborate. He's only released two films over the past fifteen years, but they've both been brilliant. "Pigeon" is expected to complete the trilogy. Production diaries have been slowly appearing on the internet over the past several months, and the project appears to be finally nearing completion. As it's been seven years since the last Andersson film, this is definitely going to be a cinematic event. Not much is known about the story yet, but it apparently involves salesmen, near brushes with death, and explaining why society is the way it is.

"Gone Girl" - David Fincher's been out of the game since his adaptation of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," and I'm glad to see him back on the slate, even if he's decided his latest crime thriller should star Ben Affleck - I'm still not sold on him as an actor. However, the original author of the source novel, Gillian Flynn, is penning the screenplay and has apparently entirely rewritten the third act for the adaptation. This one's already gearing up for an Oscar campaign, with a release date set for October and an unusual bit of early marketing - a provocative "Entertainment" Weekly cover picturing Affleck and co-star Rosamund Pike referencing the famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono "Rolling Stone" portrait.

"Inherent Vice" - Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring Joaquin Phoenix. That's really all I need to know. Based on the Thomas Pynchon detective novel, this will be another period piece, set at the end of the '60s in Los Angeles. Filming was completed last year, so there's every likelihood that we'll see "Inherent Vice" in theaters by the end of 2014. The novel has been described as noir crossed with psychedelia, which might make me worried if this were any other director. Fortunately Anderson, coming off of "The Master," is more than qualified to handle the notoriously difficult Pynchon material. As the highest profile prestige project of the year so far, this one's going to get a lot more press in the months to come.
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This is the last 2014 Best Picture nominee on the big fat list, which means that this is the first year I've managed to cover all of them, plus a few of the runners-ups. I'm glad that the Academy Awards are happening later this year, because there have been a lot of interesting contenders to catch up on. I'll definitely have a prediction/"If I picked the winners" post soon, but on to today's movie.

We're just starting to see narratives centered on the 1980s AIDS epidemic emerging in the popular culture, helped along by the recent advancement of LGBT rights. There were a handful of prominent documentaries last year that addressed this period, notably "How to Survive a Plague" and "We Were Here," and it's some very compelling stuff. "Dallas Buyers Club" is the first fictional dramatization that I can recall in recent memory, and approaches the subject from a very different angle.

Avoiding the LGBT rights struggle almost entirely, the focus here is on the very heterosexual Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rodeo worker who contracts AIDS in 1985 and is given a prognosis of only thirty days to live. There was no treatment for AIDS at the time, Woodroof manages to survive on illegally acquired AZT drugs, which were in clinical trials at the time. Unsatisfied with the way the FDA and the drug companies are handling matters, Woodroof starts importing unapproved drugs and treatments from outside the US, setting up a "buyers club" for AIDS patients in the Dallas area to get around existing drug laws. He recruits a transgender patient named Rayon (Jared Leto) to help him run the club, and wins the grudging support of one of the doctors conducting the AZT trials, Eve Saks (Jennier Garner).

"Dallas Buyers Club" takes some considerable dramatic license with the facts, demonizing the AZT drug and the FDA, and painting Woodroof's transition from a redneck homophobe to a more enlightened social crusader in simplified terms. Like most "man agains the system" social issue films, it depends very heavily on its performances. Fortunately the performances here are great. Matthew McConaughey's Woodroof is a stubborn pragmatist who is only interested in his own survival, and has a very simple and direct outlook on life. He starts the buyers club to make money and befriends Rayon and other AIDS patients for his own benefit. The fact that he's helping people doesn't really enter into the equation until very late. McConaughey spends much of the movie looking increasingly frail and anemic, but also unwaveringly vital, displaying the familiar McConaughey charm that it's hard not to be won over by.

Jared Leto's Rayon is arguably an even more difficult part, who could too easily have been another sassy drag queen caricature. Fortunately he walks a fine line between comic relief and tragic figure, and the script gives Rayon some big personal flaws and interesting angles for Leto to work with. Jennifer Garner is stuck with the straitlaced lady doctor who becomes Woodroof's platonic love interest. Like Rayon, her character is a composite of several real life people, but more obviously so because of the demands of the plot. She's one of the weaker elements in the film, but certainly not because of Garner's efforts.

Frankly, beyond the performances, I can't think of much to recommend "Dallas Buyers Club." The screenplay avoids most of the usual clichés, but it's pretty rote, and there are some glaring moments of forced profundity that don't land very well. Director Jean-Marc Vallée does a decent job, but doesn't manage to find many moments of real human drama that could elevate the film above the typical search-for-a-cure narrative. It isn't nearly as engrossing or as effective as the documentaries that cover the same subject matter, because the impact of Woodroof's efforts never really comes across all that well.

I can certainly understand the appeal of using Ron Woodroof's life as the anchor of the film. He's a very good entry point into the era, much easier for the general audience to identify with, and presents an interesting set of apparent self-contradictions. However, there's still a certain sense of squeamishness about the subject matter that seems to indicate we really haven't progressed much in the portrayal of homosexuality onscreen since "Philadelphia" twenty years ago. It's hard to ignore that there's only one major gay character in "Dallas Buyers Club," Rayon, and she's essentially a martyr figure.

I know I'm putting too many outsized expectations on a film that's really perfectly fine for what it is, and McConaghey and Leto deserve all the praise for their work that they've been getting. However, I can't help thinking that "Dallas Buyers Club" could have been so much better, and could have done so much more. And that makes it a very hard movie to root for.
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I'm a long time Coen brothers fan. I've seen all their movies, even the obscure ones, even the ones they just wrote for other directors, and I hold them in very high regard. So it bothers me more than it probably should that many critics have been raving about their latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," and I came out of it unmoved. Sure, I think it's a very strong film, and after sitting through most of this year's Best Picture nominees I can say with certainty that it's better than at least half of them. However, I didn't connect with it the way I've connected with so many of the Coens' other films, so I find it tough to really champion this one.

The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a folk singer in the early 60s, struggling through a long winter in New York. He's talented, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts to make a living as a working musician. Perpetually broke, he stays with one friend after another, ineffectually harassing his agent Mel (Jerry Grayson) for owed payments and more gigs. We watch him bounce from one missed opportunity to the next and the calamities keep piling on. He stays with an older couple, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), accidentally lets out their cat, and ends up having to take it with him for the day. He's friends with a more successful folk duo, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean reveals she's pregnant after a one night stand with Llewyn and demands that he pay for the abortion. A trip to Chicago seeking more work means hitching a ride with hostile jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Fans of this genre of music will adore this movie. "Llewyn Davis" is a love letter to the era, recreating the New York music scene of the '60s and filled with little details and references. I didn't pick up on any of them, unfortunately, even the most obvious ones. Frankly, I respect but don't particularly enjoy folk music, so I didn't get much out of the numerous musical performances scattered throughout the film, and that may have been the fatal problem. Llewyn has a difficult personality and is not a very likeable guy, though he's very sympathetic. Oscar Isaac does a great job bringing across the personal flaws that constantly bring him trouble, which are in many ways are also what is responsible for his talent. The only time he seems truly content is when he's performing, and several of the numbers are used to convey a lot of emotional nuance. Since I wasn't really getting much out of the songs, I could only appreciate most of this on a cerebral level. Oscar Isaac does all his own singing and guitar playing, by the way.

So I was left with a perfectly good character study of a great musician who never made it, and his encounters with the usual Coen brothers parade of colorful characters. I especially liked Carey Mulligan as Jean, whose vehement attacks on Llewyn are simultaneously very funny and heartbreaking. John Goodman turns in another good appearance as the verbose Roland, and F. Murray Abraham shows up in the third act to play a legendary manager. I wish we got to spend more time with all of them. However, because I wasn't in tune with the music, which plays such a big part of "Llewyn Davis," I felt out of tune with the whole film. The story has an elliptical structure with some moody, atmospheric flourishes that cultivate an air of mystery - which the Coens have done very well before, but this time out felt a little gimmicky. I don't know why, but I found a lot of the usual bits of business harder to swallow than usual.

Technically the film is impeccable, of course. The bleak cinematography is gorgeous, and I loved seeing the collection of actors and musicians that were assembled for the film. I barely even noticed Justin Timberlake until his third or fourth scene, because everyone else in the cast was just that strong. I certainly didn't need to like the music to know the quality of it was very high in all respects. In fact, I'm surprised that even with all of the Academy's labyrinthine eligibility rules, "Inside Llewyn Davis" failed to secure any nominations in the music categories at all. I know several people who have gotten downright obsessed with the soundtrack, and I don't begrudge them one bit.

So I appreciate "Llewyn Davis." I appreciate the hell out of it. I can't think of many filmmakers aside from the Coens who could have made it. I just wish that I could have liked the movie more than I do.
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Who is Bruce Dern? I recognized the veteran actor's name, but I couldn't put a name to the face. Looking at his list of credits, I'd seen a lot of the films he appeared in, but apparently missed the ones that he won the most acclaim for. So I went into "Nebraska" knowing almost nothing about its most highly lauded actor, who has been enjoying lots of awards attention for this performance, and I think I was better off for it.

"Nebraska" is about Woody Grant (Dern), an elderly former mechanic who lives in Billings, Montana. We first see him making his slow but steady way down the side of a busy street, before he is stopped by a concerned patrolman. When Woody's son David (Will Forte) comes to pick him up at the station, we learn that Woody was trying to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his one million dollar winnings from a marketing company that sent him a letter - clearly just a solicitation for magazine subscriptions, but Woody is convinced it's real. Woody's exasperated wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are unsympathetic and discuss putting Woody in a nursing home, but after Woody makes another failed attempt to walk to Nebraska, David decides to drive him there.

I'd initially assumed from the synopses I'd read that this was a father-son road trip movie, but the bulk of the story takes place in Hawthorne, Nebraska, the Grants' original hometown where many of the extended family and Woody's old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) still live. Woody and David stay with relatives there over an eventful weekend, where they reconnect with the past and each other to an extent. But if I've made this sound like a typical feel good movie, this couldn't be further from the truth. "Nebraska" was directed by Alexander Payne, responsible for other painfully human dramedies full of disappointment and heartache like "The Descendants," "Sideways," and "About Schmidt."

Payne's vision of the midwest is a dull, depressing place. The characters inhabit small towns gripped by economic decline. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful, capturing the vastness and emptiness of the landscape, and the topography of aging faces. All of it is suffused with an inescapable melancholy. It's this tone that sets "Nebraska" apart. The script is low-key, but punctuated with a lot of humor, occasionally of the ribald variety. The pacing is measured and the story is largely made up of incidental moments, but not to the point where it's off-putting. Once you settle into the rhythm of the film's universe, it doesn't feel slow at all.

I've seen some claim that the film presents an unfair view of its older, Midwestern characters, who are tripped up by simple misunderstandings and seem to conform to common cliches. And yes, some of them are very broadly drawn for comedic purposes. However, I was struck by how well-observed the portrayals were, the way a family reunion ends up centering around a televised sports game and how Woody interacts with a bartender at an old drinking spot. For the most part, the people in "Nebraska" look and behave like real people, and aside from a few obvious bad apples they're decent, well-meaning, and perfectly ordinary. And they have the flaws that ordinary people have.

Woody Grant is similarly ordinary, but a fascinating figure. Everyone offers David different stories about Woody, painting him as an irresponsible alcoholic, a damaged soldier, a bad father, a generous man who couldn't say no to anybody, a fondly remembered old lover, and many other things. Bruce Dern's performance offers clues as to how these different versions can be reconciled. Woody is frequently lost and confused, his expression vacant and his mind perhaps not all there. However, he's still aware of how others view him, remembers certain parts of his past all too clearly, and retains a stubborn pride that drives many of his actions.

For me, Dern disappears into the role fully, helped by the fact that I had no preconceived notions of his work as an actor. It's incredible how expressive he is, his posture and body language alone saying volumes about his state of mind. Part of him, however, remains impenetrable. Does he understand that his letter is a fake? Does he care? Similarly, June Squibb was also a complete unknown to me, and is the film's great comedic force as the family's scolding, worrying, and sometimes inappropriately candid maternal juggernaut. And despite all the difficulties and indignities that they embody, I found I liked them very much.

Of Payne's other films, "About Schmidt" is the one that "Nebraska" reminds me of the most, another story about the odyssey of an older man looking for a little meaning in his life. However, I much prefer "Nebraska" for its tighter focus on familial relationships, it's ensemble, and especially for Bruce Dern's work here. There's also a great sense of nostalgia and affection for the small towns and elderly denizens of "Nebraska," along with the light satiric touches, which I found tremendously affecting.

I always underestimate Alexander Payne and he keeps delivering, time after time. Really, ought to know better by now.
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