The Newsroom: Pros and Cons, Season 1

Since it began to air ten weeks ago, I’ve been trying hard to avoid all of the Twitter chatter about The NewsroomThe West Wing aside, Sorkin is a notoriously slow starter, and one of the (many) problems with Studio 60 was that both the viewers and the network had largely written it off before the show began to hit its stride around the Christmas episode. Granted, there were other problems with the show, and some of the sluggishness from the slow start carried its way throughout the show’s lone season. I was hoping for it to be different this time though.

But the problem with The Newsroom might have been that it actually started too quickly, delving into the complex world of office relationships and politics before the story was established. Before I had committed anyone’s name to memory, there were love triangles and cheating and a lot of he said, she said. Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie (Alison Pill) were destined to be together, eventually, despite her being with Don (Thomas Sadoski), claimed McaKenzie (Emily Mortimer), who herself seemed destined to be with Will (Jeff Daniels), and Sloane (Olivia Munn), socially inept as she is, deserved to be with someone too — all stuffed into the first episode.

To contrast, The West Wing built its inter-office drama up over its entire seven season run in some cases, like Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Moloney). Love stories tend to be more satisfying as a slow burn subplot than a blunt object beating us over the head. If we don’t know the characters, why are we supposed to care who they hook up with, or who they don’t hook up with? There is no identification, no agony. Time makes us care about the characters, makes us root for them, or yell at them for being too stupid to see what was in front of them.The Newsroom opted for the blunt object approach, and that may have been a fatal flaw for some viewers who judge things quickly.

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Why Stop Now – Dorling, Nyswaner (2012)

In Why Stop Now, Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner’s new stoner comedy, Jesse Eisenberg plays Eli, a put upon young pianist who is about to experience the worst day of his life. For years, Eli has been the one taking care of his younger half sister, Nicole (Emma Rayne Lyle), while his wild drug addict mom, Penny (Melissa Leo), went out on benders, barely able to hold down a job as a waitress.

As he is about to graduate and go off, he hopes, to a music conservatory, he’s finally convinced his mother to get clean and go to rehab before his audition. Problem? Yes, of course. As Penny tries to enter rehab, she is turned away. Why? Because she’s already clean. Solution? Yes, of course. Go cop a hit.

It sounds like a set up for the greatest drug romp since Drugstore Cowboy, but sometimes things don’t work out as planned.

If there is a bright spot in the film, it comes in the shape of a gimpy Tracy Morgan, who plays Sprinkles, the cuddly drug dealer who has run out of drugs. The problem is compounded as neither Sprinkles, nor his sidekick, Black (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), can speak Spanish, and Eli has to step in to order the drugs, causing an unfortunate chain reaction wherein his arm is broken by the drug kingpin, who then falls in love with Penny. Isn’t it always like that?

Really though, the film’s main problem is that it is entirely too frivolous an affair from start to finish. Nothing is at ever stake, not really. There is never any follow through on the film’s problems or threats or accidental drug ingestions, and what does follow through to the next step is always played for stock comedy. Every set up and pay off comes along at a natural progression, everything is expected. What could have been a riotous display deeply messed up hurdles and roadblocks to the characters’ wants end up being little more than a circuitous route to getting everything they desire. The films is a born indie drama concept rendered out into a dramatically lazy write off, one that unfortunately never comes close to being funny enough to make up the gap.

Klown – Mikkel Norgaard (2012)

Disgusting. Wretched. Loathsome. Scandalous. Depraved. Nearly criminal. Yes, this film, based on a Danish sit-com of the same name, is most certainly all of those things.

But it’s also one other thing: hilarious.

The film concerns the emotional growth of misfit manchild Frank (Frank Hvam) during the most important week of his life.

On the eve of an epic canoeing trip with his friend Casper (Casper Christensen) — who has covertly dubbed it the Tour de P (I’ll let you guess what the nefarious “P” stands for) — Frank is confronted with two harsh realities: his longtime girlfriend, Mia (Mia Lyhne), is pregnant for one, and this is the week they are supposed to watch her nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen), while her sister is on her honeymoon.

Mia is unconvinced that Frank will be a responsible father, especially when their house is robbed and Frank leaves Bo behind while he escapes danger, so Frank does what any normal, healthy adult male does in these situations: he kidnaps Bo, taking him on the canoeing trip in an effort to show him a great time and prove that he is father material.

Have you figured out what the “P” stands for yet?

If there is a wrong move to make in this film, Frank and Casper end up finding it. The results are zany and disturbing, but in the way that an American film maker probably couldn’t get away with: much of the film centers around teasing Bo about his small willie, Casper’s sexual preoccupation with high schoolers on a field trip, and Frank’s half-hearted attempts at — well, why spoil the comedy? That’s the film’s draw.

After that, the film is hardly innovative. It could be handily described as “Two and a Half Men with a set of balls and a sense of humor” (zing). But it doesn’t need to be either. Somewhat oddly, the film has a lot of heart to it. Frank is well meaning, after all, even during the most awful and misguided things he does. His quest is to be a good dad, even if Casper’s quest is to get laid in as many hedonistic ways possible. Contrasted to Casper, Frank is awkward and tentative, and extremely odd. He’s a failure through and through, but in Frank Hvam he becomes a lovable loser, perhaps precisely because everything backfires so badly on him. He is almost the Danish Charlie Brown, if Linus had a messy sex addiction and Rerun was dragged along for the ride.

It’s not going to be everyone’s kind of film though, which is possibly the most important thing to know about it (which is why I’m burying it here at the bottom where no one will read it). It’s crassness is supreme, and often uncomfortable for the squeamish (or the self-righteous, who will say, “you can’t show that on screen!”). If society has indeed gone to hell in a handcart, this is the handcart, and it’s paddling straight down the river Acheron, laugh after devious laugh.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin (2012)

If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I never would have thought it possible to make a fairy tale out of Hurricane Katrina, but that’s exactly what first-time director Benh Zeitlin has done in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Assembled on a diet of film grants and award money, Beasts is a wildly imaginative piece as uncommon in its shimmering, gorgeous style as in its own mythology about the relentless horror of the hurricane.

Set in a fictional Louisiana shanty-town called the Bathtub, we meet Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), the story’s young, burgeoning hero. She’s wise beyond her years in some ways, but still burdened with a child’s way of thinking about life. The Bathtub, though, is a town stuck down below the levees, and the creek did rise.

Co-writers Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar have beset the Bathtub with contradiction and detritus, not least of which is the curiously small handful of remaining souls. Filthy and full of trash, Hushpuppy’s world is one that is real, yet imagined; innocent, yet harrowing; complex, yet simple. Above all, it is a world permeated with water – it penetrates the length, breadth and varying depths of the film, rendering a sense of weight, of fluidity and even of inevitability. Water provides and destroys; separates and unites.

Drinkable water, on the other hand, is scarce, and sacred enough in the Bathtub that even tears are regulated: They’re not allowed. They’re not even allowed when Hushpuppy’s biggest fear is more or less realized – that, in her selfishness (and, needless to say, in the film’s universe, not ours), she broke the world too bad to put it back together, causing the hurricane and her father’s illness. So great is her guilt that it takes the shape of a pack of extinct, bison-like creatures named aurochs, come back to life to wreck the Bathtub.

Much has been made of young Wallis’ performance, and it’s deserving of every scrap of praise it receives, but equally deserving is her co-star, Dwight Henry. A local baker who auditioned for the film on a whim, Henry delivers a knockdown, drag-out performance as Wink, Hushpuppy’s father.

Wink is another of Zeitlin and Alibar’s contradictions – a tough guy stricken with illness. He’s the mayor of the block yet he can regress like a child. Wink and Hushpuppy live together in the Bathtub, but they keep separate homes on the same patch of land, and many of the childish phrases, like, “It’s eat-up time!” come from him, not Hushpuppy.

Henry’s whole being is thrown into this character who, let’s face it, is kind of a piece of shit. But his Wink makes up for it in startling ways, as if he keeps only just remembering that he’s this little kid’s dad and she needs to know things, like how to catch catfish or split open a crab, how to be the man of the house when he’s gone and, perhaps most importantly, how to be the mayor of the Bathtub when he’s gone. Because whether it’s that inevitable water or something else that takes him away, there must never be tears.