Tag Archives: Drama

Freaks and Geeks S1E04: Kim Kelly Is My Friend

The fourth episode of Freaks and Geeks is the first to turn the primary focus of the hour onto someone lacking the last name of Weir. “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” focuses on, surprise, Kim Kelly, the one member of the freaks who had yet to warm to Lindsay. A young Rashida Jones guest-stars as a friend of Kim’s and a tormentor of Sam’s. You can see my other posts on Freaks and Geeks here.

Lindsay’s efforts to warm Kim Kelly’s icy heart have been met repeatedly with put-downs and insults, so when she gets an invite to Kim’s house for dinner, she is more than a little bit skeptical. Kim brings Lindsay home to meet her mother and stepfather, both of whom are selfish, bitter, and abusive. The dinner quickly turns sour over Kim’s purported failings and Lindsay’s relative affluence and the two girls flee the scene, only to find Kim’s boyfriend, Daniel, flirting rather heavily with another girl, Karen. Anger and sadness follow in equal measures.

I don't have a comment for this one.
I don’t have a comment for this one.

Sam is having his own problems with that same Karen, after an honest mistake where he tries to open her locker, she makes a point of humiliating him on a daily basis. Sam’s embarrassment is compounded when he realizes that his sister is going to dinner at Karen’s best friend’s house. Sam’s frustration leads to friction with Neal, who still thinks he is too cool for school, when he actually is too school for cool (I know it doesn’t make much sense, just go with it).

The episode culminates and climaxes (in more ways than one…) at the Weir house, where all four Weirs, Kim, Daniel, and Nick all come together and hash things out. Everyone is left a little bit happy, a little bit sad, and a little bit worried. Except for Nick, he has a fruit roll-up, and therefore all is right in his world. Mr. and Mrs. Weir are also given their first full meeting with Lindsay’s new friends, and they are far from reassured about the influence they are having on the ex-Mathlete.

This is the first time the Weirs are not the central focus, though they are pretty close to the center, and the show is better for it. As much as I like Sam and Lindsay, giving other characters the spotlight contributes greatly to an ensemble show like it has ensemble, and Kim was a good choice to start with. Having her and Lindsay spend a good portion of an episode away from the rest of the gang allowed for the characters to realistically develop something of a bond, without having it feel forced by anything other than minor contrivances of the plot.

So much resignation in one picture.
So much resignation in one picture.

“Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is thus far the most focused episode of Freaks and Geeks to date, Ken does not appear and most of the recurring characters are completely absent, while Nick gets very little screen-time. I am personally a fan of shows not using characters when they are not needed for the plot (or it doesn’t make sense for them to be there, etc.), so I appreciated the tighter focus in this episode.

The subplot with Sam being bullied is a touch repetitive, but is also different in that there really isn’t a physical threat to the bullying, it is all about emotionally breaking down the freshman for the kicks of a screwed up upperclassman. It is always nice seeing Rashida Jones doing something besides The Office or Parks and Recreation, and she is delightfully against type here as the slutty-tough girl with a massive chip on her shoulder.

This is yet another strong episode from NBC’s Freak and Geeks, and is one that was not actually aired in the initial run of episodes, despite its importance to the development of several characters and some key plot development. Anyways, I liked this episode and I liked the focus on someone from the supporting cast. Oh, and Quincy Jones’ daughter is in it, so that’s something.

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Freaks and Geeks S1E03: Tricks and Treats

Ah, Halloween, it is a time for dressing skimpily, eating wantonly, and vandalizing frequently (honestly, it’s a great day to be alive if there ever was one). Halloween also unleashes an onslaught of holiday episodes upon scores of television screens; Freaks and Geeks was no exception to this rule, though it did manage to play with traditional holiday episode conventions. Sam wrangles with his rapidly waning youth and Lindsay is torn between going out with her friends or staying in with her mother in “Tricks and Treats”, the third episode of the show (my other write-ups for Freaks and Geeks can be found here).

In the episode, Sam is tasked with reading Crime and Punishment for a book report after his own literary choice, the novelization of Star Wars, is rightfully shot down. So, feeling the relentless onslaught on aging coming upon him (he shouldn’t have, I read Crime and Punishment for the first time when I was fourteen and I didn’t embrace nihilism until at least two years later), he decides to grasp more firmly onto his youth by going out trick or treating with his friends, something he had previously determined as being a younger man’s game. He decides to go as Gort, the robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still, while Neal goes as Groucho Marx, and Bill goes as the Bionic Woman. As you can guess, they look really cool.

I can't imagine why girls don't go out with them.

I can’t imagine why girls don’t go out with them.

Meanwhile, Lindsay would much rather hang out with her new friends than spend the night at home in an embarrassing costume handing out candy. Lindsay, like most teenagers, lacks the tactfulness to avoid making it a huge issue, and winds up exiting the house at the last second to go drive around, and maybe commit a little bit of minor vandalism, with Daniel, Ken, Kim, and Nick. This leaves her mother hurt and a little confused, considering how convincing Lindsay had been in saying she was looking forward to spending the night in. Lindsay’s mother may have been a little (or a lot) naive, but Lindsay’s timidity made a non-issue into a time-bomb.

Lindsay is given her first true taste of something uniquely “freaky” in this episode, as the quintet decide to go around and vandalize. Over the course of the evening, the vandalism increases in severity, from quite mild to something more in the realm of moderate. Eventually, after crushing a few pumpkins and smashing a mailbox or two, Lindsay goes a little too far and does something she can’t take back.

This episode is the one most centrally focused on the Weirs yet, and that includes the parents for the first time. Lindsay and Sam’s parents are really only seen through the eyes of their children and, even taking that rather biased lens into consideration, are quite cliched. When Lindsay or Sam do something to avoid spending time with their parental units, I can’t judge them because, well, I simply would not want to be around those people for any length of time. “Tricks and Treats” does, however, take steps to humanize them a bit more than they had been.

So much worry in one picture

So much worry in one picture

Joe Flaherty’s father figure is prone to hyperbole but, for the first time, demonstrates some degree of wisdom regarding how Sam’s night would turn out. The gist of his good advice: a child at heart is not actually a child. Becky Ann Miller’s mother figure is about as naive as they come, but it is hard not to sympathize with her as so many things go wrong: her daughter ditches her for greener pastures, her homemade cookies may contain razor blades or hallucinogenics so they are not fit for consumption by costumed children, her husband can’t help but to say I told you so, et cetera.

Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley each continue to do strong work in their roles, fully willing to give in to the more negative traits their characters display. Lindsay Weir has a lot of positive traits, but is also possessing of the most unattractive of character traits: desperation. Lindsay is desperate for the approval of her new group of friends, but the very act of trying too hard is just what is keeping her from being fully embraced (by Kim and Ken at least, Nick and Daniel both seem to have accepted her).

Sam Weir may be in high school, but he is still struggling to learn when it is okay to be childish and when not to. If you want to play Dungeons & Dragons with your friends, go for it because it is fun. Whereas, if you want to walk around at five o’clock getting candy along with little kids, it is probably best to hold off. The lesson here: buy your candy on the first of November when it is cheap and unlikely to see you beaten up. Secondary lesson here: it is much more worth your time to read Crime and Punishment than the novelization of Star Wars (or any novelization of any movie really).

This episode is as well written as the previous two, but has a resolution that is much too clean for comfort. Lindsay buckling under the pressure of guilt rang hollow (as does her agreeing to wear a costume sight unseen), though Sam finally reading of Crime and Punishment works by virtue of it being a homework assignment (and a good book). Something potentially interesting I noticed just now: Lindsay is the only one to commit a crime, but Sam is the only one to receive something actually akin to a punishment. I blame society.

I don't have a comment for this one.

I don’t have a comment for this one.

“Tricks and Treats” also sees Martin Starr continuing to be the most reliable, and frequent, source of laughter on Freaks and Geeks. His choice in costume and nonchalant manner of going about making and wearing it made me guffaw at least three times throughout the program. Neal’s struggle to do a mustache befitting Groucho Marx without descending into Hitler territory is also quite funny. Sam’s pair of geeky friends may lack as much development as Lindsay’s group at this point (excepting Ken, that man is still very much a cypher), but may have an edge in entertainment value.

The attention to period detail on Freaks and Geeks is always strong, but this episode kicks it into high gear. From the paranoia about the what people are putting in Halloween candy (it still occurred when I was of a trick or treating age) to Bill going as the Bionic Woman, it all felt authentically eighties. My opinion may not be totally worth listening to, however, considering I was born early into the following decade.

Halloween episodes of shows tend not to be as strong as other episodes in whatever program unleashed them, but “Tricks and Treats” manages to sidestep this particular trend with aplomb. It is a strong episode of Freaks and Geeks that contains some of the funnier moments of the show without sacrificing any dramatic heft. Plus, Martin Starr cross-dressing is worth price of admission on its own.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Reviewed by James, Who Watched at Home

The Duplass brothers (Jay and Mark) are the original kings of mumblecore, and, after a period of flirtation, they have apparently decided to embrace the mainstream with Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Starring Jason Segel as the Jeff of the title and Ed Helms as his brother Pat, the comedy-drama focuses on a family as they struggle to determine what exactly it is that they want. Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, and Rae Dawn Chong also star in the 2012 film.

Jeff is thirty years old and still living in his mother’s basement. He doesn’t have a job and it does not appear that he is looking for one, he smokes too much pot, and has seen the movie Signs by M. Night Shymalan too many times for comfort. According to him, Signs eventually reigns in all the meandering and contains one perfect moment, and, while I doubt the veracity of that statement, it leads him to his personal philosophy: eventually life will contain one perfect moment that makes up for everything that occurs leading up to it. He looks for signs in everyday life, and his marijuana-infused state of mind leads to conclude that the name Kevin will lead him to his destiny. His logic is oddly sound.

The wood-paneling doesn't work for me.

The wood-paneling doesn’t work for me.

Pat is Jeff’s older brother and he does not live at home. Pat is married to Linda (Judy Greer), who seems to be on the verge of finally reacting to the passive-aggressive back and forth her marriage has devolved into. Pat is the kind of guy who is solidly middle-class, goes to Hooters on his lunch break, and can be talked into actually believing that they are basically giving a Porsche away for free if there is only a small down payment. Eventually Pat and Jeff cross paths and Pat must finally confront the state of his marriage.

Sharon (Susan Sarandon), the mother of Jeff and Pat, is in a bit of a funk. She resents her kids, she’s bored in her job, and she hasn’t had sex since her husband died. So, when she starts getting messages from a secret admirer, she is more than a little skeptical of their intentions. Following some urging from her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong), she decides to give it a go, though the result is quite surprising to her (but not us). As these kinds of movies tend to do, the main cast ends up in the same place at the same time, and things find a way to resolve themselves, for the time being at least.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a film extremely reliant on the contrivances of the script, and no matter how sparingly the Duplass brothers filmed it, that kind of thing does not go unnoticed. This is a rather short film, clocking in at just over eighty minutes, so the need to keep the plot moving at a reasonable clip is rather high, the but the manner in which it was done could have been more subtle. Jeff, as a character, seems to have embraced fate and the interconnected nature of the universe as a means to motivating himself, so the usage of things seemingly occurring by fate makes a degree of sense considering this film isn’t damning its title character, but it all just rang so hollow. Also: the subplot regarding Susan Sarandon’s Sharon and the coworker who secretly admires her was sweet but not affecting.

This trip to Hooters was not a hoot. That was bad, even for me.

This trip to Hooters was not a hoot.

Issues regarding the plot aside, Jeff, Who Lives at Home was a very well-acted film by all four principles. Jason Segel has been a bastion of comedic solidity (I really need to get this flowery writing in check) for over a decade now, and, despite the comedic bent of the film, is finally beginning to test his dramatic chops. As far as I can tell, Segel is fully up to the task and demonstrates this by spending much of the film either by himself or with the camera zoomed closely on his face.

Ed Helms is an actor defined by how comedic his intensity can become before it just becomes sad (note: the later seasons of The Office). In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Helms embraced the inherently pitiable, if frustrating, manner his characters typically act, and gave what may be his strongest performance to date. Helms’ willingness to let his characters be legitimately unpleasant and unlikable makes him a natural fit for the Duplass brothers, who have made something of a career out of mining the aspects about people that tend to annoy other equally annoying people.

Judy Greer is in many ways the ultimate supporting player in Hollywood. Indie or mainstream, television or film, she seems to pop up a few times a year to elevate whatever material she is tasked with working with. Her Linda is a frustrated woman, her marriage is failing and her husband has depleted the funds they had been saving to buy a house in order to purchase an ill-advised Porsche. So, if Linda were to have an affair with some guy who is willing to actually put in some effort and listen to her complain, no one would really blame her.

I can't tell if it is ketchup or catsup.

I can’t tell if it is ketchup or catsup.

The thing in this film is that Pat and Linda deserve each other. Linda complains that none of her friends like Pat, but admits it was she who poisoned them against him. Pat wants a wife who loves him, but can’t manage to actually love his wife. These are deep problems, and while a day of catharsis may help, some wounds just don’t heal. As can be expected, Jeff’s search for meaning and following of signs doesn’t lead him inwards, it leads him straight into the middle of the cold war between his brother and sister-in-law.

I didn’t like the ending of this movie. Maybe it is the pessimist in me, or maybe it is as someone who thinks a deus ex machina should be reserved for a Greek drama or something more irony-laden, but the ending just didn’t sit right. What occurs is a cop-out used to ensure a happy(ish) ending, and while I can appreciate the desire to end on a more positive note, it didn’t work for this viewer. I am perfectly content for something to end happily if it makes, well, sense, but the final few scenes of Jeff, Who Lives at Home just didn’t make all that much sense to me.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home is Jay and Mark Duplass’ first legitimately mainstream film, and it is competently done if a bit disappointing. This film is demonstrative of many of the frequent pitfalls of independent cinema: it confuses the intimate for the unambitious, is content to be reflective rather than attempt something revelatory, and thinks a shaky camera is a good idea. The cast, primarily Jason Segel and Ed Helms, does an exceptional job and manages to elevate the material somewhat, but unlike Signs (this is Jeff’s opinion, not mine), all the meandering doesn’t actually manage to culminate into the one perfect moment they were clearly intending to achieve.

Freaks and Geeks S1E02: Beers and Weirs

The second episode of the under-seen classic Freaks and Geeks sees Lindsay Weir attempting to fit in and gain some credibility in the eyes of her new circle of friends by hosting a keg-party at her home. Meanwhile Sam and his friends worry about the potential for tragedy when alcohol is involved and concoct a plan to marginalize the risk. You can also see my write-up on the first episode of Freaks and Geeks here.

Like most high school students struggling to fit in with a new group of friends, Lindsay Weir is willing to do quite a bit to win their approval and gratitude, particularly if one of them (James Franco’s Daniel Desario) looks like he could one day play James Dean in a television movie. The opportunity arises for our heroine when her parents go out of town for the weekend and the house is suddenly a space in which a party where a moderate amount of alcohol can be served to a bunch of moderately rebellious teenagers willing to drink it without moderation, and exclaim to anyone willing to listen, “I’m so wasted.” Even if the beer doesn’t technically contain alcohol.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The lack of alcohol stems from a rather ingenious plot by Sam Weir, Lindsay’s younger brother, and his two friends Neal and Bill. The geeky trio has their rational, if exaggerated, worries about the dangers of beverages with a bit more kick, exacerbated after viewing a school assembly in which three students espouse the virtues of being cool without drinking (you can, but the assembly failed at showing it). Sam, Neal, and Bill use some of Neal’s Bar Mitzvah money to buy a keg of non-alcoholic beer, in order to exchange it for the real one. The perfect blend of shrewd and idiotic, their plan actually manages to work. Also, all three of the assembly “actors” show up to the party, two of them get drinks, while the other prefers to get high on life.

This episode’s central focus is on Lindsay, but aside from the implied crush on Daniel Desario being made more blatant, we really don’t learn much more about her than we learned from the pilot. The episode’s primary character development is centered on Neal (Samm Levine), and to a lesser extent Nick, Kim, and Daniel. Neal is revealed to have maintained a crush on Lindsay for the majority of his life, and is extremely disheartened to see her starting to hang out with a “bad” crowd. Neal also proves himself quite clever a couple of times throughout the episode and leaves a more positive impression on the audience in this episode than the last.

Look at how natural they're acting

Look at how naturally they’re acting

As was hinted in the pilot, Nick has taken a shine to Lindsay, and makes an ill-timed move on her. Additionally, when the nerdy Millie starts to (effectively) humiliate herself, he is the only person present that gets up to help her out. Admittedly, there is not much to be done when the girl voluntarily starts singing “Jesus is Alright With” at a keg-party, but it is the thought that counts I suppose.

This episode sees Daniel and Kim’s their relationship clarified to the extent their relationship lacks anything resembling clarity, they are perpetually swinging between the on and off sides of their relationship, and sometimes they make-out in Lindsay’s bedrooms. Lindsay seems to make headway with Kim, who has a genuinely non-caustic remark as she exits the premises following the party. There is also a telling moment where Daniel is legitimately puzzled as to why Lindsay is embarrassed about being a mathlete: he may lack motivation, but he doesn’t resent those who have it. Sam also seemingly makes headway with his crush Cindy, as she both comes to the party and strikes up a conversation with him rather than the other way around. We the viewers, however, can see the trap that Sam is unknowingly walking into regarding what he might see as his burgeoning relationship with Cindy.

They are not amused, but I am.

They are not amused, but I am.

Oh, it would be a crime not to mention that Martin Starr once again steals the show as the super-geek Bill. His standing up for his favorite television program, Dallas, is probably the biggest laugh of the episode. His getting drunk after being left alone with the keg filled with beer that actually contains alcohol is hilarious as well. Starr is both riotously funny and able to take a character type that could easily have been cloying and made him endearing in a very short period of time.

This is another strong episode for Freaks and Geeks and one that makes the most out of a situation that could have easily devolved into a big bundle of cliches towards the end. The considerably smaller and quieter bundle of cliches we receive is a rather welcome surprise. Strong performances are had all around and the writing is sharp, “Beers and Weirs” does not disappoint. I must also add that the large aspect of my personality that almost entirely subsists on wordplay and bad puns really appreciates the title of this episode.

Freaks and Geeks S1E01: Pilot

When listing off shows that went off the air before they had received a fair shake, odds are that the 1999 cult classic Freaks and Geeks settles somewhere near the top (along with Firefly). Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980 and centers on Lindsay and Sam Weir (Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley), and their circles of friends, as they deal with all the trials, tribulations, and awkward situations that high school can throw at them. The show was produced by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig and launched many of its cast-members to movie-stardom, including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel. Anyways, here is my review of the first episode, christened without much originality as “Pilot.”

Lindsay Weir is a fairly ordinary high school student, apparently an ace mathlete, and at a bit of a loss of exactly what to do about anything. She is very intelligent and excels scholastically, but is intrigued by the titular “Freaks” made up by Daniel (James Franco), Ken (Seth Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel), and Kim (Busy Philipps) who skip class and get high, yet are also generally accepting and lacking in obvious pretension, even if they are a bit rougher around the edges.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

The title card is neither freaky nor geeky.

Lindsay is also, like so many slightly-outcast teenagers, a bit self-righteous and mistaken in thinking that withdrawing from social-situations is really some vague protest. So when she is coerced into attending the homecoming dance by her parents (fun fact: I did not attend any of mine, it wouldn’t have been fair to the all the girls who would be heartbroken by my attending with someone else. My nobility astounds even me.), she decides to take the mentally-handicapped Eli (a young Ben Foster), who is perpetually happy, but often the butt of jokes. Naturally, everything goes wrong.

Sam Weir, Lindsay’s younger brother, is struggling to find a foothold in something other than his clique of friends (the titular “Geeks”). Sam is close with his friends Neal and Bill (Samm Levine and Martin Starr), but he is viciously bullied regularly and can’t get up the courage to ask his crush Cindy, a cheerleader, out. Cindy is friendly, attentive, tall, and, like so many girls, is even further out of reach because she is actually willing to stand close. Sam, put in the same homecoming dance conundrum as Lindsay, resolves to ask Cindy to the dance and finally stand up to his bully (by ganging up with his friends and beating him up).

"I had a dream it would end this way."

“I had a dream it would end this way.”

This first episode is, rightfully, primarily a showcase for Linda Cardellini as Lindsay and John Francis Daly as Sam (who both excel), but some of the supporting characters are also given a chance to shine. James Franco is both greasy and charming as Daniel Desario, and Jason Segel as Nick Andropolis is a surprising source of wisdom for our heroine. Additionally, Martin Starr steals most of his scenes as the geekiest of the three geeks, Bill Haverchuck. Also: Seth Rogen plays acerbic rather well.

Part of the reason Freaks and Geeks has latched itself so strongly in the minds of its viewers despite such a short run (eighteen episodes, three were unaired), is how strong it came out of the gate. The pilot is a good introduction to the show and a strong individual episode in its own right, which something commendable (I commend you Freaks and Geeks, fourteen years after the fact).

I don't have a comment for this one.

I don’t have a comment for this one.

Freaks and Geeks greatest accomplishment, in my mind, is that the adolescent characters are all believable and realistic. Even, the characters that are more thinly drawn at this stage of the game appear to have complexities, even if they haven’t been revealed yet. Furthermore, the fact that none of the characters are really black and white in their moralities, is a welcome change from the typical geeky/popular paradigm. Sam has a bully and cannot be described as popular, but the popular Cindy is nice to him without any apparent motivation. Nick goes out of his way to cheer Lindsay up, but his method ends with her in trouble with the school. Inherent complexities and contradictions like this can make a show feel as real as life, and can turn a one-season network run into something much more enduring.

Freaks and Geeks starts out strong, and if you haven’t seen it, it is probably something well worth your time, if only to be able to say “Yeah, I’ve seen it” when asked, unprompted via some thin conversational connection by someone as arrogant in their particular brand of television-watching as myself. Anyways, this pilot episode flew straight (as always, the pun is intentional).

Headhunters: A Headhunter Gets His Head Hunted

I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in Scandinavia, but they seem to have cornered the market on well-made, gritty thrillers. Adapted from a novel by Jo Nesbø, HeadhuntersHodejegerne in the native Norwegian, is directed by Morten Tyldum, and stars Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Synnøve Macody Lund. Involving the world of high-class art theft, professional headhunting, and a former military tracker, Headhunters is a taut, visceral thriller from beginning to end.

Roger Brown (Hennie) works in the recruitment business, he makes and breaks careers on a daily basis. He is married to Diana (Lund), a tall, blonde, and beautiful art dealer. Roger’s insecurity over his height has led him to take on an interesting part-time job: high-class art thief. Using his legitimate job as means to gain candidates for his thefts, he uses the extra earnings to lavish his wife with expensive gifts, and pay for an extravagant house he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) is a former military tracker, and an ideal candidate for the position Brown is currently contracted to make his recommendation for, and he also just so happens to be the owner of an extremely valuable piece of artwork that could finance the lifestyle Brown has been accustomed to providing his wife indefinitely. Naturally, things go wrong, and Brown finds himself being hunted by Greve across Norway, as Brown begins to realize that he was just a pawn in some bigger scheme.

This is a poster...in Norwegian

This is a poster…in Norwegian

Brown is a bit of a weasel. He makes his living wheeling and dealing people’s livelihoods, while robbing them of their valuables on the side. His insecurity has caused him to be an emotionally unavailable husband, and led him into an affair with a woman he treats with a surprising terseness. The first mention of anything more than sex between him and his mistress leads to a quick and decisive breaking off of their arrangement. Brown is the type of man who is able to talk someone into giving him what he wants before they even realize he has asked for something. Brown also possesses no small measure of cunning, thinking his way out of the predicaments he finds himself in and willing to do just about anything to do so. Hennie is able to make Brown a likable protagonist though, and you can’t help but root for him as he struggles to keep away from the force of nature that is Greve.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known for playing Jaime Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones, infuses Clas Greve with a sort of amiable malice. Greve is a broken man, we learn almost nothing about him, but it is clear something happened to drain him of all empathy and remorse. A scene in a locker room with Brown shows him with a back filled with lash-marks, and he only mentions that it happened in Bolivia. As Greve hunts Brown, he does so in a determined, brutal manner, with no regard for collateral damage or the lives he takes along the way. Greve the businessman is someone not to be trifled with, Greve the tracker is someone to be feared. Coster-Waldau is excellent and makes for a great, intimidating villain.

He is not a tall man.

He is not a tall man.

Synnøve Macody Lund as Diana is the sort of blonde actress Alfred Hitchcock used to salivate over, except for the fact that she is warm, not icy. Diana is a trophy wife, and Brown sees her as the greatest symbol of his validity as a professional, and, more importantly, his masculinity. Brown deeply cares for his wife, but his insecurities have caused him to be withholding and emotionally unavailable. Diana wants a child, Brown cringes at the thought. Lund plays her role well, being suitably desirable and supportive, but she disappears for a long stretch during the middle of the film and her role is thin.

The film has very tightly written screenplay, there is nary a scene in the film that does not contribute something into the overarching plot. The film is a bit grisly, and there is more than a little blood, but none of the violence felt forced and none was it was unrealistic, contrived perhaps, but not unrealistic. The plotting is a bit shaky, and the method by which all of the subplots were resolved would probably fall apart if someone at it too intensely, but that is not a huge issue. The film never allows the audience the time to ponder the plot, it is so tightly constructed that the tension never stops building until the climax.

It is an impressive glower.

It is an impressive glower.

Headhunters remembered to include an element absolutely necessary to a properly thrilling thriller: a suitable score. The score may not be a musical masterpiece, but it manages to keep the film tense from beginning to end, which is very important in this type of film. The film is, in many ways, reminiscent of the thriller genre prior to its becoming bogged down with the Hollywood system. The film is chock full of thrills, but they don’t spring from contrivances of the plot: they develop naturally from character development and interaction. The thrills are visceral, and they are also earned. It has fallen into cliché to say that old school is better than new school, but in this instance the adage rings true.

 Headhunters, or Hodejegerne for any Norwegians out there, is a tightly written, well-acted thriller that derives its suspense from character, rather than from special effects and explosions. It may not do anything new with the form, and the resolution may be a bit too neatly wrapped up, but just about everything the film does, it does extremely well. It is a worthy addition to the critically acclaimed, gritty thrillers Scandinavia has been releasing lately, and is well worth the watch.

Firefly, a Rewatch: Episode 1, “Serenity”

I have decided to watch Firefly again for the umpteenth time and to also write about my thoughts on all fourteen episodes and the film in blog-form. I chose Firefly for this experiment in consistent blogging (I will be aiming for one episode write-up a week) for one reason: it is short. If I get bored or frustrated, my obligation will be minimal, whereas shows that actually received proper runs, would require a more arduous undertaking on my part. I also really like Firefly and I have learned that one way to get a nerd, like myself, excited is to talk about it, so I hope that you, my very modest readership, will enjoy hearing my pretty standard opinions on this space-western staple.

The first episode (chronologically, not in terms of the date it aired) of Firefly is titled “Serenity” and is the setup episode for both the series’ premise and its characters; so the logic behind Fox airing this episode last continues to mystify. The episode is double length, and around half of that time is spent meeting all of the characters and defining their roles and relationships, while the other half involves a typical Firefly plot: do a job, get screwed, and adapt. This episode is both directed and written by series creator Joss Whedon, best known at this time for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and more recently known for writing and directing The Avengers.

Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was a war hero on the losing side of the war against the Alliance, the governmental body that rules the system of terraformed planets and moons that humanity has come to inhabit. His ship, named Serenity after a bloody battle in which he fought, houses himself and his crew, a band of people with both pasts and skill-sets not conducive to stable living. Salvaging and smuggling, they live paycheck to paycheck while travelling from planet to planet, and all the while they attempt to stay off the radar of the Alliance.

This is a picture of the cast.

This is a picture of the cast.

His crew includes Zoe (Gina Torres), a fellow soldier as his second in command. Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the Serenity‘s pilot, and is also the husband of Zoe. Jayne Cobb (Alan Baldwin, a non-Baldwin-Brother Baldwin) is a mercenary that provides the ship the extra muscle it so often needs. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is a young woman and genius mechanic that keeps the ship flying when it reasonably should not. One of the passenger shuttles is occupied by Inara (Morena Baccarin), a companion (essentially, a very high-class courtesan) that left the comfort of her home planet to see the universe.

This initial episode sees the Serenity gain three new residents: Shepherd Book, Simon Tam, and his sister River. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) is a religious man and a pacifist, but possesses a mysterious past that was more than likely quite violent. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) was a young trauma surgeon with a promising future until he abandoned his home and fortune to rescue his younger sister River (Summer Glau), a prodigious intellect cruelly experimented on by the alliance. Each of these three comes to accept the ship as a sanctuary, if not a home, despite contentious relationships with the captain.

The main plot involves the crew trying to unload salvaged goods (nutrient-rich food) before the Alliance catches up with them. After dealing with Badger (Mark Sheppard), a gang-leader, the crew must deal with Patience, a woman whose last dealings with the crew ended with Mal being shot. The crew also chooses to take on passengers for both the cash and the implied legitimacy. But an encounter with Reavers, men turned mad and vicious in the vast emptiness of space, and the presence of an Alliance mole threaten their safety and their payday.

It is common courtesy to look at someone while you kill them.

It is common courtesy to look at someone while you kill them.

“Serenity” accomplishes everything a pilot should, it establishes the character’s motivations and relationships with each other, and it sets up an ongoing arc involving River and just what the Alliance was doing to her. The two cases of frustrating sexual tension in Firefly are also introduced in this episode, with Kaylee developing a crush on Simon, and the smoldering looks between Mal and Inara when they weren’t at each other’s throats. Unlike many pilots, “Serenity” chose to develop its characters through conversation rather than to introduce them with wiz-bang action sequences (though there are a couple of those as well), this is especially true in the cases of Mal, Inara, Simon, and Shepherd Book.

This is one of my favorite episodes of the short-lived series, primarily because of the interactions between the characters and the fact that the extended running time means that none of the characters play a minor role, which is inevitable with a typical running time of forty minutes. Whedon is known mainly for his dialogue, and his skills are on full display here, but what he is even better at is creating a cast of interesting characters that seem well-developed from the moment they are on the screen. There is a reason he was chosen to helm The Avengers: the man knows how to work an ensemble. He gets good performances out of all of his actors, particularly Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin.

The episode has one legitimately surprising moment, and a few twists that are easy enough to see coming, even if that surprising moment is pulled straight from a space-western anime called Outlaw Star (it isn’t bad, but Firefly is better). But the fact that this episode isn’t chock-full of surprises is fine, as this episode is all about setting up the characters and the primary arc of the show, plus the action scenes are done well enough that their outcomes don’t need to shock (or awe).

This is the Serenity.

This is the Serenity.

This is the most western heavy space-western I have ever seen (Trigun comes the closest), and I like it. The big shootout near the end literally has people using horses as cover, and if that doesn’t indicate a western, I don’t know what does. Many of the characters also fit rather neatly into common archetypes of the genre: Mal is the former soldier looking for a cause, Inara is the hooker with a heart of gold, Book is the preacher with a violent past, and it goes on. The flavoring of the English language with Mandarin words and phrases works well in establishing the world these characters live in, and doesn’t seem that unnatural given where our world is currently heading; it’s also a clever way of giving the show’s dialogue its own unique feel.

The special effects are excellent and hold up well, this episode even won an Emmy for them, especially for a decade old television episode. One aspect I really appreciated with this show is that when something is shown in space, there is not any noise. There is no sound in a vacuum, so I love it when something demonstrates that without the pew-pews and the vroom-vrooms so common in most space-set science-fiction (cough Star wars cough).

“Serenity” is a good episode and, while it may lack the innovative nature of some of the other episodes, it is a great introduction to Firefly and its world. The fact that every character in the ensemble received adequate screen-time and gets some development differentiates this from most television pilots. I definitely enjoyed it again, even on my fifth (or so) watch of the episode. Return next week for my review of episode 2.

Robot & Frank: Dementia, Heists, and Frank Langella

Robot & Frank is a film of little consequence and, seemingly, of little ambition: few have seen it, few will see it, and it will end up as a footnote in the careers of its superb cast comprised of Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeremy Sisto, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella. I have something of a soft spot for films of little consequence, and there is a lot to like, and a lot to be disappointed in, about first-time director Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank: the relative plausibility of its science-fiction elements, the assured and understated direction, and, oh yeah, Frank Langella.

In the near future, a former cat burglar named Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone while dementia slowly, but noticeably, sets in. Frank makes routine trips to the library to pick up non-digital books, and also to flirt with the comely librarian (Susan Sarandon). His son Hunter, an accomplished attorney and family man, makes weekly, and increasingly frustrating, visits to see his stubborn father before he finally buys him a robotic companion and helper (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), while his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler), a career philanthropist, makes short video-calls to her father from Turkmenistan. Frank’s determined stance against keeping the robot gradually softens as he realizes that the stimulating activities the robot forces him to partake in don’t necessarily have to be legal.

This is a poster.

This is a poster.

Robot & Frank is a simple film and it is content to be the film that it is, and not the film that it could have been. The film runs a tight eighty minutes and leaves itself little room for contemplation within its premise. Robot & Frank never delves into the relationship of Frank and the unnamed robot, at least not with any sort of depth. Frank is struggling to keep in control of his mind as he sees the past slipping away from him, while this robot he has bonded with (befriended isn’t quite the right word) keeps reminding him that he himself is just metal and programming and is perfectly content to maintain his current memory, or have it wiped should that benefit Frank. Frank’s desperation to see more than just an appliance in his partner-in-crime is tragic, potentially fascinating, and essentially glossed over.

Frank Langella’s performance is subtle, realistic, and just plain fantastic. This is Langella’s best performance since 2008’s Frost/Nixon and would be at least in the conversation for awards if it weren’t such a damnably small film. Langella plays Frank without fanfare or big speeches, he is a man trying to keep his mind from drifting away through the common methods of grit teeth and vehement denial. The extra spring in his step while he plots a heist is subtle but noticeable, the stone-faced manner in which he speaks to law enforcement is barely noticeable, but its there and it works. This is a quiet film, and Langella gives a quiet, affecting performance. He makes the film.

He's practicing picking locks. We all need our hobbies.

He’s practicing picking locks. We all need our hobbies.

The rest of the cast is competent in their limited roles. James Marsden’s Hunter is suitably frustrated by his father and his brow is almost never not furrowed, but the film is too short to allow for any real character arc there, aside from his mounting frustration. Liv Tyler as Frank’s daughter Madison is not onscreen enough for the audience to get a true impression other than that she has a breathy voice and that she is the sort of career-do-gooder people love to hate behind their backs, except for me (um, yeah). Sarandon continues to carve herself a niche as the distinguished love interest of distinguished (and) aging actors, and she’s doing it rather well, but there is just no substance to the role.

Peter Sarsgaard voices the titular robot, and he possesses a voice suitable for playing one of our future overlords. Comparisons to HAL 3000 are inevitable, but a better comparison is to the computer in Moon voiced by Kevin Spacey. In both of those films the technologically advanced companions of the lead possess a sort of detached helpfulness, and not a detached maliciousness. Sarsgaard is good as the robot, as he is in everything, and his conversations with Frank are amusing, but tinged with a sadness held by Frank, and projected onto the five-foot-or-so helper in front of him.

I can't say I love the wallpaper.

I can’t say I love the wallpaper.

Director Jake Schreier is surprisingly comfortable behind the camera in his feature length debut, and is, thankfully, willing to let the action occur without showy direction on his part. The film is good, if a bit shallow, and it definitely shows promise for future offerings from the first-time director. Though, I have to hope that he shows more ambition in his next undertaking, Robot & Frank is too comfortable being a well-made quirky indie, which it is, but those are a dime a dozen. Schreier avoids the typical first-time director pitfalls of trying to do too much, but he goes the other way and tries to do too little.

The futuristic touches the film has – the phones, the computer screens, the robots – are grounded enough that they are realistic extensions of our current technology, but they are also immediately distinguishable as not currently existing (except for maybe in prototype). The robot itself seemed a bit too dexterous given its block-like appearance, but that is a minor quibble with the otherwise well-handled science-fiction element in the film.

Robot & Frank is a decent film, but it takes its clever premise and does just enough with it to stretch out to feature length, when it should have spent more time delving into its concept. In the end, however, the film is worth seeing solely for the performance of Frank Langella, who carries the film on his shoulders and elevates a thin story to heights it wouldn’t have been able to reach without him.

Zero Dark Thirty: The Not Bad Movie About Killing Bin Laden

Spoiler Alert: Osama Bin Laden dies at the end. With that out of the way I can get to discussing the movie without worrying about ruining the ending. Joking aside, this is serious and tense thriller about one woman’s obsessive years-long quest to find and eliminate Osama Bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal (both of The Hurt Locker fame), Zero Dark Thirty is a taut docudrama starring Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, and Stephen Dillane.

Maya is a CIA officer. That is all she is, her days and nights are focused on rooting out leads that will someday allow her to find Osama Bin Laden and eradicate him. Zero Dark Thirty is the story of her twelve year long mission, and obsession, to do so. Facing resistance and skepticism from her bosses (Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong), her colleagues (Jennifer Ehle), and people higher-up (James Gandolfini), Maya’s intelligence and willpower is pushed to the limit as she inches ever closer to what could be Osama Bin Laden or, just as likely, yet another dead-end.

Look at all that glaring.

Look at all that glaring.

Jessica Chastain, fresh off a year that is about as impressive as any in recent memory, returns with a subtle, methodical bang as Maya (probably not her real name), the heroine of this inevitable bit of film-making (it took only eighteen months to get this movie to theaters from the day Bin Laden died). Chastain deserves a lot of credit for choosing to be understated and restrained throughout the entire film, when Maya could have easily been a more bombastic character, as well as being a significantly less effective one. Chastain has a penchant for playing sad characters, whether that be her understated mother and wife in The Tree of Life, or the housewife oozing with sex appeal in The Help, her performances always exhibit an understated, yet intense melancholy that colors every scene she is in, and it works.

Maya doesn’t want to catch Bin Laden, she needs to catch him, its in her bones. When asked what else she has done except for the CIA aside from trying to catch this man , her answer is quite revealing: nothing, that is all she has ever done, it is what she has been trained for (recruited straight from high school). Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about Bin Laden, not really, it is a character piece about Maya that has been both fleshed out and dampened by the use of dramatizations of the tragedies of the past decade. Maya is a fascinating character in a movie that never could have truly been about her, and its a shame.

Nice shades.

Nice shades.

The supporting cast does their (sole) job by being both recognizable and distinguished. No character aside from Maya has any real character arc or development and each (relatively) major character has roughly the same arc: person is doubtful of Maya, person is still doubtful of Maya, but that person is no longer an issue for Maya. Fantastic actors like Mark Strong and Kyle Chandler among others are given little to do (arguably at the expense of each other, actually) as a result of the significant ensemble and the heavy focus on Maya’s godlike foresight.

The script is tightly written, suspenseful, and damn lucky everyone already knows how the story ends. If this was a movie about finding anyone other than Bin Laden, Maya would not be the triumphant woman who saw what everyone else was missing, she would be the obsessed woman that fate smiled upon. Zero Dark Thirty hinges strongly on the notion that these vague clues Maya has spent a decade on are worthwhile (we know they are, but that’s irrelevant) and chooses to cast anyone expressing valid skepticism as too blind or too frightened of victory or too something else, rather than the objective, logical observer they truly are. There is a scene a where Maya threatens to tank her boss’ career if he doesn’t give her what she wants…based on a hunch. She is right and that is good, but I can’t help but feel that the motivations (and rational concerns) of supporting characters should not be minimized for the sake of convenience for the protagonist (especially in a two and a half hour movie that drags in certain spots).

Zero Dark Thirty is the second most tense movie I have seen this year (after Argo), but is also one of the least suspenseful thrillers in recent memory. Every explosion that occurs was telegraphed and every death was obvious five minutes before it went boom. This isn’t totally Bigelow’s fault given the high-profile and recent nature of her subject matter, but I should not be able to snap my fingers at the moment a surprise bombing happens while viewing a film for the first time. This may very well be nitpicking, but choosing to market this film as a thriller made these instances all the more glaring.

Subtlety at its finest.

Subtlety at its finest.

Contrarians have chosen to cast this film as in favor of torture or against the use of torture or of ignoring torture but their fears are as baseless as they are needlessly sensational. This is not a film about condemning or condoning more, ahem, aggressive interrogation techniques, it is a film about characters that make use of them. If Kathryn Bigelow had ignored the issue of torture, a legitimate concern given Hollywood’s whitewashing tendencies, Zero Dark Thirty would have been a disgusting bit of tripe simply cashing in on the “Go America!” feeling following the reveal of Bin Laden’s death, and instead we get something more methodical and ambiguous, even if it chooses to forgo focusing on some of its heroine’s more negative character traits (what happens if she’s wrong?).

The big question I have heard regarding Zero Dark Thirty is typically in regards to its quality when compared with The Hurt Locker and which one of the two is the better. My opinion is that while it is a bit of an unfair comparison, Zero Dark Thirty is not as good as The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty is a film hamstrung by its very premise, though technically fantastic and anchored by the strong work of Jessica Chastain, this thriller lacks thrills and a real point aside from saying, yes, it finally happened, we got him, for the umpteenth time.