Film: Force Majeure

Force MajeureThe Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is a long, difficult watch, but it rewards the effort – provided you’re interested in stunning scenery, awkward cinéma vérité stylings, and painfully insightful gender subtexts. (How’s that for a soft sell?)

In the French Alps, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their two young children on a posh holiday to a ski resort. It’s a relaxing, indulgent time for the family until the unexpected occurs: a controlled avalanche goes awry, nearly engulfing them. Ebba moves instinctively to protect the children, but Tomas, in a moment of panic, races to save himself. When the snow settles, no harm is done but everything is utterly changed, as Tomas’ momentary knee-jerk cowardice drives a wedge between the husband and wife, and sends Tomas spiraling toward an emotional breakdown.

Force Majeure is the kind of patient, slow-building movie that’s sure to bore some viewers while mesmerizing others. I fell into the latter camp, lured by its breathtaking cinematography, realistic performances, and the way its simple scenes build a complex picture. At first it comes across like a painstaking, bludgeoningly honest character study, but eventually reveals itself to be a scathing indictment of traditional gender roles – especially conventional male self-image. Heroic, strong, knowledgeable, in-charge…Force Majeure lays bare the weakness and hypersensitivity lurking underneath this posturing façade. I’ve seen this film billed as biting comedy, but it didn’t remotely tickle my funny bone; this is a nuanced and penetrating monument to the enduring toxicity of modern male behavior. Hard to stomach, but very well done.

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TV: Daredevil (Season 1)

Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m an unreserved fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for the first few episodes of Daredevil’s first season – now streaming on Netflix – I worried I might be experiencing some superhero fatigue. This third foray into episodic TV for the MCU starts rather slowly, introducing its bleak underbelly in grim, gritty and hypermasculine fashion. It’s a drastic tonal shift away from its more upbeat (Agent Carter) and more disposable (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) cousins on ABC, and while immediately superior to both of those shows, I found myself resisting its more realistic language, shocking violence, troubling torture scenes, and tired antihero themes. But I soldiered through these concerns, and while I’m still not enamored of its more problematic aspects, I’m glad I hung in there, because this may be the most accomplished Marvel property yet: a compelling slow-burn with deeper characterizations, a stronger created family, and richer sociopolitical themes than any of the movies.

It’s the story of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a young lawyer who sets up shop, along with best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), in his childhood neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. As a child, Matt lost his eyesight while saving someone’s life during a truck accident – but in the process, gained heightened powers in his other senses as a result of the mysterious chemicals that blinded him. Matt is determined to clean up his city, helping the downtrodden as an attorney during the day, but also prowling the streets at night to dole out vigilante justice.

Matt and Foggy’s first client is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a secretary for a construction firm who stumbles across corporate corruption and lands in hot water. The case ultimately brings her into the firm as an employee, and sets the trio on a collision course with the reclusive Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a crooked developer with his own vision for saving the city. Fisk’s coalition of criminal gangs feeds off the weak and the poor, but for Fisk, strong-arming methods are a means to an end: revitalizing Hell’s Kitchen, which was devastated in the Battle of New York. The horrid criminal means he’s using, however, make him a target for Matt, whose enhanced senses make him hyperaware of the suffering Fisk’s plans have caused. He’s determined to stop Fisk by any means necessary…but soon finds himself at war with his own conscience, as his methods in rising to the task send him into highly questionable ethical territory.

It took several episodes for me to warm up to this series. The first two hours in particular are heavy on the over-familiar trappings of the origin story. I found the pacing ponderous, and tonally it is dark, dark, dark in a way that, as a fan of Mark Waid’s more light-hearted take on the character, didn’t immediately appeal to me. The fight choreography is spectacular, but it’s also unpleasantly ultraviolent. Matt’s propensity for beating and torturing perps to get information is highly problematic in these early hours, and not just because it reinforces the myth of torture’s effectiveness as an interrogation method. It also makes Matt difficult to get behind, especially as it turns out to take several more episodes before the viewer gets a real handle on his motivations. Additionally, Matt presents rather like Batman in the Christopher Nolan movies, which is to say he’s the least interesting part of the show. This problem goes away over time as the slow-build strategy plays out, and Cox eventually won me over in the role, but it was something of a barrier to entry.

With the exception of Matt, the series otherwise nails character right out of the gate: Henson and Woll are terrific, as are Rosario Dawson (as Matt’s nurse friend Claire Temple) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (as intrepid reporter Ben Urich). The early groundwork building these characters pays off later, when the raised stakes of the escalating war between good and evil lends emotional weight to their every interaction. The show doesn’t scrimp on the other side of the conflict, either. Once Wilson Fisk enters the picture, the series spends as much time building the personalities and relationships of the bad guys. This is an area, in my opinion, where the MCU movies frequently drop the ball: rendering the villains as more than cardboard targets for the climactic battle. D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is the most richly realized villain in the MCU so far, and the writers surround him with terrific support from the likes of Toby Leonard Moore, Bob Gunton, Ayelet Zurer, Wai Ching Ho, and others. There’s nothing superficial about Fisk, and nothing pat about his complicated interactions with his villainous colleagues. They’re all handled just as carefully, and occasionally as sympathetically, as the heroes. So much so, in fact, that from time to time you’ll forget how monstrous they are…until they inevitably remind you. It makes for very satisfying characterization, all of its impeccably acted.

Meanwhile the plot is suitably complex and riveting, transcending its superhero noir furniture to render pointed political commentary, much in the way that Captain America: The Winter Soldier did. It taps effectively into the American ideological divide, examining the methods and motivations of its opposing forces, and takes both sides to task for the way they go at each other. Perhaps most importantly, Matt’s early brutality isn’t justified away in the manner that, say, Jack Bauer’s is on 24. He examines his choices, and grows, and alters his path accordingly…which for me, anyway, at least partially redeems the deplorable early viciousness.

Note: this is not your typical Marvel show. It’s much more hard-hitting and upsetting. But its arc is powerful and satisfying, and in the end, I found myself caring more about these characters than any of the bigger name movie heroes. I’m conflicted, thanks to those uncomfortable early impressions, but I’m also fully invested and deeply impressed. I suspect this is just the beginning of a long and prosperous run.

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Novel: All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer is an absolute master of spy fiction. The process of reading through his catalogue has built this impression over time, but his latest, All the Old Knives (2015), seals the deal for me. By Steinhauer standards it’s a slim read, but it’s no less rich and intricate than usual, and in some ways more compact and intense.

An old hand of the CIA, Henry Pelham, flies halfway around the world to Carmel, California – ostensibly on routine matters, but in reality to meet with a retired colleague, Celia Favreau, who also happens to be his former lover. Their career paths crossed in Vienna in the mid-2000s – Henry after a rough stint in Moscow, Celia an emerging service star fresh off an assignment in Dublin. But their fortunes, and their romance, took a brutal turn, shattered by a terrorist act that would loom like a black cloud over the officers of the Vienna station for years to come. Now, years later, the ex-lovers reunite in an exclusive, quiet restaurant, a rendezvous that commences with a breezy, innocent surface. But there’s tension bubbling just underneath their cool conversation that relentlessly digs back into the haunting mysteries of their intelligence-career pasts, revealing hidden agendas.

Steinhauer’s brief foreword suggests that the idea for All the Old Knives began as something of a formal exercise: an attempt to tell an espionage tale in the form of a dinner conversation. Ultimately he doesn’t hew too rigorously to that idea, relying on flashback and interior monologue to send his protagonists – both Henry and Celia take turns delivering first-person narration – back to Europe in order to backfill their history. But the general conceit, of two former colleagues and lovers mining the past together over dinner, is the crux of the story, and it’s masterfully executed. Beyond the bells and whistles of espionage, the novel succeeds on the strength of the nuanced relationship between the two spies: their career history together, how they came together, what eventually tore them apart. When each flashback ends and we return to the table, a new layer of comprehension is unlocked, and the interplay between them takes on new meaning.

Revealing more would be criminal. Suffice it to say that it’s yet another brilliant book. The pace is blistering, the plot is involved and compelling, and most importantly, the characters are accessible, convincing, and richly imagined. I suspect this one is going to make a great movie some day.

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TV: Salamander (Mini-Series)

Salamander_DVDSad to say, I think the new reality of the Internet edge has rather taken the teeth out of the conspiracy thriller genre. With so much flagrant evidence of corruption and injustice on display in the world on a daily basis, and so much of it ignored or quickly forgotten, how powerful can fiction about concealed corruption and injustice be? Yet the genre holds a place in my heart, and so I tried Salamander (2012), a twelve-part Belgian miniseries with a classic conspiracy core. Deploying a dizzying mix of Dutch, French, and German, the series deploys – and rather overextends – a promising central idea, with professional if unspectacular results.

It begins with a heist: a team of shady criminals, led by badass Joachim Klaus (Koen De Bouw), tunnels into the safe deposit vault of a bank in Brussels and empties the personal boxes of sixty-six powerful individuals. The banker, Raymond Jonkhere (Mike Verdrengh), doesn’t report it to police, however. Why? Because the stolen materials belong to members of a secret Belgian elite: politicians, businessmen, officials, and others who comprise an organization of upper-class criminals known as Salamander. The clash between Salamander and their unknown enemy stays off the radar, at first, but once the extortion demands start flying, the country quickly falls into disarray. Stepping into this clandestine war is intrepid police inspector Paul Gerardi (Filip Peeters), who quietly gets wind of things, starts an investigation, and lands himself squarely in the crosshairs of both organizations.

Salamander consists of a number of promising elements. It’s generally well performed, attractively produced, and more or less tells an engaging story, tying the motives for this secret war into Belgium’s history. In terms of tone and subject matter, it loosely resembles shows like 24 and MI-5: twisty, involved, dark and intense. It seems to have all the earmarks of a successful conspiracy thriller…but unfortunately something’s missing. A spark, a message, maybe a character or two to hang your hat on? As a fly in the ointment for the bad guys, Gerardi is a passable hero: shaggy, bearded, dripping with integrity. I’m not sure why the ladies fall all over him, or why he’s so central to events; he seems one step removed from the true conflict, thrust into things by chance and misfortune. Peeters does his level best with the material, but he’s still kind of hard to get behind. The rest of the cast is…professionally serious? And meanwhile the plot is bogged down by expository dialogue and at least one whopper of an unlikely contrivance. In the end, I watched it through with clinical interest and was moderately entertained, but also wondered if perhaps the subtitles and high production values were masking what might otherwise have been a rather empty background watch. It will push a few buttons for the already interested, but general viewers will probably bounce off it.

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Novel: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

In The Keep (2006), Jennifer Egan subverts her own talent by writing from the POV of a character whose ability with words doesn’t quite match her own. It’s the kind of move only a master can pull off, but this is just one of the many expectation-defying elements of this uniquely layered and mesmerizing novel.

It’s the story of two cousins, whose childhood paths reunite in the mysterious mountains of eastern Europe. Danny is an aimless maverick who flees New York City at the behest of his cousin Howard. Danny and Howard shared a certain childhood connection over games of the imagination, but their friendship was severed by a traumatic event. Years later, Howard is an extremely successful businessman, who has shed his youthful nerdiness to become powerful and charismatic. He’s bought a remote castle near the triple border of Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic, and he wants Danny to help him convert it into an exclusive hotel, disconnected from the outside world. This proves challenging for the wired, social media addicted Danny, whose brain starts playing tricks on him in a setting that grows increasingly weird, magical, and sinister.

This story, in itself, is vividly realized: a tale of two cousins on different trajectories, with a dark shared event clouding their pasts and adding tension to their decades-later interactions. The setting is convincingly real, while also conjuring the bizarre ambience of a schlocky psychological horror film from the 1970s. Even on its own, this track is compelling, but Egan builds additional levels atop this primary narrative, pulling back to gradually reveal the story of the prison inmate who is writing Danny and Howard’s story, and then the workshop instructor who ultimately revises it. It’s a clever metafictional feat, to say the least, stories within stories that share intriguing thematic resonance.

In my eyes The Keep didn’t quite possess the compulsive readability of Look at Me, or the mindblowing artistry of A Visit from the Goon Squad. But it’s yet another remarkable piece of work from an author who has easily become one of my absolute favorites.

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TV: Better Call Saul (Season 1)

sq_better_call_saulWhen you’ve already produced one of the most critically acclaimed shows in TV history, why risk your legacy by making a spinoff after the fact? This is the question Vince Gilligan must have asked himself after Breaking Bad wrapped its epic five-season run, but the answer, as it turns out, is pretty simple: if you’ve still got great characters, and a richly imagined fictional universe, and interesting stories to tell…well, why not?

Better Call Saul is the prequel to Breaking Bad, featuring Walter White’s future lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Or should I say, Jimmy McGill? Turns out before Saul became sleazebag attorney for Walter, he was ne’er-do-well, low-rent lawyer Jimmy McGill, struggling to build a legal career after working hard to rehabilitate himself from a shifty, con man youth. From his tiny rented office in the back of a nail salon, Jimmy begins his career scraping by as a public defender for the lowest of the low, but he has a bigger dream: building a thriving practice, preferably with his best friend Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) by his side. Unfortunately, the looming shadow of Jimmy’s past makes this a tall order, to say the least.

I have to admit I was skeptical that fast-talking, slippery Saul Goodman could headline a series – even with one of Breaking Bad‘s other standout supporting characters, Mike Ehrmantrout (Jonathan Banks), providing a stylishly bad-ass B story. Anyone who’s seen Breaking Bad knows where these characters are headed; how then can their journey be surprising? Turns out I needn’t have worried, because Better Call Saul’s writers – headlined by Gilligan and Peter Gould – were smart enough to carry over the big personalities of Saul and Mike, but also reinvent them enough to create a new dynamic. Six years before Walter White enters their lives, they are much different people, and this opening ten-episode season builds their backstory mysteries brilliantly, not to mention their curious, extended “cute meet” of a relationship. Odenkirk is more than up to the task of fleshing out his slick criminal attorney into a more nuanced, sympathetic protagonist. Banks, meanwhile, once again manages the trick of being stone-faced and riveting at the same time. Together they anchor a season arc that plays out like an origin story, centered around a David and Goliath legal drama framework that reminded me loosely of The Verdict, with Jimmy the unlikely little guy clashing with a powerful Albuquerque law firm headed by the villainous Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). It makes for an enthralling season of television, with two stellar episodes in particular – “Five-O” and “Pimento” – easily ranking, in my view, with the best of Breaking Bad’s hours. (“Five-O” is the Mike Ehrmantrout origin story, and it plays out like a perfect little short story, while “Pimento” is a shattering culmination of narrative threads that shines a new light on Jimmy’s struggle to go straight and forge a better path for himself.)

Alas, Better Call Saul could stand to diversify its cast, and add more substantive female roles. Seehorn is quite likeable as Jimmy’s friend Kim, and Kerry Condon turns up in a small role that fleshes out Mike’s history. (Special mention should be made for Julie Ann Emery, who has a hilarious turn as an entitled, self-unaware white collar criminal Jimmy pursues as a client.) But the gender imbalance is glaring. I was also underwhelmed by the season finale, and not just because it felt like a comedown after the excellent “Pimento.” Frankly, it just pointed toward a future for Jimmy that is all too expected, which may in fact be Better Call Saul’s biggest story challenge: keeping us interested in, and rooting for, Jimmy and Mike in light of what we know is coming. Season one succeeded, much more than I expected, in making these partial-criminals accessible and richly imagined, and the show has a more upbeat and humorous vibe than Breaking Bad. But if the show’s overall arc is about their inexorable descent into Walter White’s crosshairs, I think it will have a tougher time maintaining my emotional investment.

I’m more or less hooked, though; you can bet I’ll be back for the next season. Gilligan and company have earned my trust as inventive and suspenseful storytellers. And who knows, maybe they will subvert my long-haul expectations and propel these characters into an alternate universe, or something.

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The Journey North

On March 17th, 2015, Jenn and I left Los Angeles for Portland. I was starting to wonder if the day would ever arrive; after weeks of staring at a never-ending to-do list, the idea that we might actually get to leave still didn’t seem quite real. But sure enough, the movers arrived right on time to load up our things, we gave our Tarzana condo one last cleaning, ate leftover pizza on the floor, and hit the road north.

One of our main relocation challenges involved the fact that we have three cats. It dictated our apartment search, it dictated our route north, and it definitely dictated how much we could load into the car. Jenn thought it would be smart to buy a cat carrier large enough that all three guys could be in there together, and it proved a wise investment: on our first day of driving, north to Modesto, there was only a modest level of plaintive meowing from the back seat, mostly from Cairo. We made good time on the first leg and settled in early for the night. By all accounts it was a perfectly mundane travel day, but it felt a little surreal knowing we wouldn’t be going back afterward.

On day two, we drove from Modesto to Eugene. This was a much lengthier stretch, eight or nine hours. Beautiful travel weather, and I got to see parts of the state I’ve never been to before on the stretch of I-5 north of San Francisco. There’s some beautiful territory up there, especially around Mount Shasta, which is absolutely stunning. Alas, the waterline in the massive Lake Shasta was visibly, shockingly low; it left me with an ominous feeling about California’s water future.

I don’t remember crossing into Oregon, but by the time we reached Eugene the cats were clamoring to get out of the carrier. Once we obliged them, they seemed perfectly fine; in fact, by and large they were surprisingly resilient in the face of the unfamiliar stresses of a road trip, and they had a blast exploring the hotel room that night. We ate a rather dicey convenience store meal in our rooms before passing out.

Day three saw us covering the last two hours to our new apartment in Portland. It was the shortest driving day, but boy did it feel like the longest…especially for Finley, who spent the entire trip shouting and trying to claw his way out of the cat carrier. (He was a great sport for the first two days, but by day three he’d had it!) We reached our beautiful new little apartment around lunch time, moved in, and have loved it ever since.

We’ve been here two weeks now, and we’ve unpacked, set up the place, met new people, explored a little. I’ve gone on job interviews, on Powell’s runs, even a hike. We’re settling into our new lives.

But this post is about the journey, right? Moving is a time warp – everything slows down, drags out, feels richer and crazier and more difficult and more momentous. Moving also feels like shattering a mirror, sweeping up all the shards, and carrying them to a new location. Then you rebuild the mirror: keeping the pieces that survive the journey, and adding some new ones, until you’ve got something you can see your reflection in. And, in my experience anyway, you look a little different in the new mirror. I’m still getting used to it.

I look forward to building a new life in Portland, but I also want to remember that hazy, surreal, is-this-really-happening feeling that consumed me during the transition. In retrospect, however scary that unsettledness may be, it represents action, effort, and change. Every now and then, I think we need that…I know I do.

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Novel: Persona by Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine’s Persona (2015) falls so squarely into my reading wheelhouse, it’s almost ridiculous. This near future thriller takes us to Paris, where Suyana Supaki – the diplomatic “Face” of the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation – is a minor player in the complex politics of the International Assembly. Outwardly a low-level puppet with little influence, Suyana also has a hidden agenda and fierce resolve to carry it out. When an assassination attempt nearly claims her life, she receives unexpected aid from Daniel Park, a “snap” (think: opportunistic papparazzi) who has been stalking her for his own secret purposes. Together, in over their heads, they struggle to survive against Suyana’s mysterious enemies and realize their individual goals, all while trying to evade the harsh, unforgiving lens of the world media stage.

Reminding me a little of William Gibson’s Blue Ant series, Persona is a compelling genre-bender fusing a hard-edged political thriller plot with a science fictional backdrop, plus a little understated romance. There’s a thoughtful, musing sensibility to the prose, but it’s powered by the fast-paced narrative energy of a spy adventure, making for a unique vibe that works well as a window onto its interesting SFnal speculation about diplomacy, the media, and the business of intelligence-gathering in the future. Suyana and Daniel are accessible, sympathetic protagonists, and headline a richly diverse, international cast of characters. I whipped right through this one and loved every minute.

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Spy 100, #89: The Spy in Black

Spy in BlackOccasionally, I find old movies difficult to get invested in, but director Michael Powell’s The Spy in Black (1939) won me over with its nifty plot, timely commentary, and dark irony. Set during World War I, it’s about an espionage mission assigned to a German U-boat commander, Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt), who is dispatched to the Orkney Islands on a mission against the British. There he meets his contact, “Anne Burnett” (Valerie Hobson) – a German impostor who has replaced an innocent schoolmistress. “Anne” lays out the details: the Germans have turned a disgraced British naval officer, Commander Ashington (Sebastian Shaw), against his own people. Ashington will provide exact details of an upcoming fleet maneuver, so that German U-boats can intercept and sink the lot of them. From the deprivations of Germany to the relative luxury of the British Isles, Hardt’s mission has him over the moon…enhanced by his attraction to his fellow spy. But unfortunately for him, the British have other plans.

The Spy in Black is difficult to follow at first, as the players are introduced and the stage is set, but soon enough Hardt’s mission is underway and the clever plot kicks into gear. Following the point of view of the enemy is a refreshing switch, and the film is unusually sympathetic to its German agents, even as it ruthlessly, pointedly turns the tables on them. Taken in light of the era in which it was made – with World War II imminent – the film’s quick-witted, shifty, and nuanced message reads as an eloquent rejoinder to Hitler’s “stabbed in the back” rhetoric. This is the kind of unusual gem I was hoping for I started reviewing the Spy 100 list. Recommended, especially for history buffs.

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Spy 100, #90: The Mask of Dimitrios

dimitriosWhile it pales in comparison to some of the other spy films of its era, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is still worthy, classic Hollywood intrigue, especially for genre buffs. Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a writer of crime fiction visiting Istanbul, encounters a general who piques his interest in the story of Dimitrios Makropolous (Zachary Scott) – an international con artist whose body has just washed up on the shore of the Bosphorous. Always on the lookout for good material, Leyden sets off across Europe to investigate the details of Makropolous’ past. His innocent curiosity, however, embroils him with the cunning Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), a scoundrel in his own right who is looking to exploit Leyden’s information in a mysterious scheme.

The turns of its flashback-ridden plot aren’t terribly enthralling – indeed, one major plot twist isn’t even remotely surprising – but The Mask of Dimitrios is an agreeable mystery that coasts on the virtue of its noir ambience, clever dialogue, and the quirky charisma of Greenstreet and Lorre. Their jousting interactions are peppered with slick humor and catchy turns of phrase, making this a must-watch for fans of the actors. If you enjoy the cinematic style of this era and genre, you could do much worse than to check this one out.

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