Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 2: “Everybody Loves a Clown”

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Directed by Phil Sgriccia
Written by John Shiban

Believe me, every man has his secret sorrows,
which the world knows not; and oftimes
we call a man cold, when he is only sad.

Hyperion, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

You do not know the burdens that other people carry. Longfellow wrote those words in 1839. In every era, there are expectations of what a certain thing should look like, be it joy or love or pain. Cultural norms shift and morph over the years and currently we are in a time when the “self-help culture” dictates what things should look like. So things like repression and denial and sublimation are seen as bad, or at the very least unhealthy. This is treated as fact. It is not fact. It is an opinion, a theory, a fad (albeit a long and deeply entrenched fad). And there is a lot of evidence suggesting the opposite, actually: that something like repression is a valid and useful survival technique, honed over thousands of years of brutal human experience, and not necessarily unhealthy at all. Try telling that to someone who has swallowed the self-help culture wholesale. It is as though you are speaking heresy.

I like one of my acting teacher’s definitions of “sublimate”: “You take your pain, and you make it sublime.” I have been doing that since I was a kid. Therapy didn’t save my life when I was a suicidal 12-year-old. Ralph Macchio did. Sublimation is a way of life for me. I know that a lot of it comes from loneliness (as a permanent condition, not a phase), but hell, it’s a good deal for me, because I could be sublimating through drugs or self-destructive behavior but I get so much pleasure out of culture and movies and books. It’s a win-win.

This is the landscape of the opening episodes of Supernatural‘s Season 2. John Winchester is dead. Sam and Dean are both grieving in their own ways, and neither of them can talk about it, at least not in a way that opens up space. Loss is not a monolith. Not everyone is going to be impacted in identical ways. The issue I have with the self-help culture is that it prioritizes what something looks like on the outside. And that’s why Longfellow’s words are so important to keep in mind. Sometimes a loss results in someone recoiling, hunching over their own metaphorical wound, protectively. This is not being in denial. This is an appropriate reaction to being wounded.

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Wish I Was Here (2014); directed by Zach Braff

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There are many things in this world that make me angry. Zach Braff isn’t one of them.

My review of his second film, Wish I Was Here, is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Dramatic Sky. Dramatic Waves.

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At the beach yesterday. Thought the storm would overtake the beach but it didn’t. The waves were big, rolling in one after the other. I had a great swim. Lay on my blanket, reading Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor (already in love with it and I’m only 10 pages in.) Very anxious, due to the world news coming in, and anxious in general. Going on vacation with my family tomorrow morning. Our yearly vacation. All the babies, all the children, and the teenager too, all the siblings, all the significant others. My mother. The love of family. It will be good to be together.

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“The New Yorker” on the Criterion release of Love Streams

“The movie is a mighty, intimate, kaleidoscopically subjective, bravely self-searching summation of a career, an era, and a life. For decades, it was a rare VHS tape, a treasured occasional revival screening, and, more recently, a covert YouTube treasure. Its release on DVD and Blu-ray is cause for celebration; it’s one of the revival events of the year.”

– Richard Brody in The New Yorker on John Cassavetes’ Love Streams. Read the whole thing here.

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Less than a month until its release on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. You can check out Criterion’s announcement here. I am so proud to be a part of this major event. Seriously. I would be thrilled that Criterion was releasing Love Streams even if I wasn’t involved with it. I’ve been watching my own battered VHS tape for years. But to be a part of it makes it even more special!

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R.I.P., Elaine Stritch

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“You cannot tell an audience a lie. They know it before you do; before it’s out of your mouth, they know it’s a lie.”
– Elaine Stritch

That quote from Stritch is the key. It is why her work is so powerful, why her performances are so legendary, why she was so unique. She didn’t lie. And so you were confronted by her mess, her awkwardness, her strangeness, her anger, her embarrassment … because she could not, she would not lie.

Below is one of the most extraordinary clips showing an actor in the middle of her process. One of the things an actor has to be able to do is be exactly where they are, whatever may be going on, fear, self-loathing, angst, panic – you have to be able to tolerate feeling those things in order to get to the next level. It’s tremendously vulnerable to allow yourself to do that. Some actors can NEVER do that. It’s one of the reasons why Elaine Stritch was so extraordinary, even in the midst of a chaotic and tense rehearsal process (clip below), where she wasn’t “getting it,” and she knew she wasn’t “getting it,” and everyone looking on knew, and the only thing she could do was acknowledge that, really acknowledge it, as scared as she was, as upset and embarrassed as she was, live in that moment (unbearable), and try to claw her way out of it.

And that’s what we are privileged to see happen here.

When I heard she died, my first thought was, “Wait … what are we supposed to do now?”

What do we do when a legend dies? How will we go on without knowing she’s out there? She will leave a gap. She will not be replaced.

She was 89 years old.

My friend Odie Henderson has a wonderful tribute up at Rogerebert.com.
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Snowpiercer (2014); directed by Bong Joon Ho

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In order to combat global warming, various nations on the planet decide to inject the atmosphere with a coolant. The film opens with a bright blue sky, and three planes careening by far above, leaving behind a white trail of this stuff. The coolant works better than originally planned. As a matter of fact, it is a disaster. The world is plunged into an Ice Age in a matter of months, and all life on earth (well, almost all) is eradicated. Ice and snow covers the land. Thankfully, an industrial wizard named Wilford has invented an “eternal train,” a train that circles the globe endlessly, cutting through the snow and ice, somehow transforming it into water for the people on board. The train rattles through the icy landscape. It is longer than any train on earth today. It is broken up into sections, similar to what was going on on the doomed Titanic, with third-class passengers barricaded in the belly of the ship. There are the huddled masses who live in squalor in “the tail” of the train, and they are loomed over by soldiers holding machine guns. Population control is paramount. Babies are born on the train (the train has been hurtling around the globe for 17 straight years), and sometimes the crowd needs to be thinned out. And it is. Brutally. What is going on in the head of the train? Nobody knows. The sections of the train are locked off by a series of gates. There’s no way to get through them.

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This is the premise of Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (based on a graphic novel). I have loved Bong Joon Ho’s work for years, and his devotion to genre pictures (his Memories of Murder is one of the best police procedurals I have ever seen). The Host was superb, a great monster movie. Mother was devastating, and it also was a nod to multiple genres, and it featured one of the best performances that year (or, hell, any year) by Hye-ja Kim. He’s a glorious film-maker, audacious, clever, visceral, with a hardy and talented group of regulars. I look forward to whatever he does. Snowpiercer arrived in theaters a couple weeks ago with a lot of baggage attached to it. Bong Joon Ho had been in a protracted war with Harvey Weinstein who wanted to cut 20 minutes out of the film. Bong Joon Ho dug his heels in. Weinstein finally relented, and the film is being released in its full version, but bratty Weinstein retaliated by giving it a very limited release in theaters. So it’s hard to find. It’s outrageous and unfair. It’s been playing for a couple of weeks now at only a couple of theaters in Manhattan. When Tilda Swinton spoke at EbertFest, she RAVED about the experience of making the film, and RAVED about the whole concept, and it made me excited to see it.

Dystopian universe? Familiar landscape made strange and scary by ice as far as the eye can see? The dirty rabble bonding together in order to storm the front of the train? A comment on totalitarianism? Fascism? Moral and ethical questions? And, oh yeah, one of the hottest guys who has ever walked planet earth, frozen or not?

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Count me in.

It could have been horrible. It could have been Battlefield Earth. Or Waterworld. But not with Bong Joon Ho at the helm. Snowpiercer is fantastic. The situation is so otherworldly, but the actors play it all grounded in such reality that there are sequences so tense I found it nearly unbearable. It’s got it all. It’s got a hot dirty guy being all moral and tormented and brave and a reluctant Leader. It’s got Octavia Spencer doing a fight scene. Brilliantly. She kicks ass, she’s heartbreaking, she’s tough, she’s vulnerable. It’s got a surprise bit of casting that I actually managed to not know before I went into it (the guy who plays Wilford), and so when the mysterious Wilford is revealed, like Oz behind the curtain … it was a gasp of recognition and excitement.

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It’s got Joon Ho regular Song Kang-Ho, so great in Memories of Murder and The Host, as “Nam,” a crazy wild-haired engineer who was originally hired to maintain the multitude of gates in the train before being shunned and put into a sort of cryogenic state, because basically he knew too much. He’s such a strange and powerful actor, a great listener, and phenomenal physically. He’s a big barrel-chested blurpy guy, and seeing him in action is to feel an actual threat of danger.

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Huddled at Nam’s side, is his wide-eyed nearly feral daughter Yona (Ko Ah-Sung), who is known as a “train baby”, born on the train, her whole life spent on the train.

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When we first meet the passengers in the tail, we understand that a plan is already afoot to storm the gates. The plan is to somehow get through all the gates until they reach the head of the train. Because whoever controls the engine, controls the train. Curtis (the aforementioned hot Chris Evans) says, “We control the engine, we control the world. Without that, we have nothing. All past revolutions have failed because they couldn’t take the engine.”

Okay, you talk like that, and you have MY love and attention, big boy.

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Curtis has two co-conspirators who help plan the revolution, one being the one-legged, one-armed Gilliam (hat tip to Terry and “Brazil” perhaps?) – played by John Hurt, and one being a tough English kid named Edgar (Jamie Bell, who was so awesome in Nymphomaniac, Vol. II). They come up with a plan. And hell, it is ingenious. But how to make it happen when they are loomed over by guards, when they are tortured at will to teach the crowd a lesson, when they are never left alone?

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On occasion, a representative from Wilford Industries stalks into the “tail” of the plane to give the huddled dirty masses a pep talk/threatening monologue. This is Mason, played by a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. She is clearly terrified of the mob in front of her, probably hates what they smell like, and tries to be both friendly and threatening at the same time, which makes the overall effect tremendously awkward. It’s a beautiful piece of pantomime, this character. She is not suited to authority, and yet isn’t that so often the case, those who have power just don’t have the stomach or character for it. She’s a reprehensible character.

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The train barrels along over treacherous mountain passes, with dizzying abysses below, it plunges into long tunnels, it crashes through ice in its way. There are some CGI effects used in these train sequences and I found them haunting and beautiful, not too slick, but just enough to give us a sense of the true scope of the damage out there.

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The not-knowing what is up in the front of the train, the fact that nobody has ever left the tail, adds to the tension of the slow move forward. They are moving into the unknown. And what they find, as they progress through each car, is increasingly strange, increasingly bizarre … You won’t believe it until you see it. And even when you see it, you won’t believe it.

The production design of the film is unbelievable. The entire thing takes place on a train, so each “set” for each car is a certain width. Bong Joon Ho and his production team clearly reveled in those limitations, and never once do you forget that you are on a train. Because of the Ice Age, things have gone extinct. When Nam is brought out of his frozen state, he pulls out a battered pack of cigarettes, only two left. The crowd looking on is agog. There are no more cigarettes in their world. Octavia Spencer breathes, as though she is in the presence of the Holy Grail: “Marlboro Lights?” When Nam lights up, the entire crowd leans in to get a whiff of second-hand smoke, a welcome and funny tonic to the attitudes towards smoking today. There are no more bullets, as well, so that calls into question the shot guns held on the people in the tail, and also means they have to improvise when it comes to their own weaponry. When the huddled masses fight back, they have to use tools, and axes, and pipes, and sometimes, thrillingly, torches, hurtling them across the train to the enemy. It’s brutal and medieval, chaotic and bloody.

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I just have to give a shout-out to all of the actors, as well as the massive stunt doubles, because these fight scenes are terrifying, and completely lacking in the glitter and gleam of CGI superhero violence. It looks like it’s really happening. It looks like at any second the axes will crash through the windows, letting in the deathly freezing air. It looks like actors could possibly be getting actually hurt. They’re NOT, but that’s how real it looks. The frame is filled, end to end, with violence, mob on mob violence, all contained in the walls of a little train careening over a mountain pass.

All of this could seem quite silly. Maybe it is. It sure hit me in the sweet spot though. It’s earnest, in the best sense. It’s earnest in the way all disaster movies are, cliffhangers involving a group of disparate people trying to get out of a burning building, or trying to survive a plane crash, or trying to band together against a common foe. The actors are all on the same page with their creator and with the material. It is a life-or-death struggle, first of all, but it is also a struggle to insist that we, as humans, get to CHOOSE how we live, or how we die. Maybe there’s a way to live out there in the tundra if they were allowed to figure it out for themselves. Maybe there’s a chance. Or maybe they’ll all die. But that should be up to the individual.

It’s worth it, too, to find it … if you can … playing on a big screen. The visuals are unbelievable.

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Boyhood (2014); directed by Richard Linklater

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I was about to start off by saying “Movies like Boyhood…” and stopped myself. Because there are no other movies like Boyhood. There are other films about a boy coming of age, there are other films about a child becoming a man, there are other films about domestic life and problems. About adolescence.

But none do what Boyhood has done.

The closest parallel is Michael Apted’s Up series, but that’s a documentary. Doing a similar thing with a group of actors and actual real-life children playing parts has never been done. The miracle is that it works so well. The miracle also is that the film is a deeply profound experience, a musing on the nature of time, and “ain’t it funny how time slips away,” and how there is no ultimate meaning except for “the moment.” That’s the key, isn’t it. The key to how to live a good life. Embrace the moment. Easier said than done, but Boyhood makes you actually feel that in a very real and visceral way.

An audacious project, carried out basically in secret over a 12-year period, Boyhood was shot in distinct small chunks over the course of those 12 years, so that we actually see the little boy in the poster grow into an 18-year-old kid. The cast remains the same: Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the parents, and Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as their children. Linklater does not make a gimmick of the concept. It unfolds as naturally as, well, life. He does not give us year-markers as delineators, he does not explain that it is now a year later, we just get it because the kids’ hair is different, their heights are different, the stories on the news tell us where we are in time, the parents’ are different, older.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason (Ethan Hawke) are divorced when the film starts. They have two young children, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). Olivia has full custody, basically because Mason Sr. is irresponsible and has decided to move to Alaska to “clear his head” and work on a boat and write some music. He roars into town occasionally, driving a black GTO (a hat-tip to Two-Lane Blacktop, one of Linklater’s favorite films), and taking the kids out for bowling and sleepovers. Boyhood is not conventional in its presentation (obviously) and not conventional in other important ways, in the same way that the Before Sunrise movies both acknowledges the rom-com tropes and then discards them, allowing the characters space to maneuver, to surprise us and each other. It is only when you see something like Boyhood that you realize how hemmed-in most characters are in other films, by the demands of the plot, by cliches, by assumptions being made about them.

Nothing huge or earth-shattering happens, but one of the ways that that works is that you realize/remember how intense life is on an everyday basis, especially for children, but for adults too. Mason Sr. says to his 18-year-old son at one point, “We’re all just winging it, man,” and that’s pretty much the size of it. Nobody knows what they’re doing. Everyone is just doing the best they can.

Life moves along in Boyhood. The years pass. Olivia and the kids move a lot, which means that Mason Sr. has to drive hundreds of miles sometimes to spend every other weekend with his kids. Olivia marries two more times, both times to guys who seem responsible on the surface, but who end up having drinking problems (in one case, a severe drinking problem). She says, self-deprecatingly at one point to her now-teenage son, “Obviously I enjoy making poor lifestyle choices.” Olivia is doing the best she can, and has gone back to school to get her Master’s, and ends up being a professor of psychology, beloved by her students, and influential in her community. It’s not a surprise that this occurs. She obviously keeps her nose to the grindstone, and works her ass off. We watch this happen, in distinct spurts, over the years.

Mason Sr. has his own journey to go on. He’s an attentive dad, he talks about the tough stuff (trying to engage his mortified teenage daughter in a conversation about safe sex, should she be interested in trying sex at some point), and we slowly see him “get his shit together,” although it’s not clear how good that is for him. He marries again, too.

The kids accept the changes in their parents’ lives, but there are also deeper unspoken levels of questioning going on, something that Linklater excels in. He doesn’t make too fine a point of it, he doesn’t underline themes, but the questions reverberate off the screen. What does it mean to be responsible? What does it mean to do your best? Are there other alternatives? Olivia seems pretty overwhelmed throughout, but she keeps trucking along, like any mother you’ve ever met, and she has her off moments, but in general, she keeps things moving, keeps it together. Early in the film, a guy she is dating clearly is giving her a hard time for “using” her kids as an excuse. She can’t just go out at a moment’s notice, she can’t find a babysitter last minute, and he is pissed off about it. She screams, “I was somebody’s daughter and then I was somebody’s fucking mother!!” There was no gap, no time for herself. A simplistic film would have made her comment seem villainous, as though the resentment of her role was a point against her. Linklater doesn’t work on the points system. That comment comes out of an exhausted and upset moment, and she loves her kids, but what she says is ALSO true.

Life is not either/or. There are very few ACTUAL “villains” in real life. The pleasure in Boyhood, and it takes some getting used to, is that nobody here is bad. Even a teacher giving Mason Jr. a hard time for slacking off in photography class is trying to get Mason Jr. to be better at his art. Be artistic but ALSO be responsible: both qualities will serve you well. It’s a great little scene.

The acting is unlike other acting in other films. It has a documentary reality, a sense that we are “visiting” these people over the years, dropping by periodically to see how they are doing. Sometimes they are doing well. Scenes unfold lazily, like a conversation between Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. when they’re on a camping trip. There’s no “point” to the scene, it’s a conversation between father and son that unfolds naturally, beautifully. They talk about Star Wars. They talk about school. They talk about life. They talk about everything. These are the conversations that make up the majority of most people’s lives, and yet it is so rarely portrayed onscreen!

The film is not lacking in drama. In one tense sequence, Olivia engineers a separation from her now-violent husband, and Arquette is absolutely heart-breaking and ferocious in her need to protect her children. But the real drama comes from the small, the everyday, the moments that make up the majority of our lives. Talking seriously with someone you have a crush on when you’re 15. How profound it is, how scary, how fun, how disorienting. The awkwardness between teenage siblings, how of course you love each other, but yuk, stay away from me. The growing awareness that you have a self, a self that is distinct from others, a self that is distinct from your parents, from other people, that you are You. And what do you do with that knowledge?

If you’re a teenager, sometimes it means dyeing your hair or cutting your hair off or dressing distinctly. These are not just surface things, they are a way to assert your individuality. Boyhood respects the experience of teenagers in a way that seems almost damn near revelatory, in today’s overly-sexualized and hostile atmosphere. Mason Jr. dates a girl, and they have serious conversations about their dreams, and about technology (he deletes his Facebook page, and they have a big talk about it), and about what they want to do with their lives. They also get stoned and have sex, because they’re 16 years old and that’s what goes on. It’s ALL true. She’s not leered at like some hottie cheerleader prize. She’s her own person. This is high school for most people. This is life and adolescence. It’s deeply serious to those who are living it.

There are scenes that left me wrung dry, there are scenes that are hilarious. There was one scene, a nighttime talk between Mason Jr. – age 8 or 9 – and his father – about “magic” – that left the audience HOWLING with laughter, laughter that kept going, on and on, into the next scene.

In that laughter I didn’t just hear how funny the exchange was. I heard a collective RELEASE. A sense of almost awed recognition that yes, yes, YES, life is like this!!, talking with an 8-year-old is like this, and how we NEED to see such things on-screen, how we YEARN for our lives to be reflected up there with more subtlety and sensitivity! It was truly cathartic.

One of the best films I’ve seen all year.

There are no comparisons. Boyhood is sui generis.

And if possible, see it with a crowd.

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Because This Is the Best Thing I’ve Ever Seen

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Happy Bastille Day

One of the best scenes in cinema, the scene of the “dueling anthems” in Casablanca, when the crowd drowns out the German anthem with “La Marseillaise”. Gives me goosebumps every time, especially considering that most of those extras and actors with bit parts were actual refugees from Europe, they had fled the Nazis, fled to America, many of them had families in concentration camps, and here they were, playing that actual situation in a film. It was personal. It was an intense day of filming and the emotion expressed is not counterfeit, one of the many reasons why the scene is so powerful.

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First Look Trailer for Survivor’s Remorse, Coming This Fall

Survivor’s Remorse is a new series on STARZ premiering on October 4. You can check out the first look trailer here.

My cousin Mike created the show, wrote it, and is also executive producing. Great cast. Mike’s a great writer. I can’t wait.

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