Following the Emmys' traditional In Memorium segment, honoring a collection of television greats who sadly passed away over the course of this past year, the ceremony paid individual tribute to a particularly beloved figure: Robin Williams. Billy Crystal, a friend and colleague of Williams', took the stage to speak personally about the comedic genius. Crystal spoke wistfully of Williams' great line of works, of his many successful endeavors to make the world a funnier place. But the highlight of his well-crafted speech came from his own life experience, spending time with his pal Robin at Comic Relief events and family functions.
Crystal remembered attending a charity baseball game with fish-out-of-water Williams, who made up for his own lack of familiarity with the sport by inventing a Russian character and tossing jokes about professional ballplaying in his home country. Furthermore, Crystal recounted with adoration Williams' penchant for joking around with Billy's older relatives, describing our cherished star as always ready with a gag, no matter the situation. Crystal illustrated just how much fun Williams had with bits like these, citing such an example as the sort of shtick that would fill his eyes with light.
Following Crystal's speech, the ceremony offered clips of Williams' work on the late night circuit, on sitcom TV, and on the live stage. Despite the odd choice that was one clip of Williams performing a comedy routine about racial stereotypes (why opt for such material when he's got legions of more admirable gold to choose from?), we can't help but remember the great contribution Williams made to comedy the world over.
A few seconds after the final episode of How I Met Your Mother came to a baffling close and commercials for some travesty starring James Van Der Beek began to roll, my roommate — longtime fan of the show and a fellow to whose slapping wrath I have fallen victim thanks to an ill-conceived bet made two years back — asked if I had “seen that one coming.” I hadn’t.
Sure, I had read the theories. I had discussed them with friends and hostile Internet strangers. I had fostered a few in my recaps — Robin and Barney get divorced? Of course. The Mother dies? They all but told us that was going to happen! Ted and Robin get back together after Robin and Barney get divorced and The Mother dies? … Stranger things! — but something inside of me felt that How I Met Your Mother, for all its mind games and sleight of hand, couldn’t go that far. None of this would ever happen. So, familiar as I was with the possibilities, I was ethereally blindsided by the results of the finale:
Barney and Robin got divorced. The Mother died. Ted and Robin, in the very final moments of the episode — following an hour that spanned 15 years, introduced Ted to professional bassist and blossoming philanthropist Tracy McConnell with whom he'd have two kids and (subsequently) a MacLaren’s wedding, and tossed Lily and Marshall a third child, plus one for a post-divorce Barney — wound up together. Or, at least, Ted hopped back on the prowl for his old flame.
I didn't know what to think. Had my roommate's subtle affirmation of the episode not been the first opinion I heard thereafter, I might have fallen into the oppositional camp, like the handful of friends with whom I'd then communicate through tweets, texts, Gchats, Facebook group messages — I swear, people only voluntarily contact me following controversial series finales — who all hated it. Truly. Viscerally. Carnally. Although there was diversity in the anti-finale rationale, I noticed a running theme: "This isn't what we were promised."
Somehow, spiting its well-worn practice of duping its viewers — a practice dating back to the pilot, we might add, and spanning through huge series turns like Barney's relationship with Quinn, the death of Marshall's dad, Robin's faux-children — How I Met Your Mother had maintained many a viewer's trust that the story it "promised" it was telling was, in fact, the story it was telling. And to further highlight the peculiarity of this trust, we have to ask: was it ever really the show telling us that we were going to learn how Ted met the mother of his children, or simply Ted himself — a hopeless romantic who we knew from day one saw the world through a particularly thick, idealistic set of rose-colored glasses?
I can't fault the folks who held fast to this trust. Those who waited years for The Mother, grew attached to Cristin Milioti's bubbly ukulele player, and wanted to see Ted spend the rest of his life with her. My friends called Tracy "perfect" for Ted, and she sure as heck was. In fact, my primary critique of the finale is that I would have liked to see more of their time together over the 10 years between their union and her death. Time spent delighting in one another's company, raising in their kids, experiencing their shared love. Time that would have proved that Ted's refurbished yearning for Robin many years down the line wasn't an invalidation of The Mother, his quest to meet her, or the series that was ostensibly framed in her honor, but in fact just evidence for the simple fact: people love.
People can fall so deeply in love, as Ted did with Robin, and then fall so deeply in love, as Ted did with Tracy... and then fall so deeply in love, as Ted did, again, with Robin. None of it detracts from that which came before, or expels the possibility of that which might come later on. Although Rosses and Rachels galore might have us believe otherwise, those lucky enough to be as wise as Ted's kids (and not as shortsighted as Ted, circa 2005 or 2030) will recognize that a true blue love story isn't... anything in particular.
That was Ted's mistake when we met him in '05. He had an idea of what love had to be: he saw it in Marshall and Lily, and feared its downfall in the likes of Barney, and hoped it might come to form between he and Robin. And it was Ted's mistake when we met him in '30. He thought that, having spent years devoted to Tracy — his wife, the mother of his children, the bearer of his umbrella — he couldn't possibly love another. Forget that, he convinced himself that he couldn't possibly have ever loved another before. Ted worked hard, despite the earnest truth so clear to viewers and his kinderlacht, to affirm that his years spent cherishing Robin were all just preparation for his meant to be. No woman — especially none that had come before Tracy, and especially one that would remain in his life after her passing — could mean as much to him as she did.
But that doesn't have to be. It's sweet, in its way, and I can't really lament the idea of anyone championing anything that well-intentioned. But it's also sad. Ted, now alone, feels as though he deserves to stay that way, lest he betray the idea that he ever really loved Tracy. But his falling in love with Robin (I hesitate even to say falling back in love, since its a new journey altogether) doesn't make his love for Tracy any less the beauty that it was. For as long as we've known him, we've waited with Ted for his own run at the Lily and Marshall game. The inclusion of, and frequent references to, them as the commercial ideal for love has been an important staple in this show's mission to disrupt the propagation of such. Beside Lily and Marshall, we have Barney. The antithesis of their M.O. in every way, but whose own journeys with love wound up satisfying in no small form: in the finale, Barney found a different type of soul mate, true love, one-and-only: his daughter Ellie, whose addition gave the finale, and Barney's story, a special breath of warmth that I think even the detractors were fond of. She changed him. She filled the part of him that he had long known to be broken. Never in regards to Nora, Quinn, or even Robin have we seen Barney as whole as when he stared into the eyes of his newborn child for the first time and vowed to give her every single piece of himself for as long as he lived.
Though again, that is singular love. The sort we longtime TV junkies are comfortable with. Not the sort we saw befall Ted in the final moments, when he decided to cap his tale about his adoration for one woman with the decision to profess his adoration for another... something we should have been more prepared for, considering Tracy's own experience with losing her "soul mate," and subsequent decision (if you can even call it that) to pursue love in a refreshingly charming Mosby boy. Hell, even Robin and Barney's short-lived marriage can be tossed into the conversation. Barney affirms, in a fashion that I do not believe was meant for laughs nor as a defense mechanism by the often sardonic Mr. Stinson, that theirs was "a very successful marriage that only lasted three years." Who's to say that such a thing cannot be? Not all relationships are meant to last forever. But they might very well be meant just the same.
Admittedly, there are many imperfections to the ultimate delivery of the tale. As suggested above, we didn't really get to revel in the era of Ted and Tracy, which might well have been just what we needed to feel satisfied that their own story, one of abject importance, was given its due. To reiterate, Tracy was perfect for Ted. Too perfect, maybe. Too exemplary of the very idea of a "perfect match," to the end that her and Ted's relationship — and the "fate" that landed them together — might have undone the ultimate message of the show were we to spend any more time with them, and foster the idea that this sort of love should be championed above the rest. Call me weak, but I still can't help but wish we had seen a little more Mosby-McConnell magic.
The closing reveal might be used to defend this shortcoming; as this is a story told by a narrator waist-deep in a flourishing love for another woman, how can we expect him to focus so much attention on the wife he lost? Well, as is the entire point that How I Met Your Mother seems bent on making, one does not nullify another. The death of Tracy's lover back in 2005 didn't keep her from falling for Ted. Ted's boundless attempts at winning Robin's heart didn't stop him from loving Tracy. And the passing of Tracy years later wouldn't save Ted from his affections for that gun-lovin', Ghostbusters-quotin', daddy issues-havin' Canadian lass. So, really, we should have seen more of her, at the very least in this final hour. Because the show wants us to believe that Ted did indeed love Tracy, with all his heart. And, now, years later, does indeed love Robin. With all his heart. That's possible. That can happen. That is okay.
So, to all detractors with whom I spoke, I have to concede: in the driving home of this message, How I Met Your Mother did not in fact deliver on its promise. Its promise, straight from the nuclear-powered mouth of a man whose maxims had been drawn from the idealized romance of Hollywood yore, was to give us something of that ilk. Something singular, indelible, incomparable, impossible. No, I'm not saying that "true love" is impossible. I'm saying that it is impossible for all of us to believe we will live out a carbon teleplay of the love that we've all seen in the shows and films that shape the young Teds of the world. That's not how it's going to be. That's not how it has to be. How I Met Your Mother very intentionally broke its promise in order to tell us something important: there is no one kind of true love story.
A very special thank you to all who stuck with me through the past few years of How I Met Your Mother recaps, to my pal Robbie for lending me his season DVDs (I will give them back someday, I promise), to Mike, Michelle, and Zach for riveting and diplomatic conversation, and to my roommate Matt... who still owes me three slaps.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
Director Alexander Payne's (Election Sideways) new film opens over sprawling landscape shots of Hawaii's scenic suburbia accompanied by George Clooney's character Matt King summing up his current predicament: "Paradise can go fuck itself." The reaction unfortunately is reasonable.
We pick up with King an ancestor of Hawaiian royalty in the middle of deliberations over a plot of land handed down through his family over generations. With every uncle aunt and cosign whispering opinions into his ear King is suddenly presented with an even greater problem: taking care of his two daughters. A boating accident leaves his wife in a coma forcing Matt to take a true parenting role with his young socially-troubled daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) who was previously shipped off to boarding school. Matt awkwardly hunts for the emotional glue necessary for the mismatched bunch to become "a family " but matters are made even more complicated when Alex reveals that her mother was cheating on him before the accident. Murphy's Law is in full effect.
With The Descendants Payne continues to explore and discover the inherent humor in life's melancholic situations unfolding Matt's quest for understanding like a road movie across Hawaii's many islands. Simultaneously preparing for the end of his wife's death and searching for the identity of her lover Matt crosses paths with a number of perfectly cast side characters who act as mirrors to his best and worst qualities: his father-in-law Scott (Robert Foster) who belittles Matt for never taking care of his daughter; Hugh (Beau Bridges) an opportunistic cousin who pressures Matt to sell the land; Alexandra's dunce of a boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) who always has the wrong thing to say; and Julie (Judy Greer) the wife of the adulterer in question. Colorful yet real Matt experiences a definitive moment with each of them yet the picture never feels sporadic or episodic.
Clooney and Woodley help gel these sequences together as they observe experience and butt heads as equals. Clooney's own magnetism stands in the way of making Matt a fully dimensional character but he shines when playing off his quick-witted daughter. His reactions are heartbreaking—but it's the moments when he has to put himself out there that never quite ring true. But the script by Nat Faxon Jim Rash and Payne gives Clooney plenty of opportunities to work his magic visualizing his struggle as opposed to vomiting it out like so many of today's talky dramas.
The Descendants is a tender cinematic experience an introspective and heartwarming film unafraid to convey its story with pleasing simplicity. Clooney stands out with a solid performance but like many of Payne's films it's the eclectic ensemble and muted backdrop that give the movie its real texture. The paradise of Descendants isn't all its cracked up to be but for movie-goers it's bliss.