Olive Kitteridge 1.1 – “Pharmacy”

We’re getting to the point where anything produced by HBO is pretty much guaranteed to be a worthwhile watch. A history of cutting funding for the likes of Deadwood, Rome and even The Wire at one point shows the premium service isn’t afraid to ditch something they’re not 100% confident in, no matter how good the early episodes are. Olive Kitteridge, of course, isn’t really a show – the four-hour miniseries spanned two nights earlier this week and will probably play on a loop for the next week, but after that no más. Still, the HBO association is evident in a high production value and a deep care taken with the characters and material that few other channels can afford to provide.

Frances McDormand plays the titular Olive, aging middle-school teacher in smalltown Maine, mother of a bratty son and wife of an irrepressibly optimistic husband (played by the always-brilliant Richard Jenkins). We meet Olive as she walks through the forest, gray ratty hair stemming out from her pale skull, and she calmly lays out a picnic blanket and removes a loaded gun from her coat. We suddenly backtrack to twenty-five years earlier, but the tone is set in that initial sequence: Ollie is unhappy, gazing longingly at the gnarled branches reaching toward the hazy sky, and maybe we’re about to see why.

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Interstellar (2014)

With brand-new releases the tendency is usually to shy away from spoilers in reviews, and those potential spoilers can be especially sensitive with a long-anticipated film like Interstellar (“I waited two years for this and find out the night before that [censored] is really [censored] the whole time??”). I respect reviewers who are able to provide an accurate representation of a film without divulging any/many of its secrets, but I’ve never been one of them. I can tread lightly, sure, but to really talk about a movie like Interstellar there are important plot points that need to be laid out in the open. Just the fact that we have a three-hour movie with a two-minute trailer means that the film holds vast sequences, settings, and even actors that you couldn’t possibly expect, and it’s partly those revelatory realms that we’ll be dealing with here. Consider yourself warned.

Now: let’s talk about ghosts.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men first appeared as a play in 1989, three years before it would be adapted into a feature film from a major studio. Removing All Doubt and the one-act Hidden in This Picture, Sorkin’s first plays, would boost his reputation in the New York theatre scene prior to any associations with Hollywood, but it was A Few Good Men that would garner greater praise and sell as film rights before the play even premiered. Sorkin’s theatre experience would certainly inform his style of writing in his film and television scripts going forward, and the adapted script for A Few Good Men is a prime example of that influence.

Loosely based on a real-life series of events, A Few Good Men concerns itself with a murder at a Guantanamo Bay Marine base. Lieutenant and Army lawyer Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, is ultimately assigned to the case along with Demi Moore’s JoAnne Galloway and Kevin Pollak’s Sam Weinberg. Resistance meets the defense team largely in the form of Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessup, who tends to pop up only every now and then throughout A Few Good Men in order to steal scenes from under Cruise’s nose in typical Nicholson fashion. Cruise was at the time on a tear of Nicole Kidman collaborations (following Days of Thunder and Far and Away), so the military courtroom drama was likely a welcome change of pace.

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Young Ones (2014)

These days future-set postapocalyptic fables are so common that anything such a movie can do to make the idea fresh and original is more than welcome. Cormac McCarthy’s popular The Road and John Hillcoat’s ensuing adaptation with Viggo Mortensen helped to cement the profitability of the genre after a distinct lag since the Mad Max/Blade Runner heyday, and now dystopias seem to be coming through the woodwork. The fact that both Mad Max and Blade Runner will be getting new treatments soon should attest to that desire to recapture the glory days of the genre.

One of the latest entries is Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones, set in a world where water has finally become a scarce and precious commodity. The film is divided into sections focusing on different characters, starting with Michael Shannon’s Ernest Holm, continuing with Nicholas Hoult’s rogueish Flem, and ending with Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son-of-Ernest Jerome Holm. They’re all changed irrevocably by the drought, guarding what little they have with violence and ruthlessness, and most shades of innocence are gone by the time Young Ones takes place. As in most dystopias, it’s the state of things that causes this darker and more animalistic aspect of humanity to come to the surface.

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The Mosquito Coast (1986)

In many ways our Director Series on Peter Weir can be seen as an excuse to write about The Mosquito Coast, which is the logical culmination of the “early stage” of the director’s career and gateway to those brilliant films that would follow (though calling that Weir’s “later stage” makes it sound like his directing career is a slowly advancing disease). Coast would follow Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously – two well-received Australian films that helped launch Mel Gibson into superstardom – and Witness, which would prove to be Weir’s first American film. The greatness of Dead Poets Society would follow. It’s The Mosquito Coast, though, that’s arguably the most ambitious of any of these films.

And that’s fitting, because although Gibson’s Guy Hamilton and Harrison Ford’s John Book and Robin Williams’s John Keating could conceivably all be described as “ambitious” in one way or another, it’s Ford’s Allie Fox that allows his ambition to get the better of him. Fed up with just about every aspect of America, inventor Fox uproots everything and takes his family deep into the South American jungle. They make a new home – “home” a term used liberally here – on the Mosquito Coast, where Allie’s latest creation provides something magical for the local population: ice. Helen Mirren and River Phoenix appear as Allie’s wife and eldest son, who essentially allow themselves to be dragged into the jungle by this iceman simply because they love him.

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Chef (2014)

Sometimes, a movie like Chef is just exactly what you need. Jon Favreau’s latest directorial effort seems a far cry from his Iron Man days and is just about as different as it gets from a fall blockbuster, although Robert Downey Jr. does pop up. The closest you get to an action sequence in Chef is a skillful wielding of a carving knife going to town on a smoked pork loin, which itself certainly isn’t an ascetic display. It’s simple, but that’s not to say it’s ever dull.

The casting for Chef caused an early stir – “the dude who kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe directing and starring in a film also starring Iron Man himself, Black Widow herself, and Sid from Ice Age himself?! Chef is going to be so badass!!” – but the fact of the matter is that Chef isn’t the type of movie that has hype or sequels or post-credit cameos by other superpowered chefs from the same franchise. Chef is a tiny, unassuming, been-there-done-that flick about a guy who really just wants to cook some delicious food. Somehow, that’s supposed to be a compliment.

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MASH (1970)

Among plenty of other achievements, MASH is (allegedly) the first major studio film to make use of the word “fuck”. While not necessarily a proven fact depending on your definition of “major studio”, the employment of the word is the perfect illustration of the important and innovative way MASH used dialogue. A large portion of Robert Altman’s filmography is made up of movies that are filled to the brim with sharp wit and fast banter, and MASH is arguably the finest example.

Donald Sutherland stars as Hawkeye Pierce, surgeon in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, prankster and goofball extraordinaire. Hawkeye, along with cohorts that include characters played by Tom Skerritt and Elliot Gould, is a lover of all things mischievous and manages to cause trouble even when he is blissfully unaware of doing so. This is war, of course, so people lose good friends and die themselves during the endless futilities of battle – in a Catch-22 sort of way, MASH uses its relentless humor as a way to illustrate this futility in highly satirical fashion, with Hawkeye and Co. essentially laughing in the face of meaningless death because what else can you do? In a Catch-22 sort of way, it works like a charm.

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