On Movies: ‘Life Itself’ hurts to watch in a very good way

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Live Itself” | Rated R | Time: 2 hours | DirectorSteve James | SubjectsRoger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene SiskelWerner HerzogMartin Scorsese and Errol Morris.


 

The story of a man — his triumphs, failings, passions and weaknesses  – is difficult to capture, but documentarian Steve James offers a remarkable survey course in the fantastic life of the late film critic Roger Ebert.

LIFE ITSELF - FINAL SUNDANCE POSTER-page-001We meet Ebert near the end of his life, in 2012, when cancer that took his jaw and his ability to speak, eat or drink, advanced on his spinal column. He is in a Chicago hospital rehabilitating from a fractured hip.

He is, frankly, hard to watch at first. His lower jaw is gone. The skin remains. It hangs in an odd, clumsy loop of flesh from the top of his face. It wags when Ebert makes expressions, but, of course, no words come out.

The first thing one notes about Ebert is he is loved, by his wife, Chaz, and his stepchildren and step-grandchildren. The dote on him and delight at his quips delivered by typing messages into a computer and playing them in a mechanical voice similar in sound to that of Stephen Hawking, the great physics professor.

The movie takes us back to the beginning, to Ebert’s life in Urbana, Ill., where he read three newspapers a day and wrote, edited and printed a neighborhood newspaper when he was an elementary school student.

Ebert went to the University of Illinois in Urbana, became a towering and imposing editor of the campus newspaper. He landed his first and only job as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times.

He joined with his rival, Gene Siskel, to produce a public TV show about movies called “At the Movies.” It was a hit coast to coast and their “thumbs up, thumbs down” routine brought film criticism out of the stuffy air of highbrow circles down to everyday people who stood in line and bought tickets.

The just wanted to know if somebody thought it was any good or not and Siskel and Ebert gave that to them. The best moments of the film come in showing the tenuous, adversarial and downright hostile attitude the two men had toward one another.

They sparred verbally and Ebert came off as pugnacious and petulant at times, but it is a credit to both Ebert and director James that those clips that show Ebert on less than his finest behavior are such an important part of the narrative.

The film is rich in newspaper lore, the stories of drunken Chicago newsmen stumbling from bar to bar, loudly telling stories about life in the Second City. Some of them were probably even true. Ebert became an alcoholic, but dried out and stayed that way for the rest of his life.

His mercurial nature mellowed when he married Chaz, where he found romance and an outlet for dormant paternal feelings toward Chaz’s children and grandchildren.

Ebert’s cancer stole his physical voice, but his voice as a writer only fell silent when he died.

I did not know Roger Ebert. I did not live in his beloved Chicago. But I read his reviews, even though sometimes I thought he was wrong or perhaps too high-falluting for me, a lover of action movies where things blow up and the good guys win.

But I loved him for his writing: his bare, straightforward prose that struck at the truth of the subject and read with such effortlessness that even now I find myself jealous of his beautiful mind and sweet style.

I left the film very sad, I must admit. Ebert died, of course, and I knew that going in. And I won’t bore you with cliches about his bravery in the face of the challenge. What I will say is that if I face terminal illness, I hope that I do it with his grace and attitude. He was realistic — he was dying and he knew it — but he treated his days as precious commodities and never turned away from the keyboard.

I was sad not so much because Ebert died. I was sad because he was a true titan of newspapers and there aren’t very many of those kind of people anymore. In the last year at my paragraph factory, we lost two of our very best titans.

The first was retired managing editor Rick Tapscott, the cigarette-smoking man from Missouri with the voice like Adam West and an attitude of a barroom brawler when it came to hunting the truth.

The second was another managing editor, our friend Randy Brubaker, who died of a heart attack just four months after his wife died. Brubaker was our big brother, the one we trusted, the gentleman newsman who fought the good fight for open government, good writing and decent humility.

They’re all gone now. And we’re less because of it. I suppose these recollections aren’t much in the way of a review of “Life Itself.” It’s a fine documentary. You should watch it.

Because good movies, and “Life Itself” is one, are like the good people from my life I mentioned above: If they make you feel something, you’re probably going to remember them.

 

On TV: ’24: Live Another Day’ finale was brutally depressing

The networks warn viewers when content might be too graphic for youngsters or the faint-hearted. They’re usually worried about cursing, sex and violence.

24_LAD_PosterBut the finale to “24: Live Another Day” should have come with a viewer discretion alert for those of us with permanently jangled nerves and brains bent toward downers.

Because the final was terribly depressing. Audrey (Kim Raver) is killed. It appears Kate (Yvonne Strahovski) saves her in the final moments from Cheng’s (Tzi Ma) snipers. But there was a second shooter. This one kills her. Kate is so distraught by her failure to protect Audrey, she quits.

Kate tells Jack (Kiefer Sutherland). Jack appears to ponder suicide but then takes his rage out on Cheng’s men. He gets to Cheng and proves to the Chinese government that it was Cheng and not the United States who sunk the Chinese aircraft carrier.

President Heller (William Devane) backs down the Chinese prime minister from World War III. The day is saved. Then his staff tells him: Audrey is dead. He passes out. Next we seem him with the British prime minister.

He notes he won’t remember he had a daughter who died in such a terrible way. He won’t remember anything. He gently places his hand atop the flag-drapped coffin as it is led to Air Force One.

Devany shreds viewers’ hearts here. He’s been good throughout the series. It’s his finest moment — and his saddest.

Jack, of course, has one more mission. The Russians grabbed Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) in the fight at Cheng’s hideout. He trades himself for her freedom. He’s taken off to Moscow to be tortured and probably executed.

I can be a snob about the “Hollywood ending,” you know, where the good guys win and everything wraps neatly. My friend Memphis Paul, the co-founder of this blog, thought it was a flaw in both finales for “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective.” The closers were too perfect, too orderly, he argued.

Well, I could have used some of that tidiness in the “Live Another Day” finale. Everybody died or suffered. I suppose that’s the way of the grim “24.” But damn, man, I’m going to need an extra antidepressant tonight.

 

On TV: ‘Fargo’ characters made the story

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We are all walking on the thin ice. My friend Bill McClellan, the great St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist, wrote this to me in an email a few weeks ago when I complimented him on something he wrote about human insecurity.

I thought about it in the literal sense when Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) met his ultimate and well-deserved end in the final moments of “Fargo,” the terrific FX series that concluded last week.

“Fargo” was the best television show I watched all year. I looked forward to each episode with anticipation and it never disappointed in 10 consecutive weeks. The writing was crisp, solid and rendered full, rich characters — none of whom were wasted within the intricate narrative that managed to be very funny, terrifying and engrossing all at once.

Take Police Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk). He could have been a simple-minded fool, flattened by pride and narrow-mindedness. But Oswalt was more than that. He was a man out of his depth who ultimately realized he was out of his depth. This is not an easy thing for a person to face and an even more difficult thing to make work in fiction.

The show made you care about these characters. Who did not feel the urgency when the malevolent Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) return to Bemidji, Minnesota, to extract his revenge on Lester. Lester deserved to die or rot in prison. Him, we didn’t care about.

But Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman)? We loved her. She kept tearing at the fringes of the case like a great detective, refusing to give in to the chief’s bull-headed (and wrong) conclusions. She was the detective we rooted for. Please, we thought, do not let Malvo hurt our Molly.

This thought occurred to her husband, Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks), a former Duluth, Minnesota, police officer turned postman, father of Greta (Joey King). Gus is another character who could have been one-dimensional. He could have simply been a coward. But he was not. He was a father who was afraid to have his daughter suffer another funeral.

And when a trapped, wounded Malvo meets his final end, it’s from the bullets blasted by Grimley’s gun. Gus Grimley grew from a callow man who shied from his duty to a powerful man who would not let harm come to his family. It was a beautiful moment.

Even characters with small roles, such as Molly’s father, Lou (Keith Carradine), proved to be potent. He stood eyeball-to-eyeball with Malvo and did not blink. And when the true threat was revealed, Molly asked him to watch over Greta and Gus. Forget that, Lou said. He got his shotgun and sat on the porch.

Greta, who also grew under the tutelage of her newfound grandpa, joined him with her own .22. She could put the attacker’s eye out and Lou could finish him off, Greta said. Wonderful!

I loved this TV series. I loved it to bits. I was thrilled by each episode and sad to see it go. I would love to see more adventures of Molly Solverson and people of Bemidji. But like “The Big Lebowski,” I don’t want to do more simply to do more. That is, I don’t want “Law & Order: Fargo.”

If there is to be more “Fargo,” and hope there is, let it be as rich and full and true as this series. My apologies to “Mad Men,” but this was the best series on basic cable this year, surpassed only by the brilliance of “True Detective.”

If at least one of these fine actors fails to receive an Emmy for their work, then they should stop giving the awards.

On TV: ‘Fargo’ flashes forward

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Season 1, Episode 8: “The Heap” | Date: June 3, 2014

I kind of feel sorry for people who don’t watch “Fargo.” It’s pity, really. About 2 million watched the episode “The Heap” last week. That means the remaining 315 million were doing something else other than watching “Fargo.”

OK, sure, about 74 million of those 315 million non-”Fargo” watchers are kids under 17. They’re probably very busy with their cell phones. And I’ll give a pass to the estimated 600,000 or so homeless people. It’s tough to get cable without a fixed abode.

But the rest of them have no excuse. “Fargo” is the best thing on television and it keeps begging better. And soon it will be over. It will leave a black, empty space in our weeks that was once taken by this wonderful narrative filled with rich, compelling characters and bizarre, terrifying and amusing activities.

Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) tries to convince police chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) that he’s got the wrong man for the murder of Lester Nygaard’s (Martin Freeman) wife. She loses the argument, but agrees to go on a date to an annual logging festival with Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks).

And then the series flashes forward a year. Gus and Molly are married and expecting their first child. Lester is salesman of the year, married to a coworker.

And Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is working another gig, pretending to be a doctor. Lester spots him at a hotel bar and the feeling that this thing might come unravelled for Lester is palpable.

“Fargo,” both the film and the TV series, must like pregnant protagonists. Frances McDormand’s character in the film was pregnant. Now Molly is, too. This means she’s a lock to succeed in the end.

On TV: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ endangers the space-time continuum

 

Season 1, Episode 1: “1/0″ | Date: June 1, 2014

I worry about “Halt and Catch Fire.”

No, I fear it.

I fear it because the producers clearly have access to a working time machine.

They’ve gone back in time and kidnapped Mary Stuart Masterson sometime right after she made “Some Kind of Wonderful.” I don’t know how they did this. They’re calling the woman Mackenzie Davis, but I’m not buying it. That’s obviously Mary Stuart Masterson. I am worried how this will affect the timelines as we know it.

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They appear to have taken Lea Thompson from around the same time period. She’s pretending to be Kerry Bishé. The backstory is she’s from New Zealand. Sure she is. I am hopeful, however, that Thompson’s time travel kidnapping will prevent “Caroline in the City” from being made.

But if this somehow wipes out the classic “Red Dawn,” we will have a problem, “Halt and Catch Fire.”

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It doesn’t stop with the female leads, either. This man called “Lee Pace” is clearly John Cusack from sometime before “Say Anything …” was made.

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And the fellow dubbed Scoot McNairy reminds me of the guy from the “It’s time to make the doughnuts” commercials.

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OK. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.

All of time and space is in danger for a show about how computers that competed with IBM and Apple. It better be good. Our existence hangs in the balance.

(So far it’s pretty good. There’s even sex in the backroom of an arcade in the first episode.)

On TV: ’24: Live Another Day’ is not to be taken seriously

Day 9: “4 p.m. to 5 p.m.” | Date: June 2, 2014

I’ve decided to start watching “24: Live Another Day” the way I watched “American Horror Story: Coven.” Both shows are trashy nonsense enjoyable only for their overwhelming silliness.

24_LAD_PosterIt pains me slightly to say this about “24.” I like Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer. But if I try to make anything of the plot other than a series of wholly unbelievable coincidences, I just get angry that writing for network television shows is this bad.

So in the interest in being entertained by my entertainment, rather than annoyed by it, I’ve decided to look at it with bemused indifference rather than involved, active viewer. It really is for the best.

President Heller (William Devane) decides Jack is a good guy and orders the CIA to give Jack everything he wants as he tries to track down the terrorist in control of U.S. drones over London. Jack wants to work with CIA Agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski), because who wouldn’t want to work with Yvonne Strahovski?

This includes Heller’s delicious line: “Jack wants her, Jack needs her, Jack gets her.” Ah, the good guys believe in Jack again. But the British don’t. Dour Prime Minister Alistair Davis (Stephen Fry) learns Heller has early stages of dementia and decides to run his own military operation with his own spy troops. This makes senses given that the story takes place in England and, as such, their military should probably be involved.

Of course this screws up Jack’s plans. Will no one just let the man work?

Jack’s plan involves torture, of course. He convinces Kate to let herself be tortured by the goons of an arms dealer while Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) does some computer hocus pocus to find the terrorist.

This all goes exactly according to plan, at least the part about Kate being tied up and tortured. She does get to kill a guy by strangling him with her thighs and eventually stabbing him with a stray knife. There are a lot worse ways to die than between Yvonne Strahovski’s thighs.

Jack and MI5 and the arms dealers all get into a series of shootouts. Chloe does more computer hocus pocus, trying to track a phone tied to the lead terrorist. The phone belongs to Simone (Emily Berrington), the daughter of Margo (Michelle Fairley), a British woman radicalized by a terrorist killed by a drone strike.

Margo is busy murdering her sister-in-law and chasing her young niece through the streets of London. She’s hit by a bus — a double-decker, of course.

Back at the U.S. Embassy, where President Heller inexplicably remains despite an obvious terrorist threat against his life, his chief of staff, a weasely mope named Mark Boundreau (Tate Donovan) forged the president’s signature on an executive order to turn Jack over to the Russians for killing a bunch of Russians in Season 8, which was four years ago. I’m sure someone remembers what that was about.

Anyway, Boundreau is worried Jack has a bigger penis than him. Jack’s former lover, Audrey (Kim Raver), is Boundreau’s wife now. Now Jack has returned from exile and Boundreau is worried she’ll swoon for Jack with his man-of-action mystique rather than her pencil-pushing husband. His logical reaction is to, of course, commit treason and have Jack murdered by the Russians.

Ah, this is TV at its finest, friends. Don’t think. Just watch. Then “24: Live Another Day” is a fine wine rather than a warm, flat wine cooler left on the table after a party at your grandparents’ house.

On TV: If you’re not watching ‘Fargo,’ you should get rid of your TV

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Season 1, Episode 7: “Who Shaves the Barber?” | Date: May 27, 2014

“Who Shaves the Barber?,” the seventh episode of the FX crime drama “Fargo,” is perhaps the best single episode of television I’ve ever watched.

I told this to my friend Memphis Paul, General Tso’s Revenge co-founder, who disagreed. He prefered the previous episode, “Buridan’s Ass.” Paul felt “Who Shaves the Barber?” was more perfunctory and obvious compared to the surprises of the week earlier.

I concede to my good friend the idea that a shootout in a whiteout blizzard is difficult to beat for drama and action. And the fish-nado that killed the son and bodyguard of supermarket king Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) was a humorous — if credulity stretching — twist.

Still, I loved “Who Shaves the Barber?” because it gave Martin Freeman, who plays Lester Nygaard, a chance to chew up some scenery previously only devoured by Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo.

Lester embraced his inner-evil to full extent. He frames his brother, Chaz (Joshua Close), for the murders of Lester’s wife and the police chief. His histrionics before dim-witted replacement chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) are almost convincing even to an audience that knows what really happens.

Chaz is charged with murder. Lester walks free. He returns to work. There he learns the Gina Hess (Kate Walsh), widow of the bully Lester accidentally ordered killed in the pilot, will receive no life insurance payment because her husband didn’t keep up the premiums.

Lester decides to deliver the news in person. He convinces Gina to have sex with him to speed up the process of her claim, though he knows full well there is no payout. He has sex with her, increasing the intensity of the interaction as he stares at a photograph of his former tormentor. Lester causes such a ruckus that Gina tells him he is hurting her and the picture finally falls off the wall.

It’s a brilliant bit of television, with revenge sex with the wife of his dead bully the ultimate payoff. It’s strange to root for Lester in this situation, but somehow I did. Anyway, it’s fun to watch.

Not to be outdone in amazing performances, Thornton as Malvo seeks revenge on the mafia team from Fargo, N.D., who sent the hitmen to kill him. Malvo slips past two fumbling FBI agents and proceeds to murder his way through the building.

Instead of filming a blood-soaked mayhem that documents every round fired, director Scott Winant chooses to follow the action on the outside of the building, which has reflective windows. Most camera shots include only a vision of brick and glass with the sounds of gunfire and shouting. Once, a window breaks and we catch a glimpse of Malvo marching through the office. But the camera simply tracks along his movements inside the building from the outside.

The FBI agents are only made aware of Malvo being inside of the building when a man is thrown from the top floor onto the street below. The police arrive and Malvo slips away quietly in the crowd. It is brilliant television, which I’ve already said.

But what really warmed me to this episode were the quieter moments with Molly (Allison Tolman) and Gus (Colin Hanks). Gus confesses to his fellow officer that he shot her during the blizzard. Molly takes it in stride, forgives him instantly and jokes about him owing her a spleen.

There are some long, warm stares between the two. A lesser show would have them kiss or fumble over romantic dialogue. But “Fargo” is an excellent TV show. This admiration without action feels very authentically Midwestern and as warm and real as interactions get on TV.

Molly’s father, Lou (Keith Carradine), arrives. She asks him who is watching his diner? He says screw the diner. Then he sits next to her at the hospital and asks if her room gets premium channels. After a few minutes flipping channels, he squeezes her hand and says he is proud of her. Again, another quiet, sweet and earnest Midwestern moment. I loved it.

Molly works through the murders by writing on the window of her hospital room with a marker. Gus brings her flowers, which she at first ignores but then is happy to take with her when her father collects her to go back home. Gus is obviously sad to see Molly go, but she cheers him: “You hang in there, Gus Grimley. We’re winning this thing.” A third pitch-perfect Midwestern moment.

Lou and Molly stop off at the police station. Molly learns Chaz has been wrongly arrested. And the stone-faced, seemingly unflappable Molly Solverson is most assuredly flapped. She stands ashen-faced in the police station parking lot, dumbfounded and overwhelmed by the turn of events.

This is the best short series I’ve ever watched. I suppose it still has three episodes to disappoint me, but I have complete faith. I love this to bits. It’s a masterpiece, combining the best of serial television with the finest skills of filmmaking. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you’re not watching “Fargo,” just throw away your TV.

On TV: ’24: Live Another Day’ is really slow for a show that’s supposed to be fast

Day 9: “3 p.m. to 4 p.m.” | Date: May 26, 2014

The people behind “24: Live Another Day” said one of the advantages of a 12-episode season — rather than the traditional 24 — is that the show wouldn’t have to drag things out as much. This, they said, would lead to more excitement and action and less vamping by the cast to pad for time.

24_LAD_PosterBut “Live Another Day” is still heavy on the long stares out the window, belaboring a point and uninteresting subplots. Example: CIA Agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski) keeps getting fired. This is her second or third firing in four episodes. “24″ has a long history of firing competent people — or arresting and torturing their own people. CTU and the CIA must have a terrible OSHA record. They probably have a sign: “10 days since we tortured our last employee.”

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) spent the entire episode sitting on a chair in the U.S. Embassy. Because that’s what we tuned in for, to see Jack look sad and distressed. He meets with President James Heller (William Devane). Jack plays hardass. He wants to go back out into the field and find some contact who can figure out the whole thing. Heller says no.

Jack’s old girlfriend, who happens to be Heller’s daughter, Audrey (Kim Raver) stops by. They have a tearful exchange. By the way, both Audrey and the president meet with Jack alone. The Secret Service gives them the room. Sure, why not? Bauer is only a wanted international criminal branded a traitor by his own nation. What could possibly go wrong by putting him in a room with the president of the United States and, later, his daughter?

Well, apparently nothing. Jack, who earlier shot two protesters outside the U.S. embassy in London just to gain access to the building — and later shot two Marines, though he didn’t injure them, won’t take a hostage in order to save his own butt or further his plans to save the world.

Other subplots that just drag down the story:

  • Terrorist Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley) doesn’t like her son-in-law much. She eventually kills him for trying to give away the location of their secret castle base. That guy should’ve been killed two episodes ago.
  • Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) wants to help Jack even though her superhacker boyfriend, Adrian Cross (Michael Wincott) wants to split. He loves her, he says. But she’s gotta save the world.

The good news is they blew something up. The location Margot’s son-in-law gave away was a fake. It was obviously a fake. Anyone who has ever watched television, especially “24,” knew it was a fake. How? Because there are seven more episodes left. The bad guys aren’t caught until the last episode.

Margot uses one of the drones to blow up the building. Almost everybody on the U.S. strike team dies. Survivors include the only characters who have names that were on the raid: Navarro (Benjamin Bratt) and Ritter (Gbenga Akinnagbe).

I’ve said many times that I know a show isn’t working for me when I wonder about the police or military procedure that goes on.

This episode was full of dumb military stuff. Heller orders the CIA to run an operation on British soil to take out terrorists. The British Prime Minister (Stephen Fry) doesn’t even blink when he’s told this. He doesn’t say, “You know we’ve got our own Army. We have our own spies. And this is our home field. Maybe we run the military operations in this country.”

We’ve already talked about how silly the Secret Service is in this show. Perhaps their silliest slip: The U.S. has lost control of six drones and they know a terrorist has control of them. Nobody even suggests getting the President on Air Force One and the hell out of London. Nah. That’s not the “24″ way.

This show is a lot of b.s. and bravado. That and stretching for time, even with only 12 episodes.

On Movies: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ is a good movie that feels very so-so

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X-Men: Days of Future Past” | Rated PG-13 | Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes | DirectorBryan Singer | CastHugh JackmanJames McAvoyMichael FassbenderJennifer LawrenceHalle BerryAnna PaquinEllen PageNicholas HoultShawn AshmorePeter DinklageIan McKellen and Patrick Stewart.


I went to see “X-Men: Days of Future Past” with a friend who does not read comic books. He said he enjoyed the movie, but he didn’t know who everyone was.

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterFor example, there was a guy running around with a big gun. My friend had no idea who he was. I explained his name is Bishop. In the movie he’s played by Omar Sy. He can absorb energy and redirect it at his enemies.

My friend didn’t give it much of a thought. He said it was nice everybody who had been in all the previous “X-Men” movies got a payday. He basically enjoyed the film.

I did, too, though I wonder how much fun it would be for people who don’t read “X-Men” comics or haven’t seen the previous four “X-Men” movies and two “Wolverine” movies.

I suppose that doesn’t matter much. There weren’t a lot of people going to the second “Lord of the Rings” movie or fifth “Harry Potter” movie that weren’t in some way exposed to those stories and characters.

But I remember praising “X2: X-Men United” to a fellow paragraph stacker named Joe Holleman, a features writer and sometimes movie critic for the St. Louis newspaper. Joe said “X2,” which I previously believed the best of “X-Men” movies to be too much “inside baseball.”

That’s sort of how I felt about “Days of Future Past.” I got the story. It was nicely told. It was relatively faithful to the two issues of “The Uncanny X-Men” comic book from 1980 that inspired it. Although this movie was more than 2 hours long. The comic books were 48 pages.

The gist of the movie: In the future, mutants are hunted by big robots called Sentinels. They’re nearly indestructible. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the scientist who builds the machines.

The assassination, apparently, leads to Mystique’s capture. The government uses her shape-changing DNA to build a better kind of giant murdering robot. This leads to a future where there are hardly any lights. Seriously, it’s very dark in this future. I know it’s dystopian, but for crying out loud, nobody saved a couple of flashlights?

Wolverine arrives back in 1973. He meets up with the younger Professor X (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). They break a younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of jail and try to stop Mystique.

There’s a big fight on the White House lawn and RFK Stadium is wrecked. Don’t worry. Nixon survives. Oh, by the way, JFK was a mutant. Just FYI.

My friend Joe’s words about “X2″ kept ringing around in my head after the movie. I was entertained, which is all that I ask of out of movie. But even to me it felt like inside baseball. I was watching an OK movie. There wasn’t one performance where I thought, “OK, this is really great stuff.” Then again, there weren’t any performances where I thought, “This is terrible.”

It could be that I’m worn out on superhero movies. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ was a joyless bore crammed with action figures and characters that made no sense. “Days of Future Past” was much better than that.

I guess, if I had to make sense of it, I would say I was entertained but unimpressed. They can do anything in these movies, but it left me feeling nothing.

On TV: Optimistic ‘Mad Men’ mid-season finale means they’re all doomed

Season 7, Episode 7: “Waterloo” | Date: May 25, 2014

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) shows up at Peggy Olson’s (Elisabeth Moss) hotel room door. It’s late on July 20, 1969. Men have walked the surface of the moon for the first time. A nation — a world — os gobsmacked.

mad-men-season-7-posterDon isn’t here for that. Word has come from New York. Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) is dead. And Don may well be dead, too. Without Bert, Don cannot survive a partners vote to fire him after his bravado in a meeting with a tobacco company. Don believes his days at the agency he helped found are limited.

So he goes to Peggy. They are in Indianapolis, Indiana, to pitch the fast food chain Burger Chef. The plan was for Don to make the pitch. But if Don makes it and they win, and Don is fired, Burger Chef will move on and Peggy will be left with nothing.

So Don does what we have rarely seen him do before: He acts completely in the interest of another. He saves Peggy. The person about whom Don cares the most is finally and fully revealed: It’s Peggy.

We’ve already seen Roger Sterling (John Slattery) prove Don is his one true friend. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is in love with money, or at least the independence and security that money can bring for her and her son.

It’s a beautiful moment for Don. It’s the kind of kind strain that we always wanted to believe was there behind all those cigarettes and underneath the ocean of liquor. It’s an act of love. We’ve heard Don say he loves different people — wives, girlfriends and children — but the declaration often came as an act of desperation.

This moment, though, in a hotel room in Indianapolis, Don gives himself up to help Peggy, the heir to his creative genius.

Peggy, of course, nails the presentation and lands the account. Roger rangles a buyout that appears to end Jim Cutler’s (Harry Hamlin) vengeful efforts to oust Don. Roger, too, seems to see his Grinch-like heart three sizes. Before he died, Bert and Roger had a heart-to-heart. Roger, Bert said, is not a leader.

Roger was hurt, but motivated. He became a leader. He negotiated a deal that saved his friend, saved his company and made himself president. He is a failure as a husband and father, a lover and even as a good man. But maybe just this one thing he can do right.

It was not all bliss. Don and wife Megan (Jessica Paré) finally split in a tearful, but gentle conversation. They were a continent apart even when they were in the same room. Don was unfaithful and she was disconnected. She made Don better, maybe even happy. But Don only has one love: the work.

Peggy, too, struggles with her internal conflict. She learns the neighbor boy, who eats her popsicles and watches her television, is moving away. She cries as the boy hugs her, both for the lost of her surrogate child and for the absence of motherhood and family in her own life. This boy would be about the age of her own son that she gave away so many years ago. Elisabeth Olson handles the scene deftly and with the sublime skill we have come to expect from her in each outing.

The episode also defines what is seldom understood about the first moon landing: People were worried those astronauts were going to die. From the purely selfish standpoint, our ad men realized their deaths would wipe out their chances of winning a big account. But the anxiousness that gripped them is also a metaphor for people on the verge of doing something great: There is always some fear that it won’t work.

Still, the wonderful machinations of these characters in this well-told episode leaves me worried. These are not happy people and not given to happy endings. Seven episodes remain. They’ll be aired in spring 2015.

Too much can happen and these people trend toward sorrow and self-destruction. Again, the moon landing serves as a guide. There are those that would argue all the goodwill, all the hope that moment inspired marked the apex of the American century.

Corporate greed, meaningless wars, social unrest, technological terrors and a general selfishness that drags down and sometimes buries our nation’s altruistic philosophical foundation. In other words, it’s all downhill from here.

That said, if you’re going to write out a character through death, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as wonderful as Bert Cooper’s final moments in “Waterloo.”

It’s almost enough to give you hope.

Almost.

On TV: Strong finale made boring middle ‘The Americans’ worth watching

Season 2, Episode 13: “Echo” | Date: May 21, 2014

The second season finale of “The Americans” brought so many good stories together in satisfying and smart conclusions. It was so well done that it made up for a soft mid-season lull, in which story progression stalled.

The_Americans_PosterPhilip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) hustle their children out of town in the middle of the night after they learn Larrick (Lee Tergesen) is hunting them. While in the woods, Elizabeth goes to visit Jared (Owen Campbell), the lone survivor a mass shooting at an amusement park hotel. His parents were Soviet spies living as illegal aliens just like Philip and Elizabeth.

Philip goes into town to get food for the kids. He’s captured by Larrick. Elizabeth and Jared gather firewood. Larrick captures them, too. But as Larrick handcuffs Elizabeth, Jared pulls out a gun and shoots Larrick. Larrick shoots Jared. A handcuffed Philip gets a gun away from Larrick and kills him.

Jared dies, admitting that he killed his parents because they would not let him become a Soviet agent like them. He was recruited by Kate (Wrenn Schmidt), who seduced him. Larrick murdered Kate as revenge for the deaths of his fellow soldiers at a base where Americans were training Sandinistan rebels.

Philip and Elizabeth later meet Claudia (Margo Martindale), who tells them their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), is next in line to be recruited. Their bosses want them to groom her to become a spy. Initially, they’re both outraged. But Elizabeth warms to the idea, citing Paige’s newfound religion as her desire to for a cause. Philip is stunned. He said they both swore never to involve their children in their blood-soaked missions.

FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) gathers information on a computer program called Echo that is connected to the U.S. stealth bomber program. He photographs the computer code. The Russians want the code in exchange for Nina (Annet Mahendru), a Soviet agent once turned by Stan who turned against him when he killed one of her friends at the embassy.

Stan leaves a note at the drop site. It says: “Tell Nina I’m sorry.” Nina is sent back to Russia for trial. She is likely to be executed. He watches from a car outside the embassy as she drives away.

So much has changed. Yet nothing has changed. Philip and Elizabeth are fundamentally divided on how to raise their children. The despise the church’s efforts to recruit young people into their ranks. But Elizabeth, at least, sees no problem in turning out her daughter as a Soviet spy. This would mean a life of sex and violence difficult to imagine.

Philip, who is the most Americanized of the parents, rejects this. The impasse echos of the series pilot, when Philip suggests they surrender to their FBI neighbor, Stan, rather than go through with more killing on behalf of a cause that Philip sometimes struggles to keep in focus.

And Stan is tempted by his love for Nadia. He is tempted enough to wear a camera into a secret government building and photograph a computer program. But in the end, he is loyal to his country. He will only go so far, even for a woman he loves. He lost his marriage, but not his duty. He keeps fighting the war, though for him, too, it is hard to see the point when people keep dying and nothing ever seems to change.

But this minutia is what makes “The Americans” so compelling. Strip away the cloak and dagger of the spy genre, and what you have is a story about parents divided on how to raise their children. That is a nearly universal story. And for Stan, you have a story about a man conflicted in his personal and professional life.

All the players are somehow disillusioned. All suffer terrible losses. But the war goes on, just like life, with no end in sight.

On TV: Last week’s ‘Fargo’ was the best hour of television this year

fargo

Season 1, Episode 6: “Buridan’s Ass” | Date: May 20, 2014

The blizzard arrived and bullets flew on the streets of Duluth, Minnesota, as the sublime FX series “Fargo” turned in its finest episode to date.

Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) duct taped dim-witted, would-be blackmailer Don Chumph (Glenn Howerton) to a chair holding an empty shotgun. Malvo fired a series of shots into cars near Chumph’s house. He rigged a trap for the gun to go off again when police arrived. Chumph, bound helplessly to a chair with the gun in his hands, is gunned down by SWAT team members.

Some of the dialog by police officers stretch credulity — cops typically don’t say they’ll “start blastin’” — but the photography on the scene was brilliant. The way Chumph was silhouetted by a bright light behind him, police weren’t able to see his bindings — only the gun in his hand.

Malvo makes his way to a meeting with supermarket king Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt), who is supposed to surrender $1 million in a blackmail scheme. But Malvo pushed poor Milos too far. He cracks under a religious crisis instigated by Malvo, returning the money to the roadside where he found it years ago rather than give it to the blackmailer.

Milos believes he’s made himself right with God by burying the money under the snow. But his son and bodyguard die in a car accident caused by raining fish. The fish downpour stretched credulity farther than hammy cop dialog, but at this point I’m willing to trust these fine storytellers to make sense of the senseless.

Malvo doesn’t make the meeting. He’s attacked by hitmen Mr. Numbers (Adam Goldberg) and Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard) in traffic as the blizzard hits. Malvo dodges dozens of machine gun bullets and slits Mr. Numbers’ throat. The fate of Mr. Wrench is not revealed. Malvo slips away in the whiteout chaos.

Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Officer Gus Grimley (Colin Hanks) talk over coffee. Gus reveals he wanted to be a postman, but the post office wasn’t hiring and the police department was. Molly and Gus hear gunfire. Brave little Molly rushes out to help. Gus hesitates, fighting his callow nature, but follows.

Molly makes her way to Mr. Numbers, whose dead. More gunfire erupts in the blizzard. Molly charges out. Gus loses track of her. He hears blasts. He sees a muzzle flash. He pulls his gun and hollers “Hault!” He fires. A person falls. Alas, it’s Molly. The severity of her injury is unknown.

Meanwhile, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) embraces his inner bastard. A suspect in the murder of the town sheriff and his boss, Nygaard decides to frame his brother. He sneaks out of the hospital and places the ball-peen hammer he used to kill his wife in the gun cabinet of his brother. He hides a gun in the school bag of his brother’s son and returns to the hospital.

Lester reminds me of a man named Fred A. Leuchter, the subject of an Errol Morris documentary called “Mr. Death.” Leuchter was a working man who built electric chairs and gas chambers for states with the death penalty. Leuchter got mixed up in with a group heavy into Holocaust denial and it cost him his government contracts, reputation and wife.

Leuchter’s ex-wife is quoted in the documentary. She says her former husband always wanted to be a big deal. When a group of people came along offering to make him a big deal, he took the chance even though it meant he had to do something evil to gain the fame he always wanted.

Lester was a hen-pecked slob, a failure of a salesman and frightened without dignity. But a chance encounter with Malvo changed him from mope to murder. His went from being a nobody to notorious. It’s a strange and terrible change, not quite as malevolent as the transformation of Walter White from cancer-stricken chemistry teacher to meth kingpin. But the analogy is fair.

Malvo is evil in the old fashioned and obvious sense, a sociopath who embraces malevolence as his own morality. He’s the devil we fear in our dreams. But Lester is someone whose evil grew from one malignant nugget into a full-blown cancer. Lester is the friendly face of evil.

On TV: ’24: Live Another Day’ villain gives a finger for the cause

Day 9: “2 p.m. to 3 p.m.” | Date: May 19, 2014

The problem with “24: Live Another Day” is the problem with all “24″ seasons: It’s just not very interesting when Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) isn’t on screen.

yvonne-strahovski-24-live-another-dayThe latest episode tried to make up for that. The villain of “Live Another Day” is Margot Al-Harazi (Michelle Fairley), the radicalized British widow of a terrorist. Her daughter, Simone (Emily Berrington), is a saucy British redhead who uses sex and cunning to get ahold of codes that will allow this group of terrorists to control up to 10 U.S. drones. The plan is blow up London.

Simone is married to Naveed (Sacha Dhawan). He’s a terrorist, but not a very good one. He drinks, which is verboten by Islam. He doesn’t want to kill innocent people. This is verboten by the terrorist code. He wants to run away with his wife, see the world and have a family.

Simone tells her mother. Margot confronts Naveed. He refuses to pilot the drones. Margot orders some of her thugs to cut off a finger on Simone’s left hand. This convinces Naveed to pilot the drones, because the dismemberment of his wife’s hand is far more terrible than bombing thousands in London.

There are no innocents, Margot reminds Naveed. Unspoken, but likely true is the old line from “Road to Perdition,” in which Paul Newman tells Tom Hanks: “There are nothing but murderers in this room.”

“24″ hasn’t had a good dismemberment scene since Jack cut off the hand of his fellow agent, Chase, also the boyfriend of his daughter, Kim. I don’t know if “24″ needs more body parts being cut off. This isn’t “American Horror Story.” But I support efforts to make stock villains mildly more interesting.

Jack breaks into the embassy. He gets the flight key from Lt. Chris Tanner (John Boyega), the airman whose drone was taken over and used to kill soldiers from both the U.S. and England. This device has evidence that will prove there are terrorists trying to take over drones.

Because Jack Bauer, who has never been wrong in the history of this series, always has to prove himself to superiors and presidents and is always thwarted by middling bureaucrats and jealous boyfriends or husbands.

Just once, I’d like to see an authority figure hear something from Bauer and say, “You know what? This guy is always on the money. Let’s back our boy.” I supposed you would have to call the show “One” instead of “24,” because problems would be resolved a lot more quickly.

There is a blizzard of technological nonsense. Files take too long to convert. Uploads take a long time. There is some effort to explain this. It mostly fails to be interesting. We all have computers. Encryption, decryption, uploading and downloading. There’s just no good way to make this kind of stuff visually interesting.

The Marines close in on Jack. So he surrenders to CIA Agent Kate Morgan (Yvonne Strahovski). She promises to use the flight key and prove an attack is going to happen. This seems like a smart play on Jack’s part. I would surrender to Yvonne Strahovski anytime.

On TV: Everybody is miserable on ‘Mad Men’ and that’s why it’s perfect

Season 7, Episode 6: “The Strategy” | Date: May 18, 2014

It felt like the good old days with Don (Jon Hamm) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) working late into the night to get just the right words for a pitch to a client. The sniped at each other, but the supported each other, too.

mad-men-season-7-posterBut there was more to it than that. The audience was shown more than just two advertising creatives pushing slogans. We were shown the world in 1969. Families, Peggy noted, were different. The client was a fast food company. She interviewed moms who felt guilty buying food there.

A Peggy idea: “Maybe the mom is coming home from work?’

Don: “What’s her profession?”

Peggy admonishes Don to look around. He’s surrounded by women who work.

“That’s too sad for a commercial,” he said.

Peggy rants about the state of the American family. She wonders if they really sit down for meals and talk and smile. Don’t they just watch TV like everybody else?

It is hardly the first observation that the image of family in America is not representative of the reality of family. But it is telling just how long the lie of the perfect family has been with us. The season is set in 1969. That means we’ve had at least a half century of Americans try to be something they’re not and probably never were.

Alas, advertising is not about the truth. It is about telling you the lie that makes you feel good enough to buy the thing they are selling. In more modern times, advertising is about making you feel afraid or insecure enough about what you don’t have to keep buying.

Peggy cries a bit when she realizes the desires of her life — being a mom, having a family — conflict with the life she’s made. She recently turned 30. She feels old and lost.

Don, in a rare moment of unguarded self-reflection, says he worries that he’s accomplished nothing and has no one to love him.

These people, these sad, miserable people who fight and drink and smoke and screw — they are us. They may be of another time, but they are as much 21st century as they are mid-20th.

They’re lost and confused and lonely. Just like us. We want them to be happy. We root for Don, even though he’s kind of a jerk. We want him to work it out with Megan (Jessica Paré) and make peace with his monsters.

We want Peggy to be happy, to be content to be sure.

But their raging insecurities, their self-loathing and self-destructive machinations — this is why we love them. They are us.

Happiness comes not in bags from the burger joint or fancy new cars, but in small, brief and tender moments, like Don and Peggy dancing quietly to Sinatra in the one office with the lights on on a dark night before the long day ahead.