April 22, 2011 § 3 Comments
One more practice review I wrote a while ago when I was an intern at Sight & Sound…
Almost two decades after the release of Cape Fear, it seems that this minor opus from a major American director was more of a turning point than anybody would have thought at the time. Considered as a slight bow to the mainstream, it was in fact an entire new direction.
Martin Scorsese’s latest studio effort, Shutter Island, a period thriller adapted from Dennis Lehane’s eponymous best-seller with a schizophrenic twist a la M Night Shyamalan, sums up what kind of filmmaker Scorsese has become in the last twenty years: a gifted craftsman, a world apart from the rebellious neurotic genius he was in the 1970s. One can easily draw parallels between Cape Fear and Shutter Island: retro atmosphere, B-movie material, some cheap thrills enhanced by a bit of gore and a soundtrack full of Herrmann-esque strings constantly on the verge of parody.
Shutter Island tells the story of Teddy Daniels, a federal agent sent to a remote asylum on a barren island, home of America’s most dangerous and deranged criminals, to investigate the disappearance of a murderess. The mystery soon thickens and Daniels realises that he may be at the centre of a frightening conspiracy…
In an interview given during the promotion of Cape Fear and compiled in Scorsese: Inteviews by Peter Brunette, the filmmaker ironically calls his remake of Thompson’s thriller a “real movie”, an “A-to-B-to-C film”: the same category that Shutter Island falls into. It is what the French would call an exercice de style – a shot at making a codified, straight genre picture, a mere study of style over substance. The problem with Shutter Island is that, even viewed as a “guilty pleasure” offering from a respectable auteur, it is not entirely successful.
Aesthetically, the film is often gorgeous: the set and costumes are incredibly accurate to Lehane’s descriptions; every shot is expertly framed and an abundance of Scorsese’s cinephilic obsessions will satisfy the knowing viewer: a Powell & Pressburger homage here, (the spiral staircase from The Red Shoes, the high-angle shot of the cliff from Black Narcissus), a Samuel Fuller reference there (Shock Corridor is still the benchmark of all asylum movies). The dream scenes are vivid, thanks to Robert Richardson’s brightly contrasted photography (he was after all the man who shot all those glaring neons and flashy suits in Casino), particularly the concentration camp flashbacks: the haunting glimpse of a pile of corpses petrified in ice and the agony of the German officer are powerful tableaux of human savagery.
But despite all its graphic excellence, Shutter Island fails to be Scorsese’s Shinning. Mainly because of its weak material: it is hard to recognise the touch of the writer of Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River or the contributor to The Wire in this half-baked story, which re-use a clunky final twist already seen in half a dozen films since Fight Club and his unreliable split-personality narrator. The flaws of the pedestrian script are laid-bare by the ridiculous length of the film (clocking in at more than two hours and a half) which is over-zealously faithful to the original book and struggles to sustain interest in the plot past the first act. The delays in the film post-production (Shutter Island was shot in 2008 and its release reported several times last year) seem to indicate that Scorsese and editor Thelma Shoonmaker did not find the solution in the editing room, where they are usually at their best.
Generally, Shutter Island is victim of its sophistication. Scorsese, who should know how to wrap a B-movie since he went to Roger Corman’s school back in the early seventies, pushes all the right buttons but the overall seriousness of the direction kills the joy. As usual, DiCaprio is not bad but remains bland, just as the rest of the cast, who all seem so impressed to work with the legendary director that they are unable to deliver a memorable performance.
Sadder is to see Scorsese gradually abandoning his themes and visual signatures (the virtuoso tracking shots, the reckless editing) in favour of a studio approach to film-making – flawless but impersonal. Now an Oscar-winner for his mediocre The Departed, the maverick has joined the ranks of the Hollywood establishment. Shutter Island is far from an embarrassment, but with all the talent involved, it feels a bit like a waste of everyone’s time.
(Written in February 2010)
March 24, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Here is an unpublished film review I wrote last year during my internship at Sight & Sound. I received very positive feedback from the editors and as a result my subsequent commissions were published. Used to be on my previous blog, but since this one doesn’t exist anymore, I thought I’ll do a bit of recycling today…
Arguably, extreme violence – or ultra-violence as Burguess would put it – has been one the most prominent traits of Korean cinema in the last decade, to the point that for many mainstream cinemagoers, it came to define it. The worldwide success and broad critical acclaim of Park Chan-wook revenge flicks, filled with gore and stylised perversity overshadowed the diversity of one of the most productive and inventive national film industries to create a stereotypical sub-genre: the extreme Korean thriller. Thematically, Breathless (2009) does not seem to disappoint the viewer’s expectation: from the opening frame to the last scene, the film is relentlessly violent – but its depiction and meaning could not be more remote to Park Chan-wook’s universe. Yang-Ik Jook, the director who also displays an impressive intensity in the leading role of his first feature, opts for a naturalistic approach to filming – all close-ups, simple shots and handheld camera – light years from the complicated, westernised, post-Fight Club aesthetic of Park’s vengeance trilogy. The epitome of Park Chan-Wook’s visual style when dealing with violence can be found in Old Boy, with the infamous brawl in the jail corridor, where the lone hero overcomes one by one all his attackers in a virtuoso tracking-shot directly inspired by the beat-‘em-up video games. Violence here is unreal: “just fun” – Tarantino-esque. In contrast, Sang-hoon, the main protagonist of Breathless, a debt collector spending his days beating to a pulp every single human in sight, doesn’t even know what a Playstation is (which he actually calls a “Play-shit”), until he agrees to buy one to his nephew, in a rare display of kindness. In a film saturated with symbols and totemic items (western child toys, knifes, phones, hammers), the introduction of the Playstation can be read as a departure from this insensitive, immature and virtual approach to the issue that is violence; and more specifically in Breatless’ case, domestic violence.
A moral tale about domestic violence and its consequences, the film reproduces the cyclical nature of child abuse. The bullied child becomes the bully; the victimised mother produces a traumatised daughter, a beating follows another beating and so on. This makes the film structurally repetitive and quite predictable, but remarkably, it also gives a forceful depth to the directors’ hard-hitting argument about the responsibility that victims have in perpetuating the cycle originated by their tormentors.
After an uncompromising first hour letting the viewer astonished and weary of Yang-Ik Joon shock and awe approach, the director suddenly introduces a sentimental edge to Breathless with an unexpected touching montage of the two main characters (the thug and the high school girl) taking the gangster’s nephew to the fair, where he can, at last, be a child again. This passage, with its cheesy oriental music, is very reminiscent of Takeshi’s Kitano similarly tender moments in his romantic gangster chronicles. This is also the only time, along with another pivotal twist taking place later on in the film (the father’s suicide attempt), that Yang-Ik Joon uses mood music – the rest of the soundtrack containing only diegetic sounds of incessant kicking, punching, slapping and screaming noises, which provide, like a percussion set, the internal rhythm of the film.
Littered with more swear words than a vintage Scorsese epic, Breathless, whose original title Ddjongpari could be translated “fly-shit”, is also a study of the social alienation that comes with the lack of education that often originates in the trauma of child abuse: its main characters don’t have the words to express their frustrations but only their fists and can only mimic what they have witnessed. Even marks of affections are sent through play-fighting (Sang-Hoon and his nephew) or verbal abuse (Sang-Hoon and the adolescent girl he calls “crazy bitch”). School education is regarded as important by all characters (the wannabe gangsters are always asked if they graduated from high-school by the mob boss) but remains a vacuous, distant, superficial dream, alien to their world of poverty and violence.
The ending works superbly in a series of symmetrical narrative motifs, leaving room for hope as seen in the concluding flash-forward. The transformation of Sang-hoon is brutally quick, but remains believable. A martyr of child abuse, his will to change his ways and break the cycle will eventually kill him but save his family. It is a powerful conclusion to an overly brutal film that leave bruises like a punch in the face, but also handles its gentle moments with a disarming sincerity.
March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
You have to see it to believe it, but the darkest, edgiest, meanest piece of crime fiction put on celluloid since The Prophet comes from Australia – yes, that sunny land down under, home of the shitfaced, flip-flops wearing jocks gathering outside the Walkabout every Friday night, all year round. It’s a fucking cryptic world indeed.
Animal Kingdom chronicles the war raging in Melbourne’s underbelly between a family of armed robbers and the local police forces. Our point of entry in this highly psychopathic but chillingly functional cop-killing family is Joshua “J” Cody, the estranged nephew of gang leader and borderline incestuous maternal figure Mama Smurf. Joshua, a passive, taciturn teen whose emotions and motives remain for most the film unreadable, is reunited with his monstrous relatives after his mother, who kept him away from them all her life, overdoses on heroin. J quickly remarks that the members of the gang, composed of his uncles Barry, Craig and Darren, are “all scared”. At first, we think that it’s the police’s gung-ho behaviour that they fear (and rightly so) but it appears that Pope, the oldest Cody brother who is still on the run from a previous heist, is that pernicious, frightening presence weighting on the family despite his physical absence.
In the opening credits, first-time director David Monôd introduces a metaphor – the criminal family as a pack of lions – that he’ll stretch till the end. It actually works great, giving Animal Kingdom its thematic unity and mean-spirited worldview – proof that sometimes a strong albeit limited idea can go a long way, if developed properly.
So we have the lioness with Jeannine “Smurf” Cody, the most evil mob granny since Tony Soprano’s mom, and the alpha male with Pope, who strangely reminded me of Dustin Hoffman, if Rain Man was channelling Joe Pesci. Pope’s quirky behaviour is absolutely disturbing, and the aura of mystery surrounding the fear he inspires (besides being a killer, he may well be an incestuous paedophile, as his nickname would suggest) just reinforces that uneasy vibe he brings to every scene. In terms of animalistic body language, Ben Mendelsohn got it spot on, with his flabby cheeks and awkward, drowsy demeanour – in tune with the image of the lazy lion sure of his power, as seen in countless National Geographic documentaries. And if you think I am milking this simile out of proportion, just wait for the scene when the cops go for a hunt in the outlands.
The film’s look has nothing to do with documentary though, avoiding the naturalistic clichés in favour a very striking cinematography courtesy of Adam Arkapaw, all metallic blues and greens, with the right amount of slo-mo to coldly capture the tension, filming the protagonists in the familial home like caged animals about to devour each other. Every shot is superb, bathed in a very operatic light, displaying real pictorial flair. And while we’re mentioning the technical stuff, massive kudos to the sound designer, these shrieking, feedbacking noises in the background kept me on the edge of my seat.
Another detail that elevates Animal Kingdom above your average gangster fare is the insidious way it introduces the sordid, violent aspects of the underworld, in a non-flamboyant, inconspicuous way diluted in the all-surrounding casual Aussiness. You won’t see a close up of a heroin needle penetrating a vein for the umpteenth time; drugs are just there, on the coffee table, and so are guns. It is quite a bold (and clever) choice, since most of us aren’t used to see Aussie gangsters, and they do look like your regular “mate”, with the surfer build, vintage tee shirts and mid-long hair. An insecure director would have felt the need to prove that his criminals from Oz are as “hard” as the American ones with a couple of hardcore scenes, but not Monôd, who keeps the ubiquitous vice understated.
Animal Kingdom’s exoticism is obviously part of its appeal, but it never spoils the film – it’s authenticity more than folklore. Similarly to City of God, the geographic displacement adds some freshness to the exhausted genre, but is never overplayed to the point where the film will have to be filed under the embarrassing “world cinema” label.
Ultimately, the core theme of Animal Kingdom is pretty universal, replaying the Mephistophelean deal already seen in The Godfather II and The Prophet: if the weak embraces evil when his time comes, he will become strong. Too bad for the moralistic ending, it is another Darwinian tale of survival after all. Can’t say the title didn’t warn you.
February 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”
It is with these severe words, which wouldn’t sound totally out-of-place in the mouth of someone like let’s say Sarah Palin, that the Coen brothers open True Grit, their most conservative film to date. I’m not really talking about politics here – even if a few people out there believe there is a point to make about the casual racism of Bridges’s Rooster Cogburn towards Indians – but filmic values. And even leaving aside the curious fact that the Coens chose to tackle the whitest, most reactionnary genre of them all – a.k.a the western – after A Simple Man, their jewishest film ever, what struck me in True Grit is their straigh-faced, classicist-bordering-on-the-conservative approach to the genre.
True Grit’s unhurried pace, straigh-line plotting and sparsity of twists contrast with the total state of hysteria that inhabits Black Swan and The Social Network, two recent critical triumphs probably destined to become the blueprint of show-off filmmaking for the rest of the decade. Black Swan and The Social Network are the perfect type of movies for our “wired”, devoid of attention-span generation: it’s high-speed, broadband cinema. Every single shot is an assault, a bombardment of words and images, obnoxiously trying to outdo the precedent, whether it’s by escalating the gory/camp route with Arronosky or unleashing an uninterrupted diarrhoea of smart-ass, cocaine infused dialogue in David Fincher’s take on the Facebook phenomenon. In short, it is cinema that won’t let you breathe. In The Social Network, it works perfectly ; the total synergy between form and topic makes David Fincher’s magnum opus the most generational film since… erm, Fight Club? In the case of Black Swan, let’s just say that I felt relieved when that humourless mind-numbing mess ended.
Back to True Grit. There is none of that in this remake of John Wayne’s 1969 classic (or rather, new interpretation of Charles Portis’ novel), and I very much appreciated being given the time to admire the uneventful, placid shots of deserted landscapes and forests of leafless trees covered in snow, all beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins. This is not taken to the extremes of Terence Malick and his “filming the wind” obsession of course; just a return to good old fashioned filmmaking, using fades, panoramas and pauses; taking its time to go from A to B, with the help of a few deus ex machina along the way.
The Coen’s habitual self-consciousness is also more nuanced that usual, and the direction is assured, playing it safe. The last act is nothing short of amazing, and I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers but that’s the kind of rewarding climax you’d expect from a film that takes its time. The Coen Bros concludes the film with a heatfelt and satisfying epilogue, very much in the literary sense of the term, adding just enough layers of cultural commentary and intertext to raise True Grit above the undistinct mass of western rehashings we got used to since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
Obviously, the real highlight and revelation of True Grit is the superb Hailee Steinfeld, delivering an astonishing, career-making turn as the focal point of the film, the 14 year old girl seeking revenge for her dead father while bossing around every adult in sight with her self-righteous gab. She will probably be dining out on that performance for the rest of her life, as it seems unlikely that she’ll get her teeth into as good of a role before long. By the way, it’s a minor scandal (only if you care about this vain joke that is the Oscars of course) that she’s nominated in the best supporting actress category, considering how much the film lies on her young shoulders; not famous enough for a proper Oscar nod I suppose.
Jeff Bridges wears the eye-patch convincingly, delivering a straight-up interpretation devoid of irony (not self-parodying the Dude like in Tron then); shame he is unintellegible throughout - yes, I know, even if that’s kind of the whole point. Matt Damon is alright, even if his recent reconversion as a character actor always feel a bit forced to me, in the ”look at me, I’m fat! I’ve got a moustache! I can do accents too!” kind of way .
A final point to go back to my introducing quote: with its desuet dialogue heavy on religion, bursts of graphic violence and dead-pan moments of floating strangeness reminiscent of Jim Jarmush’s Dead Man (the amazing scene with the half-druid half-bear dentist riding his horse in the forest, the undidentified corpse hanging from a tree, etc.), True Grit is almost more Cormac McCarthy-esque than No Country For Old Men. Like in Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s unadaptable masterpiece of neo-western literature, mythical and biblical references abound (the crossing of the river/Styx to enter the wilderness/land of the damned; Mattie literally dragged straight into hell immediatly after shooting a man thus going against the sacred Commandment, etc.); impromptu gore underlines the absurdity of the human condition, especially when men are confronted to the savagery of the Frontier and finally, a cynical accent is put on the idiosyncrasies of the West and its hypocritical amalgam of mundade barbary, protestant zealousness and ridiculous fondness for nonsensical legal battles. Textbook Southern Gothic stuff right there.
This does not make True Grit a superior film to No Country For Old Men, which was a leaner and far more potent masterclass on sustaining momentum and deceiving expectations, but certainly doesn’t hurt the coherence of the Coen brothers’ filmography, while presenting itself under the appearance of a conservative, slightly necrophilic rendition of a dead genre.
February 1, 2011 § 5 Comments
How To Make It In America – Season 1
Developed for HBO by Mark Wahlberg and his production team (already behind Boardwalk Empire and Entourage, another show that turned to shit – see below), How To Make It In America charts the peregrinations of two friends in New York, trying to make it in the fashion world – more Carhartt than Chanel though. It’s HBO’s attempt at making a hipster comedy-drama, pretty much on the canvas of Entourage, with materialistic stories of male friendship, plenty of eye-candy, product placement galore and a fresh soundtrack permanently pointing at the coolness of the show blasting in the background. The credits encapsulate perfectly HTMIIA’s limited ambitions, thanks to Aloe Blacc’s unstoppable tune I Need A Dollar – a perfect soul throwback – and an arty montage of urban snapshots of NYC and partying hipsters.
I probably should hate it, but I don’t. HTMIIA has likeable characters, whose life and struggles ring somewhat true to all the creative folks dangerously approaching 30 and still struggling to make ends meet (sounds familiar?). When Entourage started with an up-and-coming actor already being handed the keys of Hollywood and an all-access pass to the entire female population of California, HTMIIA takes its characters at the very start, selling coats and skateboards off the streets and being shamed in the department store they work at by an old schoolmate, now an obnoxious hedge fund manager (some of us will cringe reliving their own experience in that scene).
The pairing of the self-conscious designer, Ben Epstein (“the half-stressed, half homie” Jew) and Cam Calderon, the outgoing Puerto Rican hood, works rather well, but it’s the spot-on casting of the secondary characters that must be saluted: the always great Luiz Guzman, in full-on Carlito’s Way mode as Cam’s Uncle, an ex-con trying to go legit selling Jamaican energy drinks called “Rasta Monsta”; the regular if inconsequential cameos of Kid Cudi, grabbing a few more cool points for the show and the appearance of the gorgeous “Lisa P.” from Adventureland in the second part of the season. Well done, HBO people.
The whole series clocking under three hours (six episodes of 30 minutes), HTMIIA doesn’t try to offer anything of substance or depth, but a relaxed, slightly fantasized portrait of the edgy side of the Big Apple, from the lower East side house parties to the vintage shops of Greenwich Village, best appreciated through some ironic big framed sunglasses.
Released last spring on HBO, HTMIIA felt at the time like a nice pre-summer jam; a forgettable but thoroughly enjoyable escapist recreation. It did reasonably well and a second season is to be expected later this year.
How To Make It In America debuts on February 13th in the UK, on Sky Atlantic.
Lost – Season 6
The final season of Lost, a show that I religiously followed for six years, was very similar to that universally painful realization, usually taking place at the dawn of adolescence, that your parents and pretty much all grown-ups don’t have a fucking clue about anything. The last eighteen episodes and that tedious Christian resolution unveiled during the rambling finale made it clear that the writers – contrary to everything they proclaimed along the years – had no idea of what they were doing, and that there was no big picture, underlying structure or any sort of vaguely rational explanation for all that spatiotemporal travelling, foggy ghosts and magnetic island business. We will never know why we saw flipping polar bears in the first season. I don’t know why but I was really looking forward to the reason for these ones. Aw well – it’s been a fun ride, shame it didn’t go anywhere.
Entourage – Season 8
Horrible, horrible season. This show has been in free fall for a while now (only the Scorsese cameo in the finale “saved” the previous season, and I’m being kind), but they have officially touched rock bottom. The weirdest thing about it is the almost feminist turn that took every single storyline (men are selfish, men are unfaithful, men are immature – THEY’RE ALL BASTARDS), for a show that used to be so unashamedly blokey. It is now as virile, engaging and funny as Sex and The City 2 (which I admittedly haven’t seen, but I guess the poster told me everything I needed to know). Kudos to Adrian Grenier though, who had to french-kiss Sasha Grey – taking a short break between two hardcore gangbangs and ass-to-mouth scenes – for the whole season without looking disgusted, or at least a bit reluctant.
You’d think that after milking the show for this long past its expiry date, they’ll know when to stop, but no, an Entourage movie is in the pipes, hence validating my parallel with previously mentioned HBO wreckage.
Friday Night Lights – Season 4 & 5
Friday Night Lights may well be one the greatest shows that nobody has ever heard off. A spin-off of the eponymous Billy Bob Thornton’s sport-flick vehicle, it is an improvement on every single aspect of the original.
A low budget, locally filmed soap focusing on the charismatic coach of a small-town football team in Texas, it sits comfortably at the pinnacle of teen/sports drama, a 21st century reinterpretation of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show.
It also boasts the best indie-based soundtrack since The OC – this year alone, we’ve been graced with two episode-ending montages edited to the sound of The National. There was also a ball-game scene in season 4 with Fucked Up’s epic Son of the Father roaring in the background, which, for a NBC show, is quite a bold choice.
I intend to write about it in more details when the series comes to an end in a month’s time. Thanks to French culture magazine Les Inrockputibles for pointing me in the right direction.
January 30, 2011 § 4 Comments
Boardwalk Empire – Season 1
The hype machine is currently on overdrive as HBO’s new crown jewel is unveiled on the brand new Sky Atlantic channel this tuesday. During the last weeks, we have been told to brace ourselves for a certified television masterpiece, to be mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Wire. I admire the PR work behind this one, but having already seen the entire season, I am more than reserved about the hyperbolic praise pouring on Boardwalk Empire.
HBO executives, probably pissed-off by AMC’s critical domination of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, decided to get the big guns out and remind everyone that they practically invented the concept of universally acclaimed TV drama a decade ago after all. Since suits have no imagination, they looked at the cable channel’s back catalogue and brainstormed for five minutes to come-up with an idea that would recycle all the things that previously worked. Conflicted gangsters (Sopranos, Wire), check. Gritty period setting (Deadwood), check. Social commentary and slow, erm sorry, “novelistic” pace (Wire, again and certainly more than a few cues taken from Mad Men), check. And of course, lots of frontal nudity and ugly men fucking gorgeous women in very risqué positions, just because they’re HBO, the home of ADULT television, capish? They dug out a non-fiction book describing Atlantic City’s transformation into an organised crime hub during the prohibition era and then summoned HBO’s “employees of the month” Terence Winter (David Chase’s trusted number 2) and Tim Van Patten (who put together more episodes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome or Deadwood than all the other home directors put together) to handle most the scriptwriting and direction, respectively.
Obviously, the real coup of HBO’s creative execs was to convince Martin Scorsese, god’s gift to cinema as we all know, to produce the series and shoot the pilot in his trademark pyrotechnic style, the first episode alone costing a record-breaking 18 millions dollars. Sounds promising right? The problem with supergroups is that they rarely work (listen to Them Crooked Vultures for a recent reminder), neither in rock music nor on the big screen, and too much talent and ego on the same project very often lead to a bloated and pretentious mess. Methinks that’s called “hubris” if you want to sound educated.
Of course, there is much to admire in Boardwalk Empire in terms of production values and savoir-faire: from the lavish set (the whole Atlantic City boardwalk was recreated, brick by brick) to the jaw-dropping costumes, from the slick panning-shots to the assured editing, probably never before has TV looked like big-budget cinema. Every single doorknob, period prop or jacket button look expensive; millions have not been spared, and it shows. It’s like Terence Winter is constantly screaming in your ear: “LOOK AT MY EXHORBITANT MASTERPIECE! NEVER SEEN SOMETHING LIKE THAT BEFORE HAVE YA? MARTY FUCKING SCORSESE HUH?!”
Nevertheless, as Benjamin Rozovas cleverly points out in Technikart, there is a “whiff of strangeness […] an ambient morbidity” mantling the show like a mist, reminiscent of the atmosphere of Scorsese’s recent nostalgic pieces (The Aviator, Shutter Island). Atlantic City is a ghost-town full of dead-men walking, and despite all that illegal champagne flowing and decadent partying, it feels like the mob hedonism, Goodfellas style, is long gone. Rozovas concludes that watching Boardwalk Empire reminded him of the ballroom picture in The Shining – it’s a stretch, but I can see where he’s coming from.
Huge credits must also be given to the supporting cast: Michael Pitt, presumably filling in for the Di Caprio obligatory slot (it seems that Scorsese is now unable to produce anything without him, or anybody that looks like him), is by far the most fascinating actor to watch, dominating every scene he is in with a textbook interiorised intensity à la DeNiro; Stephen Graham is a great proto-Al Capone with his pudgy bulldog face; Michael Stuhlbarg pulls out an impressive metamorphosis from the nerdy Jewish academic he played in A Serious Man to the suave yet constantly menacing criminal mastermind Arnold Rothstein ; the disfigured WW1 veteran with his mask and sniper rifle is genius but underused, and finally Michael K. Williams (a.k.a Omar from The Wire), providing a nice touch of self-referential casting (look at how much he enjoys himself declaiming countless “motherfuckers” after all these years of swearing deprivation). Kelly Macdonald inherits the most likeable character with the poor Irish immigrant turned courtesan Margaret Schroeder, but she turns out incredibly irksome halfway through the season– mainly because of the stagnant nature of her storylines and the total lack of chemistry with co-star Steve Buscemi. Which leads me to the two antagonistic forces supposedly driving the show: Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, half-gangster half-politician, and Michael Shannon’s Agent Van Alden, a quarter Elliot Ness, a quarter puritan and a good half pure sociopath.
This is where one of Boardwalk Empire’s main flaws lie: in the miscasting of their two leading men, Steve Buscemi and Michael Shannon. I am not the first one to notice it; as good as Buscemi can be playing the off-kilter supporting role in independent flicks, he does not convince as the main focus of the show. He lacks Gandolfini’s stature, DeNiro’s charisma, Pacino’s menace or Idris Elba’s charm – to cite only but a few iconic onscreen kingpins. Buscemi is at his best schmoozing during political reunions with his witty one-liners and wry smile, but fails to deliver any thrills when things are heating up. On the other side of the spectrum, Shannon delivers a madly theatrical, completely OTT performance, as the grimacing, self-flagellating federal agent. He never really fits in the show, and personally, I never managed to take him seriously…
Finally, my main concern with this first season is the plot: it’s all over the place, consisting of a disjointed bunch of not-so-exciting storylines; the series slightly taking off after five episodes, but never to really climax at any point and ending up with one of the most underwhelming finale I have ever seen. The attempts to introduce a solid socio-historical background are laboured and slow down the action, and in the end are too sporadic to really fulfil their pedagogic intentions.
Most of the events taking place in Atlantic City are dull, and the show only seems to achieve its potential when introducing historical characters like Capone, Rothstein, Lucky Luciano etc. or taking its protagonists to New York and Chicago – wherever Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) goes basically. The best episode of season 1 is by far “The Face and the Finger”, a violent account of the territorial war in Chicago’s Greek Town experienced through Jimmy’s reluctant involvement. Nothing to do with Nucky Thompson then… Less of him and more of Michael Pitt’s Darmody in season two would be a big improvement.
Put briefly, I never really got on board with it, never really looked forward to the next episode despite all the series’ undeniable qualities. Like most of Scorsese’s films of the last 15 years, Boardwalk Empire reaches perfection on a purely technical level, but it feels more like a trip to the museum than a movie – where are the urgency, the guts, the invention that made Marty’s earlier stuff so indispensable? It also feels like the weight of expectations is burdening Terence Winter, nowhere near as creative and groundbreaking as he was when penning cult Sopranos episodes.
Maybe it was just a hesitant start to a classic in the making, and Boardwalk Empire, just like The Wire, may turn out to be a slow-burner. Or not. In any case, I’ll be watching next year.
Coming up in part 3 tomorrow, my final thoughts on How To Make It In America, Lost, Entourage and Friday Night Lights.
January 17, 2011 § Leave a Comment
My embargoed review of David O. Russel’s film is back online. Click here if you haven’t read it yet or just scroll down the page.
“A well-told sporting story appealing to the inside jock hibernating in most of us”.
January 8, 2011 § 1 Comment
A bit late perhaps, but most of these shows will debut on UK television in 2011 anyway…
American TV series are the new opium of the masses – a worldwide addiction reaching new heights thanks to The Internet, this godlike enabler that pushes the most fragile of us to download entire seasons of Dexter, Desperate Housewives or Criminal Minds as if their sanity depended on it, when there is so much stuff to do, films to see and books to read. Sad. And if it seems that the golden age of groundbreaking televised drama (remember the mid-2000s with The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, etc.) is irremediably fading, there’s still plenty of good stuff around to feed the hard drive.
So, without further ado, here are the shows, in no particular order, that took a sizeable amount of my time in 2010.
Treme – Season 1
David Simon’s new show, a heartfelt ode to post-Katrina New Orleans and the spirit of its inhabitants, is the best thing I have seen all year. It’s The Wire with music instead of drugs. Many found this very concept boring – no blood, no guns, no romantic gangsters. Too bad for them. Treme is about everyday people trying to get by, a group of flawed but beautiful characters so real that it’s bordering on the uncomfortable. It’s not Eastenders after the levees broke though – nothing is soppy or melodramatic about these people’s lives: romance is doomed or pathetic; tragedy is latent and ordinary.
Wendell “Bunk” Pierce and Clarke “Freemon” Peters reprise slightly altered versions of their Wire persona, but this time as local musicians. Pierce still plays the gregarious man who’s real good at what he does (used to be PO-lice, here it’s playing the trombone) but likes earthy pleasures a bit too much (women & booze, again). And Peters remains this charismatic, wise and brave old-timer (Morgan Freeman watch out!), as the Chief of a tribe of Mardi-Gras Indians. They are both great, but Clarke Peters once again steals the show: after transforming doll-house furniture building into a dignified past-time in The Wire, he pushes it further in Treme by making sewing pearls look like the manliest thing on earth.
The rest of the ensemble cast is on the same note, absolutely excellent. John Goodman is impressive playing the ungrateful role of the self-absorbed academic, who, despite having his beautiful house and life spared by the hurricane, lets his romantic love for the city draw him into a bleak depression. Khandi Alexander (yes, that sexy coroner from CSI Miami) redeems herself from all these years playing in that pathetic excuse of a show with her subtle portrayal of a bar owner looking for her missing brother in the aftermath of the hurricane. There is also the irksome but necessary figure of local white DJ Davis McAlary (played by the excitable Steve Zahn) who serves as a symbol for gentrification and the controversial issue of white appropriation of black music, also obliquely addressing the recurring criticism of David Simon as “that middle-class white dude pretending to talk and care about the black underclass”.
Treme’s pace is languorous, not dictated by the need to drive storylines or pile up cliffhangers. It’s all about creating an atmosphere, getting a feel for the place. It is not, however, a sentimental postcard or a soppy mood piece: Simon’s ambition is intact, layering the show with so many metaphorical story arcs (e.g. the great jazz debate between tradition and new jazz fleshed out by the feuding Lambreaux father and son) and socio-political observations, still pointing out the unfairness and contradictions of US society. In contrast to The Wire where institutions, like Roman gods, would crush the lives of the mere citizens, in Treme, no ones seems to care about institutions that are in even worse shape than the city anyway – symbolised by all that rotting, damp paperwork.
A quick word about the soundtrack: live music sounds like live music, and it’s rare enough to mention – with sloppy notes, amp feedback, misunderstanding between performers, ego battles, failures to keep up, faulty equipment, etc. Whether you particularly like New Orleans jazz, southern rap, funk, second-line brass bands, Indian chants or not – the enthusiasm and freshness of the music will keep you interested (and there’s a good chance you’ll improve your iTunes library in the process).
In the long run, Treme could be considered superior to The Wire, as a masterful celebration of character, culture and community, a humanist look at life and death – and music. Let’s hope Simon keeps it up with the next season.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand– Season 1
I hate the term “guilty pleasure” – no one should be ashamed of their taste, or feel so posh that they have to file their popular inclinations under an effeminate and conveniently vague term. But if I ever were to use it, it would be for Spartacus. It’s Gladiator meets 300, spiced-up with even more sex, gore and decadence than in HBO’s Rome. How good can it get? The build-up to the climatic finale is expertly crafted (Sparcatus’ storylines are more clever than you think) – and THAT last episode is one of the most unapologetically savage thing ever filmed for mainstream TV – it makes class genocide so appealing that you’ll want to grab a sharp stick and rush to the streets to impale a few rich folks as soon as the credits roll. Past the first two episodes (admittedly a bit rubbish), this is some utterly addictive shit, from beginning to end. That Guardian piece got it absolutely spot on. By Jupiter’s cock!
Mad Men – Season 4
A modern masterpiece… The new form of the “great American novel”… The best thing on TV… The most influential show on the planet… Matthew Weiner is a genius… Etc etc. It’s all true. Don Draper may be a man of the 60s, he still is the quintessential icon for our times.
December 29, 2010 § 3 Comments
For an inaugural post, what about an “exclusive” film review eh? The other day, a friend of mine officiating in high places smuggled me into a press screening of The Fighter, which is hotly tipped to grab a bunch of Oscars in February, and will be out in the UK the same month. I must say I fucking loved it. Actually, it has been a while since I thoroughly enjoyed a film to such extent (could it be because 2010 was such a disappointing movie year?).
It probably has a lot to do with my infatuation with boxing films as a genre – Raging Bull and When We Were Kings rank high in my personal movie pantheon. Russel visibly knows the canon perfectly and manages to pay tribute to all these great virile sport flicks without ending up making a pastiche. The Fighter is full of intertextuality – from the font of the boxing matches’ captions to the training routines – it’s knowingly self-referential but also playing strictly by the rules, and that’s why it works so well despite what could be easily dismissed as a cliché-laden script of another underdog narrative.
The Fighter is based on the real life story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a taciturn and limited proletarian grafter very similar to Rocky Balboa (if the latter was Irish and not Italian), trained by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale) like Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. The difference here with Scorsese’s classic is that the only sane and sensible character is the fighter; his dysfunctional and self-destructive family (his brother has a serious drug problem while his mom is plain greedy) become his main obstacle on his way to victory. Loyal to his fucked-up family till the end, Ward wastes his best years until his brother ends up in prison for one crack stunt too many. Now in the twilight of his career, and with the help of his girlfriend, a local barmaid, and a grumpy Irish cop (played by his real-life counterpart) Mickey finds his way back to the ring and stumbles on a chance to fight for the world title, his one and only shot at glory. Will he capture it? Or just let it slip? etc. You get the idea.
Christian Bale once again delivers the performance of a lifetime as the brother/coach of the title character, a local boxing legend turned crack-head. He adds a new dimension to the film, somewhat between cartoonish and pathetic, as if he came straight out of Trainspotting. His lame schemes to support his habit are hilarious, as are his friends from the crackhouse, depicted in the same warm, non-judgemental way of Danny Boyle’s cult film. Bale’s extravagant albeit touching portrayal is also reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s performance in Jungle Fever, perfectly channelling the madness of the moment under the influence of crack, while maintaining the character’s humanity and integrity, avoiding to turn into a white Tyrone Biggums.
In the ropes, Mark Walhberg does what he does best: toughness + Irishness. Bringing vulnerability, grit and authenticity to the film, he leaves the flamboyance to Bale, who in return happily chews the scenery. Marky Mark could have just as easily steal the show like in The Departed but chooses not to. Definitely an underrated actor – mainly because he’s capable of restraint.
This is David O. Russel’s finest movie since Three Kings, a long awaited comeback for the director who wraps it up perfectly, playing with the different takes on the pugilistic genre, from the ESPN Classic approach (the shooting of a documentary on Dicky unfolds as an important storyline within the film while offering a welcome mise-en-abîme) to the Hollywoodian reconstitution and dramatisation of reality. The boxing fights, alternating inside-the-ring shots à la Raging Bull and HBO’s satellite coverage style, are infectiously gripping and perfectly edited. Finally, the recurring use of the song “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy brings energy and coherence, appropriately opening and closing the film.
Admittedly, The Fighter is nothing that we haven’t seen before, and was clearly made to provide Christian Bale with a custom-made Oscar vehicle. It is no Michael Man’s Ali though, and it is to the credit of the director and the cast if The Fighter still manages to pack a serious punch. A well-told sporting story will always appeal to the inside jock hibernating in most of us.