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last resort, series premiere

Last Resort is the latest offering from Shawn Ryan, this time working with Karl Gajdusek. It’s hard to figure out who does what; I think the premise was Gajdusek’s. Gajdusek worked as a writer on Dead Like Me, and wrote the script for the Nicolas Cage/Nicole Kidman movie Trespass. Ryan is the man behind The Shield and Terriers, among other shows. His name on a new series is reason enough for me to watch.

Everyone seems to agree on a couple of items regarding the pilot for Last Resort. It’s a great standalone episode, tense, definitely in the “I want to watch more” department, with the usual excellent acting from lead Andre Braugher. And it’s difficult to see how someone could make an ongoing series with this premise, that a Navy captain in charge of a submarine carrying plenty of nuclear missiles finds himself and his ship declared enemies of the U.S. government. They set themselves up at an island in the Indian Ocean, and … well, there’s the rub. What’s next?

There seems to be a chance for some Lost-style action on the island, but Braugher’s captain can’t just launch missiles at the U.S. willy-nilly, so who knows where the show is headed. Ryan and Gajdusek tell us they know what they’re doing, and I’m giving Ryan plenty of chances to succeed.

The pilot was every bit as good as the reviews suggested, and Braugher is so good, he could carry the series by himself. (I say this as someone who has always recognized Braugher’s skills without ever actually watching one of his series. My only extended experience with him was from his brief stay on House.)

I’m weeding my way through the new series, and am mostly disappointed. One episode of Vegas was enough to convince Robin and I we’d be skipping it. Revolution has my attention, but it’s not a good sign that the second episode is still on my DVR, unwatched. I doubt I’ll stick with The Mindy Project, although it seems good enough. Last Resort looks like my last chance to get involved with a new series. The premiere is a fine start. Grade for pilot: A. And an obvious incomplete for the series to come.

music friday: benny spellman, “lipstick traces (on a cigarette)”

With the return of Treme, it seemed like a good idea to pick a song that was featured in this week’s episode.

“Lipstick Traces” was written under a pseudonym by Allen Toussaint, and recorded in New Orleans by Spellman in 1962. Irma Thomas was among the backup singers. Prior to that, Spellman was best known, or at least most often heard, as the backup vocalist on another song written by Toussaint, Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law”. “Lipstick Traces” tells the story of a man who has lost his lover:

Lipstick traces on a cigarette
Every memory lingers with me yet
I’ve got it bad, like I told you before
I’m so in love with you, don’t leave me no more

A variety of people covered the song over the years, from the O’Jays to Ringo Starr to Alex Chilton. (Greil Marcus titled his expansive look at avant-garde art and politics, and their connection to punk rock, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century.) Here’s the original:

You can also hear Spellman on “Mother-in-Law”:

The flip side of the “Lipstick Traces” single was yet another Toussaint original, “Fortune Teller”:

This one also ended up being covered by many artists, including The Who, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. But perhaps the most famous cover version was by the Rolling Stones. A studio recording, it ended up on Got Live If You Want It!, with screams overlaid to create a faux-live sound:

Spellman was eventually inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame:

the mindy project, series premiere

Who says I don’t watch sitcoms? OK, I do. I watched this because I felt like giving Mindy Kaling a chance. I liked her on The Office back when I watched it, and it seems like a good idea to support the kind of diversity on television that Kaling helps represent.

The Mindy Project was OK. I’m not sure I laughed at all, but it was pleasant, rather like Girls only Kaling goes easier on herself than Lena Dunham does with her alter ego. What it really reminded me of, though, was Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl. Being a big fan of Zooey’s, I tuned in to the premiere of that series when it popped up last season. I’m not sure I laughed at all, but it was pleasant. I didn’t make it to the end of the pilot, though, because even as I watched it, I could tell I wasn’t going to stick with it for very long, and if that was the case, why not just save myself the trouble of having ten episodes backed up on the DVR. I never watched it again.

I made it through the entire pilot of The Mindy Project. I have the DVR set up to record the series. But I already have the feeling I’ll never watch it again. Don’t take this as an evaluation of the show … it’s just me and my taste preferences. I seriously hope Kaling has a big hit on her hands.

by request: purgatory (uli edel, 1999)

This was suggested by my sister and brother-in-law. He is a great fan of Westerns, and she singled this one out as a personal favorite of hers.

Based on some of the reviews I was able to dig up, I think Purgatory might have seemed better when it first came out as a TNT TV movie. At best, they expected a run-of-the-mill time waster, and when it turned out to be a bit better than that, they were understandably pleased. I came to it, though, expecting it to be more than run-of-the-mill, and when it was just OK, I felt a bit let down.

One of the many pleasures of genre is that we get to relive the same patterns and metaphors and archetypes. Especially in the earlier days of Western movies, you knew what to expect when you watched a Western, and the things that made one Western a classic and another Western a dud were subtle … the classic and the dud were still recognizably Westerns. This is true for more than just movies, of course. Some people like police procedurals, and they’ll watch the various Law & Order and NCIS and CSI shows at random. It barely matters which one is on, or which episode from which season … what matters is that you know what you are getting when you turn on your TV.

The thing is, the more you watch genre fare, the more attuned you are to the archetypes, the more you value the small step away from the norm. If you’ve seen a thousand Westerns that were all pretty much the same, and then one day came across a Western with a twist, it would be quite refreshing. Purgatory is an example of this. It’s a Western, with shootouts and bad guys and sheriffs and saloons and horses, it’s got characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Doc Holliday (yes, all of them). Sounds like a standard Western, but then there’s the part where … well, I’m not one for spoilers, but just look at the title. It’s a Western with a metaphysical, fantasy bent. The Same Old Western Town, “Refuge”, isn’t really the Same Old Western Town (again, see the title). The characters (OK, I’m dumping a lot of spoilers into this post, but it’s a 1999 TV movie, fer chrissake, there’s gotta be a statute of limitations) aren’t just Sheriff Forrest and Doc Woods and Deputy Glen, they are Wild Bill and Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid, only they’re (see the title).

That’s quite a twist, and it turns Purgatory into something other than Just Another Western. The cast is solid, as well: Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Randy Quaid, Donnie Wahlberg, and other “hey, it’s that guys” like Peter Stormare and John Diehl and Richard Edson and R.G. Armstrong.

But one genre it never really escapes from is that of the TV movie. It gets the job done, but in a rather plodding fashion. And there isn’t a lot of originality once you get past the twist … we’re not talking Firefly.

It also doesn’t pay to think too hard about the basic scenario. Given the rules the film establishes, all of those famous bad guys wouldn’t be in Refuge at the same time. It is unclear how Purgatory’s own bad guys, led by Eric Roberts, manage to end up in Refuge. And the moral at the end of the movie is reminiscent of those old Billy Jack movies, which preached peace and love but always fell back on scenes of Billy Jack kicking everyone’s ass. The famous bad guys make a decision near the end of the film that ensures they are going to Hell (and in this movie, Hell is a real place and you don’t want to be there). But, after doing the things that will send them to Hell, they are instead rewarded with a trip to Heaven, as if Billy Jack wrote the script and said “oh, I changed my mind, it’s OK to kick ass if the ass belongs to a bad guy”.

Nowhere is this more jarring than in the scene that kicks off the final shootout. Jesse, Wild Bill, Doc, and some made-up guy you don’t care about take the long walk to their doom, knowing that Hell awaits them. They line up just like The Wild Bunch did in that classic movie’s classic scene, but the homage only reminds you that The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest Westerns of all time, while Purgatory is a TV movie with Eric Roberts as The Bad Guy. And the end is a cheat: the Wild Bunch do indeed fight until their death, but the “good” guys in Purgatory don’t even end up in Hell. The quote that caps all of this, “The Creator's tough, but he ain't blind”, is a literal example of a deus ex machina, and while it’s another unexpected twist to the typical Western to find out God made it happen, it’s a lazy way to finish the film.

None of this would matter if the characters had depth, but here, Purgatory relies entirely on archetypes. All we know about the main characters, we learn from their “real” names: the Sheriff is Wild Bill Hickok, and that’s all you need to know about him. Same thing with Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Doc Holliday. The characters in The Wild Bunch drew on archetypes, but they were more than that; they had depth, and you cared about them as more than just a way to move the plot along.

Still, if I can write this much about a TV movie, wherein I spend a lot of time comparing it to The Wild Bunch, then the movie clearly has something going for it. I’ve seen TV movies that were a lot worse than Purgatory. Hell, I’ve seen “movie movies” that were a lot worse than Purgatory. 6/10.

treme, season three premiere

Just as Season Three begins comes the announcement that there will be a Season Four, but that there might be fewer episodes, enough to close the story but not a full ten-or-more.

General critical response to Treme has always been good (Metacritic’s collating system places all three seasons in the “Universal acclaim” section), so perhaps I’m just sensitive, but I feel like the show doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Maybe I should just avoid Grantland. Last year, I complained about “The Frustrating Unlikeability of Treme” by Alex Pappademas on that site (the title says it all). I was surprised by that take; as I wrote at the time, “for me, it is likable above all else”. Now, Grantland hands the job of evaluating Treme to Andy Greenwald, who resorts to a little finagling in his second sentence, where he refers to “the rumbling second line of critics and naysayers who have high-stepped forward to wrinkle their brows and shake their heads at the inherent unlovableness” of the show. He links to one of that seemingly massive group of critics … click on the link, and you end up back at Pappademas’ piece from last season. Which explains why Metacritic sees a general consensus that Treme is very good, while Grantland now has two pieces disagreeing with that sentiment while trying to claim a huge rumble.

Which isn’t to say that Treme should be free of critical analysis. Jonathan Alexander, in a piece for the LA Review of Books that was reprinted on Salon, writes a detailed analysis that brings in Spike Lee’s terrific documentaries, When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, adds a dollop of Walter Benjamin, discusses his personal reaction to the story as someone who grew up in the area, and argues that the real subject of Treme is aesthetics (“while ‘The Wire’ plays as aestheticized documentary, ‘Treme’ plays like a documentary about aesthetics”). Alexander seems to apologize at one point, saying “I don’t hate ‘Treme’”, but there’s nothing to apologize for. While Grantland attempt to create a negative meme around the notion of unlikeability, Alexander actually pays close attention to what happens on the series, and places it in a larger cultural context.

Meanwhile, I’m just a fanboy. I couldn’t disagree more with Grantland about the likability of Treme; I find it quite joyous on a regular basis. That it manages to convey that joy in the midst of a portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans that doesn’t shy away from harsh realities lifts Treme to a level most shows never reach. Add the ever-present music and all the great food, and the endless list of great actors giving wonderful performances in well-written parts, and you’ll understand why I find Treme just as good now as I did at the end of last season, when I gave the show an A.

the magic number is zero

I may have miscounted, but I believe tonight was the 8th time the San Francisco Giants have clinched something at home. They’ve had a lot of “road clinches”, beginning with the 1962 playoff, where they beat the Dodgers in L.A. In 1971 they clinched the NL West in San Diego. They did the same in 1987. In 1989, they clinched the NL West in Los Angeles. Finally, in the 1989 NL Championship Series, they finished off the Cubs at Candlestick Park, the first time since the team moved west that their fans could celebrate with them. I was at that game.

They didn’t clinch for the home fans again until 1997, when they won the NL West at Candlestick. I was at that game.

In 2000, they capped their first season at the new park at China Basin by clinching the NL West at home. I was at that game. In 2002, they first clinched the Wild Card at home, and then beat the Cardinals at home to advance to the World Series. I was at both of those games.

In 2003, they clinched the division at home. I was at that game.

In 2010, they clinched the division on the last day of the season, at China Basin. I was at that game. Remarkably, they then won the World Series while clinching three levels of the post-season on the road … there were no home-game celebrations in the 2010 post-season.

So, up until tonight, the Giants had clinched at home seven times, and I was at the game all seven times.

When the Giants clinched tonight, I was in a car, halfway between Sacramento and Berkeley.

revisiting the u.c. theatre: speed racer

I came across an old calendar for the UC Theatre repertory cinema house, listing the films they would show from June 13 through September 1, 1993. Like many Berkeley filmgoers in the days before big-screen TVs, we spent a lot of time at the UC, particularly on Thursday nights when they had a Festival Hong Kong where I first saw many of my favorites. The theatre opened back in 1917, and never became a multiplex. In 1974 it was one of the first two theatres bought and run for Landmark Theatres.  (Landmark went national over the years, and was eventually bought by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner.) Landmark used the UC as a revival house. It had 1300 seats (i.e., it was huge).

Always looking for new projects to fill space on this blog, I decided to revisit the UC via the newly-found calendar. Which is why I watched The Speed Racer Show, which appears to be something which was released in 1993 as Speed Racer the Movie. The calendar blurb says it’s a PREMIERE, and they showed the film for two days (they usually changed the bill daily), June 13th-14th. The show/movie contained three episodes of the 1967 TV series, “The Car Hater” and “Race Against the Mammoth Car” (a two-parter). There was also a Colonel Bleep short, which I’m assuming was “The Treacherous Pirate”.

I wasn’t a fan of the anime version when it turned up on American TV in the 60s, but I gave it a try for this new experimental project. Speed Racer was better than I expected, although I wouldn’t go much farther than that. The plots moved right along (although the two-parter was a bit too long), the music gave a nice drive to the action, no pun intended, and I appreciated that it was not made for little kids. Colonel Bleep was an oddity, and I’m not sure why it was included. Colonel Bleep, from the late 1950s, was the first color cartoon made for TV. Bleep was an alien from another planet, there was a caveman named Scratch, and most of the episodes are apparently lost. It was an interesting five minutes, nothing more.

Obviously, this stuff would have played better among an enthusiastic crowd, something I could probably say for everything on the calendar. But then, in 1993, I wouldn’t have gone to see this in the first place (although, in fairness, I don’t recall too many specific trips to the UC, so I might have attended some of the films at the time).

Meanwhile, at the time, the UC had what they called “Shakespeare Sundays”. On June 13th they showed Orson Welles’ Macbeth.

Next up: two “Classics of World Cinema”, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.

And here’s a public service announcement that often played before films at the UC: