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more catching up: shameless, true detective, girls

The combination of being sick for almost a week, and the glut of new series beginning now, means I once again resort to “catching up”. In this case, it’s worth noting in advance that all three series deserve more than a quickie response.

The new series is HBO’s True Detective, with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as the titular detectives. HBO is taking an interesting approach to this series. Nic Pizzolatto is the series creator, and he has written all eight of the episodes for the first season. All of the episodes also feature the same director, Cary Fukunaga, a local-to-us talent who directed that fine version of Jane Eyre a couple of years ago. This combination should ensure a consistency to the season. The advertising for the show plays up the two stars, and it’s a good idea, because both were excellent in the opener. The action takes place in two different times, 1995 and 2012, and Harrelson and McConaughey, helped by some good makeup, are believable in both periods (17 years being long enough for a person to have evolved, but still being the same person). It takes place in Louisiana, and revolves around a ritual murder. Thus far, this plot is probably the least interesting thing about the show. What stands out is the characterizations of the two detectives.

HBO intends for True Detective to be an anthology series, so next season will have a different plot and characters. In theory, this should mean the show stays fresh over the years. For now, what matters is that True Detective is off to a great start. A-.

Shameless began its fourth season on Showtime last weekend. It’s my favorite of these shows … actually, it’s one of my favorite shows, period. And I’ve written about it several times, with this one, from a year ago, being fairly representative. It begins, “I’m still trying to understand what makes Shameless work, and why I’ve never convinced anyone to watch it.” It also lives in that Steven Space somewhere between “favorite” and “best” … my grades for the first three seasons were B+, A-, and A-, with no real expectation it will finally get that coveted “A”.

I also mention, every year, that Emmy Rossum gets an A+. Rossum’s work as Fiona is one of the great unnoticed performances of our time. She won some awards for her role in the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera (she can really sing), but the only award she’s ever come close to as Fiona is a nomination for a Prism Award (“given away to writers, producers, actors and actresses for their accurate depictions of mental health and substance abuse”), which she ironically lost to William H. Macy for … yep, Shameless. (In fairness, Macy’s character is the one with substance abuse problems … also in fairness, Rossum is a lot better on the show than even Macy.) I imagine Rossum is never going to win that Emmy … the role of “TV Actress Most Criminally Ignored” has moved on to Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black, and Maslany is indeed great. But Rossum is still playing at the top of her game, and I’m sure before the season is over, she’ll have another scene that makes YouTube and knocks our socks off. Season Three of Shameless ended like a series finale, and there was some question what direction the show would now take. Based on the season premiere, it’s all good. Yes, Fiona has a real paying job, so her family is inching just past the poverty line. But many of the characters we’ve come to know are still there, and it looks to be interesting watching what new surroundings will do. In this, it’s a bit like Season Four of Buffy, when everyone went to college. A-.

And then there’s Girls. It is such a polarizing show, and the arguments have long since turned old. Some of the complaints are reasonable, but too many of them come from people who don’t appear to have ever watched the show. (One friend hates Girls in part because when they shoot a season, parts of New York are closed off for filming, which understandably affects his life in a negative way.)

The basic problem is easy to state: the characters on Girls are self-absorbed twits and it’s an outrage that we’re supposed to like them. (I’m ignoring the “Lena Dunham gets naked too often” crap, which is so ludicrous this sentence is already too much time spent.) To be honest, I don’t actually know any people like the ones on Girls: 20-something white women trying to get by in Manhattan. I can’t speak to the specific veracity of the characters. But I often see parts of me in those women, which is rather remarkable considering I’m a 60-year-old man living on the opposite coast. But note, I said I saw parts of me … I didn’t say I liked those parts.

I’m falling into the trap of simplifying. There are critiques of the show that are more nuanced than I’m suggesting. (I don’t know how to link to specific Facebook threads, but one of the most interesting I’ve read came in a response to a two-sentence Facebook post about the show. As I type this, there have been 164 comments, 95 likes, and 2 shares.) And there is a fundamental point: if these women are so unlikeable, why would anyone want to watch them? I understand that, and I’m certainly not trying to force Girls onto folks who just don’t like the show. (I save that for Shameless … start watching!) But too often, I sense that people think we see The Girls as role models, that we don’t just see ourselves in their behavior, but see justification for that behavior in ourselves. And that is not what Girls is about. People would watch The Sopranos and want to be Tony, which drove David Chase crazy … he kept coming up with more vile things for Tony to do, and I’m not sure it ever worked. I’m willing to bet that far fewer people watch Girls and want to be Hannah than watched Sopranos and wanted to be Tony.

Perhaps the best way to understand what is going on with Girls comes in the pilot episode, when Hannah famously said, “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation”. Some people heard the first of those two sentences and signed off. And some people still seem to think the audacity of that sentence demonstrates the self-importance, not of Hannah, but of Lena Dunham. For me, that self-importance is what makes Hannah unlikable. The second sentence is what makes Hannah a character worth watching. A-.

what i watched last week

All Is Bright (Phil Morrison, 2013). I made a New Year’s resolution that I wouldn’t purposely watch any bad movies in 2014. I purged my Netflix queue of films that had made their way onto the list for no apparent reason, and looked to a new era of good movies. In the meantime, Netflix had sent me All Is Bright. It snuck in just as the calendar turned, and you can guess my enthusiasm by simply noting I didn’t get around to it until January 9. As is often the case, I’m not sure what prompted me to put it on the queue in the first place. It got middling reviews, although at least one critic I respect liked it. Netflix didn’t think I’d like it (predicting 2.3/5). I liked Phil Morrison’s Junebug, but all I remember from that is Amy Adams. All of which is by way of explaining why I quit watching All Is Bright after half an hour. It was slow and downbeat, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and at some point I remembered my New Year’s resolution. So I can’t review All Is Bright, because I never finished it. And I hope that’s the last time I say that in 2014.

getting personal

I don’t know of an easy way to calculate it, but I feel like in recent years, I’ve written fewer blog posts tagged “personal” than I used to. It’s as if I’ve more fully taken to heart the motto of this blog, as stated by Pauline Kael, “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” There is always another movie to watch, a new TV series to check out, new music being made and books being written. But my past doesn’t change, and my present lacks the kind of change that I think warrants a blog post.

Still, I suppose I could be more personal here. Over on Google+, someone commented on my American Hustle review, “do you go out ever or just watch movies all day?you seem a little to obsessed.”

That arrived in the midst of a pretty eventful day or two … whether I should mention it here is the question. I wrote my Music Friday post on Thursday afternoon, so it was ready to go. By 8:00 that night, I was sick. Really sick. I thought I had food poisoning, but enough other people I know have had similar symptoms, so I probably just had a version of “what’s going around”. In my case, it meant for approximately 12 hours, from 8:00 Thursday night to 8:00 Friday morning, I had severe diarrhea and vomiting. During those 12 hours, I lost six pounds. I couldn’t even hydrate … I’d take a few sips of water, and barf them up a few minutes later.

Yet, at least once during that time, I worried that I wasn’t making my presence known online. I was glad for that pre-written music post, since it meant the blog was covered for Friday. I didn’t go near Facebook or Twitter. The truth is, no one noticed … it’s not like I disappeared for a month, or that I’m all that important anyway. I did post on Google+, because we were getting phone calls on Friday (my wife having gotten sick as well), we weren’t answering those calls, many of them were from family, and my immediate family hangs out on G+:

“Anyone trying to reach us today: we are both sick. I had vomiting and diarrhea for 12 straight hours, Robin less sick but burned out. We aren't ignoring you.”

And that’s how I found out that my sister and my daughter were both sick, as well.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this … perhaps it’s part of trying to get back to normal. On Friday, it felt like we had jet lag … I hadn’t slept at all during the previous night, Robin hadn’t done much better, and so we spent the entire day in bed, sleeping on and off. As day became night, we turned off the lights so our bodies would understand it was now nighttime, because for that day, we’d been in limbo.

Now it’s Saturday, and I’m mostly better, if tired, and Robin is a bit better, but not enough. We’re still reduced to eating things like crackers and toast. And I’m using the act of posting to my blog as a version of turning the lights on and off. If I post to my blog on a Saturday afternoon, things must be returning to normal.

Maybe we’ll even get around to watching Helix.

music friday, 1953 edition

To some extent, I’m stalling in these early 2014 Music Friday posts, waiting for my inspiration to arrive. Last week I reduced 2009 to one Miranda Lambert song, and now I’ve chosen the year I was born, when I likely wasn’t listening to a lot of music. So this is more random than usual, and once again lacks much in the way of ground-breaking analysis.

Guitar Slim, “The Things That I Used to Do”. This spent six weeks at #1 on the R&B charts. It’s a pretty straightforward blues, with a nice solo by Slim in the middle, and an arrangement by Ray Charles that hinted at his own sound a few years down the road.

Ruth Brown, “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean”. I hope she had padding on her thigh when she recorded this video.

The Crows, “Gee”. One of many candidates for the first-ever rock and roll record (I’m as old as rock and roll).

Hank Williams, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. Recorded at his last session.

Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, “Money Honey”. The first hit featuring The Drifters, who at this point were McPhatter’s back-up singers.

Webb Pierce, “There Stands the Glass”. This was #1 on the country charts for 12 weeks.

Dean Martin, “That’s Amore”. First turned up in the Martin & Lewis movie The Caddy. For that reason, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song. Here’s the scene from the movie:

Big Mama Thornton, “Hound Dog”. Presented without comment.

Professor Longhair, “Tipitina”. Treme, R.I.P.

The Prisonaires, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain”. They came by their name honestly … the group was made up of men in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. Their influence on the early Elvis Presley is real, but uncertain.

catching up: downton abbey, justified, killer women

It’s too easy to say that one of these things is not like the other, but the truth is, that cliché works at least two ways, here. The obvious one is that Downton Abbey and Justified are established top-level series while Killer Women is a new pop confection. But I could also note that Justified and Killer Women are modern versions of the Western, while Downton Abbey is, well, Downton Abbey. What really, matters, though, is that one of these shows is a classic, one is an overrated pop confection, and one is a crappy pop confection.

Downton Abbey returned in America Sunday for Season Four. It has gotten worse with each season, so that Season One was quite good, Season Two was a drop off, Season Three was even worse. Still, friends had us over for a fine dinner and a group-watch of the season premiere, and it was a fun evening. Here’s the thing, though. We used to get together to watch The Tudors, because it was on Showtime, which our friends don’t get. The Tudors was ludicrous and hammy and filled with naked people having sex. I suppose the creators took it seriously, but it was always clear that they knew people watched as much for the hot-cha naked people as they did for the cockeyed history lesson. In other words, it was as far as you could get from a PBS series. When we laughed at The Tudors, we laughed with the folks behind the show. Downton Abbey, on the other hand, is all about the prestige. Yes, they have a built-in comedy go-to character in Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, but overall, things are v.serious on Downton Abbey. And, as I have said many times before, the desire for prestige shows in the way the series presents the upper class and the servants: the values of the show are the values of the Earl and Countess, and the most favored servants are the ones who try hardest to maintain the old values. Meanwhile, the ever-more-silly plot shenanigans leave us relying on the characters as a reason to keep watching, and the characters don’t really change over time, so their appeal lessens. Which leaves the acting, which remains strong, and you could watch Downton Abbey just to see the cast in action. But I care more about shows with interesting characters portrayed by interesting actors, than I do about shows where good actors do their best with shallow characters.

Justified, of course, is an exemplar of what I just said: interesting characters portrayed by interesting actors. And those characters show an odd kind of progression that doesn’t exist at Downton Abbey. We see these people trying to change, and we learn more about them with each season, but one of the underlying themes of Justified is that we can’t escape the place from which we came. So Raylan Givens works hard, as a lawman, to escape the future left him by his scumbag crook of a father, but as time passes, we (and he) realize it’s a case of like father, like son. Raylan doesn’t step over the line into a life of crime, but his pent-up anger at the world can’t be suppressed forever. And always looking over his shoulder is Boyd Crowder, the son Raylan’s father always wanted. Add to this the quality of the writing (every character on the show is capable of Dowager Countess wit, the dialogue is endlessly wonderful, and the scenes where two characters talk and talk and talk are often the best scenes in an episode) and you have a show as good as Downton Abbey pretends to be. Having said all of this, the Season Five premiere on Tuesday was a bit disappointing, although Justified has always been a show that picked up steam as the season progressed. While no one expects a repeat of the quality of Season Two with Margo Martindale (still and always the best season), I’m looking forward to spending the next couple of months with Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins.

Which leaves Killer Women. I watched the pilot for one reason, and one reason only: Tricia Helfer. In her favor? She is beautiful, she is a fun presence on the Internet with her BFF Katee Sackhoff, and she was one of the great surprises of Battlestar Galactica. She deserves a showcase for her talent. But she’s dealing with too many problems here. Killer Women wants to walk the line of a Raylan Givens, but it’s on ABC, and the playing field between broadcast and cable networks is too great, for the most part. Worse, where a show like Justified (or BSG, for that matter) exists in part to play around with the clichés of genre while simultaneously expanding that genre, based on the pilot, Killer Women is the cliché. There is nothing original here. It is possible the characters will gain depth over time, although I won’t stick around to find out. In the pilot, they just seemed intent on cramming as much backstory as possible into 42 minutes, while still solving the crime of the week. Helfer does what she can, but she is given very little to work with, and while she certainly has the acting chops to nail complex roles, without complexity, she’s mostly just a pretty ex-model. (Katee Sackhoff, who is not as classically beautiful as her buddy Tricia, is nonetheless able to grab the screen, even with limited roles, one reason I’m still watching Longmire.) Grade for pilot: C.

by request: the siege (edward zwick, 1998)

(This was suggested by Neal.)

There are good things to be found in big-budget Hollywood movies (The Siege cost $70 million). You can hire big-name actors who are actually good at their job (Denzel Washington got $12 million for this movie, Bruce Willis got $5 million for a smaller role, Annette Bening got $3 million as the female lead). You can make plans for “big” scenes that might cost a bit, but which will deliver on the screen (and The Siege, which deals with terrorist attacks on New York, has plenty of them). But if your script is confusing, all that money is wasted.

The Siege offers an interesting premise, wrapped in a time capsule (since it came out a few years before 9/11). “Arab” terrorists (I never quite figured out exactly where they were from) commit a series of acts in an attempt to get the release of one of their leaders. They blow up a bus, they blow up an office building, they blow up a theater, they blow up an FBI office. Hundreds of people die. Denzel is the good-guy FBI agent, Willis is a General, and Bening is a mysterious CIA agent.

What follows, though, is a set of provocative scenes, usually accompanied by a slight attempt to mitigate the underlying racism of the film. So 600 people die in an explosion set off by Arab terrorists, and in a later meeting, one Arab man stands up and proclaims that he loves America. Well, glad that’s settled. There is only one Arab character (played by Tony Shalhoub) with any depth at all (he is Denzel’s partner). All other Arabs are either terrorists, or part of a faceless mob. It is true that as the movie progresses and martial law is declared, we are supposed to feel sorry for the Arabs rounded up and forced into a stadium. But again, they are faceless, and Zwick drops the ball in any event. We don’t know these people, so it doesn’t affect us deeply when they are mistreated. (Shalhoub’s son is among the people rounded up, but that’s the first we heard that he even had a son … it’s another example of ass-covering by Zwick.)

The explosions are effectively presented, but other crowd scenes are definitely lacking. Zwick doesn’t spend much time on the rounding up of Arabs, and when people start to rebel, marching and chanting, the protesters look more like day-job hires from the back lot than actual protesters.

Finally, there’s Bening’s CIA agent. Her character is a mess … maybe that’s how it is with the CIA? … she can’t be trusted, except when she can be trusted, which occurs whenever the plot needs to move in a certain direction. It’s hard to feel sympathy for her, even though Bening does what she can with the role, because the character is too shifty.

Denzel is good, as always … you get the feeling he could do a part like this in his sleep, but it’s always better when he’s on the screen. Willis, like Bening, is plagued with a script that plays the conceal/reveal game with his General solely to create tension. There’s nothing he can do except collect his $5 million. The Siege is a decent time-waster, but nothing more. It’s confusing and overblown … we’re not talking The Battle of Algiers here. The mostly-good acting balances out at least some of the anti-Arab stuff (the film was the target of many protests). There’s a good film to be made on the subject, but The Siege is just passable. 6/10. If you’re feeling adventurous, The Battle of Algiers would be a good counter to this film. If you’re looking for more Denzel Washington, I’m partial to Inside Man, which has a great cast and Spike Lee at the top of his game.

what i watched last week

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007). People often say a particular book is “unfilmable”. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would seem to fall into that category. It’s a memoir written by a man who was paralyzed over his entire body except for his left eye. It is safe to say that there is nothing cinematic about two hours of a blinking eye. Schnabel pulls it off using a variety of methods, most importantly, showing much of the action from the perspective of that one eye. While Mathieu Amalric’s performance as Jean-Do Bauby is necessarily minimal, the various people who help him offer plum roles for a series of fine actors (including Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Consigny, and Marie-Josée Croze), regularly seen in close-up as they get as near to Bauby as they can. Between these scenes, a running inner dialogue from Bauby, and the occasional move outside of the hospital room, Schnabel manages to give us a sense of what Bauby’s life might have been like. And Schnabel also manages to make a movie that isn’t depressing, but also refrains from cheap pulls at our emotions. #173 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top movies of the 21st century. 8/10. For another film by Schnabel, try Before Night Falls. A good choice for a movie with Mathieu Amalric and Anne Consigny is A Christmas Tale.

East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955). It’s from a novel by John Steinbeck, it’s directed by Elia Kazan, and the cast includes Julie Harris and, in an Oscar-winning performance, Jo Van Fleet (not to mention Raymond Massey and Burl Ives). But what really matters is that it stars James Dean. You can’t keep your eyes off of him, and his performance dominates every scene in which he appears. The story retells Cain and Abel to some extent, but it doesn’t fit in an exact manner, because Dean/Cain/Cal is fawned over so that we understand his miseries in a much deeper way than we do any of the other characters. It becomes a movie about a misunderstood youth, as if Dean’s subsequent role as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause was dropped into Salinas in 1917. It’s quite a feat, and it’s clear that Kazan loves Dean, that the camera loves Dean, that the audience loves Dean. But Jim Stark doesn’t really belong in 1917 America, so the film must have seemed very contemporary to audiences in the mid-50s, even as now, with historical perspective, we feel the dislocation between Stark and Steinbeck. #712 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 8/10. By all means, watch this in tandem with Rebel Without a Cause. And for two other Kazan films from the 50s, try A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, both of which star Dean’s predecessor, Marlon Brando.

Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006). Johnnie To is reliable. He makes above-average Hong Kong movies, never bad, never great, but usually enjoyable. Exiled has a little of everything: homages to spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch, classic HK triad action and goofy humor, even an emotional performance by Josie Ho (women aren’t always given much to do in these movies). To leaves plenty of time for character development, and if the characters don’t get much deeper than they are when we meet them, at least it’s a nice attempt. And the final shootout is great. 7/10. My favorite movie from To is Vengeance, which has a great performance from Johnny Hallyday.

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh, 2012). 5/10.

American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013). 8/10.

by request: american hustle (david o. russell, 2013)

This was requested by my wife, as part of an ongoing movie-and-dinner series we’ve been enjoying with my sister and brother-in-law.

It has been so long since my favorite David O. Russell film (Three Kings) was released, that I forget he directed it. So I came to American Hustle without too many preconceptions. For that matter, my thoughts on Jennifer Lawrence were guided in large part by her public persona, in which she shines by appearing to have no desire to concoct a Public JLaw with the usual barriers to her “real” self. In truth, up until now, the only movie of hers I had seen was Winter’s Bone. I thought that movie was so good, and I thought she was so excellent in it, that I jabbered about it all the time (remember that despite all the Oscar nominations, it only made around $14 million at the box office). I loved her before she became such a lively public presence, and a bit of the fanboy emerged as I shared the latest videos of her. Yet I never got around to seeing her movies. So one thing I am very happy to say is that Jennifer Lawrence is wonderful in American Hustle.

In fact, the acting was my favorite part of the movie. I can’t think of too many comparisons between this and Three Kings, but that film also had top-notch acting (not only was Ice Cube great, but he starred in a brief DVD extra that remains one of my all-time favorites). And the other Russell film I’ve seen, The Fighter, was dominated by great acting, with three Oscar nominations hiding the fact that the best job was done by Mark Wahlberg, who was ignored by the Academy (he was good in Three Kings, as well). Suffice to say that from my limited experience, David O. Russell draws the best out of his actors.

Which is especially good in American Hustle, where a lazy tempo made 138 minutes seem longer. I was never bored … there was always something interesting to take in … but there was often a lack of urgency, which is likely exactly what Russell wanted, but which still made the film drag a bit. (Like many others, I was reminded at times of Goodfellas. But American Hustle never rose to the heights of that movie’s best sequences.) Mostly, this is just nitpicking on my part, but it gets at why despite my enjoying American Hustle, I never thought I was watching a classic.

Also, none of these con artists were the type of charming rapscallion that makes this kind of movie fun to watch. They were more than stereotypes, in fact, which made for deeper characterization, which made for a “better” film, but which also contributed to the low-key nature of the movie’s appeal. None of which is a bad thing, and American Hustle would have been a lesser movie if it moved more closely to established genre expectations. But I have a long-standing struggle between my idea of “best” and my idea of “favorite”, and American Hustle was more “best” and less “favorite”.

Three of the primary actors deserve special mention. Jeremy Renner made his corrupt mayor seem a genuine champion of the people. Jennifer Lawrence, as mentioned, delivered on every scene she had. One point in particular stands out. I thought her character was smart, not the typical dumb blonde, but I see from reviews that many disagree with me. But then one person nailed it (I’d give a citation but I forget who it was): Lawrence played Rosalyn as someone who wasn’t as smart as she thought she was. I’m entranced enough with Lawrence that I bought into Rosalyn's self-perception, but I think that critic was right. Having said that, I’d add that Rosalyn is treated like she’s dumb, so she has a lot to overcome, and Lawrence was great at showing the character’s loose cannon nature.

Amy Adams was my favorite of them all. She played with such confidence that when she finally admitted that she was just an American girl, the insecurity behind her reinvention was heartbreaking. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the combination of Adams’ attitude towards the world and the remarkable outfits she wore meant that the sexual electricity was hot, indeed. 8/10.

Good companion pieces would include the movies I mention above: Three Kings, Winter’s Bone, and Goodfellas. The first two are quite different from American Hustle, but I like to promote them as I believe they are underrated. And Goodfellas is quite a bit like American Hustle.

music friday, 2009 edition

I wonder if 2009 is when I finally fell off the cliff into old-guy territory. I’m looking at a playlist of songs from that year, and I see very little that I even recognize. “Empire State of Mind” and … well, not enough to create a top ten list, unless I just wanted to post some good songs without any commentary.

So I’ll go instead with a Fred Eaglesmith song from Miranda Lambert’s third album, Revolution. I don’t pay enough attention to country music to know if Revolution is a good album, but I’ve liked many of Lambert’s songs, especially “Kerosene”. This one is “Time to Get a Gun”:

Time to get a gun
That’s what I’ve been thinking
I could afford one
If I did just a little less drinking
Time to put something
Between me and the sun
When the talking is over
It’s time to get a gun

Here’s a video:

Here’s Fred Eaglesmith:

And what the heck, “Empire State of Mind”: