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fargo, season one finale

Fargo the TV series was what a Coen Brothers movie would be like if the Coen Brothers weren’t actually involved. Series creator Noah Hawley took a certain tone from the movie Fargo, and wasn’t shy about working other Coen angles into the show. But his series wasn’t a sequel to the movie, or a remake, and while it had one (or more?) specific connections to the film, for the most part, it existed in its own space, and you could enjoy it without knowing the movie.

To which one might ask, why bother? Why not just create a world from scratch? I’d say Fargo the movie had room for more than just the central plot and characters that carried it. The TV series played with our expectations, but it always had its own place, one which I found compelling for the duration of its ten-episode run.

I’ve always been on the fence about the Coens, but Fargo is my favorite of their movies, so I welcomed a new look at that environment. Fargo (the series) confounded lots of expectations, not just for fans of the movie. It had bad guys … it had seemingly nice guys who turned bad, which is a fairly common theme in modern TV … but it wasn’t really about the bad guys, it was about the good guys, who weren’t all good, but who operated from a place of decency that separated them from the usual anti-heroes of today. Front and center was Molly Solverson, the closest thing in the series to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. Molly was a perfect example, though, of how the show borrowed from the movie, but made something of its own, for she wasn’t a copy of Marge, she was a character separate from what came before. Molly was played by Allison Tolman, the breakout star of the show … Tolman had done very little acting prior to Fargo, as best as I can tell she did comedy podcasts, but she is as perfect as Molly as McDormand was as Marge. She is the heart of the show, and pretty much the brains of the show, as well.

As is usual for the best TV series these days, there is plenty of fine acting throughout. Billy Bob Thornton had the showiest role as a mysterious hit man, and Martin Freeman got a chance to chew some scenery. That played well against the more deadpan performances of people like Adam Goldberg, or the gentle excellence of Keith Carradine as Molly’s dad (when did he become so incapable of giving a bad performance?).

The resolution of the various narrative threads in the final episode was satisfying enough, although I’m not surprised to read critics who had problems with this or that angle. It wasn’t a perfect ending, and I don’t know that it would hold up to focused examination. But you realized by the end that Fargo fit the cliché of something that was as much about the journey as about the destination. It was quirky, it was funny, its violence often came in through the side door when you were looking at the front … you never knew what was next, and that was part of the fun.

I wouldn’t call it a great series, although Tolman needs to get more attention, she was great all on her own. At times, it was too proud of itself in the manner of a Coen Brothers movie, and outside of Molly and her dad, there weren’t a lot of recognizable humans … they were “humans”, if the scare quotes make sense. But for a project that could have easily stunk, Fargo was a pleasant surprise. Grade for first (only?) season: A-.


we tweet, therefore we are

It hits like a flash mob. You’ll have your Twitter feed running in the background, you’ll check it periodically (the length of the period depending on the level of your obsession), and you’ll see the usual stuff coming at the usual speed. Twitter allows each of us to create our own set of people to follow, so each feed looks different, but we all know what a “normal” day looks like on Twitter for us. In my case, I get lots of stuff about sports, and stuff about television, and stuff from friends. Then, suddenly, one of the people you follow takes part in some instant meme, like #RuinAKidsMovie. Let’s see, in the last hour, I’ve seen Beauty and Bestiality, Bowel’s Moving Castle, Mary Poppin Pills, Sex Toy Story, Shitty Titty Gang Bang, Scat in the Hat, and Lady and Her Cramps, among others.

Your Twitter feed becomes overwhelmed with these jokes, some of which are great, but in totality, they make Twitter an awful place to visit. Luckily, the flash mob moves on eventually, and things return to normal, until the next meme strikes.

Sometimes, it’s not a meme. It’s just the nature of the social media beast. ESPN is running an ad that claims during the World Cup, there is only one time zone:

Twitter is a perfect place for virtual hanging out with millions of like-minded folks. This is especially true during real-time events … when there is an earthquake, I always go straight to Twitter to see who else felt it … during political actions, participants and observers can report using Twitter … and, of course, during sporting events that create “only one time zone”, everyone can join in simultaneously.

You get mini-videos like this, showing worldwide Twitter usage during the match between Ghana and the USA:

GHA-USA

(If you didn’t know where Ghana was, that visual would tell you in seconds.)

If you are not a fan of the event taking place, this stuff seems like a nightmare meme. Instead of Sex Toy Story, you get “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!” tweets turning up a couple of dozen times on your feed within a few seconds of each other.

The excellent Rob Neyer, well-known baseball fan and expert (and apparently a non-fan of soccer), posted the following tweets in succession:

Wow, all the identical tweets after every goal have me hoping that U.S. gets eliminated quickly.

hahaha fun making a small joke and seeing which people think I should "go back to Russia"

Seriously, question to my friends: Why tweet exactly the same thing that thousands of others are tweeting? This is a professional matter.

We’ve all been there, at least all of us who frequent Twitter. And it’s annoying when we aren’t in on the party. But Neyer struck a nerve with soccer fans, who tend to have a pretty thin skin when it comes to their favorite sport. Hard to tell if folks were being tongue-in-cheek, but Neyer was told he “hates the country” and was labeled “Worst person today”. Finally, “KinnerMode” wrote, “The game-winning USA goal was amazing…but that doesn't make @robneyer wrong.”

Think about similar situations in “real life”. The neighbors are having a party, and people are enjoying themselves … the music’s playing, the conversation is happy, people spill out onto the back porch. You’re sitting at home reading a book. You might feel happy for your neighbors, but you might also think, “Damn, it’s loud!” Or you go to work on a Monday, and all anyone wants to do is talk about Game of Thrones, and you don’t watch that show. You might feel happy that your workmates have something to bond over, but you might also think, “Can we PLEASE talk about something else?”

That’s what Neyer was talking about. He’s checking Twitter just like any other day, and he probably has a lot of sports fans on his Follow list, being that he is himself a sportswriter, albeit one who specializes in baseball. All of a sudden … maybe he’s watching the Royals’ baseball game, maybe he’s thinking about the great baseball player Tony Gwynn, who died today … maybe he’s not paying attention to GHA-USA because he’s not a soccer fan, not even of the World Cup. And then … BOOM! John Brooks scores for the U.S., and Rob Neyer’s Twitter feed explodes with dozens, hundreds, thousands of frenzied fans, all tweeting some variant of “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!”

Maybe you are one of the many of us who rejoiced at Brooks’ goal, maybe you shouted your joy on Twitter or Facebook or Google+. And it felt wonderful to know there were all those other people watching the same thing at the same time as you, inspired to Tweet at the same moment that you were inspired to do the same. Twitter becomes our virtual pub.

But Twitter isn’t that place on the corner that people go to when they want a beer. No, Twitter is a pub in your backyard, full of people even when you are doing something at home.

After Clint Dempsey’s goal, 34 seconds into the match, one person tweeted, “Grateful not to be watching this in a bar.” And she is a fan! I knew just what she meant … sure, I jumped up and shouted and stomped on the floor at my house more than once during the match, and yes, I was happy to share those moments with people on Twitter. But I appreciated the virtual aspect of the camaraderie. And I don’t blame Rob Neyer if he experienced multiple simultaneous GOOOOOOL! tweets the same way I experience the flash-mob memes of #RuinAKidsMovie.

Meanwhile, there are still people who actually watch the games in public, and there are television stations there to report on it in real time, just like Twitter, only with pictures!

Local Reporter Captures USMNT Game-Winner Live, Has Priceless Reaction


game of thrones, season four finale

Been some weird stuff surrounding this show, personal context only. My wife said today that she’s always been surprised that I like Game of Thrones, because it’s not my kind of show. I know what she means … fantasy is not normally my genre … but it was on HBO, it got good advance notice from critics I trust, so I gave it a try, and once you’re in, quality wins over any genre qualms.

After tonight’s finale, I opened up Twitter (which I’d avoided once the East Coast feed began, because it’s Spoilers Galore at that point) and saw that a friend of mine whose opinion I trust had given Season Four a C+, “up” from a C- for Season Three. Now, we tend to have different tastes in TV shows (she listed as “better shows than GoTPenny Dreadful, Lost Girl, Continuum, and Spartacus … I watch and like one of those four, have watched and respect another, and have never seen two of them), so we don’t often watch the same thing, or even agree all the time. But she’s smart and knows her stuff, plus she’s read the GoT books, so I assume she’s in for the long haul. I asked her if the fact I hadn’t read the books might explain the differences in our evaluations, and she said that was possible. It’s hard for the book readers to talk about certain things in Game of Thrones, though, because they know things we TV-only fans do not. (Looking back at some of the comments she has left here on previous seasons, I can see she’s had reservations for a long time.)

Anyway, I feel I’ve written this a lot, but once a series gets through four seasons, I’ve pretty much said my piece. Mostly it’s just a question of whether the show is still worthy … it’s hard to keep a show going at a high level. So I’ll say that I thought Season Four of Game of Thrones was as good as the others. Are there better shows? Probably, although mostly I’d just say there are several shows I consider among the best, without choosing one over another, and I include Game of Thrones in there. I gave Season One an A, Season Two an A, and I can’t find my grade, but I called GoT one of the top five shows of 2013. I think it’s as good as ever.

You could do a decent overview just by naming characters and talking about what you liked or didn’t like. I like pretty much the same characters everyone else likes: Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, Maisie Williams as Arya, Gwendoline Christie as Brienne. Arya’s travels with The Hound (Rory McCann) were among the best things the season had to offer (and their final scene together in Season Four was brilliantly played). I go back and forth on Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys … Clarke is good, and sometimes I love the power of the dragons, but I’m always a bit creeped out at the way the very-white Khaleesi saves the black masses. There are many other actors I always enjoy when they turn up … Diana Rigg, Charles Dance. Lena Headey probably does a good job, because I hate Cersei. Not sure Kit Harington is a master thespian, but his soulful good looks are very winning in a depressed sort of way.

But here I have to get to the spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

In an early episode this season, Jaime Lannister raped his sister/lover Cersei. Interviews with the people who make the series suggested they didn’t see it as so cut and dried, which is nonsense. In the finale, we got the obvious result of their thinking, as Cersei pledged her love to Jaime. It was so well done that more than one tear was likely shed in the audience. But to really get the impact, you had to forget what Jaime had done earlier … just as the writers apparently did.

It’s not the first time rape has been used this way … think Khal Drogo and Daenerys in Season One. But, even given the necessary brutality of the world of Game of Thrones, this asks us to accept too much.

So maybe I will drop my grade just a bit. Grade for Season Four: A-.


music friday: "gimme shelter"

I’ve often said that it’s a sign of how great the Rolling Stones were in their first decade or so that a song which could have easily slipped over into silliness (“Sympathy for the Devil”) was in fact appropriate and timely.

“Gimme Shelter” has the advantage of never coming close to silliness.

I don’t know what their greatest song was, but “Gimme Shelter” is in the running, at least in the version that kicked off Let It Bleed. The opening guitar riff, the background vocals, the moment when Charlie leads the band out of the intro … the lyrics, which are appropriate and timeless … Charlie, Charlie, Charlie … Mick trying to and mostly succeeding at keeping up with Merry Clayton.

Clayton got some extra attention a couple of years ago when the movie 20 Feet from Stardom was released. But I’m old enough to have been there in 1969, and I can tell you, we knew who Merry Clayton was then, too, precisely because of her performance on this song. We bought her (first?) album, also called Gimme Shelter, because we knew what she meant to the Stones’ recording.

Here’s the original:

Here’s Clayton in 20 Feet from Stardom, listening to herself:

Lisa Fischer has been singing with the band for 25 years or so. There is no denying her skills. But the iconic moment remains when Merry Clayton’s voice breaks on the original.

How great is the Rolling Stones version? Clayton, who added so much to that one, couldn’t come close when she did it herself:


deslavada quinta-feira

As Brazil 2014 begins, what better way to throw ourselves back in time than by celebrating that great Brazilian, Xuxa!

If you want to know about Xuxa, you can check out the Wikipedia page, although, as it currently states, “This article contains translated text and needs attention from someone approaching dual fluency.” If you need some connection to soccer, note that Xuxa and Pelé himself were an item in the early 80s (she was very young).

I’ll get to the reasons why I’m including her in the throwback meme in a second. But first, I wanted to note something from that Wikipedia page that seems incredible, although ultimately, I’m not surprised.

Xuxa, who is now 51 years old, is worth $500 million.

I'm not sure I trust that figure, but still ...

OK, like I say, look at her Wikipedia page, or Google her. What does she mean to us at the Smith-Rubio residence? She was the host of a children’s TV show. The first was in Brazil, and called Xou da Xuxa. In 1991, she added a show in Spanish, El Show de Xuxa, which came out of Argentina. This is when we first discovered her, as the program was broadcast in the U.S. by Univision. It was exquisitely weird:

An English-language version followed that wasn’t as successful, called simply Xuxa:

All very fun and goofy. Dare I confess that I had a membership card in the Xuxa fan club? I was 40 years old, give or take.


blu-ray series #13: strangers on a train (alfred hitchcock, 1951)

I’ve mentioned before my puzzling relationship to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I think he’s overrated, until I notice that I am a part of the problem. I’ve given three of his films my highest 10/10 rating, including Vertigo at #16 on my list of favorite films. I’ve also given Hitchcock two 9/10 ratings and five 8/10.

The reasoning behind my sense that he’s overrated … well, “reasoning” is a bit of a stretch. He made popular movies, and his techniques were easy for casual film buffs to spot. That “obvious” technique is part of what made his films popular, that and his skill at eliciting specific responses from audiences. And really, it’s nothing but snobbery for me to argue this makes him overrated. He pleased people, he knew how to please people, he was a master of using film to please people, and he did all of this while managing to make us feel unsettled. Also, in his best films, there is plenty of subtext to dig around in once you get past the so-called obvious stuff.

In other words, my take on Hitchcock is largely nonsense, and it’s time I changed it.

Strangers on a Train is one of his very best movies. Many of the elements that made his films of the 1950s good are at their peak here: the ordinary man caught in circumstances beyond his control, the many clever set pieces, the perfect cinematography, not to mention the strangling of a female character. The homosexual subtext is pretty close to the surface for a 1951 movie. Robert Walker’s Bruno is subtextually gay, while on the surface he’s a charming psychopath. Walker’s charm means we don’t necessarily make the clichéd connection between being gay and being psycho. In fact, his charm means Walker steals the movie from everyone else, most of whom are bland in that typical Hitchcock way. (Kael wrote, in the context of Dial M for Murder, “Why did Hitchcock persist in using actors as unattractively untalented as Robert Cummings?”) Farley Granger’s tennis-playing Guy Haines is effectively ambiguous … he’s pretty, he’s bland, but he is believable in the way he manages to never really convince Bruno not to kill Guy’s wife.

I can’t overstate the importance of Robert Walker here. It’s not that every actor in every Hitchcock movie was weak. But what Walker does is different from the way a Cary Grant just grabs the screen by being Cary Grant. Walker’s intensely likable psycho draws us in, and in the process he implicates us in his deviltry. Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo is an ordinary man who gradually becomes a crazed obsessive … Walker in Strangers suggests that he has always been over the edge. #395 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10. Rope might be the best match for this movie, but it’s not nearly as good as Hitchcock’s best, so just watch Vertigo again.


orange is the new black, season two

We’ve watched the first three episodes of this “Netflix Wants You to Binge Watch” series. There’s no drop in quality … if anything, Season Two looks better, at least so far. They have enough confidence in the cast that the central character didn’t even appear in the second episode. Laura Prepon hasn’t completely disappeared, happily, and Lori Petty was in the first episode (whether she’s going to turn up again is anyone’s guess … well, people who have already binged to the end know).

The strengths of Orange are still there, primarily the diverse and talented cast. Since we now know these characters, it’s a pleasure learning more about them, and each episode takes the time to flesh out one or more of them via flashbacks. So far, they’ve used these flashbacks effectively.

I can’t single out anyone in the cast, but I already loved Natasha Lyonne before the series began, so I’m very glad to see her here. Taylor Schilling as Piper is still self-absorbed, but the privileged act is pretty much gone now … she turned a corner at the end of last season when she dished out a king hell beating to one of her prison mates. Schilling’s face looks harder in Season Two.

If you liked Season One, you’ll like Season Two. If you loved Season One, you’ve probably already finished bingeing on Season Two. Most of your favorite characters are back, as well as a couple of new ones that look intriguing, in particular Lorraine Toussaint as a woman who knows more than one of the inmates from the past.

There’s nothing new to say about Season Two, except to assure fans that the series is still very good. Grade for first three episodes of Season Two: A-.


what i watched last week

Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1990). This was Wong’s second feature as director, and his first collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. It certainly feels like a Wong Kar-wai movie … it’s no surprise that his next film was Chungking Express. It isn’t up to the standards set by his classic, In the Mood for Love, but that’s not a fair comparison, and it’s better than Fallen Angels. A dream cast (Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Jacky Cheung, even, briefly, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) led to hopes of a big success at the box office, which didn’t happen. The film’s reputation remains stellar. #400 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. Match this up with another Wong Kar-wai movie, and you’ve got a fine double bill (perhaps Chungking Express). (I should note that I watched a subpar print, especially damaging when it comes to Doyle’s work. This one deserves another shot under better conditions.)

World Without End (Edward Bernds, 1956). A title that could suggest a lot of things … choose “1950s sci-fi B-movie” and you’ll have the right suggestion. A lot of my writing about these movies boils down to trivia lists, because it’s not always worth it to examine the movie in great detail (which doesn’t stop me from watching them, of course). World Without End has a plot you’ve seen before … maybe this was the first time we got the “astronauts return from mission and mysterious things occur” plot, although I doubt it. It was billed, incorrectly, as “CinemaScope’s First Science-Fiction Thriller”, and it was in Technicolor. It featured one of Rod Taylor’s early roles. The costumes for the hot-cha babes were designed by Vargas of pin-up painting fame. And it’s mostly junk. The special effects aren’t any good, even in the context of B-movies. The set design is initially interesting, but the novelty wears off. 5/10. For comparison, check out Forbidden Planet.

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014). New Godzilla movies demand superlatives. Is this Gareth Edwards best movie? (It’s only his second feature, after his fine cheapie, Monsters.) Is this the best Godzilla movie ever? (I’d say its only real competition is the 1954 original.) Is it better than Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s top-notch monster blockbuster of last year? (I think they’re about equally strong.) This one has a nice structure, where the setup builds, we get a monster, we get some nuclear claptrap, we get visionary, misunderstood scientists, and then about halfway through, Godzilla himself finally shows up. And he’s impressive … Edwards and his crew have done a great job of working with visual perspective, so we know how big the monsters are compared to humans, and there isn’t the kind of now-he’s-bigger, now-he’s-smaller problem that affects cheaper productions. The 3D was interesting, as well. There weren’t many of the usual WOW moments, but Edwards played around with placing people close to us while big battles played farther away. It was distracting in a good way … I kept thinking someone in the theater was walking in front of me, and afterwards, I realized it was a bit like watching MST3K with the guys sitting in front of the screen. Godzilla is an honest attempt to continue the tradition of the original, using a big budget not to knock us on our asses a la Michael Bay but instead to make a better film. 8/10. It should be obvious what to watch with this: the original Gojira, and/or Pacific Rim.