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rectify, season two finale

I promised I would write about the S2 finale, which will be the first extended post about this fine series that I have managed. I don’t know why I find it so hard to write about Rectify, but there’s no denying the facts. Even this post comes almost a month after the season finale. Perhaps in part the problem is that I can’t imagine convincing anyone to watch it, so more than usual for this blog, I am talking to myself.

A summary of the show is in order, since I’m guessing most people who happen upon this won’t know much about Rectify. It was created by Ray McKinnon, a fascinating actor best known for his roles on Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy. It was the first original series for the Sundance Channel or whatever they call it now. The cast is made up largely of unknowns and hey-it’s-that-guys … Aden Young is the lead, Abigail Spencer was on Mad Men for half-a-dozen episodes, J. Smith-Cameron is a recognizable actor in indie productions, Adelaide Clemens is in her early 20s … you get the idea. Jayson Warner Smith, who has a bit part, once favorited a tweet of mine that said Rectify was worth hunting down, which is another of my brushes with fame.

Young plays Daniel Holden, who has been on death row for a long time for the rape and strangulation of a 16-year-old girl. As the series begins, new DNA evidence suggests Daniel was falsely accused, and he is released pending the resolution of the old case. Much of the first season … well, much of the series as a whole, but especially the first few episodes, deal with Daniel’s complete alienation from life outside of prison. McKinnon gives Daniel plenty of time and space to begin the process of assimilation, which is why the most common complaint for the first season was that it was extremely slow-moving. Spencer is Daniel’s sister, who has spent much of her life obsessing over her brother and trying to bring justice. Clemens is the wife of Daniel’s stepbrother … she is very religious, and she thinks Daniel can be saved … her feelings for him grow over time. Most of the characters have something to hide, and for many of them, their secrets revolve around what happened that day long ago when Daniel did or didn’t kill the girl.

There are a couple of characters who are just bad, and maybe one who is just good, but for the most part, Rectify excels at showing complex characters whose behavior can surprise us, although they are never out of character at those times … McKinnon gives us believable characters struggling to deal with everyday life. Daniel is mostly sympathetic, but he doesn’t always act “right” … his alienation makes him seem weird, and he has violent tendencies that occasionally erupt. We don’t want to believe it, but it is at least possible he really did kill that girl.

Aden Young is given a seemingly impossible task: making Daniel, with his long silences and socially inappropriate responses to others and his deep-seated guilt (over what is still not clear), a character that we care about. We want him to be good; just as important, we want Daniel to see the goodness in himself (whenever he is asked if he is a good person, he replies “no”).

It may seem like nothing happens, but Season Two ended with a couple of cliffhangers, which implies that something is indeed happening. But the plot is not the point, which is why Rectify is not for folks looking for the next big police procedural. It’s a character study, a group character study that shows us not just individuals, but individuals in a community. Everyone’s actions have consequences … in Daniel’s case, it might be said that his inactions have consequences. Rectify is very intense, because every moment is full of possibilities.

So, what do we have? A series that has maintained a very high standard for two seasons, with at least one more to come. We have a series that makes demands of its viewers, a series that can’t be watched casually. It’s a series that thus far has avoided feel-good moments. In essence, it’s different than any other show you can think of, and maybe that’s why I’ve found it so hard to write about. To say that the writing is good, that the acting is good, that it is a character-driven series where the characters are finely-drawn … all of that is true, but it doesn’t distinguish Rectify from other good shows. That kind of praise neglects the most significant fact, that McKinnon has given us a unique show. I can’t give Rectify my highest rating, because too often it sits on the DVR, I’ve never felt like I had to watch every episode the minute it came out … there is something about Rectify that makes even a fan like me a bit reticent. Grade for series: A-.

the leftovers, season one finale

I need to say something about the first season of The Leftovers, but I can’t come close to what Jacob Clifton wrote for MorningAfter: "Praying for Time When Nothing Else Matters: The Leftovers, Season One." I wouldn’t do justice to the piece if I quoted a few choice passages … it’s a longish read, but worth it, and while Clifton doesn’t say exactly what I would say (I can’t just point to it and announce, “What he said”), the writing is so strong and he is so locked into his take on the series that he makes me want to watch Season One all over again.

Some of the things that draw me to The Leftovers are the same things that other people complain about. A mysterious event occurs: 2% of the world’s population disappears in an instant. It’s reminiscent of the “Rapture”, except, despite the evocative graphics under the opening credits that show people floating into the heavens, no one actually makes a visible leap. One second everyone is there; the next second, 2% of them are not there. It is a fascinating setup, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s going to be awhile before this event is explained. (Eventually you realize it will never be explained.) That in itself gave folks a reason to abandon the show … why watch something with a mystery at its core if they weren’t going to explain what happened? People are still pissed at Lost, and it’s no surprise that one of the creators of The Leftovers is Damon Lindelof, who was the showrunner for Lost.

Some people have asked me, does it get better? These are people who gave up. I can’t tell them it does, because the reasons for their displeasure are central to the series … they aren’t going away. So The Leftovers is one of the most relentlessly depressing shows ever made. Partly this is because, as we watch people three years after the “event”, they don’t seem to have come to grips with anything (and who could blame them?). But it’s mainly because, as one critic whose name escapes me pointed out, The Leftovers is about depression, and the attempt to escape it. One by one we get to know the characters, and with each of them, we see that they are dealing with depression, each in their own way. It’s overwhelming to watch this week after week … I can’t imagine anyone binge watching it, even a week isn’t enough time to recover from an episode.

It’s a show about depression, and it’s a show about grief. And again, that’s not something that will encourage people to watch. (“Oh boy, everyone is miserable because they’ve lost someone, I can’t wait for the next episode!”) I think it is very honest about grief, but I accept that many/most people would rather just watch another NCIS rerun.

And I haven’t said anything about the Guilty Remnant, a cult that does what they can to force people to remember what happened three years ago, whether those people want to remember or not.

If I start listing cast members who do great jobs, my list will either be too long, or I’ll forget someone. So I’ll just mention a few. Heartthrob Justin Theroux is the main character, and he’s a tormented individual. It’s not an easy part, and I suppose people who don’t like the show might take out their feelings on Theroux. But I think he’s very good. Carrie Coon seems like a peripheral character at first, but she grows in importance, and the sixth episode is largely about her. She has an everywoman face … well, it’s a very pretty face, so she’s a very pretty everywoman, but you feel like you might see her on the street. And as we spend more time with her, and we like her, she seems “real”, so when Coon starts to deliver on the depth of her character, it’s quite impressive. Finally, Amy Brenneman is a revelation, which is an odd thing to say for someone who is 50 years old … you’d think we would have discovered her a long time ago. And, of course, we have … she has five Emmy nominations, two when I first noticed her 20 years ago in the first seasons of NYPD Blue. But I haven’t kept up with her career, and I guess I just forgot about her, thinking of her as one of those good-looking actors that Hollywood cranks out like candy. Her character is a member of the Guilty Remnant, who don’t talk … they write everything down on paper. This means that, outside of a flashback episode that shows people the day before the “event”, Brenneman has to show us what she is thinking and feeling solely through the looks on her face. It’s not exactly a ravaged face … if anything, she’s better looking than ever … but there’s an untouched quality, she never appears to be wearing makeup, and that look says volumes about how much she has struggled. At those times when everything inside her wants to speak, to tell what is burning inside of her, Brenneman has to rely solely on facial expressions. And we always know what she is thinking. It’s a masterful performance.

The last scene of the season may represent hope, or at least, the possibility of hope. Which means Season Two has real potential to be more than a rehash of the first season. But hope must be treated with the same detailed honesty as grief and depression have been. From what we’ve seen so far, that is not something we should worry about. Grade for Season One: A.

what i watched last week

The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2011). This movie doesn’t need a critical review, it needs a consumer guide. If on-screen violence bothers you, don’t see this. If you don’t mind on-screen violence, see this. If you aren’t sure, think of lengthy scenes like the hospital in John Woo’s Hard Boiled, or Uma Thurman destroying Lucy Liu’s army in Kill Bill, Volume 1. Now imagine a 100-minute movie where 98 minutes exists on the level of those two scenes. On the level of what is being attempted, The Raid: Redemption is almost entirely successful. The fight scenes use pencak silat, an Indonesian martial arts discipline. They are beautifully choreographed (this is not a CGI-fest), and while it sounds boring, they find enough variations on the basic fights to keep things interesting. Interesting isn’t strong enough … you watch with your mouth open. If you watch, for The Raid (“Redemption” is meaningless) makes no attempt to appeal to anyone but fans of non-stop action. The “plot” never gets beyond “setup”: evil gang lord holes up in a fortress-style apartment complex (15 floors, I think), a SWAT team goes in, the gang lord closes off the building, trapping the SWAT team. There is very little character development, and what turns up is lame. But if you’re the kind of person who finds the very idea of character development wasteful in action movies, you will appreciate that The Raid is dismissive of such “development”. John Woo’s HK movies are better than this because they are more than just action. But Gareth Evans deserves credit for just ignoring everything except action, in the process making the average action movie seem lacking. 8/10. There’s a sequel, which I’ll get to soon.

L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930). Buñuel (and to a lesser extent, Salvador Dalí) succeeded wildly in disrupting society with this film. Its attacks on bourgeois society and the Catholic Church led to a variety of responses, including an early showing where some reactionary audience members threw ink at the screen, an assertion by a Spanish newspaper that it was “the most repulsive corruption of our age”, and its withdrawal from public showings for more than four decades. A 21st-century viewer might miss some of the outrage, but the fundamental disruption, of the audience if not society at large, persists. The film begins with a documentary on scorpions (an actual, existing film with added dialogue). It jumps across many eras, although I confess I only know this because I read about it … it’s one of the things that is unclear to me as one of those 21st-century viewers. Some things are consistent throughout. A man and woman exhibit carnal desires towards each other, which are regularly frustrated by the interference of “society”. The man kicks dogs and attacks blind men, while the woman is so horny she gets off on sucking the toes of statues and making out with her father. During the film, we see cows in beds, carts being driven through homes, dead men stuck on ceilings, all ignored by the self-absorbed bourgeois characters. It doesn’t make “sense” … it’s not supposed to. Oh, and it’s a comedy. It deserves its reputation, and should be seen, but in the end, I don’t feel the need to see it a second time. #116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. The obvious double-bill would include the other Buñuel/Dalí collaboration, Un Chien Andalou. For late Buñuel, try The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975). 7/10.

blu-ray series #15: salò, or the 120 days of sodom (pier paolo pasolini, 1975)

The day before I watched this movie, I saw Buñuel and Dalí’s surrealist classic L’Age d’Or. The last scene of that film is “120 Days of Depraved Acts”, a nod to the Marquis de Sade’s novel, The 120 Days of Sodom. This seemed like an omen, a message saying it was finally time to take on Pasolini’s infamous last film. There are stories of people who bought copies of Salò and never got around to opening them, much less watching them. Its reputation most certainly precedes it. The “parents guide” on the IMDB can be quoted at length here, although I suppose some odd spoilerphobe will want to skip these:

Several young men and women are raped, tortured, and sodomized…. A woman eats a piece of cake with small razor blades in it [they looked like nails to me] … A woman tells stories of torture with a big smile on her face (she recounts one story where a woman has a rat sewn into her vagina; the storyteller laughed about this quite a bit)…. A young man has his penis burnt with a candle … A young man's tongue is cut off … A woman is scalped with a knife … A person's eye is cut off with a knife.

And that’s just under the category for “Violence & Gore”. There is a long list of items under “Sex & Nudity” that can be summarized in the first paragraph: “Every sexual act imaginable is shown or talked about (graphically) at one time or another … acts include sodomy, homosexuality, coprophilia, transvestism, S&M, rape, and masturbation.”

And if that’s not enough for you, in one scene, “Everybody eats human feces at a dinner event, some are smiling and loving it while others are disgusted.”

So, why would anyone want to watch this movie? Well, Pasolini is a highly-regarded director, and this was his last film. The movie is beautifully made (which only makes the disgusting parts more disturbing). And, for better or worse, Pasolini has a point to make … Salò isn’t just a catalog of depravity.

First, there’s the historical context. Pasolini moves the setting from the 18th-century France of the novel to Italy in 1944-5, when Mussolini had fallen and the Fascists had at least temporarily lost power. Briefly, four rich and powerful men abduct a group of people, take them to a palace, and do whatever they want to them. Pasolini is showing the way power corrupts, that Fascism is an evil philosophy, that we as an audience are implicated. The philosophy aspect is not just tossed in … the credits offer an “essential bibliography” that includes Barthes, Blanchot, de Beauvoir and others, and during the film, as the Fascists sit around planning their next debauchery, they talk of Nietzsche and Ezra Pound.

It’s all too much, but then, it’s supposed to be. Pasolini won’t let us hide … even covering our eyes isn’t enough (and it’s useless anyway when the vileness comes from the tales aging prostitutes tell about their past encounters). It’s not exactly that there is no hope. Rather, it’s that there is no end in sight, and when the movie finishes, there is no sign that anything will be different during the next 120 days.

It says something about society today that Salò isn’t quite as startling as it was in 1975. I don’t think even Pasolini could imagine The Human Centipede trilogy. But Salò still makes us retch, because it’s not just about the scenes of people being forced to eat shit. It’s about social structures that allow these kinds of psychopaths to be in positions of power.

So, I hear you wondering, is Salò any good? If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve an answer. Remarkably, it gets boring at times. I’m not convinced that Pasolini makes all of the many points he is after. And while I understand the artistic impulse that says to show the evil in Fascism, you have to show it at its most extreme, the fact is most people will never see Salò because of its extreme nature. #186 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

music friday: "save the last dance for me"

The story goes that Mort Shuman had come up with a good Latin-sounding melody. He played it for his writing partner, Doc Pomus, and Doc had that melody in his mind as he worked at home that night. There was a wedding invitation somewhere … it had just come in the mail, or it was lying around, or … well, there are many stories about that invitation. Pomus looked at it, and thought back to his own wedding, to a Broadway dancer named Willi Burke. Pomus had polio as a boy, and had trouble getting around for his entire life after that. One of his fondest memories of his wedding was watching his new wife dancing with his brother. That memory came to him as he wrote the words to Shuman’s melody. At the end of the night, he wrote down the title: “Save the Last Dance for Me”.

Ben E. King was one of the “new Drifters” that were formed in 1958 after the group’s manager fired the previous members. With King, the Drifters had several memorable hits, most importantly “There Goes My Baby”. In 1960, King went solo, and was a successful artist on the R&B charts for many years, with “Stand by Me” being perhaps his most long-lasting song. When recording “Save the Last Dance for Me”, King was told the story about Pomus’ wedding by label boss Ahmet Ertegun, and he had that in mind as he sang.

The song begins with a lightly-strummed guitar and bass, with King jumping in quickly. “You can dance” he proclaims, singing alone for the moment, “Every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight”. Strings rise quietly in the background as King sings, “But don't forget who's taking you home, and in whose arms you're gonna be. So darlin', save the last dance for me”.

The rest of the Drifters join in on the second verse. King needs their backing, because the man in the song is faltering a bit: “While we’re apart, don’t give your heart to anyone”. Eventually, a brief burst of strings breaks up the vocal for a moment, after which King returns to repeat to his woman, “save the last dance for me”.

There were many cover versions. Dolly Parton had an early-80s hit that sounded very much of its time, almost synth pop. Harry Nilsson included it on his mid-70s album Pussy Cats … he ruptured a vocal cord during the sessions, roughening the vocals, and the song was taken at a dirge-like pace, as if the singer might fall asleep while his beloved was on the dance floor. Even Bruce Willis gave it a try on the second of his two late-80s albums … a try, not a success.

“Save the Last Dance for Me” is an irresistible song to cover, but you aren’t just matching yourself to the beauty of the song, you’re matching yourself to Ben E. King. And you’ll always lose that one.

I can’t count the times I’ve posted a video here that features this recording. It comes from the finale of the first season of the American version of Queer As Folk. Justin is at his senior prom, with his BFF Daphne as his date, because his true love, the 30-year-old Brian, can’t commit to their relationship. Suddenly, at the prom, Brian shows up:

It’s still one of the most romantic scenes ever. And every time I’ve posted this, I’ve ended it here. But Doc Pomus and Willi Burke eventually got divorced. And that wasn’t the last scene of that first season of QAF.

throwback a-vo-dee-oh-doe

This was taken in the summer of 2000:

winchester lovebirds

In 1966, the song “Winchester Cathedral” was a worldwide smash, selling 3 million records. The artist’s name on the label was The New Vaudeville Band, which didn’t really exist, although one was formed for touring purposes after the record became a surprise hit. In the U.S. it hit #1, supplanting “You Keep Me Hanging On” by The Supremes. It hung around the top spot during the month of December of ‘66, taking #1 on the 3rd, relinquishing the spot to “Good Vibrations” for a week, then regaining the top for two weeks before finally being knocked out for good on the last day of 1966 by The Monkees with “I’m a Believer”.

When the Grammy Awards were given out for 1966, a year of Revolver and “Monday Monday”, the award for the Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Recording went to “Winchester Cathedral”. You can see why Robin and I had to take that picture.

revisit: the treasure of the sierra madre (john huston, 1948)

Back when I made my Fave Fifty list, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of my last cuts (#55, to be exact). It has been five years since I’ve seen it, and it’s always possible my opinion of a film will change over time.

I might have even been actively searching for reasons to change my mind, but ultimately that wasn’t possible, for John Huston’s skills as director and writer (and B. Traven’s skill in writing the original novel) meant I couldn’t even distract myself on purpose. It really is a terrific movie.

Now, if I was going to find fault in 2014, I’d note that Alfonso Bedoya’s iconic bandit is still iconic, but the icon isn’t exactly a positive one. There are other Mexicans in the movie, not all of them banditos, but Bedoya is so delightfully, happily sinister that he is the Mexican you remember. There’s also something a bit creepy about the way in which Walter Huston’s Howard is seen as a miracle worker by the good rural Mexicans because he knows more first-aid than they do. The Great White Savior is another stereotypical icon we can do without. And there’s no use talking about the women in the movie, for they barely exist … this is a man’s man’s movie. The attitude towards women is best expressed when Howard says, “If I were you boys, I wouldn't talk or even think about women. T'aint good for your health.”

The story of the three prospectors is what has always made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre so good, and the casting for those prospectors is just right. Walter Huston got the Oscar, even if he hams it up a bit too much (hell, that’s probably why he got the Oscar). Tim Holt is the perfect balance for the excesses of the other two. And then there’s Bogart. I saw a documentary once … don’t remember the name, it might have been a TV documentary … it purported to show changes in America in the post-WWII era. At one point, we saw some of Bogart’s more memorable heroes and anti-heroes from the earlier 1940s, Rick from Casablanca being most obvious. Later, they showed Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, his paranoia bubbling over into madness, as if Bogart, who had once been an idealized America everyman hero, continued to represent America in 1948: greedy, near-psychotic. It wasn’t a success at the box office, despite the three Oscars, despite the presence of Bogart. Many have assumed over time that it was Bogart who kept the audience at home … no one wanted to see their hero reduced to Fred C. Dobbs.

It’s Dobbs that keeps bringing me back for another viewing. The story is beautifully told, there is memorable dialogue, with the Stinking Badges lines having entered the Pop Pantheon. But what grabs me is the gradual disintegration of Fred C. Dobbs.#222 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. John Huston made many good movies, but I don’t think he made anything as good as Sierra Madre after he’d finished that classic. 10/10. For good-not-great John Huston movies that don’t get talked about much, try The Bible or The Man Who Would Be King.

what i watched last week

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013). Sneakily sci-fi. Her takes place in an unidentified future that seems enough like our present that it goes unnoticed at first. Yes, everyone is constantly talking to their mobile devices and computers, but that in itself isn’t different enough to get our attention. Eventually you realize that all of the recognizable things are slightly more advanced … people don’t talk to their phones in quite the same way that we do. We enter the future more clearly when Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore installs a new operating system on his computer that seems like version 8.0 of Google Now or Siri. At first, it’s just better at things than our current models, but gradually we learn that “Samantha” is not just better, but more. When Theodore tells friends about Samantha, he says she is an OS, and for the most part, no one blinks. He even goes on a “double date” with a friend, in which Samantha, along for the outing via portable devices, is the life of the party. Everyone is just slightly more alienated than we are … the movie is dystopian that way. But the relationship between Theodore and Samantha is treated with the respect we give to anything “real”, despite the obvious problems in pairing a human and a machine. Her doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, but its quirky presentation (the architecture of the future seems right on target) offers a novelty factor. The real novelty, though, comes from Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha. Apparently Samantha Morton was the original actress, and after the movie was shot, Jonze decided it didn’t quite work and hired Johansson to do Samantha’s part from the beginning. Due respect to Morton, a fine actress, but it is impossible to imagine Her without Johansson’s voice. Her just-this-side-of-deadpan speech fits well with a “robot”, and of course, her voice is famously enticing in ways that make it understandable that Theodore falls for her. There’s also the fact that we recognize the voice, and although Samantha has no body, we can’t help but imagine Scarlett Johansson in the flesh. She steals the movie. #149 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 8/10. For another Scarlett Johansson movie, there’s always Ghost World. For a lesser-known Phoenix, try Two Lovers.

Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, 2013). I’ve never quite understood what “mumblecore” was, but this movie is supposed to be an example of the genre, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. There, mumblecore is described as “a subgenre of American independent filmcharacterized by low budget production values and amateur actors, heavily focused on naturalistic dialogue.” We are also told that mumblecore often features a lot of improvisation. Drinking Buddies is low-budget and improvised, although the actors are not amateurs: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Jason Sudeikis. It’s a bit like a rom-com without the com, but director/”writer”/editor Joe Swanberg confounds the usual trappings of romantic comedies. The ultimate status of relationships is left up in the air for the most part, and the moral of the story seems to be that it’s better to be best friends than to be lovers. The acting is fine, and I didn’t know the movie was improvised until after I’d seen it (although in retrospect, it seems more clear). I liked it about as much as I liked the only other mumblecore movies from Wikipedia’s list that I have seen (Tiny Furniture and Frances Ha). 7/10. Companion pieces? Well, Tiny Furniture and/or Frances Ha, of course.

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962). 9/10.