Showing posts with label 2010. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2010. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Senna

Brazillian Ayrton Senna was a humble Formula One Race Driver who conquered his arena and died tragically in a horrific accident in 1994. Senna presents a portrait of a morose, thoughtful superstar athlete, much different from the kinds we're accustomed to today. It achieves the great feat of presenting a documentary consisting entirely of footage, devoid of lame talking heads expousing their worthless opinions. It does somewhat lose pole position somewhere towards the end but the documentary is a wonder in its own way and it is kind of a shame that Formula One Racing still doesn't have nonfans convinced on merits of its sport.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Treme

Season 4 (2013)
Over three years after the great tempest that almost toppled their fair city, the inhabitants of the 9th Ward celebrate the historic presidential election of 2008, deal with rampant corruption of their local government, prepare for another Mardi Gras, and face their continuing trials and sparse victories: Janette battles with her former partner for the use of her name while reuniting with a subdued Davis whose 40th birthday acts as an unlikely beckoning to maturity. LaDonna tries to get her bar back in order, Annie's musician perils continue, Toni and Terry see daylight in their lengthy fight for justice, and the community prepares a sendoff for one of its most revered members. After some major stumbles in its third season, Treme generally rights it ship and goes out on a high note, in the jubilant yet angry manner you would expect in this its final, abbreviated season. Some items worked soaringly well, Kim Dickens and Steve Zahn's stories and eventual linkup had a special poignancy to them and Clarke Peters and Rob Brown's journey continued to be the heart of the show (their characters alone would be able to carry a series), while other storylines continued to vex or took unfortunately disappointing turns (David Morse's One Good Cop subplot, Melissa Leo's unyielding quest for righteousness, Lucia Micarelli cliched music industry struggles). The series attempts a complete transformation for Wendell Pierce which they successfully achieved in The Wire but here seems forced but works nonetheless. Treme was an ambitious undertaking for series creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer and although it tended to get out of hand with its redundant sermons and often treated its charming cast as little more than mouthpieces for their political rhetoric, it is a spirited show which achieved its goals while showing off the best and worst of its city.
***

Season 3 (2012)
It is now September, 2007, another year removed from Katrina, but the inhabitants of NOLA continue to bear her effects as they try to get on with their lives: Jeanette (Kim Dickens) continues to dissuade anyone from wanting to enter the restaurant business, as a return home proves less than satisfactory as Davis (Steve Zahn) provides a similar caution against the music industry as he struggles to produce his "epic" opera. Toni (Melissa Leo) teams up with an investigative blogger (Chris Coy) as police harassment hits home and Terry  (David Morse) is given a Serpico-like plot, becoming a pariah in the Homicide Department. Big Chief (Clarke Peters) celebrates the release of the jazz CD with his son (Rob Brown), but receives some bad news which he shares with a new friend (Khandi Alexander) who is undergoing heartbreak of her own. Season 3  is where all of David Simon's sermonizing and blame casting finally begins to wear on the viewer's patience (at least on my own) and  mute some of the elements that it does exceedingly well. Characters who were once perched at the show's zenith, namely Zahn, Alexander, Leo, and Morse, now fall prey to wheel-spinning storylines, while others include Peters, Brown, Dickens, and Wendell Pierce (who unexpectedly endears himself much in the same way he did later on in "The Wire") continue to be compelling as does, of course, the music.
***

Season 2 (2011)
Season 2 picks up about one year following the storm, and the residents of NOLA and principals on the show are still struggling: Toni (Melissa Leo) is fighting to overcome a personal tragedy and the delinquency of her daughter (India Ennenga) while taking on a case involving an officer involved shooting, while Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) face the horrors of urban violence. Batiste (Wendell Pierce), and Davis (Steve Zahn) face the trials of musicianship and band leading while Albert, surprisingly, embraces a musical partnership with his son (Rob Brown). The sophomore season of David Simon's lively series resumes with the same festive fervor that predominated the premier outing and made it such a rare joy. In some ways, Simon is more successful this time around because he has gotten past much of the preaching that slightly inhibited the first run, now allowing him to focus more on the elements that make this series great: namely acting, sensational photography, and of course, the music.
*** 1/2

Season 1 (2010)
Three months after Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans and particularly the cultural district known as the Treme is reeling. As residents begin returning to their homes, they find obstacles in the form of weather damage, police and government obstruction, urban violence, national ignorance,  patronizing, and just general bad luck. As Mardi Gras approaches and the second line parades begin to form, the citizens of the Big Easy fight to restore their great American city. "Treme" is David Simon's followup to his acclaimed series "The Wire" and is not that far removed from that loving portrait of another American metropolis. Focusing on the stories of a few wide ranging individuals, from a woman (Khandi Alexander) and her attorney (Melissa Leo) searching for her incarcerated brother lost in the storm, to a struggling trumpet player (Wendell Pierce), to a trouble making activist (Steve Zahn) and his on again off again girlfriend/struggling restaurant owning girlfriend (Kim Dickens), master storyteller Simon is able tell a touching, angry, and sometimes overbearing story of The Crescent City. Additionally, each episode contains scores of wonderful and (assumedly) authentic New Orleans music. As for the performers, I really liked the work of Alexander, Clarke Peters as a headstrong local, and especially Zahn who gives a magnetic performance as a rapscallion activist. The series does have a tendency to preach and sometimes I have a hard time understanding its viewpoints. John Goodman's blowhard character states that a great city must speak for itself and through this series, for the most part, it does.
*** 1/2

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Luther

Season 3 (2013)
With both a fetishist and a revenge killer on the rampage, you would think John has enough on his plate. In addition, the dogged Chief Inspector must also grapple with a bogus Internal Affairs investigation which has roped in both his girl and his best mate, and also with the return of a certain wily psychopathic ally. After a considerable decline in quality for its second season and after noticing that its third season had been slashed to a four measly one-hour long episode outing, I was ready to write Luther off as just another tiresome, spent police procedural. Then, after deciding against my better judgement and breezing through an admittedly exciting and thoroughly ridiculous series, I realized how grateful I was for a program that doesn't overstay its welcome as many have a tendency to do. Although most developments this season were absolutely ludicrous and most of the acting continued to be embarrassingly exaggerated, I was nonetheless taken once more by Idris Elba's still commanding performance, the show's high energy, involving storyline, and its merciful brevity.
***

Season 2 (2011)
The fallout from the events surrounding Zoe's death have left everyone reeling, except for John who remains too valuable to the force. Now under the command of DCI Schenk, Luther must contend with a former suspects wayward daughter while dealing with several incomprehensible psychopaths, first an ingenious, historically minded killer and then a pair of identical twins playing their own fathomed game of mayhem. The second season of "Luther" isn't quite as compelling of the first largely due to the absence of Ruth Wilson (who appears briefly). The storyline which replaces hers, Luther's guardianship of a 13 year old prostitute played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards, isn't nearly as intriguing. Still, Idris Elba towers over the material and continues to make the series worthwhile.
***

Season 1 (2010)
Detective Chief Inspector John Luther is the most brilliant minds on the London police force, making wild yet flawless deductions that would make Sherlock Holmes proud. He is also an unstable ticking time bomb, dealing with marital problems with his wife, a psychological examination and internal affairs inquest following the death of a suspect, and the advances of a like-minded and beautiful murder suspect he was unable put away. Like "Prime Suspect", another series about a British DCI, "Luther" is a splash in the face compared to banal American cop programs. Idris Elba ("The Wire") is outstanding as the troubled inspector, projecting sadness and inner turmoil as well as being engaging as a detective. There are many implausible developments on the show, not the least being Elba's relationship with serial murder suspect Ruth Wilson (who is good here), but I don't really think it matters because the show plays like good theater. "Luther" is an intelligently written series that like most good cop shows founded on a great lead performance.
*** 1/2

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz catches up with his characters from Happiness, assigns all new performers to take on the roles, and appropriates brand new (and much of the old) anguish and despair with which to struggle and suffer. What could have been an uninspired sequel of sorts or a victim of its stunt casting (not only do different actors take over but the types vary wildly, for example Ciaran Hinds takes over for Dylan Baker, Michael Kenneth Williams replaces Philip Seymour Hoffman, etc.) quickly becomes another piece of inspired storytelling from the master of American middle class misery.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad

Season 5, Part 2 (2013)
Hank’s revelation about the dark truth concerning his brother-in-law causes him to go rogue and spurs a collision course leading to a catastrophic showdown between Walt, Jesse, and everyone else that comes in their path. The ultimate show for the instant gratification generation comes to its conclusion in a leave nothing to the imagination fashion that is sure to please its attention deficient minions (thank God they didn’t leave things open and make you think like The Sopranos!). For the high dramatics required for this concluding half season, Aaron Paul and especially Dean Norris are not up to the task while Bryan Cranston, an actor I’ve criticized for his one-note portrayal, pulls off something wondrous in generating sympathy for his despicable character. Vince Gilligan and company continue to misuse their female actresses while presenting flashy photography and plotlines that get way more credit than they deserve. All said and done, I must admit that it has been fun these last several weeks to have a TV event that seemingly everyone has been discussing, but now that the dust is settling it will be a relief to see the conversation draw to a close.
** 1/2

Season 5, Part 1 (2012)
With the eradication of Gus Fringe, very little (some questions of supply, and about a baker's dozen of Fringe's constituents) stands in way of Walter's ascension to the methamphetamine throne of the southwest. Now his real contenders are his disaffected wife, persistent brother-in-law, increasingly conscious driven partner and, of course, himself. The first half of the final series (why they're splitting a show that covers such a short time span is beyond me - Walter Jr. looks like he's 30 for god's sake) is essentially just fallout and wheel spinning from the spectacular finale of the altogether lackluster previous season. Walter continues to evolve into an increasingly dubious and unrealistic creature and I still stand by my statements that Bryan Cranston is a one trick pony not up to the task (same still holds for Aaron Paul too). Anna Gunn's melancholic turn has also brought her likewise insufferable character to a whole new level of unbearableness. Creator Vince Gilligan continues to shoot himself in the foot (e.g. a well constructed train heist followed by a ludicrously abominable act) and mask his lack of artistry and vision with a series of kitschy time-lapse montages which have typified the series. Great moments of frenzy and disorder, where the show should rest its focus, are few and far between and Gilligan opts for sheer improbability and implausibility in both plotting and characterization.
**

Season 4 (2011)
The fallout from season 3 places Walt and Jesse in a contentious spot, not only with their employer Gus, but also amongst themselves. As Walt continues his approach into utter amorality and Jesse into a spiral of addiction and despair, the crippled Hank begins to pick up the scent, and a major confrontation looms for all involved in the Albuquerque crystal meth trade. For "Breaking Bad", the motto has become "shock at all cost, character development and believability be damned". Although containing few great moments, the series is beginning to resemble a Saturday morning cartoon more so than a great piece of art, which many would have you believe. Although we remain invested in the characters of Walt and Jesse, Bryan Cranton and Aaron Paul's performances have grown redundant and tiresome and their characters have grown so erratic, I have a hard time buying any of their choices. I don't find Giancarlo Esposito's Gus to be as passively menacing as commonly held and Jonatahan Banks' more fleshed out role is not as refined as I had earlier supposed. Anna Gunn continues her turnaround and delivers good work this season, Dean Norris is viable as Hank, Bob Odenkirk continues to amuse as Saul the attorney. I thought creator Vince Gilligan wrapped things up well (perhaps a bit too neatly) but overall this past season functioned in fits and starts. With 16 episodes to go, hopefully Gilligan can deliver something that is not only hard hitting and riveting, but also in the limits of believability. 
** 1/2

Season 3 (2010)

Albuquerque is in mourning following the plane crash. Walt is now separated from Skyler and Jesse is struggling with his loss as well as sobriety.  Not wishing to cook anymore, Walt finds it hard to turn down a lucrative offer from Gus, and events from the past invite two strangers from south of the border who may not only jeopardize Walt's life, but may also threaten his family as well. Season three of Breaking Bad sees the show getting full of itself and getting out of hand. I did not believe one of the turns of the show and found myself shaking my head in disbelief more often than not, not being able to buy any of the character's choices. Bryan Cranston's much praised work I find to be one note (although he hits it well) and his character's transformation is so ridiculous that his antics in these scenes almost mirror his character in Malcolm in the Middle. Also, the scenes involving the two Mexican brother assassins is just too close to "No Country for Old Men" not to say anything. There were some elements I liked, including some intense sequences handled extremely well. The cast is very good as well. Aaron Paul continues his fine work. I was surprised to appreciate Anna Gunn and Betsy Brandt, whose work I had disapproved of in the prior two seasons. Dean Norris continues his stellar work as well and Bob Odenkirk continues to be a hoot as the slickster attorney. Finally, Giancarlo Esposito does nice work as an atypical drug lord and Jonathan Banks is effective as a "cleaner." As far a television goes, Breakinng Bad is still a good show. The problem is that the people behind the show know it's good and let it show.
** 1/2

Season 2 (2009)
The second season of Breaking Bad picks up with Walt and Jesse's premium batch of crystal meth being a booming success and everything else going wrong. They both have to contend with their psychopathic distributor who has big plans for his employees. Problems accrue with all members of their distribution crew, leading to their retainer of a high priced shyster attorney. Women problems occur for both men, one even turning tragic. Walt is still battling his severe lung cancer while Jesse battles drug addiction. Then there are those mysterious teasers that play before the credits, building up to an unpredictable occurrence. Vince Gilligan's series steps its game up for its second time at the plate. Bryan Cranston is still great in the lead, always wearing that sense of dread. Aaron Paul makes strides as Jesse, as his character sinks into addiction and a toxic relationship. Dean Norris is great as well as his DEA character gets a promotion that may not be all its cracked up to be and the series benefits greatly from the additions of Bob Odenkirk as the scumbag lawyer and John de Lancie as the father of Jesse's new girlfriend. I still have a problem with some of the contrivances of the show and it should be mentioned that the credited females on the show, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, and Krysten Ritter, are terrible. Still, Breaking Bad is among the upper echelon of television programming and is a tense and entertaining way to spend 47 minutes.
***

Season 1 (2008)
Walter White's life is not going as he would like it too. Once a chemistry prodigy with a successful future ahead of him with limitless possibilities, he is now reduced to teaching the Periodic Table to bored high school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He even has an after school job at the car wash to help make ends meet. The passion has gone out of his marriage and his disabled son mouths off to him so when his doctor informs him he has stage 4 lung cancer, he seems curiously impassive and more concerned with the mustard shirt on the doctor's smock. Not wanting to leave his family in dire straits, and with a little inspiration when hearing about a drug bust from his DEA agent brother-in-law, Walter decides to seek out one of his old students and current drug dealer and cook crystal meth. Breaking Bad is a strange show that doesn't (really) moralize the situation its lead character has thrust himself into. Bryan Cranston, a TV veteran whom most remember as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, hits all the right notes as the internalized and Aaron Paul is just as fine as he reveals an intelligent person in his seemingly idiotic drug dealing character. I wouldn't call the writing great and situations are often contrived, but this is highly original, entertaining, and engaging programming.
sidenote: This inaugural season was a victim of the writer's strike and was unfortunately cut short to 7 episodes. It does feel somewhat condensed and does not have the feel of a full season.
***

Friday, August 9, 2013

Last Play at Shea

In 1964, the newly founded New York Mets began their often miserable, occasionally joyous run at Shea Stadium in the same working class area of Queens where a young Billy Joel and his family had moved. On July 16th and 18th, 2008 Joel closed out Shea with two sold out shows before its slated demolition. Last Play at Shea incorporates both concert footage of the epic send-off and a history  of the performer, the stadium, and their team making this unique film a peach for Billy Joel fans and a compelling historical document.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, her debut book and a contender for what could be the definitive American novel, detailing a young girl growing up in the Depression era South as her stoic attorney father defends a wrongfully accused black sharecropper. The book earned Lee a Pulitzer and instant fame and led to one of the greatest screen adaptations of all-time, and despite this glowing success, she began to refuse to speak to the press and has never published another novel since. Hey Boo features some great biographical detail, including stories of her Alabama childhood spent with playmate Truman Capote or a touching story involving a New York City couple who recognized her talent and put her up for a year to write the novel. However, as is the case with so many of these individual profiles, the film features too many "experts" making trite observations or telling you things you already know, in this case about the book and its times.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men

SPOILERS abound. Again, its hard to write about a serial without discussing the plot.
Season 6 (2013)
It is a tumultuous 1968 and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce finds itself chasing several major accounts while being party to a major merger. Pete Campbell finds himself several outrageous entanglements, one involving his mother and a new mystery man at the agency. Peggy finds her stock rising, yet still subject to the whims of the male colleagues, and Don continues his tumble into the abyss, engaging in a tryst with a neighbor that results in what may be his ultimate low point. What can be said about Mad Men that hasn't already been said. This latest season is a continuation of excellence that hasn't wavered since its foundation. All the excellent elements (acting, story, production values, etc.) are still intact and the addition of James Wolk playing Bob Benson, another charming, alliteratively named abstruse ad man adds some more fun to the proceedings. Watching this season, I realized how nice it is to be able to watch a show without worrying about its quality, knowing it will be great, and sitting back to enjoy the fall.
****

Season 5 (2012)
Its 1966 and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has, quite quickly, revealed the monster it has become and how its depravity knows no bounds in the efforts seal a Jaguar clientele. Don continues his surprisingly faithful and seemingly empty marriage to Megan, Roger trips on LSD, Pete pursues an acquaintance's fragile spouse, Peggy reaches the end of her rope, as does Lane in a more literal sense following financial straits. After a long wait, the most brilliant series on television returns with a dark and brutal season as the audience along with the characters seem to get kicked in the teeth on a weekly basis. From the larger happenings discussed above to smaller ones, such as Paul Kinsey's pathetic return to Betty's weight problems, the sense of melancholy and longing seems deeper than ever. The cast is excellent once again. I liked where they took Peggy and Joan's stories this year, and Jared Harris was remarkable in where he was able to take his character throughout his run. In Season 5, Matthew Weiner gets closer to the heart (or lack thereof) of his characters and involves us once more in a sad and sinuous journey.
****

Season 4 (2010)
1964 is coming to a close and Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce is struggling to take off. After bungling an interview with the New York Times, recently divorced Don Draper begins a decline where he sees the death of his friend in California, struggles with his drinking, and faces more problems with his secret identity. Peggy, Pete, and Joan face discontent at work while Roger's attitude towards a major client may just bring down the entire agency. Season 4 of Mad Men is a continuance of excellence for a show that started off wonderful and somehow seems to constantly get better. The regulars shine as bright as ever and there are some humorous new additions to the cast including a couple of buffoons in creative and an ambitious executive at a rival agency. Season 4 helps prove that television can be literate and entertaining at the same time and that most other shows aren't even trying.
****

Season 3 (2009)
It's 1963 and the Brits have invaded Sterling Cooper. Shaking up management and making changes throughout the company, Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove are thrown into competition for the Account Manager Position. Don has acquired the desirable Hilton account but it may be more trouble than its worth. On the home front, his father-in-law comes to live with his family, a new baby has arrived, and an older gentlemen causes Betty to rethink their continually troubled union. Then, that sad fateful day in late November arrives when the world stops and reflects on the great tragedy that has befallen them. Season 3 of Mad Men continues the elegant melancholic brilliance that was established in the first two seasons. With pacing that is both leisurely and thoroughly exciting, Mad Men keeps raising the bar for television excellence. Matthew Weiner and his staff keep writing wonderful dialogue and situations and all the great actors, lead by the enigmatic John Hamm continue to wow as well.
****

Season 2 (2008)

The second season of Mad Men picks up in the smoky and booze filled corridors of Sterling Cooper in the spring of 1962 with historical moon orbits, devastating plane crashes, high profile celebrity suicides, and the threat of nuclear war on the loom. As for the members of Sterling Cooper, a new executive will offer lofty promises, cost a tenured and liked exec his job, and possibly jeopardize the entire company for the sake of self promotion. Peggy Olson's career has skyrocketed while in her free time she reflects on the repercussions of her surprise pregnancy and has made the acquaintance of a young visiting priest. Ms. Halloway has become happily engaged but is somewhat discontented with her role at the office. Harry Crane has been made the head of the newly formed television department, Paul Kinsey has become involved in social activism with his new girlfriend, and Pete Campbell has found a way to capitalize on a family tragedy while struggling to conceive a child with his wife. Don Draper's affair with an older woman will lead to a separation from his wife, serve as an inspiration for boss Roger Sterling to leave his, and cause Don to head to California to do some soul searching which may lead to some answers regarding his mysterious past. Mad Men continues its excellency with wonderfully realized storylines and dialogue, while getting to the core of the discontent of its characters who seemingly have everything but who are still somehow empty.
****

Season 1 (2007)

"How could anyone be unhappy with all of this"
So says Don Draper, the debonair advertising executive for Sterling Cooper, one of the most successful firms on Madison Avenue. Yet under the surface of the characters on Mad Men, the brilliant series by Matthew Weiner, lies a melancholy and a desire for something other than the items they superficially promote. With the smell of change in the air, Sterling Cooper's executives are something of a dying breed as they drink, smoke, engage in infidelities, and occasionally put in some work hours and draw in clients while the women wish to succeed on their own but seem hopelessly dependent on men in a male dominated world. At the top sits Draper (Jon Hamm), a natural at his job and a good family man as well. Regardless, his beautiful wife (January Jones) seems unhappy, has childish tendencies, and has recently been placed in psychotherapy. He doesn't seem contented, and sees his way into the arms of a Greenwich village woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) who hangs around beatniks. Also, developments occur that suggest that he may not be who he says he is. Then there is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) the perky and intelligent secretary with greater ambitions but seems to fall prey to the advances of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the snaky junior executive who will stop at nothing for self-advancement. Overseeing are the partners Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), the former more concerned with boozing and womanizing and the latter a pragmatist and seemingly straight and narrow kind of guy. Mad Men is a show that is intimately familiar with its time and setting, and it shows in the resulting period detail. The actors are wonderfully cast and believable in their roles. It is brilliantly conceived and intelligently written and sets the bar for what primetime television should be.
****

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Downton Abbey

Season 3
The Earl of Grantham finds himself being left behind in the postwar world as control of a poorly managed Downton is subtly rested from his hands by Matthew and his other rebellious son-in-law returns to the estate a fugitive from the law with his very pregnant wife in tow.  A doggedly determined Anna struggles tirelessly to spring the wrongly accused Bates from the pokey, the usual members of the staff are up to their old tricks while a few more are introduced, and the Dowager Countess is given a run for her money when her daughter-in-laws mother pays a visit from America. Continuing the trend which was evident in season two, moves full force into unashamed, almost unwatchable melodrama, relieving itself almost entirely of any goodwill it had attained up to this point. Shameless plotting, irksome acting, horrid writing, boring new characters, and a surprising disappointing guest appearance from Shirley MacLaine are just a few of the general lowpoints on a season where nothing works. "Downton Abbey" is a prime example of what is wrong with television today: stories have beginnings, middles, and ends and most TV execs don't realize that. This series should have been treated like a mini series (which I believe it was initially intended to be) and cut off after the first go round.
* 1/2

Season 2
(spoilers herein)
As the Great War shakes up the caste system, the residents of Downton Abbey's lives are thrown into disarray as a betrothed Mary yearns for the return of Matthew, Lady Sybil takes up the practice of nursing and with the inflammatory chauffeur, and Anna deals with Bates' preposterous conscious. The second season of "Downton Abbey" is quite a letdown compared the marvelous inaugural one. Where the first felt fresh and garnering genuinely earned emotions, here it feels silly and recycled and in often cases shameless, including such instances as a deathbed wedding, a miraculous paralysis recovery, and the deadly Spanish flu carrying off only an inconvenient cast member. It also seems the effects of World War I, devastatingly felt across the continent, barely impacted the characters in this series (which could quite possibly be the point). Also, storylines keep going in circles (the Bates one is ludicrous and becoming insufferable). And still, after that harping, the show does retain much of its charm with not everything totally lost (Maggie Smith is a wonder) and is likely to keep on delighting the less discriminating viewer.
***

Season 1
The Earl of Grantham, the head of the prestigious English manor home of Downton Abbey, has just received the tragic news that his heir to the estate and his son have perished on the recently sunken Titanic. Now, having three daughters and no sons, the benevolent Earl and his American wife must find a suitor for their eldest and stubborn daughter Mary before their title and fortune passes on to someone else. Meanwhile the passing over of a malevolent footman for a coveted valet's job which was given to the Earl's lame Boer War soldiering mate is the impetus for drama, nastiness, and romance in the servant's quarters. As war approaches and their safe world is continually changing, the members of Downton Abbey struggle to hold on to their way of life, while some pursue their long thought impossible dreams. "Downton Abbey" is a magnificent series originally produced for the BBC and impeccably crafted by creator Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for writing Robert Altman's "Gosford Park". Fellowes draws you in with his beautiful photography and sumptuous score by John Lunn, and creates multi-dimensional, sympathetic characters whom you never can seem to quite peg down (except maybe for the sinister footman Thomas). The performers are all wonderful, and this is the type of series where different characters would appeal to all kinds of people. For me, I really admired Hugh Bonneville as the Earl, trying to be decent while simultaneously maintaining tradition and order. Or Joanne Froggatt as an angelic maid or Siobhan Finneran as a not so angelic servant, though not entirely unsympathetic. And of course Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess who plays the role that, well, only Maggie Smith could play. Sometimes you can see where the story's headed and sometimes the writing is a little too convenient ("well I know a butler in Leeds who knew a valet who worked for a count who saw so and so, etc. etc."), but regardless, I don't remember ever being so involved and moved by a series before.
****

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Boardwalk Empire

Season 3 (2012)
As New Year's Eve 1922 is celebrated in Atlantic City, Nucky's (Steve Buscemi) decision to constrict his bootlegging practices offends a highly volatile (and easily offendable) gangster (Bobby Cannavale) who commandeers a nearby suburb and sets his sights on A.C. On other fronts, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) enjoys her newly acquired duties at the local hospital, though her seeds of dissatisfaction will germinate through the course of an affair with her husband's subordinate (Charlie Cox). Gillian  (Gretchen Mol) continues to scheme and grieve following her loss, Van Alden (Michael Shannon) attempts to establish himself in an unfriendly Windy City, and Richard (Jack Huston) may have found a solace he could have never imagined since attaining his war injury. "Boardwalk Empire's" third go round features some of the most dazzling visuals and fancy camerawork the series has had to offer, but is the most slight in terms of plot. The aforementioned subplots, in addition to others, hold interest in their own right, but often feel like filler and as not contributing to the thrust of the plot. Newcomer Cannavale is excellent though, and his explosive presence offers many alternately humorous and terrifying moments to the series. Also a body ridden season finale is not nearly as satisfying as the pulse pounding episode that preceded it.
*** 1/2

Season 2 (2011)
With a coup underway to oust Nucky, both Jimmy and the targeted treaurer's brother Eli walk a treacherous path, dealing not only with devious gangsters but also a crippling strike by the African-American community at the heart of the summer season. On top of his legal problems, Nucky faces personal problems as a discontented Margaret, now grief ridden after her daughter has been stricken with polio, finds solace with the local parish priest and in overly generous offerings to the Lord. The second season of "Boardwalk Empire" is an almost unfathomable continuation of excellence, somehow maintaining the same cinematic level of greatness achieved in season one. Steve Buscemi turns in a wonderful, nuanced performance which is unlike any other gangster portrayal, at least that I've ever seen. Michael Pitt contributes affecting award worthy work as the cheerless and deceitful Jimmy and Kelly Macdonald is still incredible in the complex role of Margaret. In an impeccable supporting cast, Michael Shannon stands out as the dogged federal agent whose story takes more than a few unexpected turns and Shea Whigham as Buscemi's frustrated, overlooked brother. With its alternately beautiful, brutal, and affecting methods, "Boardwalk Empire" achieves an excellence in television that no other series, with the exception of "Mad Men", even remotely approaches.
****


Season 1 (2010)
Usually I keep television shows out of the blog, but I feel Boardwalk Empire is a series that approaches great film and, while watching, it feels like a solid 12 hour movie. This should come as no surprise since the show is brought to us by legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese. He directed the first episode, offering the blueprint for the subsequent episodes. He also produces and consults on other aspects of the show. Boardwalk was created by Sopranos veteran Terrence Winter and he brings along other members of that great show. Again, we have a show set in New Jersey, this time in Atlantic City and again we follow professional criminals who drink, screw, curse, lie, cheat, steal, swindle, and murder. We follow several story threads and the main character is AC treasurer Nucky Thompson played by a finely tuned Steve Buscemi. This is not another Tony Soprano, as Thompson has more of a soft spot. This doesn't mean that he isn't capable of carrying out heinous acts. We meet a young Irish widow (Kelly McDonald) who comes into his life and also Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and young enforcer he sees as his own son. The story mixes real characters with fictional ones and all are played by fine actors: Michael Stuhlbarg plays Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who becomes at odds with Nucky and his crew. His segments are a highlight of the show and wonderfully acted by Stuhlbarg. Michael Shannon plays an agent and religious zealot on the hunt for bootleggers. We also meet characters such as a hot headed Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Warren G. Harding. Boardwalk Empire is also a visual success and a screenwriting success. In an era when ignorance passes for good television, this show is like a breath of fresh air. I urge you seek it out on DVD or on reruns on HBO.
****

Friday, November 16, 2012

Norman Mailer: The American

Norman Mailer was an influential author and journalist known for his books The Naked and the Dead & The Executioner's Song, a famous profile of Marilyn Monroe, and cofounding The Village Voice. Yet, he also had an irascible, sometimes volatile personality, which resulted in an often tumultuous personal life, which is sadly what the filmmakers of this documentary chose to focus on, offering a tabloid view of what should have been an interesting life story. By the time the film concludes and the experts have espoused him as the greatest writer of the second half of the 20th Century, we don't feel we've been given that impression, or rather that these summations adequately sum up the film's theses.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wallander

Series 3
Season 3 of "Wallander" sees the depressed Ystad detective track a religious arsonist, travel across the Baltic Sea to investigate police corruption in Latvia, and investigate a body washing up in his own backyard whose murder investigation, through his own malfeasance, will lead to the severe injury of an endeared colleague. Kenneth Branagh delivers his finest performance yet in the series and while the mysteries remain standard, connect-the-dot whodunnits, Branagh never ceases to be anything less than captivating as the existential inspector.
***

Series 2
As Wallander continues to undergo difficulties with his infirmed father and dismissive daughter, a line of duty shooting leaves the existential sleuth's conscious more reeling than ever as he deals with three more mysteries of an extremely execrable nature. "Wallander's" sophomore outing is a marked improvement over the first season with a brand new batch of Henning Mankell's mysteries that play out to greater intrigue in each of the self-contained episodes. Also, Kenneth Branagh still continues to shine, even during darker or less inspired moments of the series.
***

Series 1
Police detective Kurt Wallander is undergoing a midlife crisis following his separation from his wife and the news that his father is suffering from Alzheimer's, and seems to be empathizing with the victims of the bizarre crimes that have plagued his idyllic small town of Ystad. "Wallander" is a British television adaptation of a highly successful series of Swedish crime yarns by author Henning Mankell, which have also been translated to Swedish TV to equal acclaim. With "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series, "Let the Right One In", and "Headhunters", Scandinavian thrillers are in high demand for screen translation and I think the secret is central characterization. While I found the stories in "Wallander" to be routine crime procedurals, Kenneth Branagh delivers a dynamic lead performance that is unlike anything we'd expect from the hero of a cop drama. Branagh does everything he can to make his character seem like a normal guy, while make adding existential, melancholic, and inept qualities, all welcomed attributes for this kind of hero. Like the recent Scandi thrillers, intriguing and atypical leads are also a tradition in British TV and like Jane Tennyson, and John Luther, Kurt Wallander stands up nicely alongside them.
***

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird couldn't have been further apart as individuals, Magic an easy going extrovert from a working class family in Lansing, Michigan and Larry a reticent introvert born dirt poor in rural Indiana. When they faced off on the basketball hardwood, for the first time in 1979 NCAA Title Game and then many times throughout their esteemed professional careers, they brought an unbridled intensity to their rivalry, which may have seemed fueled by hatred, but ultimately revealed itself in a lasting friendship. "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals" is a remarkable documentary, prominently featuring its subjects in addition to a wealth of archive footage and commentary. This in-depth portrait gives you both a sense of Magic and Bird as people, as well as competitors on the court, the balance of which is a rarity in this kind of sports documentary.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

An Idiot Abroad

Series 1
Mostly for a lark, British comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant decided to send Karl Pilkington, mutual friend and cohost of their popular podcast, on an extensive tour of Seven of the World's Wonders. From the Great Wall of China, to the Great Pyramids, all the way to Machu Picchu, the exceedingly domestic Pilkington experiences world culture in various and often brutal methods. While not being nearly as humorous as Gervais and Merchant's other efforts, "An Idiot Abroad" makes for a competent travelogue that features some exquisite footage with Pilkington making an endearing if prosaic guide.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Ricky Gervais Show

Season 1 (2010)
Season 2 (2011)
Season 3 (2012)
Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington are in the Guiness Book of World Records for having their podcast downloaded the most times. In 2010, they decided to have these podcasts animated and turn it into a 13 half hour episode series which mainly consists of Gervais and his The Office and Extras collaborator rip on their colleague Pilkington. The Ricky Gervais Show is excellent for two reasons. First it provides a window into the comic minds of Gervais and Merchant as well as Pilkington who truly is one of kind and a person whom I honestly cannot figure out whether his schtick is real or not. The second reason the show is successful is the animation of Andy Bialk. Done in the style of Hanna-Barbera, it imaginatively and humorously illustrates the musings of the trio including Pilkington's thoughts which Gervais often refers to as "bullocks" or "the ravings of a mad man." The fact that this kind of conceptual television show can be such a hilarious success is a tribute both to the animation of Bialk and the top tiered comic stylings of Gervais, Merchant, and the hilariously obtuse Pilkington.

Monday, July 2, 2012

I.M. Pei: Building China Modern

I.M. Pei is one of the foremost and respected of the modern architects, with his unique buildings gracing many of the world's finest cities, from the Louvre Pyramid in Paris to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH. Now well into his 90s, in 2009 he was commissioned for what was to be a final, challenging and deeply personal project: In the antiquated village of Suzhou, where he also spent his childhood, Pei is to build a museum that introduces his modern vision while still retaining the ancient aesthetics of the area. "Builing China Modern" is an informative and in depth profile that tells Pei's life story and follows the renowned master over the course of a year as he plots and builds his grand acheivement.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Screaming Man

Adam, a former swim champion, tends a hotel pool in Chad with his teenaged son Abdel. When management decides they no longer can justify two pool attendants, and that Abdel is more charismatic with the guests, they transfer Adam to a menial gatekeeping task. Incredibly hurt and irate, Adam sees the ongoing civil war as an opportunity to gain his old job back. "A Screaming Man" is a beautiful and observant film, though glacially place, that delves deeply into the heart of its brooding main character and explores his wounded. Director Mahamt-Saleh Haroun shoots on an incredibly gorgeous canvas, and captures both the beauties and horrors of modern day Chad. Haroun has cited Yasujiro Ozu as a major influence, and like the films of the great Japanese director, "A Screaming Man" quietly explores the humanity of its subjects and bears great fruit if approached with patience and an open mindset.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff was a master cinematographer who worked in the film industry for an astounding span of ten decades. An innovator with light and the Technicolor format, Cardiff made his name with the inimitable writing/directing British duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, ventured out on his own as a director, and left a remarkable legacy which included two Academy Awards, one for his work in "Black Narcissus" and the other an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award. "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff" is an in depth look at his career, led by the man himself through a series of interviews shot shortly before his death in 2009 at the age of 91, where he reveals even more of his unique abilities, such as an adept penchant for painting. Cardiff's achievements are incredible in their own right, and with the warm and funny man guiding us through his own journey, it makes this insightful documentary all the more worthwhile.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sherlock

Series 2
With Moriarty hatching an even more diabolical plot, Sherlock and Watson find themselves entwined in three more mysteries, this time versions of Conan Doyle's revered classics A Scandal in Bohemia, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Reichenbach Falls. In Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's sophomore run of their retelling of the stories of the world's most famous detective, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman still remain the chief asset of the series, delivering compelling and intensely likable performances (I can't wait to see them both in "The Hobbit" later this year). However, as was my chief complaint last season, and one which has regressed even further here, these wonderful stories are given shabby and paper thin treatment. I also found Andrew Scott to be a poor choice for Moriarty. I feel odd complaining about a crime show with such rich character development, but here in a mystery series as such, storytelling must come first, and given the wealth of material given to the developers, we should be given something much more compelling.
** 1/2


Series 1
The most popular character in literature is supplanted to present day London where he acts as a freelance detective, only offering his unsurpassed brilliant assistance in the cases that interest him the most. Taking on a flatmate who has just been psychologically wounded in the Iraq War, he also proves to be quite resourceful in the detective's inquest, all of which seem to be the masterwork of an equally brilliant and secretive criminal mastermind. "Sherlock" is a BBC reworking of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in a three part series, each entitled A Study in Pink, The Blind Banker, and The Great Game. The series does an excellent job capturing the spirit of the Conan Doyle novels, and compared to the blasphemous Guy Ritchie movies, it is a most welcomed excursion. As Holmes and Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are excellent at capturing the essence of their roles and Cumberbatch is a particular joy to watch as the ingenious and sociopathic detective. I did feel the episodes were marred by overlength and "The Blind Banker" segment seemed to be an unworthy entry. "Sherlock" does succeed in being escapist entertainment, an acting showcase for the stars, and a return to form for the character following the recent film mistreatments.
***

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sam Cooke: Crossing Over

With his angelic voice and charismatic style, Sam Cooke was the first rhythm and blues singer to cross Gospel and Pop music. His epic career was marked by an independence unheard of in black performers of the time and a determination to fight racism, shown in his boycott of segregated Southern venues. His life was tragically cut short in a bizarre shooting in an LA hotel room, but his influential legacy has carried on by an indeterminate amount of artists to this day. "Sam Cooke: Crossing Over" is a loving portrait of an icon, made all the more immediate through interviews with friends and family and some great archival footage and songs. The profile is not particularly well written, but Sam's music is so beautiful as to make this more than worth a look.