Thursday, July 28, 2011

Private, You're a Queen

Captain America (2011)
directed by Joe Johnston
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at AMC Waterfront 22

Critics were patient with Captain America in a way that they weren't for a blockbuster like Dark of the Moon. Is this really the sort of superhero franchise people want? Bland, virtuous nostalgia? A hero too shy to kiss the girl?

"Old-fashioned yarns" shouldn't play out like the "under God" section of the Pledge of Allegiance. Prince Valiant was old-fashioned. Val made time for the ladies and was a bit of an asshole to boot. He sat at the Round Table when he wasn't arguing with Arthur or chasing plunder with Gawain. Prince Valiant got away with behavior that no one would get away with today: careless and vain, he cut a reckless swath across continents. Val was the Clarke Gable of the chain-mail set.

Captain America isn't old-fashioned; he's a square, and his nemesis is a faceless goofball who sounds like Werner Herzog (I love you, Hugo Weaving). No, the hero of this gray little film is Private Lorraine, an impertinent blonde secretary who pulls the Captain aside to plant her red lips on his wax mouth and remind me, for a moment, what that multi-cultural strike force is fighting for. Not LBJ-eared Tommy Lee Jones and not this!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Laughs in Mictlampa

Breaking Bad - Season 2 (2009)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats

Breaking Bad - Season 3 (2010)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library and Netflix

When people talk about how good Breaking Bad is, brother, they're talking about Season 3. It isn't the plot, at least to the degree that Walt's cancer, his treatment, or his divorce are concerned. What makes the grade and aces it - and ices it! - is the influx and proliferation of guest stars who play really well at crime. Not that Jesse can't be sweet in a car with Jane outside a gallery, or Walt can't wear that winning look of exasperation, but anger and pride aren't worth much on their own. Not nearly as much as Leonel and Marco Salamanca crawling on their hands and knees towards a shrine to Saint Death, anyway. Regret sometimes exists simply so that a man like Walt can move past it, and start deciding what to do when a pair of Mexican gunslingers shows up thirsty for blood.

Without Gus, Saul, and Mike, Breaking Bad piles contrivance (Walt and Jane and Q) on contrivance (Epyck from Friday Night Lights just happens to be the sister of Combo's killer?) willy-nilly, with no discernible payoff for lost time. Saul might not have as much to say about health care in the United States as Marie does, and Gus and Mike might not argue at exactly the same tenor as Skyler and Walt, but they all know that delivery and the right face can do nearly as much as words in a preachy show that could stand to hold its tongue from time to time.

Needless to say, the shoot-out with Hank is a good example of the gifts of silence, but for me, the beauty of season 3 is epitomized in the flashback with Jesse and his gang on the night that Walt first gives Jesse money with which to buy an RV. The names of Jesse's friends were always cute - Combo, Badger, Skinny Pete - but we only ever saw them when they were slinging meth on the streets or else high to the skies at Jesse's house. Drug use is depressing, sure, but it's fun, so to finally see the four of them blowing through Walt's cash at a strip club reminded me that friendships based on addictions have some pretty good moments between the lows. Life can be sad enough without TV to say so; "sad" should be a set-up for a joke down the road.

I always wanted to watch Breaking Bad instead of Weeds because Weeds isn't filmed in Albuquerque, a city I love. If Season 3 is great for the same reason that The Sopranos was great - nothing says crime like comedy - then it isn't as original as people want it to be, regardless of whether or not Walter White "changes" as a person. But original is overrated. I love genre storytelling and Breaking Bad tells its story well, just as soon as everyone behind the scenes agrees on the entertainment value - and its priority over "lesson" - of one man's war against two North American drug cartels.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Lime Cart is Off the Causeway

Burn Notice - Season 4 (2010)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Burn Notice, unlike the other shows I watch, would probably benefit from the space that normal network programming (and viewing) allows. In a week, 18 episodes can feel a lot like an aural and visual exercise in repetition: the particular cadence of Jeffrey Donovan's voice-overs, the second-unit photography of Miami, the escalating stakes of what's happening behind the scenes. Add to that already blurred recollection the odd space-time phenomenon I keep encountering - I turn off the DVD player only to find old episodes of Burn Notice in syndication on television - and I couldn't tell you, exactly, which clandestine international group wants Michael the most.

But that's okay. It's a summer haze, good with a Coke. Still, something felt off this season, or a little right-wing. The character Josh Wagner (in "Breach of Faith") should have gone to jail for taking a secretary hostage at gunpoint, regardless of whether or not her boss conned Josh out of his charity's nest egg. It was oddly aggressive/abusive of Michael to convince the woman otherwise - like something Josh might try on his poor wife instead.

A show whose protagonists routinely break the law in order to help men and women who can't find help through legal channels should be above demonizing criminal defense attorneys. That one man's quest for vengeance transforms him from sleazy lawyer to indifferent killer of civilians by proxy is absurd, of course, but it also seems like the kind of narrative trick that the producers of 24 relied upon. Ditto the return of Mel Gibson's favorite jurisdictional roadblock, diplomatic immunity, in the guise of corrupt Venezuelan ambassadors bearing bombs.

With Robert Wisdom and John Doman from The Wire to keep him company in DC, I like to think that Michael won't become the USA Network's very own Jack Bauer. And maybe he won't, although the addition of a trigger-happy, revenge-minded fourth member to the team makes it harder than ever for Sam and Fi to talk the man they love back down off the roof for a swim. Is Barry the crooked accountant Burn Notice's mood ring? Laid back and easy-going, and always handy in a non-violent way? Maybe that's why I haven't seen him in far too long.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Ferraris In Your Mind

Somewhere (2010)
directed by Sofia Coppola
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

I liked Somewhere enough to want to re-watch Marie Antoinette and see if I can't embrace it this time. I expected the male-pattern ennui of a celebrity in seclusion but not the sense of humor that Coppola employs to temper it. Stephen Dorff is unconvincing as an A-list movie star, but he's perfectly acceptable as a cipher that allows his daughter Cleo to experience the peripheral perks of fame.

The point, or close to it, is that movie stars lead glamorous lives and sleep in beautiful rooms. Despondency is part of Johnny's routine, but Coppola reminds you several times over that in spite of his emotional distance, Johnny is careless instead of unkind. Cleo might do better with a more engaged dad, but she does alright as it is. She laughs, she travels, she sees things that less privileged girls never do.

Ten years ago, the role of Johnny's childhood pal would almost certainly not have been played by the co-star of Wildboyz. But Somewhere is funnier because Chris Pontius is in it. Without Sammy or Cleo, the romantic idea of an expensive balcony with the right hillside light fades, but Coppola is wrong to end things in the desert, in a state of arbitrary vistas. It's clear she prefers Chateau Marmont, and she should say so.

"Be they Zulu or Eskimo, Steve-O and Chris put on a show for the people."

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Great Day That Dawns... And Sets Before I Leave the Sofa

Treme - Season 2 (2011)
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched on HBO GO

I read a review of the second season of Treme that generously called the music in the show - and the people who play it, and the plots that come out of it - "controversial." My own take is that no show on television feels more indulged (spoiled, really) than this, but that doesn't explain why I persist in watching it. On a list of offenses that includes Anthony Bourdain's credited story participation and Janette's inexplicable tenure in New York City, Ladonna's rape epitomized the ways in which all the directionless nonsense that comprises Treme's "milieu" - or "atmosphere" - is a listless stunt. When David Simon and Eric Overmyer need to get your attention again, no gimmick is too cheap to employ.

Davis' red-haired buddy in some ways suggests that the show is aware of its pretenses and faults, except that the characters we wink at (like Davis) remain the characters we follow. I suppose I find comfort in the ways that men and women deal with grief through a communal experience. There's Sofia, of course, riding the ferry where her father committed suicide, but also a funeral service for someone we never met, and kids talking - not unkindly, but distantly - about a deceased classmate at school. In my heart, the meandering pace of Treme feels most like Simon simply doesn't know where he wants to go, but it allows for the occasional moment of clarity.

Syl sent me a copy of Les Blank's Always for Pleasure this February, and the documentary says more about New Orleans in less than an hour than even the gentlest second-line footage here. Blank films the musician Irma Thomas in her living room, but she doesn't sing. Blank doesn't even mention that she's a singer. Instead, she talks about her gumbo and jokes with her husband, who got an ingredient wrong that morning. People aren't defined by what they do, even when they enjoy their jobs. Lives are more interesting than that, and Les Blank is confident enough in that belief to let characters speak for themselves.

Game of Thrones - Season 1 (2011)
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on HBO GO

Game of Thrones is an odd phenomenon, and reactions to it are inevitably framed by whether or not someone is up to date with A Song of Ice and Fire. Not even The New Yorker could resist throwing its hat into the fantasy ring to offer up a non-opinion on whether or not HBO will need to finish the series without its author. I guess it's all beside the point, except that even the most casual reaction comes up against a wall of online opinion that articulates nearly anything I could think to say long before I've said it.

As adaptation, the show suffers from - but does its best with - a limited budget. There weren't many moments when Game of Thrones stood clear of the text enough to look like its own beast (unlike, say, True Blood, which - to its credit - can't resemble its source much at all by this stage). But that's okay. I'm always interested in how other folks might interpret material I've imagined in my head, and ten hours once a year is little enough time to spend to satisfy my curiosity. Is there anything in Game of Thrones that HBO handled better than George Martin? No, but "Baelor" at least allowed for a fresh perspective: Ned's.

Eastbound & Down - Season 2 (2010)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched on HBO GO

I was never more excited about Season 2 of Eastbound & Down than on the afternoon of September 23, 2010, when I happened to be at Syl's place in time for the premiere. Expectations weren't met, and in the nine months since (a wasteland where these flowers of subscription television were not allowed to grow), I lost the will to even look forward to the arrival of said second season on DVD. Some fan! But it turned out okay, for Kenny and for me.

After all, what did I want? Another round with Ashley Schaeffer? More cocaine with Clegg? I looked forward to Kenny in Mexico; I loved the odd teaser trailers as he made his way through the night streets of his adopted city in slow motion and silence. The premiere fell flat. "Harsh" was never Kenny's vibe, and how could the dwarf compare to a minor character like the old college recruiter? Blame for the show's downfall cycled through my mind before I ever saw the next six episodes. Shawn Harwell, college friend? Jodie Hill?

Stevie Janowski is the unsung hero of Season 2. There isn't another show on television that would put a man like Stevie in a room with a prostitute in Laredo as a way of selling the sexual prowess of the show's protagonist. Once Stevie appears, minor conflicts and grievances give way to an ever-expanding group of confidants, teammates, and pals. Mr. Cisneros - the man with money and, one preemptively and incorrectly assumes, a hot Latin temper - is funny and encouraging, not threatening; the scenes with Catuey and Stevie talking up Stevie's hero through a megaphone mounted on Catuey's car are odd and endearing. Even the love interest, who I expected to ruin things for Kenny (given someone's icky track record with women) turned out to be a good old-fashioned heartbreaker.

I won't oversell it. Like Season 4 of The Wire or Larry's more recent bouts with Girl Scouts, Kenny is at his best surrounded by children. Lightning didn't strike just the way it used to. But John Hawkes is still a part of the two best shows on HBO.

True Blood - Season 3 (2010)
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched on HBO GO

True Blood gets all the details right, even as the bigger arcs and mysteries never really match small character interactions for closure or narrative satisfaction. Did Russell and Eric both wind up in the American South by coincidence? Is a 3,000-year old vampire three times as powerful as one who has lived for a mere millennium? If so, shouldn't Russell be a better fighter, less prone to trickery or speed?

But I don't really mind. It's a pleasure just to watch an actor like Denis O'Hare purr through a Mississippi vampire hunt on horseback. As ridiculous as scenarios get, everyone in the cast plays them straight down the line; it isn't operatic or theatrical, because both of those traditions imply something studied or self-aware. True Blood is crazy but it's free.

Season 3 finally let Sookie be Buffy in reverse: a strong, smart woman surrounded by monsters much more powerful than she is. As her universe expands, she is more and more its center - the woman with a true heart, pursued by fickle men and jealous monsters, open to the best interpretation of the gifts and promises each suitor brings. She is loved and betrayed in turn, but she does not forget the part of her that cares for each of them before he lets her down.

In True Blood (post-season 1, anyway) the physical act of living - the singing of the five senses - is paramount. Over a long enough period of time, a man's prejudices and fears are exhausted by experience, then replaced by something akin to wonder. Infinite hours are infinite possibilities, in matters of love especially. Say it with me, then: "I love True Blood."

Friday, July 01, 2011

It Reads Better Than It Lives

The Anderson Tapes (1971)
directed by Sidney Lumet
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Why do Sidney Lumet movies feel so out of touch to me? I want to describe The Anderson Tapes as a breezy, fleet-footed lark, tipping its hat to the paranoia of the era even as it reveals Big Brother surveillance for the inept machine it is. Instead, I'm inclined to think that someone wants to sneak something past me: a moral lesson, probably, or some broad cynicism that the facts of this feel-good caper don't earn.

Nothing beats New York-based "social realist" pictures for outrageous gay stereotypes (Anderson has at least two), and 1971 was a bad year for the usual nonsense about women not knowing what they want until a man with ambition tells them what it is. The joke is that Sean Connery's every move as a post-parole burglar is bugged, photographed, or recorded on camera, although he isn't the primary subject of any of the dozen or more investigations. He sets out to rob his girlfriend's apartment complex, and a heist picture takes shape even as the mastermind's hard work becomes comedy fodder at the hands of a group of uncooperative victims.

But if it's a comedy, why the heavy-handed stand-off just before the credits? The balance between strategy (how, exactly, a police team scales and enters the building) and laughs (a kid calls in the kidnapping by way of Kansas from his ham radio) seems laudable, but nothing floats the way it should. Lumet sounds like a crank in interviews, with all the usual New York blinders ("I've known a lot of cops;" "In L.A., there's no streets! No sense of a neighborhood!"). I'm the first to admit that a quote from 2007 is a lazy way to work back to 1971, so here's a lazy cover-up: whatever else he may have done, he wanted his ashes scattered at a deli. And The Anderson Tapes could be better.