Friday, July 30, 2010
>Have you seen Demonlover? It’s that 2002 Olivier Assayas corporate thriller. It’s got a 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, your first clue that it’s a great film.
>It’s almost impossible to talk about why Demonlover might be the film of the 2000s without spoiling its frenetic plot. Suffice it to say the film is a contemporary dystopia where globalization has unleashed pure, unadulterated corporatism and a society of amoral mercenaries, confidently argued by Assayas through Internet age pastiche and hazy ellipticism. It’s also a culture cyclone digesting everything from video games to fashion mags that would be alarmist if it weren’t supported every day by the western public response to atrocities in the years since. Spoilers.
>As per usual, it’s what the naysayers call the problem areas that are most important. Sure, the opening hour is remarkably seductive, exposition-light to keep us actively involved and intrigue-heavy to reward us for paying attention. We get a break during the translation scenes, which are so drawn out as to be funny while inherently suspenseful, especially given the icy unpredictability of Connie Nielsen’s lead saboteur Diane. Already we get a taste of the film’s modus operandi with a hentai interlude and a penchant for blurry light/colorplay.
>But the central murder catalyzes the film into an even more addled state of consciousness. We’re constantly inundated with new and incomprehensible sequences, and it’s this rabbit hole effect that many critics find problematic. I suppose they wanted Michael Clayton. But Assayas’ paranoid corporate warfare is not a vehicle to one character’s moral accounting—an idea that, given Demonlover’s universe, is hysterical—but a portal into a world of dangerously growing distance from reality. The rabbit hole isn't the problem; it's the point.
>It’s in every frame of the film. The first knot in the negotiations is the question of whether the 3-D porn characters were modeled on real, prepubescent girls. And it’s here we see that laws still regulate some morality, but we get the idea that characters only subscribe to laws that are self-serving. Later there’s question as to the reality of the murder, the real allegiances of practically every character, and of course the reality of the Hellfire Club. Images of violence hardly phase the boy at the end, but that’s not his fault. It’s doubtful he’d be so cavalier if he thought they were real. What's more, in the meta analysis, it isn't; it's all a metaphor. Assayas isn't saying suburban Americans are perpetrating torture. Not with their desktops, anyway.
>So here we are at the great moral provocation, which possibly cements Demonlover’s millennial magnum opus status. If desensitization to sex and violence is one byproduct of globalization and the Internet age that has knocked us even further back from reality, how do we justify the graphic elements of Demonlover? The same way we do Caravaggio or Scorsese: this is not sexy, this is confrontational sex/death in service of a serious cultural reckoning. If we’re going to be torturing people and selling women, we ought to be quite clear on what we’re willing to live with as a civilization.
>I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the film's agents are overwhelmingly women, evidence of the film's misogyny as much as its feminism. Me? I found it quite welcome, though I question the purpose. Maybe the film was cast gender-blind, though certainly some roles needed to be female. But does this jibe with the state of today's boardrooms? Maybe, maybe not. After all, the women of Demonlover have all the power, but only Gina Gershon's American Elaine is actually at the top of her company's food chain.
>Assayas isn’t simply moralizing about violent video games or comic superheroes; he’s ripping from headlines that have only proven more prescient in the years since. He’s nothing less than our Ozymandias, watching an array of televisions, extrapolating cultural trends, and destroying our world in an attempt to save it.
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Morocco is the perfect title. It was almost called Amy Jolly, a movie I would not have seen unless it were about an ill-fated boat. Lucky for us, Gary Cooper has an ego, so the more neutral Morocco was chosen. And yes, the title connotes exactly the kind of classic Hollywood exoticism, however racist, that excites your appetite for adventure. But it’s perfect for another reason, too: it’s deceptively subdued.
It could have been The Passion of Morocco, but that wouldn’t suit the drama. Marlene Dietrich plays the singer (not the boat) Amy Jolly who takes a shine to a legionnaire played by a strikingly young Gary Cooper who looks strikingly fine in a cockeyed hat. (Where else are you going to see Marlene Dietrich overshadowed by Gary Cooper? But What She Said: one of a kind!) Complications ensue, ranging from Cooper going off into battle and Dietrich half-heartedly taking another suitor to the central couple’s utter inability to declare their feelings for one another to one another. But, if the film is any indication, none of these are anything to get in a twist about. For all the tempestuous emotional drama of the picture, it’s played delicately by both sides lest their passions get the better of them. Maybe we can chalk it up to a soldier’s stiff upper lip, but L’Atalante this ain’t.
While Dietrich and Cooper work very hard to pretend like this isn’t a swelling romance, director Josef Von Sternberg puts the lie to their facades with a number of mesmerizing sequences: Dietrich’s first performance, Dietrich frantically searching for Cooper among the returning legionnaires, and of course the grand, silent finale, an ambitiously unexpected climax. Throughout, you revel in the high-contrast lighting and the sumptuous production design, all dangly rugs and shadowy lattice. If this isn’t an epic romance, nobody told the crew.
Morocco is a basic romance story beautifully shot and emotionally overpowering, a magnificent entry into the Von Sternberg oeuvre. I still can’t get all the sand out of my boots. I’m not sure I want to.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010
I wasn’t right about much. But one trend was obvious three years ago: Mad Men’s drive to modernism carries increasing vulgarity. The phrases “up some guy’s ass,” “bullshit,” “wet fart,” and “gives a crap” would scream in 1960. By late ’64, they’re perfectly at home. The vulgarity isn’t just descriptive, either. Witness Don’s sexual encounter, Peggy’s calculated manipulations, the ad presentation that closes the episode. America isn’t suddenly swinging; it’s just finally removing its mask.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves—appearance matters, especially in advertising. Roger's even writing a book! It’s just that everyone’s a lot more honest and open (at least within the tight-knit dynamics of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) about their bluffs. Bert Cooper won’t participate in the lie of SCDP’s second floor, but Don uses it to to smash his guitar and dive into the audience. It’s an exhilarating finale to a whirlwind of an episode, scored to the Nashville Teens’ rollicking “Tobacco Road,” (a far cry from plaintive Dylan) that suggests the swinging pendulum future for SCDP and America. It’s easy to sacrifice honor that was never really there to begin with.
There’s so much change to take in—I was shocked by the time I realized we jumped a whole year ahead—that we barely have time for the iconic Joan, much less Lane Pryce or the credited but unseen Aaron Staton. (My condolences to Michael Gladis, Bryan Batt, and of course Kurt/Smitty; maybe they’ll eventually follow Allison’s footsteps back to the desk of Don Draper.) Our most divisive character, Betty, is further stranded in her own subplot, but the meta moment where Mrs. Francis calls her a silly woman was an appropriate rejoinder. Coldness aside, Betty is so sad, her reluctant maturation so compelling, that I can’t bear to drop her at this port, halfway (or less) to her destination. Besides, January Jones may have some odd moments, but she’s capable of some of the strongest work of the series.
But back to that modernism. Though clearly thrown together with duct tape and donated ham, SCDP is staggeringly beautiful, and our promenade through town was a thrilling parade of ‘60s references: glass, glass everywhere straight out of Tati, bold color blocking anticipating Antonioni and Godard, space age furniture from Kubrick, a dazzling Glo-Coat ad that’s Bergman meets Joseph H. Lewis. No Ed Sullivan Beatles, no Goldwater-Rockefeller or Johnson’s election, and no Civil Rights Act (nor, apparently, black people, though Carla gets a mention). Instead we get to witness another long-awaited dream: a Mad Men Christmas. What's the over-under on Sally winding up in a bowl of egg nog?
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Roman Polanski's political thriller The Ghost Writer (on DVD/Blu-Ray Aug. 3) remains the year's cinematic high point so far. When I initially reviewed it, I responded strongly to the way Polanski populates his world with people who are less than thrilled to see our protagonist. It's a method of alienation straight out of Kafka that Polanski has been honing for decades now, and The Ghost Writer is the natural culmination. Let's take a quick tour. Spoilers.
It's the first dialogue scene, and already strangers are annoyed by Ewan MacGregor and the company he keeps. This woman is specifically reacting to some casual profanity dropped by the hilarious stereotype of an agent. I'd drop the specific bomb, but it's clearly dubbed. The audio track says "goddamn," which is, thanks for asking, my favorite expletive.
The publishing executives, their faces the very epitome of unimpressed.
Every cab driver in the film is inexplicably suspicious of the ghost writer.
See what I mean. (This is a different scene, through you wouldn't know it.) You forget how funny the movie is in between its outbursts of high-stakes paranoia.
The concierge at the hotel where the ghost is the only guest was asleep until he rang the bell. And she has to wear that costume. You can tell she loves her job.
It's easy to assume this is basically how Polanski feels, headline-wise. Regardless, nobody does this kind of in-your-face alienation like the master.
The next scene is even funnier, with MacGregor outside speaking to the yard guy while the chef watches askance from the window.
Pitch: Eli Wallach as Old Man Wilkins in the next Scooby Doo. You can e-mail me for info on how to send me money.
Don't be fooled by that slightest of smiles. The line he's saying is: "I make it a rule never to see anyone without an appointment. But your mention of a photograph rather tickled my curiosity." A confrontation in lieu of a greeting.
And his wife immediately shuts the door on the ghost writer. Even better, she can faintly be heard to be telling whoever's on the other end, "Yes. He's here now."
By this point, even casual (though dorky) chatter is unsettling.
No name. Just "Mr. Rycart sent me."
I don't think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Of course the film finds room for people whose job is to be suspicious.
These two are bucking for a promotion.
And I couldn't leave without this remarkable expression. Kafka and Polanski always find room for sympathetic friends, but they rarely stay that way very long.
The Ghost Writer also amps up the paranoia, fittingly, through its use of written text, especially signage. There are headlines and news crawlers galore, obviously, not to mention the haunting manuscript itself and the note it begets, but don't forget the airport Threat Level signs and the god's-eye passive aggression of the taxi's "Thank You for Not Smoking." Every shot in the film is an opportunity for Polanski to alienate our hero. I've only seen a handful of movies so far this year, but it's exciting to see so many of the best—The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, Salt—are carefully directed thrillers where the plot is a means to a persuasive thematic end.
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Saturday, July 24, 2010
Salt is a movie for people who like movies. Evelyn Salt nestles comfortably next to James Bond and Jason Bourne, both of whom I bet she could take, and there are one, two, three great references to The Fugitive, including a variation on the farmhouse/henhouse/outhouse line that had me cracking up, not to mention the final shot. And it’s brought to you by Phillip Noyce, the director of Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Fitting, since Salt reinvigorates the international paranoid political thriller and passionately reinvents patriotism for 2010.
First things first: Angelina Jolie is a bona fide superstar. Now, she had me at A Mighty Heart, but Salt is a big damn action flick, and still she finds time for some evocative emotional work that secretly grounds the ridiculous plot. Of course, she’s just as convincing in the fight scenes, the first of which put a big old smile on my face that would never let up. The plot is comically absurd—Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who is supposedly a sleeper Soviet intent on killing the current Russian president; this 19 years after the USSR collapsed—but after a quick prologue (that not for nothing demonstrates the inhumanity of waterboarding), the film doesn’t let up. One inventive getaway leads smack dab into the next hot pursuit, and Jolie is utterly impressive.
But the plot is not just an excuse for thrilling chases. It’s the vehicle with which Salt runs down our conventional conceptions of patriotism. First Salt takes on the way we create patriots, which are really nationalists, via childhood recitation of propaganda. Granted, Salt lives in an outsized world, but the underlying truth remains: there is an almost sadistic strain to the way we brainwash children, and in schools no less. It’s not about loyalty or country; it’s a power dynamic between a small child and his state. We demand that children sacrifice some small portion of their agency morning after morning. But someone manages to break the chains of nationalistic conditioning, and the reason is key to the entire film. Patriotism breeds soldiers fighting wars long cold for countries long dead. But that isn’t patriotism at all, is it? The true patriot of the film serves humanity, not country, and there is no personal glory or even recognition involved. Salt is obsessed with identity and personal agency, especially what it means to surrender your every action to the will of the state, but it’s most passionate argument entirely overthrows the sacred cow of patriotism, meaningless at best, dangerously immoral at worst. That, not Jolie’s lips or the highway stunts or the one surprise after another, but that is why Salt is the most patriotic film of the summer.
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Friday, July 23, 2010
What time is it anyway? I can’t be late. It’s all happening at Hall H. Really: I heard they have movies, television, comics, rock stars, Tex-Mex, dinosaurs, orgies, and more. I can’t believe this is my life. I must have died and gone to heaven. Captain America and Thor, you guys! Not that I've ever cared about those properties, but Marvel Studios could really use a win. The jury’s out on that Hemsworth kid, but Chris Evans is funny and sometimes makes me feel bubbly. Considering how the superhero comic fetishizes super-ripped men, it’s a wonder more nerds aren’t gay. Just sayin’. Now if only this traffic would clear up.
At Hall H I hear they have a chocolate fountain shaped like Hogwarts! I can’t wait to go to Harry Potterland, but it probably would have been more fun half a decade ago. I can't believe everyone went gaga for the Deathly Hallows trailer, either. Sorry, guys: Harry Potter is over. Bring on Inception 2!
I’m actually serious about that one. Give someone else the keys to the universe, drown Leonardo DiCaprio in his own solipsism, and take everyone else on to more adventures, and you’ve got not just a stew goin’ but a franchise with potential. Inception could have been so phenomenal. If only it sprang from someone else’s head. Still, I say we give the original the respect it deserves and leave it and its lead alone. Instead take Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy (my favorite Inceptionista), backed by The Gang, and launch a cool, new espionage series that actually has fun with dreams. Seriously, I've had dreams all week that were more inventive than Inception. One of them may have included Tom Hardy. On The Film Talk they predict he'll be the next Bond—which would get some money from this Bond-agnostic—and that he’ll be the first gay Bond, or at least bisexual. Time will tell, but frankly it’s just cruel to plant that idea in my head with no reason to believe it’ll come true.
Christ, the gridlock. I heard there’d be crowds, but I was picturing, like, Disneyland not hurricane evacuation. And how come no one’s dressed up? I know the sullen Cullens and the two remaining Lost fans aren’t here this year, but I thought I’d at least see some stormtroopers or Hit Girls. The best costume I’ve seen so far was from The Road, and that guy was pissed when I took his picture.
Lucky for me, the traffic seems to go in all directions, so at least I know everyone ahead of me isn't necessarily headed for Hall H. Which must be around here somewhere. Someone just tweeted that they're serving butterbeer. And that it’s filling up fast.
So far I’ve only really missed the panel on The Walking Dead. Frank Darabont don’t impress me much (I'm gonna say it: Shawshank's overrated) but the premise is exciting. Besides, if there's one pop culture icon I'm a fanboy of, it's AMC. Have you seen their production slate? Okay, so Red Mars is shelved, or something, but at least the prestige network has expressed interest in a long-form space serial. Aside from Rubicon and The Walking Dead, AMC is also developing The Killing, about a woman who takes on a murder case on her last day as a cop, and more importantly, a western! It’s called Hell on Wheels, and it’s set during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Which is fitting, since the modern AMC was launched by the western miniseries Broken Trail. It'll be great to see a full series western of Mad Men's caliber.
Oh my god. They changed the lineup. It’s a Mad Men panel! Okay, I’m parking and walking. It must be in this center somewhere. Mad Men, you guys! This is one of my top three dramas—along with The Wire and Battlestar Galactica. There is literally nothing I wouldn’t do to get in and see the cast up close and see the premiere three days early and tune out Matthew Weiner’s creatively brilliant but annoying blather and ask Christina Hendricks to be my best friend forever and collect souvenir zippos. Nothing. You want me to steal that kid? Mom’s barely paying attention. I’ll do it if you can get me to Hall H.
I think my heaven would be like a cross between Comicon and a film festival. And an amusement park with roller coaster transportation. And a bunch of people dressed from Star Trek. But the salient point is that there would be tons of booths and panels, but not on Marvel and Dexter or whatever. Instead there would be one every year on Kafka-inspired shorts, and one that just hands out free Mexican food, and one every year just checking in on whatever absurdity David Lynch is up to. Meanwhile, in Hall H, there's a constant stream of great movies, premieres and classics alike, and next door a lineup of panels about the films or related topics. And since this is heaven, there's probably an assortment of fictional spaceships to fly, and probably whole acres of Lord of the Rings or the Leone west or film noir to get lost in. And best of all—
Oh no. They closed the doors. And I still don’t even see Hall H, not to mention any Scott Pilgrims or Emo Spideys. I can’t believe I’m gonna miss the Mad Men bacchanalia. So this is what hell is like. Constantly updated by those who got into the event of my dreams. So close but helplessly lost, and the traffic has trapped me in this parking lot. This is why I hate driving in Houston.
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Thursday, July 22, 2010
As the B-movie continues to dominate the box office (and budget sheets), it’s becoming increasingly clear which genre directors know what they’re doing. Christopher Nolan is no Stanley Kubrick, nor is he Michael Mann. He probably has no precedent because no auteur has yet dared to combine epic grandeur with lifelessness. But David Twohy makes the most of his genre fare, and his 2002 submarine thriller Below would make Samuel Fuller smile.
Having lobbed that explosive canister out into the deep, part of me wants to leave it at that. Instead, take Forty Guns. It’s got everything you’d expect from a western, but it’s saved from the cliché heap by Fuller’s command. His tight zooms and inventive angles, the musical burst, the almost meandering approach to its accumulation of stories, and above all his rich black and white compositions collectively paint a revealing portrait. They suggest a man who takes his B-western as an opportunity to experiment, and in doing so he distinguishes his picture from the regular crop.
It’s much the same with Twohy. Below features all the hallmarks of the haunted ship/sub thriller genres, reaching back to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Moby Dick through to Lovecraft’s “The Temple” on up to Das Boot and K-19: The Widowmaker. It's a ripping yarn that keeps absorbing new mysteries and genre conventions. Directorially, Twohy’s as impressive with the camera as Fuller, making great use of tight close-ups and pans as well as rapid editing, eerie Dutch angles, increasingly expressionistic lighting, and follow-the-noise tracking shots. It's transportive work. He adeptly turns a massive working machine into a claustrophobic hall of mirrors with some subtle effects that Fuller would have loved. In short, Below is the absolute culmination of the submarine story.
But Fuller and Twohy would be lost without a reason for their genre excursions. What are haunted house stories about? You guessed it: haunting, er, guilt! What’s more, in 2002, it was god-damned prescient of the state of accountability in Ahab’s stay-the-course America. That’s as far as I’ll go at the moment, but like I said, Below cannibalizes every other entry in the genre for its plot, so you already know what’s going to happen. Still, better to watch it blind.
Finally, I must mention the intrepid cast, especially Bruce Greenwood as the skipper, Olivia Williams as a survivor brought aboard (and, as a woman, a symbol of bad luck . . . booga booga!), and Holt McCallany as a senior officer. Also Zach Galifianakis plays a significant role as an officer who collects cracker jack toys as totems and enjoys reading spooky maritime stories in his spare time, and Scott Foley plays a significant role as the other senior officer.
A few of the scares are repetitious, but others are downright chilling, and by the end my heart was racing I was so invested. It’s almost enough that Below is an expertly composed genre piece, and it’s almost enough that it actually has something to say, never mind something so eloquent, important, and indelible. But those two elements combined launch Below into the important works. In a summer of empty B-movie detritus, movies like Below make the waters worth braving.
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The only reason anyone should be watching Rescue Me these days is simple morbid curiosity, sheer rubberneckin’ schadenfreude. But something’s not right: it’s actually strangely compelling this year. I know, I know, I said the same thing last year, which deserves some special Olympics trophies for pulling off four or five episodes in a row that actually deserved to be televised (starting with “Jimmy” and “Sheila,” which remains one of the show’s best hours). But this year’s different. Everything about the show is suddenly fascinating. Because this year, I’m pretending Tommy’s in Purgatory.
I’m dissembling a bit, because I actually believe that Tommy’s in Purgatory, and that the writers are saving that surprise for the season finale. I mean, the premiere was so strange—everything so obviously designed to resemble a moral test set in this expressionistic phantasmagoria sprinkled with It’s a Wonderful Life (without Tommy Gavin) moments—that the track has been laid. The bigger question is whether Tommy died in 2001 or 2009, but I think the sudden change in the series marks that everything up until this season was real. That said, these past three episodes have mostly dialed down the bizarre, so maybe I should take the show at face value before I get lost in my allegory.
Independent of the dreamy atmosphere, the season has some strong elements—like Callie Thorne, John Scurti, and genuinely great guestwork by Peter Gallagher—but apparently we must endure this one last bender before Tommy can finally reform—for real this time, you guys, I promise. That’s our moral test, I guess. So I’m not recommending Rescue Me Season 6 so much as giving friendly advice to those that are watching anyway. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was, but even the less compelling parts are interesting if you pretend it’s Tommy’s Inferno.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010
The cautionary tale combines two of my favorite things: the apocalypse and inferiority complexes. I’m talking science cautionary tales, by the way, you know, the ones that warn us not to get too smart. Though they pretty much spent their entire lives annoying strangers on the street, I’m comforted to know western civilization has always harbored prophets of the apocalypse. Who were just way, way off on the dates.
Frankenstein, it seems to me, is the genre’s Olympus, a fitting example of the classical cautionary tale where knowledge is pursued so obsessively that God must punish our protagonist. And God’s a cheeky bastard, so he punishes Victor by granting his wish: Victor gets to play god. Not only does he animate life, but he suffers the curse of immortality, by which I mean he is forced to live on while everything he loves is destroyed and his own life is reduced to mere survival. Because, to Victor, God is scary, but death is worse.
With that in mind, I’ve come to the not at all arbitrary and extensively wikipediaed conclusion that cautionary tales—at least of the “science will destroy us!” variety—have evolved in four stages. Only, I call them epistemes because it’s more fun to say.
Episteme 1: The classical cautionary tale, from approximately the big bang to the mid-19th century (the Industrial Revolution)
“You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been." —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
The key motif here is that God’s a dick. Don’t get all up in his grill—i.e. knowledge—lest he smite you down like the peasant you are. Science becomes marred by the phrase “playing god.” Prometheus, Faust, Captain Nemo, and plenty more can attest to the longstanding idea that classic authors are deeply afraid of smart people. And foreigners.
Episteme 2: The transitional cautionary tale, the 1870s or so to approximately 1945 (the atomic bomb)
“Science, already oppressive with its shocking revelations, will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species . . . for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.” —HP Lovecraft, “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family”
Nietzsche killed God or something, and suddenly science wasn’t so bad. Of course, it was too experimental to be safe, but science wouldn’t provoke God’s wrath; it would kill you through its unintended consequences. HG Wells let his protagonists succumb to their own inventions in The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man, and the same goes for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and a handful of HP Lovecraft heroes (“The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “Facts Concerning . . . ”).
Episteme 3: The modern cautionary tale, 1945 to approximately 1991 (the Cold War)
“She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind.” —Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
Prior to 1945, science could kill us. From Hiroshima forward, science would kill us. And while we innocents used to be in the clear, in a godless world, everyone’s at hazard. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is the period’s standout simply for its commitment to the episteme’s belief that the immediate application of science in the Cold War—not just the coolest war but a singular period in human history—was weaponry. And as Godzilla, Them!, and Night of the Living Dead attest, technological competition wasn’t just dangerous for its direct effects. Other categories include nuclear scares (Watchmen, The Scarifice, The Day After), robot scares (I, Robot, Blade Runner, Terminator), computer scares (2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus: The Forbin Project, Star Trek’s “The Ultimate Computer”), and planet killer fiction (Star Wars’ Death Star, Star Trek’s “The Doomsday Machine”).
Of course, the “Science = playing god!” meme survives like a cockroach, though the genre is notably shrinking. During this episteme, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the entire universe out of existence in “The Nine Billion Names of God,” simply because man achieved (through hard work, might I add) godly enlightenment.
Which brings us to Episteme 4: The postmodern cautionary tale, the post-Cold War era
"The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan." —Battlestar Galactica, opening credits
Like everyone else in the ‘90s, the cautionary tale finally took its Ritalin. Science in this episteme is dangerous, but hardly inevitably destructive and even less probably far-reaching. Primer, Splice, and Jurassic Park hardly knock on Armageddon's door, and there’s a whole rash of technology concern stories (as opposed to technology hysteria) that are cautionary without being Reefer Madness. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Minority Report, Dollhouse and Inception, to name a few, feature new technologies with consequences that don’t include destroying the world or their users.
That said, there remain some global doomsday scenarios (including more disgruntled robots in Cold War remake Battlestar Galactica and The Matrix), but nuclear panic, though still inevitable, has taken a backseat to man-made viruses: see 28 Days Later, I am Legend, Oryx and Crake, the Firefly reavers, etc. And unlike the nukes, robots, computers, and devices that would destroy us in the past, diseases are basically invisible and uncontrollable. They’re the terrorists of the apocalypse rogue’s gallery. And like Al-Qaeda and others, we armed them.
Which brings me to the other defining quality of 4th episteme cautionary tales: apocalypse stories have branched off from the science cautionary tales. In The Road, The Happening, The Day After Tomorrow, WALL-E, Sunshine and Children of Men (or as I like to call them, the Nature Fights Back series), the apocalypse has already begun. There’s nothing we can do about it. The point of a cautionary tale is, you know, caution, as in, before the apocalypse. Well, Al Gore and friends say it’s already too late, so our new apocalypse scenarios are often unexplained and unpreventable. During the Cold War, we innocent bystanders were fair game for fallout. Nowadays? There’s no such thing as an innocent bystander.
So in short, here’s the progression: Science was an attack on God, so God punished you the sinner. Then science was dangerous on it’s own, so it would backfire on you the sinner. Then science would backfire on you the sinner and everyone else. And now, science isn’t so dangerous, but all us sinners are still going to die because of something we did.
I’m being flip because cautionary tales are just afterschool specials with rhetorical command, but the 4th episteme tenets strike me as persuasive. The idea of the 4th episteme is that everything is so interconnected and so juggernautlike that we are killing ourselves with science, just not immediately or directly. There’s the looming specter of nucleargeddon, biological and manmade pandemics, and good, old-fashioned climate change just waiting to show us who’s boss. These are far more threatening (and far less awesome) to me than robot revolutions or zombie apocalypses.
Thanks to L ‘n’ M for the brainstorming. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m this close to completing my corpse child.
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Monday, July 19, 2010
Lucky for me, somebody knew I’d have an itch that needed scratching this weekend after Inception proved anticlimactic, and into my life comes Shane Carruth’s 2004 sci-fi Primer. It’s about a team of engineers (the leads played by Carruth and David Sullivan) working on experiments in their spare time to hopefully invent something useful, patentable, lucrative. And right from the get-go we hear the sounds of science, ka-ching ka-ching, as Primer goes primal, a basic fable decked out in platinum physics. The world is so painstakingly grounded that interactions sometimes fail to feel human—naturalism is a harsh mistress—but more often the real-world verisimilitude incubates thrilling low-key moments, like a discussion of cell phones, which galvanize a powerful eventual unraveling.
As a science film Primer hums. Uncommon complications, mind-blowing reveals, and still unexplained random elements reflect how scientific discovery works in real life. And the worldview is appropriately in awe of the natural universe, a probably non-deterministic—if I understood correctly, the bench scene happens twice two different ways, right?—farm where paradoxes run wild and entropy reframes the boggle in terms of a moral.
Cautionary science tales invariably ping on a spectrum from quaint to cowardly, originally framed as Oedipal designs on God, after which time science posed an existential threat in and of itself. Primer presents a postmodern Prometheus. Science won’t obliterate us physically, but without the moral fortitude to temper our unchecked potential, progress may very well corrupt our souls or, if that sounds too brimstone, vanquish our humanity. I appreciate the morality, but Primer is a Bush-era sermon. At a time when people could not distinguish between the potential of stem cell research and the fantasy of divine righteousness, the last thing we needed was a cautionary tale that confuses the problem of corrupt or dangerous application for the positive good of scientific pursuit itself. Primer gets it right where it counts—morality is civilization's failsafe—but cautionary tales are boogeymen. I ain't afraid of no ghosts.
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Saturday, July 17, 2010
Inception is the summer’s great disappointment, largely because it's been hyped—because, not (as you’d expect) in spite, of its secrecy—as the summer’s great hope. Setting aside its utter disinterest in any subject—obsession, ethics, and above all, dreams—it’s actually a decent and staunch action flick checking off genre tropes like a score of boilerplate bombast and repetitious rhythms and a dependence on explosions as spectacle, though we’re always one explosion away from taking the next overlong twoandahalfhours to get a few dreams in ourselves. Once the film gets going (halfway through—after the A-team has been assembled and the dream invasions begin), it’s a pretty fun ride, though director Christopher Nolan edits between the dreams with almost no grace. What levity made it through the self-serious filter that Nolan applies to his films like a fetish artist is forced—witness out-of-nowhere hijinks between the otherwise great Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who gets a whole dream world to himself for a while that I'd watch for days) and Tom Hardy (a character in search of a spinoff)—but there remains some accidental comedy, or chuckles, well, one or two anyway, because a cast this good can’t be entirely drained of life, though apparently Leonardo DiCaprio, playing his character from Shutter Island, can, or more likely, DiCaprio's greatness, unleashed in the Scorsese, is prisoner to Nolan’s dialogue, resulting in a pale facsimile of real life, only less interesting, so his emotional arc—the only one in the film aside from Cillian Murphy’s paint-by-numbers psychology—doesn't quite pass your bullshit detector. In fact, there isn’t much feeling at all, though by the cascading ending, you’ll be too involved to notice, which I count as a win for Nolan.
But the point is that most of the film is so cold as to be inhuman and definitely undreamlike. Despite this terrific exposition—oh, and exposition is, like, the whole film, I suppose because dreams are so very literal and explicable; that was irony, and this is meta irony; layers beneath layers—where Leonardo DiCaprio, er, Cobb, because people in this movie are named things like Ariadne and Cobb—which should be the giveaway that it’s all a dream, not that it is, mind you, but if you don’t go into a dream movie expecting that it’s all a dream, or a con movie thinking the whole thing’s a con, or an asylum movie thinking he’s crazy, well you’ll probably have more fun than I did—where Cobb explains that dreams are weird but you don’t notice until you wake up and where Ellen Page remarks that dreams are more about feeling than the visuals, yes, despite this promise, the film immediately forgets these two guiding principles of dream. Those tenets certainly jibe with my experience of dreams. The film? Not so much. Objective, static universes are built, absolutely devoid of out-of-place elements, and they are extensive to the point that a man can dream himself dreaming himself dreaming himself despite real-world reports of haziness and ambiguity and, most importantly, sudden story breaks, as when you’re driving a car with friends and then you’re running through a park. Or maybe you’re flying, or fantasizing if you catch my drift. Not in Inception! In Inception, at your most imaginative, you’re probably assaulting a fortress or shooting people or otherwise subordinating your creativity to the nearest first-person shooter, and the whole time you’re completely asexual and, while we’re at it, probably a little misogynistic in that you can never seem to cast a movie with more than one or two women. Pity the fool that dreams like Chris Nolan.
If you'd like to be woken up, get thee to Alain Resnais' 1968 masterpiece Je t'aime, je t'aime, an expertly crafted tale of sleep-travel, memory, mystery, and tragic romance. If I didn't know better, I'd think the beach in Inception were an homage.
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Wednesday, July 14, 2010
That’s it? I’ve been having that reaction a lot lately: the overextended timeslot for the Breaking Bad finale, the president's oil spill address, my dwindling meth stash. And I know this isn’t the first time snowheaded Sundancers have helped each other ejaculate all over the one competent film in the bunch, but wow. Don’t get me wrong: Debra Granik's Winter’s Bone is definitely a well-made picture. But its reception says more than the film itself.
Which is to say, anything at all. There’s a plot—a young girl responsible for her family in poverty-pillaged Missouri must track down her loser father or lose the house—and subtly crafted performances—not least Jennifer Lawrence as our determined heroine and John Hawkes as her crank-addled kin—and memorable dialogue—like “Shut up. I already told you once with my mouth”—and bleakly beautiful compositions of rusty debris strewn across dusky forests. But it’s in the service of little beyond fleeting thrills and a grotesque carnival through Ozark civilization. It’s a fascinating society, frighteningly believable, but when the high is gone, you’ll still be hungry.
In other words, this almost perfectly realized and universally beloved story has no point. I know. I collapsed onto my cardboard cutout of Christopher Nolan when I realized most critics don’t give a damn what films are saying. Winter’s Bone has been heralded as “a goddamn American film,” I suppose because it rewards Emersonian self-reliance, though not without some help from a cash-bag ex machina, and on further inspection, self-reliance doesn’t save the day at all. It’s feminist, though, revolving around women who have no opportunities much less suggested desires for romance (the ones who did have learned their lessons), and the conflict is resolved entirely at the discretion of women. But these are attributes, not goals. It’s the difference between a pretty character and an intriguing one.
Maybe there’s something I’m missing. My first clue is the dream sequence, a black-and-white and Academy ratio montage of a squirrel and trees, which is either perfect or pretentious. I get it: we’re following an anxious symbol through a stunning yet ominous setting. That doesn’t mean it’s not absurd (and what dream logic suggested our night visions should be told neither in color nor from a single perspective?). Maybe the film is about feminism, after all, with one woman bucking a ferocious patriarchy, enduring the bruises of her uphill climb, and ultimately winning a little bit of comfort. The distressing catchphrase “Ain’t we kin?” starts to resemble “All men are created equal,” though without the innovative implication. Unfortunately, even that reading descends into trite girl power. It’s tough, girls, but it’s worth it!
Winter’s Bone is a fine film. But if I wanted to exalt competence I’d give our president a Nobel prize. Which is basically the argument I’m hearing. In a dreadful summer, this film sticks out precisely because it’s so aesthetically—if not quite intellectually, though no one’ll say so—staggering. They’re right, and I’d gladly recommend it, too. Winter’s Bone: it’s way better than Bush.
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Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Have we learned nothing from Pixar? Despicable Me is another infantilizing entertainment with exactly one adult joke—a sign for villains saying “Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers)”—that’s weirdly out of place, not to mention mindless and unfunny. It’s indicative of the film’s general disinterest in engaging with any of its subjects, (adoption, competition, family), preferring instead to throw off a lazy joke that you won’t remember by the next scene, but don’t worry: there’s always another cliché around the corner. Even the dramatic core of the film—the grinch’s heart growing three sizes, one for each of the adorable orphan girls—is all very ‘80s family sitcom. I guess all the imagination went into the playful design work for the villains’ lairs, schemes, and technologies, which were uniformly fun and interesting. Besides that, there’s nothing here you won’t find elsewhere, except maybe the film’s obsession with fat, dumb Americans. Because Americans are fat and dumb! Get it? You could call it satire if it weren’t complicit: Sit on your ass and don’t think. You’ll love Despicable Me!
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Friday, July 9, 2010
After two episodes of Treme, I declared it on the path to HBO’s upper echelon. Two more and I needed a break. There’s only so much cultural superiority a man can reasonably defend before a show is officially insufferable. Spoiler alert: my frustration was unwarranted, and soon Treme galvanized into my original estimation, a soaring monument to the American spirit whose bricks are the fleeting moments of human connection. Spoilers for Treme’s first season to follow.
“We’ve got more culture in one neighborhood than you’ve got in all your sorry-ass sprawling suburbs put together,” John Goodman’s New Orleans supremacist rants early in Treme. It was indefensible. Airing such grievance in earnest, without undercutting it or presenting alternative viewpoints, seemed to me a tacit endorsement. Treme’s ombudsman had more on his plate than FEMA after the hurricane, but none of the existing accusations of superiority were very convincing. The treatment of the suburban missionary kids was only superficially nativist, the idea that Sonny and Annie are New Orleans immigrants themselves suggests an openness Treme’s naysayers overlook, and Davis’ obsession with “the real New Orleans” is a character trait as virtuous as it is frustrating. But degrees of culture? Arbiters of authenticity? If this thing’s about to become David Simon’s Studio 60, I’d like to know now.
I kept my notes open as I watched further, for ease of documentation in my case against Treme’s snobbery. I never added another word.
Sure, Ambassador Goodman keeps ranting for the rest of the season, but at worthy targets. And confined to the one character, the rant that broke the potato’s couch is defensible as a less than appealing but entirely believable aspect of Creighton’s dyspepsia. Besides, none of us would have grandmas if we couldn’t endure a little political ranting. Like the Bush administration, you have to pay attention to what the series is doing, not what it’s saying. Treme happily takes us to New York, Baton Rouge, Houston, Huntsville and beyond. New Orleans is certainly the star, but it would be a lie to dismiss the role of Texas in the Katrina fallout, and the Lone Star state is quoted warmly and accurately. Treme loves America; it just doesn’t want to get all mushy about it.
In fact, Treme’s traveloguey On the Road component is a clever vehicle for the series’ national themes. Distilled to its essence, Treme is about America as a gathering of disparate peoples. Just as the country depends on its diverse cities, New Orleans needs its various denizens to return and rebuild. The series thus derives a cumulative wallop from the ephemeral moments where two people come together: Toni catching Ladonna by Daymo’s body, Davina excitedly running into an old friend at the second line parade, Albert and Delmond achieving a new peace on St. Joseph’s. Spiritually, culturally, and even literally, as when Arnie generously fixes Ladonna’s long dilapidated roof, these connections rebuild New Orleans. By the same token, the near-misses—Delmond glancing past Janette at the airport, Toni so invested in the world’s problems that she fails to recognize Creighton’s depression, the cops electing to antagonize the Indians—represent lost potential, wasted opportunities to bolster the New Orleans and indeed American community. In the end, you rejoice in all those little connections and lament the broken ones. Seeing Annie atop Davis’ porch is transcendently joyful, but it doesn’t quite make up for Janette leaving town.
That emotional punch is blindsiding. Over the season, everyone is navigating his own short story, and it’s not until the end that you perceive how far you’ve come, how invested you are in Janette’s restaurant and Ladonna’s search and Antoine’s financial stability. This largely thanks to the remarkable ensemble—it’s nearly impossible to single out anyone qualitatively, but Emmy has no business awarding the Best anything without Khandi Alexander, Kim Dickens, Melissa Leo, and Steve Zahn in the running—and the simmering slow burn that subtly draws us in before overwhelming our senses.
It’s almost beside the point to mention the imperfections in this great American epic, but the occasional typo illuminates the rest of the novel's immaculacy. Treme’s greatness is not restrained but enlivened by the Albert story’s isolation, Sonny’s self-sabotaging alienation, and shoehorned expositional dialogue about the state of disaster relief. The potholes need to be filled, but they're hardly noticeable from this magnificent view.
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Thursday, July 8, 2010
Emmy nomination morning rears its ugly head again. Shockingly, the Emmys generally continue their trend toward exciting, surprising nominees. I may not agree with their brand of exciting surprise all the time, but for the past few years, you can hardly look the Emmy nomination horse in the mouth, and at this rate, they'll be perfectly in line with critical consensus in a few years. Brace yourself: dyspeptic teeth-gnashing and exuberant fist-pumpage, often in the same category, to follow.
Outstanding Comedy Series
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Big Bang Theory
How I Met Your Mother
Parks and Recreation
The Sarah Silverman Program
United States of Tara
I'd give it to: 30 Rock, easily. Modern Family's second, and I haven't seen Curb, but beyond that, I'd rather get slushied than bestow this award on any of the others.
As expected, freshmen Glee and Modern Family join 30 Rock and (an excruciating season of) The Office, and (as forgotten) Curb Your Enthusiasm continues its streak. That left one slot for . . . Nurse Jackie. Art is ostensibly subjective, but just try and provide a defense of that, I dare ya. Party Down, Parks and Recreation, Community, Cougar Town, and United States of Tara get to stay home.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock
Steve Carell - The Office
Larry David - Curb Your Enthusiasm
Matthew Morrison - Glee
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory
Tony Shalhoub - Monk
Jay Harrington - Better Off Ted
Thomas Jane - Hung
Zachary Levi - Chuck
Joel McHale - Community
Josh Radnor - How I Met Your Mother
Jason Schwartzman - Bored to Death
Adam Scott - Party Down
I'd give it to: Alec Baldwin. Again, Larry David may deserve it, but none of the others do.
More of the same with one slot for surprise, in the form of Matthew Morrison, which is a signal of the Glee love but also an offense to the comedy world. Wanted: Placeholder who can sing and usher ridiculous stories while always looking weary about, yes, high school glee club. Will score Emmy bid. Adam Scott, Jay Harrington, Joel McHale need not apply. So, does Baldwin continue his winning streak? I don't see any credible threats, but then, I'm a sane person outside of (or tangential to) the television industry.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy
Toni Collette - United States of Tara
Edie Falco - Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey - 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - The New Adventures of Old Christine
Lea Michele - Glee
Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation
Courteney Cox-Arquette - Cougar Town
Mary-Louise Parker - Weeds
Sarah Silverman - The Sarah Silverman Program
I'd give it to: Amy Poehler just to spread it around, but believe me, with "Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001" and "The Moms," I'd love to see Tina Fey win again.
Amy Poehler successfully parlayed the love for her on SNL into love for her on Parks and Recreation, the first exciting nomination of a year with many (although I happen to find the obnoxious love for Glee and Modern Family less exciting; they're not 30 Rock). This race, though, could go any number of ways: Toni Collette won last year, Tina Fey the year before that, but Falco's show scored a series nomination, and Michele obviously has the Gleek vote. At least they nominated Poehler. I can't imagine what hell Courteney Cox personally visited upon each member of the Academy to deserve a lifetime of snubs.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy
Ty Burrell - Modern Family
Chris Colfer - Glee
Jon Cryer - Two and a Half Men
Jesse Tyler Ferguson - Modern Family
Neil Patrick Harris - How I Met Your Mother
Eric Stonestreet - Modern Family
John Corbett - United States of Tara
Ted Danson - Bored to Death
Donald Glover - Community
Ian Gomez - Cougar Town
John Krasinski - The Office
Ed O'Neill - Modern Family
Nick Offerman - Parks and Recreation
Christ Pratt - Parks and Recreation
Danny Pudi - Community
Martin Starr - Party Down
Rainn Wilson - The Office
I'd give it to: Eric Stonestreet or Ty Burrell. I'd need to rewatch before picking.
The trick to getting a nomination here is to either be gay or play gay, not that I'm complaining. Oh, is Jon Cryer not gay? Well our reigning champ was a lock anyway, and I guess this means Ty Burrell got in on merit. Still, while Burrell and Stonestreet are hysterical and Colfer really was the star of the show's back half, it's hard not to find six better and/or funnier performances from among the unnominated. Ahem, Nick Offerman, ahem.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Julie Bowen - Modern Family
Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock
Jane Lynch - Glee
Holland Taylor - Two and a Half Men
Sofia Vergara - Modern Family
Kristen Wiig - Saturday Night Live
Eve Best - Nurse Jackie
Alison Brie - Community
Lizzy Caplan - Party Down
Rosemarie DeWitt - United States of Tara
Jenna Fischer - The Office
Christa Miller - Cougar Town
Busy Philipps - Cougar Town
Aubrey Plaza - Parks and Recreation
Amber Riley - Glee
Merritt Wever - Nurse Jackie
I'd give it to: Sofia Vergara, but Krakowski is more than a worthy alternative.
More Modern Family love, more Glee love, and some perennials: yawn. I'd be outraged at the oversights, but I can barely stay awake.
Outstanding Drama Series
The Good Wife
Friday Night Lights
Sons of Anarchy
I'd give it to: Mad Men. Second place isn't even in sight.
It's always a good time to snub a David Simon show, but the real salt in that wound is they opted for sister show True Blood instead. There are plenty of drama nominations to be excited about, and at least Anna Paquin didn't steal a bid (spoiler alert), but I harbored hopes that Treme might actually score something in the big categories. I'll just have to return to my unabashed Mad Men cheerleading.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama
Kyle Chandler - Friday Night Lights
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Matthew Fox - Lost
Michael C. Hall - Dexter
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Hugh Laurie - House
Charlie Hunnam - Sons of Anarchy
Chris Noth - The Good Wife
Timothy Olyphant - Justified
Clark Peters - Treme
Wendell Pierce - Treme
Steve Zahn - Treme
I'd give it to: Jon Hamm deserves a goddamn Emmy already!
No need to adjust your television sets, and this isn't a wish list either. Kyle F-ing Chandler is actually, finally an Emmy nominee. And for one of Friday Night Lights' best seasons! I hope this produces some staying power next year, so he, Cranston, and Hamm can keep duking it out. But Hall, Laurie, and Fox stole spots from Steve Zahn (the most defensible lead male performance from Treme) and company. Now we get to see if Cranston can keep his iron grip on the trophy or if Hamm or Chandler can deservingly snatch an Emmy from him. Or if Hall or Fox or Laurie get enough sympathy votes.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama
Connie Britton - Friday Night Lights
Glenn Close - Damages
Mariska Hargitay - Law and Order: SVU
January Jones - Mad Men
Julianna Margulies - The Good Wife
Kyra Sedgwick - The Closer
Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad
Melissa Leo - Treme
Katey Sagal - Sons of Anarchy
I'd give it to: Connie Britton. January Jones should have won last year, but this season? This television season belongs to Britton.
Okay, so Julianna Margulies has got this in the bag, and that's the last word I'll speak on the subject. One last bit of sad news: Katey Sagal is still out in the cold after a phenomenal seasonlong performance (not that I'm especially thrilled about Melissa Leo, either). Most indefensible snub of the night. That said, Connie F-ing Britton! I was happy for Chandler, but I squealed for Britton (although there goes the lede for my FNL piece; just have to change it to: "Connie Britton needs an Emmy"). And January Jones! Finalement. Both women will have extraordinary tapes to submit. Let's see if they can't abort (pun intended) The Good Wife's victory party.
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama
Andre Braugher - Men of a Certain Age
Michael Emerson - Lost
Terry O'Quinn - Lost
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad
Martin Short - Damages
John Slattery - Mad Men
Jonathan Banks - Breaking Bad
Bryan Batt - Mad Men
Giancarlo Esposito - Breaking Bad
Jorge Garcia - Lost
Josh Holloway - Lost
Vincent Kartheiser - Mad Men
Dean Norris - Breaking Bad
Bob Odenkirk - Breaking Bad
Ron Perlman - Sons of Anarchy
Nick Searcy - Justified
I'd give it to: Aaron Paul. But Slattery was so great in his showcases. I can't decide.
More surprises: Andre Braugher joins the fray, but I have no opinion on his show, so I'll continue ignoring him. Slattery and Paul represent the AMC titans, but Emerson and O'Quinn have won the past couple of years, and the newcomers don't seem strong enough threats, so I guess the smart money's on the Lost boys. It's also on Kartheiser and the other Breaking Bad boys never scoring a nomination. Too bad.
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama
Christine Baranski - The Good Wife
Rose Byrne - Damages
Sharon Gless - Burn Notice
Christina Hendricks - Mad Men
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men
Archie Panjabi - The Good Wife
Khandi Alexander - Treme
Madison Burge - Friday Night Lights
Joelle Carter - Justified
Kim Dickens - Treme
Jurnee Smollett - Friday Night Lights
Aimee Teegarden - Friday Night Lights
Ally Walker - Sons of Anarchy
I'd give it to: Christina Hendricks. Accordions, tourniquets, and vases, oh my!
Christina Hendricks! It's about f-ing time. Toldja there were a ton of exciting new nominees. But every revolution is just a new status quo, so enjoy it while it lasts. I have less than no interest in Burn Notice and procedurals of all sorts, and I don't exactly begrudge them their nominations, but it's empirically absurd that the best performances from Treme (Alexander, Dickens, Leo, Zahn) are ousted for the annoying sitcom mom from fucking Burn Notice. That said, I really hope Hendricks or Moss can finally pull off some Mad Men acting Emmys. It's our Best Drama for two years (probably three) running, but not, apparently, thanks to its acting.
When Tom Hanks is on your side, you know you've got some support. Still, the Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series was a nailbiter with a single slot left after The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Saturday Night Live. Here we are at the T-section. Will they go Leno or Conan? I was peeing my pants at this point. "The Tonight Show with . . ." Okay there was no pause but all I could hear was really loud circus music for at least a minute. ". . . Conan O'Brien." I fist-pumped and then peed on my voodoo doll of NBC's conscience (don't worry, it doesn't actually work; there's no real-life analogue. Zing!). I assume Comedy Central doesn't need to worry, but I would genuinely be happy to see this one go to Team Coco for a year. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien also earned nominations for Art Direction, Directing, and Writing. Also Leno's ratings suck. Just sayin', sometimes it's nice to see karma in action.
The guest acting categories are never as great as they could be, but there are some decent picks. Comedy Guest Actor sees Mike O'Malley's work as Burt Hummel up against Neil Patrick Harris on Glee, Fred Willard on Modern Family, Eli Wallach on Nurse Jackie, and Will Arnett and Jon Hamm on 30 Rock. Notice that Matt Damon wasn't nominated for 30 Rock, and Hamm somehow wasn't nominated for his SNL hosting ("Sergio!"). Meanwhile Tina Fey and Betty White were, and they face previous winner Elaine Stritch from 30 Rock. Drama Guest Actor is much less interesting, although previous winners Robert Morse and Gregory Itzin square off. Actress is equally uninspiring, but Elizabeth Mitchell is up, so we all have someone to root for.
In Comedy Writing, we see "Anna Howard Shaw Day" and "Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter" take on Glee (pilot), Modern Family (pilot) and The Office ("Niagara"). In Drama, no Breaking Bad or Treme, but Friday Night Lights' "The Son" scored a bid for Rolin Jones. He faces the Lost finale and the two best episodes of Mad Men this year, "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency" and "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." In Comedy Directing, we have the pilots for Glee, Modern Family, and Nurse Jackie and the finale of 30 Rock. For Drama Directing, Treme actually broke through for its pilot, but it faces the lawnmower episode of Mad Men, "One Minute" from Breaking Bad, and the Lost finale.
Archer is up for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance (H. Jon Benjamin), though unfortunately not for Animated Series. Neither Mad Men nor Breaking Bad earned an Art Direction bid, which strikes me as odd. United States of Tara is up for Comedy Casting, which is about the most appropriate Emmy for that gifted ensemble. In Drama Casting, Friday Night Lights scored yet another nomination, up against Mad Men and some nonentities. I'm not sure if it was up for the award, but Glee did not get a bid for Choreography. It did, however, earn a nomination for Costumes, but for the Madonna episode, not the Gaga one. And it faces Mad Men's Rome episode and 30 Rock's triple-wedding, Somali pirate- and airplane pilot-featuring finale.
Mad Men's "Shut the Door. Have a Seat." is up for Drama Cinematography, and my man Simon Reay is up for Reality Cinematography for Man vs. Wild. I'd like to see those other DPs dive into a subterranean lake hoping it comes up on the other side. Two Mad Men bids and a Breaking Bad are up for Editing. I'm rooting for Parks and Recreation to win Original Main Title Theme Music and Steve Earle's "I'll Fly Away" is definitely my favorite contender for Original Song against one of the Rescue Me musical numbers, the "Shy Ronnie" digital short and the ode to suits from How I Met Your Mother. But the bigger discovery is that Steve Earle could be halfway to an EGOT!
The best Emmy nomination of all: "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" is up for Best Commercial!
See? There were plenty of new, exciting Emmy nominations this year (in addition to more than a few stale holdovers)! I'm not especially thrilled with some of the fresh meat, but at least we're branching out. And the year where Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, and Christina Hendricks enter the race has to go down as a good one.
Thoughts, favorites, predictions, let-downs? Are you as excited about all these new embraces as I am?
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Thursday, July 1, 2010
I took a couple months off, outside of new releases, mostly because I couldn’t stop watching Real Housewives. But with that cancer in remission, I’ve returned to my extensive western spree. I squeezed a few non-westerns in there, not least Toy Story 3, but the best movie I saw last month, just like last time, is a black-and-white ‘50s western. And like The Gunfighter, Day of the Outlaw probably now ranks in my top 10 of the genre.
On Father’s Day we watched The Boys in Company C, a 1978 Full Metal Jacket forerunner with all the absurd reality of Generation Kill and a couple moments of surprising, genuine pathos as in one soldier’s immediate heroic self-sacrifice. You hear about films having unearned happy endings, but this one—which oddly starts to become Breaking Away with soccer—almost has an unearned sad one, but then, it is set in the Vietnam War. As for the westerns, it turns out the doctors misdiagnosed my John Ford problem. None of his films have yet seriously impressed me—the best being Stagecoach, which we watched on glorious Blu-Ray this weekend—but taking in the cavalry trilogy and reviewing The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I realize I’ve liked and respected every Ford film I’ve seen. The Shakespeare of westerns he ain’t, but maybe the Chaucer. As for the Chandler and Hammett, well, I’ve already recommended Blood on the Moon and Terror in a Texas Town. But the best movie I saw last month is Day of the Outlaw.
At a lean 92 minutes, Day of the Outlaw is a tight machine of a western, spinning all kinds of dynamics among its players and then slowly exploding them. Our hero is Robert Ryan’s Blaise Starrett, a pugnacious cowboy butting up against the new fences in town. Just as he’s preparing for a shootout with the ranchers standing up to his free trade demands—the suspense palpable as the camera tracks a bottle rolling across the bar as Blaise winds up posed between his three opponents, anticipating the iconic tableau from Once Upon a Time in the West—in bursts Burl Ives and a legion of cutthroats (individuated as the fastest gun in the area, a pure sadist, a Cheyenne savage, etc.) on the run from the US Cavalry. From there it’s a hostage flick as Ives’ army deserter tries to maintain some sense of honor among his thieves , who in turn are foaming at the mouth for the town’s women, while everyone tries to figure out how to shake the bad guys.
I hate when people say the setting is practically a character—no, it’s setting—but in cases like this, I understand the impulse. Here we have a few buildings clustered on a snowy plaza, and as De Toth reveals in a bleakly gorgeous pan, nothing but snowy forest all the way around. Westerns notoriously fetishize landscape, and Day of the Outlaw really soaks in the isolation and punishing weather of our besieged town, the better to illustrate its cornered Jack London naturalism. In fact, even indoors De Toth is fond of wide shots, turning his players into pawns navigating a vast and merciless arena. The setting takes on an active role by the end, but not a moment goes by that you don’t feel the formidable cold.
What’s most interesting about the film is its nonviolent resolution, a coup perhaps unmatched among the great villain westerns. The body count is high, there’s a snowbound fistfight setpiece, and guns are drawn early and often, but the day is ultimately won through determination and cunning not shooting. In that respect the film goes where Anthony Mann’s most peaceable western, The Tin Star, couldn’t quite just two years earlier.
I wasn’t exaggerating the picture’s density. I haven’t even gotten to Ives’ magnificence, or the creepy piano tinkle, or the bravura dance sequence where De Toth peers in through a window as the thugs giddily bounce around a room with their reluctant women mere puppets. There’s so much to appreciate in such a tight package that I keep coming back to that Jack London analogy. Day of the Outlaw is a lean, rugged beast fighting for not just its life but its civilization.
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