Archive for the Television Category

Exposition Blvd.

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , on April 16, 2014 by dcairns

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There’s a famous saying that goes something like “Be careful what you want because you won’t get it but something might fall and hit you.” Perhaps it was to test that theory that we went to see the VERONICA MARS movie.

Fiona and I discovered the show on the recommendation of a good friend who discovered binge-watching before us, maybe because he’s American. Possibly all our UK friends were doing it already, but we were too busy watching pre-codes to notice. This was in the early stirrings of the Golden Age of TV when Lost and Battlestar Galactica seemed like a good idea and Breaking Bad probably hadn’t even been thought of. I don’t know, I’m no TV historian. But Veronica Mars had a lot going for it, as we recognized after two or three episodes. True, the actors were a bit uniformly good looking in a Lois & Clark kind of way, only juvenile. Thank heavens for the adults, who were good and schlubby. But the series had a lot of merits, which we looked forward to seeing carried over to the big-screen crowd-sourced version.

1) Plot. This is a major one — usually plot can be downgraded to the status of a series of hooks that keep us watching while the more important stuff is going on, but, to paraphrase Martin Scorsese at the start of THE COLOR OF MONEY, “With some players, plot itself can be an art.” Showrunner Rob Thomas would typically have a main plot and a subplot played out to satisfactory conclusions in each short episode, as well as keeping in the air the overarching series mystery (in series 1, this is the murder of Veronica’s best friend). All this made the show incredibly satisfying to watch — you got a lot — while also keeping you hungry for more. The teasers were irresistible.

2) Nice people. Even the deeply flawed characters, like Logan, were appealing. While we’re used to the Manichean nature of much western drama, it’s rare that I find myself touched by the goodness of a character. It sounds corny just to say it. But Veronica, though comprehensively traumatized before the pilot even starts, and confirmed in her cynicism by her evening job as assistant P.I., was always admirably decent, in a way that was impressive. The series tested her, and found flaws alright, but a good heart.

3) Class. I don’t mean just that the show is classy, I mean that’s about class, in a way that’s surprising and way beyond your basic “girl from the wrong side of the tracks” formulation. Series Two even had a major plotline about zoning. Being a Brit, I didn’t even know what zoning was, but I was fascinated to learn.

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Would the series’ charm survive expansion to feature length and the big screen? It was with a mixture of hope and trepidation that we attended a late night screening at the Cameo along with four friends who are also fans. And would the results please anyone other than fans of the show? Given that fans literally paid for the movie (in advance, rather than the more usual afterwards), the filmmakers (series creator Rob Thomas partnered with regular series screenwriter Diane Ruggiero) would be under more pressure than usual to satisfy their core audience.

We all enjoyed the movie — as fans. Not having watched it since the third series finished, I couldn’t always remember who the minor characters were, but enough of the rest of the audience obviously did to produce laughs of familiarity. The storyline is perfectly comprehensible to anybody, regardless of whether they ever saw the series — the ways in which it renders itself comprehensible are perhaps questionable, though: a big recap at the start and Veronica’s VO (a device used in the show, admittedly). I’d love to have seen the info delivered more in action and dialogue, both of which the film handles well. That show always had sensational zingy talk, and the movie does too — I’d like to see Thomas & Ruggiero write a screwball comedy.

Does it look like a movie? Well, it’s handsomely lit — but then, everything is these Thomas is definitely a TV director though. His modest budget goes on gloss, and his technique is basically coverage. There’s a suggestion of a LONG GOODBYE kind of drifting camera approach to the wide shots, but the editing tends to cut those angles off before they start paying for themselves, interrupting the camera movements just as they open their mouths to speak. It’s a film of fast-cut closeups — some hinky continuity but some very nifty emotion-tweaking storytelling. It’s just that it’s stylistically somewhere between too much and not enough.

But hey — the TV series succeeded on content, and by and large so does the movie.

The plotting is smooth as ever (at one point, an address is humourously given as “Exposition Blvd” but plot info is always successfully integrated into dramatic argument) and one consequence of the movie catching up with its characters after such a gap is a new focus on social media — I can’t recall seeing the cyber-age reflected so clearly in a film since KICK-ASS. Like Sherlock and House of Cards, the movie features onscreen txt msging as a narrational device — the return of the intertitle, or an appropriation of the speech bubble? It’s such a useful method I can see it being here to stay.

The cast are all great. Kristen Bell is adorable as ever, Enrico Colantoni as her dad (that relationship was the heart of the show) is delightful, Krysten Ritter (Pinkman’s tragic girlfriend from Breaking Bad), who I’d forgotten was in the series at all, is fun, all neurotic twitching, and the stand-out is obnoxious ass-hat Ryan Hansen, who was a good heavy in the show but has evolved into a stunning comic relief. The banter with Bell is vintage screwball. Some of the cast has got curvier, some skinnier, but all are great on the big screen. Maybe the movie strains too hard to give all the series’ regular and semi-regular cast bits, but the fan audience appreciated that.

I got worried that the climax was going to swipe TOO much from BLOOD SIMPLE — it borrows just about the maximum allowable dose. In the end, the problem is more that the ending isn’t quite big enough, and the subplot (yay! a subplot!) is left hanging for a potential continuation. The agreement afterwards was that we’d all love to see a continuation — especially on TV.

Full of Loonies

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on April 1, 2014 by dcairns

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Once, when Fiona was suffering from severe clinical depression, she tried to gain admission to a psychiatric hospital, but the doctors didn’t want to admit her. They said it wouldn’t be the best place for her. When she reported this and I asked her what reason had been given, she replied, “Full of loonies,” and it was the closest thing to a smile she had managed in some time.

Most psychiatric hospitals are somewhat grim places, though no grimmer than any other kind I guess. And you probably have a better chance of recovery in a psych hospital. The problem with them is the kind of people they tend to attract, which is to say the insane. If you are feeling frail and vulnerable, other frail and vulnerable people are probably not the best company, especially if they are running about shouting about it. The other problem is the staff, some of whom are brilliant but the non-brilliant ones, the ones with compassion fatigue or a sadistic approach to the wielding of power, may easily undo all the good done by the well-meaning ones.

Have you seen Nicolas Philibert’s documentary EVERY LITTLE THING? The French asylum seen in that is about as idyllic as you could ever get, and the film has probably done a lot of good just by making people realize that the mental hospital is not a place of gothic terror. But it’s usually pretty depressing.

(Philibert was at first reluctant to make the film, telling the inmates that he was afraid of exploiting them. “We won’t let you,” they said. “We’re mad, not stupid.”)

What got me onto the subject was reading on Wikipedia in the list of rediscovered films that TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN LION (1927) was rediscovered in a French asylum in the 1990s. HIS BUSY HOUR (1926), from the same director, James Pierce, was rediscovered the same way, although I don’t know for sure if it was the same asylum or a different one. It’d be kind of weird if it were a different one. Did Pierce donate all his films to this place? Or bring them with him when he checked in?

Anyway, it reminded me that Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC was likewise found in a mental hospital in Oslo. Not a film I would show to someone with a shaky grasp on reality. It’s practically a schizophrenic’s charter. And quite distressing.

It got me wondering about what kind of movie shows they would have in the psych wards. They must have a rare old time. Tarzan, Joan of Arc, who knows what else? Would a systematic trawl of the world’s institutes for the very, very nervous throw up more discoveries? Are Brazilian paranoiacs even now enjoying the complete cutting copy of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? Is LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT entertaining the bewildered of Barcelona, or THE DRAG NET the depressives of Dusseldorf?

Actually, Fiona spent some time on the ward, so bad did her condition get, and we watched a film there, or anyhow a TV show, one we’d written. The tape arrived from the producer at this delicate time. Fiona’s plan, before falling ill, had been to have a big party and watch it with friends. I’d advised against that, because if it turned out to be bad we’d probably want a bit of time in private. In the end, Fiona’s version of th big party was persuading a bipolar patient to sit down and watch with us, but the poor thing physically couldn’t stay sat down for half an hour at a time.

The show was a horror comedy, again probably not the most therapeutic viewing. It certainly wasn’t therapeutic for us, since the director had rewritten it and then done an utterly incompetent job of filming it. It gives you a new respect for the auteur theory, because that was not a bad script to begin with. And that is why I will throw something at that director if I ever see him again.

Southern Gothic

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2014 by dcairns

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No HUGE spoilers here, but you might want to skip everything after the words “wrapped round head” if you’re still watching the show or planning to.

I caught the first episode of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective on Sky Atlantic at a friend’s place in London, and then had to wait a while until I could see more. Then Fiona and I consumed it in almost one go. So I can attest that it’s a very well-conceived machine for inducing voraciousness in the audience.

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It also has two very showy star turns, with Matthew McConaughey using his newly acquired wiriness for the wired Detective Rust Cohle, a hallucinating synesthesic intellectual insomniac behaviorist atheist nihilist — manifested as stoned intensity with a John Carpenter makeover for the contemporary scenes. Woody Harrelson sucks his big wide Humpty Dumpty mouth into a tiny slit, lips like squinting eyelids, juts his jaw into an inverted Death Valley butte, setting off innumerable small pops, ripples and bladder-bubbles in his cheeks, while his furious ball-bearing eyes shoot murder from the shadow of his granite slab of brow.

The eight-episode structure proves really ideal, allowing a convoluted mystery to be ravelled up, without quite losing the viewer amid the tangle. Twin Peaks (an influence, I think, alongside James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia) and Lost went on so long their subplots and red herrings got attenuated into nothingness and even the show’s creators couldn’t remember how many balls they had in the air. There comes a point when a juggler stops juggling and just goes into a protective crouch with arms wrapped round head.

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The tendency of American films to pare away their interesting attributes and wind up with what Olivier Assayas characterises as “a fight in a warehouse” was also present, which meant the ending wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. The show throws in hints of diabolical cults and widespread corruption and child abuse, but ends up handing us a disfigured serial killer and letting the rest slide. I’m curious as to whether the references to Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which basically go nowhere, will be picked up in subsequent series. The idea that follow-ups will deal with different protagonists is a really appealing one. In any case, Rust Cohle is broken now, by which I mean he’s healed. If he’s not a soul-crushing pessimist, he’ll be no fun to have around.

As you can see, the title sequence is a masterpiece in itself. Series director Cary Fukunaga envisioned a Magritte-like feeling to the show’s use of flat landscapes, and that is taken up in the surreal title imagery, which at times recalls James Bond, True Blood, Polish movie posters and H.R. Geiger. By the eightth episode I was still spotting new details in the creds.

HBO’s True Detective – Main Title Sequence from Patrick Clair on Vimeo.

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