Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 5: The Pager

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 5: The Pager. For all of its complexity, the Wire deals mostly with primal motivations -- greed, lust, envy, sloth, etc. And for a series that has assembled such a rich assortment of characters, the writers offer precious little in backstory for them. We know practically nothing about the characters' childhoods or previously lives. It seems that all that matters is who these profoundly damaged (and damaging) people are and what they do today.

This episode, The Pager, ends chillingly with the off-camera abduction of the stickup boy Brandon by Stringer Bell and his murderous lieutenants. The viewer has no idea what will become of the boy, who is also the lover of rogue Robin Hood Omar Little, but Clark Johnson, a brilliant director who delivers a wonderful performance in Season 5, creates an atmosphere of nearly unbearable dread that will inevitably to lead to another primal motivation -- revenge.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Wire Season 1, Episode 4: Old Case

The Wire Season 1, Episode 4: Old Cases. Earlier HBO series had set standards for violence, nudity and profanity (The Sopranos, Oz) but none was as artful in the use of the F-bomb as The Wire. At times it was, as Detective Carver said so beautifully in Episode 3, "unbe-fucking-lievable." In this episode, Detectives McNulty and Moreland re-examine the scene of the late-night shooting of a young woman who'd been a sexual consort of Avon Barksdale. The scene lasts about 5 minutes and the only words uttered by the two detectives are some variation of the F-bomb. It's brilliant in a brash, post-modernist way.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 3: The Buys

The Wire, Season 1 Episode 3: The Buys. The Wire might just as well have been called The Unit because of the complex interconnectedness the writers of the series created between the detectives working to bring down the Barksdale empire. Still, the importance (and limitations) of electronic surveillance in building the case against the oily Avon and his merciless henchman Stringer Bell is preached most consistently and fervently by Det. Lester Freamon. In this episode, Lester emerges from behind his handcarved miniatures to show he's real Bal'more Poh-leese. He'd been shuttled off to the pawn shop division for being a conscientious lawman but "the unit" reignites his passion for catching the bad guy with determination and intelligence, day by day, piece by piece. His caring, fatherly mentoring of the young detective Roland Pryzbylewski is one of the more interesting evolving relationships in the series. Cool Lester Smooth is an extraordinary character in an extraordinary show.


I've often wondered how documentarians settle on their subjects. The subject has to be of personal and, at least to some degree, public interest and there must be enough "story" to capture an audience's imagination. In the case of Errol Morris's Tabloid -- the fantastic (in the sense of mind-boggling) story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who was accused in the late '70s of kidnapping her Mormon boyfriend and forcing him into a weekend of sexual slavery -- the subject matter is riveting, like a Barnum and Bailey carnival attraction. It's so outlandish, in fact, that this tale of sexual exploitation, religious zealotry, and international intrigues simply MUST be true. Or, as my friend said as the credits rolled, "You can't make this shit up." McKinney, who provides most of the narration of her sad tale, is quite possibly mad, which of course is sad, but at the same time she is absolutely captivating. A guilty pleasure but a pleasure nonetheless.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 2: The Detail

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 2: The Detail. The series had an enormous cast of characters and the second episode continued the introductions. Who could be sure which of the many characters would become peripheral and which would be central? One thing was made more certain in this episode, however: Larry Gilliard Jr.'s neophyte drug overseer D'Angelo Barksdale would be a pivotal figure as his naivete is played by his drug lord uncle, Avon Barksdale, and the unit detectives trying to bring down the Barksdale empire.

The extended scene with Detectives Moreland, McNulty and Greggs in the interrogation box with D'Angelo is wonderfully written and seems especially foreboding for the young man.

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 1: The Target

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 1: The Target. The series opens with a young street tough and a Baltimore homicide detective conversing over the body of a boy who'd been killed for grabbing the kitty in a dice game -- something he'd done on several occasions before. This time, however, "Snot-boogie" would be gunned down "over some bullshit," as the street tough says. Thus the tone of this series is set -- talk is coarse and reductive, life is tenuous, the rules of the game are unfair when they're not nonsensical and yet everybody plays because "this is America."

(No, the series was not perfect. Some seasons were decidedly stronger than others, some of the acting was noticeably weaker and the writing, on more than one occasion, was far too pointedly polemical for my taste, and yet, despite all of that, the stories of "this American life" were as addictive as the heroin they were slinging in the project towers.)

The Wire

The Wire, the greatest television show in human history, debuted on June 2, 2002. This phenomenal program went leagues beyond routine police procedurals and courtroom shenanigans to explore the intricate intersections of life and law (and lawlessness). As a countdown to the 10th anniversary, I will be viewing all 60 episodes over the coming months and posting thoughts about each. Come along.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fright Night (2011)

Craig Gillespie's Fright Night is a good time with gore galore. A remake of the 1985 film of the same name (seems like just last week when I saw that movie), this version stars Anton Yelchin as a young biter-fighter who takes on his hungry neighbor, Jerry, played by Colin Farrell. Like the original, which starred William Ragsdale and Chris Sarandon in those roles, this Fright Night is refreshing in that it dives right into the feeding -- there's nothing coy about the vampy Jerry. He's a biter with balls who won't be denied. A car chase through the Nevada desert is a high point of the movie in which the special effects are modest compared to other films featuring the supernatural. Gillesipie gets winning performances from the entire cast but standouts are Farrell, David Tennant (of Dr. Who fame) as Las Vegas showman / vampire killer Peter Vincent and the ever-entertaining Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), as Ed, an early believer in Jerry's evilness. Good show!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Help

Two of my three moms worked in some capacity as "the help," so I've not looked forward to seeing Tate Taylor's movie. Films about privileged tyrants -- the suburban variety -- infuriate me, and I too frequently imagine the cruelties on the screen being visited upon those dear women, and their sisters. I wonder what might they have endured so that they could feed their own families, keep a home and, perhaps, put away enough money for the future. A lot of what Taylor has put on the screen -- particularly the maids' coddling of their employers' children -- made me terribly uncomfortable. While presenting these women's genuine affection for their charges and the grace with which they lived their lives, these scenes also showed how insidious was the world in which they were trapped, as one character described it, where they reared their own tormentors. A major plot element, the maid Minny's revenge, though wonderfully cathartic for the audience, seemed ultimately more demeaning of Minny than her victimizer. Still, I was deeply moved by many, many scenes in the film, and thought individual performances -- principally Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain and Bryce Dallas Howard -- were truly outstanding.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

In Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens, all goes wrong in a dusty Wild West town just so that resident humans will set aside their differences (prejudice, extortion, genocide and imperial oppression) and pull together to kick some evil alien butt.
The movie opens when an amnesiac saddle tramp wearing a strange bracelet (Daniel Craig) wanders into the desert town owned by a heartless cattleman (Harrison Ford) and home to a mysterious beauty with a pretty huge secret (Olivia Wilde). The saddle tramp remembers nothing, not even his own name, but is lethal in hand-to-hand combat (think Jason Bourne circa 1868). Soon it's revealed that the weird bracelet is an alien weapon and the only thing that seems to stop these greedy alien gold marauders.
The film is populated with stock characters most of whom have some really important life lesson to learn while riding to the rescue of their kinfolk who were roped like steer and pulled heavenward, presumably to be poked and probed. (Ouch.) Favreau has staged some cool action sequences, including the aforementioned rustling, but Favreau's famous wit is MIA.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It doesn't matter which sociopolitical problem you feel is being addressed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (or any of the earlier entries in this timeless franchise). The film works for all (or none) of them. It's a wonderfully crafted, visually arresting motion picture.
Rise is directed by Rupert Wyatt and stars (ostensibly) James Franco (good but not great) as a misguided but charitable scientist who is artificially boosting the brain cells of chimps in his quest for a cure for Alzheimer's, which his father (played by John Lithgow) suffers. Alzheimer's seems to have replaced consumption and cancer as Hollywood's fatal disease du jour.
Despite some tinny acting in places, Rise is a rollicking, full-bore "F-U" to The Man (however he's defined) and a rousing "Got Yo' Back" to all of oppressed Apedom (ditto). Notice the way "monkey" is used to demean the apes in the film; an epithet by any other name.
The film, which features an amazing tracking sequence early on that follows a chimp at play and sets the bar really high for later sequences, is enormously entertaining and not a little bit cathartic, at least for me, after the recent congressional budget debacle.
It is another remarkable achievement in the melding of live action and computer-generated animation, which, IMO, makes the actual "star" star of this movie Andy Sirkis (known by most as the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and the crew that created his character, the rebel leader / warlord chimpanzee Caesar (no subtlety in the naming there). The film's final tree top shot is, as the kids say, awesome.


  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...