Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 9: Game Day

The Wire Season 1 Episode 9: Game Day. The creators of The Wire clearly loved this show and all of its people, but they appeared to love some characters more than others because of the generosity they showed to them. Proposition Joe Stewart, the portly and predatory kingpin on Baltimore's Eastside, is given many singularly hilarious (and chilling) moments and lines during the series' run. The character is introduced in this episode, Game Day, as Avon Barksdale's competition. A sparkling metaphor for The Game of the drug trade, the basketball match up is rigged, of course, because neither man wants to play fair, only to win. When Joe takes the game, and $100,000, of Avon's money with a ringer, he's signalling to viewers that he's a force to be reckoned with. His appearances, which are often brief but terrific, are to be savored and studied.

Favorite Prop Joe line? Joe to stick-up boy Omar Little: "You ever steal from me, I'll kill your whole family." Joe to Nicky Sobotka (Season Two) after agreeing to repay Nicky for Joe's nephew's dirty dealings: "Fool, if it wasn't for Sergei here, you and your cousin would be some cadaverous motherfuckers." Genius.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 8: Lessons

The Wire Season 1, Episode 8: Lessons. Det. Jimmy McNulty is a terrific police officer but a wreck in nearly every other aspect of his life. He's a manipulative co-worker, an unfaithful husband, and a clueless, though not unloving, father. Episode 8 opens with McNulty setting his young sons on the trail of the Barksdale drug operation's second-in-command Stringer Bell, with whom McNulty is, understandably, obsessed. While his sons conduct a front-and-follow on Bell, McNulty loses the boys in the mall. The scene fades to the opening credits while McNulty stands helplessly by as mall security page his boys over the intercom. Later in the episode, as McNulty recounts the event to his buddy Det. Bunk Moreland, he voices no regret at involving his boys in the escapade. In fact, he brags about it. Bunk is unimpressed.
Dominic West is ostensibly the star of the series and it's no mystery why. He's a wonderful actor and his character is central to all that transpires in the first season, though the argument could be made McNulty was eclipsed by other characters in later seasons. In the first episode of the series, David Simon establishes McNulty as the catalyst for the creation of the special detail that led ot the surveillance of the Barksdale crew and revived many of his colleague's stagnant careers and stanched their cynicism. Still, it's McNulty's outsized personality and his seemingly bottomless capacity for self-pity that makes him such a delightful character to watch, cheer for and occasionally to disparage.

Warrior

Gavin O'Connor's Warrior is not a great film but it is a truly fine picture that strikes all the right chords and has an indominatable spirit at its core, much like its numerous pugilistic predecessors (from Stallone's Rocky to Russell's The Fighter). Yes, it's a stand-up cheer kind of affair but it's also thoughtful and poignant. The story is set in the crazy world of high stakes mixed martial arts caged competitions (of which I'm blissfully unfamilar) and revolves around the fractured relationship between two estranged brothers (the beefcake pinup duo of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) and their formerly alcoholic father (a terrific Nick Nolte). Needless to say, bitterness and regret fuels a lot of the fighting -- in and out of the ring. All three of the leads are fine as is Jennifer Morrison (House's Dr.Cameron), who plays the anxious but supportive wife of Edgerton's character. The film tracks the brother and their opponents as they move toward the predictable but tremendously entertaining last act in Atlantic City. O'Connor masterfully builds into the middle of the picture a split-screen montage of separate storylines as the brothers train for the $5,000,000 tourney. It's a super piece of film editing. Interestingly, and commendably, for a truly engagng film about fighting there's precious little blood spilled in Warrior.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Drive

There is so much beauty in Nicholas Winding Refn's film "Drive" that it comes close to being a work of art. It's beautifully conceptualized (the many interiors are almost tableaux), beautifully paced (it's slow but not languorous; it's deliberate, thoughtful and meaningful), beautifully acted (star Gosling has always been a prodigiously talented actor and Albert Brooks's Brooksian pacing and delivery are oddly perfectly pitched for his role as a menacing gangster). The film is exhausting and brutal and mesmerizing and not to be missed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contagion

Steven Soderbergh's crackerjack thriller Contagion is a film without a star but that's not to say it's starless. In fact, the movie is brimming with Hollywood A-listers -- Damon, Cotillard, Law, Winslet, Fishburne, Paltrow, Gould -- all of whom play characters are waging individual battles against a worldwide killer virus that appears to be spread through touch. Soderbergh has an uncanny gift for narrative, and having a large cast and a half-dozen cities doesn't detract from this story's clarity or urgency. I don't know what we're to make of the story's indictment of a number of governmental and quasi-governmental agency and human selfishness, but knowing Soderberg, I'm pretty sure the bottom line is if we would only stop being asses we might make it out of this alive.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Wire Season 1 Episode 7: One Arrest

The Wire Season 1 Episode 7: One Arrest. Andre Royo's Bubbles is, like the rogue Robin Hood Omar Little, an  intriguing dramatic invention, and I suspect maybe the character is rooted in a real person the show's creator David Simon knew as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Bubbles has a pitiful drug habit but, strangely, he seems to rise above pity because his kindness and generosity are ennobling. In Episode 7, Bubbles asks Greggs to get his friend Johnny out of the clink and together Bubbles and Johnny go to an N.A. meeting, part of the parole deal, where Bubbles meets Walon (played by rocker Steve Earle). In one of the most affecting scenes in the first season, Bubbles rises from his seat when the call is issued to anyone wanting to live to come forward. Bubbles does so, gets the hug and the key ring and returns to his seat. His face -- one of the most interesting of all of the cast members in the series -- reads "ambivalence," "uncertainty," and "fear." It's a truly touching moment.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Wire Season 1, Episode 6: The Wire

The Wire Season 1 Episode 6: The Wire. The episode that shared the series' title is exceptional. It opens with the battered and sadistically tortured body of the stick-up boy Brandon laid out on the hood of an abandoned automobile behind project tenements. The camera moves from that horrifying display to the squalid apartment in which the young yard boys Wallace and Pout and a half-dozen school-age children live and are preparing for the day. In a scene of brilliant economy, writer/creator David Simon and episode director Ed Bianchi establish Wallace's gentle spirit and his extraordinary, parental care of the "hoppers" who are also victims of Barksdale's predatory organization. This episode belongs to Wallace, from first to last. It's the expression on his youthful face as he stares at Brandon's discarded body that seals the viewers' emotional investment in this young man and in his fate. In many ways, Wallace becomes emblematic of what's at stake.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

I left just before the end of Troy Nixey's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" because my annoyance meter had been pinging in the red zone for about an hour and I just couldn't take it anymore.

I feel a little crummy about trashing the movie because the young actress at the center of the film, Bailee Madison (Brothers), is such a trouper and I kinda wanted to see it through but then I thought "Nah. Life is entirely too short." I gave Miss Madison major props for holding her own in Jim Sheridan's "Brothers" (2009), a solid film that starred Tobey McGuire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal. In "Dark" Balee is opposite Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, neither of whom seems to care about the film or their roles in it. I'd heard about actors phoning in their performances but I don't recall ever seeing it done so blatantly. I felt really sorry for young Bailee, not only was she being tortured by greedy little photophobic demons but she was having to carry the whole film on her small back.

But that wasn't even the most irritating bit in the film. I'm wary of films that begin with fearsome epilogues that give you the feeling they're probably scarier than anything in the rest of the movie, or that feature self-medicating 8-year-olds, or a father who introduces his fiancee to the daughter by the woman's first name, or a fiancee who buys a talking bear for the 8-year-old because you know animated stuffed critters are demon magnets, or a caretaker who when asked how he got nearly hacked to bits down in the basement sends said fiancee to the library to look up a book, or the presence of a Polaroid camera with flashbulbs.

But my main beef is the film's title. It's total BS because the entire premise of the film is there is some really bad shit going on in the dark. Don't bother.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

The idiocy of the title of Jesse Peretz's clever little film is an ironic guilelessness that sets our hero, Ned, played by the always entertaining Paul Rudd, apart from nearly every other adult human on the planet ... which might explain why animals and children adore him. The story's premise is that Ned -- an eternal flower child and organic farmer -- gets released from prison after doing time for selling pot to a uniformed officer with a sad story (yes, he's that trusting) and bounces from one of his three sisters to the next, invading their dysfunctional space and, oddly and, well, guilelessly uncovering the hollow cores of their lives. It's a clever tale that features some fine acting from Rudd, his trio of sisters played by Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer, and Steve Coogan who plays Ned's repugnant documentarian brother-in-law. A sedate and intelligent hippie's movie that is only tangentially about smoking weed.

Yesterday

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