Monday, May 28, 2012

The Wire Season 4 Episode 7: Unto Others

The Wire Season 4 Episode 7: Unto Others.  In creating the character of Omar Little, Simon and company had to decide early on what the narraive arc would be for the gay Robin Hood of inner city Baltimore's drugland, who though loaded with charm and a certain nobility held to a fairly cynical moral code. The character is pursued relentlessly by city drug dealers throughout the run of the series and he makes it almost through practically unscathed. When the west side's new drug king pin, Marlo Stanfield, frames Omar for the murder of a "citizen" in Episode 6, viewers had to consider if this indeed was curtains for the beloved gunman. It was not but Omar's arrest and the subsequent attempted assassination moved this chessman closer to the inevitable face-off with the king. Put in a cage along with dozens of his rip-n-run victims, Omar was looking death squarely in the eye. Some quick action from his surrogate father, Blind Butchie, and the collection of an outstanding debty from the city solicitor saved Omar from doom. Cleverly, the writers had foreshadowed Omar's fate -- retribution would eventually come for the king ... and it wouldn't miss.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Wire Season 4 Episode 6: Margin of Error

The Wire Season 4 Episode 6: Margin of Error  Maryland State Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)  is one of the more colorful featured characters on the series, and Simon and company have great fun mining the depths of the oily politician's greed and mendacity. It was in Season 1 that Davis' driver was pulled by members of the major crimes unit while, apparently, collecting payment from the Barksdale drug operation. Incredibly, BPD commanders ordered the officers to give the money back and keep their hands out of Davis' pocket. This action sent the message to the team -- and, of course, to the viewer -- that Davis was a major player with a really filthy mouth.  Detective Lester Freamon would fix his sights on bringing the cagey senator down. Davis's trademark expletive -- the elongated "shhhiiiiiiiiitttt" -- was wearing out its welcome by Season 5, for me, but the character would continued to entertain,  even as he stood trial on charges of financial chicanery.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Game of Thrones

So, I'm done with Season 1 of Game of Thrones and the lesson I'm taking away from this sumptuous sadomasochistic parade is it does not pay to get attached to any of these characters. I think it's more than a little depraved that the first episode ended with royal incest (fittingly doggy style) and defenestration of a 10-year-old. And the season only got worse. After watching this season, I feel like the kid in Spank the Monkey who had to scrub his skin with powdered cleanser to remove the stain of his mother's inappropirate ministrations. Eeeeewwww.


Saturday, May 19, 2012


Caught the encore performance at Sandhill's of the Met's Gotterdammerung, starring Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde and Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried. Setting aside the tremendous beauty of the music -- it is Wagner, after all -- the post-modern staging of the opera was intriguing. The stage comprised about 20 vertically pivoting panels that could be raised and lowered and upon which were projected images. The singers were also able to walk on the inclined panels, which improved sight lines and diminished the need for raised platforms. It was genius. I don't get to see much opera and Wagner is an acquired taste but this performance was quite the treat.

The Wire Season 4 Episode 5: Alliances

The Wire Season 4 Episode 5: Alliances   Simon and company have dealt with racial politics in Baltimore since the beginning but more fully explores its complexity with the show's signature skepticism this season. The principal players in this narrative are the incumbent mayor Clarence Royce (Glynn Turman) and his opponent Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen).  Royce, who is black, is entrenched and connected; Carcetti is white, idealistic and ambitious in equal portions, and the presumptive loser in the mayoral race of a majority black city. Carcetti, somewhat reluctantly, exploits the city's escalating murder rate to argue that a new direction is needed and he's the man to lead B-more into that New Day. The "alliances" referred to in the title of this episode describes those being forged by the respective political camps and those partnerships that are guiding the New Day drug co-op headed by Proposition Joe (a consisently wonderful Robert Chew). The most vicious of the Baltimore drug dealers, Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), has told the co-op he has no interest in joining the group -- he doesn't need their product nor their protection. Prop Joe approaches young Marlo repeatedly, trying to change his mind or, perhaps to discover chinks in the arrogrant kid's armor. The latter move will most assuredly not end well for the cagiest and most endearing of the show's primary characters.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Wire Season 4 Episode 4 : Refugees

The Wire Season 4 Episode 4: Refugees   The children at the center of Season 4 have been set adrift by crime and indifference. If they're not being preyed upon by family members then they're being clocked by drug dealers as corner fodder. The boy who has attracted the most attention of Marlo Stanfield's crew is Michael Lee (Tristan Wilds). He has heart, cares for his brother and lives in a dope-infested hovel with his addict mother. He's ripe for the picking, they say. Cutty Wise (Chad Coleman) also sees potential in Michael and hopes to draw him into his boxing gym, to steer him away from the kind of life that set Cutty on the road to prison. Predictably and regrettably, the boy mistakes Cutty's interest as a sexual advance -- it is suggested he has been molested by his step-father -- but Michael has no problem understanding Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) and Snoop (Felicia Pearson) when they come a-knocking. As urban pathologies go -- and the series explores dozens of them -- those involving children can be the more unsettling because viewers are less willing to accept the inevitability of the young person's fate. That is why the killing of the young corner boy Wallace by other corner boys in the first season was so shocking. A secondary, though no less compelling, storyline in Season 4 involves Bubbles' (Andre Royo) attempts to save his young friend Sherrod (Rashad Orange) from a life on the pipe. He enrolls the young man in Tilghman Middle School and he is assigned to Prez's class but Sherrod never engages. Bubbles is frustrated and the viewer suspects the inevitable will not be averted in this case.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dark Shadows

I can think of only a handful of film stylists that rival Tim Burton in cinematic vision, whose work is singularly distinctive, and few have been as successful in merging live action and animation as Burton. Perhaps Burton's parody of the classic TV goth soap opera Dark Shadows would have been an interesting and enjoyable experiment -- rather than just an experiment -- had it been wholly animated. As it is, the movie, while as beautiful as any other Burton production, lacks a consistent tone or temperament. In fact, for uncomfortably long stretches it's beyond tedious. The cast, led by Burton regulars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Burton), appear to be game but just barely. Set in 1972, the fim recounts the story of cursed vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) who is released from his casket prison on the Collins family's New England estate about 200 years after being locked away by the bitter and long-lived witch Angelique (Eva Green) , whose love he spurned. It is fun after a fashion but not nearly as consistent in its clever cultural references as it needs to be to be a full-blooded spoof. The script is silly, set pieces strained and uncertain and the direction is sure but oddly purposeless. Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, much of this very expensive affair about the living dead just lies there. A real disappointment.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Wire Season 4 Episode 3 Home Rooms

The Wire Season 4 Episode 3: Home Rooms   Simon and company take a bit of creative license in their story telling by reintroducing beleaguered Roland Przbylewski as first-year homeroom and mathematics teacher for Michael, Randy, Dukie and Namond. Predictably, Prez's first day with his students is disastrous; a veteran teacher must intervene to help him gain control of his class. It's quickly revealed that each of his students presents a unique challenge and, collectively, represent a piece of the puzzle about inner city schools. It's a bleak picture, no question. The Wire never shies away from complexity; "no easy answers" is a byword for the series -- whether exploring the drug trade, law enforcement, politics or marital relations. Still, Prez is the very model of the human desire for redemption. Though he was knocked back a little by the resistance from his hardened charges, he digs in his heels and approaches the new job like a puzzle. He was, after all, code-breaker for the BPD on the Barksdale case before leaving the force after the accidental shooting of another officer in the Season 3. Jim True-Frost is a fine actor (he was especially good in a small 2003 film Off the Map) and imbues Prez with levels of sensitivity but never reduces the character to sentimentalism, making Prez a personal favorite of mine.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Wire Season 4 Episode 2: Soft eyes   The second episode of the fourth season opens with Marlo Stanfield's adrogynous assassin Snoop Pearson (Felicia Pearson) shopping for nailguns in a hardware store. She wants one with lots of force but little kick and is shown one that fits the bill. She reveals to the salesman, at the end of the exchange, that the person receiving the nail to the head won't know what hit him. She slaps a fistfull of bills into the nonplussed salesman's hand and makes her exit, an untraceable weapon in tow. Thus viewers are formally introduced to Snoop, or as formally as these things go on The Wire. We actually get a little glimpse into this most intriguing of David Simon's characters. She's a killer with a work ethic and a spirit of generosity because she tipped the salesman handsomely. Like many others in the series' Tolstoian cast (we'll be exchanging Tolstoian for Dickensian in the fifth season), actual Baltimore residents were cast in secondary roles each season. Among those cast were former Baltimore drug kingpin Melvin Williams (Deacon); Deandre McCullough (Lamar) who was the subject of an earlier Simon project, The Corner; and Pearson, who was discovered by Michael T. Williams (Omar) in a Baltimore nightclub. By all published accounts, the murderous Snoop is Pearson's unique creation, or, perhaps more accurately, Snoop IS Pearson in a different context. Having served time in prison for second-degree murder, Pearson was familiar with the lethal nature of the work she would go on to portray so convincingly.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Wire Season 4 Episode 1 Boys of Summer

The Wire Season 4  Episode 1 Boys of Summer  In its fourth season, The Wire became the children's hour as Simon and company turned their lenses on the young people who provided the drug trade with new (and highly dispensible) blood. Michael (Tristan Wilds) is a dour, parentized kid who must care for his younger brother and protect him from their predatory step-father. Namond Brice (Julito McCullum) is the contrary and sullen son of incarcerated Barksdale assassin Wee-Bey Brice and the ghetto-fabulous De-Londa. DuQuan "Dukie" Weems (Jermaine Crawford) has been essentially orphaned by the drug trade; his whole family is on the pipe. Randy Wagstaff (Maestro Harrell) is a hustler by nature, living with an aunt, with the enticement of drug trade dollars just outside his front door. They make up a quartert of remarkable characters, who, in addition to all the regulars from previous seasons, drive an extraordinarily complex narrative about the intersection of the streets, the corners and the homes of children in West Baltimore. Many viewers were moved more by this season than the three prior because children were front and center.

The Wire Season 3 Episode 12: Mission Accomplished

The Wire Season 3 Episode 12: Mission Accomplished   David Simon, in an action that is half cynicism and half social criticism, titled this episode after President Bush's premature declaration of the end of the Iraqi invasion and the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Simon is offering up the same assessment of the campaign to restore law and order to the ravaged streets of inner city Baltimore. The arrest of Avon Barksdale in this episode delivered nowhere near a death blow to drug operations in the city. In fact, Barksdale's operation -- severely weakened by the summary execution of his second in command, Stringer Bell, at the end of the previous episode -- was being out sold and gunned by Marlo Stanfield's lean and mean team, a team so bold they met in abandoned parking lots not strip joints or funeral homes as Barksdale did. Stanfield's enforcers (Chris and Snoop) were more lethal than Barksdale's increasingly bumbling gunmen, his heroin was better and the man himself was unperturbably efficient -- a real sociopath. When he discovered a young woman had been sent by Barksdale to infiltrate his organization, Marlo shot the woman three times -- one in each breast and one in the month. (The misogynism is undeniable.) It would be West Baltimore's new kingpin, Marlo Stanfield, that BPD would be trying to take down in Season 4 before his operation brought down the entire city.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Wire Season 3 Episode 11: Middle Ground

The Wire Season 3 Episode 11: Middle Ground   Cinematically, the assassination of Stringer Bell had to be precise. The character, played by British actor Idris Elba, was an enormous presence in the series. His fate was sealed in Season 1 when he ordered the brutal torture and murder of Omar Little's young lover, Brandon. "Send a message" was Bell's justification. It was no less a form of terrorism than if he had bombed the West Baltimore projects where he dumped the boy's body. Theatrically and narratively, Bell was Iago to Avon Barksdale's Othello, a role with multiple levels of inscrutibility. Because of this Stringer could not be dispatched with haste. His assailants could not be hooded figures shrouded by the night. For it to be satisfying for viewers, the hit had to have the same dramatic impact as that on Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Bold. Definitive. Final. Simon and company delivered Russell "Stringer" Bell to his maker dripping with poetic irony, not as much as would accompany the demise of one of Bell's killers, but Shakespearean nonetheless.

Poppy Love

The Wire Season 3 Episode 10: Reformation   This episode contains the most peculiar red herring of the entire series: the shot of Deputy Commission Bill Rawls (John Doman) in a gay bar into which Brother Mouzone's assistant Lamar wanders on the hunt for Omar. The writers do nothing with this revelation, leaving it to the viewers to process as they will. Ardent, regular Wireheads might be tempted to parse the character's colorful triades, most of which were directed at Det. Jimmy McNulty, in a search for evidence of homoeroticism, and, frankly, there is something there. It could be argued, persuasively, that Rawlss' anger and bitterness might be fueled by self-loathing. Viewers probably had been wondering since Season 1 why he was such an unbelievable asshole, and perhaps the answer is sexual repression. But, given the sophistication of this series, that answer seems a bit pat, maybe even trite. It's likely more the case that the writers were having a little fun with an ostensibly uni-dimensional character, adding a layer of mystery to the major but never intending to go beyond that. Rawls is a core character for The Wire, providing needy grist for the mill, moments of flashy and surprisingly artful obscenity. He's a piggish, variably principled and unprincipled bully boy who also might be gay. How rich is that?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Wire Season 3 Episode 9: Slapstick

The Wire Season 3 Episode 9: Slapstick Damnation and redemption are common themes in The Wire, although it's never quite clear who is on the road to hell and who to heaven. Jim True-Frost plays Det. Roland Przbylewski, a serial screw up who joins Lt. Daniels' major crimes unit and redeems himself, but not before misfiring his weapon during a staff meeting and blinding a young corner boy for sassing him. Under the tutelage of Det. Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), Prez is reborn as a detail oriented, paper chasing, code breaker. Who knew? But then in this episode, the bottom falls out again. Prez shoots an undercover police officer in a dark alley while responding with Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) to a dispatcher's request for backup. It was a bad move for a housecat like Prez but McNulty is nothing if not persuasive. This time it ended tragically. The relationship between the professorial Freamon (in Sgt. Jay Landsman's words, tweedy impertinence) and the neophyte Prez was developed with intelligence and warmth. When Daniels visits Prez after the shooting, Prez, damning himself before a review board gets a chance to study the case, announces he will quit the force. He asks Daniels to take a message to Freamon. "Tell Lester I'm sorry," he says. It's a touching moment that rings with finality, but something tells us it's not the last we'll see of Prez.

The Wire Season 3 Episode 8: Moral Midgetry

The Wire Season 3 Episode 8: Moral Midgetry Brianna Barksdale's is an intriguing story arc. Introduced almost incidentally toward the end of Season 1, delivering crab cakes to her son, the ill-fated D'Angelo, viewers had little clue what a truly tragic Medea / Madonna figure she would turn out to be. In Season 2, she's fully established as part of the triumvirate that runs the Barksdale organization, the others being her brother Avon and Stringer Bell, whose brains could not save his from his own ruthlessness. In this episode, Brianna confronts Det. Jimmy McNulty, who has been making inquiries into D'Angelo's death in prison, a murder orchestrated by Stringer. She resents McNulty's implication that her son's death was not a suicide as ruled. No one would dare kill Avon Barksdale's nephew, she says. McNulty, cunningly, says she doesn't need to worry about an investigation because no one cares ... and her response to his findings further suggesting that she doesn't care either. At that he leaves her, tears welling in her eyes. It's a powerful moment. Later in this episode, Bell confesses to Avon that he put the hit on D'Angelo. This enrages Avon, and they tussle but Avon eventually, grudgingly, sees the wisdom in the action. Another turn of the screw in the slow dissolution of the Barksdale / Bell brotherhood.

The Avengers

Joss Whedon's The Avengers is as sure a bet as any to come out of Hollywood's dream machine. An A-list TV and Tinseltown producer/director/writer with a narrative intelligence and imagination that is difficult to overpraise, Whedon pulled from previous Marvel(ous) film entries -- Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America to construct a story that weaves together fairly disparate characters, origins and tones into a movie whose individual parts are just as intriguing and entertaining as the whole. The cast includes a host of bankable talent -- Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Scarlett Johannson (Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) -- in set pieces that are large and loud, brimming with detail and outrageous touches of humor, provided mainly by the Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo when Bruce Banner). The diverse talents of this team of superheroes are called upon to respond to an intergalactic invasion orchestrated by Norse god Loki (a scenery chewing Tom Hiddleston), the brother of Thor (the ubiquitous Chris Hemsworth). It's fairly intense and though it is not bloody, the film is loaded with comic book violence. It is rated PG-13, but tons of youngsters under 10 were in the screening I attended. Nightmares will surely ensue.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Wire Season 3 Episode 7: Back Burners

The Wire Season 3 Episode 7: Back Burners Churches and church people make rare appearances in The Wire. That Simon and company created a character known simply as Deacon speaks to the iconic nature of the role. Played by Melvin Williams, the Deacon is introduced in Episode 2, when ex-con Cutty Wise (Chad Coleman) goes looking for some help to get on his feet. When Deacon tells him the road back into law-abiding society includes earning the GED, Cutty says he ain't about that and leaves. Four episodes later, he admits he ain't about the drug game either and so he returns to Deacon with an idea to be of some use to the children who have been abandoned to the corners. Williams is the epitome of stalwart integrity. In a later episode, Deacon visits Hamsterdam and is aghast at what is being permitted to happen in the "free zone." He confonts the free zone's creator Major Colvin (Robert Wisdom) about what he's seen and the normally indomitable policeman is chastened and contrite. Williams was not an actor before Simon cast him as Deacon. Previously, he was a drug kingpin in Baltimore. In fact, the character of Avon Barksdale was modeled after Williams.
The Wire Season 3 Episode 6: Homecoming Throughout its five seasons, The Wire's most intriguing battles were fratricidal, both literally and metaphorically. The betrayal of a brother -- even more than attacks against a parent or child, though those are also heinous -- strikes me as peculiarly depraved. Perhaps it's because, traditionally, the murderous contentions that can exist between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters are so often presented through the prism of base greed or envy. But to go against a brother born of blood or battle is in a way to deny the core of one's humanity. So, in this episode, the writers begin the countdown to the last day of the Avon Barksdale / Stringer Bell alliance. It will be a stunning -- though inevitable -- conclusion to one of the truest depictions of a real and grounded relationship between two men who are criminal to their core, bound by a crushing desire to be more than they are -- by any means necessary.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...