Tell us something pretty, HBO

Phew. Remember the first and second season finales of Deadwood? Basically happy endings, complete with mercy killings and stabbed Cy Tolliver?

Don’t expect that sort of cheery capper to season 3. Expect, instead, to curse and swear at your television – standing in, of course, for the Powers that Be at HBO. For cancelling a TV series intended to run for four seasons, and a brilliant written, acted, directed, filmed TV series at that, after it’s run for three of those seasons. In a world where another HBO series about old-fashioned romanticism dressed up as postfeminism gets a big screen outing, it’s more than just a shame that we’re not likely ever to see Deadwood end as would befit the series. It’s a crime. And it makes me think that Al Swearengen should be let loose with his knife in the dreams of those HBO cocksuckers (as he might put it if he was in a good mood) to put the fear of Al into them.

Daniel Plainview, eat your black heart out

No, it’s not that Deadwood ends on an exclusively bleak, depressing note. There are lots of small moments that are beautiful, little smiles and touches that show some hope. Sol and Trixie. Richardson and Aunt Lou. Even E.B. standing on the roof of his hotel, bless his little cotton socks. But on the whole, the good (and not so good) people of Deadwood have been beaten, for the first time. They’ve been kicked in the kidneys. There has been blood, and for once, it’s less than clear whether any scrubbing will get rid of that blood.

So, until tomorrow I’ll try to get over my pissed-off-ness with the hoopleheads at HBO. Expect some lines on No Country for Old Men soon. At least that one’s got a two-time Deadwood veteran…

P.S.: Apparently, the person who was supposed to play Al Swearengen at first was one Ed O’Neill. Photo given below. No joke.

Can’t… joke… about… this

Suffer the little children

I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.

Stranger than Fiction

And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.

Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?

Finding Neverland

There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.

Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.

And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.

Her name is Bambi?

Nope, but it might as well be… Okay, what on earth am I talking about? Grey’s Anatomy season 4, which just started over here.

I’ll get it out of the way first and foremost. I basically like Grey’s Anatomy. I like watching many of the characters, and usually, when it gets too soppy, I just bite my tongue until the next time Christina or Bailey are back on screen and then I’m okay. However, I got very tired of the non-medical soap opera in season 3. And the season 4 starter didn’t much convince me that change was inevitable, however much Meredith rambled on about it in her voice-over.

And what I really mind, not specifically about this series but about so many soap operas in general: I don’t want to be told who to like and who to dislike. I want to figure that out for myself. And I especially dislike being told (implicitly, of course, but not very subtly) that I’m supposed to like character A when I’ve just come to the conclusion that character A is an idiot and is wasting my time. And no, just because a character is made out to be all cute and adorable doesn’t mean that I can’t dislike her.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Lexie Grey.

Yes. She’s cute as a button. I hate her.

(Warning: If you’re tired of my “I love HBO” sermons, this is where you go and read that other blog. You know, the one by that guy who writes about these things. And there are pictures and stuff.)

That’s one of the things I love about Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Deadwood, or even Battlestar Galactica (okay, that one isn’t HBO). No one tells me that I have to like Tony Soprano or Alma Garret or Nate Fisher. In fact, it’s absolutely okay for me to dislike Starbuck (which I don’t – but I could!) or Claire or Carmela. And, what is more important, the characters are deeper, more real – they can’t be reduced to Good Guys and Bad Guys. You may feel understanding for them, but that doesn’t stop you from shouting at them in the next scene, telling them to stop being so fucking stupid, goddamnit, cocksuckers!

Okay… perhaps I should try to reduce the weekly dose of Deadwood.

It’s all fun and games after someone loses an eye

Even though Deadwood has some of the grimmest moments of any TV series I’ve seen so far (probably the top 5 series in that respect would be HBO, by the way), one of the reasons it works so well in creating credible, likeable characters is by infusing them with a sense of humour. This is rarely as obvious as in the scenes with Dan Dority and Johnny Burns – and in yesterday’s episode, the magnificently titled “Unauthorized Cinnamon” (you’d probably expect that sort of title more from some anime than from a gritty western series), there was a scene with Al’s henchmen that had me giggling madly to myself. I would quote it, but without the context and the acting it wouldn’t be half as funny. There’s also a priceless moment with a mad, effete tailor trying to convince Al to wear colourful swatches of cloth on his Heastified hand – good old Swingen has never looked quite that baffled. The tonal range of the actors on Deadwood is simply amazing… as the scenes depicting the growing closeness between Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs also show.

Al alone

However, don’t take my word for it. If you’re in any way interested in good writing, characterisation and gorgeously cinematic television, and if you don’t mind the occasional throat-slicing, go out, get Deadwood season 1, watch, and then go and get the next two series. And then hunt me down and kick my ass for getting you hooked on a series that was cancelled before they could finish the story as written.

Okay, enough blather from me about my favourite series. So, even though it’s Sunday and we’re about to watch the penultimate episode of Six Feet Under, let me just add two YouTube trouvailles. The first is a trailer for David Cronenberg’s Videodrome that is so gloriously corny and ’80s weird that I, as an 1980s movie goer, would have expected the film to be a soft-porn retelling of Tron. The second is a six-minute short by Cronenberg called Camera, picking up some of the themes of Videodrome, just without the porn creepiness, the graphic bodily mutilations and James Woods sticking his head in a TV. Hey – whatever shoots water up his stick, eh?

No more House calls for a while

On Monday, Swiss television showed the season 3 finales of both House, M.D. and Lost. We haven’t seen the latter yet, but it probably says it all that the best moment of House, at least for me, was the Chase/Cameron kiss. That scene was sweet, but the actual medical case was too vague and the character interaction not very interesting. The House vs. God angle had also been done previously. All in all it felt like the series could do with a couple of months off. Seeing as season 4, cut short by striking writers, is just about over in the States, we might get it fairly soon…

Gregory House, looking dark and depressed in between snarky quips

… but first, we’ve got the grand return of Grey’s Anatomy (at a point where I sometimes feel that if I have to watch McDreamy be a self-righteous, self-infatuated git for another minute, I’ll find the actor and put his face through a meat grinder), doubled up with Private Practice, the Grey spin-off that got started in an atrociously written and at best adequately acted two-parter on its mother series.

How’s a man to cope – especially when this man knows that there are only six more episodes of Deadwood? Like, ever? Come to think of it, I’d like to see a cross-over where some select characters from Grey’s Anatomy and perhaps Desperate Housewives stop by the picturesque little town of Deadwood. Derek Shepherd could open a practice with Dan Doherty as opthalmologist. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, unless you’re still hoping to watch season 3 of Deadwood.)

Six Feet Under is also almost over – two more episodes. What next? We’ve got a fair choice of series: Rome, The Wire, Carnivàle, season 6 of The Sopranos. Then there’s more escapist or pulpy fare: Heroes, Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Dexter. I’ve heard very good things about the latter series, especially season 2 – which came as a bit of a surprise, as the second Dexter novel was quite a bit weaker than the first. I guess that sometimes film and TV can improve on books…

And to end this very meandering blog entry, here’s a YouTube clip – the very effective opening credits for Dexter, a show whose ‘hero’ is a serial killer… who is intent on only killing ‘bad guys’:

This is the one with pictures!

And what pretty pictures they are! Oh! Oh!

Okay, enough of that… it’s getting silly. What is there to talk about? Blood Simple, perhaps, which we watched tonight. A fascinating film to watch if you like les frères Coen, because it combines the “Ohshitohshitohshit…” tension of a James M. Cain novel with traces of the subversive humour that would come to full bloom in later Coen movies. Then again, I don’t particularly feel like talking about that movie. Go and watch it yourself, if you can keep yourself from constantly muttering, “Oh. My. God. Frances McDormand is so young!”

What else then? Nate Fisher’s funeral perhaps. It’s strange – when I first watched this episode about 1 1/2 years ago, I mostly felt numb throughout it. The tears only started to come halfway through the penultimate episode “Static”. (When the car pickup guy kicks in the crashed hearse’s window, that does me in completely.) This time, though, the aptly names “All Alone” really got to me. The way all the remaining Fishers, as well as Brenda and Maggie, were locked into themselves by their grief, rage and frustration. The way putting shrouded Nate in that hole in the ground seemed so final – even though this is Six Feet Under, where the dead appear to the living to cajole, taunt and sometimes, very rarely, if you’re lucky, offer much needed sympathy. Even Claire’s flashback to the day Kurt Cobain died (“Too pure for this world”?! Whatever it is you’re smoking, buddy boy, gimme some of that!) didn’t just feel embarrassing. Perhaps I’m just getting soppy and old.

Ruth alone

Or should I write about Deadwood? I’ve already said a lot about the tension that’s been building up since George Hearst’s arrival and immediate claim. It definitely feels like more blood will be spilled before the end of the season – and quite some blood has already been spilled. Not to mention other body parts ending up where they don’t really belong.

So, just one brief note about Deadwood: in addition to the dialogues, the world that is evoked, the storylines, the series’ feel for what the Germans call Spannungsbogen (there’s really no exact English equivalent, which I consider a much greater inadequacy than the lack of Zeitgeist or Blitzkrieg), I simply love the faces. They all tell stories, and they feel so eminently right.

George Hearst, looking for a new captain (preferably with two eyes)

Coming attractions

To be honest, I’m not completely up-to-date on what will be coming to cinemas near you (and me) in 2008. Right now, I can only think of a handful of films that I know of, and even fewer that I’m actively looking forward to. Two of these I’ve already mentioned, namely The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men.

However, the film that I may just be looking forward to most is the latest movie by Paul Anderson. Nope, not the guy who did Event Horizon or Aliens vs. Predator. The man who directed Boogie Nights (the best Scorsese film by someone other than Scorsese),  Magnolia (the best Altman movie not by Altman) and Punch Drunk Love (the best- sorry, I have no idea what to compare this film to… the best Adam Sandler film, perhaps?).

People have called Magnolia especially a self-indulgent piece of something or other, but to them I say, “Bosh! Flimshaw!” If art isn’t inherently self-indulgent, I don’t know what is. Punch Drunk Love mainly left me non-plussed, but the cast and trailer of There Will Be Blood (as well as the title, which is reminiscent of the Deadwood season 3 premiere, “Tell Your God to Ready for Blood”) definitely have me intrigued and excited.

Marie Antoinette… She’s just zis girl, you know?

Apparently, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was booed in Cannes. Now that I’ve seen it, I am tempted to say that French film critics are pretentious shrinking violets with an utterly neurotic attitude to their own past. It’s not a great film, and I would rank it lower than both The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation (both of which I liked a lot), but it’s a well made film with some good performances, and it’s definitely beautifully shot and edited. Frankly, I don’t know what les critiques Françaises are on about.

However, Marie Antoinette has one big problem: the beginning is by far the strongest, most subtle illustration of the film’s main motif – a young woman taken into a world that is foreign to her and that regards her as an alien intrusion into their rules and conventions – and almost everything that comes after is much more obvious, much less elegant. Coppola’s use of anachronisms, especially in her choice of music (but also in one semi-witty image of a Converse sneaker among the hundreds of Baroque shoes the young queen tries on), works well enough, but once you’ve seen one scene indicating that “she’s really just a lost, rich, poor teenager… and in the end, aren’t we all?”, you’ve seen them all.

In addition, the film does suffer from being under-plotted. This may be strange coming from someone who loves Lost in Translation, hardly the most plotty of movies, but because Marie Antoinette sticks pretty much to history, there’s little of the smooth flow that a well-told story has. There’s a sense that you could walk out for five minutes, to get yourself a drink or have a bathroom break, and come back without having missed much. I don’t think that films have to be plotted tightly, and in fact many of my favourite movies aren’t, but if you know from the beginning where the story will end – off with her head, and all that jazz – then the film can’t really afford to meander.

On related news, I’m going to keep myself short on Deadwood and Six Feet Under. Just know that there are things more frightening in Deadwood than Al Swearengen on a good or bad day, Francis Wolcott, or even E.B. Farnum talking dirty to a leather bag…

This man couldn’t be scary… could he? Could he?

P.S.: Brian Cox should be a fun addition to the citizenry of Deadwood… I wonder whether he’ll ever get that theatre built – I’d love to see auditions for amateur night!

HBO doesn’t believe in happy marriages

Okay, I haven’t seen Rome yet, or The Wire (which is next on my list of “DVD sets I should bloody well get”), but in the HBO series I’ve been watching marriage pretty much seems to be a recipe for unhappiness of one sort or another. Nate and Brenda (although they did get along better than last week, and for a change Nate had a point under all his aggression), George and Ruth Fisher, Rico and Vanessa… The marriages in Deadwood are somewhat less unhappy and antagonistic, but the happiest couples are the ones that aren’t married: Trixie and Sol (and golly, aren’t they a lovely couple – the whore and the banker?), David and Keith (well, it took them long enough to get their act together!), Dan Dority and Johnny… Okay, that last one doesn’t really count – because we all know that Dan only has eyes for Al.

New career move for Calamity Jane - primary school teacher?

Today’s episode of Deadwood, “I Am Not the Fine Man You Take Me For”, made it clear that the town has been changed by the arrival of Hearst. People seem to be talking in more hushed tones and walking around on tiptoes. Even the sex and violence is no longer as carefree as in the good old days, when the guy shot dead in the saloon wasn’t part of an elaborate power game but just a symptom of Dan Dority having a headache. However, the episode had more humour in it than the season premiere, although some of it was of the “Did E.B. really just say that?!” kind. It’s amazing that the guy’s small intestine hasn’t jumped up his neck yet to choke his brain’s blood supply, to the service of all mankind.

Sometimes I wonder whether Rico doesn’t need a stool to stand on in order to reach the corpses…

We’re steadily getting closer to the end of Six Feet Under, and while I’m already sad about where the season will take us, I’m quite looking forward to getting started on a new series. We’ve got a couple to choose from: Rome season 1, Heroes, Carnivale (I’ve got both seasons), The West Wing, Dexter (you’ve seen him be neurotic and gay for five seasons – now see Michael C. Hall as a cop and a serial killer!). So many series, so little time…

Mother****ing House on the mother****ing plane!

Just in case you didn’t get the reference…

“Airborne”, yesterday’s episode of House, M.D., was fun. I like it when they shake up the format, even though the episode was a tad high-concept (“House on a Plane!” Well, you get it…) Seeing the doc try to deal with the situation without his lackeys was enjoyably snarky:

House: Can you say “Crikey Mate”?
12 year-old Boy: Crikey Mate.
House: Perfect. Now no matter what I say, you’ll agree with me, okay.
12 year-old Boy: Okay.
House: Nicely done. You, disagree with everything I say.
Foreign Man: Sorry, not understand.
House: Close enough. (to random woman) You get morally outraged by everything I say.
Sour Faced Girl: (about House writing on the movie screen) That’s permanent marker, you know.
House: Wow, you guys are good.

The editing between the two storylines kept the episode dynamic throughout – and I’ve started to feel sympathy for Chase since last episode (especially the glow on his face when he looked at Cameron’s photo). So far he’d been the blandest of the supporting characters, but there’s something genuinely sweet – if still not terribly deep – to his growing feelings for Cameron. She, on the other hand, is becoming somewhat grating: the combination of self-righteous and self-indulging may be credible, but I find myself thinking, “How about you keep your mouth shut and your pants zipped for ten minutes, girl…” (Yes, every now and then I guess I am a bit of a sexist. Sorry. Feel free to throw things at me.)

In other not-so-news: we started watching season 3 of Deadwood, and boy, is the air thick with ominousness… ominosity- ominiminy? Well, you know what I mean. Quite obviously, Hearst is not a good egg, nor is he the kind of moustachioed bad egg who keeps heads in boxes and whom we secretly like. I can’t really put my finger on it, but there’s something in the balmy frontier air, and it’s not Calamity Jane’s heady aroma. We’ll see where this’ll take us, but somehow I doubt it will be anywhere nice. Or perhaps the episode’s title was ironic: “Tell your God to Ready for Blood” might really be the prelude to a season of goodwill, cheer and fluffy bunnies in Deadwood (no state yet).