Vale of Tears, HBO style

My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.

Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!

Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?

I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.

Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.

Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.

You cannot be series!

It’s that time of year. No, not Christmas (which this is too late for anyway), not the end of one year and the beginning of another.

It’s time for a new series.

Within a short period we finished Carnivale and got to the end of the current (well, for Swiss standards) seasons of Fringe, True Blood and House. (The latter, while still blessed with a great main actor, should slowly be put out of its misery, mind you.) So, what were we to watch next? Mad Men? The Shield? I, Claudius?

What we went for instead: the grandpappy of the HBO series that I’ve gone on about at great and boring length before. Not the grandmother, Sex & the City, because the moment I start watching that series you may want to look out the window for four guys on horses. No, I’m talking about the testosterone-riddled Oz. Looking at the setting and cast, it very much looks like an audition for later series such as The Sopranos (hi, Edie!) or The Wire (seriously, does Bodie only come with a single change of clothes that he takes along to every series he does?). Like many of these other series, Oz takes something that is relatively high concept and sees what it can do with it. In this case, the concept is: let’s do a high-security prison series that isn’t about trying to escape and that doesn’t outstay its welcome three episodes into season 1.

Make no mistake: this is no Prison Break. This isn’t pulpy escapism with the occasional white supremacist of imprisoned mobster thrown in for light relief. It’s grandly operatic drama with shower rapes, murder and ethical dilemmas. It’s also strangely Spike Lee; perhaps it’s the racial tensions that feel a bit like a ’90s update of Do the Right Thing, but mainly it’s the directorial flourishes, camera and lighting work, and the stylised elements – especially the Greek chorus-type soliloquies provided by Harold Perrineau Jr.’s character (with Waaaaaaalt! barely a twinkle in his fresh-from-Romeo & Juliet eyes).

It’s also these soliloquies that are most responsible for me not taking to the series as immediately as I took to a lot of other HBO fare. Again, like Spike Lee, though at his worst, the speeches are often too on-the-nose and too smugly enamoured of their cleverness (which they aren’t – often they belabour the obvious) that they feel like a 21-year old film student’s “Wouldn’t it be artistic if…?” at 2am in the morning after lots of cheap red wine and Foucault.

Having said that, while we cringe at some of the series’ moments, we’re in it for the duration – not least because I’ve got the complete set. The material’s definitely interesting, and I’m happy to give Oz a chance to drop its self-conscious ‘tude and become more confident with what it’s doing and how it’s doing it. Who knows, it may even get to join the pantheon of those HBO greats by the end of the final season.

Well, if it doesn’t, at least it isn’t stuck on constant reruns of the same episode, with only the faces and the names of syndromes changing, or eager to do the tired, old “Will they, won’t they?” spiel. I bet I’m not the only one who wishes, in the case of certain other series, that it were lupus. The terminal kind.

Arrivederci Roma!

The second season of HBO’s Rome was… well, let’s say that it was less than it could have been. Its main problem was this, it would seem: the series creators realised that Rome wouldn’t be back for a third season. Seeing how they had planned for a five-season arc, they were faced with a dilemma: should they speed up the plot so they could bring it to some semblance of an end, or should they let things play out at the pace they had planned and risk leaving us with yet another Carnivale or Deadwood, ending way before it was finished?

They decided to go for the first option, telescoping their plot for the hoped-for seasons 2, 3 and 4 into the second season. And that’s pretty much what the season felt like: four or five episodes into the story, someone suddenly pressed the Fast Forward button, and off we go like a rocket sled. Pacing? That’s for wimps and people whose series are allowed to run their course.

I remember how frustrated I was especially with Deadwood, where we got three quarters of a complete story. It was as if someone had ripped the last 100 pages from a novel, from every copy ever printed. And then they’d deleted the last 100 pages on every backup of the manuscript. Okay, I realise how thinly stretched the simile is – but the point remains: an unfinished story is a frustrating story.

What is similarly frustrating, though, is a story that doesn’t have time to pace itself. At times the second season of Rome felt like its own “Previously on”: okay, now Brutus is dead! Now Anthony’s in Egypt! Now Servilia’s offed herself! Most of the main characters are dead and have been replaced by twenty-somethings! The kids get half a dozen years older over night! This rushed feel wasn’t necessarily helped by the series’ replacing the young man who had played Octavian with another, slightly older young man playing the same character – while practically all other characters around the same age were still played by the same people!

The letstelleverythingasquicklyaspossiblesowecansqueezeasmuchplotintothisaswecan approach meant that we found some sort of closure, but it also meant that the characters lacked breathing space – and as was the case with so many HBO series, the characters is where it’s at. Brutus’ death, for instance, was still moving, but it could have been infinitely more so with a more generous build-up.

The last episode, though? We were rudely jarred out of Fast Forward, but that meant that at least we had an hour where Rome was returned to its former glory. I admit, I was never too keen on the character of Marc Anthony (as portrayed by James Purefoy): he had all the arrogance and cockiness but little of the charm, which made it all the more difficult for me to understand why certain characters would fall for him. Cleopatra, too, annoyed me more than anything else, striking me as an antique oversexed bimbo with the personality of a urinal.

Give these characters good, meaty deaths, though, and suddenly they become grandiose, they become tragic. They gain the ability to move us. And boy, did they take that opportunity and play it to the fullest. A couple of series have done this: make me care about a character just to kill him or her off – but here it wasn’t a cheap ploy to make us care, it was earned. Anthony and Cleopatra’s deaths, while not the near-perfect scene that Julius Caesar’s murder was, count among the series’ strongest moments, together with the death of Cicero and Lucius Vorenus saving Titus Pullo’s life in the arena.

In spite of the whiplash-inducing pacing problems of the second season, I miss the series. I miss the characters, I miss the plotting and intrigues, I miss the visceral quality of the language and imagery. My hope lies in the Rome movie that is still much more likely to happen than the fabled Deadwood film that’s supposed to wrap up the story. Hey, if HBO can greenlight Sex and the City 2, can’t they spare a few sesterces for Pullo and Vorenus, the most beautiful love story to grace the small screen in years?

Don’t stop-

As always, I’m pretty late to the party, so please bear with me as I write about the pop culture event of the year… 2007, that is. “Remember when” may be the lowest form of conversation according to some – but remember when The Sopranos ended on the ten seconds of silence heard around the world?

The Sopranos has been with me for a long time. It has a special place in my heart for accompanying the most important relationship in my life. Even beyond its personal significance, it was the first HBO series I got into – arguably it’s the one that got me hooked and that led to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, and so on. And while it had its ups and downs, feeling at times like it had continued past its prime, it is clearly one of the strongest pieces of TV fiction ever, featuring one of the best written, best acted core casts.

In seasons 4 and 5, I felt that while the individual episodes were strong, the series wasn’t going anywhere. The episodes were exchangeable. There wasn’t all that much of a compelling story arc (they should’ve had Christopher writing the series – there’s a man who knows about the importance of arcs). Idiosyncratically named season 6 part 1 (if you want to top that, you need to go to video games and check out Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast) was a mess in some ways, but it tried, and succeeded, in getting the series out of its rut. The whole of season 6, but especially part 2 (the final nine episodes, that is), had a sense of purpose: we were spiralling in on the destruction of everything that Tony holds dear, often at his own hands.

“Made in America”, the final episode, ended… strangely. Was it a massive anti-climax? Was it a subtle way of saying that Tony’d been whacked? Was it a “Fuck you!” to the fans who’d been loyal to the series for almost a decade? Personally I’m leaning towards the “Tony’s dead” interpretation myself, since it’s pretty stringent – the strongest argument being Bobby Baccalieri’s line earlier in the season, referring to the moment when you get shot: “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” A lot of things point, more or less strongly, towards Tony’s violent death.

At the same time, though, season 6 part 2 (paragraph A, line 23) is a season of red herrings. There are several episodes that ratchet up the tension, suggesting very strongly that by the end of it, character X would be dead: Paulie Walnuts, Hesh, Bobby, Christopher. The latter two do end up dead, but only after a bait and switch pulled by Chase. “Made in America” works pretty much the same way, with everything pointing towards that final gunshot – but then we get nothing. Blackness. Silence. “Don’t stop-” indeed. Does it stand for death? Tony’s death? The series’? Or for Chase denying us the closure we want, whether that is Tony getting away with it all or getting the punishment he undoubtedly deserves?

Shrodinger’s Tony aside, though: the episode is perhaps the strongest of the entire series in terms of filmmaking, and the final five or six minutes are a brilliant example of this. I can’t think of many films or series that ratchet up the tension so deftly while showing what can easily be seen as wholly innocuous. Add to that Chase’s usual good hand at picking the perfect soundtrack for this series:  “Don’t Stop Believing” will forever be stuck in my head together with this scene. And cutting off the music when it does? Perfect. What better moment to end than in mid-sentence, right after “Don’t stop”?

Farewell, Tony. Farewell, Carmela, A.J., Meadow. Good bye, Sil, Chrissie, Uncle Jun, Paulie, Bobby, Janice, Livia. Ciao, Dr. Melfi. Many of you were pricks with an over-inflated sense of entitlement – always with the drama! – but damn, if you didn’t make these ten years of TV watching memorable as hell. (Quite conceivably a hell run by the Irish, where every day is St. Patrick’s Day.) Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing-

P.S.: Another nail in the “Tony’s dead” coffin, and one that I find pretty convincing: there’s no reason to end before the entire family’s together, but we don’t get to see Meadow with her parents and brother. If the end was supposed to be open, it would’ve ended with all four of them; instead, we get the Blam! of the black screen just before Tony sees her. Either Chase’s fucking with us, which I don’t believe – or something interrupted the family union. Something pretty final.

P.P.S.: Think what you want about the woman, but Hilary Clinton’s Sopranos spoof campaign ad had class:

My favourite kinds of imperialism

We’re getting close to the end of The Sopranos. Both Rome and Carnivale only have one more season to offer us. And at the speed at which we’re going through West Wing, President Bartlett will have finished his second term in record time.

How to find good, new series? Used to be, I could pretty much get three out of four HBO series on DVD and be happy for the next year or so. Even if some of them found an untimely end, the journey was absolutely worth it.

Now, though? Can’t say I’m all that interested in Hung, and I’m not sure I would enjoy Big Love (which may be due to my lack of trust in Bill Paxton’s acting abilities – “Game over, man!”, indeed…). What about all these new series starting on other channels, though? The Elmore Leonard series Justified sounds like it might be fun, and I’m definitely hoping to get Caprica, provided that it doesn’t get cancelled after one series.

However, HBO seems to be stepping up its game, with not one but three series premiering this year. The one I’m currently most excited about is the one I only found out about five minutes ago: Boardwalk Empire, by Sopranos alum Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese – yes, you read that right, the Raging Bull of mob cinema himself! Check out the trailer, which looks like the murderous bastard child of Once Upon a Time in America and The Sopranos:

Also looking quite promising, although in a more Norman-Rockwell-meets-Interracial-Slaughter way: The Pacific, which seems to be a sort of companion piece to Band of Brothers. Oh, and it stars the little kid from Jurassic Park, all grown up. Listen, boy, you should know better than to return to island jungles! (Cue bad “Doyouthinkhesaurus?” jokes about jungle warfare…) Again, let me peruse YouTube:

Finally, the creators of my favourite series (it shares the pedestal with Six Feet Under) are doing a new show on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s called Treme and it’s got the usual awesome cast of actors, including Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters. It’ll be good to see Lester Freamon and Bunk Moreland back in action!

Blood Wing? True West? Something along those lines…

Since Switzerland is behind the rest of the world in all things pop culture, we’ve only just finished watching the first season of True Blood. Now, for those of you who have been following my HBO fetishism for a while, this will come as a bit of a surprise, but… I thought that True Blood was nothing much to write home about. It was entertaining enough, but I wouldn’t give the best episode of the series for the worst of Deadwood, The Wire or Six Feet Under, that other Alan Ball series. (I might be willing to exchange any episode of True Blood for that episode of The Sopranos where Tony meets his father’s mistress. Shudder…)

One major problem with the series, at least from my point of view, is that the main characters are much less interesting than the side characters that wander in for a couple of episodes. Bill and Sookie (or “Sookaaah!”, as Bill might put it) are okay, as are Sam, Tara, Jason and all the others, but I never really cared all that much about what was going to happen to them. On the other hand, I cared about poor, shlubby, gay vampire Eddie, I cared about psychotic, sexy hippie/murderess Amy, and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more of Kurt Kobain lookalike Eric (a charismatic performance by Alexander “Iceman” Skarsgard) or the Magister as played by Zeljko Ivanek.

At the same time, True Blood is almost perfect fare for a tired evening after a day at the office. It’s fun, it’s nice to look at, and that title tune always gets my toes twitching. Now, if only it was on offer as a downloadable track for Rock Band

We’re also almost at the end of the first season of The West Wing. It took me an episode or two to forget that the guy playing the President had also been Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s film version of The Dead Zone, i.e. not a man you’d want anywhere near the White House, but now I’m okay with Prez Jed Bartlett sitting in the Oval Office.

So far I’m enjoying the series a lot, although it’s pretty much the opposite of True Blood – intelligent writing, heavy on words and ideas, and very little in the way of graphic sex, fangs, shapeshifters and blood. It does, however, have Allison Janney, an actress who I’ve come to like a lot. If I had to single out one of the characters from the series as my favourite one, it’d be her C.J. Gregg. Janney is as pitch-perfect with scenes of political drama as she is with understated humour and outright goofiness.

It’s amazing, though, how bad most of the characters on the series are when it comes to interpersonal relationships that aren’t primarily defined by work. They make great colleagues (when they’re not making vicious fun of you after a root canal) – they seem to make for lousy boy- and girlfriends (though mostly boyfriends). Déformation professionelle, I guess.

A rabbi, a Mormon and an angel walk into a bar

I’m not a big fan of Meryl Streep. Obviously she’s a good actress and has done some very fine work – but I find it difficult to watch many of her performances without thinking that they are too visible, too clearly acted for my tastes. Streep is too much of an institution to vanish behind her roles, something that I also feel with respect to many of Robert de Niro’s performances in the last ten years or so.

Having said that, though, I very much liked Streep’s performance in the HBO miniseries Angels in America – or should I say, her performances? As was the case in the original stage play by Tony Kushner, most of the roles were doubled, with actors playing two or three different parts. It’s something I enjoy in stage plays, but it rarely works in film, which tends to be too caught up in presenting a realistic surface while sneaking the most outrageously unrealistic plot elements by us. Angels in America, Part I: “Millennium Approaches” starts with a funeral sermon delivered by an ancient, doddering rabbi, played by Ms. Streep. Yes, it’s showy – we can make up one of the preeminent American actresses so she looks like nothing like herself! – but it works.

There’s a lot about “Millennium Approaches” that works. The cast is pretty much perfect, my favourites probably being Patrick Wilson’s Joe (I’ve liked him in every role I’ve seen him in so far), Mary Louise Parker’s Harper and Jeffrey Wright’s Belize. Under Mike Nichols’ direction the play translates very well to the small screen; the humour and the pathos are all there and highly effective. After watching the first part, I was all geared up for part II, “Perestroika”.

I’d read both plays years ago; I did an amateur production of “Millennium Approaches” in 2000, and afterwards we did a reading of “Perestroika”. Back then I thought it was the weaker of the two, failing to do a satisfying pay-off to the cliffhanger ending of the first play. However, I didn’t expect “Perestroika” to fall on its face with quite as resounding a thud. Yes, there were elements of camp melodrama in the first three hours of Angels in America, but they were pulled off well. Part II, however, descends into scenes that would have made Ken Russell embarrassed. The actors try their best, but some scenes – especially the ones featuring the angel whose appearance “Millennium Approaches” leads up to – are cringeworthy. There may be some way to make lines such as “The blood-pump of creation! Holy estrus! Holy orifice!” and groin-bumping scenes between Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson work, but if there is, Nichols hasn’t found it.

It’s not just the HBO production, mind you; Kushner’s original play falters badly in the second part. There are still some strong scenes (especially the ones that eschew operatic metaphysics), but the script becomes prone to hamfisted speechifying.

I’ve rarely seen a play, film or series that does so well in the first part and fails so badly in the second part. And based on what I’ve seen, I am very glad that we decided to leave it at the evocative cliffhanger at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. The thought of making people I like deliver those lines… Nothing angelic about that.

P.S.: One thing I liked from beginning to end, though: Thomas Newman’s score.

The end is the beginning is the end

HBO has been known to do some killer season finales – no pun intended, although it would be a perfectly accurate one in the case of the last episode of Rome‘s first season. The lead-up to the murder of Caesar is masterfully composed and reminiscent of another plot to have a leader and father figure killed in another HBO series: Livia Soprano’s planned killing of that disappointment of a son. (Is it a coincidence that Livia was named for another larger-than-life mother from ancient Rome?)

Throughout the season I’ve been impressed with Ciaran Hinds’ layered portrayal of Caesar, a man whose fierce intelligence, pride and ambition inspire awe even when he’s at his most arrogant and dismissive. His death, even though it’s clear that it’s coming, is startling in its force and brutality – not just in terms of blood and gore, but in terms of the story and the characters. Another favourite of mine (other than Titus Pullo, of course, who’s just a big sweetie when he isn’t murdering people in a jealous rage) is Brutus, who is portrayed by Tobias Menzies with a fascinating mix of hurt pride, bitterness, self-loathing and, strangest of all, genuine love for Caesar.

Another HBO series finale that pushed all the right buttons with me was Generation Kill‘s final episode, “Bomb in the Garden”. It’s rare for a series that is so documentary in its approach to manage its story and character arcs so deftly, but David Simon and Ed Burns have done a brilliant job. The final scene recalls another work by Simon and Burns, namely the ending of The Wire’s season 2, both scenes using a Johnny Cash song (in both cases making me think that perhaps, just perhaps, I ought to check out that Cash guy’s music). And yes, I am quite okay with admitting my considerable man-crush on Alexander Skarsgard.

With all these endings, it’s only fitting that I finally finished Grand Theft Auto IV. So much has been written about the game already that I won’t add anything other than this: I enjoyed the latest installment of Liberty City. If there’s a more convincing, living and breathing city in any game, I haven’t played it yet. Take it away, Philip.

E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L…

In the hands of a different cast and crew, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) could have been bad – or worse, it could have been absolutely nothingy. Of course the real-life premise is memorable and impressive – locked-in syndrome, being a prisoner inside your own body – but making this work as a magazine article or even a book is very different from making it work as a film. Without a keen directorial vision, this would’ve turned into the worst kind of movie-of-the-week.

I’ve never seen any other films by Julian Schnabel (the sheer silliness of his name may have kept me from watching his earlier work), but based on this film I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open for Basquiat and Before Night Falls. The movie isn’t overburdened by directorial flourishes, but Schnabel has a strong sense of the visual, in the real scenes as much as in those that take place in Jean-Do’s imagination or are inspired by his words. Talking of which, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir (the film could be described as a sort of making-of of the memoir, but that would be far too banal a description for what Schnabel achieves), strikes a deft balance between the visual and the verbal. It hums with the energy of words – Jean-Do is filled with language, even if his condition doesn’t allow him to express them easily. Each word is a battle, each phrase is a war – at least at first, but one of the refreshing aspects of the film is that the women who help the man express himself are all French beauties of the Emanuelle Seigner type (and one of them looks like a Gallic dead ringer for Naomi Watts), and Jean-Do is the kind of man who falls in love, at least a bit, with every woman he sees.

The lightness that the film has, derived equally from Bauby’s ironic tone (he isn’t afraid of laughing at himself and his situation) and Schnabel’s visual idiom, doesn’t detract from its darker side, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. The horror of Jean-Do’s situation makes especially the first twenty minutes almost unbearable at times. Schnabel doesn’t need to emphasise this – he shows, quite simply and unflinchingly.

I’ve only just finished watching the film about an hour ago, so my first impression is still fresh and might change. However, throughout the movie I kept thinking of another film, this one by Alejandro Amenábar: The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro), also a true-life story, based on the struggles of a Spanish quadruplegic fighting for his right to die. Both films are centred on men who have been taken prisoner by their failing bodies; both men are full of life, yet have been deprived of the ability to life as fully as they desire; and both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Sea Inside use similar imagery, especially the ocean and seaside. To some extent they feel like a French and a Spanish take on similar issues and would make near-perfect companion pieces.

Isn't the resemblance uncanny?

On a different note: we’ve added another HBO series to the already considerable list. It’s called Wome, at least if you ask Michael Palin:

And like so many HBO series, it’s got a pretty cool title sequence. Enjoy!