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:

A study in contrasts

Earlier this week I almost made my brain explode. I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (no, that in itself wouldn’t have done the trick)… and then, the next evening, I saw The History Boys. From loud, complicated, essentially dumb SFX-travaganza to smart Brit drama in about 24 hours – it’s enough to give you a bad case of the cinematic bends.

At World’s End (or Pirates of the Caribbean III: Why does everything have to be a trilogy?) is undoubtedly a fine-looking film. The visual effects, by and large, are amazing, and the film’s visually inventive to boot. There are sights to behold that I’d never seen before on screen, and the digital artistry on Davy Jones’ betentacled head and face is quite amazing.

If only it was in service of a better script. Remember the first entry in the Pirates franchise? It wasn’t Bergman, but it was witty and fun, which is exactly what such a film needs. Starting with the sequel Dead Man’s Chest, though, the film lost in lightness and wit what it gained in complicatedness. Not complexity, mind you, because that would mean the plot actually adds up to something and benefits the films. Nope, what we got was messy and uninteresting. failing almost completely to serve the movies’ characters.

Yes, Johnny Depp was fun in the third film, as he was in the first two, but Jack Sparrow being Jack Sparrow is simply not enough to keep me engaged for three hours. Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa might have helped, but little was left of his wonderful scenery chewing in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, most of the actors acted their hearts out, but to no avail: the script is leaden and dull, only little better than George Lucas’ efforts in the Star Wars prequels. Honestly, Mr. Verbinski, here’s a suggestion: if you want to make a three-hour popcorn movie, give it a fun script, or don’t do it at all.

The History Boys, based on Alan Bennett’s stage play, is pretty much the opposite of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. It’s wordy and character-driven, it gives its cast a chance to shine, and it’s funny and moving. I’d never realised that Richard Griffiths did roles other than broad caricatures, but his Hector, a gay, sad English teacher with an absolute passion for his subject, is a beautifully judged, subtle performance with no trace of Uncle Vernon. However, as much as Hector’s at the heart of the film, practically every other part is as well acted and as necessary to the whole.

Bennett’s writing requires acting this good; I’ve seen amateur productions of his shorter works, and they all came across as terribly mannered and stagey. The dialogues in The History Boys are not realistic, they are stylised (as are the characters), but that doesn’t mean in any way that they feel phony. There’s a truth to all of the performances and writing that takes a bit of time to develop – during the first half-hour, I was thinking that some of the characters were a tad stereotypical, but that’s only true in the way that many people at first seem to fit certain types, and only as you get to know them they develop their individuality.

The movie’s also surprisingly good at not feeling like a filmed play. It may have a script that feels theatrical (which makes sense, given the subject matter – school is inherently theatrical and every classroom is a stage), but it doesn’t look like it wants to be on the narrowish confines of a stage (or like it desperately tries to escape those confines, which is often worse). The film breathes throughout the spaces it evokes.

The History Boys is definitely not for everyone, and if I want to be somewhat arrogant and dismissive about it, chances are that more people will like At World’s End. It’s a film that expects its audience to engage with it, intellectually and emotionally. But the effort pays off many times.

… like hormonal hobbits, all obsessed with a ring

Anthony Lane is one of my favourite film critics. I don’t always agree with him, but by and large he’s got a great bullshit detector when it comes to movies. His dismembering of Revenge of the Sith is a classic – I got considerably more enjoyment out of it than out of George Lucas’ third dismal prequel:

The general opinion of “Revenge of the Sith” seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.” True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.

(Thanks, Robot Chicken.)

The New Yorker website has now put Lane’s review of Sex and the City (one of the few HBO series that would probably make my head explode). Again, it’s great fun to read – I doubt the film could make me laugh half as much:

Secrecy has clouded “Sex and the City” since it was first announced. When would the film appear? Who would find a husband? Would one of the main characters die? If so, would she commit suicide by self-pity (a constant threat), or would a crocodile escape from the Bronx Zoo and wreak a flesh-ripping revenge for all those handbags?

If you like wit as sharp as a well honed knife, do browse Lane’s reviews. Well worth it, especially when it comes to the films you hate.