Viewing Habits

Here’s what my weekly tv habits look like. Feel free to comment on what you think about my choice of shows, or recommend something you think I would like. Remember, I am not a fan of the procedural drama.

Sundays
Mad Men (AMC)
True Blood (HBO)
Hung (HBO)
Delocated (Adult Swim)
Childrens Hospital (Adult Swim)

Tuesdays
Ideal (BBC)
Louie (FX)
Big Lake (Comedy Central)

Wednesdays
Top Chef (Bravo)

Netflix
Dexter (Showtime)
The State (MTV)

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Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – A Woman Under the Influence

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Every film since 1959’s Shadows feels like a warm up act for this masterpiece. Cassavetes frequently played with the themes of infidelity and crumbling marriages, as well as featuring characters whose grip on sanity was weak to say the least. Once again we have Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands as the female lead and alongside her is Peter Falk as the harried husband. Both actors bring the naturalism that Cassavetes strove to have in all his films. This is a film born out of emotional truth, given a framework and allowed to grow and stretch in the directions it finds comfortable. There’s a lot changing aesthetically in Cassavetes’ work at this point, bits of artifice are becoming more apparent, most notably a soundtracks that doesn’t come from music in the environment. The dialogue is delivered with a real tongue though, people stutter, people start into a sentence only to abandon it half way through. In the same way Altman created naturalistic satires, Cassavetes was defining the naturalistic slice of life drama.

Nick Longhetti (Falk) is a construction worker in Southern California who is forced to spend most of the day away from his family. His wife, Mabel (Rowlands), is a frenzy of a mother, both desperately wanting intimacy with her husband but terrified to leave her kids for one night. Over a period of a few days, it becomes more and more obvious that Mabel is suffering from a complete mental breakdown. Her moods are changing on a dime, she is forgetting the names and faces of people she has known for years, and she is so angry with Nick all the time. How this family deals with mental illness is presented in a brutally honest way. There’s no heroes in this film, only very damaged people. While Mabel’s condition is more obvious, it becomes apparent by the end of the film that Nick’s grasp on sanity may be just as weak, he’s just learned how to hide it better.

The core of the film is Gena Rowlands’ performance. Rowlands is one of those beautiful leading women you see rarely in Hollywood now. There’s a lot of pretty faces in the movies that hit your cineplex, but its not often they carry the depth of acting chops Rowlands shows off so effortlessly in A Woman. Not even Nicole Kidman, who has followed a similar career of offbeat films, can rise above the coldness of her portrayals. While it would be easy to make Mabel out as either cold or over the top, Rowlands walks an incredibly fine line with the intent to show that Mabel is a loving wife and mother. She demands that the audience withhold from judging the character and let her stand on her own. The structure of the story starts us in the last few days before Mabel is committed, and Nick has suspected something. Nick uses physical violence to “smack it out of her”. Cassavetes seems to be making a statement against the macho conceit of the time (and sadly even still today) that a woman needed to be handled like a child. If his films are anything to go on, in Husbands he seems to be stating that the true adult children are the men, with their unease when dealing with the pain of reality and mortality.

It’s hard to watch a Cassavetes film and not think about Mad Men. These films of the early 1970s feel like many of the character types from that series and possibly previews of where they might be headed emotionally. Mabel came across as very much in the same situation as Betty Draper, yet the other end of the spectrum. Mabel is very much a blue collar girl, and she has an effervescence of life that makes her a great wife and mother and charming flirt to the workers her husband brings home from time to time. Betty is an East Coast blue blood, who sees the people around her as fitting into a personal caste system established by a cold, intolerant mother. Yet as drastically different as these women’s backgrounds and personalities are, they are victims of the 1950s culture. They were young and pretty then, and were objects for men to have. Their identities revolved around being a wife and eventually a mother. Each of them breaks down in their own way: Mabel literally and Betty through her confrontation and divorce from Don. Cassavetes has to applauded for making a film so complex and honest about women in his society, when from an entertainment standpoint it went against everything that works.

Next up: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Across the Pond: The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville



The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 19 episodes)
Psychoville (2009, 7 episodes)
Created by, Written by, and starring Mark Gattis, Steve Pemberton, and Reece Shearsmith

“Black comedy” doesn’t begin to describe the shear depths of depravity the work of Gattis, Pemberton, and Shearsmith reaches. There are moments in the latter seasons of League, and all throughout Psychoville, where the audience has to question if the shows are still comedies, or if they have become some other genre of television. The level of gore and perversity that occurs in the third and final season of League is extraordinary. Its as if the performers had held back for the first two years and then unleashed the show they truly wished to make: one where not a single character is without sexual or psychological damage, yet are painfully sympathetic. So too in Psychoville are characters who are even more disturbed and who you feel even sorrier for by the end of the series. These three British titans of comedy have managed to create an impressively larger fan base for the kind of shows American networks wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Gattis, Pemberton, and Shearsmith came together in 1994 and began developing a collection of eccentric and disturbed characters for stage and radio. By the end of the 1990s they had garnered enough attention for their own BBC series. The television show was set in the fictional Northern England town of Royston Vasey, where every citizen seemed to have a dark secret and proclivity. The first season centers around Benjamin, a young man who is visiting his aunt and uncle in Royston while hiking with his friend. Benjamin finds that as hard as he tries he can’t seem to get out of town. Along the way we meet Hilary Briss, the town butcher with a very special selection; Barbara, a pre-op transsexual cab driver; Mr. Chinnery, the town vet who kills every animal he tries to save, and many more. The most famous of the denizens are Edward and Tubbs, a pig-nosed couple who run “a local shop, for local people”. When outsiders wander in they are typically murdered in a brutal fashion by the couple. Needless to say, crews arriving to build a highway from London to Royston are met with some resistance.

The three seasons of League go through many aesthetic changes. In the first series there are a mixture of on location and studio filmed scenes. In series two things become much more on location, but the laugh track remains. By season three, every thing is on location and the laugh track is gone. The result is that season three highlights the darkness of the show’s premise. The creators also amp up the drama and make these characters three dimensional. Psychoville is a continuation of the themes of League with new characters. This time around the five main characters are all being stalked by a masked figure whom sends them letters hinting at a transgression that links them all. British comedy legend Dawn French plays a maternity nurse obsessed with bringing her dummy baby doll to life by feeding it human blood. Pemberton and Shearsmith play multiple roles, in particular an Oedpial mother-son serial killer team. Psychoville is not as collectively strong as League, but some individual episodes really stand out, particularly the fourth which is an homage to Hitchcock’s rope. The entire episode takes place in one room and is filmed in two takes. Pretty impressive.

The entire League of Gentlemen series is available on Netflix
Season One of League of Gentlemen is available for free on YouTube

Back Issue Bin: Bone



Bone (1991 – 2004, 55 issues)
Written and Illustrated by Jeff Smith

It might not look like it, but Jeff Smith’s magnum opus, Bone is a contemporary Lord of the Rings in comic book form. For years, I saw the images from the series: The funny looking cartoonish protagonist, the menacing rat creatures, the great red dragon. It wasn’t until 2005 that the complete collection was released that I purchased it and began the series. And its taken me five years to finish the series, with many starts and stops along the way. The complete collected edition is designed perfectly for that with about ten “books” within it, and the story grows denser and more history rich as you progress. The end result is a work of high fantasy that is one of the best of the late 20th century/early 21st.

The story centers around three beings from the unseen town of Boneville: The scheming Phoney Bone, the happy go lucky Smiley Bone, and the hero of the story Fone Bone. The series opens on them journeying out of Boneville as a result of one of Phoney’s schemes. To avoid being lynched they have gone into a mysterious forest, in which they encounter the rat creatures, a talking flea, and the Great Red Dragon. Eventually they emerge in the town of Barrelhaven where the story really kicks into gear. Fone meets and develops a crush on farm girl Rose, and Phoney draws the ire of Rose’s guardian, Gran’ma Ben. The early parts are much lighter and mix elements of fantasy and silly cartoon plots. By the the time you reach the second third of the story the fantasy has been amped up and the true plot has been revealed.

Bone draws a lot of its style from the Carl Barks Disney comics of the 1940s and 50s. These were serialized adventure stories that feature cartoon beings. While the slapstick style jokes were there, the emphasis was much more on the mystery and action surrounding the plots of pirate treasure and haunted castles. Here the high fantasy novels of the 1970s and 80s are merged with the “funny book” characters to produce a very original work. Smith is a comic creator who truly has an independent mindset, the entire premise behind Bone is one that could never really sell at one of the big companies. For a short time, Bone was published as part of Image Comics, but Smith pulled the title and brought it back to his own publishing house, Cartoon Books.

I could easily see people passing the series over who would actually really enjoy it if they gave it a chance. The universe created by Jeff Smith is very rich and immersive. By the end of the story you truly feel like you’ve made this epic journey across the land, from a small town in the forest to the great city-fortress to the south. There’s an intricate history that mirrors the story of Aragorn and the broken lineage of royalty in the land. Fone Bone ends up playing a major role in the restoration of this royal line. The artwork in the book is amazingly intricate as well. The series experienced numerous delays, but when you sit down with the whole story before you it is worth it. Not a single issue’s art if below par, and it still stands as one of the most beautiful looking comics I’ve ever read.

Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Minnie and Moskowitz

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Starring Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes, Timothy Carey, Val Avery

The first time I ever remember being aware of Seymour Cassel was in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. When I look back, I realize it was one of those instances where an actor has an incredibly distinguished career in film, but, because its not mainstream cinema, you don’t discover them until they appear in a contemporary movie. In Anderson’s films Cassel is so muted, always a background player, with not much to do. In Cassavetes’ Faces, Cassel plays a young hipster, and this is that same character a few years down the road, a little older, but still full of energy and oddity. This is also the first (but definitely not last) film where we get to talk about Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes wive and figurehead of independent cinema in her own right. This is a film where we start to see the cinéma vérité elements pushed away for just a little bit more structure.

Seymour Moskowitz (Cassel) is a parking garage attendant in New York City who not only enjoys his job, he loves it. Moskotwitx happily jogs from one care to the next, bringing them to their owners. He visits his mother on ocassion and, as the film opens, borrows $400 to move to Los Angeles on a whim. In L.A. he meets museum curator Minnie Moore (Rowlands). Moore’s most recent relationship has been with a married man and her personal life is a shambles. Moskowitz is the last guy you would expect her to end up with, but through their bickering and frustration they see the better parts of each other and very strange romance takes root.

With Minnie and Moskowitz, Cassavetes took the bickering couple sub-genre made popular in the 30s and 40s and recast it with a 1970s filmed on the fly aesthetic. Moskowitz is his mother’s angel but lives as if he is a ramblin’ hippie. Minnie is a woman who has had nothing but problems with men, and when she meets Moskowitz its during a fight with her overly aggressive and manic date (Avery) in a restaurant parking lot. It’s Moskowitz who is the fickle one in the relationship, Minnie is typically exasperated by him. And then, through trial and error, after working through their problems everything clicks. Its a romantic comedy done in non-cliched manner, it ends on a happy note, but it also ends on an honest note.

Once again, Cassavetes is not a filmmaker who would ever appeal to a mass audience. But for people who feel that today’s romantic comedies are being spat out of a screenplay factory, his work can provide a fresh breath of air that keeps you surprised and presents characters who behave just irrationally as we all really do. There’s also great little side moments that have nothing to do with the overall narrative but still work. In particular, Moskowitz visits a diner at the beginning of the film and has a conversation with a vagrant (Carey). This scene alone could be cut out and framed as its own short film and the homeless man is a rich character unto himself that never gets fully explored.

Next up: A Woman Under the Influence

In Theaters Now: Scott Pilgrim vs The World



Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010, dir. Edgar Wright)
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Mark Webber, Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzmann, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Mae Whitman

EPIC!

This is the official film of the Nintendo Generation, from the opening Universal logo to the final battle, the film is painted with pixelated brush strokes of late 80s video game fandom. Its also the closest I’ve seen director Edgar Wright come to recreating the style of humor found in his wonderful British series Spaced. These are the same kinds of people that populated that television show, just born a couple decades later. They have the same idiosyncratic obsessions and quirks just colored in an 8-bit aesthetic. This also marks a major departure for Michael Cera who has made a career on playing the lovable loser. The Scott Pilgrim character is a real asshole, especially to the girls in his life, and Cera does a good job of shifting his style of acting to fit Pilgrim. Simply put, this is the best date movie/action flick of the year.

The story takes us to the snowy streets of Toronto where Scott plays bass in Sex Bob-Omb and has upset fellow bandmates by dating the 17 year old Knives Chow. His dalliance with Chow is usurped when the mysterious Ramona Flowers crosses his path. Once they start a relationship its quickly revealed that Ramona’s seven exs have formed a villainous league who are intent on destroying anyone who dares to date her next. In this world you don’t need to be a black belt to fight like a character out of Mortal Kombat, and no one questions when Scott drops his bass and flies into the air to clash with ex after ex. This is a world where the line between game console and reality are blurred.

The humor here is so wonderful, its geeky and silly and the film never takes it self too seriously. Its the kind of thing you expect from Edgar Wright. Characters talk in a hyper real way, popping in and out frame when ever they are needed. The standout in the cast for me was Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace. Wallace is devoid of stereotype and is simply a perfect compliment to Scott’s often immature relations with the female of the species. The rest of the cast hits every note they needed to. None of the characters are all that fleshed out, by the conceit of the film is that they don’t need to be. This is a live action video game so characters are more types rather than three dimensional. Despite that lack of character dimensionality, the film does an excellent job of world building. While the far edges are kept blurred, the world of this fictional Toronto feels like it is bursting with life with so many characters passing through the frame.

It’s a shame the film didn’t have a bigger opening and appears to be quickly fading from theaters. It is Wright’s highest opening film though, almost twice as much as Hot Fuzz. The thing about Scott Pilgrim is that it is not ever going to appeal to a mass audience. This is a film made squarely for people who were kids when the Nintendo was released and were obsessed with it. It doesn’t have the mass guy appeal of The Expendables or the mass gal appeal of Eat Pray Love. Though, I’m willing to bet it is much much better than either of those films.

Comics 101: Hawkman and Hawkgirl/woman

Simply two of the most confusing characters in the DC stable. Here goes my attempt to boil Hawkman and Hawkwoman down to simple and understandable heroes.

It begins in ancient Egypt during the reign of Ramesses, and with Prince Khufu and his wife, Chay-Ara. The two happen across a strange vessel that has crashed in the desert and find that the metal it is composed of possesses anti-gravitational properties. The ship is melted down to make a scarab, a knife, and a glove which imbue the user with flight. The metal also seems to link the souls of Khufu and Chay-ara, even in the aftermath of their murder at the hands of the evil priest Hath-Set. For centuries they are reborn and reunited; from the Dark Ages to the times of the marauding pirates to the Old West. Eventually Khufu is reborn in the body of an archaeologist named Carter Hall. Carter is excavating royal burial sites in Egypt in the 1940s when he meets fellow archaeologist Shiera Saunders. The two come to a realization of their past lives and fall in love, using the metal uncovered to form wings and take to the skies as Hawkman and Hawkgirl. They join the Justice Society of America during World War II and eventually have a son together, Hector, who becomes the superhero Silver Scarab. During the 1950s, the JSA comes under fire by House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Joe McCarthy, and decide to disband and abandon their superhero identities.

Decades later, Hawkman would join the Justice League of America to work as a mentor for the new generation of heroes. This tenure would be short lived when he and the newly reunited JSA became trapped in a limbo universe. During this period, a new Hawkman, with a partner named Hawkwoman came onto the scene. During the 1940s, Carter was visited by a Thanagarian, one of the aliens whose culture had made the ship discovered all those centuries ago in Egypt. This Thanagarian was so impressed by Carter’s exploits that he named his first born son after him: Katar Hol. Katar grew up on Thanagar to become a police officer there. On Thangar, the alien immigrant class were treated as slaves and upon coming of age Katar realized the evil in this act. Katar rebelled against his society and found a partner in a lower caste woman named Shayera Thal. Eventually the two convinced Thanagar to grant equal rights to the aliens on the planet, and became ambassadors to Earth. These alien Hawks operated on Earth for a couple years until the original pair returned.

During a major event in the DC Universe that caused time to disrupt, Carter and Shiera’s souls were merged with Katar and that of an ancient Hawk God to form a new being that called itself Hawkman. This Hawkman lasted only a short time until he was driven insane by the combined pain of the souls that inhabited him and was given a mercy killing at the hands of Martian Manhunter. Shiera finds her soul reborn again in the body of her teenaged grand-niece Kendra Saunders. Kendra becomes Hawkgirl and is an active member of the JSA and JLA. Eventually, Carter is reborn in a younger body but finds Kendra has no attraction for him, breaking the cycle of he and his beloved being reunited. The two worked side by side with the Justice Society for awhile and eventually felt a slight rekindling of their feelings, which were snuffed out when Kendra left to join the JLA and started a relationship with Red Arrow. Finally, on the eve of Blackest Night, the two admitting their love for each other, only to be brutally killed by the zombies awakened by the event.

The reanimated husks participated in the battle against the heroes and at the close of the event, when a White Lantern appeared to counteract the evil, Carter and Shiera were reincarnated in their original forms from the 1940s. They have found that their ancient nemesis Hath-Set has also been reborn and he lures them into a parallel universe rules by humanoid Lions and Hawks. The true agenda behind Hath Set’s plan is not yet revealed but he has captured Sheira in his citadel while Carter rallies the Lion people to help him save her.