Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Six Hours In

24 gets its own post because, yeah, this shit is that good.

I doubted they could actually pull it off, but it looks like we are solidly on track for another full season of hugely satisfying serial melodrama.

So many sweet lines -- of course, "This is a coup d'etat" and "I will simply disappear again" -- but the favorite is when the dastardly presidential advisor/terrorist enabler/First Lady drugger Walt Cummings went down, hard, and Jack held a knife to his face to get the 411 on where the terrorists took the vials of nerve gas:

First I'll cut out your right eye, then your left, followed by your tongue.

Now, of course, I don't support torture (unlike certain members of the Bush administration), but 24 always manages to present those ticking-bomb situations -- and, of course, Jack is always right about whatever he does.

But it was so thrilling to see Walt go down -- and to see the look on Logan's face when he realized, shock of shocks, that Walt lied to him about what time the boat was leaving.

This is one of the great things about the show, because I can't help reading Logan as a stand-in for President Bush, as obsessed with his legacy as he is completely unconcerned with the trivial details of things like how to stop terrorists. "Just get this off my desk" is practically his catchphrase. Meanwhile, if you check the message boards on the 24 show site, there are those who'd say that he is nothing like President Bush and more of a weak-kneed Kerry type.

I still say that President Palmer was clearly a Republican (however socially moderate and fiscally conservative, unlike today's GOP), so that makes Keeler (who belonged to the opposing party) and his running mate, Logan, Democrats. At least in my calculus.

Now I'm waiting to see what Jean Smart's First Lady has cooked up next week. And we need to get Tony back into it. He only had a few lines in the first episode, while Michelle was still alive.

As for the rest: now that Audrey (Kim Raver) knows Jack loves her, does that mean she's going to have to die? (And will Crumbs please get cancelled soon so Bill Devane can return as her dad, the totally Rumsfeldian secretary of defense?) And how refreshing and surprising is Sean Astin's turn as the awkwardly formal Loganite sent to oversee CTU, the pitch-perfectly named Lynn McGill?

And who is going to be behind the bed in the penthouse in next week's episode?

Catching Up on the Tube

Since I'm not ready to go to bed and hoping the paper will come out sometime soon . . .

  • As the World Turns: Yes, I watched it again today. In my defense, some great actors have got their starts on soaps. Ms. Julianne Moore got her very start as Frannie on ATWT back when I was in high school. I am really enjoying the scenes with Emily and the ever-delightful Henry. Totally bonkers but great fun.

    I am waiting for them to get back to the fallout from the Boathouse Incident from last week. Luke got Lucinda to lie for him and say Kevin wasn't there, which almost worked until Kevin's dad brought him over to apologize. Now Holden has forbidden Luke from seeing Kevin, and taken away "driving privileges," so whatever bad thing will happen next will surely involve Luke in a car. Melodrama is so fun.

    Still, Elizabeth Hubbard as Lucinda was in rare form in her scenes with Luke, sensing that something was deeply troubling him, but unable to put a finger on it. "We said we would survive together," she implores him, "Why is it that you want to die?" Great stuff.

  • The Shield: They brought back Shane's manipulative wife, Mara, which is a great thing dramatically. I'm a little worried about the women on the show this season. Last year, CCH Pounder and Glenn Close gave the best performances by women in TV dramas (and y'all know how much I just plain love Ms. Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer). This year, there's the hottie Latina newbie, and now Dani's stuck in the Barn, so very pregnant, as the nannying mother of everybody, and CCH's Claudette is mysteriously afflicted (why can't Dutch just ask her what's going on and get it over with?). I need some strong women to wash down the Strike Team's raging machismo.
    But Forest Whitaker almost makes up for everything. I hope they can find a plausible reason for him to play Benito Martinez's ambitious councilman every week. And, just when you thought they couldn't go anywhere with Lem-wearing-a-wire, they have the whole Strike Team know, and now they're writing notes to each other and, in my favorite scene, sharing the bad news on a laptop while Walton Goggins' Shane tells an extended bad joke very badly. (Why doesn't he ever get an Emmy nomination? And I think I may actually start saying, "Shortie's got game" -- with his accent, of course.)

  • Monk: This is getting a bit pathetic that I'm watching so few shows I can list them all. But I want to say, to the producers of Monk: your show is incredibly amusing, it's always teetered on the verge of tediousness, and sometimes fallen flat on its OCD face on the wrong side of that line. (And we have to stay within the lines!)

    I put up with it when you had Laurie Metcalf as the wacky woman who claims Monk as her husband after Mr. Monk hit his head. There was a nice payoff with someone deliberately getting stung by bees (though you lose points for not using the word apiary).

    This week's episode, though, had two major problems: (1) it was so obvious what was happening in the very first scene (or second scene) when the sergeant picked the fight with the captain and (2) do we really care if the captain's wife leaves him because their marriage was over long ago? I mean, first you're all so very obvious, and then you go all Debbie Downer at the end.

    Still, the season premiere was delish, with Mr. Monk checking on his favorite inspector, No. 8, at the shirt factory to see why she was so upset and letting her quality level drop. So there's hope.

Come Home

This weekend, we rented Junebug, which just came out on DVD release. I was cautious about seeing the film in theatrical release, I saw the good reviews but I was worried it would either more or less condescend to the North Carolina relations or make their golden-boy son and his cultured big-city wife -- who he married after knowing her for a week -- the easy, bad-guy outsiders.

But Junebug was so much more delicate, more textured, more acutely observed and profound. Imagine if Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor had a love child, that was both Protestant-minded and an independent film -- and that's Junebug. And it's almost never I get to invoke either of my favorite writers, so for me to bring in both here means a lot.

Amy Adams has been singled out for praise for her turn as the sunny, talky younger sister-in-law, Ashley. But the cast is full of treasures, from Scott Wilson's taciturn, puttering father, to Celia Weston's disapproving mother, who can do so much with a harrumph or a stare, to Ben McKenzie -- yes, the one from the O.C. -- so painfully caught between his lost youth and a wife he's not ready to live up to.

And let's not forget Alessandro Nivola as George, the favored older son come home with a strange wife after an absence of three years. In lesser hands, the filmmakers would have belabored about Why George Didn't Come Home, and perhaps also give him Some Issues in his Life in the Big City. Instead, we get a complex portrait of a man who loves his family, yet can't live near (let alone with) them -- who's always, as Ashley says, there when they need him the most.

And also Embeth Davidtz as Madeleine, who at first I thought was going to be all pretty and posh and Englishy and look down on her hubby's kin's red-state ways. What was nice is that yes, she was uncomfortable, but the family was never quite what she expected them to be, and the way that her easy friendship with Ashley gave way to harder choices -- leaving her to live with the consequences of her choices.

I don't want to give too much away, because this one is really worth seeing. A few favorite moments, though. One of the most extraordinary moments in any movie from last year is the scene at the church social where the pastor says they can't let George get away without giving them a hymn, and, with a couple guys on backup, George launches into an a capella version of "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling."

On the surface, at first, there's Madeleine's pure surprise that George can sing so beautifully, with such feeling -- it's as if she's seeing him for the first time. But, as the song goes on, and you see his mother and other nodding along, mouthing the words, you're drawn into this lovely and mysterious and powerful moment in the life of this community, and in a way that's not cheesy or trite. It's a lovely and completely naturalistic depiction of faith as it's lived and experienced today -- such a rare thing in any narrative form.

Then there are the trees -- the film opens with a still shot of a deep forest of birches, and this shot comes in again, toward the end of the film, followed by a pull-back to show Madeleine sobbing in a deckchair as her father-in-law sits beside her, holding her hand. Like the filmic equivalent of Chekhov.

There are so many wonderful moments like this in the film, I won't go into them all here. Just go out and rent it already!

Monday, January 16, 2006

"Let's Start Over"

The first half of 24's season premiere last night was a gut-wrenching, edge-of-your-seat return to form. Last week, the creators of The Shield reinvented that series for a new season. This week, the entertaining minds behind 24 have done the same.

Now, I didn't think it would be possible to top last season, the best so far, what with the Turkish family that was also a sleeper cell AND the kidnapping of the secretary of defense set up all in the first episode. But this season started off with a bigger bang -- a couple of them -- right from the top. (As soon as I saw President Palmer, I knew what was going to happen. I didn't tell my parents so they could feel the full shock.)

Chloe is apparently a viewer favorite (not only in my family), and she really came into her own last season. I'm tickled to see that Mary Lynn Rajskub has been bumped up to regular status, along with Carlos Bernard's Tony. As hard as it was to see what happened to President Palmer and Michelle, it's good to know that Chloe and Tony will both be around for a while.

There are three particularly delicious touches I'd like to mention at this point. The first is the brilliant casting of Jean Smart as kooky first lady Martha Logan. She's mentally unstable, she's filled with conspiracy theories -- but, oh yeah, President Palmer did actually tell her something that could be the key to everything, only her hapless husband won't take the time to listen to her. And she has the best line so far in her memorable first moment, as she looks in the mirror, assessing her makeup girl's work. "I look like a wedding cake," Martha says before suddenly plunging her face into a sink full of water. "Let's start over."

Touch #2 is Logan himself: In David Palmer, 24 gave us a president who was thoughtful yet decisive, full of steely resolve. Contrast that with Logan, who tries to be decisive without thinking with the sole objective of getting problems off his desk. His biggest concern early on is that the Russian president, come to sign an arms treaty, is taller than him, so he's had a special chair designed to bring him up to his level. In addition to ratcheting up the dramatic problems and tension, Logan begs a key and unnerving question in the war on terror (one Democrats might do well to heed in this election year): What happens when our leadership, which we need to be decisive, is utterly incompetent?

Finally, there is the issue of the bad guys. This time around, we got to see who appears to be the lead bad guy, in his dark suite full of TV monitors, cooling calling in orders over Bluetooth. Of course, as my dad points out, these guys could not succeed without someone in our government helping them, and our early guess was shown to be correct at the end of Hour 2: it's Walt, President Logan's go-to-guy for first lady problems, who's in on the conspiracy.

Taking in all that, you just know that the situation with the hostages at the Ontario airport will be only the first of many crises in another very long, very bad day. And I will be watching every second.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Avner's List

So last night we saw Munich. It was that or Brokeback Mountain -- which I was finally ready to see again, but the bro wasn't up for. (He did, however, insist on taking me to the Short North so we could go to the gay smoothie place and then a gay bookstore. I told him next time we come home, I'll take him to Akron and we can get a straight smoothie and go to a straight bookstore.)

I was reluctant to see Munich because, quite frankly, I really can't stand Tony Kushner. I know you are definitely not supposed to say that, since he is the one who supposedly single-handedly saved American drama with Angels in America. And that play (or, rather, those plays) certainly has its (their) moments of high theatricality. There's some powerful stuff in those six-to-seven hours of stage time. And there's a whole lot of chatter. Actors talking a lot on stage does not equal drama. Actors talking a lot on stage about politics (or, Kushner's favorite, Marxism) does not make for political drama. It's more a matter of politically-themed rambling in between the sexy scenes with the angel.

Which is my backhanded way of complimenting Kushner for his talents, for creating some mind-blowing stage moments, but taking him to task for grotesquely overwriting. I think Angels in America is a good play, not a great one, an at times lofty, but overbloated epic that is too often not dramatic, too conservative in its narrative (managing to be about both a gay man coming out and a gay man dying of AIDS) and its gender politics, and too irresponsible (I'm tempted to say dishonest) in its uses of history.

We'll have to discuss McCarthyism and its abused representations at some later point (after I break down and see Good Night, and Good Luck. But the point about history is an important one, because in Munich Kushner and Spielberg have reached into the past for a story about how a civilized nation responds to terrorism, with very deliberate implications about What It Means for Today. (The film's final shot, lingering on the Twin Towers as the credits roll, is there just in case you missed It.)

As a historical-political treatise, the film is gobbledygook. Kushner is at his full-throttle worst in scene after scene as characters prattle on and on about, first, why it's good for Jews to kill terrorists, and then, later, why maybe Jews shouldn't kill terrorists, and then, by the end, whether the terrorists the Jews killed were even terrorists to begin with.

The problem with all this chatter is that what happens in between -- the filmic (visual) moments -- makes it all meaningless. Because, along with their tedious historical-political treatise, Spielberg and Kushner have made a tense and thrilling caper film. As the hits just keep on coming, each one presents a new frisson of tension -- what could go wrong this time? -- until it's finally carried out.

And what happens, as Avner's team keeps killing the bad guys, is that the Jewish oddballs become a tightknit group of buddies. It's not so much Saving Private Ryan as Ocean's Eleven with a heroin hit of Hitchcock. And these hit sequences, along with the group's planning and downtime -- except when they get all chatty -- is among Spielberg's best work ever.

I credit Spielberg because these sequences are effective at a gut-wrenching, visual level -- also helped by the pitch-perfect soundtrack. I also credit Spielberg because the great thrills of the hit scenes cut rather harshly against the historical-political treatise Kushner is so tediously drawing out. How can we worry about right or wrong when we're having so much fun?

Kushner's treatise is not helped by the central character, Avner, who in typical Kushner fashion manages to have both Daddy issues -- his father, a hero of Israeli independence, is imprisoned for work he did on behalf of the state -- and Mommy issues -- his mom is an aloof Zionist (of course) so Golda Meir is his surrogate mommy, sending him to kill the bad Palestinians.

His team, in their various ways, come to question what they are doing, but Avner is late to have doubts -- really, until after their work is done and he is trying to return to a normal life with his wife and baby daughter. Avner's rectitude is necessary for most of the film -- it's hard to see how he would continue to lead the killings if he wasn't so certain -- but his unrending afterward is a bit unclear. I'm still not sure why he wouldn't want to live in Israel after all he did for it -- I understand the symbolic use of this (another Jew in exile) but it wasn't clearly set up in the picture.

What did make sense is his total freaking out that the network of informants he'd used to get the names and locations of his targets had now turned against him and his men, selling them out to be killed off one by one. This leads to some more great sequences, one where he hears a noise and proceeds to dismantle everything in his bedroom (mattress, phone, TV) they'd used to hide bombs, one where he catches sight of men in a black car while walking down the street with his daughter -- that's a moment of true terror.

But the historical-political message it sends, when you stop and think about it, isn't Don't Kill Terrorists, but rather, Don't Work with Informal Criminal Networks. There's a fundamental difference between actions taken by terrorists and those taken by a civilized nation. In a civilized nation -- especially in a democracy like Israel or the U.S. -- citizens can hold their officials responsible for their decisions on behalf of the state. The film did touch on this to some extent, drawing out Meir's troubles and concerns with popular view of her actions.

However, for the most part, the film elides the difference between actions of a state (an organized government responsible to its citizens) and actions of terrorists (a criminal organization responsible only to itself). Many reviews have heralded this as an asset, the filmmaker's brave refusal to take sides.

But what the filmmakers have done in Munich is not so much not taking sides as moral equivalence. Kushner and Spielberg depict Palestinian terrorism, and Israel's responses to it, as an endless cycle of bloodshed. As Leon Wieseltier has point out, in his pan of the film, there is a world of difference between state action against terrorism and the brutal acts that precipitate it. It's the difference between democracy and its negation.

This point is lost in Munich. Before we get our final money shot of the Twin Towers, the disillusioned Avner tells his Mossad handler that they should have arrested the Palestinians, "like Eichmann." His handler might have pointed out that, in fact, they could not arrest the terrorists "like Eichmann" because Eichmann was an official of an organized state that was defeated through a conventional war. Terrorists do not have a territory to invade, a government to topple. But that would have been another movie.

Boys and Their Bombs

Also, I meant to say that the Spielberg movie Munich most reminds me of is Catch Me If You Can -- both for the great fun of the caper, and the daddy issues.

Ella Taylor's review in the L.A. Weekly is spot on on both these points, and also the similarities to Syriana:

Most of Avner’s information about the whereabouts of his scattered targets comes from a murky French group headed by a simultaneously sinister and avuncular paterfamilias (played by the terrific Michael Lonsdale) who, still smarting from French humiliation at the hands of the Nazis and its own Vichy collaborators, will do business only with individuals, not governments. (One senses that Spielberg, who never saw a father figure he didn’t like or a government he did, is with him all the way.) Like Gaghan in Syriana, Spielberg wants to invite us into the visceral, terrifying pleasures of the hunt while dutifully questioning whether it should ever have been mounted in the first place. Washed in Janusz Kaminski’s foggy, desaturated light, Munich would have us gorge on the romance of blood, which seeps sensuously from shot-out brains, smoking corpses, severed hands. Spielberg wants us to share in his amused delight at the rinky-dink telephone bombs used by 1970s assassins — quaint jokes compared to the long-range precision missiles used today, if just as deadly. And, of course, he can’t do without his avenging heroes. But he also wants us to feel his pain over the endless cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and as this three-hour drama wears on, with terrorists from both sides pleading their case (the screenplay, which was written by Eric Roth and worked over by playwright Tony Kushner, is Kushner at his most rhetorical and declamatory), there’s a gathering stench of bad faith in the tug between gory excitation and moral squeamishness.

OOPS! I just went back and read the whole Taylor review -- I had skipped the last part of it when I looked it over before.

Now I see that she had the same thought about Catch Me If You Can -- as evidenced by her title -- which I hadn't noticed till now.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Fresh Pack

In other news, I have decided to watch less TV. Basically I'm not going to watch TV at all during the day, unless I'm taping something from the night before.

This seemed like a good idea, until today, because I taped too many shows last night. I enjoy James Spader, but Boston Legal is just too creepy and quirky. Everyone has to always be so completely weird. If I were one of those young playwrights who wrote weird and quirky plays, then maybe that would be my thing, but it's so not.

Also, I've finally admitted that Commander-in-Chief is like candy with way too much sugar. It rots your brain. Geena Davis is totally fierce but you have to accept either that a) the show is completely unrealistic or b) reality is too scary to think about. And despite everything I've felt for Kyle Secor in the past (Tim Bayliss, how we loved thee!), every scene he's in is an argument for not allowing presidential spouses anywhere near the Oval Office.

So those two bippity-boos are off my list.

I still have a huge soft spot for Law & Order: SVU, primarily because of Ms. Mariska Hargitay, who addition to being totally fabulous in every way is also Hungarian (and thus more fabulous) and even further, has a facial structure similar to my mom's, so Mom can judge possible hairstyles against Ms. Mariska's. (Mom and Mariska both look so much better with it grown out.)

Maybe it's because The Wire did such a number on me, but I'm really tired of TV shows where police detectives are superheroes. It's nice to think that someone would actually be able to be so resourceful in saving someone from dire straits, week in and week out, but that ain't the world.

And, as much as I enjoy Tamara Tunie in everything she does -- from SVU to 24 to As the World Turns (yes, that As the World Turns), and I was so happy to see her M.E. character taking center stage in last night's episode, and as much as I liked the moment where she had to shoot the young man in the leg so the police snipers wouldn't kill him -- it was so completely frickin' preposterous a) that all those things could actually happen and b) that, after shooting that kid AND saving his father, who he had shot, by using office supplies to put a tube in his chest, that she would shrug it all off and just walk away to pick up her daughter at school. Just another day at the office.

Which is why I'm am so glad that I watched SVU first, and then went into the season premiere of The Shield. Once again, they have managed to completely reinvent the series for a new season while at the same time staying true to its roots. On the one hand, you have the extremely effective, yet extremely amoral supercop, Vic Mickey, played with fearless bravura by Michael Chiklis -- who could ever have imagined such things from him when he was The Commish?

Mackey seems like a necessary evil for taming the mean streets, at least when the alternative is the inept bureaucracy that runs the police department, its own power inevitably enmeshed in and corrupted by the political process. It's a system in which someone like former captain, now city councilman David Aceveda -- loyal only to his own fortunes -- can prosper, while those who take on the status quo and try to work for change are crushed for it -- like Glenn Close's captain, in her deliciously subtle turn last season, or CCH Pounder's would-be captain, who spent last season paying for her refusal the previous season "to stick her conscience in a drawer."

How fitting, then, that the new season is advertised with the tagline "Conscience is a killer," and adds another intriguing cast member: Forest Whitaker as Internal Affairs Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh, finally getting around to the murder of a cop that Vic killed (to keep him from helping the feds) in the series' very first episode.

Last season, Close's Captain Rawling set the investigation in motion, learning just after being fired that IAD had dirt on one of Vic's men, the doe-eyed Lem. And Kavanaugh set right to it last night, turning the screws first on the councilman, and then on Lem.

Whitaker is charming and conniving. He shows up at Vic's kids' school to get a feel on his ex-wife. He plays off the councilman's ambitions, suggesting that Aceveda's role in exposing police corruption could send him to the mayor's office. And in a pitch-perfect mannerism, he's always offering his witnesses -- and his perps -- a piece of JuicyFruit.

Like Kavanaugh's gum, this season of The Shield is "a fresh pack," and one that I sure as hell can't resist.

Friday, January 06, 2006

"I Have to Go"

Paul Greengrass, director of the great fun that was The Bourne Supremacy, has a new picture coming out in April: this time, far more serious fare.

The trailer is here. I watched it ten minutes ago and I still have a lump in my throat.

Maybe it is still too raw, even four and a half years later. Even so, I think these kinds of stories have to be told. We live in uncertain times, and people are finding themselves pushed to the brink of human experience. Isn't that what drama is for?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Jack, I Swear . . .

. . . I'm going to do a write-up of Brokeback Mountain. Long day. I was going to do it before dinner, but then I had to go show my grandparents how to program the new combo VCR/DVD player that Santa brought them to record the stories (i.e. the CBS daytime lineup, minus Guiding Light. Does anyone actually still watch The Guiding Light?).

But at least I managed to spell it correctly. Although, given my standing as a former Summit County Spelling Bee champion, it would be a scandal if I didn't.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On the Mountain

Saw Brokeback tonight. Need to process it a bit more before posting in more detail.

I will say that I had read the Annie Proulx short story over a year ago, right after I first heard they were making it into a movie. The filmmakers managed to keep the story's hardscrabble texture while expanding it to feature length. They also managed to retain many of the small, wonderful moments. I had forgotten the story's ending -- the bit with the shirts -- which was one of the moments where this spare and lyrical film was suddenly overwhelming -- right up from the depths.

My first reaction is that this is an extraordinary film, and quite a radical one, in its own quiet, everyday way -- more about that later.

(And yes, Kyle, the Shinnian reference is for you!)