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4 Stars Movies TV

Modern America is born out of lawlessness and chaos in David Milch’s Deadwood: The Movie

What an improbable treat, in an age of unasked-for sequels, that one of pop culture’s most notorious cliffhangers would receive resolution.

The HBO series Deadwood is not only one of their most acclaimed productions, but also the most lamentably unfinished. Its abrupt cancellation in 2006 was followed by persistent but vague promises of one or more movies. But as year after year passed, and practically the entire cast went on to higher asking prices, the practical matters of financing and scheduling a remount passed through the realm of the unlikely into the impossible. And yet, here it is, and we are all obligated to make some variation of a “crack open a can of peaches, hoopleheads” joke as we sit down to watch Deadwood: The Movie.

Time has found some characters grown stronger, such as a thriving Sofia (Lily Keene) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) become a successful businessman and landowner. But many are stagnating: Jane (Robin Weigert) may be a minor celebrity but still an alcoholic wreck, and Joanie (Kim Dickens) remains trapped in the Bella Union. Others are greatly diminished: Harry (Brent Sexton) is corrupted, and Al’s (Ian McShane) health is rapidly declining. As Al loses his faculties and Charlie’s lifelong righteous sense of justice blossoms to a quiet but heroic act of resistance, it’s easy to see that this is clearly deeply personal for writer/creator David Milch — the movie is all the more poignant now that he is ailing, and this may be his final work.

Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie

There are a few instances of outright fan service (flashbacks remind us of a key moments, Garret Dillahunt has a fleeting cameo as his third character, and it’s very satisfying to see Dan & Jewel bicker over canned peaches one last time), but the movie thankfully does not wallow in nostalgia. The Pinkertons are not mentioned once, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody calls anybody a hooplehead. Milch’s characteristically convoluted diction truly deserves the modifier “Shakespearean”, and is something to savor.

The original TV series was always a little — shall we say — loosely plotted, which worked mostly to its benefit. Whereas later HBO efforts like Game of Thrones were predominantly plot-driven (who lives, who dies, one battle more spectacular than the next), Deadwood was always about character and dialog, and the greater theme of modern America being born out of lawlessness and chaos. But it would be fair to criticize Milch for frequently abandoning promising storylines if he got bored or distracted. The third season in particular has numerous threads that go nowhere: the character of Joanie suffers from a lack of material, and everything involving the traveling theater troupe is superfluous, despite how delightful Brian Cox’s performance is.

The concise two-hour movie format has the benefit of focusing Milch’s attention, but there is still room for a little narrative meandering. One such seemingly extraneous subplot that at first seems to be going nowhere in Milch-ean fashion is that of a young woman coming to town with the aim of working in a brothel, turning a few heads but failing to land a job. We’ve seen her story before, from the very first episode: Deadwood was a hard place, populated by hard people. You could group its denizens into roughly two categories: those desperate to escape something (Al: wanted for murder; the Garrets: escaping bankruptcy and sexual abuse; Seth: arguably running from his own violent nature), and those there unwillingly (mostly women, as Trixie and Joanie were both sold into indentured servitude).

The girl attracts the notice of the latter, who always struck me as one of the show’s most tragic characters: Trixie (Paula Malcomson) grew into adulthood with a deep sense of self-loathing, unable to accept that she might deserve love or kindness. Even when Al, her abusive pimp, tried to push her into a legitimate free life in society (such as it was in Deadwood at the time), she rejected it. The original series ended with Trixie still caught in this conundrum, and as we see her 10 years later, she still feels unworthy, compelled to sneak around through backdoors, and resisting Sol’s (John Hawkes) unconditional love. Thankfully, the movie finally grants her a breakthrough: she accepts Sol and receives a gift from Al, and finds herself with a trade and a place in society.

When Trixie recognizes the psychology of the broken girl who came to Deadwood as a last resort, she is equipped to show her a bit of kindness, and laments that she should believe that this is all she deserves. It’s not only a breakthrough for Trixie, but a crack in the lawless, dead-end history of Deadwood: now no longer only a place for the criminal or the desperate, but now with opportunities for people to better themselves.

One other touching moment of resolution I want to highlight, conveyed perfectly without exposition. The other great dangling thread of the series was that Alma (Molly Parker) and Seth (Timothy Olyphant) never closed the door on their love affair. As they smolder one last time, face to face at Trixie and Sol’s wedding, they are interrupted by one of Seth’s children. He scoops her up, beaming with pride and love, and rejoins the party. Like Trixie, they are both also finally freed.

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3 Stars TV

Semper Gumby: HBO’s Generation Kill

The HBO miniseries Generation Kill comes from David Simon and Ed Burns, the masterminds behind the superlative series The Wire. Simon himself is a former journalist, the state thereof being a primary preoccupation of the fifth season of the The Wire. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to a war story seen through the eyes of a fellow writer. Generation Kill is based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embedded in the US Marine Corps 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the first boots on the ground during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Actor Lee Tergesen plays Wright as a wide-eyed innocent among perverse killers, delightedly scribbling the marines’ colorful boastings in his notebook, when not dodging sniper fire. The most quotable is the manic driver Corporal Josh Ray Person, well-cast as James Ransone, basically reprising his character Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire season two.

The marines’ lingo flashes back to pop culture circa 2003, which already seems so very far away. A rumor spreads that J-Lo is dead, reminding us of the brief period when Jennifer Lopez was the most desired woman on the planet. Everyone’s a “dog” or “bra” (not as in the undergarment but as in “bro”). In between harrowing battles (which the warriors long for but hate when they arrive), much of their experience is comprised of long stretches of boredom. They supply their own soundtrack, recollecting what lyrics they can and recreating every part of a song a cappella with great enthusiasm.

Generation Kill
Cpl. Josh Ray Person: “When my band opened up for Limp Bizkit in Kansas City, we fucking sucked. But then again, so did they. The only difference is that they became famous and I became a marine.”

After exhausting the conversational value of their bowel movements and each other’s alleged sexual orientations, there’s nothing but time to talk about the origins and motivations of the war. One popular theory is that it is a nothing but another race war. As one soldier puts it, it’s “White man’s destiny to rule the world” and “White man won’t be denied.” Or is it to clear the ground for more Starbucks franchises? Or maybe it’s a war over the scarcest resource of all: virgins.

Marines are trained to depersonalize and vilify the enemy, all with the aim of being effective killers. So they are essentially ill-equipped for a 21st century war in which they are expected to request permission before engaging any target, and for situations in which they must deal diplomatically with the civilian population – some of which may be threats in disguise, but most often are just people who either need their help or would rather they just leave. When the marines do wish to offer compassion, they are thwarted by their command or by cold hard reality – oftentimes there’s nothing they can do. They’re also fatally underequipped in a literal sense: they’re issued less body armor than Wright was able to purchase on eBay, they have state-of-the-art nightvision goggles but no batteries, and as if they didn’t stand out enough, they’re clad in the wrong camouflage style. They subsist on only one M.R.E. (Meal, Ready to Eat) each day, supplemented with copious caffeine pills, Skittles, Hustler, and Skoal. But as one marine quips, “Semper Gumby – always flexible.” As characterized here, these Marines never miss an opportunity to bitch, but pride themselves on being able to “make do.”

Generation Kill
Lt. Col. Stephen ‘Godfather’ Ferrando: “What’s foremost in Godfather’s mind? We’re still very much in the game, gentlemen.”

Aside from the frustratingly elusive Iraqi army or suicide bombers, there are few antagonists marines hate more than Reservists, the Army, and their own incompetent command. But they gradually learn that their superiors are often far wiser than they realized. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (Chance Kelly) (so nicknamed because of a hoarse voice derived from lung cancer) nearly causes a mutiny by refusing to aid a fatally injured Iraqi boy. In a rare deference from a man that has no need to explain himself to his subordinates, he explains in detail why he made his decision: it was literally impossible to save the boy. Later, he reveals to the reporter that he is always fully conscious of ineffective commanders like the grossly incompetent Captain Dave McGraw (Eric Nenninger), known to his detractors as “Captain America.” Godfather can’t always act on every single infraction, lest policing his people become his entire role in the military machine. Even the reprehensible Sergeant Major John Sixta (Neal Jones) turns out to be more canny than anyone suspected; he knows his job is to make himself into a cartoon villain against which the men can direct their frustrations. His role is part of the time-tested marine tradition: a morale-building figure. And for audiences of this series, a bit of comic relief (“That helmet is the proppity of the Yoo-Ess-of-Ay!”).

I found the series to be disappointingly fractured, no rival at all to Simon and Burns’ masterpiece the Wire. Only the sublime final scene rises to the vaulted heights The Wire regularly reached. One marine had spent weeks shooting and editing a home movie of the invasion. When the company finally reaches Baghdad, they find they literally cannot watch the completed movie. Each walks away, in silence, one by one. In the tradition of The Wire, this closing montage is set to a perfectly chosen piece of music (Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around”) and sends shivers down the spine.

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3 Stars TV

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are the second first couple in Tom Hooper’s John Adams

This blog celebrates Independence Day 2008 in a New York City Starbucks, tapping out a review of the HBO miniseries John Adams. Believe it or not, the timing is accidental, but July 4th has proven to be an auspicious date in American History. On-and-off-again friends and foes Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the same date, exactly 50 years after the ratification of what they called The Declaration of Independency. The tale sounds too good to be true, and yet it is.

HBO is back on its game at last, after a period of apparent dormancy following the natural conclusion of flagship original programs Sex and the City and The Sopranos, the premature cancellation of Deadwood and Rome, and the criminal abbreviation of the final season of The Best Television Show Ever Made (sometimes referred to as The Wire). Finely pedigreed, this lavish, over seven-hour miniseries by history buff Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone is based on the biography by David McCullough. However, it fails to reach the epic profundity of The Wire and Deadwood, which in the opinion of this blogger, possibly have more to say about the true nature of the America we have actually inherited from Adams and his contemporaries.

John Adams
America’s second first couple

This blogger does not consider himself a patriot in the flag-waving sense of the word, and is not especially moved by stories of early American history. However, the dramatization of these legendary events and the characterization of dusty old American heroes were intriguing enough to make me consider picking up a copy of McCullough’s tome. The adult life of John Adams encompassed such elementary school social studies touchstones as the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. In short, Adams was not only present during many of the key points in early American history, but a crucial participant. Nevertheless, history has chosen other heroes. As Adams was a statesman and not a military man, and indeed spent most of the Revolutionary War on a frustrating mission abroad in Europe, we don’t see reenactments of such key events as the Boston Tea Party, which one might have expected of a lavish big-budget HBO production. It makes sense, but there is unintentional comedy when a character remarks “Boy, how ’bout that Boston Tea Party last night, huh?” (OK, I admit I’m paraphrasing, but the effect is the same.)

After the Revolutionary War (waged in part by “godless Hessian mercenaries,” including one of my ancestors, Johannes Schwalm), Adams returned to the States United only to be turned right back around for his appointment to the impossible, thankless job of ambassador to former mortal enemy Great Britain. There’s a brilliantly tense scene in which Adams meets the slightly odd but clearly seething King George III for the first time. When Adams finally came home for good, he suffered persistent criticism at having been safe and coddled in Europe throughout the turmoil at home (it also seems his weight was a favorite talking point of the newspapers). But the miniseries makes clear that the biggest sacrifice made for his duty was the effects of his absence on his family. He loses a son to alcoholism and a son-in-law to naive investments, but on the other hand, his son John Quincy Adams succeeded him as the sixth president.

John Adams
If I had a dollar…

As the second president of the States United, Adams and his veep Jefferson both had the same aims: avoid war between France and England at all costs. Adams was stuck in the peculiarly ironic position of having a truce with Britain and antipathy with France, the exact opposite of the nation’s situation during the Revolutionary War. His administration grappled for the first time with many issues that still resonate today, including the concepts of freedom of speech, a deliberate national deficit (as espoused by Alexander Hamilton), and so-called “enemy combatants” (which were, at the time, specifically understood to be French refugees suspected of remaining loyal to an enemy monarchy). Adams reluctantly supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, not because he believed in them (he didn’t) but that he nobly felt it was his duty to stand behind the wishes of the people’s representatives in Congress. During his administration, he and Abigail moved into the partially completed White House, which is shown to have been built by slaves. This blogger should perhaps not have been surprised by this revelation, and yet he was.

The cast is a veritable showcase for “Hey It’s That Guy”s, providing substantial roles for a parade of familiar character actors — not least headliner Paul Giamatti. In many ways, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) is the most interesting, and surprising characterization. As portrayed here, he kept his own council and was somewhat shy, far from the loquacious and commanding personalities of many of his contemporaries. Adams, however, correctly perceived the quiet man’s powerful opinions about independence, and drafted him to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson could also be proud, and his effrontery is priceless as Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) quickly produces a red pen to make amendments. Franklin was one of a kind, and indisputably brilliant, but a massive egotist and hedonist. He was technically correct about how to effectively operate as ambassador to France, but it didn’t stop him from selfishly enjoying his job. He gamely played the role of “rustic” in coonskin cap, took mistresses (although Wikipedia does point out he was a widower at the time), lived a life of leisure, and knew when not to discuss politics (which was: most of the time). Originally a friend and ally to Adams, Franklin became an antagonist in France, and Adams appears never to have forgiven him.

John Adams
America’s First Rascal shows John around his crib

George Washington (David Morse) is portrayed as gruff and humbly diplomatic, but also quite intelligent and perceptive, not to mention physically imposing. He was such a popular hero after the Revolution that his inauguration was a forgone conclusion, but it was later alleged John Adams would have actually won the electoral college vote without a conspiracy to anoint Washington as America’s first hero. John’s cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) figures significantly in the Early Continental Congress, and now we can finally see what Sam did to deserve having such a beverage named after him (I kid; actually he really was a brewer on top of all his other achievements). One interesting figure this blogger had never heard of was John Dickinson (Zelijko Ivanek). As the representative from Pennsylvania, Dickinson argued passionately against splitting from Britain, and correctly foresaw the Civil War as an inevitable result. And finally, there’s a plum role for Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, about as strong a woman as she could have been at the time. At one point, we see her scrubbing the floor with no motion to help from her husband. But clearly it was not just lip service when John Adams late in life claims Abigail was his most trusted advisor.

John Adams
I apologize for failing to mention Sarah Polley in this article

In a great scene near the end, an aged Adams dresses down John Trumbull, the painter of “The Declaration of Independence” (now residing in the Capitol building – which was, incidentally, also built by slaves), for historical inaccuracies. Ironically, the scene is an invention, according to Wikipedia, but it seems to have been consistent with Adams’ beliefs and preoccupations. In his retirement, he was concerned that the story of the American Revolution and his own reputation would (or even could) be reported accurately. He predicted a romanticized version in which future Americans would believe “Franklin smote the earth with his electrical rod and out came Washington and Jefferson.” It seems he may have been correct; Franklin and Jefferson are heroes to this day, while he remains relatively obscure. It is true that there isn’t much scandal or legend about his character and personality for schoolchildren to latch on to. Jefferson had Monticello and his inventions, and Franklin had his aphorisms and, well, inventions of his own. One other reason Adams is not exactly a popular hero is that he first made himself known for defending English soldiers accused of perpetuating an unprovoked massacre. The defense attorney was never a much-loved profession, but set an early precedent for lawyers becoming presidents.

Finally, two smaller observations: The miniseries was partially filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, but many other locations were realized with superlative special effects. Beyond the obvious recreations of old Boston and Philadelphia, the DVD bonus features reveal that certain shots I never questioned, such as Adams ascending the staircase to a impressive European mansion, were in fact part CG. Also of interest are the examples of the medicine of the day: exsanguination, inoculation, and mastectomy, all without anesthesia.

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3 Stars Movies TV

Kelly Macdonald and Bill Nighy bond over extreme poverty in The Girl in the Café

Richard Curtis and David Yates’ The Girl in the Café, a BBC movie aired in the US on HBO, was incredibly cute, and my heartstrings were indeed pulled, but I couldn’t shake the sense the love story was mere dressing for the real purpose of the film: explicating the issue of extreme poverty to help warm the public up for Live 8. Of course, I feel heartless for criticizing this aspect of it.

Plus, the age difference between Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald was so vast that — forget about their characters’ conflict over whether to battle or defer to stubborn politicians — it’s an issue unto itself. But if possible to overlook that, it’s a perfectly charming and lovely movie.

Reykjavik should hereby pass an ordinance decreeing its name shall heretoforth be spoken only in Macdonald’s Scottish accent.