Saturday, March 12, 2016

The End of Downton Abbey and the State of Prestige TV

Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Suzanne Dockery in Downton Abbey.

The end of Downton Abbey was hardly the sort of dramatic, divisive event that has characterized the conclusions of so many shows from the so-called Golden Age of Television. There was no climactic shootout with neo-Nazis, no ambiguous ending scored by Journey, no revelation that ended in a Coca-Cola ad. Instead, we got a glimpse of a happy family, still completely intact from the start of the season (if not the series) and enjoying a moment of happiness amid Christmas decorations and falling snow. The finale, which aired on Christmas in the UK and this past Sunday in the States, was upbeat to an almost absurd degree, pairing off almost all of the potential romantic couplings and avoiding virtually anything that would darken the mood. In this regard, it was a fitting end to a series whose initial success and enduring popularity eventually sat at odds with general dismissal from critics.

Friday, March 11, 2016

What about this Place: Louis C.K's Horace and Pete

Steve Buscemi and Louis C.K. in Horace and Pete.

Sometimes I wonder why do we tear ourselves to pieces / I just need some time to think / Or maybe I just need a drink / At Horace & Pete’s.
– from the theme song to Horace and Pete, written and performed by Paul Simon. 
On January 30, without fanfare, press release, or social media campaign, Louis C.K. sent out a mass email to his fans: “Hi there. ‘Horace and Pete’ episode one is available for download. $5. Go here to watch it. We hope you like it. Regards, Louis.” (Subsequent episodes were downloadable at a lesser cost: $2 for episode two and $3 for each episode after that.) For the past six years, C.K.'s Louie has been the standard bearer for indie TV within the network model, so this move to direct-to-consumer series distribution seems, though maybe only in retrospect, like a natural next step for him. Unlike Louie, which remains a comedy (albeit a dark and sometimes surreal one), Horace and Pete is a drama, in every best sense of the word: both in that it has the deliberate texture of a stage production and that it lands with a surprising weight of reality.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What a Charlie Foxtrot: Tina Fey and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I’m starting to feel like this is normal. You know it isn’t, right?” says reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey) to Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), reflecting on her three years as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. From her subject position as a 40+ single New York copywriter, the statement is accurate. For the 30.5 million people who live in Afghanistan, however, “this,” a life marred by war, violence, unstable politics and pervasive patriarchy, is normal. Such is the irredeemable problem that can’t be, shouldn’t be, overlooked at the heart of a frustratingly enjoyable film.

Based on an assuredly less egregious memoir called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by New York Times reporter Kim Barker, dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot follows Tina Fey as Kim Baker (that pesky “r” omitted in the screenplay presumably to avoid confusing a fake woman with a real woman in Google searches), a bored, desk-bound writer who jumps at an offer to be an on-camera war journalist in Kabul, Afghanistan. Despite having zero experience in front of a camera, Baker is offered the position precisely because she is childless, unmarried, and over 40 in others words, because she is “expendable” by North American standards. An eye roll worthy epiphany at the gym causes her to view her suggested shortcomings as an opportunity for change. Leaving a house key for her “mildly depressive” boyfriend (Josh Charles) so that he can water her plants, Kim ships out to Afghanistan for a brief stint that inevitably stretches into three years. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sounds from the Pacific Coast: The Seattle Symphony Performs Charles Ives

The Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot, performing Charles Ives' Symphony No. 4.  (Photo: Brandon Patoc)

When the American composer Charles Ives died in 1954, the Associated Press, in a very short obit, stated that many of his compositions were not performed in his lifetime due to their “difficulty.” AP goes on to say that “critics [have described] his compositions as half-a-century ahead of their time.” For members of the Seattle Symphony under conductor Ludovic Morlot, that half-century is now. The orchestra has just released recordings of Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark” and Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4. (In 2014 they released a performance of Ives’ Symphony No. 2, also on their own label.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

This Movie's Got Sand: Gods of Egypt

Gerard Butler in Gods of Egypt.

I don’t know the exact moment Gods of Egypt won me over. It might have been when Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) awakes amongst the remnants of last night’s orgy and we see that, like all gods, he’s twelve feet tall, with a giant-sized Jacuzzi to match. It might have been when it became clear that Gerard Butler (as desert god Set), in true Connery fashion, was going to make no effort whatsoever to mask his Scottish brogue. It might have been when we meet Ra (Geoffrey Rush), god of the sun and father of creation, who chills on his celestial catamaran, pulling the sun on a long chain over the edge of the flat, disc-shaped earth (and occasionally firing off a casual bolt from his laser spear at Apophis, the ever-encroaching demon-worm of chaos, represented by a cloud of swirling teeth and smoke). Or, honestly, it might have been watching the trailer, long before I sat down for the main event, which promised a perfect storm of unconscionable casting and absurd CG shenanigans, and delivered to a degree I never dared hope was possible. If those late-winter blues got you down, there is truly no better cure than a flamboyant, excessive, cocksure trashterpiece like this.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hughie: Hotel Ghost

Frank Wood and Forest Whitaker in Hughie, directed by Michael Grandage. (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Hughie is an oddity in the Eugene O’Neill canon. He wrote it in the early forties, around the time he was turning out his glorious – and lengthy – late-career masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, but Hughie is a two-hander with a running length of merely an hour. It doesn’t read like an excerpt from a longer work, but it has a tossed-off quality, and I don’t mean that as a put-down. It’s like something O’Neill might have penned in an afternoon to clear his head while he was working on Iceman: the main character, a solitary fellow named Erie Smith who lives in an antiquated, mostly abandoned Manhattan hotel, isn’t very different from the has-beens who inhabit Harry Hope’s saloon, except that his vice is gambling (of all sorts) rather than alcohol. The other character is the night clerk Erie strikes up a conversation with in the wee hours, in what feels like an increasingly desperate effort to forge the same kind of bond with him that he had with his predecessor, Hughie, who has recently died.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Upending Clichés in Outlander

Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe in Outlander, adapted from the novels by Diane Gabaldon.

I likely would not have read Diane Gabaldon’s gargantuan 1991 novel Outlander if I had not seen the Starz television series, a faithful adaptation of the novel in which large swathes of dialogue are directly transposed to the script. I surprised myself by watching the entire 16-episode first season, since I haven't paid much attention to the multi-genre of historical fiction/romance and time travel/fantasy. Stephen King’s 2011 Kennedy assassination thriller 11/22/63 was gripping, but to make a substantial investment of time about the life of a twentieth-century woman who stumbles back into eighteenth-century Scotland? My interest was piqued by a few positive notices and a news report that the Irish actress, Caitriona Balfe, had been nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in playing Claire Beauchamp. I am pleased to report that the Outlander series, supplemented by reading the source novel, has been an emotionally powerful and aesthetically-satisfying experience. We are treated to luscious cinematography of the Scottish Highlands (inspired by the television drama, Trafalgar Tours is sponsoring a trip to the Highlands), haunting Scottish folk music created by Bear McCreary, the creation of a complex believable world, strong performances from actors who inhabit three-dimensional characters and scripts that allow them to grow and develop.