Recent Viewing: The Last Circus

You can never have too many stories about deranged Spanish clowns (a passive, sad one and an angry, violent one) vying for the love of a beautiful woman who happens to be an acrobat in their circus, set against the backdrop of the end of the Franco regime. Better yet, this sad clown has issues (possibly even his very sad-clown-ness itself) arising out of his father’s death at the hands of Franco’s men.

The Last Circus is one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a while. Not entirely successful but delightful in its looniness. At times funny, at times sweet, and eventually deranged, violent and completely over the top. Worth a look.

He’s Got the Fire and the Fury

I don’t know about you, but when I hear too many people praising something (music, movie, book, TV show) I grow doubtful that I’ll enjoy it as much once I check it out. I should draw a graph plotting the way I become more convinced something might be good when I read more than just one positive review, but when praise grows too uniform, too ubiquitous I start to mistrust it. This is often a mistake on my part. I mean, if 5 good reviews mean I’ll probably like something, let’s say the new Captain America flick, then why wouldn’t dozens of good reviews and all kinds of “top 10 best ever” lists be even more convincing?

All the above is my explanation for why I waited so long to check out one of the most acclaimed television shows in history. A few months back I found a great price on the complete series box-set of HBO TV’s The Wire and Lena and I have been watching it since. Actually, there’s a lot of precedent for me watching a TV series this way (all at once, after it’s over). With one or two recent exceptions we don’t watch TV when it’s broadcast, but only on DVD or BluRay. And because I’ve always devoted so little time to TV shows (and Lena’s the same way, so this continued when we got together) I don’t usually jump right on a new show as soon as it comes out on DVD. In some cases like 24 or Sopranos or Six Feet Under I might buy Season 1 when the show’s third or fourth season is actually airing, and gradually catch up by watching the DVD seasons faster than one per year.

The Wire

The Wire, though, had been finished for several years by the time I got started. The hype was out there, unavoidable, but the nice thing about watching a show this far out of sync with the rest of the world is that it makes it much easier to avoid spoilers (which screwed up my enjoyment of the end of more than one other show). Sometimes a TV show takes a while for the writers and/or actors to grow into the characters, to figure out who’s interesting and why, and to get started exploring those interesting parts. The best-crafted shows end up making minor characters into major ones as they turn out to be interesting, while shifting focus away from less compelling major characters in compensation. The Wire seemed from the beginning to know who its best characters were, and while other major characters were revealed each season, this was more about the shifting focus of the show in general (each season had a central focus to counterbalance what was happening in the Baltimore PD, such as Baltimore’s drug-dealing criminal gangs, its schools, its longshoremen or its newspaper staff). The ongoing focus on the police kept a continuity running through all five seasons, and several minor characters (including Omar and Bubbles, respectively a Robin Hood-like thief among criminals, and a messed-up street-level drug addict, two of the more compelling characters in any television show I’ve ever seen) pop in and out regularly throughout every season.

I won’t bother to give a season-by-season breakdown in any greater detail than I’ve done above, but I’ve given some thought to the first point I talked about above, which is why this show is so universally acclaimed. Just about every writer or critic on the subject of television calls this show “best ever” or close to it, and I thought about this a lot while I was watching the show.

First, the writing is serious and adult, and assumes a certain intelligence on the part of the viewer. The story seems to have been carefully planned from beginning to end, structured so that each piece contributes to each other, and the viewer is responsible for keeping track of who’s who, and following narrative threads that drop off and pick up again years later without much explanation. The show “feels” more like a multi-part novel or work of ambitious cinema than something meant for television. Predictable outcomes rarely occur, and very often what feels like it should happen (a bad guy meeting a violent end, a corrupt politician or police official getting a public comeuppance) does not, yet the outcomes that do happen are satisfying. It feels real.

Second, the casting is unorthadox for American TV. Every person on this show looks like a real person, and there are no instances (so common on TV) of the Barbie and Ken syndrome, in which every character is played by an actor younger, prettier and more vapid-looking and -sounding than seems reasonable. There are a few decent-looking characters, lots of ordinary ones, and even a few crusty, ugly sorts. Particularly in the case of the street-level criminals, preference seems to be given to actors (in many cases non-actors) who are able to speak the dialog with authenticity or at least verisimilitude.

Third, each season has a specific focus and something to say about it, and as a unified whole the show does nothing less than examine how people live together in a city, how our social structures, civic entities and political leaders interface. Corruption is commonplace and exists on virtually all levels, and yet usually arises out of ordinary, believable human motivations rather than villainous or melodramatic notions like “evil.” I’ve never been to Baltimore, and don’t really care how much of this show arises out of or is inspired by the city’s true history. But I do feel like it says something important about the way a troubled, modern urban environment works and doesn’t work.

This may be the most ambitious story ever told on television. I could write dozens of blogs about the story, its implications and its characters. I could write a couple thousand words right now on the simple yet powerful transformation of Bubbles into Reginald and the way he finally got to sit at the table. Some characters failed,  some thrived. Bad guys got promotions or won awards, well-intentioned good guys went off the rails. People found redemption, or died trying.

Super 8

We rarely venture out to the movie theater lately, just maybe once or twice a year for “event” flicks. Our home theater is a great place for movie-watching, and that “pause” button, combined with easy access to food, drink and restrooms makes the decision easier.

Recently, though, we ventured out to see Super 8. It’s directly by JJ Abrams, but felt more like a Spielberg film (he produced), with similarities to both ET and Goonies, as well as the “hyperactive kids making their own low budget super 8mm films” aspect of Spielberg’s own childhood.

Cloverfield, produced by Abrams, is another influence, in that something spooky is happening and the characters run around reacting to it for a long time before the audience actually sees it.

As these influences or touchstones might imply Super 8 is equal parts implausible childhood fantasy and scary-intense, borderline horrific monster movie. There are lots of thrills here — a “crash” set piece early in the film is one of the more jarring things I’ve ever seen in a movie theater — and the expected chases and frights work well. It shifts gears toward the end, and really lets up on the sense of threat in favor of a more family-friendly resolution. I didn’t mind because the whole thing was so much fun.

I have a feeling anybody who lived through the 70s in suburbia would find this depiction of that reality as convincing and familiar as I did. Usually in recent cinema and television the look and feel of the 70s is ridiculed or played for comedy, which is understandable given some of the styles of fashion and interior decorating we all remember, but Abrams plays that aspect completely straight. It really took me back to the era of Pong, before cable TV and even before home video, when a telephone wasn’t something in your pocket but a big hunk of plastic with a rotary dial. I usually don’t have much fondness for the look and feel of the 70s, but Super 8 made me feel pleasantly nostalgic about it all.

H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon

Following up on something I’ve mentioned before, which is the upcoming H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & CthulhuCon event coming up here in Portland, October 1, 2 and 3rd. The promotional poster was just released.

hplff2010

Lena and I will be attending all three days of the festival, and I’m looking forward to checking out various bits of Lovecraft film, attending some readings and having a chance to meet a lot of kooky Lovecraft-loving filmmakers, writers, artists and editors.

The bad news is, they’ve announced this will be the festival’s last year in Portland, so if you live near enough to attend and you’ve been thinking “I’ve been meaning to check that out one of these years,” you’d better make it this year!

Look at your God. Now Look at me.

At the beginning of October, I’ll be attending the HP Lovecraft Film festival here in Portland. It’s a three day event, not just a film festival but a gathering of filmmakers, authors, editors and publishers involved to at least some degree in Lovecraft-influenced films or literature. My wife Lena — who shares a birthday with old Howard Philips — will be going too, and it looks like it should be a lot of fun. If you’re near enough Portland to be interested in attending, the festival web site is here. Oh, it’s October 1-3.

Saw this today, (via wil wheaton dot net), and it’s gettin’ me in the mood.

How Would You Have Wanted Firefly to End?

I still feel a pain in my chest every time I think about the early cancellation of Firefly. Yes, it was just a TV show, and true, it lasted less than a full season so there was hardly time to get a sense of where it was headed. It’s just so rare to find an intelligent TV show, with characters you can care about, it’s something to lament when it vanishes prematurely.

Jewel Staite, who played Kaylee (ship’s mechanic, and lovable tomboy), recently gave an interview in which she gave her own wish list for how the show should have ended. It’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it’s wonderful at the same time it rips open the old wound. You can read the interview here. Scroll down to the bottom for the question about how she would’ve liked to see the show end.

Choice quote:
“Nine glorious seasons later, Kaylee and Simon have had several beautiful brunette babies, a couple of which have turned out to be crazy geniuses like their Auntie River (Firefly: the Next Generation?)”

Apparently I am some kinda lame fanboy, but at least I didn’t stick a picture of Kaylee or Inara in here.

Another Ridley Scott Alien

Wow, great news! Ridley Scott has signed on to do an Alien prequel!

More info here

Alien poster
Alien poster

Scott directed only the original 1979 Alien film, and each of the 4 in the series have been made by different directors, but Ridley Scott is definitely the one of the four directors (Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet) I’d most like to see try another Alien installment.

From what I’ve read, though, apparently no Sigourney Weaver as Ripley this time. Of course, she’s about to turn 60 and so running around in your panties no longer works quite like it did 30 years ago.

ripley

I’m almost as excited about this upcoming movie fun as about the two Hobbit movies coming up.