Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Last Bit of Love

Rare is the HBO program that is given its proper amount of due.. They are either showered with praise and award nominations despite their lack of quality, are hailed quickly, and then ignored for the majority of its run, or are truly awful, yet linger on forever. Yet, in its own quiet way, Big Love is the prototype of an HBO drama, perhaps the networks most well performed and produced show since Deadwood.

Despite the fact that at its center is one of the more humble protagonists, Bill Hendrickson, played by the closest thing to an everyman HBO has produced, Big Love has been all about the women. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin --- three superb actresses who never got the Hollywood stardom they deserved, are each in their own way as pitch perfect as, respectively, the affectionate Barb, the prickly and repressed Nikki, and the overly emotional Margie. Amanda Seyfried's Sarah, Bill's oldest child and the series breakout star, the one desperately wanting to escape entangling web that this polygamist life is hurting. Grace Zabriskie, Bill's mother, Lois wizened and seemed nearly ancient, whose criminal manipulations and fights with husband Frank, have become legendary. And Eileen, played by Mary Kay Place, initially seen as the power behind Juniper Creek, where the true horrors seemed to be, but who has begun to fall apart as her power has diminished.

Most times, I have managed to find myself attracted to HBO dramas, because of the strength of the writing or the power of the setting, but my relationship with Big Love has been more uncertain than it was with The Wire or Deadwood, and part of this may be due to my inability to agree with the problem. I have less of a problem with the setting of a polygamous family and its challenges, even though I find some of their ideas barbarous. But ever since the middle of Season 2, I have begun to feel that Bill has been, willfully or not, leading his family down a dangerous path.

\It started when he convinced his family, against their better wishes, to buy into a slot machine company, in order to protect their income. This was the first time the plural marriage seemed like less of a democracy than it had been. Then he became romantically attached to Ana, a Russian waitress. First, he lied about being married, then he lied to his family about this relationship. Ana became a piece of contention in Season 2, Barb didn't want another wife, Nikki and Margene did-- but not for the same reasons.. The signs of alarm were particularly deep for Barb, who learned her eldest wanted to become a polygamist.

In season 3, when a health scare came for Barb, she gave in and allowed the family to date Ana, which didn't make Ana happy. She eventually agreed to become the fourth Mrs. Hendrickson, but the conflict over grew so fast and developed such hostility that the marriage was over within a week. The cracks in the family started getting more visible, especially with Sarah and got worse when Bill seemed to find proof that plural marriage was part of Mormon doctrine. His beliefs led to estrangement from the rest of Barb's family, and her eventual excommunication. Bill's reaction was to form his own church. My first thoughts were This is how cults are formed.

In Season 4, Bill elected to run for the State Senate, with the idea of revealing his family's secret when he won. He did so, almost completely against the wishes of Barb and Margene, and had no problem being as ruthless as any politician, sacrificing his oldest friend and business partner, nearly severing his relationship with Ben, and nearly getting destroyed by a Washington lobbyist (Sissy Spacek, at the top of her game) Near the middle of the season, Ana remerged, pregnant with Bill's child, starting a new mess. This situation may have led to a final break between Bill and Barb, who tried to destroy Bill's campaign. Bill finally admitted that he saw that there was a darkness in him, and that only by coming into the light could he save himself -- once again, showing how self-centered

All through these seasons, I have been watching this show with growing dismay, feeling that some point, the writers have got to find a way to deal with the consequences of Bill's actions. Well, Sunday night, we got a first glance at what they might be, and they're worse than even Barb could imagine.

Bill and his family left home for a week hoping to escape the news cycle and the attention of the press. He clearly thought that might be the worst of it, showing a naiveté I wouldn't have thought. But Home Plus, the foundation of Bill's business, is falling apart, with people quitting in droves, and those who stay, very unhappy. His constituents are literally spitting in his face. And his hope for a future in politics is probably doomed from the start. In two short scenes, the new Speaker of the Utah legislature (played, as always, with considerable smarm, by Gregory Itzin tells Bill that his career in politics is likely to be both short and messy. And when Charles Logan tells you that your career in politics is in trouble, he knows from whence he speaks.

Things are going into meltdown for each of Bill's wives. Barb is going through the biggest emotional crisis, as she has begun to start drinking heavily. Margene, who in Season 4 came closer to financial independence than she ever had in her life, was terminated from her position under a morals clause. Nikki alone seems to be adjusting, but her overreaction to a little boy who attacks her son, is a sign she's not nearly as sanguine as she appears. She's also looking even more concerned about the health of her daughter.

Bill Hendrickson is, fundamentally, a good man. But he has misjudged the world if he thinks that they are ready for polygamy. He has placed a target on his families back, and it's probably going to explode even more than he and his family did near the end of the season premiere. The end may finally be coming (God knows there will be confrontations in the days to come) but it can only make a glorious noise before it does.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Golden Globes, Part 1

Technically speaking, the awards show season will begin with the Broadcast Critics on Friday night. But the first really show that everybody will be paying attention to will begin Sunday evening when the Hollywood Foreign Press honors the "best" in movies and television.

Now, as much I love these awards shows, the hype, the circus, et al, the choices that these critics make often leave me baffled, starting from their very arbitrary decision as to what is a comedy and what is a drama. I thought that Up in the Air was a lot closer to the former, but it was listed in the Drama's with The Hurt Locker and Precious. In 2002, after winning a Best Actor in a drama Globe for Alexander Payne's brilliant About Schmidt, even Jack Nicholson confessed to being baffled because "I thought we did a comedy." Of course, this was the same year Nicholas Nickleby got a Best Comedy nod, a distinction I'm pretty sure Dickens himself would dispute.

The clarity in TV is not much better. For one thing, the Globes have always tending to classify certain shows that our combinations of comedy and drama into the comedy category, but there's always a sense of being random here, too. Ally McBeal, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty have been ranked to the comedy category, even though the mixture of the two genres was uneven at best. Six Feet Under, on the other hand, ended up in the Drama category, though I've always felt that particular position was somewhat more precarious. This year Nurse Jackie and The Big C are in a similar position, though I'm inclined to say they weight a bit more towards the serious side.

And of course, there's that subtitle, 'best Musical' which the voters never had to worry about until Glee. This takes them off the hook from having to decide about it's comedy potential, but has already caused major uproar with those who write for shows like Modern Family or 30 Rock. I'm pretty sure this combination of bias is why Housewives and Ugly Betty never won Best Comedy at the Emmys, and why Glee lost last year. Considering the immense popularity of both shows, this doesn't seem like an issue that's going to be resolved soon--- unless the TV people feeling like adding some new categories.

I like the Globes, and they have a tradition of recognizing shows that didn't get the same appreciation in the community they just didn't get in the Emmys like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Shield. They also recognized The Sopranos and Sex in the City years before the Emmys were willing to acknowledge them, but since I didn't much care for either show, I'll refrain from commenting. They'll also on occasion recognize a well done network show like Felicity, Once and Again, or 24. I'd like to say this means they're a lot less stodgy than those people at the other awards shows, but since they often refuse to acknowledge other highly qualified overlooked programs such as Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Homicide or The Wire in favor of Nip/Tuck or Melrose Place, I'd say they're often more in love with appearances rather than quality. They're also not immune to the habit of recognizing the same show or actor over and over for no apparent reason. Sarah Jessica Parker won three Best Actress trophies, none of which I think she deserved. Mad Men's a great show, too, but it hasn't deserved to win the last season. (But that's a personal call, so I'll let that go for now.)

Usually, I have only a casual interest in who wins the films awards because, as I explained in an earlier post, I don't normally see most of the films until they come out on DVD. But this year, I saw several of the likely contenders , which probably makes me better up than some of the voters. However, to keep this post from going on interminably, I'll just list my posts for TV shows in this post, and deal with my film choices in one later on.

Best Drama: Always a difficult call, this time it's a lot tougher than usual, as there are several new contenders that could triumph. Mad Men could make it a four-peat, but this is still very close. For the moment, though, I'm going to give the edge to Boardwalk Empire. It's an HBO show, which the Globes like, and it's their finest offering since Big Love. However, just about any of the picks is a good one, which I normally can't say.

Best Actor, Drama: After three consecutive Emmy wins, Bryan Cranston finally got some recognition from the Globes for his superb work on AMC's Breaking Bad, which was otherwise shut out. Jon Hamm gave a superb performance in 'The Suitcase' episode of Mad Men, which could help. But I think this year the Globes will recognize Steve Buscemi for his performance on Boardwalk Empire. He's an acting veteran with over twenty years in the business, and the Hollywood Foreign Press loves to acknowledge a great actor.

Best Actress, Drama: Another very tough call. Elisabeth Moss deserves to win something for her work on Mad Men, and she'd get my vote for the Emmy. But I think that it' more likely that they will honor Juliana Marguiles for The Good Wife. Her work on this show was ignored by the Emmys, and even though she won last year, this time I think she deserves a second trophy

Best Musical or Comedy: Why they continue to nominate The Office is beyond me, but the other five choices are brilliant comedy. Basically, you have sitcoms and dramedys. With five nominations, Glee leads all contenders, usually a good sign, but Will & Grace perpetually got four nods and it didn't help them. I think Modern Family will win at the SAGS, but here is Glee is the veteran show. I think (and hope) it will repeat.

Best Actor, Comedy: Alec Baldwin's had a lock on this ever since 30 Rock premiered five years ago, so the big question is: can Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, who beat him at last years Emmy's, break his stranglehold? I'd like to see Matthew Morrison for Glee triumph, cause his character does everything Baldwin does and sing and dance, but I'm betting that this time Parsons will emerge triumphant.

Best Actress, Comedy: And here the question is, which strong, powerful actress from a quirky Showtime dramedy will prevail. It could go to Edie Falco, who already has a couple of trophies for her work on tHE Sopranos. But I think that the show that is fresher in viewers minds will prevail, which is why I'm picking Laura Linney in The Big C.

Best Supporting Actor: Always tough to figure out which way the supporting categories will turn because they merge all three specialties. I've beefed about this before, though, so... Tough one to call, but I think it's going to come down to Chris Noth for The Good Wife vs. Glee's Chris Coifer, and Coifer has had more swinging for the fence moments on the show this year.

Best Supporting Actress: I was sure Jane Lynch was going to win last year in this exact category, but Chloe Sevigny for Big Love (who honestly should have gotten an Emmy nod) won. Now Lynch faces competition not only from Sofia Vegara on Modern Family, but the stunning Julia Stiles' work on Dexter. Man, this is the toughest call yet. I pick Sue Sylvester... by about an inch.
Stay tuned to this spot to see my picks for the movies.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Awards, awards, and more awards

I like award shows a great deal. Mainly I find the nomination far more exciting than the actual awards. I also like the pre-award period, but I think that recently it has reached levels that surpass overkill. I remember an era when there were only four major critics organizations--- the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Critics, the New York Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics. And that's not a long distant era--- that goes back to 2003.

Since then, it seems that expansion has come to this process, and, just like it did in professional sports, it has diluted the value of any awards. Now I can understand why Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Washington, and Florida have picked up awards, but Oklahoma? Indiana? Frigging Utah? A state which I would have been willing to bet had more electoral votes than it did film critics?

By my last count, and I may miss a few, there are twenty-five critical organizations giving awards before the Critic's Choice, Broadcast Film Critics, Hollywood Foreign Press and all the Guilds start giving their trophies, which are somehow considered more significant. But if this many groups are giving so many awards, how valuable is anything supposed to be considered? Do the writers of The King's Speech think their film will suddenly gain more clout because the Phoenix film critics named it Best Picture? Is that likely to help it at the box office? The Academy Awards is considered a political process, just like everything else in this world, but, just as the extensive primary season may have watered down the quality of political nominees, perhaps all of these minor awards have diminished an already very thin subject.

Does Natalie Portman make time for a trip to Texas because she has been named Best Actress by the Dallas, Houston, and Austin Film Critics? This actually raises a better question? Do all these groups have ceremonies? I know New York and LA did, but how far down the food chain do you have to go, before you're going to the San Diego Film critics awards to pick up a Best Supporting Actor trophy? Imagine how irritating this must be for Christian Bale, whose already won fifteen prizes, and the real awards haven't even begun to be delivered yet.

None of this is, of course, news. All throughout the Internet people have been ranting that this process and how this is a bigger deal for the organizations then any recipients.. But it does beg the question: if the performers don't care and the reviewers are indifferent... no, this is dangerous territory to get into. Soon, I'll be suggested that maybe they should get rid of awards all together, which is the complete opposite of what I actually feel about these awards.

There are website which keep records of these awards, and probably manage to catch some of the ones most people do. There are also ones that do it in a nice little chart with special graphics (I've visited one site, movie city news, btw.) So there's not going to be anything earth-shattering. But I like lists and I like awards, so for the next few days, I'm going to have listings of all the minor associations that have given out critics awards. When we get into the bigger deals (which is coming up pretty fast now) I'll actually list some of my own picks based more on what I've seen.

There appears to be one film the critics really like: The Social Network. Up until now, it's one just about every prize imaginable. Not only New York, The National Board of Review and Los Angeles. So much so that it would be easier to list the ones it hasn't won.

127 Hours, Utah
Black Swan, Austin
North Texas, Central Ohio
The King's Speech, Phoenix
Winter's Bone, San Diego.
We'll see if its luck keeps holding when the major trophies start coming out Friday.

David Fincher, The Social Network NBR, NY, LA, (tie) Utah, Chicago, Southeastern, Boston, Dallas

Darren Arronofsky: Black Swan: Austin, San Diego, San Francisco
Oliver Assayas, Carlos: LA (tie)
Danny Boyle, 127 Hours:Detroit
Christopher Nolan, Inception: Indiana, Kansas City, Utah, Phoenix, North Texas, Central Ohio

Little more variety here
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network: NBR, Boston, Houston, Oklahoma, Toronto, National Society of Film Critics
Colin Farrell, Ondine (San Diego
Colin Firth, The King's Speech: LA, NY, SF, Austin, DC, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Florida, Phoenix, Kansas City, North Texas, Online, AWFJ
James Franco, 127 Hours: New York Online Critics, Indiana, Dallas, Las Vegas, Utah, Central Ohio

Annette Bening, The Kids are All Right: New York, Women's Film Critics, AWFJ
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone: NBR (most promising newcomer) LA, DC, San Diego, Toronto, Detroit
Leslie Manville, Another year, (NBR, San Diego
Giovanna Mezzogino, Venice: National Society
Natalie Portman, Black Swan: Austin, Florida, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, Boston, Phoenix, Oklahoma, Chicago, Southeastern, Indiana, Las Vegas, Utah, North Texas, Online
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine: SF

Christian Bale, The Fighter: NBR, Boston, Las Vegas, Indiana, Chicago, Florida, Detroit, St. Louis, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Kansas City, Phoenix, Utah, AWFJ
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone: San Francisco. San Diego
Arnie Hammer, The Social Network: Toronto
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right: New York
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech: LA, Southeastern, National Society, Central Ohio

Amy Adams, The Fighter: Detroit, Las Vegas
Mila Kunis, Black Swan: Oklahoma
Melissa Leo, The Fighter: NYCO, NY, Florida, St. Louis, DC, Phoenix, Dallas, North Texas
Juliette Lewis, Conviction: Boston
Hailee Stanfield, True Grit: Southeastern, Kansas City, Austin, Houston, Indiana, Toronto, Chicago, Online, Central Ohio, AWFJ
Jacki Weaver, The Animal Kingdom,
NBR, LA, San Francisco, Utah
Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer, National Society

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, New Plans

A new year, a different kind of resolution. For the past year, I've been mostly blogging about television because it's one of the subjects that I feel most comfortable with. I have mostly stayed away from the movie industry even though it might be easier to get into, because there are far better people more qualified to bitch and moan about the sorry state of the cinema. I may think that certain critics are more rigid and curmudgeonly or that the film industry closely resembles a snake swallowing itself, but that adds nothing to the discussion other than my opinion, which is biased. Besides, as someone who prefers to see movies at home than go through the exercise of sitting through a film at a multiplex, my reaction to certain films is almost inevitably on tape delay.

But there is one aspect of the film industry I love, despite the fact that people have been bashing it since its founding, and that everything they've tried to do I still get thrilled by --- yes, the Oscars. There's something about awards shows that bring out the boy in me, even though I'm past thirty. And I follow the buildup to the Oscars with a fanaticism that probably would frighten all but the most loyal movie buff. But over the past decade, I've had my own series of problems with them, and while there's probably nothing earth-shaking in what I'm about to relate, maybe letting loose some of my confusion will help make me feel better.

Now, I'll admit to be an amateur film buff. I haven't studied the art of cinema much more than your average cinephile (if such a thing exists), so it doesn't take a genius to notice that the quality of films has been going downhill for quite some time. And sometimes it takes even less of a genius to notice that even the films that some people consider brilliant are anything but. However, my prejudices are inevitably shaped by my parents, who also love movies, but perhaps have grown a lot more rigid with their advancing age. My father loves movies, but he doesn't like how cheerless and unenjoyable even the very good films are, and while this may be partly due to my own prejudice, there's something to his position. Particularly over the past decade, cinema has been getting a lot darker in tone and in style of films. Dad may be unused to seeing copious amounts of blood on the big screen, but I am, and even I am dismayed by how much you tend to see in a lot of these darker films. No Country for Old Men was one of the best reviewed movies of the past few years, but I walked away from it thinking that I had just seen a glorified snuff film. I've seen mindful violence on a lot of network TV, but this was one of the films I thought that was glorified mindless violence. I've come to expect better from the Coen brothers (Fargo had a lot of violence too, but there they had a sense of black comedy which this film desperately needed.) I had a much similar feeling when I saw The Departed but I was prepared to show leniency as I've never much cared for the work of Scorcese. Heresy for a native New Yorker, I know, but that's my problem.

Of course, sometimes my parents dislikes come out of harder to justify reasons. Neither of my parents thought that much of Far from Heaven or Good Night, and Good Luck two movies which I consider among the better of the first decade of the twenty-first century, but I understand their reasoning. In the first case, my parents was familiar with the kind of films that the director was paying homage to; in the latter, they lived through the time, and thought that it had nothing new to say.

But sometimes watching a movie with them is a little strange, Part of its because we have now reached a stage in our movie-going relationship where I'm nervous about sex and violence in what they see. I want desperately to see Black Swan before Oscar night; but there's no way I'm watching a lesbian love scene in the same theater with them. I just don't have the stamina. More annoyingly, I think their opinion of a movie will sometimes affect my own sense of judgment. I can't help but think I might've enjoyed The Kids are All Right a bit more if I didn't have them looking over my shoulder. (I'll be coming back to this in a moment.)

But perhaps the real reason I don't enjoy watching films with them is that sometimes they will raise a mirror that I'm not comfortable with, particularly on critically acclaimed films. Last year, we sat and watched The Hurt Locker together, and they didn't have a good time. Normally, I try to defend the critics point of view, but when I saw it, I wondered--- what was in this movie that every critic in the world seemed to see in this? This was the best film of the year? Precious and Up in the Air were light-years ahead of it. And Invictus and The Last Station were ignored in favor of it. Maybe the academy was saying something arguing against the war in Iraq, but The Messenger did it a lot better, and much less flashily. And if they hadn't been in the room, I might have had been able to talk myself out of it.

I had a similar POV with Kids are All Right. Now I thought that Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo gave brilliant performances, but this was the film that every critic in America (almost) had gone into paroxyms of joy over? Maybe I would've thought it was funnier on my own, but I've seen this filmmakers work; I've come to expect better from her.

I am perhaps giving my parents more credit than they have earned --- I'm capable of making my own judgments a lot of the time, and most of the time, I see beyond the flash and CGI of films to see that there's no 'there' there But because some part of me doesn't want to give the critics the benefit of the doubt, I follow their judgment other than my own far more often with movies than I do with TV. This may be the main reason that I'm reluctant to delve into the world of the silver screen more than the smaller one.

But I'm going to rectify that at least a little over the next few weeks. Tune in next week when I continue to bite the hand that I want to feed me, and continue to criticize critics.