Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Under the Boardwalk

If you have HBO or if, like me, you have a lovely friend with it who allows you to come over and stare at the TV for a couple hours; then I hope to god you are watching "Boardwalk Empire". Created by Martin Scorsese and Terrence Winter ("The Sopranos"), it's a sweeping epic about the birth of the American gangster and the struggle and sometimes luxury of Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition. Whatever you think you know about smuggling and gangsters, this show will school you. It's also nice to see the way "the other half" lived life then. We never see or hear about the average Joe or Jane just trying to make ends meat and succeed where their parents failed.

At the heart of the show is Steve Buscemi's "Nucky" Thompson, AC's greedy and nasty county treasurer. If it's illegal, he's got his thumb in it. As one of the characters said, "He doesn't just have his thumb in it, he's got his whole hand messy". It should come as no surprise that Buscemi lends a depth to Thompson that could not have been found on the page. He is at once vile, greedy, mean spirited, loving, caring, naive, dis-enchanted, and strong. His main concern is looking out for #1, and why shouldn't it be? In a town where anyone can get gotten to, it's important to limit your friendships and keep your eyes peeled.

The antithesis to Nucky is Kelly MacDonald's Margaret Schroeder, an Irish immigrant married to a lush of a man and stuck raising 2 kids on pennies a day. She meets and forms a relationship with Thompson that is still not fully explained. What is it about "that Schroeder woman" that get all the men riled up?

Great performances and writing abound. The cast of secondary characters reads like a who's who of Hollywood and independent cinema: Michael Shannon ("Revolutionary Road") is the Prohibition Agent with as many secrets as the bad guys, Michael Stuhlbarg ("A Serious Man") is an up and comer in the New York crime syndicate,  Paz de la Huerta is Nucky's main squeeze and former 2-bit dance hall girl, Aleksa Palladino ("Find Me Guilty", "Manny & Lo") is Michael Pitt's common law wife (see rant below), Shea Whigham ("Tigerland", "Wristcutters: A Love Story") is Nucky's brother and chief of police (a job he hoped would get him more respect), Vincent Piazza ("Rescue Me" TV) is young Lucky Luciano before the name meant anything, and in a hopefully Emmy and Golden Globe winning performance is Stephen Graham ("Public Enemies") as Al Capone. He is scary to watch.

I only hope HBO doesn't lose their stomach and realize just how much this might be costing them as they did with "Rome" and "Deadwood". Hopefully with producers like Scorsese, Winters, and Mark Wahlberg (yep, Marky Mark); they can hold out to tell an amazing story that needs telling.

What's made me a bit obsessed is Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, a war vet and aspiring thug who was protected by Nucky until he went too far. Now, he's hanging out in Chicago with Capone (not a good idea) and getting himself further and further into a life of crime. He is simply mesmerizing and it reminded me of all the amazing performances he has turned in over what is already a full career at 29. A few of my favorites:

The Dreamers (2003)
Bernardo Bertolucci's films always have a sense of realism to them as opposed to fantasy. The camera angles, the lighting, the sets. Even when the language is "classic", the feelings evoked are true to any you or I might feel in a lifetime. An American studying in Paris (Michael Pitt), meets and falls in love with a bohemian brother sister duo (Louis Garrel and Eva Green). The Dreamers doesn't set out to shock, if anything the casual attitude toward nudity and the taboo seem almost normal. I particularly love a scene where Matthew (Pitt) is embarrassed to change clothes in front of Theo (Garrel). It is the turning point to the movie: the naive American intrigued and embarrassed by the mature French. All too soon, the roles will reverse and the film will come full circle. In the "making of" doc, Bertolucci talks about bringing the modern to the past. Inter-cutting clips of the original film clips the trio were impersonating such as Godard's "Jules et Jim", as well as the news reels with shots of demonstrations showing the speakers who are now playing themselves in the movie is genius! This movie is NC-17 for full frontal male and female nudity. If that upsets you, don't rent (and buck up!). If you're not bothered, this is one to add to the queue.

Funny Games (2007)- Michael Haneke's English adaptation of his own film hit American audiences hard and left a lasting impression on those who saw the film. Whether you liked it or not, you were going to talk about it. While on vacation at their lake house, a young family (Tim Roth- always love, Naomi Watts- please keep doing stuff like this) and their sun are taken hostage by the young guests of their neighbor. Pitt and Brady Corbet (also amazing in Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin") are the young tormentors who want to play a game with the family- Can they survive until morning? Sadistic and horrifying, the young tormentors represent not only an American fear of strangers and reluctance towards kindness but a world fear. The original Austrian film is the same almost frame by frame. Why then did I love this remake when the shot for shot Gus Van Sant remake of "Psycho" had me calling for blood (pun definitely intended)? Because here Haneke has his say, making his film, his way, with the twist of making it more commercial for American audiences. The themes and technique of the film warrant a wider audience and I think he was smart to tackle it himself. Better the original writer and director than some punk from Hollywood.

Not for the faint of heart. Stephen King named it his 5th favorite film of the year, and regardless of how you feel about his books or movies; the man knows pop culture.

Last Days (2005)- I hated this movie. Seriously want to punch Gus Van Sant in the throat. His work has become a caricature of what it once was and the man who so brilliantly represented young adult hood is now middle aged and out of touch. It's that I can see the work that makes me angry; it is not longer effortless. Still, Pitts performance as Kurt Cobain in a fictionalized account of his final days is riveting. He commands the silence and offers a natural performance in a movie that wants desperately to be art.

Murder by Numbers (2002)- This was on TV the other day and I totally forgot how much I liked it despite the fact that I own it! Barbet Schroeder ("Single White Female", "Barfly") directs Sandra Bullock is a tough as nails detective who must match wits with a pair of genius, young psychopaths. Ryan Gossling (straight off his tour de force performance in "The Believer") is the mastermind behind the perfect crime who enlists Pitt as his sidekick. Another film about violence for violence sake, it reserves judgement for the audience to make. Any fan of "Law & Order", "CSI", or forensics will see the brilliance in the duos attempt at committing the perfect crime. Is it possible? What elements must be present to achieve it? Can a depressed detective and her new partner (Ben Chapman- Where has he been?) gather the evidence they need to arrest the wealthy kids thumbing their nose at authority?

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)-  Hansel falls in love with American GI Luther and they want to get married. Problem is, gay marriage is not recognized in communist Germany so Hansel becomes Hedwig but the surgery is botched and she is left alone. Pitt stars as Tommy Gnosis, a quiet Christian teen, who befriends Hedwig and forms a band. Eventually he leaves her, as everyone does, to become a star in his own right with the songs he's stolen from Hedwig. I'm beginning to sense a pattern here. The songs are fun and if you get the chance to attend a midnight screening, I highly recommend it.

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