Talking Movies

May 31, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into an eight portmanteau post on television of course!

Bored-to-Death-007

Hannibal

So, some weeks ago I previewed Hannibal; the blood-spattered new procedural in which Morpheus Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams his unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. It seemed that the show would be a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict, so, Smallville, basically… No, no, it’s not… Lecter is very much already a supervillain, killing and eating people for fun. Not that the fun is obvious. Hannibal is an incredibly gory network show. If this was on HBO or Showtime it would probably be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade has established a visual template for the show that makes it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At times it’s like watching a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. But we don’t need another Criminal Minds, just look at the fate of its spin-off. So what does this show do with Dr Lecter that’s different? Well, he’s very hard to read, apart from an obvious fastidiousness and a psychotic approach to etiquette. But Mads Mikkelsen’s impassive Lecter is definitely having fun underneath. The look of pride as he sees how good Will’s profile of him is (based on just the copycat murder he carried out to help Will refine his profile of the Minnesota Shrike), the restrained glee he takes in making Jack and Will unwitting accessories in his anthropophagic activities; both indicate this, and a perverse desire to render assistance. With respect to Dominik Moll, perhaps they should rename the show Hannibal, he here’s to help.

 

The ‘Freedom’ of HBO – Case Study: Bored to Death

Many years ago I wrote a piece for the University Observer about the unwonted veneration given to HBO, especially the idea that its writers were totally free because they did not have network TV taste and decency guidelines to work within. I pointed out that Carnivale, which I’d previously trumpeted in the newspaper, had been a rare HBO show with restraint. It had HBO’s brilliant production values, and featured a wonderful use of music, a superb period feel, and – crucially, allowable only because it was on HBO – the patience to tell its story in an elliptical way. But halfway through it felt like some executive saw Carnivale and sent its writers a memo telling them they weren’t using their total freedom in the mandatory manner. The freedom from having to conform to taste and decency becomes the obligation to flout those limits of taste and decency. Carnivale transformed from a superior network show into episodes that merely strung together full frontal stripteases and sex with dramatic dialogue scenes. Taking Jonathan Ames’ abruptly cancelled detective comedy Bored to Death as a case study it seems to belatedly bear out this old reading of HBO’s ‘freedom’. Ames’ insistence on writing or co-writing all 8 episodes a season, which drip bad language from its endlessly stoned central trio of Jonathan, Ray and George, mean that Bored to Death was never likely to survive as a 24 episode a season network comedy. But Ames didn’t indulge in ultra-violence or explicit nudity either so it felt quite different to most of HBO’s output. And then you find a deleted scene from season 1 episode ‘The Case of the Missing Screenplay’ and you realise that a scene was reshot, with the same dramatic purpose and dialogue, but with a shift of location and some added dialogue, purely to add a topless woman; the only female nudity in that season. Was Ames explicitly told that he’d not used his total freedom in the mandatory manner and needed to flout taste and decency in that trademark manner to demonstrate that he was on HBO? Probably not, as that’s not how power works. More likely he realised that there was no female nudity in his show, and, wanting to fit in with accepted corporate culture, went back and added some. However that reshoot came about Ames certainly seemed to learn his lesson, as in season 2 he showcased a women’s locker-room in ‘Escape from the Castle!’ as the central trio rampaged thru it, seeing everything as Patrick Stewart would put it. The deleted scenes from season 2 don’t reveal the existence of any scenes reshot for extra gratuitousness. Odd that…

June 22, 2011

The Morpheus Solution

I’d been waiting to see the resolution of the cliff-hanger of season 10 of CSI: LV before finishing this piece; only for Deadline.com to announce, on the very day that the first episode of season 11 aired on RTE, that Laurence Fishburne would not be returning for season 12…

This is a pity, because the writers did a creditable job of solving the Morpheus Problem. To recap, CBS undertook research to see why fans weren’t reacting well to Laurence Fishburne replacing William Petersen. The response, “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”, was code for “We’d like to see Morpheus being Morpheus…” Grissom had passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited him to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy. Catherine Willows became the new supervisor of the night shift while Fishburne waltzed into first billing, but as the new rookie. Ray’s medical background allowed him attend autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins as Grissom did, before the writers outrageously jump-started a new dynamic by having Ray and Doc Robbins go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to their beloved blues records. Some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray’s knowledge of ancient Greek history and philosophy. But the real problem was that Fishburne was too big a screen presence to play the lowest ranked person. I asked if Ray could really take on a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 seasons of CSI?

The first episode of season 10 saw the writers use some neat tricks and some wilful blindness to solve this conundrum. A nice gag saw Morpheus Ray kung-fu kicking a man thru a glass window in a bullet-time pan around the entire lab as it was raided by Russian mobsters stealing a corpse from the morgue in the cold open. The episode then played out the events leading up to this daring raid and we learnt in conversation with Ecklie that Ray had taken many classes, “You’ve had quite the busy summer … You’re already two courses over your training allotment for the year”, “I know, and that is why I paid for them, and took my vacation to do them”, and so is promoted to Level 2 CSI in record time. Indeed we actually see Ray at this start of this dialogue training himself to recognise knife-wounds in a remarkably Zen manner, before later selflessly volunteering for a boring assignment when Greg whines about being pulled off a celebrity car-crash.

That incident where Greg pulls rank on Ray on being reassigned before Nick restores order is pivotal. Lauren Lee Smith’s Riley has quit, and Ecklie upbraids Catherine for Greg’s insubordination, “This is a discipline problem. I’m beginning to think that Riley was right about you”, “What is that supposed to mean?”, “You didn’t read her exit interview? I put it on your desk! Just read it!” Riley had scathingly questioned Catherine’s ability to lead, but the returned Sara Sidle suggests that all Catherine lacks is a No 2 as good for her as she was for Grissom, and so Nick is promoted to assistant supervisor. The re-introduction of Sara restores one of the missing trinity that the show had lost in quick succession (Sara/Warrick/Grissom) and her intervention encourages Catherine to let her subordinates have the freedom to improvise, and Ray immediately does just that, cryptically promising his superior, “I’ll tell you if I can prove it”, as he searches for the subcutaneous bruising that proves the celebrity car-crash was a staged murder; by the ever wonderful Garrett Dillahunt’s shady private security operative Tom O’Neill. Ray’s determination solves this case, suggesting that this mental re-shuffle of their characters by the writers has had its desired effect.

The introduction of Dr Jekyll at the end of this episode was a bold move, echoing as it did the only previous season-arc villain (The Miniature Killer in season 7) by giving Langston a villain who was his own particular nemesis. Just as season 7 had seen an increasingly obsessed Grissom build a miniature model of his own office before taking a teaching sabbatical as the case got to him, season 10’s arc storyline became the increasingly obsessive struggle between Dr Langston, the hospital administrator who’d been conned by an Angel of Death surgeon back East, and a demented surgeon given to performing grotesque farces of lethal unnecessary operations, like tying a victim’s organs up in a bow, or giving someone a second appendix. Dr Jekyll is as about as disturbing a killer as you can get on network TV. Actually given that Showtime’s loveably twisted Dexter ran screaming from using the villain Dr Denko from Jeff Lindsay’s second novel Dearly Devoted Dexter for their second season he’s probably about as disturbing a killer as you can get on TV period.

The writers also cleverly introduced another Grissom parallel. Nick tries to talk Langston through guilt about the shoot-out at the end of season 9, “It was killed or be killed Ray, it’s a terrible situation to be in, you can’t let it bother you”, “It hasn’t been bothering me, and that’s what’s been bothering me”. Langston became increasingly haunted by the thought that he shares his father’s genetic predisposition to violence. This fleshing out of his character brought him twice into conflict with unsuspecting and uncomprehending DNA expert Wendy, and paid off wonderfully twice; when it led to a flashpoint with a surgeon in a hospital whose face Ray slammed into a wall after one taunt too many about the superiority of surgeons to administrators, and when it pointed a huge finger of suspicion at Ray in the penultimate episode of the season as possibly having murdered a journalist investigating Dr Jekyll, or even actually being Dr Jekyll himself unawares. All this beautifully invited comparison with Grissom, who was also in denial of his own genetic predisposition – to deafness.

In addition Nick and Ray formed a partnership that effectively resuscitated the old Nick/Warrick dynamic, while also cleverly guaranteeing Ray an ‘in’ to the most interesting cases. The penultimate episode replicated Grissom’s suspension from a high-profile case in the season 1 finale, and then saw Nick break that to run the investigation from Ray’s house, just as Catherine had done with Grissom way back when. Fishburne wasn’t stepping into Gary Dourdan’s shoes though but using his own persona. An early episode in season 10 involving a possible racist white cop killing a black cop saw Ray walk into the CSI lab’s rest-room during a heated discussion. Ray was the only black person in the room but he unexpectedly eased a scene suddenly fraught with racial tension by saying racism didn’t come into play in split-second shootings. He then tried to stop the suicidal white cop killing himself at the end of the episode. It this all-encompassing compassion that more than anything else links Ray to Grissom, so that serial killer Nate Haskell in the finale asked Ray what happened to Grissom, and was convincing when he sagely muttered “You’ve replaced him…”

Fishburne like Petersen is now the quiet heart of the crime-lab, quietly comforting all who need counsel.

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

This meditation on personae and typecasting began as a proposed comment on Paul Fennessy’s piece on She & Him’s Volume II, but soon developed a life of its own…

While reading his blog I thought of the episode of Elvis Costello’s music show in which both She & Him and Jenny Lewis performed new material. She & Him’s music seemed inconsequential beside Jenny Lewis, perhaps because she had the achievements of Rilo Kiley behind her, but perhaps also because Zooey’s presence visually indicated this was merely quirky fluff and not to be taken seriously. But listen to it on the radio without any visuals and it stands up beside Jenny Lewis’ solo output. Which begs the question has Zooey become almost as much a victim of her screen persona as the Annie of my title, Angelina Jolie?

When I first sat thru the trailer for Salt and saw a blonde Jolie wearing smart work-clothes, who goes on the run by dyeing her hair black and dressing in leather, I asked out loud in disbelief – “Wait, so her disguise is to turn into Angelina Jolie?!” The persona that Jolie has created is something I’ve discussed in reviews of A Mighty Heart and Wanted which remains fascinating. Many stars have eschewed acting in favour of creating a persona which they impose on every role. The Duke took years to create the persona that he was able to live off for four decades. He was able to play against it in The Searchers, and toy with its comedic potential in The Quiet Man, but mostly he just imposed it on every script. Hence John Ford’s apocryphal outburst on seeing Red River, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act!” Jolie though is burdened not with a cinematic persona created thru a decade of hard-graft in B-movies, but with a purely public persona created thru a decade of tabloid headlines. This cannot be captured on celluloid, except parodically. Her sole smash hits in the last decade were Mr & Mrs Smith and Wanted. Mr & Mrs Smith centred on her tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt’s character, and at times it played merely as a cinematic objective-correlative of the preposterous comic-book which is her life, as depicted by the tabloids. Wanted seemed to say that her persona of voluptuous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure couldn’t be taken seriously, but could be perfect casting for an assassin of few words called…Fox.

This glorious playing up to her ridiculous persona followed her failure to win an Oscar for A Mighty Heart. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. The curled hair, darkened pigmentation, French accent, and despairing shouting did everything short of run ‘For Your Consideration’ subtitles across the bottom of cinema screens. Yet the baggage of her all too public life sank what would have been a great role for a lower profile actress. All her best moments were in quiet unshowy scenes when she stopped giving ‘a performance’, but that’s increasingly hard to do, as Changeling also saw her fail to convincingly morph into an everywoman character. Jolie seems painfully aware that this outlandish persona is destroying her, hence her uber-grim directorial debut and those attempts with A Mighty Heart and Changeling to return to serious drama. Salt’s more serious return to Mr & Mrs Smith action-land seems to reflect distinct unease with comedically approaching the persona and perpetuating it as Membektov did with such visual panache in Wanted. Salt suggests a plan to alternate money-making dutiful nods to her persona (The Tourist) with focused attempts to overcome it.

Deschanel’s persona is a horse of a different colour. The apocryphal anecdote of Emily returning from auditioning to fume to her kid sister that they were looking for ‘a Zooey Deschanel type’ emphasises how quickly her deadpan quirkiness, showcased to perfection as the cool older sister in Almost Famous, became a persona. The point of a persona of course is that it’s a heightened construct. Jolie has trouble finding a cinematic home for her tabloid-created persona whereas Zooey’s persona, being in the classic Wayne mould, is infinitely more useful. She’s been able to use it both in supporting roles as the idiosyncratic best friend in Failure to Launch, The Good Girl, and Showtime’s Weeds, and as the dead-pan romantic heroine in Elf, Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s in particular saw her breathe some badly needed life and depth into the character of Trillian. The adorable Zooey from Almost Famous and Elf was reinforced with some emotional weight to become the definitive Trillian. In doing so much with a historically underwritten role she proved that she had considerable dramatic ability behind the persona. Indeed the delightful absurdist black comedy Eulogy boasts an enviable ensemble but it’s hard to think that its whimsical madness could be held together by anyone else but her.

Conversely with The Happening it is hard not to think any other actress would have been better, as M Night Shymalan in his current state of disrepair obviously had no earthly notion how to use either her persona or her deeper skills. That is obviously the low-light of her career but by simultaneously branching into a music career, retiring her old L.A. based cabaret duo in order to form the far higher-profile country-pop duo She & Him, the perception that she had become trapped by her persona was bound to gain currency. Perhaps this was the motive behind her turn in (500) Days of Summer. This was extremely courageous as a career move because it deconstructed her persona as the uncommunicative but adorably quirky girl by showing just how capricious and cruel that free-spirit shtick could become in real life. She was luminous when she needed to be but Deschanel also didn’t hold back on cruelty, and, while the combination of charm and emotional realism divided people hilariously when it came to judging Summer, this made her performance a career highlight. Sadly Gigantic and her guest appearance in Bones seem to indicate she’s being offered, indeed being custom-written, only roles that require her to dial in her persona. She & Him seem to be slowly gaining some level of popularity, but whether their particular brand of pop reinforces her quirky persona is debatable. In any case her ‘escape’ from her persona handsomely beats Jolie’s.

Personae can be problematic because of the fine line between typecasting and playing to your strengths. Being offered similar roles is a vote of confidence that you will do a good job with this material, but after a while it also trades on the perception audiences will have of you from previous performances, the persona you may have created. Type-casting has its own reward, being able to play against type; Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Robin Williams in Insomnia. But its danger is that, like Eugene O’Neill Senior as The Count of Monte Cristo, not only can audiences only accept you in one type of role, but your range contracts so that you can only actually play one role. Zooey Deschanel’s persona is her own creation, not that of the tabloids. Her quirky persona may cause difficulties of reception on live music shows, but it is her screen profile and not their meagre sales that gets She & Him onto those shows in the first place. Indeed, as their elegant summery pop reflects in her song-writing the creative energies that created her persona originally, in a way, the persona will remain an ever-present even if She & Him get the popular success they deserve to the extent that Deschanel gives up acting.

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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