Sunday, September 25, 2011

Previously on "Boardwalk Empire"

Conceived by two heavyweights of the gangster genre – writer Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) – HBO’s Boardwalk Empire tells a Prohibition-era tale of cops and criminals that’s been told dozens of times before. From James Cagney to The Simpsons, the sexy, dangerous world of speakeasies, of volatile gangsters and their no-nonsense pursuers has been explored again and again. What the series has going for it is Winter’s gift for writing complex, surprisingly sympathetic characters and Scorsese’s unmatched flair for gangland brutality. It’s unoriginal but exhilarating, and I can’t get enough of it.

The show is about Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), a real-life gangster who in the early 1920s ruled Atlantic City as both a politician and a bootlegger. We see his story unfold in a sprawling narrative, so that what happens in one episode often won’t pay off until much later in the series. This approach doesn’t always work. In the pilot episode (for which Scorsese won an Emmy for his direction), we’re initially confused as to why Nucky fails to punish his lieutenant, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) after the massacre in the forest; only until later, when we discover the deep bond between the two men, does the pilot make sense. And I’m still baffled by the show’s female lead, Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), whose sudden transformation from dedicated member of the Women’s Temperance League to gangster’s moll is never explained. I’m hoping the writers will shed more light on her character in the second season.

Each episode opens with shots of Nucky looking out to sea as the tide brings in bottles of booze and “Straight Up and Down” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre wails on the soundtrack. It’s beautifully done but also kind of meaningless. The same could be said of the show itself. This is reportedly the most expensive TV show yet produced, and every cent is up onscreen; the period-perfect recreation of the boardwalk, with its carnival-like atmosphere, is particularly striking. But viewers looking for resonance will have to look elsewhere. (Check out AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad to see a similar story told in a modern context and with far more thematic heft.) The character of Nucky Thompson – a transparently corrupt politico – is a goldmine of subtext, but Winter and his writers haven’t quite nailed down an overarching idea yet. In Season 2, I’d like to see more scenes like the one where Nucky meets Warren G. Harding (Malachy Cleary), amusingly portrayed as an empty suit spouting Republican talking points.

Does the series romanticize criminality a la The Godfather? You bet. Nucky and his friends have on tap an endless supply of women, played by actresses as exquisite as Gretchen Mol and the always game Paz de la Huerta. That’s not to say Boardwalk Empire doesn’t show the high price of vice. The violence can be almost cruelly upsetting, like when Pearl (Emily Meade), the beautiful working girl who falls hard for Jimmy, gets her face slashed.

I’m usually a big fan of Buscemi, but I’m afraid he’s been miscast in the lead role. He lacks the sexiness and charisma that the part requires, and he’s simply not credible as an enforcer. (Notice the trick camerawork and editing Scorsese uses to get around this in the pilot episode, when Nucky smashes a guy’s face on a bar top.) Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) is an equally sensational performer, but he’s stuck in the flat role of the humorless, self-flagellating Agent Van Alden. These two are such unbelievable nemeses they might as well be players in the classic Simpsons episode where alcohol is outlawed in Springfield, with Buscemi in the role of Homer and Shannon in the role of Rex Banner.

My personal favorites on the show are all supporting characters. Michael Stuhlbarg is smug perfection as Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who attempts to move in on Nucky’s territory. Stuhlbarg’s precise enunciations and condescending smile are all the more astonishing if you’ve seen his performance as the neurotic professor in the Coen Broethers’ A Serious Man. I also love Anthony Laciura as Eddie Kessler, Nucky’s bumbling butler who performs beyond the call of duty during an assassination attempt on the boardwalk. But my favorite character by far is Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), a marksman who wears a tin mask to cover up injuries he suffered in WWI. He’s the show’s Phantom of the Opera figure, and while this well-tread gangster epic is always entertaining, it’s only ever haunting when Harrow is onscreen.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Nicolas Winding Refn's extraordinary Drive is the second major film to come out this month to turn the spectacle of men pulverizing men into cinematic poetry. The other one is Warrior, and despite the middling box office showing of that epic UFC battle-of-the-meatheads, I think it's going to become a sports classic. Drive has a similarly bright future. Its detractors can't be easily dismissed, but I'm an unapologetic champion of this film, which is easily the year's most violent and certainly one of the better crafted genre pics to come along in a good long while.

The stripped down plot concerns a Hollywood stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who earns extra cash as a getaway driver. The sort of reticent, highly regimented criminal who eschews emotional commitments a la Robert De Niro's master thief in Heat, the nameless Driver seems to violate his own code when he befriends his beautiful neighbor (Carrie Mulligan) and her young son (Kaden Leos). These attachments lead to a series of fatal mishaps that put him on the bad side of two very scary men with mob connections, played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.

Gosling has said Drive is his superhero movie, and if so it's one that definitively skips the origin story. Driver's background is so sketchily drawn that you begin to wonder about his credentials when he picks up a hammer and threatens to pound a nail in a goon's brain; how did the guy get so tough? The film's detractors point out that the plotting is too sparse and the characters are all one-dimensional, and indeed so little is explained that it's easy to poke holes through Hossein Amini's screenplay. For instance, why would the bad guy put himself in such a vulnerable situation at the climax? But no matter; Drive is the action thriller boiled down to its essence. By throwing out exposition almost entirely, Refn (Bronson, Valhalla Rising) is able to stage the film as a series of *encounters*, each more jaw-dropping than the last. Audiences will be agog during the opening chase in which Driver eludes the police, and later during a pawn shop heist that goes terribly awry. Is this a muscular piece of direction or what?

That's not to say originality is Refn's strong suit. This is essentially a 21st-century update of Thief. Like Michael Mann's brilliant neo-noir film debut, Drive draws it strengths from a charismatic lead performance, a pulse-pounding synthesizer score and ultra-stylish set pieces. Towering over it all is funnyman Brooks' astonishing performance as Bernie Rose, an incredibly evil man who has a very up-close-and-personal way of dispatching his enemies. There are a few scenes in Drive that I think will become notorious, and certainly one of those is the whole "is that a fork in my eye or are you just unhappy to see me?" scene. But the moment I found most chilling was when Bernie offers his hand and ends up slitting a man's wrist. What's most disturbing about that scene is the killer actually thinks he's being considerate; that's Bernie at his nicest. Drive isn't perfect, but it's the work of a director who's got talent to burn.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Earth 2

A sort of low-budget, earthbound Contact, Mike Cahill's veraciously titled directorial debut Another Earth is about a driven, scientifically minded young woman named Rhoda (Brit Marling), who enters a contest to win a trip to a newly discovered planet. It's a depressing story at times; as a teen, Rhoda wiped out a man's family in a car accident, and she spends the rest of the movie trying to atone and getting to know the man she made a widower, John (William Mapother, in the kind of plummy lead role he should land more often). Cahill and Marling (the director and his twentysomething star wrote the screenplay together) want us to think: there has to be something "out there" that's better than the sadness of daily life here on Earth. It's exciting to see that idea explored in the realm of pure science. The moment when I knew the filmmakers had me in their grip came halfway through the movie. In a televised broadcast, a scientist discovers that the woman she's communicating with is her exact replica: an alien with the same name, same birthday, same everything. The central question of Another Earth – and it's a mind-blower – is this: If you met yourself, what would you say? This could be the most ferociously smart sci-fi indie since Primer. But, where Shane Caruth's 2004 head-spinner had grimy visuals throughout, Cahill's equally ambitious picture is technically dazzling, especially in the repeated shots of "another Earth" dwarfing our moon. This is easily one of the coolest movies I've seen this year, not least because Cahill and Marling save their most surprising revelation for the final few seconds.