Sunday, March 27, 2011

Things I've Enjoyed: Boardwalk Empire

When it was revealed that HBO were to begin producing a new period gangster drama, written by some of the people behind the Sopranos, starring Steve Buscemi and with the first episode directed by Martin Scorsese, TV critics across the globe had a collective orgasm. Once the series had aired, they were no less gushing in their praise.

Yet Boardwalk Empire is not quite the home run that all have called it. That’s not to say that’s it isn’t a great series – it is, but it does have its flaws. It would be truer to say that it becomes a great series, its beginning are a little... crowded.

Boardwalk Empire is the story of prohibition era America. Steve Buscemi is Nucky Thompson, the New Jersey county treasurer and, essentially, the city’s mob boss. The man who pulls the strings in the street and in the halls of power. When the ban on alcohol comes in, he quite jovially announces to his cohorts, including the major and the sheriff (his brother) that they’re going to make a fortune. New business brings new enemies, however, and his unwillingness to bend to the will of a New York gangster causes trouble, as does a zealous prohibition agent. But Nucky prefers politics to the violence of mob business, which gradually begins to undermine his position.

Sopranos comparisons are easy, and not just because of the writers. And the New Jersey location. There’s the young mobster who threatens the boss’ authority, the old gangster who jealous of his success, the powerful New York crowd trying to muscle in, and the women he loves, who struggles to reconcile her love for the boss with the criminal life he leads.

But then again, Tony Soprano was not involved in politics, and was not a subtle character. Steve Buscemi plays a character who holds his card much closer to his chest, and all times appears respectable. He’s a harder character to get an angle on. He has no psychiatrist to spill his inner thoughts to.

This is nub of the problem. Boardwalk Empire plunges head first into the action, before we ever get to know our characters. They’re all immersed in sub-plots. Plot driven action is always welcome, but most series let you get to know the territory first. One of the story techniques adhered to throughout the Sopranos run was that each episode should stand alone, and could be watched as an individual story. After the pilot, it’s quite a few episodes in before there’s anything resembling an A story begun and resolved in one episode.

All these ongoing plots leave character
development in the dark and loose ends dangling from one episode to the next. There’s one sub-plot, featuring a dumb gangster out of favour, with debtors on his back, that inspires hardly any interest at all. Eventually it comes in to contact with another sub-plot, and starts to add to something more, but only eventually.

So why all the praise then? Well it’s HBO, and as such it has all the resources the HBO can throw at it. The production values are superb, and the cast, you really couldn’t ask for a butter bench of actors.

Though the crowded plot causes issues, the writing is otherwise excellent. The show is packed with interesting and colourful characters, from the savvy boss of the negro mob to the gangster’s moll who’s true love is another women. By far the most fascinating, and disturbing, is FBI Agent Van Alden, a Christian zealot with a fiery temper, who struggles to suppress his rage at the abundant moral corruption that surrounds him. And is also gradually corrupted by it. It’s an interesting contrast to have the supposed voice of justice and right to be more dangerous than then those who shirk the laws of the land.

The other major point of interest is how the series brushes up against history. How historically accurate it is is one for the academics; it certainly gives pause to reconsider the history of American government and how criminality and corruption may have formed its policies and laws. And how criminality and corruption have contributed to the creation of society today.

In that respect it’s almost the thematic child of Deadwood – which for unfathomable reasons is not hailed as HBO’s true masterpiece – which showed how society is created and ascends from mobs and lawlessness. You could also link it to the Sopranos, the three shows showing the history of organised crime from the 19th to the 21st Century – moving from an accepted part of the governmental institutions towards the fringes of society, though never quite absent from the echelons of power

While the prolific sub-plots do create a certain unfulfillment as each episode closes, it’s never less than a pleasure to watch all the talent, behind and in front of the camera, at work. And as the series progresses, the plot strands do come together and we can really see where the story is heading.

The series certainly does get one thing absolutely right, and that’s that it leaves you thirsting for more. By the close we see Nucky opening up, becoming more vulnerable and closer to his mistress, the plain but smart Kelly McDonald (of Trainspotting fame). This, alas, may contribute to his undoing, as his friends are now moving against him, having judged him to not be the leader they want. Showing those first signs of mob and politics separating.

Boardwalk Empire is not a complete masterpiece, but it sure as hell seems like it may well become one.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I just like that somebody took the time to write 'Very mature' above it all.

They could be being sarcastic. But either way, they're still a tit.

Although I obviously don't approve of the violent sentiments towards Micronesia...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Not in the Stars

I think most of accept that horrorscopes are a load of old b******s. But as if the point needed emphasising any further, here are five of my horrorscopes from last Thursday. Have a read, and just imagine what kind of revelatory, life changing day I might have had, if even half the things of predicted by these c**p spurting f**knuts had actually happened:

Claire Petulengro – The Metro

If you don’t treat yourself as a first class citizen, then why should others. You’re allowing yourself to believe things, which are not true. You’re gorgeous; now let others know this fact too please.

Unknown - Yahoo

You have a non-stop day in front of you, Virgo. You are likely to be bombarded with email and voice mail from people asking your advice on a particular issue. It is flattering to be in such demand, but the attention makes it difficult for you to get anything else accomplished. Your frustration may be such that you swear off helping anyone. Just when you feel you're going to snap, someone lavishes you with praise, motivating you to respond to yet another crisis phone call.

Unknown - MSN

Working out the benefits of introducing energy saving gadgets into your home looks like a viable idea.

Mystic Meg – The Sun

As Venus settles into your commitment chart, a relationship that seemed to be just for fun turns into one with a future. At work, you have the right mixture of charm and confidence to make real progress. Your ability to forgive a relative shows strength. Luck calls at door 76.

Shelley Von Strunckel – The Evening Standard

The Virgo Full Moon may not take place for about two weeks. But it’s time to acknowledge and reflect on the emotional side of your life. Obviously this involves your concerns and complaints, but you’re also encouraged to focus on those arrangements that bring joy to your life.

I suppose my old favourite Ms Von Strunckel* is probably closest to the mark. After all, what she says is absolutely f**k all, and that's pretty much what happened on Thursday. It's odd, Strunckel used to be the most flowery of bulls******s.

Although there's some truth in the first one...

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Words of Hate: Marmite

A new cliche is perhaps a contradiction in terms, but there is certainly one coined phrase that seems to be rising to prominence and really gets on my tits. And that is BLANK marmite, as in “it’s musical marmite’ or ‘movie marmite’. Basically what the sayer is describing is something that provokes an equally strong reaction of love or hate depending on who you ask, with few sitting inbetween. It’s popularly associated with music, because that also begins with an M, but it is also commonly used when discussing movies, for the same reason.

The Marmite comparison has taken a long time to weave its way into common usage, the Marmite Love It or Hate It campaign began back in the 90s. What I find particularly irritating about this phrase is that those who employ it always seem to use it with a sense of smugness and cleverness, as if they have discovered a clever way to encapsulate the feeling of ‘love or hate’ in one phrase. A complete defining and profound description of the subject.

Well it's not big or clever. There is something particularly irritating about the marmite thing. Is it because it has sprung from an advertising campaign? It was actually quite well employed there, amusingly capitolising on that fact that we all know people who both love and hate marmite. Of course that was a bit of fun, it wasn't until later it was used to describe certain art forms, and being employed lazily to describe the way something can devide an opinion. It smacks of a lack of imagination and an obviously vague understanding of one’s subject, and how an audience relates to it.

The reaction we have to a food or drink cannot really be explained, our tastebuds react to produce a positive or negative sensation. But why one group of people might like a piece of music or a movie can actually mostly be explained, can't it. You can break music and films down in to elements: instruments, vocals, visuals, attitude, words, lighting etc, any one of which may de singled out for criticism. You can also look at the times in which something is created. Foodstuffs don’t really tend to go in and out of fashion, with some exceptions of course. But music and film is very much attached to the time in which it is made. Consider punk, and who that impacted on other genres of music, drastically reducing their popularity, turning tides of people against bands who were once remarkably popular.

Consider also the fact that types of music and film considered ‘Marmite’ are not usually available easily available to the general public. They are generally unusual in some way and not considered desirable to the general public. Therefore, to enjoy it, you must search for it. And only if you really like something, are you likely to spend any great time seeking it out.

For those who dislike something in the extreme, they may not have taken fiercely to it at least to begin with, but may have taken more against in response to those who love it passionately. Music and movie fanatic travel in packs, and often the only way to discover fringe or new artists is to pass them on to try and covert more to the faithful. And there’s nothing like someone who likes something too much to put you really off it.

Let’s face it, there are actually plenty of people in the world who will sit in the middle, maybe neither loving or hating something. Thinking again of music and movies, you are not usually loving or hating something individually, you have feelings about a band, genre, director. Therefore you may find you love certain bits, eras of facets of a performance piece. In fact the more you love something, the more angry you are bound to get when it disappoints you.

The BLANK marmite thing just doesn’t really do anything justice. If something is divisive then explain why. If you can’t explain why, that maybe you don’t understand its appeal, negative or otherwise. And if you don’t understand it, then maybe you shouldn’t write about it!

In summary – I hate the marmite cliché comparison. It's tedious, dull and vague. Please, please don’t use it; It’s rubbish.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

February Film Highlights

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924 Russia) Yulia Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky, Nikolai Tsereteli, Nikolai Batalov, Vera Orlova. Dir: Yakov Protazanov

A rocket engineer dreams of life on Mars while his wife is befriended by bourgeois conmen. Famous for abstract sci-fi scenes, but is largely dominated by a tedious plot involving dastardly upper class types cheating the honest workers. The ending, however, is unbelievable. Even martians can be part of the revolution...


Edge of Darkness (2010) Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston. Dir: Martin Campbell.

Revenge is suspected when a cop’s daughter is killed outside his home, but could she have been the target? A remarkable TV series becomes an unremarkable thriller. The subtly, scope and mystery of the series are stripped back to create an average conspiracy yarn that isn’t special in any way.


The Social Network (2010) Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Arnie Hammer. Dir: David Fincher.

The founding of Facebook and how it drove two friends apart. A drama about youngsters with high IQs and low emotional maturity. A surprisingly classical story of envy and ambition. Sorkin’s script is as witty and fast paced as you’d expect, though whether its fair on its subjects is debatable.


Dracula (1931) Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan. Dir:Tod Browning.

A vampire comes to England to stalk new prey. First half boasts atmospheric visuals and stylish direction, but in England, Browning seems to get bored, though the anti-climactic script doesn’t help. Nevertheless, easy to understand why it’s influence has lasted. Lugosi, Frye and Sloan define their roles to this day.


Tarantula (1955) John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll. Dir: Jack Arnold

Scientific experiments to grow large animals gets out of control, unleashing a giant tarantula on a small town. Although it’s just a giant monster B-movie, the makers have taken time to make the effects as good as possible and to provide a respectable back story. Good quality nonsense.


Death Proof (2007) Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Rose McGowan. Dir: Quentin Tarantino.

A retired stunt driver gets his thrills by stalking girls on the road and crashing his car into them. Admittedly too talky, but it does make you care about the characters, making the visceral and brutal action all the more terrifying. A tense and exciting low-fi thrill ride.


Return of the Vampire (1944) Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch, Miles Mander, Matt Willis. Dir: Lew Landers.

A vampire thought dead and buried is reawakened during an air raid and avenges himself on those who vanquished him. A fairly run of the mill Dracula retelling; the wartime setting has potential, but it isn’t realised, and the location shooting simply highlights how inadequate the sets are.


V For Vendetta (2006) Huge Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Tim Piggott-Smith. Dir: James McTeigue

A masked avenger pledges to bring down Britain’s fascist government on bonfire night. The intent was to update a story about Thatcherism, fascism and anarchism, and make it a contemporary tale of conservative extremism. Really though, just an above average superhero adventure, with some strong sequences, but some clubfooted dialogue.