‘Boardwalk Empire’ & My Realisation of the HBO-ification of TV

Boardwalk Empire

Note: There is one major Season 4 spoiler for Boardwalk Empire. Be warned.

“It’s not TV, It’s HBO” is a phrase that I’ve lived by for a long time. I remember the evenings of my teenage years watching this come up on the screen and know whether it was a film on a Saturday evening or sneaking to watch Arli$$ that I was in for something special. However, something about TV right now, and more specifically HBO, is coming to light in my mind. Their formula is getting too much for me right now.

Let me begin by saying that I’m not in anyway claiming that HBO is dead. A lot of people are believing that Netflix is reinventing the game, and while they’re busy throwing a spoke or two BE - Gypinto HBO and every other already established media distributor and producer as it relates to home entertainment they’re not innovating in the way that I’m looking to discuss, i.e. narrative.

In my lifetime I think the two shows that have elevated HBO from what would be a place I turned to in order to see movies to something else were The Sopranos and The Wire. Both shows are ones that I wasn’t able to watch immediately. I remember distinctly watching the pilot episode of The Sopranos in 1999, which would’ve made me 13-years-old, for about five or so minutes till the point where Tony runs over a man with his car who owes him money and breaks his leg in such a way that his bone is poking out. At that very moment my father called downstairs (with him watching the show himself) to tell me to shut off the TV. The Wire was debuted in 2002, making me 15-years-old, and I was able to watch an episode or two, but there were things in it that bothered my parents and didn’t like it for a while, so we skipped the first two years. It’s only after a few seasons into these shows were the floodgates of DVDs opened and I was off to the races.

Since then HBO has produced a number of shows, to name a few: Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Deadwood, Big Love, Luck, and Game of Thrones. A lot of their programming has thrived on the work of great character actors. Many ran to Big Love in hopes of catching a great Harry Dean Stanton scene, or Deadwood for a brilliant Ian McShane moment; but in the end I’m starting to step back and look at what all of these shows have in common. All of these shows are ensemble narratives thriving on coincidence and the general ramping up of a thirteen episode season where everything is going to hit the fan at about the penultimate episode.

BE - CaponeWhat brought this all to light for me is Boardwalk Empire. One of the few HBO shows which I’ve gone through so many moments of just general uncertain of how much I actually care for it. I pressed play on the pilot as it was created (in some part I believe) by Martin Scorsese (the man), and at this point four seasons in I’m uncertain as to how much, if any, involvement he still has with the project. However, if you scrubbed his name from the opening credits I’m sure many would barely guess he had anything to do with it.

At the end of the second season I promised to give up because they killed James Darmody, played by Michael Pitt (an actor I wish more people knew his name and was in bigger things), and the crazed Agent Van Alden was on the run, played by Michael Shannon. There wasn’t anything else to be enthralled in. I wasn’t the biggest fan of believing that Steve Buscemi could play a gangster that someone couldn’t just come up and shoot in the face and be done with, but it keeps happening.

In this last season they added the characters of Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) into the mix. While Narcisse, being played wonderfully campy claiming to be BE - NarciTrinidadian sounding very American idea of Haitian/Jamaican, had it’s fun here and there, Roy left me confused. In previous seasons we only cared about Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) only because she was mother to Jimmy, now dead, and was completely ancillary to any interesting or cool storylines. However, since Roy has appeared and seems to be sparking a romance with Gillian we’re forced to endure a plot line which seems in the whole has no point. Until the final episode where Roy reveals he’s a P.I. and has finally gotten Gillian to confess to the murder of some random guy from Season 3, who once again I barely cared about at the time.

These two very odd stories clue me into exactly what it is HBO does and uses to trick me into thinking I’m watching good television. They create a general mood, the look and feel of the show that works and then they flood it with so many convoluted tales in which intersection remains neatly controlled and almost irrelevant if not for the fact that we as an audience would be lost without it’s existence and asks me to believe it’s amazingness. I’m not saying that Boardwalk Empire or some others of HBO’s productions are downright bad television, but rather more clearly that they feel as if a distraction and a trick that makes me feel as though I feel an importance that isn’t really there.

What are your thoughts on HBO’s TV narrative formula? Problem/Paradise?

2013 In An End of Year Flurry???

BlackfishWith December in high swing and many of you who’re probably reading this – surprise you’re reading something — residing in regions where the idea of it being cold and snowing may be a reality (bundle up you people) I’m starting to truly feel the end of year flurry of films. While I am yet to really find myself in the critic circles of award season having to send in ballots with the mail man bringing me awards goodies everyday, I do still find myself pushing myself to catch up on as many films as is physically possible before the year is out for me to dub the all important, “Favourite Film of 2013″ award that I enjoy handing out… even if Soderbergh’s yet to respond to any of my adoring fan letters. And since lowly me is into this habit I’m curious as to how the rest of you interneting/critic folks are about this?

I just posted a 3 week film watch update where I watched almost 40 films in as much time, which is insane. A lot of it was revisits, of 2013 films that I’m trying to nail down how much I love/like, and the rest were smatterings of classics, esoteric cannon and new films that I’m yet to get around to. I’m still yet to see Before Midnight or Museum Hours and am starting to fear the reality of this exercise that I do every year. That being, that I’m going to miss something. That there are going to be some glaring omissions from my best of list that I’m going to just hate having not seen when I catch up with it in the first quarter of 2014.

Before the year is out I’m hoping to see: Before Midnight, Museum Hours, The Great Beauty, Post Tenebras Lux, Computer Chess, Gimme The Loot, Cutie and The Boxer and about ten other films that I can’t think of now as I’m typing up this quick post. On an aside, go check out this End of Year Movie Streaming Cheat Sheet over on the Movie Mezzanine, I’ve seen about half of them already and if the other half are just as good then I guess they’re some good films to catch up on.

What’s on your to watch list for the next few weeks of 2013?

 

Is Money What’s Wrong With Movies?

The Lone Ranger - 2

There’s a huge contention out there in the world who are under the belief that all films are the same. That they are manufactured stories that cannot deviate too far from a decided formula in fear of not reaching the financial goals that we hope all films will make, that sacred $100m domestic gross at the box office.

While I will not spend this post talking about how that’s wrong, that all films are the same. But rather I’m curious of one thing. Is money the reason why all films are similar?

This past summer we saw the film The Lone Ranger where Disney shelled out $250m for a film about a guy on a horse being all good and lovely. When recently asked Mark Wahlberg gave some very candid responses on what he thought was the problem and how that film ended up flopping so badly:

“They are spending so much money to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with these effects-driven movies,” he said. “It’s not like ‘Jurassic Park,’ where you saw something groundbreaking and innovative and said ‘Holy … I gotta see that. Every end-of-the-Earth movie kind of feels the same.”

Now it’s easy to understand that not all films can be groundbreaking but under the Hollywood system that exists the tone of filmmaking has always been if you want it to be big in the end all you have to do is throw money at it.

In a recent interview Spike Lee was asked whether it’s harder to raise $25m or $1m for a film. Where he simply said, “It’s harder to raise a million than twenty-five million”. He further elaborates:

“There’s this mindset that a film costs a million dollars, there’s very little want to see, or very little return on investment on a film that small… There’s a prejudice against a film under a million”

So now we understand that the bigger budget a film is the more likely it is that it can get funded to be made. So if big budget = same movie, then all movies are the same?

I can’t find the actual quote but I remember reading once Woody Allen saying something to the effect that blockbuster filmmaking changed the business of Hollywood. That due to the fact that these big films were being made then the risk factor became larger and therefore Hollywood was less interested in the smaller budget films they had done before where they say it as such a small investment they allowed filmmakers the freedom so that the film was able to be a smaller financial risk to the studio.

So is what this is all saying is that money is the problem in Hollywood and filmmaking? For everyone out there who sits in defiance of big budget filmmaking and falls asleep in the theatre trying to give two shits about whether the good guy prevails in the end? Should we just stop heading to the multiplex at all? Where do I go for movies now?

Hate Watching: A Genre Or Cinematic Cutting

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Almost two years ago I wrote about movies so bad people find them entertaining, but something seems to have changed. With the sudden phenomenon that is live tweeting certain films that make what would be usually ignored pieces of trash into event movies. I remember recently so far being Liz & Dick and the latest apocalypse that is Sharknado.  There’s even a weekly online get together hosted by Kevin Carr where every week they find a movie (usually available streaming) and time their start time to begin the social media tirade on the film. I can’t understand it.

Let’s begin with me admitting that I honestly believe that there are people out there who non-sarcastically adore these films, I assume based on my general shotgun principle, through and through. If you are this person, I am not talking about you. I love you and I hope you keep enjoying this pile of sharks spinning in a tornado to make the epic that is Sharknado. I hope you tell the tale of when you first saw it and your life was changed for the better.

So… for the rest of you all who took to this moment in television history with little else to do that night. Why? I honestly want to know. Why? As your eyes started to peel away throughout the even did you start to hate yourself for committing to this film? I honestly can’t figure it out.

General sarcastic viewing of things is done in a sense of mocking it’s actual audience. The sincere audience of a thing who walk in their with their suspension of disbelief perfectly in tact and willing to enjoy the silly that is Sharknado. The sarcastic crowd are the people who come up with Honest Trailers or Cinema Sins/Everything Wrong With. which is a thing that I really hate seeing sometimes. While some films deserve to have the shit kicked out of them why then take a skeptical eye to a movie like that when you know that’s what you’re looking for.

The thing about it is movies require a sense of optimism in order for it to turn out to have any sense of connection with the viewer. If you as a viewer aren’t willing to give yourself to the world of a movie it’s not going to do anything other than enrage you. So why bother to go into a movie basically looking to make a tally of all of it’s cinematic sins and general stupidity. Movies are inherently stupid. If you want to debate how probable it is for a single man to take back a tower taken over by terrorists on Christmas Eve without any shoes on or that dinosaurs DNA can be reconstructed and brought back into existence thanks to mosquitoes, then you’ve got a bigger problem than coming up with the latest twitter quip for Nicolas Cage’s next hair style.

I’m not making a case against B-movies. B-movies can be fun. When you think about it really films like Lockout and Dredd are basically B-movies. This is all the way to J-movies, or maybe even as far as M-movies. These are the movies so bad that when the year is out the only way you’ll find it is if you have a friend who didn’t bother to remove it from their DVR.

Pedro Almodovar: A Painter that Picked up a Camera

Almodovar

Over the last few months of the summer so far, while the blockbuster season has been relatively kind to me, I’ve been spending it with Pedro Almodovar. With my current disposition to be marathoning through filmmaker’s canon I found myself in the need of Spanish cinema, so I turned to the one man who’s films have been deemed weird, entertaining and all around interesting with every turn and that is Mr. Almodovar.

With prior to this staged viewing having only seen his most recent (other than the film that was released this past week in limited) film, The Skin I Live In – which I adored – I felt inspired to delve deeper.

There are two qualities in Almodovar’s filmmaking and storytelling that strike me the most when I attempt to vaguely generalize him into a few sentences (as I shall here). This is: (1) He is a fantastic teller of female tales, while many films try so hard to minimalize women his films always seem to be empowering women in ways that even the few female writer/directors working today don’t quite do right now; and (2) He paints his frames with such elegant broad strokes as if it’s a canvas so often, I love the way his settings are always so bright and filled with colour so that it just sears its way into your mind.

Almodovar - BanderasWhile I began my marathon feeling that Almodovar may have been indestructible, I can honestly say that he isn’t so perfect walking away. His 2009 and 2004 features, Broken Embraces and Bad Education both served as reminders that perfection can’t always be reached. With both features they present these broken narratives about almost two different characters and slowly tries to meet itself in the middle with explanations as to how each character became each other’s transitional period and in both occasions it just felt off. I honestly wanted to love it, but something about them both just didn’t click. I almost want to blame myself and my cynical self attempting to try and believe that this coincidental happening would actually exist in the real world. However, I later prove to myself that it’s the story and not my own personal hang ups since this is a trope used in a lot of Almodovar’s films and a lot his movies I loved.

Then we get to the weird. Almodovar’s films always seem to capture a part of sexuality that in another hand becomes kink and just exploitative. When he has a film, like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which is about a man kidnapping a woman (who plays a former drug addict and porn star) in order to make her love him it’s weird to see it not turn completely into a S&M story. The sex is always there in the corner of the room, but somehow Almodovar creates a tension by having the woman in such a submissive position (tied up) and never actually taking it like how you’d expect. Then when the sex finally comes it’s like the culmination of actual sex, it’s glorious. There’s also his work in The Flower of My Secret which stages the story of an older woman who finds love, and while it never seems distinctly sexual there are a lot of moments – especially with her distant husband – where we see her throwing herself at him with stark language that we can’t help but attempt to understand the role of sexuality in a relationship, which is something we don’t typically see in films. In film sex is used just as curiously as an grand action sequence is. It feels like a candy that we want to get to while we’re force fed the vegetables on our plate, as opposed to just being a complementary part of the meal. Almodovar changes that into something bigger, better, and generally more thought provoking.

However, if I were to nail down THE BEST of his that I’ve so far experienced it falls directly to Volver, All About My Mother and Talk To Her. I was lukewarm with Volver when I first discussed it for the marathonAlmodovar - Cruz, but something about that movie has stuck with me and thinking about it two months after first watching it I can’t seem to deny how wonderful Almodovar paints with that story. I can’t get out of my mind how much he had me believing that she was actually a ghost until the film said otherwise. With All About My Mother and Talk To Her what played so well is how Almodovar can toy with narrative and relationships to make compelling imagery. With his use of the Pina dances in Talk To Her and previous film work (like All About Eve) to show the now stereotypical strong female role in art within All About My Mother keeps you engaged throughout.

With all this said the film that will always stick with me is All About My Mother. The film’s mythological feel to it is just always at the forefront of my mind as I think about Almodovar. It tells so much about the idea of character and writing for characters. We’re reminded that as long as we are invested and love our main character we’re willing to make the leaps that the character makes in order to make her (or him) into this grand hero.

I started this post telling you that Almodovar is really a painter and that’s what I truly believe. Every art form has it’s own rules, guidelines and general understandings. Film, unlike most other art forms, is usually hindered due to narrative conventions. However, Almodovar rises above those conventions to create something emotional that gives off more than just a narrative, it emits a feeling that is palpable and I doubt many could deny. However I shall let Almodovar himself have the final word.

What do you think of Pedro Almodovar’s Films?