Friday, June 19, 2009

Character Actor Collection

"The Unusuals"

I'm burning off the last several episodes of ABC's already-cancelled "The Unusuals" this morning. Not sure why, other than that having watched nothing off the DVR except for multiple installments of "Wipeout" this month made me feel weird. But here in Episode 8, "The Dentist," pops up a welcome, familiar face and I don't feel so much as if I'm wasting my time.

The last time I did a little bit on a character actor I love, Malcolm Barrett immediately landed a series regular gig on "Better Off Ted," which unlike "The Unusuals" has survived to a second season. I hope this little note will have equal or greater effect on the career of David Costabile.

If you're a big-time casting director and the producers are on you to get Peter MacNicol, but the guy who got second billing in the big-screen Mr. Bean movie asks for too large of a salary, what do you do? You call David Costabile. He out-Peter MacNicols the actual Peter MacNicol. He's nebbish, with balding curly hair and an open-lipped expression of peeved anguish that you can't write or teach. And his CV is fantastic -- he played the nefarious managing editor in Season Five of "The Wire" and Mel's pathetic husband on "Flight of the Conchords." He's got some unbelievably random movie credits -- rap biopic Notorious, the "Project Greenlight" movie Stolen Summer, the Jim Carrey Grinch movie -- and of course who can forget his lovably neurotic John Cage character from "Ally McBeal?"

Wait, sorry, that last one was the actual Peter MacNicol.

Props go to the departed, unlamented "Unusuals" for using Costabile cleverly; he played a con man whose unassuming appearance made for his biggest asset. Costabile's character quickly zeroed in on the least self-confident man in the series' cop shop, Kai Lennox's Eddie Alvarez, won his sympathy pretending to bond as a fellow joke target and loser, then made off with fifty grand in evidence money. Good storyline for a show that needed more of them.

"Unusuals" failed because it couldn't harness its quirk to stories that finished with sufficient dramatic payoff. Weird things happened to odd cops, whose personal lives mostly went on unaffected. The writers could only give their characters plot points, not real personalities. Wooden writing in the romantic scenes prevented it from following its instincts towards being more of a relationship drama -- although less frequently terrible, the working relationships that needing developing, between Amber Tamblyn's Shraeger and the versatile (he was great in his "House") Jeremy Renner's Walsh and between Adam Goldberg's Delahoy and Harold Perrineau's Banks, didn't play either. Goldberg and Perrineau both escape with their reputations unaffected, the former, in particular, was a real bright light on a show that otherwise never seemed as funny as it thought it was. Renner shouldn't have trouble finding a better vehicle and Tamblyn can clearly plain grown-up, although not this particular one.

Where do you go on TV now if you want to watch a police show that treats its cast like human beings, not robotic line-reading plot developers? Cable, clearly. But "The Shield" and "The Wire" are both done, and the current rage on TNT and AMC is lawyer shows ("Damages," "Raising the Bar") and crook shows ("Breaking Bad," "Leverage"). I guess it's time for me to get on board with "The Closer," even though Kyra Sedgwick kind of chills my blood. Seems to me there's a gaping void on pay cable, with either Showtime or HBO needing to step up and give us something challenging and adult. Maybe David Milch has a few ideas. I'd like to see Milch ("Deadwood") thrown into a room with David Simon ("The Wire," "The Corner") just to see if their opposite energies cancelled each other out. Everyone on Milch's shows speaks as if they were a Shakespeare scholar while Simon has an ability almost like channeling when it comes to nailing down rigidly realistic dialogue. I don't know if they could possibly write a pilot together, but if they made a show about them writing it, I would watch it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More Than Enough Vampires to Go Around

DVD via Redbox
"True Blood"
HBO via On Demand

You'd think Halloween would be a better time of the year to concentrate your horror-centric film and television premieres, but times have changed. Vampire pictures aren't low-budget, focus group-targeted quickie moneymakers any longer, they're big business. There's money to be made anew in selling the blood, sex, and danger of the vampire myth to teen girls. How can we tell the bloodsucker market is on the rise? The villainous Kuzui family are preparing a "Buffy" reboot -- with no input from Joss Whedon. I take it as a point of pride I've never seen the Whedon-discredited original Buffy motion picture, with Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland. You can count me out for the remake as well.

The new industry leader in sublimating adolescent desire into yarns about pale, brooding pointy-teeth and the warm-blooded girls who love them, Twilight has risen to such cultural status that Entertainment Weekly regularly runs "stories" on its sequel that amount to nothing more than cheesecake photo spreads. It's also got one imitator on cable (HBO's wacky "True Blood") and a couple more coming to network this fall.

It's weird what both of these new works steal from "Buffy" and what they add. Both Twilight, in its competent if drab film version, and "True Blood" thematically center on the same powerful truth as Whedon's TV series: when you're young, very attractive, and often short of breath, every love affair seems like the freaking apocalypse. In a lot of ways things have gotten less complicated since the 90's. Compared to their predecessor, neither of the new vampire sagas tracks much in subtext -- "True Blood," in particular, is so literal that's it's a little off-putting. There's also a strange loss of care when it comes to visual effects. Both "True Blood" and Twilight, when placed into context among the larger history of vampires on film, will seem anachronistic for their dopey fast-motion vampires and strangely underwhelming CGI shots.

The biggest deviation from the "Buffy" physics that "True Blood" uses is the fact that its vampires explode into piles of sticky, disgusting gack when staked. That makes sense in a way, because when vampires die in the "True Blood" world there are usually consequences. Vampire society and legal precedent are much more established in Alan Ball's series, based on a sequence of novels where the pale folk are beginning to tentatively integrate into human society. The best bits of "True Blood" take place when we get to see glimpses of this Vampire: The Masquerade-like political structure. HBO's clout gets amazing Euro guest stars for these roles, including Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd's hunky son and the unmistakable Zeljko Ivanek from "Heroes" and "House," probably the most likely human being on the planet to come out first when the real vampires decide to make their presence known.

Trouble is, a deranged Iron Curtain-influenced dark political thriller is only one of the dozen or so separate things "True Blood" is trying to be at once. The inconsistency of the casting reflects this. The complex, slow-talking Louisiana cops played by William Sanderson and Chris Bauer are directly out of a John Sayles movie. Anna Paquin has the expressiveness of a serious actress but her accent and her dye job are soap-opera stuff. Storylines featuring the major characters played by Ryan Kwanten and Rutina Wesley don't register properly because the actors are so crappy. Sam Trammell's character is so alarmingly similar in appearance and vibe to Rufus from "Gossip Girl" that I totally forget which one of them now is a shapeshifter. The best roles are for vampires. Stephen Moyer, as the male lead, makes difficult, contrary acting choices and genuinely seems to be a man out of time; I wish the show was about him more and Paquin's Sookie less. And the great Stephen Root absolutely knocks his three-episode arc as a nebbish, gay accountant vampire out of the park.

"True Blood" disappoints a lot. It introduces terrific characters, like the dangerous vampire blood junkie played in the first season by Lizzy Caplan, and then gets rid of them before they have the chance to work through to their logical endpoints. It cheats gratuitously as a mystery show, with Sookie's telepathic ability coming and going whenever it's convenient for the storytelling. And whatever its larger ambitions, it's never going to be able to shake the air of abject silliness that hangs in the air beginning with the pilot. "Buffy" worked around this in a lot of ways "True Blood" can't. It had a heightened reality, but maintained it. It had enough, but not too much, of a knowing attitude about itself. Mostly it had characters who seemed unquestionably real even when the events around them were too ridiculous to take seriously. "True Blood" lacks that, except for Vampire Bill and the sheriff, and I'm not sure if those two could carry could the show by themselves. Also a major element of the show's appeal that we haven't discussed yet is that evidently everyone in the cast is required to appear nude -- a lot -- and nobody really wants to see William Sanderson naked.

Twilight is remarkably slight, by comparison; its plot lacks conflict, character development, and most of the other basic characteristics of effective popular movie storytelling. Girl meets boy, boy turns out to be vampire, surprisingly no one really minds very much, insert chase scene, the end. Kristen Stewart seems to be half asleep for most of the proceedings. That's not surprising given the sodden Washington state setting -- everybody involved must have been soaking wet, cold, clammy, and leaden for the entire shoot. That doesn't help the pace of the film very much, and the complete lack of anything resembling a proper plot in Stephenie Meyer's source material hurts worse. About two-thirds of the movie seems to be set pieces taking place to fill space because there's nothing actually happening. (And I hear the sequel, New Moon, is duller still.)

Even so... Twilight doesn't have high ambitions, but it works for what it is, because Robert Pattinson is worthy of the hype. Sometimes just looking the part is all you need, and Pattinson does look exactly right to be playing teen dream vampire Edward, all poignant brow and piercing eyes. He looks a lot like David Boreanaz in the first season of "Buffy," before he bulked up. The entire movie hinges on him being everything Bella (Stewart) sees in him, because the film is utterly uninterested in its lead -- Stewart is onscreen for the entire time and even though the actress is attractive and intelligent-seeming the character is an utter zero. We don't have the least idea why Edward and most of the rest of the single male townfolk, vampire, werewolf, and otherwise, seem so taken by her. I think that's because Bella is a cipher by design -- she's not a real person, she's a stand-in for the teen female viewer, who can easily imagine her own characteristics imposed upon her since she has none of her own.

But Pattinson is a little better than the material requires. He's a hunk, sure, but I think he can act a little too. The only really memorable scene in the film comes when he rages, convincingly, against how his nature as a vampire makes him so irresistible to humans, since his kind has evolved specifically towards luring in the warm-blooded. The trouble with Twilight is that these scenes are way too infrequent. The film takes forever building up Edward's mystery, which is stupid because the whole marketing scheme for the movie relies on giving that up right up front. Then there's a whole bunch of scenes where other characters reflect on his behavior, all incorrectly because they don't know what the audience does before even sitting down. This is dumb. Edward is the only character in the movie who isn't a plot prop or improbably stupid. As such, he should be much less of a passive presence.

Thanks to Entertainment Weekly's round-the-clock coverage, I now know that Pattinson and Edward barely appear in New Moon. Prisoner to their own success, Meyer's junky novels have somehow become sacred texts. The movie series will adhere slavishly to their every shortcoming, which seems pretty stupid to me. "True Blood," on the other hand, is taking the "Dexter" path. After the first season, which followed the first Sookie Stackhouse novel, the writers are going off on their own for the second (premiering later this month). They've got a lot of stuff to work with, and a lot of things they need to clean up. I'll be interested to see them try. As for Edward and Bella... pass.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It Was Inevitable


I think this is the season when the NBA, against all odds, has pipped to baseball to become my new favorite sport. I just have so little interest in the product MLB is producing these days, with its pinball ballparks, steroid-hairshirt sportswriting, and lying, profiteering owners, agents, and players. It doesn't hurt that the local nine, for the first time since I moved to Colorado, have become irrelevant even before the Nuggets' season ended.

So I have been soaking up the basketball playoffs. I haven't been as bothered as many about the officiating. Since I haven't been that big a basketball fan for that long, I view the referees as I would umpires -- mostly doing their best at an impossible job, occasionally giving into the pressure of the moment or a flare of ego but on the whole way less than you or I would. The way basketball is called nowadays, the way the league wants it to be called, doing even a C-, 70% job as an NBA ref is an inhuman task. And, deep down, I'm old school. I like the implication: Don't like it? Shut up and practice your free throws.

I love when teams lose in the playoffs because their bigs (or any of their guys) can't make their free throws. I get to give my Rick Barry speech. The best story of this playoffs for me has been the emergence of Dwight Howard as an A-list superstar. How fun is he to watch? He smiles all the time! He's huge, he can throw it down from a standstill right under the basket, he gets 20 rebounds sometimes. And in the playoffs, he's been making his free throws, a wholly new phenomenon for the big man. If he starts missing in the finals, he's gotta call Rick.

The Eastern Conference finals were fun because it was like watching one ideology crush another: Stan Van Gundy's single-post offense vs. Mike Brown's no-switching, no-rotating, all-hustle defense. Brown stubbornly refused to stop playing a frontcourt rotation with at least two guys who could never in a million years cover Rashard Lewis -- for the entire series. It was like watching a little windup toy bash into the wall, over and over and over again. If Brown had gone small, put LeBron at the 4, actually let his point guards handle the ball a little, and let James abuse Lewis off post-ups (or just run past him, since The King apparently is too noble to approach the basket butt-first), the Magic never win the series. But nope, eventually that windup toy is going to break a hole right through that wall. Maybe when they go to the 11-game series.

The Nuggets put on a good show but ultimately gave in to the Lakers, who waited until the last minute to click as they often tend to do. After last season's playoffs it's odd that it was the Cavs, and not the Lakers, who seemed on a mission up until the conference finals. (Although observe what happened to Cleveland.) With the amount of scoring talent Los Angeles has, it can be frustrating to watch guys like Odom and Gasol play lackadaisically. At times it seems their guards -- Kobe is the least of the offenders -- ignore the bigs, but then again even when Derek Fisher plays crappy, he plays crappy hard. Gasol and Odom in particular drift through games at times, even in the conference finals. That seems unlike the behavior of a championship team.

And that is how the Finals will go -- the Lakers will certainly win if they get the maximum output from their talent. Orlando is a versatile team with a creative offense, but they're not as good as L.A. if Kobe, Gasol, and Odom romp on them for 70 points and 30 rebounds, as they are all fully capable of doing no matter what Orlando tries to do to defend them. The Magic don't have a second big capable of guarding Gasol when Phil Jackson goes big, unless Marcin (The Polish Hammer) Gortat mutated into O.G. Ben Wallace while no one was looking.

Of course, for Phil to put Gasol at the 4 Andrew Bynum has to be effective, not picking up quick, stupid fouls on D-12. That is not as easy as it looks -- Howard has his own atmosphere. There's a double-edged Kobe factor as well. He's clearly on a mission. That could mean that he averages 50 a game for the Finals and the Lakers sweep, but it also could mean that Shannon Brown could miss a couple of open jumpers and Kobe could snap him over his knee like he just struck out swinging on an 0-2 slider. He's been known to freeze out teammates in the playoffs or refuse to shoot or otherwise psychologically freak out before, and clearly the pressure's on him now more than ever before -- LeBron has surpassed him and will get teammates sooner or later and Carmelo and Howard and Wade are all post-Leap and hungry to eclipse him. If the Lakers drop Game 2 at home and then Odom has a classic Lamar Odom in the Fifth Dimension 1-8, 4 rebound game in an ugly loss in Orlando, we could see the first ever mid-Finals trade-him-or-me demand from the Mamba. You never know where the Mamba will strike next!

I don't know what I will watch after basketball is over. Maybe the Royals. We drove out to Kansas City for their opening series against the Yankees, not the first game but the second two of the three-game set. I'd never been to the stadium before they redesigned it this offseason, but it's a small gem. No bad seats, very good fans. There's not much they can do about the extremely unimpressive outfield panorama short of moving Kansas City physically in space like the island from "Lost."


The Wrestler
DVD via DVDPlay
Resurrecting the Champ
Encore via DVR

There's exactly two kinds of sports movies: those that are essentially romantic about the game, and those that aren't. Most fall in the first category. I usually don't like these.

I was looking forward to Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler since first I read reviews; the director's visual style can be described many ways but in absolutely no sense "sentimental." The Wrestler blew me away. I was expecting it to be wonderful-looking but I did not expect the almost persistent realism of the film from the guy who made Pi and Requiem for Dream. Although there are many jump cuts, otherwise the movie is almost documentary-style. And there are a few very long, slow, simple shots -- one of an abandoned ballroom at an old amusement park is unforgettable -- that are old-style cinema. I am quite nearsighted and tend to respond to dialogue or music more often than visual images, but this movie was quite special.

Resurrecting the Champ, on the other hand, is quite a bit of self-interested pap, a story about the danger of romanticizing the homeless and turning journalism into entertainment -- that romanticizes the homeless and turns journalism into entertainment. The movie has very flawed ideas about what is and isn't heroic, and ultimately doesn't prove that the liar played by Josh Hartnett and the fraud played by Samuel L. Jackson are worthy of having their stories manipulated into a lamely told film adaptation. Jackson should have known better; Hartnett should have picked a better haircut.

Short Credits

DVD (Season 4, new to the collection)

"Weeds" was good in its first season, great in its second, and nosedived for the third, to the degree that most of the people who convinced me to watch in the first place gave up on it completely. I hung on, barely, for a fourth season that seemed dissociated on first viewing. Showtime has earned equal if not greater status than HBO in terms of justifying its subscription fee with original programming. What's more, it's embraced HD and On Demand more readily, making stuff like "Dexter" and "Weeds" play in a direct-to-DVD-like format that suits that their fast-paced, novelistic storytelling. So their decision to keep things going, albeit in radically reformatted fashion, seems a good call.

On DVD proper, watching Season Four again makes it seem like more of a full-fledged comeback. The show's writing has found its timing again and there's more funny lines, although the series does miss the characters it lost in the fallout from Season Three. The pretext for keeping Doug (Kevin Nealon) around is flimsy but the show totally needs him; his misadventures with Andy provide some needed B-plot wackiness.

The fourth season benefits from a shorter order of episodes than the last, which spread too few story points across too many episodes. The first season, even as a short order, demonstrated that gradual, sitcom-like pacing didn't really suit the tone of the show. The second season had weddings and pregnancies and murders at every turn, which was thrilling but kind of burned up the show's premise by the really dreadful third year. Creator Jenji Kohan took things to their logical conclusion by burning down the planned community of Agrestic, and by extension her show's original premise, in the final episode. Season four still drags a bit at the end at thirteen (half-hour) episodes, but by introducing an entirely new setting and accompanying characters and themes, Kohan gets a new shot clock. She can take time to set things up before appropriately hitting the gas pedal at season's end. It will be interesting to see in the next season, which begins this month, whether such a drastic overhaul will occur again. It would suit the spirit of the show if it did.