Monday, August 25, 2014

'True Blood' Finale: One Last Suck

Spoilers ahead if you haven't watched yet.

Last night was the series finale of the frustratingly bad True Blood, and — as I expected — it went out with a whimper. This show has been limping along ever since Season Three, so it really came as no surprise that it would maintain its consistent level of dullness.

The producers had one last chance to inject some excitement into the climax, so what do they decide to do? That's right...have a wedding. Nothing spells excitement like a marriage ceremony. And in keeping with the style of the last 300 seasons or so, characters talked...and talked...and talked.

Bill wants Sookie to kill him with her fairie light so that he would know the True Death and she would lose her power and stop being catnip for vampires. Hoyt goes back to Jessica (even though his memory of their original relationship has been glammed from him). Handily, Hoyt's Alaskan girlfriend switches over to Jason so that he can perfunctorily settle down to a normal life and stop being a whore. Eric and Pam save the Hep V antidote-carrying Sarah Newlin from Mr. Gus and the Yakuza, only to keep her chained up in the basement to sell her blood for the rest of her life (probably the only decent part of the episode).

Then Hoyt and Jess go to Bill's house to say their goodbyes. The topic of a wedding is brought up and the action screeches to a halt while last-minute plans are made. I kept looking at the clock, refusing to believe that they were really going to burn up the rest of the episode on something so boring. Hell, I don't want to go to weddings in real-life, so I certainly don't want to be dragged into one on a show that's supposed to be all about blood and kinky sex.

For years True Blood was coasting along on its reputation as a sexy shocker, something the writers of the increasingly dull and verbose storylines forgot to inject into the proceedings. Yet stubborn viewers like myself kept coming back to the coffin, thinking, "Maybe this year it'll be back." But it never did.

Let's face it — after Maryann the Maenad got done in by Dionysus at the end of Season Two, the show became the real Walking Dead — or should I say Talking Dead — despite the stunt casting of actors like Rutger Hauer, Christopher Meloni and Evan Rachel Wood — and the flashy evil of Denis O'Hare's Russell Edgington.

It was clear the series had nowhere to go by Season Four, with the perpetually irritating Marnie character played by Fiona Shaw. Then, in Season Five, Bill gets promoted by the Authority and becomes obsessed with the naked, blood-covered Lilith. And just think about all the werewolves and shape-shifters that have run around the show throughout the years — they mostly served as red herrings to provide gratuitous shots of the actors' naked butts when they reverted to human form.

And my God, all the talking. I can just see the directions in the scripts: "Bill and Sookie go into the living room and talk." "Jason and Jessica go out onto the porch and talk." "Lafayette and James sit down on the couch and talk." You get the idea.

In the finale, so much time was spent on that flipping wedding that characters who were once so important to the show made wordless cameos in the final scene — if they showed up at all!

And the characters we're left with — the long suffering Bill and Sookeh, Hoyt and Jess, Arlene and Holly, Jason and his new squeeze — are like the last guests at a boring party you can't wait to leave.

Speaking of parties, we get an abrupt three-year time leap at the end of the episode, with all the surviving characters sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with their human (or vampire) mates, including Sookie, who has settled down and produced progeny with a mystery man (who keeps his back to the camera). At least we get Eric and Pam triumphantly marketing the Sarah-derived New Blood and opening the New York Stock Exchange. A little more of that stuff would've gone a long way.

Today the web is abuzz with fans and ex-fans criticizing this episode, comparing the disappointment to the Dexter series finale. The difference between True Blood and Dexter, however, is that Dexter kept trying to get its mojo back while this show seemed content to sink into inanity. I really thought they would have tried harder to create a memorable final season, but the fatigue had really set in...and it was terminal.

Friday, August 15, 2014

'Boyhood' is Transformatory Cinema

Ellar Coltrane
Requiring an impressive long-term commitment from the talent involved, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood captures the passage of time in a wholly unique and memorable fashion. Shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years, the film follows the same cast of characters as they grow up, grow older, and change. This is no mere gimmick — Boyhood also has a compelling and deeply moving narrative.

Six-year-old Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is the son of hard-working, divorced Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and the younger brother of sassy Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). When we first meet them, their charming but perpetually adolescent father (Ethan Hawke) is roaring back into their lives, having been absent for the past year and a half. Gifts in tow, he promises to be a more devoted father. Olivia, who is holding down a full-time job while attending college to get her teaching degree, bounces from man to man in search of the perfect mate who will help complete her idealized view of “family.” Her quest takes her all around Texas, moving from Houston to San Marcos, a small town near Austin, with Mason, Sr., always bringing up the rear to stay near his kids.

Unfortunately, Olivia’s choices are pretty bad ones, as her two subsequent husbands turn out to be abusive alcoholics with control issues. Mason, Sr. starts a new family with a woman who comes from rather religious parents, tamping down his wild streak. Here, Linklater shows how the parents’ decisions affect their children — Olivia’s terrifying second husband threatens their very lives, and Mason, Sr.’s new life precludes the ownership of his beloved muscle car, the GTO he’d promised to give to his son on his sixteenth birthday.

Still, as they move from town to town and school to school, the kids continue to roll with the punches, each forming their own distinct and independent personalities. Surrounded by adults eager to dispense advice — his father included — Mason, Jr., has a pretty good sense of self by the time he’s reached his teenage years, and the bemused expression he frequently wears indicates his general outlook on life — it’s all kind of silly. Samantha changes, too, becoming less of a complainer and more of a responsible big sister.
Arquette and Coltrane

The passage of time in the film is realistic and subtle — no spinning headlines or leaves flying off of calendars here. Well-chosen songs from different eras within the 12-year time span, occasional references to current events and changes in the appearances of the actors themselves give viewers the cues they need to know where they are. And by setting the action in Texas, where time moves at its own rhythm, Linklater has the luxury to tell the story at his own leisurely pace — but even at 164 minutes, the film never wears out its welcome.

The casting is ideal. Hawke (who starred in Linklater’s similarly time-tripping Before Sunrise series) is great as the erstwhile Mason, Sr., and Arquette brings a lot of heart to Olivia. Their ability to jump back into these characters for a few days each year is something to admire. Also fine is Linklater’s daughter as Samantha. The real find here is Coltrane, whose transformation from typical kid to artistic teen is a marvel to behold. One hopes that in the future Linklater will give us a glimpse of the adult that Mason, Jr., has become.

Thanks to the fine work of cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, Boyhood looks great and flows seamlessly, despite its more-than-a-decade production schedule. It’s a landmark in many ways, and one that will be analyzed and appreciated by aficionados for generations to come.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

All That Glitters: 'Velvet Goldmine'

Last night, my sister and I went to the Alamo Drafthouse in San Antonio to see Todd Haynes' paean to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine (1998), as part of its "Turn it Up to 11" series. It was fun to see it on the big screen again. I was surprised that there were only about a dozen people in the audience. Well, two of them showed up in glam drag at least.

Velvet Goldmine is the story of Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an ambitious young musician who wants more than just stardom — he wants to change the world. Along the way, he meets and marries adoring Mandy (Toni Collette), but is knocked for a loop by the uninhibited Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). An intense love affair and creative collaboration ensues, but it's doomed from the start. And when Brian kills off his Maxwell Demon stage persona in a publicity stunt, earning the enmity of both his fans and associates, he decides to disappear altogether.

Ten years later, in 1984, Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale),  a journalist with a glam rock past of his own, is assigned by an American tabloid to find out whatever happened to Slade. In more than just a nod to Citizen Kane, he sets off to interview those who circled in Slade's orbit, including Mandy, Curt and former manager Cecil (Michael Feast).

Cecil is wheelchair-bound, just like Joseph Cotten in Kane, and Mandy is found drowning her sorrows, Susan Alexander-style, in a dimly-lit dive bar. Their recollections spark flashbacks replete with visually sumptuous musical numbers, and we are taken along on a glitter-infused odyssey to try to understand the enigma that is Brian Slade.

A bomb upon its initial release, Goldmine is remembered more fondly by audiences than by most critics, who declared it visually interesting but deficient story-wise. I don't agree — I find it easy to follow, and the way Haynes constructs scenes from Brian's life builds an increasing feeling of melancholy, of yearning for an era that was far too short and was gone much too soon.

With his hypnotic blue eyes, Meyers makes for an otherworldly Slade. Even though his self-serving agenda is simple to spot even from space, it's also easy to see why Mandy and Curt fall for him.

Maxwell Demon is based on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, right down to the killing off his character. And even though the film shares its title with a Bowie song, the depiction of Slade as being a vapid opportunist evidently so displeased the glam legend that he refused to allow any of his songs to be used on the soundtrack.

McGregor's Curt is an amalgam of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, two of Bowie's close associates back in the day, although his blond locks make him look a lot like Kurt Cobain. Collette brings humanity to Mandy, Brian's social-climbing wife, who obviously worships the ground he walks on. Both have a good onscreen rapport with Meyers, which is essential.

Bale is a mournful Arthur, and he's got good reason. As Brian's star ascends, Arthur lives in a gloomy suburb and must content himself with fantasizing over the singer's image while concealing his real self from his strict, disapproving parents. He manages to snatch a few fleeting moments of freedom in the glam scene before it all implodes, but when we meet him again in the '80s, his light has clearly gone out. Arthur is truly the broken heart of the film.

The score is great, with Radiohead's Thom Yorke standing in for Brian Ferry on a couple of numbers. The new tunes blend seamlessly with the originals by T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. Rhys Meyers does quite a respectable job on his songs, including Eno's "Baby's On Fire," and McGregor gets the opportunity to get his kit off for Pop's "T.V. Eye". Gee, it doesn't seem that long ago that you'd go to see one of his films prepared for the inevitable full-frontal nudity (Trainspotting, The Pillow Book, Young Adam). That rascal. Here's the clip for your NSFW amusement.

Haynes stages the musical numbers with flair, strangely earning the wrath of some reviewers who thought that they were derivative. A cranky Roger Ebert complained that there were too many nods to films like A Hard Day's Night and A Clockwork Orange, which puzzles me. What better way to establish a milieu than by evoking images from such iconic cultural artifacts as these?

The Blu-Ray is available at Amazon.


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