Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What do you see?

Is this a picture of:

A) a wound sustained by a kick to the throat while playing basketball, delivered by a guy who I earlier caught with an elbow to the head


B) the world's most epic hickey?

Choose only one.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Riddle of Ridley Scott

If Ridley Scott had stopped working after his first three films, his legacy would be secure. The Duellists (1977) was an impressive debut which hinted that the British director was a master of period detail and cinematic beauty, but it was Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) that would change the entire look and feel of a film genre. These back-to-back masterpieces are arguably the most influential science fiction films since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977), a remarkable achievement considering they were both directed by the same man in a span of only three years (and that nothing has been released in the time since which has made nearly the same impact).

However, he did not stop after the success of those two films. He has continued to work and dabble in different genres regardless of popular or critical approval. With films like Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2002) and Matchstick Men (2003) on his resume, he's been nothing if not eclectic. Unlike someone like James Cameron who will only get off his can to make a new movie if he's sure it'll be the most profitable (and expensive) one ever made, Scott has demonstrated an almost relentless work ethic, moving on to the next project as soon as one is completed. But aside from a few Best Director nominations over the years, he never has been recognized as one of the most consistent, hard-working and flat-out talented directors in the world.

One of the reasons for this is that storytelling has never been Scott's greatest strength. He favors complex plots over straightforward ones, and it's no surprise he started as a commercial director when so many of his films are edited like trailers. Even on Alien and Blade Runner, widely accepted as his two greatest films, there are stretches where the story takes a back seat to the visuals.

But even when his films don't exactly draw the viewer in on a plot level, they still manage to be artful and eye-catching. The visuals in his films, whether they're about medieval times or the modern American military or some futuristic world, have always been stunningly gorgeous. I for one can't remember a damn thing about the plot of Kingdom of Heaven (2005), but it contains images that I know I'll never forget. What's more, the worlds he creates feel lived-in. His production designers, cinematographers and costume people actually manage to make Russell Crowe look like a man living hundreds of years ago, rather than an actor playing dress-up.

Unfortunately, this difficulty with storytelling, along with his tendency to bang out film after film, seems to have hurt his reputation over the years. His last four films, Robin Hood (2010), Body of Lies (2008), American Gangster (2007) and A Good Year (2006) have compiled scores of 53 (out of 100), 57, 76, and 47 on Metacritic. American Gangster was the lone hit with audiences on that list, and the only one to garner any nominations from the Academy. Reviews of these films have characterized Scott as a workmanlike director, a man whose filmmaking is always competent, but no longer captivating, at least not compared to his early stuff.

This characterization is unfair to Scott, as it suggests that he no longer strives for greatness in his films, even as it acknowledges their technical brilliance. The truth is Scott is still the same director he always was, constantly putting everything he's got into every movie, never selecting projects based on prestige or profitability but only based on what interests him at that time, which seems to be changing every year. Even when his films aren't easy to love, they're very easy to admire, whether or not they change the landscape of cinema like Blade Runner did.

(It hasn't helped that his recent projects have tread increasingly familiar cinematic ground - drug empire, counter-terrorism, Robin Hood - but anyone who's seen more than a few of his films will recognize his unique visual imprint on these subjects)

And the overall career of the man should rightfully place him in the pantheon of the greatest directors living today. It's easy to point to his earliest successes and conclude that nothing else he's done since has eclipsed that. Imagine if Hitchcock had made Psycho and Rear Window as his first two films, then spent the rest of his career doing romantic comedies and crime dramas. That's the type of legacy we're talking about here, which may be frustrating for some, but remains impressive in its own right. Perhaps most impressively, Scott has stayed true to himself through all of it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Not even Breaking Bad immune to third season-itis

Name your favorite TV show.

Now think of your favorite season of that show.

Did you answer season 3?

Maybe you did, but most of us didn't.

There are surely some exceptions, but it seems that the 3rd season of a long-running series never turns out to be its best.

There are reasons for this.

Most shows seem to fall into one of two categories: 1) They start with such a killer concept and cast and execute it so perfectly that anything they follow up with after the inaugural season turns out to be a disappointment or 2) The ideas are there, but the execution is not, so it takes a little while for the series to really get going, but when it hits its stride, it makes all the rough early going worthwhile. This happens most often in the second season.

Then there is a pattern that follows either scenario: once a show has figured out what it wants to be (and if it's lucky enough to be renewed for longer than a season) it risks either becoming boring through reputation, or criticized for not being able to live up to its ambition.

For these reasons, third seasons often turn out to be less successful than what came before them.

(The Simpsons is a huge exception, but in this case the late-blooming renaissance that normally would occur in the second season took longer than usual).

Breaking Bad was a fantastic concept brilliantly executed from the get-go (High school teacher gets cancer, cooks meth). Its second season actually managed to up the ante in every way, creating some of the show's finest episodes.

In comparison, the third season felt more scaled-back, as if we had been flooring it plot and character-wise the whole time and the writers felt the audience needed a bit more time to breathe.

So we ended up with some episodes in the third season that felt a bit trite and underwhelming compared to what came before. The show is still likely better than anything else on the air right now, but for the first time it has put out a season that contains dead spaces, scenes that feel rushed or unnecessary, and too much focus on the less compelling aspects of the show.

And that's fine. Because the same history that shows that season 3s tend to be the weakest also indicates that many shows have been able to recover from this slump, and create seasons that are even stronger than the early ones, especially as they build towards their end.

And it's encouraging to me that even as the series has lost a lot of its narrative weight, headlong propulsion and shock value, nothing else that I've watched this year has been able to so reliably inspire such a palpable feeling of dread. It's a show that promises you bad things are about to happen, and it's the waiting for them that creates tension and suspense so suffocating it actually becomes physically stressful to watch. Like the drug that its protagonist, Walter White cooks, the show itself provides a rush and then leaves the viewer jonesing for more.

This past season provided fewer of those moments than ever, but it finished so strong that my excitement for the next season is just as high as it was for this one. And given what the show has accomplished already, I won't be surprised if we're in for its best season yet.