FEUD: Bette and Joan

Here, at the outset, I will admit to the following – I was not particularly excited at the prospect of watching Ryan Murphy‘s latest televisual project on FX (FEUD: Bette and Joan). And not because of the subject (obviously). In fact, I have a great appreciation for both Ms.’s Davis and Crawford. The latter, in particular of whom I have developed a particular affinity for in recent years.

It also has nothing to do with Ryan Murphy – whose work I have generally enjoyed on level or another over the past decade.

I decided to meditate on what exactly was holding me back until I was able to figure it out. And here is my conclusion: I think it is to do with the fact that when I think of Bette and Joan, I am drawn to these screen icons and the film that serves as the series’ nexus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with a series of evolving emotions about it all.

In other words, while I enjoy the ‘horror’ and suspense of the film, something left me unsettled about how these women, who once were the queens of the studio era were reduced to grotesque caricatures and put on display for our derision and ridicule. All simply for the fact that they have the temerity to have aged. It is all rather disturbing and cruel on so many levels.

However, thanks to the recommendation of some friends, I put this reservation to the side and indulged in a post-TCM Film Festival binge (more to come). And boy, am I glad I did.

As the final episode of this first series has come to a close (on the East Coast), I can think of no way that this story could have been told with more empathy and movingly. FEUD is a story is a love note of sorts to women who the Hollywood studio/factory system so readily discarded and left to be footnotes in the history when they no longer saw value in their talents.

Sure, Bette and Joan’s was a well-storied feud – but to reduce it to petty machinations and entanglements of what took place does a great disservice. Thanks to some wonderful writing and acting, FEUD has really illuminated the full scale of the ‘rivalry,’ which in many ways was orchestrated and agitated by several outside influences, including the public itself.

As for the two women caught up in the tumult, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, in their takes on Davis and Crawford, give noteworthy performances that peel away the layers of these women to reveal how their back and forth played into and off of their personal demons and insecurities.

Granted, while FEUD is based on actual events, you have to make a few narrative allowances, such as overt exposition about what happened and a bit of melodrama. One standout event of the series is their notorious clash at the 1963 Academy Awards –  an event which Davis friend Olivia deHavilland recently dismissed as not being of much consequence. On the other hand, there is the conceit many audience members may not know the particulars and history of the Baby Jane co-stars, so a little exposition goes a long way.

It is my sincere hope that for any members of the viewing public who may have come into this story cold, I encourage you to examine these women and their careers beyond this hagsploitation (what a word) phase in their body of work.

At its best, FEUD gives its audience enough of a moving and empathetic account of the people, places and events to make us take another look at these women in particular and women in Hollywood in general (both past and present) and how they are treated.

 

Definitely Binge-Worthy: The Get Down (2016)

As I get my act together regarding building my television presence online (better late than never I guess), I will use this established space to wax poetic about my latest televisual, or ‘Netflix-ian’ obsession.

Actually, when I think about it, this post is not that far off from the theme of my blog.  The program that I will be discussing has a cinematic tie-in, courtesy of Baz Luhrmann, who is one of the creators of this awesome project. I am speaking about the 6-part limited series The Get Down.

The Get Down

At the start of Episode 1, it is a certainty that our chief protagonist, Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Figuero, (Justice Smith) has made a success of himself – we see this in the structure of the story – we have snippets of a contemporaneous, narrative performance by an adult Zeke (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) that immediately cut back to the South Bronx, 1977 – the primary setting for our story. Zeke and his crew – Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), Marcus ’Dizzee’ Kipling (Jaden Smith), and his brothers RaRa Kipling (Skylan Brooks),  Boo-Boo Kipling (T.J. Brown, Jr.) traverse the urban landscape, propelled by the lyrically-gifted Zeke, who is using his penchant for composing a mighty fine verse as a vehicle to fly high and escape his present circumstances.

There is also the burgeoning love story between Zeke and Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola), a young lady who is also trying to break free from her surroundings and the strict religious upbringing through the power of her voice. Her saving grace of sorts is her loving uncle Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits) who also happens to be a big cheese around these parts – he seems to have his hand in everything – from community development to music producing.

I think I should probably pause here because I really feel like I am giving a whole lotta plot away. But that is the thing. Over the nearly 6 hour run of the series a lot of stuff is happening, often simultaneously. But the storytellers do a really good job of structuring the story and the movements of the characters in such a way that you don’t feel overwhelmed. And sure Zeke, is the central figure in the machinations of the plot, but to be honest, this is an inspired, ensemble piece where no character is wasted.

Musically, the audience is treated to a blend of the nascent days of hip hop music (cheers to Nas, who I believe also is actually pitting the verses that adult Zeke performed), the glorious days of disco and club music which bellowed in the nightclubs and dance halls of New York City.

Nevertheless, I am not saying that it is a perfect or exacting recounting of the South Bronx of the late 1970s – one that is generally characterized as being mired in urban blight. As one would expect, especially in the first episode (directed by Luhrmann) it is given a ‘Luhrmannian’ luster, vibrancy, grandeur and escapism that were very not much markers of the era if you were living it.

But for all the glamor and glitz, there does lie a raw undercurrent that conveyed the times as they were – from wanton acts of violence and the sense that everything may not turn out the way the audience would want or expect, there is enough forbidding present to create a sense of unease.

Plainly stated, The Get Down is worth your eyeballs. It is Netflix’s costliest production to date and while the buzz around it (from what I have seen) is largely positive, it is not getting the streaming traffic that would probably make Netflix happy given the expense. Which is a shame.

In a world where we continue to bang on and on about representation of all manner of story being told and covering the multitude of the human experience, this is a story worth telling and worth being seen.

Slightly Incongruous Thoughts on TWD 6A

Editor’s note: Although I have had occasion to wax un-poetically about some of the television I enjoy, the original plan was not to post this review here on my main blog. However, as I started to write, it became a little longer than I had planned so please indulge me and hopefully enjoy my take on season 6A of The Walking Dead.

walkers on parade

Walkers on Parade. Photo credit: AMC Networks.

Well it is early December and we are at the midday point of the sixth season of The Walking Dead.

At this point in the season and the show at large, folks like me will begin to Monday quarterback what we have seen over the past eight weeks, casting a critical eye and waiting with bated breath for the first signs of fatigue for a show that for the last few years appeared to show no signs of slowing down; a challenge with this or any show that has had a decent run, is to keep the stories and characters fresh. This keeps the audience on their toes, begging for more and wanting to see what is in store for the not-so-merry band of zombie apocalypse survivors.

Onto my thoughts. While it definitely had its noteworthy moments and really good episodes, overall season 6A definitely tested the limits of my patience when watching a show live week-to-week. The pacing and plotting was a bit up and down and I felt like we spent an unnecessary amount of time with people (read most of the Alexandrians) whose collective fate I was not all that concerned about (sorry).

Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

And then there was the whole ‘Glenn Death’ thing, which I will not delve into simply because a large part of the fumble with this story arc would us meta*, and I just want to stick with the narrative as I saw it occur on my screen.

Allow me a sec to jump back before I move forward onto the episode that wrapped up the first eight episodes, Start to Finish. As you watched the episode, you were certain to pick up the title being said in dialogue (by a dying Deanna Monroe, played by force of nature Tovah Feldshuh), but for the general population, the title may have also incorrectly signaled a conclusion to this chapter of the story, kind of the way that Coda from last season did. Fast forward to a year later and that is not exactly how it played out here. By the end of the 43-minute run time, we were left with poor, ill-fated Sam calling out to his seemingly unaware mother, “Mom. Mom. Mom.” And then … fade to black! Wait, what? That’s it? Yes indeed, that was it.

Now I will say that this was not a bad episode by any stretch; it was a pretty solid one with a cliffhanger. But it was not what we have come to expect in our “midseason finale.”  And therein lies the problem.

The way the television universe currently operates, we as an audience are hungry for the next earth-shattering “OMG” moment/water cooler conversation talking points (usually triggered by the demise of a major character). Actually this is not so different than in times past – but the proliferation of social media highlights and magnifies the audience’s reaction and engagement with what they are consuming. When we get that moment, great, when we are less than satisfied with the payoff or lack thereof, cue the rotten tomatoes. Add to this the contrivance known as the midseason hiatus and you have the potential recipe for a momentum killer.

Because of this weeks/months long break within a season, we for all intents and purposes now have TWO seasons, which for me, sets an expectation of each part being neatly book-ended as much as possible – not necessarily a full conclusion, but more like we have a nice balance of resolution in some areas and a few breadcrumbs that will leave us curious enough to come back for more. Did 6A do that for me? Read on to the end to find out. But before that …

… here are a couple of other points worth mentioning. They serve as counterpoints to my argument presented above and I hope offer some perspective:

1) Giving You (TWD) the Benefit of the Doubt. Hell, the show is in its 6th season, has redunkulous ratings, a loyal, passionate fanbase and makes tons of money for AMC. That is a lot of televisual capital in the bank. So maybe, just maybe the creatives can be given some leeway to spend some of that goodwill in trying out new ways to entertain the audience? Say spend seven of the first eight episodes looking at 24-36 hr window from multiple perspectives? It is definitely ambitious storytelling to be sure. But a key is to make sure it is tight. In this instance, as I watched and re-watched it felt like a case of being locked in and committed to a storytelling device to the point where it may be a liability to the actual story. We won’t know for sure until late March/early April 2016, which leads to my next point ….

2) The Long Run. Right now, I am confident that by episode 16 (yeah I know), there will be a narrative payoff that will present a completely satisfying picture at the end. I do feel like the ability to effectively implement this “long game” approach to storytelling is a clear advantage a pay cable show such as Game of Thrones has in creating its arcs for a season. Not only are the producer given essentially a full hour (usually falls in the 50-55 minute range), but the show runs for a consecutive 10 weeks (give or take a holiday). So even while the season is shorter, GoT is able to get through its story without the concern of going on an overly long hiatus. Unfortunately, when you try a similar format on a show with a pretty long hiatus, the result is well, TWD 6A.

Enough of that; now onto 6B. Simply stated, I am really looking forward to the back half. I have a vague understanding of what may lie ahead and as I said above; with it comes the promise of a narrative payoff in both the short and long term. Beyond that, I am so invested in the characters it would take a whole hell of a lot to get me to turn away and not look back.

In other words, that means come Valentine’s Day, you will know where to find me … nestled comfortably in my bed, hot cocoa at the ready, and tuned into AMC.

Finally a Valentine's Day to look forward to. (Photo Credit: AMC Networks)

Finally a Valentine’s Day to look forward to.(Photo Credit: AMC Networks)

———————————

* Speaking of meta, there was also the prologue for 6B that inconveniently aired during the first ad break of AMC’s latest venture, Into the Badlands. I think if the scene aired post credits (like most of these have done in the past) it would have worked to the episode’s favor. But again this is kinda meta, but it is something worth thinking about.

 

TV Break: Show Me a Hero (HBO, 2015)

It used to be the case that the dogged days of summer brought with it a minimal level of televisual entertainment. But nowadays, I feel like between cable, premium and streaming services I am stumbling on enthralling show after enthralling show. So while I am currently eagerly awaiting the series premiere of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead (this upcoming Sunday – yippee!), there is another show in the same time slot competing for my attention.

Actually it is a miniseries – the David Simon (The Wire, Treme) and William F. Zorzi scripted / Paul Haggis (Crash) directed Show Me a Hero. Taking its title from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote and based on the book of the same name (written by former New York Times staffer Lisa Belkin), this six-parter dramatizes the battle between the federal court system and New York State’s second largest city, Yonkers. For years, the parties were at odds about the court-ordered allocation of low-income housing units in the predominantly white wards of East Yonkers. As the series’ action begins, the city is living under the constant threat of crippling fines and imprisonment of city officials for their refusal to comply with the court order. Add to the mix a close mayoral race, and with it the opportunity to exploit the political and emotional tension of recent events.

150709-show-me-a-hero-1024x374

The central figure in this saga is a newly-minted 28-year old (young) mayor of Yonkers – Nick Wasicsko (played by Oscar Isaac), who initially ran for mayor on the platform of opposing the desegregation plan, only later to reverse his position; the political fallout can be best described as savage and unrelenting.

In typical David Simon fashion, the overarching socio-political and socio-economic themes of the story are made personal. Presented at a slow, deliberate pace, this allows the audience to connect to and relate to the people on an intimate level, as opposed to a more simplified, generalized caricature often assigned to parties on opposing sides of such an argument.

Two episodes in, what makes the stories and individuals so accessible and engaging are the convincing of the cast – who from the top-down deliver honest, earnest performances.

And talk about the political being personal – while not directly impacted, I was a youngin’ growing up in a neighboring town during this dark mark in Westchester history. While this case and its surrounding politics led me to forever side-eye the city, the feeling was not allowed to fade into the annuls of history. Sadly, to this day, the county, as well as many others nationwide continue to find themselves battling over the same issues presented here – access to sites available for low income and affordable housing units.

The first two hours of Show Me a Hero aired this past Sunday and are currently available OnDemand. The remaining four episodes will air over the next two Sundays in two-hour blocks.

Show Me a Hero is a timely piece of storytelling well told and highly recommended by this blogger.

 

Photo credit: HBO

 

And Then There is the Small Screen …

So yeah, I love cinema. But I also love me some television too!

From time to time, I have tagged in this space couple of my posts as their content is targeted for the small screen. But like I have done in the past, I thought I would share with you some of the programming I am currently watching on television.

I really feel like scripted drama has for a number of years produced programming that rivals what is on offer at the local cinema, having the added benefit of time and space to allow a story  and characters to breathe and become fully formed.

 

Borgen

This Danish political drama accomplishes what few of our favorites at home are able to achieve – show the complex inner workings and machinations of governing and the impact and cost this quest for power has on the personal lives of its players. I am still getting through all the episodes, but shout out to Todd Mason for being one of a few to bring this series to my attention.

borgen-season-one-banner

 

Penny Dreadful (SHO)

Victorian Gothic horror at its finest. It’s a marvel – beautifully photographed and wonderfully played– this series takes many of the classic ‘monsters’ from literature, mixes them with some newly imagined folks and produces some must see television. It is a world of less than savory characters that we have just been introduced to. With a limited first series of just eight episodes, the stage is well set. And have no fear – you will have plenty of time to play catch up with it in time for the new season, coming sometime in 2015 (Season One is available Oct 7th on the following platforms: iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu, Target Ticket, Sony Ent Network & VerizonFios).

Penny Dreadful

 

Game of Thrones (HBO)

Well, just because it is the land of swords and castles and Kit Harington’s flowing locks blowing in the wind. This last season ended on such an epic note for me I cannot even begin to describe. And no, I have not read the source material and have no intentions of doing so (decided a while ago); I am just going to go along for the ride, courtesy of HBO.

Game of Thrones, Iron Throne

 

Outlander (STARZ)

The show has not even aired officially (starts this Saturday at 9:00PM), but the premiere episode (now available online and On Demand) has me hooked! So much so, I have already started to read ahead with the novels to find out what happens next.

Outlander

 

Orphan Black (BBC America)

If truth be told this past season had a whole LOT going on (sometimes too much); season one ROCKED. And um … Tatiana Maslany.

Orphan Black, Tatiana Malsany

 

The Great British Bakeoff (BBC One)

This is an import so I really do not get to see it in real time (first caught on a trip abroad) but I love cake and this is like the most exciting, tension-packed thing you will probably ever see in a cookery show. SERIOUSLY – you guys are going to have to believe me.

p023t2vw

Image Credit: BBC One

 

And coming this fall (next month to be exact) …

SOA-POSTER

The final season of Sons of Anarchy (FX). Sure I was a bit late to this party, but I am glad to have joined. Its departure will be sad, but I am confident it will be a satisfying end (notice I did not say “happy”). And the above poster does not hold out too much promise (save Hunnam’s face).

 

Also in my wheelhouse: American Horror Story: Freakshow; Devious Maids (it knows what it is and I LOVE that about the show); whatever Masterpiece has on offer (The latest? Endeavor); House of Cards; Doctor Who (as of this month, starring Peter Capaldi).

Doctor Who Capaldi

 

I know I am missing some stuff. I really watch too much television. But what about you? Any recommendations to fill my DVR queue? What are you all watching? Hit the comments section below.

31 Days of Oscar

This winter has been brutal here in the Northeast, like Day After Tomorrow brutal. But fortunately it has been made a little warmer thanks to my television friends at TCM, with their annual 31 Days of Oscar viewing party.

tcm31days

Image Credit: Turner Classic Movies

In the lead up to the 86th Annual Academy Awards:

Each night’s [TCM] primetime lineup from Feb. 1 through March 3 will be devoted to showcasing all the movies nominated in a particular category in a given year. Meanwhile, daytime programming will focus on specific categories, with winners and nominees from multiple years.

So yeah we are currently a third of a way into the cinematic lovefest, but that does not mean you have to miss out on the remaining action. I personally feel about cinema the way I feel about any other topic of interest – in order to be truly literate in that area, a grasp of all leading up to the present is essential for true appreciation.

The prime time schedule (as of today, February 12) includes:

  • Feb. 12: Best Supporting Actress nominees from 1963
  • Feb. 13: Best Actress nominees from 1942
  • Feb. 14: Best Actor nominees from 1955
  • Feb. 15: Best Picture nominees from 1929-30
  • Feb. 16: Best Picture nominees from 1951
  • Feb. 17: Best Scoring of Music – Adaptation or Treatment nominees from 1962
  • Feb. 18: Best Film Editing nominees from 1959
  • Feb. 19: Best Supporting Actor nominees from 1937
  • Feb. 20: Best Actress nominees from 1934
  • Feb. 21: Best Actor nominees from 1944
  • Feb. 22: Best Picture nominees from 1948
  • Feb. 23: Best Picture nominees from 1938
  • Feb. 24: Best B/W Art Direction – Set Decoration nominees from 1965
  • Feb. 25: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White nominees from 1947
  • Feb. 26: Best Actress nominees from 1931-32
  • Feb. 27: Best Actor nominees from 1943
  • March 1: Best Picture nominees from 1967
  • March 2: Best Picture nominees from 1935
  • March 3: Best Special Effects nominees from 1958

As if the films are not enticing enough, the interstitial “extras” are equally informative; the original TCM program, And the Oscar Goes To … airs this Saturday (February 15th) and traces the history of the ultimate in cinematic awards ceremonies, with archive clips and interviews with past and contemporary winners, it is a treat for people who love the Academy Awards.  

Note, if you missed anything, you can always play catch up with the NEW Watch TCM App. And for a little more fun, if you are on Twitter, you can participate in live-tweeting events with my classic film friends using the TCMParty hashtag (#TCMParty).

 

My Thoughts on “The Story of Film: An Odyssey”

Originally released in the UK in 2011, The Story of Film: An Odyssey got its US television broadcast premier Monday night (9/2) on TCM. An inspired piece, the documentary spans 15-episodes and is presented by UK-based film critic Mark Cousin, its content adapted from his 2004 book The Story of Film. Each episode covering a fixed span of time serves as an “introduction” to a series of films related to the theme of the episode.

Story of Film

What is it about you may ask? Well, it is exactly as advertised on the tin – it traces the history of cinema as an art form, starting with the visionaries and pioneers (Edison, Lumiere Brothers) and eventually working its way up to contemporary cinema.

How it gets there is unique to say the very least. It is often a personal insight that combines history with the more technical aspects of the movie-making process, all the while interconnecting these elements to the entire world of cinema, past and present. In that way it truly spans all corners of the globe and looks at film from a decidedly international perspective.

Be warned, as I was earlier in the evening: it does contain some plot revelations (“spoilers”) to films that you may have yet to see; for example, in the first episode (the only one I have seen so far), the ending of Once Upon a Time in the West was revealed. Will this stop me from watching? Heck nah. I find the history and the various clips chosen to accompany the documentary far too compelling to turn away.

Well that's a shame ...

Well that’s a shame …

It should also be noted that the documentary is narrated by Mr. Cousins himself, and is delivered in what I can only describe as an unconventional manner. I suppose may be due in part with his rather distinctive brogue (although Northern Irish, Mr. Cousins is currently based in Scotland). Another characteristic I have surmised early on is that some of the statements made by M. Cousins may come off as rather jarring and opinionated. In his preamble to Episode 1, he states that Casablanca is not a classic film. What the … ? However, upon further reflection, I realize this does not mean that he is saying the film is bad or unworthy of special merit, praise or noteworthiness, but rather I suspect/hope he is trying to blow wide open, to challenge and expand our notions about what he calls “the language of film,” in a way that moves beyond films being merely a Hollywood convention. In other words, Casablanca may very well be a landmark of American film making history, but it is just one in a larger canon of what makes cinema CINEMA. Even in this light, or maybe because of this, I am here for all of it.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey will air new episodes every Monday night through December, with a repeat airing on Tuesday, although the accompanying films will be new each evening.

Have you seen this documentary (in part or in whole)? Share your thoughts in the comments below.