Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ten Television Dramas from the Last Decade

At some point during the years 2000-2010, some critics decided that we were living through a "Golden Age" of American Television Drama. And you know what? I think they were right. American TV has produced some amazing shows over the last ten years, driven mainly by the success of HBO's original programming, which seemed to stimulate the American Networks and the other subscription channels to raise their game while producing their own programming. This means that while there is still a lot of crap on TV, the general standard has risen steadily. And the cream of the crop is visual storytelling as good as any produced in cinema or tv over the last half-century.
A Top Ten:

1. The Wire (2002 - 2008)
Obviously. But then some - many? - prefer The Sopranos. The Wire was better for longer, more consistent, more human and interested, more moving and funnier than any other television show I've ever seen. The first three Seasons long arc of a narrative is worth all those comparisons to Dickens and Zola and even Shakespeare. Richness of character, fantastic writing and acting, a defined, distinctive visual identity, and a sickening, riveting relevance to the way we live now were just some of the reasons. Season 4 was a beautiful reinvention and if Season 5 was a slight slip in quality - which it most certainly was - then it was still better than 99.9% of everything else on TV. Books have been written about this show, and will continue to be written. I've said it here before, but The Wire is the greatest work of fiction of the last decade in any medium, for my money. And thats worth saying again.

2. Mad Men (2007 - )
Every episode dense with thematic and narrative detail, each performance an exquisitely precise marvel of emotional repression (and sometimes, release), the period styling so lovely it can be almost a distraction, the storytelling confident and sensitive, subtle and thrilling: this show addresses the making of our world, masculinity, the battle of the sexes, the culture wars, and much else besides. It is also as gripping a soap opera as has been produced over the last few years, and its cast and writing are superb.

3. Deadwood (2004 - 2006)
Shakespearian richness of character and dialogue, ultraviolence, whores, whisky, shootouts in the main street, Indian warriors, lovely photography, character actors in every corner of each frame, plague, grizzled old prospectors, satanic millionaires, Swearengen, chinatown, poker, boot hill, a russian telegram operator, opium, the best and most brutal fight scene I've ever seen on television, Wyatt Earp, Gustavo Santoalalla's "Iguazu" put to devastating use, plot twists always founded firmly in character, a creepy, hilarious Hotel owner, Wild Bill Hickock. Great show.

4. The Sopranos (1999 - 2007)
It would be higher, if only it hadn't coasted for three Seasons between Seasons 3 and 6. It was still brilliant, of course. But the standard it had set in those first two seasons was so incredibly high that it was impossible to maintain, bar for one episode or so a Season. Too much great material has already been written about this immense Series for me to add anything. If you haven't see it, what are you waiting for?

5. Band of Brothers (2001)
Epic and unashamedly sentimental in parts, this series truly sends the audience on a journey with its characters. A horrific, traumatic, oddly beautiful journey from Normandy to the Wolf's Nest, that is. Stuffed with great performances from a rising cast and centred on a handful of extraordinary episodes, Band of Brothers is pitiless in its portrayal of the horrors of War, and yet it is no less intent on portraying the bonds and camaraderie of its protagonists who grow and develop as people as the War progresses. Brilliantly shot and written, it knocks the likes of Saving Private Ryan into a cocked hat. Yes, its a hagiography, but its never sentimental about its characters, and the appearances of interview clips with the real life men - now elderly veterans - grounds it and provides a resonance much fiction reaches desperately for but never grasps.

6. Friday Night Lights (2006 - )
A portrait of a Texan town where High School football is the unifying factor, allowing the narrative to follow a diverse and fascinating cast of characters, including students, coaches, parents and friends. This device also allows the show to address some big topics - religion, the Economy, politics, Class. But it does this subtly, lightly, never tubthumping or axe-grinding. It just observes and reports. The cast is fabulous, the setting beautifully evoked, and when all else fails, the football stories propel the narrative onwards, treating territory which usually demands cliche sensitively. The cliches are still there - those cliches are founded in real sport, after all, with characteristic situations like victory from the jaws of defeat and plenty of inspirational speeches - but they are so well executed, written and performed with such conviction and emotional intensity, that they transcend the genre. More importantly, they always serve a purpose in terms of character or theme. We learn about these people in these games, we watch them grow and fail. This means that this show has characters I care about more than almost any other, which makes it - a slight wobble in the Second Season aside - compulsive viewing.

7. Generation Kill (2008)
Theres something perfect about Generation Kill. Brilliantly made and acted, it provides a faultlessly immersive experience of combat at the dawn of the second Gulf War. It follows a Recon Platoon as they drive in Humvees into enemy territory ahead of the main invading force in the early weeks of the War. Its a portrait of the daily existence of the Marines as they deal with Iraqi civilians, enemy combatants, the world back home, and their own command structure. It is a brilliant, hilarious workplace comedy, where the employees struggle constantly with idiotic orders and incompetent superiors. A fine evocation of camaraderie and brotherhood and the tensions accompanying such under intolerable pressure. A thrilling story of men in war. The cast - mainly unknowns - are extraordinary, to the extent that seeing any of them in any other show or film is a jolting experience, because they are Marines in Iraq to me. Its directed with style and muscle, and is a better treatment of Iraq than just about any film on the subject, except perhaps for The Hurt Locker. I wish there were more than one Season.

8. Lost (2004-2010)
As the big Network escapist shows go, Lost is as classy as it gets. I understand people losing patience with its interminable hinting and loose ends, but its premise is arresting enough, its storytelling assured and stylish enough, its production glossy and beautiful enough to make up for that. Its a cliche, but every episode of Lost feels like a big blockbuster movie; you can see the money onscreen. Partly thats the location work, partly the strong cast, and partly the impressive spectacle - this show always features big action scenes and foregrounded special effects. But the narrative is compelling, the disaster movie tropes (a disparate cast of characters, each with his or her own problem, secret or dilemma, which affects the group dynamic and situation) working brilliantly over the duration of a long-running series, where characters can be thoroughly explored and interrogated.
Yes, its frequently ridiculous, but like much great sci-fi, it uses its more fantastic elements to explore some weighty themes, even if it does tend to skate the surface rather than plumb the depths. And as a genre show, it is commendably straightfaced and fullblooded, dealing with this material - monsters, time travel, miracles etc - without irony or intentional camp. The difficulty inherent in such an enterprise is obvious in the failure of its many imitators - Heroes and FlashForward being the most high-profile - to approach Lost's quality or success.

9. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Its obviously difficult for any show to maintain its quality over a run of more than two or three Seasons. New characters and storylines have to be integrated without altering the chemistry which gave the show its initial success. Six Feet Under suffered more than most from this problem, losing its way horrendously in its third and fourth Seasons, when its melodramatic elements overwhelmed the storylines and the characters. It recovered well for its final Season, but it would be a lot higher up this list if it had been as good as its first two Seasons for its entire lifespan. Those first Seasons were incredible - a soap opera with a streak of profundity running through it, dealing with the way people handle mortality and the deaths of loved ones week in and week out while juggling a fine cast playing damaged, realistic, truthful people struggling through small, flawed little lives of disappointment and fleeting happiness. If that sounds bleak, it often was. But it was also funny, often in a surreal way, effortlessly moving, and as intelligent and thoughtfully crafted as anything HBO has ever done.

10. Occupation (2009)
In 1999 the BBC broadcast Peter Kosminsky and Leigh Jackson's remarkable Warriors, a drama following a peacekeeping Unit of the British army during the War in the former Yugoslavia. Aside from uncovering a couple of stars - Matthew MacFadden, Damien Lewis and Ioan Gruffyd all had major parts - it was a sensitive, thought-provoking and immensely moving piece of work, and probably the best treatment of that conflict in art from outside Yugoslavia. In 2009, the BBC seemed almost to bookend a decade with the broadcast of Occupation, Nick Murphy and Peter Bowker's drama following three British Soldiers through the Iraq War and occupation, and detailing their experiences in the aftermath. Unblinking, and as such, more than a little depressing, the series reflected the War from various different angles, showing us the experiences of soldiers, mercenaries, medics and civilians in both Iraq and teh Uk, but it always shows Basra as a theatre for brutality and suffering. The cast, relatively starry for British tv, is superb, Murphy's direction atmospheric and displaying a lovely eye, and Bowker's script marks him out as perhaps the finest writer in British television today, capable of writing such a political drama but also capable of making it gripping, sporadically funny and utterly emotionally effecting.

Close but no Cigar: Rome, Sons of Anarchy, The Unit, Red Riding, The Devils Whore, Spiral, Party Animals, The West Wing, John from Cincinnati, From the Earth to the Moon, True Blood, Bodies, Britz, To The Ends of the Earth.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Screengrab - "Kick some ass and drink some beer."

How often does cinema really capture the truth of violence in all its awful banality? Not often, is the answer.
Violence is spectacle, and cinema is obsessed with and drawn to spectacle. Violence is then portrayed as something exciting, stimulating, something almost glamorous. This is as true of a firefight in a War Zone as it is of a domestic argument that suddenly becomes physical. Of course, violence is not alone in the realms of human experience in being misrepresented and glamourised by cinema. Few experiences in real life are presented plainly and without artifice in movies. Sex is another obvious universal rarely truthfully depicted.
But the humble fight scene is perhaps the worst culprit.

If you've ever been in - or even witnessed - a real fight, then chances are you will understand the disparity between your experience and what you have seen portrayed in cinema. In real life, fights are generally fumbled wrestling matches with few clean punches thrown and much tugging at clothing for purchase. There might be a good punch thrown early on - the opening blow - but untrained combatants then tend to grab on to one another and sooner or later one or both will fall to the ground as they try to find the space and balance to get in a few good punches. Lots of grappling, some short blows, knees and elbows everywhere, people desperately clasping each others ears and hair and trying to trip one another.
I haven't been in a fight in a long time. Not since I moved to London, in fact. Dublin seems to have more of a problem with casual street violence than London, I think. I've never really seen any violence on a night out in London. But if you're in Dublin City Centre on a weekend night, then you will inevitably see a scuffle or a brawl in the street or in a pub. Its almost part of the character of the City. I glimpsed many in my years growing up there, and they alongside the ones I was in were always chaotic and frustrating - as well as terrifying and sickening - for just these reasons. Art teaches us that combat is always clean, full of choreographed, elegantly brutal moves. Even the more "realistic" fight scenes in modern cinema - say the three central fights in the Bourne franchise - for all their shaky-cam authenticity and the intimacy of their grappling, they are beautifully put together strings of short, expert punches, blocks and holds the likes of which are beyond most boozed-up brawlers outside the worlds nightclubs. But cinema conditions us to expect hand-to-hand violence to resemble this, and maybe it does, when two Special Forces soldiers duke it out. But when a factory worker and a Bus Driver get into it over a spilled pint in the Hare & Hound on a Saturday night, you're not going to see anything expert or glamorous.

There are a few notable movie fights that make some attempt at a realist portrayal. In Mean Streets (1973) long pool hall brawl, Martin Scorsese films a repetitive series of grapplings and amateurish wrestling with men swinging ill-timed, off target punches past each other heads and little real damage being done. James Gray films a fight between best friends played by Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix in The Yards (2000) as if its an intense argument and the actors play it like they're impersonating brawling two year olds; too close to do any damage, they push at and lean into and swing at one another for a few minutes before collapsing together exhausted by the exertion.
British realist drama - perhaps the sub-genre you would expect to portray casual violence with the most fealty - tends to depict beatings rather than combat. The beaten-down, struggling hero of your average kitchen sink drama is generally being beaten up, or bullying somebody even weaker than himself and not indulging in desperate hand-to-hand combat.

Which leaves us with Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused (1993). Made on a small budget with a sprawling cast of unknowns who have since gone on to have careers of varying success (among them: Matthew McConaughey, Renee Zellwegger, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck and Milla Jovovich), Linklater's ambling, amiable film is a sort of low key Epic. Following a large group of students at a Texan school over the course of one long day, it circles its narrative in wide arcs, introducing figures and returning to them later, observing as they pair off and spar, noting the social networks and conventions binding them together. It paints note perfect pictures of various archetypal scenes: stoners talking rubbish at each other, teens cruising aimlessly in search of thrills, the deflowering of a young man, a jock finding himself and making a stand, young people being taken under the wing of older schoolmates. Its authenticity is unmistakeable; not only because it is plainly semi-autobiographical, but because there will be resonances and familiar moments to anyone who went to school, or anyone who mixed in large circles as a teenager. One such moment is the fight scene.

What is great about it is its banality; the way in which it seems to spring out of the night sky in an instant. Real violence, for all that it is so often inept, is terrifying. And it is accompanied by those few brief seconds beforehand when you can feel it coming, as if the air itself has thickened. This is probably the throb of adrenaline beginning to surge through the body, but it is the sort of moment rarely captured by cinema. In The Bourne Identity (2002) there is an instant before the fight scene in the embassy when director Doug Liman drops in a slo-mo shot. It is just Matt Damon in close-up, forms moving towards him over his shoulder. Damon looks regretful, downcast. Then the film winds back up and Damon is a blur of violent purpose. But that slo-mo shot beforehand makes that scene feel, for all its absurdity, much more authentic, makes plain Bourne's key factor as a sympathetic, vulnerable and even somewhat realistic figure - he knows what is coming and in that pause, he is feeling it, preparing. But then, he is a professional killer. In Dazed & Confused, the two combatants are high school students.

Linklater's fight is so real and familiar it is almost chilling. It helps that all the groundwork the film has already laid makes this world feel warm and full of fully-imagined people. Just as in his two Sunrise/Sunset films, Linklater's characters are interesting because of what they have to say, and the film is full of Slacker-esque rants from the mouths of various figures about pop culture, politics and casual, everyday philosophy (for me, perhaps the best aspect of Linklater as a writer-director is the ease with which he addresses philosophical questions and makes their discussion naturalistic and accessible time and again in his work). Three of the most interesting and likable characters are the two geeks, Mike (Adam Goldberg) and Tony (Anthony Rapp), who hang around with Jodi (Michelle Burke). This trio exist slightly on the margins of High School society, and yet seem to be warmly regarded - they are friendly with some of the Football set, have a half-fond nickname (Woodward and Bernstein) and move with ease among their peers, probably because they are Seniors. Their conversation is slightly more self-conscious than that of most of their schoolmates, but they are also consistently funny, albeit in a frequently arch and intellectual way. Mike is prone to statements like "what everybody in this car needs is some good ol' worthwhile visceral experience" while Tony describes his dream of having sex with a woman with a perfect body but the head of Abraham Lincoln (hat and beard et al) and they are refreshingly free with irony throughout.
Each of the trio gets their own arc over the course of the film, a beautiful example of Linklater's narrative democracy. So Tony meets a pretty, intelligent Freshman and makes a connection with her, Jodi is charmed by McConaughey's hilarious Wooderson, and Goldberg's Mike gets his ass kicked by Clint (Nicky Katt).

Casting is important here. Katt has since played his share of repellant bullies, villains and alpha males, and he can do menace and intensity with tremendous conviction. He makes Clint vivid and scary with only a few seconds of screen-time after the trio pass Clint and his friends drinking beer on their way into a forest Keg-Party and Clint, all aggressive attitude and snarl, approaches Mike to start this conversation:

Clint: What did you just say?
Mike: What?
Clint: Just now, man. When you walked past, what'd you say?
Mike: About what?
Clint: You said, "Someone's tokin' some reefer."
Mike: No, I meant somewhere I smell some pot, you know? It was just an observation.
Clint: Oh, an observation, huh? Well who the hell are you, man? Isaac fucking Newton?

I've been in situations like this - when somebody else approaches, bent on violence, and there is really no way out. The queasy sudden inevitability of what is to come and the sense of unreality are both captured perfectly by the film. Goldberg's baffled, almost hurt disbelief feels true. Clint hits him but the fight is averted by others, peacemakers trying to maintain the party vibe.
It is here that Clint has his best line in a spin on a bubblegum blurb : "I only came here to do two things, kick some ass and drink some beer. Looks like we're almost outta beer..." Meanwhile Mike is getting drunk and obsessing over the incident, saying he feels like he's being stalked by a Nazi and ranting incoherently about how much he hates Clint. Goldberg has his own strange and slightly creepy intensity - put to good use in a brief recurring role as Joey's roommate Eddie on Friends, of all places - and his explicitly Jewish and ironic presence can give some of his roles an acute resonance. His scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998), where his Mellish is a Jewish soldier righteously furious about the treatment of his people by the Germans give his fate in that movie its own unique impact. In recent years he has been put to best use in comedies like Julie Delpy's 2 Days In Paris (2007) and Jonathan Parker's (Untitled) (2009) where his sidelong deliveries are catered to by smart dialogue. In Dazed & Confused, he seems just intense and angry enough to do what he does (Goldberg has said that he wanted to do the film purely because of the fight scene, and he gives it his all).

What he does is return to Clint and pick a fight, getting in one good punch before he is overpowered and beaten up. Clint has to be dragged off him by the film's two most popular alpha males, Pink and Wooderson. This basically ends the Keg Party, as the beer runs out and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Tuesday's Gone soundtracks a lovely shot as the camera rises to the stars.
The fight itself has been brief, sloppy, with little damage done on either side. Mike's punch is improbably good, and the way Clint recovers to more or less bat him to the ground before leaping upon him and smashing him repeatedly in the head is scarily similar to any number of real fights I have witnessed between outmatched opponents. One on top, hurting the other.
Mike sums it up later, looking on the bright side; "You always hear about Hemingway starting fights, but you never hear about who won". But the things Linklater really does right in this whole passage are all about tone and atmosphere. He remembers how these things felt. Not only fights, but falling in love, cruising the streets with friends, evading bullies, listening to rock music. Which is one reason why Dazed & Confused is, in my opinion, the greatest Teen movie ever made.

Linklater's film flopped upon release, but it has been a big seller on dvd and has a sizeable cult following. Aside from its brilliant soundtrack, collection of stars-to-be, relaxed but deceptively meaty content and frequently hilarious script, thats because it gets so many things right about life at a certain age. Many films get nothing right about life at any stage, and as such, Dazed & Confused should be treasured and celebrated.
In recent years, Linklater has spoken of a spiritual sequel to the film, set in College, but financing has proven elusive, which is a damn shame. Because I desperately want to see his version of a College Barroom brawl...

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Vintage Trailer of the Week 45

Knightriders (1981) may just be George Romeo's strangest and most little-seen film. Following a ragged bunch of Carnies around the slightly odd Renaissance faire circuit in the States it centres on Ed Harris' modern day King Arthur figure as he jousts (on motorcycle) and tries desperately to keep his warring court of rival riders and their women together. This is set against the pressures of the modern world, with corrupt sheriffs, rowdy crowds and greedy promoters all obstacles to Harris' need to live his life according to his Arthurian principles. Portentous and too idiosyncratic for its own commercial good, Romero's film is a fascinating one-off with a great performance from Harris holding it together.


Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Spirit of Erice

Victor Erice has only made three full-length features. His debut, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) is, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made, a beautiful, haunting and multi-layered masterpiece. The South (1983) was his follow-up, but I have never seen it. A Spanish dvd is now out of print and fetches insane amounts on eBay every month or so, and its on YouTube in 9 segments, but it seems a sin to watch a full Erice feature on YouTube. The Quince Tree Sun (1992) is a lovely little semi-documentary, utterly different from his debut yet just as compelling in its own way. All of which adds up to the image of Erice as a Spanish Terence Malick.

But Malick has made features in the last decade, whereas all Erice has done is La Mort Rouge (2006), a half-hour documentary on his correspondance with Abbas Kiarostami for the exhibition on the same subject, "Erice-Kiarostami". That and a ten minute film titled Lifeline for the Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002) anthology of shorts. Its a beautiful piece of work, as meditative and layered as I can imagine any short of such brevity could be, and it suggests just how great a talent Erice possesses and just how keenly we miss him working more consistently.

The good news is that its on YouTube (and here is an interview he gave at the NFT in London in which he discusses the film):

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

"I am not under any orders to make the world a better place"

I get the feeling with a lot of actors that they're boring. That if I met them in real life they would have nothing of interest to say to me, or nothing of interest to say to most anybody. And why should they, I guess. They get paid for being pretty, for being good at pretending to be other people, for playing a nice game of dress up. Its especially true of young actors, the young leading men and leading ladies of modern cinema. Older stars - the likes of Jack Nicholson, say, or even an actor whose onscreen presence was always a little bland and muted; Robert Redford, they seem like interesting men, with life experiences and interests that would be worth hearing about. Could the same be said for Robert Pattinson or Taylor Kitsch or Chris Pine? Maybe it could, but I just don't see it.

Ethan Hawke was once just such a young actor. Worse, he was a child actor. There he is at the tender age of 14 alongside River Phoenix, playing the lead in the thinking child's Goonies; Joe Dante's superb Explorers (1985). Somehow, Explorers flopped, and Hawke didn't act again until Dad (1989), and didn't really make an impression on anybody until Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989), in which he is haunting and moving as the scholarship kid in a school full of little rich boys. This was the stage when his career should have stumbled, but instead this is where Hawke basically set the pattern for how he would run it which has continued to this day. First, he took the commercial option, taking the human lead in Disney's White Fang (Randal Kleiser, 1991), and following it with a bad teen-comedy - Mystery Date (Jonathan Wacks, 1991) - but then he chose to work with two youngish directors in promising, vaguely arty projects based on acclaimed novels. First, he joined the terrific young ensemble (Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, Frank Whalley) in Keith Gordon's adaptation of William Wharton's A Midnight Clear (1992), then he took a part in Stephen Gyllenhaal's film of Graham Swift's Waterland (1992). Neither film made any money, but both were worthy and more intelligent than most Hollywood cinema even aspires to be. In each, there was nothing starry about Hawke. He disappeared into the ensemble, perhaps a tribute to his roots in theatre, where being part of a company of regular players is expected.

He was part of another ensemble for his next big studio film, Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993) but he crystalized his image as a sort of super-slacker with his role as Troy in Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994). A studio-engineered attempt to tap into the Generation X demographic which was considered a potential goldmine but also regarded as impossible to predict and difficult to market to, the film was written by Helen Childress while she was a 19 year old College Student, and it bends over backwards to be friendly to the generation it tries to portray. So its characters trade in pop culture references, are depressed about their McJobs but generally too apathetic and lazy to do much about it, and want to work in the arts (Troy is in a band and Lelaina makes documentaries). The whole thing is self-consciously youthful, with its satire of MTV and its soundtrack full of slightly-too mainstream alternative Rock and retro Classics ("My Sharona" and "Baby I Love Your Way" stand out). Hawke is almost comically slackerish - a poster-boy for a sterotyped generation - and his performance is sullen and lacking his usual sensitivity, though there are flashes of wit. But this role did seem to nudge him toward Richard Linklater, who would become perhaps his key creative partner over the next decade.

His second big slacker role was in Linklater's sublime Before Sunrise (1995), in which he is likable and funny and believable as his somewhat lost young man spends a day wandering around Vienna with Julie Delpy's French stranger. With that film, Hawke gave himself a new cachet - he and Delpy were absolutely crucial to the film's success, and it did seem that each gave a lot of themselves to their characters. So Hawke's image as the intense, slightly too serious young bohemian Millionaire Hollywood actor was sealed. But he defied it, and this is what I respect about him. He doesn't care what his image is, he just wants to do the work. So he wrote a decent beat novel, The Hottest State, in 1996, and continued to make interesting films with interesting Directors. Over the next five years, he would publish another novel, direct an arty drama (Chelsea Walls, 2001) and appear in a diverse selection of fascinating material, from Andrew Niccol's minor masterpiece Gattaca (1997), through the flawed auteur-meets-a-modern-studio misfires of The Newton Boys (Linklater, 1998) and Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron, 1998) to Michael Almereyda's excellent Hamlet (2000) and Scott Hicks' lifeless but lovely Snow Falling On Cedars (1999). He was stretching himself and testing his chops as an actor and leading man. 2001 would be a big year for him. It seems a watershed, in fact.

Firstly, he was brilliant in Linklater's Tape, a digitally-shot adaptation of Stephen Belber's intense three-hander play alongside his then-wife Uma Thurman and old Dead Poet's alumni Robert Sean Leonard. Then, he took the atypical decision to accept the key supporting role in Training Day (Antoine Fuqua). He had never really done any genre films before. But Training Day was as pulpy as Big Hollywood films ever get - a tale of dirty cops, ghetto politics, drug deals gone wrong, backstabbing and gunplay, its David Ayer script was elevated somewhat by a star of Denzel Washington's magnitude. Hawke just added to the air of classy slumming, and acting opposite Denzel obviously helped him up his game - in the film he is utterly sympathetic; vulnerable yet tough, confused yet wily, intimidated yet standing his ground. His performance supplies the foundation for Washington's much showier grandstanding. Last he directed Chelsea Walls, an obscure and somewhat tedious - but nicely directed - adaptation of Nicole Burdette's play with a great Jeff Tweedy soundtrack.

Training Day had changed the way the industry saw Hawke, however, and he seemed eager to be regarded as a versatile, commercially viable leading man. So he guest-starred in an episode of Alias in 2003, before reuniting with Linklater and Delpy for the plain magnificent Before Sunset (2004). Around this time his marriage to Thurman was disintegrating and he worked a lot, demonstrating a marked - and new - enthusiasm for genre material in particular. First he took a role in D.J. Caruso's potboiler thriller Taking Lives (2004), perhaps the most obviously "paycheck" role of his entire career. He followed that by appearing in Jean-Francois Richet's remake of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (2005). Richet's film is every inch the modern b-movie. Medium budget, midranked actors, action but no great spectacle, predictable in every particular, it just about works. Hawke plays it like hes doing Chekov, and this has been the most satisfying element of this phase of his career: he takes it seriously and never condescends to the material, even when it deserves condescension. So in the trashy, derivative Daybreakers (Michael & Peter Spierig, 2009), he seems earnest in his portrayal of the conscience-stricken vampire scientist searching for a miracle blood substitute, and his performance introduces the only discernible note of human emotional interest. He is in a good position and at a good age for an actor - the fact that he is neither a pretty boy nor a tough guy give him a rare versatility. He can play regular guys; blue collar workers and family men, as well as the usual cop roles and romantic leads. And he can act. His handsomeness is not perfect - he is vaguely horsey and adenoidal, but his intelligence is obvious in that quick wit and his facility with irony. And he retains the puppy dog quality Weir put to such good use in Dead Poets Society - sad, soulful eyes and an air of the overgrown boy hang around him in many roles. It makes him a compelling, unusual presence for a leading man, and gives him access to the sort of material denied to many of his generation.

His background in theatre gives him a slight air of pretension by the standards of his peers, but that is a large part of why he is interesting. His recent career choices seem to centre on a handful of gritty morality plays in which he plays flawed men racked with problems, and these are the films which suggest most forcefully just how much he wants to do good, meaningful work. In Sidney Lumet's wrenching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) he is brilliant as the jittery younger brother set on robbing his parents jewellery store while also sleeping with the wife (Marisa Tomei) of his complicit, disintegrating elder sibling (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). In What Doesn't Kill You (Brian Goodman, 2008) he plays a South Boston smalltime criminal sliding towards his doom and taking his best friend from childhood (Mark Ruffalo) with him. The upcoming Brooklyn's Finest and Staten Island both seem to have similarly morally-charged subject matter and drab settings in the world of the minimum wage little-seen in the majority of contemporary Hollywood cinema.

Most interesting to me, however, is another project with Richard Linklater, possibly to be titled Boyhood, and not due for release for another five years or so. Linklater has been filming one sequence a year for the last seven years, each sequence following the development of a young boy from his early years up through High School. Hawke plays his father opposite Patricia Arquette as the mother and Hawke talks a little about it (alongside a whole lot of other stuff) in this excellent interview.

Probably the biggest compliment I can pay Hawke is to say that if I see that he is attached to a project, I am automatically more interested in that project. I trust his taste to a certain extent. He seems intelligent and articulate, and the fact that he and Delpy cowrote Before Sunset with Linklater attests to this, I think. I can imagine him having been around in the 1970s, working for the likes of Cassavetes and Coppola and Bogdonovich and Altman, in leads and character parts. That is not something I can say about many of his peers.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010


A little bit Frank Quitely, a little bit Kevin Maguire, a little P. Craig Russell, John Cassaday is possibly the most versatile artist working in the mainstream these days. He can do massive superhero spectacle as well as anybody, but hes just as at home doing character scenes - that Maguire influence is there in his work with every aspect of his characterisation, facial expressions and "acting" - and his command of tone and mood is fantastic, his storytelling frequently inspired and almost casually cinematic.
But its his line and design sense I love most. His line is precise and even exquisite, and yet it also has the fluidity of the best sketchwork. His blacks are often heavy and yet his line can still appear feathery and illustrative, which is a beautiful effect. His sense of design is best evaluated by studying some of the covers he has worked on over the last few years.
Unlike many, he has enjoyed the success his talent deserves. His early work, for Caliber and Dark Horse, was distinctive and eye-catching enough to win him work at Marvel and DC. And he got lucky - becoming artist on Warren Ellis' magnum opus Planetary in 1998 in a job that gave him plenty of opportunities to strut his considerable stuff (both on the interiors and in his splendid series of covers) on a title which featured a brilliant variety of subject matter and territory over the next decade. Eventually he would land one of the Industry's biggest and most prized pencilling jobs when he began drawing Joss Whedon's run as writer on Astonishing X-Men. This he even parlayed into a gig directing a TV show - a couple of episodes of Wheedon's baby Dollhouse.
Hes still working, if not as regularly as he once did, and his art is still extraordinary:

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