HOW THEY DID THE OSCARS 2017

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About half an hour out from the end of the 89th Academy Awards I reflected to myself that this had may be one of the better broadcasts of the past decade. Jimmy Kimmel joins Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Tucker from last year as some of the better hosts in recent times the credit for such an achievement should go towards the producers to some extent who have a big role to play in how the show is structured. Jon Stewart for example had good monologues but his second attempt was poorly paced. Hugh Jackman excelled in an opening musical number a few years back but the rest of his show was in search of such an entertaining moment. Kimmel’s show ran like clockwork (wait for it, I’ll get to that later)and made good choices throughout. Food falling from the ceilings owes its sensibility to Ellen DeGeneres ingeniously getting pizza in for starved actresses in glamourous gowns but it worked, it was funny, showed off the scope of the theatre and gave the show a boisterous atmosphere. Having a tour bus of “regular” people stop by and engage with the stars before being shuffled to the exits took courage and despite some taking it all in their stride and shamelessly requesting selfies worked well. Perhaps because. I would like to note that a week ago I urged the Academy to recall moments from the past and reinvigorate a sense of community and coincidentally that is exactly what they did. Montages of previous speeches for acting awards came up before those awards were presented, there call backs to The Apartment, Bonnie and Clyde. The Bridges of Madison County and Back to the Future were fun. The pay off with a parody of it with Kimmel assessing We Bought a Zoo was worth it too. Jackie Chan also showed up but not to present a long overdue stunt category but to revel in his Honourary Oscar given at the previously held Governor’s Ball. Was all of this a coincidence coming after my blog post in a little corner of the internet? You be the judge.

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Whatever your politics the zingers Kimmel came up with were neat “Remember last year when people complained the Oscars were too racist” and he took aim enough at Hollywood itself that it seemed fair. The running gag of a feud with Matt Damon served him well even if the Mean Tweets Oscar Edition lacked teeth due to a primetime audience and maybe even a fear to not piss off those seated in the theatre too much. It should be worth noting that the first Oscar recipient at the first Academy Awards of President Trump was a Muslim with Mahershali Ali justly rewarded for his great work as Best Supporting Actor in Moonlight. I’m just sayin. Justin Timberlake’s opening outside the auditorium before entering it singing Can’t Stop The Feeling followed by a steadicam and some very talented back up dancers was a great way to take something that has been done many times before but never at the Oscars and make the event seem eventful. Seeing all the A-list actresses get down and boogie, Jessica Biel shimmy proudly with her man having his moment helped me forget that I am not really a fan of the song or Timberlake. I’ll give credit where it’s due, Timberlake did a good job and immediately there was a sense of fun in the air. All of the song performances were on key including a nifty idea for John Legend to perform both Audition and City of Stars in one go. Stone and Gosling presenting the songs lacked their usual chemistry but it feels less like a missed opportunity as just two talented actors leaving the singing and dancing to the professionals. Speaking of professionals, Sting’s appropriately pared back performance of Empty Chair was on key and Auli’I Cravalho didn’t miss a beat as she was knocked by one of the blue parasails while singing How Far I’ll Go. The singer is 17 years old and an incredible talent. On a night of great musical performances the highlight was Sara Bareilles singing Both Sides Now during the In Memoriam section, truly breathtaking.

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The video was well timed to have key quotes spoken during musical interludes allowing Gene Wilder, Mary Tyler Moore and Carrie Fisher the last word. Bill Paxton was mentioned by a visibly moved Jennifer Aniston and no doubt will feature in the montage next year. As a child of the 80s and a genre fan Paxton was always going to have a special place in my heart having been killed by a xenomorph, the Terminator and a Predator. Like Carrie Fisher though he was more than a genre actor, he was an artist with wonderful insight into the nature of storytelling and filmmaking. In a perverse way the Memoriam section is always the most moving piece of the ceremony and the one I look forward to the most. This year was exceptionally well done although sadly the photo of very much alive The Piano producer Jan Chapman was part of the montage when The Piano‘s costume designer the late great Janet Patterson’s name came onscreen.Image result for costume designer janet patterson An excellent piece over at the wonderful film website Dark Horizons suggests that a google search was done to select the photo rather than making contact with her agency or loved ones for one to be put forward. Perhaps a reflection of cutting down on costs or cutting corners in this economy but a mistake that hopefully will remind all involved that if something is worth doing (and honouring your community’s lost artists would be one wouldn’t it?!) then it should be done well. Dwayne Johnson rocked up to represent incredibly popular movie stars of blockbusters that weren’t Oscar nominated (as well as being in Moana) with an abundance of charisma, muscles and good humour. The Hollywood crowd really got into the spirit of things standing up for the White Helmets, NASA hero Katherine Johnson, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Michael J. Fox, and cheering loudly when 5 time nominee Amy Adams walked on to the stage. Ironically Kimmel the host got “a sitting ovation” as the audience found their seats after boogieing to Timberlake.

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Of all the winners I’m happy enough with the results, I didn’t have a favourite out of them and clichéd as it is I still believe being an Oscar nominee means something. That being said I was very pleased to see Kevin O’Connell win for Best Sound Mixing. I long suspected Hacksaw Ridge may grab a few tech awards and Arrival winning Best Sound Editing immediately before Best Sound Mixing threw me out of sorts. Suddenly I realised what a worthy nominee Arrival was and that it could win the next award. That is when Kevin O’Connell on the occasion of his 21st Oscar nomination snagged his first Oscar. The icing on the cake was his moving speech acknowledging his mother.

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The night before the Oscars I called my best friend. I predicted like last year there maybe a split between Best Picture and Director, Jenkins would get Best Director and La La Land would get Best Picture. He told me he believed Damien Chazelle would get Best Director and Moonlight would win Best Picture. My friend’s prediction turned out to be wrong for about two minutes and then it became right for all eternity. It all feels silly to react so strongly to this mistake at the Oscars. As such an well oiled machine it seemed impossible that such a thing would occur but in the grand scheme of things you don’t even have to look further than the ceremony itself to see real issues to care about like the work of the White Helmets in the Middle East going into damaged buildings from war to rescue people out of the rubble. A bunch of wealthy movie producers thought they won the greatest award in the film industry and then had to realise that for now they are just Academy Award nominated professionals. Fuck try hiking a mile out of your village just to get clean water. Yet I was caught up in the watercooler moment as much as anyone. Again Dark Horizons has a great piece about most likely what happened. Older presenters sometimes get flustered and lose their spots at award ceremonies, young presenters do too. In hindsight we can all say that Warren Beatty could have easily taken the mike and said something is wrong here we need to check this but in the history of the Oscars how often has the wrong envelope been handed to anybody. In the moment when something goes wrong it is very difficult to react, to see all the angles and know what to do. Once things started happening Warren and Jimmy Kimmel recognised they had a responsibility to react and to speak. They did well. oscars-2017-front.jpgThere’s no doubt that in the confusion of the situation La La Land‘s producer Jordan Horowitz at a moment of great professional disappointment spoke clearly and pointedly about what was going on. Holding up the card to got across to everyone what was happening. If you look though back at the footage he is disrespectful a little to Beatty who was clearly going back to the mike to explain. I’ve heard a couple of good under the bus jokes about Warren handing the envelope to Faye and that’s fine but I would remind people that Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty have done some of the best movies of the past century and respect should be shown at all times to them. Image result for oscars 2017Also the people in the control room of the telecast and working the cameras did magnificent work reacting in real time. Alas Sammy Davis Jr is no longer on hand to run with such moments. The million dollar question for me is who raised the alarm? Did Warren pull somebody over, did the accountants realise the wrong envelope had been given or do the producers of the show actually know the results ahead of time even it has been long reported that nobody knows until the envelopes are opened on the night? This was an unfortunate event, I understand heads will roll at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and AMPAS are unlikely to use them next year if they do use them in the future. There’s a part of me that just recognises that statistically shit happens and another part that recognises that when mistakes are made you have to learn from them. I feel bad for everybody involved even as I recognise there are more important things in the world to feel bad about.

I suspect the Academy will seek out a returning host next year, when something goes wrong you want to rebrand with something familiar (comforting) and respected (who drew good ratings for their telecast) and so therefore I believe Ellen DeGeneres better keep her dance card free this time of year in 2018. That being said I really enjoyed Jimmy Kimmel and I hope that we see him again soon as well as producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd. For me this might have been the best overall Oscar telecast since 2005 and the legacy of it should be more than this one mistake.

-Lloyd Marken

HOW WOULD YOU DO THE OSCARS?

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It was February 2005 when I watched the 77th Academy Awards hosted by Chris Rock. That’s the last great Oscars telecast I remember. It was a gradual thing Jon Stewart took over the following year and it wasn’t as good but that was alright because Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg hadn’t been as good as Billy Crystal right? As time dragged on though, and more ceremonies occurred I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Oscars just didn’t measure up the same away anymore. If I look back over the past few years there’s always bits and pieces I love from all of them but always something lacking. The host sucks, the host was the only good thing, not enough skits, the skits sucked, the speeches were boring, the people accepting were played off by the orchestra before they could start. I would not be surprised either if I popped in a tape of a show that I remember as praiseworthy from the 1990s to find its no worse or better than the ones we see today. The thing I can’t shake though is that at some point the Oscars got scared, it rushed itself not allowing time for individual moments to breathe and organically occur and it worried about getting viewers in rather than celebrating its own community. It would be too easy to pick apart the high pressure work performed by dozens of professionals on a grand stage in front of a worldwide audience. Therefore I thought it would be interesting to put forward some ideas of my own and inevitably celebrate that which has worked in the past.

The Host

Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal are the Kings of Oscar hosting. This year the television networks have allocated their respective late night hosts to the Awards Show they’re broadcasting, CBS gave James Corden the Grammys, NBC slotted in Jimmy Fallon for the Golden Globes and so ABC have given Jimmy Kimmel the Oscars. Kimmel is edgy, very LA and approaching gravitas that comes with long term tenure. There’s a hope he will shake up things but there was a similar hope when Seth McFarlane was named to host and we know how that turned out. Choosing a late night talk show host makes sense given Carson’s reign at the gig but Carson was lightning in a bottle, Image result for the academy awards johnny carsona superb comic performer, movie star good looking with average folks appeal in his Nebraskan sensibility. Jon Stewart did this twice with only middling success, my favourite David Letterman bombed big time with his snark going over like a lead balloon with the celebrities on their night of nights, Fallon the current king of late night looked intimidated at the Globes earlier this year leaving basically day time host Ellen DeGeneres as the best since Carson – and her Emmy Hosting gigs were far superior to her Oscar ones. I’d love to see Samantha Bee and Jon Oliver tear the place down and I think James Corden actually could do a real good job but I would be looking at a stand-up comic more than a talk show personality to be named host.

A few big hitters include Jerry Seinfeld (he’s so big and established he wouldn’t be afraid to push people around but maybe is too much of an outsider), Louis C.K. (same thing but again outsider) Aziz Ansari (too TV maybe go with Emmys or Golden Globes for him first) and Amy Schumer.Image result for AMY schumer award shows Schumer is hip and cool, not an old white guy, has a hit movie and would take aim and fire at some of the absurdities of Hollywood. Would be more than happy to see her have a go but I can’t help but think that a funny Hollywood comic superstar would be a good choice. Crystal, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg have all had their go. You know who never did? Who has the gravitas, the comic chops and was king of the box office for a bit. Eddie Murphy. Now I know Eddie hasn’t been a big deal in a while but a few years ago he was announced to host with Brett Ratner producing, then Brett said dumb shit and had to pull out and Eddie stood by his friend and withdrew too. Related imageBut Eddie can deliver if he has a good writing team behind him because I believe this sincerely, people would like to see a comeback from that kid who did Delirious. The monologue should be solid, few have been bad in the past few years (Franco and Hathaway I’m looking at you) and as a former stand- up he should be able to spot opportunities when they come up. My favourite hosts of the past decade are easily Tina Fey and Amy Poehler doing the Golden Globes three years in a row but they don’t seem interested and others like Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell and Kristen Wiig only seem interested in doing presentation skits in awards shows rather than the whole thing. By the way look for Key and Peele to host Oscars soon, they’re good comedians and solid actors in their own right and I find it hard to believe the Academy hasn’t already asked them at least once.

The Opening

In 1996 a landmark occurred when Billy Crystal returned after Letterman bombed. It had been a couple of years since he hosted and he was missed. He was inserted into old movies as himself and that year’s nominees. Letterman even showed he was a good sport and showed up in it to mock his failure from the previous year. It feels more played out these days but when done well it never really gets old. Hell even Anne Hathaway and James Franco had some good bits in one such skit. Last year there was an amazing opening montage, easily the best from the past decade that Oscar has done. It displayed moments from the nominees, blockbusters and everything in between; themed around personal perseverance in a day it brought tears to my eyes with its empathy and hopefulness. It does mean however that if the AMPAS want to they can go big this year, one year they had Cirque du Soleil perform up in the rafters. Maybe it’s time to go big again Academy. Imagine Eddie or Amy inserted in Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences or Arrival.

The Presentations

If you look back over the years there are always at least a couple of good presentations. Some from really good actors being given funny lines and some from some of the funniest people we have working in Hollywood.

Ben Stiller, the aforementioned Wigg, Ferrel, Fey, Poehler, Steve Martin, and it would be great to see them all back doing their thing. It probably doesn’t get more moving than Christopher Reeve in his wheelchair after the riding accident. Sometimes there can be real quirkiness in the choices, one year a sound effects choir introduced those categories. R2D2, C3PO and BB-8 came out last year. However not everybody has to have a bit, some can wax lyrical about cinematography “The camera allows us to see ourselves like we’ve seen ourselves before – looking like Ryan Gosling.” or something like that and then get off the stage. It would be nice if before presenting the nominees for technical awards like sound editing, sound effects editing to remind the nominees that there’s five of you and nobody gives a shit about your arse cause you ain’t famous so you know you got five seconds each. Thank your wife and then let your buddies thank their wives. Because if you want to get laid tonight you better thank your wife if you win. If there are any female nominees in the technical categories don’t worry, your husband will not hold out having sex with you if you don’t thank him. You get back to the hotel room and he’d be like I can’t believe it, I gave you twenty two years of my life, supported you in your career, helped raise the kids and you couldn’t remember my name in front of a billion people. I am so upset, I’m not having sex with you tonight…..oh you’re wearing those stockings. Never mind. And this is why you really are running the world. But seriously male or female nominees either nominate one person or let everybody thank everybody real quick. If one person in your group is shy or boring, they’re out. There can be no room for weak links. You have got 30 seconds. Actually that’s not true, Harvey Weinstein has 30 seconds, and a special effects supervisor has 12 seconds. If you’re ugly you got 10! So that’s two seconds for each of you!

Sketch Bits

In the old days this might have been a montage of animal performers before Mike Myers hurriedly grabbed the envelope off a grumpy Bart the Bear. These days it will have Neil Patrick Harris re-enact Birdman’s famous scene in his tighty whities or have Ellen DeGeneres get pizza for the stars in their million dollar frocks.

Nothing wrong with that, it’s the growing trendy of daggy celebrities done so well by Fallon. I believe the host should remain present throughout the rest of the evening but more of less reacting to what’s going on. I got a long night planned anyway.

Montages

Hollywood used to do the best montages and then a few years ago the kids on YouTube started doing it better. The day after a tribute to James Bond was done at the Oscars, better online contributions went viral. Jon Stewart even joked one year that the whole show was montages. Yet done well they elevate the whole thing, one year they brought performers on stage to perform a raft of best songs from previous decades and it linked you to previous generations. This year I would suggest two major montages. One saluting women of cinema, given the range of strong female performances this year it would be neat and also relevant given current cultural dialogue about gender politics. Hidden Figures for example taps into this in a big way. Imagine iconic moments from Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Bette Davis, Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Liv Ullman, Mary Tyler Moore, Lilly Tomlin, Noomi Rapace, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Sally Field, Whoopi Goldberg, Hattie McDaniel, Ginger Rogers, Lauren Bacall, Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Jane Fonda, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Sigourney Weaver, Emma Thompson, Cher, Charlize Theron, Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Amy Adams, Felicity Jones, Cate Blanchett, etc.

The second would be long overdue, the work of stunt performers. There’s been a push for at least the past decade for them to get their own Oscar category and maybe this would be a step in the right direction of proper recognition. Sure practical stunts are being replaced by CGI since the heyday of the 70s and 80s but there is still plenty of stunt work being performed and a montage could show the classic stunts we all know and love with behind the scenes footage giving these men and women their day in the sun. There are plenty of stories too. Rick Sylvester’s Union Jack Parachute Ski Jump from The Spy Who Loved Me, Image result for movie stunts Jophery Brown’s bus jump from Speed “ If I’d been directly in the driver’s suit it probably would have broken my back”, Image result for movie stuntsBud Elkins driving that motorcycle over the border fence in The Great Escape, Zoe Bell on the hood of that Dodge Challenger in Death Proof, Related imageVic Armstrong’s work as Indiana Jones, Heidi Moneymaker’s work as Black Widow, Bill Hickman stunt driving in The French Connection, stuntwoman Lila Finn who doubled for Vivien Leigh and Donna Reed right through to doing work on Robocop 2, Yakima Canutt who pulled off that famous stunt in Stagecoach. Image result for yakima canuttAnyway the list goes on. The montage could include personal anecdotes about their injuries, close calls, relationship with stars they double for or love of the job. Perhaps mention of some stuntmen and stuntwomen who died doing what they loved. To introduce this montage get an actor who is noted for doing some of their own stunts, Burt Reynolds, Keanu Reeves, Tom Cruise if you believe the hype, and Johansson who trains phenomenally hard in her role as Black Widow often doing more interesting stunt work than her male co-stars in The Avengers movies. Maybe the most perfect choice would be Jackie Chan.

Song Performances

Most song performances have been strong over the years, something as intimate as Dolly Parton singing Travelin’ Thru, to Beyoncé and Idina Menzel giving sterling performances right through to moving pieces as Lady Gaga was joined on stage by real sexual assault survivors performing Til It Happens To You. The energy of Everything is Awesome to the power of Glory. As a template, you could see the potential from this year’s best song nominees. Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop the Feeling is idiotic but kind of catchy. Hopefully they’ll avoid trying to get the crowd involved with a bunch of middle aged actors looking uncomfortable although it would be worth it if Harrison Ford ended up punching Timberlake in the face – hey we can dream. Still it is an up-tempo number and if you put a bunch of kids there on stage enjoying it my cold heart will melt.

Superstar Sting showing up to sing Empty Chair with the lights dimmed and a montage of reporters lost in the field would be particularly moving. Don’t even say the clip was of all reporters lost doing their job until after the clip too. Not everybody is going to know it’s from the critically lauded documentary Jim about the sadly deceased correspondent James Foley. Audition (The Fools Who Dream) needs a big performance from a big star, Beyoncé, Gaga, somebody of that calibre. Maybe a Broadway star the film community doesn’t know. Think Idina or Kristen Chenoweth before everybody knew who they were. The big production number should go to How I’ll Go from Moana and come early in the piece in case any kids are still up. Lots of lights, moving props and dancers with Auli’i Cravalho singing her heart out.

Which leaves us with City of Stars; this should be sung by Emma Stone and Gosling at piano with their innate chemistry while dancers recreate scenes from the film in the background. The power of the ending should be recreated in this on stage performance. Think Eugene Levy’s wonderful touching of Catherine O’Hara’s cheek at the end of performing A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow in character or the heartfelt singing of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova doing Falling Slowly.

Speeches

Look there’s no denying we want to hear Emma Stone more than who won Best Film Editing speak and so she’ll be given more time. That is fair enough, but give the editor 30 seconds and if it looks like they’re wrapping up soon let it go. They might be about to tell you that their parent recently fought cancer. This can’t be stated enough, some of the most heartfelt and best moments of Oscars past are the speeches that were allowed to just happen in the moment. Don’t terrify people; let them tell their story at a moment of personal triumph. If after 30 seconds they’re bombing jokes or boring us nobody is going to have a problem if the music starts to kick in a little. Hell the recipient will probably thank you even. But stop apologising for the length of the telecast, this is your community you’re celebrating and the people tuning in aren’t just interested in the next blockbuster to pack their kids away in air conditioning for two hours, they’re cinephiles and they’re digging this as much as footy fans dig the halftime commentary.

Honorary Oscars

I know this is never going to happen, The Governors ball allows AMPAS to honour at least 3 recipients a year, focuses an evening more on just a few awardees and takes away the pressure of a live television audience but we’ve lost something with not handing out these Oscars on Oscar night.

Peter O’Toole, Sidney Lumet, Blake Edwards, Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas, Deborah Kerr, Ennio Morricone, Michelangelo Antonioni. These were some of the lifetime achievement awards handed out in the years I started watching. Films like Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man got on my radar because of Eastwood’s montage for the Irving G. Thalberg award. Who amongst us didn’t have tears in our eyes when Kirk Douglas made a speech having prepared endlessly for it following a stroke.

Michael standing with his brothers in the stands just a proud son. Deborah Kerr years after retiring flown over from the other side of the Atlantic who simply said “I’m amongst friends.” Anybody know who Michelangelo Antonioni is? He’s an Italian film director who I doubt I have seen the films of but I also doubt I have not seen the films influenced by his work. Oscars always echoed the ghosts of the past, gave a sense of community amongst this sea of celebrity that these rich pricks really just wanted to tell good stories and that the past was never forgotten. As a film buff my first awareness of so many classics came from Oscar ceremonies that remembered and championed work from the past as well as the present. A good choice for a foreign director of lauded classics now would be Wim Wenders who has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. After ruining the perfect symmetry of Sly Stallone winning the Oscar for Creed last year it’s probably time to give him an Honourary Oscar but maybe some kids out there know who he is. They won’t know who Gene Hackman is; imagine a montage of his work on Oscar night followed by him making his first public appearance in close to a decade. The crowd would go ballistic!Image result for gene hackman oscarAl Pacino, Warren Beatty, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Frances McDormand are all potential presenters. Traditionally Honourary Oscars go to those who haven’t won in competition but to see Gene I’d just about do anything and if some young film buff out there notices his work and is inspired to watch The Conversation or Missippi Burning the way I was to watch Bronco Billy or Serpico then that’s a goal scored.

Well they’re just some thoughts, any pet peeves or treasured moments you have from previous Oscars or any things you would suggest for the broadcast. Whatever happens next Monday, I’ll be tuning in, judging the fashion with my wife and mother, texting my best friend during the ad breaks in another part of the country long into the evening about who won and who missed out. Maybe the ceremonies since 2004 haven’t been that bad, maybe the ones before weren’t that great. It doesn’t matter; it’s Hollywood’s night of nights and mine too.

-Lloyd Marken

WE MUST MAKE IT TO THE RIVER AND CHECK OUT FARGO SEASON 2

Fargo Season 2 is arguably the best television show I’ve seen in the past year and I’ve seen a few. Season 1 set the bar high with fascinating multi-layered characters, stylised scenes of violence, philosophical conversations and themes, a real sense of place and time with well-made production values and a litany of Coen brothers filmography references. At the end of the day though it was the characters and their likeability and their inevitable countdown to confrontation that really suck the viewer in. There was a core four of Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard a put upon insurance salesman who suddenly gets caught up in murderous activity, Billy Bob Thornton as mysterious hit man Lorne Malvo, Image result for molly solversonAlison Tolman as Deputy Molly Solverson who has a good heart and strong mind for police work even if her co-workers fail to recognise it and Jim Hanks as Officer Gus Grimly who looks more like his father Tom Hanks every year especially playing an everyman. Wanting to see how it turned out for those four characters was the key to the show’s success even if a lot of its charm came from a large ensemble of colourful supporting characters. Image result for kate walsh fargo

That season was set in 2006 and Season 2 is set in 1979 and works as a standalone work and as a prequel to the former season. For example we know there’s a big event coming in Sioux Falls but we don’t know what or exactly when. We know some people are here in Season 2 but aren’t around in Season 1 but don’t necessarily know their fate here. We also enjoy seeing how some things change but some stay the same. Season 1 is made richer by Season 2 not contradicted by it, that’s what good prequels do.

The number of important characters increases in this season but all are given their fair share to shine. There is a gang war brewing between the local ruling crime family of the Gerhardts headed by matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart) and including her three sons Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), Bear (Angus Sampson), Rye (Kieran Culkin) and daughter Simone played by Rachel Keller against the Kansas City syndicate. Image result for fargo season 2 gifsThey are represented by the likes of Brad Garrett as Joe Bulo and Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan. Drawn into this war are State Trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and his father in law Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson). Like Larry from the first season there are two ‘civilians’ caught up in the plot in the form of beautician Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband butcher Ed (Jesse Plemons) who prove old hands at dealing with this all-out war then the people conditioned to it.Image result for fargo season 2

There are a variety of reasons why Season 2 may appeal to me more. First of all the setting of 1979 offers the opportunity to put the story in the time and place of popular culture that I soaked up in childhood. Police cars here for example look like the police cars I first learnt to recognise. Image result for fargo season 2Secondly our two male leads are war veterans which is also a subject that hooks me; regardless of the likely realism of some of their conversations the quiet moments between Lou (who crewed Swift Boats in Vietnam) and Hank (who liberated France as a soldier) are most enjoyable. It’s interesting to note here that Lou as played by Keith Carradine in Season 1 would often say “State Trooper 18 years” as people suspected he’d once been a cop. Here he often repeats Swift Boats and the number of tours as people suspect he’d once served. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Peggy at times is exasperating in how she single handedly destroys the life that she and Ed were building but she is more complicated than that one note, trying constantly to protect and do the right thing by her husband even though he wants a life that terrifies her) and she gets a fantastic action scene a few episodes in. Larry while put upon originally it was revealed very quickly was an absolute asshole and Ed and Peggy are far more likeable than that and no less watchable. The Gerhardts are fascinating with their family dynamics all getting a scene where they have the power but there is a melancholy here of something being lost to time and we perversely hope for them to meet with some success. Martin Donovan (who put on weight for the show) as an alpha male comically undermined later on is well played for laughs by the actor while staying true to the terror his character is feeling. Image result for fargo season 2 gifsTheir heavy Hanzee Dent, a Native American played by Zahn McClarnon, starts to make a bigger impression on the narrative as the episodes go on but never loses his sense of mystery or menace and that’s very hard to do.

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Then there’s the home life of the Solversons where Cristin Milioti as Betsy, Lou’s wife, is fighting cancer and we know at the very least she doesn’t make it to 2006. One scene with her telling a friend what to do after she is gone will bring a tear to your eye. Nick Offerman stars as Karl Weathers the only lawyer in town and a close drinking buddy of Lou’s. His grandiosity is undercut at two critical points and Offerman plays it just right making Karl real and good hearted and brave if still reliably human and fragile. Image result for fargo season 2Bokeem Woodbine as Milligan follows a long line of violent men in film who love to talk putting on airs of class they don’t really deserve. Except well Milligan like them all is a hoot and someone you enjoy listening to, wait until you hear him quote the Jabberwocky.

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Out of such a stellar cast of lovable and compelling characters though it might be Ted Danson who steals the show as lovable Hank. Quietly listening to others before offering counsel or incisive questions. Due to his age and seemingly narrative disposability we fear for his safety a great deal. rhinoceros4Brave in showdowns against bigger numbers, if Colin Hanks’ uncertain Officer Grimly is the current example of American male masculinity onscreen then Danson’s Hank was the old model. Nervous to express his emotions too much but easily read by his loved ones. Decent and kind but prepared without hesitation to die with certainty in his convictions and values. Grimly I relate to more but Hank ain’t a bad standard to hold ourselves up to. Every one of these characters whether they lose or win, gets more chance to shine or very little is fully realised and nuanced that even if I don’t agree with their actions I understand where they’re coming from. Except for Hanzee-that motherfucker is just dangerous.

Production wise there is a confidence in this second season with the use of split screens in very inventive ways at the beginning of episodes to catch the audience up with what is happening in the world of several characters, a rollicking soundtrack (I particularly enjoyed Burl Ives’s One Hour Ahead of the Posse, Yamasuki’s Yama Yama and Bobbie Gentry’s Reunion) use of an alien spacecraft (yeah you heard that right), Image result for fargo season 2 gifsbigger action sequences (although please stop using CGI blood and get back to using old school squibs please) and attention made to recreate a period setting with the action on a grander scale. Cinematographer Dana Gonzales retrofitted an Arri ALEXA camera with vintage Cooke lenses and crew replaced each sodium lamp street light with tungsten light bulbs. These are the things that elevate a production but it would all be for naught without the rich and whip smart dialogue. There’s several, all cast members affect the regional accent and slowly talk each other over to a way of thinking. One example of many is Floyd’s advice to Dodd in an early episode where she establishes control over him to an extent without hurting his ego because she has to. My anticipation for what show runner Noah Hawley and his team will do in Season 3 is now high but whatever transpires Season 2 will remain 10 hours of television to savour long into the future.

-Lloyd Marken

THE TRUMP CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN

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The Circus probably seemed more relevant when it was watched in real time with the recent U.S. Presidential election but in the immediate aftermath it can remain fascinating to the politically observant. Covering the Primary Campaigns from January 2016 when the Republican field has shrunk a little bit to just after Election Day when President-Elect Trump meets with President Barack Obama at the White House. The series follows Mark Halperin, John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon as they cover the election campaign. Halperin and Heilemann are both career journalists who have worked covering political campaigns for the past three decades and wrote together the book Game Change of Sarah Palin’s effect on the 2008 Presidential campaign. Mark McKinnon a one-time musician became a media advisor to several Democratic Campaigns before going to work for George W. Bush, he now supports many bipartisan initiatives.

It would be surprising to find out that Halperin and Heilemann are not usually Democrat voters but one strength of the show is their supposed objectivity. In fact in some ways they have been criticised for their obsession of the horse race aspects of a political campaign rather than the moral issues.

As long term professionals though known by everybody involved in politics they are given incredible access to all the figures of this recent political year. Two strengths of the show are said access allows for some allows for some human moments to come to the fore from candidates on both sides which may prove healing for the country at large and secondly it is fascinating to look in retrospect at long term political players scrambling to figure out what Trump’s popularity means for the game they play.

Early in the Caucus race they meet with running candidates in small hotel lobbies, see them perform to small crowds in Church book stores and of course ride with them on tour buses. The show is more interested in personalities than the issues, Ted Cruz might be introduced as someone who could get the Evangelical core’s support but the man is not reduced to a one sentence description but allowed to reveal himself.

Mocked by mainstream media for a video showing his young daughter refuse a kiss from him after a long day here we get to see the fuller picture of a loving family man and one who is personally robust enough to take such slights. John Kasich it turns out has a propensity for agonising Dad jokes that he makes more agonising with his delivery except well isn’t that the actions of a guy trying to stay upbeat and friendly. Chris Christie an effective debater and a political brawler seen here when he’s already behind looks like a bad ass going after Trump which kind of breaks your heart more when you see what he does afterwards in support of Trump.

Jeb Bush is seen as an awkward man who maybe lacks the ruthless charisma of his brother but actually is more thoughtful than him. He probably would have made a great administrative President but he’s just not as strong a campaigner and alas that is what required when you’re in the circus tent. The Circus is produced by Showtime Network (a cable channel owned by Viacom) who also shows Homeland. Jeb asks if they can get him a role on Homeland and they ask him what kind of role he would like. “Something G rated where I kill a terrorist with my bare hands.” He replies, a telling line which kind of sums up the broadness and contradiction of the base he’s trying to appeal to.

We see how human these people are, how draining the campaigns are, how hard they and their teams work and then the agonising realisation that after all that money, after all these people have volunteered for you, after all that noise and media following you, after everything it comes to naught for so many. It gives you a new appreciation for them throwing their hat into the ring just to give you options. Even family members get a chance to shine, Ivanka Trump who had the highest media profile out of her father’s children doesn’t get seen much here but Donald Trump Jr. does and he’s a credit to his old man.

Loyal, articulate and thoughtful about what is driving the votes to them he’s again maybe somebody you wouldn’t agree with on many issues but here you get to know him as a proud son. The only one who you might like more is Jane Saunders who is just the nicest person in the world.

We see Bernie a little tired and short tempered when he’s down in the race but we also see him clear a room to talk privately with Halperin when Iowa caucas ends too close to call on voting night. This reflects that  Senator Saunders knows he’s in a bubble with his people and he wants an outsider to give their opinion to him. It speaks to the man’s wisdom and later you can’t help but feel for the guy as he calls the delegate count at the Democatic National Convention to heal the party and get his supporters to throw in behind Hilary.

Access is also given to major political players from the past and the media teams working for Clinton. Roger Stone, a former Nixon campaigner, is in exile from Trump due to a difference of opinions with another Trump staffer. Yet in one dinner scene he chats with the journalist and lays out what effectively become the selling points of Trump as a candidate. How exiled is he you may be left to wonder. One episode features GOP insiders talking about Trump around a fancy lunch, one points out that there is not like a secret back room where they decide these things which is a good thing. There’s a little irony in that moment given the setting but it is also a reassuring truth even if Republican powerbrokers did throw over $150 million dollars at Jeb Bush’s campaign in an effort for him to be the presumptive nominee.

As Trump’s campaign kicks into a new gear of popularity the man who regularly accuses the media of bias and is able to reach his base easily through social media allows people on his private jet. Weeks later at a time when he effectively ties up the Republican nomination his next move is to invite Halperin and Heilemann to his prized Mar-a-lago estate (family functions have been held there) where he talks openly with them about how the campaign is going. You know who never gives access on the campaign trail? The only candidate who they only get to ask questions to by standing behind voters at rallies while the candidate walks past to shake hands calling out questions behind shoulders? Yeah that’s right – Senator Hilary Clinton, the politician who easily beat Donald Trump in three debates just never put herself out to the media, the media that was supposedly on her side. Figure that one out and you might have the answers to why she lost.

It’s true to say in living memory there has never been a Presidential campaign like it. Trump’s scandal late in the game about grabbing women by the pussy seems to have been the only one that broke through the noise and changed his fortunes. Not calling Mexicans rapists, not saying Megyn Kelly had her period, not denigrating the war service of Vietnam veteran Senator John McCain and not being caught out lying about his Republican opponents.

Yet he won in the end, if you’re looking for answers these seasoned political pundits don’t have them for you. In fact they’re relatably human as they stand around at conventions and try to figure out what the hell is going on. They’re there on the ground when the Chicago rally is called off, they meet outside and listen to Trump supporters at his rallies when so many others in their field just remain confounded at his popularity and on the day after the election when the hyperbole of half of the country was calling the election result the end of the world they close with life will go on. Some things become uncanny now with the outcome known, Kelly Anne Conway’s steadfast belief they’ve got the numbers in crucial states a week out from the election and Clinton’s advisor John Podesta on election morning not being able to comprehend his candidate could lose becomes poignant.

The series has recently formed the basis for a short documentary Trumped which takes the best moments from the show and arranges them in a 2 hour runtime. The production values are certainly slick but something is lost here, not least of which are the openings of each episode where the three guys will sit around a local diner or café in whatever town they’re in and eat some local cuisine while hammering home through repetition the big theme for this episode.

I’d recommend seeing the whole thing, sure some episodes aren’t as interesting as others and you certainly can’t binge watch it but it reflects the flow of fortunes and captures little moments that shaped the campaign. For example one indulgent episode is centred around Joe Biden who was only campaigning on Hilary Clinton’s behalf. Yet even here there are gems to be found especially if you’re a fan of the former Vice President. A late night dinner with his sister reveals he would’ve run in 2016 if his son Beau hadn’t gotten sick and during the election campaign honest Joe talks openly about Hilary’s weaknesses while campaigning for her. Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, I sure would have loved to have seen that race.

-Lloyd Marken

BLUE BALL TELEVISION SERIES FINALES!

I was inspired by the recent X-Files revival to muse on a long held lament of mine.

That of the disappointing television series finale. Warning spoilers ahead for any TV show being discussed.

Television is long form story telling affording the opportunity to make characters part of our lives with weekly catch-ups. It rewards staying power making you feel like a confidant who really lives with these people and understands them.

Yet most TV shows never have a plan for the arc of the show, are cancelled prematurely due to low ratings, lose actors to personal volatility, creative differences, ambition, etc. When a show is successful it often runs too many years and show runners and/or stars can leave before it closes. If not then often without a plan for a finale the show will suck. Lately the greatest way to cop out of a prestige series is simply leave an ambivalent ending ala The Sopranos. While in my opinion it works well in that series I can understand how some fans of David Chase’s series felt cheated. The X-Files was the longest running science fiction series of its time ending after 9 years. Part of its appeal had been a long convoluted conspiracy mythology that had already started to contradict itself long before the series ended. After 9 years all we got was our heroes on the run and an alien invasion set date of 2012 which seemed a million years away in 2003. What a fucking cop out. I was never a regular viewer and true fans have told me that the mythology is not such a sticking point for them since most of the show’s best episodes were about stand-alone plots. Still five years later a movie came tying up no loose ends and doing a standalone plot. Eight years after that we got six episodes which varied in quality but overall made the series viable ongoing for continuing adventures. Now there’s talk maybe another series and a third film to wrap up the stories. This is for a show that started in 1993 and peaked around about 1998. I was in high school, now I am middle aged so please to all involved…

What is served by delaying for another series or two of six episodes? Tales unless they are The Canterbury ones should be finished, even those should have been finished!

This brings me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I did watch regularly. I was 18 when Buffy and Angel got it on and he lost his soul in a cliff-hanger halfway through Season 2. Every episode after whether filler or not had us fans wondering when and if Angel would get his soul back. Every episode was taped on the VCR and played again during the week with my siblings as we quoted Whedon’s witty one liners and mused on how it would all play out. In that moment I loved that show possibly a way I will never love another show because anything from when you are a teenager becomes sacred. I was after all finding out about love at the same time Buffy was. Angel did get his soul back and get sent to hell before returning in season 3. At the end of that season Buffy graduated high school and Angel left for L.A. Their love story having begun to repeat itself would now be put on hold as David Boreanz got his own spin off. Season 3 was a great year for the show with the introduction of rogue slayer Faith and the Mayor being a superb villain. My little brother noted to me that the season finale felt more like a series finale and sadly his words would prove prophetic.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never the same show for us after that, the writing became inconsistently funny and new storylines were far less enjoyable then the high school set ones. Which is not to say I regret the following four years Spike and Anya became fantastic main cast additions and there were some serious stellar episodes like Hush, Restless and Once More with Feeling.

Chosen brought Angel back for a cameo and but also acknowledged how much Spike had become just as interesting and popular a love interest. More importantly it had a stunning set piece finale, changed the status quo for the hero (giving every potential Slayer their powers automatically)and gave each character a chance to shine.

 

Angel which was probably a more consistent quality show over its five year run ended with our heroes in an alley about to go out fighting a horde of demons. It too had been a satisfactory finale but after eight years Buffy and Angel had not rode off into the sunset to live happily ever after. I know that shouldn’t be what I expect or want but after falling in love with these characters and their relationship despite how both shows had evolved over the years I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. In 2007 a Season 8 Buffy Comic followed and then a Season 6 Angel comic. I got to the end of both with not many answers and very disappointed how they had turned out despite the TV show writers being involved. Hence my central lament.

If there is a show that I feel more frustrated with it is Ally McBeal which I really discovered in 2011 but still carries a nostalgic factor due to watching some Season 2 episodes with my younger sister. If you’re a fan, you know Season 2 is really the best one. That show about a single female lawyer trying to find love in the modern era had its ups and downs but season 4 saw Robert Downey Jr. come on board and give the show new life. But his drug abuse eventually got him written off just as the two characters were to be married in the season finale. Season 5 attempted a reboot before I think the term was coined with a set of new characters for the firm as the most likeable character John Cage made fewer appearances. Typical of a David E. Kelley show interesting characters were left hanging with no plotlines and new characters were introduced randomly and then magically disappeared. A late add of Jon Bon Jovi and a daughter for Ally went nowhere and the show feeling a million miles from its fresh, oddball and original first season bowed out. Did Ally get back with her true love? No she left town with her daughter. John Cage alas was friend zoned after having made more interesting pairings with Portia De Rossi’s Nelle and Anne Heche’s Melanie. All these years later I still wish for a telemovie to show Ally reunited with Larry but Robert Downey Jr’s career success has made that a pipe dream.

Interestingly enough Boston Legal which perhaps was a better Ally McBeal 2.0 with boys did end right. Remaining characters were paired off, the firm survived, everybody got to stay together and do their jobs and Denny and Alan got married so Alan could be Denny’s power of attorney.

Well those are the season finales that I feel most passionately upset about. Let’s consider some that maybe stuck the landing. Feel free to disagree.

BattleStar Galactica

The best thing to come out of the Writer’s Strike of 2008 may be the reduced run of the BattleStar Galactica reboot series. Season 3 had felt a little bit like buying time but season 4 continually raised the stakes as the ship literally started to fall apart. Some fans don’t like the Series Finale where the fleet is flown into the sun after Earth is finally found, the Cylons are allowed to leave to find their own world, President Rosselin dies and Lee Adama decides to go walk about while Starbucks is revealed to be a Spirit and vanishes. What I adore about this finale is if you don’t agree with a character’s decision the story is left open for you to reverse it. Lee Adama is a born leader, I know he’s going to go exploring but soon he will return and he will lead people because that’s what an Adama does. How many shows develop their characters and their worlds so well that after all that time you can feel the freedom and confidence to do that following a finale.

The Wonder Years

Possibly my favourite series from my childhood, the finale after years of obsessing over Winnie Cooper had Kevin and Winnie lose their virginity in a barn. A voice over prologue at the end declares that Kevin’s father died, Winnie went to Paris and remained friends with Kevin who married somebody else and had a kid. Wait…WTF! Somehow though even at 13, I somehow understand after talking to my own Dad that life can turn out like that. The finale may be contentious for some but for me the show was always honest about life’s realistic turns and the wistful nostalgia Daniel Stern’s voice over carries for those days becomes so much more poignant when you realise that Kevin only has memories of his father from that time really.

 

Cheers

Sitcoms notoriously run too long and lose talent and stop being funny. This maybe the gold standard though for how to do it right. If you cast back to the mid-80s and Sam and Diane getting engaged and moving in together you might have been very excited to hear that Shelley Long would return for the finale. Last time she was walking up the steps away from the bar declaring she would be back in a year. Old slugger Sam knew better and watched her departing figure go repeating “Have a nice life.” The writers knew something about those characters and about life in that exchange that went beyond Shelley Long leaving a popular show to pursue a film career. All those years later when they wrapped the show they displayed that wisdom again. Sam and Diane did not ride off into the sunset however much some fans may have wanted them to. No instead Diane went on with her career and Sam returned to his bar and its regulars. As each character got a send-off in a late night smoking session to welcome Sam back, Norm was left to declare that Sam all along had stayed with his one true love. Friends saw Ross and Rachel get together, Monica and Chandler have a baby and the friend stay friends while dramatically moving out of the apartments but Cheers has the greatest sitcom finale of all time.

 

The Late Show with David Letterman

Essentially a glorified clips show David Letterman’s sojourn still has big ticket guests doing an excellent Top Ten and the man himself holding centre stage in an honest speech saying goodbye. The montage of images played while the Foo Fighters close with Evergreen though is the kicker. So many memories and then Letterman steps up onto the stage waving to the crowd. Perpetually beginning for posterity’s sake as the show ends for good.

Mad Men

Repeating a feature of several later episodes the finale chews up valuable time with Don going to a retreat isolated from the rest of the characters back in New York. Where will the story end we wonder and then he quite possibly makes a breakthrough emotionally. We follow a montage of characters Peggy finally happy in a relationship and at work,  Pete reunited with his family and hitting his peak like Don before him before his inevitable decline, Roger Sterling happily seguing into retirement and travel with a likeminded companion, Joan finally the boss, Betty in control of her life but sadly at the end of it and the wise rebellious Sally accepting responsibility in the family. When Don opens his eyes is he about to return to advertising with the famous Coke campaign that closes the series or is it just a gentle mocking of Don’s industry and our subsequent consumerist culture? These ambivalent endings can feel like cheats but when it comes to The Sopranos and Mad Men I am fairly happy with the results.

So what are some of favourites or least favourites? How do you rate the finales of Airwolf, Alf, Alias, The A-Team, Breaking Bad, Boston Legal, The Cosby Show, CSI, ER, Family Ties, Frasier, The Golden GirlsHill Street Blues, Knight Rider, Lost, Magnum P.I., M.A.S.H., N.Y.P.D. Blues, Seinfeld, The Shield, The Sopranos, The West Wing?

-Lloyd Marken