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2016/09/04

Perfect Times Six

by Dave Gourdoux

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten in "The Third Man"
Over the course of the past 120 years or so, as it's grown to a full and complex and truly global art form, film has provided us with many classics, from iconic epics to quiet and personal statements. It remains the most collaborative of all art forms in that even the movies that are intensely personal statements from a director require contributions from cinematographers, writers, actors, art designers, composers and musicians, and even financiers to make sure there is enough money to pay for them all.

This is probably the main reason that almost all movies, even the masterpieces, are flawed. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, for example, has moments where the narrative drags. John Ford’s psychological western The Searchers, a character study of a nearly psychotic racist that is darker than anything he ever made before, is nearly destroyed by Ford's attempts at comic relief, using the same brawling men and fawning women formula that became tired twenty years earlier. Blake Edwards’ 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s features an enchanting Audrey Hepburn and a memorable romantic Henry Mancini score. Its treatment of sex is, compared to other films of the production code era, more mature than other films of its time. The film is almost ruined, however, by the overly broad and racist performance of Mr. Yunioshi by Mickey Rooney. 

Some films are fascinating because of their flaws. Tod Browning’s landmark 1932 horror film Freaks uses professional circus sideshow attractions as amateur actors and walks the thin line between exploitation and art. The result is an almost documentary look and feel that heightens the horror movie plot and makes watching an even more uncomfortable experience. 

Take any Stanley Kubrick film made after Doctor Strangelove and you can see his self-indulgences and pretentiousness grow. Yet Kubrick was such a genius that his flaws were more interesting than almost anyone else’s best traits. All of the films he made between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket are filled with hubris and self-importance, yet they are all more interesting than almost any others, including most of his own earlier films, where he earned his reputation.

So thinking about this, of all the elements that have to come together to make a good film, and that so many classic films are flawed in one or more significant way, I asked myself, has a perfect movie ever been made?

The answer in my humble opinion, is yes, there have been at least six “perfect” movies. They are:

6:   Duck Soup, 1933, directed by Leo McCarey, starring the Marx Brothers.


One of the most important components of any perfect film has to be the pace of the narrative. This is especially true in comedy. From the opening scene, where Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly is introduced (by his great foil, Margaret Dumont) as the new head of the state of Freedonia, through to the brothers engaging in the silliest war scenes ever filmed, Duck Soup establishes and maintains a frenetic and consistently high level of humor and never stops, never pauses. Even the musical numbers, normally where you stop and catch your breath in a Marx Brothers film, are funny. Duck Soup is the perfect comedy because it is the happy marriage of the brothers at the peak of their skills with McCarey, the best director they ever worked with. McCarey, who had made many of the best Laurel and Hardy silent films, injected his skill for physical comedy as well as his considerable cinematic talents into the mix. Where films like Animal Crackers and Monkey Business were essentially filmed stage productions, Duck Soup could only exist on film, as McCarey used the camera and the editing room to tremendous comedic effect. That the film is also a brilliant satire on political leadership and nation / states is secondary.  It's the one film I've seen more than any other, and it still makes me laugh out loud, and each time I see it, I find something new that I hadn't appreciated before. This is another element of the perfect film - it not only stands up to repeated viewings, it gets better each time.


5:  The Maltese Falcon. 1941, directed by John Huston, adapted by Huston from the Dashiell Hammett novel, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre.


One of the most important elements of perfect films has to be the writing. While in Duck Soup, we will never know how much of the movie was in the original screenplay and how much was improvised by the brothers and McCarey on the set, the other films on this little list (with the exception of one) all had brilliant screenplays that revealed memorable and complex characters and a compelling narrative. This is the foundation on which The Maltese Falcon is built.  John Huston, already a veteran screen writer, adapted the Dashiell Hammett novel and made his directorial debut. His direction is as brilliant as his script, as we witness the film noir genre being born right before our eyes. The cast is amazing. Sam Spade becomes the archetypal Bogart role, cynical and tough, with enough flaws (at times, like when he terrorizes the young gunman Wilmer, played by Elisha Cook, he's downright sadistic) that you're never really sure of where his allegiances fall. On screen virtually every minute of the film, only Bogart had the skill and the persona and the stature to pull off such a complex and iconic role. He's tough and worldly, but he also has a vulnerability that fleshes Spade out as a three dimensional character. There's also Sydney Greenstreet as Guttman and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, a pair of odd and creepy characters who'll stop at nothing to get the bird. All the performances are top notch, but it's Mary Astor as the greatest femme fatale ever who gives one of the greatest and most underrated performances of all time. Watch the expressions on her face change from disbelief to devastation during Bogart's soliloquy in the climactic scene. Huston's script and direction are perfect, but without the perfect cast, there's no way we'd still be talking about this movie 75 years after it was made.


4: Casablanca, 1943, directed by Michael Curtiz, screenplay by  Jules and Phillip Epstein…., starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried, and Claude Raines


Although it's a little bit murky now who actually wrote the screenplay for Casablanca (The Epstein twins, Jules and Phillip, were assigned to the project twice, Howard Koch is also credited, but there is some question as to whether any of the thirty to forty pages he produced were actually used in the film, while the uncredited Casey Robinson was responsible for several key re-writes), there's no questioning the greatness of the script that gave us some of the most iconic quotes of all time, from "Here's looking at you, Kid" to "Round up the usual suspects" to "Play it, Sam" to "We'll always have Paris." Besides the memorable one-liners, the script is lean and efficient. The direction by Michael Curtiz serves the screenplay perfectly. Curtiz handles all of the moving parts of the script with aplomb, from character revealing little asides to the flashback scenes that are so important. It's vital that we see how much in love Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Illsa (Ingrid Bergman at her most beautiful) are in Paris. It has to be a love of epic proportions to drive the climactic scene at the airport. Thanks to the way Curtiz presents the flashback, and thanks to the charismatic performances of Bogart and Bergman, Casablanca remains probably the greatest love story ever made.


3: Shoot the Piano Player, 1960, directed by Francois Truffaut, adaptation of the David Goodis novel Down There by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy, starring Charles Aznouvar, Mari Dubois, and Nicole Berger.



Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut's second feature, was shot on a shoestring budget and is so loose and free that watching it you get the idea he was making up much of it as he went, and you're left wondering was he trying to make a crime story or a love story or a slapstick comedy or a philosophical meditation on art and life, until you realize that it's all of the above and more, an explosion of genres that only a young director would even attempt to try. That Truffaut succeeds so brilliantly in only 81 minutes of film is testimony to the prodigious talent and genius of the man. Unlike The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, Shoot the Piano Player feels looser and less structured, but that is misleading. Like Casablanca, there is a vital flashback sequence that explains so much about the main character. Truffaut handles the transition in and out of the past brilliantly, and all of the other cinematic rabbits he pulls out of his hat, from corny burlesque singers in a Parisian cafe to silly little sight gags to shootouts in the snow, work spectacularly well. Shoot the Piano Player is the rare tribute to filmmaking that mashes up so many different elements into a coherent and profound statement that stands on its own as a true work of art. It's the perfect realization of Truffaut's unique vision that makes this his most perfect film.


2.  Chinatown, 1974, directed by Roman Polanski, screenplay by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston.


Chinatown is directly linked to The Maltese Falcon by John Huston, the writer and director of the 1941 classic and the actor playing the memorably evil Noah Cross in Chinatown. But there's much more linking the two films. First, there's the brilliant performance by Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes. Nicholson is probably the only actor who could not only pull off a part that was clearly inspired by the great Humphrey Bogart, but make the character his own, adding shading and depth to the archetype and avoiding a mere impersonation. In Nicholson's hands, Gettis becomes a vulnerable cynic. He's wise enough to know the rules of the street, that concepts like justice and redemption are illusory, yet he can't help but try to believe in something, and when it falls apart, the pain is almost unbearable. Then there's the femme fatale played by the indescribably beautiful Faye Dunaway, who adds a new twist of melancholia to the part, enhancing the mystery and intrigue. There's Robert Towne's screenplay, which is often held up as the finest screenplay ever written. Only after repeated viewings do you realize that Towne and the director, Roman Polanski, don't waste even a second of screen time - everything is used to reveal character or advance the plot. And what a plot - as complex as any of the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet stories filmed in the 1940s, but without any of the excess that so often got in the way of even great detective movies like The Big Sleep.


1. The Third Man, 1949, directed by Carol Reed, adapted by Graham Greene from his own novella starring Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli.


The ultimate mark of a perfect film is that every time you see it, you find something new, while the parts that thrilled you the first time, that captured your imagination, hold up so well that you experience the same thrills again.  I've become convinced that The Third Man is the most perfect film ever made, and whenever I see it, it climbs higher and higher on my list of the all time greatest films.

First, the screenplay. Written by Graham Greene while simultaneously writing a novella of the same name, The Third Man is the ultimate "fish out of water" story.  It's about a writer of dime westerns, Holly Martins (played brilliantly with wide eyes and a slow voice by Joseph Cotten.) who travels to post-war Vienna to look up an old friend, the appropriately named Harry Lime. A true innocent abroad, he's not prepared for what he sees: the bombed out rubble of much of the city and the dark and mysterious characters he encounters on the way to learning that his old friend is dead. By the time he stumbles upon the truth, that his friend is alive, he's also fallen in love with Lime's girlfriend, and he's learned that Lime has become, like the rotten fruit his name implies, corrupt and evil, trading in watered down penicillin on the black market.

Greene's screenplay is tight and nuanced, and he takes his time letting the story unfold, filling us with information that we learn later is important. He draws the character of Martins just right, as he bumbles his way through the landscape, almost accidentally solving the mystery. When he finally encounters Lime (in a great supporting performance by Orson Welles), he seems to be both physically and intellectually overmatched. This isn't one of those movies where the part of the writer is portrayed as a romantic and adventuresome hero; Martins is instead a reluctant protagonist.

Greene and the director, Carol Reed, also know what every maker of great monster movies know: hold off on showing the monster as long as possible.  The monster in this case is Welles as Lime, and we don't see him until after an hour into the film. Even then, Welles is onscreen for only about twenty mines, but his specter dominates the entire film.

The Third Man also gives us a glimpse into a world largely ignored in films of the time: the devastated after math of World War Two, and the destruction and corruption that dominated the European landscape. Martins is shocked when he learns what Lime is capable of, and there is the famous scene where the two old friends finally meet, on a Ferris wheel high up above an amusement park, where Lime asks if Martins would really lose any sleep if one of those dots below stopped moving? The movie reaches its climax with a famous chase scene through the sewers of Vienna that's as suspenseful as anything in any of today's action movies.

Visually, the film is stunning, thanks to Reed's vision and the great black and white film noir photography of the cinematographer Robert Krasker. Obviously influenced by Welles' films, Reed makes great use of tilted camera angles, and his use of contrast, of shadows and light, is simply exquisite and takes film noir to higher places than ever before or since. Reed distorts angles and corners in a way that is reminiscent of great German expressionist silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. His insistence on shooting on location in the post war ruins of Vienna make the locale itself another vital and vibrant character in the story, and now, nearly seventy years later, serves as an important historical document of the enormous damage inflicted by the war on the European landscape.

The soundtrack to The Third Man is one of the most memorable and distinctive in film history. It was composed by Anton Karas, who Reed met by coincidence at a party in Vienna, where Karas was playing a zither (a stringed instrument that appears to me to be a cross between a guitar and an auto-harp). Reed had already decided he wanted a more intimate score than the usual orchestral accompaniment. Hearing Karas play at the party struck him as the perfect sound for the film, and he decided then and there to hire Karas to compose and perform the entire soundtrack, even inviting Karas back to London to live in Reed's home while finishing his work. It's such a unique and distinctive sound that hearing even a tiny bit of it instantly conjures up images from the film. The only similarity I can draw to "modern" films is the Neil Young soundtrack to the 1995 Jim Jarmusch film, Dead Man.

As great as the screenplay and the acting and the setting and the cinematography and the music are, it's Reed who pulls it all together into a cohesive and coherent product that realizes the vision he had in his head. Which pulls us back to what makes a film perfect: it's the contributions of many toward the realization of an individual's vision. And at the end of the day, isn't that what all great works of art are? The sharing of a vision? Filmmakers like Huston, Polanski, Truffaut, and Reed are among the greatest artists to work in such a bizarre and complex medium. They are sculptors of motion, and their clay is the talent and human flesh and blood of actors and writers and artists.

Anyone who loves movies needs to see The Third Man. Those younger readers who love movies but maybe haven't seen too many of the black and white "oldies" - this is the one to start with. Never boring or slow, with almost every frame an exquisite work of visual art, and with enough movement to satisfy even today's action movie junkies, The Third Man is the perfect place to start or nurture or reignite a love affair with film.





2016/08/07

Ghostbusters: I Ain't Afraid of No Reboot

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless


I usually go at least a little bit retro when I choose topics to write about here on 2FL, but this time, I'm spotlighting something very current that's just hit the theatres in the U.S.: the new Ghostbusters movie, directed by Paul Feig.

I've been looking forward to seeing it since trailers for it started popping up months ago. I was a kid when the original movie was released back in 1984, so there's a certain nostalgia at play there. I'm a fan of the four main cast members too (Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Kristen Wiig), and I'm not going to lie--seeing four women in strong leading roles definitely was a draw. And fine, in the interest of full disclosure, I really didn't mind that Chris Hemsworth is part of the cast too.


As soon as the publicity for the movie started though, so did the backlash. So. Much. Backlash. It seemed to center mainly on the two reasons I wanted to see this film in the first place: nostalgia, and the all-female leading roles. I'm going to do my best to not give any spoilers, but I have to shake my head at the people who are flinging those points around as reasons against the movie. To me, it's the opposite; they're the reasons that you should go.

So, nostalgia for the first Ghostbusters. Believe me, I know--it's a powerful thing. I'll be the first to admit that I've been right where the naysayers who are digging their heels in are: I've written here on 2FL about how much I love The Neverending Story, a beloved movie from my childhood. I firmly refuse to see the second film. The same goes with the talk that's flown around about a possible new The Crow movie; for me, Brandon Lee will always be Eric Draven, and I don't want to see anybody else try to fill those shoes. As far as the new Ghostbusters though, fans of the original don't have much to worry about. This is a reboot, so it's not following the same story line as the 1984 flick. But, the movie is full of nods to the first film, so get ready for nostalgia to hit you like a blast from a proton pack. Some of them are subtle, others a little more pronounced, but the new movie knows what an emotional tie some people have to the original, and it respects that. Cameos are another big thing. You'll see plenty of familiar faces, especially those that will bring a smile to your own. And I do have to give you some friendly advice--don't leave the theatre when the credits start rolling. Stay a little bit longer or else you'll miss an important cameo appearance.


Then there's the whole discussion about the new cast being female. I'd almost say, "Don't get me started...," but I'll try not to get too long-winded. I saw a picture online the other day of two little girls at the movie's premiere, beaming up at Kristen Wiig as she high-fived one of them. In the film, most of the female leads are scientists: I might have missed McCarthy's character's title, but I did catch that Wiig's character has a Ph.D. in physics; McKinnon's character, Holtzmann, is a nuclear engineer. There's been a lot of controversy that Jones' character is the only one who's not a scientist, and I can understand the points that some are making, but I'll leave that discussion to others. I didn't enjoy her role any less because her character didn't have a specific title attached to her name. I'm happy that young girls (like the ones in the photo at the premiere) can see strong women portrayed in this movie. Not only that--I'm happy that boys will also see the same. My son was just as excited to go see Ghostbusters as I was, maybe more so. And it's not just the physical bad-assery they display as they sling around ghost-fighting weapons and face down the supernatural. They battle plenty of doubts about their legitimacy and their capability because of their gender and deal with some Internet trolls. Trust me, the controversy swirling about this reboot wasn't lost on the filmmakers.

I found myself laughing out loud throughout the movie, and one of the main reasons for that was McKinnon's portrayal of the wacky Holtzmann. Don't get me wrong; all four leads did a good job with their roles. For me though, Holtzmann's eccentricity was really brought to life by McKinnon's facial expressions, gestures, and timing. Where McCarthy is often a physical actor (which works so well and adds to the comedy), and this film is no exception, the subtlety that McKinnon adds in some scenes just ratchets up the effectiveness of her character. Hemsworth's character is meant to be played for laughs, but he, too, does a good job of adding a few touches that enhance that.


While I'm not sure that this new Ghostbusters will reach the near cult-classic status that the original has, I don't regret plunking down my $11 to see it, and I'd likely do it again. If you're on the fence about seeing the movie because of all of the nonsense discussions that have been swirling around, don't let that stop you. It's currently showing in theatres in the U.S. and many other countries.

2016/07/03

The Boondocks

by Jav Rivera

Around the fall of 2005, I saw an ad for a show titled, "The Boondocks," in one of the magazines I was reading. I mentioned it to a friend and he stated that it was probably going to be bad, for such and such reasons. At the time I held his opinion so high that I let him convince me to completely ignore it.

I never thought about the show again until sometime in early 2016. A different friend kept telling me about certain scenarios on the show and each one made me laugh. One weekend he showed me an episode and I was totally on board. From there, I watched one to two episodes a day until all four seasons were complete.


The Boondocks is an animated series that focuses on the Freeman family, a trio of characters made up of Huey, Riley, and Granddad. After Huey and Riley's parents died, Granddad decided to take their inheritance to move to the wealthy (and prominently "white") suburb of Woodcrest. Just that alone makes for fun writing -- a clash of cultures being the main storylines for several of the episodes.

But before I get into more of the actual show itself, let me express my love for Asheru's music and lyrics (listed below) for "The Boondocks" theme song. Though the song was a remix of Asheru's tune "Judo Flip," the song still matches the show seamlessly. Not only does it complement the egotism of the show's characters, but it gives so much more dimension to the strength of their backstories.



The Boondocks Theme Song
by Asheru

I am the stone that the builder refused
I am the visual, the inspiration
That made Lady sing the blues

I'm the spark that makes your idea bright
The same spark that lights the dark
So that you can know your left from your right

I am the ballot in your box, the bullet in the gun
The inner glow that lets you know to call your brother son
The story that just begun, the promise of what's to come
And I'mma remain a soldier till the war is won

[Judo flip...chop chop chop]

L-R: Uncle Ruckus, Thugnificent, Riley, Huey, Granddad, Tom, and Stinkmeaner
And while we're on the subject of the characters and their backstories, let's talk about one of the best features of the series: the way each character is introduced is almost the same way people in our lives are introduced. We get a first impression and we typically categorize them. Over time we get more insight into their personality. "The Boondocks" slowly explore their characters in the same manner. 

Aaron McGruder
Creator Aaron McGruder based the show on his comic strip, and was able to get an excellent cast, starting with Regina King as both Huey and Riley. King has been acting since an early age, with an impressive list of shows such as "227" and "Southland." She thrives as a dramatic actress with good comedic timing. Seeing her name in the credits was a bit unexpected, but it makes sense after viewing all four seasons. Playing both characters utilizes both drama and comedy. Huey is a leftist radical black revolutionary, while Riley is more laid back with dreams of living a gangsta rapper lifestyle.

Comedy great John Witherspoon (Friday and "The Wayans Bros.") plays Granddad. Don't be fooled though; Granddad is not your typical elderly character. He dates, he blows through money, and he has a rich history in political events. Often I think that Huey and Riley are his shoulder angels. Granddad seems to have a mixture of both of their traits and can be swayed to do good or bad, depending on which of his angels is more convincing (or convenient) at the time.

Outside of the main trio is a collection of very odd characters. The show boasts a roster of great actors, including Cedric Yarbrough, Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Asner, Charlie Murphy, Mos Def, Xzibit, Fred Willard, Snoop Dog, Busta Rhymes, Cee-Lo Green, and Katt Williams.

Uncle Ruckus
One of my favorites is Uncle Ruckus (voiced by Gary Anthony Williams), someone you love to hate. Every time he's onscreen his theme music comes on, and it's not a flattering theme at that. Sometimes we hear the music just before he gets onscreen which makes his impending appearance all that more enjoyable. I'm always surprised when he appears because he pops up in random places. Since he has about 32 jobs that he works throughout a week, you never know where he is at any given time.

Ruckus is often found supporting white people, claiming that he himself is white and that he has "the opposite skin condition that Michael Jackson had" (vitiligo). Ruckus is truly a character. Though he gets the Freemans in trouble, you wouldn't want an episode without him.

Another aspect that I get a kick out of are the multitude of references and homages. Sometimes it could be a historical event (recent or past), sometimes a scene is picked straight out of other movies or TV shows (like "Breaking Bad" for example), and sometimes it could be a character design. Side characters/bit parts are made to look exactly like someone from an old show, usually from an African-Amercian based show. There's even a character that looks exactly like Pearl (played by Helen Martin) from "227." In a season 3 episode titled "Stinkmeaner 3: The Hateocracy," Stinkmeaner is joined by three other characters, all of whom have very distinctive designs. Crabmiser looks like Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx's character on "Sanford and Son"). Gripenasty looks like Aunt Esther (from the same show), and Pissedofferson is an obvious take on J.J. from "Good Times."

Stinkmeaner, Lord Rufus Crabmiser, Lady Esmeralda Gripenasty, and George Pissedofferson
The show is more than just a series of goofy jokes though. There are also cultural messages. Though "Boondocks" has been given a lot of beef over its use of the "N" word and its representation of races, there's still a lot to gain from the humor. Much like Dave Chappelle's show back in 2003 ("Chappelle's Show"), poking fun at stereotypes and misinterpretations of cultures makes understanding more accessible. After all, it's easier to relate to a point of view through a funny story than an argument.

"Boondocks" homage "Breaking Bad"
The show has too much to cover in one article, but needless to say, I'm a fan. It's another lesson to make my own decisions on what or what not to watch. Try it out yourself and discover a show unlike most.

For more information, visit their official site: www.boondockstv.com


TRIVIA: The music that plays when Uncle Ruckus appears is a variation of John Williams's "Jabba's Theme" from Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983).





2016/06/05

Detectorists

by Jav Rivera

There's so many times when I think to myself, "That guy is such a great actor. It's a shame that he only gets small parts." I wonder why some actors aren't given the praise and opportunities they deserve. They're usually bit parts that appear bigger because of their onscreen presence. And though many of these actors are underrated, sometimes they get a chance to take center stage.

In 2014, actor Mackenzie Crook took things into his own hands and wrote, directed, and starred in the BBC series, "Detectorists."

Toby Jones & Mackenzie Crook
Though Mackenzie Crook has had plenty of acting work, he's mostly known for his portrayal of Gareth on "The Office" (the original UK version). Gareth was the basis for the Dwight character (played by Rainn Wilson) on the US version. Crook may also look familiar because he had a recurring role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films; he played Ragetti, the pirate with the wooden eye. And yet, despite these high profile projects, he never seemed to get his due recognition.

Mackenzie Crook as "Andy"
His "Detectorists" co-star, Toby Jones, has had a similar career. Looking at his extensive list of projects you might think, "Oh! He was in that?" I admit I overlooked him in earlier films too. I first took real notice of Jones on Captain America: The First Avenger where he played Dr. Arnim Zola. I was instantly engaged by his presence, so much so that I decided to look him up. I found a brilliant film titled Berberian Sound Studio in which he stars. The film is uniquely odd and at times unsettling. Jones deservedly won a Best Actor award from the 2012 British Independent Film Awards.

Toby Jones as "Dr. Arnim Zola" in Captain America: The First Avenger
Being a fan of both Crook and Jones I was so happy to see their names listed on a the show "Detectorists." I didn't even know the show existed until December of 2015 when I saw it on Netflix. I've only watched season 1 so far, but I love it so much that I've already watched it twice!

From the title of the show I had expected some kind of detective series that involved two blokes and their metal detectors. It turns out I was half right. There's definitely two blokes with metal detectors, but it has nothing to do with crime-solving. Instead the series focuses on Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones), two friends with a passion for metal detecting. They live in a small, fictional town in Essex, England and are surrounded by eccentric locals.

They each have simple lives and deal with everyday issues, be it at home, work, or within their detecting group, the Danebury Metal Detecting Club (DMDC). And there's plenty of content per episode because Crook was smart enough to create an excellent cast of characters. And perhaps it's because of his insight to background characters, or maybe it's just because he's a great writer, but "Detectorists" boasts an excellent cast.

L-R: Orion Ben ("Varde"),  Laura Checkley ("Louise"), Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook,
Gerard Horan ("Terry"), Divian Ladwa ("Hugh"), and Pearce Quigley ("Russell")
Crook also combines subtle humor with well-placed drama. The relationship between his character and Becky (played by Rachael Stirling) feels authentic. Becky doesn't understand Andy's hobby, and often pokes fun at him about it, but at the same time she accepts him for who he is. They're not a perfect match and they each bring flaws to the relationship, but that's what makes it real. 

Crook ("Andy") and Rachael Stirling ("Becky")
There was a part of me that was worried when the Sophie character was introduced because it looked like the stereotypical love triangle scenario. Fortunately, Crook didn't go that route and what he did instead should further justify his work behind the camera. And I'm sure Aimee-Ffion Edwards, who plays Sophie, was pleased because it gave her role much more dimension. The love triangle is such an old gimmick that actors probably roll their eyes anytime they get the part of the "affair." This, again, makes me think that Crook has played enough side characters to understand the lack of quality side players usually get. Additionally, Crook wrote strong roles for the women on the show. It never feels like a "guy" show with women. It feels more like great actors playing great roles.

Jones, Crook, and Aimee-Ffion Edwards ("Sophie")
Crook even makes "crazy" seem natural. The Larry Bishop character, played by David Sterne, could have easily been written to be as bland as most "crazy old guy" characters. But instead Crook gave Bishop something more than nonsensical dialogue. In fact, I wonder if "Detectorists" may have had some influence from the excellent '90s show "Northern Exposure." It would make sense, considering the amount of characters who, alone, seem unusual, but together, all seem to fit.

And to the credit of the actors on "Detectorists", they've all embraced their parts, Sterne being a great example. What I really enjoy about the Bishop character is that as mad as he may be, it's never overplayed. And though he's clearly out of his mind, he still has enough sense to understand the difference between good and evil, allowing some room for emotion.

David Sterne as "Larry Bishop"
That brings me to the evil duo of the so-called Simon & Garfunkel. Simon Farnaby (who has a standout performance in the little-known film Bunny and the Bull) plays Art, and Paul Casar plays Paul. They're both connected with a rival detecting group named the Antiquisearchers. They tend to use detecting laws and regulations to their advantage, specifically to take over land that has already been claimed. It's a great rivalry between the DMDC and the Antiquisearchers, and any time I see Farnaby's frizzy hair in the distance I grin because I know I'm going to have a laugh in the near future.

Simon Farnaby ("Art") and Paul Casar ("Paul") aka Simon & Garfunkel
It would seem that Crook didn't just give the best bits to his character; each of his co-stars have enough content to head their own series. Toby Jones, for example, takes on a character with closure issues. He lets himself get taken advantage of by his ex-wife Maggie and her new -- much younger and more fit -- beau, Tony, played by Lucy Benjamin and Adam Riches respectively. Their characters have so much dimension that you could see why Maggie and Lance were once together. The history of their relationship doesn't need the use of flashbacks. It's all there in their performances.

Adam Riches ("Tony") and Lucy Benjamin ("Maggie")
There are so many interesting characters that I would imagine the show could go on for years and years. This article is just a blip on the metal detector. There's so much more to uncover. I haven't even written about the Detectorists club members, nor the secret behind Lance's yellow 1977 Triumph TR7. And keep in mind that I've only addressed season 1 of the show. There's just so much detail in the show, so for now this'll have to do.

When you first watch "Detectorists" you may be taken back by its pace and style, but give it a few minutes and hopefully you'll understand why I fell in love with it. After a few days watching it the first time around, I took a step back and realized that the show seems to be comprised of background characters that happen to be put to the forefront. And if that's true, then Mackenzie Crook truly was the best man for the job. It's about damn time someone paid attention to those background characters!

For more information visit their IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4082744/

TRIVIA: "Detectorists" is Mackenzie Crook's directorial debut.





2016/05/01

Isn't That Remarkable: Truth Versus Illusion in American Theatre

by Dave Gourdoux



One of my favorite moments in all of literature is the scene in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where Biff Loman finally breaks down and breaks through a lifetime of lies and delusions and makes his father, Willy Loman, understand that he loves him. It’s the same scene where Willy famously exclaims, “I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman …” Willy’s response to the breakthrough is three simple words: “Isn’t that remarkable?”

I’ve read only a handful of great American plays, but one theme that seems to consistently run through them is illusion versus the truth. The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, opens with the following speech from Tom, the younger brother of the play’s main character, Laura:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”

The entire play is about the struggle between truth and illusion, responsibility versus escape. It’s a theme Williams continues in his most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which becomes an all-out war between the cold and violent truth, represented by Stanley Kowalski, and the fragile dream world of illusion represented by Blanche Dubois.

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire"
We also see the same conflict in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, about a group of drunken dreamers who are awaiting the annual arrival of their friend Hickey, the iceman. Hickey arrives, but he is sober, and honest, and he confesses to the murder of his wife. The harshness and violence of Hickey’s sober truth shatters the shallow dreams of the drunks. Truth is again shown to be harsh and violent and destructive, while illusion is shown to be weak and wasteful.

These themes continue in almost all great American plays. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is about a night with an alcoholic married couple playing a twisted game of deception and lies on their young guests until the light of dawn reveals the tragic truth they’ve been trying to hide.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Why does this theme show up so often in American theatre? I think it might be because it’s at the center of our history, the core of who we are and who we wish we were. The illusion of America is that it’s that shining city on the hill, where all men are created equal, and where life, liberty and happiness are guaranteed to all, and where anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard can make it. These illusions cover up an uglier truth of genocide and corruption that have, since the beginning, been at the core of our history. It took the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, who came to this country to escape religious persecution, less than four generations before they were burning “witches” at the stake. While the ink was still wet on Thomas Jefferson’s self evident truth that “all men are created equal,” slavery was a major part of our economy and would remain so for another eighty-nine years. Our westward expansion wiped out the natives who’d been here for hundreds of years, through a combination of disease, pestilence and war. It was actually documented government policy to exterminate the great herds of buffalo that roamed the great plains, thus crippling the primary source of food and clothing of tens of thousands of Native Americans.

The illusions and the truth of America continue to this day. The land of the free is also the country with the largest percentage of its population incarcerated. The gap between the rich and the rest of the country is widening to cavernous proportions, shattering any idea that all men are created equal. There are sharper racial and class divides and deeper wounds to our psyche. We are the most violent developed country in the world.

But we still hang on to the illusion, to its ideals, and every now and then, we make the illusion reality. It was the belief in the illusion that allowed us to join together in World War II and defeat the most powerful evil the world has ever known, it was the illusion that landed a man on the moon, it was the illusion that granted women and minorities the long overdue right to vote, it was the illusion that has allowed men and women throughout the country to marry who they love, regardless of sexual orientation. Every now and then, we hold up our ideals to the mirror of reality and shame ourselves into action. The ugliness of the truth cannot disfigure the beauty of the dream.

Isn’t that remarkable?