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Jeffrey Jones (#110 of 10)

Summer of ‘86: Tarred and Feathered: Howard the Duck

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Summer of ‘86: Tarred and Feathered: <em>Howard the Duck</em>
Summer of ‘86: Tarred and Feathered: <em>Howard the Duck</em>

Bad reputations can follow films and their makers for years (even decades) after the initial theatrical release. Sometimes this stigma is completely unwarranted, like with Elaine May’s scathing and brilliant absurdist comedy Ishtar. But in other cases, a film can actually high jump past their shit-status by leaps and bounds, cresting into a completely new realm defined by non-verbal astonishment.

Howard the Duck is one such cinematic atrocity. Audiences and critics knew it was terrible in August of 1986 when Lucasfilm and Universal Pictures released the film, and I damn well know it in 2011 having recently suffered through its nearly 2-hour runtime. Willard Huyck’s clumsy melding of comedy, science fiction and film noir is so misguided you have to wonder if the filmmakers even understood the genres they were referencing. So if Howard the Duck has a rightful place in the canon of worst films ever, why the hell would anybody volunteer to write about it?

White Elephant Blogathon: The Pest

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White Elephant Blogathon: <em>The Pest</em>
White Elephant Blogathon: <em>The Pest</em>

[This is a submission to the White Elephant Blogathon called by Silly Hats Only.]

On the stage, John Leguizamo was something of a dynamo caricaturist. His one-man plays, like Freak and Sexaholix, were an explosive series of tirades centered around Leguizamo’s mixed ethnicity, effectively turning his insecurity into schtick by sheer force of will alone. On stage, Leguizamo looked like a caged cartoon animal pacing back and forth while tirelessly spitting over-caffeinated rants at his audience. No target was spared, especially not when it came to his parents. He was not Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy, but he was loud and vigorous in his lampooning and the audiences and critics ate it up.

The producers of Paul Miller’s 1997 clunker, The Pest, and perhaps Miller himself, who had previously directed 15 episodes of In Living Color and 10 episodes of something called House of Buggin’, no doubt saw this angry young man and thought that all they needed to do was put a camera in front of him, wind him up and set him loose to get fans of “ethnic humor” to roll up. He acted like a living looney tune on film so why not on try doing the same thing for film?

Review: Ravenous

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Review: <em>Ravenous</em>
Review: <em>Ravenous</em>

Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is an exciting, new kind of gothic horror film, one that replicates that traditional, oft-misappropriated proto-genre’s fixation with courage in the face of inexplicably unnatural and, in this case, gruesome phenomena. Set during the Spanish-American War, the film follows Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a coward who receives a medal of honor for surviving a massacre, though he only lived because he lay down and played dead. As in a traditional gothic story, Boyd’s convictions are tested by his confrontation with a real, live “Wendigo,” a mythological cannibal that Native Americans believe eats the flesh of its victims in an insatiable quest to augment its own strength. Boyd is not a strong man to begin with, blanching at the sight of a bloody steak set before him even while his equally starved comrades dig in with gusto. In Ravenous, he confronts the horrors of war through a creature which Bird and screenwriter Ted Griffin depict with a rollicking sense of humor that only serves to augment the film’s surreal dread.

Deadwood Recap Season 3, Episode 11, "The Cat Bird Seat"

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Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 11, “The Cat Bird Seat”
Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 11, “The Cat Bird Seat”

Deep down, you just knew that Whitney Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) was too good to live.

When we first met him, the Deadwood character was a grizzled, foulmouthed prospector. You sensed decency there, but it was buried under so many layers of hard experience that you weren’t sure if he’d ever excavate it. Yet over three seasons, he established himself as one of the se ries’ most good-hearted characters, along with Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie). Time and time again, Ellsworth stepped up and did the right (often difficult) thing, sacrificing his own comfort to give comfort to others, namely his wife, mining heiress, banker and drug addict Alma Garret (Molly Parker), and her adopted daughter Sofia (Bree Seanna Wall), who was orphaned in a stagecoach attack in the show’s very first episode.

And now he’s gone—shot dead in a tent by a Pinkerton goon while seeing to Alma’s gold claim in Sunday’s episode “The Cat Bird Seat.” That Ellsworth’s death was so brutally matter-of- fact—banal, even, like the death of certain Sopranos characters—somehow made it more hurtful, because he was on his way toward being not just a good person, but a great and significant one, an example of how to behave toward one’s fellow human be ings. Just last week, when Alma was shot at by a Pinkerton in the employ of her chief business rival, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney)—in an attempt to spur El lsworth and Alma’s ex-boyfriend, Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Swearengen), into a violent reprisal that would give Hearst an excuse to level the town—El lsworth let himself be talked down from his rage. To invoke the old western cliché, he refrained from doing what a man’s gotta do. Now one wonders what might have happened if he’d gone ahead; he still might have ended up dumped in a buckboard, but at least he might have taken one or two Pinkertons with him.

Deadwood Recap Season 3, Episode 9, "Amateur Night"

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Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 9, “Amateur Night”
Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 9, “Amateur Night”

Sunday’s Deadwood contained a simple exchange between madam-turned-do-gooder Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) and deputy Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) about the new schoolhouse that could be read on multiple levels at once.

On a pure plot level, this particular scene was about Joanie asking for help in locating the man responsible for building the town’s new schoolhouse, a simple wooden structure that just happens to have a tree growing up through its floorboards and out through the its roof. Joanie told Charlie she was acting on behalf of the schoolteacher Martha Bullock (Anna Gunn), the wife of Charlie’s boss, the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant); Martha wanted to be able to tell the kids why their schoolhouse looked the way it did. What would possess a man to build a house around an old tree instead of cutting it down?

Charlie asked Joanie why the teacher felt she needed to track down the architect and find out about the schoolhouse’s past.

“To finish the story,” Joanie replied.

“More than where the man got to once he was through, I think the story was of the tree, and the schoolhouse built around it,” Charlie said.

Deadwood Recap Season 3, Episode 8, "Leviathan Smiles"

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Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 8, “Leviathan Smiles”
Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 8, “Leviathan Smiles”

Deadwood has never shied away from theatrical flourishes that make metaphors concrete. But the one that kicked off Sunday’s episode—a portentous, King Lear-style thunderstorm that howled through town and turned the already muddy streets into soup—was so capital-D Dramatic that during certain shots, one half-expected the camera to pull back and reveal a proscenium arch framed by velvet curtains. Dramatically speaking, a storm was about to hit the camp; what simpler way to say that than with an actual storm?

On this gray, wet morning, the Deadwood Pioneer published a letter by Sheriff Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) to the family of a miner who was murdered for trying to organize against his boss, George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). Hearst, a gold mining tycoon who aims to rule Deadwood by destroying its burgeoning sense of law and order, was in a vulnerable spot for the first time since arriving in Deadwood. In the past few days he had already been humiliated by the public death of his feared chief henchman in a street fight (the killer was Dan Dority, boss strongman for Hearst’s main business rival, Al Swearengen) and by his subsequent arrest by Bullock for cursing and threatening the sheriff. Fearing Hearst’s wrath, the town’s most influential citizens then gathered to discuss a pre-emptive strike against any gunmen he might hire; but instead of using force, they decided to publish Bullock’s heartfelt condolence in the Deadwood Pioneer, in order to “bear witness” to the man’s death and bring the camp together against Hearst and his minions.

As the storm winds blew, the newspaper’s publisher, A.W. Merrick (Jeffrey Jones) and his constant companion and maybe-protégé, the telegraph operator Blazanov (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff), went from storefront to storefront, delivering the paper. It was a Robert Altman-style narrative hand-off device, moving us from location to location and character to character while building dread of Hearst’s response. A succession of simple but meticulous shots by director Ed Bianchi—the show’s most elegant storyteller—invested this elemental display with Old Testament coldness. (The wide shot of Blazanov and Merrick entering the Grand Central Hotel in the background, while two out-of-focus pots swung and clanked in the foreground, was pure John Ford.) After 52 minutes worth of anxious anticipation, the human storm finally arrived, heralded by hoofbeats of Hearst’s hired guns riding into town and assembling beneath Hearst’s balcony.

Deadwood Recap Season 3, Episode 7, "Unauthorized Cinnamon"

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Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 7, “Unauthorized Cinnamon”
Deadwood Recap: Season 3, Episode 7, “Unauthorized Cinnamon”

“No one gets out alive, Doc.”

That’s Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) talking to the tenderhearted, terminally ill Doc Coch ran (Brad Dourif) in Sunday’s Deadwood. Swearengen’s terse statement didn’t just reveal the empathy that has become his watchword; it was the key that unlocked this episode’s unexpected sweetness and wrenching power.

Death has always hovered over Deadwood; like many hard-edged TV dramas, it’s set in a savage universe that kills characters without warning. But Deadwood separates itself from nearly all other such series—with the possible exception of ABC’s “Lost”—by portraying death (and its kissing cousin, near-death experience) not just as random individual tragedies, but as communal events that have the power to change the course of human events.

On this series, unlike many others, no deceased character is ever forgotten; we are frequently and pointedly reminded of their passing, sometimes when we least expect it. Some invocations are straightforward—Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) visiting the grave of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), for instance, and talking to him as if he were standing right there. Others are more subtle: Seth and Martha Bullock (Timothy Swearengen and Anna Gunn) walking the adopted daughter of Seth’s mistress, Alma Garret Ellsworth (Molly Parker), to school, a ritual they would have done with their own son if he hadn’t been trampled by a runaway horse.

The show’s sensitivity to pain and loss is so acute that it even extends beyond the series’s roster of lead and supporting characters, embracing people you never even knew when they were alive. At the end of the fourth episode of season one, the vigilante pursuit of Wild Bill’s killer was interrupted by the arrival of a horseman who rode into town bearing the severed head of a Native American—a bit of terrorist street theater, designed to divert Deadwood’s citizens from their domestic anxieties and unite them against a (manufactured, it turned out) external threat.

But rather than discard the head after it had served its purpose, Swearengen ended up stor ing it in a box in his office. From time to time—often when he needs to think out loud and can’t endure conversing with characters who likely aren’t as smart as he is—Swearengen will haul out the box and address it like Yo rick’s skull. Grotesque as this description may sound, Swea rengen’s conversations with the head illustrate the show’s empa thy; the gruff Western gangster, who in season one electrified throngs of hoopleheads with speeches about “dirt-worship ping heathens,” tenderly addresses the box as “Chief” and has, over time, gifted it with the personality of a wise warrior—Swearengen’s equal and perhaps even his shaman.

The Society Method: A Portrait of Alma Garret Ellsworth

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The Society Method: A Portrait of Alma Garret Ellsworth
The Society Method: A Portrait of Alma Garret Ellsworth

Among hardcore Deadwood fans, a discussion of favorite characters could go back and forth for hours. When the debate shifts to assigning a least favorite character, though, the verdict comes down in a hurry: Alma Garret Ellsworth. While the other characters’ flaws and failures get treated with empathy and seriousness, Alma’s characterization usually hews to Farnum’s harsh summation: “A haughty cunt.” True, her biography doesn’t engender a rooting interest—she marries into New York high society, comes to Deadwood ostensibly seeking adventure among the unwashed, lays around her hotel room in ball gowns doing drugs the whole time, and, when her husband dies, takes up with the married sheriff. Meanwhile, her inherited gold claim turns into an unwitting bonanza. Her hostile reception among viewers, though, may ultimately be the result of her character’s many ambiguities. With Alma (Molly Parker) what looks like one thing often turns out to be another.

Deadweek: The Wordsmith’s Credo—A Portrait of A.W. Merrick

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Deadweek: The Wordsmith’s Credo—A Portrait of A.W. Merrick
Deadweek: The Wordsmith’s Credo—A Portrait of A.W. Merrick

Words make order out of chaos, and so it follows that the tenuous bonds holding the town of Deadwood together are maintained, in part, by the work of newspaperman A.W. Merrick.

Merrick is a seemingly tireless optimist who looks every bit the buffoon. It’s no accident he’s brought to life by the great character actor Jeffrey Jones, who has certainly suffered his share of indignities both actual and fictional (who else could claim being the perpetual punchline of both Ferris Bueller and Mozart?). Both actor and character are perversely appropriate additions to Deadwood creator David Milch’s damaged-goods rogues gallery, though Jones’ transformation into the roly-poly, mustachioed Merrick (who, on cue, sheds sweat like some characters shed tears) is almost too much to absorb at first sight. The way in which Merrick moves tentatively forward in his introductory scene - pursuing Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) in the series pilot episode like the most timid and inept of paparazzi - blurs the line separating fiction from non-fiction. It treads cruel exploitation, but as the series progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Merrick is the secular soul of Deadwood.

In a community steeped in blasphemy and obscenity, Merrick remains an eternally wide-eyed innocent, even when forced to compromise his gifts. Such compromise rarely makes a dent in Merrick’s character - where the upper-crust widow Alma Garret (Molly Parker) can only speak in Victorian allusions, Merrick has enough of a self-made social standing (not to mention the correct member between his legs) to commit his pontifications to newsprint. The Deadwood Pioneer is the town’s living Bible—a document that both records history and shapes behavior, reflecting society back on itself. Merrick’s commitment to the printed word makes him a holy man of sorts, though one doubts he’d ever be put through as many trials by fire (whether at the hand of man or deity) as the Reverends Smith (Raymond McKinnon) and Cramed (Zach Grenier). At least the Reverends can proclaim, with some measure of certainty, that God is on their side. Wordsmiths, whatever their religious affiliations, are grounded in everyday grunt work, finding beauty and truth in the here and now while just as often acknowledging, even wallowing, in life’s unpleasantness.

Deadweek: Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14: “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2.”

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Deadweek: Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14: “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2.”
Deadweek: Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14: “A Lie Agreed Upon, Parts 1 & 2.”

A preview of the first few episodes of Season 2. Originally published in the Star-Ledger March 6, 2005

HBO’s Deadwood, which begins its second season tonight, is the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television. It attains this distinction by doing so many difficult, contradictory things at once. It is, in no particular order, a western, a gangster picture, a political drama, a lewd farce and a comedy of manners; an operatic potboiler chock full of sex, violence and profanity; a sustained long-form narrative that interweaves parallel plots tighter than hangman’s rope; a satire on American hypocrisy and greed; a portrait of needy, ambitious people who see through other people’s illusions but cleave tight to their own; a revisionist look at frontier life; a case study of a civilization struggling to create itself, and a weekly showcase for characters and dialogue so rich in complexity and contradiction that they deserve to be called Shakespearean.

In comparison, even the most noteworthy television seems inadequate. HBO’s The Sopranos is a gangster potboiler, a social satire, a kitchen sink drama and a riff on psychology and dreams, but rarely all at once. NBC’s Hill Street Blues and ABC’s recently departed NYPD Blue were panoramic urban dramas, police procedurals, morality plays and character studies, but not simultaneously. Deadwood, in contrast, operates on multiple levels in every scene and sometimes every line.

The first four episodes of the second season showcase Deadwood at its most ambitious, imaginative and confident. Be warned, though; like other serial dramas, this one tosses newcomers into unfamiliar narrative waters and expects them to swim, and the water is deep and dark. Tonight’s premiere contains a nasty fistfight and an even nastier gunfight ending not in glory, but in embarrassment and painful injuries; the second episode includes a frank, protracted sex act and a bloody autopsy scene, and the third and fourth installments revolve around a singularly painful medical procedure performed without anesthetic. Ugly? Yes. Gratuitous? Rarely. Like the shooting of the police captain in The Godfather or the blinding in King Lear or the psychologically intense sex scenes in Last Tango in Paris, this western’s graphic content aims to shock audiences out of their complacency. The series earns its freedom by putting the nastiness in context: It was a hard time and place, inhabited by hard people.