I finally started watching the HBO Prohibition era drama Boardwalk Empire. There is a lot that is attractive to me: one of the executive producers, and director of the pilot, is Martin Scorcese (one of my favorite directors of all time), several other members of the production team worked on another great New Jersey crime drama, The Sopranos: producer-writer Terrence Winter and producer-writer Tim Van Patten, one of my favorite character actors of all-time in the lead role of Nucky Johnson-Steve Buscemi, as well as one of the standout actors from The Wire: Michael Kenneth Williams ("Omar"). The rest of the cast has some great actors as well: Kelly Macdonald of whom I have been a fan of since Trainspotting, Grethcen Moll, Dabney Coleman, Paz LaHuerta, and several others. I like how the writers have created fictional characters and story-lines that intersect with real historical figures (like Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone, etc.) that intersect with real historical events (Prohibiting, women's suffrage, the Black Sox scandal,etc...). I also like the fact that it isn't a straight gangster series and that politics are involved in the equation as well. I look forward to catching up with season three, which is currently in progress now.
Homeland is a 2011 Showtime series starring Claire Danes based on an Israeli TV show called "Abduction," that garnered a lot of critical praise last year. Thus I decided to check it out, and wasn't disappointed. Danes plays a CIA operative, Carrie Mathison, who believes that former POW Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been turned into a terrorist operative. Lewis does some excellent work in this series and like Danes was nominated for a Golden Globe (Danes won and Lewis lost). There are plenty of plot twists and turns (excellent writing) and there is a great support cast, especially Mandy Patinkin as Danes' mentor and boss, Saul Berenson. It is Showtime so there is gratuitous nudity and adult language. I'm looking forward to Season 2.
I was inspired to search out the 1979 BBC series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Alec Guiness as George Smiley after seeing the 2011 film version starring Gary Oldman. There are many merits of the BBC production, most notably the fact that it was a seven part miniseries, which allows for more exposition of story, character, and background information. Alec Guniness is great in his role and it seems that the director of the 2011 version, Tomas Alfredson, borrowed some of the tone for his gray and bleak version of the story. I think both versions are well worth seeing. Now it's time to read the actual John Le Carre novel.
Kings was a one season biblical based series starring Ian McShane (of Deadwood fame) on NBC in 2009. I read this appraisal on Slate and decided to seek it out. I must admit that I was mainly drawn to the story because of McShane, but what drew me into the story was all the political maneuvering and subtle references to contemporary world affairs (profit-based wars anyone?). This is one of the reason I was also drawn into HBO’s Game of Thrones as well. I guess I was also trying to piece together the biblical references in the story as well. I guess I am also drawn to what is presented as a sort of alternative history if religion and the state were united in a monarchy in the modern western world. I would have liked to see where they would have taken the story in a second season, but alas it never found an audience.
I'm probably watching less TV than before, but there were several shows that I kept up with that I think deserve mention.
1. Breaking Bad
3. Friday Night Lights
5. Mildred Pierce
6. Game Of Thrones
There's a few series that I had started watching but fell behind and didn't see this year that might have made the list after reading other lists which include many of them: Louie, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation, True Blood.
I've been preparing for my first visit to Panama, for the 2011 Panama TESOL Conference, by using a variety of sources. One of the best and most up to date sources was the 36 Hours in Panama City from The New York Times from April of this year. There was a follow up article about Taboga, A Peaceful Haven-Overnighter, an easy day trip from Panama City, in June of this year as well. These article were great starting points, but I wouldn't feel completely secure until I had my copy of Lonely Planet: Panama.I correctly guessed that Anthony Bourdrain must have visited Panama for his series, No Reservations, and I was happy to know it was his first episode for the 2010 season.
For background information, I read John Le Carre's novel The Tailor of Panama. It is only the second Le Carre novel I've read (the other was his third, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold). And I enjoyed it immensely, I was surprised to see so many negative comments from readers at Amazon.com, but apparently it was a sort of departure from his usual style. He clearly states that Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana was an influence in writing the novel. it is apparent to me that he has done significant research into the area and the history of the country. He also created several memorable characters like the opportunist protagonist Harry Pendel and the slimy agent Andrew Osnard. It's not a thrilling spy novel, but rather a satire with some biting black humor and a tragic ending. I had previously seen the film version, which features a fabulously degenerate Pierce Bronson as Osnard. I plan to revisit the film before I leave as well.
There's one more book I'll read in preparation, Getting To Know The General by Graham Greene. It's about his relationship with Panama and General Omar Torrijos, ruler of Panama from 1968-81. It is out of print so a little difficult to find...
ESPN 30 For 30: Volume 2 is a continuation of the landmark series that celebrates 30 years of ESPN. There are some great documentaries in this volume, but it might be weaker overall than the first volume, but taken as a whole it is a great enterprise. The first episode in volume 2, "Two Escobars" about the drug lord Juan Escobar and his influence on soccer in Colombia and one its greatest stars Alex Escobar who was killed by the drug element that infiltrated the game. It is a portrait of two men, a country, a great upset, and a great fall. This and the OJ Simpson episode are my favorites from the series. Some the other great episode for me were: "Into The Wind" (The Terry Fox Story), "Once Brothers" (Yugoslavian NBA players Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac and the ethnic tensions that destroyed a friendship), "The Birth of Big Air" (Matt Hoffman and the birth of X-Games), "Four Days In October" (about the great Red Sox comeback against the Yankees in 2004), "Fernado Nation" (the meteoric rise of the Mexican pitching sensation) "The Best That Never Was" (the story of the non-career of Marcus DuPree), and "Pony Excess" (college recruiting scandal that killed the SMU footbal program). There were several that were flawed for various reasons and might have been better in in another director's hands: "LIttle Big Men" (about the Kirkland Little League World Champions which suffers from pretentious narration), "One Night In Vegas" (Tupac getting shot at a Tyson fight, which has strange poetry slam narration and comic book panels), "Jordan Rides The Bus" (Jordan's return to baseball, which is respectful but un-insightful), "Unmatched" (about the great rivalry between Chris Everett and Martina Natravalova, which plays like a rom-com-complete with a Natalie Merchant theme song). I just didn't have much interest in a few epsiodes this time around: "The House Steinbrenner Built" (not a Yankee fan), "To The Limit" (Tim Richmond-again little interest in car racing), and "Press Pause" (Marion Jones doping scandal seemed to have a bit of an agenda).
I was excited to hear about the ESPN documentary film project 30 for 30, which documents how sports have changed from 1979 to 2009. This period is analogous to my life, since this coincides with when I started getting interested in sports and was probably at the apex of my fandom, thus, many of the stories from the series have personal resonance. The list of directors is impressive as well: Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), Barry Levinson (Diner, etc.), Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), and Ice Cube among many others. Many of the subjects appeal to me as well: the demise of the USFL, the death of Len Bias, Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, Hank Gathers, etc. So I was excited to watch the first set of documentaries.
There were so many excellent episodes in the first series of 15 documentaries: Mike Tollin’s film “Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?” is what I was looking for in this documentary series. There were plenty of profiles of coaches, players, owners, analysts, and fans with lots of footage from the brief 3-year history of the league. This documentary follows the league from the inception to the court case that ruined the league and comes to the conclusion that it was Donald Trump’s ego that killed the league since he wanted to get into the NFL at any cost-he gambled big and lost big bringing down the league with him. I also greatly enjoyed Dan Klores’ episode, “The Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks.” I remember seeing most of those games including the one where Miller scored 8 points in 24 seconds. (I will always be a Knicks hater). Great entertainment. I’ve always been a huge hoops fan, but I’m probably more of a college ball fan, thus I also really enjoyed Bill Couturie’s episode on Paul Westhead and his high charged Loyola-Marymount Lions college team that lost Hank Gathers to a heart attack at tournament time in “The Guru Of Go.” I remember watching the make it to the elite eight only to lose-it was a great run and a lot of fun to watch. Steve James served up one of the best documentaries with his documentary on hometown hero Allen Iverson and the trial that stirred up racial tensions that still has left scars on the community and the troubled Iverson himself in “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson.” No less fascinating was the documentary on Ricky Williams and his departure from the NFL and his struggle with finding a comfortable place in the world in “Run Ricky Run, “ which was directed by Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni. I have seen the film Invictus, and therefore was more invested in Clifford Bestall’s documentary on the Springbok’s 1995 Rugby World Championship in South Africa, “The 16th Man.” Equally fascinating was the final film, “June 17th, 1994” about O.J. Simpson’s very public run from the law by Brett Morgen. This is especially true since he didn’t make a conventional documentary but put together all kinds of footage from the media from that day and older clips that provided background context.
The rest of the films had their merits, but weren’t as interesting for different reasons: The first installment, “Kings Ransom,” directed by Peter Berg, recounts the blockbuster trade that sent NHL all-tiem great Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Although interesting overall, I would have liked to have had more background information about Gretzky’s rise and overall career since I am not a big hockey fan. This one suffers from staying to close to the specific subject of the trade in my mind. I think Barry Levinson’s documentary on the Colts marching band, “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” also falls in the same category, as Berg’s film in that it is was too specific of an event to merit the hour long documentary in my opinion. The fact that the Colts up and moved to Indianapolis one night in 1984 is a part of a larger story that eventually has the Ravens moving back into town and that is glossed over. “Muhammad & Larry” directed by Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan,” was mostly filmed when the event took place. Maysles filmed it but couldn't find a distributor for it at the time. Muhammad is always entertaining and poor Larry Holmes continues to be underrated. “Without Bias” directed by Kirk Fraser is a heartbreaker, especially since I forgot that his younger brother was gunned down a year after Len Bias had his heart attack-a tough two years for that family. I can really remember watching Jimmy The Greek every weekend and then seeing his fall from grace. It was then revisited by Fritz Mitchell with “The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek.” I think Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen’s “Silly Little Game” about rotisserie baseball might not have been of interest to many sports fans, but I have to admit I use to play these silly little games myself when I was an adolescent-however, never officially rotisserie baseball. Ice Cube’s Straight Otta L.A.” was entertaining, but not one of my favorites-since I’m a Seahawks fan, thus a Raiders hater.
AMC has another interesting crime show in its line up, The Killing. It is the story of a mysterious murder of a young high school girl who was found in the trunk of a local politician's campaign car trunk. The music, aspects of the story, and the Pacific Northwest location (Vancouver standing in for Seattle with several Seattle establishing shots mixed in) draw to mind comparisons with David Lynch's noir-ish Twin Peaks. However, it is adapted from a Swedish crime series, which sounds fascinating in its own right. Here is an interesting interview with the show's crator Veena Sud.
There's a new miniseries on HBO, Mildred Pierce, directed by Todd Haynes (Safe, Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine, etc...) starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce. It is an adaptation of the novel by James M. Cain, that was made into a successful film in 1945 that won Joan Crawford an Academy Award for Best Actress. Cain is best know for two other adaptations that became film classics: The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. There's a really great article from Hilton Als in The New Yorker discussing Cain and the current HBO production. It looks like I should start with the well-known classics since I am interesting in reading some books by Cain, who seems to have been an inspiration to Albert Camus's novel The Stranger. As for the HBO production, I have been enjoying it a lot so far. The first three parts of a five part series have aired and the production values are what you have come to expect from HBO-the depression era Los Angles has been painstakingly recreated and there are fine performances from the supporting cast including great work from Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham. I'm looking forward to the next installments.