Monday, July 21, 2014

Chef: Favreau Re-ignites His Heart

Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, and Emjay Anthony in Chef

Jon Favreau burst onto the scene in 1996 as the writer and star of Swingers, and his ascension continued with major directing gigs like the two Iron Man films. When you’re shooting movies with astronomical budgets, it’s hard not to lose your originality. His most recent outing Cowboys & Aliens was a critical and financial disappointment, and it arrived three years ago. Favreau has been doing some soul-searching and was looking to work on a smaller scale. While it may sound like a step backwards, that’s hardly the case. Chef reveals the heart that attracted people to him in the first place. Its characters mean well and are just looking to carve out a spot in the world. There’s a clear similarity between the career paths of Carl Casper and Favreau. When large sums of money get involved, it’s hard to stake your claim as an individual. Playing to the middle rarely leads to exciting creative results.

Chef – Directed by Jon Favreau; Starring Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Sofia Vergara

Favreau plays Casper as a nice guy who’s self-involved but not in a malicious way. He’s been cooking the same meals for Riva’s (Dustin Hoffman) restaurant for too many years. I’ve worked in mundane office jobs in the past, so I can sympathize with this feeling. You don’t even realize how much the lack of creative thinking is impacting the other aspects of your life. Casper spends time with his son, but he’s always focused on his job. He can’t even enjoy a roller coaster without checking his phone. Who has time to be a good dad when you’re running a restaurant? I expect that Favreau has faced a similar situation with his own kids. Casper is constantly on the move and pushes back the lingering questions in his mind about his predictable job. It’s only a matter of time before something cracks inside his soul.

Chef, directed by Jon Favreau

The instigator of this life change is a powerful food critic (who else?), and all it takes is a bad review to knock Casper into manic territory. His public outburst against the appropriately named Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) certainly springs from Favreau’s opinions about unfair critics. There were harsh reviews written about Cowboys & Aliens that probably mirror the clever barbs from Michel. In one sense, Casper’s statements that critics aren’t creators make sense. In this particular case, the bad review goes viral and hurts his reputation. On the other hand, Michel ends up being more than a one-note villain. We aren’t in Shyamalan territory from Lady in the Water. He devastates Casper’s confidence, but his main points are correct. The generic cooking lacks creativity and doesn’t match his immense talents.

Chef advertises for the greatness of many things, including food trucks, New Orleans, and Twitter. Favreau presents the simplicity of working on a truck and making dishes that people love. These aren’t restaurant patrons that have been ordering the same food for 20 years. I’ve been a recent convert to food trucks, so he’s preaching to the choir. The use of Twitter feels mostly natural, though I expect they spent a pretty penny bankrolling this project. Making Casper’s 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony) the social media expert works because he cast the right actor. Anthony looks much older and sells the boy's intelligence. The Casper/Percy relationship connects directly to the chef’s search for his creative identity. When he’s doing something that he loves, it’s easy to convey that joy to his son.

Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo in Chef

The main reason the story works is because of the excellent cast, and everyone is bringing out their genuine side. This feels like a case where they believed in the material and enjoyed supporting their friend. The scene where Casper welcomes Martin (John Leguizamo) to the food truck and tells him the pay is nothing matches how I picture Favreau’s meetings with the cast. Leguizamo is rarely this likable and perfectly depicts Casper’s loyal ally. He’d rather give up a lucrative job as a sous chef than not work with Casper. Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Sofia Vergara, and Robert Downey Jr. join the fun, while Hoffman gets the most thankless role as the less creative owner. That guy is hardly an evil villain, however. He takes a different perspective on the restaurant business and isn’t totally wrong.

If there’s an area that’s lacking, it’s the depth of the female characters. Johansson’s Molly is charming and gives Casper the push that he needs. However, she’s essentially on the screen to offer advice and love the guy. Favreau and Johansson sell their connection, but it’s a pretty thin character. That’s also true of Vergara as Casper’s ex-wife Inez. It’s clear why he’d want to be with her, and she’s a very likable character. Even so, she’s a reactive creation that’s just waiting around until Casper finds his way. Vergara also sells Inez as a real person, and it’s only with more consideration that we recognize the limited portrait. These issues are hardly fatal because there’s so much niceness on the screen. The conflicts are clear but are mostly in place to showcase the positive sides of Casper’s regeneration.

Family food truck day in Chef

Chef is one of those films with extended sequences that will send you scrambling for the kitchen (or a restaurant). The food looks gorgeous, and Favreau presents it majestically. The soundtrack is filled with jazz tunes, and that brings vitality to simple moments like driving down the highway. This is the type of movie that may turn off cynical viewers, and I can understand that reaction. Even so, it reveals a heart that’s been missing from Favreau’s recent work. There’s nothing wrong with directing a blockbuster about superheroes or aliens. The question is whether those projects match up with Favreau’s skills. He seems more at home with this smaller story about a guy who’s becoming engaged with life. Casper’s speech to his son about his love of cooking should resonate with anyone who loves a creative activity. When we’re immersed in our favorite pursuit, is anything better?

Friday, July 18, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #22

Code 46

This past weekend, I ventured up I-55 to Chicago and met up with some fellow bloggers and podcasters affiliated with the Large Association of Movie Blogs (The LAMB). I just stayed for one night but had a fun time meeting people in person that I’d only known through the site. What was interesting is that we didn’t talk that much about movies. It was refreshing to not spend all the time digging into our favorites of the year or best of all time. Instead, people mostly chatted about what they did and had the usual small talk you’d expect from friends. I’ve spoken to many of the people that I met on podcasts for hours on end, but there’s no substitute for an actual meeting. With everyone spread all over the country and involved in their own busy lives, it was a rare treat to get the chance to arrive in the same town.

Here are some interesting podcasts that are definitely worth your time:

Speaking of Chicago, a large contingent of the group there was from the Baltimore podcast known as French Toast Sunday. It was great to meet several of the regular hosts in person, including Lindsay and Jess. They just released their 200th episode, which is a remarkable feat. This special show involved a trivia battle of the main crew with the other contributors to the site. The B Team had no issues keeping up with the leaders. The nearly two-hour podcast was great fun and helped to pass the time during my drive.

Kicking & Screaming, directed by Noah Baumbach

One of my favorite movies is Noah Baumbach’s Kicking & Screaming, which perfectly captures a time right after graduating from college where everything is possible. The problem is that no one has any idea what to do. Is leaving the nest really just a good thing? Wouldn’t it be easier to just hang out with friends at the same bars and not move forward? Nathan Rabin from The Dissolve is a fan and does an incredible job describing why this film works. He also delves into the challenges with Baumbach’s follow-up movies, particularly Mr. Jealousy. It took him a while to get back on the right track.

By pure chance, I have two posts by Nathan Rabin in this piece. Am I a fan boy? Regardless, his essay for Salon where he apologizes for coining the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” is worth mentioning. The title seems perfect for characters like Natalie Portman in Garden State, but Rabin aptly feels that it’s become too prevalent. It’s also been extended to characters where it doesn’t really fit like Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall. Rabin makes convincing points that it’s time to avoid using that phrase.

Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon in Tammy

I’m not very excited to see Tammy and won’t be rushing out to catch it in theaters. Even so, I think it’s great to see Melissa McCarthy taking charge of her career. I knew her originally from The Gilmore Girls, and it’s been amazing to watch her star rise. Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed correctly points out that the criticism of this new film as a “vanity project” isn’t fair to McCarthy. The fact that she’s a woman is playing a major role in the poor treatment from some writers, and that hypocrisy needs to stop.

I’ve been a fan of At the Movies in its various incarnations (with one notable exception), and I really enjoyed its regeneration with Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on PBS. He was only 24 and an intriguing guy because he came from the world of online criticism. Vishnevetsky has written a fascinating post for the A.V. Club that discusses the history of the show and his contribution at the end. He’s way too hard on himself, but that’s understandable given the ultimate outcome. It’s fascinating to read his discussions on the failure of the Bens era and how the TV show format is so challenging. I’ll close with an excerpt from a post that anyone who ever watched At the Movies should read:

Searching through my inbox for production emails from the show, I come across a long list of notes sent in by Thea Flaum, Siskel & Ebert’s original producer, about an early episode. She tears into me and Christy—well, mostly me—for peppering our crosstalks with too many specialized references, a 'serious viewer turnoff.' Among other things, she points out the fact that we reviewed a documentary about poetry slams without bothering to explain what a poetry slam was.

When I first read that email, it made me angry. (Frankly, I don’t think I could stomach being the dude who explained what a poetry slam was on broadcast TV in 2011.) By the middle of that year, I got it. She was right: Ebert Presents: At The Movies was the kind of show where you would explain what a poetry slam was, just in case some portion of the viewership didn’t know.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Young Filmmakers Marathon: Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station, directed by Ryan Coogler

Documenting a real-life event in a fictional film is a real challenge, especially when it’s such a recent moment. The 2008 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police in Oakland, California received national attention, so recreating the shooting isn’t enough. We need to see a unique perspective that gives more than the tragic side. Who was this guy? Does his story deserve attention when you go beyond his death? That’s the question that lingers around Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, which depicts the final day of Grant’s life. He goes about his day with no idea that his minutes are numbered. The audience has knowledge that Grant doesn’t possess, and that adds a portent to scenes that are fairly typical. When his mom tells him to take the train, she unknowingly sets the stage for the disaster. The question is whether moments like these really help with understanding Grant. There’s a risk in trying too hard to create a sense of foreboding when none should truly exist.

Fruitvale Station – Directed by Ryan Coogler; Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, and Ahna O'Reilly

Grant is played by Michael B. Jordan, a rising star who made his name in shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights and films like Chronicle. His performance drives the story and keeps us engaged because he doesn’t overdo the drama. Grant is just going through another day where he tries to get his job back and keep his girls happy. Coogler seems intent on showing that he isn’t a saint and doesn’t take much responsibility for his life. His moves aren’t evil but can still do harm to his family if he isn’t careful. The conversation with his former boss tells us plenty about Grant’s outlook. Telling a guy that fired you that you’ll work hard rarely works, and threatening him is a terrible idea. Jordan brings humanity to Grant that isn’t on the page. A less charismatic actor would struggle to keep us on his side.

Melonie Diaz in Fruitvale Station

Despite Jordan’s success, there are scenes that veer into less subtle territory. At a gas station, Grant is a friendly with a dog. Moments later, the same dog is hit by a car. Watching him comfort the wounded animal is a blatant connection to his fate. It’s also a transparent way to connect us to Grant because he likes dogs. It’s a fairly brief scene, yet it leaves just the wrong impression in a movie designed to be natural. Coogler veers away from this approach several times, and those detours limit the effectiveness. They aren’t fatal issues, and the main reason is the work from Jordan and other actors. Octavia Spencer brings depth to Grant’s mom, and her presence adds more than what’s written.

Fruitvale Station is more interesting as a portrait of a young man than as a dissection of a tragic figure. The final act feels inevitable and is sad, yet it’s the least interesting part. The cops are one-dimensional guys high on adrenaline that overreact to a tricky situation. Kevin Durand (Lost) is the right man to play the tough officer. Is there any way for this guy not to look imposing? His face exudes menace towards anyone that stands up to his power. The joyous scenes on the train prior to the mess set it up well and convey the excitement of a night on the town. I’ve yet to mention Melonie Diaz as Sophina, who has the difficult task of being an obstacle for Grant. Even so, it’s clear that there’s love between the characters. We have to remember that they’re still really young and dealing with situations well beyond their years. They’re just hoping for a fun night out on the last day of the year.

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

I’ve spent a good amount of this piece harping on the issues with this film. Despite these concerns, it’s still an engaging debut from the 28-year-old writer/director. Coogler shows a lot of talent in conveying tricky material that could have easily drifted in more sentimental territory. There are scenes that connect too much to the ending, but the overall mood is right. We’re following around a guy who makes mistakes and isn’t perfect yet hardly deserves such a tragic end (who does?). Fruitvale Station is most notable for the arrival of Coogler and Jordan, who have very promising careers. I can’t wait to see where they go next, and their potential to shine is sky high after this interesting project.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Deadwood Watch, Episode 1.5: "The Trial of Jack McCall"

Powers Boothe and Ian McShane in Deadwood

Following last week’s fireworks, the slower pace this time isn’t a surprise. The lingering camera close-ups of Hickok’s body with flies crawling on his face are chilling. There’s no glory in this death, especially in a town like Deadwood. A line of people stroll by the body, yet few of them seem too sad. They arrive to tell their family and friends about the time they saw Hickok. A huckster even tries to sell pieces of his hair, which feels so wrong. Bullock is one of the few with a different outlook on the killing. His face exudes so much sadness and anger towards the pointless killing of his friend. Jack McCall has no remorse for what’s he done, and that makes it even worse. This wasn’t the case where a guy lost his cool and didn’t realize what was happening. McCall isn’t a deep thinker, and he feels like the victor despite the horrendous act. He doesn’t even recognize the danger from Hickok’s allies. The haphazard trial may save him from the law, but there’s little relaxation in his future.

“The Trial of Jack McCall”
Season 1, Episode 5
Directed by Ed Bianchi
Written by John Belluso

It’s interesting to see a chat between Tolliver and Swearengen, who’ve had few connections since Bella Union's arrival. The image of two powerful men standing above the masses says all we need to know about who’s running this town. They look like giants standing above the minor peasants and deciding how to control their daily lives. The surprise comes not from Swearengen’s opposition to a trial for Jack McCall. What’s noteworthy is how much his opinion makes sense for people beyond himself. He doesn’t want the U.S. government taking any interest in this territory. While keeping the law out of Deadwood benefits his business, the impact of statehood would be much larger. Although it feels out of place, having the trial in a brothel seems fitting in this environment. There are some legitimate businesses and small hints at civilization, but they’re barely impinging on the wild side.

This is another great episode for Timothy Olyphant, who’s coming into his own as Bullock. The moment when he steps into McCall’s cell and seems ready to choke the life out of him is stunning. His anger at the injustice from such a dim-witted guy is totally understandable. Their conversation happens before the trial, which shows how a ridiculous explanation can work because it’s so simple. How can they be sure if McCall doesn’t have a brother that Hickok killed? Criminals don’t always love technology. McCall’s conversation with Swearengen after the verdict is one of the best so far on the show. The powerful man recognizes when a guy is bad for business, and his advice perfectly summarizes the situation. Even in a town like Deadwood, there’s bound to be someone who cares about right and wrong. The simplicity in his statement to “run for your fucking life” is brilliant. Bullock’s choice to pursue the killer validates Swearengen’s points, even if he cared little for McCall’s survival.

The other intriguing story line is what will happen with Andy and his nasty illness. Tolliver is forced to exile his friend in the woods, but he still could make an impact. A very drunk Calamity Jane comes upon the deathly pale guy, and their scenes are harrowing. It isn’t clear how contagious he is, but I have a feeling that he might cause serious damage to the rival gambling house. Tolliver sends a minion to Nebraska to acquire some medicine, but will it arrive in time? The scene where he convinces a simple-minded guy to travel there is funny but doesn’t inspire much confidence in his skills. Considering the fact that the next episode is called “Plague”, I have a feeling this disease is going to wreak some havoc.

I’ve yet to mention Alma Garrett and her interest in uncovering the truth about her husband’s death. She’s hired Bullock to investigate the case, and I expect that it will get interesting. Swearengen commissions Trixie to “help” Alma by getting her back on drugs, but the outcome is much different. Despite fine work from Molly Parker and Paula Malcolmson, I wasn’t that interested in their scenes. Trixie’s connection with the young girl does show a different side of her. I’m still unsure of where Alma’s story is heading, particularly with the unresolved gold claim. The challenge is making these moments stand out when so much is happening with McCall’s trial downstairs. Despite some more downtime this week, the pieces are in place for a lot to happen in the next episode. The characters keep showing more depth, and that’s the key to maintaining the momentum near the midpoint of the season.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The World That I See: Reads and Listens #21

Tomorrow, I’m hopping in my car and driving to Chicago to meet a group of film fans that I’ve been talking with online for years. I’ve also appeared with them on podcasts, so there’s a familiarity that you normally don’t have without meeting people in person. It’s going to be surreal, but I can’t wait to hang out with such a cool group. To prepare for the 300-mile drive to Chicago, I’ve loaded my iPod with podcasts. This week, I’ve already caught up with a bunch of interesting shows that had been lingering on my computer for too long. In honor of the impending meet-up, I’m making this an all-podcast post and including episodes that are definitely worth your time. Some are new and others are from a few months back, but they all have something interesting to say about the film world.

Here are some interesting podcasts that are definitely worth your time:

I’ve been participating in the Blind Spots Series for the past three years, and it’s been a great way to push me to finally catch up with movies that have been on my watch list for a long time. The topic of blind spots was the focus of an episode of Filmwhys, hosted by Bubbawheat of Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights. His guests were Steve Honeywell of 1001 Plus and Ryan McNeil of The Matinee, and both have seen a lot of classic films. Ryan leads the blind spots project, and Steve has completed the 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die list. The fun conversation reveals a lot about each person’s approach to catching up with the classics and the challenges of seeing all the essential films.

Speaking of the difficulties in doing everything, The Film Pasture covered this topic in the “Get a Life” episode. Host Lindsay Street from French Toast Sunday brought Mette from Lime Reviews and Strawberry Confessions and Chris from After Credits onto the show to talk about finding that balance of life and film blogging. It’s quite a challenge to make time for everything, and something is bound to get left behind. Lindsay makes a great point that having other hobbies beyond movies is a major hurdle. I’ve been trying to get back in shape with lots of swimming, and it’s hard to do that along with family, work, and keeping up with new movies. I’ve been failing on the last task, but I’m okay with it.

The guys at Mamo have been cranking out the episodes this summer. I blinked and four new shows had arrived. Matthew Brown and Matthew Price are the only guys that I regularly listen to that cover the box office side of the year’s big movies. One of their recent episodes tackles a different topic and covers another wave of price increases at TIFF. They’ve been regular attendees for years, but the huge costs are becoming too much even for adults with a solid income. When does the quest for profits change the nature of the festival? Or has that already happened? This informal discussion hits on so many topics and reminds me why Mamo is one of the best shows out there.

Staying in Canada, Ryan McNeil (he’s all over this post!) recently brought Matthew Brown onto his podcast The Matineecast to talk about How to Train Your Dragon 2. I bypassed that discussion since I hadn’t seen the film, but I stuck around to hear them talk about Dragonslayer and Reign of Fire. Their conversation about the latter was very entertaining. Both admitted that it’s extremely dumb and has a ridiculous premise yet still has a certain charm to it. It was an enjoyable show from two guys who know each other well and have a relaxed camaraderie that’s impossible to fake.

I’ll close this post with a show that brought a huge smile to my face. Nick Jobe of Your Face and Pat McDonnell of 100 Years of Movies have found a great formula with the We Sing Poorly podcast. Instead of just talking about a movie, they sing about it and ask a guest to join them. Each week, they tackle a musical and sing their reviews in hilarious fashion. I checked out the Beauty and the Beast episode, which brought in Mette (again!) to belt out variations on the tunes from the classic soundtrack. This was a clever way to get into some possible issues with the beloved movie while having a great time doing it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

John Ford Blogathon: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, directed by John Ford

Does any film director love the U.S. Cavalry more than John Ford? Better yet, does anyone in this country’s history adore the cavalry more than him? When the brave men climb aboard their horses and ride fiercely into battle, you get the sense that Ford would do anything to join them. In his book Five Came Back, Mark Harris documents the classic American director’s interest in establishing his credentials as a courageous warrior. Ford’s tall tales about being inside the battle resemble those about legendary heroes whose names are championed in song lyrics. He may have shot the famous “print the legend”scene in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but that doesn’t mean Ford dislikes the heroes. They rode into the camps of their enemies and stood bravely while arrows landed at their feet. Who wouldn’t want to be the type of man that can face that type of danger? When the trumpets blare and death is in the air, Ford revels in showing the guys who understand the risk yet realize it’s necessary to resolve the conflict.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – Directed by John Ford; Starring John Ford, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, and Mildred Natwick

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring Joanne Dru

Despite this patriotic attitude, Ford shouldn’t be confused with a naïve filmmaker who doesn’t recognize the flip side of the coin. The first film in his cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, shows the problems when this bravery turns into obsession. It’s one thing to defend against Native American invaders; it’s another to seek out conflict. The tragic finale shows the disastrous results of that fervor and the government’s willingness to push it under the rug. Henry Fonda’s Owen Thursday is a fictional variation of George Custer and endures a similar fate. This makes the direct reference to Custer at the start of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon an interesting choice. His failure at Little Big Horn connects directly to the environment that faces Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) at the start of this story. The 60-year-old veteran is days from his retirement but has no plans to fade slowly into oblivion.

Brittles has been assigned one last mission — providing a safe passage for two women to the stagecoach. This seems like an easy task, but the danger from a new group of Native American warriors is very real. It will take all of Brittles’ guile to keep them safe, and success is no guarantee. Ford presents their enemies in one-dimensional terms, which is disappointing given the depth of Fort Apache. The narrator describes their reasons for the attacks as protecting their hunting lands, which is simplified. While we can only expect so much in 1949, there’s something unsettling about the way the enemy is depicted. They’ve been armed by American gun runners, and the way they dispose of them shows a cruelty that goes beyond protecting their livelihood. The men are repeatedly tossed in the fire as sport while Brittles and his guys observe their deaths. Their casual reaction presents men who have been hardened by the loss of people they know and are hardly innocent in this fray.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, shot in Monument Valley

It’s impossible to understate the beauty of Monument Valley and other Utah locales that provide the backdrop for this story. Cinematographer Winton Hoch (The Quiet Man) won a well-deserved Oscar and presents long shots that reveal a grand scale rarely seen on the screen. The characters are minute parts of the screen and dwarfed by the massive landscape. It makes the story feel so much bigger, even when they’re just riding casually down the trail. When the action picks up, the scale creates a different environment than the typical Western. The quest for survival is more about the entire group than any particular individual. Ford is showing how the future of the cavalry and maybe the entire civilization is at stake. Following Custer’s failure, will the forces of the wild take over this land?

The screenplay from Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings spends a lot of time on the love triangle between Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), Lt. Cohill (John Agar), and 2nd Lt. Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.). The challenge is that neither guy is particularly memorable. It's also obvious that Cohill is the choice, and his angry rebukes of Dandridge mask the love in his heart. The saving grace of these scenes is the fine work from Dru, who had similar success with her character in Red River. Her most interesting connection is with Brittles, however. Wayne and Dru have great chemistry, though it's a fatherly relationship. It's possible that Dandridge reminds Brittles of his dead wife from his younger days. Their bond carries a lot more weight than the scuffles between the two young guys over her affections.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring John Wayne

I've yet to mention one of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon's strongest elements, which is the soulful performance from John Wayne. Playing a man several decades beyond his real age, he brings fascinating depth and weariness to the role. His last morning with the troops after receiving his walking papers is one of the best moments that I've seen from Wayne's career. The mix of frustration and graciousness is hard to play convincingly, and he never strikes a false note. We understand Brittles and his realization that nothing in his life will match his experiences with the cavalry. He's determined to complete this final mission and refuses to fade into obscurity. This melancholy tone is the key factor that allows this story to overcome its limitations and deliver an emotional impact. Ford and Wayne create a convincing portrayal of a noble guy whose entire life is devoted to a single pursuit. This fully realized character lifts this modest story to much greater heights.

Note: This piece is a contribution to the John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories. A group of talented writers have delivered great pieces on every corner of Ford's career. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Deadwood Watch, Episode 1.4: "Here Was a Man"

I’m flat out tired.” – Hickok

The best TV series are created with few thoughts about longevity. There’s immediacy to the opening seasons of dramatic juggernauts like Battlestar Galactica and The Shield that announces their arrival like a massive crack of thunder. That same urgency has been with Deadwood since the start, and it reaches new heights in the fourth episode. It takes courage to build up a character and make us identify with him and then murder him. I’ve purposely read little history about the historical figures on this show, but I knew that “Wild Bill” Hickok was shot and killed. There was plenty of foreshadowing in this episode that Hickok had accepted his fate and knew that death was coming. Even so, watching it happen so quickly in an episode where so much occurs was shocking. This felt like a moment that would normally happen in a finale or a least the penultimate episode. Taking him out in the fourth hour and immediately after killing another recurring character is just brilliant.

“Here Was a Man”
Season 1, Episode 4
Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Elizabeth Sarnoff

It’s clear from the pilot that Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt) will be trouble for Hickok. He’s determined to prove that he’s a better man than the famous gunfighter. Losing everything at poker to the very man he detests pushes him to another level. There’s so much to dig into about this moment! Does Hickok sacrifice himself by sitting with his back to the door? He doesn’t realize McCall is planning to shoot him, but he’s let go of the fear that’s been a weight on his soul. When he stares into the mirror and ties his red sash, Hickok decides that he’ll let fate control his future. It’s just too exhausting to spend every minute wondering if it will be his last. It’s unfortunate that he found an ally in Bullock so close to the end. His affectionate nickname of “Montana” says it all about what he thinks of the guy. They were destined to be lifelong friends, but surviving in a lawless town is no picnic.

Bullock’s face while seeing the final moments of his friend’s life says it all. He’s devastated by the shocking death, and I’m certain he won’t let this crime stand. This feels like the moment that changes the course of his life and of Deadwood on the whole. There’s going to be some type of law, and Bullock’s certainly going to be a part of it. The question is whether he’d actually bring his wife and son to this type of community. They’re waiting in Michigan and plan to join him in the future, but the current state doesn’t seem like the right one for a family. I’m thankful that we did get at least one scene between Hickok and Al Swearengen. Both are sizing up the other and trying to figure out where they stand. What’s surprising is how well Hickok deceives a guy who’s used to having all the power. When Swearengen realizes he’s been played, he’s ready to seek retribution because it rarely happens to him.

The episode begins with the aftermath of last week’s killing of Brom Garret, and his wife Alma (Molly Parker) suspects foul play. When E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson) offers to buy her husband’s claim, it only enhances her suspicions. It’s nice to see Molly Parker finally getting a chance to do something beyond looking worried. She’s a talented actress and plays the mix of grief and anger just right. Hickok is a good choice to investigate the killing, though he does carry a high profile. When he enters the bar to speak with Swearengen, it stirs the whole establishment. Asking his friend Bullock to help is another way that Hickok shows his admiration for the guy. I suspect that both killings will play a big role in the rest of the season. There is an eye witness to Garret’s death, though Ellsworth (Jim Beaver) doesn’t seem interested in doing the right thing. Instead, he approaches Dan Dority with a clumsy pitch that doesn’t convince me his chances of survival are great.

The events at Bella Union feel like they’re happening in another universe. Cy Tolliver is throwing around money like it’s growing on trees and trying to show that he’s different from Swearengen. It will be interesting to see if the illness carried by their new arrival decimates their business. Once they recognize the danger, it may be too late. Swearengen recognizes that vigilance is the only way to avoid losing power, and Tolliver may not have the same alert demeanor. There are too many people lurking in the shadows and waiting for you to fall. Guys like Farnum may seem weak on the surface, but they’re opportunists who will sell their souls to the highest bidder. What chance did Hickok have in this cruel world? Bullock may be able to fly under the radar, but that position can only last for so long. Once he stands up for his friend, it’s only a matter of time before he’s the next target.