Thursday, 25 October 2012

Great TV Moments #2: Bobby Baccalieri Sr. does one last job

Tony and Bobby Sr. have a little chat.

Bobby Baccalieri Sr. (Burt Young) made one appearance in The Sopranos. And it was a memorable one at that. Dying from lung cancer, the fragile elder Baccalieri undertakes a hit on orders from Tony to kill Mustang Sally, his godson. It must be noted that this storyline is not of any significant relevance to the seasons main story arc (other than building Bobby's relationship with his father and his feelings about Tony). However, what this scene does is contain all the hallmarks of what makes The Sopranos probably the greatest television show ever made. It is a scene that is brutally violent, yet darkly humourous as Bobby Sr. takes out these two goons in a brutally improvised fashion. It's a terrifically tense scene, where the ailing Bobby Sr. fights two younger, stronger, but far less clever men. It culminates in the seemingly pleasant old man taunting an injured Carlos before killing him. Old habits die hard for Bobby Sr. who then celebrates with a cigarette. Of course, as only The Sopranos would do, to suffer a heart attack afterwards while driving home is the show at its dark hearted best. Moments of dark humour and violence have never been mixed so well, especially on television. While it's of no great significance to the overall plot-line, it is what made The Sopranos such a joy to watch (see the episode Pine Barrens for further reference), the ability of the show to go on tangents and to bring in smaller characters and make them fully realised and enjoyable while never sacrificing the main ensemble. This self-contained segment mixed with wicked humour and gratuitous violence makes it a memorable moment (one of many) in The Sopranos legacy.

Carlos interrupts Bobby Sr. and ruins his plan. Whoops.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Great Film Moments #2: The finale of The Way of the Gun (2000)

Christopher McQuarrie's follow up to the legendary The Usual Suspects is a criminally unseen and highly entertaining genre pic, The Way of the Gun. While at the time hyped up to Tarantino levels of possible awesomeness, it never really delivered on that level. Owing more to Peckinpah than Tarantino, in retrospect you can see why the film failed to receive the acclaim and box office receipts of Tarantino's best efforts. This is a crime film with a bunch of arsehole lead characters trying to screw each other over from the very start. These people are all bad and McQuarrie makes no attempt to hide it. It's a very uneven film, that is sure, it can be very funny, quick witted and clever in parts, but there are moments that overrun and slow the film down to a crawl. That being said, the film has several stand out moments and will be what it's remembered for. The opening scene is a classic comic scene that doesn't suit the tone of the rest of the film, but is mightily funny and uses some colourful language. The kidnapping scene is as tense as they come, and uniquely plays with genre conventions. The motel shootout/sniper scene is a glorious scene that tests 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound to the limit. These scenes are up there with the most enjoyable in crime cinema, but it's the final bloody set-piece that steals the show.

"There's always free cheese in a mouse trap" - Longbaugh

As Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro) make one last go for their fortune, they come across a legion of goons and Joe Sarno (the great James Caan). What follows is one of the finest choreographed action scenes in film history. As far as film goes, it is also up there with one of the most realistic takes on a gun battle, the action is all around, a fully realised battleground with danger incoming from 360 degrees. Which is refreshing. And most importantly, it's thrilling, tense and packs a mighty wallop. It's one of the loudest and most frantic set-pieces ever filmed (perhaps only beaten by Michael Mann's Heat) and for the first time in the film, you also want Parker and Longbaugh to succeed and get away. Bar one dreadful bit (the shotgun to the nuts, which looks bad and dated) and a scene where the realism slips for one endlessly deafening barrage of bullets to draw one helpless goon out, bullets fly, Parker and Longbaugh battle on furiously, but taking heavy damage. A genuinely squirm inducing scene involving the fountain and Parker ups the gore ante and sets up the finale, ominous reel. Despite that one scene, the set-piece doesn't rely on gore and bloodletting, rather the sound is amped up and it works wonders in giving the scene an epic sound (5.1 has never sounded better). It is action cinema at its very best. 

Saturday, 6 October 2012


Directors: Adam Winguard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
Starring: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Adam Winguard, Hannah Fierman,  Mike Donlan
Running Time: 115 minutes
Genre: Horror anthology

The found footage gimmick is becoming stale. It's resurgence in recent years due to the success of the Paranormal Activity has brought up a host of cheap and tacky imitations trying the same trick over and over. V/H/S is a breath of fresh air in that regard. Unlike the majority of these films threats of near-misses for 90 minutes and then one big reveal at the finish, V/H/S goes straight for the jugular. It's gruesome, nasty, vile, ultra-violent and disturbing in parts, but one thing you can't deny is that it is an effective horror film that sticks a middle finger to the safe horror that is constantly being thrown into cinemas.

Rather than being one long haul, V/H/S is an anthology film, broken into six short segments (five of which are seen in one main arc called 'Tape 56'). This allows for greater variety in tone and style, which is often a hindrance on such films, where the found footage gimmick can wear thin pretty quick. Tape 56 suffers the most from being broken up in bit segments while the other shorts play and is the most confusing, but there are a few chills to be found, despite the group being a bunch of douchebags. The opening short, Amateur Night (directed by David Bruckner) is the best of the bunch. Following three guys on a night out, their drunken antics (except the quiet and nice guy of the group cameraman) and their inability to see that everything isn't okay with one of the chicks they pick up from a bar. Cue madness. This segment is bat-shit bonkers. The warning signs are evident for the boys early on and it's horror movie school 101 stuff, but is executed with such thrilling style and makes exceptional use of the found footage format. Visceral and pretty much every young man's nightmare, it's a fantastic opening segment. The second segment, Second Honeymoon (directed by Ti West) is a more subdued affair. Anyone who knows West's output will instantly know his involvement here. Slow building and full of quiet menace, a couple on their second honeymoon become victim of a deranged stalker. Here, the use of the found footage is haunting and eerily creepy. West's horror instincts (as seen in the great The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers and probably the main reason I wanted to see this film) are old school, the slow build, the ominous signs and the night scenes. They are beyond scary. The stalker using the couples camera is a master stroke. The menace and threat of the stalker in those scenes do more than the blood-letting that comes afterwards. The shockingly brutal climax will warrant a strong stomach and is about as explicitly violent a film can get without being censored. Be warned! 

The third segment, Tuesday the 17th (directed by Glenn McQuaid), plays with the slasher movie format and after the first two segments feels like a let down. It has its moments with some genuinely spooky flashes. One or two of the kills are rough and nasty, but the over-reliance on gore here (and some shoddy effects/fake looking props) hinder. It has its moments, but nowhere as effective as the previous two. The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Young (directed by Joe Swanberg) is the weakest segment of the film. Relying on a Skype camera call scenario, a young woman who suspects there is a ghost in her apartment contacting her doctor boyfriend to keep a record of the events. There are scares to be had here, as the Paranormal Activity premise is turned on its head in pretty disgusting fashion. Two impromptu surgery scenes again keep the recurring theme of extreme gore at a high. This is perhaps the weakest segment of the film, but given the tricky and confining setting, it does well all things considered. The final segment is the most fun of the bunch, 10/31/98. Directed by Radio Silence, this segment has by far the most visual scares of the film, as a group of guys go to the wrong Halloween party and enter a real life house of horrors. The scares are not a gruesome as the previous segments and there is a lighter feel to this segment (for the opening exchanges anyway). The scares are great, giving more in jumps in 15 minutes that the combined Paranormal Activity franchise combined. 

V/H/S is a great horror film. Mean and nasty, but with enough clever touches to stop it from being exploitive, there are enough scares and blood here for hardcore horror fans. Definitely not for those with a weak stomach though. All involved have made an entertaining and genuinely unique take on a horror sub-genre that has relied on safe and basic scares. V/H/S rectifies this, with blood-soaked aplomb. Be warned, it is intensely violent and gruesome. One for Halloween then!


BOSS; the most underrated show on television

Starz is not a channel people would rank up there on the level of HBO and AMC for its programming output. Recently, with popular shows like Spartacus (haven't seen it, so I can't comment on the quality of the show) or the misfire that was Camelot; there have attempts at making grittier shows along with the likes Magic City and the upcoming Noir. But no have been successes on the level of the powerful brands of HBO and lately, AMC, whose shows Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Mad Men have seen the channel rise as a powerhouse of television. Boss was seen as being Starz answer to these shows and as a challenger. However, as seems common in the States, shows live and die based on viewing figures, with little regard for acclaim or critical praise. Even though Boss has made it to a second season, it's viewing figures have been abysmal and I'd be surprised if there'll be a third season. Which is a shame, because Boss is a pretty darn good show.

With this being billed as Kelsey Grammer's first serious lead-role away from his more comedic centred efforts for which he became famous for, it is a great and unsuspecting success. As Mayor Tom Kane, there is a new side to the man once fondly remembered as Frasier Crane. Tom Kane is a monster. A ruthless man with time against him. Diagnosed in the opening scene of the first episode as having Lewy bodies with dementia, we first see him at his strongest. This is the compelling point of this show. There will be no recovery for Kane. He is going downhill from the very first episode and unlike most shows when these problems tend to be resolved easily and thrown aside (something that always took away from Breaking Bad for me). Kane's battle to hide his illness from both his family and the public is a compelling look at a man losing control, who was perhaps not a likeable man before his diagnosis, but has become even more so as the series has progressed. Now I am not sure of the portrayal of Lewy bodies in the show, if it is a genuine portrayal of the illness or sensationalised for entertainment purposes. If it is a genuine portray; then it's a harrowing affliction as Kane (especially in the later episodes of season 1 and rises in season 2 and provides some of the seasons best scenes) loses his grip on reality, his hallucinations become more vivid and his mind veers away from stability. While not wanting to go into plot specifics and spoilers, Kane's conversations with right-hand man Ezra Stone (the terrific Martin Donovan) provide the series highlights. Stone's cool precision mixed with Kane's fury makes for thrilling television and even more so in the second series as the show evolves from political drama into a full blown psychological thriller. 

While not being the greatest show ever, it is great to see Grammer tackle more challenging projects. From start to finish of every episode, he is the focal point, confidently carrying each episode. It's Boss's greatest strength but also it's greatest weakness. This over-reliance on Grammer. While Donovan's Stone is the pick of the supporting characters, shows like the aforementioned Breaking Bad or classic shows of the highest calibre like The Sopranos and The Wire make use of a strong supporting ensemble, where often the supporting characters are the highlight; hello Mike Ehrmantraut and Christopher Moltisanti! Boss in this regard suffers. It is very much a one man show, for all the supporting characters plotting and scheming, they are not in the least memorable in the grand scale of modern television viewing. Which is a shame, because Grammer's Tom Kane is. Despite these flaws, the show is definitely worth having a look at, purely for Grammer's powerhouse performance.