MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: BOARDWALK EMPIRE season two finale

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: BOARDWALK EMPIRE season two finale

null“To the Lost,” the second season finale of Boardwalk Empire, may be remembered as the moment when Boardwalk finally, finally hit its stride. This isn’t the first time the HBO drama has impressed me — even the worst episodes have had great scenes or moments — but there was something special about this one. It was dead solid perfect in almost every department. I think a lot of it comes back to the episode’s consistency of tone, and the show’s comfort with having settled on it.

I thought about tone during that haunting close-up of the soon-to-be-late James Darmody smoking a cigarette by an open window. There was really no reason why such a simple moment should have summoned such force. Michael Pitt wasn’t selling the moment at all. He was just sitting there smoking. Yet the accumulated weight of Jimmy’s trauma — his wife’s death and his tragic inability to feel his way through it thanks to his war experience, his Oedipally perverse childhood, and a life spent among super-macho gangsters — came through loud and clear. Pitt’s posture, gestures and slightly mask-like expressions were exactly right, just as his gentleness during the beachside pony-ride scene with Jimmy’s son was exactly right, and as his ego-free coolness during that rain-soaked final sequence was exactly right. I love how Pitt delivered Jimmy’s statement to Nucky about what to expect after your first killing: 48 hours of nausea. It reclaimed a bit of dignity for Jimmy in his final moments — the implication being that this was first time that Nucky, the butcher of Atlantic City, ever personally killed anyone — but it was not particularly boastful or petty. Jimmy was just a guy who had nothing to lose, delivering information.

Pitt’s acting was always good, if a bit vague and guarded early on — an understandable response to being ask to play a character who was whatever the show needed him to be at any given instant — but he was especially strong during the last five episodes, probably because the writing sharpened up, and he hit his peak last night. The performance was free of 21st-century neuroses, which is by no means the same thing as being untroubled. When Jimmy said he died in the trenches during the war, there was nothing self-dramatizing about it. The character was just reporting the facts as he saw them. Pitt’s acting, here and earlier on the show, was retro, but not ostentatiously so. It seemed to be pitched somewhere between 1940s-era Joel McCrea or Dana Andrews and the kinds of performances that Montgomery Clift gave in the 1950s, which were soulful and tormented, but never never over-indicated or begged for sympathy.

You can read the rest of Matt's piece here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.

SLIDE SHOW: Secret agenda: 20 classic spy movies

SLIDE SHOW: Secret agenda: 20 classic spy movies

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There’s one big problem with compiling a list of great spy movies: How exactly do you define a “spy movie”? Do the spies have to be employed by a government agency? Does the action have to be international, or can it be domestic, even local? Do the characters have to engage in deception and/or information-gathering, or can they mainly be assassins, like James Bond or Jason Bourne? Is the “assassin film” its own separate genre? If movie characters have nothing to do with international politics but engage in surveillance and deception and other classic spy activities, can their story be grouped within the “spy movie” category?

James Bond wouldn’t spend five seconds contemplating any of that. He’d be too busy quaffing martinis with a diplomat’s wife and telling a dealer to pass the shoe. He’s represented on this list of great spy movies, along with grittier, more mundane depictions of espionage, deceit and international mayhem. I included a couple of TV programs as well as movies, because the genre’s emphasis on character and atmosphere makes it especially well-suited to the small screen.

Since these lists always seem to be compiled according to some mysterious private criteria, I’ll disclose mine upfront: If a film depicts characters navigating the treacherous labyrinth of the military-industrial complex, in their own country or abroad, and engaging in deception or impersonation or codebreaking or defection or assassination or other tried-and-true espionage mainstays, I considered it. But if too many of those aspects were missing, I ruled it out. That’s why you’ll see The Ipcress File but not, say, The Conversation. I’ve also arranged the list in pairs, or double features, because some of the films just seemed to fit together nicely. Let’s argue about it in the Letters section, where I hope you’ll volunteer your own list of great spy films, and your own definition of the category. Be sure to use a pseudonym and file from a secure location. You can’t be too careful.

You can view Matt's slide show here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.

Press Play video series MAGIC AND LIGHT: THE FILMS OF STEVEN SPIELBERG to debut Dec. 15, 2011

Press Play video series MAGIC AND LIGHT: THE FILMS OF STEVEN SPIELBERG to debut Dec. 15, 2010

Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg (HQ) from Serena Bramble on Vimeo.

Press Play is proud to announce our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg.  Set to premiere Dec. 15, 2011 on this blog, this series will examine facets of Spielberg's movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work.

Magic and Light is produced by Press Play founder and Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz and coproduced and narrated by Ali Arikan, chief film critic of Dipknot TV, Press Play contributor, and one of Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. The Spielberg series brings many of Press Play's writers and editors together on a single long-form project. Individual episodes were written by Seitz, Arikan, Simon Abrams and Aaron Aradillas, and cut by Steven Santos, Serena Bramble, Matt Zoller Seitz, Richard Seitz and Jose Salvador Gallegos. For a taste of Magic and Light, check out the embeddable trailer above, which was edited by Serena Bramble. — Editors

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The controlled madness of AMERICAN HORROR STORY

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: The controlled madness of AMERICAN HORROR STORY

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article contains spoilers for American Horror Story season one, episode 10, "Smoldering Children." Read at your own risk.

“Ladies and gentlemen … the ham.”

This may be the line that Jessica Lange was born to say, in the role she was born to play, on a TV show perfectly suited to her fluttery intensity. That she delivered it over a tight shot of a ham festooned with moist pineapple slices being thrust into the camera’s lens — as if the show were being broadcast in 3-D! — made it a perfect kick-off to “Smoldering Children,” the 10th episode of the first season of American Horror Story.

Written by X-Files veteran James Wong and directed by Michael Lehmann (Heathers), the hour greatly escalated the madness on this already demented show. Created by Glee executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the series seems to be inventing a new kind of horror — a 21st-century, short-attention-span-theater version, with no lulls. The traditional buildup to the big scare? Booooo-ring. Perhaps operating under the assumption — not unwarranted — that most viewers are watching the program on DVR or illegal download and will just fast-forward to the “good parts” anyhow, they’ve decided to save us all the bother. Every few seconds there’s a fabulously bitchy one-liner, a grim bit of exposition or a surprisingly deft transition between the two, or a beating or stabbing or disembowelment or horrendous searing of flesh, or a faintly S&M-dungeon-flavored sex scene, or a revelation that a character you thought was alive was actually dead all along, or that the heroine has been impregnated by both her husband and by a black-rubber-suited spectral hunk and is carrying both of their children.

What happened tonight? Let’s review — with the caveat that when you describe the actual events on this show, they sound like the plot of a hypothetical horror novel being plotted out by a couple of precocious 13-year-olds.

You can read the rest of Matt's article here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: TV’s unconscionable spectacle

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: TV’s unconscionable spectacle

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The scariest, most disgusting show on television isn’t American Horror Story. It’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Bravo’s unscripted series offers that horror movie gimmick of showing you unlikable people doing ill-advised things that you can’t prevent no matter how loudly you yell or curse at the screen. But because the characters are — in the physical sense, at least — “real,” and the world-shattering plot twist at the core of this season was telegraphed to the audience long in advance, what might otherwise seem a guilty pleasure seems instead a travesty, as depraved a spectacle as anything that has ever appeared on American screens.

We all knew before this new batch of episodes started that Real Housewives husband Russell Armstrong killed himself in August 2011. We knew that some of his family members blamed the unrelenting public scrutiny built into the show’s production for hastening his death, and that the tension with his wife, Taylor, was more than a tabloid spat between shallow rich folk — that it was, in fact, symptomatic of something far darker than the typical unscripted cable show could handle. But Real Housewives either ineptly failed to integrate our awareness of the tragedy into the plot in any meaningful way, or else decided to plug its ears and tiptoe through the hand-woven silk origami tulips. Is this approach evidence of a conscious creative choice — the calm before the storm? If this franchise weren’t so committed to manufactured melodrama and toxic materialism, I’d offer a very tentative “yes,” but I suspect it’s more likely the case of the show not having the slightest clue of what to do with such explosive material — material that it frankly never should have tried to deal with on-screen, because it is morally, intellectually and creatively unequipped to get anywhere near it without making it dishonest and trite. We’re not talking about Deadliest Catch here, or even Survivor or freaking Celebrity Rehab. It’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

You can read the rest of Matt's piece here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.