Thursday, August 30, 2018
Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
Sunday, August 26, 2018
Saturday, August 25, 2018
Friday, August 24, 2018
Thursday, August 23, 2018
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Monday, August 20, 2018
Sunday, August 19, 2018
Friday, August 17, 2018
Thursday, August 16, 2018
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Sunday, August 12, 2018
Wednesday, August 8, 2018
Sunday, August 5, 2018
Before Sunset, director Richard Linklater’s 2004 follow-up to his 1995 Before Sunrise, is a lovely, daringly made film. The story has the first film’s lead characters (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) meeting in Paris nine years later. Now in their 30s, the two are as erudite and talkative as ever, and they once more fall in love. The difference is that this time, their feelings have none of the purity and naïvete of youth. Their rapport is now colored by the disappointments and anxieties that come with the experiences of being an adult. The script, by Linklater, Kim Krizan, Hawke, and Delpy, is remarkably fluid in its handling of the shifts from happiness to doubt and back again. In keeping with the first firm, it’s also enjoyably wry in its treatment of the characters’ ostensibly pithy perspectives on life and love. The film seems to recognize this talk is simply how these two highly verbal characters make contact. Their pretentiousness is kept light and funny, and the film never makes the mistake of treating it as actual wisdom. Linklater’s directing, along with Delpy and Hawke’s performances, make for a breathtaking high-wire act. The film is a series of long-take tracking shots as the characters talk their way across Paris. Every beat, nuance, and shift in tone has to be played perfectly or the picture would fall apart. The director and the two stars pull it off, and it’s thrilling to see. The attractive open-air cinematography is by Lee Daniel.
Saturday, August 4, 2018
Friday, August 3, 2018
Thursday, August 2, 2018
Enter David E. Kelley and The Practice.
Kelley, a one-time lawyer, had first come to prominence in the late 1980s as showrunner and head writer for most of the first five seasons of the L. A. Law TV series. He was always ambivalent about the show’s glamorous treatment of attorneys, and in 1997 he launched The Practice, a gritty portrayal of the sordid underside of the legal profession. Kelley set the series at a small Boston law firm specializing in criminal-defense work, and he built the episodes around conflicts between legal ethics and personal morality. Much of the drama came from the characters sacrificing their decency in the name of the ostensibly higher calling of practicing law. This thematic hook, combined with Kelley’s acute social consciousness (and his occasional forays into absurdist humor), made The Practice perhaps the finest legal melodrama in the history of series television.
But after five seasons, The Practice seemed to have worn itself out. The stories began showing the slip of their contrivance. The social conscience flattened into sanctimony. Worst of all, the absurdist moments became more pervasive and were generally more silly than bracing. The audience numbers declined drastically during the sixth and seventh seasons. The ABC network was ready to cancel the series, but they agreed to an eighth season if Kelley would substantially cut the production budget. He rethought the show, dropped over half the cast, and introduced a new lead character: a brilliant though self-destructive lawyer named Alan Shore, with James Spader in the part.
The new character allowed Kelley a fresh take on the morality-versus-ethics conflict. In the show’s earlier seasons, the characters were often demoralized by the dilemmas the conflict posed. Alan Shore wasn’t demoralized at all. He horrified the other characters by gleefully trampling ethical norms, although it was invariably in pursuit of moral ends. Despite his actions and his slick, sleazeball manner, Shore had a profound sense of right and wrong. It might have been more profound than most, because it wasn’t encumbered by concerns about propriety. The suspense of the plotting was no longer rooted in dread of the moral depths the characters might stoop to; it was now in seeing the preposterous lengths Shore was willing to go. But whether he was getting a spiteful criminal charge against a homeless man dropped through a deal involving insurance fraud, or negotiating a settlement in a wrongful-death suit by selling smoking-gun evidence to the defendant's attorney, he always got justice for his clients.
Alan Shore is the best role James Spader has ever had, and he played it with relish. The lines Kelley gave the character were slyly sardonic and often outright insolent. Spader’s crack comic timing made them never less than hilarious. Building the stories around Shore’s antics often turned the show's melodrama into farce, and Spader danced with it every step of the way. But Spader was at his best when he turned the humorous tone back to seriousness. He has a genius for playing the scoundrel, but his talent for patrician gravitas runs almost as deep. When Shore stopped the shenanigans and held forth on right and wrong, Spader made him as eloquent a voice of moral authority as one will ever hear. The performance earned Spader the year's Primetime Emmy for Best Leading Actor in a Drama Series. It was richly deserved.
It’s not clear Kelley immediately recognized how much Spader and Alan Shore were subverting the series. The season’s eleventh episode, “Police State,” is a searing treatment of the conniving extremes law enforcement can go to while investigating a crime. It’s in the same vein as the best of the pre-Spader episodes, and it packed a wallop. Alan Shore is on the sidelines for most of the story, but he has a couple of moments center-stage. His trademark effrontery is so discordant one can barely watch. It's easy to understand how one might feel the character and the series' traditional approach were not compatible. Shortly after the episode aired, it was announced the season would be the series' last. Kelley would be developing a new series featuring Spader as Alan Shore, and it would be more in keeping with the tone the actor and character had introduced. The new show came to be titled Boston Legal.
The latter third of the season was given over to the transition to the new series. Shore’s conduct finally gets him fired, and after a wrongful-termination suit, he takes a position at another, more prestigious firm. The most entertaining of the new characters is the firm’s senior partner, an egomaniacal celebrity trial attorney named Denny Crane. (He ends every utterance by saying his name as if it was a signature.) In a masterstroke of casting, Kelley hired William Shatner, perhaps the most pompously self-regarding actor in the history of film and TV. Shatner, though, seemed to have found perspective on his overblown ostentation, and the episodes featuring Crane have several droll laughs at his expense. The role was self-parody, but Shatner happily seemed in on the joke. It was good to see him join James Spader in the Emmy winners circle after the season ended. Shatner won the year’s award for Best Guest Actor.
James Spader and William Shatner weren't the only performers of note. Michael Badalucco, Steve Harris, and Camryn Manheim, the most distinctive members of the show's original cast, maintained their high level of work. The Practice was always known for the terrific contributions of its guest players, and the final season was no exception. Among those featured: Edward Asner, Lake Bell, Jill Clayburgh, Gary Cole, Viola Davis, Rebecca De Mornay, Patrick Dempsey, Lisa Edelstein, Rick Hoffman, Ron Leibman, Elisabeth Moss, Chris O'Donnell, Sharon Stone, Holland Taylor, and Betty White. Sharon Stone won the year's Primetime Emmy for Best Guest Actress, and Betty White was with her among the nominees.
Boston Legal debuted in the fall of 2004. The few episodes I watched were disappointing. The new series seemed to go too far in shifting to a more humorous approach. The grit was gone, and the Alan Shore character began to feel like schtick for both Spader and Kelley. I found it rather insipid.
That opinion isn’t a consensus one. During its five seasons, Boston Legal earned a Peabody Award and an Emmy nomination for Best Drama Series. Spader was even more celebrated for playing Alan Shore on the newer show than on The Practice. The role won him two more Best Actor Emmys. He also received several accolades he was passed over for the first time around. He’s gone on to do more fine work, most notably as the criminal mastermind Raymond Reddington on the espionage action-adventure series The Blacklist. But that final season of The Practice is where James Spader fully came into his own, and I think it was the finest stage for one of my favorite actors.