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Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the Film

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.

The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead  is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.

Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.

Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.

In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The “big noise guy” in this film is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), and he has a son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), who’s tried to kidnap a little girl off the school playground.

Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Sarah Trigger as former-girlfriend Meg, and Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.

Christopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.

Gabrielle Anwar as Dagney, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.

Fairuza Balk as Lucinda, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.

As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.

Treat Williams as Critical Bill, Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, William Forsythe as Franchise, and Christopher Lloyd as Pieces — Jimmy’s gang. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.

Steve Buscemi as Mr Shush, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.

A few critics labeled this neo-noir classic a “copycat” and a “weak sister” of Pulp Fiction by “wanna-be Tarantinos,” but other critics praise Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead as an “offbeat thriller” that is “relentlessly quirky” and “perversely comic,” allowing it to “dodge any hand-me-down Pulp Ficton formula.

Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.

Available for free viewing to subscribers of Starz (showing this month) and DirecTV (premium channels), and for rent ($1.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Crime, Passion, Absurdity: More Darkly Twisted Comedies

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In my first blog on Darkly Twisted Comedies, I listed some of my favorite comedies, acknowledging that the selected films are often too dark and twisted to be considered amusing by some audiences. That original post was so popular, and generated so much interaction on readers’ parts, that I’ve written a follow-up listing more films in that genre. To my surprise, it wasn’t difficult to find more brilliantly acted, well-written, sometimes award-winning films that are considered “dark comedy.” Sometimes the absurd premise in these films delivers laughs, sometimes the easily recognizable human scenarios are amusing, and sometimes the compassionate view of humanity against its occasionally blatant stupidity is what does the trick. Here’s my next list of darkly twisted comedies, presented in no particular order unless it’s from least to most “dark,” without any Spoilers, so you can enjoy them for yourselves.

The Last Supper
(1995)

After an accident, a group of five idealistic, liberal graduate students (Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Courtney B Vance, Ron Eldard, Jonathan Penner) decide to make a difference in the world through action, not talk. Each week, they find someone to invite to Sunday night “dinner and discussion,” where the group attempts to change the guest’s social views.

Guests include Ron Perlman, Bill Paxton,

Jason Alexander, and Charles Durning, among others.

Things quickly go awry, spinning out of the students’ control, forcing each member to re-evaluate his own ethics and morality.

Staged like a play, where most of the action takes place in the confined quarters of the grad students’ dining room and kitchen, The Last Supper is an intriguing exploration of the ever popular “What would you do if…” scenario where you ponder your own hypothetical behavior given a chance to change the world.

The Last Supper is available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon, and is free if you subscribe to Starz or to DirecTV.

 ♦

Death at a Funeral
(2007)

On the day of Daniel’s (Matthew MacFadyen, below R) father’s funeral, everything is supposed to be sedate and dignified. Instead, from the moment the coffin arrives, everything goes topsy-turvy. Daniel desperately strives to maintain order and to stay in control, but everyone else seems to be going mad. From his brother Robert (Rupert Graves, L),

to his wheelchair-bound Uncle Alfie (the late Peter Vaughan),

from his father’s friend Peter (Peter Dinklage),

to his cousins (Daisy Donovan and Kris Marshal),

who accidentally drug the fiancé (Alan Tudyk, below, R),

they all try Daniel’s patience. Despite Daniel’s best attempts, chaos erupts, threatening to expose family rivalries and skeletons.

Witty and farcical, with nudity and a few instances of scatalogical humor, Death at a Funeral encapsulates some of the weirdest and most notorious moments possible at a dysfunctional family’s gathering. Death at a Funeral is available for rent for $3.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon.

The 2010 remake of Death at a Funeral, starring Zoë Saldana, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, James Marsden, and Peter Dinklage, is available free to DirecTV subscribers, but it’s not the version of the film I saw, so I cannot yet recommend it.

The Lobster
(2015)

In an unnamed place, in an unspecified future, humans — who are known mostly by their “defining characteristics,”  such as a limp, a lisp, or being short-sighted — are not permitted to be alone. If they are widowed or divorced, they must check into The Hotel, where they have 45 days to find another life partner. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as it seems to find someone to love in this dystopian world since partners are required to be physically alike as well as emotionally compatible. If a Guest cannot find a partner within the time limit, s/he is transformed permanently into an animal released into the woods. Newly divorced David (Colin Farrell) wants to be a lobster if he fails, and is accompanied by his brother, who is now a dog.

In order to prolong their stay at The Hotel, Guests may earn additional days by going on a Hunt and killing Loners: people who refuse to find a mate and who hide in the Woods, vowing to forever remain single, isolated, and hidden from society.

David doesn’t know which life is worse: that of the Guests or the Loners, but he knows he’s lonely and doesn’t want to turn into a dog.

Narrated in VoiceOver by the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weiss), The Lobster  begins with a startling and absurd premise but manages to carry it successfully to its absurdly logical conclusion.

In this new twist on dystopian literature or films, the actors do a wonderful job behaving as if they have no emotions, sexual drives, or otherwise subversive feelings. The Lobster is available for rent for $4.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon and is free for DirecTV subscribers.

Fargo
(1996)

One of the Coen Brothers’ classic films, Fargo explores the world of crime when the criminals are inept, incompetent, and extremely dangerous. Car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy)

hires two bumblers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife.

Jerry is über-confident that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the enormous ransom, which Jerry needs for an unspecified reason. It’s a lot of money, but despite his father-in-law’s devotion to his daughter, he isn’t about to let Jerry handle that much money. In any event, the kidnapping immediately goes wrong,

which gets a hugely pregnant local police-chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) involved. She’s desperately seeking criminals in an attempt to save the kidnapping victim’s life.

Buscemi shines as the violent, impulsive kidnapper. The Oscar-winning screenplay garnered an Academy Award for McDormand as the quirky but diligent law officer, and an Oscar nomination for Macy as the dull-witted and desperate Jerry. Fargo is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon, and is free if you subscribe to Showtime or DirecTV.

Fight Club
(1999)

When a dissatisfied, support-group-hopping, insomniac (Edward Norton), who’s the unnamed Narrator,

meets a charismatic, renegade soap-maker (Brad Pitt), the two form an unlikely bond. In their desperation to live a fully experienced life, they form an underground Fight Club, where the “first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.”

The fights bond the two men until Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) — another support-group Crasher — resurfaces in the Narrator’s life.

In fact, Marla creates at least as much havoc as the ever expanding club, which begins to spread its exponentially increasing violence outside the metaphorical ring.

Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, this is one of the few films that surpasses its source material in quality, if only because the (book) Narrator’s lines are spread out around the film’s principals. Brilliant and dangerously quirky, Fight Club is worth watching multiple times to get all the important details. Fight Club is available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon or free if you subscribe to DirecTV.

American Beauty
(1999)

One of the darkest comedies ever made, Oscar-winning American Beauty explores the rot and ugliness beneath the seemingly perfect exteriors of an upper middle-class family and of everyone who comes into contact with its seriously flawed members. Head of household Lester (Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning performance) is about to lose his job to down-sizing,

and is despised by his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening, in her best role ever).

Both of them repulse their daughter Jane (Thora Birch),

especially after Lester gets a blatant crush on Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari, on bed).

When the new neighbor, boy-next-door drug-dealer Ricky (Wes Bentley), falls for Jane and makes her feel special for the first time in her life, her life becomes intolerable.

To make things worse, Lolita-like nymphet Angela begins to fall for Jane’s sexually frustrated father Lester, and is openly hostile to Jane’s quirky boyfriend Ricky, whom Angela considers a “psycho.” Yes, everything falls apart.

Stunning performances by all actors combined with an Oscar-winning screenplay by Alan Ball take this dark comedy from its amusing beginnings to a much deeper exploration of beauty, happiness, and the meaning of life itself. American Beauty is available for rent for $3.99 (free if you’re a Prime Member) from Amazon, for rent for $3.99 for DirecTV  subscribers, or free if you’re a subscriber to SundanceTV.

Though some of the films contain violence or explicit language, I don’t find graphic or sexual violence humorous, so none contains that. All of the films should be considered for mature audiences, however.

And, as always, if you have any films you’d like to suggest for future lists, I’d love to hear from you (and to see the films).

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Top Crime Films — Told From the Criminals’ Perspective

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There are so many ways to look at crime in films, from the perspectives of the victims, of the law enforcement officials, to that of the criminals themselves. Early films tended to concentrate on the perspective of the crime-fighters, saving the stories of the criminals for short, factual documentaries. With one of the most famous crime films ever, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, based on the novel by Mario Puzo, that focus changed, virtually creating a genre where criminals and those who were involved with evil doings, either voluntarily or against their will, were presented in a more empathetic and sympathetic light. In any event, whether you feel any emotional connection with the criminals in this genre of crime film, it’s created some of the most interesting and complex characters, played by some of the greatest actors in their best roles, and made some ground-breaking films.

The Godfather
Part One

Virtually ignored by Hollywood during production, The Godfather was one of the earliest films that examined crime entirely from the perspective of the criminals. Based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo — and the Oscar-winning screenplay by Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — the story centers on a fictional New York Mafia family, the Corleones, led by its patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, in an Oscar-winning role), who’s attempting to groom his eldest son, Santino [Sonny] (James Caan) to take over the “family business,” while providing for his weaker middle son, Fredo (John Cazale), and his adopted son, Tom (Robert Duvall), and trying to keep his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) who’s graduated from college and served his country during the War, out of the “family business” altogether.

As you can imagine, that’s a formula for disaster when everyone in the family and everyone with whom it does business is a criminal — and violent ones, at that. Filled with big name stars, peppered with memorable lines (“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”), awarded with Oscars and multiple nominations, The Godfather set the standard for crime films from the criminals’ perspective.

The Godfather
Part Two

Godfather_part_ii

One of the first sequels that was actually as good as, if not better than, the original film, Part Two of The Godfather Trilogy — also written by Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — reunited most of the characters from the first film while interweaving their continuing story with the “flashback” story of Don Vito Corelone, this time played by Robert DeNiro (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor), who had the monumental task of imitating the magnificently original, complex, and tortured criminal played by Marlon Brando — only at a younger age. Showing the development of both Vito’s and Michael’s forays into the criminal world, both men are as sympathetic as they are vicious, as family-oriented as they are ruthless, as interesting as they are complex.

Many viewers who’ve seen all three of The Godfather films can’t decide if they like Part One or Part Two better, and it was a toss-up for me which is best since they’re so different yet both so excellent. The Godfather, Part Two couldn’t exist without Part One, but they’re equally good. Sometimes, channels show The Godfather Trilogy in “chronological” order according to the storyline within the movies, so excerpts of Part Two are shown before Part One, but I don’t recommend watching the films like that, as you lose all the nuances of Part Two, including those in the storyline, the irony, and the actors’ performances.

 King of New York

King_of_new_york_ver1

Directed by Abel Ferrara, whose work often explores the human side of criminals and organized crime, King of New York stars Ferrara’s “perfect gangster actor” Christopher Walken as Frank White. Coming out of prison after seven years, White is trying to get back in the game, and it involves drugs. Aided by loyal underlings like Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), Test Tube (Steve Buscemi), and Lance (Giancarlo Esposito), Frank White delves into the drug scene as it’s developed while he was “paying for his crimes,” and tries to do something good that he’ll be remembered for. Most specifically, he wants to fund a hospital for the poorer section of New York where he operates. The fact that he’s out of jail, still alive and operating, galls the New York detectives who hound him: Bishop (Victor Argo), Dennis (David Caruso), and Flanigan (Wesley Snipes), trying desperately to either indict or kill White.

At the premiere, some viewers — including director Ferrara’s wife — were outraged at the multi-layered, sympathetic portrayal of the criminals, especially that of Frank White (Walken), who tells the lead detective Bishop, “I’m not your problem: I’m just a businessman.” With most viewers, King of New York has become a cult classic and is consistently highly praised critically.

 The Funeral

The_Funeral_movie_poster

Also directed by Abel Ferrara and starring many of his favorite actors, this film, set in New York in 1939, concentrates on one family, but a small one, consisting of three brothers and their wives (or fianceés), as well as their co-horts and colleagues. Led by the eldest brother Raimundo [Ray] Tempio (Christopher Walken), who’s aided mostly by his brother Cesarino [Chez] (Chris Penn, Best Supporting Actor, Venice Film Festival), the story begins with the death of their youngest brother Giovanni [Johnny] (Vincent Gallo) and their attempts to find his killer.

The eldest brothers’ wives, played by Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini, respectively, serve as the moral counterweights to these men, and attempt to be guiding lights to the the youngest brother’s grieving fianceé (Gretchen Mol). While Ray (Walken) says things like, “If I do something wrong, it’s ’cause God didn’t give me the grace to do what’s right,” his wife (Sciorra) tells the murdered brother’s fianceé, “They’re criminals: there’s nothing romantic about it.” It may not be “romantic,” but it’s intense and fierce, and has memorable performances by everyone involved, including the one by rival gangster Gaspare Spoglia (Benicio Del Toro) as one of the “suspects” in the brother’s death. With its disturbingly unexpected ending, The Funeral is one of the classics in this genre.

 Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir_dogs_ver1

 Quentin Tarantino’s writing & directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs shows the tentative, sometimes humorous, “before” and the intense “after” of a diamond heist by a group of professional thieves who do not know each other, but suspect, during the crime itself, that one of them is a “snitch” since the police arrived during the commission of the crime. Assembled by Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), the criminals are given pseudonyms and firmly instructed not to share any personal details with each other, including any crimes previously committed or places of incarceration.

Quentin Tarantino has a cameo role as Mr. Brown, but the film pivots on Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi, who objects to his name in a hilarious scene), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). The nonlinear storyline, a hallmark of Tarantino’s films, puts the viewer in the same position as the other criminals: unaware if there even is a snitch, let alone who it might be. Brilliant performances by the top-billed actors, including one of the scariest “dance scenes” ever by Mr. Blonde (Madsen) just before “interrogating” a hostage policeman, Reservoir Dogs was an instant critical success and has attained cult status.

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

DenverdeadThe title of this neo-noir crime film alone gets most people’s attention. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead actually came from a song by Warren Zevon, and he allowed the filmmakers to use it on the condition that his original song be played during the end-credits. In the film, the protagonist, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to go straight. Unfortunately, his non-criminal life doesn’t pay as well, and his former boss, The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), has paid off his debts and now wants Jimmy, along with any crew he wishes to hire, to do “an action” not a “piece of work,” the latter of which apparently includes murder.

Gathering a rag-tag group of criminal associates — Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), Franchise (William Forsythe), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), and Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance) — Jimmy is supposed to scare away a boyfriend of the ex-girlfriend of The Man with the Plan’s pedophile son Bernard (Michael Nicolosi): The Man with the Plan blames Bernard’s attempt to kidnap a 7-year-old girl from a playground in broad daylight on his despair over losing the former girlfriend.

Because Walken’s character, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” — wherein the new boyfriend is to be scared away so the girlfriend will ostensibly come back to Bernard — and not a “piece of work — where the new boyfriend would be killed — the viewer knows that something is bound to go very wrong. This film achieves much of its power from its creative vocabulary: the criminals are to do “an action,” not a “piece of work.” They all long to retire to a life of “boat-drinks,” but are threatened with “Buckwheats” instead. Even their nicknames — Pieces and Critical Bill, for example — come from their characters or former behavior. Rounded out by Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar) as Jimmy’s love interest, Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) as the prostitute he tries to protect and reform, Joe the Diner-Narrator (Jack Warden) attempting to pass on the story of Jimmy the Saint’s “rep” to the next generation, and the involvement of the outside hitman Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), this neo-noir classic has been called, by one critic, a “clone” of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. That critic needs to watch the film again, and much more attentively, because Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is unique and far too powerful to be any other film’s clone.

 The Usual Suspects

Usual_suspects_ver1

After all its Oscar nominations and wins — for Christopher McQuarrie’s original screenplay and for Kevin Spacey’s role as Verbal Kint — it’s difficult to believe that, initially, no major studios wanted to finance The Usual Suspects. Executives believed it was too complex for audiences (always an insult to sophisticated audiences), had too much dialogue, and too many characters. Boy, were they ever wrong. This neo-noir crime film begins with “five known felons” in a line-up after a truck of guns goes missing. While in lock-up, McManus (Stephen Baldwin, in the best, and perhaps only dramatic, role of his mostly stoner-comedy career) and his partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) tell the others — Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and “the gimp” Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) — about another high-scoring job. Keaton agrees to “one job,” though he has ostensibly “gone straight.”

Complications arise, however, and things spiral out of control for these career criminals, especially when the mysterious “Keyser Söze” becomes involved, represented by his lawyer, Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). The interrogation scenes between Special Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Verbal (Spacey) make up some of the best scenes, with the greatest dialogue ever. Brilliant, intense, humorous, violent, sophisticated, and with one of the most “definitive and popular plot twists” in the history of the genre, The Usual Suspects is worth watching dozens of times. Just to see all the clues you missed the first time.

 ♦

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HBO’s Boardwalk Empire & the Titanic

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I am watching in horrified astonishment and disappointment as the final season of HBO’s multi-award-winning historical crime drama Boardwalk Empire flails in the deepest end of the ocean. Originally the story of a New Jersey politician, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) attempting to keep his businesses afloat during Prohibition by becoming a rum-runner, the show has become detached from its original moorings and is sinking faster than the Titanic. I fear it will leave no survivors.

The first two seasons concentrated on the relationship between Nucky and his protegé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), whom the former considered as a son. Alas, Jimmy considered Nucky as competition and wanted to be just like him. It was a marvelous concept that pitted local Atlantic City rum-runners and wannabe ganstas against the Cosa Nostra, complete with Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci), Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza), and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). It was riveting writing, brilliant acting, and the show deserved every award it won.

L-R: Darmody, Capone, Torrio

L-R: Darmody, Capone, Torrio

In addition to the illegal activity of smuggling alcohol into his nightclubs and casinos, and making it available to his “clients”, Nucky had several relationships, with many very attractive women. Some were showgirls as well as Nucky’s girlfriends, like Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), who really put on a show, and one of those showgirls was Jimmy Darmody’s mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). Some were ladies, like Jimmy’s wife Angela (Alleska Palladino), and Irish immigrant widow Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), whom Nucky eventually married. All were important to the story and were much more than window-dressing, as evidenced by their own nominations and wins for their performances.

The original ladies of BE

The original ladies of BE

And then, at the end of season 2, I believe, Nucky killed his belovèd protegé-son Jimmy for betraying him. The next season, Boardwalk Empire began to drift aimlessly and to collapse under its own ponderous weight.

Prohibition agents became gangsters, the women in the show disappeared for so many episodes that they were forgotten, previously minor characters had their stories expanded to the point that Nucky — the protagonist of the series — was often only in an episode for a few minutes at a time. Characters simply vanished without explanation (beyond the obvious one that the actors wanted to work on other projects). It was confusing and sad. A once excellent show sagged, cracked, began to take on water.

Still, I watched. I kept hoping that it would return to its former brilliance.

It didn’t.

Then, this summer, the ads began appearing announcing that this would be the final season of Boardwalk Empire. The final season’s official trailer made it seem exciting, dangerous, and thrilling — like the early seasons had been. Its catch-phrase: No One Goes Quietly.

I expected that Nucky’s illegal activities, betrayals, and “sleeping with the gangsters” would leave him “sleeping with the fishes” as the historical gangsters, mentioned above, took over all the illegal action in the show: booze, drugs, gambling, prostitution.

Imagine my horror and confusion, then, when I couldn’t understand anything that was happening in the final season’s premiere. The scenes cut so quickly — sometimes only a minute or two apart — and included so many people, locales, and different time periods that I couldn’t figure out what was going on in the show. Someone in the show mentioned that six years had supposedly passed — since the end of the last season and the start of this — but why six years had passed was not made clear. Nor was it apparent what had happened to the characters during those years.

When the premiere episode was over, my boyfriend looked over at me and said, “Did you understand any of that?” No, no, I did not. And I still don’t.

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Boardwalk Empire, once one of the most innovative and daring series on television, has become a hodge-podge collection of characters you thought you knew but don’t recognize any longer, doing things for no apparent reason whatsoever. The historical characters are so jumbled around with their nefarious comings and goings that I’m not sure what nefarious activities they’re performing any longer (except for when Lucky Luciano killed one Capo and later pledged allegiance to another, who’s never been in the show before). Rothstein got killed during the summer break, or just died — I don’t know which; Torrio retired rather than be killed by Capone; Luciano and Lansky are planning something against Nucky, but I’m not sure why, or even what it is besides murder; and Al Capone has been reduced to dancing around in his undershorts while supposedly being fitted for a suit.

Two female characters who basically departed the show a couple seasons ago — Nucky’s wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), and his once-formidable nemesis Gillian (Gretchen Mol), Darmody’s mother, who’s in a mental institution for murder — have returned, though I have no idea why. I don’t think anyone else does either, including the actors and the characters themselves. Black mobster and friend of Nucky’s, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) is on a chain-gang for some reason and does nothing but scowl through every scene, his lower lip pushed out like he’s an unhappy 5-year-old.

The majority of the show during this final season is devoted to — of all things — Nucky’s childhood.

Whaaaa????

Why on earth would I want to see extended scenes of Nucky’s childhood during the final episode of an historical crime drama? Especially when they don’t make any sense whatsoever and are boring in the extreme.

And if Nucky is “remembering” his childhood in preparation for his demise at the end of the season — a metaphorical “life passing before his eyes” sort of thing — that is certainly not being made clear.

Nothing seems connected. Characters ramble and roam aimlessly. They talk about things that make no sense. They kill other characters we don’t recognize and for no apparent reason. Nucky’s trying to make deals to legally sell liquor in anticipation of the day when Prohibition is repealed, but is still dealing with bootleggers, especially a new-money Bostoner named Kennedy.

And Joseph Kennedy, infamous bootlegger, is being presented as Saint Joe, who doesn’t even want to look at showgirls’ legs, let alone drink. And he’s constantly spouting his beliefs that “one should be doing all this investing for one’s family and heritage.” (Is one of the Kennedy family members an intern on the writing staff this season?)

I don’t know if Boardwalk Empire got cancelled, if Buscemi wanted out, if the writers all retired or walked out en masse and gave their notes in hieroglyphics to HBO staffers, or if the show just slammed into an iceberg, cracked in two, and everyone is hopelessly drowning because the  mobsters stole all the lifeboats already.

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No one is going quietly, that is certainly true.

But this once fine show is now a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying absolutely nothing.

Except that Boardwalk Empire’s was not really in Atlantic City but on Atlantis or booked on the Titanic, and everybody’s head is already deep underwater.

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Filed under Actors, History, Movies/Television, True Crime