Monday, September 20, 2010

TV Pilot time - Martin Scorsese's BOARDWALK EMPIRE


It's a pleasure to see when a filmmaker- one of one's personal favorites in terms of consistency in directing films that stand up over the years and thrill and excite even in quiet moments - branches out just a little.  In 2010 and 2011 Martin Scorsese is branching it out a couple of big ways, and while Hugo Cabret, which is coming out December of next year, would seem to be the bigger leap (a shot-in-3D family film about a boy and his robot in France), Boardwalk Empire, which premiered last night it's 73 minute movie-pilot episode, is nothing to scoff at either.  Far from it, it's one of the superior pilots ever made, at least that I, a mostly casual TV-drama watcher, can assess as.  

This is surprising in some part because Scorsese isn't a director of television (not counting documentaries he made that aired on TV but were made for movie theaters); his one TV-episode credit (as a favor to Steven Spielberg) is for "Mirror, Mirror" on the 80's show Amazing Stories.  But that was a lark, this is the real deal - Scorsese also executive produces with Sopranos writer/creator-of-this-show Terence Winter, my how things come full circle from this moment on the show, but I digress - and he delivers again.  Aside from it being a gangster saga, which by this point Scorsese knows the way Hitchcock knew his blond women and thrillers, it's also the start of a series, and it's here that I'm impressed.  While one could watch the show and never watch it again and be satisfied (though I would wonder deep down "que?"), Scorsese does an excellent job setting up the characters, giving them immediacy and depth and knowing where they are all coming from and where (some) might be going, and the tenor of the story.

It all starts on the eve of the beginning of prohibition, and both sides, the criminals-cum-politicians and the police force (mostly the IRS at this time), have been ready and waiting for its arrival.  Nucky (Ennoch) Thompson, who is part politician who addresses an auditorium full of ladies with grace and tact and full commanding control, and is part full-on gangster who is making deals with fellow real-deal gangsters like Mr. Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), and has under his wing Jimmy (Michael Pitt, a little more grown-up), a war veteran who is looking to cut out his own piece of the pie.  He has a kind of double-sided coin position to uphold (a little akin to Ace Rothstein in Scorsese's own Casino, and the comparison could be made); he has to have the veneer of being the 'Man-in-Charge' to most in Atlantic City, and during the day that would be to a housewife like Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) who wants to get her wife-beater husband a job at the casino, and at night it's looking through the inventory of "product" coming in or dining up the likes of Rothstein and other gangsters and politicians.  Aren't they the same in the end really?

Scorsese orchestrates, from Winter's own script, this series of events over the course of three days like it's ever so important - not just for Thompson, but for newly appointed IRS officer Van Alden, and for Jimmy, who is looking to make a score with young Al Capone (you might say really, but it works, trust me) - much like how it would purport itself to be: an epic.  Scorsese isn't above by this point taking even from his own films (there's a sequence where we see a stand-up comedian giving his routine to an audience cut in with scenes of criminal shit going down that echo back to Henny Youngman in Goodfellas), or from his friends (it's hard to not think possibly of The Godfather in the climactic moments of intercutting between scenes), but it always feels fresh and involving.  Not a moment is missed for an actor to shine, and Scorsese amps up the quality of the production design and costumes and sets with a top-notch cast.  Some you may know very well, even from previous Sopranos work, and others not at all.

Buscemi, almost despite how he's been cast over the years as a kind of small presence - a character in Fargo describes him best so I won't repeat it here - is imposing as Nucky Thompson, a man who has authority by his connections, by his stature in his power position, and by those who answer to him (he only answers to a few).  So far, from just the looks of the pilot, Buscemi holds his own, and gives a couple of small moments pathos without saying a word, looking into a window at babies being incubated.

 He has to though; up against Shannon and Stuhlbarg, both figures in movies as true character actors (you'd know Shannon from Bug or Stuhlbarg from A Serious Man, but certainly not this way like before as they slip into their respective "good-bad" guys), and other solid players like MacDonald as the polite but frightened wife, give their scenes range and depth, presence and in the case of the men, some quiet menace.  Impressing as well is Pitt, who has grown somewhat out of his baby face and into a leading presence (a friend remarked he's like Leo DiCaprio's little brother, and the comparison isn't lost on me, a fan of Scorsese's most recent collaborations with DiCaprio).  Other actors like Paz de la Huerta and Shea Wigham may need a little more time to see what they can do. 

What it comes down to is this: does Boardwalk Empire make one want to watch the rest of the series?  Is the promise of the hype fulfilled?  I can only admit to being just recently aware of its hype (and it's prestige budget; the first season has the price-tag of 90 million), and its flagship status for HBO.  But for Scorsese it's another, if small, triumph where he puts his passion into nearly every frame and can tell a story with plenty of visual sense and suspense.

There's a scene, which is one of those "starts at the beginning, comes back near the end" scenes with a car turned over on a road at night, and a hold-up, that gives chills at how Scorsese doesn't need to rush the intensity of what's happening.  It comes naturally, as does the necessity of the violence, but it comes as action that matters and flows much better than most action movies out now could deliver (or, as another period-example of recent note, Michael Mann's Public Enemies).  That Scorsese and company pick just the right period jazzy songs is like icing on the cake; the story keeps moving with moments of real humor and real dramatic consequence, and for a drama show this is paramount to establish.

It's a tale of corruption and all-American pride and greed and ambition that may not be new to history majors or those who've seen their fair share of prohibition-era movies and TV shows.  If it keeps it up, it could be Scorsese's Untouchables.  Welcome to Atlantic City.

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