Friday, October 14, 2016

The State Of The World

I never thought I'd say this, but I feel really sorry for Americans right now.

The presidential election has always been a circus, but as many have commented, this year has hit a new low, especially in the past week when Donald Trump's derogatory remarks about women surfaced.

And while scandals are entertaining, at this crucial point in the electoral process ( 3 weeks before Americans cast their votes ), not only do they take precious time away from much more important issues ( the economy, the fight against terrorism, healthcare policies, civil rights ), they also make the U.S. the butt of jokes all over the world.

It's fun and games until the wrong person sits in the Oval Office and starts a nuclear war.

I pin a large portion of blame on the Republican Party - for vetting their candidate poorly, for making him their presidential nominee despite protests from many members, for not having the balls to shut things down before it was too late.

The other people responsible for this fiasco are those who support Trump for a variety of terrible reasons, buying into his repulsive hot-air rhetoric. I suspect these are the same people who actively tune out anything that challenges Trump's fitness to be president, including the news, talk shows and social media. It's the cult of Trump, and they're ready to pop cyanide pills when he gives the order.

I agree Hillary Clinton is far from perfect, and again, I express my sympathy for Americans who can't vote for the better candidate, but only for the one who's less deplorable.

American politics is extremely flawed, so that's the third recipient of blame. Just watch a few John Oliver segments and you'll know what I mean. Maybe it's the by-product of the country's sheer size, coupled with the need for a huge campaign fund in order to make any impact. Every politician owes favours, including Trump. Supporters who think he's "anti-establishment" live on another planet.

So here's wishing America the best of luck. I just hope the stock markets won't crash when the election results are in, because I've decided not to buy any gold bars - for now.

After suffering post-Narcos season 2 withdrawal symptoms, I obtained some relief with HBO's The Night Of - the second best TV series of 2016 ( Narcos being #1 of course ).

Created by Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, with 7 out of 8 episodes directed by Zaillian ( who adapted screenplays for Schindler's List, Hannibal, Moneyball and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ), this show dazzled me from beginning to end, and I will be monumentally pissed if John Turturro doesn't win a Best Actor Emmy next year.

I've seen countless police procedurals in my lifetime, but The Night Of still manages to offer fresh perspectives. I love series that focus on a single crime for one entire season, but other components - characters, subplots, cast, writing, direction - are vital ingredients.

You will find all the above in ample amounts here. I consider myself quite astute in predicting storylines, but was constantly flummoxed. The writing is magnificent - smart and realistic, with a surprising amount of humour despite the dark premise. There's also so much to praise about Zaillian's direction and the breathtaking cinematography. The tense 75-minute premiere is guaranteed to make you chew your nails off, while the 90-minute finale closes with a shot that I consider a classic ( more below, with a spoiler warning ).

As for cast and characters, it's nothing short of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

First, there's Riz Ahmed, who I noticed in Nightcrawler ( another incredible movie I highly recommend ). As young Pakistani college student, Nasir Khan, who's charged with a brutal murder but maintains his innocence, Ahmed starts off mousy and scrawny, before gradually transforming as he comes into contact with and is influenced by those around him. The performance is so subtle that the actual transition can't be nailed down. You just suddenly realize it's already happened, and try to figure out when it occurred. One word: remarkable.

Next is Bill Camp, who plays Dennis Box, the lead detective investigating the murder. He looks very familiar, and based on his filmography, I've probably seen him on-screen a few times. He's the sort of actor who blends in with the background ( especially in ensembles with much bigger names ), but he's given lots of solo time here, with Zaillian crafting star-making scenes for him. I particularly enjoyed the witness interviews, as Box managed to unnerve everyone with his quiet yet razor sharp questions.

But the show truly belongs to John Turturro - an actor I first sat up and noticed in 1994's Quiz Show. He's had a relatively under-the-radar type of career these past 20 years, but John Stone will probably propel him onto Hollywood's A-list at last.
Memorable characters are sometimes burdened by over-the-top traits, but the writers keep Stone's idiosyncrasies carefully modulated so they never overwhelm the scene in general. Stone is tormented by crippling eczema, forced to attend court in sandals and endure stares of disgust from fellow commuters as he desperately scratches himself on the subway. His crumpled overcoat and hangdog look induce cruel jokes from the police, fellow lawyers and clients. But over the course of the series, viewers will discover the heart of gold that lies within, as he not only goes way beyond normal legal duties to help Nasir, but also develops a forbidden bond with a homeless cat ( which he's severely allergic to ).

**spoiler warning**

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I've seen Internet discussions about what the cat storyline represents ( here's one interesting take ) and I don't know if anyone shares my opinion here, but I think the cat is a metaphor for Nasir / the murder case. Stone's skill set involves making quick deals for small-time criminals. A xenophobia-tinged gory murder is way out of his comfort zone, causing him to break out in hives the night before closing argument, like a major allergic reaction. He's also allergic to the cat, but adopts it anyway, just like he takes Nasir's case despite having deep reservations - because he has the chance to save a life and it's the right thing to do.
Stone's yo-yo-ing with the cat is especially gut-wrenching, since I'm a feline enthusiast. I understand his reasons for returning him to the shelter, but share his pain regarding the furball's possible fate.

As for that classic scene - in the final minutes of the last episode, we see Stone sitting in his apartment watching an SPCA ad, looking forlorn as animals with sad expressions appear on the screen. Viewers will naturally assume he's thinking about the cat which has probably been euthanized, then after he grabs his bag and walks out the front door, we see the cat strolling across the hallway. The end.
I had such a good laugh over that. Thank you, Steve Zaillian and Richard Price!

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Do yourself a favour - watch this series.

Am ending with a link to a 2012 entry about Pangdemonium's production of Spring Awakening.
Because in the wake of Nathan Hartono's success on Sing! China, I'd like to highlight his stage debut ( at age 20 ), which remains one of the best performances I've ever seen anywhere in the world.
Congratulations, Nathan, your talent deserves to be recognized on a global scale!

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