Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Pierce" Not So Fierce; "Shameless" Just That

Last night I watched the conclusion of Todd Haynes' miniseries of James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce" on HBO, and I have to confess I got a whole lot of cleaning done. Like Joan Crawford in the original film version, I needed something to do. I was so bored. If Haynes' goal was to present five-plus hours of meticulously recreated 1930s Los Angeles scenery with some very fine acting woven in, he achieved his goal. But he forgot to make it particularly exciting. Or maybe the source material wasn't that thrilling, but did it have to be so long?

Maybe it's my fault for having viewed the efficiently trimmed original feature starring Academy Award-winner Joan Crawford just before the miniseries began, but I just kept feeling like it was unnecessarily sluggish. Or maybe it's because I expected more of a twist from Haynes, who gave us a wonderfully kinky salute to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, in 1998, and the brilliantly subversive remake of the widescreen, color-saturated 1950s dramas of producer Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, in 2002.

Now, I didn't want or expect Kate Winslet to make her entrance wearing giant shoulderpads and brandishing a wire hanger, but I was really hoping for something more. The acting was mostly fine—Winslet was good as Mildred, a devoted mother but cold-hearted manipulator who would stop at nothing to give evil daughter Veda the finer things in life.

Some of the other performers were also fine. I liked how Mildred's ex-husband (Brian F. O'Byrne) became a tried-and-true friend to her in this version, and former Brat Packer Mare Winningham was interesting as Mildred's somewhat devious friend Ida.

I preferred Morgan Turner as the younger Veda to Evan Rachel Wood, though. Sure, Veda is a pretentious little bitch, but Wood plays her in an extremely hammy fashion that breaks with the realism of the rest of the film. Guy Pearce is also wa-a-a-y over the top, and his Monty Beragon is so effete that I found it amusing that he'd turn into such a satyr when a woman walked into the room—unless he's being "straight for pay," which I guess could be the case.

And I know the adaptation is super-faithful to Cain's novel (which I haven't read), but Veda's sudden, ridiculous transformation from failed pianist to celebrated coloratura left me in a daze. I kept waiting for hints that she was a sham and thought I almost got one when Mildred looked through her binoculars at a concert and studied her daughter's mouth. I thought she was going to realize that Veda was lip-synching. And what was with the bizarre outfits Veda wore while performing? And speaking of lip-synching, why did we have to sit through entire numbers being mouthed by Wood when the series was already plenty long? Yeesh.

Speaking of lips, what was with that scene where Mildred goes into Veda's bedroom and kisses her full on the mouth while she's asleep? Seemed to be an unfollowed twist. And the fact that almost everyone in the story has a hidden agenda and seeks to manipulate others to their own ends just cried out for some fun curves, but no go. And the climax was surprisingly unsurprising, unless you're a teenage boy—in that case you got to fap to Wood's full-frontal nudity. Speaking of nudity, the sex scenes sprinkled throughout (including one with a bravely disturbing and potbellied James LeGros) were just silly. And speaking of speaking...well, I digress.

Picture it. The Warner Bros. studio, 1945. A perfectly serviceable Mildred Pierce adaptation. Throw in a murder. Make it noir. Crisp, black and white, with an award-winning performance by an actress scrambling to salvage her career and a full-bodied Max Steiner score. What else do you need?

As with Peter Jackson's interminable, boring King Kong (2005), I really felt this was a case of a director having far too much respect for his material.

And douchebag Monty doesn't even get killed in this one!

When I first saw the promos for Shameless with William H. Macy introducing us to his sleazy, dysfunctional family, I didn't think much of it, but I gave it a chance anyhow. Much to my surprise, I found it to have a real, beating heart buried beneath the dirt.

Macy is the patriarch of the Gallagher family that lives in a lower-class neighborhood in Chicago. Since he's usually drunk or passed out somewhere, eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) has taken charge of the children. Even though they'll lie, cheat and steal to get by, they're essentially good kids, and Fiona is continuously trying to better their lives so that they can someday go straight.

The rest of the gang—second-eldest Philip ("Lip," played by Jeremy Allen White) is a genius who gets paid to take SATs for other students at his school and Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is an ROTC soldier who also happens to be having an affair with the married male owner of the neighborhood bodega at which he is employed. The other kids are still pretty little, although Emma Kenney is coming into her own as Debbie, the youngest Gallagher daughter.

Fiona's sort-of-boyfriend is Steve—aka Jimmy (Justin Chatwin)—a rich boy whose family thinks he's attending college, while he's actually rebelling against them by working the streets of Detroit as a car thief. Unfortunately, he's also keeping his double life a secret from Fiona, whom he's fallen desperately in love with.

The Gallaghers' neighbors are Veronica and Kevin (Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey). Kevin runs the neighborhood bar that Frank is a permanent fixture of, and Veronica is Fiona's best friend, always ready to lend a hand, much to Kevin's chagrin. It's a surprisingly tight and likable group, even with all the grunge and hustle. Actually, the grunge and hustle is what makes them likable!

The supporting cast must have been a hoot to put together. The always appealingly strange Joan Cusack is Sheila Jackson, the agoraphobic mother of rebellious Karen (Laura Wiggins), a school acquaintance Lip is developing a romantic relationship with. Sheila becomes sexually involved with Frank, driving her own husband (Joel Murray) out of the house, and it's a recipe for disaster. I guess Cusack counts as a regular, since she's been in all of the first season's episodes.

Academy award-winner (and Exorcist II star) Louise Fletcher has shown up for one cameo as sleazy Grammy Gallagher, whom Lip and Ian visit in prison. Chloe Webb (Sid and Nancy, Tales from the City) makes a welcome return, for me at least, as Frank's estranged wife and mother of the clan. And Julia Duffy (Newhart, Designing Women) has fun playing Steve/Jimmy's perpetually buzzed, pillow-princess mother.

Even cult favorite Gloria Le Roy (Barfly) plays as a nursing home resident the children bring home to impersonate their late grandmother when Frank is in danger of losing his ill-gotten social security checks. Next season, I want to see Karen Black and Susan Tyrrell, dammit!

This is one of those series that walks the fine line between cartoonish situations and real life, and it does it very well, unlike, say, any Chuck Lorre show. Indeed, headliner Macy, in my opinion, is the weak link. He's just not believable as the neighborhood wastrel. He enunciates too well, he's too East Coast (even though he's supposed to be playing a Fox News-watching asshole) and he's playing...well, William H. Macy. Okay, I'll give him a couple of fist bumps for the season finale. That was pretty good.

The actors playing his children, however, are another story entirely. If I had to pick a real standout, I'd have to go with Rossum. With her perpetually wounded eyes harboring a backbone of pure twisted steel, her Fiona is determined to keep the family clothed and fed...whatever it takes. Her heart is on her sleeve, and she's always worth watching.

It's amazing how much The Washington Post's Hank Steuver agrees with me (or me with him, since he got here first). Shameless is unapologetically raunchy, yet it offers up a really appealing vision of a messed-up but close-knit family. I can't wait for the next season.

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