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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

It had a strange sense of serendipity to it. On the same week as its release on DVD, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s now classic animated TV series was faced with the loss of the late, lamented character Chef. During one of their ‘commentary mini’ tracks that function as an added insight into the show’s creation, Parker discussed how the episode entitled “The List”, could have used the guiding presence and often sex-based sensibility of one Jerome McElroy. It was a passing sentiment, an acknowledgment that the issue with co-star Isaac Hayes in Season 10 still stung, if just a little. Then the news arrived of the actor/musician’s death at age 65. Suddenly, the turmoil over Hayes’ leaving and the controversy surrounding his possible motives seemed insignificant.


A great deal of South Park‘s amazing satire functions in this capacity. During a run which saw the boys take on terrorism in both the brilliant three part epic “Imaginationland” and the 24-inspired “The Snuke” while maintaining the kid friendly perspective via “The List” and “Lice Capades”, Season 11 could be described as more of the same - and that’s a good thing. While the series continued to push the boundaries of acceptability (the halting homophobia of “Cartman Sucks”, the N-word incorporating mayhem of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”), it also used its creative ace in the hole to skirt around scandal. Parker and Stone have always argued that they get away with what they do thanks in no small part to being a pen and ink project. They readily recognize that, outside a cartoon format, their brand of humor would be impossible.



And then there’s the ‘children’. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.


That’s definitely true of the terrific triptych that forms the basis for the series’ most ambitious artistry ever. “Imaginationland” (reviewed here in its initial digital release) remains a perfect combination of South Park ideals. On the one hand, you’ve got the amazing and insightful look at how fear robs us of our safety - and how politicians push it to steal away our freedoms as well. In addition, you’ve got the loving look at fictional characters past and present, good and evil, classic and newly created. Drawing on dozens of inspirations, the sequences in the title kingdom are masterful. When you toss in the subplot scuffle between Cartman and Kyle, centering on a bet and the “sucking of balls”, you have the entire series in an ‘anything and everything goes’ nutshell. More importantly, it stresses the show’s desire to be topical while true to the characters involved.



This is showcased in several episodes involving the boys. While “Guitar Queer-O” definitely focuses on the famed videogame, the main thread takes Stan and Kyle on a rags-to-riches-to-rejection-to redemption-to-reconnection music industry satire that riffs on local Colorado celebrities and The Partridge Family in the process. The head lice episode, while dealing ostensibly with the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer inspired action films that turn everything into an over the top apocalyptic disaster, also shows how cruel and cliquish little kids can be. The aforementioned “List” is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal. While painting young girls as capable of the same high crimes and corrupt misdemeanors of any closed off conspiracy, the real focus finds social rejection and peer acceptance as the main themes.


South Park has always been good about spreading the wit wealth, so to speak. It will go wholly down the commode for the ‘biggest turd’ treats of “More Crap” or the purposefully foul mouthed “Le Petite Tourette”, while pulling things back for the Dawn of the Dead parody “Night of the Living Homeless”. Some have suggested that, “Imaginationland” aside, Season 11 is nothing more than the series resting on its already substantial laurels (including an Emmy win for Season 10). Oddly enough, that’s not the critical complaint it’s intended to be, especially when similarity suggests a continuous level of cleverness, insight, and laugh out loud elements. Like The Simpsons, Parker and Stone have discovered that a simple set up can lead to a world of possible punchlines. They also recognize that some subjects heretofore unripe for parody can be made hilarious with just a little brains…and butt gas.



This is especially noticeable when you hear the men talk. The South Park creators are indeed their own worst detractors. During their three to six minute discussions on each episode in the DVD set, they frequently fall back, arguing over concepts that didn’t play out right, or approaches that, in hindsight, needed more thought. They generally dislike the Mr./Ms. Garrison as a lesbian lift of 300 known as “D-Yikes”, and wonder if their take-off of The Da Vinci Code, “Fantastic Easter Special”, really hit the mark. They admit to adding the Cartman fighting a dwarf subplot as a means of avoiding the otherwise hot button blatancy of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, while “Cartman Sucks” had more anti-religious railing than they would probably care to admit.


Still, in a genre that often goes for the safe and inoffensive, South Park continues to flaunt its usually flawless, always fearless funny business. Season 11 will be a hard act to follow, but with the first half of 12 already available for scrutiny, it’s clear that Parker and Stone have no intention of backing down. More importantly, with themselves as the intended focus group so to speak, the show will never be accused of laziness or a lack of vision. After more than a decade of farts, feces, and friendship, you’d think they’d run out of compelling ideas. But as this DVD demonstrates over and over again, as long as its founders find fault in what they do, South Park will strive to maintain its own unique level of anarchic insanity.


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Saturday, Aug 9, 2008

When we think of classic comedy, especially from the era before sound, slapstick stands as the main significant form. Sure, there were works with witty rejoinders and filmed plays piled high with clever dialogue, but sans the title cards, the power of pantomime and the purity of physical shtick argued for its viability in a wholly visual medium. Naturally, within such subsets lie the considered kings - Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd - but among their cinematic court were jesters of equal aplomb, if not fame. Thanks to the archivists at All Day Entertainment, and digital distributors Facets, we are treated to a wonderful second volume of forgotten figures and farces, shorts and features that prove there was more to onscreen pratfalls than little tramps and great stone faces.


Compiled over three loaded DVDs, American Slapstick Vol. 2 is then divided into sections. On Disc 1, we are treated to a look at Harold Lloyd, his brother Gaylord and the latter’s brief career, including his take on his sibling’s ‘Luke” character. Next up is an overview of Hal Roach’s remarkable studios and several of its b-players. Finally, we witness the birth of Educational Pictures, a brand that had very little to do with learning and everything to do with lunacy. Disc 2 offers the sole feature film, a look at Charlie Chaplin’s brother Syd and his turn in the classic satire Charlie’s Aunt. A few of his ‘Gussie’ shorts are offered as well. Equally interesting here is a chance to see Chaplin imitator Billy West. The final DVD presents a true piece of history as famous ladies of slapstick are discussed. Their importance is accented by takes on Billy Bevin as well as the talkies attempt to incorporate the ideas of old with the technology of the new.



All in all, it’s over seven hours of silent silliness and casual insights. Each section is introduced by a pleasant female voice, the information she passes along instrumental in understanding the context of each area. In addition, a handy insert outlines the stars being surveyed as well as the films on each DVD. Granted, much of this material is incomplete. As a matter of fact, historians argue that as much as 85% of pre-World War II cinema is lost forever. So the fact that we have access to any of these rarities is really special. Naturally, video purists will balk at the condition and visual variables, but if that’s all they care about, they are missing the bigger picture. Physical comedy didn’t begin with Moe, Larry, and Curly, and there was much more to the genre than Chaplin’s sentimentality and Keaton’s technical advances. The more we know about slapstick, the more we come to truly appreciate it as an art.


In a compendium loaded with intriguing elements, three items stick out specifically. The first deals with Chaplin and his mystique (the focus of Disc 2). Learning that his popularity created a series of imitators and impersonators is nothing surprising. Yet watching as West tries to emulate the Little Tramp, or seeing how brother Syd strived to create his own classic character is worth the price of admission alone. “The Hobo” is hilarious, West really doing a dandy bit of buffoonery. The snippets from animated takes on the Chaplin mystique are also excellent. But it’s Syd who steals the show. His work as Gussie, a haughty halfwit whose main attribute appears to be a rather ample rump is quite compelling and - dare it be said - equal to his brother’s subtlety and skill. “Caught in the Park” and “Gussie’s Wayward Path” stand as ready to be rediscovered gems, and thanks to American Slapstick Vol. 2, modern generations get a chance to witness the other Chaplin’s brilliance and personality acumen.




The second most significant contribution this collection makes is in the feminine side of show business. We always here about the men, both celebrated and infamous, but when was the last time you heard scholars reference Louise Fazenda, Anne Cornwall, or most importantly, Alice Howell. These three remarkable women are the focus of Disc 3, and their short films and sequences are absolutely fantastic. Beyond that, they are eye opening. We are used to seeing silent screen actresses as damsels in distress, clumsy dowagers, or sad, slightly soiled ladies. Here, our trio introduces us to amazing moments from “Cinderalla Cinders”, “Hold Still”, “A Hash House Fraud”, and “Faro Nell” and in each one they more than hold their own. It’s just too bad we can’t see more of these incredibly important individuals. A set of female slapstick stars is probably long overdue.


Finally, even though it’s part of the Syd Chaplin section, seeing Charlie’s Aunt here is quite stunning. Granted, the performances and the storyline are major selling points, but the chance to see a full fledged costumed comedy, complete with elaborate sets, faked locations, and other classic Hollywood hullabaloo is too good to pass up. Representing a near perfect time capsule of the industry of the era, we see that oversized ambitions, overacting, and larger than life spectacle are not a contemporary fault. This is also true of forlorn funnyman Billy Bevins. His almost epic “Be Respectable” goes from a clever character piece to a full blown citywide chase, complete with more Keystone style cops than modern day Los Angeles has policemen. It makes for a wonderfully thrilling addition.




Indeed, everything about American Slapstick Vol. 2 is spellbinding, even if some of it is in minor, mere footnote ways only. We enjoy the reckless ethnic stereotyping, as it provides insights into the social structure of the past. We champion those brave gals who orchestrated their onscreen gags with the precision of their far more renowned (and better paid) male counterparts. We wonder why certain names are no longer remembered while realizing that some actors were mere fading fads in a consumer driven entertainment marketplace. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this anthology, aside from the wealth of historical context and pure performance bliss, is how accurately it preserves the truth. While we may never see the likes of this style of humor ever again, the ability to revisit it in such a significant, substantive manner is a joy to behold. American Slapstick Vol. 2 is mandatory viewing for any functioning film fan. 


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Friday, Aug 8, 2008

According to the reports, it was a rather surreal Comic-con for the members of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mythos. With almost everyone involved in the show participating in a panel discussion in association with the show’s 20th anniversary (and upcoming DVD releases from new distributor Shout! Factory), hope sprang eternal (and internal) that some major announcement would be made - perhaps a fan-mandated and prayed for coming together of the so-far divergent Cinematic Titanic/RiffTrax crews. On the one side is Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy, larger than life talents who carried on the in-theater mockery motif long after others gave up on the concept. On the opposite end sits the CT crew - Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl, flush with success from their own self-promoted releases and collective critical acceptance.


Yet aside from Patton Oswalt’s genuine geekdom and some rather uncomfortable stares, it was clear that, at least for the time being, the geniuses behind the classic cowtown puppet show won’t be having a meeting of the minds anytime soon. Nelson et.al. seem content to add their smart alecky attacks to recent releases (via their audio only offerings) while Hodgson and his cohorts crank out original DVD titles in the old, silhouettes against the screen format. Prior to attending the notorious nerd herding in San Diego, the group even offered up a salvo for those desperate for more Cinematic Titanic goodness. Unlike the release of The Doomsday Machine, which took almost six months to materialize, their next effort, the Roger Corman retardation from 1959, The Wasp Woman, would be out in a matter of weeks. Sure enough, 8 August saw the release of the downloadable version of the project, and as usual, it’s another dose of daffy satiric goodness.


For those unfamiliar with the ultimate ‘b’ movie, Susan Cabot plays Janice Starling, the aging magnate of a major cosmetics firm. Where once she was the spry and youthful face of her product, her advancing years (she’s all of 38!) have meant a significant lag in sales. When a weirdly accented doctor named “Mr.” Eric Zintrop writes to her, explaining his rejuvenation techniques using the royal jelly from wasps, she’s instantly intrigued. She sets up a lab for the potential madman, and allows him to experiment on her. After nearly a month of no results, Janice takes matters into her own hands. She shoots up a significant amount of the bug enzyme, and sure enough, she becomes instantly younger. Of course, Zinthrop fails to fully inform his patient of the side effects. Apparently, along with headaches and occasional moodiness, Janice will intermittently turn into a giant insect - one that craves human flesh and plenty of it!


While previous Cinematic Titanic wonders like The Oozing Skull really delivered on the new series’ promise, Wasp Woman finally feels like home. As a matter of fact, if one closed their eyes, they could easily envision a late night rerun of a first year Comedy Channel episode of the old MST. With its barely there cast and certified Corman corner cutting, what starts out schlocky turns tacky in a matter of minutes. Cabot, whose career was cut short when her dwarf of a son bludgeoned her to death (no, we are not making this up), has to play dour and depressed for most of the movie, her fading beauty an evidently painful subject for the high powered and excessively rich CEO. Of course, since this is the ‘50s, our heroine must be surrounded by piggish chauvinists who smirk at her concern with crowsfeet over constantly puffing pipes and liquor laced breath.


Clearly influenced by the massive success of 1958’s The Fly, one has to give Wasp Woman credit for attempted ingenuity. Corman could have easily gone for the “man mutates” formula that made the Al Hedison horror show a hit. Instead, this narrative goes gaga for entomology, providing us with a precursory prologue where the benefits of royal jelly and all other bug butt extracts are explored. Zintrop even gives a little speech about respecting nature - of course, he’s addressing the insects he apparently confides in on a regular basis. As the story moves along to its standard spookshow sequences, we also see some patented Filmgroup falderal. Two obvious typing pool ‘broads’, whose names could be Mavis and Trixie for all their Brooklyn bar maid mannerisms, discuss their lagging love lives in a way that would make even the most desperate gent run in easy pickings paranoia.



Of course, all of this is prime material for the CT staff, and they come up with one of their most satisfying slam dunks yet. Thematically, it’s all heroin and insect riffs, the quintet taking every opportunity to mock anthropods and ridicule those who ride the white horse. The quips get so intense that J. Elvis begins a kind of comedy withdraw, arguing that if he doesn’t come up with another smack joke soon, he’ll die. It’s brilliant stuff, as is the pun-demonium over the word “bee” (sadly, no shout out to everyone’s favorite ambiguously asexual music sprite fro years past). Frank even references the unusual way in which Cabot died, starting everything off with a strikingly off comment that had this critic running to Google for confirmation. Of course, finding the origin of a Joel or Trace take is part and parcel of the overall MST/CT experience.


Elsewhere, the series is really coming into its own, concept wise. The time tube, explained in more depth last time, gets its status reaffirmed again, while the notion of a backstory (living pods? plasma beds?) also receives a mention. As for skit or scripted material, Wasp Woman doesn’t really lend itself to easy associations. Still, Mary Jo grinds things to a halt so she can get a boardroom power fix, while Frank brings back his ‘controversial’ variety spot so he can showcase an abusive and belligerent Buddy Rich. One of the things that fans have argued over here is the lack of the old Mystery Science sketch comedy. Even the Rifftrax offshoot, The Film Crew, were less than successful in recapturing that retro humor magic. Part of the problem is that everyone involved in these new projects are playing themselves - not characters trapped in space or working in an underground lab. And second, budget restrictions limit the amount of material they can generate. No funds = no additional funny business. 


Still, with a schedule that promises a more robust release strategy, and a growing appreciation for their efforts (EZTakes, who provides the downloadable versions of the CT discs, typically find their website swamped with retail requests) it looks like this latest attempt to recapture the old Mystery magic will finally get the mainstream acceptance the TV show failed to find. Of course, everything could change tomorrow, what with Shout! Factory promising an aggressive model for their upcoming DVD releases of the original series. And with three viable reminders of all the talent pooled for these projects, only the most cynical fan would complain. Cinematic Titanic continues to put out the amazing attractions, and The Wasp Woman truly lives up to their standards.


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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008

It sounds beautifully naïve - the notion that if one man could get everyone in the world to sing together, there’d be a lot less war and animosity among the citizens. Even more foolhardy is the belief that anyone would be willing to try it. But Pete Seeger is not just ‘anyone’. As the founding father of the modern folk movement, as instrumental as Woody Guthrie in bringing the muse of the people to the supposedly sophisticated city streets, he suffered for both his art and his politics. In his time he was both pop star and pariah, a Billboard chart topper who saw his early fascination with Communism cost him dearly. Still, he never apologizes for the roads he’s taken. To Pete Seeger, they’re all paths to one thing - getting people to sing.


From the time he was very young, Seeger was influenced by his musically inclined parents. During a tour of rural regions (where the family tried to bring classical composers to the “masses”), elder Seeger was introduced to traditional folk music. It would soon become a passion he would share with his gifted son. Over the years, Pete grew into a student of sound, working with famed archivists and attending Harvard. But his true calling was performance, and when he began celebrating and recording the pro-union tunes of the Depression era, he instantly found his calling. Over the next 50 years, he would change the way the world looked at folk, arguing for the value in local artists and sound social principles. Of course, his conviction would cost him. No one can stand on their morals for long without being knocked down. But the great thing about Pete Seeger is that he kept getting back up, and at almost 90, he’s still fighting for the inherent force in music. 


In a category that is growing in greatness exponentially, the stunning documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Miriam Collection label) brilliantly immortalizes an already living legend. For many decades removed from the fascinating folk movement of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, this activist artist is perhaps a Dylan-descended footnote, a name they recognize but fail to fully understand the import of. But thanks to director Jim Brown, who previously captured Seeger as part of the equally amazing The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time, allows the man his proper place in history. One cannot walk away from this spellbinding narrative and not feel both proud to live in a country that offers such talents and freedoms and sad for the government policies and blinkered politicians who twisted those tenets into something sordid and evil.


One of the most striking elements of Seeger’s story is his 17 year banishment from the commercial airwaves. Accused of being a Communist by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (and he had been a card carrying member in the past), the “red” stain resulted in an equally shocking color - black (as in ‘list’). While still a viable concert draw, Seeger also added to his troubles by being an outspoken supporter of civil rights. His hatred of segregation and the South’s disgusting Jim Crow laws led to appearances and protests, as well as confrontations with agitators and threats against his life. Yet all the while, Seeger still believed in the command of music. He was certain that if people heard the message and understood the tradition, they’d give up on outdated notions of hate and prejudice.


Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is definitely a summarization of the man’s amazing career. Before we know it, he’s working for the Library of Congress, serving in World War II, and turning “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem for Dr. Martin Luther King. As to the latter claim, the now nearly 90 year old is rather sheepish. It’s how he’s been most of his life. Seeger has been at the forefront of many significant changes in our culture, and yet when it seems like time to canonize the participants, his beatification is left for another, not so contentious day. There are moments in Power of Song that show us such late in life reverence. President Bill Clinton (who awarded Seeger the Kennedy Center honor in 1994) speaks of him in sacred terms, while the musician is approached by an older woman in Washington Square Park, her praise of his influence on her life and children almost overwhelming in its sincerity.


With its talking head approach and archival nostalgia, Power of Song paints a authoritative portrait. Everyone from Dylan to Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary to Bruce Springsteen step up to put the man in perspective, and ever the hero, Seeger takes it all in humble stride. We only seem him worked up when discussing his infamous return to TV in 1967. Scheduled to sing his latest anti-war anthem “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it marked a major return for him. After performing the song (among several), he was shocked to see it edited out of the final airing. Turns out CBS, bowing to White House pressure, removed the segment, the lyrical phrase “and the big fool says push on” viewed as a slam against then President Johnson.


During this material, Seeger seems tense, mortified at a media that, even today, will succumb to censorship for the sake of some ambiguous political goals. He’s saddened to see that his beloved country is still making the same mistakes, and takes small pleasures in providing the impetus to support the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the clean up of the Hudson River Valley. Because of its inability to be totally in-depth, it would have been nice for this DVD to include more contextual bonuses. Seeger’s story is that important. Instead, we get three somewhat preachy ‘deleted’ scenes, and five short films his family made focusing on skill like how to play the banjo and how to make a steel drum. It’s not that these extras have no value, it’s just that with a life as compelling as his, Power of Song could have added several hours of intriguing supplements.


We’ll just have to be satisfied with the film at hand, and in a category that’s seen lots of amazing artist biographies, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is simply one of the best. It takes it subject and his importance seriously while never sugarcoating the complications that brought on many of his misfortunes. Watching him perform “Guatanamera” with his grandson and Arlo Guthrie at Carnegie Hall, voice wispy and faded after 80+ years of singing, we’re reminded of how important and influential he really was/is. Without Pete Seeger, modern music would be missing many of its most important components. And as long as he’s around, there’s hope for a brighter tomorrow. That’s the power of Pete Seeger. That’s the power of Power of Song


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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008

While it’s not novel to say so, politics remains a truly unique animal. While typically set up to give all sides a voice in how the population is structured and led, its antiquated ideal no longer legitimately serving the “one man, one vote” fantasy. Instead, running for office has become a quasi-fame whore obstacle course, the best candidate often losing to the one capable of avoiding the pitfalls predicated by numerous conflicting obligations and needs. In the end, what we get is a kind of communal compromise, a contract if you will between the voter and the sharp-dressed defenders. It’s this kind of wheeling and concealing that’s at the core of the excellent made for TV movie The Deal. The locale may be different, but the political games definitely remain the same.


With their party’s defeat in 1992, British Labour leader Neil Kinnock resigns in disgrace. Replaced by longtime political animal John Smith, the opposition is desperate to end more than a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign. Looking to the new blood within the organization, the names of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair emerge. The former is a longstanding member, a staunchly Scottish firebrand in his legislative motives. The latter is more of a personality, easy on camera and clearly in tune with the pre-millennial climate in the country. Naturally, the matter of succession is addressed, with Brown believing he has a ‘deal’ with Blair about who will next represent Labour. But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, both men will be tested, and their agreement seen cast away by the media, and many within their own union.


When you think about it, The Deal is really nothing more than a serious of closed door confronts all leading up to the inevitable election of Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister. The scope is further limited in that writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears (also responsible for The Queen) have chosen to focus solely on the infighting between then Labour Party cohorts Blair and Brown. Viewed as diametrically opposed in personal approach, as well as political savvy, we’re supposed to choose sides and see who wins (even though the facts give that element away). So it’s the process, and the personalities involved, that drive The Deal‘s initial drama. But thanks to the performances of actors Michael Sheen and David Morrissey, we gain the kind of insights we couldn’t glean from a newspaper or a Parliamentary transcript.


Morgan acknowledges in the commentary that accompanies this new DVD version of the film (from The Weinstein Company and their high end Miriam Collection label) that while meticulous research was done on this backroom battle between two rising UK heavyweights, some creative license was used to realize his aims. Frankly, The Deal doesn’t suffer because of it. Like All the President’s Men, or the movie the screenwriter was last involved in, putting fictional words into the mouths of well known public figures is fine, as long as the intent is clear, and from the remaining bonus material on the disc, we discover how closely The Deal matched the truth. Of course, by keeping things small, situated between a few formidable individuals, such a strategy works well. And when you combine it with clever direction and amazing acting turns, the lack of documentary-like clarity is all forgiven.


This was Sheen’s first turn as Blair, and it’s clear that he learned more about the man before taking on Her Royal Highness in The Queen. While his up and coming Labour representative is seen as little more than a cunning chameleon (trading on his Scottish birth and London upbringing, embracing policies from both sides of the governing sphere), one sees the totality of the modern political animal in his smiling, scheming mannerism. In fact, for anyone wondering why Sheen’s Blair felt such compassion for Elizabeth II during the whole Princess Diana death debacle can see his situational acumen at work here. Certainly there are moments when we realize he is completely within his rights to do what he does. But there is no denying his “anything for a gain” gumption.


This is also true of Brown, though his old school bluster and dour personality made him a clear contradiction to lead the nation (though he is doing so now). He’s like a bulldog without a proper enemy to snipe at. His anger seems focused inward, every defeat Labour takes at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives acting like an internal body blow. Morrissey is very good at getting his glower on, especially in the middle sequences when it looks like his buddy Blair will indeed usurp him as the ‘darling’ of the party. Yet by the end, Brown has taken that determination to levels which outline why he would have to wait over a decade to gain the control he believed was his. By this point, he’s so scorned he’s practically inert.


When they are together onscreen, The Deal sizzles with a kind of critical chemistry. Both actors essay incredibly difficult material, since the public persona of both men was and remains well known to the intended audience (especially in the UK, where this TV movie first aired). In addition, you can literally feel the personal respect, professional reliance, and palpable reticence between the officials. While we don’t learn much about the British political system, we do understand what lures men into its service. Unlike the United States, which sees its representative form of government constantly cave into the needs of big business and corporate lobbyists, England seems to value the support of the constituency much more (even if playing to the people is merely logistical lip service).


With Morgan planning a final installment in his ‘Blair’ trilogy (focusing on the leader’s latter years interacting with Presidents Clinton and Bush), The Deal functions as more than just a companion piece to the Oscar winning Queen. Indeed, like something almost Shakespearean, it sets up a man who will see the very facets that aided in his ascension undo him in the end. What’s also clear is that no matter the public façade put on by the candidates, there’s always an equal amount of private jerryrigging going on as well. Elections are not won solely on the balloting of an interested public. What The Deal makes clear is that, in this arena, there are many more arrangements brokered than even the candidates can see.


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