“Game of Thrones” — “Rome” Meets “Lord of the Rings”

Depending upon the viewer’s tolerance for over-the-top nudity and gratuitous violence (albeit infrequently), this Emmy-nominated HBO series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can be a guilty pleasure. An entrancing, seductive ten-episode TV miniseries, “Game of Thrones” is a compelling, carefully crafted drama about a mythical, magical medieval world.

Nicknamed the American Tolkien, George R.R. Martin has authored the best-selling fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. “Game of Thrones” is based on the first book in the series. Episode One opens with one of the most harrowing and genuinely cold-blooded scenes I can remember ever watching, especially for a fantasy drama. Amputated arms and legs are strewn across a stark, snowy forest glen, filmed overhead with slow, gliding camera movements. A man wanders from his two friends to discover the carnage but when the three men return, the body parts have vanished.

As is true for many sci-fi and fantasy novels, I needed an organization chart and a family tree for each of the main characters and his or her families–in this case seven kingdoms or clans struggling for the Iron Throne of Westeros, a medieval world facing an impending forty-year winter.

I don’t know if it was an intentional casting move to feature Sean Bean as a main character in “Game of Thrones” based on his previous role in “Lord of the Rings”, but the comparison between the two epics is obvious. In both epics all main characters are outliers. In “Game of Thrones” one character is a sole survivor of a family massacre, one is a bastard, one part dragon, one a girl who wishes she were a boy, to name only a few.

Some of the subplots are convoluted too, only to pull this viewer into its recesses. For example, one princess is forced to marry a king of a “barbaric” tribe but she is determined to understand her husband’s culture and eventually…and contentedly… fits into his society. The rape and pillage, not even subtly associated with Attila the Hun, allows the viewer not only to sympathize with the princess but also with her husband–no mean feat!

Arguments can be made that this series reduces some characters to racist or misogynist stereotypes. However, if the viewer focuses on the handful of intricately drawn portraits, especially those of the dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and the heir to the Stark clan (Sean Bean), moral ambivalence about the world they fight to preserve yet wish to transcend is clearly maintained.

I have never been a “Dungeons and Dragons”, Tolkien, or “Watership Down” fan but this fantasy miniseries feels more like an epic history of mythological proportions, analogous to the retelling of the generational conflicts, political intrigue and betrayal in the “Rome” miniseries, also from HBO (2005). All the requisite blockbuster devices of bloody battle scenes, nudity, political corruption, and even humor are present in each episode. However, the superb writing, mostly noteworthy acting, and stunning cinematography contribute to the tremendous appeal of “Game of Thrones”. Like “Rome” or “Dexter”, there may not be a socially redeeming, “intellectual” component, but the story is addicting and highly spell-binding. This is no “Mildred Pierce”, also a strong Emmy contender (see my last blog post) yet the white snow and dark shadows of this story made “Game of Thrones” a winner for me!

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!

“I Love You Phillip Morris”– “Catch Me If You Can” With a Gay Twist

Let me start by saying I wanted to really love this movie starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. I was sitting on the fence on this one but no more.

This oddball movie is loosely based upon an improbable but true story of a gay conman/grifter, Steve Russell, who continually breaks the law to impress his young lover, Phillip Morris, in a small Texas community. “I Love You Phillip Morris” opens with Russell (Jim Carrey) on a hospital gurney, near death. Up until now he has led a life of pretense –a married policeman whose wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann), is a sweet, caring church-going spouse. But his near-death experience has made Russell realize he’s going to live life as an openly gay man who no longer sneaks out on Debbie at night. His newfound gay lifestyle involves lavish and luxurious habits, which he cannot afford on a policeman’s salary so he turns to a world of crime. Sent to the Texas State Penitentiary where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), Russell begins an outrageous con to free both of them.

Every time Ewan McGregor is onscreen, this viewer lit up at his performance. While Jim Carrey somehow always reminds you that he is first and foremost Jim Carrey, that does not hold true for McGregor who plays the love interest with subtle charm and none of the usual swishy, exploitative cinematic portrayals of gay men. Carrey sometimes feels to me as if he is satirizing Russell, instead of seeing his tortured nature. In one of the most moving scenes in the story, Morris confronts Russell who has implicated him in his crimes: “How does someone who doesn’t exist go on existing?” Morris doesn’t know him, because the chameleonic Russell seemingly has no core.

Even though the main character is a narcissistic sociopathic scam artist, I think he could still have been lovable as was Leonardo di Caprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can.” But I found the story not persuasive as fiction, let alone truth, because the larcenous self-inventing Steve Russell is so hard to understand, let alone feel compassion for. Russell seems to be stunted, but his perpetual emotional postponement, even in the face of the man he loves, is never underscored. To see a more convincing portrayal of the gay man’s situation, I would go see “A Single Man” hands down!

Good actors, some over-the-top homosexual erotic scenes but a movie that ultimately doesn’t realize its potential. Too bad–could have been concomitantly hilarious and touching in almost every way!