The Deuce: Maybe It’s Time You Watched This Show

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HBO’s The Deuce is, as the good folk over at Birth.Movies.Death nailed it: “the best show nobody watches” and maybe it’s time to rectify that. Check out the season two trailer:

David Simon and George Pelecanos, two of the creators behind The Wire, have been quietly producing one of the most engaging and fascinating shows on TV and y’all haven’t been making much noise about it.

The Deuce is set around 42nd Street and Times Square in the 1970s and follows the lives of a disparate group whose lives are intertwined with the lights of the marquees and the sweaty trades that ply behind them: sex workers, junkies, hustlers, cops and those that pull their purse strings, and wraps around them the story of the emergence of the porn industry into its brief life as ‘porno chic.’

It has an ensemble cast to die for, brilliantly headed up by James Franco (doing superb work in double roles, as brothers Frankie and Vinnie) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as sex worker Eileen “Candy” Merrell, who engineers a life behind the camera in porn), and features the same kind of measured, unwinding storytelling and sharp eye for character that made The Wire so watchable. It also shares with that show a certain tarnished poetry of the streets, making the criss-crossing lives of those who inhabit them beautiful and vivid, without ever glamorising or papering over their often harsh realities. You can practically smell the disinfectant from the peep shows.

The second season will jump forward some four of five years, to the late 1970s, and if we’re really lucky HBO will renew The Deuce for its third and final season, where Simon and Pelecanos plan to show the beginning of the end of the Times Square fleshpots in the late 1980s, before Disney moved in and made it the family-friendly, conglomorate branded tourist spot it is today.

If you aren’t watching this show you’re missing out on one of the single best pieces of drama on TV. Time to buy a ticket to The Deuce now…

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My Favourite Scene – Spaceship Porn (a Star Trek anniversary special)

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Sometimes when watching a movie, one scene can bring that entire film to life, or give you a sense of ownership of that film (or of being owned by it) even when all your critical senses might be fighting against you. This article will be the first in an occasional series where I look at the scenes which do that for me. And today, in honour of the 60th anniversary of Star Trek, I’m going for a doozy!

Released in 1979 and directed by filmmaking great, Robert Wise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture carried a lot of baggage and continues struggling with much of that baggage today.

In the wake of the astonishing box office and cultural success of Star Wars, Paramount Pictures finally gave the greenlight to a long gestating relaunch of their own science-fiction franchise, one which would bring to the big screen the much-loved cast of the CBS TV series, cancelled a decade before.

With a (for its time) astronomically huge budget of around $46 million, mixed reviews from the critics (who found the film ponderous and lacking in the sheer verve of George Lucas’ blockbuster) and less than expected earnings from cinema audiences, the film was considered a failure by some.

Regardless of what might be seen as its failings, there is a scene early in the film so audacious that I can’t help but fall in love with this lopsided puppy every single time.

The story is set some unspecified period of time after the TV show’s five year mission. As a result of a huge, galactic something making its way grumpily towards Earth, wiping out everything and some unfortunate Klingons in its path, a now desk-bound, pen pushing Admiral Kirk (William Shatner, of course) fights his way back into the command seat of Starfleet’s greatest spaceship, the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Transporting up to a station orbiting above the Earth, Kirk is greeted by his old Engineer, Commander Scott, or Scotty with the suspect accent as we know him better (still portrayed by James Doohan). As a plot point, this is done because the still-being-refurbished Enterprise is having some technical issues and its own transporters are out of order (leading to the icky death of some clumsily rematerialized crew members later), however it’s also done to give Star Trek: The Motion Picture its single greatest scene.

Scotty takes Kirk across to the Enterprise in a small shuttlecraft and both Kirk and the viewer are given tantalising views of the refurbished ship, ablaze in a sea of lights, in a drydock floating in space. The filmmakers referred to their look for the Enterprise as “an ocean liner in space”, and they really hit a home run with it.

As the shuttle draws nearer to the Enterprise, we become Kirk, viewing his beloved spaceship for the first time in years. Jerry Goldsmith’s quite beautiful, rousing and romantic music score underlines both the majesty of the starship and the huge emotions welling up inside Kirk.

At first they move outside the drydock’s frame, flirtatiously teasing us with the beauty inside, the Enterprise’s porcelain curves hidden behind steel and metal. Then Scotty swings the shuttle out wide, letting the drydock’s lacy underwear fall away, revealing the spaceship in all its naked glory.

Scotty cruises the shuttle all around the docked Enterprise allowing Kirk (and us) an intimate view of the ship’s beautiful body, he glides between the wide nacelles like he’s parting the legs of a woman prior to making love, then in an absolute crescendo of visuals and music, he eases the shuttlecraft closer… closer… to the docking port on the Enterprise. The film reaches an almost literal sexual climax as the shuttlecraft enters the Enterprise, joining as one.

Kirk looks at his friend and with a satisfied post-coital tone says, “Thank you, Mr Scott.”

Make no mistake about it, this scene is pornography, plain and simple. It’s hardcore porn that satisfies several fetishes – it’s spaceship porn, special effects porn and out and out Star Trek porn. It shows off the Enterprise lovingly, lustily, it luxuriates in the expertise and skills of the artists and technicians who bring the scene brilliantly to life and it wallows in the characters of Scotty, Kirk and his spaceship amour, the Enterprise. It’s filmed exactly like a love scene, long, sensual shots, music rising and falling with Kirk’s (and our) growing arousal.

The whole scene (from Kirk’s arrival on the space station to the final vehicular penetration) is almost seven minutes long, it serves next to nothing in terms of plot function (the points it does cover could easily be carried elsewhere, and with greater brevity) and in fact, it could be argued that the sequence stops the whole film dead in its tracks. I’d certainly struggle to argue with that.

And yet… the whole thing is played with such breathless devotion to its various fetishes, and with such candour at its intended aims, that what should leave me impatiently drumming my fingers instead has me grinning from ear to ear like a lovesick fool.

It’s pure folly to leave this scene intact, but it’s such a thing of confident and giddy fearlessness to subject a cinema audience to this lust in space that all you can do is surrender to its spunky charm and go with the flow.

After this scene, the film can happily take me wherever it wishes to go. Maybe to even boldly go…

Pure filth – Thundercrack! (1975) Blu-ray review

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Imagine a film that mixes elements of Psycho, John Waters’ trash epics and Douglas Sirk melodramas and then ladles all that up with lashings of full-on, 1970s moustached and hairy-assed porn. The existence of Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack!, the infamous 1975 perverted noir underground comedy means you don’t have to imagine such a beast.

Thundercrack! became my very own Moby Dick (pun very much intended) when British customs officials seized the print of the film on both occasions I attempted to see it at London’s Scala Cinema in the mid/late 1980s (or at least that’s what we were told by management, maybe it was just a bit of good, old fashioned carny huckstering), but now anyone can indulge themselves in the comfort of their own home with Synapse Films’ 40th anniversary blu-ray edition.

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When a disparate group of strangers are stranded at the old, dark house of a bereaved and off-her-rocker widow, the stage is set for a deranged psychodrama of extraordinary proportions and a night of psychological game-playing and rampant sex ensues. Men, women, dildos, penis pumps, vegetables and escaped circus animals engage in down and dirty shenanigans, with pubes and cum filling the screen and making sure you’ll never look at a cucumber in the same way again. Mix all this with pickled brains in jars, death by locust, the fear of girdles, the curse of enlarged testicles and some wonderful, feverish storytelling and lighting effects and you know you’re witnessing something unique and unforgettable.

Pitched at a constant, heightened state of near-hysteria, the film is full of cracked performances and hilarious, ripe monologues (delivered even in the midst of blowjobs), and the sheer, joyful tastelessness of this perfect parody leaves you in no doubt that Thundercrack! was never intended for the dirty mac brigade but rather as an almost artistic attempt to push some boundaries for the more imaginative (not to mention brave) viewer.

Synapse worked closely with the director’s sister (and one of the film’s stars) Melinda McDowell, for this anniversary edition and the effort shows. It’s a beautifully put together disc, with the film looking and sounding as good as it’s ever likely to, and packed with a gaggle of great extra features including a documentary, a director’s commentary (taken from audio interviews) and outtakes from the film. Really, it’s a miracle that we would ever live to see this film treated with such respect and care on home video.

I worried that there was no way this film could possibly live up to almost thirty years of expectations. I’m happy to say that McDowell and company proved me wrong, shocked me on the sofa and left me feeling delighted, entertained… and grimy as hell.