Rubicon (2010)

Here’s the lead to every Rubicon review I’ve run across,

“AMC has been on a roll lately…”

And lazy me, every way I’ve thought to start this review was some variation on that sentiment. So, let’s just go with it…

AMC’s shows have specialized in characters who are at once an enigma, yet also an archetype. As well as sympathetic. You get the feeling Don Draper or Walter White could be capable of anything given the appropriate situation. There was a point in Mad Men’s season one where I would’ve bet Don was going to kill his brother and Walt, well, Walt has killed more than once. And still we root for them and empathize. The shows are slow boils, where what isn’t said is as important as what is, where appearance and perception is often passed off as reality. Plot is secondary to the character and tone is king.

Rubicon fits the mold of Breaking Bad and Mad Men in many ways, but also adds a different element, the element is the notion of plot as enigma. The plot of Rubicon feels like a character, an amorphous enigma of conspiracy, doubt, hidden knowledge.
On the surface, Rubicon is a conspiracy mystery. The lead, Will Travers, is mostly a true blue trying to work out a conspiracy surrounding a death. I don’t want to give too much of the plot so far because the show isn’t about surprises, but about the slow build. The viewer doesn’t even have a firm grasp of what Will does for a living for the first three episodes and most of the show is set at his work place. That’s what I mean about the plot as a living character, it lurks in the corners and, for the most part, the characters have to work to draw out the plot instead of outside forces mostly shaping the actions of it’s characters. Most of television is an examination of a character’s reactions to plot. These reactions force a tidy resolution, in say, 48 minutes. No so with Rubicon.
This may be why many have called the show slow-moving(that’s code for boring). Watch the first three episodes of Mad Men, very slow plot-wise, but the show kicks in on other levels by episode five. This is where Rubicon is now. Last week, it’s sixth episode, is where the really episode kicks in.
The show’s tone is of a classic 1970’s paranoia movie like Day of the Jackyl. There’s a grimy dated quality to the sets. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of President Obama on a back ground wall that I was certain of the year of the show. They don’t work at CSI or rarely use anything high-tech. The cinematography likes to surround the characters inside doorways and frames inside frames (shout out to ’40’s noir, y’all) and the exterior shots look like elaborate, warped mazes or stereo-eye pictures. The interiors are bland, florescent-lit affairs. Another criticism I’ve read is the show looks cheap, but the show looks this way for a reason.
The ambiguous acting, the small apartment, the dinginess, the officiousness of the higher-ups, the slow pace, everything adds to the tone of creeping paranoia. Will and the other show’s ‘hero,’ a widower trying to understand her husband’s suicide, could move on easily from tragedy, like many of the other characters around them apparently have, but their sense of paranoia, in part, compels them forward.
In many conspiracy movies, the conspiracy itself is a large overwhelming behemoth crushing those who interfere. Here, it seems, the conspiracy moves slowly and quietly. Rubicon isn’t a show like Lost or Heroes where mystery upon mystery thrown at the viewer in a vane attempt at some connected meaning. I don’t think Rubicon will become victim to this mystery overload for a few reasons. One, the focus is narrow, just a handful of characters. Two, the characters drive the conspiracy solving, not the other way around. Their compulsion is, in part, not just emotional, but intellectual. Three, the ‘bad people’ can and do good things and vice versa. Their motives, so far, aren’t based in arrogance. And four, the tone is low-key.
Another reason to watch is the actual work-place lives of the characters. It’s unique and interesting and the show does a great job of showing the effect and cost of doing such a specialized job. These people are thinkers and over thinkers and obsessives and paid to be such. And they all have to lie about their lives.
I know I didn’t do a good job of explaining what the show’s about, but you figuring out the explanation is the big lure.
Like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, you’re encouraged to fill in the blanks.
So far, Rubicon has plenty of blanks. Just give it a few episodes.

Oh, and AMC’sThe Walking Dead is going to be balls-out awesome, for reasons entirely different than Rubicon and Mad Men.

(AMC has already renewed The Walking Dead for a second season and it doesn’t air until Halloween. No word on Rubicon, get on it public and watch it and get on it AMC and renew it.)

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The Kingdom (1995) and the RPG Heaven and Earth (2004)

Lars Von Trier can be a real heavy-handed sumnabitch. Movies like Dogville-that bloody anti-Our Town-spend half of it’s running time bludgeoning it’s message at the audience in such a relentless manner that literally every character becomes a martyred symbol by the end. That said, it was an extremely interesting failure. Might as well aim for the bleachers.

So, I’ll generally give a Lars Von Trier movie a chance if I’m in the right mood. I liked his last film Anti-Christ because the dreamy symbolic and dark imagery worked and I’d watch Willem Defoe in just about anything. Yea, the ending was a bit much and lacked subtlety, but, honestly, I give most horror/thriller/dark dramas a pass on ending because I expect to be disappointed. The main selling point in these types of movies is ‘What is the central idea and is it executed well?’

I saw The Kingdom ( on Netflix streaming and had always wanted to see the mini-series because I’m a sucker for the core set-up: a seemingly normal small town or location that hides dark or supernatural secrets. Blue Velvet, although it doesn’t hold up well, is one of my favorite films. I read Stephen King’s Under the Dome (great idea and 3/4ths of a story with a lame ending, but that’s most of King’s books). There was an American adaptation of The Kingdom with King’s name on it that I saw a little bit of few years ago, but it was a dreary affair. So I was kind of pumped to see the original Danish mini-series. I’ve only seen the first two hours of eight (more later tonight), but I’m liking it and it has me thinking about some other topics I’ll cover in a bit. I love it when a movie I just saw before bed also seeps into my dreams as the tone on last night’s dream could have been an episode of the show.
So, The Kingdom refers to a Danish hospital built on spooky grounds. Much of the show could play as a dark medical comedy about the arrogance and just plain haphazardness of running a modern hospital. The characters already have flaws and mysteries and obsessions that make them at once mildly compelling and empathetic and also deserving of a grizzly end. The main character in the show has to the most arrogant SOB doctor character in the history of the arrogant SOB doctor genre. Love it. (Also learned that the Swedes looks down or at least this guy looks down on the Danes. He would go up to the top of the hospital and loudly scream profanities at his Danish counterparts.) There’s rapid disfunction, a literal crumbling of the institution, secret societies, and even an adorable Down Syndrome duo that serve as a Greek chorus. Of course, there’s some supernatural shenanigans which hopefully will turn down right Cthulhu as the show goes on. On the heavy-handed side, director/writer Lars, himself tuxedoed, would show up at the end in the credits and go on about good and evil and god and the nature of interest in such things. Odd. Anyway, this isn’t really a review as the show got me thinking about a Role Playing Game I ran for seeshells a few years ago.

Heaven and Earth( had a real compelling mystery at it’s center that I won’t spoil here, but the tone of the game made me want to run it and adapt it to my own style and write some plots and characters to fill in the mystery. The game centered around my favorite place, a small Kansas college town chock-a-block with weirdness and secrets. Every character had a secret. The RPG book gave some supernatural explanations for most of the secrets, but also supplied realistic reasons for the strangeness. My idea to expand the core book was to actually have some of the secrets be mundane and some supernatural and to be like an onion so that mundane mysteries would lead to other other-worldly secrets and vice-versa. I wrote about 50 NPC’s. Most characters only knew a tiny part of the big mystery and some believed the wrong thing about it or only a part of it, some were skeptical about some of it, but not other parts. Some were oblivious and most concealed something. Heck, some characters were ghosts who were credulous about some explanations. Anyway, I wanted to make a sandbox for the player character to go anywhere, soak it in and find mysteries everywhere. The game failed a bit because it didn’t always present a strong compelling course of action for seeshells’ characters. Basically, there was almost too much to do and I had her create a bunch of different characters to knock around town with. But I would like to use this place to solve on of the mysteries seeshells stumbled upon to show how you can use a character in the weird town genre to open up a wider story. (An aside, I was attracted The Kingdom because it was a mini-series so there was more room for multiple explanations and multi-layered mysteries. The same for the too-short ABC show Happytown which at least resolved it’s central mystery without resorting to cheap left-field supernatural explanations. Maybe it would have it it dragged on a few seasons. BTW, boo to Lost for it’s cheap non-explanation spiritual ending. Ang-ry.)
So, one of seeshells’ characters was staying at a Bed and Breakfast run by the sweet widow of an ex-mayor. The widow had a bulldog she was extremely attached to. Seeshells’ inquisitive character soon deduced that the bulldog was really the spirit or reincarnation of the widow’s husband. That’s pretty simple, mystery solved, right? Well, the widow did believe the dog was her husband, she did the satanic ritual to ensoul the dog in her basement. But why did she do it? What the widow didn’t know was the mayor wasn’t dead, the circumstances around his ‘death’ opened up a new mystery as also the whereabouts of the mayor. But there were people using supernatural forces (or being used by them) to control the dog to get the widow to carry out their bidding for their own strange ends. And down the rabbit hole we go.

I guess what I’m getting at is that most movies are too cut and dry in their telling of supernatural stories. It’s almost always the big bad ghostie pulling all the strings at the end of the day. It’s never ever a natural explanation if the supernatural is hinted at in the beginning. The only place that happens is Scooby Doo and then the reverse is true, wouldn’t you love it if a ghost DID gobble up Shaggy in just one episode? Mini-series offer the hope of the onion.
Man, I hate that recent rash of the skeptical/supernatural movie. (Only can think of Signs, but there’s also that movie with Hillary Swank and some river of blood) You know the plot, a skeptic who used to be a believer but lost faith because of the death of a child or wife now is a full time debunker of supernatural hoo-haw. In the first scene, he does expose a fraud, but then has a case too good to pass up. For half the movie, weirdness and disbelief abound until, something so bizarre happens (usually involving the ghost of a small girl), and the skeptic loses someone close to them. It’s only through coming around to full-on belief and eventual self-sacrifice is the big bad supernatural averted. And of course, no one believes him and everything is reset X-Files style.

I hope The Kingdom doesn’t end that way and the douche bag doctor is just eaten by Cthulhu.

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