Monday, October 11, 2010

The Real Jersey Shore . . .

It's not often that I post a review on a movie or television show. I've done it a few times, and only when the I feel strongly enough about the subject to actually tell other people to watch it. I've seen lots of movies and shows I've liked. But there aren't many that I've loved enough to recommend.

As you can probably guess from the banner, I'm posting about HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Based on the book of the same name by Nelson Johnson, the show takes you back to 1920, just as America put WWI behind it and decided to ban booze. Centered around a cast of familiar and fictional characters, each episode features figures like Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone, and shows just how pivotal the little city by the ocean could be when the country was run by the men who controlled liquor.

 At the heart of the show is an incredible turn by one of my favorite actors, Steve Buscemi, as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson. He's based on the real Atlantic City official Nucky Johnson, but for whatever reason, Terrence Winter decided to change his name and leave everything else intact. Nucky is still conniving, calculating, and utterly in control, literally deciding who lives and dies in his city when it comes to gambling, prostitution, and most of all, liquor import and export. Because of Atlantic City's placement and Nucky's hold on the city's politics, it was a rare opportunity for one man to get incredible power.

This could make the character into a monster, but Buscemi manages to play him with charm, charisma, and a little self-effacing humor. You find yourself rooting for Nucky even after he orders his brother, a police chief, to kill a witness. You root for him because you see him turn around and save a woman from her abusive husband, and at the same moment try to get his protege off the hook for murder. Buscemi brings a lot of humanity to the role, and though he seems to understand that he is not an ideal leading man, he takes command of the screen and makes you watch.

The real star, of course, is the boardwalk. HBO couldn't find locations in New Jersey that looked enough like America in the '20's, so they built their entire set from scratch in Brooklyn. And, it almost feels like a set as the extras walk through it, but in the case the feel is absolutely appropriate: Atlantic City in 1920 was all about the show, with flashing lights and over-sized signs everywhere. If you want to see where America's love with huge billboards really started, look no further.

 And, you knew I had to do it: I have to talk about the costumes. Costume designer John Dunn has combined newly built costumes with extant garments to produce a really beautiful production. Colors are vibrant, tailoring is impeccable, and everything hangs perfectly. He even, where possible, used fabrics from the 1920's to construct new garments, though using old fabrics and garment pieces meant that there was certainly a problem with clothing disintegrating right off the actors!

The suits, in particular, are gorgeous. Pinstripes and tweeds, plaids and herringbones, they are all built for the actors and tailored to perfection. Rothstein and Nucky's suits in particular are amazing, but I challenge you to find any suit that hangs poorly on this show!

And, the women's clothing is pretty extraordinary too, unsurprisingly. From the common shop workers to the showgirls and flappers (not yet called that, of course!), the silks, velvets, wools, and satins are simply beautiful. I'm fairly itching to make a '20's ensemble myself now!

Yes, Atlanic City in 1920 was risque and off-color. It was dangerous and immoral. And, boy, does it look like fun. I for one will keep watching, and I hope a few of you reading this who might be on the fence about trying it will tune in this Sunday.  You won't regret it. But, bring your dancing shoes and make sure to leave the hooch at home; they got plenty where you're going.


All images courtesy HBO

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