Friday, January 28, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Year of Release  1972
Country  Germany
Length  94 min.
Director  Werner Herzog
Screenwriter  Werner Herzog
Cinematographer  Thomas Mauch
Editor  Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Original Score  Popol Vuh
Cast  Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Roy Guerra, Del Negro

Beauty Aguirre begins with arguably the most stunning shot in the frequently gorgeous filmography of Werner Herzog, as a mid-sized army of conquistadors and slaves descend down a winding, cloud-covered mountain. Throughout the film, Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch show the glorious yet inhospitable Andean terrain engulfing and overpowering the foreigners who attempt to traverse it. This style holds up through the final shot (also a candidate for best shot in Herzog's filmography), as the mutinous tyrant Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) is surrounded on a sinking raft by a gang of monkeys.

Strangeness Much of the power of Aguirre comes from its combination of narrative and documentary elements. The storyline, about a group of 16th-century conquistadors traveling over the Andes in search of the fabled El Dorado, is pretty straightforward, but the fact that it plays out against actual jungle backdrops gives the film a palpable sense of nature's daunting oddity that simply wouldn't be possible on a controlled soundstage. Kinski's over-the-top yet controlled performance is one of the most convincing depictions of insanity on film. His titular character is as unpredictable as the jungle terrain.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter The obsessive narrative focus on Aguirre's single-minded pursuit is frequently contrasted with shots that emphasize the grandeur of nature compared to the puniness of Aguirre and his crew. The natives who attack the conquistadors remain almost entirely offscreen, which enhances the feeling that nature itself is battling against the expedition.

Tradition Aguirre's focus on men attempting to conquer an indifferent natural world recalls F.W. Murnau's Tabu (1930), as well as Anthony Mann "landscape westerns" such as The Naked Spur (1953), though Herzog's prominent use of actual uncontrollable forces like raging rivers and wild animals makes his film more visceral than Murnau's or Mann's. Herzog's film is a clear visual and tonal influence on Apocalypse Now (1979), though the idealogical confusion of Francis Ford Coppola's epic makes it feel more bloated and less focused than Aguirre. With Fitzcarraldo (1980), Herzog attempted to recapture the energy of Aguirre, but that film largely feels like a pale imitation of Herzog's earlier work.

Repeatability Aguirre has held up over nearly forty years as Werner Herzog's most compelling look at a man in the grips of madness. Though we know that the film was made in the early-'70s, it feels strangely timeless. Since it is unlikely that a filmmaker other than Herzog will take the health and safety risks necessary to capture the feeling of being stranded in the jungle, Aguirre will likely continue to hold up as cinema's most vivid depiction of man's battle with nature.

Viewer Engagement The documentary elements of Aguirre give it a you-are-there feel that keeps the film engaging from first frame to last. Herzog's films are usually filled with odd tangents and scenes that go on longer than is strictly necessary, but Aguirre is unusually taut and focused by any standard. Since the viewer is placed in the position of one of Aguirre's crew members (or slaves), and because the film is as single-mindedly focused on the quest as Aguirre himself, Aguirre gets us on the side of the conquistadors to an extent, making the film much more than a simple anti-imperialist screed.

Morality Aguirre is simple enough in its narrative and elemental enough in terms of its scenery to have the feel of a timeless fable about human arrogance. Yet, while there is no question about whether the film finds Aguirre and his goals contemptible, Herzog's you-are-there approach doesn't let the viewer stand at a completely superior position to the imperialists. Aguirre offers an unforgettable lesson about the folly of men attempting to conquer nature.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT A very different film about an arduous voyage, Jean Vigo's L'atalante.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Two, Discs Three & Four)

Episodes covered:  Co-Pilot, Coyotes, Inferno, Breakpoint, Dominoes Falling

"Co-Pilot" kicks off this stretch of episodes by flashing back to the first day of the Barn's operation.  Unfortunately, the episode misses a prime opportunity to flesh out the characters of Shane, Lem, and Ronnie, or to at least give a compelling explanation of why their bond is so tight, beyond the obvious need to cover for each other's lies.  And while there are some nice moments of character shading here (such as the revelation that Dutch had an alcoholic wife who left him for her AA sponsor shortly before he transferred to the Barn) and it is sort of fun to see season one characters like Rondell and Gilroy again, "Co-Pilot" ultimately feels like an unnecessary diversion from the main concerns of season two.  It neither gives us any important information we weren't already aware of nor has any impact on the present-day storylines.  The flashback feels redundant on a show that already does such a great job of making its characters' pasts come back to haunt them.  In a way, it seems appropriate that an episode set shortly before the pilot would feel like one of the more problematic season one episodes, and the tonal déjà vu throws the rest of season two's structural improvements into sharp relief.  A few nagging flaws persist, and subpar (though not exactly bad) episodes like "Co-Pilot" show up every once in a great while, but the second season of The Shield finds the show a lot more complex, compelling, and structurally sound than it was in its very fine first season.

Season two doesn't exactly break the mold that Shawn Ryan and his writing staff laid out in season one, but it does fine tune it, making for a more satisfying slate of episodes overall.  The stretch of episodes from "Coyotes" through "Dominoes Falling" offers a prime example of the way that the writers organically – almost subliminally – keep the show's major story threads running even as interesting one-off cases and the repercussions of events long past dominate the narratives of the individual episodes.  Every major character (with the exception, as always, of Vic's Strike Team comrades) is fully fleshed-out at this point, which makes it all the more impressive that the creative team rarely forces them into situations that seem out of character, even as they keep the plotting as tight and propulsive as that of any action movie. 

The storytelling in season two is taut enough to make the show unbearably tense and exciting, yet messy enough to justify the show's verite aesthetic.  It's as if a long, pulpy action story is playing out in real life.  Developments such as Lanie's largely negative report on the Barn leaking to the press seem less like plot points than things that would actually happen under the circumstances that the show has set up, and the impact that such events have on the characters feel natural and realistic.  The leak of Lanie's report leads every member of the precinct to question their job security, causing past resentments to resurface and leading to sad yet inevitable endings for a few of our heroes.  In particular, the publicity problems cause Danny and Julien's predicaments to get even worse.  Danny's perceived involvement in Armadillo's stabbing makes her a logical target for firing when the new chief of police forces Aceveda to cut 25% of his work force, and she does indeed lose her job toward the end of "Dominoes Falling."  But she gets off easy compared to Julien, whose homosexuality is exposed to the entire Barn after his quasi-lover from season one returns and ramps up the tension in the already pressure cooker environment of the post-leak precinct.  Several of the officers who were fired assume that Julien is receiving special treatment from the higher-ups due to ratting them out for their homophobic slurs (though Julien is of course too ashamed and in denial of his own sexuality to have complained about the situation to Aceveda), and they administer a beating similar to the "towel party" that Julien participated in at the end of season one's "Pay in Pain."

Other characters receive promotions (Aceveda wins his city council seat, with Claudette poised to replace him as captain of the Barn) or achieve temporary victories (the Strike Team pulls off the Armenian money train heist), but for the most part these are plot points that won't pay off until next season.  The Shield is a better show in its second season than in its first season, but it doesn't feel like it's as major a season, if that makes sense.  While the Danny and Julien storylines came to a sort of endpoint (I'm sure that we'll at least see Julien again, but seeing him getting beaten by a gang of police officers with nightsticks certainly feels like a blunt cap to the things that he's gone through this year), most of the season was spent setting up developments for season three and beyond.  The fact that the Terry Crowley murder – the pivotal plot point of the entire series - was barely referenced in these thirteen episodes suggests that the creative team didn't know how long The Shield was going to last at this point, and therefore were timid about pushing the series' major storyline too far forward.  But even if the Armadillo story and the Armenian money train story might turn out to be nothing more than wheel-spinning in the end, they are at least extremely entertaining examples of wheel-spinning, and I can't imagine anyone who's watched to this point checking out before season three.

Quick Thoughts:

- I don't know whether this is really the last we'll see of Danny or not, but in case it is, I want to give some brief praise for Catherine Dent's performance.  She has great chemistry with Michael Jace, and can certainly hold her own with any of the other members of this great ensemble cast.

- I like the introduction of Tavon (Brian White) to the Strike Team.  While he hasn't yet shined a light on the inner workings of the Team as I had hoped he would, he already feels like a vital, three-dimensional character.  His tough yet intelligent police style makes him a natural fit for the Team, yet his methods and his demeanor are different enough for him to provide a contrast to someone like Shane.  (Check out the Russian roulette scene in "Dominoes Falling").  A lesser show would've introduced the new cop and then killed him off by the end of the season, essentially making him more of a plot point than a character, but, while I doubt that Tavon will survive to season seven, he seems to be a full-fledged part of the Team for now.  And he's clearly not a guy the Team will want to get on their bad side (as they inevitably will in the future, assuming that Tavon learns about some of their more corrupt actions).

- I noticed that season three is fifteen episodes instead of the usual thirteen.  This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, but I do hope that the extra time doesn't decrease the show's breakneck pace too much.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Now that we're eight films deep in the Coen Brothers' oeuvre – and therefore at the halfway point of their career to date – its time to take stock of their films' common attributes.  The brothers' work tends to be set in the past (even the relatively contemporary Fargo and The Big Lebowski are set in 1987 and the days of the first Gulf War, respectively) and in very specific cultural milieus.  The generally cartoonish characters tend to speak with exaggerated accents and strange enunciations that skirt the edge of parody, yet the dialogue and the actors' delivery of it is too carefully planned-out and controlled to be described as broad.  Joel and Ethan's narratives tend to be grounded in familiar genre archetypes, though the very basic plots usually become more and more hysterically convoluted as the characters' stupidity drives them ever further from their original goal.  And all of it is handsomely designed, filmed, and edited, with the Coens' impressive technical skill usually reaching its apex in a handful of oddly staged and unusually vivid setpieces.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is perhaps the definitive Coen Brothers film – not their finest work, or the most ambitious or most mature, but the one that most clearly embodies all of the best and worst qualities of their artistry, and the one that cements who they are as filmmakers after over fifteen years of hyperactive genre-hopping.

O Brother is set in the south during the Great Depression – not in something approaching the actual dustbowl, mind you, but the kind of fantasy Americana playground where a pie is on every windowsill and impromptu hoedowns occur as soon as someone decides to break into song.  As usual, the Coens approach this setting with a snarky air of superiority, viewing the past (and the American south) with a sense of hip, ironic detachment, even as they don't seem remotely interested in learning about the actual time or place where their story is set.  Fortunately, the duo seem to be as genuinely amused by old-timey Americana as they are interested in ridiculing it, and there is a much greater sense of playful joy in O Brother than there is in their previous forays into the distant past, Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991), and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). 

A big part of the film's less cynical, more jovial tone is in their delightful use of period folk, country, and blues music, some of which is taken from original recordings and some of which has been covered by contemporary artists, and all of which was supervised and produced by T-Bone Burnett.  Burnett's smart use of sleazy '70s rock was a major boon to The Big Lebowski (1998), but his work here is on a whole other level.  In fact, the music of O Brother is its most well-known attribute, and it plays an even more integral role in establishing the film's atmosphere than the elaborate bric-a-brac of the production design or the precise diction of the dialogue.  Practically every track is a knockout, from the rocking "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" to the hypnotic nursery rhyme "Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby" to the goofy novelty song "Indian War Whoop."  Whenever the film turns into a musical, it feels livelier and more inclusive than any Coen film to this point, though they've arguably been moving in this slightly more humanist direction since Fargo (1996).

Fargo was one of the first Coen films to feature a likeable protagonist – Nicolas Cage's character in Raising Arziona (1987) was endearingly wacky, but he was an anomaly in the Coens' early work – though the way that the filmmakers achieved this likeability, by making Frances McDormand's character a paragon of virtue in a world of corrupt or incompetent hicks, didn't entirely mitigate the brothers' uninspiring worldview.  Having finally delivered two appealing, recognizably human major character in The Big Lebowski, the Coens' expand their compassion a bit by giving viewers a trio of loveable chain gang-escapees as protagonists.  While George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson's characters here aren't as fully fleshed-out or as nuanced as Jeff Bridges and John Goodman's characters in Lebowski, and the trio are largely defined by their stupidity (or vanity, in Clooney's case), the actors are at least allowed to give winning, charming performances.  Nelson, in particular, goes way beyond the call of duty by giving his stock dimwit character a fully lived-in feel, and he manages to make his character's child-like innocence as big a virtue as his stupidity is a liability.  The goodwill doesn't extend to all of the supporting players, which is especially evident during a tone-deaf bit involving a Ku Klux Klan rally, which seems to mostly exist to give the audience a simple reason to dislike several minor villainous characters.  But the Coens are at least continuing to make progress as humanists.

They haven't lost a step in terms of technical skill, either.  O Brother features the expected gorgeous camerawork from Roger Deakins, which beautifully captures the wildly ornate sets and gives a palpable sense of just how sweaty the film's universe is.  The setpieces are as visceral and creatively staged as we've come to expect from the Coen Brothers by this point, with a car chase involving a gun-downed cow being a particularly weird highlight.  But the Coens' sense of pacing fails them somewhat this time out (a recurring, though fairly minor, problem).  Relentless busyness worked for The Big Lebowski, but the rush to cram in as much stuff as possible seems a little off-putting in O Brother's "old weird America" setting.  Stand-ins for Robert Johnston and Babyface Nelson receive lyrical moments when, respectively, they explain how the devil looks or experience a moment of depression after the manic rush of a series of bank robberies, but the Coens cut away from these scenes too soon for them to be truly powerful.  And their detached worldview prevents the film from fully following its more delightfully whimsical moments; wouldn't it have been more interesting if the film had left the notion that Turturro had been transformed into a frog as an open question instead of using it as yet another example of Nelson's dumbness?  Despite these flaws, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of the Coen Brothers' most charming films to this point, and a fine summary of their identity as auteurs.

UP NEXT  The Man Who Wasn't There

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Ivan the Terrible

Year of Release  Part One:  1944 
Part Two:  completed in 1946, but suppressed until 1958
Country  Soviet Union
Length  Part One:  99 min.
Part Two:  86 min.
Director  Sergei Eisenstein
Screenwriter  Sergei Eisenstein
Editor  Sergei Eisenstein
Cinematographer  Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse
Set Designer  Iosif Shpinel
Original Score  Sergei Prokofiev
Cast  Nikolai Cherkasov, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov, Mikhail Kuznetzov

Beauty  Sergei Eisenstein is more well known for his innovative editing techniques than his brilliant cinematographic eye, yet his final film is one of the most visually grand works in all of cinema.  Ivan the Terrible is as much about chiaroscuro, depth of focus, overwhelming frescos, nightmarishly claustrophobic corridors, lavish costumes, rhyming shots, and dynamic lighting as it is about the titular historical figure.  The two-part epic is a tour de force not only for Eisenstein, but also for cinematographers Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse and set designer Iosif Shpinel, all of whom get a lot of mileage out of the unique looks of the cast members, each chosen as much for their look as for their acting ability.

Strangeness  Though Ivan is a historical epic based around events that actually happened and featuring characters who actually existed, it is far from a dry biopic.  Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov), who under normal circumstances would serve as an audience surrogate, is so thoroughly defamiliarized that he is impossible to relate to, yet Eisenstein is constantly complicating and contradicting his portrayal of his protagonist.  Eisenstein doesn't pigeonhole Ivan as either a psychotic monster (as he was, by all accounts, in real life) or a patriotic hero (as Stalin, who commissioned the making of the film, saw him), but instead presents him as a man who is always both.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  A synopsis of the events of Ivan the Terrible wouldn't make it sound terribly different from other historical epics, but the way that the events are stylistically depicted is what sets the film apart and gives it its meaning.  Each visual detail, each blast of Prokofiev's magnificent score, and each edit complicates, questions, and (at times) even contradicts the action of the narrative.  While this trick allowed Eisenstein to slip a lot of subversive material past the Stalinist censors, the compromises that he had to make to pass Ivan off as Soviet propaganda give the film a purposeful schizophrenia, constantly torn between national pride and oppressed paranoia, that is probably an accurate reflection of the feelings of most post-WWII Soviets.  Ivan is ostensibly about its titular subject – or at least it is using Ivan as a stand-in for Stalin – and it works on that level, but its real subject matter is the conflicted legacy of Soviet fascism.

Tradition  Ivan uniquely feels simultaneously like a piece of Soviet propaganda and a criticism of Soviet fascism, which arguably makes it the ultimate film of the Soviet era.  Of course, Soviet models weren't the only influences on the film.  The two-part structure, the elaborate décor, and the general mixture of operatic camp and exciting serial adventure mark Ivan as a descendant of Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924), which seems to have been a specific visual reference point for the design of the costumes and the wildly expressive acting.  More specifically, the film resembles Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), which similarly depicted medieval history as a melodramatic nightmare of claustrophobic hallways, baroque furnishings, and whispered intrigues.  And of course Eisenstein was further developing the style he'd used in his previous film, Alexander Nevsky (1938), which, masterful as it is, seems like a mere warm-up for the densely layered stylistics of Ivan.  Eisenstein's eccentric and bold film set the pace for the even more extreme Soviet historical epics of the future, such as Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966) and Sergei Paradjanov's The Color of Pomegranates (1968).

Repeatability  Any movie as detailed and layered as Ivan the Terrible – and there aren't that many of them – is inherently rewatchable.  It's fun to speculate about the thought processes that went into some of the film's more eccentric stylistic flourishes.  It isn't possible to fully parse out which elements of Ivan are propaganda and which are bold critiques of Stalin's reign, since both tones often appear onscreen simultaneously, which means that each subsequent viewing of the film will produce a different experience.

Viewer Engagement  Ivan the Terrible is a thoroughly exciting film for its entire three-hour length.  Even when there are periods of relative calm in the narrative (which isn't very often) there is so much going on stylistically that it is impossible to look away from the screen.  Ivan can be enjoyed for its sheer beauty, or for its insanely high-pitched melodrama, or even simply as an entertaining biopic.  But viewers paying careful attention to Eisenstein's delicately balanced stylistic choices will be able to enjoy the film on an extra, subliminal level, as they pick up on the subtle clues that Eisenstein used to smuggle subversive messages into seemingly propagandistic scenes.  A number of scenes depict Ivan's face half-lit and half-dark (the light and dark sides changing whenever Cherkasov moves his head or Eisenstein changes the lighting) before he moves out of frame, at which point his exaggerated shadow still stalks the screen.  Through this series of visual tricks – which often find Eisenstein achieving the dynamic complexity of his famous montage techniques in single shots – the film is able to simultaneously depict a man torn between noble and insane intentions and to suggest how Ivan's decisions will leave a mark on the world even when he isn't there.  The claustrophobic design of the sets, filled with narrow passageways and overwhelming religious frescoes, makes the paranoia of Ivan's (and Stalin's) time palpable, and gives the audience a powerful sense of what life under fascist rule is like.

Morality  It is often said that the first half of Ivan the Terrible is pro-Stalin propaganda, and the second half is an anti-Stalin screed, but the truth is quite a bit more complicated than that.  Though there is an unmistakable (and fully justified) anger in Eisenstein's depiction of Ivan's descent into madness in the film's second half, the film for the most part manages the tricky balancing act of condemning the tsar's actions without presenting him as a simple monster.  A flashback to Ivan's childhood makes him seem equally sympathetic and pathetic, and there are hints throughout the film of how his upbringing and environment ultimately drove him to madness.  Narrative moments of triumph are consistently, slyly undercut by Eisenstein's stylistic choices from the first frame to the last.  Living under Stalin's rule, and under pressure to conform to his leader's vision, Eisenstein literally risked his life by making Ivan a stand-in for Stalin, and then presenting him as a flawed, possibly insane tyrant.  In doing so, he gave voice to the unspoken truths of WWII-era Soviet life, and turned Ivan the Terrible into one of the most powerfully subversive films of all time.

Ivan the Terrible passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, another film about a deranged tyrant.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Two, Disc Two)

Episodes covered:  Greenlit, Homewrecker, Barnstormers, Scar Tissue

Though they were obviously originally conceived for a television audience watching week-to-week, this group of episodes feels almost like a self-contained unit.  Disc one already laid the groundwork for the season's main storylines, more or less freeing these four episodes up to deal explicitly with one of The Shield's central themes - tenuous partnerships.  Despite the show's usual frenzied pace, the storylines actually aren't moving ahead that quickly - the Armenian money train scam hasn't even really gotten off the ground yet - but it's still plenty riveting to get an in-depth view of how the various partnerships continue to be affected by the events of the past.  And just when it seems like the show is stretching out its storylines to last until the end of the season, the episode "Scar Tissue" comes along and wraps up one of the season's storylines in surprising yet satisfying fashion.

Armadillo is a man without loyalty.  One of the reasons he's such a dangerous threat is that he can't be dealt with in the way that Vic and his Strike Team usually deal with drug dealers.  He isn't interested in making a deal with Vic the way that Tio or Rondell were in season one, and because he knows about those deals, and also has visual proof of Vic's brutality in the form of the stove burn marks on his face, he actually has leverage over Vic.  Vic tries to put a scare into the drug dealer by threatening to have his imprisoned brother "greenlit" (shived by a fellow inmate doing the bidding of the Strike Team), but Armadillo calls the cop's bluff by greenlighting his brother himself, thereby eliminating the possibility of the person closest to him testifying against him in court.

This cold-blooded lack of loyalty makes Armadillo a dangerous man, but it also leads him to his death.  The Strike Team spend most of their time in these four episodes attempting to find Armadillo before he informs the other cops about their drug ties and exposes Vic's brutality.  They are having a harder than usual time working together, with Shane being a little too eager to crack skulls, Lem feeling morally uncertain about the situation with the Armenian mob, and Ronnie becoming paranoid about Armadillo's threats of vengeance against the Team.  Ronnie's fears are validated when Armadillo gives the cop a stovetop scar to match his own, but rather than throwing the Team into chaos, the potential setback actually causes Vic, Shane, and Lem to band together in an effort to stop the ruthless drug dealer.  But just as they are about to take Armadillo down by themselves, a small army of other uniforms show up and allow Armadillo to surrender peacefully.  Vic, in a scene beautifully played by Michael Chiklis, decides to give up his corrupt ways and take the heat for all of the things that Armadillo could reveal about the Team's illegal activities, but Shane and Lem come up with a clever plan to simultaneously cover their asses and put a stop to the universally loathed drug kingpin.  They convince one of Armadillo's many enemies to do something blatantly illegal in front of another cop to get himself arrested, and therefore thrown in the same holding pen as Armadillo, and then slip him a knife that he uses to stab the drug lord with nine times, killing him.

Shane and Lem's plot eliminates their most fearsome enemy - and provides the first concrete evidence on The Shield of why these guys are so close, as well as marking the first time that Shane and Lem do something useful - but it further complicates Danny's problems.  She's the one who patted the gang member who stabbed Armadillo down before he was thrown in the holding pen, and while failure to notice the knife (which, of course, he didn't actually have on him at the time) would probably be reason enough for Aceveda to suspend her as he does at the end of "Scar Tissue," it is only the latest of her personal and professional problems.  The fatal shooting of the Muslim man from disc one keeps coming back to haunt her, as someone (most likely the dead man's wife, though the episodes neither confirm nor deny this) has splashed paint on her car, planted marijuana in her police vehicle, and given her a prank phone call saying that her mother is dead.  The stress of this situation is understandably affecting her work, and also reigniting the strain on her partnership with Julien.  Of course, it doesn't help that Julien is so far in the closet, and so firmly committed to his sexual reorientation, that he has jumped into a hasty marriage engagement to the girlfriend he met in the season premiere.  The stress of maintaining a false sexual identity is obviously going to get to Julien very soon, but his police work isn't suffering so far, and in Aceveda's eyes he seems more competent than his more experienced partner at this point.

Another police officer experiencing a slump is Dutch, whose investigations into the sleaziest corners of crime are beginning to take a toll on his temper and outlook.  Dutch can still close a case - as seen in "Barnstormers," where he arrests a rapist-murderer - but he is starting to have to bend the rules to do it, as he takes Vic's advice to "make the evidence fit the case" by planting a torn-up bra strap in a suspect's apartment.  Considering the man's violent outburst after Dutch convicts him, it seems likely that he was the actual killer, but I imagine that Dutch will have to face some consequences for planting evidence in the future, especially since he doesn't seem to have the constitution of a confidently corrupt individual like Vic.  And since his partner, Claudette, is currently on a very tense anti-corruption crusade against Vic and Aceveda, and seems on the verge of exposing the less legal aspects of their tenuous partnership, Dutch would be wise to steer clear of any further unsavory police work.  But since this is The Shield, you can bet that he'll have to deal with the consequences of even this relatively minor infraction before too long.

Quick Thoughts:

- Connie - the junkie prostitute last seen abandoning her baby toward the end of season one - reappears in "Greenlit" as she attempts to become one of Vic's paid C.I.s, but is abruptly killed at the end of "Homewrecker."  It seems like kind of a waste of a potentially interesting supporting character, since the end of her season one storyline would've been a better endpoint for the character, and her story as a recovering addict could've been intriguing if it had played out longer.

- That said, the scene where Connie gets shot is one of the most insanely nail-biting scenes that The Shield has produced to this point.  It just keep upping the ante, first with the wife beater holding Connie hostage, then with him forcing Vic to drop his gun, then with Connie actually getting shot, then with the revelation that the man's young son is in an adjacent room, and finally with Vic tearing down the curtains so that the snipers outside can get a clear shot on the deranged lunatic.

- Ronnie is emerging as the Team's "computer expert," which I guess at least finally gives him something to do.  Perhaps when he returns from his facial surgery he'll have a more well-defined personality.

- There is an ongoing subplot about Aceveda insisting that the Strike Team hire a fifth member, preferably a minority.  I hope that the show follows through on this plot soon, since Vic having to train a rookie in the Team's methods could teach us a lot more about how they work together and give us a clearer idea of the members' personality differences while also giving the Team yet another complication to deal with.

- Claudette drives a further wedge in the Mackey marriage when she has a tense chat with Vic's wife, revealing details of his unwholesome extracurricular activities while also fishing for further evidence of those crimes.  Great scene - on just about any other show, CCH Pounder would clearly be the best performer, but the ensemble is so solid all around that we're lucky to get extended scenes involving her character.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski)

It didn't take the Coen Brothers a long time to establish a reputation as interesting filmmakers.  Blood Simple (1984) was one of the most acclaimed debuts of the '80s, and the follow up, Raising Arizona (1987) was a major hit.  Barton Fink (1991) baffled audiences and critics alike, but it received the unprecedented honor of winning the top three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival (Palme D'or, Best Director, and Best Actor).  It was Fargo (1996), a film that earned almost unanimously positive reviews and which was nominated for most of the major Academy Awards, which cemented the Coen Brothers' public image as iconoclastic filmmakers.  Newly established Coen fans might've expected the duo to follow the relatively reserved Fargo with a similarly understated and serious-yet-quirky drama.  But the Coens didn't build their reputation by doing what was expected of them.  True to form, they followed the "mature" Fargo with an epically self-indulgent and cartoonish stoner comedy.  While The Big Lebowski (1998) has gone on to become the Coens' most popular film – and, along with Anchorman, the signature comedy of its generation – it initially perplexed viewers expecting another austere, award-winning film.  Above all else, the Coens deserve credit for once again following their muse instead of the money or the awards, and it's always exciting to see them come up with the least predictable possible follow ups for their previous films.

This isn't to say that The Big Lebowski is by any means a totally unique film.  Like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, it updates Raymond Chandler-style noir fiction with hippie burnouts playing the detectives investigating the wealthy squares who rule the world.  Unemployed slacker Jeff Bridges gets sucked into a world of intrigue when a pair of thugs mistakes him for wealthy tycoon David Huddleston.  That is the basic story of The Big Lebowski, but since this is a Coen film, a very simple mistaken identity setup leads to a complicated series of misunderstandings motivated largely by the various characters' stupidity.

And yet The Big Lebowski feels less cynical and more open-hearted than any Coen film to this point, due in large part to the lived-in and nuanced lead performances of Bridges and John Goodman, who plays Bridges' best friend/main source of stress.  Either character could've seemed like a broad caricature in the hands of less skilled actors, but Bridges and Goodman's complete lack of self-consciousness makes the former's liberal stoner and the latter's conservative paranoiac feel like real people.  Bridges brings a weird nobility and elegance to his slobby character even when he is doing something completely ridiculous, which is most of the time.  Though he appears in practically every shot of this two-hour film, Bridges never once winks at the audience or suggests that he is cooler than his character, and his total investment in the role makes The Big Lebowski immeasurably funnier than it would've been with a more typical comedic performance.  Goodman similarly manages to get inside his character's skin, making his gun nut as relatable as he is ludicrous, but without going for any awards-bait pathos that would distract from the freewheeling comedy.

Unfortunately, the enormous supporting cast isn't allowed the same room for nuance as Bridges or Goodman.  Nearly every one of the regular Coen players reappears in some form in The Big Lebowski, with Frances McDormand being the only really notable exception.  Steve Buscemi plays the third member of Bridges and Goodman's bowling team, his quiet demeanor a meta reversal of his chatterbox Fargo hitman.  Peter Stormare shows up as the leader of a gang of Teutonic nihilists, John Turturro plays a flamboyant Latino bowler, and Jon Polito has a brief cameo as a private eye.  Then-rising stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore appear as, respectively, a Smithers-like sycophant to Huddleston, and an avant-garde feminist artist.  Legendary method actor Ben Gazzara plays a slick porn producer.  Sam Elliott pops up occasionally as an inexplicable cowboy narrator.  The It's a Mad Mad Mad World-style cast even has room for Flea and Tara Reid.  One could argue, with some justification, that this parade of freakish one-note characters is a poor use of such a fine cast, and it is certainly true that none of these characters feel like plausible human beings the way that Bridges and Goodman do.  On the other hand, the talented actors do manage, for the most part, to make their parts more interesting than they probably were in the script.  At least half of these characters serve literally no function in the plot, but they do provide a vivid backdrop for the story to take place in.

While The Big Lebowski finds the Coen Brothers making some partial strides in characterization, it also finds them strengthening their already rock-solid technical craftsmanship.  By this point it goes without saying that Roger Deakins is an incredible cinematographer, and his wide lens, glossy, neon-lit compositions here really show off his versatility after the austere palette of Fargo.  The Coens' script has the "anything for a laugh" feel of a film like Airplane!, yet the source of the comedy is often based around hilariously specific details (such as Bridges paying for a bottle of milk with a check) rather than broad humor (and the film tends to be at its worst when it swings for the fences, as it does with Moore's unfortunately shrill simultaneous stereotyping of feminism and abstract art).  There are several moments that are visceral and weird in the way that only Coen scenes can be, such as the one where the nihilists release a ferret in Bridges' bathwater, or the one where a cop hits Bridges directly in the forehead with a coffee mug during an interrogation.  The music supervision of T-Bone Burnett demands a mention as well.  His use of post-'60s acid burnout music gives the film a sense of consistency even as the Coens go on their most ill-advised tangents; the resurrection of Kenny Rogers' forgotten attempt at psychedelic rock, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" nearly justifies a pointless and unfunny late-film dream sequence.  It could use a little trimming, and it may not be "substantial" enough to be a truly great film, but The Big Lebowski is nonetheless the most entertaining, energetic, and exciting film that the Coen Brothers have made up to this point.

UP NEXT  O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Cutter's Way

AKA  Cutter and Bone
Year of Release  1981
Country  USA
Length  109 min.
Director  Ivan Passer
Screenwriter  Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (based on Newton Thornburg's novel Cutter and Bone)
Cinematographer  Jordan Cronenweth
Editor  Caroline Ferriol
Original Score  Jack Nitzsche
Cast  Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Arthur Rosenburg, Ann Dusenberry, Stephen Elliott

Beauty  The beauty of Cutter's Way has less to do with its visuals - Jordan Cronenweth's camerwork is pleasant, but more functional than showy - than from its uncommonly graceful look at hippie burnouts living in a world that no longer has a place for them.  The stoned nonchalance of Jeff Bridges' portrayal of slacker gigolo/boat salesman Richard Bone provides excellent underplayed support for John Heard's livewire take on drunkenly furious and paranoid Vietnam vet Alex Cutter.  Both characters are given wonderfully written introductions that instantly establish where they are in their life and what their past has been, even though neither scene really spells much out or has anything to do with the film's plot.

Strangeness  The way that that plot plays out is not only one of the more elegant aspects of Cutter's Bone but also one of its strangest aspects.  The story is plain to the point of being generic:  Bone randomly witnesses a man dumping a body in a dumpster (though, because it takes place in a heavy rainfall and his view is obstructed, he initially has no idea what's happening).  When the dead body becomes a news story, Cutter begins an informal investigation that starts off as a joke, yet becomes deadly serious when Bone thinks that he recognizes local business tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott) as the man in the car.  Director Ivan Passer and screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin stretch seemingly tangential scenes out far past the point that they need to go to establish what's happening in the story; indeed, many of these scenes have little or no direct relationship to the plot, which is gradually pieced together through a series of slice of life moments rather than ordinary exposition.  Yet the most beguilingly odd aspect of Cutter's Way is Heard's performance.  The unpredictability of his character, who can go from hilariously drunk to frighteningly drunk at the drop of a hat, is rivetingly unknowable yet feels completely lived-in and plausible at all times.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The Altman-esque angle that the story is viewed from puts the emphasis on the characters and the culture they represent, rather than the murder mystery itself.  Many elements of the plot are left ambiguous, to the point that it isn't entirely clear whether Cutter and Bone are involved in a noble quest to avenge an injustice (in which case the film could be seen as an indictment of Bone's slacker lifestyle, as he is reluctant to get involved in an important situation) or a Quixotic folly (which would make the film a critique of Cutter and his freewheeling paranoia).  The film's power comes from the way that it is able to make both Cutter and Bone's approaches to the situation seem equally heroic and foolish.

Tradition  Stylistically, Cutter's Way is in line with '70s neo-noirs such as The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and Night Moves.  The aforementioned Altman-esque angle that the story is told from is somewhat reminiscent of the former film, while the sinister glimpses of the upper-class villains resemble Chinatown, and the multi-faceted view of an adrift counter-culture isn't far away from the one depicted in Night MovesCutter's Way's story, involving a Jeff Bridges-played hippie bum and his paranoid Vietnam vet buddy investigating a crime committed by a wealthy tycoon, clearly had a huge influence on The Big Lebowski.

Repeatability  The way that the viewer interprets a number of Cutter's Way's more ambiguous plot elements can give the film different meanings on different viewings.  For example, it seems equally likely that the death of Cutter's long-suffering wife (Lisa Eichhorn) was caused by suicide (as Bone believes) or that it was a Cord-ordered murder meant to intimidate the amateur sleuths (which is Cutter's take).  It also isn't clear whether Cutter is correct about Cort having killed their friend George's (Arthur Rosenburg) father, or whether he's merely being paranoid. 

Viewer Engagement  The film's emphasis on different points of view (that often seem equally valid) forces the viewer to ask themselves where they stand in relation to the major characters and their response to the tragedy of the murdered girl.  Do we identify with the passive Bone, the rioutously angry Cutter, the basic desire for justice of the victim's sister (Ann Dusenberry), or the let's not-rock-the-boat mentality of George (who works for Cort and understandably doesn't want his friends jeopardizing his career)?  Or are we simply exhausted by all of the options, like Cutter's wife?

Morality  Cutter's Bone gives equal credence to all of these points of view, without letting any of its characters - and therefore the viewer - off the hook.  Since we never know any more than the characters do, we can emphasize with each of their situations, but we can also see that they might be unreasonable, unfair, and uninvolved at times, which means that none of their responses to the murder seem entirely satisfactory.  Whether the viewer identifies with Cutter, Bone, and/or one of the other characters, the final abrupt cut to black and silence leaves haunting doubts about the degree to which any of these approaches to life make sense.

Cutter's Way passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Sergei Eisenstein's two-part epic Ivan the Terrible, which has appeared on Sight & Sound's polls of the Top 10 films of all time as well as a book called The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and how they got that way)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Two, Disc One)

Episodes Covered: The Quick Fix, Dead Soldiers, Partners, Carte Blanche

Coming out of the somewhat uneven but generally impressive first season of The Shield, my main complaint was that the members of Vic's Strike Team weren't nearly as well-defined as most of the other cops working at the Barn.  Shane's personal issues seemed to change based on the plot needs of any given episode, with only Walton Goggins' livewire performance giving the character any sort of consistency.  The portrayal of Lem has been comparatively focused, but that would be more impressive if he'd been given more than a handful of character traits.  And Ronnie was featured so sparingly in season one that I don't really have anything to write about him (neither did the writers of the show, apparently).

This flaw hasn't entirely been rectified by the first four episodes of season two, but Shawn Ryan and his writing staff at least seem to be taking steps to address it.  All four members of the Strike Team appear in each of the episodes, which is already an improvement over season one.  Shane, Lem, and Ronnie still haven't been developed enough as individuals, and the writers haven't really given enough of an indication of how the Team came together or why Vic is so loyal to them.  But at least season two is consistently showing us how the Team works as a unit, which is a step up from the previous year, when the four members were so rarely onscreen together. 

"Carte Blanche" introduces a storyline where the Team learns about an "Armenian money train," and they decide to rob the huge stash of money rather than arresting the criminals who operate the train.  I know that this storyline – which I assume will be the major running plot of season two – is divisive among fans, and I'll obviously withhold judgment until I see how it plays out (at this early point I'm not even really sure if I described the setup accurately).  But it seems like there is a lot of character development potential in any major storyline that requires the Strike Team to work together toward a common goal.  Especially when the path to that goal is fraught with danger, with threats coming not only from the criminals whom the cops are attempting to screw over, but from the other detectives, who could so easily find out about the Team's illegal activities.

Because the first season of The Shield did such a fine job of giving each of the (non-Strike Team) policemen a distinct methodology, agenda, and personality, the show was able to get a lot of mileage out of simply putting any two characters in conflict with each other.  With most of the expository heavy lifting already taken care of, season two cuts straight to the nail-biting character tension, taking full advantage of the series' energetic action movie pace.  Aceveda, still on the campaign trail, has decided to maintain his tenuous alliance with Vic.  After the Gilroy scandal, the captain doesn't need to expose Vic's corruption to look like a hero; as long as the Strike Team keeps the arrest rate high Aceveda can maintain his image as a justice-seeking reformer.  But I think he's going to have a hard time keeping a lid on the Strike Team's corruption after the money train heist actually goes down.  I thought that Aceveda would already be on the city council at the start of season two, but now I wonder if he'll end the season not in political power but in jobless disgrace.

Aceveda didn't pick the best time to get in bed with Vic.  The corrupt cop has so many distractions in his personal life at the start of season two that I'm not sure that he could maintain his usual control over chaotic situations even if he was only covering up the Terry Crowley murder, much less the potentially disastrous money train scheme.  Vic is receiving constant visits from a private eye who's helping him locate his estranged wife, who left with the kids after their lives were put in jeopardy during the Gilroy incident.  It doesn't take the duo too long to locate his family – Vic is speaking to Corinne (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) as early as "Dead Soldiers," and she and the kids temporarily move back in with him in "Partners."  But the strained personal situation is clearly affecting Vic's ability to perform the basic functions of his job, let alone juggle the labyrinthine stresses brought on by his corruption. 

And Vic isn't merely dealing with the many things he already had hanging over his head at the end of season one.  An ambitious drug kingpin named Armadillo (Daniel Pino) is attempting to unite two rival Latino gangs in an attempt to dominate Farmington's drug trade.  When Armadillo rips off Tio (Cedric Pendleton), Vic's drug dealing partner/criminal informant, Vic and the Strike Team attempt to solve the problem with their trademark mixture of brute force and seat-of-their-pants deceit.  But while they manage to arrest a few low-level members of Armadillo's crew, the man himself proves to be a more than worthy adversary.  Armadillo is not merely a dangerous criminal – he rapes a twelve-year old girl (offscreen) at the end of "The Quick Fix" – he's also one with a genius-level IQ.  Vic is going to have a hard time maintaining his master of the world status with a guy this smart and this ruthless running the streets.

The Armadillo situation is further complicated by the involvement of Claudette, who is brought into Vic's orbit when she is the first detective at the scene of Tio's burnt-down comic book shop (his front business).  Claudette refusing to hand over control of the case to Vic makes "Dead Soldiers" one of the most intense episodes of The Shield to date.  In season one, Claudette took a pragmatic view of Vic's methods, reasoning that the ends justified the means, and she even encouraged Aceveda to lay off of his investigation of the corrupt cop.  But now that she's actually up close to Vic's corruption – and she sees that Aceveda is foiling her case by actively covering for Vic – Claudette is set to become as big a threat to Vic's career and Aceveda's political ambitions as Armadillo.  Will she follow up on her suspicions and take her case to Lanie Kellis (Lucinda Jenney), the civilian auditor sitting in at the Barn and hoping to expose Aceveda?  I don't know where this complicated storyline is going, but I'm very excited to find out.

Quick Thoughts:

- That's Emilio Rivera, the actor who plays the leader of the Mayans on Sons of Anarchy, as Armadillo's brother in "Quick Fix."  I hope we see more of him on The Shield; for my money he has more screen presence than Daniel Pino, or any of the actors who have played gang leaders on the show to this point.

- Not too much Dutch in these episodes, but I'm hoping that he joins Claudette's crusade against Vic and Aceveda.  Dutch is too smart not to figure out what's going on with his partner, and Jay Karnes is too great in this role, for the character to sit on the sidelines.

- The one-off side plots are a lot more smoothly integrated into the main action than they were in season one.  Even the cases that aren't really related to the major storylines - like the creepy one about the serial mutilator in "Partners," and the morbidly funny one about the murdered meter maid in "Dead Soldiers" - are enthralling in a way that the season one subplots generally weren't.

- After reconciling their differences amicably at the end of season one, Julien and Danielle already receive another strain on their partnership when the latter shoots a proud Muslim who poses a questionable threat to her safety toward the end of "Dead Soldiers."  I'm not sure how this storyline will wind up intersecting with Vic's ongoing saga, but it's off to a compelling start.

- Deeply closeted homosexual Julien seems to be beginning a relationship with a single mother in "The Quick Fix."  I'm interested to see where this is going (probably to some very depressing places), but the show hasn't followed up on it yet.

- Vic's stovetop torture of Armadillo at the end of "Dead Soldiers" was possibly the best "holy shit" moment that this always-intense series has provided so far.

- New Year's Resolution:  I'm going to focus on The Shield for the remainder of these "TV on DVD" posts until we're through all seven seasons.  I may take a between-season break to check out a one-season wonder show, or a miniseries, but expect most of these posts for the next several months to be Shield-related.  We should be able to finish by some time in summer, if not before.