Thursday, March 31, 2011

Catching Up With 2010: Movies

I saw fewer new films in the theatre in 2010 than I have in any year since high school (I graduated in 2002), and yet I still managed to see virtually everything I was really interested in before the end of the calendar year.  In general, I missed the films listed below either because they weren’t released in Milwaukee until right around Christmas or because they only had limited runs here.  There are still a small handful of notable 2010 releases that I haven’t seen, such as Oscar nominee 127 Hours (which only very recently became available for rent) and Rabbit Hole (which hasn’t shown up on DVD yet).  As with the larger list of 2010 films that I posted at the end of last year, I only considered films that had at least one public theatrical screening in Milwaukee (so Carlos still doesn’t qualify). 

Alamar (To the Sea) (Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, Mexico, 73 min.)
If Robert Flaherty were alive and making films today, his work might look something like Alamar, a gorgeously filmed quasi-documentary look at father/son bonding.  Mayan father Jorge has only a few weeks with his 5-year old son Natan before he leaves to live with his mother in Rome.  Jorge decides to spend the time teaching his city-dwelling son about his Mayan roots by taking him fishing on the pristine Chinchorro reef.  The story unfolds organically and with unforced tenderness against the stunning backdrop of the open sea.  In a sense, Alamar feels almost too gentle to be truly great.  But it is one of the most beautiful and lyrical films of the past year.  B

Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, USA, 87 min.)
This story of one man’s search for the true story behind an increasingly suspicious Facebook relationship with a family of precocious artists is entertaining and stylishly made.  At times the film itself seems a little too slick and a little too narratively tight to be entirely on the up and up, but at least that is appropriate for the film’s themes of representation vs. reality.  There is an off-putting element of exploitation at play – the filmmakers try to squeeze a little too much gravity out of what is, ultimately, a fairly harmless hoax – but there is some real power in the contrast between the glamorous lifestyle that the family projects on Facebook and the soul-crushing banality of their everyday reality.  B-

Chloe (Atom Egoyan, Canada, 96 min.)
Though it’s named after Amanda Seyfried’s character (a high-end New York prostitute), this psychological drama’s main character is actually Julian Moore’s slowly aging gynecologist.  The subject matter of Atom Egoyan’s latest exploration of voyeurism and convoluted paths toward emotional connection isn’t sex, but Moore’s gradual loss of intimate connection with her husband (Liam Neeson) and college-age son (Max Thieriot).  While the story is told almost entirely from the point of view of Moore’s character, Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cressinda Wilson still develop Seyfried and Neeson’s characters enough to make them seem like three-dimensional people who exist independently of Moore’s emotionally frustrated perspective.  Unfortunately, the film abruptly turns from a cerebral, waking dream tragedy (a la Eyes Wide Shut) into a hysterical, exploitative thriller (like Fatal Attraction) in its last ten minutes.  But the disappointing ending shouldn’t entirely detract from the nuanced character work of the rest of the film.  B

Despicable Me  (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, USA, 95 min.)
Despicable Me has the same weaknesses as the similar yet superior Megamind:  bland computer animation and average voice work by movie stars rather than skilled voice actors.  Where Megamind ultimately succeeded due to its witty dialogue, tight plotting, and general charm, Despicable Me is basically just an adequately diverting kid’s movie.  C

The Fighter  (David O. Russell, USA, 115 min.)
Like The Social Network, The Fighter is content to enliven the clichés of its genre (in this case, the boxing picture) rather than do the hard work of reinventing them.  But David O. Russell’s direction is lively and snappy, and he manages to make family drama scenes nearly as riveting as the visceral in-ring action.  The film is also a tour de force of contrasting acting styles, with Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams’ understated naturalism being purposefully suffocated by the showboating of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, an effect that makes Wahlberg’s struggle to escape his stifling family life palpable.  B

Get Him to the Greek  (Nicholas Stoller, USA, 109 min.)
The Judd Apatow formula is getting a little too familiar, and the films that the super-producer is not directly responsible for writing and directing are rarely as strong as The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People.  This Forgetting Sarah Marshall spin-off is no exception to that rule, but it is a decent variation on Apatow’s patented mix of half-improvised comedy and simple pathos.  Russell Brand and Jonah Hill are funny as a washed-up rock star and the record company executive charged with restarting his career, and the colorful supporting cast is (over)loaded with ringers like Aziz Ansari and Elizabeth Moss.  But Diddy, of all people, manages to steal the show with a surprisingly funny self-parody.  There is a really funny comedy buried somewhere under the overlong setpieces, endless string of celebrity cameos, and overly obvious music cues.  C+

The King’s Speech  (Tom Hooper, UK, 118 min.)
It’s easy to resent Tom Hooper’s historical drama for all of its awards show success.  But despite its outward appearance as “inspirational” awards bait, this is actually a modest and engaging film that sets out to do little more or less than depict an interesting piece of history.  David Seidler’s script wisely sidesteps the typical biopic problem of trying to cram King George VI’s (Colin Firth) entire life story into two hours, instead focusing specifically on his struggle to overcome his stammering problem as he’s due to take the throne.  Firth avoids making his character too easily likeable, and provides one of the more realistic depictions of stuttering on film, and he is nicely complimented by Geoffrey Rush’s uncharacteristically subdued performance as the King’s speech therapist.  B

Restrepo  (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, USA, 93 min.)
The U.S. occupation of Iraq has gotten tons of press coverage, but the conflict in Afghanistan hasn’t been as well documented, perhaps because the terrain is more dangerous.  So Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s documentary Restrepo (named for the U.S. military outpost where most of the events of the film take place) is valuable as a piece of journalism even if it isn’t always successful as cinema.  Many of the images of tense skirmishes and miscommunications between the U.S. soldiers and the Afghani townspeople are riveting and unique, but they are cobbled together somewhat awkwardly with conventional talking heads interviews.  The film is stunning on a moment to moment basis, but there is no real sense of shape to the overall picture.  B

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World  (Edgar Wright, USA, 112 min.)
Michael Cera’s awkward nice-guy shtick has been played out for several years, but this adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels puts a fresh spin on the actor’s usual persona by exploring the selfishness and arrogance that often comes with being a young, shy hipster.  Meanwhile, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) travels way outside of his comfort zone and successfully delivers the sort of sensory overload rarely seen outside of Hong Kong cinema.  The nonstop special effects and editing tricks do become a little overbearing by the end of the film, but they are varied and witty enough to remain interesting up until the film’s overextended climax.  O’Malley’s central conceit – Cera will only be able to date Mary Elizabeth Winstead if he can defeat her “seven evil exes” in a series of outrageous video game-style battles – is charming and fun, and there is enough diversity in the encounters to keep the film feeling fresh until it unconvincingly tries to redeem its titular hero in the final fifteen minutes.  B

The Tillman Story  (Amir Bar-Lev, USA, 94 min.)
This documentary focuses on the media manipulation of the Afghanistan war death of NFL star-turned-U.S. soldier Pat Tillman.  Tillman was killed by friendly fire, but high-ranking members of the military, with the complicity of both the mainstream news media and the White House, twisted the story to make Tillman’s life and death suit their own political purposes.   Director Amir Bar-Lev covers that story thoroughly and grippingly, but his intense focus doesn’t prevent the film from working as a powerful statement about the media’s general failure to properly report on the conflicts in the Middle East.  B+

The Town  (Ben Affleck, USA, 125 min.)
There is nothing in The Town that any fan of heist films hasn’t seen dozens of times before, but at least it’s a well-executed and entertaining example of the genre.  Ben Affleck shows some surprising visual flair as a director (and is more successful behind the scenes than in front of the camera, as he makes for a fairly unconvincing tough guy), and one extended car chase has the rugged power and dark wit of the ‘70s crime movies that clearly served as an inspiration for this film.  The excellent supporting cast, which includes Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper, Titus Welliver, and Pete Postelwaithe, is arguably wasted in thinly conceived stock roles, but their distinctive presences do give the film a weight and energy that it wouldn’t otherwise have.  B-

Saturday, March 26, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Three, Disc Four)

Episodes covered:  Fire in the Hole, All In, On Tilt

At 15 episodes, the third season of The Shield was only two hours longer than its first two.  And yet, it seemed really, really long.

That isn’t to say that season three was bad, per se.  Compared to recent “off” seasons of other shows of comparable quality, it was actually pretty solid.  Season three of The Shield was overstuffed with plotlines, but it was never as confusing as season three of Sons of Anarchy or as sloppy as season four of Big Love.  It was always clear what was going on, there weren’t any outright dud episodes (though “Bottom Bitch,” from the first disc, came close), and there were a lot of exciting moments in any given hour.  The season wrapped up in satisfyingly dramatic fashion, even if didn’t end with the insanely amped-up intensity of season one, and didn’t promise as much for the future as the end of year two.

But even if the end of “On Tilt” had set up a bunch of promising developments for the future, I don’t know that I’d trust Shawn Ryan and his writers to follow through on them.  The ending of season two involved so much set-up and foreshadowing that it seemed like the third season could practically write itself, which wasn’t a problem since the hinted-at storylines seemed like they would make this the most exciting group of episodes to date.  A righteously motivated Claudette was poised to become Captain of the Barn, and she would most likely have been joined in her anti-Vic crusade by master detective Dutch, perhaps the only Barn member smart enough to dig up all of the dirt on Vic and his Team.  Aceveda would take his city council seat, and would re-open the investigation into the murder of Terry Crowley from a position of higher power.  Tavon would eventually get wind of the rest of the Strike Team’s involvement in the Armenian Money Train heist, and would be placed in the dangerous situation of investigating Vic’s Team from the inside.  The increased pressure from these various elements, plus the inevitable involvement from the Armenian mafia, would push the Strike Team’s fierce loyalty to one another to a breaking point.  Vic would inevitably find a way to get out of this mess, but he’d do it in a way that would just drive himself and his Team further and further into their web of lies.

That vague synopsis of a hypothetical season three sounds like the best, most dramatic season of The Shield to this point, as well as the logical development after the end of season two.  Strangely, the writers took things in a different, more convoluted direction that was somehow less predictable (in the sense that the show’s storylines developed in a counter-intuitive fashion) yet more safe (in the sense that the show backed off of promised character changes, such as Aceveda and Claudette’s promotions, in favor of maintaining the dynamic of the first two seasons).  The show added so many subplots and recurring characters this season that few of them stood out from the fray, and none of them had the chance to fully blossom.  It’s impressive that the writers managed to juggle storylines about the Money Train fallout, the gang war between the One-Niners and the Byz Latz, Vic’s affair with a crime scene analyst (whose name I still haven’t caught), Shane’s hasty marriage to an emotionally unstable woman, and the Strike Team’s rivalry with the undercover Decoy Squad, among many other plotlines, without significantly sacrificing the show’s clarity or action movie pacing.  But the majority of this season’s storylines could’ve played out more organically and satisfactorily if they weren’t constantly competing for attention.  Even the one promised storyline that season three did manage to follow through on, the gradual disintegration of trust between the members of the Strike Team, was largely drowned out by all of the other stuff going on.  Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, and Kenneth Johnson did their best to sell the scenes of the Team yelling at each other at the end of “All In” and “On Tilt,” but those moments would’ve been so much more powerful if they’d come at the end of a focused, streamlined season.

Quick Thoughts:

-  I have the impression that season three is the lowpoint of The Shield.  I know that season four’s arc with Glenn Close is very highly respected, that season five’s with Forrest Whitaker is apparently even better, and that season seven provides what is almost universally considered to be the textbook example of how to stick the landing of a long-running series.  At this point, I wouldn’t consider The Shield to be in the same league as The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos (or Mad Men and Breaking Bad), but the fact that the show is often spoken of in similarly high regard makes me excited for future seasons even if I found this one frustrating.

- Strange to see an extended Andre 3000 cameo in “On Tilt.”  Ghetto comic-book store owner is a logical role for him, and he did a good job with the part, but it was still a little awkward to see such a big star in such a small role.

- How long before Shane’s wife gets killed off?

- Another waste of a potentially interesting character in Armenian hitman Margos Dezerian.  Having not appeared since season one’s “Blowback,” Margos returned for a few brief scenes in “All In” and “On Tilt” before being shot to death by Vic in a scene that would’ve had a lot more impact if he’d been more of a constant threat throughout the season.  But then “wasted potential” could practically be the tagline for season three of The Shield.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading)

Having toned down their raging condescension for No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coen Brothers return to abject misanthropy for their spy-thriller parody Burn After Reading (2008).  It isn’t surprising to see the Coens making a broad comedy so quickly after one of their more “respectable” serious films, as Raising Arizona (1987) was their follow-up to Blood Simple (1984) and The Big Lebowski (1998) appeared not long after Fargo (1996).  In some respects, the duo’s absurdist sensibility fits more comfortably in comedy than in drama, and the aforementioned comedies are stronger films than the darker pictures that preceded them (Lebowski in particular is one of the Coens’ finest achievements).  But sometimes the Coens treat the fact that they’re making a comedy, and therefore have the right to stereotype their characters to a certain extent to elicit laughs, as an excuse for piling scorn on characters that they unmistakably consider to be beneath them (and presumably beneath their hip, knowing audience as well). 

Burn After Reading at least distinguishes itself from Coen lowpoints Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) in that it has a fairly firm satiric point of view, an impressively complicated yet accessible plot, and a strong target for its comedy.    The misinformed paranoia of the information age is certainly ripe for Strangelovian dark satire, and the Coens’ decision to style their film as a dry parody of corporate intrigue thrillers is inspired.  But the execution leaves something to be desired.  The main element of the plot, involving complications that arise when a disc containing portions of ex-CIA employee John Malkovich’s unpublished memoirs gets into the hands of people who mistakenly think that they’re looking at classified government documents, is interesting and funny, and a promising storyline for a comedy set in present-day Washington, D.C.  Yet the Coens keep diverting from what could’ve been an incisive look at deluded, politically inert people jumping to conclusions about things they don’t understand.  The central idea of Burn After Reading is witty and relevant to our time, but it keeps getting drowned out by jokes about easy targets (such as plastic surgery and the vapidity of workout culture), ugly gender politics, and shrill performances.

The cast of Burn After Reading is as strong as expected from a Coen Brothers film, but they’ve been directed to act in an over-the-top, heavily mugging style that clashes badly with the rest of the film’s straight-faced aesthetic.  It doesn’t help that their characters are so narrowly defined.  George Clooney is a cowardly horndog, Frances McDormand is a narcissist (who is paradoxically ashamed of her body), Brad Pitt is stupid, Tilda Swinton is cold and domineering, and Malkovich is angry and arrogant.  And that is pretty much all they are throughout the movie’s 96 minutes.  The actors are talented enough to do what the Coens ask them to do, but none of them manage to transcend the limitations of their thinly realized characters.  It also seems extra condescending to have Clooney and Pitt, two of the world’s most popular, attractive, and wealthy people, play unlikeable buffoons.  Despite the stars’ best efforts to disappear into their characters – and Pitt, in particular, actually does a pretty good job with one of his rare comedic performances – they are too famous to be entirely convincing.  They can’t help but wink at the audience and say “we’re not really losers!”

Despite these many flaws, and the general feeling of a promising premise unfulfilled, Burn After Reading isn’t a total loss.  The atmosphere of the film isn’t as distinctive as one would expect from a Coen film, but the filmmakers do successfully capture the look and sound of the contemporary conspiracy thrillers that they’re mocking.  A scene involving Clooney’s paranoid character shooting the snooping but harmless Pitt is wonderfully staged and edited; I remember being genuinely shocked by this moment when I saw the film in theatres, even though it is the logical endpoint of Clooney’s recurring bullshitting about staying cool under pressure and not needing to use his gun on security jobs.  Two scenes involving baffled CIA higher-ups discussing the utter pointlessness of the film’s events are pretty funny (even though it seems a little obvious to cast J.K. Simmons in this type of role).  And the contrast between the tense spy drama that the characters think they’re in and the actual banality of their situation does provide a few laughs, even if Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant (2009) ultimately did the same thing a lot better.  But we have a right to expect more than a handful of laughs and a few half-realized ideas from the filmmakers who finally seemed to be living up to their promise with No Country for Old Men.

UP NEXT  A Serious Man

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Monsieur Verdoux

Year of Release  1947
Country  USA
Length  119 min.
Director  Charlie Chaplin
Screenwriter  Charlie Chaplin (based on an idea by Orson Welles)
Original Score  Charlie Chaplin
Cast  Charlie Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash

Beauty  Charlie Chaplin’s basic “point the camera at the actors” aesthetic prevents Monsieur Verdoux from having too many particularly striking shots.  But the cinematography is irrelevant as long as the events onscreen are sufficiently interesting.  As always, Chaplin’s elegant lead performance turns his titular character into the living embodiment of his film’s themes.  

Strangeness  Those themes are what make Monsieur Verdoux such a special, unique film.  A serial bluebeard’s attempt to murder widows and make off with their wealth is a strange enough plot for a comedy.  But while there have been plenty of pitch black comedies in the years before and since Monsieur Verdoux, only one film has the nerve to cast the biggest movie star of all time as a murderer who is bluntly presented as the personification of his era’s contradictory social mores.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The success of Monsieur Verdoux rests almost entirely on Chaplin’s performance, as the rest of the film’s stylistic traits are largely more functional than artful.  Fortunately, the legendary actor is up to the task, and he really does make his character a simultaneous embodiment of the post-war years’ gentlemanly exterior and its morally corroded underbelly.

Tradition  Monsieur Verdoux represents a break with Chaplin’s past work in that it is his first feature film in which he isn’t playing a version of the Tramp (The Great Dictator doesn’t technically feature Chaplin’s most famous character, but its barber character is a thinly disguised variation on the Tramp).  Yet hints of the Tramp’s personality leak into Chaplin’s performance as Verdoux waddles contentedly toward his own beheading, adding an extra layer of power to a weirdly serene finale.  Future films that feature Verdoux’s blend of dark satire and social insight include Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (1997).  The latter is particularly similar to Verdoux in its look at the corrosive effect that business can have on a person’s heart.

Repeatability  If anything, Monsieur Verdoux may seem more timely in a post-Halliburton, post-Enron world than it did in 1947.  Chaplin’s indictment of society was scandalous in 1947, but it has been proven prescient by today’s regular reports of war profiteering.

Viewer Engagement  Chaplin’s talkies of the ‘40s and ‘50s are underappreciated in many ways, and are some of his most sophisticated, interesting films.  Still, it’s true that Chaplin’s later films lack the elemental grace of his silent work.  There is something about effective miming that seems definitive, perhaps because whatever is being mimicked has to be stripped down to its very essence to register with the audience.  The Modern Times (1936) scene in which the Tramp is used as a guinea pig for a feeding contraption is the definitive statement about lunch breaks; it couldn’t be any simpler or more brilliantly performed.  Chaplin never quite figured out how to transfer this elegant simplicity to talkies, and his later films, including Monsieur Verdoux, tend to be a bit overlong and heavy handed where his silent films were tight and efficient.  In fairness, some of the more complicated arguments of Verdoux couldn’t realistically be conveyed silently, but the film is nonetheless weighed down with a couple of scenes that go on longer than necessary and a somewhat dull supporting cast (with the exception of Martha Raye, who gets some of the film’s biggest laughs as Verdoux’s most obnoxiously resilient would-be victim).  Verdoux’s social analysis is rarely less than brilliant, and it certainly gives the viewer a lot to think about, but it isn’t presented in a consistently entertaining way.

Morality  The theme of Monsieur Verdoux - If war is the logical extension of diplomacy, then murder is the logical extension of business – was perhaps an even less popular idea in the immediate post-WWII years than it is today.  Some of the other ideas presented in the film, such as the notion that serial killing is no worse than the mass murder of war, remain provocative, thought provoking and socially relevant to this day.  Monsieur Verdoux falters too often as entertainment to be an unqualified success, but it is a potent x-ray of the violent contradictions of the modern man, and a fascinating document of the turmoil of its time.

Monsieur Verdoux fails the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Another state of the world address, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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

Episodes covered:  Slipknot, What Power Is…, Strays, Riceburner

Though The Shield is often thought of as a show that revolves around its main character, Vic Mackey, the truth is that it has such a strong group of regular characters (and such a fine ensemble cast) that it could afford to sideline its protagonist for several episodes at a time if it had any reason to.  Dutch and Claudette could practically have their own show (Wagenbach and Wyms even sounds like it could be the name of a buddy cop procedural), as could Julien and Danny.  A show focusing entirely on Aceveda as a politician trying to square his ethics and beliefs with the practical necessities of his city council job could be pretty good too, though it still isn’t clear when he’s actually going to assume that position.  Even the most problematic and least well-developed main characters, the other members of Vic’s Strike Team, have spent enough time together onscreen that I can more or less accept their loyalty to each other as part of the show’s premise; the writers still haven’t given a clear indication of where that loyalty comes from, but the interplay between Shane, Lem, and Vic is strong enough to make the characters seem like people who could plausibly be friends (Ronnie remains the Zeppo of the group).  While just about any of these characters could have their own quality TV show, many of the best moments on The Shield come from the tense interactions between the different factions that exist within the Barn.  The character relationships are so strong, and seemed to be headed in such interesting directions at the end of season two, that the show could’ve practically had an excellent third season without introducing any new recurring characters.

And yet season three has been loaded down with a larger supporting cast than The Shield has ever had.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the show were better at sustaining recurring characters than it is.  But outside of Chief Gilroy (who seems to be gone from the show completely after his season two escape to Mexico), The Shield hasn’t managed to create any recurring characters as compelling as its regulars.  The show’s casting director has consistently done a great job finding distinctive actors that bring even the most minor, one-off characters to vivid life, and many of the non-regular characters seem promising and interesting when they are introduced.  But too often Shawn Ryan and his writing staff fail to develop these characters to the point where they seem like much more than cannon fodder for The Shield’s various plotlines.  In many instances, the supporting characters’ role in the story ends so abruptly that the characters don’t have room to function independently from their plot function, which can at times make the show’s generally impressive storytelling seem overly mechanical. 

Tavon is perhaps the clearest example of this failing.  Toward the end of season two, it seemed like the show was going to use the Strike Team’s newest recruit to simultaneously flesh out the inner workings of the Team and up the tension in the Armenian Money Train storyline (as he inevitably would’ve found out about the heist, and probably would’ve aided Claudette’s investigation into Vic’s illegal activities).  Tavon was also charismatic and mysterious enough that it seemed like it would’ve been interesting to gradually learn more about him, independent of his role in the plot.  His interactions with the veteran Strike Team members were compelling, and the potential for entertaining conflicts or tenuous partnerships with the other detectives was high.  And then the show put him into a coma in the fourth episode of season three, which he still hasn’t recovered from.  Granted, the fallout from Tavon’s injury has played an important role in the season’s most engaging thread (the gradually corroding friendship of the Strike Team), but if Tavon never wakes up – which seems increasingly like a possibility, given that he doesn’t even appear in any of the four episodes on this disc – it will be the latest example of The Shield wasting a potentially great character.

The recurring characters introduced in season three haven’t fared much better, largely because the unnecessarily convoluted plotting of the season hasn’t left enough room for the many new characters to have time to reach their full potential.  The Decoy Squad could’ve been interesting foils for the Strike Team, but their storyline was unceremoniously concluded in “Slipknot,” as Vic once again found a way to play his enemies against each other for his personal gain.  The on-again, off-again storyline involving Vic’s affair with a crime scene analyst remains a non-starter, to the point that I don’t even know that character’s name (and was unable to find it anywhere online).  Shane’s emotionally unstable wife – they got married in the episode “Strays” – continues to seem more like a plot point than a human being.  And the criminal characters have largely been faceless thugs.  The gang warfare between the One-Niners and the Byz Latz has been stewing in the background of practically every episode so far this season, and is even the focal point of “Slipknot,” and yet all we really know about either gang is that one is African American, the other is Latino, and they hate each other.  The Shield has never given its criminals the layers and ambiguity of its cops, but in the past some of its criminals were at least charismatic (like Armadillo in season two) or had potentially fascinating relationships with Vic (like Tio in the first two seasons).  So far that hasn’t been the case in season three, where there have been so many new recurring characters that they’ve more or less cancelled each other out.

Quick Thoughts:

-  Two of the season’s more questionable running storylines came to strong conclusions on this disc.  In “What Power Is…,” Aceveda finally caught up with the man that raped him, but instead of serving straight-up vigilante justice (which it seemed like the show was setting him up to do, especially after he killed two of the man’s gang partners while they were attempting to rob a store), he arrests him and gives him a long, well-written speech about why he isn’t going to kill him even though he could.  Nice to see a character on this show getting somewhat non-violent retribution for a change.

-  The other storyline that concluded was Dutch and Claudette’s investigation of the “cuddler rapist,” who was caught during “What Power Is…” and then interrogated at length in “Strays.”  Dutch is stunned to learn that the rapist doesn’t match up with the profile that he’d created for him, causing the detective to question his methods, and leading to Jay Karnes’ best acting moments since season one.

-  That said, I probably could’ve done without the scene at the end of “Strays” that finds Dutch strangling a cat to death to try to get an understanding of why a man would be compelled to kill.  I get what the writers were going for, but the moment seemed too over-the-top in what was otherwise a relatively restrained and cerebral episode of the show.

-  Some interesting directing credits on this disc.  Michael Chiklis helmed “Slipknot,” which didn’t stray from the show’s usual cinema verite action movie aesthetic, but was a particularly high energy episode nonetheless.  David Mamet, who would go on to work with Shield creator Shawn Ryan on the CBS show The Unit, directs “Strays,” which has some effective use of off-center framing during Dutch’s interrogation of the rapist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men)

Having spent the mid-aughts looking like shells of their former selves, the Coen Brothers come roaring back to life with the wild thriller No Country for Old Men (2007).  Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004) were the worst kind of failures, in the sense that they not only represented the nadir of the Coens’ career to date, but also laid bare flaws that had been present in their work all along.  It was difficult to believe that the duo would get back on their feet artistically after being on auto-pilot for two features (and two amusing-but-slight shorts).  But rather than going the way of Tim Burton, sprinkling watered-down elements of their aesthetic on half-baked, impersonal scripts, the Coens wound up making their best film up to this point.

The Coen Brothers’ strategy for refocusing themselves seems to have involved going back to the style of their simple and straightforward debut film, Blood Simple (1984).  This means a streamlined narrative involving several characters complicating each other’s modest goals, a more downbeat tone than usual for the filmmakers, and a sense of humor so dry and restrained that it is practically subliminal.  No Country for Old Men also opens with what seems to be a self-conscious nod to the beginning of Blood Simple, as an offscreen Tommy Lee Jones delivers a monologue over lovely landscape shots, just as M. Emmet Walsh did in the earlier film. 

Yet No Country’s similarities to Blood Simple serve less as examples of a return to form than as evidence of how far the Coens have come as filmmakers in twenty-two years.  Where Blood Simple found largely wooden actors embodying stock noir characters, No Country features an excellent cast who go beyond the call of duty in bringing their (still somewhat generic) characters to life.  The Coens were fully competent on a technical level even at the time of their debut, but No Country finds them making masterful use of their aesthetic whereas in Blood Simple they were mostly just showing off.  While Blood Simple has one great setpiece involving the attempted burial of a not-quite-dead body, No Country has several brutally vivid action sequences that are well-paced throughout the film’s two hours, including a memorable chase scene that climaxes with Josh Brolin’s character drying out his wet pistol just in time to shoot a vicious hunting dog.

The technical mastery on display throughout No Country for Old Men reaches its apex at the film’s halfway point, in a tense shootout between Brolin’s Vietnam vet cowboy and Javier Bardem’s psychotic killer.  Earlier in the film, Brolin had stumbled upon the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and retrieved a briefcase containing two million dollars from the wreckage.  Bardem is one of several people trying to get his hands on the stolen cash, and at this point in the film, he has already been established as an unstoppable, unrepentant murderer.  Bardem has tracked Brolin to a hotel near the border of the United States and Mexico, a fact that Brolin only realizes in time to hear Bardem shooting the hotel clerk in the downstairs lobby.  As Brolin waits in his hotel room with the lights out and his shotgun pointed toward the door, the intensity builds with a primal force reminiscent of the best of silent cinema.  However, the Coens are not just using cinematographer Roger Deakins’ powerfully shaded images and the timing of their own edits to evoke tension, but are also making brilliant use of both onscreen and offscreen sound, contrasting Brolin’s nervous breaths with the floorboards creaking under Bardem’s approaching feet.  After Brolin and Bardem inevitably start shooting at each other, the action leaks out into the street, with Brolin doing the Gabriel Byrne-in-Miller’s Crossing (1990) exit of jumping out of his room’s window and running back into the hotel lobby (the camera amazingly tracking behind him the entire way).  The Coens find inventive ways to keep the intensity building throughout the duration of the shootout, with the combination of the acting, editing, camerawork, and sound adding up to not just the finest scene in their filmography to this point, but one of the greatest action sequences in all of cinema.

As great as No Country for Old Men is when it sticks to being an action film, it runs into some problems when it tries to be more.  In my post about Blood Simple I said that No Country’s “allusions to the two Iraq wars and its vague ramblings about the nature of evil are putting up an illusion of depth that the film can’t support,” and though that statement was based on fuzzy memories of a movie I hadn’t seen for several years, it is as true now as it was then.  Part of the problem is that the main characters, despite being memorably brought to life by the Coens’ finest ensemble cast since The Big Lebowski (1998), are somewhat sketchy.  Bardem’s character is particularly problematic, as he seems to change motivations and methodologies based on the needs of individual scenes.  In some scenes, Bardem is a silent force of nature, while in others he is almost like the villain of a slasher movie, making little quips as he disposes of his victims or flipping his lucky quarter like Two-Face.  Woody Harrelson (another character following the money) makes some reference to Bardem having some sort of twisted moral code, although there is no evidence of this in the film itself.  It’s as if the Coens (or Cormac McCarthy, whose novel the film is based on) wanted to turn Bardem into the ultimate heavy by combining all of the clichéd attributes of past screen villains.  That the character manages to function at all is entirely a testament to Bardem’s frighteningly committed performance.

The screenplay’s pretensions to deep meaning cause some structural problems, which are most apparent when looking at Tommy Lee Jones’ small-town sheriff.  Brolin functions as the protagonist for most of the film, but when he is abruptly murdered offscreen, the focus suddenly and awkwardly shifts to Jones, who had previously only appeared in a handful of scenes.  The Coens handle this flashy plot twist with their customary flair, and they are strong enough stylists to make the film’s narrative feel smooth even as it is being thrown out of whack, but the fact that Jones doesn’t become the film’s hero until the last half-hour of the film prevents the viewer from having the emotional investment required for his more dramatic, slower-paced portion of the film.  (The gradual introduction of the film’s ultimate protagonist is similar in some respects to the development of Frances McDormand’s character in Fargo [1996], where it was better handled). 

Jones is presented as the film’s moral conscious, a man whose old-fashioned small-town values make him ill-equipped for the depravity of thugs like Bardem.  But Jones’ inability to fathom the horrifying things he reads in the newspaper (including a story about torturers using dog collars, in the film’s most obvious allegory for the war in Iraq) isn’t a particularly edifying or useful form of morality.  Of course there is some component of mass murder that we’ll never be able to fully understand, but placing all of the blame for that slaughter on that one quality – and thereby ignoring the social and political aspects that help produce serial killers and start wars – is simply not helpful.  Reducing everything to the childish concepts of “good” and “evil” makes the world harder to understand, but because it is easier to brand something as evil rather than try to come to grips with its reality, those concepts remain popular.  The use of “good” and “evil” in No Country for Old Men would be less problematic if the film was being consistently told through Jones’ point of view, but because he only becomes a major figure toward the end, his unhelpful statements about the modern world’s inexplicable rules come off as the “moral of the story.”  And the moral is ultimately too banal to justify the film’s pointedly anticlimactic ending, in which Jones relates a despairing dream to his wife.

Though it overreaches in some respects, No Country for Old Men is still one of the most gripping and well-made action films of the last decade.  Though some of the characters are problematic, the performances are uniformly excellent; even supporting players like Kelly Macdonald, Garret Dillahunt, and Stephen Root make a vivid impression.  The Coens have never seemed more focused or more in control of their own aesthetic.  Their decision not to include any background music is brilliant, because it makes the film’s rural atmosphere more sensuous and palpable than it otherwise would be while also upping the tension of the action scenes by forcing the viewer to focus on the tiny sounds that turn the tides of the battles.  Even if No Country for Old Men isn’t a masterpiece, it is still better than anything the Coens had done before, and an indication that they are fully growing into their lofty reputation.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

In Defense of The King's Speech

Why defend The King’s Speech, one of the most acclaimed films of 2010?  If anything, the film has been overrated in many ways, sweeping the Academy Awards and winning the Best Picture category over more stylish and energetic movies such as Black Swan, The Social Network, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone.  The King’s Speech had been relentlessly promoted as an Oscar favorite ever since its premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, making it nearly impossible for professional critics to avoid framing their reviews around whether the film was worthy of such prestige.  Unsurprisingly, this has led a number of industry commenters to have knee-jerk reactions to The King’s Speech, some falling in line with the publicity and declaring it the best film of the year (and thereby overrating it) and some rejecting the film based on the negative baggage associated with award season (and thereby underrating it).  While the immediate association of The King’s Speech with the Academy Awards undoubtedly helped it at the box-office, it has also irrevocably clouded its public perception, making it difficult to arrive at a sane assessment of the film’s actual merit.

In fairness to those leading the backlash against The King’s Speech, the film undeniably has a number of qualities that make it seem, on the surface, like awards-bait.  It is a historical drama about the Duke of York (Colin Firth) who gradually overcomes his speech defect with the help of charismatic and lovable speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Firth and Rush aren’t the only high-fallutin’ British thespians in the cast, which also includes such ringers as Helena Bonham Carter (as the Duke’s wife), Michael Gambon (as the Duke’s father, King George V), and Guy Pearce (the Duke’s elder brother, who resigns from the throne to marry a twice-divorced American socialite).  The simply told story becomes, predictably enough, an inspirational tale of a man overcoming his fears and bravely leading Great Britain into the Second World War.

But director Tom Hooper and his collaborators wisely sidestep most of the negative trappings of the “prestige picture” by standing out of the way and simply telling their story.  The King’s Speech may have been endlessly promoted by the Weinstein Company as an Oscar-worthy masterpiece, but the film itself is admirably modest and unencumbered by pretensions to greatness.  The filmmakers also smartly avoid the usual biopic problem of trying to condense too much of its subject’s story into two hours by focusing on a very specific element of the Duke’s life rather than attempting to be a definitive biography. Watching the film, one doesn’t have the impression that the filmmakers were straining to make a world-beating timeless classic so much as they were interested in telling a compelling personal story.

This lack of ambition obviously prevents The King’s Speech from being the greatest film of last year – indeed, with the exception of The Kids Are All Right, it is easily the least ambitious of the ten films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Yet Hooper and co.’s straightforward, almost play-like depiction of the story is undoubtedly the right approach to this material.  If the film gives off a feeling of reserved, old-fashioned mustiness, it’s only because that type of atmosphere is as appropriate to the film’s story and setting as The Social Network’s high-tech flashiness was to its tale of young software entrepreneurs, or as Black Swan’s operatic camp was to its story of psychological intrigue at the ballet.  There is no indication that Hooper would be able to handle the cinematographic and editorial flash that David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky bring to their respective films, and it is a little ridiculous that he defeated those more innovative filmmakers for the Best Director Oscar.  Still, Hooper’s restraint is the logical aesthetic for The King’s Speech’s story, and he deserves some credit for keeping the story’s potential for melodrama under control and staying out of the way of his talented cast (though the director’s one auteurist touch – his occasional habit of framing the characters in corners of cinematographer Danny Cohen’s attractive wide angle compositions – is a tad distracting and unnecessary).

And that cast is very talented.  Firth handles the Duke’s speech defect with realistic frustration, reserves of long-building anger present in his every vocal inflection.  He also doesn’t labor too hard to make his character likeable, a palpable sense of entitlement effectively offsetting his occasionally charming sarcasm.  Geoffrey Rush is equally good as the speech instructor, showing just enough hints of his usual over-the-top hamminess to suggest his character’s theatrical ambitions, yet holding himself back enough to remind the viewer that he is playing a real human being.  The film is essentially a two-man show, but Bonham Carter, Gambon, and Pearce each turn in vivid character sketches that allow the film to subtly suggest aspects of the Duke’s psychology without having to underline them too much in the dialogue. 

When the Duke - recently promoted to King after his father’s passing and his brother’s abandonment of the throne – finally delivers his big speech announcing Great Britain’s entry into World War II, it is a genuinely stirring moment both because the acting is so strong and because the film has spent so much time focusing exclusively on the relationship between Firth and Rush’s characters.  (Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that it’s a great speech).  It is a powerful climactic moment that underscores how wrongheaded the inevitable backlash against The King’s Speech is.  If anything, that type of criticism should be directed at the Weinstein Company for framing the film as a “prestige picture,” or toward the Academy for being so susceptible to a certain type of film.  The King’s Speech is not the best film of 2010, or even a particularly great one, but it is a very good movie that deserves to be appreciated on its own terms rather than in the context of the awards season.