Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season Six)

Episodes coveredOn the Jones, Baptism by Fire, Back to One, The New Guy, Haunts, Chasing Ghosts, Exiled, The Math of the Wrath, Recoil, Spanish Practices

As The Shield has progressed, its storytelling has become tighter and more intensely focused, with each episode illuminating the themes of its respective season while advancing the series’ overall study of the nature of corruption.  But because Vic and his Strike Team have been hurtling toward doom since literally the end of the pilot episode, with the crimes continuously piling up from there – and drawing increasing suspicion from both honest law officials and violent gang members – it has become more and more difficult to accept that the Strike Team could’ve stayed (relatively) intact for as long as they have.  The plotting and the pacing of The Shield both suggest a show with a logical timespan of four or five seasons.  Yet here we are in season six.

By this point in the series, the convolutions required to keep the three surviving Strike Team members out of jail (or even alive) are so knotted that it would be almost impossible to give a brief synopsis of the season’s plot.  Of course it is essential that the show focus on the fallout of Shane’s murder of Lem and the continuing IAD investigation of the Strike Team, and Claudette’s attempt to replace Vic with a new Strike Team leader named Hiatt (Alex O’Laughlin) is a logical development that adds extra pressure to an already-compelling storyline.  But in order to keep the show’s master plots from reaching their logical conclusions, the writers have also reintroduced story elements involving Salvadoran gangs, former Chief Gilroy’s widow, the rape of Aceveda, and Dutch’s frustrated longings for various female co-workers, while introducing a shady businessman with probable gang ties, an undercover FBI agent deeply embedded in one of the show’s many criminal organizations, yet another serial rapist, and the ruthless heiress to the Armenian gang that the Strike Team robbed several seasons ago (played by Franka Potente, of all people). 

Presumably this dense plotting is supposed to make the show seem less predictable and more exciting, and none of these storylines are exactly a waste of time (though I am tired of watching Dutch hunt down rapists at this point).  But with only ten episodes this season, none of the stories have the proper room to breathe, let alone come to any sort of conclusion.  And so “Spanish Practices” ends with all of the aforementioned plot points dangling, and with seemingly too much going on for the show to be able to do justice to the Dutch and Claudette vs. the Strike Team finale that has always seemed like the series’ natural endgame.  I know that The Shield has a reputation for “sticking the landing,” and that its seventh season is generally considered to be its best, but the journey there has been frustratingly uneven and unnecessarily convoluted.  

The sixth season is the show’s most frustrating since season three, largely because the writers don’t seem to have been confident enough in the ongoing master plots’ ability to hold the audience’s interest.  But those scenes that actually pushed the character arcs forward rather than simply adding incident were by far the most compelling moments of the season.  Shane’s desperation following his actions from the end of season five has allowed Walton Goggins to do his most intense work on the show to date, with his confessions of guilt to his wife (in “Haunts”) and to Vic (at the end of “Chasing Ghosts”) being particularly wrenching moments.  Vic’s feud with Kavanaugh ends somewhat anticlimactically in “Baptism by Fire” – and I suspect that the storyline was rushed to accommodate Forest Whitaker’s schedule or the show’s budget rather than the demands of the plot – but seeing the IAD investigator put himself behind bars before he bent the rules too far in pursuit of Vic offered a nice contrast in that character’s honesty to that of the Strike Team leader.  The thorny relationship between Vic and Hiatt also plays out interestingly, though it’s a little disappointing that the show makes it clear by the end of the season that the latter is an easily corruptible pretty boy who is no real threat to replace Vic. 

I hope that somebody – whether it’s Claudette or Dutch or Shane or Ronnie or new Strike Team member Julien – steps up to present a credible and stable threat to Vic’s well-being in season seven.  At this point, the show is really missing the righteous moral force of Kavanaugh, and it’s disappointing that the writers haven’t replaced him with someone who seems similarly capable of (or on the right path to) take Vic down.  Here’s hoping that the writers have a clear plan for cutting through the many seemingly unnecessary plot threads to bring the main arc of the show to a satisfying end point.

Quick Thoughts:

 -   Steve Billings (David Marciano) has become the show’s first reliable source of comic relief.  His rapport with new partner Dutch is excellent, as he seems in some sense like the sleazy dark side of his partner (as Shane is to Vic), yet he is also fully realized enough to occasionally register as a devoted family man.  His slow evolution from bumbling background character in season four to inept Captain in season five to Dutch foil in season six has been very well handled.

-  Though it’s obviously an important plot point, I’m not sure that the death of Lem has affected the show’s dynamic all that much.  Shane has certainly become more unstable, but was always obviously capable of coming unhinged, and Lem’s relationships with the show’s other characters weren’t clearly defined enough for us to really feel the weight of his loss.

-  It doesn’t put a big enough exclamation point (or question mark) on any of the season’s storylines to really feel like an appropriate ending for a finale, but the scene where Vic leaps into the moving car of a lawyer who has piles of paperwork evidence against him is one of the show’s best action scenes to date.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke)

Hayao Miyazaki seems to be treating his ‘90s films as a chance to do better and more ambitious variations on the kinds of films that he made in the earlier part of his career.  Porco Rosso (1992) is in some respects a return to the wild and messy action of Castle of Cagliostro (1979), but the newer film is far more odd and perverse than Miyazaki’s feature debut.  The great animator followed Cagliostro with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), which expanded the scope of Miyazaki’s visual aesthetic and the complexity of his animation considerably, while putting a noticeable strain on his storytelling abilities.  Princess Mononoke (1997) feels like an attempt to remake those widescreen eco-themed epics, but with a considerably darker tone and less reliance on fantasy genre clich├ęs. 

The improvements over Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky are apparent from the first scenes of Princess Mononoke.  Studio Ghibli’s animation has been improving steadily with each new project, and as gorgeous as Porco Rosso is, the new film feels like a quantum leap over it.  Every frame is dynamically composed and filled with rich, colorful detail.  The epic scale of the film, which often has as much action going on in the background as the foreground, recalls masterpieces of live-action cinema such as Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1966).  But unlike Kurosawa or Tarkovsky, Miyazaki has the advantage of working in an animated medium where literally anything can happen.  And although Mononoke is considerably more serious and grounded than Porco, it still features an embarrassment of fantastical riches, with eccentric settings and character designs populating the edges of the screen at practically every moment.  Miyazaki’s early films featured breathtaking backgrounds, but the characters tended to be a bit nondescript (as seems to be customary in anime).  But since Porco Rosso, Miyazaki has been lavishing as much care on the look of his heroes and villains as on the design of their dwellings.  The titular character of the new film has some particularly striking early appearances in her battle garb, which includes a maroon tribal mask and a caveperson’s loincloth. 

Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s most visually lavish and impressive film to date, but it doesn’t find him making many advances as a storyteller.  The movie’s eco-friendly message is largely indistinguishable from those in Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky, and it is simultaneously unsubtle and muddled, frequently buried under an unnecessarily convoluted plot surrounding a battle over control of the forest.  Here is the story, as far as I understand it:  a hunter, Ashitaka, is forced to kill a demon-infected giant boar that is rampaging through his village.  The demon curse is transferred to Ashitaka, whose left arm is now imbued with a super strength that will eventually overwhelm and possibly kill him or lead him to kill others.  Banished from his village, Ashitaka is advised to travel to a mountain range that is the home to a forest spirit that may be able to remove the demon curse.  When Ashitaka reaches the area, he is thrust into a complicated conflict involving the giant beasts who populate the forest, a town of weapon-makers, a group of prize-hunting monks, an army of samurai, and Princess Mononoke, a wolf-raised girl who has turned against her own species.

There are at least one or two too many factions involved in this conflict.  While none of the characters feel as thoroughly pointless as some of the supporting figures in Miyazaki’s early films, the conflict really could’ve been stripped down to the weapon-makers and Mononoke and her animal friends, with Ashitaka caught in-between.  Not even all of the animals really needed to appear in the film; as cool as the menacingly shadowy red-eyed gang of apes are, they seem to show up just to add extra color to a movie that doesn’t need any extra eccentricity, and they have no real bearing on the outcome of the final battle.  The purpose of the samurai army is never entirely clear; they threaten to take the weapon-makers wares, which makes the potentially villainous craftsmen more sympathetic than they otherwise would be, but the samurai are never fleshed out enough for the viewer to care about their role in the fight. 

But although Miyazaki clutters his script with too many unnecessary subplots, he does deserve credit for creating a number of vividly realized and fleshed-out characters.  The weapon-makers from the industrial Iron Town feel particularly human and interesting.  It would’ve been easy to turn these battle-ready people into mustache-twirling enemies of peace (as the equivalent characters in Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky were), but Miyazaki makes their need for self-defense understandable by depicting the gigantic wolves and boars that populate the nearby forest as genuine threats; these are not the cuddly, anthropomorphic singing and dancing creatures of Disney films, but hungry, sharp-toothed beasts whose tempers can turn dramatically at the first sign of a threat.  The denizens of Iron Town are not merely defined by their need for self-defense, either.  Lady Eboshi, the leader of the town, has turned her home into a haven for some of Japan’s less fortunate citizens, with lepers and prostitutes earning a second chance in life by becoming weapons manufacturers.  Although Eboshi may be misguided in some ways – and it was her hunting that unleashed the boar demon that caused Ashitaka’s dilemma – she is scarcely less sympathetic than Princess Mononoke, whose desire for vengeance against the humans who killed members of her wolf family seems simultaneously noble and insane.  Mononoke is unsurprisingly revealed to have a kind heart, but she is memorably introduced as a near-feral threat with blood-smeared lips.  There are no real villains in Princess Mononoke, and while this has more or less been the case in all of Miyazaki’s films since My Neighbor Totoro (1988), it is especially impressive to see that kind of moral rigor in a violent adventure film.

Princess Mononoke is perhaps the most action-packed of Miyazaki’s films to this point, and it features quite a few stunningly directed setpieces.  The opening sequence involving Ashitaka’s battle with the demon-enhanced boar is as thrilling a chase sequence as exists in cinema, and the surreal details in the animation – the demon curse is depicted as a mass of worm-like figures slithering over the boar’s body as it runs at top speed – only make the action more riveting.  Mononoke’s attack on Iron Town is an equally dynamic scene, with Ashitaka struggling to keep the peace between the psychotically revenge-obsessed wolf girl and the gun-happy citizens of the town.  Even the incidental details of the action scenes are powerfully realized.  After Ashitaka gains his demon strength, his arrow shots become strong enough to remove limbs from his attackers; the fact that Miyazaki doesn’t linger on the resulting gore only makes the action seem more visceral and brutal.  The raw physicality of these scenes provides a wonderful contrast to the elegant, confidently surreal moments of tranquility, with the final appearance of the forest spirit being a particularly transcendent moment.  Though Miyazaki could have edited his script down a bit, it’s hard to begrudge him a few excesses in a film where he’s finally achieved the epic fusion of relentless action and otherworldly beauty that he has been aiming for throughout his storied career.

UP NEXT  Spirited Away

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Year of Release  1962
Country  USA
Length  123 min.
Director  John Ford
Screenwriters  James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (story by Dorothy M. Johnson)
Cinematographer  William H. Clothier
Editor  Otho Lovering
Cast  John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode

No one did more to define and redefine the traditional cinematic western than John Ford.  With his breakthrough Stagecoach (1939), Ford created what could be considered the definitive western film, and also established John Wayne as the genre’s biggest screen idol.  Later Ford westerns (many of which featured Wayne as their star) functioned as much as “state of the western” addresses as actual films.  Ford was at the forefront of virtually every technical breakthrough or stylistic change in the traditional western during the genres late-‘30s to early’60s heyday.  John Ford was to the popular western as Miles Davis was to jazz.

So it is entirely appropriate that Ford would be among the first to break down the archetypes and tropes of the western, challenging the very ideologies that he had played a massive role in establishing and popularizing.  It might not be accurate to call 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance the first anti-western (a couple of Anthony Mann’s ‘50s westerns could reasonably fit that description, as could Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers), but the fact that it is directed by Ford and structured around the offscreen funeral of Wayne’s character gives it a profound air of authoritative finality that wouldn’t have been possible under different circumstances.  Though Ford went on to direct several westerns after Liberty Valance, and Wayne starred in quite a few more, this may as well have been the last time that either of them worked in the genre.  They are saying goodbye to what they are best known for in much the same way that Charlie Chaplin marked the death of silent cinema with Modern Times (1936).

 Ford goes about dismantling the myths of the Old West by establishing a ragged settlement called Shinbone that is basically a physical embodiment of the traditional western – a place full of saloons, cowboys, and random gunslingers (and the home to many of the notable members of Ford’s stock company of actors, such as Andy Devine and Woody Strode) – and then introducing a city-boy outsider (Jimmy Stewart) whose personal set of values challenge and confound those of Shinbone (and therefore the genre itself).  Before he even gets into town, the outsider’s stagecoach is held up by a trio of bandits led by a notorious criminal named Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, in the performance that justly made him a star).  The outsider finds that nobody in Shinbone is particularly interested in getting in Liberty’s way; the local sheriff (Devine) is too cowardly to go after Liberty, while the area’s top gunfighter (Wayne) seems to enjoy having a near-equal around to compete with, and the rest of Shinbone’s citizens seem to accept that the Liberty situation is the way that things always have been and always will be.  Early on, Wayne mocks Stewart’s idea that Liberty can be brought to justice through legal means, and suggests that the crook will only be taken down the old-fashioned way – with a gun.  Ford spends the rest of the film asking the audience whether Wayne or Stewart have the right solution to the Liberty problem, and to his credit, he makes both sides of the argument seem equally valid.

Both sides of the argument are given extra weight by the audience’s knowledge of what John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart represent as screen icons.  While the actors are playing characters named, respectively, Tom Doniphon and Ransom Stoddard, what matters in this film is that they are the embodiment of all that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart represent.  Wayne of course is the definitive western hero, a no-nonsense man of action with enough conviction is his black-and-white sense of morality to defend it with bullets.  Though Wayne was never a particularly skilled actor, he had screen presence in spades and usually excelled in roles that required him to be a stand-in for the idea of the Old West.  This is perhaps Wayne’s best performance, outpacing even his work in Rio Bravo (1959) and True Grit (1969), two other films in which Wayne was asked to essentially be the physical embodiment of the ideals he represented.  Stewart was a much more skilled and versatile actor than Wayne, and his extensive list of credits did include quite a few westerns – including several Anthony Mann westerns such as Winchester ’73 (1950) and The Naked Spur (1953) where he played Tom Doniphon-style roughnecks – but he was (and is) most frequently identified as the gentlemanly and idealistic Democrat of Frank Capra films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  It is this polite version of Stewart that wanders into the outlaw world of Shinbone.

Stewart’s disruptive presence allows the film to get into some complicated and highly nuanced moral territory.  The risky ethical line that Ford is walking with this film – asking the audience to sympathize with a gruff redneck (Wayne) whose way of life is becoming obsolete, while making the kindly progressive (Stewart) occasionally seem like a weakling with unrealistic goals – is very intriguing, and forces the audience to engage in the film’s moral quandaries in a way that recalls Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  Wayne’s way of life allows thugs like Liberty Valance to function with relative impunity, but Stewart’s more modern viewpoint leaves Shinbone feeling a lot less lively. 

 Surprisingly, it is the gentle Stewart who finally comes to accept that Liberty can only be dealt with through force and decides to get the gun that will supposedly kill Liberty.  But everything comes to a head during a flashback that reveals that it was in fact Wayne who ambushed and killed Liberty from behind while Stewart and Liberty had their face-to-face showdown.  The legend of “the man who shot Liberty Valance” propels Stewart to the U.S. Senate, and presumably allows him to pursue his noble ideals, but it is a brutal act by Wayne that allows it to happen.  While it is shocking on a visceral level to see the traditionally heroic Wayne shoot the bad guy in the back of the head from a safe distance, what is really interesting about the scene is the way that it makes Wayne’s action feel simultaneously noble, cowardly, and tragic.  The last gasp of traditional western heroism is a primitive act of violence that paves the way for the modern form of legislative justice.  By the end of the film, Stewart is a famous and apparently well-liked politician while Wayne is a dead and forgotten soldier, and the film makes it clear that each man is in some way responsible for the other’s fate.

In addition to seriously grappling with some intriguing and complex moral ideas, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is simply a very entertaining and well-crafted film.  While critics of the time complained that the film lacked the epic visuals often associated with Ford – and it is true that there is nothing as memorably gorgeous in Liberty Valance as the Technicolor Monument Valley vistas of The Searchers or the fog-drenched final shootout in My Darling Clementine (1946) – it is still a well-shot film by any reasonable standard, and the lack of big widescreen setpieces is appropriate for this intimate, human-scale story.  Some people have complained about the film’s prominent use of studio sets as opposed to Ford’s typical location shooting, but the settings don’t seem any more or less artificial than in the average film – and even if they did, it could be argued that the phoniness of the surroundings reinforces the point that places like Shinbone no longer exist.

 For all of its formal pleasures, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance perhaps deserves to be best remembered for its engaging look at complicated issues of justice, legend, and progress.  Ford spends plenty of time pointing to the many positive aspects of the modern era that Jimmy Stewart ushers in, such as giving most of Shinbone’s citizens their first formal education, but he also conveys a profound sorrow for the lost world of John Wayne.  Ford acknowledges the best and worst aspects of both eras, and understands that the progress of democracy doesn’t ensure equality for everyone.  As Keith Phipps notes in his DVD review at the AV Club, “African-American actor Woody Strode recites the opening of the Declaration of Independence, as a portrait of Lincoln watches in the background.  Later, when the town meets to take a vote, Strode waits outside.”  Ford clearly loves the democratic principles that the United States was founded on, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demonstrates his keen understanding that not everyone who fights for their freedoms will get to enjoy them equally – and that some will have no place in this new world at all.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  Another film about changing times, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion