Monday, January 30, 2012

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

Episodes coveredCoefficient of Drag, Snitch, Money Shot, Genocide, Game Face, Animal Control, Bitches Brew, Parricide, Moving Day, Party Line, Petty Cash

“Coefficient of Drag” gets the seventh and final season of The Shield off to an appropriately breathless and intense start.  In the opening five minutes, Shane comes home to find that his wife and child have been bound and gagged by Vic and Ronnie in retaliation for Shane’s quasi-kidnapping of Vic’s family at the end of season six.  Shane only convinces Vic to spare his family by convincing him that the Armenian gang that Shane’s been working with (and against) is ultimately the bigger threat to Vic’s livelihood.  While no blood is ultimately shed in this scene, it’s abundantly clear that the split in the Strike Team is permanent and irreparable.  It’s also clear that Vic and Shane’s multitude of double-dealings aren’t going to be as successful as they were back when everybody on the Strike Team was on the same page. The complicated fallout from Shane’s warning of Armenian vengeance leads an increasingly scary Ronnie to calmly dispatch of a hitman immediately after receiving important information from him; Shane, who needs the hitman alive to maintain his Armenian connection, is forced to mutilate the body so that his death looks like the work of a rival gang that removes the feet from their victims.  The sickening thud of Shane’s ax against the hitman’s ankles is a classically grungy Shield moment, and the fact that it takes several whacks before he’s able to cut through the bone reinforces the reality that the problems that these men have made for themselves are not going to be easy to get out of, and that the “solutions” to those problems are only going to create further violent headaches for the Strike Team.

After that incredible season opener, The Shield surprisingly settles into a series of several episodes that do very little to advance the master plot and that largely repeat overly familiar character beats.  Once again, Danny is put in danger by Tina’s inexperience, as the rookie fails to clear a room that the new mother is entering.  Dutch is concerned about the increasing signs of physical and mental fatigue that Claudette is showing as a result of her ongoing Lupus crisis.  Julien feels morally conflicted about the Strike Team’s peculiar brand of justice.  Aceveda’s political ambitions (he is beginning a campaign for mayor) get him in to bed with some dangerous people.  There are some nice moments amid all of this aimless busyness, such as Claudette’s riveting tongue-lashing of a young gang member who loves to say “nigger.”  And certain ongoing storylines that aren’t directly related to the Strike Team’s fate have been entertaining.  Dutch’s personal interest in a boy who shows early signs of serial killer behavior is his most intriguing extended case since the serial rapist/murderer from season one, and the fact that Dutch is willing to cross the line into “dating” the boy’s single mother while grilling her for information about her son gives some interesting shades to the Barn’s most honest detective.  Meanwhile, detective Billings’ attempts to sue the department for an extremely minor injury suffered toward the end of season six continue to amuse, as do his constant attempts to do as little work as possible while still earning a day’s pay. 

Still, too much of the early half of this season is taken up with uninvolving standalone cases, gratuitous appearances from unmemorable recurring or one-off characters from earlier in the show’s run, and unnecessarily convoluted gang rivalries that don’t seem to be headed toward any sort of payoff.  “Genocide,” the season’s most frustrating episode, revolves almost entirely around the barely coherent minutiae of Farmington’s warring gangs, which would be less of a problem if any of the show’s gangs registered as anything more than plot points.  Honestly, if I were rewatching The Shield, I would have no trouble skipping straight from “Coefficient of Drag” to “Animal Control” (in other words, from the first to the sixth episodes of the season), and I don’t think that a first-time viewer would have much of a problem doing the same.  A lot of stuff happens in the early episodes of season seven, but very little of it is of any real consequence.

That said, the run of episodes beginning with “Animal Control” and extending through all of disc three find The Shield at its absolute best, with each elaborate double-cross and violent plot-twist leading to the nail-biting tension that the show has often been masterful at producing, and bringing with them the promise of real consequences that the show has spent too much time avoiding.  The intense focus of these six episodes – which revolve almost entirely around an on-the-run Shane being chased down by Vic and Ronnie (who want to kill him) and the rest of the Barn (who want to arrest him), all while Claudette, Dutch, and Julien hatch a plan to arrest Vic – has made for the most satisfying group of episodes that this show has produced to date.  I can’t think of another series that has come into its home stretch with a run of episodes that are almost unquestionably its best, and I can’t wait to see how the final two episodes wrap everything up.

Quick Thoughts:

-  What happened to Franka Potente’s character from season six?  I honestly don’t remember, although I seem to recall her still being alive.  Considering that the Armenian storyline seems to be completely resolved by the end of “Animal Control,” I’m not expecting her to come back, but her absence is a reminder of how many unnecessary storylines and characters have been introduced over the course of this series in the interest of keeping it going for seven seasons.

-  Laurie Holden is this season’s big guest star.  Her character plays a fairly pivotal role in the season’s running storyline – she’s an ICE agent who Vic is hoping will help him get a job as an undercover officer within that agency (a job that he desperately needs, now that he’s turned in his badge and lost his pension)  - but she still seems more like a plot device (a la Laura Harring’s lawyer from season five) rather than the full-fledged characters that Glenn Close, Anthony Anderson, and Forest Whittaker have played in past seasons.

- Here is how Steve Hyden of the AV Club predicted things would end up for Vic at the conclusion of the series (in his 2008 review of “Coefficient of Drag”) – “Vic (finally goes to) trial for the murder of Terry Crowley and gets off on the kind of legal technicality he normally despises, depriving him of the justice he deserves and exposing him as a killer and liar to his fellow boys in blue.”  That seems like a pretty ideal conclusion for the show, but given the final two episodes’ reputation for “sticking the landing” and the writers’ penchant for swerving in unexpected directions, I won’t be surprised if The Shield ends up in a very different but equally satisfying place.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle)

Though it’s an adaptation of a British novel by Dianna Wynne Jones, the cinematic version of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is essentially an amalgam of Hayao Miyazaki’s previous films.  The protagonist is a young woman who learns to grow up over the course of the narrative, similar to the heroines of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Spirited Away (2001).  She lives in a village that has old-fashioned architecture but is surrounded by futuristic technology, bringing to mind the settings of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), while the war being waged just outside of town resembles the background action of both of those films as well as Princess Mononoke (1997).  One of Howl’s main antagonists is an imposingly blobby old lady who recalls the bathhouse owner from Spirited Away, and her shadowy henchmen feel like they could’ve stepped out of that film as well. 

The comparisons between elements of Howl’s Moving Castle and previous Studio Ghibli productions could fill an entire blog post.  For better and for worse, this may be Miyazaki’s most characteristic film.  Some of the variations on the director’s usual tropes are inspired, while others occasionally make Howl feel like a time-marking greatest hits collection.  The familiar coming-of-age structure gets an inventive workout, with heroine Sophie being literally forced to grow up after being afflicted with a curse that turns her into a 90-year old woman.  Her occasional sudden changes in age and appearance are as unpredictable as they are vividly animated.  Many of the other characters undergo transformations – the titular castle owner, for example, turns into a sinister, hulking bird before flying into combat – and while this is nothing new for Miyazaki fans, it does play to Studio Ghibli’s undeniable skill for vibrant, colorful imagery and Miyazaki’s talent for creating memorably surreal creature animations.  Other warmed-over Miyazaki tropes fare less well in Howl.  The ecstatic “everybody turns into their true form by finding their one true love” ending doesn’t have the emotional resonance that Miyazaki was clearly aiming for, largely because it feels like a rerun of the endings of both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

The biggest problem with Howl’s Moving Castle is not its overly familiar feeling – and it should be noted that although the film feels very typical of Miyazaki’s style, it couldn’t be mistaken for the work of any other director – but its convoluted narrative and occasionally awkward pacing.  A number of critics, including Roger Ebert, found Howl to be baffling; when I saw it during its theatrical run, I felt that it was almost completely impenetrable.  On second viewing, I realized that the film is not hard to follow so much as it is overstuffed.  While the film’s epic expansiveness is part of what makes it feel so breathtakingly cinematic, there is simply too much going on, and the themes and characterizations are ultimately less focused than in Miyazaki’s finest work.  A lot of plot and thematic elements are introduced without being followed through on.  One scene has the conjuror Howl petulantly complaining about an accidental and unwanted change to his appearance.  The scene is exceptionally well realized in its own right, with Howl surrounded by a baroque array of random trinkets like the world’s most fantastically spoiled teenager, but the character’s vanity, which is given so much weight in this moment, is barely mentioned in the rest of the film.  It’s fine that Miyazaki didn’t turn Howl’s character arc into an obvious “don’t be a narcissist” message, except that one has the impression that this was the original intention and the film simply ran out of room for it.  Later on, a climactic revelation that a haunted, radish-headed scarecrow’s true form is a handsome prince that is in love with Sophie is an awkward conclusion to a storyline that was never really introduced.

Narrative has never been Miyazaki’s strong suit, and it’s no surprise that his masterpiece, Spirited Away, is also his least plot-heavy film (aside from perhaps My Neighbor Totoro).  Spirited Away is Miyazaki at his best because its dream logic structuring requires only the thinnest thread of plot, allowing the mesmerizing animation to take over without any unnecessary story elements getting in the way of the experience.  Contemporaneous mood pieces like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 (2004) are hardly less dense than Howl’s Moving Castle, but they use their minimal plots as launching pads for their directors’ spellbinding tangents, while Miyazaki’s singular imagery is weighed down by an excess of story.  Many of Miyazaki’s previous fantasy films, from Nausicaa to Mononoke, are poorly structured, but it is especially disappointing to see him revert to heavy convolution so quickly after he successfully abandoned conventional narrative structure with Spirited Away.

Despite these flaws, Howl’s Moving Castle is a must-see for anyone interested in animation or the fantasy genre.  There are enough extraordinary images in the film to make up for the randomness of the storytelling; even when a stale Miyazaki trope is the focus of a scene, there is usually something amazing to look at somewhere on the screen.  As usual, Studio Ghibli has somehow managed to top their previous work in terms of sheer grandeur and exotic beauty, and they have ambitiously incorporated a few computer-generated images into their mostly hand-drawn frames.  The titular castle, an enormous shambling mess of rusty gears and oddly jutting metals, may be the single most impressive of all of the studio’s creations.  Even at its most familiar, Hayao Miyazaki’s work is tremendously offbeat and charming.

UP NEXT  Ponyo

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Masterpiece Test: Grand Illusion

Year of Release  1937
Country  France
Length  114 min.
Director  Jean Renoir
Screenwriters  Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak
Cinematographer  Christian Matras
Editors  Marthe Huguet and Marguerite Renoir
Art Director  Eugene Lourie
Costume Designer  Rene Decrais
Cast  Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio, Erich von Stroheim, Dita Parlo

There was a time when Grand Illusion was considered one of the best, if not the single best, films of all time.  It was the first non-English language to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.  At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, the film was one of ten declared to be the most “artistically fulfilled” in the world’s first international poll of critics and filmmakers.  On The Dick Cavett Show, Orson Welles named it as one of the movies he would take with him of the “ark” (he couldn’t even come up with an equal choice, eventually blurting out “…and something else”).  Woody Allen frequently cites it as the best film ever made.  And it was the very first entry in the prestigious Criterion Collection, a group of DVDs that is as close as our cinema culture is going to come to an official list of the greatest films ever made.

While Grand Illusion is still generally considered by most serious cineastes to be a great film, its status has nonetheless decreased in recent years.  The reputation of Jean Renoir’s film has been eclipsed by that of his own Rules of the Game (1939), which Paul Schrader declared to be greatest film of all time in the essay that inspired this series of “Masterpiece Tests”, and by Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), the film that virtually always tops Sight and Sound’s once-in-a-decade critic and filmmaker poll of cinema’s ten greatest works.  In an issue of the seminal film magazine Cahiers du cinema Francois Truffaut described Grand Illusion as “the least eccentric of all of Renoir’s French movies,” and this seems to have influenced the way that most people think of the film today; a great film, sure, but a safe classic to be assigned for homework rather than something with any real contemporary resonance.

It is true that Grand Illusion is one of Renoir’s more classically styled films.  It doesn’t have the radical polyphonic structure of Rules of the Game, or the insouciant wit of Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), and it is not as flamboyantly quirky as something like La chienne (1931) or The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936).  Nor does the film qualify as a summation of everything that the cinema was capable of up to that point, the way that Citizen Kane does.  There is no flashy deep focus cinematography or rapid montage editing in Grand Illusion, and there is nothing in the film’s style that would obviously alienate a “bourgeois” audience.

And yet Grand Illusion is a war film without a single battle scene, a film made in the middle of WWII that features sympathetic characters on both sides, and from all social classes, of its WWI setting.  Renoir and Charles Spaak’s script quietly defies the usual three-act structure, featuring a final set of scenes too long and too integral to the film’s narrative to be considered an epilogue.  Practically all of the film’s characters are in the military, but they virtually never show open hostility toward each other or regard their foreign opponents as the enemy.  While some of the German soldiers betray early hints of elements of the future Nazi ideology, they are largely depicted as men just doing their jobs, and in some respects they seem to take the gentlemanly etiquette of old-fashioned war more seriously than their French counterparts.  In one scene the German prison guards are shown subsisting on bread, water, and gruel, while their French prisoners are allowed to eat full meals, Renoir simultaneously reminding the viewer of the civility of pre-WWII combat and empathetically suggesting one of the base causes of German frustration that led to the barbarism of WWII. 

Grand Illusion is about the importance of peace and human civility, and it is full of nostalgia for the gentlemanly code of behavior that existed among foreign soldiers prior to WWII.  (It’s no wonder that Welles loved the film, as the characters in his own movies were so often haunted by the loss of their personal Edens.)  Still, Renoir is no fool, and he knows that the layer of graciousness and good manners of by-the-book military protocol was only a thin cover up for the brutality of war.  The “grand illusion” of the title is the idea that international conflicts can be resolved by whichever side plays the game the best, and that both sides will simply go back to being friends when the mess of the war is over.  Although only one character is shot onscreen (while creating a distraction to allow two of his friends to make a prison break), and no actual battle is depicted, Grand Illusion doesn’t let viewers forget the violent toll that war takes on soldiers and their families – not that 1937 audiences would need to be reminded.

Renoir’s morally complex and multi-faceted attitude toward the human cost of war is perhaps best summed up in the character of German Captain Rauffenstein, portrayed by Erich von Stroheim.  Of all the characters in the film, Rauffenstein is the one who believes most deeply in preserving a gentlemanly code of conduct during wartime.  The Captain is first shown inviting two gunned-down French soldiers – the working-class lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the aristocratic Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) – to a formal dinner, introducing them to their prison in the most polite way imaginable.  The festivities are interrupted by the awkwardly-timed news that another French soldier died during an aerial skirmish; this prompts Rauffenstein to insist with great solemnity on a moment of silence.  This ironic situation would’ve most likely been played for dark laughs in a post-Dr. Strangelove (1964) war film, as the contrast between the harshness of the situation and the aristocratic formality of Rauffenstein’s attitude toward it is indeed absurd.  But Renoir’s moral compass is too strong to make light of the deceased soldier’s plight, and he manages to poke holes in Rauffenstein’s attitude without holding him in contempt; indeed, Rauffenstein is simultaneously the character in the film who is most out of touch with the harsh realities of war, and the one who is the most sympathetic.  His ideals are noble, but they have no place on the battlefield, and they will be obsolete after his country is devastated at war’s end.

The complex characterization of Rauffenstein is aided immensely by the tragic weight of Stroheim’s performance.  With his monocle and regal military outfit, Rauffenstein is the very image of nobility, but his gloves cover burn marks and his clunky neck brace provides a constant reminder of how out of step the character’s aristocratic attitude is with the realities of his situation.  Although Renoir clearly recognizes the absurdity of Rauffenstein’s appearance, he refuses to ridicule the character – in much the same way that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would go on to simultaneously satirize and emphasize with their militaristic main character in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) – and Stroheim’s sensitive, fully lived-in performance transforms this comic character into a tragic one.  It is one of the greatest performances in cinema history.  Rauffenstein’s final appearance, as he comforts Boedieu on his death bed after being forced (from the German Captain’s understandable perspective) to shoot him, is a real emotional knockout.

The aforementioned prison hospital scene is so strong, and so obviously an emotional climax, that it seems strange on first viewing that Renoir doesn’t simply end the film there.  He instead cuts to the story of the two French prisoners, Marechal and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), whom Boeldieu gave his life for.  But while it might have been effective enough for the film to simply confirm that Marechal and Rosenthal escaped from the German prison camp, following their subsequent adventures proves crucial to the points that Renoir is trying to make.  Hungry, cold, and tired, the two French soldiers eventually manage to find lodging with a German farm woman (Dita Parlo) who agrees to hide them until they are ready to move on.  Aside from allowing for some of the film’s most stunning imagery (one doesn’t think of Grand Illusion as a particularly “composed” film, but cinematographer Christian Matras captures many casually beautiful shots), this section of the film provides more reminders of the toll that war takes on families.  In one heartbreaking moment, the farmer tells the soldiers about her various family members who have died in the war, the camera tracking across their pictures and finally settling on an empty dinner table far too big for just the farmer and her daughter. 

With the narrative structure of his film, Renoir is suggesting that the “grand illusion” of the aristocratic nobles represented by Rauffenstein is over, and that the true story of war lies with both the working grunts represented by Marechal and Rosenthal, and the suffering families represented by the farmer.  Renoir’s approach is not simplistically schematic; all of these characters are fully rounded and complex, with the working-class Marechal believing just as strongly as Rauffenstein that the end of the war will simply bring things back to “normal.”  Obviously that is not the way that history worked out, but Renoir ends the film on a graceful note of hope, with the German gunmen who have been hunting down Marechal and Rosenthal pausing and allowing them to live as they cross the border into neutral Switzerland.  The rules are absurd – as Rosenthal points out, the borders are manmade and unnatural – but at least they allow opportunities for the simple human decency that modern warfare tends to stamp out.  That lesson is still as vital today as it was in 1937, and so is Grand Illusion.

Grand Illusion passes the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  From a film starring Erich von Stroheim to a film that he directed, Greed.