Thursday, March 27, 2014

Movie Review: Nebraska

Nebraska, director Alexander Payne’s sixth feature, is an absorbing if uneasy mix of family pathos, misanthropic humor, and mannered, faux-poetic cinematic style. Bruce Dern stars as a senile, alcoholic retiree who lives in Montana with his beleaguered wife (June Squibb). He’s convinced he’s won a magazine clearinghouse sweepstakes, and he refuses to listen to anyone who tells him otherwise. Come hell or high water, he’s determined to make the trip to the clearinghouse’s offices in Nebraska to collect the million-dollar prize. After his efforts to walk the 800-mile distance have been thwarted a few times, the younger of his two sons (Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Forte) decides to put the matter to rest and drive him. The two get waylaid in their old Nebraska hometown, where they’re joined by the wife and the older son (Bob Odenkirk) for an impromptu reunion with family and old friends. At its center, the film is a parable about catering to a loved one’s illusions, and how it can be the most generous thing a person can do. However, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson surround the sentimental family drama with cruel, sneering humor that caricatures the hometown friends and relatives as a bunch of venal hicks. More discord comes from the pretentiousness of the black-and-white cinematography, deliberately slow pace, and desolate landscape visuals. The directorial style indicates a filmmaker far more concerned with being applauded for artistry than serving his material. But for all of Payne’s missteps, he makes the pathos of the father-son relationship work, and a couple of comedy scenes--the wife’s cemetery visit, and the sons’ botched effort to reclaim their father’s old air compressor--are brought off well. Payne also gets good work from the cast. June Squibb’s hilarious performance as the irascible, sharp-tongued wife is particularly impressive. Phedon Papamichael is the film’s director of photography, and Mark Orton provided the musical score.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TV Review: The Blacklist: "The Alchemist"

"The Alchemist," directed by Vince Misiano from a teleplay by Anthony Sparks, shows The Blacklist in its idle mode, and that's not an entertaining one. This episode, the series' twelfth, incrementally advances Reddington (James Spader)'s story while having Keen (Megan Boone) track down the villain of the week. The bad guy this time out is a former genetics researcher (Ryan O'Nan) who enables his über-criminal clientéle to fake their deaths and begin new identities. He knows the authorities need corpses to close their books, so, in order to deceive the forensic investigators, he uses his expertise to fake DNA traces and other markers on murdered stand-ins. The plotting Sparks gives the pursuit lacks twists and suspense. Reddington, on the other hand, is still trying to get to the bottom of the treachery that led to the mayhem of the "Anslo Garrick" two-parter. He found the mole in his operation in the previous episode, and now he's after the one in the FBI's. Just as in that last episode, producer Jon Bokenkamp has again decided not to treat the turncoat's identity as a mystery with which to tease the viewer. We know that Reddington's looking, we see him with his private cadre of hacker-investigators, and then we find out who the mole is. It's not very engaging, and apart from a amusing bit about real-life Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange, Spader's lines lack their usual zing. The episode is further brought down by the time spent on Keen and fellow agent Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff)'s respective private soap operas. Ressler finds out his ex-fiancée has ditched her current one because of renewed interest in him, and Keen's marital issues go to a new level when her husband takes an interest in a woman who introduced herself to him at a party. The latter is part of a greater conspiracy, and the first probably is, too, but the supporting characters just aren't compelling enough to make this material of interest. The show is at its best when Spader's Reddington is center stage, and episodes like this one are just marking time until it gets back to that.

View the episode here

Reviews of other episodes of The Blacklist:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

TV Review: The Blacklist: "The Good Samaritan Killer"

This installment (Season 1, Episode 11), with a teleplay by Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, is two stories in one.

The first (and far more interesting) involves Reddington (James Spader) tracking down those responsible for his abduction and torture in the previous episode. His ultimate goal is to determine who betrayed him and made the abduction possible. Playing vicious ruthlessness has always come easy to Spader, and his talent for it hasn’t dimmed. Reddington is nothing less than frightening when confronting the various parties in the abduction plot. Margolis, Sonnier, producer Jon Bokenkamp, and director Dan Lerner don’t shy away from the frequently brutal violence he employs, and Spader’s unholy calm in these moments gives it a particular jolt. The mystery of who betrayed Reddington could probably have been handled better. Margolis and Sonnier don’t tease the audience with the person’s identity, or create any suspense working towards the revelation. There’s a lot of tension in the individual scenes, but they don’t really build to a greater whole. But those individual scenes are often ingeniously nasty, and it’s hard to imagine anyone pulling them off better than Spader.

The second story, which gives the episode its title, involves a serial killer (Frank Whaley) that Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) is profiling and tracking for the F. B. I. It’s pretty formula stuff. The weaknesses, both large and small, of Boone’s Keen are present. She is as affectless as a Clint Eastwood character when it comes to violence--she shoots antagonists without blinking an eye or suffering misgivings afterward--but the show never uses it to make a larger point about the character. At least with Reddington, it’s clear he’s supposed to be monstrous. And while it’s a minor matter, one wishes Boone would lose that godawful wig--it makes her look like a pistol-packing Erin Burnett.

With regard to future episodes, the final scene has it appear as if the series' set-up will be back in play: Reddington will again be collaborating with Keen and the F. B. I. in taking out the figures who are part of his “blacklist.” And there’s one new element that holds a lot of promise: the mysterious figure (Alan Alda) who ordered Reddington’s abduction is now apparently a series regular. Alda is always terrific at playing low-key sinister, and it looks like he’s going to have plenty of opportunities. One can't wait.

Click here to watch the episode.

Reviews of other episodes of The Blacklist:

Thursday, January 9, 2014

TV Review: The Blacklist: "Pilot"

The TV series The Blacklist, created by Jon Bokenkamp, has a solid pulp-adventure premise. Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), once a rising star in the U. S. military/intelligence establishment, is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous criminals. After two decades of eluding capture, he voluntarily turns himself in to the F. B. I. But he’s not interested in surrendering himself to the criminal justice system. He has what he calls “The Blacklist,” a list of international criminals and terrorists whom he wants taken out. The F. B. I. grudgingly agrees to collaborate with him in neutralizing these individuals. However, Reddington’s motives are not entirely altruistic. He occasionally manipulates the F. B. I. for personal ends. He also demands that he deal exclusively with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a rookie criminal profiler in whom he has an unspecified albeit paternal-seeming interest. The episodes promise a series of engaging conflicts: flamboyant villains, intrigue in Reddington’s dealings with the F. B. I., and the continuing mystery of his interest in Keen.

The show has plenty more going for it. Jon Bokenkamp and the other producers are committed to high production values, and one can count on at least one bravura action set piece per episode. The stunt, effects, and location work are kept on a par with those in feature films. Best of all, the series is designed as a showcase for star James Spader. He understands how to use his upper-class bearing for both comic and dramatic effects, and he’s dazzling. His impeccable timing makes the character’s propensity for smug, condescending rejoinders hilarious. However, he also knows how to play his patrician manner for gravitas, and he’s riveting in the character’s more earnest moments. His knack for portraying sinister almost goes without saying. One might wish that he was paired with a livelier actor than Megan Boone--she’s a rather bland presence--but she’s adequate to the task of providing him a foil.

The Blacklist’s initial episode, “Pilot,” does a fine job of creating a foundation for the series. Jon Bokenkamp’s teleplay deftly gets all the series elements described above rolling. This first adventure involves an Eastern European terrorist who is looking to explode a chemical bomb in Washington, D. C., and it’s seamlessly integrated with the show’s introductory material. Bokenkamp’s handling of the more ambiguous story points is also strong, such as the open question of the extent that Reddington is orchestrating the villain’s actions rather than thwarting them. There are some flaws. The interrogation scenes between Reddington and Keen too closely recall those between the Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster characters in The Silence of the Lambs. Keen also has some violent moments, and the ruthless efficiency she displays doesn’t fit the novice everywoman characterization the show otherwise gives her. But director Joe Carnahan keeps things brisk, and his handling of the two major action sequences—a motorcade ambush on a bridge, and the climactic chase through the Washington, D. C. streets—is first-rate. Overall, this first installment is a terrific send-off for the program. Click here to watch.

Reviews of other The Blacklist episodes:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

TV Review: The Avengers: "Too Many Christmas Trees"

The Avengers embraced surrealist and absurdist elements, but it was never locked into any one use of them. The show was perfectly comfortable playing them for either humor or suspense. “Too Many Christmas Trees” (Season 4, Episode 13) sticks pretty firmly to the latter, but it doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously--the episode seems to revel in the artifice those elements require. Tony Williamson’s teleplay begins with the show’s hero John Steed (Patrick Macnee) beset upon by nightmares filled with Christmas imagery: numerous decorated trees, wrapped presents, and a particularly ghoulish Santa Claus. Most disturbingly, the dreams also anticipate the future. The décor in the dreams matches that of a weekend-long Christmas retreat Steed and his partner Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) later attend, and Steed also foresees the death of a fellow intelligence agent. His dreams while at the retreat are even more unsettling--one features his death. Peel suspects something outlandishly sinister is afoot, and she’s of course right. The director, Roy Ward Baker, effectively conveys the unreality of the dream sequences by making them conspicuously theatrical and hyperbolic. The odd rhythm he gives them is further heightened by the naturalistic pacing of the other scenes. They are wonderfully bizarre, and they help make the story’s mystery an eerie delight. One is also happy that the show’s trademark humor is very much on the display, from the in-joke about Cathy Gale, Peel’s predecessor as Steed’s partner, to the amusing costumes at the Dickens-themed masquerade party at the retreat. (Diana Rigg is the most fetching Oliver Twist one will ever see.) The funniest moment, though, comes at the end, when a secret weapon Steed gives Peel makes its presence known in a most anticlimactic way. The episode, which first aired on Christmas Day, 1965, is one of the series’ high points.

Reviews of other The Avengers episodes:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

TV Review: The Avengers: "Death at Bargain Prices"

The fourth season of The Avengers saw Diana Rigg's Emma Peel take over the leading lady role from Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale. The series then entered the period it's most famous for. As compelling as Blackman was, she lacked Rigg's talent for wry humor. The flirtatious back-and-forth between Rigg's Peel and John Steed (Patrick Macnee), the series hero, was far wittier, and the lighter tone it brought to the series quickly spread to the stories. Tongue-in-cheek humor became as much a mainstay of the adventure plots as the suspense. "Death at Bargain Prices," Rigg's fourth episode, is a terrific example of how quickly the show was transformed after her arrival. Producer Brian Clemens' teleplay takes a standard pulp adventure plot--the heroes must stop a madman who is scheming to destroy London with a hidden bomb--and has fun with it by setting the bulk of the action in a department store. Peel goes undercover as a salesgirl to investigate, and her initial stationing in the lingerie department sets the stage for some hilariously saucy banter with Steed. The store setting also provides fresh opportunities for the action. The toy, food, camping, sporting goods, and home appliances departments all have their roles to play before the madman's plot is foiled. My favorite bit is when Steed escapes the villain's henchmen with a toy gun that fires ping-pong balls. Clemens, director Charles Crichton, and the stars all recognize that adventure stories can offer more than just action and suspense--they're at their best when they provide wit, charm, and a sense of fun as well. It's a great hour of series TV. The episode first aired in England on October 23, 1965.

Reviews of other The Avengers episodes:

Monday, January 6, 2014

Movie Review: The Wolverine

The Wolverine is the sixth film in the X-Men movie franchise, and the second solo outing for the title character (Hugh Jackman). It’s also the best film in the series since X2: X-Men United back in 2002. The picture, directed by James Mangold from a script credited to Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, recaptures the dynamic that made the character compelling in that film and the franchise’s first outing. Better yet, the picture presents that dynamic in new ways. Wolverine is again haunted by his past, although this time by guilt over a death he caused, and he’s still caught in the conflict between his compulsively violent nature, his hatred of it, and the sense of duty that inevitably gives that violence an outlet. Jackman’s performance isn’t as fresh as it once was, but he still plays the character quite well. Most of the story takes place in Japan, and the unfamiliar locations provide for some entertaining action set pieces. The best is an extended fight-and-chase sequence that begins at a funeral in a Buddhist temple, continues into the Tokyo streets, and climaxes on the roof of a moving 200-mile-per-hour bullet train. The plotting isn’t especially coherent; the two main story threads--the hero’s efforts to save a Japanese heiress (Tao Okamoto) from assassination, and keeping a sinister Russian doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova) from stealing his healing abilities--never comfortably weave together. But until a silly, overblown science-fiction action finale, the film is compelling from scene to scene. The Japanese setting and several of the characters (although not the story) are inspired by a four-part 1982 Wolverine comic-book series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. (For a review of that series, click here.)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

TV Review: The Avengers: "Don't Look Behind You"

“Don’t Look Behind You,” the 12th episode from The Avengers’ third season, is one of the series’ most suspenseful. The show’s heroine, Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), is invited to spend the weekend at the country estate of a reclusive scholar. However, once there, she finds her host has departed. Things at the house get stranger and stranger, until it becomes clear she was lured there by a vengeful criminal who’s obsessed with her. The teleplay, by Brian Clemens, features some remarkable absurdist characters, specifically the disturbed young actress (Janine Gray) who greets Gale at the house, and an obnoxious stranded motorist (Kenneth Colley), who gets repeatedly caught up in fantasies of himself as celebrity filmmakers. Peter Hammond, who directed, uses the house interiors and its oddball décor for maximum atmospheric effect. The viewer is made to feel one with Gale and her feeling that she’s stepped into an unpredictable madhouse from which there’s no escape. Hammond also provides some striking surrealist moments in the climax. The montage of photos of Gale--some mutilated, some not--when the villain finally attacks her is especially memorable. Gale's partner John Steed (Patrick Macnee) is absent for most of the story. He appears only in the opening scenes and the finale. The episode was remade as “The Joker” in the show’s fifth season, with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in Cathy Gale’s place.

Reviews of other episodes of The Avengers:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Fiction Review: Robert E. Howard, "Black Colossus"

The June 1933 issue of Weird Tales (pictured) featured Robert E. Howard's "Black Colossus," the seventh story he wrote featuring his Conan the Barbarian hero, and the fourth to be published. It's a stunning piece of sex-and-violence, sword-and-sorcery pulp adventure. The opening scene owes a good deal to H. P. Lovecraft's work: the desolate landscape, the otherworldly ruins, and its premise of banished gods seeking to reclaim their dominion of our world. Howard's treatment of the last is far more reactionary than Lovecraft's typically open-ended approach--the heroic adventure genre more or less dictates the threat will be contained or defeated by the story's end--but as entertainment it's far more immediately satisfying. After the prologue, the setting shifts to the city of Khoraja some months later. It is under siege by nomadic tribes under the command of a mysterious sorcerer named Natohk, and they have captured its king. His young sister Yasmela, who rules the city in his stead, encounters Conan one evening. He is serving in Khoraja's defense as a mercenary, and Yasmela, following the advice of an oracle, puts him in command of the city's soldiers. The battle set pieces that follow are masterfully handled. Howard's prose is characteristically florid, but the flood of adjectives, similes, and metaphors never bog it down. If anything, the purple intensifies the story's pace. The climactic revelation of the sorcerer Natohk's connection to the banished gods of the story's opening is fairly predictable, but one may be so caught up with the bravura of the combat scenes that it may seem beside the point. If the rush of these sequences weren't enough, there's also the overt presence of sex. It's a source of a fair amount of the story's suspense, both in the threat of Yasmela's rape by Natohk, and in her increasing desire for Conan. Howard's ample inclusion of eroticized descriptions of the princess keep things heightened as well. He never fails to keep one turning the pages to see how all the story threads will play out. The piece is literary junk food, but it's a fine reminder of how tasty good junk food can be.

The story is currently in print in the Howard collection The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

Reviews of other stories by Robert E. Howard:

Friday, January 3, 2014

TV Review: Prime Suspect 1

The initial serial from the British TV series Prime Suspect is an absorbing, gritty police procedural. Helen Mirren stars as Jane Tennison, a Detective Chief Inspector with Scotland Yard. The homicide division in the station where she is assigned is exclusively male, and she feels sexual discrimination has kept her, despite her experience, from heading a murder investigation. That changes when the male DCI in charge of homicide dies from a heart attack. He had just opened an investigation into the rape, torture, and murder of a prostitute, and Tennison takes over from him. The transition is anything but smooth. Investigative errors result in the main suspect’s release. The homicide officers resent Tennison’s taking over, and one goes out of his way to sabotage her. She’s determined to excel in her new position, which creates stress in her relationships with her live-in boyfriend (Tom Wilkinson) and her family. And then the case turns out  much bigger than anyone thought. The murder wasn’t isolated; it’s the most recent work of a serial killer who’s struck all over England. Lynda La Plante’s teleplay is a solid crime story, but the serial as a whole is far from perfect. Some subplots are poorly worked out, and Christopher Menaul’s directing is mediocre. A thriller's pacing should be a little snappier. However, Mirren’s forceful, no-nonsense performance as Tennison keeps things compelling throughout. It’s a fine showcase for her. The series’ historical interest also makes it worthwhile--the Tennison character is the model for probably every female police detective on series TV since. The serial initially aired in Britain in April 1991. It was first shown to U. S. audiences as part of the PBS anthology series Mystery! in January and February of 1992.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Movie Review: Man of Steel

The comic-book hero Superman, created in the 1930s by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, gets the cinematic treatment once again in director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. The film is insufferably pompous: long on pretension, numbingly violent, and completely lacking in humor. Snyder tries to run as far as he can from the material’s origins as pulp adventure for children, and he seems to equate a grim tone with sophistication. The last movie featuring the character, Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns, also had a melancholy air. But it wasn’t afraid to play things for laughs on occasion, and Singer’s knack for poetic flourishes also helped to keep one engaged. Snyder’s film is oppressively somber and literal-minded. The story is stale, too. The screenplay, credited to David S. Goyer, from a story by him and Christopher Nolan, is just a reworking of the material from the first two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. The major difference is the absence of Lex Luthor, the earthbound villain played by Gene Hackman. Superman (Henry Cavill), a native of another planet, is sent to Earth as a baby when his world is destroyed. The different planetary conditions grant him superhuman powers, and he learns to cope and do right by them. He’s followed to our world by General Zod (Michael Shannon), a megalomaniac who leads a small cohort of refugees. Zod attempted to conquer their home planet before its destruction, and he now sets his sights on taking over Earth. It’s of course up to Superman to stop him. Violent spectacle (and CGI overkill) ensues. One's eyes glazeth over. The large cast includes Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and Richard Schiff, and as effective as all have been elsewhere, not one of them is memorable here. The elaborate production design (heavily reminiscent at points of H. R. Giger’s work on Alien) is by Alex McDowell.