Thursday, 31 May 2012

TV REVIEW: Deadwood: Season 2 (2005)

WARNING *major series spoilers contained*

The second season of HBO's gritty western drama delivers on the promise of the first season. This season follows on with the double-dealing, scheming folk of Deadwood encountered in the previous season and adds in some new characters and threats into the mix. With Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) undertaking Sheriff duties, Al Swearengen (the fantastic Ian McShane) has found himself an uneasy ally of the duo. And as Cy Tolliver's (Powers Boothe) new partnership with the powerful Hearst organisation upon the arrival of the creepy Francis Wolcott (Garrett Dillahunt) as his representative bring new threats to the camp. For Bullock, the arrival of his wife Martha (Anna Gunn) and his son bring about an awkward and ultimately tragic subplot that exhibits some of the series most tender moments to date.

This second season successfully builds on a powerful first season with a 12-episode run that contains all of the intriguing plot points that made the first season so enthralling. The set design continues to be fantasic, the writing remains top notch and the addition of new cast members only serve to expand on an alreadly impressively well-thought out  and fully realised world. The political tension within the camp remains the shows most fascinating central aspect, with Tolliver and Swearengen constantly at odds. Al's scheming ways are put on ice early on this season as gall stone trouble leaves him on the verge of death. The scenes of 'surgery' are some of the series most cringe-inducing, but are some of the most humourous scenes of the series to date as are Al's later conversations with the Indian. Far less humourous is the Seth's storyline this season. The arrival of his wife have forced him to distance himself from Alma (Molly Parker) and her pregnancy complicates issues further. The finest moment of the season is a fantastically composed scene that is easily one of the most tragically beautiful and superbly edited sequences ever seen on screen where the town's amusement with a penny-farthing (remember it's 1877), a horse breaking loose and Bullock's young son all collide in a shockingly raw scene that defines the magnificence and artistic craft of this show. This seasons stand out character is Garrett Dillahunt's Wolcott whose monstrous ways are chillingly displayed early on in the season, but his tortured and complex personality are one of the seasons crowning achievements and anger turns to sympathy for a very flawed and character who cannot be saved.

To go into every plot in detail would take an age and it only serves as a testament to the strength of Deadwood's writing. There is so much going on in each episode and no character is simply a stereotypical one dimensional character. Even characters like Jane (Robin Weigert), Doc (Brad Dourif) and Trixie (Paula Malcomson), who get generally little to do this season, yet remain pivotal characters in the broader context of the series as bridging characters. Deadwood's second season is as good as its first, wonderfully well made, engrossing but not for the faint of heart.


FILM REVIEW: The Dictator (2012)

Director: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley and John C. Reilly.
Running Time: 83 minutes
Genre: Comedy

The Dictator could have been a great satirical comic piece that highlights flaws of a modern political world in turmoil. Instead we get a comedy that is big, dumb and not clever in the slightest. It turns out to be a great waste of the talented Baron Cohen and of a great premise, which should have been ripe for political and social parody. Instead we are offered a sluggish and obvious comedy that has more misses that hits. 

Baron Cohen's Admiral General Aladeen is the leader of the fictional country, the Republic of Wadiya. Likened to mega-rich Middle-Eastern countries with extravagant leaders, Aladeen's spoilt child leadership leads to threats from the U.S. and the U.N., whom threaten his oppressive leadership and summon him to the U.N. Headquarters in New York. Cue his betrayal and the eventual culture clash comedy we haven't seen a thousand times before. Sure some of his early insults aimed at environmentalist feminist Zoey (Anna Faris) are amusing, but it becomes a tired act quickly even in a film that is on the short side as it is. There are subtle moments of humour sparsely spaced out in the film, but they are sidelined in set pieces that act only to be crude and shocking (the helicopter trip, the zip-line scene) and are vitally not very funny. The most disappointing aspect of the film is how little it actually has to say about dictatorship and democracy, instead the focus is shifted to the joys of masturbating for the first time and assassinating anyone who does give Aladeen his way. While a speech at the end comes close to highlighting such political ironies, the preceding hour does very little to be anything more than a Don't Mess With the Zohan* rehash (although aimed at a purely adult audience, unlike Sandler's). 

After Borat and Bruno, the team of Charles and Baron Cohen have shown little in the way in progression. They have again settled for crude and shocking humour. Because of this, The Dictator is a disappointing film on so many levels. The political commentary is missing, the gags are not as funny as they want to be (oh look, another penis) and while Baron Cohen is a likeable screen presence (even as a cruel dictator), there is a lack of genuinely funny material and overuse of repetitive gags and a waster of talent (Ben Kingsley in particular) render this a dud.


* I haven't seen Don't Mess With the Zohan (thankfully), but from the trailer they look pretty similar in terms of rubishness.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

FILM REVIEW: Monument Ava (aka Snitch) (1998)

Director: Ted Demme
Starring: Denis Leary, Colm Meany, Ian Hart, Martin Sheen and Famke Janssen.
Running Time: 93 minutes
Genre: Crime drama

A film I had never heard of until it was recommended to me on a film website, the late Ted Demme's 1998 Monument Ave. is a solid, if unspectacular crime drama, that has enough going for it through strong central performances (by Denis Leary in particular) to soften the traditional guises of the crime genre setting. 

The story follows Bobby (Leary) and his role in the Boston crime scene, where he works for the ruthless Jackie (Colm Meany) and just so happens to sleep with his girlfriend Katy (Famke Janssen). Bobby's loyalty to Jackie is tested by a murder of one of Bobby's associates, Teddy (Billy Crudup), right in front of him and his crew after his release from prison. As the police begin to interfere and Jackie becomes even more paranoid, Bobby longs to escape from his life of crime with Katy. All sound familiar? It does because it has been done to a certain degree before. Irish mob thrillers, while mainly playing second to the Italian mob film (perhaps The Departed as an exception) have always presented darker, grittier sides of crime lifestyle, portraying a more low-level criminality and it is no exception here. It is all run-of-the-mill stuff, and while Leary's performance is one of his better and more focused portrayals, the material never rises above solid into anything genuinely remarkable or memorable. 

A standard thriller. Monument Ave. has a good cast that are slightly let down by a generic set-up and finish. There are moments that suggest at something better could have been done with this film, and is evident in Leary's strong central performance, but the rest of the material never quite get to that level. A missed opportunity. 


FILM REVIEW: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Director: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Catherine McCormack, Cary Elwes and Udo Kier
Running Time: 92 minutes
Genre: Meta-fictional horror

Shadow of the Vampire is a fictional take on the making of F.W. Murnau's (John Malkovich) classic 1922 horror film, Nosferatu. The cast and crew are summoned to an old Slovak castle by the actor who will portray Nosferatu, Max Schreck (Oscar nominated Willem Dafoe who is wonderfully creepy), a supposed method actor who will stay in character throughout the film shoot. As the production arrives at the castle, proceedings take a turn for the surreal with Schreck's erratic behaviour seemingly behind some unsavoury events. 

E. Elias Merhige's film has a wonderful atmosphere to it, this uniquely set tale is in essence set up in such a way that echoes of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, of which Nosferatu was based on, but had the name changed due to it being an unauthorized adaption. As Murnau and his crew descend onto foreign territory, the sense of foreboding deepens as Schreck's behavior becomes stranger and as cast and crew members go missing/or are traumatized. A terrific sequence where Schreck tells of his history as a vampire is an acting master class by Dafoe, as Schreck nonchalantly catches and feasts upon a bat at the discussions end. As the full story begins to come to the light on Murnau and Schreck's dealings, a bloody finale ensues that wraps up proceedings neatly that allows the meta-fiction of the narrative to come full circle (the film is completed, but lots of people die).

Merhige has crafted a highly accomplished, atmospheric horror film that is held together primarily by the terrific performances by Willem Dafoe, the ever-reliable Malkovich and a strong cast of supporting characters. While the film has a great atmosphere and Dafoe is genuinely creepy, we never get the full promise of his horrific nature, or the scares to go with being a horror film. Despite this, Shadow of the Vampire is a entertaining peculiarity that rarely comes around, with a focus on atmosphere rather than simple chills and for that it deserves just credit.


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

TV REVIEW: Deadwood: Season 1 (2004)

WARNING *major series spoilers contained within*

A show that was cut short well before its time was HBO's grippingly authentic Western drama, Deadwood, which only ran for three seasons between 2004 and 2006. Perhaps looking back now, it is easy to see why Deadwood was cancelled, even in its first season. The stunning design of the show and attention to detail must have made the show a financial burden, that mixed with a more contemplative storyline rather than other shows out at the time like the iconic The Sopranos, which made it difficult for the show to emerge as nothing else other than "the new show from the channel that did The Sopranos". Don't be put off however, Deadwood is a classic of modern television. A show full of memorable characters, tense stand-off's and one of the finest antagonists to ever grace the small screen in the shape of Ian McShane's Al Swearengen.

While being no expert on the subject, Deadwood draws heavily from real life events in 1870's Deadwood, an actual place where the gold-rush prospectors flocked to in order to make their fortunes. The shows primary figure is Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who along with his business partner Sol Star (John Hawkes) set up a new hardware business in the town and come across various well meaning to shady and dangerous figures of the town. At the forefront of these characters is The Gem Saloon owner Al Swearengen, who is without a doubt the series main draw with his evil cunning and filth laden jibes at anyone who gets in his way. His relationship with the tragic Trixie (Paula Malcomson) is a centerpiece of the series. Their attraction to one another defies logic and will have you rooting for Trixie to leave him, but she knows no better and keeps returning to his side. Early in the series, Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) is set up as a main ally of Seth's, but his shock demise early serves as a reminded that in Deadwood, no one is sacred. Left behind are Charlie Utter (the great Dayton Callie) and series favourite Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert, who manages to pull off the strong woman and the more tender moments with great effect), who come to be pillars of the community for different reasons. 

The arrival of rival saloon owners also provide another challenge for Al, in the form of the ruthless Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) and his well knitted, but breaking apart crew of Joanie (Kim Dickens) and Eddie (Ricky Jay). Cy's ruthlessness is displayed shockingly in an encounter with two young con artists, which also reinforces Joanie's doubts about her life at The Bella Union. The central love story of the series is the burgeoning relationship between Seth and recently widowed   (by Al's doing) Alma Garret (Molly Parker). It could be said that the show does not reach the explosive level of other HBO shows like The Sopranos and subsequent shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, but Deadwood's focus on humanity in very ambiguous and dark times is more than effective. Bullocks attempts to refrain from his more naturally violent ways rears it head throughout and culminated in Alma's thieving father losing several teeth. Central to making Deadwood such a powerful show is the depth and quality of supporting characters involved. From Al's henchmen Dan (W. Earl Brown) and Johnny (Sean Bridgers) to the various townsfolk of Deadwood, like Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), whose falling apart in later parts of the season becomes one of the more tragic storylines, to the sneaky E.B. Farnum  (William Sanderson), Al's pawn. 

Deadwood is a terrifically crafted piece of television. The levels of detail paid to the most basic of aspects of this show are staggering. From the authentic feel of the 1870's setting to the retelling of famous Wild West characters lives, this show presents a fully realistic and engrossing vision of a bygone time. The series tagline is "A hell of a place to make your fortune", that could not be more true of the dangerous environment these characters are a part of. The series finishes with a nice set-up for the second season with the fears (for Al in particular) of annexation and the impending arrival of Seth's wife (despite his love affair with Alma). Life, no doubt, will only get tougher in Deadwood.