Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Short Take: Detour

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1945 film Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, isn't quite the shoe-string effort movie lore has made it out to be. The shooting schedule was four weeks, not six days. The budget was approximately five times the widely reported $20,000. The film isn't conspicuously underproduced, either; apart from the unconvincing treatment of the New York City streets in an early scene, it actually looks better than most television programs from the black-and-white era. What movie lore gets right is that it is one of the best of the 1940s B-pictures--the low-budget second films in a theatrical double-bill. Tom Neal plays a New York nightclub pianist who's making his way across the country to rejoin his singer fiancée (Claudia Drake) in Los Angeles. A man he hitches a ride with dies in a roadside accident. Afraid he'll be arrested for murder, he disposes of the man's body and assumes the fellow's identity for the rest of the drive to California. Along the way, he picks up a female hitchhiker (Ann Savage) who knew the dead man and proceeds to blackmail him. Both characters are completely unsympathetic--he's surly and self-pitying, and she's an opportunistic shrew--but Ulmer and the actors get a compelling tension going between the pair. They make no secret of their mutual dislike (although she makes it known she's sexually available), and the suspense comes from seeing how the woman's conniving and bullying play out. Ann Savage's performance is especially striking. She projects a ferocious, almost predatory air that makes the character possibly the most frightening femme fatale ever. Ulmer's staging and camerawork are sleek and economical, and despite the thin plotting, he keeps this noir melodrama crisply paced. Admirably, he avoids playing the moments of death and violence for thrills. He also shows a surprising talent for musical scenes; the two featuring Claudia Drake are probably the best directed in the film. The screenplay is by Martin Goldsmith, from his 1939 novel.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Short Take: Nebraska

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

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 elder 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, deliberate 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 was the film’s director of photography. Mark Orton provided the musical score.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Short Take: The Blacklist, Season 1, Episode 12: "The Alchemist"

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

"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 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. 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.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Short Take: The Blacklist, Season 1, Episode 11: "The Good Samaritan Killer"

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

"The Good Samaritan Killer," Season 1, Episode 11, of The Blacklist, features a teleplay, by Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, which 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 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 FBI. It’s pretty formula stuff. The major weakness of Keen's characterization is present. She is as affectless as a Clint Eastwood character when it comes to violence--she shoots antagonists without blinking an eye or 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.

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. It looks like he’s going to have plenty of opportunities. One can't wait.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Film Review: The Blacklist, Season 1, Episode 1: "Pilot"

This review first appeared on Pol Culture.

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 FBI. 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 FBI grudgingly agrees to collaborate with him in neutralizing these individuals. But Reddington’s motives are not entirely altruistic. He occasionally manipulates the FBI for personal ends. He also demands that he deal exclusively with Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), a rookie profiler in whom he has an unspecified albeit paternal-seeming interest. The episodes promise a number of engaging conflicts: flamboyant villains, intrigue in Reddington’s dealings with the FBI, and the continuing mystery of his interest in Keen.

The show has plenty more going for it. 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. But 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 hitting sinister notes almost goes without saying. One might wish that he was paired with a livelier actor than Megan Boone--she’s rather bland--but she’s up 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. Bokenkamp’s teleplay deftly gets all the series elements described above rolling. This first adventure involves a 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.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Short Take: The Avengers, Season 4, Episode 13: "Too Many Christmas Trees"

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Avengers TV series 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) plagued with nightmares filled with Christmas imagery: multiple 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 includes 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 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 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 is used in a most anticlimactic way. The episode, which first aired on Christmas Day, 1965, is one of the series’ high points.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Short Take: The Avengers, Season 4, Episode 4: "Death at Bargain Prices"

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The fourth season of The Avengers TV series 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 by her arrival. Producer Brian Clemens' teleplay has a standard pulp adventure plot: the heroes must stop a madman scheming to destroy London with a hidden bomb. What makes the episode fun is the department-store setting. Peel goes undercover as a salesgirl to investigate, and her stationing in the lingerie department allows for some hilariously saucy banter with Steed. The 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 terrific hour of series TV. The episode first aired in England on October 23, 1965.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Short Take: The Wolverine

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Wolverine is the sixth film in the X-Men movie franchise, and the second solo outing for the title character. played by Hugh Jackman. It’s also the best film in the series since 2002's X2: X-Men United. 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. 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. The Japanese setting and several of the characters (although not the story) are taken from a four-part 1982 Wolverine comic-book series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Short Take: The Avengers, Season 3, Episode 12: "Don't Look Behind You"

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“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 a country estate. But 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 has 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 identify with Gale and her feeling that she’s stepped into a 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.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Short Take: "Black Colossus," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The June 1933 issue of Weird Tales (pictured) featured Robert E. Howard's "Black Colossus." It was 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 the premise of banished gods seeking to reestablish their rule over our world. Howard's treatment of the premise is far more reactionary than Lovecraft's. The heroic adventure genre more or less dictates the threat will be contained or defeated by the story's end, but as entertainment Howard's approach is more immediately satisfying. After the prologue, the setting shifts to the city of Khoraja some months later. It is under siege by nomadic tribes. They are under the command of a mysterious sorcerer named Natohk, and they have captured the city's king. Natohk's 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 heightens the story's pace. The climactic revelation of 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 seems 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. "Black Colossus" is literary junk food, but it's a fine reminder of how tasty good junk food can be.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Short Take: Prime Suspect, Season 1

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first season of 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 of them 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. The case turns out to be 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. But Mirren’s forceful, no-nonsense performance as Tennison keeps things compelling throughout. It’s a fine showcase for her. The series’ historical importance also makes it worthwhile. The Tennison character is the model for probably every female police detective on series TV since. The season 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

Short Take: Man of Steel

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

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. 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 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 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 group 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) ensue. One's eyes glazeth over. The large cast includes Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and Richard Schiff. As effective as all have been elsewhere, not one is memorable here. The elaborate production design, which at times heavily recalls H. R. Giger’s work on Alien (1979) is by Alex McDowell.