Friday, January 30, 2009

Tis The Season

The following column is reprinted from the Feburary issue of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

We dedicated filmgoers are well into our Holiday Movie Season, where just about every movie is a so-called prestige release, all angling for Oscar worthiness, all virtually devoid of the usual spectacular explosions and without the expected easy popcorn brutality, all trafficking in those wonderful seasonal virtues like mortality, self-sacrifice, Nazism, abject poverty, soul searching, and even martyrism. You know, have a happy new year, and bring on the steady deluge of awards. (Or to paraphrase Robert Downey in Tropic Thunder, go for the “full retard.”) Let’s look at two of the current crop (both firmly middlebrow, both blatantly delving into the always troublesome social morass), which I managed to sit through despite continually brimming eyes, a sagging heart, and clenched teeth and fists, all flat out characteristics of those entrenched into our own versions of the onslaught of the Holiday Movie Season.

Grand Torino

One of the more enduring qualities of Clint Eastwood’s directorial style is its no-frills, slow-build-to-fruition, style-embedded-within-story, assuredness. Clint’s acting style isn’t much different, whether he’s playing a lone cowpoke or a big city cop—a few grunts, a coupla squints, and an exasperated whisper go a long way. The little-bit-goes-a-long way patented Eastwood acting and directorial methods are all on display in his latest, Grand Torino, a movie that’s mostly a gentle tale of peace, love and understanding masquerading as a urban avenger story.
The 78-year-old Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, an unadorned racist, Korean War vet, ex Ford autoworker, and seemingly, the last white guy standing in the Highland Park section of Detroit. Unable to connect with his soft sons and his selfish grandkids, the ever cranky Walt finds himself enmeshed in the lives of his Hmong next door neighbors, after initially being repelled (and calling them every variation of Asian ethnic slurs he can come up with), and realizing (like a million white liberals claim to every day) that their basic values and honorific ways are closer to his than the very family he is estranged from.
After Thao (Bee Vang), the quiet teen neighbor boy, attempts to steal Walt’s prized 1972 Grand Torino from his garage, and with the intervention of the boy’s cultural adept sister Sue (Ahney Her), Walt begins to act as both mentor and guard dog, eventually tangling with the gangbangers trolling the streets outside. While the movie (scripted by newcomer Nick Schenk) wasn’t specifically written for Eastwood, the producer/actor/director/icon must have realized that it offered him not just a chance to take on the juiciest of senior citizen roles, a part that plays half-irascible and half-charismatic codger; but an ever better opportunity to draw directly from Clint’s on-screen history of iconoclasts, tough guys, justice seekers, and plain ornery outsiders. As simple and straightforward as both the narrative and muted-tones look of the film is, it is sturdied with the weight of Eastwood’s populist movie past.
Eastwood has a ball with Walt, and he has it both ways. Walt is clearly meant to be the kind of bootstrap -American who lives by strict codes of maleness, of turf, of self-sufficiency, however outmoded or curdled they may have become. Of course, when all is said and done, and with Eastwood putting a simple-but-righteous spin on his cinematic legacy, Walt also stands for the type of American who can recognize another version of the ever burgeoning middle class, and the type of guy who is willing to change his sturdy ways for the higher good. The best part of Grand Torino is that all those intertwined themes of renunciation and redemption are handily built on the under carriage of a simple and well-made film. It is prime Eastwood, well oiled and road ready, cruising just under the speed limit on all cylinders.

Slumdog Millionaire

This bustling, colorful, even epic story of an Indian “Chaiwalla” (a boy who serves tea) who winds up on Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is an unvarnished rag-to-riches fable, a wholly predictable embellishment of escape from poverty that simply rolls over its inherent hokiness and rollicks full throttle to a well-earned finale that audiences can’t help but welcome, even a hardboiled nitcrit like myself.
Danny Boyle is one filmmaker who seems to pride himself on his own eclecticism, easily moving from the deadpan fever dream that was Trainspotting (1996), through the modernist blood-and-guts thriller 28 Days Later (2003), on to the tough-but-sweet realistic family film Millions (2005). Boyle always exhibits a stylistic energy that is pure cinematic vitality, and his directorial touch is a dexterous one. Slumdog Millionaire smartly interchanges magical realism with disturbing authenticity, and Boyle (with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and a soundtrack by A.R. Raman) charges it all up in a Technicolor blender, a cascading whirlwind of imagery, interaction, and deft filmmaking that is mainstream moviemaking at its best.
Beaufoy’s adaptation takes its central conceit from the novel Q & A by author Vikas Swarup: Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), former Mumbai slumdog and current tea boy, is making his way up the game show ladder much to the consternation of the show’s slick host (Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) and he turns him over to the authorities, everyone reasoning that an uneducated child of the streets couldn’t possibly know the answers without resorting to some form of cheating. From this set-up, the movie zooms backwards and forwards, the camera pulling back to reveal India in all its vastness and squalor, in all its loveliness and its underbelly, then diving down and in frenetically, peppered with quick cutting and hand held cameras, music popping, streets pulsating with throngs until it finds its way back to the ever still Jamal, a archetypical dead end kid with an offputting sense of stillness-he’s the film’s anchor, and the old-fashioned Warner Brothers Studio-styled plotline-Cain and Abel brothers, a dame in distress, leering gangsters and nefarious faux do-gooders—all coagulates around him.
The movie is a feel-good primer, a crowd pleaser and certain Oscar contender, but it shouldn’t be looked down at. Despite the films Warner’s-meets-Dickens core, Boyle and his team manage to wink their eyes at you and plunge past the mawkishness. Sure the film’s a pictorial delight, an ironic ancillary to a movie that purports to actually depict Third World squalor, but it also a rousing and rip-roaring yarn, a paean to India and a multi-colored celebration of destiny and obstacle overcoming. When the credits start to roll and Boyle lets loose with a dead-out nod to the Bollywood movie feature you can only shake your head in wonderment—it is indeed somehow possible to be both accessible and artful.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Classics Illustrated

Once Edward Zwick left his seminal TV show thirtysomething behind, he’s seemed determined to paint as wide-ranging a big screen canvas as he can. Glory (’89), Legends of the Fall (’94), The Last Samurai (’03), and Blood Diamond (’06), are all big pictures with colorful backdrops, extremely particular settings, and blatantly literal and liberal themes. I have no problem with Zwick’s style or efforts, as he and fellow mainstream filmmakers like Ron Howard, Ridley Scott and the recently departed Sydney Pollack continually bring a touch of old school Hollywood classic filmmaking to the contemporary scene. While a whole lotta film nitcrits find this type of lustrous, well constructed approach antithetical to so-called innovative moviemaking, for those of us often crammed up to the ears with faux stylishness and artless trickery it’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief when watching an effort infused with the time-honored standards of basic well-shaped storytelling. The great Andrew Sarris dubbed this type of moviemaking “Strained Seriousness”, yet I’ve always had a certain affinity for it, particularly in my earliest movie-watching days (when the TV airwaves were overpopulated with burnished Hollywood we-have-a-moral-to-tell or celebrate-the-human-spirit) product, as I helplessly grew up in a whitey white, middle-class, wide-eyed, and haplessly liberal. contemporary scene. His newest, Defiance, is an earnest retelling of a real life struggle between Polish-Jews turned unlikely resistance fighters against the Nazis deep within the thick forests of Eastern Europe. Daniel Craig and Liev Schrieber both deliver strong (and nicely muted) performances as two clashing brothers, in this overtly sincere rendering.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Richard Be Good

My good bud and fellow popcult traveler The Senator told me he let out such a loud whoop of triumph while riding in the car upon hearing of Richard Jenkins' Best Actor nod that he scared his uncomprehending son and fellow passasenger near to death. While I've recounted my personal remembrances of a few of Jenkins totally awe-inspiring turns when he was doing time at RI's Trinity Square Repertory Theater while squatting on many bar stools, allow me to indulge myself once more. Since Jenkins carved out a career in the movies he usually seems to be cast a some sort of officious (but quirky) suit and tie guy, yet his long residence here at Trinity proved him to be an amazingly versatile actor, a charismatic mix of Royal Dano and Arthur Kennedy.
Personally, I will never forget Jenkins for essaying three of the finest stage performances I have ever seen, way back in the early 80's, and yeah baby, I have seen a batch here, there, and New York square. Jenkins went full tilt boogie as a lean, mean, and bone-achingly desperate Teach in David Mamet's American Buffalo, and I will never forget temporarily forgetting about distancing myself (and being chilled to the bone) when he partially wrecked the junk shop as part of his antics. This, compared to the incomparable Al Pacino, who saw do Teach up twice-one at NYC's Circle In the Square and sometime later at DC's Thie Kennedy Center. Jenkins also blew the Providence audience away as the estranged cowpoke in Sam Shepard's Fool For Love. At the performance I attended he actually missed the bedpost during one of his lassoing monologues and hit a blue haired lady in the front row square in the chest. Breaking character for a moment, he walked to stage front and asked the septuagenarian if she was all right in the gentlest manner, before diving back into Sam the Man's dysfunctional family pool. Last, but not least, in the Trinity production of a Death of a Salesman featuring character actor Ford Rainey as Willy Loman, his second act monologue as Biff actually brought about mid-play standing O, something I've never witnessed, before or after in a non-musical.
In The Vistor (2007, Anchor Bay, 104 minutes, $29.98) Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor from Connecticut, a widower with a child living abroad, a bottled-up and closed-down middle-aged cipher, trudging step-by-step through dutiful existence. Sent to New York for a conference he opens up his little used Manhattan apartment and discovers a Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Guirra) occupying it. Victims of a real estate scam, the two wind up being befriended by the seemingly friendless professor, and the dour middle-aged sleepwalker begins to undergo a personal transformation, ratcheted up by our immigration policies and the appearance of Tarek’s mother (Hian Abbass).
Tom McCarthy, the writer/director works as an actor too (he recently played the duplicitous reporter on the final season of The Wire), works assuredly with his cast, and the film's rhythms and trenchant writing ring true, yet the piece still revolves around Jenkins deceivingly sturdy shoulders. Usually a multi-racial drama that asks us to draw our conclusions predominately through a white protagonist wilts because of its inherent liberal pretentiousness. Since The Visitor’s polemics actually center around a theme of commonality, and since the narrative is driven by the slow awakening of Jenkins’ character, and the heartfelt humanism he brings to the table, the movie delivers in a movingly good-natured way. It's a pure triumph for Jenkins, a good guy with a stellar rep as both citizen and thespian.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Long Live Mr. Humanitarian!

Yesterday’s Oscar nominee announcements were fairly special, considering Rhode Islander Viola Davis earned a Supporting Actress nomination for Doubt, and long time RI resident Richard Jenkins grabbed one for Best Actor in the little gem The Visitor. Yet, beyond the hoopla and lost in the shuffle was a truly dynamic choice, one that bodes particularly well for some Oscar Night dramedy—King of Comedy Jerry Lewis is being given the much vaunted Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. How spectacularly cool and wholly incomprehensible is that? One of showbiz most foremost and outright pricks, a notorious pill-popper, womanizer and grand-sized egotist, a guy with a streak of self-righteousness as wide as a hockey rink and an undeniable Messianic complex gets to join such luminaries (and Hersholt awardees) as Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Quincy Jones and (yep) Frank Sinatra. We all watched (with a continual combination of awe, horror, and uncomfortableness) Jerry’s yearly Shakespearean tour de force on his Muscular Dystrophy Marathon as he rages like Lear, contemplates like Hamlet, and moves in for the kill like MacBeth, formidably displaying his outsized talents by heartily singing off-key, making cartoonish and otherworldly noises, spit-talking, doing the St. Vitus boogie, hugging celebs and virtually crushing their spines, lip-locking third level comics and burnt-out and fading former TV celebs, tugging on the plastically enhanced ears of starlets no one’s heard of, elbowing stiff businessmen after stiffer businessman in their off-the-rack suits, and, every coupla hours or so insanely gazing directly into the camera and delivering an of-the-cuff whispery sermon that sounds like a carnival barker cranked up on a combo of cough medicine and downers negotiating with a corner whore. I just love the guy, adore the whole shebang, worship the very ground that last mean standing Jerry walks on and truly hope (and even pray) that the Jerry genie gets out of the bottle when he strolls into the end-of-the-road spotlight to accept his oh-so-special Oscar.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Head

Cheyenne (Encore’s Western Channel, Weekdays, 5:30 P.M.) was the first hour long western to hit the small screen, ringing up 108 episodes from 1955-63, and featuring Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, a protoypical Western loner, drifting from territory to territory, an instinctual first class scout/Indian fighter/cattleman/temporary sheriff who was of course good with his fists and his gun, guided only by the ol’ internal moral compass. I’ve logged about 40 episodes so far and I’ve become drawn in mostly because of the star’s weirdly low key acting style (he could make Gary Cooper look like a frothing-at-the-mouth method man) and even stranger combo of squinty sternness and bottled-up-tight persona. Walker is the strangest of Western birds, sort of James Arness-lite (who was sorta John Wayne-lite), a slow walking and slower talking individualist built like a gladiator, sporting a huge head topped off by jet black hair continually falling into his eyes, prone to taking his shirt off and attracting long gazes from bar girls, school marms, and wilderness wives despite the fact that he exudes absolutely no overt sexuality. Walker played Cheyenne as if he was coming from nowhere (outside of a childhood spent being reared by the Indians) and was heading nowhere, an existential range rider both strangely alone and decidedly restless, as the show’s high and lonesome theme song emphasizes:
Cheyenne, Cheyenne
Where will you be camping tonight
Lonely man, lonely man
Will your heart stay free and bright?

The writing and direction are par for the times, yet the action is executed purty much convincingly and the parade of big-boned baddies (Robert Wilkie, Andrew Duggan, Max Baer, Jr.) and up-and-comers (James Garner, Dennis Hopper, Lee Van Cleef) remains interesting, as does Walker’s deceptively charismatic and strangely somnambulant cowpoke, leaving this poised somewhere between the highs (Gunsmoke, Have Gun-Will Travel) and the lows (Bat Masterson, Wanted: Dead or Alive) of TV Westerns.

Monday, January 12, 2009

King of the Pugs

The following column is reprinted from the January edition of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

As nimbly as one dances across the critical tightrope, in and as much as the nitcrit fervently adheres to his well formulated theoretical and intellectual system of checks and balances, as much as the humble pop culture writer forever weighs his views and opinions—fact checking, genre hunting, career tabulating, shadowing history, gauging the temperature of the vox populi, sleuthing style and divining theme---it all comes down to the simple fact that once in a while you just gotta play the favorite.
When I first began writing regularly about the movies, filled with passion, brio, and youthful audacity, the wonderfully ragged and wooly American film industry was slowly transitioning from the richly textured 70’s into the blockbuster-bound 80’s and I searched with full fervor for anything and anybody who seemed to able and ready to carry on the spirit of the boldly experimental 60’s and the richly esoteric 70’s. Some of them were easy to spot, often highly prevalent, critically anointed, and even box office faves. Robert DeNiro, Marty Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jack Nicholson were still running on all cylinders, and newcomers like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Sean Penn and Ellen Barkin were emerging. I particularly liked watching Mickey Rourke, a handsome tough who had a no-sweat combo of sass, sensitivity, and an almost Monty Clift-like air of emotive frisson. I thought he’d become the mainstream version of the continually compelling and audacious Harvey Keitel, an actor I couldn’t take my eyes off, but one whose supposed on set behavior and actorish pretensions had reduced him to cult figure stature virtually before his career hit second gear. In one of many rhapsodic reviews of the time I declared him a Pug Actor of the highest order, the sort of screen presence who hid bared teeth behind good looks, a boxer masquerading as a dancer, a wise-ass mix of John Garfield and James Dean. Little did I knew that his movie career would descend into murkier depths than Keitel could imagine, and whose off screen rep became a cloudy tale of boxing matches, excessiveness, gang like entourages, a high drama public romance, and overall boorishness.
I can only guess that filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) was a fellow charter member of the Mickey Rourke Pug Acting Fan Club, as he’s perfectly cast and directed the out-of-purgatory actor in the meta-showbiz tale, The Wrestler. Rourke plays Robin Ramzinski, known to wrestling aficionados as Randy (the Ram) Robinson, a one-time circuit name reduced to a self-described “old, broken-down piece of meat.” A miniature Raging Bull, The Wrestler is a deceivingly simple tale, a character portrait of a has been, a subtle examination of damaged goods. At the same time, the movie’s comeback narrative parallels and echoes Rourke’s own, yet it’s double-edged arc never succumbs to sentimentality.
Aronofsky (coming off a huge personal failure himself-The Fountain) shoots much of the movie documentary style, never differentiating from Randy’s daily routines or his souped-up second tier wrestling bouts. The overall visual effect is windshield- wiper dirty, the New Jersey environs meant to be Nowheresville, USA, and the wrestling bits all brutal mixes of carnage and humiliation presented as flattened realism. Randy is highly self-aware, rattled but still standing, trying to reconnect to his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Woods), forging something resembling a relationship with an equally down-and-out stripper (Marisa Tomei), and briefly (in a stand-out scene) even willing to make ends meet as a counter man at a deli. All of it unfolds with a sturdy fatalism, an unadorned story of an American palooka, a daylight ramble into the void.
At the center of it all is the mutated but still recognizable Rourke, muscles hardened and atrophied, sporting stringy blond heavy metal hairdo, stooped over and sodden, Clift-likes eyes both wounded and questioning, with that whispery yet ever commanding voice—sing-songy and seductive, childlike and commanding, weirdly anxious, a poet's honesty buried under a pug’s ferocity. The performance pushes the movie into something near great, as Mickey Rourke embodies the good, the bad, and the ugly of the lone wolf American male.

Mickey Picks of the 80’s

Body Heat (1981). One scene, a lip-synching close-up, announced the arrival of our fave Pug Actor.
Diner (1982). Perfection-cocky, romantic, world-weary, yet lost in America.
Rumble Fish (1983). Surreal Coppola teen tale, with Rourke holding his own as charismatic torch-bearing mumbler, between mumbling young Matt Dillon and mumbling elder statesman Dennis Hopper.
The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). A showy but still subtle central performance in an entertaining Mean Streets knock-off.
The Year of the Dragon (1985). Overwrought city, an over-the-top concoction written by Oliver Stone and helmed by Michael (The Deerhunter) Cimino.
Nine ½ Weeks (1986). Faux eroticism, but a hot movie for its time, neatly teaming Mickey Boy and Kim Basinger.
Angel Heart (1987). Absolutely killer, a noir fantasy, as Alan Parker propels Rourkes detective down into the rabbit hole.
Barfly (1987). More perfection—bawdy, scrungy, hilarious and soulful.
Homeboy (1988). Scripted by Rourke, an unrelenting hardscrabble stutter-step descent into Palookaville.
Johnny Handsome (1989). Cool daddy cult film, helmed by macho man Walter Hill, an early Mickey examination of self-ruination and regeneration, disguised as a New Orleans crime pic.

Friday, January 9, 2009

They Didn't Put Out

Famed record producer and impresario Lou Adler directed Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981, Rhino, 87 minutes, $20), a sideways glimpse into punk and roll with all the grace of an elevator operator, but there is much about it to like, especially if you toss away the turgid and predictable rags-to-riches storyline and typical showbiz stuff. An adolescent Diane Lane (15-years-old or so, in only her second or third outing) totally nails it as the central figure, a riot girl before her time, a blank-faced teenage nihilist improvising a music career that’s poised intriguingly between true self-expression and nascent capitalism. She is surrounded by an even younger Laura Dern as one of her band mates, Tubes funny boy Fee Waybill as a rocker on the downswing, Christine Lahti as a baby boomer Aunt, and a movie band called The Looters, made up of Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones (who contribute songs), the Clash’s Paul Simonon, and, of all people, an unbelievably youthful Ray Winstone as a bratty-but-sensitive and forever snarling lead singer. It’s always difficult to imagine the coulda-beens, but, stripped of Adler’s pedestrian filmmaking, and with Lane’s evocative presence as a charter member of the blank generation and screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s underlying theme of feminine teenage angst this might have been a truly prĂ©ciscent excursion into teenage wasteland.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

RIP Ron Asheton 1949-2009

Lest we forget, rock and roll is a highly collaborative pop art form, although most of us--fans, nitcrits, wanna-be’s, pop cult savants, Grammy givers, Colonel Tom’s, high-flyin’ producers, clam-diggin’ promoters, blubbering bloggers, taste makers and breakers—never seem to resist elevating the lone wolfsters in any band (be it songwriter, singer, or virtuoso geetar guy) to be the one, the only, the second coming of Bobby D or Little Richard or Jobriath, or your whatever choice of the shiny, shaking, shimmying, star bursting shaman of the moment.
Well the blueprints of the house/cave of The Stooges were truly scrawled on the wall by Iggy the Stooge who would mutate into Iggy the Pop , and he came to dominate, nay obliterate, their legacy, their legend, their sound, their call of the Michigan wild, their burning, jagged, childlike proto-primitive fusion of psychedelia, jazz, r&b, and, well kinda sorta, what would become punk. Yup, Iggy. And, of course, The Stooges, the forever immortalized Dum Dum Boys, lead by guitarist (and later bassist, then again guitarist) Ron Asheton, late to this world as of today, dead at 60,who began as an immovable and immutable mid-western lout scratching out chunky rhythms with his thick fingers, stomping his big, fat feet on the wah-wah petal while monkey boy Iggy danced like a murderous goatherd, making a sound that was so totally unconscious and uncalculated that without even trying it sounded like Jimi Hendrix knocking on Robert Johnson’s door while ingesting a mixture of amphetamines and crayons. (Ever hear this whopper of a rock Babylon rumor? Jack White puts ground-up Ron Asheton guitar picks into his toothpaste. My mom told me that.)
Ron’s monolithic riffs, his whammy bar bendings, his Flinstones-meet-Coltrane musical mentality, his stabs at power chording, all of it part of what Lester Bangs called The Stooges “sonic vistas”, will forever be floating through anybody-that-really-knows very own version of the underground garage. (Heard this from the guy at the milk store-Every time Tom Verlaine had one of his never ending migraines, he snuck down to the boiler room in his basement and tossed a Nazi shirt on and banged out Stooge tunes through a Pignose amp.) Iggy was an undulant piggy, and became a demi-god, but those guys (Dave Alexander, Scott Asheton, Steve Mackay, and Ronny Boy) staring at the ground when he went into one more version of Curly Shuffle/Ubangi Stomp, were more than just along for the ride, they also put a little gas in the ramalamadingdong hotrod, beeped the horn every once in a while, even rotated the tires in between flats. Ron Asheton was a dead end kid with an electric noise maker, a Podunk who found a calling while straining to hear the Thirteenth Floor Elevators tumble out his cousin’s transistor radio, a passenger who rode and rode, a prime mover, a high priest forever enshrined in the Rock and Roll Church of the Immovable Feast. (Read this one on the internet: When Thurston Moore heard one of Ronnie’s crunches over the fence of his juvenile delinquent neighbor’s shack he gave up the guitar on the spot and took the whole week off eating fritos and trying to learn the xylophone.)

(Please check out the real deal from yet another know-it-all jickey in NME.)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Law and Disorder

Tawk about too much monkey business—The very existence of the DVR has me unwinding on so many planes of popcult existence I half expect it to soon start dispensing toilet paper and cold beers. Tawk about far too little, way too late--It is with the most addled of apologies I offer up this extremely belated take on one of television’s finest recent achievements.
FX’s cop-and-disorder series The Shield ended its 7-year-run with both a bang and a whimper, a beautifully modulated endgame that brought together all of the outstanding drama’s themes (the capriciousness of justice, the thin lines between good guy/bad guy/tainted guy, L.A. as urban jungle and field of dreams, the politics of loyalty, the addictive powers of collusion and denial, the less-than-glorious existence of your average civil-servant police person, to list just a few) and it accomplished all that with the earmarks that have been an essential part of creator Shawn Ryan’s down and dirty potpourri since Detective Vic Mackey ( powerhouse Michael Chiklis, turning in a sustained performance that rivals nearly any other in contempo TV history) blew away a fellow cop in the very first episode. The Shield was one constant search-and-destroy mission, tossing moral grenades into the urban shadows, firing bullets of injustice onto the deserving and the undeserving, all of it splattering into a vivid, kaleidoscope of television canvas. It ends its run every bit as multi-layered and rich in character as either the critically adored The Wire or the publicly acclaimed The Sopranos, and along the way it undeniably put viewers through a continually deepening emotional ringer, with Mackey among the most compelling anti-heroes seen on the big or little screen in quite some time.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Souless Spook

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965, Criterion, $40,112 minutes) appeared as a so-called espionage tale, or spy thriller, yet in all actuality it was neither of the two in the strictest sense, although it was adapted from a best-selling John le Carre novel. What it was, and it did surprisingly well at the box office despite it, was a doom and gloom laden paranoiac mood piece, a bleak and desolate tale of oppressive big brotherhood, existential collapse, and a world gone gray and off-center. Richard Burton’s incredibly morose performance showcases the famed actor at his world-weary best (and some have argued it to be one of his finest screen roles), while Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner turn in deft supporting turns. On top of it all, director Martin Ritt and one-of-a-kind cinematographer Oswald Morris utilize black-and-white film stock impeccably in order to conjure up a Cold War cautionary tale about a spook losing his soul.