Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Dexter Season 4 Premiere

The most frightening thing about the season four premiere of Dexter is the sight of John Lithgow's bare arse.

We are treated to this horrific sight on two occasions. Unfortunately, that is the biggest shock in what is an otherwise worn out show that has apparently failed to recover from a disappointing third season.

As season four begins, Dexter and his wife Rita are living in suburbia with their newborn child. Early on, Dexter flubs his courtroom testimony and a killer walks free. Take a wild swing in the dark and guess what happens next. You got it. Dexter is going to track down the nasty piece of work and lay a butchering on him, replete with all the accoutrements we've come to expect—the drop sheets, photos of the victim's victims (where on earth does Dexter get those photos and when does he find the time to get them framed?), and the assorted weapons. But first, the show has got to give us a glimpse of this year's major storyline and kick start some tired out sub-plots that have been meandering on with slight variations for the past three seasons.

The major storyline—the one that will slowly evolve over the entire season—is the one about the serial killer played by Lithgow. And in another demonstration of just how little imagination the writers of this show have left, we are told straight up by Dexter that "Trinity's [the nickname given to the Lithgow character] the most successful serial killer to get away with it." When facts like that have to be brazenly announced in episode one instead of using suspense and back story—it is likely an indication of quality of the season to come.

Debra is still involved with Anton—the oaf of an informant who she hooked up with in season three. The writers of the show seem fully aware that season three was lacking the appeal of seasons one and two, so they have brought back Frank Lundy (the aging FBI agent played by Keith Carradine) who Deb was involved with in season two.

And Deb is determined to find out which informant her father had an affair with years ago. And then we can know for certain what was already telegraphed to us in season three—that Deb and Dexter are actually biological siblings.

The character of Deb is in fact, one of the most mundane and annoying aspects of the show. Everyone time she uses the word "fucking" in her conversation, it punctuates exactly how devoid of new ideas these writers are. Just as this habit in the real world demonstrates someone lacking in imagination, here it is the same.

Tiresome and Predictable

The little nuances that added to the show in seasons one and two are meaningless without the suspense, clever twists, and great dialogue.

Now it's simply annoying to see Dexter don that stupid, long sleeved, tight-fitting, olive shirt and know that he is going to kill someone again. The weary internal patter/voice over is still there. The only problem is, Dexter has long since ceased to have anything interesting to say. It's just variations on the blandness of being forced to kill people, haunted by this, messed up by that, wot a burden it all is etc.

And hey, here's the laziest aspect of every show popping up again—that wonderful computer of Dexter's at work that gives him every last bit of information about the people that he decides to kill. There is absolutely no sleuthing or clever problem-solving involved.

In a laugh-out-loud scene with all the usual subtlety of this spiraling farce of a show, Dexter's wife says "Aren't you as horny as I am?" Just as the rest of the show is bland and uninspiring, this scene is bereft of any appeal. And so, in keeping with his tired demeanor, Dexter is as uninterested as many viewers will be.

Dexter has ceased to be the clever show that challenged viewers to analyze their beliefs about right and wrong. It is now simply a vehicle for crudely set-up revenge scenes and a whole lot of nastiness for people who like blood and gore. There is no longer any tension or feeling of emotional involvement when violence occurs. The opening scene when guest star John Lithgow slices the femoral artery of a young woman who he is simultaneously strangling in the bathtub makes this repulsively apparent. And here is apparently another trend that the show will carry on until its demise—grade B has-been actors brought in to play the nasty for an entire season.

As the season premiere winds down, a sleep deprived Dexter careens off the road with a corpse in his trunk. This cliffhanger ending is perhaps the only way that the creators of the show will convince viewers to tune in for the second and subsequent installments.

Friday, July 3, 2009

No Country for Old Men: Movie Review

chigurhEveryone is after a suitcase full of money, and one long chase plays out with numerous confrontations in between. Many a great crime narrative is based on such a premise. A one line summary might lead you to believe that's exactly what No Country for Old Men is about. That wouldn't be wrong, but the movie is also much more than that.

The movie focuses on three characters, Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin), Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), and Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Llelwelyn is a retired welder who comes across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad while he is hunting in the desert. He surveys the carnage and hightails it with a suitcase full of two million dollars he finds at the scene. Chigurh is an ethereal, almost mythical killing machine who wants the money back. And Ed Tom Bell is a jaded, worn out, aging sheriff.

Chigurh kills out of perceived necessity. But sometimes he kills to honour his word. Other times he kills based on the flip of a coin. He often kills with a bolt gun (a stainless steel rod blasted with pressure from CO2 canister) similar to those used for slaughtering animals. Other times he employs a shotgun with a silencer. He never shows any overt emotion while performing the deed. Strangely, viewers may not feel any sort of loathing for Chigurh but might instead only experience a dreadful fascination, both for the performance by Javier Bardem and the sinister brutality of the character.

The Power of Silence

Silence plays a big part in the movie. The most gripping scenes where the tension ratchets up are almost completely devoid of dialogue. This isn't an easy task for a film-maker to accomplish successfully, but here it is done with a master's touch.

The Coen brothers, who directed this movie, understand that the unconscious mind is often more powerful than the conscious. This is communicated through the character of Llewelyn, who suddenly awakens on a few occasions with revelations that spur him on to immediate action.

But more than those obvious moments, the directing style of the Coens emphasizes the power of what is left unsaid. Many subtle effects are channeled to the viewer, and taken together, their collective force is impressive. This is one of the rare films I will watch again because there are so many elements at work.

In one scene, as Lllewelyn lets down his guard after a long journey during which he dodged Chigurh a number of times, he rolls into a motel. He moves with weary intent towards his room, and passes the motel swimming pool along the way. A woman calls out to him and they engage in a bit of flirting from a distance as she invites him for drinks. She tucks her legs up before she rises from her pool-side lounge chair. It is one brief fluid motion yet there is somehow more in that shot than a written description of the scene could ever communicate.

Moments later, Ed Tom Bell comes upon the aftermath of a slaughter at that same motel that has left Llewelyn and the woman dead. The viewer can visualize exactly how the showdown occurred and is better off for not having seen it play out frame by frame on the screen.

The Vagaries of Life

Chance is one of the recurring themes in the movie, with the fate of many of Chigurh's victims determined by an accidental meeting or, literally, the flip of a coin. Perhaps the fact that Chigurh became a nasty, ruthless killer is down to the vagaries and turns of life as well. All three of the main characters were in the military (Chigurh and Llewelyn in Vietnam, and Ed Tom Bell in WWII). Similarities between them are drawn in the personal honour codes they adhere to and even in some of their eerily similar gestures, utterances, and interactions with others.

For whatever reason, the violence of the war together with his personal experiences ricocheted around in Chigurh's mind and turned him into a predator. Llewelyn and Bell never embraced violence but are similar to Chigurh in other ways. Had life conspired differently, perhaps they would have wreaked as much destruction as Chigurh.

Throughout the movie, Bell laments the state of the world and how it seems to be getting more violent. Is he really being genuine? Or are his words just clich├ęs that allow him to converse with others? His conversation with a broken down wheelchair-bound older man who knew Bell's father puts the lie to the age old mantra that things were somehow less violent in the past.

All the characters are poets in No Country for Old Men. Lines spoken in movies are written to be memorable, and the perfection, timing, and sometimes absurdity of movie-speak is half the enjoyment. But the characters in No Country for Old Men all speak in a special way that has a distinct cadence and rhythm appropriate for their roles.

The Coen brothers are the masters at crafting a kind of cinematic violence that is jarring and surreal. This is fitting, as anyone who has experienced real-world violence knows that an odd, unreal quality permeates any such occurrence. And just like real violence, No Country for Old Men is likely to have a real effect on viewers.