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Dexter season 3 finale 13 July 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in TV Review.
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The third year in the deliciously dark exploits of everyone’s favourite serial killer drew to a bloody close this week in the UK with the finale of Dexter season 3 on FX, and after 36 episodes of carotid artery-severing fun the astonishingly high quality shows no signs of flagging.

Dexter’s one season, novel-esque, story arcs have proven to be the perfect format for the series, delivering a fully developed and satisfying tale in 12 episodes with very little baggage carried over from one series to the next. Following this formula season three’s finale neatly wraps up the Freebo/Prado story lines with no obvious loose ends, and the tantilising potential for Dexter’s talented writers to go any direction they choose. 

After silencing murderous District Attorney Miguel Prado for good at the end of episode 11 and framing George King (aka the skinner) Dexter is still under threat from Miguel’s brother Ramone, or so he thinks. Meanwhile Debs gets promoted to detective, but has to give up the skinner case in return, and does her own snooping into her father’s adulterous relationships which threaten to expose Dexter for who he is.

It isn’t often that a TV series manages to be as consistently brilliant as Dexter over two years, let alone three. Heroes has limped along since its first magnificent chapter, 24 has yet to reach the dizzying heights of its thrilling debut year and seasons two to five of Lost have felt like little more than meandering filler in between the meat of the story (like a reverse sandwich, now there’s an idea). Much like Dexter himself then the makers of the show have yet to put a foot wrong, and while the Miguel Prado story arc might not have seemed to have had as much potential as previous arcs, the ice truck killer or the bay harbour butcher, the faustian tale of friendship and murder proved to be every bit as enthralling as previous outings, giving us our deepest insight into Dexter yet and leaving us with the hope that one day he might be able to settle down to a normal life and silence his dark passenger.

Michael C. Hall puts in another rock solid performance as the blood splatter analyst with a secret, exposing Dexter’s vulnerable side much more this year, but the star of the show for me has always been foul mouthed Debs (Jennifer Carpenter). It’s refreshing to see such a fallible character in a show like this as not only does it make her periodic victories more satisfying, but it gives us an obvious entry point in relating to such a larger than life figure. It’s just a shame the internal affairs investigation sub-plot, which seemed like it was going to be crucial at the start of this season, just petered out half way through.

Aside from Dexter, Miguel proved to be the most deliciously complex character in the show yet, conflicted between justice and the law in much the same way as Dexter, but without Harry’s rules to guide him he turned out to be a monster. George King on the other hand was worryingly one note, close to serial killer of the week territory with little motivation beyond respect and nothing to the character beyond a memorable M.O. Must do better next time. Rita and the kids have also continued to be an extremely important part of just why Dexter is so successful, they offer an insight into Dexter’s human, caring side where without there would be little more than a charismatic villain, and it’s good to see that the writers chose to develop this aspect of the show even more in the third season.

While season three might not have gripped at first, give it time and you’ll be every bit as hooked as previous years. Dexter plainly has a lot of life left in him yet.


Bruno (2009) Dir. Larry Charles 12 July 2009

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In the run up to the release of Bruno Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as the flamboyant homosexual Austrian fashionista, pulled a stunt at the MTV Movie Awards where his crotch ended up in the face of rap star Eminem. There were questions after whether what we had just seen, including Eminem’s furious reaction, was genuine or all just a publicity stunt by the two men – one promoting a new film, the other a new album. But anyone with half a brain could have told you it wasn’t real and unfortunately it was an indication of the direction Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles have taken with Bruno, whether it be a creative choice or a decision forced by the fact Baron Cohen is now such a recognisable face. Far too much of Bruno is scripted, veering closer to Ali G in Da House territory than the marvellous Borat, and without exception it’s these bits that let the film down, failing to deliver the kind of laughs you would expect in a film with so much satirical potential.

Despite the fact Borat had the barest semblance of a plot the strength of the jokes in practically every scene, and the scarcity of scripted set pieces, meant you hardly noticed it was little more than a series of sketches loosely tied together. Here it’s painfully obvious and in an effort to paper over the cracks there is more drive to the narrative, with the titular Bruno searching for fame in America after getting fired from his job as host of Austrian youth fashion show Funkyzeit for a Velcro suit faux pas at a fashion show. While in America Bruno’s misguided efforts for fame and fortune see him adopt an African baby, attempt to broker peace in the middle east, create a diabolical pilot for an entertainment TV show and eventually go heterosexual.

Like most I was a huge fan of Borat, which did a wonderful job of exposing US xenophobia for all the world to see. And while, to a certain extent Bruno also succeeds in laying bare some of America’s shameful homophobic black spots it just isn’t as funny. The major problem for me was the prevalence of scripted scenes, but the problems start with Bruno himself, even more one-note than Ali G or Borat and difficult to ever really like because he’s so self-centred. Bruno’s assistant’s assistant Lutz is also less well realised than his Borat equivalent, Azamat, as his only purpose seems to be as a plot device rather than generating any laughs as Ken Davitian’s character did so successfully.

Maybe I’m getting old but I didn’t think there was one worthy laugh throughout the whole of Bruno (and judging by the reaction of the rest of the audience watching it with me neither did they), it kept me consistently smiling and raised a few chuckles, but the best moments in Bruno are the ones that shock you. The reactions of the parents at a baby photo shoot audition have to be seen to be believed and Bruno’s visits to a couple a gay counsellors could only happen in America. But even the latter scene falls a little flat, offering little beyond the initial shock of learning this service actually exists. Bruno is also extremely explicit, and while I’m all for freedom of expression, whatever form that may take, a lot of the sexual content in this film seemed needlessly gratuitous, particularly as it failed to generate any laughs. Having said that though a scene in which Bruno graphically enacts fellatio on the spirit of Milli (of Milli Vanilli) through a psychic medium is an all too brief moment of physical comedy genius.

The final nail in the coffin for Baron Cohen’s comedy formula comes with a cringe-worthy (for all the wrong reasons) charity single which concludes the film, with celebrity cameos from the likes of Bono, Sting, Elton John and Chris Martin. It’s completely pointless and does little more than demonstrate Baron Cohen’s admirable reach nowadays, but if he has any sense he’ll put those resources to good use and abandon the neither here nor there pseudo-scripted comedy of Bruno and devote his venerable talents to a more worthy project.

When good directors go bad: John Carpenter 10 July 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Film.
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One hit wonders are not uncommon in any art form: JD Salinger wrote nothing of note after Catcher in the Rye and who would have thought the Baha Men didn’t have any more hits in them after Who Let the Dogs Out? Less common is the artist who produces classic after classic in their field for years only to lose it, often without any obvious reason at the height of their fame, and never return to previous form.

This can certainly be said for horror maestro John Carpenter, and while watching his 1982 masterclass in paranoia The Thingon Blu-ray last night it got me thinking: when exactly did John Carpenter go off the rails?

In the 12 years between his ultra low-budget and brilliantly imaginative debut Dark Star in 1974 and action/comedy-fu mash up Big Trouble in Little China in 1986 Carpenter hardly put a foot wrong, directing at least five of the most highly revered and influential genre films of all time. Assault on Precinct 13, a thinly-veiled remake of Howard Hawks’ siege western Rio Bravo,bursts from its exploitation cinema shackles during Carpenter’s synth-scored opening title card. Edgy and tense, with a sizzling script and one of the best Carpenter double acts, Assault is Carpenter the director perfecting his craft and was to provide the blue print for many of his films over the next decade.

Halloweenis perhaps what he will be best remembered for. Far and away the best slasher film ever made, not just because it is the original but because of its winning mix of a truly memorable Carpenter score, one of the most iconic villains of all time in Michael Myers (who works better here than in any of the sequels as the enigma – the shape), a likeable lead and its wicked sense of morals. The Fog and Christine, while a step down from Carpenter’s best in my eyes are a cut above any of his output since the late-1980s. Escape From New York has dated perhaps more than any other Carpenter film on this list, but still holds up today as one of the best examples of an exploitation techno-thriller, with a central character just as iconic as Michale Myers in Snake Plissken (so much so that the entire Metal Gear Solid franchise is built around effectively the same character with a different name). Starman meanwhile is a bit of an anomaly in Carpenter’s CV an alien love story with not a drop of horror and very little suspense, but is still tremendous and proves Carpenter does have a heart.

“In 12 years Carpenter hardly put a foot wrong, directing at least five of the most highly revered and influential genre films of all time”

The problems start with Prince of Darkness. While Big Trouble in Little China didn’t exactly receive the best critical reception at the time it’s since gone on to be recognised as the very definition of a cult classic, with yet another iconic Kurt Russel lead and a quirky sense of style which Carpenter has never done better. Prince of Darknesscertainly isn’t unwatchable like most of Carpenter’s 1990s output and it does have a fanbase out there, but it’s frankly rubbish premise about a bunch of scientists, students and religious types trying to prove the existence of the devil is made worse by the scientific mumbo-jumbo dialogue and needlessly confusing conclusion. It succeeds in being somewhat unsettling but was the start of a slippery slope. They Live likewise has a fervent fanbase out there but wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper is no Kurt Russel, the aliens look awful (even for the 1980s) and the satirical humour is too heavy handed to deliver the laughs in the same way as Big Trouble in Little China. Having said that though it does contain some fantastic cheesy dialogue (“Brother, life’s a bitch… and she’s back in heat.”) and the 10-minute brawl has to be seen to be believed.

But from then Carpenter’s output can be described as nothing more than tragic. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A. (why?), Vampires, Ghosts of Mars and both of his Masters of Horror episodes – all  just dire. Any sense of creativity seems to have truly disappeared from this list made up entirely of remakes, sequels and re-imaginings of the siege scenario that has run through many of his best works. He is a film-maker who has lost his edge, with the emphasis on the paycheck rather than his art. It seems unlikely Carpenter will ever return to previous form, but with two movies in pre-production (The Ward and Riot) and another two announced (L.A. Gothic and The Prince) we can always hope he has at least one classic left in him, however unrealistic that may be.

Public Enemies 2009 Dir. Michael Mann 9 July 2009

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Wouldn’t it be great if Michael Mann released a film every summer? After weeks of giant robots, dire cavemen comedies and hate-filled horror it comes as a welcome relief that a director with a distinct and proven sense of style is releasing his latest effort onto screens up and down the country. And while Public Enemies still proves to be the best film this summer since Star Trek, it’s not without it’s problems and it never quite reaches the lofty heights of Mann’s best.

If you’re at all familiar with Mann’s sterling body of work (including two of the finest films of the 1990’s – Heat and The Insider) you know exactly what you’re getting with Public Enemies: two men locked in an epic struggle of good and evil, cops and robbers, right and wrong, but where the line between the two is never as clear cut as you would expect. In Public Enemies those two men are Johnny Depp’s infamous bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale’s FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Opening with a breathtaking prison break/bank robbery double punch Dillinger is an American folk hero, a man who steals the bank’s money but not the customers. He is labelled public enemy number one because of this by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) who appoints Purvis, first seen gunning down criminal Pretty Boy Floyd (a pointless cameo by Channing Tatum), to the head of a Dillinger task force – their only purpose to bring Dillinger in, dead or alive.

Unlike Heat the focus this time around is squarely on one character, Depp’s Dillinger – as charismatic and likeable an anti-hero as you’re going to get this year. As expected Depp excels in the role, conveying just the right level of cool menace that we can instantly understand his appeal but never lose sight of the fact he is a villain. Early on he meets Marion Cotillard’s Billie Frechette and falls for her. Their relationship is at the heart of the film, as not only does it drive the narrative but it provides the emotional core this very blokey film required. Cotillard too gives a tremendous performance, her continental charm and stunning beauty leaving the audience in no doubt why Dillinger would sacrifice it all to be with her. The problem is not long after they meet Dillinger is arrested again and Billie is missing for most of the film, only to reappear briefly during the closing moments. It’s a shame as despite the exceptional quality of the set pieces it is their brief interactions that will really stick in your mind when you leave the cinema.

And talking about the set pieces they are truly stunning. While the bank robberies could never hope to live up to Heat’s centrepiece daylight heist, an early hotel bust gone wrong is riddled with unbearable tension while a night-time forest shootout, paired with Mann’s trademark deafening gun shots, puts you in the middle of the action in a way that Terminator Salvation and Transformers 2 failed to entirely, each bullet and ricochet hitting you like a proverbial thump in the chest.

Two of the main problems are the needlessly complex plot and the bewildering array of character’s Mann has assembled. The performances are universally good (Bale tone’s it down as Purvis while British actor Stephen Graham steals every scene he’s in as Baby Face Nelson), but there are far too many characters with little more than one line cameos (the aforementioned Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, David Wenham, Stephen Dorff, Leelee Sobieski) and throwaway sub-plots that go nowhere, serving only to confuse the audience.

Like Collateral and Miami Vice Mann has also chosen to shoot his latest film on HD video, which worked brilliantly for those ultra-modern action thrillers, but seems out of place here. Proceedings are given a documentary feel quite unlike any other period film, and while it does lend a sense of intimacy and urgency to it all it just looks too clean. This isn’t helped by the fact HD is still no match for 35mm. Quick pans result in motion blur, certain colours looked washed out (perhaps intentionally) and it has the unmistakable look of video, which still just doesn’t look right on the big screen.

Finally it’s worth mentioning the soundtrack which delights and infuriates in equal measure. Mann has had a bit of a tempestuous relationship with film scores over the years with the infamous Garden of Eden conclusion to Manhunter (the best Hannibal Lector film?) being a particular low point. But here he and composer Elliot Goldenthal barely put a foot wrong, with the exception of the bizarre way the music seems to drop out abruptly whenever anyone starts speaking, creating the sense the music is somehow detached from the film rather than being weaved into its tapestry during the creation.

Mann’s best work it ‘aint but up there with the best of the year so far? Without a doubt. With the best picture Oscars now extended to 10 nominations don’t be surprised if Public Enemies creeps in there come February 2010.

Reaper Series 2 Episode 1: …A New Hope 6 July 2009

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After a prolonged hiatus caused by the writer’s strike (can’t believe we’re still talking about that) Reaper returned to UK screens this week, but with it the unfortunate knowlege that this is to be the final series as US channel The CW has chosen not to renew the exploits of the devil’s favourite bounty hunter for a third round. So we can only hope the show’s creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters pull out all the stops for the rest of Reaper’s 13 episode run as the second series debut left a lot of room for improvement.

Sam, Sock and Ben have been on an extended break since last season’s finale where we learned Sam was indeed the son of the devil. The trio return only to find they have been fired from their jobs at The Workbench, an extremely pissed Andi and a new bounty from the devil. The bounty it turns out is for 40 violent souls who spend their days doing nothing but fighting in a warehouse, and with only a recharging cattle prod as a vessel it seems the devil is sending his own son on a suicide mission.

As far as series debuts go …A New Hope wasn’t particularly promising, more back to business as usual than offering viewers anything special or unusual. Sam falling out of favour with Andi, yet again, is a device the show relies on too much when it needs to put Sam in a deeper hole and it’s a shame the boys got their jobs back within the first 15 minutes as a change of setting could have offered something fresh from the off in this new series.

After Sock’s mother married a new man in the last series he finds in this first episode that he has a new step-sister, a smoking hot Japanese step-sister (played by Eriko Tamura of Heroes season 2 and Dragonball Evolution). I’m not quite sure what to make of this, it’s bound to tie into the bounty hunting thrust of the rest of the show eventually but at the moment it just feels like a distraction, a questionably incestuous distraction at that, and the laughs never really spring from  the scenes where she is onscreen, in particular one truly terrible massage-bed sketch.

Ray Wise’s wicked and downright hilarious devil is still the highlight of the show and here he puts in a couple of memorable, but as always all too brief, appearances. Anyone with  half a brain cell could work out exactly what it is Sam has to do to take care of his bounty, so the idea the devil wants him dead never really rings true. But it’s quite a testament to the likability of Wise’s dark lord that we want Sam to succeed, in part, so that he doesn’t let his dad down.

The one intriguing element of a mediocre episode was the conclusion where Sam comes across a man called Alan Townsend who claims to have escaped not only from hell but from the devil. Quite if Sam will be able to free his own soul by the end of this season seems unlikely seeing as the writers were cut short rather than being able to bring the story to a proper conclusion. But needless to say it’s the only story arc that could possibly maintain viewer interest this season unless they introduce some drastic changes to the show.