Wednesday, December 21, 2011
We've come to the end of another harrowing season of one of TV's finest programs: Dexter. I've been hooked on the show since I first clicked "Play" on Episode 1 - back when the first two seasons were available through Netflix Instant Watch. I haven't been on the Dexter bandwagon since its beginning, but I've been a huge fan since the moment I started. It's a show that's without peer when it comes to engaging characters, consistently well-written scripts, and white-knuckle suspense. And for old fans of the show and new, the latest season is rock solid. It's not without it's shortcomings of course, but that's what this blog is here for.
Dexter's journey as a character has been an incredibly colorful one. The first few seasons of the show spent a good deal of time with Dexter trying to figure out how to "be human." Much of his character's inner struggle came from a growing desire to resist his sociopathic tendencies; but invariably such pursuit was waylaid by circumstance. The most disastrous of which was, of course, the death of his wife Rita in the last moments of Season 4. Season 5 saw Dexter making one last bid to "be human," embodied in the person of Lumen. But once Lumen's revenge-streak was over Dexter was left once again with only his Dark Passenger. It's been a troublesome back and forth that verged on growing tiresome, but thankfully the writers decided to open on a much more self-confident Dexter in this past season. Some time has passed since the events of Season 5 and Dexter has moved on to completely embrace his role as both father and serial killer. It's something of a return to the characterization in Season 1, and it's very welcome.
In place of Dexter's struggle for identity, we're treated to Dexter's struggle to determine his religious beliefs - if he has any at all. On the one hand, Dexter (along with the entire city of Miami) is presented with another incredibly disturbed and creative serial killer (played by Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks) who's obsessed with bringing about Armageddon through re-enacting several tableau's in the Book of Revelation. It's a puzzling query: can one balance devotion and faith with the pursuit of a savage instinct?
It's the first place Season 6 scores major points in my book. At first, I feared the show had finally lost its glimmer by taking one of the most overused stock characters, the religious nut-job, and hoisting it up as Dexter's latest arch-nemesis. Had this been the case, I would likely have dismissed most of the rest of the season. But the writers wisely (and brilliantly, I might add) do a compare-and-contrast between the Doomsday Killer and the character of Brother Sam (Mos Def). Sam is something of a blast from Dexter's past; one of his targets that managed to slip through his fingers. Originally suspecting that no man can truly change and become born again into a new life, Dexter plans to put Sam "on his table." But as Dexter gets to know Sam, he realizes that Sam's journey of faith has genuinely changed him into a better man. It's one of the most favorable treatments of a Christian character I've ever seen on a show this dark, and works as a much needed refresher from the tiresome cliche of the Bible-thumping wacko. Not every Christian is a nut-job, just like not every Muslim is a terrorist and it's high time this kind of honest characterization was employed.
Presented with two sides of the same coin (Sam's genuine transformation through faith, and the Doomsday Killer's perversion of Scripture to murderous end) Dexter wrestles with where he fits on that spectrum. Ultimately, he decides that the pursuit of faith in God is just not for him, which makes perfect sense for his character. But again I was very impressed with how the writers still allowed room for those who do claim faith to not be completely marginalized. In the end, when Dexter finally has Doomsday on his table he says "I know people who believe in God; they would never use their faith as an excuse to murder innocent people. You used God, not the other way around."
The show also explores some fresh territory with Deb, Dexter's foul-mouthed adoptive sister. Promoted to lieutenant early on in the season, Deb's character is very much thrown to the wolves as she becomes the new face of Miami Metro Homicide. But during this turbulent time, Debra comes to realize - through speaking with a therapist - that she's developed feelings for her adoptive brother, Dexter. It's a tough sell, because we as an audience have been used to Dex and Deb as brother and sister - despite having no blood relation. I'm not sure audiences will really go with where the writers are taking it because it might just be *too* big a stretch. But one thing this show has proven is that the writers have done their homework on their characters' psychological profiles. So while it's maybe a little unsettling that Deb is coming to terms with romantic feelings for Dexter, it does make perfect sense. As a child, Deb yearned for her father's attention - but Harry was quite occupied with trying to focus Dexter's homicidal tendencies in a less destructive direction. So dealing with the psychological pain of a father that she felt didn't give her enough attention, it naturally follows that she would develop complicated emotions toward the object of Harry's attention: Dexter. Those complicated emotions have matured, and they're generally romantic in nature. I'm interested to see exactly how the writers are going to tackle this obstacle in the next season, because it could very well cause the show to jump the shark. But for now, I'm quite pleased with the writers' continued commitment to making artistic risks and shaking up the formula of the show. It hasn't served them wrong yet, so I'm still largely optimistic.
This season also saw the maturation of a few other characters, namely Maria LaGuerta. Why this season couldn't be the one in which *that* poor excuse for a leader wasn't offed is beyond me. I cringe every time she comes on screen and in this season she seems more confidently committed to being one of the show's actual villains - rather than just an occasional obstacle. Her treachery is less veiled here and I prefer it that way; her passive-aggressive and shadowy characterization verged on being just too annoying to abide.
Masuka also proves that he can think with more than just his sexual urges, and I was particularly proud of him when he managed to fire the intern who was insanely hot...but also bad news.
Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos make magnificent additions to the cast, and jump into their rather unnerving roles whole-heartedly. The same can be said of Mos Def, whose characterization of Brother Sam is as genuine as it is accessible. Though he did look oddly like Dave Chappelle with those glasses and the goatee.
Dexter is a show that manages to kill people off and somehow still get away with either bringing them back or just keeping them around. I'm talking of course about James Remar - who plays Dexter's adoptive father Harry - and the fact that he's been a staple of the show since the beginning...despite having died long before the show officially started. Harry plays something of "an angel on the shoulder" for Dexter, appearing occasionally to give him guidance and act as a manifestation of the code he imparted to his adopted son. For a brief two episode stint, the formula was shaken up a bit, as Christian Camargo (who played Dexter's murderous brother Brian in Season 1) replaced Harry as a manifestation of Dexter's Dark Passenger. It was an interesting arc, and the cinematography of those episodes became a bit unhinged to reflect Dexter's psyche in flux. It was brilliantly handled and continues to prove that Dexter is a show that knows when and how to bend the rules.
Following up a left hook and right jab (Seasons 4 and 5, respectively) with something equally stunning was quite a task, and Season 6 comes admirably close. The big difference between the ending of this season and every season previous is a profound sense of "unfinished business." Even with Season 4, there was a moderate sense of closure to all the loose ends - despite ending on a shockingly disturbing note. Season 6 instead opts for a true cliff-hanger - closing on the very moment Deb walks in on Dexter killing Travis. It's a great hook, and just what the finale needed after a mildly disappointing build to little payoff. But I was a little miffed to have so many other details in the story left completely un-dealt with yet.
Up to this season, Dexter has been one of the few crime dramas to not out its writers as complete morons when it comes to computers and technology. You don't have to be an IT guru to know that there's no such thing as the "high score" on an MMO (much less the possibility of having achieved it in "almost every MMO"...the offender here is NCIS, I'm sad to say), and there are plenty of other examples of shows that don't know what they're talking about when it comes to "computer stuff." Season 6 marks the end of Dexter's streak as a show without any such missteps, as one moment finds Masuka's new intern saying he "deleted any trace of the transaction from the internet." Ya know...with that big "Delete This" button the internet has. At another point he uses the term "IPA" to reference an IP address. It's not "technically" incorrect, but in my 4+ years in the IT field I've never heard anyone say "IPA" in place of "IP" or "IP address." Part of the character's arc is his making a video game...which he apparently manages to do in the space of a few weeks. That's not entirely impossible, if that's all he did every waking hour for those few weeks. But between being Masuka's intern, stealing from the evidence department, and wooing Batista's little sister there's just no way he could have made a complete video game by himself in that amount of time - at least not the kind he shows to Dexter, complete with fully rendered versions of some of Miami Metro's detectives. Maybe these are minor gripes, but for a show that's been so meticulous in every other detail I was a bit let down by their apparent sloppiness.
Season 6 ain't no Season 5, and it sure as heck ain't no Season 4. But being one of the lesser seasons of one of the greatest shows on television is kind of like graduating in the lower portion of your class...you still graduate.
This season started off decidedly strong and really upped the ante with some of the most gruesome kills we've seen since the Ice Truck Killer's exploits. There was an ominous quality to much of the cinematography, and the entire season was billed as a no-holds-barred type of outing. My expectations were incredibly high, maybe a little too high, because I didn't feel like this season fully lived up to the hype. It just barely misses the mark, just barely. But the white-knuckled dread I'm accustomed to about midway through a given season didn't really take hold until the last two episodes. Moreover the character of Dexter doesn't seem to really evolve as much as in previous seasons. The premise of Dexter getting back to basics was a great hook, but it doesn't feel like the writers totally committed to it.
Season 6 had quite a tall order to fill, following hot on the heels of two knock-out seasons. But it isn't quite the season to end all seasons, despite its "All Hell Breaks Loose" ad campaign.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it greatly. True to form, every episode of this show is utterly engrossing. And the writers continue to showcase their prowess; that team of scribes is undoubtedly without peer. So I'll take the good with bad this go 'round, especially since what little "bad" there is doesn't truly besmirch this show's sterling reputation.
Dexter, however, does have some 'splaining to do. And I hope the show manages to handle the challenges it's made for itself with as much panache is it has in past years. Dexter has its work cut out for it, but I'm confident the wait for Season 7 will be quite worth it. Here's to another half a year of waiting!
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic characters in Western culture. Despite sporting that super-cool name to begin with, the exploits of Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable detective have been adapted and retold countless times. He's been played by everyone from Rupert Everett to Wishbone -the latter being the greater, in my opinion (no offense meant to Mr. Everett, in all likelihood he agrees as well). But in the spirit of the first decade of the 21st century, Sherlock Holmes has been among one of many characters and franchises getting the boot; uh, the re-boot that is. 2009 saw the return of the titular character in Guy Ritchie's fast-paced and deliciously entertaining Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law playing the detective and his partner-in-not-crime, Dr. Watson. The movie made a big splash for all involved, and deservedly so. But Guy Ritchie had to scratch that sequel itch and released Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows last week. So is the game still afoot?
Most writer-directors have a decidedly unique directorial style; Quentin Tarantino samples genres to perfection and is known for his love of near-manic homage. Christopher Nolan constructs intricate and gripping narratives underscored by an appropriate amount of violence. The Coen Brothers blend darkly humorous wit and pitch-perfect writing with Roger Deakins masterful cinematography. And Guy Ritchie makes movies that are defined by a sense of kinesis and visual energy. Beginning that tradition with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie has refined and experimented his way through several movies. With A Game of Shadows, it seems to me he's reached the critical mass he was working toward. His visual style is fully matured here, and once or twice verges on overdoing things. But true to form, Ritchie manages to balance impulse with temperance for a film that works wonders with motion - from a cinematographic standpoint. You've likely seen snippets in the trailer of the chase scene through the woods, shot at an incredibly high frame rate for maximum effect during slow-motion. The scene is just jaw-dropping and downright fun, despite a generally negative opinion in the critical community (more on that later). Ritchie also employs the Snorricam or body-mount rig in this sequence in a similar manner to the way he did in RockNRolla. It's quite innovative actually, as I don't know that I've seen the rig mounted to an actor's side before. But a few shots employing this method - the actor fixed at one point in the screen while the locale flows by behind him - really up the ante in this sequence and make that much more of a visual treat.
A Game of Shadows also exploits some fantastic additions to an already top-notch cast. In addition to the already proven characterizations of Holmes and Watson, Stephen Fry enjoys a turn as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's equally eccentric older brother. The phantasm of Sherlock's archnemesis Professor Moriarty is now replaced by an in-the-flesh villain, played with visible relish by Jared Harris. The tense banter between the two rivals makes for some of the films finest dialogue and works Moriarty in as a much needed counterpoint to Sherlock's near superhuman-level powers of observation. Noomi Rapace, whom viewers will likely recognize as Lisbeth Salander from the original film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, also adds an additional dimension to the cast as a gypsy fortune-teller embroiled in a political conflict.
Without spoiling anything, another point I found particularly enjoyable in this film were a few very recognizable moments from the books. Ritchie has done a magnificent job of weaving in classic Holmes-moments while still telling a stand-alone tale. You don't have to have seen his first Sherlock Holmes adventure or have read the books to enjoy this one - though it certainly doesn't hurt either.
The movie does drag a bit in the beginning. With our characters already in place and defined, it seemed a bit unnecessary to spend as much time in re-establishing them as the film did. Having said that, the pace of the film picks up marvelously after the first 20-30 minutes, so it's a pretty minor concern.
There are a handful of moments in which characters mumble their dialogue, or so it sounded to me. And invariably it seemed during major plot points. So some of the details in the story were a bit clouded, though it's a visual enough film to keep up with despite this.
Critics and audiences these days are paradoxically both fickle and jaded. On the one hand, a movie like Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon breaks box office records, being the highest grossing of the franchise, the second-highest grossing worldwide of 2011, and the highest grossing film for Paramount/Dreamworks to date. But it, along with the previous films in its franchise, is vilified for being too overburdened with visual effects and bogged down by poor acting and writing. So everyone wants to see these movies - but apparently everyone wants to rip on them, too. I don't think the Transformers movies are anything to write home about, but I don't think their existence somehow besmirches the work of auteurs like Terrence Malick or Darren Aronofsky. So I'll take the good with the bad; a movie isn't inherently flawed if it's a VFX vehicle in my book. But a large amount of the criticism leveled against A Game of Shadows is precisely in that vein - as if critics were expecting a movie that was actually *less* VFX dependent. That's not how sequel-syndrome works in Hollywood, and in the case of the latest Holmes flick it's not a bad thing at all. Moreover, the VFX-laden sequences in A Game of Shadows work with the film rather than against it, and in the end there's plenty of meaty dialogue and crisp acting leftover for the film snob in all of us...er, most of...well, some at least...fine, we few.
Guy Ritchie has managed to truly blaze new territory with his directorial style, and yes it involves lots of ramping, juxtaposition of wide shots with extreme close-ups, and slow-motion explosions. Why the majority of the critical community seems to object to this is beyond me. I wouldn't go so far as to say A Game of Shadows is better than Ritchie's first outing with the iconic character, but it's pretty darn close. And in the end it's just a lot of fun to watch. I sincerely hope this isn't the last entry in Ritchie's take on the Holmes saga, because A Game of Shadows has only left me wanting more.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Symphonic power metal is like the hardcore rap of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Over there, bands of this particular strain routinely sell out amphitheaters and large-scale venues and comprise the majority of the auditory output of a given country. Among the demi-gods of this epic breed of heavy metal, a few artists do stand out. Chief among them is Finland's Nightwish - arguably one of the most influential symphonic power metal bands of all time. Since their inception in 1996, Nightwish has consistently released albums that beautifully marry the sophistication of orchestral arrangement with the high-energy chugging of power metal. Never a band to over-saturate, Nightwish usually leaves a few years interim between each new release - priming their fan bases' appetite for new material with increasingly satisfying releases. With Imaginaerum, the band's seventh full-length album, Nightwish continues pushing the boundaries of their own genre; blending ever-increasing levels of complexity and sophistication with the epic and sweeping sound they're known for. That's the synopsis; here are the details.
"Imaginaerum" was billed as one of the band's most ambitious projects to date, and it most definitely pays off in that department. Each successive Nightwish release claims to be the biggest and baddest since the one before it, a formula that risks reaching critical mass and fizzling all-too-soon. But they've managed to keep things fresh and alive, and it's largely due to their willingness to risk and sample new genres and styles.
"Imaginaerum" features some of the most divergent and versatile musical influences of any Nightwish release I've had the pleasure of listening to. There is, of course, the tried-and-true formula of palm-muted riffs for each verse and soaring melodies in the chorus. It's a bit of an overused formula - and admittedly they don't explore too much new territory in that particular vein. But had Nightwish abandoned it altogether the album would have definitely faltered. But mixed in with the familiar are a few songs and moments unlike anything Nightwish has yet attempted. For example, "Slow, Love, Slow" evokes imagery and motifs of film noir. The orchestration is light - drummer Jukka Nevalainen gently swishing brushes back and forth on the snare, the piano moody but restrained, echoes of wanton brass instruments in the distance - but the effect is profound. It's a definite departure from Nightwish's typical modus operandi, calling to mind pictures of lead vocalist Anette Olzon crooning into the microphone of a dimly-lit jazz club - tendrils of cigarette smoke curling up from the tables. It almost doesn't work, but the band jumps into the motifs so whole-heartedly and paints a musical image so vivid that it's impossible to deny the song's utter confidence and strength.
Elsewhere, "Scaretale" begins with decidedly familiar Nightwish motifs. The guitar cuts a dark and aggressive path through a song that vaguely calls to mind previous Nightwish excursions "Planet Hell" and "Master Passion Greed." The song is downright scary...and then halfway through yields to a completely different musical influence: Danny Elfman. Again I found myself bewildered at the dramatic shift into a darkly whimsical staccato accented by circus-music themes. And just as I begin to acclimate to recollections of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice in the middle of a Nightwish album, the themes transition back into the familiar territory the song opened with. It's a unique evolution - and one I wasn't entirely sure of at first. But again, the influences are so profoundly concrete and confident - leaving no room for the hedging of bets - that the song really does grow on you.
Likewise "Turn Loose the Mermaids" - this album's answer to "The Islander" from Dark Passion Play - reaches out to whistling and brass arrangement a la Ennio Morricone's work. I never would have considered the two genres compatible - acoustic Celtic music and strains of Sergio Leone - but somehow Nightwish manages to pull it off.
As for the less experimental songs, the lead single from the album - "Storytime" - is a perfect example of what to expect on this album as well. Too much experimentation probably would have killed Imaginaerum; but the lion's share of musical influence is most decidedly in familiar Nightwish territory. My favorite track is "I Want My Tears Back." It's a high-energy tune that's more anthemic than overly aggressive, and the addition of bagpipes on this particular track is an added bonus. The title track is enjoyable as well, something of an overture that reiterates all the major themes - almost as though credits are rolling up an invisible screen.
Upon the first listen-through of Imaginaerum, some of the more experimental moments on this album might throw you off. They certainly did me. Had I known they were coming I might not have been so initially put off by their presence, but giving them more than just a first impression definitely softened my opinion.
The longest track on the album (clocking in at just over 13 minutes), "Song of Myself," not only references Walt Whitman's poem of the same name but actually features a complete recitation of the poem as well. Now, I'm not one to deny Whitman's importance in American literature, and I've always thought he was an incredibly talented poet - but I've never particularly cared for the content of his work; it's just not my thing, for the most part. So while this is just a personal beef of mine, being subjected to an entire Whitman poem in the middle of an album I was already having to listen through a couple of times was a bit of a challenge. Some of the imagery in the poem is also somewhat explicit, and I didn't feel that it fit the themes of fantasy and child-like awe the rest of the album sought to evoke.
Imaginaerum is quite unlike any previous Nightwish album to date. Fortunately, in most ways that is a very good thing. Their expansion into new musical territory came as a bit of a shock at first, but their confidence and precision-handling of said experimentation ultimately won the day over my misgivings.
As a band, they've truly evolved. Anette Olzon's vocals are much stronger here than on Dark Passion Play, where they were already pretty solid. The same is true of Marco Hietala's vocals; he pulls off high-octave vibrato with the best of them, evoking Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson in the process. And as always, Nightwish continues to prove that they're without peer when it comes to a perfect harmony between orchestral arrangement and power metal. With a film being produced alongside it, Imaginaerum is definitely an ambitious work. But there's no denying the rich and visual quality this album possesses; even without the context of the film. In the end this CD, fortunately, was very much worth waiting for.