Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold

Movies can raise all sorts of questions for their viewers. The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold (1995), directed by William Wegman, raises two very big questions: what kind of drugs was this guy taking when he made this? And more importantly, was he serious?

Wegman, who has done voice work on Sesame Street, among a few other jobs on the likes of Saturday Night Live, directed and executive produced this 28-minute short. He also narrated it and provided most of the voice work. It's a live-action movie about a family on a trip to a cabin in the woods, and the two sons get involved in some mystery involving a missing aunt and some scheme to dump of sewage into a lake. So far, that sounds like a fairly innocuous children's movie. I should mention the "actors" in this movie are dogs with human bodies.

I have no idea why this was done. This film feels like it was made by someone who really loves dogs but lacked the skill and budget to train them to do anything. The "effect" was achieved by having the dogs stick their heads through a shirt while the humans blindly flail their arms around, trying to simulate whatever action the narrator says they're supposed to be doing. Children's movies, especially cartoons, often have anthropomorphic animals, but usually, they're used in ways that can be charming, whimsical, funny, or cute. The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold is just creepy; putting dog heads on human bodies is the stuff of nightmares.

It's even more awkward because the dogs themselves don't really do anything except kind of stare blankly at everything, even when they're ostensibly fishing, rowing a canoe, or sneaking around a cabin. Even when they're talking, their mouths don't move. At least Mr. Ed had the decency to feed its horse peanut butter, so it at least looked like it was talking. These dogs just look bored.

Wegman also demonstrates that as a voice actor, he's not exactly Mel Blanc. Every character he voices and the narrator sound exactly the same, and they speak in the same flat, dull, un-emotive voice. Couple that with the fact that all the dogs are the same breed, and it's hard to tell which character is speaking or even if they're supposed to talking.

The Hardly Boys is Hardly Gold is just filled with baffling weirdness. I can't do it justice. One of the early scenes is a montage of the family playing games, including tennis, croquet, and horseshoes, and at one point, the dog playing tennis catches the ball in its mouth. This doesn't feel real. It feels more like a fake movie, the kind of thing that plays in the background of another movie or TV show as a parody of children's entertainment.

The plot makes no sense, and the central image of the film - the dog as a human - is just weird. I sat through this thing stupefied the entire time, just wondering what I was supposed to be thinking. In a way, it's kind of hilarious, like The Room or Troll 2; the people who made it apparently had no grasp of reality. While watching, I felt my brain draining out of my ear and required a substantial amount of alcohol to get through it.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hell on Wheels: Season 1

The Transcontinental Railroad helped tame the Wild West, bring civilization to the untapped wilderness, heal the rift following the Civil War, and enable America to rise to the level of a superpower on the world's stage, so we're told. As depicted in Hell on Wheels, the railroad, the pathway to America's future, was built on blood, greed, exploitation, and savagery.

Created by Joe Gayton and Tony Gayton on AMC, Hell on Wheels begins where the Civil War ends, dramatizing the effort to build a railroad line that will link East and West. The open wounds of the war remain, and the politicians and businessmen pushing for the line proclaim the effort will bring the country together again. That they stand to make great fortunes and accomplish this feat using taxpayer money is something they neglect to mention during their speeches. The title of the show is appropriate because while the railroad promises salvation for the nation, the characters find temptation and damnation.

Hell on Wheels is positioned somewhere between the lyrically romantic and the brutally realistic. The series contains a number of striking, beautiful shots of the untamed America west: golden sunlight, crisp blues skies, and rolling plains as Old Glory flutters gracefully in the wind as well as somber shots of crosses and gravestones. It's also an earthy show, filled with a lot of mud, dirt, blood, sweat, drool, ash, and grime. When the widow Lilly Bell (Dominique McElligot), the "Fair-Haired Maiden of the West," moves out of the luxurious train car of Union Pacific Railroad owner Thomas "Doc" Durant (Colm Meaney, playing the part very much like Gene Hackman) to live in a tent, she's advised by the prostitute Eva (Robin McLeavy) to put in a wooden floor lest she get trench foot.

Hell on Wheels is the name of the ramshackle town that springs up around the construction site. Against this backdrop, Hell on Wheels contains a number of intersecting narratives.  Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier, arrives looking for the Union soldiers who murdered his family and ends up getting a job as foreman for the railroad after his predecessor, a man named Johnson (Ted Levine), turns out to have been involved in his family's deaths. Lilly, a British woman from upper society, is the sole survivor of an Indian attack that sees her husband Robert killed; he was the surveyor for the railroad, and when she's lost with his maps, Durant conjures up the title of the "Fair-Haired Maiden of the West" for her, so people will be inspired to find her and more importantly the maps. See, Durant has invested everything in the railroad, and he needs a certain portion of completed by a tight deadline so he qualifies for government subsidies. Otherwise, the railroad will fold, and he's been embezzling the company to cover his tracks.

Other important characters include Elam Ferguson (Common), a freed slave whose father was his white owner; even with freedom, people still try to tell him who he is and what he should do, and he doesn't like it one bit. Revered Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan), who once ran with John Brown, seeks to bring the word of God to the people, and to help avert a war with the local Indians, he works with the newest member of his flock, Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears). There is also Sean and Mickey McGinnes (Ben Esler and Phil Burke), Irish brothers looking to strike it rich with their picture show contraption. Another prominent character is Thor Gundersen aka "The Swede" (Christopher Heyerdahl), Durant's Norwegian head of security who investigates Bohannon's past and is not above racketeering and selling out Durant.

Like another hit show on AMC, Hell on Wheels is violent. In the first episode, when the Indians wipe out Lilly's group, one man is still alive as he's scalped. Lilly herself, hit by an arrow, uses the projectile to kill her attacker after he kills her husband, and later, she uses a sewing needle to stitch up the wound, and this is show in a graphic closeup. Even the non-lethal violence is hard-hitting. Bohannon and Elam have a bareknuckle fight (orchestrated by Durant so as the distract the men from the fact payroll has not arrived), and their faces get bloodied, battered, and bruised. There's also the expected shootouts and gunfights, and near the end, there is an unexpected decapitation, performed by one of the least likely characters.

The period details of Hell on Wheels are handsomely produced, from the costumes to the trains, giving the show a strong realism. Inside Durant's cabin, as well as various buildings in Washington D.C. and Chicago, the accommodations are luxurious, stocked with the finest liquor, and immaculately clean. Outside, where the men work, it's squalor: mud, filth, flimsily put-together wooden structures and tents. Shot on location with the real props, the show has a cinematic quality and doesn't feel restricted by the television format.

Hell on Wheels is at its best rendering the gritty, sometimes unsavory underbelly that propped up the construction of the railroad. The show suffers some when it tries to be poetic. One episode ends on a cliffhanger as Bohannon, Elam, Joseph, and a group of soldiers are ambushed by an Indian war party, and the next episode begins by having them fight their way out, and the battle is depicted in slow motion as a sad folk song plays on the soundtrack. I can tell it's supposed to meaningful, but the strategy mutes the impact of the fight.

The dialogue is for the most strong and well delivered but sometimes too on the nose. Elam begins a relationship with Eva; she's considered damaged goods because she was kidnapped by Indians as a child and now has tattoos on her chin, and while she publicly rejects him to avoid losing the business of her white clients, they begin a secret romance. That's all well and good, but do we really need Elam explaining how they're "two peas in a pod?" Likewise, in his first appearance, Durant gives a wonderful speech touting the future of the railroad and what good it will do for the country, and afterward, he smokes a cigar, the smoke pluming around him, making him look the Devil.

It's actually an appropriate comparison. Durant is the most fascinating character of the show, and he uses promises, bribes, flattery, and blackmail to get what he wants, and Meaney plays him as a wonderfully slimy bastard. McElligot is also very good as this upper class woman who believed the dreams of her husband for the West and is not afraid to get her hands dirty and be self-reliant, although there is a learning curve. Mount is solid as the de-facto lead, although his quest for revenge is a bit cliche for the genre; that said he is the victim of a terrible irony in the final episode when he finally confronts the man he believes responsible for his family's deaths.

Common is also convincingly authoritative and strong-willed as Elam, but my favorite character, at least in the early part of the season, is the Swede, the thin, pale, fish-faced Clancy Brown-look-alike who resembles a preacher from an Ingmar Bergman movie. He reveals he was a prisoner at Andersonville during the war and has a scar on his arm from where a fellow prisoner tried to eat him. I was disappointed when the Swede completely wimped out in a confrontation with Bohannon, exposing him as a petty bully.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Congo

I remember seeing Congo in theaters in 1995. The hype at the time pegged it as the next Jurassic Park because it was based on a novel by Michael Crichton, being directed by Steven Spielberg's longtime producing partner Frank Marshall, and being written by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Patrick Shanley. It wasn't until many years later I realized how weird and goofy this movie was.

Congo has a reputation as a bad movie, and maybe it is terrible, but I can't help but love this movie. Instead of being swept up in the action and adventure, as I was when I first saw it as a kid, I watch it now and can't stop laughing. Whether it was meant to be funny is irrelevant; it entertains me.

Crichton said he intended Congo to be his version of King Solomon's Mines, and looking at the plot, it's not hard to see the parallels. An expedition is mounted to the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa, encountering all sorts of dangers and setbacks along the way. In updating the material, Crichton added his usual theme of corporations exploiting science for a buck as well as modern African politics and civil wars and Amy, a gorilla taught sign language so she can communicate with the wild apes of the region.

Apparently, Crichton wrote the book so he could direct the movie himself and have Sean Connery star as Charles Munro, a Great White Hunter in the Stewart Granger mode leading the expedition. That was in the 1980s, and that version never happened. To give you an idea of the tone of the finished film, Ernie Hudson plays Munro Kelly who says, "I am your Great White Hunter for this trip, though I happen to be black." Only an actor as talented as Ernie Hudson could make that line cool.

The plot for Congo is nonsense. Some business about going to the jungle to find the lost city Zinj, where a diamond stash will power a communications satellite system that will dominate the industry. Our intrepid explorers - Munro, communications expert Karen Ross (Laura Linney), primatologist Peter Elliot (Dylan Walsh), his sign-language-using gorilla Amy, "Romanian philanthropist" Herkemer Homolka (Tim Curry), and assorted backup and porters - encounter harsh terrain, African civil wars, lost tribes, hungry hungry hippos, and other obstacles en route to their destination. When the expedition reaches Zinj, they find the ancient city guarded by a horde of violent, gray gorillas inside an active volcano.

The movie is wall-to-wall with recognizable faces in walk-ons chewing the scenery, often to ridiculous levels. Why hey, that's Joe Don Baker as the CEO of a global communications company. And look, it's Bruce Campbell as the leader of the first (doomed) expedition. There's John Carpenter regular Peter Jason at an airport, Joe Pantoliano in a wise guy Joe Pantoliano part at another airport, and Delroy Lindo as a military honcho who loves a good bribe (and sesame cake). It's like the filmmakers gave up on trying to craft a narrative that made any kind of plausible sense and just threw a bunch of recognizable actors in bit parts to liven things up, and I got to say, it works.

Hudson and Linney are fun as the stable, take-charge types; while on a plane being shot down by heat-seeking missiles, they kick open a door and fire flares to take out the incoming projectiles. Curry is hilarious as the nefarious, conniving Mr. Homolka, who has a lifelong obsession with finding Zinj and whom everyone else treats like crap. Example: Lindo asks him, "What are you doing in my country, you bag of shit?" Of the leads, only Walsh disappoints because he plays things seriously and only ends up dull (Bruce Campbell was reportedly up for the role, and his presence would have been a sign that the makers were fully embracing the cheese factor).

Jurassic Park revolutionized special effects by employing a combination of life-like animatronic and groundbreaking computer-generated imagery to bring its dinosaurs to life and give them personalities. Congo apparently intended to create its gorillas using CGI as well, but the technology was not yet capable of replicating hair, so these creatures are rendered using actors in gorilla suits. The suits, at least on the normal gorillas, aren't too shabby, but if they were going for majestic and awe-inspiring, they failed; after all, they are just a bunch of normal-sized, dirty monkeys. Amy is entertaining at least, drinking martinis, throwing an egg at Karen out of jealously, and chasing after Peter to get him to tickle her. Also, the laser Karen crafts using a diamond to slice through the gray gorillas is frickin' sweet.

If you're looking for a grand spectacle in the vein of Jurassic Park, Congo fails miserably. As a glorious B-Movie jungle adventure with an A-list budget, it is endearing. I can't help myself.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mr. Arkadin

In Mr. Arkadin (1955), Orson Welles returns to the same basic idea of Citizen Kane - exploring the mystery of a wealthy man's life - and re-shapes it into a thriller. On the Turner Classic Movies introduction, critic David Edelstein said it's like Citizen Kane if Charles Foster Kane was still alive during the story and murdering people from his past.

Like most of Welles's directorial efforts post Citizen Kane, Mr. Arkadin had a tumultuous production history, and he eventually lost control of the movie, resulting in the release of a version that differed from his original vision. Currently, at least three different versions of the film exist, and to tell you the truth, I don't know which one I watched or how it differs from the other cuts. The version I watched is a complex, sometimes confusing narrative that wasn't always easy to follow, but thanks to Welles' filmmaking virtuosity and style, it proves a rewarding and fascinating experience.

Mr. Arkadin begins with Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden) visiting the rundown lodgings of drunk, old Jakob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff). Guy, who says he needs to protect Zouk to save his own life, tells him his story, and the movie is told in a series of flashbacks about how Guy and his girlfriend Mily (Patricia Medina) heard two names from a dying man: Gregory Arkadin and Sophie. Arkadin (Welles) is a mysterious businessman in Europe, and Guy uses Arkadin's daughter Raina (Paola Mori) to get close to him. Extremely protective of his daughter,  the amnesic Arkadin approaches Guy with an offer: investigate his past and prepare a confidential report.

Citizen Kane was a tragedy, charting the rise and fall of a powerful man by following an investigation into what he meant with his dying word. Mr. Arkadin is a thriller, and the revelation of his past isn't that Arkadin lost a beloved childhood sled, but that he ran with a criminal gang in Poland and double-crossed them, using their gains to build his empire. Where Mr. Arkadin gets its poignancy is Arkadin's relationship with his daughter.

Arkadin loves his daughter, but he is also a very controlling father, always keeping her under close observation and having her followed by private detectives. They live in a baroque castle, and she refers to him as "The Ogre." One of the reasons he hires Guy for the job of investigating his past is so he can keep this slick, charming man away, and much to his chagrin (and Lily's), Guy and Raina fall in love.

The tragic nature of Arkadin is that he will do anything to keep his past hidden from Raina. He loves her more than anything, and the most important thing in the world to him is how she thinks of him. Anything, or anyone, that will make her think less of him must be eliminated.

Welles imbues the film with his directorial flourish. It's a good while into the movie before we even meet Arkadin, and until then, he's only talked about and depicted by his possessions, including the castle and his private airplane, and this builds anticipation. When Guy finally meets him, it's during an elaborate, dizzying masquerade inside the castle, and the effect makes the film feel like Edgar Alan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." It's distorted, surreal, and borderline frightening, especially when we meet Arkadin, this massive, frame-filling man with the Mephistophelian eyebrows. He looms over the camera so much, filmed in wide, low-angle shots, that he resembles the Ogre his daughter calls him. That she's often shown between bars and frames, suggesting she's a prisoner of her father, only reinforces the notion.

Mr. Arkadin is filled with that kind of expressionistic, show-off style. During his investigation, Guy speaks with the owner of a flea circus, and the man is filmed in such harsh lighting, he looks inhuman and distorted, especially when he holds his magnifying glass up to look at his fleas. Completing the impression is what he refers to as "feeding time," placing the fleas on his outstretched arm so they can suck his blood, and he's looks like a cadaverous junky.

The plot is a bit of mess, and it's hard to know whether Welles intended it to be oblique and elliptical or whether something got lost in post-production. It makes sense that Arkadin would have the witnesses found by Guy eliminated once he found them, but the movie creates the impression that Arkadin knew where they've been this entire time, so what has he been waiting for? Also, the frequent cuts back to Guy telling his story to Zouk, while stylishly filmed, interrupt the flow of the story and don't make much sense when you think about it; after all, Guy is supposedly urgent because Arkadin is coming to have the both of them killed.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Inside Man

Inside Man (2006), directed by Spike Lee, admirably attempts to update the same basic scenario of Dog Day Afternoon to post-9/11 America but ends up beached by plot threads that only weave confusion and inertia instead of tension and suspense. Instead of building to a dramatic or even satisfactory resolution, Lee loses the plot, and the film ends weakly as it tries to wrap up all the narrative loose ends.

The film has the usual set-up for this genre. Crooks take hostages in a bank, cops move in, there's debate among the good guys about what to do, and questions about what the bad guys' goals are.

Day Day Afternoon explored and skewered the shameless media and publicity circus that descended when Al Pacino and John Cazale took hostages at a bank on a hot summer's day. At its best, Inside Man examines how in an age of global terrorism, when it is difficult to determine who the enemy could be, law enforcement treats everyone as a potential suspect, including the victims. Here it's made harder by the fact that the bank robbers (led by Clive Owen) order all thirty-plus hostages to dress in the same jumpsuits and masks they are wearing. When the crooks let an occasional hostage go, police react by throwing the terrified person to the ground, slapping on a pair of handcuffs, and interrogating them for hours (of course, with no lawyers or doctors present). One hostage is tossed out because he's having chest pains, and he is treated very roughly by police.

Another hostage, a Sikh employed by the bank, is released carrying a case containing a message from the criminal, wrongly referred by officers as an Arab, and thought to be carrying a bomb. Later, when questioned by the detectives in charge of the case, Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejofor), he demands his turban back, and they keep telling him they'll get it for him later, but they have a more pressing situation to address. He laments the loss of his Civil Liberties.

This material is pretty fascinating and timely. Unfortunately, the pot-boiler elements of the film aren't up to snuff. See, Dalton Russell (Owen's criminal mastermind) isn't looking for money, jewelry, or material wealth stored in the bank; he's looking to unearth a buried secret. This leads to a subplot involving a prominent businessman (Christopher Plummer) who politicks to get a Ms.-Fix-It (Jody Foster) on the scene to advance his agenda. It's a lot of dour exposition about some betrayal of to the Nazis back in World War II, and the film gets so caught up in explaining this, it loses the hostage plot, and instead of getting involved with how this is will play out, we just stop caring about any of it. Plummer and Foster also are gone for such long stretches and are given so little to do when they are, all this back story would have aided the movie by being cut out because it advances nothing.

Lee also miscalculates by intercutting between the hostage crisis as it's ongoing and the interrogations of the hostages after the situation. It throws off the momentum and gives away the fact that most of the hostages, the people at stake, and the police are going to come out all right, defusing any tension. It eventually becomes apparent Owen and his crew have no intention of harming the hostages, so all this talk of deadlines and threats becomes one big waste of time. Ultimately, what Owen sets out to accomplish is a lot less than interesting than if he was just some mad-dog robber trying to steal from the bank and took hostages when cornered.

In the end, Inside Man seems torn about what it wants to be about: a hostage situation in a bank or a mystery that follows said crisis when it becomes apparent the robbers, who weren't after money, have disappeared. Lee tries to do both but ends up losing focus, negating the suspense of the former and the importance of the latter. A movie about a straightforward bank robbery could have really turned the screws while a movie that begins where a heist ends could have been intricate and fascinating. Inside Man accomplishes little of this.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Early on in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), following a successful mission by the team to recover the MacGuffin, Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson) calms down the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) by gently stroking his palm. Bruce Banner is officially the only man I know who grows smaller at the touch of Scarlet Johansson.

Sexist snark aside, and despite the mixed reviews I've read and other articles about how we are once again in the decline of the Hollywood Blockbuster, I liked the latest entry in Marvel's Cinematic Universe. The action and special effects are still top of the line, I love the interaction between the characters (I particularly like the ever-increasing tension that's bubbling between Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man and Chris Evans' Captain America), and at 141 minutes in length, the film never bored me. There isn't a whole lot you haven't seen elsewhere, but for now, Marvel's formula is still working.

Everyone's back: Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). After raiding a Hydra outpost and recovering Loki's scepter from Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) - who has used it to power up the Maximoff twins, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) - the Avengers regroup at headquarters, where Tony Stark convinces Banner to use the power of scepter, without the rest of the team's knowledge, to complete Stark's Ultron global defense program. The experiment works, but the newly sentient artificial intelligence (voiced by James Spader), turns out to be like SkyNet and decides the planet must be saved by eliminating humanity.

If you got lost reading that plot summary, I'm afraid you're too far behind for me to help you at this point.

The film opens with a fun action piece showing off the Avengers in action as they take out the Hydra base, each member getting a chance to show off as they knock around Strucker's mooks. There's also a tense showdown later between Stark - in a powered-up Iron Main suit - as he tries to control a hallucinating Hulk in the middle of an African city. The final action sequence - with Ultron causing an entire city to rise into the air so he can use it to cause a mass-extinction event as his robot army attacks the heroes - is quite the impressive spectacle.

Once again written and directed by Joss Whedon, Age of Ulton has its share oof humor. During a drunken celebration, the other Avengers take turns trying and failing to lift Thor's Hammer, and during a reprieve at Hawkeye's family farm, Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini) puts these super-powered heroes to work chopping wood. There's also a nice callback to Hawkeye's brainwashing by Loki in the first Avengers when he stops Scarlet Witch from messing with his mind while Thor, who insists he can't be so deceived, steps right into his own hallucination. There's a lot of moments like that, including a running gag after Captain America chides Iron Man's language and then regularly gets called out for his own swearing by the others.

What I found most interesting is the continued jockeying for authority between Stark and Rogers. Their mismatched personalities play off well against each other, and since Captain America 3 will be subtitled Civil War, and knowing what that entails in the comics, I'm anticipating this rivalry reaching a boiling point.  And without giving too much away, I'm glad to see Paul Bettany finally gets a chance to show up in the flesh, so to speak.

All that said, it feels pretty disposable as far as super hero movies go. The question I had after the first Avengers - now that they've saved the world, what next - is answered - save the world again. Spader has some fun voicing Ultron, but Ultron is ultimately not a particularly menacing villain; the Avengers really don't seem threatened by him. After so many films set in this universe with this set of characters, the formula is starting to harden and become predictable, so Marvel needs to be careful and find some fresh angles, which they seem poised to do.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Shield: Season 1

This marks my first writeup of a continuous, episodic television series. It's something I've been wanting to do for some time, and after soliciting some feedback, I decided the best review strategy would be to cover individual seasons, so I can cover overarching storylines without resorting to rehashing single episodes' plots.

The Shield premiered on FX in 2002, and like many TV shows, it's about police officers. Law enforcement provides great fodder for TV because it's relatively easy to construct a story around a crime and its resolution, and while The Shield has its share of criminal-of-the-week narratives, they exist mostly around the edges. The real meat of the series of is the personalities of the men and women who wear the badge, how they interact with each other, their personal problems, and how they affect each other and their work.

The series, created by Shawn Ryan, is appropriately titled. The image chosen for a police officer's badge is a shield because the police are there to protect and serve. But a shield also separates us from them. The shield is a dividing image, and non-officers can't always see what kind of person is holding it up. The Shield explores the duality of police officers who uphold and break the law, set in a closed-off world where the biggest crime is betraying your fellow officers.

Set in the fictional Farmington, a notorious inner-city district of Los Angeles, The Shield centers on tough cop Vic Mackey. Played by Michael Chiklis, Detective Mackey is the head of an experimental strike team charged with taking down gang activity in Farmington, and Mackey is not above bending the rules or being aggressive. Whether it means charging in guns blazing or beating up suspects for information, Mackey will do whatever it takes, however he wants, whenever he wants. He's also not above having arrangements with drug dealers, protecting some and eliminating others, or taking a little off the top for himself or his team. He's also protected by higher-ups downtown, represented by Assistant Chief Gilroy (John Diehl), who like that he gets results.

That's why the newly appointed Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) wants Mackey off the streets; he considers him "Al Capone with a badge." Aceveda is a younger, by-the-book official without much field experience, and his presence is resented by the department, especially among those who think he got the job because of affirmative action. The captain has ambitions of becoming mayor, and in a district that has always elected blacks to city council but now has a growing Latino population, Aceveda believes he can make a play for a council seat. Getting rid of a crooked cop would endear him to potential backers and voters.

That conflict between Mackey and Aceveda is the main thread running through the first season of The Shield. In the first episode, Aceveda attempts to use a rookie member of Vic's strike team, Terry (Reed Diamond), as an inside source; that plan ends during a raid when Vic uses a drug dealer's gun to shoot Terry in the head, killing him. Since Reed Diamond is something of a recognizable actor and his character is set up to be important, his murder packs quite a jolt, a shocking end to the first episode.

Other characters get drawn into the tension between Mackey and Aceveda. Shane (Walton Goggins), Vic's right hand man, feels guilty over his role in Terry's death (as does Vic), and the captain tries to get him to crack. This guilt ends up affecting Shane's work; he was always a hot-dog sleaze bag, but his behavior only grows more reckless and sloppy, pissing on an innocent suspect and banging a stripper on an interrogation table, a development which she uses to blackmail him into exonerating her from a setup scheme.

There's also Julian Lowe (Michael Jace), a black rookie cop who sees Vic and Shane abscond with drugs from a bust, and he reports them to Aceveda and Internal Affairs. Julian is a devout Christian and believes in doing what is right, and his ratting out other officers causes tension with his partner, Danni Sofer (Catherine Dent), who has a thing going on with Vic and is studying to be a sergeant. However, Vic "convinces" Julian to do the right thing when he busts in on Julian in the all-together with his lover, Tomas (Brent Roam), whom Julian met while serving a warrant.

Image, how one wants to be perceived, is of the utmost to police officers in The Shield. After a cop killing, Danni tells Julian they have to show dominance, so that other criminals don't get the idea it's open season on officers. The tension emerges when the image and reality conflict

Julian, meanwhile, wants to be an honest cop and Christian and fit in with the guys (getting oral sex from a bar floozy as part of an initiation and beating up a prisoner who bit Danni), and he's terrified what will happen if his sexuality is exposed. Aceveda wants to be seen as a reformer and leader, but an-ex girlfriend from his past and an investigative reporter threaten to derail him. Plus, when a crime needs to be solved, he will turn to Vic, sicking him on an evasive suspect in the interrogation room, although he turns off the video feed so he doesn't have to watch Mackey torture the man.

Meanwhile, Detective Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) fancies him a brilliant investigator and believes catching a serial killer targeting prostitutes will make his career; the others, including his partner Claudette (CCH Pounder), think of him as something of a goof. At one point, someone leaves dog shit in his desk, a warning to a cop getting too big for his britches, and later, a crowd of officers gather around a closed-circuit television to watch and laugh as his interrogation of a suspect collapses.

As you can tell by the previous paragraphs, The Shield is a complex, multi-layered show, dealing with a delicate issues including racism, police brutality, media manipulation, corruption, and blackmail. To it's credit, through thirteen episodes of season one, it never feels cluttered or confused. The long-form allows these storylines to play out and gives the characters room to explore other dimensions. If movies are like a short stories or novellas - laser-focused on advancing the story - television has the advantage of being like a novel, allowing room for characters to develop more fully. The Shield builds to an explosive finale where Vic is being set up as his home life falls apart, and the city explodes in a riot and the targeting of police officers after an unanswered 911 call resulted in the murder of two black women.

Vic is a family man as expected (his son's diagnosis with autism is one of the running subplots), but he is surprisingly nice to a hooker he bribes for information, Nancy (Jamie Brown), who is also a junky and has a little boy. Vic puts himself at great risk many times trying to help her and even cover up for her (he even, at her request, beats her up to make it look like a guy she just killed attacked her, and you can tell he doesn't want to do it). When she fails to sober up and abandons her son at the station, the heartbreak on Vic's face is genuine.

Dutch gets a strong moment near the end of the season when he finally catches the serial killer, after a long and emotionally wrenching investigation. Instead of gloating or being satisfied, he breaks down and cries in his car; everything the perp said about him during the interrogation - about wanting to prove himself and be taken seriously, not having many friends, etc. - was true.

The subject matter of The Shield is not for the faint of heart. Various creeps include a heroin addict who sells his daughter to a sex offender, an underground sex club containing underage girls who are raped in front of an audience, the previously mentioned serial killer, and the usual gang bangers, drug dealers, scummy businessmen, crazies, and jealous lovers. None of this is lingered on. We don't get a single scene set in a courtroom where a lawyer pontificates about the rights and wrongs of a society that created these criminals. The closest we get is when representatives of the Nation of Islam stage a stand-in in the police station lobby, rightly pointing out that the police do allow certain drug dealers free reign. Nor does the show linger on the sensationalist details. Sick stuff happens; the police move on to the next case or deal with their own problems.

Sometimes, the show is darkly funny. Vic and his crew resolve a war between rival hip hop moguls by locking them in a storage crate for the night. In one episode, the Strike Crew detain a visiting NBA star on a gun charge, and they keep him off the grid in an empty apartment, so they can bet against his team. One woman forces Danni and Julian to keep responding to calls because she continually chooses between one of two men; the jilted man responds with vandalism, and the officers grow increasingly exasperated. Of course, it's funny until one of the men snaps and kills the other two; then it's tragedy.

The Shield captures all this in a gritty, cinema-verite style, a lot of handheld cameras shaking as they follow the action and zooming in on faces. There's also the occasional lens flare, and many actors are lit harshly, revealing scraggly, shadowed faces. It has a very documentary-like feeling, not glamorous in the slightest, and the result is the violence feels more jolting when it does occur. It never feels like the show is trying to show off; it just reflects the day-to-day grind these officers and detectives go through. It's very raw.

The series also employs a lot of cross-cutting, further accentuating the divide between the noble, positive image of law enforcement with the grueling, sometimes ugly reality. The show begins with a press conference led by Aceveda, highlighting the progress the district has made in halting crime; meanwhile, Vic and his squad chase down a suspect,  beat him up and humiliate him in public, terrorizing the neighborhood in the process. In episode two, the show jumps back and forth between Terry's funeral and the services for the drug dealer framed for his murder, and similar to Fritz Lang's M, the parallel between cops and criminals is uncanny.