Category Archives: Violence

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the Film

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.

The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead  is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.

Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.

Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.

In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The “big noise guy” in this film is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), and he has a son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), who’s tried to kidnap a little girl off the school playground.

Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Sarah Trigger as former-girlfriend Meg, and Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.

Christopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.

Gabrielle Anwar as Dagney, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.

Fairuza Balk as Lucinda, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.

As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.

Treat Williams as Critical Bill, Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, William Forsythe as Franchise, and Christopher Lloyd as Pieces — Jimmy’s gang. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.

Steve Buscemi as Mr Shush, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.

A few critics labeled this neo-noir classic a “copycat” and a “weak sister” of Pulp Fiction by “wanna-be Tarantinos,” but other critics praise Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead as an “offbeat thriller” that is “relentlessly quirky” and “perversely comic,” allowing it to “dodge any hand-me-down Pulp Ficton formula.

Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.

Available for free viewing to subscribers of Starz (showing this month) and DirecTV (premium channels), and for rent ($1.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Head-Banger’s Ball: Escaping Abuse the Hard Way

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Trigger Warning
This post, though not graphic,
openly discusses childhood sexual abuse.

Life is unbearable,
but death is not so pleasant either.
Russian Proverb

I was dancing when it happened. After almost four years, I’d just had the braces removed from my legs and, in my joy at being free, I was dancing all around the kitchen and the empty dining room, wearing nothing but my panties and a camisole. My father was there, drinking beer, watching me, following me all around the house. I thought he was impressed with my improvised ballet skills. I don’t remember where my mother was, though I do know that it was late at night.

When my father grabbed me and began kissing me, I squirmed and twisted away. I wanted to dance, not kiss. Besides, I didn’t like the way he was kissing me, putting his nasty tongue all over my face and mouth. I fought hard enough to make him lose hold of me. When he tried to grab me again, I ran to the kitchen and got under the table, trying to hide.

Unfortunately, he found me.

My biological father first raped me when I was 3. My mother walked in when it was happening, and had to beat my father over the head to make him stop. Instead of taking me for medical attention, my mother told me I was a “bad girl” and locked me in the closet until I stopped crying. I don’t know how many days I was in that closet, but it seemed longer than any lifetime. I couldn’t understand what I’d done, but I vowed never to forget.

As soon as I earned my freedom from that closet, I  began telling people that my father had done something bad to me. I told family members, neighbors, doctors, nurses — anyone I thought could punish him. Anyone I thought could make him stop hurting me, which he continued to do. No one listened until I was 4 or 5 years old, when a Judge, in his chambers, asked me to show him — by pointing to my body — where my father was hurting me.

I don’t remember what events led up to that encounter in the Judge’s chambers, only that he was kind and patient, that he actually listened to me, and that after I talked to the Judge, my biological father lost all visitation rights. Furthermore, though I visited my father’s parents each weekend and though he now lived with them, he was not even permitted to be in the same room with me. I never saw my father again.

After my mother divorced my father, I thought I would be safe from men’s violence. Unfortunately, by the time I was 5, my mother was already dating a man who was sexually abusing me in every way imaginable, doing more atrocious things than my biological father had done. At the ripe old age of seven, after an entire lifetime of abuse from my mother, my father, and my mother’s boyfriend (who later became my stepfather), I decided that life was unbearable, so I decided to kill myself.

My only problem was that I wasn’t exactly sure how someone did that. During the last violent fight with my father, my mother had slammed him in the head with a cast-iron skillet. I’d seen him lying motionless on the floor, surrounded by a pool of blood. When the police arrived, my mother told them she’d killed her husband because he’d killed me. Though my father actually survived the assault, he was seriously injured. Because I never saw him again, I thought he was, in fact, dead. Since my mother had “killed” my father by bashing him in the head with the cast-iron frying pan, I decided, at the world-weary age of seven, to become a head-banger.

Swing-sets, telephone poles, brick houses. Fence posts, church pews, marble statues. Bang, bang, bang. Walls, bedposts, porch supports. Basement floors, steel pipes, tree trunks. Bang, bang, bang.

I hit my head so hard so many times in a row that mostly I walked around in a daze. Sometimes I hit my head so hard that I fell asleep. Each time that head-banging numbness rushed over me, I was convinced I’d successfully killed myself, and I was so relieved and so grateful that I could never be hurt again that I slipped into that deadened sleep with something like joy.

Each time, however, I woke up.
Disappointed.
With an unbearable headache.
And with dreadful pressure in my skull.

Although many people know that a baby’s skull plates move — to allow it to pass through the birth canal — they don’t realize that the plates of the skull remain mobile throughout life. The brain and the spinal cord, furthermore, are surrounded by their own pulsing, hydraulic system that does not match the rhythm of the heart, breathing, or any other system of the body. Dr. John Upledger discovered this brain-spinal-cord hydraulic system and named it the “craniosacral system.” Upledger went on to develop a medical massage therapy designed to put the craniosacral system back in proper alignment.

When the plates of the skull are not in their proper position, as from any common injury such as bumping the head hard, then headaches and pressure inside the skull (from the non-circulation of craniosacral fluid) may occur. A severe head trauma, or even a minor fall from a slide or swing, can shift or jam the skull plates, preventing the craniosacral fluid from moving as it is designed to do, creating a tremendous build-up of pressure — and pain — inside the skull. The pain and the pressure will only stop when the skull plates are restored to their normal positions, something that may take many sessions with trained craniosacral therapists, especially if the skull plates have been jammed for years after some serious accident.

Of course, in my case, it was many accidents, some of them caused by my repeated head-banging at age 7, some of those accidents caused by my mother from the time I was born, but one of the most serious head injuries caused by my father during an argument with my mother.

My parents were both drunk the day it happened. They were standing in the living room, quite close to each other, screaming and shoving and hitting each other. My father suddenly shouted something that made my mother jump at him, clawing at his face. Then he began choking her. Since what he’d shouted had been about me, I must have felt, even at three years old, morally obligated to separate them. So there I was, shoving myself between their knees, trying to push them apart so they wouldn’t kill each other and leave me all alone to be sent to an orphanage.

In his drunken rage, my father must have perceived me as quite a pest, something you just fling away from you. So that’s what he did. He grabbed me under the arms, lifted me as high as he could, and flung me away. I remember the sudden rush of air as he swept me upward, the terrible, mind-numbing fear, the choking sensation I felt as he released me and I flew, without a net, across the room.

I remember the horrific jolt of pain as I smashed the upper right side of my head against the marble mantel of the fireplace.

I remember, too, the cold blackness that descended on me in an instant.

By the time my migraines got so debilitating that my family doctor recommended I go to craniosacral therapists, I was over forty years old. As soon as they touched my head, the medical therapists informed me that the right frontal skull-plate was “significantly jammed” under the left one. It was wedged under the other one so tightly, they couldn’t fix it in one treatment. Also, since it was a long-standing injury, they informed me, the muscles of my face and head had gotten used to holding the plate in the incorrect position. They agreed with the doctor that, though my tendency toward migraines was probably hereditary * as well, the jammed frontal skull plate wasn’t making the migraines any better.

The therapists warned me that, as they attempted, over several sessions (which turned into several months), to free the wedged cranial plate from under the other one, my migraines might get much worse before they improved. They were absolutely right. I’d been having about seventeen migraines a month when I went to see them. The first month of treatment, I had twenty-seven migraines. It took them five months of three-times-a-week sessions to get the jammed skull plates back into place.

When the skull plates moved back into their proper positions, the intense and unremitting pressure in my head disappeared. The pressure that I’d grown up with and assumed was normal had been caused by the craniosacral fluid’s inability to circulate freely around the skull plates and the spinal column. As soon as the right frontal plate slid free of the left one, the crushing pressure inside my head disappeared. I lay on the massage table and wept in gratitude and relief.

When I told my psychologist about all the times I’d banged my head when I was a little girl, trying to kill myself, she said she doubted that I’d really been attempting to commit suicide. She said that since I was so determined and so successful in other areas of my life, if I’d really been trying to kill myself, I probably would have succeeded. She said that I’d been in so much emotional and psychological pain that I was merely trying to medicate myself. Since I didn’t have any healthy coping skills, I’d banged my head against the hardest things I could find, to “numb” my pain.

I still maintain that I was trying to kill myself in order to escape the incessant torture from my mother and my rapist stepfather, and to atone for my father’s murder, which I believed I’d caused since my parents had been fighting about me when my mother “killed” my father with the cast-iron skillet.

You see, that day, when my mother killed my father by slamming him in the face with the skillet, they were fighting about me. That day, when my father said the words that sent my other into her uncontrollable rage — making her scratch his face, which then made him choke her — he was talking about me. The words he said were what I myself had been saying to my mother, family members, neighbors, and doctors for some time, though I said it like this: He does bad things to me.

That day, my father said it to my mother himself, despite her already knowing what he was doing to me, but he said it in a way that she couldn’t ignore. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I always remembered his exact words.

“Sascha’s a better fuck than you are.”

Bang, bang, bang.

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* Familial Hemiplegic Migraines (FHM) are caused by a genetic neurological disorder. I have FHM as well as from Complex Migraines.
(back to post)

Note: a different version of this post was published in March 2017. This version has been updated.

a small portion of this post is adapted from my true crime memoir M is for Munchers: The Serial Killers Next Door © 2002, 2007, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman. All rights reserved. No content may be copied, excerpted, or distributed without express written consent of the author and publisher, with copyright credit to the author. Please don’t support the piracy of Intellectual Property.

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Filed under #CSA, Attempted Suicide, Childhood Sexual Abuse, hemiplegic migraines, Memoir, migraines, PTSD, Rape, Sexual Abuse, Sexual Violence, Violence

The Thief, the Liar, and the Lovers: Korea’s Complex Crime Film, The Handmaiden

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At first glance, Korea’s 2016 The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) seems to be a straight-forward imperialist drama. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, and sumptuously directed by Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden transfers the story from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the Japanese imperialists have become the ideal for the subjugated Koreans. Learn Japanese, dress in kimonos, and mimic the behavior of your oppressors, and you can escape the poverty and ostracism of Korean occupation.

The Handmaiden quickly shifts into a crime drama, however, as a group of Korean thieves, pickpockets, and con-men plan to infiltrate the home of a rich but secluded woman in order to steal her fortune. Just when you think you understand what is happening, however, The Handmaiden abruptly shifts its perspective, changing the focus of its storyline to become one of the most complex psychological thrillers ever made.

The story begins simply enough. A handsome Korean con-man who pretends to be a Japanese nobleman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo),

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

recruits a young, somewhat naïve pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri),

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, The Handmaiden ©

to insinuate herself as a handmaiden in the household of an isolated, reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-heea).

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

The heiress is betrothed to a strange, unimaginably wealthy Japanese-book collector, who is also her uncle by marriage, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong, below R), and who also plans to steal the girl’s fortune himself.

Sook-hee’s job as handmaiden is to persuade the heiress Hideko to accept the Count’s marriage proposal and to elope since it is well known that the Uncle intends to marry his virtually captive niece himself. After consummating the illicit marriage, the faux Japanese Count plans to empty his new  bride’s bank account and have the heiress-bride Hideko committed to a lunatic asylum. In return for her help, the pickpocket Sook-hee can take whatever clothes and jewels she desires.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Given the wealth and personal obsessions of her Uncle, the heiress is continually isolated, but with her handmaiden as her chaperone, Hideko manages to have a bit more freedom with the Count, who is ostensibly giving her art lessons.

Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

During the Count’s surreptitious courtship, Lady Hideko and Handmaiden Sook-hee find themselves drawn to each other — first as companions and friends, and then, tentatively and somewhat innocently, as lovers.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Just when you think you know how the film is going to develop, it suddenly seems to end, and not very pleasantly. It’s only Sook-hee’s perspective of the story that ends, though, because the film is not even half-way over.

Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, and Cho Jin-woong as Uncle Kouzuki, The Handmaiden ©

Part Two continues the story, only now from Hideko’s perspective, where we learn that Lady Hideko is haunted by the suicide of her aunt, that her Uncle Kouzuki is a collector of rare Japanese books that are all pornography, and that he forces her to read said pornographic books to him as well as to his male guests, including the Korean-faux-Japanese Count. This isolation and abuse account greatly for Lady Hideko’s ennui and despair in the Part One, as well as for the Count’s interest in Lady Hideko: he wants the heiress’ fortune and the Uncle’s rare Japanese pornography collection.

Kim Tae-ri as Handmaiden Sook-hee, and Kim Min-heea as Lady Hideko, The Handmaiden ©

Lest you now think that you have all of the characters figured out and that you are absolutely positive about the film’s final act, The Handmaiden “ends” again, with about 45 minutes remaining. You are now at Part Three, which shifts its storyline to the perspective of the faux Japanese Count, the Korean con-man whose world is about to be thrown into chaos by none other than Lady Hideko and her Handmaiden Sook-hee.

Because the film is clearly divided into three parts, with viewers being alerted to Parts One, Two, and Three with those words on-screen, this psychological thriller and crime drama is easy to follow despite its “fiendishly dense and complex” narrative. Intellectually challenging and satisfying, with a Hitchcockian seductiveness, The Handmaiden is a dramatic exploration not only of forbidden sexual desire but, more importantly, of the tyranny and potential cruelty of absolute power. Whether in imperialism, in male-dominated marriage, or in rigid socio-economic class distinctions, power can warp itself into persecution, injustice, and brutality, causing its victims to rebel and take their revenge.

Part neo-noir and historical drama, part “love story, revenge thriller, and puzzle film,” The Handmaiden is luscious and fascinating, marred only by its explicit lesbian sex scene in Part Two, which was handled much more artistically and tastefully in the first part of the film when much of the interaction was left to the viewers’ imagination, and which caused at least one critic to label the film as nothing more than a “male wet dream.”

The Handmaiden is in Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles. Available for rent from Amazon ($2.99 SD, $3.99 HD, free for Prime Members), YouTube ($4.99), and iTunes ($14.99 purchase).

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Murder, Anyone? In A Lonely Place, the Film

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Even if you’re a fan of the great Humphrey Bogart, you might find it hard to believe that he “played juveniles or romantic second-leads in drawing room comedies [in the theatre], and is said to have been the first actor to ask “Tennis, anyone?” on stage.” As a pre-teen, I watched his films on Saturday afternoons when a local television channel aired classics. I loved Bogart’s characters: the wounded cynic who was tough yet vulnerable, powerful yet caring.

His most memorable films reinforced his “Loner with a Heart of Gold” role: the private investigator with a femme fatale client in The Maltese Falcon (1941), a Noir classic based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; the self-sacrificing expatriate in Casablanca (1942), which was Bogart’s first romantic lead in film; and private investigator Phillip Marlowe in the complex and somewhat convoluted Noir The Big Sleep, (1946), based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.

Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, In a Lonely Place ©

Until last month, when I first learned of Dorothy B. Harris’ 1947 Noir serial killer novel, In a Lonely Place, however, written in Limited Point of View from the perspective of the killer himself, and its 1950 film adaptation, I never realized that Humphrey Bogart had played a man suspected of being not just a murderer, but a serial killer. Bogart’s angst-ridden and angry character Dixon Steele in the film adaptation of Harris’ novel, is one of his most “fascinatingly complex” roles, one that has earned the film a place in multiple the Top 100 lists.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place ©

Bogart plays once-successful screenwriter Dixon Steele, who is being urged by his agent and colleagues to adapt a trashy bestseller into a script to get his own career back on track, i.e., earning money. Annoyed by the book’s banal content, Steele feels oppressed by the assignment. He attempts a shortcut: instead of reading the entire “epic” novel himself, he asks a young coat-check girl (Martha Stewart) at one of his favorite restaurants to come back to his place to tell him the story. When the two arrive at his apartment complex late at night, Steele glimpses the woman of his dreams, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is a new neighbor.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place ©

From that point on, Steele’s life is a tumultuous roller coaster ride. As he tries to write a screenplay for the book he doesn’t even like, he finds himself irresistibly attracted to the mysterious and somewhat aloof Laurel. Worse, he’s under investigation for violent crimes, including a gruesome murder.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place ©

Though the film seems to start somewhat slowly and has some inappropriate comedic moments, especially those involving the drunken actor who’s a friend of Steele, and many scenes with Steele’s agent (Art Smith), it mostly concentrates on the disturbing story of Steele’s vivid (albeit scary) imagination and his even more frightening rage.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place ©

The isolation, moral ennui, and angst driving Steele to desperate acts of savagery that begin to terrify even his long-time agent, the beautiful but restless Laurel, and close friends Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell).

Jeff Donnell and Frank Lovejoy, In a Lonely Place ©

It’s not only the most intense performance Bogart ever gave, it’s considered by many to be his best: “revelatory, vulnerable,” and “unnerving.”

Because the film In a Lonely Place is only very loosely adapted from the novel, I wouldn’t recommend that you read the book beforehand, as the differences between novel and film will confuse you. Instead, watch the film — or read the novel — separately from each other. This film, called the “purest of Existential primers,” is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.

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You Are Now Entering the Cruel World: Texas Killing Fields, the Film

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You are now entering the cruel world
bridge sign near The Killing Fields

Since the 1970s, at least 30 young women and girls have been abducted, disappeared, or been found murdered in an isolated and spooky 50-mile area of Texas bayou country dubbed “The Killing Fields.” Based on the true and never solved serial killings in that area, the screenplay for the 2011 film Texas Killing Fields, (also known as The Fields), was written by federal agent Don Ferrone, who investigated the killings and missing girls. Texas Killing Fields, despite any writing and production flaws, is an intense and creepy film, with strong performances by its principals.

Based loosely on investigators Brian Goetschius and Michael Land, respectively, Detective Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)

Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Texas Killing Fields ©

and Detective Mike (Sam Worthington)

Sam Worthington in Texas Killing Fields ©

become deeply involved in the cases of the missing and murdered girls after Mike’s ex-wife Pam (Jessica Chastain),

Jessica Chastain, Texas Killing Fields ©

who is also an investigator, albeit in another county, contacts Brian for help when a missing girl’s car is discovered at the boundary of the desolate area known as “The Killing Fields.”

Detective Mike, short-tempered and alcoholic, is initially not interested in getting involved in these cases since it is not in their jurisdiction. Detective Brian, however, feels more morally obligated to investigate them, as evidenced by the map and photos of missing girls he has hanging in his office.

Chloë Grace Moretz, Texas Killing Fields ©

The story of the murder investigation is interwoven with the story of Little Anne (Chloë Grace Moretz), whose mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee) flirts with prostitution, and whose brother Eugene (James Hébert) works and parties with his spooky pal, Rhino (Stephen Graham).

Stephen Graham, Texas Killing Fields ©

Detective Brian is familiar with Little Anne since he has clearly been attempting to save her from sinking into the moral and criminal abyss already inhabited by her abusive family.

Chloë Grace Moretz & Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Texas Killing Fields ©

The detectives get more emotionally involved in the case when Little Anne disappears, causing them to plunge into the wilderness of The Killing Fields in a desperate attempt to save her and to stop the serial killer.

The Killing Fields, Texas, © CBS News

Though compelling and creepy, Texas Killing Fields isn’t perfect. It’s never clear why Jessica Chastain’s character is in the film in the first place, and her character, although she provides some very minor backstory for Detective Mike, could have been completely eliminated without the film’s suffering from her loss.

Worse, the film has some serious lighting issues. While it might be “atmospheric” to have much of a serial killer film taking place in the dark, at night, in a desolate area that has no lighting whatsoever, when an audience can’t see what’s happening onscreen, especially during one of the climactic scenes involving Detective Brian, that’s a problem. In fact, the lighting problem may be one of the things that earned the film some of its lower reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb.

Sam Worthington & Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Texas Killing Fields ©

The real killings on which Texas Killing Fields was based were never actually solved. Though law enforcement had a strong suspect, authorities were never able to find any evidence definitively connecting their suspect to the disappearances or killings. The film deviates from this fact, as well as from the facts about what happened to the character on which Little Anne is modeled, but that’s Hollywood: even in a movie about serial killers, Hollywood wants an (almost) happily-ever-after ending.

Even with its flaws, Texas Killing Fields is intense and worth watching. The performances of the principal actors alone, including young Chloë Grace Moretz, are strong and well-done.

If you’ve seen season 1 of True Detective, you’ll wonder which came first: TKF or TD. No matter that some of the viewer-reviews compare the film to True Detective season 1, Texas Killing Fields predates the HBO series by quite a few years, and it gets credit for that, at the very least.

Available on Amazon ($4.99 or free with a 7-day trial subscription to Starz) and YouTube ($5.99). Free for Starz subscribers.

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Pierce Brosnan & AMC’s THE SON Shine Hot & Bright

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Cast of AMC’s The Son, L-R, Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, Elizabeth Frances as Prairie Flower, Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, Pierce Brosnan as Elder Eli McCullough, Henry Garrett as Eli’s youngest son Pete, Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, Jess Weixler as Pete’s wife Sally, and David Wilson Barnes as Eli’s eldest son Phineas © AMC

AMC’s newest series The Son is a “creation myth of America” set in the American West in two different time periods, 1849 and 1915, telling the story of Texas family patriarch Eli McCullough. Based on the Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer, who is also an executive producer of the show, The Son explores America’s violent heritage by examining Texas’ deadly involvement with indigenous peoples and its Mexican neighbors. Though Variety claims The Son is “yet another show centered around a morally grey white man with a dark past,” and though the premiere was a bit slow, AMC solved this initial pacing problem by showing the first two episodes in the same night. By the third episode, the series picks up steam and becomes quite an intriguing story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough, and Jacob Lofland as the Young Eli in AMC’s The Son  © AMC

Eli McCullough, kidnapped by the Comanche as a young man, is the patriarch of the family in the series. Played by Pierce Brosnan in one of his best roles, he is a cattleman who, for some unknown reason, is determined to discover oil on his land. Is he losing money at the ranching business? Is he bored with cattle? Is he not rich enough? Is he in so much debt that he must lose the entire ranch if he doesn’t diversify? We don’t find that out, but for the first several episodes, the search for oil is a minor part of the story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough on The Son  © AMC

Despite some complaints about Brosnan’s native Irish accent poking through the show’s Texas drawl, and despite Hollywood Reporter’s description of his character as “Pathetic White Boy [Eli’s Comanche name]… grown into a powerful and notoriously vicious landowner whose new Comanche nickname would probably be Growls With a Beard,” Brosnan’s Eli McCullough is the most interesting character in The Son.

Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, The Son  © AMC

As a young man in 1849, Eli (Jacob Lofland, one of the shining stars of the series) was kidnapped by the Comanche, led by Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon, a serious competitor with Brosnan, in both talent and physical attractiveness).

Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, The Son  © AMC

Tormented by the males of the tribe as well as by the lovely Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances),

Elizabeth Frances as Comanche Prairie Flower, The Son  © AMC

Eli often doubts his ability to survive captivity. The longer he is with the tribe, however, the more he begins to behave like the other young men, and the more he is accepted as part of their group. Eventually, Toshaway may even come to regard Eli as his son.

Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough, The Son  © AMC

The scenes of Eli in the past are interwoven are interwoven with those of Eli as a grown man, in 1915. Living on his ranch with his sons Phineas (David Wilson Barnes)

David Wilson Barnes as eldest son Phineas, The Son  © AMC

and Pete (Henry Garrett),

Henry Garrett as youngest son Pete, The Son  © AMC

his daughter-in-law (Pete’s wife) Sally (Jess Weixler),

Jess Weixler as daughter-in-law Sally, The Son  © AMC

and his grandchildren — Charles, Jonas, and Jeannie (Sydney Lucas, who shines in her scenes with Brosnan, with whom she has obvious chemistry) —

Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, The Son  © AMC

Eli is at odds with his sons. They want to sell part of the ranch to get the family out of debt, but Eli fears that dividing the ranch will ultimately lead to its complete loss. How the family got into such serious debt in the first place has never been made clear, but perhaps that isn’t as important as it seems it should be.

Carlos Bardem as neighbor Pedro García, The Son  © AMC

The McCulloughs’ nearest neighbors are the Garcías, led by patriarch Pedro (Carlos Bardem) and his feisty daughter Maria (Paola Nuñez), who seems inordinately attracted to the already married Pete McCullough.

Paola Nuñez as Pedro’s daughter Maria, The Son  © AMC

The Garcías have a large family, but the most important members seem to be these two. The García patriarch has some nefarious associations with Mexican bandits who are causing havoc with the white Texas settlers. War seems to be on the horizon.

Comanches in The Son  © AMC

Though the Native Americans and the Mexicans often seem stereotyped, the storyline is still mostly strong. Admittedly, there are some flaws in the story itself: Eli has two sons, for example, but the eldest, Phineas, largely disappears after the initial episodes; the Garcías have a large family, but no one gets near the attention (or screen time) that Pedro and his eldest daughter Maria have.

The worst problem with the series so far is its major production flaw: the music is often so loud that the dialogue is literally inaudible.

Still, The Son is worth watching, and, as the LA Times review notes, it’s engrossing, if only for the strong performances of Brosnan (Eli as a man), Lofland (Eli as a youth), and McClarnon (Toshaway). The strongest and most interesting female characters are Frances (Prairie Flower) and Lucas (granddaughter Jeannie). Also, the chemistry between Brosnan and Sydney Lucas (Jeannie) is delightful.

The Son is rated MA for its violence, which is frequent though not excessively graphic, and it airs Saturdays at 9:00 pm ET. The first two episodes, Son of Texas and The Plum Tree are available for viewing without login on AMC, and all episodes are free for AMC subscribers.

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When Murder Smells Like Honeysuckle: 3 Noir Film Classics

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How could I have known that murder
could smell like honeysuckle?
James M. Cain
Double Indemnity

No Spoilers

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

American Film Noir was most prevalent in the 1940s and 1950s, though films emulating that classic era are still being made (sometimes called Neo-noir to differentiate them from the original classics). Popular with audiences and often made by renowned directors like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and Otto Preminger, the films were frequently based on hardboiled detective or crime fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train.

Shot in black-and-white with stark lighting and dramatic shadowing, Film Noir explores morality in storylines where no character is completely good or evil. Usually, the male protagonist is more bad than good, although he mostly justifies his criminal or morally reprehensible behavior, or blames it on something (or someone) else. Film Noir features Voice-Over narration, mostly from the male protagonist’s perspective, keeping the viewers clearly on the side of that character since their worldview is usually limited to that of the doomed male.

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

The disillusioned and usually fatalistic male wears suits or neatly pressed clothes, and is virtually always clean-shaven (day-old stubble, at most). He may be more experienced with this fists than with weapons, but he acquits himself admirably with a knife or a gun if the situation arises. Whether he’s a private investigator (The Maltese Falcon), a criminal (Little Caesar), a drifter (The Postman Always Rings Twice), or an unscrupulous insurance salesman (Double Indemnity), the male protagonist of Film Noir is world-weary, gritty, and psychologically complex. He’s had some dubious dealings in the past that make him as morally ambiguous as the female protagonist: the femme fatale.

John Garfield & Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

The femme fatale is a woman of questionable moral virtue. She’s often contrasted with the “good girl” or the “girl next door” who loses the male to the dangerous femme. Beautiful and duplicitous, with Hollywood-worthy costumes, impeccable coiffures, and glamorous make-up, the femme fatale ensnares the male, who is so drawn to her that he will do anything — even commit murder — in order to possess her love. Sexual passion goes along with her love, of course, but the doomed male protagonist wants the femme’s love even more than he wants her sexual fidelity. When the male is as morally dubious as the female, the femme fatale can usually out-think and outmaneuver her male counterpart.

The Film Noir classics Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on crime fiction novels written by James M. Cain. The Killers used Ernest Hemingway’s story of the same name to start the film, then supplied a gritty original screenplay with the characters’ back-story. Screenwriters, directors, and actors worked hard to keep the films as close to their literary inspiration as possible, giving audiences some of the best films ever made.

Double Indemnity
(1944)

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a confession, which becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film. Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray & Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity ©

With Phyllis’ reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, & Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity ©

When Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man) and the victim’s daughter Lola get suspicious about the husband’s “accident,” Walter’s and Phyllis’ adulterous relationship and their forbidden love are severely tested.

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity has all the hallmarks of the Noir genre: atmospheric lighting, a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous femme fatale.

The film was closely adapted from James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, which is itself a classic of crime fiction, and which the author based on the true story of Ruth Snyder’s notorious 1920’s murder trial. Available for rent ($3.99 for 24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
(1946)

When the unemployed, homeless drifter Frank (John Garfield) stops at a roadside diner, he’s immediately attracted to the owner’s curvaceous, long-legged, young wife Cora (Lana Turner, in her most famous role).

Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

Frank takes the job offered by diner-owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and begins pursuing Cora, who treats him with disdain. Soon, though, Cora, who married her older husband for security, begins to fall for Frank. The couple wants to be together for the rest of their lives, but Cora doesn’t want to run away and live a drifter’s life. She has ambitions “to be somebody.” Somebody who has an established home and income. Somebody who runs a successful diner. Somebody who is a widow rather than a penniless divorcée.

Lana Turner & John Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice ©

After an initial “accident” goes awry, the lovers realize that neither of them is the type who could commit murder. Their attempt at a “trial separation” and a platonic relationship prove frustrating, however, and the two decide that life without each other may not be worth living. When outside parties who suspect nefarious goings-on at the diner intentionally pit the lovers against each other, Cora’s and Frank’s love is strained and their trust in each other frays. What are they willing to do for love, and can that love survive murder and betrayal?

The title has nothing to do with the story itself, neither in the James M. Cain novel nor in the film, though the film unsuccessfully attempts to force the title to fit by pretending, at the conclusion, that the “postman” is God, who’s not present anywhere else in the film.

Cain himself claimed that he chose the non-sequitur title because he had always been nervous after submitting a manuscript for publication, and noticed that his postman always rang twice. The Postman Always Rings Twice is available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

The Killers
(1946)

After the murder of quiet, industrious, unassuming gas station attendant “The Swede” (Burt Lancaster, in his first role) by contract killers, fellow townspeople are confused and frightened. Furthermore, they’re disconcerted by the fact that The Swede was apathetic and even nihilistic when warned of the killers’ presence and openly stated intention to murder him.

Burt Lancaster, The Killers ©

Intrigued by the reason behind the contract hit, insurance investigator Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) attempts to piece together Swede’s life story. For some bizarre reason never sufficiently explained in the film, Reardon turns “detective,” determined to unearth every aspect of Swede’s life.

Reardon discovers that Swede had plenty of secrets, including quite a few criminal missteps, any one of which could have, theoretically, gotten him killed.

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner, The Killers ©

After learning about Swede’s involvement with the gorgeous and seductive girlfriend of a gangster, Reardon is convinced that Kitty Conway (Ava Gardener, in the first role that brought her extensive attention) had something to do with Swede’s death.

The killers in The Killers ©

The deeper Reardon delves into Swede’s past, however, the more endangered Reardon’s own life becomes, especially after he learns that Swede knew his killers personally. Can Reardon discover who ordered the hit on Swede — and why — before someone silences Reardon himself?

The first twenty minutes of The Killers is adapted directly from Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, complete with the author’s distinctive dialogue (which then disappears from the film). The remainder of the Oscar-nominated screenplay is original. The Killers was considered a somewhat radical film when first released because it departed from the then-traditional narrative format and used flashbacks to tell the bulk of the story. Available for rent ($3.99/24-hour viewing period) from Amazon.

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No One Gets Out Alive: HBO’s Deadwood

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Deadwood © HBO

From 2004-2006, HBO aired one of the most critically acclaimed series ever: Deadwood, a Western that takes place in late 19th century Deadwood, South Dakota, before the area was annexed to the Dakota Territory. Created, produced, and mostly written by David Milch, the show was based, in part, on newspapers and diaries from 1870’s Deadwood, and featured a mix of historical and fictional characters.

In reality, and in the series, Deadwood is lawless and dangerous, a place where men — and women — might make their fortunes or lose their lives at the snap of someone’s fingers. Gold, saloons, and brothels abound. Pimps, gamblers, and whores mix with lawmen, outlaws, and businessmen. The camp-town is uncivilized, as are many of the characters struggling to survive. Deadwood strikes gold every time I watch it, and the show has been hailed by film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, as “the best TV show ever,” and this despite the fact that the series is somewhat reknowned (and villified) for its profane language.

The word “fuck” is said 43 times in the first hour of the show. It has been reported that the series had a total count of 2,980 “fucks” [in its 3-year, 36-episode run], an average of 1.56 utterances of “fuck” per minute of footage.

Yes, the language is gritty. The characters are rough. Life is harder than hard. But it all blends together to make a stunning and memorable show.

The Cast & Characters

The series begins with Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant)

Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock © HBO

and his partner Sol Star (John Hawkes)

John Hawkes as Sol Star © HBO

heading out to Deadwood, where they want to set up a Hardware store. One of the first people the pair meets is Gem Saloon owner and brothel-keeper, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, in his Golden Globe award-winning role).

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen © HBO

Al rents Bullock and Star the land on which to build their store, so long as they don’t deal in liquor, gambling, or whores. Not only is Al one of My Favorite Villains, he is one of the most vivid and tascinating characters ever created.

Foul-mouthed, violent, sarcastic, murderous, and otherwise cruel to the point of sadism, McShane’s Swearengen is nevertheless also empathetic:  a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, Al is frequently hurt by those whom he believes he can trust (though he usually reacts in anger to betrayal). Creator David Milch apparently wrote the role with Ian McShane in mind, and McShane’s performance as the vicious yet vulnerable Al make him one of the most intriguing and oft-quoted villains in history.

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen © HBO

No single scene could possibly show you McShane’s range as Al. Ian’s subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and glances alone demonstrate more ability and talent in this role than some actors display in their entire careers. The fan-made montage Al Talks the Talk & Walks the Walk displays just some of Al’s villainy and McShane’s talent. (One of the “murders” shown in this montage is actually a mercy-killing of a severely afflicted and dying character, which Al had to be persuaded to assist in, since no one else — not even the camp’s doctor — was willing to help end the character’s intense, progressive, and incurable suffering).

Über-Warning:
Very Adult Language

(Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You)

Al has some of the best lines in the entire series, and most of the greatest swearing streaks, so you might as well hear some of the very best of Al’s Collected Wisdom. Because if you can’t abide Al’s language, you won’t want to watch the show.

Über-Warning:
Super Adult Language

(In Case You Ignored My First Warning)

Because Hardware Store partners Seth and Sol are renting their land from Al, they become involved with virtually everyone who has something to do with Al and the Gem Saloon. Soon after their arrival, however, the two partners become involved with the other residents of Deadwood, including Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif),

Brad Dourif as Doc Cochran © HBO

AW Merrick (Jeffrey Jones), editor of The Deadwood Pioneer,

Jeffrey Jones as AW Merrick © HBO

and EB Farnum (William Sanderson, in his best career role), owner of the Grand Central Hotel.

William Sanderson as EB Farnum © HBO

These real-life characters interact with other historical notables, including Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine),

Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok © HBO

Calamity Jane (Robin Wiegert),

Robin Wiegert as Calamity Jane © HBO

Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), Wild Bill’s and Jane’s companion,

Dayton Callie as Charlie Utter © HBO

George Hearst (Gerald McRaney),

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst © HBO

Wyatt Earp (Gale Harold),

Gale Howard as Wyatt Earp © HBO

and actor Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox).

Brian Cox as Jack Langrishe ©HBO

All of them become deeply enmeshed in the life of Deadwood as they attempt to make their lives matter, to make their fortunes, or to escape their pasts amidst love, lust, greed, and jealousy.

If mining, stealing, and hoarding gold weren’t enough to cause friction among the male residents of Deadwood, let’s thrown in some beautiful women. Alma Garrett (Molly Parker) falls for Sheriff Seth Bullock after her own husband dies.

Molly Parker as Alma Garret © HBO

Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) is Al’s favorite whore till she becomes involved with Seth’s partner Sol Star.

Paula Malcolmson as Trixie © HBO

Seth’s wife Martha (Anna Gunn) arrives with her young son after her husband has fallen in love with the Widow Alma.

Anna Gunn as Martha Bullock © HBO

And Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), Madame of the Bella Union, across from the Gem,

Kim Dickens as Joanie Stubbs © HBO

wants to escape her cruel lover-pimp-boss, Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe), to set up her own place.

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver © HBO

The Language Of Deadwood

Despite Deadood’s grim subject matter, and despite the obscenity, there’s language so poetic, it sounds like some of the best Shakespearean lines ever written. The actors say it all so naturally, but it’s the writing itself that allows the actors to ascend to the realm of poetry, even when they’re arguing. This montage — after the mostly funny first four minutes where all the characters are cursing — lets you hear the poetry and beauty of the language in Deadwood.

Über-Warning:
Super Adult Language

(I Don’t Have To Keep Telling You This, Right?)

Deadwood‘s Humor

Even in its most serious situations, Deadwood is filled with humor. Some of it made me laugh aloud the first time I viewed it, and I honestly don’t know how some of the actors did their lines without laughing through the entire scenes. This excerpt, sometimes called Who-Wu by fans, where Chinese “Boss” Mr Wu (Leone Young) is attempting to tell Al Swearengen, whom Wu calls “Swi-jen,” about white thieves who stole his dope, is one of the classics.

Über-Warning:
Super Funny But Still Adult Language
(But Surely You Know This Now)

If you like some of the the Westerns and the Darkly Twisted Comedies on my recommended lists, you’ll absolutely adore Deadwood.

Deadwood is available for free viewing on-demand for Amazon Prime Members (or with a 30-day HBO trial) and for HBO subscribers. Deadwood is availabe for purchase for about $2.99/episode or $24.99/season (HD), from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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Menace and Mayhem in FX’s Taboo

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Spoilers
No Spoiler Taboo review at
Tom Hardy and FX’s Taboo: Creepy Good

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

Reviewers are calling FX’s new show Taboo everything from a “jazzed-up” revenge tale to a “grimy revenge tale” that is “utterly ridiculous but totally absorbing,” from “a reanimated corpse of … drama tropes” to the “Tom Hardy Show,” which was a compliment to the actor. When I think of a revenge tale, I think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose protagonist is confronted by the ghost of his father in Act 1, a ghost who relates the tale of his murder by his own brother. In Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist dithers and dallies and overthinks every single move he wants to make to get revenge on his murderous uncle. Hamlet may be considered one of the most psychologically interesting characters, but most readers aren’t really attached to him until almost the end of the play, when he finally does something besides ruminating aloud about revenging himself against the uncle who murdered Hamlet’s father, married Hamlet’s mother, and usurped Prince Hamlet’s throne. If Hamlet is a classic revenge tale, Taboo is more menacing than any revenge tale I’ve ever read.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

Taboo‘s protagonist James Delaney (Tom Hardy) is much more interesting than Hamlet, too, if only because we don’t get long monologues betraying his thinking, let alone monologues revealing ceaseless brooding. Instead, viewers follow James around a seedy, dark London as he attempts to claim his inheritance (the island of Nootka off the northwest coast of the United Stated), protect his island from the powerful men of the East India Company who covet it, re-establish his father’s shipping company, and discover his father’s murderer. Viewers don’t even know if James is dead or alive, “half-dead or possessed by spirits” since he regularly has visions or memories triggered by his surroundings. Returned from Africa after ten years and plagued by these visions, Hardy’s Delaney is effectively fierce and foreboding in a show where everything is darkness, menace, and mayhem.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

When James arrived in England in episode 1, “Shovels and Keys,” the first thing he did was bury something, bury it as deep as his arm-to-his-shoulder in the mud. In the second episode (“Episode 2”), he unearths that bag, revealing a cache of unpolished diamonds. When he sends one of them to his sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, formerly Robb Stark’s outspoken foreign wife in Game of Thrones) without a note of any kind, she seems to know he’s sent it to her, and she hurriedly hides it from her husband. At the funeral of their father, James told Zilpha that Africa was unable to kill his love for her, and later he surreptitiously observed a young boy about 10 years old, whom viewers quickly suspected was the siblings’ incestuous love child, sent away to be raised by strangers.

Oona Chaplin as Zilpha Delaney Geary, from FX’s Taboo

In episode 1, Zilpha asked James to keep their past a secret from her husband, Thorne Geary, who already hates James just for existing, apparently, since he didn’t recognize James when he arrived at the church for the funeral. Confronting Zilpha at a society musicale in “Episode 2,” James asked her to come away from her friends, with him, ostensibly so he could answer her “Did you really eat flesh?” inquiry. When he revealed his memory of her “straightening her skirts after…” (we know where this is going, given the show’s title) and not looking back at him, Zilpha acted startled and said, “I walked away?” letting us know that the two of them have some really intense history in common, but they don’t recall it the same way.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney and Oona Chaplin as his half-sister Zilpha (from FX’s Taboo)

Does Zilpha care as much about James as he does for her, or does she just really like diamonds? Is it love between them or merely forbidden sexual attraction? Zilpha seems intensely drawn to James, in what actor Oona Chaplin calls “an incest plot as the ultimate will-they, won’t-they, should-they love triangle of Taboo.” Both actors do a wonderful job making the relationship as forbidden, menacing, and exciting as possible.

Of course, Zilpha’s husband Geary hates his brother-in-law James, and that hatred increased at the Reading of the Will, where it was revealed that Zilpha inherited nothing. Geary was the one who had arranged the sale of Nootka Island to East India — a sale that was thwarted when the Island was left solely to James.

Stephen Graham as Atticus (L) and Tom Hardy as James Delaney (R ) from FX’s Taboo

Underworld figure Atticus (Stephen Graham, perhaps best known to US audiences as Boardwalk Empire‘s Al Capone, above L) told James in episode 2 that it was Geary who tried to hire Atticus a year earlier to kill Old Man Delaney. For some reason unknown to viewers, Atticus refused the job, perhaps because it appears that he and James had some prior relationship (of which Geary would have been unaware).

Jefferson Hall as brother-in-law Geary (from FX’s Taboo)

If Geary (Jefferson Hall, above) wanted Old Man Delaney dead so that he could sell Nootka, then he certainly won’t hesitate to attempt to kill his resurrected brother-in-law James, especially after officially learning that his wife Zilpha inherited nothing. Geary’s shouts at James after the Will Reading were even louder than the shouts of Old Man Delaney’s creditors, though James paid all the creditors — to the shilling — after Zilpha and her angry husband left. Geary is almost as threatening as Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, below) of East India Co, though Geary might be more ineffectual (unless he was the one who poisoned his father-in-law after failing to find an assassin in Atticus).

Jonathan Pryce as head of the East India Company, Sir Stuart Strange (from FX’s Taboo)

Sir Stuart, on the other hand, is openly menacing and looks like he has the power to carry out his threats. After angrily insisting that James accept East India’s offer to purchase Nootka Island, then getting livid when James refused to even open the envelope and see what the offer was, Sir Stuart decided that James must be killed. That seems a bit drastic and melodramatic, and perhaps historically inaccurate as well: though East India was, no doubt, an immensely powerful company, it’s being set up as nothing but The Big Bad Villain in Taboo, one of the show’s few weaknesses. Still, Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow) is a delight to watch, if only because he gets to be openly threatening and frustrated. When not ordering his underlings to either murder James or lose their jobs, Sir Stuart is raging about James’ buying a ship, and ranting about his being in league with Americans (with whom Britain is at war) when wondering aloud where James got the money to buy said ship.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

It was that ship that sent James tumbling into visions (or memories) in “Episode 2,” visions that have to do with slavery. James discovered manacles and chains on the ship he’d purchased. After finding the manacles, James stripped off his clothes, revealing a multiply tattooed (and hunkily buff) body, scraped a bird of sorts into the ship’s flooring, and mumbled or chanted in a foreign language. One reviewer noted that there was a “subtle, creepy [almost hidden] ghost behind Hardy in the scene,” but I missed it completely.

The manacles caused James to react so violently that I’m beginning to suspect that James himself was sold into slavery, perhaps by his own father after James begat the child on his sister. If James was sold into slavery, rather than being a slave trader himself, that could be the reason everyone in England was so sure that James died in Africa: because it was arranged that he disappear permanently. Such an arrangement could also explain Old Man Delaney’s guilt toward the end of his life, guilt that had something to do with his son James.

In any event, it’s James’ creepy visions that make some reviewers wonder if he’s dead, and make me wonder if he wasn’t sold into slavery by his own father, albeit for having an incestuous sexual relationship with his sister Zilpha, because, as menacing as James seems, I just don’t get the feeling that he’s the villain in this drama.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney and Franka Potente as Madame Helga (from FX’s Taboo)

It’s not just James’ visions that make me wonder about his character: he seems to know things that no one else does, or, at the very least, to be able to unearth other characters’ secrets without too much effort. A young mulatto girl named Winter warned James about Madame Helga (Franka Potente), whom James had ordered to vacate his father’s business offices, which she was using as a brothel. Winter claimed that Helga was discussing James’ death-by-murder with a “man with a silver tooth.” After finding no one on the ship that Winter claimed belonged to the man with the silver tooth, James set it on fire. Afterward, James confronted Helga.

When he asked her about the mulatto Winter, Helga denied knowing anyone like that, insisting that she’d be delighted to have a mulatto, since customers would pay more for her. Helga wanted James to have sex with her as the price for information about Winter, but James refused, offering, instead, his own theories about the mulatto girl: he said that Helga’s eyes were like Winter’s, coming to the conclusion that Helga was Winter’s mother.

Helga didn’t deny it, but that doesn’t mean that Winter actually exists: she may be a ghost, coming into James’ life because of his horrific past, and Helga may not have answered James’ accusations that she’s Winter’s mother because she doesn’t know anyone named Winter and because, furthermore, Helga’s frightened of James. After all, when he ordered her to vacate his father’s dockside offices, threatening her with bodily harm after she had attempted to threaten him, Helga suddenly said, “I remember you,” adding that she remembered what he did to some girls, and that didn’t sound good. Everyone’s so evil and menacing in Taboo that it’s difficult to discover who we’re supposed to root for.

We also don’t know if Winter’s warning James about Helga’s attempt to murder him or about one of Helga’s clients’ discussing the murder plot in her whorehouse. And if it weren’t enough that Sir Stuart, Helga, brother-in-law Geary, and the person who hired the man with the silver tooth all want James Delaney dead and out of their lives, “Episode 2” threw in another person who might want him killed.

Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow, widow of Old Man Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

An Irish actress showed up and, after practicing her lines sotto voce, declared to everyone present at the reading of the will, that she’d married Old Man Delaney and, as his widow, is thus a claimant of James’ inheritance. Attorney Thoyt (Nicholas Woodsen) verified that Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) was actually married to the elder Delaney, but it’s not necessarily true that she has some claim to the inheritance. It seems that she would have to actually file a suit to get some of it. In any event, it increases the number of people who seem to want James dead, or who might have hired the man with the silver tooth to kill him.

At the conclusion of E2, the man in the silver tooth ambushed James and stabbed him, leaving him in an alley to die, though not before James tore open the murderer’s throat with his teeth, reminding us of Zilpha’s question, “Did you really eat flesh?” Of course, I doubt that James is going to die, despite the big knife sticking out of his gut, if only because his character is the major protagonist of the show. Instead, we’re given a hint that James’ is not as omnipotent as he seems, nor as omniscient, since, despite being warned of the hired murderer, he wasn’t prepared for the deadly encounter.

Menace and mayhem abound in FX’s Taboo, and Tom Hardy is absolutely riveting as James Delaney. Despite the fact that sometimes it’s difficult, if not outright impossible to understand what some of the actors are saying (Stephen Graham as Atticus was especially tough to understand, though David Hayman as the Delaney family servant Brace was also hard), and despite all the characters that are continually being introduced and which seem peripheral to the main storyline (King George’s annoyance about the colors in a map and his rant about East India Co come to mind), Taboo is staggeringly well done and intensely fascinating.

A limited mini-series of 8 episodes, Taboo airs on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm ET. Watch the premiere free with FX’s Premiere Pass, or every episode free with FX and DirecTV.

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Winter is Coming: HBO’s Game of Thrones, seasons 1-6

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No Spoilers
in these overviews

No Spoilers
in extended season reviews
(links below each brief overview)

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HBO’s award-winning show Game of Thrones, created and (mostly) written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, is based on the best-selling series of fantasy novels A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. Though the show diverges from the books’ content and order in some places, as do all dramatic adaptations, Game of Thrones follows the major Houses presented in the book series — Lannister, Stark, Targaryen, Tyrell, Baratheon, etc — as its members war and scheme for power. At the center of their struggle is the ancient Iron Throne, to which virtually every player claims to have the right. Other themes explore family loyalty and obligations, love, spirituality, religious beliefs and intolerance, hubris, sexuality, morality, and the purpose of violence to achieve one’s goals.

Season 1

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Based on the fantasy novel  A Game of Thrones, Book 1 of the best-selling series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones is set in the fictional land of Westeros, composed mainly of The 7 Kingdoms, where royal claimants and usurpers fight for the right to sit on the Iron Throne. Season One concentrates on three major families: the Lannisters, the Starks, and the Targaryens. Their stories become interwoven with their claims to the throne, and their loyalty to their ruler.

Love and Betrayal amidst Swordplay,
Dragons, and White Walkers:
Game of Thrones,
Season 1

Game of Thrones Season 1 is available for purchase for $19.99 from Amazon (or free with a 30-day HBO trial), for $28.99 from GooglePlay, and for $38.99 from iTunes (go into iTunes to purchase). (Pricing differences seem to be for SD versus HD videos.) The season is always available free of charge for HBO subscribers.

Season 2

Based roughly on A Clash of Kings, Book 2 in George R. R. Martin’s best-selling series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire, HBO’s critically acclaimed and award-winning Game of Thrones continues its exploration of power, politics, family obligations, love, and betrayal, in the second season. As the battle for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of the civilized world erupts once more, everyone now knows that “Winter is coming. The surviving members of the three major families — Lannister, Stark, and Targaryen — continue the quest for survival and power, this time amidst rebellions, uprisings, and war. They are joined and betrayed by members of various other Houses.

The Summer of Our Discontent:
Game of Thrones, Season 2

Game of Thrones Season 2 is available for purchase for $19.99 from Amazon (or free with a 30-day HBO trial), for $28.99 from GooglePlay, and for $38.99 from iTunes. The season is always available free of charge for HBO subscribers.

Season 3

Based in part on the first half of A Storm of Swords, Book 3 of George R. R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, created and written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the stories of the inhabitants of Westeros and the Lands beyond continue. Love, power, and betrayal are its major themes as the War of the Five Kings intensifies. The third season of Game of Thrones gets viewers more intimately involved with the peripheral characters, bringing them to the forefront. Though there are multiple, ultimately converging storylines, the excellent writing and powerful acting keep the viewers engaged without confusing them. Even the scene transitions flawlessly guide viewers from one character — or group of characters — to another, and back again. The acting is riveting, with some previously minor characters taking center stage, and some previously “evil” characters gaining the sympathy of the audience.

What Crawls Out of Nightmares:
Game of Thrones, Season 3

Game of Thrones Season 3 is available for purchase for $19.99 from Amazon (or free with a 30-day HBO trial), for $28.99 from GooglePlay, and for $38.99 from iTunes. The season is always available free of charge for HBO subscribers.

Season 4

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Season 4 of HBO’s award-winning series Game of Thrones is based principally on the second half of A Storm of Swords, Book 3 in George R. R. Martin’s acclaimed fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Season 4 also includes material from Book 4, A Feast for Crows, and Book 5, A Dance with DragonsIn Season 4, the writers of Game of Thrones continues to explore its themes of love, betrayal, and power, on the familial and national level. The storyline is expanded to explore themes of loyalty, hubris,  spirituality, religious beliefs, religious intolerance, as well as the morality of violence. The principal families — Lannister, Stark, Targaryen, and Tyrell — remain, and their stories are deftly interwoven with those of new characters.

The Dead Can’t Hear Us:
Game of Thrones, Season 4

Game of Thrones Season 4 is available for purchase for $19.99 from Amazon (or free with a 30-day HBO trial), for $28.99 from GooglePlay, and for $38.99 from iTunes.  The season is always available free of charge for HBO subscribers.

Season 5 

Game_of_Thrones_Season_5

Season 5 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, is adapted primarily Books 4 and 5 in George R. R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Along with Books 4 and 5 — A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons — the writers returned to Book 3, A Storm of Swords, for additional content. They also had access to material from Martin’s as-yet unpublished Book 6, The Winds of Winter. Season 5 of the dramatic adaptation won a record number of Emmy Awards for a series in a single year: 12 awards out of 24 nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series. Created and (mostly) written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the show’s writing, acting, and design are all brilliant, and Game of Thrones deserves every award it’s won.

Game of Thrones Season 5 unites many of the storylines that have been converging during the previous 4 seasons. The major families who started the drama — the Lannisters, the Starks, and the Targaryens — are joined with the Tyrells, the Martells, and the Boltons. The only remaining Baratheon, Stannis, is still waging war against the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Season 5 also takes one of Season 4’s major themes — religious intolerance — and puts it in the forefront of the drama. Although family loyalty still determines most of the characters’ actions, the quest for power is intimately intertwined with any family obligations.

The Last Thing You See Before You Die:
Game of Thrones, Season 5

Game of Thrones Season 5 is available for purchase for $38.99 from Amazon (or free with a 30-day HBO trial), for $28.99 from GooglePlay, and for $38.99 from iTunes. The season is always available free of charge for HBO subscribers. Many of the retailers have special bargains for purchasing seasons 1-5, including Amazon, GooglePlay, and iTunes.

Season Six

Season 6 of HBO’s Game of Thrones is based on the as yet uncompleted Book 6 in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter, and includes a “significant amount of material” from the Books 4 and 5 — A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. The author provided a detailed outline to show creators Benioff and Weiss. The sixth season proved to have more weaknesses than the previous ones, and it may have been due to the fact that the show-runners were working from an outline, no matter how detailed, rather than culling the story from completed books. Still, this season had some of the most powerful moments of the entire series, some of which Martin will be hard-pressed to reproduce on the printed page.

The battle for the Iron Throne gets vicious as the major families  — the Lannisters, the Starks, and the Targaryens — are joined by other families — the Tyrells, the Martells, and the Boltons — the latter of whom either want to rule the Seven Kingdoms themselves or who want revenge for wrongs inflicted by the three primary families.

(The Good, The Bad, and The Dead:
Game of Thrones, season 6
detailed overview coming next week)

Game of Thrones Season 6 is available for purchase for $24.99 from Amazon (or free with a 30-day HBO trial), for $28.99 from GooglePlay, and for $38.99 from iTunes. The season is always available free of charge for HBO subscribers. Seasons 1-3 and 4-6 can be purchased from iTunes for a slightly reduced price. The entire 6 seasons are available on Amazon for $170.99.

Rated Very Mature for Graphic Violence, Explicit Sexual Situations, Nudity, Adult Content, and Adult Language.

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