13 SINS / COLD IN JULY / THE SACRAMENT

By R. David

13 Sins

13 Sins (April 18, 2014) – Another entry in the ever-expanding genre of horror film as obstacle course/scavenger hunt/morality play.  Like last year’s “Would You Rather”, last month’s “Cheap Thrills” and the upcoming “Truth or Dare”; “13 Sins” asks the question, how far would you be willing to go to make some much-needed quick cash?  The film stars Mark Webb as Elliot Brindle, a nebbishy, recently unemployed insurance salesman with a pregnant girlfriend, invalid father and mentally handicapped brother.  Needless to say he is down on his luck and desperate.  Then the phone rings.  The mysterious caller challenges Elliot to complete 13 tasks.  With each task he completes, increasing sums of money will be directly deposited into his bank account.  If at any point he fails or chooses to not complete a task, Elliot loses everything.  Naturally, the challenges begin innocuously enough, but grow increasingly more vile, illegal and morally reprehensible.  “13 Sins” has shades of the “Saw” series, with the game show announcer-like voice on the other end of the phone targeting Elliot because he has been a push-over and afraid to take risks and make tough decisions his entire life.  The puppeteer’s ability to orchestrate all of these elaborate challenges and somehow constantly watch Elliot isn’t particularly convincing, but director Daniel Stamm (“The Last Exorcism”) gets great mileage out of the intriguing premise, and his script (co-written with David Burke) is most effective in how Elliot navigates the moral dilemmas of his choices, more so than the outlandish assignments themselves.  Webb succeeds in making Elliot a sympathetic character the audience can find a rooting interest in, as well as convincingly portraying a man who is by turns frightened and reluctant, determined and empowered. “13 Sins” isn’t as energetically hip as “Cheap Thrills”, but it paints its thrills on a larger canvas.  “Thrills” was essentially a four-character, single-location play; effective for the type of film it is.  “13 Sins” not only runs its protagonist from one location and endurance test to the next, but the central mystery of “who?” and “why?” wraps the viewer up in the film’s tense, icy grip.  We’re never quite sure where this story is headed or what will happen next – and that’s one of the best things that can be said about any thriller.  3 Stars (Out of 4)

Cold In July

Cold In July (May 23, 2014) – A Coen Brothers-esque slice of gritty, rural pulp fiction, “Cold In July” is a riveting Independent revenge thriller in a year that already counts two indie, rural America-set tales of vengeance among its best films (“Joe” and “Blue Ruin”).  What sets “July” apart is a mid-film twist that turns the concept on its ear.  I’m not sure how much of the plot “July’s” marketing materials disclose, but you’ll get no spoilers from me.  I’ll simply say the film chronicles the events that unfold in the wake of a family man (Michael C. Hall) shooting a burglar in his home and the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) swearing vengeance and obsessively harassing the family.  Nothing that follows plays out in ways audiences will expect.  New mysteries reveal themselves, lies and liars are exposed, and unlikely relationships are forged.  Director Jim Mickle drops violence and humor in equal, surprising doses. Set in 1989 rural Texas, the film benefits a greatly from its technology and style deprived milieu, giving the film an isolated, nourish flavor.  But it’s the performances in “Cold In July” that really resonate.  Hall, as the sympathetic and vulnerable family man in over his head, and Shepard, as the obsessive, tightly-wound ball of vengeance, work in perfect contrast to each other.  But it’s Don Johnson as a cocky cowboy of a private investigator who steals his every scene; whether playing the macho badass he fancies himself or displaying surprising quiet empathy.  It’s another terrific performance from this under-appreciated and under-utilized actor.  “Cold In July” ultimately doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of “Joe” or “Blue Ruin”, and there are few scenes that only serve to slow the film’s pace.  But these minor quibbles aside, “Cold In July” is one of the more compelling and originally-plotted dramas you’re likely to see this year.  The performances alone earn it a blanket recommendation.  3½ Stars (Out of 4)

The Sacrament

The Sacrament (June 6, 2014) – Indie horror flavor of the day Ti West (“House of the Devil”) directs this well-intentioned, but ultimately rather unnecessary, fictional retelling of the 1978 events at Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana, better known as the Jonestown Massacre.  The film employs the found-footage aesthetic that is all the rage in horror films these days – especially low budget ones, which allows cash-strapped filmmakers the perfect guise to present their films to wide audiences they would otherwise not see bankrolled by risk-shy major studios – presenting itself as a documentary pieced together from footage shot by a video journalist (AJ Bowen) and his cameraman (Joe Swanberg) who follow a young man (Kentucker Audley) to a remote South American compound in hopes of convincing his sister to leave “Eden Parish”, a cultish religious society run by the quietly intimidating Father (Gene Jones). The names and places have changed from Jonestown, but the story remains the same.  If you are familiar with the particulars of the true story, “The Sacrament” follows suit.  Viewers uneducated on the events will do well to avoid spoilers, as that may provide a more compelling viewing experience.  But true story or not, “The Sacrament” plays out rather predictably.  This by itself isn’t so much a problem, but West can’t seem to find a new or interesting way to present the events, and the found footage thing by itself doesn’t count as inspired filmmaking anymore.  There is simply a disappointing lack of inventiveness and surprise to the proceedings.  A story like this by its very nature offers some unavoidable tension.  Viewers know things will inevitably go south; the question of when and how bad it will get is generally what keeps us engaged and in nervous suspense.  But as “The Sacrament” goes through its motions, we are let down again and again.  West seems content to do the bare minimum, offering sequences and resolutions we’ve simply seen too many times before; as opposed to playing on our anxiety and pushing the events in new, unpredictable directions.  The Jonestown events were not only the basis for “The Sacrament”, but also clearly as far as West was willing to take his film.  Still, “The Sacrament” is well filmed and performed, and West does manage some effective uncomfortable moments.  There is enough here to keep audiences interested.  The problem is the destination isn’t really worth the journey.  2½ Stars (Out of 4)

DEXTER

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By R. David

As the Miami sun finally sets on Showtime’s “Dexter” tonight after eight seasons, fans of the drama are being left not with the satisfaction of a beloved series’ culmination, but rather only to ponder how such a terrific series could collapse so entirely over the course of its last few seasons.  The current, final season of “Dexter” has been a true slap in the face to not only fan expectations, but also pesky things like storytelling logic and character development.

It wasn’t always this way though.  When “Dexter” premiered in 2006, it appeared on the television landscape at a time when people were quickly realizing that cable dramas were far superior to the congested slate of rote procedurals being offered by network TV.  Not that there weren’t exceptions – certainly the networks deserve kudos for giving us the likes of “24” and “Lost” – but to this day networks routinely cancel bold – but low-rated – experimental fare and shy away from disturbing adult dramas in favor of littering their line-ups with an endless barrage of cop, lawyer, and doctor procedurals each season.  Shows like “Dexter” became the go-to antidote for TV viewers fed-up with the safe banality and predictability of the average network drama.

“Dexter” didn’t exactly blaze a trail for adult cable dramas – HBO had already been offering decidedly adult dramas for nearly a decade with shows like “The Sopranos” and “Oz”, while basic cable nets like FX (with its flagship drama “The Shield”) began churning out controversial, unflinching dramas of their own in an effort to compete with both the networks and pay-cable outfits – but it jumped on a golden bandwagon at the right time, quickly earning internet buzz and a cult fan base.  The story of the Miami Police Department blood-splatter analyst by day, serial killer by night; “Dexter” ultimately became the series that announced Showtime as a major player in the pay-cable, serialized drama market; finally pulling out from behind HBO’s shadow.  Showtime had tried with varying degrees of success to gain traction for its original dramas in the past, but no series before it drove subscribers to Showtime like “Dexter”.

“Dexter’s” first four seasons were uniformly terrific.  The show wasn’t without its share of pitfalls – from some amateurish performances and occasionally corny dialog, to the plot holes and leaps of logic that often plague these high-concept potboilers.  But other than an irritating character or two and a required suspension of disbelief, if you bought into the world “Dexter” created, the rewards of following the title character’s journey far exceeded any of those criticisms.  Credit first and foremost must go to Michael C. Hall and his tortured portrayal of Dexter Morgan who, as a toddler, saw his mother butchered by a gang of drug dealers.  Taken in and ultimately adopted by Harry Morgan (James Remar, who appears to viewers as the physical embodiment of Dexter’s subconscious), the officer who discovered him with his mother’s body, Dexter grew up suppressing a gestating urge to kill.  To keep Dexter from hurting innocent people and ending up on death row, Harry decided all he could do to protect his son was to nurture his killer instincts by teaching him a code:  Never get caught, Never Kill an innocent person, Be absolutely sure of your victim’s guilt.  Thus, Dexter will satisfy the urges of his “Dark Passenger” as well as keep society safe by hunting down serial killers where the police fail.  Working as a splatter-analyst for the police department gives Dexter the perfect cover for his crimes, as well as access to all the information he needs to hunt down his victims.

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Even with “The Code”, the character of Dexter would come off as nothing more than a vigilante – and this one more questionable than most because he is not seeking revenge on a specific person who hurt him or his loved ones, but rather simply quenching a thirst to kill – were it not for Hall’s sympathetic portrayal of a deeply wounded and confused man, wrestling with the morality of what he is doing.  If Dexter were simply a murderous monster, there would be little to sustain an audience’s rooting interest him; but because he seems capable of redemption and tries to do the right thing and protect people as much as he can, we are willing to forgive him the occasional serial killer murder.  A big part of the show has always been the question of whether or not Dexter is any better than the people he kills.  Each season offered a villain that seemed to answer that question, both for Dexter and for viewers.  Each season also offered potential redemption for Dexter.  Through it all, Hall has convincingly sold the character as someone who is worth following – worth caring about – despite his murderous appetite.

“Dexter’s” early seasons also offered some ingeniously plotted games of cat and mouse between Dexter and the killer he was tracking, as well as between Dexter and his own police department, which also happens to include his adoptive sister and best friend, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter).  One of the true pleasures of this series has been its ability to ratchet-up the suspense as Dexter’s labyrinth of secrets nearly comes crumbling down on top of him.  To protect himself – and for the show to protect its title character – Dexter has made some rather shocking decisions.  This is one of those shows where no character has ever been safe.  But for at least four seasons, “Dexter” did a terrific job of – if not always logically, at least somewhat plausibly – coming up with new ways to keep Dexter one step ahead of those on his tail, and keep the show one step ahead of its audience.

But come crumbling down it all must.  The problem with a show like “Dexter” – a show built on season after season of lies and twists – is that more often than not the process becomes routine and some of the contrivances that were forgivable early on when the series was new, fresh and exciting, eventually become glaringly obvious, stale and insulting.  The once terrifically exciting “Dexter” began to grow tenuous and forced; an overall business-as-usual feel crept in.  But it’s not simply that the series was showing its age.  A lot of shows start to feel shopworn after several seasons, an inevitability for any long-running series.  Smart show-runners have a clear endgame in sight and are willing to pull the plug on a show after a specific number of seasons, even if the show remains incredibly popular, so as not to run it into the ground and taint its legacy (“Breaking Bad”, one show that has implemented this strategy to glorious effect, is running its final episodes on the same night as “Dexter”, making “Dexter’s” swan-song season look all the more pathetic by comparison).  Over the course of “Dexter’s” last few season there has been an overwhelming feeling that the writers have simply run out of steam – like they had said all they had to say and were now clutching at straws, just trying to continue a story they no longer had the passion to tell.  Laziness crept in – a significant lack of attention to even the most obvious details, a refusal to go back to the core of what made Dexter and the show tick initially, narrative meandering and obvious foreshadowing – and a near contempt for the audience who have followed this series for eight seasons.  “Dexter” fell into this trap a while ago and was never able to climb back out.  And it’s still in free fall as we speak.

I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but there seemed to be a turning of the tide somewhere around “Dexter’s” fifth season.  Going into that season, “Dexter” was coming off what many consider the show’s apex: Season 4 featuring John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer and its shocking season finale.  Obviously, hopes were high for the follow-up season, which many fans regard as a relative disappointment.  While I agree Season 5 was something of a missed opportunity considering all the directions the show and character could have gone in given the fourth season’s ending, I am nonetheless among those who actually really liked the fifth season.  It wasn’t without its problems (then again, no season of “Dexter” has been perfect), but I liked the idea of paring Dexter with a damaged, would-be victim (Julia Styles), and I thought Dexter facing off against a murderous self-help guru (Johnny Lee Miller) made for a lot of palpable character drama.  Most of all though, the writing was still strong – there were still nooks and crannies of Dexter’s psyche that seemed yet untapped by the show and worth exploring; there was still suspense in what was unknown about the character, his motivations, and how far he might go to protect his identity – and the writers still seemed to have a firm grasp on where the show was going and how to pull ideas and plot threads through an entire season.

But I did notice during this season – more than any other before – a good deal of lulls starting to creep in.  I have had issues with some of the characters, story arcs, or momentum on “Dexter” in the past, but this was the first time the show started to feel tired; like it was in need of some new ideas, some new direction, and some shaking up. I think Season 5 ultimately survives these lulls, but it’s something that comes back to haunt the show immediately in Season 6 and only continues to fester into the fiber of the show until it completely eats away at it (Season 7) and picks its bones clean (This Season).

At a certain point, the writers seemed to have simply given up.  Some will point to the famously maligned “Nebraska” episode from Season 6 as the moment where “Dexter” reached the point of no return.  In the episode, Dexter leaves Miami to track a killer to Nebraska, never mind the fact that it leaves his entire plot completely exposed for Deb and anyone else who might be looking, but also, Dexter chooses to ignore his code here, the episode cheapens Dexter’s subconscious bond with his father, and it’s simply a plodding, silly episode that strains credibility and has Dexter making decisions and mistakes the character (and writers) never have made in earlier seasons.  “Nebraska” set the tone for many of the silly, contrived, meandering and illogical missteps that would become the show’s frustrating stock in trade throughout its final three seasons; each of which had a tendency to begin strong, but quickly fall apart, as if none of the writers have any idea what else to do with these characters.

When a show starts to show its age or its writers are unable to come up with grounded ways to keep the stories moving forward, typically the series turns to surprise gotcha! moments and new characters (Masuka’s daughter this season, anyone?) in hopes of shaking things up and keeping everyone interested, no matter if these revelations make a lick of sense.  (SEASON 6 SPOILER ALERT!) In Season 6 Deb revealed that she was in love with Dexter.  While this idea turned-off most fans, it was the kind of grab-you-by-the-collar reveal that makes audiences sit up and take notice.  In that very same season, Deb caught Dexter dispatching a victim for the first time.  Both of these would-be game-changing moments that should have moved the show in a new direction.  Instead, after a few episodes of Deb wrestling with her feelings, everything was back to business as usual.  (SEASON 7 SPOILER!) In Season 7, Deb catches Dexter about to kill their Lieutenant, so instead, she kills her.  Again, Deb wrestles with the guilt of this for a while, but a few therapy sessions later, brother and sister are back to helping each other out of convoluted scrapes (END SPOILERS).  So much of the writing throughout this final season of the show has been at this sort of bring-it-up-then-immediately-drop-it caliber.  Nothing feels organic or fully realized and no one displays anything resembling genuine character motivations.  It literally feels like we are watching actors being moved around by words on a page that have no context or bearing on anything.  As a result, it’s damn hard to feel invested in any of this.

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For his part, the character of Dexter has also changed dramatically over the years.  At the beginning of the series, Dexter doesn’t think he is capable of showing emotion and worries constantly that people will see through his façade of normalcy.  He has to work constantly to fit in.  He initially took up with Rita (Julie Benz) – who he eventually married and had a son, Harrison, with – because she was a victim of domestic abuse who was emotionally fragile and didn’t know how to interact romantically.  She was the ideal companion for Dexter, a man who couldn’t communicate or show emotion like normal people.  Dexter trying to navigate how to fit in to societal norms was one of the most interesting aspects of the character and the show in general in its early seasons.  But somewhere along the line Dexter transformed into something closer to The Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer than a tormented man constantly working to suppress his homicidal rage.  Yes, much of the series has been about Dexter’s evolution and how he has grown as a person and where he has found love and faith and feelings of normalcy. But nowadays, he jokes around with people, shows up at parties, goes out on dates, and, for a lost soul, he has managed to find a kindred spirit of some sort each season.  The writers are still careful to make sure they include some mention of Dexter feeling conflicted, homicidal, and like an outsider in his voice-over narration, which used to provide the audience a conduit into Dexter’s psyche, but now feels like a crutch for the writers to simply explain anything that isn’t clear about the plot and remind us that Dexter still has his dark desires, because Lord knows you wouldn’t get any of that from the evidence supplied on screen.

Also to that end, in the beginning it was really exciting to see the various ways in which Dexter was smarter than all the cops and other analysts at a crime scene, and how he was able to keep them off his trail through complicated scientific methods and top notch police work.  Lately though, the writers haven’t even bothered to make Dexter look all that smart; rather, they just make all the cops look completely moronic.  Nobody asks the appropriate or most obvious questions of Dexter, and none of the cops question Dexter’s mounting connections to his victims or his sloppy alibis.  Watching Dexter weasel out from under the eye of suspicion was part of the fun of the early episodes, but there are only so many coincidences and last minute escapes a show can convincingly throw at its audience before it all starts to smell like slapdash contrivance.  The series never found Dexter another Miami PD opponent on the level of Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), who was always suspicious of Dexter and always asked questions.  The writers replaced him with Detective Douchebag – er, I mean – Quinn (Desmond Herrington) who made a half-hearted pass at suspecting Dexter was up to no good, but he was too busy pining for Deb to follow through.  Similarly, Deb started out steely and hard but as of late seems to be a caricature of her former self, now doing ridiculous things she never would have done just a few seasons back.

And all that, in a nutshell, is the real problem with “Dexter” as it limps to an end:  These are hardly the same characters we were introduced to back in 2006, especially Dexter himself who has devolved into a convoluted shell of his former personality.  I assume Dexter’s writers would argue he has grown and changed throughout the series, as have the other characters.  This would be fine if they grew in convincing and (most importantly) satisfying ways.  As it is, Dexter – the character and the show – has simply gone soft.  Nothing about the series or its characters feels as though it has any connection to the show that drew us in and captivated us for the first four or five years of its run.

As the show readies its final episode, Dexter is on the trail of his latest Big Bad, a serial killer called the Brain Surgeon who has a tenuous connection to Dexter. The hunt has been less than thrilling and the sense of closure being brought to all the relationships of the cast has been less than convincing or satisfying.  Dexter plans to run off to Argentina with his son and his fugitive love interest; who he helped put in prison last season, but has now realized is his soul mate and the one person (again) who understands him and can finally rid him of his “dark passenger” (again).  Deb and Quinn (easily the “Dexter’s” worst long-running character) seem to be getting back together, but the fact that they are even still doing this dance so late in the game shows just how disorganized and clumsy “Dexter” has become.  Why would the writer’s structure this show’s final season like any other; simply putting us through all the same paces of Dexter hunting down another killer and yet another who-gives-a-fuck will –they or won’t-they subplot between Deb and Quinn?  Not only would this be the time to bring the show back to its roots from a quality standpoint, but it is certainly the time to avoid rehashing the same stuff we’ve seen for three or more seasons now.

I saw a “leaked” version of the supposed script for “Dexter’s” final episode a few weeks ago.  Let me just say this; if that is indeed what tonight’s finale will look like, it is firmly in keeping with how far this show has fallen from grace.  It makes every wrongheaded mistake the series has been guilty of for years, and especially in this, it’s unfortunate final season.  What was on display in that script were just more silly contrivances followed by an ending (that the writers have said they have been working to for years – could have fooled me) that not only doesn’t rid the show of the one character who deserves to go, but promotes him to Dexter 2.0 status, seemingly out of nowhere.  The writers have not properly laid the ground work for any of this and the show does not earn this ending.  It’s a completely laughable and unsatisfying conclusion to a once-superb series.  Unfortunately, that would be in keeping with its track record as of late.

So, goodbye, “Dexter”.  Thank you for five great seasons. (No, that’s not a typo.)  Now it’s finally time to dismember your corpse, wrap it up in plastic, and pitch it into the ocean.  Consider it a mercy killing.  Sleep well, my former friend.

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(photos courtesy of Showtime)