BluRay/DVD Reviews

BANSHEE (HBO Home Entertainment)

By • Aug 4th, 2013 •

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Loved the painting on the DVD cover – a striking example of Regional Art with matte finish. It has nothing in common with the hard-hitting hyper-speed style of the show. An interesting choice, and I’m not sure why they went with it. Perhaps one of the commentary tracks will shed light on the decision, but I don’t plan to listen to them all to satisfy my curiosity. Still I liked it enough to crack open the collection, having seen none of them on the tube and really knowing nothing about the series.

The story, which moves at breakneck speed, concerns Lucas Hood, released from prison after fifteen years, who tracks down his former lover and the jewels she kept from a heist that went bad. He ends up, via serendipity, assuming the identity of a sheriff in a small town and, using that cover, moves toward his goals while shaking the community up with his strong-arm, unorthodox methods of enforcing the law.

New Zealander Antony Starr, as Lucas Hood, has an unpleasant mannerism of pursing his lips, which is reminiscent of a similar facial deformation by sex-text addict Anthony Weiner, and to a lesser degree a facial mannerism used maybe once or twice per speech by our President. It brings to mind Steve McQueen, who would sit with his wife watching each week’s episode of “Wanted Dead or Alive” making notes together about which physical elements should be excised from his on-screen persona, until finally he became the Steve McQueen we knew and loved. Starr had that opportunity as well, in such series as “Mercy Peak,” “Outrageous Fortune,” “Rush,” “Tricky Business” and “Lowdown.” So he must be really fond of that particular puffed-lip scowl. What I do like among his facial mannerisms is his slow, cautious smile, which may suggest to the character he’s smiling at a non-aggressive acceptance, whereas we know that unless it’s doled out to his close comrades, it’s a smile fermenting with suspicion and sadism, like Tars Tarkus’ smile in the Edgar Rice Burroughs “Mars” books (not to be mistaken for the anorexic Jiminy Crickets from that god-awful movie version). He does that smile well, and saves it for just the right moments.

BANSHEE is practically pure Exploitation in Melodramatic clothing, but I’m sure the series’ creators would rather not be thought of in that way, since Exploitation has such negative connotations, which, like Horror, are unfairly assigned to the genre. SCARFACE was nothing more than exploitation, dolled up with a terrific script, good casting, and good direction. Good exploitation is great fun. And this is lots of fun. Its formula forces it to deliver sex and violence by the ladle-full in each episode. The violence is satisfying, though I often feel that either in the coverage or in the editing, important information (like the breaking of a finger or arm) is too quickly shown to register. And the sex is great. Beautiful lighting, beautiful bodies. Particularly impressive is that Bosnian born Ivana Milicevic, the show’s female lead and a fine actress, is comfortable showing everything she’s got and does it as well as she does her purely dramatic moments. There is a very interesting sense of doubling in the series, by the way, as both Ms. Milicevic and strong secondary character Kay Story have similar faces and practically identical, lithe, small-breasted bodies, which I take to have been an intentional casting choice, serving the purpose of keeping protagonist Starr focused on the image of the woman he lost for fifteen years (Milicevic) while he was serving time in prison. A canny decision.

Casting in BANSHEE is generally beyond reproach. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen as the Town oligarch, Tony nominee Frankie Faison as aging ex-boxer Sugar Bates, Trieste Kelly Dunn as a tough but vulnerable deputy, Ryann Shane as Milicevic’s daughter, Matt Servitto as Deputy Lotus (who despises Starr’s protocol but is forced to string along), and Lil Simmons as an Amish girl of two minds (with terrific nudity accompanying one of them) are all superbly chosen for their roles, and deliver with conviction.

I’m sorry to say it took me seven episodes to warm up to Hoon Lee as a lethal transvestite associate of Starr’s. Both his demeanor and delivery were too heavy-handed, going for shock and comic relief, and neither fit the overriding tone of the series (kind of like John Goodman’s role in FLIGHT). I’m only partially assigning blame on Mr. Lee, a Harvard graduate with many film credits – I’m guessing this one is perhaps a slip on the parts of the show’s creators as well. Then, around episode seven, there was a subtle change. His makeup became less severe. His costumes were more subdued. His delivery stopped just short of being over-the-top. Someone must have said something. And now, I like him alot.

And then there’s Ben Cross, strange and compelling, in danger of being a caricature, but managing to beat the rap. He’s a personality along the lines of Dennis Hopper or Chris Walken, and he’s the main bad guy, lurking between the frames, anxious to find Starr and bring him down. He’s also saddled with the unfortunate moniker: Mr. Rabbit. Again, somewhere in the commentary collection there must be an explanation for why they decided to go with that name, but it gets in the way every time anyone uses it. (Cross’ IMDB shot shows him smiling benevolently, something you’d never expect to see in this series.)

The writing is good, with terse dialogue exchanges being the high points of the episodes. The creators of the series seem fearful of letting too many moments pass without action or threat, and so there are actually too many subplots popping up. But I’m hooked, so it’s working its magic on me. BANSHEE is openly derivative of many other sources. For example, the closing shot of the title sequence – Ms. Milicevic lying as if in a still photograph, but her eye closes and opens – is right out of Chris Marker’s LA JETEE, and someone involved absolutely had to have seen it. The big third episode fight reverberates with elements of Jules Dassin’s NIGHT AND THE CITY, Rod Taylor’s DARKER THAN AMBER, and other great fight scenes from cinema’s past. There’s a major fight scene every three episodes or so (more toward the end), and the one in episode nine is so long that it’s broken up a half dozen times to visit other subplots. I really loathe breaking up fight scenes, but I’m sure the editors gave up on making this one linear.

Technical credits are good, and the commentary tracks I tuned in on are pleasant. I listened to the editor talking about the above-mentioned fight scene, and was surprised to hear that they shot it in one day, but I otherwise was disappointed to gain no insights into the cutting of the scene.

As the first season moved inexorably towards its conclusion, I did take note that the emphasis on violence veered more and more into pure sadism. If this is indeed an indicator of where viewer taste lies, it’s worth pondering, and I wonder what season two will bring. A good friend of mine, who is considered one of the industry’s foremost marketing strategists, warns me that this trend, too, will soon be oversaturated, and the public will look elsewhere for its audio-visual nourishment. Just as Spielberg predicted, and sure enough it came to pass, the CGI-bloated theatrical tent-poles went belly-up this Summer. There comes a time of overkill.

We shall see.

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