Reviews

'Leverage: Season 4' is Not About the Art of the Con, but the Thrill of It

Four seasons in and Leverage is still up to its same old hoodwinks -- and it's still fun to watch.


Leverage: Season 4

Distributor: Fox
Cast: Timothy Hutton, Gina Bellman, Aldis Hodge, Christian Kane, Beth Riesgraf
Network: TNT
Release date: 2012-07-17
Amazon

Though we live in an Occupy-dominated time, there comes a point where smearing fat cats can become a tired exercise. Take, for instance, the TNT heist procedural Leverage, which recently began its fifth season. The type of people the Leverage crew pull heists on are, in ringleader Nathan Ford's (Timothy Hutton) words, "the rich and powerful [who] take what they want." His solution? "We steal it back for you."

With the ever-entrenched crony capitalism plaguing the American political system, this is something we can all relate to. Nate himself has suffered a tragic loss as a result of corporate bureaucracy; his son died after the insurance company he worked for wouldn't pay for his treatment, citing the procedure as "not fully tested". This righteous anger has helped motivate the team to stick out their necks week after week, wherein they take down all sorts of rich baddies, who are usually boring-looking white men. (One notable exception is Saul Rubinek's turn as Victor Dubenich, who looks eerily like the always terrifying Antonin Scalia.)

There are many reasons to hate heads of big businesses, but the sense of justice we're supposed to feel begins to wear off after a few episodes. Every now and then they'll throw in an international thief or a corrupt politician as a mark, but for the most part Leverage plays out like a meeting of Robin Hood and Mission Impossible.

But you can’t blame the show for finding its stride and sticking to it. TNT, much like its similarly-minded networks USA and TBS, has a thing for the procedural. That type of show rarely offers any depth, but that's not the point of such programming. You can tune into an episode of, say, Law & Order SVU at any time without having the need to rely on backstory for understanding. It's all about the thrill of the case, a thing the cast and crew of Leverage know about too well.

Unfortunately for them, however, the safe nature of procedurals conflicts with the core ethos of the "art of the con" espoused by the Leverage crew: cons are supposed to be tricky, ready to succumb to any pratfall at any given time. As Nate tells Hardison (Aldis Hodge, "The Hacker" and comic relief extraordinaire), a con artist will have to go through any number of plans in a single scheme, as there are so many moving parts one can't always take into account. Yet none of the leads here ever feel truly in danger; sure, Nate gets shot in the season finalé, but it's in the shoulder, passed off as a flesh wound. Through some crazy set of events (read: deus ex machina), the crew always manages to find its way out of the stickiest of situations. After awhile you'll begin to accept this, and just go along with the thrill of it all, but the lack of substance is pretty obvious.

That is but one of the many of the persistent flaws still present in the fourth season. There's the cabal of awful accents: Sophie (Gina Bellman, "The Grifter") always manages to convince people she's foreign with her one poorly feigned accent, which still sounds obviously British. In one episode ("The Queen's Gambit Job"), Hardison somehow passes as Saudi despite sounding British, and Parker (Beth Riesgraf, "The Thief") does a French accent so bad even a first-year French high school student would notice.

There's also the matter of the secondary actors. One usually doesn't look to episode-specific roles for Emmy-worthing acting, but Leverage seems to have the worst luck in picking these actors. "The Radio Job" demonstrates this well: an interaction between two government agents is so poorly performed it's as if they had just read the script. (This did, however, produce one of the funniest lines of the season: one of the agents, a Homeland Security officer, points out, "At Homeland, we don't think. We act." Unfortunately, you can't tell if she's serious or not.)

In the end, though, none of these problems really hold back one's ability to enjoy the program. Verisimilitude is important to the depiction of the confidence game, but Leverage has never had the depth of the greatest cinematic depictions of the long con. This is a show about the fun of it all; what we look forward to most are things like Elliot's (Christian Kane, "The Hitter," who looks like David Foster Wallace on steroids) epic butt-kickings, Hardison's never-ending stream of cool tech references, or Parker's acrobatic moves.

In past seasons, there have been attempts at deep examinations of character or, worst of all, multi-episode story arcs that never paid off. Where Season 4 succeeds is in its playfulness; the majority of the episodes here are gimmicky and fun rather than overly serious. A daring example is "The Office Job", perfectly described by an AV Club critic as "a parody of The Office, as directed by Werner Herzog." (Phil Dyess-Nugent, 4 December 2011) What begins as a simple takedown of a greeting card company led by a malicious bross (that's "bro boss", and yes, you may quote me on that) who is allegedly embezzling funds becomes a convincing and insightful spoof. The mockumentary-style cameras end up providing means to examine the interplay between the characters, especially the will-they-won't-they tension of Nate and Sophie.

Compared to the rest of the series this is free-form experimentation, a real breath of fresh air halfway through these 18 episodes. Watching Elliot describe how he meticulously makes his sandwich (which Hardison stole from the employee freezer), you can't help but laugh. A lot.

Their romance, along with the adorable coupling of Hardison and Parker, are given some, but not much, thought. The difficulty Leverage faces in its basic plot structure is finding space to fit any the interpersonal relationships amidst the complexities of the heists, which most of the time it doesn't do well. The romantic stuff works mostly because we've had four years to get to know these characters, which has allowed for some time to let the flirting build up to something deeper. It's nice to finally see the love spread around; the only shortfall here is that for most of the episodes it's all fleeting gazes and the occasional meaningful talk. Nate kisses Sophie in the finalé (a step down from their fling at the end of Season 3), but in the end all the romance is left at a cliffhanger. Just enough to keep you on for Season 5, I guess.

The final story arc that concludes everything is driven by the type of villain Nathan Ford & Company should have faced long ago: the disgruntled CEO. As noted in PopMatter's review of the Season 3 premiere, not long after a con or two, the Leverage gang would have been near the top of FBI's Most Wanted. Similarly, after amassing a long list of very wealthy, very connected corporate enemies, there should have been some backlash, and in the finalé it arrives. (Michael Abernethy, 20 June 2010) Victor Dubenich, three years after his failed attempt at a double-cross on Nate, has joined forces with an investment firm head named Jack Latimer (Leon Rippy). Latimer, using information provided by Dubenich, has been betting against the companies the Leverage crew have pulled heists against, making shattering profits as a result. These two wealthy gents conspire to undo the five thieves. I won't ruin the ending, but since the program is still airing you can be assured it doesn't involve a mass slaughter.

Keeping in the spirit of fun, this four-disc set is loaded with bonus features, which will no doubt keep fans happy. There are behind-the-scenes featurettes of several episodes, deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and commentaries throughout. This breezy show looks as if it is is as fun to make as it is to watch.

6

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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