Reviews

Damages: The Complete First Season

A superbly acted, complex serial story, this show is well-suited to the DVD medium as it can followed at your own pace without fear of missing some of the story.


Damages

Distributor: Sony
Cast: Glenn Close, Rose Byrne, Ted Danson, Zeljko Ivanek, Noah Bean, Tate Donovan, Peter Facinelli, Phillip Bosco, Michael Nouri, Peter Riegert, Takako Haywood, Anastasia Griffith, Casey Siemaszko, Maya Days
Network: FX
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2008-01-29
Amazon

Although it may look like just another TV legal drama, Damages proves to be quite another thing altogether. Staying out of the courtroom for the most part, it’s really about what goes on before the trial, a period of brinksmanship that plays like an intense secret war waged between truly ruthless enemies. What’s most startling is the level at which this war is waged. Methods go far beyond mere blackmail and bribery into murder so casually committed it seems almost routine.

The premise seems simple at first: Ambitious but naive young attorney Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) accepts a job with a prestigious law firm run by the notorious and enigmatic Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) who quickly schools her in the ways of her twisted world. As a lawyer, Patty is brilliant, but as a person she’s almost sociopathic. If she displays anything resembling human emotions or socially acceptable behavior, it’s most certainly coincidental. In fact, at first she seems like a complete lunatic, showing up at the wedding of Ellen’s sister uninvited to have a quick bathroom chat with her young protégé about her future with the firm.

It seems like a dream sequence or merely bad television. What kind of person does this? It takes a little getting used to, but it’s really a masterstroke of writing from creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman. This is the first but certainly not the last time when a character will do something seemingly insane which is later revealed to be a carefully performed act of manipulation. No one can be trusted in this story, and everyone seems to be a heartbeat away from betraying everyone else.

The entire season is devoted to one case, the Arthur Frobisher class action suit. Frobisher (Ted Danson) is a Donald Trump-type real estate developer, but with much better hair and an Enron-like concern for his employees. Patty is certain that she can prove that Frobisher is guilty of defrauding his employees of their pensions, but her motivations are enigmatic. Is she trying to win the case for her clients because she cares about their plight, or is it all some kind of Machiavellian game?

For much of her behind the scenes wrangling, Patty depends on, uses, and abuses her whipping boy Tom Shayes (Tate Donovan). Tom is spineless and will do anything to please Patty. Which is what Ellen is told to do, as she is manipulated daily by both of them to get what they want from her: testimony from her soon to be sister in law, Katie Conner (Anastasia Griffith), who has a surprising connection to Frobisher.

The series is structured along multiple timelines beginning, with Ellen discovering her fiancé David (Noah Bean) dead in their apartment. She is picked up by the police under suspicion of murder. The story shifts between her interrogation and the sprawling events of the last six months that led up to this tragedy, peeling the layers back on a labyrinthine mystery. The structure gives a real edge to many details encountered throughout the series as we recognize objects and people who we know will become central to the murder. At first, it seems coincidental that Katie Connor is connected to Frobisher. But as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that nothing is in the slightest way coincidental and everyone is playing some kind of angle.

The performances are nothing short of extraordinary. As Frobisher, Danson plays on the charm that’s served him well as a sitcom star his entire career. Frobisher is affable in that I-could-buy-you type of way, and clearly has told so many lies that he’s come to believe his own line of BS. Danson does a wonderful job in finding the subtleties of this man’s monstrosity, particularly in a scene in which a sinister associate makes the not-so-subtle suggestion that a troublesome witness should be killed. Danson brushes this off and even displays some kind of personal morality. “You’re crazy,” he says, “You go down that road and there’s no way back.” But just a minute later, we can see the gears in his mind turning as he returns to the idea and asks if it could actually be done.

Danson doesn’t play the scene like some B-movie villain, but shows how the man instinctually rebukes the idea of murder until he has a chance to wrap his mind around it and question whether it’s something he can really live with. It turns out that he can. It turns out, in fact, that this man can live with almost anything that will protect his fabricated sense of self. It’s not money that really drives Frobisher, but rather a need for acceptance and respect.

At one point, he decides to write his autobiography in order to propagandize himself for posterity. Like most megalomaniacs, he keeps framing his life as a story and explains how he overcame dyslexia to become the powerful and successful man he feels he is today. No one seems to care, not even his loyal and tortured attorney Ray Fiske (Zelko Ivanek) or his wife, who merely serves him with divorce papers.

Glenn Close won a Golden Globe for her performance here and it’s much deserved. Her portrayal of Patty Hewes is unapologetic. Close doesn’t try to humanize her so much as she makes her as complex and sphinx-like as possible. In any given scene, it’s hard to tell whether Patty is being honest, manipulative, caring or divisive. This is a woman who shows that she loves her teenage son by having him kidnapped by a “Scared Straight” juvenile program and then offers him a contract for a legal separation so she can wash her hands of the boy.

As great as Close is, however, the rest of the cast is her match. In many ways, this should’ve been awarded with a Best Ensemble award, since every player contributes so much to the final drama. Tate Donovan, Noah Bean, Anastasia Griffith, Phillip Bosco, and Peter Riegert as the sickening and ice cold George Moore, are all excellent. But in many ways, longtime character actor Zeljko Ivanek steals the show. The character of attorney Ray Fiske seems to be set up as the villain during the pilot, but he becomes a powerfully tragic figure as the series progresses. In particular, his scenes with Peter Facinelli memorable as the doomed Gregory Malina are very sensitive and moving. Ivanek holds the screen with a calm gravitas that makes his character’s final choices in episode 11 all the more startling.

Rose Byrne ends up giving a very good performance herself but she’s crippled by the writers for about half the series with a character who seems way too naive. The actress comments on this in one of the DVD extras, and it’s true that Ellen Parsons is kind of an annoying character until her moment of truth in episode 10 when she finally stands up to Patty. From this point on, Ellen earns her place as the story’s pro-active protagonist and Byrne seems to find her own footing in the character. In fact, there is great pleasure in watching her turn the tables on her manipulators as Ellen has learned a most important lesson from them: Trust no one.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment releases Damages: The Complete First Season on DVD in 1.78:1 wide screen presentations that feature anamorphic enhancement for 16:9 displays. All of the episodes come with Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtracks.

Three short featurettes are included.Willful Acts: The Making of Damages is a decent look behind-the-scenes with a focus on the large cast of characters. Trust No One: Insight from the Creators is a discussion with the writers about the show’s thematic background and Understanding Class Action: Interactive Guide is here to provide an idiot’s guide to class action lawsuits if the show’s legalese makes your head spin.

Extras include Audio Commentaries with writer-producers Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman on the Pilot with Glenn Close and I Hate These People with Zelko Ivanek. Deleted Scenes have been included for eight episodes. None of these are really worth saving from the cutting room floor.

Damages is the kind of storytelling I haven’t experienced since Paul Abbott’s riveting BBC series State of Play in 2003. A complex serial story, it’s even more suited to the DVD medium as the show can be picked up and followed at your own pace without fear of missing some of the story. Highly recommended.

8

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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