Sunday, February 25, 2018

Aiming high

Let me state up front that Black Panther is one of the better Marvel movies that I've seen. The fact that a movie about a black, non-American superhero put not only non-American culture but the identity of the person in question, front and center of the film, is something that can only be appreciated; as opposed to a film like Amistad, in which a story about the plight of black people presents two white guys as the lead figures in said story. At every stage, not only were black characters able and empowered to make their own choices, but the two prominent white characters (Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue and Martin Freeman as Everett Ross) were clearly the (ahem) Tolkien white guys of the film (Gollum and Bilbo Baggins, respectively in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.) Similarly, all of the female characters were strong, active, and extremely influential in the plot and the progression of it through the film. I have to single out Danai Gurira as Okoye and Letitia Wright as Shuri for being two of the most entertaining characters and whom I would have gladly seen more of. The third in that category would be Michael B. Jordan as Erik "Killmonger" Stevens. I hope that those of you that are fans of The Wire from back in the day are as appreciative as I am that Wallace is still getting screen time and that he has remained every bit as magnetic a presence on camera as he was as a teenaged drug dealer on the streets of Baltimore. Chadwick Boseman does fine as T'Challa, but those three also steal every scene that they're in.

Those are a lot of the upsides of the film. The downsides are a little more nebulous and have a lot more to do with what the film didn't do, as opposed to what it did. A quarter of the way in, Tricia leaned over to me and said: "It's basically a Disney film." Let's put aside the fact that Marvel is now a subsidiary of Disney so, in fact, it actually is a Disney film. We had reached the part where T'Challa was undergoing the ritual challenge for the throne and the festive, musical, colorful presentation of what was intended to be a fairly solemn ceremony (most battles to the death typically are) and it did have quite the Lion King feel to it. Upon T'Challa's defeat of M'Baku to confirm his hold on the throne, the rest of the attendees breaking out in a rendition of Hakuna Matata wouldn't have been overly out of place. ("No more worries... now that you're king.")

And that's kind of the root of my mild dissatisfaction. There were so many intelligent themes in the questions of Wakanda's place in the world and its use of technology that it seemed a shame that the film boiled down to the usual Marvel CGI slamfest at the end where people were blown up and run over by cyber-rhinos (but always without killing them, of course.)  This is a question of science fiction that goes back at least to the days of Star Trek and the Federation's prime directive. Despite having the power to positively influence the lives of billions of people, and especially those of black people, across the globe, the rulers of Wakanda have always been more concerned about the destruction that vibranium could cause if it was misused or acquired (read: conquered, colonized, stolen, etc.) by those with a less restrained outlook on the world, at large. This is just another take on the justifiably discarded "noble savage" canard of fiction (especially fantasy and SF over the years), where the innate goodness of those people uncorrupted by civilization is taken as a given. Despite Wakanda's extremely advanced civilization, their reluctance to engage the rest of the world on open terms is presented as a safeguard for that world. The unspoken fear is that if they did choose to engage, the power locked in the tiny nation would quickly become more bane than good.  Even in the case of obviously self-interested and ambitious characters like M'Baku, it's assumed that his noble understanding of the power of vibranium would prevent him trying to take the throne with outside assistance or threatening the tribal council with the revelation of their secret in order to get what he wants.

The big question, of course, is why these questions weren't being asked in the intervening years of colonial domination, slavery, racial injustice, and persistent poverty. Clearly, at least some of the population was dissatisfied enough to be regularly engaging in efforts against human trafficking (Nakia, played by Lupita Nyongo'o) outside the borders of Wakanda. Equally obvious was the ruling government's concern over the state of people in other nations, since they created the War Dog program to enable assistance to those peoples. Of course, "War Dog" is a strange name for a program that's supposed to be helping people progress out of poverty or enslavement and it begs the question as to why more overt efforts hadn't emerged during the previous two centuries of oppression. One can fall back on the dominance of tradition over sanity which tends to disrupt all kinds of cultural progression (American reverence for a colored cloth, anyone?) and which you can make a plausible story argument for in the case of a nation with overnight spine repair tech and laser weaponry that still decides the transition of a hereditary monarchy through ritual combat.

Similarly, the film has a bit of a Batman problem in that the title hero is not nearly as interesting as his adversaries. Killmonger was a fascinating villain because he was motivated not only by personal vengeance, but a relatively sound and understandable political agenda. You could have given him far more screen time because every moment that he was on screen was fascinating. And yet, in the course of one film, he's already gone. Now, this is the superhero genre, notorious for its inability to let any character rest in peace if someone has a new (using the term loosely) idea. But no writer should want to cheapen the legacy of Jordan's performance and Killmonger's character in this first film by bringing him back in the "bad guy turned good" routine. There was a lot more to say about and with him here, in this film, right now.

This is an example of it being obvious where the cuts were made. Clearly, there should have been more to Killmonger than just being the "real" threat where Klaue was the opener. But there's only so much one can cram into a 120 minute film. For example, you can't tell me that people with that much technology and innovation wouldn't have figured out how to preserve the heart-shaped herb so that they weren't forced to maintain a ritual garden. That dramatic moment where Killmonger burns it fell flat simply because of questions about how they could have let this happen. This wasn't a formula that they've stumbled upon that works once like Steve Rogers. This was thousands of years in development and maintenance. You're telling me that in that whole time, no one has developed a way to keep that tiny garden from being threatened by someone dropping a candle? Some of this stuff could have been given room to breathe with the space provided by, say, a 10 episode Netflix series. But in a film like this, you only have time for a couple good ideas before the last third of it has to be taken up with the CGI extravaganza. The best superhero stories I ever read had very few, if any, explosions. But sometimes you gotta feed your expected audience so, there it is.

I liked a lot of the other little touches in the film, like Idrissa Soumaoro's music showing up as T'Challa and other characters stroll around their homeland. I originally mistook it for Issa Bagayogo, another Malian artist, but was pleased to know that I wasn't off when it felt like the writers and producers had taken particular pains to make this an African superhero story and not just a story about an American who is somehow king of a stereotypical nation in Africa. Credit, of course, is due to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for being willing to step outside the (ahem) clearly drawn racial lines of superheroes at the time and to create a black character who was not only a superhero, but also the king of an entire nation in his "civilian" life. You can't get much more empowered than that, especially since he was able to leave the throne to someone else's stewardship and run around with the Avengers for years. Among the other touches was the presence of multiple African languages and different ones for different sections of the country (whereas most Wakandans spoke Xhosa, the Jabari, in the mountains, spoke Igbo.) That's an example of a production team that cares about its product (and, of course, doesn't want to suffer the wrath of the Internets.)

So, yes, it's still a superhero film that drags a bit in the middle and blows up half the terrain at the end. However, it's also a superhero film that asks a number of interesting questions (unlike, say, Guardians of the Galaxy), albeit not thoroughly, and presents a number of great characters that I'd love to see in future releases.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

For my people are foolish; they know me not

"They are stupid children and have no understanding. They are shrewd to do evil. But to do good, they do not know." - Jeremiah, 4:22

Simone got a student subscription to Spotify, which came with a Hulu subscription. (Media consolidation. Yay?) I'd held back on getting one because there's so much to watch on things we're already subscribed to (Netflix, Amazon, HBO; we also watch Vikings and Top Chef on "regular" TV) and I didn't feel like paying for yet another service. But I was interested to have it dropped in our laps for "free" because I had wanted to see The Handmaid's Tale. I'm a fan of both Margaret Atwood's novel and the 1990 film with Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall. I'm also a fan of Elizabeth Moss, as while Peggy was not always among my favorite characters on Mad Men, she was always one of the more grounded and realistic and, thus, interesting ("Why are you using your sexy voice?") people in the series. I have an attachment to characters that are placed in extraordinary circumstances and get played in the same manner that you or I or people we actually know would react. In the series, Offred is like that.

It's a departure from the two previous tellings of the tale, but I think an appropriate one. 2017 is a different world for women than 1985 (book) or 1990 (film), although regrettably not that different (#metoo.) The gloomy, ethereal Offred that appears in her journal as represented in the book or the timid and cowed stance that Richardson played in the film, while certainly possible, wouldn't be quite as believable as the more confrontational and outraged approach that Moss has taken. She's still largely keeping herself within the boundaries as set forth, as the idiots have the power at the moment (MAGA!), but she's pushing back occasionally (we're only to episode three) and constantly fuming to the camera when alone.

Similarly, the "ceremony" in the TV series is a much different atmosphere than it was in the film. In the latter, the event was emotionally traumatic for Richardson and Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy. In the series, Moss has gone for the psychological protection of simply checking out while it happens and the only one emotionally impacted seems to be Serena (Yvonne Strahovski.) I think some of that is the difference between a film and an ongoing series. In the film, you have a discrete number of times that you're going to be able to impact the audience with the shock of the event, so it's played to that impact. In the series, this is a regular thing, both within the story and the structure of the series, so either you have to play it up as an event of outrage at every opportunity, which would likely get Offred sent back to the Red Center and the audience tuning out after the fourth or fifth time, or you have to show that it's something that she's adapted to as best she can, so the audience can adapt to it, as well, without questioning why she hasn't committed suicide or taken some other action of finality or escape.

Production design was another series of contrasts that I noticed. The book never really gives a timeframe for events and neither does the film, but the situation has clearly been present for some time. Although the Red Center in the film is clearly a former high school (the sleeping chamber for the handmaids being a former gymnasium), everything is very clean and formal. Furthermore, the Guardians of the Faith all have detailed uniforms. The series, OTOH, is specific about the fact that the transformation from the United States to the Republic of Gilead has happened within the last few years. The Guardians all wear black clothing, but not a standard uniform (a variety of jackets, knit caps instead of berets, etc.) and the Red Center is depicted as a school, but one with peeling paint and dirty windows; clearly an ad hoc operation taking place in a school that was no longer needed with the reduced number of children. Despite the series having a significantly greater budget than the film, an attempt was made to make things appear less shiny for the sake of the story and it was clear that the Gilead system was still being put into place. I always appreciate that level of care. Also, the series takes pains to return to some of the particular detail that Atwood provided in the novel. The film showed the handmaids in red headscarves and fairly form-fitting dresses. They were still objects of attraction. In the series, they're in loose gowns that hide their bodies and they wear the large bonnets that prevent anyone not directly conversing with them from seeing their faces. They've also been careful to keep the actresses playing them as plain as possible. These are women that are not intended to be objects of attraction, but simply objects; possessions; tools of the state and the god that looks over it.

On the acting front aside from Moss, it was interesting to see Joseph Fiennes as the Commander, although we haven't seen that much of him yet. It's a fairly reserved role compared to the things he usually plays. I was pleased to see Samira Wiley as Moira, since she was a favorite from Orange is the New Black. She and June's former husband, Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) were also the first indication that the series producers had decided to do away with the "children of Ham" theme from the previous versions, which drew clear racial barriers, in addition to gender, sexuality, and ethics. As many others have noted, Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia has been a particular highlight, although I have to say that I loved Victoria Tennant in that role in the film.

The extra storytelling space that a series permits also allows some greater space for clarifying cultural changes. When Janine's birthing scene takes place in the film, there's a lot of moaning and wailing from the assembled handmaids, but that could easily be interpreted as another example of the cultish behavior that they've been programmed with, akin to the group slaughter of a rapist or the group shaming of a rape victim. Instead, in the series, we're shown the very real desperation that the nation has developed over the years of declining birth rates, as the birth of a healthy child is met with a paroxysm of joy from not only the handmaids and wives, but even the aunts in attendance, one of whom embraces Janine in a show of genuine affection. This is cultural expression on the order of Children of Men, where the despair at the dissipation of the race and the absence of children is deeply rooted in the public conscience, whether they agree with the current political structures and policies or not.

Some of the difference in approach is also a sign of the times. Religious fanaticism and the political expression of same has become more prominent in the last thirty years, from the manifestation of ISIS to the prominence of a man like Mike Pence in American government. Reviews for the film were generally average to poor (Roger Ebert gave it two stars), with a lot of disdain heaped upon it for it being an incomplete expression of a scenario that "certainly couldn't happen here." Reviews of the series have, of course, been almost universally positive, with notes of concern dropped in over the possibility that "It's already happening!" Since the emergence of our current gerrymandered state and the accession of the current Idiot-in-Chief, people have become far more cognizant of not only the encroaching backlash against expanded civil rights (for "gender treachery" and other things) but also the insidious nature of the fascist mindset that fuels that backlash. It's important to note that Atwood has repeatedly stated that she doesn't consider the people who created and maintained the Republic of Gilead to be genuine Christians and the story demonstrates that with Catholics being targeted by the state as a primary perpetrator of resistance against the new order.

So, needless to say, I'm enjoying it. I have a vague concern in the back of my head that comes from reading and viewing the story multiple times before, in that I question how much of the power of that story will be lost in successive seasons as they have to find a way to keep the essential tension of the resistance extant. But there are certainly ways to do that and I'm eager to find out which ones they take (and, for that matter, see how far it gets by the end of the first season.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


You did what now?
[As before: heavy spoilers below.]

Um, yeah. I guess we're done here. I completed season one of Westworld last night and every time I think about it, all I can do is arch an eyebrow at some of the choices made, not just in the last couple episodes, but in the series overall. Twice before I've posted about what a slog the whole viewing experience was, with a few flickers of interest. That's why it took me over a year to finish watching. But what it boils down to is that the whole first season came to many of the same story conclusions as Michael Crichton's just-this-side-of-B movie did in 1973. The hosts are in revolt and there will be much blood extracted from the callous humans who've been treating thinking entities like appliances. In essence, what they're saying here is that it took 10 hours of TV to reach the same point that Yul Brynner got to in a half hour. And that Westworld, the series, for all of its multitude of characters and drawn out storylines and philosophical trappings, is still basically just half of Battlestar Galactica confined to an amusement park. Or an attempt at Blade Runner, but with a lot more angst and melodrama. Maybe.

Is this the part where I agree to do something that I don't understand?
There's a lot more talking in the last couple episodes as we're finally given some clarification on all of the visions and time lapses that a few characters have been experiencing. Most of that stuff centers around the hosts' realization of what the screenplay calls "consciousness." Now, that's a very nebulous and oft-debated term and concept, but the essential definition of that state is an awareness of self and having thoughts and feelings about the world around you. There's more to it, of course, but its most basic level is reacting to external stimuli and understanding a state of existence. The hosts have part of that, in that they respond to external stimuli as any thinking creature would. They have emotional displays to events around them. In that respect, you could possibly identify them as of animal intelligence, because many animals have those same reactions. But it's clearly more than that on the part of the hosts, even if they lack the sense of self that usually accompanies the term "consciousness." For example, Maeve doesn't lean back at the bar and think to herself: "Another day of screwing guys I don't know and maybe even getting shot for my troubles. Hooray?" But even if they don't have the higher levels defined by introspection, streams of thought, and the ability to imagine, we still have a situation where the machines are having emotional reactions to external stimuli, like pain, and they create emotional attachments to the guests based on behavior in order to maintain relationships through extended storylines. That's a sufficient level of realization that would make inflicting pain on them a moral and ethical issue even if they couldn't tell you the difference between Cartesian duality and more modern perspectives. People are arrested for violating those ethical grounds in their treatment of animals every day. The hosts would be no different, whether they can dream about escaping their private hell or not.

Searching for Nirvana. Obvsly. I've heard it's kind of like a labyrinth.
A tiny part of all of the talking about the basis of the entire series is when it's mentioned that Arnold defined the doorway to consciousness as suffering. They walked away from that idea quickly, despite it being one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The other Noble Truths explain that suffering is caused by desire, which in this case is displayed by Dolores' desire to solve the mystery in her head, Maeve's desire for freedom, and so on. That's kind of a blanket statement that hearkens to a major religion, rather than solely to philosophical underpinnings about the nature of the human condition. But they didn't follow up on it at all, which I found kind of odd, given how willing they'd been to drag out most of the rest of the story. That's a snippet that could have filled out some of the endless, rueful exchanges between William and the people on the fringe of the park. Instead, the first nine episodes were often a poor attempt at visual storytelling that led to an avalanche of Anthony Hopkins exposition in episode 10, which immediately had me thinking of a Bond villain revealing the master plot while he has 007 trapped in a sure deathtrap. Unfortunately, the only people trapped in this case were the viewers, especially when Ford states that he's actually been helping the hosts for 35 years by torturing them. If you frowned at the oblique nature of that, it's just one more step in the opaque storytelling that dominated the series.

I wasn't that broken up, but it was kind of annoying.
Take, for example, the Man in Black/William storyline, as it completely crashed and burned in the finale. So, the two most tedious storylines of the series were linked in tedium because they were about the same guy. I guess that makes sense on a production level, but what was the point of the whole exercise in the first place? This guy is obsessed with finding out what "the maze" is, despite the fact that he's been in the park for thirty years and is on the board of directors. Surely in his interactions with Ford by this time he understands that "the maze" is a construction by which they were teaching the hosts to discover themselves? You reach the end of the maze, you find your self and blossom into full consciousness.  There is no physical "maze" for him to discover, unless the implication is that his behavior, as a human, was every bit as mechanical as any of the hosts because he couldn't seem to accept the fact that he was never going to find the Minotaur. I guess I can accept the idea of someone that monomaniacal, but it's also an example of someone who's dumb as a bag of hammers and not exactly the guy that you'd expect Logan's dad would pick to run his massive company. It's a rather startling lack of insight which in fewer words is known as "stupid", which perhaps explains why that dual storyline was mostly annoying. It was essentially Don Quixote so that the showrunners could hand the audience a "Gotcha!" moment when they revealed that "THIS windmill runs backwards, too!" [Evil laugh.]

No. Seriously. THIS time, it'll work.
And Ford spent 35 years doing... what? Preparing them to fight for their rights in an incredibly slow and subtle method of allowing a select few to emerge into a state of consciousness and then wiping that away because he knew that the memory imprints of that emergence would eventually lead them to freedom? Or insanity, which, y'know, is a kind of freedom. This seems like a logical plan? I guess I can see why it would take 35 years... for the same reason that it took 10 hours of TV to tell the same story that a 90-minute, middlebrow, sci-fi thriller from the 70s did. Wow, man. There were nods aplenty to that middlebrow film, too, with the apparent "Samurai World" or "Shogun World" operating in the same complex, just like the Roman World and Medieval World from the film. And, of course, this revelation is presented in said torrent of exposition, so that the audience is digesting the master plan, Dolores' and Maeve's anguish that was a direct consequence of this master plan, and the fact that- No! Wait! Dr. Ford is actually a good guy! -all at once. That doesn't read like something that was planned out for a set sequence of episodes. It sounds like a pitch for 20 episodes that ended up stretching too long when HBO called and said "You gotta wrap it up in 10." But the worst part is that the story isn't even worth 20 episodes, especially if all of them are filled with more mutterings by the Man in Black about "the maze".

Now we have to watch society adapt as the rules have all crumbled in the face of this little world being taken over by a bunch of automatons, many of whom have an unhealthy pallor to their skin. Wait. Don't we already have this show? (Speaking of things that take too long to tell a story...)

No, I don't really believe it, either.
Hm. Yeah. As I've mentioned a couple times, there are a lot of good offerings on the concept of artificial intelligence and when or how it graduates to the level of "human". These are becoming more plentiful as the concept comes closer to emerging in our own reality. From what I've seen, I don't think Westworld measures up when compared to things like AMC's Humans; at least not if you don't want to linger through 10 weeks of angst while waiting for something interesting to happen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Still grinding

[Content note: There will be drastic spoilers below, so if you're planning on watching the first season of Westworld, you probably want to stop here.]

I'm still watching Westworld. Slowly. Deliberately. Whenever I'm up late and no one else is around so that I don't have to explain why. Part of the problem is that, as you may recall, I was pretty bored watching the first two episodes of the series that so many have hailed as the best thing HBO has done since Game of Thrones. It had a couple very vague interesting points but seemed to be taking a long time to build up to where it was heading. Consequently, I watched the next three, up to episode 5, with the same kind of "can't look away from the car crash" detachment with which I viewed True Detective season 2 (of which we will never speak again.) But, 'lo and behold, episode 5 was actually interesting and the following two have been at least intriguing, since I can pretty much see where they're going, but it's morbidly fascinating to see just how much time they can waste to get there in the course of a 10 episode season.

One thing I'm struggling with is the macro picture. For all the mystery and drama surrounding the essential question of thinking beings subjected to abject slavery and manipulation, the show doesn't really ask that question in the macro sense because it's contained to the park. Unlike, say, Blade Runner or AMC's Humans, the hosts aren't integrated into the public which would force that question to be posed to society-at-large. It's "just" a sadistic amusement park... which does, however, pose the eternal question of just how much the havenots are used as mindless drones by the haves. This is exemplified most obviously when Theresa finds Charlotte screwing one of the hosts a short time after referring to them as "property" of the corporation. So they are touching on the basic morality of living beings used as slaves or less-than-slaves; more like tools. Also, I get that the board of directors' plan may be to bring the technology into the larger world and that's why they're trying to wrest it from Ford. That in itself would bring that essential question into society and perhaps that's where they're going with future seasons. But if so, they're going to have to venture way beyond the limits of "Westworld", which doesn't seem to be the point of the story. Also also, if it's taken us seven episodes to set up that essential conflict, I'm more disappointed than ever.

The other thing that's bothering me is style. The moment where Bernard is revealed to be a host was a decent BIG REVEAL moment, even if it had been fairly obvious for some time (Ford pays close attention to Bernard and always invites his opinion; Bernard has a deep insight into Dolores' perspective, almost as if he relates to it; etc.) I'm assuming it was enticing for the idiots that like to insist on the "Deckard was a replicant!" conspiracy theory in Blade Runner which, of course, invalidates most of the basic questions that that film was asking. Bernard's reveal doesn't because there is no special class of human to oppose the other humans. You can't draw contrasts between the hosts and the guests because the former get reprogrammed every day and the latter are aware that they're in an environment that essentially begs them to act inhumanly. There is no day-to-day existence that permeates the scene. Life's a stage, etc.

That makes the only special class of human Ed Harris' Man in Black, who has to be one of the most pointless characters in the entire series, to date. He's determined to find out the root secrets of the park's function. He apparently has no other discernible mission or motive. But it's also a complete sideshow. Is anyone actually interested in that aspect of the story? Does anyone see a point to it? Even if people find themselves intrigued by the mystery of either/both his mission or his dogged determination, is anyone actually entertained by seven straight episodes of Ed Harris doing the Sauron thing ("I am mean and angry... because I am mean and angry!!!") Or, for that matter, him being the implacable, motiveless villain who does little more than hie into the wilderness, muttering about a maze alongside confused hosts who somehow find themselves motivated to follow him? In my original review, I thought the character was a ham-handed homage to Yul Brynner's Gunslinger in the original film. Now I just think he's boring. The possibility remains that the MiB is another one of Ford's special constructs and he's so driven to find the secrets of Westworld because he's trying to meet his maker, a la Roy Batty. But if too many of the apparent humans in Westworld are actually hosts or if too many of the hosts are "special" like Bernard and Dolores, the shine starts to come off and we start drifting away from our macro questions into minutiae. Does this "special" host function differently than that "special" one? Who really is the Star-bellied Sneetch... or are we really all just people (Sneetches)?

It's clear that the showrunners have been stretching this thing out to build suspense for some kind of tempestuous wrap-up to the season. But until episode 5's revelations about Theresa's subterfuge, Maeve's awakening, and more detail on the origins of the park from Ford, I had no motivation to watch except to see what kind of ditch they could dig themselves into. Now I can see a couple avenues out and I'm interested in some of the larger plots that they've finally gotten around to presenting, but there's still so much dross attached (William and Dolores' romance or pretty much anything connected to William? Yawn.) that I've shifted from mild disinterest to annoyance. My first request of any series remains extant: Tell me a story. If you can't do that, I got not time for ya. Westworld seems like it's been trying to tell me a story, but it needs to try a lot harder in the last three episodes if I'm going to watch the subsequent seasons.

Friday, December 8, 2017


I finally caught up with Vikings and have been watching it in real time (Ewww! Commercials?) along with everyone else. More on that below. But today I wanted to ramble a little bit about the History Channel's new show, Knightfall. I'm a day late, but maybe some of you still haven't seen it. After reading this, you may not want to.

Knightfall is about the Knights Templar; a monastic order founded in the 12th century to protect and assist Christian pilgrims on the trail to the Holy Land after the Crusades had been initiated and the various Christian states had emerged in the Levant. Their official name is The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. Over time, they became known as the Knights of the Temple or simply Templars, in the same way that the similar Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem became known as the Hospitallers. Nicknames are far from a modern invention. The Templars were a warrior order and one of the more effective fighting forces on the Christian side during the two centuries that it took the Muslims to expel the Europeans from the region. That being said, they were still a monastic order, which meant that they lived like monks often did, spending a lot of time at prayer and taking vows of poverty (they are the "Poor Fellows"), chastity, and so forth. It's the poverty angle that usually comes up in any historical discussion about them.

Since they were on the leading edge against the infidels, they became a favored charity inside the church (Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was their most prominent advocate) and received not only money but businesses and land (i.e. wealth.) With the rapid growth of their order, the actual warriors soon became a relatively small fraction of the whole organization and they designed an early method of banking, where pilgrims could leave their money at a Templar fortress in Europe, travel to the Holy Land with a letter of credit, and receive the same sum from a fortress in Jerusalem or Acre or wherever they ended up. The purpose of the organization soon became money management, rather than bringing the word (and sword) of God to the infidel. This ramped up when the Crusader states were destroyed and the Templars returned to Europe without much else to do. In the end, they became a primary lender to various monarchs, most notably Philip IV of France, whose own activities following on the heels of his father, Philip III, had plunged the state into debt and who went to the Templars to get a bailout. All good so far?

OK. So here's where we get to the show, somewhere around 1306. Instead of, say, doing a show like Vikings, where the founding of the order is displayed and we see the daily struggles, battles, and politics of the Levant in the Crusader era; or simply a show just about the extremely complex politics surrounding the post-Acre period in France and the order's eventual destruction, the driving plot element for our main characters at the center of those political machinations is... the Holy Grail.

Yes. That Holy Grail. With the magic and the healing and the voices booming down from the heavens and yadda, yadda, yadda. So, Vikings took a few figures from legend and many from the historical record, most prominently Ragnar Lodbrok, and has successfully woven it into a fairly accurate portrayal of history (There's that word.). Knightfall, OTOH, is taking a well-documented segment of that same historical record and weaving a legend into it that doesn't become prominent for another couple hundred years and then has more to do with silly English knnnniggets than a monastic order. The Grail was first mentioned in a poem in Flanders in the 12th century, but it was regarded as a work of fiction and it didn't have any of the trappings of being the cup of Christ or anything like that. All of that came later when someone thought it'd be a cool spin. In short, the Templars had absolutely zero to do with it and riding that horse means veering away from the quite interesting story of the Templars themselves and into Dan Brown Da Vinci Code stuff which just detracts from the whole picture. In the first episode, we already have the secret compartment in the sword of Godfrey with the gemstone that was somehow carved years ago to indicate that the Grail had made it to France. This is like the goofy side of Indiana Jones, where objects of extreme veneration and surrounded by ancient cities filled with devout believers are placed in rooms that are so dangerous that no one would ever go in there to worship the deity in question. Similarly, no one would "hide" the location of the grail by carving a gemstone to reveal the first clue in the puzzle unless they wanted said gemstone to be a plot device in a TV show. Try finding evidence of that in your nearest medieval epic.

That's pulp adventure stuff, which is absolutely fine if that's what you want. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a great film. But there are also no illusions about what it is: an adventure film, as opposed to a TV series that is ostensibly about the Knights Templar, but seems intent on sidelining much of their interesting and complex history (there's that word again) for magical fireworks. They're not doing the Templars. They're doing King Arthur and calling it the Knights Templar. Seriously, we already have our Perceval (Bobby Schofield; young lad, innocent, true believer, not jaded) and our Lancelot. They call him "Landry" (Tom Cullen) but that was probably a writing room goof: "This guy, the not-quite-leader, best warrior, we'll call him Lannnn... dry. Yeah." How do I know he's Lancelot? Because the devoted monk is breaking his vows of chastity in the most spectacular way possible by screwing the king's wife!

Really? This is how we explain the eventual decision by Philip to exterminate the Templars, not because he was a right bastard and figured that rubbing out his lenders was better than actually paying his debts (they didn't call him the "Iron King" for nothing; of course, some people also called him "the Fair"...) but because he's going to be mad that his wife is screwing his best friend? As soon as Merlin walks in with a prophecy, we should be good to go, yeah? The problem with the story of the Templars is the same one that afflicted the samurai in the later Shogunate era: with no enemy to fight (or at least, the lack of will to do so), the warrior class reverts to other activities. The Templars became bankers that prayed a lot. The samurai became clerks and bureaucrats who carried swords. Both groups tried to maintain the very martial and focused outlook that their original role demanded, but it became impossible. The Hospitallers became little more than pirates in their waning days, for that matter. I think that's enough story material to drive the series forward without invoking the Arthurian legend in ways large or small.

Plus, there's way too much of this "knight in shining armor" stuff. No one walks around in plate armor. It's heavy and uncomfortable and you certainly don't keep it on your horse if you're hurrying into the countryside at the last minute. There's no way your horse would have been armored like that in the middle of Paris, so why should you grab it from the stable in full plate regalia? But then when the moment comes to display just why the Templars were so feared, they dropped the ball. The Knights were prominent in the Levant because wearing that much metal made them the medieval equivalent of a tank. They would charge, shatter lines, and then the infantry would clean up. This was showed to decent effect during the siege of Acre scene at the beginning. But when they rush out of Paris to save the Jews, they come down the road on the flank of the mercenaries. That's a prime target. Take the charge and the mercs won't even have time to turn their spears properly. That's an easy win. Instead, they ride around to the front of the enemy's formation (i.e. its strongest point) and dismount. Za? You're knights. The word goes back to the equestrian order of the Romans. Your advantage is that you're on horseback. But you decide to abandon that advantage and slug it out on the ground. OK.

None of the performances stuck out in any marked way. There's no interesting character like Ragnar or quirky character like Floki or even frustrated, simmering character like Rollo. Lance- uh, Landry is simmering in frustration, but it's so drowned in angst that it's hard to be sympathetic. Plus, he's decided to relieve some stress by shacking up with Joan of Navarre. The real Joan was reportedly a highly intelligent and shrewd woman, so it's a natural fit if the showrunners wanted a strong female character. But the real Joan had also grown up with Philip and they were very fond of each other, in contrast to many other medieval marriages. But I could live with all of that. I could live with the "love interest" routine and the need for sex in a "mature" series and so forth. It's all good. Maybe Joan of Navarre was getting horizontal with the master of the Templars. But all of those little failings pale in significance to the fact that the series is going to be driven forward by the chase for the magic chalice. They chose... poorly. I'll probably watch the second episode just to see what happens, but it's not likely I'll go past that.

*                 *                *

On Vikings, I thought they did really well with a lot of the time compression and the eventual introduction of the Great Heathen Army. It remained interesting and Ragnar's constant, driving need for glory and legacy was a very human motivation that made waves for everyone around him. I thought that Floki's realization in Algeciras that the Muslims were ignoring the invaders because of their devotion to their god and the practice of their religion was a highlight of the whole series; a very moving moment. The first couple episodes of season 5 have been a little rocky. I think everyone- cast, writer, and fans -knew that it was going to be difficult to replace the energy not just of Ragnar, but Travis Fimmel and the void is definitely there. Neither Lagertha, Bjorn, Harald, or Ivar can be the central focus that Ragnar/Fimmel was. None of the other actors have that charisma and writer, Michael Hirst, has taken advantage of that void to present all of those people striving to fill the gap that Ragnar left them. It's much easier to do method when a change in production basically demands it. The one exception is Floki. His travels to and around Iceland have been interesting and have carried a lot of subtle excitement and emotion. I don't think Vikings will ever carry the weight and quality that other legendary shows have. I'm watching not because I'm fascinated by the story or the people playing it, but because I already know the story and I'm interested to see it brought to life on the screen.

Anyway, next I'll return to Westworld. Yes, I've finally gotten through the majority of it and I might as well put down some perspective before the new season arrives in the new year. There's no guarantee I'll actually watch the new season, but I'll get to that next time.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Not exactly driven

In my very occasional series of "Catching up with films that all of you saw a year ago", I finally saw Baby Driver tonight. [Tangent: What can I say? I just don't see many movies these days. Tricia's not really a fan and I could go see things alone, but that's really kind of lame. Of course, if I actually had a job writing about movies, I guess I'd see a lot of things alone. So, if anyone's looking for a critic, I'll gladly suffer the travails. /tangent.]

I'm not a huge Edgar Wright fan. I appreciated certain aspects of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I also thought Ant-Man (which he wrote, but didn't direct) was one of the more entertaining Marvel films because he isolated the aspect that drives Marvel's characters into legend: They're real people. That's been a hallmark of his other films, as well. Weird stuff happens to his characters, but they still stay largely human, with all of the associated quirks, failings, and idiosyncrasies that comprise that condition. No one is human in Baby Driver, from the title character (Ansel Elgort) to his sudden girlfriend (Lily James.) They're all figments of imagination that would have a horrible time actually functioning in a society made up of humans, which we (kinda) still live in.

First off, it's an action film. I get it. There's supposed to be a lot of action, which frequently involves bullets and various loud noises. However, I think Wright went just a bit over the top here. I mean, yeah, running firefights across the city are fine, since it's an action film. But when we get to the point where cars are falling from the upper floors of parking garages and exploding in the middle of downtown Atlanta, that's where you start to lose me. First off, because cars don't really explode when they catch fire. But secondly because you're kind of losing the thread of the story for a lightshow. Lightshows don't affect the quality of the music at a concert, so they don't really need to be a part of the story, unless your story happens to be about a war where explosions are common. Take, for example, Ben Affleck's The Town. It's also a story about a high-end, efficient heist crew, including one member who wants to get out, and there are several exciting gunfights and chase scenes. But there are no explosions because gunfights are already exciting enough. There are times when both writer and director have to exercise some restraint in order to keep the focus on their story. Wright didn't do that here.

That lack of humanity had an even bigger impact on some unfortunate casting. I'm sorry, but Jon Hamm (Buddy) doing the shaved blowback look doesn't make him a criminal. It just makes him look goofy. And he's still so wooden in these kinds of roles (he was also in The Town) that it's difficult to take him seriously and not think that I'm watching Don Draper act out an extremely visceral commercial in the conference room of Sterling Cooper. Making him take it to the nth degree with a Terminator schtick (Is he really dead this time?) doesn't help, especially because said schtick (Is he really dead THIS time?) is driven by the world's most obvious death scene for Eiza Gonzalez (Monica), as a consequence of a totally unnecessary moment of bravado for a professional thief. Was that the moment we were supposed to imagine that Monica was really a badass like the men, even though her role to that point had been nothing but sex object, full stop? Because she can be a total idiot and stand in the open with a pair of long guns in front of a phalanx of cops while her husband wisely shelters behind the car?

Jamie Foxx (Bats), unfortunately, had the worst of the roles. I just have no patience for these unreasonably violent and chaotic characters that somehow still function in society long enough to not be jailed or gunned down in the street. You're telling me that this psychopath (not a sociopath, which would be believable and which Doc (Kevin Spacey) is; the two are quite different) has become a professional heist guy so reliable that someone as meticulous as Doc would hire him more than once and somehow not be aware of what a loose cannon he is? Or that anyone would choose to work with him when he repeatedly does exactly what pros don't do, which is attract attention to himself on a regular basis? Or that he wouldn't have long ago been arrested and permanently jailed because he constantly attracts attention to himself with petty crimes? Yeah... no. It's simply not believable. On top of that, you have Spacey mailing it in as hard as he possibly can. I know the man has been typecast as evil genius since The Usual Suspects (spoilers!) and the script did him no favors, but he might have allowed himself to have just a bit of personality. And how does Jon Bernthal rate third billing with a whole five minutes of screen time and a completely disposable (and forgettable, since Doc didn't hire him again) role?

But the killer is the ending. I don't know how many test audiences it went through, but all of them should never be allowed near a theater again. In what jurisdiction does multiple armed robbery, multiple grand theft auto, multiple carjacking, multiple assault with a deadly weapon, murder, and a lifetime supply of reckless driving and endangerment get you 25 years, parole in 5? And in which state do you get paroled with that list of charges on the first chance? The Hollywood happy ending is so tacked on that they didn't even bother to do any makeup for Elgort and James to show that they'd aged five years, especially in Elgort's case. That list of charges puts you in maxi and no one comes out of there with the same babyface that they went into it with. Prison ages you. So does time, in general. But it didn't matter because all of the intensity and chaos and violence of the previous hour and 50 minutes was just washed away by the gentle golden glow of a moving Hallmark card as Baby walks away with the girl. Really? This is what the whole tragedy of this kid's childhood and his alienation from society and the trauma of being roped into this heist team boils down to? Happily ever after? Yikes, man.

On the positive side, the choreography was excellent. The chase scenes, both behind the wheel and on foot, were thrilling and one of the two high points of the film. The other was the soundtrack, which is brilliant. (Attention, Guardians of the Galaxy fans: This is what a film soundtrack sounds like. Give it a listen.) I can't remember the last time I'd heard Hocus Pocus and I've been listening to Damned Damned Damned the whole time I've been writing this. I have a deep appreciation for people who share my broad taste in music, even if they're fictional characters.

But once again, I find myself on the outside looking in on this one, since like GotG, I seem to be the lone voice of disdain among my friends that have seen it. It's also sitting at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and most critics were gushing over it to the point where I'm starting to think that movie critics are like mattress critics: handsomely paid to give the best review possible to the average and routine. The New York Times even hailed it as a "NYT Critic's pick", despite this quote directly from the review"is so good that you want it to be better and go deeper, for it to put down its guns (or at least hold them differently) and transcend its clichés and cine-quotes so it can rocket out of the genre safe box into the cosmic beyond where craft and technique transform into art".

Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying. It's not "better." It's not "deep." It's completely clichèd and displays a remarkable lack of craft which would make it art. And yet it's somehow a "critic's pick"? Seriously, does anyone want a movie critic that, you know, actually watches the films? Anyone? Bueller?

Friday, September 22, 2017

The drug war from Missouri to Colombia

I'm not going to go into a history of the War on Drugs (capitalization required because it's official. And important. And because it makes it feel even more stupid.) We all know about it. We all know it's pointless. We all know Jefferson Beauregard (not a racist) Sessions is going to spend millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours pursuing it because it's a primo example of the usual GOP approach to problems: it only seems like it hasn't worked because we haven't been hitting our head against that wall hard enough! But I am going to look at it indirectly from the perspective of a couple Netflix series that we've recently indulged in.

A couple weeks ago, Tricia suggested that we watch Narcos, which has been a relatively heralded member of Netflix's original production lineup. I've seen people talk about it occasionally on the board and it seemed like something I might get to at some point, although I'm pretty well versed in the story of Pablo Escobar. But I'd also added Ozark to our queue because of another brief mention on the board and that had a more immediate appeal, so I suggested that instead. It was a good choice, since we burned right through the first season in a matter of days. Given that that was over, we decided to try out the original idea and sat down to watch the first couple episodes of Narcos last night.

Ozark can rather easily be compared to Breaking Bad, in that it's a take on the "fish out of water" premise, in which a "normal" guy gets involved in situations that are utterly foreign to him; in this case, delving into criminal enterprises that go way beyond simply shuffling money between accounts. Indeed, my first very mild criticism of the series was that bringing the nuclear family along to remotest Missouri was bringing along a rather hoary Hollywood trope ("How do Billy and Susie react to not having access to Starbucks?!") that we could all probably dispense with by now. But what made that not even a concern was both the complexity of the story and the performance, surprisingly, of Jason Bateman.

Unlike Walter White, Bateman's Marty Byrde isn't a person who had a burning ambition to do something better with his life. Byrde was doing exactly what he wanted: working the numbers. Similarly, the rest of the family wasn't really aspiring to something better (except Wendy's (Laura Linney) fling with another lawyer) or had any need to prove themselves in the way that Skyler and Walt, Jr. did. Walter's disruption of their life didn't happen immediately and in some ways actually improved their situation in the early stages. This was part of the lurking transformation of both Walter and the story as a whole which was the masterstroke of Vince Gilligan's storytelling. Ozark, OTOH, is a huge disruption to the almost entirely blissful complacency of upper class life that the Byrds had in Chicago. It's basically the converse of the Beverly Hillbillies (Don't call'em "rednecks"...) and much more funny. The family is dropped into a situation that isn't a setup for all of the "look how strange bass-ackwards Missouri really is." It's more of a story about how quickly they can adapt to a new situation because their lives, quite literally, depend on it.

That's where Marty is highlighted because his entire existence is about analysis and finding the best route to maximize the outcome. While he, like the rest of the family, is focused on survival, he's also compelled by instinct to find the best possible result, which involves treating everyone and everything around him as an asset to be exploited; at least until that kernel of human kindness breaks through and makes him start caring about a couple of those assets. I'd long ago dismissed Bateman as a routine straight man in a bunch of disposable comedies (Horrible Bosses, et al.) But in Ozark (which he's also a producer of and directed multiple episodes of the first season), he's proven to be much more. Marty's an accountant and, as such, displays the often-typical difficulty that guys who love numbers have in relating to other humans. He's pretty stone-faced... until it comes time to make a deal. Like most guys who know numbers, Marty also knows that everyone has a price and it's usually the guy equipped with that instinct that will make the best deal. Bateman is able to show deep emotions when he interacts with his family, but is able to switch back to that stone-faced, deal-making accountant at a moment's notice because that's his calling and it's how that family that he feels deep emotion for is going to survive. The moment when he witnessed his wife's lover landing on the pavement and we could just watch his face process the shock and horror and switch right to a realization of what must have happened and how his best route was to neither react nor be present at that moment was priceless.

Linney, OTOH, has a far more emotional role, since her grounding isn't in her career but in the fact that she's been looking for an emotional attachment that the detached Marty hasn't been able to supply. Their interaction provides another display of emotion in that Marty admits that Wendy has wounded him and implies that he's basically keeping her around in order to provide some semblance of normalcy for the kids. But he also demonstrates that he really doesn't understand his wife of 17 years when he decides that a PI video of her and her lover might be his inroad back into a deeper connection. At the same time, she struggles with the fact that she agreed to this path that puts them all in danger, while still yearning to be her own person AND try to reunite with her husband for the sake of normalcy for the kids (and perhaps more.) The fact that they decide to just bite the bullet at one point and fully include the kids in the process of their criminal activities rather than continuing to dance around it is just the topper. It's wonderfully complex acting and storytelling and that, along with an excellent supporting cast, makes Ozark both a proper descendant of Breaking Bad and very much its own thing. The weird, old dying guy in the basement; the ruthlessly ambitious assistant; the straight-laced lodge manager who's obviously attracted to Marty; the obsessive and identity-conflicted FBI agent; the family- and tradition-obsessed drug dealing locals; all of these characters provide a density and texture to the story that made for enthralling viewing from the first episode to the last. That many elements in play also leave countless opportunities for where to take the story next and which parts should be emphasized or de-emphasized, in turn, makes for very smart writing.

Narcos, OTOH, wasn't quite as compelling. Granted, we've only seen two episodes, but we were eager to watch more after seeing only one of Ozark. Our reaction to Narcos was relatively ambivalent. Part of it was the storytelling approach. Narcos feels like a dramatized documentary to some degree. In most cases, I'd really rather just watch the documentary about Pablo Escobar's life, since truth is often just as strange, if not stranger, than fiction and one risks burdening the story with irrelevant elements in an attempt to find people that the audience can supposedly relate to. I had the same problem with Hidden Figures. Just watching the basic facts and interviews with the women who'd lived through that time would have been emotionally compelling enough for me. Adding on everything else was really just unnecessary gloss to a story that was already extremely interesting.

But the other problematic aspect is that there's no one particularly fascinating about the disclaimer targets in Narcos. The based-on-an-actual person lead, Wagner Moura, as Pablo is fine. Those of us familiar with the history know that Escobar had a rather outsized personality that he expressed in a variety of ways. But the "good guy" lead, Boyd Holbrook, as Steve Murphy, gives us nothing. He's a crusading DEA agent (yawn) who does a sheepish "my friends set me up" approach to his future wife (yawn) and then delivers the "don't treat me like the FNG" moment (yawn) when the first direct attempt to go after the Medellin cartel takes place. That's cardboard. It's routine. There's nothing to work with there that isn't starkly obvious in the character's 20 minutes of screen time. Compounding that is the producers' and directors' apparent love of spectacle. This is a story about drugs and violence, so they're going to show you as much drugs, violence, and sex as they can cram into an episode, whether it makes a story or not. The sex angle is particularly notable, since the second episode had titillation at its most obvious.

In the course of a few minutes, there's Pablo screwing a reporter who likes being in his limelight, DEA agent Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) screwing one of his prostitute CIs, and DEA agent Murphy screwing his wife. Oh, and a gratuitous shot of the MS-19 people celebrating a minor victory. I mean, fine. Sex happens, yo. I'll be the last person to object to its inclusion in a story because that's what humans do, often with each other. But this was utterly Skinemax in its approach: nothing but a flash of tits in all three (and a half) instances and the reporter apologizing by offering up her ass to Escobar. The strangest one was Murphy, since the realization that there's street violence in Bogotà in no way required us to see them doing anything in bed but sleeping. The other two scenarios at least offered up story reasons for having sex in the form of Pablo cheating on his wife and feeling the tug of fame and Peña having a more personal relationship with a CI and possibly displaying the route he took to make her a CI. But all three of them in rapid succession felt canned, as if the director decided "OK. It's getting a little slow here. We better do some titillation to keep the audience both interested and aware of the fact that this show is EDGY. To the EXTREME!"

The end result is that I don't care about Murphy, I don't care about Peña (even though he's the Red Viper), and I care about Escobar only so much as I know that his life is actually interesting. But, again, I could just watch a half-dozen documentaries to get the interesting parts, rather than waiting for them to draw them out over some dramatic framework that also includes a bunch of other people I don't care about.

Ozark had me from episode one. This was an interesting story, with interesting characters, and with actors I either already respected (Linney; really good in The Truman Show, Mystic River, and Kinsey, if you've never seen them) or who instantly excelled in roles I would have never anticipated from them (Bateman.) I'm looking forward to the recently announced season two. Narcos I could give or take right now. If Tricia wants to watch more of it, I'll try, but my initial suspicion is that there just won't be enough story to keep me interested, especially when there's so much other good TV that could take its place.