Monday, October 21, 2019

Half truck, half story

[There are minor spoilers, yo.]

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. Full stop. That's what a story is. From that rather unforgiving perspective, El Camino is not a story. It's an addendum to a story, because the beginning is in Breaking Bad and this is really all about the end. I mean, I guess you could say that this two-hour film was about not having the money, getting the money, getting more of the money, and then using the money to disappear into Alaska... and that's a story. It's not quite the level of discourse I'd expect from someone as talented as Vince Gilligan, but it's arguable.

This is starting out pretty bleak, as a lot of things have over the past few weeks. These are relatively bleak times, on a personal and public level, so that's quite possibly coloring my perspective. Furthermore, I'm still aggravated about having to scrape out a draw against the Mancs yesterday, so there's that. When it comes to sports, writing, media... I am pretty much an "excellence demander", as the saying goes. That's why I'm looking at El Camino from the perspective of the basics: Does this tell a story? Does it tell a good story? Does it serve any purpose beyond titillation of hardcore Breaking Bad fans? The answer to all of those is, largely, "No." On the other hand, most TV and most films are filed under "entertainment" for a reason. This one gives you a couple hours to watch Jesse's recurrent struggle with his sense of humanity that almost constantly gets him in trouble in the morally ambiguous world that he followed Walter into. It gives you another look at Breaking Bad fan favorites like Badger, Skinny, Mike, Todd, and even Walter himself; still in desperate schoolteacher mode and not yet having descended to the notorious Heisenberg. It also gives us one last look at clean-up guy, Robert Forster (RIP), who is his usual low-key, amiable, but still memorable self.

And that contrast raises a lot of overarching and frequently asked questions about these kinds of entertainments. How is something defined as "good" or, in the case of Breaking Bad, "universally acclaimed"? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? (No. Not that kind of beholder.) If El Camino was written for Breaking Bad fans and it serves the interests of Breaking Bad fans who just want to spend more time in that world (especially with Better Call Saul having been on hiatus for a while), then that kinda makes it good by default, right? We still get Vince Gilligan's solid writing and directing, as well as Aaron Paul. Sure. It's fine. I'm a diehard Breaking Bad fan. I'll watch anything that Gilligan puts on the screen, which is why I was eager to watch El Camino.

But I'm also interested in stories that actually go somewhere. Yes, we get to see Jesse once again regret that his streak of morality prevents him from pulling a trigger that he probably should and gets him into a problem that is more complicated than it had to be, if he could just emulate some of Walter's ruthlessness. Yes, we get to see his final interaction with his naive and anguished parents. Yes, we get to see him reminiscing about the frustration of his relationship with Todd; his ironic innocence and brash youthfulness in interacting with Walter; his wistful longing for Jane. All of those are well-acted and at least somewhat poignant moments that are well written, too. Those are all entertaining.

And, in the end, just more of the same. This is an epilogue to the real story that is Breaking Bad. Unlike the prologue that is Better Call Saul, we don't get to see a character that transforms over the course of a story; in which we see key moments that we can look back to as the places where the path was laid in and the might-have-beens blew away in the breeze. El Camino is just an elaboration on Jesse's hysterical laughter as he flees Walter's murder/suicide of Jack's Aryan gang in the final episode of the series. We knew Jesse was getting away and finally escaping Walter's shadow and all the danger that had come with it, despite never being able to escape the pain that had ensued. This film was just an elaboration on how he got away, which doesn't tell us anything we didn't know already and doesn't really do much else, except entertain, which is perhaps the point.

HBO has started up a sequel series about The Watchmen. I don't have any particular interest in seeing it because, when it comes to that particular property, I tend to agree with both its artist, Dave Gibbons, and its writer, Alan Moore, both of whom expressed varying levels of confusion and dismay that anyone would want to "continue" a story that they had told and completed. It's done. As Moore has stated, it's an icon of its time and an artifact of it. There's nothing else to be done with it that doesn't diffuse or distract from the original. Who knows? It might be fantastic. But does it really do anything with the material that we haven't seen before or hadn't really been interested in seeing in the first place? Breaking Bad is kind of in that same sphere. No one wants to see HeisenBadger: Back to the Blue. We've seen the story that Gilligan wanted to tell. Now let's move on.

In the end, is El Camino worth your time? Sure. If you're a Breaking Bad fan, you could be doing a lot worse than spending a couple hours with Jesse and Vince Gilligan again. It's still entertaining, if somewhat predictable. It's just not transformative like BB was and it won't do much more than make you think you should go back and watch "Fly" again.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Taxi Driver with makeup kind of misses the point

When you're going to see a movie about a clown, there's only one album you should be playing on the way there. The cover is above. No, the Butthole Surfers don't really have anything to do with clowns but that's not really the point. Neither did Joker, unless you're into the whole "evil clown" thing that creates rather pointless stories like It. (Or you played Dragon Warrior 2 on the Nintendo gray box. Shut up. I'm old.)

So, yeah, I finally made it to Joker and I have many thoughts, which is in itself kind of remarkable since it was a film that was paced at a level that approached tedium but had enough style happening on the screen (helped ably by Joaquin Phoenix) to keep you watching, if occasionally impatiently. The Joker is one of the more fascinating characters in the DC stable, as he's the pinnacle of the "Batman as his own antagonist" phenomenon. Normally, you read a story for the lead character whose story it is; the protagonist. But, from the 70s forward, a lot of people read (and many writers wrote) Batman comics to see him play the straight man to his more interesting opponents. Batman was a force of nature; often one-dimensional in his approach to life (billionaire playboy who solves 'problems' with his fists.) That gets old fast. So you'd read his comics to see what unusual activities figures like The Joker and The Riddler and Scarecrow and Poison Ivy and Clayface were going to get up to. We were more interested in what was going on inside the minds of the deviants from society than the neo-fascist in the cape who claimed to be defending it (but who, in all honesty, also clearly had some mental health issues.) The most prominent among those was The Joker, who wasn't just compelled by his psychological issues, but reveled in them. The greatest Joker story ever told was Steve Engelhart's "The Laughing Fish" in 1978, where the Joker dumped chemicals into the water around Gotham to give all of the fish his maniacal face and then tried to claim a trademark on them so he'd get a percentage of every fish sale. When he didn't get it, he started climbing the chain of officials at the local patent office, murdering them until he found one that agreed with him. My girlfriend gave me a confused frown when I mentioned this story. I said: "Yes. That's exactly the way you're supposed to react. If you're not laughing." He was crazy, but there was a distorted genius in what he did. That's entertaining to watch or read.

Joker, the film, is not like this. Phoenix is entertaining enough to watch, but he's entertaining because he's Joaquin Phoenix, not The Joker. Writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (Phillips is also the director) decided to make an origin story for the character that's grounded in more realistic circumstances than "burglar breaks into playing card factory, falls into chemicals while fleeing police, comes out looking like Billie Joe Armstrong after bathing in bleach for a week, loses mind." Bob Kane and Bill Finger's original story was as simplistic as most comics were in those days and DC has been trying to catch up to Marvel for, oh, fifty years now by attempting to make their characters into real people. The first few DC films have largely failed at that, so they doubled down here and, in that respect, largely succeeded. This is a story about someone with mental health problems who has been ignored or discarded by society as so many people are these days. Phillips and Silver weaved in the prevailing economic mood of the time (so many with so little, so few with so much), in addition to making the statement that society isn't paying enough attention to those that need help, in both internal and external ways. In making the film more of a personal tragedy, they've essentially made it the Pagliacci joke. This is an apocryphal story about a man who goes to a doctor because he's so miserable and the doctor suggests he go see the famous clown, Pagliacci, to improve his mood, whereupon the man informs him: "But doctor, I am Pagliacci." For those of you in the comic set, this is the joke that Rorschach recites while we're watching The Comedian get tossed out a window to his death in the opening scene of The Watchmen.

Speaking of Alan Moore, Phillips and Silver clearly drew inspiration from Moore's The Killing Joke, which was a mild reworking of the Joker's origin to be a failed comedian, rather than just a small-time hood. They're also obviously big Scorcese fans because all I could think of while watching the first half of this film was that it was funny to see DeNiro doing a remake of Taxi Driver. But this is kind of where all of this begins to break down. Taxi Driver was Scorcese's statement on how some people felt that society had decayed and Travis Bickle was going to cleanse it and himself. Joker is making the same statement but from a different angle, in that the rich have allowed people to suffer in a state of decay when they shouldn't have to. The locus for that societal perspective is the very emotional tale of a man who has suffered that neglect, both in general and personally, as he discovers that his life is a lie told to him by his similarly ill mother and his gentle nature is easily abused by others. It's meant to be an emotional tale because, like the Pagliacci story, it's a tragedy. You're meant to feel sympathy for the protagonist because of what he's suffered. The problem is: That's not The Joker.

The reason that Engelhart's version was so interesting was because he held an internal logic that could be seen by others, even if it couldn't be understood. There was intelligence there. Similarly, the most obvious and direct comparison to Phillips/Silver/Phoenix's version is the one created by the Nolan brothers and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. Ledger's Joker is considered insane because he looks at things radically differently from most of society and then acts on that perception. His intelligence is evident in every word he speaks in the film, as is the ruthless nature behind it that drives him to make statements with both words and actions. Phoenix's Joker is the polar opposite of that. He's not a figure to be feared and marveled at. He's an object of pity until he goes about murdering people, whereupon the pity becomes mixed with revilement and a reintroduction of the disdain he's felt all his life. It's not compelling. In some ways, it's not even interesting, except for the fact that it's much closer to reality than much of what is displayed in Nolan's film. Arthur is what the Joker probably would be in the real world: a less confident, somewhat more off-kilter Travis Bickle. There's nothing wrong with a film or a story based on emotion. There are some really good ones. But, again, that's not The Joker.

Indeed, when Arthur finally does begin making pronouncements at the end of the film, there's nothing particularly innovative or interesting about them. They're simply restatements of what the film has already been telling us: society has forgotten or ignored these people and now there's a tiny bit of payback. These aren't unusual statements of philosophy. They're boilerplate repetition. There are no questions posed, as by Ledger's version, about the value that human lives hold or how some may be more valuable than others. That's implicitly what Phillips' film is saying, but that's the screenplay preaching, as the characters in his film aren't asking any of those questions or even considering them. They're already fully-formed in their opinions and don't develop at all, except in that Arthur changes from meek servant to vengeful killer. Are there layers to that character in the same way there are in other versions of it? I'm not sure.

I appreciated Phillips' approach to storytelling. It's a moody story that stays moody; even moreso than Taxi Driver. He also pointedly used a comic panel approach to several scenes. Arthur crossing the street to Arkham Asylum and the overhead shot of him curled in his bed with cigarettes and gun resting on the bedside table are both moments that could be dropped right into a comic book page. Those are establishing shots, giving you a feel for where the next several panels or couple pages are going to be and what they're going to feel like. Frank Miller must also still be feeling a little tickle from people continuing to borrow the "pearls in the air" moment when Martha Wayne is shot that he first introduced in The Dark Knight Returns. And, again, Phoenix has to be lauded for his performance, as does Zazie Beetz, as Sophie, the neighbor down the hall and object of Arthur's fantasies.

This isn't a bad film. It's just not a very good one. One aspect that drags it down is its very nature: it's yet another comic character origin story. Are we going to need a Joker reboot 10 years down the road the way they seem to be doing with Spider-Man every decade? Do we need this story told again with different actors and someone else trying to put their own shine on a piece of tin that's almost worn through from all the polishing? In contrast, you know what one of the best things about Ledger's Joker was? The Nolans didn't even bother trying to do an origin story for him. It wasn't important. Here he was in full force from the opening minutes of the film. Indeed, they kept teasing the audience with what his life story might have been. The fully formed nature of his character is what gave it and the film such dynamism. A similar phenomenon can be seen in The Silence of the Lambs. We aren't shown normal-if-somewhat-creepy psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter before he starts chowing down on people. He's already there in the, uh, flesh when the film begins. He's witheringly intelligent, dangerous, and confident. So is Heath Ledger's Joker because the origin of "an agent of chaos" really doesn't matter.

But the other weight on this film is the seeming insistence on reducing the spectacular to the mundane. Superheroes and their opposite numbers are intentionally larger than life. If DC's attempt to make its characters real humans outside of the spandex is to reduce them to people that most of us, for good or ill, would probably ignore, they're kind of missing the point. Believe you me, I'm not interested in another Marvel fireworks display, either. I haven't even seen Endgame yet and I'm not sure I'm going to bother. I've honestly had my fill of typical superhero stories, which is why I stopped reading them 30 years ago. But I'm still interested in characters that fascinate on the screen because of who they are and how they look at the world. If the only one that's offered is a meeker version of Travis Bickle, well... I've been there already; in the same way I've seen enough wild costumes and force bolts.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Le(A)d Astra(y)

[Note: Being a grammar Nazi (the only kind of Nazi our president doesn't like!), it aggravates me to no end that many professional writers don't know that the past tense of 'to lead' is 'led'. 'Lead' is the metal. This is also pertinent because we're talkin' science here. I just wanted to clear that up in case anyone suspected me of poor execution in the title. It was just a convenient bit of wordplay. Thank you. Joke has been ruined. Proceed.]

One of the main challenges for any writer of fiction is knowing what your story is. You may start out writing a slam-bang adventure story only to find yourself meandering through the mind of one of your protagonists who never quite understood why Mrs. Watson didn't give him an A+, instead of just an A, on his baking soda volcano in second grade. You might begin writing a tale about the travails of the downtrodden in post-WWI Birmingham, only to veer into a pastiche of faux Shakespearian tragic romance (Shots fired, Peaky Blinders.) Or you might, as in the case of Ad Astra, not have a clue as to what your story was when it started and still not have one (as your audience didn't) when it appeared in finished form on the screen.

This isn't to say that your story can't change as it moves along or have more depth than is initially thought. But it has to retain some level of coherency so that your audience still feels like they're with you when the end credits roll or the last page is turned. If your story starts out as a moody study on the question of the moral rights of intelligent beings but incorporates some of the best aspects of horror thrillers along the way (like, say, Deus Machina), great, But if your story starts out as something of an introspective wander, contrasting the vastness of space and global politics with one man's struggle with his own inner demons, then you probably want to stay there and not take a hard right into an action/heist film, with the appropriate plot holes and drastic departures from the established pace.

Since so many people have been complaining about the voiceover in the film, it's pretty easy to draw a comparison between Ad Astra and Blade Runner, as a case study in how to and how not to stick with the story. Blade Runner began as a noir film: ex-cop drafted to do what he does best: legally kill other sentient beings. But, along the way, we're examining what makes that right and even what the definition of "humanity" happens to be. There are going to be brief and intense action scenes, but nowhere along the way do you lose sense of what the story is and how outside events (defining emotional vat-grown humans as not humans, but emotionless killers as still human) are only highlighting the essential question of the film. Ad Astra doesn't do that because the essential question of the film really has no ethical or moral parameters. It's mostly about Roy McBride and his personal issues. And that can be a story. It just usually doesn't need a trip to Neptune with a ship blasting radiation that somehow threatens all of Earth to make it work. The voiceover in Blade Runner was just one more mistake that lessened the theater release of the film. In Ad Astra, it really doesn't have that much impact because the questions the film asks aren't important enough to be distracted from.

It starts out interestingly. We have the drop from the space antenna which introduces us to Roy and his apparent inability to be affected by even the most trying circumstances. Then, we have the flight to the Moon which is followed by a near ambush by pirates where Roy is still Joe Cool and shows us the transposition of regular Earth struggles (the fight for resources) to space. And then the weird encounter on the Norwegian station with the space monkeys (baboons.) It's strange, but that's fine. Some of the early parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey are strange, too, despite everyone only remembering the final 20 minutes. Then, we hit our hard right turn.

The difference between our main character struggling with issues surrounding his father's absence in the face of a mounting threat to his home planet and the father's absence being THE REASON there's a mounting threat to the home planet is, uh, rather stark. One approach is an opportunity to play into larger messages: "Hey. Look how we're still fighting the same wars out in space. Even the animals are against us out in space. Do I really want to go through with this? Would I have been the loyal soldier if I didn't need Space Force to replace Dad?" and so on. The other approach is Star Wars. Unfortunately, Ad Astra went with Star Wars and we quickly got into action movie mode wherein you paper over all the obvious plot holes and just expect the hero's journey to jump those chasms because he's a hero. "Your dad is the menace currently orbiting Neptune, coincidentally enough, and he also killed my parents when he started on his personal crusade so, here, let me show you the secret passage out to a launch pad. On Mars. Your codename is now Colonel Mustard. Here's a candlestick."

Yeah, man. You lost me right there.

The rest of the film is just bog-standard adventure story and a lot of glowering by Tommy Lee Jones. Don't get me wrong. Jones does OK with the rather one-dimensional role that he's given. Pitt's performance is also decent, especially for someone who's supposed to be in his own shell. But there's just not much left here that didn't come from a SyFy Channel screenplay with a somewhat better visual effects budget. Even worse, despite their general adherence to science in their science fiction, they totally lose that adhesion in the second half of the film. Instead of a natural phenomenon threatening Earth or even an alien-created one (since Jones' original mission was discovering new worlds and new civilizations, yo), we find out that said mission, one couple hundred foot-long ship currently orbiting Neptune, is the threat to our entire planet.

So, lemme just go over some basic astrophysical stuff. The Earth's atmosphere blocks all kinds of nasty radiation coming from the source of all life on this planet: the Sun. The Sun is one AU away: 93 million miles. When Earth's and Neptune's orbits happen to line up so they're at their closest point (Neptune orbits the Sun every 165 years, as opposed to Earth's, you know... 1 year.), they're 2.7 billion miles apart. Billion. With a 'b'. So, 29 times farther away at their closest point. Thus, the premise of this story is that one ship at least 29 times farther away than our Sun is more of a radiation threat than said local star. And it's because of some special technology that Space Force used to send our antagonist out to Neptune. Technology that, in the intervening 30+ years, has somehow fallen out of use, despite it being a superior method of travel...? Even worse, the film begins failing on the basic physics front for no other reason than to deliver a pretty picture. Our hero has to blast through Neptune's ring to get back to his ship. So, despite being thrust forward fast enough for small meteorites and dust to flare with friction against his blast shield (let's not talk about the physics of that), none of said space rocks hinder his momentum whatsoever. This is completely aside from the whole momentum thing that was already ignored when dad and son are doing the impromptu spacewalk (i.e. when momentum is arrested, you stop; of all films, Gravity failed with this principle, too.) And, again, this is all in service to making a pretty picture of Roy blasting through a natural phenomenon (Is that why Earth is out of resources and pirates are on the Moon? Maybe.) But none of these pretty, CGI pictures do service to the story or are even that impressive, especially when you compare them to a previous film in this diatribe, where matte paintings and models made Blade Runner so visually impressive and absorbing that it didn't need a voiceover.

Again, don't get me wrong. If you're going to go full-on laser blasters and hyperspace and jetpacks (We still don't have jetpacks! We were promised jetpacks!!), go for it. Do that thing. I'm all about it. The least troubling parts of George Lucas' films are the way they abuse science. I don't care. That's why it's science fiction. But if you're going to give us the "Just a few years from now..." premise, rather than the "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." one, then stick with it.

Do I think it was an awful film? No. I think it had its moments. Am I glad I didn't actually spend money to see it (unless you consider the wholly appropriate membership to the Michigan Theater spent money... which it is... but, I mean, isn't just for this film)? Yes. Ad Astra is an interesting experiment in how to lose track of one's own story, for all you film students out there, but there's not much else that can really be said about it.

Monday, September 30, 2019

It's a dry sweet

Similarly to the last piece I wrote about a film, it took some time for the words to come about Honeyland, an interesting documentary about a beekeeper living in the hills of Macedonia with her elderly mother. It was apparently the most lauded film at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has the unusually high critical rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. Even for great films, that's exceptional. Having seen it, I think it deserves most, if not all, of those plaudits. Unlike Cold Case Hammarskjöld, this film carried a narrative from the opening moment and didn't need any special construction to establish or maintain it. That said, the overriding feeling I have after seeing the film and thinking about it for the past few days is: "Okay." The only reason I have been thinking about it is because I've been trying to write this. Beyond that, there's nothing particularly compelling about it, except to say that it's a very well done look into both the average day and some extraordinary circumstances in the life of Hatidze Muratova.

What I will say is that watching the daily activity of rural beekeeping, with hives nestled in between rocks or the crevices of ruined buildings, is interesting in itself. Likewise, her trip to the market in Skopje and changing relationship with a new family, who bring their cattle to the otherwise deserted village where Hatidze has always lived, are likewise interesting; largely because they're experiences that most people and especially most Americans would never have, otherwise. But that's the same as watching a National Geographic piece. What makes the film is the level of intimacy that Hatidze allows to the filmmakers, as we sit and watch her concern over her mother's ailing health come forth as reproving bickering; her relationship with the new neighbors shift from concealed joy at having someone to teach and converse with to frustration with the disruption of her livelihood; and her concern about never finding regular companionship expressed in casual comments to her mother and deep consideration of what kind of hair dye to purchase at the market.

One wonders sometimes how it is that documentary subjects are able to tune out the fact that cameras are following them everywhere and watching every reaction and personal moment. It would seem that someone as isolated as Hatidze would be even more conscious of that situation, but she remains as open about discussing the reality of her work as she is displaying her reactions to the world around her. It's a simple story, but simple stories can have depth without requiring elaborate plot twists. Sometimes, it just depends on how relatable your characters are, no matter that the story is taking place in some fantasy realm like Westeros or some place so far from one's daily reality that it might as well be a fantasy realm, like the hills of Macedonia.

I think, perhaps, that my reticence toward gushing about a really well-made film might be that we've been seeing so many documentaries recently that I've become mildly jaded toward the format. Perhaps it will take something as invigorating as Maiden to get me back to the point where I can appreciate a narrative grounded simply in the facts of someone's everyday life. Don't let that dissuade you from seeing Honeyland, if you get the chance, though.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Carnivals are usually fun

Give me a line that doesn't sound stupid. I dare you!
Jeff Bezos apparently told his creative types that he wanted to have the "next Game of Thrones" as an Amazon original. Carnival Row is supposedly one of the first entries in that attempt to recreate the (ahem) magic of the HBO series. I can tell you right now that, if by some miracle they actually succeed in that effort with this show, I will lose what little faith I have left in humanity. It's been a while since I've seen something this bad. Yes, I know the last episode of Game of Thrones was just a few months ago, but even that had some redeeming value (Solid actors with actual roles, a decent line or two, etc.) I didn't see any whatsoever in Carnival Row.

First off, let's just assert one thing: No show is going to capture the zeitgeist the way GoT did for two reasons: 1. The multiplicity of networks means no one is watching any one thing at any given time. There's too much choice out there to capture the same size audience so that that one thing will be the only thing talked about at the office the next day. 2. Almost all of these new services are offering up entire seasons in one go. There is no designated watching time, such that you know that you and several million other people are all planted in front of your TVs at the same time (and tweeting about it at the same time...) That kind of communal activity just isn't possible when some people binge things inside 24 hours and others can only watch them over a few weeks. At the moment, Hulu is the only one attempting weekly releases to try to maintain that community tension (and, of course, show commercials.)

Wait... You want us to say what?
That asserted, there's no way that Carnival Row should become the next big hit because no one except Jeff "more money than any deity you can think of" Bezos would have been willing to pay for it. It's awful, top to bottom, from every technical perspective you can think of: acting, direction, writing (save me, Jeebus; ESPECIALLY the writing), as well as the more nuts-and-bolts stuff like lighting and basic physical functions (how dual, insect-like wings actually work, for example.)

Now, granted, you had to expect that the acting would be brutal if the lead is Orlando Bloom, whose range is essentially "pensive but wooden figure constantly trying to convince you that he actually has emotions.", but how did they trick Jared Harris and Indira Varma into this? Promise them they'd only have scenes with each other so they could feed off one another and ad-lib their way out of the awful script? Apparently not, since it was still awful when Harris was explaining- to his wife -how his job works and the status of the current legislature. Because she wouldn't know these basic things, would she? And, overall, the acting doesn't rise above the level of Bloom's emoting in front of his boss (complete with requisite fist slamming to the desk) at how much he feels for the Fae people and their plight. Could they have made this any more obvious? How about if he did the classical "baring a breast with a ready dagger" bit?

Dreary. Like pretty much everything.
But the direction was poor, too. Chase scenes are supposed to build tension, not stutter for five minutes while the two participants keep pacing each other, but that's exactly what happened as Rycroft Philostrate (Bloom) and Unseelie Jack (Matthew Gravelle) race across the rooftops. It was like trying to turn over an engine when the starter is failing. You keep feeling that something's about to happen as the car does that shudder... but then nothing. So, you try again. That's not tension. That's anticipation and despair, because the motion that you get means nothing and the motion you expect never happens. You want tension? Go watch The Bourne Identity again to see how to set up and conduct a chase scene. Oh, and the names... Rycroft Philostrate. Vignette Stonemoss. Imogen Spurnrose. Seriously? I mean, you're serious with this? It isn't fantastical enough that you have people with wings and demons living in the sewers and you think Orlando Bloom can actually act, but you have to give people names that would make each and every one of these people despise their parents?

But that's part and parcel of the worst part: the writing. It's brutal. Half of it is exposition, but even where it isn't, they have the True Detective, season 2 pattern down cold (i.e. People don't fucking talk like that!) My favorite bit was where Bloom confronts the sergeant he suspects and the latter responds: "Just what are you insinuating?" Wut? Not "What's all this about?" or "Tryin' to make a point?" or even "What are you tryin' to say here, inspector?", all delivered in standard Cockney. No, no, no. Let's reach into Webster's for the elevated term because that's the first thing that would come to mind for Average Joe Desk Sergeant. All that tells me is that, in addition to your world not being real (suspension of disbelief!), your characters aren't real, either, because they speak like someone just handed them a script, rather than how they would if they actually lived in your unreal world. JFC, Tamzin Merchant's entire role (Imogen) is exposition! Every time she opens her mouth, she's dropping facts like an almanac to people that should already be familiar with them. She even describes what we've already seen, as if we need that explained to us like her entire family history and marital status. "Carriage!" Yes, we saw that. This is the same response I'd expect from a four-year-old pointing out the window to say: "Fire truck!", because it's exciting for him and he thinks no one else saw it. But we're watching the screen (presumably), so we don't need it announced.

"I'm about to tell him what style of hat he's wearing!"
The crowner is, appropriately, the last scene, where you'd expect some more detail and, instead, are given none, presumably because the writer (René Echevarria) thought it would be "mysterious". Unseelie Jack is about to unburden himself of, y'know, everything and decides that that's the moment to drop some hints about the horrible things that he's seen and why Rycroft Philostrate(!) has no clue about the real world. It's at this point that you'd normally drop in a couple names or words that the audience won't recognize or understand so that they have something to entice them into watching the next episode (although, with this series, perhaps this is a blessing.) Think Melisandre talking about the Lord of Light/Red God/R'hllor. You don't know who that is or what its role is in Westeros, but she name-drops because it's natural to her (she lives there and, really, with the Red God) and it gives the audience something to think about, in addition to providing a little detail on the world. We get none of that from Unseelie Jack's monologue. None! It's all horrible darkness this and you won't believe what I've seen that, but we don't get one single detail about this obviously overarching plot element. So, his entire speech becomes ephemeral, as we later watch a Fae woman get devoured by something in the sewers down by the docks which, for all we know, might be a common thing in these parts... and tells us the same thing his useless speech did!

Me, too. It's called "This screenplay."
I'm not even getting into more technical detail, like how showing everything with a blue lens to make it seem "dark" also begins to make everything blend together. Or how you don't soar, as Vignette(!) does in the opening scene, with dual, halteres-type wings (think common housefly.) Or how working girls don't sleep with their johns! That's because they're working and need to move on to the next guy. If you're going to use sex as a major plot element, you might as well know how it works, yo.

I honestly can't fathom how even Amazon greenlit this thing and I've seen Britannia. Echevarria was showrunner on Terra Nova (once described as "Stargate Universe by Dr. Seuss"), if that gives you any indication at which level things are operating. But if one is trying to field the "next Game of Thrones", one certainly wouldn't start here. Aim higher.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Cold Case, cold film

It's not often that I get stuck with the "blank page" writer's phenomenon. You know, that point where you're just staring at the page/screen and not knowing how to actually apply words to it? But in trying to keep up with my pseudo-promise to review all of the films we see at the Michigan/State, I kind of struggled with Cold Case Hammarskjöld. It's not because it was great and I didn't know how to encompass it. It's certainly not because it was bad and I didn't know how to get started ranting (see: any of my coverage of Game of Thrones' final season or True Detective's second season if you want to see loquaciousness in the service of bad productions.) It's because it wasn't much of... anything. It's not as if there isn't substance to the film. There certainly is. It's loaded with facts that reflect the colonial exploitation of Africa, the dirty wars that accompanied and followed that exploitation, the influence of massive corporations in those wars, racism, disease, and the turbulent political period following World War II and the introduction of the Cold War. It is all of those things. But it's also somewhere between a newsreel and a Twitter thread in its presentation of them.

The film examines the death of former United Nations secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, in a plane crash in what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia.) As Hammarskjöld was a fervent reformer and champion for the rights of those who had been (or still were) under the colonial boot, he had a lot of enemies. As the plane crash was very swiftly examined and buried by the Rhodesian authorities, it's never been far from the thoughts of many people that the crash was actually a calculated assassination. This is the premise of the film, as Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger and Swedish journalist Göran Björkdahl interview people both involved in the clean-up and those who claim to be part of the mercenary outfit that actually carried out the crime, the South African Institute for Maritime Research. The film continues down that rabbit hole, exploring the possible paymasters behind SAIMR and the various other projects that the Institute was involved in, ranging from pedestrian white supremacy to attempted genocide.

Sounds fascinating, right? And it probably would have been for someone who hadn't already spent many years reading about that activity. There were several moments in the film where I would have been more interested by an exploration of the larger picture beyond what was hinted at, but they quite properly avoided that and tried to stay focused on Hammarskjöld's death, for the most part. But that also set the film up to be something like a first draft of a screenplay for a police procedural, without any real narrative or character, except the interjection of the two filmmakers in something of a Mr. Bean role, as they fumble around trying to dig up the wreckage of the infamous crash. I think they tried to compensate for the fact that they were laying things out in pretty straightforward fashion by showing Brügger dictating the story to two different transcribers and showing their reactions to both the story and his elaborations upon it. The fact that both transcribers were Black does kind of dovetail with one of the more explosive elements of the conspiracy story, but I'm not sure if that was intentional or coincidental.

Of course, the conspiracy is kind of the central conceit of the film and, in that respect, it's just like watching Oliver Stone's JFK. The surrounding plot and performances run secondary to the theme in that film in the same way they do with this one. But it's the manner of delivery that kind of stalls out here. If you're already aware of the mountain of evidence out there about the activities of South African mercenary groups, then it's not difficult to believe that what's being presented here is true. But it's also not that interesting because the filmmakers take pains to not dramatize the possibilities, as Stone did in his film. For documentarians, that's a laudable goal. But it also kind of saps the life from the presentation in this case. And that's strange for me because it sounded like a great idea. I'm a Cold War enthusiast. I used to live and breathe that stuff. I have board games sitting in my house based on that period, mostly because they're about the Cold War, as opposed to whether they're any good on a rainy afternoon (They are.) But this film just didn't sing to me. I walked away from it thinking more about the casual reference in one moment to Jonas Savimbi, rather than about the film itself, because there's actually more story around the former UNITA leader.

I won't say that it's not worth your time, as I think it is. It's just that I wish it were more worth it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Policy is policy."

We saw One Child Nation last night, which is a documentary about China's "one child" policy that it maintained from 1979 to 2015. On the one hand, you can look at a government attempt at strictly controlling human behavior and laugh at the folly of it. On the communist side of the scale, it's akin to the Soviet Five Year Plans, wherein everything would proceed in perfect lockstep order in terms of demand, production, and pricing; all of it under the guise of keeping things in that perfect lockstep on account of heroic patriotism toward the state. In China's case, no one was going to keep people from screwing (cue abstinence proponents...) and no one was going to keep people from wanting more children; especially male children.

On the other hand, you can look at the much darker aspects of said foolish policy, which played out in the form of forced sterilizations, child abduction, and mass corruption by government apparatchiks, who made money off those activities and more. The film delves into all of that, emphasizing the fact that this wasn't just about people not being able to have the families they wanted or the simpler corruption of wealthier people being able to afford the fines for deviating from policy. This was about human trafficking. This was about the abrogation of women's rights to make decisions about their own bodies. This was about people profiting off the sale of other humans.

Director Jialing Zhang and director/narrator Nanfu Wang (above) were both born under the policy and decided to make a film about it when Wang became pregnant and she began to consider the different circumstances surrounding the birth of her child, as opposed to those that surrounded her own. Unlike many documentarians, given the omnipresence of the policy, Wang didn't have to seek out the story or find good candidates to interview. She could instead return to her own village and interview those people that knew her and knew her family and examine how they were directly impacted and how it changed their lives.

One of the most brutal consequences was the intersection of the policy with the longstanding cultural preference for male children in order to maintain the family name. As one of Wang's relatives mentions: "A boy continues the family. A girl just gets absorbed into someone else's family." Prior to the communist takeover, it wasn't uncommon for people that were hoping for a male baby and were disappointed by the arrival of a girl to simply abandon that child and let it die of exposure. This became even more prevalent in rural (and less wealthy) areas in China, the residents of which couldn't afford to pay the fines for having multiple children. Female babies would be placed in the local market, with the common wisdom being that, with more passersby, someone may be willing to pick up the child. If that child were "lucky", she would get picked up and handed off to one of the state-run orphanages for money. If not, she'd end up like millions before her throughout history, while people hurried past and pretended not to notice the corpse being fed upon by maggots.

But profiteering played its role even when parents weren't willing to so callously abandon their children, as government officials would threaten multi-child families with dire consequences unless they handed over their offspring to those officials who could then make a tidy sum by handing off those kids to the orphanages. Wang took a moment to stop in and inquire with a separated twin in her village who was the victim of this kind of corruption. Her sibling is now in the US and has been located by a volunteer organization, attempting to identify the origins of many of those adopted by well-intentioned families in the West.

A running theme of the interviews which the directors then stop to highlight is the passive acceptance among all of the actors and victims of the policy: "What could we do?", they said. Indeed, Wang's mother gives the quote that titles this piece: Government policy was government policy. The law was the law. This was how things were and no one would speak against it. One has flashes of Nuremberg in these comments, where everyone simply accepted the sale of children, the screaming women being put under the knife, the tiny bodies in the streets as market customers hurried past. Everyone knew what was happening, but no one was willing to stand up and point out the ashes in the air. At the very least, many of those she interviewed were willing to acknowledge the shame of what they participated in and allowed to happen.

But another theme stuck out to me in the audience reaction at the Michigan Theater. When they showed footage of the propaganda used to encourage cooperation with the policy, there were many chuckles and audible snorts of contempt. The implication was obvious: "How could people be taken in by these ham-handed dances and songs, cheering on the 'best families have only ONE child!'?" But when you're given the message constantly about what best serves the state's interest, it becomes easier to accept. People laugh at the grotesquerie of glorious sunbeams arcing past the angelic workers in Soviet artwork, too, but they don't stop to think about how they just accept the reciting of the pledge of allegiance or the playing of the national anthem before every sporting event, in addition to the military flyovers, or how that kind of constant pressure to accept the flag and the military and the "perfection" of the American system is every bit the same kind of propaganda as anything the Chinese state tried to instill in its own people. Is the worship of the military and its excursions around the world as damaging as a policy that encourages people to profit from the trafficking of children? It's worth a thought. To Wang's enormous credit, she takes a moment to cite the fact that the denial of basic rights to women in China under the policy is simply the other side of the coin to the same thing happening in the States, of which she is now a resident, over the issue of abortion and birth control. The final note of the film mentioning that Beijing is now using similar propaganda to promote the new policy of restricting families to two children ("Our chief weapon is surprise... fear and surprise... Our TWO weapons are fear and surprise... and ruthless efficiency... Our THREE weapons are...") is where we begin to shift from tragedy to farce. If you can find it, One Child Nation is definitely worth the look.