Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Avengers Assemble

I am really, really glad that they didn't use that battle cry...


 So, I finally got around to sitting down in front of The Avengers yesterday. Overall, I was OK with it. It was fun, as most of Marvel's movies are supposed to be. Character-wise, once again, Robert Downey, Jr. was the highlight as Tony Stark/Iron Man, as he's the best actor among them and had the best lines. I think that Chris Evans (Captain America) and Chris Hemsworth (Thor) do solid jobs with what they're given to work with. On that note, Jeremy Renner's role as Hawkeye was pretty monochromatic, which is a shame for a guy that did really well in The Hurt Locker and The Town. You'd hope for something a little more emotive, especially from someone playing Clint Barton, a rather tempestuous character in the comics, but it was not to be. Thankfully, they left out the goofy purple-and-blue costume with the big "H" on the forehead, just in case people forgot who he was. ("Of course! He's H-Man!")


By the same token. Tom Hiddleston was unfortunately stuck with Loki's classic golden-stag-on-PCP uniform. It's not like subtlety has ever been a large facet of the character and Hiddleston plays it for all it's worth, but you still kind of wonder at that choice. Mark Ruffalo was actually really good as Bruce Banner (Here's a bit of cultural trivia: Why was the character named David Bruce Banner in the 70s TV show? Because Universal thought that "Bruce" was a name too closely identified with gay men. I kid you not. There was even a joke about it in a contemporary issue of the comic where Banner is checking the classifieds for jobs and sees an ad for "Turkish baths" and thinks to himself: "Nah. I don't think that's for me." My reaction as an 8-year-old: "What's a bathhouse?") Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) is herself: she's wooden, she's gorgeous, I could watch her beating the crap out of Russian mobsters all day:


and Sam Jackson (Nick Fury) continues his string of roles that will never even approach his stellar performances in Pulp Fiction and The Red Violin. It's a shame, really, because you'd think with the ethical conflicts inherent to the role (and squaring off on SHIELD's version of Skype with a shadowy Powers Boothe), he'd have a lot of room to work.

I think the script was pretty uneven, though. There were moments when someone was gabbling on about this or that topic where I was actually waving my hand as if to hurry the pace because it was pretty tedious. I don't know whether that's an effect of my knowing all of this stuff (The "tesseract" is the Cosmic Cube, which was created by AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) with a biological computer named MODOK (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing; why, then, was he created to create the Cube...?) It was later used by the Red Skull to try to kill Captain America and was lost by him to the Sub-Mariner and later reclaimed by the Red Skull and later stolen from him by Thanos (the grinning, purple dude at the end), who was the only person able to truly exploit its power to reshape reality ("It's a genie in the lamp. But with a thousand wishes. And in cube form.") and try to reshape the universe and... on and on and on...) There's a lot of backstory here, most of which they dispensed with based on a tale about perpetual energy, which is a nice shortcut and certainly more relevant to a modern, movie-going audience (AIM always looked liked dorks in those yellow outfits, anyway)


but part of taking that shortcut with an ensemble cast is that you have "character stuff" that has to come to light which can't really be done as anything but boilerplate exposition, lest you lose the pace of the film. They almost did that a couple times, anyway.

It was interesting to see them run across the same problem that most comic writers did in the 80s: How do you rationalize the Batman-types (Hawkeye, Black Widow, Captain America) fighting against things that would actually provide a challenge to the Superman-types, like the Hulk and the God of Thunder? You could kind of dodge that when people didn't pay too much critical attention to stuff like, you know... story in the 60s and 70s but it became more difficult later. I still found it kind of ludicrous that, in a battle taking place across all of midtown Manhattan, the three "human-powered" types would think that whatever they were doing in one intersection would have any effect on the thousands of lives endangered by a constant flow of homicidal aliens on personal hovercraft, not to mention the gigantic flying Moray eels/troop carriers. This is where you run into the conflict between character and story that is reminiscent of what I mentioned in this post: "character" is for long-time readers; "cool SF stories where lots of stuff blows up" is often for new readers. In the movie business, it's a microcosm of the same thing and it's all about pacing.

I have no concrete opinion on Joss Whedon. I've seen almost none of his TV work, although I have many friends who swear by Buffy and Firefly, the latter of which I've seen a couple episodes of and which seems to me to be remarkably overblown, but cult audiences are labeled so for a reason and I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. Having seen Serenity, I'd say this is a step up in that it retains his often deft touch with dialogue and humor, but maintains a better handle on the cuts from one point of the ongoing battle to the next. He also handles the sadly obligatory "superheroes meet and beat the crap out of each other before actually talking" encounter about as coherently as you can. He shows a nice touch in this scene, which expresses and releases some of the audience frustration with the slippery villain (and is, without doubt, the funniest of the movie):



The audience laughter overwhelms the Hulk's one actual line in the film, which is the only moment when Whedon gets away from the fact that the whole "Hulk, Mindless Savage" perspective came from the aforementioned TV series. That trope gets old fast, which is why I appreciated the fact that Lee and Kirby originally designed the Hulk as more of a tragic figure. He can talk, if somewhat haltingly, and spends most of his time doing so asking why people keep shooting him for no other reason than he's big, green, and didn't do what the Pentagon told him... He was intended to be a modern spin on Jekyll/Hyde, except that he was misunderstood, as opposed to showing the darker side of humanity. My one real hope was that they would start steering the character back in that direction. This may or may not have been the first step in that process. Am I the only one who thought of a dog trying to shake the life from one of his lifeless toys in that clip?

Bitch, bitch, bitch... I know this all sounds like I'm trying to shred the film but I actually did like it. I'm just so pre-wired to most of this stuff that it's hard for me to look at it with anything but a very jaded (Radioactive Man?) eye. I've read more superhero comics than most people should be in the same room with. Bottom line: if you keep your expectations at the level of "superhero film", you will not be disappointed. I still think Iron Man is the best of the recent offerings by Marvel and the only one that rises above said level. I'm still astounded that The Avengers has been so well received by critics, but I can certainly understand being swept away by the (perpetual) energy. The fact that they've indicated that Thanos is the villain of choice for the sequel fills me with varying degrees of dread. Had this been the early 80s, I'd have been thrilled, but there's been a lot of crap piled on top of that character since then. So, we'll see. Of course, I do have to say that one of the best moments of the film is the shawarma bit after the credits,


 if only because it conveys that atmosphere of what it must feel like to have been thrown through a few skyscrapers for a couple hours. The impressive restraint is indicative of Whedon's potential as a director and may indicate an ability to demonstrate that further in the sequels. Here's hoping.

Monday, May 28, 2012

"The world is built by killers, so you'd better get used to looking at them."


So, this was what everyone had been waiting for: the first major battle scene of the show. I think they succeeded, for the most part. The constraints involved didn't seem to be money so much as time: there's only so much tactical detail you can convey in an episode that lasts an hour and which has to cover a lot of other storytelling ground. There were a lot of nice touches throughout (the overflowing puke barrel on Stannis' approach was one of the best) and the characters that shone through were the ones who actually had as much steel in their spines (Bronn, the Hound, Cersei, Sansa) as they were wearing, if not more.


The fact that the episode was written by Martin provided a bunch of little subtexts for anyone that has read the books. Was the confrontation between Bronn and Clegane something he'd been wanting to do in the books and took advantage of here? It didn't add a whole lot to the moment, as we were already aware of both of their attitudes and their disdain for their opposing employers. Of course, that whole scene gave us plenty of texture to begin with ("Don't feel sorry for him. He'll be halfway up your ass before the night's through."), including the obligatory nudity and, finally- FINALLY! -music for the Rains of Castamere! Now we just need music for the bear song and the world is complete.

Credit: http://ivyarchive.tumblr.com/

I'm not entirely sure I like the direction that Varys has taken in the last couple episodes ("I'm entirely sure you're entirely sure what I'm suggesting.") Trying to spare the realm death and destruction is one thing, but being the local Jeremiad is something else. Bringing up the Dark Powers/Old Powers at this stage is kind of an odd placement for that bit of info, especially since we haven't seen Melisandre since she ganked Renly.

 
Of all the off-battle scenes, though, the best was probably the one that took place in the throne room. Bronn and Tyrion's Marx Brothers routine was brilliant:

"Do you know how to use that?"
"Chopped wood once... No, I saw my brother chopping wood."
"I saw ya kill a man with a shield. You'll be unstoppable with an axe. Don't get killed."
"Nor you, my friend."
"Oh? Are we friends now?"
"Of course we are! Just because I pay you for your services doesn't diminish our friendship!"
"Enhances it, really."
"Oh! Enhances! Fancy word for a sellsword."
"Been spendin' time with fancy folks."

But some of the best moments were Sansa's. It took me a long time to warm up to Sansa as a character. In fact, I don't recall doing anything but sighing at her chapter headings until Feast for Crows. But Sophie Turner has been doing great work in the series and gave one of the best performances of this episode ("I'm sorry, Your Grace. You're right. I'm stupid. Of course you'll be in the vanguard.") I wish they had been able to take a moment to indicate to viewers that Hearteater is Ice reforged. I'm not sure how many would catch that or if there was something obvious to indicate it that I missed.

Speaking of people that were on fire (away from the battle...), once again Lena Headey was just excellent. The schoolgirl-level taunts of Sansa, the stories about sieges to elicit reaction; and the cold acknowledgment that, in a male-dominated world, the most precious resource to her are her children, especially the one currently sitting on the throne, were all moments for her to shine. I loved the repudiation of the old aphorism "There are no atheists in foxholes": "The gods have no mercy. That's why they're gods."; and the frank acknowledgment of the other weapon at her disposal: "If it were anyone else, I might have hoped for a private audience, but this is Stannis Baratheon. I'd have a better chance of seducing his horse." But the best moment was the exchange with Sansa over their place in the world:

"He was heir to Casterly Rock and I was sold like a horse to a stranger to be ridden whenever he desires."
"You were Robert's queen!"
"And you will be Joffrey's. Enjoy!"

These moments more than any other made it clear that it was Martin behind the screenplay, as the theme of women being powerless even while seemingly masters of all they survey has been a constant throughout the story and something almost as prominent as the sorry fate of the smallfolk caught up in the Game. A nice addendum was Shae: "Maybe she hates you less than she hates everyone else."


On to the battle... The wildfire explosion was great. I think it was probably a good idea to forget the chain, since they couldn't really show the battle on the Blackwater Rush, as opposed to the bay (although I hope they figure out what to do with Bronn's coat of arms next season...) Of course, the chain kind of demonstrated Tyrion's overall plan for the battle, rather than just taking advantage of the alchemists, which makes what happens later a little less traumatic (but only a little.) I kind of wondered about the combination of green fire and regular fire in the later moments of the catastrophe, though. Was that an implication that the wildfire (the liquid) had burned out and the ships were still alight or was it a technical issue (i.e. not having enough funds to keep everything green)?


Stephen Dillane's look of calm self-assurance on the advance and near-feral grin at a couple points were great representations of Stannis' conviction that both the battle and the throne would be his ("We're too far from the gates. Their archers... Hundreds will die." "Thousands.") Even though the men on the field were, in fact, dozens or a couple hundred as opposed to thousands, I think they ended up representing the magnitude of the battle sufficiently. The choice of flaming arrows was a good dramatic touch, since the scene was taking place at night and it's tough to see arrows in the dark (even if flaming arrows aren't the best choice in "real world" situations.) I was disappointed that Tyrion's hill tribesmen weren't mentioned or seen at all, since they provided a rather important key to the way the battle turned in the books (allowing the Lannister/Tyrell force to approach without warning because the Baratheon scouts had all been killed by the tribesmen.) Strangely, they decided to replace their existence with their famous cheer of "Halfman!" when Tyrion led the initially successful sortie.

Stannis on the battlements was another of those nice touches, demonstrating his willingness to come to grips (literally) with his crusade. However, I was really questioning the head-slicing scene. The blood display was fine, but did they really want to spend that much money on CGI for that? Wouldn't it have been better to enhance some other aspect of the battle if the money was there? Like, say, showing even more horses in Tywin's charge into the fight (which, admittedly, was still a nice moment)? Given the changed circumstances of the fight and the time constraints, it was probably a good idea to eliminate the whole "Garlan Tyrell in Renly's armor"-thing, though. If they're worried about people confusing Asha and Osha, I can't imagine how they might have been fretting about viewers actually thinking that Renly was back from the dead. We had a brief enough glimpse of Ser Loras to be aware that the Tyrells were involved.


And then we come, of course, to the Hound. As most of my tiny audience probably knows by now, the Hound is my favorite character of the story. His cynical pragmatism (embodied in the title quote of the post) and outright savagery ("Any man dies with a clean sword, I'll rape his fucking corpse!" - line of the night) provide more truth about the world of Westeros than almost any other. I had kind of hoped for a bit more anxiety on the part of Rory McCann, as the outright terror that the character displays in the books is stark. Certainly, anyone is going to weave back with a torch waved in their face and it's not irrational to tell someone: "Any of those flaming fucking arrows come near me, I'll strangle you with your own guts!" But to be reduced to gibbering fear that doesn't allow for calm moments where you tell the king to fuck off is more of what I remember from the scene in Clash of Kings. It's that stark contrast that makes the character, to some degree. However, the lone San/San scene in Sansa's room was well played by both actors.


So, the wrap-up next week. Sad trombone. At least we'll finally see the House of the Undying and figure out if they're going to return to canon in the Daenerys storyline for next season.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Directors: Recent memories

So, I thought I might look at a director who's been more relevant recently. There are certain people who stick with me out of a sense of nostalgia, in that they were the first to really open my eyes to a certain style or approach in filmmaking. I haven't become as attached to many in more recent years because, in many ways, the Hollywood approach has continued to further poison the well of American cinema (get off my lawn.) There are, of course, standouts as there always have been and Christopher Nolan is one of those.


From his insider-hailed debut, Following, to his groundbreaking wide-release hit, Memento, to the blockbuster Batman films, and through to his pet project, Inception, Nolan has demonstrated again and again that he's not only willing to take risks with his stories and his audience, but to do so with an excellent sense of style.

My first exposure to Nolan was via Memento, which I saw mostly for Guy Pearce, who was great in LA Confidential (and who possesses much the same flair as Nolan; while the film, Lockout, was a rather dreadful re-imagining of Carpenter's Escape from New York, this trailer has everything that you can ask from an actor in Pearce), as I had no idea whom the director was. The story was co-written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, from an idea by the latter. Jonathan would go on to co-write most of Nolan's projects and Christopher's wife, Emma Thomas, would also frequently co-produce them with him through their company. Memento is a story about a man whose head injuries render him unable to form new memories, so he's forced to rely on flashbacks to events that took place prior to his injury and a series of markers and notes that he leaves to himself every time he wakes up. Consequently, the story can't be told in a normal linear progression, but has to be relayed out of sequence and, largely, backwards. This in itself requires a great deal of trust between the director and his audience. The fact that Nolan was doing so with his first major release bespeaks someone who has great confidence in his own vision; an aspect that he has continued to reinforce throughout his career.

In the following scene, we're just getting introduced to the chaos that is Lenny's life, as he acts in ways that seem familiar but which have little foundation for him. He fails to understand much of what is going on, which places him in the same boat with the audience, but the method by which it's portrayed is just intriguing enough to keep most hanging on for the ride:


The shift from black-and-white to color, the lighting changes, the isometric viewpoint; all of these are part of Nolan's style of storytelling, so that you can often tell where you are in his films without having to listen to dialogue or have any groundwork laid by exposition. They're also redolent with a comic book-esque approach, which probably explains some of his appeal to me. The importance of memories and how they can be shaped and used is also a theme that Nolan explores in great detail in his other films and, again, is a topic of some considerable interest to me.

In 2005, Nolan launched what would become a trilogy of films with Batman Begins. Obviously, the character has become archetypal in its own right and has been the subject of various media for the past half-century. Rather than overload the character with his own stylistic interpretation a la Tim Burton, Nolan decided to return to the roots of the character and expand on them. In doing so, he borrowed heavily from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One and some of the classic storylines laid down in Steve Englehart's eight issue run on Detective Comics in the mid-70s which has long been lauded as "the definitive Batman" and was used in development for Burton's first film. Nolan's determination to explore the psychological motivations of a man who, with the world at his feet, would dress up as a bat and beat people senseless in order to combat his own personal demons is another example of his willingness to depart from the standard and focus on the mind of his characters. His representation of the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) as more psychiatrist than super-villain is an example of that same approach:


Nothing much happens in this scene other than people standing around looking at the ceiling. Just the same, the tension is thick and we never get tired of waiting for something to happen. Nolan's grasp of the material was stronger than any director of the Batman to date, as he was willing to use some relatively arcane details from the character's past (Ra's al Ghul was, until recent years, a relatively unknown villain even to Batman readers; certainly not in the same class as the Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, etc.) Also, he demonstrated his own knowledge of the character by having others refer to him as THE Batman, which makes him more force than human, which is the whole point.

What followed was the most well-received superhero film made to date (although The Avengers may have changed the equation): The Dark Knight. The interesting thing about it is that I don't think it's quite as strong a film as Batman Begins. Christian Bale's performance is a bit on the contrived side, but that's certainly outweighed by Heath Ledger's stunning turn as The Joker. The script is actually more interesting and less linear than the first film, but we're also handed far more and larger explosions and fireworks and gadgets. So, everything is kind of ramped up and it seems like that makes the movie lose a bit of the soul that it had with Begins. But, by the same token, The Dark Knight moves in ways that Begins simply couldn't and the tight pacing and delivery of Nolan's signature style is still plainly evident, as in the opening scene:

video

Everything works in this scene. The mysterious and ominous music; the rapid but seamless transitions; the exposition presented as shop talk amongst the thieves; and the final, "anti-ironic" (the face behind the mask is still the mask) appearance of The Joker. This is Nolan at his best: it's an action scene for an action film, but shown with so many intriguing hooks that the audience is left wanting more and laughing at the audacity of what is, at its root, a simple bank heist. The same kind of touch holds true in the first clip that began the post; the famous "pencil trick" scene. While, again, I think Batman Begins may have been the better overall film, I think Dark Knight had the better script and the more interesting (and elaborate) story, the credit for which, of course, goes to the director. While it's often an open question as to whether an actor's performance is of his/her own creation or is inspired by the director or both, I think some credit has to go to Nolan being able to extract a performance from Ledger that I thought he was largely incapable of making before I'd seen the film. It was one of the worst moments in recent film history when we discovered that the actor would not be able to reprise this role or continue with any other.

Making a complex story function for the general audience was a hallmark of the other film Nolan released in 2006: The Prestige. While I think the performances were average for most of the cast other than Michael Caine and Bale, the intimacy of the emotional struggles between the two competing magicians was portrayed well and fell short of melodrama most of the time, even if the nominal lead, Hugh Jackman, isn't a strong enough actor to convey all of the intensity that I think his role required. The great camera work of the following scene was emblematic:


As the film audience, we're behind the scenes for much of the story, so we stay intimate with the characters via the handheld camera as Jackman and Scarlett Johanssen prepare to sell the illusion. This is different from this scene, when we're left wondering how Bale's character pulls off his new trick and are, thus, left in the audience. Bale's properly emotionless performance leaves us distant as, for his character, it's all about the mechanics. OTOH, in the Jackman trick, the response is the thing, so we spend a few seconds below the stage while he tries to drink in the applause that should be his. Again, the contrast in lighting and music for the two scenes shows off Nolan's storytelling approach, in that both could be shown almost absent of dialogue and still convey the meaning that the director wants. (It's unfortunate, of course, that the latter scene misses the prestige...)

Finally, we come to Inception. Nolan had written a treatment for the concept in 2001, but felt he needed more experience in production before approaching a project his ambitious (this from the man who presented Memento as his second film...) It's interesting to find someone with that much restraint. There are numerous stories of films that have been sitting in a drawer for years on end because the person wanting to produce them didn't have the right conditions (typically a studio willing to take the project, such as Robert Duvall's The Apostle, which he wrote in the 80s and which finally hit the screen in 1997.) But there are few films that were held back because the producer, with solid credit and support to his name (and a writer and co-producer in the family), was conscious of his own potential flaws. It resonates with me the same way that the story about Orson Scott Card's Ender series does; in which Card had the concept for the third book, Xenocide, well before considering Ender's Game. On the advice of his agent, he decided that he wasn't mature enough as a writer to do the former and, thus, wrote the latter to huge critical appraisal and success.

Inception, of course, is almost solely based on the mind and how it functions. Oneirology and its use in fiction has been a favored topic of mine in similar bent to Nolan's approach. The fact that he chose to combine it with a tense story of corporate espionage markedly similar to William Gibson's New Rose Hotel (which uses the theft of people who have the "edge" gene) but takes it one step further into ideas made it an instant draw to me. Once again, Nolan takes a complex plot and makes it easily understandable for those that are willing to listen (the question of how many appreciated the film for its story rather than its stunning action sequences is up for debate.) Even in scenes that demand exposition, the overall feeling of tension and moodiness in the film is maintained by the anguish and intensity of the lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, as in this scene:


Capable performances by DiCaprio, Ellen Page, and Tom Hardy sell a scene that is a completely foreign concept to most audiences but which feels more natural after it's explained to them (just like a dream?) Inception also had the most frequent examples of a director's conceit that Nolan displays often in previous films: a love for wide-angle establishing shots (big halls, theaters, warehouses, Batcaves, etc.) They serve this film because of the magnitude of the idea that he was trying to convey. While there is some room to criticize Inception for the rapid pace and trend toward explosions even while dealing with a very dense and cerebral (heh) topic (in the same way that the Dark Knight could be criticized for not spending even more time with the fascinating Joker and, instead, spending millions on Batpods and rocket launchers), I think Nolan made the decision to keep the action fairly frenetic for fear of losing the audience that would find a lecture on the meaning of dreams soporific, to say the least. It reminds me of Rick Veitch's venture from innovative work on titles like Swamp Thing and his own Bratpack into meandering around the meaning of his own dreams with Rare Bit Fiends. Incorporating those ideas into other stories would be great. Trying to make a story out of random symbolism and personal anecdotes relevant only to close friends is about as interesting as it sounds. While Nolan could have gone more in a Philip K. Dick direction with the story, I think he made the right choice with a story less about ethical choices than about mysteries that we're all still trying to unravel.

Needless to say, I'm excited about seeing The Dark Knight Rises in a few weeks to see if Nolan continued in the direction of more slam-bang or instead brought the trilogy to a close with a more introspective story about the impact of the character's motivation on the world around him (something which has been handled with lesser and greater acumen by writers of the Batman since the 1930s.) Regardless, I have a hard time seeing how I'll be disappointed. Nex time, I think I'll go back into the past with another "fallen hero", as it were.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Death is certain. The time is not."

This week was about irredeemable choices. Once you make that choice, you can't go back and a slew of consequences will follow including, often, death. That theme encompassed not only recent choices, such as Theon's decision to kill two children and claim that they were Bran and Rickon but also Davos Seaworth's decision to save Stannis Baratheon so many years ago during Robert's Rebellion. Everything leads up to the now and what you do now is all that you do forever.


Obviously, with the big ending of last week's episode, it made sense to start this one with the arrival of Asha/Yara at Winterfell for another good round of Chastising Theon. This week's first prize is a warning that dad is upset and that Theon's great victory is not only hollow, as we all knew, but potentially disastrous, as every man in the north will not only want Theon's head but will potentially fight the Ironborn all the harder. There is the precipice and then there is the fall. The second prize is an artfully-timed moment of actual emotion and concern from Yara for Theon's well-being. After playing nothing but the harpy since her excellent deception on the ride up to Pyke, it was both jarring and genuine to see her play the older sister for a brief moment. The best lines of the scene:
"Go on, then. Warn me."
"Don't die so far away from the sea."
 speak volumes not only about Yara's genuine toughness and ease of command, but also the cultural underpinning of what it means to be from the Iron Islands and a believer in the Drowned God: they all die and their choices (as raiders and reavers) will doubtlessly lead to death, but if it's done within the bosom of the ocean, then it's a good day to die.


I was less impressed with the Lord of Bones than I'd hoped. I suppose my mental image from the books had him a bit taller and his clothes being more free-flowing. Of course, if you're standing on a glacier, free-flowing clothing is not optimal. Both scenes with Jon were fleeting, allowing only time for Ygritte to confirm her status as a free woman by retaining her prisoner for Mance and for the Halfhand to begin laying the groundwork for Jon's acclimation to the wildlings. I liked the fact that, in the second scene, where Qhorin makes a show of being angry with Jon, Rose Leslie's sly smile can be interpreted as anything from taking pleasure in Jon's dismay, to confirmation of her opinion about the Watch and the ethics of the southerners, or awareness that the Halfhand is putting on a show in order to keep Jon (and the hopes of the Watch) alive. She was, once again, a brilliant choice for the role. The best exchange of the scenes is one that will be mirrored in the last of the episode: "They died because of me." "See that it wasn't for nothing."


By far, one of the best scenes of the night (if not THE best scene) was the mother/son confrontation after Robb learns that Catelyn has set Jaime Lannister free. Choices. "Tell me this isn't true." Richard Madden continues to play to Robb's notorious restraint (evident in his attachment to Talisa but his unwillingness to acknowledge it.) Where most characters would be raging at the upheaval (betrayal, discord, loss of a strategic asset), Robb refuses to lose his cool. This was the point in the books where I began to drift away from Catelyn as a character. While her desire to see her children freed at almost any cost is absolutely understandable and her anguish leading to paying that "almost any cost" is eminently believable, I think her rash nature (you know, the thing which triggered this whole Lannister/Stark spat) began to make her more annoying than sympathetic. Michelle Fairley treads that dividing line really well here. It was a great performance by both of them. There wasn't a whole lot to dwell on in the following associated scene, with Brienne and Jaime escaping down the Trident. Jaime remains entertaining and it was nice to see Gwen Christie fold her legs properly as one would when wearing armor around the hips and legs. Having frequently sat in the similar uncomfortable position used by the samurai (for a series of iaido techniques known as chudan), my knees sympathized and I appreciated the attention to detail.



On to Harrenhal, where we find Tywin and Kevan arguing over their untenable position and Tywin unknowingly delivering an accompaniment to Robb's earlier comment to Talisa about how Eddard had told him that the only time one could be brave was when one was afraid. Tywin's observation: "He'll risk anything at any time, because he doesn't know enough to be afraid." is less true than he knows, but that's warfare for you. This is just the setup for Arya's final demand of Jaqen H'ghar, which are still some of my favorite scenes in both the books and the show. And, again, here we see the choices that will have ramifications far past what the maker can know. Maisie's matter-of-fact "A man can go kill himself." was excellent and Tom Wlaschiha's performance remains a delight as the title quote indicates. One niggling annoyance is the fact that Arya runs around asking for H'ghar. Given the subtle nature of their relationship and his activity, it struck me as a bit off that she should be so open about it. Also, I had my first glimmer of disappointment with Maisie's performance, as I expected a bit more emotion on her face while she was accosting Hot Pie, but it's possible that she was directed to continue her stonefaced approach as she had in her scenes with Charles Dance. I don't think the transformation of the still emotional young girl should happen quite so quickly, though.



Despite the excellent interplay that normally takes place between Bronn and Tyrion and, in this case, was added to by Varys, I thought the scene of Tyrion trying to prepare for a siege while Bronn annoyed him was a bit slow. Obviously, this whole episode was a step down in pacing from those previous, as we're clearly building to the crescendo that will be episode nine, but since they've already been dragging out the question of how to withstand Stannis for most of this season, one more reminder that sieges suck was really kind of unnecessary. Bronn's pragmatic approach to dealing with the inevitable issue of famine ("It's just the unknown thieves we have to worry about now."; reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld's comment about the "known unknowns") was well played, though.


In contrast, the next two scenes in Kings Landing were fantastic. Tyrion's dinner with Cersei (the old English proverb: "He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon." immediately sprang to mind) was their best scene yet, allowing Lena Headey to revel in her character's wickedness and tremendous insecurities while Dinklage is confronted with a perilous moment: How to control one's relief and one's dismay? Obviously, he's relieved that it's Roz and not Shae whom is brought before him. On the other hand, as one of the few characters in the game with an actual moral streak, he knows that Roz will be tortured to death if things don't proceed according to Cersei's desires. Choices. Throw it in Cersei's face that she screwed up and save Roz's life or continue to live under better cover with her already satisfied? This is, of course, compounded by the fact that it was Tyrion who called attention to Roz in the first place by sending her to Joffrey. "Your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth." is a great line unfortunately spoiled by earlier trailers for the series, but I liked Cersei's "Get. Out." even better, as it was framed by her contemptuous delight. Great, great moment. This was also the second reference to "baby brother" in this episode, with starkly different intent. Honestly, I know I've mentioned their chemistry before, but no pair could have done this scene better. There's been a great deal of criticism of Headey's portrayal of Cersei because she was supposedly "too human". But the point is that Cersei is human, with all of the failings that go with that. She's not the Wicked Queen of Snow White or some kind of Sauronish embodiment of evil. She's human (albeit a fairly amoral, petty, and vindictive one) and I think Headey's performance has been exemplary.


On the other hand, Tyrion and Varys (and Joffrey) walking the battlements was excellent largely for the dialogue and the reinforcement of tendencies we're already well aware of:
"Imagine Stannis' terror!"
"I am trying."

"I wish we could converse as two honest, intelligent men."
"I wish we could, too."

"If we're going to play, you'll have to start."
"A most highborn plumber."
"One game at a time, my friend."

Using that moment to remind everyone of their awareness of Daenerys was good timing, but Tyrion's final statement about having other things on their plate was the wisest thing actually said. Someone else who doesn't come in for accolades very often is Conleth Hill, as Varys. He's done a remarkable job with a very subtle role that requires him to both overplay it and underplay it at various times. Great stuff.

Another good moment was Weiss and Benioff's decision to finally delve into the story of the Onion Knight, Ser Davos, for the benefit of the TV-only viewers; reminding everyone of the roots of some of the current conflict by, once again, highlighting choices that were made in the past (Davos' decision to run the blockade of Storm's End and save Stannis; Robert's decision to give Renly the Baratheon seat instead of his older brother) that still have ramifications now. There's so much history in the books that the TV series really can't touch on (despite website and DVD features) that it's often nice to have these moments of people reminiscing to events like Robert's Rebellion and informing the viewers of how deeply rooted some of these conflicts are. The moment of dragonglass discovery by Sam and Co. is another of those. A long-ago Watchman buried the glass at the Fist of the First Men as a clue. It will be up to Sam and his book-learnin' to see if they can use it to their advantage.

And, of course, the scene of the night for a number of reasons.


Firstly, it's a choice that will have huge ramifications for Robb and his position in the field and on the presumed throne of the North. His betrayal of the arrangement with the Freys is a profound insult to an already vainglorious family. Secondly, it's only the second moment that Robb steps outside his carefully established boundaries (the other being him attacking the tree in anguish over Eddard's death in season 1) and fully engages what he wants, rather than what he feels obligated to do. I think they teased this just enough that it felt genuine (Roose Bolton's quick exit from the tent acknowledged the public awareness of the attraction between Robb and Talisa, even if the latter's body language wasn't screaming the message already.) Robb's line: "How did you go from reciting Valyrian poetry to sawing off men's feet?" was brilliant but actually seemed more appropriate with Bolton in the room ("At the Dreadfort, we do both!") The culmination of the scene was, without doubt, the hottest sex scene of the series to date. Why?

She left the boots on.

Put aside the fact that Oona Chaplin is already smoking hot. She left the boots on. I wonder if that was the actor's choice or the director's. I'm kinda thinking it was hers. I'm going to stop talking about this now...

The denouement with Aemon, Osha, and Bran was the final reinforcement of the theme. The two think that they're sparing Bran the distress of knowing that two boys died for him, but he's already aware and the decision to not tell him is just one more little thing that may or may not color later events. Next week is the big bash and, presumably, Dany's trip into the House of the Undying (given her two minutes of screen time this week) so "faster-paced" doesn't really begin to describe it. The episode was written by the man himself, GRRM, so here's hoping they did his script justice.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"Did you pull a knife on me in the night?"

It's not common for the show to deliver what I thought was the line of the night so soon, but Ygritte does it in the first five minutes. That one phrase covers a lot of ground for the show, both at the micro level in continuing her subtle defiance and torture of Jon from the "bum-wriggling" (as they say in the kingdom; no, the real kingdom), and at the macro level, as the show is essentially about not trusting anyone. Anyone might pull a knife on you at this or any other moment, albeit generally one they intend to kill you with... (If you haven't read Clash, the fact that you know nothing might be spoiled below.)


What it really highlights for the seventh episode of the season is the theme of maturity. Jon and many of his friends amongst the Watch are still boys playing at war. They're unaware of many of the ramifications of what they do and how driven the Wildings are to maintain their own way of life. As sexual maturity is often a sign of genuine maturity (not least the ability to understand when someone's blatantly spinning your head around for the purposes of escape), the subtext encouraging Jon to grow up and realize that he's involved in something that has a wider scope than simply the honorable vows of an ancient and somewhat outdated order is pretty evident to everyone except Jon until late in the hour.

By the same token, Ygritte's repeated claims of "freedom" are often no less hollow than the mission of the Watch. Claiming that being pushed into the most desolate corner of the world and engaged in a literal fight for survival on a daily basis is no more an expression of freedom than being a serf for whatever fancy lord will have you south of the Wall. So, like usual, everyone carries their own pet illusions to get through the day, some more prominent than others.


Dany's whole story for the first two books is largely about the casting off of childhood illusions and, thus, the acquisition of maturity. While her story has taken the most marked deviation from the books this season (the theft of the dragons, the death of 90% of her khalassar), I think the presumed reasoning behind much of it is both obvious and not altogether a bad thing. First off, the House of the Undying sequence and events around it are awfully acid trippy for a series that many seem to favor for its foundation in the brutal politics and maneuvers of "reality". Very little encourages Dany to go to the House other than simply not having many other avenues out of Qarth. There simply isn't time for her to dawdle into that with only 10 episodes to cover the book. Furthermore, the urgency created by her being separated not only from the three things that might actually win her the Iron Throne but from the beings that she considers closest to her of anything in the world is a proper motivation that new viewers and old readers should be able to relate to. Combine it with the palace coup created by Pyat Pree and XXD and it's actually even more interesting than the tale Martin originally told. Given a scenario (Dany continually wheedling with the reluctant Thirteen for their assistance) that took up very little of Clash because it was so tedious (and was just verging on that in the show in the coup scene), I'm kinda glad that Weiss and Benioff weren't afraid to cut to the chase, as it were.


Cut to: what is currently the best relationship of all of those various and sundry throughout the realm: Arya and Tywin. Again, our theme of maturity is emphasized, as Arya learns to not only stop being so impertinent and accept the grace of one's lord when it is given, but also to keep playing the game in a more appropriate manner, since Tywin knows damn well that she's not whom she pretends to be. Thankfully, for her sake, he appears tickled to be around someone so obviously intelligent and isn't concerned about the mild lies that she engages in for her own safety. Of course, if he knew how big those lies really were, things would be different. I've appreciated this deviation from the books more than I thought I would, largely based on the chance for two of the best characters and two of the best actors from the brilliant cast to spend some time together. This moment also was the opening salvo in an episode that would largely be driven by people standing around and talking to each other, which one hopes the audience possesses the maturity to appreciate (including the story of Harren the Black and the Targaryen conquest, as well as Arya's evident appreciation for Aegon's sisters was a nice touch, story-wise) in the same way that readers of Martin's work, which has a wealth of "action" embodied in conversation (much like Asimov), have been able to.


Our theme finally clubs us over the head with the arrival of Sansa's literal sexual maturity, even though the character, just as in the books, stays fairly static in her ways. She's used as a jumping off point for a deeper look at Sandor Clegane, who rebuffs her thanks for saving her life, and at Cersei, who begins to acknowledge the fact that her son has long since passed her control, even while Sansa continues to provide her wooden reassurances of her emotional fealty to him. Cersei, of course, experienced the same emotion (or lack thereof) while attached to Robert, so the ice queen does show a bit of sympathy here. This is further enhanced by the rueful conversation between Cersei and Tyrion, as they not only ruminate on Joffrey's madness but also the magnitude of responsibility weighing upon their shoulders. And this is my one real note of disappointment with this episode.

At several points, some of the most important secrets of the story (Cersei and Jaime's relationship, Arya's identity) are somewhat trivialized by how open they've become. As much as I liked the seeming level of confidence displayed by Tywin in dealing with his cup-bearer's identity, it brings to question why a man so careful would be so cavalier with what may be a significant tactical advantage. He knows she's a northerner. He knows she's of the nobility. That's a captive for ransom or potential capitulation, not someone to serve you wine. Considering that he was hanging people left and right after Amory Lorch's assassination (which he mistakes for an attempt on his own life), it's more than a bit careless to have the daughter of an enemy having access to the food and drink that you're consuming on a daily basis. I suppose one could read his insistence that she eat the mutton as a way of testing for poison, but it certainly wasn't dramatically presented in that way.

Even worse is the handling of the incest. It's now being presented as common knowledge and the ramifications of said relationship (Bran's crippling) are treated as an openly leveled charge. It seems like the ripples from this would be larger. In the books, while most seem to acknowledge the likelihood of the situation, the stories are still presented as rumors spread by a rival (Stannis) or the rantings of a bereaved mother (Catelyn.) While the moment of Cersei suggesting that Joffrey looks like Jaime "in a certain light" and Tyrion's consequent eye roll is an excellent one, they then dispel that moment by openly discussing the fact that Jaime has fathered all of her children. I suppose that some would begin to consider it a bit trite to keep dancing around that topic, but there would seem to be smoother ways to handle it. Is it really likely that the most common epithet for Jaime would be "Kingslayer" if the fact that he was screwing his sister was so readily discussed? Compounding that is Cersei's acknowledging that Jaime was far more important (and better filled the role of husband during her labor) than Robert when talking about the role of a queen with Sansa. Again, the limited amount of camera time may be a factor here but it strikes me as a bit ham-handed.

Highlights-

- Rose Leslie as Ygritte is nothing short of spectacular. "You know nothing, Jon Snow." is one of the most iconic lines of the story and it was delivered with real impact by Leslie. But even better is her evident mastery of the one-sided conversation throughout the episode.

- Emilia Clarke's performance as Daenerys. Her rather desperate attempts to still be "queenly" in the midst of a situation where she lacks the foundation to be so are a delight to watch.

- Theon coming into his own with his men. Once again maintaining the maturity theme, as Theon grows in the estimation of his crew in true Ironborn fashion: by beating the crap out of them.

- "Most girls are idiots." Maisie Williams continues to be a treat.

- Jaime still taking shots at Ned Stark, even after the latter's death. That's either a sign of true dedication in hatred for one's enemies (and personal rivals) or an excellent way to divert attention from one's own deeply felt shortcomings. Probably both, and Nikolai Coster-Waldau plays it well.

- The incredibly awkward moment where Tyrion is about to comfort Cersei in her moment of grief and the two of them try to find some way out of it. Again, the actors' personal chemistry is put to good use here.

Lowlights:

- Using Jaime's attempted escape as the foundation of the venom which Rickard Karstark holds for him. I was wondering how they were going to pull that off, given their reluctance to show mass battles and the fact that Jaime was captured in season 1. But it was a bit on the typical melodrama side and one wonders why the son of one of Robb's most powerful bannermen would be reduced to guarding prisoners...

- "I beg pardon, ser." I was waiting for yet another "I'm no ser." and they missed it. Bummer.

Overall, I think the pacing of this episode was solid and it was clearly the beginning of the bujld-up to episode nine, even if it wobbled a bit in its intensity at points because of the continued switches to set-piece conversations. Got a glimpse of Rattleshirt in the "coming scenes" bit, too. Woo hoo!


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Return of the messiah

So, today the president of the United States put his foot down, saying that he supports the idea of gay marriage. This is, of course, music to the ears of the half dozen NGOs that have emailed me today and a good chunk of the electorate still desperate to revel in some kind of delusion. For some commentators, this was the moment that Obama chose to "energize the base."

Which, of course, only goes to reinforce the fact that the American electorate is as dumb as a bag of hammers. This is the political equivalent of watching these guys try to organize a three car parade while the populace stands on the side of the road, waving their little flags and waiting for something to happen.

"Abortions for some. Miniature American flags for others!"
So, the Romney campaign, being all things Romney, hung their foreign policy guy out to dry because he was gay and the enthusiastic wing of the GOP was foaming at the mouth at the concept. Not that he was gay and had gotten married in Massachusetts; just that he was gay. They're the "values" party, y'see? As long as those values are circa 1950s, at best. But, as with most Romney moments concerning social or cultural issues, this instantly became an opening for the Democrats. The Obama campaign and DCCC started dropping buzzwords about gay rights, human rights and, of course, gay marriage. The media, by and large, ignored the whole issue and Fox News remained quiescent because they know that most intelligent people consider gay marriage to be a fait accompli. In other words, it's stupid to argue against it in the nation that prides itself on being the "leader of the free world" (and, in the case of Fox, also when the longtime host of your highly rated show, Fox Report, happens to be... shhh... gay.) So, first test passed.


The next step is to float the idea with everyone's favorite verbal live grenade, veep Joe Biden. The veep says he's "comfortable" with the idea. The media, once again, basically moves on to other pressing issues (Secret Service agents being poor tippers or some other moral crisis.) That's perfect for Obama, because if the press had recoiled in outrage, they could always laugh it off. "That's just Joe! When does he get through 30 days without saying something outrageous?!" That's basically what he's there for. He's about one step up the political evolutionary ladder from Dan Quayle. As long as he's telling some guy in a wheelchair to stand up and be recognized, he's diverting attention from anything constructive or destructive and basically being a bullet shield for the president. This is where the concept of going back to the veep being the runner-up in the presidential race becomes enormously appealing. As much as I appreciate the mouth that is Joe Biden for all the times that he unintentionally speaks the truth (much to the owning class' dismay), can you imagine the fun that could have been had with President Obama and Vice-President McCain?

Fast forward to today and Obama makes the daring move to say that he "supports the idea". You know, in principle. A hypothetical, as it were. If asked at gunpoint, he might nod his head. Because, after all, he only supports it now because he "assumed that civil unions would be sufficient."

It's still water, amirite?
This guy is as timid on social issues as an Amish woman climbing out of her wedding gown. Why? Because, of course, he doesn't give a shit about things like that. That stuff is for the poors, or at least the non-rich, to worry about. Anyone moving in his social circles doesn't worry about tax benefits or insurance coverage or hospital visitation rights. They get what they want because money buys what they want. And what Obama really wants is more money, preferably in separate checks from different people at the same corporation (the process is known as "bundling".)

And, yet, because he kinda, sorta, wobbles in the direction of an issue near and dear to the deluded masses that still think he cares about them and their lowborn concerns, "the base" is "energized". Keep in mind, of course, that he has not a shred of power to actually effect a change toward gay marriage anywhere in the nation, since the laws concerning such a thing are the purview of the states; 3/4 of which have explicitly banned the practice, sometimes by constitutional amendment, because the majority of state legislatures are packed to the gills with rednecks frightened of the gays, like we have here in Michigan from Jackson to Houghton.

It would be funny if it weren't such a goddamn tragedy.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Don't trust anyone. Life is safer that way."

Jon Snow may finally know nothing (I was mildly disappointed that said iconic line didn't get used in the first appearance of Ygritte) but you'll know more than you want below if you haven't read the books.

For those who have read the books, you can see the more complex elements of the story and the origins of future events beginning to seep through in all kinds of little lines and moments. Shae's line about trust; Roose Bolton's comment about how his boy would be happy to retake Winterfell from the Greyjoys; and Xaro Xhoan Daxos' admonition about the things you have to do to achieve wealth and power. The early episodes of the season felt rushed, as they scrambled to lay all of the groundwork they needed. But the last two have begun to feel like the story is proceeding at a reasonable pace, which is odd considering the aforementioned increasing complexity. I am beginning to get nervous about how they'll be able to succinctly close everything in the Battle of the Blackwater and its aftermath, but there's nothing to do but wait and watch in that respect.


As we say goodbye to Rodrik Cassel in particularly savage fashion, one wonders at the temperament of Theon in that scene. Is it all about his internal turmoil at the betrayal of the Starks and the death of someone he at least grudgingly called friend? Or was there something to Bran's question: "Did you hate us the whole time?" (nicely delivered by Isaac Wright-Hempstead) The series Theon is significantly different from the book Theon. The latter was still a weaselly little shit who gave no indication that his loyalties lay with anyone but himself. This one has gone through a more traumatic (and, honestly, more interesting) transformation and is still experiencing it whenever he makes a command decision. But one wonders if they did decide to use that execution moment as a way for Theon to exorcise the frustration of his existence to that point. It is, of course, nicely paralleled by the experience of the other only-partial member of the Stark clan


and his new best friend. We see two scenes of potential execution: one carried through because the executioner wasn't strong enough to say "no" and another avoided because he was. In both instances, Theon and Jon are confronted with the reality of their isolation: Jon in a wasteland without friends and now reliant on an enemy and Theon in enemy territory and only vaguely supported by those that are supposed to be his kinsmen. That theme permeates the whole episode, as the royal court flees the people, Arya navigates the maze of Harrenhal, and Daenerys attempts to maintain her independence in a place where she can do little more than put her hand out. In all of these situations, the lesson is clear: in this game, you need people that you don't like, don't trust, and don't know. Welcome to life.


Personally, I was thrilled to see the Hound finally get into some real action. Sandor Clegane is, by far, my favorite character of the entire story. His blunt cynicism and distaste for everyone around him is something that I find hilarious, but the depth of his character in the books is remarkable, especially in Storm of Swords, when he teams up with another member of our cast who tends to reject the expectations of society. His everpresent aphorisms: "I didn't do it for you." and "I'm no ser." are the constant reminders that most of the people in the story are  living in an artificial world of their own creation. They need to believe that the motivations of that world are honorable at their root, even if they know otherwise, and the Hound is there to remind them of their own dishonesty.

More things I was glad to see:

- Another casting coup by the directors of the series in Rose Leslie, as Ygritte. She fits the character perfectly, even if she is somewhat more attractive than it seems Martin presented her in the books. The wriggling moments between her and Jon (literally) were brilliant. She's another female character (like Arya, like Cersei) whose grasp of the world is way beyond what is expected or often permitted of her.

- The continued expansion of Osha's role. It's not that I'm particularly entranced by the character. I just find this deviation from the books particularly interesting, especially given Martin's assertion that Natalia Tena's performance has inspired him to do more with her in the next book. Speaking of doing more, I had to wonder what the Harry Potter fans thought of (ahem) Nymphadora Tonks giving us her all this episode...

- Qhorin Halfhand giving Jon the inspiring speech, followed by his immediate dispelling of any heroic notions: "They're just words. They help keep us warm at night and make us think we have a purpose." Nothing will help keep you alive in that environment more than confronting the reality of what it is you're doing there. That said, there was pragmatism in the spiel about purpose, as well: "I don't want you to be glad about it!"

- The appearance of no less than three(!) dire wolves in one episode. Crazy.

- The rather resigned response of Jaqen H'ghar to Arya's demand that he kill Amory Lorch. As implacable as he is, you can see him do the neck bob thing when she fully explains why it has to happen NOW: "Excuse me? I've already promised to kill three people by your say so. Now you're telling me how to do my job?"

A few things I was perturbed to see:



- Tywin Lannister does not say "I'm cold." Tywin Lannister doesn't get cold, no matter how much you try to humanize him by having him give his life story to his cup-bearer. "It's cold in here." "Bring more wood for the fire." "Do your job before I box your ears." That's Tywin Lannister.

- In that same vein, I'm not sure I understand the point of making Petyr the traveling idiot. One would think that someone as canny as Littlefinger would know that sitting down with Tywin Lannister to tell him that a moment of crisis presents opportunity is bound to get excoriated (which is exactly what happens.) And if they're doing so to present the idea that Littlefinger is playing dumb so people won't suspect him...? Yeah, no. He's the Master of Coin for the Seven Kingdoms, having risen from a tiny spit of land in Nowheresville. People already suspect him. He's been flitting around for the past two episodes telling people things they already know. Is this for the benefit of new viewers?

- The first scene limitation I can clearly recall. The whole exchange with the Spice King happens on a staircase that was obviously the same set from a scene earlier in the series but shot from a different angle. While the dramatic movement is appropriate (he is above her, as she is the supplicant), the scene felt constrained, as if they cut costs here.

- And now Irri is dead?  There's going to be no one left of Daenerys' khalassar by the time they get to Dance of Dragons.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Iconic scenes: Anguish, the fourth wall, music, commies, and Drexl

Different film scenes will resonate with different viewers. That sensation will depend on script, pacing, actor's performance, and the viewer, if not all of those. While some are widely hailed and become emblematic of the whole film or even the entire genre of film and/or the director's or actor's career, such as Clint Eastwood's "Go ahead. Make my day!" moment in Sudden Impact, others are not nearly as well known but tend to deliver on less spectacle and more execution, from my perspective. For example, I don't recall the "Make my day!" moment nearly as fondly as a scene from a few moments earlier in the film, when Harry Callahan and the assistant DA are stuck in an elevator with a former suspect (and friends) and Callahan obliquely but forcefully threatens the crook's life, while the DA shakes his head at Harry's repetition of the same approach that caused them to lose the case. That minute of screen time tells you everything you need to know about Harry, his approach to police work, and both the street and city hall's opinion of him and his methods. Furthermore, it does so with excellent dialogue by both Eastwood and Carmen Argenziano as Asst. DA D'Ambrosia ("You're a class act, Callahan. A real class act.")

Of the many scenes that people remember from Schindler's List, the one that sticks with me the most is the final scene with Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) as his workers are seeing him off before the approaching Red Army arrives, and he begins to realize that he managed to save these few hundred people, but that there was more that he might have been able to do:


Sadly, this clip ends before Neeson really makes it into the crescendo of his performance here, as he reaches for his watch and his car, thinking about how many lives he could have saved by bartering them as he had so many other personal effects. The anguish that plays on his face at this moment is both heart-rending and magnificent, as it is easily the actor's greatest performance, and is perfectly set off by Itzhak's (Ben Kingsley) repeated calm and earnest assurances that he had already done a wonderful thing in the face of so much horror and death. If being hypercritical, one could almost accuse Neeson of emoting, but if you watch closely, I think it's obvious that he's staying within the confines of the largely unemotional Schindler who is attempting to argue his case that he should have done more and is failing in the face of overwhelming emotion at his own realization and the tsunami of guilt that has finally swept in. The steady camera work, brilliant performances, and mournful, elegant score by John Williams combine to make this a scene that is both painful to watch and completely enthralling. I'm not one that tears up easily during emotional scenes (I once saw Schindler's List, Philadelphia, and Geronimo in fairly rapid succession with a friend; I think I was the only person in all three theaters who wasn't sniffling by the time we walked out) but this one grabs me in a way that few other moments have.

That's a fairly lengthy scene which needs that length to deliver its full impact, as the point is driven home, again and again, of what had been done but what could have been done. In marked contrast, the following scene is easily my favorite moment in Trading Places and takes place over the course of about 10 seconds. In it, Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) is explaining the business of Duke and Duke, commodities brokers, to Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) whom the brothers have recruited off the street as a kind of social experiment to see if they can make him a "successful executive":


I've seen this scene somewhere between 50 and 100 times and, without fail, I crack up every time Eddie Murphy breaks the fourth wall and looks at the camera (in fact, I'm giggling right now...) There's a 20-minute dissertation contained in that look of disgust, bemusement, disbelief, and frustration. In many ways, it's similar to Bugs Bunny's frequent use of the same technique in some of the best of the Looney Tunes shorts, where he turns to the viewers, quietly making the deal that both he and the audience are about to entertain themselves at the expense of everyone else in the scene, because both the central figure and the audience are (at least at this point) far smarter than the rest of the cast. This is script, actor, and director finding a moment that nears perfection, which wouldn't have been possible without excellent restraint on the part of the latter two. While it was the bombast and profanity that made Murphy famous (and occasionally infamous), it was subtle moments like this one that displayed his true comic genius and which made him a true joy to watch in both film and his stand-up routine for a number of years.

A moment late in the film, The Commitments, is iconic for me because it sums up everything that the film is about and releases it in a blast of energy that shows no restraint at all. In it, the band identified as the "guerrillas of Dublin soul" by their manager, Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkin), has found their legs after a few performances and is sharing a deep bond with their audience in a small club in town, while waiting for a promised appearance by Wilson Pickett to join them on stage. As Eddie semi-frantically searches outside for Pickett's limo and intercepts a couple of the local media coming to see the band (but mostly Pickett), The Commitments give it their all on stage:


The cast is a mix of local actors and local musicians from Dublin (amazingly eagle-eyed viewers will recognize the far left backup singer, Bronagh Gallagher, as Rosanna Arquette's friend, Trudi, from the adrenaline shot scene of Pulp Fiction), so it was quite easy for the band to demonstrate a very genuine look at the local music scene and the toll it can take on lives that are already often examples of Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation" (or not so quiet.) Even though most of the band detests lead singer Deco Cuffe (an astonishing 16-year-old Andrew Strong), the director takes time to look at the glances of admiration they cast at him while he and they are in the throes of performance. At that time, everyone: band, band audience, and film audience are on the same page and "it's all about the music, man!" The fact that the director can cut away a couple times to maintain the Pickett subplot without losing the energy of the band on stage is part of what makes the whole scene work, both alone and within the thread of the film entire.


In contrast to that explosiveness, the next scene is an extremely subtle one and it may resonate with me at least as much for political and history geek reasons as for that of performance and script. Reds was a personal project of Warren Beatty about the life of John Reed during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. As he was producer, director, co-writer, and lead actor for the film, it's no surprise that it tends to emphasize his understated method of performance and deep knowledge of both the character and the times in which he lived (something probably instilled in him by Stella Adler and similar to DeNiro's famous approach.) The scene, the pertinent part of which begins at 7:30 of the following clip and runs for about a minute, is a perfect example of that:


World War I was, indeed, about profits and control of the colonial empires from which those profits largely flowed. The fact that Beatty keeps the camera at a distance in order to emphasize the hypocrisy and ignorance of the super-patriot Liberal Club and only to close on Reed (Beatty) as he utters the one-word line and then sits with an expression of mild disgust on his face is emblematic of that knowledge that was in plain sight but which so many refused to acknowledge. There is a multi-layered context here and Beatty's presentation of it is not necessarily an easy one to grasp, unless one happens to share both the actor's and the character's rather cynical estimation of the world, which I do, because it demands that the average viewer not only throw off what is probably a lifetime of education promoting World War I as a "good war", but also reject the standard American obeisance to the military as the ultimate expression of service to both community and the American ideal. The fact that the entire film is about just such a realization by Reed, that his ideals soar far beyond the realities of human action, makes it that much better.

Finally, we come to Gary Oldman's greatest role. Oldman has a long career going back to Sid and Nancy and continuing up through his latest starring role as Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan's Batman films. For the most part, he tends to follow one of two trends: either he has a complete grasp of the inner workings of the character and fills the role as if born to it or he seems to feel that the character must be played in a certain way and is determined to ham it up to push that "way" as far as it can go or at least until he runs out of scenery to chew. Examples of the latter include his Count Dracula in Dracula, Dr. Zachary Smith in Lost in Space, and Carnegie in The Book of Eli. Examples of the former include Jim Gordon, George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Drexl Spivey in True Romance:



Oldman has one other brief scene near the beginning of the film, making his screen time a total of about 8 minutes but this is, by far, his greatest performance of his entire career, in my opinion. He so inhabits the character of Drexl that you lose Gary Oldman, which is not always the case and a rare phenomenon with any "name" actor. True Romance was a Quentin Tarantino script, even though Tony Scott directed and, as usual with Tarantino scripts, the dialogue is entrancing and the actors are given plenty of red meat with which to work. Oldman takes advantage of all of it, not attempting to dispel the obvious tension and expectation of violence that Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) expects, but instead embracing it like one fencer to another, determined to overwhelm his younger opponent with his control of the environment. He shows off an easy release and, indeed, enjoyment of said tension after he thinks the physical confrontation is concluded with the line: "He musta thought it was White Boy Day. It ain't White Boy Day, is it?" Marty (Paul Bates) doesn't even have to ask what, exactly, White Boy Day is. That's simply Drexl being in control and everyone having to answer to him in one way or another.

These are the moments which make writing about film genuinely fun. I'll probably touch back on this fairly soon, as I have a library of such moments in my head that I can recall quite readily (typically much to the chagrin of those around me.)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Longevity

 So, a friend pointed me to the trailer of he upcoming reboot of Spider-Man. Putting aside the glaring question of why it seems necessary to do a reboot of the whole story less than a decade since the last set of films began and, once again, grind through the origin story routine when Raimi's films set up a decent bed to lie in, let's take a look:



Well, let's see. Tragically missing parents, hunted by cops, sounds like Batman. "No, no, no. This is the new 'grim and gritty' Spider-Man with the mysterious past who is driven by the deep secrets of his childhood and equipped to handle the modern world!" Haven't we seen this before? Oh, yeah! Batman!

The reason that Batman has lasted as long as it has is because of the simplistic motivation behind the character: revenge melded with a personal sense of 'justice'. The reason that Marvel took over the comic industry in the 60s and has never relinquished it is because their characters were originally driven by motivations far less Gothic or nebulous in tone. Spider-Man, for example, was driven by guilt and a sense of personal responsibility. We've all been there. Very few of us have been motivated by revenge as the driving force of our lives. In fact, it's hard to see how long that could drive anyone, which is why it's more difficult for people to relate to Batman for lengthy periods. He becomes the antagonist of his own books, because it's easier for people to relate to his wacky villains and their often quite human instabilities than the granite-like icon of justice. Spider-Man is, in many ways, Average Joe and is motivated by the same things that Joe feels or has felt. That's what makes him work. Turning him into Batman is at least mildly pointless and certainly won't give the script writers any more room to maneuver; often less. Severe caveat here: I haven't read a Spider-Man book in almost 20 years, so the current character may be a refugee from Bamboozilonia, for all I know. I do know that the character's long-time marriage was ended some time ago by one of Marvel's facsimiles of Satan, Mephisto, in true Bobby Ewing fashion, so it's not like Marvel has been completely immune to the Hollywood (or DC, for that matter) impulse.

I guess the question comes down to: a) what makes a viable, long-term character? and, b) is it possible to have a story without an ending? Looking at a), there are often external constraints, especially in the world of film, that prevent going forward with an established franchise. There are reports that the main actors of the Raimi films no longer wanted to participate. Given things like the dancing scene from Spider-Man 3


it's hard to blame them. But it's also true that often what is most compelling about many superheroes (or heroes, in general) is their origin story: the foundation for why they became what they are and act as they do. In most cases, this is Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" in some form or fashion. However, I think the secret to Marvel's success with characters like Spider-Man (and the long-term affection that enables extravaganzas like a multi-film buildup to tonight's Avengers) was in breaking away from the "tragic circumstances" motivation and continuing to present the characters as actual people, with bills, family, school, work, and all the other facets of modern life that most of us deal with on a regular basis.

When Spider-Man first emerged in 1962, he was presented as a teenaged nerd getting his first real taste of power and admiration, only to let that go to his head and find that a simple lack of action on his part contributed to the death of one of his guardians. The now-canonical catchphrase: "With great power comes great responsibility." became the foundation of his willingness to run around in blue-and-red tights and risk his life on a regular basis. When Marvel discovered that the bulk of their readership was no longer 12-year-old boys but, in fact, college-aged men with money to spend, they did an unfathomable thing in the comics world: they let their characters age. Peter Parker was now a college student, in addition to his part-time job as a photographer. The character was instantly relevant to its primary audience. The aging process slowed down a bit (otherwise, we'd now be talking about The Amazing Septuagenarian) but an effort was maintained into the 1980s to continue to present Spider-Man as that same Average Joe, which was replicated by Sam Raimi in his trio of films. Is that somehow not sustainable at this point? Has the character become too long-term, as it were, to continue to be viable?

In the comics world, the answer would almost invariably be "yes". Comics, as a serial periodical, suffer from b): The Story That Never Ends. You don't get real conclusions. You get temporary cessations of story arcs. The further challenge is that each comic, if properly written, has to have that same beginning, middle, and end to maintain a narrative flow from month to month. Jim Shooter, long-time editor in the comics world, used to say that every issue was someone's first read of that title. So, it had to be accessible to new readers at the same time that it maintained enough complexity for regular readers. TV functioned under the same constraints for decades, in that most dramas or comedies had to present a scenario that a new viewer could engage, but also have enough regular aspects in the form of returning characters and their idiosyncrasies. Thus, each week became Gilligan or Captain Frank Furillo running into variations on a dramatic theme. Most TV series eventually get cancelled as a consequence, since the story simply can't maintain itself with any kind of integrity. The most notable exception in recent years has been The Simpsons which, as a cartoon, is a lot like the comic world: the physical constraints of actors aging has little effect and the story isn't burdened by having to give each character screen time or pay them to sit in their trailer.

Furthermore, The Simpsons, free from those physical constraints, can become far more of a marketing tool. Homer will always look like Homer and can appear on any number of products or doing endorsements for products and always carry the same panache. Same thing for comics. At some point, the characters and their story become secondary to the marketing. Wonder Woman, the comic, has been a perpetual money loser as a comic for the past half-century, but Wonder Woman, the marketing icon, has been a money maker for Warner Brothers, the parent company of DC, for that same period of time. In order to maintain the trademark, DC must publish the comic or see it revert to the Marston family. So, the comic becomes a loss leader for the lunchboxes, beach towels, and toys that let young girls know that they can also be heroic figures if they wear skin-tight uniforms and have big tits...



But does the story suffer from its longevity? Absolutely. At some point, there is nothing new under the sun, so characters that have been in perpetual motion for 50 years begin retreading the same ground. I finally gave up on superhero comics in the early 90s when I realized that a story I was reading was identical to an Avengers story that I had read in the late 70s. I didn't need to read it again in a different context. I still had the original from the 70s. At that point, I also realized that I had put aside several titles from my large weekly purchase to read later and now had several months of various books that I really wasn't compelled to read because they were the same stuff that the respective characters had been doing for 10, 20, 40, 60 years. In fact, writing my own work for the comic studio at the time was far more interesting because I was hoping to do series that had a predetermined finish. I imagine that this disaffection happens to many readers in the same way that a lot of TV viewers get tired of seeing the same canned procedure (intrigue at the first commercial break, crisis at second, deepening crisis at third, possible solution at fourth, and resolution, fini; the hour is over) every week and have begun to drift to choices like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which are almost expressly designed to be watched from the beginning, which entails either being there at the start or taking advantage of services like Netflix.

So, does a trio of films in less than a decade necessitate a reboot? Is the viability of the character requiring that or the fact that the story will never end and, thus, must be re-energized every so often to keep it fresh for modern viewers? Is it a question of medium? Or is it all of the above?