Sunday, April 24, 2016

Blind leading the blind?

I think we're going to have to get used to a couple abbreviations around here, since Game of Thrones is now the first TV show based on another property that has exceeded the bounds of said property while the latter is still running. Since fans of both books and show are familiar with ASoIaF (A Song of Ice and Fire), new phrases reduced to acronyms should be easy to digest.The first one is uWoWid. (unless Winds of Winter is different.) I'll be tossing that in there when it comes to talking about where the story is going, since we have a pretty good idea of its direction, but not the path that each medium is going to take to get there. Some things that seem bad or good in the show may be different in the book (and some we already know are quite different.) The other is "nits", as in picking them because they're "not in the show." We'd like to think that, finally, book and show fans are united and essentially as blind as Arya up there, but that's not entirely true. Benioff and Weiss are leading everyone into the wilderness as they attempt to finish George's story long before he ever will but many of the book fans will have a better handle on what's to come because we've been living with this story for 20 years and so much grondwork has been laid that it's hard to miss. That's part of what made this first episode utterly predictable, with one exception. Most of the trails have been blazed and the major players are just following them as they hurtle toward the inevitable confrontation between Fire (big lizards) and Ice (the Others.)

From Dany's condemnation to being one of the crones of Vaes Dothrak to Davos finally taking the reins of a situation to Arya's blindness being just one more step in her training to Brienne finally saving the day on behalf of Sansa, every event has been eminently predictable if people were paying attention. That's not to say that I'm able to lay out every detail of where the story will proceed from here, but I guess I did expect a bit more from the first episode without George's presumed guiding hand. Then again, since it is the first episode, there is a lot for much of the audience to re-familiarize themselves with yet again, so there's a limit to how much story progress can be made. Even so, I was a bit disappointed that the reunion of the World's Greatest Odd Couple, Tyrion and Varys, was so mundane as to be little more than them spelling out exactly how difficult things are going to be for them in Meereen, as if anyone needed to be reminded of that.

The lone exception to this general state of affairs were the events in Sunspear (Yes, Sunspear. The city. It has a name as the capital of Dorne.) I definitely didn't expect to see Doran assassinated by Ellaria and the Sand Snakes. This is certainly not something I'd expect in the books, uWoWid. Doran has a much larger role in the most recent books, but that's like saying the sun has a larger role in warming the earth. Given his five minutes of screen time in season 5 and 2 minutes in season 6, I think it's safe to say that the talents of Alexander Siddiq were completely wasted on the show. (Some book spoilers in the next few words. Highlight if you want to read them.) Given that Doran and Varys were behind the sheltering of Aegon Targaryen, Daenerys' nephew, who is making a claim to the throne at the end of Dance of Dragons and that Doran is attempting to make good on his promise to wed his daughter Arianne (nits) to Viserys by having his son, Quentyn, attempt to marry Daenerys. So, there's a lot more going on that the show has definitively closed the door on with the deaths of Doran, Trystane, and Areo Hotah. Of course, that also means that the eminently hostile Ellaria and the Snakes are now ruling Dorne, which has its own interesting angles, regardless of whether uWoWid or not.

There were definitely a few character-oriented highlights, such as Pod putting up a substantial fight against the Bolton outriders, and Dany's confrontation with Khal Moro, who initiated what has to be an homage to the modern era's foundational fantasy epic, Conan the Barbarian:

Khal Moro trying to get an answer from his lieutenants about what could be better than seeing a woman naked for the first time (Killing another khal, breaking a horse, etc.) is so redolent of the famous Conan question about life that I was laughing as soon as he started asking the rhetorical question. And there were good moments, such as Arya slowly infecting her anguish over being beaten/trained while blind with the frustration and determination that it won't stop her. That shot of her face with the Titan of Braavos in the background was well done. She's as constant as the statue and about as implacable.

OTOH, there were also some questionable bits of Jeremy Podeswa's direction. Jorah and Daario finding Drogon's landing site where Dany was picked up by Moro's khal, followed by the discovery of the ring in the grass, was about 30 seconds of melodrama that could have been shortened to five of exchanged glances. "They have her!", ominous drums and the crescendo of the orchestra... No, thanks. We knew this would happen as soon as she dropped the ring at the end of last year's episode 10. Hamming it up is not necessary. But, again, is that the difference between a book reader and a show watcher? It's hard to tell, but my girlfriend hasn't read the books and she was kind of rolling her eyes at that moment, too. One assumes that the longtime divide between fans is going to end once we get into the meat of season 6, but it will be a hard bridge to cross if the heretofore excellent writing is going to revert to bog standard TV drama. Shows that sit at the pinnacle of what television has to offer, like The Wire and Breaking Bad, didn't engage in this much handholding of the audience. Granted, neither of those had a story that was quite as complicated as Game of Thrones. But, to date, the show has treated its audience with a certain degree of respect. I'm hoping that's maintained even as D&D are charting their own course.

Interestingly enough, a similar question of faith is still being presented in the show, as well, since Melisandre's visions are again proved wrong and she finally reveals one of the main illusions that she's been presenting to everyone else since she entered the story. Is she a crone because of the Red God or has he been maintaining her as a favored servant? Is the show able to stand on its own legs from here on out or will we start to see the cracks in the story that even some readers are questioning after this long?

Lines of the week:

Hypothermia is a far better way to die than what's waiting back at Winterfell.
"He thrust a terrible choice upon us. And we made it." Alliser Thorne, late of Nuremburg.

"It was a good victory. Do you feel like a victor?" Roose Bolton with the constant reminders that Ramsay will never truly be the accepted son.

"She's not suffering. She's gone. No one can hurt her anymore." Is it a comforting thought that the safest place in Westeros might be in a crypt?

"Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate. Fuck everyone who isn't us." That was, uh, kinda the High Sparrow's complaint about Cersei, man.

"Sinners don't make demands. They make confessions." Jonathan Pryce continues to be a revelation as the High Sparrow, even when he's trying to play the good cop with Margaery.

"You're a greedy bitch, you know that?" There's sibling rivalry for you: arguing over who gets to be the one to kill their cousin.

"I like to talk when I'm finished. Otherwise, we might as well be dogs." Dothraki perspectives on sex, even if the one being talked to might have been mounted like a dog?

"What's one redhead going to do against 40 armed men?"
"You haven't seen her do what I've seen her do." Sounds like my girlfriend. Don't underestimate, man.

And the winner:

"Buried? Burned? She's good meat. Feed her to the hounds." The tenderness of Ramsay Bolton and the fitting end to the houndmaster's daughter.

Some technical notes:

You're seriously telling me that they couldn't alter the opening just a tiny bit and call it "Sunspear"?

They're going to have the same problem with Ollie that they did with Bran, as the former looks massively older after just one year since last season. Similarly, Theon looks much more together than he did even at the end of last season. Is that intentional on the part of D&D, demonstrating how he can't look as decrepit as he has been as Reek and still be Sansa's semi-savior?

The presentation of Melisandre seeing the warped vision in the metal before finally revealing her true form was well done, similar to the shot of Arya with the Titan. Podeswa has a good sense of visual storytelling and it served him well here.

The continued presence of Podrick isn't just a matter of providing comic relief or a contrast to the eternally stiff and socially awkward Brienne. Given the massive amount of lore contained in the story, it's nice to have someone who's had reason to be a walking encyclopedia, since a squire knowing the heraldry and customs of the people his lord (or lady) might encounter is eminently understandable. Pod stepping right in and helping Sansa finish the oath of fealty ritual with Brienne was perfectly natural and an easy way to both help exposition without seeming obvious and add to the cultural density of the world.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The teevee and the moving picture shows

Bird watching.
The finale of Better Call Saul was excellent. The best thing about that show is the fully-formed characters, in that you can see a number of different possible reactions and/or paths for them to take and all of them seem valid to one degree or another, such that none of them are easily predictable. You can't look at decisions that Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, Kim, Nacho, or Howard have made and say that they were obviously linear storytelling or that the actions were obvious because there was only one instinctive response to a situation. In many ways, I think Vince Gilligan's storytelling has only improved since Breaking Bad and it was already excellent there. I watched a few minutes of Talking Saul with Gilligan, Peter Gould (the other showrunner), and Jonathan Banks (Mike) as the guests. Gilligan was talking about the fact that Chuck had ended the season pulling a con on the ultimate con man (Jimmy) and he turned to the studio audience and asked: "Did you like that?" The response was a muted chorus of boos. Is that an example of the low expectations of much of the audience or of a writer willing to travel the rough road with his characters, or both? I think it, again, shows the well-rounded nature of these characters, in that it was perfectly reasonable for Chuck to have given in by now or, in fact, be taken in by his brother's shenanigans, given how disoriented Chuck has become. Instead, Gilligan and Co. have kept Chuck alive and in the game and given Jimmy a much larger hill to climb in season 3.

Also, despite the knowledge that nothing is going to kill either Mike or Hector (since both are still alive in Breaking Bad), there was a great deal of tension in the sniper scene, both in terms of Mike's target (Is he trying to take out Hector? Is Hector's condition in BB an aftereffect of being shot through Nacho?) and the car horn and note event. Even if Mike isn't going to be killed, being cornered by someone who's been able to stalk the canny Philly cop is enough to leave the scene with the eerie sensibility I think they were (ahem) aiming for. Plus, Mike's role in the show is one of slow transformation, just like Jimmy. You see how, step-by-step, his overwhelming pragmatism slowly erodes the moral barriers he puts in front of it and transforms him into the efficient fixer of Breaking Bad. As Banks said, he's not there yet, but this is the story of how it happens. Because we know the end result of both Jimmy/Saul and Mike, one of the more interesting characters of the show turns out to be Kim, the end result for whom we don't know at all. Does she finally get disgusted with Jimmy's excesses and leave before he becomes Saul or does she ride the con job and stay attached when he's in full flower? Does she get caught up in the Mike/Saul world and get killed? Some good things to think about while we await the return of Gus Fring to the TV world. Also, it still remains amusing that calm and cool Mike was once this guy:

"Don't you do it, Jack!"
Of 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop fame.

Who's "House Martell"?
I've been rather studiously avoiding most of the previews and trailers for Game of Thrones, mostly because my demeanor at the end of last season was pretty similar to Jon Snow's above, but I suppose I'll watch them this week and then write up a preview of sorts before Sunday. I was fairly demoralized by last season, since the problems with the storyline and its presentation (Dorne!) were numerous, which was new for this series. It is interesting to see the amount of Flounder coming from the cast during the promotional tour/interviews this year. Are they trying to reassure TV fans disenchanted with last season (of which I was far from the only one) or book fans worried about the uncharted waters without GRRM? Both? Was last season the point where GoT descended from being a cultural event to another series that dragged out too long?

What? Again?
On that note, I think I'm over The Walking Dead. It's not that this past season was bad or even worse than those before it. It's just that it's basically more of the same. I appreciate some of the moral introspection that Rick's group went through when they were slaughtering the Saviors, but it's not really that different from the "kill or be killed" quandary that they've been facing for 5 years now. While fans of the comic are enraptured by the introduction of Negan, I look at him and his band and see just one more charismatic menace, just like the Governor or even whatshisname from Terminus. Just because the threat to survival now has a new name and a weapon named after a famous blues guitar (Base Ball (bat) King...?) doesn't make it much different from the last one. That point was driven home when I tried to watch the first episode of the second season of Fear the Walking Dead and realized it was true for that series, as well (i.e. they're about to run into the true threat in the midst of the world being overrun by zombies: other living people.) It's basically the Gilligan's Island principle, right? How long can you keep making stories about the threat that the environment presents before you have to resort to the coconut radio or bring in aliens/crashed cosmonauts to introduce some variety to the situation? Except that said cosmonauts just want the same thing you do and are willing to step on you to make it happen. I mean, in the broader sense, that's the competitive perspective on the human condition in the first place. But it also reaches a point where one charismatic sociopath is the same as any other: they're both a threat that Rick's going to have to shoot if the show wants to continue.

I've been catching up on Oscar-season films lately, too, courtesy of the omnipresence of our Amazonian overlords.

Guess who the crazy twin is.
Legend was decent. There was a ton of story to try to pack into two hours and you could certainly tell where the editor had pulled out the machete. Tom Hardy, per usual, was brilliant as both of the Kray twins (the mannerly-looking one above is actually the less socially stable of the two.) But it seemed like there were too many stories to tell, so that many of them got shorted by the necessities of the medium. The fact that they didn't skimp on the Cockney slang at all is to their credit, as it originated as a way for East End gangs to keep the police from figuring out what they were saying, but it also slowed the pace of the film for the viewer, as you occasionally had to try to dissect what was being said. The fairly muddled shifts from the perspective of Reggie Kray to his girlfriend/wife, Frances (Emily Browning), didn't help. I was tickled to see Christopher Eccleston looking like a very senior Scotland Yard inspector, as he will forever be the Duke of Norfolk to me, but that's about the only genuinely memorable thing about the film. Except for Tom Hardy, of course, who is worth seeing in just about anything.

"Operator, I'm trying to reach some place without a bland ending."
Bridge of Spies... Ugh. Nathan and Kate tried to warn me off of this, but I was like: "Cold War themes! Good reviews! Dude won Best Supporting! I have to try-! ... Oh. Spielberg." There was a day when Spielberg films were actually progressive. When he was making things in the late 70s and the 80s, it seemed like he was willing to take risks with his storytelling approach and cinematography. I mean, he's never been a visionary, but it takes real drive to do something like his magnum opus, Schindler's List, with all of its stylistic approaches to a very sensitive topic. Most of what he's made since then have basically been him killing time. "Hello? Oh, hey. How ya doin'? Me? Just livin' on the residuals, man. Something new? Well, I guess that sounds like a middle-of-the-road topic. I could do that for a few months, sure." Hence, Bridge of Spies. There are no risks here. It's a completely linear story that finishes with the perfect Hollywood Spielbergian ending: hero safe, marriage secure, world and picket fence perfectly painted. Bleah. Admittedly, Mark Rylance's performance was the absolute highlight of the film and I can see why it earned him the nod for Supporting Actor, but the fact that his performance was so low-key and subtle may give you a clue as to how the rest of the film feels (and I still say Hardy got robbed for The Revenant.)

Unlike you and me, these people were actually working.
I liked Spotlight. I think it's a worthwhile film. I don't quite get the accolades it's received, since I have a feeling it could have worked almost as well as a documentary about the investigation and its aftermath. Yes, there was a fair amount of emotional tension and, yes, most of the performances were quite good. But I don't get the raving over Mark Ruffalo's role as the emotional guy on the investigatory journalist team. He was good, but the role was pretty much paint-by-number. I thought Michael Keaton's role had much more meat on the bone, even though Keaton preferred to handle it in his usual "I can out-subtle you without even trying" manner. When it came time for his character's turning point confession about an error in judgment from years before, it fell completely flat because he'd played an awesome statue to that point. Oddly, I thought the best performance was from Liev Schreiber because of its understated nature (and he's, uh, not the first guy I'd associate with the word "understated" in most films to date.) And it was nice to see John Slattery still doing semi-Roger things, post Mad Men.

Advantage of smoking: you can burn that damned blank page if it stares too long.
Likewise, I liked Trumbo. It's a topic that's kind of near-and-dear to my heart (both screenwriting and persecution for one's Marxist ideas) and Bryan Cranston has earned one of those passes that means I'll likely not regret losing the two hours of my life simply because he's onscreen. But, like Legend, I think there was a bit too much story here to really elaborate upon what needed to be told. Plus, the overall subject matter is one that's somewhat difficult to portray in a dramatic sense. Is there real tension between starting a screenplay and finishing one? Does the audience rise in anticipation as the last few keys on the typewriter are struck? No. Writing is a long and solitary process that doesn't really present moments of accomplishment until you're winning an award or someone's handing you a check; both of which in this story were muted because of the blacklist. It's an interesting quandary to be in as the writer of a screenplay about screenwriting and I'm glad that John McNamara was able to get something workable out of it. I just think the end result was kind of tedious because that's what watching a writer work can often be (no matter how cool it may be for the writer.) I thought Helen Mirren was her usually capable self as Hedda Hopper and Mark Stuhlbarg's turn as Edward G. Robinson deserves mention for some of the most emotionally-affecting moments of a film which didn't have many. Recommended for writers, at least.

Too small to be one of the actual plot holes.
I've gone on record before as stating that the Daniel Craig Casino Royale is the best Bond film every made, full stop. When I saw it (and saw it again. And again.) and realized that, for once, a screenwriter and director may have actually read a Fleming novel, I thought perhaps we were on our way to a new era with Daniel Craig able to shoulder the responsibility of being the ruthless assassin for the good guys. Quantum of Solace doused that fire almost instantly, as he went from ruthless to monotonous in very short order. Skyfall rescued it a bit, but not that much, and Spectre has now put the last shovelful of dirt on it, since it's obvious that they've decided that what works is Bourne over brains. I wanted so much more from this film, since they had run the gamut of old Bond schticks in new format with Skyfall and now were finally introducing his most famous nemesis, played by Christoph Waltz. But, no, it's just Bourne and, even worse, Bourne with added layers of technological improbability that induce installations in the middle of the Moroccan desert to spontaneously explode when their owner's plans go awry. Said owner's plans being universal control of all surveillance and information networks around the world, naturally. Didn't we leave this shit behind with Moonraker? Waltz really has nothing to do but look menacing and we can confirm that Lea Sèydoux is perhaps the least-convincing Bond romance of all time, since she and Craig have the chemistry of lead plus formica. Conclusion: Back to the books for the real Bond.

Hopefully, that's not something I have to say about GoT season 6 (especially since there is no book yet, George!)