Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Homage to the lack of interest

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino still doing what he's always been doing: spending time imagining how the American film industry could have been different, while offering a paean to what it was, anyway. The only real problem is that he's not doing it as well, anymore.

Tarantino has long been criticized for his use of homage to other films and film styles. Reservoir Dogs, for example, has been cited for a number of similarities to Ringo Lam's City on Fire. Tarantino hasn't shied away from these implied insults, suggesting that what he does is reference the work of other authors while putting his own spin on it. This latest film, though, is what amounts to an homage to a time period and is subsumed in cultural references to that period, using the famed Manson murders as something of a real world backbone to what was happening in the fantasy land known as Hollywood. In fact, both male leads are based on actual people, with Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton being a pastiche of actors like Tab Hunter and Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth representing long-time Burt Reynolds stunt double, Hal Needham. Margot Robbie, of course, plays the actual Sharon Tate (and, on that note, Mike Moh's Bruce Lee is both well done and fairly amusing.) The period in question was one of transition in Hollywood (and the nation), where tried and true stalwarts like Westerns were giving way to the New Hollywood of more introspective pictures in the hands of names like Scorsese, Coppola, and Altman. Tarantino takes time to emphasize that societal change with Dalton and Booth's constant references to "hippies" and how they're seemingly appearing everywhere, with occasionally bloody consequences, while Dalton lives out the creative change, with his type of performer no longer being in demand.

So there is a story here, of Dalton's career struggle and Booth's faithful assistance. And there is a message here; of transition, of social transformation, and of the continued presence of violence in all of it. But what's missing is anything particularly memorable about the film. Tarantino made his bones with dialogue. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, even his segment in Four Rooms are all memorable for the way their characters communicate. Who can forget the conversation in the diner that veers from a discussion on whether pigs are fit to eat to the seeming nobility of a lifestyle change? Or the tension of a farmhouse in France while an SS colonel expounds on work, duty, and milk? Or the matter-of-fact explanation of a murder? Nothing like that exists in Once Upon a Time. There aren't really any memorable scenes, outside of a violent confrontation near the end and Dalton's occasional rants about himself in a mirror. One of them was dialogue-light and the other was dialogue-neutral. Despite the acting prowess of most of the people in the film, the one or two memorable lines come from child actress (excuse me: "actor") Julia Butters who stuck out as an homage to Kim Darby's role in True Grit. If you go into this expecting a Hans Landa or a Jules Winfield or a Calvin Candle, you're going to be disappointed. Tarantino took some criticism for his previous film, The Hateful Eight, being a wholly predictable and somewhat formulaic Western. Now he's made a film about the (temporary) end of Westerns that is no less predictable.

DiCaprio is his usual intense self, bringing energy and animus to a routine role. Pitt's job on screen is basically to be cool. Pitt is very good at being cool (see: Ocean's Eleven), so he handles it with aplomb. But that's as far as they both go. There's not enough in this script to give them moments that would leave an impact in the minds of the viewer. No one is going to be walking out of the theater reciting Ezekiel 25:17 or giving the plantation owner's opinion on the structure of power in the Old South. Watching a stuntman's personality expressed in his driving style and Sharon Tate's giddiness at her own success onscreen is interesting enough to keep the film moving, but there's frankly nothing that one walks out with and says "That's a Tarantino film!" until we get to the faux commercial during the credits for his long-time fictional Red Apple cigarettes. Again, this is an homage to an era, so we get a lot of looks at signage, architecture, car fenders, and other signs of the real world of that time surrounding the fantasy world and that's all well and good for a decent film. But it doesn't quite reach the level of a great one and, having been a Tarantino fan since the early 90s, that's usually what I'm expecting.

There have been some comparisons of this film to Jackie Brown; generally considered the weakest of his efforts but also the most languid and most personal of the stories that he's told. I think the comparison is apt, as this is a personal story, slowly played out amidst the foibles and contrasting outer lifestyles of the two leads, but whose lives intersect in their careers which, again, are part of the homage. Bit appearances by the usual suspects of Tarantino (Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell, etc.) are fine as inside jokes for those who've followed his films, but they don't add much, either (those seeing this as a meta reference to the former studio stables of actors are likely getting the joke.) I read about a poll the other day that mentioned the higher percentage than normal of attendees seeing the film because of the director and because of the actors involved. That actually says a lot about the film itself and why I can only passably recommend it. It's not bad. It's just not that great, either.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Boys will be boys

Having delved into Amazon recently and found it somewhat wanting, I figured I'd continue with something a bit less random, given my history of involvement with the comic medium, and watched the first couple episodes of Garth Ennis' The Boys. I was a once a huge fan of Ennis' work. I think his original run on Hellblazer, along with Jamie Delano's which preceded him, makes up the definitive version of the character of John Constantine. But after Ennis started a run on The Punisher in the mid-90s, his work began to take on trappings of that character and a decided glee in the "hardass for the sake of being hardass", as it were. Aside from a comedic turn in the miniseries Dicks (which I freely used at one Chicago Comic-con for an attempt at some very cheap laughs with the event announcer), Ennis was mostly producing ever-bigger guns and ever-bigger pools of blood. The introspection of his earlier work was largely missing. I haven't read the comic series that Amazon's production is based on, but after two episodes of their series, I can say that not much has changed.

The premise is that superheroes exist in the 'real world' and a major corporation (Vaught) has lined up most of them as employees that they then make money from via movies, advertising, product placement, and by contracting them out to be the resident protectors of various municipalities that pay dearly to have their own pet super. The supers, of course, are as corruptible and foible-filled as any of the rest of us and are not above using their fame and the constant adulation that results from it to get whatever their petty hearts desire. The Boys are an impromptu gathering of people who've decided they've had enough of being second-class citizens and want to blow the lid off of this situation, including a willingness to blow the respective lids off of the supers in question... which, I mean... OK?

It's not a particularly original premise (cue: superhero comics rant), but not everything has to be if it's told/presented well. It's kinda trying to out-Watchmen The Watchmen, but that's the cinderblock that every "superheroes in the 'real' world" story is going to have hung around their neck, especially given the storytelling abilities of Alan Moore, which often exceed those of the people lined up to attempt the same job. Moore layers themes into his stories, often with subtle visual cues that resonate down through them. The blood drop on the Comedian's smiley face button is the classic example from The Watchmen. Ennis, being less concerned with themes and more with entertainment, instead tends to batter you about the head and shoulders with them: "THIS IS WHAT'S HAPPENING! Corporation bad! Supers bad! Mercenary killers somehow good! IT'S A QUANDARY!" There's nothing for the viewer to figure out because it's not really supposed to be figured out. You're mostly supposed to sit there and be entertained by the blood spray and the fact that famous people might be rapists, too (which in the era of #MeToo seems kind of pedestrian, if still a nod to real life.)

Karl Urban is OK as the lead (Billy Butcher), but kinda lacks the rough edges that you might expect from such a character. Every time I see him, I keep thinking: "This is the urbane Bones McCoy from the new Star Trek films trying to be a badass. And generally failing." I guess there's something to be mined from Jack Quaid's character (Hughie) and his transformation from introvert to a member of a kill team, but I haven't found it yet. In contrast, Erin Moriarty (Starlight) coming to grips with her new situation and complete disenchantment with it has been far more believable. Antony Starr as Homelander has been kind of intriguing, since he's clearly doing the 'stranger in a strange land' bit, albeit as the overeager tool of the menacing Vaught Corp. I admit to not even recognizing Elizabeth Shue (Madelyn Stillwell), which is usually a compliment to someone that has slipped so easily into her role.

But on that note, one of the aspects of the show that really stood out to me is this: These supers are all still mindblowing to everyone around them. Given that the setting indicates that they've been around for years (decades?), it's difficult to rationalize how everyone can still be so much in awe of them. Sure, people get starstruck in different ways and certainly part of the premise is to draw the contrast between how famous and wonderful and heroic these people are and what their normal, human tendencies happen to be. But you're telling me that a multi-term US Senator in tough negotiations with Vaught somehow isn't going to be aware of the paranormal means they might use to entrap/convince him? Not least because the scene was used for one of those cheap (not even) laughs about sex? These guys are going out on nightly patrols and their every move is watched and analyzed on phones and social media just like actors and athletes today and yet one guy taking a long dive off a pier is enough to leave everyone with their jaws on the floor?

Doing these 'real world' situations is always a tough line to walk. After all, it's supposed to be 'normal' and yet not normal. But that single disconcerting note kind of opens the door to my overall impression in that most of this just feels staged. Overall, these don't seem like natural characters doing things that they naturally would. They seem set up to do scenes, rather than follow a storyline; as if, in setting up this tale of ethics about the difference between larger-than-life personalities and the actual people behind them, the creative team kind of lost track of the idea of telling a story and instead are just doing those cheap laughs or playing for shock value. Given that this is the same development team (Seth Rogen, etc.) behind another adaptation of Ennis' work (Preacher), I can't say that I'm too surprised. It's not a disaster and, unlike the fairly bland Mrs. Maisel, it has enough of those rough edges (outside of Urban) to maybe watch a couple more episodes and see if it beds in a little better. But it certainly hasn't reached the level of compelling/binge TV.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Mrs. Maisel's mediocrity

I noticed a couple posts on the board a few weeks ago talking about how good The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is and I know it's been getting some critical raves, as well. So, bereft of regular watching material in these post-GoT days, I figured I'd give it a shot. My opinion of Amazon's original series so far has been somewhere in the collective zone of "meh" or worse. Britannia is just bad. When the top acting talent you have is the Guv'nor from The Walking Dead, you're climbing a mountain already. When you decide to pile on special effects that really have no connection to the story, it's obvious that you're either trying to make up for something or you were aiming low in the first place. Similarly, Good Omens isn't working for me. The book is FUNNY. I've twice tried to make it through the first episode and fallen asleep both times (i.e. not funny.) My hopes weren't particularly high for Mrs. Maisel, either, and...

I'm missing something. I've watched the first two episodes of season 1 and all I can do is shrug my shoulders at most of it. First off, it's not funny. I think I've LOL'd once? For a show about stand-up comedy, that's not a good sign. My sense of humor is as critical as the rest of me and I don't generally go in for cringe humor and watching people act out their very normal neuroses with fortune tellers isn't going to get me rolling, either. Secondly, Mrs. Maisel's character isn't believable. It's not because she's a woman in the 1950s doing a profane act on stage in the Village. That part I'm OK with. It's that she's clearly written to defy most possible stereotypes and yet claims to be hewing to them. From her first moment on screen, where she's delivering the toast at her own wedding, to halfway through the second episode, where she entices her husband to fuck in the bathroom of a diner the day after said wedding, this is obviously someone used to doing her own thing. But, somehow, we're supposed to believe that the woman openly mocking her parents' attitudes and regularly spending time among the Bohemian set in the Village is going to have conniptions about performing on stage alongside the Geographical Poet (who is one of the more entertaining aspects of the series so far, if that tells you anything)?

Consequently, most of the characters aren't particularly entertaining. They're largely annoying or routine. It's been a long time since Kevin Pollak was the most invisible man of the lineup in The Usual Suspects and, despite playing the highly bombastic Moishe, he's still not leaving a lot of impressions. In most writing, regular characters have to have one of two things: impact or depth. If you can do both, great! Moishe doesn't really do, either. Granted, it tends to take more than a couple episodes to display said depth, but Rachel Brosnahan does it immediately. She's the main character, so it's easier for her, but that means that the characters in her orbit should have impact. They should be immediately doing or representing something interesting when they appear on screen. What Pollak's character represents is the stereotypical Jewish father, disappointed in his shlemiel of a son and feigning outrage at his wife but secretly admiring the chutzpah, since it's more than his son will ever have. Every time he's on screen, I'm doing the windup gesture with my hand in the hopes that the TV will somehow fast forward through this bit. No luck so far.

There are only two who meet those criteria so far. One is Alex Borstein as Susie (finally out from behind the artwork as the voice of Lois in The Family Guy.) When she shows up, things happen and they're generally things that propel the story forward, rather than simply act as set decoration. The other is Michael Zegen as estranged husband, Joel, who's clearly looking for something more in life and without a clue as to what it is or how to find it. (Perhaps I'm sympathetic, having occupied that role for much of my life?) The most interesting aspect of the series so far is the presence of Luke Kirby as Lenny Bruce which, if you're interested in the history of comedy at all (and the genesis of the new breed of comedians from that time like Bruce disciples George Carlin and Richard Pryor), is at least mildly interesting to see. How do they keep this connection going without pandering to the history of Bruce or using him as a regular deus ex machina to open doorways for Brosnahan? It's clear that Midge is supposed to be one of those disciples and she is kinda entertaining to watch. It's just that most of what's going on around her really isn't and, so far, her comedy really isn't earth-shattering, either.

So, I dunno. On the one hand, there might be something there. OTOH, when I sit down to watch this I keep thinking that I could be doing something more productive with my time (this is not new.) I'm open to encouragement, either way.